Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Select Review: Maurice Casey's "Jesus of Nazareth," Part 2

Today we conclude our select look at Casey’s Jesus of Nazareth. The Ticker will be off after this until next Wednesday as I travel (and then recover from traveling!).

129f – Readers may find Casey’s critique of Salm’s “Nazareth myth” of interest, though of unique interest is Casey’s address to Salm’s attempt to locate Nazareth in Judaea, a subject I have not seen addressed elsewhere.

145-6 – Casey’s shallow treatment of the birth narratives and issues surrounding them stands as good example (along several) of how, despite his claim to be pursuing critical history, he is all too willing to simply accept a status quo where he agrees with it and not investigate matters in more depth. However, readers may find his critique of Tabor (153f) and his “Panthera” thesis of interest.

159 – Casey simply misrepresents the findings of scholars in Beard’s Literacy in the Roman World, who did not, as he says, dispute or disprove Harris’ estimate of a 10% literacy rate in the Roman world, though they did dispute certain applications he made. (See link below, where I corrected a similar misreport of Beard’s work.)

189 – here is a typical example of Casey’s procedure when he is at a loss for argument (as happens on occasion): Matthew 16:19 (the keys to the kingdom) is dismissed as inauthentic because Jesus “had no reason to add” it while Casey thinks the early church did. But this simply reflects Casey’s inability to conceive of a reason why Jesus should have added it – and there is a good one. As a confession of Jesus; messiahship (which Casey also disputes – we will address that later) Peter has become the first member of Jesus’ collective ingroup, and thus for the first time is able to broker authority to persons within that group.

286 – this last is one example of where Casey’s own lack of specialty knowledge in a different field (the social sciences) undermines his case. This page offers another, as he commits the standard error of interpretation of Mark 10:18 (link below).

392-9 – per 189 above, Casey has declared Jesus’ acceptance of Peter’s declaration, “you are the Christ,’ as inauthentic. Initially he once again could stand to be informed by the social science aspects of the question (link below), as this provides a far better explanation for why Jesus did not use the term of himself than the reason Casey contrives as follows.

He denies it on the basis of the single word “Messiah” being too vague and unqualified to be sure what kind of identification Peter is making in Mark 8:29. This is misplaced reasoning . First, we must also add in the contexts of Jesus’ other self-claims (some of which Casey rejects for poor reasons, such as the Son of Man title) and activities. Second, Casey has no consideration for the high context nature of this social setting; his assessment that “messiah” “was not specific enough” is spoken from the perspective of a low-context reader assuming that the text offers all we need to know. There can be little doubt that Peter and Jesus, and all his other disciples, had a very good idea what the specifics were.

448f – Another shocking omission: Casey’s discussion of Jesus’ burial is completely devoid of reference to Byron McCane’s critical study (which, though Casey in some part ends of with the same conclusions as McCane, answers some of his objections as well).

455f – Casey’s treatment of the Resurrection offers little new in terms of dissenting arguments; he follows Allison’s “bereavement visions” thesis. I found no arguments not addressed in either my own work or Licona’s on the subject. (Including – again – a spot where Casey needs the help of the social sciences to explain why women are not listed in witnesses in 1 Cor. 15 [496], and the ridiculous argument that Paul does not mention the empty tomb there.)

Our treatment of Casey has been summary but exemplary. We have a scattering of helpful observations mixed in with a plethora of standard canards and arguments that have been refuted in the past multiple times, as well as some startling omissions of critical concepts and scholarly works. Jesus of Nazareth is not entirely without merit, and the reader would do well to borrow it from a library and sift it for what might be useful. However, in the end it stands out as the work of one too impressed by his own expertise in a select area (Aramaic) to conceive of his lack in other areas.

Beard and literacy

Mark 10:18

Use of "Messiah"

Monday, April 25, 2011

Select Review: Maurice Casey's "Jesus of Nazareth," Part 1

This is an interesting book in many ways, but requires a certain number of hedging cautions. Casey is widely reckoned as something of a curmudgeon with an arrogant streak, and it does show here often – even if in sometimes entertaining ways.

We’ll start with a broad summary before taking some time to comment on specifics within over the next few entries.

This book is interesting because Casey makes it his business to take on what he sees as extremists in Jesus research. On one side, this includes scholars like Witherington and Blomberg. But on the other side it includes the likes of Robert Price, Rene Salm, and Frank Zindler. Casey allots far more space to the latter group, though, and reserves particular scorn for Zindler. And to be fair, he does have mostly positive words for the work of N. T. Wright.

