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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Gospel According to John Marshall: The Half-Life of Pie

Chapter Three: The Half-Life of Pie


Patricia Campbell first noticed “Jack” in Study Hall at West Seattle High School.  (Which is just two blocks north of West Side Presbyterian Church on California Avenue in West Seattle, also a similar distance from both their houses, a few blocks east.)  John was talking with another student, maybe a girl, about his Christian faith.  "I sort of listened in on the conversation, and was impressed that he would share his faith."  As a new Christian herself, and either a freshman or sophomore, "I was kind of shy, I didn't have the nerve to go up and talk with him."

They began to get to know one another at West Side, where the young people’s group “did everything together,” and where it turned out Jack also had a mischievous streak:

"The girls at West Side had a slumber party.  Jack and some of his friends put some cats in a bag (put them in the room), and they went out and went flying all over the place.  The girls went out the door screaming their heads off.  The host was just furious."

What was Gloria’s first impression of Mom?  "So pretty and so vivacious and so much fun to talk to. Your Mom just knew how to win (Edith's) heart."  Being out of town, Stan was not too aware of John's social life, though he knew he dated Margaret Macklevein.  His early impression of Patricia?  "She was nice and she was pretty.”

Pat learned to speak up about her faith, which by her senior year led to one of her most enduring friendships, and one of West Side’s most faithful families.  

West Side had sponsored a boat trip.  Pat came with a date, not yet John.  But when the boat broke down, and drifted until 3 AM, she ended up talking for a long time with a younger girl named Connie, who was going to a church that had already developed a questionable reputation among evangelicals, Fauntleroy Church.  “Your Mom ended up sitting with me a long time and talking to me about the Lord,” Connie (now Burke) recalls.  What encouraged Connie was Pat’s “inclusive attitude.”  Studying nursing and then sociology at the University of Washington, Connie would later be distressed at the anti-Christian tone of some of her professors, but was encouraged to find welcome in the “Calvin Club” at the University Presbyterian Church.  

The pastor at West Side was the Reverend Charles Hoffmeister, a charismatic man who drew young baby-boom couples by the hundreds.  Ron Rice, who recalls that his father built a boat for Hoffmeister and a fellow cleric, said “People really loved him because he was very outgoing and personable and he really built the church.  The late 40 and 50s was a time when everyone was going to church.”  In 1957, not long after John and Pat married, however, he left for a position in Merced, California:

"We loved that man. He was very kind to the young people. He left when I was pregnant with our first baby, and we just felt terrible. We wanted him to stick around and see the baby." (Patricia Marshall)

After marrying, for several months the young couple lived in a small apartment across California Avenue from West Side.  This was convenient in some ways, inconvenient in others.  On the one hand, the location allowed young people from the church to drop by after church.  On the other hand, their visits could threaten the prospects of vulnerable young peach pies.  This remained one of Pat’s favorite stories, one I don’t recall her husband contradicting:

"I made a peach pie one afternoon.  I asked (our friends) to have coffee and went to look for the pie but couldn't find it.  I had cookies in the cupboard so I served cookies and coffee.  Afterwards I said to Dad, 'I'm sure I made a peach pie, I can't figure out where it is!’  Dad very sheepishly opened the bathroom door and took the pie out of the bathroom towel cupboard."

Connie recalls one occasion on which Pat also chose her new husband over her close friend:  

“I was a little disappointed that your Mom didn’t come to our wedding.  But the reason (she gave) was because . . . ‘Since it’s his first birthday (since we married) I think I’d better spend it with him . . . ‘“

But Connie attended Jack and Pat’s wedding, and therefore had the chance to hear some second thoughts.  Pat took her friend into the women’s room and admitted confidentially, “Connie, I sure hope I’ve done the right thing.”  But she called shortly after the honeymoon and declared, “Connie, I sure did the right thing.  He’s such a wonderful man.”  That opinion would not be altered, on either side, by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, over the next 57 years.  

Pat’s mother, though, asked her, “Well, now you’re getting married.  Should I marry Burt?”  She was a little indecisive, too,” Connie notes.  

West Side was one of the bases for a network of friends with young children, who would often also meet at the summer home of Ken and Claudia Cheadle.  Among John and Pat’s closest friends throughout their lives were Jack and Marcia Chesterfield.  Claudia recalls one special evening at her summer home when “everyone was praying for Jack Chesterfield,” who alone of the group of friends was not yet a Christian.  Earl Mortlock, the youth pastor at West Side, talked with Jack and asked, “How come you can’t believe?”  Jack responded, “I don’t have enough faith.”  “Do you have enough faith for this little grain of sand?”  Bending down to the beach.  “Well, yeah, I guess I do.”  

Jack Chesterfield was a quiet man.  But next morning he stood up and started to talk about his new faith.  “Everyone came unglued, (we all) started to sing, ‘There’s a New Name Written Down in Glory,” recalls Claudia.  

Jack and Pat helped with fifth and sixth graders for "Christian Endevour."  One Halloween, sixty-five kids showed up at church, several times the expected number, and haunted the house like a tribe of unschooled poltergeists.  They knocked over a coat rack for a group of older people meeting downstairs, ran all over the church and outside.  The youth director came by to say hello, "Took one look at the situation and turned around and left."  John and Pat must have wondered, at this point, how large a family they really wanted.

But soon they located a piece of property that could accommodate more than the baby that was already on the way: a small house on a beautiful 80 by 100 foot lot a block from Puget Sound, at the bottom of one of Seattle's tree-covered ridges that run north-south, the remnants of moraines from the glaciers that scooped out Puget Sound.  (Now they are called Green Belts, but in those days they were recognized, mercifully, as "woods" that children could explore, without worrying about being environmentally correct, and could people with as many Boogey Men, hippies, ware-wolves, and assorted other monsters as imagination desired.)  It was on a “dead end” street, which meant that children could play baseball in the street without worrying too much about traffic, and wage neighborhood warfare from lot to woods.  Each house had their own character, since the neighborhood had evolved rather than being planned, and everything in the city was within reach, but it was also quiet and bordered by woods.    

It was the yard that first caught Patricia's eye.  It had three big apple trees and plenty of room to run.  "We were expecting Laurel and it was such a nice neighborhood.  We had the woods and the water."

