apologetics

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“The Shape of the Past” by John Warwick Montgomery- A Christian Historiography?

John Warwick Montgomery is a Christian apologist who is perhaps best-known for his defense of the method of evidentialism and attacks on presuppositionalism. The Shape of the Past is a work that outlines a Christian historiography–a Christian way of reporting history. I first read it maybe a decade ago or so and remembered it being fairly impactful to my own development. I read it again recently and was struck by how my perceptions of it changed. While I still believe it to be useful book in some ways, I also found difficulties in others. Montgomery’s central theses developing a supposed Christian philosophy of history are problematic.

The first four chapters of the book focus on definitions of history and historiography, an intriguing look at history as time travel, classical conceptions of historiography, and modern histography [modern at the time- 1975]. These present a survey of some major approaches to history and historiography, while highlighting a few problems Montgomery identifies without what he’s going to build up as a central development of historical writing and research. For example, early on Montgomry notes that historians at some point must make decisions about motivations, acts, etc. such that they are making decisions about what is “humanly possible” or probable. But whither the criteria for “humanly possible”? Ultimately, he argues, “the historian’s conception of human nature stems from his general philosophy of life…” (14). Historians, on this problem, must have a sound philosophy of life in order to make sound judgments about historical events.

Montgomery here is clearly on to something, but he fails to take seriously enough his own noted problem. If, as he says, historians are dependent upon their philosophy and background beliefs in order to make determinations about history, how is objectivity in history possible? While it can largely be agreed that historical events did happen, the exacting details of how they happened are much harder to pin down. And if an historian states that, say, a specific soldier on the battlefield at Gettysburg turned right when he in fact turned left, what does this mean for the “objectivity” of history and the truth thereof? Does this undercut the rest of the historian’s narrative? How much of it is discredited by “minor” details being wrong? And if historical evaluation depends so much upon one’s philosophy of life, how does one even begin to judge said evaluations? Most of these questions don’t get answered (and some aren’t even asked) in the book.

To be fair, Montgomery isn’t trying to answer questions he didn’t ask. I bring them up because they seem a logical extension of the problems he himself points out with history, and it would be interesting to see his answers to them. He does, however, turn to objectivity in history. How are Christians different in this regard?

“The Christian Answer” is the title of Chapter Five, which purports to offer a Christian solution to this difficulty. To get there, Montgomery insists that Christianity can provide the valid interpretation of history because its truth is “‘accessible to science’ and rests upon an objective foundation”; namely, he argues that the Christian worldview rests upon “the objective, historical truth of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (138). However, to get to the point that resurrection is an “objective, historical truth,” he uses a very brief evidentialist style argument: that the Gospels “are found to be trustworthy historical documents”; that they report Jesus “exercis[ing] divine prerogatives”; that they describe Christ’s bodily resurrection “in minute detail”*; that the resurrection “cannot be discounted on a priori grounds” [emphasis removed]; that Christ spoke the truth regarding the OT and confirms the NT; and that “It follows from the preceding that all Biblical assertions bearing on philosophy of history are to be regarded as revealed truth” (138-139).

Examining each of these steps in detail is beyond my scope here. Instead, I want to reflect on the reasoning. The problem at hand is: how do we find objectivity in Christianity to give us a valid interpretation of history? The answer is a purported historical fact. But how do we validly interpret that question of the resurrection? So far as I can tell, Montgomery is insisting that it is an historical fact. But the question he’s seeking to answer is whether Christianity can provide an objective basis for historical interpretation, and then he answers that with an historical interpretation: that the resurrection is objective fact. It’s a circle, and I’m not sure how it is supposed to escape that circle. I don’t see a way out of this circle. Even if one introduced some hidden premises about historical reasoning to get to the historicity of the resurrection, that would undercut his argument that Christianity is the objective arbiter of historical interpretation by introducing some external mechanism for that same evaluation. It seems hopeless to me.[1]

Now, it is possible to simply state that Montgomery’s argument here has failed, but that Christianity is valuable in historiography because it can give an objective (or at least “better” by some measure) way of interpreting history. While that would undermine much of his argument, it would leave one free to delve into the questions of what Christianity brings to the table as an evaluative tool. Montgomery does list several “principles of Christian historical interpretation,” and some of these are indeed valuable. For example, under metaphysical principles, he notes that Christianity gives the possibility to historical intepretation that history is inherently meaningful due to “God’s… activity” (145). This would take some effort to hash out, but it seems a potentially fruitful path to pursue.

Other principles he gives seem almost hopelessly naïve, in my opinion. For example, he argues that “human nature is constant” on Christianity, and so “the Christian historian has the assurance that a common ground exists between himself and the [people] of past ages whom he studies…” (148). So, he lists Louis XVI as one possibility for the Christian historian to be able to “confidently interpret motives” due to this constancy of human nature (ibid). Even conceding that human nature is constant, one would wonder how that alone would make it possible to determine the motives of Louis XVI with such confidence, especially if purely based upon that premise. After all, the vast chasm between my own experience and that of Louis XVI makes even the smallest decisions we have to make entirely different. Because I have made so few decisions that even resemble decisions with which Louis XVI was presented, that should give me at least some caution in drawing out his motivations for specific tasks. Other criteria Montgomery presents are helpful, but some need additional caveats.

Ultimately, The Shape of the Past is a frustratingly tantalizing read. Montgomery’s writing style is winsome and matter-of-fact. He writes in an easy manner about all sorts of scholarly topics. The central theses, however, remain unproven and possibly viciously circular. His criteria for Christian historians are a mixed bag. It’s unclear to this reader that Montgomery truly provides a reason to suppose Christianity is superior to other historiographic methods when it comes to objectivity in history. A specifically Christian historiography might be possible and even desirable, but it will need to be heavily supplemented from here.

*Interestingly, Mark does not do this unless one accepts the longer ending as genuine.

[1] Montgomery does note several potential objections to his view, but none of them hint at the circularity inherent in this reasoning: 1. We need an objective standard for historical evaluation; 2. historical evaluation shows that the resurrection is objectively true; 3. therefore, Christianity can be the objective standard for historical evaluation.

