Buffy, the Bible, and Not My Business


Update:  A Facebook friend has reported that I misremembered the Hitchhiker’s guide, writing “Not My Problem” field for “Somebody Else’s Problem” field.  Due corrections have been made!  I have left the title intact, though, for the sake of the alliteration….

In the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as fans well know, the setting is the fictional Southern California city of Sunnydale.  Sunnydale just happens to be located on top of the literal gates of Hell–the Hellmouth, as it’s called in the show.  Because of this, Sunnydale is chock full of vampires, demons, and monsters of various sorts.  The ongoing joke in the series is that everyone in the city is completely oblivious to all of this, attributing supernatural events, murders, and general mayhem to anything but their real causes.  The explanation given by Giles, Buffy’s Watcher, is that most people subconsciously block out anything that conflicts with their picture of ordinary reality.  They literally can’t see the weirdness.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (consisting actually of five volumes by Douglas Adams and one by Eoin Colfer), there is mention made (in Life, the Universe, and Everything, I believe) of the SEP field.  It is explained that invisibility is extremely difficult to produce.  Therefore, if someone wants to hide something (in the novel, an invading spaceship), it’s easier to use the Somebody Else’s Problem–SEP–field.  Humans have a natural propensity not to want to get involved with anything that is “somebody else’s problem”.  The SEP field amplifies this natural tendency, so that while the object to be hidden is perfectly visible and in the open, no one actually notices it.

My contention is that most people who read the Bible are much like the people of Sunnydale; or to change similes, they read the Bible as if under the influence of an SEP field.

What I have in mind is the extreme divergence between the Old and New Testaments in their portrayal of God.  I have mentioned before such things in the former as the plagues and destruction God sent against His own people (Numbers 11:33, Numbers 16:1-35, and Numbers 25:1-4), the (lauded) behavior of Phineas (Numbers 25:5-9) which causes God to stop the last-mentioned plague, the mandates to kill all the men, women, and children in various cities in Canaan when the Jews return from Egypt (Joshua 6:20-27, 8:24-26, and 11:10-15, among others) and other things such as 1 Samuel 15:1-2, Samuel 24 and 2 Kings 2:23-25.  Examples could be multiplied quite a bit, but you get the picture.  I wrote a whole series discussing this.

Admittedly, fewer people read the Bible than in the past.  Still, even among those who have read most or all of it, I think there’s an almost Sunnydale level of refusal to see such things as I listed above.  I include myself in this, incidentally.  As I said back here:

I’ve already noted that the sheer quantities of sex and violence in the Bible truly amazed me the first times I read it as a teenager and an early twentysomething.  Amazed me, but didn’t make too deep an impression.  Youth is like that, I guess.  I never really thought of it as an issue of theology–or theodicy.  I guess I just stashed that away in the heap of contradictions that most people hold in their mind regarding religion.  God is a God of Love, and all that Old Testament stuff where He kills people or orders them killed, by the droves–well, that was way back then, wasn’t it, and–hey, what’s for lunch?

Reading it much later in life, I did see the real Sunnydale, so to speak; but I think most people just continue to filter out all the nastiness.

This applies not only to sex and violence, but to other things as well, most notably the interpretation of Genesis in terms of human origins.  I’ve discussed aspects of this in my series on the Fall and my sub-series about polygenism.  Suffice it to say here that most people are simply impervious to anything disruptive of their preconceived notions.  If you say that there is so much water on Earth, and then point out how much more than that it would take to cover the world’s highest mountains (a depth of over five miles), and that therefore the story of the Deluge cannot be literally true, you’ll get a blank stare.  If not that, you’ll get something like, “I believe in God and the His word, the Bible, not what scientists say!”

In the case of the violence and nastiness, and the portrayal of God as somewhat of an angry, violent tyrant in the Old Testament, the Church as a whole has largely been under an SEP field, I think.  For the various heretical groups, such as that founded by Marcion of Sinope, as well as many Gnostic and affiliated groups, the problem was a non-starter.  They claimed that the deity of the Old Testament was not, in fact, the true God.  Rather, he was an inferior being, ignorant at best, malicious at worst.  In Marcion’s understanding, this deity is just–in a harsh, eye-for-an-eye way–but no more.  In the eyes of Gnostic, Valentinian, and other such groups, this deity was much worse, maliciously imposing its rule on humanity.  This being, the Demiurge, is known variously as Yaldabaoth, Saklas, or Samael, this last meaning “blind god”.

