Westboro Atheists

"Westboro Atheists"It is Good Friday as I write, but I am not attending church again this year. The symbols and rituals just don’t mean anything to me anymore. And my decades-long scrutiny of the (underlying? superimposed?) theological doctrines has made them seem altogether irrational and contrived (not simply unsubstantiated, which one might almost be able to forgive). The whole thing has done so much harm (even while it has given so much comfort and inspired so much goodness). Yet I do not “pray” (wish), as many atheists seem to do, that religion should perish from the earth. I do not wish religion had never begun. If, a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, religion had never been born, I am quite sure something just as bad (and good) would have appeared to fill the same niche. It is not as if religion were some imposition from without, whether by ancient space aliens or fallen angels. Human nature cast it up and would again.

There is a 1970s Adam Warlock comic series in which the world falls under the dominion of a fascistic religious cult. The hero contrives to go back in time to prevent its rise. He succeeds, but when he returns to his own time he finds the insignia of a nearly identical new cult festooned everywhere. In fact, that is just what happened in the twentieth century when Communism displaced and replaced Christianity in Russia. Just goes to show everybody but certain of my fellow atheists that religion is not the problem; zealotry is. And iron-fisted zealotry can be and has been secular as easily as religious. Certain prominent atheists contend that the problem with secular totalitarianism is that it is “acting religious.” That is so stupid that it must be disingenuous.

My disagreement with religion and religious people is, I hope, a gentleman’s disagreement. As a humanist, I cannot despise the cultural fruits of religion, including the art, literature, music, and even the fascinating theology it has given rise to. That doesn’t mean I can’t condemn the atrocities it has also spawned. But I cannot share, and dare not share, the loathing that many of my atheist compatriots harbor toward religion and religious folks. One reason is that, insofar as atheists adopt such disdain and hostility, they are mirroring and mimicking the very things they so hate about religion. As a humanist I have to approach all things human as an anthropologist does, as a sympathetic observer seeking to understand human nature and motivation, and to appreciate the products thereof. In fact, “anthropologist” is almost a synonym for “humanist” in my lexicon.

A few weeks ago I was interviewed for Ahmadiyya Muslim Television. My gracious hosts were, of course, members of the sect. Do you think I should have taken the opportunity to “witness” to them about atheism? To try to disabuse them of their beliefs? The notion is grotesque. I just wanted to learn about these friendly emissaries from a different “cognitive universe.” And that’s the way I feel about Mormons, Moonies, Satanists, Communists, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and others who cherish beliefs different from mine. I don’t especially want them all to be like me. Sure, I think I’m right and they’re wrong, and I am happy to engage in friendly debate in the right forum. But I don’t want to be an atheist evangelist, an atheist imperialist. Are you over religion? Then be over religion.

This is why I cringe every time I hear about the latest attempts of the Freedom from Religion Foundation to scour every expression of faith from the public square. Just today I dropped by Town Hall to pay my utility bill, under the wire, I might add, and I was disappointed to find the place closed in observance of Good Friday. But my instinct was not to get on the phone with the ACLU and to start legal proceedings. I believe that the FFRF and like-minded zealots are operating from a basic confusion. They see as a church-state issue what I believe is better understood as a culture-state issue. For local government to allow a manger scene on public property or to allow crosses to adorn veterans’ graves is in no way tantamount to a legal establishment of religion, though making churches tax-exempt probably is. Posting “Thou shalt have no other gods besides me” in public schools is.

But not everything is. To forbid Easter egg hunts or Christmas carols in public schools for fear the Buddhist or Manichean kiddies would be “offended” is like canceling “Italian day” in the cafeteria for fear that Poles and Jews would feel discriminated against. (And why not have latkes or knishes some other day of the week?) We want to affirm cultural diversity, not suppress it, don’t we? Atheists of all people ought to see that religion is no more than someone’s culture. But the atheists I am talking about seem to share the belief of the religious that religion is something metaphysically more than that. Only for them it is demonic, not divine. Are not these atheists then being superstitious, like the fundamentalist Christian who believes in the devil?

Don’t you see what’s really going on here? To contend that so much as a mention of one faith amounts to discrimination against members of other faiths is a formula for the suppression of all faiths, and that is the goal. Who is “offended” at the expression of, even the friggin’ mention of, religion? Why, of course, only thin-skinned religion haters. And this is all done in the name of “sensitivity”?

Which brings me to the recent reports of some idiot professor at a Florida university who commanded his students to write the name of Jesus on a sheet of paper, put it on the floor, and stomp on it. The fool reportedly was trying to show the kids that there is no power in a “mere” name or word. There isn’t? You mean like “African-American”? Like “Progressive”? Like “Pro-Choice”? Of course all these words are full of meaning and radiate meaning. Not inherently; there’s nothing magical in the shape of the letters. But what is the whole point of words? We fill them with meaning, and all communication presupposes a common fund of agreed-upon meanings. Obviously, this professor wanted his students to grind the name of Jesus into the linoleum precisely because it has a commonly acknowledged meaning and power.

And lawsuits over the coins? Personally, I don’t care what is stampedWhat, me worry? on the coins. They could put “What, Me Worry?” on ‘em for all I care. To get upset over “In God We Trust” seems obsessive, neurotic, like Dracula cringing from the cross. “God” on the coins does not constitute a theocracy. It is not even a first step toward a theocracy. It is ludicrous fanaticism to get worked up about it. Do you as an atheist ridicule the scruples of first-century Jews who would not allow Roman coinage to be used in the temple? Well, you’re just as picky. Look, if you don’t want all those theophoric coins and bills, I’ll be happy to take them off your too-pure hands.

Stunts like this remind me of what neo-evangelical E.J. Carnell wrote about fundamentalism as “orthodoxy gone cultic.” When a fundamentalist makes a nuisance of himself trying to convert his neighbors or classmates, he is essentially just accumulating status points in the eyes of his fellow cultists who will praise him as a “soul-winner.” I can’t help thinking that the “victories” in the nuisance suits brought by the ACLU and the FFRF function the same way. They are much celebrated at atheist conventions and clubs (“Score one for our side!”), but they just irritate everyone else. This is atheism gone cultic.

I am not only an atheist; in my role as a New Testament scholar I do not even believe there was a historical Jesus. I certainly do not mind causing a bit of discomfort among those too comfortable with their assumptions. Accordingly, I applaud the various billboards posted by American Atheists, FFRF and other secularist groups proclaiming “You know it’s all a myth” or “There’s probably no God,” etc. I’m all in favor of the Zen slap to wake people up. An unexamined faith is not worth believing. You’re doing the pew potatoes a favor. But, though I hate to say it, I think conservative Catholic TV host Eric Bolling is right to compare the litigious atheists with the Westboro Baptists. They are making themselves appear as horrific, bullying nuisances.

The part of this whole mess that upsets me, given the sort of stuff I write, is that the kind of scorched-earth “sensitivity” censorship which these secularists practice will sooner or later be turned against them (and me!) when, for sensitivity’s sake, the public criticism of religion will be banned and/or bullied as “hate speech.” In fact, we are inviting it insofar as we make ourselves look like hate-spewers, “Westboro Atheists.”

So says Zarathustra.

 

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Wallflower at the Superbowl

I watched the very first Superbowl with my family, at least some of it. I thought it might be interesting. But it wasn’t. Not to me, anyway. And it still isn’t. Today is Superbowl Sunday, and I’m watching a rerun of Iron Man 2, let’s see, for the third time. I’m aware that most of America is gathered around the video altar rejoicing in good-fellowship and a huge feast of munchies. Sounds fun, except that I just can’t be in the same room with football. I think I know what Jews feel like when everyone else is celebrating Christmas. Just as Jews observe Hanukah instead, which never seems to be as big a deal as Christmas, my family and I had home-made pizza as we watched the movie Groundhog Day last night, as we have for the last… what? Fifteen, sixteen years at least. (In fact, there seems to be some sort of parallel between the movie’s premise, in which a man lived the eponymous holiday over and over again for at least twenty years.)

