Lewis’s trilemma isn’t complete

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
C.S. Lewis

So, I’m someone who thinks that Jesus was a real, historical person if for no other reason than that he was connected to other, real historical people in clumsy ways (like his connection to John the Baptist, being baptized by him).

In addition, the New Testament books go out of their way to insert arguments going on in the time they were written in order to settle them. One of those is that Jesus’s disciples just stole his body out of the tomb and lied about the resurrection. In the earliest gospel, attributed to Mark, there’s just the mystery of his disappearance, but by the time of the gospel attributed to Matthew, they have to explain why there’s this rumor the disciples took the body in addition to going into more detail about Jesus after he came back to life.

Continue reading Lewis’s trilemma isn’t complete

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The Bible is large and contains multitudes: why reading diverse voices is good

Dr. Jarvis J. Williams wrote:

Privileged majority readers often attempt to make their culturally informed readings normative for every community.

However, when privileged people read and listen to racially marginalized voices and (more importantly) study the bible in the same sacred church spaces as racially marginalized voices, then those whose privilege shapes their biblical reading will be more likely to see their privileged blind spots when they humbly submit to and listen to those who don’t share their racially and socially privileged status.

Black and brown bible readers may think that certain biblical and theological truths will be worked out exactly the same way in black, brown, or multi-ethnic contexts as in majority white cultural contexts. Or they might be tempted to think that every white reading of a text is a right reading of a text and non-white readings of texts are wrong or suspicious readings of texts, until receiving a stamp of approval from someone from the white majority interpretive community. Reading black and brown authors who love the bible and labor rigorously to understand it in its original context will help white and black and brown Christians to be sensitive to, and aware of, their blind spots. Every bible interpreter has them and brings them to the text.

Continue reading The Bible is large and contains multitudes: why reading diverse voices is good

50 Shades of Week: Feb. 5 – 11, 2017

‘It’s OK for something just to be beautiful, to look nice & feel nice or sound nice & for that to make you feel good. It can be frivolous or silly & not be less for that.

‘Beauty is its own sort of utility.’

  1. And he’s inside me, quickly filling me.
  2. All pale blue lace and finery.
  3. ‘Why did you want to know if he was gay?’
  4. I stand immobilized at the entrance of the room, paralyzed by his beauty and the sweet anticipation of what’s to come.
  5. How can he have this effect on me, even in this crowded tent?
  6. What does he mean by that?
  7. ‘I understand that you’re a keen fisherman.’

And the King James Bible turns 400 this year

The other day, someone posted a comment on the online version of my column regarding a passing sort of mention to Pentecost.

“I was really digging this until the Biblical reference. Fantastic way to isolate everyone but your Christian readers.”

Continue reading And the King James Bible turns 400 this year

How one goes to heaven, not how the heavens — or biology — go

The Texas Board of Education made its ruling on the science curriculum last week. Evolution supporters won a battle in removing the phrase “strengths and weaknesses,” but lost the broader conflict as more doubts of evolution, and even the Big Bang, were inserted.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Chairman Don McLeroy is a dentist who believes the Earth is several thousand years old. Which is fine for him to believe personally, just not when his beliefs put millions of students at an educational disadvantage in virtually every science I can think of, except, possibly, dentistry.

The difficulty of this debate has never been especially clear to me, from either side. From the side of science, it’s fairly obvious why evolution is taught and not alternatives: rebuttals are long, and time is short.

Continue reading How one goes to heaven, not how the heavens — or biology — go

Honesty

We say we value honesty, in ourselves and other people, but hard as it may be, it’s much easier to tell the truth than to hear it. “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves,” but intellectual dishonesty is as much a problem of perception as deception.

Humans are rational beings, or so I’m told. Occasionally, we gather evidence to come to an unbiased conclusion, check the facts to come to a reasoned answer. More often our reasoned conclusion is the result of irrational prejudices, or at least subjective opinions framing and coloring what information we receive and how we sort it.