While we might find this amusing, I am also inclined to take nearly everything Casey says with a grain of salt – even when he’s roasting someone like Zindler. This is because I have found Casey to frequently be someone who seriously overestimates his own prowess and critical thinking abilities. Casey specializes in an area where there are few other specialists (Aramaic) and plays this to the hilt, often pouring scorn (and often rightly) on those who err for lack of knowledge or curiosity on that subject matter. But he also grants himself thereby the right to pour scorn on persons with more knowledge than he has in other areas of specialty, and as a result, frequently makes mistakes.

For example, in this book he commits several errors from lack of knowledge of the social world of the Bible - the specialty of the Context Group. But his sole treatment of the Context Group is a mere two pages on one of their more idiosyncratic members (Craffert) and his theories. (Not surprisingly, one of the book’s endorsees is James Crossley – himself a frequent victim of his own arrogance and lack of knowledge – who issued a rather misplaced critique of the CG which I examined in the November 2009 E-Block.)

Casey also bathes his importunings in the designation “critical history,” but it becomes clear sometimes that “critical” means little more than what Casey wants to be correct. I do not say this of the entire book; it is only at isolated places – where what Casey wants to be true becomes endangered – that he turns on the faucets full force.

With that preliminary made, let’s engage a few points along the way.

21-23 As noted, Casey has a little scorn for everyone. Here, the Jesus Seminar is taken to task as having “grievously misled anyone who believed what it said.” In particular, the Seminar is critiqued for not having anyone on board who knew Aramaic.

On the other hand, this section also criticizes Witherington for an alleged dishonesty involving the hiring practices of Sheffield University. The only source for this claim, however, is the testimony of a shrill blog entry which itself shows little evidence of being a reasoned account of any related matter, and is supported as well by untrustable sources like Crossley. It is too late to untangle the matter at this point, but it is rather telling that Casey seeks to broadly dismiss Witherington as a scholar (he is mentioned nowhere else in the book!) on that basis of such a petty incidence.

27-8 Blomberg had claimed – rightly – that Casey dismissed stories such as the changing of water to wine based on the presumption that the miraculous did not happen. Casey claims rather dishonestly that this is “not the position I took,” and describes his view rather as being that:

I drew attention to the obvious fact that changing water into wine ‘is, in normal circumstances, impossible,’ whereas Jesus does it abundantly, producing no less than 120 gallons.

But this is exactly what Blonberg said it was – Casey has simply dismissed the event based on the presumption that the miraculous could not happen.

Casey also adds the he pointed to parallels to Dionysus, and directs and accusation at Blomberg for not mentioning this, but here, Casey commits the standard errors in appeal to those stories (link below), to say nothing of erring in assuming that such parallels would prove anything about historicity in the first place.

Here also, Casey makes far too much of John 2:6 referring to the stone pots at the Cana wedding as being for “Jewish ceremonial washings,” as though this somehow was at odds with Jesus’ disciples being Jewish. This is an example of what Casey calls “critical history” – he reads into this identification some sign of “Gentile self-identification of the Johannine community in conflict with the Jews.” This (and the note of a “chief steward” for the wedding) may well indeed signify that John’s audience has Gentiles, and would sensibly indicate John explaining things to them in terms they understood – a variation on what Casey elsewhere rightly calls bilingual interference, but of a cultural sort.

However, to go as far as Casey does, and hypothesize some sort of “conflict” with the Jews, is simply imaginative nonsense. Likewise, it goes too far to see this as indicating a “Gentile origin” for the story. Casey also offers the standard canard about the Temple cleansings (see link below).

Related to this, Casey now and then asserts that a source being able to be translated back into Aramaic is a pointer to authenticity. It may be helpful as a point, true, but it is not definitive either way. The first Christians spoke Aramaic too, and a Skeptic could easily point out (in fact, they have) that people who speak Aramaic can make up stories in that language, too. It does place a burden on the doubter, of course, and to that extent Casey would be correct.

On the other hand, that Casey cannot turn a story back into Aramaic is hardly the indication of inauthenticity he wants it to be. His own studies on “bilingual interference” should tell him that it is not always possible to communicate so precisely between two languages, and that compromises may be needed to effectively get a point across to speakers in another language. Here, Casey falls victim to the modern perception that “word for word” relation of a story is of more relevance than relation of the substance.

37f Readers will find of interest Casey’s treatment of various Christ-mythers, including Price, Wells, and Zindler. Although Casey’s treatment is far from thorough, some of his general points mirror my own. It is rather ironic, though, to have Casey accuse Zindler of ruling out the miraculous a priori when he has done the same thing himself now and then (as above).

