By Robert Mann
There is a fascinating and instructive cover story in the new edition of Newsweek on how most believers know almost nothing about the Bible.
As author Kurt Eichenwald writes near the beginning of the piece,
“Newsweek’s exploration here of the Bible’s history and meaning is not intended to advance a particular theology or debate the existence of God. Rather, it is designed to shine a light on a book that has been abused by people who claim to revere it but don’t read it, in the process creating misery for others. When the illiteracy of self-proclaimed Biblical literalists leads parents to banish children from their homes, when it sets neighbor against neighbor, when it engenders hate and condemnation, when it impedes science and undermines intellectual advancement, the topic has become too important for Americans to ignore, whether they are deeply devout or tepidly faithful, believers or atheists.”
The story is well-researched and well worth reading. Eichenwald’s conclusions won’t be shocking to anyone with a passing knowledge of Bible history. Still, he does a fine job of presenting the plethora of contradictions and outright fraudulent language that constitute some of what many people regard as the inspired word of God. In other words, he helps separate some of the wheat from the chaff.
What caught my eye, however, was Eichenwald’s sharp commentary on what Jesus might have thought about Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Prayerpalooza, scheduled for Jan. 24 on the LSU campus.
In August 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry hosted a massive prayer rally in Houston at what was then known as Reliant Stadium, where the city’s pro-football team plays. Joined by 30,000 fellow Christians, Perry stepped to a podium, his face projected on a giant screen behind him. He closed his eyes, bowed his head and boomed out a long prayer asking God to make America a better place. His fellow believers stood, kneeled, cried and yelled, “Amen.”
Recently, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal announced he would be holding his massive prayer rally at a sports arena in Baton Rouge. More than 100,000 evangelical pastors have been invited.
Jesus would have been horrified. At least, that’s what the Bible says.
It is one of the most incomprehensible contradictions between the behavior of evangelicals and the explicit words of the Bible. Prayer shows—and there is really no other word for these—are held every week. If they are not at sports arenas with Republican presidential hopefuls, they are on Sunday morning television shows at mega-churches holding tens of thousands of the faithful. They raise their arms and sway, crying and pleading in prayer.
But Jesus specifically preached against this at the Sermon on the Mount, the longest piece of teaching by him in the New Testament. Specifically, as recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spoke of those who made large public displays of their own religiosity. In fact, performance prayer events closely mimic the depictions in early Christian texts of prayer services held by the Pharisees and Sadducees, two of the largest religious movements in Judea during Jesus’s life. And throughout the Gospels, Jesus condemns these groups using heated language, with part of his anger targeted at their public prayer.
While the words in the King James Bible might be a bit confusing because it is not written in modern English, the New Revised Standard Version is a good substitute here. In it, Jesus is quoted as saying “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
But Jesus says much more, specifically cautioning against the kind of public performance prayer that has become all the rage among evangelicals of late. The verse in Matthew continues quoting Jesus, who says, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Instead, Jesus says the truly righteous should pray alone and in secret, in a room with the door shut. “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you,’’ Jesus is quoted as saying.
Indeed, in the dozens of discussions in the Bible about prayer, the vast majority focus on God’s ability to know what a person wants. In the New Testament, it is often portrayed as a deeply personal affair, with prayers uttered in prison cells to a God who stays alongside the oppressed.
Moreover, babbling on as Rick Perry and so many like him have about faith and country and the blessings of America runs counter to everything that Jesus says about prayer in the Bible. “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words,’’ Jesus is quoted as saying in Matthew. “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Because God knows what someone needs without being asked, there is no reason for long, convoluted prayers. Therefore, Jesus says in both Matthew and Luke, people who wish to pray should only say the Lord’s Prayer. Of course, there is the problem that the Lord’s Prayer cited in those two Gospels comes in two versions, so Christians have to choose one or the other.
It seems almost a miracle that those who effortlessly transform Paul’s statement about “them that defile themselves with mankind” into “homosexual” can ignore the clear, simple words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. What’s most amazing is that, unlike so many questions about the Bible, the instructions on how and where to pray are not only not contradicted; they are reinforced time and again.
The closest Jesus came to public prayer in the Bible was when he was feeding thousands with five loaves of bread and two fish. This story is recounted in each of the Gospels, and each time, Jesus is depicted as either giving thanks to God or looking to heaven and blessing the food. But he is also depicted as praying in all four Gospels, and each time, Jesus does so after heading off to be alone.
Some evangelicals have attempted to explain away this contradiction between the words of the Bible in Matthew and modern public prayer performances by saying Jesus condemned only mass prayer, when the people doing it had made that choice just to be seen. But with governors projected on giant, high-definition televisions, with thousands packed into sports stadiums weeping and waving, with thousands more doing their prayers on TV at mega-churches, it’s hard to see what possible reason might exist other than to be seen. God, the Bible makes clear, didn’t need anyone to drive to a football stadium so he could hear them.
Which leads to an obvious question: Why don’t more Christians oppose prayer in school? If these people truly believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then their children should be taught the Lord’s Prayer, brought to their rooms and allowed to pray alone.
That answer doesn’t lend itself to big protests or angry calls for impeaching judges. But it does follow the instructions from the Gospels. And isn’t that supposed to be the point?
You can read the entire piece at this link.