No such elective offered

I picked my family up at the church they attend. They go to a modern mega-church based on the Willow Creek concept, with huge attendance. It is all the current rage. And as I was walking in, I see literally 1000’s of people that believe with firm conviction in a God appearing in Human form, born by virgin birth, dying by crucifixion, and raised again from the dead.

I can’t help but be impressed by the idea of how there can be so many that feel so strongly in this truth. What makes them any different than me?

It struck me immediately—the distinguishing characteristic is knowledge and willingness to change.

As I watched various groups break off to pray together, or enter a Bible study, or discuss the most recent sermon, I realize how little most persons attending a Church actually know about the manufacture and creation of the book in which they rest their belief.

In case anyone questions my credentials, I can confirm I have never done a survey in this area. I have not engaged in a 2 year project, attending a different church everyday, creating charts, and quantifying analysis with clever Powerpoint presentations. All I can rely upon is my experience in church.

I started attending Church when I was six weeks old, graduating from nursery, to pre-school to children’s church to Sunday School to Junior High to High School to College Age to Young Married to Not-so-young Married. We were that family that went to Sunday School, Morning Worship, afternoon Bible study, Band/Choir practice, Evening service, Awana, Wednesday Prayer, and weekend activities. I have attended a variety of churches, some with attendances as small as 30, some with over 10,000. I have friends that attend other churches, also with large and small numbers.

I have never heard of a single class, in a church, on the Synoptic Problem. I never even knew of such a thing until I began debating non-believers.

Christians engage in Bible study, not the study of the Bible. Why is that? Because we assumed it to be true, so there was never any reason to review beyond that. But shouldn’t we be willing, and even exuberant in our study of how the book came together? Or the various questions in Christianity?

This is supposed to be an absolute. A religion manufactured by the very creator of truth, logic and the American Way! (Whoops. Sorry. Got carried away with that last one. Strike that.) Christians, I would think, would clamor to obtain knowledge about how Christianity sprang into being. It should only validate the belief. Yet we were surprisingly uninformed.

Oh, sure we all knew about the Epistle of Hebrews. *Snicker* That old chestnut. Silly folks used to believe it was written by Paul, but [b]we[/b] know so much more now. We knew the debate, and how it certainly wasn’t written by Paul.

But no one ever talked about the Pastorals. No one discussed the problem of their authorship, or the varying reasons why Paul would not be the author. No one discussed the complete differences between 1 Peter and 2 Peter, and how they simply could not be written by the same person. Nor that 1 Peter copied Jude. Certainly nothing was discussed about Jude quoting the Book of Enoch!

A year ago, I was talking to a deacon in his late 60’s who had attended church since childhood. I asked him, “Have you ever thought about reading the New Testament in the order in which the books were written?” He paused for a moment and confessed, “You know, I have never even [i]thought[/i] about the order in which they were written.”

There are no classes on textual criticism. On dating of manuscripts. Defining uncials and minuscule writings. We were not taught that the closest documents we have are scraps of papyrus that barely have complete words (let alone a complete verse) dated before 200 C.E. That the earliest documents we have with sections of the New Testament are dated to the Early third Century. More than 150 years after Jesus was supposed to die. More than enough time for legends to develop, for doctrines to be inserted, for copies to be manipulated.

No, we were taught that the KJV only crowd was out-of-date. That’s it.

Oh, we occasionally, for fun, reviewed the “other” books. The ones that didn’t make it in. How silly to believe that Jesus killed a child for running into him. Obvious fakes. No, our books, the ones where Jesus has to take two cracks at curing blindness with spit are clearly far superior!

We certainly did not discuss the archeological findings of the past 30 years. The complete lack of evidence for Joshua’s invasion, the Exodus, the Ten Plagues, and the slavery in Egypt. No classes on the dating of the Flood, and how the other civilizations of the world somehow failed to record it. A pastor or teacher may refer to antiquated research about how the walls of Jericho were found to have fallen outward, or give the urban legend that all societies of the world have a flood myth story, and claim that this confirms every fact from Genesis to Revelation as recorded in the Bible.

But no one was taught to question it. To look it up on their own. To do their own research. Part of every person’s schooling process was teaching how to learn it on your own. It was called “Homework.” No pastor or teacher said, “Here is some homework. Go learn all about archeology and whether it supports or does not support the events recorded in the Tanakh.” Why not? If this is absolute truth, if this is the very basis of the reason we exist, any such testing should be welcomed! Any such research as to the very foundation of one’s belief should be enjoyed and sought out. Not avoided at all costs.

It is not as if Christians are afraid of reason and knowledge. Books by Craig and Strobel and Plantinga and the Intelligent Design crowd fly off the shelves of Christian bookstores. But what is missing? The only knowledge that is sought is confirmation. Not open-ended debate. Christians do not read books written by scientists as to what evolution states, they read books written by creationists that say what evolution states.

Question: If I told Christians that the only way to learn about Christianity is to read what non-believers state, would they hold to this method? Would they only read atheist books, or Muslim tales, or agnostic opinions on Christianity? Most certainly not! Yet when engaged on a course of study as to what non-believers determine, Christians contain themselves to books only written by Christians. If you really want to know about evolution, perhaps reading a book by a scientist on the subject? If you really want to know about the Tanakh, perhaps read a Jewish perspective? They are the ones that wrote it, you know!

I am sure many reading this are saying, “Not me! I know many of these subjects and more!” I am sure you do. The fact that you are on-line and even daring to read a site such as this displays at least an openness to learn. O.K. Are you teaching a class in your church? Are you explaining the various ways to resolve the Synoptic problem? Are you explaining that in some way Matthew, Mark and Luke borrowed from each other, or another source, and that we do not have three independent witnesses, but one or two basic sources? Are you explaining the problems with aligning the birth narratives, the issue of the virgin prophecy, and the inability to coordinate the resurrection appearances without an almost Keystone Cops comedy of errors?

