Friday, June 7, 2013

A Sloppy Kind of Christianity, Part 2


From the April 2010 E-Block.

**

The next several chapters of NKC have to do with Biblical usage and interpretation. Such activities, as we have often said, require a certain degree of authoritative knowledge in direct correspondence to the depth of claim being made: Radical interpretations, thus, demand a higher burden of epistemic support which would validate the interpretation over and against other interpretations; or as I like to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary explanations (not “extraordinary evidence” as Skeptics like to put it).

With McLaren, it is no surprise, we are offered a few radical interpretations, but nothing like the needed support for these interpretations. If anything, McLaren reads the text very much like a fundamentalist would – simply reading it “cold” with little to no concern for defining contexts. This is perhaps just as well, given that when he does make contextual appeals – which is rare – his sourcework is dismal (in line with the use of Ellerbe noted last issue).

Chapter 7: How Should the Bible Be Understood?

McLaren professes that his quest has “required me to ask some hard questions above the Bible I love.”[67] That’s quite fair. We believe that Christians should ask hard questions, and seek answers. But there is quite a difference to be seen in someone like, say, Jason Berggren -- whose own “hard questions” we believe have been asked, and had answers brought to bear by himself, as free of any agenda as can be humanly done – and one like McLaren who tries to answer the “hard questions” with answers amenable to the image of God he has created. I believe that if McLaren were honest, he would do as some liberal Christians have done, and simply admit that there are parts of the Bible he cannot stomach – and thereafter, re-enact Jefferson’s editing process. But McLaren – whether because he knows it will distance him from the “evangelical” camp he professes to belong to, or some other reason – instead pursues the less honest route of force-interpreting texts out of all recognition.

McLaren begins this chapter, however, not with rational discourse but with emotional diatribes and unwarranted generalizations. He relates completely anecdotal claims about how, in his youth, he heard preachers “passionately decry psychology and psychiatry” and of how Christians who went to churches that forbade the use of those practices ended up committing suicide. Really? What is the evidence for this? What are the statistics to support that this actually happened to any real extent? While we would not doubt that such things may have occurred, there is nothing offered to show us that these were anything but fringe aberrations of the sort that can never be entirely eliminated, given that they result from the factor of human fallibility. McLaren uses this anecdotal evidence as a reason for a wholesale repositioning of how we read and interpret the Bible – and this is far from meeting the need for “extraordinary explanations” to justify the repositioning.

McLaren briefly cites those who “deny our environmental crises by quoting Bible verses and mocking science” but again offers nothing in terms of specifics, much less does he back up the “science” in question. He then moves on to the incredible claim that the Bible “when taken as an ethical rule book, offers us no clear categories for many of our most significant and vexing socioethical quandaries.” [68] McLaren follows with a laundry list of such “quandaries” which is a mixed bag: Some are indeed able to be addressed from the Bible’s ethical teachings (such as abortion and just-war theory); others aren’t “socioethical quandries” save by a meaningless definition of the words (autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder???). McLaren admonishes us against “wrestling biblical passages to bear on these issues in a simple ‘thou shalt not’ way,” but once again we are left wondering who in McLaren’s universe has been doing this apart from fringe lunatics. Once again, he gives no names or examples. I have certainly never seen anyone try to “wrestle” any Biblical passage to address autism, and with respect to issues like abortion and just-war theory, there have been an ample number of thoroughly sophisticated apologetics on these subjects that are far more than “thou shalt not” applications.

But apparently, McLaren is aware of none of this; he has nought but anecdotal stories of nameless persons or broad movements (eg, “Christian Reconstructionists”) who allegedly did no more than throw a “thou shalt not” in the air with a Bible verse or two. We are not even told the name or McLaren’s reputed opponent on a radio show who allegedly justified the Iraq war with a tinfoil-haberdashery exegesis of Biblical verses about “crushing Satan” underfoot. Is McLaren accurately reporting the sum and total of his opponents’ positions? Or is he simply restricting himself to debating fringe lunatics?
McLaren appeals further to an example that should have been a signal to him, but was not. He notes that he once spoke to “Rwandan Tutsis” who justified their superiority their Hutu opponents by noting that they (the Tutsis) were “descendants of the sexual union between King Solomon and the Ethiopian queen of Sheba.” [69] The irony here is that this alleged sexual union is not even in the Bible – it is an imaginative version of history with no textual or scientific support. Yet McLaren fails to get the point that the problem is not the Bible or how we read it, but with human pride, selfishness, and greed. McLaren is aiming at the wrong target.

