Link blog: religion, humour, video, politics

Is Obama About To Become Just Another War Criminal?

"Aghanistan is not a country, it's a criminal enterprise" – Evert Cilliers wonders what America is doing there, a question you might also ask about the UK.
(tags: drugs politics war afghanistan taliban pakistan islam)

George Carlin – Religion is bullshit.

Carlin's classic routine on religion, in which he tells us how he worships the Sun and Joe Pesci. May be "strident".
(tags: religion video youtube funny atheism humour god carlin comedy)

36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD —  By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

The Edge introduces and gives us an excerpt from Goldstein's novel. The 36 arguments (and their rebuttals) are included in the excerpt, handily: the moral argument and the cosmological argument are in there.
(tags: religion philosophy god atheism books morality)

Caveman Science Fiction

From the same people who brought you "Dungeons and Discourse": Caveman SF.
(tags: comics scifi funny science satire comic humour)

The Open Road London (1927)

Colour footage of London in 1927. Pretty amazing stuff.
(tags: london video history youtube archive)

Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again – Johann Hari, Commentators – The Independent

The stories of former Islamists who came back from the brink, and just what went wrong to put them there in the first place. "From the right, there was the brutal nativist cry of "Go back where you came from!" But from the left, there was its mirror-image: a gooey multicultural sense that immigrants didn't want liberal democratic values and should be exempted from them. Again and again, they described how at school they were treated as "the funny foreign child", and told to "explain their customs" to the class. It patronised them into alienation. "
(tags: islam religion politics terrorism culture war hari johann-hari jihad islamism)

Book: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Irregular Apocalypse

The other Red Ken has a new book out. The Night Sessions is set in a future where the USA and UK have pretty much abandoned religion as a bad job. In the book’s alternate history, the War on Terror became the Faith Wars, which culminated in tactical nuclear exchanges as part of a tank battle in the Valley of Megiddo (ya, rly). The US/UK won a Pyrrhic victory, and the people of those countries decided that it wasn’t just the neo-cons who were to blame, but religion. Thus began what the churches referred to as the Great Rejection. Christians were persecuted, Muslims sent to filtration camps. The book opens in 2037. In the independent republic of Scotland, religion is now ignored as part of a policy of official “non-cognisance”. Then a Roman Catholic priest is murdered by a bomb, and the Edinburgh police (some of whom were in the “God Squads” which put down protests by Christians about the closing of churches and church schools) have to investigate.

No More Mr Nice Guy

MacLeod’s future Edinburgh seemed a bit like Iain M. Banks’s Culture, writ small. The religious people are the ones who have, prior to the opening of the book, learned the hard way that you “don’t fuck with the Culture”. The coppers are aided by sarcastic demilitarised combat robots, who attained consciousness on the battlefield as the result of getting better and better at modelling other combatants’ minds. There are the polybdsmfurrygoths in their silent nightclub (which used to be a church, naturally). The Great Rejection seems like unrealistic atheist wish-fulfilment.

God Told Me To Do It

Still, MacLeod has fun with his setting. The American fundies have buggered off to New Zealand and set up a creationist theme park, where one of the protagonists, John Campbell works. In the prologue, we meet him on a flight to Edinburgh, where he introduces a fellow passenger to the delights of presuppositionalism. If you doubt that people like Campbell exist in real life, check out what this guy thinks of people who allow evidence to modify their beliefs: I don’t know MacLeod’s own religious experiences, but he’s done his research. There are jokes you probably need some acquaintance with Christianity to get.

MacLeod isn’t silly enough to portray the religious characters unsympathetically. Campbell turns out to be a sensitive soul, rejected by one sect after another for increasingly hilarious reasons, who can’t quite understand why people find his theology hard to get on with. Grace Mazvabo, an Christian academic who studies the history of her religion, is well drawn.

The first part of the story is a sort of police procedural with lots of satisfying SF stuff about the kit the coppers have access to. Other reviewers say that MacLeod deliberately avoided making DI Adam Ferguson a hard-drinking future-Rebus, which is fair enough, but he and the other police seem a bit thin, somehow (the one exception being the, ahem, undercover agent who spends a lot of time around the polybdsmfurrygoths).

In fact, my main criticism of the book is that everything’s too thin. I wanted to know more about the world, and more about the characters. Maybe I’ve read too much Neal Stephenson, but I found the book too short. Still, it’s a mark of how much fun I had with it that I wanted more. Worth a read.

The Reason for God: part 2

One of my friends did that “grab the nearest book to you and post the Nth sentence on page M” meme. I grabbed the nearest book (Keller’s The Reason for God) and her sentence was the same as mine! This is clearly a sign from God that I should finish my review of the book (the first part of my review is already generating a lot of discussion in the comments). So, here goes. As in the previous part, we’re following the book’s chapters.

Intermission

<lj-cut>In the Intermission between the two halves of the book, Keller talks about standards of proof. He says that the New Atheists have accepted “strong rationalism”, which he says is the view that no-one should believe anything unless it is proved so strongly, by logic or empirical evidence, that no sane person could disagree. What Keller calls strong rationalism seems to be what the rest of us know as logical positivism.

I can only think that he has not read the books he criticises, since Dawkins at least is pretty clear that he thinks belief should be proportional to evidence (hence his preference for the atheist bus sign to read “There is almost certainly no God” not “There is no God”), not that there is some threshold of evidence below which all beliefs should be rejected. Despite Keller’s claims that the New Atheists subscribe to verificationism, I doubt that the Dennett and company would reject Karl Popper’s insights on falsifiability, say. You get the impression that Keller’s an enthusiastic amateur when it comes to this philosophy stuff, eagerly on the look out for big names who at least appear to back his position.

In place of strong rationalism, Keller advocates something he calls critical rationalism. This seems to be something like abduction or inference to the best explanation: we observe a bunch of stuff (the clues that Keller will later talk about, of which more below) and that God would be an explanation for that stuff, therefore it’s reasonable to say God exists. It seems to me that Keller must do more work to avoid this becoming something like Heinlein’s objection to Occam’s Razor: that the best explanation is “The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.”

I’m a bit of an amateur too, as it happens, so I’ll leave the epistemology there, and refer you to the professionals, or at least, the professionals in training: Chris Hallquist’s review concentrates specifically on the philosophical problems with Keller’s book. Let’s look at some of Keller’s specific arguments.

The Reasons for Faith

The Clues of God

This chapter deals with hints that God exists, as Keller correctly points out that this is a necessary pre-cursor to Christianity. He deals in clues, as he accepts that these arguments are not conclusive, although he thinks some of them are strong. Let’s look at Keller’s clues:

<lj-cut>The Big Bang

The Big Bang is the first clue. Some Christians (notably William Lane Craig) have identified this with creation of the universe from nothing, and ask what caused it, reasoning that the cause must be outside the universe, since the Big Bang represents the start of space and time. These Christians are over-reaching: the Bang represents a place where theories break down. Sean Carroll is a researcher at the cutting edge who argues that popular science books also over-reach here.

