If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t Americans Happier?

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof’s column in yesterday’s New York Times laments the lack of knowledge many Christians evidence regarding their own Scriptures.  Kristof also challenges secular Americans to seek greater knowledge about the religions of others.

Before I explicitly respond to his column, let me share a story. Its relevance I’ll make apparent later.

Many years ago, I was sitting in an airplane beside a little old lady who spent the flight immersed in her Bible… until my kosher meal arrived.  At that point, she felt compelled to save my soul.  When I was younger, I used to enjoy toying with such people; so for the benefit of the many passengers within earshot, I answered her questions, and then asked her some leading questions of my own:

In her Bible, words ascribed to the dead rabbi anointed by Christian tradition were printed in red.  I said, “I notice some of the words are in red, what’s that about?”

After she answered, I pointed out that her Bible also includes words that it ascribes to God Himself, and I asked her, “Are those also in red?”


“Why not?”

“I don’t know.”

Our conversation was calm and cordial; both of us soft-spoken, polite, and genial throughout. But it was gripping entertainment because of the incongruity between her sweet persona and the increasingly revealed evil of her ideas.

Eventually many passengers were eavesdropping; there was electricity in the air; she alone seemed not to feel it.

I finally summarized what she’d been trying to explain to me, so she would verify it in the hearing of the eavesdroppers:

“So I really have value as a human being only to the extent that I have the potential to accept Jesus as my savior before I die.  Is that right?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Hmmm… So if someone were to kidnap a Jewish baby in order to baptize it, that really wouldn’t be all bad.”

“Well, no, I guess not.”

The obvious corollary — that lying, tricking, or painfully coercing my own conversion also wouldn’t be all bad — I left unstated.  We had arrived and it was time to disembark, so I gently said: “Ma’am, I’m happy for you that your faith gives you comfort, but there is evil within it.”

She was the sweetest-looking, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly, proverbial little-old-lady.  She was also the incarnation of two millenia of Christian anti-semitism, and a living demonstration of the banality of evil.

Kristof’s column reminded me of this story for three reasons:

First, Kristof’s article demonstrates his own Christian biases and ignorance of other religious perspectives.  For example, when Kristof declares that there are two original languages of “the Bible”, Hebrew and Greek, he is referring uniquely to Christian Scriptures.  Even so, he is apparently unaware that some of it (e.g., The Book of Daniel) is in Aramaic, not Hebrew.

From our perspective, Christian Scripture consists of translations of the Bible (i.e., our Tanakh) plus a considerable amount of material (i.e., the Greek stuff) that is not in the Bible.

How can we remove the ambiguity inherent in using the term ‘The Bible”?  Unlike some academic scholars, we can’t call our Bible the Hebrew Bible.  That would be like calling Shakespeare the English Shakespeare.  (Perhaps “Jewish Scripture” and “Christian Scripture” are acceptable, value-neutral terms?)

Second, Kristof shouldn’t be so surprised at Christians’ ignorance of their own Scriptures.  For centuries the Catholic Church barred the hoi polloi from reading Scripture, conducting the mass from behind a rood screen and emphasizing mysteries.  Also, having the Church as intermediary obviated any need for a direct connection through personal exposure to Scripture.

As for Protestants, even today in some parts of America, a Protestant Sunday School teacher might be fired for pointing out that Jacob was married to two sisters.  If the Protestant masses actually studied seriously all the parts of their Bibles, they might decide their Greek addendum is really not consistent with the Word of God that preceded it.  At the very least, they might notice that much of God’s own words are inconsistent with current church teachings.

They might start to read God’s own words in red.


Lastly, Kristof doesn’t seem to realize that minorities are usually acutely aware of the dominant culture, far more so than the dominant culture is self-aware!   Living outside the fishbowl seems to be a prerequisite for seeing the water.

An Israeli Christian would know more about Judaism and Islam than a Christian in the United States; and a Jew or Muslim in the United States would know more about Christianity than many marginal Christians.


Kristof concluded with a story about a an ignorant Texas governor who opposed Spanish language instruction because: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for us.”  Several readers took Kristof to task, claiming that the story is apocryphal.

I can’t vouch for Texas, but in the late 1980’s I was in a bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, browsing a used copy of Speiser’s translation of Genesis (in The Anchor Bible series).

Another patron (a young man this time, not a little old lady) asked me about the book, but refused to accept my explanation of what it was.  He vociferously declared that the Bible is English and always was.

I hadn’t been exposed to this particular phenomenon before, so I blurted, “What, you think Jesus spoke English?!?”

“If the Bible gives his words in English then he spoke it just like it’s written!”  And he stalked away, apparently angry at my stiff-necked impertinence.

The bookshop owner looked at me and shrugged.

The power of faith!

So I do believe, with Kristof, that there is such a strand amidst the flotsam of American Evangelical “thought”.


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