Salon Declares That God Is A Bad Writer


Valerie Tarico, psychologist and writer who runs a gimmicky ethics blog,  and her editors at Salon decided that it would be clever and smart to launch a frontal attack on the Bible, and by extension most devout Christians, by arguing that because the book is full of, according to her, “mixed messages, repetition, bad fact-checking, awkward constructions, inconsistent voice, weak character development, boring tangents, contradictions, passages where nobody can tell what the heck the writer meant to convey,”  it isn’t authentic:

“Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists. If that were the case, one would have to conclude that God is a terrible writer. Many passages in the Bible would get kicked back by any competent editor or writing professor, kicked back with a lot of red ink—often more red than black…This doesn’t sound like a book that was dictated by a deity.”

The obvious intent of the Tarico and Salon was to mock the Bible, not engage in a serious examination of its origins, and ridicule Christians who revere it. There is no benign justification for this mission; it is just gratuitously nasty, disrespectful, and anti-Christian. Ethics Alarms no longer has a vocal, militant atheist among its regular commenters—Where have you gone, tgt? The blog turns its lonely eyes to you!-–but I suspect even he would find this essay irresponsible. It is especially so since the essay begins with an ignorant proposition which so many commenters flagged that Salon pulled down the post. Nobody claims that God dictated the Bible. Then there are the related matters of multiple translations, translations of translations, and the undisputed fact that different authors (including, many scholars believe, William Shakespeare) from different periods wrote separate parts of the book in their own words.

The comments in the Instapudit report on Salon’s fiasco contain some gems, like…

  • “The Bible is just like the U.S. tax code. It was written by dozens of authors over hundreds of years in archaic language no one today can understand, except specialists employed for that purpose. But, if you don’t abide by it the results are pure Hell.”\
  • What part of….You should love the Lord your God with all your strength, mind and spirit. And you should love your neighbor as yourself.….is so ‘badly written’? I understand it. Why can’t you people at Salon?”
  • “Salon labors under many delusions. In this case, it’s the delusion that Bible is intended to be some sort of literary masterpiece. Believe or don’t, but it purports to be an account of actual people, events, and ideas and not some made up stuff. For that reason, it has a sort of Joe Friday “just the facts, Ma’am” quality to it, unlike, say, Homer in whose prolix you could drown. Some of the Hebrew is quite nicely written, and Anthony Flew, before his death, credited Paul with being a first rate philosopher (on the basis of his carefully built argument in Romans) and Jesus with being a first rate ethicist on the basis of the Sermon on the Mount. Literary considerations in any of this are tertiary at best…”

My favorite, though, was “Now do the Koran.”

Luckily, the article is still online here.

54 thoughts on “Salon Declares That God Is A Bad Writer

  1. Ironically it is the koran that is reputed to be dictated by their god. The one here on earth is said to be a perfect replica of the one that allah is supposed to have in paradise.

  2. ” Nobody claims that God dictated the Bible. ”

    Er.. yes quite a few people claim the KJV is the literal word of God.

    It’s not universal doctrine, as it is with Islam,but it is a tenet of many fundamentalist churches.

    It is not a belief the authors of the KJV shared, and their writings are full of hopes that future editions would be more perfect.

    • Proof please. And one that doesn’t demonstrate a misunderstanding on your of a congregation explaining the Doctrine of Inspiration…

      And one that doesn’t limit the belief to a handful of individual congregations.

    • Practically no one believes that. “KJV only” churches (a relatively rare strain of Baptist, and some Pentecostals) believe that the 1611 King James Version is the only English translation with God’s endorsement, not that it was dictated word-for-word to the authors.

      There is, of course, no scriptural basis for that, obviously (how could there be?) I assume that because it was the only Bible used in America for about 300 years, that this cultural quirk is just a reflection of the initial resistance to other versions coming in.

