The Bible, Rated X: From Adam’s Snake to the Horny Beast

La_Bête_de_la_Mer

La Bête de la Mer

Article V in a Series About a Book so Important They Called it “The Book”

for JEM, Sammy & The Hovel

Click here for Article I, Article II, Article III and Article IV

In the few months since the X-Rated Bible made its last appearance, Christian fundamentalism has predictably reared its head like so many multi-headed, horny beasts out of an Johannine apocalyptic sea.  It seems that humanity only ever needs a few weeks to raise the question as to whether it deserves its sentience, the hallowed Imago Dei.

At times like these, we are compelled to consider the wisdom of the greatest (and most unlikely) theologian of our age, Woody Allen, whose words burn with prophetic urgency when proclaimed by the great actor Max von Sydow.  Allen actually has more intelligent things to say about God and religion than any preacher I have ever heard.  So if the murdering adulterer King David can be labeled “a man after God’s own heart,” I don’t see why the atheist auteur should be denied an honorary M.Div.

Thus far in the X-Rated Bible series, we have covered—rather, uncovered—everything from Solomonic boob-o-mania to wandering bare-buttocked biblical prophets, from Mr. Jefferson’s denunciation of the miracles of Christ to the Indiana Jones backdrop of biblical manuscript history.

This week, we turn our attention to biblical bookends:  the Beginning (Genesis) and the End (the Apocalypse of St. John, or Revelation).  With this essay, the series arrives full circle with further thoughts on the Bible as a political tool.

If one wants to understand the heart of Christian fundamentalism; the motivation of its leaders; the mindless adherence of its followers; and the vast, nonsensical political movement it inspires, it is critical to note that the religion itself, founded on the life and teachings of Jesus, has been transformed by the Radical Right into a Cult of Cash, Cosmology and Apocalypticism.

In this new branding of anti-intellectual Christianity, the Evangelical chief priests (preachers, politicians and corporate overlords) eschew critical thinking and instead divine mandates for the masses through selective extispicy of Scripture.

This is hardly the first time this has happened in the history of religion.  No matter the religion, when Simple Praxis (caring for the poor, being kind and helping others, the fostering of diversity and environmental balance, etc.) is discarded for a Cult of Knowledge, a Culture of Control always results.  Controlled lives, controlled purse strings, controlled votes.

Goodbye Golden Rule.  Hello Golden Calf.

That’s quite the execration to digest.  Moreover, what does it have to do with the Book of Genesis and Revelation?  Let’s spend a few paragraphs breaking it down.

The Bible: “What is Truth?”

One of the most dramatic dialogue exchanges in the Bible is between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman prefect of Judaea (John 18).  (For those who discount the Bible as “a text of fairy tales,” you may wish to consult Philo of Alexandria, Josephus and Tacitus before denying Pilate’s existence.  I’m no fan of fundamentalists, yet neither am I a fan of the unschooled who dismiss biblical historicity wholesale due to personal theological beefs.)  While Pilate ascertains whether or not to condemn this strange Galilean to crucifixion, the accused asserts that he is a King of Truth, to which Pilate famously replies:  “What is truth?”

Perhaps no three greater words are uttered in the Bible.  At least Nietzsche thought so.

I have never interpreted Pilate’s proclamation as a man considering a serious philosophical issue.  Instead, I read Pilate as a man fed up with an imperfect world.  Here he is, a powerful Roman official, long overdue for replacement as the provincial procurator, contemplating freeing this lowly, bruised Jew before him.  Yet this “King of Truth” is making it nearly impossible to be helped.  Hell, it’s almost as if the man wants to be nailed to a tree!  So Pilate throws up his arms in frustration:  “Quid est veritas?!”

Oh boy.  I’ve really kicked the Evangelical hornet’s nest now.  Lending sympathy to Pilate must be ten times worse than suggesting that there’s no such thing as a biblical definition of marriage.

One thing is certain.  Pontius Pilate would have made a lousy fundamentalist.

Because Fundamentalists always know.

They know the precise age of the universe, and they know precisely when the Earth will cease to spin.  They know which Middle Eastern nation should be razed with missiles, whether or not they can locate it on a map.  They know why your aunt has cancer (probably due to an unresolved sin), and they know the name of the demon responsible for sabotaging your car’s transmission.

Insomuch as nature abhors a vacuum, fundamentalists abhor question marks.

So what?  Lots of people want to know things.  Scientists, for instance.  Indeed, but here’s the difference.  Scientists utterly depend on (heck, enjoy!) the process between the question mark and the eureka moment of discovery.  However, Christian Fundamentalists, like so many greedy mortgage bundlers, refute process.

