Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The small vine: Life over death

Many-a year ago, I went on a sci-fi reading binge in my spare time. It was mostly a flop. Turns out I'm not really into reading sci-fi. One of the authors I tried unsuccessfully to enjoy was Fred Saberhagen. I read quite a number of short stories set in his Berserker universe. The Berserkers are demoniacally clever, life-destroying robots. They specialize in torture as a mode of forcing humans to do their will (they have no emotions) as they try to eradicate life from the galaxy. I'm a sensitive soul. This series wasn't for me. Plus, like so many sci-fi authors, Saberhagen just didn't seem to me to have the gift of making you see landscape or get really involved with characters. Everything was just plot sketches on board spaceships. 

There was one short story, the title of which I don't remember. I'll just let some enterprising reader do the googling to try to find its title and perhaps correct my memory of its plot. But the plot, and the ending (spoilers coming) have always stuck with me for conceptual reasons, even though I can scarcely remember if the protagonist was male or female, let alone his name. I'm pretty sure it was a man. The Berserkers had taken over the spaceship. The main character was being left alive for a while because they had some nefarious use for him. The Berserkers would sometimes force humans to act as spies or lures for other humans. I remember that from other stories. So maybe that was it. Anyway, they were going to make some bad use of the spaceship as well. Meanwhile, they had to let the few humans they were keeping continue to grow food, so there was a garden on the ship.

The climax (and ending) of the story came when the protagonist realized that one of the melons or gourds in the garden had sent its vines (roots?) down into the side of the ship and pried apart a seam of some kind. This meant that he was going to die pretty soon. It would also destroy the ship. Normally a disaster. But now that the ship was taken over by the Berserkers, he perceived it as a triumph. The story ends with him ready to die happy when the ship is depressurized, realizing that now it can't be used by the Berserkers to destroy more life.

The symbolism has always stuck with me. Saberhagen managed to make it vivid--the picture of the vine bursting through the metal. Life growing, springing forth, and sacrificing itself blindly, in the service of life, paradoxically overcoming death by destroying the ship and itself. Despite the fact that I have no desire ever again to enter the Berserker universe, I've never forgotten that image of the vine growing irrepressibly and thus quietly triumphing over the death monsters who seem so much more powerful.

Things are pretty bad in the West and in the whole world right now. In the West, it's the fact that things are getting worse that particularly draws the attention of anyone who loves the things being destroyed. Whether it's pastors being arrested in Canada for holding "illegal gatherings" (did you ever think you'd hear of that happening in the "free world"?), Christians suggesting we should use "pronoun hospitality" for mentally confused, reality-denying men who think they are women, people losing their livelihoods for stating that homosexual acts are wrong, two-year-olds being forced to wear masks to daycare, people dying alone in nursing homes, because their families aren't allowed to see them, Christians seriously arguing that "going to church" can be entirely a matter of "meeting" on-line, wicked destroyers rioting, and Christians defending rioting because of something-something to do with racism, or...Well, really, I'd run out of room if I tried to list everything. Sometimes in the last year I've just said, "The world is coming to an end." It really does seem like that.

Death seems to be winning. And I keep wanting to say something really encouraging to the many people who I know are going through it right now (for one reason or another) and facing darkness, many facing serious hardship and pain, and I keep feeling stymied. There are dangers in so many directions. To wit: If I just start talking about the beautiful flowers and the intensely green leaves I saw today on a walk in the woods, I could easily sound like those people on Facebook who say, "Here's a random puppy for your day to cheer you up." Shallow sentimentalism isn't terribly helpful. At best it's a drug that swiftly loses its effectiveness for countering existential angst. If I talk about the pastors standing up to tyranny in Canada (and that really is encouraging, I must say), I risk sounding like the people who say, "This persecution is really good for the church, because it will separate those who really believe in something from those who are merely nominal. It will strengthen us." Well, it ain't necessarily so. This persecution confuses and disheartens at least as many as it strengthens, it separates Christians physically from one another, and it creates ideological division. All opportunities for the Enemy. If I say, "Tighten your belts, folks, and grab your sword of the Spirit and your shield of faith, because it's gonna get worse before it gets better" I could just sound grim and not really encouraging. If I write an agonized elegy for all the things being destroyed, I'm likely to make depressed people, and maybe myself, more depressed. (Pro-tip: Catharsis doesn't always work, either for writers or for readers, unless you happen to be, or be reading, a genius writer on a roll.)

So let's try it this way. What does the Devil want? Yes, I mean the real Devil, Lucifer, the fallen angel. I really believe in him. And I think he's trying to have a field day, and to some extent having a field day, with the state of the world right now. What does he want to get out of this for my soul and yours?

Well, yes, ultimately, to take us to hell, which you might or might not think is possible if you believe in eternal security of the believer. But what about right now?

C.S. Lewis has a lot to say on this, and it's very insightful. The Devil wants us to believe that evil, meaninglessness, and death are the ultimate Reality in the universe. Here is something Screwtape has to say about the matter. (The whole passage is gold, but I'll only type out part of it. Go get your copy of The Screwtape Letters and read it all.) Speaking of the human "patient" who is an air raid warden during the Blitz, Uncle Screwtape advises,

Probably the scenes he is now witnessing will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith...But there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is "what the world is really like" and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the world "real." They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, "All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building";...The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are "real," while the spiritual elements are "subjective". In all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality, and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are "real," the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death "really means."...Wars and poverty are "really" horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments....Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment. The Screwtape Letters, pp. 142-144 (from Letter XXX)

Precisely. Uncle Screwtape has nailed it. And so, if you see something beautiful and are in danger of being encouraged by it, your own personal Screwtape or Wormwood will be quick to remind you that all is just as wrong with the world as it was before and that you are merely experiencing a shot of dopamine occasioned by the nice weather. On the other hand, if you hear some tragic news of a friend of a friend who is dying alone, your personal Screwtape or Wormwood will tell you that that is what reality is really like and will ask you, pointedly, why God allows such things if He really exists. See how that works? It's a game the Devil delights to play.

Lewis made this devilish view of the world even more vivid in Perelandra. Ransom, the protagonist, has fought and (seemingly) defeated the demon-possessed Unman (formerly Dr. Weston) and has been cast up on the shores of an underground country where he wanders for some time. Unfortunately, the Unman is only partly dead. He follows Ransom through the underworld in a zombie-like state and has to be finally killed in one last fight and his body burned in a subterranean lake of fire before he stops pursuing Ransom. Just before the Unman emerges for the last time, he pours into Ransom's mind the demonic view of things:

Suddenly and irresistibly, like an attack by tanks, that whole view of the universe which Weston...had so lately preached to him took all but complete possession of his mind. He seemed to see that he had been living all his life in a world of illusions....The beauty of Perelandra, the innocence of the Lady, the sufferings of saints and the kindly affections of men, were all only an appearance and outward show. What he had called the worlds were but the skins of the worlds: a quarter of a mile beneath the surface, and from thence through thousands of miles of dark and silence and infernal fire, to the very heart of each, Reality lived--the meaningless, the un-made, the omnipotent idiocy to which all spirits were irrelevant and before which all efforts were vain. (Perelandra, p. 180)

That's what the Devil wants you to think. Frankly, shallow sentimentalism about a daily puppy picture would be truer. But better still the realization that the puppy, the friend, the green leaves, the sufferings of saints, and the kindly affections of men are the garment in which Reality clothes itself--that vast, meaningful, and ultimately powerful Reality that, at the last, will (for those who belong to the Lord, and hence are in touch with Reality) redeem all our losses. It will win because it must, because omnipotence and goodness are ultimately linked in some mysterious way that the Thomists claim to understand (and maybe they're right) and that I don't claim to understand. God's power and His goodness flow from his very being in two mighty streams. His creative acts flow from both, and one day He will make a new heaven and a new earth.

It may seem to us now that only goodness is eternally being lost and that only evil and meaninglessness will remain, but when we see from the side of eternity, we will see that that was only what the Enemy wanted us to think.

Christians believe that I'm right about this. Thinking Christians know that I'm right. The problem is one of holding on, isn't it? 