      • “Practically no one believes that. “KJV only” churches (a relatively rare strain of Baptist, and some Pentecostals) believe that the 1611 King James Version is the only English translation with God’s endorsement, not that it was dictated word-for-word to the authors.”


        “There is, of course, no scriptural basis for that, obviously (how could there be?) I assume that because it was the only Bible used in America for about 300 years, that this cultural quirk is just a reflection of the initial resistance to other versions coming in.”

        It’s deeper than that. There’s a really interesting history behind the copying and transmission of the earliest manuscripts (which are relied upon when composing the various versions of the bible). In summary, translations *generally* rely upon what is called the “Majority Text” and the “Alexandrian Text”… There’s a 3rd group, which essentially only the Old Latin text upon which the Vulgate is based and the Vulgate rely upon.

        There are almost 6000 early manuscripts of the New Testament – many complete, many not. There are variations in each text in terms of slight spelling errors (though the intended words are mostly recognizable, and in cases where a few of the manuscript’s errors result in confusion, the majority of manuscripts can be used to “correct” those errors), word order changes within sentences (which isn’t significant given the way Greek works) and some phrases omitted in some manuscripts.

        The manuscripts are clustered into what are called “Text Types” based on the handwriting of each manuscript, which gives an idea of what era each individual manuscript had been copied. The “Majority Text” is mostly of a “Byzantine” text type, and is generally dated as having been used in in the 5th century and later…meaning that the manuscripts we have of that text type were all composed in the 5th century or later. This confuses some people: all it means is that the manuscripts from which THESE were copied do not exist anymore.

        There is an “Alexandrian” text type, which represents a handwriting style used in the 2nd Century.

        The “Majority Text” is called this because most of the existing Text Types are found in the “Byzantine” style, and so were the manuscripts mostly used by the church in that era and immediately following. Ultimately, a version of this went through a revision under the supervision of Erasmus, who used the Vulgate to “refine” the differences found in the “Majority Text”. What he produced became known as the “Received Text”. This text is what the King James Version is based on as well as many of the proto-Reformation and Reformation bibles are based on.

        Modern translations (such as the NIV, ESV, CSV, etc) are based on what is called the “Critical Text”…which is a modern compilation of ALL the existing manuscripts with prejudice given to the Alexandrian Text Type in resolving differences, under the guidance that the Alexandrian Type represents copies that are closer in time to the VERY original texts.

        There are noticeable differences between the Received Text and the Critical Text, but there are NO differences which would affect the essential Truth claims of Christianity nor of it’s derivative truth claims — and generally that of Judaism (though there can be frustrating differences between the Septuagint and the Masoretic, which is a whole different interesting discussion – even those differences don’t touch on doctrine except in I think one key area – the prophecy of the Virgin Birth).

        So, the KJV-only guys rely on a version which is built off of a version which relies on LATER manuscripts which were revised based on the Latin Vulgate which itself was a translation of original Greek Texts… this seems highly inexact, so the KJV only guys are generally reduced to arguments that the “Received Text” was the divinely *preserved* original Greek…and where it differs from the earlier Alexandrian Texts, it is assumed the Alexandrian texts are in error.

        Again, most modern translations are based on the Alexandrian Texts because they are closer in time to the very originals…only about 60-100 years after the originals. And again: none of the versions that rely on the Majority Text OR the Alexandrian Text differ in areas that touch on Doctrine or Truth claims.

        HOWEVER, and this will open a can of worms with our Catholic friends: the Vulgate does appear to muff some translation INTO Latin from the Greek that *do* lead to some confusing *interpretations* of key passages that in part led to some of the frustrations that the Reformers had with Catholic doctrine when the Reformers read the original Greek.

        • To clarify another key method of the “Critical Text” upon which most modern translations rely, using the Earliest manuscripts, it self-edits the variations, which are individually few…for example:

          Jon saw the brown dog chase the red ball.
          John saw th brown dog chase a red ball.
          John saw a brown dgo chase the red ball.
          John saw the brwon dog chase the rd ball.
          John saw the brown dog chase the rd ball.
          John sw the brown dog chase the red ball.
          John saw the brown dog chase a red bal.
          John sw the brown dog chase the red ball.
          John saw the tan dog chase the red ball.
          John saw the dog chase the red ball.

