Friday, December 19, 2014

Evaluating the Evangelists: Billy Graham


From the November 2011 E-Block.
***
Evangelist Billy Graham is one of the most trusted figures in the world, and I am pleased to say that after surveying a sampling of his works below, I believe that trust is justified:
  • Ask Billy Graham (ABG)
  • Facing Death and the Life After (FDL)
  • The Key to Personal Peace (KPP)
  • Angels (A)
  • Answers to Life's Questions (ALQ)
What differentiates Graham from so many other popular Christian authors -- Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado, and so on -- is an overlay of cautionary humility that prevents Graham from (for the most part) overextending himself. (I know few people who, like Graham, will say that they do not like to be called "doctor" when what they have is an honorary degree -- ABG95). He does not allow excitement and emotion to let him say more than is warranted: For example, in A, he reports anecdotes of angelic interference in the world, but does so with a cautionary tone and occasional acknowledgments that he cannot absolutely vouch for a supernatural element, only suggesting that there may be one.

By his own account he consults others when his own expertise is not sufficient, and is also willing to change his views when more and better information comes to his attention. To that extent, I would say that Graham's works are overall good choices for a new Christian.

Is there an "on the other hand"? Yes, but I don't think Graham is to be blamed for it. As a trusted leader, Graham has either been called upon -- or felt a call -- to write many books on subjects that one would not ordinarily expect an evangelist to write about. His book on death (FDL) is mostly common sense advice and commentary on death-related issues (euthanasia, wills, etc). But why should Graham have written such a book, and why would anyone read it, rather than a book by, saying, an attorney specializing in such matters? And in ABG819, why would anyone write to Graham asking for his views on public debt? One can only suppose that it is precisely because Graham has a sterling reputation of trust -- for that reason, he becomes like a trusted father figure to whom one may turn for any perceived need.

On that account, it is on the one hand a very good thing that Graham does not overextend himself. Indeed, in ALQ, we see him frequently telling readers to seek someone qualified to counsel them. This leaves me with only two significant reservations.

First, Graham also sometimes tries to segue some concern into an evangelistic message; the artificiality of his appeal is too often transparent, and may do more harm than good. In ALQ240-1, for example, he has a question from a reader about organ donation, which, after his answer, he turns into a reminder that Jesus gave the gift of life through the cross. That seems rather too much of a stretch. But such "stretchy" instances are rare that I found.

(In this respect, I am reminded as well of Franklin Graham, who during CNN interview answered every question by appending the same rote mini-sermon each time. I also reminded of a Wittenburg Door parody I once saw, titled "Dear Abbott," in which an advice columnist did the same thing to every letter. I now know that ALQ, a compilation of Graham's answers to readers in what was apparently an Ann Landers style column, is what they were parodying!)

The second reservation is more serious. Although Graham indeed does wisely not overextend himself, he has been put into an awkward position in which people expect him to have answers he does not have. Graham indicates, for example, that he won't get into issues like the reliability of the Bible; he gets results by just saying, "the Bible says" (ABG481) . He also refuses to discuss theological issues like inerrancy (ABG105). Now this is not problematic in itself; Graham is an evangelist, and explaining such things is not his job. However, he has been put in an awkward position in which he will be expected to give answers to a wide array of such questions, which end up being inadequate. For example:
  • KPP: In this he does well to emphasize the essential historicity of the Resurrection; but he has one of his rare overextensions and says that there is more evidence for it than there is for Alexander the Great dying at age at 33! In a sense I agree, but to make such a statement requires much more than a few sentences of affirmation.
  • ALQ103: Asked about Sabbath observance, Graham offers sound -- but vague -- warnings against legalism, then advises the reader to make up their own mind to honor God as they think should be done.
  • ALQ108-9: Graham is asked about a religious group that came to someone's door (it is not specified what group), and his advice is to ask: What does this group think of the Bible, Christ, and salvation? Do they have books or Bible translations not recommended by scholars? That's actually spot on advice, but it comes at the end of what should be a much longer string of argumentation. (It would have been sufficient had he offered at least a short list for further reading.)
  • ALQ284: Asked if Jesus claimed to be God, Graham, offers only 3 passages from John's Gospel, with no explanation.
Beyond this, Graham's attitude towards scholarship is, thankfully, overall positive. He indicates that he wishes his education had been more complete at times. On the one hand, though he says (ALQ291) in response to a request for a book or commentary to explain the Bible that the Bible "is its own best commentary," he also (294) says that some Biblical scholarship has helped in understanding the Bible better. We may be thankful that Graham was at least somewhat positive in this regard rather than sharing the offer of many modern writers towards scholarship.

In sum: It is a pleasure to offer an overall positive assessment of Billy Graham as an author, one who handles his material, in general, responsibly.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ghosts of End Times Present: Jack van Impe's Eschatological Fruitcake


From the November 2011 E-Block.
***
Under ordinary circumstances, I might read at least 4 books by an author before I think I have a sufficient sample for evaluation. In the case of Jack van Impe, the patent absurdity of his material was such that I was able to stop after only two books:
  • 2001: On the Edge of Eternity (2E)
  • Final Mysteries Revealed (FM)
Now to be sure, there was much of the standard dispensational eschatology; in that van Impe offered little new. He did seem to think the Six-Day War (1967) and the retaking of Jerusalem was a greater hinge point than the founding of Israel (1948), at least in the latter book. He was also looking not for a 10 nation group, but a 13 nation group (which he found in the EU, once Austria joined as the 13th member...about 14 members ago). He also has some rather strained ideas about portions of Jesus' "signs in the skies" being fulfilled by way of warfare in space between the USA and Russia. That's weird, but no weirder than Grant Jeffrey or Hal Lindsey in principle.

