Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Blogging the Bible – Methodology

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 15, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Before I jump right into reading the New Testament and posting my comments, I’d like to take a couple of paragraphs to talk about how I want to approach the whole project.

First and foremost, I want to keep an open mind. I spent half of my life in an evangelical church, and I understand how believers approach the Bible, how they read it, and how they feel God intends for it to be read. I don’t necessarily intend to abandon that kind of reading, but to add to it. There are earnest Christians who seek to understand the history, culture, and politics of the early Christian world in hopes of having a better understanding; I applaud that approach, and hope to incorporate some of that into my writing.

There are academics who take a completely different approach, which is to question nearly every claim that Christians make about the Bible – who actually wrote each book, when the books were written, whether the words of Jesus are recorded by first-hand observers, etc. Books of this genre, including Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliot Friedman and the much more recently written Forged by Bart Ehrman raise a lot of questions about the Bible’s authenticity that any serious believer should not be afraid to consider. I read Friedman’s book years ago when I still considered myself an evangelical, and it didn’t challenge my faith as much as affirm it. Some of his insights really livened up the Sunday School lessons I was teaching at the time. I’ve just finished Ehrman’s and it only confirms what serious students of the Bible since Martin Luther have said – the traditional attributions of authorship for many of the books don’t always seem accurate.


Martin Luther

From my point of view, it doesn’t matter so whose approach you choose. What is of more interest to me is how scriptures are interpreted today in American society to form a prevailing religious mindset, and whether those interpretations are beneficial or damaging to our nation as a whole. I think anyone who truly wants to find truth can look at both sides of an issue without having to join one camp or another. I’m hoping to incorporate what I know about both approaches to the New Testament, and hopefully find common ground between those who fervently believe and those who don’t.

I’m going to start reading the books in the order in which they were written, not in the order in which they appear in the New Testament. Whenever there are huge discrepancies in dates, I’ll make a judgement call, but will lean towards a more traditional dating.  That means I’ll start with the letters of Paul, then work through the synoptic gospels. After Luke, we’ll go through Acts, the letters of other apostles, and end with pretty much everything attributed to John. I think studying them in this order should help us see the ideology of the Bible unfold, with the ideas presented in the order in which they were developed, not the order someone put them in 300 years later.

Ironically, my Dad sent me an email just yesterday, not knowing that I had just announced my intention to blog the NT. He urged me to ‘get back into the Word’, confident that anyone who does so will find God there. My brother, on the other hand, who recently ‘outed’ himself as an atheist, seems to think that actually reading the Bible with an open mind is the surest path to non-belief. It seems I’ll be walking a fine line to keep them both happy!

It will be interesting to see which way things go.

Blogging the Bible

In Blogging the Bible on May 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm

By Rembrandt.

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?

Obama Says Same Sex Marriage is OK

In Current events on May 10, 2012 at 12:43 am

I was just talking to my wife this morning about how I didn’t think President Obama is courageous enough – he has seemed content to nibble around the edges of the problems this country has, instead of coming up with the sort of new ideas we all thought he would. Well, endorsing gay marriage is not really a new idea; as far as the problems that I’d like to see fixed in the country go, I have to admit, gay marriage is pretty low on my list of priorities; as we say in the South – I don’t have a dog in the race.

However, I applaud his courage.  While my own views on this subject have been ‘evolving’ for years as well, I think he made the right decision. There are those who say they believe in a limited government – and then seem to spend all their time trying to legislate how I live my personal life. I guess they mean that government should be limited when it comes to educating children or making sure corporations take care of the people they employ. When it comes to looking into our bedrooms, suddenly, they seem to think the sky’s the limit when it comes to what government can do. These folks won in North Carolina yesterday – over 30 states now have similar laws.

I believe Mr. Obama made this decision because he too is a secularist, and there is simply no secular reason for forbidding same-sex marriages. To be honest, you’d be hard pressed to find a handful of Biblical scriptures that condemn homosexuality as well; by comparison, it’s pretty easy to find anti-gluttony scripture, yet a full two-thirds of Americans need to lose some weight. Check out the chuck-wagon gang at your local church, and you’ll see that religious folks can be very selective about which scriptures they really take to heart.

Some folks get upset when those who fight for gay rights compare their situation to the Civil Rights movement; I can see their point – one person being owned by another is really not quite the same thing as not getting to marry your gay lover – but both seem unjust, nonetheless. My wife is a Chinese national – less than a century ago, it would have been illegal for us to be married. Some good friends of mine just got engaged – he’s black and she’s white; again, this would have been illegal just a few decades ago. Why? Because a lot of ‘God-fearing’ folk decided it was wrong. Today, the country is split right down the middle on gay marriage; younger people tend to have a more positive view than older folks, but the older folks are more likely to get out and vote. But an idea or practice isn’t necessarily wrong just because a majority of people don’t like it. When you think about marriage from a non-religious, common sense point of view, you have to wonder why any person or any government body should have the right to decide for another when if comes to affairs of the heart – we should all be free to marry whom we wish. I certainly didn’t care about what the Methodists or Catholics might think when I got married – or the federal government, for that matter.

In fact – I’m going to sound like a libertarian here – government shouldn’t be making ANY decisions about who’s married and who isn’t – why are they in the ‘marriage decider’ business? Why does any US state, or any group of people within that state, feel they have the right to impose their ideas about marriage on anyone else?

To those who want to ‘protect the sanctity of marriage’ – well, good luck. Divorce rates aren’t any lower amongst church-goers than they are in the general population; in fact, in some denominations, they are higher. Where do we find the lowest divorce rates? Studies show that the more education an individual has, the lower the divorce rate. If we really want to ‘sanctify’ marriage, we should make sure our children get the best education they can get.

I realize that just because the President says something doesn’t mean that anything has changed; nevertheless, I’m encouraged to see a politician take a stand – based on reason – even if it might cost him a few votes. I hope that our politicians – and our populous – can begin to apply this sort of logical thinking to the even bigger problems our country faces.

Read the complete story here:  Same-sex couples should be able to marry: Obama | Reuters.