Philip Jenkins

"Why It Is Important to Read the Difficult Parts of the Bible" by Philip Jenkins

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Nov., 16, 2011

Over the past thirty years, Western societies have repeatedly come into conflict with radical Islamist movements, to the point that many Americans regard the faith of Islam as almost synonymous with terrorism. After an atrocity such as the September 11 attacks, Western observers often express concern about the violent and militaristic nature of passages within the Qur’an, and ask whether fanaticism is somehow hard-wired into the faith of Islam. By implication, global terrorism and jihadism can only be solved by a quite fundamental shift in the nature of the religion itself.

Absent though from such discussions is any sense of the still more unforgiving passages that litter the Hebrew Bible, which is also the Christian Old Testament. Many passages quote God as commanding acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and racially-based mass murder.  To take just one example of many, when God orders the conquest of Canaan, he supposedly commands his followers to exterminate the native inhabitants: “You must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” The violence attributed to God in these texts is far more extreme, far more ruthless, than anything that appears in the Qur’an, although those Biblical atrocities spawn nothing like the same outcomes among that book’s devotees.

This in itself is a significant comment on the relationship between the scriptures on which a religion is founded and the ways in which that faith develops through history. To say that terrorists or extremists can find religious texts to justify their acts does not mean that their violence actually grows from those scriptural roots. Indeed, such an assumption itself is based on the crude fundamentalist formulation that everything in a given religion must somehow be authorized in scripture—or that the mere existence of a scriptural text means that its doctrines must shape later history. When Christians or Jews point to violent parts of the Qur’an and suggest that those elements taint the whole religion, they open themselves to the obvious question: what about their own faiths? If the founding text shapes the whole religion, then Judaism and Christianity deserve the utmost condemnation as religions of savagery. Of course, they are no such thing; nor is Islam.

The most striking fact about the violent Biblical passages is not that they exist, but that they have been so utterly forgotten by the vast majority of Christians and Jews, including among devoted Bible-readers. And Western Christians who scarcely know the Bible’s dark passages potentially face real difficulties in their own faith. Although they are not likely to come across these texts in church, they still find them through their own reading or, just as likely today, through hearing the militantly anti-religious attacks of a New Atheist writer, a Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens. When atheist writers point out the alarming texts, contemporary Christians have little effective response, and many are unnerved to find that, yes indeed, God does apparently offer these frightful commands. Believers who ignore their own scriptural realities have no credible basis on which to debate atheists or secularists.

Unless they hear these texts read and discussed, what is an ordinary believer to make of them? The greatest menace is that a modern reader simply dismisses the bloody passages as no more than a primitive substratum of the Bible that has no possible relevance to later eras, and certainly not to Christianity. It thus becomes “just the Old Testament.” In practice, many Christians treat the Old Testament as basically archaeological or historical material, not terribly relevant to the content of the New, creating a Christianity that is thoroughly distorted and unhistorical.

The observation that the Bible contains brutal and unpalatable texts is not new, as these passages have been a commonplace of secularist and anti-religious writers at least since the Enlightenment. I am not interested, though, in using these texts to attack or undermine faith, but rather to develop a mature framework of understanding by which such passages can be absorbed, comprehended, and freely discussed as part of a Christianity that fully acknowledges its Old Testament roots. Above all, I show how individual scriptural texts are incomprehensible except in the context of the historical development and maturing of the monotheistic traditions.

The more Westerners probe the unacceptable portions of the Quran, the more urgent becomes the need to confront the texts of terror in their own heritage.
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