Another thing that can sap our will to hold on is our own sense of ridiculousness. Who am I, pontificating about Meaning and Suffering when others are really suffering? We can be tempted to be harsh with ourselves in a way that is not good, ridiculing our own attempts to cling to the unchanging hand of God on the grounds that, after all, we are so privileged, so pampered, that we shouldn't need such reflections in the first place. The Devil wants you to think that, too. Better to be humble, to take your share of the Cross, however ludicrously small it might seem in comparison with others', with due seriousness but not with self-aggrandizement, to accept with gratitude the present grace, and to go on.

If there is one thing that 2020 and now 2021 have shown me, it is that the Devil is astoundingly quick to take advantage of anything and everything that he can turn to his own uses. Since these days I have an increasingly large electronic correspondence, I get a small chance to see that there are an awful lot of people out there going along quietly bearing an increasing sense of darkness and doom but not wanting to say much about it. It may be something concrete like the loss of a job or physical pain or illness, or it may be a sense of psychological or spiritual oppression, or both, but it's there, and I think it's there more and more now.

The vine in the Saberhagen story was just a symbol. It would mean nothing to say that life triumphs over death if we didn't have reason to believe that, really, life does triumph over death. Who cares if forests grow back over the ruins of human civilizations? Who cares if a gourd destroys a spaceship and messes up some wicked plans? No doubt the Berserkers will find another way to move forward. The glory of Christianity is that it tells us that the good message is true. We feel, when we see spring come after winter, that life springs up ever and anew and that death is not the final answer. Is that just a feeling? That's what we want to know. After all, when the deadly snows fall again and, in these northern latitudes, the long dark days come back, we feel the opposite--that darkness is the ultimate fate of man. Is that true? Both can seem like insights. 

This is why we need the propositional content and the empirical evidence to give stability to our feelings and to help us to distinguish the true from the false. Thank God, he has not left us to puzzle out that riddle alone.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

The disjunctions of risk in an old-fashioned world

 In a recent Facebook post set to public, Bret Laird, a pastor here in the Kalamazoo area, makes an excellent point: All the talk about the alleged Christian duty to curtail our meetings due to Covid ignores the very nature of risk in the world in which Christianity was born and spread--the whole world, in fact, up to the early 1900s at least. Pastor Laird uses the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics early in the 20th century as a starting point for his discussion.

I would like to jump off from Pastor Laird's comments and make similar comments of my own, without using his specific numbers. Just to be "generous", let's take this piece's estimate from September of about 1% infection fatality rate for Covid, noting that this is in an article that is trying to debunk an overly rosy view of the virus's harmfulness. As the piece notes, some estimates of IFR have been lower, but let's take the higher one. Of course, that rate varies greatly from one group to another. Well and good. The case fatality ratio (which involves only detected cases and hence will be higher, since it involves more symptomatic people) has been wildly differently estimated from one country to another. The WHO more or less throws up its hands and suggests trying to avoid one's biases, noting that estimates of this ratio have ranged from .1 to 25%!

Now, let's consider a world with no antibiotics and no vaccines. The world, in fact, in which Christianity came into existence. The world in which the Jewish people came into existence. The world in which God commanded multiple feasts per year (in the Old Testament) and many sacrifices, which had to be carried out in Jerusalem once Solomon built the Temple. The world in which Christians were commanded not to forsake the assembling of themselves together. The world in which 3,000 people were baptized into the new Christian faith on the day of Pentecost. The world of pilgrimages, evangelistic meetings, huge numbers receiving Communion together, the world of "greet one another with a holy kiss."

And let's think about disjunctions. When you have no antibiotics, pneumonia (an infectious disease) is a real scourge. One estimate of its case fatality pre-antibiotics is a whopping 30%. That's case fatality rather than infection fatality, because it's very difficult to know who is technically infected with the pneumococcus, if they present no symptoms. But there's also smallpox, which was a separate real scourge, also with an estimate CFR (in an older world) around 30%.

You begin to get the picture. I'm not going to go look all of these up to get estimates of the probability of your dying of them, back when there was not very good medical care, no antibiotics (where relevant), and no vaccines to prevent them or make you have much milder symptoms. But let's just list a few more infectious diseases to keep the interest going--tuberculosis, typhoid fever, German measles (not very deadly in itself to the one showing symptoms but quite dangerous to the unborn child of a pregnant woman), etc. Oh, did you say something about long-term effects? Well, there was the scarring from smallpox, even if you recovered. There's the possibility of permanent sterility from mumps. Even seasonal influenza was deadlier in 1900 than it is in 2020, probably deadlier still in AD 100, and there were no flu shots to prevent it.

Now, consider: For any given church meeting, Israelite feast, or other religious gathering throughout the history of the people of God prior to the wonders of modern medicine, it is absolutely obvious that the probability that someone or other, as a result of that gathering, would catch one or the other of these infectious diseases and either die or have permanent, serious health consequences was far higher than the probability, in 2020, that that will happen from Covid as a result of a meeting of comparable size.

But (you might say), "they" didn't know that "back then." Well, actually, there have been plenty of centuries when people were able by sheer observation to get the idea that you could catch a disease by gathering together, even prior to knowing about germs. But waive that. God knew. God commanded that His people gather together, even en masse (pun intended), despite knowing, beyond all shadow of a doubt, with perfect foreknowledge, that people would die physically of infectious diseases as an indirect result of obeying those commands. Evidently God had other priorities. Whaddaya know?

If the church had ceased to gather or even had significantly curtailed gathering as a result of a danger of a death from infectious disease as a result of gathering, equal to that risk from Covid, now, then the church would scarcely have gathered throughout all those earlier centuries, and Christianity as we know it, and Judaism as it was before the Fall of Jerusalem, would never have existed. And, if you care about that kind of thing, a lot fewer people would ever have heard of the true God or known him, been discipled into his Church, and gone out to reach others. And also, while I'm at it, if everybody had tried to cover half of their faces in all of these gatherings for all that time, a lot of other good things would have been lost as well. But I'll leave that part as an "exercise for the reader" rather than saying more about it here.

This consideration about the multiplicity of infectious diseases that used to be stalking around this world should strike down at a single blow the idea that "this time it's different," that we are in some unprecedented and "temporary" situation (where the word "temporary," at a year and counting, with no clear end in sight, has become a kind of sickening joke) in which we should just submit "for now" to significant curtailment of normal life and religious practice, because we are "in a pandemic" and all the usual notions of normal life simply don't apply. And it should reveal for the utter falsehood that it is the claim that the Judeo-Christian God is pleased with us if we cease to meet in person, to evangelize, to gather, and disapproves of us if we, like Pastor Coates in Canada, carry on with such nefarious religious activities. Indeed, the more one thinks about it the more such a claim comes to seem like something nigh to blasphemy. Perhaps a well-intentioned blasphemy, but then, the Bible knows about well-intentioned blasphemy. Just ask Uzzah. I'd say that those fellow believers who are out there lecturing Pastor Coates and those who agree with GraceLife Church about their (alleged) duty to obey God by cutting way back on the services of Christ should think again.

For when one thinks of God's beloved servants, whose beautiful feet upon the mountains have for thousands of years brought glad tidings of peace, one should start suspecting that that is what God wants. Maybe we should be worried about displeasing him quite seriously by bringing all of that to a crashing stop. Maybe God has priorities other than avoiding a virus or an infectious bacterium. Any one of them, or all of them put together.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Updates on Lisa Miller and Philip Zodhiates

Philip Zodhiates' release date is supposed to be March 26, 2021. It looks like the civil suit against him and all the others will get going full-bore in June. I wonder whether Lisa Miller's criminal case will delay this at all.

I get updates on some of these things because I get e-mails from the 419 Fund. I'm not exactly sure how one gets on their e-mail list, though I'm happy that I got on it somehow, but here is their contact form. Otherwise it can be hard to learn much. Sometimes additional entries that (I think) should be posted on Philip's prison blog are posted to the 419 Fund blog. This happened recently. Check out the February 12 entry, here. (There doesn't seem to be a way to link individual entries.)

On Lisa Miller, besides on the 419 Fund, one can find updates on this blog that I found called Ain't Complicated, here. After voluntarily turning herself in, she has been arraigned on charges of conspiracy and international parental kidnapping. She is currently in Buffalo, New York.

Her daughter, Isabella (now going on 19 years old), apparently remains in Nicaragua and has emphatically stated that she has no intention of testifying against Lisa or any of those who helped them. As an adult Isabella is hopefully safe from being forcibly (at least legally forcibly) brought to the United States. She has apparently successfully petitioned to have her name removed from the lawsuit against her mother by stating emphatically that anyone purporting to represent her in that suit is acting against her wishes.

