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Friday, January 9, 2015

Did Newsweek's Article Against Evangelicals Succeed?

Toward the end of 2014, Newsweek ran an article (click here) by Kurt Eichenwald which attempted to discredit American Conservative Christians. According to Eichenwald, these Evangelicals or Bible literalists are responsible for are responsible for a number of real sins and social faux pas that have hurt many and have impeded society's progress. Since these literalists use the Bible as one would use a ladder to work on part of a house which is too high to reach normally, Eichenwald attempts to knock down the ladder from under their feet. Thus, Eichenwald tries to prove that the Bible does not support what these literalists believe.  Does he succeed?

The answer to that question depends on the audience Eichenwald is appealing to.  For if Eichenwald wants to discredit Biblical literalists before the general public in order to increase the growing public contempt Conservative Christians are now enjoying/experiencing, it is quite possible that he can hang a banner saying, 'Mission Accomplished.' But if Eichenwald's intention was to make Biblical literalists see the errors of their ways, then he should be singing, 'Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's back to the drawing board I go.' Why does the audience make a difference here? It is because for all of their faults, Biblical literalists or Fundamentalists do know quite a bit more about the Bible than what he gives them credit for. Thus the standard of work Eichenwald should have reached for is much higher than he did.

Before looking at some of the errors of Eichenwald's way, let's more precisely identify the target of his scorn. He calls them evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Bible literalists. In short, they are both theologically and politically Conservative Christians. They denounce homosexuals claiming that gays will go to hell and they want to prevent gays from being treated as equals in society. These Conservative Christians also wear their religion on their sleeves when it comes to paying homage to Christian monuments such as those that contain the Ten Commandments. In addition, they deny climate change because, to them, it is Biblically impossible. They want creationism taught in the schools, foreign policies that help bring the second coming to be implemented, and the Torah to be used to rule over our government. Finally, as one poll pointed out, they are imitating the Pharisees who are described in the Gospels rather than imitating Jesus.

Eichenwald wants this kind of Christian to be publicly rebuked and verbally flogged in order to arrest the harm that they bring to people. And the way to do this is to show that, according to Eichenwald, this kind of Christian is ignorant of or inept in understanding the Bible. And so he sets off on a task to destroy the basis of belief for not only the kind of Christian he opposes, but also those who share the same religious heritage as his scoundrel Christians and who have different social and political convictions--a possibility overlooked by Eichenwald. To conduct this attack, he sets out on painting a portrait of the Bible that is different from what his targets paint.

The picture of the Bible which Eichenwald is constructing is of a book that is filled with error and uncertainty. It is a book of human creation with questionable beginnings and suffers from the ravages of centuries of whispering down the lane. In short, he tried to knock the Bible of the pedestal built by American Conservative Christians. And because these Christians speak as if the Scriptures can give us firm answers to the questions of life and because another poll showed that American Conservative Christians know just a little more than atheists about the contents of the Bible, Eichenwald concludes that they are ignorant of what is in the Bible.

Technically speaking and perhaps unknowingly, Eichenwald presents a series of problems that includes some higher and lower criticism challenges to the Bible. Higher criticism challenges consists of questioning the contents of the Bible because of what we think the writers could know about when writing. On the other hand, lower criticism deals with comparing the physical evidence provided by manuscripts and how they compare to one another.

This post will only touch on some of Eichenwald's objections to how Evangelicals see the Bible. The first is his claim that nobody has read the Bible because all we have that is left is an unreliable mess of multiple translations of translations and copies of copies of the original manuscripts. Part of what he says here is true. We do have multiple copies of the manuscripts. In fact, the degree to which the manuscripts agree is the basis for lower criticism. But the issue isn't in the multiple copies of copies of manuscripts or translations of translations. The issue is whether the copies of manuscripts we have can produce a reliable Bible for us to read where variant texts do not significantly change the meaning of the original in most cases. According to Matt Slick, the degree of accuracy of the thousands of manuscripts we have is over 99% (click here). This challenges a quote Eichenwald takes from New Testament scholar Dr. Bart Erhman about the number manuscript variations in the New Testament. We should note that not all of the manuscripts cover the same material, but two points should be made. First, there are far more manuscripts containing New Testament material than any  other piece of literature that was written within almost a thousand years from when it was written. And second, the degree of agreement is very high. This answers a Eichenwald's point about how long manuscripts could last. As to the significance of the manuscripts that do not agree, that must be settled on a case by case basis.

Next, Eichenwald challenges the accuracy of what we have in our current Bibles by stating that there are several hundred of years between when the manuscripts were written and when they were compiled. But such is an insignificant point when the degree of reliability between the manuscripts is high. In addition, the age of the manuscripts puts the date of the first manuscript, a small fragment from the Gospel of John, in the early 2nd century AD. In fact, some other manuscripts that contain portions of the New Testament are from 200 AD to around 300 AD (click here and there). This challenges Eichenwald's implication by focusing on the story in the Gospel of John of Jesus when he told those waiting to stone a adulterous that only those who have not sinned could throw the first stone. Just because this story is in doubt because it does not appear in the earlier manuscripts, doesn't imply that the whole Gospel of John is in doubt. 

