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Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church
Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church
by Scot McKnight
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.18
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5.0 out of 5 stars Resident Aliens for a New Generation, December 12, 2014
If the Kingdom is everything, the Kingdom is nothing.

That's the thought that gets Kingdom Conspiracy going, and on the way to demonstrating the truth of the claim, Scot McKnight both examines Biblical texts (lots of Biblical texts!) for the contours of what "kingdom" means in the Old and New Testaments and some examination of academic and popular theology to arrive at a well-reasoned position on why reticence (on the parts of conservative evangelicals and liberals) to use "kingdom" and "church" synonymously might be ill-founded.
For the Evangelicals: A Different Story

McKnight's approach to what he calls the "pleated pants" and the "skinny jeans" (1) uses of "kingdom" theologically are not identical because the core error of each approach is a different kind of misuse. McKnight begins with the problem of grand narrative in the conservative evangelical ("pleated pants") version before moving on to the Social Gospel/Liberation approach ("skinny jeans"). (I will not be using the pants-related terms from this point forward.)

McKnight is among the theologians who, like myself, insist upon narrative as a core category for theology. Using the same basic characters, a theology could tell the story of a world full of isolated individuals, each seeking escape from private guilt or the story of a chosen people, undergoing trials and restoration and even existential changes, and within either of those stories one could cite Bible verses. McKnight's plea to the conservative reader is to pay closer to "the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told" (22). To that end, McKnight schematizes a common evangelical reading of the Bible as a CFRC reading:

Creation: YHWH makes Heaven and Earth, including human beings.
Fall: Human rebellion drives created order into a diminished and condemned state.
Redemption: Christ dies on the cross for our sins, and Christ rises again. Human beings' sins are forgiven.
Consummation: Christ will come again to bring salvation to its completion. (24)

Such a schema won't strike too many as unfamiliar; after all, these four elements are the stuff of catechisms and sermons and praise songs in a hundred churches, and for many folks, such is simply the content of the Bible. The problem, McKnight suggests is that such a schema ignores most of what happens between Genesis 3 and (in canonical order) Matthew 27. Furthermore, this version of "kingdom" tends to focus so thoroughly on extra-historical realities (the afterlife and the end of the age) that there's little room for "kingdom" to have any reality for those who still walk around in history's current moment.

As a more robust alternative, one which encompasses CFRC but accounts for more of the Bible story, McKnight proposes ABA‘ (a thousand pardons to the typesetting purists, who will no doubt note that A prime should take a different symbol.) The three elements of that schema are thus:

Plan A: YHWH rules over the faithful as king, sustaining and protecting and forgiving sins.
Plan B: Because Israel wants a king, YHWH allows as much, but the monarchy leads Israel into exile which persists even after the geographic return to the land.
Plan A prime: YHWH brings the monarchy to its fullness in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who radically redefines kingship and, while the people await the full arrival of the Kingdom, remains present in localized iterations of the Kingdom called Church. (28-35)

As mentioned before, the latter schema encompasses the former, but as McKnight relates things, the ABA‘ narrative, because its focus is not on atomized individuals but on Israel, the chosen people of God who become the focus of the Biblical witness in Genesis and remain so in Paul's letters and the gospels. In this model, salvation is inclusion into Israel, which is always more than the Old Testament imagines but never less than the Old Testament imagines. Israel, like the Torah, is never abolished, being an eternal gift of God, but expands to encompass folks from all nations when Jesus of Nazareth brings to fullness the suffering mission of Israel. Although McKnight doesn't use this phrase, I read his strong emphasis on Israel as the core of the Biblical message as an affirmation of open and acknowledged mediation. In other words, the Bible does not pretend (as do many "relationship not religion" sorts) that God comes to the individual human being without also bringing along Temple, Torah, sages, scribes, and a dozen other vehicles that generate as well as transmit meaning.
For the Liberals: A More Rigorous Vocabulary

McKnight spends more time countering liberals than conservatives, and his rationale appears in an appendix (which he labels as an alternative introduction to the book, for more academically-experienced readers). Because so many young evangelicals have begun to use "kingdom" in ways influenced by (among others) Walter Rauschenbusch and Gustavo Gutierrez, McKnight argues, the separation between "church" and "kingdom" is one that many young evangelicals assume rather than examine, and his section on the history of "kingdom" as a concept is aimed not at stopping the young for doing good works alongside and in behalf of the poor but rather to re-situate those practices in a more Biblical theological framework (239-54).

Kingdom, as McKnight writes over and over, is "a people governed by a king" (69 et. al.). McKnight produces texts from across the Old and New Testaments to demonstrate that the Bible seldom uses the term to mean anything but a complex entity including both the sovereign and the people currently being governed by that sovereign (73-74). It's one of around 100 metaphors for the people-whose-allegiance-is-with-God (75), and when the New Testament uses "kingdom," it's just as likely to refer to a current, present-tense reality as it is to refer to a to-come reality (86-87). The implications are hard to dodge, and McKnight goes ahead and states the claim plainly: "there is no kingdom now outside the church" (87).

The claim is audacious and, after a lifetime of hearing the contrary, counter-intuitive, but the evidence, on the verse level and on the big-narrative level, is there, and McKnight does not shy away from the implications. In fact, McKnight spends the second half of the book tracing out how Christians ought to imagine acts of benevolence, the relationships between democratic/representative political power and "kingdom work," and other theological results if in fact the kingdom, in this time between the times, is coextensive with Church. And much to my pleasure, the second half of his book reads like a commentary on Resident Aliens for a new generation.

