Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Higher Criticism in the Pew

Higher criticism from the pew usually refers to things like:
"Church ran over again and I had to pee." Or
"It would be nice for once to sing a hymn I actually know."
My present congregation excepted of course. Actually all of them excepted.

The higher criticism I am referring to is higher criticism of the Bible. How well versed are you? Take this quiz. Higher criticism looks at texts from an historical-critical point view as opposed to say a devotional point of view.

I think it is important to present higher criticism in preaching and in teaching so I try to keep up and I try to find creative ways to do that. My three congregations have been receptive to it (at least the vast majority of the people in them). While some were initially uncomfortable with the information I presented, most came to view the challenge as helpful. They didn't want to be "fed" they wanted to be challenged to think.

In fact, the most common complaint about my preaching has been from those who are not
fed. Those folks either have caught on or moved to another feeding trough. You can't please everyone (one of the great truths I learned early) and so you go with your gut and your mind.

It is nice when you find someone who writes well and who agrees with you. I am enjoying the new book by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them).

Here are a just a few paragraphs to get a feel for what this book is about:

One of the most amazing and perplexing features of mainstream Christianity is that seminarians who learn the historical-critical method in their Bible classes appear to forget all about it when it comes time for them to be pastors. They are taught critical approaches to Scripture, they learn about the discrepancies and contradictions, they discover all sorts of historical errors and mistakes, they come to realize that it is difficult to know whether Moses existed or what Jesus actually said and did....

They learn all this, and yet when they enter church ministry they appear to put it back on the shelf. For reasons I will explore in the conclusion, pastors are, as a rule, reluctant to teach what they learned about the Bible in seminary....

The views I set out in this book are standard fare among scholars. I don't know a single Bible scholar who will learn a single thing from this book, although they will disagree with conclusions here and there. In theory, pastors should not learn much from it either, as this material is widely taught in seminaries and divinity schools. But most people in the street, and in the pew, have heard none of this before. That is a real shame, and it is time that something is done to correct the problem." pp. 12-18
Of course, Bob Funk set out to do this very thing when he established the Jesus Seminar in the mid-80s. Bob has gone on to his heavenly reward yet Westar continues to publish books and periodicals and hold events to help the public become religiously literate.

But today is Bart's day. We share the same alma mater, Princeton Seminary, where we both learned higher criticism of the Bible. Bart went on to become a pro at it while I wondered how I could share this information without being crucified or simply boring people to tears.

It isn't boring. It is exciting. It is challenging to our cherished beliefs. It is a risk. You could rest comfortably with the same old bowl of mush you've believed for the last forty years or you can be challenged. Your faith could be destroyed. Or, it could be broadened. Whatever the case, your mind will have been freed from the shackles of rigidity and dogma.

I found that it is exciting and rewarding to share it with folks in my congregations. The message I received at seminary was that sharing this information wouldn't be such a swell idea. Just give them the old tried and true. I had tried it and it wasn't true. Bart and I came to a similar conclusion. Bart writes:

Unlike most of my seminarian friends, though, I did not revert to a devotional approach to the Bible the day after I graduated with my master's of divinity degree. Instead I devoted myself even more wholeheartedly to learning more about the Bible from a historical perspective, and about the Christian faith that I had thought was taught by the Bible. p. 16
I am glad he did. We preachers need all the help we can get from our teachers who not only teach us the stuff, but encourage us to present it to our congregations. The biggest help for me has been from scholars who have written books for the general public, such as those involved with Westar, Bart Ehrman, and many others who I have mentioned on this blog.

In this book, Ehrman is not offering off the wall ideas. This is the basic stuff your minister knows if s/he went to a mainline seminary and wasn't too stoned to attend class. Now of course you may have a fundamentalist for a minister. In that case all bets are off. Their central mission in life is to
prove that Ehrman and 200 years of historical-critical scholarship are wrong, lost and of the devil and that you are better off to read some apologist like Lee Strobel or William Lane Craig.

If you are stuck in a church like that, you ought to switch. Unless of course, you just want to be fed. They'll feed it to you all right.

Who wrote the Bible? Did Jesus say the things and do the things attributed to him? How did the Bible come to be? Who invented Christianity anyway?

Again, this is not fringe scholarship. This is what is taught in mainline seminaries. It is higher criticism 101.