But beyond the typical dispensational normalcies, much of what van Impe offers seems more like clinical insanity than Biblical exegesis -- which is made worse by the fact that, like so many prophecy teachers, he specializes in refusing to document his claims.

Consider the following samples, none of which van Impe documents, but which exemplify his irrationality (from 2E):
  • 4: Rabbis of the Lubavitch movement thought the bombardment of Jupiter by the Shoemaker-Levy comet signaled return of Messiah "as described in the Zohar and Talmud." Aside from the lack of citations from that latter documents – and that the Zohar is a late, medieval, and worthless forgery --- van Impe fails to explain why such interpretations ought to be given any credence, especially since the Lubavitch movement does not exactly have a sterling record at selecting Messianic candidates (e.g., Menachem Mendel Schneerson).
  • 24: The city of San Jose spent a half million dollars on a statue of Quetzalcoatl, the pagan deity. Van Impe takes this as some sort of antichrist signal. It turns out there is such a statue, and that the figure is correct, but it’s hard to take van Impe seriously beyond this. The statue was apparently intended to honor Mexican heritage, and has become something of a joke: As some critics have noted, the sculpture has the shape of a pile of canine excrement, and some even say that the sculptor shaped it that way as revenge after being given a hassle by the city. There wasn’t any intention to honor pagan religion, though it seems van Impe was not the only fringe Christian claiming so. Beyond this it is hard to see the Antichrist gaining any honor from a sculpture with such a laughable reputation.
  • 148-9: van Impe cites various uses of the number 666 – ranging from their use on shoes in Italy, to Arab license plates in Jerusalem, to their use in a floor tile catalog – as evidence of a “brainwashing movement” to gain the number acceptance. It goes so far that even a children’s book on algebra titled 666 Jellybeans is rounded up into the conspiracy. In this I am reminded of superstitious builders who label buildings without a 13th floor. Does van Impe except us to skip direct from 665 to 667 to avoid problems?
Insanity like this was sufficient for me to cease reading van Impe after just these two books. The other book (FM) was not quite so bad; it has some odd moments where van Impe runs off into tangents -- e.g., Belshazzar’s drunkenness in Daniel is used as a springboard for a sermon against alcoholism (84-5!), and there is one weird idea of the Biblical “third heaven” as being trillions of light years in the sky (72). Nevertheless, it is enough: Not even Grant Jeffrey was this far out in left field, though Harold Camping certainly was.

Jack van Impe does not appear to be the major name he used to be – but that he got off the ground at all is a testimony to how badly the church needs to adopt serious educational programs.

Friday, December 5, 2014

A Ride in the Reconstruction Zone, Part 4


From the October 2011 E-Block.
***
It turns out this will be our last item in the series on the writings of R. J. Rushdoony; although a monster of a book, Institutes of Biblical law (IBL) turned out to be a much less demanding read than his prior works we evaluated, and I was able to finish all of it (save some 100 pages written by Gary North, which I consider outside our scope). 

As before, though, the major reservation about what Rushdoony offers is not what he says, but what he does not say. IBL is a comprehensive and overall worthy evaluation of the Ten Commandments and their meaning, followed by a few chapters of commentary; in all of this I found very little disagreeable or in detectable error within my purview. But as before, Rushdoony says little to nothing about to what extent, and in what way, the law of the OT ought to be applied to today. I have seen Rushdoony accused by atheists of wanting to re-institute stoning as a punishment. Though Rushdoony does support capital punishment, I saw no direct statement of the means to be used in IBL, but I can see why someone might argue such a thing of Rushdoony: His adamance about imposing Biblical law does not, where I have found so far (obviously, he may do so in yet some other work not available to me), doesn't often take the step of explaining depth and mode of application, and sometimes leaves it unclear what he supposes application ought to be. 

One of the few cases where Rushdoony is explicit on such matters is in regards to such things as the Sabbath observance and various forms of dress (Num. 15:38), which he sees as "superseded by the signs of the new covenant" like baptism and circumcision. But this is the exception rather than the rule. There are several cases where Rushdoony compares modern judicial malpractice to Biblical law, obviously (and often rightly) criticizing the former for its inadequacies, but he never explicitly states (at least not in IBL) something like, "The modern judicial system needs to adopt this biblical law to this or that extent." Given Rushdoony's boldness otherwise, I cannot help but ask why not. 

The closest we come to a specific program is this: "The education which breeds Amalekites [Rushdoony's designation for enemies of God in this part of the book] must be replaced with Christian education....The state must become Christian and apply Biblical law to every area of life, and apply the full measure of God's law. The permissive family must give way to the Christian family." [323] It's bold, it's broad, and it's thoroughly lacking in specifics.

I need not make much of places where Rushdoony and I disagree theologically or exegetically. I find his treatments and views on matters like Calvinism, tithing, and a few other points to be wrong, but I could say the same of any other writer in terms of finding things to disagree with. Perhaps his oddest arguments are his attempts to link profanity (even when it does not mention God) to Biblical prohibitions against swearing (in the sense of oaths -- 109); and his attempts to argue that the prohibition on tattoos applies as well today (223); his argument that the law against Lev. 19:19 forbids the production of modern genetic hybrids because hybrids are sterile and cannot reproduce (255 -- and later says that hybridization leads to "futile experimentation, such as organ transplants" [!]-- 262 ). In these Rushdoony goes much farther than the texts and their contexts allow. I also find to be strained Rushdoony's argument that the Deuteronomic covenant "circumscribes all men without exception" [655] and is in some way continued in the New Testament covenant, though this is more of a legalist technicality if one recognizes that principles inherent in the law will be a basis for judgement anyway; it need not be doubted that disobedience will still lead to judgment, as he says further.