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SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “The Qur’an and the Christian” by Matthew Aaron Bennett

The Qur’an and the Christian is an introduction to the Qur’an from the perspective of a Christian. I admit that going in I had no small amount of skepticism about such a project. Christians don’t have a sterling record when it comes to colonialism and Islam, and I was concerned that this would be more of an attempted take-down than a broad introduction. Instead, Matthew Aaron Bennet provides a genuinely winsome introduction to the Qur’an that will assist Christians in learning about Islam.

The first two parts of the book, “The Qur’an as Revelation” and “The Qur’an as a Text” help provide readers background not just into the Qur’an but into Islam’s teachings about the Qur’an and how Muslims often approach it. Bennett notes how the Qur’an itself teaches about revelation, how Muslims tend to view the Qur’an, and topics related to what the Qur’an teaches, how its laid out, and more. He also surveys major teachings found in the Qur’an, such as the absolute unity and singularity of God, tahwid (47, see also 73-77).

What’s helpful in all of this is that Bennett tends to report these teachings and beliefs matter-of-factly. There’s very little analysis in the early chapters; Bennett is just reporting what Muslims believe and what the Qur’an teaches. It is in the third part of the book that such analysis occurs. The analysis itself is not as much polemics as some might expect. Instead, he starts by looking at whether Christians should read the Qur’an, and how they might fruitfully do so. Then, Bennett turns to one apologetic method used by some Christian apologists in talks with Muslims. I initially thought the method was too simplistic, and was gratified to find that Bennett, rather than pushing a simple approach to an entire faith, points out some of the difficulties with this approach in speaking with Muslims. Other apologetic approaches are also considered, and the potential problems are highlighted. Ultimately, one comes away from this section more aware of the complex nature of approaching other religions in a simple fashion. Bennett does, in the final chapter, provide what he sees as a bridge to open meaningful dialogue between a Christian and a Muslim, but he doesn’t push it as a one-size-fits-all approach.

If there can be a fault found here, it’s that Bennett perhaps doesn’t provide a clear picture of the diverse array of Muslim scholarship, which, as I understand, is quite broad regarding various aspects of faith, including beliefs about the Qur’an. Bennett is likely trying to keep things simple, but having a clearer explanation of this, even in introductory form, would be helpful. Christians could come away from reading the book thinking there’s almost entire agreement among Muslims about the topics offered. I do also wish there had been an index included to make it easier to look up specific topics.

The Qur’an and the Christian is a great introduction to the Qur’an from a Christian perspective. Bennett doesn’t totally dismiss the Qur’an, instead offering genuine insight into how Muslims view their holy book and how Christians might begin to engage with it. Recommended.

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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA) – A Post-Mortem

I want to offer a post-mortem on the Christian Apologetics Alliance (CAA). What I mean isn’t that the CAA has died. The CAA Facebook Group is still alive and kicking. It still has several posts each day, and posts frequently pass the 10 comment threshold, some diving into the 100+. People are still engaged. It doesn’t seem to be driving the traffic it used to, but there’s still plenty of activity. No, what I mean is a post-mortem on the CAA as it could have been. It’s a post-mortem on how the CAA should have been, and as it was, however briefly.*

Imagine a place where Christians around the globe could mingle and discuss the defense of the Christian faith. It’s a place where people share meaningful posts, links, and struggles they’ve had. It’s a group in which people could bring up favorite apologetics arguments and hone their skills. People with a passing interest in the topic could join the group and rub virtual shoulders with published philosophers and skilled Christian debaters. Some time ago (more than a decade, I believe), a group of people got together with the desire to make just such a place. Enthusiastic about apologetics, with bookshelves overflowing with works in the field, these people made a group on Facebook, the “Christian Apologetics Alliance.” It was the first iteration of the group (later, after a catastrophic and, to my knowledge, still unexplained loss of the original group, we all migrated over to the group CAA: Christian Apologetics Alliance) that would unite thousands of members around one topic: Christian apologetics.

The vision I just described is anachronistic, in some ways. Those of us involved didn’t sit down with a specific plan of how we thought CAA would form and grow. But we did share our thoughts, concerns, and interests. From the beginning, we largely agreed (or at least said we agreed) that the Christian Apologetics Alliance would be a place that all Christians could mingle and talk and learn about apologetics.

It was a dream that wouldn’t last. But before the dream was totally shattered, there were a ton of awesome times. We had huge amounts of bloggers sharing blog posts, commenting on those of others’, honing arguments, and more. We inspired each other and new bloggers. Some in the group went on to “go pro,” getting degrees and teaching, earning a career as an apologist. All the while, we had a great community set up. I was hugely involved, especially in the first iteration. I was one of the first 5-10 members of the group and, as I recall, one of the few people involved in bringing the idea to fruition. I became a mod for a while, but stopped when the position became saddled with increasing responsibilities (eg. expectations for how long to be online in the group, etc.).

From almost the beginning, there were pushes in two directions that would lead to the CAA becoming less than it could have been. First, there was a strong push to organize it and enforce more and more strictures on the discussion. This impulse wasn’t entirely misguided: I can’t tell you the number of times debate over the age of the earth popped up. It was a favorite for some members, and the discussions would often devolve into name-calling frustration. The topic was quickly banned, and that and other topics that started to pop up and spark more fire than light on the discussions prompted the impulse to organize. Another part of that impulse, though, was the push to make the group ever more visible and prominent. Visions of conferences, t-shirts, and more abounded. I was excited, but never had the time to fully dive in. CAA chapters formed, and people began meeting in person to talk about apologetics. One epic moment was when I went to a Evangelical Philosophical Society Conference and met, in person, several of the people I’d only known online. It was a hugely awesome time. But the eagerness to expand came with more and more control being given to moderators to monitor and control discussion and that led to the second push that would make CAA less than it could have been.

The second push was for clarifying what it meant to be Christian. At first, this made some sense to me. Loud questions were raised about whether we needed to have membership requirements that would explicitly preclude, say, Mormons from joining the group. Were Mormons really Christian? And, there was one [known] Mormon who was actively involved in the group for some time. I don’t remember his name, but I remember the significant arguments people had with him and his eventually being asked to leave (again, foggy memory, but I believe he was asked and accepted rather than just being banned). The loudest members who wanted the clearest definitions pushed farther and farther on the definitions, though. For many–no, almost all–in the group, it was a given that Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t to be involved. But then came more questions, like how do we make that happen while having the widest tent possible?

