Like 50-70% of Americans (depending on when you ask them), I don’t attend religious services regularly. And like most of my friends and peers, I’m horrified at the current spectacle of American politics, overwhelmed with daily updates that the current administration is rolling back civil liberties and giving political power to religious fundamentalists and ideologues.
But unlike most of my friends and peers, at least as far as I know, I believe in God. I grew up in a church of merged United Church of Christ and Church of the Brethren congregations, and I still consider myself a member of both denominations. I feel lucky to know many Christians who, like me, are disgusted by this administration’s flagrant perversion and willful misinterpretation of Christian texts and tradition in service of blatantly anti-Christian pursuits like unchecked financial gain, poor stewardship of the earth, and denying aide to your neighbors in crisis.
I’m the kind of religious person who isn’t threatened by questioning, analyzing, or contextualizing the Bible, it’s actually the way I most comfortably engage with my faith. Maybe it’s because I grew up watching “Jesus Christ Superstar” every Good Friday with no idea that people considered it sacrilegious. I legitimately thought it was Biblical apocrypha.
So, naturally, I’m a fan of Sunday School Dropouts, a podcast that follows two atheists with very different religious backgrounds as they read and discuss the entire Bible. It’s an entertaining and informative podcast that also feels suddenly urgent, because, I don’t know if any thinkpieces have told you yet, but The Handmaid’s Tale is, like, frighteningly relevant. Maybe a shared understanding of what’s actually in the Bible would be a good thing for Christians and non-Christians alike to have before we’re too far gone and Betsy DeVos is doing Scrooge McDuck-style dives into a vault of student loan payments.
Having just read the Gospels for @sunschooldrop, I can confidently say Jesus spent a LOT of his time on earth giving out free health care.
— Lauren O'Neal (@laureneoneal) May 3, 2017
I was really excited to have the opportunity to chat with hosts Lauren O’Neal and Niko Bakulich as they launched the second season of Sunday School Dropouts, which tackles The New Testament. Here are some highlights from our conversation, you can listen to the full interview recorded on SpareMin below:
Alicia: So I’m on the phone with Lauren and Niko, they’re the hosts of the Bible podcast for and by atheists, Sunday School Dropouts. Well, not exclusively for atheists but definitely by atheists. How do you describe the show to people, what’s your elevator pitch?
Lauren: Our little line at the beginning of each episode is, “An ex-Christian and a non-believing sort-of Jew read all the way through the Bible for the first time.” So it’s just one episode per book, one episode per week.
Niko: So it’s sort of like a recap show, except instead of talking about a superhero TV show on the CW, were talking about the Bible.
A: And so you both never read the Bible all the way through?
L: Correct. I had read lots of little verses, for many years, but never all the way through.
A: When you started publishing episodes in March 2016, did you have any idea what a weird year it was going to be for non-believers to be reading and talking about the Bible?
L: Absolutely not! (laughs)
A: Do you feel like it took a turn from what you expected the experience to be like?
L: I mean, we didn’t want to be super political at any point, you know… the podcast is for everyone and we do have a surprising amount of Christian listeners, so we were never trying to make a point like, “Everyone should think about the Bible same way we do! Everyone should be an atheist!” or anything like that. But then, for Donald Trump to get elected, it made politics kind of unavoidable.
N: But at the same time, we have the urge to, you know, when the inner world is kind of shifting and changing around you, it’s nice to keep control of the things that you have control over. For example, we like to keep the scope of our show as narrow as possible. You know, when everything is in turmoil. (laughs)
A: I really thought, for a while there –and maybe it’s just because we got comfortable– that Evangelical Christianity had moved out to the fringes. I never expected it to make such a mainstream comeback.
L: Yeah, one of guests on the show on, Christopher Stroop, was raised Evangelical and left the faith and felt that it was really traumatizing to him to be raised that way, and in the in the lead-up to the election he was really excited for evangelicals to finally, like, fade into the background, and then everything went wrong.
A: What do you what is the most frustrating Evangelical biblical talking point now that you’ve read and discussed the entire Old Testament?
N: I mean, it seems obvious, but anti-abortion.
L: Yeah, that’s a perennial favorite.
N: …using scripture as a basis for institutional homophobia. Those are the big two that I’ve seen. Lauren has helpfully pointed out the exact lines that people quote as justification for what I would consider pretty inhumane behavior, and seeing the comparison between action and supposed inspiration– it’s disappointing.
L: Yeah, to me it’s really frustrating that they rallied behind Donald Trump because, I say, he’s the least Christian president we’ve ever had. And I don’t mean, like, Christ-like, like “Oh he’s a bad person, lies all the time, cheats on his wives,” or whatever, I mean he’s least Christian in that he does not go to church, he called it “Two Corinthians” instead of “2nd Corinthians,” he said that he doesn’t need forgiveness from God, etcetera etcetera. Yet somehow this is the man Evangelicals have rallied behind to the point of calling him Cyrus. Cyrus, who appears as a messiah figure in the Old Testament. To call Donald Trump a messiah, is not only repulsive to me on a personal level but on a theological level as well.
A: Yeah, you’re right, it has nothing to do with how Christ-like he is, he’s not even good at pretending!
A: And he’s completely ignorant of the Bible.
L: Yeah. I mean he said his favorite Bible verse was, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” which like, he’s just lucky that actually happens to be in the Bible.
N: It was a 50/50 shot whether it was the Bible or Shakespeare.
L: And then Jesus explicitly repudiates that verse, you know, he says we’re not doing “an eye for an eye” anymore, we’re doing “turn the other cheek.”
N: He didn’t get message. He’s about 2000 years late on that one.
A: Do you enjoy reading the Bible at all?
N: Yeah, I would say so, on balance.