Prospects west proved even better for young children.  There was a vacant lot neighborhood children could scramble to, to reach the beach, and a strip of grass a block north with a concrete bulkhead.  One had to know where to grasp the rusted iron railing, and where to put one's foot, to get down to the beach, one of the first tricks neighborhood children would learn.  Or one could run along the bulkhead in November, and dodge waves as they splashed spray towards Beach Drive.  The beach itself was bewitched by the moon, now shrinking to pebbles and muscle shells and flecks of rounded glass as waves washed in and sucked them out, now expanding into a hundred yards of crawling muck towards the sentinel Olympics across the water.  This was the place to go in summer.  One could dig twenty or thirty fat butter clams with bare hands, if one didn't mind fighting rocks and the smell of muck, or that clams seldom fit into Mom's culinary plans.  Here all four children would learn about nature, wade through eel grass after dungeness crabs (never quite bit enough to eat), pull up rocks and watch baby crabs scurry away, sea anemones withdraw into their colored kingdoms of flesh, fish or eels flap, or orange sea cucumbers pull in their crowns and writhe disconsolately.   

The house itself was small, but Pat had married a carpenter.  "It was pretty cozy and it did have a fireplace."

Ron Burke tells how he was dragged into John Marshall’s construction schemes.  Ron and Connie had taken her younger brother to see Cecille B. Demille’s 1956 blockbuster, The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston.  Coming out of the theatre, they met Pat.  “One thing or the other, we ended up down at your house down on Angeline.”  Ron helped John repair a water line, then drew up plans for adding an addition upstairs, a big kitchen (at least it seemed big to me), a dining room, and the living room, with big picture widows looking out on the poplars and Puget Sound in the distance.  

“It was quite complicated trying to work around that old house,” Ron recalls.  Remodel jobs, as several Marshalls would come to appreciate, can be dicey: “The husband wants one thing, the wife wants another, and they get mad and blame the carpenter, who then blames the architect.”  He doesn’t say so, but this may have been a problem on Angeline: in any case, Ron remarked on how smoothly designing Ron and Phyllis’ house proved, with both knowing exactly what they wanted and could afford.  

Whether they had seen the movie late, or Ron was telescoping the Marshall-Burke family relationship a bit, Ron clearly recalls a little Laurie sitting on the steps to the new addition, eating a hamburger.  

Ken Cheadle also seems to have worked on the addition. In any case, after the roof of the old house had been taken down, late autumn rains were falling, and a doctor advised the Marshalls to find a more healthy place for their children to stay during construction.  That holiday home turned out to be the Cheadle home, where they stayed for a month over Christmas.  Claudia recalls Laurie’s delight at finding a big stuffed bear under the Christmas tree, which she referred to as her “Grandma Marshall Bear.”  (An honor her grandmother did not much appreciate, but that seemed to fit.)  

The relationship between a contractor and his customers can be as clumsy and as tangled as a dance.  A builder is like any other professional, loath to cede authority to amateurs, or even to other pros with different (and therefore misguided) ideas.  Creation involves conceptualization of a vision that one does not easily part with.  

Certainly, John Marshall was “intense about the work,” as his youngest son, who worked with him longest, recalls.  He preferred building new homes on speculation, which allowed him to plan and execute the entire project, since he “didn’t like customers hanging over his shoulder.”  He would even stall finalizing deals, Peter notes, because “he wasn’t going to allow them to pick purple carpet.”  This phobia had some basis in reality, when a customer demanded off-beat customizing, then the deal fell through, and John was stuck trying to sell an oddly apportioned home.  But just as he always drove when his wife was in the car, John also liked to be in the driver’s seat when he was building a house.  Perhaps it was in his case as Mother Dimble says in C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength: “Men can’t help in a job, you know.  They can be induced to do it: not to help while you’re doing it.  At least, it makes them grumpy.”

Living on Alki, Ron and Connie Burke would walk down to Angeline on occasion, or the Marshalls would bring a chicken dinner with corn on the cob to share.  Connie remembers little Laurie, too: “She would let out these squeals,” with a “mischievous look in her eye that she has never lost since.”  

Such as it was, the little house on the big lot had a history, was one product in fact of a sort of asexual reproduction.  Its shell, along with that of its neighbor -- which would be inhabited by the Marshall's long-time friends, the Hallberg family -- were originally part of a single bunker house, a wanagan, used to house loggers, that could be floated from one logging site to the next.  The couple that owned the house, split up, and split their house along with their marriage.  Having been separated, the two houses grew independently, into shapes that no longer resembled one another, like a fruitful church split.

"Jack and Pat" (as the couple were usually called by relatives) borrowed two thousand dollars from Pat’s mother to make a down-payment on the property, a sum she worried about repaying. it would not be the last such worry.

Laurel recalls what she learned from her Dad in those early years:

“From the time I was a little girl, he read to me, listened to my dreams and hopes, helped me learn to read, showed me rocks and plants, discussed politics, sang songs, told stories and shared his love of God.  I can still hear the sound of his pick-up truck rumbling down Jacobsen Road after work, and racing my brother Steve down the alley; waiting for dad to stop and then jumping on the sideboards for the ride home.  Though he worked long hours, he was available to us when he got home. In first grade, I remember my dad helping me learn phonics at the dining room table. At the end of that year, even though we didn’t have much money, he wanted to encourage me for working hard.  Dad took me to a dress shop in West Seattle and waited patiently, for me to choose any dress I wanted – of course it was yellow.
“When I woke up in the morning, I saw my parents reading their bibles and sipping coffee.  After dinner for many years, Dad read the Bible aloud, had family devotions, and then read literature.  While dramatically reading Pilgrim’s Progress, describing Christian’s hopes and travails as he struggled through the Slough of Despond towards the Celestial City, my brothers slipped bits of unwanted food to the dog under the table or made faces at each other while my mom unwittingly undermined his efforts by laughing at these antics.  Envisioning images of a man reaching out his hand to pull Pilgrim out of the miry slough settled in my mind not only as an early literary vision of human frailty, but as a vision of human interdependence and the reality of spiritual struggle as we seek God.”
John would refer to his “crumby little kids” with a big smile, Connie recalls, and “They just take it like a compliment.”
Friends, said C. S. Lewis, are not like lovers, who stare into one another's eyes.  Friends stand side-by-side, exploring common interests.  John and Pat were lovers and the closest of friends as well, and so did a great deal of both.  But John understood that if you want friends, have fun with your kids, doing the things that delight you, and then they will grow up to love those things, and you will have friendships "on the house," not figuratively speaking of casinos as houses, but on the real house, the ones he built with rebar and a caulking gun.  I doubt John planned this consciously, as his second son may have done.  But many of my loves and curiosities grew up naturally, from seeing what Dad was doing, and wanting to do it, too.

