Monday, May 25, 2009

Are You There, God? It's Me, Charlotte

The big news in Korea today is that North Korea has detonated what appears to be an underground nuclear explosion, much larger than the previous test in 2006. It's still a small blast by superpower standards, about 10 to 20 kilotons, or roughly the size of the bombs America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. President Obama, taking a break from killing civilians in Afghanistan and shielding known torturers from prosecution, denounced North Korea as a "threat to international peace and security" and a violation of international law. So, nothing special.

The other day Lisa Kansas at PunkAssBlog posted an item about an L.A. Times op-ed piece by Charlotte Allen. Allen, Lisa pointed out, had distinguished herself last year with a Washington Post op-ed fretting over Obama's popularity among women: "[R]eading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women -- I should say, "we women," of course -- aren't the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. ...I'm not the only woman who's dumbfounded (as it were) by our sex, or rather, as we prefer to put it, by other members of our sex besides us." (Notice that Allen doesn't cop to being dumb herself; it's only "other members of our sex besides us" who are guilty.) Ah yes, I remember it well; Allen's self-exemplifying complaint attracted some attention in the blogosphere.

Allen's new piece was a gripefest about atheists, especially the New Atheists who've been getting some media play in the last few years. She can't stand atheists, Allen says, "not because they don't believe in God. It's because they're crashing bores." (Obviously she's never been to an eight-hour prayer meeting.) Also, we play the victim card: Allen claims that in Sam Harris's online "Atheist Manifesto" he whines that atheists can't get elected to public office because of "[a]ntique clauses in the constitutions of six -- count 'em -- states barring atheists from office." But I can't find any mention of those clauses in Harris's piece; facts -- who needs 'em when you've got Truth on your side?

The "victim" line is never very convincing -- the straights who profess to be bored by gays, protesting that nobody cares what we do in bed, but the love that formerly dared not speak its name now won't shut up; the whites who complain that they're tired of hearing about blacks' problems, don't they know that they've got their Civil Rights? And so on. PZ Myers, science blogger, generously supported Allen's case by writing a boringly earnest rebuttal, full of passive-aggressive sarcasm, which the editor mischievously printed. I'd like to believe that when he asked why Allen hates atheists so much when we're just ordinary boring folks, he was being satirical. (I've taken pot shots at Myers before.)

But Charlotte Allen, Charlotte Allen ... that name sounded familiar. Ah yes, the author of the tome The Human Christ: the Search for the Historical Jesus (The Free Press, 1998), which your Promiscuous Reader slogged through a decade ago. Katha Pollitt averred that Allen was "by accounts a good reporter on religion in a previous life"; but The Human Christ established her to be every bit as accurate and thoughtful on religion as she is on women and atheism.

First Allen offered a summary of Christian history, including choice bits like this:
Christians were also regarded, sometimes with good reason, as lunatics. Many were convinced that they world was coming to an end, and that Jesus would return in their own lifetimes. Paul of Tarsus devoted one of his letters to an unhinged Christian community in the Greek port of Thessalonica, urging them not to leave their jobs because the apocalypse might not be so close at hand as they imagined [page 45].
Among those who were "convinced that the world was coming to an end, and that Jesus would return in their lifetimes" was Paul himself, along with the authors of the gospels and several other New Testament writers. What Paul wrote to the Thessalonians was that they should not believe that the day of the Lord had come (2 Thessalonians 2.2). He assured them that it would come. The belief that Jesus would return in his followers' lifetimes (and therefore, in those of Paul's congregations) turns up in Mark 13.30, where Jesus assures his disciples that "This generation shall not pass away until all these things" -- Jerusalem circled by armies, the destruction of the Temple, the gospel preached to all nations, Jesus' return on clouds at God's right hand -- "are fulfilled." (The same saying appears in Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32.) Two verses later Jesus qualifies the prediction somewhat, by saying that only the Father knows the exact day, not even the Son, but this doesn't contradict the basic claim. ("I'll come to see you by the end of next week, but I don't know exactly what day" is not a contradiction.) If the early Christians were sometimes seen as lunatics, factors like speaking in tongues or worshipping a crucified man were at least as prominent for outsiders.

Allen should have known better -- the importance of what scholars call "eschatology" gets a lot of coverage by professional Bible scholars, ever since the great New Testament scholar (and Bach scholar, and humanitarian doctor) Albert Schweitzer established the importance of this theme in his book The Quest for the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906. It's far from her only distortion of early Christian history. But those "professional Bible scholars" are the rub for her. Most of The Human Christ is an attack on contemporary New Testament scholarship, which she represents as an attack on Christian faith. One could even say she whines about it, just like those boring atheists do about how they get picked on. For example, on the prominent German theologian Rudolf Bultmann:
In his treatise, Bultmann rather tendentiously maintained that a literalistic interpretation of the events narrated in the Gospels required a belief in an archaic physical universe, a three-decker structure with heaven on top, earth in the middle, and hell below. In so doing, he seemed to be making fun of the New Testament mindset at a time when faith in the Christ of the New Testament was for many the only locus of hope in a world that had turned into a nightmare [246-247].
This is a (willed?) misunderstanding in many respects. It's not exactly "tendentious" to point out that the New Testament writers all believed more or less literally in the triple-decker universe Allen describes here; it's mere historical fact. If an insistence on historical accuracy is "making fun of the New Testament mindset," then I guess accuracy must go (Allen clearly wouldn't miss it), but I think this is her perception, not Bultmann's intent: he was, after all, a Confessing Christian as well as an academic. Also, Bultmann's approach to the New Testament was in progress before the Nazis came to power, building on earlier scholarship from the end of the nineteen century: the first edition of his History of the Synoptic Tradition was published in 1921, a dozen years before Hitler's accession to power.