That said, Rushdoony also offers a number of judicious insights, and makes it quite clear that he thinks that while certain details of OT law are not applicable to our times, it is the principles that matter today -- a position we agree with [293; and, 301, where Rushdoony discusses the dietary laws and deems them applicable not in detail, but in principle; though he adheres to a questionable view that the laws had some relevance to health]. So arguably the above oddities are cases in which he took false steps regarding what were details and what were principles. That being so I turn now to other criticisms from other sources.

One reader asked me to be particularly on the lookout for any place where Rushdoony implied that Christians were bound to pursue holy war, as it were, against the heathen. Up til now I found nothing of the sort, but at IBL 93 there is an expression that comes tantalizingly (if again, incompletely) close. Speaking of Israel's war against Canaan, Rushdoony remarks: "In brief, every law-order is a state of war against the enemies of that order, and all law is a form of warfare....Law is a state of war." In between the ellipsis he makes clear that penalties are made in accord with severity of an offense. But in light of his declarations concerning Christians asserting Jesus' Lordship over all creation, the reader may rightly wonder how far Rushdoony supposes this should go. Are we called to be Crusaders? Is it the responsibility of Christians to get themselves into public office, impose Biblical law, invade foreign countries that are not Christian and impose the same rule there? Rushdoony and the Reconstruction movement have been accused of this by critics I have encountered over the years, and while I have yet to see explicit statements where they demand this (they may be apparent in other writings!) I can see why someone might reach that conclusion.

Another such statement is found at IBL 308. Rushdoony uses the image of the Amalekites to illustrate evil and disorder in the world, and says, "...the covenant people must wage war against the enemies of God, because this war is unto death. The deliberate, refined, and obscene violence of the anti-God forces permits no quarter...this warfare must continue until the Amalekites of the world are blotted out, until God's law-order prevails and His justice reigns." A little later Rushdoony also makes it clear that evangelism is part of this program. [321] But does he mean the war imagery literally? if so, to what extent? It is not made clear.

So now for a closing commentary, which reflects one significant purpose of this examination. One of the things I was on the lookout for was what was related in a rather heated blog entry by a Skeptic, in which it became clear that the lack of clarity I noted was indeed being taken, in many cases, to enable an interpretation beyond what was explicitly said. Some of the more offensive quotes offered were in sources not available to me, and so could not be checked. Others were indeed found in the sources, such as one in IBL: “"inter-religious, inter-racial, and inter-cultural marriages, in that they normally go against the very community which marriage is designed to establish." – which a defender of Rushdoony tried to explain as being a misunderstanding of how Rushdoony defined “race” (the explanation seemed rather contrived, though). Others were not. For example, these quotes were said to be from IBL, though no page number was given:

The move from Africa to America was a vast increase of freedom for the Negro, materially and spiritually.

Lazy slaves were “an albatross that hung the South, that bled it.”

The University of Timbuktu never existed. The only thing that existed in Timbuktu was a small mud hut.

The false witness borne during World War II with respect to Germany (i.e., the death camps) is especially notable and revealing…. the number of Jews who died after deportation is approximately 1,200,000 ....very many of these people died of epidemics.

This has become especially important now as apparently one of our Republican Presidential candidates (Bachmann) has declared Rushdoony an influence, and some of these quotes are being plastered all over the Internet. I saw none of these above in reading IBL, however; indeed I saw no chapter where they would have been contextually appropriate to the contents. It also happens that IBL is searchable on Google Books, and none of these quotes turned up. I have a past record of discovering bogus quotes, so I am naturally suspicious when this sort of thing happens. If critics wish to identify Rushdoony as a racist, or an anti-Semite, they will have to provide more definitive verification than this.

One quote that did turn up genuine, on page 203, was as follows:

The matriarchal society is thus decadent and broken... matriarchal character of Negro life is due to the moral failure of Negro men, their failure ...to provide authority. The same is true of American Indian tribes which are also matriarchal.

The ellipsis, however, obscure some additional words, and the quote is not exact; for the sake of completeness:

The matriarchal society is thus the decadent and broken. The strongly matriarchal character of Negro life is due to the moral failure of Negro men, their failure to be responsible, to support the family, or to provide authority. The same is true of American Indian tribes which are also matriarchal today.

Are these the words of a racist? Perhaps, for they can easily be envisioned as being so used. On the other hand, having read a good deal of literature by African-American commentators, and having spoken to many African-American men who were prison inmates, I have found similar sentiments expressed therein about the failures of African-American men to be responsible as well. 

Just offhand, for example, Black Families by Harriette Pipes McAdoo reports that findings matching those described by Rushdoony were found in the words of serious scholars of the late 60s and early 70s -- at the time when IBL was published (while also noting disagreement on those findings). Were all those authors racist? Or, could an scholarly author's poignant (if arguably incorrect) social commentary be Rushdoony's racist claptrap? Conceivably, yes. But by itself, that isn't clear.

Suffice to say that there are enough genuine quotes of this type to be suspicious of Rushdoony, given how often he does not qualify or explain himself, but also enough quotes of this sort that I did not find that one may be suspicious of the critics as well. Were some of these quotes just made up? Or do we have sanitized versions of IBL on the market? Without more documentation, or reaching into sources not available to me, it is impossible to say.