For a while–a long while–we got by on a kind of moderator consensus of figuring things out. We tried to use things like the Apostles’ Creed. Apart from the pushback from non-credal traditions, however, we also received pushback from members saying that the Apostles’ Creed did not take things far enough. After all, many whom people wanted to exclude would affirm the Apostles’ Creed, if not in meaning, at least in the rote words that were on the page. This, of course, already shows some of the impetus driving the group’s decline. That is, an ever more exclusionary mindset was developing even at the earliest times. To my shame, I didn’t acknowledge it or really even notice it. Eventually, things like the Nicene Creed were proposed (but what of the filioque? asked some, whilst others still didn’t wish to affirm Creeds). Finally, several leaders got together and decided something had to give, and the lines had to be drawn.

Which lines mattered, though? The pressure from various members in the group was enormous. What would be the stance on marriage? What about salvation? How could they articulate the Trinity? I was involved in some of these discussions early on, but admit I checked out after a while, because they started to deviate to the many, many rabbit holes possible with 2000 years of theology to debate. What emerged was an increasingly complex statement of faith, which made somewhat predictable exclusions while also having some incredibly strange inclusions. The statement of faith may be viewed here. There are many, many things one could pick apart with the statement of faith and most definitely its clarifying notes. One low-hanging fruit is why the statement explicitly excludes universalists, for example? Universalism has a long and storied history within Christianity, and the statement of faith would, somewhat ironically, exclude many church fathers that I personally know several group members hold up as major examples of early apologists and incredibly important to the formation of Christianity.

Beyond that, though, there’s the much bigger issue: what is the purpose of such a statement? It could only be to exclude others. I didn’t think of this as it was being written and doubled-down upon, and by the time I started to really have reservations I was not in the leadership in the CAA anymore and, frankly, pretty checked out of the group more generally. I had been deeply disturbed by the many times my own faith was called into question for being a Lutheran, for example. No, not that anyone (to my knowledge) was in the group saying Lutherans weren’t Christians. Instead, the number of times people questioned things like infant baptism, the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, and more while having even some moderators argue that yes, these were entirely relevant and necessary discussions for broader apologetic import was disturbingly high. In retrospect, such questioning should have been entirely expected. The overwhelming majority of the group was some kind of Evangelical (very few Catholics, Lutherans, or Orthodox, or other believers were in the group even according to polls the occasional times they showed up). Thus, the group gravitated towards that sort of amalgam of Baptist/Reformed (or rabidly anti-Reformed) Puritan-esque theology from which Evangelicalism spawned. Because of that, many members were outright hostile to those outside of those theological circles.

One vivid memory was running into a member of CAA (in person) in an apologetics graduate-level course I was taking. This member not only thought that affirmation of infant baptism was only for “Catholics” rather than being the majority position of the worldwide church for all of history, but also questioned my salvation when I affirmed baptismal regeneration. He was astonished to discover later that I was not wrong when I pointed out that his theological strand related to baptism was in the extreme minority and itself the historical oddity, but never withdrew any of the statements about my need to repent of such beliefs. This discussion was a microcosm of what’s wrong with apologetics today, and also an illustration of the takeover of the CAA by exclusionary rather than inclusive beliefs.

The CAA has only become more hostile to believers outside a narrowly defined (and often implicitly so) group of beliefs. For example, while the statement of faith explicitly states “We are commanded by God to show compassion to suffering people,” many group members and posts repeatedly do not do so. Whether this is a total rejection of any kind of work for social justice [which again, the statement of faith seems to suggest is itself commanded**], or the extreme prejudice with which the group actively alienates progressive members, it is clear that apologetics in practice within the group is almost entirely done apart from and at the expensive of any work for justice and on-the-ground work. I could go on for quite a while on this tangent about how the tenor of the group is that apologetics is some kind of intellectual activity that many either agree to the premises that will inevitably yield to faith or not, instead of being a whole-person approach in which minds and lives are convinced to bend the knee to service to Christ and fellow humans, but I won’t.

The point of all of that is that within the CAA, a narrower and narrower definition of what is Christian (and not) is being utilized, a narrower definition of what is related to apologetics is being developed, and much of this is done at the expense of the original focus and premise of the group itself. Progressive Christians constantly have their faith called into question, whether explicitly through the numerous posts dedicated to the topic or implicitly through the statement of faith narrowing to exclude almost any form of progressivism.

The Christian Apologetics Alliance could have remained great. It really should have. But it didn’t. In part, that was my fault. As a leader for a while, I should have spoken more loudly, advocated more fully, and been more willing to put in time and effort to try to push back against an ever-more-exclusionary vision of apologetics. I didn’t. Some of the fruits of this can be seen across offshoot groups as well. One group is about parenting and apologetics and one of the most frequent topics of discussion is the supposed dangers of progressive Christianity. Once again, the vaguely American Evangelical nature of the group is showing. Rather than aligning with Christ and Christians worldwide across a spectrum of beliefs, the group and those it has influenced continue down a smaller path. It honestly brings me pain to reflect on what could have been.

None of this is to say no good work is done within the CAA. That’s not the case. But it’s also the case that rather than offering a broad spectrum group for engaging with non-Christians from all walks of Christianity, as was the original vision, the group has become yet another mouthpiece for a milquetoast American Religiosity.

So what can I do? I don’t know. Writing about it is just one step. I know of a few other, much smaller apologetics groups that allow for discussion from a much broader range of Christian voices, but even they have inroads happening with the same posts, the same content being shared again and again. Apologetics has almost become a codeword for defense not of Christianity but of a sterilized, antinomian faith much more concerned with dogmatic status quo than with reaching non-Christians.

*Much of this is written from my memory (well, almost all of it, really), not from specific documentation or saved screenshots or anything. I wasn’t there to do that. I might have some of the specific details and order of events slightly wrong. This post is meant to be my personal thoughts and recollections on what went wrong with the CAA.

**But! some may exclaim, But you have not defined what is meant by “compassion,” “suffering,” “show,” “justice,” “social,” or “people”! Yes, I know. That’s kind of the point. Instead of actually doing those things, may apologists in particular and Christians more generally prefer to sit around arguing about who may or may not be suffering, may need compassion and justice, and the like. But God prefers those who actually do justice and show mercy; no qualifications.

