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September 9, 2009

Jason Byassee: Videos that seem like good news, but aren’t

At first blush, both videos seemed like good news. That’s why friends sent them to me. Stephen Colbert eating Bart Ehrman’s lunch three years ago. And the dancing wedding party. I’m not saying these are hot off the press --22,000 people have seen Ehrman taken out behind the woodshed, and millions have seen the dancing wedding video. I’m just saying they’re bad news, despite first impressions. Here’s why.

Colbert gets in a few good shots at Ehrman before Ehrman goes into a defensive crouch and lands a roundhouse at the very end (even Colbert concedes, “I can’t improve on that.”). The problem, as always, is that Ehrman deals in cartoons. He has long made a good living by alleging that orthodox Christians can’t rebut his claim that the Bible -- the book we Christians live by -- is based on untrustworthy manuscripts. After initially laying out this argument in “Misquoting Jesus,”, Ehrman has since moved on to theodicy in “God’s Problem” (annihilated here by Will Willimon in "The Christian Century"). But apparently everyone must have had a good time. Colbert had Ehrman back on this year. No better way to reach his demographic -- Colbert watchers who already think religion is as stupid as Bill O’Reilly.

Ehrman’s problem is that Christians have been doing business with these same criticisms since Origen and probably earlier. That he doesn’t think our answers satisfactory is his prerogative. But that he doesn’t even deal with them is intellectually dishonest.

I used to think Ehrman’s problem was that he comes from fundamentalists and he still thinks there are only two options: 1) the Bible is true the way Muslims think the Koran is true, as a perfect document descended from heaven in a miracle with no admixture of human error, or 2) it’s all completely wrong. The options are still the same, he’s just switched sides.

Ehrman is too smart for that. He knows Christians who know all that he knows yet still believe and practice Christian faith. But if he acknowledges them in his apologetics for faith’s demise, then the Barnes & Noble readership might begin to suspect that a good argument for faith actually exists. And that would be really troubling. There’s a reason Marcus Borg is willing to publish with N.T. Wright (featured here on Colbert, and treated much more cordially than Ehrman was). Borg is willing to listen to another party who is as academically credentialed as he is. Which is what academics are supposed to do for a living. Not just to sell books on late night television.

The better response to Ehrman – certainly better than the apologetics he’s used to from fundy days, rehashed by Colbert -- is Duke’s Richard Lischer’s: Christians have nothing to say to prove the resurrection if we’re not already being the proof of the resurrection. And we often are, quietly, without the attention of late-night television.

The wedding video. I can’t take my eyes off the minister in the background. Did she know this was coming? To me, she doesn’t look like it. But she knows she is on camera and has to act like she’s party to it. She does the white woman sway (cousin to Billy Crystal’s “white man’s overbite”). But she watches helplessly. She certainly had no idea this would go viral as it did. We know now, and as a minister I’m horrified. How many bad imitations of this will we see in coming years?

The subtext is that a wedding is boring until it’s jazzed up. And sure enough, it usually is. But the wedding we now experience has been brought to you by the wedding industry: the “unity candle” (what a barbarism), the lavish outfits, the king’s banquet, the king’s ransom in costs. The real sign a recession is on is that weddings are finally getting under control financially.

Christian marriage, on the other hand, does not require all this. Just two people willing to stand before their community and make promises to each other that mirror the promises Jesus makes to his church. Personally, I like it if this is done as part of the offering in a regular Sunday morning service. Like a response to an altar call: We’ve heard God’s word proclaimed, we think we’re called to be married, we’ve done our counseling, and we’re ready to say “yes” in front of everybody, to God again and to one another. Then go home and have a covered dish (as we say in the South). Or you could have a wedding like my friend who had a potluck in her yard, wore a dress from a second-hand shop, and loved her husband fiercely that day and ever since.

Either way, no need for all the fuss. These sorts of weddings suggest the ordinariness that Christian marriage is. No big show. Just promises, and lots of dishes to clean, and kids’ bottoms to wipe and love as ordinary as sharing the checkbook.

Hard to capture that on YouTube.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

19 Comments

response

Very well-written and thoughtful article. Just a couple of thoughts: If the Bible is the word of God, then isn't the entire Bible the word of God? I mean, it's not a menu, is it? To what extent can a believer feel comfortable taking what they like or agree with and leaving the rest as not to their taste? I would think that treating the Bible ... Read Moreas interpretational literature leads one onto a slippery slope. Arguably, every single passage in the entire Bible is A) exactly as is, B) interpretatable or C) inapplicable to the modern era. Perhaps I'm missing the point. In any case, I hope you and yours are doing well.