In the 19th century, Quakers and Virginians were reading the same Bible so far as I know. Yet somehow they managed to come to completely opposite conclusions about the place of slavery in Christianity. God had created blacks as mentally inferior therefore their natural place was under the control of white masters. A few decades later, the curse of Ham had been replaced by the science of Darwin, now proving objectively that the Negro was naturally biologically inferior. The reasoning changed, but the conclusion remained unchanged.

Today people look at test scores and poverty rates and alternately prove that African-Americans are biologically/culturally inferior to whites or victims of a structurally racist society. “Just look at the evidence!” both sides say. “It’s plain to see.”

That’s a poor example, at least today. That’s not an issue with a 50-50 split anymore, but like writers of The Bell Curve or James Watson, very intelligent people can gather a great deal of evidence and see in it something they already want to.

A better example, or fairer one, is the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights, commonly called “the right to bear arms.” On this subject, you will find Clyde Jr. of Arkansas and Antonin Scalia holding roughly the same views. They support their views with entirely different levels of complexity, but in the end, they support the same thing. Ruth Ginsberg is no less qualified a legal scholar than Scalia, has probably read all the same books, histories, and decisions as he has, but her conclusion is more in line with a pot-smoking hippie.

It bothers me very much to read editorials, most of them written by intelligent people, claiming that the Second Amendment clearly says this or that when the only thing clear about it is that when you read it for yourself, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” comes after a very clear qualifier: “A well-regulated militia being necessary.”

That muddles things. Historical context muddles things. Just to what extent “arms” was supposed to encompass then and now muddles things.

I’m phrasing things in this way because I’m actually sympathetic to the gun rights cause, and that makes me more sensitive to and critical of how they go about things.

I would support a city’s right to restrict gun rights based on my personal libertarian principles of local control and heterogeneous laws. The free market of ideas, competing sociological laboratories, etc., etc. Of course the Supreme Court ruling came on the District of Columbia, so setting that aside, whether gun ownership is a right is not an answer that can be read into the Constitution, and certainly not by the chicken-bone soothsayers running around today.

The only way to answer the question honestly is to surrender all claims of superseding authority and make the most convincing argument you can at a fair level of discourse.

That is, start with the question of whether gun ownership is a natural right. There’s no document, political, religious, or otherwise to answer this question, just your own reason and beliefs, and it’s either a yes or a no. For me, it’s pretty obviously “no” because guns have only existed for the past 500 years or so, and one would think intrinsic rights would be as old as our species. But, gun ownership may be a derivative right of something else, that is the right to self-protection and defense. Whereas in the days of Og bonking Unk on the head with a club entitled Unk to a club or rock of his own, so too a world of guns entitles us to guns for this purpose. This seems sensible enough to me.

The question, as a libertarian, is always where your rights stop and another’s begin. Where is the border between your right to protect yourself and another’s right not to be threatened? That’s an important question, and consulting the Constitution does nothing. A nuclear weapon can’t be acceptable to remain in private ownership just because the founders hadn’t the foresight to prohibit them (and I’ve heard some arch-libertarians sincerely make that argument).

I heard Scalia use as an example that when he was in high school, a fellow classmate complained about reading Shakespeare. The teacher said, “Sir, when you read Shakespeare, he isn’t on trial; you are.” In the same way, the traditions and laws aren’t on trial by contemporary measures; we are.

Well, if we are on trial, the judges are absent. The Founders with a capital “F” aren’t here, and they never really were. Jefferson’s vision of the nation is not more valid than Hamilton’s or Adams’ or Washington’s. When we try to use them to parrot our own opinions and substitute persuasive argument, we may be doing our best to tell the truth, but ultimately we’re lying.

The best way to be an honest person may just be to admit when you’re telling a falsehood. The best way to be intellectually honest, then, may be to admit your biases and work around them as best as you are able, lying as you go, but not compounding the lie with claims of impartiality.

We’re only impartial to things we care nothing for, and rarely does anyone comment at any length about things they care nothing for.

Bible curriculum

I was already out of high school when the Bible curriculum became an issue. Actually, I was a student of David Newman’s at Odessa College when the controversy first took shape, so I was in the front row if not in the ring. While I enjoyed him as a professor, and think the quality of his instruction is an incredible bargain for a community junior college, we disagreed on the Bible curriculum, or at least how to respond to it.

