Edmund Cohen's "Mind of the Bible Believer": A Critique
[Introduction] [Calvinism vs. Arminianism] [Is the Bible Anti-Intellectual?] [The Good Samaritan Parable] [Seven Psychological Devices] [Conclusion]
"What is the proper answer to the assertion that two and two make four?"
"The proper answer is, 'You only say that because you are a mathematician.' "
- loosely paraphrased from memory from C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress

Many works by Skeptics and critics of Christianity "psychoanalyze" Christians and explain their belief by way of supposing that some mental and/or psychological and/or emotional deficiency lies behind their conversion. I find these interesting because they invariably never apply to me.

This is not to say that some people have not become Christians because of fear, emotion, etc. playing some role (or at least seeming to, by way of correspondence with such things; we may argue that the Holy Spirit uses such things to move people to repentance). But there is also no denying that some people become Skeptics, New Agers, etc. for the same reason. The point is that psychologizations of belief, of any kind of belief, are merely a type of genetic fallacy. How someone comes to believe something is less important than whether or not what they believe is true.

With that in mind, I have pursued this analysis of one such example of the genetic fallacy in practice, in the place of Edmund D. Cohen's The Mind of the Bible Believer (Prometheus Books: 1986).

Note well the publication date. Cohen's book was written at the height of the Reagan era, in the days of yore when Pat Robertson ran for President (and incidentally, his most fervent supporter whom I knew personally was a Republican who was also a staunch atheist), when televangelists with slicked-back hair were all the rage and the butt of jokes, when the likes of Margaret Atwood and Molly Ivins inspired fearmongering of their own with visions of "fundamentalists" spearheading a political coup that would send us spiraling back to the Stone Age when men dragged women around by the hair after knocking them senseless with clubs. It is quite clear that Cohen is one of those sorts who was part of the Reagan backlash; but such things as he says that have to do with politics we will not address here.

What is more important to us here is Cohen's religious views. In that regard, he confesses to have progressed from non-interested Judaism to liberal Christianity to evangelical Christianity to apostasy. At the same time he has also hopped professions, from psychologist to psychiatrist to attorney. No settled mass is this writer. Nor is he unlearned, except (in spite of a year he spent taking classes at Westminster Theological Seminary [377]) in the important area of Biblical exegesis and analysis; his only sources in a very short section on the historical background of Christianity are four books by Hugh Schonfield, three books on Gnosticism (where he uncritically accepts the Pagels "maybe the Gnostics were real Christians" line), and a couple of general history books.

Beyond that, he considers Harold Camping to be "the most intellectually competent and honest Bible expositor" [370] he knows of -- which, with due respect to Camping, frankly tells us little other than that Cohen's scholarship level leaves much to be desired.

What Cohen presents as his thesis, correspondingly, is not surprising, while incredible to accept: that the Bible "is a psychological document" put together by "brilliant men", of whose work, he says, "the psychological acumen and artfulness with which (the NT) was done is unsurpassed." [4] The Bible, then, is "history's most successful psychological manipulation", a work of "superb craftsmanship", "achieving with uncanny facility what motivational researchers and psychological warfare experts of our day have only dreamed of." [7]

Yes, Cohen is arguing that the NT was in essence a massive psychological conspiracy. In fact, he avers this directly, alleging that NT Christianity was "deliberately contrived and field-tested over a few eventful decades" [7] before reaching final form. "It must have been through experience that the Bible authors learned just what combination of terrifying threats, illusory promises, arcane symbolism, and double talk would best manipulate the people and manage the cult." [138]

How this conspiracy was plotted and planned among so many people over a given time period; why their failures did not catch up to them while they were building "experience" in such a tenuous and difficult enterprise; what benefit they derived from this conspiracy, is never explained. But where does Cohen, a man who clearly has retained no serious Biblical education in spite of that seminary down time, get this from in the first place?

