Saturday, November 28, 2015

Why have the Jews Survived?

War seems a constant in the Middle East.  After ISIS, if we finally deal with them as we ought, no doubt some other tyranny is standing in line to cause trouble.  What a place to grow up, as a nation!  2500 years ago an Assyrian general -- not Syrian, they did at least lose the letter "a" over the past two and a half millennia -- camped outside a vulnerable little state centered on Jerusalem, and threatened total destruction.  Why did he fail?  All the other nearby nations have vanished.  Why do those who want to send the Jewish people wherever the Moabites and Phillistines went, from Haman to Hitler and Hamas, all keep on failing? 

I am preparing a new version of my 2000 book, Jesus and the Religions of Man, and someone happened to ask if the State of Israel might be a sign of God's work in the world .  Here's how I described the scene, and what it might mean, practically. 


"Who Can We go to when in Trouble?"
My final question was introduced twenty-five hundred years ago by an Assyrian general with a tactical interest in comparative religions.  Sennacherib, emperor of Assyria, sent troops marching on Jerusalem.  The valley dark with his warriors, the general in charge approached the city gate to negotiate, or at least taunt, the ants trapped in their little monotheistic hill.  Sending an ultimatum to the pious king Hezekiah, he asked a series of questions he thought his enemies might chew over for a few hours.  But they still seem worth consideration 2500 years later. 
The envoy began by needling the officials sent to meet him with the weakness of the Jewish position.  He spoke loudly and in Hebrew, so the people  manning the walls -- who would have to "eat their own excrement and drink their own urine" if the king refused to surrender -- could hear.  "The emperor wants to know whom King Hezekiah is depending on in defying him," he asked.  "Do you think empty words can take the place of military power?  Do you think Egypt, that reed that breaks when you lean on it, is going to come to your aid now?"  The envoy stopped and considered what he knew of the spiritual inclinations of the Jewish people.  "Or maybe you think your God, Yahweh, whose altars Hezekiah has been destroying, is going to save you?  Actually it was God who sent me here to punish you."  (He had, perhaps, not been fully briefed on the iconoclastic nature of the Jewish God, but it was worth a shot to stir up internal antagonism.)  He offered carrot as well as stick: "Surrender, and we'll lead you to a land not so different from this, and give you two thousand horses if you can provide the cavalry to make use of them."
Finally the official made an appeal to the skeptics in his audience by asking the $64,000 question.  "Come, now.  What god have you seen ever save any nation from the hands of the Assyrian army?  Where now are the gods of Hamath and Arpad?  Didi they save Samaria from me?  Among all the gods of the nations, can you name a single one who saved his land from me?  Do you really think this Yahweh is going to save Israel?"
Modern man, who prides himself on being scientific, talks of spirituality as a "potluck dinner," or calls himself a "spiritual tourist."  Here, by contrast, was a man who approached questions of faith in a scientific  and serious manner.  "Does ivory soap float?"  "Which god answers prayers of a people about to be swallowed?"
The Jewish historian says Yahweh gave an answer through the prophet Isaiah.  "Do you not know?  Can you not understand?  Long ago I planned it.  But now I am going to shield this city from you."
The envoy's largely rhetorical question remains historically interesting.  Where are the gods of the states he mentioned -- Hamath, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah?   Where, for that matter, are the people of those states?  Or even Assyria?  Absorbed without a trace into larger and more vigorous ethnic identities. 
The Jewish people, however, survived Sennacherib.  They returned from exile in Babylon, as prophesied by Jeremiah, while greater nations were swallowed.  (Herodotus does not even mention them, in his exhaustive catalogue of the ancient world.)  They survived the rise and fall of Alexander the Great.  Romans sacked Jeruselem and sent the Jews into exile again, where they remained for two thousand years, keeping their identity intact through shared worship of this "tribal" god who was now identified as the Creator by half of humanity.  They survived Mohammed and the Caliphs, the Grand Inquisitor, the Russian patriarchs, and Adolf Hitler, whose thousand-year Reich fell in thirteen.  Then the Jewish state was resurrected, as the prophets predicted 2500 years before.  Jews trickled into Tel Aviv from as far afield as Harbin, northern China, and Lima, Peru.  They again survived "weapons of mass destruction" and a thousand gilded promises to push them into the sea. 
"What other god has ever done that?"  Among the thousands of people groups that inhabit the Earth, I know of -- none. 
In a broader sense (to get ahead of ourselves), Yahweh saved the poor, orphan, and widow for centuries from sacred prostitution and religious exploitation.  The strict moral teachings of the Bible (but yes, also the Qur'an, Analects, many sutras) protected families from sexually-transmitted diseases and divorce.  The prophets mandated a program of social justice that allowed the poor a dignified opportunity ("sweat equity") to glean fields, saving them from both hunger and the dependent status of beggars. 
By contrast, consider India, land of monism and Agni, Kali, Shiva, Ram, and millions of other gods.  Almost the only country on Earth where men lived longer than women.  Which of India's gods saved widows from the funeral fire?  Which taught outcastes to read, or freed Brahmins from the snare  of self-deification?  Which saved girls from temple brothels?  Which shook up the caste system and rescued the poor and helpless?  Did any of these millions of gods accomplish the  moral revolution and social cleaning India needed?  Were not such gods often in fact social constructs by which Brahmins dominated the downtrodden?  Were monism and tolerance precisely the problems?  Could it be that mythology and philosophy are powerless against the demonic apart from a God who made boundaries and took sides?
Such questions are beyond the pale in comparative religion, as is insulting native cuisine for a visiting statesman.  But a common traveler need not be a politician.  He can ask frank questions, bccause he wants to come home in one piece. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Shock Jocks put me to Sleep.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a former Messianic Jew who told me,

"Hitler had infinitely more compassion and true patriotism than your brain dead coreligionists."

The author of this charming line had previously admitted to feeling "disillusioned," and had expressed concerns that Christianity was irredeemably anti-Semitic.  I was prepared to engage those concerns, and the writer seemed fairly receptive to some of my answers.  But this sort of extremism simply made me lose interest in the conversation.  Who that cares about truth, or about real challenges to Jewish survival, would write something so grotesquely, even Gothically untrue and unjust?  And why talk to someone who cares so little about truth?  A famous teacher once compared it to feeding pigs with jewelry.  So I begged off further correspondence. 