John would almost always grow a garden, when he had time, though not often so big a garden as he tended as a boy.  He loved in his last years the same vegetables he grew under Grandma's wartime tutelage: Kentucky wonder beans, hubbard squash, and some tomatoes.  A few days before his death, I brought some of the tomatoes he grew into the house -- I think he got more from those six or seven plants, than I did from the forty or so I planted -- and he put them carefully on the window sill, though he had not eaten (almost) for a month, and would not touch these.  He had not lost the magic at growing things.  I still kept one of those tomatoes (to eat, not as a momento), as late as December 8th.  

Steve also recalls learning about trees from his father.

John began to apply his love of gardening to this large, nicely situated property.  Its most outstanding horticultural feature, along with the apple trees, was a row of four towering popular trees facing the Angeline Road spur that cut from Beach Drive into the lower slopes of the moraine.  (When the second story was added, we could look out the large picture windows at the Sound, across some telephone poles and wires, and see a bit of the Olympic Mountains.)  John planted a camelia bush which exuded what seemed like drops of honey, against the outside of the fireplace.  He found a mountain hemlock that he placed on the opposite side of the walkway, a scarlet trumpet, these being especially cherished leafy friends, then birch and plum trees.  All his children caught this love of growing things: I would feel the velvet on the camelia buds, smell their nectar and rejoice in the variegated white and red blossoms, take pleasure in the odd shapes and colors and musty smell of poplar leaves as they covered the yard on a windy autumn day, and watch flowers emerge in a row along the Hallberg's fence-line, where I watched Dad plant misshapen bulbs he called "glads.”  A good name!  They seemed glad to see the sun.  This flower still seems to me to grow with a special magic, breaking ground like delicate green swords from the ground in spring, to spread out like cups of color sharpening to a point.

With Dad's encouragement, I began gardens at the age of ten in the alcove formed by the second-floor deck, the garage, and the Hallberg's fence.  The corn reached ten feet high one year, with big ears, some fused together.  The bug bit deeply: one of the things I missed most in Asia, was the change to bring delicious vegetables out of friendly brown soils.

Growing is a kind of building: it expresses a deeply-grained instinct, though one we seem to share less with monkeys than with birds or beavers: doubtless an instinct hidden in that 2% of our genome popularly supposed to differ from chimpanzees, along the ability to make jokes about growing bald.  (Dad loved it when a Harlem Globe-Trotters wannabe team visited Skagway, and during the middle of the show, one of the players ran up into the audience, pointed to Dad, and said, “Look!  Mr. Clean!”)  

Growing things and building houses are two of Jesus’ favorite metaphors for the Kingdom of God: “The wise man built his house upon the rock, and the rains came down, and the house stood firm.”  “On this rock I will build my church.”  “A farmer went out into the field to sow . . . “  Both, for Christians, are also acts that reflect the creative character of God. As Jesus put it, "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."  Perhaps this understanding grew, in the natural sense, out of Jesus’ own relationship with his carpenter father, building things together as the eldest in the family, and naturally therefore the first Joseph turned to when he needed some help.  In his world, even more than today, trades were passed from father to son. We learn by imitation. Jesus suggested that these instincts to copy and to make is more than animal: it is build into us as a reflection of our relationship to a Creator God, the counter-entropic desire to make things, to structure material objects so as to form beauty, produce tasty things, and create a home for those we are given to love.

John Marshall’s ministry at West Side, with family, with people he met in his neighborhood, or tending his apartments, was like his gardening and construction: practical, often quiet, productive, and effective.  “He had a heart for these sick people and shut-ins,” recalls Ron Rice, who with John took communion to people around the city who were unable to come to church.  John would also often visit them on his own.  He would fix toilets, paint, and take care of the church’s adjacent rental property some years, even climb up and paint the cross on top of the church.

Jesus did not, of course, mention baseball, unless “The last shall be first” was a reference to the 2001 Mariners.  (“And the first shall be last” describe their career since.)  But sports was also a passion of John’s, one which he passed on in particular to his second and third sons.  How he did that, showed me something about my father.  

I remember getting a baseball glove for my eighth birthday, and trying out for a team at Hiawatha Park.  Once I’d acquired the needed skills, I played second base, batted over .500 some years, won the Golden Glove award, and played in a few All Star games.  I loved baseball, and I loved that glove.  I loved its smell, and I loved the unique and slightly awkward way it embraced grounders.  

My world was turned upside in sixth grade when my glove went missing. Somehow we discovered it had been stolen by a boy named Robbie Moore.  I demanded justice, but most of all I demanded that glove back.  

Dad got my baseball glove back all right, far more diplomatically than I was hoping.  He also let me know that Robbie had lived a difficult life, and didn’t have much.  I learned something about my father through that incident, and also that there is something deeper than justice.  (I still have that glove more than 40 years later, indeed brought it to China with me, and am using it as I teach my students how to play baseball.  We bought some gloves on the Internet which we put in a box and students grab -- but they don't grab my glove.)  

Prayer was also an important part of John’s ministry, and my parents’ life.  Connie Burke notes that like her father, when John said he was praying for you, he showed that he really was, by asking specific, detailed questions about the matters about which you had asked for prayer.  This was the morning routine for John and Pat, especially after he retired.  

John Marshall was never a part of the "1%." The concept of "occupying Wall Street," or any other street that he had not paid for, or improved by living on and backhoeing, breaking roots with a pipe, planting rhodys, soldering copper pipes, or putting new roots on, was however profoundly alien to him.  He knew what it was to "fight City Hall," to struggle with environmentally-minded neighbors who did not understanding civil engineering or that a competent builder could build a house on a hillside that would not slide down onto the houses below it.  John was politically conservative by instinct and training.  He did not want the government to give him things, he wanted to make things, make them well, and sometimes grumbled about bureaucratic roadblocks that could make the difference between profit or loss.

John was, in his one way, an environmentally-friendly builder, though.  He never went into a neighborhood and simply knocked everything down, as was often the custom with new home construction.  He left as many trees and plants as he could.  He built on hillsides where few other builders dared to work, knowing that a good soils engineer can work wonders, and the view you get with picture frame windows is worth your trouble in engineering, lugging concrete to the pour, and maybe even the bureaucrats at city hall.  

These were outward manifestations of John’s tendency to bring order out of chaos in human lives, as well.  

