Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Misreading "Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes," Redux



Following the review of Letham's review, I was alerted to an Amazon review of MSWE by one who calls himself, "Scholarly Reviewer." As will become clear, this is an inapt title for this person, who claims to have some sort of serious credentials, but if he does, they are more likely to have been procured from an unaccredited institution, or perhaps Sesame Street University. We will refer to him as SR for short.

SR begins with some paranoid ranting to the effect that MSWE is out to " 'prove' that Eastern cultures not only view the Bible more accurately than the West, but that they indeed might even be superior to Western cultures." The former is a fair assessment, but the latter is merely paranoid foolishness and jingoistic well-poisoning. There is not a hint of even "might be superior" on any page of MSWE,  and SR will not have the nerve to offer a single quote demonstrating this; indeed, what little SR offers is misrepresentation, as we see in a moment, and we will see he continues to misrepresent MSWE throughout his review.

Yet more accusatory ranting without substance follows, and then it is said:

While they claim in the book that there should perhaps be a work about misreading scripture through "eastern eyes," the authors deal with some of the most important issues impacting life, claiming that all are handled in a superior way in Eastern cultures. 

"All"? Again, where is this said? It is not said anywhere in MSWE, not one jot or tittle, and SR offers not a single quote showing this.

There are only two areas, never much elaborated on, in which the authors believe the Western view is superior: generosity with wealth and forgiving past wrongs (p. 21).

Actually, page 21 says nothing of any Western view being "superior." What page 21 says -- with reference to generosity and forgiving -- is:

Some characteristics of the West actually help us to read some passages more faithfully, such as those encouraging forgiveness or generosity.

There is nothing here of "superiority" at all. SR is, as noted, misrepresenting MSWE.

 It is of interest that they are silent about the issues of the status of women and slavery, two areas in which most Eastern cultures fail miserably. 

Oh? SR says this as a member of a major Western culture that, save for Brazil, was the last to eliminate slavery. At the same time, what's with this broad brush of "Eastern cultures" as though they are homogenous? Japan has no slavery today; they got rid of it before America did. And lest we forget, ancient Rome, which had the same "Eastern" values MSWE describes, but is a cradle for our Western civilization, held millions of its population in slavery.

Moreover, it apparently never dawns on the authors that how these cultures view various aspects of life impact the way they treat women and "the other" that they enslave.

This is merely vague mouthing without substance; a generalized accusation unbacked by facts. We do get into some specifics with a treatment of Ch 4, but the failure in scholarship is appalling:

The authors contrast individualism with collectivism, but this is a false duality not based on a Biblical standard. While the Bible does support the concept of community, this is not the same as collectivism, the latter being a Western term connected to Marxism-Socialism. It is not coincidental that they chose this term, as "individualism" is built up by the authors as a straw man so as to introduce their collectivist solution. 

One wonders what in the world SR is trying to get to here. Collectivism, the economic system, is not the same as collectivist social orientation; the two have nothing to do with one another. The only semblance of a touchpoint is that while collectivism is government-enforced sharing of resources, a collectivist society will have instances in which an ingroup (not a government body) will freely share resources to enable the survival and betterment of the whole. SR obviously does not have any idea what "collectivism" is as MSWE defines it -- it is indeed the "concept of community." Clearly SR has never read any social science literature seriously, for he has made a tremendous blunder in confusing economic collectivism with social collectivist orientation.

At one point they note that in a collectivist culture the "highest goal and virtue" is supporting the community (p. 97). In addition, they state that Paul claims that righteousness is "conformity to the expectations of God's community" (p. 132). Really? How is this defined? They do not ask the key question: is this really Biblical truth? 

SR's naive Bible-thumping aside, the fact is that collectivist social orientation WAS the truth of their social world, and it lies in the background of statements like those MSWE notes. Please note that SR is implicitly leading us to the idiotic solution that "Biblical" people represented a temporally and geographically isolated pocket of "Western" (in more bigoted terms, "Biblical") thinking, which was known nowhere else in the world at that time and would not emerge again for several centuries.

Does the Bible call upon people to establish support for the community as the "highest goal and virtue" in life? 

Yes, it does. Our community, our ingroup, is the Body of Christ. So is SR now going to say the Bible doesn't want is to establish support for the Body of Christ?