Some of what Eichenwald states are flaws in the text have legitimate, alternative explanations. When he contests Luke 3:16 and how the text says that John answered when there was no actual question being asked in the previous verses though the previous verse told how people were wondering if John was the Christ. So wouldn't it be plausible that John answered because either some voiced that question out loud or he could sense it? That some scribes tried to fill in the blanks by stating that John knew can be easily corrected through manuscript comparison. 

Likewise, the supplemental end of Mark's Gospel can be judged by manuscript comparison. And this is a key point, that some of the editing that occurred where some scribes wanted to either insert something or try to fill in a blank can be judged and ranked by comparing manuscripts. The presence of such editing practices does not put into doubt the reliability of the overwhelming majority of content that exists in the New Testament as Eichenwald suggests. Ranking variant readings based on comparing manuscripts is job #1 for lower criticism and the need for such ranking does not imply that the bulk of what is written in the New Testament can be deemed as being unreliable.

The point Eichenwald makes stating that the Bible is a product of translation of translation of and so on is actually false. The grounds for this statement is his contention that those who wrote the  'gold standard' translation, the King James Version, did not primarily rely on the Greek but on other translations such as the Latin text. Though there is a question regarding whether Greek texts were primarily used in the translation, this version of the Bible is no longer considered to be the gold standard of translations. And more modern translations do rely primarily on the Greek manuscripts, but that point was not included in Eichenwald's dismissal of the King James Version.

When Eichenwald starts quibbling over words such as προσκυνέω, or the words that are translated into the word 'homosexual,' what Eichenwald seems to forget is that literal definitions are often superseded by the concept they represent. So with προσκυνέω, since its literal meaning includes specific acts of worship, it seems reasonable that the word itself can be correctly translated into the word 'worship.' It is at this point that Eichenwald is being a kind of literalist where no word can convey more than its literal definition.

A similar problem challenges the translation of the Greek word 
for 'form' (morphe, see Philipians 2:6). Eichenwald complains that the word could be translated into the word 'image' and thus he concludes that translating the word into form was a theological decision. Eichenwald neglects to say that the definition of this Greek word is form or appearance and that the Greek word for image used in Genesis was not morphe. But that is not his biggest omission. What he really neglects to include is the context provided by the whole verse. For later on in the same verse, the author speaks of equality with God as something Christ could have reached for but didn't because he was lowering Himself to come as a man. So here, we have problems with Eichenwald's analysis. That though form or nature were valid translations, he declares that using these translations were theologically determined rather than the result of a normal translation. And he forgets to include the immediate context of the verse in which the word is used let alone the context provided by that section of Philippians.

Likewise, Eichenwald's point about the time span between the events in the Old Testament and when they were recorded in writing neglects an important point. Societies that relied on oral traditions were prevalent during a significant part of the Old Testament. And what those from societies relying on written traditions don't realize is that those societies relying on oral traditions pass have proven to be quite reliable in the keeping of those stories. This is a point I made to a philosophy professor who argued against the existence of God. He was forced to acknowledge my point.

We could go on, but the general theme of Eichenwald's work is ironically that of selectivity--which is part of what he accuses the translators of the Bible and American Conservative Christians of doing. Eichenwald is selective in the immediate data he uses to form his conclusions. In addition, it appears that Eichenwald did not consult theologically conservative sources to bounce his concerns off of. Eichenwald's selectivity is also evident in the rest of his articles as he continues to object to the Bible as being a reliable rendition of God's Word.

We could go on, but there we should note that Eichenwald does have a legitimate concern about Conservative Christians. Only that concern should be expressed about some Conservative Christians and not all when one considers his list of complaints described at the beginning of this post. The violence done in the name of Christ and the smugness in which some Christians have both persecuted gays or have ignored how our way of life is destroying the environment are concerns all should acknowledge and address. Some Conservative Christian Millennials are trying to correct some of our past sins and they are able to do this without having to sacrifice their faith--a cost demanded of all Conservative Christians by Eichenwald for us to act more morally and be more relevant. 

Thus, as mentioned in the beginning of the post, if Eichenwald's intended audience was the kind of Christians he is complaining about, then one could only view his approach and somewhat sloppy methodology as being self-sabotaging. But if his intended audience is the general public, then what is implied is that he wants the general public to have the same scorn for Evangelicals as some of them have expressed to gays and modernity. Thus, his Newsweek article is an indictment on both himself and some of us Evangelicals against whom he is contending. 



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