Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review: Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

In the early years of my decade-spanning journey from pastor to academic, I was enrolled in a course at the University of Alberta titled simply, "Jesus." The three textbooks we had assigned to us were: John Dominic Crossan's Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, which contains the unqualified statement "Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David's lineage, not born in Bethlehem, there was no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants and no flight into Egypt" (28); Jesus in History, Howard Clark Kee's far more even and fair assessment of the historical Jesus, which I would recommend to any serious student of biblical historical criticism; and Bart D. Ehrman's Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium. This trinity of historical critical works, along with Jonathan Z. Smith's Drudgery Divine, nearly shattered my faith in the resurrection. I found myself on Easter Sunday, preaching a sermon on Mary's words, "They have taken my Lord away...and I don't know where they have put him" (John 20:13 NIV). At the end of that particular semester, I could really identify with her.

Nearly 10 years later, I'm wishing it had been Ehrman's latest book on the syllabus. Jesus, Interrupted, while qualifying for one of the most misleading titles of the year, is subtitled Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don't Know About Them), which is the book's truer, albeit less marketable moniker. I was ready to dismiss this book as another one of the bastard children of the Jesus Seminar's legacy, which was exacerbated into a rabid frenzy by Dan Brown's infamous DaVinci Code. One more book about all the stuff the Vatican's been hiding from us? Nevertheless, familiar with Ehrman, and interested in how he was currently rehashing and reusing old material, I began reading.

Jesus, Interrupted was a more than pleasant surprise. I haven't read all of Ehrman's works, although I'm familiar with his reputation. In this book, he lays all his ideological cards out on the table in the first chapters, revealing his own journey to agnosticism, clarifying that historical criticism was not responsible for that agnosticism, and then stating that this book is not an expose of a clerical conspiracy, but rather an attempt to reveal at a lay level what many in the clergy already know, but for ambiguous reasons, are not preaching from the pulpit.

Ehrman's thesis, in a nutshell, as revealed in the subtitle, is that the Bible is full of contradictions, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. Furthermore, as Ehrman discusses in his final chapter, admitting these contradictions does not, of necessity, lead to a loss of faith. This balanced discussion contains no surprises for anyone who's read anything about historical criticism, with Ehrman using what I consider the lynchpin of the argument, the discrepancy in the time of the crucifixion chronicled in the four gospels. He follows this example up by challenging the usual response to the contradictions, which is the assumption that since the facts don't agree, it clearly never happened, or that clearly it doesn't matter, since the point is that Jesus was crucified. The when is immaterial. Instead, Ehrman encourages his reader to ask not "Was Jesus crucified" but also "What does it mean that Jesus was crucified?" And for this, Ehrman continues "little details like the day and the time actually matter" (27).

Whether one agrees with everything Ehrman puts forth in Jesus, Interrupted, his fair treatment of the subject matter cannot be denied. He delineates the difference between devotional and historical approaches, without being derogatory or dismissive of the former. Throughout the book he displays a genuine concern for proper study of the Bible, and an undeniable love of the material he studies, all the while reminding the reader that he is not a professing believer. In chapter seven, "Who Invented Christianity," he allows history to remain a complex process, rather than assuming that it was just the Council of Nicea or the ascension of Constantine which was some sort of ancient tipping point for Christianity to suddenly spring into being.
Christianity as we have come to know it did not, in any event, spring into being overnight. It emerged over a long period of time, through a period of struggles, debates, and conflicts over competing views, doctrines, perspectives, canons, and rules. The ultimate emergence of the Christian religion represents a human invention--in terms of its historical and cultural significance, arguably the greatest invention in the history of Western civilization. (268)
One could disagree with Ehrman here, and still conceivably come away without the feeling that their faith has been slandered. Ehrman pays Christianity a very high compliment here, one mirrored in Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity? I am in unequivocal agreement with Ehrman on several points he makes in Jesus, Interrupted, and while I am guarded about some of his conclusions, my reading of this book felt more like an amicable conversation about the academic study of the bible over coffee or beer than it did an attack on the innerancy of the Word of God. I went away from reading it encouraged, and strengthened in my own faith position. As Ehrman rightly says, "a historical-criticism approach to the Bible does not necessarily lead to agnosticism or atheism. It can in fact lead to a more intelligent and thoughtful faith--certainly more intelligent and thoughtful than an approach to the Bible that overlooks all of the problems that historical critics have discovered over the years" (272).

In the years that followed my "Jesus" course, I had to fight my way through wondering whether accepting historical criticism meant I had to give up on my faith. After all, I was denying everything Josh McDowell had ever written about, and in the late 80s and early 90s, making the statement that McDowell was wrong was a sort of Evangelical heresy. I'm no longer an Evangelical Christian, but I am still firmly rooted in the religious identity of some sort of Christian. Ehrman's Jesus, Interrupted gave me a bit more licence to remain Christian, while still admitting there are some serious textual issues when it comes to the bible. I had learn all this the hard way, and while I'm of Schopenhauer's opinion when it comes to experienced knowledge as superior to read knowledge, I must nevertheless recommend this book. I recommend it for anyone who has some serious questions about the contradictions in the bible, but continue to choose to believe in the truth of the resurrection. I'll end this review with Ehrman's words on the subject, since they're rather powerful. I'm strongly convinced they could have been the closing remarks of my Easter Sunday sermon so many years ago. Maybe they will be for some unpreached Easter Sunday sermon I have yet to give.

