26 May 2008

Exploring 'Christianity Explored'

Over the past year I've heard good things about Christianity Explored, an evangelical course that supposedly 'complements' the Alpha Course, but looks rather to have been designed back in 2001 as a corrective to it, having rather more to say about sin that Alpha and markedly less to say about the Holy Spirit. If it were to be pigeonholed, it'd probably be best described as a mainstream Evangelical course, unlike Alpha, which is rather more charismatic.

A couple of friends of mine in Manchester were thinking of doing 'Christianity Explored' a while back, but were unsure, having tried and been decidedly unimpressed by the Alpha Course not long before, finding it fluffy and lightweight. I spoke to another friend, who'd done both courses a while earlier, and she said that just speaking for herself, she had found 'Christianity Explored' more worthwhile and more substantial than Alpha, grounded as it was in Mark's Gospel. Another friend, currently training for the Anglican ministry, said something similar to me when I stayed with him a few months ago.

In Manchester last month I came across a copy of 'Christianity Explored' by Rico Tice and Barry Cooper, the founders of the course, going for 50p in a secondhand shop. Curious, I picked it up, but only got round to reading it last night; I've been insanely busy over the last while.

It's interesting. I don't think the book's intended to integrate into the course, though it seems to follow the same structure and presumably rests on the same points. Rather it appears to be intended for people who can't do the course, for whatever reason, but might be interested in exploring this anyway.

Augustus Caesar, Divi genus . . .
So yes, it's interesting, and it's very strong in some areas. It's exceptionally clear, for starters, both in how it's written and how it's structured, and is particularly good on explaining sin and Grace, though its emphasis on the atonement doesn't make a lot of sense without some discussion of the relationship between Father and Son in the Trinity. Without discussing how the Father and the Son are One, it's hard to present the atonement as anything other than a form of cosmic child abuse. This isn't helped by statements such as 'Jesus was willing to be adandoned. He has taken God's anger on our behalf so that we can be accepted.'

Part of the problem -- and perhaps the course deals with this by being, of its nature, rather more interactive than a book which must be followed -- is that the real issue of Jesus' identity is skimmed over. The first chapter, entitled 'Who Was Jesus?', considers his authority in all sorts of remarkable ways, but in terms of what this means it largely dismisses it in a paragraph.
Was he a great moral teacher? A compassionate miracle-worker? A misunderstood revolutionary? Mark's verdict goes far beyond any of these, as you can see from the very first sentence in his book:

'The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.'

Noel Coward was once asked, 'What do you think about God?', to which he replied, 'We've never been properly introduced.' Well, that's exactly what Mark wants to do for us here. And he is determined that we see Jesus as a figure with divine authority: 'the Son of God'. Or, to put it another way, God in human form.
It's a bit of a leap, isn't it? I mean, leaving aside the fact that one of the earliest manuscripts we have -- the Codex Sinaiticus, if you're interested -- doesn't include this phrase, it's certainly not a self-evident interpretation. The term 'son of God' pops up pretty often in the Jewish scriptures, and certainly never implies any identification with God himself. And of course the early Christians lived in the Roman Empire, in a world replete with gods and demi-gods and sons of gods. The Emperor Augustus is styled 'son of a god' in the Aeneid, but it wasn't until after he had died that he was officially deified. In other words, we shouldn't automatically assume that Mark believed Jesus was God purely because he describes him as 'the Son of God'.
The funny thing, though, is that having announced that Jesus' divine sonship implied a divine identification, Tice and Cooper go on to treat of the atonement as though God and Jesus are absolutely distinct. There's no trace here of any attempt to discuss the mysteries of the Trinity or the Incarnation, no hint of the Nicene formula of the Son being of one substance with the Father of the Chalcedonian formula of Jesus having both a human and a divine nature.

I suppose it could be argued - rightly, in a sense -- that these mysteries are highly complex things, and a bit advanced for people just starting to explore Christianity, but without them you're left with Jesus being born solely so he can be abandoned by God and killed by men in order to satisfy God's anger against the sins of men. I know that's a caricature, but that's kind of how this comes across.

If a key fits a lock, you know it is the right key
What's more, if the reason for avoiding this issue is because to do otherwise would complicate things - if this is, in short, a tool for basic evangelisation - then I think other questions need to be asked.

The preface to the book is based round a straightforward problem. 'Is it really possible,' it asks, 'for a sane person to reach the conclusion that the Bible is indeed God's way of speaking directly to human beings? On what grounds?'

