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Tuesday, September 05, 2017

John Pavlovitz: Defeating Secularism by Surrendering To It!

A self-styled 20-year "ministry veteran" and author named John Pavlovitz wrote a post earlier this year about how Christians are to blame for creating atheists (or, at least, Christians who fail to tap dance to the flute upon which the Spirit of the Age tweets his tunes).  I suspect that John's sort of "believer" is more likely to create atheists than any but the most obnoxious and judgmental hypocrites in the conservative camp.  (Not that it's a nice thing to be obnoxious, judgmental or hypocritical -- but then those slippery staircases fall towards Hades from many directions.) 

Let's observe the Pavlovitzian slide step by step.  


Saturday, August 26, 2017

Which religion? (Which denomination?)

The question was asked (I paraphrase, since I don't have permission to quote from that forum):

"Suppose I know nothing about religions but want to know what is true.  How should I find out?  People of different denominations argue all the time, and don't even share the same version of the Bible in many cases.  Even on a given Christian radio station, you hear a variety of conflicting viewpoints sometimes.  So what methodology should one follow to find what is true?" 

Here's my first shot at an answer.  Though I'm sure I've left off some important points!

(1) Recognize that there is something as truth. You've done that already, great start!

(2) Recognize that when two claims conflict absolutely, they cannot both be true. So there is also falsehood. You've accepted that, too -- you're ahead of lots of people already.

(3) Recognize that religions (including secular ones) combine moral values, existential ideals, and truth-claims. It would be as much a miracle if any one of them were wrong about all it claims or espouses, as if any one were right about everything.

(4) Therefore, even given one truth which may be wholly true (because God may be behind it), it would follow that all other belief systems would be a mixture of truth and falsehood, baring a diabolical miracle of absolute error.

(5) The ultimate truth will be that truth which is best supported by the strongest and most diverse evidence.

(6) Also which explains the most diverse insights and observations within all human systems that seek for truth, goodness, and happiness.

(7)  think (and argue, in a bunch of books) that Christianity is that truth.

(8) As for which denomination, let the Bible, your conscience, your mind, God's calling on your life, fate, friends, family, transportation, even music be your guide. I won't quarrel, so long as they "love God (with mind, soul, strength) and love their neighbors as themselves."

(9) Which means I might quarrel, after all, and you might quarrel with me.


Sunday, August 20, 2017

Atheists for Huitzilopochtli: Hector Avalos Decries Missionaries

This month Hector Avalos, radical critic of Christianity at Iowa State University and my past sparring partner on this site (beginning from almost the first post) and on John Loftus' "Debunking Christianity," put in a bad word for Christian missions in the journal The Bible and Interpretation.  Well it was more than a word, it was about twenty pages long. 

Long-time readers here know that I have often taken issue with Avalos' articles, and with the tone and fervent animus that seems to inspire them.  I have found his biblical exegesis beyond tendentious, hovering in the neighborhood of dark, Christo-phobic fantasy.  ("Jesus commands hate!")  His representations of the Crusades also tend to be deeply problematic
Image result for matteo ricci
Matteo Ricci, one of the greatest missionaries, who
expanded how China saw the world.

Avalos has not responded kindly to my criticism, to no one's surprise.  But I find his attacks interesting for their detail and creativity.  They sound scholarly and, to the unwary, perhaps persuasive. 

I take Avalos as fair game for rebuttal, in other words -- more challenging than your average Internet atheist, anyway, if not more ultimately credible. 

In this case, Avalos has outdone himself.  While his creative and tendentious use of scholarly jargon allows his paper to pass the Alan Sokal Sniff Test, when analyzed carefully, it is really quite remarkable what the influential Hispanic atheist is really saying -- and who he is plugging as an alternative to God.

In this post, I analyze the first half or so of his paper, to the part where he starts wondering why the Aztec God of Human Sacrifice isn't any more popular.  (And overlooks the most obvious explanations for that unpopularity.)  We will follow the time-sanctioned vaudeville format of responding to one comment at a time. 


"Minoritized Biblical Scholarship as Christian Missiology and Imperialism"

Hector Avalos, Professor of Religious Studies, Iowa State University

“I have developed a very different perspective on minoritized approaches to biblical studies.  I am biblical scholar who happens to be identified as Latino (or Mexican American) and as an atheist.”

"Since most members of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) have religious affiliations, I may truly represent the most marginalized minority in the SBL. I have argued elsewhere that my experience with disability and my secularist stance, rather than my ethnicity or minority status, better explain the nature of my scholarship (Avalos 2015)."

"I am an anthropologist and biblical scholar by training, but I also teach and do research in ethnic studies. I founded the US Latino Studies program at Iowa State University in 1994. In 2004, I edited a volume on the US Latino and Latina Religious Experience, while serving as editor of the Religion in the Americas series for Brill. In 2007, I published Strangers in Our Own Land: Religion and U.S. Latina/o Literature, and I still teach a course on Religion and US Latino/a Literature at Iowa State University.  
 "Those experiences have raised awareness of both the benefits and disadvantages of looking at the Bible through what is being called “minoritized” criticism.  Minoritized criticism centers on “‘minoritization’ or the process of unequal valorization of population groups, yielding dominant and minority formations and relations, within the context, and through the apparatus, of a nation or state as the result of migration, whether voluntary or coerced” (Bailey, Liew, and Segovia 2009, ix).

"First, let me address the benefits. One benefit is raising awareness that European scholarship has been biased in a number of areas. In fact, detecting Eurocentric biases in biblical studies may be the single most important achievement of any minoritized biblical scholarship. Second, a minoritized approach also signals a more inclusive attitude toward scholars of non-European ethnicities and identities. The fact that non-Europeans can be recognized as scholars in their own right is a welcome change.


"Despite these benefits, I view minoritized approaches as predominantly another form of Christian missiology and imperialism rather than as an instrument to expose and undermine that imperialism. "

Notice that Avalos situates his rhetoric solidly within the confines of modern American discourse of "majorities" and "minorities," even though the nominal topic is world missions.  In a broader perspective, Latinos are one of the world's largest people groups, the majority in a huge swath of the globe.  Atheists, similarly, are not rare in a global perspective, and have had a disproportionate power and impact in modern history. 

Why is Avalos doing that?  In a sense, it's a bit of a scholarly cliché, "I belong to an unrepresented group, my voice should be heard."  Fine, let's hear your voice, but let's not give that voice any special status simply because it represents a large majority in the US, and an influential (one might say privileged) majority in many other countries.   

