It was Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane that let us know that pimping isn’t easy. Being a member of the non-pimping community, I confess I was surprised. I suppose the hours are long, but what with all the mad bitches and clothes, only having to play to one’s rogues, and all that rocking in the east and rolling in the west, well, it doesn’t sound too bad. Being a moderate Christian, now that’s difficult. For instance, moderate Christians can’t just come into town and go off like a grenade (that’s a big one), relatively few have too much mad cash to fold, and I haven’t yet addressed that for non-pimps it’s not the case that anything goes when it comes to hoes. Given these ho- and cash-related drawbacks to the moderate Christian brand, it may catch some off guard that I think there is a larger problem of a more philosophical nature. The implication of Ice and Big (if I may) seems to be that pimping involves more work than those not in the industry might think, that it’s something of a grind. Being a moderate Christian, unless one keeps one’s skeptical inclinations tightly in check, is difficult because once one takes the initial step away from fundamentalism it is literally difficult to remain a Christian, moderate or otherwise. It is a sad fact that, given humans’ ability to compartmentalize their thinking, altogether too many people are able to perform the trick.
When I was 13 years old, I had a disturbing experience in church. The scripture reading for one Sunday included Exodus 21:1-11, which outlines the treatment of Hebrew slaves. This particular selection tells how slaves are to be treated, under what conditions that they may be bought or sold, and some of the rules governing interactions with slaves, but it never once says “Slavery is wrong.” Neither does it say that the only proper thing for a master to do with his with his slaves is free them. In short, there can be no doubt that this passage supports slavery. Having been raised a Christian and being open minded to the extent that I believed slavery was wrong (I was a very forward-thinking 13-year-old), I found an explicit biblical endorsement of slavery troubling. I wasted no time in asking my mother, the spiritual leader in my household, just what the heck was going on. She explained to me that Moses (I know, I know; Moses didn’t really write Exodus) invoked god in laying out laws for the Israelites for much the same reason that the constitution is invoked in support of laws today in the United States: it gave them more weight. Some of the Bible is actually god’s work, and some of it, she further explained, was purely the work of humans. At the time I was satisfied by this, and I now know my mother was taking the position of the moderate Christian. It seemed to me to be a very progressive mindset.
Any objective examination of the Bible must lead to the conclusions that (a) there is some very good stuff in there, and (b) there is some really horrific material too. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is a nearly perfect distillation of contemporary moral thought. The world would be a better place if everyone took this to heart. “If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” is a spectacularly good piece of moral advice. I wish I had thought of that myself. It is undeniable that the Bible contains some sound ethical teachings. On the other hand, the stoning of women who were not virgins on their wedding nights, on their fathers’ doorsteps no less, is consistent with no worthwhile moral system of which I am aware. There are those, I realize, who will argue that I am taking this passage out of context, but I cannot imagine one in which torturing young women to death for engaging in premarital sex would be acceptable (and if there is such a context, it certainly can’t be found in the pages of the Bible). It is hard to take those who try to defend such barbarity seriously. Divinely commanded genocide seems monstrous, and the biblically mandated slaughter of animals involved in acts of bestiality appears to be downright unhinged. I think it is uncontroversial to conclude that the Bible is a mixed bag, morally speaking.
The problem is clear for the Christian moderate: How is it to be decided which passages in the Bible are due to god and which are inserted, without godly warrant, by mere mortals? It’s not like the Bible is printed with the words of Jesus in one color and all the others in another. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example, but I think you know what I mean. The Bible is advertised as the word of god and, of particular importance here, a guide to good moral behavior, but moderate Christians believe not all of the Bible can be accepted this way—and they have no way to systematically tell us which passages are which. The fundamentalist, of course, has no such problem. He simply takes all of the Bible to be the unadulterated word of god, no exceptions. True, he must then accept some pretty harsh injunctions like stoning disobedient children, but that’s part of the cost of doing business. For the fundamentalist, accepting the Bible is an all-or-nothing affair. This may seem like a little much to the more left-leaning reader, but the fundamentalist way of thinking at least has the virtue of consistency going for it. For those of you who think working on the Sabbath doesn’t merit the death penalty, things won’t be so easy.