63 Of interest as well is Casey’s account of Mark 1:41. Readers may recall that Bart Ehrman makes much of the textual variants in this verse, in which Jesus either has “compassion” on a man he heals, or is “angry” with him. According to Casey, the answer is that what underlies both translations is an Aramaic word which means to “tremble” or be “deeply moved” – and can also indicate anger. But to that extent, Casey thinks Mark was incorrect to render the word as “anger” and was suffering from “bilingual interference” – whereas apparently he thinks Matthew and Luke (assuming Markan priority) made a judicious and accurate correction.

It would be interesting to see what Ehrman would make of this!

65f One of Casey’s ideas – apparently derived in part from Crossley – is that Mark, though written mostly in 40 AD, is an “unfinished first draft.” However, it is apparent that by this, it would have been more correct for Casey to say it was unpolished, not unfinished. Here Casey makes the unwarranted logical leap that simply because Mark had various imperfections that could be improved upon, that Mark himself thereby would have considered his work unfinished. This is manifestly a non sequitur.

I have just pinpointed a few points of interest, and will do so in future entries. Overall, it would be fair to say that this book contains mostly non-controversial claims, and one might even find some use for some of Casey’s points within his own specialty interest (Aramaic). However, it remains advisable, because of Casey’s tendency to play the curmudgeon, to take what he says with a grain of salt and sift it critically.

Links:

Dionysus

Temple cleansing



Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Unbelievable Apologetics Conference!

Heh, no, I mean that it's by Justin Brierley's "Unbelievable" radio ministry/program. You can get the details here. But you could say it's good enough to be unbelievable even so. I wish I could go, but the UK's too far a trip. (Would be especially fun to meet Instone-Brewer.)

The Ticker will be back on Monday, when we'll start a series on Maurice Casey's Jesus of Nazareth. I have a couple of appointments Friday which will eat up some time.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Part 5

Today Nick Peters delivers the last in a series on this popular work.

**

We are now on the final chapter with which I will conclude this review. Harris is writing here about the future of happiness and right at the start, it is a wonder that someone could write a chapter like this. On page 177 he writes “Despite our perennial bad behavior, our moral progress seems to me unmistakable.”

Indeed: Because we can all watch the evening news and say America is getting better and better.

Harris tells us on the same page that of course the twentieth century delivered “some” unprecedented horrors. (Parentheses mine)

World War 1, World War 2, the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge, Hiroshima and Nagasaki….

Yes. Just “some” horrors. If you want to overlook world wars and killing on a scale never before seen, yes. We only saw some horrors.


Fortunately, according to Harris, we in the developed world became disturbed by our capacity to do harm to our fellow man.


After all, we know all of the above atrocities took place in third world countries and Russia and Germany were not at all developed….


Harris goes on to write about how he has developed his argument, if you want to call it that, in the book. There is nothing new aside from the idea that we must depend on science. Now then is a good time to consider my overall look at Harris’ book.


I have stated before that I think Harris is the worst researcher amongst the new atheists. He consistently denies citing his opponents and even though Polkinghorne and N.T. Wright are referenced in this book, their positions are not dealt with. This is not to say that they are automatically right, but that if Harris wants to say that someone like Collins tells us to read these people and has the implication that this is a bad argument, he should tell us why. What is wrong with the position of Polkinghorne? What is wrong with that of Wright?


I also believe Harris’ whole thesis in facts works against him. If our brains are meant to uncover moral truths about the world, then does this not imply a teleology for us? A proper-functioning brain is one that does happen to discover that acts of genocide are wrong. Why should the brain uncover moral truths however? (Or any truths for that matter?) Why should there be a relation between the way I “feel” and the way the world is? (In saying such, I am not saying morality is a matter of feeling of course.)


At my writing of this, Harris has just concluded recently a debate with William Lane Craig where Harris was thoroughly outmatched. While I do not agree with all of Craig’s positions, Harris’ arguments boiled down to ideas like “YHWH condoned genocide” and “Why should a good Hindu go to Hell?” Harris simply ranted and consistently played the card of “no evidence” thinking that all Christians everywhere eschew the idea of evidence for a position.


It is ironic that the new atheists tend to think simply asserting their position counts as an argument. They do not give evidence that Christians eschew evidence. They do not give evidence that faith is believing something without reason. They do not interact with the arguments of the other side seriously, all the while chiding Christians for doing the same.

It is my hope in fact that the new atheists keep up the march that they’re on. The more that they argue as they do, the better and better the state of affairs gets for their opposition. They have lowered the intellectual level of atheism. When atheists start thinking people like Harris and Dawkins are well-read in the philosophy and theology they critique, we are in good hands. Of course, this does not mean that we avoid our intellectual commitments, but if we sharpen ours blades while our opponents dull theirs, we will have an advantage.


