Mon 15 Jun 2009
A new book with the promising but pathetically journalistic title The Evolution of God has just appeared with media fanfare. The fanfare I have seen thus far is an op ed piece and a Time Magazine article by the author, Robert Wright. In both the author’s lack of knowledge brands the work fiction from the start. Let’s start with the Time Magazine article, which is entitled “Decoding God’s Changing Moods.” As a veteran journalist, Wright knows that Bible codes sell well, even though there is nothing to decode in his supposed code. He simply chooses some nice-sounding verses in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and concludes:
“God spent enough time in benevolent mode to leave the Scriptures littered with odes to tolerance and understanding, verses that modern believers can focus on, should they choose.”
Mr. Wright appears to be evolving a form of a la carte hermeneutics, pick and choose the nice bits and feel good.
The code that Wright spins has nothing to do with the Vatican, which will not make this non-thriller into a Hollywood film any time soon, but is the simple-minded notion that there is sufficient non-zero-sumness in the Bible and Quran to build interfaith tolerance. While I certainly applaud the call for promoting tolerance, this must usually be done by first admitting that much of the sacred scriptures preach the direct opposite and have been so interpreted for centuries. We can be once-a-year Sunday Christians and only remember the “love your neighbor” reminder, but the venom of Israel’s prophets against Israel’s and God’s enemies is indelible. Yahweh is a vengeful God throughout, as the very first commandment illustrates. Tolerance of those who did not believe in Yahweh is virtually non-existent in the Old Testament.
The readers of Wright’s stuff should remember that even the Devil can quote scripture, just as authors sometimes forget that the devil is in the details. Wright plays fast and loose with the details. In the Time Magazine article he cites an Israelite military leader in the Book of Judges as brokering a live-and-let-live peace agreement with the dreaded Ammonites. But he completely misreads the passage, which is anything but tolerant. The passage is in Judges 11 and in fact is a challenge to the Ammonites, which Israel in KJV language “smote” to the hilt. His basic argument is that “Certain kinds of situations inspired tolerance, and other kinds inspired the opposite.” How profound, yet this is the gist of the author’s hidden code. If Wright is simply saying that God did not always grant outright victory and Israel had to tolerate unbelievers, there is nothing new in this obvious reading of history. But the crucial point Wright glosses over is that the message throughout the early history and prophetic rant is consistent: death to the infidels and woe to any Israelites who turn away from Yahweh. The facile attempt to explain the Priestly redactor of the Babylonian exile as “more inclusive” is absurd. I suppose that Wright would have us to believe Daniel was thrown into a den of tame lions.
Misreading the Bible, no matter what the ultimate goal, is followed by an equally faulty understanding of early Islamic history. Speaking of the early Islamic conquests, Wright writes in the Time Magazine article: “This imperial expansion gave birth to the doctrine of jihad, which mandates battle against unbelievers with the aim of conversion.” It looks as if Wright is using Daniel Pipes as his source here. From the legal perspective of fiqh, jihad as warfare (which is indeed the only legitimate form of warfare) is described in detail. The primary purpose, illustrated in the exile of Muhammad in Medina, is defense of the community, not offense against others. Even Wikipedia has this part right.
But I have saved the “best” part for last. Obamamania seems to have blinded Mr. Wright. In his op ed entitled “The Bible’s Vindication of Obama’s Middle East Strategy,” Wright suggests the following: “If you read the Bible carefully, and are mindful of its historical context, it offers a kind of support for Obama’s position on the settlements and for his approach to the ‘Muslim world’ broadly.” May Jeremiah Wright (no relation, I suspect) rest in peace. I am not sure what Wright means by reading the Bible “carefully,” unless it means finding whatever fits the argument he wants to make. The problem starts with the weak mood-changing God that he conjures out of the Old Testament. It seems that whenever Israel “felt humiliated and dispossessed” they had a thirst for revenge, just like the modern day Palestinians. “But Israel’s God didn’t stay in that mood forever. Circumstances changed.” And when circumstances, obviously not under the control of God, changed, so did Yahweh’s mood. Now once Israel had been punished for its sins by destruction of the state by the Assyrians and then the Babylonians, it was a different world in which their tormenters were now their neighbors (I am not making this up…) So here is the crux of the argument:
The moral of the story is simple: When people see their interests threatened by another group, this perception brings out the most belligerent parts of their religion. Such circumstances are good news for violent extremists and bad news for moderates. What Obama is trying to do–make Palestinians feel less threatened, and make Muslims generally feel more respected–is what may now, as it did in ancient times, bring out the tolerant side of a religion.
Personally, I liked Obama’s recent speech in Cairo for the attitude change it signals to Muslims the world over. Indeed it is a call for tolerance, but on the basis of a rationalism combined with pragmatism. It is not God, be he Yahweh, Allah or the Trinity, who has mood swings; the history of religion is a history of human interpretation and ultimately creation of the very idea of God and gods. To assume that a weak and vacillating deity is the codified object of the sacred scriptures is utterly silly.
But not to be lost in the shuffle, Wright manages to dismiss the Palestinians. Instead of realizing that they fit the historical precedent of the Canaanites who were brutally ousted by the fleeing children of Israel under Joshua and his successors, the modern day Palestinians are said to mirror the ancient Israelites. The Assyrians and the Babylonians destroyed Israel and Judea, as the prophets report, because of the sin of following other gods. God rewarded their tolerance with Israel’s violent destruction. I think Wright would be better off leaving his biblical interpretation to scholars who actually know something about it and follow Obama’s own suggestion that the present day suffering of the Palestinians is like the slavery and subsequent racial prejudice against African Americans.
If Wright thinks he has evolved a better understanding of the monotheistic God, he really needs a more intelligent design than this.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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