Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Have you read a "Good Book" lately?

[Executive Summary: An intelligent Bible reader of Jewish descent bangs his head against the reality that the Old Testament is one exceedingly grim read.]

There is an old joke from a few years ago, entitled A Short Course on Comparive Religions, which holds that "All religions are variations on the phrase 'shit happens': Hinduism says, 'shit happens over and over again.' Islam says, 'shit happens, God willing.' Zen Buddhists ask, "What is the sound of one shit happening?" Catholicism says, 'If shit happens God is punishing me.' John Calvin says, 'Shit is predestined to happen.' The Jews ask, 'Why does all this shit happen to us?'" And so on.

David Plotz, a conservative Jewish writer for Slate, was educated in a shul as a child, then in an Evangelical Christian university in his youth. He regarded himself fairly well educated as regards the Bible. But he wanted to reexamine the problem, by reading the world's leading book concerning why, er, things happen. A couple of years ago, he began a blogger's journey of a lifetime: urged to reread the entire Bible as a whole from one end to the other, he has done so--and blogged the experience here. He has also turned that blog into Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible.

I have not read the book itself yet (it was only just released), nor even his blog. However, he made certain comments on his experience in a summary that was posted yesterday on Slate.

Here's the long and the short of it: Plotz, a reasonably biblically literate lay person of Jewish background but no outstanding religious belief, has made a major discovery in reading the Bible: the origin of many of our political terms (shibboleth, burning bush, the influence that Amos had on M.L. King's I Have a Dream speech, inter alia). He urges everyone, faithful or not, to read the whole thing all the way through, if nothing else, to become reasonably culturally literate, as our political speech is drawn from the images of the Good Book.

However, he reads the Old Testament only. He chooses to foreclose any investigation into the New Testament by saying:

If I want to find the grace and forgiveness and wonder, I have to read and believe in the story of Jesus Christ, which explains and redeems all. But that doesn't work for me. I'm a Jew. I don't, and can't, believe that Christ died for my sins. And even if he did, I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes in the Old Testament.

In other words, he makes a double handwaive: "Sorry, I'm Jewish," and "God's crimes."

Plotz is clearly an intelligent and well meaning man, and he writes gracefully. But he invokes his Jewish heritage as a permanent and impermiable barrier to his investigation into the second half (yes) of the Bible. He cuts off any consideration of that which makes the Bible not only tolerable, but meaningful.

I enter into this discussion of the Divide with caution, for many reasons. I am a philo-Semitic reluctant Roman Catholic of Irish derivation; my admiration for Judaism is profound but not inherited, as far as I know. Yet it is sad to me that one's Judaic inheritance is supposed to render the New Testament entirely radioactive and beyond, alas, "the pale"; a Christian can wrestle with the Old Testament, but a Jew can't wrestle with the New; indeed, won't even read it.

The ancient and bitter Divide between Christianity and Judaism can get ugly at times. I remember with crystal clarity the shock I got in my freshman year of college when two friends of mine who were then dating--he a Jewish-descended atheist and she a Jewish-descended Christian--got into a nasty argument about religion. She tried to quote the New Testament in support of one of her points, and he spat in reply: "Don't you know that that you are dead?" Needless to say this relationship did not continue for long.

I also remember a second discussion, many years later, with another friend, raised Catholic but who converted to Judaism, who opined that any Jew who converts to Christianity is like another individual has been gassed by Hitler.

(Of course, given Christianity's often painful history--and given the endless numbers of anti-Semites and anti-Jewish atrocities that have polluted Christianity through history--this does not surprise. Alas.)

And yet, painful as it is, this wall of separation between the two faiths is necessary. Judaism stands always under a threat of being absorbed, in this day and age, by the Christianity that surrounds it in most of the world. To maintain and protect itself from its bumptious and sometimes savage younger brother, it is plain that a rough wall must exist.

Furthermore, Christianity itself supports that wall, in a way. (And no, not for its historical occasional relegation of Jews to ghettoes or worse.) Christianity's own scriptures hold that the Jews will continue to exist until the Second Coming, if such there is. God Himself has told us that there cannot be, there will not be, any permanent and total conversion of the Jewish people as a whole until the End of Time, and that they still have a major role to play in His world. (Whether under the New Covenant, the Old Covenant is still in force for the Jews, I leave as a question for theological experts; I myself am not going to go there.)

