Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Dumbest Generation, Part 1

Alas: It is one of those days. I have to go in for a medical test late this morning, but ministry associate Nick Peters is on the spot for me with the first of a two-part series he and I will do on a great book titled The Dumbest Generation. Nick will offer his perspective today as an atypical member of that generation; I'll offer mine tomorrow as a member of an older generation.


I am currently 30. Based on what time of the year The Dumbest Generation was published, I was either 27 or 28 when it came out, which includes me as being a part of the Dumbest Generation, as no one under 30 is to be trusted. While I regret that is the way my generation is seen, unfortunately, Mark Bauerlein makes his point exceptionally well leaving me with the desire to change my generation.

I will state at the start that I do not believe I am your normal man of my age. I am diagnosed with Asperger’s and thus my information processes, particularly in the social area are not the same. I also happen to have a large library here at my house which can lead to my wonderful wife worrying about what will happen if I get any more books. Of course, there are ways I am like others. I do happen to have a number of video game consoles, I am on Facebook, I am regularly on the internet. For TV viewing however, I watch only House, Monk, and especially Smallville, and every now and then a DVD or movie at the theater.
However, there was a time I was not like this until apologetics came along and gave me fulfillment. I quickly became an avid reader. Before that, none of my subjects in school ever really challenged me. I was elected Most Studious of my class, but it was an odd win since I never studied. I’d just come home and play video games until it was time to go to bed. Of course, I did some reading, such as mysteries be it Hardy Boys or Mary Higgins Clark.

Now as one who does seek the greater things in life, I understand the writer’s concerns. I also understand them more recently having recently undergone debates with people on the blog site of a member of the Rational Response Squad. My opponents were Christ-mythers and a number of them made comments documented in the Screwballs section of TheologyWeb asking why we should read books when everything is on the internet?

Ah yes. The fear of books. That’s one of the places where it all starts.

Now in saying this, no one is saying everything on the internet is bad. After all, this review is on the net. My own blog site is on the net as is JPH’s web site. The problem is not the use of sources on the internet but the uncritical use of such sources and the lack of books.
Living in Charlotte, I recently heard two bookstores in the area were closing, and it was something that brought great sorrow to me to hear. How a society views knowledge and the quest for truth will show what really matters to it. I can’t help but think that we are moving closer and closer to A Brave New World. (That’s a book for those of you unfamiliar with the literature.)

Bauerlein deals with objections that maybe it’s lack of time or lack of income that are keeping people from reading. It’s neither. The bottom line while not specifically given seems to be that we are too hedonistic a society looking only for pleasure and not really caring about truth. Everyone lives for the moment.
Bauerlein makes a strong case that social approval is sought for. If anyone reads a book, it is because they need to be in the know as to what goes on in it to interact with their friends. In fact, Bauerlein says that this is what was going on when Harry Potter book sales were skyrocketing. The kids enjoyed the books, but they also gained social approval by reading the books. Enter phenomena such as texting and Facebook. Kids are more interested in doing this to be accepted by their peers than they are in interacting with those older than them to be accepted by them.

Early on in my apologetics career, I saw Ravi Zacharias as the man I wanted to be like. Today, the up and comer in a field would say that they are the one they want to be like. It doesn’t matter who is respectable in the field. What matters is the respect of friends.
The Internet has sadly helped to perpetuate what has gone on. I don’t see the Internet as a tool for evil in this. The Internet is a tool like any other tool that can be used for good or for evil. When used correctly, it is an excellent resource medium. There is also nothing wrong with the social interaction. I do think youth should be spending time with their friends as well and doing a number of social activities. However, there must be moderation in all things.

While on Facebook, I don’t make it all about me and rather enjoy getting into heated debates on the site.
Bauerlein recommends that our youth get educated. Learn what’s going on in the world around you and also what went on in the world before you. Even if you’re reading fiction, read good fiction. Find an area of interest and learn all you can about it. Know what the great thinkers thought. Naturally, none of us can be specialists in everything, but we should have at least a rudimentary knowledge.

A criticism of this book is that I don’t think Bauerlein goes into the cause of this enough or what to do about it. My stance is that it is not that the church abandoned thinking because the world did. I think the world abandoned thinking because the church did. The church should be the intellectual forefront in the world and when it abandons the areas of logic and truth, we can be sure that the world will follow.
It will also help to get past this view of religion that it is all about us. We often make the gospel about us instead of about God. Of course, it involves us, but it is not that God is participating in our story. We are in fact participating in His.

Much of the individualism in society today caters to a world where personal feelings are of utmost importance and what is true is of secondary importance. It doesn’t matter if what you said is true because what you said is offensive.
I hope that people today will restore our intellectual bearings. If you are not part of the dumbest generation, find someone who is and mentor them. If you are, educate yourself. No one really wants to be seen as dumb. The stakes are high. As Bauerlein says on the back of the book about the dumbest generation, “They may even be the generation that lost that great American heritage, forever.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reads for Fun: H. W. Brands' "Andrew Jackson"

Most people these days probably know nothing more about Andrew Jackson than that he’s the guy on the $20 bill, and he was President – and many probably don’t even know that. (They probably think the guy on the 20 is Michael Jackson.) I knew somewhat more than that, but thanks to Brands, I now know quite a bit more.

What hits me most is that Jackson (like Custer, and me!) had an unusually rich marriage; although he could be an ill-tempered cuss (he got into a lot of trouble with duels and near-duels, including one that left him with a bullet inside him that probably gave him lead poisoning), when it came to his beloved Rachel, he was a real softie. He had rescued her out of a difficult situation involving her first marriage; unfortunately, this raised unlikely charges of adultery, which would come back to haunt Jackson when he ran for President, as his opponents felt no compunction about dragging Rachel through the mud. Sadly, the stress wasn’t exactly helpful; though she got to see Andrew win the election, she died before he could take office.

Prior to his Presidency, Jackson’s best known accomplishment was his leadership at the Battle of New Orleans (conducted, ironically, after peace terms had been reached, because word had not reached there of the accord), where he gave a fair licking to British forces who had been previously so successful against the armies of Napoleon. But Jackson was active in a lot of other areas, too, including my native Florida.

As President, he was regarded as the people’s choice, the first President who wasn’t of a more regal bent. He put up with a lot of nonsense from the self-interested, but at the forefront for him always was the good of the Union, as he understood it.

So it is: Another fascinating tome in my readings on American history.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stark's Heir Splitting

Having retired to Religion at the Margins (RLM) to lick his wounds has evidently not cured Thom Stark of his JPHOCD. Although I am not mentioned directly, his latest essay there—an extended critique of Ernst Herzfeld – is clearly intended as a salve for the injuries Stark received at my hands of late (see other posts here, and at the Forge) on the “Son of Man” (SoM) title.

The bad news for Stark is that while Herzfeld indeed inspired my thesis concerning the SoM, his points are no longer necessary to it. In the next E-Block, I will be releasing the results of a survey of the hundreds of uses of enosh/enash in the OT, in which I find that indeed, Herzfeld’s understand of the word to refer to heirs to a throne, or persons of high station, is correct, and Stark’s “generic human being” reading (which he borrows uncritically from others) is merely farcical. While most of the uses of the word are equivocal, there are a fair number where Herzfeld’s reading (which I will hereafter term the “successor” meaning) is the only possible option, while none can exclusively be associated with the “generic” meaning.

