Friday, May 27, 2011

Phil. 1:22: Was Paul Suicidal?

Today’s entry is composed as a supplement to a YouTube video I uploaded today in which I analyze the claims of one there styled “ReligionFreeDeist” (RFD) that Paul’s words following from Phil. 1:19-22 indicate that he was giving consideration to suicide:

For I know that this shall turn to my salvation through your prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose (haireo) I wot not.

We will not here be engaging the related issue of whether suicide is a sin. I will say only that Biblical peoples, as members of an agonistic society, did hold to a somewhat more tolerant view of the act under certain circumstances we would not accept. In this regard, they were closer to the Japanese samurai who might choose honorable suicide over public shame. But again, that is an issue we will reserve for another time. Here, we will only consider whether Paul, in this passage, indicates a serious consideration of suicide as an alternative.

Nothing New. RFD does not indicate whether he believes he is uncovering something new in arguing that Paul is seriously contemplating suicide. But it is indeed not a new idea. D. W. Palmer, in his article “To Die is Gain” (Novum Testamentum 17 [1975], 203-18) did not argue this, but did connect Paul’s phrase “to die in gain” to a Greco-Roman rhetorical topos that death is “gain” because it is a release from the burdens of life. More directly, Arthur Droge in “Mori Lecrum: Paul and Ancient Theories of Suicide” (Novum Testamentum 30 [1988], 262-86), like RFD focused on Paul’s use of the word “choose” (as well as Paul’s lack of expectation of execution) to argue that Paul “not only contemplates suicide before rejecting it, but leaves the door open to a verdict in favor of suicide” if necessary. [Croy, 521] Droge would argue in another article in 1989 that Paul did commit suicide later.

Separately from Droge, Rodney Reeves in a 1992 article also suggested that Paul was considering suicide. The question has been considered in other sources as well, including a chief source for this essay, N. Clayton Croy’s “To Die is Gain” (Journal of Biblical Literature 122 [2003], 517-531), and Craig Wansink’s Chained in Christ, which is our other primary source here.

Choose or Prefer? Croy and Wansink both discuss whether the word haireo should properly be rendered “choose” or “prefer”. I have chosen (or preferred) not to argue RFD’s claim that “choose” is the better rendering, though in English, the words can carry so much of the same nuance at times that it may make little difference to most readers; even saying Paul could “prefer” death could be read by some as a positive view of suicide as an option. [Wansink, 101]
That said, readers may wish to consult the discussions of the sources, including Croy, who notes that three manuscripts (including P46) offer a different grammatical reading which would render the statement as, “What would I choose?” Wansink has an extended discussion [96f] as well.

Feigned Perplexity. Croy’s article treats this matter in depth, although as he notes, some have previously suggested that Paul is indeed using this rhetorical trope, which is referred to as dubitatio, but which we will refer to in shorthand as FP. Others have suggested that Paul’s question is rhetorical even if they did not identify the question in terms of FP.

Croy offers several examples of FP from Greco-Roman authors. A simple version, with only one option explicitly stated (but a second implied) as Croy quotes it, comes from Cicero by way of Quintilian:

As for myself, I know not where to turn. Shall I deny that there was a scandalous rumour that the jury had been bribed?

More closely akin to Paul’s expressed dilemma is an example of FP from the speech of Andocides in On the Mysteries:

Now I am wondering at what point to begin my defense, gentlemen. Shall I start with what ought to be discussed last and prove that the prosecution disobeyed the law in lodging information against me?...Or shall I tell you the story right from the beginning?

A critical point here is that Andocides “knows full well that he will rehearse the entire story” before he asks this question. However, “feigning perplexity heightens the drama of the speech and adds credibility to his defense.” [Croy, 527] Speech (and writing) in this time being as much art as information, a good rhetor was expected to use techniques like this to address their audience.