Conceiving of ourselves as a polis, as an instantiation of the Kingdom on earth (but, as McKnight insists, not to be confused with the kingdom-to-come, which will do what Kingdom does, but perfectly), McKnight suggests a politics that always names Jesus as its sovereign. Such a kingdom, in the moment and always awaiting what's to come, insists upon witness and of hospitality, living as a community that welcomes the stranger, provides for those who need, forgives sins, and does everything that a good king in a good kingdom does, and all in the name of King Jesus. Such does not make every act of benevolence "kingdom work," McKnight suggests, but does oblige all who are saved to do such acts of goodness, not because God likes us more when we do so but because we're free from the fears that keep other folks from so helping.

With regards to the more partisan sorts of "kingdom work," McKnight suggests that Christians consider carefully the coercive nature of voting, an institution that claims to be the "will of the people" but often represents the worst impulses of the majority and imposes ways of life on the minority that fall far short of "do unto others." Whether Christians are trying to impose God's vision of sexuality or God's vision of economics on those who have not received God's invitation, Kingdom Conspiracy suggests, that sort of "lording over" strategy is likely to do more damage to the name of God in the world than good. McKnight's vision is for the Church always to practice self-criticism first, in light of the big narratives of the Bible, so that we can present to a watching world a way of life that only makes sense under the rule of the true king. The aim, in other words, is not to make the world the Kingdom but to be the Kingdom and to invite the world to join in on the fun.

Ultimately McKnight regards Liberation Theology as not much more than a reiteration of the GOP-evangelical axis, both tendencies sharing the assumption that the true site of salvation in the world is not an invitation to live in a parallel community that waits for the fullness of Israel's promise but a will to impose a version of order on people who have no opportunity to receive or reject that invitation (207). Against that vision of how Christians are to relate to world, McKnight plumbs the Bible for a better notion of Kingdom and ultimately a renewed self-examination of why we do good for our neighbors.

It's a powerful vision, a church-centered and a Christ-centered vision,and one that I'm going to recommend to a friend of mine who currently assigns Resident Aliens to his Christian Ethics class.


How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee
by Bart D. Ehrman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $21.41
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good book for clarifying one's own philosophy of history, June 27, 2014
I doubt that he would ever admit it (he goes to some length to note that he’s spent eight years researching this book), but I can’t help but wonder whether Bart Ehrman put this book before the public in order to make a bid to top Reza Aslan’s Zealot in the public’s conversation about the historical Jesus. (I reviewed Aslan’s book last year here at the Christian Humanist.) Like Aslan’s book, Ehrman’s goes to some length to establish that history, as a discipline, comes to some conclusions about Jesus of Nazareth that don’t fit well with popular American conceptions of Jesus, the Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, and so on. But unlike Aslan’s book, Ehrman’s engages with a broader range of contemporary scholarship, explains in more detail the ways in which modern scholars go about evaluating the historical weight of different parts of the Bible, and overall pays more attention to the particularities of Jesus that made his messianic movement rather than other Jewish holy men’s become the world religion that, among other things, gave the world the historical context in which modern universities make sense. In other words, this is a better book than Reza Aslan’s, and I appreciated that at every step.

Reading through this book reminded me in good ways of the discoveries I made as a student in college- and seminary-level New Testament classes, and it gave me occasion to remember and to rethink some of the things that I first learned then. The nice thing about books like How Jesus Became God is that their philosophical commitments are relatively easy to find, making the book an occasion for examining one’s own views of history, the relationships between miracles and history and evidence and such, and otherwise to think carefully about Jesus. And as I’ve said more than once and in more than one context, the best books are not those that too readily provide obvious answers but those that force one to ask questions that one had not before considered. This book certainly does that job, if one is willing to disagree sometimes with words in print.

What Do You Mean, “Son of God”?

One of the best features of Ehrman’s book is the attention he pays to the broad spectrum of narratives and backgrounds that make the phrase “Son of God” so interesting as a subject of study and so difficult as a relationship between historically-developing concept and a doctrine of the Christian faith. Ehrman spends a fair span of pages exploring not only Greco-Roman narratives in which human beings are also divine but also Biblical and Second-Temple Jewish moments in which the categories of the human and the divine become something other than distinct. On one side obviously there are the sons born when Zeus pursues and seduces pretty human girls, but there are also stories like that of Baucis and Philemon, who become divine figures as a reward for their hospitality (20) and Apollonius, who becomes divine through his dedication to philosophy (12). On the Jewish side there are apocalyptic figures like Enoch from the Book of Enoch (60), but even in the canonical Biblical books there are figures like the king of Jerusalem, who is in some sense begotten of God according to Psalm 2 (77) and Moses, who explicitly says that he will be as a God for Aaron (81). Since the world of the New Testament finds its center in Jerusalem but extends to the heart of Greco-Roman cultural and political power, “Son of God” in such a world is not a readily-established category but an ongoing literary negotiation, and How Jesus Became God does a good job of exhibiting that complexity.

In my own teaching, mainly in church contexts, I’ve also spent some time noting that “son of God,” depending on whether one is in Ephesus or Rome, in Jerusalem or at Qumran, would have been a term that needed context, not something that an early Christian could assume that everyone knew (or even that early Christians themselves knew in its fullness). It’s not any great surprise that Christian thinkers and writers for upwards of four centuries had before them the tasks of defining and refining what those categories meant; after all, they were both complex in their origins and hard to establish conceptually.

