Sometimes my blog posts aren’t terribly academic in nature, but are purely personal. This is one of those.
If you’re an evangelical Christian then you and I have some pretty important things in common. In fact if you’re a Christian at all – a serious Christian (I hope you know what I mean: you’re self consciously Christian, Jesus is at the centre of your faith, you believe in the supernatural and the ability of God to do the humanly impossible, you don’t want to change the religion to make it easier for you or others to accept, you accept that you actually have a duty of obedience towards God, you agree that there are no cases where you’re right and the the Bible is wrong, you think the truth matters, you think that there really is such thing as sin, you even have the audacity to state as historical fact that God raised Jesus from the dead etc) – then we have a lot in common. You could say we’re family.
This post is mostly directed at those family members who call themselves evangelical, but the whole family (and anyone else interested) is welcome to listen in. I’ve shared similar thoughts before here, but this blog post was prompted by fairly recent events. Consider this one of those family meetings that has come about because someone has said “listen, we need to talk.” For some reason, it appears that the problem we need to talk about is one that affects the younger members of the family more than most (I’m 35, so I’m not an older member just yet). I’m not going to try to analyse why this is the case, but it looks like it is (and maybe my observation here is mistaken).
OK, let’s move toward the point. Example 1: In August 2010 there was a public debate between Matthew Flannagan and Raymond Bradley over whether or not God is the source of morality. Matt is an evangelical Christian and Ray is an atheist. Part of that debate involved Ray repeatedly referring to acts of God in the Old Testament, whether commanding the Israelites to (allegedly) engage in outright genocide and slaughter entire civilisations, or issuing laws that were unjust and harsh. Ray then alleged that since these things violated his moral mores and those of most of the modern milieu, they are therefore immoral and the God of the Bible is evil. A major part of Matt’s response to this involved appealing to biblical scholarship that is informed by research into Ancient Near Eastern literature and culture, which is just the kind of research required to understand the Hebrew Scripture as Ancient Near Eastern literature. Armed with the answers provided by this kind of biblical scholarship, Matt was in a position to explain that many passages of the Old Testament that Ray was referring to actually did not mean what Ray assumed. By comparing the way historical Old Testament passages were written with common methods of writing in that era and in that part of the world, biblical scholars have observed that probably the best way of reading some passages is as intentional hyperbole or rhetorical overstatement. Passages describing the conquest of Canaan, for example, might use the language of absolute and universal annihilation of all life in the land, but by comparing these passages with other Ancient Near Eastern literature that uses this writing technique, we can see that this language was frequently used but not intended to be taken as literally true. Instead this terminology refers to the defeat of the enemy, and to driving them out of the land. This reading is further bolstered by other historical passages in the Old Testament, where we see that the very same people groups who were supposedly absolutely annihilated were in fact still living nearby just a short time later. In Leviticus 18 and 19, the people of Israel were themselves threatened with the same fate as the former occupants of the land if they did not keep the law that God gave them, and there the fate is described as being “spewed out” of the land, and not outright slaughter.
So using what I take to be pretty straightforward evangelical methods of interpretation – which has always, so I assumed, involved taking the historical context of a text into account – Matt was able to show that some parts of the Bible were being misunderstood and wrongly used to attack the God of Christian and Jewish theology. This is just one example, but the relevant issue here is that Matt was claiming that some passages of the Old Testament have a genre derived from a particular historical setting and its practices, and cannot necessarily be read in the same way that modern history can be read.
Example 2: In June 2009 at this blog, I came out of the closet and explained that I don’t accept what I take to be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I explained that I fully accept that the message of the Bible as a whole, and the message of every part of the Bible (every chapter of every book) is correct, but that we don’t need the idea of inerrancy in order to affirm this, and that inerrancy appears to me to be false. In response to some criticism I received for admitting my views on this, I wrote a couple of follow up posts (here and here), and I also provided some historical background, explaining that inerrancy has not been the default universal conservative Christian stance held throughout history. On a few occasions I stressed that I think the teaching of the Bible is the very word of God and that it is completely trustworthy, and I noted that in defending inerrancy we actually work against our apologetical best interests, because we end up bending over backwards to avoid the conclusion that there could be even the slightest historical or scientific claim in the Bible that isn’t absolutely accurate, when any sensible observer can see that we’re just engaging in mental gymnastics.
