Thursday, April 10, 2014

Reza Aslan, Bart Ehrman, and the Failure of Fundamentalism

Both of the two books that have been bopping around in the popular Jesus consciousness lately share a common characteristic.  There's Reza Aslan's Zealot, which I recently read and reviewed.  Then there's the latest output of Bart Ehrman.  How Jesus Became God would be on my plate if I hadn't already given him plenty of my processor time.

I have not read this work yet, but I've read lots of stuff by Ehrman.  I know from whence he comes, and this doesn't really seem to expand his schtick much.

Ehrman's a bible scholar--not a bad one, actually--whose work mostly revolves around using historical-critical method to cast doubt on the core dynamics of faith.

Doubt is at the core of his approach, because he's an agnostic now, on the hard side of it.  Meaning, his is not the doubt that resides as an integral part of an existentially authentic faith.  It's just doubt.

Like so many souls in our culture, he got his start in the fundamentalist community.  That's where he learned faith, a faith that mattered to him deeply.  The problem?  When he came into encounter with the actual historical process by which the Bible was formed and shaped, it blew a huge and irreparable hole in his belief system.  Reading his works, one still gets a sense of how cheesed he is at having been duped.  What he has now is just history, decoupled from any engagement with the transcendent.

What strikes me about both these books is that commonality.  Both Reza and Ehrman "came to faith" through the classical evangelical approach. The initial appeal was emotive, and the community into which they were received was fundamentalist. That, for both, defined their Christian journey.

And it also failed both of them completely.  When they reached a point of questioning, there were no longer answers that respected either their intelligence or reality.

Once you allow the reality of God's creation in, literalism comes apart like tissue paper in a typhoon.  That's why the walls and ramparts of presuppositional apologetics are so very high and so fiercely defended.  What lies within is as delicate and fleeting as a shadow.

And so a disappointed Reza returned to the Islam of his childhood, and Ehrman turned on the lie he knew as Christianity with the precise sword of his historian's training.

The terrible effect of fundamentalism was to inoculate both of them against the transforming power of the Gospel.  Let's set aside theology for a moment, they say, as if one can do that and not leave only a dead husk where there once was a living body.

I wish this were less common, but honestly, it happens all the time.  People think they're in encounter with the real thing, only to have their hopes destroyed and their passions made an embarrassment.  Why would they ever trust the good news again?  Or trust that the Spirit that tried to move in them was more real and more potent than what they'd been taught?

And that, perhaps more than anything, is the greatest failure of fundamentalism.


2 comments:

  1. I too am very familiar with Bart Ehrman, read many of his books & have heard him lecture. I don't think it's quite accurate to characterize the purpose of his scholarship as casting doubt on the core dynamics of faith. He's a scholar who uses the historical-critical method to analyze early Christian texts, which inevitably raises some doubt here and there. I don't get the sense that he's trying to drive anyone away from Christianity; rather, he wants us to be honest about the nature of our founding texts. He emphatically believes in the historicity of Jesus Christ, even if he can't quite reconcile the Resurrection with his historical-critical scholarly methods.

    I don't think we need to be defensive about our beliefs in light of scholarship, Ehrman's or anyone else's. The growth of Christianity from a marginalized Jewish sect to the dominant Eurasian faith -- growth accomplished not at the point of a sword, for the most part -- speaks for itself.

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  2. Nothing Ehrman says is wrong as a matter of scholarship. He's actually rather solid, and writes well.

    As I read him, here and elsewhere, I've perceived that differently, particularly given the impact...in interviews I've heard with him...that his engagement with that form of scholarship has had on the essence of his faith. What he was given and taught as a young person simply could not stand in the face of his engagement with the real.

    And we absolutely do not have to defend ourselves against historical-critical method. That Christianity can constructively integrate historical-critical scholarship with faith is, as I perceive it, one of the greatest evidences of the strength of our proclamation. But scholarship itself, "dis-integrated" from faith, is not the path to understanding why this odd little movement has so wildly flourished.

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