The critics are also adamant that other Reconstructionist authors (like Gary North) offer even more explicit statements about such things as re-instituting stoning. In later E-Blocks we may well investigate these claims. In close for this series on Rushdoony, I can only say that at the very least, his reticence indicates a warrant of due caution for anyone who appeals to his work as authoritative.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Beating Boring Bible Study


From the October 2011 E-Block.
**
Daily Bible study is one of the most immediate practical outworkings of the Christian life, yet it is perhaps one of the most poorly constructed. Modern pastors and teachers, having fostered an anachronistic and mechanistic understanding of Biblical inspiration, are compelled to act as though even the most obscure passage in Habakkuk is every bit as relevant to the modern Christian life as 1 Cor. 15:1-20. The results of this are Sunday School lessons and devotionals that strain mightily to find modern relevance in even those obscure passages, and end up doing a massive disservice to the Body of Christ, which in turn becomes more subject to find in Biblical texts messages that simply don't exist there.

In contrast, how might a more relevant and practical Bible study or devotional system look? A systematic consideration of the Bible's contents, correlated with a responsible approach to application, suggests the following principles.

Most of the Bible need not be read more than once or twice in a lifetime. 

This includes substantial portions of the Old Testament (see listings below), which ought to be treated in the main as a sort of "family history" -- texts that give us framing background information about New Testament faith, but otherwise are of little practical relevance or application to the Christian life. Of course this excludes those who becomes serious teachers or scholars, who ought to be far more familiar with this material and should read and study it more regularly.

Before laying out our listings of books, we should say a brief word about order of reading. The plan below effectively avoids the conundrum of those who naively try to read the Bible "in order" and end up giving up halfway through Leviticus. Some reading plans seek to avoid this problem by eg, sandwiching Leviticus as a reading assignment between John and Romans, or using Leviticus selectively where the study author did not have to strain too hard to find a modern application (as least, compared to how much of a strain would have been needed to find applications for other passages). This plan avoids such problems by simply eliminating books of far lesser relevance.

Books that should be read no more than once or twice a lifetime:

In this list is every book of the Old Testament, except those indicated below.

Books that should be read at least once every three years, and why:

Deuteronomy -- as an encapsulation of the former covenant, Deuteronomy is an excellent learning tool for understanding God's interactions with men. It is also sufficient to provide a window into the Old Testament world.

Job, Ecclesiastes -- These books provide excellent encapsulations of, and reflections upon, critical philosophical problems, particularly the problem of evil and the purpose and meaning of life.

Daniel -- relevant for the fulfillment of prophecy (whether you are a dispensationalist, preterist, or something else; but especially relevant for preterists seeking to match Daniel to first century events).

In addition, two books -- Proverbs and Psalms -- may be read sporadically as (respectively) a practical behavioral guidebook and as devotional material.

This leads us to a New Testament reading cycle, and here again, rather than follow the standard devotional cycles which see every book as equally important or relevant, more due attention is given to the books with the most relevance to practical living today.

Books that should be read once a year:

2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the Pastorals and Philemon, 1 and 2 Peter, 1 and 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

The remaining books should become part of a regular reading cycle: All four Gospels and Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and James. These offer the essential narrative history and doctrine needed for Christian living and understanding. The remaining letters may be read less often, as they are 1) significantly devoted to exhortational material; or 2) mostly personal in nature, or 3) consist of content specifically relevant to the first century.

Of course, each Christian may have individual missions or personal needs that might require more exhortational reading; the above is by no means presented as a legalistic guideline. It is, rather, presented as a practical suggestion for those are seeking a structured and eminently practical approach to Bible study, one that does not get them bogged down in what are contextually non-essentials.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Source Criterion Soundoff

From the October 2011 E-Block.

***

Sources of the Jesus Tradition (SJT), edited by Joseph Hoffmann, is an official product of the Jesus Project, a mixed collaboration of scholars and other participants who were supposed to be performing a rational evaluation of the sources for Jesus. The Project (hereafter JP) underwent some embarrassing difficulties in its early stages, and like this book, does not portend a great deal of significant effort. We will not have much to say about most of the material in this book, but we will also use it as a springboard to discuss the broader question of the methods used by some scholars to decide which words of Jesus are authentic.