Fine tuning

The second clue is fine tuning, which goes something like: Slight differences in the physical constants would make the universe inhospitable to life. It’s unlikely that the universe got hospitable by itself, therefore someone must have made it hospitable. We call that someone “God”.

I did have a whole section on the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and Linde’s eternal inflation here, but then I realised I was committing the same error as Keller, namely, drawing on a highly speculative cosmology to make my point. We just don’t know enough to argue with any certainty that fine tuning was required. For instance, perhaps those “constants” we’re treating as free parameters in a fine tuning argument aren’t so free after all.

Instead, since Keller’s argument is “this is what we would expect if there were a God”, we should respond “is there anything about which you wouldn’t say that?” (Philosophy fans, note that a disciple of the New Atheists has just abandoned “strong rationality” and backed falsificationism: I expect they’ll take away my Dawkins fan club membership card next). Why did God create a universe which is largely hostile to our sort of life, just to house the Earth in one corner, a pale blue dot? Returning to the problems with Keller’s idea of theistic evolution (which I mentioned last time), if you’re a Christian, when you speak of the cosmic implications of the Fall or the Second Coming, do you imagine they apply to the entire universe? Personally, if there were a God, I’d expect a smaller cosmos, possibly the original Christian cosmos, where ideas of a friendly universe made for us and cosmological consequences of sin make a great deal more sense.

The regularity of nature

The third clue is the regularity of nature. Keller refers to the problem of induction, as pondered by Hume. How do you know yesterday will be like today, or that any regularity you discover will continue? Well, you don’t, but if you’re a Bayesian, I guess you’re able to count each sunrise as evidence, if not proof. It seems odd to talk about this as evidence specifically for theism, though: if you’re some sort of Platonist, you could argue that the regularities were evidence for the world of forms, if you’re a Many Worlds fan, you could argue that conscious observers can only exist and continue to exist in regular worlds, and so on.

Beauty

The fourth clue is the existence of beauty. Keller’s argument is that beauty makes us feel life is significant, therefore God exists. Keller’s other argument here is that the existence of an appetite suggests the existence of the thing it is an appetite for. This all strikes me as so much wishful thinking. Applying the Rake disposes of the argument, because it is entirely composed of things we wish were true.

The Clue Killer

Keller moves on to what he calls the Clue Killer, evolution. Keller says that evolution is claimed as the killer argument against all of the previous clues, because naturalistic accounts of religion (see Pascal Boyer’s summary of these) would say that people only find the clues convincing because of cognitive bias. Keller says that naturalists are happy to believe that religious beliefs arise from cognitive biases, but what about the evolutionists’ belief in evolution? He moves into the Argument from Reason, pointing to arguments from Plantinga and others that if evolution is true, we can’t trust our reason. After all, if deception had survival value, our brains would deceive us. How can we trust anything, including the conclusions of evolutionary theory?

Keller writes: “It seems evolutionary theorists have to do one of two things. They could backtrack and admit that we can trust what our minds tell us about things, including God. If we find arguments or clues to God’s existence that seem compelling to us, well, maybe he’s really there. Or else they could go forward and admit that we can’t trust our minds about anything.”

This seems to take the argument too far in a direction that, as far as I’m aware, the professionals like Plantinga don’t take it. I’ve not seen them saying that acceptance of evolution or a naturalistic account of religion are specific examples of cognitive bias. Rather, if I’ve understood them correctly, the pros are saying that naturalism undermines the whole project of rationality, since physical things cannot be said to have justified beliefs. Keller presents a false dichotomy between accepting things which “seem compelling to us” and giving up on reason. Why not try believing in stuff we have evidence for? Keller himself said at the beginning of the chapter that the Clues were not compelling, so it doesn’t seem right to object to naturalists saying people give these clues too much weight because of a pre-disposition to believe in God.

The theistic alternative is not particularly satisfying either. If God gave us the capability to reason, then he was not completely successful, because we know about biases and we see disagreements even between reasonable people. If we follow these sorts of arguments through, as Barefoot Bum does here, we end up concluding that the theistic account doesn’t explain anything, because it ends up just making a list of how people’s minds work and saying “God wants that”, which gives no explanatory advantage over just listing how people’s minds work.

Keller goes on to talk about the “final clue”, namely, that believing in God explains all of the previous clues. Perhaps, but only if you’re prepared to regard God as basic enough to be the place where the buck stops in these explanations, without requiring an explanation for God. There are people who find that sort of explanation satisfying, but there are others, like me, who regard it as giving up. The lady down the street is a witch; she did it.

The knowledge of God

Keller argues that we already know God exists, deep down. Not, as the New Testament says, from what has been made, but, as C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament says, from our moral sense.

<lj-cut>We feel that morality should be universal, morality can only be universal if there’s a God, therefore God exists. There’s been some debate about this argument on my journal and on Rob’s recently. I think I’ve said most of what I’d like to say in one of those two places. To summarise, even without examining the questionable justification for the second premise, the Rake does away with this again, in the absence of any other reason for believing in a universal morality, because it’s just a statement of how we wish the world to be.

Keller moves on to practical arguments. If you would intervene in another culture’s treatment of women, say, then you’re implicitly believing in a universal morality, says Keller. This appears to be an argument that the alternatives are timid relativism (“We can’t tell them to stop, it’s their culture”, as the New Yorkers might say) and theism. I’d advocate Charles Napier’s approach: “You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.”

Keller speaks of the “who sez” response to moral claims. Moral claims are things we ought to do but don’t always. For them to be effective against the people who don’t do what they ought to, we need both a source of morality and an enforcer. Despite their complaints that the only alternative to theistic morality is a belief that might makes right, a lot of the Christian arguments against an atheistic morality boil down to the absence of an ultimate enforcer (otherwise we can have moral realism without God, if we’re moral Platonists, say). We have social disapproval, police and prisons, and armies for the Nazis, but they won’t always mean that the side we consider to be good wins out. This means the bad guys can win, which can’t be true. Can it?

Well, yes it can. The mere fact that we might wish it were otherwise does not make it so. To me, that’s an argument for less timid relativism. We can and should use persuasion and eventually even force. Who sez? I do, and I’d better be able to convince a whole load of other people, or I’m pissing in the wind, regardless of how right I am.

