On the way back from an academic conference on the understanding of evil in early Christianity, I was checking Twitter and found a blog post recommended by Rachel Held-Evans, the well-known US blogger and voice of ‘progressive evangelicalism’. She commended it as a ‘good post on tomorrow’s [lectionary] gospel reading.’
I don’t want to pick out an individual, so I am not linking to the post itself. (I guess if you are desperate you could track it down). It includes a strong biographical element where the writer laments the constraints he feels as a legacy of his conservative /fundamentalist Christian (Southern Baptist) upbringing and how this inhibits his ability to read things like John 14.15, where Jesus says ‘If you love me, [you will] keep my command[ment]s’. Because he was brought up with the idea that to be a Christian essentially means conforming exactly to a set of rules, he struggles with the idea of ‘commands’ of Jesus. The post thus has the merit of honest articulation of this person’s agenda as he approaches the text; none of us comes to Scripture agenda-free, and part of mature reading is a level of self-awareness so we can see how we might be reading into the text instead of reading out of it.
But his conclusion is an odd mixture of insight and ignorance. After a brief meander, he decides that Jesus does not have many commands—what he teaches is more like a couple of key principles. And since the mention of the Spirit is in John 14 intertwined with the mention of commands, clearly we need the Spirit to help us work out these principles. (Jesus could not have left any commands, or rules, since you do not need the Spirit to keep rules.)
He reaches this conclusion by means of two breathtaking assumptions.
The first is that ‘Jesus was speaking to His disciples while He was still on Earth. Most of them were illiterate and barely knew the Old Testament.’ Now, I cannot complain here that this writer is ignorant of all the research on literacy in the first century, or on the nature of Jewish engagement with the Hebrew Bible. His is not an academic blog. And I can see where he gets the idea from: In Acts 4.13, the Jewish leaders are surprised by Peter and John’s courage.
When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
It’s not uncommon to hear sermons on this, suggesting that it means they were illiterate (hence God can use anyone). But it is much better to understand this as expressing the fact that Peter was not a member of the scribal elite. Worse than that, this blog writer goes on to deduce that the disciples knew nothing of the OT, and therefore that Jesus did not expect them to keep OT commands—something rather contradicted by the Sermon on the Mount, much of Jesus’ other teaching, not to mention Jesus’ own practice. Besides, 1 Peter is a highly sophisticated piece of writing which includes perhaps the most extended reflection on the importance of Is 53 in the NT. Who did he think wrote it? OK—many scholars say it cannot be Peter precisely because of the (false) assumption that he was nothing more than an ignorant fisherman. But what about Matthew? John? Jude? James? A sweeping, popular assumption based on little reflection is informing a key issue here. (In fact, there is a good, historical argument about the literacy of Jesus and the disciples—and hope to blog on this later in the week.)
The second assumption is even more bizarre. The blog writer has seen lots of lists of Jesus commands. But how many commands did Jesus actually issue? To find out, he did a quick search, in English, of the word ‘command’—and found really only two. Love God; love neighbour. So these are the only things Jesus commanded. Never mind that he uses the part of speech called an ‘imperative’ at just about every point in his teaching ministry! I suspect you would find several hundred just in the Sermon on the Mount! Here, this blogger is demonstrating ignorance of the most basic issues in how you read a text.
So, you might be wondering, why am I picking on this poor individual? After all, there must be hundreds—thousands—like him! Yes, indeed—and that’s the point! The world of the internet is awash with people who have a view, based on not very much, but presented as something of value. James is wise to warn us not to presume to be teachers (James 3.1), and this is easily extended to blogging. And get this: Rachel Held Evans, a leading influencer, particular for younger ‘progressives’, has just recommended this as insightful to her 43,647 Twitter followers! By now, a good number of sermons will have been preached based on this. Ignorance is permeating the pews thanks to social media.
Now I am well aware that the idea that the internet is stunting our thinking is not new, nor confined to Christian belief. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows from 2011 offered an extended argument on this. But this phenomenon is now spilling over from social media and into the world of print publishing. On the First Things site, Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan lament the reception of Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian—not simply because they do not agree, but because the arguments are based on ignorance and lack of awareness of widely-acknowledged facts about the texts and the ancient world. (You can find Walker’s more detailed review on the Canon and Culture website.) And Vines came to prominence through his widely-shared YouTube broadcast.
The real danger here is a lack of critical thinking, a lack of interest in the question: ‘Yes, it might be entertaining, or engaging, or say what I want to hear—but is it true?’. There is a caricature which says that concern for the truth is the preserve of anally-retentive, awkward, conservative/fundamentalist Christians. But it is not. It should be the concern for all Christians. The way many people, and in particular Christian influencers, are using social media is corroding this concern for asking even basic questions of truth. And in turn this is corroding understanding of faith, the reading of Scripture, and even Christian discipleship. We will all be the poorer for it.
Rant over…for the moment.
There’s a fantastic article on The Federalist (thanks Steve W!) which explores the ‘death of the expert.’
I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.
The author (Tom Nichols) does just lament this nostalgically—he sees the implications for human knowledge.
This is a very bad thing…Worse, it’s dangerous. The death of expertise is a rejection not only of knowledge, but of the ways in which we gain knowledge and learn about things. Fundamentally, it’s a rejection of science and rationality, which are the foundations of Western civilization itself.
Critics might dismiss all this by saying that everyone has a right to participate in the public sphere. That’s true. But every discussion must take place within limits and above a certain baseline of competence. And competence is sorely lacking in the public arena. People with strong views on going to war in other countries can barely find their own nation on a map; people who want to punish Congress for this or that law can’t name their own member of the House…None of this ignorance stops people from arguing as though they are research scientists.
Particularly pertinent for current discussions about ethics and theology, he sees the way that this new openness actually destroys our ability to hold reasonable conversations.
This subverts any real hope of a conversation, because it is simply exhausting — at least speaking from my perspective as the policy expert in most of these discussions — to have to start from the very beginning of every argument and establish the merest baseline of knowledge, and then constantly to have to negotiate the rules of logical argument. (Most people I encounter, for example, have no idea what a non-sequitur is, or when they’re using one; nor do they understand the difference between generalizations and stereotypes.) Most people are already huffy and offended before ever encountering the substance of the issue at hand.
This last sentence seems to sum up the tone of many online conversations about theology—and the more so the more controversial the issue.
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