A Word in Edgewise

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Bill Maher, What’s in Your Pool?

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I don’t watch Bill Maher.  I don’t find him particularly funny (if I’m in the minority, I don’t mind.  I don’t like potty humor either).  I think he is boorish and lacking in insight.  To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: there’s nothing new except the TV audience.  Unfortunately, today’s crop of militant anti-theists, like Maher, cannot hold a candle to thoughtful atheists of the past like Bertrand Russell or Friedrich Nietzsche.  Now, let me be clear, I have great respect for humble, reflective atheists and agnostics.  I have a number of friends and colleagues with whom I disagree on matters of faith but the disagreements are agreeable.

Jim Wallis, founder and president of Sojourner’s, appeared on Bill Maher’s program recently and, as could be predicted, Maher took him to task.  To be frank, I don’t agree with Wallis on all matters of theology or politics but I do regard him as a warm, sincere Christian.  Like many he is following Jesus the best way he knows how.  I don’t have time or inclination to deal with the entire exchange between Maher and Wallis but let me deal with two statements made on both sides.Swimming-Pool 

In response to Maher’s attacks, Wallis made the point that religion has been used for great good in society. Most people who talk about the Bible, he said, haven’t actually read it.  He pointed out how religious people were rallying for immigration reform and how Martin Luther King was inspired by the biblical prophets.  He emphasized how often the Scriptures speak of God’s care for the poor and instructs his people to feed, clothe and care for “the least of these.”  Maher interrupted: “You’re cherry-picking the good parts.” 

Maher proceeded to criticize the Bible: “It’s pro-slavery, pro-polygamy, it’s homophobic, God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murderer—I mean, there’s so many things in it, and I always say to my religious friends, you know, if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump in?” (Maher’s words not mine)

Two responses which are . . . easy.

First, Mr. Maher, you’re a classic cherry-picker.  You rant against all the stuff you don’t like.  You ignore the vast majority of the Bible which speaks of forgiveness, love, charity, and hope.  You accuse Jim of cherry-picking the good parts.  You’re doing the same thing.  Have the decency to recognize it.

Later in the conversation, Maher said, “Fundamentalism is just people reading what’s there and taking it literally.”  True enough, which makes Maher the biggest fundamentalist of all.  He reads the Bible without knowledge, nuance or sophistication. He reads it as flatly as any flat-earthed fundamentalist I’ve met.  More than that, he thinks that’s the way everyone else reads it too.  He boasts that he has read the Bible, but he has done so for the point of condemning others.  And here is a principle for a thoughtful person of any creed:  Whenever you learn about something for no other reason but to criticize it, then you can’t help but misunderstand it. This is why Maher cannot understand religion in general or Christianity in particular.

Maher condemns the Bible for being homophobic while he is biblio-phobic or Christophobic.  Apparently Maher thinks a person can help being religious but can’t help being homosexual.  Again, Maher misunderstands the religious aspect of human existence and how deeply people “feel” their religion.  They can no more simply hang up their religion than a gay person hang up his/her orientation.

Second, and again, this is . . . easy.  Maher criticizes the Bible: “if a pool had even one turd in it, would you jump it?”

There is a Buddhist meditation that invites devotees to take a journey inward—not just into their mind but into their bodies.  Think about what is in your body.  There are organs, muscle, fat, blood, bile, feces, gas, and urine. This is what we are made of.  This is what is in us right this moment.  Mr. Maher, you may not want to be in waste, but waste is in you. 

The point of the meditation is to come to grips with the messiness of human life.  To be human is to be, by definition, messy.  Our lives are messy.  Our relationships are messy.  Our sexuality is messy.  Our politics are messy.  And yes, our religions are messy.  We may wish to swim in a totally clean, chlorinated environment but the minute we jump in we have fouled the waters.  What human institution or organization is without some measure of messiness? 

