The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Their Own Conservative Jesus?

As a former Sunday School teacher, I’ve often looked at the antics of today’s religious conservatives as they wave the Bible around and pound others over the head with it and wondered: Have they actually read that thing? Because I couldn’t see how they could reconcile their politics if they had.

Well, apparently, they read it and didn’t like everything they read. So, they’ve decided to change it, rather than change themselves.

It’s a day most progressives never thought they’d see, but here it is: according to a group of conservatives, the Bible has become too liberal. And, naturally, this same group has taken it upon themselves to edit it.

The Conservative Bible Project, a new wiki-style website brought to our attention by HuffPost, Andrew Sullivan and Beliefnet, aims to bring the Bible back to what they see as its conservative roots.

Though the site itself is currently not working for us, conservative writer Ron Dreher at Beliefnet notes that they’ve come up with ten guidelines to which a “fully conservative translation” of the Bible should adhere. They are as follows:

It gets better.

1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias

2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, “gender inclusive” language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity

3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level[3]

4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop;[4] defective translations use the word “comrade” three times as often as “volunteer”; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as “word”, “peace”, and “miracle”.

5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms
for it, such as “gamble” rather than “cast lots”;[5] using modern political terms, such as “register” rather than “enroll” for the census

6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.

7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning

8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story

9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels

10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word “Lord” rather than “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” or “Lord God.”

Near as I can tell, they’re quite serious about this. But I think they’re going to have to limit themselves in scope, or the cognitive dissonance will be too much. At least if their “First Liberal Falsehood” is any indication.

The earliest, most authentic manuscripts lack this verse set forth at Luke 23:34:[7]

Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Is this a liberal corruption of the original? This does not appear in any other Gospel, and the simple fact is that some of the persecutors of Jesus did know what they were doing. This quotation is a favorite of liberals but should not appear in a conservative Bible.

Um. I’d be curious to know how they determined which manuscripts are “authentic,” given that biblical scholars and historians aren’t in complete agreement. They’ll get into even more trouble if they start comparing the gospels, because the timelines don’t match up, among other things.

It reminded me of Richard Dawkin’s interview with Ted Haggard in his documentary The Root of All Evil (here on Google Video), in which Haggard claimed — before kicking Dawkins out of his church, apparently because of Dawkins’ early assertion of human evolution — that the bible does not contradict itself.

Except when it does, according to some religious scholars, some of whom point out that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John don’t always agree on everything Jesus said, and when they agree on what he said they have him saying the same things at different times and places from one gospel to the next. (I think this is based on the theory that some of the gospel writers, whoever they actually were, worked from a document called the Q document by scholars, which was a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that were probably passed orally and were eventually recorded, but without context.) like Bart Ehrman, who points out in Misquoting Jesus where the gospels don’t “hold together” and apparently contradict each other.

… as he paces back and forth across the stage, Ehrman ruthlessly pounces on the anomalies — in this Gospel, Jesus isn’t born in Bethlehem, he doesn’t tell any parables, he never casts out a demon, there’s no last supper. “None of that is found in John!” The crucifixion stories are different — in Mark, Jesus is terrified on the cross; in John, he’s perfectly composed. Key dates are different. The resurrection stories are different. Ehrman reels them off, rapid-fire, shell bursts against the bulwark of tradition.

“In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you find no trace of Jesus being divine,” he says, his voice urgent. “In John, you do.” He points out that in the other three books, it takes the disciples nearly half of Christ’s ministry to learn who he is. John says no, no, everyone knew it from the beginning. “You shouldn’t think something just because you believe it. You need reasons. That applies to religion. That applies to politics . . . just because your parents believe something isn’t good enough.”

The class files out a few minutes later.

“Most of the students have never heard anything like this in their lives,” says Ben White, a graduate student. “For a lot of them, it’s very threatening.”

Most of them have never heard anything like that because stuff like that has, for a long time, fallen into the category of “Things You Must Not Say.” Which harkens back to something I said earlier.

It’s unlikely that many of these folks have read or would read books like Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, The Jesus Mysteries: Was the “Original Jesus” a Pagan God?, The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Challenging the Existence of an Historical Jesus, and Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

That’s precisely because all of the above venture into the real of things that must not be said and questions that must not be asked, at least as far as believers are concerned.

The ID proponents (”ID-iots?”) define “irreducible complexity” this way:

Irreducible complexity (IC) is an argument made by intelligent design proponents that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved from simpler, or “less complete” predecessors, and are at the same time too complex to have arisen naturally through chance mutations. It is one of two main arguments intended to support intelligent design, the other being specified complexity. The consensus of the scientific community is to reject intelligent design as not science,but creationism.

But after watching the program, and the clear connection between “Intelligent Design” and religion, I came upon my own definition of irreducible complexity. It is not the point at which a biological system is so complex that it can only have been created by an intelligent designer. It is the point at which some people simply stop thinking about that or any other biological system. It is a boundary on the map of human knowledge beyond which are written the words, “Here be dragons.” And at that boundary, some people stop asking questions. They have to, because hell yawns beyond that boundary.