Well, in the first place the authors assert that 'any book that makes all the claims that the Bible makes about itself deserves some examination at least. . . even if there is only the tiniest, tiniest possibility that these claims might be true, the Bible deserves our attention.' It's a fair point, though I'm pretty sure the same thing should likewise be said of the sacred books of other religions too. What's more, the authors claim, the Bible looks like God's word, which rather presupposes that God exists -- something that isn't a given for any curious but convinced atheists -- and that we'd know what His word looks like! But how do we know it looks like His word? Well . . .
Approximately forty authors wrote in three different languages over a period of one thousand five hundred years. Some of the authors were young, some were old, some were soldiers, others were fishermen, farmers, civil servants or kings. They wrote during different periods of history, in different geographic locations, to different groups of people. It wasn't like a relay race, with one author handing on the baton to another. Often, they were writing centuries apart. But despite this amazing variation - which alone makes it a unique book - the Bible has one theme running through it like rings in the trunk of a tree. There is one striking message, one striking person at its centre. That person is the subject of Christianity Explored. Given the diversity of its origin, the long period of time over which the Bible was written, and the even longer period of history that it deals with, this single-minded purpose is quite staggering.
This bothers me tremendously. Firstly, the reason the Bible is so diverse is that it's not -- strictly speaking -- a book. It's a library! But perhaps more importantly, it doesn't really work to say that it has one theme running through it, that being the person of Christ. I believe this is the case, of course, but it's not prima facie true; certainly no Jew would ever accept that their scriptures are really about Jesus, and many early Christians had difficulty in seeing Jesus in those Jewish scriptures!

Tice and Cooper go on then to say that the Bible contains hundred of fulfilled predictions, which may well be true, but then declare that the Bible's authority was not seriously questioned for fifteen hundred years. What does this mean? It wasn't questioned until fifteen centuries had passed since Moses took up his pen - assuming you accept the Jewish tradition that he was the author of the Pentateuch -- or until fifteen centuries had passed since John had put down his? Or fifteen centuries since the Synod of Hippo approved as canonical the twenty-seven books of the New Testament and fourty-six books of the Septuagint? Or fifteen centuries since Martin Luther had seven of those Septuagint books excised from the Bible? That'd give us dates of roughly 100AD, 1600AD, 1893AD, and, um, sometime about a millennium from now.

I'm not even sure by what it means by 'seriously questioned'. Certainly, the Jews that met at Jamnia towards the end of the first century AD questioned and denied the authority of several books of the Septuagint and all the Christian scriptures. Some Christians, notably those led by Marcion, disputed the authority of all the Jewish scriptures, and other Christians wondered about the authority of such New Testament writings as Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. And of course, the pagans of the Roman empire simply didn't accept the authority of any of the Bible's books!

And then there's the claim that as we'd expect from a book so grounded in historical realities, 'archaeological evidence has repeatedly confirmed the unwavering accuracy of Biblical history . . . the Bible gives us real historical facts -- such as the amazing deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt -- that demonstrate the fact that God is powerful . . . if you want to know whether or not there is any substance to the Bible, one way of doing it is to see if there is any substance to its historical claims.'

Fair enough, but the thing is that the jury's definitely out on this very example. Archaeologists simply haven't found any evidence whatsoever that confirms a Jewish presence and exodus from Egypt at any stage. They just don't know.

A mistake? Sure, and a well-meaning one, surely, but a worrying one for all that. It's not the only one either. Only a few pages later, for example, the authors quote Morpheus from The Matrix and Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and then go on to say:
What Morpheus and Thom Yorke describe is nothing new. Augustine, writing in the sixth century, suggested a reason for this sense of 'wrongness' in our lives: 'O God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.'
All very well, and indeed profound, except that this wasn't written in the sixth century. Rather, you'll find this line at the very start of St Augustine's Confessions, written in 397AD. Yes, that'd be the fourth century rather than the sixth. Just a casual mistake, a slip of the pen? Maybe, but I doubt it. See, while this line comes from St Augustine of Hippo, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, there was another Augustine, St Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent as a missionary to the English and who lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. It rather looks as though the authors just grabbed at the quote and assumed it came from the apostle to the English, without even making the most cursory attempt to find out its context!

That might seem to be quibbling, but I don't think it is. Rather, there seems to be a tendency here to simply accept easy answers, and not to question things. After all, if this course is intended for curious atheists just as much as for Christians looking to deepen their faith, why doesn't it raise the obvious questions of how the Bible came about, and indeed who Mark was? That last point seems crucial to me, in fact, given that the course is focused on his Gospel. The Gospel was actually written anonymously, after all, though it was certainly ascribed to Mark - who had served as Peter's interpreter -- at least by the second century.

When you are old, you will stretch out your hands . . .
The Petrine connection is important, especially given how in a chapter entitled 'What is a Christian?' the authors don't shirk when it comes into making Peter out to be some kind of buffoon.

They zoom in on the bit where Jesus asks his disciples who do they say he is, and rightly highlight Peter's response that Jesus is the Christ. 'But it's not enough simply to know Jesus' true identity,' they say. 'You see, Peter gets the question of Jesus' identity absolutely right here. But when it comes to the question of what Jesus came to do, Peter gets it horribly wrong.'

Impressive, eh? And on they go, telling the story of how Jesus explained his mission -- notably how he had to be executed but would rise again -- and how Peter rebukes him. And they elaborate at some length about what Peter supposedly said, although Mark says nothing of the nature of his rebuke and Matthew merely records an impetuous outburst that this must not happen!

Jesus, we're told, rebukes Peter in turn, telling that he does not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men. And the author -- it's not clear which one -- says that 'in a way' he doesn't blame Peter for having misunderstood. In a way? Presumably, then, in a way he does. Presumably, unlike any of the apostles, he'd have known better . . .

