Monday, March 29, 2010

Postmodernism exemplified

I often regret having taken a module on "Rural Change" at university instead of "Postmodern Geographies." Why is this? Because Postmodernism is rampant as a philosophy! Although my father is an academic, he is most decidedly not a Postmodernist, and has written against it. Thus I exist in the world where history is a matter of facts, not just of opinions.

And, having referred to my father, may I say that he has a good point when he says that the Postmodern approach to history does not work. After all, who wants to say in public that the opinion that the holocaust did not happen is jolly good? Holocaust denial is a pariah subject in academic history, as witness the fate of David Irving. I saw no Postmodernists rush to his defence, declaring that his opinion is just as valid as the opinion that Hitler murdered millions of Jews, Gypsies and other "undesirables".

In my experience, Postmodernism can be wearying for the apologist. Let me give an example. A while ago I engaged a Postmodernist in debate on the internet (informally). He had stated that the Bible had been changed over time, and that we could not know what the documents originally said, because the "Church" had control of them (I summarize). I replied that in fact there has never been a time in which any one person or body had control of the text. Rome and Constantinople have never been willing to submit to each other. I also pointed out that the papyri found in Egypt were under no-one's control.

He re-stated his views, adding "How can you be true to yourself knowing this?" Note the implication that to disagree with him is a sign of intellectual dishonesty. Since postmodernism does not hold absolute truth to exist, it cannot say "you're wrong." All too often the substitute phrase or idea is "you are intellectually dishonest". Thus a personal attack takes the place of reasoned argument.

I answered that there are good factual reasons for holding his view to be factually incorrect, but we were arguing on different planes. He then changed his tack to the idea that "nothing in the Gospels is original", and that it is "an old tale new told." I replied that I would like to know what his sources are so I can examine them for myself, and pointed out that the parallels usually claimed are seriosuly over-stated. His reply was along the lines of:

"My view that the Gospels are 'an old tale new-told' is a deeply held personal belief..."

There you go. This is code for "back off or I'll be offended". Never mind that he began by attacking the trustworthiness of the Bible (surely a 'deeply held personal belief' of Christians, his "deeply held personal belief" cannot be questioned.

Now, for someone like myself, there is the temptation to view this as some sort of victory, showing that his ideas are not based on fact, but are part of an irrational belief system. The trouble is, Postmodernism doesn't really care for the facts, at least not this man's brand of it. This irritates me, as it makes debate all but impossible!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Apologetics Questions that Ought Not to Exist - 3.

"Isn't the story of Jesus based on hundreds of other dying and rising saviour-gods in antiquity?"

The short answer to this one is - no, it isn't. Responsible research has shown the parallels commonly cited to be vastly overstated. In extreme cases, such as the movie Zeitgeist, the parallels are striking because they are made up. There are many good Christian works that answer this objection, such as Nash's The Gospel and The Greeks, and the book Reinventing Jesus. It is important to emphasise also that the mythological gods were not conceived as existing in our world, but in the mythological past when the gods ruled on earth (at least in the case of the Egyptians).

Often the striking parallel is created by emphasising the similarities of a myth with the story of Jesus, while failing to mention the differences. Osiris, for example, was murdered by his jealous brother who seized the throne from him. According to some forms of the legend, his body was then chopped into pieces, and his wife Isis reassembled the pieces and re-animated the body by magic so that she could conceive a child by him. Osiris thus became the first mummy to become a daddy (sorry, couldn't resist). He then became the green-skinned god of the underworld. Compare this to the glorious resurrection of Jesus, and what you find is that Osiris is merely an animated corpse, while Jesus is alive for ever and ever. Again, Osiris was re-animated to father a child, who would defeat Set, his father's murderer, and rule in his father's place. It is Horus, who did not die, who is the "saviour", not the dead Osiris. Incidentally, this is as good a place as any to remind readers that the account of Horus given in Zeitgeist is fabricated. It sounds like the Jesus story because it is!

The Gospels were most likely written in the 1st century, between the late 50s AD and the late 60s. The reason for this conclusion is that not one mentions that the destruction of Jerusalem fulfilled Jesus' Olivet discourse. Now, lest any object that this was deliberate, I must point out that none of the Gospel writers had any reason to represent his writing as earlier than in fact it was. Indeed, there are probably less than five years between the writing of the lst Gospel and the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus died about AD 30, thus we have about thirty years between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.

Now, this is simply not long enough for legends to develop. There are approximately one thousand years between the time at which the historical King Arthur lived and the date of Sir Thomas Mallory's Morte d'Arthur, the developed form of the Arthurian legend. Thus for Jesus to have become a figure of legend in a matter of decades would itself be incredible.