I agree, mostly. :) In the

I agree, mostly. :) In the case of weddings specifically, though, I think it's sometimes more gracious to accept some fuss if it makes your guests happy and if you're privileged to be able to afford it. There's a gender issue: brides are often in the unenviable position of having to broker a peace deal between multiple warring factions, and if a little fuss spares a fight and makes Uncle Marv happy, well... without a whole lot of culture-wide cutting of slack for the bride, then it's hard to fault her for compromising.

Too, low-key, do-it-yourself, eco-friendly, indie weddings are quite the trend among many Stuff White People Like grad school types of all religious persuasions, so there's maybe a slight danger in this cultural moment of baptising the latest fashion by making a point of having a low-frills wedding -- particularly if it alienates people?

That said, I do think there's a time for both. There's a time to say "I prefer to eat locally-grown, seasonal, organic, union harvested produce and here's why. And oh by the way I realize I'm incredibly privileged to be able to buy it, and I realize not everyone can." (Full disclosure: I am not nearly this careful about what I eat; that's just an example.) And there's a time to shut up and eat what you're served / what makes your ... Read Moretablemate comfortable because God doesn't want a church full of sanctimonious little snots who sacrifice relationships and people for the sake of their theological rectitude.

This is of course on my mind because my husband and I some days are walking Stuff White People Like entries. :)

Jeffery, The problem with

Jeffery,

The problem with your reponse is two fold, if I may.

First, almost every slippery slope is a fallacy - and therefore they arent very useful.

Imagine a doctor who spells your name wrong. Does this mean you cant trust his diagnosis? After all if he can mispell a normal word what about all those medical terms you don't understand and cant check? What if he mispells a medicine on your script, or a word in your diagnosis. Perhaps you cannot trust him at all and find a new doctor! Furthermore since all doctors presumably make spelling mistakes, none can be trusted, hence you should avoid doctors alltogether.

If this seems absurd you are right. That's because this is where a slippery slope usually ends, in absurdity.

Secondly, the problems exist regardless of the danger of the slippery slope, they are just not usually easily accessable to the non-expert (read biblio-nerd) in these matters. There are gross textual problems, minor textual issues, issues of apparent cultural borrowing throughout the Bible, mistakes in numerical and time issues (how much gold did Solomon import to Ophir?), not to mention the linguistic issues -hundreds (yes hundreds) of hebrew terms which we dont have a good translation for and the solecisms (think grammar mistakes) in various texts such as the book of Revelation. Think of that, there are grammar mistakes in the Bible which we cannot respolve without grossly changing the text.

My point is, thats the bible we have, like it or not, and asserting inerrancy in the face of the evidence is kinda like telling the good doctor from our analogy above that his diagnosis of a severed leg is wrong because he cant spell jeffery, and then hopping/limping your way out of his office all the while leaving a gory trail through his waiting room.

Pax Christi...Nick

response

Nick-
It's funny you misspelled my name throughout your reply. On purpose? In any case, no worries.
So what you're saying is the "truth" inherent in the Bible trumps niggling details. That's a poor argument to anyone who is truly interested in reading and understanding the Bible as the word of God. If I turned in an essay to a professor and told the professor to ignore the spelling & grammatical mistakes, the errors in logic and the inconsistencies in evidence as long as he concerned himself with only the general point of the essay, I could consider myself very lucky if the professor only stared at me with blankfaced incredulity.
Doctors are fallible human beings who can be fairly excused the occassional spelling error as long as they get the big questions right. God is God, however, and, thus, is expected to be perfect. Either the Bible is the word of God or it isn't. I don't make the rules, I just follow them with a pedantic singlemindedness that would make Steven Colbert's Colbert Report alter-ego blush with modesty.

Missing Nick's point

Jeffrey, appreciate your commitment and forthrightness, but you missed Nick's point. If you turn in an essay with mistakes, your grade is likely to suffer. What Nick correctly notes, however, is that the texts of the Bible already have those mistakes burned into them. That such things exist is not surprising, because the Bible is both human and divine.

The problem with your analysis is that you make assumptions about how God must present himself in Scripture, and work from those, rather than reading what we actually have in front of us, and deriving from it the portrait of God as he has revealed himself.

