Does the Bible have any relevance in the 21st century? In this thought-provoking book Jim Vincent asks whether the Bible can still be considered divinely-inspired and whether its moral code has any applicability today, before going on to examine the Old and New Testaments in detail and to assess how much of them remains acceptable to the unbiased reader. The concluding chapter argues that the church must set aside its traditional view of the Bible as its holy book if it is to grow into adulthood and present a Christianity that is both credible and contemporary. It proposes that the church, as also the individual, may find a new lease of life in freeing itself from the constraints of ‘holy scripture’ and in evolving a new form of non-exclusive Christianity that is adaptable to changes in science, psychology, secular law and society.
The book is written from the perspective of the Christian Agnostic/Atheist who finds it impossible to reconcile large parts of the Bible – and the doctrines that flow from it – with modern thought. It is not an unmitigated attack on the church or the Bible. On the contrary, it represents a positive recommendation for change.
The book is not intended for the scholar. It is written for the general reader who has an interest in contemporary Christianity and its future – and, indeed, in whether Christianity can be said to have a future at all.
Targeted Age Group:: 25-80
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
This book was written out of an increasing inability to accept huge swathes of the Bible, as it is traditionally presented by the church. I came to realise that dwindling church attendance over the past 100 years is due primarily to the increase in education and the notion that people should think for themselves. The inevitable consequence of this is that the vast majority of people no longer consider the Bible to have any relevance. Hence, the question I raise in this book: Should the Church Abandon the Bible?
It was Maundy Thursday. The place? A large Victorian parish church such as one finds in every town throughout the length and breadth of England. I was sitting at the end of a row of new, beech-effect chairs that were marginally more uncomfortable than the original pews. A meek-looking man wearing glasses meandered rather unsteadily to the lectern to deliver the Old Testament reading assigned for the day. It was the story of the final plague upon Egypt – the origin of the Jewish feast of Passover:
‘The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, “This month shall be to you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year to you. Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying, ‘On the tenth day of this month, they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too little for a lamb, then he and his neighbour next to his house shall take one according to the number of the souls. You shall make your count for the lamb according to what everyone can eat. Your lamb shall be without defect, a male a year old. You shall take it from the sheep, or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month; and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at evening. They shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two door posts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they shall eat it. They shall eat the meat in that night, roasted with fire, and unleavened bread. They shall eat it with bitter herbs. Don’t eat it raw, nor boiled at all with water, but roasted with fire; with its head, its legs and its inner parts. You shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. This is how you shall eat it: with your belt on your waist, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord’s Passover. For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and animal. I will execute judgements against all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood shall be to you for a token on the houses where you are. When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a memorial for you. You shall keep it as a feast to the Lord. You shall keep it as a feast throughout your generations by an ordinance forever.’”
‘This is the word of the Lord.’
(Response from congregation): ‘Thanks be to God.’
I looked round at the kindly, decent faces of my neighbours. I had no doubt that they were altruistic, compassionate and intelligent; that they would cause no intentional harm to man nor beast; and yet, here we were, in the twilight of a late March evening, listening to – and thanking God for! – an account of blatant superstition and vindictive savagery. The dichotomy was staggering. Could the benign and courteous people around me really believe that there was anything in this story to celebrate or to revere? Or were they all, as I was, sitting there with a sense of deep discomfort and bafflement? I shall never know, of course, because neither I nor anyone else stood up and raised a protest. It is always difficult to protest against long-established tradition. The Passover rite has been central to Judaism for several thousand years; and since the 1st century AD it has been claimed by the Christian church as a symbolic precursor of the sacrificial and redemptive death of Jesus, the Lamb of God. In fact, the story of the massacre of the Egyptian firstborn and the release of the Israelites from captivity, is almost certainly the stuff of myth. No archaeological or historical evidence has been found to substantiate the biblical claim that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, and the majority of scholars and archaeologists consider Moses to have been a purely legendary figure. Nonetheless, the story is instructive for what it can tell us about the bible and its relation to Christianity.
In the first part of the narrative, Moses and Aaron are instructed that each household is to take a lamb without blemish, keep it until the fourteenth day of the month, slaughter it at twilight, daub its blood upon the doorposts of the house, and so on, for the purpose of securing immunity from the wrath of God. This is, from any modern standpoint, a prime example of irrational occultism. Secondly, we are asked to believe that God, in furtherance of his own purposes, brutally wreaks vengeance upon tens of thousands of innocent children and animals. Preposterous and abhorrent as this idea may seem to us now, it appears that the ancient world saw no incongruity in it. The killing of the Egyptian firstborn was merely one of many acts of retribution, savagery and intolerance which the Old Testament writers ascribed – without a trace of compunction – to God. It is inconceivable, though, that the contemporary reader should consider such stories as anything but primitive and outmoded. And yet, as part of the holy bible, they are still held by the church to be sacrosanct and of continuing value. This is undoubtedly a stumbling-block for many – Christians, agnostics and atheists alike.
The church has traditionally claimed the bible to be a divinely inspired book (or, more accurately, collection of books) that sets out:
• a history of God’s purpose for mankind, from the Creation to the Christian era
• a God-given, absolute moral code
• a reliable account of the life and teachings of Jesus
• a divine revelation of Jesus as Christ
The number of people able to accept this claim has been in decline for at least three centuries, and the number seems certain to decline further unless the church is prepared to radically revise its stance on the bible. Over the course of the following chapters we shall consider how much of the bible may still be acceptable to the unbiased reader, and to what extent the church may continue to claim it as its holy book and the basis of its teachings and beliefs. In short, we shall pose a question which some may find almost unthinkable: Should the church abandon the bible?
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