Thus if Stark had in mind (as he no doubt did) to undermine my case by attacking Herzfeld, he wasted a great deal of time. As it is, he did anyway. Most of the analysis, as it turns out, has very little to do with anything I used Herzfeld for. Of some amusement is that Stark is compelled to begin his essay by admitting that “Herzfeld’s argument has had some continuing influence on scholarship over the decades.” Note that this is in contrast to his initial reply to me, in which he scoffed at Herzfeld’s work as “outdated”. After I found a couple of recent scholars who used his work, that claim quietly disappeared into Stark’s proto-retirement, as did his whole response. Now Stark has found many other authors who have cited Herzfeld, and naturally – as usual – he does not bother to admit his earlier error.

In any event, while Stark professes to offer a “sustained critical analysis” of Herzfeld on the SoM, we will skip all of it that has nothing to do with the single argument we used from him. This is not to say that Stark’s analysis is sound; it may be, but given his propensity towards incompetence in both scholarship and thought, we doubt that it is.

It takes a little while (Stark’s analysis totals 16 pages) before we get to anything that even touches upon our argument. Much space is spent on Herzfeld’s dating of Daniel; I have my own arguments on the matter, and did not need Herzfeld’s input. When we finally get to something relevant, it turns out to be a false dichotomy. The question is asked, in a subtitle, “Heir or Subordinate?”

Beg pardon? I had no idea these were mutually exclusive options. Stark should have asked himself whether anyone on my side thinks that the SoM is or is not subordinate to anyone. I say that yes, of course he is – to YHWH. This is in line with Trinitarian/Wisdom theology, in which Jesus is ontologically equal to the Father (thus, the SoM shares the honor of YHWH) but functionally subordinate to the Father as well (eg, he takes orders from the Father). I would not have used the parallel Herzfeld did to Darius and Xerxes; obviously, as mere humans, they would never provide a suitable analogy to a divine being and its hypostasis. In any event, Stark claims:

The problem with this argument should be plain enough: Darius relinquished his throne to Xerxes; the same cannot be said of Yahweh. Yahweh does not relinquish his throne to an heir; rather, Yahweh assigns sovereignty to a subordinate.

Yes, and – what? That’s fine with me, and fine with Trinitarian theology. I also do not maintain that the throne assumed by the SoM is actually YHWH’s throne, and I agree that the SoM “does not succeed Yahweh, but reigns alongside Yahweh, yet subordinate to him.” In this light, what I see is indeed comparable to what Paul reports in 1 Cor. 15:24: Christ reigns now, at the Father’s behest, but when his job is done, he’ll turn it all back over to the Father. This is a temporary grant – and I presume of the SoM’s Dan. 7 enthronement no differently.

Thus I agree that Jesus/SoM is not “heir” in the sense of succession (where the first party is permanently deposed). Rather, he is “heir” in the sense that responsibility has been passed on to him, even if for a time. Of course, no human analogy could ever work here, since it would not be possible for God to simply abdicate and retire. To that extent, the analogy to Darius and Xerxes could never work. The wonder here is that Stark thinks any of this has any bearing on a word I have said. (Either that, or the wounds inflicted on him by my use of Herzfeld are such that he now feels compelled to jump up and down on that worthy’s grave. But we digress.)

Thus we can skip further points which, eg, use the Ba’al cycle to prove this same point I never disagree with (I actually see Dan. 7 as a sort of “better than you” intended to mock and parody such accounts as the Ba’al cycle), and further attempt to argue that the SoM is not a replacement for YHWH. No one here ever said otherwise, and apparently, sound Trinitarianism isn’t taught at the Emmanuel School of Religion. We return to the text where “Linguistic Arguments” are addressed, and here, we seek something on the order of a detailed analysis showing that uses of enash/enosh are 1) NOT compatible with the “successor” meaning and/or are 2) ONLY compatible with a “generic” meaning. Unfortunately, Stark is not up to the rigor of this sort of critical argumentation; we are assured that the word is “frequently” used in a generic sense, but we are not given an actual quote of the texts in which this is said to be the case, much less an analysis. Citations are offered bare and are apparently merely lifted uncritically from Fitzmyer’s Lukan commentary, where they are also not quoted. It is thus clear that Stark has done no serious research here to determine answer critical questions about the meaning of enash/enosh, or to rebut our points about its meaning. (I will endeavor to produce the quotes at a later date and perform the analysis that Stark here lacks.)

Further on, we need not engage responses to Herzfeld on Arabic, Late Persian, and other uses. Aside from some points regarding Old Babylonian, I did not consider these useful or persuasive in my own reading of Herzfeld; the time Stark spent on this treading on Herzfeld’s grave, he should have spent providing actual quotes and analysis of the Aramaic usages.

Additionally, since I have now confirmed my thesis completely apart from Herzfeld, with a depth analysis of OT uses, it does not matter at all if Herzfeld’s case based on other languages, regarding the linguistic origins of enosh/enash, is not built well enough for Stark’s tastes. However, we will engage a few relevant points even so, those we consider strongest.

(Before that, it is useful to point out [as we have before] that Stark’s appeals to alleged “synonymous parallelisms” [in Psalm 8.4 and 144.3, and so on] is a repeat of an error for which we tagged him in the earlier discussion: Assuming that parallelism in structure automatically indicates parallelism in semantic content. )

It is said:

[Herzfeld] notes that at times in Akkadian, the heir to the throne is referred to as mār šarri (“king’s son”), or mār šarri rabū (“great son-of-the-king”), as a stand in for apal šarri (“king’s heir”). Herzfeld concludes, “Both elements of bar enāšh have beside their general a more intense meaning which together gives ‘heir of a privileged class,’ or ‘of the royal house,’ not ‘individual of genus homo.’”

The rather strained answer that is given is (Hebrew characters removed):

But problematic for Herzfeld’s argument is that Dan 7.13 reads “son of man”, not “son of the king”. We note that Herzfeld has not established that Hebrew or Aramaic enash ever takes the special meaning “royalty.”

That’s not quite the argument, though. It takes that special meaning when the “father” of the “son” is royalty. If the “father” is a first class citizen, then semantically, it acquires the meaning of “son of a first class citizen”. Broadly, enosh/enash would thus be said to broadly connote certain upper classes of people; just as the English word “royalty” can connote a king, queen, prince, or princess – which one exactly being determined by further context. Here, since we have a scene in Dan. 7 with an enthronement, it stands to reason that enash semantically connotes a king – and the only king present is YHWH. Of course, one might invent some excuse such as, “the SoM was meant to be referred there to King Dork of Moab, not King YHWH” but that would be a hard argument to substantiate apart from special pleading.

Said, however, to be “ultimately devastating for Herzfeld’s thesis” is the lack of a definite article for bar enash – in essence, a “the” to make it a titular construction. In short, it is not to be read as “the son of man” but rather as “[one] like a son of man”.

By now you may be wondering what the point here is. The answer is that there isn’t one. Neither I nor Herzfeld need for it to read “THE son of man”. “[One] like a son of man” is just fine. We do not need to have this be “a reference to a specific heir,” because as noted above, there aren’t any more viable candidates for who is the heir of whom.

Additionally, my own thesis has no problem with the figure of Dan. 7 being “construed as an anthropomorphic being.” At this time and stage, the incarnation of Jesus is far in the future; he possesses no human body. We also hardly envision YHWH offering or sitting upon a hard, literal throne, seat cushions and all. In such a wonderland, dreamlike scenario as Daniel’s vision, we very much expect such a figure to be said to be “like” an heir to royalty in the human sense. As we note in the comparison to Darius and Xerxes, there is no adequate human analogue to this situation in the divine world.

