Loving the Bible, as an atheist

I joined a Woodbrooke project, “Finding the Spirit in the Scriptures”. This is what I wanted to say:

First I should say, as an atheist, what is the God I do not believe in: I do not believe in “God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth”. I believe in that of God in everyone, indeed in all of life- apes, fish, bacteria.

I do not believe in panentheism, God in things, but I know that people are taught in my culture to treat things, and even people, instrumentally- pick them up, use them, put them down, forget them. We deal only in surfaces. I know if you look at things through the eyes of Love, you see them more clearly: the thing in itself, its aesthetic and design beauty, its complexity, its value. You see the deep reality of the world below its surfaces, see the world in a grain of sand, and believing in God in things is a way into this experience.

I was baptised Scottish Episcopalian, taken to church throughout my childhood, and continued worshipping all my life. In 2001 I committed to Quakers and continued worshipping regularly. In 2009 I realised I no longer believed in God. It was a struggle. My partner took a robust line against nontheists- “Why should an atheist want to join a religious society?” A Friend answered that beautifully: “The question is not why we join, but why we stay”. But convincing H of that was a different matter.

In February 2010 I admitted to myself I did not believe in God. I did the Hoffman process, a personal growth workshop designed to split someone open and give them access to the inspiration of their subconscious, and, duly broken open, entered a church as a tourist: and was brought to my knees by the holiness of the place.

Mark: How has your relationship to the Bible changed over your life?

When I was 12 I got a Gideon New Testament with a reading scheme, read the New Testament in a year, in the front. So I did, several times. At University, I started reading the Daily Study Bible by William Barclay, and later read the Old Testament DSB. I also read the NT volumes of the Bible Speaks Today. I also read the Bible through, Jewish Bible and NT, in the Good News Bible and New International Version, and much of the New Revised Standard Version.

It was the moral underpinning of my homophobia. In Romans 1 Paul lists various horrible sins, including “men committed shameful acts with other men”, and, hating myself, desperate to “make a man” of myself and wanting to enforce this restrictive morality on the World, I used it to drive a couple from my church. I am ashamed of that. I would not do it now. Now, I would seek to prevent such a violation.

But it gives me some sympathy for others. The Methodist Church in England agreed to celebrate same sex marriages, and a Christian website covered this as if it was a bad thing. It claimed “traditionalists” feared being driven out of their churches- rather than calling them homophobes opposing the Church’s decision. I sympathise. I thought being a Christian made me a good person, because I believed in God and tried to do the right thing, and it was a shock to hear people thought it meant I had ridiculous beliefs and harmful, wrong views about morality.

I started by believing the anti-gay passages, then arguing with them, seeking out alternative interpretations of the Greek arsenokoitai and malakoi, and finally ignoring them. I feel quite entitled to reject bits of the Bible, including Deuteronomy 22:5.

However, even when I hate a verse, I seek out what good I may find in it. I dislike Nehemiah. The Jews have returned from exile in Babylon, and decide to live with their own ideas, without any tincture from foreigners. Nehemiah 13: 30 Thus I cleansed them from everything foreign. I find this horrible. But- if they had not, the people would have been subsumed in the Persian then the Macedonian empires, and their distinctiveness would have been lost, as the Northern kingdom was subsumed in the Assyrian empire. So we would not be Christian. From that decision both great suffering and great blessing flow.

Mark: The Bible is a conversation we can join in. Some say the book of Jonah, where the King and people of Nineveh repent, is a direct answer to Nehemiah and the drive for purity. It says the Assyrians are God’s children.

Yes. Consider: Psalm 37:25: I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging bread.

Ecclesiastes 7:15: In my vain life I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing.

Both these verses are in three parts, with close parallels, and it seems to me Ecclesiastes is directly answering the Psalm.

The Bible is terribly misogynistic. Mary Magdalene goes to the grave on the first day of the week, and has a great realisation: “He is not here”. Jesus is in our hearts, in our memories, in how he has changed our lives. He will always be with us. But, how could a weak, irrational and emotional woman come to such a realisation? A man told her. Mark 16:5, “a young man, dressed in a white robe,” whom she does not recognise but who knows her and knows all about it. Luke 24:4, “Two men in dazzling clothes”. Matthew 28:2 uses male pronouns of “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven”.

Or Mary, Jesus’ mother. Luke tells us the archangel Gabriel appeared to her. For me, this woman, barely more than a girl, realises she is pregnant. Not being married, this is terrifying. Her sublime, noble reaction is, “All generations shall call me blessed”. And we do. She got it, all by herself. No angel required.

In the past year I have read John, and loved it. John 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them”, ie to us, and all Christians. We can be in God as Christ is in God. That of God in me is all my power, all my beauty, and I can live from it all the time. I find this tremendously exciting and spiritually convincing, and have shared it excitedly with anyone who will listen. This is the truth of the Bible, speaking to me.

And I have read about half of Isaiah, dutifully reading the Oxford Bible Commentary paragraphs on each short section; and got fed up with it. This perhaps revolted me the most:

Isaiah 3: 16 The Lord said:
Because the daughters of Zion are haughty
and walk with outstretched necks,
glancing wantonly with their eyes,
mincing along as they go,
tinkling with their feet;
the Lord will afflict with scabs
the heads of the daughters of Zion,
and the Lord will lay bare their secret parts.

At best, this is the prophet seeing the parlous state of Jerusalem, fearing for its inhabitants, knowing that rape is a weapon of war. But I can’t help seeing it differently, as the old man seeing young women glorying in being young women. He gets turned on but, knowing they are not sexually available to him, curses them, and gets self-righteous about it.