Meanwhile, Janet Jenkins has issued the following utterly creepy and ridiculous statement via her lawyer:

The Jenkins family wants Isabella to know that they have always kept prayer lists going for her, and she has never been out of their thoughts. The family longs for Isabella’s safe return and want her to know that they still celebrate her birthday and that her childhood bedroom is ready and waiting for her.

What? I mean, come on! The couple separated when Isabella was eighteen months old. She was only back there to visit Jenkins for occasional times thereafter until she was about seven years old and has lived in Nicaragua ever since. She is now eighteen years old. Why in the world would anyone mention her "childhood bedroom" in such a message? Even if one believes that Jenkins is in the right in this whole vendetta, you'd have to know that Isabella has not the remotest interest in her "childhood bedroom" back in Vermont. Such a sympathizer (with Jenkins) would doubtless say that Isabella has been brainwashed. But even on that premise, there can be no possible point to sending her a message that her childhood bedroom is waiting for her! That is bound to disgust her and make her feel stalked. What is wrong with you people? Obviously this statement was issued for the sympathizers who are so blindly partisan that they will think it is touching. Good grief.

But Lisa, sustained by God, appears to be keeping up her spirits. It's really quite incredible, and I myself have been encouraged in the Lord by seeing her courage and that of Philip and of Ken Miller (no relation) when in prison. Here are some excerpts from the most recent letter that I received via the 419 Fund e-mail list. The letter was written on February 16 while she was still in Miami.

Greetings from the Florida Detention Center in Miami in the name of our Savior WHO is able to do above and beyond all that we can even imagine! Thank you for all the letters, which I have received while in quarantine and thank you for your prayers. It is such a blessing to read your encouragements while in a place such as this. Thank you! As I’m writing this update, I am sitting on the top bunk amidst a stack of books (classics, biographies and “Christian” prison stories) and gifts from some of the inmates. I was released from quarantine with cheering from the ladies of the SHU (solitary), their smiling faces pressed against the small narrow windows of their locked doors. As soon as I arrived on the floor, I was snatched up as a roommate (later she told me that I looked “calm.” I felt that it was “the peace that passeth all understanding” – thanks be to God). Once I made my bed (w/two flat sheets 😊) my cell neighbor greeted me with a cup of hot coffee in a large clear plastic mug, which was her gift to me (we must buy our own eating and drinking implements as well as soap, shampoo and other daily hygiene items). Next a gaggle of women, masked and w/bright sparkling eyes, showed up at my door with not one, but three bags of supplies and goodies – from a pair of sweatpants (there are no dresses in here) to mac-n-cheese. Then they announced that there would be a Bible study starting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I think I’ll check it out. It’s TRUE – “My God shall supply my every need.” As I am writing this, more ladies keep popping in to give me needed items, a brush, a toothbrush (I never thought I’d be excited to get a gift of a full-size toothbrush, but I am!) and other such items. One woman even gave me her in progress word search and a full-size pencil with eraser (goodbye 2” putt putt gold pencil and plastic shower “eraser” – try it, it really works). God’s provisions keep coming! I have a new appreciation for the little items in life – such as a hairbrush (it’s been 21 days since I either combed or brushed my hair)


I’ll close with the words written on the two yellow stickies that were attached with the gifts received from those bright-eyed fellow inmates:

(Sticky 1): “God loves you SO MUCH. James 5:16: ‘The prayers of a righteous person has great power as it is working.’ Deuteronomy 30:29 [29:29]: ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever that he may follow all the words of this law.’”

(Sticky 2): “Psalm 23, 91, 103, 110”

Please pray that I will be a worth servant of the Lord as “I travel through this Pilgrim land.”

Serving Him,
Lisa Miller

Next time I feel like complaining I think I'd better remember Lisa Miller, who is thankful for getting a way to comb her hair and has to buy her own soap and personal care items while in a U.S. federal prison.

By the way, it never ceases to amaze me how these harmless Christians who are unjustly imprisoned manage to find favor with the criminals with whom they are imprisoned. Of course, they wouldn't necessarily share it, but as far as I know neither Philip Zodhiates nor Kenneth Miller was subjected to violence from fellow prisoners during their imprisonments, and Philip's is nearly over. "He shall give his angels charge over thee" indeed. And now Lisa seems to be being treated well by the other prisoners also, some of whom at least must be imprisoned for actual crimes, some serious. It's quite astonishing, and I'm grateful to the Lord for His protection over them.

Lisa, we hear, appreciates and is encouraged by her mail, so even we respectable citizens might consider writing to her, even if that means our names are read by Those In Charge.

If this whole blog post seems to you mysterious, see my earlier-but-still-relatively-recent recall of the case here.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

The Eye of the Beholder: Available now!

I've been working like a beaver recently on the release of The Eye of the Beholder: The Gospel of John as Historical Reportage. That is to say, I've been doing interviews and posting about it, checking to see if it's available in Australia and the UK (it wasn't for a couple of days when I expected it to be), sharing content about it to social media, making videos, and so forth, while keeping life going otherwise.

I owe a lot to What's Wrong With the World for the space to publish a lot of related material in an earlier form over the past few years. Here is the Gospel of John tag there, if you want to read some of this for free in its beta version, as it were. I believe that all of that material up through May of 2020 or so has also been copied over to this blog (Extra Thoughts), as part of the archiving project last year, but it hasn't always been tagged. At least it is archived here, though.

The Eye of the Beholder was released on March 1, 2021, just this past Monday. For those of you who get info. about this from one of my blogs and/or aren't on Facebook, here are some relevant links, with apologies for making this post mostly a link dump. But believe me: There's tons of content at the links. First, how can you get the book itself? Here's the link at Amazon and here it is at Barnes & Noble. It makes no difference to my royalties or to my publisher's profits which site you buy it from. If you are in the UK, you can search Amazon, UK, for it, and the same (now) in both Australia and Canada. This is fitting, since I have endorsements from prominent scholars in all of those countries!

Of course, high-profile endorsers don't have to mean that I'm right, but at least they should mean that the book is worth a place at the table. I'm really humbly grateful to the Lord, and the endorsers, and my publisher, Nathan Ward, for the star-studded roster we got this time, including Stanley Porter, Thomas Schreiner, philosopher Bob Larmer, Paul N. Anderson, Alan Thompson, and more. Here are the endorsements in PDF. This should lay to rest various claims to the effect that my work is unworthy of attention due to my lack of such-and-such specific credentials. Nathan went out and asked for endorsements from Johannine and New Testament scholars whom I did not think of, or whom I would have expected to ignore the request due to their eminence or busyness, and he got them. (I'm reminded of a collect about "those things which for our unworthiness we dare not and for our blindness we cannot ask.") Some scholars also contacted me spontaneously after the publication of The Mirror or the Mask expressing interest in supporting my work. And in a couple of cases scholars' names were suggested to me by their former students: "You should contact professor so-and-so. I think he might be interested in your work."

One thing that we can't seem to get to work for love or money at Amazon is the "see inside" function. (At least not until it comes out in Kindle, perhaps in a year, at which point you will be able to see inside the Kindle version.) Perhaps one has to have a rich uncle who is good friends with Bezos to get See Inside The Book to work, but that's okay, because I anticipated that, and I have free samples, with publisher permission, available elsewhere. Here is Chapter I. Here is the Conclusion. Here is the Table of contents.

If you want to get a sense of the book in just three minutes, here is a trailer, for which I thank my eldest daughter, Bethel McGrew. Feel free to tweet or share that trailer everywhere, as it's the sort of thing that is intended for precisely that context.

If you want a meatier discussion of the contents of the book, here is a content tour of about twenty-five minutes.

And if you are really into long-form discussion, here is a two-hour interview I recorded with Thaddeus of the Youtube channel Reasoned Answers just a couple of days ago. This is the first long interview I have done on this book since its release, so thanks to Thaddeus for that opportunity.

I now have a separate author page on Facebook if you are on there and want to follow me that way. (And hey, if you're annoyed by my Covid posts and just want to see stuff about the New Testament and my books, this is a great way to separate those!) Note that Facebook is a little odd: Just clicking "like" or even "follow" on my Lydia McGrew, Author, page won't automatically make my new posts from that page pop up in your newsfeed unless you interact quite a bit. So if you really want to be sure to see everything, be sure to toggle your "follow" options to "subscribe" to get notifications when I post something new.

