Aaron turned his staff into a snake in front of Pharaoh to show that he and Moses were God’s representatives. Why not a public demonstration today to show that you’re channeling God’s power? Pastor Yaw Saul from central Ghana promised to replicate the staff-into-snake trick, but it didn’t turn out as planned. After hours of effort in the market square, the public lost patience. Perhaps inspired by the command in Deuteronomy, “a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded … is to be put to death,” they drove him away by throwing fruit and water bottles.
You must promise, but not too much. That’s the challenge with religion. Promise too little and there’s no attraction. What’s the point in following a god who promises nothing more than an improved complexion and twenty percent fewer weeds in your yard?
But promise too much—that is, make promises that can actually be tested—and you risk getting found out. That was Pastor Saul’s error.
William Miller made the same mistake. He predicted the end of the world on October 22, 1844. When the next day dawned uneventfully, this became known as the Millerites’ Great Disappointment. More recently, Harold Camping predicted the Rapture™ on May 21, 2011 and the end of the world five months later. John Hagee also predicted big things after his four blood moons. Oops—all were too specific.
Almanacs, fortune tellers, and talk-to-the-dead mystics are in the same boat. If they deliver too little, what’s the point? “The winter will be cold” or “This time next year, you will be older” or “A beloved relative says Hi” doesn’t attract many fans. But too specific a prediction and you rack up a list of errors that even the faithful can’t ignore.
One way to avoid this problem is to be ambiguous. The predictions of Nostradamus are famously hammered to fit this or that event from history. (Curiously, no one ever uses these “prophecies” to predict the future. Isn’t that what prophecies are for?)
And, of course, the Bible is ambiguous and even contradictory. Exodus has two conflicting sets of Ten Commandments. Whether you want to show God as loving and merciful or savage and unforgiving, there are plenty of verses to make your case. Jesus can appear and vanish after his resurrection as if he had a spirit body, but then he eats fish as if he doesn’t. Jesus can be the Prince of Peace but then say, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
How can such a religion survive? Wouldn’t its contradictions make it clear to everyone that it was just a collection of writings without divine inspiration?
Contradiction as an asset
Let’s skip over the Bible’s consolidation phase that ended in roughly 400 CE. The hodge-podge of books chosen from a large set of possibilities was accepted as Christian canon, and we can debate about what sorts of compromises or rationales were behind the final list. But the odd amalgam that resulted has a silver lining: a contradictory Bible can make Christianity stronger. Because it contains both answers to some questions, it is able to adapt to new and unexpected challenges.
Take slavery during the U.S. Civil War. From one pre-war book published in the South:
If we prove that domestic slavery is, in the general, a natural and necessary institution, we remove the greatest stumbling block to belief in the Bible; for whilst texts, detached and torn from their context, may be found for any other purpose, none can be found that even militates against slavery. The distorted and forced construction of certain passages, for this purpose, by abolitionists, if employed as a common rule of construction, would reduce the Bible to a mere allegory, to be interpreted to suit every vicious taste and wicked purpose.
And, of course, others used the very same Bible to make the opposite argument.
Rev. Martin Luther King used the Bible to support his argument for civil rights, and Rev. Fred Phelps used the same Bible to argue that “God hates fags.” I’m sure that as same-sex marriage becomes accepted within America over the upcoming decades, loving passages will be highlighted to show that God was on board with this project all along.
The Bible hasn’t changed; what’s changed is people’s reading of it. The Bible’s contradictory nature allows it to adapt like a chameleon. Play up one part and downplay another, and you adapt to yet another social change.
Contradiction as a strength—who knew?
Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself.
Basically, it’s made up of two separate words—“mank” and “ind.”
What do these words mean? It’s a mystery, and that’s why so is mankind.
— Jack Handey, Deeper Thoughts (1993)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/6/13.)
Photo credit: Wikimedia