Almost universally, deconverts will state that it was the gaining of more and more knowledge that made Christianity less and less viable. Why is that? Why is a church more than happy to invite an evangelist to speak for a week, but is concerned about my speaking for an hour? If Christians hold truth, they should invite the atheists to come and speak. Let the facts be displayed. They have God, and truth on their side. We should be laughed out of the building. Our facts demonstrated as utter nonsense. Yet this is not the case.

Somehow I doubt my invitation is in the mail.

It is not just lack of knowledge. Even when the knowledge is provided, it is rejected, due to a refusal to modify one’s beliefs.

An axiom of scientific methodology is that a hypothesis must answer the data as we know it. Upon learning new information the conflicts with the old hypothesis, a new one is proposed. The new hypothesis must answer the new data as well as answer the same data the old hypothesis did.

A simple example of one’s automobile not starting. Our first hypothesis is that the key is not in the ignition. We see the key is in the ignition. Now we need a new hypothesis. We propose the car is not in “Park.” The new hypothesis answers the same data the old one did (the car not starting) as well as the new data (a key can be in the ignition, but if the car is not in “park” it will not start.) We see the car is in park. A new hypothesis is there is no gasoline in the tank. This new hypothesis answers the old data (car not start, key in ignition, car in park) as well as answering new data. We then go through the process of learning new information as to gasoline, gas pump, battery, starter and as each new item of data is provided, our hypothesis is modified to incorporate this new information.

Can Christians modify their belief; modify their hypothesis, upon learning new information? Upon learning that the earth, according to geologists, is 4-5 Billion years old, can a Christian modify their determination of a 6000 year old earth? Indicate that Genesis is an allegory, not a literal dating system? Upon learning there was no global deluge, can a Christian modify that? That archeology contradicts Exodus, Joshua and Judges, can a Christian modify their belief?

What I see is dogged determination. Almost a fear that if any one point is ever conceded, the whole system will collapse. As if they have an old owner’s manual that says the car will not start, because the battery is disconnected. We can point out the key is not in the ignition, the car is not in park, there is no gasoline, and even the entire engine is missing, and it will not matter. The Christian is unyielding that the reason and the only reason that car will not start is the reason stated in the old owner’s manual—the battery is not connected.

As I looked at the people milling about me, I thought of two scenarios:

1) I start talking to someone about new information I have learned about the stock market, in which, by using this information, we can invest wisely, and generate income. It doesn’t matter to whom I begin this speech; soon there would be a crowd about, discussing, learning, investigating as to this new system of making money.

And out of that crowd, at least one, if not more would go home and googelwhack the things I said, do some research on their own to test the validity. Some would walk away with a new understanding, and may even modify their lives, to incorporate what I just said.

2) I begin to talk about how Paul did not seem to know the Jesus of the Gospels. How Paul’s writing never records a miracle performed by Jesus, nor does he quote Jesus when it would be supportive of his position. (Yes, I know about the Eucharist. If Paul is willing to quote Jesus on that, why not quote him on something like…..I don’t know……say “Love your neighbor”?)

I begin to discuss the problems with a historical Jesus, in light of this information. Does a crowd develop? Maybe with pitchforks and torches! Does anyone got out and do some research on their own? Absolutely not! About the best I could hope for was a comment later about a raving lunatic that appeared, saying the most insane things like Paul not knowing Jesus’ history. Does anyone modify their beliefs? Of course not.

While this is a bit extreme, it does demonstrate the difference between me and the crowd I found about me. Would I have researched those claims? Would I have done my homework? I guess the only point that would support that I did, is where I am today.

We see people respond to the blogs here. (Thank you, by the way, to all who do, believer or non-believer. Dialogue is mature discussion.) One of the common claims is “You guys make all the same responses.” Yes, Christianity, while a fairly broad belief, is limited. There is only so much information available. Yet these “same responses” are not discussed in churches. They are not being addressed, talked about, discussed, and openly shared.

There are no Sunday School classes for atheists to present their views to inquiring minds. There is no encouragement to view the other side, read a countering position, research on one’s own. There is no investigation into the First Century Greek world, Hellenization, Palestine, or early Jewish beliefs. We see the party line given over and over.

While to many, these may be the “same responses” they have seen elsewhere. But they haven’t seen them in church.

I find it demonstrative that the very first Christian book preserved says, “Test everything. Hold on to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) I wonder if immediately after that, Paul found out that was a bad idea, and dropped it like a hot potato.


Parker said...

I competely agree that most "Christians" (whatever you guys mean by that on this site...) are ignorant of where the Bible comes from, ignorant of how to resolve apparent contradictions, etc...

I'm curious, though, on a couple things:
Does lack of archeological evidence indicate the falsehood of the Bible?

Is there a way I'm not aware of that Paul would have read up on Jesus' life, words, and miracles before writing his epistles?

Willow said...

I just discovered this blog and... the timing couldn't be better. I've really enjoyed reading everyone's stories and posts. Anyway, today's blog is particularly relevant to me at this point. Do you have any resources you would suggest for further research on the topics you're discussing here?

If there's one book that has a concise overview of reasons the authenticity and authority of the Bible, I'd like to know the title. Or a list of several books... whatever you've got!

I think the fact that there is no original manuscript, and so in debates of this nature, we can't go back to it and read what the authors said, it particularly sticky. Heck, sometimes we get into difficulties interpreting the constitution and it's still in existence, has many faithful copies of it, is in the same language we (I) speak, and all. I guess it's no surprise that so many different interpretations of tha same book exist.

Willow said...

This is what I meant to say above... (Sorry, I'm new to this!)

If there's one book that has a concise overview of reasons the authenticity and authority of the Bible **is suspect**, I'd like to know the title. Or a list of several books... whatever you've got!

John W. Loftus said...

Ans: The church isn't primarily an educational is primarily an evangelistic, proselytizing and discipling institution.

The way you highlighted this difference was quite interesting to me, and I liked it.

I think the church depends upon her theological institutions and on her scholars to do the required studies to defend her faith. They are the arms of the church. The very existence of these institutions and these scholars tells the people in the pew that theirs is a reasonable faith.

