Sunday, February 23, 2014

Metaphorically Speaking

Alright, this is an old YouTube with not that many views, but Thinking Atheist is actually very popular, Seth Andrews came from Christian radio and produces a great show. AronRa was an early atheist activist. He came out with a great series that of videos years ago that answer many of the standard questions.

The Thinking Atheist podcast

I want to focus on the caller, who says he is an atheist and and an anthropology student. His call comes in at about 22 minutes. He insists the Bible should be read as metaphor. He gives the example of the story of David being a story of revolution and the tyranny that inevitably follows. That may be true, but if he is trying to make this point, he doesn’t support it with much else, but I think he has a point and I think atheists need to get that point.

You can listen yourself, read this summory or skip past it to where I talk about why what he says is worth considering.

Instead of supporting his claim with more information, he says something about the Bible being a metaphor for what is going on in people’s heads. He tries to blame the world’s problems on secularism. AronRa does a good job of correcting that. So he rephrases saying what the Bible is telling us is we should live our lives in a conscientous manner. AronRa agrees and adds that we don’t need to overlay that with speculation as fact or allow presuppositions that may be completely wrong to affect our policies and systems.

The caller gets a bit flustered and says something about “something else out there” which is just a non-sequitor and that he’s not supporting the McChurches. This only tells us what he isn’t. We still don’t know what this guy really believes. He says something about doing some kind of research into this, then says, “you can’t deny that it’s a powerful book.”

Seth steps in and tries to help out asking “how do you speak to that whole ‘Bible as metaphor thing?’.”

AronRa answers, “Let’s find a metaphor worth living by”, then he picks Exodus 31 as an example of something that would be very difficult to find a decent moral in and gives a couple other examples including the story of how the Milky Way galaxy was given it’s name as literally the milk from the breast of the goddess Andromeda. Reality turned out to be much more interesting than this “metaphor”.

This is one of the best respsonses I’ve heard to a caller like this. Rather than believing there is “something out there”, how about looking at what we have found out and marvel at how amazing those things are. Our natural sense of awe and wonder is enough to inspire us. However, I also think it is worth understanding what the caller was trying to say.

I don’t think the caller had in mind a battle of who could find good or bad Bible passages. By this time, the caller is gone. I’m not sure who hung up on whom. Although it’s not clear what the caller had in mind, it’s doubtful that he would have come up with some amazing metaphors that could have altered AronRa’s or Seth’s thinking.

I felt for the guy, because I’ve been there.

I thought I had found these great metaphors and that I would find more. There are a lot of modern theologians who claim they have. What I had found, after reading and listening to these theologians, is a few decent stories that were not all that special compared to others and some stories that taught people lessons that needed to be taught at that time in history.

The Bible also has what the caller mentioned, but I wouldn’t call it metaphor. I would call it history written by ancient historians. History was not written then like it is written today. It was expected that you would make it a story and put words in people’s mouths. The story of David is that type of history.

I would have liked to help this guy out by giving him some more examples. I found these examples helpful when I was considering being a lay speaker and I still like them for defending the value of the Bible and defending it against fundamentalism. These don’t take the Bible literally or gloss over it’s horrible parts. Neither do they transform the Bible into some kind of modern book of enlightening stories that can guide us to a better tomorrow.

I also think AronRa, Matt Dillahunty and others need to acknowledge this other way of looking at the Bible. It is not Christianity 2.0 or a way to save Christianity. It does not require belief or dogma, in fact those get in the way. It is just as strong and sometimes a stronger argument against fundamentalism than pointing out discrepancies in the Bible or passages about slavery.

I’m not suggesting that they become scholars of modern theology only that they acknowledge that it is there. Give them the ground that there is a better way to read the Bible than 13th century Catholicism, then invite them to give an example. Most likely, they will either reference some author or speaker without being able to describe them or their example will be something lame like the one given here about King David. I think exposing this is better than returning to the argument of the problems with the Bible. Not exposing them leaves listeners wondering if there is something to this modern theology.

Questions like these will continue to come up and atheists should be aware that this modern theology may be an improvement over fundamentalists who want to ignore the poor and exploit women. This will help build partnerships against that form of religion. It also helps to be aware that in the end, it’s still theology. It still works back to requiring a level of open mindedness that makes your brains fall out. It's still the circular reference that we should love God or live like Jesus because they are God/Jesus and they're good and we should want to be like them and they'll give us love so then we'll be good and that will show others He is good and they'll join us in following God.

Here are a few examples:

There’s the story of Lazarus being shown a thirsty man in hell while his servant is in heaven. The gospel of Luke 16:19 presents this as a parable, a metaphor. So we can take away the literal meaning that you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept the laws of Moses, but what is the lesson? It has something to say about living a good life and how usually the rich and powerful get their comeuppance in the end. It doesn’t mention that it can take generations for power structures to crumble. It’s a message of hope for a slave in Palestenian Rome.

