Thursday 6 October 2016

The Bible: Threats to Reason, Threats to Faith

I've been a bit slow on the apocryphal Roman history lately.
I've got a bunch of pieces to write, but I've not had the time to devote to doing them properly. Sorry.

The general point of these posts has been, and stop me if this old, about how, at its fall, the Roman Empire entered a state of narrative collapse, where history and myth began to fall in on each other, where the supernatural and impossible invaded history.

One subtext I have quietly added to that basic assumption that I haven't gone into is that times like that are epochal, transformative. They are the stone dropping into the lake; the ripples continue to spread. Meanwhile, on the shore we're all soaked.

The Bible is a record of a series of these narrative collapses. Over and over again, historical events, times, places, people, collide with the work of a mercurial, inconstant God, called eternal and unchanging, and changing all the time. The meeting of human and God, woven through these 66 books,1 these thousand years of history.

Real people's lives, real histories collide with the uncanny. We can't untangle them. Lives subsumed by stories.

Elijah crashes into the real reign of Ahab and fire consumes water-sodden stones; rain withdraws; the prophet rides out of this life on a chariot of fire.

Jonah emerges from the whale2 and preaches to Nineveh; the people of Nineveh repent, I spring their king to do the same, and is the city is spared, which offends Jonah deeply. His story is written centuries after Nineveh was not spared, after it was razed to the ground.

Jephthah promises to sacrifice what meets him first for the sake of victory; his unnamed daughter outruns his dog and must die; hundreds of miles away in Mycenae the same happens to Agamemnon and Iphigenia, in nearly every particular. Is this the sort of thing that happens twice?

No space exists for an Israelite sojourn in Egypt; if they were ever there, what record we have is silent. Nowhere is there a sign of plagues of blood, or locusts, or darkness.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the evangelist Luke inserts himself into the narrative, and the travellers slip quietly from they to we. Hardly anyone ever notes that when the writer is there, the miracles stop. They remain in the place where Luke is absent, in the realm of the secondary source. We don't have any reason to believe that Luke is lying, but truth is such a slippery thing. So different to fact.

All of these gaps, these things that fly in the face of what we know, are well-known; conservative theologians roll their eyes at their mention, reel off well-practiced excuses. New Atheists, unconcerned with details of psychology and storytelling, don't bother to engage these points at all.

But it's in these gaps, these holes, these impossibilities, that the irrational hides. And they are threats; the fundamentalist insistence that everything in Scripture is a matter of literal, empirical fact was a product of the exact same process of Western rationalist thought that produced the New Atheists, which is why the New Atheists defeat them so effortlessly over and over, and yet are so completely powerless against literally any other expression of Christianity, let alone any other religion.

The mistake that both sets of Biblical literalists (because let's face it, that's what the New Atheists are, just as much as their opponents) make is to fail to see what literature is and the threat it carries:3 this set of stories cannot be empirically factual; it defies positivist analysis; it carries ideas above and beyond the simple idea of an extant God (if anything that's the least dangerous idea it carries); it endures.

Don't get me wrong, some of those ideas, some of those stories are vile, stories valorising the abuse of women, revenge killing, even genocide; these exist uncomfortably alongside direct injunctions to despise the rich, take in refugees, abandon debt, share possessions in common to a degree that would shame the most ardent socialist.

But then, the Bible has always been an uncomfortable book; and when it is domesticated the bad of it almost always rises to the surface.

But in its contradictions and its gaps, it provides a constant threat to reason and faith alike, which is why neither its enemies nor its supposed friends care all that much about understanding it.

1Or 80 or more, depending on whether you're using a version with an apocrypha. (back)

2It's a big fish in the story, but in the Bible, whales are fish and bats are birds. (back)

3Literature is a threat. Literature is a promise. Literature kicks the blocks out from under your wheels. Literature has a can of petrol and it's sitting on your sofa, fiddling with a lighter.

Literature – OK, listen, all that sounds brilliant, but really what I'm saying falls to pieces the moment you start to think about it, unless you swamp it with so much qualification that you obliterate every speck of immediacy and heart the statement has. Factual accuracy or punch: what's it going to be?

Here's a secret truth, it'll blow your mind, it'll change your life, and really all that means is that it changed someone else's life, it blew someone else's mind.

But it's dangerous. It is. Just, you know, not like that. (back)