Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Some Bible Scholars are Like Dementors

The dementors from the Harry Potter series come onto the scene and suck all of the life and cheer of those around them. If you spend too much time around them, they have a tendency to suck out your soul, leaving you a cold, dead husk. I think the same could be true about some Bible scholars.

I have known many good scholars of Scripture. One of my best friends, let's call him the Doctor, is a well-respected professor with a PhD in Biblical studies. But I have also encountered my share of very bad Bible scholars. And unfortunately they seem to be the ones who always get interviewed by the press. Every few months, usually around Christmas or Easter, we get some academic who will pronounce some radical new interpretation of the Bible. Most of the time, this novel approach involves demytholgizing the stories of the Gospels.

Jesus didn't really rise from the dead. What's important is that His spirit is alive in the community!”
Of course, there was no actual multiplication of the loaves and fish. People just shared the surplus they were hoarding.”
No, Jesus was not conceived by a miracle. His mother was raped by a Roman Centurion”

That last one is the premise behind an upcoming movie by Paul Verehoven, the auteur behind such classics as Basic Instinct and Showgirls (to be fair he also directed Robocop and Total Recall).

I know that Verheoven is not a theologian, but he hides behind the “some scholars say” defense of some of his wackiest ideas. The description of his book of the same topic says: “Steeped in Biblical scholarship but free of the institutional biases, whether academic or religious, that so often dictate the terms of discussion of the historical Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth is a book that builds a bridge reaching all the way back to Jesus's lifetime, all the way forward to the present, and from biblical scholars to lay readers whose interest might be personal or political.”

I think by “institutional biases” he means “the truth.” And the truth does tend to dictate the terms of discussion of the historical Jesus.

There are many things to be said about Verhoeven's project, but I would like to focus on the demythologizers and why they are dementors.

First of all, it is impossible to divorce the ethics (the philosophy of how to live) from the metaphysics (the philosophy of what exists). Christian ethics only make sense in a Christian metaphysics. If you remove the Divine from the Bible, then the Gospel is a tragedy. It isn't good news at all. Verhoeven and his scholars want to say that Jesus didn't really die for our sins, but was simply a political agitator who died for his social justice beliefs.

But wouldn't that mean that the real victor in the story is Pontious Pilate? Jesus dies (and doesn't rise), and Pilate dies years later of natural causes. You could say that Jesus' message lives on. But again, if this message is not rooted in something eternal how does that make any difference to the life and death of Jesus or Pilate or anyone for that matter? Taking away the “God stuff” from the Bible is like taking all of the notes from Beethoven’s 5th. You're left with emptiness, just like an encounter with a dementor.

Second, these new interpretations can never actually prove anything. This takes us to a larger question of what we can know from history. I am not one of those people who believe that history is “only written by the winners.” But I am also skeptical of anything in the field that is called a “bold new interpretation.” There is so much pressure in academia to sound unique and daring. This can lead to some truly strange historical claims.

Let give you an example. There is a very popular theory about how the Gospels were written called the “2 Source Theory.” It states that Mark is the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke copy some of his stories, which is why those 3 Gospels are so similar. But there are things in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark. Scholars posit that there is a second source besides Mark, which they have labeled the “Q-Source.” Q is supposedly an oral collection of Jesus teachings. Now some of the Verhoeven-type scholars have concluded that the earlier tradition was more accurate in its non-Divine recording of Jesus' life. But then a later, more superstitious tradition came around and started adding the wacky religious dimension Hence, I had a teacher in college go over Mark 10:45 with us: “For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” My professor tried to explain that the last part about giving his life was a later addition because it makes the statement too theological. It's original meaning was simply about charity work and social justice.

But I had another professor wisely point out about those who divide the Q-Source: “It doesn't exist!” There is no thing called “Q.” No one has a copy of it. So how in the world can you be sure what is and what isn't there, let alone what is earlier or later or authentic or not?

 She was not dissing the 2 Source Theory, but she was showing that people can go too far.

In Chesterton story “The Honor of Israel Gow,” his main character Fr. Brown is challenged with a kind of riddle. In a house they have found piles of diamonds, cut candles, metal gears, and snuff. The local constable says there is nothing that can tie them all together. Fr. Brown says that these are the tools of a burglar. The diamonds and metal gears are used to cut the glass out of windows. The cut candles are used for small lanterns to not give out too much light. And if the thief is caught, he throws the snuff in his captor's eyes to blind them so as to make his escape. The costable asks if Fr. Brown really believes that theory to be true. Fr. Brown replies, “Of course not, but you said that there as nothing to connect these objects together and I just did.” He continues to spin other outlandish theories which bind these objects together, but they are all false. Just because a theory fits the evidence, it doesn't make it true.

Verhoeven and his ilk want to rob us of the truth and beauty of the Gospel in its fulness. They are sad, shriveled dementors who wish us to make life as small and unmagical as possible.


To further illustrate my point I would invite you to read a satirical essay I wrote a few years ago, trying to show the limits of modern historical-critical method. The essay is written in the words of a literary scholar from the year 3008 and they are writing about the authorship of the Harry Potter books. You should not read it unless you have read all of the Harry Potter series.

I hope enjoy it:

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