After years of complaining about the Jesus Seminar and their ruthless dismantling of Jesus’ message, conservatives are fighting back. They will be replacing all the verses the Seminar kicked out and cutting out all the verses the Seminar kept in. Their rationale? We have to keep those liberals out of the Bible business.
Maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but not much. The Conservative Bible Project has decided to embrace the enterprise of the Jesus Seminar by engaging in a worldwide online collaborative effort “to render God’s word into modern English without liberal translation distortions.” This means, among other things, eliminating gender inclusive language, replacing outdated words such as “peace” and “miracle” with modern conservative words (presumably words like “preemptive strike” and “the invisible hand of the free market”), eliminating questionable liberal passages such as the injunction to be sinless before you cast the first stone,1 and rephrasing economic parables with modern free market language.
Some history: The Jesus Seminar is a long established symposium of international scholars who gave themselves the mission of trying to decide which passages in the Gospels include the authentic words of Jesus and which came later. They are among the movers behind the increasing public awareness of the Q manuscript (a proto-gospel of sayings attributed to Jesus) and have at last count successfully reduced the number of historically authentic words of Jesus to about three.
Okay, all of the words of Jesus are probably authentic, the question is whether he used them in the specific order recounted in specific passages. And there is some merit to the enterprise if we insist every word in the Gospel is the literal word of God and yet the Gospels record them differently.
By contrast, the Conservative Bible Project is a spin off of Conservapedia.com, which claims to be the “trustworthy encyclopedia.” This week’s highlights include an article about God’s sense of humor, “a simple mystery the lamestream media and public schools ignore,” the “Question Evolution campaign” which poses 15 questions that allegedly continue to baffle atheists and scientists2 and a “humorous” article comparing Joseph Stalin and atheist Richard Dawkins. On the surface I would say the credentials of the open-source contributors to the Conservative Bible Project clearly trump those of the Jesus Seminar.
Ironically, the Conservative Bible Project is precisely the kind of post-modernist enterprise that conservatives hate. Deconstructing biblical texts brings to mind the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jaques Derrida, French liberal scholars who question the stability of texts as they undergo translation and the passage of time. The postmodernist impulse to suggest meaning is, in part, a matter of commercial and cultural viability. Or, to put it more simply, any crazy idea gains merit if you can sell it to enough people.
But why not have a Conservative Bible Project? It isn’t too different from the Fundamentalist Papers circulated early in the twentieth century (and to which I am far more sympathetic). As former President Bush used to say, you have the right to your own belief even if it’s wrong and I intend to ignore it.
We could speculate that the Project is little more than an attempt by the Corporate Christian Complex to hijack the scriptures and the moral ground. After all, it’s a small step from saying Jesus was a capitalist to saying Jesus wants us to vote for Romney to saying Jesus wants corporations to pollute our rivers, poison our kids and lay us off by the millions because the love of money is the root of all progress.
To me it the Project sounds like a strategy often suggested by Baptist leaders when I was younger: Fight the devil with the devil’s tools. If the Jesus Seminar wants to rewrite the Bible for the devil, we should rewrite the Bible even better. Because that’s what Jesus would do. And that, I can assure you, is a direct literal quote from the honest-to-God Bible. I just don’t remember where it is.