In the 21st century, we have witnessed a major cultural shift with respect to why there are those who reject the Bible today. A lot of it comes down to how people think the Bible treats women.
I could also add that many today find difficulties in the Bible regarding racism, sexuality, and gender identity. But for the sake of simplicity, let us just stick with the topic of misogyny for this discussion (after all, March is “Women’s History Month”)…. Let me explain.
…. another in a series of blog articles on “historical criticism”….
In the 20th century, Christians wrestled with the supposed conflict between science and the Bible. While such concerns still exist, a shift has taken place in terms what causes many people to resist the claims of the Christian faith
The Shift from “Science” to “Women”: 20th to 21st Century
In previous generations, particularly in the 20th century, it was the denial of the supernatural that most motivated critiques against the Christian faith and the integrity of the Bible. In certain cases, such critiques of excesses were justified. At times, Christians have resisted scientific progress out of a fear of having their faith come under attack.
For example, when Benjamin Franklin did his famous research on electricity using his kites to study lightning, some Christians resisted Franklin’s efforts. Some claimed that Franklin’s research was attacking how the providence of God worked in the life of a Christian. Historian Thomas S. Kidd, author of Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, summarized a typical response against Franklin from some of his Christian critics. “Lightning, in the early American world, seemed like one of the most obvious ways that God intervened to show his displeasure. (We still sometimes speak of the threat of people getting “blue bolted” for disrespectful talk or behavior.)”
Yet since Franklin, and particularly since the 20th century, many Christians rarely overwork everyday occurrences as being supernatural interventions by the hand of God. Most Christians today simply think of lightning strikes as part of God’s natural order of things, and that we need not sacrifice our confidence in God’s providential care simply because we appreciate the scientific lessons learned from our understanding of electricity and lightning.
In other words, Christians put lightning arrestors on buildings today, not because they are questioning God’s providence, but because they better understand how the laws of physics, that God himself created, actually work with lightning.
Just because someone claims that a supernatural “miracle” has happened does not mean that such claims should be automatically accepted. Even today, when we hear some fellow Christian believers rejoice that God “opened up a parking place” for them, many other Christians show a certain amount of skepticism for that type of display of piety. Nevertheless, every truly Scriptural-informed Christian continues to pray, seeking the Lord for His guidance in their daily lives.
Furthermore, since the medieval era, certain claims about “what the Bible teaches” no longer could be defended, nor such claims needed to be defended in the first place.
Rarely will you find a Christian today who believes that a geocentric model for the universe, where everything orbits around a fixed planet earth, including every other planet, sun and star, should be defended in order to somehow protect the authority of Scripture. Psalm 93:1 says that “the world is established; it shall never be moved” (ESV), but how many Christians, for the past century or more, believe that the Bible teaches that the earth rests at a fixed, unmovable point within the universe?
Generations of Christians up through the medieval period prior to Galileo were convinced that the fixed nature of the earth was essential to a proper defense of the Bible. Martin Luther completely rejected Copernicus’ critique of geocentrism out of hand, as being contrary to Scripture, complaining, “But that is how things are nowadays: when a man wishes to be clever he must . . . invent something special, and the way he does it must needs be the best!”
Today, it is sufficient to say that a heliocentric view of the solar system, with an earth moving around the sun, is perfectly consistent with the teaching of the Bible. So when the Book of Joshua talks about the “sun standing still“, many Christians today will differ on exactly what that means, but nearly all find it quite acceptable to say that this is not about the sun ceasing to move in its orbit around the earth. Nearly every Christian I know understands that when the “sun rises” and the “sun sets,” as the Bible so often says, as in Ecclesiastes 1:5, these are metaphors that describe astronomical phenomena. They are not statements that scientifically teach that the Bible forces Christians to hold to a geocentric view of the solar system.
At the same time, a belief in the supernatural has remained a core feature of Christian belief. Christians still debate whether certain events as recorded in the Bible are truly supernatural in character. For example, is the awakening of “zombies” in Matthew 27:51-53 an historical occurrence, where dead persons were awakened on Good Friday, who then took strolls through Jerusalem, after Christ’s Resurrection, or was it a metaphorical vision, anticipating the Resurrection that is to come? Historically orthodox Christians ponder the interpretation of these type of reports, and disagree amongst themselves, but they are unwavering in affirming other supernatural events found in Scripture.
Historic orthodoxy still affirms a Bodily Resurrection of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and the Second Coming of Jesus, which are all inherently supernatural events. Attempts by progressive-minded Christians to water down these central miraculous claims in the Bible, in order to make the Christian faith more palatable to modern ears, have proven counterproductive as a means of somehow “defending the Bible.”
