Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A couple of books by Amy Orr-Ewing

I've just read a couple of books by UK based apologist Amy Orr-Ewing recently (thanks to Wee Scoops for lending them to me; she commented on the first of these books here). AOE works for RZIM and the OCCA. I have to say, at the outset, that I've heard a few talks by and interviews with Amy Orr-Ewing and she sounds like quite possibly the nicest person who ever lived, ever. No, I really mean that. But being overwhelmingly nice doesn't necessarily mean she's consistently right, or has greater insight into the reality (or otherwise) of Christian faith, so what follows is an honest (yet critical) response to her two books "Why Trust The Bible?" and "But is it Real?" (in the order I read them, not the order she wrote them...) 

I wrote a blog post called 'Why trust the bible?' a couple of years ago, and this question has dominated my philosophical thinking over the past couple of years, for if the Bible is trustworthy, then Christianity is basically true, there is a God and that has massive implications for all of our lives. But if the bible is not trustworthy, then Christianity falls apart. Sure, that wouldn't necessarily mean that there is no God, but it would be good evidence that even if there is a God, the Christian picture of him is flawed at best, and totally wrong at worst. So the question really matters to me.

I have to say that most of my reading and reflections on the bible over the past few years have led me to (tentatively) conclude that the bible isn't really all that trustworthy - it contains errors and makes claims that have little or no grounding in reality. It is not always consistent with history and paints an inconsistent picture of the God it claims to reveal. But anyway, on to AOE's book on the subject.

In "Why trust the Bible?" she addresses 10 questions that she says have been put to her by non-believers countless times over the years. The foreword by RZ and the first few chapters seem to place the focus of the book in a post-modern world where there is no such thing as truth. To be honest, I can't be bothered with such debates; there is truth, the question here is does the bible contain it? The only notable thing in chapter one is the admission that there are basically 3 options concerning the gospel writers (specifically Luke and John, who she assumes to be 'the doctor' and 'the fisherman' respectively) are either that (i) they are honest in their writing, but deluded in their beliefs, (ii) that they are intentionally writing fiction or falsehood, or (iii) that they are honest in their writing and accurate in their beliefs. In this book she never offers any evidence to support or refute any of these options, but merely presents an anecdote about someone coming to faith, because the story is being related by a fishermen - and fishermen are the type of folk who are honest and not easily duped. Huh?

In chapter 2 she keeps on about post-modernism and questions whether we can know anything about history. Then she plays the Nazi card and talks about questioning the Holocaust. Sigh. There is a vast difference between events involving a handful of peasants some 2000 years ago and events involving millions of people across all strata of society only a few decades ago, this chapter doesn't seem to notice this. Having discussed this for most of the chapter, she then misinterprets Luke's words "carefully investigated everything from the beginning" to mean "spoke to eye-witnesses", which is stretching the text a bit. Anyway, she then moves on, in chapter 3, to the NT manuscripts. Yes, there are a lot of them, and yes, they do go back to within a few generations of the alleged events, nobody seriously doubts this. She does tread on some pretty shaky ground in claiming that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain fragments of NT writings, something that has been pretty solidly debunked since it was first suggested in the early 1970s. Of course, she doesn't rely on this as evidence - it would never stand up in court - but by mentioning it, she does imply that this is potential evidence, something I believe it is not.

And finally, in chapter 4, we begin to get to the point. Are the NT stories reliable? Here she plays the usual apologetic card that discounting the possibility of miracles is 'closed-minded' and then trots out the usual argument that the disciples would never have died for a lie. There's nothing new here and no new perspectives. Then she does a whistle-stop tour through the non-biblical sources and makes a case that the bible has been faithfully transmitted. I must have read too many apologists recently, as I've heard all this too many times and it seems to me that all this evidence really only supports two things that nobody really doubts: (1) there were Christians who worshiped Jesus as God in the early 2nd century, and (2) we can be reasonably sure what the text of the bible was in the late 2nd century. None of the non-biblical sources tells us anything about Jesus, all of them tell us about Christian belief. Nobody doubts that there were early believers, the question is whether or not those believers had the truth.

