by William Trollinger
I taught for eight years at Messiah University (PA), which is – as the name might indicate – an evangelical school.
(Side note: At my campus interview I suggested – in what I thought was a brilliant moment of levity – that the athletic teams should have as their nickname “Messiah Complex.” Except for me, no one laughed.)
While Messiah is a moderate evangelical school (e.g., biblical inerrancy is not part of the faith statement), it attracted (and, I presume, attracts) a good number of fundamentalist students, many of whom had been homeschooled or had attended fundamentalist high schools.
One day in my U.S. history survey class, when I was talking about the American Revolution, I said in passing that the author of the Declaration of Independence was something akin to a deist. After class three distressed young women confronted me, letting me know that I was completely wrong about Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs, as they had learned in high school that he was an evangelical.
I happened to know that the library had a copy of the The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (more commonly known as The Jefferson Bible). Jefferson created this work by literally taking a razor to a KJV Bible, cutting out certain Gospel passages and gluing them together as a summary of Jesus’ teachings, in the process removing all supernatural references (including the Resurrection and other miracles).
So I suggested to these students that they go to the library and take a look at what Jefferson had produced. And so they did. And at the next class the same three young women approached me. And again they were quite agitated, but not for the same reason; as one of them blurted: “I was lied to: Jefferson was no evangelical – I don’t think he was even a Christian!”
But then, there’s the Fundamentalist Bible. And one way to think of the Fundamentalist Bible is to understand it as the mirror image of The Jefferson Bible. The supernatural is all there, but many or most or all biblical references to social justice have been cut out by way of a virtual razor.
Take, for example, what one finds in the Jesus exhibit at the Creation Museum. As we noted in Righting America (48), when the Museum opened in 2007 there was almost no Jesus in the place. Not only was there just one Jesus statue tucked away in a corner (which was moved to the main foyer for the holidays), and almost no quotes from Jesus on the ubiquitous placards.
Then, ten years later, the museum opened a three-room Jesus exhibit. The Jesus here is, to quote Susan Trollinger, a “powerful, authoritative, God-approved, superhero Jesus” who performed miracles, rose from the dead, and will be returning to Earth soon to annihilate his enemies.
The Creation Museum’s vindictive-superhero Jesus is definitely not the Jesus of The Jefferson Bible. This becomes even clearer when one realizes that there is only half of one placard devoted to Jesus’ “Instructions” (the other half of the placard is devoted to “Rebukes,” which is telling in itself.) Not only is there so little on Jesus’ teachings, but what is included on this placard has been so severely edited that museum visitors will not come away from the exhibit with any notion that Jesus had anything to say about social justice.
Take, for example, the snippet from Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters.” What exactly does that mean? Well, here is the full verse:
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
This is not a subtle editing job. Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis (AiG) have taken the razor blade to Matthew 6:24, and the result is that Creation Museum visitors do not have to wonder if there’s anything about capitalism and the accumulation of riches that might be at odds with the Gospel.
But then look at “Rebukes” on the right side of the placard. One of these rebukes comes from Matthew 25:41: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
There is no question that this verse is supposed to be an example of, as noted at the top of the placard, “the consequences of rejecting Him.” Conveniently enough, the folks at AiG have failed to include the following five verses:
“For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
Talk about an unsubtle editing job! In truth, “editing job” is quite the euphemism for what the folks at the Creation Museum have done to the Bible. A few judicious slashes with the virtual razor blade, and voila, we have a superhero Jesus who is poised to condemn sinners and neglect those who, like him, suffer.
But what about fundamentalist study Bibles, where editors cannot – unlike Jefferson and unlike AiG – simply excise passages that they do not like?
Well, when it comes to Matthew 25: 31-46, these Bibles have done the next best thing. That is, they say that Jesus’ words do not apply to us today. Instead, as one learns from The King James Study Bible: Reference Edition (p. 1036), The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 24-28 (pp. 122, 124-125), and The Henry Morris Study Bible (p. 1445), these words apply to the seven-year Tribulation at the end of history. The test will be whether or not one helps the refugees – apparently those who convert after Jesus has taken up the “true Christians” in the Rapture – fleeing the forces of the Antichrist. According to Morris, those who turn “the refugees away, and perhaps even reporting them to the authorities, will be sent away into everlasting judgment.”
In other words, what these study Bibles proffer is an interpretive razor blade, an extraordinarily esoteric explanation of a passage whose meaning is (unlike so many passages in the Bible that are a challenge to interpret) pretty plain and obvious. What’s not to get? If you want to call yourself a Christian, Jesus says, then get busy about easing the suffering of the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned. This reading, by contrast, is not rooted at all in the biblical text. Instead, it successfully excises unwelcome suggestions that Jesus and the Bible have anything to say to us today about working for social justice.
The Jefferson Bible and the Fundamentalist Bible. Mirror images.