Only a few theological subjects were off limits to any adult Sunday School I was ever a part of, like learning Koine Greek, textual criticism, or deep philosophical topics, simply because there wasn't enough interest and/or the people would not have grasped it. That's where theological institutions come into play. Those people who are interested from out of many churches can come together and muster up a handful of people to learn Greek, or Hebrew so that they can do textual criticism and Synoptic Gospel studies.

I would not have invited an atheist, or a Muslim into any of my churches to explain and defend what they believed because I wouldn't have wanted any of my people to be "confused." I was primarily their pastor, not their professor. I knew why we believed. My teachers knew why we believed. My people trusted my teachers and me to know why they believed. And if my people wanted to, they could go off to study it too. But the primary goal of the church is not for this, even if we did have apologetics and cults classes from time to time, and even though the people in the pew could read anything they wanted to and purchase any book they wanted to in order to deepen their faith, and/or discuss it with me or others.

Think on this: Why would any gay organization whose goal was to seek for equal rights in America, waste their time by inviting someone into their weekly meetings to explain why they think gay people are going to hell? That organization already knows what it believes. So does the church.

And atheists themselves, while we have no weekly meetings, are probably not that particularly informed about why we don’t believe, although I’d venture to say that atheists are probably more educated than Christian believers. But many atheists listen to people like us (we may be considered their scholars, who when confronted with a question they cannot answer will refer a believer to what atheist scholars write).

So my question is how informed must someone be in order to believe? How informed must someone be in order to disbelieve? I think people believe and disbelieve for a wide variety of reasons, many times based upon faulty reasoning or logic. But that’s just what we do. And if that’s the case, then how can God ever condemn any of us (especially Adam & Eve) for being wrong if we lack the evidence and/or we lacked the proper mental equipment to think this evidence through logically?

Daniel said...


The "argument from silence" is one thing - think Edomites - but the contradictory evidence against the Biblical Exodus is quite another.

I would love to hear you quote Paul on specifics concerning the life, words, and miracles of Jesus. Anything other than a crucified messiah who resurrected (possibly not even in bodily form)? Got a parable of Jesus' that Paul likes to quote from the gospels? Any saying of Jesus' in the Gospels that Paul repeats as the authoritative teaching, besides a last supper line in 1 Cor?

I mean, Paul spent years with the Apostles, who spent years with Jesus, right? So, like, how many of Jesus' famous sayings, which would go on to be in the Gospels, does Paul circulate in his Epistles?

John W. Loftus said...

Willow, not to blow my own horn too much or anything, but my book, Why I Rejected Christianity: A Former Apologist Explains is a unique book which should be available within a week or so. I think it is that one book debunking of Christianity that you were looking for. Email me and I'll send you a desription, table of contents and the cover doc.

DagoodS said...

Parker – unfortunately, even Christians argue with each other over what “Christian” means. If they can’t agree, it seems safest to leave the definition as broad as possible.

No, it isn’t “lack” of archeological evidence. We have plenty of archeological evidence. Some supports facts as outlined in the Bible. Much does not. None supports any claim from say Judges back. (One could frame the argument that “House of David” supports a claim of a unified Kingdom, so to be doubly safe, I will say from the time of the Judges. What would support a unified Kingdom, or a King David is extremely thin, at best.)

The question becomes, Parker, what does one do with that evidence? Do you (meaning not you personally, but anyone) become a staunch literalist and insist that 2 Million people crossed the Desert for 40 years, and did not leave a trace? Not a single item, not a footprint? But in the meantime, Bedouin camps of small numbers did? That they didn’t bring in a single scrap of the Egyptian metal or “lost” it somewhere? That the invasions and genocides of Joshua didn’t leave a trace?

That the plagues did not wipe out Egypt, nor the slavery of 400 years ever make a mention? I could write at some extended length about all the impossibilities of the Plagues/Exodus/Invasion and how, regardless of archeology, it would have left an imprint in History. Yet not a whisper, not even a fog-trace of it occurring.

Or do you become an exegete, and reduce 2 Million to 20,000. And then reduce the genocides to mere skirmishes. And reduce the plagues to minor nuisances. They you are caught in the bind that God, with all His cosmic power, in an effort to demonstrate to the world All His glory, sends a summer with really bad mosquitoes to the Egyptians. On the one hand, the verses want to indicate how awesome and terrible and demonstrative this was, on the other the exegetes want to take it all away to avoid the problems of history.

Or do you become an allegorist? And say these are not literal stories, but allegories. Then you must explain why God thought these stories were important, and what the allegory was to be. What possible allegory is God trying to portray by keeping virgin females, gold and silver, yet killing baby boys! Christians have difficulty enough trying to fit that into God’s morality as a fact, let alone as an allegory!

Archeology does not say the Bible is false. It says that the Bible is not literally historically accurate. What you do with it after that becomes an intricate dance.

If you agree that there were no written documents detailing Jesus life (which I agree) at the time Paul wrote his letters, then he certainly would not have any way of “reading up” on Jesus. The only way Paul would have obtained his information was orally. But if Paul (writing in the 40’s and 50’s) did not obtain accurate information about Jesus orally, why would the Gospel writers be MORE accurate LATER? The farther away from the events, the less accurate one becomes. And if you want to say it comes from a better “source” then when do we limit the source? Perhaps the Gospel of Peter, written Second Century is, then, from a better source than Mark. We don’t have the sources of the Gospel writers, so making any claim as to who has a better source is a guess, at best.

The worst part, is that Paul actually does quote Jesus. Once. On the Eucharist. He claims to not have gotten it from humans, but from Jesus himself. In reading the Gospels, do you find the single most important quotes on Christianity come from the Eucharist? That Jesus skipped all those parables, skipped all those sermons, skipped, “Love your neighbor” and focused on just the two sentences made at the Last Supper.

Further, Paul himself claims to have talked to Peter and James, albeit 3 years post-conversion. No questions as to what Jesus did? Not one single miracle mentioned, Parker! It is amazing Paul goes to lengths about resurrection and resurrection bodies, and doesn’t mention Jarius’ daughter, or Lazarus. Perhaps Peter and James forgot to tell Paul about Jesus’ miracles?