I want the experience of John, the new insight about the spiritual life that makes sense and speaks to me immediately and delights and inspires me and brings me on. I want to avoid the sense of revulsion I feel at that Isaiah passage. I will go back to the Bible. Perhaps Mark next, or Romans, probably without a commentary at least to start with. I don’t know. Perhaps I cannot find the glory without also seeing the darkness. All human life is here.

I am left with my favourite bits. When I was recovering from my self-hatred, Genesis 1:31 meant a lot to me: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” That included me. Similarly psalm 139:12-13:

You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvellously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

In Psalm 137 the Jews are taken off to Babylon as slaves, and feel the rage of the oppressed. They imagine smashing the heads of their oppressors’ babies. Accepting my true self made me aware of huge anger in me, and this psalm reassured me: if such rage was here, it was acceptable to God, and so might my own anger be. And so might I be.

I love the story of Abigail in 1 Samuel 25. Abigail meets David, who is living as a bandit chieftain in the borderlands of the Philistines. “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal [her husband], and he died.” Abigail then marries David. It makes a mockery of the American Evangelical concept of “Biblical Womanhood”. And I am always reacting with or against thousands of years of reactions and interpretations of these stories.

My favourite Jesus quote is in Revelation 21:5: Behold, I have made all things new.

I love the desperate angry prayer of Job. He knows he is righteous, and demands of God how dare he treat him this way? 31:35-37:

O that I had one to hear me!
(Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
O that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
I would bind it on me like a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
like a prince I would approach him.

I have prayed in desperation, “Oh God! What are you playing at!?

God states his glory- “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job repents in dust and ashes. But, being a shrewd, active man, he stops contemplating the injustice of the world and the incomprehensibility of God, and gets on with what he does best. That is how he becomes wealthy again, blessed with sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys, and also sons and daughters.

I have had my life changed, and I feel Jesus’ metaphor of being born again is appropriate: it really seems as painful as passing through a birth canal, and as weird as opening my eyes for the first time.

I want new favourite bits, more bits to love. What verses do you love in the Bible?

41 thoughts on “Loving the Bible, as an atheist

  1. I read the Bible from cover to cover at age eleven and when I had completed the chore, I wrote this epigram to express my conclusion:

    If God
    is good
    half the Bible
    is libel.
    —Michael R. Burch

    The Bible expressly commands and condones the worst crimes known to humanity: slavery, sex slavery, the stoning to death of child brides for not bleeding sufficiently on their wedding nights to “prove” their virginity, the stoning to death of rape victims or selling them to their rapists as sex slaves with the cash going to the real victims (their fathers), infanticide, matricide, ethnic cleansing and genocide. The Jesus of the New Testament is no better, if he sends billions of souls to an “eternal hell” for guessing wrong about which earthly religion to believe or not believe.

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    • I tend to feel the Kingdom of Heaven is now, here, on Earth, when we treat each other properly; that Jesus says “The Kingdom of Heaven is like” (present tense) not “After death it will be like”, and the “darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” is also now. There is the story of the sheep and the goats- the eternal life or eternal punishment “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him” (Matthew 25), but that could also be read as a temporal Day of the Lord- as in 70AD, when the temple was destroyed, and the world changed for the people.

      No-one comes to the Father except through me. It’s megalomaniac if no-one has come to the father before Jesus.

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      • Much depends on how one reads the Bible. I read it as primitive men making everything up and repeatedly botching the job. We really don’t know what Jesus said or what he meant because early Christian theologians were changing the texts to reflect their evil, absurd beliefs. If one believes the best verses and ignores the worst ones, perhaps that is not so bad. But it seems millions of conservative Christians do the opposite, including some in my own family.

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  2. Fascinating stuff. I am not learned enough to really get into the debate, as much as I would like to be, and my understanding of the Bible is, at best, amateur and incomplete.

    I have read all the books of the Bible at some point or other. I have studied some of them in Bible study groups and wrestled with their questions. The hardest I found to read (and arguably the most disappointing) was Revelation. I never saw the Bible as homophobic or against homosexuality. I saw Paul had an issue with it (there was a theory I heard somewhere that Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was being homosexual, which is why he felt virginity was a higher calling than married life for men, it also handily explains the misogyny – not because homosexuals are by definition misogynist, but because under social pressure it is an easy ‘get out’ clause of why one is ‘not like other men’, blaming it on the women) but the stuff in the OIld Testament is… well, according to the NIV commentary notes, it is badly translated. I noted that the NIV commentary broadly agrees that the OT proscribes homosexuality whilst also disproving that the translation actually says that (it suggests that a man shouldn’t use a woman’s menstruating bed as his own for sexual practices, that’s patently not about homosexuality – if anything it is attempting to give women agency). But, you know, Paul isn’t divine (or even the last word in many of the things he touches on) – just well-respected at the time. And all of the Bible is written by humans, fallen humans, who often put in their own stuff (like you say with Isaiah, quite eloquently I might add). It’s why I think God repeats things in the Old Testamen t so much.

    Indeed, one idea I heard from someone better versed in Bible study and theology than I (he was a vicar) was that if things get repeated then they’re probably actually from God (and there is eerie similarity in some of the strictures that turn up again and again) but the stuff that turns up in the OT just the once? As rules, probably the added bits of the people writing it. Which… kind of explains a lot.

    As for Mary Magdelene being the first to see the risen Christ – that man she sees that she doesn’t recognise, doesn’t that guy turn out to be, well, Jesus? The cultural context is that women were not able to bear testimony and yet the disciples have to believe her and don’t see Jesus themselves until later. I always thought of that as being empowering about women – almost against the instincts of the Gospel writers, who do their best to minimise this story and still fail because they recognise it needs to be relayed.

