By Tom Krattenmaker
It has been a year of retreat and retrench for a conservative Christendom that enjoyed such outsize influence over American culture and politics through most of the decade. The evangelical in chief in the White House — gone. Limits on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research — gone. James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family and in many respects the Christian right itself — resigned.
And now, on the always-contested ground of religious studies literature, here come more challenges to traditionalist views of the Bible and Christian faith from a lineup of big-name, liberal-leaning scholars and theologians.
Leading the pack is Bart Ehrman with his examination of discrepancies in the holy book, Jesus, Interrupted. The University of North Carolina religious studies professor mounts evidence against literalist conceptions of the Bible as factual history and a divinely transmitted testament to an afterlife-focused religion called Christianity.
If the Bible is the literal word of God, Ehrman asks, how could it be inconsistent on so many details large and small? Let’s start with an example appropriate to the just-concluded Easter season marking the Savior’s death and resurrection: As Jesus was dying on the cross, was he in agony, questioning why God had forsaken him? Or was he serene, praying for his executioners? It depends, Ehrman points out, on whether you’re reading the Gospel of Mark or Luke. Regarding Jesus’ birthplace of Bethlehem, had his parents traveled there for a census (Luke’s version) or is it where they happened to live (Matthew’s version)? Did Jesus speak of himself as God? (Yes, in John; no, in Matthew.)
Note: This column prompted a flurry of reaction, both negative and positive, following its appearance in USA Today April 14. Here is a sampling of responses:
“Fighting Words about the Bible,” by Albert Mohler
“A Close Reading of the Text - The Progressive Approach to the Bible,” by Paul Raushenbush
“Attacks on traditional view of Bible rehash old theories,” USA Today letters to the editor, April 16
Plus dozens and dozens of reader comments at USA Today, just beneath my piece
Ehrman’s book has met with a fierce reaction from some quarters, which is understandable. Who among us isn’t inclined to fight back when our deepest, most cherished beliefs are challenged? But there is no need to demonize him as a “wolf” on the prowl against the church, as one critic has. His ideas, like so many other new thoughts and new insights that keep coming around with the surety of the seasons, need not be regarded as insults against God or bids to prove the Bible false.
Rather, an eye to church history and the big picture leads to an appreciation of the inevitability — even desirability — of varying perspectives and changing interpretations around the complex and challenging meaning of the figure, Jesus, around whom the New Testament revolves. Ehrman’s evidence and argument leave one with the distinct impression that belief diversity receives an endorsement from the people you might least expect: the compilers of the Bible itself.
One of Ehrman’s chief critics is the theologian and author James White, a leading practitioner of apologetics, the branch of theology devoted to defending and proving the orthodox faith. White denounces Ehrman as an apostate guided by deepanti-Christian bias. He charges in one Internet post that Ehrman has “moved far beyond the realm of his narrow expertise in his last three most popular books, all of which are designed to do one thing: destroy Christian faith.”
If criticisms of Ehrman veer toward the personal it’s because his evidence — the Bible’s own text — is what it is. And there is no denying the inconsistencies he surfaces between the various Gospels and letters that form the New Testament.
Matthew vs. John
The most eye-opening passages in Jesus, Interrupted explore the crucial differences of perspective between the writings of Matthew and John, differences that go right to the heart of the belief issues that divide people today. Is the Christian imperative primarily to do good, or to accept and proclaim the Jesus as God? Matthew, Ehrman shows, is adamant about the necessity of adhering to Jewish law and doing the right things. With John, it’s the opposite: Only by correct belief in Jesus as God can people earn their passage to heaven. When it comes down to it, is the Christian religion principally about one’s eternal fate — punching your ticket to heaven or hell — or the dawning of the kingdom of God in this physical realm?
Again, the answer depends on where in the Bible you look. The Gospel of Mark and the letters of the Apostle Paul, the earliest-written material in the New Testament, foresaw the imminent return of Jesus and, with him, the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom of God and the bodily resurrection of the dead. But an inconvenient thing happened after these were written: The decades passed, and the kingdom didn’t come.
“With the passing of time,” Ehrman writes, “the apocalyptic notion of the resurrection of the body becomes transformed into the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. What emerges is the belief in heaven and hell, a belief not found in the teachings of Jesus or Paul, but one invented in later times.” Ehrman’s central message is that the New Testament is a human book, written by different people in different situations with different audiences and different objectives. Is this a bid to disabuse believers of their Christianity? Absolutely not, Ehrman says. But he acknowledges that his scholarship and writing, if taken seriously, are bound to change the faith of one who believes in the Bible as God’s perfect holy writ.
Examining the ‘other side’
Defenders of the conservative faith have their hands full this spring. As if Ehrman weren’t enough, well-known liberal theologians Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan have teamed up for a new book that could shake up popular understanding of the revered apostle who essentially founded the Christian church as we know it.
In The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon, Borg and Crossan point out that Paul didn’t really write the more conservative teachings attributed to him (such as the idea that women should never speak in church). Borg and Crossan paint a portrait of Paul as a promoter of a radical egalitarian vision for a new world in which economic justice and non-violence finally prevail.
Also new on the shelves is Diana Butler Bass’ A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. Bass, a religion writer and church historian, explores alternative approaches to Christianity, past and present, that the establishment church could never quite squelch. The “other side of the story,” Bass writes, is replete with passionate Christian stands for peace, social justice, reverence for nature, and equality between women and men.
Heresy heaped upon heresy? Maybe in the view of some traditionalists. But wrestling with these books during this season of change and renewal leads me to a different response: People have had differing ideas about Jesus, and what it means to be a Christian, virtually since Day One. And despite 2,000 years’ worth of strenuous effort to silence views deemed too far out of the mainstream, believers have never stopped dreaming anew about what Jesus really meant — and means.
Think about it. Over the many centuries, as the church fathers gradually settled what would be in the official canon and what would not, shouldn’t the result have been one consistent, airtight story?
But that’s not what you find between the covers of the Bible. Maybe there’s a lesson there.
Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes will be published in the fall.