Where do we come from?

“Dammit, enough of this Lambda-CDM concordance model crap!  The recipe’s right there on page one of The Biblical Joy of Cooking.  Now where did I put that bag of Funyuns?  I’m missing the third quarter.”

After all, who wants to get bogged down in the innumerable theodicies of biblical history and daily spiritual life?  No one wants to spend his or her Monday nights contemplating why high school students have been ripped to shreds on their way back from a gospel music event, any more than anyone wants to struggle with the fact that the Old Testament Tetragrammaton, the Bush-Burning Author of the Ten Commandments and the liberating Year of Jubilee, also had an occasional hankering for infanticide.

Kind of spoils the Funyuns. 

“You bet it does!  It interferes with my Lemon-Fresh Joy Ultra-Concentrated belief in a Santa Claus Deity!  Now please go away.  I have Beanie Babies to sell on eBay.”

What is truth?  There are days when, like any Roman Prefect, I simply throw up my hands.  As should any Christian, or practitioner of any other religion, who faces the world squarely and honestly.  It’s okay; God doesn’t mind.

But Fundamentalists are, somewhat understandably, afraid not to know.  Not knowing makes life complex.  Fundamentalists don’t just want answers.  They need answers.  They need The Truth.  Just as badly as this guy.

Such a worldview has immense political consequences.  Or maybe you haven’t paid any attention to Senator Ted Cruz pounding his verger’s staff on the floor of the U.S. Senate.  (If ever there was an “anti”-Christ.)

You have to hand it to the Evangelical chief priests.  They have done a remarkable job of convincing tens of millions of Americans that they have simple answers for Everything Politics & Religion A to Z, answers which derive straight from the Scratch ’N Sniff Oracle of Scripture.  Here are your enemies, here are your friends.  Here are the right kinds of love and the wrong kinds of love.  Here are the good wars; here are the people who deserve to be murdered by drones.  And here is where you should send your hard-earned cash.

But the only way you can really keep all the sheep penned and baaing peaceably—in order to maximally enjoy Mammon’s bounty—is by exercising the existential crook and flail of Origins and Ends.

If fundamentalists know anything, it is most definitely where we came from and where we’re going.

The Bible: Biblical Bookends

Without its two bookend texts, Genesis and the Apocalypse of St. John, the Sacred Writ of Christianity would have a lot of explaining to do.  If people had problems with the way The Sopranos ended, imagine how they would feel about a New Testament that ends with a Tweet-length epistle from Jesus’ cousin, Jude.  Timothy LaHaye would have had a pickle of a time striking end-of-the-world fear into anyone with a Tribulation series named after a Beatles’ tune.

Perhaps it has never occurred to you, but misinterpretations of just two biblical books, Genesis and Revelation, are responsible for the lion’s share of whacky fundamentalist headlines.  Very few Kool-Aid cults are centered around Habakkuk.  Consider how often off-kilter Christianity makes the news because of entrenched positions on Creationism, Sodom & Gomorrah, and bizarre theories about Armageddon.  Case in point these two recent headlines:

One recent poll shows that one-third of Americans believe that “the threat of airstrikes against Syria” is cryptically recorded in Scripture, whilst just this week we learned that Texan creationists are about to turn the Lone Star State’s high school biology textbooks into Garden of Eden pop-up books.  (Don’t pull the tab on Adam’s snake.)

Tradition holds that Moses wrote Genesis, along with the other four books of the Pentateuch (the term for the first five books of the Old Testament).  This tradition has always cocked its share of eyebrows; Tostatus, the 15th-century Bishop of Avila, reminds us that it would have been very difficult for Moses to write about his own death (Deuteronomy 34).

On the other end of the Bible, tradition holds that St. John the Evangelist wrote Revelation while in exile on the Isle of Patmos.  I have been to Patmos, and it is easy to understand why this small dot in the Aegean Sea makes a good exile candidate:  it doesn’t even have a Trader Joe’s.  Whether or not St. John authored Revelation, it is pretty clear that someone in the first century CE wrote it.  (See the discussion in Article II about the numerological references to Emperor Nero as the Antichrist.)

No matter who they were, the authors of Genesis and Revelation were exceptionally fond of metaphor and saw little, if any, distinction between myth and Truth.  Most important of all, I believe they would be horrified to learn how Pat Robertson and the Texas Legislature have been using their words to manipulate their fellow human beings.

Below follows some personal testimony with respect to these two oft-misinterpreted texts:  how my fundamentalist hermeneutic of the Bible’s alpha and omega books matured based on scholarly study.  Hopefully some of these things will come in handy at the Thanksgiving Table in a few weeks when you and your fundie relatives are sitting around munching on pumpkin pie, no longer able to keep your opinions about religion and politics to yourselves.