The problem of sin

Keller identifies sin as placing something other than God at the centre of our lives. Keller claims that anything other than God placed there will ultimately let us down, and the worship of these things may even lead to harming ourselves or others. Keller talks about identity, and how investing our identity in something leads us to despise people with a different identity (whether it is politics, race, or interestingly, religion).

<lj-cut>Keller’s claim that anything other than God as our cause will ultimately let us down isn’t backed by evidence other than literary quotations, alas. I’m not sure why we should believe it. After all, some people even feel let down by God.

He goes on to mention the Biblical account of the cosmic consequences of sin. Given his earlier acceptance of (guided) evolution and modern cosmology, it’s not clear what this means. Is the Earth broken? Or the whole universe? As I mentioned when talking about theistic evolution, was there a Fall which introduced death (and how did stuff evolve before that)? He admittedly does describe this cosmic effect as mysterious, but this seems a fairly big hole in this cosmology.

Keller’s theories about identity are another repetition of that evangelical common-place, the idea that everyone worships something. Keller previously asserted this worship is the cause of people going to Hell if that something is not God. As I said to apdraper2000 I don’t believe the common-place is true. Some people don’t really have a cause, they just drift along, and the word “worship” seems to imply a passion that’s lacking in those people. Most people have a variety of stuff they like, but I’d be hard pressed to say they worshipped it.

For people that do have a passion, a cause, I think the important thing is to realise its faults, and avoid the Happy Death Spiral. If slights to the Big Idea are slights to yourself or worse, if your gut reaction to arguments against it is anger and arguments for it is a hit of joy, if everyone who disagrees with you is automatically an idiot, then you’re heading off the deep end. There is a time for anger (if someone wants to hurt people who hold your idea, say), but sometimes such reactions are a danger sign. Either you’re too tired of people who disagree with you and need a rest from engaging with them, or you’re entering the Death Spiral. I see no evidence that Christianity is a sure-fire way to avoid that problem, quite the reverse in fact.

It seems odd to put this chapter in the section of the book about reasons and evidence for God, because it doesn’t seem to contain either, it’s just a re-iteration of what C.S. Lewis thinks about sin.

Religion and the Gospel

Keller says that Christianity is not a religion. What he means is that Christianity says you’re not saved by doing the right thing and earning merit with God. The nice thing about this chapter is that Keller speaks to people who’ve experienced what he calls Pharisaiac Christianity (recall that in the New Testament, the Pharisees are the self-righteous hypocrites, possibly because they were engaged in founding modern Judaism to the exclusion of Christians at the time the gospels were written).

<lj-cut>Religion, says Keller, is about what you’ve done. If you’re doing well by your religion’s standards, you look down on others (he neatly points out that this can either mean calling them bigots if you’re liberal, or immoral if you’re conservative). If you’re doing badly, you’re overcome with guilt. Keller says the right motivation for religion (sorry, Christianity) is gratitude to God rather than guilt or fear.

I can’t actually see anything wrong with this chapter as a presentation of what Christianity should be like. The problem is that most evangelical churches aren’t preaching Keller’s Christianity when they’re not explicitly doing their gospel presentations (read The Post Evangelical for stories of how people found evangelicalism stultifying in the UK, and bradhicks‘s Christians in the Hands of an Angry God for how a lot of evangelicals are in league with Satan in the USA). That, and, you know, there isn’t a God. Apart from that, this stuff is how a good religion would be. If he’s managing to get that across at his church in New York, it’s no wonder it’s doing so well.

Still, there’s not an awful lot of evidence that Christianity is true in this chapter, either.

The Resurrection

Keller says that the Resurrection is pretty much the only explanation for the beginnings of Christianity. Drawing on N.T. Wright’s work, he argues that people in the 1st century weren’t simpletons who believed in any old nonsense, that the resurrection of the body of a single person was something neither Jews or Pagans believed could happen, that nothing else can account for the sudden change of the disciples from a frightened rabble into bold preachers.

Finally, we’ve found a chapter about evidence, but it’s not evidence most of us are qualified to judge. Convincing people that the Resurrection happened is a popular apologetic technique among evangelicals, yet according to the Christians who commented on the first part of this review, God doesn’t require us to become experts in ancient literature. But how else can someone judge this evidence? We can look to other experts rather than becoming experts ourselves, I suppose, but they disagree, so I don’t think the evidence can be as clear cut as Keller says. gjm11 tells a parable which points out the problems with Keller’s argument which are apparent even to non-experts.

And the rest

I’m afraid I got bored at this point. The rest of the book is an explanation of orthodox Christian doctrines without much evidence in, er, evidence, followed by an altar call. So, Jesus’s death on the Cross is necessary for forgiveness because we all recognise that forgiveness costs the forgiver; the Trinity makes the statement that God is love meaningful, and never mind that the Bible is equivocal on it and it’s impossible to talk about without committing some heresy or other. Finally, if you want to know more, why not go to church?

Summing up

The second half of the book is mostly a statement of what Keller considers Christianity is, without much evidence that it’s true. Elsewhere, robhu said that he thought that, though rational arguments have a role, the main way that people come to Christianity was to hear the good news about Jesus (what Christians call the “gospel”) and respond to it, so that his main evangelistic method as a Christian was to present the gospel.

The gospel as evangelicals understand it is composed of factual claims. A bare presentation of the gospel (which is quite similar to Keller’s book, since it turns out that he spends most of the second half of his book saying what Christianity is) asks people to accept those factual claims based not on good evidence, but on an inner conviction, a feeling that the claims are right. To the extent that someone does this, they’ve abandoned even the everyday rationality which we use to judge other claims (that Daz washes whiter, or that the used car had one careful owner). Clearly this works on some people (including me, at one point), but I suspect it’s because rationality is a discipline that most people don’t learn, or even see the value of applying to religion. As far as I’m concerned, Keller fails to offer good reasons for God.

Book: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, a successful church in New York. He’s written a book, The Reason For God, which he says is for people doubting Christianity, and for Christians wanting to answer questions from their non-Christian friends. nlj21 lent me the book, and I read it while on holiday recently. If you’d like to see Keller in action, you can watch his talk at Google, which rehearses some of the arguments from the book.

The success of Keller’s church sounds surprising when you learn that the church is pretty evangelical in theology, because (going by the people he quotes objecting to Christianity) New York is apparently full of the American equivalent of Guardian readers. But having seen Keller’s style, I can see why he’s successful. He deals sensitively with the human problems people might have had with the church or with conservative Christians as well as the factual arguments. He admits where arguments are only suggestive rather than conclusive, and he mentions the arguments against his position. He admits that there’s no argument that will persuade everyone, so the best thing is to look for arguments that will persuade most of the people, most of the time.