Then I paid a quick visit to Debunking Christianity, and found a post with this title by an occasional guest poster there: 

"Why Atheists Must Assert that Jesus Never Existed."

I had just posted elsewhere the day before that I found the argument over the existence of Jesus the "most boring in all of apologetics."   But the stridency of this proclamation did catch my eye, and I read the paragraph that followed:

In the Afterword to Raphael Lataster’s latest book, Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists, Richard Carrier addresses the Academic Biblical Academy: 

With this book, Jesus Did Not Exist:  A Debate Among Atheists, Raphael Lataster has certainly demonstrated at the very least one thing; the entire field of Biblical Studies should be taking this question seriously; yet they have not.  This has to stop.  They need to either build a more defensible case for historicity, one that does not violate logic or rely on non-existent evidence, or they need to officially recognize, at the very least, that historicity agnosticism is a credible response to what little evidence there is.  The Academy needs to stop lying about the evidence or about the argument of peer-review experts who challenge historicity.  They need to address those arguments as actually made, and the evidence as actually presented.  And Lataster has shown that this isn’t what the experts are doing."

Again, the stridency of these demands seem to have the opposite affect on me from that for which they were designed. 

Who is Raphael Lataster?  A graduate student in Australia who wrote a book that I reviewed as a potent candidate for the worst piece of writing ever on the historical Jesus.  Whose own professor disavowed the fellow's work, and rued his role in teaching so poorly-researched and thought-out (and written, I would add) a book.  Certainly not some fatherly figure who has been around in New Testament studies at some major university for decades, and who wishes to offer his colleagues a few kindly-meant words of wisdom. 

And now Carrier is back to accusing vast numbers of more reasonable scholars of "lying."  Who hasn't Carrier accused of lying?  Certainly I've been struck by that projectile from his hand -- then a fellow atheist rebuked him for it, and Carrier backed down for a while.  But if you toss harsh words like spitwads, in the end you are seen as juveline, not someone worth talking with in a serious tone. 

Given that tone, it is also futile to point out where Carrier's claims part company with clearly-discerned facts in the same way he claims Ehrman's do, and asking, "So should we be calling you a 'liar,' too?"  Fairness, like reason, are besides the point in a spitwad fight.  You're just glad that you are not tasked with keeping the room clean, and that the fighters have not been asked to do any teaching themselves within any ivory towers.

I expressed a few such thoughts in that thread, and the guest writer answered by mentioning his criticism of famous words in Josephus about Jesus, and of Tim O'Neil, an atheist historian who often debunks such notions as that Jesus never existed, or that Medieval Christianity was evil.  Politely enough, the poster challenged scholars like O'Neil and I to deal with his arguments for mythicism.  I responded:

"I could hardly care less about the Josephus passages. Tim O'Neill is usually reasonable, which is refreshing from a modern atheist, but if he fails to show, don't suppose that is because he thinks your arguments are just too difficult. . . such wild extremism is just not interesting enough to engage. Shock jocks want too hard to be provocative: they put me to sleep."

This is also one of my problems with Donald Trump.  I find him a crushing bore.  He wants to shock listeners and offend enemies, to the delight of whatever foolish followers this overweight and overconfident Pied Piper has gained along the way.  But the problem with extremism is not that it is too bold: it is that it is too timid.  It is too timid to think through issues fairly, facing and admitting real difficulties with your own inclinations and biases, and coming to nuanced, but genuinely workable, conclusions. 

Extremism is like the junk food that seems to breed like tribbles in 24-hour rest stops, to feed the overflowing bellies of long-distance drivers who are addicted to sugar and processed fat.  Garbage in, garbage not all out. 

Give me an gravenstein apple, or a bowl of plain oatmeal, any day.  Something a little bit real, with at least a trace of genuine nutrition in it. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

How the College Board Corrupts the Youth

Now I'm really angry. The College Board, in its infinite wisdom, has just "delayed" scores for students who took the SAT test "in the Asia region." Yeah, that includes Thailand, Taiwan, and Singapore, where our students went to escape the known scam of Hong Kong.

To hell with students and their parents. To hell with universities around the United States awaiting results.

Somebody was cheating! This had NOTHING to do with the fact that we morons at the College Board re...leased a two-year old exam offered previously, and publicly available, in the United States!
And of course, no money back when the College Board does not give the product you purchased.

Years of preparation by wonderful young people, tens of thousands of dollars spend on education, studying until late at night, and it all comes down to this: admissions into American colleges is overseen by two corrupt and incompetent organizations, the College Board and the ACT, who don't give a damn about ruining the lives of young people and making the United States look foolish (again) in the eyes of the world.

Our kids are supposed to apply at the end of this week. What are the odds that the colleges they want to study at, will let them in? What a heartless, incompetent, lying, corrupt organization the College Board is.

Sorry that my only two posts ever having to do with the Underworld came right in a row -- God willing, I'll be my normal cheerful self by the next post.  Unless the College Board finds a way of screwing up our kids lives any more than they already have. 

Postscript: We just got a phone call from the mother of an excellent student who wants to come here next semester to take my classes. He went to Hong Kong and took the test this month, recognized it -- he'd studied that very test -- and realized he could easily get all the answers right without thinking. So he deliberately marked some wrong, for fear they wouldn't believe it.

And that's without "cheating" at all.

So that's how the College Board is teaching Asians to be dishonest.  Athens famously "sinner against philosophy" for accusing Socrates of "corrupting the youth" of her city.  They should have had the College Board drink hemlock instead. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Speaking of Hell -- is it hot in here?

Hell is not a pleasant subject.   Add to that the fact that I know almost nothing about it, and I have two good excuses not to talk about the subject, if I can help it. 

Now, though, our friend Hector Avalos has produced a book called The Bad Jesus in which he apparently argues that teaching on hell makes Jesus bad.  No, according to one friendly reviewer, it reveals Jesus as a "moral lunatic." 

I was foolish enough to challenge this fellow, Ben.  So now I can say "ben there, done that."  And yes, the temperature does seem to rise ever so slightly . . . Next time, shall we not and say we did?  But you know where liars go . . . No, not the campaign trail! 

