Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Robert Price: Is the Bible Mein Kampf?

I listen to Point of Inquiry's podcast regularly, and a recent episode wasn't the usual interview format, but a lecture given by host Robert Price, a professor at Colemon Theological Seminary.

Price begins with a scenario imagining what if the texts of Homer had as large an influence as the Bible does today in the United States, if there were large groups of people who insisted that the texts of Homer must be taken literally, and that we ought to base our legal and societal structures on the Illiad and the Odyssey.

Of course, Price continues, classicist Greek scholars would roundly object to such a narrow literalist interpretation of Homer's epics. But neither would they want to throw out the poems as valueless barbarisms in the effort to staunch the foolish attempts to apply Homeric wisdom to our daily lives. Rather, the scholars who most appreciate ancient Greek texts would do so because of the richness and value in them, "warts and all."

Price goes on to maintain that "new atheists" and other modern-day religious skeptics are doing the same with the Bible. In an attempt to counter the overweaning influence of Biblical literalists who want to forcefully apply ancient Jewish texts on a modern society, the opponents of biblical literalism are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Price maintains that even though the Bible chronicles a barbaric people living in a barbaric age, it also holds flashes of wisdom--not God-given, certainly, but human genius nontheless. As an example, he cites the common disgust toward Jepthah's burned sacrifice of his daughter in exchange for a military victory, but people don't feel the same distaste toward Agamemnon's burned sacrifice of his daughter for the same reason.

Overall, I find some value in what Price is saying. I know one woman who figuratively pulled her hair because on the invoice of an online order she received was a Bible verse, presumably a favorite for the vendor who shipped her the goods. She wailed that she couldn't understand why she had to be subjected to this sort of religous indoctrination when all she wanted was to buy some lotion online or somesuch.

On the other hand, I can't help but wonder if perhaps Price is perhaps tilting the pendulum too far in the other direction. After all, the number of Greek scholars who appreciate the wisdom found in Homer is a tiny, tiny portion of the population at large, whereas the number of Biblical literalists are much larger; those who use biblical arguments to support their political and social policies are even larger, perhaps in the millions. So the comparisons don't exactly match. Parents don't encourage their young children to push through the works of Homer, including the graphic descriptions of violence and superstition, and yet many children of Christian parents has a Bible to take to Sunday School. Some have argued that encouraging children to read the good parts of the Bible and ignore the murders, the incest, and the genocides would be equivalent to encouraging children to read Playboy magazine for the articles.

Likewise, certain websites like the Skeptic's Annotated Bible aren't the villifying enemies of the Bible as Price suggests, for even on that site is a long list of what the editors call Good Stuff, the passages that extol wisdom, peace, humility and virtue.

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