Friday, June 29, 2012

Ghosts of End Times Past: Hal Lindsey

From the April 2009 E-Block.


The Ghosts of End Times Past series has been, in some sense, a journey into my own past, when I knew little of eschatology and took for granted that the likes of Faid, Whisenant, and Church ought to be at least carefully considered and given ear. How indeed times have changed! These days I take such writers with a grain of salt; but what then of the most famous of these ghosts -- the one who started the most recent round of concern for the fulfillment of the end times? 

I refer of course to Hal Lindsey, and with this profile, we will close -- for now at least -- the Ghosts of End Times Past mini-series. No doubt I will return for a few more at some later date; unless, of course, it turns out that (contrary to my preterist expectations) there is indeed a pre-Tribulation Rapture, and it happens sooner than expected! But it seems appropriate to put the series on hold with Lindsey, as more than anyone else over the past 30-40 years, his name has been associated with "end times" analysis which in turn made it possible for a Whisenant, Church, or Faid to get everyone's attention. 

Not that Lindsey has, or ever would, endorse their conclusions particularly: To his credit, Lindsey was quite clear in saying that he was not assuredly predicting the Rapture in 1988 or at any other time. That said, he certainly did leave no doubt that he thought the end times were imminent, as we will see in these profiles of three of his books. Regrettably, though he was somewhat more circumspect in his approach, Lindsey did nevertheless offer some of the same difficulties as the other Ghosts of End Times Past. For this article, we will take a look at a representative sample of Lindsey's commentary for each of the three decades of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, to see what we can make of his methodology. It may be borne in mind that this is just a sampling of many of his works, not all of which are eschatological in nature.

The 1970s: Too Late, Not So Great?

Say "Dan Brown" and everyone will think "The Da Vinci Code". Say "Hal Lindsey" and the first thought will be, The Late, Great Planet Earth. This book (hereafter LGPE) put Lindsey on the map; it was a huge bestseller following publication in 1970, and even as of today, ranks high in Amazon sales and has been reprinted as late as 1998 -- its 25th printing.

On the first page, Lindsey says, "I make no claim of knowing exactly when the world will end." Unfortunately, from the rest of his text, it appears that this was said in a way equivalent to Edgar Whisenant saying we can't know the day or hour of Jesus' return, but we can know the week, month, and year. LGPE is rife with Lindsey's political predictions for the future, especially in terms of how the predicted events will usher in the age of the Antichrist. Under such circumstances, one cannot but suppose that while Lindsey never said explicity, "it will happen within 40 years," he unerringly wished to lead readers into thinking (or hoping) this very thing.

In terms of the content of LGPE, we find problems akin to those found in the works of other Ghosts of End Times Past. For Lindsey, we'll divide matters into three categories.

Poor documentation. This is especially puzzling inasmuch as Lindsey does use documentary footnotes in several places; but many claims used are provided with no documentation, or else are reliant upon anecdotes Lindsey heard while speaking to a single person. (e.g., "A university student" told Lindsey that several of his friends signed up for courses in witchcraft [107], and this is used implicitly as evidence for a widespread interest in witchcraft on college campuses and for greater, future interest in the occult.)

The lack of documentation does not necessarily mean that a claim will not check out. For example, Lindsey's claim that the Roman orator Cicero was a member of a "Board of Augurs" [12] certainly checks out; but it is just the type of claim that deserves a footnote. His claim that Jeane Dixon sent warnings to John F. Kennedy to not go to Dallas would badly need to be documented if it is correct [15], but it appears to be false, and based on a popular misconception (see here for a popular summary).

Thankfully, Lindsey did not go so far as Faid did, using something as absurd as the Weekly World News as a reliable source! But he did not give himself much credence by providing such spotty documentation at critical junctures.

Political Prognostication. Like Robert Faid, Lindsey was not particularly good at predicting the future of the world at large -- indeed, he may be glad that he did not have to pass the Deuteronimic prophet test he refers to [20]! In light of Lindsey's many inaccurate forecasts, I must say in all honesty that I find it peculiar that he remains a respected voice even today in terms of being a social and political analyst. Here are a few of the predictions Lindsey made for the immediate future, when he wrote LGPE in 1969:
  • The European Common Market may be the basis for the future 10-nation confederation predicted in Revelation. [94] With the European Union now having nearly three times as many members, this was not as good a guess as Faid picking the Soviet Union's sphere of influence, but it looks little more promising now. Relatedly, Lindsey associates the antichrist with a revived Roman Empire in Europe, and says he will have "mesmerizing oratory" skills [108]. Please keep this in mind.
  • Israel will become incredibly wealthy from Dead Sea minerals and geo-thermal energy available from steam trapped in faults there. This is verified by one of Lindsey's anecdotal sources, a "prominent Los Angeles engineer." [156]
  • Many Christian denominations will merge as truth is sacrificed, and churches will resort to "social action gimmicks" and "elaborate programs" to attract congregations. [182] The first seems to be in limbo -- and I don't know that the second was expected to be fulfilled in such schemes as those recommended by Rick Warren in our last issue (e.g., churches offering courses in potty training), but it is fair to say that Lindsey was still reasonably accurate as a whole on that one.
  • There will be a move to make Jerusalem "the religious center of the world" and rebuild the ancient Temple. The American economy and military will collapse. [184]
  • A united Europe will stop the "Communist take-over of the world" and even control Russia and China. The papacy will become more involved in world politics, and there will be limited use of nuclear weaponry in some war. Social problems will "multipy geometrically" in the late 1970s, drug addicts will run for and win high political offices, and drugs will widely become associated with religious practice. [185]
Lindsey wisely refers to his forecasts in terms of speculation, but warns his readers that he does not consider himself to be anything like "infallibly right." [181] My only comment from the cynic in me....well, he did get that prophecy about himself correct, at any rate.