          No single sentence is perfect, but from the 10 we know what the original 99.99% likely said:

          John saw the brown dog chase the red ball.

          Well, of the manuscripts available, there are a huge quantity, and by proportion, the variations are few, much much fewer than my example above.

          Of course, none of that answers the valid concerns about “contradictions” in the Bible except in regard to a certain category of contradiction — namely the ones about numbers. Like if one verse says 700 and another may say 70 though they are clearly verses describing the same events.

          You’ll see these variations on occasion throughout, but you mostly find them in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles…where 1st & 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings are, in reality 1 single Book, and 1st & 2nd Chronicles is a roughly parallel account. For quick reference: 1st Chronicles *roughly* parallels the events of 2nd Samuel, and 2nd Chronicles *roughly* parallels the events of 1st and 2nd Kings. I say roughly, because both sets of parallels will occasionally add stories the other does not recount or adds detail to stories where the other omits the detail.

          I think most scholars and mature believers acknowledge that the numerical discrepancies are partly attributed to scribal error. But phenomenally, again, no key elements of any of the stories are inexplicable different.

    • This is a simplistic view of most of these relying on equivocation, taking things out of context, etc. For a simple example, “seeing God”. Traditional belief is God, other than the incarnated Son, is entirely non-material. There is not a face to see. These are often turns of a phrase intended to communicate concepts.
      For those who what to be actually fair minded and not just make snarky attacks, there are valid, thoughtful explanations for all of these.However, in today’s Twitter-fueled world, people only care about the shallow charge and don’t care to read or even look for the thoughtful and philosophically valid paragraphs of explanation.

    • I’ll respond to this shortly.

      Sue Dunim, I’d think there are good odds that you have not watched this video. If you have, I’d think there are good odds that you’ve never investigated any of this for yourself either.

      I would submit that if you had watched the video, you’d be too ashamed to post it, because it is intentionally nasty in especially uncalled for ways, and people with a modicum of respect for their fellows, like I presume you are, wouldn’t promulgate such tripe but would find entirely different means of communicating these objections.

      It goes without saying, Sue, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    • Still working on the response. But in the mean time:

      Best part of Sue posting this video, without thinking it through, is that it shows she didn’t bother to ponder even the point of Jack’s post and the ethics involved here.

    • You know what, I’m going to amalgamate some sage advice, starting from EC below, about unserious atheists, to other advice like not spreading pearls… combined with a notion that if I really dive into this rebuttal, I’ll turn Jack’s discussion group into an apologetic course…and decide not to engage this in any depth. People who are interested in learned and considering what truth-claims Christianity and even Judaism make will do so openly and respectfully. An individual who thinks that a snarky video that proves anything is not going to care if every single line of the snarky video is rebutted thoroughly.

      But, since I said I’d respond, here’s the super summary:

      Several of those “contradictions” are numerical in nature. Most of which can be found in the passages of the Samuel/Kings book and the Chronicles book which parallel each other. These numerical differences have a variety of explanations ranging point of view differences to outright scribal error as the alphabets used during the time Samuel/Kings was written was subtly different that the alphabet used when Chronicles was written. Numbers, based essentially on the letters, in ancient scripts were easily copied errantly. Some of the numeric differences are actually not errors at all, but different descriptions of the same entity.

