April 17, 2014

Empathy, and the Long Reach of Reason

Posted in critical thinking, culture, film, history, humanism, justice, literature, philosophy, politics, psychology at 4:17 pm by Jerry


August 31, 2010

Loved these Questions about the Jesus Stories

Posted in history, literature, scripture at 5:24 am by Jerry

And no-one thought to write any of these down for at least 40 years after his death? And even then they could only find a handful of stories to record. And even then they had to model these on Old Testament narratives anyway, and not describe a life that was so awe-inspiring as it happened without resort to such literary clothing?


April 24, 2010

Gospel Narratives Lack Basic Historical Facts

Posted in history, literature, mythology, non-fiction, scripture at 5:52 am by Jerry

Here’s a few pieces from a response to a chapter in Scott McKnight’s book and an article of his in Christianity Today:

HJ scholars have NO basic facts to start with

To repeat: Nonbiblical historians begin with basic and public facts (that are certain and nondebatable) and move on from those to discover more complex and private facts that are less certain and more debatable than the original primary facts. Historical Jesus historians begin with no basic and public facts. They begin with an unprovenanced narrative that contains much myth and literary artifice, and from which they attempt to create their own basic and public facts by means of exegesis. But the basic and public facts so created are as uncertain and debatable as the secondary facts of nonbiblical historians.

In other words, historical Jesus scholars have no objective, existential raw materials with which even to begin to attempt a legitimate historical enquiry.

Historians have corroborated sources and primary evidence for Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. They have nothing but assumption in the case of Jesus. The Gospel narratives cannot be corroborated as history. Conclusions of exegesis are entirely dependent on the skills and interests of the historian. Exegesis of such documents can never produce an existential or basic real Fact…

Christian “historians” preach a hermeneutics of Love for the Gospel to find facts

Some HJ scholars attempt to substitute a “hermeneutics of love” or “trust” in the absence of external corroboration for their Gospel narrative. Whereas other historians (and everyone else) seek external corroboration to verify reports or narratives, McKnight, Bauckham, and others know they cannot match this basic common-sense approach, so complain that this standard is too “sceptical” and call it a “hermeneutics of suspicion”. This means that the HJ historian must take the Gospel narrative on trust at some level as a genuine attempt, again at some level, to convey real history. McKnight explains the Christian morality behind this:

I contend that a hermeneutics of suspicion is fundamentally at odds with the Christian gospel, which is what a theological discipline is most concerned with. In other words, what a  Christian needs is not a hermeneutics of suspicion but, as Alan Jacobs brilliantly presents, a “hermeneutics of love” or a “hermeneutics of trust”. (p.36)

Would they use the same trust or love for sources other than the canonical Gospels? Would they ask Christian judges in courtrooms to apply the same hermeneutic to any uncorroborated testimony? …

So where does this leave the “facts” used by the historians of Jesus?

McKnight believes that most historical Jesus scholars go along with the essence of this view of what they are doing (p. 15, Jesus and His Death). They see themselves as discovering facts and what those facts mean, and thus adding to an ever widening single knowledge base about Jesus incrementally.

But in historical Jesus studies facts are not incremental, and explanatory theories multiply, not decrease. Newly discovered facts do not augment established data. New “facts” are created to compete against other “facts”. If Jesus cleansed the temple, here are some “facts” to show that it was to declare that its days were numbered (Sanders). No it wasn’t. It was to speak up for the poor (Crossley). Hang on, I don’t think we can say it is a fact that Jesus cleansed the Temple at all (Fredrikson, Mack). This situation testifies loudly that the very preliminary “facts” in historical Jesus studies are nothing like the “facts” that other historians speak of — e.g. that the battle of Hastings took place in 1066, that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian population of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. McKnight, as we have seen above, exposes exactly where such biblical “facts” come from — exegesis of the Gospels…

What of the sources we use?