Ultimately, though, I think Keller shows more good will than reason, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer. Keller shows that you can construct a Christianity that hangs together, that a belief in God isn’t completely crazy. That’s certainly necessary, but hardly sufficient, for a reasonable person to believe it. A lot of the book is assertions without evidence for them, when evidence is precisely what is required.

That said, since the book is better than most Christian attempts at evangelism I’ve read or seen lately, I thought I’d do a couple of posts on it, of which this is the first.

Arguments against God

The book is divided into two parts: one dealing with the arguments against God, which Keller wants to show are faulty; and one dealing with the arguments for God. We’ll look at his responses to objections, using the chapter headings from the book.

There can’t be just one true religion

<lj-cut>There’s no logical basis for such an argument, as Keller rightly says, because there might actually be one true religion.

What people voicing this objection really seem to be worrying about is the danger that thinking you have the Truth will make you arrogant or even violent towards those who don’t agree. Keller says that the bad stuff done by Christians was against the teachings of Christianity, that is, that those people weren’t True Scotsmen.

Someone like Keller wouldn’t have gone on a Crusade and wouldn’t shoot abortionists, so those things are certainly against Keller’s sort of Christianity. However, Keller’s assertion rests on his interpretation of Christianity being the True Christianity (or at least, Truer), a view which wasn’t shared by Crusaders. As God is silent, how can Keller persuade Crusaders of his rightness? A general caution against arrogance when you think you know the absolute truth sounds like a good idea. Perhaps we should try believing things to the extent that we have evidence for them, for example?

How could a good God allow suffering?

<lj-cut>Keller argues that modern philosophers don’t accept that evil can be used to disprove God. God might have reasons for doing stuff which we don’t currently understand, and in fact, if he’s much cleverer than us, reasons we may be unable to understand.

This is true as far as it goes, and indeed leaves some possibility that God exists and is good. But, once again, I recommend believing in stuff to the extent that we have evidence for it. To use Gareth’s analogy, if we’re told someone is a chess grandmaster, yet is is apparently playing very badly, we might at first think that he is adopting some strategy we don’t understand, but as the game goes on, as his opponent hoovers up his pieces without apparent effort, we might begin to suspect we’ve been misinformed about this so-called grandmaster.

Some Christians might respond that a dramatic reversal is on the way, but their evidence for that is poor. Even by the late New Testament period, teaching about the Second Coming is being shored up by suspicious pre-emptive excuses for why it hasn’t happened. So far, the state of the board is evidence against the idea that God is good and able to intervene.

Keller goes on to say that atheists have no moral basis for calling something evil, re-iterating the moral argument discussed in a previous entry. He’s wrong, of course: the basis is our dislike of our own suffering, and our empathy for others, two things which are basic experiences in most people. Someone without these might not have a moral basis for expecting God to do something about suffering, but if you don’t like suffering and aren’t a sociopath, you’ve got a basis for worrying about theodicy.

Christianity is a straitjacket

<lj-cut>The objection to Christianity which Keller is responding to here seems to be a sort of “The Man is keeping you down, Man” statement, with God as the ultimate party pooper/Daily Mail reader/imperialist. It seems to come from woolly relativists who turn up to Keller’s church in New York. There’s no logic to this objection, since there’s no reason why such a God couldn’t exist and disapprove of the continual debauch which makes up the life of every atheist.

The Church is responsible for so much injustice

<lj-cut>Along with C.S. Lewis, whose works Keller treats as a sort of New New Testament, Keller argues that you shouldn’t judge Christianity by Christians, because the church attracts strange and damaged people (like me, for example) and when you meet someone, you don’t know what they’ve been through in their past.

The assumption here is that there’s a good reason for changes brought about by God to take a long time. It’s odd that it does for some people and not others, though, isn’t it? If God can turn around Saul and those former drug addicts you get giving their testimonies at some churches, you’d’ve thought he wouldn’t have so much trouble making some Christians (who the Bible says have God living in them, remember) less insufferable, for example. It’s almost as if there’s no supernatural involvement at all: some people dramatically change their lives when exposed to some ideas, and others only partially absorb them and take time to move.

The rest of the chapter is the religion vs secularism murder drinking game (drink if the theist mentions Pol Pot or Stalin, drink if the atheist mentions the Crusades or 911, down your glass if anyone mentions Hitler). This can be fun and can motivate your side, but I’m not sure it moves the theist/atheist debate anywhere, so while I have engaged in it in the past, I now think is pretty pointless. I don’t see any way of showing that Christians are any better or worse than atheists, so the original objection that Keller is responding to doesn’t seem a good one. Arguably, though, if Christianity is true, Christians ought to be clearly better.

How can a loving God send people to Hell?

<lj-cut>Keller says that our problem with judgement is cultural, and that other cultures exposed to Christianity like the judgement stuff but don’t like the turning the other cheek stuff. He says he asked one person who objected to Hell whether she would say that her culture was superior to non-Western ones. The right answer to this is “Well, I think my personal morality is, otherwise what the Hell am I doing?” or possibly “Well, maybe not in general, but I’m fairly sure eternal torture is a bad thing”. Keller’s politically correct one-up-manship is a good way to make woolly relativists back down, so presumably works against the liberals who turn up at his New York church.

Keller then moves on to argue that God doesn’t send people to Hell, as such. His view of judgement owes more to the bowdlerisation of Hell in C.S. Lewis’s New New Testament than it does to the New Testament. Lewis and Keller think that Hell is a continuation of the soul’s trajectory at death, that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside, that Hell is ultimately God saying “have it your way”. Lewis says “It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us, there is something growing, which will BE Hell unless it is nipped in the bud”.

To support Lewis’s ideas, Keller quotes Romans 1:24-26, a passage about God “giving people over” to their sins. This passage is actually about red-hot girl-on-girl action, not the fires of Hell. The New Testament is a bit less reticent about God’s role in sending people to Hell than Keller. Reading it, you’ll find that God has appointed a day, and a judge who will condemn people to the fire. It’s hard to fit this positive action from God into Keller’s scheme.

So where did Keller’s ideas come from? Lewis’s (and hence Keller’s) Hell is the Buddhist Hungry Ghosts realm, but without the possibility of rebirth. People in Keller’s Hell are dominated by their addictions, but these cannot satisfy them, and this continues forever. The fires of this Hell are the disintegration caused by self-centredness and addiction.

Alas, you’ll find none of this stuff in the Bible, where the fire is punishment from God (the correct evangelical term is eternal conscious torment). Keller quotes the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in support of the Hungry Ghost Hell. His exposition of the passage talks about how the Rich Man is self-centred in that he still expects Lazarus to fetch water for him, but unfortunately ignores the fact that this is because the Rich Man is being tortured by fire.