I will close this introduction with my own "psychologization" by way of possible ("conveniently nondisprovable", as Cohen puts it) explanation. Cohen admits to having been one of the faithful, but is now clearly ashamed of having been "taken in". He speaks of a time when he heard a speech by Francis Schaeffer: "For the duration of that long, lost weekend I spent under Evangelical mind-control, my normal critical faculties were kaput." [11] Add to this a dash of grandiose hope: Cohen states, for example, that he hopes his book will make him the next Feuerbach. (No hint of this happening after all these years, though.)

What do we have? We have someone who considers himself to be of above-average intelligence, and may well be; yet how will he then explain that he was "taken in" by Christian faith without looking extremely un-intelligent? Cohen's explanation is to claim that he was duped by men even smarter than he was; so smart that they have fooled us all for almost two millennia. Who can fault Cohen for being deceived by the Galileean fishermen?

I am being facetious here, of course. Cohen was not fooled by anyone, other than perhaps himself. Nor was there any great conspiracy, although Cohen will attempt to find "manipulative biblical misstatements about human psychology" [139] under every passage. Let us see how this is so.

Calvin vs. Arminius

One of Cohen's central hinge points is the assertion that the Bible unquestionably teaches the doctrines that match with today's Calvinism; from this conclusion he draws many others, so that an examination of this foundational element will address many further woes.

I will begin by noting that my own study in this matter of Calvinism vs. Arminianism is here. Cohen tells us that he has "carefully read the New Testament" [19] and figured out which verses support the Calvinist position only, and which support the Arminian position only. (That there might be some truth between these two extremes is not even thought of.)

His conclusion: There are 133 verses in favor of Calvinism, and only 23 in favor of the Arminians. Not that we are told how he came to this conclusion for each verse. (The resulting contradictions, even within a few verses of each other, Cohen explains as "essential to the psychological effect." [20])

He does offer a footnote listing the verses, and it is hard to see how he reached his conclusions in many cases; for example, one is hard-pressed to see how verses like Matthew 2:6, 10:5-6, and 11:25, 27 support Calvinism.

Check Your Intellect Here

In a section titled "What the Bible Really Teaches About Social Issues", we might expect to find a rundown of teachings, but one of the few topics actually addressed here is slavery. As usual let me refer the reader to Glenn Miller's excellent article on that subject before continuing by asking whether Cohen is even aware at all of the important social and cultural differences between slavery then and that in our own sordid history.

Is he? Not that can be seen. He notes that some churches explain "offensive" passages (such as those which do not condemn slavery, but implicitly accept it as status quo) as "simply reflecting the prejudices of the times and localities" of the Bible authors. [53]

So far, so good: One must indeed understand the text in context, and draw thereby appropriate lessons for today.

But next does Cohen take a wrong turn: Such effort to understand is not correct, but is rather a method of "picking and choosing" in order to render offensive passages innocuous. Lest there be any doubt, Cohen affirms that an operative principle of interpretation is to take the Bible as it is in its entirety, "and to the exclusion of other sources." [57]

What's this? This is far, FAR from how the Bible should be understood, and I think that Cohen fails to realize that if this is true, then we are not even permitted to use our dictionary to check the meaning of Biblical words -- much less a Strong's concordance. Cohen has retained the exegetical methodology of the fundamentalist even as he has disavowed the membership of one.

And yet, Cohen supposes that the NT does indeed teach this sort of vague "anti-intellectual" interpretive scheme. How so?

Cohen asserts [57] that the Bible teaches that the understanding of Scripture "is clearly declared to transcend reason, and the believer is put on notice that if his views on the Scriptures are too clear and pat, or are not mystifying enough, he runs the risk of being a false teacher." He offers four citations.

  1. 1 Cor. 2:12-14. I need not quote these verses, because I have dealt with them before. These verses are in the midst of a passage that have to do not with reason or transcending it, but with rhetorical ability and its supposed relation (in that social context) to spiritual power.

    Read without context as Cohen would have us do, they may be seen as in opposition to critical thinking, but with context, such an interpretation is incorrect.