In any case, all the aforementioned groups agreed that the loving, compassionate God spoken of by Jesus was the true God, higher than the Old Testament God, and having no connections with him at all.  Thus, there was no need to harmonize the Old and New Testament views of God, since they were seen as impossible to harmonize.  God as portrayed in the Old Testament seems so much different from the portrayal given Him in the New because they actually are different beings.  Thus, the Gordian Knot was cut by merely refusing to worship the Old Testament god, and by (in Marcion’s case) simply discarding the entire Old Testament.

For the orthodox, committed to a belief that the God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old, and that this good God created the cosmos, harmonization is both necessary and difficult. Of course, in antiquity, life being somewhat more harsh and violent than it is now, the cruelty of the Old Testament was perhaps less distant from daily life than it is for us.  It was thus, perhaps, a bit easier to overlook.  Easier, but not impossible.  Thus, there was a tendency, as I see it, to suppress the nasty bits.  They weren’t excised, as was the practice of Marcion.  Rather, interpreters tended to put emphasis on other parts of the Old Testament–the Psalms, the Prophets, and texts held to be predictive of the coming of Christ–and to downplay or maintain relative silence on the rest.  In any case, since few people were literate, the problem existed for only a few theologians.

To the extent that the more unpleasant parts of the Old Testament were addressed, the tendency was to read them allegorically.  Destruction of foes might symbolize fighting one’s own sinful nature, for example.  To my knowledge, though, such readings were more or less ad hoc.  I don’t know of any fully official teaching of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches that addresses these passages in a systematic way.

Protestant churches have historically given more weight to the Old Testament than have the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.  In his The American Religion, Harold Bloom has rightly pointed out that Protestantism in its Evangelical form is truly a religion of the Book–the Bible is sufficient, needs no mediation, and all parts of it are of equal validity–whereas Catholicism, the Orthodox Church, and Rabbinical Judaism are not actually religions of the Book, since they have complex traditions and interpretive frameworks through which the Bible is mediated.

In any case, even in modern times, Protestant theologians (and alas, even the occasional Catholic) have tried to mount a defense of God’s purported action.  One argument is that since God is sovereign over life and death, and since everybody dies sooner or later, anyway, that He has the right to implement the means, whether it’s dying peacefully in bed or being massacred as part of a genocide.  That may be so, but it doesn’t make God look too good, ethically speaking.

As I’ve noted previously, prominent Protestant theologian and apologist William Lane Craig has attempted to defend God’s supposed commands to the Israelites to utterly destroy the Canaanites.  At least he has chutzpah–after some rambling about how the innocent children went to Heaven straightaway (so it wasn’t bad for them that they got killed!) and suggesting that the Israelites who murdered them suffered more (because killing women and children is stressful, y’know), he comes right out with this, my emphasis:

Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.  The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

So if God tells you to do it, it’s OK, no matter what.  Logic the 9/11 hijackers could get completely behind.  Lane actually tries to argue that it’s not the same, because the Islamic conception of God is wrong; but he does admit, “If the Muslim thinks that our moral duties are constituted by God’s commands, then I agree with him.”

Justifying horrendously evil things supposedly commanded by God is, in my mind, the fatal weakness of Divine Command theories of ethics.  I’ve discussed at length why I think such justifications are totally off base.  Without rehashing, it seems to me that if one allows a God that commands murder and genocide to be considered perfectly good, one has rendered the term “good” meaningless.  God is infinitely above us; but that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t have to play, at least minimally, by the same rules.

More generally, as I’ve said, people tend to “bleep” past this kind of thing without attempting to explain them.  In an upcoming post, I’m going to discuss why I think, purely apart from heresiological considerations, Marcion’s method of dealing with this, while admirably simple, was the wrong approach.  As to the types of defense attempted by Craig and others, I reject them for the reasons I’ve given.  As to the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, I wish that someone would eventually give a well thought-out and careful theology that firmly rejects the idea of a God who commands murder and mayhem while finding a way of reading the Bible, even with the nasty bits, in a way that can speak to us now.  I have my ideas about this, as I’ve discussed in “The Pretty Good Book”; but it would be nice if there were some official theologians and Church statements backing this view up more.  Not that I’m holding my breath.

Posted on 07/12/2014, in Bible, Christianity, Gnosticism, pop culture, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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