11/27/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Step Away From the Bible!

Although they'd be horrified to hear it, militant atheists and Christian fundamentalists share one thing in common. They both read the Bible badly. Their interpretive reading skills, at least when it comes to scripture, are stuck in what psychologist James Fowler calls the mythic-literal stage, a cognitive level appropriate for youngsters but not for adults.

Militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins school, unquestionably the loudest disbelievers around these days, attack the Bible as a hideous catalog of falsehood and immorality. On their reading, the God of the Old Testament comes off as racist, homophobic, infanticidal, and genocidal, making him, writes Dawkins in his The God Delusion, "arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction." The New Testament is no better. Although less overtly cruel than the Hebrew scriptures, the whole Jesus story is so irrational that it's "barking mad." To these and similar shooting-from-the-hip pronouncements, Dawkins' acolytes shout enthusiastic hosannas.

Christian fundamentalists read the same texts that Dawkins and Co. do, but insist, of course, that their every jot and tittle must be taken as literally coming from God, and that consequently nothing in the Bible is false or immoral. Articles 12 and 13 of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy are uncompromising: "Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit." Every word from Genesis to Revelation is literally true and good, and the Bible's infallible authority stretches from "spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes" to "assertions in the fields of history and science" -- at which point fundamentalists shout their own joyful hosannas. (Readers curious about the Chicago Statement may wish to consult my recent Giving Up Find God.)

Although atheists and Christian fundamentalists are on opposite sides of the aisle in their take on the Bible, both of their positions rest on a crudely literal reading of every sentence in it. This leads Dawkins and his fans to deny any value whatsoever to a volume that contains false or cruel passages, and fundamentalists to a mule-headed refusal to question any scriptural claim, no matter how outlandish or mischievous it is. You don't have to be a student of theology to see that what's going on in either case is an embarrassingly uncritical reading of a very complicated text.

Although it's been said a bazillion times, the fact that the Bible is actually a library rather than a single book continues to elude both militant atheists and Christian fundamentalists. Its genres run from poetry and legend to ethics and history, and to insist on reading them all in a uniformly literal way is as misguided as confusing The Pickwick Papers with biography or John Rawls' A Theory of Justice with saga. Genre-insensitivity when reading the Bible, regardless of whether it's born from honest or willful ignorance, is shameful. The first is pitifully unintellectual, the second culpably anti-intellectual.

As early as the third century, Christian exegetes, following still earlier midrashic tradition, maintained that scripture can and should be examined on four different levels. The lowest and least revealing was a literal reading. But as one entered more deeply into the text, three richer levels of meaning unfurled: the allegorical, the moral, and the mystical. This multi-tiered approach recognized the range of genres running throughout the Bible's books as well as the fact that a single passage in any one of them might have all four levels embedded within it, thereby calling for careful exegetical excavation.

Like their midrashic predecessors, the early Christian exegetes acknowledged that one could read the entire Bible literally if one insisted. But they warned that doing so was risky business: First, because it required one to swallow as literally true propositions that were clearly not intended to be taken that way; second, because staying on the literal level deprived the reader of a more profound appreciation of the text and, consequently, of God. Midrashic scholars were so convinced of this that they collapsed the first letters of the Hebrew words for the four ways of reading scripture into an acronym that spelled the word PaRDeS or "paradise." To climb the ladder of scriptural exegesis from the literal to the mystical was to catch a glimpse of heaven. An indiscriminately literal reading of the Bible kept one stalled on the ladder's first rung.

The take-way lesson in all this is that militant atheists and Christian fundamentalists who base their respective opinions on genre-insensitive readings of scripture ought to put a cork in it until they pick up some critical finesse. And those of us who follow their insistent wrangling should get off the sidelines and call them down until they do. No right-thinking, person ought to tolerate a half-baked, ill-informed, or heavy-handed reading of any text, biblical or otherwise. Interpretive disagreements can lead to fruitful dialogue, as midrashic and Christian exegetes know, but only if the disagreements are informed and thoughtful.

So, to both the Dawkinite atheists and the Christian fundamentalists among us, I've one piece of advice. I'm sorry if it sounds harsh, but you've fumed and shouted and bloviated and obfuscated for too long.

Put your Bibles down, shut up, and take an introductory English course.