  2. 1 Cor. 13:9-10, 12 "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears...Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known."

    The whole of 1 Cor. 13 is devoted not to reason, but to love, and in context these verses (which are probably part of a Christian hymnal selection) express direction for behavior and attitude, and offer a commentary upon the inscrutable nature of love itself. They have nothing to do with discernment of the Scriptures by the intellect.

  3. 2 Thess. 2:11. "For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie"

    This verse is apparently interpreted as supporting the Calvinist notion that grace is irresistible to the elect; that the intellect cannot comprehend Scripture, and that "God takes full responsibility for the inability of the nonelect to understand them." [57] Not at all: Paul refers here to a specific future-historical moment at a time after people have clearly rejected Christ. This verse cannot be used as an interpretive key for the overall picture...much less does it say anything about the intellect.

  4. Rom. 14:23 "But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin."

    Cohen interprets this as saying that "the Scriptures put in the category of sin everything that is not part of the religious program" -- including, he supposes, intellectual exercise.

    Once again, this is erroneous. Romans 14 is concerned with the moral debate over whether or not Christians can eat idol meat sold in the market, and matters of conscience in your behavior before fellow believers --- moral, personal, interactional and theological issues that hardly commend themselves to detailed and straightforward intellectual analysis of the sort Cohen has in mind.

    True, some have "universalized" this advice from Paul in principle (Augustine was the first), but then again, the latter part of the verse has the structure of a maxim, not absolute advice. Whatever the case, the chapter has nothing to do with rejection or acceptance of the intellect at all. (And we are not even getting into the thorny problem of having "faith" in one's own God-given intellect, or the potential corruption, incapacity, or bypassing of the intellect -- nor, for that matter, the interrelation of intellect and will, especially as seen by the ancients.)

We see then that Cohen has no grounds for finding an anti-intellectual undercurrent in the Scriptures. True, the NT writers make no clear appeal to their readers to "reason it out" directly, but to demand this in any context of the NT writings is itself unreasonable. The presentation of "reasons to believe" would have been made long before in the context of missionary preaching (see Acts), not this long afterwards in Paul's "problem" letters.

The Good Samaritan

We move now to Cohen's interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan. Commentators have widely recognized this parable as illustrating Jesus' teaching that all men are to become our "neighbor"; Cohen, however, senses conspiracy. Here is his own exegesis of the parable:

That (the Samaritan) is "half-dead," when salvation is consistently symbolized by bringing to life one who is fully dead, may well indicate the robbery victim to be one of the elect...
The Samaritan goes into debt, for the ministry to the robbery victim to be carried on in his absence, imitating the redemptive atonement and identifying Jesus as the Samaritan. Otherwise, we are left to infer that going into debt for charitable purposes is morally better than paying cash for them, that philanthropies are more godly if put on the American Express card.

Needless to say, such exegesis is supported neither by the text nor by any socially- and historically-informed commentator. The "half-dead" description is just that; it is not "fully dead" at all and can not be seen as some veiled reference to salvation. If this is what it is, what do the thieves represent? Wasn't the man alive ("saved") before being beaten and robbed?

At the same time, the Samaritan does not go into debt; he leaves money behind and indicates that he will pay more, if it was needed, when he returns, and there is no way to derive lessons relative to anachronistic methods of charity and financial exchange from this passage.

At any rate, if this is meant to be Jesus, what does the money left behind represent, and if this is the atonement, why and how is any possible "debt" paid after the return? And who is the owner of the inn supposed to be?

Finally, Cohen presents an economic picture that is entirely unrealistic for the first century. There was no "credit" in that social setting, and no philanthropy as such. All favor was done with the expectation that favor would be done in return at a later date.

