This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Response to Brat.

I wrote this letter to the journal, Interpretation, in response to an article by David Brat.  The theme of the issue was "usury."  You can probably figure out what his point was by my response, even if you haven't read the actual article in Interpretation.

Dear Editors of Interpretation,

            David Brat succeeds in being both sophomoric and patronizingly condescending in his article, which is far beneath Interpretation’s usual standards.  His self-righteous complacent triumphalism about Capitalism is the same sort of pompous prattle that every empire declaims about itself before it falls.  No empire is ever “here to stay,” and this one will collapse as well, either by the revolt of the billions of people who are routinely ground under its wheels, or by the very planet it has made a virtue out of degrading.  He writes: “We spend more time on market activity than God activity.  Thus Calvinism.”  What does that even mean?
            His early paragraph attempting to show Capitalism’s benefits fails to reveal the wildly uneven distribution of those benefits.  We are led to believe that Capitalism’s rising tide of prosperity in places like China and India has raised all boats, when actually the lion’s share of the benefits have been devoured by the people at the very top (though the “averages” still look wonderful).
            Brat’s reduction of morality to the merely individual level, while he claims it is inherent to our Reformed tradition, would have attracted Calvin’s ire.  The libertarianism Brat is trying to squeeze out of the Bible and Calvin is antithetical to the teachings of both.  The Bible, Jesus, Paul, and the whole Christian tradition, including Calvin, are about the formation of healthy and blessed communities. 
            What Brat derisively frames as “forcing some to pay for the benefits of others” is actually the whole point of Capitalism, which deliberately jiggers the economic system for the increasing enrichment of the wealthy.  But when it is reversed to benefit the poor, that statement becomes the centerpiece of biblical morality.  Does Brat’s Bible not include Exodus 23:11, Leviticus 19:9, Leviticus 25, or Deuternomy 14:26, just to name a few that spring immediately to mind?
            Brat implies that what Jesus demands from us as his followers is not to be extended into our responsibilities as citizens of a democratic state.  “Do we have the right to coerce our fellow citizens to act in ways that follow our Christian ethical beliefs?”  Yes.  It’s called democracy.  Within constitutional limits, the majority always “coerces” the minority to participate in its vision and agenda.  Are Christians supposed to withdraw from the polity?  Brat’s mistrust of democracy reflects the attitude of the rich and powerful of every age.  They are generally the ones so afraid of coercion since they have the most to lose.  In real life, Capitalism resists democracy at every turn, preferring to give power to capital and rights to people with capital.  He ignores the inherent coercion involved in transactions between people with unequal resources.  The fantasy that “all voluntary trades are beneficial to both parties and the easiest way to see this is that if one were not better off, one would not partake in such a trade” may work in the fairy-land of Friedmanian academia.  But where the rest of us live such a statement is absolute nonsense.
            Brat’s analysis of the current economic crisis, as: “we wanted to force low-interest loans on the banks so that the poor could magically afford houses” is so breathtakingly self-serving, cruel, and stupid, that the only other people I have heard this from are Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.  Great authorities.  Presumably our hearts are supposed to bleed for the banks.
            It may have been fruitful for the church to synthesize Christianity with other philosophies.  But none of these is a godless ideology that renames sins as virtues for the purpose of enriching the wealthy by means of the wanton rape of planet and people.  No synthesis between Christianity and such an ideology is possible.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ehrman's Forgeries.

Bart Ehrman’s latest book is apparently another attack on the integrity of the New Testament.  At one time, Bart was a fine scholar.  Now his work has deteriorated to where it is close to hate speech.  If he made the same claims about the foundational documents of Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism, as he does about Christianity, he would rightly be dismissed as a bigot.

All of us who attended a respectable seminary in the last 150 years have known about pseudonymous authorship.  According to the mainstream of scholarship, many of the books of the New Testament were not authored by the figures to whom they are attributed.  This was a common practice in the ancient world.  But when Christians who were raised on literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible learn this, it can shake their faith.  This seems to be what happened to Ehrman.  He came out of an extremely conservative church background, and when he attended seminary and started learning about things like pseudonymous authorship, he felt a great sense of liberation.