Anyway, here's the review from Amazon, and some of the following exchange.  Those who know more about hell, feel free to correct any misunderstandings I display:

As Dr. Avalos defiantly points out, if New Testament historians commenting on the ethics of Jesus are doing real history, then why can’t they find a single thing wrong with Jesus as even a historical figure? That glaring omission on their part is just the tip of the iceberg.

This is “second wave” New Atheism (as Dr. Avalos calls it) at its finest. For those of us genuinely concerned about a reality based secular apocalypticism where Big Religion needs to die in order for humanity to collectively advance, I’d rate this book as an important contribution.

Dr. Avalos on a Freethought Radio podcast with Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, suggested that he’s done the hard work of the research and that it’s up to others to promote the message. I heartily agree!

My main complaint is that I just wanted more of it.

Since I’ve done two public presentations on the immorality of Jesus, I was greatly excited to learn that Dr. Hector Avalos had tackled the same topic at the scholarly level. From my standpoint I certainly did the best I could at my own self-educated level (and I got my presentations approved by Dr. Richard Carrier just to make sure), but having Dr. Avalos do a thorough treatment on a number of case studies was educational and empowering. I was prepared to have gotten some things wrong of course which is inevitable, but I was delighted to see that we largely agree on the issues. Anyone that liked my presentations will find Dr. Avalos drilling deep to show that it just gets worse for Jesus.

Dr. Avalos has done a great service in cleaning house as far as Biblical studies go and he rigorously shows the rampant bias from even the more secular scholars on the topic of Jesus’ morality. If Jesus were portrayed as smoking pot in the New Testament, scholars would insist that he smoked, but didn’t inhale and that there is some incredible grammatical nuance baked into the text to “clearly” demonstrate this. It takes a very patient and diligent mind to unravel the scholarly sophistry and Dr. Avalos was clearly up to the job.

The real scandal of course is that canonical gospel Jesus, as is, is not only “flawed,” but most prominently presented as what modern ethical and educated people would call a superstitious, misogynistic, imperialistic cult leader and an apocalyptic moral lunatic. Jesus’ popularly apparent “pacifism” (what Dr. Avalos describes accurately as “deferred violence”) was merely the eye of the storm of endorsing Mosaic theocratic tyranny and the warm up act for (an albeit mythological) everlasting violence against most of humanity. You can’t just sweep Jesus’ persistent psychotic revenge fantasies under the rug and take the nice sounding bits out of that overall context. Jesus isn’t your nice grandma that is only technically on the hook for Biblical evils but has no personal stake in them. Jesus is THE guy who wants to lead the charge on his Judgment Day to set the majority of humanity on fire for all eternity. A disempowered earthly Jesus may be shown to have unleashed just a smidgen of that fury in the episode of making a whip and assaulting the moneychangers in the temple court (prominently shown on the cover of Dr. Avalos’ book).

In general, nothing repudiates the dubious and questionable ethics of Jesus more than substituting in different more ethical views on his behalf. And Dr. Avalos skewers the endless parade of motivated scholarship desperate to whitewash Jesus for the sake of their modern theological agendas or whatever other reason. When those biases are checked the end result, any reasonable person should agree that the literary product Jesus (what I would call “reading comprehension Jesus”) that the world is stuck with is the kind of street preaching nutjob that even most modern Christians wouldn’t want to hang out with and wouldn’t listen to. No doubt, still, many Christians will be eager and willing to come out against the U. N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ethical stances of various other modern organizations that Dr. Avalos appeals to in ethical comparison (not to mention the same standards Jesus’ defenders will use on anyone else other than Jesus), but it will definitely be an uphill task for them to argue the modern world back into the Dark Ages.

Like every other influential person there ever was, Dr. Avalos points out that Jesus was a remix of what came before and a reflection of his given culture. A mix of mostly more of the same, some progress, and some regress. Dr. Avalos gives continual shout outs to the cultures that either got it right before Jesus or got it right instead of Jesus (or got it right in the ways disingenuous scholarship wants to *believe* Jesus got it rightest ever).

I will eagerly be blogging about each chapter and argument mapping any substantial debate that I can find. Come find me. Anyone that wants to contribute their reasoned perspective could be most appreciated. You will have to check your “Jesus is good no matter what” goggles at the door though.

DM (many threads down): Do you believe in hell? Do you believe that actions are justified or not by their effects? If you answer "no" and "yes" to those two questions, then your argument just disappeared. If Jesus warned of (from your POV) an unreal place to make people act better, and if it worked, then it was a moral act, given the moral assumptions most atheists seem to accept.

If you do believe in hell, then why was Jesus immoral to warn of it? If you don't believe that actions are justified by their consequences, well your second paragraph seems to imply that they are.

But as C. S. Lewis pointed out, heaven and hell are described by a variety of mutually-contradictory analogies -- if you are a literalist. Getting atheists to get beyond extreme literacy, seems (ironically) to be the burden of my life.

Aside from which, your post is overwrought. Calm down, mellow out, and read fairly.

Jesus' entire apocalyptic ministry is hinged on threats of eternal hellfire (especially in the gospel of Matthew). Matthew 3:10-12, 4:17, 5:13, 5:20-22, 5:29-30, 7:13-14, 7:17-19, 8:12, 10:14-15, 10:28, 11:20-24, 13:30, 13:38-42, 13:48-50, 18:6-9, 18:34-35, 22:13-14, 23:33-36, 24:50-51, 25:30, 25:31-33, 25:41, 25:46

Jesus is not your nice Christian grandmother who is overly kind otherwise, but just so happens to "believe" an unimportant laundry list of evil Christian things she takes no responsibility for & never talks about. Jesus threatens hellfire continually & believes he is literally THE guy leading the charge on Judgment Day.

Suddenly you remember that Jesus mentioned setting people on fire. *claps*

I judge the morality of fictional characters based on their fictional context. I don't call Darth Vader a good guy just because his galaxy doesn't exist whether near or far away.

Jesus wasn't just warning of it. He was threatening it and morally approved of it. If he just thought it was real and out of his control, he could have morally condemned it.