Elton writes a warning for amateur historians:

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence which will answer a particular question; it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p. 60)

Many historical Jesus historians do, at times, apply this principle. But when confronted with alternative paradigms, such as that of Price, Thompson, or Doherty, they do not address the questions raised accordingly, but respond like amateurs by casting around to find a rebuttal with scattered pieces of particular evidence which they think will answer the particular question.

Elton also addresses the critical importance of the provenance of sources, and uses documents from the Tudor period as an example. How our sources came to be produced is of critical importance for knowing how to interpret them and understand what evidence, if any, they yield. It is essential to know how they came into being. They must be subjected to this sort of critical enquiry before we can know what sort of evidence they will yield (pp. 62-63).

Of the sources the historian uses, Elton wrote:

There is no perfect substitute for total acquaintance with the relevant material. . . . If the independent reality of history is ever to be apprehended, the real meaning of the surviving material must be elicited from the surface appearance. . . . Criticizing the evidence means two things: establishing its genuineness, and assessing its proper significance. (pp. 66-7)

I submit that there is no reason to think that the Gospels were written with a view to containing real history at some level, or were written from testimonies of oral sources that went back to eyewitnesses of real events. This view of the Gospels as authoritative sources is entirely an untested assumption inherited from centuries of inherited conventional wisdom. They have never been tested as the documents purporting to be the Donation of Constantine or the Ems Telegram have been. Certainly historians have attempted to argue for their origins in this or that geographical area, but precious few have attempted to test the conventional wisdom that claims they are indeed records ultimately derived from “traditions” traceable back to real historical characters and events.

Going this far, I suggest, risks questioning the very rationale for whole discipline of biblical studies.

But none of this, of itself, means that the Gospels might not contain real history. As Philip R. Davies might say, such a question has yet to be established. But Thomas L. Thompson can write (The Messiah Myth) that the idea that the gospel narratives and sayings are derived from real history is falsifiable. He argues that pointing to how the Gospel sayings and actions echo widely known literary sayings and deeds from other periods points to their dependence on their wider literary heritage. My own view is that we can only roll with the evidence we have, and that means comparing the Gospels with the similar literature, or literature that contains similar motifs (e.g. the Jewish scriptures, Book of Enoch and other Second Temple and other Mid East literature, Philo, Euripides, Homer), and seeing where that leads. There are no independent external controls to inform us that the contents of the Gospel narrative are historical. We only have literature to compare with literature. Thompson may not have written the most persuasive book when he composed The Messiah Myth, but he is certainly headed in the right direction with a methodology that pulls on the fewest strings to make it work.

What is required of the Gospels before their narratives can be assumed to be evidence for historical facts is a study of their origins, their audiences, their authors at a minimum. These are all matters of speculation, however educated the speculation may be. Their narratives demand external corroboration before they can be taken as serious evidence of historical events. Every historian from Christian Albert Schweitzer to Marxist Eric Hobsbawm knows that truism. Till then, the best any historian can do is to compare their literature with other literature. If that means seeking to explain the origins and nature of the Gospels themselves, and Christian origins more generally, instead of questing for the Historical Jesus “known” to exist by virtue of conventional wisdom and cultural heritage, then we will be making real intellectual and historical progress.


September 29, 2009

Stephen Fry on the “Divine Fire” and Human Imagination

Posted in art, atheism, church, culture, fiction, film, history, literature, mythology, religion, science fiction, scripture, theology at 1:34 pm by Jerry

I feel like I’ve been posting far too many youtubes on my blog, but I also feel that it would be wrong not to post them. Here, again, is another youtube, and it has made my copy of Shelley’s Frankenstein call out to me for another read. I can’t remember how many times I’ve read this favorite among favorites of mine because it’s been so long since I’ve touched it last. And I’m afraid it will be some time longer before I get to it again.