Laurel recalls of her parents’ relationship, which provided the foundation for the ministry Jack and Pat engaged in:

“He modeled a good marriage in how he loved, respected and played with my mom.  While they had very different personalities and liked to do separate things, they also enjoyed spending time together and cherished one another.  When Mom was worried about her grandson, Luke going to Iraq, rather than quote bible verses to her, he sang an old Jerry Lewis song, ‘I get tears in my ears lying on my back crying over you.’  It worked.  He added, ‘It’s not so much just the song, but how you sing it.’”
Connie was impressed at how John and Pat sacrificed to send their children to Bellevue Christian School.  This cost money, and it also meant (part of the time) Pat driving (a choir she did not and does not enjoy) several youngsters to Bellevue and back twice a day.  The Marshall house was a safe place for neighborhood’s children to play, even those for whom home was not.  We kids remember when young friends a block away took refuge from their drunken father in our house.  Connie recalls Penny and Larry being brought over by their mother at 6:30 in the morning. “Your Mom had to bath him and get him dressed.”

John did not always enjoy that level of domestic detail, and once was discovered by his wife parked in his truck a few blocks from home, drinking coffee and enjoying his morning newspaper.  “I got caught,” he confessed.  

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Does Richard Carrier Exist II: Claimant to the Throne

Is this Richard Carrier?
A few years ago, several of us had fun deconstructing the alleged existence of a world-renowned philosopher, historian, and all-around polymath named Richard Carrier.  While the original conversation actually took place somewhere between Heaven and Earth, as reported most accurately elsewhere right here on this site, it was also reported in a straighter version here. (As you can see from the former post, I am the "David last name removed" mentioned in the latter post, removed I hope not due to embarrassment.)

Or is this / or that Richard Carrier?
This afternoon, I received notification by e-mail that there is a claimant to Richard Carrier's throne.  This is, of course, not surprising, given what thrones tend to be made of and valued at, especially one of such illustrious and legendary character.  We should not, needless to say, treat such claims with simple naivite.

Here is the text I received, rescued from my 'junk' box:

I am moving to Columbus, Ohio, for good and all. And I’m taking a moving truck and towing my car all the way across country from my current and soon past home in Stockton, California.

Because Christians don’t understand how evidence works, they’ve literally argued that there is no more evidence for my existence than there is for the existence of Jesus their Christ. Never mind that that’s already wildly false. Here is your chance to see how evidence works, and confirm for yourself, as an eyewitness, that I do indeed exist!

This is a modern-day whistle-stop tour. I’ll be driving each day from one major city to the next, and giving a talk, or appearing in some public fashion selling and signing my books, and happily chatting and glad-handing and posing for photos for anyone who wants to verify my historicity.

The claim by the author of this e-mail to actually be the one and only Richard Carrier is, as you no doubt recognize immediately, highly dubious.  At the risk of beating a dead horse, let me point out twenty-five fatal problems with this claim: 

(1) A world-renowned philosopher would surely recognize the difference between a spoof post tagged "humour" and a "literal argument."  After all, when I asked the eminent philosopher Alvin Plantinga (see Faith Seeking Understanding) whether philosophers always have a good sense of humor, the only possible exception he could point to was St. Thomas Aquinas, and he wasn't sure about him.  Given that Plantinga knows hundreds of philosophers, all things being equal, it seems unlikely that any given claimant who fails to recognize humor will prove a genuine philosopher.  Therefore, it is unlikely that the author of this e-mail is the real Richard Carrier, a philosopher who surely far surpasses any Medieval Catholic for his ability to analyze satire.  

(2) I don't think either my post nor Glen's post claims that there is no more existence for Richard Carrier than for Jesus Christ.  I don't think Jesus' name even comes up in mine.  Again, an eminent historian would almost certainly notice such quotidian historical facts.
   
(3) This writer seems to be conflating "Christians" with "one or two posts I've seen on-line, by some person outside the line of sight, for all I know a Jewish rabbi impersonating a Christian to embarrass a rival faith." 

(4) In any case, since logic is part of philosophy, a genuine philosopher would almost certainly understand that one cannot legitimately generalize from a post or two by a few Christians to the claim, embracing billions of individuals, that "Christians don't understand how evidence works."

And I'm not sure the author of this e-mail, whoever he is, understands how evidence works.

(5) For instance, according to one Dr. Richard Carrier, prior probability can in part be calculated by locating a claimant within a certain reference class, and calculating the frequency with which real persons fall within that reference class.  This he calls "the rule of greater knowledge." "If we know more about the person we are inquiring about, enough to know that he belongs to a rarer reference class 'that just anyone' claimed to be historical . . . " (On the Historicity of Jesus, 238)

How many people are moving to Columbus, Ohio?  And what is the subset of people moving to Columbus who are moving from Stockton, California?  Given the respective populations and emmigration profiles, the odds, it would seem, are billions to one.  This compares (since this writer brings up the analogy) Reza Aslan's argument that Jesus could not have been literate because a mere 3% of Palestinian Jews were allegedly literate!

(6) Indeed, it is suspicious that "Carrier" claims to be moving from a city called "Stockton" to one entitled "Columbus."  These names are mythologically significant, and therefore probably an interpolation.  For Carrier claims to have once believed in the historical reality of Jesus, a "stock" explanation for the evidence believed by a "ton" of scholars.  He then set out, "sailing the ocean blue," as an innovator and intellectual explorer, in the mode of Christopher Columbus discovering the New World.

(7) It is also more than likely that this motif of travel is borrowed from Homer's The Odyssey. Carrier's own Odyssey, for instance, is said to have involved numerous love affairs, as Odysseus with two goddesses and almost with a princess, on his way home to Penelope.

(8) This poster also seems to possess an extremely primitive, sub-philosophical notion of "eyewitness evidence."  Many people claim to have met persons named Richard Carrier, no doubt.  I personally can testify to having had such a faith experience, and possess a vivid memory of encountering members of Carrier's faith community, along with a man calling himself that, in the state of Alabama.

But as Elizabeth Loftus and others have shown, human memory is highly fallible.  The fact that we remember something, doesn't mean it actually happened.  Our brains are constantly fooling themselves, as John Loftus, no relation to Elizabeth, but Carrier's editor, frequently points out.  So the fact that I or someone else has such a memory, is at best only faint evidence that such an encounter actually took place.

(9) In any case, what proof do I have that who I encountered was, in fact, Richard Carrier?  I was shown no birth certificate, passport, or even driver's license.  In fact, I have none but the weakest of anecdotal evidence, the purported testimony of an image hovering before my face, that the person I met was indeed named Richard Carrier.

(10) Even if "Richard Carrier" is offering to show people his driver's license, what will that prove?  A driver's license is nothing but a piece of paper with names and dates on it, alleged to have been issued by anonymous officials working for one or another governing agency.  As Dr Carrier and his disciples (Matthew Ferguson, for instance) sagely point out, anonymous documents are pretty much worthless when it comes to evidence.