Cohen continues by commenting that the scribe "never gets a straight answer from Jesus. A politician or used-car salesman should envy the adroitness of his evasion." [60] It is strange how generations of scholars have managed, in spite of this "evasion," to derive the lesson we have noted previously, while Cohen has not. The answer is of course quite clear, albeit couched in typical rabbinic format, in which answers were often given in the form of asking questions. Cohen is aware of this, but he refers to it as -- with a hint of racism -- the "oriental mind-game of sorting ut the passages". [61] I gather that Socrates and Confucius would be accused of manipulation under Cohen's rubric as well.

So what is going on here? Cohen's purpose in with this parable is to use it to claim that the Bible teaches that ministry is "meant to be of ultimate benefit only to the elect." [61] Having failed to derive this reading by normal means, he resorts to unwarranted analogy. It isn't taken from the text; but it finds its source elsewhere: Cohen tells us also: "Speaking from personal experience, intense Bible study does tend to wean believers away from concern with charitable works."

Personal experience? Does this belong here? No, it does not. Cohen's personal experiences are not a governing mechanism for interpretation of a first-century text.

Seven Deadly Devices?

Much of Cohen's book is devoted to explaining seven psychological "devices" used by Evangelical Christianity to draw in the unwary. In a few cases we find that Cohen makes a good point.

The first device, "The Benign Attractive Persona of the Bible" [171ff] refers to the "colossal bait-and-switch sales pitch" used by ministers who use the Bible in ways that do not fit the context -- here, Cohen hints at the "health and wealth" sort of preachers, but I am not sure what else he intends, and he says nothing about critical-historical readings of the Biblical texts.

The second device, "Discrediting the World", is simply a begged question: Cohen condemns the "us vs. them" attitude inherent in Christian belief -- though of course, if Christianity is true, then the "attitude" has something genuine behind it. By the same token, one might raise the same accusation against Prometheus Books, simply for holding a different point of view.

In this section Cohen also objects to potential converts being regarded as merely "objects of evangelism." The charge fits well against today's "get 'em out" crusades which lack focus on discipleship, but is of no effect concerning Biblical practice and recommendation.

It is with the third device, "Logocide", that we take some serious issue. Here Cohen accuses Christians of misusing Biblical texts, and the Biblical authors of intentionally using "crossed meanings and contrived ambiguities" [185] to confuse and control their readers.

Cohen realizes that there are some genuine literary devices, like hyperbole and emphasizing paradox (twinged as they are with Eastern flavor) that fall into this category but are not of the nature of his "manipulations" at all; but he fails to recognize many other similar instances and decrees them to be manipulations. He supposes rather that NT writers committed "logocide" by making sure that a new convert was "weaned away from the ordinary meaning" of a given term and switched to the newer, deeper, more "manipulative" meaning.

This obviously requires that most Christians be particularly dense, and Cohen has no trouble asserting this, and calls upon his own experience as proof [184]:

Every deeply indoctrinated believer I have known has shared the experience of finding the Bible hard to read, with passages studied many times before seeming unfamiliar and surprising...The believer ascribes this quality, which distinguishes the Bible from other writings in ancient languages, to the process of understanding coming through the intervention of the Holy Spirit, qualitatively unlike the way earthly ideas are understood.

Well, perhaps that was Cohen's difficulty, and that of others. I find very, very few Bible passages hard to read, unfamiliar, etc. -- and what few I do find difficult (I have found none to be "unfamiliar"), I ascribe to simply not knowing enough about the social, literary, historical, etc. context: We have not yet discovered the Rosetta Stone for some passages, and may never do so. That's how it is often with a text out of time we men have failed to keep up with.

Other than that, where does Cohen suppose he has found examples of "logocide"?

A chief and featured example relates to the use of the words "life" and "death" in the NT. In addition to the "normal" (physical) meanings of these words, Cohen accuses the NT writers of creating "new, alternate meanings" [198] related to the spiritual (which Cohen signifies in his text by adding a hash mark ['] after the "original word"). So, it is supposed, the missionaries preached about "life" and "death", and people converted on that basis; but: "Little did the believer know when he was first recruited that the Christians were talking about eternal life', not eternal life."