Croy also offers an example of FP used to make a speaker appear more deferential, and make his eventual choice seem more well-reasoned. But the closest example to the structure used by Paul comes from Isocrates’ speech in On the Peace (38-9). Here is the quote from Isocrates, with parallel conceptual phrases from Paul inserted in parentheses for contrast, per Croy’s analysis:

…but if they mean those who at Marathon conquered the barbarians, then they are of all men the most brazen, if, that is to say, they praise those who governed Athens at that time and in the same breath would persuade us to act in a manner contrary to theirs and to commit blunders so gross that I am at a loss (“I do not know”) what I should do—whether I should speak the truth as on all other occasions or be silent out of fear of making myself odious to you. For while it seems to me the better course to discuss your blunders, I observe that you are more resentful towards those who take you to task than towards those who are the authors of your misfortunes. Nevertheless I should be ashamed if I showed that I am more concerned about my own reputation than about the public safety. (“your progress in joy and faith”) It is, therefore, my duty (“this to me is gain from the labor”) and the duty of all who care about the welfare of the state to choose (“What will I choose?”), not those discourses which are agreeable (“better by far”) to you, but those which are profitable (“more necessary”) for you to hear. And you, for your part, ought to realize, in the first place, that while many treatments of all kinds have been discovered by physicians for the ills of our bodies, there exists no remedy for souls which are ignorant of the truth and filled with base desires other than the kind of discourse which boldly rebukes the sins which they commit…

As Croy points out, Isocrates “fully intends to speak and not be silent. But by framing the choice as he does, he shows that what he intends to do is unquestionably the more noble and civic-minded choice.” [528]

I believe Croy’s option is a secure one, but for the sake of completeness, we will add more (which in the video is my “bonus round”). Wansink [107f], though he does not identify Paul’s phrasing with FP (nor discuss the option that I found), does identify it with similar rhetorical tactics used by Cicero in a letter to his brother Quintus. Like Paul, Cicero discusses the choice between life and death, and sides in the end with life for the sake of his family (or in Paul’s case, those in his fictive kinship group, the church). However, unlike Paul, Cicero explicitly refers to suicide as his option, including a past choice to not commit it, and the future possibility of doing it.

In the end, Wansink finds similarities between Cicero and Paul in that both used the choice of life or death as a “call to action” [112]. However, he does not argue that Paul was considering suicide, but rather…

Voluntary Death. Croy fairly well defeats any argument that Paul is here seriously contemplating suicide. But if we did indeed take Paul's suggestion of a choice for death literally, it is likely not suicide that he has in mind.

Wansink [96f] notes that many commentators assume that Paul doesn’t have any real choice in the matter of whether he will be executed, and discusses various attempts to resolve the issue. However, in Paul’s circumstances, something more subtle would have been in mind, if his consideration of a choice for death were real and not rhetorical.

Socrates was condemned to death by the court, though he could have escaped his death sentence by obliging his judgers and saying what they wanted to hear. This would, however, have been at the cost of not being true to his convictions. Paul’s choice for death could have been a matter of not cooperating with those judging him, or refusing to abandon his convictions in the face of death; but his death, unlike Socrates’, would not have been at his own hand.

Would this be suicide? Some Skeptics (though not RFD that I have seen) expand the range of this word tendentiously, so as to even include Jesus’ own death under its rubric. The discussion then becomes a semantic one. Is it “suicide” for a soldier to throw himself on a grenade to save others (especially if he likely would have been killed anyway)? Were firefighters who entered the World Trade Center committing suicide? Did later Christians who refused to renounce Christ under threat of execution commit suicide? Indeed, since it would have been dishonorable for Socrates to have been forced to drink his poison, and his was a sentence of death, is his death really a suicide?

Whether one says yes or no may depend on one’s will to turn “suicide” into a pejorative term implying delusion (especially with respect to religious fanaticism). Paul’s noble self-sacrifice for the Christian is perhaps a deluded death wish for the Skeptic. One can debate whether the implied force in Socrates’ sentence makes it a suicide, or a state execution, or something in between. However, if Wansink is correct, using the word “suicide” to describe Paul’s potential choice seems inappropriate to his dignity and purpose, given associations of the term today with mental disorder and despair. Whether we take Croy’s view or Wansink’s, Paul is holding himself up as an example for the Philippians to follow, a model of obedience and sacrifice for the greater good.

