Dan Barker. God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. New York: Sterling, 2016.
At the beginning of chapter 2 of his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins infamously describes God as “jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (Cited in ixx) That single sentence from the book has received more attention than any other. Indeed, it has been so significant that Dawkins asked Dan Barker, former Christian preacher and current co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, to write an entire book about it.
The result is God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. Barker devotes a chapter to each one of the 19 descriptors from Dawkins’ book. But he doesn’t stop there. Barker then adds eight more (e.g. “merciless”, “cannibalistic”) for good measure. He concludes with a chapter on the New Testament in which he argues that since Jesus is just the same God as is described in the Old Testament, anything true of the God of the Old Testament is true of Jesus. So if God is jealous, petty, unjust, unforgiving and the rest, then Jesus is too. In short, the New Testament offers no respite.
An Unconventional Book
This is not a book that you read from cover to cover. The format consists of page after page of Bible verses all organized around the core offending adjectives. As you can imagine, that makes for a tough slog. As a result, it is likely that most folks will read the introductions to each chapter and then skim the biblical references that are laid out on page after page.
Barker acknowledges this very point and so he seeks to make it easier for the reader by boldfacing the words in each verse that warrant grouping that verse under the offending descriptor: “Reading the bible can be laborious, especially during long passages. I have tried to make the task easier by boldfacing the relevant words in each verse. If you are in a hurry, simply scan for the boldface and come back later for the context.” (3)
For example, in a chapter on sadomasochism, Barker lists dozens of verses that relate to God and his desire to inflict fear in subjects. Barker then highlights the “fear” references like this:
PSALM 34:11 “Come, ye children, hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord.” (187)
Needless to say, it is tendentious (to say the least) to describe references to “the fear of the Lord” as ‘sadomasochistic’. But then, nuance and charity do not seem to be in Barker’s vocabulary.
Barker is aware of the predictable retort from biblically literate Christians: “‘You are taking it too literally,’ we sometimes hear from sophisticated believers.” (6) Barker adds that these ‘sophisticated’ Christians tell him “I am still reading the bible like a fundamentalist…” (6)
They’re right: he is.
Fundamentalist Bible reading has at least three key hallmarks: proof-texting; default ‘literal’ interpretation based on allegedly ‘commonsense’ reading; disregard for expertise. And Barker exhibits all these characteristics. In spades.
Let’s start with proof-texting. This is the practice of reading the Bible from an ideological starting point that leads one to disregard/ignore the original context and meaning of the passage whilst being guided by one’s motivated reasoning to justify one’s background ideology. Barker is forthright that his ideological goal here is nothing less than a polemical assault on the concept of God in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Moreover, as an activist for the “Freedom from Religion Foundation” (a secular equivalent of the Discovery Institute), Barker is concerned to implement a secularist program to remove religion from the public square. (As a Baptist critic of civil religion and the myth of the Christian society, I share some of Barker’s concerns. However, I part ways when he lapses into his more fanatical rhetoric such as when he denounces religion as ‘cancer’.)
Although he tries, unsuccessfully in my view, to inoculate himself against the proof-texting charge (indeed, he attempts to turn the charge on Christians (292)), there is no question but that Barker is a chronic proof-texter. What else can be said when you list literally dozens of Bible passages per chapter with little-to-no context provided, bold-face English words within each verse, and then encourage the reader to skim the long lists of boldfaced words in these decontextualized verses?
For example, in his chapter on God being “bloodthirsty,” Barker says “As promised, here are a few dozen passages dealing with animal sacrifice. You don’t need to read them all. Just scan for the word ‘blood.’ [helpfully boldfaced] When you are finished, you can wash your hands.” (81) Barker reads the Bible the way fundamentalist Christians read ‘controversial’ books. In short, they don’t actually read at all: instead, they just scan the text for offensive content.
I am reminded of conservative Jewish film critic Michael Medved who once wrote a book called Hollywood vs. America which attempted to do for Hollywood what Barker does for God. For example, Medved went to the trouble of counting the number of ‘f-bombs’ in Goodfellas (all 246 of ’em!) to demonstrate that Hollywood has a potty-mouth. No need to bother with the actual film: counting the swears should be enough.
Second, Barker exemplifies the tendency toward literal interpretation based on an allegedly commonsense, or as he puts it, “face-value” reading:
“We should always start with the face value. It is the face value, after all, that gives metaphor its punch. We should stick with the face value unless it is impossible to do otherwise, or unless there is a stated or understood reason to interpret it figuratively.” (6)
I can’t help but make a brief aside here. It seems to me that Barker exhibits an antiquated approach to language which assumes that ‘literal’ language is the standard mode of expression while metaphor (and other forms of idiomatic expression) are subsequently added like seasoning sprinkled on the main meal (see what I did there?). It is surely ironic that Barker’s choice of term — “face value” — is itself a metaphor. Barker adds to the irony when he then notes that this ‘face value’ “gives metaphor its punch“.
