Friday, February 22, 2008

Something Christians and Atheists agree on

One of the funnier things one comes across when reading atheist* literature is the almost hyper-puritanical approach they often take to the Bible. Skeptic's Annotated Bible sums it up quite succinctly with a clever little page that asks, "Is every word of God pure?" featuring a left-hand column with those familiar verses that assert the positive and a right-hand column that reveals a number of verses that Sunday Schoolboys have passed notes about for generations. SAB even helpfully marks all questionable verses with a little yellow exclamation point.

Positive Atheism has a "Big Scary List" of such quotations, while Edgar Pearlstein has published a well-known (or at least much-copied) study of "Sex and Scatology in the Bible."

But setting aside the unrelated question of whether every Word of God is "pure"**, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that atheists and Christians have something of an agreement here. The atheists say, "If God was good, he'd never say 'piss.'" The Christians just ignore those parts of the Bible, because they agree in a cognitive-dissonance sort of way. If it makes the Sunday Schoolboys twitter, you can bet it never gets mentioned from the pulpit. God may say 'piss,' but a good Christian never does.

Jeff Wofford has found another such word in Philipians 3:8:
The word you want to keep your eye on is "σκύβαλα"--pronounced "skubala." Here's a literal translation of the verse:

But indeed I also consider everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I forfeited all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ...

Yes, you heard me right. Skubala means shit. Not only does it literally mean shit--i.e., human excrement--but it also has the same connotation. It is a vulgar word. Paul would not have said it in mixed company unless he expected a reaction.

It's difficult to find Christian sources that discuss skubala, but its use in ancient writings outside of the Bible makes clear that it was considered very impolite. The leading modern Greek lexicon--BDAG, it's called--glosses skubala as "refuse," "garbage," "human excrement," "crud," and "crap"--very strong words for this Christian scholarly book.

So the original text of the sacred Scripture contains a dirty word. I don't know about you, but I felt a profound sense of relief when I discovered this.

English translations don't like this word. They take the edge off it.
He answers the question as to why they take the edge off of it, and it's worth a read.

My sense of relief is the same, simply because I've never been one who considered our modern sense of verbal propriety as helpful as God's blunt descriptions of the human condition and our history. I mean, if God created us, he created us to take a dump as much as he created us to eat, to screw as much as to pick flowers. Why should we expect that he would never mention those facts or their significant, real-world results? If the Bible fails to live up to our modern sense of propriety, that's only because it approaches man as he is, not as our modern, sanctified, whitewashed ideology expects him to be, whether we be Christian or atheist.

That said, I'd be lying if I said that I don't conform in many ways to what that ideology expects of me individually. I don't swear much. In fact, I'd bet that even those in whose homes I have spent quite a bit of time will be hard-pressed to recall an occasion on which I've done so. That I don't swear much myself is not because I'm opposed to it, but because I tend to save mine for special occasions***. Swearing, like threatening, is a verbal tool anyone can wield, but overused, like the mom who is constantly "counting" at her kids, it loses its effectiveness.

I really don't care if others swear a blue streak, nor am I so tender-of-heart that a really creative stream of invective is going to melt me like some Wizard of Oz witch. I'm more liable to laugh out loud and memorize it in case a perfect occasion for recycling presents itself. And Dogma remains among my favorite films.

Oh, I understand that some are put off by such words. That's why I try to post language warnings where appropriate. That "R" rating is at the top of this page because while I reserve the right to use such language, it's only fair that I warn people ahead of time that their virgin eyes may be in danger here.

But I do find it extremely funny when some Christian drops a really nasty word or reference, and both the Christians and the atheists nod to each other in unison. "See? I knew he wasn't really a Christian." Not only does the swearer have Paul (and God) on his side, but that determination is neither the Christians' nor the atheists' to make. Just one more thing they have in common, I guess.

* Not agnostic, "I really don't know of or about anyone named 'God,'" but "There is no God and you're stupid for thinking there is" literature.

** which word does not now nor ever did mean, 'in accordance with a 21st century American opinion of social propriety."

*** I'd be willing to bet that Rebel Nun remembers the first time I dropped the F-bomb in her presence. I was on my way to a gold show in Chicago, working the booth for a company, when the President, who'd had my presentation for review for more than a week, called me five minutes before I had to leave to catch my flight and informed me of a half-dozen things that might have been important to include. That was a special occasion.

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