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce further distractions away from the main point. Concerning the formation of the canon, she claims that this was an organic process, over a few hundred years, with no human guiding hand. This is at complete odds with the claims of David Trobisch who demonstrates (rather convincingly) that the Canon of the NT was 'published' by a single editor in the mid-late 2nd century. It is also clear to me that the 'Catholic' canon was formed as a response to the earlier Marcionite canon. She then goes off on a tangent to demonstrate that the bible is superior to holy books from other religions. While she may be right, this doesn't render the bible 'trustworthy'; only more trustworthy than other fictions...

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are other tangents, dealing with the apparent sexism of the bible, the violence of it and the attitudes to sex in it. More than other chapters in the book, it is apparent in these three that the target audience of this book is people who are already Christians, but may be facing doubts raised by others. The message here is 'don't worry, the bible's not as out of date as you think'. These chapters touch lightly on a few important topics, without ever really grappling with the issues adequately, and - obviously - conclude in favour of the standard Evangelical Alliance position on sexual issues. Why AOE feels the need to conclude in favour of 'just war' as against a pacifist stance is unclear, and seems out of context in this book. But I guess, the point is its OK to be a follower of Jesus and support war. That's very murky water to wade through.

And then we get to a conclusion that walks away from evidence-based reasoning to anecdote and emotional reasoning. You can know Jesus 'in your heart'. AOE knows Jesus 'in her heart' and no amount of actual evidence can dispute that.

In the end, this is a book that doesn't adequately address the question posed in the title. It starts off addressing a post-modern view of 'truth' and ends up defending the views of the bible against modern beliefs about sex and violence. But what it never does along the way is provide sufficient evidence to conclude that the bible is actually trustworthy. Anecdotes don't prove anything, even emotive ones presented in a confident and positive manner.

"But is it Real?" comes at the Christian faith from a different angle. The aim here is to dispel the claims that Christianity is a 'delusion' or is simply one of many religions, and no more or less valid than the others. From the outset we're in even more anecdotal territory than we were with the other book. Actual evidence is very scarce here. The objective seems to be to counter every anti-Christian claim or quote with an equal and opposite pro-Christian claim or quote. These effectively cancel each other out, rather than providing any pro-Christian evidence.

Chapter 1 tries very hard to prove that 'Christian experience' is radically different from the 'experience' found in Buddhism and Islam. Probably true. Its notable that the experience of Hinduism, Hare Krishna, Mormonism, or other 'heretical' Christian sects is not considered here. Those alternative religions do have personal and relational deities, yet are not considered. Apparently Christianity is qualitatively different from all other religions in that it alone has a 'personal relationship' with the divine. But this is not really explained or defined here. The fact that talking of Christian faith in 'personal relationship' terms is a modern innovation is certainly never discussed. This terminology would have been meaningless to the average Christian believer even a couple of centuries ago, it only really came in with the spread of Pentecostalism in the early 20th Century. Again, as with all apologetics, the aim of this book seems to be to reassure the Christian reader that their faith is reasonable and justifiable.

Then we enter Dawkins / Hitchens / Harris territory and counter the claims that God is a delusion. This is done using lots of quotes and anecdotes but no real issues or evidence are really presented. I've read better responses to the 'new atheists', this one just dips its toe in the debate. Next she takes on the 'religion is a crutch' idea and challenges Freud. Once again in a fairly superficial manner. She makes claims that if real, Christianity is not (just) a crutch, but doesn't really manage to demonstrate that it is real.

When discussing the plurality of religions she makes an odd argument against the oft-asserted statement that your religion is largely a product of where you were born. She seems to assume that this objection to faith is actually in favour of all religions being equally valid paths to God when, in fact, it is almost always used as an argument that all religions are equally invalid - that is, that they are all false.

