Driving down to work today with my fiancé, early in the morning, the conversation can involve a lot of things. It can be about the day ahead, it might be about story ideas or creative things. It could be silence since both of us are too tired to engage with one another, which happens every now again.
But sometimes there’s just the right combination of alertness and grogginess that leads to some interesting topics being brought up. Speaking on characters, the moving over to religion, Sam posed a simple but thought-provoking question, at least to me. I’m paraphrasing some, but the essence of the question was as follows:
“So a lot of the things in the Old Testament don’t apply in the new, like Leviticus and other books. Since that stuff isn’t really relevant, why don’t they just update the Bible?”
I like talking about religions in an abstract way, since I don’t really subscribe to one or the other. Yet I find the topic supremely fascinating when it comes to examine dogma in the West or talking about Ultimate Truth in the East. I’ve heard a lot of people comment on adding or editing sacred texts, but I wasn’t entirely clear on the practice and whether or not it’s accepted. A little research has yielded some interesting results.
Because it seems like a simple thing to do, right? Many of the books of the Christian Bible were written somewhere around 2,000 years ago, compiled together a millennia after that. Since then, the texts have remained mostly unchanged, only edited on accident by translations and shifting languages. It’s a question that many Christians must ask themselves in order to join the ranks of the faithful. How can a text written so long ago have any bearing on my present life? How could something written apparently by God and put to use in the Middle East effect me, someone who lives in Western America during the new millennia for example.
Many newer churches do a good job incorporating old wisdom into new use. As a holiday Christian, I find myself in church sometimes around Easter or Christmas. I enjoy the sermons at the church we go to, they have a band and they play good music and the Pastor believes in technology, which is a nice touch. But every year I can’t help but think that it’s just more and more of a stretch as technology continues to rapidly evolve, while the texts of the Bible remain unaltered.
The One and Only Word
I’m not the only one to think about an updated Bible, perhaps a King James 2.0 for the modern era. Critics of faith like Sam Harris have voiced their concerns about trying to live in an enlightened world following the doctrines of an ancient text. When speaking to Andrew Sullivan on his blog, Harris wrote,
“How difficult would it be to improve the Bible? It would be trivially easy, in fact. You and I could could upgrade the “inerrant” text -scientifically, historically, ethically, and yes, spiritually- in this email exchange.”
So what’s stopping the leap forward?
For one thing, it’s heretical.
When the texts were a little more recent, say 1,000 years ago, many of the writings were still relevant. The passages that talked about slavery and adultery and hair length all added to the fabric of the current society. The practices seem barbaric now, but at the time, it was common wisdom. Christianity was still a budding belief system from the cradle of Judaism, and even as it grew in popularity, there were perceived threats against the Church.
Also important to note, a standardized Bible is a fairly recent invention. For much of the book’s life, it’s been an amalgamation of various takes and books, all hand copied by individuals rather than printed. Anyone could make up a Bible and pass it off as the word of God if they wanted to, adding things they thought should be present and omitting things they didn’t believe in to bring more people into their particular “flavor” of Christianity. To prevent diluting the apparent “true word” of God, many passages are written throughout the many books dissuading followers from adding their own takes on the text or trying to take parts out. The best known passage might come from Revelations when it says:
“I warn everyone who hears the words of prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of prophecy of this book, God will take away his share of the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
That’s a pretty serious threat, but it’s not without its reasons. What better way to protect the words in your particular Bible then to threaten them with damnation?
It’s a nice way to cap off Revelations, a way to send off a book with a clause that states everything is canon, no take-backs. But the message is repeated a few other times as well in books like Daniel and again in Deuteronomy when it speaks on dreamers asking you to follow Gods that are not the one God
There’s something to be said about protecting the faith, but is it possible that this message is passed down for a more devious purpose? Whether it is with ill will or not, its hard to deny that saying the book can’t be changed makes it easy for those who can read the book to say a lot of what they want and interpret the text how they wish, then read back to the masses. The section in Deuteronomy even takes it further to say if people are saying to change the book, or if you have a notion to change the Bible, then God is testing you, and you’d better do right by him, otherwise all that stuff that’s laid out in Revelations applies: the plagues and being barred from paradise sort of thing
Bend and Break
Despite all of the signs that say to not change the Bible, some have still made some changes. It was considered heretical to change to the common languages during the Protestant Reformation, but rather than adapting the faith as a whole, it split almost down the middle, causing a rift that has never really healed between the two sanctions. Throughout history, rather than changing an understanding, Christian sects tend to just break off from the whole and start their own school of thought, while the old school rejects them and calls them heretics.
Even into the modern era, we still had moments of deep schism. Joseph Smith would break off once again when he would receive what he believed to be the word of God, writing the Book of Mormon for his new congregation. Other people didn’t tend to believe that you could have a lot of wives or that Jesus ended up in America, so rather than adapting the faith, another break was made and the old order pushed them aside unwanted Brussels sprouts. Perhaps good for you, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
It seems silly, but it’s understandable. The text with which you base meaning specifically says that the word can’t be altered, and it won’t be altered. So when people try to alter it, that’s a sign that people have lost their way and you need to hold tight to the mast of belief to make it through the storm. So in this way, no, the book can’t really be updated. You can start your own school of belief, but it won’t be considered Christian by Christians, even if you believe Jesus was the savior and died for your sins.
The New Church of the Millennium
For the sake of thought, maybe we could say that the inability to change the text was itself put in there by someone not following the word of God. Maybe it was a way of eventually undermining the Church, since as time passed, the text would become less relevant. There was every intention of doing out with the old and coming up with new understandings, but they never did since the text was altered to say that it shouldn’t be changed.
It would still be a rough process to go through. It would have to be approved by some body, right? The Papacy? That’s a lot of old, straight, white guys. They’ll just leave it be, it serves them just fine as it is. Done and done. Protestants? Old white guys, same deal. They’ve already made the changes they wanted years ago, so it serves them just fine too.
If that’s the case, is there even a need to change it?
I would say undoubtedly, yes.
Because people have their own experiences with Christianity and what it means to them. All of the stories so far have been white-washed and male-centric. Much of the accepted wisdom is much the same. As we become more progressive and concerned with peoples’ rights, surely their faith should change to reflect that rather than resist. Some might say it would be better just to abolish the practice, but with the world’s largest religion, it’s not likely to happen.
The change should involve people from many walks of life, describing their own experiences with the faith. They submit it in the form of a story, just like the first time the book was put together. They didn’t need to be people from on high in the church, it was just people who were prolific in the community and had a unique experience in knowing or dealing with Jesus. New statutes can be laid out, removing some of the older pieces of text involving what can and can’t be eaten and perhaps who can love and be loved in return. It would create a more harmonious Christendom with a new book to follow into a more modern age, one that could be changed with the times.
Or more likely, the old order would excommunicate them. After all, it’s heretical.