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Interview with "Good Book" author and Slate.com editor, David Plotz

vastleft's picture

Vastleft: David, thanks for making the time for this chat, which will be posted on Correntewire.com and Bible Study for Atheists.

David Plotz: I'm glad to be here. Fire away.

VL: Shortly after I began BS4A, I heard about your Bible-blogging at Slate, which had started a couple of months earlier.

At the time, I was avoiding outside influences — playing the Bible as it lays.

However, with my Bible blog on hiatus, I decided to make myself “impure” by reading your newly published Good Book, your take on the Hebrew Bible. (Second-edition jacket-blurb opportunity: “I made myself impure for this book.” — Vastleft)

The Bible is often held up as the ultimate guide to, and font of, morality. How do you think it stacks up in that regard?

DP: It depends how you define the Bible. If you say the Bible is entirety of the book, then it does not stack up very well, because there are all kinds of appalling laws, immoral heroes, and divine cruelties. That said, everyone makes their own bible. Every group that uses the Bible as its home scripture emphasizes some parts and deemphasizes others, and if you cherrypick the Bible, you can find marvelous moral principles (see the middle of Leviticus 19, for example). So it depends on whether you think you're allowed to pick and choose, or whether you have to take the whole book.

VL: Were you thinking much about Bible literalists as you read the Old Testament? Didn’t the many unsavory and inconsistent aspects of the book make the literalists scarier than you might have found them to begin with?

DP: It's hard for me, as a Jew, to take Biblical literalists too seriously. Judaism does not have the same fixation on Biblical inerrancy that American Christianity does. There are a few ultraorthodox who are literalists, but Judaism as a whole doesn't take that debate too seriously. That said, it's hard to see how any person taught an iota of science or history can remain a Biblical literalist. The Bible is so full of contradiction and chockablock with impossible events that it requires more than just faith, but a kind of willful divorce from the world, to accept the literal truth of the Bible.

Do I think Biblical literalists are a threat? Not really. But I think the antiscientism they represent is a huge problem in a nation that hopes to compete technologically. So the problem is not the beliefs in the Flood or the Garden of Eden, but the anti-rationality of those beliefs, and how it pervades other aspects of life.

VL: As I mentioned when we first spoke, my atheism used to be a rather private affair, until religion began becoming an increasing force in American public life. That put me on high alert re: the general acceptance of religion as a virtual synonym for morality (remember those hyped "moral values" exit polls?), since it serves to over-empower fundamentalists. Are you fazed by such developments, either on general principles or perhaps by the primacy it gives prominent Christians over members of minority sects (not that that's a strictly new phenomenon)?

DP: At different times I have been more and less fazed by that. During the early Bush years, I was deeply disturbed by it. (My wife, in fact, wrote a book, God's Harvard, that examined some of the implications of that.) Maybe I am gullible, but I think that conflation of religion and morality has subsided significantly in the past couple years. The combination of the Bush disaster, the reinvigoration of the progressive left, the rise of Obama, the economic crisis, and the success of left-wing churches have all undermined the notion that religion and morality (specifically a socially conservative morality) are the same. I think the conservative religious movement that championed that notion has crested, and is receding.

VL: Obama, though, was quite active in promoting his religious cred. Some chalked this up to a defense against "the Muslim smear," but all told there was quite a lot of religion in his campaign.

DP: He did, and he's not shy about invoking religious language and bringing in both the Rick Warren and Jim Wallises. But I don't think there is the same presumption with Obama and his people that religion and decency are the same.

VL: I guess as a skeptic, "presumption" doesn't sit all that well with me. [See note.] Anyway.... Unlike my skeptical starting point, you kicked off your Bible blog by stating “I have always been a proud Jew, but never a terribly observant one.”

In your book’s conclusion (as well as in some interviews, so I don’t think the Spoiler God will strike me down), you acknowledge that your opinion of God changed for the worse in the course of reading the Bible.

I didn’t get the sense, though, that your opinion of religion (yours or Judeo-Christian religious practices in general) was shaken. Is that a correct reading?

DP: I suspect I am trying to have it both ways. I was really disturbed by God, as I wrote, and you can't be really disturbed by God without calling into question a faith built around belief and trust in God. But Judaism, more than Christianity, I suspect, builds in room for the kind of doubt and anger I have about God. There is an honorable tradition in Judaism of Jews arguing and disputing and being contentious rather than obedient. So I try to slot myself in there.

But I should also say that I am not much of a Jewish practitioner anymore. We often do Shabbat dinners, we do Seders, I send my kids to Hebrew school, I go to synagogue on the high holidays. Those are fundamentally cultural and familial activities. But I don't have any great interest in diving deeper, as my more religious friends tell me I should. I am sure it would be intellectually rewarding, but religion is not important enough to my life to pursue it more. My year with the Bible made me realize that, too.