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Much Ado About Nothing: Alisa Childers’ “Another Gospel?”– I review a book that has been bounced around as the source for discussing Progressive Christianity.

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Book Review: “Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question” by W. David Beck

W. David Beck’s Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question is a remarkable historical survey of some of the best-known arguments for the existence of God. In a crowded field of books about the existence of God, Beck’s work sets itself apart by providing both an historical survey of the ways these arguments developed and working explanations and analyses of the arguments into today.

The first chapter introduces readers to the origins of theistic arguments, providing a broad background for the rest of the book. After that, the chapters act as a kind of typology of theistic arguments, dividing them into chapters on cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, moral arguments, and ontological arguments, respectively. A final chapter closes the book with a look ahead at the prospects and possibilities for theistic arguments and conclusions based upon the same.

Each chapter on a type of argument traces the argument from its earliest clear example into the modern day. It is important to note that these chapters are necessarily broad and plural. What I mean is that the chapters end with the plural “arguments” rather than “argument” for a reason–each type of theistic argument has numerous ways of presenting the argument and several different proponents and detractors through history and into today. Thus, for example, the cosmological argument can be traced back to the earliest known writings on philosophy both East and West and into today with sophisticated arguments based (in some cases) upon modern cosmology or physics.

I especially enjoyed the chapter on ontological arguments, which are surely the more opaque but hotly debated theistic arguments today. As with every other chapter, Beck doesn’t shy away from showing both theistic and atheistic takes on the argument. He gives the atheist philosopher Graham Oppy quite a bit of space and somewhat amusingly quotes Oppy to the effect of saying ontological arguments may work but it’s difficult to know whether they succeed. That is, due to the amazingly confusing nature of the multifarious questions any ontological argument raises (such as “is existence a property?”), it is possible the arguments work but don’t succeed–they don’t convince people due to the many trails and red herrings they raise. As someone deeply interested in the ontological argument, I found this a great way to end a thoroughly thought-provoking chapter.

Each chapter has its own issues raised. It’s already been mentioned, but bears repeating that Beck includes both theists and atheists in his survey of arguments. Many objections are noted, for example, in a lengthy section on the analysis of Aquinas’s version of a cosmological argument from the philosopher Paul Edwards (1923-2004). Over the course of several pages, Edwards’s objections to cosmological arguments are noted, but Beck also shows how several of these objections fail, even by Edwards’s own admission. Such introduction of modern debates, often featuring back-and-forth discussion edited for succinctness by Beck, make the book highly readable despite often heady subject matter. Again, each section must be brief, so the book provides more of an overview than it does anything in depth, but it’s clear how easily readers could pursue additional reading based on extensive, annotated bibliographies Beck provides section-by-section.

Does God Exist? is a fascinating read, even for readers like myself who are veterans of apologetics training or who have read hundreds of books on the subject. It could easily be used as a springboard for more discussion, as a reference with bibliographical data, or a grab bag of discussion. Beck has provided an invaluable resource to help spur additional discussion, and doesn’t shy away from highlighting powerful objections to theistic arguments even as he concludes it is reasonable and justifiable to believe God exists. Recommended.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Problems for the Minimal Facts Argument for Jesus’s Resurrection?

The minimal facts argument for Jesus’s Resurrection is one of the more popular arguments I’ve read–and learned–in apologetics-related circles. Basically, it goes like this: there are certain facts which the majority of scholars agree upon regarding Jesus’s resurrection such that, when considered together, make the resurrection the most reasonable or only possible explanation of the facts. I have personally used this argument to great effect and for some time thought it a fairly strong argument. However, I believe there are some problems with the argument. These make me hesitant to continue using it as I did before.

I was considering the minimal facts argument recently and something a philosopher* said stuck with me. Namely, that the minimal facts argument conflates sociology with epistemology. Now, what does that mean? Essentially, it means that the argument attempts to use a sociological method–counting up which scholars believe (or don’t believe) a certain historical fact occurred–in place of epistemology–“it is reasonable to believe x.” I’ve oversimplified this, because I want readers to think more about the problem than about my wording of it. This is important, because A) I’m not an epistemologist and so don’t have the skillset to present the point as well as one with training in that area would and B ) I think it’s still a powerful objection that needs to be weighed instead of debating my own wording of the argument.

It shouldn’t be downplayed that this at least appears to be a major problem. The minimal facts argument essentially smuggles in a kind of epistemology along with the sociological data. In other words, the skeptic–or Christian–is expected to move from “the majority of scholars believe these facts” to “these facts are reasonable for me to believe.” Or, minimally (sorry), that “it is reasonable to believe these facts.” But without an epistemic support system, once the argument is laid bare like that, it seems almost farcical. While I’d not go so far as to say it’s logically fallacious,** it does have the look of an unwarranted move.

Another way the argument conflates epistemology with sociology is just that–it essentially treats the counting up and tallying of scholars*** as a genuine way to find and ground knowledge. And while this may not seem entirely unreasonable–after all, I would tend to see a significant majority of immunologists agreeing that a vaccine is safe and effective as a good reason to believe that myself–the move itself needs more argument. Moreover, because the argument is dealing with historical facts, it has additional wrinkles to the move from “scholars think x” to “it is a fact that x.” The aside about vaccines is a good counterpoint, because it is possible to physically test and confirm scholars’ opinions in that regard. However, for an historical fact, the opinions of numerous scholars about whether an event took place stands on somewhat less firm ground. As someone interested in historiography, myself, I realize it is tenuous ground indeed.

In most popular versions of this argument, there’s a kind of hand-waving that occurs regarding these minimal facts. The argument goes that a “majority of scholars” agree upon whatever fact. That fact may be, for example, that the disciples believed Jesus appeared to them after his death. Another fact may be that Jesus died from crucifixion. Now, let’s say of 100 scholars of history, 95 believe the first, and 95 the second. That’s a great majority! They may not be the same 95, of course, but 95 is still a solid number. The more facts that get introduced/discussed, the more acute this problem seems. So, let’s say you introduce the empty tomb, and 85 scholars believe in that. Are they all included in the other 95? If not, does it seem to take away something from the argument? I believe it may, though I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what the problem is.