Do we see this in any declaration from Moses or Jesus supporting rule by the majority?

"Rule by majority"? Where SR gets this from is hard to say. No such principle in enunciated in MSWE; nor is any such principle the goal of collectivist social thinking. Indeed, it was most normal for the collective to have a leader who would dictate decisions for all. SR's retort is merely paranoia, as is this:

 Even worse, their entire approach encourages busy-bodies judging people on the basis of collective taboos and personal pet peeves rather than the revealed moral law of God.

No, not at all. As noted, the Body of Christ is our community. That means by extension that any law established for the community is found in the New Testament, and in places like the Sermon on the Mount, not in "collective taboos and personal pet peeves." Obviously, without direction from God, a collectivist society might find a moral source in some other presentation -- perhaps even taboos and peeves, though this is more a case of SR using bigoted language than reflective of actual social science scholarship. But the same could be said of an individualist society, whose members could source moral judgments in anyone from Jesus to Gandhi to the Charles Manson, and in anything from the Bible to the Quran to the papers of Benjamin Franklin.

They bash the notion that in the West a person becomes a Christian based on their individual and personal choice (p. 103). 

They do not "bash" this at all; this again is paranoia. MSWE merely describes this and compares; there is not a hint of "bashing" anywhere, and I dare SR to quote MSWE to this effect.

However, they fail to note that Paul made this decision in the same way; there is no evidence that any of his companions traveling with him to Damascus became Christians because Paul did. 

There is no failure here at all except in SR's reading skills and honesty. As MSWE goes on to note, the collectivist alternative is that whole families or tribes will convert at once. Paul's companions were not part of his "tribe" or "family." At the same time, SR is using fundamentalist black and white thinking to miss a point: MSWE says that group conversions "are not uncommon," not that individual decisions never happen at all. Clearly, again, SR cannot be honest with the text.

Also note this same example of fundamentalist thinking:

Of course this does not necessarily invalidate group conversions. These, contrary to the authors' opinion, were fairly common in Western cultures until the not so recent past. Indeed, it is the principle means by which Europe was converted to Christianity, and such conversions often came at the point of the sword (read Henry of Livonia's chronicle of the Livonian Crusades in the 11-1200s for just one example). 

Of course, here SR is merely grossly ignorant of the fact that Europe of this age was collectivist in social outlook, and would be so for several centuries to come. SR has committed this blunder because he has foolishly divided, of his own accord, the matter of "western vs eastern" in strictly geographic terms. MSWE does not make this error, saying early on [19] that the terms Eastern and Western do not account for diversity within those geographic parameters, but they use them anyway as they are "limited by space and language" in their text.

As far as the "Livonian Crusades," since SR does not cite a specific narrative in this four book chronicle,  not much can be said; but we may add that the "point of the sword" is not the same thing as people converting because eg, a tribal leader or a family patriarch converted. There is no force involved in the latter whatsoever -- only group loyalty that is natural to the social collectivist.

Given this, SR's further rant that MSWE misses out on individual forms of conversion in the Bible is merely rot, reflecting his poor reading and uncharitable anger towards MSWE. We may also disregard an extended rant about "Biblical law" allegedly missing from MSWE. What SR misses is that within the Christian collectivist community, Christ is the head of the Body, such that his law -- what SR so self-righteously calls "Biblical law" -- is indeed what the Body's mores and norms are based on. 

SR brings up Ezekiel 18, but in so doing he again misses the point.  Ezekiel 18 is not about rejecting collectivist punishment, which Ezekiel affirms elsewhere. See rather the link below for explanation from a prior essay.

 Moreover, Jesus never said, "follow thy family, clan, or tribe to thy salvation" when he spoke to Nicodemus in private.

That Jesus did not say this does not mean it was not an acceptable process. This is merely fundamentalist reasoning of the same sort used by the Churches of Christ to ban musical instruments.

 The authors claim that an Asian person who makes a decision to become a Christian based on what his father told him to do have a faith just as strong as those in the West (p. 105). But how is this any different than kids in the American South becoming Christians because it's the "cultural thing" to do? 