If you are an atheist, I do urge you that if you want Christians to take your arguments seriously, avoid the new atheists like the plague. Never cite them except as a negative example. Look in their bibliographies and indexes and notes and see how much they have paid attention to the other side, and then read their opposition. In fact, read the opposition before the new atheists ever came out to see the new atheists are dealing with arguments that have been dealt with numerous times before. There is indeed nothing new under the sun.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Collectivist People Really DO Think Differently!

Reader passed on a link discussing the article here which gives some brain research data indicating what I've been trying to tell people for a long time. It's probably a conspiracy...ha ha!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Latest Readings on Hell

Under the Ticker's new schedule, I'll still post about my readings for the next Building Blocks books, but do so in clusters. Here's the latest four.

Carl Johnson, Hell You Say! I didn’t realize it until I started reading – this is a tome by an evangelist whose main form of argument is, “here’s what the Bible says, deal with it” – no serious exegesis most of the time, just Bible quotes. Quotes from various authorities and alleged authorities are sometimes given, but almost always without references. The fire of hell is assumed to be literal, and that view is supported only by quoting a 1938 journal article which argues that there is such a thing as a fire than cannot be put out – white dwarf stars. So apparently hell is fueled the same way a white dwarf is (yet also by hydrogen gases, if I believe other people). But at least Johnson also reckons with hell as a state of shame, too. (But he doesn’t reconcile the contrary images of fire and darkness).

Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation. This is a darned good book that I wish I could have used. However, it turned out to be more of a philosophical defense with respect to hell than it was an exegetical book. There is one chapter about the nature of hell, and Walls speculates that it is much like I have supposed – something where deprivation occurs, where there is no music or beauty, and where love and friendship cannot thrive. But he also suggests that there might be some physical pain (even if not literal burning flames) and does not connect it to honor-shame.

Jonathan Kvanvig, The Problem of Hell. Interesting book that discusses philosophical problems with the traditional view of hell. Kvanvig ejects it and comes up with a view of hell as a place of slow (but not always inevitable or complete) annihilation. It doesn’t wash Scripturally in spite of his brief attempts to make it fit, but Kvanvig may have found my own model more tolerable. As it is, nothing here I could use.

Alan Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: This was clearly a fascinating tome about concepts of hell n Greece, Rome, Judaism, and the NT. Unfortunately I didn’t read much of it because it had literally nothing on my topic of concern – the nature of the flames, darkness, etc of hell. Bernstein apparently takes for granted that the images are literal and investigates no further.

That’s all for the latest set of books I was looking at. I won’t be getting more until next week sometime.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape," Part 4

As I get ready for a road trip, it's nice to have a guest post to use, and in the after,math of the Craig/Harris debate, we have the next installment of Nick Peters' look at The Moral Landscape. The Ticker will return on Wednesday as I will be out of town Monday.

***

Now we come to the fun part. Harris is going to make an argument against religion. The reality however is that one will more likely picture Harris foaming at the mouth through much of this rather than making an argument.

To begin with, Harris says on page 145 that despite explicit separation of church and state provided for by the U.S. Constitution (Where?) the level of belief in religion and its significance even in political discourse rivals a number of theocracies.

Of course, the separation of church and state comes from a letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Church. However, Harris seems to construe the idea of religious belief with theocracy. What is the basis for this? Harris doesn’t give it. Because I’m a Christian, I’m automatically a believer in theonomy?

This isn’t a shock considering Harris sees Islam which is like this and assumes all religion must be like this. In reality, it is because of the idea of Christianity that religious freedom exists here in America. For we Christians, generally, while we disagree with Islam, we should support the right of Muslims to build mosques. (I am against one at ground zero, but that is not because I am opposed to a Muslim’s freedom of religion.)

What do we know about a person’s religious beliefs? Harris cites a Boyer who says “explicit theologies and consciously held dogmas are not a reliable indicator of the real contents or causes of a person’s religious beliefs.”

Because we all know that the worst way to understand a person’s belief system is to ask them what they believe….

In a number of places in this chapter, Harris also paints the exceptional as the normative. For instance, Harris speaks about a Christian group that let a toddler die of starvation for not saying “Amen” before meals. Harris does not mention that this was not a Christian group however but a group called “1 Mind Ministries.” See information about this group below.

Of course, for Harris, it doesn’t matter that this group is identified as a cult by Christians. They still fall under the same label.

Harris shortly afterwards begins a long rant. He starts by stating that because some scientists do not detect any conflict with religious faith and science only proves that a juxtaposition of good and bad ideas is possible. Why not the reverse? Why not that some people think there is a conflict proves that the juxtaposition of good and bad ideas is possible?