See, we agreed then, and I assume still do, that the Bible is the single most important work of literature to the Occident. Essentially nothing of significance composed during the past two thousand can be fully appreciated, or in some cases understood at all, without a firm grounding in Biblical theology, history, and parable. We differed slightly in that he wanted a general Western literature class that would include stuff like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Oedipus Rex, and the Aeneid, while I was satisfied with a course that studied the Bible solely, so long as it was indeed study and not proselytizing (something I wasn’t convinced the original course was).

So our main disagreement was in how to express our disagreement. If he reads this he can correct me, but (in addition to protecting local non-Christians who might be discriminated against), I understand his motivation to be that if someone didn’t stand up and fight it here, it could be common and have a negative effect on our public schools.

Meanwhile I was and am of the opinion that ignoring things often does help them go away. I don’t base that on wishful thinking, but my own observations of West Texas. We aren’t actually religious or devout, we just like appearing to be. It is, after all, considerably easier to convince a Christian to wear a cross as a necklace than to give his shirt to a mugger, much easier to bless food or a sneeze than those who curse him. And as years of Sunday School and Big Church made abundantly clear, Christians want to show up as much as we feel obligated and definitely do not want to read the Bible (for ourselves).

It is my opinion that a “Survey of William Shakespeare” class would be a fantastic class for a public high school. But no more than a dozen already highly interested students would be willing to take it. Everyone else would be looking for blow-off classes, because that’s what electives are in high school. Maybe religious-devotion would make more kids sign up for a King James Bible course than Shakespeare, but not that much more.

By making it a controversial issue and a standard for the overtly religious to rally behind, all that happened was drive up interest. ‘Married… with Children’ syndrome. And even with this, at last count there were still only 38 students enrolled in the class in the whole district, 38 out of what, 3,000?

So maybe I’m being hypocritical for talking about it now without any newsworthy reason, but I really do think it’s a great idea and something high school kids can handle intellectually, although probably not religiously. What I mean is that when you stop confining yourself to Adam and Eve, Joseph, Samson, David and Goliath, and Jesus’ miracles, you get into some pretty tough stuff. I mean, interesting, just from Judges no one can say Ehud, Jephthah, or the Levite and his concubine aren’t interesting (and magnificent works of literature), but they start to bring up theological questions that aren’t in Sunday School, and in terms of content, it’s the sort of thing that gets books banned from school from some of the same people pushing for this course.

Then you get into looking at the whole process of redaction and canonization, and most Christians do not want to know about or objectively examine that. It’s gradual, it’s messy, and it’s considerably less simple than, “God wrote it here it is.” When you get away from Sunday School answers and start being honest, the Bible can be troubling. Some people even lose faith over it.

But, the benefits are worth it. When you look at the Bible objectively, understand it historically, and measure it artistically, it becomes quickly clear that whatever God’s involvement in the composition, the end result is divine. Intellectual dishonesty makes the Bible boring. But Bible study, there’s no end to that or its enjoyment.

You gain things from comparing the Epic of Gilgamesh to Noah’s ark. You gain things from looking at the Old Testament as the Tanakh, complete in itself, and not the prequel of Jesus. You gain things from looking at the development of the character of God in the Bible, and people’s understanding of Him from the “Let us” creator to someone who walks in Eden and fears the sunrise to the tribal deity that best the Egyptians and Canaanites to the still, small voice that follows the people of Judah to Babylon and judges (and forgives) Nineveh.

How nice this would be, to give Jews and Christians an insight into how the other views the verses, to give the otherwise religious and non-religious an understanding of the basis of those theologies, and to give all a better appreciation of a book spanning dozens of books, hundreds of characters, thousands of years, and God knows how many writers.

It would be nice if it was done in such a way, it is possible for it to be done in such a way, but it likely never will be done in such a way. And I will continue to be apathetic and snide about the class, hoping churches will offer Bible studies enough and of such quality that the need for them in schools will cease to exist.