    I always took comfort in the story of Jesus and the adultress relayed in John (and almost certainly added later): “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” then “is there no one left to condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.” (Horrifically paraphrased from memory because I am too lazy to go into the other room and pick up my study Bible). The implication being that Jesus absolutely knew that the woman had sinned, her accusers were right, but stood up for her anyway. It tallies with the message (in my mind) of the Sermon on the Mount where (and again I paraphrase) he tells specifically men that if they look at women with lust then they have already sinned – them, not the women – and that if they think it’s a physical reaction then chop of their hands, not attack the woman or get her to cover up, no, you, men, chop off your hands. Oh, you say it’s because of how they look? Well, gouge out your eyes – again, don’t blame the woman. That whole section is brilliant. It’s almost a direct rebuke of the section your quoted section from Isaiah.

    Also, the whole idea of it is that everyone sins and needs forgiveness, you can’t live a sinless life as a human (unless you are also God) but you can repent, recognise the problems and move on by asking forgiveness. And, also, I like the subversion implied in the stories related there about giving up one’s cloak, turning the other cheek and carrying the pack for two miles rather than one. These, in their context, aren’t at all being a doormat or being oppressed, but the sort of thing that inspired the Civil Rights movement, Gandhi’s campaigns and even the ANC in Apartheid South Africa. All of whom, I note, were successful.

    Sorry, I have failed to provide references, and my understanding is often paraphrased, but these are the parts of the Bible that have given me the most hope over the years. And now I have written an essay as a comment in a blog where I was trying so very hard to listen. For what it is worth, I have never doubted the existence of God (which makes me a pretty rubbish Christian so far as I can tell) nor the divinity of Jesus so I know that my understanding of what I have related is tempered by that fundamental acceptance. I relate this because I know that acknowledging one’s bias is very important when discussing interpretations of anything, especially the Bible.

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    • Most people who read the Bible start with a bias. But here is a simple litmus test. Start at the beginning and highlight every verse you know to be inaccurate scientifically, historically and/or ethically. You will soon have a very colorful Bible and the certainty that a “god” had anything to do with it will vanish. Then you can believe whatever you like about God, Jesus and real ethics without worrying about what the error-riddled book says. This is what I figured out at age 11, when I realized the biblical “god” was not good, wise, compassionate or just. Good luck!

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      • You can do that with literally any text. Literally any. It proves nothing but, as you say, that it was written by human beings. I hesitate to append the word ‘primative’ though, as an historian and amateur scholar (is that right? Sounds pretentious, I don’t mean it to be) of Prehistory (mainly in what is now Europe) I think humans are either still primative or else the word doesn’t really work as you seem to intend it (in a different comment, not here, I digress).

        That said, for me, the Bible has truths within it, like any text (well, okay, most – there are texts out there that have little in the way of redeeming features such as Incel manifestos or alt-right ‘think pieces’). The Bible, to me, is helpful to knowing what my understanding has already accepted as a truth – the existence of God. That belief (and it is a belief) is based on faith – I can’t prove it any more than I can disprove it, in any manner.

        Do I believe the Bible inerrant? No. That is ridiculous to me. But, then, I think there’s a lot of moral truth in the works of Terry Pratchett. And, well, if I highlighted every error I’d have a very colourful book for each and every book he’s written.

        Also, I kinda did that when I studied the different books I have read – minus highlighting (I really don’t like drawing on books, I struggle with that – academic, philosophical, fiction or non-fiction) – and, well, I reached the conclusions I outlined above. I’m glad you have stayed true to your 11 year old revelation and I accept that many Christians the world over do a poor job of striving to be like Christ (myself included) but it doesn’t logically follow that you have the truth any more than I do.

        Which brings me to ethics. Inasmuch as I can say I take my ethics from anywhere (and I’m not sure I can, I mean, sure there are sources, but they are as lost to me as anything else in my early life and anything I do remember is likely not the case but rather what I remember as the memory of the case) I can relate them to that bit where Jesus is asked in the Gospels what the most commandment is and he responds by naming two, but referring to them in the singular, which I shall paraphrase as “Love God with everything and love your neighbour as yourself” – implying that one needs to do all three parts to any one part. Or, rather, the opening ‘Love God’ can’t be done unless one also loves others as yourself – which means one must also love oneself. From that, I guess, we can intuit the ‘golden rule’ in philosophy: do unto others as you would have done unto you. Do as you would be done by. Which, to be effective, also requires you to accept yourself.

        Insofar as I can claim any kind of moral philosophy then that comes as close as I dare to trying to define it. And the part I struggle most with? Loving myself.

        Goodness, another essay, apologies.

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      • Hang on, wait a minute, are you the actual Michael R. Burch? In which case that explains the condescension in your tone. (It’s the ‘good luck’ at the end coupled with the ‘what I figured out at age 11’ by the way, as a student of language I’m sure you knew you were doing this – most clever, most people wouldn’t immediately spot the deliberate attempt to inflame and thus any frustration in response would validate your reason over your opponent in a debate). Also, I can’t find any data that supports the epigram being written in 1969 – if you are he, then obviously, I am wrong. Indeed, the only official mention I can find suggests that Burch’s poetry began when he was 14 or 15, not 11. However, if you are he then I guess your own biography online is also not inerrant.