Who is Harris’s main target? Francis Collins. Collins, says Harris, is “widely considered the most impressive example of sophisticated faith in action.” (Page 160)

Widely by whom? While I am glad that Collins is a Christian, if you asked me to name leading defenders of Christianity today, it would take me awhile to get to Collins. Collins’s main work is not in defending Christianity, which is fine with me. We can’t expect everyone to be an apologist. Perhaps Harris should have interacted with some.

I read Michael Ruse’s review also of this book. Ruse is an atheist but does not hold back on Harris and I agree with him on this point. Harris starts his look at Collins with this paragraph on page 160 that Ruse also quotes:

The Language of God is a genuinely astonishing book. To read it is to witness nothing less than an intellectual suicide. It is, however, a suicide that has gone almost entirely unacknowledged: the body yielded to the rope; the neck snapped; the breath subsided; and the corpse dangles in ghastly discomposure even now—and yet polite people everywhere continue to celebrate the great man’s health.

If you’ve also read Ruse and think Ruse is using hyperbole to describe what Harris does here, I assure you he is not. This rant against Collins literally continues until page 174. That is fifteen pages. You read that right. Harris takes one Christian he does not like in a book on ethics and spends fifteen pages arguing against him. He would have been better off to have actually interacted with Christian ideas, such as Aquinas’s treatment of Natural Law.

Harris asks if it would be possible that Collins would be running the NIH if he were an outspoken polytheist. I say “Why not?” It doesn’t matter to me. When it comes to him giving us knowledge of the human genome, I only care about one thing. Does he have the credentials to do so? Now I believe him being a Christian is a bonus due to his attitudinal position, but I believe the knowledge of the human genome can be gained the same way. It is done through science and not revelation. If Collins was praying that God would reveal the genome to him without doing any research, I would have a problem. Unlike Harris, I don’t make that big a deal about the position that Collins holds otherwise.

When Collins writes of his conversion experience, Harris says one hopes they would see “Dear Diary” before it. Granted, I don’t place much stock necessarily in one’s experiences, but I don’t exclude them entirely either. I don’t know the full context either of what happened, but at this point in my copy of the book I literally wrote on this part “Get a grip, Harris.” I could picture him literally frothing at the mouth.

Harris also tells us that Collins believes in canonical miracles such as the virgin birth and literal resurrection and how he cites N.T. Wright and John Polkinghorne. Now I would not go with Polkinghorne, but Harris says that when Collins is pressed on finer points of theology, he recommends that people consult books by others for further illumination.

Okay. The problem? If you’re not an authority in a field, refer to someone else. Am I to think that Harris would never recommend that I read others on topics that he’s not skilled on? Or, is Harris skilled equally in history, geometry, mathematics, philosophy, logic, science, literature, poetry, music, etc. (Of course, I am open to him being equally weak in all.)

Harris in fact does this. When he writes about the distorted text of the New Testament in his opinion, he simply has an endnote to Ehrman. Note that this is just two pages after he complains that Collins has us read other people. You have to love the new atheists when they do stuff like this.

When looking at Collins’s religious beliefs, Harris asks how many scientific laws are violated by this. I can answer the question quite easily for him. None. Not a one. Harris does not understand the relationship between miracles and so-called laws of science.

On page 169, we see the idea that for Harris, it remains taboo to criticize mainstream religion. Keep in mind everyone that Harris is saying this in his third book criticizing mainstream religion and shortly after writing this paragraph, he will refer to books and articles by atheists. Yes. Obviously there is a taboo at work.

On page 173, Harris asks us “Is it really wise to entrust the future of biomedical research in the United States to a man who believes that understanding ourselves through science is impossible, while our resurrection from death is inevitable?” Hmmm. Let me think about that.

Yes.

Why? Because the science is the same. I can accept science regardless of the source. An experiment done by a Christian will produce a result. If done in the same way by an atheist, it should produce the same or a similar result. Simply have Collins’s work go through peer-review like anyone else’s should.

On page 174, Harris tells us that there are several works claiming that Harris and his cohorts in the new atheists do not understand religion, that they caricature it and use extremes as norms. Harris claims that they do no such thing. They just do what Collins does and take the specific claims seriously.

I simply ask the reader to go back through here (when they’re done laughing) and see how Harris does indeed do what he says he hasn’t. I have yet to read anything in one of these books worthy of making someone blink. Harris could have a case if he actually interacted with more Christian literature. Note that in this chapter, he never interacts with N.T. Wright for instance, though Wright shows up in his bibliography. I have written on this elsewhere and at the bottom is a link to my post on my blog on the shoddy research of the new atheism.
Naturally, Harris has the same idea as well that faith is conviction without sufficient reason and warning that we better be careful or the Christian mob will burn down the library of Alexandria again. Links are included again dealing with both of these.