When you have to believe something in order to get into heaven, and you will spend all of in hell if you don’t believe it or if you believe anything else, at some point you stop asking questions. You have to, if you don’t want to go to hell.

It is as though you are standing in a room, and at the other end of that room is the gate to hell. You arm is outstretched, and in your hand is the key to that date. Every question asked and answered by scientific inquiry is a step that takes you closer to that gate. Ask one question, and you take a step closer. Answer another one and you take another step. Keep asking and you’re walking across the room. Before you know it, the key is in the lock, and one more question may turn the key.

But not only must you stop asking questions, but you must stop others from asking questions if you believe in a “designer” that punishes entire cities and entire nations for tolerating disbelief. Because every step they take, every inquiry, every question asked takes them towards that gate that must stay locked, not just to keep out what’s on the other side, but because if the gate is ever opened, only one thing can be worse than what it unleashes, and that’s if it unleashes nothing at all.

At least if the very foundations of your reality depends on that gate staying closed and what you say is on the other side of it staying what you say it is and where you say it is.

Another danger here, or perhaps an opportunity depending on how you look at it, is that only 10% of evangelicals are biblically “literate.” And the leaders of projects like this one aren’t likely to encourage the kind inquisitiveness that might change that. They’re more interested in “using the Bible as a source of weapons to define themselves against their enemies.”

But to have any idea of those variances you’d have to read the book, and then read other books about the history of its origins. And folks like the students at Wilberforce and the folks plunking down $179 for Dobson’s “Bible Boot Camp” skip over that part, just as they skip over some parts of the very book they’d like to append to the constitution. Back in January, Faithful Progressive pointed to this article by a Chicago professor of Christian literature suggesting that the Christian right is not so biblical after all, based on her study of how they used or quoted the bible.

Biblical? Yes and no. Biblical in the sense of seeking biblical support for an agenda? Yes. Biblical in the sense of reading the whole Bible? No. Biblical in the sense of reading the Bible literally? No, not consistently. Biblical in reading parts for the whole, and in using the Bible as a source of weapons to define themselves against their enemies? Yes. Wrestling with the possible plural meanings and complex legacies of Bible itself? Not in public, at any rate.

Remember, we know the truth because “the bible tells us to,” and it alone tells us “everything we need to know” if only we “read it correctly.” Fortunately there are people who have taken on the task of telling us “how to read it correctly.” So not only do we not need to read anything else but we don’t need to listen to anyone else, as we don’t need to understand anything else.

Because doing so would require seeing the bible in a different light. Rev. Howard Bess described the “surprises” that awaited him, as a graduate student armed with his knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, diving into what he describes as “a collection of ancient writings.”

For starters, I was introduced to textual criticism. I learned that there were hundreds of variant texts, and even the oldest of those manuscripts did not even come close to the time of original writings.

Then I faced the reality that Jesus’ everyday language was neither Hebrew nor Greek. It was Aramaic. If he spoke a second language, it was a pigeon Greek that had minimal resemblance to either classical Greek or koine (common) Greek.

Trying to trace the words of Jesus with some level of accuracy all the way to modern English translations is a detective story not fully understood by the finest of Bible scholars.

My next big surprise came when I realized that an even more challenging translation task lay ahead of me as a pastor. It is called cultural translation.

It’s that cultural translation that the Conservative Bible Project is engaging in, or attempting to engage in. But my guess is without the willingness to question and keep questioning, that drove Bart D. Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus. They have a similar starting point as Ehrman, who started out as a devout, committed fundamentalist with a firm belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, who found his study of the ancient text “frightening.”

For the next 12 years, he studied at Moody, at Wheaton College (another Christian institution in Illinois) and finally at Princeton Theological Seminary. He found he had a gift for languages. His specialty was the ancient texts that tried to explain what actually happened to Jesus Christ, and how the world’s largest religion grew into being after his execution.

What he found there began to frighten him.

The Bible simply wasn’t error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts.

“Put it this way: There are more variances among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament,” Ehrman summarizes.

If the participants in the Conservative Bible Project experience any of the fear Ehrman faced upon having his most basic beliefs — what, for him at the time, had to be true for his world to make sense —they’ll probably take it as a test of their faith, compartmentalize it away somewhere in their minds, and not look at it again. To do otherwise would mean saying things that must not be said and asking questions that must not be asked, at least by a believer.

I’ll be interested in what’s left of the Bible by the time we’re done with it. As far as the Old Testament, they’re probably going to believe themselves on solid ground. Conservatives, seem to love the God of the Old Testament, with all his fire and brimstone. (These are the same ones that are looking forward to Armageddon, when “non-Christians get their guts pulled out by God.”) So, they probably won’t be troubled by the kind of questions that nagged Bishop Shelby Spong, author of The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love.