Because unlike the Asian, the American child is giving in to peer pressure, not following the principles of group loyalty which underlie the survival of his society. That SR thinks to compare the two merely, again, reflects his abysmal ignorance.

In fact, the authors bemoan this as a detriment for their own Christian experience, but seem to think it is perfectly legitimate for an Eastern person to do the same. Are they serious?

The authors "bemoan" this? One is constrained to ask where. I find no such "bemoaning" save in SR's childish poison-prose temper tantrum.

We next move to MSWE on the concept of time. Playing the bigot again, SR says that:

...one of the reasons why these cultures do not engage in much cultural and economic development is precisely because they have an unbiblical, and thus faulty view of time. 

Aside from the rather idiotic and bigoted presumption that, again, Western = biblical, this is simply generalizing nonsense. How does SR define "cultural and economic development"? How does he deal with successful "Eastern" societies like Japan, China and Thailand with plenty of culture and economy? How about the fact that (cough) Western imperialism might have played a role in any alleged lack of "development" as a bigoted Westerner defines the term? SR goes on to whine that, again, MSWE calls the Eastern view "superior," but once more that is to be found nowhere except in SR's paranoid imagination.

The authors assume erroneously that because Solomon uses the phrase that there is a season or time for everything that therefore the Bible might support a cyclical view of time. 

Er, no. SR falsely presents this as though Solomon's words were the basis for an argument ("because"), when in fact MSWE merely uses Eccl. 3:1 as a thematic illustration of a fact demonstrated by the social sciences. One wonders again at the mental capacity of someone who cannot tell the difference between an argument and a thematic illustration.

They begrudgingly admit that time is linear (p. 141), but they then build a straw man to demonstrate that the Western view of linear time is wrong.

There is not any "begrudging" in any words of MSWE, and they say nothing of the linear view being "wrong". Again, why must SR lie like this? And he lies again when he says:

 They correctly note the differences between the Greek words "kairos" (a season) and "chronos" (a measure of time), but incorrectly assume that Western cultures do not understand the former.

MSWE says nowhere that Western cultures "do not understand the former." What they do say is that Westerners "instinctively think in terms of chronos," [142], which is absolutely true. They also say that it can cause a reader to draw a wrong conclusion from a Biblical text, and demonstrate this by way of examples that I, personally, have encountered -- that of the nativity story and the temptation narratives. The issues they describe reflect exactly objections I have answered from atheists about the story. In any event, "understanding" the types of time is not the point at all, so SR has erected another scarecrow.

The authors also confuse "time" with its means of measurement. The fact is all peoples have the same amount of "time."

No, they do not; this is merely SR straining for a problem. The chapter opens with a very clear discussion about time measurements, and it is clear to any reader not seeking to cause problems that it is these measurements that are described as elastic, not "time" itself as SR so absurdly claims. Thus it is SR who misses the point, not MSWE.

The authors go on to use Kurt Vonnegut's conception of "time" from "Slaughterhouse-Five," apparently endorsing it.

"Apparently"? There is no such apparency; this is again SR's ludicrous paranoia at work. Once again SR cannot tell the difference between a thematic illustration and an argument.

The authors attempt to tell us that the Scripture writers developed their "stories" around central themes and did not follow a time sequence (p. 148). Of course, this raises the question of whether or not these writers were relating facts or were they embellishing to enhance their "story's" central theme.

No, it doesn't "raise" that question at all, except among those who bigotedly start with the assumption of "Western" ("biblical") understandings of time. In this, SR repeats the objections of the virulent atheist Farrell Till, who used this sort of illogical guilt by association argument, as a response to this very same point as I raised it, in order to suggest that it means the NT authors "embellished" their accounts in other ways, or gave a "false witness," or offered "propaganda," or that he stories are "mere creations of the writer." It should make SR ashamed that he mirrors the arguments of one of the most virulent atheists to have ever lived in this century.

It speaks to SR's selective vision when he goes on to admit that "this does not mean there are not multiple accounts in the Bible where some information does not come across in the same order..." But he tries to excuse himself by saying, "those instances are obvious." Well, the instances MSWE refers to are also "OBVIOUS" to anyone properly informed in social science scholarship. SR's manifest ignorance is not an excuse for raising an objection.

