“Jericho marches” took place across at state capitols. Getty Image
Thirty-one percent of white evangelicals believe the Q-Anon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump was “secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” Did I read that correctly? Thirty-one percent is not a majority, but it is a significant minority.
The same survey found that 74 percent of white evangelicals also thought that Donald Trump had won the election. Sixty-seven percent thought that the “Deep State” had been working to undermine Trump’s presidency and 60 percent thought that Antifa, the anti-fascist group, was responsible for the violence at the Capitol insurrection on January 6. These positions have been consistent among evangelical Christians for the past six months in various surveys.
I would be inclined to call such opinions delusional if so many people did not think this way. How do we explain people holding such counterfactual positions?
A Trump supporter carries a placard depicting Jesus in a MAGA hat. Wikipedia
Some common answers do not work: such people are crazy or stupid or they drank the Kool-Aid. Such off-handed remarks dismiss the issue without getting at a cause. Almost surely the causes are multiple and complex.
What is the most important variable? White? Evangelical? Republican? Aggrieved? Sensing a loss of status in an emerging multi-cultural world? Again, the reasons are surely multiple and complex.
The role of the Bible in Christian belief needs to be seriously considered as one cause of this incredulity. The Protestant reformation put the Bible at the center of Protestant Christianity and ever since the fundamentalist movement got started in the late nineteenth century, conservative Christians have viewed the Bible as inerrant and infallible. This belief is sometimes called bibliolatry.
Bibliolatry plays out in two distinct fashions: the Bible becomes a school for ignorance and its actual contents disappear.
A so-called literal understanding of the Bible demands that its meaning be plain, simple, and obvious. Thus, ironically, there is little or no interest in what the Bible actually says or means because that would complicate matters and make its meaning less than obvious, even difficult to fathom. A plain sense Bible mirrors and reinforces one’s own beliefs. It becomes a free-floating, meaning-generating machine.
The Bible itself becomes a talisman, an object of veneration and worship. It is not what’s between the covers of the Bible that counts, but the cover itself. The conversion of the “Holy Writings” into “the Bible” gives these writings a unity that they do not actually possess.
We need a slight detour to sort this out. “The Bible” is a late medieval Christian creation. “Bible” derives from the Greek word ta biblia, meaning “the books” (plural, the plural is important). The original usage was Jewish in reference to the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Holy Writings. Much later, the phrase, “the Books,” or, better, “The Writings,” was taken over by Christians to refer to both the “Old Testament” and the “New Testament,” a distinction which is itself a Christian invention. In late Latin the neuter plural tabiblia (the books) was gradually understood as a feminine singular (the book). This then passed into the European vernaculars as “the Bible,” retaining the feminine gender in both French, La Bible, and German, Die Bibel. In English it became “the Bible,” a single, unified book, not a collection of Holy Writings. (For more details, see my blog “Donald Trump and a Bible”).
Worship of the Bible leads away from an interest in the history of the individual writings that make up the Holy Writings and emphasizes the Bible itself. “The Bible says” implies a unity, a single voice, that the Holy Writings do not possess. It is an ideological unity derived from God as the author imposed upon the Holy Writings to make them THE BIBLE. From this unitary view of the Bible come so-called biblical values, as though the Bible has a single point of view and a single set of values. All of which, by the way, are imposed from the outside. A dehistoricized Bible, a Bible wrenched from its historical context, can mean anything a reader or preacher desires.
Worship of the Bible leads to a devaluing of the Holy Writings. This is evident in the typography of modern evangelical study bibles. In American evangelism the making of the Bible into a talisman has carried on apace, as Timothy Beal has shown in his fascinating book, The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book. In his close examination of evangelical Bible guides Beal shows how the actual text of the Bible is printed in old-fashioned typeface and often in King James English, which is hardly intelligible today. The old-fashioned typeface signals that the Bible is old, venerable, and sacred. It is surrounded by commentary in modern English and modern typeface. Commentary (read “conservative ideology”) has replaced the Writings themselves.
All this worship of the Bible in the end leads to an over evaluation of the Book itself, while having little concern for the Holy Writings. The particularity of the Holy Writings disappears in a myopia of false unity.
