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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

In the beginning... (or, read me first)

So, I'm reading the Bible, and blogging about it. I'm sure it's been done before, though I don't have time to check by whom or how many. After all, I'm a rock musician, a perhaps-soon-to-be novelist, a husband, dog-walker, dish-washer, and oh yeah--forty hours a week, I'm an editorial assistant. This will likely be a long-term project.

So why am I reading the Bible and blogging about it? Let's start with the second part of the question.

In addition to the above list, I am a Discordian, a Buddhist, and an agnostic. You can be all three--I checked. I was raised in a Baptist church, in a Baptist household. I was fed Bible verses and stories out of sequence and out of context for quite some time, and at the age of twelve I walked away. I am probably the youngest person I know to look Baptist dogma in the eye and determine it wasn't for me, a fact I've shared with some pride for a while.

As a result of this personal history, nearly everyone I know fits into one of two categories. There are the biblical literalists, comprising my family, my wife's family, countless generations before them, and pretty much everyone they voluntarily associate with on a regular basis. Post-faith-loss, there are the atheists, close friends all, who believe that the Bible is wholly or in large part bogus, a book full of quaint morals mixed with abominable policies, all in all irrelevant to their lives.

Somewhere in the middle is me, which brings me to the first part of that first question. I'm reading the Bible because I'm curious.

A few Wikipedia searches brought me the knowledge that there exists a modern translation of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, prepared by an ecumenical council including at least one real live Jew. The motto of this group was "as literal as possible, as free as necessary," and the result is a readable but precise version of the Scriptures, as nearly as I can tell thus far. Furthermore, it incorporates the latest (and oldest) manuscripts, which ensure the highest possible degree of accuracy. Further furthermore, Oxford University Press, a publisher with which I am familiar and in which I trust in pretty much all scholarly matters, has an edition (look for it here if you'd like to read along), annotated, prefaced, and including those mysterious deuterocanonical/apocryphal books I've always heard about but never read any part of.

If such a version existed, by golly, it was my duty to read it. After all, divinely inspired or not, no one can really argue against the Bible's status as the book with the most prominent role in shaping our modern western society.

So here's what I hope to accomplish with this blog. I am a guy with at least a minor in English (exactly a minor, to be more precise), and someone who has read a fair amount of literature of both the antiquated and modern varieties. I possess a critical eye, and almost no agenda--that is to say, naturally, I start the reading with some preconceived notions, but I'm doing my best to lay them aside as I progress.

I shall be inviting people in both of the above categories to share in this project with me, and asking frequently for clarification regarding the historical context of the passages I read. I shall be giving my impressions of each book as I read it, and welcoming commentary from anyone who cares to offer it. I'd like to provide jumping-off points for discussions between the literalists and the atheists, who all too often either vehemently argue or settle for an uneasy silence when they meet, and everyone in between.

Perhaps the most important thing for readers to know before we start the long main event is the baseline understanding with which I'm setting forth. The Hebrew Bible, which I will henceforth refer to by its more familiar, if somewhat derogatory, name, the Old Testament or OT, is a history, written by the timelessly oppressed Jewish people, of both their forebears and the God who has brought them safe thus far. The New Testament was written by early Christians to explain the life and significance of Jesus, their Christ, and to convert whoever reads it. Christian salvation relies solely on the believer's belief that (a) the historical Jesus was God's son, (b) he died for mankind's sins and came back to life, and (c) he currently resides in Heaven, accepting anyone who believes (a) and (b).

As you will quickly learn, I don't believe that a subpoint (d), "the Bible is true in every word," belongs on that list--but like everything you read here, this will be open for discussion. Thanks for joining me.

7 Comments:

Blogger Jen H. said...

So if you read the Wikipedia Article, then you also read about the controversy associated with the NRSV. You cunningly avoided that in your Beginning blog. The NRSV is widely rejected by evangelical protestants (myself included), and accepted by only the most liberal denominations. This is a problem for your "biblical literalist" category of readers. It comes as no surprise that the NRSV is the #1 version quoted by other faiths to 'prove' that Jesus does not fulfill the OT prophecy, because it changes KEY words that point to Jesus as the Messiah. I work with a Jew and a Muslim whose only valid arguments come from the use of the NRSV, which I immediately discount.

The English Standard Version is the one used at my church. It was published, I believe, as a response to the NRSV. It acknowledged and kept some of the translation improvements made by the NRSV, but de-liberalized it by taking out the feminist influence, bungled key phrase translations, and Deuterocanonical books which are not believed by conservatives to be inspired by God, but rather informational.

I'm glad to hear you're reading the Bible and look forward to keeping up with your progress and commentary, but I'm a little skeptical that you chose the most controversial translation out there.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I think this is a wonderful project. I'd just like to take a second to RSVP, as it were, and to introduce myself to any of your other participants who may not know me.