However, even with all of this flexibility, Ehrman ends up concluding that Jesus, the historical figure, ultimately could not have seen himself as “God” or “Son of God” in any of these respects. His arguments against that self-understanding have their roots in German-style, historical-critical Biblical studies, and revisiting that project was perhaps the most interesting part of this endeavor for me.

Three Dogmas of the Jesus Seminar

When I was a freshman at Milligan College, I learned my New Testament from David L. Matson, a professor I still remember as one of the best from whom I ever learned. Among the many new things I learned from Matson was the battery of questions that members of the Jesus Seminar (as well as other scholars) posed when speculating about which sayings in the four canonical gospels were Jesus’s historical utterances and which ones were the inventions of later generations. At the time, half of my years ago, those methods were nothing short of revolutionary: I discovered that New Testament scholarship was not mere reproduction of established narrative but a complex practice, parts documentary investigation and speculation about ancient authors’ motives, parts rhetorical contest and positioning rival theories as inadequate. Re-engaging with Ehrman’s presentation of the three big methodological assumptions of the Jesus Seminar (he calls it “New Testament Scholarship” generally, but the continued activity of N.T. Wright makes me cautious that such a label is overly broad) was a fascinating exercise, largely because of the questions that occurred to me in my late thirties that didn’t when I was a teenager.

The method has not changed much since 1995, and I found myself in familiar territory as Ehrman explained the procedures by which New Testament scholars (of the same persuasion as the Jesus Seminar) made calls of authenticity and of later addition. Among the tests to which the Jesus Seminar would put a saying of Jesus or a New Testament episode more generally are the following:

1. Independent Attestation (95 et al.): If a saying of Jesus appears in a plurality of written sources, then that saying is more likely to be historical than those saying appearing only in one source. Ehrman counts the baptism of Jesus (which appears in all three synoptics), the crucifixion (all four gospels), and certain apocalyptic sayings in this category, while he discounts the “I am” sayings of John for the same reason. (He agrees, basically, with the Jesus Seminar on all of these points.) The criterion seems reasonable on its face: when only one source features a saying or an episode, there’s some reason to wonder why other texts do not see fit to repeat it. However, as Ehrman himself notes, the textual sources available to a historical Jesus scholar are few and far between, and uniformly they’re “insider” documents, texts written by Christians and for Christians, for the first couple centuries at least. So the more skeptical version of myself, in 2014, wonders whether multiple attestation and, more importantly, lone attestation might be a function of textual contingency rather than historical priority. To put it another way, since the extant Christian corpus of the first century is so sparse, I have a hard time saying dogmatically that there’s only one source with “I Am” sayings; for all I know, there might have been more that got destroyed in fires, floods, or other bibliographical disasters.

Moreover, relatively few New Testament scholars deny that, as a matter of probability, there were likely many streams of oral tradition and moments of congregational teaching which simply never became part of the modern age’s extant written record. Beyond that, in many of his examples through the book, Ehrman posits, for instance, that Mark shares a certain bit of narrative with the hypothetical Q source (95), a move that requires a reader to rely on comparisons between extant and hypothetical sources in order to determine the reliability of an episode.For those reasons, I came away from Ehrman’s treatment of this criterion not confident in its ability to tell “historical” matter from “invented” but more convinced than before that New Testament scholarship is inherently a literary and rhetorical investigation, reading closely what we have but (when we can restrain ourselves) not assuming that what we have represents all the communication about Jesus happening on the ground in those early Christian decades.

2. Dissimilarity (96 et al.): If the content of a saying or an episode differs from the core beliefs of the community transmitting the episode, then that saying or episode is more likely to be historical than those whose content agrees with the doctrines of the early Christians. Ehrman points to sayings of Jesus that he reads as “apocalyptic” (which he interprets rather narrowly as the utter and final termination of historical change) as meeting this criterion, saying that, because the early Christians would have been embarrassed to invent this material (history continues to wreak change, after all), it’s more likely original Jesus-material. On the other hand, he finds the moments when Jesus foretells his own crucifixion to be inauthentic according to this criterion, noting that such sayings would validate, not scandalize, the early Christians, who came to regard the crucifixion as the destiny of Jesus rather than an unfortunate turn of events. (Again, none of this disagrees with standard Jesus-Seminar scholarship.)

This criterion strains credulity more than the first one, largely because it assumes on one hand a Platonic disregard for textual fidelity and on the other a sort of incompetence with regards to carrying out the agenda of a growing religious movement. Plato, in Republic, has Socrates advocate a sort of Bowdlerization of the text of Homer for the sake of educating the guardians of the good city. Socrates would excise those episodes that have heroes or gods behaving badly, driven by lust or cowardice or any vices of any sort, so that the “Homer” that remains for the education of the guardians would feature only good gods, good heroes, and good examples. (To his credit, Aristotle theorizes a broader notion of what good literature can do in the Poetics.) So in the hypothetical Socratic Homer, the text would not feature any embarrassing bits, whereas the extant text of Homer decidedly does. That makes some sense, since Plato never was the primary curator of the text of Homer, but it would mark Plato as somewhat of a dolt if we knew, historically, that he had a mind to edit out the embarrassing bits of the Odyssey but ultimately did not read carefully enough to catch those passages.