A School for Ignorance
The second aspect of bibliolatry threatens democratic and civic life. The need to support an inerrant and infallible Bible trains a believer to ignore or deny whole bodies of fact. Such a denial lies at the very heart of bibliolatry and is, in many ways, its cause.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the discovery of fossils and then the many layers of the earth’s crust, revealed by railroad cuts through hills, made it increasingly evident that the earth was much older than a literal reading of Genesis would indicate. It was not the discovery of the fossils or the evident layering in the railroad cuts that presented the problem, but the interpretation of these facts. It became evident that fossils represent old species that had gone extinct. Extinction proved problematic because God’s creation was supposed to be perfect. If it was perfect, how could it go extinct? To solve this problem, believers in Genesis had to come up with a theory of multiple independent creations. The layering revealed by railroad cuts indicated that creation could not have been accomplished in seven days but took millions of years. Paleontology and geology delivered a one-two punch to a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Fossils: A challenge to the literal understanding of the Bible. Getty Image.
Matters soon got worse. Darwin’s theory of descent by evolution only exacerbated the problem. The story of Adam and Eve became problematic, as well as human uniqueness. Genesis became the core of the problem for biblical inerrancy and infallibility, posing a choice between Genesis as an interpretation of reality and the scientific interpretation of those facts. That contest has not budged since modern science first challenged Genesis as an explanation for the world’s origin. The problem was cast as an either/or and has remained that way. Science has advanced to ever greater sophistication and power, while bibliolatry has remained frozen in place. (Philip Kitcher’s Living with Darwin is the best short and simple explanation of this that I have read.)
In a democracy, training citizens to reject the correct interpretation of facts is dangerous, a point well made by Sam Harris in the first chapter of his book The End of Faith. Bibliolatry is a major component of the epistemological crisis in which we find ourselves. As a society we no longer know what constitutes a fact, what is truth. Everything appears up for grabs because bibliolatry has destroyed our epistemological standards by training a large portion of our society to deny science. For the sake of society, the logic goes, religion needs to be on the right side.
Churches Response to Science
The western Christian churches have largely fumbled their relationship to science. The Catholic church was first off the block in its trial of Galileo. Protestant Christianity dropped the ball in its confrontation with Darwin, first in England with the Oxford debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley (1860), and then in the United States at the Scopes Monkey trial (1925).
The Scopes Monkey Trial Gets Underway.
It did not need to be that way. Genesis is not a scientific explanation of facts, but a cosmological myth, like many similar cosmological myths from the ancient world. I find a strong irony here. A genuinely literal reading of Genesis would see it as a cosmological myth. That’s what it is. As such, it tells a wondrous and powerful story of an ancient people’s effort to come to terms with the world’s meaning, a question that all peoples must ask. As such, it still has value. But the so-called literal reading of Genesis makes a category mistake about the genre of Genesis, taking it as “scientific” and not myth, and so misreads Genesis. Truth comes in various guises, something that bibliolatry cannot tolerate.
That various Christianities would have trouble with modern science is understandable. Religion serves a valuable, inherently conserving role in society. But Christianity placed truth in a divinely revealed past. When its revelation was proven wrong, Christianity naturally reacted in a defensive fashion. But Christianity did not need to pull up the drawbridge and arm the ramparts. In other situations, Christianity had faced new sciences and had adapted. Early Christianity faced the challenge of Neo-platonism, which challenged its Jewish roots, and it not only survived but produced the magnificent synthesis of Augustine. Likewise, in the medieval period, when new learning from the Arab world arrived in the form of a recovery of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas produced his own synthesis. Western Christianities have found it much more difficult to respond to the challenges posed by modern science because those challenges are deeper and require a more radical reformulation of religion, a reformulation that looks not to the past but the future.
The centrality of the Bible in Christianity needs to be rethought. It is one of our sources, not the only source. The particularity of the Holy Writings must replace the ideological unity of THE BIBLE. But most important, we must face up to our responsibility in making the Bible a school for ignorance. This has put our democracy at stake. Liberal Christianity cannot shift the blame to evangelicals and fundamentalists alone. In various ways, we have participated in this school for ignorance by not fully coming clean and insisting on an historical understanding of the Holy Writings. The task is huge, the crisis is real, and we are perhaps only at the beginning of the birth pangs (Mark 13:8).
Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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