I do not exactly disdain football, or sports in general, though I admit that is my first reaction. I can’t dismiss an interest in sports as the province of dullards. My brother isn’t close to being one, nor is S.T. Joshi, nor was Paul Kurtz. But I am, as I have always been, utterly and completely baffled. Dr. Kurtz used to say how maybe secular humanists are just tone deaf to religion and its appeal. That is how I would have to describe my indifference (to put it mildly) to sports.

Keep in mind that I admire athletes. I envy their ability and discipline. I readily admit they are superior to me! And I can certainly understand devotion to a team when one’s relative is a member, or when the team is representing one’s school or town, though I have never been able to share it. (Maybe it has something to do with forced attendance at a high school pep rally, which had all the marks of a Nurnberg rally.) But why do people enthusiastically follow sports teams with which they possess no natural connection? Some years ago, when I walked into my classroom at Mount Olive College, a student asked which I rooted for: NC State or UNC. This stumped me: why on earth would I give a fig about either one of them? Why did these Mount Olive students? I still don’t get it. Do you?

I have sometimes heard it said that sports gives men something to talk about, while women spend their time discussing matters of emotional and personal importance. Going back to those halcyon days at Mount Olive again, once a couple of the (male) faculty invited me to drop in at lunchtime at the Southern Belle, a local café and hang-out. There was a surprisingly large group of young professional men and faculty sitting around a few shoved-together Formica tables—talking about sports. Honestly, I felt as if I had somehow blundered into a group of foreigners chattering in some alien language. I can tell you, it wasn’t long before I made some excuse and got the hell out of there. I had not one thing to say. I’d have been more conspicuous had I stayed and said nothing than by getting up and leaving quickly. Nice guys, but totally mundane.

I, on the other hand, am an incurable nerd, just this side (I think) of Asperger’s Syndrome. I love comic books, science fiction movies, Sword-& Sorcery fiction (which I also write), Lovecraft and Tolkien. These interests are my spectator sports, demanding no participation outside the imagination. But then football games are spectator sports for everybody but the guys on the field. What is the difference? I’m not sure I know, but let me give it a try.

I couldn’t care less about any sports team, but there are teams I follow. They’re called the Avengers, the Justice League, the Justice Society, the Legion of Superheroes. What is the difference? Both interests involve vicarious combat. Sports are often thought to channel and dissipate violent urges. And that’s a real service to society. (And you know by now, don’t you, that the business about Superbowl Sunday being the worst day of the year for wife-beating is malicious misinformation.)

What I get from superhero fiction is not that. Partly, I think, I like it because it is a fantasy compensating for the lack of justice in the decaying society we live in, wherein the innocent suffer at the hands of violent felons and then from a legal system that adds insult to injury by taking the side of criminals. And there’s no real chance that will ever change. I can only relish the complete fantasy that the bad guys might get theirs, and that is why I so appreciate the Punisher, the Eradicator, Rorschach (“Used to mollycoddle criminals, let them live.”). Wouldn’t it be great? But it’s like imagining a man can fly. Justice? Yeah, right–when pigs, or men, can fly. That’ll be the day.

But there’s also the mythology angle. The superheroes of text (Conan, Doc Savage, John Carter) and image (Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man) are like Hercules, Achilles, Theseus, even Apollo and Zeus. There is an element of transcendence and the igniting of the imagination. It gives what religion gives to believers, but without requiring belief. Does it “save” you? Well, it saves you from the crushing, numbing grind of the mundane. It does me.

H.P. Lovecraft once referred to a fellow-writer as a “self-blinded earth-gazer.” Forgive me, but that’s what I think of the sports fan—if that’s all he is. Of course, you can be both, and more. Like my brother Byron. Like Joshi, the world’s leading authority on Lovecraft.

And what about the nerd, the geek, the dweeb? I believe the stereotype (not necessarily an exaggeration!) is of a one-sided personality: everything crammed into one side of the brain with little to no wiring on the other. Aren’t these brainy folks active in the real world, too, by virtue of their tech-savvy? Yeah, sure, but my guess is their scientific genius just happens to prove useful in the real world. For them, it’s just more computer games! Which is the way it ought to be!

If I am not a dweeb, my saving grace is that I do have another aspect to me, not that it puts me in touch with the real world, mind you, and that is my religious scholarship. I have something else going on. And I readily admit that most football fans are about more than the pigskin. Or they may be. I guess I know as little about them as I do the Hottentots. But let’s agree to disagree: you take the Superbowl, I’ll take Superman.

So says Zarathustra,

Dreaming of the Superman

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Cult of Personality

I served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey, for nearly six years, an experience full of significant moments and wonderful people. I learned much. One thing I learned is that I am in no way cut out to be the pastor of a church, not even a liberal one such as First Baptist was. (It had been the first pastorate of the famous “Bootleg Baptist,” Harry Emerson Fosdick many years before.) I believe I dealt with my congregation with genuine pastoral concern, but I just could not live up to (i.e., conform to) the requisite social role, the professional persona. For one thing, I am a slob. For another, I am an academic. I loved church tradition, despite my virtual lack of theological beliefs even then. But I was not cut out for congregational politics or for the administrative tasks, especially since we were a shrinking congregation, and money troubles seemed to devour all other concerns. And I was clueless there. Finally, not only did I leave, being pressured out, but my departure occasioned a congregational split, as several of the few remaining members left with me and continued to meet in my living room. We called ourselves, at first, Holy Grail Universalist Church, then simply the Grail.

These Sunday morning meetings were much less structured than ordinary church services. Baptist churches have very rudimentary liturgies anyway, but the Grail had none. Not that I dislike liturgy; I always enjoyed that of the Episcopal Church. But we weren’t set up for it. With the group we had, it would have been out of place. We were there to discuss ideas and issues. Existential issues, moral issues, issues of speculative spirituality. We thrived on what I liked to call a spirituality of inquiry. I believe that dogmas function as sleeping pills for the soul and that open questions cause the stretching and nourishing of the soul. (How to define “soul”? You tell me.) I bought a lectern from a local antique shop and would stand at one end of our small living room and speak from a prepared text, just as I had done at First Baptist, for about a half-hour. Sometimes I had to speak with a co-star, as our clever cat Helix would hop up onto the lectern, then onto my shoulder, before I was finished.

I sought to explore reflective questions and to challenge my hearers to introspection and authenticity. I had never beat the drum for any doctrine even in the liberal Baptist days, so this was little different. The edge of my critique of religion did become sharper, though. Eventually, in fact, the increasingly negative, critical character of the whole enterprise was one of the major factors in my calling it quits. But while it lasted, it was great. After I was done speaking and woke everybody up (just kidding—there was only one guy who regularly started to snooze), I would sit down and we’d go around the circle discussing the morning’s topic. Anybody could say whatever he or she wanted. And there was no budget, no church property to keep up, nothing mundane to keep us dragging along the ground. And the discussion was genuinely personal and profound. I still thought of these good folks as my parishioners, my flock, and I loved them.

But finally I decided I had said all I had to say. In fact, I came to feel I was done with living in New Jersey, a state I loved and still love, though I love North Carolina, too. In fact, as you know, Carol and I decided to move back here. And as soon as we did, I returned to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in nearby Goldsboro. This was the church I had come to love in the mid-eighties and had always missed even when I was pastoring First Baptist. I came to sense (and still feel) that there was no place for me in New Jersey anymore. All the exciting avenues I had been pursuing for some years seemed to be going nowhere. So I was glad to leave.

But what made me decide to leave the Grail? As I’ve said, I eventually realized my increasingly anti-theological “preaching” stank of the same fatal irony one often observes in the Unitarian Universalist Association: having a religion that was all about being non- religious. As a religion, it was like Sanka, or as the Mormons used to call it, “Coffee-Near.” It had become obvious that what we were doing (at least for me) was essentially a therapeutic transition from religion into irreligion. Later still I came to realize that organized atheism and humanism were also substitutes for religion. As Marjoe Gortner once quipped, “Can God deliver a religion addict? Yes he can!” But organized atheism seems to be the methadone to religion’s heroin. At least that’s how it looks to me. I could be missing something, as I often do.

