Monday, August 18, 2014

I’ll Wait, Thanks (or, I guess this makes me a ‘Huddle Person’)

Uh oh. Apparently, I’m told (and not for the first time) biblical literalism is not healthy. Not healthy for those I would like to win to Christ, and not healthy for me. It’s (at least potentially) repressive, and possibly worse.

In it, Michael Gungor coins the term ‘huddle people’ to describe me and my ilk, then gives us a lecture about the dangers of failing to accommodate ‘science’ in our Christian worldview: 
“... you can still love God and love people and read those early Genesis stories as myth with some important things to teach us. Not all of you will be ready to do that, and that’s perfectly ok. But know that if you create these dichotomies where we force people to either fall into the camp of scientifically blind biblical literalism or a camp where they totally write off the Bible as a complete lie, you’re going to rob a lot of people of some of the richness that the Bible offers. You’re going to create a lot more jaded, cynical people that are completely anti-religion out there. And you are going to continue to repress the questions that lurk in the back of your own mind. And that’s just not healthy. That sort of thinking actually quashes and limits human thriving in the world.”
— Michael Gungor
Mr. Gungor finds it perfectly reasonable to believe in the miracles of Christ, but unreasonable to believe in Noah’s ark.
“... there is a BIG difference between individual instances and experiences of the miraculous and globally scaled matters of science and history.”
So a little miracle that can’t be disproven because it was too “individual” to register with historians or scientists is okay, but a big one that brings Christians into disagreement with them is not?

I’m just curious about the reasoning here. He says he believes that “Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”, but his understanding of “God-breathed”  and “useful” come with implicit footnotes and caveats that amount to this: When verses or passages of Scripture appear to conflict with the current state of scientific or historical knowledge, Christians ought to write them off as “myths” in order to appear more reasonable to the world.

I think that fairly sums up his position.

But Mr. Gungor’s arguments are rhetorical, insubstantial and wrong, and I don’t say so just because he’s an alt-rock musician rather than a philosopher, historian or scientist — some of my all-time favourite pontificators are musicians.

Here are a quick half dozen logical fallacies he employs (and not even the worst ones):

1. The Ad Hominem Attack
“So, how come these Genesis stories aren’t being re-read and re-interpreted by the fundamentalists yet? I think it’s partly because of the way that fundamentalists tend to huddle together out of fear.”
I’m not particularly bothered to hear that I’m scared of Mr. Gungor’s ideas, but it’s not a legitimate argument. The ad hominem attack is a tactic frequently employed by political leftists to dismiss those who disagree with them: we’re “homophobic”, “xenophobic”, “islamophobic”, “biphobic”, etc. Compared to that, being called “scared” isn’t ... well, scary.

But all the same, imputing bad motives to those with whom you disagree doesn’t address the issue at hand.

2. The False Dichotomy

Mr. Gungor says that if Christians don’t accommodate the current theories of modern science, we’ll force people into either the “camp of scientifically blind biblical literalism” or the “camp where they totally write off the Bible as a complete lie”.

The one polar extreme of his false dichotomy assumes biblical literalism is, of necessity, scientifically blind — something that Mr. Gungor is incapable of demonstrating. The other extreme is equally questionable: far more frequently than being compelled to reject the Bible as a “complete lie”, I’ve seen confused Christians consider the question of whether or not science or Scripture is the final authority while believers in literalism help them find answers, not judgmentally force them to choose positions. Sometimes the process takes years.

Perhaps Mr. Gungor’s experience is different. In any case, there are not merely two possible options here, and neither characterization is helpful.

3. Argument to the Future / 4. Appeal to False Authority
“... a hundred years from now, hardly anybody is going to be arguing for a literal reading of those stories ...”
Arguing that one day most people will agree with you is not only completely indemonstrable in the present, but also fails to register the possibility that even if your argument wins over every single being on the planet, it may still be incorrect.

5. Straw Man / 6. False Equivalence
“NO REASONABLE PERSON takes the entire Bible completely literally. It’s not possible. The Bible says God is a rock. Do you take that literally? The Bible talks consistently about the corners of the earth. The people that wrote the Bible thought the earth was flat. When they envisioned ‘the earth’, they envisioned it with edges and corners, not as a spherical planet.”
First, the straw man: no Bible literalist I’ve ever met argues that when David wrote in Psalm 18 “The Lord is my rock” he was speaking literally. And it is simply unprovable that the phrase “corners of the earth” was meant to be understood that way. The Hebrew word kanaph can be translated “borders”, “extremities”, “ends” and numerous other ways. We use similar figures of speech today without meaning (or being understood to mean) that we are attempting exacting scientific accuracy. And his flights of fancy about how the writers of Scripture envisioned their earth and its borders are asserted without a shred of supporting evidence.

Secondly, having to his own satisfaction demonstrated that words and phrases are not always to be taken literally (which very few Christians dispute), Mr. Gungor now jumps to the wholly unwarranted assumption that, in the case of Noah’s ark, three entire chapters of Scripture (Genesis 6-8) are similarly allegorical.

