Sunday, January 15, 2012
A blow-by-blow rebuttal of key or particularly pernicious claims Avalos makes, will give readers a flavor of his argument, and why it is dead wrong. In the final part of this post, focusing on a section called "Jesus Commands Hate!" (Avalos' own words!), we will look at the big picture, which as we will see (and most readers doubtless recognize long before that) Avalos grossly neglects or obfuscates.
Can we know Jesus?
Dr. Avalos begins with common skeptical doubts about the historical Jesus:
The problem is compounded by the nature of our source materials . . . P52, which dates from the second century . . . contains only a few verses from John 18 . . . Thus, we cannot verify that any or all of the words found in those third and fourth-century manuscripts actually represent what Jesus said. In fact, passages such as Mark 16:9-20 and I John 5:7, which were regarded as original portions of the New Testament just a few centuries ago, are no longer held to be such. (176)
This scews a lot of big issues in an overly skeptical direction. P52 dates to the EARLY 2nd Century. It is highly unusual to find extant ancient sources that close to the events they record. Even fuller NT manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th centuries are unusually early, compared to the norm. Also, Avalos neglects to mention that huge amounts of the NT can be found in quotations by Christians and non-Christians from fairly early in the 2nd Century: 170 Synoptic cites mid-century in Justin Martyr alone.
Plus, the foreign and late character of the end of Mark is obvious. The fact that it sticks out so plainly shows why it is unlikely that much else was interpolated by late scribes, as Avalos seems to suggest. The rest of Mark SOUNDS like Mark, as most of John sounds like John. That may sound simplistic or subjective, but one shouldn't ignore such obvious facts, which I discuss in considerable detail in Why the Jesus Seminar can't find Jesus.
Is the New Testament "ambivalent" towards "violence?"
This chapter will show how Christianity, beginning with the New Testament authors, has an ambivalent stance toward violence. Some passages indeed enjoin peaceful responses, but we shall show that even these responses can be interpreted as tactical, meaning that they are intended for utilitarian purposes. (177)
This thesis sentence seems to set the reader up for a lot of fudging.
Every text is "ambivalent," in many ways. That's a favorite scholarly canard, which can mean roughly, "You think you know this book you've been reading all your life? Hah! I will now justify my tax-payer funded education by showing that what you suppose to be its point, in your naive, literalistic reading, is only one of many I can tease out with the scalpels of scholarly exegesis!"
Same with the words "can be interpreted." They flash a warning light at the cautious reader, which with my tax-payer-funded education has helped teach me to read:
BEWARE! HUMBUG AHEAD!
And indeed, the humbug shows up right away:
At the same time, we see non-Christians using violence to counter assaults by Christians on sacred space. One example is the story of the arrest of Stephen, who was later stoned to death. Note the role of sacred space and scripture in outlining the reason's for Stephen's execution: 'They set up false witnesses who said, "This man never stops saying things against this holy place and the law."' (Acts 6:13)
How, in this story, did Christians "assault" sacred space?
Actually, they didn't. It's true the victim (Stephen) was found guilty of arguing with religious leaders. He was also vaguely accused of speaking with hostility, whatever that means, about the temple. (Perhaps his accusers were echoing the literalistic and suspicious spin the Pharisees had given Jesus' words, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." As we will see, 1st Century Pharisees were not the last intellectuals to interpret Jesus' often highly metaphorical language in a woodenly cynical manner.)
Avalos jumps to the following conclusion:
In sum, already in the NT we have instances of violence related to the acquisition or maintanance of sacred spaces . . . The New Testament already shows us a basic paradigm for violence . . . (181)
Is this what Avalos means by "can be interpreted?"
There is not the slightest hint here that Jesus' first followers used violence against anyone, or condoned using violence. This is like accusing Martin Luther King of "being involved in a violent altercation on the road to Selma." Literally that's true, but it's misleading to the point of perversity. To be clear: Stephen was the victim of violence, but is not recorded as commiting any.
Skipping Avalos' discussion of the Crusades, which I covered in my last post, on pages 187-8 he tries to give examples of "violence resulting from inscripturation." He plainly would like to find at least one such act of violence in the New Testament. This is what he comes up with:
Clues to conflict resulting from inscripturation can be found within the NT itself. Note, for example, Acts 19:19: 'A number of those who practiced magic collected their books and burned them publicly; when the value of these books was calculated, it was found to come to fifty thousand silver coins.' The premise of such burning is that the so-called magic books did not contain God's word, and joining Christianity meant destroying rival scriptures.
Again, this is shockingly shoddy, I am tempted to say wilfully dishonest, exegesis.
First of all, there is no violence here, as Avalos has defined it, so why is he even talking about the passage? Some people changed religions, and got rid of some books they didn't want any more. This wasn't Nuremburg: the books were their own property. There were no burn bans on, no temperature inversion with low-hanging, sulfuric smog over the Aegean Sea, and one had a right to get rid of one's own property in a manner of one's choosing.