Pretribulation Exegesis. Finally, there is this, of course. The bulk of LGPE reflects Lindsey's eschatological exegesis of the text; and it is my intention to reserve any depth critique of this sort of exegesis for a future printed publication by the ministry. However, I would make a couple notes initially:
  • Lindsey is compelled to interpret Matt. 24:34 -- Jesus' warning that all the signs he listed would be seen by "this generation" -- in something other than the "plain sense" which he previously says must be used when interpreting Scripture. [50] That sense would read "this generation" in terms of the generation living at that time -- in line as well with Jesus' prior use of the term "generation" to refer to the those who asked after a sign (Matt. 16:4). Instead, to fit his eschatological interpretations, Lindsey must add words in brackets, as it were: "this generation" must actually be "this generation I am talking about, which will see these things come to pass." That is a great deal of information to add to the slim semantic package "this generation" affords.
  • Ezekiel 36-38 is interpreted through the lens of modern Israel rebuilding the Jewish Temple. My own initial analysis of these chapters would see the fulfillment of Ezekiel's words in the Temple of the first century authorized by Herod. How does Lindsey disconnect Ezekiel's predictions from that Temple? He merely notes "two distinctions" [60f] before proceeding with his own exegesis. One is that "[the Jews] are to return from a long world-wide dispersion," and the Babylonian dispersion was neither long nor worldwide. Unfortunately, Lindsey does not specify where, Biblically, his understanding of a long, worldwide dispersion is justified. Ezekiel speaks generally of Israel being in dispersal among the "nations" (generally, the pagans) but that is hardly specific enough to bear the weight of "worldwide" that Lindsey would require. Other exegetes of Lindsey's eschatological persuasion refer generally to Ezekiel's comments about Jews being "scattered among the nations" and this again does not bear the weight of "worldwide" unless we assume that it does in the first place. Ezekiel's contemporaries would have intelligibly read this in terms of a limited number of Gentile nations with which they were familiar.
    As for Lindsey's second distinction, it seems to be that Ezekiel says that Israel will have "spiritual regeneration" after return from Exile, as in Ezekiel 36:25-29:
    I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees. You shall live in the land I gave your fathers; you shall be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your impurities; I will order the grain to be abundant, and I will not send famine against you.
    While a full explication must await one of my future projects, intially I would make these observations:
    • My initial reading -- as a preterist -- is that Ezekiel's prediction applies rather to the new "Israel" that is the New Testament church -- note that this is not a "replacement theology" inasmuch as it follows Paul's understanding of Israel as those who are loyal to YHWH -- whether Jew or Gentile by birth.
    • The promises of fertile land, which presumably Lindsey reads literally, must be read in light of Ezekiel's language in other contexts like his prophecy against Tyre. Because the promises are essentially the blessings of the Deuteronomic covenant, these can be read in general terms as archaetypal covenant blessings rather than specific promises to e.g., have a lot of grain grow.
  • In that future project, I will also investigate various connections made by Lindsey between Ezekiel's predictions and political entities of his time, such as the claim that the Meschech of Ezekiel 38 is equal to modern "Moscow". Lindsey has been criticized heavily by some reputable commentators for these equations, as noted here:
    Historian Edwin Yamauchi notes that, even if one transliterated the Hebew ro's as a proper name (as the Septuagint does), it can have nothing to do with modern Russia. Yamauchi writes, "This would be a gross anachronism, for the modern name is based upon the name Rus, which was brought into the reign of Kiev, north of the Black Sea, by the Vikings only in the Middle Ages." Yamauchi goes on to analyze the nomenclature "Gog and Magog" and reaches the majority scholarly opinion, namely, that we simply cannot positively identify the antecedents of these historical names. However, the identifications of Meshech and Tubal are not in doubt. Few scholars today equate them with Moscow and Tobolsk. Rather, combined ancient testimony attests to the fact that Meshech and Tubal were located in central and eastern Anatolia (Asia Minor), respectively." (C. Marvin Pate and Calvin B. Haines, Jr., Doomsday Delusions: What's wrong with Predictions About the End of the World, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995, p. 62-63)
    I hope to discern the exact truth of these matters in the coming years. I can only say for now that with Yamauchi's weight behind the matter, a commentator like Lindsey has an immense burden to carry.