But there was a deeper dimension to my discontent. I realized that in conducting what I viewed as a tiny conventicle of the intellectual elite, I was not much different from the fundamentalist or Pentecostal minister presiding over a “righteous remnant” of “true believers,” only I guess we were “true unbelievers.” Wasn’t it time to leave the club house and grow up? It’s not that I no longer wanted anything to do with the intellectual discussion of issues religious, moral, and philosophical. Carol and I tried to start up a new branch of our Heretics Anonymous discussion group once we got back to North Carolina, and we did, though it has been more difficult to get it on track than we expected.

But we didn’t start up a new Grail. We didn’t even try. For one thing, I wanted to go to St. Stephens Sunday mornings. But I haven’t been to church for over a year now. I just lost interest in it, though I may well return–who knows? So I do have Sunday mornings free. So why no North Carolina Grail?

I guess it’s this: I am uncomfortable with the role of an ostensible spiritual leader, as if I had any right to stand behind the lectern and tell anybody anything. Christian clergy of all stripes seem to feel they have a hot-line to heaven, but I know I do not. Even the very liberal ones think they can speak with moral authority. But do they have that right? It all seems to boil down to that business about the pastoral role. I want to be a compassionate friend, sure. But a “spiritual leader”? Personally, the more someone does come across as a “spiritual leader,” whether Christian, New Thought, New Age, whatever, the more suspicious I become. If they maintain a front, a persona, it is inevitably in some measure an act, a schtick. I prefer the unpretentious. I prefer to be unpretentious. And that seems to be incompatible with the “Moses down from the mountain” persona of a spiritual leader. It is not mine to be a role model. I possess no authority and want none.

No, the only role I will accept, besides straight scholarly teaching (and at First Baptist they complained that I did too much of that, and they were right), is the Socratic one, to stimulate and to facilitate the thinking of others. And I believe this column is the proper forum for that. Why? Because it is a hit-and-run venue. It has the same advantage as the Internet generally: authorial suicide. Roland Barthes wrote of “the death of the author.” As soon as his work is launched into the public sphere, it must stand alone. The text speaks for itself, albeit in partnership with its readers who help co-write it by virtue of the way they interpret it. And the writer cannot intervene to correct them. After all, his reading of “his” text will only amount to one more interpretation of it. The author has no privileged priority of interpretation. His word will not return to him. This column is like an arrow. It may bring you a message. You may dodge it. Or it may find its mark. Or it may miss. But the arrow is all you need be concerned with. It simply does not matter who fired it. This is why I seldom add a comment to those contributed by readers (though I enjoy reading them all). The issue is not whether “the Price is right,” as if I needed to defend “my views,” as if they constituted some sort of party platform. It is enough that my remarks get you thinking and sharing your thoughts with fellow readers. Have at it!

As for me, I am Zarathustra, and there is no Zarathustra.

So says Zarathustra.

 

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Rock the Kasbah

Through a Glass Darkly

What is a prophet, and what is the gift of prophecy? The ancients had it that prophecy was information, news of the future that had not yet happened, but which must happen. Perhaps the Fates or the Norns had decreed it, woven it into their tapestry, like the tapestry of Nephren-Ka that “precorded” every day of the future, rolled back by the priests of Nyarlathotep each new morning.. Or perhaps it was determined by the resolution of Jehovah who knew the future no more than we do but could decree and create it with ineluctable power that no lesser agency might resist. But either way, a divine entity had vouchsafed such knowledge to a mortal, and he reported on it. In principle it was no different than a teacher informing her students of what had happened in the past.

By contrast, I have much more respect for the powers of the futurologist, he who cannot see the future except as its unfolding seems to him implied in contemporary events. He can discern the signs of the times and infer where events are heading. What is a curtain to others, concealing the future’s great and secret show, is for the analyst a window through which he can see a shifting illusion of change. And if that mirage becomes real with the passage of time, we acknowledge that he had truly seen, that is, extrapolated, the future.

A prime example would be Russian political scientist Andrei Amalric. In 1970 he wrote a book called Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1985? (The American publisher got him to change the date to the apocalyptic 1984.) In it he took a long look at the Union of very disparate Soviet Socialist Republics and ventured that the union could not resist the centripetal force of competing and incompatible ethnicities, languages, politics, and traditions. It would unravel in a mere 15 years. Well, he was five years premature, but otherwise he was exactly right: little Estonia, followed by the other Baltic States, Then the rest, seceded, and nobody could do anything about it. I couldn’t believe it! How did Amalric know? Did some god or angel inform him, like Jehovah telling Abraham of his plan to destroy Sodom? No. Amalric had the wits to assess the relative weight of major factors and to discern the signs of the times. Precisely like Isaac Asimov’s character Hari Seldon in Foundation.

And, I may add, just like H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s racist and nativist views are well known, though at his best he was no more of a racist than Jimmy Carter with his talk of neighborhoods preserving their “ethnic purity.” He disdained “race mixing,” “miscegenation,” as illustrated in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the text speaks of  hybrid Deep Ones but the subtext intends Polynesian Islanders, equally repulsive to Lovecraft. We are children of the 1960s and of its legacy. We categorically reject racism and embrace the wonderful, glittering diversity of the human race in all its variations. I know I do. I always have.

But we are cheating ourselves if we fail to hear some important news from Lovecraft, a warning, much like Andrei Amalric’s, of what HPL could see coming. What he saw impending on the historical horizon was the overthrow of Eurocentric, logocentric, that is to say rationalistic cultural hegemony. The battlements of the historic West, he said, would be assaulted by non-Westerners with creeds based on emotion and superstition, with reason their first casualty. Chaos should ensue. He saw a revolution not like the American, French, or even Russian Revolutions where the have-nots toppled the castles of the haves, but rather a Copernican Revolution, where the dominant worldview would crash and burn. In Nietzsche’s terms, it was not like the earth snapping the chains that bound it to the sun to soar freely through the universe. That metaphor stood for the death of God and of objective truth and the resultant freedom of Nihilism. Rather, what Lovecraft foresaw requires a different Nietzschianism: that of the danger of the Superman allowing himself to be stung and bitten to death by a horde of insects, taken down by a thousand threats and judgments one does not feel at liberty to defy. But the Superman must defy! He cannot be defeated unless he forgets who he is and lets his sword fall from sleepy, nerveless fingers. Yes, admittedly Lovecraft portrayed the carriers of this plague as Mediterraneans, Africans, Asians, and Arabs, mestizos and half-castes. That is the shrill voice of Lovecraft the racist. Let us turn a deaf ear to that. But not to the warning itself.

And, as Nietzsche’s Mad Prophet said, that warning has been a long time arriving at its destination. And the time is now. We now live in the time of the teetering of reason and Western Civilization that Lovecraft predicted. We do not see aberrant cultists committing ritual murder and human sacrifice. We do not hear of Yog-Sothoth or of the Necronomicon of  the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred. These, too, were fictional idioms in which the warning was conveyed. What we do hear and see, however, is religious zealots massacring thousands with airplanes, subway explosions, and suicide bombs. We hear of honor killings, people killed over hair styles, fanatical hatred of Jews and infidels. Instead of the Necronomicon, these poison winds flow forth from the Koran. It seems that Abdul Alhazred was the father of a multitude of mad Arabs. And, as the worshippers of the Old Ones sought to clear the earth of human life and prepare for the reign of their depraved gods, today’s “Islamism” is determined to raise up the worldwide caliphate, a regime of holy terror, scripture-quoting tyranny. Freedom is a vice to such madmen. And they are dedicated to extinguishing it in a rain of blood. It is for all the world like the dreams of the Cthulhu cultists who sought to hasten the day when they should reign and impose upon all unbelievers a jihad of bloody terror.