The Eye of the Beholder has something for everyone--pastor, layman, and scholar. So if you're interested in the question of the historicity of John, be sure to get a copy. I should also mention that my publisher is offering desk copies at a reduced rate (for physical, within the continental US) and free for e-copies (not to be promiscuously shared) to professors at Bible colleges and seminaries who teach relevant courses and are considering the book for a course. E-mail if you fall into that category.

In the words of the late Leon Morris, God has chosen to reveal himself in history, and it is there that we must find him. And that, I would add, is why these books needed to be written, and why St. John the evangelist wrote his book, too.

Monday, February 22, 2021

We must obey God rather than men

 I don't know who has or has not heard about this already, but Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is in jail for holding church meetings contrary to the current Covid regulations there. Here is just one MSM story about it. Here is a story about the shocking fact that the church met again this morning in defiance of the orders and in support of its jailed pastor. Good for them!

Pastor Coates will not be released pending trial because he isn't willing to agree to the extreme restrictions. More on just how extreme in a moment. Also, because he has been "caught" (by Mounties attending his suspicious church to check up on them several Sundays in a row), he himself wouldn't be allowed to go to the church at all until his trial, even if he were to grovel and submit, which he won't do. I'm going to link several Tweets here showing screen-capped statements by his wife, Erin Coates, about the nature of the restrictions and the conditions put upon him for release. Herehereherehere, and here.

One of the most distressing aspects for those of us who aren't actually in jail or related to anyone in jail (they have more distressing aspects to contend with) is hearing all the mealy-mouthed Christians talking about how now, now, this isn't really religious persecution, it's not really so bad. Some of these Twitter scolds appear to think that's the most important thing to say--It's not really persecution--while trying to pretend that they are sympathetic to Pastor Coates in jail. No you're not. Stop pretending while you race to distance yourself! If that's what you think is most important to say, you really think he's a pretty bad guy, risking blah-blah.

So here's the first point I want to make: Yes, this really is religious persecution. No, it absolutely is not necessary for the jailing of a pastor to result from a specifically anti-religious animus in order for it to be an instance of persecution.

This shouldn't be necessary to spell out. I would like to think that two years ago, pre-Covid, anyone would have understood this. But now it is necessary to spell out: When core religious activities such as meeting as the physical Body of Christ, talking to one another about deeply personal matters in person, in groups, and singing (and I could name more) are prohibited by the government, on pain of fines and/or jail, then that is religious persecution, regardless of the motive.

All we need to see this is to ask this: What if it were permanent? What if we had a government so germophobic that it banned all clubs as well as all church gatherings, all in-person group meetings where people talk to one another, all children's ministry, Sunday School, youth group, forever, but did this because of a fear of germs, not because of a hatred of religious meetings more than, say, knitting clubs? Then would we admit that the newly-jailed pastors who defy this are suffering from religious persecution?

I dunno. Maybe not. Having staked out the ridiculous, untenable position that the government can literally ban public gatherings to worship God and jail pastors but that this doesn't count as persecution as long as the powers that be are also banning public gatherings to worship Satan or football, perhaps these scolds would bite the bullet and say this even if the bans were made permanent--you know, just in case another virus that kills people should enter the world, or get passed around. Someone who holds such a position would not recognize religious persecution if it bit him in the posterior. And I hope that all the brave Baptists who went to the Gulags for holding Sunday School or meeting as church bodies in the Russian woods are rolling in their graves at such statements.

Oh, by the way, Russia bans churches from meeting as an anti-terrorist measure, if they don't have government sanction. That's a "secular" motive, so I guess that isn't religious persecution either. Also by the way, the recent ban on praying for people to help them change their sexual orientation, enacted in Victoria, Australia, is presumably motivated by a desire to curtail all activities designed to change a sexual orientation. The prayer ban is just an example of what is banned. Secular "conversion therapy" is also banned. So I guess if someone goes to jail there for trying to help someone spiritually with his unwanted same-sex desires, that won't be religious persecution either, right? I may write more about that law in another post if I have time, but we need to be aware that it's going on and that almost any ban on religious activities has some wider motive.

So the real question is whether these rules ban any truly essential religious activities, which of course takes us to the substantive question of what counts as the essence of Christianity and what activities are core. Those who think that all "church" can be "done on-line" will think that Pastor Coates is making a martyr of himself for nothing.

At this point I should probably discuss what the regulations in question actually are. All churches are required to limit attendance to 15% of fire capacity in the building, which Erin Coates says is about 1/5 to 1/6 of their congregation. She continues, "This would mean no visitors, no out-reach, no being a light to this city. Mandatory masks, social distancing, no singing…no conversing with anyone outside your home…Livestream is available but you are not allowed to have anyone into your home. These restrictions hinder James from being able to converse with the people on GLC on a Sunday as they immediately have to leave the service. We are prohibited from practising the one another’s in the gathering. Or in person at all. These have been in place since early December. Alberta has had 2 extreme lockdowns but has had restrictions on the gathering for almost [a] year. He could not sign these conditions."

No kidding. Pastor Coates has my full support.

What kind of a vision of church gathering does Alberta's government have? It's a vision in which the "gathering" part is pretty much nothing. Each little family unit arrives in the building (nobody knows why they are bothering to come into the same building at all, given what follows), just a few of them. They all sit apart. They all stare at the masked guy standing up front. He says some stuff. They pray and sing silently in their hearts. They act like a bunch of strangers coming to a movie. Maybe they wave at each other or say a few words at the outset, like, "Hi, so-and-so," but not for very long. We can't have any of that dangerous socializing or mutual support going around. They do some religious ritual-y stuff that doesn't involve touching anybody or getting within six feet of anybody for a while (not including singing), then they all must leave immediately, without stopping to converse, and go off to their separate homes, separately. If you want pastoral counsel, by golly, do it by Zoom or telephone. Same-same for if you need to talk with a friend. And above all, you can't see anybody else's face while you're in the same physical space.

In that type of "church," the entire enterprise is almost by definition members-only. How you're supposed to get new members is left unstated. You sign up for a place to make sure "too many" people don't show up. You certainly don't engage in anything like outreach or evangelistic services, sermons, or gatherings. Nobody comes spontaneously. Everything has to be carefully planned so that the people who were already, for some reason or other, members of these strange little clubs can be in the same room with each other a few at a time occasionally and exchange a wave or a few hastily-shouted words and sit and watch the same little lecture together.

If you think this is sufficient for carrying out the core mission of the Christian church for a year, or even for a couple of months, much less indefinitely (as is now the case), I cannot help you. You are beyond help. If you don't claim to be a Christian, perhaps I can suggest to you that you should permit Pastor Coates and the members of GraceLife Church to disagree with you on the embodied nature of their own religion. If you do claim to be a Christian, you are a living, breathing (through a mask) frustration to Christians like me. Just please know that. Because we have a pretty shrewd idea of what the Apostle Paul, the author of Hebrews, and a plethora of saints and martyrs through the centuries, right up through 2019, would have had to say to that. It probably starts with, "What the heck is the matter with you people?"

Mrs. Coates gets it. She's still living in a world that is so 2019, in which churches actually wanted people to come, wanted to evangelize, wanted to be there for people, wanted to be a light to their community, and believed that they met so that people could connect with each other and share their hearts.

The question of the Sacraments (or as Pastor Coates would probably call them, the Ordinances) is an interesting one. Here we have need of some harmonization. Erin Coates says that they have been forbidden to hold Communion. Wyatt Graham, the author of this notably tepid "support" (sort of?) post about Pastor Coates, says that they are allowed to carry out both Communion and baptism. I'll get to baptism in a minute.

Harmonization is my jam, so here goes: Anybody who has lived through the past year and paid attention knows that enforcement varies tremendously from case to case and locale to locale. Even from sheriff to sheriff, in the U.S. It's entirely possible that Wyatt Graham is privy to some situation where some sort of Communion is allowed, while Mrs. Coates knows full-well that it isn't being allowed at GraceLife Church. That is not even remotely implausible.

