Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Webinar on Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts

I will be speaking this Saturday at a free webinar on undesigned coincidences in the gospels and Acts, hosted by Online Apologetics Academy run by Jonathan McLatchie. I'm told the webinar can handle up to 100 participants at a time, plus it will be recorded for future listening. It starts at 3 p.m. eastern time on Zoom, which is very easy to use. (Speaking as a technophobe who just used it yesterday, I can say that it's easy.) Your computer will download a little software for Zoom, and you will choose a user name, and you can then enter the webinar. Here is the information with a link to Zoom. Don't be confused if you're in the U.S. by the 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. time given at the top of the entry for me. That's actually UK time!

I'll be speaking for between 40 minutes and an hour and then taking questions for an hour or two from participants.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Sentiment vs. Sainthood

The aftermath of the recent jihad murders in Orlando, like the aftermath of every other mass shooting (and for that matter every celebrity death) has been marked by a vast tide of undirected emotion and sentiment. In addition to the inevitable debates (over gun control, for example), the world of social media is awash in calls to one another to pray for Orlando and expressions of emotion over the shooting.

There are worse things than soppy sentimentalism. Cruelty and hard-heartedness, for example. But I want to be one voice stating that sentiment for the sake of sentiment has its drawbacks and that American culture is in grave danger of thinking just the opposite--namely, that sentiment for the sake of sentiment is inherently virtuous.

It's possible that part of the confusion arises from the fact that sentimentalism can be a counterfeit of saintliness. Here's what I mean: We know that Jesus took upon himself all the sins and sorrows of the world. Catholics, in particular, have a theological idea of sharing in the sufferings of Jesus. Protestants, too, often talk about bearing one another's burdens, which is fully biblical. One imagines the old monk or nun, or the prayer warrior, praying quietly and earnestly, for hours, for strangers, for the sins of the world, for evil-doers and victims, his prayers ranging over all the world, suffering with those people, offering up prayers for "all sorts and conditions of men." It is a legitimately attractive picture.

I think that people, Christians in particular, may have the false idea that, by calling upon their friends to "Pray for _____[fill in location of most recent tragedy]," and also by encouraging in themselves a lot of emotion about whatever tragedy is big in the news cycle right now, they are imitating that saint. The idea is to be selfless, to go beyond one's own concerns, to enter into the sufferings of others, yes, even others whom one doesn't know.

But in my opinion this is an illusion. Here are some thoughts on the distinction between sentimentalism and sainthood:

1) Sainthood is self-effacing. Sentimentalism is dramatic, public, and self-indulgent. The saint who prays in his cell doesn't tell the whole world that he's praying or what he's praying for. He doesn't advertise on his Facebook status that he broke down in tears while going about his daily task when the thought of _______ came to him. He doesn't pressure other people to join any prayer bandwagon. He just quietly gets on with it.

2) Sainthood is precise. Sentimentalism is vague. A saint knows exactly what he's praying for. He isn't "sending good thoughts." He doesn't send prayers (or thoughts) to a city. (Because we actually send prayers to God. Or, if you're a Catholic or high Anglican, to God via the saints. But not to places.) A saint prays for specific, holy things. Those things might include comfort or salvation for large numbers of people, even people whose names he doesn't know. But a saint's prayers cannot be captured by slogans. How many people out there saying, "Pray for Orlando" have little or no idea what, precisely, they are supposed to be asking for, and for whom? It's a catch-phrase, meant to express a feeling of solidarity.

3) Saints never willfully drum up emotion as an end in itself, in themselves or others. Sentimentalists make a habit of it.

4) Saints have their own priorities in prayer. Sentimentalists are at the beck and call of the news cycle. That's not to say a saint would never pray about something that is big in the news cycle. Maybe he would. If so, it would be as part of a disciplined prayer life with other priorities at least equal in importance. But maybe he wouldn't. Maybe instead that day he would be praying for a child dying of cancer, for Christians being tortured for their faith, for a man struggling with doubts, for children being raised in spiritual darkness, for women (or even a particular woman) being tempted to abortion, or for any of the infinite number of other matters of eternal importance.

A sentimentalist, in contrast, weeps when social media says, "Weep!" and prays when social media says, "Pray!" It's difficult to believe that, in so doing, he is obeying the Spirit of the Lord.

