The word of God, improved

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Click on the image above to view this beautiful masterwork in its original, popup-captioned form. Those three smug dudes in a cluster on the right side? Mr. Hollywood, a college professor, and Satan. Only one of them has anything positive to say about your screenplay.

Spooky oil paintings you can buy over the internet aren’t the only place where Jesus holds up the Constitution. He also upholds it in real life, despite the relentless attacks of humanists, liberal woman reporters trying to interview the backs of pregnant ladies’ heads (bottom right-hand corner) and the Supreme Court. Sometimes,*Screen shot 2009-10-06 at 10.04.49 AM though, Jesus needs a little help. Fortunately, the good people at Conservapedia (“The Trustworthy Encylocpedia”) have undertaken a re-translation of the Bible that corrects the pervasive liberal bias of modern versions. Seriously, their stated goal is to make a new, more conservative Bible. I’m going to say this once instead of including it at the end of every paragraph of today’s post: I am not [fudging] with you.

The Bible may be the literal word of God, but that doesn’t mean it retains its pure form when it’s translated from the original Godanese. As the Conservative Bible Project points out, “Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations…Large reductions in this error can be attained simply by retranslating the [King James Version] into modern English.” As any terrifyingly confident Sunday schoolchild will tell you, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew and Greek,* then translated into Latin, then re-translated from the original with reference to the LatinScreen shot 2009-10-06 at 10.31.22 AM to create the King James. Obviously a lot of errors crept in during that process, like when you play “telephone” and you whisper “be nice to people and don’t steal stuff” in the ear of the person next to you, and by the time it gets to the end of the line it’s “Let not a man lie with another man as with a woman, nor with the beasts of the field, for that is abomination.” The Conservative Bible Project’s solution to this problem is to translate it again, using the umpteenth-generation KJV as the root text and “using powerful new conservative terms as they develop.”

Obviously, this is a hilariously bad idea—and one that, if the already Cromwellian tone of the CBP’s Talk Page is any indication, will probably end with people chopping off each other’s hands. It’s also a veritable gold mine of insights into the conservative approach to Christianity, and the degree to which the right has made the Bible more of a cudgel than a shepherd’s crook. Consider the CBP’s crusade to excise John 7:53-8:11—the story of the adulteress, which ends in the famous admonition “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Nearly all contributors to the CBP agree that the verses are an example of liberal bias, encouraging permissiveness, undermining the death penalty, and otherwise seducing us away from the America Christ imagined in the year 28. They feel the same way about Luke 23:34—”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—and just about any other passage in the New Testament implying that forgiving others is an important aspect of Christianity. The conservative Bible will focus on Jesus’ real core message: laissez-faire economics. Their new translation will “express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning [sic.]” In case you still have food left in your stomach, they’re also worried about possible translations of the word “peace,” which in liberal hands has strayed toward “the absence of war,” from its original meaning, “fullness and tranquility of mind.” You know, like the way you feel right before you execute an adulteress.

On the whole, the Jesus of the CBP wants us to spend a lot more time kicking ass and accumulating capital, and a lot less time “improperly encouraging the ‘social justice’ movement among Christians.” It’s a re-envisioning of the man from Nazareth naked in its disdain for the meek, the poor in spirit, and the peacemakers. If that shocks you, it’s probably because you’re looking at Christianity from the outside. The notion of Jesus as a proponent of forgiveness and charity is to contemporary evangelism as “Lola” is to The Kinks. True fans—the guys who listen to the old albums—know that R. Davies was a mod and J. Christ brought not peace but a sword. For them, contemporary Christianity is a philosophy of personal empowerment—one that gives you a personal line to the Awesome God that AIDS cases, single mothers and the unemployed don’t have.

The hubris of that philosophy is laughable, of course, but we’re laughing at it for the wrong reason. Even the critics of the Conservative Bible Project—and there are a lot of them, on all sides—don’t acknowledge the horse at the table: this isn’t the first Bible written to serve political ends. That would be, um, the first Bible. To pretend that the free-market Jesus who wants you to smash Monica Lewinsky’s face with a chunk of granite is any more a human construction than the Jesus of popular imagination is to ignore historical fact. We’re not talking about a questionable biography of Charlie Chaplin, here. The Conservative Bible Project is a reimagining of a fictional character—a character based on a man who probably really existed somewhere in the Roman empire two thousand years ago, but a character nonetheless. To laugh at the notion that he hates cap-and-trade and then nod solemnly at the contention that he was the son of god and couldn’t be killed by conventional weapons is an act of bad faith. Call it respect for belief if you want to, but all you’re really doing is picking the very popular set of arbitrary claims over the very recent one.