Rudolf Bultmann, 1884-1976, was probably the most influential New Testament scholar of the 21st century. Bultmann considered himself as a churchman, yet he vigorously championed the “demythologizing” of the Bible as an apologetic for defending the Christian faith. Looking back on his apologetic program, it did not work.
Rudolf Bultmann and His Failed “Demythologized” Apologetic for Christianity
For example, Rudolf Bultmann was a 20th century German New Testament scholar, perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of that century. Bultmann had been thoroughly schooled in the discipline of “historical criticism” of the Bible. I once had a professor in seminary who had a doctoral advisor, who himself had been mentored by Bultmann. My professor told me that his doctoral advisor was convinced that Rudolf Bultmann was the rough equivalent of an evangelical German “Billy Graham.” If you knew nothing of Bultmann’s published work, you would think that he was a revivalist preacher, thundering with a message echoing along on the sawdust trail. But for those evangelical Christians who have heard the name of Rudolph Bultmann, and do know about his writings, they would have hardly described Bultmann as being anything like an evangelical Christian.
Rudolf Bultmann considered himself to be a Christian, and yet he felt compelled to try to defend his vision of Christianity by “demythologizing” the Bible. People in Bultmann’s generation were quite eager to dismiss Christianity as being superstitious and “unscientific,” so Bultmann sought to try to remove those barriers. This meant excising the Bible of its supernatural content, and reinterpreting difficult passages in a more naturalistic light. For Bultmann, the concept of miracles was simply too much for modern people to swallow.
For Bultmann, you could no longer talk about a physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, you could only talk about a spiritual resurrection of Jesus in the heart of a Christian believer. In other words, the spirit of the risen Jesus lives in the Christian, but Jesus’ body is rotted away and most probably disintegrated somewhere in or around Jerusalem.
You would be hard pressed to find any Christian these days who is convinced that Rudolf Bultmann’s argument for a spiritual resurrection offers an acceptable apologetic defense for the Christian faith. Many would even go so far as saying that Bultmann was no real Christian at all!
The concerns that motivated Bultmann stem from arguments that were articulated forcefully in the 17th century, by philosophers like Baruch Spinoza. Church and synagogue leaders were unable to resolve doctrinal and political disputes among themselves in Spinoza’s day. Therefore, Spinoza proposed that science must lead the way in adjudicating controversies surrounding biblical interpretation. In order to do that, the ascendancy of science required that the supernatural claims found in the Bible needed to be rejected. From the Virgin Birth to the Resurrection of Jesus, such claims of the miraculous needed to be dismissed as an embarrassment to the Christian faith.
Nevertheless, the history of the Christian movement since the age of Bultmann has shown that churches that follow Bultmann’s “demythologizing” program are on a near irreversible decline, whereas churches that continue to uphold the supernatural claims of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection of Jesus continue to grow. The future of Christianity does not belong to the dying Protestant liberal mainline. Rather, it belongs to more conservative forms of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, a different philosophical movement is underway in our day.
Misogyny as the Greater Concern about the Bible, as Opposed to the Supernatural
When people share their skepticism about the Bible today, what stands out as the primary reason? Is it the supernatural claims in the Bible, as with the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus? What about Biblical inerrancy, whether or not the Bible has errors in it, particularly when it comes to science? Yes for some, these questions are still of great concern. But for a growing number of 21st century people, social justice type issues have become way more important.
In the 21st century, concerns about the supernatural and science has shifted away towards more sensitive concerns about social justice issues, as they relate to the Bible. A case in point: It matters less what the Bible says about supernatural miracles, but it matters more as to what the Bible says about the value and treatment of women.
In particular, claims about an inherent misogyny laced throughout the Bible have caused distress among believers who wish to defend the integrity of the Scriptures. The effects of the “#MeToo” movement over the last decade continue to reverberate throughout the church.
On the one hand, Christians need to be honest that there have been times when the Bible has been used as a weapon against women. Here is a good example: The evidence we now possess clearly shows that Nympha was a woman who hosted a church in her home, as described in Colossians 4:15. Sadly however, medieval scribes did change the gender of the female “Nympha” to the masculine “Nymphas,” in order to obscure the contribution of female leadership in the early church, in favor of only men serving in certain leadership roles. This does not necessarily imply that Nympha was an “elder” (or presbyter, from the Greek), a designated officer in her local church, but it does indicate that Nympha had some kind of leadership function in her community. Regrettably, the stalwart legacy of the King James Version of the Bible preserves this perversion of the text, that hides the true female identity of Nympha. Thankfully, modern Bible translations are correcting that.
At the same time, the importance of upholding the differences between the sexes remains a crucial tenet, in a historical, orthodox Christian view of human nature, coupled with a belief of the equality between male and female. Attempts by progressive-minded Christians to water down those differences that exist between male and female, as found in the Bible, in order to make the Christian faith sound more palatable to today’s postmodern ears, are proving to be counterproductive as a means of somehow defending the Bible.