In all of this, the question is not whether Paul ever considered suicide at any time, which, as Croy observes, is beyond our capacity to know apart from his letters. As Wansink notes, people who were locked up in ancient jails did sometimes choose suicide, for a variety of reasons: To escape torture or shame; out of despair, or to avoid confiscation of their property. [Wansink, 58] So the mere possibility that Paul might have gotten similar ideas is not being ruled out. The question is whether Phil. 1 indicates such a consideration… and the evidence is clear that it does not.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Husband of One Wife: On 1 Tim. 3:2

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…

A reader has requested a look at an issue raised by 1 Tim. 3:2, which sets as a requirement for bishops that they be the “husband of one wife.” What exactly is it intended to forbid for bishops? Does “husband of one wife” simply mean the bishop cannot be a polygamist? Does it mean they cannot be someone who has been remarried? Does it mean they cannot be single and must have one wife? Or something else? Mounce’s Pastorals commentary, which we will use as a reporting template, calls this one of the “most difficult” phrases in the Pastorals [M170], but there’s enough data to arrive at a solid conclusion. Let’s look at how these options bear out.

Remarried? This is the most complex interpretation, and it has variations which say it has to do only with remarriage after divorce, or any remarriage (even after death of a spouse). Although a reading of this type is in accord with disapproval of remarriage in the patristic church, Paul himself approves of remarriage (1 Tim. 5:14, 1 Cor. 7) and this would be odd if bishops were forbidden the same thing.

Indeed, the former verse uses a phrase identical in structure to that in 3;2, only applied to widows and ”reversed in gender” [M173]. Since these widows are approved for remarriage, 3:2 cannot apply to remarried men.

Instone-Brewer, in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, adds that remarriage of those divorced and widowed was “technically mandatory under Roman law” [IB 227], which makes this reading even more unlikely.

Single? This has one point in favor because Paul’s opponents in Ephesus have forbidden marriage, and saying a bishop must be married would be a good reply to them. On the other hand, this meaning seems unlikely on its face for a couple of reasons. One is that it seems strange to suppose that Paul and even Jesus – unmarried men – would be barred from holding an office in a local church! Another point, Mounce adds, is that the same logic would require an overseer to have more than one child, according to another instruction in the same advisory (3:4).

Polygamist? While it makes initially makes sense that this might be in view, polygamy as an institution was unknown at this time, save in rare cases in Judaism. It makes little sense that such a rare practice would be singled out.

Fidelity. In the end, here is what seems most likely: The words used are, literally, “man” and “woman” – not “husband” and “wife.” Once that is understood, this passage can sensibly be seen to be restricting from the office of bishop persons who engage in infidelity, which was common in Greco-Roman culture. [M171] Instone-Brewer concurs with this reading [IB227] and describes the requirement in terms of a man who “has eyes” for only one woman.

In the end, where the phrase itself seems obscure, context aids us in arriving at a solid conclusion.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Heaven is For Real" -- Restoration and Follow-Up

Last week readers left comments on our review of Burpo’s Heaven is for Real that ended up being erased when Google hiccupped. Thankfully, my local ministry partner printed them out before they went away, so I’ll use this as a chance to offer a general commentary and additional thoughts.

How can we be sure that heaven is still following all the principles of honor, shame, hierarchy, etc? The real question is, why should we think otherwise? 99.9% of people who have ever lived have been agonistic and collectivist. It is imperialist arrogance to suppose that heaven has changed for our sake, or to think that we’ll have a special section set aside for People Like Us. When people ask me about how we’ll deal with honor and shame in heaven, I always say – we’ll learn. The hard way, if needed.

How do we know Colton’s vision wasn’t adjusted by Jesus to make him more comfortable? This is merely a contrivance. There’s no reason why Colton would not have been comfortable with a Jesus who had darker skin than he expected -- the Burpos are not racist, are they? – and yes, the difference would be quite noticeable. It is asked if I expect Jesus to look the same through eternity; the answer is that I expect some reason to be given why he would not be, and why (conveniently!) he happens to manifest as a white Anglo-Saxon. The idea that Jesus manifests differently to different people is, like the rest of this, a wholly modern notion designed to accommodate uniquely individualist sensibilities. Paul did say he became all things to all men, but this is a principle of evangelism, and no one needs to be evangelized in heaven.