The 1980s: Counting on Hal

As the 1980s opened, Lindsey released The 1980's: Countdown to Armageddon and seemed to use it as something of a "see I told you so" in places where it seemed he had been on the right track in LGPE. He also became a tad more injudicious in his predictions, saying that the 1980s "could very well be the last decade of history as we know it." [8] Did he improve or change in any of the three categories?

Poor documentation. As in LGPE, Lindsey continued to be spotty in his documentation. Most often direct quotes are sourced properly when they come from things like magazines; but quotes from individuals are not. More spectacular claims that cry out for notes are left without documentation. Did Lindsey really get invited to speak at the Pentagon [5]? What's with this "elite group" he spoke to that was responsible for gathering military intelligence? He says he "cannot reveal" who they are -- yet people like this gather at private homes to hear him speak by invitation? Sadly, this reminds me too much of Austin Miles' claims to be privy to special information on the Kennedy assassination and to have all sorts of private meetings at just the right time. It may be true that Lindsey spoke at the Pentagon and was in contact with all these people, but if it is, that all the more means that documentation is essential.

There are lesser fact claims that deserved better as well, such as that Soviet Russia possessed 100-megaton nuclear warheads; merely citing "scientist Arthur Crawford" [25] is not sufficient for documentation. (Scientist in what subject area? And where did he say these things?) So as a whole, Lindsey continued to rate poorly on this important aspect of the performance and reportage of research.

Pretribulation Exegesis. There is not a lot new for the 1980s in terms of Biblical exegesis; what IS new is what Lindsey calls in to aid his exegesis. One thing that portended trouble, Lindsey thought: The so-called "Jupiter Effect" [29f] which in 1982 was supposed to cause a round of worldwide natural catastrophes -- which it obviously did not. Lindsey decided that the Jupiter Effect was an entree' into a round of Biblically-forecasted natural disasters, but as we all know by now, it was not. (Actually, creationists were debunking that even as Lindsey's book came to print. Lindsey should have paid more attention to contrary voices, both from Christians and from secular scientific sources.)
The advent of computers also gives Lindsey ammunition to interpret out a system for the Antichrist to use to regulate commerce [111]. Lindsey anticipates use of electronic funds transfer, but predicts that because it would be so easy for someone to steal your bank card, the "only safeguard" against theft of all your money will be -- yes, a tattoo. As we know by now, bank card companies and others have come up with many more "safeguards" such as putting one's picture on a bank card, using a PIN code, and asking for the card holder's zip code. We will not be requiring our own personal tattoos any time soon.

Political Prognostication. Lindsey took care to let readers know when predictions he made in LGPE were coming to pass. For example, he noted that the takeover of Iran by Khomeini fit into his scenario. [60-1] That's fair. But for full disclosure he also should have added updates on ALL his predictions, including things he got wrong. For example, what about the claim from LGPE that Israel would soon become wealthy from geo-thermal energy and Dead Sea minerals? An update would have been nice -- but there isn't one.

On the other hand, Lindsey does seem quite satisfied that the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan was Russia's "first step into the pages of Ezekiel, chapter 38" [46]. He was also quite delighted to note that the European Union was on the verge of ratifying Greece as a tenth member [104]. He warned that while there may be more than 10 nations in the EU at some point, "in the final stages" there will nevertheless be just ten. (It was also rather odd to see Lindsey write of the transfer of American wealth to oil-rich nations using much the same verbiage as T. Booke Pickens did during the last Presidential campaign. [55] Lindsey predicted that the oil-rich nations would "soon be able to buy up the majority of the west's vital holdings.") As a whole, though, Lindsey seemed content that his predictions were on the right track. (Lindsey had a few other ideas that didn't pan out, such as that Iran might fall to Marxists [68]. He saw greater Communist influence ahead, but his list of nations under Communist rule[81] would have to be severely pruned by now.)

The 1990s: Catching a Code
In 1997, Lindsey's prophetic value was apparently such that he wasn't going to produce a bestseller. Apocalypse Code (AC) was printed by an outfit called "Western Front, Ltd." -- a group that seems to have Lindsey's work as some 85% of its output, though Chuck Missler and Paul Crouch put in a work or two as well.

Once again, how does this book stack up in terms of our three categories -- especially since as we know by now, so much of what Lindsey predicted didn't pan out?

Poor documentation. Sadly, documentation in AC is the worst found in these three books, which is indeed unfortunate since Lindsey's claims are even more radical (and therefore all the more in need of footnotes) than they were in past books. For example, quite radical claims are made about a government project called HAARP that is reputed to be able to cause exceptionally damaging changes to the weather as well as effect some sort of mind-control. For claims like these, one would prefer to see much more documentation than what Lindsey offers, which is essentially little more than a single book by a minor publisher, co-authored by a person, Nick Begich, who also thinks that cell phones cause brain cancer and who appears to be a favorite of conspiracy-theorists. [92-3] Lindsey also assures us, for example: "...Iran has already purchased, according to my sources, at least three nuclear warheads on the black market." [133] Who are these sources? Why are they to be believed? We are not told. Obviously, I am not saying that it is therefore impossible that Iran could have done such a thing, but it is the height of irresponsibility to make such claims without sufficient documentation.