We can certainly agree that our sacred texts must be approached in a sane and rational manner. [70] However, that manner involves contextualization. McLaren offers a long diatribe [70f] on how slaveholders of the pre-Civil War era justified slavery from the Bible, but not once does the right answer occur to him: Their interpretations were contextually erroneous (see series here). 

Indeed, McLaren notes five lines of arguments used by pro-slavery advocates, and somehow fails to notice that four of the five do not even have anything to do with the Biblical text. Shouldn’t this tell him that Biblical justification for slavery was an afterthought?


Indeed, the few OT texts cited by pro-slavery forces were just those noted in the linked article to be referring not to chattel slavery, as pro-slavers wished, but to what they would know as indentured servitude; so likewise the NT texts McLaren notes being used are addressed in the linked article. In any event McLaren cannot look past these as abuses of the text used to support a decided agenda – and thus he is again citing right problem, wrong solution. And what is that solution? We’ll see that in the next chapter.

Chapter 8: From Legal Constitution to Community Library

Now turning to what is his “positive” case for how to read the Bible, McLaren begins by charging that “we read and use the Bible as a legal constitution” whereas he supposes it to be more like, as the title indicates, a “community library.” We may begin by noting that McLaren is certainly not wrong to call the Bible a library of sorts (though the word “anthology” would be more accurate). However, that is not mutually exclusive of the use of appropriate portions of it as a source for authoritative teachings. But is this what McLaren means when he says the Bible is (mis)used as though it were a constitution?

That is hard to say, since he never clearly explains what that means. McLaren himself wields some passages with authority to advance his own views, so if that is what he means, he is also a hypocrite. Perhaps McLaren simply means that some texts have been used out of context. McLaren will later refer to the fact that certain passages were not meant to apply to other times and places [80], so it’s a good chance that this is what he means. And if this is so, then we heartily agree.

However, as noted, McLaren is most reticent in offering specifics, and when he does, his answers and understanding are unusually poor, and he offers examples that are nonsensical. Where does he get the idea, for example, that Ps. 137:9 teaches that “we” should joyfully dash the infants of our enemies against rocks? [79] I know of no one who has ever read Ps. 137:9 as a literal instruction – not even the most hardened fundamentalist of the Westboro tradition has done that.

McLaren apparently meant for pro-slavery advocates to be the best example he had of persons reading the Bible like a “constitution.” Ironically, this is precisely what was not the case. Had the pro-slavers indeed read the Bible like a constitution, they would have found nothing at all to justify slavery – they would have found in the OT justification for indentured servitude, and in the NT, values that undermined the premises on which slavery was built. The real problem was not that they read the Bible constitutionally, but that they read it void of contexts. McLaren once again has the wrong solution to a real problem.

I also cannot fathom where McLaren gets the idea that “Christian scholars” deal with reputed tensions in the Bible with “interpretive techniques” such as “last mention trumps first mention.” [79] Outside of a children’s Sunday School, I have never heard or read such reasoning used, and it certainly has appeared in no scholarly work out of thousands I have read.

McLaren alleges that one sorely neglected point in Biblical interpretation is, “Whom does our current approach favor or empower?” [80] In truth, this is a worthless, even a childish point. McLaren’s profession that “insiders” who “depend on the constitutional system for their salary and social status” are not “disinterested” is the sort of rhetoric we would expect from conspiracy theorists and from Dan Brown, not from a serious Christian author. It remains as well that whatever reading we have will inevitably “empower” someone, even if it is McLaren himself. Asking questions like these is merely a useless distraction.