However, the main issue pertains to Barker’s unquestioned and naive assumption that “face value” for a 21st century North American reader will reliably map onto the “face value” of a first-century Greek-speaking Roman, let alone that of a fifth-century BCE Hebrew speaking Jew. Interestingly, Barker apes Ken Ham at this point as the young-earth creationist insists that Genesis 1 obviously teaches creation in six 24 hour days because that’s the ‘commonsense’ reading.
This leads us to the third point: Barker exhibits a dismissiveness for expertise that borders on outright contempt. Consider that sarcastic reference to “sophisticated Christians” whose insights he dismisses in a hand-wave by opining, “I think we should read the bible like any other writings, just like millions of normal people have done throughout the centuries without the aid of scholars by their side explaining what it really means.” (6)
You can definitely hear the former fundamentalist Protestant preacher in those words. But it is important to understand that Barker’s approach to the Bible is at variance not only with Roman Catholicism (cf. the Magisterium) but also with the mainstream Protestant understanding of the perspicuity of Scripture. (On the Protestant view, perspicuity pertains only to the central dogmas of the kerygma — e.g. creation, fall, redemption. It did not apply to the careful exegesis of specific biblical passages.) Barker’s method of categorically marginalizing expertise in favor of the average reader’s “face-value” interpretation reflects the aberrant anti-intellectual and hyper-individualistic methods of Protestant fundamentalism. In short, Barker is shadowboxing with the “Pastor Dan” of his past life.
There is no shortage of examples where scholarship does provide an invaluable guide to the meaning of texts. The young-earth creationist’s utterly inept reading of Genesis 1 is, of course, a familiar example. But here is another which is particularly interesting given that it is another favorite atheist prooftext for demonstrating the absurdity of the Bible. In Joshua 10:12-14, we read of God extending a day so that the Israelites may win a battle. Atheist fundamentalists love to flag this story as an indictment of biblical inspiration and authority given that it assumes geocentrism, posits a ‘miracle’ that would have disastrous consequences for earth history, and is not corroborated in any historical records.
However, biblical scholar K. Lawson Younger Jr. has pointed out that the idea of a deity intervening in a battle by extending a day so as to secure victory for one side was a well-established literary motif in ancient near-eastern (ANE) literature (Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? 97). The casual reader cannot be blamed for being ignorant of ANE literary tropes, of course. But they can be blamed for thinking that their “face value” reading has nothing to learn from scholars who are familiar with ANE literary tropes.
Barker notes that he is also accused of taking texts out of context. Ah, but he has a ready retort: “I think what they really mean by context is ‘my theology’.” (5, emphasis added) As Barker puts it, “theology is really me-ology.”
The irony of that charge is that if there is anybody who appears blissfully unaware of how his assumptions shape his theological reasoning it is Barker himself. As noted above, his entire method is an aberrant expression of hyper-individualistic and anti-intellectual Protestant fundamentalism while his theology is an activist secularist humanism. Alas, like most fundamentalists, Barker sees specks in everyone else’s eye while remaining unaware of the planks (in this case, ‘Barker-ology’) in his own.
God and the Imprecatory Psalms
I can hardly hope to enumerate all the cases where Barker’s proof-texting and dependence on individual untutored assumptions about face-value reading lose important nuance and distort the text as a result. (Nor do I, a systematic theologian rather than a biblical scholar, have the expertise to do so.) But in this review, I will make the point with one example from chapter 12 where Barker focuses on the killing of children.
(As an aside, Barker says that there is no general word for the killing of children (127-128). But that’s incorrect: the word is ‘pedicide’. As a further aside, he also says there is no general word for the killing of animals (271). But that too is false: the word is theriocide.)
Here I will focus on Barker’s treatment of Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Barker comments,
“Can there be a more terrible sentence ever spoken in fiction or history? The God of the Old Testament is telling his people to enjoy torturing and murdering babies.” (128)
That is an absolutely crazy reading of the psalm. God is not commending braining infants in Psalm 137:9 any more than God is commending forgetting people in Psalm 13:1. More to the point, the speaker is not God at all but rather a human being, one who is expressing rage and anguish at his oppressors (i.e. the Babylonians) as his people are sent into exile. The psalms are a full record of human experience including doubt, fear, hopelessness, and in this case, rage. It is not God who expresses these emotions but rather the human psalmist.
So how should we think about these emotions generally, and the rage of Psalm 137:9, in particular?
Readers like Barker are ready to judge the psalmist. But how about we first try walking a mile in his sandals? In my book What’s So Confusing About Grace? I give a contemporary analogy by considering the case of Jennifer Neville-Lake, a bereaved mother of three children who were killed by drunk driver Marco Muzzo. At Muzzo’s sentencing, Neville-Lake told him that she hopes he knows what it is like to have a child die. What an abhorrent wish, an unspeakable curse! And yet, when you understand that Neville-Lake is an anguished mother crying out in unimaginable pain and rage, perhap you can move from sanctimoniously judging her to sympathizing with her.