Also notice the dichotomy assumed here: "minoritized" biblical scholarship (whatever that means) can be beneficial when it detects "Eurocentric biases," but no other contributions could be so important as that one.  Though Avalos is also willing to grant that the fact that non-Europeans can be recognized as scholars is also a positive development.  (And a very old one, I might add.)  So the essential contributions of minority mission scholars must be defensive in a hostile contest with the "majority" -- never mind the fact that in a global community (as that of missiologists) there is no "majority," and collegiality is more common than cut-throat competition, in my experience.

I say that having obtained my PhD under the guidance and / or criticism of four scholars, one of whom was Indian, a second Indian from Africa, a third Chinese, and only one European-American.  No one so much as imagined or suggested, in all my years of working on my dissertation, that my "minority" status as an American in Britain, or the minority status or non-European status of any of those scholars, was worth mentioning in the sort of politicized context in which Avalos brings this up.  (Though of course their expertise grew in part from the cultural context in which they were raised and educated.)

"Philosophical Problems with Minoritized Biblical Criticism  My main philosophical objection to minoritized biblical criticism is that most of it is incompatible with the idea of historical-critical biblical studies. 

"Academic biblical studies should be an empirico-rationalist and secular enterprise that uses only methodological naturalism."

This edict seems a little imperialistic.  “My way or the highway!”  Why should every scholar who studies the Bible bring Hector Avalos’ particular biases to that study, and none other?

Indeed, this bias may be behind Avalos’ recent tendency to put “” marks around the “Dr.” when he refers to me.  He seems to think Christians were somehow involved in my obtaining credentials (true, some were), and therefore those credentials are illegitimate.  Also, I come to conclusions that he does not share.  “Marshall does not agree with my doctrinal statement, so banish him from the community of scholars!” 

And that seems to be one of Avalos' favored goals, to discredit Christian scholars and banish them from the community of genuine scholarship. 

Scholars can, in fact, work from a variety of assumptions about how the world works.  (They can, because they do -- the latter proves the former.)  This is why I will never call Hector Avalos "'Dr' Avalos, but respect his status as a scholar.   

"This is not to deny that different ethnic groups may have a variety of approaches to the Bible. We certainly should study how different ethnic groups approach the Bible. But I differentiate the study of how ethnic groups use the Bible from any program to develop or consolidate a uniquely “minority” or “minoritized” stance on biblical scholarship. For me, the study of how different minorities might approach the Bible is a sociological study rather than some constructive ethno-theological program."

This sounds as if it means, "I can learn from their work how these quaint minority theologians think, but I can't learn anything from their ideas." 

"Historical findings about the Bible should not depend on ethnicity or religious presuppositions anymore than historical conclusions in any other field should depend on ethnicity or theological presuppositions. Martin Luther either wrote On the Jews and Their Lies in 1543 or he did not. Our ethnicity does not change the result. We can either corroborate in textual and archaeological sources the presence of Alexander the Great in Mesopotamia or we cannot, regardless of ethnicity or religious presuppositions." 

This strikes me as assuming a narrow and short-sighted conception of the study of man.

Would not living in a state that experiences community violence help a scholar better understand Martin Luther, or Romeo and Juliet?  Isn’t that why Avalos mentioned his own background?  

History is about people, and therefore is a combination of the objective and the subjective.  We do not study people like rocks or ants: we are people, and can therefore gain insight by looking at history from the inside as well as the outside.  And because the Bible reflects a culture or cultures which are unlike our own, but like each of them in different ways, it follows that a broad, cross-cultural approach to understanding the Bible will be more fruitful than a supposedly neutral, de-culturalized approach. 

I learned much about the Bible by living among the Chinese.  I came to better understand the purpose and meaning of the genealogies, for instance.  I also came to recognize the importance of the fifth commandment and the Hebrew word “kabed,” “honor your parents,” from coming to see a closely-related concept () from within the Chinese culture.  I know I understand the Bible better for having looked at it in part with Chinese eyes.  And I know many other people have had the same experience.  (Don Richardson gives a famous and particular revealing example in his book Peace Child, about a cannibalistic culture that came to understand one biblical analogy with particular acuity.)

History, being about humans, consists not just of acquiring facts, but of recognizing value and meaning.  As a teacher, let me suggest that the failure to recognize this explains why so many young people are bored by history.  

"Therefore, in some ways minoritized approaches to the Bible are as useful as minoritized chemistry or ethnic Assyriology. These ethnic approaches inevitably lead to solipsism because I can claim that there are individualized approaches just as there are ethnic group approaches to anything. If I am justified in using a “group” perspective, then I also should be justified in using an “individual” perspective on anything, and so why privilege the group rather than the individual perspective? (cf. Bailey, Liew, and Segovia 2009, 32)."

But we are not just methane molecules.  We are people.  Subjective understanding need not lead to solipsism, because it is in balance, not conflict, with more objective understandings.  They are like the two wings of a bird.  

"Indeed, ethnic identity is itself a construct, and identities are multiple and always evolving. Many times, minorities define themselves against a white or European culture that is itself diverse (Middleton, Roediger and Shaffer 2016). We certainly can study how ethnic minorities interpret biblical texts without having to participate in some larger program to reify those interpretations as “better” or “more suitable” for any minorities."

That an identity “evolves” doesn’t entail that it is unreal or useless.  “The apple fell from the tree and struck Newton’s nose” is hardly a meaningless sentence if apples evolve, or if there are a vast variety of apples.  A bowling ball does not taste so sweet as an apple in a pie, however many colors bowling balls may come in.  

“Biblical studies should be an academic field much like all other academic fields in the humanities—much like classical studies, or Assyriology, or the study of English literature. My principal task is to discover, as best I can, what the intentions of authors were and the context in which they wrote their works. Secondarily, it is to explain how those ancient texts still exert influence in the modern world.” 

So students of the Bible should not try to learn anything that is true or valuable from the authors they read?  I don’t see that listed as a legitimate goal of biblical criticism.  (I certainly hope my students learn valuable things when they study English literature!) 

Context and intent are scholarship denuded of significance, like a tree blasted of its branches by a hurricane.  What a tedious scholarship Avalos seems to be espousing. 

I try to identify Eurocentric biases in order to erase those biases. Replacing European biases with ethnic perspectives is equally objectionable. If I have a Latino ethnic bias, then I want to identify it in order to subvert it much like any sort of personal bias should be subverted in history. Personal ethnic identity certainly can influence the subjects we choose, but it ought not influence results that should be based on evidence alone. This is not to deny that an ethnic identity may be useful for other purposes; just not for the purpose of doing historical or literary biblical scholarship.”  

“Standpoint” and “perspective” are not mere “bias.”  Scholarship should be the totality of a man (or woman) interrogating a text with all of what they are or know.  None of us can or should pretend at a post-human objectivity.   We should make use of our perspective, while listening to the perspectives of others – that, I maintain, is a richer approach to history and to literature than the one Avalos seems to be espousing here.  But let us see . . . 

