Posts tagged ‘agnostic’

November 12, 2010

A Jewish agnostic’s look at the Bible.

I spent a while this morning flipping through David Plotz’s Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible. I happened upon this book, as well as Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus (haven’t read it yet — another day), at the library one day and decided to take them home with me. What do non-Christians read when they read the Bible? I wondered.

I didn’t know what to expect.  The inside cover boasted that the book was “irreverent and enthralling,” which I would say was accurate.  Of David Plotz’s (the editor of Slate) accomplishments I need not sing; he is a terrific writer, which is obvious considering his accolades. But I will say he did a commendable job in this book of approaching the topic honestly… well, as honestly as he was willing to (read on).

I also need not point out that I disagree with Dave’s ultimate conclusions.  Throughout the book, however, he summarizes stories in the Old Testament and his words taught me a lot, despite the fact that I’ve been reading the Bible for a long time.  Good Book challenged me, uncomfortably, to consider facts such as Biblical scholarship, how to decide who is right, and how we decide if the Bible really is set up like it was supposed to be with so much imperfect human in the picture.  Did some rogue go in and mess up the carefully arranged books of Genesis?  Is that why, as Plotz points out, it sometimes seems so nonsensical and tangential?  These points were thought-provoking, causing me to unexpectedly wrestle with them in a way that was ultimately edifying.

But Plotz spends a whole lot of time both throughout the book and in his closing chapter making sure we know a few things.  Things I’d like to challenge.  I do admire Plotz for taking the time to actually read the Bible before deciding whether it should sit on a shelf untouched, be burned, or be read by everyone everywhere.  Surprisingly, he takes the last perspective. Hear, hear! Plotz’s “intellectual defense” of reading the Bible is this:

While reading the Bible, I often felt as though I was understanding my own world for the very first time.  It was humbling . . . I don’t want to sound like a theocratic crank, but I’m actually shocked that students aren’t compelled to read huge chunks of the Bible in high school and college, the way they must read Shakespeare or the Constitution or Mark Twain.  How else can they become literate in their own world?

Bravo.  However, we move forward: his personal defense is that, as a Jew, he now understands rituals and traditions he never got before.  “Reading the Bible has joined me to Jewish life in a way I never thought possible.”  To this I say a resounding…. duh.  The Bible is, after all, the basis of the Jewish faith.  That’s like saying you never thought it was possible that reading an automotive manual would give you a more well-rounded perspective on car engines and help you finally understand your mechanic buddy’s jokes.  Welcome to the inner circle, Dave.

Here you might be wondering what I wondered for the first few chapters of this book, after a couple remarks from Plotz that the New Testament “stole” such-and-such story from the Old (a silly and dismissive take on fulfillment of prophecy and the inseparability of the two books), or that Christians have it easier believing in Jesus to guide their lives instead of the “vindictive” God of the Old Testament (by the way, Christians believe Jesus is the God of the Old Testament).  The answers:

1) When Plotz said “The Bible,” he meant the Hebrew Bible only. The Old Testament. That might have been helpful to clarify from the get-go — like in the title of the book.  You see, for a guy who apparently champions Biblical literacy for the illiterate masses, Plotz cannot assume that everyone who picks up this book even knows that a New Testament exists.  Not only for my Christian sake, screaming internally How can he leave out Jesus!?, but for the aforementioned academics.  Just like college students can’t understand Moby Dick without knowing who the first Ahab is, how does one expect them to understand the myriad New Testament references and Christ-types in literature?  The Old Man and the Sea? No wonder nobody in my freshman honors English class got that.  Because who is that guy?  Irresponsibility #1.

2) When Plotz reads the Bible, he reads it as literature.  And he doesn’t believe any of it is actually true.  He is a self-proclaimed agnostic, and in a heartbreaking confession in the book’s last chapter he declares:

You surely notice that I’m not saying anything about belief.  I began the Bible as a hopeful, but not 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 . . . 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 — sublime beauty and grace! — but taken as a whole, He is no God I want to obey, and no God I can love.

He goes on to say that his Christian friends tell him the Old Testament is a set up for the New Testament, “like leaving halfway through a movie.”  But Plotz says, “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 epic crimes in the Old Testament.”  He goes on to argue that if God made him a quizzical and rational being, God must be willing to be subjected to his reason, and he doesn’t pass the test.

Plotz’s ideas place in me a renewed sense of the arrogance of the world.  Not surprising, since his magazine, Slate, succeeds on the basis of witty, snarky columnists who write from a satirical “I know better” perspective.  In a word, arrogance.  Now I appreciate a bit of snark as much as the next person, but as an entire worldview I cannot recommend it.  It sets you up, like Plotz, to see yourself as the be all and end all of your own philosophy (hello, relativism!).

I’m also humbly reminded of the devastation that occurs when humans take sin lightly.   This is the only explanation for becoming angry at a God who is angry at sin.  I know it seems much more complicated than that, even to myself, but is it really? Plotz’s willingness to try to understand only goes so far: he was ready to read the Bible, to learn from it, and to hold himself up against it and find out what it means.  But when a friend recommends the New Testament?  “I can’t, I’m a Jew,” is his response.  I won’t go into the obvious leap of logic found there.

This man’s identity is based completely on how to be a “good person” (he uses a convenient pull-this-pitch-this mentality in his approach to God’s laws in Leviticus), and how to live the “good life” (he uses Ecclesiastes but misses its point entirely).  This is nothing new.  This is a man aching for something more than he has, but who is unwilling to let it change his life in any way other than to secure what he views as maximum happiness for himself and his posterity.

I can’t “argue.”  I can only comment. I respect the risk Plotz took in undertaking this quest and shifting his own beliefs, but I only wish, out of love for him and those like him, that the risk had been even greater.  What we end up with, instead, is a tame year-long project in summary, followed by a heartfelt but ultimately shallow explanation of Plotz’s own perspective. After all, isn’t it ironic that a book about exploration, curiosity, and risk-taking would end with words like “I don’t,” “I won’t”, and “I can’t”?  The cost is too great.  An old story.

And, closer to home: how often is this approach true of me?  I pray that through Grace I would be more willing to daily sacrifice myself and humbly submit to His ways.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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