Pretribulation Exegesis. The bulk of AC is just this, as before; and as before, Lindsey is compelled to try to work out modern meanings into Biblical texts. Suitable to the times, Lindsey finds ways to install global warming, tornadoes, and AIDS into the text's larger picture [12ff]. He also plays as a major theme the idea that John in Revelation is doing his best to describe modern phenomena in first-century terms. While this is a logical step once we grant the premise of a futurist eschatology, Lindsey's efforts to make a match most often are simply too vague, or just do not work.

For example, he wishes to read into the "locusts" of Rev. 9:7-10 some effort by John to describe modern helicopters: "The general outer shape of a helicopter is similar to a locust." [42] Indeed? Maybe "general" in the sense that both tend to be longer than they are high; but the resemblance ends there. I find Lindsey's attempts to read, e.g, John's "woman's hair" as being "the whirling propellor that looked like filmy hair," and the "teeth" as referring to a chopper's "monster six-barrel cannon," to owe more to poetic imagination than anything else. In this, Lindsey reasons no differently than someone like Acharya S who finds 12 "disciples" of Mithra in a picture of Mithra surrounded by the zodiac.

Obviously, Lindsey did find it necessary to make some more adjustments to his exegesis otherwise. For example, Russia will now attack Israel not as a Communist empire, but as a "rogue military power" [68]. The Antichrist still will come from Europe and will "mesmerize people to worship him." [72] Despite criticisms like Yamauchi's, the "Magog" interpretation is still alive, with no indication that there has been any criticism [80]. The EU is still the 10-nation confederation, though no explanation is offered as to how this will work with the EU having much more than 10 members.[185]

Political Prognostication. Perhaps it would not be far enough past 1997 to give a fair judgment on any prognostications made by Lindsey in AC; but it would matter little, since here [294f] Lindsey offers little in the way of prediction that is not in some way derived from the template of futurist Biblical interpretation. He sticks, rather, with reciting facts from his present year (albeit again, insufficiently documented), leaving the reader to see in these reports the birth pains of the coming Tribulation. Dare we suppose that he had by now "learned his lesson"? Perhaps.

A Couple of Notes for Today

I have not gone much further than profiles of these three key books. Lindsey is of course still active today, with a recurring television program and a website for his articles. But I did look long enough to find two things that were quite telling.
As noted, in AC, Lindsey jumped on the "global warming" bandwagon and rode it into the veil of Biblical prophecy. I am not here to vote yea or nay on whether global warming is a real phenomenon or just a panic attack; it is not a matter of my expertise. For Lindsey, in AC, it was real. But recently, when a group of scientists came out against global warming, Lindsey commented with an article titled, "It was hot air all along" in which he props for the views of those scientists. He then quotes 2 Thess. 2:10 to the effect of people believing in "strong delusions" in the end times.


What happened to the role of global warming in Biblical prophecy, then? Was Lindsey himself subject to a "strong delusion" when he wrote AC? Lindsey describes the climate of the times thusly: "If the truth hurts, change the truth 'til it doesn't." It seems that Lindsey ought to replace "truth" with "means of prophetic fulfillment" and see if it works as a ministry motto.

The second point concerns Lindsey's description of the future Antichrist. As noted, Lindsey definitively associates this future leader with a revived Roman Empire in Europe, and says he will have "mesmerizing oratory" skills. The following, however, demonstrates the plasticity of Lindsey's prognostication quite well. He is now recently reported by TIME magazine to have said the following:
The speculation reached a fever pitch after Obama's European trip and the Berlin speech in which he called for global unity. Conservative Christian author Hal Lindsey declared in an essay on WorldNetDaily, "Obama is correct in saying that the world is ready for someone like him — a messiah-like figure, charismatic and glib ... The Bible calls that leader the Antichrist. And it seems apparent that the world is now ready to make his acquaintance."
Obama -- the Antichrist? One wonders what happened to the Antichrist as leader of the revived Roman Empire, as one who would "come up out of the culture of the ancient Roman Empire" and head the European Union. Will Obama abdicate in favor of a better offer sometime during or after his term of office? And what of being a mesmerizing speaker? Perhaps some would say that Obama fits that bill -- but the cynic in me recalls nothing in Revelation about the Antichrist requiring a TelePrompter to work his speechly magic!

In closing, my evaluation of Lindsey in general:

Lindsey is simply too adept at sticking his moistened finger into the air to detect any sort of event or prediction that MIGHT support his exegesis. Things like Israel's mineral wealth, the Jupiter Effect, the HAARP project, and global warming (as well as the rejection of it!) have been recruited for Lindsey's purposes. This does not mean that all of these things are or will necessarily be bogus, but it does show that Lindsey is too ready to uncritically accept claims that he thinks he can use. He is also not particularly good at admitting when his use of these things was in error. It would have been nice if, in books like AC, he had admitted that "the Jupiter Effect" turned out to be a red herring. But while he's on the spot to show when he is right or looking right, he is far too reticent when it comes to admitting when he was not.

