|Page from a Gutenberg Bible (1454)|
Witness to the GenerationsI meditated on these centuries-old relics for quite a while, considering the many human lifetimes that have passed since the words were pressed and penned onto their pages. Even back then, the sources of those words were already ancient. Most of the books were Bibles, their text copied or translated from a succession of painstakingly hand-copied manuscripts whose original sources have been almost entirely lost in antiquity.
Two columns of clean, bold type stared out at me from the page of a Gutenberg Bible, 558 years after the ink went dry. So much history has passed since then, so many generations born into lives that were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Thomas Hobbes, 1651). The black and red of the letters seemed not to have faded at all, unlike the colors of whoever pressed the type onto the page in Mainz, Germany–and his child, and that child, and so on. At least twenty generations of lives blooming and fading: a succession of pink-faced infancy transforming into the gray of old age and death, or worse, a dark red death on the endless battlefields of crusade and conquest.
|Manuscript copy (1475) of Lombard’s Sentences (c. 1225)|
Some nameless monk put the flourishes on his red-inked initial letters a little more than a decade before the birth of Martin Luther, a man who would himself become a monk and spend hours poring over these Sentences in a volume such as this. Then, as Luther left the monastery–as he married and spawned a half-dozen new human lives with Katherine Von Bora, as he split the medieval Church in two–these pages would lie there, with their earnest and endless discussions about such matters as whether the Trinity required that
God begot God. For if God begot God, it seems that either He begot Himself God, or an other. However if He begot an other God, there is not only one God; moreover if He begot His very self God, some thing begot its very self. [Book 1, Distinction 4, Ch. 1]Bound securely together between pigskin-covered wooden boards and passed on from one conservator to another, they would endure centuries of disputation and savagery in the name of the faith of which they spoke. Thomas More (1478-1535) would burn heretics, and then have the axe of righteous indignation fall on his own neck. A peasant uprising would be violently crushed (1525) with the approval of that same Luther (Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants) whose theological attacks on ecclesiastical authority a decade earlier had inspired them, but considered their secular rebellion deserving of “death in body and soul.” Toward the end of the 1500s, France would suffer eight wars between Catholics and Protestants (Loftus 2010, Kindle loc. 2452). Then, from 1618-1648, a whole generation of adherents of those two versions of Christianity would slaughter each other in the Thirty Years’ War,
one of the most destructive wars in European history that pitted Christians against each other. This war was fought primarily in Germany, but other countries got involved as well. . . . So great was the loss of life from this war that estimates show one-third of the entire population of the Germany was killed. Württemberg lost three-quarters of its entire population. Brandenburg suffered the loss of half of its population, as did Marburg and Augsburg, while Magdeburg was reduced to rubble. Outside of Germany nearly one-third of the Czech population died as well. [Kindle loc. 2455-59]The Geneva Bible was first published in 1560. This 1612 reprint was just a few years old when the Thirty Years’ War began. It was already an antique when religious fanaticism came to the New World with the Salem Witch Trials (1692-1693).
|Geneva Bible (1612)|
Witch HuntingBy the time Conservative Laestadians experienced their own mass hysteria in the 1970s and 1980s (§4.6.4, §4.10.2), the churchmen had no physical penalties available for driving out the devil from their midst. But spiritual condemnation remained very much in force; the Salem trial of Satan had morphed into a “caretaking meeting” of “false spirits,” conducted with every bit as much pious zeal in AALC churches and SRK meeting halls across North America and Finland.
|German Bible (1736). The passage is God’s|
guarantee of evangelical futility in Isaiah 6.
Sin affects sore spots in the members of Christ’s Body. Speedy care is always necessary, so that a member [of the congregation] doesn’t need to be cut off. The instructions for care have been given by the Holy Spirit. Sickness is to be avoided but in care of sicknesses the help comes by way of individuals or at the center for care aided by the congregation of God. First the brother is to be reproved by one. Then with two or three witnesses present if the brother is not obedient to this reproof. Last of all the congregation decides the matter of the brother. The Church Law of Christ is particularly necessary at the end times. [Voice of Zion, May 1974]Keeping the camp of the saints free of dissenters and sinners has always been a priority. The author of 1 Cor 5:13, for example, reminds his readers:
I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.From thin pages of mass-produced Bibles that lay on the folding tables where the spiritually suspect sat before the congregation, the words still cried out for removal of the heathen from the midst of the faithful. They did so with as much force as they had coming from heavy leaves of the old relics now locked away in museums and collections. True, the physical horrors were no longer being inflicted as they had centuries earlier, by people who might well have read some of the very same pages I saw at the library exhibit. But the change to a mere spiritual sentence of “binding” was not imposed by the Holy Word or its interpreters. Rather, it was the result of a gradually emerging secular sanity that had finally dawned on civilized humankind.