In one essay, Justin Meggitt offers a case for the contents of the Gospel as containing myth -- or rather, spends most of it explaining how the Greco-Roman world engaged in mythmaking, and then using this as a bludgeon to suggest by association that the Gospel authors did the same. Meggitt's only "offensive" against the Gospels as reliable sources of tradition consists of a mere 2 1/2 pages addressing claims that the Gospels find their sources in structured oral tradition, with one page of that being descriptive. (Let it be recalled that we offered multiple chapters in support of this hypothesis in Trusting the New Testament.) His arguments amount to the following:
  • There are no "explicit statements" about controls being set on oral tradition by community representatives. This is simply a case of Meggitt raising the bar of evidence arbitrarily high to suit his purposes; and it is also rather hypocritical, in light of the fact that there are also no "explicit statements" that the Gospels are myth (there are warnings against mythmaking in the epistles -- cf. 1 Tim. 1:3-4 for example -- but it would beg the question to directly apply these to the Gospels). That said, Meggitt does admit that such a process was performed by "particular individuals" -- and as we showed in TNT, structured oral tradition would be the norm for a teacher like Jesus; no "explicit statements" are needed to validate this. In an attempt to denigrate the value of such individuals, however, Meggitt alludes to (but does not quote) statements concerning Papias, a leading collector of the oral traditions [77]:
    ...Papias himself not only seems extremely haphazard in his approach, questioning those who just happened to be visiting to his church (Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39.4) but, for all his protestations, seems to have been drawn to sensational paradoxa (marverlous tales; 3.39.8f) as anyone else, and his judgments about the veracity of traditions were disturbing the later Christians. Eusebius complains that the collection of oral traditions that Papias compiled in the five books...contained "strange parables and teachings of the Savior, and some other more mythical things" (Historia Ecclesiae, 3.39.11).
    Aside from the fact that indicting Papias for these things hardly condemns all Christian leaders in the early church on the same counts, Meggitt's description of these passages is highly tendentious. The first citation is not as carefree as "those who just happened to be visiting to his church" would imply:
    If, then, any one came, who had been a follower of the elders, I questioned him in regard to the words of the elders— what Andrew or what Peter said, or what was said by Philip, or by Thomas, or by James, or by John, or by Matthew, or by any other of the disciples of the Lord, and what things Aristion and the presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, say. For I did not think that what was to be gotten from the books would profit me as much as what came from the living and abiding voice.
    For one thing, it is clear that Papias sought authoritative witnesses, not just "those who happened to be visiting." Second, there is nothing "haphazard" about such an approach at all; Meggitt seems to think that appeal to random visitors implies haphazardness, but apart from Papias' stated discretion of seeking those with authority, Meggitt is hardly in a position to designate Papias' own church as a bad place to meet such people. Indeed, it is not clear from Eusebius' quote where exactly Papias met people; but if we assume it was in Papias' own home area, Hierapolis, then he was partway between Rome and Jerusalem, near a major urban center where many people visited, and this is no more "haphazard" than setting up a survey booth along a busy highway where you know at least some of your target subjects are bound to pass. Not only so, as long as Papias lived, and as well connected as he was (to John), he could afford to be stationery and still get what he wanted. Meggitt is manufacturing a "haphazard" scenario out of presumption.
    In terms of sensational material, Meggitt is being tendentious again. The word paradoxa is the same used in Josephus of the works of Jesus, and can mean strange, wonderful, or marvellous. Not only so, but there is nothing in what Eusebius says to indicate that Papias "seems to have been drawn" to such things, as though to the exclusion of being sensible:
    But it is fitting to subjoin to the words of Papias which have been quoted, other passages from his works in which he relates some other wonderful events which he claims to have received from tradition.
    As for the final point about "strange" parables and teachings, Eusebius says this in the context of his own prejudicial assessment of Papias' eschatology, with which he strongly disagreed, and is otherwise lacking in specifics (apart from one small eschatological point) as to what exactly Papias reported that was "strange" or "mythical," and in what contexts, any why. Meggitt is making far too much of lack of data as a way to subvert available data.
    Other than this, Meggitt notes John 21:25:
    Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
    Meggitt complains of this indicating that the selection of material from the Jesus tradition was "expressly theological" and John "does not show any concern for the authenticity" of the material he does not include. In this, Meggitt commits two broad errors. The first is the begged question that "theological" motive is in some way incompatible with selecting authentic material as opposed to inauthentic material. The second is that Meggitt merely assumes that the body of material John has to choose from has not already been vetted for authenticity, leaving John no reason to express such pedantic concerns to his readers. Meggitt's complaint that John seems "indiscriminate" because he does not express any "doubting" over the authenticity of the material places John at the beginning of a process when he is closer to the end of it -- indeed, as one of the Twelve, would hardly need to engage in any "authentication" of material for which he was a primary eyewitness.

    Finally, Meggitt makes vague appeal to the reputed use of Matthew by Mark (begging the question of Markan priority) and the "widespread abbreviation, addition, omission, conflation, elaboration, and reordering of material". [78] Without specific examples showing the alleged problem, not much can be said, but a significant burden stands in order to move from any of these to "fabrication" or "mythmaking".

    Next we would briefly discuss some of the criterion used by some scholars to authenticate the words of Jesus. In an essay that we otherwise would not address, Carrier offers a list of 17 representative criterion; we'll comment on the first few of these.

    Dissimilarity: If dissimilar to Judaism or the early church, it is probably true. This criterion is perhaps one of the more absurd, as it deems of lesser qualification any saying of Jesus which is contextually suited to his social and cultural environment. This is an especially absurd dictum inasmuch as teachers were expected to affirm and repeat that which reflected the accepted cultural mores of their society; in other words, much of what Jesus would be expected to say as a teacher would be very much similar to Judaism. 

    It is just as absurd to apply this criterion with respect to the early church: What movement would not say and do things reflective of its founder? 

    Embarrassment: If it was embarrassing, it must be true. In the same way, this criterion is useless because it is prima facie likely that Jesus did not go around saying embarrassing things 100% of the time. To lessen the qualification of a saying because it is not embarrassing is also absurd. 

    Coherence: If it coheres with other confirmed data, it is likely true. The usefulness of this depends on specific applications and what is meant by "confirmed data" and "coheres" and so is too general for further comment. 

    Multiple Attestation: If attested in more than one source, it is more likely true. Again, a begged question surfaces, that a saying only attested once is of lesser qualification. But why should this be the case? We very seldom have "multiple attestation" for what is said by most figures in historical texts. Moreover, since this was a primarily oral society, the presence of a saying in written sources should hardly be used to determine anything.

    Contextual Plausibility: It must be plausible in Judeo-Greco-Roman context. This criterion is the first we would say is of significant value.

    Historical Plausibilty: It must cohere with a plausible historical reconstruction. This one is also of value, but has the potential for abuse inasmuch as "plausible" is too frequently defined in terms of a critic's personal incredulity as opposed to actual plausibility.

    Natural Probability: It must cohere with natural science. We hardly need say more than that this merely begs the standard question of Hume.

    Oral Preservability: It must be capable of surviving oral transmission. This has some value, but can be abused by setting illicit criteria for what can survive. As it stands, nothing recorded in the Gospels -- not even in John -- would not be capable of surviving oral transmission, if not verbatim, then in substance.