Another issue with the argument, and the epistemology/sociology point is relevant here, is that the opinions of scholars is subject to change. I’ve read before how in many fields of science it often takes a generational shift before a theory can be fully accepted, despite massive evidence for its being true. The reason is because people tend to cling to what they know–or believe–to be true even in the face of evidence to the contrary. What this means for historical scholarship is that it is entirely possible, generation to generation, that the “majority of scholars” could have rather large shifts in opinion. If, for example, death by crucifixion were to drop off the map for a majority of scholars in relevant fields, would that mean it is unreasonable to believe that Jesus died by crucifixion? Hardly. But according to how this argument is used, it would be. Or, perhaps, it would seem to be.

Questions about what is meant by “majority” abound, though in the strictest and strongest versions of the minimal facts argument, the entry point for “majority of scholars” is kept quite high instead of appealing to any amount over 50%. When one considers this, though, it again makes the problem of arbitrariness loom. Who gets to determine what percentage of scholars is required for reasonable acquiescence on the part of laity? And are those scholars in the minority inherently irrational for disagreeing?

There’s also the question of how the scholars themselves are being represented. For example, is it really true that all scholars lumped together as agreeing about Jesus’s death by crucifixion actually agree to the same minimal fact in the same way? Maybe. But it’s hard to know unless one is presented with exactly how the question is presented to the scholars and what they said in response. This seems a minor point, until one begins to explore what could be meant by it. Jesus died by crucifixion seems straightforward, but the mental baggage that comes with that sentence for many people is huge. Of course, one could potentially counter this by saying “But what is truly meant is, on the simplest level, simply that Jesus died by execution on a cross. Surely that’s simple enough that we can know whether a scholar believes that or not.” I basically agree with the heart of that, but still wonder about things like whether those scholars would agree about what is meant by “Jesus,” for example. I don’t mean whether they believe Jesus is God in human flesh–that’s beyond what I mean. Instead, I wonder whether some of those scholars in the “agree” category might say “yes, there was probably a first century man named Jesus who was executed by crucifixion.” But would they agree that was the Jesus born of Mary, with Joseph as (surrogate) father, and even other details? I’m not so sure about that. And that does make a huge difference. Moreover, without seeing the method behind how we got “majority of scholars” in agreement about this very basic historical claim, it’s difficult to analyze it in any meaningful way.

All of this is to say that I think we ought to be quite careful in our use of the minimal facts argument. I’m not entirely convinced we should be using it at all, to be honest. Much scholarly work needs to be done to lay the groundwork for the argument, and a surprising amount of that groundwork needs to be on the side of epistemology, because one of the biggest problems is that the argument itself doesn’t seem to do the work it claims to be able to do. Finally, because it is unfortunately the case that questioning people’s beliefs happens when one questions established apologetic arguments, I want to very clearly say that I believe Jesus physically rose from the dead and that that is an historic fact. I am just unconvinced that this argument is the way to establish that.

*The philosopher was Lydia McGrew. I credit her with being the on to point out this problem to me and several others. I’ve expanded on some reflection on that here.

**I’ve seen some claim it is basically an argumentum ad populum or appeal to authority, but the former is inaccurate given that the argument is, in its strongest form, based upon actual scholars in relevant fields and the latter is a mistake because appeal to authority is only fallacious when it is done, er, fallaciously.

***I mean this literally, because some apologists (notably Gary Habermas) have done extensive work literally tallying up opinions of scholars in relevant areas to make the argument.

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Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Genocide and the Challenge of Apologetics: Randal Rauser’s “Jesus Loves the Canaanites”

There are times we read things in the Bible and we blow past them, not registering the content as disturbing because we have absorbed some explanation for its content that automatically allows us to keep moving. Randal Rauser’s Jesus Loves the Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition confronts that practice in regards to the apparently genocidal passages in the Bible. Rauser analyzes the text from the perspective of international law in regards to the definition of genocide, compares it to the modern example of a close-in genocide in Rwanda, analyzes various apologetic approaches to the text, and finally, offers his own possible reading. Fair warning to readers- because the book discusses genocide, there is frank description of brutal violence, including violence of a sexual nature, and this includes discussions related to children.

For my part, Rauser’s powerful look at international law’s definition of genocide and application of the same to the text of Scripture is one of the strongest aspects of the book. Rauser notes that genocide does not necessarily require the intent to actually kill every single person of a demographic; rather, according to the definition of genocide, it also may simply be the action of removing or changing a group to ensure that group does not exist in an area. Rauser moves from the definition of genocide to its application in modern examples, and takes a very deep look at genocide in Rwanda. The reason he uses Rwanda as an example is because much of the killing took place up close and with weapons or implements used by hand (eg. a machete). This modern example, then, is closer to what would have occurred according to a plain reading of the narratives in the Bible.

Rauser notes the intense psychological distress not just upon the ones against whom the attack came, but also upon the perpetrators. This latter point is extremely important, and not one that I personally had reflected upon much. My own training in apologetics had inoculated me somewhat against the horrors of mass killing if one takes the texts at face value, but I had never before considered the immense psychological toll the killing would take upon the killers. Of course, now that I’ve written that, it seems obvious, but think about this, as Rauser does, in terms of the text. God has a chosen people whom he commands to destroy/remove an entire people group from the land in which they’re entering. After striking down tens or hundreds of individual men, women, and children with their own hands and whatever weapons they’d have had, their bodies covered with the blood of those who cried out for mercy, but were not spared, the Israelites are expected to have blissfully settled in and happily enjoyed their time in the land without ever a thought of the cruel, inhuman violence they had carried out to get there. It’s preposterous to think that could happen, and reasonable to assume the Israelites would have had an enormous amount of PTSD, sociopathy, and other mental health problems that would arise with their own actions, let alone the continued act of dehumanization or rationalization of their activity. This would surely have had a generations-spanning impact on the psychological health of the Israelite people, and thinking that God would have seen that as worth visiting upon God’s chosen people requires serious reflection.