Since Keller’s Hell is the Hungry Ghosts realm, I wondered what his response would be to people attempting to avoid self-centredness by other means. Keller says that “When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy”. This claim is asserted without evidence.

Keller offers poor evidence for believing Lewis over the Bible about hell. The Bible’s actual view is less palatable than Lewis’s, and evangelical Christians (like the rest of us) need to face up to the parts of their beliefs which hurt to think about. Hell is torture at God’s express command. If you believe in the Bible’s version, you think your non-Christian family and friends morally deserve to be in torment forever, and you accept that they probably will be unless they convert. Somehow, in tandem with this, you must try to believe that God is loving and very intelligent. Good luck with that one. It’s no wonder that most evangelicals (with some notable exceptions) believe they should believe in Hell, but don’t actually believe in it.

Science has disproved Christianity

<lj-cut>Keller, quoting Nagel, argues that naturalism is a philosophy which science uses but cannot prove. So, he says, if anyone’s arguing there can’t be a God merely because they have a prior commitment to naturalism, they’re assuming their conclusion. I wouldn’t disagree here.

Keller goes into an extensive digression about how many scientists believe in God. Like the murder drinking game, we need to be a bit careful here, both when reading Dawkins and when reading Keller. What counts as evidence for God’s activity (or lack of it) is the opinion of domain experts in areas where God is said to have acted (like, say, the opinion of biologists and geologists on creationism, or the opinion of psychologists and anthropologists on religious experiences). The rest is pretty much irrelevant: there’s nothing so stupid that you can’t find someone with a PhD who believes it.

He talks a lot about evolution, probably because creationism is an embarrassment to Christianity for scientifically educated people who turn up at his church. He says he accepts some form of evolution, but, unlike Dawkins, he doesn’t accept evolution as a worldview. The argument is quite confused at this point, and it’s not clear what he means by “evolution as a worldview”. Quotable quote: “When evolution is turned into an all-encompassing theory explaining absolutely everything we believe, feel and do as the product of natural selection, then we were not in the arena of science, but of philosophy”. Keller appears to have mixed up Dawkins’s views on evolution with Dawkins’s general belief in naturalism, since I doubt Dawkins supports the quoted position.

Keller says he himself believes that God guided some kind of process of natural selection (making it a process of supernatural selection, I suppose). Keller has effectively retrofitted Genesis to modern scientific theories. God presumably knew he used evolution to create life when he inspired Genesis, so it is a little odd that he doesn’t mention it. A Bronze Age level explanation of evolution would have been no more wacky than many other creation myths, and would have the advantage that the Bible would look a lot more impressive when a scientific culture discovered it was right.

Keller tells his readers not to worry about all this disagreement among Christians about evolution. Look at the core claims of Christianity, he says, not at this side issue. Unfortunately, some of those core claims conflict with evolution. For example, there’s the claim that, just as death entered the world through Adam’s sin, Jesus’s death for humanity’s sins conquered sin and hence death, as demonstrated by the Resurrection. Does Keller think that the Fall was an event in history, and is he arguing that nothing died before the Fall? If Keller has answers to those sorts of objections (which usually come from other Christians, namely the creationists), he doesn’t tell us what they are and how he knows they’re right.

He rightly says that the evidence for the conventional theory of evolution can’t be used to show that theistic evolution didn’t happen, which is sufficient to do away with the objection he’s responding to, if the objector specifically has evolution in mind. It’s a pretty poor objection, though, as science doesn’t really prove anything. Perhaps a more interesting objection to claims of God’s activity in the world would be to say that God is inert and ask someone like Keller to show why anyone would believe otherwise.

You can’t take the Bible literally

<lj-cut>Keller limits himself to talking about the Gospels. He says that they were written too soon after Jesus’s life to be fictionalised accounts, because their first readers could have checked up on their accuracy; their content isn’t what we’d expect of legends composed by the early church (the female witnesses to the Resurrection, Peter’s denial of Jesus when Peter went on to head the church); and that the gospels have the literary form of eye-witness accounts, but the modern novel had not been invented yet, so they are intended as reportage.

I’m no historian, so I’m not really able to check these claims out. I’d be interested to know what my readers think, and I’ll probably be looking into this stuff at some point in the future. My meta-problem with this stuff is having to rely on ancient written accounts of stuff I give very low credence to by default. Does God really want us all to become experts in ancient literature? I can think of easier ways to convince me.

Keller then addresses cultural, rather than historical, objections to the Bible, arguing, along with New New Testament author C.S. Lewis, that such objections may be assuming that older societies were “primitive”, but that our grandchildren may find some of our beliefs equally primitive. Imagine Anglo-Saxons and modern Brits reading two stories, Jesus’s claim that he will judge the world, and Peter’s denial of Jesus and later restoration. The responses to the two stories will be quite different, Keller argues, so who are we to say that judgement is bad and wrong but Jesus’s forgiveness of Peter is right.

So, Keller argues, rather than saying “bits of the Bible are sexist, therefore Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead” (which is, as he says, a non sequitur), we should decide whether Jesus is the Son of God, and if he is, we should have confidence in what the Bible says because the Bible tells us Jesus had such a high view of it (even of the New Testament and New New Testament, which hadn’t been written yet). This is a perfectly valid argument.

Summing up

Some of the objections Keller gets from New Yorkers are ill considered, and Keller bats them aside easily. In other cases (theodicy and Hell), his method is to argue that there’s still a chance that Christianity is true, so the objections aren’t completely conclusive. I don’t find this that impressive, because the sensible objector isn’t claiming that their objections are conclusive, merely that they’re strong evidence. To defeat that, one must produce stronger evidence, which as we’ll see in the next part, Keller fails to do.

Books

I did a reasonable amount of holiday reading in Mallorca, in between walking along the front and falling asleep on the sofa.

Jed Rubenfield’s The Interpretation of Murder is one of those murder mysteries using historical characters, which are popular at the moment (if you like them, Giles Brandreth has done a couple of good ones where Oscar Wilde fights crime). In this book, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung visit New York in 1909 and are soon caught up in the investigation of a murder and a very similar assault, where the victim survives but can’t remember her attacker.

The book evokes the New York of the era convincingly, a bustling and corrupt city. Modern New York is coming into being: the builders of skyscrapers are vying for superiority, while cars are beginning to replace horse-drawn carriages on the streets. Rubenfield has obviously researched the details, down to the colour of the taxi cabs.

This isn’t a ghastly “Freud and Jung: together they fight crime” story (with car chases), but rather a weaving of their theories and disagreements into the plot, transplanting real debates to the time of their real visit to the USA (although the crime is fictional). With Freud it’s all about sex and death, and so it is with the book, which makes it perfect holiday reading.