    Crucifixion: It must explain (or make sense of) why Jesus was crucified. It seems hardly likely that 100% of what Jesus said would have in some way have contributed to him being crucified, so this criterion is useless for disqualifying sayings.

    And so on. The point is that while some have indeed concluded that there are no reliable ways to decide what Jesus did or did not say, a more pertinent question is why leeway should be given to those who doubt in the first place. In a later essay in the book, Robert Price raises the spectre of uncriticallly granting authenticity to anything Jesus may have said as recorded in any source, and disdains those who would accuse him and others of "skeptical ax-grinding" and points out that we have examples like the Infancy Gospels where it would typically be granted that sayings of Jesus were invented; thus, by analogy, why not the same for the Gospels of the canon? But that is Price's typical tactic of slipping by with a conclusion before he proves his case. The Infancy Gospels are later products; the canonical Gospels are (despite his attempts to show otherwise) not. The Infancy Gospels and others were produced by Gnostics who claimed divine revelation as the only source for their information; the canonical Gospels -- again, despite Price's vain attempts to argue otherwise -- are credibly scored to witnesses or to those who knew them.

    Furthermore, the telling weakness of Price's analogies to legendary accretion in places like the Muslim hadith (which were rather later than Mohammed) is that his system is conveniently non-disprovable and allows for no way that any word of Jesus (or any figure we choose to set our sights on) could be acknowledged as authentic. As such, it is no surprise that Price cannot and does not substantially engage the detailed treatments of oral transmission practices as we do in TNT, and thinks it sufficient to just call such comparisons "apologetics" (as if that decided the veracity of the matter; it still escapes Price that he, too, is an apologist, for his own position) and vaguely accuse of "prejudice" and "bias" those who exclude non-canonical materials, while also vaguely suggesting that the "diversity, anachronism, and tendentiousness" of the Gospels (no specifics offered) makes an analogy involving fabrication much better. Unfortunately, Price's history is one that shows that it is once specifics are engaged that his case becomes most transparently ineffectual.

    So what then might we do to evaluate authenticity? Initially, the burden should remain -- as it historically has -- on the doubter to show why some word or deed is inauthentic. It is likely folly to set down many rules in advance, as though anyone's words or deeds can be said to follow any set pattern subject to uniform criterion. Some very few of the ones above -- like contextual plausibility -- have universal value; thus I have used the example that if Tacitus refers to Nero making a microwave burrito, we have valid reason to think Tacitus was not the author. Beyond that -- we are right to place the burden on critics like Price who think their own personal incredulity is sufficient for disqualification.

    We might briefly comment on the inclusion of an essay by Frank Zindler in the book. Zindler is allowed to prop for the highest of absurdities here, including the Christ-myth and the Nazareth myth, while remaining oblivious to all contrary arguments. That he is allowed to do so speaks to the JP as a substantially unprofessional project with little interest in accuracy. Finally, we would also comment on an extended essay by Ellens which attempts to deeply psychoanalyze Jesus as a way to explain how he came to believe in his own divinity. Unfortunately, Ellens errs from the start by subjecting Jesus to modern, Western categories of psychology and identity; having Jesus internalize some figure in his own imagination, or from apocalyptic texts, as his "own real self" does not comport with how collectivist persons achieved and acted on their personal senses of identity. His further notion that the Christian message gained acceptance because of its ability to empower others in the face of death is also substantially at odds with what we know of the social world of the first century. 

    In the end, SJT is a mishmash of sometimes interesting but more often irrelevant and/or misguided material. I have doubts that the Jesus Project, however, will do much better than this.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Musicians' Gambit: Stryper


From the October 2011 E-Block.
***
The band Stryper, in my high school days, was controversial just on the basis that it seemed impossible that there should be anything as oxymoronic as a "Christian heavy metal" band. Today, as it happens, they are enjoying a revival, so our survey becomes just as relevant now as then, as we ask: How much "meat" is there, theologically, in what they present? This will be a rather objective study for me -- since even in the 80s, as now, I was badly tone deaf and hardly understood most of the words in songs like these!

We'll start with selections from the 1980s, and this one, which is apparently programmatic of Stryper's mission:

The hair is long and the screams are loud and clear.
The clothes are tight, earrings dangling from the ears.
No matter how we look, we'll always praise His name.
And, if you believe, you've got to do the same.
Loud, clear, let the people hear.
Scream, shout, show what it's all about.
Loud, clear, let the people hear.
Scream, shout, show what it's all about.
Some of us were always pushed around in schools.
That's why I wrote this song to sing to pushin' fools.
At least we can say we love doin' what we do.
And we're here to say that you can have salvation too.

There's not much meat here, to be sure; but there wouldn't need to be for such a thematic presentation. Arguably Stryper was using their very appearance and identity to good effect, using the very shock value to reach others: "Wait a minute. A Christian heavy metal band? Really?" It's much the same effect I strive for in my efforts on YouTube. ("Wait a minute. Cartoons on Christian apologetics? Really?")

The two sides of the debate which emerged, and still might:
  1. "Such appearances denigrate the Gospel! They shouldn't look like the world." That was apparently the take of Jimmy Swaggart when he condemned the band – all the more ironic given Swaggart’s eventual fall from grace. I can well imagine he’d say the same of my work.
  2. "We must be all things to all men -- and this can reach people who otherwise would never hear the Gospel."
The debate won't be settled any time soon because it can't be -- there are examples in which each can be true. The question is whether a given expression so leans towards 1 that it compromises on 2. The question here: Where does Stryper fall? Based on this song, their goal as expressed was to reach for 2:

I've changed my ways from wrong to right.
The devil never pays, no, he robs just like a thief in the night
So many bands give the devil all the glory
It's hard to understand, we want to change the story
We want to rock one way, on and on.
You'll see the light some day
All say Jesus is the way.
Satan is a fool and it's so insane.
Some people think he's cool, you play with fire,
You'll feel the pain.
Why lose when you could win? Give God a try.
The devil's not your friend, the truth is not a lie.
I've changed my ways from wrong to right
Evil never pays, no, the truth is not a lie.