By the time Rauer’s intensive analysis of the violence inherent in taking the text at face value is done, it is clear Christians options are somewhat limited. Though it is possible to bite the bullet and accept the immense mental damage done to a few generations of Israelites to secure the land for God’s people, it should cause extreme discomfort to do so. Hence, Rauser turns to various apologetic attempts to explain the text.

The first few attempts essentially accept the text as it stands and try to justify the violence. Thus, apologetic approaches that see the Canaanites as irredeemably evil or corrupting in influence against the Israelites argue that they had to all be killed in order to end this potential menace to their society. Of course, such an approach runs up against the problem of mental harm to the Israelites themselves, but it also seems quite extreme. Surely the sick and dying, the children, the infants do not pose such a threat to the incoming people of God! But according to this reading, they too must die. It seems cruel at best, but illogical as well. Attempts to argue for the truth of the text as just war reasoning also appear to fail. Readings of the text that see it as hyperbolic are somewhat less problematic, but Rauser points out that even most of these readings require acceptance of killing of the most vulnerable people in the land.

Rauser’s ultimate approach is to see the text as something to formulate disciples who love God and neighbor. These texts, argues Ruaser, cannot be seen as straightforward narrative because “When contemporaneous documentation and archaeological evidence fomr the region do not support the claims of documents composed centuries later, the wise course is to go with the weight of documentary and archaeological evidence. And that means that we should conclude based on the evidence that the conquest of Canaan likely never occurred in the manner described” (Kindle location 4652). Though Rauser only briefly notes this documentary and archaeological evidence, this reader has read the same problem with a straightforward reading of the text elsewhere. It is worth wondering then, why the text was written. Rauser notes the difference between the intended meaning of the text and the plain sense reading of the text and argues that if we approach the text from a perspective of believers seeking wisdom, we can then see it as teaching us to love God and others.

Rauser’s approach, then, has at least some in common with the approach of Webb and Oeste in Bloody, Brutal, and Barbaric? (my review here). The latter argue that the text is intended to move readers towards redemption and an ending of war, though Webb and Oeste accept much more of the narrative as written as historical reality than Rauser suggests. Rauser interacts with some other views that are somewhat similar to his own, rejecting some aspects of each. For example, his overview of Greg Boyd’s The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is largely positive, but notes that Boyd seems to fail to account for the lack of archaeological evidence in his own analysis.

What Rauser’s book does best, though, is force the problem for apologists. It is all too easy to look the other way when confronted by texts of horror in the Bible. Rauser turns a microscope on these texts and shows how they provide unique challenges for apologists. Additionally, he shows how most of the major options and explanations fail to account for the texts themselves in a satisfactory way. Much of this is through his analysis of moral intuition–we can sense when something seems off about a moral explanation. The alternative Rauser offers takes into account archaeological evidence as well as a few strands of explanatory power that have been offered through church history. Rauser’s account, I think, offers perhaps the only way to read the text faithfully while not subscribing to some kind of selective errancy.

Jesus Loves the Canaanites forces readers to look with open eyes upon the text of the Bible and think about in in far deeper ways than they may have done before. For that alone, it’s worth reading. But Rauser offers extensive interaction with and critique of apologetic methods, historical and modern, related to the biblical text. He also offers a possible solution to the text that maintains its integrity and inspiration. Much more could be said about Rauser’s various analyses of apologists, readings of the text, and own view, but this review should, hopefully, encourage others to go and read the book. It’s a must read for anyone wanting to look more deeply at these texts.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of the book for review by the publisher. I was not required to give any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.

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Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Apologetics Has Issues

A picture of a goldfinch I took. All rights reserved.

I recently had an experience that forcefully reminded me of the deficiencies with apologetics, or, perhaps more accurately, apologists. For background, I have a degree in Apologetics myself, and have studied it for over a decade. I’m not a leading apologist–I don’t show up in lists on the internet of most popular apologists or anything of the sort. But I do have expertise. I’ve put in my time, got the degree, talked to the people.

About two years ago, I wrote a post called “What’s Wrong with Apologetics?” There, I highlighted some of the main problems I’ve observed with apologetics and apologists myself. These included things like “We believe we are experts when we’re not.” The words I wrote 2 years ago feel even more true and relevant today.

The interaction that reminded me so strongly of that post was centered around a statement a Christian made which was controversial. When I challenged some of the most outspoken people to post evidence for their claims, they posted a link to a video of a Christian with no relevant expertise and no published peer-reviewed work in the field. Once this was pointed out, the response was that because this person in the video had allegedly studied the field for a decade, it meant they were an expert, and that what mattered were the arguments, not the person.

Honestly, this is what led me to the somewhat disturbing conclusion I’ve been circling for years. We apologists are just not very good at holding ourselves to the same standard to which we hold others. In other words, I think perhaps the biggest issue in Christian apologetics is that we have a double standard.

1. We have a double standard when it comes to who we trust. People in general tend to trust sources which agree with positions they already hold. Apologists seem to think we’re immune to this, but we’re not. The example I mentioned above is a good one. The video shared happened to put forth a position that those sharing it agreed with. Thus, it didn’t matter that the person involved had no relevant credentials. They were just right, and their credentials were either artificially inflated in order to make them more relevant (“They have studied this topic for decades!”) or simply dismissed as irrelevant (“It’s the arguments that matter, not who’s making them.”)

Fellow apologists, there is absolutely no way we would accept this from someone with whom we were reasoning. For example, Richard Dawkins has written about religious-based topics for decades. He has no relevant degree in theology whatsoever, but he has certainly written entire works dedicated to telling people Christianity and religion in general is just obviously silly and wrong. Now, imagine if an atheist came along and said that because Dawkins had “studied the topic for decades,” he was an appropriate expert when it came to telling us what Christianity is or how to define it. That would be absurd. Yet that’s exactly the kind of thing we very frequently when it comes to discussing things on our side.

2. We have a double standard when it comes to objectivity. We are all too quick to believe that we have an objective position. That is, we think that we are capable of rising above our own subjective consciousness and have a position which is capable of judging all others. That’s just not possible. The notion of “neutral ground” when it comes to big questions is impossible, and to criticize others for pointing that out is, frankly, absurd. We have to acknowledge that we have biases, and certainly attempt to be as neutral as possible when it comes to analyzing facts. But we also must be aware of the fact that we cannot be truly, totally, entirely impartial.

