The other day I received an emailed question from a reader which focused on the problem of genocide in the Bible. The reader asked:
“If someone brought up these biblical narratives [of genocide], as Dawkins and the like have, as a means of discrediting the Christian faith and the biblical text how would you respond?”
Note how the reader put the question. He doesn’t describe a person who asks about these narratives because they are genuinely curious to know how Christians interpret the text. Rather, the person asks about the narratives as a means of discrediting the Christian faith. Needless to say, there’s a world of difference between these two approaches.
Imagine that you’re reading James Joyce on your lunch break when your coworker walks in the room and glances at the title. “Ulysses? Huh. I read a chapter of that in university, but I couldn’t understand it. How do you interpret it?” Now that’s a welcome invitation to a discussion. But imagine that instead he responds like this: “Ulysses? Hah! I was forced to read a chapter of that in university. How can you read that pretentious crap?”
If the first response is an invitation to dialogue, the second is little more than a polemical shot across the bow. Unfortunately, there are many folks who treat the Bible in this caustic manner, and Dawkins is but one of them. As a case in point, consider Richard Carrier who, in a recent review of my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, refers caustically to Christians who “are often aimed at ‘saving’ the Bible, from being the vomit of primitive and savage minds, by turning it into some sort of miraculously prescient treatise on 20th century science and logic that it’s not.”
Compare that with the skeptic who dismisses interpreters of James Joyce who are aimed at ‘saving’ Ulysses from being the vomit of a pretentious and obscure mind, by turning it into some sort of miraculously prescient treatise of 20th century culture that it’s not. Whether the text in question is Ulysses or the Bible, with that kind of starting point, the entire discussion is fated to realize an abortive conclusion.
So back to the question: if someone was concerned merely with discrediting the Christian faith, with unmasking that which they believe to be the vomit of primitive and savage minds, with guffawing at any interpretation that proposes to address their own moral incredulity, then I wouldn’t even bother having the conversation, for some conversations are not worth having.
How do you defend the Bible to those who dismiss it as the product of savage minds? The answer is this: you don’t.
But what about the person who is not yet prepared to dismiss the book as merely the product of savage minds? The person who is genuinely interested, who maintains an open mind, who seeks truly to understand and consider a perspective different from their own? That is, as they say, a very different kettle of fish, and I shall address it in a follow-up article.