July 7, 2009

Breath Without Breathing

Posted in culture, literature, martial arts, mythology, poetry, psychology, soup at 4:48 am by Jerry

It is said that when you breathe out you contact the Root of Heaven and experience a sense of openness, and when you breathe in you contact the Root of Earth and experience a sense of solidity. Breathing out is associated with the fluidity of a dragon, breathing in is associated with the strength of the tiger. As you go on breathing in this frame of mind, with these associations, alternating between movement and stillness, it is important that the focus of your mind does not shift.

Let the true breath come and go, a subtle continuum on the brink of existence. Tune the breathing until you get breath without breathing; become one with it…

– Zhang San Feng (widely accepted as creator of “Taijiquan”)

March 9, 2009

I’m Told I’m Still A Christian

Posted in atheism, history, literature, mythology, politics, psychology of religion, science at 2:05 pm by Jerry

I’ve been receiving some emails from someone I’ve known for a long time. I thought she knew that I wasn’t a Christian anymore, but it became unmistakably clear that this was not the case.

So, after the shock of reading in one of my emails “I’m an atheist,” there was an attempt to create a conversation that included an assumption about my professed lack of belief in ‘God’ – the assumption being that it’s “not possible” for me to lose my belief in God. And apparently, this blog you’re reading reveals that I’m just blaming God for something major that happened to me.

Here’s most of my latest response:

…If it’s not possible to you, then what more can I say? I’m not interested in trying to prove my own disbelief. I think if I say I’m not a Christian anymore, that should be enough for people to believe me.

…I don’t know how you got that out of my writings. You’ll have to point out where in my blog that I communicate this. And I’m troubled by this thought because the assumption here is that my non-belief is a purely psychological matter. That I don’t really believe that God doesn’t exist, I’m just mad at him. And any rationale I have for not believing should be discarded because it’s not Christianity that has failed me, it’s me that has failed God.

I thought ******’s testimony was interesting. Historicity is always difficult to address with ancient literature. The question of whether legend-making was involved is always present with every passage written and re-copied, translated and re-translated throughout the millenniums. I suppose, if God is real, it’s a shame he didn’t incarnate himself in this age where we can have empirical verification. For scientists, such as archeologists and anthropologists, the only thing consistent between the present and the past when studying the subject of powerful beings is the political influences found among man-made religions.

All present day “miracles” that are scientifically tested have been found to be hoaxes. And there is no sign of a supernatural “Spirit” working through it’s believers distinguishing them from other people. There has even been a test on the power of prayer and the results showed no difference beween people who prayed and those that don’t. So, my question is – what happened? We have religions in our present day just as there have been for millenniums. But there is no sign of the supernatural in our present day. If the supernatural is real, why only in the past? Did the supernatural realm and all the beings residing in it die? Or if a supernatural being(s) just decided to make their realm a private experience among individual believers across the globe, why? And why is it that no one can agree what the supernatural being(s) is like? Be it between different religions, different denominations, different churches/mosques/temples, different preachers/imams/rabbis, or different teachers of religious texts, no supernatural being(s) has made any effort to clarify once and for all the truth about the supernatural.

I’m worried that this email is going to come across as harsh because I decided to confront what troubles me. It’s just that I so badly want to deal with what is really going on. I don’t want to console myself with beliefs/worlds that are not real, beliefs/worlds that can be used to put off some harsh realities – like death, for instance. And if humanity isn’t in fact the center of the universe (literally or spiritually), I don’t want to fool myself in believing so — even if it would provide me with more good feelings about myself and the world I live in.

Now that I’ve given up a belief in the supernatural, I’ve discovered that there is plenty of purpose and meaning throughout my daily routines with family, friends or even people abroad. Life is filled with new wonders and beautiful discoveries without ‘God’. And we don’t need ‘God’ to experience reciprocal altruism. Everybody wants the good life, they just need to have the opportunity to know what it is and either receive it or learn to live it.

This is getting long so, I’ll end it here and hope that you’ll consider this email to be a good one.


