Saturday, July 06, 2013

"Dangerously eloquent" -- Jesus and the Religions of Man.

One of my most obscure books has also gotten some of the best reviews.  Jesus and the Religions of Man (2000), has been compared to the works of G. K. Chesterton, and warmly praised by (among others) the former president of Seattle Pacific University, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Frederica Matthewes-Green.  On the chapter on sex, which may be all she read, Frederica wrote:

"David Marshall takes cultural analysis several levels deeper, and in prose that is several levels higher, than we've come to expect. The result is not only enlightening but also a great deal of fun to read."

Leslie Keylock called it "One of the finest books on world religions I have read in a long time," while the Fort Worth Star-Telegram described it as "learned, urbane, and refreshing" -- and those were some of the less enthusiastic reviews. 
But the book was never distributed, except on Amazon, and few have so much as touched its algae-green front cover, with a picture of Jesus at the Last Supper, surrounded by Che Guevara, Sigmund Freud, Mother Meera, Martin Luther King, Moses, Mohandas Gandhi, Confucius, and other luminaries.  Those who do touch the front cover, do not always make it to the far shore, 319 densely-packed pages distant.  There is, those who make it there seem to agree, lots of interesting stuff in between "the greens." 

Given the book's obscurity, and that it is no quick or glib read, I'm a little surprised that any negative reviews have appeared on Amazon, especially by someone living on an island near the other shore of the Atlantic, but glad that both negative reviews are by intelligent people.  (Considering the silliness of some of the responses to The Truth Behind the New Atheism.)  There are two negative reviews on that site, a one star and a two star. 

The one-star review is, in some ways, the more interesting of the two, and I will concentrate fire there.  I'll quote it in full, give my initial response, also from Amazon, then a bit more analysis. 

The reviewer is a military buff from "Cambridge, UK," who calls himself "Swift," no doubt for the satirist.  His real first name is apparently Adrian.  His other reviews reveal that he speaks or at least reads both Russian and Japanese, that while critical of civilian bombings, he is even less tolerant of cant and bad history, that he possesses a healthy repugnance for Stalinism, and that he is impatient with arguments for religion, which he reads eclectically (and, as we'll see, not always thoroughly), and reviews with varying mixtures of scorn and insight. 

Anyway, here is his review of Jesus and the Religions of Man:

There's something to be said for obvious nonsense, be it Ann Coulter or Creationism: anybody with a standard set of neurons and a bit of intellectual honesty can pretty well figure out for themselves that they're utter rubbish.

Unfortunately, this sort of book is far more dangerous because it's far more eloquently written and ostensibly appeals to the sensibilities of a somewhat more educated reader. The arguments here are more refined and the rhetoric is more polished. Alas, it's also complete and utter nonsense that simply preaches to the choir - albeit a more demanding, educated one.

Marshall's thesis is disturbing in its fundamental dishonesty: Christianity is a good (in fact, comparatively 'the best') system, he claims, therefore we should regard it as true and become Christians.   Because the very existence of Marshall's book gives evidence to the idea that some people don't see what's so very very wrong with this line of thinking, let me make it quite clear: even if Christianity were the best of all possible religions (which is itself highly, HIGHLY, *** HIGHLY *** dubious premise, despite Marshall's paper mache mangling of history and theology to arrive at that conclusion), that doesn't argue for the fact that we should regard it as true any more than your doctor should lie to you about the terminal illness you have because he wants your last days to be less stressful.   We should "believe" in things not because we want them to be true, but because they ARE true and are supported by actual evidence.   Marshall doesn't even attempt to pretend that he has actual evidence that Christianity is in some way true - he simply wants to assert that we should act as if were true because he personally thinks its the best alternative.   While doubtlessly few non-believers would be convinced by this, unfortunately, there are a heck of a lot of believers who find this reasoning persuasive.

This book pretends to attempt to show that Christianity is superior by contrasting it with other faiths. The result is predictable, given that this book is an apologetic. The obstacle course of criteria of what makes a religion superior is carefully set-up with Jesus-friendly hurdles, and, whaddya know, Jesus wins!

It's for men of reason and intellect like Marshall to realize that if you start with a premise, assume it to be true, and then base everything on this, then you are being fundamentally dishonest. Clearly, he has the brains to recognize that his argument is basically what psychologists call 'rationalization' - the question is whether he has the guts to confront this.

My initial response:

Thanks, Adrian, for the kind words you had the grace to sprinkle in with the harsh ones, and for reading at least part of my book.

You misstate my thesis, though. I do NOT argue that Christianity is good, therefore the reader should become a Christian. For one thing, the book contains no altar call, so far as I recall.

More importantly, though, you seem to have only read the first half or so of the book, and not the Table of Contents. Take a look! "Part II -- the Way . . . Part III -- the Life . . . Part IV -- the Truth." That last section is five chapters long, and makes the case that Christianity is not only helpful, but true.

If, having read those five chapters, you aren't yet either convinced or tired of my writing, feel free to read my next three books, in which I make the case that (1) The Jesus Seminar is mistaken, the Gospels provide excellent historical evidence for the truth of Christianity; (2) So are Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, and other apologists for the Gnostics; (3) So are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett -- God is not a delusion at all.

While it may be that my arguments are a "rationalization," I would feel more confident in your readiness to make that judgment were you to show you had read -- or at least noticed -- the whole book.

Now in a sense, aside from overlooking almost half of a long book, Adrian is right about the other half of Jesus and the Religions of Man.  My argument that Christianity has done the world more good than any other faith can be read as an exercise in stacking the deck.  Or at least, one could also find historical facts that, should one choose to focus on them, lead to the opposite conclusion, that Christianity is the most harmful of all delusions.  You know the list.  An appendix deals with "Crusades, Inquisitions, Pogroms, and Witch-hunts," four of the better-known items on that list, but of course it could be much longer. 

But I am making an argument.  I don't think I'm too harsh on "competing faiths:" I express great appreciation for different aspects of each great religion, even if I do think Christ crowns the human search for truth and redemption. 

How do I "mangle" history and theology to make my case for the social utility of Christianity?  Adrian does not explain this charge, let alone try to back it up.  One supposes that, having reviewed a book by overlooking the existence of five long chapters in that book, it is possible he missed things in the other eight chapters as well.

Still, it's nice to get compliments from intelligent critics, even if they quit reading the book half way through, and then jump to wrong conclusions about its argument. 

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