This afternoon I started flipping through my FM dial and stopped on a neglected favorite, NPR. This American Life (TAL) was on, and Ira Glass was introducing a segment on Julia Sweeney (former SNL cast member), who apparently was featured on the most talked about TAL episode in the program’s history. There were so many letters and phone calls made about the show that he replayed parts of her monologue this afternoon.

After just a few minutes, it was easy to see why she aroused such controversy.

Julia Sweeney was raised in a traditional Catholic home and considered herself very much a religious believer. Throughout Julia’s life, she had learned from the church about the Holy Bible, but had never actually sat down and read the book on her own. Eventually she found the time, and was dismayed by what she found. Or as Ira put it, “Girl loves God, Girl reads Bible, Girl is not so sure anymore how she feels about God.”

You can listen to the entire TAL episode, entitled “Godless America,” here (Julia’s segment begins halfway through).

Below I’ve transcribed some of her commentary:

I knew the bible had nutty stories, but I guess I thought they’d be wedged in amongst an ocean of inspiration and history. But instead the stories just got darker and more convoluted. Like when God asks Abraham to murder his son Isaac. As a kid, we were taught to admire it. I caught my breath reading it — we were taught to admire it?! What kind of sadistic test of loyalty is that? To ask someone to kill his or her own child? And, isn’t the proper answer, “NO?! I will not kill my child?! …Or any child?!”

At the next class, Father Tom reminded us that “Isaac represents what matters to Abraham most, and that’s what God asks us to give up for him.” I said, “But protecting and loving and caring for the welfare of your child is such a deep, ethical, loving instinct, and act. So… What if what matters to you most is your own loving behavior? Should we be willing to give up our ethics for God?” And he said, “No! It’s what matters to you most that isn’t your ethics, because your ethics is your love and faith in God.” That confused me, but I decided to just let it go.

But then I found that Abraham wasn’t the only person willing to murder his own child for God. They’re all over the place in the Bible! For example, in the Book of Judges, a guy named Jeptha tells God that if God helps him win this battle, he will kill the first person to greet him when he comes home… Who turns out to be his daughter… Who he sets on fire.

Some people argue that without the Bible, morality would be relative and wishy-washy. But in the Bible, morality is relative and wishy-washy. In fact, it sure seems like our modern morality is much more loving and humane than the Bible’s morality.

I’d love to hear what some of the more Jewy-Jewlicious folks have to say about morality vs. the Bible. And Muffti. Who’s a cynical atheist.

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  • That is the whole power of the Bible. It deals with real life people struggling with the often barbaric and dark realities of the real world, not fluff. If Julia wants pithy “inspiration and history” wedged between nutty stories, she can always tune into children’s television.
    Sacrifice of Isaac: Briefly, historically Jews raised their children to continue being Jewish despite knowing that this would expose their offspring to a lifetime of anti-semitism, violence and death. They dedicated (i.e. sacrificed) their children’s lives to the continuation of Judaism. The sacrifice of Isaac is an analogy for this. Also, Isaac was not a child, he was in his thirties during the sacrifice.
    Sacrifice of Jephtah’s daughter: Jephtah was a former bandit chief who slaughtered his fellow Israelites in a civil war. He is NOT viewed as a positive character. The sacrifice of his daughter is NOT viewed as a righteous act by the Bible.

  • I guess I’m pretty Jewy so I’ll jump in. FIrst of all, Jews have a lot more texts than just the bible. There are all the commentators, the Midrash, the Mishnah and the Talmud. I’m not even talking about the modern codifiers of Jewish law. We don’t derive Jewish law from the Torah without the oral law that was eventually codified (Mishnah and Talmud). The Karaites, for example, only followed the Torah literally so they didn’t have any light at all in their homes on Shabbat (and that may be why Friday night candle-lighting became so important–to counter the K’s). Candle-lighting is of rabbinic origin by the way, it’s not a commandment in the Torah.

    At any rate, even the classic commentators like Rashi criticize many of the actions of the biblical personalities, including the big ones. This particular act of Abraham’s action is admired, and there entire tracts about it why. It’s not simple. Essentially Jews put God’s word above our own subjective view of ethics. And don’t forget that child sacrifice was common in those days; the Torah later comes out firmly against it, and the last-minute cancellation was a message that Jews ultimately don’t act that way.

    There are many things in Jewish law that are troubling. But every system has its problems. It’s my religion and I have chosen to accept the whole package. There are always questions. Overall I feel it’s the most moral system out there.