The Bible:  Everything You Ever Needed to Know about Genesis in 1,000 Words or Less

The year is 1983.  I am a fifth grader at a conservative Christian private school in Minneapolis.  My science class assignment is to write a paper that proves the Creation Account in Genesis is “scientifically accurate.”  Not:  consider the available resources at hand and make the best possible assessment of the facts.  But:  no matter what you do, little ten-year-old boy, prove that Genesis literally means what it says.  Now go find Mt. Ararat.

As everyone knows, the essence of Christianity is proving that the world is just barely older than some of the world’s most ancient olive trees.  Jesus said that during the Sermon on the Mount.  Right?

Budding writer lamb that I was, I penned the “winning paper” and earned the right to present it orally to multiple classes.  I remember that the paper cited an article about the Paluxy River Mystery, where human footprints supposedly are embedded alongside dinosaur tracks.  (Thirty years later, after a quick Google search, I realize that not even hardcore Creationists buy this crap any longer.)  My teachers, parents, even my pastor, patted me on the head.  I had proved The Truth.  Of course, when I started asking how Noah had squeezed sauropods onto the ark, everyone told me to go outside and play with my friends.

One decade later, while browsing the library shelves at the conservative Christian college I was attending in St. Paul, I stumbled upon a slender volume entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the most ancient works of literature.  The narrative tells the adventures of Gilgamesh, demigod of Uruk (modern Iraq), and includes a number of Mesopotamian cosmological myths.  I read the book cover to cover while standing in the stacks, and browsed through several other related books, including Alexander Heidel’s classic work, The Babylonian Genesis.

Lo and behold, who is this Utnapishtim fellow?  Seems to have a lot in common with Mr. Noah.  Asked by Enki (God) to construct a giant boat that will serve as a refuge for animals and humanity from a pending deluge.  Hmm, that’s odd, Utnapishtim also released a dove from his boat to see if the waters had receded.  Well, now, I wonder if Moses ever considered suing for plagiarism.

That afternoon had a remarkable impact on my interpretation of Scripture.  It dawned on me that the author(s) of Genesis weren’t writing anachronistically to disprove Darwinism.  They didn’t give a flip about the age of the universe, nor were they interested in producing a play-by-play account of life on Earth.  They were simply writing a tract on monotheism in response to the polytheisms of the day.

Hey, you Egyptians over there who worship the sun and jackals and hippos!  That’s silly!  You do realize the sun and animals originate from something else, right?  And you Sumerians, you think you have a flood story?  Hold on, wait until you hear about this dude Noah.  Yeah, we know, we know.  He had a son named Ham, and we don’t eat pigs.  Laugh it up.  But our Garden of Eden is way more titillating than your Enuma Elish creation myth.  Eve was naked!

The point of Genesis is an overarching message that human beings are dependent on God for existence and providence.  Then, along came this guy from Ur named Abram, and here’s the legend of how the Israelites ended up in this land called Canaan.

That’s it.  That’s the whole point.  Genesis is a series of campfire stories.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t historicity contained within the first 50 chapters of the Bible.  But readers were never intended to read Genesis the way a viewer approaches Judgment at Nuremberg, expecting transcript history.

However, if you’re a fundamentalist, Genesis has to read like a documentary.  Otherwise, there’s a grotesque amount of uncertainty.  And Fundamentalism is in the business of knowing.

If the world wasn’t created in seven days—including plants before the sun—that means scientific inquiry is as close as we can ever get to “knowing” our Origins.  While science is fine and dandy when it comes to cancer screening and designing bridges, who can stomach the idea that humans started out as inelegant hominids in the Olduvai Gorge rather than Abercrombie & Fitch models in the Gardens of Giverny?  To say nothing of the concept of Original Sin and the Fall of Man—and especially the Fall of Woman!  Wait, what the hell do you mean that men and women have the same number of ribs?!  That’s blasphemy!  (Vesalius figured that one out back in 1543 with his De Humani Corporis Fabrica.  But definitely bring up the rib question at Thanksgiving.  You’ll be shocked at the responses you hear.)

Genesis is epic and replete with wonderful morality tales.  I’m particularly fond of Balaam’s ass, and I admit that I relish the conundrum of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Can someone please tell me why Lot’s poor wife was turned into a saltshaker, whilst Lot himself later fathered children by his own daughters yet was never transformed into a table condiment?

But the fact of the matter is:  there is not one single word in the Book of Genesis that the orthodox Christian is beholden to in order to practice his or her faith.  Ultimately, Christian living is dependent on interpreting the life and teachings of Jesus.  Not on talking snakes.

