Hey, it’s suddenly the first Monday of September! What better time to snag a fresh book bag, don some new clothes, and head back to Monday School? It’s STILL “The Rational Corrective To All That Nonsense They Tried To Teach You Yesterday” now that I’ve polished the floor and cleaned the blackboards for the first time in months - but it’s YOUR responsibility to remember to come to class with a notebook, a pencil, and an open mind.
Now sit up straight and pay attention - or not. It’s your choice. (Just like it’s my choice when it comes time to decide who gets a cookie later. ‘Nuff said.)
Today’s Lesson: Fundamentalists CAN Change Their Minds
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Christians - even fundamentalist Christians - are capable of revising their beliefs for the better. Exposing them to facts and logic is one way we can help them along. Telling ourselves that they can’t change and that sharing facts and logic with them is therefore an utter waste of time is self-defeating and NOT helpful.
Do I have any evidence to back up these claims of mine? Yes.
Exhibit A: Dan Barker. Dan is now an atheist and the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation but that wasn’t always the case. According to the bio on that website, “Dan became a teenage evangelist at age 15.... He received a degree in Religion from Azusa Pacific University and was ordained to the ministry by the Standard Community Church, California, in 1975. He served as associate pastor at a Friend's (Quaker) Church, an Assembly of God, and an independent Charismatic church. Dan was a Protestant missionary in Mexico for a total of two years. Dan maintained a touring musical ministry for 17 years, including eight years of full-time, cross-country evangelism.... Following five years of reading, Dan gradually outgrew his religious beliefs. ‘If I had limited myself to Christian authors, I'd still be a Christian today,’ Dan says.... He announced his atheism publicly in January, 1984.”
Exhibits B-Z+: Edward T. Babinski’s Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists. Some 33 former fundies explain how and why they abandoned their old beliefs. About half ended up as atheists or agnostics. You can learn much more about them and this book in a series of four entries I posted back in the spring of 2003. Those entries start here.
And now a new exhibit: Bart Ehrman.
I’ve written about Ehrman before - perhaps most notably here and here.
I’m now reading one of his latest books, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Ehrman details his religious history in his introduction. That history starts off like this: Episcopalian childhood; a “born-again” experience when he was about 14; enrollment at the very conservative Moody Bible Institute, where he majored in Bible theology and completely embraced the idea that the Bible was the inerrant word of gOd. After getting a degree there in three years, he went to Wheaton (Billy Graham’s alma mater) and then Princeton Theological Seminary. He was a very devout Christian (as this history indicates) and his goal was to acquire all the tools he needed to go forth and share the “good news” of Jesus with the rest of the world.
A funny thing happened along the way, though. The more he studied the Bible, the more doubts he came to have.
“There was an obvious problem, however, with the claim that the Bible was verbally inspired - down to its very words,” he writes. “As we learned at Moody in one of the first courses in the curriculum, we don’t actually have the original writings of the New Testament. What we have are copies of these writings, made years later - in most cases, many years later. Moreover, none of these copies is completely accurate, since the scribes who produced them inadvertently and/or intentionally changed them in places. All scribes did this.”
That’s obviously a big problem. And things only got worse for Ehrman as time went on.
Christian visitors to this diary sometimes tell me that if I’m confused about the Bible it’s because I haven’t taken the time to read it in the original Hebrew and Greek. Well, Ehrman went on to master both languages. It didn’t help. Far from it! And Ehrman recognized that even if such study had helped, there was a fundamental flaw in any system of salvation that required such an undertaking. “If the full meaning of the words of scripture can be grasped only by studying them in Greek (and Hebrew), doesn’t this mean that most Christians, who don’t read ancient languages, will never have complete access to what God wants them to know? And doesn’t this make the doctrine of inspiration a doctrine only for the scholarly elite, who have the intellectual skills and leisure time to learn the languages and study the texts by reading them in the original? What good does it do to say that the words are inspired by God if most people have absolutely no access to these words, but only to more or less clumsy renderings of these words into a language, such as English, that has nothing to do with the original words?”
(NOTE: The problem is even worse than Ehrman indicates if one takes the Bible literally. According to its Tower of Babel story, gOd himself purposely afflicted humanity with a multitude of languages to keep us ignorant and relatively powerless. What sense does it make for this gOd to then attempt to bestow salvation on humanity in a way that this curse of a multitude of languages foils? Does gOd’s right hand not know what his left hand is doing? Is gOd a sadistic deity who once again is in effect hardening Pharaoh’s heart so he can smite him for having a hard heart? Or is it a reflection of the same sort of cruel mindset which prompted the Bible’s authors to quote Jesus himself as saying in Mark 4:11-12 and elsewhere that he speaks in parables in order to confuse people and deny them salvation? Whatever the explanation, it pretty much destroys the idea that the gOd of the Bible is all-good or omni-benevolent.)
The final breaking point for Ehrman came when he was a student at Princeton and he was required to read Mark in the original Greek and then write a paper explaining the meaning of a passage. Ehrman chose Mark 2 and Jesus’s version of the OT story in which David and his men violated OT law in a time of need by eating bread reserved for the priests. The problem is, Jesus gets the story wrong. Ehrman tied himself in knots trying to explain this problem away. His professor wrote in response, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” Bam! “Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened,” Ehrman says.
Suddenly he saw the Bible in a new light. Suddenly he was able to see that when Jesus claims in Mark 4 that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds on earth, Jesus was wrong there, too. And when Mark 14 says that Jesus was crucified the day after Passover and John 19 says that he was crucified the day before, hey - no need to bend over backwards trying to explain away the inexplicable. The Bible is simply wrong.
And of course that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Once one accepts the fact that the Bible can be wrong, hundreds and hundreds of similar contradictions and other errors become obvious.
“In short, my study of the Greek New Testament, and my investigation into the manuscripts that contain it, led to a radical rethinking of my understanding of what the Bible is,” Erhman sums things up. “This was a seismic shift for me. Before this - starting with my born-again experience in high school, through my fundamentalist days at Moody, and on through my evangelical days at Wheaton - my faith had been based completely on a certain view of the Bible as the fully inspired, inerrant word of God. Now I no longer saw the Bible that way. The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book. Just as human scribes had copied, and changed, the texts of scripture, so too had human authors originally written the texts of scripture. This was a human book from beginning to end. It was written by different human authors at different times and in different places to address different needs.”
Ehrman is just one of the latest in a long line of devout Christian scholars who have approached the Bible with a love of gOd and a thirst for knowledge only to end up in a very different place than they expected. It’s a place that’s often far closer to the atheist point of view than to that of the Christian fundamentalist.
If those fundamentalists know something that Ehrman doesn’t, they need to tell us exactly what it is.
And if they don’t volunteer the information on their own, we need to ask them to produce it and defend it or revise their beliefs accordingly.
I sincerely believe that we hold the winning hand here. All we need is the courage to play it.
(For more details on the cards in that hand, check out my very first Monday School lesson.)
(And *Cookies* to everyone who has read down this far!)