I Wonder if this Elephant is an Atheist…

Posted: March 3, 2011 in Christopher Hitchens, Literary Notes
Tags: , ,

I love it when people use the phrase, “elephant in the room” to describe that taboo topic that needs addressing in public.  Everytime I hear it I visualize that elephant and just where she might be standing.  I usually imagine her in the middle eating peanuts.

Here’s an elephant in the religious room: there are Biblical inconsistencies.

Not an elephant for you?  Not for me either.  But it is for some people, apparently.  Or at least, was.

Take Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at UNC, Chapel Hill (go Tarheels!) for example.  He was trained in a conservative tradition where the Bible is viewed as inerrant.  Going from Moody to Wheaton to Princeton, that view evolved much to his sadness, and he’s written about it.

A lot.

Misquoting Jesus, God’s Problem, Jesus, Interrupted, these are all books which pull back the curtain, as it were, on what he believes people think or have thought about all things Christian, from the words of Jesus to the compilation, contents, and meaning of Scripture.

I was introduced to Jesus, Interrupted by a congregation member. He was reading it, so I figured I should read it.

I found it to be well written, but not particularly instructive.  The congregant, on the other hand, found it to be totally disruptive.  In short: it was faith-shattering.

Ehrman, too, lost faith after studying at Princeton and finding out much of what he has recorded in Jesus, Interrupted.  Apparently finding out that Moses didn’t write the first five books of the Old Testament (surprise surprise, especially considering that if the historical Moses were based off of a real individual he was probably illiterate…and would probably not write in meta-Moses form about his own death) was faith destroying.  Or if not that, perhaps it was learning that the end of the Gospel of Mark was added at a later date because it was just too much to have the “women say nothing to anyone” after the resurrection.  Or perhaps finding out that in the Gospel of John Jesus dies on a Thursday, whereas the synoptics have him dying on a Friday.

Perhaps it was all of these that caused Ehrman to lose faith;  perhaps something else.

My point, though, is that I learned all of this at university, and was taught much of this in seminary.

And here I am, a Christian (reluctantly).

And learning it didn’t destroy my faith at all, it just reconfigured it.

I lost faith in the words, but grew in faith to the story the words pointed to.  I lost faith in the empirical thinking that we for some reason believe must rule our lives, and fostered faith in the storied thinking that truly moves mountains and inspires action.

Dr. Ehrman: in what was your faith?  Was it in the words, or was it in the promise the words pointed to?

In seminary I had a classmate who said boldly, “Even if tomorrow they find the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, I still hold fast to the promise…that is the nature of faith.”

Indeed, it is.

Religion does no good in espousing the inerrancy of its documents, creeds, doctrines, dogmas…whatever.  I have no doubt that people are leaving churches in flocks because they find that their faith in the inerrancy of Scripture cannot stand up to the fact that Paul probably did not write all the letters ascribed to him.

I should also mention that, the early church probably knew this and it didn’t seem to challenge their faith any…

But I do empathize with faith-destruction.  It’s tough.  Even Christopher Hitchens has a touching moment in God is Not Great where he speaks of his disollusionment with Marxism, and likens this to the religious individual losing faith.  He writes,

“Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined-as I hope-I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through.  There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.  But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.” (God is Not Great, 153)

The rub?  Hitchens and Ehrman point to the same evidence in both of these books.  Sure, Ehrman is less flippant and less inflammatory, but the gist of their arguments are the same.

And their purpose, I think, is probably the same.

And where is the defense of faith?  Usually found in the voice-box of a literalist…and thus the elephant enters back into the room.  Spong and Borg are attempting, Craig and McGrath are making some good noise, but the fact of the matter is this: if we are to defend faith as a life-giving concept, we have to stop teaching ridiculous notions like Biblical inerrancy, which are nothing but death knells waiting to ring.

Where is the emphasis on stories and how story shapes our reality?  Where is the emphasis on promise, beauty, love that defies description?

I read Hitchens and Ehrman, and find myself nodding a lot.  A lot of what the atheist and agnostic says makes sense to me, a reluctant Christian.  But none of it destroys my faith.  So either I’m deceiving myself (the Truth is not in me, I assure you), or my faith is in something other than words on a page or empirical proof.

So now, what are we to do?

Perhaps we can start by ushering the elephant out of the room, and then tell a story.  That’s what this a/theist does.