That does not mean that Genesis is irrelevant to the Christian life.  Genesis is in fact loaded with Truth.  But that Truth isn’t readily apparent.  It is Truth that must be earned with critical thought.

And so, all of these untold billions of dollars wasted on Creation Museums and recreations of Noah’s Ark and science textbook debates are just that:  wasted dollars by the chief priests of Evangelicalism who are bound and determined to deliver precise answers on Origins to the bleating sheep who cannot be bothered to think that life ever could have started any other way than just how Genesis describes it.  Pass the Funyuns.

Genesis is a campfire tale.  An invaluable saga of a campfire tale.  But a campfire tale nevertheless.

The Bible:  Everything You Ever Needed to Know about Revelation in 1,000 Words

If Genesis is a campfire tale, then the Book of Revelation must be the ultimate campfire ghost story.  Right?  Completely and utterly wrong.

It is difficult to imagine a more abused text in the history of humankind than Revelation.  The one thing the author of Revelation did not intend to do was scare the shit out of the reader.  Of course, nary a Christian generation has passed without Church leaders using the text as if it were a theological Wes Craven script.  But that’s not what the author intended.  First and foremost, as scholar Richard Bauckham reminds us, Revelation should be interpreted in the context of its genre:  it is a letter.  And at its heart, a letter of comfort.

Put yourself in the sandals of a first-century Christian.  Not one day has transpired since the crucifixion of Jesus that his followers—especially those who lead the movement—aren’t hunted down for execution.  Consider yourself lucky if you are merely stoned a la the martyr St. Stephen.  While crucifixion is a common sentence under the Roman Empire, it seems like the Romans are turning death by tree into a creative art form for Christians.

Then comes the fire of Rome in 64 CE, for which the “blood-drinking” Christians who refuse to honor Caesar and partake in public sacrifices assume the misdirected blame of Nutjob Nero.

Some scholars debate whether Christians were martyred wholesale as much as ecclesiastical tradition claims.  True, things weren’t as bad then as they came to be in the third century under Emperor Diocletian, but they certainly weren’t peachy keen.  And they were bad enough for Christians in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) to start passing around a cryptic letter that, when decoded, assured believers that better times lay ahead.  (If you would like a modern example of the “function” of Revelation within the Early Church, consider how John Steinbeck’s novel The Moon is Down was secretly passed around Norway during the Nazi Occupation:  “Steinbeck’s goal was to produce a fictional work that would raise the spirits of those who were under Nazi rule.”)

Now skip ahead to the better days.  In the year 312 CE, the Emperor Constantine beholds a cross on a battlefield and thereafter proclaims Christianity the official state religion.  Times are good.  There’s a lot to do:  build churches over temples, organize councils of bishops, determine the biblical canon.  “You know, the Bible really needs a zinger ending.”  “What about that Apocalypse of St. John?”  “Heck, anything’s better than ending with Jude!”  Voila!

Skip ahead a few more generations.  Twiddle your thumbs.  Christ still hasn’t returned.  Darn.  Hey now, what’s this I read about Seven Seals and Whores of Babylon and Plagues and the Archangel Michael battling dragons?  And dang, that 666 sure is strange.  (Never mind that sometimes it’s 616.)  Who’s this Antichrist chap, anyway?  And did you catch that?  Only 144,000 people are guaranteed tickets to heaven.  On the count of three, everybody panic!

Suddenly Christianity’s coded comfort codex is turned into an Agatha Christie whodunit.  And each passing generation, further removed from the text’s original intent and increasingly anxious that Jesus has not yet returned as long ago promised, interprets Revelation more and more as an Hollywood disaster film.  As one of my theology professors once put it:  “In the past millennium, not one generation has gone by without Christians insisting that the Book of Revelation points to Christ’s imminent return, and that all of the text’s cryptic references can easily be mapped to the current political world.  And every single generation has been spectacularly wrong.

If you think I’m making this up, I’m not.  Presently, President Obama rides the wave as the most popular Antichrist contenderHere’s another article worth reading, then quickly forgetting.  And yet another.

A few decades back, Henry Kissinger was a popular Antichrist target.  A decade from now, it may well be Hillary Clinton.  And on and on and on.  Again, the words of my professor:  they have all been spectacularly wrong.

