One instance I would brush off — particularly coming from MSNBC — but when I see two in one day, I wonder if I’m seeing a new narrative from the anti-Christian left. That narrative is that Christians aren’t being true to the Bible, because of biblical illiteracy.
To be sure: it’s true that Christians, being sinners, are not true to the Bible. It’s also true that biblical literacy, even among Christians, is nowhere near where it ought to be. (I include myself in that generalization.) And it’s even true that Christians would be more true to the Bible if they were better familiar with it.
All that said, the thesis of these two pieces is that the practices and beliefs of Christians are contraindicated by the Bible, which Christians would know if they were only more biblically literate. That thesis is wholly unsupported by the evidence the two pieces are able to muster.
First, there’s MSNBC, which had a piece attacking Sarah Palin because she has a Christmas tree. (Seriously, you hate Sarah Palin so you go after her through her Christmas tree?! Bizarre.) Now it’s true that the Christmas tree, like many of our modern Christmas traditions, is not Biblical, and some Christians have chosen to eschew them for that reason. But MSNBC is trying to make a different point, claiming that the Bible actually forbids them.
As their proof text, MSNBC cites “Jeremiah 10-10”. So right off the bat, they’re doing a poor job at feigning biblical literacy; less significantly by using a hyphen in the scripture reference in place of a colon, but more significantly because the passage they go on to quote is actually Jeremiah 10:3-5, which begins:
For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because the cannot walk.
Superficially, this sounds sort of like a Christmas tree: a tree adorned with silver and gold. But to make that interpretation work, you have to ignore the part about shaping it with a chisel. That makes it clear that the passage is talking about fashioning a wooden idol, which the final sentence makes explicit. (Isaiah 40:20 has a similar description of a wooden idol.)
I hadn’t heard this particular notion before, but apparently it’s been out there for some time. Billy Graham even has a web page rebutting it. (Via Newsbusters.) As long as you’re not worshiping the tree as an idol, you’re okay, and the tree can even have some positive symbolism.
So MSNBC runs this piece attacking Sarah Palin’s religious practices — and, in passing, everyone who gets a Christmas tree — but doesn’t think to verify the Bible reference they cite, or do the slightest amount of research to determine if their thesis holds any water.
Second, is a piece at Alternet (a left-wing site similar to Daily Kos but with greater pretense to journalism and scholarship), the thesis of which is that “the right” (by which he apparently means Christian conservatives) are biblically illiterate, or they wouldn’t hold the views they do:
Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly defended the Republican Party’s spending cuts for SNAP by effectively declaring Jesus would not support food stamps for the poor because most them are drug addicts. If his insensitive remark is inconsistent with Scripture, which it is, then the question becomes why do talking heads on the right get away with proclaiming what Jesus would or wouldn’t support?
The answer is simple: Conservatives have not read the Bible.
I don’t know what Bill O’Reilly actually said. The piece doesn’t link him, which is an indication that the author is probably not quoting him fairly. The weasel-word “effectively” is another indication. Moreover, O’Reilly is not known as a Christian conservative. So let’s leave O’Reilly out of it and focus on the evidence the piece manages to muster.
The piece rambles a lot. There’s some weak argument about how Jesus’s actual positions lend themselves more to liberalism than conservatism (he is entitled to his opinion). It quotes some some poll results, which, like all polls on questions of fact, are dismaying. But, being a poll of Americans in general, it doesn’t tell us much about the biblical illiteracy of Christian conservatives. There’s some general libel about how conservatives killed Jesus and are also like Nazis. And there’s an attack on the Koch brothers, which I guess is de rigeur for a leftist screed these days.
The meat of the argument, such as it is, is this:
For instance, when Republicans were justifying their cuts to the food stamp program, they quoted 2 Thessalonians: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” One poll showed that more than 90 percent of Christians believe this New Testament quote is attributed to Jesus. It’s not. This was taken from a letter written by Paul to his church in Thessalonica. Paul wrote to this specific congregation to remind them that if they didn’t help build the church in Thessalonica, they wouldn’t be paid. The letter also happens to be a fraud. Surprise! Biblical scholars agree it’s a forgery written by someone pretending to be Paul.
Let’s just take all this in order: I don’t know any Republican who actually said that in regard to food stamps, but never mind that. I don’t believe that 90% of Christians attribute that verse to Jesus, but I do believe that 90% of Christians view the New Testament as divinely inspired whether it’s in red letter or not (2Ti 3:16).
2 Thessalonians 3:7(b)-10 reads:
We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
There’s no textual support here whatsoever for the proposition that Paul was talking about paying for church construction.
And what about the supposed fakery of the book? The statement that biblical scholars agree it’s a forgery is simply a lie. In fact, although some have questioned Pauline authorship (due to differences in style and eschatology from Paul’s other writings), most agree that Paul did write it. (Certainly all don’t agree that he didn’t!) And if he didn’t, it easily could have been written by Silas or Timothy, who are listed as the epistle’s co-authors.
Furthermore, note the construction: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule.” This is something Paul had already said before. Even if the book were a fake, it is quoting an earlier statement that Paul did make; if he hadn’t, the book never could have fooled the church at Thessalonica.
Moreover, even if we were to throw out 2 Thessalonians, what about 1 Thessalonians 4:11? It reads:
Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.
This is a similar message to 2Th 3:7-10, and the authenticity of 1 Thessalonians is unquestioned even by progressives.
The piece is strange, and fundamentally dishonest, because the author (one CJ Werleman) feigns to decry biblical illiteracy, while in fact he hates the bible. He is a militant atheist with his very own book in the the-bible-is-full-of-lies-and-atrocities genre that is so popular with militant atheists. And he can’t hide his animus in the piece, producing bits like this:
The best argument against a historical Jesus is the fact that none of his disciples left us with a single record or document regarding Jesus or his teachings. So, who were the gospel writers? The short answer is we don’t know. What we do know is that not only had none of them met Jesus, but also they never met the people who had allegedly met Jesus.
This is entirely untrue. Matthew and John were Jesus’s disciples. Luke never met Jesus, but travelled with Paul, who did. The authorship of Mark is not certain, but the early church universally believed it was written by John Mark, an associate of Peter. Furthermore, many believe that the young man of Mark 14:51 was the author (otherwise its inclusion is hard to explain), which would make him an eyewitness. So at least two and possibly three of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and all four are written by people who met the apostles.
Of course, some of these facts are contested by progressive theologians, but adopting the well-supported, traditional view hardly constitutes biblical illiteracy.
In our modern political discourse, there are few things so tedious as people who don’t believe something (e.g., the truth of the Bible, or libertarianism), and don’t understand it, lecturing those who do believe on what that belief should imply. Not only do they fail to understand the nuances of those views, and they frequently fail to understand that there even are nuances.
But the point isn’t to convince the believers, it’s to attack them. Do they care if Sarah Palin has a Christmas tree? No. Do they care what Christian conservatives believe? Yes, but they don’t expect it to change, and they’re certainly not trying to change it here. But they do want people to hate Sarah Palin, and Christian conservatives, like they do.