If they didn’t tell Paul what Jesus said, and didn’t tell him what Jesus did, why did Paul bother to go meet them at all?

By the way, it is not just Paul (although he is the only one I mentioned.) James, the author of Hebrews, John’s epistles, Jude, 1&2 Peter, the disciple that wrote Ephesians, Colossians, the Pastorals, 2 Thessalonians, all fail to quote Jesus. Not a single, solitary quote. (2 Cor. 12:9 was to Paul.)

Again, the interesting question is what does one do with this knowledge. Apologetic it away? Provide explanations?

Thanks for your comment.

Sandalstraps said...

None of those issues are mentioned in church because, while they are academically interesting (and perhaps vital) they are not relevant to what happens inside the church.

People go to church for many reasons, but few of those involve education or critical thought. I know that for you this discredits most Christians, but I'm not so sure.

If you wish to engage those issues, you pick up a book, or you take a seminary course (though do get into textual criticism in most seminaries - even and especially when it calls many of the historical assumptions of the church into question) or a college course in religious studies. But when you go to church you want to connect to some experience (here we go again) of what you identify as the divine. And you want to share the day to day experience of your life with others.

Reading the Bible inside a church is very different from reading the Bible outside a church. Within a church you operate inside a religious tradition which has certain assumptions and an established interpretive paradigm. While it is of some value to challenge that interpretive paradigm in order to find richer meanings within the text of whatever it is you identify as scripture, there is still a dominant interpretive paradigm to which you respond and in general in which you operate.

The primary concern of most practicing Christians is not the truth-value of their religious beliefs, but rather the way in which those beliefs inform the day to day living of their lives. The primary concern when reading scripture is not the truth-value of the "claims" of scripture (can stories and myths have a truth-value?), but rather the "meaning" of passages of scripture, and how those meanings bring meaning to life.

To the issue of authoriship, Stanley Hauerwas (theological ethicist at Duke Divinity School) argues that within any community of faith authorship is a moot point. Reading the Bible from within a community of faith, from within a church, one reads the Bible with that community, and the voice of the community speaks in the text. After, for instance, a letter written by Paul becomes for a particular group "scripture," the voice of that group for whom the letter is scripture speaks as loudly in any particular passage as the voice of Paul. This is because that letter's status as scripture does not depend on Paul, but rather on the group for whom it is considered scripture. That group reads the scripture together, and interprets the scripture together.

This does not mean that historical or textual criticism cannot be of some great use (particularly to those of you who approach the Bible from outside any religious group, and who hold no religious assumptions about it). But it does mean that by and large the insights which come from historical and textual criticism, while useful for scholars and theologians, have little to do with the average person of faith.

And why should they? The average Christian is working from within a tradition which provides their life with meaning. That is their ultimate concern. They are not equipped to on their own determine the truth-value of the claims of that tradition.

We might (and should) say that the theology which drives many traditions should be more responsible. We might say that the average religious person should be more critical of the authority figures over them. But we certainly can't say that their faith should be a primarily rational faith (as though religion were merely a set of true or false statements instead of a wholesale ordering of one's life) informed principally by the latest scholarship, rather than by their own experience of life.

You were disappointed because you went to their church looking for the wrong things. The average person (perhaps sadly, perhaps not) is not a philosopher. As a philosopher (of sorts, anyway - I have a degree in philosophy but am not a professional academic) I could lament that, but it is simply a fact. We should not overvalue philosophy, then, because to most people it would simply not help them deal with their day to day affairs.

John W. Loftus said...

I wanted to continue my comments above. While theological institutions are the arm of the church, historically they move from conservative to liberal to agnostic and atheist. Why is that?

Let me quote from Ed Babinski's Foreword to my forthcoming book:

"The majority of the world's educational institutions though founded originally as conservative Christian seminaries, have also taken similar journeys to John's, when engaging the learned opinions among scholars. Within two hundred years of Calvin's death, the very College of Geneva that John Calvin founded, became open to all sorts of Enlightenment ideas and doubts concerning how literally to take the Bible, and Christian doctrines. So John's experience not only parallels that of other individuals, like Dever and Ehrman, but also seminaries once founded to promote conservative Christian views. Yale it must be remembered, was originally founded in reaction to the "theological excesses" of Harvard, yet today look at Yale!
Meanwhile, the types of institutions that continue to defend the "inerrancy of the Bible" are all relatively young institutions. In time however, if they grow and attract the brightest and the best, they will have to interact with the scholarly world and read not simply Evangelical or inerrantist publications, but engage with ongoing world-wide inter-disciplinary biblical research and questions. If a conservative Evangelical Christian pokes his nose in theology books, journals, Bible dictionaries and Bible commentaries published by Oxford, Yale, and/or Cambridge University--to name just a few (not to forget the Anchor Bible series of commentaries)--he is bound to begin running into the diversity of opinion among scholars concerning the meaning and relative importance of passages from Genesis to Revelation. Even Evangelical scholars at Wheaton like Prof. Walton are beginning to catch up with scholarly questions concerning how literally the ancient Hebrews probably understood their own "primeval history" in Genesis, and concludes we need not take them so literally today. [See the NIV Application Commentary on Genesis, (Zondervan Books, 2002)].

DagoodS said...

Interesting, Sandalstraps. Are these issues, in your words, vital? If vital, shouldn’t they be the very first thing discussed?

You recommend books, or classes. When is the last time you attended a church that recommended a book on resolving the Synoptic Problem? On Q? On archeology that contradicts the Bible? On textual criticism?

I am not saying that these items is the ONLY thing that should be discussed, or the majority, or even the primary. But never? I don’t mind that people attend Church for joint experience sharing. But should they be concerned there is a whole world out of other problems, beyond this experience?

The impression I got (and I may be wrong) from your response was that Churches must cater to the lowest common emotional denominator. If a person wants intelligent discussion, or learning about Christianity, then a church is the last place they should look. Doesn’t that send every warning signal off in your brain?

Look, I don’t mind that the average person may only want to believe by faith. Is the church only looking for average?

Isn’t reading John W. Loftus’ response interesting? The more study a person does, the more likely they will move from Conservative to Liberal to Agnostic. And you indicate the Church avoids study. Related? I think so.