But there's also the possibility that the government is arrogating to itself the right to decide what does or doesn't count as Communion, and that Pastor Coates and GraceLife Church disagree on that. I can well imagine Roman Catholics who would not agree that the little individually-vacuum-sealed packets of juice or wine and wafers, which you pick up from some separate location rather than taking from a human being, and which you then carry away and consume when you're "socially distanced" from everybody else, count as valid Communion. While Pastor Coates doubtless wouldn't use either the term "valid" or the concept as Catholics do, I can remember plenty of Baptists from my youth who would probably have been dubious about this as well. Communion is a communal activity. So perhaps it's that GraceLife insists (gasp!) on carrying out Communion in the way they did before, which (if my Baptist background is any guide) would have involved passing around plates with broken cracker bits and plates with individual tiny cups of grape juice (already more hygienic than a common cup, for that matter) and then eating them all at the same time. Or who knows? Maybe they actually do come up to a rail. Either way, I fully believe Mrs. Coates that their Communion is not being allowed.

Mrs. Coates doesn't mention baptism one way or another, but here Wyatt Graham is on prima facie shaky ground. I seriously doubt that he or anyone else is literally carrying out baptism by using a long-distance water gun (super soaker?), and it literally is not possible to baptize another individual (adult or child, by sprinkling or immersion) from a distance of six feet. So I can only guess this: Perhaps churches that bow the neck to Caesar and agree to engage in all the other restrictions and security theater (see above) are graciously permitted to have the pastor come within six feet of one single individual, perhaps wearing some elaborate PPE, and sprinkle a little water on him very quickly, and then back off again. As long as everyone is made sufficiently uncomfortable and the operation is carried out in a way sufficiently different from the way it was done pre-pandemic, this will doubtless scare away the Covid germs. Or if it doesn't, the Government will have to rescind that permission, too.

It was, after all, the glorious health ministry of British Columbia that advised its citizens to make sexual contact with each other through holes in barriers, such as walls (yes, walls) that "allow for sexual contact but prevent close face-to-face contact" in order to have "safer sex" during Covid. (You think I'm making this up, don't you? Don't Google it to verify, you'll regret it. I believe health officials in New York City made the same suggestion.) So, as with sex-through-a-wall in British Columbia, perhaps the health ministers of Alberta are suggesting/allowing baptism-through-a-wall. You never know. Anyway, Graham assures us that baptism of some sort is allowed along with having 15% of your congregation come to church, so I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief and allow ourselves to feel a tad impatient with Pastor Coates for being in jail.

This brings me to my second point: You can't avoid substantive issues here. Graham tries pretty hard to walk a tightrope of feeling or expressing some sort of sympathy toward Coates and some sort of alarm about his imprisonment, but I'm going to say right up front: It gives me a chill. The tone of the article is odd and constrained, and this is one of the more supportive pieces. I gather a lot more pastors aren't even willing to go this far. The letter to the premier of the province that he suggests that pastors sign is more strongly worded, thankfully.

But here's what I mean by saying that you cannot avoid substantive issues: There are cases where we all would not support a pastor for breaking some rule. It depends on the rule. (Compare freedom of speech. How many of us can get really enthusiastic about making sure that there is full freedom of speech for a group advocating the legalization of pedophilia? We're just not going to be that concerned, and understandably so.) So generally appeals to those who “disagree” with Coates to “support” him nonetheless require that the people hearing the appeals, who do disagree, see that disagreement as falling into a highly specific range--something like, "I disagree with Pastor Coates, but I don't disagree with him so far that I have lost sympathy for him. In general I think the authorities/cancelers/persecutors are overreacting because what he did fell into a range that should be allowed, even if I wouldn't have done it."

What we are finding in 2021 is that far fewer things fall into that highly specific range than we might have thought. Hence our appeals might as well be nakedly and openly to substance, stating outright in this case that what Pastor Coates did does not merit punishment, that it lies in the area where differences of action should be permitted. But most people who “disagree” with him are by no means sure of that. After all, the provincial officials gave him and his congregation lots of warnings, and the Mounties showed up again and again to see if they could induce him and his congregation to change their ways. The church was even fined. If you believe wholeheartedly in the wisdom of the regulations, at some point you are going to say, “What else could they do? They have to do something to try to enforce this.” In other words, if you support Pastor Coates at all, you should face it: In your heart you don't really think that these draconian, 15%, no-talking-after-the-service guidelines should be in place! Because you don't think they should be enforced. Without penalty there is no law. You think people should be allowed to flout them.

How many people who disagree with Pastor Coates sincerely think that? Admit it: Not a whole lot.

I was brought up against this rather sharply when a good friend of mine on social media, who fully supports Pastor Coates's actions, shared an open letter from a Canadian calling for people to support Pastor Coates even if they disagree with him. One of her friends then showed up in the thread and asked, all ingenuous curiosity, what is really being asked of him? How, he asked, can he go about supporting Pastor Coates while disagreeing with him? He asked, suavely, whether it would count as "support" if he were to suggest to the government that they fine Pastor Coates rather than imprisoning him.

Well, no. No, that wouldn't count. But it strikingly illustrates the point: At some point, pretty much all procedural disagreements, especially about matters of policy, end up being disagreements about substance. You can't avoid it, so we might as well not try. Pure neutrality is not possible in policy, and often not even desirable. (This looks like a really good article along these lines by Ryan Anderson, tho' unfortunately I'm able to read only the opening, because I'm not a subscriber.)

I'm really glad that GraceLife chose to meet today. That may show that the attempt to crack down and enforce these regulations is not entirely working out as intended. In fact, another church is also standing up. God bless Pastor Tim Stephens. We should admit the sobering fact, however, that probably the intent is to terrify others into complying, and that may be working to a large extent. Even if GraceLife isn't shut down, many other churches may be shutting down because their pastors, priests, or bishops don't have the courage of Pastor Coates.

(And where are the Catholics, by the way, in these locations? I don't mean to be un-ecumenical, and I love my Catholic friends, but it's a crying shame that the official non-sacramentalists are taking Catholic bishops to school on the importance of Incarnation and physical Presence in worship. From what I'm hearing, most Catholic bishops seem to be out there telling their flocks to stay at home, watch a livestream, and have "spiritual Communion" and forbidding their priests to visit even the dying, while Baptists are going to jail for the right to have Communion in person.)

May God richly bless Pastor Coates, his wife, and his children, Pastor Stephens, and all the other pastors, priests, and Christian ministers throughout the world who are keeping the flame of Christianity, which is by definition in-person Christianity, alive through this very dark time.

Cross-posted at W4

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Lisa Miller voluntarily returns to the U.S.!

 STOP PRESS: Literally just a couple of hours after posting the post below, I checked a different blog that seems "plugged in" to the Mennonite community. Lisa Miller has surrendered herself to U.S. authorities and has been sent to Miami to be quarantined and to await trial for "kidnapping" her own daughter! Isabella was issued a temporary U.S. visa. I don't know if she is returning to the U.S. yet, though she is now eighteen years of age and free from the threat of being made to have a relationship with Janet Jenkins. I think based on the wording that she has returned.

I'm not sure this was a good idea on Lisa's part. I hope that Isabella has a support network here in the U.S. to come to, since she will no longer have her mother. 18-year-old girls need their mothers, too! And no doubt they are very close after all of these years. I think that Lisa must have felt it was her duty to return to the U.S. and stand trial after what the men who helped her have endured--to stand with them. Here and here are posts about this.

I wonder if Isabella can be forced to testify against her mother.

Philip Zodhiates is still in prison

[See update in the next post.]

I have been wanting to say something about Philip Zodhiates for some time, because he is still in federal prison, a true prisoner of conscience, and because I now have more readers of my work who are probably completely unaware of the case. People are often shocked when I describe it.

Check out the tag, here, for more posts. But briefly, here is a summary:

More than eighteen years ago, Lisa Miller entered into a civil union with Janet Jenkins in Vermont. (Please remember this story next time someone advocates civil unions as not as "bad" from a conservative p.o.v. as gay "marriage." They're legally identical.)

During this civil union, Miller conceived and bore a child by using a sperm donor. The little girl, Isabella, was only eighteen months old when Miller left the relationship and formally broke it up legally. Miller converted to Christianity, left the homosexual lifestyle behind her, and fled to Virginia to keep her child away from Jenkins, who represented all that she had repented of and was now leaving behind. Jenkins, let us bear in mind, is not in any way related to Isabella and has not lived with her since she was eighteen months old.