John Irving’s Until I find you has all his signature tropes: the wrestling, the young man sexually initiated by older women, the death of a family member, the bizarre and sometimes hilarious set-pieces involving sex or death which make it perfect holiday reading (maybe not quite all the tropes: I don’t think this book had any bears in it). Initially, the book follows the toddler Jack Burns, illegitimate son of an organist and choir girl, as he and his mother trek around Europe in pursuit of his father. Jack’s mum is a tattooist, so we get an insight into the odd world of tattoo parlours, as well as a tour of Europe’s great church organs. Jack’s settled in a girls school, before training as an actor and eventually making his way to Hollywood. Eventually, he sets off again in search of his father, realising that things weren’t quite as they appeared to his younger self.

To say the book is about memory and loss makes it sound terribly portentous and gloomy, but it’s neither. Irving’s an accomplished story-teller, whose work reads to me as if it was made to be read aloud, with the author interjecting asides as the story unfolds. The humour and sadness of the book arises from events described in a straightforward way, without embarrassment or embellishment. I remain a fan.

Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a bit a curate’s egg. It’s another book which explores memory, this time in the most direct way, following the narrator, Yambo, as he recovers from a stroke which has caused his episodic memory to fail him. Yambo is a book dealer, and still remembers things he’s read. He tries to construct a past for himself, turning to his family and friends, and then to his childhood house, full of the books, records and comics he had as a child. Like Irving’s protagonist searching for his father as an adult, the return of Yambo’s memories in the latter part of the book causes him to re-interpret what he thought he knew about his past.

Yambo was a child during the Second World War, so the book focuses on the rise of fascism in Italy and the necessity to appear to be going along with it, even while resisting privately. The war stories were the most interesting part of the book for me. There’s an awful lot of examination of Yambo’s comics and storybooks which I didn’t care that much for, formative though they were to his character, and the ending left me unsatisfied.

Jan Mark’s The Eclipse of the Century came with a recommendation from Philip Pullman on the cover, so I thought it’d be worth a go. The protagonist, Keith, has a near death experience, but instead of seeing heaven, he sees Quantoum, a remote town in Central Asia. Once he’s well again, he decides to go there. Walking down the disused railway track, he finds a ghost town, abandoned by imperial powers. What remains is a museum inhabited by a bunch of oddballs and deserters of various armies, and the camp of the Sturyat tribe, nomads with a strange religion.

Keith’s arrival and his struggle to work out who’s who are a little slow, as everyone is deliberately obscure in a way which makes the story longer, even the people who don’t really have a reason to hide things from Keith. As things start to get weird, Mark picks up the pace, making it a more satisfying read. There’s some fun mockery of New Age woo-woo in there, too. Unfortunately, the book ends abruptly in the middle of the denouement without resolving what’s going on. I wondered whether there were pages missing from my copy, but I don’t think there were. You’ve got enough clues to figure out what might possibly be happening, but to cut off at that point left me unsatisfied with the book, alas.

Book: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is Neal Stephenson’s latest novel. Told in the first person, it’s the story of Erasmus, a young member of a monastic order dedicated to philosophy and science. Erasmus lives on Arbre, a world rather like our own. The monks aren’t religious (quite the reverse, for the most part), but their monasteries use many of the trappings of religious orders, like ritual, sung music, a set of rules of discipline, and seclusion from the outside world. It’s not a boy’s club, though: male and female monks mix within the monastery, and certain kinds of relationship are allowed by the discipline.

The monks are grouped according to how often they have contact with the outside world, which can be every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years. As the story starts, it’s just before a 10 year Apert, where the 1 and 10 year monks will mingle with the populace for 10 days. Erasmus, a “tenner”, finds the monastery’s astronomical observatory closed, and gets the first hints that the secular and monastic authorities are conspiring to keep a pretty big secret. Together with his cohort of young monks, he gets drawn into solving the mystery.

Saunt Descartes was a drunken fart

In the early part of the book, Stephenson draws the reader into the world of Erasmus’s monastery. He uses the common SF trick of making up words for things: the monks are the “avout”, the outsiders “saecular”, the monasteries are “concents”. Some people don’t like this sort of thing, but for the most part I was content to let this wash over me as part of the book’s scene setting, the measured pace of which parallels the life of the avout. (There’s also a glossary at the back, which helps). The avout are serious seekers of knowledge who learn the stories of theoreticians as religious monks might learn about the lives of saints (the avout word for a great thinker is “saunt”, a contraction of “savant”). They engage in debates which are intellectual duels, the sort of stuff you get in the better debating places on and off-line. Stephenson has placed real philosophy in the book under the names of the saunts who thought of it on Arbre: it’s fun to try to work out the real world analogues, among whom are Plato, Faraday, Occam, and Einstein. The philosophy isn’t just there for show, it becomes important later: Stephenson is the second SF author I’ve come across who has written a story which hinges on the idea of the Platonic world of forms (the other is Greg Egan).

Modern life is rubbish

In comparison with the concents, the saecular world Erasmus encounters in the 10 days of Apert is unthinkingly religious and commercialised, a parody of modern American society right down to the thugs in sportswear (anyone who remembers the thetes in The Diamond Age might think that Stephenson has a thing about this) and the drugs which keep everyone happy but somehow blunted. Erasmus observes several times that clever people tend to end up inside the walls of the concents. The book seems to describe a vicious circle of anti-intellectualism leading to the intellectuals hiding away, leading to further distrust of intellectualism in the outside world, which eventually leads to the concents being sacked every few thousand years. The initial retreat into concents happened because of some cataclysmic events in the past. You can see Stephenson drawing on A Canticle for Leibowitz here, with the difference that the avout aren’t just preserving old books they don’t understand.

The first part of the story is a more erudite version of a Harry Potter book, with the young avout (Erasmus is 18 as the story starts) ranging over the old stone buildings they live in, talking about philosophy and science, and finding ways around authority with the help of some wiser older monks. We see more of the saecular world as Erasmus is thrust into it in the later part of the book, and finds that things aren’t a total cultural desert out there. Stephenson dislikes the unthinkingly religious and so Erasmus does too, but the religious contemplatives that Erasmus meets show the other side of Stephenson’s opinions, where religion provides people with a code which keeps them from the feckless behaviour of most people outside the concents.

Ninja monks in space

The final part of the book is page-turning SF stuff with ninja monks in space, a long way from Erasmus’s quiet life as the book begins. Stephenson draws the philosophical threads from earlier in the book into a satisfying conclusion. The popular notion that he can’t write endings was disproved by The System of the World, but sceptics will be pleased to hear that Anathem has an ending too.