The resurrection of Jesus was not a historical event that could proved or disproved, since historians are not able, by the nature of their craft, to demonstrate the occurence of a miracle. It was a bold mythical statement about God and the world. This world is not all there is. There is life beyond this world. And the horrible actions of humans, such as crucifying and innocent man, are not the end of the story. Evil does not have the last word; God has the last word. And death is not final. God triumphs over all, including death itself. (276)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Musings on the Terminator and the Matrix

While perusing the reviews for Terminator: Salvation on Rotten Tomatoes, which concur in the assessment that the newest installment in the Terminator franchise is high tech, low heart, I had the thought that the war against the machines was already filmed. It's likely been said elsewhere, but the Matrix Trilogy is certainly the spiritual, if not literal sequel to the storyline the Terminator films set up. There are brilliant cinematic nods to Cameron's films, such as Neo and Trinity's arrival at the skyscraper to free Morpheus. The industrial percussion of the musical score is nearly identical to the music of the Terminator films, and the entry and subsequent slaughter of security guards and policemen mirror each other. The relentless nature of Agent Smith is certainly a nod to the various Terminators.

On a somewhat deeper note, the rise of the machines would certainly have given way to the world the freedom fighters of Zion exist in, or under. Perhaps they exist on a separate time line where John Connor didn't pull things off. At any rate, the last battle of humans against the machines in Matrix Revolutions certainly ends in a way consistent with the progression of Arnold's Terminator from assassin to protector. The final sacrificial moments of Terminator 2 are inverted by Neo, as he makes a sacrificial act to create peace between the machines and the humans, fully realizing the relationship begun by Sarah Connor and the T-100.

While I haven't seen the film yet, my guess is that this is potentially what the new film is missing. Some sense of the transcendent, which is necessary to breathe life into films or stories filled with automatons, be they medieval golems, animated corpses ala Frankenstein (which this new Terminator film apparently shares kinship with), droids, robots, or Terminators. I'll be curious to see if, contrary to the reviewers' opinions, there is indeed a ghost in McG's new machine.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Review of Spirituality by Carl McColman

The full title of Carl McColman's Spirituality includes the subtitle A Postmodern and Interfaith Approach to Cultivating a Relationship With God. The inclusion of "postmodern" is misleading, save as a marker for the inherent uber-ecumenism espoused in the book. The popular view of postmoderns is apparently one where they will accept a more open approach to spirituality. Even the term "interfaith" is somewhat misleading, given how McColman is unabashedly Christian, albeit the sort of Christian conservative denominations would be happy to excise from the fold.

Spirituality is the just the sort of book I enjoyed reading when it was first published in 1997, when I was exploring religious expressions beyond the pale of my Baptist upbringing. McColman seems open enough to other possibilities to be accessible to a wider ideological audience, but still focused enough in his Christian identity so as to not wander overmuch at the religious smorgasbord many writers concerned with "spirituality" like to sample from.

Spirituality is a standard primer for the 21st century spiritual seeker who either has no faith background, has rejected the one they had, or is interested in augmenting the one they adhere to with other possible approaches. The chapter headings and content (Breathing, Wonder, Prayer, Community, to name a few) are standard for this open-approach to faith, mirrored in books such as Anam Cara by John O'Donohue or anything by Thomas Moore. It was the sort of book one found flooding the market in the late 90s as people engaged spirituality with a typical end-of-the-millennium hunger.

There isn't anything earth-shaking or radically new in this second printing of Spirituality. Nevertheless, I have to give kudos to McColman for his balanced treatment of the subject matter. Readers who remember my review of Spencer Burke's A Heretic's Guide to Eternity will recall that I took umbrage with the dichotomy between spirituality and religion. I worried I would be doing the same with McColman, but this was not the case. While McColman concedes that there are many who, for good reasons, distance themselves from religion with the term "spiritual," this is "a bit unfair to religion" (35). Since McColman's thesis is that spirituality is linked to culture, it follows that religious culture is a potential source for spirituality. I like this approach, which in academic circles, would be considered similar to Max Weber's approach to religion. It also includes religious spirituality without making the same sort of polemic Burke seems to in Heretic's Guide, which I have stated many times is an effectively semantic one.

This difference colors the whole of McColman's book. Many times I was worried he was denigrating into relativist fluff, he qualified his statement in a fashion demonstrating his serious and thoughtful approach. I also appreciated his emphasis on community as an essential facet of spirituality. Too many of the self-help approaches to spirituality approach the whole project of faith, to quote N.T. Wright, as a "do-it-yourself project." I recently read a news article about how DIY home improvements most often end up as "bring in the professional to fix my mess" instances. I think a spirituality without community often ends up the same, and I concur with McColman that "A world where spirituality is private is a world where belief in the Sacred is extraordinarily difficult" (33).

I'd recommend Spirituality for people who have recently been hurt by, or become disillusioned with, an institutional form of religion, particularly for Christians who are thinking of giving up entirely. That said, I must make the caveat that anyone who is uncomfortable with more extreme ecumenical positions will probably not connect with McColman. I've always said that "if your faith can't take a walk through a Japanese Tea Garden, it wasn't worth much to begin with," which is to say, if your faith can't endure an open-minded encounter with another faith position, it's not really worth having at all. McColman is comfortable in walking in other gardens, pagodas, mosques, and open fields filled with pagans. I am too, and if that's something you wish you were more of, then you'll probably enjoy and benefit from reading Spirituality.