Harris then asks on page 175 “But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality.”
I agree. That would be the Christian side rather than the atheist side always speaking about indoctrination and being delusional without doing sufficient research on the topic.

In conclusion, Harris’s chapter reveals nothing on religion really nor does it deal with religious theories of moral knowledge. It is simply a rant, but alas, have we not come to expect this from the new atheists?

One Mind Ministries by Apologetics Index

Shoddy Research of New Atheists

Faith defined

Library of Alexandria

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bad Arguments Against the Resurrection, Part 6

Getting back to this series, let’s now look at some very bad arguments with respect to the tomb of Jesus.

The women at the tomb. Here I will consider some arguments not covered in Chapter 25 of Defending the Resurrection, where I discuss such things as women as witnesses in the NT world.

The presence of the women is a literary device expressing that “the last shall be first.”

It may be that it served that purpose, but this is a typical mistake in which it is assumed that a report that serves a thematic purpose automatically becomes suspect as fiction. In reality, it is quite easy to select from genuine historical events if we have a theme to illustrate. For example, it would be a simple matter to cite the rise of several of our Presidents like Lincoln from obscurity in order to illustrate a “last shall be first” theme.

Maybe the women had a hallucination of en empty tomb.

This one has to be one of the more desperate hypotheses I’ve heard; what it amounts to is that you’d be able to just say “hallucination” any time some claim becomes too uncomfortable. Even so, hallucinations are rooted in genuine expectation, and I have noted in Chapter 38 of DTR that the only potential “expectation” had by the disciples was that Jesus’ body would ascend to heaven. That would leave an empty tomb, to be sure, but to “see” that, the tomb would have to be open, which means the women would have also had to hallucinate the stone pulled away from the front – which would not have been an expectation associated with an ascension of the body, and would be fairly obviously seen to have not happened by ideological enemies who would be all too glad to spread the news that Jesus’ honor claims had not been vindicated.

Now to an argument from one other perspective:

One reason the authorities didn’t produce Jesus’ corpse was that the Mishnah required the identification of a body within three days.

This is said to be from Mishnah Yevamot 16:3, which says:

They must not give evidence [of identity in respect of a dead man] except on [proof afforded by] the full face with the nose, even though there were also marks on its body or on its clothing. No evidence [of a man's death] must be given before his soul has departed, even though they saw him with his arteries cut or crucified or being devoured by a wild beast. They must give evidence [of identification] only during the first three days [after the death. After this period the decay of the corpse makes identification impossible or uncertain.]. . .

The oddity is that it never occurs to critics – especially since we have no evidence for this rule prior to the era of the Mishnah, in the later rabbinic period – that the references, including “crucified,” make this a rather clear reaction to the death of Jesus, which suggests the rule was invented after the fact as a response to Christian challenges and counterarguments. At the same time, this is the same sort of argument frequently used to challenge the historicity of the trial of Jesus – and the answer to that is the same: These are late rules; it is uncertain how much they represent an ideal versus something actually enforced; and of course, it is silly to suggest that nothing ever happens that is against the law – especially when the opposition is a corrupt leader like Caiaphas!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Snap: Rob Bell's "Love Wins"

I have a reader who is planning a review of this book from what we might call an academic perspective. In the meantime, I'm pleased to give attention to a review by Jason Berggren, author of 10 Things I Hate About Christianity. I'm giving the link to the copy on his blog below where you can see it with the added internal links.

***

Love Wins is “A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” by Rob Bell. This is important stuff for sure, which is why I tackle it in my book, 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith, as well. So I come to this review with some knowledge on the subject. If you’re interested on a comparison you can download my chapter on Hell here for free (plus, everyone who downloads it is entered to win a copy of my book).

In a way, Rob has been part of my life for eight years. I have read nearly all of his books, used several of his NOOMA videos as a basis for small group discussions, and listened to hundreds of his teachings (last week I explained why I stopped listening to him on July 29th, 2007, which is another story all together). I have deep affection and great respect for Rob. It is hard not to. That is why this review is so difficult.

That being said, let me begin by stating what I agree with in Love Wins:

• God is love and more generous than we can comprehend

• People we don’t expect to see in Heaven will be there
• People we expect to be in Hell may not be there
• We are commissioned to bring healing to this earth with our lives
• Our eternal destiny will ultimately be of our own choosing, either Heaven or Hell
• God is displeased with misrepresentations of his character and nature by his alleged followers
• Yes, is his fairness, God will allow children, the mentally challenged, and the Pygmy in Africa (or anyone else) who has not had the chance to decide on Jesus into Heaven

Beyond that, Love Wins is ambiguous, dangerous, and angry.