Grace and peace,

Susan

point understood

I understood Nick's point just fine. I disagree with it and think he posits a weak argument. I am not so presumptuous as to dictate to a God how he presents himself. However, if we are to acknowledge the Bible is both human and divine (inspired by God, written and translated by humans) then where does God end and the humanity begin? What part of the Bible is God presenting himself and humans presenting their very personal and particular understanding of God? What mistakes are honest mistakes and which are slant? Granted, we can't rewind time and "correct" the Bible. It is as it is. However, telling a believer or nonbeliever to just read the Bible and take it at face value and not worry their pretty head about the mistakes is to tell the person to be foolish and ignorant on purpose. That doesn't wash as a valid argument. Mistakes matter and cannot be ignored by those who are thoughtful and questioning. Just because the answers are hard or even impossible to resolve does not invalidate the questions. Do not run away from the challenges inherent in faith and scripture. Faith is intellectually and spiritually challenging and that is a good thing. This is the word of God, not a medical record or college essay.

Yes! ...but

I liked your counter-cultural challenge to the kind of "wedding as Broadway production" that the dancing wedding viral video represents. Very good points about what really makes a Christian wedding. Karyn and I were married in the backyard of her family's church. We didn't have a penny. I wore clothes from a thrift shop; Karyn sewed her own dress. ... Read MoreReception was sandwiches made by the ladies of the church. We're still very married 32 years later.

On the other hand....I still like the video! It captures something of the joy that should surround a wedding, particularly if it is a Christian wedding, and therefore at least in part a foreshadowing of our joyous wedding feast with our Groom yet to come. I'm hoping there will be boogeying at that wedding too!

Sorry for the "Read More"

Sorry for the "Read More" stuck in the middle of my previous comment. I copied and pasted from the comment I made on Jason's link to this post on Facebook.

Jeffrey, at the risk of ganging up on you, which I'm sure none of us are trying to do, I have to agree with Susan that you did misunderstand Nick. Your 'point understood' comment is very much what he was pointing out. He was not saying "mistakes and inconsistencies are there in the Bible, but just brush them under the carpet and believe." Very much the opposite. Nick and Susan, I think, were saying that we must confront those errors, inconsistencies, and cultural oddities we find in the Bible honestly, and if we are to believe, we must find a doctrine of Scripture that accommodates them. That's why Susan spoke of the importance of seeing Scripture as both human and divine. If it is the word of God, then God must be comfortable expressing himself through very human and often fallible writings. If we say that can't be so, then either we must see the Bible as only human, or we have the pretend Bible of the inerrantists.

To get back to Jason's point

To get back to Jason's point re: confronting skeptics like Bart Ehrman, the answer lies not in ignoring the facts, but rather in demonstrating to the Ehrman's of the world that it is possible for people of faith to embrace the Bible that actually is, not a pretend Bible that must be twisted or covered up to fit our doctrine of Scripture.

Perhaps I'm not giving Nick &

Perhaps I'm not giving Nick & Susan enough credit but it does seem as if they are saying, "it is a flawed document, what canya do?" Well, many people have very grave concerns about the reliability of the Bible and the lengths believers will go to massage the Bible into making sense, being consistent and being morally palatable to themselves and others.

Humanity is a poor vessel, indeed. Why would a perfect being choose to convey himself through such a faulty recording device? If you were a boss, would you allow an employee you knew to be incompetent help you with an extremely important project?

Inevitably, we are left with a flawed document and no real way to resolve the question of what is Godmade and what is manmade and to attempt to do so is to try to climb the slippery slope. Seperating God's truth from man's mistakes in the same document is tedious and of dubious reward. Biblical scholars and theologians can do the heavy thinking for the rest of mankind but even they don't know. I'm not saying why bother but why is God comfortable oblidging his followers to bother? Is the Bible itself a test of faith?

videos and response

These aren't as cool as Colbert, but their content is dynamite: http://www.youtube.com/user/MyersParkMethodist.
The questions being raised about the nature of scripture are simply enormous, they've split whole denominations, let alone congregations. I do think inerrancy is a red herring. One could pledge to it and then be a bad reader of scripture whose readings do nothing to promote love of God in the church. I understand why it's there--to beat up on liberal protestants of a certain era, but it doesn't do that gatekeeping work even. The ancient church understood 'mistakes,' inconsistencies, problems etc in the scriptures as gifts from God to invite us to read deeper, and through reading deeper to love God and neighbor more (the payoff of any faithful reading of scripture). So it's no good pretending they're not there (as Ehrman's fundy friends used to), nor pretending they scuttle the whole of Christianity (as Ehrman now does). The more interesting question is how they enhance the life of faith? How do we treat them as presents, left for us by the Holy Spirit, to invite us to delight in God more? That's how the ancient and medieval church approached such issues. It's only the modern one that freaks out over them--we're not an age known for training imaginative readers.

