September 2008: Books Read

I’m a little behind again this month, but here they are: the books I read in September.

1. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels. This book, published in 1979, has been discussed rather a lot for its argument about early Christianity, and so when I saw it being given away by a retiring pastor, I grabbed it. Pagels takes as her starting point the collection of texts found near Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in the 1940s, and uses them to argue that early Christianity was much more diverse than it is today. The eventual “winners,” the orthodox, suppressed the scrappy Gnostics and destroyed their sacred writings – or so it was thought, until those writings were discovered at Nag Hammadi. She argues, in short, that the rise of what would eventually be Christian orthodoxy was a power play on the part of bishops, who claimed to be the only legitimate heirs of the apostles. Christ’s bodily resurrection, monotheism, the orthodox view of martyrdom, and male-only priesthood were doctrines that emerged over time as the proto-orthodox squashed dissent. Not surprisingly, her argument didn’t convince me. I thought that she misrepresented orthodox beliefs in several areas, and that her conclusions were far from inevitable based on the data she did present. She didn’t really seem to consider the possibility that the early church actually did preserve the teachings of Jesus and his apostles. Since that is so central to its claims to legitimacy, it’s surprising that she didn’t address this argument and instead characterized its doctrines as nothing more than a grab for power.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read it. It is a book that could only have been written in our postmodern times, when distrust of institutions and authority is at an all-time high. It is good to think about such arguments, to weigh whether they have validity, and to decide how to respond when they don’t.

2. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus. This book could have been a great popular introduction to the textual criticism of the New Testament, but it isn’t. The problem is that Ehrman, who was once a Christian fundamentalist and is now an agnostic New Testament scholar and text critic, has an ax to grind. As he writes in the Introduction of this book, he once believed that each and every word of the New Testament had to be the very words of God, and as such could contain no mistakes, no matter how minor. When he discovered an apparent mistake in the text while writing a paper in graduate school, his tenuous faith was shattered. I first heard of Ehrman when I was in college, when one of his books served as a textbook for a religion class called “Intro to the Early Christian Era.” Back then, even as a college freshman, I was frustrated by how Ehrman would leap to his preferred conclusions from insufficient data. Everyone has biases, but you can’t make a good argument if you leave out inconvenient data and don’t address counter-arguments on their own terms. When I saw this book in an airport bookstore a couple of years ago, I decided that it would be good to read it and get re-acquainted with Ehrman, since if a book is in an airport bookstore (and on display at the front, no less), it is bound to be popular and affect the way people think about the Bible.

Ehrman is a good writer, and an entertaining writer, who makes his subject interesting by telling stories. He also brings up some difficult textual issues that have all too often been glossed over by people in the church. In the end, though, I was once again frustrated in places by his leaping to unwarranted conclusions. For example, he points out that I Timothy 3:16 should read “He [Jesus] was revealed in flesh,” rather than “God was revealed in flesh,” as some scribes transmitted it. He then proceeds to imply that the Christian doctrine of Jesus’ divinity is based on doubtful passages like this one – which is simply not true, as a scholar like him ought to know. Even though this book had great potential, in the end it was marred by Ehrman’s deep desire to cast doubt on Christian origins. My guess is that the primary people who will be impacted by this book are those who already dislike the church and are predisposed to accept its conclusions without thinking critically, and those Christians who have not been taught well by their churches. I hope that this book serves as a challenge to churches to explore the issues of textual criticism and what it means for the Bible to be inspired, instead of letting those who are critical of the church set the agenda.

In the end, I think that Ehrman is to be pitied. He went from being a Christian fundamentalist with an inadequate doctrine of scripture to being an agnostic fundamentalist who has spent nearly his entire career reacting against an inadequate doctrine of scripture. This review has been necessarily short, but if you are interested in reviews that are more in-depth, one can be found here.

3. Jeffery L. Scheler, Is the Bible True? I picked up a pre-publication copy of this book seven years ago, and only now got around to reading it. I’m glad I did. It was written by a religion writer for U.S. News & World Report, who brings his mainstream journalist’s eye to examining whether the historical claims of the Bible are true. He looks at the Bible and history, the Bible and archaeology, the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Bible and the Historical Jesus, and the Bible Code. (remember that?) He concludes by saying that many of the Bible’s central claims – that there is a God and he is personal, that this God became incarnate in Jesus Christ, that he died and was raised from the dead – are theological in nature and can’t be incontrovertibly historically verified. However, the Bible is not completely immune from historical scrutiny, and when it is scrutinized with regard to the historical claims that it makes, it holds up remarkably well. I’d recommend this book as a popular-level introduction to the background behind a lot of the public controversies going on about the Bible. I wonder, though, if there has been a new edition in the past seven years…

4. Gerald May, Addiction and Grace. While I was in class at Regent last fall, the professor made a statement that stuck with me: he said that if he could include any book at the end of the Bible, as an appendix, it would be this book. Now, he wasn’t making an argument that it should seriously be considered to be added to the canon, but nevertheless his high regard for it made me sit up and take notice. Not long after that, I found it on sale at Amazon, and got myself a copy.

I found that it was, in fact, very good. May casts the net wide when he defines addiction; he’s not just talking about alcohol, drugs and sex. Addiction, for him, is anything that has these five characteristics: tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, self-deception, loss of willpower, and distortion of attention (that is, we can become preoccupied with it). He says that virtually anything can become an addiction, but just because we have strong feelings doesn’t mean we’re addicted. The difference is that with addiction, we lose freedom. Our addictions become gods. Grace comes in because, May says, addiction can’t be defeated by the human will acting on its own. There is a lot more to be said, but it is hard to summarize his argument beyond that.