A positive effect of the narrator’s voice is that the book is less frenetically digressive than Stephenson’s earlier stuff. Some of Stephenson’s wild tangents are fun (my favourite is the wisdom tooth removal in Cryptonomicon), but they make his books longer without advancing the plot. At about 900 pages, Anathem is long, but most of it is world-building or action (if you count the philosophy stuff we’re going to need for the later revelations as “world-building”). Other reviewers have complained it’s slow to get going, but the avout are sympathetic characters, so I didn’t mind reading about their lives at the start of the book. I think it’d be quite cool to be one of them, in fact.

Anathem is a fun mix of philosophy and action. Recommended to people who read the sort of stuff I write here on LJ 🙂

Book: The Life of the Buddha

Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha is a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon.

In the Pali canon, the world is an abundantly supernatural one, a cosmos with many worlds and many deities. The Buddha’s birth is foretold to sages by deities, and he himself converses with various supernatural beings. He also does miracles, like reading minds, turning people invisible, vanishing into one of the many heavens, and so on. You get the impression that the miracles aren’t unique to him: it seems there were lots of ascetics and teachers around at the time, each with their own disciples, and this sort of stuff is par for the course. The Buddha describes Devadatta, the villain of the piece, as “stopping halfway with … the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers”, and seems to see them as tricks that are well known.

In the book, there’s little mention of the Buddha’s early life, although some passages about living in a palace are quoted. After his birth, we’re straight into his quest for enlightenment. He tries asceticism for a while but decides it’s not helping, and disgusts the small number of followers he’s acquired by taking food and drink. He goes off and thinks about stuff, and has a series of insights about how one thing leads to another thing, Star Wars style (a process known as dependent arising), and with that, realises how to stop it. He thinks about keeping the knowledge to himself, as most people won’t be able to get it, but a brahma persuades him not to. He begins to teach people the dharma.

The book then follows the growth of the sangha, the community of monks. The community grows, and sometimes finds favour with merchants and royalty, who give the monks land. It seems they live by receiving alms from the lay people, to who receive talks on the dharma in return. We don’t see much of the lay people in the book, as it mostly concerns the teachings given to the monks. We do see the community undergo growth, dissension and outright mutiny (Devadatta again).

The chapter on the dharma itself was pretty hard going. The translation could probably have helped there, but Nanamoli writes in the preface that he’s attempting to provide as true a translation as possible, without interpreting too much. I found contemporary paraphrases easier to understand. If one can sum up a large body of teaching in a few sentences, the Buddha thinks that dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”) is real; suffering is caused by our inability to get what we want or keep it, or prevent what we don’t want; suffering can be prevented by giving up the desire for these things, which can be achieved by following the mental and ethical teachings summarised as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The scriptures bear the signs of being passed on orally: there’s a lot of repetition (one of Nanamoli’s few concessions to the reader is that he elides some of this), speech is often stylised, and teachings often use numbered groups of things (four noble truths, noble eightfold path). According to Wikipedia, there are a number of schools of thought about how much of the canon represents the Buddha’s words. Manuscript evidence isn’t helpful, as the earliest ones are apparently 8th century.

There’s a sense in which this doesn’t matter as much as it does to, say, Christianity, because the point seems to be the teaching, which is said to be something people can experience for themselves. In orthodox Christianity, at least, the scriptures recording important miraculous events which are to be believed in, so that the evidence for them is important, and the teaching of Jesus rest on his personal authority. I don’t think one can eliminate questions of authority from any religion, though: there are so many religions that ask you to “try it and see” that there’s not enough time to try them all.

More problematic to me was the way much of the Buddha’s teachings are phrased as ways to avoid rebirth, since (a) it’s not clear what rebirth means when one of your other doctrines is that there’s no fixed self, and (b) it’s not clear how anything of us survives after death, such the the results of our actions (known as karma), in a way which could be passed on to another person.

It also wasn’t clear from the book how detachment was meant to be practiced by people who weren’t monks. The monks need the lay people, or they’ll starve, but the householder’s life seems second class when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Apparently there are Buddhist scriptures which do address the lay people, so it’d be interesting to read those.

In summary, the book was interesting, but hard to get into. I got bogged down in places and ended up skipping bits. A more dynamic translation might have been easier to read, even if such a translation did end up reflecting the biases of the translator more than Nanamoli’s did.

Wifeblog: very old books

My wife has been blogging about ancient literature. She’s started with The Epic of Gilgamesh and moved on to the Old Testament, starting with the similarities between the Flood and creation stories in Genesis and Gilgamesh. More will be appearing on scribb1e‘s journal in future.

As part of some sort of cultural exchange programme, I’ve been reading Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha, a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon. It’s interesting, although very strange in places, mostly because of the cosmology of the time. I think it could do with a glossary explaining some of the Pali words which Nanamoli chose not to translate. I’d not realised the Buddha had superpowers (he regularly reads minds, and occasionally does cool stuff like preventing a robber from catching him even though the robber’s running as fast as he can), or that lots of supernatural beings were present at his birth. I’ll probably write more about it when I’ve finished it.

Pullman, plots and stories

Metafilter had a posting on the ideas behind His Dark Materials a while back. It contains links to the video of a documentary where Melvyn Bragg interviews Pullman, as well as to articles discussing his literary influences, from Blake and Milton to Arthur Ransome.

The Plot

This set me to reading the books again. I enjoyed them. Pullman’s a craftsman, and the books show off both his skill in writing and his imagination. I still found the ending, the final separation of Lyra and Will, rather forced. Nick Lowe wrote The Well Tempered Plot Device, which partly deals with authorial insertions, not of a character who stands for the author, but of an object which stands for the Plot, so that, for example, we can say that “Darth Vader has turned to the Dark Side of the Plot” (this is also the essay which introduced “Clench Racing”, a sport for as many players as you have Stephen Donaldson books). scribb1e riffed on this, explaining that at the end of His Dark Materials “there can only be one hole in the Plot”, the one which leads out of the land of the dead.

Pullman’s stories are satisfying because they borrow from the greats: the Bible, Milton, Book of Common Prayer (where else does anyone learn the word “oblation”?) and the the English hymnal (“frail children of dust”). I doubt the Bible’s or the BCP’s authors would approve of His Dark Materials, but, as lisekit says, great art is characterised by its ability to sustain more than one interpretation.

The authors

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that God doesn’t exist, and that evangelicalism is like fandom (the latter wasn’t entirely an original idea of mine: livredor defines midrash as Biblical fan fiction). All these people who claim to be in a relationship with God obviously aren’t, so what are they doing? I think they’re not writing fan fiction but living it, creating their own stories in a world they see as belonging to the divine Author, stories which occur after their canon has ended.