What Ehrman would have us believe (and he’s not making this up; it’s the standard way that folks teach New Testament studies in the late-modern academy) is that early Christians were brazen enough to invent Jesus-sayings in many cases but either too lazy, too superstitious, or otherwise incompetent to excise (a la Socrates) the remaining moments that prove “embarrassing.” Moreover, Ehrman’s treatment of dissimilarity assumes that the sort of reading that a twentieth-century German professor (as opposed, for example, to that offered by a sixteenth-century Augustinian monk or an eighteenth-century New England preacher), is self-evidently the single most valid reading, meaning that, for instance, “the end of the age” of which Jesus spoke can’t be a spiritual transformation of world history (in which the Kingdom is both already among the faithful and not yet among the nations more broadly) but must be something more like the cataclysm that modern folks imagine, what with our knowledge of astronomical cycles and geological phenomena. In other words, there’s some historical Chauvinism at play in the way that dissimilarity gets deployed, and even when it does function honestly, it assumes too much about the transmission process. For a strong alternative to the dogma of dissimilarity, I recommend N.T. Wright’s take on things in The New Testament and the People of God. Wright’s contention, which is neither the Jesus-Seminar consensus nor a simple reversion to Fundamentalism, suggests that the person Jesus is just a viable a candidate as are the early Christians for originating what later becomes the sayings of Jesus in the synoptic gospels. In fact, Wright suggests, continuities between Jesus and early Christianity might be superior to moments of discontinuity as markers of historical authenticity precisely because they mark those teachings, narratives, and symbols that emerge in the Christians’ version of Jewish Apocalypticism but not that of, say, the Qumran community or the early Rabbinic movement. With that said, I don’t think that Ehrman’s project in How Jesus Became God is to break new ground but to present an introduction to the Jesus-Seminar way of doing historical Jesus scholarship, so the fault here is not with Ehrman’s book so much as with the tradition within which Ehrman writes.

3. Contextual Credibility (98 et al.): This is the criterion that Reza Aslan’s Zealot most readily championed. If the content of a saying or episode is intelligible within a first-century, apocalyptic Jewish context, then that episode’s content is more likely historically authentic than would be episodes’ content that differ radically from fist-century apocalyptic Judaism. On first glance, this would seem to contradict the second criterion. After all, if dissimilarity is the mark of authenticity in one direction, then similarity doesn’t seem like it should be the coin of the realm in the other. But beyond that, as I noted in my review of Aslan, such a criterion discounts the possibility that Jesus himself might have been a source of historical change. The commitments involved in such a denial are complex, but at the least they assume that Jesus was illiterate (which is a speculative claim rather than one rooted in actual documentary evidence), that an illiterate person cannot have new ideas (which is a claim that says more about literate people’s sense of class-superiority than about Jesus, as far as I can tell), and that therefore that the real revolutions in the consciousness of those who followed Jesus (documented well in David B. Hart’s book Atheist Delusions) must have come not from the illiterate peasant from Galilee but from the educated scribal class of diaspora Judaism. (I’ll leave to our readers to judge whether the Chauvinism that I see is really there in the methodology.) For my money, the possibility (that Wright documents in New Testament and the People of God) that Jesus himself might have been the source of the revolution is just as plausible as the theory holding that Jesus could not have been, and it requires less credulity that the real brains behind the operation were content to remain historically anonymous, preferring instead to point backwards to an otherwise-unremarkable peasant revolutionary.

I rehearse all of these not simply as an exercise in re-examining what I learned as a younger man (though that’s fun in its own right) but because, even for those who no longer agree with the methodological consensus of the Jesus Seminar (as I don’t) stand to benefit from clear articulations of one living tradition within the field, and Ehrman without a doubt provides that in this section. Once again, his project here is not to establish something never-before-written but to bring to a popular audience the consensus position of a powerful group within the guild. Set alongside something like N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, this section of the book stands to be an excellent introduction to the difficulties of talking about “the historical Jesus” and all of the intellectual questions that involve themselves in distinguishing such a figure from the Jesus of American piety. When I set those three pictures of Jesus (Ehrman’s/conventional SBL, Wright’s, and American evangelical) next to each other, I come out the other side largely favoring Wright’s picture, but that’s not to say that everyone will. But that’s what history’s about, as far as I can tell.

Resurrection and the Rise of Christianity

When Ehrman turns to the resurrection, a reader with some background in Enlightenment philosophy will easily spot the assumptions that frame his readings of the great works of Jesus. When it comes to the life of Jesus up to and including the crucifixion, Ehrman is a fairly predictable Jesus-Seminar man. Once Christians start singing the Resurrection, he becomes a disciple of David Hume in a relative hurry.

Ehrman begins his treatment of the resurrection noting (rightly) that, among Jewish apocalyptic movements, Jesus’s followers, as a group, were unique in that they claimed that their Messiah had risen from the dead (131). He points to evidence in the Pauline epistles that certain poetic formulae, which Paul seems to be quoting rather than inventing, already make reference to the Resurrection, indicating a very early date for that claim (138). And as the book goes on, Ehrman repeats at every turn that resurrection is a cornerstone of what eventually becomes Christianity and that, without claims about the resurrection, Jesus would be simply one failed messiah among many, joining the long list of historical footnotes that litter the Roman Imperial period.