 

Bin Laden as Alhazred

Lovecraft describes Alhazred as only an indifferent Muslim, a closet worshipper of Yog-Sothoth. Thus he does not indict Islam as his civilization-threatening cult. And that is correct: it is only a minority of Muslims who are sympathetic to Jihad. A mere 10%. Of course that works out to a “mere” one hundred million! As for the remainder, they are singularly unwilling to take a stand against the fanaticism of their Jihadi brethren. They may constitute inert dead weight, but you can see which side of the scale they weigh on. In this case, I’m afraid Sam Harris is correct: the moderate majority serves to camouflage the deadly minority. You see this when oblivious Politically Correct liberals reject all criticism of Islamist terrorists as “Islamophobia.” They commit the Sweeping Generalization fallacy. Most Muslims are fine folks, so the same must be true, they imagine, of all Muslims. Thus for me to denounce Islamo-fascists is somehow supposed to be a vilification of all Muslims, so these PC fools bemoan timely warnings as hate speech. It is all quite sad.

If the amphibian Deep Ones stood for Polynesian Islanders, frightening to the paranoid Lovecraft, the Cthulhu cultists correspond in our day to Islamism, Jihadism. What makes Lovecraft’s fiction prophetic is that it is coming true as fact. And, as HPL intimated, we do not possess the decisive courage to turn back that assault. Whining Islamists demand and gain special treatment, for instance Shania law courts in the UK and USA and special exemptions from airport security measures made necessary by their co-religionists and no one else. Major publishers are already censoring themselves in order to avoid riling up Muslims. British schools are skipping teaching the Holocaust because it offends Muslim extremists who like to pretend it never happened, meanwhile planning to drive Israel into the sea—as they themselves constantly remind us.

Don’t you see the pattern here? Western civilization, the one that invented democracy, rationalism, religious toleration, equal rights for the races, the sexes, and for homosexuals, is being bullied into appeasement, “Finlandization.” What blithering, dithering fools we have become! How decadent and sententious, inviting our conquerors with an open door!

I am a New Testament scholar, and as such I cannot ignore the perilous parallel with the insidious logic of 1 Corinthians 8:9-13, whose author bids those Christians who enjoy freedom of faith, action, and thought, to forego these freedoms so as not to “offend” the “weaker brethren” who are bound by neurotic legalism. Well, he could never have imagined the neurotic legalism of those who declare fatwahs on infidel cartoonists or who want yodeling banned as an offense (somehow!) against Islam! Paul, or whoever may have written it, did not seem to realize that these “weaker brothers,” self-styled victims of offense, offended at the freedom of others, turn out to be the stronger brothers, before whose petulant whining all others must yield. Today, out of spineless politeness to the tender feelings of terrorists, we mute criticism of them. For fear of being called “Islamophobic,” we stifle criticism of Islamo-fascism.

Let no one accuse me of stirring up hatred for the sublime faith of Islam. I have studied it and appreciated it for decades. I love it now. I love it when Muslims proudly share the treasures of their culture with the rest of us. I have read the Koran four times in various translations and intend to read it again and yet again.

What shall we do? We must understand when we are being played for fools, our freedoms turned into tricks and traps against us. It is possible to turn swords into ploughshares and to have them be all the deadlier. We must stop tying ourselves in knots, disrupting our free travel and speech and commerce, allowing the mere possibility of Islamist threats to sacrifice our freedoms, bringing about precisely the result the terrorists seek. We must stop pretending that terror may as easily come from the stooped Italian grandmother in line for the airplane because we are afraid of being accused of “profiling.” We will perish from the same obtuseness exhibited by Wilmarth (in Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”) who just could not recognize his danger.

We face terror and murder and the slow erosion of freedom from people who proudly proclaim their love for death and martyrdom. Death is no deterrence to them.

What would be? What might count as a weapon against them? I have heard of two ideas, so loathsome to our enlightened sensibilities that we will not allow ourselves to consider them, though we must. First, we ought to alert every terrorist, every Islamist combatant, that if they are caught they will be executed with bits of pork stuffed into every orifice. According to their barbaric superstition, this should bar their entrance to the Playboy Club in the sky. That might make them think twice (or once).

 

Second, we ought to let it be known that if there is another terror strike against the West, or if the fanatics should, say, try to level the “idolatrous” Pyramids and Sphinx, as the Egyptian Salafist sect urges, we will not hesitate to unleash upon holy Mecca that monstrous nuclear chaos which Alhazred mercifully cloaked under the name Azathoth.

So says Zarathustra.

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The Holy Ghost in the Machine

Every time I see that TV commercial forGhost in the Machine by Labyrinth Creations the Christian Mingle dating service, I am torn between the rival urges to vomit and to laugh. Please understand me: my reactions stem not from any anti-Evangelical animus, though, as you know, I am pleased to have put those childish things behind me many years ago now. Nor do I even think the Born-Again dating computer idea is a bad one. The pain of loneliness is a severe one, and I am happy when people find a kindred spirit and a welcome heart. I can even appreciate the “Christians only” policy. Why invite unnecessary obstacles and tensions by initiating a relationship with someone who does not share your deepest beliefs? You won’t want to have to sacrifice your beliefs (and with them your integrity) in favor of your heart’s desire. “What shall it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his own soul in the bargain?” Amen.
Initially, I cannot help thinking these poor Christians are being exploited, but that is probably groundless. What gets my hackles up is the pretentious claim that this electronic lonely hearts club is God’s medium for setting you up with a mate, or at least a date, like the Reverend Moon matching you up, by inspired intuition, with a partner you have never even met before. The commercial’s pitch smacks of medicine show rhetoric, of the boasts of TV evangelists. But there is a deeper and more important issue here. Christian Mingle embodies, of all things, a reductive and insidious God concept.
The commercial promises the viewer God’s guidance through the medium of their computers. When people are desperate enough to try this gambit, it means they have given up on their prayers to God to reveal his choice for the lonely Christian’s mate. It is to admit that no name or picture will come in a dream or a still small voice. In other words, God’s will is not going to be revealed directly. One has given up on miracle and switched to providence, that tendency to look at the state and outcome of mundane events as having been orchestrated by the deity behind the scenes and through secondary causes.
We see the same phenomenon when we look at the advice given to earnest young Evangelicals for vocational choice: should Tim become a missionary or should he serve Christ “under cover” in a secular occupation? And if so, how to choose the line of work? Evangelical counselors are reality-minded enough not to encourage their youth to rely on voices from heaven or “feeling led.” They know they would be inviting trouble through such subjectivity. Remember the joke that these very people sometimes tell as a cautionary tale. Some guy, seeking God’s will for his life, prays, “Show me your will” and lets his Bible fall open randomly. Closing his eyes, he stabs a finger at the text, which happens to read, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Spooked, he tries again, only this time he comes up with the verse, “Go thou and do likewise.” Really alarmed now, he makes one last attempt and gets “What thou doest, do quickly.” One hopes he did not carry out the suicidal mandate of his imagined oracle but instead concluded that this was not the method to pursue!
So, counselors tell him, he ought to assess his interests and abilities, ask himself what work would make him feel satisfaction, on the assumption that God has assigned him his talents and proclivities and hence wants him to pursue them. Check into the jobs that interest you. Talk with people already thus employed. In other words, it is simple common sense, good advice. It assumes that God is at work through secondary causes. Maybe so.
But then there’s Occam’s Razor, the principle of simplicity. If apparent and immediate factors are sufficient to account for a phenomenon, then it becomes superfluous to posit some other, more elaborate causal factor. My old pal Lin Carter, the fantasy writer, used to amuse himself by saying a little incantation before leaving his apartment: “Go, gnomes, and cause money to come!” Then Lin (often a poor man—you know how it is with us writers) would look down on the ground, on the sidewalks, as he ran his errands for the day, and if he spotted spare change, he would pick it up and playfully give credit to the gnomes. He didn’t believe in gnomes, of course. He knew his good fortune was attributable to people’s tendency to pull keys or a handkerchief out of a pocket without noticing that coins are dislodged along with it.
I have to think that crediting God’s providence for a good romantic match is no different from Lin Carter’s thanking the gnomes, only Lin was fully aware that he was playing a game. You might ask, “What harm is done in either case?” None, in these cases. But there are others where it is more dangerous. How about the submission of billions of people to religious institutions which are the creations of human beings like themselves but who claim to be the mouthpieces of the gods. The Iranian mullahs. The Roman Catholic Church. The Protestant megachurches with their Bible ventriloquists barking marching orders from the pulpit.
Let me hasten to admit that there is a superhuman dimension to all such institutions, and not just religious ones. Lutheran sociologist Peter Berger (see Berger and Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality and Berger, The Sacred Canopy) explains how institutions of all sorts are the creations of mere human beings but soon come to possess a reality above and beyond the humans that created them. Governments, societies, religions, corporations, you name it, they all come to dominate the people they also serve. A second generation arises, whose forbears created these entities (the Constitution, the Creed, the Papacy, etc.). These people did not create the institutions they have inherited, and so they do not experience them as human creations at all. Rather, they are simply given, part of the landscape of the reality people are born into. Several institutions stand ready right outside the delivery room to baptize, to circumcise, to register, to catechize, to indoctrinate.
As Jacques Lacan says, one only becomes a person, a subjectivity of a specific kind, by becoming subject to what he calls “the law of the father.” DeLeeuze and Guatari (in the Anti-Oedipus) urge their readers to affirm their freedom by repudiating this defining yoke. Such rebellion will look something like insanity, as it did to the Soviet government when they used to send political dissidents to the gulag as mental patients to the asylum. “You don’t agree with reality as the State defines it? Then you are insane, Comrade!” Certainly, many have regarded me as crazy or at least heretical for views I hold. But I take my clue from Patrick McGoohan’s TV series The Prisoner: “I am not a number. I am a free man!” At least as free as I can be from the cookie cutter catechism of the institutions around me. That doesn’t mean I cannot approve and agree with some or many things they do or say. It just means that the choice, and the obligation to make an informed choice, belong to me. I am not sure that Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” means much more than that. It does, however, mean at least that.
I am far from where I started. If lonely Christians find mates through something like Christian Mingle, good for them. But I believe that many pretty harmless things hint at tendencies, principles, realities that underlie them and may manifest elsewhere in more serious, even dangerous forms. Especially when they claim to be representing Almighty God.  It is your own voice that is the voice of God, for there is no God besides you.