The authors assume that we are probably misinterpreting Scripture if we try to examine them in a historical and chronological sequence (p. 151).

No such "assuming" is found in page 151. Page 151 offers a list of "Questions to Ponder," one of which asks how we one would misconstrue meaning "IF" one interpreted a passage using the wrong concept of time. The answer to that is quite clear by way of examples such as the one I alluded to earlier with the nativity and temptation narratives. Now it seems SR cannot tell the difference between a question for discussion and an argument.

SR finally tries to poison the well by saying "it s in Gnostic documents were one finds loose and fragmented stories without continuity." If so, it might be considered that this would be because the Gnostics shared the Biblical writers' view of time as cyclical. That said, SR may as well poison the well with this sort of nonsense: "Jesus wore sandals. So did Gnostics."

Moving to chapters 7 and 8:

While the authors discuss that most Christians believe that God is not confined to physical laws (p. 158), they seem to equate this to moral law as well. 

Once again, this is merely fantasy. No such "seems" is present in the text or on the page.

Thus, in the ancient world relationships and not rules (or law) define right and wrong (p. 161). 

There is no "thus" from the statement on page 158, and MSWE does not say relationships "define right and wrong." SR is again making up things for MWSE to say. He spends a paragraph burning this straw man, then erects another one in which he alleges that MSWE allegedly "shift[s]the argument to where the relationship becomes the ultimate driving force while rules are forgotten." 

Again, no such thing is either said or implied, not even in the story SR cites:

They reference Sonya, a housekeeper one of the author's hired when in Indonesia. He discovered that Sonya dictated the terms of employment and when she would work, a point that the authors assume is Biblical (i.e. because it's Eastern). 

MSWE says no such thing as "Sonya dictated the terms of employment and when she would work." Rather, MSWE says that when Sonya was hired, the author expected to proceed with a typical business interview in which one would define the working relationship according to such matters as what specific hours she would work and what her duties would be. In other words, the expectation was for a fixed structure. In contrast, the relationship was actually set up so that, for example, Sonya came to work "when needed" -- in other words, when there was work to do. This is no more a case of Sonya "dictating terms of employment" than it is to do so when we work 9-5 -- because the 9-5 workday is the fixed standard for our culture, not something we "dictate". I might add that the Western equivalent to this is freelancing.

And yet Jesus did not teach this as witnessed by His parable in Matt. 20:1-16 (the owner hiring help for his vineyard). 

First of all, Jesus did not "teach" a fixed workday; he merely used it as an example for his parable. Second, even in the parable in question, the equivalence is not a fixed workday, but closer to our modern "labor ready" service -- so is SR going to march into his workplace and demand to be treated like a day laborer because a 9-5 job isn't "Biblical"? This is simply obnoxious bigotry, as is SR's suggestion that the author was "manipulated" by Sonya.

When dealing with the notion of holiness, the authors state that "holiness is a relational and not a forensic term" (p. 173). By "forensic" they mean legal; that is, holiness is not based on what you do or don't do, but is based on who you are or know. 

That again is simply made-up nonsense, as are all of SR's burning strawmen that follow; for what MSWE does mean by this, see link below. 

The authors, echoing socialist/collectivists, trivialize the concept of sin by saying that all sins are the same (i.e. God does not "rank them"). They especially do this with regards to "sexual sins" (p. 181).

Once again SR simply lies unconscionably about the contents of MSWE. The points are made not to "trivialize" sin by making them all equally trivial, but to raise them all to equal levels of seriousness. This is quite clear from the fact that it is asked when the last time was that a pastor was fired for gluttony. The obvious point, to anyone who (unlike SR) is not looking for problems, is that we too easily rank sins and end up giving people a free pass on some of them.

SR burns this straw man for a while; I would only note for a break that he claims to have spoken to Bruce Malina and thinks he needed similar correctives. One can only behold at the arrogance of SR, and at his bigotry, yet again, in asking, "Is it any wonder why many Eastern cultures are still technically and economically backward compared to the `benighted' West?"

They claim that the West doesn't have a notion of shame; but indeed we do. 

This again is false, and maliciously so; it is little wonder SR does not quote MSWE to this effect. Nor, again, does MSWE say anything about Eastern cultures being "superior" for this reason; nor do they deny that "right/wrong" plays a role in Biblical culture.

