I was surprised to notice an ad recently on television for a new game show centered on the Bible called the American Bible Challenge. I must admit that I don’t know that much about it, but this much is clear: it is meant to be a show that tests contestants’ knowledge of the Bible.
I’m not very happy about it, to be honest. Not because I think knowing the Bible is a bad thing: it’s not, especially if one regards the Bible as a sacred text. What I find dismaying about it is that it is another example of the Western world’s assumption that if you have a command of facts then you must know something. In certain areas of human endeavor, this is probably indeed true. For example, knowing the fact that 2+2 is 4 is a useful thing – and there’s not much more to it than that. But for the last century and a half or so, Americans and other Westerners have worked hard to make the Bible equivalent to a mathematics text book. And in doing so, we have increasingly ceased to look at the Bible as a collection of inspirational texts whose stories reveal wisdom about God, creation, and humanity that is able to introduce us to a deeper and more authentic relationship with God, creation, ourselves and one another. Instead, we have exchanged this more ancient view of sacred text for a modernist one, and tended to see the Bible as a sort of God textbook from which we derive facts which, once learned and accepted, somehow assure our salvation.
This shift in the way the Bible is viewed is what accounts for the manufactured war between science and religion. Those who insist on the Bible-as-textbook read the creation stories in Genesis and, taking them as factual, assert that scientific findings about and descriptions of creation must, therefore, be wrong because they do not agree with the Bible. This sets up religion and science as competing bodies of knowledge, requiring faithful people who subscribe to this point of view to choose one over the other.
But there is no need for science and religion to clash. For truly they are not competing bodies of knowledge but complementary ones. The creation stories in Genesis, for example, are not meant to be factual accounts of how the world came to be (the people who wrote them never intended them to be!). Rather, they are stories that are intended to transmit wisdom about this creation in which we find ourselves and its and our connection to a sacred source whom we call God. The central assertion of the Genesis stories – that we are because God is – provides a foundation on which to articulate the spiritual connection between ourselves and our world. Science, for its part, describes how creation was formed, the “mechanisms” that made our existence possible. These are not competing claims – they are simply different sides of the same coin (and, you can’t have a coin without two sides).
There is a desperate need in Christianity today to step away from Bible-as-textbook and recover the more ancient understanding of the Bible-as-wisdom. Because ultimately, no matter how powerful the Bible-as-textbook Christians seem to be right now, continuing down this road that places science and religion at odds will ultimately end with religion being seen as an absurdity. And, indeed, in the hands of many Christians today, the faith has become exactly that: an absurd caricature meant to protect people’s prejudices and ignorances rather than a tradition of wisdom that has the power to open people to an authentic experience of God that transforms our prejudices and ignorances.
While I have to admit that the American Bible Challenge game show offends me a bit because it makes a text that I regard as sacred into a source of entertainment (can anyone imagine the Saudi Arabian Quran Challenge?), I am far more concerned with the way in which this gameshow reenforces the perception that the Bible is a book of facts to be mastered rather than a tradition of wisdom meant to lead us beyond the text into encounter with the sacred.
I guess it’s just another step along the path of dumbing-down everything in America.