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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.
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.
So why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”? Well, for several reasons. First, there is tradition. For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament. Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood. We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”). If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament.
Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?” Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?” Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think. Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content. Frankly, I think sometimes we do. When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then I think we ought to retire the term altogether. Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word. In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt. They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King. For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all. It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news. They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled. There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete. If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.
But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,
if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,
if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of
God’s redemption of the world . . .
then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament.
In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture. I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary. You cannot have one without the other. The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible. That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.
Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this. I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible. I just want to get you thinking. When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?