When he shifts his focus from Christians’ claims about resurrection to the event that Christians call the Resurrection, on the other hand, Ehrman’s philosophy becomes somewhat more ambiguous. When at first he addresses the question of whether Jesus Christ lived, then died, then lived again, Ehrman demurs, asserting that “there is no way for historians to know one way or the other, using the historical approach to establishing what happened in the past” (146-47). Ehrman roots such epistemological abstinence in the fact that academic history is a pan-religious phenomenon, that historians with philosophical objections to the actual occurrence of miracles ought to be able to work alongside Muslims, Latter-Day Saints, and evangelical Christians, and all of them should be able to do history and have it recognized by the others (147). Thus, while historians can and should write about people who believe in miracles, the occurrence or non-occurrence of miracles themselves seems simply to be off-limits for historical assertion. So he seems, in these passages, somewhat committed to a postmodern approach to history, avoiding the metanarratives that would assume every inexplicable event to be reducible to fraud, psychosis, hallucination, or other materialist explanation.

But that doesn’t hold up long. Not many pages later, Ehrman slips up, showing that a strong separation between matters of “faith” and those of “history,” because they inhabit the same matrix of human stories, don’t want to stay out of each other’s business. After noting some of the theories behind the empty tomb that have arisen over the years, Ehrman brings the Resurrection squarely into the realm of historical inquiry:

I don’t subscribe to any of these alternative views because I don’t think we know what happened to the body of Jesus. But simply looking at the matter from a historical point of view, any of these views is more plausible than the claim that God raised Jesus physically from the dead. [...] My point is that one could think of dozens of plausible scenarios for why a tomb would be empty, and any one of these scenarios is, strictly speaking more plausible than an act of God. (165, emphasis added)

That Ehrman exhibits philosophical convictions ultimately does not make the book a failure; his exhibition of those convictions, however, does indicate that a thoroughgoing skepticism is darn hard to maintain. Ultimately Ehrman does not table questions of “belief” so that he can focus on matters of “fact.” Rather, Ehrman’s frequent invocations of “historical inquiry itself” and “the historical point of view” are, like similar invocations made by Reza Aslan and others, shorthand for certain, contingent, historically intelligible philosophical commitments, and in Ehrman’s case these seem to be those of David Hume. Ultimately Ehrman is going to write about alternative explanations as “more probable” than divine actions, and someone like me is, in turn, going to turn the historical spotlight on the one giving those possibilities such priority, noting that the philosophical commitment to agnosticism seems to determine beforehand which possibilities are really possibilities.

Then, thinking historically, it only makes sense to turn one’s attention to those earlier texts that share such philosophical commitments. Hume’s chapter “On Miracles” in his great book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding holds that all phenomena that human beings experience directly, as well as those related to human beings by means of testimony, are subject to the same rules of probability. Thus a miracle, or “an act of God” in Ehrman’s words, strains the criteria of relative probability, according to Hume:

A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined. Why is it more than probable, that all men must die; that lead cannot, of itself, remain suspended in the air; that fire consumes wood, and is extinguished by water; unless it be, that these events are found agreeable to the laws of nature, and there is required a violation of these laws, or in other words, a miracle to prevent them? Nothing is esteemed a miracle, if it ever happen in the common course of nature. It is no miracle that a man, seemingly in good health, should die on a sudden: because such a kind of death, though more unusual than any other, has yet been frequently observed to happen. But it is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life; because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the existence of any miracle; nor can such a proof be destroyed, or the miracle rendered credible, but by an opposite proof, which is superior. 12
The plain consequence is (and it is a general maxim worthy of our attention), ‘that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.’ When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

The elegance of the theory is undeniable, and beyond that, it has the advantage of treating the world as unified: there’s no pretense of shuffling off matters of “faith” (and anyone who’s taken introductory theology classes knows that such a use of “faith” is woefully inadequate) matters about which human beings differ. Instead, Hume recognizes that historical disputes are inherently rhetorical exchanges, and he makes the case, based on probability rather than experimental repetition or logical necessity, that miracles are, as a category of claims, less probable than claims of fraud, delusion, and other more-common happenings.

To be fair, I tend to be a Humean about as often as Ehrman suspects that Christians are. And to grant another point, I’m reticent to dig much into the mechanical “how” of Biblical signs and wonders; I’m more interested in the rhetorical force of miracle-narratives than I am in explaining the processes by which a blind man is healed or a demon cast out. (This is one of the main reasons that I enjoy listening to Homebrewed Christianity’s “Theology Nerd Throwdown”: the process-thought movement in theology engages in just such speculation, and it’s good fun to listen to them attempt explanations of the miraculous.) Such is not to say that Ehrman himself is necessarily right or wrong for being a Humean or that he should or should not be ashamed of the same. It is to say that he should acknowledge his own philosophical convictions openly rather than making the reader play detective trying to find them.

The second half of the book (which I will treat far more briefly) gives a good historical summary of the ways that the New Testament and the first few centuries of Christian writing deal with the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact God. Some of his claims, particularly about the New Testament, rely on the methodological dogmas outlined above and thus don’t convince me as he might want, but for the most part, he does show his work through this section. When he gets to figures like Justin Martyr and Tertullian, his treatments rely a fair bit on his Humean philosophy and thus don’t convince me as he might want, but for the most part, he does show his sources.