“Although not all minoritized criticism involves theological approaches, much of it certainly does. Given my commitment to empirico-rationalism as the only approach to historical or literary biblical studies, I hold that theological approaches are academically unsound because I cannot evaluate theological claims.”  

This reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity, in my opinion.  Christian faith IS empirical.  “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”  “Reach here your hands.”  “Come and see!”  We demonstrate that from a variety of perspectives in our book, True Reason.  
One can, of course, evaluate theological claims.  That is one reason Christianity has spread throughout the world: it was evaluated from a variety of perspectives (as I show in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test) and found to pass a wide variety of theological, philosophical, and psychological tests.  It defeated its rivals intellectually and existentially. 

But this is obvious.   “God is a giant piece of pasta” is incoherent and ridiculous, precisely why modern atheists use that claim to mock theism.  “Reductio ad Absurdam” deliberately seeks that which is self-evidently more absurd, thus conceding rational standards in such things.  Even in scoffing, skeptics pay homage to the coherence and sense of what they scoff at.  They would not have to invent silly analogies, if they didn't know the original was not so easy to laugh at.  If you draw a mustache on a picture in the museum, you are not congratulated for contributing to great art. 

“Theological claims are inherently undemocratic if they are based on nothing more than a theologian’s word and on religious presuppositions that I do not share. In contrast, the use of empirico-rationalist methodologies rest on assumptions that can be shared by all. The main assumption is that one of more of our natural senses and/or logic can give us reliable information about the world.”

This seems a little hypocritical.  Avalos has argued that only “secular” standards are legitimate.  Why is it “democratic” to assume that the majority (who believe in God) must be marginalized, and the minority (who don’t) be taken as the standard?

And if we are seeking some beliefs that everyone shares in common, and that alone is our democratic standard, then we seek in vain.  The notion that “The world exists” is not accepted by everyone.  (Of course, one may ask why a scholar who doubts the world would do scholarship, to which one may respond, “Why not?  What else is there to do?”)  So any scholarship that assumes the reality of the world is “undemocratic?”   

But scholarship is not about democracy, it is about facts and reasoning.  The correct standard is not “Do all agree on our starting points?” but “Are the arguments sound and the premises clearly stated?”  There is no rule that a scholar may not begin with arguable assumptions, only that he should state them clearly.  Even the value of democracy itself is, after all, an oft-questioned assumption.  So should no political scientist begin with the premise that consent of the governed is a desirable state?  Avalos’ rule would bring scholarship to a screeching halt. 

“To me, the most significant divide is not between some larger Eurocentric and a “minoritized” approach. The most significant difference is between secular approaches and those that are religionist or bibliolatrous. “Religionism” refers to a position that regards religion as useful or necessary for human existence, and something that should be preserved and protected.”
Here is more wooly thinking. 

What is “religionist?”  Peter Berger notes that definitions of religion tend to fall into two categories, having to do with the content or function of belief.  By the latter, many “secularist” ideologies would qualify, including I think Avalos’ own.  He may wish to privilege his own worldview, as do we all.  But I see no reason to permit that.  So the first divide collapses into presumption. 
Nor should all religions be conflated.  Few would argue that a revival of the Aztec religion is just what the world needs today, complete with torrents of blood flooding down pyramids in Central Park.  My view (which rises to utter confidence) is that Christianity has indeed been useful to millions, and to society as a whole.  And I would gladly put in a good word for, say, Confucianism.  But each idea – religious or secular – should be judged on its own merits and record. 

“Regardless of whether one has a Latino perspective, an Asian perspective, or an African perspective, I still see most biblical scholars engaged in minoritized criticism as trying to advance the idea that religion is good and necessary for human existence.”

Maybe because any fool who knows anything about the history of Chinese civilization, say, knows perfectly well that Confucius’ thinking DID do a lot of good for East Asia?  As did Christianity, for the world?  

“I cannot recall any work of minoritized biblical scholarship that concludes that we must move past any sort of religious thinking. One may argue that assisting people to move past religious thinking is not the task of biblical scholars. Yet, many of the same scholars have no problem describing their task as advancing Christian principles or liberation theology perspectives.” 

The problem being?  That some people hold to positions you don’t like, and are allowed to defend them? 

“By bibliolatry, I refer to the position that views the Bible as a privileged document that is worthy of more study or attention than many other ancient works that we can name. Promoting the Bible as important for our civilization is another self-interested project because it also functions to preserve the employment of biblical scholars.  

Here we see the words “Bible” and “idolatry” combined.  The result is a highly tendentious term.  
Obviously some works are more worthy of study than others, both for intrinsic merit, and for impact upon the world. 

Why do more scholars write about Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Homer’s Iliad than Lucian’s A True Tale?  I think for both reasons.  Hamlet is a great work; True Tale is not.  Hamlet is watched and enjoyed around the world; True Tale has not been. 

Let’s begin with the second.  Christianity is the largest and most influential faith in the world.  Islam also borrowed from Christianity and the Old Testament.  Isn’t this obvious? 

How about the intrinsic merit of the Bible?  Obviously Avalos and I disagree about that.  But I am hardly unread in world literature – I have read the Chinese Classics in the original language (for the most part), have combed through almost all the Greek novels, read Russian and Indian literature, and just assigned my students part of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Rig Veda.  (One of the skeptics in our office, who is teaching literature, asked me for a summary of the former yesterday, before he talked about it in World History.)  

The greatest moral teacher I have found outside the Bible may be the Stoic Epictetus.  I am also fond of Confucius, and respect the Dharmapada, which possibly contains some of Buddha’s teachings. 

But I think anyone who fails to put the Sermon on the Mount, and much of Jesus’ other teachings, at the forefront of moral teaching, has blinders on his eyes.  And I can quote great non-Christian reforms who say much the same thing. 

So yes, intrinsic merit, as well.  And I take that as an empirical, not a “bibliolatrous,” conclusion.

“I have written elsewhere on how the supposed relevance of the Bible in our civilization is an illusion created in part by biblical scholars, the professorial class, and ministers who wish to preserve their status in our society (Avalos 2007; 2010).” 

You have written all sorts of silly things, Hector, some of which I have refuted on this site. 

“Minoritized Criticism as Colonialism and Missiology  In a well-known postcolonialist tome, The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literatures (1989), Bill Ashcroft and his coauthors observe that the British empire is now largely defunct, but “cultural hegemony has been maintained through canonical assumptions about literary activity, and through attitudes toward postcolonial literature which identify them as off-shoots of English literature” (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 1989, 7).” 

English literature has influenced Indian literature – no question.  Missionaries even helped revive an interest in classical Indian literature, as Vishal Mangalwadi explains.

This is part of the normal effect of the diffusion of ideas and culture. 