To that extent, I would say that he has not been very responsible as a promoter of "end times madness" -- and that he indeed opened the door for even less responsible prognosticators like Whisenant and Faid to ply their trade.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book Snap: David Instone-Brewer's "The Jesus Scandals"

Once in a while I get a kick out of reading something written by a scholar that reflects something I came up with independently before. David Instone-Brewer's The Jesus Scandals is a pretty big example of this, on a large scale -- you could almost call this one The Impossible Faith II.

Like me, Instone-Brewer has a long list of things scandalous about Jesus, his associates, and Christianity -- many of them mirror some of my own points (particularly on crucifixion, resurrection, various teachings of Jesus, and his personal identify), while others will be new to the reader of TIF (and are mostly things I would not have used for TIF, since they may not have entered into evangelistic settings, or I did not know about them).

Unlike me, though, Instone-Brewer doesn't use these to argue for the Resurrection as a historic event. Rather, The Jesus Scandals seems to aim to merely catalog ways in which Jesus and Christianity seemed scandalous.

I do not agree with all that is in this book; there are a few minor errors (e.g., Instone-Brewer dates the Zealots too early, and probably overplays the offense of Jesus being single). But as a whole, you'll find ideas in here that support my TIF thesis (over and against its critics), as well as other fascinating social and cultural sidelights.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Invention of Individualism

A reader passed this on to me, which is a good dosage of reality for critics who accuse me of making this kind of stuff up, or overemphasizing it.
[Herbert] Hoover's many years overseas had bred in him an acute interest in his own country's distinguishing cultural traits, and in 1922 he gathered his thoughts on this subject into a little book, American Individualism...."Individualism" was, after all, a concept that had been invented to describe a social development considered unique to American society. Alexis de Tocqueville had first given the term currency a century earlier in Democracy in America, in which he declared that "individualism is of democratic origin." It was different from mere selfishness, and in many ways more dangerous because more isolating. Selfishness, said Tocqueville, "leads a man to connect everything to himself, and to prefer himself to everything in the world," but individualism was still more pernicious, because it "disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart."

Friday, June 22, 2012

May-June 2012 E-Block

The Paul Fan Club II, Part 3 -- We continue our look at the exceptionally long-winded (and poorly supported) Questioning Paul by Winn. This time it's chapters 6-8. Thankfully there are only 4 more chapters to go. Reading Winn is like hitting yourself with a lead porcupine. The most amusing note is at the very start:

We had noted in a past entry that Winn, while recognizing correctly that "faith" is not merely belief, but more like trust (actually, loyalty), he nevertheless fails to grant this proper meaning when Paul uses the word, and insists that Paul uses it to mean "belief". Indeed, he has the nerve to go as far as saying Paul changed the lexicon and caused pistis to evolve from "trust" to "belief," from "reliance" to "faith." Since this definition did not appear in the first century anyway, and would not appear for centuries, this is nonsensical to start; but even worse is Winn's justification for this misreading: 

I say this because Paul never once provides the kind of evidence which would be required for someone to know Yahweh or understand His plan of salvation well enough to trust God or rely upon the Way.
Of course, Paul would have provided such evidence long before he wrote his letters; the message of the Resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15) would have been preached many years before as the basis for faith. So pointing out that Paul "never provides evidence" is a misdirected objection, and this even more so in Paul's high-context social setting, where background knowledge by his readers would be assumed anyway. 

Thus Winn's only reason for tendentiously transforming Pauline pistis is a failure, and his efforts to critique Paul thereafter on this basis also fail. It speaks for itself that he admits, the things Paul wrote which would otherwise be accurate if "faith" is properly defined. In short, he admits he has to forcibly re-interpret "faith" in a way entirely foreign to its linguistic and social contexts in order to get Paul to say things which he can condemn. 

Mythicism Out in the Wash, Redux, Part 2 -- We pick a few more items to revisit from Earl Doherty's Jesus Neither God Nor Man: His "Disneyland Palestine" argument, the phrase "according to the Scriptures," the Last Supper reference in 1 Cor., and Hebrews 8:4. The verdict: Little or nothing new and nothing to defend against our own replies to Doherty. It's not hard to see why Doherty will never get taken seriously by real scholarship.

Priceless Brotherhood -- I start a look at arguments from Robert Price's The Christ Myth and Its Problems. Here, I check on his outlandish efforts to defuse the "James brother of Jesus" references -- which include such boners as appealing to an alleged (but actually, contrary for him) parallel to the claims of a 19th century Chinese revolutionary. If Price strains any harder he'll break the Earth's crust and form a volcano at Johnnie Coleman U.

The Seal of Confession -- some original (for me) research on the Catholic doctrine of absolute secrecy for those who confess sins. This took a long time -- it was a special research project for a reader -- and I found the arguments used by proponents a little disturbing at times, and highly contrived at other times.

Journey Through Orthodoxy, Part 3 -- I check out Michael Pomazansky's Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, which provided me with some serious points of disagreement. A dialogue with an Orthodox reader also continues.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Neil Godfrey's High Context Bungle Jungle

To be a Christ myther requires either casual arrogance, appalling ignorance, or some mixture of both. A blogger styled “Vridar”  aka Neil Godfrey is typical of the sort of mixture of both that makes the Christ myth  able to find places to reside in the intellectual cracks of society. I challenged Vridar to debate me on the issueof the authenticity of Paul’s letters here some time ago, and as is also typical of the Christ myth crowd, he ran with his tail between his legs, yowling like a scalded dog. I expect little different this time, even as I issue a fresh challenge over the subject today.