I wanted to like Love Wins. I really wanted to like it. But I didn’t. That doesn’t mean Love Wins is poorly written, dull, or unoriginal. On the contrary! In true Bell fashion, it is passionate, deep, and relevant. But if a movie has forced acting, a half-baked story, yet manages to come through with stellar special affects, it is still a bad movie. With all the perfect expressions, appealing conversational tones, and deep passion, Love Wins left me confused and frustrated—to such a degree, in fact, I still cannot determine what the book is truly about. Other than ‘talking’ about this stuff, I cannot figure out what the overall point is.

Love Wins is purposely ambiguous. It poses many questions and answers very few. While Bell loves to try to emulate Jesus by answering questions with questions, he misses one BIG thing: an answer always came when Jesus was around. Jesus simply posed questions that invoked a pre-existing answer in the heart of the individual. Jesus also had another approach; he would enter the temple and teach from the Scriptures, explaining and answering in great detail.
Jesus wasn’t at all ambiguous on the essentials, nor evasive; he was not ‘hard to pin down’. Jesus provided clarity at a time, and to subjects, that desperately needed it. So much so that we are still talking about his answers 2,000 years later. It’s very fashionable to pose questions, remain distant, and commit to nothing. To most, it sounds enlightened (and keeps everyone liking you), but it’s also insincere and elusive.

Love Wins is dangerous because its use and explanation of Scripture is manipulative. Sure, if a person has a pulse, then that person has a bias. We are all prone to interpret the Bible through whatever lens or worldview we have. But when a bias becomes an agenda, or even activism, with regard to Scripture, it can become very dangerous.

For example, Bell does not seem to believe in a Hell with flames of any sort or at any level, as most of traditional Christianity has held for the last 2,000 years. He believes it will be either a state (or condition) we create through our actions and choices or just a separation from God. (I elaborate on all three in great detail in the chapter on Hell in my book.)

So while explaining the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as told by Jesus in Luke 16, Bell deals a fatal blow to the meaning of it. His assessment? This is not really a parable about Hell and the afterlife. It’s about the Rich Man holding on to his pride, status, and cultural hierarchy, because, even in his torment, he wants Lazarus, the beggar, to ‘serve’ him. For some reason, the Rich Man begging for a cool drop of water on his tongue because he “is in agony in this fire” or his plea for a special warning to his family about the potential torment in the afterlife goes completely ignored by Bell. Sure, pride can be an application of this story, but it is not the thrust. It merely serves to accentuate the seriousness of the afterlife, since the Rich (Jewish) Man is in the torments of Hell, while the (Gentile) beggar is in Heaven. It is clearly a warning about Hell and the afterlife.

Bell appears to courageously jump to the end of Revelation, since it cannot be ignored when talking about Hell. He elaborates on all the great descriptions of Heaven and healing and being reconciled with God—we all love this stuff.

Unfortunately, he conveniently ignores the whole “Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:15)

Woops!

There is more, but Love Wins tumbles like a house of cards on these two areas of Scripture alone. What exactly are we being saved from then? Just our bad habits and attitudes? Bell enjoys blasting the reader with an assault of seemingly contradictory verses. Then, while the reader is dazed, confused, and off-guard, he seizes the emotional moment to introduce a controversial view. It leaves the person feeling like, “Of course this must be true…I must be an idiot if I don’t agree with it.” The Bible is filled with apparent contradictions, if you are willing to bastardize and ignore context. It is a manipulative and condescending tactic to use, since it attempts to trick the reader into agreement.

Love Wins is angry because it has all the makings of an immature, rebellious teenager trying to teach his overbearing old-fashioned parents a lesson about the new ways of the world. First and foremost, if you (or any Christian) believe that Jesus is absolutely essential to salvation or in a literal Hell with flames, Rob would like you to know that you are helping perpetuate a ‘strain’ of Christianity that is destructive, violent, toxic, venomous, and abusive. Got it?

While Bell presents himself as very magnanimous in interviews and graciously expresses that he has no desire to call out or criticize his detractors, he has done far more in this book. Bell uses fighting words throughout. If believing: 1) the name of Jesus is essential and 2) there is a literal Hell with flames, makes me a fundamentalist, pre-modern, unenlightened, barbaric, blind, villainous, and idiotic, then so be it—although I would dispute the charges. Sound at all passive aggressive? It is. I know because I ‘are’ one.