Ehrman does make some squirrelly claims late in the book, first of all that Orthodox Christians tended to manipulate the Bible, adding things that support their dogmas and excising things that did not, while those branded heretics tended not to (294). Readers who know New Testament criticism no doubt will recognize the criterion of dissimilarity operating here, perhaps thrown into greater relief by the scope of the conspiracy-theory credulity that has to be in place as the centuries roll along. Beyond that, of course, Marcion’s own alterations to the gospel of Luke, in an attempt to establish an anti-Jewish Christianity over against the Old-Testament-reading Orthodox, are well documented, making me at least wonder whether Ehrman’s own biography as a former evangelical isn’t leading him, by the late stages of the book, into claims that his otherwise careful historical investigations should shield him from. Beyond that, Ehrman makes a move not unlike Aslan’s in Zealot when he claims that he, as an agnostic Bible scholar, is a follower of the historical Jesus (as opposed to the dogmas of the Church) in ways that evangelicals often are not (354). Such a choice, rhetorically, might have the benefit of tweaking the right sorts of noses, but it largely ignores the work of the rest of the book. A project that establishes that Jesus, the historical figure, was a mistaken proclaimer of a cosmic annihilation that did not in fact come to pass, then claims that the author of the study has reason to be a follower of that failure, strikes me as an odd testimony to the lingering cultural capital of Jesus, even among those most dedicated to shifting the religious engine of Christianity away from the Galilean.
A Worthwhile Read but Not Ground-Breaking

Time will tell, but my hunch is that, without a Fox News interview that goes YouTube-viral, this book will not become as well-known as Aslan’s. And that’s a pity, because it’s a better book than Zealot. I can recommend this book to folks who want a brush-up on their New Testament Introduction, to folks who are interested in seeing a fairly conventional New Testament professor’s take on historical Jesus questions. This book doesn’t break new ground the way that N.T. Wright does, but that’s ultimately no crime for a book.

I will reiterate that the best way to read a book like Ehrman’s is to go in not with an eye for where one can “prove him wrong” or to get “ammunition” for later deployment against those who differ but paying attention to the large arguments that animate modern Jesus-scholarship. Ultimately the choice that a careful reader of Ehrman or Wright or even Aslan must make is what sort of story one tells about the world, whether in fact divine action is an intelligible category, historically speaking, and whether it’s better to table claims of divine act until Sunday morning worship starts; whether it’s better to acknowledge one’s convictions at the outset, then tell a full-bodied story (which integrates what Ehrman wants to segregate into zones of “faith” and of “history) as truly as one can muster,; or whether it’s better to engage the reading and writing and conversation of history in ways that I’ve not imagined here. Nothing is settled when one goes in with those commitments, but then again, the Son of Man does not have any place to lay his head either.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 28, 2014 3:10 PM PDT


Justified Season 5
Justified Season 5
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5.0 out of 5 stars Bring on the Crowes!, April 10, 2014
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I've liked Dewey Crowe since the first season of Justified--he's the lovable, incompetent small-time crook whose (entirely unreal) sense of his own importance stands as a handy contrast to the big-time crooks that populate Harlan County. But I didn't think a season dedicated to his extended family could do much worthwhile story-telling.

I was wrong.

The Crowes, coming in from Florida, become quickly a hard-punching, dangerous, and ultimately indispensable counterpart to the more measured, Machiavellian Crowder clan. By season's end, you learn to look at Boyd and Bo and Johnny and Ava differently precisely because they're not the Crowes.

I wish on some level that Art had remained as central to the story as he had been in previous seasons; his one-liners are my favorite counterparts to Boyd Crowder's great set-piece speeches. But once again, the Justified crew has proven that my instincts about what's necessary and what will work are patchy at best; Justified season 5 does not lose a step, and I anticipate a final season that leaves us all looking for the next show that can join The Wire and Justified as the next really great crime-drama TV series.


Truth and Method
Truth and Method
by Hans Georg Gadamer
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars Conservative Postmodernism at its finest, April 7, 2014
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This review is from: Truth and Method (Paperback)
I read and blogged through this book with a fellow professor and friend in the summer of 2013, and I now know where so many of my own philosophies of interpretation and education, picked up here and there along the way, have their roots. Gadamer begins with the Hegelian notion of Bildungsroman, the narrative of educational transformation, and builds from there into a defense for the particular kinds of knowledge that emerge out of the "human sciences" of philosophy, literary criticism, theology, and other sorts of discourses that I teach and love. Instead of trying to justify the humanities as slightly-defective versions of chemistry and physics, Gadamer insists not that the laboratory is an inadequate philosophical library but that the two modes of knowing, because they behave differently and produce different kinds of fruit, are two genuinely different and genuinely good ways to know.

I strongly recommend that folks with some background in philosophy and history take this book on; it's well worth the hard read.


Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom
Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom
by John C. Bean
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars This is how folks ought to do second editions, April 7, 2014
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I expected, to be honest, the standard academic-textbook game, a new cover and some re-pagination, topped off with an inflated price tag.

What can I say? I've gotten jaded.

John Bean, however, gave me occasion to doubt my own suspicions. The new Engaging Ideas brings in bodies of scholarship that have been at the forefront of rhetoric and composition studies in the fifteen years since the first edition, and the new chapter about departmental-level curriculum design has been a boon when I've used this book in new-faculty training. The old edition was already one of the strongest resources for faculty training on the market; the new edition might just claim the title of singularly helpful volume.

Bravo.