Vridat recently put that combined arrogance and ignorance to work with an address to what he supposes to be a “misapplication” of the concept of high context cultures to the point that Paul does not mention certain life details of Jesus in his epistles. Although I have been positing this point for years now, Vridar has now been apparently been so stung by Maurice Casey’s adoption of the argument that he cannot help but reply – no doubt thanks in good measure to the substantial beating Casey (and Stephanie Fisher) have been administering to him lately.

Vridar, I might point out, is the sort who wouldn’t know a “misapplication” of such things if it bit him on the rear end, and it speaks for itself that the best he can do in reply is appeal to airline pilot Kris Komarnitsky’s attempt to skittle around the issue of high context:

JP goes on to argue that the “high-context” society Paul and the Corinthians lived in can account for Paul’s silence on the discovered empty tomb. But as JP admits, even in high-context societies “repeat of detail would . . . occur if some need were present to repeat.” This just leads us back to the question above. If Paul is trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection, he definitely has a need to repeat information. And in fact that is exactly what we see Paul do. He repeats the basic community creed that Jesus was raised and that this has been confirmed in the scriptures (1 Cor 15:4). He lists those who Jesus appeared to (1 Cor 15:5-8) which, being an already established Christian community, the Corinthians must have heard about before. Drawing on the authority of these witnesses, Paul then challenges the Corinthians, “Now if Christ is proclaimed [by all of these people] as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (1 Cor 15:12).

Here, Komarnitsky’s error is twofold. First, Paul is not “trying to defend Jesus’ resurrection” in 1 Cor. 15. What he is answering, rather, is a Corinthian deviancy in which it is doubted that humans can be resurrected, and in that regard, he makes use of Jesus’ resurrection as a precedent. 

Second, the rhetorical purpose of 1 Cor. 15:3-11 also points to a specific need to fulfill: Composing his argument according to the principles of Greco-Roman rhetoric, 3-11 consists of a narratio, which would include testimony like this as part of the building of an argument. Thus it is rather simple to demonstrate the “need” present to offer these details in context. This is the sort of detailed explanation Earl Doherty needs to reproduce to validate his 200 alleged “silences” – but as it stands, my analysis of those 200 showed that in each case he failed to provide anything of the sort, mostly appealing vaguely to “common sense” or else using low context reasoning.

Thus it is that when Vridar points out this or that detail reported by Paul seems to contradict the high context thesis, it is clear that it is he – not I or Casey – who misapplies, misunderstands, and misuses Hall’s presentation. His use of Komarnitsky – as opposed to a serious scholar of anthropology or the social sciences -- typical of those in the Christ myth camp who are unable to properly process complex ideas like these from anthropological scholarship.

That leaves a few comments made to this rather dawdling entry by Vridar. Most of his crowd slavers obediently and says nothing of value, but here are a few points worthy of addressing if only to emphasize the intellectual dementia typical of Christ-mythicism.

An oblivious user styled RoHa asks a list of questions:

I still want to know (a) how they know the society Paul was writing to was a “High Context” society…

This is the finding of credible and reputable social science scholarship and is the result of decades of careful research and study. That RoHa lives in a shell is not a reason for it to be otherwise.

 (b) whether they have a list of what things would be repeated, and what things would not be repeated, and how such a list is justified

No list. The fact that RoHa requests one shows that he/she fails to grasp the complexity of the concept. A list would be impossible because what is “high context” in a context depends on a shifting of conditions, not on a predetermined list.

and (c) whether any of these guys has actually lived in a high context society?

As if this matters? It doesn’t. But several of my readers do live in such a society, and social science research has been done in the “living laboratories” of actual high context societies. Again, this is not open to debate as a concept.

A lesser intelligence styled muuh-gnu states the “gospel writers obviously didn’t” live in a high context society. 

What this user fails to grasp in the the Gospels, as laudatory Greco-Roman bioi, serve a specific purpose, that of honoring their subject by recounting their words and deeds. Of course, it would take a lot of foolishness of suppose that this is any sense would disprove the entire structure of anthropological scholarship. But the “need” is clearly demonstrated.

The longest comment comes from a user who remarks on another commenter’s posting of the Wikipedia item on high context. The rather idiotic supposition is made that because the article notes rules of behavior and the social setting as part of the context of understanding what high context is, this means that it did not extend to other parts of daily life! This is simply without merit, and an artificial division foisted by the commenter’s tendentious reading of the Wikipedia description. 