My name is Joe, and I'm personally associated with our host because we went to high school together (and are also very good friends). I, too, was raised in the Christian faith. My family attended mostly Methodist churches, although for about a year following one move to a particularly rustic stretch of land, we attended a Baptist church for lack of anything better. During my early adolescence, I was baptized, confirmed, and also became a member of my church. It was during this time that I last read the Bible from one cover to the other, though I have consulted specific verses since.
I am now very firmly an atheist, by which I mean that my mind is positively made up on the matter. I don't make a point of pushing that particular viewpoint, though. I think many Christians are just dandy. Oh, and speaking of dandy, I'm also homosexual. If we're going to be debating philosophy, I want to make it clear that my lapse from the church and my lapse into sodomy are not related to one another. That is, I don't CHOOSE not to be Christian because it is difficult for my lifestyle. With that out of the way, I'm also 27, a college graduate, and gainfully (if underwhelmingly) employed. I look forward to being whatever help I can to this project as it takes shape.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Minix said...

Although I am neither an atheist nor a fundamentalist, I also think this is a neat idea. I look forward to responding to posts, as time permits. Actually, I am spending part of the summer studying the Bible academically (as one part of a series of exams that I have to take over the coming months) and so this new blog should fit in nicely with that particular project.

To give another brief introduction: My name is Matt (although many of my friends refer to me by my last name, Minix) and I went to high school with both Chris and Joe. As both of them will attest, I was a practicing Catholic through out high school. And, all these years later, I am still a practicing Catholic. Go figure, huh?

My high school experience actually helped convince me that I needed to study the Bible and Catholic tradition more academically. So my undergraduate degree was in religious studies and philosophy from Indiana University. I later received an MA in theology from St. Meinrad, a Catholic seminary and monastery in southern Indiana, while I was working for a parish in Martinsville, IN. Currently, I am studying for a Ph.D. in theology (with an emphasis on the American Catholic intellectual tradition) at the University of Dayton.

To comment on the discussion of the NRSV- my favorite translation is actually the RSV:Catholic Edition. As has already been pointed out, the NRSV translation does sacrifice some accuracy for the sake of political correctness- and that should be noted. Now, for the most part, I consider that sacrifice to be pretty minimal- and I have often used the NRSV in academic courses through the years, especially at IU. So I do think it is about as good a translation as any for you to use- although it might be worth looking at another translation for specific passages- if a particular "inaccuracy" is pointed out to you.

I would like to close with a very brief consideration of genre and canonicity. In my opinion, the Bible makes a lot more sense if the different books are looked at as different texts, written for different purposes. Furthermore, the various texts should be properly recognized as belonging to different genres, each of which have their own rules and purposes. I would argue that "Bible verses" should not be isolated from their original context and turned into propositional statements, because this can tragically confuse their proper meaning.

More can be said about this at a later date, but my initial point is that the dicotomy that Chris describes in his own experience- between fundamentalism and atheism- is not a necessary one. Atheism based upon a rejection of the excesses of fundamentalism is common, but genuine fundamentalism is actually only a very small segment within the larger Christian tradition. The books of the Bible were brought together into a canon for the purpose of liturgical worship (first for the synagogues and later for the Christian liturgies) and that is the context in which their meaning ought to be understood.

10:05 AM  
Blogger MENBAH! said...

Well said, Minix. I know there's a lot of space between "all of this is true" and "none of this is true," and I'm looking for my slice, as it were. I'm also thoroughly tired of verses used out of context as maxims, but I want to give the text a chance to speak for itself before I ignore it forever.

I don't know about the NSRV vis-a-vis Jesus' role in the prophecy, but my understanding is that the gender-pluralizing of pronouns is done only in places where it makes sense in context. That could be the translators covering themselves, but that's why I have another translation available. (:

7:53 PM  
Blogger MENBAH! said...

...or NRSV. I even used the preview button.

7:54 PM  
Anonymous Mom R said...

I am thankful that you are doing this project and I'm keeping tabs on your blog's process. I have never "blogged" before, so I'll be doing it slowly. I'm also thankful that you will be keeping a KJV handy and encourage you to compare the NRSV with it. In fact, why not read it and compare the NRSV to it? There are many reasons I could go into, but let it suffice to say that I've studied the versions enough to believe that there is a huge difference in the KJV and the rest. You're putting a lot into this project, why not go the next step and do it thoroughly?
-MomR

3:41 AM  
Blogger MENBAH! said...

On balance, Elizabethan English is a chore to get through. Seriously, "Hamlet" is one of my favorite plays, and it's way way shorter than the Bible, and still I haven't read it since college.

Also, I don't think "thoroughly" is the word you're looking for. To do the project thoroughly, I'd need to learn a lot of languages that I totally don't want to know.

11:38 AM  

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