That said, an heir to a throne – an enash on earth – would of course be in human form the same way it would be if enash meant “generic human being.” The telling point here is that someone on the way to be honored with a seat on a throne is not going to appear to be some sort of “generic human being,” after the manner of the computer-morphed image of Betty Crocker composed of the synthesis of the likenesses of many women. Rather, one who assumes a throne – in this society where honor and appearance was especially important – will look, and dress the part as suitable. It makes far more sense, then, for “[one] like a son of man” to reflect the idea that the SoM came as one dressed for his royal coronation, carrying himself regally. To suppose that the point was to say, “some guy came to the throne who looked like Joe Shmoe” is to miss the point – and make a farce of the social mores in effect.

In the end, while Stark may (or may not) have found some weaknesses in Herzfeld, he has done nothing to rebut our own case, which used the data more selectively and critically. If he does wish to do better, he will need first of all to understand the argument better: Again, no one says that the SoM “replaces” or “succeeds” the high god in any permanent sense; and we agree that Jesus is a second, and (functionally) subordinate power in heaven.

However, given Stark’s record, it does not appear he will ever graduate away from the fundamentalist mindset he once wore like a badge. Old fundamentalists never die – they just change hats and ride off into solid walls in the other direction.


Added 12/2/2010 in response to comments by Stark on his Facebook page:

.... he says I am in error about synonymous parallelism. But note that I pointed out that Herzfeld himself acknowledges that 'nsh is parallel with 'dm in the texts cited and is synonymous (Herzfeld uses the word synonymous)....

That's nice. It's still the same mistake in logic regardless of whether Stark himself did it or he borrowed the error from Herzfeld. But I know from several instances how poor a reader Stark is, so I'll retain doubts that he's fully and accurately representing and understanding Herzfeld's case. I did read Herzfeld quite a few years ago, but even if Stark is right in his representation re the Psalms passages, it remains that Herzfeld doesn't maintain a "generic" meaning for the critical Daniel passages -- and that my survey of enash shows that it can't mean only "generic human being."

Re my point that someone on the way to be honored with a seat on a throne is not going to appear to be some sort of "generic human being" it is said:

I don't think he gets the point. The point is that the figure comes in the appearance of a human being (as contrasted with the beasts, who are not anthropomorphic). Why wouldn't someone being honored with a throne look like a human? This makes no sense.

I get the point very well and I am not saying, as Stark supposes, that "generic human being" means "pauper" (which is not the word I used, so that Stark is, as usual, erecting straw arguments and misrepresenting positions). Rather, I am saying that a description of a mere human being (Joe Shmoe) approaching a throne completely ignores the stratified nature of this social setting. Everyday human beings didn't get to approach or sit on thrones. Enash as a regal human captures the proper essence of someone worthy approaching the throne. Enash as a mere human doesn't, and would not at all suit the honor component of the situation.

Another point: he says that Herzfeld's thesis allows for the son of man to be indefinite and "one like" a son of man. Actually, Herzfeld explicitly denies that the figure is anthropomorphic, but does so, as I point out, because he ignores the kaph (as/like).

That's nice. That's a point I diverge from Herzfeld on, if Stark is accurate here, which is why I said "my own thesis". I did not say "Herzfeld's thesis" so Stark is once again misrepresenting a position. ("Like" by the way does not demand an anthropomorphism by itself, which is the point Stark is missing in what I say.)

Finally, I never wore fundamentalism as a badge. I was a fundamentalist for only a brief period, and it didn't take.

A badge worn briefly is still a badge.
Either way it is clear that Stark has never gotten rid of fundamentalist ways of thinking.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach

Since I have a dental appointment today, I'm handing the reins over to ministry associate Nick Peters for a review of Mike Licona's new book on the Resurrection. I might have a closer look at this book myself later; in the meantime, here's Nick's take.


Gary Habermas has for years been the name in evangelical Christianity on defending the Resurrection. His prize student in this field has been Mike Licona. Together, they wrote The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus. I happen to know Mike Licona very well and I know that whatever he does, he does seriously. I also know that he is one who has dealt with doubt on many topics so he wants to make sure he’s right. What would it be like then if he alone wrote a book to demonstrate how he went about verifying the Resurrection of Jesus?

I no longer have to wonder that. He has released such a book and it is a gold mine of information. Licona has changed the face of studies in the Resurrection of Jesus with this book. From now on, any scholar who wishes to say that Jesus did not rise from the dead, will have to address the content and the methodology that is put forward in this book.

I say content and methodology because Licona deals with both of them. The first third of the book nearly is spend on methodology alone. What is history? What does it mean to do history? How does one do history? This is not just in fields of religious studies but information that could apply to any area of study.

I find this part incredibly important due to people not knowing how to do history. It’s not just looking at the data and saying, “Well that sounds true.” It involves looking at a list of criteria and knowing the best way to evaluate the content of your sources and knowing which sources are ones that are worth using. Do we want to use the testimony of Paul, or do we want to use Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” Both of them testify of the Resurrection as a historical fact, but one is more relevant.

Can we even know history? Postmodernism raises up a challenge. Can it be dealt with? Yes, it can be. Licona deals with that position as well citing a number of postmodern historians. There can be little doubt that Licona has done his homework which should be no surprise since the book is based on his dissertation. (Naturally, there are some updates.)

Licona also addresses the question of miracles in the second chapter and whether history can answer the question of if a miracle can take place. Licona is right in saying that to draw inferences from the miracle is to do theology. We can demonstrate that Christ rose from the dead and likely it was a supernatural agent, but when it comes to the nature of that agent, then we are doing theology.

Do you want to answer Hume? Do you want to answer Ehrman? Licona deals with each of them. Licona warns us following what he said in the first chapter that we need to be aware of our horizons. What presuppositions are we bringing to the events that we are studying? Are Christians too often letting their theological bias color the way they interpret the evidence? Are atheists letting their atheistic ideology color the way they interpret the evidence?

Indeed, this is an important point and the objections are usually quite weak. For instance, what difference does science really make? Are we to say that we don’t believe in resurrections because we live in an age of science? Could the one who says this please show me when it was that science discovered that dead men don’t naturally come back to life? The reason people buried Jesus is because he was dead and they knew the dead don’t naturally come back to life. (Of course, many believed God would raise the dead, but that’s a far cry from saying they naturally came back to life. They knew it was a miracle because they at least had a rudimentary understanding of the universe.)

When it comes to content with Jesus starting at chapter three, Licona addresses the major controversies and sources. He looks over each and places them on a scale that he has earlier stated referring to how reliable the source is and the information that we can get from the source. Of course, atheists thinking scientifically need to realize that saying “probable” is not the same as it is in scientific circles. History cannot confirm its hypotheses the way science can. To say something is probable is to imply that there is really no evidence to the contrary and thus no reason to question it.

Licona documents all his claims and the footnotes will be especially helpful. There are even two pages where the footnotes are of immense value. In one, he has a list of statements by scholarship on the Christ-myth hypothesis. (One could argue that a footnote would be too much for that idea, but when one meets those regularly who espouse such an idea, it is helpful.) The other is a list of scholars stating the date they believe the creed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 goes to.

Finally, when it comes to the Resurrection, Licona not only gives his hypothesis that Christ did indeed rise, but deals with others such as Vermes, Ludemann, Goulder, Crossan, and Craffert. Licona is quite generous with each one, wanting to represent them as best he can and ably deals with where they are deficient while granting the areas where they are sufficient.