“Similarly, although Christian empires may no longer be as politically powerful as they once were, they still exert their cultural hegemony by extolling the ethical and aesthetic superiority of their biblical texts over those of other cultures. Many biblical scholars can be viewed as agents of that effort to maintain Christian cultural hegemony even among underrepresented minorities today.” 

I cannot think of any “Christian empires” presently in existence – if there ever were.  (See Charles Williams, Decent of the Dove, and Rodney Stark on how Christianity declined after Constantine’s conversion.) 

But hopefully Avalos will arrive at concrete examples, soon. 

“The attempt to understand other cultures and minorities within American culture is a standard part of Christian missiology. The integration of missiology with the effort to understand “the other” is evidenced at Fuller Theological Seminary, which offers degrees in missiology. The description of the Master of Theology in Intercultural Studies states that it “equips pastors, mission and denominational leaders to meet the challenge of ministering in an increasingly complex, multiethnic, multinational world” (Fuller Theological Seminary, online).”

The odd thing about this paragraph is that the thesis sentence is not supported later.  There is nothing in the Fuller statement about “understanding other cultures and minorities within American culture.”  Fuller happens to be situated in Pasadena, California, very close to a large enclave of Chinese immigrants in Monterey Park, Alhambra and surrounding communities.  I believe many of its missions teachers are either minorities or foreigners themselves -- one of my best Taiwanese friends studied there. 

And where does the word “minorities” come from here?  Missions is about becoming minorities ourselves.  Is Avalos just hoping readers won’t notice that he’s changed the subject? 

“In a broader context, minoritized biblical criticism can be viewed as part of the tradition of some of the early anthropologists whose aim was to understand other cultures in order to facilitate their conquest and colonization (Tilley and Gordon 2007). Instead of outright conquest, modern Christian missiology analyzes minority cultures to identify experiences that can facilitate extending Christianity and the authority of biblical texts to those cultures.”

Again “minority cultures” seems to be conflated with “foreign cultures.” 

The only support for Avalos’ thesis in this paragraph is a reference to a book about anthropology and imperialism in Africa.  (Which in ten years, has received no reviews on Amazon.)  How exactly biblical criticism by non-whites can be “part of” some strand of African anthropology by white imperialists and their presumptive enablers, given that non-European biblical criticism began thousands of years before the European conquest of Africa, is left to our (hopefully fertile) imaginations.  

“Indeed, much of the minoritized biblical scholarship I read is predominantly a missiological and pastoral endeavor, meant to retain or recruit minorities by persuading them that the Bible offers them some comfort or analogy to their experience that can be beneficial. Therefore, ethnic minorities should still retain the Bible as some sort of authority to inform their experience. In his book on the Bible and migrants, Jean-Pierre Ruiz explicitly tells us:  
“I am convinced that the work of biblical studies and of theological scholarship is an ecclesial vocation, one that takes place at the heart of the church for the sake of its mission to witness to the goodness and the justice of God in the world (Ruiz 2011, x).”   

Imagine that!  A Christian scholar thinks the Bible can help people!

“In so doing, Ruiz and most other advocates of minoritized biblical scholarship are still carrying out another version of the Great Commission in Matt. 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  

Amen!  And God  Speed!

“By textual imperialism, I refer to the effort to promote the Bible as a privileged cultural text or as the standard by which minorities should guide their lives. These scholars are still trying to convince minorities that the Bible has a message that is relevant for them.”  

Why do we have to use words like “minorities” here?  Christians think the Bible has not one, but many messages, which are relevant for “people” in general.  Whether they belong to big or little tribes does not change that. 

And what does this have to do with “imperialism?”  Convincing people through arguments and rhetoric is not imperialism, nor is it analogous to imperialism.  Imperialism means conquering other countries by military means and then subjugating them for your own profit. 

Missionaries often died en masse in Central Africa and India.  Some got rich, but many became desperately poor.  While European merchants were pushing to sell opium to the Chinese, the missionary community protested almost to a man (and woman).  Confusing missionaries with imperialists is understandable in some contexts, but in the whole, it shows a polemic, not a scholarly or fair, stance.  

“Some of these scholars are explicit about their Christian agenda. One example is the self-identified Latino scholar, Ruben Muñoz-Larrondo, who states that “[t]he theoretical framework envisioned for Latino/a hermeneutics involves five criteria” (Muñoz-Larrondo 2014, 205). His first one is “tuning our Christian identity beyond nationalist overtones,” by which he means that Latinos should stress that they are Christian more than they are Mexican American, or Cuban, or some other Latino identity (Muñoz-Larrondo 2014, 205).”

And I certainly felt I shared more in common with Chinese Christians I met as a missionary, than I did with, say, the American men I ran into looking for girls in Snake Alley, as I describe in True Son of Heaven.  

 We find a Christian orientation in some African American approaches to the Bible, as is the case with Isabel Carter Heyward, who says: 

"Christology has become important to me for two primary reasons: (1) First, I am hooked on Jesus. I could no more pretend that the Jesus-figure, indeed the Jesus Christ of the kerygma, is unimportant to me than I could deny the significance of my parents and my past in the shaping of my future. As a “cradle Christian”—a person who came to know the storybook Jesus long before I sat down and thought about God—I have no sane or creative choice but to take very seriously this Jesus Christ who is written indelibly in my own history.... (Heyward 1982, 196)."


"In my recent book, The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics (2015), I argue that the unwillingness to find any flaws in the ethics of Jesus still betrays the fact that most scholars of New Testament ethics, whether European, Latino, Asian, or African American, still view Jesus as divine, and not as a human being whose ethics must be flawed somewhere." 

We have seen on this site how Dr. Avalos deconstructs Jesus' moral teaching, and how repugnant even an atheist can find the results.  

"Religionism and bibliolatry are at the core of all Eurocentric approaches to the Bible historically. If that is the case, then most practitioners of minoritized criticism are not departing from Eurocentrism, but rather developing an alternative form of Eurocentrism (see also Avalos 2003). Minoritized criticism is more about aesthetics—it seeks to promote the appearance of diversity when it retains the core components of Christian textual imperialism."  

Now here is a bizarre twist.  A black American who says he is "hooked on Jesus" (a man who never set foot in Europe) is guilty of "Eurocentrism" for doing so.  Yes, run the tape backwards then forwards again.  That really is what Dr. Avalos is doing.   This empirical-rationalist method certainly yields impressively counter-intuitive findings.  

You see, "religionism" and "bibliolatry" (words which are long and therefore must have some profound scholarly meaning, though Avalos has not clearly defined that meaning) are defining traits of "Eurocentric" approaches to the Bible (again, for reasons which have at best vaguely been alluded to -- certainly no critical, systematic evidence for any such sweeping generalization has been offered).  So anyone who loves Jesus in the Bible, even if he is black, must be sucking up to the Man in the plantation house.  That seems to be the gist of the "argument."  (I use the word loosely.) 