    At any rate, you need to read a lot more than just the bible to have even a minimal understanding of what Judaism is all about.

  • I once heard an interpretation that said that God was upset with Abraham for listening to him, rather than pleased. Instead of a test of loyalty, God was hoping that Abraham would say “no way,” or at least question it, demonstrating that Abraham was willing to wrestle or partner with God, to question him, rather than giving blind faith. It was a trick test, and while God said that he was pleased with Abraham’s dedication, he never spoke directly with him again, or with any other human until Moses.

    Reading the bible and expecting it to explain your religion is like reading the constitution and expecting it to explain American law. It’s an important part, and the basis for everything else, but it’s a living document that is just one sliver of the larger thing. Just like the bible has some strange stories by modern standards, the Constitution has sections that would rankle the contemporary conscience (i.e. references to slavery).

  • I think reconciling the bible with modern morality is a much harder prospect from the Christian perspective which uses the bible as the main text out of which it’s adherents are supposed to live (well, sorta. The shirmp thing doesn’t hold, nor does shabbat, the laws about sex during menstruation are out, but God still hates fags. That part stays).

    The Jewish tradition, as mother in israel pointed out, uses the bible as a type of base, but then adds midrash, talmud and other responsa to explain and allegorize much of its contents, like what dave offered in the above comment.

    I’m not making a value judgment on with approach, but rather commenting on the process by which Jews have tried to understand the…umm… oddities of the bible.

    At the end of the day, our religion, laws and moral codes are not based on biblical sources but rather on rabbinic ones.

    Reconciling some of those opinions, influenced as they were by prevailing moral codes of the time, well, that’s another story

  • As usual the answer seems to be not to read and understand what the bile (uh, excuse me, BIBLE, freudian slip?) actually says but to read and understand it some other, more convenient way…. except for its words about homos or sex, then kosher riots and christian smiting are called for in defense of the literal biblical writings.
    Of course this rule applies to ALL books of ALL religions.
    It´s the much needed catch 22 rule for accetance of the illogical mumblings and silliness of any and all “faiths” and “supreme” beings without choking.
    Otherwise religions might seem to be… illogical? Silly? Cruel? Outdated? Irrelevant to true moral questions?

  • Religions have historically been the cornerstone and foundation of civilization and organized society. Some of the greatest moral thinkers, writers and philosophers came out of religious movements.
    Yeah….just illogical silliness that is utterly irrelevant…..

  • Mufti…you’re man Dawkins has a hot seller. When are you going to write your? A hybrid of metal and atheism. I’d read it, seriously.

    Anyone else with shaky faith get bent out of sorts when super bright folk like Dawkins and Harris make the whole God things seem so silly. Or am I just too easily influenced?

  • Contrary to what Laya (I think) asserts, the great majority of Christians do not view the Bible as a moral guide, to be taken literally, at least sometimes. Here, as elsewhere, she seems to confuse all Christians with the evanglical kind. And I suspect that Jews, and not Christians, face a “much harder prospect” with Biblical interpretation. Jesus, after all, brought His own streamlined perspective on doctrine and observance, e,g., “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. Or, the story of the woman taken in adultery: “[T]hey then came to Jesus and said: ‘Rabbi, we have found this woman in adultery. Moses commanded that such should be stoned. What do you say?”).

    It’s inconceivable, for example, that the Pope, or Orthodox Christians, or Methodists, or even evanglicals, would join Conservative rabbis in parsing Deuteronomy to conclude that, for gay guys, oral sex is fine but anal isn’t. Like the result or not, the Christian approach is to view the Bible as a whole and ask: what vision of sexuality and family is advanced in Scripture?

    The essential difference between Christians and Jews in their views of the Bible may be different views of the Covenant created by God. Catholics believe that the Jews have their own such Covenant, and for all the things we have in common, that Covenant is very, very different from the one Christians believe arises from the New Testament.

  • Religions have historically been the cornerstone and foundation of civilization and organized society. Some of the greatest moral thinkers, writers and philosophers came out of religious movements.
    Yeah….just illogical silliness that is utterly irrelevant…..

    Ah, the genetic fallacy! How long has it been since Muffti saw you rear your ugly head? Muffti can’t help but love the irony that it pops up in a comment dedicated to calling soemone else ‘illogical’. Think before you speak, dude.

  • Shtreimel! Muffti may be in Toronto soon! Email him!

    As for Dawkins, Muffti thinks the guy is awfully clever but he’s not a huge fan. But anything that shakes you lose of faith Muffti is willing to endorse.

