Don’t read the Bible!?
Despite the overwhelming secular thrust of Australia’s national taxpayer-funded broadcaster, the ABC, some Christians I meet take heart from the fact that it still1 devotes some air-time to ‘religious programming’.2 And the fact that its Editor of ABC Religion and Ethics Online, Scott Stephens,3 is periodically called upon to appear on overtly secular ABC programs to provide a ‘spiritual perspective’ on various matters of the day. At such times, Stephens has used the opportunity to speak in supportive terms regarding Christianity, the church, and the importance of having faith.
However, while appearing as a panelist on one of the ABC’s radio programs dedicated to religious matters, Stephens was provoked to opine, passionately:
“I’m a long-time believer in the idea that nobody in good sense should be able to pick up the Bible and read it for themselves.”4
Before we peel back the context in which he expressed that view, we should note that anyone practised in applying ‘the Berean test’ (“examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things be so”—Acts 17:11) will of course immediately recognize that Stephens’ imperious desire to corral the Bible from ordinary readers is directly opposed to God’s Word, e.g. “the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple”—Psalm 19:7b.
Scott Stephens made his don’t-pick-up-the-Bible-and-read-it-for-yourself remark on the program Sunday Nights, hosted by regular presenter John Cleary, about half-way into the first hour’s panel discussion. The program was broadcast live-to-air on 22 December 2013, with the panel asked to address the topic: “Does Christmas nostalgia signify a deeper hunger?”4
Co-appearing on the panel with Scott Stephens were two others.
One was Dr Justine Toh of the Centre for Public Christianity—an organisation whose leaders CMI has openly criticised in the past for their acceptance of evolution (e.g. John Dickson5), which so undermines the Gospel and its very own charter—which is promoted as being to “bring Christianity back into the public square”.
Presenter John Cleary introduced the panel discussion, and the third member of the panel, Professor Barry Spurr, as follows:
JOHN CLEARY: How can massive cultural shifts of the past half-century [have] caused us to lose something that may be of value? In literature for example in the years following the Second World War, poets and writers from T.S. Eliot, to Dorothy L. Sayers, W.H. Auden, Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis were all steeped in a culture deeply informed by Christianity. Independent of our idea of God if we are ignorant or deprived of that cultural depth are we not cut off from our aesthetic, heritage and more importantly from the intellectual and moral insights it brings? That, at least, is one of the questions brought to the table by our panellists this evening, in particular Professor Barry Spurr, Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of Sydney, and most recently the author of Anglo-Catholic in Religion: T.S. Eliot and Christianity.
Professor Spurr, though lamenting the loss of Christian values and knowledge in modern culture, soon made clear that he was even more wishy-washy on Genesis and ‘the Christian story’ than the Centre for Public Christianity’s representative, Dr Toh (the gist of her opening remarks a few moments earlier are evident from Barry Spurr’s reference to it).
BARRY SPURR: I would much prefer that people were searching for the transcendental element that can arise out of community and belonging to a church and exploring the richness of that. I don’t quite agree [with Justine Toh] that we have to go back to the simplicity of the Christian story (although I don’t in any way depreciate that by itself), but I think we need to appreciate the great cultural richness of the 2,000 years of Christianity and let people find their way to those essential simplicities through that complexity and beauty.
One might wonder how the Professor proposes to “let people find their way”, given his aversion to pointing people to ‘the simplicity of the Christian story’ in the Bible—the source of the “great cultural richness of the 2,000 years of Christianity” that he’s commending.
Nevertheless, it’s useful to see that the subsequent dialogue between Cleary and Spurr highlighted today’s loss of ‘intellectual inheritance’:
JOHN CLEARY: Let me just put the focus again on what you were suggesting about the intellectual inheritance that’s at stake. Give us an example, I mean, again referring to the voices I referred to in the introduction, the great writers coming out of the Second World War, people like Eliot, Auden, Sayers, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, more explicitly Christian in those latter two, but they were building on something. You’re suggesting that that foundation on which they were building is intellectual, aesthetic and it has moral and ethical implications for civil society?