When he deals with his own view, he presents it under the exact same categories that he has presented prior views under and works out how well the Resurrection hypothesis works. Of course, some readers could always claim bias on his part, but now the claim will not be enough. They will actually need to interact with the material. There can be no doubt that Licona knows it well.

As a bonus, the end of the book has a response to Dale Allison and his views on the Resurrection of Jesus. Readers familiar with Allison will appreciate this, though it will take awhile to get to as overall, when it comes to content, the book has 641 pages of information. As I carried this book with me, a number of people thought it was comparable to a dictionary.

A criticism of the work, however, is that Licona does not interact with the idea of honor and shame. Of course, many today aren’t really looking at the social sciences, although in the look at Craffert’s hypothesis, Craffert does refer to Malina and Pilch. Still, mentioning such aspects as the shame of crucifixion and how no one would preach a resurrected victim of crucifixion unless they really believed it was historical and could not be denied played an important factor.

Despite that, what Licona has is excellent and if someone wants to be a serious student of the doctrine of the Resurrection, they need to get and be familiar with this important volume. I do believe it has changed the face of Resurrection studies from here on out.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Vanity Fare

When Thom Stark “retired” from blogging, he fled to the safe haven of a certain locale called Religion at the Margins, which I perceive to be a sort of dumping ground for those whose spirituality is rooted primarily in emotional reaction and whose methodology generally involves flagrant disregard for personal failures in epistemology, provided it personally satisfies the user. One such benighted soul there present is a certain Matthew Worsfold, who is said to be a “student of biblical and theological studies.” Worsfold alludes to Paul’s dictum (though oddly, Paul is not mentioned until much later in the entry) that without the Resurrection, the faith of the Christian is in vain. His contention is that this “seems like a very futile faith,” for:

As if the process of religious devotion, the true and real transformation that takes place in the liturgy, or the non-liturgical liturgy, the ameliorative effects of the moral life, the years of faithfulness, are of no value.

Yes, they are – so what?

I referred to personal failures in epistemology. This is one. Worsfold goes on and on and on about how no, faith without Jesus rising is NOT in vain, because, well…he says so. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s correct him a bit on his abuses of Paul.

He says that for such as accept Paul’s dictum, “human life has no intrinsic value. Meaning is contingent on whether or not I can check each dogma off of my list when I get to heaven. Or whether my self-sacrifice was warranted by eternal accolades.”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like what I think, or what Paul was saying either. Maybe there’s a former fundamentalist in the house doing the exegesis after returning from an extended guilt trip?

Human life has no intrinsic value without the Resurrection? That’s the closest one to correct, but it’s more like this: YHWH did assign humans value; the pagan gods, which were the only alternative Paul could have in mind for his readers, didn’t. In our own day, this principle can be extended into the premise that atheism takes away the intrinsic value of humans and reduces us to merely talking mudbots worth no more than the sack of manure you buy at Home Depot.

Of course, this does not stop one from arbitrarily assigning “value” to humans just because “we say so,” or doing as Worsfold does and hailing the emotional reactions one gets from hearing about nice things done to people. But epistemically, that’s just a farce. By the religions of Dawkins and Singer, those emotional satisfactions are little more than isolated episodes of brain flatulence, arrived at by eons of natural selection which conditioned you to react that way.

Checking off dogmas: No, nowhere near, sorry. Paul’s issue here rather is that the Resurrection vindicated Jesus by offering a correction to the powers that be that determined him worthy of crucifixion. Shame reversed, honor imputed. By that means, God endorsed Jesus as the broker of a new covenant between God and man. And if that brokerage does not exist – then once again, the only alternative is the pagan gods who used humans as playthings, so you may as well go off and have fun. So the issue here isn’t “dogma”. It’s historical fact. (Though of course, “dogma” is the label that the theologically inept will frequently apply to whatever theological ideas they find dissatisfactory.)

Warranted by eternal accolades: Not sure where this comes from. I have a suspicion that it owes more to Osteen than to an apostle. Of course, those who joined the covenant were promised rewards, but nowhere is this said to provide a basis for “meaning” and it is never presented in evangelism as a reason for conversion. It’s just part of the covenant package.

All that aside, where and how does Worsfold get “meaning” and “value” assigned then? We’re treated to a rattling-off of all sorts of nice things people can do for each other, and by no means are we dissuading such acts at all. However, in the end, “because I say so” is all Worsfold offers to explain where and how “meaning” comes of such things. He apparently gets an emotional high out of giving to charity. Yes, and so what? If there is no god, it’ll all be meaningless prattle when the universe dies; one sackload of dirt servicing another for no other purpose than to marginally and temporarily reverse certain meaningless chemical phenomena (such as pain and hunger) so that certain sacks of dirt can put off their eventual slide into non-existence for a few more minutes. That sack of dirt may have even hindered the evolution of humanity in the future by helping this other sack of dirt in the present.

Or, in Paul’s day, for example, if Zeus is actually in charge all this time, at worst he’ll have a good laugh at your feeble efforts before he turns into a swan and rapes your daughter. At best, you’ll end up with something like Plato’s Logos, or treated to eternity in Asphodel (which is so boring that it makes a party in the here and now, as Paul says, look like a good idea), or perhaps even Elysium if you were very lucky (slim chance there, though).

Neither view, though, does much to encourage charity to those for whom a rational epistemology matters. As that great philosopher Al Yankovic once put it, in terms much more eloquent, logical, and wise than Worsfold offers:

I guess you know the Earth is gonna crash into the sun
But that's no reason why we shouldn't have a little fun
So if you think it's scary, if it's more than you can take
Just blow out the candles and have a piece of cake

Worsfold’s constant refrain that there is “meaning” in this or that act amounts to little more than having cake in this context. Simply claiming that there is “nothing vain” in life does not make it so; it is merely a mantra chanted to keep one from realizing or confronting the fact that one hasn’t made an actual argument to the contrary.

Worsfold seems particularly disgruntled by the idea that some join up in the covenant for the sake of rewards. I’ve actually met very few such people (perhaps because a theology of rewards is so infrequently taught well, if at all, in modern churches) but there is a similar idea I have encountered, that of joining up for the sake of getting “fire insurance.” Well, there’s good news for the disgruntled: Those who join with such motives in mind generally are also the ones who also end up scrubbing the toilets in New Jerusalem (see thematically-related post on the Forge here). In reality, works should be the natural result of faith – as natural as a water droplet falling from a leaf. (More on this subject here.) The one who joins up for the rewards is precisely the one, under this system, who won’t end up with them.

But back finally to Worsfold, who we left in the corner, knees huddled to chest, as he repeats to himself, “Nothing vain…nothing vain….nothing vain…” Perhaps that will be enough to keep him going, but for those who place rationality above delusion, inevitably questions will arise as to why we’re bothering, and the refrain is no more useful than that of the televangelist who responds to objections by mumbling, "Just have faith, just have faith, just have faith."

Of course, the righteous Worsfolds of this world will call us all sorts of nasty names and say we’re so inhuman for even demanding an epistemology in the first place. It was atheist Michael Shermer who was like this, as I recall, acting outraged when he asked debate opponents if they really would be willing to kill him if God didn’t exist. But as a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, when Shermer gets outraged like that, he is borrowing his tools from the Christian’s toolbox, and also appealing to the sensibilities of those who do the same. If he only used his own toolbox, his outrage would have no rational basis – it’d just be a matter of whether he or we can beat out natural selection to decide who gets the upper hand.