So says Zarathustra.

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Mrs. Messiah?

Mary Magdalena as Mrs Messiah

Recently I read about Jesus’ wife, not in the gossip column, and not for some extravagant vacation trip to Spain. You probably heard about it, too. Karen King, an erudite pal of mine from the Jesus Seminar days, presented a paper to some scholarly confab in Rome in which she unveiled a ripped-up Coptic text fragment she says some collector loaned to her. There isn’t much left of it, but what you can read clearly has Jesus referring to Mary (Magdalene) as “my wife.” It would have been a bit funnier had he said “the wife” (don’t you hate that expression?). Is the text authentic? That’s two questions in one. Is the scrap actually an ancient piece of writing, as opposed to a modern hoax written on genuine ancient papyrus? And, if it is ancient, does it actually report historical data on Jesus (assuming he existed in the first place)?

The age of the papyrus can be fixed somewhere in the fourth century, just like the manuscripts of the Gnostic Nag Hammadi library and, er, come to think of it, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, our earliest complete New Testament manuscripts. But when was the text composed? That’s anybody’s guess, just like with the New Testament writings. Professor King thinks the document is very likely a copy of a genuinely ancient work. Most of the relevant experts she ran it by said so, though one sneered at it as a definite modern forgery. The paper was up for publication in the prestigious Harvard Theological Review (a journal I have about as much chance of appearing in as I do in Penthouse). But veteran Harvard Professor Helmut Koester (a disciple of Rudolf Bultmann and, I am grateful to report, co-instructor, along with Harvey Cox, of a “Heresies Ancient and Modern” course I took at HDS back in the glory days of 1977), nixed the publication when other scholars weighed in, pointing out various problems with the paleography and content. A fake after all, or at least so likely a fake that no one wanted to make the Review and its editors look like fools should the hoax one day be exposed (if it hasn’t already).

I had my own doubts as soon as I read the translation, such as it is. I know as much about paleography and about the Coptic language as I do refrigerator repair, so I’ll stick to the content. From the few letters remaining on what was left of the text, one can tell the document ran parallel with one of the sayings of the Gospel of Thomas (the best known of the Nag Hammadi texts): “My natural mother gave me death, but my true mother gave me life” (saying 101). The lines in which Jesus is shown defending Mary as worthy of discipleship is another version of Thomas 114, “Simon Peter says, ‘Tell Mary to leave us, because women are unworthy of the Life.’ Jesus says, ‘Behold, I shall lead her to make her male, so that she, too, may become a living spirit, like you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” There is also an echo of the saying in another Nag Hammadi text, the Gospel of Phillip, in which Jesus again defends Mary from the male disciples’ criticisms, and the set-up to the saying says “The Savior loved Mary and used to kiss her on the lips.” The new text seems to make the relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene more explicitly marital.

Okay, in so tiny a fragment, ostensibly of a longer gospel text, what are the chances that virtually the whole thing would “happen” to parallel portions of other already-known gospels and nothing else? And the only part you can read clearly is the business about ”my wife”? I smell a rat. I smell a modern attempt to stir up the Da Vinci Code tempest in a teapot over whether Jesus was married.

Karen King argued that it would have taken greater expertise than some casual troublemaker can be pictured possessing for someone to fake this gospel text. True, but that only narrows down the pool of possible suspects, right? In the National Geographic special about the “newly discovered Gospel according to Judas” a few years ago, a reporter asked one of the “dream team” of scholars who had shepherded the Judas Gospel to press: who might theoretically have had  the skills to forge such a thing? The scholar said, “Nobody outside of this room.” But I agree with Richard J. Arthur that it was one of those men gathered in that room! I think I know which one, too. (That one also cheated by reusing a chunk of a Nag Hammadi gospel, the Apocryphon of John, even copying the exact same spelling error present in one of our three Nag Hammadi copies!)

Bible hoaxes are nothing new. Look at Bart Ehrman’s fine book Forged. He shows how quite a number of biblical writings are pious frauds. But if you want to read about modern Bible frauds, take a look at Edgar J. Goodspeed’s classic volume Famous Biblical Hoaxes (also published as Strange New Gospels and as Modern Apocrypha) or Per Beskow’s excellent Strange Tales about Jesus. Nicholas Notovich’s The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ and William Mahan’s The Archko Volume still make the rounds in reprint editions, and there are many others, less well known today.

Debate still rages over the Secret Gospel of Mark, allegedly discovered (but very likely fabricated) by Morton Smith. Again, no slob, rather an astronomically highly educated specialist who had every skill necessary to pull off such a hoax and seems to have done so. (Actually, I hope somebody eventually manages to vindicate this text fragment, since it would fit so well into some of my hare-brained theories, but so far it looks bad for Smith.)

The trade in fake archaeological relics has of late been brisk, what with the Ossuary of James and some sculpted pomegranate detail from a Davidic building proving to have been produced in a professional relic-forger’s back room workshop. But the cranking out of fake early Christian documents is even more disturbing to me. It shows a poisonous cynicism not only without the scholarly community but within it as well. Have we so completely wrung the juice out of the genuine evidence that we feel forced to fabricate new “ancient data” to supplement our theorizing? In that case, the scholarly game is just not worth playing anymore.

So says Zarathustra.

A fourth century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. (Karen L. King / Harvard

 

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Owe No Man Anything

street sign "my way"Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once told him, almost as if he knew Peter had gained spider-powers, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Naturally, I believe everything I read in Marvel Comics, but I must ask: to whom does one owe this responsibility? Nietzsche and Ayn Rand will not allow me easily to accept that one owes the exercise and the fruit of one’s talents to society at large. One must not let oneself become a slave to the mass, or one will soon be trying on for size the binding ropes of the Lilliputians. They will happily exploit one’s talents in place of those they lack or are too lazy or fearful to exercise for themselves. And they will seek to curb one’s own free use of one’s talents as one sees fit. Would you strive to reach the stars? Too bad! We want you to apply your energies and resources to supporting the shiftless.