(11) Supposing "Richard Carrier" intends (though the poster has not promised this) that he will not only show his fans his driver's license, but also his passport and his birth certificate.  But unfortunately, Dr. Carrier the author has pointed out that the Criteria of Multiplicity is practically useless, because it is always possible that these "separate flows"of evidence converge upstream from a common source.  All this material may be derived, for instance, from a single faulty birth certificate.

(12) Fingerprints, as any cautious epistemologist must know, are also subject to the same objection.  Even if "Richard Carrier"intends to prove his identity by means  of comparing his fingerprints to some government data base (though again, he gives no hint of such an intention), that is simply a Hail Mary pass to blind faith in more anonymous testimony.

(13) Indeed, does "Mr. Carrier" even claim to recall the day of his christening?  Most people do not.  He is, most likely, relying on unsubstantiated rumors from "eyewitnesses" (if he can claim that) for an event that took place more than 40 years ago.  And as generations of skeptical New Testament historians have pointed out, 40 years is FAR too long for a community to preserve even so important a memory as, say, a resurrection from the dead.  Thus they invariably refer to such testimony as "oral tradition."  If "Mr. Carrier" claims to know his own "identity," it can only be the product of multiple generations of oral tradition passed on from an event subject to the corrosion that even far more vivid memories invariably suffer.  

(14-25) According again to the famous Dr. Carrier, historical claims can break down at least at the following eleven points:

"First, you must reliably know (1) if the statement in question very probably did go against its author's interests, (2) that the author actually perceived that it would, and (3) that the statement did not serve other interests the author had which he may have regarded as outweighing any other consequences he perceived to be likely.  And that means you must (4) reliably know what an author's interests actually were, and not just in general, but that particular author in that particular book, in that particular scene (and in that particular community at that particular time, and (5) you must reliably know what the author perceived the consequences of his statement would be . . . (6) you must reliably know how that author would have weighed the pros and cons he was aware of at the time . . . And if you can establish all that, you're not done. For (7) you must also reliable know if the author was even in a position to know the statement was actually true . . . (8) You also need a specific theory as to why the questionable statement was included at all.  And then (9) you need to test that theory against other theories of what it may have been included . . . But that requires explaining (10) why that author could not omit it or even change it (and (11) why no one else could in all the decades before" (Proving History, 158-9).

Reformulating that, we must demand of those who "want to verify (Richard Carrier's) historicity, at least the following:

(14) "'Richard Carrier' must reliably prove the sincerity of his claim to being Carrier, at a minimum by speaking for free, and giving his books away.  Better would be if he died on a cross to prove himself."

(15) "You must know that 'Carrier' really believes himself to be Carrier -- preferably by something better than a lie detector test, which can be faked.

(16) "You must also know that even if 'Carrier' is not profiting from that one night of speechifying, he is also not gaining any financial, emotional, or social benefit that outweighs that loss.  You must follow him to his room to make sure he doesn't have a girlfriend in the audience, for instance.  You must ensure that he is miserable the whole time he is in town and that he knew he would be miserable."

(17) "You must be sure that when 'Carrier' says 'I am Richard Carrier,' he means the world-famous philosopher YOU have in mind, not some other image of Carrier lodged in his own brain that imperfectly corresponds to that image, and that he must have that precise image in his mind exactly as he speaks.

(18) "You must be able to prove that 'Carrier' is not a consequentialist philosopher who thinks that by deceiving you into thinking he is 'Richard Carrier,' he will not somehow bring about a great benefit to posterity, if not to his own pocketbook.

(19) "You furthermore must be able to demonstrate that, in weighing consequences, 'Carrier' perceives that only by telling the truth is there salvation for atheist philosophers;

Nor is that all:

(20) "You must prove that 'Carrier' owns a time-traveling De Lorean with which he went back to the date of his own christening, to verify that he was, indeed, given the name which rumor reports.

(21) "You must explain 'Carrier's' motives in wanting to prove his identity -- without reference to ego, cash, love, or vengence, but only a pure, unadultered and indifferent love of the plain truth;

(22) "Then use Bayes Theorum to prove that the 'Telling the Truth' hypothesis is superior to the 20 billion other possible reasons one person might impersonate another;

(23) "You also need to have your own ears checked, along with the wiring between your ears and brain, and all the neurons that fire when you process the words 'I am Richard Carrier, would you like to take a picture with me?'

(24) "Then explain why 3.8 billion years of evolution with a strong element of random luck that is not inherently truth-directed should produce cognitive, visual, and auditory senses, which accurately translate patterns of sound into meaning and relate truth that corresponds to reality in the advanced hominid brain."

(25) Oh, and after that . . . treasure the moment, because it will shortly enter into mid-term, then long-term memory, and you'll never be able to trust it again.  So even if you did once meet Richard Carrier, you can never know that this really happened to you. It's all just electrical impulses firing from synapse to synapse within your brain.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Ten Greek Books (or collections) Worth Reading

What ancient non-canonical or non-Christian books give you the most valuable background to the New Testament, including by making you invulnerable to half the skeptical arguments out there? Here's my Top Ten list:
1. James Robinson's The Nag Hammadi Library. (Almost all the extant Gnostic works -- most of them boring as all get-out, but highly revealing. Read with Plato's Parable of the Cave.)
2. Bart Ehrman's al-Scripture collection, Lost Scriptures: Books That did not make it into the New Testament. (My disagreement begins with the first two words -- not having these books, which are not "Scriptures," in our Bible is no loss, really. But seeing their unsuitability for yourself is part of the value of the collection - and some are interesting in their own right.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Are the Gospels Myth? Contra Kris Komarnitsky

Alexander and his horse
One of the hobbies I am coming to enjoy as I advance in age, is collecting fake “Jesus doubles.”  No, I don’t mean Christian baublehead dolls, or Orthodox icons.  I mean the phony parallels that skeptics so often point to in an increasingly desperate attempt to find someone, anyone, in the ancient world at all like Jesus of Nazareth, to defuse his embarrassing, intractable uniqueness and historical credibility.  