It is not clear where Worsfold stands in these terms; he refuses to tell us. It is telling, though, that the posting ends from Worsfold not with any actual arguments for why there is “nothing vain” in an existence where Jesus was not raised, but rather, an admonition to share in his epistemic fantasy: “I may or may not believe in the resurrection of the dead. I’m not telling you. But, if Christ has not been raised, then let us live as if it were so.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, like Shermer, Worsfold knows that with this view, he doesn’t have the right tools in his toolbox – so he has to borrow from someone else’s.

Funny thing – it’s usually people on my side of the fence who are said to be cognitively dissonant like that.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Resurrection Debunked in 8 Easy Steps: Hub Post

This is just one of my usual hub posts for a series, for anyone who wants a convenient single link.

Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Looking ahead for the holiday weekend -- you can expect the Ticker (and the Forge) to be off for the holiday weekend barring anything unusual...back Monday. Tuesday will be a special book review by ministry associate Nick Peters, and Wednesday will be a special "ceremonial" post for the holiday.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Resurrection Debunked in Eight Easy Steps? Part 4

We now present edited commentary from Tophet on points 5-8.

Reports that Jesus’ disciples were martyred prove nothing.

Legal experts like Simon Greenleaf have composed detailed arguments based on the honesty and motives of the apostles. As he puts it, “they are entitled to the benefit of the general course of human experience, that men ordinarily speak the truth, when they have no prevailing motive or inducement to the contrary.” Moreover, one cannot deny that martyrdom is a heavy price to pay which requires an explanation of motive.

Martyrdom does not “prove nothing” – it proves something, and the critic needs to show what that something is.

Regarding Joseph Smith, it is said that he was “probably a charlatan.” Note people alive at the time cited proof that Smith was indeed a charlatan. The same cannot be said of the evangelists, so the parallel cannot hold closely.

Claims that this or that individual couldn’t possibly have hallucinated are nonsense.

To make a statement like this requires either expertise in the field of psychology, or consultation with such experts. Hallquist is definitely not of the former, and this simple statement of course offers no evidence of the latter. Speculation of hallucination is never enough to make the case.

Even if there were several people in Paul’s day who would have claimed to have all seen the risen Jesus at the same time, their testimony might not have stood up to scrutiny.

Here, it would merely be reiterated that sheer speculation such as this is not evidence – one must at least form a hypothesis upon which to rest a speculation (eg, put together evidence and piece it together to reach a reasonable conclusion). Elements like the testimony of disciples, the empty tomb, Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker, lack of contrary testimony, and so on much be explained. Hallquist’s approach is scattershot and piecemeal, which makes it all the less effective as he must contrive a different explanation for each phenomenon.

That’s it.

So it is. So what do we know about Hallquist? What credibility does he have?

He has a degree in philosophy. He is not an authority in any other field.

He fails to apply the standards of jurisprudence in the testimony of the evangelists.

He is not an authority in the analysis of legal-historical evidence.

He argues from ignorance, from assertion, and from speculation, and almost never relies on evidence.

Hallquist, in his own words, is "uncredible."

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Resurrection Debunked in Eight Easy Steps? Part 3

Longtime reader “Tophet” sent me some interesting notes from the perspective of legal apologetics that I’d like to edit and offer as a further discussion point on Hallquist’s 8-step argument. Tophet’s special interest is in legal apologetics, and his observations relates to jurisprudence (the branch of science that examines the veracity of human testimony, and the presentation of facts and prood, as part of the study of law). For today, we’ll share Tophet’s observations on the first four points. (I’ll also have a note in close answering a reader query.)

There is no evidence for the resurrection outside the Bible.

Yes, there is. It's called the empty tomb. We can also added the existence of the Christian movement as a whole (which is part of my TIF thesis). Perhaps if this means, “there is no literary evidence” it is correct (and also, if it expands “Bible” to mean also “Christian testimony,” eg, the church fathers).

Of course, the Skeptic will have alternate explanations for these things, but properly speaking, they are called into court as “evidence” for the Resurrection in any case made for it. The critic must also deal with the fact that hostile parties do not testify against the Resurrection: By this summary point, “there is no evidence against the Resurrection in any text” is just as strong an assertion.

There is little evidence that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or based directly on eyewitness accounts.

The “eyewitness” appeal has an inherent self-refutation: The critic is not an eyewitness to the composition of the Gospels and is therefore not in a position to dictate what happened 2000 years ago. The only alternative is to loosen the stringent demand for “eyewitness” testimony as the only valid form of testimony.

Relatedly, the critic here is using the word “anonymous” to describe the Gospels. Since the authors are named on the documents, and by others, the word they really want is “pseudonymous”.

This means that the Gospels can’t be trusted as evidence for miracles.

By the standard of law, however, guilt must be proven and innocence presumed; without testimony or evidence to the contrary, those who claim the miracles can be trusted. The first two points were of course an effort to prove guilt, as it were.

It is also said that “the stories could just be legends.” But allegation is not proof. The critic can cite no one, alive at the time, who claimed the evangelists reported legends.

One of Paul’s letters provides evidence that a number of people claimed Jesus had appeared to them after his death. But this isn’t proof of a miracle.

But again, what this requires to move beyond bombast is evidence of falsity. None is presented in this summary point. All that is presented is an analogy to the Mormon church which tries to impose upon the presumed bias of the Christian against Mormons.

Other points that could be developed: The alleged miracles (or the golden plates?) were not done in the presence of hostile eyewitnesses, as in the case of the miracles performed by Christ and His apostles. The Book of Mormon alsofails the Ancient Documents Rule and is therefore unacceptable as evidence in a court of law.

We’ll offer reflections from Tophet on points 5-8 tomorrow, but I wanted to close with an answer to a reader inquiry. It was noted that I had said in an earlier post here:

In the case of the Resurrection, it is not hard to see why it would not be reported by non-interested parties. A historian like Tacitus, with his prejudices against Jews and Christians, upon hearing the story would dismiss it as superstitious nonsense – with no further investigation warranted. Note that this would be his reaction whether the Resurrection had truly occurred or not. The same could be said of other potential witnesses whose works are left to us, like Lucian.

However, in my article on Tacitus’ testimony to the existence of Jesus, I said:

First, a likely cause for investigation erupted right in Tacitus' backyard, so to speak, in Rome c. 95 A.D. Emperor Domitian's niece Domatilla, and her husband Favius Clemens, were accused of "atheism," related to "being carried away into Jewish customs." Judaism of course was a recognized religion, so it is quite likely that the "Jewish custom" referred to is Christianity [Benk.PagRo, 15-16] . Here, then, was a perfect motive for Tacitus to investigate the movement historically: Some of Rome's highest-placed people seem to have joined the movement.

I know of certain shallow atheists who will claim this is contradictory, but it needs to be kept in mind that this is a matter of scale. In the latter instance I am only talking about Tacitus investigating enough to satisfy honor, so to speak – to be sure that Jesus existed, led a movement, and was executed. There is nothing in these basics that would offend his sensibilities as a Roman, in contrast to the Resurrection.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Resurrection Debunked in Eight Easy Steps? Part 2

Before we do Part 2 of this evaluation, I will note that a regular reader has offered his own commentary which will allow us to turn this into a hubbed series over the next 2-3 days. For now, here are my comments on points 5-8, continuing from yesterday.

Reports that Jesus’ disciples were martyred prove nothing.

To some extent I have agreed with this – this is an argument in need of more development, which one reason why I put together the Impossible Faith thesis. I never use the martyrdoms of the disciples in my arguments, though I am also hardly discounting them entirely.

Claims that this or that individual couldn’t possibly have hallucinated are nonsense.