"Textual imperialism" seems to mean writing about the Bible instead of, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh.  The connection to real imperialism is, as Avalos put it, more about aesthetics than reason.  

"When it comes to formal thematic features encountered in works of minoritized biblical scholarship, one finds at least these four: 1) Experiential analogies; 2) Ethno-theology; 3) representativism; and 4) The appeal to interpretive flexibility as a superior virtue of biblical texts. My aim is to show that these themes are simply religionist and bibliolatrous variants of, rather than radical or transformative departures from, Eurocentric or non-minoritized biblical criticism." 

I bet you could find all four in Origen.  (Writing in Alexandria, Egypt, in Africa, before Europe became nominally Christian.) 

Here Avalos finally gets down to concrete examples.  (I won't say "evidence," because his "empirical" argument from henceforth is entirely anecdotal -- which given the framework of sophistry and knee-jerk, unreflective criticism of the demonized Other so far, is quite an improvement, actually.)  

Let's let Avalos develop his point through these examples without interruption now, for longer stretches.  

"Experiential Analogy as Missiology  Scholars using minoritized approaches often seek some analogy in the Bible for the experience of minorities today. Particularly popular are analogies with the immigrant experience. Sometimes, these experiential analogies are clearly announced in the title of minoritized biblical scholarship, as in the case of Gregory Lee Cuellar’s Voices of Marginality: Exile and Return in Second Isaiah 40-55 and the Mexican Immigrant Experience (2008).

"Cuellar seeks analogies between the themes of exile and return in Isaiah 40-55 and the Mexican American immigrant experience, especially as expressed in short narrative songs called corridos. For Cuellar, these “corridos arise out of crisis and function to redress a social breach. They not only provide invaluable documentation of the Mexican migratory experience, but also serve as expressions of oppositional culture due to its message of resistance, empowerment and social critique” (Cuellar 2008, 68). 

"However, the very use of biblical texts to create analogies with Mexican American immigrants is already a very Christian missiological enterprise in this case. Indeed, there are more apt analogies in indigenous Mesoamerican literature that are completely disregarded in favor of Second Isaiah, whose context is far more culturally removed from the experiences of Mexican immigrants, especially those who are undocumented." 

Wait!  Here I need to interrupt.

The assumption seems to be that evil European Christians "completely disregarded" non-Christian literature when they sought edifying examples in their own works, and that the supercilious Mexican Christians can in this respect only be aping their European oppressors.  

If Avalos really thinks that, why should we think he knows anything about western (and European Christian) literature?  

Let us leave aside Dante and Shakespeare for the moment, and focus on pious European writers (though Dante was a Christian.)  Has Avalos never read Dream of the Rood?  Or Beowulf?  Has he never held Chaucer in his hands?  Or even Bunyan or Bronte?  Every one of these great writers or works are chock full of references to non-Christian writings.  Heck, even Anne Bradstreet, the pious Puritan poet who launched American poetry, was called the "Tenth Muse" -- one of endless tributes in European Christian literature to Greek and Roman myth, plays, philosophy, science, and of course epic.  

This is a point Roberto De Nobili, Jesuit missionary to India in the early 17th Century, made with great force and numerous examples in his work Adaptation.

So if Mexican Christians completely ignore pagan literature (we'll leave that question up in the air for the sake of the argument), it would be nonsense to accuse them of aping European Christianity on that score. 

Not, of course, that there's anything wrong with relating great books that one loves to one's life.  Here Avalos offers up an argument that has to be seen to be credited. 


Atheists for Huitzilopotchli

"Consider the bilingual (Spanish-Nahuatl) narrative known as Crónica Mexicáyotl, which dates to about 1609 and is attributed to Fernando Alvarado Tezózomoc, a Nahuatl indigenous writer who collected Nahuatl traditions. Crónica Mexicáyotl contains the story of how the Mexica people, from whom Mexican Americans derive part of their name, were exiled from many places before finally founding their core homeland of Tenochtitlan (in the middle of what is now Mexico City). The narrative begins as follows: 

"'Here it is told, it is recounted, how the ancients who were called, who were named, Teochichimeca, Azteca, Mexitin, Chicomoztoca came, arrived, when they came to seek, when they came to take again possession of their land here (LeónPortilla and Shorris 2001, 192).'

"This introduction identifies the narrative as being about exile and return (“they came to take again possession of their land here”).i The narrative tells us that these people “brought along the image of their god, the idol that they worshipped”(León-Portilla and Shorris 2001,193). This god, Huizilopotchli, speaks to his people just as Yahweh does."

"The narrative goes on to explain how the Mexica people tried to settle in different places, but were expelled. Fear of expulsion from their new home country is not the focus of Second Isaiah, but is the focus of many corridos and also Crónica Mexicáyotl. 

"Near the end of Crónica Mexicáyotl these nomadic people are told by a prophet-priest to look for a sign: An eagle perched on a cactus eating a serpent (or the heart of a defeated god). The Mexica people do find just such an eagle on a cactus, and the narrative announces a hopeful note: “O happy, blessed are we! We have beheld the city that shall be ours! Let us go, now, let us rest” (LeónPortilla and Shorris 2001, 205)

"If one looks at the corridos that Cuellar has selected, none of them ever appeal to Second Isaiah to form their analogies. On the other hand, we find closer verbal parallels between Crónica Mexicáyotl and some of the corridos selected by Cuellar. A line in one of Cuellar’s selected corridos says that “we returned happily to the Mexican motherland” (Cuellar 2008, 132). That is analogous to the lines in Crónica Mexicáyotl about returning precisely to the Mexican heartland in  “O happy, blessed are we! We have beheld the city that shall be ours!” (León-Portilla and Shorris 2001, 205). 

"Sometimes Cuellar has chosen corridos that serve his analogies, while overlooking the diversity of other views in corridos. For example, Cuellar says that the “corridos... also serve as expressions of oppositional culture” (Cuellar 2008, 68). But Los Tigres del Norte, a popular Mexican American musical group, wrote a 1997 corrido called “Mis dos patrias” (“My two fatherlands”), which affirms that Mexican immigrants can be equally devoted to both the United States and to Mexico. This corrido rejects an approach that views identity as part of an “oppositional culture,” and encourages acceptance of both identities. 

"Unlike Second Isaiah, which sees identity as a stark dichotomy (Jewish versus Babylonian), “Mis dos patrias” affirms a hybrid identity that Cuellar never seems to view as legitimate. In other words, Cuellar seems to be accepting the legitimacy of the stark ethno-religious dichotomy exemplified by Second Isaiah, even when some Mexican Americans themselves reject it in the very musical genre Cuellar chooses for his illustrations. 