Psalm 137 invites a similar response: rather than judge the psalmist — still less, to place his words into the mouth of God — we should attempt to understand why he has these feelings toward his oppressors. (For further discussion, see the chapter “How I learned to hate my enemies” in my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?)
To his credit, Barker gives at least some acknowledgment of the importance of context. Unfortunately, he then immediately undercuts this concession: “Some argue that PSALM 137:9 is just the psalmist talking, not God, but if we accept that argument, the whole Old Testament should be torn up and discarded….” (128) This is simply an absurd claim: recognizing that the psalms are an honest record of human experience and emotion rather than a litany of divinely given directives does not oblige one to “tear up and discard” the Old Testament.
What about Jesus?
The very last chapter is devoted to Jesus. This is important because Christians will insist that the Old Testament should be read and interpreted through Jesus. Barker replies by arguing that if God is jealous, petty, unjust, et cetera, and Jesus is God, then it follows that Jesus, too, is jealous, petty, unjust, et cetera (290).
This is a silly argument, one that completely misses the main point that the Christian insists that how various biblical texts are to be read is changed by the coming of Jesus. For example, let’s return to Psalm 137. Jesus said that while it has been said that we should hate our enemies, he calls us to love our enemies (Mt. 5:43). The imprecatory psalms are a prime example of a place where the hatred of enemies is embodied within the text. But read from a Christian point-of-view we are called to move through the very real emotions of anger, bitterness, and hatred and eventually on to the forgiveness of those who have offended against us.
Throughout this final chapter, Barker consistently adopts tendentious readings of the words and actions of Jesus. For example, he claims that Jesus came to bring not peace but a sword (294) and that “Like a cult leader he preached family hatred” (298). Needless to say, Barker does not consider the obvious and minimally charitable interpretation of hyperbole. And he writes, “In one case, [Jesus] refused to heal a sick child until he was pressured by the mother (MATTHEW 15:22-28).” (298-99) What Barker fails to note is that in this pericope Matthew intentionally presents the woman (who is movingly vindicated in the exchange) as of Cana (i.e. a Canaanite). This provides a powerful exegetical clue to a new way of reading the ill-fated descriptions of Canaanites in the Deuteronomic history. (For further discussion of this pericope, see chapter 12, “Was Jesus a racist?” in my book Conversations with My Inner Atheist.)
Finally, and perhaps most bizarrely, Barker claims that Jesus really only showed care and concern for insiders in his Jewish community: “Neither the Israelites nor Jesus showed much love to nonbelievers.” (300) Needless to say, this completely ignores Jesus’ consistent embrace of the marginalized other (e.g. tax collectors, lepers, women, rebels, adulterers, prostitutes). Perhaps most famously, when asked what it means to love one’s neighbor, Jesus shared a parable that centers on the hated Samaritans (Luke 10:25-37).
I have been overwhelmingly negative in my review of God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. The reason is that this is a thoroughly bad book. To be sure, it is great at achieving its aims: the problem is that those aims, and the fundamentalist methods that underlie them, are harmful and merely reinforce prejudice and ignorance where thoughtfulness and charity are required.
That said, there are some redeeming qualities to be found in its pages. To begin with, I very much liked the cover design and the use of print images drawn from the wood-gravings in Gustave Dore’s famous Illustrations for the Bible. And even if I think the typesetters made the font of the main text one size too small, overall this is a nicely packaged volume.
As a Baptist, I am also sympathetic to Barker’s concerns about the separation of religion and the state, especially when religious conservatives distort the Bible to serve their purposes of cultivating a civic relation. For example, Barker is right on to critique Anne Graham Lotz’s proof-texting of 2 Chronicles 7:14 at the National Prayer Breakfast (164).
And even if Barker proof-texts and exhibits a deeply problematic polemical anti-intellectualism, along the way he does make many legitimate points. There is no question that the Bible does indeed carry much deeply problematic moral content. And rather than ignore those texts or spin them, Christians need to confront them honestly. Every reader has a tendency to read in accord with their biases. And if Barker reads like a fundamentalist Christian counting instances of the ‘f-bomb’, his book forces Christians who have their own selective methods to confront many texts that may present a significant challenge to their theology.
The fact is, however, that there are many books and essays by Christians that offer thoughtful reflections on biblical violence in light of theology, hermeneutics, and ethics (e.g. Eric Seibert, Kent Sparks, Paul Copan, Greg Boyd, Peter Enns, John Dominic Crossan, Philip Jenkins, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Richard Swinburne, Douglas Earl, Thom Stark). None of these scholars root their analysis in fundamentalist methods. And all of them seem a good deal more aware of their own presuppositions and how those presuppositions inform their work than Dan Barker.
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