Allen then goes after "form-redaction criticism", as she calls it. Form criticism ("form history" would be a more accurate translation of Formgeschichte) was a tool used by Bultmann and other scholars to "classif[y] units of scripture by literary pattern (such as parables or legends) and ... [to attempt] to trace each type to its period of oral transmission. Form criticism seeks to determine a unit's original form and the historical context of the literary tradition." Redaction criticism, building on form criticism, "does not look at the various parts of a narrative to discover the original genre; instead, it focuses on how the redactor has shaped and molded the narrative to express his theological goals." Allen says:
The entire form-redaction movement was based on the assumption that people simply cannot transmit a lengthy story with any reasonable degree of accuracy, and therefore none of the layers above the bedrock aphorisms reflected genuine memories of Jesus. While those who study the telling of folk-tales and folk-epics in living oral cultures might beg to differ, the redactionists insisted that the Gospels were entirely fictional, with the exception of a few sayings of Jesus that revealed his historical personality.
The trouble here is that the gospels themselves are evidence that "people simply cannot transmit a lengthy story with any reasonable degree of accuracy": the discrepancies and contradictions in the gospels in their recounting of key events like the birth of Jesus, his baptism by John, his death, and his resurrection are well-known. Biblical criticism was an attempt to understand them, and if possible to minimize or defuse them. (The word "criticism" is a problem for many people: for most people it carries overtones of negative and destructive carping, but in academia it means merely analytic study of literary material. It appears to me that Allen never quite managed to grasp this, and still believes that "biblical criticism" means "trying to tear Scripture down.") Form criticism especially was built on what was known at the time about how "living oral cultures" preserved and transmitted traditions.

Still, thanks partly to Bultmann's influence, the Quest for the Historical Jesus was largely abandoned by New Testament scholars for a long time. Also, though, it was due to Schweitzer's success, which indicated that the Quest would lead to uncomfortable conclusions about Jesus and early Christianity. For Bultmann and other Christian scholars, the aim was to find truths and meanings in the New Testament that would be useful to ordinary twentieth-century believers -- to build up their faith, not destroy it.

But in 1959, the American scholar James M. Robinson called for a New Quest for the Historical Jesus in his book of that title (SCM Press, 1959). In 1971, with Helmut Koester he published Trajectories through Early Christianity (Fortress Press). Allen doesn't like the new quest any better:
Other scholars of the New Quest took up Norman Perrin's position that the historical Jesus was a countercultural figure and reconstructed a countercultural Jesus who thumbed his nose at authority. The most arresting such portrait of Jesus was that of Morton Smith, a history professor at Columbia University who had read Trajectories through Early Christianity. In 1973, Smith published a startling monograph titled The Secret Gospel, which recast Jesus as a kind of bathhouse shaman who had initiated his (mostly male) disciples by means of late-night baptismal rituals featuring nudity and most probably sex. To support his unusual hypothesis, Smith relied heavily on trajectory theory, contending that the church fathers had suppressed nearly all documents relating to this particular strand of Jesus-tradition [265].
I don't think that a "countercultural" Jesus is such an outrageous concept. According to the gospels, Jesus did "thumb his nose at [human] authority," flouting mainstream interpretations of the Torah, breaking with his family, and so on. If Allen doesn't like the word "countercultural," she needs to come up with a better one for Jesus' conduct. With her mention of Morton Smith, though, she really shines. The Secret Gospel (Harper, 1973) was not a "monograph" but a popularization of the research in Smith's actual monograph Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark (Harvard, 1973). I've addressed the prurient fascination of Allen and others with bathhouse shamans and nekked rituals before, so for now I'll just say that she distorts Smith's thesis as badly as she does everyone else's. As for Smith's relying heavily on trajectory theory, Trajectories was published in 1971, but although Clement of Alexandria was published in 1973, it was written and submitted to the press in the early 1960s. I recall that Smith occasionally referred to Trajectories, but in his later book Jesus the Magician (Harper, 1978). But hey, Morton Smith was so "avant-garde" (Allen's favorite putdown for scholars she dislikes) that he could be influenced by Trajectories through Early Christianity even before it was written!

One last bit from The Human Christ, which shows Charlotte Allen's historical sapience and deep spiritual concern for other human beings: on page 284 she remarks that "liberation theology suffered a mortal blow in the 1990 elections in Nicaragua when the people decided they did not want to be ruled by high-minded Marxists..." It would only be fair of Allen to mention that Liberation Theology, or even high-minded Marxism, was less a deciding factor in the 1990 Nicaraguan elections than a decade of economic strangulation and terrorist attacks by the US-funded Contras. But hey, history is bunk.

So, who cares if Charlotte Allen likes atheists? Not me. It's somewhat entertaining, but not very, to see her and PZ Myers engage in competitive posturing about who's the victim and who's most boring. Reminded me of Max Beerbohm's ballad in which two courtiers debate who is duller, the King or the Queen.