On your blog you condemn these things when they are done by Islam:

"As for shame, I think anyone who calls Mohammed a prophet, half of the creed of Islam, should feel shame. Mohammed killed four times as many innocent people on a single day, as did these terrorists in Paris. And there was no one to comfort their families, who were made slaves and concubines. It is a shameful thing, to so highly honor a tyrant, a murderer, a torturer, and a slave-trader. (Though of course not a rare thing, in the West or here in China. Here's looking at you, Chairman Mao.)"

So you don't approve of mass killings or torture (And Jesus approved of the Old Testament which endorsed slavery and taking sex slaves in war). If Jesus had returned in the 1st century when he said he would, resurrected the dead and set even just half of all humanity on fire, that would have been billions of people. And merely billions more if he waited 2,000 years.

I don't ask C. S. Lewis what Jesus' hell would be like since Jesus tells us what his hell would be like. Jesus said it would be like literal torture in 1st century prisons. See Matthew 18:34-35. And unlike the analogy of earth prisons, the punishments for the damned would last forever. See Matthew 25:41-46. And in Matthew 7:14 he says that few would be saved. So that's intending to set the vast majority of humanity on fire. If you condemn Mohammed you should condemn Jesus.

"The evils you describe were, in fact, mostly brought to a gradual or sudden end by Christian reformers praying to God with a Bible under their arms."

Do all self-identified Muslims get full credit for being motivated by Islam when they do things in discordance with what Mohammad did? Or, do we get to say that those who act more like Mohammad and do things more like what are prescribed or endorsed in the Koran and the hadith get more credit than those who don't?

So if Christians holding a book that endorses slavery, seek to end slavery, does their religion get full credit for that?

DM: Homer believed in hell. Homer was evil. What a simply world you live in, Ben.

Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil.

Lewis was an adult, and read the NT as a literary scholar, not in the simple, cherry-picking manner you prefer. He pointed out that punishment was only one of several themes or images that the NT uses to describe hell, and that one cannot take them all literally, since different images are used.

Jesus set in play principles that ended slavery around the world, liberating tens of millions of slaves. This is obvious, if you read the NT without such venom in your heart -- even non-Christians usually recognize it. Again, Avalos is spitting against the wind of informed history in denying this fact.

Ben: "Homer believed in hell. Homer was evil. What a simply world you live in, Ben. "

A simple world where eternal torture for finite sins is always heinously wrong. You really think you're going to shrug that off? Seriously? It's like mainstream Christianity's biggest moral PR disaster aside from its stance on homosexuality.

I don't know enough about Homer to comment on his afterlife views. However, I do know that I made a very particular distinction that you conveniently ignore. I said: "Jesus is not your nice Christian grandmother who is overly kind otherwise, but just so happens to 'believe' an unimportant laundry list of evil Christian things she takes no responsibility for & never talks about. Jesus threatens hellfire continually & believes he is literally THE guy leading the charge on Judgment Day." Modern Christians squirm all over the place to not take any responsibility for morally endorsing eternal torture. That's because they are good people. However the character Jesus in the canonical gospels is *all in.* He's proud of it. And he threatens it a ton. That's because he's a maniac.

"Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil.Atheists believe in dust after death. Atheists are evil."

First you didn't know that moral truths are just as readily found in fiction. Now you think that merely describing and believing what probably happens to people when they die makes one morally culpable for that incidence? And you want to lecture me on how to read the gospels as "an adult"? If you morally endorse a moral agent who morally prescribes evil, you are morally responsible for those issues. Because even if it is merely true that some superbeing exists who has the power to eternally torture the vast majority of humanity indefinitely, one does not have to *approve* of this. Maltheism is an option. One can believe a god exists and that this god is evil. Similarly, I don't have to think dying and turning into dust is a good thing.

"...not in the simple, cherry-picking manner you prefer." I listed a ton of verses where Jesus threatens the fires of hell. It's called a big theme. [Here they are again in case you forgot: Matthew 3:10-12, 4:17, 5:13, 5:20-22, 5:29-30, 7:13-14, 7:17-19, 8:12, 10:14-15, 10:28, 11:20-24, 13:30, 13:38-42, 13:48-50, 18:6-9, 18:34-35, 22:13-14, 23:33-36, 24:50-51, 25:30, 25:31-33, 25:41, 25:46]

"[C. S. Lewis] pointed out that punishment was only one of several themes or images that the NT uses to describe hell, and that one cannot take them all literally, since different images are used."

Hmm...let's see. Let's review those themes. Being set on fire. Check. Being tortured. Check. Being left out in the darkness. Torturous fires can be in the darkness. Check, check, and check. Being separated from the Christian god. One can be shut out in the darkness away from the Christian god while being tortured with fire. Did I miss any? Being "destroyed." There's definitely language that could imply annhilationism, but in context of the other more clear verses it seems the destruction of self is a metaphor for permanently crippling the ego of the damned. Much like the serpent in the garden of Eden said that they would "die" in the day they ate of it, but continued living in the ordinary sense, the people in hell are "destroyed" spiritually though they remain technically in existence suffering forever.

The bottom line is that Jesus tells us what hell would be like in Matthew 18:34-35. And he doesn't use C. S. Lewis' imagery from The Great Divorce. Instead Jesus says it will be like torture in first century prisons. And the gospel of Luke has a vivid parable about the rich man suffering in the flames, wanting mercy for himself and his brothers, and getting told that's not in the cards. It's absolutely ridiculous that you think you're entitled to ignore all that in favor of some random author's opinion from over a millenia later. Lewis blew the weakest language used out of proportion outright ignoring the persistent, graphic, strong themes of eternally torturous fire which ought to be used to characterize the teachings. Reading comprehension is not a "choose your own adventure" affair.

"if you read the NT without such venom in your heart"

I don't appreciate the ad hominem. Please keep your mind-reading to yourself.

DM: Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks. To observe that overflow does not require "mind-reading." (Also, ad hominem is a logical fallacy, which I did not commit.) 

You point to Matthew 18: 34-35 as your "bottom line" interpretation of hell, where Jesus supposedly makes the contrete nature of hell which you have been arguing for -- "hellfire" you emphasize earlier -- the clearest. And what does that say?

"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26 "At this the servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,' he begged, `and I will pay back everything.' 27 The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28 "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.[i] He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

29 "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.'

30 "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32 "Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,' he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

35 "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

You should notice, if what you care about here is an honest, fair appraisal of Jesus' character and teaching, the following points from this text:

(1) The point is that we ought to forgive others, so that we ourselves will be forgiven.