So: one cannot truly argue with the need for the Divide, alas.

But this is book is not just about the Divide. The key to his true difficulty with the Bible in his phrase "I still don't think that would wash away God's crimes"--an expression that he does, as C.S. Lewis warns us not to: to put "God in the Dock." God, to him, is a committer of "crimes", One who leaves him "heartbroken"--

You notice that I haven't said anything about belief. I began the Bible as a hopeful, but indifferent, agnostic. I wished for a God, but I didn't really care. I leave the Bible as a hopeless and angry agnostic. I'm brokenhearted about God. After reading about the genocides, the plagues, the murders, the mass enslavements, the ruthless vengeance for minor sins (or none at all), and all that smiting—every bit of it directly performed, authorized, or approved by God—I can only conclude that the God of the Hebrew Bible, if He existed, was awful, cruel, and capricious. He gives us moments of beauty—such sublime beauty and grace!—but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey and no God I can love.

This is not a particularly original critique--I first encountered the same thing in Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, published 1961--in the section where Jubal Harshaw (Heinlein's Mary Sue), in the middle of a rant against religion in general and Christianity in particular, similarly critiques the Old Testament. He, Heinlein ("Harshaw"), discusses the story where Lot, who, attempting to protect angelic messengers of God from being anally raped by a mob in Sodom, offers his own daughters to be raped in their stead:

But that's what he [Lot] promised -- his virgin daughters, young and tender and scared -- urged this gang to rape them... if only they would leave him in peace! The Bible cites this scum as a 'righteous' man.

(Note: Heinlein very conveniently leaves out the detail that Lot is protecting an Angel of God from mob defilement; ol' RAH is notorious for such.)

Or the story of Elisha and the two bears:

Consider Elisha. Elisha was so all-fired holy that touching his bones restored a dead man to life. He was a bald-headed old coot, like myself. One day children made fun of his baldness, just as you girls do. So God sends bears to tear forty-two children into bloody bits. That's what it says -- second chapter of Second Kings.

This brings us to the question of the odyssey of Theodicy: the question of God's goodness. The God of the Old Testament, taken on its face, fails that test outright. He (to quote Stephen King's The Stand) "ain't no nice guy." Not only is this God not a tame Lion, He's a savage man-eater.

That's really the sad truth: the Old Testament is an ugly, ugly story. Without a Messiah-Christ, or the Mosiach-He-Who-Is-To-Come (take your pick), to make sense of it, it's as grim a book of fairy tales as you could ask.

If there was no redemption, no Resurrection, then we find ourselves as did Job, sitting by a cold fire in the ashes of his burned out farm, wondering "why me, Lord?" (And it's no comfort to remember what He said to Job in reply: "None of your business!")

It is in the light of this that Mr. Plotz raises a most intelligent point, and which shows that he is not without a certain insight into what he has just read.

As I read the book, I realized that the Bible's greatest heroes—or, at least, my greatest heroes—are not those who are most faithful, but those who are most contentious and doubtful: Moses negotiating with God at the burning bush, Gideon
demanding divine proof
before going to war, Job questioning God's own justice, Abraham demanding that God be merciful to the innocent of Sodom. They challenge God for his capriciousness, and demand justice, order, and morality, even when God refuses to provide them. Reading the Bible has given me a chance to start an argument with God about the most important questions there are, an argument that can last a lifetime.

Indeed: in the absence of the Christian belief in redemption by the Blood of His Son, we are only left with one option: to stare God in the eye and ask, "SAY WHAT"? (Or to close the circle: "Why does all this shit happen to us?")

And that is the essence of the Jewish faith: to wrestle with God. The Jews remain the children of Israel, i.e., of He-who-Wrestled-With-The-Angel. It is this willingness to confront Him that makes me say, as I stated in an earlier post: "show me the bones of Christ and five minutes later I would convert to orthodox Judaism."

The Bible tells us that Jacob overcame the angel. Here is a prayer that Mr. Plotz, by all appearances a righteous man, does the same.

Actually, let me amend that: let us all wrestle Him and win.

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Keep it clean for gene.