Bart apparently wanted to share his sense of liberation by becoming a teacher and bringing his students to appreciate what he had discovered about the text of the New Testament.  This is fine.  I am of the opinion that seminary graduates have been criminally negligent in not bringing this data to the church; instead they cave in to whatever sentimental, mindless prejudice they find among their church members; as a matter of self-preservation, no doubt.  If you are a young minister, right out of seminary, and the people who pay your salary get much of their biblical information during the week from radio dingbats like Harold Camping, you have a lot of incentive to keep ideas like pseudonymous authorship to yourself.

So along with having to deal with nasty, self-righteous, violent, judgmental fundamentalists, the church also has to endure the backlash of people like Ehrman who were abused by those fundamentalists, and who now relish exacting their revenge by attacking Christianity.  I realize there is a great deal about historical, institutional Christianity that deserves critique and even condemnation.  But inventing bad motives and applying modern publishing standards to people writing 2000 years ago is idiotic.  

I grew up in the mainline church.  My pastor father would talk about pseudonymous authorship, or the documentary hypothesis (the theory that there were four distinct writers of the Penteteuch), at the dinner table.  This only made the Bible more interesting and exciting for me.  We had no ideological blinders that said if you didn’t take the whole Bible literally you were saying it was all a lie.  So I had trouble relating to my fellow students at seminary whose very faith in God was shaken by the suggestion that there might actually have been two or three authors of the Book of Isaiah, or that the same person who wrote Romans probably did not write Titus.

Pseudonymous authorship is the tip of the iceberg.  There are other problems as well.  The text of the New Testament in Greek has thousands of variants.  (Ehrman worte a book about this, too, trumpeting the “unreliability” of the whole New Testament.)  When scholars study the oldest texts we have – and new shreds of papyrus are being found all the time – they compare them against each other.  It turns out that there are a great many differences between these texts.  Most of them are not very significant.  Others involve major alternative readings, changing or omitting close to whole chapters!  Finding this out can be a threat to people who imagine there is one, reliable, steadfast, original text of the New Testament.  In reality, every translation committee has to use its judgment and philosophy to decide which readings to emphasize, and which get relegated to the footnotes or excluded altogether.

Another challenge is the unearthing of many long-lost books with subject matter similar to that of the New Testament.  These books were rejected from the canon of the New Testament for various reasons.  One main justification for this non-inclusion had to do with the fact that they had a weak claim to apostolic authorship.  (Although the New Testament books Ehrman labels as “forgeries” are far older and have much stronger claims than the later books also attributed to the apostles.  Ehrman doesn’t seem to dismiss these later books as “forgeries,” however.  He has written and spoken widely bemoaning their exclusion.)  Many of these books were left out because they were not accepted by a broad consensus of the church, or because they emitted doctrines at a great variance with what was already accepted.  (And I mean a great variance.  There are a wide range of theologies in the New Testament as it is.)  Some are just plain bizarre.  But Ehrman and others have used this as an opportunity to vilify the leadership of the early church as a closed-minded, dogmatic Gestapo for not opening the canon to these books, many of which are weird, repulsive, incomprehensible, and/or impossible to harmonize with Jesus’ accepted teachings.  But then, anachronistically applying modern categories and standards to people and documents from the ancient world is Ehrman’s standard MO.     

In the case of Ehrman, he has been getting a wildly positive response from the media for his “exposés” of the many “discrepancies” and “forgeries” in the New Testament, and for his bringing to light many “repressed” documents of the early church.  He is a regular fixture on cable TV and public radio; his lectures are sold as CD sets; his books sell well.  I have no doubt he has become more wealthy than is customary for a New Testament scholar.  This appears to suit him.

A few years ago Ehrman renounced whatever was left of his faith in Jesus, and devoted himself full-time to the remunerative task of repackaging modern biblical scholarship, framing it in the most negative way possible, and selling it to audiences eager to swallow anything condemning of Christianity.     