So apparently all you crotchety, outdated, grandpa-like Christians need to realize (or else!):

• When God says He will reconcile all creation to Himself that He means everyone can get into Heaven regardless of your belief in Jesus
• God will let people decide to accept Jesus even after death, if necessary
• You’re making people think Jesus came to rescue us from God, whom you seem to think is hot-tempered, switches modes, and is inconsistent
• While there needs to be room in Christianity for a wide range of opinions and views, there just isn’t room for your finite views on Hell, sin, or salvation
• Don’t worry about confessing the name of Jesus to be saved, just make sure you are living His story out in your own life
• There is a vein of God’s story in every culture, so whatever that plan of salvation is, it is perfectly acceptable to God and don’t judge them either
• Jesus died on the cross because that’s what they needed and understood back then, and that wouldn’t need to happen today since we’re, like, way more smarter than that
• Being ‘spiritual’ is probably enough for God, so don’t worry so much about being Biblical
• The Hippies had it right because it is actually possible to meet Jesus through smoking pot
• If Jesus and Christianity have put a bad taste in someone’s mouth, God doesn’t necessarily need them to follow Him because wherever they find truth is fine with Him

It’s funny, I commented on the last idea in my book a couple of years ago:


Since discussing God and Jesus can so often be divisive, why not create a new secular humanist faith that avoids all that? One that’s totally dedicated to promoting good deeds and good will among all. This would probably be more readily accepted. Coexistence and harmony between all creation—man, animals, and environment—would create universal peace and a heavenly state. Who could argue with that? This less offensive, more congenial religion would probably have more impact on society and culture as a whole. All we have to do is leave God and Jesus out of the equation. No biggie.

I guess my overall problem is that I read Love Wins in the context of Rob Bell being a pastor, not a writer. One of the primary roles of a pastor is to bring clarity, predictability, and truth whenever possible. But I suppose this isn’t really possible if you believe all truth contains a vein of the truth and is therefore equally true. This explains the evasiveness and confusion. I do not believe Bell to be willfully deceptive, but I do believe he is still knowingly guarded in his opinions. He should simply be more honest, rather than opting for the creative guise of cool and distant. You just can’t have it both ways—or should I say all ways.

Bell admittedly likes to interpret Scripture as pliable and versatile (his words) if at all possible. This takes particular shape if a Scripture is especially uncomfortable. In doing so, he unavoidably opts for the guilt-free feel-good trappings of moral relativism and philosophical pluralism. I wish I could do the same. I wish it were all true and this easy. But in his framework, the Hebrew story of God and the Christian experience with God is of no affect and no importance, since following Jesus specifically or confessing his name is not totally essential.

This fills me with great sadness. Why? Because based on what Bell says, God cannot hold us to his own standard, since He will not hold Himself to His own words.

I can make no other conclusions, according to what Rob has presented, than:

1. Love doesn’t win because there is no true choice and subsequent consequence (and this is what the nature of love is built on).
2. Christianity loses the very punch line of the ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’, since Jesus is not essential to the story.
3. God is a liar because he has called us to righteousness (and to follow Jesus) while rewarding apathy.

I am left wondering, what the heck is Christianity, what does it mean to be a Christian, and does that even matter? How does love win? Love should win because God sent his son to be a substitutionary atonement for our sins and to save us from it: He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). That is the extent of His love. Nowhere does Bell make that abundantly clear. To me, that is the real story behind Heaven, Hell, and the fate of every person whoever lived.

I love Rob, but I hate Love Wins.

Post on Jason's blog

Friday, April 1, 2011

March 2011 E-Block

Up for this month's issue:

Popular Preachers Past, Part 3: A. W. Tozer's Devotional Dozers -- the next in my series on popular Bible teachers. The big surprise was how little Scripture Tozer actually uses -- and how much less exegesis. I suppose if you're looking for encouragement he's OK -- just watch out for the occasional anti-intellectual sentiment.


Ghosts of End Times Present, Part 7: The Old Camping Grounds -- Harold Camping is the subject -- he who thinks the world will end in May. Turns out most of his thick books on this aren't even about eschatology but about a contrived mathematical system he has for calculating significant Bible dates. And -- he was predicting something significant for 2011 even back in the 1990s, so in a way, his current activities are no surprise.


The Slave Chains, Part 2 --- The second of a series on pro- and anti-slavery literature of America. This time I have a look at the pro-slavery arguments of John Hopkins, a leading supporter of slavery in the 1800s. His Biblical arguments for slavery range from dishonest to...well...pathetic.

Sliding the Hyper-Slippy-Slope -- On the threat of the "slippery slope" in exegesis. Some folks object when we contextualize the Bible, claiming it will leads to excesses in interpretation. What they fail to ask is whether or not we should "slide" the slope in the first place.

God's Prime Directive -- A revised version of an older article, redone for presentation at the ISCA conference in Raleigh later this month. In it, I look at how even the humanist show Star Trek agreed that having great power -- or even omniscience -- was not a license to interfere in bad situations.

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