Monthly Archives: April 2012

Tim Keller argued off point and slipped toward ad hominem


I thought I would let some time go by before I picked up the following matter.

I replied to a Tim Keller blog post back on April 10. My reply, which can almost stand without reference to the original post, was:

What about text criticism? Sure, the Bible has always had its critics, but consider how the impact of the critics has changed. The plain language of the Bible includes discrepencies, or at least what appears to be discrepencies, about basic factual information. People are more likely to believe higher-order matters like doctrine and theology when the lower-order matters like basic facts are clear and sound. And now, many middle-class kids have taken university courses like Intro to the New Testament, so they are faced with lower-order difficulties that make higher-order propositions harder to believe. My full argument is here: http://liturgical.wordpress.com/2012/04/09/why-factual-discrepencies-in-the-bible-are-a-barrier-to-faith-lower-order-and-higher-order-concerns/ All the best, Colin

This argument may or may not be valid, reasonable, or crazy.

But notice how Keller, in his reply, did not actually address the argument.

Rather, he took on completely different issues that were not warranted by either my comment or the blog post to which I linked. Keller’s reply:

Colin — Ross Douthat does not mention text criticism as a big issue nor would I. Text criticism of the Bible actually supports confidence in it, if taken as a whole. Bart Ehrman, yes, claims that text criticism undermines out trust in the Bible, but his own teacher–Dr Bruce Metztger of Princeton, the leading text critic in the world–always taught the opposite, namely, that text criticism shows we can have more confidence in the Bible than any other ancient text. That is, we have far more confidence that we have the actual words of the original words of the Bible than we do that we have the original words of Plato, Aristotle, or Homer, etc. Bart Ehrman’s view of text criticism is a minority view among text critics. If you are going to recommend his views as the basis for making faith and life choices, you should at least read a couple of books by Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor.

Notice that Keller argues against (1) liberal interpretations of the data from text criticism and (2) Bart Ehrman. He also says (3) if Bruce Metzger was Ehrman’s mentor, I should read Metzger. Then, (4) he follows with a suggestion that I use Bart Ehrman as a “basis for making faith and life choices.”

However, what was my argument? It was actually a bundle of arguments. My arguments, summarized in the comment and given more space in the link that appeared in the comment, were (1) lower-order concerns influence beliefs about higher-order concerns, and (2) Ehrman-like critiques of the New Testament are being used in many university classes today (critiques that focus on factual discrepencies in Scriptural records), and (3) students might be persuaded by Ehrman-like views of lower-order concerns to reject Christianity’s higher-order concerns.

I did not argue for liberal interpretations of the data from text criticism, nor did I argue for Bart Ehrman in general, nor did I argue that Ehrman’s take on text criticism is accurate.

I argued that Ehrman’s take might be influential. I also used Ehrman’s work as an example of what might be taught in many universities.

I did not recommend Ehrman’s views as a basis for “making faith and life choices,” period. (Read my blog post again here, or scroll back up to see my original comment on Keller’s blog.)

I have certainly used some of Ehrman’s writings, in previous posts, to wrestle with issues of both apologetics and personal devotional use of the Bible. But that’s different from making Ehrman a “basis” for “faith and life choices.”

In fact, in my post that I linked to from the comment, I wrote something that Ehrman emphatically disagrees with: “I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed.”

So Keller’s reply was essentially an ad hominem attack, taking the focus off my points and placing the emphasis on me. It’s a dishonest argumentative move, and it certainly doesn’t have a drop Christianity in it.

Keller simply did not address my argument. I’m confused and distressed because Keller is held up by many as one of evangelicalism’s sharpest minds.

My fear (not an argument, but a fear) is that people will do with Keller the same thing that they do with so many political, religious, and media figures: make him into an infallible source, above any critique.

Is all this too much for an exchange over a blog post? No. Because our names and our discussion are now (and nearly forever) searchable and findable on the Internet.

Furthermore, when a highly regarded public figure makes a strong reply, many people do not realize that the reply is off-topic because they are already enamored with the public figure. Think of debates between political candidates, when every supporter believes his or her candidate won.

What do the words “truth” and “accuracy” and “intellectual honesty” mean to you?

Church service attacked in Kano, Nigeria; at least 15 dead


Excerpts from coverage of the attack of a church service in Kano, Nigeria (fatality figures vary):

According to the AP:

Gunmen attacked church services on a university campus Sunday in northern Nigeria, using small explosives to draw out and gun down panicking worshippers in an assault that killed at least 16 people, officials said.

The attackers targeted an old section of Bayero University’s campus where religious groups use a theater to hold worship services, Kano state police spokesman Ibrahim Idris said. The assault left many others seriously wounded, Mr. Idris said.

According to AFP:

Explosions and gunfire rocked Bayero University in the northern city of Kano, with witnesses reporting that two church services were targeted as they were being held on campus.

