Time to Trim the Bible?

The war against Biblical Christianity continues to hot up. This time the prestigious journal, Nature, has weighed into the battle. In its 8 March, 2007 issue, it carried a “news item” about an attempt to understand how “religious violence” as recorded in various scriptures may lead people to become aggressive or commit violent acts.

It discusses some religious texts which deal with violence, then interviews a few academics for their views on the matter. One University of Michigan psychologist commented, “People often use God as a justification for committing violent acts. And that just bothers me, I guess.”

The article concludes by citing a theologian who obviously has a problem with such texts. While a few others are quoted as saying that those who use scripture to justify violence are selective and not representative of most believers, Hector Avalos of Iowa State University in Ames disagrees: “People who choose the violent interpretation are no less arbitrary than those who choose the peaceful one”.

And Avalos proposes a radical solution to deal with such theologically inspired violence: he wants the violent passages cut out of scripture.

It seems there are several ways one can respond to this article. It can be asked why it appeared here in the first place. This seems to be a rather bizarre piece to appear in a science journal.

Also, one can ask why the article was so selective in its use of scripture. While the article speaks about violent religious texts, interestingly, it never once mentions the Koran, or Islam. This is all the more curious given that the article speaks about the “heightening concern about religious terrorism”. One would have thought that when the words “religious terrorism” are uttered, there is one group today which especially fits the description.

But this group is not once mentioned. Instead, the article begins by giving an account of a religious story dealing with rape and murder, as recorded in the Bible (Judges 19, 20). If the article was really concerned about “religious terrorism,” why its insistence on singling out the Bible, while ignoring the Koran?

There is also a biblical response that can be made. How does one understand the stories of violence, as recorded in scripture, especially the Old Testament? A number of points can be made.

Since the article speaks of “passages involving genocide,” it probably has in mind such things as God’s command for Israel to conquer the Canaanites. While an admittedly complex and ethically difficult subject, and one that cannot properly be covered here in such short space, I can nonetheless make a few brief remarks.

There is no doubt that a major reason why God wanted the Canaanites destroyed was because of their gross wickedness and immorality, including child sacrifice. A holy and just God can only allow so much evil, before he cries, “Enough is enough,” just as he did at the time of the flood.

And it was not a selective dislike of evil. When Israel settled into Canaan, it too started to engage in these detestable practices, including child sacrifice as well. This was in part due to the fact that Israel disobeyed God in the first place, and did not fully remove the Canaanites from the land. Thus the evil Canaanite practices became a snare for Israel, and they too engaged in such evil. As a result, Yahweh had to also judge Israel. Just as he had used Israel to judge the Canaanites, so too he used the Babylonians and others to judge Israel.

Second, squeamishness about acts of God’s judgment are in part a reflection of the way we minimise both the holiness of God and the heinousness of sin. Until we gain a proper understanding of the enormity of sin, we will not properly understand the response of a perfectly holy and righteous God to it.

Third, there is of course both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and the New Testaments. Whatever one thinks of divinely-sanctioned use of force in the Old Testament, there is no word in the New Testament of Jesus using force while on earth, or of his followers being told to use force, at least in the propagation of the faith.

The New Testament, however, does not balk at all use of force. For example, it considers the use of force by the state to keep evil in check as legitimate. But nowhere are believers ordered to take life or shed blood for religious purposes. This stands in stark contrast with the marching orders given to Muslims in the Koran and as evidenced in the life of Muhammad.

To do full justice to the use of force in Scripture, especially the “problem” passages in the Old Testament, would require a whole new article. It may be forthcoming.

But suffice it to say that the Nature article and the proposal for clipping Scripture is problematic at best, and nefarious at worst. Of course we already have had examples of Bible mutilators, including the so-called Jefferson Bible, in which Thomas Jefferson simply snipped every text out of the Bible that had to do with the miraculous or supernatural.

But if Professor Avalos has his way, just what will be cut? And who will determine what should be cut? If violent activities are to be censored, it seems that the very heart of the Christian faith would have to go. Surely the crucifixion of Jesus is one of the more violent and bloody stories as found in Scripture. Will Avalos, the theologian, begin with that passage?

The truth is, for as long as the word of God has been around, there have been people who have wanted to at least ignore, if not censure, those bits which they do not find to their liking.

But in the end, it is the Word of God which must judge mankind, not the other way around. Passages dealing with violent acts sanctioned by God can admittedly be problematic for New Testament Christians. And there is a wide range of viewpoints on how we are to deal with them or understand them (see for example one such discussion, Show Them No Mercy: Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide, C.S. Cowles, et. al., Zondervan, 2003).

But overzealous, and evidently liberal, theologians with scissors at the ready are not the way to go. Nor are secular science journals which seem intent on meddling in affairs that are not of direct concern to them.

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