The same commenter also offers a peculiar analogy to the rediscovery of the Law in the Temple at the time of Josiah, taking from this that “knowledge of the sacred rules of behavior towards God and his priests were not implicitly taken for granted. Communication by the priests, the prophets and the books was necessary.” How this has any bearing on the issue is hard to say. Per the account, the law had been lost for some time and was unknown to the people. Beyond that, law in particular was a special “needs” case, as it involved rules to live by on a daily basis, with associated penalties for failure. As far as I can tell, there were no penalties for failing to recall such things as that Jesus lived in Nazareth. Furthermore, the law was to be repeated and meditated upon as essential to the keeping of the covenant; the details of Jesus’ life are not part of the New Testament covenant.

The one thing that the commenter does get right – and which I have never disputed, and indeed made clear in my own writings -- is that “high context” is a matter of scale. Some social groups are “higher” context than others, and have to become “lower” in context if they deal with an outsider. But this does not erase the fact that as a whole, the ancient Mediterranean was on the “higher” end, which makes the Christ-myther demand for more detail about the life of Jesus an oblivious one. Furthermore, the seasoned ekklesia – to whom the epistles were all written – would be an example of a sub-group “with autonomous rules of conduct and hermetic professional jargon” which the commenter admits would be characterized as high context.

A commenter styled J. Quinton observes:

It seems to me that the “high context” in Paul’s congregations should have been the LXX, not the life and teachings of Jesus.

Not in the least. Paul’s congregations were a decade or more old; the life and teachings of Jesus, by then, would be as ingrained as the LXX would have been. This is a distinction that many in Doherty’s thrall – including Doherty himself – fail to recognize: They argue as though Paul were addressing new converts with no knowledge. Indeed, in Jesus Neither God Nor Man, Doherty offers an appendix in which he makes this mistake rather obviously.

Vridar himself offers another oblivious comment:

Even when it came to “pivotal cultural values” Paul was quite prepared to spell them out explicitly when he believed it would reinforce his instructions. Recall his “Does not nature itself teach you that it is a shame for a man to have long [or whatever the original meaning was] hair?”

Here again Godfrey’s impenetrable ignorance comes to the fore. Moral teachings are a special “need” scenario, as they affect real life behavior. The function of such teachings as these is moral exhortation, which is in need to stronger emphasis because of the constant social pressure in an agonistic society to conform to group expectations (and the temptation to diverge from them). Obviously this has no bearing on such things as Jesus being from Nazareth. It does have bearing on Jesus’ moral teachings, but as we have argued, those are to be found alluded to in the epistles as is appropriate.

That closes us for now; but we know Vridar to be the sort who does not know when he is in a losing cause, so we expect a reply. However, from here on it will be done at a TheologyWeb thread here, where we challenge Vridar – or any of his sycophants – to defend their ignorance.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Book Snap: Robert McElvaine's "Grand Theft Jesus"

From the April 2009 E-Block.

Robert McElvaine tries hard to offend. He failed in my case...somewhat for lack of hitting his target, but also for lack of being relevant, and most of all, failure to make a case for his own side.

Grand Theft Jesus (hereafter GTJ) is what would happen if George Carlin were genetically rolled together with John Shelby Spong, and was then sent to perform his comic routines as written by the crew at the Skeptics' Annotated Bible. It's not an intelligent case for much of anything; it is, at best, a fulsome rant of approximately 300 pages in which McElvane vents against lead figures in the "Christian Right" as well as certain leaders in the "prosperity" movement. Sometimes, he hits his target. More often, he's just shooting into the air to make noise and knocking over his targets on the decibel meter. His subjects? Here they are, and generally speaking, some initial thoughts:

Politics -- Not my game. I did vote Bush and McCain these last three elections, but I did so in the same sense that I would have voted for Donald Duck, because Bozo the Clown was running on the other side of the ticket.

Prosperity -- McElvane's condemnations of Osteen and Meyer are just far (far, far) simpler, far more profane, condemnations of the versions we have produced here in the last few months. His condemnations of hypocrites like Haggard (who promote -- implicity or explicitly -- a "do what you want" form of Christianity) are and have been done much better by Christians.

End times madness -- McElvaine's extended screeds against the LaHaye and Rapture-ready consortium, as readers well know, fell on deaf preterist ears here at Tekton.

But all of this is, again, mostly McElvaine shooting whale sharks in a barrel their own size, using a Sherman tank. It is also done with the masterful hand of one wearing cement mittens. Fully nine-tenths of GTJ is repetitive rant, peppered with parodies of hymns to suit McElavine's reactions (e.g., "Amazing Disgrace"), potshot remarks, and wiseacreage. Not, of course, that I of all people begrudge such things; but it is best if one wishes to adopt such methods to ensure that you also have the argumentative arsenal at hand to justify your methods. McElvaine does not. While he preaches the message repeatedly about the evils of opposing abortion, homosexual rights, and the fight against global warming, his text almost never -- perhaps a total of two pages out of nearly 300 -- gets past the preaching and into the proving by argument. Overall, McElvaine assumes his position on issues is to be taken for granted as right, and he doesn't need to argue for it.

