Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Quality of Christian Scholarship

Reviews of the book, The God I Don't Understand, by Christopher Wright have been making the rounds in the blogosphere. It is an intriguing title. More intriguing is the promise of new insight into the conquest of the Canaanites and God's justice.

Let me set the scene: God has issued the following order:

Deuteronomy 20:16-17(NIV)
16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you

Is this genocide or not? Is this God's barbarity on display? Naturally, Christians are not too comfortable with suggestions that God is a murderous crank and the author admits his own discomfort.

If the reviews are to be taken seriously (I have no intention of spending time or treasure reading every apologetic book that comes along - I have kids!) , Mr. Wright's "frameworks" for addressing these questions are as follows:

(from BloodBought)
The Framework of The Old Testament Story:

There is a culture and a rhetoric of warfare for the Israelites that we are not famaliar with today. The conquest of Canaan did not include a complete removal of them from the land, but only a subduing of them so that Israel can take the land. Something else important to consider is that this is a unique and historical event, not something to be a model for a way of life.

So if God only orders genocide on occasion, it's okay. "I'm not a monster. I only only eat the occasional baby."

The Framework of God’s Sovereign Justice

“The conquest was not human genocide. It was divine judgment” This is seen by the fact that it wasn’t an unconditional wiping out of all Canaanites. For Canaanites who repented and followed Yahweh, like Rahab, they were spared. This does not imply that Israel is more righteous, we even see God imposing the same judgment on them.

Ahem. Look at the passage above. In verse 10, God offers to spare any city that allows the Israelites to seize them as slaves. Short of "repentance" God demands the destruction of all male inhabitants but still allows the women and children to be kept as slaves. Unfortunately this treatment is reserved for cities "on the way" to the promised land. Sparing even women and children is specifically forbidden with regards to the peoples listed in verse 17. So an argument that the repentant Canaanite would be spared doesn't fit the text. Perhaps Rahab's story was a case of special consideration or was just made up to make a good read. In any case, the above defense only makes sense if we are making up the things we want to believe or not take the Bible as accurate.

The Framework of God’s Whole Plan of Salvation:

The conquest of Canaan, is not the ultimate end, it is part of God’s plan of having Israel being His special and chosen people from which the Messiah will come. The mission of Israel is to be a nation from which peace to God is made available and all nations comes to praise Him. The conquest of Canaan might seem contradictory to this but, Wright states “The overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations…What we need to see is that the Bible feels no contradiction between the ultimate goal of universal blessing and historical acts of particular judgment.”

Ah yes. Defend every word when you agree and appeal to the "overall thrust" when you get in trouble. Anyway, as long as it leads to the Resurrection, it's okay. God can't be expected to make an omelet without breaking some eggs. It's not like He is omnipotent or anything. I'm sure the young Canaanite mother with her baby clutched to her breast who was cut down by Joshuas soldiers was comforted in her last moments that this would all lead to the salvation of people hundreds of years in the future. After all, she and her child are guilty of all the sins of the Canaanite nation, right?

Essentially what we have here is the common Christian attempt to wish away the parts of their holy book that conflict with what they want to believe. Even their most highly regarded thinkers fall into this trap. All they can offer is obfuscation and reassurance. I wish this were a rare example of such shoddy "scholarship" but I have read N T Wright.


Mike L. said...

I agree with much of your criticism. However, I see a problem with your logic and your chosen point of attack...

You act as if you believe God wrote this text. Do you believe this is an accurate description of literal history?

If so, then you are a theist and you'd have a case (in your own mind) for "genocide by God". If not, then by default, there is no reason to assume this is anything other than human explanations of past events (victory or defeat in war, natural disasters, etc).

Atheists and theists tend to make the same mistake with the Bible. They both assume it is written by an external deity and that some magical God did what the texts say it did. If you start from that mistake, then any further conclusions by theists or atheists will likely be misguided.

This text proves only one thing. A group of ancient people used this myth to explain their ancestors apparent slaughter of their neighbors. It is absurd for atheists to try and read into this myth that a literal supernatural deity did this. It is just as absurd for theists to assume a God did this. Neither group is looking at the text objectively with rational observational skills.

Do you see the irony? You're criticizing a Christian about the character of their God, as if the God existed and as if the texts accurately portrayed literal historical events. It sounds as if you've lost touch with the difference between myth and reality.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike. Thanks for posting.

God fearing atheists? I like it. I remember the story about Mark Twain, I professing atheist who , in his declining years, railed against the God he didn't believe in. However I am not (yet) a Mark Twain. I would agree with you that treating these stories as foundational myths is probably the most appropriate approach. Unfortunately, the author of this book does not share this view. It is not I who acts as if God wrote the text, it is the author. I merely have to work at that level to address his arguments. I may miss but there it is.

Christopher Wright seems to be struggling mightily with this issue - so much so that he has written a book about it. Even when writing down his concerns for prosperity, Mr Wright has to waffle, renaming his tentative solutions to the problem "frameworks" as if to provide an out when called on the tenuousness rationale deployed. Even when pressed Mr Wright's frameworks are tangential to the issue at hand - how does God's plan for salvation excuse the slaughter of innocents? Does his first framework (warlike rhetoric) contain a nod to foundational myths? If so, mythology leaves us precious little context to examine God's plans?

So, my screed is not against God or the Bible. It is against the kind of thinking that gets Christians (on blogs?) so fired up. Can we excuse Strobel and McDowell as apologetic hacks? What about N T Wright? This man is considered a scholarly heavyweight. He doesn't seem to engage in the dishonest tactics of the two former writers but his thinking can be just as fuzzy.

As long as books are written trying to defend the most outrageous events of the Bible, I will continue to wail, and on bad days, gnash my teeth.