The chapter on suffering and evil is the first in the book to actually engage with its subject, and is not just a bunch of anecdotes and counter-quotes. Her main point seems to be that you can't use moral reasoning to decide the God question, because moral laws entail a moral law giver, so by posing the very question in moral terms you are excluding the possibility that there is no God. This is a strong argument, but it has flaws. For a start, she simply assumes that if there is a moral law that there must be a moral lawgiver who must be God. I'm afraid I get a bit suspicious of strings of 'must be' type deductions, they almost always lead to a house of cards situation. The claim that there must be a lawgiver because there is a law is pretty much the same as the claim that there must be a creator because there is a creation. The way we form the question frequently seems to entail an answer, but the creator/creation question is still very much open to debate, and so is the law/lawgiver question.

What she never does here (much like many other debates on this issue) is actually demonstrate that there is an absolute moral law. If moral 'law' is merely relative, not absolute, then it isn't really a law at all, more like a trait, an emergent property of a system. And emergent properties of systems don't need lawgivers. Thankfully she doesn't play the "torturing babies for fun" card, which seems to be the only moral absolute anyone can agree on in such debates, but rather than actually try and demonstrate that there are moral absolutes, she goes off on a comparative-religion tangent and tries to show that Christianity is morally superior to other religions. Maybe it is, but this still comes a long way short of answering the question on the cover...

The book then asks why Christians are so bad at being Christians. Because they are. The point seems to be that if there is really a transforming friendship with God, then Christians should be increasingly better at being Christians than they generally are. I have to say that her attempts to explain this one away are the least convincing bit of the book, there's not a good case to be made here.

The subject of hell comes up next and here AOE reveals her true worldview. While the title of the book is "But is it real?" here she shows that she thinks that reality = the teaching of Jesus, with no need for extra proof beyond that:
"Such discussions of hell illustrate the importance of basing one's beliefs on truth and reality rather than on personal preference. If eternal life is at stake, isn't it at least worth examining the claims and teachings of Jesus and making up our minds properly about their veracity, rather than drifting along with society's laissez-faire attitude, hoping it will all pan out in the end?" (p. 90)
Well, yes, but this begs the question of truth and reality - she never presents any evidence or even sound philosophical argument for the reality (or otherwise) of hell. She never demonstrates that the teachings of Jesus relate to a real hell. Indeed, she never at any point in this book gives any evidence or arguments that the words recorded in the bible are actually an accurate account of the words of Jesus. She merely assumes that (a) there was a historical Jesus, (b) that he was the Son of God, (c) that his words are accurately recorded in the gospels, and (d) that his words paint an accurate picture of truth and reality. All four of these assumptions are questionable, yet these questions are never considered. So this chapter fails in its intent, as the 'truth and reality' of hell is never demonstrated, only assumed. Is it real? I don't know. But given the lack of evidence, and good philosophical arguments against it, it would seem reasonable to doubt the existence of hell. She ends the chapter explaining the standard evangelical thinking of what Jesus achieved by dying on the cross, all of which implicitly assumes that the book of Romans is an inspired document. Something else she never demonstrates or even considers to be a question.

Then the word 'fundamentalism' is discussed and skirted around. But there's not much of interest in here. In the penultimate chapter she more or less drops the facade and reveals who this book is really aimed at - people who 'used to believe' but have drifted away from Christianity. Here she considers a few backsliding (a word she doesn't use) stories and explains why such people are being inconsistent and should really come back to faith. In the end she says this:
"...the most important reason to consider returning: Christianity is true and real. Everything else flows from this: If Jesus was who he claimed to be, if he rose from the dead and really does save us from our sins, if he is personally knowable today, then it would be madness to reject him."
Absolutely! I agree totally and wholeheartedly.

