In case you missed the announcement, ShipofFools.com has published an "authoritative" list of the ten worst verses in the Bible. At a time when atheists are posting ads on billboards and busses around the world, you might assume that the Ship is an anti-religious site. But no. Ship of Fools is a Christian website with an impeccable British sense of the absurd. True to its name, the editors go where angels (and other Christians) dare not tread. "We’re here for people who prefer their religion disorganized," says Simon Jenkins. "Our aim is to help Christians be self-critical and honest about the failings of Christianity, as we believe honesty can only strengthen faith."
I wince a bit at Jenkins’ confidence. As a student at Wheaton College of Billy Graham fame, I thought that the school motto was "All truth is God’s truth." Later I found out it was actually, "For Christ and His Kingdom." But at the time, I figured: Ask away; faith has nothing to fear. So, ask I did, until the last vestiges of my Evangelical beliefs finally crumbled. Another former Christian said it perfectly: "My exit from Christianity consisted of a series of strategic retreats covering an ever-shrinking patch of defensible ground."
Jenkins and his teammates seem willing to take that chance. Like Christian author, John Shelby Spong (The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love), Ship of Fools editors are unafraid of biblical criticism. They do not equate criticism of the Bible with criticism of their God. Rather, they regard the Bible as a human construction that offers glimpses of divinity seen through the dark glass of human fallibility. Beginning in July, they invited readers to submit what they consider to be the worst verse in the Bible.
You don’t need to be a purple-faced atheist to notice that the Bible is a pretty mixed book. For every hymn to the loveliness of love, there’s a story about God squishing someone because they worshipped the wrong god. For every wise and helpful saying, there’s an incomprehensible law. For every verse Martin Luther King proclaimed in the streets of Alabama, there’s one that Fred Phelps shouts outside gay funerals.
For a purple-face like myself who keeps pointing out theological – uh -complications — from the outside, it’s a pleasure to land in the virtual company of believers who have no problem saying that sexism and homophobia and slavery and genocide are Bad, no matter how well credentialed their endorsers. American Evangelicals often try to insist that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, each word essentially dictated by God to the authors. Not only is this position ignorant –ever heard of synods or canonization?– it has an enormous moral cost. People end up defending sexual slavery and scorched earth warfare, even a belief in dragons. Whew. Been there.
Mercifully, Christians like Spong and Jenkins offer an alternative to Orwellian contortion. To quote one of the Ship’s editors, "[The Bible] doesn’t have to be a textbook of infallible information and unbreakable laws to be God’s book." This radical notion has big implications for Christians and non-Christians alike.
For Christians: As more and more is known about how the Bible was pieced together – what got in, what got left out, how human politics shaped the process–the notion of perfection (called "inerrancy") becomes harder and harder to defend. It requires an eyes-squeezed-shut, fingers-in-ears sort of faith. By contrast, acknowledging the Bible’s human authorship and frailties allows for a faith that is flexible and open–one that is centered in worship and service rather than the defense of ancient texts. It also allows Christians to participate in the broader intellectual and moral community of humankind.
For the rest of us: Most of the evil that Christians do in the service of God is actually evil done in the service of a perfect Bible–well, that plus a few perfect follow-on dogmas. When people see the Bible for what it is, whole bunches of craziness, like anti-scientific fervor and Armageddon yearnings, go away. What’s left is ordinary folks who are muddling along, living out their best hunches about what is good and what is real, rather like the rest of us. Anyone who is invested in the future of the human race might feel a surge of hope and respect upon finding themselves in the company of self-described "fools," meaning Christians whose religion is based on humble faith, open debate, and radical intellectual honesty. I certainly do.
All right, you’re probably thinking. Enough babble. Where’s the list?! At Ship of Fools, of course. Don’t miss it. And thank you to Edward Babinsky for calling it to my attention.