So what is the moderate to do? On what basis is part of the Bible to be accepted and other parts rejected? The “larger context” approach is a nonstarter. Some try this with respect to the slavery question, saying that slavery in the ancient world was different than how 21st century Americans picture it. “Slaves in those days,” we are told, “were to be freed after seven years.” This ignores that this injunction applied only to Hebrew slaves, and that non-Hebrew slaves could be beaten, sold, and passed on in wills like the property they were. No, there is no context that justifies one person owning another like a pair of shoes or a sack of groceries.
Maybe the moderate Christian can say that god communicates with him about what is essential in the Bible and what is not, perhaps after diligent prayer, but this is problematic. The most obvious objection here is that if god is telling people what is right through channels other than the Bible, he isn’t telling everyone the same thing, and I’m not just talking about suicide bombers. Lots of good, reasonable, well-intentioned people differ on any number of moral quandaries. Why is this? Since many people feel like god tells them what is morally correct and they do not agree as to the rightness of a particular action, the question of how we know it is god talking to us is raised. What, precisely, should have tipped off Andrea Yates that it was not god telling her to drown her five children in a bathtub in 2001? Whatever this vital cue was, it must not have been present for Abraham when he prepared to kill Isaac (notice no appeal may be made to the fact that god told Abraham to stop; presumably Abraham could not have known this would happen until the angel delivering god’s stop cease-and-desist order actually arrived). If no unambiguous answer can be given, I take it that this escape route is effectively closed. Even given an answer, if god tells us which biblical passages may be safely ignored, there is then no need of the Bible. If god can accurately transmit rules for good conduct to humans in nonwritten form, then what purpose does the Bible, with all its admitted flaws, serve? The out of saying god lets the believer know which parts of the Bible are truly god’s words makes, effectively, none of the Bible god’s words.
Another option for the moderate is to say that slavery, genocide, homophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, and all the other objectionable activities and attitudes supported in the Bible are obviously wrong and in no need of divine repudiation. This solution, too, has its problems. First, if these things are all obviously wrong, why do not all humans recognize this? While it may be said that most people do realize the wrongness of, say, slavery, if we were to take a trip back through time (and, historically speaking, not that far back), this would not be the case. How is it that nearly everyone, including the best minds in the church, missed such an obvious point for so long? This may be countered by claiming that it is only obvious to us now in light of our moral progress, progress not yet attained by our forebears. I suspect this is largely true, but what of moral progress to come in the future? Surely it is not to be claimed that we have reached a level of moral perfection in the present day (if so, and it seems hard to fathom how anyone could make the claim in earnest, then it is virtually certain that every age would claim such perfection). Then all of the “obviously correct” moral commands in the Bible that are to be rejected in some distant day are in fact wrong. Furthermore, wouldn’t it have helped things along in the way of moral progress had god seen fit to include a no-slavery codicil somewhere in the Bible, maybe in books of the minor prophets or the pastoral epistles? With a godly rejection of human trafficking on the record, wouldn’t people have been more likely to abandon such an abhorrent practice years before we actually did? Surely there was a more urgent need of societal remediation with respect to slavery than to planting two different kinds of crops in a single field. Finally, this once again does away with our need of the Bible. If our intuitions really were an accurate guide to the rightness or wrongness of actions (and the evidence is overwhelming that they are not, at least not all the time), what need have we of the Bible? We could simply listen to the voices of our own personal Jiminy Crickets and always let our consciences be our moral guides. Once more, this is not a problem for the fundamentalist. The crisis for the moderate arises from the acknowledgement that some portions of the Bible are troublesome, but the fundamentalist makes no such admission. Objectivity, when offered an inch, takes a mile.