One might ask what harm is done by national sentimentalism. At least it draws people together. It springs from good intentions, from a natural desire to be kind and to care about others. To be sure, there are worse harms. But I think there is enough harm that it is worth speaking out about. Here are just a few of the harms:

--National sentimentalism is closely tied to virtue signaling, bandwagoning, and social bullying. I'm on a Facebook group consisting of professing Christians. One member posted to the group a day or two after the shooting complaining angrily that there had been no "statement" posted to that particular group about the shooting. Several people quickly assured him that they had expressed the proper sentiments on their personal pages. Nobody told him to go jump in the lake. Even I didn't, because I didn't need the drama in my life, and it wasn't worth my time. But the reason that kind of bullying gets off the ground is because of the sentimentalist assumption that everybody has to say somethingeverywhere. Everybody has to express a certain feeling. The whole nation is in mourning, don't you know, and we all have to make our gesture of joining in, and if you don't, you're a bad person. This is simply not a healthy state of affairs.

I want to emphasize that I think this sort of interpersonal pressure to say something is a bad thing regardless of how sympathetic the victims are. I think this about the Sandy Hook massacre, too, or the Paris massacre. I'm making no statement just here about homosexuality. What I am saying is that sentimentalism makes people ripe to be manipulated into talking in a certain way because that's what everybody else is doing, and that is bad in and of itself.

--Nationwide sentimentalism makes it difficult to be cool-headed in judging proposed policies. Note that I'm not talking, here, about which proposed policies. I mean this generalization to apply to any proposed policies. Policy should be discussed and enacted with cool heads, not in a rush of national emotion.

--Nationwide sentimentalism encourages people to force themselves to feel certain emotions. This is always bad. I cannot think of a single exception to the rule: Never try to force yourself to feel an emotion. Emotion is not inherently virtuous and should not be forced. By treating emotion as equivalent to virtue, sentimentalism tells people in the imperative mood to feel an emotion. This is not good for either the mind or the heart.

--National sentimentalism can make it harder to see the pain and suffering of those immediately around us whose sufferings aren't national news. We each only have so much time and emotional energy, and so much time spent in prayer. We need to spend it deliberately and wisely.

I won't go so far as to say, "Don't pray for Orlando!" Of course not. But if you do pray, pray for people, not for an abstract city. Pray for definite, holy things. Pray as part of a well-rounded prayer life and relationship with God. Don't gin up emotions. Don't tell everybody on Facebook about your feelings or about how intensely you are praying. Don't tell other people that they have to pray for Orlando. Maybe they have something else at least as urgent that they are called upon to pray for instead. And don't, for goodness' sake, pray just because someone says, "Pray for Orlando!"


Monday, June 13, 2016

Being a blogger, being a scholar

Another jihad mass murder has happened recently, this time targeting a homosexual bar. What is one to say? It's all been said before. This is Muslim violence in the midst of blatant decadence. I'm not at all sure my further thoughts, politically incorrect though they be (in more than one direction), would be of much edifying value to anyone.

I sort of like being a pundit. Blogging gives one the opportunity for punditry without cost. One doesn't (usually) get paid, but one also doesn't have a boss to please, especially at a personal blog like this. That's all fine and dandy until and unless the desire for the status of Pundit becomes the master. Then one is at the beck and call of the news cycle. Latest atrocity demands comment.

Well, I'm actually resolving not to do that anymore. Though I might be a little more likely to do so on Facebook, where the audience is more restricted.

As it turns out, I'm a scholar with lots of other conservative opinions and an occasional yen to make pundit-like comments on news and culture. But that's pretty much it. The years when I had lengthy thoughts, thoughts that had to be expressed, on political and cultural topics seem to be tapering off. Call it fatigue, cynicism, or just laziness, the upshot is the same.

Our country certainly needs God's blessings, because we're in a bad place any way you slice it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Straining to find a "genre"

I have raised a number of doubts about the facile use of "genre" as a response to allegations of discrepancies in the gospels. I am really almost a little shocked at the example of this represented in the long quotation below, which I read for the first time this morning. Notice that Dr. Licona expressly says that in his research he was unable to come up with any "literary conventions" from the Greco-Roman authors that would cover what he regards as problematic differences in the infancy stories about Jesus in Matthew and Luke. (I certainly do not regard these as troubling, though I think probably Luke just didn't know about the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt. Big deal.) Faced with this situation, Licona strains and reaches for "midrash" (which has now become an all-purpose word among some writers about the New Testament meaning "they made it up but I don't just want to say they made it up") to say that perhaps Luke and Matthew made stuff up about Jesus' birth. But that's okay because he has a word naming a "genre" (that is, "midrash"), so it's not a problem for reliability. Somehow. And they both affirm that Mary was a virgin, so we're not going to count that as part of the "midrash."