        My apologies for responding as an equal if you are the celebrated American poet, I cannot claim anything so lofty. However, I note that your profile links to a ‘portal’ seemingly run by Kim Cherub. Apologies, the condescension irked me is all.

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        • It appears this is the actual Michael R Burch. Further examination sees that Kim Cherub refers to The HyperTexts. He came here when I quoted Michael R Burch’s translations with a link to the website but without his name, which I have rectified. I had someone pretending to be the author SM Sterling here once, and when I objected to his pretence I had apparently the real SM Sterling.

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            • Joanna, I am delighted to have you here. Your long essays are welcome. You seem to have an excellent understanding of the Bible for someone not ordained.

              I don’t think going with ones reading at 11 is ideal, except for the greatest prodigies. A poet might not want all his juvenilia published, if any, even if the verse is excellent for an 11 year old.

              And, do treat people as equals here. You are an intelligent, caring woman. You are entitled to be treated as an equal.

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          • Yes, the reason I found this page, if I remember correctly was that my translation of the poem below had been posted here, and all I did initially was request that my name be credited, which was graciously done. I did not launch into extensive “bragging” about my literary rep. I only gave that information in response to PUBLIC remarks made in reference to my name that would give someone arriving by Google the erroneous idea that I probably wasn’t equipped to understand the Bible when I read it. I had the right to reply with factual information, which I did. If someone finds that irksome, so be it, although that seems unnecessary to me considering the circumstances. Here is the poem, if I remember correctly:

            The Mistake
            by Mirza Ghalib
            loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

            All your life, O Ghalib,
            You kept repeating the same mistake:
            Your face was dirty
            But you were obsessed with cleaning the mirror!

            Obviously I am not a prophet or time traveler who knew in advance that the Bible question would come up, and planted my name here in advance, via a poem that someone else posted without my name attached. That would be quite a magic trick!

            As for the age discrepancy, I have explained that in one of my bios. I wrote my first poem that I can remember, “Bible Libel” around age 11 to 13, but it was more of an epigram and an observation at the time, and I didn’t consider myself to be a poet then. That poem was never formally published, although it has (amusingly) gone viral on the Internet because I have used it in threads like this one and apparently quite a few people liked it enough to cut and paste it. It even turned up as one of the 17 wittiest quotes of all time at one of the big quote sites! I did not become a serious poet until around age 14 to 15, when I wrote my first poems that were published. So I “officially” became a poet around age 14, but I wrote at least one poem at a time when I hadn’t made the decision to become a poet.

            If any of this sounds like “bragging” my defense is that until today I have never “bragged” here at all. I only offered the information because of PUBLIC statements made by other people about me. Someone searching for my name or poems can arrive here via Google and other search engines. I should have the right to offer factual information to protect my name and reputation.

            Sorry if anyone was irked, but I believe I was well within my rights in a public conversation. If the conversation had been private, I would not have bothered. I find the idea that I did any of this intentionally to irk someone I don’t know fathomless. I have no agenda against anyone here, as I know no one. I simply posted a comment and replied to the replies. There is no hidden agenda. If anyone disagrees, fine. But why shoot the messenger?

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            • I have noticed that online conversation can appear less friendly than people intend. I am glad to have you here. You have the right of reply, and I would not want someone googling your name and finding you insulted. I quoted the Ghalib interpretation here. I don’t think you sound like bragging, more like stating achievement.

              You are within your rights to object to the Bible in public conversation. Thank you for your detailed explanation. I too dislike how Christians use it against people- to exercise power, or to hurt others. And I use it for my good, to understand and value myself, rejecting the harmful stuff, and argue with those who would use it to harm others. Joanna seems to love her Bible, as a believer, without wishing to harm anyone.

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          • Clare, I have no complaints. You have handled everything admirably, and I like your writing, your style and your blog. I think in general it is best for people who don’t know each other to give each other the benefit of the doubt and not descend into negative assumptions. As I pointed out, it would have been quite a magic trick for me have planned any of this in advance, since you posted my translation before you knew who I was! And I didn’t show up here bragging my head off. What I said about my youthful writing was in RESPONSE to comments about my age in which the term “prodigy” was used, so I didn’t introduce that term either. I was, essentially, counterpunching in an effort to protect my name and reputation. And I certainly wasn’t going after anyone or trying to bring them down, as insinuated. It all seems very unfortunate to me. But it is no reflection on you and, again, I have no complaints.

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        • Kim Cherub is a rearrangement of the letters of my everyday name, Mike Burch. I only offered the information because my ability to read and understand what I was reading at age 11 was questioned in public. One should have a right to defend oneself, one would think. Sorry you were irked, but the information is factually correct. Why be irked by the truth?

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          • Also, the term “prodigy” was raised in relation to my name. I was just replying to what had been said about me. Again, one should be able to reply to what is said about oneself and I did not raise the questions, I just answered them.

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          • My apologies, I was irked by the condescending use of phrase (which I outlined). I did not, nor would I, question your understanding at age 11. The irksome part was the way in which you phrased what you said rather than what was said (and I saw that as opinion). I was not irked by truth, but, again, as a student of language you know exactly what you are doing and do it well.

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            • There is nothing “condescending” about saying that I figured out something at age 11. That is simply a statement of fact. If you read some other intention into simple English, I think you are using your imagination and going too far. I don’t know you or anyone here to “condescend” to them. It was just a simple statement of fact. Many other people have arrived at the same conclusion at early ages, so it was not a claim to some unique achievement. One of my best friends says that he was also appalled by the Bible as a boy and didn’t believe any of it had divine authorship. Mark Twain said that he understood the Bible so well as a boy that he protested being named Samuel after the biblical prophet. The Gideons have stopped distributing the Old Testament to children, an admission by a major source of worldwide evangelism that the Bible is not something children should be reading. These are simple facts, and I find it odd that stating facts causes this sort of accusation. Have you ever communicated your background and credentials? Were you being condescending or just stating facts? Why not give other people the benefit of the doubt?