The mass fears ability and always seeks to co-opt it and to dilute it. Did you see the movie Captain America: The First Avenger? Remember how the Army shoots scrawny Private Steve Rogers full of the experimental Super Soldier Serum, whereupon he turns into a powerful Adonis, a one-man army? And then what happens to him? The government assigns him to go on stage to promote War Bonds. That’s it. Until he strikes out on his own to rescue troops trapped behind enemy lines. He is a hero, and serves others, only once he breaks free of the clinging restraints of the Collective.

Have you ever been forced to work with a committee, whether of stupid classmates or of dim-witted fellow employees or of idiot church deacons? You have knowledge and ideas. They don’t. You notice two things happening simultaneously. First, you wind up doing all the work, though the whole committee gets the credit. But you don’t mind it, because that way at least the job gets done better than it would have if you had let the dead wood actually participate. You’d rather have them share your A than you sharing their C. Second, the dead wood will whittle away at the excellence of your best ideas. What do you expect? They have only mediocrity, and that’s what they contribute.

The Collective always and necessarily dilutes the talents of the gifted. They don’t want to be shown up as mediocre, so they will always try to drive down any excellence they see arising. Somebody else doing a good job makes them look bad. Poor workers always resent good workers. This is why Teachers Unions oppose competency testing or ranking. The herd huddles together, as if adding so many zeroes could total more than one big zero.

I remember my contempt and disgust when I heard a Unitarian minister at a conference say that the theologian must seek to articulate the beliefs of his “faith” community rather than develop his or her own ideas. If he did the latter, he might be considered a philosopher of religion, but a real theologian exalts the mass and eschews individualism. Ugh…

Lucky for me, when I was a teenager I watched Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner and learned its lessons well. And yet I cannot deny Uncle Ben’s lesson either. If one does have great powers, to whom is one in debt? I think I know: one owes a debt to oneself.

The way I look at it, which I happily learned reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is that one possesses an individual path (what some call a dharma) constituted by the law of one’s own being. One has a built-in drive and goal, planted by one’s genes and watered by one’s environment, which will eventually blossom forth into a life and a destiny. Only so can one find fulfillment. You “must” fulfill your potential or you will find yourself frustrated. And this is only and precisely because your potential is you. To cultivate it and to express it and to apply it is autonomy, obedience to the command of your own nature, not heteronomy, which would be the command of another. A good teacher tries to get you to do your best not as an assignment, like Pharaoh commanding the Israelites to make bricks without straw, but rather in order to encourage your own self-development. You owe it to yourself.

This is why, as Rand said, selfishness is a virtue. Who has a better claim on your abilities and your freedom? Not the mass, the mob, the Collective. It doesn’t “take a village” to determine what you ought to do with your life. I prefer Billy Joel to Hillary Goddam Clinton: “I don’t care what you say anymore. This is my life.”

But isn’t there some larger social dimension? As the quotable George Costanza bellowed when no one passing him on the street would answer a simple question, “We’re living in a society here!” How does that work? Here I think of the “egoism” (but not egotism) of Epicurus, who (in effect) compared society with an orchestra. It works only when each musician concentrates on his own sheet music and plays his own instrument. Imagine the chaotic cacophony if everybody butted in on his neighbor’s performance. Dropping his or her own trumpet and grabbing the other guy’s violin, “Here, let my take care of that for you!” You owe something to the rest of the orchestra, all right: to do a good job with your own performance!

atlasI am responsible not to you, but to me. You are responsible not to me, but to yourself, and that’s the way to get a resulting society that will work best for us both, for us all. I don’t want to succeed at your expense; I want you to succeed, too!

But what about poor souls who are disadvantaged, who cannot excel in such a way as to secure their own weal? Philanthropy is better than forced government collectivism. The superman will naturally look with compassion upon the unfortunate. He will not render assistance in obedience to a government which demands the right to confiscate and redistribute his resources or to commandeer his talents. He will instead act with holy condescension. He does not pretend that no “descent” is involved, because he recognizes that the delusion that all are equal and equally “entitled” is part and parcel of the Collectivist ideology of the slave herd, and he will not be party to that.

So says Nietzsche.

So says Rand.

So says Zarathustra.

 

 

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Paradigm Policeman

credit: Noel Feling's Luxury Comedy

In his new book, Did Jesus Exist? Professor Bart Ehrman appears addicted to the fallacious “appeal to consensus.” He seemingly never tires of treating New Testament scholarship as a game of Family Feud. What hypotheses are to be taken seriously? “Survey says!” If the majority of scholars think A, then A must be the truth. But if one is feeling up to evaluating actual arguments, one will not refer to nose-count epistemology at all. One will not think to take refuge amid the herd. True, Bart no longer defends fundamentalism, but he is an apologist for a new orthodoxy, “mainstream scholarship,” the Society of Biblical Literature. I call this the “Stuck in the Middle with You” school of biblical scholarship, where nothing out of the comfortable bell curve of theories can be considered seriously. Berger and Luckmann well describe what Bart is up to: he is a “legitimator,” a public relations man for a professional guild.

The outsiders have to be kept out… If… the subuniverse [of meaning] requires various special privileges and recognitions from the larger society, there is the problem of keeping out the outsiders and at the same time having them acknowledge the legitimacy of this procedure. This is done through various techniques of intimidation, rational and irrational propaganda…, mystification and, generally, the manipulation of prestige symbols.[1]

This is, of course, why we see Bart (and other members of the academic elite, like Luke Timothy Johnson) trying to undermine the claims of “eccentric” Mythicists by throwing around talk of who has or doesn’t have official credentials and illustrious teaching posts. I know this sounds like sour grapes from me. I don’t perceive it that way (though who knows his own heart?), but even if it is, that only reinforces Berger and Luckmann’s point and the application of it to the case at hand, doesn’t it?

But there is a more serious misunderstanding implied in his ceaseless appeals to “what most scholars think.” And here I am thinking of Thomas S. Kuhn’s great book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.[2] Kuhn demonstrates how science advances at least as much by the formulation of new interpretive paradigms as by the accumulation of new data and discoveries. Copernicus had no new data when he rejected earth-centered Ptolemaic cosmology for sun-centered cosmology. He just found a simpler, more natural, economic, and comprehensive way to construe the evidence everyone already possessed. There was the little problem of the retrograde motion of the planets. Usually they seemed to trace a circular course around the earth, but on occasion they seemed to take a step or two backward, shuffle around a bit, then continue on their circular course. Why? Ptolemaic astronomers posited that the planets were, so to speak, poised atop a fantastic array of meshing gears and wheels which kept them going but with a kind of “leap year” jog every once and a while. It was still regular and in principle predictable once you had worked out the schematics. But what a mess! Copernicus realized it would all be much simpler if, say, the earth and the planets revolved around the sun. That way, the retrograde motion would be the result of our watching the motion of the other heavenly bodies from a moving platform. Bingo!

Martin Luther condemned Copernicus as a madman, but he was like Nietzsche’s madman in The Gay Science: he was right, but he came too soon. It would take a good while till his public could catch up with him. The same thing happened, for instance, with Alfred Wegener, who first proposed the theory of Continental Drift. He, too, was dismissed as an eccentric, though everyone now knows he was right all along.

            Why do new theorists often face such opposition from the scientific establishment? It is facile to vilify the “mossbacks” who just have too much invested in the way the game is currently played and are not willing to change the rules. Are they just dealing with cognitive dissonance by fending off a new theory that would mean they had been wrong? These things may actually be true, though to pass such a judgment one would really have to be a mind-reader. But it makes no difference. The new theorist must run the gauntlet, because his theory must be able to prove itself. For the scientific establishment to jump on the bandwagon at once would be to jump the gun. The theorist will (or should) be only too happy to submit his theory to exhaustive scrutiny (as Paul is depicted doing in Galatians 2:1-2). Isn’t that the essence of scientific method? You don’t want anyone to take anything by faith. You try to debunk your own theory, because that is the only possible way to see if it’s got what it takes. If it does, we can expect that the new paradigm will eventually receive recognition, just as Copernicus’s and Wegener’s did. Here we see the proper and valuable role of scholarly consensus. And it means that finding oneself in a tiny minority advocating a theory does not mean one is a weirdo and a crank. You might be, and there are plenty of them, but no one will be able to say so for sure until the elders of the scholarly establishment get busy scrutinizing the theory. This is what Bart discourages with his Steve Harvey-like appeals to majority opinion. Frank Zindler, Earl Doherty, Rene Salm, myself and the other Mythicists he seeks to refute might be Immanuel Velikovsky, sure, but we might be Alfred Wegener. It’s too early for Bart to tell. The fact that we form a tiny minority doesn’t by itself mean a damn thing.