I have featured some Jesus Doubles (JD) on this site in the past.  (And plan to tackle more in my coming book.)  First, foremost, and among the most amusing, is the ever-popular Apollonius of Tyana.  The only thing he really shares in common with Jesus of Nazareth, is the middle name, "of."  But I love the Saturday Night Live style of the dialogue, the crested dragons and the cures for rabies and Jack the Ripper syndrome (drink lots of beer!)  Richard Carrier suggested the Golden Ass in (which really is gold), Matthew Ferguson The Contest of Hesiod and Homer (no contest with Jesus; see Part IV), and then (as if competing at the carnival to see who can come up with the most flamboyant outfit) Bart Ehrman came up with a real whopper, Baal Shem Tov, a Hasidic Polish Jew also known as the Besht, in a story that features a reincarnated, talking 500-year old frog, among other stars.  

These stories make fascinating and amusing reading, and also show just how desperate the skeptical cause has become.  

Recently, though, a reader sent me an article, by an amateur historian named Kris Komarnitsky, that offers a JD that may outdue the lot.  

Monday, May 16, 2016

"Real Men support Donald Trump!"

My first article for The Stream was posted yesterday.  ("The Spiritual Dangers of a Trump Presidency.")  (Later note: 5000 Facebook shares so far!)  Someone calling himself The Bechtloff, showing a picture of a hand with a gun, responded (typically for a Trump supporter) by questioning my masculity:

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Conversation with a Cold Trump Supporter

I remember once, wandering through the streets of Taipei, praying for girls in Snake Alley who were forced to sell their bodies to all comers.  Ahead of me I noticed two Americans carrying big black books.  I went up to them to chat, hoping they were missionaries and they were carrying Bibles.  

"Pretty girls, huh!"

One asked me.  

"Pretty?  Don't you know some of these girls are sold by their own families at age 15?  And they have to have sex with dozens of men a day?"

"Oh, yeah, some even younger," one replied nonchalantly.

And it was brought home to me how flimsy a shared nationality or culture can be: barbarians are to be met with everywhere.

This came to mind just now as I was chatting with a Trump supporter who calls himself "Glacier," appropriately: 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

It's Rush Limbaugh's fault.

So, the greatest and oldest democracy in the world (no offense, India) has now been given a grand choice of leaders to take up the yoke after eight years of Barack Obama. Door Number One, "the lady," a woman who lied and smeared her way to the top, enabling her sexual predator of a husband, raking in millions from America's enemies and bankers for speeches, and cheering whenever Planned Parenthood put another baby part on E-Bay.  Door Number Two: "the tiger," a casino-owning playboy and political Sugar Daddy who promises to get tough with strawberry pickers and the wives and children of our enemies.

A pox on both your houses.  And a pox on Rush Limbaugh.

Yes, I am blaming Rush Limbaugh for this mess.

It's not just that, after decades of telling us how important conservatism is, Limbaugh spent months yacking and yucking it up with the phoniest conservative who ever set sail, one who wouldn't fool a child who thinks his sister in a mask on Halloween really has turned into a witch, or that Pro Wrestling is a genuine competitive sport.  Nor is it just that Limbaugh spent so much of previous elections, by contrast, ruining the good names of genuine, if impure, conservatives like John McCain, who had a long record of opposing abortion and Big Government, and standing up for a strong military. (Not to mention risking his life for America in a navy jet and a Hanoi prison.)

Limbaugh's guilt goes deeper than such obvious double standards.

Limbaugh's fundamental error lies in the theme of his propaganda, the "Us vs. Them" model, that is his basic product, what coffee is to Starkbucks, and mass-produced beef is to McDonalds.  His essential heresy is his whole Conservative Vs. Liberal schtick.

Not that I repudiate conservatism!  I read Edmund Burke as a young man, concluded he was right (especially in view of communism, which proved the value of many of his warnings), and remain convinced.  I still believe government is a necessary evil that should be kept in its place.  I still believe in the "little platoons" Burke wrote about, and that Charles Colson exemplified, which sociologist Robert Woodberry showed led to so much freedom around the world.  I think it wise, when contemplating unborn children, to err on the side of protection.  I recognize the world contains evil forces, which must be challenged and checked to be kept from harming America's interests and friends, and keep a modicum of sanity in the world.

But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, I also recognize that the line between good and evil runs through every heart.

Failure to keep that in mind is Limbaugh's fundamental error.  While recognizing the value and truth of conservative positions, one of those positions is to recognize that "liberals" are not our most fundamental opponents -- our own hearts are.  And Limbaugh's pride, self-righteousness, and self-satisfaction, while affording a Trumpean amusement to his fans, are also serious character flaws, serious misreadings of reality, trash-talking and over-simplifications at which liberals are right to scoff.

"With half my brain tied behind my back." "Talent on loan from G-A-W-D."

Trump in embryonic form on the EIB Network.

Yes, Limbaugh was mocking the pretensions and false pieties of liberalism, which could stand to be mocked.  But egoism is not, in the end, a virtue, nor is blasphemy something that Christians should encourage.  

Also, Limbaugh's world was fundamentally too simple.  He knew that, because away from the mic, he golfed with those people, and met them as friends.  But his schtick could not model reality, and so his daily Us vs. Them diatribes over-simplified conservative perceptions (sometimes I fell for it), and set us up for a fundamental disconnect with reality.

We forgot that "right" and "wrong" are more fundamental, and more complex, than "right" and "left."

But then Classic Coke got old, and Limbaugh adopted a new business model.  From now on, having secured an audience, he sicced it less and less on "liberals," which was old and lacked the tang of adventure, but on "rinos," Republicans In Name Only, or the Republican "Establishment:" John McCain, Mitt Romney at times, John Boehner, perhaps even Marco Rubio, when he strayed.

But such rhetoric was even more unreal, because it was unbiblical.  It smelled more of Karl Marx than Jesus Christ.  It neglected the fact that no category of human beings is simply good or simply evil, but that a line runs through every heart, dividing motives and ambitions, and revealing the primary need to open our hearts before God in confession and repentance.

Are McCain, Romney, Boehner, Cruz, Trump, and Rubio good men, or bad?

During the long campaign that is now winding up, the peculiar thing is that so few even bothered to ask such fundamental questions.  Hardly anyone asked if Ted Cruz is a decent person.  And Trump's supporters, and Cruz's supporters (he was also guilty of fostering this perversely un-Christian psychology, for instance in his purity-wars against Rubio), never stopped to ask that fundamental question, focusing on the Marxist question of how close their men stood in relation to the halls of power, instead.

If you belonged to the Establishment, you were a traitor by definition: part of the problem, a quisling who allowed Barack Obama to run wild.  (I doubt Obama feels that way.)

But virtue is not defined by wealth or poverty.  Jesus met each person as an individual, lunching with the rich and poor, praising the politically-connected and prostitutes, beggars, along with little old ladies with homes hardly worth eminent-domaining to build a casino parking lot.