Wedding Video

Just saw it for the first time this weekend. Maybe I'm behind. Though it was fun, I'm with you, Jason: when I saw it, I could only think of the pastor. She couldn't have known it was coming; who would have felt comfortable standing up front during that whole thing? For me as a pastor, developing a weddings is hard. Christian weddings belong to the church; they are worship services in which a couple gets married. It's hard to have to tell the couple that they can't play their favorite secular songs in the worship service. Can there be dancing in a wedding? Sure, if it's worshipful. I don't mean the dancers have to be in flowy scarves. Worshipful dancing would not call attention to the dancers but would instead give glory to God. My theologian husband suggests that what the dance in this instance does convey is the love that the wedding party has for the couple. They're not all great dancers, so they must really love the bride and groom if they are willing to dance down the aisle--twice. He argues that their love for the couple (and the couple's love for each other) is a subset of and reflection of the love that God has for us. That is true, but who was thinking that at the time? Even if the dance was an act of love and not motivated by getting attention or jazzing up something boring, I still think it would have been more appropriate at the reception.

I see your point about the

I see your point about the wedding video, Jason, but I can't help but disagree. Yes, it's a shame that it will be recreated (poorly) for years to come for no reason other than sheer imitation. However, I agree with the above poster's statement about the video conveying the love between couple and their community. If you ask me, weddings have become far too solemn. There you are, planning to commit your life to one another before God and all and people freak out if a baby cries or someone laughs. Where's the joy? Perhaps this was overboard in many senses, but at least they met each other and danced down the aisle, eager and excited to take their vows.

If the Bible is the

If the Bible is the infallible word of "God" and therefore 100% applicable in all times and places most people, including most Christians in the modern world, and in most times past,would have been executed by now.

Because they would have transgressed the rigid "moral" codes of the Old Testament, which called for the execution for all those who committed such transgressions---including those committed by children.

This is certainly the case with everyone that I have ever met.

Plus are not parts of the Old Testament an exhortation to commit genocide against other tribes--especially those that stood in the way of the expansion of the then Jewish tribes (state).

Jeff's point

Hi guest, thanks for commenting. Jeff's point assumes that Jews and Christians have had ways of reading that are not woodenly literal. As gentiles he and I do not keep kosher, and so we read those rules about food laws diffrently. The admonitions that indeed sound genocidal rest side by side with places where the Israelites settle down alongside their neighbors and even, in some cases, intermarry with them (see Ruth). So perhaps even Joshua on a literal level asks of us to read with greater nuance. You have never seen Jews or Christians executing their children for talking back. And if we're going to compare body counts, as David Hart argues in Atheist Delusions, the modern secular state wins out hands down over any religious regime in human history, and it's not close.

Not so fast and loose...

"He knows Christians who know all that he knows yet still believe and practice Christian faith. But if he acknowledges them in his apologetics for faith’s demise, then the Barnes & Noble readership might begin to suspect that a good argument for faith actually exists."

The fact that others don't have consistent beliefs is no reason for Ehrman or the rest of us to share them. The fact that theologians have spent tome upon unread tome squaring the circle of faith in the unbelievable is not, by itself, persuasive.

Ehrman isn't saying that the simple fact that the bible has errors is enough to kill all faith. But it was enough to make him turn on his thought process and question his faith, upon which he eventually found that it was founded on.. thin air.

colbert

Woo, go catholics!!!

My understanding of Ehrman

My understanding of Ehrman changed by listening to this podcast where Ehrman discusses the relationship between hermeneutics and exegesis at a more nuanced level: http://homebrewedchristianity.com/2009/04/20/bart-ehrman-and-jesus-inter...

The Bible

The irony of inerrancy is that it does precisely what inerrantists don't want to do: it sets up the rules of the game, and then brings them to the text. "Why would a perfect God work in this way? He wouldn't!" But if the text we have is how God works, and more, if the God of Jesus is the God working through these texts, then it doesn't seem so crazy to think that revelation would come in such a "messy" package. Perhaps there's something to be learned from such "mess" that cannot be learned through purely systematic thought.

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