One final irony emerges from this chapter. McLaren professes to prefer the Bible as being read in terms of “a community gathering in which people listen to the Bible being read, then respond and interact with it and with one another.” [84] This picture McLaren paints sounds suspiciously like an “emergent paradise” – and not what we’d find in the world of the Bible. The community would gather to be read to, but mainly because 90-95% of the people were illiterate and could only “hear” the word, not read it. They would not “respond” or “interact” but listen in respectful silence – unless the speaker mangled the text or somehow offended the audience’s sense of rhetoric. In this light, McLaren’s raising the specter of “religious thought police [who] stand ready to raid places in which theological conversation strays” [85] is not merely a displaced case of an unwarranted victim complex, but a perfect example of why what McLaren unjustly calls “religious thought police” are needed in the first place. McLaren has the idea that he is being “policed” because he is controversial with the Biblical text and the facts, when it fact it is because he is grossly incompetent with them.

Chapter 9: Revelation Through Conversation

This chapter adds little new. McLaren rather arrogantly equates himself with those who underwent “decapitation, burning at the stake, hanging” etc. for expressing their beliefs [87] but compared even to a Servetus, McLaren is far from taking any sort of courageous risk in explaining himself. He repeats an error (noted in our prior articles on McLaren) in which he claims that the idea of Satan was taken from “Zoroastrian religion”. [88] The balance of the chapter is spent in explaining the absurdity of reading the book of Job as though it were a “constitutional” document, which as far as I know, no one is doing in the first place. McLaren does rightly see Job as a sort of “dialogue” – it is in the genre of an ancient text of that sort --- but to expand this such that Job is a “fractal of the whole Bible” [93] in this respect in an unwarranted leap. Job IS in the genre of dialogue; other parts of the Bible are not. In essence McLaren is committing the very same error of decontextualization that he accuses “constitutional” readers of performing.

McLaren writes, “Could it be that God’s Word intends not to give us easy answers and shortcuts to confidence and authority, but rather to reduce us, again and again, to a posture of wonder, humility, rebuke, and smallness in the face of the unknown?” [93] It can certainly do that, but such is far from mutually exclusive of finding “easy answers and shortcuts” in particular cases. The critical question is whether such answers are derived competently from the text, or whether they are simply imagined by one predisposed to find what they want to find. Sadly, McLaren is just as apt to do this – with his description of the whole Bible as a “portable library of an ongoing conversation about and with the living God” [96] – as those he criticizes.

Chapter 10: Is God Violent?

it is here that McLaren begins confronting the textual and narrative demons that beset him, and the next two chapters are an attempt to deal with passages in the text in which God sanctions “violent images, cruel images, un-Christlike images.” [98] It ought to be noted to start that by inserting that last qualifier, McLaren has created and failed to solve the conundrum that Christ himself apparently validated and stood by the full authority of the Old Testament and all of the “un-Christlike” images therein.

McLaren’s solution to this “problem” lacks in both courage and honesty. He opts for the idea that “our ancestors’ images and understandings of God continually changed, evolved, and matured over centuries.” [99] The question McLaren never answers quite clearly is whether this means God Himself was, at some point, not actually prone to react with violence and war under certain circumstances in history. He admits that the Bible is not “free of passages” that depict God as violent, etc. but qualifies by saying that these passages are “not the last word on the character of God.” [103] I know of no one who says otherwise. He also claims that he “not saying that the Bible reveals a process of evolution within God’s actual character” but rather “that human beings can’t do better than their very best at any given moment to communicate about God as they understand God, and that Scripture faithfully reveals the evolution of our ancestors’ best attempts to communicate their successive best understandings of God.” Later he says that the authors of the OT saw God as violent because they would “naturally see God through the lens of their experience”. [106]
Behind all the doublespeak we find here, there’s a critical unanswered question: How could “our ancestors” have misunderstood eg, divine commands to destroy the Canaanites and Amalekites under this rubric? Did God actually command Israel to do something else that they misunderstood (because it was their “best understanding”) as commands to destroy? Does McLaren envision God as being this poor of a communicator? How much “understanding” does it take to grasp, “destroy/don’t destroy”? Is he saying God didn’t actually communicate these things (in spite of Jesus’ endorsement of the OT)?

In the end McLaren’s solution is left without any explanation. He uses the analogy of math textbooks for 2nd graders and 6th graders, the first of which says that “you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller one,” while the second says you can, as it introduces students to the concepts of “negative numbers.” To begin, this analogy is quite poor, as I have never seen such advice given in any math textbook without qualifiers, such as “When using natural numbers...” Indeed, I have found a comment here in an educational textbook that indicates that McLaren’s example is something math teachers should avoid, instead introducing students as early as possible to negative numbers and not using the sort of absolute statement he offers about our inability to subtract larger numbers from smaller ones.