Vermont courts, to whom the custody decision was ultimately given, treated the unrelated lesbian Jenkins as Isabella's "other mother" and insisted on unsupervised visitation, even though Jenkins was, from Isabella's perspective, a stranger. Isabella made some of these visits but was so upset by them (and alleged that Jenkins had bathed with her naked) that Miller refused to allow any more such visits with Jenkins, who had neither any natural claim on Isabella whatsoever nor any relationship with her. Miller became so concerned by Isabella's statements and by her bizarre behaviors at such a young age (including the sudden onset of open masturbation and saying she wanted to kill herself) that she eventually refused to allow unsupervised visits. The Vermont judge and Jenkins refused to compromise (e.g., to limit Jenkins only to supervised, non-overnight visits). Miller exhausted all her legal options. Eventually the judge was poised to order full custoy to Jenkins to punish Miller for denying Jenkins unsupervised "parental" visits (even though she was not in any sense at all the child's parent).

At that point, Miller fled the country with her little girl. (My understanding is that at the time of her flight she still had official legal custody of Isabella.) She apparently fled successfully to Nicaragua. In doing so she had help to drive across state lines from Philip Zodhiates and help with arranging her flight from Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller (no relation). Mennonite missionary Timothy Miller (also no relation) helped her in Nicaragua.

Many years have passed now. Isabella has recently turned eighteen, wherever she is. Lisa is still technically a fugitive from "justice." You see, the U.S. federal government declared this an international kidnapping, and it set out to punish Lisa and everyone who had helped her.

Kenneth Miller has served a several-year federal prison sentence. Philip Zodhiates is currently serving a three-year prison sentence. Timothy Miller was extradited from Nicaragua (even though Nicaragua technically has no extradition agreement with the U.S.) and before being shipped back was literally kept in a Nicaraguan dungeon in very rough conditions. He has since had his sentence commuted to probation but must stay in the U.S. and as far as I know is still in that situation.

Nor will these men's ordeal be over after they are done serving prison time. Not only is Zodhiates at least (and possibly Kenneth Miller?) many thousands of dollars in debt for legal fees, but Janet Jenkins, like some bizarre Inspector Javert, is attempting to ruin them yet furtehr and anyone who was Lisa's lawyer back at the time via a civil lawsuit for depriving her of Isabella's company. That lawsuit is moving at the speed of molasses, which I suppose is a good thing in a way, but it is supposed to gear back up this spring some time.

Zodhiates sought a compassionate release as a non-violent prisoner during Covid (that did happen for various people even in federal prison), but since "international kidnapping" is deemed a violent crime by definition, he was denied. Naturally, when The Orange One was issuing pardons and clemencies all over the place in his last days, these folks were not among those pardoned. This could also have been done earlier in his term. In fairness, it's possible that no one had his ear to bring the cases before him.

Philip Zodhiates keeps his spirits up via his faith in God. He and all of these men, to my mind, exemplify to an astonishing extent the injunction to be "blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world" (Philippians 2:15).

Zodhiates has a prison blog that is mostly musings about Scripture and faith. It's found here. For a long time it wasn't being updated, even though (via an e-mail list) I knew that he was writing entries. I made some inquiries, and since then a few of his entries since August, 2020, have been posted. Here is the crowdfunding site for him. Here was Pastor Ken Miller's blog during his imprisonment, which has stopped being updated since he was released. I find that one is likely to get e-mail updates if one joins the crowdfunding effort for Zodhiates.

It is interesting to me that things are getting so much worse now in America, in terms of censorship. (Focus on the Family was just bumped from Twitter for saying that a man cannot turn into a woman. Hate speech, y'know.) And yet this case goes back ten years!

I find that many people are shocked to learn that men have served and one is still serving time in federal prison for the "crime" of helping an ex-lesbian who repented escape with her daughter so that her young daughter would not be turned over to her former lesbian lover. The case is not much talked about or known, even among those who continue to be conservative or remotely sane on these issues.

I am grateful that it seems that these men have been protected physically in prison. Pray for Philip Zodhiates and also for the others who will be targeted by the civil lawsuit. Also, pray that Zodhiates will be able to find new lawyers. His previous lawyers were apparently offended when he made an appeal for his sentence to be vacated on the grounds that his lawyers refused at his trial to bring up the concerns that he had about sexual abuse which were a part of his motivation for driving Lisa to New York as part of her escape. So now he needs new lawyers, not to mention needing money to hire them. I have a feeling he's going to find a lot of his fellow Christians shockingly weak-willed when he gets out of prison, having been through the fire and having been involved in prison ministry from the inside.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Mourning and misdirected anger

There is a real problem with people's grief being swept up into anger that confuses natural evil into moral evil. There is no gross recklessness involved per se if someone dies of a community-spread respiratory virus. And it is a very, very bad thing when we normalize anger about that so as to turn the duty to care, touch, connect, and live normal life into a duty not to do these things, because so-and-so (my friend, my loved one, my mentor) died of a virus. It must be said: That is a tragedy, not a moral evil.

In contrast, if your friend, family member, loved one was locked away from human contact and only allowed to have his loved ones hold his hand for a few minutes at the end of his life, while dressed up looking like aliens, due to specific, draconian rules passed by specific, named, horribly misguided (if well-intentioned) people in power who wouldn't listen to the counter-arguments, that is something that it is legitimate to be angry about. These stories are happening all around us, every day. See here for example.

If I die of a community-spread virus when I'm elderly, and if you admire me or love me, you'd better not use my death to foment anger because someone was in contact with me, or went about his normal life without wearing a mask, or touched something, or talked to me or to other people, as if these perfectly good activities are actually bad activities and supposedly caused me to die.
Instead, try to make sure that I in my old age and all of the elderly people you know have smiling, kind faces around them, human touch, and normal, frequent, in-person contact with those they love and who love them. You have my permission to be angry if I've been locked up and denied that, which as things are looking now is terrifyingly probable for all of us. But not if I've been given human love and contact, not if other people have lived their lives, and I have died as a result of living life myself or as a result of others' living life.

Everyone dies of living life, life is not without risk, and life is good.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

An irony concerning the minimal facts approach

For some time I've been writing and speaking about the problems with a certain minimalistic approach to arguing for Christianity that has become popular in evangelical circles in the last several decades. (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) Sometimes it goes by the name of the "minimal facts" approach. But not always. The apologetics giant William Lane Craig refers to the facts in question as "core facts" rather than "minimal facts" and includes the empty tomb among them, whereas the father of the minimal facts approach, Gary Habermas, does not include the empty tomb among his set of minimal facts. But as I have pointed out, the difference there is far more terminological than substantive, since in both cases the core fact or minimal fact that the disciples had appearance experiences is kept vague in order to be able to rope in a lot of scholars and say that they accept it. This causes a lot of epistemic trouble when one tries to argue for the physical resurrection of Jesus, since it's precisely the physical details that give us reason to think that Jesus was physically raised. It shouldn't need saying, but the reason Christians think he was physically raised is because we think he appeared physically to his disciples. (Obviously.) The mainstream scholar Wolfhart Pannenberg, who thought the resurrection accounts in the Gospels were heavily embellished, apparently thought that Jesus' body really disappeared and that in that sense he was "physically raised," but that he went immediately to heaven and that the appearances to the disciples were visions sent by God to the disciples and bore little resemblance to the appearances recounted in the Gospels. I'd say that at that point the meaning of "physically raised" has been changed almost beyond recognition and also that the epistemic support for believing in anything objective at all is gravely undermined.

This point was brought home to me recently by watching a series of video discussions between Michael Licona and Dale Allison. (Videos hereherehere, and here.) Allison is a little hard to characterize. He speaks of himself as a Christian (PCUSA), and Licona calls him a "fellow believer." He talks in the interviews about his prayer practices, which involve a yoga mat and icons. He's obviously a theist of some sort. That much I think can be said definitely. But Allison is and always has been profoundly ambivalent about the physical resurrection of Jesus and treats it very much as up in the air, and he obviously thinks it quite plausible that the resurrection narratives in the Gospels are highly embellished and that the details of those narratives, such as Jesus' eating with his disciples, were added for apologetic purposes. Licona is a strong advocate of the minimal approach and tries to do everything "through Paul," and in the interaction with Allison, it cuts no ice. Mind you, Allison is a naturally somewhat skeptical fellow. As he rather charmingly explains, there are four of him inwardly. They all get along with one another, though they disagree. What is interesting to notice is that none of these four "Dale Allisons" believes that robust, orthodox Christianity, including fully physical appearances, is historically justified by the objective evidence. So it is entirely plausible as a sociological and psychological matter that a discussion with someone who takes a more maximal approach to the resurrection would also cut no ice with Allison. But I consider Licona's attempts to counter him, most of them going "through Paul" (e.g., trying to treat Paul as our main or or even only eyewitness of the resurrection whose account has come down to us) to be objectively far weaker than the available arguments really are and hence consider it somewhat understandable that Allison bats them aside.