VL: One thing I really wasn't prepared for was how explicit the OT was about how the Israelites were to barge into other people's land, kill them, and take it over. It seems to fulfill the worst perceptions that anti-Zionists have, no?

DP: That's an unfair conflation, because it merges an ancient religious text with modern geopolitics. There are, of course, lots and lots of Jews who justify their claims to Israel and the West Bank by using the Bible. But most Israelis don't and the Israeli government doesn't. One of the oddest realizations I had while reading the Bible is that modern Israel occupies land that was not generally Biblical Israel. Modern Israel is where ancient Israel's enemies lived. The Biblical demands to kill and occupy are horrifying, and probably the most troubling part of the Bible. (Book of Joshua is hands down the most disturbing Bible book.) But it's succumbing to the literalist fallacy to extrapolate from that that Jews inherently are genocidal and seeking to expel and murder everyone on "their" land.

I guess your question is about whether it reinforces anti-Zionist views, and I suppose you are right that it could. My answer suggests that I think that would be unfair, but it may happen anyway.

VL: I don't mean to claim a certain cause/effect. But it was striking, and IIRC, you noted a time or two how the modern circumstances are reflected in the ancient text.

DP: Fair point.

VL: Thanks for tackling these weighty topics up front. I wanted to make sure that we had time to pick your brain about some large-scale issues. But, as we wrap up, please feel welcome to tell our (generally) religious-skeptical readers why they might want to read your book.

DP: First of all, you should read Good Book so you don't have to read the Bible itself. It's a much funnier, much more irreverent, and much more skeptical than the Bible itself, or than any Bible commentary would be, and it's a way to get a fast Biblical education without having to wade through the Bible itself.

More importantly, I think it's a useful tool for religious skeptics in seeing where the Bible's strong and weak points are. The crudest atheist position — this is a stupid book of mythology and immorality — misses that the Bible is textured and variegated in important ways. Good Book understands that texture, and shows why particular books and stories are appealing or appalling, how particular ideas were popularized and others were discarded, how particular characters were heroicized or villainized. Good Book will help skeptics understand, at an intellectual level, why particular aspects of the Bible have a hold on their fellow citizens. So think of it as a very useful tool for understanding your rivals. And because I am in the middle — neither skeptic nor believer, neither fundamentalist, nor atheist — I'm able to give a much subtler (and more fun!) reading to the Bible.

VL: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with us!

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gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

As someone who has developed a hobby of studying the history of religions, I'm interested in what is meant by "texture". If you read someone like Karen Armstrong or John Selby Spong or Bart Ehrman (amongst others), they emphasize often that the Bible in particular is not just a religious document, but a historical document. Given the primitive understanding of the world 2000-6000 years ago its not hard to see how the two got entwined.

I agree with his point that everyone has their own Bible, including atheists. If you want to see the Bible as a book of hate, you can find what you want. If you want to see the Bible as a book of redemptive love, you can find what you want as well.

One final question I have (at least for now) is whether Plotz addresses the various versions of "ancient texts". They didn't have printing presses and were propagated by scribes who sometimes had their own agendas. With the New Testament, there are many cases where portions of the canonical scriptures exist in several different forms. That is, some of the later transcriptions have additions and omissions compared to the earliest known transcriptions. How does that play into his reading of "The Good Book"?

DCblogger's picture
Submitted by DCblogger on

So it depends on whether you think you're allowed to pick and choose, or whether you have to take the whole book.

You can't take the whole book, no matter how weird you are prepared to be. The Bible is rife with contradictions, even within the books of the old testament, there are huge contradictions.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

"a Jewish Publication Society translation ... my number one source." He occasionally consulted KJV and various modern translations, as well.

Submitted by lambert on

... as a text, the Bible is woven more deeply into our discourse than perhaps any other.

And it's a tribute to the maintainers that the system is still up and running.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

But, to be honest, I found this a bit disappointing:

VL: I don't mean to claim a certain cause/effect. But it was striking, and IIRC, you noted a time or two how the modern circumstances are reflected in the ancient text.

DP: Fair point.

It was a kind of non-chalant admission that'd you taken his previous response apart in a single sentence, and it didn't much seem to bother him. I mean, if I read that little exchange in the middle correctly what I got was that you were asking him if even for secular Israelis if their wasn't at least some cultural vein that prevades all justifications for their modern state. He then essentially replies that it's unfair for juxtapose the ancient people over the modern people. You then counter successfully that like any good historian or anyone that appreciates history, he sees history for the continuum that it is as opposed to unconnected moments in time, all of this meaning that at the very least the ancient idea could find a life in the modern world. He then kind of admits simply "yeah". But it doesn't go beyond that.