Another point that tends to weaken the idea that the Gospels are merely "an old tale new-told" is the methodology used by those who advocate the idea. A scatter-gun approach utilising a wide variety of pagan deities is used, thus we are asked to believe that the Gospel writers deliberately created a mosaic from pagan deities, a claim that holds no water.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Apologetics Questions that Ought Not to Exist - 2

"The Bible has been translated, re-translated, copied and changed, so how can we even know what it said in the first place?"

This is a bad question, and the person using it has probably picked it up from The Da Vinci Code or some such. First of all, tell them that Prof. John Charmley of the University of East Anglia, England, one of Britain's leading academic historians, has described Leigh and Baigent, whose writings undergird Dan Brown, as "Fabulists." In other words, serious historians laugh at the ideas in the book.

Second, it shows the questioner has no idea about how we got our Bible. They suppose that each translation is made from a translation, whereas all good translations are made from the original language texts. A cursory study of textual criticism, for example via James White's book The King James Only Controversy, should help here, as it shows that the agreement between copies is staggering. There is something like 5% of variation that is meaningful and viable. There is finally no evidence that it has been changed by anybody, as no-one ever had exclusive control over all manuscripts in all places. The long-running disagreements between Rome and Constantinople actually help here!

So no, we can trust the Bible, and the existence of multiple English translations does not mean that we have no idea what the texts originally said!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Apologetic Questions that Ought not to Exist - 1

As we come up to Easter, we face the inevitable flood of sceptical articles and programmes about Jesus and the Gospel. Some of them ask good questions (to which good answers exist), others are just silly. In this short series, God willing, I shall deal with some of the latter type.

1. "There's no archaeological evidence Jesus ever existed."

This is a depressingly common one. Depressing because it evidences a total ignorance of how we do archaeology, and what archaeology can do. I recently came up against this idea on another blog, in the comments. I responded:

"My dear Anonymous, we have four accounts of the life of Jesus, plus a whole religion based on him. What else do you want? I know of NO credible historian who would agree with the proposition that we don't know if Jesus existed or not! Obviously they debate whether or not he really was all Christians believe he was, but there is pretty much a consensus that a man called Jesus of Nazareth was crucified outside Jerusalem some time between about AD 30 and 35.

"Given that he was a teacher from a peasant background, what archaeological evidence would he have left that we could pin on him? What archaeological evidence do we have of Rabbi Akiva? Or Philo of Alexandria for that matter!"

We are also faced with the fact that Jerusalem has been destroyed several times since the time of Jesus. The climate in Jerusalem is such that anything written on anything other than stone would have perished long ago, and the stone has been re-used and damaged. So we really have a very slim chance of finding any objects that can be associated with any individual from that period.

It gets worse. Jesus was a peasant from Galilee. Those whose names are preserved in stone inscriptions are the upper classes, but Jesus appealed to the outcasts of society. He was not a priest or associated with the government. Jesus did not own a fancy rock-cut tomb, and since he rose from the dead, his bones were never placed in an ossuary.

Result? We ought not to expect to find any direct archaeological 'evidence' for the existence of Jesus. He is, however, so well-attested in literature that it is quite absurd to suggest that this shows he did not exist. A good comparison is with the aforementioned Rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, about whom we know much less. Like Akiva and Philo, Jesus was primarily known as a teacher, and thus did not leave the sort of monuments that archaeology can unearth. Rather his monument is in his teaching.

Of course, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is the saviour of the world, but on earth he was known primarily as a teacher. So ask those who say "there's no archaeological evidence Jesus existed," what sort of evidence they would expect there to be. Then point out that Jesus is in reality one of very many figures of antiquity who are known only from literary sources, and that the literary sources about Jesus are VASTLY superior than they are for any other ancient figure.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Revelation Reclaimed - Book Review

Jon K. Newton: Revelation Reclaimed (Paternoster, 2009). Paperback, Pp. 124

The Book of Revelation has been controversial since the early years of the Church. The reason for this is not hard to fathom, it is so totally unlike any other book in the New Testament, full of weird imagery and strange creatures. One part of the Church has in effect thrown up its hands in despair and ignored Revelation to all intents and purposes. Others have used the image-rich book to bolster their own agendas, interpreting the book, not on its own terms, but with themselves playing the main part. It has been the ‘basis’ for sensational fiction on one hand, and on the other hand it has been dismissed as a drug trip that was the result of eating “Magic Mushrooms.”

Jon K. Newton’s book is a serious attempt to understand Revelation on its own terms. He begins by dealing with those views he considers to be erroneous, giving actual examples. Obviously some readers will cry foul at this point, saying that Newton has picked extreme cases. He devotes the whole of the third chapter to Left Behind and the dispensational scenario represented by the writers of those novels (I am aware that modern dispensationalism is so fractured that it is not really possible to refer to “the dispensational view” any more). Thus the whole first half of the book is dedicated to demolishing the views that author believes to be false or deficient.