Ironically, McLaren’s own “evolution” idea also raises the clarion call of warning that the math textbook does. His solution is neither consistent nor intellectually satisfying, and would be rightly seen as a dodge by the atheists and critics I have dealt with over the years.

McLaren then suggests that God first eg, revealed Himself as “tribal” because that was the best way to shepherd people to a more advanced view. Of all of McLaren’s thoughts, this one does have some merit; we have used the same arguments ourselves regarding, for example, how God undermined the basis of human slavery rather than forbidding it outright, a sort of “Martin Luther King” approach. But in this, God is consistent in His rejection of slavery. McLaren cannot apply the same rubric when it comes to such things as God sanctioning violence in the OT, for a transition from “violent” to “not violent” manifests inconsistency, not development. His idea that perhaps there was a stage where God “appears to be both passionately and violently committed to justice” [105] in order to shepherd us to a stage where we would understand God as He “really” is (“nonviolently yet passionately committed to justice”) cannot be reconciled by appeals to how God might have “appeared” or been misunderstood, because there is nothing to misunderstand.

Otherwise, McLaren’s positive case for an “evolving” understanding of God is, not surprisingly, thin. [99] He notes God’s deeper self-revelation of His name in Exodus 6:3, but this in no way amounts to a revelation that indicates God’s character was misunderstood; indeed, the revelation of a name would indicate to the reader that Abraham’s descendants were being offered a covenant, indicated by access to God as sovereign. He notes that Hosea 2:16 says that Israel will refer to God not as “master” but as “husband,” and that Jesus said that the disciples were his “friends”. [99-100] McLaren takes this all to indicate increases in levels of intimacy. However, as we have noted in this very issue, this latter verse is badly misinterpreted. At the same time, while these verses do indicate an increase in rank or status, this would not be any sort of unexpected “evolution” but the natural progress involved in a covenant relationship, in which rewards (such as access and privilege) were earned by obedience. There is no “evolution” here because the system was known as a whole from the very beginning.

Then, McLaren notes that Paul spoke of the law as a tutor. [100] Here, though, this has not to do with an evolving understanding of God, but with the “evolving” (developing) education of men. God’s character is not part of the stated curriculum. The same may be said regarding McLaren’s note that early parts of the Bible were written by priests concerned for ritual purity, while latter portions, from the prophets, had more emphasis on social justice. McLaren somehow gets from this an idea that this reflected a shifting emphasis in the “heart of God” but it seems more likely that it reflects shifting social conditions and needs in the nation of Israel which correspondingly required addressing. If Exodus or Numbers do not mention “the systemic flaws that plunge people into poverty and imprison them in oppression” [100] it is primarily because as a predominantly nomadic barter society, the Jews at the time of Exodus and Numbers did not possess the social mechanisms that would produce those flaws in the first place.

McLaren’s final case of evolution is that whereas God seems “very tribal” in the OT, by the NT He “created all people and loves all people.” [100-101] These latter concepts are far from missing in the OT text; Genesis 1, and the natural theology of creation, already speak to these things for those with “ears to hear.” McLaren also wrongly positions the OT as picturing God giving "one people privileges over others as God’s favorites," committing the same error atheists make as discussed here.

Chapter 11: From a Violent Tribal God to a Christlike God

McLaren begins this chapter with a professed fear of “slippery sloping” – that is, he worries that men will use Biblical passages about genocide to justify their own. The flaws here are the same as those found in his appeals regarding slavery, and it is sad to have to note that McLaren sounds very much like an atheist in the way he characterizes God as depicted in the OT. [109]

The chapter otherwise adds little, other than offering several incomprehensible diagrams that remind one of the work of Theosophist Lloyd M. Graham. McLaren adds an egregious error in thinking that idols were forbidden to the Jews because “idols freeze one’s understanding of God in stone” [111]. Such notions would come from an emergent theologian, but were far away from what an ancient person would have been concerned with: Idols were forbidden because they were considered to be “points of contact” for the deity, where one communicated with the deity, and God had designated prophets as His mouthpiece. Additionally, no idols meant there was no sense of God being at the beck and call of humans. They were not meant to send any message about the fixity of our understanding of God.

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