Sacred SavageryThe Salem inquisitors’ imperative, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18), is actually one of the tamer passages between the covers of these Bibles. The New Testament God has a vicious threat to keep his worshipers in line–an eternity of unspeakable torment–but at least no actual blood is being shed. In the Old Testament portion of “God’s Word,” however, the divine atrocities are all too real, and sickening to contemplate.
One example is enough to make the point. (You can read about many more in §6 of my book.) Ezekiel 8 tells us that God got pissed about “abominations” being committed against him: seventy “men of the ancients of the house of Israel” burning incense and surrounded by carvings on the walls of his sanctuary of “creeping things, and abominable beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel” (8:10-11), some women weeping for a Babylonian fertility god (8:14), and 25 men prostrating themselves toward the sun and “putting the branch to their nose” (8:16-17).
God’s response makes the Spanish Inquisition look like small claims court. He called for the executioners of the city to draw near, each “with his destroying weapon in his hand” (Ezekiel 9:1). He commanded that the men of Jerusalem who disapproved of the aforementioned abominations be marked on their foreheads. Then, he directed,
Go ye after him through the city, and smite: let not your eye spare, neither have ye pity: Slay utterly old and young, both maids, and little children, and women: but come not near any man upon whom is the mark; and begin at my sanctuary. Then they began at the ancient men which were before the house. And he said unto them, Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain: go ye forth. [Ezekiel 9:5-7]It didn’t matter that the women and innocent children had no way to take sides and avoid God’s wrath. When the bodies piled up, theirs lay right alongside those of the men.
It is impossible to convey in a blog posting just how much savagery, inhumanity, historical and scientific error, and contradiction there is contained in the pages of this supposed “highest authority.” During the months of 2009 I spent reading the Bible from cover to cover, I was repeatedly shocked at the awful stuff I was encountering for the first time (§4.3.3). Just as disturbing to me were the excuses I heard when mentioning it to Laestadian friends whose duties in the church, if not their personal convictions, required them to defend the Bible at all costs. One memorable line I remember hearing, after complaining about the conquest narratives of Joshua: “You’re talking about human life. This life means nothing to God!” So much for a pro-life God, then. And, as Thom Stark eloquently points out,
to say that God is good when God does precisely what God has told us is evil is to render the language of good and evil meaningless. If God commanded genocide, then to say that God is good is to render “good” utterly unintelligible. [Stark 2011, 137]
It’s not just that the explanations were utterly unconvincing. As Ken Daniels discovered from his own experience with such empty talk regarding the massacre and rape of the Midanites in Numbers 31, the
attempt to explain it away only lowered my respect for the apologists doing the explaining. Why would anyone, particularly mothers who love their daughters and daughters who value their dignity, even want to try to defend passages like these? The very inclination to justify such barbarism revealed to me the unyielding grip of an absolute faith upon its adherents. [Daniels 2010, 46]
|Voice of Zion, June 1977|
The fact is that we are better than that, and the most pious among us knows it. No matter how much the party line insists on acceptance of the “Holy” text in its entirety, none of us really believes it is morally defensible to own slaves and beat them to within an inch of their lives because they are mere property (Exodus 21). Most of the people I know in the LLC are either blissfully ignorant of these and hundreds of other biblical outrages, are profoundly troubled by them, or simply let the preachers have their say while cheerfully keeping their opinions to themselves. They may find encouragement in Stark’s rousing call for Christians to free themselves from the construct of an infallible book:
Freedom from this construct, freedom to examine the scriptures, freedom to subject them to critique–that is the freedom to engage in moral struggle, the freedom to commit oneself to the struggle to find God, to find the truth, to find justice, even if that means struggling against some of our own traditions and sacred texts. It is not a rejection of God, but the freedom to choose not to take the shortcuts that the powerbrokers of the past have concocted to keep the rabble in line and the so-called heretics disempowered. [Stark 2011, 69]Humanity has suffered enough from its centuries of oppression and bloodshed under these ancient, misguided, and barbaric words. Let the old books sit in their display cases and vaults, witnesses to our fearful and ignorant past. Yes, it’s hard to part with a familiar and once unquestioned source of authority, as evidenced by the defensive tone of an article (see image above) in the June 1977 Voice of Zion about the supposed evils of a new wave of humanism. But the situational ethics and lying that “is acceptable under some circumstances” is actually the burden of those who persist in defending these indefensible texts. The article defines humanism, with implied criticism, as “a mode of thought based on human interests and ideals rather than traditional or religious principles.” You know what? At this point, that sounds pretty good to me.
- Daniels, Kenneth W. 2010. Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary. (kwdaniels.com).
- Loftus, John, ed. 2010. The Christian Delusion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Price, Robert M. 2006. The Reason-Driven Life. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
- Stark, Thom. 2011. The Human Faces of God. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
- Suominen, Edwin A. 2012. An Examination of the Pearl. (ExaminationOfThePearl.org). All “§” citations refer to sections of this book with links to the HTML version.
- Wells, Steve. 2010. Drunk With Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible. Giordano Press (DrunkWithBlood.com).