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YouTube: “Sam Harris Interpreting Scripture”

Let’s take a look at a YouTube clip (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27pDmWOO73c) with atheist Sam Harris discussing the Bible’s relevance and veracity in modern times. More than other extreme atheists, I can respect Harris’ willingness to concede certain points or to at least maintain an air of respect toward believers during debates and interviews. He might be mocking us inwardly, but at least he has manners, which I think is conducive to understanding.

So per usual, I will quote from the video and comment with my thoughts. I will obviously be approaching it from the Christian/biblical perspective. I’ll try to touch upon all of the main points.

0:04: “Do atheists take a literalist approach to scripture?”

Harris, 0:08: “Well, this is a common criticism: the idea that the atheist is guilty of a literalist reading of scripture, no better than the reading of fundamentalists. It’s a very naive way of approaching religion, and there’s a far more sophisticated and nuanced view of religion on offer and the atheist is disregarding that.”

I’d pretty much agree, though I don’t think we can wholly blame atheists alone. Interpreting scripture can be a tricky thing and it takes people a lifetime of study to grasp it better (but still not perfectly). With our finite minds, all we can do is try our best.

What irks me, however, is that a lot of people encounter something difficult in the Bible and write it off immediately, as if they have figured it all out with just a glance. A lot of things that seem off or contradictory could actually be cleared up with the slightest bit of research and the tiniest crack of openness.

Harris, 0:32: “…few problems with this. First is, anyone making that argument is failing to acknowledge just how many people really do approach these texts literally or functionally, whether they’re selective literalists or literal all the way down the line, there are certain passages in scripture that just cannot be read figuratively.”

Yes, a lot of people differ on when things are literal, but what does this have to do with the integrity of the Bible itself? Here’s the best part of this quote, though: “…there are certain passages in scripture that just cannot be read figuratively.”

Does Sam Harris presume to know which is which with absolute certainty? How did he come to this level of expertise in the Bible? Perhaps he can shed some light onto theologians who have been wrestling with interpretation for many years. Even if something is literal and happens to be unsavory, that doesn’t rule out taking things into context and exploring the deeper, true meaning of certain passages. Sorry for speaking in generalities for now, but I’ll get more specific as he does.

Harris, 1:13: “It’s true that you can cherry-pick scripture and you can look for all the good parts and ignore what it says in Leviticus that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night, you’re supposed to stone her to death on her father’s doorstep. You can ignore that and, to my knowledge, all Jews and Christians do ignore that….most religious people ignore those passages, which really can only be read literally, and say that ‘oh, they were only appropriate for the time and they don’t apply now.”

There are two funny things to this quote. First of all, if anyone is culpable of cherry-picking, it’s Sam Harris. Almost any debate or interview you see with him in it will have a guaranteed reference to Leviticus or Numbers in them. It’s like clockwork. He’ll ignore all the good parts and focus on the difficult, troubling sections as a way to strengthen his argument.

Second, I think it’s funny that Harris knows the answer to his qualms about Leviticus—i.e., they are not appropriate for today—but chooses to brush it off. It’s not some convenient tactic we Christians are using, it’s very obvious why some points in Leviticus no longer apply. Jesus came to us and basically unbound us from the legalism and strict rules Jews needed to follow in order to be “righteous.” The “wages of sin” are no longer death because of Christ’s victory over sin. He gave us salvation that is apart from works, and we are in a different spiritual era.

There is a strange but common misconception that the entire Bible is supposed to be directly applicable to everyone’s lives in the 21st century. Why is this? A lot of the Old Testament is supposed to serve as history and background information. When we are told the age at which someone died, that is not meant to change our behavior or shape our personalities. All the rules in Leviticus don’t apply directly to us anymore in the modern age, but it serves to show us what we would be bound to (almost impossible standards) apart from Christ. The sensuality in “Song of Songs” is intended for married couples and wouldn’t be appropriate for children. We need to get it out of our heads that either everything applies or nothing does. This is a gross simplification and oversight on the part of bible critics.

Harris, 2:10–4:36: [He goes on to describe some current state of affairs, human rights, ways modernism trumps scripture. Then he offers an example in the mother of the Virginia Tech shooter taking her son to religious leaders who performed an exorcism on him rather than taking him to a psychologist. In his view, modern science and knowledge would have been superior to appealing to God.]

I don’t have a lot to say on a lot of current events because frankly, I’m just not that informed or involved. But I think human rights activists would be foolish to ignore the profound influence the Bible has had in ingraining into us the importance and dignity of every human being. The Bible espouses love and fair treatment, and did so during a time and culture of great inequality. If modernism seems somehow more “advanced” than the Bible, it’s only because it used the Bible as a step ladder to get to where it is today. But I would maintain that modernism isn’t more advanced anyway, just more specific and catered to our current culture. I would agree that in some ways, the Bible is more general and broad.

As far as Harris’ example of the Virginia Tech shooting, I have a few things to mention. It’s simply not accurate to imply that Seung-Hui Cho, the shooter, was only brought to an exorcist for his obvious issues. Mental health professionals tried to reach him, but he basically denied everything and refused treatment. It wasn’t for lack of availability of modern psychology (painted as a sort of regrettably bypassed hero in Harris’ illustration) that Cho succumbed to his evil intentions.