Here is an idea. Buy the book. Give it to your minister if you sense or know that he or she is interested in this but might be afraid of teaching it because of the sharks who just want to get fed. Encourage and support him or her in an adult education program that is not about spiritual mush, but really challenges people to think. Set it up that way. Say we want to learn what is taught in seminary. Ehrman's book is a good place to start.

Believe me, your minister will appreciate that and so will your congregation.

OK, I just noticed something. Bart looks like Jesus. Check it.



Similar mouth and nose. Brown eyes. Cut Jesus' hair and give him specs and he is Bart Ehrman! Bet you didn't learn that in church!



30 comments:

  1. "If you are stuck in a church like that, you ought to switch. Unless of course, you just want to be fed. They'll feed it to you all right."Thanks for saying that. Of course it is not always that simple (to leave), but I agree with you. The phrase "being fed" comes up a lot in these settings, it is highly valued. I guess you are just supposed to then digest what you have been fed. And since you get fed so much, why would you need to look elsewhere for food?

    "Here is an idea. Buy the book. Give it to your minister if you sense or know that he or she is interested in this but might be afraid of teaching it because of the sharks who just want to get fed."I would love to be in a situation like that, I feel wistful thinking of it. Thanks for posting this, it was very encouraging to me. I like Ehrman's writing a lot.

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  2. I hope the book is better than his interview on Colbert, which was nothing but they "Hey, the Bible says these folks were with him at the crucifixion in one story, but doesn't in another, therefore they must be wrong" kind of claptrap.

    Of course, a Colbert interview rarely offers the opportunity to make interesting arguments.

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  3. The Episcopal Church offers a theological education course called Education for Ministry for lay people, and it covers all of this stuff. I know, because I took it and now I lead a group.

    The folks in my group include scientists, engineers, and business people---they ask tough questions. And they are also among the most faithful people I know. They do not need a literalist faith to be Christians.

    I think it's a shame that clergy have so little faith in the power of the Christian story and message that they cannot bring themselves to talk about this stuff. While I have my differences with John Shelby Spong, I will agree with him on this: "God and truth cannot be incompatible."

    I feel sorry for Bart Ehrman, though--because he says he wishes he could still believe but can't. In my view, he's made the mistake that so many fundamentalists-turned-agnostics/atheists make. He's still a literalist--either the Bible has to be literally true or it's literally "forged." I find it odd that someone educated at Princeton can still be so black-and-white about the issue.

    Pax,
    Doxy

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  4. His interview on Colbert was flat. Few people are interested in debunking.

    Atheists have given up on what they think are useless fairy tales anyway and believers are looking for something to believe in.

    Even though that is how he came across, that really is not what his book is about. He wants to show that higher criticism can be for many a deeper faith.

    The problem is that Bart is agnostic and even as he takes pains show that the historical critical method is NOT the cause of that, nevertheless he doesn't have the passion of say Peter Gomes, who really says the same things in the Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (also interviewed on Colbert and very funny). For Gomes faith is alive and for Bart it is now absent. Frankly, it is like going to God's funeral. Not a happy day.

    Of course Gomes is a preacher so it isn't quite a fair comparison.

    I think the book is helpful, though.

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  5. JKG,

    Life is too short to spend it beating yourself over the head with a rake. If your Sunday morning experience (overall-- recognizing the the normal hassles) is doing the job for you, then good deal.

    My father doesn't believe in most anything the preacher says in the church he attends, but they let him play his clarinet.

    But if it isn't doing it for you, wherever you are, if the payoff isn't there, you may be ready to to explore.

    My second point is related to something Barack Obama said recently. People were asking him if he was going to take a stand on something or other. It is a cause that he probably believes in.

    His answer was, "Make me." In other words, "You have to develop the political power to make that happen rather than just ask me to do it for you."

    The same is true in churches. Your minister has way too many things to do and way too many things to worry about than to take risks for which there is uncertain payoff.

    Parishioners have to show her/him that the risk is worthwhile and that there is political will to make it happen.

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  6. I saw Bart speak a few weeks ago. I'll have to read the book, because the message I got was NOT that higher criticism could lead to a deeper faith. He seemed almost sad that he had to tell us these things, but felt compelled to do so since our pastors were not being honest with us.

    Except, well...mine have been. And there you are, John Shuck, telling people the truth and they still come to hear it and go out to live it.

    And every week, thousands of people gather for EFM and they still continue to find reasons to hold on to their faith.