Whatever the Christian Scriptures are, they are God’s attempt to meet us in the messiness of our human existence.  They portray us as we really are: broken, deeply flawed, angry, contentious, lustful, arrogant, insecure.  The  Scriptures come to a particular people of a particular culture in a particular language.  This is part of the messiness, for language and culture are incapable of expressing the heights, depths, and breadths of the Divine or human existence.   Ultimately, we see in the cross the depths to which God will go to meet us in our brokeness.  Fortunately, God does not leave us where he finds us.  He calls us to something greater. This is why every great university (until the 1900s) was started in the shadow of a cathedral; why hospitals have names with words like Saint, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopal, etc.; why when disasters hit, the first to respond are people of faith; why believers give and create charities at a pace which far outstrips those who don’t.  

When comedians and celebrities attempt discussions on serious topics, they often show themselves to be ignorant and bigoted, the same qualities they decry in others.  They prefer sound bites and banal zingers to true understanding.  They are able to get away with their prejudices because such low-level discourse is currently fashionable. Fortunately fashions change.

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7 Comments

  1. “First, Mr. Maher, you’re cherry-picking the bad parts.”

    First of all, if a god that is all good is supposed to be responsible for such writings, why are there any bad parts?

    Secondly, I can’t speak for Maher…but why should care about the good parts of the Bible as long as I can achieve those good parts without using the Bible? Because I can achieve those good parts, and I can ignore the bad parts, and don’t need Christianity or the Bible for any of it.

    • Thanks for your comment. The answer to both statements are already in the post. Beyond that take a look at Aristotle and Augustine on good and evil.

      I agree in principle that non-theists can acheive the good. I’m not sure what you mean by that though. Personal peace and contentment? or good for others? One philosopher of the 19th century said if you want to know what is possible, look at what is actual. I would encourage you to get together with like-minded friends and begin to invest in doing good in the world. So far Christians have founded about 4000 universities and institutions of higher learning, 10,000 hospitals, and 20,000 charities throughout the world. People of other faiths have probably done just as much or more. I realize Christians may have had a headstart but we would welcome your contribution.

      • “So far Christians have founded about 4000 universities and institutions of higher learning, 10,000 hospitals, and 20,000 charities throughout the world.”

        And your job is to show that humans wouldn’t have done that if not for Christianity.

        I think it would have happened anyway. And it can be done without any religious baggage.

      • I’m sorry but you don’t get to tell me what my job is.

        The answer to your objection is self-evident since there are no examples of institutions arising spontaneously out of nothing. Wherever the Christian faith has been proclaimed, people gather voluntarily, work together and found these institutions. There is plenty of historical evidence for this. Human altruism is complicated involving both an impulse to do good and the means to accomplish it. The fact that there are no or few examples of these things arising completely apart from religion suggests that the religious impulse is central. That you would think it would have happened anyway is not evidence nor is it compelling. To be clear, I’m not speaking only of Christianity, though that is my faith. There are thousands of Muslim and Jewish institutions which have been founded to live out their faiths.

  2. To say that universities, hospitals and charities “would have happened anyway” is a counterfactual proposition that could never be definitively verified. But when we look at these institutions historically, we notice that they do originate in monotheistic cultures, where philosophy (love of wisdom/learning) and regard for the poor and weak thrive. The fact is, these institutions did not “happen anyway” in times and places dominated by polytheism or atheism. You simply can’t find the same phenomena in India, for example, where it took a Christian woman from Albania to pull the dying off the streets. As for the other half of the statement – “it can be done without any religious baggage”. Again, hard to verify. If Bill Maher were to found a charity, it would be hard to say he did it without any religious influence, because he has lived in a culture profoundly shaped by the Christian religion. Still, I would be willing to chalk one up for unbelief if Maher became a philanthropist. I’m not holding my breath, though.

  3. Joel says:

    Liked this piece, from Central America. Although, something in Maher’s sarcasm does sound true and as former fundamentalist, from a developing country, actually helped me to question what I knew was questionable but thought didn’t have answers. While I do not endorse Maher’s attitude and anti-religion, I have to admit it helped me question my thoughts and ideas.