More importantly, I think this whole idea of religion and God failing to prove effective is misinformed. There is another widespread misconception in popular culture that ALL evil stems from Satan and his demons. While the devil may poke and prod people in a certain direction—and he is enormously clever in deceiving us into doing wrong—that doesn’t remove all responsibility from us human agents. There are a number of reasons Cho might have been inclined to murder, and it’s not something an exorcist could necessarily fix. The root of the problem may have been Cho’s personal inclinations and environmental shaping. Plus, what’s to say that a psychologist would have been able to fix the problem? Are they suddenly 100% effective?

While we humans are spiritually helpless without God’s grace, as I have said in the past, we are not his pets. We have generally been given the ability to feed ourselves, figure out some of our own problems, and to appeal to medicine and psychology. We have been given the gift of discovery and invention, and I think God appreciates the efforts of hard-working doctors and researchers who help people. Contrary to skeptics’ belief, God is not a dictator who runs every aspect of our daily lives with an iron fist.

4:38: “Is it possible God was speaking in metaphors?”

Harris, 4:41: “Let’s just grant the possibility that there is a creator God who is omniscient who occasionally authors books. And He’s going to give us a book—the most useful book, he’s a loving God, he’s a compassionate God—and he’s going to give us a guide into life. He’s got a scribe, the scribe’s going to write it down. What’s going to be in that book? I mean, just think of how good a book would be if it were authored by an omniscient deity. There is not a single line in the Bible or the Qur’an that could not have been authored by a first century person.

I beg to differ, and I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re going to read the whole thing wrong, then of course you’re going to miss its grandness and uniqueness. More than ever, I am continually amazed by the words of the Bible as they speak to me. They seem to come alive and dig into deep heart issues like no other book I’ve ever read. The teachings of Jesus far surpass the very best that philosophy has to offer.

I admit, there was a large chunk of my life when the Bible sometimes felt old, dusty, and boring. (Heck, for most of my life, I found politics and history incredibly dull as well.) But as I grew in emotional and spiritual maturity, my eyes were opened to the inspiration of the word of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18 anticipates this perfectly: “The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God.”

As I read the Bible today, I find myself constantly marveling at it. The power of God can be seen in those pages if you trade in the spiritual blindfold for a nice pair of spiritual glasses. Remember when those old “Magic Eye” books were popular? They would have pages of jumbled images in them, but if you looked at them just right, you’d see a cool 3D image. Some people just couldn’t see it no matter what…

In my opinion, there is no way anyone (let alone multiple authors over centuries) in ancient times could have made up such profound and consistent truths. Some books today that seem to resemble or surpass the Bible in truth might be unwittingly using some of the scripture’s truth as a base and catering its message to a more specific audience (i.e., modern society). Christian teachings have permeated cultures around the world so greatly that it’s impossible to separate it out from mainstream thinking today.

Harris, 5:32: “There’s nothing about electricity, there’s nothing about DNA, there’s nothing about the principles of infectious disease. There’s nothing particularly useful, and there’s a lot of iron age barbarism in there and superstition. This is not a candidate book. I mean, I can go into any Barnes and Nobles blindfolded and pull a book off the shelf which is going to have more relevance, more wisdom, for the 21st century, than the Bible or the Qur’an.”

Did God not create us with inquisitive and creative minds to discover things for ourselves? Is the Bible supposed to teach us about technology? How about insights into fixing engines or leaky faucets? Why not? That would seem pretty darn useful to me.

A mechanic might find a automotive manual more “relevant” to his everyday life, but how does that prove that it’s more important and containing more wisdom? How exactly is this supposed to detract from the Bible?

The Bible does not claim to have every important fact for us to live by. It does not claim to teach us or warn us about every future possibility. But what it does claim to do is teach us about the nature of God. It also tells us how to find salvation and ensure our eternal destiny in heaven, saving ourselves from utter destruction. But yea, I guess that’s not really “useful,” right?

Harris, 6:08: “I mean, it’s really not an exaggeration. Every one of our specific sciences has superseded and surpassed the wisdom of scripture from cosmology to psychology to economics. We know more about ourselves than anyone writing the Bible or the Qur’an did, and that is a distinctly inconvenient fact for anyone wanting to believe that this book was dictated by their creator of the universe.”

Let’s not forget that much of what we know about ourselves today was kick-started by the Bible anyway. Give credit where credit is due, and that’d be a modest start.

There’s nothing “distinctly inconvenient” about any of Harris’ points. The Bible does what it sets out to do, and it succeeds with flying colors. It gives us the word of God that can be understood and digested by simple and learned minds alike. It tells us truths about love and human dignity in ways that do not go obsolete. It clearly and unambiguously shows us the way to save ourselves from perishing…

…but it has nothing to say about the economic laws of supply and demand. =( Phooey.

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  1. April 1, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Your response to Sam Harris’ trenchant arguments is great as long as it wasn’t intended to to be an argument for how he was in any way wrong.

    You’ve basically written that you disagree with him, without ever explaining what logic lead to your arriving at that disagreement.

    The bible problem is bigger than an omniscient deity’s failures demonstrate omniscience. It’s morally beleaguered too. The book is great at recycling tenets from religions that came before it (e.g. Zoroastrianism, Confucianism, Paganism, Hellenism, and Judaism to name a few), but then it gets the basic moral problem of owning slaves wrong when it details how to care for them.

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