    Maybe we're in the tiny minority, but we prove that you *can* be an educated, thoughtful, intelligent person and still find meaning in the Christian story.

    FTR, I don't believe you MUST find meaning in the Christian story (or any other faith story, for that matter) to have a good life. I just feel for those who want to believe and find they can't. That seems a particularly lonely place to be.

    Pax,
    Doxy

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  7. Hey Doxy,

    I love the idea of that program. Actually, I think we have come a long way from 20 years ago when I was in seminary in terms of materials available for people.

    Bart says he lost his faith not because of higher criticism but because of suffering.

    I am confounded by that. I respect that was a breaker for him, although I don't understand why.

    That is only because I don't think of G-d in a theistic way. Frankly, life exists and that coupled with my 'sublime madness of the soul' that the 'universe bends toward justice' is enough G-d for me.

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  8. "In my view, he's made the mistake that so many fundamentalists-turned-agnostics/atheists make. He's still a literalist--either the Bible has to be literally true or it's literally "forged." I find it odd that someone educated at Princeton can still be so black-and-white about the issue. "

    Yeah, that was how he came across on Colbert as well.

    "Oh no! There weren't actually 700,000 men in Israel's army? Well it must all be crap, then." Those sorts of arguments simply aren't very persuasive as I don't think many people come to faith based on those sorts of details in the Bible.

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  9. Bart says he lost his faith not because of higher criticism but because of suffering.

    I am confounded by that. I respect that was a breaker for him, although I don't understand why.
    I don't either. Because if you reject a belief in God because of suffering, you have ultimately declared that suffering is completely pointless and there is no possibility of redemption for it.

    I, for one, find that an incredibly bleak POV--one that is much harder for me to take than the problem of theodicy.

    But, then, I subscribe to process theology and I'm with you on the "arc of justice."

    Pax,
    Doxy

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  10. John, I certainly hope you are following Ben Witherington's running critique of the new Ehrman book. I also hope you're following my running response to that critique, but mainly BW3's. I think Ehrman may be overplaying his hand in the book.

    By the way, in the linked quiz, we are supposed to answer that Jesus was born in Nazareth based on "higher criticism" (this quiz doesn't put the "high" in higher criticism in any case)... I don't see why. No accounts of Jesus place his birth there. He was "from" Galilee, by all accounts... and yes there are critical reasons for discounting the Bethlehem narratives... but I don't know if Nazareth should be "the" correct answer there. Still & all the quiz isn't bad. I'm thinking about reposting it.

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  11. In the book he is clear to show that the discrepancies are for the purpose of understanding the author's point not that the authors were wrong.

    If Mark and John have Jesus overturn tables in the temple at a different period in his ministry, rather than to try to make these two accounts harmonize (ie. he overturned the tables twice) understand how the different authors use this event to tell their own story.

    That is a lot to explain in a TV interview (especially with Colbert) and so he comes across as a grumpy academic taking away Christmas.

    His battle is with fundies who apparently do that kind of stuff (prove the Bible is without error) and so forth by writing their own harmonized gospel. I never paid attention to all the fundy tricks (Peter actually denied Jesus six times--3 times before the cock crowed and 3 times before the cock crowed twice--since the gospel accounts vary in that detail).

    His book is an insight into the dark recesses of inerrant fundamentalism.

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  12. I wouldn't call BW3 a fundamentalist - way more conservative than you, yeah... but not quite fundamentalist. He acknowledges the need not to harmonize away the various Gospel perspectives, but he holds to a (somewhat hyper) historical view of them. Regardless, he makes some points against Ehrman that seem valid to me. And some that seem no more than vain apologetics.

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  13. Smijer,

    I wasn't talking about Witherington. Our posts crossed. I was responding to Alan. I haven't followed Witherington's commentary.

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  14. Oh - sorry... he posted in four parts and got pretty comprehensive. I'm reserving judgment until after I read the book. You want links?

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  15. I found the link and read the first part of Witherington's reaction. Here is what he says about Ehrman:

    "...has never done the necessary laboring in the scholarly vineyard to be in a position to write a book like Jesus, Interrupted from a position of long study and knowledge of New Testament Studies."

    A tad condescending, no?

    His reaction goes on forever in multiple parts. Ehrman's book is written for beginners so they can become familiar with the basics in historical critical scholarship. So why is Witherington bringing out the tanks? This strikes me as apologetics.

    While I find Ehrman more convincing than Witherington, it is good to read from a variety of viewpoints, right?