Klaeber's Beowulf, Fourth Edition
Klaeber's Beowulf, Fourth Edition
by Robert E. Bjork
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5.0 out of 5 stars They've Made a Monument More Monumental, April 7, 2014
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I purchased the red-covered hardback Klaeber as a graduate student and soon realized that it was nothing short of a history of scholarship in a single volume. This year, teaching Beowulf in the Old English to undergraduates, I purchased this new University of Toronto edition of the same and realized that they had not only updated the bibliographies to include the last few decades but also beefed up the translation notes, provided illustrations, and otherwise made significant improvements even while issuing the volume as a more-affordable paperback. I cannot but offer a hearty Hwćt! in praise of the new Klaeber.


The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life
The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life
by Bradley G. Green
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good questions, even when I differ on the answers, April 7, 2014
Sometimes folks who have recently learned about the synoptic gospels’ emphasis on the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, or Kin-dom of God if you’re Tripp Fuller) succumb a certain temptation towards reductionism. Where other people want to talk about church or goodness or gospel or salvation or any of a dozen theologically weighty words, the one who has newly discovered kingdom-language will sometimes, though not always, say things like “I don’t work for the church; I work for the Kingdom” or “I don’t want to tell people about salvation; I want to tell them about the Kingdom.” No biggie, I figure: after all, Christians who learn that theology has a strong interest in linguistics often declare strange grammatical fiats: Martin Luther was nothing short of a force in intellectual history, yet in On the Bondage of the Will he invokes “Christ” as an antonym of “free will” (even though Erasmus and a fair number of folks who aren’t Erasmus would posit “fatalism” or “determinism” as the antonym for “free will” and “Christ” as a term that’s supremely important even if it doesn’t have a ready antonym). And folks who aren’t by any means Martin Luther often fall into traps like opposing “religion” to “relationship,” declaring that there’s no such thing as a “church building,” or decreeing that “Christian” shall not be used as an adjective. I don’t think that any of these move reflect dullness or duplicity; rather, I see them as evidence that the claims of Christian theology are exciting and world-shaking, and one pious response to such cosmic quakes is to insist that language also change to reflect the new creation which is Christ and which accompanies Christ.

Linguistics isn’t the only place where the grand seismic impact of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus sometimes tempt people into reductionism, of course. Politically, folks get tempted to think that the particular sexual politics of Moses or the revolutionary economic politics of Moses can become part of late-modern nation-states’ national law without causing trouble that does positive harm to the cause of Moses and Jesus. Scientifically, folks get tempted either to recast the work of Jesus in terms of this moment’s theories of how the world works, sometimes rendering Christian theology unrecognizable to much of the long tradition of Christian intellectual inquiry. Or, perhaps even worse, some insist that this moment’s theories of how the world works give way because a certain reading of the Christian Scriptures does not leave room for such readings of the world.

Bradley G. Green does not make these sorts of political or biological mistakes, and he does not make reductive linguistic mistakes. In fact, most of his big philosophical points are well-taken for a Christian thinker and provide a good springboard for careful, theologically-inflected thinking. I would contend, however, that he does succumb to a certain temptation, namely to ignore the possibility that postmodern thought might about language just take Augustine’s notion of the saeculum more seriously than he does, even as he cites Augustine as his reason for opposing them.

Green starts out on a note that I often sound when I think with others about big questions, namely with the fact that networks of rhetorical moves and convictions and modes of argument tend to have at their utmost reaches some sort of “ultimate term,” to borrow from Kenneth Burke and Richard Weaver. In other words, intellectual activity that’s serious at all is in some sense theological (Green 20). Green sets out in The Gospel and the Mind to ponder what sorts of vocabularies and common-grounds emerge when the Christian God is, within a rhetorical system, the ultimate term, or in other words when God is the god-term. Central to Green’s articulation of a Christian philosophy is memory, a central point of inquiry in Augustine’s Confessions and, for Green, a check against the chronological snobbery of the post-war university (46). In fact, Green’s outlook on the contemporary university is so bleak that, early in his book, he begins invoking Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing thoughts in After Virtue, calling for Christians to prepare for “the new dark ages which are already upon us” (MacIntyre, qtd. in Green 49). To go post-fall-of-the-Empire so early in the book might seem a desperation move, but I will say, as someone who shares MacIntyre’s pessimism to some extent, that it lent the rest of the book a sense of urgency, even where I disagreed with some of its moves.

Having set the table with that image, Green goes on to criticize three large lapses in the life of the university, each in his account surrendering the robust life of the mind that should characterize good Christian thinking:

1. The late-modern university has forsaken a notion of teleology, a sense that reality at large and human existence in particular moves towards some intelligible end, in Christian theology some sort of unity with God (59-60). Green highlights that Augustine (whose picture adorns the book’s cover and who often serves as Green’s intellectual hero) always frames all inquiry in eschatological terms (74) and that a sense of eschatology renders all important questions theological (76). Without that sense of ultimate, final-cause purpose, the university always falls under threat of being deemed “useless” (69) and thus not worth the cultural investment. With a divine telos, the university offers to shape souls so that they desire what God has in store. The Dantean shape of his vision is quite compelling here.

2. The late-modern university has replaced vocation as animating image for the university with the more abstract concept of consumeristic choice (112). When nothing beyond one’s own whim offers the structure of one’s existence, the notion that knowledge is for power rather than service becomes entirely intelligible (108-109). Here Green performs an articulate, workable variation on the famous aphorism from Smerdyakov (and others) in The Karamazov Brothers that “if there is no God all things are permitted.” Although I don’t remember Green’s mentioning that novel (he does nod to Crime and Punishment in passing), I like that, along the same lines that Dostoevsky’s characters operate, the conviction is not merely a statement about modern-era atheism but a larger philosophical point about “leaving blank” the places where ultimate terms should order a philosophical system. No vacuum happens, of course; whether the world-historical Will steps into that place or whether consumer whim does, something becomes the god-term.