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      • As an atheist, I think the Bible is poetry, history told with a particular ideological bent, fiction, political commentary, and some ethics. I don’t like your method, though. Of course the world was not created in six days, so you could colour in the story and forget it. Or, you could find poetic truths in it, as I did, much older than 11. I think a better way of reading the Bible, or any other text, is to try to find what value you can in it. But if you are arguing with conservative Christians, your method might be the best available.

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        • I was a reading prodigy and was reading at a college sophomore level at age 11 with excellent comprehension. My school created a special English class for me in the fifth grade and I was the only member. I was reading Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy while the rest of the class read normal fifth grade fare. For juvenalia to be published by literary journals, editors have to believe the writing is far better than most writing by adults who consider themselves to be writers. Some literary journals turn down 90% or more of the submissions they receive. I will paste a few of my early poems which have been widely published below, in case anyone cares to read them.

          I did read the Bible again as an adult, and studied a large number of books written by Christian authors, to make my very devout mother happy. But I reached the same conclusion. First, the orthodox Christian religion boils down to “God will send you to hell for guessing wrong about which religion to believe.” No religion is more intolerant. With the stitching in of the pagan “hell” into the New Testament (it was never mentioned in the Old Testament) this would make Jesus infinitely more evil than the Devil (who also is not mentioned in most of the OT and was another clumsy insertion).

          As for poetry, there are parts of the Bible that can be read as poetry, but a lot of it is like poetry written by the Taliban: not just sexist but violently anti-women, homophobic, intolerant, murderous, genocidal. Try reading Deuteronomy 22, which commands the murder of girls for being raped and child brides for not bleeding on their wedding nights. Or the genocidal passage where Moses commands his warriors to murder all the captured male babies and mothers, but to keep the virgin girls as sex slaves. That is the spirit of much of the Bible. If read as fiction or poetry, it is like something written by Osama bin Laden, who was a poet.

          If you doubt my analysis, please consider Mark Twain, probably America’s greatest author and obviously an advanced reader, who wrote extensively about the Bible and said (paraphrasing), “It’s not the verses I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the ones I understand all too well.” Twain also said the Bible contained some nice poetry and upwards of a thousand lies. Unfortunately, most readers care little about the poetry and swallow the lies whole. It’s a very dangerous book not only because people believe it, but so many believe the worst verses.

          Twain delayed the publication of his book of Bible criticism, “Letters from the Earth,” for something like 50 years because he was afraid of what might happen to his family if they were alive, at the hands of the Christians he knew. He was a very smart cookie, and he also considered the Bible to be a very dangerous book. Twain pointed out that the Bible was used in schools and churches throughout the South to prove that slavery was “the will of God.” In other words, the Bible produced American slavery and the Civil War, with 600,000 deaths, much of the nation in ruins, and the nation still dealing with the aftermath today.

          These are poems I wrote from age 11 to my teens …

          Infinity
          by Michael R. Burch

          Have you tasted the bitterness of tears of despair?
          Have you watched the sun sink through such pale, balmless air
          that your heart sought its shell like a crab on a beach,
          then scuttled inside to be safe, out of reach?

          Might I lift you tonight from earth’s wreckage and damage
          on these waves gently rising to pay the moon homage?
          Or better, perhaps, let me say that I, too,
          have dreamed of infinity … windswept and blue.

          This is one of the first poems that made me feel like a “real” poet. I remember reading the poem and asking myself, “Did I really write that?” Many years later, I’m still glad that I wrote it, and it still makes me feel like a real poet. The poem was originally published by TC Broadsheet Verses (for a whopping $10, my first cash payment) then subsequently by Piedmont Literary Review, Penny Dreadful, the Net Poetry and Art Competition, Songs of Innocence, Setu (India), Better Than Starbucks, Borderless Journal, Poetry Life & Times, Formal Verse (Potcake Poet’s Choice), Mindful of Poetry and Better Than Starbucks.

          Observance
          by Michael R. Burch

          Here the hills are old and rolling
          carefully in their old age;
          on the horizon youthful mountains
          bathe themselves in windblown fountains …

          By dying leaves and falling raindrops,
          I have traced time’s starts and stops,
          and I have known the years to pass
          almost unnoticed, whispering through treetops …

          For here the valleys fill with sunlight
          to the brim, then empty again,
          and it seems that only I notice
          how the years flood out, and in …

          This is the other early poem that made me feel like a real poet. I remember writing it in the break room of the McDonald’s where I worked as a high school student. “Observance” was originally published by Nebo as “Reckoning.” It was later published by Tucumcari Literary Review, Piedmont Literary Review, Verses, Romantics Quarterly, the anthology There is Something in the Autumn and Poetry Life & Times.

          Will There Be Starlight
          by Michael R. Burch

          Will there be starlight
          tonight
          while she gathers
          damask
          and lilac
          and sweet-scented heathers?

          And will she find flowers,
          or will she find thorns
          guarding the petals
          of roses unborn?

          Will there be starlight
          tonight
          while she gathers
          seashells
          and mussels
          and albatross feathers?

          And will she find treasure
          or will she find pain
          at the end of this rainbow
          of moonlight on rain?