Nor would there be any reason for him to lack comfort with “nail holes” someplace other than his palms. Indeed, it is just as well to say ask why God would allow such details to be wrong, knowing that so many people would see that they are; it's the sort of error that gives critics fodder that is hard to refute. Medical evidence shows that the palms are unsuitable for crucifixion and will tear. Adding in ropes doesn’t solve the problem – it admits there is one and tries to get around it.

Maybe Colton made some mistakes. If that is so, then where is the line drawn as far as how much to believe about his testimony? And as a reader also put it (in a comment Google ate):

….how would the boy recognize Gabriel? Wouldn't he have noticed the extremely peculiar sight of six-winged seraphs, who fly above God and whose voices can shake the doorposts and thresholds of the temple? You'd expect a child to be amazed by such a sight, but did he mention any of what we do know about heaven from the Bible?

Also, why would Jesus retain the scars while he is now in heaven? Paul said in Philippians 3:20-21,

20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Does this mean that we will also have the same scars that Jesus bore, or does he mean that Jesus no longer has the scar-riddled lowly body and is now transformed into a glorious body?

In the end, readers may wonder why I am so intent on this matter. The answer is that books like this one are not only shot through with error, they also make it impossible to convince Christians of the importance of apologetics. Why care about the textual reliability of the NT? It must be guaranteed, because little Colton saw Jesus in person, dude.

And that’s an attitude that lies at the heart of our problems in the Western church today.

The Ticker will be back Wednesday, as I have yet another medical appointment (different matter this time) Monday.

Monday, May 16, 2011

April-May 2011 E-Block

Since I put this up just now, that'll be what today's entry is about...the Ticker will be back Friday with that follow up on Burpo's tale.

Popular Preachers Past, Part 4: Oswald's Chamber of Consciousness -- I picked Oswald Chambers for this one, and talk about a dull read! The man needed to learn how to use an outline and stop rambling so much. There's also a pretty strong anti-intellectual component in his work. Definitely not dangerous, but also not recommendable.

Ghosts of End Times Future, Part 1: The One-Egg Dozen -- A new series on the heresy of full preterism. This time: A claim that the millennium lasted only 40 years (!). I'm not naming he lulu who makes this claim because he's one of those types who likes to see his name in print.

The Slave Chains, Part 3 -- A quick look at the anti-slavery work of Albert Barnes. Quick because he had no new arguments, though he very deftly enhanced some older ones.

The ELCA and Homosexuality -- By reader request, a look at a recent document on the subject issued by the Lutheran denomination ELCA. Nothing new here either -- just a lot of politically correct emotionalism.

Is Thom a Moral Misfit? Part 1 -- First in series on Thom Stark's critique of Paul Copan's Is God a Moral Monster? I don't always go with Copan's argument, but Stark is his usual clumsy, anachronistic self and even worse so far; you'd think you were reading a New Atheist rant half the time. It's also obvious that his editors were/are doing him some big favors in his earlier book -- when not edited well, he sometimes rambles like, er...Oswald Chambers.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Folks, I had planned a post for today but it looks like Google is fooling around with things and the Forge post from Thursday got deleted, along with comments from the Ticker's last post. So I won't post today, unless I see it is fixed.

And after this...the Ticker will have a post Monday, then be off until the next Friday as I have some USDA work to do.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Snap: Todd Burpo's "Heaven is for Real"

Heaven may be for real, but no matter how emotionally appealing you find it, the story in this book – isn’t.

These days there are more than a few “near death experience” books making the rounds that were written by Christians. This one’s a little different in that the witness is a very young boy, Colton Burpo – which makes the emotional appeal all the harder to wipe out with rational analysis.

However, like it or not, from an evidential perspective, the details in the book don’t add up to a reliable testimony.
Not that there is much useful that could be used for that. Over 99 percent of the book is simply narrative, with nothing with which the spirits can be tested save a few details, which can be classified into two categories.