Secondly, there is no suggestion that these books are "rival scriptures." Luke begins by telling us the converts practiced magic. A book of magic is not usually or necessarily a scripture. The Greek term used here, περίεργος, which one can almost translate "peripheral works," implies that the contents are petty or trivial, which hardly sounds like the works of Plato or even Homer.
Third, there is no hint, anywhere in the NT that I am aware of, that Christians ever destroyed books, even their own, simply because they "did not contain God's Word." Paul was not averse to quoting pagan authors, which he had done only two chapters previously, without a hint that reading them was somehow wrong.
And fourth, Avalos scoffs at the word "magic." I explain, in Jesus and the Religions of Man, how Christian miracles and magic differ. It is evident the early Christians
recognize the difference, even if Dr. Avalos does not.
How do Christians treat outsiders?
Indeed, the dissolution of ethnocentricism in New Testament Christianity is quite superficial: Christianity has actually substituted a different type of group privilege. (190)
This can be a valid complaint. Sometimes Christians do treat outsiders a lot like Jews once treated Gentiles. This is unfortunate, but hardly novel: we are by nature animals of the pack.
But at least in theory, there is a definite advance, here, which Avalos has missed. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, whose birthday it is tomorrow, the Gospel judges us on the content of our character and our relationship to God, not on the "color of our skin" -- or gender, nationality, or class. I see that as progress.
Who will be Saved?
Atheists often seem to think that the Christian doctrine that some will be saved, is morally indefensible, while their own doctrine, that we are all food for worms, is unassailable. And I can see their point, if the harsher images of hell in the NT are taken literally.
But it seems hypocritical to me, for atheists to criticize Christians for preferring our faith over religions we see as less true (though not devoid of truth), even while they dismiss all religions as more or less entirely nuts. Avalos engages in this a bit, on page 198:
Thus, William E. Phipps, who welcomes a more ecumenical attitude among Catholics toward Muslims and Jews, goes on to devalue New Age movements as follows: 'Much of what is called New Age spirituality, with its attention to self-deification, horoscopes, crystal gazing, seances and other irrational magic, is just a current phase of Old Age superstition that is global in scope.'
This assumes, of course, that the Eucharist, salvation, and prayer to the Christian god do not constitute equally unverifiable 'superstitions.' In short, even this more 'inclusive' theology simply results in the maintenance of the scarce resource called 'salvation' as presumably New Age techniques would not be considered salvific.
Of course Dr. Avalos doesn't think these New Age techniques are "salvific," either. So what is he complaining about? His theology makes salvation not just a scarce resource, but a non-existent one.
Here again, too, we have the implicit assumption that faith in God is unverifiable. Probably Phipps does not agree. I certainly don't. So Avalos attempts to erase the distinction between Christianity and the New Age based on the "scarce resource" of his own non-inclusive "canon within a canon" interpretation of why religious people believe. But why should we accept that? His theology is certainly less inclusive that that of Mr. Phipps.
A final, Girardian aside, before the main point
Contrary to Girard's theory, the belief in sacrifice can create new rationales for violence rather than result in the final overthrow of mimetic or scapegoating violence. (205)
Those who have read Rene Girard will find this a strange sentence. Girard knows quite well that belief in sacrifice creates "new rationales for violence:" this has been one of his chief themes, since Dr. Avalos was in grade school.
But I won't delay the reader by explaining the complexities of Girard's actual theory (his books do that, also see articles by or on Girard in First Things), since we have now arrived at Avalos' bizarre attack on Jesus.
"Jesus Commands Hate"
Those are the words of Avalos' subtitle, on 216. He goes on:
Arbitrary selectivity and interpolation is the main reason that the New Testament is so often viewed as preaching only or essentially love. However, the existence of violence in Christianity cannot be explained unless it is also recognized that Jesus also preached 'hate.'
Let's begin with Avalos' background assumption, here. Is it really true that if, over the past two millennia, many Christians have committed violent acts, as obviously they have, that can only be explained by showing that Jesus preached hatred?
Or, while we're at it, if Buddhists have often committed violent acts (as they also have), then the Buddha must also have preached hatred? And Confucius and Lao Zi must also have been hate-mongers? Because there is no other POSSIBLE explanation for murder or cruelty in a vast religious tradition, than that the founder of that tradition encouraged it?
I can think of one other explanation: people like to fight. We cut one another off in traffic. We point middle fingers. We covet. We commit adultery, and blame other people for our faults. We gang up on the weak, take our frustrations out on those lower down on the totem pole, form factions, cliques, Hatfields and McCoys, Crips and Bloods.
The gospels themselves teach us to expect this kind of behavior -- even from Christians! Jesus had to rebuke his own disciples, when they wanted to call down fire on an unrepetent village. "You do not know what spirit you belong to."
In short, given human nature and the history of our race, this is a very strange assumption to make.
How about the claim that it is "arbitrary" to suggest that the New Testament emphasizes love?
This, too, is absurd. The NIV concordance gives about 400 references to "love" in the New Testament, and 14 to "hate." The latter including "no one ever hated his own body," "hate wickedness," "blessed are you when men hate you on account of me," and "do good to those who hate you" -- such vile, pernicious stuff!