IF all that is real and true, then it would be madness to reject Jesus. But IS all that real and true? This book doesn't give enough evidence to decide that question, and never considers some of the main issues, such as do the gospels contain honest and accurate historical reportage or not? She goes on to agree with me:
"If these things are not true and real, it is right to ignore his claims as irrelevant.
        The crucial questions to settle then are: On what grounds have I rejected Christianity? Are these grounds substantial or circumstantial? Shouldn't I examine my presuppositions as well as the evidence for Christ before rejecting something so important out of hand?"
I agree with all of this. But think that she should also consider her presuppositions. Everything in here assumes the gospels are, well, gospel truth.

In the penultimate chapter she lists (in bullet point form) the claims of Christianity that we need to make a decision on. Here's my paraphrase of them:
  1. Jesus really did die on the cross. 
  2. Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb.
  3. The disciples were disheartened following his death.
  4. The testimony of women is crucial; nobody would make this stuff up.
  5. The tomb was empty; this is "universally" acknowledged.
  6. The preaching in Acts is inexplicable if there was no resurrection.
  7. The disciples were transformed.
  8. Loads of people including sceptics, opponents and 500 at the same time saw the resurrected Jesus.
  9. The resurrection of a single man, not at the end of the age, is unprecedented in Jewish thought.
Let's pose the 'But is it real?' question at these claims... All of these claims rely entirely on the four gospel accounts, one of Paul's letters, and the book of Acts. There are no non-biblical sources to support any of these. All non-biblical sources reveal that Christians believed (some of) these things a couple of generations after the alleged resurrection, they give us no access to the actual event, if it happened. For example, the transformation of the disciples from point 3 to point 7 is all part of the gospel story and has dramatic effect; this doesn't make it true. Indeed, it actually suggests that it might be a literary invention to make a stronger story - this is how fiction works.

Most of these individual claims can be (and have been) rebutted with equal and opposite arguments. What the case for the reality of these claims has to do is demonstrate that the gospels are accurate history books, not fictions. This is something this book never even attempts to do. So in the final analysis the answer to the question 'But is it Real?' has to be 'we don't know...'

I think I'll not read any more apologetics for a while. There really is noting new under the sun, and nothing particularly compelling in anything I've read. But there may be a couple more posts looking at other apologetics books, as I've read some that I haven't commented on yet...


VainSaints said...

There are huge problems here.

First of all, the canonical Gospels and the Epistles exist in dozens to hundreds of ancient manuscripts, with the earliest manuscript (a fragment of John) having been dated to 60-70 years after the crucifixion.

There is thus no evidence at all that the Gospels as handed down to us are the work of a single 2nd century editor. There are too many varying scripts from too many parts of the ancient world for that to have been the case.

There is also corroboration from 1st century sources, Clement, Ignatius, etc. about the content of the doctrine that was being preached in the 1st Century.

There is also political and geographic verisimilitude in the Gospel narratives, as well as the basic question of how this radically new interpretation of Judaic scripture came about in the first place, in addition to several other historical indicators that mark as unlikely the possibility that the early Christian writings.

Obviously there is some room for doubt. But epistemological certainty is beyond the capacity of historians to establish. One can concoct a farfetched scenario whereby Jesus didn't even exist; but farfetched scenarios don't constitute good reasons.

Ricky Carvel said...

Indeed, there are huge problems here.

It is impossible to date a papyrus using paleographic evidence alone to a date range of only 10 years. The best we can assert about P52 is that it was probably written in the first half of the 2nd century.

So what we learn from that is that there was an account of the trial of Jesus by Pilate in the early 2nd century. This was either a snippet of a copy of the gospel of John which was already extant, in its final canonical form, before this time, or this is a snippet of a pre-canonical writing which was used by the redactor of Canonical John, which may have happened after this time. Bultmann showed evidence of an 'ecclesiastical redactor' having edited and added to an earlier (gnostic?) gospel of John. Does this snippet come from the earlier or the later work? We have no evidence either way.