  4. Tatjana says:

    For most of the people Bible is a religious book. But realistically observed there is no religion in it, there is no spirituality in it, … actually the Bible is a book of psychology, more exactly the book of cosmic psychology, and hidden behind all of these Bible ancient words are the clues to the development of the human mind and is very interesting for people to understand the Bible is in the Old Testament especially, and in a much of the thought of the New Testament, oriental , it is an oriental book. In fact in the Bible is one of the oldest plays or dramas ever composed and it’s a book called “The Book of Job” and its pure orient . It comes from the ancient places of the East.People in the Bible never existed. Fare more important to understand that they represent parts of you / an aspects of your own mind !!! And that makes it not only very personal, but it opens to you possibilities that are tremendously long range when you think of, hey=> what is been said, by what authority all this been said, and can I connect them to the aspects of my own self ? Here is for us to see Bible NOTICE that events in Bible never happened and people from the Bible never existed: Psalm 78 verse 2.I will open my mouth in parables… (A parable is a type of analogy. noun 1. a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson. 2. a statement or comment
    that conveys a meaning indirectly by the use of comparison, analogy, or the like.) I will say dark (in hidden form) saying of old. When you see the word “this is an allegory / parable, dark sayings ” it means you can run away with this thing and began to explore the symbolic meanings, because allegory / parable, dark sayings ” means this thing didn’t happened, it means that they are deep mystical symbolic stories,that have a content concerning the human mind and the deep realms of consciousness !!!Psalm 78 verse 2 I will open my mouth in a parable: I wil vtter darke sayings of old:Which we have heard and known and which our old fathers (ancestors) told us… 2. I will open my mouth with aparable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old–Psalm: 78: 3 Which we haue heard, & known: and our fathers haue told 3.stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. Proverbs 1: 6 To vnderstand a prouerbe, and the interpretation; the wordes of the wise, and their darke sayings. 6. for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise.
    =======
    Also there is a part of the Bible where Jesus-Christ (Jehoshua is his truth name)recommends that if we wish to enter the kingdom of God which is within our selves (more exactly inside our * right brain half) we heed to practice the practice of a single eye (single eye is a pineal gland of the brain or so called third eye or extrasensory organ of our body or awareness itself) and non thinking. Both practices singel eye and nonthinking are actually MEDIATION. bIBLE INDICATES HERE THAT WE SHOULD START TO PRACTICE MEDIATION. Look now at Matthew 6 : 22. and it says : “the light of the body is the eye, if therefore your eye be single, your body will fill with light (with radiating glow).”
    22The light of the body is the eye: If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shalbe full of light. The light to your body is your one eye.pineal gland and secreting hormone called Melatonin, which is the skin lightener, which is the another point for those of you know, scientifically motivated, because here is Jesus saying: “If you practice the single Eye, your body will fill with the light, and the scientist would say if you stimulate the pineal gland, your body will fill with Melatonin..
    23 But if thine eye be euill, thy whole body shall be full of darknesse. If therfore the light that is in thee be darkenesse, how great is that darkenesse? How do you stimulate the pineal gland of the brain?
    Turn on Mathews 6, 25 to Mathews 6, 33 it says :
    “Take no thoughts”!!!!! It says it 5 times. “ Separate from the thoughts of the mind!!! Turn on Mathews 6, 25 to Mathews 6, 33 it says :
    “Take no thoughts”!!!!! It says it 5 times. “ Separate from the thoughts of the mind!!!
    Now go on genesis 32: 30 to see where Jacob by *resling with one man (one mana or one or onness is symbol for God=Good) met god face to face. (*Resilng is symbolical allegorical in dark saying in hidden for presented mediation) => Genesis 32: 30 And Iacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I haue seene God face to face, and my life is preserued. Genesis 32: 30 “ And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel for I have seen God face to face !!!you do not need to be a nuclear scientist, you do not need to be a road scholar . It is obvious…what Jacob says !!! Well when you look at the new testament, what they call it the single eye, (the single I) , then when you look what Jacob called the peniel gland, whether you understand the relationship between Melatonin and light …and so on…it say : “there is something that had been told you in hidden form about place known as Penial ”So we gut to start learning how to interpret scripture !!! …not just Biblical scripture, you have to learn how to interpret the sutras of Buddha, how to interpret the Vedas of Krishna, how to interpret the Koran as the Sufi Muslims do.
    But what you doing, and what has happened to our country and our world, is that by interpreting these things literally, had totally distorted that, which we call Gods word.
    And we are paying dearly for!

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