Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ehrman redux

Though this site may begin to resemble an Ehrman fan site, I want to alert you all to the transcript of a debate on the resurrection between William Craig and Bart Ehrman. I skimmed quickly the 39 page document, and I think I can summarize the two sides briefly. Craig represents a traditional defense of Christian orthodoxy with the added methodological sophistication of historical criticism; that is, he uses the tools of history to assert the probability that God raised Jesus from the dead.

Ehrman, on the other hand, is a historian through and through. Because bodily resurrections are not observable phenomena, it is not within the realm of the historian to make this assessment. In other words, no one can prove historically that the resurrection occurred because, by the rules of history, resurrection is utterly impossible. It has never happened; a historian can never validate such a claim. Thus, it is far more likely that the resurrection did not occur.

Naturally, these are serious questions for us to ask. The resurrection is the center of our faith and the guarantee of our very lives. I wonder, however, if both Craig and Ehrman are talking past each other. Both Craig and Ehrman are debating the possibility of the resurrection by the rules of historiography, rules that do not hold an epistemological privilege. That is, history is not the only way for us to know or learn something. Theology plays by different rules than history does. In theology, there is no reason to discount the resurrection; in history, I agree with Ehrman that we cannot prove the resurrection. We confuse ourselves when we use historical inquiry to make a theological claim or vice versa.

So, the question remains whether the resurrection actually happened; I think this debate demonstrates that your answer depends on what hat you are wearing when you answer. Are you a historian? Are you a theologian? Are you both?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Ehrman interview

There is a short but surprisingly full interview of textual critic Bart Ehrman over at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. Ehrman has made quite a name for himself by becoming a vital scholarly figure within the academy but also a popular write introducing the "recondite" practice of text criticism to the masses. Who would have known that the collation of manuscripts and the various rules of textual criticism could be packaged for a popular audience?

I have been following this particular blog for a few weeks and it is no stretch to say that the authors' of the blog are more conservative than Ehrman is. Thus, some of the questions posed include a not so implicit critique of Ehrman's work; in a show of professional grace, Ehrman handles these with humor and respect. His responses invite further conversation rather than polemical ripostes.

Here's the rub with the field of textual criticism; we have an overwhelming number of Greek manuscripts of the NT. No two are exactly alike so that there are literally thousands of differences among these texts. An overwhelming majority of these differences are inconsequential, but there are a handful of significant text critical problems: the longer ending of Mark, the pericope of the woman accused of adultery in John, the trinitarian formula in 1 John, etc. These phenomena cannot help but impinge upon our theology of scripture. What can we confess to be scriptural attributes in light of this situation? In what sense are these manuscripts "the word of God?"

In other words, does it matter that our scriptures are not securely bound between two leather covers but are scattered on fragmentary pieces of papyrus?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Blessed are the poor . . . and the middle class?

How often can both ends of the Christian religious spectrum speak in one voice against a particular theological aberration? How often do they agree on anything? The two sides cannot agree on numerous ethical issues or even which political party coheres most closely with the Christian vision. Contention though gives way to singular agreement when it comes to the issue of the so-called prosperity gospel. From right wing to left, you can find voices spanning this frequently contentious spectrum denouncing the wedding of Christian theology and American materialism.

Time this week chronicles the rise of the prosperity gospel under the influence of preachers like New York Times best-selling author Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Atlanta's own Creflo Dollar. Watch most televangelists but for a minute, and you will soon here that God wants you to be wealthy, that poverty is a symptom of a sinful life, that if you just have enough faith, you too will live the American dream. After all, Jesus was rich himself. Haven't you heard? In the gospels, Jesus preaches to crowds in his home, ergo he must have had a large home. It is such exegetical gymnastics that propel our materialist desires to hope that God wants to give us that which we most desire in our culture: prosperity.

I am sympathetic to such a hope. Though we as Americans generally have all we need, we live in a culture in which we never have enough, in which we reach for just a bit more of an American dream communicated to us by a culture that keeps us constantly hungry for more. Our culture demands very little from us yet promises more than we can imagine. This pernicious imbalance motivates our feckless search for a panacea that will cure all our ills. Unfortunately, this search tries to remediate the symptoms of our cultural illness not their sources.