SR next moves to MSWE on David, Bathesheba, and Uriah:

First, they demote Uriah to a mere mercenary, when in fact he was one of David's "mighty men," the equivalent of Alexander the Great's Companion Cavalry or Darius's 'Apple Bearers.' 

And what is the point of this? There would be nothing mutually exclusive about being a mercenary and being one of David's "mighty men." Note as well that the designation of Uriah as a "mere mercenary" is made as a contrast to David as king, as a comparison in rank, not as a way to devalue Uriah as a soldier. One wonders why SR did not deign to report this in full.

Moreover, the authors make Uriah appear to be so shrewd as to know precisely what was going on... after all, they claim everyone was gossiping about the affair... and yet Uriah is so stupid that he gets drunk with David, and then while sober senselessly attempts to shame him knowing that David could and would retaliate. Not very smart for such a shrewd "mercenary."

SR is giving an 8 page treatment of this subject by MSWE a short-shrift one paragraph summary, which he dismisses based on the supposition that Uriah would not be as smart as MSWE indicates because SR supposes "David could and would retaliate." What SR is too insensate to realize is that retaliation by David would have amounted to an open confession of sin before all those observing the affair.

What is really bad in their bizarre twisting of this account is when they attempt to justify `divine right of kings' by severely mangling the account of Naboth's vineyard in I Kings 21, saying that it was perfectly in the right of kings, even in Israel, to seize whatever property they wanted and do whatever they pleased. Their lack of understanding of primogenitor and how Naboth could legally resist Ahab's efforts to steal his family's inheritance is simply astonishing, not to mention their apparent ignorance of Deuteronomy 17; yet they excuse this away as something inherit in divine right (p. 127). 

SR is again outrightly lying about what MSWE says here. MSWE does not "attempt to justify" divine right of kings; they explain that the assumption of such a divine right was "customary." The exact quote is: "It was customary for Mediterranean kings merely to seize whatever they wanted."  There is nothing here "excusing" or "justifying" Ahab's actions. SR again cannot tell the difference between explanation and endorsement.

Note in this regard as well that it takes a profound amount of idiocy to suppose that a wicked king like Ahab would have given a fig for any attempt by Naboth to "legally resist" Ahab's efforts, or to suppose that Ahab would have been halted in his tracks had he bothered to turn to Deut. 17.

SR goes on with a rant asking whether the authors would be "more at home in Castro's Cuba or Mao's China than in the United States," as an expression of his nationalist/jingoist "America, Love it or Leave It" mentality which is better for Archie Bunker than for an alleged scholar. Again, we remind the reader that the authors have not said any system is "superior". In fact, the word "superior" is used only once in the book, on page 54, where the authors say they reject any ideas that some races are "superior" to others. SR then goes over the top of profound idiocy and into the realm of pathetic drooling ignorance, as he again misreads MSWE's intentions on "divine right of kings" (it does not occur to him that Nathan, as the broker of God's covenant, actually holds higher divine rank than David would), and then compares the authors of MSWE to Nazis who mangle the truth.

SR closes with an extended rant in which he repeats back in different forms the same errors he has already committed, while also accusing the authors of "ignorance." In the process he manages to invent yet another point for MSWE:

 And yet, while telling us that the West is so generous, apparently we are not generous enough, for they use the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12 to tell us that his egregious sin was that he didn't share his wealth with others. The authors claim in essence that we are saving too much and that we need to be even more generous (pp 187-88). While they cite our generosity as one of our virtues, they apparently don't think we are virtuous enough. 

"In essence"? "Apparently"? No such thing is related anywhere on pp. 187-8. The parable of Luke 12 is used to illustrate that what was seen as a vice of "greed" in one social setting could be understood as a virtue of "saving" in another. It is then pointed out that this is why it is sometimes not clear to modern readers what the man's "vice" was, and that they assume it must have been materialism rather than not sharing with neighbors in need. Not a word is said indicting modern lack of virtue (though with many persons, that is absolutely true, whether SR likes it or not), or accusing anyone of not being "generous enough." 

In sum, it is merely SR's paranoid resentment that interprets MSWE, and nothing more.




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