Steve said...

"While theological institutions are the arm of the church, historically they move from conservative to liberal to agnostic and atheist."

But even a broader claim;

"Isn’t reading John W. Loftus’ response interesting? The more study a person does, the more likely they will move from Conservative to Liberal to Agnostic."

Where can I find studies that would back this claim? Also if the studies exist would they include other religions, and how would the studies (if in fact they do as Dagoods says)include people such as those that visit this blog, or study at home?

John said...

I would never expect a Jewish rabbi to invite a Muslim to his synogogue to defend Islam and attempt to convert some of the people there. Nor would I expect him to invite a minister to speak about why Jews should believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah for whom their people had been waiting for centuries. So why would a priest or minister ever invite an atheist to speak at his church? He wants his congregation to BELIEVE, after all.

Speaking of Jews, how do they usually react to what is said at this site about their own scripture and beliefs? If you poke holes in Christianity, you are bound to do the same to Judaism. If atheists point out the problems that they have with the first five books of the Bible, that is also Jewish territory.

I'm sure that there are plenty of Jewish atheists in the world, but they don't seem to be as fired up about disproving their religion as are Christians. I know a lot of reasons for this, but still, they don't do it. Fierce atheism seems to be a former Christian phenomenon.

Ebonmuse said...

Forget something as complex as the Synoptic Problem - a substantial percentage of Christians can't even name a single one of the four gospels, if surveys are to be believed. (I wrote about this a few weeks ago.) The level of biblical knowledge of the average believer is abysmal - which is, I firmly believe, a major part of the reason there are so many believers. I suspect a great number of people would leave Christianity if they actually knew some of the things their sacred text says.

Willow: If you're interested in archaeology and the Old Testament, The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman might be a good place to start. As far as the New Testament, I personally recommend The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty, though not all atheists will agree with me there.

Sandalstraps said...


I can't speak for all churches, but my church does discuss issues within historical and textual criticism from time to time. But that discussion does not involve the whole church, and it doesn't take place in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings.

I think that those issues are important, but not for the average person in the pews. Their concerns deal less withthe foundation (or lack thereof) of the theology of their church, and more with the substance of that theology (in as much of a ClifNotes version as possible).

There is another issue here, which deals with scriptural interpretation. You (and the evangelicals you oppose) operate under the assumption that the Bible is a set of claims which are either true or false. But that imposes a modern paradigm on an ancient work. The Bible is a collection of stories which communicate meanings, not an encyclopedic collection of facts. As the Bible began to be understood in the form you are refuting (starting roughly with the Enlightenment) much of the power of the Christian religion was lost. It became a set of statements with which one either agreed or disagreed rather than a lifestyle.

I'll save you the rest of that argument, since if you're interested in is all over my blog, and if you're not interested then it will take up more space than it merits in this discussion.

I did not indicate that the church avoids study, I indicated that the church studies different things for different reasons. The church studies the Bible, but not as an outsider testing its validity. This is the difficulty in studying religion from without rather than within.

From without the Bible is a book written by human authors, making some historical and theological claims which have a truth value. But from within the Bible represents one way in which the community of faith hears the voice of God. As such, while it is read critically, the act of reading scripture is designed within the church to cause one to critically engage and challenge the self rather than the text.

This approach has to do with the basic way in which a text become scriptural. Here I am not talking about a particular history (the canonization of the Christian Bible) but rather about a cross-cultural form which covers many different religions.

Someone speaks, and a community decides that somehow God has spoken through their message. The message is then recorded, and accepted by that community as somehow representing (though not necessarily completely or comprehensively) the voice of God (or the gods, or whatever is held to be sacred for that community). At that moment, since it is the community which has established the text as "scripture," the voice of the author becomes only one of many interpretive voices for the text. It becomes part of the religious tradition of that community, and that tradition shapes the reading of the text for the community as much as the historical and textual concerns or the authoral intent.

I'm not saying that this is the "right" way to read the scriptures of any religious group, but I am saying that this is their way (whatever the group) of reading the scriptures. As such, the issues brought out by historical and textual criticism are not relevant to their reading of the scriptures, and it is not part of their communication about their own scriptures.

Does that mean that for the religious life these forms of criticism are of no use? Not at all. But it does mean that the form part of one interpretive voice among many interpretive voices, and as such it is not, as you would say, "vital" for the life of faith.

You wish for the average religious person to critically engage their own beliefs by dealing with the most recent scholarship. There are times when I wish they would, too, because they would help mediate between competeing interpretive claims. But they won't, and I'm not sure that represents some sort of defect in their approach to religion.

If the ultimate concern of religion isn't the truth-value of claims (though that is important) but the meaning of those claims (another long argument which I will at least for the moment save you from), then the concern of the average religious person should not be whether or not each of their assumptions is fundamentally true, but rather whether they communicate some for of deeper truth which helps to order their lives.

For more on this, see my work on reading the Bible as myth. We as a culture have lost our appreciation for myth, expecting statements to be either literally true or false. But myth trascends truth-value. More later, as I'm starting to sound like a starry-eyed mystic, and I know that my sensibilties run counter to the approach of most of the readers here.

Sandalstraps said...

In the unlikely event that anyone is interested in the sorts of things I was talking about they can check out these two pieces from my blog:

Drawing Water out of Rocks: Searching the Scripture for Meaning

Thales Falls Down the Well Again and Again

If anyone is interested in Stanley Hauerwas' argument about reading the Bible in community they can checkout these two more recent pieces, in which I wrestle with Hauerwas:

"Liberals" and "Fundamentalists": Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Argument Becoming More Clear

As usual, there is no expectation that anyone here will share my interests.

DagoodS said...

Isn’t at least part of the church experience to learn about the Bible? There are Bible studies, Bible classes, Bible stories, Sunday School, Walks through the Bible, on and on. Shouldn’t some background be provided as to where the Bible comes from?

Or are we all saying that the Church itself is presuppositional, and assumes the Bible (in whatever form that particular church holds) must be true.

steve, as I said in my blog, I have not done any survey. However, the survey provided by Ebonmuse is enlightening.