The first category could be good proof for the veracity of Colton’s experiences, if they could surely be found to be valid – which they unfortunately cannot. The second category, however, absolutely proves Colton’s story to be merely a case of imagination – and we’ll get to that shortly.

The first category has to do with events allegedly perceived by the subject NDE experiencer which occur during their indisposition – typically, things like allegedly seeing loved ones from some higher vantage point. I’m not out here to determine whether NDE experiences are real or not, but I will judge whether the evidence given shows that this one is, and the evidence in this first category, while seemingly impressive on the surface, doesn’t add up to enough significance to be determinative:

xx-xxi, 61 – Colton claims he left his body and saw what turned out to be an accurate (but very vague) description of what his parents were doing at the time: His father praying in one room, and his mother on the phone and praying in another.

43 – Colton indicates knowledge that he had nearly died.

91 – Colton tells his father that Jesus had called him (Todd) to be a pastor when he was younger.

94-5 – Colton shows awareness of having had an unborn sister who had died while still enwombed.

122-3 Colton recognizes a photo of his deceased grandfather as a younger man, matching it to a man he reputedly met in heaven.

Finally, here and there, there are examples given where Colton describes details in accord with some Biblical text (particularly Revelation).

Todd Burpo assures us that he shared none of these details with Colton, but there is little done to validate this assurance. For the second example (43) he wonders if the medical staff of the hospital could have said something Colton overheard, but this is not investigated at all. For the rest, there is nothing to show that these details were not somehow gathered by some other means by Colton – whether from other relatives, members of Burpo’s church, or overheard conversations with other parties.

That’s the first category. The second has fewer entries, but it far more damning for the authenticity of Colton’s experiences, especially as far as the Christian is concerned: How well do Colton’s experiences accord with external evidence not found in the Bible? It’s the sort of thing that could never occur to someone like Colton’s father Todd as a small town pastor whose theological education is quite limited (a BA in Theology), and so offers an ideal way to “test the spirits”.

100-1 – though rightly offering the Biblical detail that Jesus sat at God’s right hand, Colton offers the non-Biblical detail that Gabriel sits at God’s left. However, in reality, this would be a serious violation of the protocols of honor and hierarchy, and difficult to explain barring an overhaul of theology as we know it. Gabriel being seated at God’s left would amount to just about making him a co-ruler with God and His rough equal. If any ought be seated on God’s left, it is the Spirit. (Good thing Colton did not say it was Michael, or the JWs would have to rework their whole christology!)

133 – highly problematic for me as a preterist, Colton sees Satan running around free.

67 – However, the detail that ultimately invalidates Colton’s experiences irrevocably is that he describes seeing the wounds of Jesus’ crucifixion. Apart from questions of whether the wounds were indeed present after the Resurrection (the showing of the hands and feet is better related to the social concept of hands and feet as “zones of interaction” validating Jesus’ physical presence), Colton places then in Jesus’ palms and the middle of his feet – whereas genuine crucifixion victims had nails driven into their wrists and heel. Ironically, Todd Burpo does not believe his son ever saw a crucifix, and says, “We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified” – but with this, he unwittingly shows that Colton’s vision of a wounded Jesus did come from some more modern image, because the fact is, he and Colton do NOT know where the nails went.

144 --Just as damning is the fact that Colton identified Jesus with a portrait done by Akiane Kramarik, who was also a very young child who claimed an NDE and a heavenly visit. While Todd Burpo sees in this an amazing validation, a look at Kramarik’s portrait shows it to be the white, Anglo-Saxon Jesus of modern, Western culture – a being that would have been recognized as a foreigner in first century Jewish Palestine.

Sadly, there is more at stake here than a child’s winsome but wayward tale of heavenly experiences. There is not much theology in this book, but what little there is, is highly questionable (such as a poor theology of prayer s a gumball machine, 109). Far worse, however, is that this book will draw us much further into the trap that is emotional and experiential authentication and away from support for our loyalty (faith) in evidence. Having been a #1 New York Times bestseller, the success of this book is more a tragedy than something to be celebrated.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ticker for Ticker

Hey folks, I forgot to mention that there won't be a serious Ticker post today, as I have an extended afternoon appointment with the cardiologist to check out my "other" ticker, including the famous doppler test (in case I have any bad weather in my heart) and a stress test. The Ticker (this one) will be back Wednesday.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Reads for Fun...and Profit

With a less stringent posting schedule while I work on Building Blocks material, I've been collecting observations on my "Reads for Fun" and reads for the BB project for collective release...and now's a good time for that. Let's start with the fun reads.