BARRY SPURR: Oh indeed, well I’ve been at the university for so long now, I have to confess 40 years of it, I gather I get a medal next year or something so I can’t wait for that, and what I’ve seen in that very long period is that when I’m lecturing on something like Paradise Lost or on T.S. Eliot’s poetry, something like Ash Wednesday for example or Four Quartets, I now have to explain even fundamental aspects of Judeo-Christian belief. I mean, ‘Who were Adam and Eve?’, ‘What is original sin?’ for example, in a way that I didn’t have to do what is more than a generation ago. I think a generation is 25 years, well, I started lecturing 40 years ago, I’m still lecturing on the same text, but I do revise my lectures I hasten to add. And I feel that there’s been (and it’s not just my opinion) a ‘vast cultural forgetting’. Now, people think “Oh, well, that’s just an aesthetic matter, isn’t it, they can’t read Paradise Lost with as much information as they used to have” but you’re losing a whole construction of spirituality, of theology, of an understanding of the world, of being able to place experiences, dark experiences as well as happy ones, within a compass of experience and of history and what do you replace that with when you’ve lost that? And so I think indeed from an intellectual point of view, and I’m always pleased to find that students when they are introduced to the ideas of these great works of intellect and of expression and what-have-you, are often captivated and entranced to know that people actually once believed these things, and that belief is possible and can produce such great works of the human spirit.
John Cleary then asked Scott Stephens, “What’s been lost, and does it matter?” Note how Stephens avoided answering the question, instead referring to some comments Justine Toh had made regarding the ‘religious narrative’ in movies:
SCOTT STEPHENS: Oh my word, where do we begin? Look, let me just start with saying, there is obviously a religious audience, and we’re seeing that more and more. For instance the Pay TV special on the Bible which rated its socks off! From what I understand there’s a new movie about Noah coming out soon …
JOHN CLEARY: Is this a harking-back to Charlton Heston, and Cecil B. DeMille?
SCOTT STEPHENS: Oh, Good Lord! Possibly, possibly. I think it’s a terrible idea, I think it’s an absolutely abysmal idea, because the only thing that you can really get by such mass-marketed versions of narratives that people have long since lost active touch with, is the most banal, superficial shallow accounts, which can only ever fold back into our pre-existing cultural prejudices. Look, I’m a long-time believer in the idea that nobody in good sense should just be able to pick up the Bible and read it for themselves. The task of reading the Scriptures, of encountering the Christian faith, this is something that requires extraordinary apprenticeship, it requires humility to come under the wise tutelage of somebody else, it requires the great, you know, mastery of people, not just theologians I should say but also great cultural teachers, and poets, and novelists, who actually teach us, “this is how I’m supposed to feel, this is how I’m supposed to think when I read these things.” I’m very very sceptical of straightforward recovery of biblical narratives or biblical stories within the medium of mass culture. …
So, there we see the context of Stephens’ lamentable ‘Don’t read the Bible for yourself’ exhortation to non-theologians, non-novelists, non-poets (was that merely a sop to fellow panellist Spurr?) and anyone who is not a ‘great cultural teacher’.
But why is he so opposed to ‘straightforward recovery of biblical narrative’? He certainly shouldn’t think that a straightforward reading of Genesis embarrasses Christianity. Even just a cursory read of some of our overview articles, e.g. “Created or Evolved?”,6 demonstrates that the evidence, ‘scientific’ and otherwise, fits the biblical account of origins and subsequent Earth history.
Cleary endeavoured to bring the panellists back on-topic, as he did throughout the program with reminders to his audience that “We’re talking about religion, Christianity and cultural values—have we lost our moorings, are we in danger of losing our moorings?” And despite the presenter’s and panellists’ ‘liberality’ in relation to the Bible, each contributed useful insights and observations to the broadcast discussion, e.g. Cleary and Toh:
JOHN CLEARY: Whether or not you accept the God dimension of Christianity, is there not something profound about the narrative, the Christian narrative, that has shaped our culture centrally? Bettany Hughes, the British historian, pop television historian over the last few years, did a lecture series, did a lecture for the BBC, the Huw Wheldon7 lecture, a year or so ago, it was near Good Friday, and she said, “Look, if I had to look, in my experience as a historian, I think that Christianity added something quite profound to civilization and if I was pushed to say one word, I would have to say ‘compassion’.” That it [Christianity] produced it as a central notion of civil structure, and that is irreplaceable in building the sort of civilization that we have. Are some of those values now, Justine, are we lacking the anchor points for those values?