A brief excursus to other areas is warranted here: Legitimate concerns about the treatment of women, can also be extended towards concerns about the treatment of gay and lesbians persons, as well as transgendered persons, as these discussions pertain to the topic of gender more broadly. Christians in many churches have not always done very well in serving and offering loving support to such persons. Over and over again, I keep hearing heart-wrenching reports of people wrestling with same-sex attraction, being thrown out of their churches and their Christian families, even though such persons never acted upon their same-sex attraction. The Bible has often been used to browbeat those associated with LGBTQ. The hurt and damage done is painfully real. The Christian church needs to do better here.
Nevertheless, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriage and transgender ideologies in the society at large, as well as in the church, is grounded in the notion that gender is merely a social construct, that there is no fundamental differentiation to be found between male and female. Even advocates for same-sex marriage and transgender ideologies differ among themselves as to how gender exactly functions in our world today. In summary, the motives behind efforts to advocate for those women who have been hurt by the church, or to advocate for same-sex attracted persons and transgendered persons who have experienced hurt in the church are indeed well-intended.
However, if such efforts lead to the watering-down of Biblical teaching on gender, then it will have the opposite effect of what is intended. Just as 20th century efforts to water-down the Biblical teaching on miracles and the supernatural actually undermined people’s confidence in the truthfulness of the Bible, it is quite possible that today’s efforts to marginalize Biblical teaching on gender might further fuel a different kind of loss of confidence in the truthfulness of the Bible. But it is a loss all the same, as 21st century persons tend to care more about social justice concerns than they are about claims regarding miracles and how science relates to the Bible.
Much of the shift that we see regarding social justice type issues can be traced to developments in academia over the past few decades. James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose, authors of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Make Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody, document how certain critical theories emerging from the radical wing of 1960s civil rights protests made their way into the halls of academia in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 1990s, such “cynical theories” have dominated certain fields in the humanities, with a curious mixture of anti-racism, critical race theory, feminist, and NeoMarxist ideologies, that has also been making an impact even in the sciences, within the last ten years or so.
What was once a legitimate desire to critique xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and for our purposes here, misogyny, has morphed into a kind of a new religion. Columbia University linguistic professor John McWhorter, author of Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, himself an atheist, calls this new religious faith “woke” religion. This new “woke” religion clashes with historically orthodox Christian faith, judging Christianity as being hostile to diversity, hopelessly exclusive, and undermining the quest for equity. The rapid emergence of diversity, inclusion, and equity programs in university administrative structures signals the rise of such ideological constructs as being almost a normative part of everyday life concerns.
Focusing again on the treatment of women, Christians who revere the teachings of Scripture want to work towards a better world, where women are highly valued and appreciated, where we can rightfully acknowledge the competence of women to perform tasks that have been historically associated with men. But just as many 20th century Christians, who wanted to appreciate the contributions of modern science, would look with embarrassment on some parts of the Bible, there are a growing number of 21st century Christians, who want to better support women, who look with embarrassment on certain passages of the Bible.
A good case can be made that such social justice concerns, such as with misogyny, are more important reasons why people resist Christian truth claims in the 21st century, as compared to concerns about inerrancy, science, and the supernatural. In other words, people today might be more inclined to accept the possibility of miracle regarding the Resurrection of Jesus, but they might be more hesitant to accept Christianity because of certain Bible passages that they perceive to be misogynistic in character, treating women as being somehow “second-class” citizens.
Nevertheless, we should heed the warnings of our 20th century predecessors. Bultmann may have had good intentions in trying to defend the Christian faith, by attempting to purge its pages of the supernatural. But his program has since failed. Christianity that has followed Bultmann’s path has weakened, whereas those who have embraced the strange and weird parts of the Bible in responsible ways continue to see a renewed growth in faith, and vibrancy in church life.
Likewise, 21st century Christians face a similar challenge with social justice concerns targeted towards fighting against the denigration of women. The question is whether or not Christians will fall for yet another Bultmann-like defense of Christianity, and water down their faith, when it comes to social justice issues, as with valid concerns over misogyny.
We do more harm than good when we try to hide or obscure certain passages in the Bible that on first glance seem to denigrate women. Those who tend to look upon such challenging Bible passages with embarrassment might find themselves looking at a shrinking church decades from now, just as the once enthusiastic disciples of Rudolf Bultmann have experienced since the mid-20th century.
In the next post in this series, we will examine a particular case study, following new trends in historical criticism, that shows how such embarrassment about the Bible can actually backfire on a truly Christian apologetic for the faith.