The Conservative Bible Project shows how much respect for belief some very committed Christians apply to their own religion. It’s Christianity as a shield, with a particularly heartless species of American conservatism plodding along behind it. The only thing that separates it from the Christianity of Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee is that no one takes it very seriously. We should mock it, not just because it is stupid and poorly argued but because it is a tool, intended to help install a stupid and poorly argued United States government. It is not, however, the only tool employed for that purpose. That it is dull and clumsy is merely a difference in craftsmanship, not kind.

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  1. Asterisks have returned to their former glory and those of us who read this on their work PCs which don’t have two finger scrolling celebrate this renaissance.

  2. Reference my comment from 9/29:

    It’s a natural progression in our quest to literalize the Bible. In response to the overwhelmingly logical attack of the scientific method, some Christians vehemently maintain that the Bible is inerrant, ineffable, literal truth. Except when it’s tainted by “liberal bias”, that is. So, some seek to re-translate the truth to be “more truthfully true” or something to that laughable effect.

    This logical contusion reaches the same intellectual level of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.* It basically says, “Our faith can’t stand under the scrutiny of logic and reason. So, instead we believe that a fiction is truth. Basically, we insist upon dividing by zero!”

    So, rewriting the Bible makes perfect nonsense! It’s fallaciously true!

    BTW, the captions on that painting seem to have been written by an 11-year old. Except that Satan doesn’t have a caption! We’re left to assume that he’s eee-vee-ill, like the froo-its of the dee-ev-ill. Maybe that’s because he barely shows up in the Bible. If he showed up more, than we’d be free to edit his caption using powerful new Conservative terms.

    * For those who aren’t hoopy froods, the RBBoT is so mind-bogglingly stupid that it believes if you can’t see it, it can’t see you. Drape a towel over your head and it ignores you.

  3. At last! A means of reconciling the Jesus of social justice (blessing the meek, the poor; feeding the hungry, etc) with the far right “pull yourself up by your bootstraps while I haul this ladder up behind me” version of piety.
    Let’s try to recall that the Bible wasn’t written on the forehead of Gutenberg in simultaneous translation, right before it went to press.
    Let’s try to recall that the most famous GREAT EDIT of the Bible took place about 300 years after the life of Christ, at the Nicene Convention (ok…and again maybe 50 years later), when big chunks of that infallible Old Testament were soundly contradicted and the Trinity won out over conflicting ideas.

    I’m big on the God Is Still Speaking concept. And since I just can’t groove with God as Junior High School Girl (“If you’re HER friend, you can’t be MY friend!”), what I think I’m hearing is “Yeah…I got a good laugh out of that one.”

  4. Great essay today.
    “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”–I can’t believe they’d want to take that out!
    “That would be the first bible.” Nice.

  5. That the CBP rewrite is no different than past rewrites is a humbling thought and an important one to call out. I don’t think, however, that it is accurate to say CBP and the rest of Christian belief is equally arbitrary. I am no biblical scholar, but a few differences spring to mind that may be relevant. One is timing. Yes, the Bible was organized, and much of it written, well after Jesus’ death. But 1400 BC (OT) and 50 AD (NT) is substantively different than 2009 in terms of distance from the events recorded. Another difference is intent and methodology. The New Standard Revised Version and other Bible versions are scholarly works that look to the original languages for insights, identify choices the translators made, and call out points of contention. You can’t get around those choices and the inevitable bias of a human hand. (And I imagine more conservative folks take big issue with NSRV as too liberal.) But there is a real difference between peer-reviewed academic work and what sounds like a more reckless flight of ideology. The point remains that we should be humble about our perspectives and aware of the potential for human construction in our faith, but I think saying CBP is equivalent to the rest of Christianity isn’t quite on the mark.

  6. Mike B-

    Yes, you’re totally right. We can’t paint with too broad a brush.

    It is shame that earnest re-translations get lumped in with the theological chicanery that is the CBP.

    However, I personally think that the Bible stands on a stronger footing as an allegorical legend than as a work of ineffable, inerrant truth. Both views can teach you how to be a good dude. One forces you to suspend your disbelief even more than a Bruckheimer film.

  7. I’m so glad you posted not only about the conservative bible project but also that ridiculous painting. Bravo.

  8. Perusing the painting… On the “in” side, I believe I see only five women (one of whom is an astronaut and one of whom is either Betsy Ross or Molly Pitcher, another who is a ringer for Emily Dickenson) and only one person of color (in uniform). Inexplicably, I think I see JFK, who must have been specifically cleansed by the office of president in order to make the cut. Heaven appears to be Washington, D.C., which might explain why so many politicians sell their souls to get there.

  9. Damn this is good stuff! I came across that painting on my web travels and was enthralled – I had to look at every detail. I’m always fascinated to see what a ‘Christian’ views as being ‘acceptable in the eyes of God’. I was disappointed to find that I will not be greeted in heaven by my former pet cat Scaramouche – animals apparently don’t make the cut.

    This is some of your best work. Keep it up.

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