One of the services was being held outdoors, while the second was inside a building, but with an overflow audience outside, witnesses said.

Officials were unable to confirm casualty figures, but an AFP correspondent counted six bullet-riddled bodies near one of the two sites.

At least another dozen bodies could be seen on a roadside by the university, but the exact number was unclear.

Musical instruments and half-eaten meals could be seen at the site of one of the services….

Witnesses said the attackers arrived in a car and two motorcycles, opening fire and throwing homemade bombs, causing a stampede. They said worshippers were gunned down as they sought to flee.

According to Voice of America:

Emergency service personnel say they heard three bombs, followed by gunshots, but by noon they were still not allowed on the scene.  Later in the day, as casualty reports trickled in, witnesses said gunmen had attacked a church service with small explosives, shooting people as they tried to flee.

Police say the attackers fled on motorcycles before security personnel arrived on the scene.

This comes after nine were killed in an attack on media houses Thursday in Abuja and Kaduna. An Islamist militant sect known as Boko Haram claimed responsibility for those attacks, saying the media had issued false reports about the group’s plans and activities. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan says the government is doing all it can to fight the group that is believed to be responsible for more than 1,000 deaths since it began attacks in 2009. 

In January, coordinated bombings in Kano killed nearly 200 people, and crippled the city’s economy.  In recent months, President Jonathan has been actively seeking foreign logistical assistance to combat the group, especially from the West.  On Saturday, he condemned the group as he visited the site of one of Thursday’s bombings.

“A terror attack on any part of the country is an attack on all of us, and indeed the whole world because terrorists’ method is to ensure they have maximum damage, so the whole world will begin to look at their direction for relevance,” he added. U.S. lawmakers are considering naming Boko Haram a terrorist organization, which could move more American resources to Nigeria.

Many Nigerians have criticized the Jonathan government for being unable to stop Boko Haram, including the country’s national security adviser who suggested the ruling party is partially to blame for the security crisis.  Adam Yusuf is a cook who left his wife and five children in Kano to work in the capital, but he says he is constantly afraid for his family.  Like many Nigerians, he says the government needs to find out what Boko Haram wants and negotiate, rather than trying to fight.

“Call them together and negotiate what they need,” said Yusuf .  “Why are they doing so?  Because of what?  It is simple because fight[ing] cannot solve the problem.  Dialogue.”

Boko Haram says its goals are to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, and procure the release of all imprisoned members.  But Yusuf says no one really knows what they want.

House Tea Party Caucus: traitors to their alleged cause of liberty


According to Forbes magazine:

CISPA, or the Cybersecurity Intelligence Sharing And Protection Act, passed the House yesterday. The bill is full of problematic intrusions into individual privacy and online liberty, and yet those members of the House who associate themselves with limited government were largely responsible for its passage.

Reason magazine reports:

The complete roll call shows 206 Republicans voting for the bill, 28 against. Democrats went 42 to 140 in the opposite direction. The Republican No column includes some fairly libertarian-friendly names, including Amash, McClintock and Rohrabacher (who also this week earned the honor of being bannedby vile Afghan kleptocrat Hamid Karzai). Voting for the legislation were great libertarian nopes Ryan, Flake and Duncan. The name Paul shows up in the not-voting lineup.

TechDirt.com reports:

The vote followed the debate on amendments, several of which were passed. Among them was an absolutely terrible change … to the definition of what the government can do with shared information, put forth by Rep. Quayle. Astonishingly, it was described as limiting the government’s power, even though it in fact expands it by adding more items to the list of acceptable purposes for which shared information can be used. Even more astonishingly, it passed with a near-unanimous vote. The CISPA that was just approved by the House is much worse than the CISPA being discussed as recently as this morning.

Those clowns in the House Tea Party Caucus should no longer be trusted. This is a complete violation of trust and betrayal of principle.

The secret knowledge of the elite


“Understandably, all magic lore originally has the character of secret knowledge, to protect the professional interest of the guild.” — Max Weber, in The Sociology of Religion (quotation found here)

Umberto Eco on theory and narrative


“Those things about which  we cannot theorize, we must narrate.”   — Umberto Eco

~

5Books to Read Before College

Jack White / The White Stripes on vinyl!

Books Mentioned on this Blog

New Music on vinyl!

Vice and the New Testament


The New Testament suggests that rules never change desires. If anything demonstrates that truth, look at the war on drugs: nearly $1 trillion spent, tens of thousands of lives lost, and still the drug cartels remain strong and lethal, killing people along the Mexico-Texas border and violently protecting their interests in Baja California. That’s why it’s time to Legal It — even if Mexico’s war on drugs is kind of working.

 

 

Did Jesus Really Rise From The Dead? (NT Wright)


Tom Wright’s overview of his historical work on the resurrection narratives helped me balance Bart Ehrman’s point of view.