Chapters five to eight are dedicated to dealing with Revelation on its own terms, and in context. Newton takes a modified idealist position, while taking seriously the point that Revelation was written to first-century Christians in Asia Minor, not to twenty-first century Christians in America (and thus “for the time is near” must have the first century as the referent). The seven Churches must be understood literally, not allegorically as depicting ‘the Church Age’, and therefore the message to the Church at Philadelphia cannot refer to a pre-tribulation rapture.

His principles given in Chapter 6 are useful, so I give them here: 1. Treat it like any other ancient book, the rules for understanding any Biblical book still apply. 2. Interpret literally but carefully. Take John at his word; don’t add extra difficulties to a difficult text. Of course, literally interpreting a symbolic vision is not a walk in the park! Symbols are symbols, not confused descriptions of advanced technology. 3. Explore the relationship between Revelation and the rest of the Bible. This is its context, it comes at the end of the Bible, and will be best understood if we take everything that comes before into account. 4. Study the theology and worldview of Revelation. Big-picture stuff helps to see the details. 5.

The final chapter deals with the question of the Millennium, and Newton, interestingly, comes down on a modified form of post-millennialism. The book as a whole is a useful contribution to our study of the book of Revelation. There are here and there hints that Newton does not hold to a strict inerrantist position, but frankly, if you’re reading a scholarly work on Revelation, your level of discernment should be able to cope with things like that.

I got mine cheap from my local Christian bookshop. You should do the same.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Where does Morality come from?

[Note: This is an expansion of some points in my previous post]

Morality is a fundamental necessity in any society. Everyone has some sort of moral code, however fractured or distorted it might be. But where does it come from? There are, as I have said, three basic options. Morality is either:

1. Private: I decide for myself what is good and bad, recognising that other people construct their own moralities. This is a postmodern option, as in postmodernism absolute truth is unknowable, and therefore nothing can be absolutely true or false, even in the moral sphere. Yet in practice this would break down completely, there can be no basis for making moral judgements of another's actions that is outside of themselves. I once met a man whose sole basis for making moral judgements was sincerity. "To your own self be true", as Ibsen puts it in Peer Gynt (tellingly, the difference between the 'good' philosophy in that play, and the evil of the trolls is concern for others, the troll version is "To your own self be true - and to hell with the rest of the world!"). This man thus concluded that Hitler was morally good, because as far as he could tell, Hitler was always sincere! While it may have some attractions in the abstract, privatised morality is horrible when considered in the concrete. It may sound good when proposed by a French philosopher, but loses its charm when used to defend mass-murder.

2. Social: Morality is a result of society, and society is the final arbiter. This is probably the position held by most people today. It fits well with an evoutionary worldview, allowing us to look down on previous ages as holding to a "less developed morality." It has the advantage over the purely personal view of morality that it governs whole societies, and thus can be the basis of making laws. But it is not without its own problems. Chief among them is that there must be a definition of "society" for it to work. Who is "Society"? The government? Then Anti-Semitism was moral in Nazi Germany. 51% of the population? This is the reason why modern goverments get so bogged down when they try to change the law on certain issues - because there is no working definition of society that they can use. And, in the modern world, with rapid communications, where is the boundary of society? Is it to be found at the national borders or not?

Another pitfall of a social or societal definition of morality is that it logically robs men of the ability to make moral criticisms of society. If enough people think slavery is right, then it is right, and the man who criticises it, he is wrong. Now, very few people actually hold this position consistently - but that is rather my point, that examined carefully a purely societal view of morality breaks down. According to this system, what is right and wrong changes according to time and place.

3. Empirical: This is an attempt to construct a "scientific" morality, based on observation. Natural science, by its very nature, can only observe what is. Here is the pitfall, logically the result of an empirical morality is that "Whatever is, is right." It is in fact subject to the same pitfall as Societal morality, that it robs men of the ability to criticise what is happening, and lacks the control of public outrage that societal morality has. An empirical morality says, "Africans enslave their fellows, therefore we can buy those enslaved African from the Africans who enslaved them, because the system of slavery is." Logically considered an empirical morality is impossible.

4. Transcendental: Morality is determined by an authority outside of man, the creator God, and is true for all people in all places and at all times. Thus if an individual or group depart from this morality, they can be criticised and called back to the transcendent and absolute standard. The standard is not man, man is subject to it. This position is both logically coherent and workable. It has been the basis for law for most of human history.

Of course, we are then left with the question as to which of the competing truth claims of various religions is true. On that matter I am confident that, weighed fairly, the Bible will be proven to be the truth.