"On a rhetorical level, Crónica Mexicáyotl sometimes has better analogies, as well. One line of “Mis dos patrias” reads “But what does it matter if I am a new citizen; I continue to be as Mexican as the pulque [an alcoholic drink made from the maguey plant] and the cactus” (“pero que importa si soy nuevo ciudadano; sigo siendo mexicano como el pulque y el nopal”). The cactus as a symbol of Mexican identity can be traced at least as far back as Crónica Mexicáyotl.  
"There are also some significant differences between the Mexican American immigrant experience and that of the Jews of Second Isaiah. Undocumented Mexican immigrants fear being forcibly removed from the United States, but forcible removal from Babylon is not much of an issue in Second Isaiah. Babylonians were not hunting down “illegal” Jews in order to return them to their Jewish homeland.  
"It is the opposite in Second Isaiah, which addresses Jews who sometimes had grown too comfortable or felt too welcome in Babylonia. Not all of these Jewish exiles wished to go back to Judea. That is why Cronica Mexicáyotl forms a more apt analogy to the plight of the undocumented Mexican immigrant in the United States. That indigenous narrative is permeated by the episodes where the nomadic Mexica people were expelled from whatever new homeland initially accepted them." 


Avalos might, at this point, have added a few details about Huitzilopochtli, which might explain why he lost his status to Yahweh in Mexico: 

* Huitzilopochtli was a minor figure until the Aztec conquest of central Mexico.  He has, in other words, been out of that job longer than he retained it. 

* He was turned into the sun god, and also a god of human sacrifice.  The idea was that if you didn't feed him with people on a regular basis -- at least every 20th-day holiday, if not every day -- he would run out of steam and lose his battle with the "forces of evil." 

* He was also the God of War.  He was therefore responsible for national losses as well as victories. 

* Victories were taken at the expense of other Mexican peoples.  Probably a minority of modern Mexicans are descended in the main from the conquerors, as opposed to the conquered / threatened / distant peoples who escaped the Aztec imperial reach entirely. 

* When the Spanish conquered the neighborhood (despite their tiny numbers), that was a personal loss for Huitzilopochtli, and discredited him as a war god.  Even those who continued to think in polytheistic terms could only perceived that Yahweh made a much better war god than the old war god did. 

* But Huitzilopochtli was, in addition, a pretty ordinary deity (aside from his diet) within a typical polytheistic system.  The soap operatic stories told about his family rather resemble the troubles between Cronos and Zeus and all their broods.  God as Christians preached him, or Yahweh if Avalos insists, did not belong to the same category of beings.   God was the Creator of all, unique, not even within this or any other created or imminent realm. 

* In addition, even if the Aztec chronicles contain a story about how their ancestors came to settle Mexico City before the Spanish took over, Avalos has not shown that the chronicles he refers to have much literary or moral or historical merit otherwise.  

Crónica Mexicáyotl  is ranked about 13 million on Amazon in Spanish, 6 million in German.  I don't see an English edition.  That puts it millions behind even the most obscure of my books -- and my books are pretty darn obscure. 

The fact that even the weakest-selling books by a writer so obscure as myself, still outsell any version I can find of this masterpiece on Amazon, suggests that Avalos may have an uphill struggle convincing even the fiercest anti-Christians of the work's superior merit.  But I wish him the best of luck with that; a rather amusing concern for a hard-core atheist to pursue. 

* Avalos may be right, though, in supposing some modern movements could find inspiration in the works and character of the god Huitzilopochtli.  One thinks of Planned Parenthood, for example.   


Conclusion I

They say that young men risk being made fools for love.  It appears to me that Dr. Avalos risks the same thing to express an over-riding animus towards Christianity. 

We are asked to be surprised that people draw upon the world's Number One Bestseller for inspiration more than they draw on a book that doesn't even make the Amazon Top 5 Million.  We are supposed to be shocked and horrified that the failed part-time god of war of a local imperial power that required the annual sacrifice of thousands of Mexicans, in the interest also of the protein diet of the Aztec aristocracy, no longer inspires Mexican-American Bible scholars (or, apparently, anyone else) so much as the God of Creation. 

Avalos' complain amounts to almost nothing, which is why it requires so much tendentious framing.  Christians take the Christian Scriptures as of universal value.  (As do biologists who are fond of Origin of Species, say, or anyone else who thinks he perceives an important truth.)  People cite books they read, rather than books they don't read, to interpret their experience.  It takes a lot of work to make such truisms sound pernicious, but Avalos gives it the "old college try." 

Meanwhile, he fundamentally misunderstands and misstates how Christians have perceived the relationship between their faith and other traditions. 

From Paul in Athens to Justin Martyr, to Dream of the Rood, to Matteo Ricci and modern missionaries, Christians have often found a great deal of truth and value in the writings of pagans who came before them.   This is why Medieval and Early Modern European writings by Christians, even the most pious, are often so full of references to classical Greek and Latin literature and mythologies.   This is the theme of the first and some of my more recent books.  In my doctoral dissertation, I describe this important thread of thought in the history of Chinese Christianity.  In this field, I am an expert, and Hector Avalos, quite obviously an amateur. 

I showed, in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test for Faith, that pagans have often in fact converted to Christianity not because it simply "abolished" competing traditions, but because they perceived it as liberating, true, and the fulfillment of deeply-believed ideals, even prophecies, within their own cultures. 

Avalos belongs to a narrower tradition.  The main point of all "religions" (as he defines the term), what most people at most times have believed, is just wrong.  People like Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne say they have nothing to learn from "religion" at all.  Faced with the fact that the New Testament speaks of "love" hundreds of times, Avalos moves heaven and earth (and not a small bit of hell) to make "Jesus command hate."  (And also implies that the early Christian church murdered a heretic.)

This is what real bigotry looks like, folks.  I feel bad for anyone who is imprisoned by such sentiments. 

Are some Christians equally narrow-minded?  No doubt.  Have some narrow-minded Christians been granted power and abused that power to torture unbelievers or those who believe something a little different from themselves?  That is a shameful part of the historical record: Torquemada, witch-burnings, the Goan Inquisition.  Have a greater number of Secular Humanists done even worse things to far, far more people?  North Korea.  The Killing Fields.  The Gulag.  The Cultural Revolution.  Witch-burnings in Renaissance (not Medieval) Europe killed but a tithe of a tithe of any one of those horrible movements downstream from the springs of the Enlightenment, not to mention cultural destruction. 

But it is possible to be a Christian, and find a great deal of truth, even inspiration, in Homer, Euripides, and Plato.  (As the early Christians did, and as I do.)  