The trenchant discussion by N.T. Wright (no fundamentalist!) of the promiscuous invocation of midrash is relevant here. (Who Was Jesus, pp. 71ff.) "Midrash" just isn't the kind of thing that those who invoke it in this way imply. For example, says Wright,

Fourth, midrash never included the invention of stories which were clearly seen as non-literal in intent, and merely designed to evoke awe and wonder. It was no part of Jewish midrash, or any other Jewish writing-genre in the first century, to invent all kinds of new episodes about recent history in order to advance the claim that the Scriptures had been fulfilled. (p. 73)

Wright quotes P.S. Alexander as follows:

[L]abelling a piece of Bible exegesis 'midrash' appears to set it in a definite historical and cultural context, to hint at well-known, technical parallels. But all this may be entirely bogus. (Quoted in Wright, p. 73) 

Wright also points out that midrash was a technique for commenting on ancient scripture and states that it is "fantastically unlikely" that this is what Luke and Matthew were doing in the birth narratives. (p. 73) (HT to Esteemed Husband for the information on midrash from Wright.)
Now, this midrash idea is just a conjecture Licona brings forward as possible, but he seems quite open to it and seems to think it solves some kind of problem.

I'm still in a bit of shock at how widely Licona is willing to cast his "literary devices" net while still claiming that the gospels are historically reliable. (In some sense or other.) What he writes here about the birth narratives bespeaks a positive determination to name something one calls a "genre" in order to shake off concerns about alleged discrepancies.

Here is the full quote.

Bart provides the example of the differences between the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. In my opinion, those narratives include the most difficult and profound differences in the Gospels. As my friend Jonathan Pennington writes,[5]
"Despite our conflation of all these events at the annual church Christmas pageant, these stories do not in fact overlap at all. If Jesus did not appear as the named figure in both of these accounts, one would never suspect they were stories about the same person." [LM: You can say the same thing about different facts in the life of Abraham Lincoln.]
Here I must acknowledge that I don’t know what’s going on and have no detailed explanations for these differences. [LM: The only actual difference between Luke and Matthew cited by Ehrman is the implication in Luke that they returned immediately to Nazareth after the purification of Mary. The rest of Ehrman's discussion consists of beating the dead horse of the census in Luke, which does not concern any apparent discrepancy with Matthew in any event. I don't know why Licona speaks as though there are extremely difficult, problematic discrepancies between Luke and Matthew. In fact, they simply record different details about Jesus' infancy. There is no reason to think there is something heavy "going on."] I think one can provide some plausible solutions. But I admit they are speculative. In my research pertaining to the most basic compositional devices in ancient historical/biographical literature, I did not observe any devices that readily shed light on the differences between the infancy narratives.
However — even though, as I say, I don’t know what’s going on here to cause the differences — let’s just speculate for a moment and consider the following scenario. Matthew and Luke both agree that a Jewish virgin named Mary who was engaged to a Jewish man named Joseph gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. The early Christians all knew this much. However, little else was remembered about this event. So, Matthew and Luke added details to their account to create a more interesting narrative of Jesus’s birth, a type of midrash. I’m not saying this is what Matthew and Luke did. I don’t know what’s going on with the infancy narratives. However, if this occurred, we would have to take the matter of genre — midrash — into consideration and recognize that the historicity of the details outside of the story’s core would be questionable, while the core itself could stand. After all, with such differences between the accounts in Matthew and Luke, one could reasonably argue that the core is attested by multiple independent sources. [LM: So we refer to what Luke and Matthew both affirm as the "core," triumphantly state that this is multiply attested (!), and then attribute what we are saying they made up out of whole cloth as belonging to a "genre," to which we give a name, even though there is no evidence that they were using any well-established genre that would have these properties. This is highly unconvincing as any sort of defense of Matthew's and Luke's reliability!]