Atheist bloggers love to laugh at the Bible, to point out all of its inconsistencies and logical errors. Writers like Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins love all of the horrible stuff in the Bible – the cruel God Yahweh of the Old Testament, the silly mistakes and the glaring inconsistencies of history and even errors of basic philosophy. When you're faced with a Biblical literalist who claims the Bible is 100% correct in every respect, it's hard not to laugh. I've even done it myself.
That's really sad, because in truth, the Bible is a fascinating book. Atheists have been forced to ridicule it because the Biblical literalists have an equally ridiculous position. And somewhere in the middle, the real Bible, a collection of fascinating stories, myths and lessons from thousands of years ago, is turned into a caricature of itself.
When atheists take this trivial view, more-or-less throwing stones for fun at an easy target, we miss something really important. We lose the story behind the Bible.
I recently got a new appreciation of the subtlety of the Bible from Bart Ehrman's excellent book, Jesus, Interrupted, which I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in religion, atheist and theist alike. One of Ehrman's previous books, Misquoting Jesus, was a constant companion while I was writing The Religion Virus, and now Jesus, Interrupted has joined it in my library.
In Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman asks an amazing question. Virtually every seminary and Bible college in the world teaches the real story of the New Testament authors: who wrote it, when they wrote it and why they wrote it. Many of the New Testament chapters are known to be forgeries, not written by the purported author. Their depictions of Jesus and his philosophy are wildly different, ranging from a man of peace to a harsh judge. Different versions of seminal events such as the timeline of his betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection are impossible to reconcile. And even the most basic question, "What is required for salvation?" has two completely opposite answers depending on which chapter you read.
Ehrman's question is this: Why does every Christian minister in the United States know this, yet it's not taught in churches? Why do seminaries teach ministers the true history of the Bible, but ministers only teach the "devotional" version?
It's really quite sad. By doing so, they've turned the Bible into a caricature of itself, shallow and thin. It's an easy target for atheists because there's no substance to the caricature.
If the New Testament were taught properly as Ehrman suggests, it would be a much more powerful document. By accepting its flaws and blemishes, Christians could look at the real meaning behind each story. They would discover that its authors had strong feelings and strong faith. They would learn that there were tremendous differences of opinion in the centuries following Jesus' ministry. They would appreciate just how powerfully Jesus affected his followers.
By teaching the true story behind the New Testament, Christians would force atheists to address a much harder target, a real book written by real people about a man who was tremendously influential, and whose wisdom transcends time and geography. Instead of a trivial caricature of Jesus, atheists would have to face a real challenge.
If Christians really want to spread their faith, they should teach about the real New Testament, not some silly cartoon version of it.