So Rush Limbaugh is a heretic.  Which is to say, while intelligent,entertaining, often insightful, Limbaugh is, in the end, a pagan and fundamentally simple-minded fellow.

I am not Joseph in Egypt, and have no vouchsafed vision of the future.  But the next four years look rough.  Perhaps we can begin saving America, during those years, by turning off our radios, opening our Bibles, and listening again to the man whom George Bush (of all people) called his favorite political philosopher.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Did God Really Evolve?

What follows is my review several years ago of Robert Wright's The Evolution of God on the First Things website.   I don't think the question of how faith in God appeared has lost its poignancy or relevance in the past seven years. --DM
Historians of God most often gather to bury, rather than praise, their Creator; Karen Armstrong, Pascal Boyer, and Daniel Dennett being recent examples. Robert Wright offers an interesting break in the pattern with The Evolution of God . 
Wright, in his own way, is solidly in the materialist camp. In an earlier book he told how, like E.O. Wilson, he abandoned his Southern Baptist roots when he discovered evolution and recognized its power to tell the story of life. But he left God with regret. And today, it seems, “we need a god whose sympathies correspond to the scale of social organization, the global scale.” Wright looks at religion not with one eye shut and the other twitching down the sights of a Civil War“era carbine (signed personally by Colonel Ingersoll) but with eyes open to both the genius and inhumanity of man. His sketch thus rises not only to the dignity of error, but also to significant flashes of insight. 

The first part of Wright’s story is familiar enough. Humanity first appears in tribes. Our early gods mirror and justify the limit of our social commitments, mainly to kin. But social evolution, like biological, works an alchemic magic whereby selfishness is transmuted into altruism. Through conquest, tribes form into nations, and nations into empires. The gods justified tribal loyalties, and therefore conquest. But imperial religion slowly evolves a new role as a social glue, allowing amicable relations between tribes that now need to do business in an expanding world. 

Gibbon said that in ancient Rome, philosophers saw all religions as equally false, commoners saw them as equally true, and politicians as equally useful. Strident attacks on religion by iconic intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are similarly matched today by popular defenses of the the truth and utility of all faiths. (Huston Smith is probably the ablest modern proponent of the commoner’s position.) 

The genius of Wright’s theory lies in an evolutionary two-step that allows him to look at religion, like clouds, “from both sides, now.” Thus, on how Marduk, city god of Babylon, became “a kind of grand unified theory of nature”:
 For Babylonians bent on ruling Mesopotamia forever, what better theological weapon than to reduce Marduk’s would-be rivals to parts of his anatomy? Or, to put it less cynically: For Babylonians who want to suffuse all of Mesopotamia in multicultural amity and understanding,what better social cement than a single god that encompasses all gods?
The term Wright favors to describe the binding element in that cement is non-zero sum . Marduk makes a “subtle conquest . . . assimilating other gods into his being””allowing his subjects to relate to one another symbiotically as subjects of a cosmopolitan God, without losing the social capital of tribal affiliations. 

While not a completely original idea, it seems plausible as far as it goes. A fair chunk of the Chinese classic The Book of Poetry is, for example, dedicated to proving that the Zhou Dynasty Heaven”now identified with the Shang Di , or “God above,” of the previous Shang dynasty”justified, even demanded, conquest of the corrupt losing dynasty, and that his rule and that of the Zhou has no territorial bound: “This King Wen, carefully and with reverence, served God with intelligence, and by that service secured the Great Blessing. Unswerving in his virtue, he received the allegiance of states from all quarters.” 

Wright fingers King Josiah as the Hebrew king who elevated Yahweh to the position of Supreme deity. The next step came when Jewish intellectuals, exiled traumatically to Babylon, banned all other gods to explain and compensate for the defeat of Israel, thus inventing monotheism. If God punished us for our idolatrous ways, then brought us home, they thought, it appeared that he “controlled the empire that had conquered the empire than had conquered the Assyrian Empire,” and was the One True God. 

My friend Ard Louis, an Oxford physicist who studies protein folding, once compared the origin of life in terms of children’s toys. Find cars and spaceships made out of Legos, he told me, and you’ll be impressed. (And so I will be, having boys who do brilliant things with Legos.) But come into a room and find Legos snapping themselves into complex, coherent shapes, and the wonder is all the greater. Thus evolution itself is (he believes) a subtler but ultimately more impressive expression of God’s creative activity than direct design would be. 

Wright extends the logic of theistic evolution to the evolution of theism. Suppose, he asks, the real God is the purpose or intent, the divine logos behind the evolution of the inferior and no longer believable God of orthodox tradition? 

Wright is like a gardening enthusiast who explains (with dramatic pauses and frequent repetition) how a walnut seed grows into a mature tree. He describes how a seed opens and sprouts, tap root down and shoot up, breaks ground, and spreads its leaves, with all the excitement of scientific induction. He obviously thinks he is telling you something you don’t know (being, no doubt, a rube from the city). His first job is to undermine naive teleological explanations. Nuts fall by themselves, and sprout with spring rains. Like a squirrel, natural selection may plant genes in us, but for its own pragmatic evolutionary purposes, without envisioning the moral tree that will grow up and put all nations in its ethical shade. 

But then, Wright recalls, nuts fall from trees. For those who care to follow the argument (Wright is careful not to overreach here) the existence of a “moral arrow” built into nature may be taken as evidence of some kind of purpose, or even of some kind of God. 

The first serious problem with this story is one Wright shares with Armstrong. Did God really evolve? Early in their respective narratives, both mention the curious phenomena of “sky gods,” concepts of a Supreme God quite like the Judeo“Christian God that appear in hunter-gatherer and herding cultures around the world. (And sometimes survives in more advanced civilizations, like China.) They then move on to other matters”telling how God evolved (“more and more scholars [acknowledge] a gradual evolution of a complex Yahweistic religion from a polytheistic past”)”forgetting that a recognizable God in prehistory renders the idea that God evolved through history unnecessary. 

Marduk, Wright tells us, was Mesopotamia’s “closest approach yet to a universalist monotheism.” He “had sovereignty over the whole world,” named the four quarters of the world, and created humanity. 

But so did the “High God” of many aboriginal tribes. As even so firm a materialist as Emile Durkheim has acknowledged, the Aussie High God was seen as Creator of all, “benefactor of humanity,” and Judge after death. Observers have been offering similar quotes from Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia for close to a century and a half now; Wright mentions the phenomena himself. 

Why do we need modern empires to explain God, if aboriginal nomads reached the same conception just by staring at the stars? And how does Wright know the Hebrew conception of God didn’t fall like a nut from more primitive remembrances? 

