Social critic Allison Carlson’s The People’s Bible has sparked a holy war of sorts, creating controversy among Christians while inspiring calls for religious reform. The book, dubbed a “progressive redux” of Christianity’s sacred text, debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list and has remained there for several weeks.
Carlson’s book adapts the traditional Bible to modern cultural, religious and moral norms while retaining, in her words, “the important ethical teachings of Jesus Christ.”
The People’s Bible begins, not with the Book of Genesis, but with the Book of Darwin, featuring excerpts of the famous naturalist’s The Origin of Species. God is replaced with “Benevolent Universal Consciousness and Karma,” or BUCK. Many Old Testament stories, such as Noah and the world flood, are modified or removed.
The story of Adam and Eve is one example. Carlson’s version speaks instead of Jade and Blaine, two hip freethinkers who anger BUCK by not using fair trade coffee and shopping at Wal-Mart. Rather than bring sin into the world, however, they bring bad karma in the form of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, and speciesism. Ultimately, Jade and Blaine make amends with BUCK by joining a commune and disavowing material goods.
“This is the Bible for the 21st century,” Carlson said. But the book is not without its critics.
“This is cultural relativism wrapped in a blasphemy,” said Greg Young of the American Christian Alliance. Young says the book “follows the routine playbook of paying lip service to Christianity while denying the divinity and true teachings of Christ.”
The People’s Bible removes negative references to homosexuality, adultery, lust, and other common Christian taboos. Rather than promote moral absolutes, it speaks of “socially-based ethical norms,” while replacing the Ten Commandments with the Ten Planks of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
In the New Testament – renamed the New Age – the birth of Jesus is heralded as the beginning of a social justice consensus, yet Christians are chastised for causing religious conflict in his name. While denying the divinity and resurrection of Christ, Carlson’s book notes, “The spirit of peace and charity embodied by Jesus lives on in the global heartbeat of humankind.”
The Book of Uncle Sam uses the teachings of Jesus about helping the poor to call for expanded social services and government spending. Although less controversial than most books in The People’s Bible, it advances an interpretation that many Christians still find incorrect.
“Jesus taught that we should help the poor, but nowhere did he command his followers to set up government programs to do it,” said Young. “Charity is supposed to be something Christians do out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Environmental consciousness and international peace play into The People’s Bible, with teachings that “The Earth is a temple” and “Love your global neighbor.” The Book of Numbers is a comprehensive list of statistics on poverty, education levels, the gap between the rich and poor, and other data.
Replacing the Book of Revelation is the Book of Reconciliation, in which the world’s religions put aside their differences, acknowledge BUCK, and bring about peace. The United Nations, rather than Jesus Christ, is cast as humanity’s ultimate savior.
“The UN ultimately establishes heaven on Earth – literally – by helping bring the world together under one banner,” Carlson says. “I wrote this to express my hope that we will one day reach that state of being.”
Carlson’s book is likened to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, seen by many as the impetus for the environmental movement. A wide spectrum of political activists and liberal theologians has embraced The People’s Bible as a call for religious reform.
“She’s given us a message that we can take into the churches to challenge the outmoded ways of the past and begin a new dawn of human awareness,” said the Rev. Chloe Vinton, a Unitarian Universalist minister. Vinton also says she hopes Carlson’s book will spark efforts to provide more government oversight of religious teachings and practices.
“We have this obsolete notion of religious freedom that says we can’t question the right to practice one’s beliefs, no matter how harmful they may be to homosexuals, the poor, and practitioners of other faiths,” she says. “It’s imperative that we get away from that.”