Being Skeptical

Sep 20, 2007 | Updated Nov 17, 2011

I've been reading about a new book that was just published by New Press titled How to Read the Bible and I'm intrigued. Years ago, during the "born again" stage of my life when I was young, vulnerable, and searching, I quite likely would have rationalized that the author, James L. Kugel, was a stumbling block for Christians, or worse, the devil's own. I would have come to that conclusion because the church I'd attended would have guided me toward that thinking. They would have used hell and damnation as the outcome for any consideration about Kugel's findings, which would compromise unwavering belief. That was so long ago and I have since come to my senses.

David Plotz appraised Kugel's book in this past Sunday's New York Time's Book Review. In part, he wrote, "It's not news to anyone -- at least anyone who reads the Bible even a wee bit skeptically -- that the book is chock-full of contradictions and impossible events."

It's difficult to imagine anyone reading the Bible not "a wee bit skeptically," but I do think that Kugel's revelation is indeed news to many fundamentalists, since they take the Scripture as an absolute. I've been there and the thinking of a believer, one who is certain that the Bible is God's word, would ignore the contradictions in the holy book because that means allowing doubt to come into faith. It's devastating to the believer when reason and clarity begin to chip away at the wall of stalwart conviction. Kugel, who is an Orthodox Jew, suggests that not every word in the Bible is historically correct and that the interpretations are varied. That thought process doesn't alarm me now. I know, however, that many will be distraught to be presented with such a blasphemous idea and will quite likely dismiss it before any possible deliberation occurs.

Over the years, after having come to my senses, I've written a number of articles involving religion. I think it was my way of trying to figure out what makes religion both so mysterious and powerful. For fundamentalists, no number of facts, unanswered questions, or clear logic will move them from basing their beliefs on a steadfast faith -- and faith doesn't depend on anything except that. Yet, these same people rely on the Bible as concrete proof that homosexuality and premarital sex are sinful, women are less than equal to men, and there is a lake of fire awaiting all those who believe otherwise. Yes, indeed, fear-mongering existed long before the Bush administration.

Now that I have been able to extricate myself from what I once believed, I am able to reason that fallible men with a variety of agendas wrote the texts -- or Bible stories -- in a time that could not imagine the world in which we live today. Their capability to grasp that the earth was round, diseases could be cured by vaccination, and that man would one day fly to the moon was incomprehensible.

Did God create man or vice versa? Either way, what would be the reason? What would a Supreme Being need or want from humankind? The traditional response from Christians is that God created us in his need for a relationship. Huh? If that were really the case, then why was it necessary to use the Bible to reach us? Why not communicate in a more intimate way? Why the mystery? In addition, what was it about the human heart that it yearned to believe in something bigger than itself? Finally, what makes so many willing to accept certain beliefs without first investigating them? The answer may cause discomfort, but we are often simply a fearful, lazy people. Sometimes it's easier to accept what we were taught as truth and hope the almighty is forgiving when our heart thumps its last beat. What follows is that Bible verses are quoted with authority without any understanding of the original text, which then makes us a misogynistic, homophobic, and intolerant society.

Other than its ability to pull me into a subject that often exhausts me, what is interesting about How to Read the Bible is that, according to the review, Kugel concludes that in spite of his reasoning, the Bible holds some divine inspiration for him. On a number of levels, I can understand that. However, I exhort anyone who uses the Bible to make a point to do so with an understanding of its history while acknowledging that the book is not foolproof or heaven sent, which may explain its inability to keep the politicians honest as they place their hands on it when taking oath of office.