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Comments
  1. Kevin Haug says:

    Deep thoughts and good ones. Shouldn’t be too particularly troublesome for Lutherans; however. Our tradition has never embraced Biblical literalism–well, at least in theory. A few have taken up the cause with the Lutheran name, but without much consideration of our founding figure.

    I wonder, however, if our apologies of the faith need not be confined to bibilcal literalism but instead be driven by our encounters with Christ. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel….”

    Just thinking outloud. Thank you for your posts. I find them good food to chew on.

    Kevin

  2. Timothy Brown says:

    Thanks Kevin,

    Luther’s explanation of the Third Article is indeed a great corrective. Great thoughts!

    tjb…

  3. Hayden says:

    If you really want to understand Ehrman’s careful arguments for abandoning Christianity then you have to read his landmark book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament (1993, reprinted 2011 with new Afterword). It calls into question not only the inerrancy doctrine, but argues that arbitrary factors, such as political powerplays, in the early development of Christianity infelicitously forced the tradition into a contrived orthodoxy. He also has a lot of interesting stuff about forgeries in that book, but his 2011 book, Forged is dedicated to that topic specifically.

    • Timothy Brown says:

      An Ehrman fan? While I might buy political power plays forcing orthodoxy, you can’t get away from the fact that the man’s upbringing is being reacted against. I’ve had similar teaching/training, and find myself in the Christian camp…

  4. Hayden says:

    I’m not particularly a fan, but I appreciate his new testament scholarship. (I don’t read fiction, so I read this kind of stuff for fun). I think he makes interesting arguments.

    I also, as you know, had similar teaching/training, but is that really relevant? I’m not saying that you should abandon Christianity. I’m just saying that if you want to consider Ehrman’s careful arguments for his views, then you have to read that book – which is really just his dissertation work in Oxford format.

    Um, one more thing. Doesn’t your second sentence suggest an ad hominem argument; and don’t you agree that that is a fallacy?

  5. Timothy Brown says:

    Which second sentence? In my response or the post?

    And I do think Ehrman’s past is important to understanding his present. In fact, I don’t think his research is as careful as you might believe. He presents evidence as cut-and-dry when scholars are not at all agreed on it. And while I understand why he does this (to sell books), I don’t think he’s especially careful on it.

    Ehrman is raging against his past in many ways. It could be argued that we all are reacting to our pasts, mimicking them or raging against them It helps put his views in perspective and helps me understand how I’ve been trained in the same theological school and yet don’t find myself having to abandon Christianity.

    After your training, now, in grad school, I’d be interested to hear where you find yourself.

  6. Timothy Brown says:

    Never mind about “which sentence,” I see what you’re saying.

    To clarify: it is ad hominem (although that wasn’t my intention). Amended statement: “I think to understand Ehrman it would be important to look at his past. In doing so, I think you find why some of his conclusions seem so extreme.”

    I don’t argue with his scholarship; I argue with his conclusions.

  7. Hayden says:

    I agree that most of his books are just hater pop. Nowadays, he is DEFINITELY just trying to sell books and make as much money as he can while he can. That’s why I’m recommending a 1993 book to you. it was written before he started publishing 2 books a year. Much better argued. But, yeah, I can definitely see someone saying, as you do, I accept a lot of Ehrman’s evidence, but I don’t buy the conclusions that he draws. But, look, I was just trying to make a book recommendation. If you don’t want to read it, I’m not going to continue to try to convince you to read it.

    Me? I’m kind of Processy nowadays. I consider orthodoxy incoherent. I think the transmission of the bible has a sordid history. Still, I regularly go to church and read the bible, but just because I want to, not because I feel obliged. I like the ethic that I derive from the gospels – not necessarily from the explicit teaching, but from what you might call the moral of the story. I have no specific views on the afterlife, except to say, there ain’t no hell. I don’t know, what else do you want to know?

    • Timothy Brown says:

      Haha, I do appreciate the book recommendation. Wasn’t trying to be argumentative in the least, Hayden. Much love for you…if you could see the smile on my face you’d know.

      I’m just generally interested in peoples spiritual/faith journeys.

      When is your dissertation coming out?

  8. Hayden says:

    I guess it is my analytical training that makes me think ‘who cares who said it or what motivated them; just give me the argument so I can evaluate it.’ That tendency is good sometimes, but I admit that it often makes me blind to some other relevant factors.

    I don’t defend until May 2013, but I’m on the job market this Fall.

    I like your blog. Keep it up.

    Hayden

  9. Timothy Brown says:

    I look forward to it!

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