      Several of the “contradictions” are theological in nature. Several of the cited verses cluster around are “Can man see God or not”. The bible often asserts that man would die if he saw the face of God, yet there seem to be stories in which individual men see God. It’s an essential belief in Christianity that man’s sin renders him incapable of standing before the glory of an infinitely holy God without that sin (and by association the man attached to it) being annihilated. God, however, can appear before man in a few ways: He can either occupy an intermediary or only reveal what could, in slang, be called a “less than lethal dose”…ha. Either way, He reveals himself to man in ways that conceal his infinite glory…the burning bush, the man wrestling with Jacob, hiding Moses in the rock to show him his “back side”, the Incarnation… In this way, God does appear “face to face” or more intimately with men without killing them. And of course, the bible is replete with references to the notion that, once fully sanctified, men WILL be able to bask in the resplendent glory unharmed.

      Several of the “contradictions” are merely misreading the passage and not digging into exactly what words mean or the scenes convey. Like “No man ascends to heaven except for Christ”…then “Elijah was taken up to heaven”. Not a contradiction. In one case, Christ ascends of his own power, as deity himself. Elijah…was *taken up*.

      Several of the “contradictions” are ‘Rashomonic’ (to coin a phrase) in nature. That is, any particular scene, can have a large number of useful details, but parallel story writers include only the details essential to key points they are trying to make. You find this often in the 4 gospels…3 of which are called Synoptic Gospels because they parallel each other with incredible similarity (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Especially in the Discovery of the Empty Tomb pericopes. Anyone with an imagination can recognize how the 4 accounts (the synoptics + John) can be harmonized and in fact, once a reader harmonizes them, each individual account becomes richer as the reader sees what each Gospel is trying to emphasize.

      The temple veil being torn in half and Jesus dying would be simultaneous… so what if the sentence describing Jesus’ death occurs prior to the sentence describing the temple veil in one gospel and they flip in another gospel? There is no contradiction here.

      The video claims that the laws given contradict any notion that God is merciful. The video also doesn’t get the notion that there is NO mercy if there are no laws broken for which forgiveness is granted. No doubt fewer laws would be “less harsh”, but fewer laws are by no means “merciful”, if we want to be precise in our definitions. Yes, this gives rise to questioning, “does God merely give laws so that he can turn around and be merciful…what kind of games is he playing???” You can ask those questions, but having a strict legal code doesn’t undermine the notion that God calls himself merciful and patient. This is just a modern interpretation of ancient laws given our current legal codes. There is no contradiction here…only an annoyance towards the legal code of the Torah. I think the video even had a “contradiction” where one of the Kings later in Israel’s history punished some group of people who had all broken a particular law, and the King didn’t enact the prescribed punishment for the broken law but rather a less harsh punishment… That’s not a contradiction…that’s literally a King being merciful…

      Of course, saving the best for last: the video in an especially nasty jab makes the claim that Christian’s owning property or even believing in the free market is a contradiction to Christ’s own exhortations to generosity, selflessness and sacrificial giving or to two brief descriptions of an early church arrangement. I think, in the right place and circumstance, a Christian community CAN make a near communal collective work — for the purpose such an arrangement required. The early church was growing by leaps and bounds, many coming in were being turned out by families who hated their now Christian brothers or sisters, the economic system of the empire did not lend itself to individuals rising up in wealth even if they’d changed their personal conduct, some believers were being persecuted to the loss of property. In incredible acts of generosity, believers helped each other out as they needed it. This worked. And it still works. Of course, I don’t see too many modern socialists also want to accept the other side of that Christian communal lifestyle: which was submission to the teachings of Christ, the expected life change and accountability to the Holy Spirit. Nah, the atheists just want to take a nasty jab in support of socialism without actually thinking about what any of the passages really mean or really described.

  3. Salon sets up an enormous straw man. First, remember it’s a collection of 66 distinct writings written over 1500ish years. These books had different aims and different communication styles (history, music/poetry, proverbs, etc). Second, the prevailing belief among evangelicals is the Bible is “inspired” by God. What this boils down to is the idea that the the writer retains his own “voice” and style, but God ensures it correctly communicates what he intends it to communicate. These were not professional writers, but passionate communicators. Combine these two ideas means each of the 66 was a product of its time in original language, idioms, etc.
    Additionally, our translations usually follow one of three methods (or a blend) – word for word (each word is translated without regard to use or idioms); thought for thought (convert to more modern ways of saying things) and paraphrase. Think of a sports page that says “The Eagles murdered the Patriots in the Super Bowl”. Word for word would translate the word murder directly; thought for thought would translate to something like “the Eagles defeated the Patriots in the Super Bowl”; and paraphrase might be something like “the Philadelphia football team prevailed over the Boston football team in the championship match”. So judging the quality based on any particular English translation isn’t fair treatment of the source.