There is another tack to take here. Perhaps the immoral bits of the Bible were not inserted by mortals without god’s okay. Maybe god is responsible for it all and was communicating with humans in terms they could understand. If there were to be a heavenly rewrite done today, then the Bible would come out with a very different appearance. The reason primitive creation myths were used to describe the origin of the universe is because iron-age desert dwellers of the biblical era had a woefully inadequate command of quantum cosmology. The issue, then, is not one of concentration on minutiae when more pressing items might have been considered, but rather one of producing an understandable work. The moderate might very well have a reasonable case when it comes to the scientific deficiencies of the Bible. Why is there a biblical prohibition against the eating of pork? Trichinosis was not well understood back in the day, so it seems not unreasonable that the best way to keep people safe was to let them think there was something morally wrong with eating our porcine friends, something they could easily grasp, rather than issuing a treatise on parasitic worms that would have gone over their heads. The utility of this argument ends here, however. Note that god didn’t merely leave some things of a moral nature out of the Bible because people weren’t ready for them. He actually gave immoral rules. As far as questionable moral teachings in the Bible go, the justification must go something like this: In biblical times people were backward, morally speaking, and not ready for nuanced rules of proper behavior. Therefore god taught them rules that were wrong rather than bringing them up to speed. This is not the way to dumb down difficult material. It makes all the sense of teaching young children that 2 plus 2 equals 5 because they can’t understand arithmetic. It is true that we don’t teach 6-year-olds group theory; they couldn’t understand it. To teach them, we leave that out till later when they are ready for it. What we don’t do is give them times tables with errors in them. This would make the teaching of children more difficult, since each of the incorrect rules would have to be “unlearned” at some future time. Unfortunately, this is precisely what has happened in the case of humans learning to act morally; incorrect rules in the Bible have had to be unlearned before we may become better people.
An inability to successfully (and coherently) separate the theological wheat from chaff, though, is only the beginning of the problem for the moderate Christian. I have said that the central problem comes from the application of objectivity to the Bible, drawing the rather mundane conclusion that not all of the Bible looks like the work of an all good, all knowing heavenly father. However, objectivity (or doubt, or skepticism, call it what you will) is a tricky thing. If the doubter does not apply skepticism carefully, surgically, then he finds himself on very thin ice, for there are many other aspects of his religion that are worthy of doubt. To remain a moderate Christian (and, therefore, a Christian), ideas central to the Christian doctrine must be kept safe from critical examination. Some teachings that run counter to what we take ourselves to know about morality and science are easily set aside, but what of core beliefs? Once one has jettisoned beliefs about the righteousness of selling one’s daughter into slavery, a 6000-year-old universe, the wandering in the desert for 40 years by the children of Israel, and virgin births, before long one comes to the meat, as it were, of Christianity. It is easy to reconcile oneself with disbelieving a flood story and “not having touched the central message of Christianity,” but it’s a little harder to do the same thing if one puts a guy coming back to life alongside rabbits bringing eggs in the “Easter myths” category. Once one begins to apply one’s reason, it becomes progressively harder to think inside the Christian box about any number of issues. How can it be believed that billions of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Druids, and worshippers of Thor and Amon-Ra, guilty only of not choosing the time and place of their births carefully enough, are consigned to hell when a child rapist who has a death-bed conversion will be granted eternal life in paradise? What about god himself? Given the problem of evil, does a god of the “giant schoolmaster in the sky” sort make sense? Maybe god, rather than being a person with supernatural powers, is an impersonal force, a disembodied spirit, or an energy of a non-E-equals-m-c-squared sort. I suppose it may be possible to consider oneself a Christian and reject the literal resurrection of Jesus (maybe the story is a metaphor for conquering death and getting eternal life in the hereafter), but somewhere between rejecting the idea that slavery really is okay and rejecting the notion of a personal god lies a line. Once one has crossed that line, it is fair to ask “In what sense is this person still a Christian?” If one, in an ecumenical moment, agrees that there must be more than one path to the mountaintop and that salvation cannot only be available through acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal savior, one ceases to be a Christian in anything but a very loose (and non-theologically-sound) sense. Skepticism, if applied globally, leads not inexorably to atheism, but it does lead to, at the very least, non-Christian theism.
So if you’re feeling like a pimp, go on and brush your shoulders off. If, alternatively, you’re feeling like a moderate Christian, you have a tricky tightrope to walk.