          If I remember correctly, I wrote the first version of this poem toward the end of my senior year in high school. “Will There Be Starlight” has been published by The Chained Muse, Famous Poets and Poems, Grassroots Poetry, Inspirational Stories, Jenion, Poetry Webring, Starlight Archives, TALESetc, The Word (UK) and Writ in Water. David Hamilton, an award-winning Australian composer, has set the lyrics to music. There should also be a spoken-word version performed by David B. Gosselin someday soon.

          Something
          ―for the children of the Holocaust
          by Michael R. Burch

          Something inescapable is lost—
          lost like a pale vapor curling up into shafts of moonlight,
          vanishing in a gust of wind toward an expanse of stars
          immeasurable and void.

          Something uncapturable is gone—
          gone with the spent leaves and illuminations of autumn,
          scattered into a haze with the faint rustle of parched grass
          and remembrance.

          Something unforgettable is past—
          blown from a glimmer into nothingness, or less,
          which finality has swept into a corner, where it lies
          in dust and cobwebs and silence.

          This was my first free verse poem and my first non-rhyming poem. It has been published by There is Something in the Autumn (anthology), The Eclectic Muse (Canada), Setu (India), Poezii (Romanian translation by Petru Dimofte), Borderless Journal, Boloji (India), FreeXpression (Australia), Life and Legends, Poetry Super Highway, Poet’s Corner, Promosaik (Germany), Better Than Starbucks, The Chained Muse; it has also used in numerous teacher and student Holocaust projects; it has also been translated into Turkish by Nurgül Yayman; turned into a YouTube video by Lillian Y. Wong; and used by Windsor Jewish Community Centre during a candle-lighting ceremony and by Park Hill Church in a Holocaust remembrance service.

          If you got this far, thanks for taking the time to read. While I respect everyone’s opinions about the Bible, I grew up in a Christian family with missionaries, a pastor, deacons, and Sunday School teachers (including my mother). I have listened to thousands of sermons, have studied the Bible intensively and know it better than most pastors because I read it honestly and don’t gloss over the myriad lies, errors, contradictions, false prophecies and evil commandments. I am convinced that it is a very dangerous book and history confirms this. If anyone doubts me, please consider what some of the world’s greatest writers said about the Bible and Christianity: Twain, Camus, Bertrand Russell, et al.

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          • I am an historian. Just so you know. And I consider myself reasonably able. Your reading of the Biblical influence on slavery in the Deep South has it the wrong way around, but I can see how one can make the connection – certainly the slave owners did. One could argue Biblical influence led to the Declaration of Independence and the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine, indeed, the concept of Natural Rights by John Locke. And, of course, on the abolition of slavery one could argue that the Bible played a key role there (and I mean in the Haitian revolution as much as I mean the white-man’s story of Wilberforce; no, I do not refer to Lincoln as much here). In fact, a great many revolutionary movements for positive change have been inspired by the book – it is dangerous. Most books with ideas are.

            I, too, grew up in a Christian family. No missionaries (depends on the tradition I find) but with vicars, priests, lay readers and Sunday School teachers – largely without the family, but they were friends. I, too, have listened to many sermons and have studied the Bible intensively. However, I do not know to what end all this is related. I do not doubt your opinion on the text, nor do I argue with your right to hold it. I am not trying to convince you, I can’t, merely assert my own right to my own opinion and to be recognised as someone with critical faculties and understanding of my own.

            I have no body of my own work to refer to, nor any accolades that I would consider useful to relate in any way, shape or form here. Certainly I am no prodigy of any kind in anything. My apologies for being suspicious, one does not usually find celebrated poets in my online haunts, so I was careful. I meant no disrespect.

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            • I have never denied anyone’s right to form their own opinions.

              You have communicated your background and facts about yourself. Why is it “condescending” for me to do the same?

              You said that my “reading of the Biblical influence on slavery in the Deep South has it the wrong way around” as if you are correct and I am wrong. That is more condescending than anything I said. Historians can and have been wrong about many things, starting with the great Herodotus, called the “father of history.”

              Mark Twain lived in the South, knew the southerners of his day intimately, and said the Bible was used in schools and churches throughout the South to endorse slavery. When Jefferson Davis delivered a speech to Congress before leaving to become the leader of the Confederacy, in his speech he pointed out that the Bible commands slavery from beginning to end and never condemns it. If I remember correctly around five states wrote formal letters of succession and in those letters they used the Bible to defend slavery as God’s will and therefore moral and natural. A student of history might read those letters, read Jefferson Davis’s speech, and ask whether the Bible was a profound influence on the institution of American slavery. Not the only influence, of course, but a very profound one because the most powerful words throughout much of human history have been “Thus saith the LORD.”

              I will not say that I am correct and you are wrong. I will say that such a statement on your part seems far more condescending than anything I said. I could say more, but I will refrain in the hopes of a more civil, less personal, debate. If we could agree to drop the personal stuff, I think that would be for the best. If you want to debate, I will be glad to debate, or I will lapse into silence having said what I believe. Anyone who reads this thread can form their own opinion and I like to think and hope they will take simple English at face value.

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            • Let us avoid personal remarks. The word “prodigious” was mine, because I thought the epigram excellent for an 11 year old, admirable for an adult. Dr Thornton Stringfellow used the Bible to campaign for slavery in the 1850s. John Woolman used it to campaign against slavery in the Colonial period. His essay “Some considerations on the keeping of Negroes” from 1746 is closely based on Biblical texts- cherry-picked, as we all do. Christians were on both sides of the Abolition argument.