I am sympathetic to the hope that God will satisfy our deepest desires, but I cringe when theology is manipulated to satisfy our most trivial desires. If the Christian faith does not propel us to seek the good of others, even to sacrifice our own selves for those in need, then Christ died in vain. If the Christian faith simply acquiesces to this culture's infirmities, then we remain unchallenged; in such a faith, there is no need for conversion, for we crowd out God and stand arrogantly at the center of the universe.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A final thought on 9.11

I think that the anger many of us felt after 9.11 is utterly natural; the question is whether it is ethical and in line with the teachings of Christ. This is exactly where the beatitudes become so difficult to live out. I have been struck recently by the admonition to love and pray for your enemy; to read it at face value to me seems to miss the point. We could read this text and believes it means that those who oppose us are also deserving of our prayers and love. But I wonder whether the message is more radical than that; perhaps Jesus is teaching us that in him there are no enemies, that by definition those for whom we pray, those whom we love cannot be our enemies.

To be honest, I have been quite troubled by assessments of Islam that suggest that the basic orientation of the religion itself is at least partly responsible for the conflicts in which we now found ourselves. I find this troubling because the same accusations could easily be made of the Christian faith on two levels.

First at the level of text, the Koran does contain suras which label infidels as deserving of death; the same, however, is true of our scriptures. Joshua tells us that it was God's command that Israel put all whom they conquered and their possessions to the flame. Revelation envisions a world in which God inflicts pain, suffering, and death upon the world. To be sure, we no longer read texts like Joshua and simply nod our heads in agreement; we have found ways to read these texts which do not endorse genocide. But their presence within the canon are unquestionable.

Second at the level of history, one could argue that Islam has recently produced a great deal of bloodshed and violence. Once again, this is something we share with Islam. The list of atrocities is not new to us. To be sure, we no longer claim these horrific acts as acts of Christian piety, but they were at the time.

We ought to remember also that Islam was not always a supposed harbinger of terrorism. In fact, Islam was a fount of civilization. Were it not for Islam, Aristotle would have been lost to us, and we may never have stumbled upon the number zero; these are part of the cultural heritage of Islam. Even more, for ages it was far safer to be a Christian or a Jew living inside a Muslim empire than a Muslim or Jew living in the emerging Christian empires of the West.

In these ways, we are not all that different from Islam; our respective heritages are both uplifting and tragic. To be sure, our views of the world are not simply interchangeable, but we share a common legacy of brokenness, of violent interpretations of holy writ.

New ways of reading scripture have saved us from our own sinful need to rule over the other, yet we still struggle for an authentic and faithful reading of scripture. My hope for Islam is that the same can be true for all those who worship Allah, that with joined voices we can all declare that our faiths are not oriented around violence but by the love of God.

On 9.11

Reflecting on that seemingly normal Tuesday morning brings back a flurry of emotion. I remember that I only woke up because someone knocked on our door, perhaps as a way of alerting everyone to the tragic events of the day. I woke up in time to see the second plane crash into the WTC. It was Holley's first day at Rutgers University, and she was far closer to the events. My fear was only sharpened when local news reports announced the reported shutdown of the NJ Turnpike and the rail lines.

Fear was the air we breathed that day. Reports of "missing" planes suggested that the attacks on the WTC were but a first salvo. What would be next? Holley later shared with me that as she waited for her train back to Princeton, a low-flying jet sent people scurrying and screaming for shelter. One day earlier "shelter" was barely a part of our vocabulary.

Fear was the air we breathed that day, and, when we finally exhaled, when we finally knew it was over, we breathed out anger. I shouldn't speak for others; I breathed anger in a wild effort to suppress my fear that the world was being turned upside down around me.

Pride of country was stirred within me as was fear of the other. Bullhorn declarations, press conferences, and speeches comforted me and braced me for my righteous anger to be satisfied. Why, oh why, did I not turn to my faith? I believed in America that day, not the God of Jacob.

"Blessed are the peacemakers." No, on that day, I believed, "God bless America."

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." No, on that day, my enemies were not worthy of God's care.

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." No, on that day, I loved my own sense of security, no matter what the cost.

On that day, I thought of myself. The world had stopped turning. Yet Alan Jackson was only half right; the world only seemed to have stopped turning. But now as I reflect I think of how self-centered my reaction was. For many of our sisters and brothers around the world, terror is the order of the day; terror is the daily bread of many. Terror is not an outside force invading our world; terror is our own creation, a virus we inflict upon one another.

I wish I had reacted differently on that otherwise beautiful Tuesday morning. I wish I had opted for love, for peace, for compassion and forgiveness. I wish the world had not appeared so black and white that day; I wish gray would have prevailed until my fear, shock, and grief could subside.

I mourn those who lost their lives that day, but I also mourn how that day exposed my own lack of faith. May God grant us all a stronger faith in those moments when we flee from faith yet need it most.