I am teaching World Literature right now, and my struggle last week was not to overcome my own repugnance for the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Rig Veda, or some sort of Euro-Christian imperial fatwa against non-canonical literature, but to overcome the narrow sentiments programmed into my Secular Humanist students, with their minds crammed full of Enlightenment biases, to appreciate those works, especially the Rig Veda.  (Which also say much about sacrifice.)

Hector Avalos is welcome to reawaken appreciation for the God of Human Sacrifice among modern Mexican Americans if he can, so long as his flock's celebrations stay within legal bounds.   And those who prefer to worship the One God, Creator of all things and giver of life who sacrifice Himself for us, not the other way around, are also welcome to feel more inspired by the stories of our sacred scriptures, focusing on Christ as he is, not as Avalos besmirches him.

But if Avalos wishes to chastise anyone for narrow-mindedness, let him begin with his fellow skeptics, and with himself, for failing to find inspiration where it can most readily be found. 




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Cascade Ghost Town and the Trump Fortune

My sons (and dog) and I hiked to Monte Cristo yesterday, an old mining town in the Cascades surrounded by mountains which are still probably full of silver and gold. The town, which is now mostly signs indicating where buildings use to stand and firs and wildflowers taking them over, once had five hotels, and was largely owned (I learned this) by John Rockefeller! Though Donald Trump's grandfather, Friedrick Trump, owned a real estate office in Monte Cristo!


If you don't recognize the name "Monte Cristo," or "Christ Mountain" in Spanish, it is from Alexander Dumas' great revenge novel, The Count of Monte Cristo.  As a young man about to be married, Edmund Dante is betrayed by his ship-mate, "best friend" (who wants his girl), and officials, and sent to prison on an island in the Mediterranean.  His father dies, and he escapes and seeks revenge.  Another prisoner had told him of a great fortune hidden on an island, which he visits and then entitles himself "The Count of Monte Cristo," I think for that island. 

A trail in Monte Cristo is called Dumas Street.  It's about as wide as any mountain trail, but on both sides are broken-down old hotels, or placards where hotels stood, heading up towards the high cliffs and waterfalls behind the town.  (It's beautiful hiking, though we stopped at about 4.5 miles, for a nine mile total hike.) 

Here's what Wikipedia says about Friedrich's business after he arrived in the US from Germany:

"He amassed a fortune operating boom-town restaurants and boarding houses in the Seattle area and the Klondike region of Canada, during the gold rush."

Who knew that the Trump family got its start in places like Monte Cristo and Jack London's Seattle?

Also, there is a memorial to James Kye, a naval officer whose ship was sunk by German U-boats in the Atlantic, and who gave up his life preserver to a kitchen boy and died at sea. (A naval ship is named for him -- he planted the tree behind the memorial, and I think used to live in Monte Cristo as a boy.)






Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Out of Egypt: the Woman's Perspective

Image result for prince of egypt
The story of Israel begins where Egypt never arrives: with genuine heroes and strong heroines.
What did Jewish women gain by leaving behind perhaps the world's most advanced civilization, and traveling into the wilderness?  

Friday, June 02, 2017

Annie Gaylor's lies about women in the Bible, revisited

Lately I have found myself telling certain skeptics that "You don't give a damn about truth." 

I am not trying to insult the people I say this too.  These words are intended as a slap across the face, to awaken those who treat facts like doormats upon which to wipe their muddy boots, to the shame of not valuing truth for the treasure that it is.  It is a shame to sell our souls to gain nothing more than a point in an argument.   

Image result for annie gaylor
And from reality. 
I generally try not to accuse people I disagree with of telling "lies."  But several years ago, in a review here of Annie Gaylor, "Woman, What Have I to do with Thee?" from a John Loftus book, I found I could hardly avoid the word:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Faking Skepticism: Robert Conner tells Fish Stories About Jesus

Image result for robert conner new testament
Robert Conner has written an article entitled "Faking Jesus" which purports to thread the needle between radical skeptics like Richard Carrier and those silly Christian apologists.  The basic idea is, while some fellow probably did wander around the Middle East 2000 years ago putting on a miracle show, we really can't know anything much about him, because the sources are all so bad. 

I decided beforehand that I would limit myself to finding 30 problems with Robert Conner's article.  I think the main suspense in this article may be whether I can keep to that resolution! 

Woman and the other Prophets

Men with charisma often use that charisma for sexual advantage.  This is a major theme of Indian guruism and Japanese monasticism, and has cost the Catholic Church billions.  It would be naïve to assume all the women in such relationships are entirely blameless. 

It is peculiar how little of that comes up in the works of the prophets, whose fiery, passionate, poetic sermons are the very elixir of the charismatic guru.  The only prominent sexual relationship featured that involves the prophets' personal lives, is Hosea's quixotic marriage to a prostitute, representing Israel, gone "whoring" after other gods.  The prophetic writings often invoke that analogy.  But the passion the prophets express is usually not over their personal fortunes, which are often sad, but over the fate of their nation, often pictured as a young woman who makes terrible choices in her personal life, and over the actual widows, young women who are raped, and mothers of children who starve or are killed by foreign armies.  The "daughter of Zion" has drunk bitter water to the dregs, and the faces of the prophets are full of tears for their fate. 

Yet the prophets also look forward to a time of return, and enter into the joy that men and women will equally experience when Israel comes home. 

As usual, the prophets use brilliant poetic imagery to make their points.  Their words are on fire with a passion for justice, and compassion for the weak and helpful, the oppressed, the sorrowful, along of course with indignation over idolatry and over oppression, which I believe has changed the world.  Our focus, however, excludes most of the most brilliant passages. 


Monday, May 29, 2017

Women as Isaiah and Jeremiah see them.

The works of the Jewish prophets carry deep significance for the status and well-being of women (and men) around the world.  The prophets were on fire with divine passion against injustice and oppression.  No one ever wrote with greater eloquence on behalf of the marginalized.  One hears powerful echoes of the Old Testament prophets in the speeches of Martin Luther King, for instance.   But more importantly, Jesus should be seen as the last and greatest of the Jewish prophets.   Jesus quotes from Isaiah when he announces his ministry:

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Women and King Solomon

Solomon doesn't say much about women in Ecclesiastes.  The book is brilliant philosophy, and in my opinion of great spiritual value, but when it comes to women, its author is saving his fire.  Like Job and Psalms, most mentions are in passing, and conventional -- with one shot of misogyny, and then one far more positive image, one of the book. 

Song of Solomon, by contrast, is a beautiful love poem.  While its imagery is sensual and imaginative, and little is said about the purported author's sexual morality (which is questioned elsewhere in the Old Testament), I believe the poem has the emotional effect of calling polygamy into question perhaps on a more visceral level that formal protests elsewhere in the OT. 