What you think of that part, specifcally, VL?

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

Overall, I appreciated that Mr. Plotz didn't flinch from what were probably more-probing questions than the usual "what made you blog about the Bible?" drill he must be getting consistently elsewhere, where the interviewer pretends not to have read the book or to have any opinions about religion.

They aren't the same answers I would have given, and surely not the ones you would have given. I guess that's why they call it an interview....

koshembos's picture
Submitted by koshembos on

When one studies the Bible in its Hebrew starting from about 4th grade until the end of the 12th grade, one sees the Bible as a set of simple stories, history, legal document, cultural document, etc. These stages get more complex with the grades and more critical.

Reading an old text through the moral lenses today is a huge fallacy. Europe has killed more than 100 million people in the 20th century (not BC); no one should blame today's European of genocide. Times change and morality does improve. In other words deciding that parts of the Bible are nice and others aren't is intellectually misplaced.

Damon, who writes about Israel from time to time, has only a cursory knowledge of the subject he deals with. Most Israelis are as secular as most Europeans are today. Israelis don't look for anything to justify their state no more than Damon seeks justification for the US, remember the Indian genocide, is looking for justification for this country. It's our country and the country of the Palestinians at the same time. At that, it's a unique conflict that will be soon resolved by a Solomonic split of the land.

For me the Bible is part of my culture, it's the foundation for a beautiful language (very close to Arabic; if one look for justification), my history and finally my morality. I am not observant either, but I love to go to synagogue to read the prayers in their old beautiful Hebrew.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

And with the lazy and pervasive conflations between the Bible/religion and morality, it's quite important to let people know when God and His book and His prominent adherents are not-so-great.

Just last week, the Pope condemned more people to die in Africa via the power invested in old superstitions.

As Stevie Wonder wrote in a wise moment of skepticism, "When you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain't the way."

koshembos's picture
Submitted by koshembos on

All we can do is go our own way. The fact that some influential circles don't agree with us is beyond our control. Furthermore, it's a mistake to see the Bible as solely a religious document. It's history, culture, poetry, love, etc. Those of us who are secular can still find much in the book.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

What I think you missed, either on purpose or because I wasn't clear enough, is that I said that religious cultural tradition can, and does, tinge the vast majority of worldviews, yes, even most strains of secularism. It's why secular "Christian Democratic" parties dominate a lot of European politics.

The passive-aggressive comparisons were really quite unnecessary and irrelevant, and on the issue of my knowledge on the issues I feel comfortable stepping in to, I think you'll find that I know quite a bit more than you're giving me credit for. It's unfortunate you obviously feel uncomfortable with the topic, because if you didn't, there'd have been no for the passive-aggressive and defensive commentary.

The Bible is part of your culture, as you said; it also happens to be an unabshedly and decidedly religious text. Most cultures, even modern secular ones, are a continuum. Some cultures are more inextricably tied to a religion, if even it's just religious tradition/history, than others, particularly if one's culture has its own self-created religious guide.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

I misinterpreted David's use of "presumption" in this exchange:

DP: [Obama] did, and he's not shy about invoking religious language and bringing in both the Rick Warren and Jim Wallises. But I don't think there is the same presumption with Obama and his people that religion and decency are the same.

VL: I guess as a skeptic, "presumption" doesn't sit all that well with me.

I had thought he meant a conventional-wisdom presumption about Obama, but I'm now gathering that he was talking about what Obama and his cohort presume.

That said, I disagree, because Obama has frequently used language that conflates religion with morality (such as, "Our failure as progressives to tap into the moral underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical. Our fear of getting 'preachy' may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems."), the occasional thin-gruel recognition of non-believers notwithstanding.

herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

But although I agree Obama has frequently used that language, and that using the language is a bad thing in itself (feeds power to the meme), I am like David in thinking the presumption with Obama and his people is not the same as the fundies. That is because I think Obama and his people are hypocrites on religion and cynically using it to gain votes.

Which, btw, I find preferable to their being true believers and honestly pushing the religion=morality view.

vastleft's picture
Submitted by vastleft on

That's pretty far from the message we hear from many religionists.

Who is seeing the Bible as solely a religious document? Smells a like a straw man to me.

cal1942's picture
Submitted by cal1942 on

Hasn't recent archeology put the myth to the Biblical story of Israelites as outsiders conquering an indigenous people, that they were really native and the biblical conquest story intended simply to create a unique identity?