    "Let a thousand flowers bloom," sez Chairman Mao.

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  16. "Let a thousand flowers bloom," sez Chairman Mao.Yeah. Just don't shoot them when their pretty little heads pop up out of the muck.

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  17. "That is a lot to explain in a TV interview (especially with Colbert) and so he comes across as a grumpy academic taking away Christmas. "

    Indeed, and my criticism is getting awfully close to sounding like I'm criticizing a book I've never read, which is something I hate to see when others do it. LOL I'll have to take a look if I get a chance sometime.

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  18. Smijer,

    About the little quiz. Agreed, not "high" criticism. Also agreed with you on the Nazareth thing. Jesus, the literary character, was born in Bethlehem. The historical person of Jesus (if there even was one)? Who knows?

    They could do a better quiz, or another quiz that would be a bit more advanced. It's a start!

    I have some fun quizzes on my Bible and Jive blog on h/c criticism.

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  19. Snad, LOL.

    I just love traveling the world and meeting new people...so I can kill them.

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  20. Oh - neat. I'll bookmark the B&J page. Thanks!

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  21. Great! Thanks for the visit and Witherington link!

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  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  23. Witherington's reaction is way off base. Bart has more than put in the time.

    But he does illustrate not what Alen says about the fundamentalist mistakes, but the justification for the fundamentalist need to defend their faith. A faith that is based on the inerrancy of Scripture will collapse if the truth about the Scriptures is known.

    That is why science and historical critical methods and post modern methods and any other myriad set of tools must all be vilified and rejected. They all pose legitimate threats to the doctrine of inerrancy Scripture, and through that threat to their own faith.

    The "job" of pastors ought to be to shore up better foundations to people's faith, so that it can remain afloat in the presence of something more than a mild breeze of modernity.

    Because a faith based on superstitious beliefs is no faith at all.

    That goes to the question of evil as well, although that seems to me a more legitimate reason to loose one's faith. One could have hoped that God would suspend the laws of nature, or at least re-write them, to do away with it. The pot does legitimately ask the potter "why have you made me thus". As the spokesperson for all of nature, Humanity does as the question, and God does refuse to answer.

    Even more, God put the question to Humanity before Humanity put it to God and that is where it stands.

    I think God did perhaps answer the question in Jesus of Nazareth. But it is an answer that can only truly make sense if we answer our own half of the question.

    Either way, if we can answer His question, then we will have a leg to stand on when turning the question back. That is what it means to Struggle with God.

    You can't be a Fundamentalist and survive that Struggle. That is what Bart Ehrman really illustrates. As a modern and post modern scholar he is unique in that he has chosen to share his personal faith journey along with his scholarly journey. He does not pretend they are independent from each other. That is what makes his writing so compelling, or at least compelling enough that more than the average bible geek is interested in what he has to say.

    What he is perhaps trying to do is to get pastors to do likewise. Because Doctrine that is severed from the intellectual faith journey of the teacher is fake.

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  24. Wow, Jodie, that is an excellent analysis, every point you touched upon. I especially appreciate, "You can't be a Fundamentalist and survive that Struggle."

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  25. I have not read Bart's book. Neither did I see his recent interview. I was NOT impressed with his participation in the Talipot tomb TV program.

    Having said that I find the failure to use higher criticism in mainline church's a real mystery. Most of you know that I am not the most liberal person on the block but I've used and talked about higher criticism for almost 30 years, from the pulpit and in Bible classes. One of my favorite things to say is, "why did Mark (or another gospel writer) include this story in this gospel?" It seems to me this is a vital question to ask about any text whether preparing a sermon or teaching.

    I will say, however, that higher criticism is not something that is monolithic. A quick listen to scholarly debate will prove this. In fact the scholars often aren't all that polite! We also find that higher criticism (like all of us) has a tendency to reflect the prevailing ideas and philosophies of the times in which it is written. Albert Schweitzer's (sp?)
    book shows this admirably. So we have to be careful how we go about our work.

    I understand the problems fundamentalists have with higher criticism. The truly curious thing that I find about them is that they take their views and methods from the Enlightenment!

    So maybe I'll read Bart's book. Or maybe I'll read more scholarly work by him. (I hate reading books and saying continually as I read it, "Say something I haven't heard before.") But frankly I suspect that I've learned more from Raymond Brown, Brevard Childs, Walter Brueggemann, April Deconick and yes, Dominic Crossan than I will from Barth.