What I can say is that I have never experienced these classes in my history of attending a church. That John W. Loftus, as a pastor, acknowledges such classes would be foreign in the church setting. That other Christians have posted here, saying such classes have no place in a church. In fact, I half-expected some posters to start claiming how their church did have a 16-week course in higher criticism or authorship of the New Testament. Instead we have seen the opposite.

And in my experience, I have talked to numerous church leaders who seem unaware of these issues, and would prefer to not even talk about it. These are leaders, not general lay people. The only persons in leadership I have talked to that seem even remotely aware of these facts are Pastors. I assumed because of their educational background, and concentration of study in their profession. Yet they are not forthright to their audiences of the problems.

And having talked or read on at least 100 deconversion stories, the same story is told over and over and over—“the more I read and learned, the more troubled I became about Christianity.” I do not recall a single deconvert saying they knew of these facts for a long, long time, and decided one day, for emotional reasons, to deconvert. Perhaps you know of one?

Those two items seem to be terribly correlated. The fact that churches deliberately do NOT provide this knowledge, and the fact that people that deconvert, do so because of that knowledge. I may be making a false correlation, and would be interested if someone could point out how. But as I see it, there is a relation.

As to Muslims in a synagogue, and Jews in a Catholic church—why not? Although not quite what I was saying in the blog, if a person’s religion holds ultimate truth, why the fear of interacting with other religions. I was not talking about an atheist attempting to deconvert an audience. But why not let a John W. Loftus talk to his former congregation? He is, according to Christian, not speaking the truth, yet it gives Christians a chance to interact with a real, live atheist. See what they are like.

Let Christians meet with Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Liberals, Mormons, Wiccans. You know what would happen? They may find out how hard it is to hate and damn someone to hell that they actually like! So much easier to send nameless, gray faces off to eternal torment. Much more difficult to meet someone, get to know them, talk to them, and then realize they will be tortured forever.

Why shouldn’t one religion learn of another religion? At one time, I was adamant that at the root of every religion is fear and prejudice. Although I now think there is much more than that, I see that creeping in, here.

And time to get off my soapbox…

DagoodS said...

Sandalstraps, I am a bit confused. Initially, you indicate that “none of these issues are mentioned in church” but now indicate that your church DOES discuss these issues. You initially indicated they are “…perhaps vital, but not relevant….” Now you indicate they are “important.”

How can the same issues be academically interesting, perhaps vital, and important, but NOT be relevant? They are “of use” and form one part of the interpretive voice, but are not “vital” to the faith? Methinks you want your cake and eat it, too! ;-)

I do understand what you are saying, about the Bible being read as to meaning, rather than being factually valid, in a church setting. I would be curious if the church you attend, itself, holds to that parameter? That the Bible should be read as mythos rather than logos to steal from Karen Armstrong. That the stories therein are not necessarily factually accurate, but there for people to derive meaning from?

And what meaning would that be? Are you saying that the death/burial/resurrection was metaphoric, and not actual? Because once you claim actual, then the only basis in which you have historical backing is the Bible and Christian writings. What is your method for determining what parts (if any) of the Bible are historical, and which are just for meaning? Or is that, also, a group dynamic/decision?

I found your statement regarding “imposing a modern paradigm on an ancient work” intriguing. Where do I find what the “proper” paradigm is, to impose on the Bible? Was it not written for all ages, or was there a point in time at which we are to cease reading it with any more modern view? Did the persons that read the first and second copies consider them myths, stories, legends, history? Can I use their paradigm, or must I go earlier? Or later? Should I use only the author’s intention?

The Gospel of Mark has all the elements of being a fiction. Not myth. Fiction. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written based upon Mark. Should we use the paradigm that these were novels? (I am being a bit extreme here. I doubt Matthew and Luke felt they were writing novels. But nor do I think they were writing strict history, either.)

If I understand you, the concern you have, is not whether Jesus actually walked on the water at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, but the depth and meaning behind the story. Whether he did or did not is not the issue, what is being conveyed is. The problem with this (not to mention the fundamentalists that want to eat you alive!) is determining a method by which we can decipher meaning vs. reality. Are Jesus’ statements actual, or just what he would have said? Are Jesus’ miracles actual, or just pleasant stories? Is the death a significant act, or representative of love? Is the resurrection actual, or an encouraging tale to give one hope of an afterlife? Is the entire story of Jesus simply a myth, or is there any truth in the basis?

See, if you head toward the entire thing being a myth as an example in relating to God, this may work. (Again, curious to see the church that teaches this.) I would think such a church would never find itself limited to just one set of books. If you claim one item, no matter how small, has some historicity to it, then we are compelled to derive a method by which we can divide history from myth. (Otherwise we could not say that one item has history.)

Finally, if the church solely studies the Bible from within, how do you ever get someone from without to get in? At least at one point, isn’t someone without have to look at your claims? Further, I have no problem with anyone, within, without, upside, downside, looking at my claims. This smacks of “If you believe, you understand.” If the only people convinced of the validity of the Bible are the ones that are convinced of the validity of the Bible, this doesn’t say much, does it? We could say the same about every religion, and every belief.

Sandalstraps said...


There is no "proper" paradigm. The best we can do is try to recapture a more ancient paradigm. We can't be "right," we can only account for our own biases, acknowledge them, and try to work around them.

In general, however, it is unfair to a text to read said text expecting that it conform to a genre which did not exist at the time of the composition of that text. But if you read my arguments on reading a scriptural text within
a community you will see that I'm not saying that the interpretation of a text is frozen in time, or that it rests solely on authoral intent. I am saying, however, that the communal reading of a text depends on the community, and if you are outside the context of that community then that reading is not available to you, and as such is not relevant to our discussion. I brought it up to mention that you are expecting something from the church which it cannot be expected to provide, as your expectation is outside its project.

Karen Armstrong is who I'm stealing from, but we're both missing her point a little. It is not that the Bible is to read as "mythos" rather than logos; it is that the Bible is to be read in certain places as "mythos" and in certain places as "logos"; and perhaps in certain places as some combination of the two. The key is to avoid mistaking the "mythos" for the "logos."