This book is long overdue, because one of the biggest mistakes liberals have made has been to forfeit battles in which faith plays a crucial role. Religion has always been a central current of American life, and it is becoming more important in politics because of the new Great Awakening unfolding across the United States.

Yet liberals have tended to stay apart from the fray rather than engaging in it. In fact, when conservatives quote from the Bible to make moral points, they tend to quote very selectively. After all, while Leviticus bans gay sex, it also forbids touching anything made of pigskin (is playing football banned?) – and some biblical passages seem not so much morally uplifting as genocidal.

“Can we really worship the God found in the Bible who sent the angel of death across the land of Egypt to murder the firstborn males in every Egyptian household?” Bishop Spong asks. Or what about 1 Samuel 15, in which God is quoted as issuing orders to wipe out all the Amalekites: “Kill both man and woman, child and infant.” Hmmm. Tough love, or war crimes? As for the New Testament, Revelation 19:17 has an angel handing out invitations to a divine dinner of “the flesh of all people.”

Can they? Of course they can. If the majority of American churchgoers approve of torture, then nothing that troubled Spong should make them so much as blink.

The New Testament may post a problem because, as a number of people have pointed out, they might have to excise the “Jesus character” entirely. (Let’s not even get into the subject of the historical Jesus this time around.) He poses a problem that’s not easily surmounted or compartmentalized away, leading to serious religious and political implications. Rev. Howard Bess, again, illustrates the implications for a Christian view on health care reform.

There is good reason for the U.S. House and Senate to address the need for universal health care for our citizenry. Many of us believe health care for all is a demand of the “general welfare” provision of the U.S. Constitution.

…As a follower of Jesus from Nazareth, I ask all who have taken the name Christian to remember that 1) Jesus was committed to giving people healthy bodies, 2) that Jesus had a priority commitment to the poorest of the poor, and 3) that his warnings to the wealthy and the selfish were relentless.

This is called Bible 101.

That alone would be sufficient to call into question conservative Christians’ opposition to health care reform, support for further tax cuts for the wealthy, and opposition to government programs designed to help “the poorest of the poor.” That might also call into question the worship of Wall Street, the canonization of the wealthiest citizens a “the most productive” (and thus our “best people”), and wealth as an indicator of moral virtue. Like Amy Sullivan, I look forward to their take on “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

However, Bess extends his understanding of Jesus’ teaching to cause even more trouble for conservatives.

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Jesus has left us at least five mandates.

First, all men and women without regard to race, age, cultural roots, or sexual orientation, are to have full human rights….civil, political, economic, religious.

Jesus’ acceptance and relationships with women and children were outside of the bounds of social norms. His relationship with women was considered nothing short of scandalous. He was charged with eating with thieves and those who drank too much. He befriended Samaritans.

Sexual orientation was not an issue in the day of Jesus, but he made it plain that everyone was welcome at the dinner table of God.

Second, priority attention is to be given to the people who are most vulnerable. The poor, the hungry, the sick, the naked, the widow, the orphan.

In a modern world universal health care, expansion of the food stamp program, social security for older persons, tax and budget policies that diminish the gap between the rich and the poor, quality education for everyone, and affordable housing, cannot be set aside.

Just as sexual orientation was an unknown issue in Jesus’ day, so also was concern about the unborn. Awareness has confronted us with reality. A Jesus ethic in a modern world cannot ignore the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, the unborn child.

Third, we all must adopt simpler lifestyles that support and sustain the world in which we live. We now know that we live in a world of limited resources. Land, water, and air are all limited resources that are necessary for the survival of the human race.

The world cannot renew itself as fast as we are using its resources. We must curb our appetites.

In addition, we are polluting the world’s resources. Burning fossil fuels has possibly fouled the world’s land, water and air beyond recovery. We must find different sources of energy.

The rule is simple. If it’s not clean, we ought not to be using it. Polluting the world is a sin against the whole human family. We cannot say we love our neighbor and leave that neighbor with a polluted and inadequate environment.

Fourth, war is an unacceptable way of resolving conflicts between human beings. Peacemaking is the highest calling of a devout follower of Jesus our Christ from Nazareth. I cannot even imagine Jesus in an act of violence. The Christian warrior becomes a tragic oxymoron.

Fifth, we must become people of trust. We need to be trustworthy, but along with that we must be willing to trust those who appear to be untrustworthy. Trust produces trust.

I am happy to leave the translating of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English to those who have mastered the languages. I cannot escape translating the Jesus message into my every day life.

Can you imagine what would happen if more people followed that interpretation?

Yeah?

So can they. Thus, the Conservative Bible Project.

2 Comments

  1. Much as they’ve been re-writing American history to suit their personal agenda, they’re trying to re-write the Bible. Orwell would be so proud.

  2. Enlightening and insightful as always, thanks for putting this together for us to read. I wish Jesus would come back as they wish he would, a put the ultimate God-smack on these idiots.

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