In reflecting on their interaction, I thought of an irony concerning the minimalist approach and the way that it bills itself, and I posted this on Facebook.

It is especially ironic that advocates of the minimal facts approach to defending Jesus' resurrection argue that they are appealing only to premises granted by a skeptical audience. Often this is portrayed as especially successful, because it appeals to common ground. I have argued in my "Minimal Facts vs. Maximal Data" webinar that this gravely weakens the case by watering down the notion of Jesus' "appearances" to something that a wide variety of scholars will accept.

But there is a more specific irony, which must be followed carefully to understand it: Due to the watering down of the "appearances," the physicality of Jesus' resurrection is cast into doubt, because the minimalist is not willing to argue that the highly physical details in the Gospel narratives (such as Jesus' eating) are really what the witnesses claimed. After all, the minimalist knows that that is not granted by a majority of scholars. How, then, to argue for the physical resurrection?

Generally the minimalist will at that point spend a fair bit of time arguing indirectly that the disciples believed the resurrection was physical. Per the minimalist's preference, this often goes "through" Paul. (There is a huge preference for doing everything "with" or "through" Paul.) E.g. Paul probably believed the resurrection was physical. Paul said that his gospel that he was preaching was approved by the other apostles. Therefore, the other apostles probably believed that the resurrection was physical. Or: The Gospel of Luke portrays the resurrection as physical. Luke was a companion of Paul and spoke to other apostles. Therefore, the apostles probably believed that the resurrection was physical. Note: This means that even if Luke invented the physical details in his narrative, this somehow doesn't matter because he invented them in order to convey what the apostles believed!

The minimalist will then try to insist that the apostles wouldn't have believed the resurrection was physical if they didn't have good evidence thereof. So, therefore, they probably had good evidence thereof. Again, this argument is supposed to circumvent concerns about the Gospels' embellishment. The idea, then, is to argue that even if those particular details were invented, something else was probably what they experienced that made them rational in believing in a physical resurrection!

So this round-the-barn approach eschews an attempt to defend the proposition that the only actual accounts we have tell us what the original witnesses claimed! It then attempts to bolster the now-weak argument for the physical resurrection by pouring energy into arguing that they probably believed it and that something-or-other convincing had to be what they experienced or they wouldn't have believed it.

Would that proposition be granted by the skeptic? Obviously not! Any skeptic or even ambivalent scholar (such as Dale Allison) is going to reject the proposition, "If the disciples believed that Jesus was physically raised, they were rational in doing so." Of course not! Such a person will point to various apparitions and visionary experiences as an analogy to the resurrection experiences (both Allison and Bart Ehrman expressly do this) and will then say that people believe a lot of things and that the apostles appear to have believed in a physical resurrection of Jesus for some other reason--e.g., because they were conditioned to so by their Jewish background, etc.

The point I am making is that at this incredibly crucial juncture the minimalist is forced to abandon his much-touted method of relying only on premises "granted by a majority of scholars" or even granted by a specific skeptical interlocutor. So even the supposed rhetorical and strategic advantage is suddenly lost.

But in that case, why not take a forward position sooner, make an actually stronger argument, and argue that the Gospels are reliable and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospel resurrection accounts tell us what the original witnesses actually claimed?

Here comes an interesting question: How many minimalists think you can do that? To what extent has the decades-long reliance on this supposed "mere strategy" given rise to a genuine loss of nerve, to an apologetics community full of people who don't think that they can argue that way, who don't think that the evidence actually supports that premise? Unfortunately, I fear that this is too true, and that this isn't really *just* a "strategy." (Indeed, I have provided quotations in the webinar that indicate as much.) That would mean that we are forced to argue in this roundabout fashion and only take a stand at the point of insisting that the disciples' belief must have been rational. But in that case, you might as well admit that that is what you're doing very openly. Just say it: "No, this isn't really a strategy that relies only on premises that the skeptic will grant. But I don't think the robust reliability of the Gospels and the unembellished nature of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection is defensible, so, I'm sorry, but this is the best we can do."

Isn't it a great thing that we have a better way?

In a comment to the Facebook post I was asked if a minimalist approach to arguing for the resurrection is/was just an excuse to bring higher criticism into evangelicalism. As I point out in my response, giving a bit of sociological history, the reality is more complicated than that. Here is what I said (very lightly edited):

I don't think it was intended to be that initially. I truly think that initially, e.g., as formulated by Dr. Gary Habermas, the minimal facts approach was meant to be a strategy for jumping off from what Habermas found to be an encouraging softening of the liberal scholarly stance, in order to to press for more. The idea was that perhaps after, say, the 1970s, the liberal scholars were admitting enough that we could grab that and use it as a set of premises and actually argue for the resurrection as an explanatory inference just from those premises. This was seen as a big advantage, a convenience, and also excellent for the popular use of debates to answer skeptics, because saying, "This is granted by so many liberal scholars" was seen as a knock-down debate tactic.

Unfortunately, a lot of things then happened. For one thing, Habermas did not consult enough epistemologists about the way he was writing and the rationale for his approach, and he confused epistemology with sociology. One finds this in several of his statements of the minimal facts case--he will speak as though a high percentage of scholars' agreeing is in and of itself helpful to strong epistemic status, which of course is not the case.

Second, the strategy took on, as it were, a life of its own so that the "muscles" that would otherwise be used for defending the more robust case tended to atrophy because Christians arguing for the resurrection were not using those muscles.

Third, Michael Licona wrote a book that was a lengthy historiographical expansion of the minimalist account, with Habermas's approval (though I don't really think Habermas fully realized what was going on) in which Licona used the phrase "historical bedrock" for a very limited set of sources. In that book he put big question marks over the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. At this point the embrace of something like "higher criticism" really did enter the "minimalist" approach, as Licona made, as it were, a virtue out of necessity (or a necessity out of an alleged virtue?): Such-and-such isn't "historical bedrock," such-and-such is unsure because we don't know how much of it goes back to the original disciples and we don't know how much liberty the evangelists felt free to take. Therefore we should try to use other methods. This approach was embraced to a disturbing extent around the same time by William Lane Craig, who in the 2008 edition of his book Reasonable Faith actually states that the more forward approach of William Paley and company has been rendered "forever obsolete" by the work of higher critics. Note that this involves, once again, confusing sociology with epistemology.

Since then, Licona's 2017 book and his many presentations have further pressed the idea that the evangelists felt free to "take liberties," and his views have been endorsed by high-level people in the apologetics world, cementing still further the unhappy union between minimalist apologetics and these higher-critical approaches, even though that wasn't the original reason for the introduction of the approach or even for its earlier popularity.

Meanwhile, lay apologetics took off as a cottage industry, and many lay apologists are simply confused about the "appearances" used in the premises of minimal facts. Indeed, sometimes the articles, etc., written by advocates of the approach are confusing at precisely this point. For example, again and again people supposedly presenting the "minimal facts" will bring into popular presentations things that are not granted by a majority of scholars, such as Jesus' appearances indoors and outdoors, to skeptics, etc. This has caused many people to embrace the minimal facts model on the mistaken assumption that a majority of scholars admit far more than they actually do admit. And they are then very reluctant to let go of this assumption. It's too much of a shock for them to absorb, because they are so sure that minimal facts or minimalism is the best way to argue. The prominence of the debate format is part of the issue, too, since people assume that you must use something like this to have a punchy debate presentation.

The demonizing of anyone who points out these issues (aka me) as doing something invidious for criticizing other Christians' work certainly doesn't help in promoting clarity and getting the word out about what the minimal facts approach is and isn't able to support. It also doesn't promote a healthy discussion of the best way to proceed. This is part of why I'm not going to stop pointing these things out, especially since I'm one of the only voices with a following who is doing so.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Miracle reports, independence, and mutual support

This is the somewhat technical post to go along with my recent video on miracles and mutual support. It's been fun for me to revisit these topics mentally in the last week or so as I've been planning the video. Since 2008 when Tim and I published our mutual support paper in Erkenntnis, I've published individually a lot more work on independence and testimony. I'm going to include below a list of some relevant publications, some of them (alas) probably available only through institutional subscriptions. But some of them may be available to independent scholars through a free JSTOR account, so do give that a try. 

