Sunday Toons: A world of booksSeptember 14, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
This week I thought we might pay a visit to the Tektonics forum over at theologyweb.com, home of the monthly “Screwball Thread” wherein JP Holding and company defend The Faith by hurling animated smilies at people whose words displease them. If you’ve been following the September SCrewballs [sic] thread, you’ll know that Holding has recently started following the XFiles Friday posts here, and they’re apparently putting a bit of a burr under his saddle. This week’s installment has him so worked up that he breaks from his usual pattern of simply posting excerpts, and tries to fisk them (or at least the bits that he quotes). In doing so, he gives us a bit more insight into his own personal world, and his techniques for insulating himself from those aspects of the real world that might prove troublesome.
He starts off by accusing me of misrepresenting Geisler and Turek’s approach.
Reacting to the suggestion that the New Testament is unreliable because the documents weren’t written until long after the events they describe, G&T seem to be assuming that if they can make the documents sound close enough to the A.D. 30’s, they will have proven that the documents are reliable
“Seem to be assuming”? No, Dumplin’, they never say that ANYWHERE. They’re just answering the objection that they are late and therefore unreliable, you moron.
Poor Holding is so desperate to accuse me of getting something wrong that he doesn’t even notice he’s quoted me as saying essentially the same thing as his “correction.” My very first sentence opens with the acknowledgment that G&T were “[r]eacting to the suggestion that the New Testament is unreliable because the documents weren’t written until long after the events they describe.” The point Holding misses, however, is that they are not just answering the objection I opened with, they are presenting their material as though an early date for the manuscripts establishes the reliability of the New Testament.
Remember, the book is called I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST. The book as a whole is following a 12 point outline of which #6 is:
6. The New Testament is historically reliable. This is evidenced by
a. Early testimony
b. Eyewitness testimony
c. Uninvented (authentic) testimony
d. Eyewitnesses who were not deceived
Chapter 9, which we just finished, is primarily about point 6a, the early date of the manuscripts as evidence for the historical reliability of the New Testament. On page 231, G&T discuss the criteria which they claim historians use “to determine whether or not to believe a given historical document,” and the first criterion they give is
1. Do we have early testimony? Generally, the earlier the sources, the more accurate is the testimony.
So with all due respect to Mr. Holding, the text of the book itself makes it quite plain that Geisler and Turek are indeed presenting the early dates of the NT manuscripts as though these dates were evidence that the NT is accurate. The most Holding can hope to accomplish here is to raise a semantic quibble about whether or not “lack of evidence of UNreliability” is the same as “evidence of reliability.” But that’s not the same as my comments being untrue, or his “correction” having any merit. He’s just looking for an excuse to use another of his invincible smilies.
Next, Holding objects to my comments on the oral roots of Christian traditions.
Notice, though, that they observe, “[i]n such an oral culture, facts about Jesus may have been put into a memorable form.” This is actually a phenomenon we frequently see in urban legends. The story begins as an account that is remarkable and striking in some way, and as the story is told and retold—via email as well as orally—the more striking details become stereotyped, and take on a particular style of retelling that becomes more and more fixed and inflexible as time goes on. It is significant that Habermas finds evidence in the NT manuscripts consistent with the conclusion that Christian stories underwent a similar process of stereotyping.
Um, NO, Dumplin’. Having now read more than 50 books on the subject, I can say without qualification that you are stupid in this regard. The process of legend creation and the process of crafting for memory are two different things. The former is growth; the latter involves trimming and shaping in a LITERARY fashion. And it doesn’t result in distortion of the facts for at least a couple of generations, when the tradition may be modified so that it can be more understandable to later generations. That doesn’t apply to the NT.
Isn’t that great? Real world evidence does not matter, all that matters is how many BOOKS you’ve read. And the person who has read the most books is thereby qualified to call the other guy “stupid in this regard.” And because all those books have made him so smart, he knows that at least two generations—anywhere from 32 to 100+ years, depending on how you define a generation—will need to pass before any factually-distorted, commonly-reported stories arise about 9/11, or the Holocaust, or the Columbine shootings, or the Iraq war, or the most recent Benny Hinn crusade, etc., etc. (Sunday Toons just write themselves, don’t they?)
Notice that he accuses me of being wrong about something that I did not say. I did not say that “crafting for memory” is the same thing as creating “legends” (in the technical, academic sense of what a “legend” is). What I said was that, in the real world, we can readily observe a phenomenon that produces similar results (i.e. memorable/stereotyped recitations) in a greatly accelerated timeframe. The “urban legend” phenomenon is a well-known source of what I referred to as stereotyped expressions, and frequently demonstrates its ability to propagate factual distortions from the very beginning.
What Holding is doing here is creating a false dichotomy: either the NT story became a legend by the specific, multigenerational process(es) described in his beloved books, or else it was faithfully and accurately preserved by the specific process(es) of oral tradition described by those same books. No other possibility exists, not even if it can be easily and frequently observed in real life, all around us. Having invested untold hours in reading and studying those 50+ books, Holding has so filled his mind with their teachings that real-world observation is no longer the standard by which he judges what’s “smart” and what’s “stupid.”
Meanwhile, for those of us who do still run things through reality checks, there is plenty of real-world evidence to support the conclusion that factual distortions can and do creep into the process of defining what the story is, before the subsequent oral and written traditions take over the task of preserving and transmitting them. The ultimate test for accuracy is not whether the story can be made consistent with years of scholarly arguments by those intent on defending the story, but whether or not the story is consistent with real-world truth.
What we see when we look at the NT stories in the light of real-world truth is that they tend to center around the same sort of striking, story-making elements as we find in common urban legends, and that in most cases, what makes the story so striking is how different it is from what we normally see in real life. Right off the bat, we have a red flag: inconsistency with real-world truth is what makes the story compelling enough to retell.
The second thing we see is that these stories appeal to common superstitions and prejudices: a world of inexplicable blessings and misfortunes caused by angels and demons, a God Who treats you as special in some way, a sense of unique and significant Purpose, a conviction of ultimate Justice in store, and so on. Again, the elements which make the story worth retelling are also elements that ought to raise red flags due to their subjectivism and superstition.
The third thing we see is a formalization or stereotyping of the stories. Again, this is something that happens naturally (and quickly) with urban legends, and also with oral traditions. In fact, we could also see it happening with a story that started as an urban legend and then became important enough to be committed to oral and written traditions, thus giving it the characteristics of both the (informal) legend and the (formal) oral/written tradition, such as we see in the NT today.
What we don’t see is God actually behaving in a way that would be consistent with these stories, and more particularly with the love for us that the stories ascribe to God. In fact, God’s failure to manifest any of this kind of love is so universal and consistent that believers like Holding even mock the whole idea of God loving us, as though anyone expecting a loving God is some kind of pervert taunting God with unreasonable demands for “kissy kissy” or some such. Denying that the original story could have been altered, Holding promotes an altered version of the story, because the real world is simply not consistent with the standard of divine behavior set by the original version.
For some Christians, this in itself may be reason enough to retreat into a world of books, a world where “smart” and “stupid” are measured by how many books you have read, and not by how well you understand the real world outside the armchair. But, as Ecclesiastes says, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” You can spend your whole life becoming an expert on the contents of books you’ve selected because you agree with the authors, and you can learn more about those authors’ opinions than anyone else on earth. You can fill your mind with data whose sole virtue is that you know it and someone else doesn’t. If your “knowledge” doesn’t match what we find outside the books, however, have you really spent your time wisely?
If your goal is to defend your own beliefs no matter what, then perhaps you have.