L: Yeah, there’s definitely some books that are boring, like all the Minor Prophets. Well, not all of them, Jonah was really good, but most of the Minor Prophets are quite boring. But there’s some really fascinating stuff in most of the Bible.
N: And making the show is always fun.
A: What’s the worst book of the Old Testament?
N: We did a ranking.
L: Hosea is pretty bad, Zephaniah is very forgettable.
N: We had Obadiah as the worst of all time.
L: That is, like, one page long.
A: So you two read slightly different versions of the Bible and you compare them, but do you do any research on Biblical history as you go along?
L: Yeah, it’s not our area of expertise, we’re not historians or anything, but we’re going to try to do some basic research.
N: Lauren does more than I do, I like to go into it as a blank slate, I’m responding from the heart.
A: I think it’s equally interesting to read the Bible in historical context and also to read it with no context, just read it. Because every denomination of Christianity and, I imagine, though I know less about this, but I imagine it’s the same in Judaism, has different approaches to reading the Bible. Some think that it’s like this living, perfect document that will reveal itself to you if you just read it, other people seem to benefit more from having some context, some people think that the context completely takes away from it. I think it’s really interesting read it both ways. Like, personally, I’m really into like the history and the context, even from the point of view of someone who is of faith, I think it makes it more interesting and fulfilling to read that way. But I think I might be in the minority of Christians who think that.
L: Yeah, I was like when I when I was growing up Christian, I was never taught any of that context, because a lot of context makes certain claims, you know, less believable. But when you coming from the perspective of “I don’t need to believe these claims,” and even if you’re Christian, you don’t need to believe all those claims, then learning about the historical context really makes it a lot more interesting and even relevant to me.
A: So now you’re moving on to the New Testament. I took a class in college called “Biblical Jesus, Pop Culture Jesus” that examined the way Jesus has been reinterpreted in different areas by different social movements, like in the Victorian era Jesus was extremely feminine is very maternal, but during the Industrial Revolution he was extremely manly and heroic. So before you read the Gospels, what was your ingrained image of Jesus?
L: For me, the Gospels are the part of the Bible that I’m most familiar with, that I had read the most growing up, so I think that my image of Jesus is fairly close to the biblical one. Definitely growing up I was always really interested in the moments where Jesus is really sarcastic, and like snaps at the disciples for not not understanding a parable and he’s, like, “Are you really so stupid that you can’t understand this?” I think that part of Jesus gets very erased in pop culture, but it was always with the most interesting part to me.
N: And I had nothing but the pop culture Jesus to base it on, which was I guess an image of, you know, of somebody infinitely patient and good, pure and wise.
L: And now, we’ve only read one book of the gospels so far, but how does that compare to what you thought?
N: Interestingly, the biblical Jesus seems much more human than then the image of him in pop culture, like you say he’s somebody who’s in discussion, in conversation with everybody around him as opposed to just spewing out truth and wisdom and everybody instantly recognizing as such. I know that’s the story, that him being in conflict with the world is the core of the story, but as someone who was only familiar with him as a pop culture perspective, it’s not as easy arrive in the Bible as I might have expected. I knew how it ended, though. (laughs)
A: Yeah, I think that that pop culture understanding that everyone might have is like a Mickey Mouse version of Jesus, everyone recognizes a white guy with wavy brown hair who’s, like you said, patient and somehow extremely wise and just like floating around enlightening people. It’s funny that that is so strong when it’s not supported by all of the Gospels really.
A: But it’s sort of what we see in, like, Cecil B DeMille movies, and it took hold.
L: I’m so interested to learn that he was portrayed as feminine in the Victorian era
A: Oh yeah, if you look up art from the era he’s even curvy, he looks like a woman, he has hips. I think it’s sort of that image we have of him tending flocks and protecting babies. So you started Season 2 not with the Book of Matthew, but with your Robo-Bible.
N: Lauren heard an episode of a podcast called Flash Forward by a reporter named Rose Eveleth, her show is all about the future and futurism, and in an episode of hers… she fed a bunch of transcripts she had written into an artificial intelligence, a program that’s generally called a recursive neural network, and basically fed all these scripts into the network and asked it to spit out a new script based on what it had read. This AI doesn’t know anything about English, doesn’t know how to make words or anything, so it just takes what you give it and spits out output that it thinks is like what you gave it. So she created an AI-generated script of her show, and it was really cool, and she called people and asked them for interpretation and what it might meant about our future, as well what the entire exercise of generating something using AI might mean about our future. So we did a similar thing, a little goofier though, because we fed the Bible into a recursive neural network, and trained the AI to read the Bible and then asked if the spit out some Bible-like material, which we did until we got something that we liked, then we asked people to interpret it as if it were a real Bible passage.
A: I mean it’s believable like, if you would drop the line of this in my lap I would have been like “Sure, that’s from the Bible.”
L: Yeah well most of them, some of them.
A: Are you planning on doing anything else like this for Season 2 are you going to get back into book-by-book? What else do you have up your sleeve?
L: We’re mainly going to be doing book by book, we’ll also do some like apocryphal gospels and stuff like that. We have some special episodes possibly planned, we don’t want to give anything away.
A: Okay cool, we’ll stay tuned. If you could have anybody on the podcast to talk about any book in the Bible, living or dead, would you like dream guest be?
N: Jesus Christ.
L: Well, he’s in our hearts, so…
N: So he’s available.
L: I don’t know if you listen to any Christian-adjacent podcasts, but there’s this guy Mike McHargue who does this podcast “Ask Science Mike,” the tagline is “Science, Faith and Life,” and he approaches the Bible almost metaphorically rather literally, and has really interesting things to say.
N: He’s also an incredible speaker
L: Yeah I know, he’s fucking brilliant.