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        • I do understand that there were Christian abolitionists. However, Jefferson Davis was correct that the Bible repeatedly commands and condones slavery and never condemns it. The abolitionists were throwing out what the Bible commanded and condoned. If one is going to throw out lots of verses, why not throw out 95% of the Bible that makes no sense in the modern world? Perhaps keep 1 Corinthians 13, which seems like the most inspired bible passage to me. If one is willing to throw away 95% of the Bible, it’s not a bad book. 😉

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          • If you highlight every verse that you know to be inaccurate scientifically, historically or ethically you will get rid of a lot of the poetry. Poetic metaphors are rarely scientifically accurate. Depending on how you read poetry, it may not be scientifically accurate even today.

            Yes I throw out lots of verses, but only after seeing if they have value for me. I read it to find what good can I see in it? What might it teach me? I also read it to refute Christians who I think read it wrongly. Generally, I think the Bible does harm to those who use it wrongly, and good to those who use it well. So let us learn to use it well!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Even metaphorical poetry has a tone, a tenor. We get a very different vibe from Sappho in her metaphors than in those of war-praising, chauvinistic male poets of yore. Theoretically one could find good things in Mein Kampf, but the whole tone and tenor is wrong. While the Bible has bright spots here and there, there are vast tracts of darkness, including pretty much the entire books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Job and Revelation. Again, even the Gideons no longer distribute the Old Testament to children, but there is a lot of darkness in the New Testament as well. The “gospel” of the NT is far from “good news.” God demands bloody sacrifices. God murders his own son. God punishes human beings for guessing wrong about which religion to believe. God is sexist, homophobic, intolerant, etc.

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            • As I said, I love Job. It portrays God as handing Job over to the Adversary, apparently on a whim, as a bet. Job’s wife tells him to “Curse God and die”. Job’s friends tell him that as God is good to good people, he must be bad. Job’s prayer, quoted above, shows his pride.

              Substitutionary atonement is the only way of seeing the Crucifixion in Evangelical Christianity, but it makes no sense at all, and not all Christians accept it. As a Quaker I would say Jesus is showing non-violent resistance to the Empire’s imposition of control, which, facing overwhelming odds, the Jews in 69-72 and 135CE would have done well to emulate. If someone is permitted to and capable of killing you, turning the other cheek or going the extra mile may be all you can do.

              As an eleven-year-old, you found a good way of arguing with Christians. As an adult, you might find a better one. Woolman used the Bible to argue against slavery, I use it to argue against creationism.

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            • God murdered Job’s children to “test his faith.” But the biblical “god” is supposed to be all-knowing and able to see the future, so there would be no reason for him to humor Satan by murdering Job’s children. Murdering children for any reason is immoral, so I fail to see how anyone can approve of the book of Job or call anyone in it “righteous” or even sane, except maybe Job’s wife, who alone seemed to see that the book’s “god” was curse-worthy. At the end of the book, Job is apparently happy with replacement children. It seems like really bad theology to me, as the writer of the book tried, like Milton, to justify the ways of “god” to man but only made his “god” seem worse than the Devil.

              The “god” of Job is just as diabolical as the “god” who drowned all the innocent animals in the flood and kept hardening the pharaoh’s heart so he had an excuse to serial-slaughter more innocent animals, babies and children.

              I prefer my eleven-year-old understanding to that of the writer of Job, who apparently lacked the knowledge of good and evil and thus should be immortal according to the logic of Genesis.

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            • The Biblical God is more than one thing. In parts of the Bible God is believed to be responsible for everything that happens. Consider Numbers 14:18:

              “The Lord is slow to anger,
              and abounding in steadfast love,
              forgiving iniquity and transgression,
              but by no means clearing the guilty,
              visiting the iniquity of the parents
              upon the children
              to the third and the fourth generation.”

              Abounding in Love yet visiting sin on the innocent? God is a gaslighter! But so is the world. Children pass through a stage where they want to know what the rules are, so they can be safe. Primo Levi reported there were even people trying that in the concentration camps, but since the system was designed to kill it did not work. I try that when I am feeling vulnerable even though I know it does not work. Bad things happen to good people.

              Job loses everything, and demands that God, being Good, vindicates him. God says, I am so much greater than you. Job stops arguing with God, which is pointless, and gets on with building up his herds again. He lives his life, without thinking further on how the world ought to work: he is merely concerned with how it actually works.

              If you damn the Bible because God mistreats Job, you will not convince your conservative Christian family.

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            • “If you damn the Bible because God mistreats Job, you will not convince your conservative Christian family.”

              This sounds like the Stockholm Syndrome to me, which is what religion sounds like in general. If a child is raped do we ignore the crime of the rapist and tell the child, “Bad things happen, so just believe your rapist is good or not responsible.”? Of course no decent human being and no decent judge would do such a thing.

              The question is whether there is a God with any power. If not, the Christian religion makes no sense and the Bible is a long series of outrageous lies.

              If so, and God abuses his power or fails to use it justly, then God is amoral or evil.

              The Christian religion, in effect, is like the Stockholm Syndrome, producing sympathy or acceptance for the abuser. I cannot understand how anyone can read Job, with its diabolical “god” murdering Job’s children, and posit that such a “god” is good or in any way acceptable.

              Murdering children is wrong. If god can prevent such evils, it is incumbent on god to do so, just as it would be incumbent on us to try to keep children from being murdered during the Trail of Tears or Holocaust. If god does not prevent such evil, then either god does not exist, or has no power to resist evil, or is amoral or evil. One can believe there is no god, or that god has no power, but how can anyone believe god is “good” and sits and watches millions of children suffer and die during the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, and the Black Death, and never lifts a finger or says a word, then wants human beings to be loving, compassionate, merciful and just? That would make Jesus the greatest of hypocrites when he saved all his sternest criticism for hypocrites.