Of course the word here for life, zoe, authentically carries both a figurative and literal sense; but even so, I find this claim of conspiratorial term-switching rather puzzling. Cohen is apparently suggesting that Christian missionaries went around preaching "eternal life" without telling anyone that they did not mean physical, earthly immortality, and only later, after a convert had been "caught", was it explained that "eternal life" was spiritual in nature and involved immortality only in the sense that there was a hereafter.

All right -- so where is the proof that the converts were not aware of the supposed difference in the term from the very beginning? Doesn't "life" today also have a dual meaning -- that both of physical "life" and of a more ethereal, perhaps spiritual "life"? If I walk up to you today and say, "Try Hare Krishna and learn how to live life," does that imply that you were walking around physically dead like some sort of zombie prior to now?

Cohen apparently fails to perceive that this dual meaning of "life" was in fact nothing new at all. It appears in Genesis 3 in regards to the way Adam and Eve "died" Later [262], he cites this very passage, but explains it by saying that "God already had [the alternate meaning] in mind." Why is this not rather a sign that the "alternate meaning" was a known and accepted usage, one that could be determined by context and explanation?

There is no indication anywhere in the NT or in recorded history that the church purposely confused these terms to win converts. If they did, why is there no indication that some dropped out when they found out that "life" did not mean physical immortality, as some surely would have? This is an argument from silence, but it is a significant one, because such easily falsified claims would have been incredible fodder for the likes of Celsus. Perhaps Cohen was confused by these terms, but there is no evidence that any of the early converts were -- and neither was I, or any other Christian I have ever met.

Another mistake by Cohen involves the Christian keyword agape. Cohen tells us that this word is "unknown prior to New Testament times and was apparently invented for it." [205] It is not love at all, he says, but "a very strict and obsessive species of self-discipline." [206]

The claim is a larger part of Cohen's overall argument (later made in Device 5) that Christian belief requires having "psychologically inauthentic, false and maladaptive" attitude [293] in which one, for example, denies one's true feelings (especially anger), so that the Christian is "full of bottled up tensions induced by the hobbling Christian constraints" [300] of keeping one's feelings in check. In this case, it is said, "Being out of touch with one's feelings and emotions will prove to be a prerequisite of agape."

The reader may wonder where and how Cohen reached these conclusions. I cannot be certain, but perhaps they are derived from a poor reading of Cohen's one useful source in the matter: William Barclay's New Testament Words. Cohen uses an extensive quote from page 21 of that book explaining that agape is an act of the will. Barclay also reports that agape is indeed not found -- in the form of a noun -- in any of the classical works of literature of the period [18].

It is found in a noun form in the LXX (where it is used 14 times, oddly enough, of sexual love in Jeremiah, and twice in Ecclesiastes as an antonym for "hatred"); in Jewish wisdom literature to refer to the love of God and the love of wisdom; in the Letter of Aristeas it is described as a gift of God; in Philo it is linked to the word "fear" (phobos) as a kindred feeling, both of which characterize one's attitude towards God.

The verb form of our word, agapan, is however found in classical literature. It is used to describe great affection, the love of money or jewels, affection towards a lap-dog -- and it clearly does not involve the type of "warmth" that another word, phileon, involves. It is, as Barclay describes it (but as Cohen apparently did not notice) a type of affectionate gratitude -- not an emotion, but an act of will, as Cohen does acknowledge. Here is a classical use of both words that Barclay cites:

You loved (phileon) him as a father, and you held him in regard (agapan) as a benefactor.

But in fact Cohen is even further off base. He is, and has been, applying modern, Western psychological categories to the Bible, and he is quite far off to start because whereas our culture is centered on the individual, ancient Biblical society (and 70% of societies today) are group-centered. What is good for the group is what is paramount.

Hence when the NT speaks of agape it refers to the "value of group attachment and group bonding" [Malina and Neyrey, Portraits of Paul, 196] and can have nothing to do with self-discipline -- which is also a concept foreign to a group-oriented society, in which behavior was controlled by group relations and honor and shame rewards and sanctions -- not by individualized and internalized norms.