3. We don’t take emotions seriously. This is another serious problem for apologists. I can’t tell you the number of times I have seen apologists decrying emotions. Whether it’s saying that an opponent doesn’t need to get emotional or whether it’s downplaying the emotional attachment we get to the questions at hand, we have to be honest and take emotions seriously. Frankly, to think otherwise is to make ourselves inhuman. If you don’t feel a deep, abiding love for Jesus Christ–something intimately connected with your emotions–and you’re doing apologetics, you should probably rethink what you’re doing. Our love of Christ and worship of God deeply involve our emotions, and we cannot just remove them from the equation when we’re reasoning with others. Moreover, the Bible itself offers direct refutation of this strange distance from emotions so many apologists attempt to accomplish. One of the shortest verses in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” Weeping is an intense emotional experience. Surely if our Lord and Savior expresses his emotions, we shouldn’t sneer at the emotions of others.

Conclusion

There continues to be so many things wrong with apologetics. But it’s still something that I think can be useful. I hope these points will help fellow apologists think about what we’re doing and how we’re presenting ourselves as we make a case for Christ.

Links

What’s Wrong with Apologetics? – I raise a number of pitfalls apologists ought to avoid.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Winter’s Heart” by Robert Jordan- A Christian (re)reads The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time” is a massive fantasy series by Robert Jordan (and, later, Brandon Sanderson) that is being developed into a television show for Amazon Prime. It’s cultural impact is huge, the series having sold more than 44 million copies. Here, I continue my series exploring the books from a Christian worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS in this post for the series.

Winter’s Heart

I’m reading this novel for the third time, and this time I listened to it. It’s amazing to me to see how differently I approach different issues it raises 5 years after I first wrote about it on this blog, and nearly 15 years since I first read the book. For one thing, I remember friends at the time I first read it saying it was a rather tedious read. But I have quite enjoyed the novel the three times I read it. But this third time did highlight some of the problems with Jordan’s later books in the series. There’s so much fluff in this novel. It could have been edited down to be about half the length and still gotten all the major points across. I don’t know if this is a result of me reading much more speculative fiction since even 5 years ago or what, but I just noticed some of the problems more than I did the first and second go-rounds.

Another difference is in myself, and that is explored more thoroughly below, in the section titled “Peace and Security?” It is fascinating to me that my own growth as a person can be measured against my reaction over time to this fantasy series. The intense strength of the imagination on formation should not be underplayed.

Self-Image

The concept of self looms large throughout the whole series, but perhaps especially so in Winter’s Heart. Whether it’s Rand still making sense of his own powers and authority as the Dragon Reborn or the women who are in love with him trying to navigate their own feelings about him and each other–the notion of self is critical throughout the novel. But self-image is part of this, too. Characters throughout the book are obsessed with how others view them. did their demeanor give something away? Did they dress properly? Or, “No, I won’t be dressing that way.”

Is this obsession with self-image a product of Jordan’s fluffing the novel and including so many additional details? I’m not sure, but it was something that stuck with me.

Peace and Security?

When I wrote about Winter’s Heart on this blog last time, I centered in on the situation in Far Madding, where weapons were highly restricted from being carried around openly. I noted the following passage:

“No need for any man to defend himself in Far Madding… The Street Guards take care of that. Let any man as wants start carrying a sword, and soon we’d be as bad as everyplace else…” (538)

I focused, as Jordan seemed to, on the fact that violence still continued wherever the guards were not. The implication, though I didn’t spell it out, is that Far Madding is foolish to prevent people from bringing weapons of all sorts into their city. It didn’t prevent violence, after all!

But now, looking back on what I wrote, and thinking about Christian responses to violence, I think that I, like Jordan and the naysayers of Far Madding and controls on weapons, confused Peace with Security. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who was killed by the Nazis, wrote about the fact that “Peace must be Dared.” He wrote:

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture. It can never be made safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to mistrust, and this mistrust in turn brings forth war.

(DBWE 13, 308-309)

Placing trust in weapons and feeling secure means that we have essentially traded security for peace. Instead of peace, we have sought safety. Peace means daring to thwart war by daring the great venture–calling peace down on our neighbors.

Conclusion

Winter’s Heart is maybe the “fluffiest” entry in the series so far, with plenty of length conversations and descriptions of clothes and locales to make it feel bloated. That said, readers who enjoy verbose descriptions of a fantasy setting we’ve grown to love–and if you’ve come this far, I hope you love The Wheel of Time–will glean quite a bit to love from this novel. Those most interested in worldview and the main plot will have to wade through quite a bit to get there, but Jordan’s series remains thoughtful and compelling.

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Links

The Wheel of Time– Read all my posts on The Wheel of Time (scroll for more).

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Androids overthrow their god- “Tower of Glass” by Robert Silverberg

The best fiction makes us think about the real world in new and challenging ways. Robert Silverberg’s Tower of Glass is one book that has made me think quite a bit. Silverberg is one of the greats of New Wave science fiction that had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. In Tower of Glass, originally published in 1970, Silverberg offers up a plot that has echoes of the Tower of Babel, as well as Christian theology and other questions being raised. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. There are sexually explicit scenes in the novel. 

The core of Tower of Glass‘s plot is that an alleged alien communication has been received on Earth and the wealthiest man in the world is trying to build an immense tower that will allow him to communicate via tachyons with these purported aliens. The man, Krug, was made wealthy by his inventions, the androids. The androids are separated in a kind of caste system by their abilities. They’re not robots, because they’re made of organic material, but they’re effectively a kind of specialized clone, so far as I can tell. These androids and their interactions with humans are the other major part of the plot. 

The central question of the narrative, on a surface level, is whether androids and humans are equal. There is a political party dedicated to android equality. The androids themselves have developed a religion. It directly parallels Christianity in many ways, with its own symbology, liturgy, and hymns. It also has a distinctly trinitarian quality in which Krug is seen as a Christ figure for them, while they also worship a transcendent Krug. At one point in the novel, we’re told humans have cast off religions as a kind of relic of the past, but the plot itself leads to asking whether that is truly a way for humanity to transcend its roots or abandon reason. 