              Ultimately, it makes no sense because God and Jesus would be the greatest hypocrites imaginable. To avoid believing that God is amoral or evil, one must believe that God does not exist or is powerless to resist evil. To posit that God wants any kind of positive human behavior would require reciprocity on his part for God not to be the supreme hypocrite.

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            • I started my post on the God I believe in, and do not believe in. If there is no God the Father Almighty (GTFA), the Bible still wrestles with what it means to be human in the world. Everyone has sooner or later to consider that life is unfair: what better way than to think on Job, who lost seven sons and three daughters, all his children, in one sudden accident. Job has lasting value, because it portrays an Almighty who accepts good people being afflicted in this way. It’s a necessary life lesson, and a direct contradiction of psalm 37:25, quoted above.

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            • If God is powerless to do good, one might say that God simply permits the inevitable and Job was just out of luck. I believe this is how Einstein saw the universe: the Creator designed it, wound it up, and whatever happened was inevitable. Einstein’s Creator had no morals and didn’t interact with his creations.

              But of course the Bible says nothing like that. The Bible repeatedly claims to “know” that there is a God who wants human beings to act better than wild animals. But Jesus made it vividly clear that he despised hypocrisy and that hypocrisy was the antithesis of his religion. So we are left with a “moral God” who demands morality from human beings while never bothering to behave morally himself. In other words, the Christian God is not Christian if he has the ability to do good but causes or allows Job’s children to be murdered.

              If you are saying that you think God is powerless to do good and he didn’t really murder Job’s children, that would make sense, but then you could toss out most of the Bible as sheer nonsense. In order for Jesus, God and the Angels to not be hypocrites, they would either have to not exist, or be powerless to do good. Poof, there goes 99% of the Bible, which says otherwise.

              Einstein solved the puzzle by saying that morality was for human beings, not God, and admitting the simple truth that if God exists he seems to have no interest in human morality, just as he has no interest in insect morality or tiger morality.

              It seems to me that most Christians want to have their cake and eat it too. They know God allows all sorts of evil and does nothing to prevent it, but they claim God is a moral being. The two do not add up. A human doctor who could cure the coronavirus but withheld the cure from millions of suffering and dying people would be evil. So a God who knew the Black Death could be prevented with better rat control and sanitation, and who only had to whisper a few words to someone in a position of power, but chose not to do so, would be evil. The only way I can see to resolve the paradox is to admit that God doesn’t exist, or is powerless, which is essentially the same thing.

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            • You describe Einstein’s God as fitting Deism. As I said, I do not believe in GTFA. You’re arguing that the Christianity you know makes no rational sense, to which I would reply that it strongly bonds social groups. I am arguing that the Bible has value as a record of human wrestling with the meaning of life, which has beauty and value despite all that. You mentioned 1 Corinthians 13; if you read the New Revised Standard Version you might find other bits you liked, if you could get beyond your revulsion from Christianity, and your logical argument.
              https://wordpress.com/themes/clareflourish.wordpress.com
              Many of the writers are poets. Life is hard. What do they make of it? Can you relate to them as fellow poets?

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            • Now you sound like you’re lecturing me, so I am going to opt out of this discussion.

              Forget about me and perhaps you can consider the facts in non-lecture mode. I suggest reading Twain, Voltaire, Camus, William Blake, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, et al. None of them would agree with the way you gloss over the deeply disturbing problems with the Bible. When reading sheer evil like Mein Kampf, or Deuteronomy or Revelation, one can either embrace the evil, oppose the evil, or take the ostrich approach.

              I do not recommend embracing the evil or the ostrich approach, but it’s your heart and your brain and you have to decide how to employ them. When I was eleven I knew how to use mine, and I still know how to use them today, and they tell me the same things. We should recognize evil when we read it, and we should oppose evil, whether the writer is Hitler or primitive witch doctors pretending to speak for God Almighty.

              Liked by 1 person

        • If one does not believe in God the Father, and also does not believe in any need for logic, reading the Bible as far as morality goes might be like reading the propaganda of the Flat Earth Society and not concluding the writers are nuts. But the Flat Earth Society is nuts and so were the evil geniuses who wrote most of the Bible. I agree with Twain and Einstein that logic does matter and I believe a book that has caused so many horrors throughout human history has to be treated differently from other poems and fairy tales that didn’t. The Bible is a very different book and the evidence of history is that it is a very dangerous book. Women burned as witches and girls forced into lives of sex slavery “in the name of God” might agree with me. If you disagree, then we disagree and “never the Twain shall meet” (pardon the pun).

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          • Of course logic matters; but in situations like confronting the fact that life is unfair, it is not sufficient. Unfairness produces profound emotions, which need to be received in an emotionally intelligent way, not a merely “logical” way. Job gives catharsis.

            Christians often believe that the Bible is inerrant, and that leads to problems. Knowledge of it as a conversation with different views helps produce a better understanding of it, which some Christians might hear. Calling it evil may rescue other Christians: they are arguments for different audiences.

            It is a dangerous book in that it can be misused, but that shows its power. Get to know its power, and you can mitigate the use for harm.

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  3. The problem as I see it is we are trying to imagine something we too limited with our human shell and have no hope of comprehending. We are mindless mosquitos as compared to the intelligence that conceived of the universe and so I don’t go to a book written by humans for reality. Meanwhile I look around and can see intelligence behind creation and try to lead the best life I can by loving myself and others as best I can. That must and needs to be good enough.

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