William MacFeely, Grant: A Biography. Balancing out my prior read about Stonewall Jackson, I now turned to a Union hero for whom I had a certain interest, Ulysses S. Grant. I had seen indications that Grant was, like me, an INTJ, and there’s some sense here that he was – as a person who wanted other people to make sense, but found too often that they didn’t. There was also another fascinating commonality between us I didn’t expect: He was married to a strong woman, Julia, with whom he had quite the rich relationship.

Grant lived a full and interesting life first as a failure in business, but later as a roaring success as a general. His presidency was marked by a lack of foreign war, but also by scandal (which didn’t really touch on him, but on the people he hired). Post-presidency, he took on the role of world ambassador and nearly pulled off being re-elected. Unfortunately his liking for cigars was his undoing: He was killed too early by a cancer of the throat.

My one distaste for the book is that McFeely had an occasional habit of psychoanalyzing people (in some cases, probably incorrectly). But most of this is an interesting and sane biography which I found thoroughly enjoyable.

Kenneth Henshall, A History of Japan. I find Japan to be a fascinating subject as a nation that seems to be the best people can do without a Christian basis for living. But it’s also useful for drawing parallels to Biblical culture, as their social setting is heavily honor-shame as was the Biblical world’s.

Henshall’s book is a readable introduction to Japan’s history, albeit somewhat heavier towards the modern era than I would have liked. Of interest for apologetics are these observations about Japan as a “closed county” in its earlier history:

A more “extreme” version of collective punishment than is found even in the Bible in passages like Joshua 7 (Achan): This was so severe in Japan that people there avoided getting involved with strangers, lest they do something the entire village ended up getting punished for.

An emphasis on making things appear as though they were peaceful no matter what was actually going on.

And, closer to the modern era: The general view that it was better to die than surrender, such that it was believed that the entire Japanese nation might commit collective suicide before surrendering to the Allies. (Skeptics who can’t grasp why eg, the Canaanites might prefer death in battle need to pay attention.)

A fascinating book about a culture of great interest to me – and not just because of Iron Chef!

Desmond Seward, The Hundred Years War. Until now I never really looked deeply into this war, but Seward brings It to life for what it is – an on and off war of about 120 years in which England and France struggled for dominance of the latter’s land, and the latter mostly took it on the chin and got its resources drained. This one’s not written so much as a narrative as a journal, but Seward is a good enough writer that it isn’t dull (though it also isn’t memorable, either).

That’ll be the last of my non-fic fun reading for a while. When I get back to it, I’ll have more Reads for Fun entries to discuss. Now here's the serious stuff lately...

John Gerstner, Repent or Perish. Yikes. This was to be the last book from the RTS seminary I would read on hell, but it turned out the last one was. This is no serious exegetical study but half a bellowing fire-and-brimstone threat parade, and half a critique on annihilationist Edward Fudge (which I ignored, since I consider Fudge already refuted with what I have). It had nothing on the nature of hell, but I get the idea Gerstner would breathe acid on me if he heard me apply honor and shame principles to the issue. Of particular distaste is Gerstner’s quick-draw conclusion that infants go to hell if they die; aside from the standard view of original sin, though, he has little argument to offer apart from such things as Jonathan Edwards calling infants “little vipers” and Augustine saying he was planning sin while he was a suckling. Yep, nothing like anecdotal comments like that to make a case. I put this one down after only 10 minutes of scanning – that’s all I needed.

Marianne Thompson, The Promise of the Father. Although I did not find anything new pertinent to a Building Blocks project here, this is a very good survey of the uses and meaning of the concept of God as “Father” in the New Testament. Thompson pays particular attention to the social roles of the father figure in the NT world, which is too often obscured by pedantic questions over such trivialities as whether a “male” God has sexual organs. There’s also a chapter on the “abba” designation and one on the concept of God as Father in Biblical and Temple Judaism.

Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of the Christian Atonement. This one I figured might have some stuff I could use on atonement doctrine, but it had very little, and offers the thesis that the violence inherent in the atonement doctrine as we have it is in some way responsible for violence in the West. That’s kind of questionable given that there’s plenty of violence in pre-Christian societies like medieval Japan; and anyway, the crucifixion remains a violent event no matter how you slice it. Not that it matters, since it was honor that was the critical issue, not pain and violence. It’s still good for food for thought, but I don’t think it’s useful for the book (especially since it makes no reference to patronage as a factor at all).

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Stark Raving Failure

I still have the heart of a mercenary now and then, so at this past weekend’s ISCA conference, I asked Paul Copan, “So, do you want me to take care of Thom Stark for you?”

Copan smiled and rolled his eyes a bit, and replied, sure, go ahead – I have a lot to do right now. That tells you just how worried he is about Stark as a threat.

So the next E-Block will begin a series on Stark’s reply to Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? – a book I rated fairly highly, though with some things I did not agree with and a couple of major things I would have done differently. In particular, it lacked something Stark also lacks noticeably in his critique: An awareness of the agonistic values of the Biblical world. (The difference being, that whereas Copan’s lack here simply made his case less strong than it could have been, it makes Stark’s reply look monumentally ignorant and bigoted, and far more dependent on emotion and pity at key points than rational argument. But more on that when we start his “treatment”.)

Stark’s attitude here isn’t an uncommon one. I’ve been dealing with a great many YouTube Skeptics of late whose assumption is that people of the Biblical world shared the same “keep living at any costs” values that they hold dear as modern Westerners. There’s an oddity there inasmuch as this group is also likely to hold to the view that people should be free to choose voluntary euthanasia if their suffering becomes too great to bear. I’m inclined to agree (and so am at least consistent where they are not), save that too often the modern Westerner thinks “suffering” means “I missed my favorite TV show too many times.”

Which raises the main point for today’s entry. Compared to Biblical peoples (and members of other agonistic societies), modern Westerners are wimps who arrogantly and ironically refer to agonistic peoples as barbarians because they aren’t wimps.

Agonistic peoples learned to endure physical pain and gained honor by having a stiff upper lip, so to speak. Modern people have a fit any time Junior skins his knee or they stub their toes.

Agonistic peoples for centuries barely had time for recreation and worked hard for a living, scraping by on daily survival. Modern peoples get honked off when the price of a movie goes up a dollar.

Agonistic peoples lived constantly with the threats of war, disease, hunger, and poverty. Modern people call someone “poor” who owns only one television set and drives a car that is more than 10 years old.

I’m only being a little hyperbolic here. But there’s a strong irony as well in the fact of modern wimps like Stark – who have never endured what could be called real suffering for any length of time -- judging and condemning those who lived in the ancient world because they were too violent, too profane, or too bold for their tastes. Yet if you plopped Stark down in 1400 BC anywhere in the world, he’d be dead within days because he had no idea how to live there.

One of my older cartoons illustrates this. I plopped one of my Skeptical nemeses back in time to that era, where he was assigned the task of digging a well. Simple enough, right? Not at all. Before that well was finished, he got thirsty. But having no water yet on his own assigned land, he had to borrow some from a neighbor. My narrative depicts him going to his neighbor, who insisted that to get water, he had to trade something of value to get it.

“What do you mean? I’m a human being in need,” I depict the Skeptic as whining.
“My family is also human and has needs, and they need that water,” the neighbor replied. “What’s your point?”

Yep. Welcome to the world of “limited good,” friend. We’re so used to having food, gasoline, and electricity at the touch of a button that it never occurs to us that ancient people had to struggle, work hard, and pay dearly for such things. They still do in many parts of the world – which says something about us when we are more worried about which SUV to purchase.

That’s part of the fun in taking down an arrogant barbarian like Stark who thinks so highly of himself, though. In my own little way, I’m going to bat for those whom he looks down his nose upon.

And I’m glad to be of assistance, too, Paul.