Archive for October, 2009
In a podcast about Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Mark Goodacre (Professor of Religion, Duke University) asks the question: Was it really “on the Damascus Road?” He discusses how the author of Luke/Acts regularly uses the theme of travel on roads to bring up key events; the story of the good Samaritan who met his fellow man while on the road, the disciples being told of Jesus’ resurrection while they were on the road to Emmaus, and the Ethiopian eunuch meeting Phillip while travelling.
While hypothesizing about a literary motif, Goodacre notes that he is not saying that Luke was “making it all up out of whole cloth”, but rather that he seems to have crafted his stories around this motif of travelling. Perhaps Luke was a traveller himself and events often happened to him while on the road. Or maybe he saw the Christian walk as a journey and so describes events through that theme in his narratives, similar to the way he used the term “The Way” in describing Christianity.
Ultimately it shouldn’t matter where the event took place, and the story makes clear that an important event took place in Paul’s life wherever the locale. A progressive Christian who views the stories with the possibility of allegory can take home the message that Paul experienced a conversion just as can the literalist/inerrantist who believes the story is a verbatim, eyewitness account of the events. It doesn’t matter whether Paul being on a road at the time was a literary motif used by Luke, does it?
What can a literalist/inerrantist make of this literary motif? That since the disciples of Jesus were a travelling bunch it would be natural for key events to take place while on the road? That God supernaturally caused these key events to take place in a way that would ultimately form a literary motif? That there really is no literary motif, because Luke describes plenty of other events that do not take place on roads? That the Greek word for roads could really mean “place,” and therefore…
I don’t know if a classic conservative inerrantist could listen to this podcast and appreciate the inquiry Goodacre is making. Now no doubt Goodacre’s theory of literary motif is debatable even by a person who would allow for Luke to be creating a literary motif. It is just a theory which attempts to provide insight into the material. But isn’t a person better off if they can consider all the options available? Does the conservative approach really allow for intellectual freedom if one cannot consider certain options of a text? Is an appreciation for a certain richness in the texts lost? Is that what it means to be a slave to Christ, to shut off part of your mind and refrain from asking certain questions? That is how I felt when I started asking crazy questions about the bible.
At the end of the day, either a progressive or a conservative Christian should be able to take away the central tenet of the story, that Paul experienced a conversion. But wait, was it really a conversion? That is Goodacre’s second question. Listen to the podcast to find out! It is only about 12 minutes long. :^)
In discussing what makes the bible special, Josh McDowell makes the claim that “although [the bible] was composed by men, its unity reveals the hand of the Almighty.” He writes about how the bible was composed across millennia, continents, and cultures by people of diverse backgrounds.
To make his point that this is a sign of the miraculous, he suggests this challenge:
“Find ten people from your local area having similar backgrounds, who speak the same language, and all are from basically the same culture. Then separate them and ask them to write their opinion on only one controversial subject, such as the meaning of life.”
When they have finished, compare the conclusions of these ten writers. Do they agree with each other? Of course not. But the Bible did not consist of merely ten authors, but forty. It was not written in one generation, but over a period of 1,500 years; not by authors with the same education, culture and language, but with vastly different education, many different cultures, from three continents and three different languages, and finally not just one subject but hundreds.”
I suggest this alternate scenario:
Find ten people who speak the same language and are all from basically the same culture. Ensure they all grew up in the same local church and assent to its basic creeds. Ask them to write their opinion on a particular controversial subject.
When you read these compositions, compare them to your own opinion about that subject. If a paper does not reflect your opinion, throw it in the trash. Then study the remaining documents . If you find any inconsistencies that can be changed with simple modifications to the text, go ahead and do so. Also feel free to make slight revisions for clarity if the writer’s opinion could potentially be construed as disagreeing with your belief.
Do they agree with each other? Of course they do! Do all four validate the initially held premise? Could it be said that the core message of the documents is unchanged despite any minor variations between the papers?
Now let’s see what McDowell concludes about the unity of the biblical texts:
“There is complete harmony, which cannot be explained by coincidence or collusion. The unity of the Bible is a strong argument in favor of its divine inspiration. The unity of the Scriptures is only one reason among many which supports the Bible’s claim to be the divine Word of God.”
McDowell is creating a false dilemma in claiming this type of unity for the bible. The only reason a skeptic would reject this view of biblical unity in the first place is because there are apologists making the claim. Is the evidence as strong as McDowell would make it out to be? And if the evidence is not that strong, should it be held onto so tightly as incontrovertible truth? Or can it be held to simply as humble faith, something a person believes while admitting the evidence for the belief is incomplete?
There are many Christians who view the bible as inspired and essential without accepting the assumptions that go into McDowell’s defense of scripture. The evidence he presents does not demand the verdict he wants it to, rather it is the apologist himself asserting the verdict while expecting people to accept his evidence at face value. People who find faith from the words of the bible should be working to get people to dig deeper than that, not to persuade them to accept evidence which has been tailored to fit the author’s initial assumptions.