Even as a preterist I can't help but commend a group that is so bold as to call Satan a "fool" -- and so directly strike the heart of a countercultural conception of Satan as a figure to be admired. Moreover, such a message could hardly have endeared them to other heavy metal bands or many typical heavy metal fans. If their goal was to be like the world for the sake of it, this was not the way to do it -- or with lyrics like this:

They say that rock and roll is strong
But God's the rock that makes us roll
Don't need no drugs to help us push on
We've got his power in our souls

On the other hand, even at this early date we could see a bit of the unfortunate overfamiliarity with God creeping in, as here...maybe?

You know I really love you
Your love is beautiful, lasting and true.
I've searched for a true love for such a long, long time
Now, my search has ended, yes, cause you are mine.
I'll always love you and I'll always tell you so
As long as I'm with you, my love I'll always show
Whenever I'm sad and feeling real blue
I begin to feel happy as I sit and think of you.
I think of your face and your personality.
You are so beautiful, you mean everything to me.

I say "maybe" because I am not clear on whether the subject of this song is God -- or some person. The concrete terms (like "face") point to the latter -- unless these fellows were covert Mormons! I found a few other songs of this type as well, but have no memory of them on Christian radio (and nor does Mrs H -- and she DID understand them!).

On the other hand, this one was clearly speaking of God:
Some people think they're happy, livin' for themselves.
But when they're sad they long for something else.
And you can find the answer in an honest way.
To get you thru the sadness, to start a whole new day.
We've found a life that keeps us happy.
Yes, we have and we'll live eternally.
We'll always have the light to see, and so can you.
Are you feeling lonely?
Are you feeling blue?
Does your life seem empty?
You know what to do.
You say you've go some troubles, yeah, oh so many downs.
You need a light to lift you off the ground.
And if your life feels senseless, just accept the Lord.
And He'll make you see things you never have seen before.
An everlasting life abounding, oh yeah.
Yes, He will and He's always giving more.
And His light will never stop shining, it's for you, yes it is.

This is an early (yet mild) expression of God as therapeutic. It has a ways to go before it reaches the almost pathological overfamiliarity of "I Can Only Imagine". Other songs by Stryper offer similarly mild expressions, but are balanced out by bold, in-your-face challenges like this one, which establish God's transcendent superiority:

We are the soldiers under God's command
We hold His two-edged sword within our hands
We're not ashamed to stand up for what's right
We win without sin, it's not by our might
And we're fighting all the sin
And the good book -- it says we'll win!
Soldiers, Soldiers, under command
Soldiers, Soldiers, fighting the Lords battle plan
Are you a soldier under God's command
Help fight the good fight, join us while you can
The battle that's waiting is fought so easily
Through Him, without sin there is victory
And were fighting all the sin
And the good book -- it says we'll win!

It is also interesting to note that Stryper did a rendition of Battle Hymn of the Republic!

Since that time, apparently, Stryper has become somewhat disillusioned with Christian music, and I have to say I can’t blame them. Judgmental and ignorant leaders like Swaggart certainly did little to encourage them with their surface judgments. While I doubt Stryper was perfect in all they expressed, their critics appear to have been too distrustful of innovation to understand what was going on – and I cannot help but wonder if that fear of innovation had anything to do with the insipid contents of today’s Christian music.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Emergent Gurus: Carl Medearis, Part 2


From the September 2011 E-Block.
***
We now offer Part 2 (and last) of our close evaluation of Carl Medearis' Speaking of Jesus (SOJ). 

97 -- Medearis' supposition that whether Christianity is "winning" is reckoned based on number of converts reflects a simplistic understanding shared by Skeptics. Regardless of number of converts, Christianity wins or loses based on nothing except the Resurrection-- even if the number of people who believed it happened was zero. Medearis typifies emergents who fail to so much as pay lip service to the historic event of the Resurrection as the basis for the validity of their professed faith. 

99 -- In line with his reform program, Medearis makes far too much of worrying about people feeling "attacked" when they are evangelized. Does it not occur to him that even his mild "point to Jesus" evangelism can be deemed an "attack" by someone who simply decides to pretend (or just plain decides!) to be sensitive enough to be offended? Does he bother to ask if any first century people felt "attacked" when they were evangelized -- and whether it matters? Isn't it better to understand that those who pretend to, or do, "feel attacked" by evangelism are simply (to put it bluntly) whining too much, or looking for excuses to not have to perform a close evaluation of their own beliefs?

While I am not denying that there is such a thing as “attack” evangelism – it kept me away from Christianity when I was much younger – that is no excuse for letting others define “attack” whatever way they want. Also, if Medearis believes his "point to Jesus" program is the solution to stopping offense, he is wrong. Instead, the ground he gives away will be taken and then overrun, and before he can turn around twice, being "really nice" and "talking about Jesus constantly" (103) -- his own version of "evangelism" -- will within a short period be decided to be an "attack" by those who simply want to avoid confronting the truth. And in fact, this is already happening in my personal experience.

109 -- Ironically, Medearis does realize that Jesus tuned his message to his audience, including being "[d]ownright mean to the Pharisees." But he does not at all perceive how this is in contradiction to his own instructions for evangelism and dealing with others.