But. There is evidence for the 2nd century editor of the whole canon. Read Trobisch. The claim is not that all of our manuscripts go back to the 2nd century edited codex - there are several manuscripts from later centuries that don't. The claim is that a canon was established in the 2nd century and (furthermore) that many non-canonical works were prejudiced against because of the existence of the canon. Non canonical versions of canonical books appear to have been systematically destroyed (there are no extant copies of any of the Marcionite canon books, yet we know these were widespread - someone systematically destroyed them; we can assume that this would also have happened to non-canonical versions of NT books, if any such existed.)

I have problems with Ignatius too. I haven't read enough on the subject to have any strong opinion, but what I have read suggests that at least half of the Ignatian epistles are fakes, and the other half are questionable. The setting for the epistles seems odd - Romans put dissidents in the arena with wild animals as an exhibition, to make a point to the crowd. There is no sense in removing Ignatius from Antioch (where they had an arena) and taking him to Rome to execute him in front of a crowd who had no idea who he was. Execute him in Antioch and you make a point, take him to Rome (stopping in every town on the way and giving him opportunity to write long letters in each) seems a waste of soldiers time and it makes no point to anyone. So I can't take Ignatius as proof of anything. But even if its all true, all it shows us is early 2nd century Christian belief.

We can document exactly what Mormans believed only a handful of years after Joseph Smith was visited by the angel. Does that mean the angelic visitation happened?

Anyway, I don't believe that Jesus didn't exist. I just believe that there is a sufficiently tangled web of not entirely coherent stories in the NT to doubt the reality of much of the story.

Luke claims to have investigated everything carefully and to present an ordered account.

Philostratus does exactly the same thing in his life of Apollonius of Tyana.

At least one of those two doesn't present a true and accurate history. Why should we assume the other one does?

There is a room for a lot of doubt. What I can't see is much room for absolute certainty.

VainSaints said...

I'm looking in on Trobisch as we speak.

The comparison with the Mormons, however, seems totally invalid.

"We can document exactly what Mormans believed only a handful of years after Joseph Smith was visited by the angel. Does that mean the angelic visitation happened?"


It means hat *either* the visitation happened, *or* Joseph Smith was a lunatic *or* he was a fraud. Most available evidence points squarely to Smith being a fraud. The Book of Mormon, for instance, is replete with gross anachronisms and other glaring faults in verisimilitude, in a way that the Book of Acts, say, is obviously not, as even Trobisch and company seem to accept. Whatever you can say about Acts and the Gospels, there is a boatload of evidence that they are authentic 1st Century Judaic texts.

What is *impossible* is that somehow, the Book of Mormon evolved through an organic myth-making, legend-creating process. Skeptic writers continuously dodge this issue. The Gospels, if false, must then be a diabolical fraud perpetrated on 1st Century Palestine. If it is such a fraud, then there must be a fraudster (i.e. a Joseph Smith) and a motive.

Ricky Carvel said...

I agree, most likely Joseph Smith was a fraud. But he still did start a religion, which thousands accepted in a relatively short time frame and which he was (apparently) prepared to die for...

In 1977, Elvis Presley died. Hundreds, of not thousands of his fans could not accept his fact and denied it. They invented stories to explain away the 'facts' of his death. This wasn't fraud, it was self-deception.

Could this not have happened 2000 years ago?

Do this in the right place and time and you start a religion...

And as far as your 'boatload' of evidence goes, we have no evidence of anyone citing or alluding to Acts until the 2nd half of the 2nd century. Maybe it didn't exist until then...?

V said...

The Elvis comparison is supremely inapt, as I think you will agree.

No one swears that they spoke to Elvis, that this Elvis identified himself as Elvis, that he walked amongst them after he died etc.

With Christ, we have all these things. Including witnesses who stood by what they claimed to see on pain of death. Unless that was also "made up".

The Joseph Smith comparison holds. There is no way to explain the immediacy, persistency, centrality, and dominance of the belief in the Resurrection unless it either happened or was a consciously perpetrated fraud.