JUSTINE TOH: Well I think it’s a great testament to the power of that Christian story even if we’ve forgotten its origins. I think it’s a great testament to the power of the story that compassion and even human rights, and the assumed dignity of a person, is a reality today. … So I think it’s obviously proven, it’s very successful because if you look at the cultures that Christianity grew in, or grew out of, you know, it wasn’t really a great time to be alive, basically, unless you were rich and powerful and male, basically, then your life could be nasty, brutish and short, basically.8 But I think we have forgotten that, a lot of that, in our culture. Maybe this is part of what Barry was saying before about the loss of the intellectual inheritance, if we lose sight of where these values have come from, then we kind of start to think that they are universals when it’s clearly not the case. And so I guess if Foucault was going to teach us anything, it’s about the historical specificity of values, that we can’t just presume values came out of nowhere but they actually have a very specific history. So, I guess part of the job of what we want to do at the Centre for Public Christianity is to reconnect that heritage.
However, Cleary is a very experienced, and shrewd, presenter. As is his wont with past panellists and interviewees, two-thirds of the way through the discussion he introduced the topic of ‘suffering’—a stumbling block and point-of-fall for many of his past ‘victims’ (e.g. John Lennox,9 and (now recently retired) Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, Peter Jensen).
JOHN CLEARY: One of the other things that it seems to me that Christianity introduced at the heart of the matter, was coming to terms with the centrality of suffering, not in the same way that the Buddhist does, but in a quite different way, that suffering opens the door, that has something to do with suffering in the real world. …
BARRY SPURR: I think this whole issue of the approach to suffering that you were mentioning earlier, is the other side, the darker side, of Christianity, to the joy and the compassion that Justine was rightly talking about. And I think this is such an important aspect of the Christian moral, the Judeo-Christian moral and ethical tradition, touching people’s lives in the dark times of their lives, the times of suffering, the times of loss, which enables them to put their personal situation, and indeed, a national situation, in a context of moral and ethical teaching. And I think one of the major problems in society today is that we’ve lost that compass of reference, those reference points. And this has led, I think, and I’m seeing examples of this unfortunately amongst a lot of young people that I deal with, has led to an amplification and an exaggeration of personal grief and pain. Oh, sometimes, these are very profound matters, but a trivial matter of pain and suffering or loss of some kind can be built into an enormous cosmic matter of importance, because one senses there isn’t any larger view.
JOHN CLEARY: The funeral of Princess Diana?
BARRY SPURR: Well, yes, and I mean I’m probably sticking my neck out a bit here, but I think we’ve had an over-the-top mourning of Nelson Mandela, too. I get the sense that reference points have been lost in these times and moments of national, universal, global suffering, and also in people’s personal lives. … Jesus said that “You will have trouble and sorrow in this world but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Just that one statement among the numerous statements he makes in the New Testament help you to cope with life, and to sustain the sufferings and the arrows and the swings of misfortune and what-have-you that come your way. So I think that, in ethics and morals, we’re often making it up as we go along and presenting these kinds of anodyne consolations that have no substance.
For the record, here’s an interesting exchange between Cleary and Stephens that occurred at about the 38-minute mark of the panel discussion. It might reveal more about Stephens’ awareness of the devastating effect that the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 has had on the church than he is willing to acknowledge directly:
JOHN CLEARY: There’s a groundedness in the deeper traditions of Christianity that perhaps the Church itself in some way is at fault for disregarding, perhaps, Scott Stephens, over the last 30 or 40 years, where we have coffee Christianity, or even, sort of, skim milk latte Christianity.
SCOTT STEPHENS: Or even worse, Christianity that’s become a glorified form of, you know, life coaching or personal motivation. One of the worst things that could have happened in many ways in the last three decades was Christianity deciding that it needed to become relevant. Every poet, every theologian, every novelist worth their salt for the last century-and-a-half has realized that the things which are in fact are most timely, are those things that are in fact least timely, those things that are most out of step with time. … [Emphasis added.]