The "love" passages include some of the most magnificent passages in human literature.
I am tempted, at this point, to just dismiss Dr. Avalos as a fool, and have done with it. His method here is like finding an odd spelling by William Shakespeare (they are easy to find), and declaring,
"One might say Mr. Shakespeare was very good at English, the conventional view. One could just as well note that he made a lot of simple spelling mistakes. It would involve an arbitrary privileging of a 'canon within a canon' to choose the former description."
There is also the fact, even bigger than words, that Jesus saved lives, and did not take them. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick, spoke kindly to the poor, saved the wretched, and protected women.
And, of course, Jesus died for the sins of the world, praying, "Father, forgive them (the murderers, the "out-group"), for they don't know what they are doing."
But now Avalos swings his heavy gun around -- the one and sole use of "hate" by Jesus that might, conceivably, justify his claim:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
Avalos grasps this text like a dusty old prospector who has found a ruby of great value after a lifetime of tunneling through mines. He spends four long pages defending his allegedly straight-forward and honest interpretation:
The text seems as clear an expresion of hate as any text found anywhere . . .
He argues against disassembling scholars who don't think Jesus "really meant" what he said. Christians must hate their parents! What else is there to say?
There is a great circularity at work in saying that Jesus cannot mean hate in Luke 14:26 because he preaches 'love' elsewhere. But we can reverse this rationale and argue that Jesus probably did not mean 'love' literally elsewhere because he clearly meant 'hate' in Luke 14:26. (218)
I find myself more irritated at the mind-numbing stupidity of this argument, as at the wilfull blindness it displays.
An honest person cannot, in fact, do as Avalos suggests, here. One cannot interpret hundreds of calls to love, by one single, and obviously rhetorical, call to "hate." That would break every scholarly norm of exegesis.
One can and should interpret the exception by the norm. One might, for instance, reasonably interpret the word "love" as it appears in Hitler's Mein Kampf -- "This probing into books and newspapers and studying the teachings of Social Democracy reawakened my love for my own people" -- by the man's whole wretched life.
For mature readers, words emphatically do NOT always take their most conventional meanings. There are such things as sarcasm, hyperbole, irony, satire, figures of speech, and caricature.
One of the most obvious things about Jesus, besides his genuine love, as obvious as Hitler's hate, was the fact that he often used attention-grabbing figures of speech. Kenneth Leong, a Zen Buddhist, wrote a book describing Jesus as a brilliant Zen Master, using language like koans, to arrest attention, and cause his hearers to think more deeply.
"Cut your right eye." "Drink my blood." "Get behind me, Satan!" "Vipers!" "Take up your cross." 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up!"
Why did Jesus use figurative and dramatic language? For those too dense to allow a genius to speak like a genius, Jesus explained one reason for that, too: "So that hearing, they will not understand . . . "
Is it really likely that Jesus was telling his hearers to "hate their own lives?" The parallelism he uses here points to the fact, which I think illiterate Palestinian peasants must have picked up on even if Harvard-educated scholars don't ("illiterate" not being a synonym for "dense"), that Jesus didn't really want his disciples to hate their parents, anymore than he wanted them to commit suicide. He clearly meant "hate" in some sense akin to "Don't listen only to Dad or Mom, when their will stands in gross conflict with the love or clear calling of God on your life."
Perhaps Jesus wanted his disciples to remember this saying, and put it in paradoxical form so they could recall it. Perhaps, like a Zen koan, he wanted them to dwell on it, worry it, and tease the meaning out of its strangeness, in light of his example of a love that could not be manipulated.
If Avalos really thinks Jesus meant "hate," he is terribly obtuse. If he is only pretending to think that, as seems more likely, then he is being disingenuous.
And that is the only such passage Avalos can find. That is the foundation on which he builds his anti-Gospel. Most cults find better proof texts in the gospels for their heresies than that.
In sum, Christianity, if it is meant to be a religion based on the New Testament, does not endorse a love open to all. Love was still primarily meant for other Christians. Christianity simply substituted creedal adherance for genealogical identity as basis for receiving love . . . No New Testament or early Christian writer can be found who believes in complete nonviolence, and all can be seen to believe in a sort of deferred violence. (228)
The assumption here seems to be that, to be moral, Scripture SHOULD endorse "complete nonviolence." Yet elsewhere, Avalos makes it clear that he is not a pacifist: he even seems to support blowing up Mecca, if push comes to shove. So why is Avalos demanding a morality he himself does not believe in? Or is he playing a game with readers, wording his critique in such a way that it looks like a moral critique of Christianity, but is really no such thing, even by his own premises?
Anyway, the best responses to this last paragraph, and perhaps to Avalos' entire assault on the Christian tradition, can be found in the New Testament itself:
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do! (Luke 23:34)
Lord, do not hold this sin against them! (Acts 7: 59)
Next: Hitler, Stalin, and secular violence.