Woman in Wisdom Literature


We have come to the middle of the Old Testament, and a change in genre.  Up till now, most of the Bible has related the grand story of Israel, from the Creation to the Exile in Babylon and the beginnings of return.  Space has been made for the stories of two heroic women -- Ruth and Esther -- who played important roles in the establishment and salvation of Israel.  We have also seen long stretches dedicated to legislation -- the legal code of ancient Israel, which included quite a few sexual boundaries.  (Some still recognized today, while others have fallen out of favor.) 

Now we come to Israel's Wisdom Literature.  And it is magnificent. 

Chesterton compared the Book of Job to a secret treasure that the Jewish people had kept hidden from the ancient world.   Admittedly, the hero in this case being male (no luck to him!), while Job is one of the longest books in the Bible, there is not much about women specifically in it.  (Beyond a famous line from a depressed and depressing wife, a few imprecations to take care of widows, one of two strictures in the Bible against lust, and the like.) But the themes of the book transcend gender: the mystery of suffering, how not to counsel a man who is suffering, and then the glory of creation which, if nothing else, gives us something happier to think about.  And the poetry is magnificent, with many lines from Job memorable to this day. 

Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, but also only occasionally touches directly on gender relations.  Again, the themes it does emphasize: the glory of God, the call to all creation to worship, the hiddenness of God, salvation of Israel in the face of its enemies, the king, pleas for or recognition of divine help -- are universal. 

Proverbs is another matter.  A set of maxims and guidance for youth, presumed to be male, some of that advise centers on what kind of woman to seek, or avoid.  Young men are advised to avoid adulterous women for their own sakes.  But wisdom is also imperonized as a woman who, parallel to the adulterous woman, calls out to the young man, calling him to happiness not tragedy.  The book ends with a magnificent description of the successful, strong, intelligent woman. 

Most of these passages are self-explanatory, so I will not make notes on each and every passage.


Friday, May 26, 2017

Esther

Image result for queen esther xerxes
Tough life, being Xerxes: first Queen Vashti
embarrasses him at his party, then King Leonidas
embarrasses him at Thermopylae.
We have now essentially told the Old Testament story of the rise and fall of Israel, highlighting the role of women in that story.  Personally, I am finding the sequence of anecdotes fascinating.  I honestly had no idea that women played such a huge role in that story, nor of how many heroines can actually be found in the Bible.  The answer given by one feminist, "none," now seems laughable as the claim that it never snows in the Cascades.  Heroines are concentrated in these pages like snowflakes on an alpine fir. 

Now we examine a new era in which the Jewish people, or at least literate elite, has been taken captive in Babylon.  Two Old Testament books most famously tell that story in narrative form: Esther, and Daniel.  The former is also the second book in the Old Testament that is largely about a woman, or a pair of female friends, in the case of Ruth.  The story is not about gender relations, however: it is about something even more modern, the salvation of Israel from enemies who would like to obliterate it in a fiery fit of genocide.  It just so happens that a beautiful young woman, in one sense more powerful than Wonder Woman but in another more emotionally and physically vulnerable, plays the lead role in that story.

While enjoying the story, we shall of course pay attention to clues about gender roles -- without letting them choke the plot. 


Women and the Jewish Kingdom

If tribal society such as is described in the three books following the Pentateuch was a kind of Wild West, with the establishment of the Jewish kingdom, Israel "normalized" and began to conform to the larger civilizations of Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Indeed the Jewish people brought the analogy up themselves, when they demanded a kingdom of the prophet Samuel: "Appoint a king over us to rule us like all the nations."  Samuel pointed out, in response, that what the people were really asking for was higher taxes, conscription, and loss of their best youths to an overweening federal bureaucracy.  In his illuminating book The Discovery of God, sociologist Rodney Stark offers an even "starker" description of the great empires of the time, which were highly oppressive, treated kings like gods and citizens like chattel.   God tells Samuel, "The people have not rejected you, they have rejected me."  

The next six books, the Samuels, the Kings, and the Chronicles, tells the story of the centralized state of Israel, then the two daughter states in which it split. These books thus cover a less free-wheeling epoch than the period of the Judges which came before.  One of the "innovations" which kings soon introduce (Solomon being most guilty) is enormous harems.  God warns about the harm this innovation would bring, and indeed, the trouble begins even with the great King David and his lovers.  Later reigns are described more briefly, while I and II Chronicles reprises the story from a court perspective, with less gossip about women.  Finally, Ezra and Nehemiah tells the story of Israel's return from exile in Babylon. 

Israel, the historian Donald Treadgold argued, proved freer even as a kingdom that any other Middle Eastern state.  I believe the institution of the prophet is one of the chief reasons Israel managed to keep free even with a king and bureaucracy.  The Word of God to these flamboyant individuals was a like a bridge across which liberty passed into ancient and then modern states.  In addition, monotheism allowed less scope for deification of earthly rulers: a check on monomania.  Therefore the West could gain the best of both worlds: the security of a modern state, and the freedom of tribal society, which became what Burke called "little platoons" or the seeds of civil society. 

By my count, these eight books contain a total of 46 stories about women, counting (in two cases) repeats of earlier stories.   



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Women in Joshua, Judges, and Ruth

The next three books of the Bible tell stories set in Israel during the period of tribalism and chaos before the establishment of the kingship under Saul, David and Solomon.  Joshua tells of the conquest of Israel, and Judges of a series of heroes and (for our purposes more important) heroines who arose to defend the Jewish tribes against their pagan enemies.  Ruth, the first book of the Bible dedicated to a private family, surprisingly makes the hero of that story a mother-in-law, a class of persons who remain marginalized and reviled to this day! 

The Pentateuch, we saw, contained some 65 stories or pieces of legislation involving women.  These three books contain thirteen more such stories, including a whole book premised on the warm friendship between two women.

Women in the Torah

We continue our series on "How Jesus Liberates Women."  We are presently going through the Old Testament, to see how the Jewish tradition saw females.  The first post on the Old Testament analyzed 23 passages in the Book of Genesis involving women.  We found a wealth of fascinating stories, beginning with the creation of woman ("bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh"), the calling of Abraham and his wife Sarah, the love story between Isaac and Rebekah, sordid affairs and treachery of many kinds, polygamy, and then the final heroic figure of Joseph, the one man in the family who seemed to manage his love life reasonably well.  The overall impression, on my mind at least, is that women are no less heroic and no less involved in the establishment of God's kingdom in this world than men.  Indeed, while a few women so far are villains, and most are as flawed as the men, many are portrayed with sympathy.  I would say overall, the women come across better than the men, if one must make comparisons.  And they are no wall flowers.

We now look at the four other books of the Pentateuch.  About half of this material consists of stories, like Genesis, while the other half consists of laws and moral imprecations.  A total of 42 passages are cited and briefly analyzed in this post.