    As for teaching lay people I suspect that the Kerygma program is a better teaching tool than Bart's new book.

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  26. **But frankly I suspect that I've learned more from Raymond Brown, Brevard Childs, Walter Brueggemann, April Deconick and yes, Dominic Crossan than I will from Barth.**

    Bart or Barth? : )

    Actually that is a good list.

    I have used Kerygma previously. It is more 'faith-based' which is fine. I tend to think it skirts around the more exciting questions. Nevertheless, it provides a good mainline approach.

    But Ehrman's book (as are those from Crossan, Borg, Funk et al) is for popular audiences, which is the point.

    You have been exposed to it all and won't learn much from Ehrman's book (as he says himself). But I know that many of my folks will appreciate it.

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  27. I said Kerygma is more 'faith based." That could be taken a lot of ways. I meant that it is more 'creed based.'

    I don't think you will find anything in Kerygma that would challenge say the Apostle's or Nicene Creeds. Again, OK if you want that.

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  28. I think it is true that a lot of pastors pretend that a lot of higher criticism doesn't exist, and that has been my complaint for a long time, and it is one reason why I remain mostly unchurched. I get tired of going to church and pretending that stories that I know not to be literally true or which are not internally consistent are somehow historically accurate depictions of events.

    Still, it does seem to be the case, as already pointed out, that Ehrman is just as much a fundamentalist as he used be, only that he has changed teams. At some level I think he still accepts the idea that the Bible either must be all true or else it must be hogwash.

    I used to be a bit of a fan of Ehrman, but when he revealed that he rejected the existence of God because of theodicy, it became clear just how much he was a prisoner of his former fundamentalist background. He seemed to dismiss out of hand any theology that didn't fit into his conception of what God must be. While I think his scholarly investigations into early Christianity are interesting, I think his theological assumptions remain grounded in simplistic fundamentalist premises about what religious faith must be.

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  29. ------------------------------------
    "Oh no! There weren't actually 700,000 men in Israel's army? Well it must all be crap, then." Those sorts of arguments simply aren't very persuasive as I don't think many people come to faith based on those sorts of details in the Bible."

    "In my view, he's made the mistake that so many fundamentalists-turned-agnostics/atheists make. He's still a literalist--either the Bible has to be literally true or it's literally "forged." I find it odd that someone educated at Princeton can still be so black-and-white about the issue."

    "I used to be a bit of a fan of Ehrman, but when he revealed that he rejected the existence of God because of theodicy, it became clear just how much he was a prisoner of his former fundamentalist background. He seemed to dismiss out of hand any theology that didn't fit into his conception of what God must be."
    .

    I would view Ehrman more as a victim of fundamentalism than as an intellectual prisoner of it. And I doubt he dismissed out of hand any theology that didn't fit his conception of what God must be. A fundamentalist has years of experience of fighting against just that and to believe what the bible says even when it is at odds with what one would like to be true.

    When a person lives in the fundamentalist world, they have to write off certain difficult bible verses as the "mysteries of God," mostly related to theodicy. When they move to accept biblical criticism, they don't have to hold onto those portions of the bible as being "the wisdom of God." Many people reject the bible because of the problem of theodicy, but many of those people will not reject the verses that create the problem in the first place until critical biblical studies have removed for them the mantle of biblical inerrency. For me, Numbers chapter 5 and the "test for an unfaithful wife" was a clincher in my walk from faith. I didn't reject the inerrency of the bible based Numbers 5, I just didn't consider the issue of their being a problem with them until I had already given up the fundamentalist perspective.

    Ehrman's perspective makes sense to me, that critical studies eventually led to his agnosticism due to the problem of theodicy. I am not saying Christianity cannot be reconciled with the problem of theodicy, or that the bible should not be read in a way that helps us to understand the issue. But I am saying a former fundamentalist is likely to cast a much more critical eye towards the bible than someone who never attempted to take all verses with equal authority in the first place.

    And then it is like choosing an entirely different religion, to move from Fundamentalism to Progressive Christianity. If someone left fundamentalist Islam, would you be surprised if they chose agnosticism over Christianity? Of course not. I don't see Ehrman's progression of faith to be any different. Really, for me, it has seemed like trying to adopt a new religion, to honestly explore progressive Christianity. And I cannot understand or explain why that is.

    [sorry for the long comment]

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