Somewhat more frequently (if that can be said), McElvaine does argue against Christian positions in specific issues and interpretations, but he does so using the text so freely that it cannot even be called midrash. Matthew 7:1 is enlisted for the usual (judging) misapplication/condemnation of those who judge others (not even hypocritically). [29] It is objected that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality or abortion [58], as though this ought to make Christians quiet about those issues. Apparently McElvaine is not aware that those two things were taken for granted as wrong in Jewish Palestine. (And yes, Jesus' warnings against praying in public are misapplied to school prayer in the usual way.) He buys into a crackpot thesis that after the crucifixion, "there appears to have been something of a power struggle between Peter and Mary Magdalene" [87] and misuses Tertullian's "Eve" quote (see here for a corrective). Portions of his text are merely rehashes of the famous Dr. Laura letter, in essence.

But the longest gaffe of all has to do with McvElvaine's mishandling of Genesis. He opts for the usual "two creation accounts" riposte, which we have dealt with in detail. McElvaine didn't find our article, but he did find two others which do a less thorough job. He does reserve particular scorn for the pluperfect renderings, though without assistance from any Hebrew grammar sources which might otherwise impair his crusade. As we note in our article, a pluperfect rendering is no "sleight of tense" or "desperate reshaping of meaing," [203] McElvaine's complaints notwithstanding.

McElvaine's lack of competence handling the text (and defending his views from it) is no surprise. His sole qualification for performing exegesis -- after he confesses to not be a theologian or a biblical scholar -- is that he is "a "professional historian and I do know how to read. And anyone who can read can see in the official Gospels what Jesus is quoted as having said." [4] Indeed. However, regrettably, base literacy isn't sufficient in the least to interpret what one reads. And while McElvaine is indeed a professional historian, his era of specialty is the Depression Era -- about as far from the agonistic, collectivist, Greek-and-Aramaic speaking world of the New Testament as one can get without hitting modern electronics.

Further than this, McElvaine achieves the Jesus of his own vision in the same way he accuses "Lite Christians" of creating their own: In the footsteps of Marcion, he arbitrarily decides that whatever is recorded in the NT about, or as said by, Jesus that he disagrees with, simply doesn't represent Jesus and was added by those who corrupted his message. I have wondered many times why commentators like McElvane don't simply dispense with Jesus altogether rather than taking this tack; but no, McElavine opts instead for an arbitrary, dualist approach, claiming that the God of Jesus (and some of the OT prophets) is "loving, nonviolent, accepting of enemies as well as neighbors, and a champion of the poor." [48] This, it is supposed, can't also be from a God who (McElvaine says) is "quick to anger, violent, vindictive, and demanding of obedience and tribute". Of course, to accomplish that dualism requires McElavine to judiciously edit out anything where Jesus is angry, violent, and demanding of obedience, such as the book of Revelation. Call it Jesus the Golden Corral Way, save that where "Lite Christians" like Osteen often overemphasize the carbs, McElvaine spends too much time on dessert.

Needless to say, the idea is no more useful or coherent today than it was under Marcion. Descriptions of God as "quickly angry, vindictive, petty" etc. overwhelmingly resort to one or more of differing types of decontextualization -- mainly to the effect that eg, those poor Canaanites were just minding their business and doing hook rugs when the Israelites came along and killed them in cold blood. The "quick to anger" God only gave those poor Canaanites about 400 years to change, but it seems that that wasn't enough for McElvaine.
As might be expected, McElavine deftly extracts from the NT anything that scents of exclusivism; we are never told why exclusivism is erroneous, other than that it leads to conflict.[27] Presumably McElvaine is not aware that he is making an exclusive claim that exclusivism is incorrect. We are told, "God is BIG; holy books are much smaller. He/She does not fit between the covers of any book. How can an Omnipotent God be contained within the finite pages of a book?" [95] McElvaine has mixed categories here; indeed, he used a single word -- "omnipotent" -- to describe God, and thereby "contain" Him. He is confusing substance of existence with description. Further than that, his own argument presumes to know much more about God than the books in question, so as to be able to judge that God cannot fit in them.

In any event, McElvaine does nothing to resolve the Law of Noncontradiction any more than anyone else has. If he is right, then his other Marcionist contentions are subverted.

In the same vein, McElvaine makes much of "doing" Jesus, e.g., following his teachings -- except of course, the ones like "no one comes to the Father except by me" and the judgment scenes found in places like Matthew 25. In such cases, McElavaine fails to see the admonitions to good works as directed to those who are Jesus' disciples -- which means, they have already declared their loyalty to him. McElvaine reads into the text a works-based salvation [53] because he fails to properly contextualize.

Much of McElvaine's ire is directed towards those who say that things like 9/11 and Katrina were judgments of God. In this, I do happen to agree; those who claim those as special prophetic catastrophes should note that God's Biblical judgments tend to be much more finely directed to their targets.

One will find McElvaine careless with facts in other places as well. Richard Land gigs him for at least two samples here, and he also misreports Timothy McVeigh as a Christian [178]. (See also here.) That error in particular indicates that McElvaine is no serious scholar when it comes to issues with which he is grieved; it is an error consummate with claiming that the Depression was caused by poor sales of fruit.

In the end, GTJ isn't much to write home about, and fails even at being offensive because it tries too hard to be that way. It will serve well as a pep rally for those already addicted to Dawkins -- and not much else.