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.

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