In response to Matt’s debate with Ray, a lot of people thought that he did well and that Ray’s objections were clearly addressed. But a number of our family members – who as far as I know had never themselves engaged in the study of the historical context of the Old Testament accounts, had major issues with the fact that Matt would even countenance the thought that not everything in the Bible was intended to be read as absolutely literal in the way that a modern history is written. A number of evangelical Christians and at least one evangelical organisation took great umbrage at this and Matt became regarded as a bit of a liberal. Matt was involved in organising a recent public lecture that I gave at the University of Auckland on the new atheists, science, and morality, and a particular evangelical organisation and some individuals made a point of not attending or being involved because of the association. In response to my blogs on inerrancy, a number of Christians have taken more or less the same approach to me. Somehow I have sold the farm and moved into liberal territory. I was accused (not necessarily at this blog, but on other sites) by family members in public blog posts of “picking and choosing” what to believe, and of being utterly “theologically inept.” Since it’s no secret that Matt and I are friends, and no secret that I generally endorsed what he had to say in his debate with Ray Bradley, apparently I’m suspect because of that too, to the point that anything I have to say on a subject like atheism and morality clearly couldn’t be worth listening to.
It’s said that you can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your family. That’s the position I’m in (as are others, like Matt). I’m not all that sure on the best way to say this. I don’t demand that we all agree. Nobody can demand that. But there are ways of having family disagreements that are appropriate, and there are ways that just aren’t, and which don’t help anybody (least of all the family as a whole). How is it that we recognise the folly and immaturity of siblings who effectively say “well I’m not talking to him again!” but we don’t see it amongst ourselves sometimes? How is it OK to write off a brother or sister as “theologically inept” or to impute impure motives because in the midst of doing what you otherwise think is great work, they said one thing that got your nose out of joint?
New Zealand is a very small pond. Do you realise that people in the position that Matt and I are in are actually passed over for teaching employment in some cases because we vocally defend conservative Christian faith? Do you realise that because of the openness with which we admit that we belong to you, our family, we suffer setbacks, rejection and even ridicule, and do you realise that we do it willingly because we are committed to belonging to you? Do you realise that just by trying to get even Christian institutions to take our call for excellence in Christian scholarship seriously, we end up being sidelined? Do you actually support our cause?
One of the worrying things that is suggested to me in all this is that the conservative Christian community wants its scholars as long as it can control them. It’s as though there are communities of believers who really think that they already know and understand as much as can possibly be understood about the Bible, theology, philosophy etc, and what they want is someone with letters after their name who can just give voice to what those communities already know. Of course, if someone has spent years studying this stuff and comes to a conclusion not shared by those particular Christians, then that’s no good and it must be false, and it’s fair game to turn on the poor graduate and shun them. But what’s the point of wanting qualified people if you won’t allow them to think for themselves? Maybe, just maybe, someone who has invested huge amounts of time into these disciplines might have learned something that you haven’t. And even if it turns out that they are mistaken, is it really fair game to (to stretch the family metaphor) take them out back and hose them down? Or to stand on the roof and announce to the neighbourhood that since your brother doesn’t share your beliefs exactly he’s a fool?
I really don’t know, sometimes, if my family members realise or not that I’m one of them. You, who wants to not merely disagree with me but go on record calling me out as a compromiser of the faith, as an inept liberal or worse – are you going to spend this many years in training and then make yourself a Pariah by defending Christian belief in public forums? I have to say, it’s pretty hard to have confidence in fighting a war (metaphorically, of course) when you can never be sure if the rest of your platoon is going to retreat behind you, or worse yet, put you in their sights! There may be people reading this who recognise themselves individually or recognise their organisations as being among the perpetrators of the stuff that I’m complaining about. I didn’t write this to fight about it with you, which is why I’ve tried not to identify anybody. All I want is for you to think a little bit more about what it means for us to belong to each other as a family – especially in a fairly small place like New Zealand – and also about the obligations placed upon you by love and wisdom.