3. The late-modern university has given up on a linguistic philosophy that seeks out (and thus posits the possibility of) correspondences between linguistic signs and super-linguistic things. While Green does dismiss the idea of “ideal words” for certain concepts (those, for instance, that would hold that intelligible hierarchies of propriety are possible when deciding whether to call a given piece of fruit “manzano” or “apple” or “malum”) but does insist, for instance, that the water involved in baptism has some sort of essential characteristic that makes it, and nothing else, suitable to become the sign for the Holy Spirit (127-28). Thus “this world in some sense ‘calls out’ for proper language about itself” (129). From this concern Green launches into a long section against Derrida in particular and deconstruction more generally. For Green, because Derrida’s philosophy holds all linguistic formulations to be partial, always open to possibilities deferred, and because deconstruction as a philosophical conversation tends not to posit, except perhaps tentatively and even then only negatively, how knowledge beyond that deferral might be, postmodernism lacks telos and thus intelligibility (140). Although Green concedes that post-lapsarian language is always sullied with sin and never, in our given moment, beyond further criticism (142), he insists that deconstruction, unlike its predecessors, “rule[s] out” the possibility of repentance as an intelligible act and thus locks language in its current state, never allowing for a story to transform the one hearing the story (142)

As I noted at the outset of this essay, I find much of Green’s work here compelling. Like Neil Postman in The End of Education, Green does a good job of showing that an inadequate sense of big-narrative will often lead us human beings into self-justifying bureaucratic swamps, in which schools strive for higher standardized test scores because test scores show signs of “performance,” and “performance” means higher standardized test scores. And like James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Green shows himself rightly and deeply suspicious of “choice” as a god-term, not denying that “choice” might be a means to avoid certain modes of tyranny but insisting that, without something beyond “choice,” the tyranny of the state gives way only to a collection of mini-tyrannies, a heap of self-contained dictatorships of the will without any sense that there’s a good towards which the polis strives.

But his arguments against postmodern philosophy of language strikes me as less helpful. Vocation and teleology have in common that they always pull us, in our present existence, towards something beyond our present existence. If we ever become convinced that our own state, what we became in a past moment, is the point at which one arrives, we’ve betrayed what it means to be called, to strive towards an end that’s not identical with what precedes. The hope of the resurrection, in both of those cases, is that, when moments have passed and eternity has unfolded, we’ll live not with a calling voice but with some reality that Christians have called Beatific Vision and Theosis and other such things. But in the meantime, the call is always before us. While we’re mortal, the end is always to come, deferred to another moment, not identical with things as they stand but beyond the next act of critique and exposure of the contradictions that make our moment secular, not eternal.

Sound familiar?

My suspicion is that, in his rush to oppose Derrida and the postmoderns, Green has ignored that their project is something along the lines of a postmodern of the secular existence, what Augustine would regard not as the truest sort of being but what we live with until Christ comes again. My respect not only for Derrida but also for Foucault and Marx and Hegel and many Continental philosophers is not that they offer much along the lines of aspirational visions (even Hegel and Marx are smart enough to realize that what lies beyond the next revolution is unintelligible in our own moment) but that they help to articulate and help us to live intelligently while we wait. From intelligibility perhaps faithful response can happen, and a life of responding faithfully, intelligently, might never turn the spheres any faster towards the ends of things but might well bear witness to something beyond.

But two out of three ain’t bad (I learned that from Meat Loaf), and ultimately this book was an enjoyable reminder that the content of our confessions bears on all of the intellectual moves that we make, philosophically and rhetorically and poetically. I imagine that folks looking for a friendly, accessible refresher in what it means to be a distinctively Christian thinker would do well to give this book a visit.


Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy
Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy
by Walter Brueggemann
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Book that Taught Me to Read the Bible, February 5, 2014
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Walter Brueggemann’s big Old Testament theology, which I read as a seminarian in 2000, has decidedly stood the test of time. As I recently re-read it, slowly, each chapter reminded me just how much Brueggemann’s approach, emphasizing as it does the inherent plurality of the Biblical witness, has given me permission to be postmodern (even as THAT’s gone out of style) and faithful to the Bible, both a confessing Christian and someone who’s ready to listen to readings from beyond the walls of the seminary. I’ve certainly changed over the years, not nearly as ready as I was thirteen years ago to dismiss out of hand the grand complex project which is Platonic philosophy, but when it comes to how I teach and read and meditate on the Scriptures, I’m still a Brueggemaniac all this time later.


Medieval English Literature
Medieval English Literature
by Thomas J. Garbaty
Edition: Paperback
Price: $50.02
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5.0 out of 5 stars A monument of scholarship, January 12, 2014
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I recommend this volume to any of my own students who want to pursue Middle English literature beyond the standard Chaucer anthology pieces. The in-line glossaries and the scholarly apparatus are wonderful, and the selection of texts provides years of good study.


Sons of Anarchy Season 6
Sons of Anarchy Season 6
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4.0 out of 5 stars Losing some steam but still very good TV, January 12, 2014
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I've watched every episode of Sons, and while the jealous-mother-bear storyline is wearing a bit thin, recurring characters and recent additions continue to make this some of the strongest storytelling on television. I'm certain I'm tuning in for the final season.


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