There's something quite sinister and underhand going on here, if you're paying attention, as the authors then shift to say that Jesus responds to those who have in mind 'the things of men' by describing the scene from Matthew's gospel that details how in Gethsemane one of the disciples -- John's gospel identifies him as Peter -- lashed out with a sword, cutting the ear from one of the temple guards. The authors then relate how Jesus again rebuked Peter for not understanding how the Scriptures must be fulfilled. 'Even here,' they say, 'as he pulls a sword to keep Jesus from being arrested, Peter has in mind "the things of men." He is still looking at the situation from a human perspective.'

So what? Well, a few pages earlier the authors had described the story of Thomas' disbelief after the Resurrection, and his response when faced with the living Christ in the flesh.
Thomas then makes one of the greatest statements of belief in the Bible: 'My Lord and my God!' Thirty years later, this stubborn, rational, incredulous man was to die a martyr's death testifying to what he had seen.
You'd never know from this that the evidence of Thomas' martyrdom is decidedly shaky, would you? If it happened, nobody is even remotely sure of where it happened, when it happened, or how it happened. It's a damn sight flimsier than the evidence of Peter's martyrdom, which is pretty much universally accepted as having happened during the Neronian Persecution, roughly thirty years after the Resurrection.

In fact, the authors give no sign of Peter ever having learned to keep in mind the things of God, rather than the things of man. They ignore his clear preeminence among the apostles, they gloss over his eventual martyrdom, and astoundingly -- considering that the core text for their course is Mark's Gospel -- they make no mention of how Mark had apparently been Peter's interpreter!

What's going on here? Well, it rather looks as though the authors are succumbing to that unfortunate tendency among some Protestants to hold that Catholics aren't really Christians.

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you?
It's obviously wrongheaded nonsense to set one apostle up against another, but I think it's fair to say that ever since Luther's day the Protestant churches have seen themselves as largely Pauline in inspiration, whereas Catholics have always stressed their Petrine connection. Some Protestants have scorned Catholics as latter-day Pharisees, giving primacy to man-made laws rather than true worship. Painting Peter as someone who stresses the 'things of man' rather than the 'things of God' is a rather clear way of suggesting that this tendency has been in Catholicism from the start.

This isn't the only subtle dig at Catholicism -- or liturgical Christianity in general -- in the book. I don't know if references to 'slightly spooky people in strange garments hanging about in dank halls' is intended as a jab at Catholicism or High Church Anglicanism, but take, for example, the casual description at the end of James and Jude as 'Jesus' own brothers'. Sure, the Bible uses that term for them, but it may well not have meant 'brothers' in the strict sense of siblings -- Aramaic was a flexible language, and the term rendered in Greek as 'brothers' may just as easily have meant half-brothers, cousins, or pretty much any male relation. Still, by ignoring the fact that this is a contentious point, the authors are casually able to imply that there was no way that Jesus's mother remained a virgin after his death, putting paid to any temptations to honour her. Or look at this:
There were a couple of blokes in my rugby team who lived their lives without reference to God, but who nevertheless used to 'cross' themselves as they ran on to the field. It was a little self-help formula they used: a quick, superstitious prayer to get them in the right frame of mind. But that's not what Christian prayer is about.
Again, the author might be right, but leaving aside how it's hardly for us to judge anyone else's relationship with God, study that tone of contempt towards making the sign of the cross. Why the inverted commas, for starters? It's worth bearing in mind that making the sign of the cross like this, although a custom in most Christian churches from at least the second century, is almost wholly alien to Evangelical Protestants. It's seen as a 'Catholic' thing, an extra-biblical charm of no spiritual value.

It's striking too that the entire section which asks what it is to be a Christian juxtaposes Peter's supposed failure to understand what Jesus was about with a section which describes how Jesus, having rebuked Peter, summons the crowd and tells them what it really means to follow him. It's curious, really, that it doesn't consider the account of the episode in Matthew's gospel -- and since occasionally the authors skip away from Mark, as they do when describing the Gethsemane incident for instance, they'd surely do so if they wished. Matthew's gospel has Jesus responding to Peter's confession of faith in words that Catholics tend to reel off perhaps too readily while Protestants tend to pretend aren't in the Bible:
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Look, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with an Evangelical book taking an Evangelical line; it'd be ridiculous for it to do otherwise. But I get uncomfortable when books and courses are marketed to people saying that they represent the essence or the central truths of Christianity when in truth they just reflect one small variant of Christianity, a variant that seems to be at odds in some important ways with the faith held by the majority of Christians over the eras, gong back to the disciples of the disciples.

But then, as the authors of Christianity Explored seem to imply when they say that 'in a way' they don't blame Peter for his failure, they clearly think they know better.


Rebecca said...

This may be the longest post in the world.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

You've clearly not read what I had to say on The Da Vinci Code.

Anonymous said...

500 words?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

On average, maybe?

Though I think I failed in that mission a long time ago...

Rebecca said...

3, 351! I think my dissertation was only about 5, 000!

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It looks bad for this 8,000-word chapter I have to do, really. On the one hand, I've written that much in a single three-hour burst once before, but on the other, will I be able to say all that I want to?