By Tom Krattenmaker
A new push is under way to get people reading the Bible — a sensible antidote to Americans’ well-documented biblical illiteracy. Behind the drive are influential Texas pastors Randy Frazee and Max Lucado, who both have new books out to guide people through the Scriptures. As capable as these read-your-Bible champions are, however, theirs is not the most straightforward task.
For starters, they are fighting against a social current that is making book-reading of any sort a harder sell. But perhaps even more significant are the disturbing discoveries awaiting readers who are lured back to the “the good book” — content that might come as an unpleasant surprise to Christians convinced it’s only certain other religions that must account for violence in their sacred texts.
As becomes unavoidably clear from a stroll through the Old Testament, the Bible can be gruesome, too.
An unflinching presentation of the Bible’s bloodiest passages, combined with wise counsel on what Christians might make of them, comes courtesy of another book about Bible-reading hitting shelves about the same time as Frazee’s and Lucado’s. In Laying down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, religious studies professor Philip Jenkins documents the tendency of many polite Christians to look away from the genocidal tales of the Old Testament. He argues that serious engagement with the Bible requires the opposite: candid acknowledgment of these passages’ existence and serious meditation on their meaning for believers today.
A biblical slaughter
Give Frazee credit for addressing in his new book, The Heart of the Story, one of those disturbing Bible stories: the destruction of a people called the Amorites. These were the occupants of Canaan, the “land of milk and honey” that the Israelites were commanded by God to claim as their new home. The Israelites, as it says in the book of Joshua, “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it — men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”
Not exactly inspirational.
Attempting to make sense the appalling account, Frazee points to, among other factors, the evil ways of the Amorites and the ample opportunities they had to reform.
Jenkins, on the other hand, cautions against this common practice of justifying the violence by pointing to the immorality of the Amorites, or Amalekites, or other peoples laid to waste in the Old Testament. There is no evidence, he argues, that these victims of divinely sanctioned massacres were demonstrably more immoral than the many nations that were spared the divine sword.
Moreover, couldn’t these kinds of justifications open the door to all manner of violent mischief in present times? This is more than mere abstraction. As Jenkins points out, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once gave a journalist this chilling explanation for the prime minister’s hard-line attitude toward Iran: “Think Amalek.”
The discerning course, Jenkins says, is to situate the bloody passages in their place and time — a place and time with a vastly different moral understanding of violence and its justifications. A useful takeaway for Christians today is the imperative to spiritually “smite,” to use that Old Testament word, anything that corrupts one’s faith or devotion to God.
The Jenkins book also offers a much-needed admonition against a too-common practice today of plucking certain passages from the Quran (while ignoring the many peace-preaching verses) and marshaling them as “proof” that Islam is inherently violent.
Violence and Islam
One prime example of this proof-text smearing can be found in an article titled “Islam 101” at the Jihad Watch website. “The violent injunctions of the Quran and the violent precedents set by Mohammed,” writes its author, Gregory Davis, “set the tone for the Islamic view of politics and of world history.” (Of course, Islam would be nowhere near as vulnerable to these rhetorical attacks if not for the grim reality of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, which themselves have raided the Quran to justify their violent acts.)
The point here is not to start an unprofitable argument about whether the Bible is equally, or more, violent than the Quran. Suffice it to say that the scriptural bases for the world’s two predominant religions both have verses that appear to justify the most hideous acts of violence. And, thankfully, the vast majority of followers of both religions do not incorporate this violence into the practice of their faith, or support those who do.
Reading Jenkins’ book, it’s easy to see how one with a vendetta against Christians, or Jews, could (mis)use the Bible in much the same way that others use the Quran’s violent content against Muslims.
Let’s face it. Whether it’s Christians or Muslims, stone-throwers ought to realize that their own houses are glass.
Tom Krattenmaker, is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of the book Onward Christian Athletes.