December 14, 2008

Celebrating Christmas

Posted in atheism, culture, history, literature, mythology, religion, scripture, songs at 12:08 pm by Jerry

Through my atheist eyes I have stumbled upon interesting perspectives of the relationship between culture and belief. The places where I have separated the two are places where some think culture and belief are, in fact, inseparable – and should be practiced as such.

Take Christmas celebrations for example (‘Tis the season). I personally don’t believe that there is a real “anointed one” (Messiah/Christ), chosen by “God” to lead “God’s people” to the “promise land”. And yet I sing songs that assume these beliefs around the Church’s designated date to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth’s birth.

Why? Because, along with ‘a time for family’ and a sense of community, I enjoy the parts of my cultural heritage that tell ancient stories of heroes to inspire humanity to be better than they are.

According to the story, Jesus gave a group of people hope for a better life by gaining the social power to break through unrealistic cultural boundaries (Can you sense a little irony here?) under which they felt oppressed. Of course, other leaders in that society saw Jesus only as a threat to their leadership rather than someone benefiting their society; and Jesus was crucified as a result of it. But he died for an ideal he believed in, an ideal his future followers wanted to believe in.

What might be a surprise to some who have read this blog of mine is that my criticisms of the dogmatic affirmation of divine morality written in the bible are not meant to denigrate the cultural beauty that can be found in the keeping and telling of the stories themselves.

To me, Christmas is the celebration of one of the many stories that have not been lost to humanity; a story about a hero and his people, seeking freedom from spiritual and political suppression. Some, however, feel that this part of our diverse culture (Christmas) can only be celebrated in one way – worshiping Jesus. And they find it offensive when non-believers such as myself are next to them not giving the Bible and it’s heroes the recognition of worth they are giving.

It’s truly disappointing when no common ground is acknowledged in our celebration of Christmas – as if I have another belief competing for the sole possession of our shared Christmas culture. The attitude is odd, when you think about it. Why not embrace any appreciation of the good qualities found in the Bible, and in the heroes written about, despite rejections of the supernatural?

March 20, 2007

Shifu Shakespeare?

Posted in literature, martial arts at 4:37 am by Jerry


I haven’t gone to my kung fu classes for four months.

I’ve been practicing experimenting with what I’ve already learned, making a lot of notes, reading and scribbling for at least the fourth time, all over a book written by Shifu (teacher) Painter, analyzing and re-analyzing.

I know it’s time to get some training from my Shifu in Saskatoon because I’ve been looking for kung fu guidance in the most unlikely places…

…do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently. For in the very torrent, tempest, and as I may say, whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. – William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), ‘The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,’ Act III, scene ii
O, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant. – William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), Measure for Measure, 1604-1605

February 4, 2007

Questions About the Bible

Posted in culture, literature, scripture at 12:02 pm by Jerry

I ended up with these questions during a conversation in this post:

  • How is a culture’s immoral acts justified through the process of aging for two to four thousand years?
  • And what proof do we have of an utterance of God demonstrated in our bible?
  • And if God was inspiring the biblical writers to adapt God’s truths to their immediate audience on a spiritual learning curve, can our current culture consider THE WHOLE BIBLICAL TEXT to be divine truths for us?
  • And if cherry picking for timeless truths in the bible is in fact the only realistic response to the biblical text (which everyone already does), how are those timeless truths any better than the timeless truths we cherry pick out of other ancient literature?

February 3, 2007

Many Parts

Posted in literature, philosophy, soup at 2:50 am by Jerry

I just finished reading As You Like It by William Shakespeare. It’s no Hamlet, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. For some reason I’m being drawn to Shakespeare’s work again. I won’t analyze why (like I often do), I’ll just let this mysterious desire ride. In As You Like It, you’ll find this one of many famous Shakespearean quotes (which happens to be a favorite of mine):

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
(Act II Scene VII)

When I read the last line, I can’t help but think I’ve already played many parts. And yet, there’s so much potential to play many more.

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