Problems deepen as Wright moves to the New Testament. Here Wright’s major concern is to argue that the historical Jesus “didn’t emphasize universal love at all,” unanimous early Christian testimony to the contrary. The problem here is Wright’s evolutionary scheme, which requires that universal morality grow up like a tender shoot, and not flower too early. Like a rabbit in the pre-Cambrian, a premature conception of forgiving enemies, for example, would complicate Wright’s evolutionary scheme. 

Wright points out that Mark, the earliest gospel, has little to say about loving Gentiles. In fact, Mark’s Jesus obliquely refers to a Gentile woman as a dog. Wright notes that the “Great Commission” postscript at the end of Mark was added after the fact. (Unfortunately, he overlooks verses in chapters 13 and 14 in which Jesus also says that “the gospel must be preached to all nations.”) 

Throwing out most or all of the early records to save a theory is, of course, poor historical method. (Though nothing that has not exasperated careful New Testament scholars before!) But Wright later sabotages his own argument by reminding us (when he wants us to know Jesus believed in a resurrection) that Paul is a good source for what Jesus said, too: “Paul’s credentials as a witness to Jesus’ teachings are good, as such credentials go. Paul was alive when Jesus died and was attuned to the doctrines of Jesus’ followers.” 

By that criteria, unfortunately, not only Paul, but all Christians who lived within the plausible lifespan of Jesus’ first followers”including the authors of the canonical gospels”were unlikely to be completely mistaken about so fundamental an issue as whether they were to preach to goyim . And by the same criteria, Wright’s second-guessing is late, weak, and contradicted by anything that can be called real evidence. 

Wright has read little New Testament scholarship, and what he has read is mostly by scholars like Bart Erhman, Elaine Pagels, and Morton Smith. He even cites the latter’s Jesus the Magician ”failing to recognize that Smith was the real magician, his main legacy being to conjure up the Secret Gospel of Mark out of an imaginary letter from Clement. 

I once wrote a book refuting the Jesus Seminar, but here I could almost wish Robert Funk’s merry gang on Wright. Funk was deeply hostile to Christianity. Nevertheless, he noted that the story of the Good Samaritan “passed the coherence test” because it fit the remarkable portrait of Jesus in all four gospels so perfectly:
 Jesus steadily privileged those marginalized in his society”the diseased, the infirm, women, children, toll collectors, gentile suppliants, perhaps even Samaritans”precisely because they were regarded as the enemy, the outsider, the victim. The Samaritan as helper was an implausible role in the everyday world of Jesus; that is what makes the Samaritan plausible as a helper in a story told by Jesus.
But in the evolutionary story told by Wright, a Jesus who cares for Gentiles and taught the Sermon on the Mount is not at all plausible. Wright’s Jesus, by contrast, is a “fire-and-brimstone apocalyptic preacher” (and xenophobe) who shares “a lot in common” with Muhammad. And here we come to the point of the exegesis. 

To an untutored reader of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Muhammad as described in standard biographies”attacks on neighboring tribes, enslavement and murder of enemies, forcible relations with a woman whose husband his troops had just killed”is less than inspiring. But Wright can hardly leave Muhammad out of his evolutionary tale, and the story must show progress. 

The genius of Wright’s scheme at this point lies in its dialectic. 

The temptation may be to play down violent episodes in the prophet’s life, as Armstrong does in her history of Islam, or to ignore them (in John Esposito’s 700-page Oxford History of Islam , they merit a single sentence). Wright attempts though to view Islam with both eyes without blinking”“at one point Muhammad is urging Moslems to kill infidels and at another he is a beacon of religious tolerance””then integrate that dual vision. 

Wright recognizes that the more savage Quranic revelations come later, when Muhammad is safely ensconced in Medina. But as Muhammad’s tribe grew, it worked the same dialectic of exclusion, expansion, and inclusion that mark the pains of racial tribes growing into empires. “It was a deft maneuver that Muhammad’s successors pulled off: Declare war on a people because of their religion and then, shortly after the conquest, feel tolerance welling up.” Hadiths, like memory stones, mark stages of the path to an inclusive society. And therein lie resources with which to solve our modern dilemma. 

Unlike Marx, Wright sees human beings as free agents, rather than as ciphers to the historical dialectic. Being clever, we pick and choose and interpret our Scriptures according to the needs of the moment. Each of the Abrahamic religions thus bares within it the potential for a humanistic interpretation. The chance for goodwill is an unexpected but inevitable byproduct of expansion, as human interactions become a “non zero-sum game.” (Putting a new spin on Muhammad’s old adage: “the way to paradise is lit by the flash of the sword!”) 

We are the world. For secularists like Dawkins and Sam Harris, theistic religions are the dangerous holdouts”Buddhists and Jains are assumed to be on board. But Wright integrates Abrahamic traditions within a fulfillment scheme leading to a humanism that embraces religious and secular worldviews. Sweetening the pot, he adds that this historical dialectic may even be taken as an argument for God. Wright does not seem to recognize it, but he is at this point trodding almost in the footsteps of Clement of Alexandria. 

Clement is cited early in Evolution of God . Wright credits him for attacking racism and embracing a “monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.” He then faults Clement for assuming the Christian God to be utterly different from the polytheistic swarm from which, Wright believes, Yahweh emerged. 

But Clement actually found a more interesting role for Greco-Roman thought in the divine order. “Truth is one,” he insisted. Reminding his readers of Euripides’ racy story of how Dionysius maddened the women of Thebes so they tore their king to bloody pieces, Clement added: “Just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light.” 

Like Clement, Wright views theology as “preparatory instruction” toward a truer conception of God. Wright’s goal is to do to theology what Clement did to Greek philosophy: “ The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.” 

Wright and Clement differ about which part of the nut is edible, of course. But one hopes that reading Wright, Clement might again be able to affirm: “But all are illuminated by the dawn of life.” 

There are a lot of problems with this book, many deriving from the fact that when it comes to the Christian tradition, Wright often does not know what he is talking about. But truth is one. And surely Wright is onto something in supposing that the history of religion itself reveals the hand of God. It would have been better if he had considered earlier Christian sketches of God’s universal handiwork, from Clement himself, Matteo Ricci, Chesterton’s immortal Everlasting Man , or Rodney Stark’s fascinating recent Discovery of God . Still, Wright usefully challenges believers to tell the “old, old story” of Jesus, and his love, in a broader context”sketching a tree with roots in every tradition, and with leaves and fruit for the healing of all nations.