Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Bibles, Belief, and iPhone Apps

A few months ago, I noticed that a hard drive-full of Bible-related programs had sprung up on the iPhone App Store. Some were expected: for example, a free, searchable version of the King James Bible. (It's awesome, and other translations are available for small fees.) Others were not, such as BibleThumper--an app that delivers weird, off-key, or random scriptures out of context. Kinda cool.

Now, I thought that this flurry of iBible content was unworthy of serious analysis when I first stumbled upon it. But then the New York Times put it on their front page last Saturday. To think: I could have scooped 'em.

In the article, Paul Vitello notes a variety of apps that provide ammunition to those arguing for or against Bible-based belief systems. Thus "Fast Facts, Challenges, and Tactics" gives strategies for Christians "reasoning with an unbeliever." And "The Atheist Pocket Debater," promises to provide Nietzsche bombs to throw at the devout.

But what is most startling (if unsurprising) about this tit-for-tat is that it seems to be occurring in the very shallow end of the intellectual pool. One app for believers is entitled "One-Minute Answers to Skeptics"--as if a minute suffices to illuminate the complexities of a spiritual tradition thousands of years old. A piece of advice to believers everywhere: if it takes less than sixty seconds to justify your faith in God, you should stop eating the crayons from your favorite Italian restaurant and open Aquinas.

But stupidity isn't confined to the camps of the devout. The aforementioned "Pocket Debater" lists the following as a compelling rationale for unbelief; Vitello summarizes, "because miracles like Moses’ parting of the waters are not occurring in modern times, 'it is unreasonable to accept that the events happened' at all. 'If you take any miracle from the Bible' it explains, 'and tell your co-workers at your job that this recently happened to someone, you will undoubtedly be laughed at'."

Atheists who believe that "I've never seen the East River parted" is a solid argument against religious faith should take a running dive into said body of water... the really dirty part.

But this latter argument is especially irksome to me and anyone else who takes the Bible seriously. Does the "Pocket Debater" truly believe that Hebrew scripture stands or falls based on whether or not Moses actually cut a body of water in half?

Devout and skeptical readers of the Bible--from Augustine to David Friedrich Strauss--have long acknowledged that the text can be read on a variety of levels--that it is polysemantic. The historical reality or unreality of the Red Sea story has nothing to do with its figural, moral, ethical, social, or religious meanings--all of which are of crucial importance to Christians and Jews everywhere.

Whether or not God helped Moses split the Red Sea so the Israelites could stream out of Egypt, the tale illustrates the miraculous willingness of Yahweh to liberate his people. Said differently, the story delivers hope whether or not it is historically real.

As I tell my Bible students all the time, just because a story isn't true doesn't mean that it isn't true.

Besides, "Pocket Debater," you can't prove to me that Moses didn't do miraculous things, so shut your trap. I saw Elijah in a piece of toast last week.

1 comment:

  1. The Outlaw Josey WalesJuly 8, 2010 at 1:07 PM

    I both agree and disagree with you, Dr. Pederson. I agree that the discussion of God and his existence cannot be adequately accomplished in a one minute debate.

    I disagree, however, that the Red Sea argument is not a valid one. As you point out, the bible is full of stories that were written for various reasons to various audiences throughout time. There are many Christians, however, who do not believe this, and base their entire belief in God solely on the stories in the Bible, despite strong evidence to the contrary. I don't think one can truly grapple with the question of God until they acknowledge the true nature of the Bible. For example, Evolution and the Big Bang did occur. Yes the Bible says God made the earth in 7 days. But that is a story. Just because the Big Bang is how the Earth came about does not mean a supreme being did not play some role (nor does it implicitly mean that a supreme being did play a role). Finally, just because an atheist knows that the stories such as the parting of the Red Sea did not really occur does not mean that he cannot obtain benefit from the ethical and moral lessons within the Bible. If anything, someone who is able to reflect on the Bible with the understanding that it is a compilation of stories might be better suited to pick out the themes and messages.


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