Fixing Biblical Illiteracy: Newsweek, Leave It to the Professionals

NewsweekJournalist Kurt Eichenwald recently published an article for Newsweek titled: “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Unsurprisingly, a firestorm exploded on the Christian blogosphere in response.

“Inflammatory” is too polite a term to describe this article. Maybe “polemical?” “A blistering screed?” In the opening fusillade, Eichenwald paints a caricature of American Evangelicals, calling them “God’s frauds, cafeteria Christians who pick and choose which Bible verses they heed with less care than they exercise in selecting side orders for lunch.” The distinction between Southern Baptists, charismatic snake-handlers, and fundamentalists either eludes him or means little to him as he lumps all of these groups into a uniformly petty and small-minded bunch throughout his piece.

His stated goal is to expose the hypocrisy of American Evangelicals who hold to the Bible as the ultimate authority yet are also ignorant of the text and what it really says. He more subtly criticizes Evangelical politicians such as Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who he views as demagogues twisting the Bible for political gain.

The problem is…he does this very poorly.

I’m not writing an apologetic treatise here. Those who might remember my critique of the laughably bad Evangelical movie God’s Not Dead will know that I am not one to offer up a knee-jerk defense for American Evangelical culture. I’m writing because I see Eichenwald undermining the complex and oftentimes stressful mission that my colleagues and I strive for every time we write or teach: to promote religious literacy. Ostensibly we share this goal with Eichenwald. I agree with him that “America is being besieged by Biblical illiteracy.” I agree with him that many Christians are more interested in reading John Grisham novels than opening a Bible in a New Testament 101 course. But I don’t see how his piece would inspire someone to sign up for one for two reasons:

1. Poor Scholarship

Many have pointed it out, but it bears repeating: Eichenwald’s grasp of biblical scholarship appears clumsy at best, particularly to someone steeped in these issues professionally. He parrots Bart Ehrman on occasion, but overall, he unreflectively lectures about Greek philology, translation, canonization, and the Synoptic Problem without so much as a footnote. This was most obvious when he claimed “scholars” have dated the famous story of the adulterous woman (usually placed at John 7:53-8:11) to the early Middle Ages. Although it is widely recognized that this story likely did not appear in the original Gospel of John, to say that it dates to any time after Late Antiquity is simply false. Moreover, his claim that “scholars” have said as much falls flat because I have personally read the latest scholarship on this passage, which traces the story to traditions in the 2nd century CE (check out the excellent monograph by Chris Keith called The Pericope Adulterae and a forthcoming book by Boston University professor Jennifer Knust if you’re interested).

If we are to combat biblical illiteracy getting the facts right should be the BARE MINIMUM goal, let alone presenting it in an understandable, engaging, and inspiring manner. By offering such a buffet of scholarly inaccuracies and exaggerations, Eichenwald has unwittingly provided fodder for gleeful Jesus mythicists everywhere—something none of us wants.

2. Empathy, NOT Polemics!

I’ve made religious empathy a running theme on this blog because I see it as a central component to religious studies. Religious empathy involves avoiding caricatures of another’s belief, recognizing the contingency of one’s own faith, and an honest attempt to understand the Other’s perspective.

Polemics have no place in this forum because they do little else but create rifts and reinforce age-old suspicions. Eichenwald’s opening insult, for example, immediately incites the wrath of hardline conservatives and fundamentalists, alienating the very people he seeks to persuade as they raise their defensive screens against yet another angry anti-god liberal journalist. Teaching religious studies demands a finer touch than this, an even greater dose of empathy honed by performing before dozens of students with a staggering multiplicity of deeply-held convictions.

Other scholars have offered far more gracious and nuanced critiques of American Evangelicalism than Eichenwald’s. Molly Worthen excellent Apostles of Reason, for example, digs into the heart of Evangelicalism’s anti-intellectual streak. Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has long stood as a primer for these matters as well. Though any press is good press I suppose, I would rather have one of these scholars stand on such a high profile platform as Newsweek than Kurt Eichenwald when it comes to religion.

In the end, I appreciate what you’re trying to do Eichenwald, fixing biblical illiteracy, but please, leave it to the professionals. I’m afraid you’re making things worse.

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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