The latest front in the seemingly unending culture wars is Bible-believing Christians versus GQ.
In case you are blessedly ignorant of what’s been happening, allow me to ruin your day.
First, GQ decided to publish a snarky, irreverent piece essentially saying: “These 21 books are almost universally considered great. They actually suck. Read these other 21 thematically similar books instead.”
Now, obviously, the goal of a listicle like this is clicks. Fans of the dissed books will express their outrage, whether feigned or genuine, GQ will reap the ad-revenue and brand-expansion benefits, and the world spins on.
End of story, right? Well, no.
12. The Bible
The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.
The takes, they were hot.
Here are a couple pulled from the USA Today article about the kerfuffle:
Wow. What a way for GQ to show this irrelevance. The bible is way more hip than GQ.
— Brian Houston (@BrianCHouston) April 23, 2018
— Eric Metaxas (@ericmetaxas) April 22, 2018
GQ magazine just included the Bible in “21 books you don’t have to read before you die.” Wow—they couldn’t be more wrong. Their article says the Bible is “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.” I guess they can’t explain why the Bible is the best-selling and most widely distributed book in the world. Recent estimates put the number that have been distributed since 1815 at more than 5 BILLION copies—and over 100 million are printed every year! The Holy Bible is God-breathed, it is living and active, and it is sharper than a double-edged sword. There’s nothing more powerful, and there’s nothing more needed by mankind than the Word of God. Maybe the GQ editors need to read it, again. The subject of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is Jesus Christ. And one day soon, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord.
– Franklin Graham on Facebook
What’s remarkable to me is how much GQ and its critics agree. In fact, they agree on some fundamental, and inaccurate, assumptions about how to read the Bible that make these sorts of controversies almost inevitable – and it’s difficult to stop having these sorts of conversations without confronting these inaccurate ideas.
The primary one is this: that the Bible is a book.
The Bible is not a book.
Look at the list of the other 20 “great books” panned in the GQ article. They are conventional books like Catcher in the Rye or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – books written by a single author at a specific time within the past 200 years, telling a single story to a single audience. None of those characteristics fits the Bible, which is a collection of ancient texts, none of them newer than 1,800 years old, written or compiled by dozens of different authors, each of them with a different audience in mind.
So our main problem is that including the Bible in a list like this is a category error; the only reason for lumping a multivocal ancient Hebrew/Greek work like the Bible with univocal classics of English literature is to be provocative – in which case, well done, GQ!
But this isn’t a mistake GQ is alone in making. The offended responses from the self-appointed Defenders of the Word indicate they, too, think of the Bible in this way. For example, Franklin Graham objects to the portrayal of the Bible as “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned.”
One can certainly find something to object to here, regardless of your view of the Bible. “Foolish” and “ill-intentioned” sound like a better description of the sentence they conclude than any reasonable assessment of a millennia-old religious text. What does it even mean for the Bible to be “ill-intentioned”? It’s an insult looking for a target.
But, look: The Bible is repetitive. It is contradictory in places. In some places, it’s repetitive and contradictory at the same time! It’s not hard to see how someone who didn’t grow up with it as a moral lodestar would see it as sententious. That’s because the Bible is not a book; it’s a collection.
So when Genesis records three separate instances of a Hebrew forefather passing off his wife as his sister in the presence of a foreign king – or when Jesus cleanses the temple multiple times at different points in his ministry depending on which gospel you’re reading – the author of GQ’s blurb about the Bible isn’t wrong in pointing out these inconsistencies.
Here are a few more criticisms someone could legitimately make about the Bible:
- Parts of it are boring. Have you read the Bible straight through? Great! Did you do it without skimming large sections of Leviticus and Numbers? No, you didn’t, liar.
- It’s incredibly confusing! In the 18 centuries we’ve had the Bible to parse, we’ve come up with no fewer than three separate systems for what happens to people after they die (eternal conscious torment, annihilationism, universalism), numerous theories for how Jesus’ death saves us from our sins, launched whole wars on the question of free will and God’s sovereignty, and seen denominations split literally hundreds of times in the United States alone over questions of doctrine and church practice, each group claiming to follow the plain text of the Bible.
- It’s really disturbing. C’mon, I don’t have to hold your hand through the passages in which God explicitly calls for the extermination of women and children, or the ones that condone, if not encourage slavery, or the ones that seem to call for the suppression and oppression of women, or the ones where God takes life, or orders the taking of life, without a second thought. Much smarter people than you or I have been struggling with these passages for centuries.
So there are legitimate criticisms that someone, especially someone on the outside of the various Christian subcultures – especially outside the evangelical subculture – could make about the Bible were they to make the mistake of viewing it as a single, timeless book instead of a collection of texts written within and to specific cultures that should be studied seriously and carefully.
But the Christian criticism of GQ’s article does not center on its ridiculous decision to read the Bible as a single book. Instead, it assumes this fundamental error was correct. Franklin Graham cites the Bible’s status as the planet’s best-selling book of all time. Eric Metaxas does not object to literary criticism of the Bible as if it were a Jane Austen novel; he just objects to it being done by GQ. Brian Houston of Hillsong church goes even further and compares the Bible to GQ itself! The Bible is now “more hip” than a magazine. Glad that’s settled.
This continues a longstanding tendency, especially in evangelicalism, to insist that the Bible is not just inerrant and infallible in matters of science and history, but is also a literary masterpiece. I remember as a kid hearing somewhere (probably in my small church-run fundamentalist school), and accepting it as self-evident, that literary critics considered the Bible the best-written book of all time. Obviously, this claim breaks down under the weight of clarifying questions – in the original language or in translation? In which translation? How is this determined? It’s undoubtedly true that the Bible contains many beautiful passages, and that they read even more beautifully in certain translations, and that the Bible as a literary document has indeed inspired many beautiful works of art. But when we imbue the Bible with the weight of inerrancy, that need for perfection quickly spreads from what it says to how it says it.
Thus when a flame-throwing provocateur like GQ comes in and says, in not so many words, that the Bible sucks, actually – well, that strikes deeply at many Christians’ self-conception. Because in many quarters Christianity has been replaced by bibliolatry; the Word of God does not refer to Jesus so much as the collection of texts bearing witness to him. The point is not to follow Jesus; it is to follow the Bible. Criticizing the Bible, therefore, whether that be in a rude and overbearing way on the pages of GQ or in a more respectful, academic way in a book by, say, Peter Enns, triggers an overreaction, a doctrinal fight-or-flight response.
Which of course is exactly what GQ was hoping for. That’s why these reactions by Christian leaders get all the eyerolls from me. They fell, once again, into the trap set by a troll looking for clicks. You’d think after four decades of fighting – and mostly losing – the culture wars, conservative Christians would realize that this circle-the-wagons approach to every bit of criticism only serves to elevate the criticism into the broader discourse. Staunchly defending the Bible at the same time as they also staunchly defend Donald Trump, the personal antithesis of any value that could remotely be considered biblical, is not helpful either.
Just as Ken Ham and Richard Dawkins agree that the credibility of the entire Bible hangs on whether God truly created the world in seven literal days 6,000 years ago, so here Graham, Metaxas and others agree with GQ’s snobby lit-crit take on the Bible – that it should be treated in a flat, anachronistic, univocal way that does damage to its intent and its message.
The Bible is not a better, longer, more spiritual Hemingway novel. It should not be treated as such – not by click-seeking literary critics, and not by the Christians defending it.