But metaphors and myths are not identical. Metaphors are colourful imagery used to describe something real. Myths, like parables, are fiction, whatever useful lessons they may contain. And in some contexts, for instance when referring to things God is said to have actually done historically (see point 5 below), mythologizing an OT account makes nonsense of the lesson it is teaching. Only the truth will do.

The writers of Scripture do not merely claim it contains “important things”. They claim it is universal truth.

But there is a much bigger danger here than a reader accidentally swallowing a few of Mr. Gungor’s many fallacies.

NT Truth is Built on a Literal Understanding of the OT

Let’s take Mr. Gungor’s example of Noah’s ark, for instance. Reading the account allegorically or mythically raises more questions than it answers, and the questions it raises are important ones theologically:

1.    Luke includes Noah in Christ’s genealogy. So was Noah a mythical figure or not? If he was, Luke is either a fraud or else hopelessly naive and was not carried along by God’s Spirit as he wrote his gospel, contradicting what the epistles (and even Mr. Gungor) claim. But if Noah was historical, what exactly did he do, and why has his story been mythologized by the Holy Spirit? Which parts of it are history and which are religious fiction?

Similar problems are created by mythologizing Adam, Eve, Jonah and others referenced as historical by the Lord.

2.    The Lord Jesus, in both Matthew and Luke, compares the days of the coming of the Son of Man to the days of Noah. Again, was he referencing a myth? If so, why; and how does a judgement myth compare to the real deal? Or does Mr. Gungor believe the Lord was speaking of an allegorical return as well?

3.    The book of Hebrews cites Noah as an example of exceptional faith in its famous chapter 11, the point of which may be summed up as “Let us then do what they did”. But how is it remotely of use to the believer to tell him or her to have faith as efficacious as a fictional character (or perhaps a historical character who went through something different than what is actually recorded of him)? The writer of Hebrews may as profitably have referred believers to Frank Sinatra’s version of “High Hopes”.

4.    Peter refers to those who were “disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built”. In fact he says the Lord preached to them. So was there an actual ark or not? Did the Lord preach to the disobedient or not? If he didn’t, the New Testament writers are either liars or gullible idiots, certainly not writing “God-breathed” Scripture.

5.    Then there’s Peter’s empty threat in his second letter that begins: “If [God] did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people ...”. But if God did not actually judge the ancient world with a flood, why should we believe that, as Peter insists, “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment”? Clearly he doesn’t.

There may well be, as Mr. Gungor says, “a BIG difference between individual instances and experiences of the miraculous and globally scaled matters of science and history”. But unfortunately for those who would like to pick and choose which miracles they will believe and which they will reject, once you excise or allegorize away Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, Jonah, the parting of the Red Sea, the plagues of Egypt and the rest of the “impossible” large-scale matters of science and history, what exactly is left?

What is left is a Christ who is a fraud, a liar, or a man simply plain ignorant of science, and a bunch of apostles writing insubstantial theology based on fairy tales or incorrect history.

Maybe there are good reasons other than fear to be a ‘huddle person’. Logical consistency may be one.

Mr. Gungor seems to imagine the Bible as a walk-in closet from which you can assemble a theological outfit of your choice (which, it turns out, is actually not your choice at all but the choice of whichever modern practitioner of pseudoscience hollers loudest or most recently).

But the Bible is not a buffet, it’s a unity. If I had to compare it to clothing, I’d say it’s a lot more like a knitted one-piece garment. Pull on one strand of wool for long enough and you’re eventually left with nothing at all.

The Questions that Lurk

Our friend Mr. Gungor doesn’t want you to “repress the questions that lurk in the back of your own mind”. And that part of his advice is not completely unsound.

I, too, have questions that lurk in the back of my mind. To date, God has not provided me with answers to many scientific, historical and theological questions about which I am actually very curious indeed. But the God of the Bible is my final authority, so I’m going to suggest something completely goofy: Given the option of hacking my Old Testament to shreds in the attempt to harmonize it with an ever-shifting, fallible, increasingly suspect human standard ... I’d rather just wait to hear what my Final Authority has to say, thanks.

I may get my answers in eternity (though it’s more likely that by the time I see the Lord those answers will only be of marginal interest). Or maybe by the grace of God his Spirit will show me some of the things I’d like to know in this life. Either way ... I’ll wait, thanks.

That’s not repression. It’s called patience. Or maybe even hope.

It’s just curiosity I’m experiencing, after all. I’ve already been given everything necessary for life and godliness, so what’s the harm in living with a little wonder? Trying to satisfy her curiosity didn’t exactly work out perfectly for Eve.

Oh, wait. That’s a myth, I’m told.

Mr. Gungor says he believes Scripture is “God-breathed” and “useful”, but his final authority is not God but science. And no man can serve two masters.

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