For more on what agape means, please see here.

The bottom line here is that Cohen is far off base when he thinks that Christians "invented" the term agape and that he can apply modern psychological categories to the Bible. I want to stress this, because it seems to me to be a key point in his entire case. If the Christians did not invent the word, then he can hardly say that it is part of their whole-cloth conspiracy. Nor can he claim it to be merely a form of obsessive self-discipline: This may indeed be how Cohen understood the matter as a believer, but he is anachronistically applying modern psychological categories to the NT text -- as well as making an overall generalization that whatever we feel to express is good to do.

Even so: When the believer is told to "repress" (or "put off") things like anger, malfeasance, etc. there is no indication of the need for outright suppression and hypocrisy -- that could hardly be the case, first because no such psychological categories existed at the time; second and mainly because that would amount to the sin of hypocrisy, which is condemned as well.

Nor would such "suppression" eliminate sin in one's heart as Jesus advises. Rather -- to use anger as an example -- one is told (in this and other contexts) to recognize one's place and one's brother as one whom Christ died for. Those who do this cannot logically remain angry with their brother; if they do remain angry, they do sin, and they do not "answer the argument" -- they persist in being irrational, which is an act of the will.

"Suppression" of ill will and "emotion" is done by logical extension, not by self-coercion, and I hardly think Cohen can find fault with that; or else most behavioral modification psychology is to be regarded as false. In that sense, one might compare agape today to a form of respect.

The fourth of Cohen's devices, "Assaulting Integrity", involves "inducing the believer, for the sake of obedience, to affirm teachings that are inherently incredible, not germane to, and in discord with, the rest of the Bible" [240-1] thus forcing the believer to violate his conscience when he/she "stifles the still, soft inner apprehension he has that he is doing something shameful." [241]

Cohen's analysis here is flawed in many ways. For one thing, he has imported a modern, individualist concept of "conscience" into the argument. In agonistic and collectivist societies, however -- such as the world of the Bible, and 70% of the world even today -- that "soft inner apprehension" simply doesn't exist. Conscience was external, not internal. (For more on this, see here.)

But the case is flawed in terms of exegesis as well. Let's see how by looking at what Cohen says of what he calls the "most extreme integrity-assaulting passage" in the NT, Luke 18:1-8 --

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.' "For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'" And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"

Here, we are told, "God is likened to a wicked judge, who is lazy or infirm, and tires easily. The believer is exhorted to pray for completely selfish reasons." [241]

Such an interpretation is erroneous. The point - made in typical rabbinic "how much more" fashion (v. 7 -- that is, if the lesser case is valid, then the greater one must be valid also) -- is that if this is what even the most wicked judge will do for the most annoying petitioner, how much more will God take care of His own whom he loves and who have trusted Him?

Cohen is unaware of the operative rabbinic hermeneutic, and that is why he thinks the message is that "the believer's critical mind must be shut off for him not to wonder why his general notions about the perfection and faithfulness of God, and the selflessness the believer is to strive for, are stood on their head." [241] He simply does not recognize the parable's didactic structure in its context.

Cohen supposes that such "integrity assaulting" passages were used "as a test of candidates for inner circle membership, on whom one would have to depend not to betray those circles to the persecuting authorities." [ibid.] Of another passage in which he finds "defensiveness" about the lack of a Second Coming, he says: "If the novice receiving instruction in the passage showed no sign of caviling at its incongruency but instead dropped unhesitatingly to his knees and went into fervent, wailing prayer, then the church father knew he could be trusted." [242]

This scenario and others like, Cohen admits to be "conveniently nondisprovable" which fairly speaks for itself.

Device #5, "Dissociation Induction", Cohen says is "at the core" and the key to "explaining the Bible's power over people" [259]. Cohen's explanation does not start until we get to an exposition on Matthew 14:22-33, which we are told provides "the central psychological paradigm of the Bible." [284] To set the background first:

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd...During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." "Come," he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.

