Plotzing Along, Trashing the Bible

51itovjza8l_sl500_aa240_Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible
Author: David Plotz.
Harper, 2009.

David Plotz is the editor at slate.com and there is much to appreciate about his first encounter with a complete reading of the Bible. As a person immersed in the Biblical literature, I admit to enjoying the chance to read a fresh take on the Bible that is irreverent and critical.

Here is the problem I have with this book: it treats complex topics simplistically. Plotz discusses intricate issues with a predilection for superficial judgments. Plotz is an admitted non-expert, but he nonetheless imposes his opinion on readers who know less than he does. The very nature of a web pundit’s musings about any topic creates a predicament: non-experts will trust the pundit as an authority (though he denies it vehemently).

Many casual readers will pick up this book and say, “This confirms that I have no need to read the Bible and that people who value the Bible are trapped in a primitive mindset.” Plotz’s superficial findings come across as a man with modern sensibilities standing in judgment over an ancient text (believed by billions to be inspired by the living God). He often speaks “from a modern perspective,” a way of implying a superior perspective.

Here is my experience with Good Book. It started when I found it in some blog-hopping. I watched an online interview here. I went to my local Borders bookstore and sat down with a copy. I read two chapters, “Isaiah” and “Digging the Bible,” and resolved to write about it today.

In the Isaiah chapter, I noted that Plotz made some good observations and felt qualified to make some hasty conclusions. He said that for the first time in Isaiah 1 we see a God who values good deeds over blind faith. How can anyone read the Torah and not see social justice and good deeds as the heart of God’s ethic for his people? I am not discounting the problems in understanding some issues in the Torah (its regulations on slavery rather than abolishing the practice, total judgment on Canaanites, and so on).

It was the “Digging the Bible” chapter, as well as the online interview, that particularly bothered me. He talked with a few eminent archaeologists and came up with a totally predictable conclusion: the Bible’s historical claims are mostly unproven and even worse, mostly legend.

If you know a little about archaeology or any similar subject, you know that there are diverse viewpoints. You also know that there is an unfortunate tendency toward ideological leftness and trendiness in many fields. In fact, taking any complex subject, a mature person should realize experts on both ends of a spectrum can make a compelling case. Learning does not happen through a quick hearing from one side of an issue and truth is elusive at best, impossible to ascertain at worst.

Asking David Plotz to clarify what we should think about the state of archaeological research and historical fact is a bit like asking a partisan politician to explain the economy and the role of government. The alleged expert (or admitted non-expert pundit) started with presuppositions that skew the resulting conclusions. Complex issues deserve a broader dialogue with varying viewpoints and only tentative conclusions are recommended.

The stance of Good Book seems to be that there is something of a modern sensibility which represents an evolutionary progress in human development. We moderns, allegedly superior, can rest assured that our ideas about individualism and free choice are evolutionarily better suited to deal with life’s difficult questions. The ideas of the ancients about collective obligation and accountability are not to be preferred.

The news we read about our world gives the lie to this facile conclusion. What progress? Is slavery gone? Is oppression, the ability of the dominant to take from the masses at will?

We should discourse about these matters with less presupposition and more openness to discovery. New and potential readers of the Bible are poorly served by Plotz’s book. I respect his journey, but wish he had expressed it differently once he decided to share it with the world. A book has such a sense of authority about it, even if the author attempts to have a stance of inexpert musing. And if Plotz wished to have a more neutral outlook, he could have done so more carefully.

In the chapter on “Digging the Bible,” Plotz interviews an eminent archaeologist and they discuss the finding by Eliat Mazar of David’s Palace in Jerusalem. This eminent scholar is skeptical about Mazar’s findings. He says of her that she started with the Bible in hand and “found what she was looking for.” Can we say any better about Plotz’s book? He ended up remarkable the same after engaging with the Bible as he was before it.

You can see the book here at amazon.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Plotzing Along, Trashing the Bible

  1. judahgabriel says:

    Thanks for this review, Derek. You put into words thoughts that I have trouble articulating, particularly the “from a modern perspective” approach which implies a kind of superiority.

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