Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I'ts Heretic Season!

From the November 2008 E-Block.


In an item you can find here, Tony Burke -- a professor at York University -- has a handful to say about Christian apologetics literature which responds to "apparent" attacks on Christianity, in particular, books about "Christian Apocrypha (CA)." His issue with these is that "they often misrepresent the texts, their authors, and the scholars who study them."

Unfortunately, one of the few things he fails to go on to do is explain how exactly these apologetics authors "misrepresent" anything whatsoever, or how they sacrifice accuracy, or perform any of the abominations with which he charges them.

Apologetics literature serves a particular purpose: To answer questions people pose. They are also all about answering specific claims. In a book about the Gospel of Judas, reviewed in this very E-Block, Porter and Heath write because they are responding to exceptional claims made about that document. These claims raise questions which in turn warrant a response for those who have those questions. Sometimes these claims are made by scholars; at other times, more often by far I'd say, they are made by the popular media or by Skeptics or others who take the conclusions of the scholars and run with them. Either way, they provoke questions. Apologists aim to answer these questions. I rather wonder if York is aware of this.

It is no shame to be "concerned about the impact of non-canonical texts and heretical ideas" on readers. Burke, as a scholar, is obviously "concerned" himself about misrepresentation. So are apologists. What is the difference? There is none, as long as the work is done accurately. Yet Burke spends very little to no time showing that work was done inaccurately. Indeed, his own response is a study in what he claims are the illicit tactics of apologists:

  • Their chief strategy is to refute by exposure...This refutation is done with little or no argumentation; the views are presented in such a disparaging way that detailed argument is unnecessary. And yet Burke's response is no different. His tactic is to "refute by exposure" by quoting selected phrases from apologists which he finds particularly offensive, and indicating a lack of fairness in their approach -- without demonstrating that this is the case. Beyond this, it is simply false to say that "refutation by exposure" is a "chief strategy." Books Burke disparages, like Jenkins' Hidden Gospels, are fully documented and closely argued. If not, he must explain why not. He does not.
  • On the whole, the heresy hunters spare no invective in their description of the heresies and tend to place emphasis on the most repugnant aspects (real or imagined) of their beliefs and practices. And yet, Burke himself does the very same thing in disparaging the work of apologists. Perhaps he would say that it is too sensitive to regard his words as "invective" when he speaks of insiders and outsiders, etc. and that this is not invective, just an honest assessment. Well -- so is what the apologists say of the heretics, then.
  • Quotations from the CA are necessary if constructing an argument about or against their contents. However, often the apologists excerpt the texts simply to highlight their differences from the canonical texts. Of course, only those sections of the CA texts that are particularly odd are provided and commented upon. And the problem with this is what, exactly? Again, the purpose of such works is to answer questions. Foremost among these would be, "What unique beliefs do these groups hold which published these documents?" This would be a chief question because one way that these documents are used is to claim that they represent a more original form of Christianity. Highlighting the differences, as Burke puts it, is a necessary step in establishing the ideological nature of the parties that authored the document, thus establishing as well a basis for comparison to orthodoxy -- which leads in turn to being able to analyze (to whatever extent necessary) those differing beliefs.

    This sort of question is not answered by quoting mundane portions of these works, or by quoting portions with which orthodoxy holds no disagreement. Burke objects that Such focus on the "bizarre" elements of the texts misrepresents their contents. How so? How can direct quotes "misrepresent" a belief? Burke makes no effort to show that beliefs are reported inaccurately. Perhaps he can say that they are reported incompletely, but that is irrelevant to the questions being addressed. Apologists do not claim that such quotes are exemplars of the entire contents of these documents, or that the bizarre elements represent the totality of all the groups believe.

    Interestingly, Burke does not deny that there "is plenty of material in the canonical texts that is bizarre or objectionable" but simply thinks it "unfair" to quote only that. Why? Will these quotes become less "bizarre" by padding them with more "normal" material? He says, Large parts of the CA are quite "orthodox" but these sections are not discussed. What of it? How would this remove the perfume of the unique from that which is discussed? But once again, in light of the purpose of the apologist -- to answer specific claims and questions that are posed -- no purpose whatsoever is served in quoting the "normal" material. No one is disputing that heretical material might contain non-heretical beliefs.

    Burke does not dispute at all the contention of apologists that "the CA are not compatible with the canonical texts." Yes, he acknowledges, it "may be so" that both the Gnostic and the canonical views cannot be correct. But, he says, "the fact remains that throughout history Christians have combined both accepted and censured texts in a variety of ways, including art and iconography, popular literature, and manuscript transmission. So, reading the canonical and non-canonical gospels side-by-side was not only possible, it actually happened."

    This misrepresents the point. When Wright and other apologists say that these works cannot be read side by side, they are not saying that it cannot be physically done (!), but that one cannot do so and maintain in an epistemologically sound way that both are valid pictures of what actually happened in history, or represent compatible belief systems! Once again, also, Burke also fails to grasp that the purpose of apologetic works is to answer questions and claims -- such as, that the Gospel of Judas may represent a truer picture of what actually happened than the canonical Gospels.