Picked up this book at the library, Saving Darwin, How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution, by Karl Giberson, after searching the card catalog on the words, “christian” and “evolution.” I ended up very impressed with it.
I’ll admit I find studying Christianity fascinating, enjoying learning about it in ways I wasn’t able to before, ways which would have been too unorthodox to consider. And I am past feeling a need to prove or disprove anything, it is great just to learn.
So authors like Giberson interest me in the way they work their faith around issues like evolution without falling prey to the false dichotomy that says one has to believe in a 6,000 year old earth in order to be a Christian. While my church did not make young earth creationism a statement of faith, in practice it was encouraged and is what the majority believed. The power of peer pressure and social influence can easily become the tyranny of the majority, and I always felt out of place believing in an old earth and evolution.
Giberson’s book focuses a lot on the history of fundamentalism and how creationism came to be incorporated in that particular and peculiar variety of beliefs. Which I like, because I am a history nut, and because I really, really don’t like fundamentalism. This book covers the ground between the extremes of theistic creationism and atheistic evolutionary theory. Evolution and belief in God do not need to be mutually exclusive, and there is a lot of room to work the middle ground. And the book does not hold back from criticism directed towards both those views.
It turns out that evangelicalism and fundamentalism were not always inexorably linked to creationism as they can seem to be today. According to the author the idea was asserted later by others (in particular 7th Day Adventists) and was eventually grafted into fundamentalist dogma.
Giberson discusses an early famous (infamous?) series of essays titled The Fundamentals:
What was remarkable about these discussions of evolution, however, was the almost total absence of the six-day creationist viewpoint. Leading “fundamentalist” thinkers spoke approvingly of progressive creationism, historical linkages between species, and an ancient earth.
Clearly, even leaders concerned with defining and protecting the fundamentals of Christianity shared no consensus on what Christians should think about evolution.
Critiques of this middle ground abound. Jerry Coyne, author of the book, Why Evolution is True, offers a review of the book (warning, it’s long). In reviewing this book and another on the same topic by Ken Miller, Coyne states:
“Both of their books are worth reading… yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.”
I can see where Coyne is coming from and why he draws those conclusions. I think his work on presenting the evidence for evolution is important, and I think Giberson’s book in helping Christians view that evidence is important as well. But presenting evidence for evolution wrapped in an atheistic package is not going to be palatable for young earth creationists, and I don’t think it is necessary. I guess Coyne doesn’t feel a dichotomy between science and religion is a false one any more than Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis does. But I am grateful for those seeking common ground in the middle. Even where I don’t agree with them I feel they are trying to reconcile people to more reasonable beliefs one way or another.
For further reading, Giberson’s own brief response to Coyne’s analyses can be read here. Mystery Seeker provides a thoughtful analysis of Coyne’s perspective. And Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine interviewed Giberson, the videos can be viewed viewed here. Giberson described his interaction with Michael Shermer very positively. I find Michael Shermer to be a fantastic interviewer. Here he conducts an amazing interview at the Creation Museum.
And no, I haven’t read all those articles in their entirety or watched the videos!
He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.
Years ago my wife and I attended a wedding of Catholic friends of ours. We were cautioned ahead of time by our friend that communion would be offered only to Catholics, she wanted to make sure we knew that ahead of time and would not be offended. So we remained seated in our pew with a number of other a-Catholics during communion. I remember feeling a bit put off, not by our friends choice to be Catholic but by a church that would practice exclusivity to the degree that we as True Believing Christians would not be able to join them in communion.
We didn’t practice communion that way at our old evangelical church. Well not until a few years ago anyway. At some point the invitation to communion was changed to include a phrase to the effect of, “As this communion meal is for those who believe in Jesus Christ and have given their lives to him, we ask that those who do not share our faith refrain from partaking…” Or something like that. I didn’t like when that change was made, always felt uncomfortable thinking of how it would make people feel, and didn’t like the division it communicated. Did God need to have his holiness defended that way? Would we be in danger of giving false assurance to those not saved? I’m sure there were reasons, at that point I was not engaged in a way to try to learn what they were or to try to resolve them.
I was reminded of all this when we were at the service last night of the new evangelical church we have been visiting. I had taken communion there previously once, the invitation was about shared community and I felt OK about that. But last night the invitation specifically excluded those who did not “believe in Jesus as Lord.” So I stayed in my seat. I didn’t really mind, to be honest it protected me from struggling with hypocrisy, after all, why would I partake in communion if that is not what I believed?
It was harder for my wife than for me, highlighting again that I don’t believe all the same things I used to. And I was made more aware of the church as a social institution that is not only about joining in a certain set of beliefs but also about enforcing them. And the rules at the heart of evangelical Christianity speak of exclusivity by design, and a message of bringing people into that exclusivity, not opening the doors to join with others inclusively. That’s fine with me, I don’t need to be making the rules. But it leaves me wanting to say, “That’s fine, I know where I’m not wanted.”
I guess the good part about suffering through relational crises as my beliefs have changed is that they have overshadowed any existential crisis I might have experienced during the past year. Gotta look on the bright side. I wonder if those will come to the surface at some point.