The method by which one distinguishes between the two has been explored by many different Bible scholars. For the Hebrew Bible my favorite is my former seminary professor Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos. Her new book, Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice is a good example of her method. My piece, Drawing Water out of Rocks (link in above comment) borrows from her work.

For the New Testament the best work is done by the (notorious in evangelical circles) Jesus Seminar. I am most fond of Marcus Borg, who's book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time did an excellent job looking at which parts of the Gospels deal with what he calls the pre-Easter Jesus (that is the historical person) and the post-Easter Jesus (that is, Jesus as he is remembered and reinvented by the early church). He argues that while the stories of the post-Easter Jesus do not have historical significance they are religiously useful, as they show us how the church has understood Jesus after his death and whatever happened at Easter.

As for the distinction between churches and my church in regards to the discussion of textual and historical criticism, there are two distinctions which need to be made (which I have failed to make, I think):

1. Distinction between my particular church and the project of most churches.

I go to a fairly liberal church. Most of the members of my church have some interest in criticisms of traditional Christianity. This should not be expected of most churches.

2. Distinction between what happens in the sanctuary and what happens in a particular classroom within the church.

Classes have the freedom to discuss whatever is of interest to the students in their class. Their purpose is to learn about whatever interests them, particularly as it relates to their faith or the application of their faith.

Worship is a very different thing. It must appeal to a wide cross-section of the church. The purpose of worship is then more sacral and more communal. When I say that my church discusses issues related to historical and textual criticism, I mean that in private discussions and in classrooms there are discussions on that subject. When I say that the subject in question is not discussed in church, I mean that it does not and should not come up in the worship service, as it is outside the purpose of worship.

Sorry for the confusion which my ambiguous and contradictory statements created.

Yes, by the way, I am trying to eat my cake and have it too, in the sense that I skate between two worlds. I read the Bible as a critical individual, engaging the text with certain personal questions. For that reading, historical and textual criticism is a useful tool. But I also read the Bible as part of a community of faith. Within that community the reading of the Bible is determined by that community. That is, as I've said before, the community sees the ways in which it is understood that God is speaking through a text.

These two opposing positions can and should be held in tension. As a member of the community my critical voice is part of the community's voice. As only one of many members of the community, though, my voice is by no means the only interpretive voice. I can say, with the scholars and critics, what readings historical and textual criticism opens up, and what readings historical and textual criticism closes off. But it does not follow from that that the entire community is bound to agree with me.

As Stanley Hauerwas says, historical and textual criticism can tell us what a text meant, but they cannot tell us what a text means within the context of a community of faith.

But I've left more than enough comments here on this subject. If you are more interested in my position check out the links I've provided, as they will more accurately represent my views than my clumsy typing and careless phrasing here.

Ebonmuse said...

"Let Christians meet with Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Liberals, Mormons, Wiccans. You know what would happen? They may find out how hard it is to hate and damn someone to hell that they actually like! So much easier to send nameless, gray faces off to eternal torment. Much more difficult to meet someone, get to know them, talk to them, and then realize they will be tortured forever."

Thank you for that - that was extremely well put. It's no wonder that cultic and fundamentalist organizations like Pensacola Christian College go to such extreme lengths to discourage their members from interacting with anyone outside the cult; their immoral teachings simply cannot hold up against the basic recognition of the humanity we all have in common. Truly is it said that education produces liberals.

DagoodS said...

Sandalstraps, then how can you criticize Joel Osteen’s Church? Is that not a community of worshipers that have determined a certain reading of the Bible. You are the without in that group. To be consistent, don’t you have to be within Osteen’s church before indicating it is not performing the proper role of a church?

Or, as a Christian, are you exempt from the same prohibition placed on non-believers?

I could use your same words, and say within the community of Osteen’s church, the reading of the Bible is determined by that community. The community of his church sees the ways in which God is understood to be speaking through the text.

Isn’t his worship and they way he uses his Bible appealing to a large cross-section of the Church?

Sandalstraps said...

I can criticize Osteen in the same way that you can criticize me. I never said that outsiders can't offer useful critiques, said that you as an individual are expecting something from the church which you criticized which they can't be expected to provide.

By the way, your attempt to undermine my argument, aside from failing to see my point, is one of the worst sorts of logical fallacies:

Argumentum ad hominem tu quoque

This particular fallacy is a fallacy of relevance, which transalted into English is roughly:

Argument against the person, "you too!"

Whether or not I make the same error as you has no bearing on the whether or not our error is an error. It is irrelevant to the discussion. If I contradict my own mode of interpretation, that does not make the mode of interpretation a bad one. It just makes me inconsistent. But I suspect you did not bring this up because of some concern more my moral well-being.

I disagree with the claim that I cannot per my arguments here have a dispute with the theology of Joel Osteen. The contradiction may lie in my intentionally ambiguous use of the phrase "community of faith." By it I was attempt to refer to several differnt communities simultaneously:

1. Local congregations, which have their own interpretive voice (such as Osteen's congregation, in relation to which I am an outsider).

2. Denominations, which also have their own interpretive voice.

3. Religions, such as Christianity (in this case, this is a community to which both Osteen and I belong).

As a fellow Christian, and an interpretive voice within the Christian community, I have every right to say that Osteen's theology does not represent what I see as the essence of Christianity. And I can say that as someone who shares that community of faith with him.

But I never said that outsiders can offer no criticism. In fact, at many points (though perhaps not overtly in this particular discussion) I have said that outsiders can offer very valuable criticisms.

To Osteen, for instance, anyone can say that his theology is potentially harmful, particularly if people - inspired by his claim that God monetarily blesses those who give money to his ministry - give far more than they can afford.

You have spent this entire discussion reading against rather than reading with me. In doing so, you have offered uncharitable readings of my work, which clearly do not reflect the statements I'm making or the intention behind these statements. I'm not sure what to make of this. It seems dishonest.