    The bottom line is that when apologists describe the contents of Gnostic texts as absurd, they are either correct or they are not. Burke does not argue this. He merely "argues by exposure" and raises unsubstantiated charges of "lack of awareness of the complexities of defining Gnosticism" and "reliance on outdated scholarship on the texts" without any details offered or any arguments addressed. (Perhaps these arguments are only available via access to Burke's own personal gnosis!)

  • Another strategy the apologists have in common with the ancient heresy hunters is the demonization of the heresiarchs, or in the modern context, the demonization of CA scholars. Yet Burke is no different, as he likewise "demonizes" apologists for their efforts. Perhaps he would say, again, he's just giving an honest assessment. Again, apologists can say so as well. And once again, the real question is, are these alleged "demonizations" false? Here at least Burke tries to show that they are, but his efforts are hardly convincing. For example:
    Bock's straw man is the "new school" of Harvard, also called Neo-Gnostics, led by James Robinson and Helmut Koester.

    That is all that is said of Bock's comments! So why is it wrong? It is not explained.

    Elaine Pagels is also associated with the new school. She is often singled out by the apologists and, it seems, misrepresented. According to Jenkins, "There were two rival streams within Christianity, and for Pagels, as for many other writers, the wrong side won."[19] But Pagels has never made such a claim; indeed, in her magnum opus, The Gnostic Gospels, she is quite conciliatory, stating, "I believe that we owe the survival of Christian tradition to the organizational and theological structure that the emerging church developed."[20]

    This is all quite interesting, but there is nothing in Pagels' quote offered by Burke that is even relevant to what is said by Jenkins. The Pagels quote does not deny "two rival streams" or that "the wrong side won." At most it merely would suggest a way whereby Pagels supposes the "right side" won. Burke seems to have the impression that if he quotes something by Pagels that is vaguely complimentary to orthodoxy, he thereby erases the specific charge Jenkins brings to the fore. It is also a case of Burke again committing his own sin of "quotation by exposure."

    All Burke can say otherwise to this point is that, first, the "new school" is not as monolithic as the apologists suggest. But I think this is a red herring, for he quotes no apologist who says otherwise, or who claims that Bart Ehrman holds exactly the same beliefs as Stevan Davies. Second, Burke says that the new school is further maligned by associating them with fringe scholarship, including scholars like Michael Baigent, Barbara Thiering, Carsten Thiede, and John Allegro. Aside from the travesty of calling Baigent a scholar (which Burke admitted in a reply to Rob Bowman was a careless mistake), Burke has failed to define what he means by "associating with" and so has also failed to show that the association, such as it may exist, is invalid or unwarranted.

In sum, Burke closes with three points reiterating his case. We may reframe them just as easily to accuse Burke, in a facetious way:

First, Burke is motivated to write by a fear that others will be led astray by the ideas presented in the works of the apologists. His work is aimed at those curious about the literature and/or those concerned about others who are curious about the literature. In either case, his article mainly appeals to those within a rather closed community of ideologues who, ultimately, are unlikely to leave the group over the claims of "conservative" scholarship.

Second, Burke and his rivals seem never to interact with one another. Burke reads and seek to refute the apologists' works, but otherwise has little substantial knowledge of the literature and ignores scholarship that does not support his interpretation of the evidence.

Third, Burke makes no effort to understand or sympathize with the apologists and their supporters. He simply wants the "apologies" to disappear.

I am, of course, being facetious. I would never use arguments of this sort in addressing an opponent; they are motivational commentary that fails to address specific claims of fact. In the end, it is here where Burke's commentary is a conspicuous failure. He does not appreciate (as he puts it in a reply to Bowman) what he calls "needless value judgments or disparaging comments" but he fails to show by argument that they are "needless" or inaccurate. Surely it can be agreed that there are works deserving of "value judgments". If that is so, then merely pointing out that they are made, and affixing a label to them, is not enough. The labels must be validated. This seems to have escaped Burke, as he says in a reply to Bowman:

Rob also says I misrepresent Witherington's views on the Gospel of Thomas. But again, my aim was not to agree or disagree with his assessment of the value of this text as a tool for establishing the teachings of the Historical Jesus, but how he unnecessarily disparages the text. One can discuss the historical credibility of the Jesus in the text without labeling some of its sayings as "pantheistic," "misogynist," and "obscure for obscurity's sake!" Worse still, these assessments are incredibly shortsighted and deserve deeper analysis.

But this is the very point at issue. Burke does not show that Witherington's assessments are "shortsighted". It is Witherington's very "assessment of the value of this text as a tool for establishing the teachings of the Historical Jesus" that provokes these disparaging statements that Burke himself disparages. Moreover, all three of the quoted points -- pantheistic, misogynist, obscure -- involve elements that can be objectively discerned from a text. Is the text not pantheistic? Not misogynist? Not obscure? Then Burke needs to show that they are not. To the extent that he does not, his effort comprises a complete failure to convict apologists of wrongdoing.

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