Indeed? I have a great deal of material on this subject in Defending the Resurrection, and can tell you that it is nonsense – all the possible suggestions for why and how the disciples would hallucinate fail. The most powerful I offer is that they were not expecting Jesus to be resurrected, but that his body would ascend into heaven – and that if they did see what they thought looked like Jesus again, they would assume it was his guardian angel.

Dr. Jonathan Kendall also provided a detailed look at this subject in DTR.

Even if there were several people in Paul’s day who would have claimed to have all seen the risen Jesus at the same time, their testimony might not have stood up to scrutiny.

“Might not have” isn’t any sort of argument; if it is, it is just as well for us to say, “yes, it would have” and rest our case. If the critic tries to argue by analogy, as here:

There have been cases where a group of children have claimed to see the Virgin Mary, and been taken seriously by adults who should have known better. In many of these cases, the children were questioned individually and their descriptions of what they saw didn’t match, suggesting deception or delusion.

…then all I have to do is provide examples of people who did stand up to scrutiny when testifying – and it does not have to be of a supernatural event, because the issue here is not the nature of the event witnessed, but whether people can stand under scrutiny when testifying. Obviously there are thousands of court cases every week where people succeed, or fail, in standing up under scrutiny. This is a non-argument.

That’s it.

That’s it? No. As promised, we’ll bring Hallquist’s name into the proceedings again. He recommends that people buy his book (a la John Loftus) for more details. I’m sure there are more details, but given Hallquist’s history, the chance of those details offering substance is marginal.

I have found that Hallquist is routinely unable to grasp the fundamentals of arguments presented to him, and is particularly weak when it comes to application. Indeed it is worse than that. To this day, Hallquist still uses the title “The Uncredible Hallq” for his blog. Yet as one reader pointed out:

…the moniker "UncredibleHallq"…actually means not credible (trustworthy). He probably got it confused with uncredulous. Rather ironic, given how he accepts uncredible sources such as Brian Flemming credulously.

Moral of the story: consult a dictionary before choosing a screenname...

On the other hand…perhaps we could say it is the right name?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Resurrection Debunked in Eight Easy Steps? Part 1

A recent effort by Skeptic Chris Hallquist proposes to have debunked the Resurrection as provable by historical evidence in 8 simple points (actually, 7, since point 8 is merely a prop for Hallquist’s book). This effort has in turn been lauded by the likes of John Loftus.

It will come as no surprise that we are little impressed by this effort, which we indeed regard as exceptionally simple. However, the arguments are hardly unique to Hallquist, who is merely uncritically following older critics, and his name will not be mentioned again in this series until the very end. Over the next two days we will be discussing these eight points and remarking on the burden necessary to be filled to validate them.

There is no evidence for the Resurrection outside the Bible.

Though this mantra has been repeated frequently, it rests upon a yet to be validated presumption. In essence, it draws a line around referring sources to an event, and declares that for the event to have validation, it must be referred to by other sources than these – which are in the main, what we would call interested parties.

Yet why should this be accorded any respect as an argument? It is manifest that interested parties will always report an event in which they are interested. It is also manifest that non-interested parties frequently will not report events in which they are not interested, for various reasons.

Finally, it is frequently the case that interested parties represent our only source of information on certain events, yet it is not acceptable to dismiss them merely on this basis. Elements of bias leading to distortion or exaggeration may be proven by argument, but not merely assumed without further discussion, as presented in this simple explanation.

In the case of the Resurrection, it is not hard to see why it would not be reported by non-interested parties. A historian like Tacitus, with his prejudices against Jews and Christians, upon hearing the story would dismiss it as superstitious nonsense – with no further investigation warranted. Note that this would be his reaction whether the Resurrection had truly occurred or not. The same could be said of other potential witnesses whose works are left to us, like Lucian.

How about Josephus, then? It can be argued that he does mention the Resurrection as a belief of Christians, in portions of his text that are not regarded as interpolations. But let us assume that this is merely fanciful and that he did not even mention it to that extent. Josephus was writing for his Flavian patrons, and was manifestly supporting the idea of Vespasian as the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. Even if he believed in the Resurrection, it would likely have cost him his head (or at least his job) to report it.

There’s also the matter of later church writers. It’s not clear where these would be placed in the argument. I have seen some argue that they too would be off limits as evidence, since they are by interested parties. If that is so, then we have an argument with a Catch-22: Any person like a Tacitus who did report that the Resurrection occurred would be likely to also become a Christian – and therefore be regarded as off limits as well.

So in essence, the demand of this argument would be for a source that a) reports that the Resurrection happened, but b) didn’t become a Christian because of it. And that’s merely an arbitrary raising of the bar of evidence.

In reality, there is no rule of evidence that says that interested party testimony is off limits and insufficient to establish a fact, merely because it is by an interested party. The argument is an arbitrary one and deserves no credence.

There is little evidence that the NT accounts are written by eyewitnesses, or based on eyewitness accounts.

This, too, is a frequently repeated mantra, and one I have engaged at some length, especially in Trusting the New Testament. I have challenged Skeptics and others over the years repeatedly to produce a consistent and workable epistemology for deciding who the author of an ancient document is. Specifically, I have frequently used the Annals of Tacitus as an example: That work is universally (save for some fringe thinkers) regarded as Tacitus’ authentic work. Yet the evidence for it is much less than it is for any one of the Gospels.

It is insufficient to merely appeal to reputed scholarly consensus. I have found that few or no scholars who report on this matter actually do any more than repeat the mantra themselves and do no original investigation; much less do they put together a consistent epistemology for deciding authorship of a work and apply it across the board.

The above two reasons mean that the Gospels can’t be trusted for reports of miracles.

As this third argument is dependent on the first two, we need not comment further.

The 1 Cor. 15 creed doesn’t prove that the Resurrection happened.

I know of no one who says this as it stands, though I imagine some simpler apologist may do so. However, in terms of why this argument is valid, two major points are made.

But again, would you accept similar evidence in favor of another religion’s miracles? The Mormon church has statements signed by several people attesting to miracles that are supposed to confirm the truth of the Book of the Mormon, but you probably won’t convert to Mormonism based on that.

It is not clear what the reference here is to, and no specific source is cited. It sounds like it refers to the testimony of several witnesses to have seen the golden plates; if so, it is obviously confused. But let’s discuss that under the presumption that it means exactly what it says.

Would I reject such claims by Mormons? Yes, I would. But I would do so for reasons external to these witnesses, such as: The inability to reconcile Book of Mormon events with New World archaeology. The fraudulent nature of the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith’s inability to interpret the Bible correctly.

If all this were not the case, then yes, I would indeed place the testimony of these witnesses in evidence – the same way as 1 Cor. 15. It would certainly never be my sole evidence (which again, is an argument no one I know of actually makes). The charge of inconsistency is worthy as a due caution but does not in any way devalue the evidence itself.

Also, Paul doesn’t tell us how he knows about all these appearances, so we can’t be confident his report is accurate.

Yes, Paul does tell us how he knows: He uses the language of community tradition handed down from authoritative sources such as himself who were eyewitnesses. The material of 1 Cor. 15 is represented as a summation of what is accepted by the community at large, which would include those named, who would self-evidently be the ultimate sources for the testimony, since they are also members of the same community.

We will return tomorrow with comments on the remainder.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Reflective Review: Brian McLaren's "Secret Message of Jesus," Part 2

I had said we’d have a 4 part series on SMJ, but after reading the rest of it over the weekend, it seems my assessment was premature. Two posts will do the job. Why?

