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January 18, 2007

The Bible as history-6: The Bible as propaganda tool

(For the earlier posts in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.)

Few people read the Bible cover to cover. That is understandable. For one thing, it is very long. Second, the language is hard to follow. Third, it can be quite confusing with lots of characters and places involved, even more so than a Tolstoy novel. Fourth, interspersed with the stories are huge and boring chunks that are of two kinds: one consists of sequences of 'begats', which trace the genealogy of people, and the other consist of rules that god has said that people should live by.

So while the Bible is the best selling book of all time, it is also probably the least read. It is kind of like the religious equivalent of Steven Hawking's A Brief History of Time.

One can see why current religious leaders are less than enthusiastic about publicizing the actual historical record of the Bible and prefer to keep people believing the Biblical myths. After all, three of the major religions of the world, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, all draw inspiration from these same set of now-discredited stories and draw their lineage and even their sense of identity from them. To lose them is to have their followers go through a fairly excruciating re-evaluation of self-identity and about what they can believe and not believe in the Bible.

One of the puzzling things about the faith of those who do not take the Bible literally is the basis for their choice about what to believe and what not to believe. It can be argued that if the authors of the Bible can make up stories about god doing all kinds of fantastic things like making the Sun stand still, parting the seas, rising from the dead, the exodus, and so forth, haven't they pretty much ceded their right to be taken at face value on anything? Why should we take their word for other things? This problem becomes even more acute when, as the previous posts in this series showed, even those events that are not miracles but supposedly simply a bland recounting of history are also revealed to be fiction.

In fact, this is the problem for any modern person. Once you concede that any portion of the Bible may not be correct, you have to confront the decision of where to draw the line at reinterpreting its message.

The established religions have tried to draw a fine line between an unchanging Bible and modern sensibilities by 'closing the canon' at some point, by decreeing that the books that they selected as authoritative were the final revelations of god, not to be tinkered with any further. The Jewish canon was closed around 200 CE while the Christian canon was closed later.

This is why the Bible is not like an encyclopedia, subject to periodic revisions, with discredited stuff being omitted and new material added. Doing so would dilute the supposed timelessness of the message and open up endless and acrimonious debates about what should be included.

But at the same time, the religious establishments have informally allowed people to reinterpret Biblical passages to take into account modern scientific analysis. So in some sense, while they have officially closed the canon, they have unofficially opened it again. This is what has resulted in the many diverse religious denominations and sects within the mainstream religions, each interpreting the Bible in its own way but all claiming to follow the same religion.

But not all are pleased with this freedom to pick through the Bible to find an interpretation that suits you. This is seen, quite rightly, as detracting from the more powerful idea of the Bible as the unerring, unchanging word of god. One can thus understand the appeal of religious fundamentalism. Life becomes very simple of you believe that your religious text was directly written or at least dictated by god, that it is infallible and true in every detail however slight. If one turns one's face against all modern scientific and historical analysis, then there are no pesky contradictions to deal with. Any contradiction with the Bible is a problem for the other sources of knowledge, not for the Bible or one's faith.

But even for the Biblical literalists there lurks danger within the Bible itself, which explains why even fundamentalists do not tend to read the Bible very closely.

Next: The danger of too much information.

POST SCRIPT: Beyond parody

Some political commentators are so completely wacky that they don't even know when their legs are being pulled and thus they get dragged into stranger and stranger territory. Watch Stephen Colbert having fun with Dinesh D'Souza (author of a new book The enemy at home: The cultural left and its responsibility for 9/11), getting him to agree that FDR (yes, FDR!) was partly responsible for 9/11 and that in the current wars, liberal Americans are on one side, and terrorists and conservative Americans are on the other.

The first part of Colbert's interview is here and should be immediately followed by the second part.

If the second part does not load automatically, click below

People like D'Souza not only have no sense of how to interpret history, drawing far-fetched links between Yalta and Afghanistan, they don't even have a sense of humor, making them perfect patsies for Colbert's brilliant interviewing skills. D'Souza comes across as a total doofus.

Alan Wolfe reviewing D'Souza's book says "Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible."

I wonder about people like D'Souza and Ann Coulter. Is there no bottom to the levels of idiocy that they can sink to, no end to the stupidity or even hatefulness that they can utter? Aren't they embarrassed to say things that are so obviously crazy? Or is it that they can depend on a core of supporters, and more importantly, financial backers, who are willing to provide them with a platform come what may?

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