An oft mentioned passage is “an eye for an eye”. That seems pretty brutal and a rather barbaric justice system, but at the time, something as bad as having your eye put out might be returned with killing the offender and perhaps other members of their family. So it is defended as an improvement. But we’ve continued to improve since and although not perfect, our justice system is no longer this primitive, so it’s really not much of a defense at all.

The Parable of the Talents is well known by liberal preachers as one that has this difficult bit at the end where the slave who hid his talent is thrown into the outer darkness by his master. It can be found at Matthew 25:14. The slaves who are praised by the master are the ones who use their talents to do business and collect interest and make more talents (talents are money, FYI). So this gets used as Jesus praising capitalism, despite capitalism not existing for another 1,500 years.

For anti-theists, this parable is used as an example of Jesus advocating throwing people into the outer darkness because they don’t use what God gave them. There are a few, inlcuding myself, who believe this is a warning from Jesus of how they will be treated by their Roman masters if they don’t play by the rules. Again, a parable the Jews in Palestinian Rome in the 1st century can relate to, but not us.

I hate to admit it, but I actually preached to the story of Abraham going to sacrifice his son in Genesis 22. I did what many do and turned it into a story of commitment. I talked of being committed to my family and community, more conservative preachers might talk of being committed to God. It’s a horrible metaphor, and most likely nothing to do with the author’s intentions. More likely, it is a story that is telling people to stop doing human sacrifice, that God no longer wants that, but He’ll take a lamb. And of course, God is still in charge and don’t you forget it. Great story.

In the history category, much is made of the genocides and the commands from God to go attack other nations. These are especially strange since archeaology has not provided any evidence of these wars actually happening. Not only are they not trying to hide their warring ways, they are making up stories of conquest to show they are good fighters and killers. The only “metaphor” I know of is that they were a small nation, one that had probably overthrown their own corrupt government and they wanted a mythology that showed they should be players on the stage of the Ancient Near East.

There’s a speech out there somewhere on YouTube by a psychologist talking about the Noah story. He points something out that I’ve never heard anyone else point out. The story of Noah immediately follows the story of Cain slaying Abel and God letting him go unpunished. It could be this is a way of saying that if we tolerate intolerable acts the meaning of tolerance will be lost and society will fall apart. That God deals with it by killing everyone doesn’t say much for God.

Then there’s the big one. Christ dying for our sins. One preacher, who eventually got me to join his church, gave a sermon on Easter that turned that bloody story into one of love. When the guards came for him, he told his disciples to put away their swords. He preached that you should love your neighbors and love your enemies and when his time came to live by those words or to fight, he walked the walk. Looked at this way, it’s probably why the story has survived for 2,000 years. It of course ignores some of the other things Jesus said and more importantly what Christianity became in the 4th century and the book of Revelations and a bunch of other stuff, but it’s a great metaphor.

Speaking of Jesus, why do they sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” at Christmas? It’s because of a metaphor, or more accurately a prophecy. The metaphor was of a son being born of one nation that would be sacrificed or given to another as a way to bring peace. It’s in the Old Testament. It was a prophecy that didn’t come true at the time it was given. Later people looked at it and said it must apply to Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of that prophecy.

Brian McClaren, in a well known book about bringing Christianity into the modern world speaks to the passage, “there will always be the poor”, Matthew 26:11, spoken by Jesus himself. It is used and abused by conservatives to claim that Jesus meant there is nothing that can be done to fix that problem. Taken literally it seems like he is saying that. But McClaren points out that he is referring to an earlier passage in the Old Testament that says there will always be poor, AND WE SHOULD HELP THEM, Deuteronomy 15:11. Kinda changes the meaning. Jesus knew his scripture. Or at least the authors of the gospels knew them. Today’s readers don’t.

That one really isn’t a metaphor, it’s just a statement about a value, some advice about how to live and act with justice. It’s a better interpretation of the Bible than the brute capitalist who is just looking for some words from Jesus to justify his actions, but if the only reason you want to help the poor is because Jesus says to, then maybe you need some other sort of ethical education. Jesus did not invent these ideas for living together. He lived in a brutal time and to people born into slavery and treated like dirt, his ideas no doubt seemed radical. For anyone who has access to clean water and fast food, it shouldn’t seem radical at all.

I could keep going, but hopefully I’ve made my point. I wish callers like this would actually tell us what their modern theology is instead of referring to others and making wild claims about new and improved Christianity. Any time I’ve tracked these down, they may be kinder and gentler stories, but they don’t offer anything that couldn’t be taught in other ways. They don’t need to be superimposed with supernatural actions. It’s not even necessary to claim that their characters are somehow better than any other characters in stories with morals. We have lots of great stories, let's use all of them.