Monday 20 April 2009

Stark Ideology

Rodney Stark, well known for his The Rise of Christianity, has produced a large (nearly 500 pages) treatment of "the origins of the great religions and the evolution of belief": Discovering God. It's a fascinating but crotchety treatment, with Stark swatting at scholars left and right (well, mainly left) while laying out his own distinctive account.

Durkheim? whack!
Freud: slash!
Philip Davies - take note. "Some militant extremists from several minor universities even claim none of it [OT history] ever happened."

How about this: "Strange ideological commitments have driven some contemporary scholars, especially Rosemary Ruether, Jules Isaac, and John Gager, to claim that Christians originated anti-Semitism." (143) Ouch! But should the pot call the kettle names?

Or how about: "At least Crossan stopped short of reporting that Jesus had a hooked nose, a hairy chest, and calloused hands... Crossan's entire undertaking is an immense irrelevancy." (287)

Also boxed on the ears is Jonathan Kirsch, Burton Mack, and Q scholarship. Stark wears his own ideology on his sleeve with little effort at subtlety, combining the "qualities" of Rush Limbaugh and Major Bloodnok (from the highly esteemed 1950s Goon Show). I'm not sure whether I enjoyed the rhetoric or was appalled by it: maybe a bit of both. Good fun to read, and a fresh perspective, but the only real balance may come from the writer having a chip on both shoulders. A curate's egg: two stars.

Friday 17 April 2009

Honest Theology

I've grown jaded about the competence and objectivity of "hard theology" since beginning a degree in that discipline. Biblical studies are endlessly fascinating, but when it comes to the dogmatic side, I've learned to shrug my shoulders and press on regardless through, what often seems in effect, a muddle of highly refined apologetics and wishful thinking. Tarting it up with specialized terminology convinces nobody but the already convinced.

At the root of the problem is the reality - in clear contradiction to historic church doctrine - that a fall/redemption narrative is nonsense; a fact that's inescapable to any thinking person in modern times. The was no Fall from a primal state, mortality and decay has been part of life on this planet from the very beginning. Whatever we make of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection, it cannot atone for a mythical sin by Adam, Eve, or any other ancestral figure or group. There is no "original sin", and that's only the beginning of the conundrum.

But wait, Alister McGrath and N. T. Wright come riding in to the rescue from Team Anglican, Ratzinger astride a Vatican donkey, and a host of rabid neo-Calvinists uttering the sacred mantra "karlbart[h]: ommmmmmmm". That's without counting the ragtag bunch of drooling zombies from Dallas Theological Seminary and its ilk.

So it's a huge relief to find Philip Kennedy's A Modern Introduction to Theology. It won't appeal to fundamentalists, anglogelicals or their kin, but it will bring succor to those about to throw up their hands in disgust and walk away because of the duplicity and dishonesty of those who want to cling to pre-modern verities, and thereby sell their souls for - with apologies to ye olde KJV - the pottage that Augustine sod. You'll meet Feuerbach and Kant, find quotes from Cupitt and Kung, and much more - without the usual tap-dancing and tambourines in the background. Kennedy avoids the jargon, and cuts to the chase. I read it over two days, and am heading back in with a highlighter.

Long overdue: five stars.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

The First Paul

Borg and Crossan are both impressively credentialed scholars, but neither has "gelled" with me particularly. The prospect of a book on Paul, however, piqued my curiosity. Sadly, I'm mightily unimpressed.

The Borg and Crossan Paul is an advocate for restorative and distributive justice, Spirit transplants, communities of caring and sharing, reconciliation between liberal and conservative Christians and suchlike. This is a Paul who opposes slavery (citing Philemon) and the prevailing domination system. He is Paul as many of us would wish him to be, but not as he undoubtedly was. Borg and Crossan have swept down to rescue the Apostle from Tarsus from the conservatives, and domesticate him for the kindly, liberal souls who sit in mainstream pews on Sunday mornings.

In short, this may be the way we should interpret Paul in Century 21, but it'll take more than Borg and Crossan to convince me that this is the way he actually was in the context of his own time and ego. The joy of encountering Paul is discovering that he was as much a jerk as a genius. Borg and Crossan's "radical Paul" is a sanitized, PC version, and as a result is less than believable - at least for this cynic.

The book isn't technically hard to read; you might even say it dummies things down to talk to the imaginary person in the pew, who apparently is none too bright. There are occasional insights - if you can manage to swim through the fizzing sugar-free sarsaparilla to find them. I persevered to the end, but I was going through the motions. Earnest, well meaning writing, but The First Paul is forgettable. Two stars.