It’s one of two reasons: Either Brian McLaren has become a reformed character, or, since this book was written for Thomas Nelson, a more conservative publisher, he was more careful to keep his prose palatable.

Given that emergents have done stuff like it before, I’m voting for “more careful.”

Yes, McLaren makes more than a few mistakes in the rest of SMJ, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t find outside of, say, something by Charles Stanley or Chuck Swindoll. For example:

58: McLaren believes that Jesus told people not to tell of their healings as part of a “strategy of understatement” or maybe to keep crowds from showing up. Not quite: It had to do with the balance of honor (see here).

67: McLaren buys into a portrait of Pilate as a weak vacillator (see relevant section here).

But this is, again, all relatively minor stuff. Most of SMJ is actually pretty decent, especially as a manifesto to exhort the Christian to action and away from bad stewardship. Perhaps the most serious misgiving I have (aside from exegetical miscues over the Sermon on the Mount) is Ch. 16, where McLaren suggest various ways to better express the notion of the “kingdom of God” to modern people who don’t like authoritarian schemes. This isn’t uniquely emergent; even Rick Warren has done something like this with his recommendation that God be read out as a modern CEO. In the end, though, neither that nor the sort of ideas McLaren proposes (eg, “the dream of God,” “the party of God”) will honestly reflect what the texts tells us, and in the end, will merely mislead potential converts. Misrepresentation isn’t a good evangelism tool, ever. We should always make an effort to “translate” concepts into modern terms, yes. But not alter them such that they do not reflect the intent of the text.

All that said, of course, I would never recommend SMJ or any work of McLaren for any purpose. It can be had much better from others with better grasps on the text (even Chuck Colson, for example). It’s just nice to know that for once, there’s no need to pinion McLaren for unusual amounts of error – just the usual amounts we find everywhere else!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Reflective Review: Brian McLaren's "Secret Message of Jesus," Part 1

This will be a 4 part series (including a final posting for a hub) in which we examine this tantalizingly-titled work (abbreviation: SMJ) by the acknowledged leading thinker in the emergent church. Conveniently, the book is arranged in three parts, allowing us one per posting, though the parts get progressively longer as we proceed, meaning the postings will as well.

The subtitle is, “Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything” and while I assume the publisher, not McLaren, chose this for marketing purposes, Part 1 at least doesn’t deliver for the informed reader. There is also very little that could be regarded as problematic as Part 1 mostly sets themes for later rather than making arguments.

McLaren asks why so many people would have been disappointed to find out that the version of Jesus found in The DaVinci Code was inaccurate, and his answer is that the “church’s conventional wisdom of Jesus may not do him justice”[xiv] . I can buy that. The groups he names (“religious institutions, charismatic televangelists,” etc) do frequently project a false image.

On the other hand, as I have said, McLaren is frequently someone with the right problem and the wrong solution. He proposes in SMJ to revisit the stories of Jesus “in their native wildness and original vigor” which is certainly an admirable goal, comparable to the ministry goal here to read the NT in light of its original contexts. But does McLaren succeed in this venture?

In Part 1, the results are mixed. McLaren offers some valid readings, but also a few of the standard erroneous readings of the Sermon on the Mount: Eg, extending “turn the other cheek” beyond personal relations and into national affairs [11]. McLaren himself admits to having recognized this distinction himself, but declares – without any argument – that the teaching “has everything to do with public matters in general and politics in particular”. But that is simply gratuitous. The social distinction made between public and private behavior in this setting means that to perform this extension requires much more than a say-so and a preference.

He also misses out on the significance of such acts as carrying a soldier’s pack an extra mile [17]: Far from being “passive submission,” it is a sort of passive-aggressiveness that would be understood as placing the solider in your debt, and which would be resisted by an honorable soldier. It is indeed an undermining of the status quo, but it is not submissive in the way McLaren thinks it is.

McLaren also repeats his error of placing the Zealots in the first century [13], though it would make little difference to the substance of his arguments.

Additionally, when reciting the credentials of a prophet [21], he wrongly declares that their “only credential” was “a kind of self-authenticating passion and unavoidable moral substance.” Not quite: Those are contents, not credentials, and the only “credential” listed for a prophet is telling the truth – and being tested for it (per Deuteronomy).

On the other hand, McLaren does rightly see the Kingdom of God as an ideological rather than a political kingdom, and correctly perceives that “image language” (Gen. 1:26, etc) refers to “humans having the responsibility to be agents of God’s kingship in their care for the earth.” [27]

An interesting point on page 7: McLaren hearkens back to his comment in a prior book that “clarity is sometimes overrated,” but counters that now with the statement than “it is tragic for anyone, especially anyone affiliated with the religion named after Jesus, not to be clear about what Jesus’ message actually was.” The disturbing implication is that McLaren is once again without any epistemic consistency; he wants clarity only when it serves his purposes.

Part 1 closes with McLaren asking the reader why Jesus spoke elliptically [38f]. The actual reason was to protect his teachings from being revealed to “outgroup” persons; additionally, such was a frequent method of ancient teaching, which forced a student to “reason out” conclusions, training their mind rather than simply regurgitating facts. Will McLaren’s own answer be the same? Past experience with his works leads me to some doubt, but we shall see when we pick up with Part 2.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Doubting Tarico’s "Trusting Doubt"

My beloved Mrs H has the day off, so that means I have most of it off too. That also means for today we have a guest post by ministry associate Nick Peters, who is reviewing Valerie Tarico’s Trusting Doubt for us. I may have my own comments on it later.


Valerie Tarico is a name Tekton readers could be familiar with since JPH has reviewed a book of hers before and since she was in the past a blogger for John Loftus at Debunking Christianity. While she’s no longer writing for Loftus, she hasn’t stopped writing for herself. Her latest book, Trusting Doubt, is a look at evangelicalism and why she left it behind.

Notably at the start, Tarico has a way of writing that gives the reader the impression that they really don’t know anything about evangelicalism and Tarico is here to show them what they’ve missed. Tarico writes from the perspective of one who grew up in this environment and wrestled with doubts and then finally just gave up. The book reveals more about Tarico however than it does about evangelicalism.

To her credit, Tarico does say she read books like Evidence That Demands A Verdict and The Problem of Pain, but she says she did not find them convincing. Why? We are not told. It is something however that indicates that her doubt was more emotional than it was factual. This is apparent since Tarico throughout the book pictures evangelicalism as a force that doesn’t allow for questions to be asked and looks down on doubt. On the contrary, I as an evangelical wish more people would ask questions and have doubts. Those are the ones I know are taking it seriously.

To be fair also, the leaders she talked to didn’t help. One gave the answer of “Pray.” He then told her Matthew 17:20 says that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain “Move from here to there” and it will move. This is definitely a recipe for disaster. This youth minister was treating the passage as if it was a blank check. Such a fundamentalist way of thinking did not help Tarico. Unfortunately, she never questioned the methodology.

In fact, for her, this is the only way to approach it. She refers throughout the book to a position of literalism held by evangelicals. In the back of her book even, she lists four books as evangelical defenses of literalism. Those are Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, The Case for Christ, Reasonable Faith, and That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith.
Tarico also does not see the wide array of beliefs allowed in evangelicalism. She says we demand allegiance to a very specific set of beliefs on pages 12-15. These include a belief that human beings are inherently evil even though they’re in the image of God and a strong literalism with end-times prophecy. (Though not specifically stated there, she does throughout the book demonstrate no knowledge of Preterism and instead refers to the rapture.)

