Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bible Irony

As a fundamentalist Christian, I was absolutely certain that the Bible was the inspired word of God, the only reliable source of truth.  I believed that the Old Testament existed to point ahead to Jesus, and that the New Testament revealed salvation through Jesus' sacrifice.  Obviously, with such an important message, the New Testament must have had a beautiful, miraculous, clear, and quick creation.....right?  

I imagined it something like this: soon after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, some people who had followed Jesus felt compelled to write his biography (the four gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John).  They didn't consult with each other, so they each show a slightly different perspective of Jesus.  From consulting all four of them, we get a complete picture of Jesus.  Not very long after, I imagined, as Jesus' followers formed churches in various cities, they got letters of instruction of Paul and the other apostles.  Those letters were to teach them correct theology and holy living.  All of those writings were immediately and widely recognized as inspired by God, and the first church leaders saved them and put them together into a collection--the New Testament.  That collection of New Testament writings was carefully copied through the years to help preserve it, and eventually translated into English.  Sometimes people argue about the best translation, but at least we can go back to the words of God in their original language if there is any dispute in English.

It's a beautiful imagination, isn't it?  Unfortunately, it's very far from the truth according to scholars who study the history of the Bible. 

 I had my first glimpse of this when I was still a teen.  I was in the middle of writing a homeschool high school essay called "Why I Believe What I Believe," and one of my points was that the Bible was inspired.  I wrote down something like this: "Written over ____ years by ___ authors in different countries and in several languages, the Bible amazingly has no contradictions."  Then, I grabbed our family encyclopedia to check exactly how many years and how many authors.  True horror suddenly gripped me as I saw words on the page like "disputed author", "written in the second century," and "not settled until the fourth century...".   My vision blurred; I slammed the encyclopedia shut.  Eventually, I calmed down enough to continue writing, having mentally explained away the data as yet one more humanistic attack on God's obvious truth.   But I never managed to feel really confident in my finished essay, especially that one vague sentence in particular that read, "Written over approximately 1500 years by many authors...."  

Years later, I was forced to encounter that information again.  It was in my New Testament survey class at my evangelical Christian college, which was taught by a leading Christian expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls.  This time, the horror happened in slow motion--class after class of unknown authors, late writing dates, and uncertain place in the canon until the fourth century.

It's a great irony in fundamentalist Christianity: putting so much faith in a book but willfully remaining ignorant of how the book got into your hands.  It doesn't do any credit to a person's beliefs if those beliefs are too weak to encounter reality.  

What is the reality? 

The reality is that we don't have any original manuscripts of any books of the Bible.  The oldest ones that we have are from hundreds of years after Jesus.  Additionally, the oldest manuscripts are extremely fragmentary and sometimes vary from each other significantly on important points.

The reality is that in the first three centuries of Christianity, there were many other Gospels, Acts, and Epistles that various groups of Christians believed had been written by the apostles.  Based on those other writings, there was a lot of variety of beliefs among early Christians, and many of those beliefs would be considered extremely heretical today.  Eventually one group of early Christians became more powerful and influential than the others, but this was merely because they were connected to Rome and thus connected to the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the fourth century.

The reality is that there was no consensus on what books should be included in the collection of the New Testament until over three hundred years after Jesus.  In the end, a council of people commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325 decided what beliefs were correct or "orthodox".  AFTER THAT, the writings that most matched their "orthodox" views were unofficially chosen to be part of the New Testament canon.  

The reality is that now, based on the past 300 years of study, we know that some of those writings included in the New Testament have false attributions of authorship or false claims of authorship.  The Gospels, for example, were not written by the uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking first disciples of Jesus, but were written down many decades later by more educated Greek-speaking Christians, based on oral tradition.  For instance, the first Gospel, Mark, was written in AD 70 or later, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, sometimes even quoting it word for word.  (Have you ever noticed that Paul's letters never reference the Gospel writings?  It's because they were written after his time.)

The reality is that almost all secular and Christian Biblical scholars know that some of the Pauline epistles in the Bible were in fact later forged in Paul's name.  In particular 1&2 Timothy and Titus were certainly not written by Paul; Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.are heavily contested.  Even the letters that were certainly written by Paul have been tampered with in places, and these alternations are part of our modern English versions.  For example, the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 ("The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.  If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church") were added in later manuscripts, and are not part of the oldest and best manuscripts!

The reality is that there is not uniformity of message in the Bible.  If you let each author speak for himself--let each book stand alone as the author intended--then you get very different messages and not simply the traditional Christian message.  The "good news" that Jesus preached in the Gospels is different from the "good news" that the apostles preached in Acts, which in turn is different than the "good news" that Paul wrote about.

It's a harsh reality for people like me who grew up viewing the world through the lens of the Bible, being taught to ignore my thoughts and feelings based on the "clear" teachings the Bible contained.  But although it is shocking and unsettling at first, it can become very beautiful and so freeing.  You can see the world and maybe even see God more clearly when you stop wandering through life with your face buried in a book.  Look up--the world is in color; it's not all black and white!

If you are interested in further reading, I recommend perusing Wikipedia to start.  If you are ready to hear directly from the Biblical scholars, I recommend two books: "Jesus, Interrupted", written by an ex-fundamentalist agnostic Biblical scholar, and "The Canon of the New Testament", written by a leading Christian Biblical scholar.  If you discover other worthwhile books or articles on the topic, please let me know about them as well!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Post-Fundamentalist Motherhood

When I look at my little toddler, I am so glad that I am no longer a fundamentalist Christian.