    • This may be pedantry, but I’ve understood the translations to fall on a continuum of word-for-word and thought-for-thought where “paraphrase” occupies the extreme end of “thought-for-thought”.

      • I’m really talking about the paraphrase versions like “The Message” that would be a stretch to call a translation as they add and remove phrases.

  4. I’m not even going to read the Salon article. I have so deeply investigated EVERY known argument of this type (there are real stakes involved for me, after all) that at this point it just annoys me that these tropes continue to proliferate so long after their debunking (Sue’s video is a good example of this.) It’s almost as if atheists don’t want to actually engage with what Christians actually believe.

    I will just contribute this: I started reading the Bible when I was 16. Not only did I have no trouble understanding it, but it changed my life in immeasurable ways. I memorized about 100 verses that I thought were critically important by the time I finished high school. And this was the KING JAMES Bible.

    It’s not only the teachings and plain doctrinal statements that had such an impact; it was also the overarching narratives (God redeeming mankind through Israel is the main one, but there are hundreds of others), and the individual stories (Joseph and his brothers literally brought me to tears, and David and Saul prepared me for years of dealing with a very hard-to-love stepfather.)

    Everyone who doesn’t write for Salon knows that the Bible is not a storybook, but rather a collection of books of very different types. I’ve heard that millennials are less knowledgable about religion and history than previous generations, but it’s pretty jarring to come up against such a glaring example of this. Apparently the Bible is perplexing because it isn’t laid out like a Harry Potter novel.

    • Wait until you read about the self-styled rabbi, who insists her interpretation of Genesis 3 is that Eve was the first person who could claim #MeToo status…

      And guess who she says the perpetrator of Eve’s violation is?

      Not Adam…

      Not the Serpent…

      Not the cherubim…

      I’ll let you guess because there’s only one other character in that passage…

    • “It’s almost as if atheists don’t want to actually engage with what Christians actually believe.”

      Almost, nothing. Actually let me amend slightly. Most atheists don’t want to engage with what Christians, or any other faith, actually believe. They are content to leave it alone. For that matter, most religious folks don’t want to actually engage with what other groups actually believe, and they are ok to just leave it alone. I don’t care if Dave and his wife up the block are Jewish and Hamid and his wife are Muslims and Joe and his wife are nothing at all, and I don’t care to engage with them on any level about what they believe.

      The problem isn’t those atheists. The problem is the breed of atheist typified by the Madeline Murray O’Hairs, the Richard Dawkinses, the Dan Barkers. Those who don’t want to engage with a faith don’t bring lawsuits over relatively innocuous public prayers, or give public speeches bashing religion, or write mocking songs entitled “Nothing Fails Like Prayer.” They also don’t write mock-scholarly garbage like this, which is going to have one effect: troll Christians, then act like they are surprised when that’s what happens.

      If you take a look at all those people I mentioned above, they have one thing in common other than lack of faith: hatred of it and those who do have faith. If you read MMO’s writings or listen to some of her interviews you will come up with gems like (paraphrase) nuns are just saving their hymens until they become like tent cloth that Christ couldn’t pierce with his wooden staff. Richard Dawkins proudly said he knows nothing about religion because you don’t need to study fairies to know they don’t exist. Dan in the meantime has put his disdain for faith to music. Frankly this stuff is one step above Cenk Uygur’s 2005 anti-religion spew article that crashed the comments section on Huffpo and Craig Stephen Hicks’ Facebook page that was 20% guns, 15% gay rights, and 65% anti-religious hate, which he’d been building up for years before he killed three practicing Muslims in a dispute over parking (by pushing in the door and shooting two of them execution style).