(2) This point is both just and reasonable.

(3) The overall impression from this story alone, would be that Jesus was a wise and skillful teacher who urged his followers to exercise one of the most difficult moral virtues: forgiveness.

(4) Furthermore, this passage makes it clear that God is eager to forgive human beings. He will not do so unjustly, however -- while we still hold on to more trivial grudges against our "brothers."

(5) There are no mentions of "fire" in this passage at all.

(6) Of course, this is a parable, not a literal description at all. Why, then, do you say that the "bottom line" is that in this passage, "Jesus tells us what hell will be like?"

(7) If that is the case, then hell will not be endless, since after paying his dues, it is explicitly said that the guilty one will be allowed to go free.

(8) This passage in fact lends itself well to the Lewis (Great Divorce) or M. Scott Peck understanding of punishment as therapeutic.

(9) It is also a matter of common human experience that people who do not forgive suffer from their failure to do so. Corrie Ten Boom describes this phenomenon among those who were abused by the Nazis (as she and her family were). Here again, Jesus appears to be speaking profound psychological truth. Bitterness and resentment are, indeed, a form of psychological torture, and it is in letting them go that we gain peace.

(10) Punishment after death is, as Lewis said, and as you admit yourself, spoken of in the NT by means of several conflicting images. This implies that the purpose is not precise geographical description, but to evoke truth that lies beyond our sensory intelligence. It is, therefore, not "ridiculous" for an intelligent modern reader to seek for principals whereby to reconcile and understand these differing images, but simple rationality and the attempt to attain mature theological comprehension.

I can understand why these verses upset you. They are certainly unpleasant, and of course were meant to be unpleasant. Perhaps they can be used to make an argument that Jesus was not as all-knowing as Christians believe, and that he was mistaken about the nature of the afterlife. You may choose to think that God is evil, if he punishes sinners after death, in some way. But it seems to me it would be more rational, on those premises, to suppose that Jesus was mistaken  (not that I believe either), not "a moral lunatic." That you are so eager to embrace the latter, obviously ridiculous interpretation, is the sign that troubles me -- about your posts, and perhaps this book, if I have the chance to read it.


Well that was fun.  I think I'll go back to swatting mosquitoes: it's less confrontational.  Or maybe return to following all the good news on the international front or from the campaign trail.  Which both help me, BTW, believe in the justice of God's Judgement, whatever shape He ultimately sees as fitting.  

Monday, November 16, 2015

Christianity gets Jerry Coyne "monologuing"


(Note: originally posted on Amazon.)  A couple years ago, I debated the sociologist Phil Zuckerman in California on whether Secular Humanism or Christianity offered the greater hope for humanity. The church where the event was held did not immediately put the debate on-line as they had promised. Jerry Coyne wrote as follows:

"This is why this form of Christianity is inimical to democracy. I can’t imagine Zuckerman, myself, or any other debating atheist refusing to allow the debate to be aired—no matter how bad our performance was."

Ironically, I posted several times on that thread, including some innocuous "behind the scenes" explanations, but also criticism of Coyne.  As far as I could figure out, none of it ever appeared.

Coyne is allegedly also capable of posting comments that directly challenge Christians, then deleting his responses, making it appear that the Christian poster is unable or too cowardly to reply.

Nor are theists Coyne's only victims. His allies at Pharyngula report a series of first-person stories of how thoughtful atheists with opinions different from Coyne's own have been censored, without any warning or explanation, on his web site. (They didn't mention that Coyne likewise censors Christians, however.)

So not only can I "imagine" Coyne censoring informed, well-stated opposing arguments, he seems to do it all the time.

I begin by pointing this out because one of Coyne's main conceits in this book is that Science (the word seems naked without caps) is quite different from religion in being open to and eager for testing, debate, and free exchange of ideas. He begins Chapter Two, "What's Incompatible," by talking about going to seminars at Harvard run by Richard Lewontin and being shell-shocked by the lively clash of ideas there. This is supposed to be quite different from how religions are run (in fact, that was exactly my experience getting my PhD in a Christian institution, and I enjoyed every moment of it from day one, unlike Coyne; and of course Catholic and Buddhist monks have long histories of debate -- I suspect Aquinas would take the whole brood at Is Evolution True and leave it looking like Odysseus' house the day after he dealt with the suitors.)

The fact that Jerry Coyne does not practice what he preaches, does not mean that the content of his sermons is wrong. And in this book, he proves a skilled preacher: his argument is well-organized, he gives examples that sound reasonable, and he is capable of making distinctions. He has read a few worthwhile Christians -- often wrongly, but I'm used to that -- and is capable of recognizing and dealing with nuance. (He almost gives Christianity some credit for the birth of modern science, for instance.)

How tiresome, though, to see another New Atheist book based on the patent falsehood that for Christians, faith means (to quote his particular wording) "the acceptance of things for which there is no strong evidence." (25) Sam Harris did that, Peter Boghossian did that. Richard Dawkins started the ball rolling (well it had been rolling for centuries, but at a greater velocity.) Alister McGrath refuted it in the very first rebuttal to the New Atheism, and I refuted it in the second (The Truth About the New Atheism.) Then several of us got together and sent it to the bottom in True Reason. We showed that Christian Scriptures and tradition both solidly agree on the proposition that Christian faith ought to be and is solidly backed by evidence. What faith really means, as philosopher Tim McGrew and I defined it, is "trusting, holding to, and acting on what one has good reason to believe is true, in the face of difficulties." That is the definition that Christian tradition, including the Bible, best supports as a whole.

Is this Halloween? The Blind Faith Meme just keeps coming back, like a visit from a species of Undead that even shots through the noggin can't dispatch.

Mind you, Coyne's version of the Blind Faith Meme has evolved, slightly. For one thing, there is some ambiguity in this particular definition. Does Coyne mean that by "faith," Christians mean we should accept claims for which their is no strong evidence? Or does he mean that while Christians think there is strong evidence, there really isn't?

