Straw Man Arguments and the Bible

I don’t normally go in for apologetics-type stuff – I’m happy to have conversations with people, but I like those conversations a) to be with people I like and b) to be more about learning than winning an argument. Regardless, there’s a point of interest that’s cropped up for me recently, and it’s worth touching on here. We’ll take a quick break from Pseudo-Dionysus, and get back to him next week. For now, we’re talking about straw man arguments and when atheists read the Bible. 

So there’s this thing that I come across where people will attack Christianity based on their own private interpretations of what the Bible says. It’s a classic straw man argument: you set up a particular (nonsense) reading of the Bible and then attack Christianity for believing that thing that you just made up. When I put it that way, it’s obvious why this approach is stupid – but there’s a couple of more seemingly sensible arguments which are actually very similar. Those are the ones I’d like to tease out here.

Let’s start with an example. Imagine somebody comes along and picks up Ephesians 6:5:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”

Our person might then argue that Christianity justifies slavery – it doesn’t seem to have anything bad to say about it, and it even uses slavery as an example of what our relationship to Jesus should be like. What’s more, this example’s from the New Testament, so we can’t even blame the Jews. From this verse in the Bible, it seems like Christianity is cool with slavery. In point of fact, I googled ‘Bible verses slavery’ to find this verse, and was amused to find one of the top links was an anti-Christian website arguing precisely that.

So this is a perfect straw man. No Christian today believes that slavery is fine – everybody agrees that it’s generally a terrible thing. If you asked a Christian to interpret that verse, they might tell you that it’s an instruction rooted in the culture of the time, but that it doesn’t imply that the contemporary culture was perfect or even necessarily good. It’s more like ‘Hey, given that this is where our society is currently at, here’s a recommendation on how to behave.’ Even if you’re not particularly convinced by this interpretation, the fact is that if you’re not a Christian, you don’t get an opinion on what Christians believe. You might read something in the Bible that you hate, and that’s fine, but whatever you’ve taken away from it isn’t necessarily what Christians believe, and it’s actually a straw man to attack Christianity on those grounds. Christopher Hitchens does this all the time – he’ll quote a passage of Scripture, tell us what it means in his opinion, and then tell us that his interpretation is the definitive meaning and therefore Christians are bad/stupid/immoral.

There’s a few other caveats to go in here too. Obviously there was a time when Christians were fine with slavery. The American Civil War was just over a hundred and fifty years ago – in view of the two thousand years that Christianity’s been around, that’s not very far back. I’m totally fine with criticising those specific Christians for their stupid beliefs – it’s entirely reasonable. It’s something we should still be doing today. However, the generalisation back to all of Christianity is another problem. X Christians believed/said/did X, so therefore all Christians believe/say/do X. That’s not quite how it works. Christianity is two thousand years old and infinitely diverse. There are Christians who’re invested in the cult of God as Mother. There are Christians who believe that the resurrection of Jesus was Just a Metaphor. There are Christians who believe (or at least believed) that Jesus was a ghost possessing the body of some poor bastard who got hung out to dry on the cross while ghost-Jesus fucked off again. Christianity contains two thousand years of history and diversity and cultural change. It’s big and complicated and messy, and generalisations don’t do it justice.

So even though this week might seem like something of a tangent, it’s actually picking up on a bunch of the themes we’ve already been working through. The whole point about the straw man is that Christianity qua Christianity is best understood by looking at the community of interpreters/believers, not the book. My point also implies that although the Bible is (according to Christians) the Word of God, its meaning is not necessarily transparent. It needs to be interpreted, and that process of interpretation makes way for all of the cultural issues around instability of meaning, cultural idiosyncrasies and ideological baggage – basically a whole lot of stuff that needs sifting. The process of reading the Bible is therefore just as much about reading one’s own society as anything to do with the Bible.

The other implication of my argument (and this is a big one) is that authority about what defines Christianity rests in the church, not in the Bible. If you don’t have a religious background you probably don’t understand why that’s important, but rest assured, any Protestant worth their salt is currently screaming at their computer screen. Basically one of the big shifts in Protestant theology is to privilege the Bible over the hidebound traditions of the Catholic church. Martin Luther ain’t got no time for your indulgences: that shit’s not in the Bible, so it’s just the culture that’s built up around the faith – and therefore it’s not important. Sola Scriptura states that the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, and while I’m not out and out disagreeing with that, I am noting that the Bible isn’t transparent. It has to be interpreted by a community of believers, and that process of interpretation means that any doctrine and practice espoused by the church is inseparable from the culture of the church at the time. To try and clarify my point, I’m not rejecting Sola Scriptura, but I’m very much against the notion that we have objective unfettered access to whatever the Bible is trying to say. It’s that lack of transparency that makes non-Christian opinions about what the Bible says irrelevant – at least for the purposes of defining Christianity.

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