I saw this mode of interpretation a great deal as a philosophy student. Other students would operate under the assumption that whoever disagreed with them must have some sort of fatal mental error, even and especially if the person with whom they disagreed was a famous philosopher. In a seminar on Hobbes, for instance, many students assumed that for Hobbes to arrive at his positions must indicate that he was a total moron, full of contradictions. And they could make a compelling case for this view, assuming they flagrantly misinterpreted Hobbes and argued against that misinterpretation. While I'm no fan of Hobbes, I had no patience for their uncharitable assumptions. While I'm not Hobbes, I similarly have no intention to remain in dialogue with someone whose only intention is to demonstrate that I'm "wrong," even if they must, in order to demonstrate that, treat me with as little charity as they can muster.

I'm sure you're a really nice guy, and I've loved some of the pieces you've written, but I don't see any use in continueing this dialogue. Whatever I say, you won't hear it. I don't mind disagreement. In fact, I expect nothing but disagreement. But I prefer my disagreements to be intellectually honest.

I guess this is my way of picking up my ball and going home. Nothing person, but there's just no common ground form which to discuss. Unless you're willing to accept that some apparent contradictions come from the limitations of language and the fact that we don't yet fully understand each other's perspectives rather than from some inability to think clearly, I don't know what else to say.

Sorry if that makes me sound like an asshole or something. I just don't see this conversation going anywhere.

DagoodS said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DagoodS said...

(Whoops. Only copied half my post last time.)

I apologize, Sandalstraps. My style and personality have a tendency to offend. I wish I could say you will be the last, but history tells me otherwise.

Perhaps if I can explain my thought process, you will get a glimpse of where I was coming from. I saw your links to your blog and read every one. I enjoyed them. Wanting to read more, I reviewed your most recent blog, approving Ben Witherington’s blog on Joel Osteen. The timing, one must admit, was poetic.

I enjoy debating liberal Christians. Have been very active on a liberal Christian forum for over a year. They can tell you I enjoy debating liberal Christians. It has spice, flavor. Debate an inerrantist? A bit boring. I already know how many errors they will say are in the Bible, I already know how they will resolve most of the apparent contradictions, I already know what books they consider are inspired. Debate a literalist? Same piece of stale dogma. I still do it, but how many times can we point out that archeology blows a hole the size of China in Exodus? And how many times can I see a steamship wheel being passed off as proof of Pharaoh’s army being wiped out in the Red Sea?

But debate a liberal Christian? I enter a murky field of what is allegory, what is literal. I met liberal Christians that chop Paul completely out of the New Testament! What parts of Jesus’ life are history, what are myth? Inspiration, errors, legend, writings—all become open to discussion and debate. This makes the discussion (in my opinion) more fascinating.

The item, though, that is consistently impossible to nail down, is the means to the method by which the liberal Christians defines what is myth and what is not. Oh, they agree some is myth. They agree some is real. But how to determine the difference? That becomes a troubling problem. And why is that particular method the only valid one?

For example (not to pick on you, but it IS right there.) You made the implication that imposing a modern paradigm on an ancient work is incorrect. I agree with you. The problem, though, is that the Bible is not just any ancient work. Even liberal Christians say it has vitality, and is active and alive in some way today. And what paradigm do we use? That is why (as in my history with other liberal Christian debates) I asked what paradigm to use.

Sadly, as is also the case with my history, while you definitively reject a “modern” one, you fail to give an alternative one with which to work. You say to “recapture a more ancient paradigm.” Now, honestly--What the heck does this mean? I am sure you do not mean that a 1950’s paradigm is better than a 1990’s, or a 1200 is better than an 1800 paradigm. But how far back do you go? Am I limited to ONLY the time of the writing itself? Say 50-150 C.E. What about how the Second and Third Century church fathers viewed it?

That was my point about Mark being fiction. If he wrote it, say 70-80 C.E. as purely fiction, but the early church fathers of Second century treated it as fact, which paradigm do we use? And frankly, even discussing which paradigm brings me back to my original point in my blog—shouldn’t this be information discussed somewhere, at some level in the church setting?

If you look back at my posts, it has nothing to do with misreading, or placing your posting in a deliberately uncharitable reading. I am simply trying to figure out what parameters I could use, so in reading my Bible, I could say, “Yep, Sandalstraps would say that that is myth.” Or “Nope, Sandalstraps does not think that is appropriate in a church.” Again, I am sorry if my questions are rude.

Anyway, I was a little surprised about your criticism of Joel Osteen. He has a large following; his church has provided substantial sums toward charities. His congregation seems to accept the theology he teaches from the Bible. In my mind, I saw you saying, “Hey, that is incorrect. That is not what is supposed to be taught in a Church.” And I thought, “Wait a minute. That is exactly what I am saying. By what set of criteria does Sandalstraps determine what should or should not be taught in a church? And more importantly, what makes his method more valid than mine?”

I was thinking of your use of withouts and withins. How could you, as without Osteen’s church be valid in criticizing, but me, also being without NOT be valid in criticizing. If you are saying that only those within can, but you would not count yourself as within, then in consistently applying your parameter, you would be just as barred as I was.

I feared (as you can see) that you would indicate by virtue of being a Christian, that constitutes your within and me without. I have debated liberal Christians long enough to see that distinction!

Sadly, you acknowledge using an intentionally ambiguous phrase in “community of faith.” Depending how one reads it at a particular moment, depends on whether one is within or without. Regarding Joel Osteen, I read it as congregation, you read it as Christianity as a whole.

I was not coming at it so much from your being wrong, as trying to determine how to apply your methodology, and what that was. I guess we will not learn it in this conversation. (Oh, and saying it is based on a book, while a little helpful, does not really provide much information. I do not have time to read every book offered to me by every person. I prefer they give a brief outline as to their position. But the world does not spin around me.)

And you are right, there is no common ground from which to discuss. I am left hanging as to too many questions to even begin discussion. I will, next time, walk gently in ferreting out these methodologies.

Albert said...

For John who was wondering about Jewish atheists etc., the following is informative

hypatia's fan said...

For willow:

2 aged but very powerful texts are available online for free. Do a search for The Christ by Remsberg and Forgery in Christianity by Wheless