This week I’m happy to get started on what I hope will be a central feature of American Secularist – a blog of the New Testament. Back when I taught Sunday School on a regular basis, I was a real student of the NT, reading it through a number of times. I believed, and still do, that anything happening in a person’s life that is part of his Christian experience should be measured against the words written in these twenty-seven books.
But why, you might ask, would a secularist blog be interested in looking so closely at the New Testament writings? Well, if I wanted to understand Russian culture, I might spend a bit of time reading Dostoyevsky or listening to Tchaikovsky. If I wanted to delve into the French mind, a bit of existentialism might be in order. Just as it would be impossible to understand Thai society without an appreciation for Buddhism, I think it’s impossible to understand how Americans think without some knowledge of the second half of the Bible, and the teachings that stem from it. To be sure, there are other influences on American thought, but in the mainstream, the Bible is still the most influential book.
I hope to take a fresh approach to the early Christian writings, looking at them without any pre-conceived ideas, as either a believer or a skeptic. A ‘scholarly’ approach would be a little heavier than what I have in mind as well – there are plenty of books available along those lines, if you can stay awake long enough to read them. As I read the scriptures, I simply want to answer a few questions about the relationships between mainstream American ideas and the Bible. Some of the questions rolling around in my head are:
- what exactly do Jesus and the Apostles have to say?
- can we be reasonably sure that the Bible as we have it today accurately represents their ideas?
- are there any recent discoveries that help us understand the context of the New Testament?
- what doctrines / beliefs have Americans constructed from these writing?
- is American Christianity an accurate representation of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?
- what relationship, if any, does the New Testament have with democratic government?
To give credit where credit is due, I also hope to continue the task one of my favorite on-line writers started, but never finished. A few years back, Slate writer David Plotz started blogging the Bible, but seemed to lose interest after the Old Testament. As he comes from a Jewish background, I can understand why he wouldn’t have much interest in the New Testament – and I guess after blogging on the Bible for two years, he may have just wanted to write about something else. Nonetheless, I always enjoyed reading his comments, so I was disappointed that he didn’t keep going. Here’s what he had to say about reading the Bible through:
Should you read the Bible? You probably haven’t. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I’ve ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.
That last line is one I may have to disagree with – I’m not sure that evangelicals read the whole Bible obsessively; popular Christian books and television programs seem to focus only on those scriptures that reinforce particular ideas, like the prosperity gospel. But I’m committed to keeping an open mind – please call me out whenever I fail to do so.
Will you join me in reading every single verse of the New Testament?