It is doubtful if Tarico is aware of real scholarship on issues. For instance, she speaks of a line of theologians and evangelists on page 20 saying “From the Apostle Paul to Thomas Aquinas to Martin Luther to Rick Warren.” I don’t think Rick Warren would even want to be included in such a line-up. Even if I was a fan of Warren’s, I would not include him up there with Paul, Aquinas, and Luther.

Objections Tarico raises throughout the book are weak and numerous articles at Tekton can deal with them or at least reference other sites that do. The objections she raises are predictable, such as disagreements with science, attitudes concerning slavery and homosexuality, the problem of evil, and genocides in the Old Testament. Strangely enough, she never directly goes after the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Throughout all of this, she will also not refer to evangelical responses to her criticisms. Tarico takes a shotgun approach and her goal is to grip the reader emotionally hoping the reader is unaware of scholarship on the issue and how apologists for centuries have answered such questions. The sad reality is that much of her readership probably is unaware.

Absent also is Tarico’s own worldview. Towards the end, she seems to say that she does not believe in any deity, but the terminology is ambiguous. I see Tarico as simply wanting to have the beliefs that come naturally with a theistic worldview, such as objective morality and reliability of reason, without having that extra annoying baggage (to her) that comes with it, such as God.

Tarico makes statements as well that are just unbelievable. I have been an evangelical for years and never heard such things. For instance, on page 115, she says that Jesus would have given restitution if he had done something while alive so good to repair all the past evil. In a note below she says “Evangelicals try to say that this is what the crucifixion did. It was so good of Jesus to suffer for us, it was so loving and generous that it transformed all of the evil into good. But this misses the nature of blood atonement.” I would love to hear the evangelical who says that. I have heard several atonement theories, but I have never heard anything like that before, but that doesn’t stop Tarico. Without a source, she goes on expecting her readers will stop and think “That’s ridiculous.” I agree. It is ridiculous. It is also something that I do not believe and I know of no evangelical who does.

On page 135 in a section talking about Heaven and Hell, Tarico shares a talk with her daughter.



“Are those soldiers in Iraq Christians?”

“Most of them. Why?”

“That’s really bad! They think those Iraqi people are going to hell, and they kill them anyhow and send them right there anyway!”

What could I say?

Um, Valerie? You could have said several things. By this logic, no Christian should be a policeman since that would mean we’d have to kill criminals at times. Absent from Tarico’s thinking is any idea of the deservedness of Hell. Absent is any idea that these people have already rejected Christ personally and are willing to kill others and lead others astray. Absent is that this is not a religious war but is a war under the orders of a government, and I do believe in Just War theories. Absent is any mention that the soldiers we have are trained to avoid civilian casualties at all cost. Absent is the notion that the soldiers are not responsible for the unbelief of their enemies. Whenever someone arrives in Hell, they won’t have the justification of saying “But someone killed me before I could believe!”

This is not to deny the importance of the question. Children will ask questions like that and we need to answer them. Tarico sees this as the ultimate defeater. I see it as a dilemma at best. Yes. There is the sad reality that people die in war and we all wish we could avoid that, but we fight wars that are just for a greater good and not because we want to send people to Hell.

On pages 140-142, Tarico writes about children and death and the age of accountability. She asks why any parent would allow their child to pass the threshold age. Why not just kill them beforehand? It would be a great sacrifice on the part of the parents. It has been done, as she documents. She asks if she’s sounding facetious. She’s not. She’s just following the logic where it leads.

Yes. That’s exactly where it leads. We are to commit murder for the sake of goodness. Only in Tarico’s mind does such an idea make sense. It is a wonder how we could be holy while God is holy while at the same time murdering our own children.

On pages 167-8, she looks at the topic of prayer and how she thinks it’s selfish what we pray for. She pictures a church where a minister gives thanks that a little girl in the congregation is healed. A girl she calls Petra stands up however to challenge the minister. “What about little Joey who was in the hospital? He got prayed for and his church prayed for him and he died.” After telling us of how the minister will sidestep the question, Petra turns to the congregation and tells them how they believe God is intervening to help them win football games or score big on the SAT. She asks how many will go home and thank God for dinner without wondering why he didn’t give it to someone in Africa who needed it more. If we really believe God is interested in football games and such, what are we doing about the suffering of the world? Can we tell someone about the healing of our child when their child has just died of cancer?

Never mind that Tarico has no problem with someone being indignant in the congregation during a sermon. For her concern for people’s feelings, one wonders what the parents of the little girl who did have healing would think of this outburst? We can agree with some parts, such as praying for football games and such, but even then not entirely. There’s nothing wrong with praying that you’ll be the best you can be at something and realizing that if you’re a good athlete, that’s a gift from God. Also, it would not do good to look in the eyes of someone who just lost a child from cancer and talk about how your child was healed if that happened. That doesn’t mean you don’t acknowledge when appropriate the healing of your child. At that point, it would be best to talk to the grieving parent about the reality of the resurrection. A Christian can give thanks for a meal that they have because they realize that if they have something, it ultimately does come from God. Does that mean they don’t care about people in Africa?

Somehow, I suspect Tarico lives in a home with air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and electricity. If she’s thinking we’re so selfish for acknowledging the blessing of God, maybe she ought to consider selling all she has and getting away and going to Africa. Of course, that would mean she’d have to give up writing books against evangelicalism, which would really be a blessing. She’d also then have to see real Christians in Africa who live in poverty and give thanks for everything they have and maybe get a feel for what the biblical culture was like instead of reading her culture into it.

Ironically, on page 174, Tarico does get some things right. She talks about how evangelicalism has taken in some of the culture such as Individualism. Many of her critiques we’d agree with. What’s ironic about it is that Tarico herself doesn’t realize she bought into the same beliefs and is reading the Bible as if it was written in a culture of literalism and individualism. Going over church history, she gets many facts wrong which can be documented here at Tekton, such as the claim that during the Inquistion, the Cathar genocide took 500,000 victims. Such a claim is more dealt with here. Other historical claims including thousands of witches burned and the destruction by Christians in the New World can be found here.

Tarico also expresses outrage, as we stated earlier, at the conquest of Canaan and of course, she goes to the favorite of skeptics everywhere, Numbers 31. I would just love it for one skeptic to state where the virgins spared in the text were raped and/or taken as sex slaves. She refers to William Henness, an evangelical minister, turned skeptic, who said that the soldiers probably didn’t separate virgins from non-virgins by asking. Tarico insteads pictures the Israelites as lining up the girls and giving them an embarrassing physical examination. Tarico is unaware that no such test would be needed. Virgins in the ancient culture were identified by some mark or type of clothing. Tarico is unaware as well of the history that led up to that attack. More on that can be found here. (JPH note: I cannot help but be appalled by this reference, inasmuch as it is the same one I called Tarico down for in the article linked far above. Obviously she is not in the least interested in correcting her mistakes, for there is little doubt that she is aware of my critique.)

Readers of Tekton will enjoy how Tarico writes in the end about how we live in an age now where we can amass knowledge. We have information online via living documents. For her, the great example of this on pages 240-241 is Wikipedia. Looking at her book, it wouldn’t be surprising if she had done all her research on Wikipedia. A look at the problems with Wikipedia can be found here.

To conclude, Tarico’s approach is a shotgun approach that doesn’t interact with the opposition. Indeed, reading her book, you’d think the opposition didn’t really have any works out there addressing Tarico’s claims. Tarico takes a light approach to all topics and assumes there can be no answer and moves on. Light thinking like this is good for skepticism. It is deep thinking that wrestles with the hard questions that leads one to the truth however and especially to the person who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)