            I don’t want to be unfair. Bart does after all deal with many Mythicist arguments, but it seems clear to me he is simply not ready to “think outside the box” of his SBL peers. Again and again, as I read the book, I realized that he and I occupy different universes of biblical criticism. He believes the “lucky seven” Pauline Epistles to be authentic and holds to what I regard as unrealistically early (apologetics-derived) dates for the gospels. He thinks the canned speeches in Acts preserve facts about Jesus even though careful vocabulary and conceptual studies by Earl Richard[3] and others have shown them all to be the work of the Acts author. By contrast, I am a student of the classic Higher Critics (e.g., F.C. Baur, D.F. Strauss, Wilhelm Wrede, Rudolf Bultmann, Walter Schmithals) and the more extreme Dutch Radical Critics (especially Willem Christiaan van Manen and L. Gordon Rylands).

            Like many neo-conservative New Testament scholars today, Bart is on the one hand unwilling to entertain the possibility of textual interpolations in the early decades from which no manuscript evidence survives at all;[4] while on the other, he is willing to trim away the more blatant marks of Christian interpolation from the Testimonium Flavianum (what Josephus supposedly says about Jesus) as scribal embellishment because it would allow him to take what’s left as a genuine testimony to Jesus. Not that he thinks it would prove much in either case—or does he? Depends on what page you are reading. Similarly, he accepts the claim of Papias, second-century bishop of Hierapolis, that he met people who claimed to be acquaintances of Jesus’ disciples, even though he himself rejects everything Papias claimed to have learned from them about the authorship of the gospels. Nor does he mention Papias’ cartoonish account of the grotesque swelling of Judas Iscariot before he exploded, something that surely ruins the good bishop’s claim to any credibility. Do I remember correctly that Bart wrote a book[5] on fraud and forgery in the New Testament?

            The methodological error here, trying to make bad evidence into good, is a sort of cousin to the error bemoaned by D.F. Strauss[6] so long ago, according to which Protestant Rationalists supposed that, though the major point of a miracle story, the supernatural event, might be rejected, other, tangential features might nonetheless be genuine historical data. Strauss rejected this, pointing out that the ancillary details were there only for the sake of the story’s main point and that it was arbitrary to maintain the former while rejecting the latter. That is essentially Bart’s strategy in the case of the speeches in Acts, the Josephus text, and the Papias traditions. He has no business picking up the scraps. He has to throw the bathwater out once he has ejected the baby. But he won’t.

            Did Jesus Exist? makes repeated fallacious appeals to authority and majority opinion, nor is he loathe to loathe. That is, he aims ad hominem attacks like Cupid’s arrows. Personally, I do not appreciate it when he invites the reader to write me off as a bitter ex-fundamentalist, implying my work is mere rationalization of my apostasy. He mistakenly thinks I used to be an evangelical preacher. I did spend a dozen years as a born-again Christian, but I became disillusioned with it precisely because, against my every hope and desire, I found I could no longer accept the apologetical arguments for gospel accuracy and biblical authority. What irritation my writings display expresses my righteous indignation at the bogus argumentation of the conservative writers. I suspect that Bart has occasionally felt the same way. But at the end of the book he writes all of us Mythicists off as merely pursuing an anti-religious agenda. Is he a mind reader? Does it not occur to him that our embrace of radical criticism might have helped lead to our disillusionment with faith rather than being an after-the-fact rationalization of it? Bart sounds like “Scientific Creationist” fundamentalists who charge scientists with believing in evolution merely as a way to escape repenting and believing in God.

            When I first discarded evangelicalism (years before I became a church pastor) I held views almost identical to those Bart espouses today: Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet much as Albert Schweitzer described him. And these views were for me no more a function of my rejection of faith than they are for Bart. Again, like him, back then I viewed the arguments of G.A. Wells (at the time a Mythicist) with astonishment and skepticism. But as the years went by and I studied more and more perspectives neglected by most scholars I knew, I found myself going in a more radical direction, not because I found the notions particularly attractive, but because I could no longer accept the arguments of moderate critics. And I have paid the price for it professionally, not that I am complaining. Indeed, “the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places.”

            Let me turn to a very few places where I believe Bart gets me wrong or offers ineffective arguments against my views. Most often he just professes to find my arguments implausible or unpersuasive. There is nothing I can do about that. I have to rely upon my readers to make that call for themselves. I trust they will not merely take his word for it. But there are a few points, I say, where I really must raise an objection.

            First, he says I misunderstand the criterion of dissimilarity and embarrassment[7] when I employ it to urge the inauthenticity of this or that gospel saying or story. He says I do not get it, that the proper use of the criterion is to sift through the texts to find those that can jump the hurdles. We should accept, he says, gospel material that do not appear to be so similar to early Christian belief or to current Jewish material that it looks to have been borrowed from one or the other. Anything that does not match up with early Church or Jewish material must really be from Jesus, something distinctive, a point where Jesus differed from Judaism, or something he said that went over like a lead balloon, not picked up by Christians. And embarrassment (what Crossan calls “damage control”)? The idea here is that certain features in the gospel material that gave later Christians theological headaches (Jesus receiving John’s baptism of repentance, Jesus denying he is good and therefore that he is God, his cry of dereliction from the cross, his admission of ignorance re the time of the end, etc.) must be historical, since Christians would never have made them up. (Thus embarrassment is a special case of dissimilarity: if some loose end is conspicuous by the chagrin it caused later Christians, it is dissimilar to their Christian beliefs and thus, ostensibly, could not have been derived from them.) The purpose of the criterion is indeed to help us winnow out the chaff and preserve the wheat. I know that.

            Can Bart possibly miss my point that none of the material passes the test? I think I am the first (though who cares?) to note that the basic axiom of form criticism throws a deep shadow over the usefulness of the dissimilarity/embarrassment criterion, and here’s why. Form critics argue that nothing would have been preserved in the process of oral transmission that was not useful for some purpose (catechetical, homiletic, ritual legitimization, polemical, etc.) of the early Christians. Nothing seems to have been preserved for the sake of abstract curiosity. Well, if that is so, then everything in the gospel tradition reflects early Christian interests or we would not be reading it now! And that means we cannot be sure anything was not fabricated to serve those interests. It’s not that we know the stuff was fabricated; it’s just that we can’t say it wasn’t, and that’s the point of the criterion, isn’t it? To show what wasn’t fabricated? And nothing passes the test.

Bart, like all mainstream critics, is less critical than he thinks, since he tacitly imagines all early Christians believed, thought, and practiced the same things. But they didn’t. What was embarrassing to one writer or one generation needn’t have been embarrassing to the one before. It is obvious, for instance, that Mark had no problem with a humble Jesus who could apply to John for a baptism of repentance or could tell the Rich Young Ruler not to call him good. Mark had no problem with Jesus being surprised at the lack of faith among his townsfolk, or with his inability to heal them. Matthew, however, did, so he changed it. The earlier version of faith is not necessarily historical fact. Bart seems to realize this when he recognizes the presence in Acts, Romans, etc., of vestiges of adoptionist Christology, the belief that Jesus was a mortal man subsequently adopted as God’s son, perhaps at his baptism, perhaps at the resurrection. This hardly means Jesus must actually have been adopted as God’s son somewhere along the line just because the notion undermines pre-existence Christology. It just means that an earlier belief was embarrassing to later believers. Likewise, just because Matthew wished Mark hadn’t depicted Jesus as being baptized in the Jordan confessing his sins doesn’t mean that it actually happened.