First, I don't believe in total depravity anymore, so I don't feel compelled to interpret his actions with negative terminology.  

The doctrine of total depravity is a common belief among fundamentalists.  It teaches that every person is born with a sin nature, separated from God, and capable of the worst kinds of evil.  It also says that proper parenting can mitigate the effects of the sin nature, but only a relationship with Jesus can make a person capable of true goodness.

If I believed that my child had a sin nature that predisposed him to evil, that would certainly predispose me to interpret his actions very negatively.  

When he insists on exploring the world and touching everything, I could see it as stubbornness.  Instead, I am free to see it as healthy curiosity and a drive to discover the world.  I see him examine everything very carefully by touching, turning, throwing, hitting, and chewing it.  I see him learning about cause and effect by repeating the same action over and over.  It's beautiful to see his excitement about his discoveries, and I don't want to diminish that by creating a power struggle.

When he fights sleep at bedtime, or wakes up multiple times during the night, I could see it as defiance.  Instead, I am free to assume that he has a real need.  Perhaps he needs more comfort so he can fall asleep feeling peaceful and loved.  Perhaps he is genuinely hungry or thirsty.  Perhaps he is in pain from gas or teething.  Perhaps he is uncomfortable due to the temperature.  Perhaps he is about to experience a developmental milestone and is having trouble relaxing.  One thing is certain--he is not awake for fun, so I breath deeply and try my best to patiently meet his needs.

When he takes toys from other children, I could see it as selfishness.  Instead, I am free to notice that he also spontaneously gives his toys to others.  He is just starting to experience social interaction and he will be working on social skills for the rest of his life.  The learning happens one step at a time, and I will try to encourage him as much as I can to find the balance between thinking of others and taking care of himself.

When he screeches for me to pick him up, I could see it as manipulation.  Instead, I am free to see that he is just learning to feel and communicate, and crying is one of his main tools of communication right now.  It is good that he uses those sounds to help me see when he is upset.  After all, he is dependent on me for his physical and emotional well-being.  His feelings are real to him and just as valid as mine.  I want to be aware of his feelings so I can make the best decisions possible for our family as a whole.

My child is not depraved.  He is a good person with a lot of potential.

Second, I no longer believe that spanking is a necessary part of parenting, so I won't feel like a bad parent for not hitting my child.

When my son was only 9 months old, I was horrified to discover that my first impulse was to smack his hand to stop him from touching things after I said no.  I had this impulse even though I have not been in the fundamentalist culture for almost 10 years now.  Luckily, I did not follow through on that impulse--in what world is it right for an adult to hit an infant???  In the fundamentalist world it is not only acceptable, but also necessary, according to Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips", Richard Fugate's book "What the Bible Says About Child Training," and Michael Pearl's book, "To Train Up a Child."

Contrary to these fundamentalist teachings, I believe that my child is a person who deserves to be treated with respect.  Purposefully causing physical pain to a child is inhumane and disrespectful.  Besides the physical pain, spanking promotes feelings of shame and badness because it causes the parent and child to focus on the negative.  And it doesn't have any redeeming qualities, since it doesn't achieve anything besides short-term fear-based behavioral modification.

I prefer an approach to parenting that is about teaching, not punishment.  Spanking is a punishment tool rather than a teaching tool because it has no real connection to the child's misbehavior.  Children can learn better from a positive and affirming relationship with their parent.  They can learn from open discussion and good examples.  They can learn from making things right when they hurt someone else.  That relationship dynamic will prepare them much better for adulthood than experiencing the physical and emotional pain of spanking.

Finally, I no longer see blind unquestioning obedience as a positive thing in my relationship with God, so I don't expect that of my child.

Many fundamentalist parents see their role as preparing their children for a relationship with God.  But rather than focusing on displaying God's love and patience to their children, they focus on demanding respect and obedience from their children, hoping that their children will grow up to be more obedient to God.  So, just like the parents are not allowed to question God's Word or feel angry at him, their children are not allowed to question or be upset at the parents.  Just like the parents believe there are consequences for disobeying God, they impose consequences on their own disobedient children.  Just like the parents believe that God judges their hearts and motives, they also judge their own children's hearts and motives.  As parents, they become obsessed with authority because they feel that their children's eternal souls are at stake.

Due to my shifting opinions about the Bible, reality is not black and white to me anymore.  I don't feel like my role in life is to unquestioningly obey God as revealed in the Bible; instead, I have responsibility to decide for myself what is right and loving in today's world.  I want to promote those values in my relationship with my child as well.

So instead of obsessing about obedience and authority, I want to foster an environment where my child can thrive, discover his interests, and find his place in the world.  I want him to feel confident, to think, to question, to choose for himself, to say yes and to say no.  The end result of parenting should be a happy and independent adult who knows that I will love him no matter what, no matter how different from me he is.

In conclusion, although I am sure that there are good fundamentalist parents out there, I would not have been a good parent as a fundamentalist.  I will spend this Mother's Day feeling grateful for the opportunity to do things differently in my family.  I will spend the day enjoying every little kiss and hug my baby gives me and think about how lucky I am to get to watch him grow up.  Happy Mother's Day to me!