‘Most out of step with time’—well, whether Scott Stephens intended it in this sense or not, the Bible’s timeline is ‘out of step’ with evolutionary time in virtually every aspect. E.g.: No death before sin (Romans 5:12,17; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22), people around from the beginning of creation (Matthew 19:4, Mark 10:6, where Jesus cited Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 as real history), horticulture/agriculture from the beginning (no Stone Age!—Genesis 2:15, 3:17–19, 4:21–22), fruit trees before fish (Genesis 1:11–12,20–22), whales before cows (Genesis 1:20–22,24–25), oceans before dry land (Genesis 1:1,2,7,9, 2 Peter 3:5), no fossil before the first humans (Genesis 1:31, 2 Peter 3:6).
That’s why it’s so important that Christians, especially those ‘in the public sphere’, should be “ready to answer” (1 Peter 3:15) and be able to “demolish arguments and every pretension against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and should speak out against evolution and its prerequisite, billions of years.
But the panellists did not. Evolution was the ‘elephant in the room’ that none dared raise. But the regular format of the Sunday Nights hour-long panel discussion includes the exposing of the panellists to phone-in talkback callers. There was time for two callers, and they both went ‘straight for the jugular’, i.e. evolution—the very issue that the panellists had assiduously avoided mentioning.
CALLER 1 (JIM, IN BEGA [New South Wales]): Hello all you wonderful people. Look, I’ve been listening to the debate, and I think everything is really good to listen to but you’re not covering my understanding of the world we live in, and I don’t go around saying “I’m an atheist”, but I actually think that this universe, whether we like it or not, is totally godless. And the debate that we’re having, and the way to move forward, needs to include the conclusion that many people come to, that this is actually a godless universe wherein historically and currently heaps of people do actually think there’s a god, and all this is happening within the godless universe. And it’s an amazing paradox, an enigma that we have to deal with. Anyway, that’s my conclusion. But it’s okay, you’ve left the lines open for people like me to make that comment, but I’d imagine that your three panellists don’t include this.
JOHN CLEARY: Yes, and the question you’re asking, I guess, and please correct me if I’m going to overphrase your words, is that you’re suggesting that you can construct a meaningful moral order in a godless universe. Or do you think there’s a paradox, that somehow we need some sort of idea of God in order to construct moral …
CALLER 1 (JIM): It doesn’t matter what we think, if it is a godless universe in which we do believe in God, this is the author of the paradox. We’re paralyzed to move forward, and we all want to move forward, and we’re not. We’re actually, it’s like we’re heading towards the very thing that we fear the most, and I think it’s this paradox. We’ve refined this god-story to the nth degree and we’ve created the most beautiful story, and it does have value, but it’s all going on within a godless universe. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think it’s a beautiful thing as a humanity for us to take on board and start debating it.
JOHN CLEARY: We will, we will!
But they didn’t. (Surprise, surprise.) Cleary flicked the question to Stephens, who said he would make two points. Here was the first:
SCOTT STEPHENS: John, I would just make two comments about that. The first one, I have been wondering, quite a lot lately, why has popular science writing taken off in quite the way that it has over the last decade in particular? Is it simply that we now have a batch of cosmologists, quantum physicists, evolutionary biologists who are just so adept at writing in the way that say G.K. Chesterton you know might have been a century ago, and it’s kind of captivated the public’s attention, or is there something else going on here, and I suspect it’s a little bit of the first. My suspicion though is the comfort that derives from the idea that the universe came out of nothing, that there was no cause, and therefore the universe almost imagined itself or simply came about by an act of pure freedom, pure unrestrained freedom. My suspicion is that it speaks to, or resonates to the modern soul, in the sense that, we don’t like the idea that we came out of, or we have been created within a system of obligation and story and narrative and dare I say even creative intention, that we didn’t choose for ourself. If we are born in a universe that is without God and therefore without determination, then it means that our will, our choice, also exists within a social framework and within a universe that poses no, you know, no impediment to us. I actually suspect that so much of this popular science writing in the form of cosmological atheism that goes along with that, I suspect that it almost nourishes the peculiar spirituality of our time.