He seems to argue for both propositions. One has to take him to mean the first, since he adds, "In science faith is a vice, while in religion it's a virtue." And that is false, as we show. Yes, we deal with the usual out-of-context cherry-picking of verses, such as Hebrews 11, "Faith is a substance of things not seen," and the story in John about Jesus telling Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe." Why do skeptics never seem to notice that Jesus does give Thomas evidence, that Thomas has received such evidence for three years on a daily basis, that the whole Gospel of John is obsessed with offering evidence, and that the New Testament systematically describe at least seven different kinds of (strong) evidence?

And that is also true of the Christian tradition. Skeptics always cherry-pick a few out-of-context words from Tertullian and Kierkegaard, sometimes Luther, and ignore the rich contrary tradition that McGrath, McGrew and I, among others, cite.

Coyne writes:

"For if you can tolerate the criticality and doubt -- they're not for everyone -- the process of science yields a joy that no other job confers: the chance to be the first person to find out something new about the universe."

Coyne does not, in fact, seem to "tolerate the criticality" all that willingly. But I, and many others who work in theology (or the history and theory of religions, my field) can say unambiguously that we know that joy. I have been the first person to find out "new things" about the world, at least, which is a part of the universe. And I find that scientists who are Christians are often among the most fascinated by the discoveries I describe. And theological works I have read have also clearly demonstrated that joy of fresh discovered, for good reason.

But why is Coyne writing about Christianity in the first place? He's read a bit of Plantinga, Craig and others, but he doesn't really seem to know much of what he's talking about. Some more examples of "information underload" here:

"I haven't cherry-picked these responses while ignoring dissenting views: I've simply never seen any Christian avow in print that he'd abandon belief in the Resurrection if science proved it wrong."

In "science" Coyne includes "history." (Though Richard Carrier, whom he cites on the relationship, is more correct to include the former in the latter.)

How about the first Christian theologian, St. Paul? "If Christ has not been raised, our faith is in vain." Hasn't Coyne read the First Epistle to the Corinthians? Well, yes, he has, citing this very passage at length (45). Clearly Paul was saying that if the Resurrection could be disconfirmed, no one would have a right to believe in Christianity.

Or how about Francis Schaeffer? He certainly said something very similiar to this. As did C. S. Lewis, the most famous modern Christian thinker.

Coyne makes liberal use throughout this book of versions of what is called the Outsider Test for Faith, popularized by John Loftus, whom he thanks in his acknowledgements. For example, on page 157:

"Finally, even if you attribute scientifically unexplained phenomena to God, ask yourself if the explanation gives evidence for your God -- the God who undergirds your religion and your morality. If we do findn evidence . . . can it be ascribed to the Christian God, or to Allah, Brahma, or any one god among the thousands worshipped on Earth? I've never seen advocates of natural theology address this question."

But as an advocate of natural theology, I not only refuted John's argument against Christianity in How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test: The Inside Story, I turned it on its head, and showed that comparative religion and the "Outsider Test" provide at least four positive reasons for Christian faith.

And I've seen others address it too. Pascal, for instance, can be considered a natural theologian, and he addressed it. So does Bill Craig, whom Coyne cites so much in this book. So does William Paley, whom Coyne also cites.

"The story of Job has baffled scholars for centuries, for its 'meaning' is murky, yet there is no lack of those willing to give it a metaphorical spin."

Actually, the meaning is pretty clear, and explained in the preface of this literary masterpiece. (And then again, in the conclusion.) It is, admittedly, a complex work that requires patience, not amenable to mere scoffing.

Coyne predictably attacks Intelligent Design. Like Plantinga, I tend to "waffle" on this theory. But I know enough about it to see that Coyne misrepresents it.

Amusingly, on one page Coyne complains that Christians deny the possibility that God created unembodied rational beings (162), while a dozen or so pages prior (149), he complains that Alvin Plantinga appeals to unembodied rational beings that God created. This reminds me of Chesterton's quip about skeptics who were so eager to contradict Christianity, they don't mind contradicting themselves.

Although Coyne either has not read enough of Christian thought or is too unsympathetic to retain it well, the main body of Coyne's book is well-written, full of ideas and arguments with support of varying quality, and a lively interaction with believers and skeptics. Few of his arguments will appear novel to experienced readers, and many well-read Christians will be aware of rebuttals. So he doesn't take the case for skepticism much deeper, but he does summarize atheist arguments at a certain level -- better than, say, Dawkin's God Delusion -- that will I think satisfy most skeptics, or at least those who are not too skeptical of their skepticism, yet.

At the end of the book, Coyne asks, "Why does it matter?" He answers in 38 pages or so. I feel like answering at similar length, but at the end of a long review, I'll be brief.

* Now Coyne defines faith as "belief without supporting evidence." I thought that was supposed to be belief without "strong" supporting evidence? This is sloppy. In any case, Coyne has not given strong supporting evidence that that's what Christianity advocates -- because it is not.

* "The notions that you possess absolute truth about divine aspects of the universe, that adherents to other faiths are simply wrong . . . " Coyne is describing his own position here, not mine.

* Coyne describes unorthodox sects that disavow use of medicine, and (in horrid detail) the suffering that children endure because of that. He does not mention that billions of people have been treated in hospitals founded by Christian missionaries. He does not mention, say a single missionary doctor couple I had the privilege of knowing, who dramatically improved the lives of tens of thousands directly, and millions indirectly. This is grossly unfair.

* "Is there any institution other than religion that could see terminal suffering as beneficial?" My own eyes? If "eyes" can be called an "institution." Mind you, I'm all in favor of pain-killing medicines, thank God for them. But despite the pain, which still lives with me, I am grateful to God, and to the person who endured it, for that last day.

* Coyne allows that serious Christians were at the forefront of the rise of modern science. He cites "historian Richard Carrier" to say that if anything, paganism should be credited for science, given the Greeks (and Coyne adds, the Chinese). But Carrier himself makes the point that the pagan Greeks often did science for the same reason Newton and Kepler did science -- for the glory of God. They were pagans, but the notion of a Supreme God had become important among the ancient Greeks. (Also among the Chinese, though the impact of Chinese theism on science remains obscure to me.)

* Coyne spends five pages on the threat religion poses to the planet due to Global Warming. But he conflates four premises of AGW: (1) That the atmosphere has warmed; (2) that the warming is due (largely or mostly) to human activity; (3) that this is a "dire" threat; (4) certain prescribed (and highly expensive) solutions. He says opposition is "simply dangerous."