So much depends upon / a drunken text message / sent by a farmer / attempting poetry


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‘Amish: Out of Order’ — my review of the new National Geographic Channel series


logo for National Geographic Channel

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My new column for the Weekly Surge reviews the National Geographic Channel series premiere of “Amish: Out of Order.” Please read it here.

 

Memories make us human, memories good and bad and neutral


When someone tells you not to be influenced by The Past, agree with him and then ask him to tell you about a formative relationship in his childhood. After he answers, ask him why he allows himself to be influenced by The Past. Who can really function without memory? The mind has to constantly reference memories, even when its attention is focused in the present moment. It can do no other. It has to learn and make adjustments in behavior based on what it has learned. Without remembered names, humans don’t know anything — as Dana Gioia said in his poem “Words,” “To name is to know and remember.” Isn’t it true that when a man loses his memory, he loses himself? His self?

 

 

New study explains why Episcopalians have better analytical and problem-solving skills


At the University of Illinois in Chicago, researchers have made a stunning discovery:

They found that men with a couple beers under their belts were actually  better at solving brain-teasers than their sober counterparts.

To reach that surprising conclusion, the researchers devised a bar game in  which 40 men were given three words and told to come up with a fourth that fits  the pattern.

For example, the word “cheese” could fit with words like “blue” or “cottage” or “Swiss.”

Half the players were given two pints. The other half got nothing.

The result? Those who imbibed solved 40% more of the problems that their  sober counterparts.

Also, the drinkers finished their problems in 12 seconds while it took the  non-drinkers 15.5 seconds.

“We found at 0.07 blood alcohol, people were worse at working memory tasks,  but they were better at creative problem-solving tasks,” psychologist Jennifer Wiley  reported on the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences  (FABBS) site.

Read the full article in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/beer-men-smarter-study-article-1.1059752#ixzz1sDzrEWkV

What’s in my fridge? A video for my gig as Beerman columnist


What does a beer columnist have in his fridge right now?

Why pastors are unprepared for ministry — and how to fix it


A Canadian pastor (who has ministered in England for decades) once told me that the early monastic movement involved an older monk mentoring a younger monk or two. The older helped the youngers in spiritual formation.

A friend with state board certification in counseling and a doctoral degree in psychology once took on post-doctoral work in psychoanalysis. Each student in the post-doctoral program not only had to read stacks of books and articles and attend hours upon hours of lectures, but each student also had to be psychoanalyzed by an elder analyst. Not just one session. My impression was that the post-doctoral students were attending analysis sessions for most of the three-year program. Mandatory analysis!

These demanding situaitons — however gracious — surely at times were uncomfortably personal.

That kind of close examination of the individual — the kind offered in early monasticism and psychoanalysis — is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

Still, conversations in those kinds of contexts illuminate hidden dynamics, agendas, weaknesses and flaws that could damage ministry. These can be hidden behind doctrinal and theological rightness.

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Bait and switch: The New Testament in the semi-public square


I appreciate Tim Keller’s exhortation (in his blog comments) to read Bruce Metzger. I’ll also point out the availability of Ben Witherington’s critique of Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman and the Evangelical Textual Criticism forum so I won’t be accused of an unqualified endorsement of Ehrman.

I know I’m not trained in exegesis, theology, or textual criticism, but I am a guy who has been in a variety of churches and Christian schools during my 42 years, and I know Christianity goes wrong in numerous ways. When something I love is going wrong, I want to say something about it. Historically, few of the people who implimented real change were the scholars and experts, but rather those who stood up and screamed.

I understand some personal pleas to leave the past behind, but I don’t understand the naive beliefs that institutions — and indeed books — cause each mistake only once. A great way to avoid making a mistake a second or third or tenth or hundredth time is to analyze what went wrong. You remember the quotation: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it (Santayana).

Meanwhile, as a brief follow up to my last post, I dislike this contrast between evangelical apologetics and evangelical teaching:

Evangelical apologetics tends to say textual criticism, history, and reason are adequate to endorse the central message of the New Testament. As historical documents, the New Testament books testify, reliably, about Jesus. This is not an endorsement of historical-grammatical exegesis, nor is it a statement about the inspiration of each word in the family Bible. In apologetics, the historical reliability of the New Testament manuscripts is put forward, not the doctrine of inerrancy.

Evangelical teaching, however, doesn’t stop there. It takes the further step of claiming “inerrancy,” a word with too many operating definitions amongst U.S. believers, and a word that suggests a kind of accuracy that close scrutiny of some biblical texts renders impossible.

I understand why some people will say that apologetics must offer broader brushstrokes than exegetical teaching, but I don’t necessarily agree with their perspective. The problems conceded in apologetics ought to be part of the believer’s sober-minded approach to the texts. On these matters, we have an enormous number of irresponsible pastors and ministers in the U.S. Not many of them are as smart — or wise — as someone like Keller! And that’s an ongoing problem — to be a good Christian, it seems like you must not only be redeemed, but you also must be smart enough.

Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns


The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.

And in part, this is a different thought to add to Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as described by Tim Keller.

The factual discrepencies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.

Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.

To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

What do I mean by those phrases? Well, sometimes, when talking about how to grade an academic paper, my colleagues and I refer to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

Lower-order concerns might be (in some cases) correct use of commas, while high-order concerns might be (in some cases) having a real argument and supporting it. Missing a couple of commas isn’t as bad as a thesis statement that argues nothing or an unsupported argument.

Considering claims about the Bible, people will be more likely to believe higher-order claims when lower-order claims are correct.

Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most of the time.

What that cub reporter (usually) cannot do is understand the political philosophies at work. The political philosophy, the ideas, behind a city-council decision might be a higher-order concern. (Granted, city councils don’t always appear to be populated by philosopher kings, but stick with me a few more seconds.)

Indeed, those journalists who leave newspapers and broadcast journalism to work for National Review or The New Republic are those journalists who, early on, excelled at getting the facts right — and then progressively moved into higher-order thinking. You worked hard at the lower-order concerns to earn the right to write about the higher-order concerns.

Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation.

I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.

Again, many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”

Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?

Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?

God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?

Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.

Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.

I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.

I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.

The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable.  Furthermore, I don’t think the common use of the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” can possibly be relevant when glaring factual discrepencies exist. Maybe the problem is our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic way of considering something “inerrant” — without error — but more about that later.

Of course, text criticism is a very high-order matter. Someone might counter my arguments by elevating a side issue and saying that not many people know about the Bible anymore, at all, never mind text criticism. Not that many go to church anymore. Not that many people read anything anymore, so reading in and of itself, and the Bible, actually aren’t even the issues. The culture is the issue. Social change is the issue. Et cetera.

Maybe, but maybe not. Ex-evangelical and popular author Bart Ehrman teaches classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each semester. I don’t know how large his classes are, but you can bet he’s taught hundreds by this point in his career.

And Ehrman is not the only one at a univeristy with his point of view. College for the middle class has almost become a political right, and kids have to take classes outside their fields to fulfill curriculum requirements. I imagine Ehrman’s perspective, and indeed his books, are presented positively in numerous universities to tens of thousands of students each academic year. (Although, as Ehrman himself has said, many people in New Testament text criticism remain believers.)

So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.

A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.

When the lower-order claims fall apart, the higher-order claims do not seem legitimate.

Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.

And, if those discrepencies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and liguistic understanding to keep straight?

Could it be, simply, that certain understandings about “inerrant” and “infallible” render the Bible’s testimony unreliable at best, ridiculous at worst?

Maybe, just maybe, the task is to undo post-Enlightenment rationality. Maybe, as Stephen Toulmin tried to do late in his career, the task is to replace “rationality” with “reasonableness.” In other words, I don’t think we can advocate a self-contradictory text on the micro level, on the verse-by-verse level, unless we radically recreate everyone’s daily, default epistemology.

We could, however, understanding the Bible texts as historical testimony.

Please comment, correct, rebuke as you have time.

cheers,

Colin

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Lyrics about parenting


Cast in this unlikely role

And ill-equipped to act

With insufficient tact

One must put up barriers

To keep oneself intact

-from “Limelight” by Rush

Easter in Islamic eyes: common ground and an impasse


A bit of perspective from Rollo Romig at The New Yorker:

With Easter on the way, I became curious about what the Koran has to say  about the crucifixion. I called an imam I know, Ibrahim Sayar, and we got  together over glasses of Turkish tea. Sayar does a lot of interfaith work, much  of which involves getting people from different religions together to eat  kebabs. In the company of Christians, he said, mentioning the status of Jesus in  Islam can be a great icebreaker. “I always tell people, there are millions of  Muslims named after Jesus and Mary—we call them Isa and Mariam,” he said. “Nobody names their children after someone they don’t like.”

In Islam, he emphasized, “believing in Jesus is an absolute requirement. If  you don’t believe in him, you’re automatically not a Muslim.” According to the  hadith—sayings of the Prophet, second only to the Koran in Islamic  authority—Jesus was assumed into heaven, and will return at the end of time in  the east of Damascus, his hands resting on the shoulders of two angels. When it  sees him, the Antichrist will dissolve like salt in water, and Jesus will rule  the earth for forty years. What Muslims don’t believe, though, is that Jesus  died on the cross. It’s spelled out quite clearly, Sayar said, in the Koran’s  fourth Sura, verse 157: “They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him.”

Read Romig’s entire article here:  http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/04/how-muslims-view-easter.html#ixzz1rULTAqja

‘Now the Green Blade Riseth’


Here’s an outstanding Easter song.