First, here is the diagram that I used in the talk. (Hat tip to Esteemed Husband for making it look nice.)

As I emphasized in the video, no line of support contains a loop. The discussion is necessarily simplified, especially as regards the role of background evidence concerning the reliability of a source (such as a single Gospel) that reports both the resurrection and the other miracle. Let me say a little more about that.

First, whether you have evidence that two reports are true or false, if they truly support one another in some way, this is always one-directional, even if you think that the people involved are lying or mistaken. The possibility of fabricated reports doesn't in any way mean that you have a loop. Let me make this concrete: Suppose that Joe tells you two different stories. In both of these stories, Joe is set upon by an enemy or by enemies who try to beat him up, and he wins the fist fight. You may suspect that Joe is lying in both cases. This would mean that you think he is a braggart who is trying to make himself look tough. Even so, there would be no loops of support. Call one story Report A and the other Report B. Call their contents Fight A and Fight B. Suppose that you, based on your other information about Joe (e.g., that he's a puny little guy) decide that neither Fight A nor Fight B happened. In that case, the reports still support each other, in the sense that receiving Report A gives you some additional reason to expect Report B, since Report A supports the umbrella hypothesis that Joe is a braggart who wants to look tough by telling fight stories. Hence, you have somewhat of an expectation that he will tell another story of the same general kind. By the same token Report B gives you some reason to think you may receive Report A, via the same route in the other direction. (Here it is somewhat helpful to imagine receiving the reports at different times and imagining that you receive them in one order and then imagining that you receive them in the other order, but this is just to help keep things clear.) So the reports are mutually supporting (each raises the probability of the other) via the proposition that Joe is a particular kind of liar, and that mutual support is non-circular. 

On the other hand, if you have, or gain, information that leads you to think of Joe as truthful and humble, as a person who tells things that are embarrassing to himself and doesn't make things up, if you learn independently that Joe has studied martial arts, and the like, this will decrease the probability that he is lying. In that case, Report A will have more force for Fight A (that that fight actually occurred). By the same token, you will have support from Report A (given your other background evidence about Joe's truthfulness) for a different umbrella hypothesis concerning character and circumstances--e.g., that Joe has (or tends to attract) enemies who try to beat him up, and that when that happens he is a good fighter. This "truthful" or "positive" unifying hypothesis will give you some additional reason to expect another actual fight in the real world, won by Joe. In this way, Report A supports Fight A; Fight A supports the hypothesis that Joe is a fellow who tends to get into fights and win them, which in turn raises the prior probability of Fight B. That also increases at least somewhat the prior probability that you will receive Report B, since Joe seems to tell you about these things. In turn, if you receive from Joe the input Report B, that provides some evidence via the opposite (non-looped) route that raises the prior probability of Fight A.

This means that in these kinds of scenarios, other background evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that tells both stories tends to focus the evidential force of each report in such a way as to support the content of the other story. To apply this to a Gospel: The more separate reason we have to believe that John the evangelist is truthful and does not make up stories that promote a theological agenda, the more reason we have to believe (all else being equal) that his story about the healing of the man born blind is true. That, in turn, helps to support the hypothesis that there is something very special about Jesus (that he is at least a prophet, if not God himself), which increases at least somewhat the prior probability of the resurrection. And vice versa. The reports can be thought of as inputs. (Technically, as a strong foundationalist, I'm going to take the inputs at any given time to be things like your apparent memories at time t of reading the reports at time t - 1 and so forth--things to which you have direct access.) The force of each input in favor both of its own content and of the content reported by the other input is increased by other evidence that supports the truthfulness of a source that contains both reports.

On the other hand, if we were to have independent evidence that John the evangelist makes up marvellous stories about Jesus, the story about the man born blind would have little force to support the resurrection of Jesus, not only because it would probably be false (would have little force for its own content), but also because it wouldn't support a positive "unifying hypothesis" (such as Jesus' deity or the idea that there is something special and supernatural about Jesus) that would in turn increase the probability that Jesus would really rise from the dead. A negative "unifying hypothesis" (that John makes up theological stories) could still unify the reports--the report of the man born blind in John might give us some additional reason to think that John would also report the resurrection--but not by way of allowing each report to support the truth of its own content and thereby to support the other event.

To put it briefly, as we come to have more and more justified confidence that this person/author doesn’t make stuff up, we get closer and closer to an uncomplicated situation in which we can reasonably say, “Well, since that event happened, that makes it more likely that this other event happened, too.”

Another point: While the testimony of an otherwise highly reliable source is itself good evidence that the next thing he tells us is true, it is of course especially helpful if the story in question contains specific marks of realism. That makes the report even stronger evidence for what it attests, and this comes on a quasi-continuum. We should not be agnostic about each report on a passage-by-passage basis. That is something I have always spoken out against and will have much more to say about in The Eye of the Beholder. On the other hand, a brief, undetailed report will in the nature of the case carry less weight that a longer report in which we can point to specific marks of truth. In the accompanying video I draw a contrast in this regard between the account in John 9 of the healing of the man born blind and Mark's account of Jesus' healing of a blind man in Mark 8:22-26. Even the latter is not a bare statement, "Jesus healed a blind man near Bethsaida" and nothing more. It contains the oddity of Jesus spitting on the man's eyes (similar to his creating a paste from saliva and mud in John 9). It contains the bit of dialogue in which the man says he sees people walking like trees and Jesus touches his eyes again, which could potentially be embarrassing to a person wanting to make Jesus look more powerful. (Yes, I know that one can make up theological meanings for this, but those are subjective and unconvincing.) And there is Jesus' attempt to get him not to tell others about the miracle, which fits with other cases in the Gospels. So even here there are indicators of truth. An example of an even more spare account would be John 2:23, which just says that Jesus performed "signs," unspecified, when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover. The healing of the man born blind in John 9, being longer and more detailed, provides more opportunity for markers of truth to come up. 

The discussion of general reliability above concerns one source that tells both stories. If you have additional evidence from another document, another person, etc., for one or both of the events or for details mentioned in the story, all the better. That, too, would be included in the direct evidence for that story as modeled in the diagram. In the video, I included a bundle of different things in E1. In the case of the resurrection, we have several different Gospel accounts, evidence for the reliability of those other Gospels, as well as other evidence (e.g., in Acts) for the disciples' early attestation of the physical resurrection under conditions of great personal danger. Undesigned coincidences between accounts help to show independence as well as truth--a twofer. Apparent contradictions help to show independence.

As I say, it's been a lot of fun to return to this material, and believe it or not, there are still more complexities that I haven't discussed here. I've been making some additional notes in a document of some other thoughts on the probabilistic issues that I'm not including here.

Below is a small bibliography, ordered from most recent on top to oldest on the bottom, of some of my professional publications on these topics, including a more recent individual publication in Erkenntnis on undesigned coincidences. At a minimum, the combination of the video and this post shows that it is possible to "keep accounts" so that we are not using loops of support when there really is mutual support between miracle accounts (or between any accounts). Evidence for Gospel reliability is highly relevant to all of these issues, though "keeping accounts" is somewhat complex.


“Undesigned Coincidences and Coherence for an Hypothesis,” Erkenntnis, 85 (4) (August 15, 2020), pp. 801-828. On-Line First, August 6, 2018, Author’s accepted manuscript version archived here.

“Finessing Independent Attestation: A Study in Interdisciplinary Biblical Criticism,” Themelios 44.1, pp. 89-102 (April, 2019)

“Accounting for Dependence: Relative Consilience as a Correction Factor in Cumulative Case Arguments,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy. 95:3 (2017), 560-572, DOI 10.1080/00048402.2016.1219753. Abstract here. Does not include whole article.

“Evidential Diversity and the Negation of H: A Probabilistic Account of the Value of Varied Evidence,”  Ergo 3:10 (2016), available here.

“Foundationalism, Probability, and Mutual Support,” With Timothy McGrew, Erkenntnis 68 (2008):55-77. JSTOR entry here (does not include whole article).