And this brings me to Bart’s lambasting my suggestion that the story of Jesus’ baptism might have been rewritten from that of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. Ehrman has two cheap shots to fire here. First, he complains that I can’t get my story straight, since elsewhere I claim all the gospel narratives were worked up from Old Testament originals. But I clearly state that there were other sources, too. Besides this, Bart admits that many gospel stories do seem to parallel various Old Testament tales, but he laughs the fact off, pleading that the stories may still preserve a core of historical material even though the tellers of these tales added scriptural form and color to them. What, pray tell, is left? Are you saying Jesus really did multiply food for the crowds and this led the teller of the story to make it look like the similar story where Elisha does the same thing? That won’t work: the only “detail” the two stories have in common is the central “fact” of the feeding miracle. And isn’t it obvious that the “peripheral” detail consists rather in the change from Elisha as the miracle worker to Jesus? In any case, if a gospel story and an Old Testament story look quite similar, isn’t the simplest explanation that the Jesus version has been rewritten from the Elijah, Elisha, or Moses version? Bart is not shaving with Occam’s Razor. He is positing superfluous, redundant explanations.

Second, he, like apologists, likes to seal off the sphere of biblical culture from the adjacent religious world. I can understand that bias on the part of conservatives who want to see Christianity flowing directly out of the Old Testament, without other tributaries, for theological reasons. But Bart allegedly no longer cares to defend such interests. Then why does he ignore the massive influence of Zoroastrianism on Pharisaic Judaism? Many scholars believe Jews derived belief in an end-time resurrection, the apocalyptic periodization of history, the notion of a virgin-born future savior, the idea of an evil anti-God, and an elaborate angelology from Zoroastrianism. The rabbis thought that Zoroaster was the same man as Baruch the scribe of Jeremiah! That means they were trying to legitimatize the Jewish assimilation of Zoroastrian themes during and after the Exile. T.W. Manson[8] suggested that the traditionalist Sadducees (“Syndics, Councilmen”) resisted these borrowings and labeled those who accepted them as “Pharisees” (i.e., “Parsees, Persians, Zoroastrians”) because of it. (Later the Pharisees redefined the term to make it a badge of honor: “Perushim” now denoting “Separatists, Puritans.” Am I such a nut for suggesting possible Zoroastrian influence on the baptism story?

            What I have just mentioned is an example of synchronic comparison: tracing possible influence from one phenomenon to another close to it in time and space. Bart gives me hell for my invocation of the fact that Hong Xiuquan, the 19th-century Taiping messiah in China, called himself “the younger brother of Jesus” as a possible parallel to the use of “brother of the Lord” for James the Just. Across so many centuries? Far-fetched, right? How can Bart not recognize a diachronic comparison (a comparison of analogous phenomena across time)? As I say quite clearly, the Taiping messiah obviously could not have been claiming to be the blood brother of Jesus unless he was Mel Brooks’s character the 2,000 Year Old Man. No, he used the title to mean he was the earthly manifestation of another hypostasis of the Godhead, just as Jesus had been. Such a title need not at all imply its holder was the brother of a historical Jesus, either in the first century or the 19th. I don’t see what’s so funny about that.

            Speaking of James the Just, Bart paints me as claiming that James was a fictional character, an artificial eponymous ancestor of a tribe, like the Old Testament tribal patriarchs whom the ancients posited, as Hermann Gunkel[9] argued, to cement alliances between hitherto-independent tribes. But Christians were not an ethnic group! Nor am I so stupid. I believe I made it pretty clear that the case of the Israelite, Edomite, and Ishmaelite patriarchs is a historical analogy for the hypothetical grafting together of James, a sect figurehead in his own right, and Jesus as brothers in order to facilitate the combining of the two sects. I would be much surprised if Bart did not believe that Luke’s connection of Jesus and John the Baptist as cousins is not exactly the same sort of thing.

            I cringe at his discussions of the attempted refutation of the dying and rising god myth by Jonathan Z. Smith as well as the obliviousness of Tryggve Mettinger[10] to the implications of his own arguments on the subject. I have dealt with these authors in detail elsewhere, in fact, in books Bart says he has read. He could at least have done me the courtesy of replying to the arguments. If he thinks they are stupid, too, he might have done the reader the favor of explaining why.

            It is interesting that Stanley Fish blurbs the book, thanking Bart for swatting Mythicism like the annoying fly it is. Bart’s book is a prime example of what Fish himself explains in his great book Is There a Text in this Class? There Fish shows how an argument over texts can be meaningful only between those who belong to same “interpretive community,” sharing the same assumptions and methods. [11] Catholics cannot really argue from scripture against Protestants, and vice versa, because one feels free to allegorize the text and the other doesn’t. A Structuralist and a Deconstructive critic talk past one another. It would be like two teams in a stadium, one playing baseball, the other football. Each community embraces its own paradigm, its own frame of reference which includes its own criteria for the plausibility of readings and arguments. A reading seems “natural” or “the plain sense” if it is the accustomed reading.[12] If you have always read it one way, no new reading can sound plausible to you. Unless of course, you make what Don Cupitt[13] calls “the leap of reason” and try to see it the other guy’s way. And then you may find it makes new sense to you.

I remember when I first heard there were scholars[14] who argued that the Sodom and Gomorrah story had nothing to do with homosexuality. At first my reaction was to scoff. But then the sheer outlandishness of it made me curious. Why on earth do intelligent people think this? I read and pondered their argument—and found myself convinced. At first I thought Deconstruction was the merest nonsense. But then I realized, “Listen, Price, there must be something to this, some game these people are playing, a method to the seeming madness. Let me find out what it is.” And I did, and I found it illuminating. And, need I say, I started out the same way with the Christ Myth Theory—outlandish! But the more I looked at it, the more astonished I was at the sense, better sense it began to seem, that it made of the evidence. Again, I am no mind reader, but Bart gives every indication of being someone who has not taken the requisite leap of reason beyond the boundaries (and the blinders) of his interpretive community. Certain ideas appear to him outrageous because he has never heard them, or never heard them taken seriously by those whom he deems to be serious scholars, serious precisely because they do not take seriously nutty notions like Mythicism.

So Says Zarathustra.
proof of existance

[1] Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1967), p. 87.

[2] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

[3] Earl Richard, Acts 6:1-8:4: The Author’s Method of Composition. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 41 (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1978).

[4] He alleges that Christ Myth Theorists engage in the ad hoc strategy of what some call “surgical exegesis” or what Walter Kaufmann called “gerrymandering the Bible” (The Faith of a Heretic [Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1963], p. 109), writing off New Testament texts inconvenient for one’s hypothesis as later interpolations. I would refer him to William O. Walker, Jr., Interpolations in the Pauline Letters. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 13 (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), pp. 18-19 and the material cited in fn 54, for 1 Cor. 11:23-26 as an interpolation. Walker is no Christ Myth kook. Nor was the late Winsome Munro who offers (as Walker does) definite criteria for spotting interpolations from the early period in her Authority in Paul and Peter: The Identification of a Pastoral Stratum in the Pauline Corpus and 1 Peter. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 45 (NY: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Forged: Writing in the Name of God – Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are (NY: Harper Collins, 2011).

[6] David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Trans. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). Lives of Jesus Series (Philadelphia: Forrtress Press, 1972), p. 55.

[7] You can’t beat the discussion of these criteria by Norman Perrin in his Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (NY: Harper & Row, 1976), pp. 39-47.

[8] T.W. Manson, The Servant Messiah: A Study of the Public Ministry of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), pp. 18-19.

[9] Hermann Gunkel, Genesis. Trans. Mark E. Biddle. Mercer Library of Biblical Studies (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), pp. xviii-xix.

[10] Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Coniectanea Biblica Old Testament Series 50. (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2001).

[11] Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Calss? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), e.g., pp. 171-172.

[12] Fish, p. 276.

[13] Don Cupitt, The Leap of Reason. Studies in Philosophy and Religion 4 (London: Sheldon Press, 1976).

[14] Derrick Sherwin Bailey, Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955), Chapter I, “Sodom and Gomorrah,” pp. 1-28.

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Hacked?

Apologies to all since it seems that you will have to reset your account with Zarathustra Speaks

Stay tuned while we determine if the last three years of entries can be recovered before we post the August Essay…..

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