112 -- Just as ironic is Medearis' emphasis on presenting the gospel as "good news". Yes, that is what "gospel" means, but he has no realization that the content of the gospel was anything BUT "good news" to the first century person who first heard it. In reality, it was offensive, disgusting, and entirely contrary to critical means values held close to that social setting.

This of course is not to say we ought to add offense to the message gratuitously. However, Medearis' desire to avoid offense is simply a fantasy.

115 -- Thankfully, Medearis here at least admits to the importance of sound doctrine (even as he had been saying the opposite up until now). However, he advises against "lead[ing] a conversation with doctrine rather than Jesus Himself." And this means what exactly? That's not too clear. He tells a story of having ignored a Muslim doctor who interrupted a Bible study he held with other Muslim doctors by asking his fellow Muslims how they could sit with someone who believed Jesus had been crucified. Rather than answer the man, the host asked him to join the study, which proved embarrassing to the man.

I detect some problems here. The first is that these Muslims (who were from Lebanon) undoubtedly adhered to an honor-shame social view. In that light, the host's refusal to answer the question -- whether Medearis understood so or not -- was actually a shaming device which told the man that his question wasn't worthy of being answered. So in a nutshell, Medearis has mistaken a public shaming for not wanting to "lead with doctrine." And he has also offered an example that would have failed miserably had the group been made up instead of American atheists, for example.

Second, there is nothing "doctrinal" about Jesus being crucified. That is a matter of historic fact or not. Muslim insistence that Jesus was not crucified is, to put it bluntly, an embarrassing contrivance. (And for that reason, the public shaming of the man was all the more appropriate.)

Finally, in light of all this, Medearis is wrong to suppose that this shows that "fighting over doctrine" would have been "a huge error" any time such a situation arises. It would not have been at all times. In this group, he tells us, everyone was a doctor; they were all social equals, and the host was quite able to respond in kind as he did. The situation would have been quite different had the objector been a social superior to the host -- or an inferior. Medearis has unwittingly fallen for the sort of one-size-fits-all methodology for which he expresses disdain.

117 -- In the end, Medearis' one other anecdotal example in this matter is to merely suppose that "possibly" a Jewish man he spoke to had not converted to Christianity because others had "led with doctrine." Possibly, and two anecdotes, isn't sufficient basis for any conclusions of any sort.

122 -- a minor but amusing error as Medearis refers to the Romans as "pantheistic". He means polytheistic, but is apparently confused by the use of the word "pantheon" to describe a collection of deities.

126 -- although rightly describing discipleship as something long term, Medearis anachronizes (typically) by calling it "a journey of relationship that encompasses support, trial and error, and difficulty" while claiming it isn't "based on the explanations and doctrines of a religious system." In reality, it could not have been conceived of as the first, and the second would have been regarded as one essential part of being a disciple (though not the whole). Not surprisingly as well, he offers the common error of overfamiliarity which imagines God in terms of modern friendship (141). The reference to "difficulty" is reflected as well later when it is suggested that "struggling with Jesus is part of Jesus' plan." (145) Could it be? Not likely: Otherwise there would have not been any sort of accessible revelation.

148-9 -- and of course, though I am by no means inclined to all conservative political causes, there is the typical misapplication of "love your enemies" to the interactions of nations.

151 -- Medearis is much exorcised by Christians being perceived as "against" things. Two things ought to occur to him. The first, as we have noted with prior emergents, much of the "against" is in itself a reaction to those who are so vicious and voracious "for" something else, and use the media, the government, and all else they can to achieve their goals. Second, why not consider that the perception of Christians as "against" is merely a manufactured excuse that doesn't deserve credence, or a case of spin doctoring to avoid the more serious issue (like “pro-choice”)? Medearis refers to those who say Christians "fight us and judge us and hate us." To pose questions as emergents are so fond of doing: What if the fight is legitimate and necessary for the greater good? How about the fact that we are called to judge rightly (but not hypocritically)? What if "hate" is just coded language for, "I don't like being told I am doing something wrong"?

152 -- relatedly, it is amazing that Medearis does not see that Jesus could just as readily be defined as "against" things if those who complained about it wanted to "spin" it that way. It also does not occur to him that the reason they do not is that they have never read the New Testament in whole -- and that his own edited Jesus does not aid in revealing that to them. It is also amazing that he thinks there is something unusual about defining a football team by who they have beaten. I am no sports fan, but I have seen enough to know that teams or players are often defined by who they have beaten, particularly if there was a great upset. To this day, for example, the 1981 defeat of the Dallas Cowboys by the San Francisco 49ers is regarded as a defining moment in the latter's history.

161-2 -- Medearis gives space to a non-Christian friend who recounts negative encounters with Christians, but who admits in the end that "most of my personal interactions with Christians have been positive." If this is so, then this is a clear anecdotal case of Medearis' "point to Jesus" by way of living example failing to work. His friend sees in Jesus: "The intrinsic value of all. Total forgiveness. Love. Kindness. Giving." Is that all? What about the condemning of the goats, the conditions of forgiveness by joining the new covenant and forsaking all else, the railing against the Pharisees, the demands for obedience?

175 -- it is perhaps understandable why Medearis is so confused about doctrine. He uses the analogy of an egg to explain the Trinity, but that illustrates tritheism.

180 -- in a rather contrived effort, Medearis suggests that Jesus did not use the "I'm the only way" tactic "typically" because "it's a door-closer." His desire not to offend is so great that he offers a three-page, convoluted answer as a way to avoid offending people by indicating that damnation is the fate of the unsaved -- even when that is the very question they directly ask.

In sum: There is nothing extraordinary here, at least not with respect the emergent church: Medearis is evasive, too prone to compromise for emotional reasons, and does little to further progress.