Manuel, Krug’s son, is having an affair with one of the “Alpha” (highest functioning) androids, Lilith. The name is intentionally a reference to the woman from Jewish mythology, and the parallels between her manipulation of Manuel and the Talmudic Lilith are certainly a thread to pursue. After one scene in which Manuel has sex with her as he’s trying to reassure himself that he believes androids are equal with humans, she convinces him to go to his father to speak with him about android equality. Manuel brings one of the android holy books to his father, showing Krug that he is the center of their religion and hope for equality. Krug utterly rejects this, essentially undercutting himself as the androids’ god. The androids revolt, going on a mass rampage that will change the Earth forever. Krug kills his most loyal android, Thor Watchman, after he discovers Thor has caused the great Tower of Glass to topple. Krug then rushes to the spaceship he’s been building to try to get to the aliens for whom he’s building the tower. A few loyal–or perhaps nostalgic–androids aid him, and send him to the stars in the final scene of the book.

There are layers upon layers of meaning in this novel. I’ll start at the end. The Tower of Babel was described in the Bible as an attempt by humanity to reach the heavens–the realm of the gods. The Tower of Glass was an attempt by Krug to reach out to possibly mythic aliens, an obsession that he becomes increasingly enamored by as the novel goes on. The collapse of the Tower of Glass happens as worldwide rebellion strikes, sowing confusion, chaos, and fire. Babel’s construction was halted by confusion caused by the scrambling of languages in the biblical story. Krug takes it one step farther, finally escaping Earth in a real and symbolic rise into the heavens, the realm of the gods, as he pursues his own ends. We don’t know how his journey will end, but the possibility that he will simply be burned to a crisp by the star on the other end of the voyage is very real. The symbolism of the event in the novel is ambiguous. Accompanied by the fall of the Tower of Glass, it certainly resonates with the story of Babel, but in what way? Is the Glass like Babel–its own attempt to reach the gods in space and try to claim their arcane knowledge? I don’t know, but it’s this kind of science fiction that I love. It’s the kind that keeps us thinking.

The android equality movement and the question of the humanity of androids also looms large. The resonance of their clearly false religion with Christianity begs the question of what Silverberg is trying to say about human religion. Again, at one point Manuel notes that humans have essentially left religion behind. And with the religion of the androids being clearly false, one wonders what is being implied by this. The very object of the androids’ faith ends up a false god, fleeing from the planet during its greatest crisis, pursuing his vain dream of communicating with aliens. Yet the inherent need for a faith remains in the androids, as they send their theologians scrambling to make sense of the world events. And we also have to wonder about what humanity has done with the freedom granted by the androids. We don’t see much of broader society outside the narrow path Silverberg leads us on in the novel. But it seems that the humans we do encounter are self-obsessed, lazy, and even jealous of each other in some ways. They care little about anything except their own pleasure. Which people more closely reflect humanity in the novel? Is it the androids, with their faith seeking understanding, or the humans, who rely, essentially, on slave labor for all of their accomplishments?

Silverberg’s novel is clearly not a defense of religion. Indeed, it may be seen as an attack on religion. It could be argued either way. But what is clear is that we often make our own “towers” that we worship, creating idolatrous visions of what humanity can become if we simply try hard enough–or exploit enough resources and others–to do so. Tower of Glass is the kind of science fiction that makes us think more about our own lives and actions, and that’s the kind I love most. 

Links

Science Fiction Hub– I have scores of reviews of Hugo nominees, Vintage Sci-Fi, modern sci-fi, TV series, and more! Check out my science fiction related writings here. This is a link to my other site that focuses on my non-theology or apologetics related interests.

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Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

SDG. 

“The Path of Daggers” by Robert Jordan – A Christian (Re)reads The Wheel of Time

The Wheel of Time” is a massive fantasy series by Robert Jordan (and, later, Brandon Sanderson) that is being developed into a television show for Amazon Prime. It’s cultural impact is huge, the series having sold more than 44 million copies. Here, I continue my series exploring the books from a Christian worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS in this post for the series.

Systems of Power

At one point in The Path of Daggers, Rand is surveying his arrayed forces and he considers their loyalty (and lack thereof). But in this considering, he notes:

they feared him [Rand] far more than they did the Aiel. Maybe more than they did the Dark One, in whom some did not really believe… (327-328)

The people, it seems, were more concerned with firmly holding their own wealth or gaining positions of authority and power than they were with the true evil which threatened the world. Unconvinced by the coming tribulation, they instead sought favor from the most powerful man in the world. The condition, it seems, is one which mirrors our own at points. Rather than being concerned with evil facing our world, or rather than fighting injustice, people are obsessed with gain that cannot be carried over across death and the grave. The true powers which threaten the world are left to expand and strengthen,while people seek their own gain.

It is a kind of pragmatism which infects us: injustice is “over there” and we are “right here,” so why be concerned with it? The notion that there is a spiritual realm with any sort of power is shrugged off, ignored, or even scorned as ancient superstition, unworthy of concern. Like the people who surround Rand in the book, we convince ourselves that evil has no power in the world and “[the Dark One”] could [not] and would [not] touch the world harder than he had already (328).

Of course, broadening these insights, it is easy to see how this might apply to systems of power more generally. Far too many people are dismissive of how we are capable of setting up systems that continue to exclude or oppress for years and decades to come. Yet the Bible teaches us that we must fight oppression, even in the very systems and powers of the world that are set up.

The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice.

Ezekiel 22:29

We need to seek out how oppression works, even if it is unintentional, and seek to end it in any form. We need to be less afraid of the powers of the world than we are of doing justice and walking rightly with God.

The people of the Wheel of Time became more afraid of Rand than they did the very real (Satan-like) threat of the Dark One. That was because they feared what might happen to their wealth, their things, and their worldly lives more than they feared eternal consequences. They cared more about themselves than about others. As Christians, we are called to the exact opposite, though too often we also stumble. When calls come to end oppression and seek justice, it is too often Christians who are the first to try to dodge or diminish those calls. We should obey the word of God and fear God rather than humans.

(All Amazon Links are Amazon Affiliates Links.)

Links

The Wheel of Time– Read all my posts on The Wheel of Time (scroll for more).

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Book Reviews– There are plenty more book reviews to read! Read like crazy! (Scroll down for more, and click at bottom for even more!)

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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