      It’s one thing not to believe something. I don’t believe in most cryptozoology, lost civilizations, or extraterrestrials, but I don’t post endless screeds against these things or bring lawsuits to stop funding of archaeological expeditions I think are going to find nothing. I also wouldn’t waste my time tearing apart the way past legends/myths/whatever were written so I could poke fun at them and say to like-minded cocktail companions how much smarter we were. (Scholarly analysis of the actual historical and archaeological evidence against the legends/myths is a different matter).

      Honestly, I think the religion-hostile atheist community consists of frustrated bullies. Bullies feel the need to mock, insult, bash, and belittle others. Bullies need to impose their will on others. Bullies need to show they are so damn superior to everyone else. I wonder what kind of results we would find if we ran a study for incidence of sociopathy in the religion-hostile atheist community. I would be willing to bet we’d find a higher incidence of it, maybe even a significantly higher one. The question then would become whether they were sociopaths because they were anti-religious, or anti-religious because they were sociopaths. I’m leaning toward the latter, because I think it’s damn hard to lead someone away from their basic nature, but it’s very easy for people to gravitate toward beliefs or movements that mirror their basic natures.

      • IN what way do you think the people you reference differ from say a Jerry Falwell or a Pat Robertson? Because from where I sit, it looks like more of an issue of personality type that transcended specifics of how the universe came to be.

        • I am not sure where you are going with this question. I think I laid out my reasons for having problems with the people I mention in my post in paragraphs 2 and 3. The question of perceived or real hypocritical, heavy-handed, or bullying religious leaders (which would, I assume, also include folks like Anjem Choudary and Louis Farrakhan) is a slightly different, although related question, which isn’t the one I was choosing to deal with here.

          It is, however, entirely possible that if we ran a psychological study for the incidence of sociopathy among personality-driven or charismatic religious leaders vis-à-vis mainstream ones we’d probably find a higher incidence there also. If we asked the question whether they were sociopathic because they were religious leaders or religious leaders because they were sociopaths I’d also tend to come down the latter way, because again, I don’t think it’s easy to turn someone into a fanatic whose basic nature doesn’t lie that way, but I think it’s very easy for someone whose basic nature lies that way to channel it in a religious setting where it fits and becomes an asset.

  5. gratuitously nasty, disrespectful, and anti-Christian

    Sounds like most any article in Salon or any number of other lefty publication. Or a speech by Alan Grayson.

  6. It seems a waste of time to complain so much about an entity that anti-Christians (anti-Christs) believe isn’t real. Why hate something you don’t believe in and spend the time/energy dispersing that hate?

    If one actually reads the Bible they’ll find an answer to that question.

  7. As an actual, serious atheist, I consider criticisms of the Bible in and of itself to be pointless nitpicking. The epistemological issues and ontological contradictions inherent in the theistic beliefs of most people that have them are far more consequential.

    The straw man arguments that are popular among casual atheists (and casual theists) are simple ignorant bigotry that allow people to feel superior, but ultimately accomplish nothing. That’s why I use steel man arguments, helping a person build their strongest case for their own personal beliefs–it makes deconstruction much more effective.

    I will say, though, that atheists may feel unsettled or even threatened by how much cultural and political power theists wield and how much they talk about deriving right and wrong based on their belief in an ill-defined powerful entity. To borrow Steve-O-in-NJ’s analogy, how would you feel if a majority of people in your country simply took it for granted that UFOs existed (to the point that it is printed on money) and made every major decision by reflecting on what UFOs want them to do? For atheists who aren’t good at critical thinking, but who consider it “obvious” that theists are wrong, mockery and echo chambers are a defense mechanism. The human herd mentality is strong no matter what flavor the herd is.

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