That’s actually quite reasonably said, as far as it goes. But in making his second point (as follows), lamentably Stephens invoked Templeton Foundation and Biologos10 nonsense—though he didn’t mention them by name:
SCOTT STEPHENS: The second point that I would mention just very very briefly, is that some of the finest work that has ever been done on the relationship between cosmology and theology, the relationship between evolution and cooperation, the finest work that has ever been done is going on at this very moment, radical forms of cooperation and cooperative research between evolutionary biologists, scientists, mathematicians and theologians, so I suspect that anybody who simply says that, “It’s a godless universe because the scientists tell me so,” I think that there’s some much more interesting stuff going on than that.
JOHN CLEARY: Yes, even people like Stephen J. Gould were sympathetic to the idea of a reconciliation between science and religion.
Actually, the late Stephen J. Gould (1941–2002) surely now knows better. His ideas, including the NOMA (Non-Overlapping MAgisteria) that Cleary alludes to, were never defensible in any case (see Gould grumbles about creationist hijacking ; and Refuting Evolution 2 (chapter 2) Argument: Evolution is compatible with Christian religion).
The second caller bizarrely called himself a ‘gay Christian’11 and raised the typical false canards of atheists regarding ‘dark ages’ and ‘flat earth’ strawmen. But he finished with a legitimate challenge to anyone on the panel seeking to defend Christianity:
CALLER 2 (GREG, IN IPSWICH): Well, I was listening to you making a suggestion that maybe somehow society will suffer for the loss of Christianity but I’ve got a few ideas on that subject. And the number one thing is that we’re probably more or less 500 years behind scientifically because of the dark ages. I seem to remember every book and every person who said the earth wasn’t flat was executed, and if we’d kept with the Greco-Roman world we probably would have been better off. And also too as a gay Christian I’m not exactly sure the demise of Christianity would be a bad thing because I’m faced with it on a daily basis, saying that I’m a corrupt sinful individual just by being the person that I am. I also think that modernity says that people are tired of trying to live a life to make up for some mythical atonement, that sin was created by Adam and Eve, and Christ was brought into the world to atone for that, I mean, people no longer accept that basic premise. The Christian Church needs to set up another premise because evolution says that original sin is a farce, and it dismisses the whole nuance of, the existence of Christianity, as a social construct.
When John Cleary asked Scott Stephens to address this issue of “sin, original sin”, Stephens first up correctly spoke out against the ‘dark ages’ furphy.
SCOTT STEPHENS: The dark ages is a phrase that ought to be struck out of history books forever. The Mediaeval Period was extraordinarily rich scientifically, philosophically.
He is correct of course (see The biblical roots of modern science), and the Church explicitly taught that the earth was a globe (see The flat earth myth). This ‘Greg’ on the other hand evidently prefers slavery, beloved of the Greco-Roman world, to its abolition, spearheaded by evangelical Christians like Wilberforce. However, Stephens then admitted,
SCOTT STEPHENS: I’m playing for time because I don’t want to say anything about sin.