While it is tempting to chuckle over the most pathetic game of operator in hermeneutic history, I invite you to spend your high school years, as I did, under the threat of Revelation coming alive before your very eyes.  In 1986, when I was 13, Frank Peretti’s novel This Present Darkness hit bookshelves across our nation, at which point the imagination of unmoored Evangelicals cracked open like dropped rotten eggs.  Simple mechanical breakdowns were now attributable to demon servants of Baphomet hell-bent on dragging you and your neighbors into eternal flames.  In my high school and college hallways, rumors abounded as to the identity of the Antichrist:  Michael Dukakis, Ross Perot, you name it.  At any moment, the Seventh Seal would be broken, and you had better hope your name was amongst the 144,000 destined for salvation (Revelation 7).  This 1988 movie didn’t help, either.

Who has time to think about a pending trigonometry exam with Armageddon just around the corner?  I practically dreamed of the halcyon days of the Paluxy River Mystery.

Sadly, across the Fruited Plain tonight, tens of thousands of children will toss and turn in bed, scared to sleep because parents or pastors have stirred their imaginations to the brink with apocalyptic babble.  If time travel were an option, I would drive the DeLorean to Patmos and beg St. John to toss his letter into the garbage heap.  “Sorry, John, though this letter might bring Moon-is-Down comfort to a few suffering souls, you have no bloody idea how many lives are going to be ruined once people lose your epistolary secret decoder ring.”

Again, Revelation was originally a letter of comfort.  The entire point is:  no matter how bad things get, Christians, there are better days on the horizon.  Trust in God.  Stay vigilant.  Maintain your faith.

Given the helter-skelter circumstances in our world today, can you think of a more relevant message of Truth?

The Bible:  Where Do We Go From Here?

Over the course of five essays, our main goal has been to open the reader’s eye to the remarkable complexity of the Bible.  It is not the cookbook text that the Evangelical high priests proclaim it to be.  It is not simple.  Neither is it chaste.  It is at times an X-rated labyrinth of theodicy—with no easy answers.

If you want to stand up to fundamentalist irrationality and the politics that it inspires, you need to understand the Bible.  You need to be able to engage fundamentalists at foundational levels in terms they will understand.  If you do, you just might be able to guide some of them to enlightenment.

Or you can just spit raspberries at your computer screen and harangue fundamentalists with Facebook memes.  Surely that will change the world.

As a final thought, there are many readers who have responded to this series by declaring the Bible “a mere book of myths and fairy tales.”  Even if you do not believe in the historicity of various parts of the Bible, or even most of it, I would encourage you not to discount the power of myth.  Also, keep in mind that there was a time in the 19th-century when archaeologists like Henry Austin Layard were hell-bent on disproving the historicity of the Bible—and were in fact floored to discover that so many of the places that the Bible bespoke—the great cities of Nineveh and Babylon—actually had existed.

I hope readers who fall into the category of naysayers are willing to consider the following:  the Bible, along with other Sacred Texts, like the Quran and the Vedas, are always going to be abused manuscripts.  The Truth within them, however, should not be discounted due to that abuse.  It takes the better man, the better woman, to arrive at this position.

The real tragedy is when sacred texts end up in the hands of men and women who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to control the lives of others, rather than allowing that Truth to work itself freely upon the lives of those who need it.  That does not mean that there was a worldwide flood, that Samson tore down a Philistine temple with his bare hands, that the sun stood still for a day over Gibeon, or even that Christ rose from the dead.

We are all free to choose our own spiritual journeys—even if that choice is to have no faith at all.  All should choose, and choose wisely.

I’m not sure what this series will do to help the tens of millions of Christians who have been lied to about the Bible or who have never taken the time to try to understand it.  But these words now float out there in the ether, waiting to be found.

Maybe the best way to conclude is to remind people that I used to be a fundamentalist.  Because of some very special people in this world who engaged me in the same spirit of this series, I saw the light.  Confronting the complexity of the Bible did not destroy my faith; it in fact strengthened it.

There is nothing to be afraid of.  The Truth always welcomes question marks.


Arik Bjorn

Arik Bjorn lives in Columbia, South Carolina. He was the Democratic Party / Green Party fusion candidate for U.S. Congress in the 2nd Congressional District of South Carolina. Visit the archive for Arik’s campaign website, and check out his latest book, So I Ran for Congress. You can also follow his political activities on Twitter @Bjorn2RunSC and on Facebook. And be sure to check out more from Arik in his archives!

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  • Erik Madison

    Enki was more likely to be the antagonist, with Enlil being Yahweh, temper and all.

  • pearlsmom

    Wonderful essay. I would recommend Joseph Campbell’s series on myth. Oh, and also point out that Ronald Wilson Reagan’s names have 6 characters. Always thought he was the anti-Christ. Thank “heaven” he succumbed to Alzheimer’s before he could unleash his worst. He only set our demise in motion …the fundamentalists in Congress are fulfilling his dream.