    He’ll be glad to let you know when the grand metal opera is ready to be unveiled that proves the non-existence of god. Until then, Muffti will sit around trying to play as fast as Metallica did on Battery. And probably fail 🙁

  • Tom – Thanks for the clarification, I know I was being a little simplistic. My goal was not to properly parse Christian theology, but to explain a basic differnce. FWIW my knowledge of Christianity comes largely from living my first 18 years in a predominately Dutch-Christian town.

    That having been said, if, as you said
    “the Christian approach is to view the Bible as a whole and ask: what vision of sexuality and family is advanced in Scripture?”
    then I don’t understand why the prohibition against homosexuality sticks, but issues of sexuality which included lots about refraining from sex around menstruation and in many other circumstances did not.
    Why is one vision of correct sexuality more valid than the other, when taken as a whole?

  • In a way, Laya, your question illustrates my point. Some stuff gets carried forward, other stuff doesn’t; the literal approach has the virtue of consistency. Non-literalists are certainly subject to the charge of picking and choosing, as if in a cafeteria. The essence of Catholicism is: we’ll do the picking and choosing for you. (Luther had different ideas.)

    It’s also important to add that lots of Christians are revisiting traditional teaching on homosexuality. Most advocates of that change, though, aren’t basing it on a reading of a passage here or there– rather, in a broad way, on Jesus’s teachings of love, acceptance and inclusion.

  • Laya – you apologized to Morrissey a bit to soon… because one of the major, revolutionary notions of the Protestant Reformation was the idea that people should directly access the Bible, and that their interpretations (without “Popish” intervention to establish orthodox interpretations) should be given weight.

    The fragmented, federal nature of Protestantism is one lasting legacy of this.

    So large numbers of Christians – especially in Protestant America – still do put direct Bible reading front and center in their religious/moral program.

  • Hey Muffti, religion is still a prime moral force in modern times. It is what inspired people like the Dalai Llama, Natan Sharansky, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King Jr., to name a few. Feel free to disagree with religion all you want. However, I just personally think it is a little silly to dismiss offhand something that has been, and still is, the source of guidance and philosophical thought for some of the most brilliant and saintly people… especially when it comes to discussing morality. You may disagree with them, but religious books are definitely more than just nutty stories and random preaching. They contain concrete and highly intricate commentary about the human condition and the nature of the world.

  • I get the answers to all the confusion, conflicts, mysteries, and myths in the Bible with a steady diet of Rabbi Shmuley, staring in “Shalom in the Home”, each Sunday(maybe Saturday in Israel 🙂 ) at 7PM EST on The Learning Channel (TLC).

    Adding some Marker’s Mark and a roll of weed, I come to realize great spirits always encounter irritating opposition from mediocer minds.

  • True enough about heretics, er, Protestants, Ben-David, But most Protestants (especially the mainline ones, Methodists, Anglicans, etc.) forebear from reading the Bible literally. Look at US Episcopalians and their struggle to square gay marriage with Scripture.

    And trust me on this one– if you were Christian, you’d be a papist, too. I can even see you as a worthy successor to Cardinal Ratzinger in his former gig at enforcing doctrinal purity….

  • Sorry, Daveh, Muffti was being a little mean but he thought it was awfully mean of YOU to be so dismissive of the thoughts of Sweeney, especially in a wayt hat invovled a patently fallacious argument. But Muffti appologizes for being mean and probably uncharitable.

    Muffti isn’t dimissing religion; but as an atheist he does dismiss God. There is a deep question as to what the value of religion is when you take God out of the equation that truthfully, Muffti isn’t sure how to answer. But he does think it frees you up a little bit to reject the parts of religion that you find odious: the view of homosexuality as a prime example.

  • Fair enough Muffti. But you also must acknowledge that Sweeney did not use particularly respectful language in his post (bile?), and you know what, I’m perfectly okay with that. It’s his right. However, if he sees fit to flame my beliefs, then he also must accept that I have a right to flame his. Otherwise, I understand your point. However, there are many people who believe in God, many of them quite rational (there are plenty of scientists out there who disagree with Dawkins’ atheism). For those people, religion has primal value and moral force. And because atheists and deists must share society, neither can dismiss the other’s beliefs lightly as having no value.

  • Sorry, the bile comment came from jc. My bad, it’s been a long night. When I wrote that comment about religion being a building block of civilization that should not be dismissed as irrelevant, it was more in response to jc’s comment, not Sweeney’s opinions. I should have specified that.

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