The Massachusetts Bible Society is conducting “The Great Bible Experiment” – discussion forums in “America’s least Bible-minded cities.” Strangely, Albany tops that list (maybe it’s all the students; Boston comes second). A radio blurb said a humanist would be on the panel. So I went.
My wife wouldn’t come, expecting just a sales pitch for Bibles. Actually none were on sale, and the event seemed more or less sincerely aimed at dialog.
I was first handed a questionnaire, asking me to pick six words from a long list to reflect my view of the Bible. Most words were positive, yet I was able to find six: words like dangerous, mis-used, scary, weird.
Attendees were encouraged to submit questions. After one panelist, Father Warren Savage, an African-American Catholic priest, said he believed the Bible is all about love, my question was, “Why did God command the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child in the cities of Canaan?” The moderator combined it with a similar question citing the story of Abraham and Isaac.
Panelist Tom Krattenmaker responded that he simply disregards the Bible’s less appetizing parts. He was the advertised “humanist,” actually with Yale Divinity School, and author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. He sounded like a Jeffersonian – Jefferson cut up his Bible, making his own book containing only what he deemed Jesus’s words of wisdom, throwing away all the rest. Krattenmaker said he “does not subscribe to the factual existence of God.”
Rev. Anne Robertson, MBS’s head, was an articulate and engaging speaker. She said she’d started as a “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” type, a real Biblical literalist, but she’d repented. She spoke of how hard it was for her to first utter “the four words” – “I might be wrong.” Robertson stressed the difference between fact and truth, saying the Bible is not a book of facts, yet conveys truths. And she quoted another Bible bit: “we see through a glass darkly.”
The Abraham and Isaac story, Robertson argued, must be viewed in historical context: it’s an extremely old story dating from a time when child sacrifice was common. And the important thing about Abraham-and-Isaac is how its outcome differs from that cultural paradigm.*
Another question was why the Bible is losing sway. Father Savage answered, “the hypocrisy of Christians who don’t practice what the Bible teaches.” Krattenmaker said he inhabits a culture wherein gays are seen as just ordinary humans, and when Bible-thumpers go around crying “abomination!” it makes the Bible “radioactive.”
As for living Biblical teachings, my second question said, “The Bible teaches I may own slaves, as long as they’re from foreign countries. Does this include Canadians?” But time ran out before that question could be reached.
And I refrained from submitting a further question: if you think the Bible is somehow divinely inspired, how do you know? How could anyone know? (“Faith” can’t be the answer, merely begging the question, what’s the basis for the faith?)
*While the historicity of child sacrifice in the ancient Near East is widely accepted, a lot of that is traceable to what the Bible says – hardly an objective source. Even distant Carthage’s famous child sacrifice comes to us from its Roman conquerors – not an unbiased source either.