So: “pseudonymous authorship” or “forgery”?

If scholars decided that Hamlet was not written by Shakespeare, but by a friend and admirer of Shakespeare, would that make the play any less powerful or meaningful?  Why then does the Letter to the Ephesians become vilified as a “forgery” when some scholars suggest it was not written by Paul, but maybe by a younger associate of his? 

Is Moby Dick any less of a novel because it was not written by a Native American named Ishmael, as is clearly claimed on the first page?  Is this a forgery?  Is Melville lying?  

When the Bible attributes some Psalms to King David, even though scholarship tells us it is very unlikely that the historical David actually wrote many, if any, of them, are these beautiful, abiding, powerful, and profound religious poems now to be dismissed as “forgeries”?    

When a female novelist, like “George Eliot,” writes under a male pseudonym so as to obtain a better hearing in her patriarchal culture, is that “forgery”?  Is she cynically lying in order to bamboozle book buyers?  Should we now stop reading Middlemarch?

I could go on like this. 

What about the value of these writings as literature, no matter who wrote them?  What about the centuries of spiritual nourishment the books of the New Testament have given to people?  At this point their actual authorship is immaterial, even if we could know, which we can’t.

Ehrman has degenerated into a shrill, pathetic, mercenary voice, barely worth responding to, were it not for the fact that the uninformed seem to be listening to him.  He appears to have imputed some of his own motives to the writers of many New Testament books: they are only out to make a buck and push their personal agenda.

In the end, the Holy Spirit has always used figures like Ehrman to strengthen the church while transforming it.  At least now this information is no longer a secret maintained by specialized academics.  And now we are also freed from the ecclesiastical party-line about things like authorship.  This means we can focus with greater intensity on the words themselves, in all their diversity and tension, and come to a better understanding of the Word to whom they witness, and, most importantly, what it means to follow him. 


Friday, May 13, 2011

Let the Dogs Smell the Hat.

            When babies are born, I understand that often the hospital gives them little caps to keep their heads warm.  I friend of mine’s daughter just had her first child.  The family also happens to have two dogs at home.  In order to facilitate the dogs’ good reception of the new person in the home, a nurse recommended that they let the dogs smell the baby’s hat beforehand.  Then when the baby came, the dogs would recognize the scent and not think of this as an intruder.  Good advice for a family receiving a new life into their midst. 
            I suspect it is good advice for churches as well.  If a church is going to receive new life (the baby), one big danger comes from those in the congregation who will dig in their heels to oppose it (the dogs).   To counteract this reaction, perhaps a good strategy would be to “let the dogs smell the hat.” 
            That is, to bring to possible opponents of the change some evidence that the change is good, and is indeed inevitable, so they are not surprised by it and can prepare themselves to receive it.  Then, when the change does come, they will recognize it.  Maybe they will even see the continuity with what has gone on before, and realize that this is the future.  Perhaps they will also understand that to oppose this change will be perceived as a fundamental threat to the community, and that if it comes down to a choice between them and this incoming change, they may find themselves in a different home, if not the municipal animal shelter.
            If only all church members showed the same loyalty and intelligence to welcome and rejoice in changes that the group is clearly enthusiastic about, rather than embark upon obstructive and sabotaging tactics that will undermine the integrity and future of the whole system.  In this latter case, we sometimes see a nihilistic death wish on the part of some, where they appear to feel it would be better for the system to perish than for the change to be enacted.  When to dogs treat the baby as a malevolent intruder, or try and eat the baby, then you have to have a system strong enough to remove the dogs from the system.
            When you let the dogs smell the hat you are communicating the message: this is what’s coming.  It will probably inconvenience you, disrupting the routine to which you have become accustomed.  However, this family needs a future and this is what it smells like.  We would love it if you would be on board with this change.  If, however, you decide that this change and this future are not for you, we will precipitously facilitate a change of residence for you.  There is no compromise or wiggle-room on this. 
            In other words, inevitable changes are coming into this family.  You get to pick which you want to deal with: new baby in the home, or a new home for you.