Bible Woo and Easy Answers to Complicated Problems

Bryan Bibb writes today about religious hucksters in the business of getting rich on false promises. There, he compares the marketing of false hopes by religious television with the woo-hawking infomercials run by the same stations. I encourage you to read the whole piece. Here, I just touch briefly on one element noted by Bryan—the promise to solve all or most problems with a single easy solution—and relate it to best practices in biblical studies.

Bryan writes of those who send their money off to the innumerable heirs of Jim Bakker:

They might take a chance on a $25 book, or a $100 donation, or a $500 conference session if they think it will fix what is wrong (without them having to actually do anything about it, if there is anything indeed that can be done).

Dupes send their money to a televangelist in exactly the same way that they send it to a purveyor of quack nostrums, in the same hope of a quick cure-all that will fix what is wrong. The RationalWiki identifies this false promise as one defining characteristic of pseudoscientific woo:

A simple idea that purports to be the one answer to many diseases or problems.

In my developing ideas about “Bible woo,” I am thinking about analogous “quick and easy cure-alls” in the reading of the Bible. A major breeding ground of Bible woo is the reader’s perception of a problem in the text: not in the value-neutral sense of “some odd data that call for explanation,” but rather in the value-laden sense of “some apparent feature that can’t and shouldn’t be there, whose logical explanation is intolerable to me, and that therefore must me explained away.” A ready example is the clear evidence of multiple sources in what are traditionally called the “five books of Moses.” In this context of biblical studies, a part of Bryan’s words above leap out to me:

…if there is anything indeed that can be done…

An axiom of critical inquiry is that data are good: you follow them, and they lead to you unpredictable places that you couldn’t have found unassisted. If the logical explanations of textual data lead you to an understanding of events that makes you uncomfortable, well, nothing to be done: there you are.

The woo-meister crouches in the doorway of that uncomfortable place, promising glib solutions to these and all other uncomfortable facts of life, for a reasonable price, whether a few dollars out of one’ purse or pocket, or only a few tolerable compromises in one’s God-given human capacity to reason.

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One Response

  1. You took this argument in a direction that I hadn’t considered at all. Well done! I was getting a bit of a Spock vibe from you toward the end.

    Given our academic training, I find myself leaning too heavily on the “well, those are two different sources” bromide when students ask me about confusing things in the Torah. There are no easy answers either on the critical or fideistic side of things.

    Also, nice use of the plural word “data.” It is very common that I revise a subtle bit of diction thinking, “Brooke would not be happy with this.” 🙂

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