In fandom, inserting yourself into the world you’re writing fan fiction about is seen as passé by the experts. There’s a disparaging term for characters who are obviously authorial self-insertions, Mary Sue. In religion, it’s not quite the same. You can and should insert yourself into the story, but you’d better not get too far above yourself if you do, unless you’re very convincing (this isn’t that dissimilar to fandom, since the real objection to Mary Sues is that they’re too perfect). C.S. Lewis wrote somewhere that Christians do not know whether they will be given bit parts or starring roles, but their job is to play them as best they can.

The disagreements within religions which are based on the same book are similar to the disagreements within Harry Potter fandom before the final book came out, about whether Ginny or Hermione should end up with Harry. The bitterest disagreements are always about sex, as illustrated by the perpetually imminent division (Rilstone wrote that in 2004) of Anglicanism into the ones who believe God hates shrimp and the ones who don’t believe in God.

Unlike Potter fandom, in Bible fandom there’s no-one who can produce the universally recognised Word of God, settling the matter with a final book (if you want to remain within the canons of your religion, that is: the Mormons and the Baha’i have taken the approach of adding a new book, as Christianity itself did to Judaism), so people end up grouping themselves into communities which more-or-less share a view on the One True Pairing, and the ideas of each community become fanon to those within it. The Bible is rich soil for this sort of thing because it is great art and so admits multiple interpretations.

The Story

What’s the point of living this way? To be in a story with meaning. lumpley speaks of the fun of roleplaying games as coming from three possible sources: one, wish-fulfilment; two, strategy and tactics; and three, “the fun of facing challenging moral, ethical, or socially informative situations”. He splits up games into two approaches:

Approach one: “made up journalism.” The conceit is, the characters and events of the game are real. The lives of the characters don’t have meaning, the same way that our real lives don’t have meaning. Approach two: fiction. Fiction, unlike life, is all meaning all the time. I prefer approach two. In particular, it’s very difficult to take approach one and yet get fun type three.

What does he mean by “our real lives don’t have meaning”? That shit (notably death) just happens. Wash’s I’m a leaf on the wind/I’m a leaf on a rake death scene in Serenity is shocking, and Anyone Can Die is a rare trope in fiction (except if you’re watching something by Joss Whedon), because we expect fiction to give us meanings for significant events.

So then, God is the Plot, in Lowe’s sense of the word, and if you believe, the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. If you die, it’s what the Plot wanted. Your community knows they’re reading the canon the right way, that Harry really loves Hermione, that God disapproves of gay sex, or whatever, and everyone else has misunderstood the Plot. Of course, it’s not just about reading the book: you have the spirit of a dragonGod in you, however odd that sounds.

The reason Lowe can mock the Plot is that bad fiction leans on it so hard that it becomes ridiculous. The reader becomes too aware that they’re reading fiction and loses their suspension of disbelief. Why lose it? Because all readers know deep down that reality doesn’t come invested with meaning in that way.

Book: The Bible The Biography by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong’s book is a potted history of the Bible and its interpretation, starting around the time of the Babylonian exile and continuing up to the present day. Armstrong’s writing is succinct: the book is short (229 pages in the main text of my copy) and easy to read.

Armstrong sees both the Christian Gospel writers and the Judaism of the first and second centuries CE as profoundly influenced by the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Their conflicting ideas on the future of Judaism can be seen in the attitude of the Gospel writers to the Pharisees as it became clear that the future of Judaism did not lie in a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, but in a revitalised Judaism which the party of the Pharisees would lead.

The parts of the book which deal with interpretation were most interesting to me. Armstrong interweaves chapters on Christian and Jewish interpretation. Later texts start out as reactions to earlier texts, drawing on them to find something useful in the writers’ times. The later texts may eventually come to be seen as scriptures themselves. Armstrong applies this idea to the Christian New Testament and to the Jewish Mishnah, as well as to modern commentaries like the Scofield Reference Bible, the source of much of fundamentalist Christian theology on the End Times.

Armstrong discussion how later commentators draw out meanings which they believe are hidden within the text, a process which she describes as pesher, referring to the commentaries produced by the Essenes. The methods of interpretation are often quite strange to modern readers, but reflect the belief that scripture was infinite, containing a variety of meanings. Sometimes passages are re-interpreted in the light of the Golden Rule, as in the case of Rabbinic punning on scripture to show God’s compassion, or Augustine’s statement:

“Whoever, therefore, thinks that he understands the divine scriptures or any part of them so that it does not build the double love of God and of our neighbour does not understand it at all. Whoever finds a lesson there useful to the building of charity, even though he has not said what the author may be shown to have intended in that place, has not been deceived.”

Some Christians, such as Origen, viewed the Old Testament as a commentary on the New, rather than vice versa, and produced detailed allegorical interpretations of OT events, which were taken to refer to Christ or the church (a tradition they could claim was started by the apostle Paul, in letters like Galatians).

The book contains some uncomfortable facts for someone in the modern evangelical wing of Christianity (as I once was). If evangelicals insist their approach is the only correct one, they must conclude that the church has been doing it wrong for most of its history. Worse yet, for evangelicals who claim to use only scripture to interpret scripture, is realisation that the New Testament writers would be seen as terrible exegetes by modern evangelical standards.

As I said, these are not comforting thoughts for evangelicals. While I was writing this, I found an interesting review of Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns. Enns has written a book which, if the review is anything to go by, talks about these exegetical problems and tries to address them, still remaining within a reformed Christian theology. Enns does this by drawing an analogy between the humanity of Jesus and that of the Bible. For this, he is well on the way to being drummed out of the seminary where he holds a professorship.

Back to Armstrong. As her story moves closer to the present day, she writes about modern scriptural interpretation with dissatisfaction, albeit tempered with some sympathy for fundamentalists who feel threatened by, well, practically everything that’s happened since about 1800. In the book’s epilogue, she calls for a return to Augustine’s principle of charity as the means of interpretation, arguing that “hurling texts around polemically is a sterile pursuit”, and that rather, the entire Bible should be interpreted as a commentary on the Golden Rule. She rejects criticism of the Bible by “secular fundamentalists”, presumably in the knowledge that in the past both Christians and Jews have seen the violent or otherwise “difficult” passages as an invitation to look deeper rather than as an invitation to imitate God or Israel’s bad behaviour.

I’m a little sceptical, because I think the horse has bolted, at least as far as Christianity is concerned (I’d be interested to hear what Jewish people think). Since Luther, the authority of the church to interpret the Bible has diminished. Everyone is their own pope, vigorously defending their interpretation and eager to anathematise the people closest to them (as Enns’s case illustrates), even more so as believers feel threatened by modern developments and batten down the hatches. I’d like it if Armstrong’s vision became reality, but I’m not sure how she intends to bring it about. More people reading her book might help. I recommend it.