Coyne ought to learn from the scholastics to think more clearly. That the air has warmed a degree or two since 1850 is undeniable: that human activity has contributed significantly to that, is almost certain. But about half of that warming came when CO2 release was a tiny fraction of what it became after World War II. One simply cannot export the real scientific consensus on (1) to (3) or (4), or even fully to (2).

* Coyne complains about the "second-class status" of women in the Catholic Church. I have shown in great detail that in fact, Christianity has dramatically benefited women in concrete ways around the world.

* If "faith" disappeared, "Can you really claim that hatred based on religion would inevitably be replaced by hatred based on something else . . . "

Of course I can. Was Coyne busy in the lab during the 20th Century?

* "The largely non-religious societies of Europe are good ones . . . " (252)

And as I told Zuckerman, citing Zuckerman's own atheist and agnostic sources (along with historians), it was Christianity that turned pillaging Vikings into productive Danes and Norwegians.

* "Making peace with old enemies . . . " I think Jesus said something about that.

* "Religion weakens the incentive to fix both personal and societal problems." (256)

I don't know about "religion" in general, but Jesus Christ majored in fixing both. And anyone who tells the story of how slavery was abolished, caste in India challenged, human sacrifice ended, women educated in most of Asia, modern science and medicine invented then broadcast to the world, or the institutions of freedom and democracy arose in societies around the world, and fails to mention radical, Bible-quoting, praying followers of Jesus, is telling gross historical falsehoods. Again, as I have shown.

Towards the end of the book, Coyne calls not for a dialogue, but a "monologue." (Like Syndrome in the Incredibles.)

Monologuing does, indeed, seem to be what Dr. Coyne is most comfortable with still, as when he crept into Richard Lewontin's class and was astonished by the apparently virtupitous atmosphere. So let him huddle in the corner with a few books, and make, so eloquently as he pleases, his one-sided case to his disciples -- while the main conversation, to which he is frankly not yet knowledgable enough to contribute much, and the search for ultimate truth, will go on elsewhere in the room.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Thoughts on Another Islamic Mass-murder

* Why didn't Barack Obama deal with these guys when they were a few hot-shots with guns running around in the desert?  By running away from war (except with Republicans), Obama has given us more war.  But first, airliners bombed, theaters in Paris shot up, and families in tears. 

* Obama says Ben Carson doesn't have the foreign policy experience to be president.  He could hardly do worse.  Above and beyond knowledge or even experience, a good leader needs wisdom. 

* A Facebook friend posts that Muslims in America might be afraid and ashamed after this, so we should be kind to them.  We should be kind. "Speak the truth in love," not a la Trump.  But I see no reason for Muslims in America to fear: there was no violent backlash against Muslims in the US after 9/11, and there's no reason to expect one now.  Actually Muslims have far more often been violent against innocent non-Muslims in the US.

* As for shame, I think anyone who calls Mohammed a prophet,  half of the creed of Islam, should feel shame.  Mohammed killed four times as many innocent people on a single day, as did these terrorists in Paris.  And there was no one to comfort their families, who were made slaves and concubines.  It is a shameful thing, to so highly honor a tyrant, a murderer, a torturer, and a slave-trader.   (Though of course not a rare thing, in the West or here in China.  Here's looking at you, Chairman Mao.) 

* How foolish the Germans and some other Europeans were, to allow hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men to pour across their borders. 

* Why do we not also mourn the Nigerians whom Boko Haram abducts and murders?  The Pakistani Christians who are terrorized?  The Iraqi, Syrian, and Egyptian Christians who are murdered or driven off their ancient lands? 

* "Leading from behind."  What a concept.  And we see the results, Barry Chamberlain.  Those guys did not need to become so powerful. 

Maybe our next president can be the kind who leads from in front, and shows at least as much genuine hostility towards our enemies as he does to our allies and the opposing party. 

* The struggle between radical (traditional) Islam and the rest of the world doesn't look like dying out any time soon, unfortunately.  It has lasted 1300 years so far: we might as well dig in for the long haul, and plan for generations to come.  A Christian renewal of the West would be welcome not only for its own sake, but for the sake of world civilization. 

Friday, November 06, 2015

History of Science trips up Matthew Ferguson.

Matthew Ferguson writes:

"Leave it to an apologist to call a pineapple smooth, an omniscient mind simple, and the discovery of science a Christian achievement." 

I don't know what pineapple Ferguson is referring to, but one doesn't need to "leave it to apologists" to credit Christians for inventing modern science, since one finds scientists like Paul Davies and historians like Allen Chapman (Oxford) and David Landes (Harvard, to name a couple off the top of my head) saying a fair deal along those lines, as well.  The modern inventors (or reinventors) of science were, in fact, mostly Christians, and to a large extent pious Christians, so at least in that sense, the comment above is uncontroversially true. 

"A growing slogan has emerged in apologetics attempting to salvage the need for ancient superstitions in a modern world:
“Belief in the rationality of God not only led to the inductive method but also led to the conclusion that the universe is governed rationally be discoverable laws. This assumption is vitally important to research because in a pagan or polytheistic world, which saw its gods often engaged in jealous, irrational behavior in a world that was nonrational, any systematic investigation would seem futile.”
-Alvin Schmidt, “Science: Its Christian Connections” (pg. 221)
"Specialist in ancient science, Richard Carrier, had only this to say at such a patently false statement:
“This is not only false in every conceivable detail but so egregiously false that anyone with even the slightest academic competence and responsibility should have known it was false. Which means it’s advocates, all of whom claim to be scholars, must either be embarrassingly incompetent, perversely dishonest, or wildly deluded.”
-The Christian Delusion (pg. 400-1)
What is Carrier talking about?  What does his first word, "this," refer to?  Is he rebutting Schmidt?  Is he even rebutting the argument Ferguson cites from Schmidt? 

No, the antecedent from Carrier is more general:

"As the story now goes, not only has Christianity never been at odds with science and never impeded it in any way, but it was actu­ally the savior of science, the only worldview that could ever make science possible. And that’s why the Scientific Revolution only ever sparked in one place: a thoroughly Christian society."

For the cause of defending "good scholarship," notice the seriousness of the sins Ferguson commits against scholarship here. 