And we can understand why. Denying that Genesis is actual history—a true account of how sin entered the world, and its consequences—defrauds Christians of the ability to effectively proclaim the reason Jesus died on the Cross, and why it had to be Him (as our Creator). So Scott Stephens and others of his ilk, who advocate elitist-only non-historical ‘interpretations’ of Genesis actually rob ‘sin’ of its original, and true, meaning. No wonder sin is disappearing from the dictionary,12 and Stephens shied from giving an answer! (Cf. the clear injunction to do so in 1 Peter 3:15.) As Roger Birch, lecturer in New Testament Interpretation, wrote in his article Why did Jesus die?:
Quite simply, to suggest the account of Adam and Eve (and the associated issue of sin and death) is myth, or needs “reinterpretation”, is both a direct attack on God and the authority of Scripture, and also brings into question the whole purpose of Jesus’ death. It is an attack on both the Old and New Testaments since Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam (Luke 3:23 38), Paul refers to Jesus as the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45) and there are other New Testament references to Adam (1 Timothy 2:13-14; Jude 1:14). Sin, and with it the introduction of death, is also linked with Adam in the New Testament (Romans 5:12). So, if Adam is not a literal, historic figure, then effectively nothing of the Bible can be taken at face value, a fact that atheists seem to appreciate more than many evangelicals! Even worse, the whole justification for Jesus coming to die for us is destroyed and, with it, our redemption.13
So, the title of this article (paraphrasing Scott Stephens’ desires to limit its readership to ‘great cultural teachers’ only) is absolutely NOT what we are recommending. Rather, do read the Bible. It is able to make you “wise for salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15)—and wise also for passing on news of that salvation to others.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossians 4:5–6)
References and notes
- Formerly, i.e. in decades past, there was much more Christian content, with daily Scripture readings, and regular weekly broadcasting of church services. Return to text.
- E.g. through radio programs such as Encounter, The Spirit of Things, The Religion and Ethics Report, For the God who sings, and (relatively fewer) television programs such as Compass. Return to text.
- Scott Stephens taught theology at Trinity Theological College, Brisbane, of the über-liberal Uniting Church in Australia, before he joined the ABC. He also did a stint as a parish minister with the same Uniting Church in Australia—abc.net.au/unleashed/33412.html, http://www.abc.net.au/compass/team/scottstephens.htm (both accessed 5 March 2014). Return to text.
- The issue: Does Christmas nostalgia signify a deeper hunger?, ABC Radio National’s Sunday Nights program, broadcast live-to-air on Sunday 22 December 2013, presented by John Cleary, with panellists Scott Stephens (Editor of ABC Religion and Ethics Online), Dr Justine Toh (Centre for Public Christianity), and Dr Barry Spurr (Professor of Poetry and Poetics, Sydney University), audio of program accessed via http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s3916291.htm, 27th December 2013. Return to text.
- John Dickson’s views of the Bible have been addressed by quite a few of our earlier articles, e.g.: God Science and the age of the Earth, Does Genesis allow any scientific theory of origin? A response to J.P. Dickson, Genesis 1 and theories of origin, Is God Science reading Genesis 1 properly ?, Gay marriage and the consistent outcome of Genesis compromise, Atheists are loud when big-name Christians are mute. Return to text.
- Created or evolved?, creation.com/coe, 25 June 2013. Return to text.
- Sir Huw Wheldon (1916–1986) was a very influential BBC presenter and producer. Return to text.
- From the description by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) of the life of man under war and anarchy: “And the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” Leviathan 1(13), 1651. Return to text.
- For an example of Cleary’s skill in this area when interviewing long-age compromising Christian apologist John Lennox, see under the subheading Atheists are loud when big-name Christians are mute in: Billions of years makes Christians dumb (and atheists loud) A brilliant way to muzzle Christians: Get them to believe in long ages. Return to text.
- E.g. see Templeton Prize—a “regress” or progress in religion?, Evangelical colleges paid to teach evolution, Templeton Prize goes to panentheistic Darwinist, Tabor’s choice: A leading evangelical institution runs evolution-promoting seminars across Australia and look who’s funding the campaign…, Evolutionary syncretism a critique of Biologos, Biologos and the age of the earth: pushing an anti-biblical doctrine, The non-mythical Adam and Eve! Refuting errors by Francis Collins and Biologos, An entire universe wasted on us?, It’s not Christianity! Biologos says Christian parents and students should believe evolution, A response to Timothy Keller’s Creation, Evolution and Christian Laypeople , and the additional recommended reading under ‘Related Articles’ at the end of this article. Return to text.
- But is that possible? See Cosner, L., A ‘Wicked Bible’ for the 21st century?—The Queen James Bible, creation.com/wicked-bible, 21 February 2013. Return to text.
- “Sin”—huh?, Creation 31(3):7, 2009; creation.com/sin-huh. Return to text.
- Birch, R., Why did Jesus die?—the sacrificial system and Creation, creation.com/why-did-jesus-die, 6 April 2010. Return to text.
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