Of this passage, Cohen writes [285]:

The biblical moral of the story is that failing to have one's mind obsessively on Jesus will rapidly and disastrously result in the deterioration of "faith", in the letting down of the "shield" that "faith" represents.

This exotic exegesis, however, is the product of a health-and-wealth homiletic, not sound contextual exegesis. I suppose one can legitimately draw from this story that if we are looking to do things normally impossible (like walking on water) that it is a very good idea to have one's mind "obsessively" on Jesus (and then, note well, only with direct permission -- and one might as well then say that a rock climber has his mind "obsessively" on rope), but to draw any further specific conclusions is unwarranted.

I think it speaks for itself that Cohen refers to the "incomparably artful camouflage job that has so long kept the true meaning" of this story "suppressed". How is it that scholars have missed this, knowing the language and culture of the Bible as well as they do, but Cohen, merely reading in English, has not? Such an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary explanation.

Cohen's sixth device, "Bridge Burning", is like the second a begged question: Assuming Christianity to be untrue, Cohen criticizes the separation from the past it commands.

The final device, "Holy Terror", amounts to explaining how the Bible using hell to scare people, with the implicit assumption that it is so horrible that this proves it must have been invented. Under the rubric of hell as a place of shame, however, the device loses its effect -- and is also countermanded by the fact that hell is never used as anb evangelistic tool in the missionary sermons of Acts.

Clearly this device reflects Cohen's experience, as he admits: "I formed the opinion that the bluff that God's mighty rewards and punishments ought to terrify me into compliance with the pedagogues' stupid little rules" [347]; "The bottom line is that getting people to dance to its tune of fear is what Christianity is all about. All else is evasion and obfuscation. Every other issue turns from what is first expected into arcane, abstruse dizzying stuff as the believer's indoctrination progresses." [349] "I can almost imagine (the NT writers) sitting together in the shade of a fig tree, asking themselves what would be the most horrible outcome imaginable, with which to threaten people." [354] Finally: "The believer prays more, turns Family Radio up louder to drown out the doubts, goes to a church service to get peer reassurance, reads the Bible to reinforce the allegorical suggestions of separation of the realms, etc." [359]

In reply: As one who prays minimally and only for the sake of thanks; as one whose exposure to Family Radio has been limited to 10 minutes of static-filled air time while on a trip to California and who finds almost all radio preachers boring and irrelevant (R. C. Sproul and Ravi Zacharias are major exceptions); as one who does not go to peers for counsel, and as one who never reads the Bible without serious study, I find Cohen's interpretation totally inapplicable to my own life. Is it too extreme to suggest that Cohen is the problem, and not the text?

Ironically, when Cohen commends Christianity for "its intricately contradictory nondisprovability" [360] he describes nothing less than his theory of the NT writers gathering together and plotting a new world religion that would serve as an opiate to control the masses in their favor. There was a conspiracy, he says, but it leaves no historical record; and if you try to prove that Christianity is true, you are simply fostering the delusion further (for example, Cohen puts of the study of Biblical languages as "an additional layer of irrelevancy to keep the conscious minds of the seminarians busy, lest unwanted insight intrude." [377n]).

In the end, The Mind of the Bible Believer is an extended exercise in circular reasoning.


The Mind of the Bible Believer closes -- with a series of self-confessionals and insults towards Christians (re: "the rigid, vacant demeanor of the people...extreme, offensive, meanly reactionary social views", etc. [377]), and a final revelation. What changed Cohen's mind about Christianity finally was not anything intellectual, but "an extraneous thought powerfully intruded" that said in his head: "The door to paradise stands open, and now I'm going to close it." [378] Somehow after this voice in the head spoke up, Cohen "understood how badly I had been had by the Bible manipulation, and was literally ashamed of myself." [382] The incongruence of thee inclusion of this sort of experience in Cohen's work (by an atheist press) stands out more than marginally, but is perhaps not surprising as a close to the book as a whole.