It is remarkably sloppy "scholarship" to begin such a harsh critique with a pronoun that seems to be directed at one set of arguments from one writer, but is actually referring to a general criticism with which it is not  at all identical! 

Schmidt, in fact, does not say here that Christianity "never impeded science in any way."  On the contrary, he is making a specific positive historical claim.  The difference is like that between saying, "An apple aided Newton in discovering the nature of gravity," and saying "apples never hurt anyone."  The incoherence of Ferguson's critique grotesque. 

Furthermore, Carrier's generalized argument, the one Ferguson agrees was wrong, was specific about praising Christianity as a necessary cause of science.  But Schmidt merely says "belief in God," which would include Islam, Judaism, many forms of Hinduism or Confucianism or Taoism, at least potentially.  Whether Schmidt is right or wrong, anyone who fails to differentiate the two arguments, is a wretched scholar, at best.  (If we grant that dishonesty is worse than stupidity and carelessness.)

Either way, no one who plays this sort of a game should speak of someone else's "slight academic competence and responsibility.'  Those qualities appear less than slight, here. 

And the funny thing is, Ferguson later argues in precise contradiction to the article by Carrier that his post is largely written to praise:

"I also write this blog because I find one of the premises in this slogan to be so flawed that it needs to be addressed: apologists are often so imbued with a religio-centric worldview that they actually believe that the Pagan Greeks would have based their interest in science on their religion, as if one’s religion is their primary motivation for studying the natural world."

Yet in that very chapter of The Christian Delusion, Carrier also writes:

"Most intellectual polytheists believed in a Creator who had intelligently ordered the cosmos, that this order could be discovered by the human mind, and that such discovery honored God. Scientists like Galen and Ptolemy were thus motivated to pursue scientific inquiry by their religious piety . . . " (407)

How silly of those Christian apologists who think religion is so darn important that it might have actually inspired the ancient Greeks in how they explore and understand the world!   Read this chapter from Richard Carrier, an objective (heh) expert in the ancient history of science, and don't listen to what those unscholarly apologists have to say.   

Uh-oh.  Don't tell me Richard Carrier has gone native?

Some days I think defending Christianity against the sort of critics it faces these days is Just.   Too.   Darn.  Easy.  All one has to do, 90% of the time, is read their sources more carefully than they do themselves. 

Rice Terraces in the fall in Southern China

I've been wanted to post these photos from my visit to the Longji (Dragon Spine) rice terraces in Guangxi Province three weeks ago, but had logistical problems.  Anyway, the place was amazing!  But take a look and see.   

Hiking up the mountain from the village where I stayed.  This is nearly the last of
the fall rice harvest. 

Isn't this bewitching?  High on the mountain, the rice terraces march down into a fairy land of bamboos
and autumnal grasses.  The steepest parts of the slope are given over to grasses. 

The wooden (fir, I think) homes are
constructed with pegs rather than
nails.  I rented a room for $13 a night.  
Smelled nice inside, but there was a huge
spider in the passage to the bathroom.
I stayed in a hotel much like these houses, to the right.  This field was being harvested the day I left.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Newton, Watt, and Lamaitre meet a fly in a bar . . .

One of the fun (but time-spendy) activities I participate in, as academic director of a small international department in China, is to write stories for my students, using vocabulary from articles or books they are reading.  That's the origin of this little story (thus some of the particular vocabulary it uses), but I think you might find it amusing.  It also has something to say about hubris, reminding me of Pascal's words on the greatness and fragility of man. 

"Several great scientists and inventors were sitting by a fireside in a bar, drinking from a kettle of tea, and quarreling over whose discoveries were the greatest.

"'I discovered gravity,' said Isaac Newton.  'Everything on Earth and in Heaven depends on gravity.  Gravity keeps planets circling the sun.  Gravity makes clocks and other pendulums move.  When you lay the foundations of a cathedral, you have to think of me, or it will all fall over."

"James Watt replied, 'Not bad!  But I discovered a power that can overcome gravity!  Locomotives run on the power of steam that is created when you boil water.  Steam thus allows engines to take people across deserts and continents, and up mountains against the pull of gravity.'

"'And where did the materials for steam engines, along with cathedrals, come from?'  Asked Father George Lamaitre.  'Chandeliers, the lid of this tea kettle, the bones of whales, the bark of trees, the iron and nickel at the core of the Earth - all of it came from the Big Bang, which I discovered.  And probably gravity, too, and the hydrogen that turned into water and makes steam.'

"Just then a fly landed on James Watt's tea cup.  He swatted the fly, spilling tea on Newton.  Newton stood up and showed Watt.  The table fell over with a crash.

"'And what about me?' Asked the fly.  'While these mighty men lecture on physics and argue who has the most influence, who thinks of us insects?  We start wars with a buzz.  We kill millions by spreading disease, keeping humans out of whole areas of the Earth.  After all, we are the mightest of them all.'" 

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

I'll come to your freethinker meeting and PROVE the Resurrection for $145!

A scholar named Richard Miller wrote a book earlier this year proposing a supposedly "new" theory on how that delusion about Jesus rising from the dead arose.  It involves our friend Romulus, legendary founder of Rome.  The book costs $145. 

Here's an interesting and well-written review from Amazon, by one Simon Albright, which predicts that the book will excite frenzied and worried opposition from the ranks of Christians.  Then following that, my somewhat shorter response. 

Friday, October 02, 2015

Sam Harris Saves the Atheist World from Sin.

What do you do if you hate theism and want to blame it for most of the world's ills?  But unfortuantely, people who share your own view of God just got done murdering a hundred million innocent people, enslaving a couple billion, and destroying the priceless cultural heritage of China (just for starters)?  You might try Tweeting as Sam Harris just did:

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Arrogant Ehrman, Error-Plagued Ehrman

If skeptical Jesus studies is a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, then someone like Richard Carrier may appear in the role of Bad Cop, while Bart Ehrman is cast as his opposite number.  Personally, I think Marcus Borg or John Crossan played the part more convincingly.  But one can't deny that Erhman often comes across as soft-spoken and reasonable, or that he has piled up a mount of original books in Jesus scholarship, that have made him something of a star in this field. 

Or, perhaps, puffed up like a balloon.  A balloon that has been huffed and puffed beyond its tensile capacity, and is ready to burst.