Monday, January 09, 2012

Marcus Borg, meet Bernie Madoff

Christopher Johnson runs two (1, 2) of the cleverest blogs I know. While his writing is always sure to interest or amuse me, I am especially thankful that this piece reminded me of a wonderful quotation from no less notable a theologian than Soren Kierkegaard:
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. "My God," you will say, "if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?" Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

That is a lovely quote, isn't it? It has sustained me over the years when I have been in meetings with clergy and theologians--intelligent, educated people who wouldn't hesitate to declare the precise meaning of any sentence ever written or translated into English; but let someone mention a passage from the Bible, and they suddenly become total agnostics, who don't know and will profess that we never can know what that verse is supposed to mean. Kierkegaard knew the type. He dealt with them in his day, and he anticipated where their supposed theological scholarship would take us in the years to come. "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four footed beasts, and creeping things" (Rom. 1:21-23). (It's funny how most of Romans, chapter 1, doesn't appear in any lectionary readings, isn't it?)

Christopher Johnson quotes Kierkegaard in the process of doing an excellent fisking of a Huffington Post (a.k.a., the Huffing and Puffing-ton Post) column by Jeff DeGraff, critizing the revised language for the Mass that Roman Catholics began using on the First Sunday of Advent 2011.

DeGraff begins and ends by comparing the new Roman Catholic Mass to the New Coke, but in between makes some comments I found curious. For instance, he says: "Supposedly this was all done in the name of authenticity. If that were true, why not embrace the Jesus Seminar, a group of over one hundred of the world's foremost biblical scholars who have identified inaccuracies in the liturgy?" Now I am certainly willing to be corrected if wrong, but I have had a fair amount of experience with the Jesus Seminar, and I am not aware that they have ever dealt with the canon of the Catholic Mass. Their focus is on the text of Scripture, particularly the Gospels. And, frankly, while most of the words in the Mass represent scriptural ideas, they are not direct quotations from Scripture. (There is a chart comparing the changes in the Mass here, in case you are interested.)

So it appears that Mr. DeGraff really doesn't know what the heck he is talking about. But he keeps digging, nevertheless: "Why not go back to the original language of the Bible -- Hebrew and Greek?" he asks. Guess what! It wouldn't help. If the parts of the Mass that have been changed aren't quotations from the Bible in the first place, then going back to the original languages of the Bible isn't going to help.

But he continues: "Why not reconcile with the Eastern Orthodox Church which also has a legitimate claim as the original denomination?" Yeah, if you want to see changes in the Mass, just try reconciling with the Eastern Orthodox! It makes me wonder if he has ever even seen an Orthodox Divine Liturgy. So much for Mr. DeGraff, whose by line identifies him as an "Author, thought leader and innovation expert." (I'm sorry, I actually couldn't type those last few words without laughing out loud.)

But the thing that amazed me most is Mr. DeGraff's reference to the Jesus Seminar as "a group of over one hundred of the world's foremost biblical scholars." This is a little bit like citing the Tesla Institute as experts in Physics. But left wing journalists who get caught up in skepticism toward religion don't want to know any better, as long as they have a source they can use to confirm their prejudices.

For those who aren't familiar with The Jesus Seminar, it is made up of religion and theology faculty members in liberal institutions who have already evidenced skepticism about the Bible before they even get to join. They then analyze the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and vote on how few of those words they think he actually said.

It is a remarkable way to make a living. Skeptical academics write skeptical articles and books that are peer reviewed by other skeptical academics, and everyone gets paid.

Jesus Seminar "scholars" make a career of disputing the authenticity of Jesus' words when there is absolutely no way anyone will ever be able to verify objectively whether they are correct (at least not in this lifetime). This would never pass for scholarship in the hard sciences or even as a worthwhile achievement in most professions.

Make no mistake: the Jesus Seminar is simply an intellectual Ponzi scheme, and every member you meet is simply a Bernie Madoff in academic garb. The scheme only works as long as new people buy in so the ones who got in earlier can earn a living.

So while there is still time, I am going to make a New Year's resolution: Every time someone cites the Jesus Seminar to me, I am simply going to laugh--openly and unashamedly laugh out loud--that the person talking to me could ever mistake such an empty, preposterous hoax for actual scholarship.

Happy 2012!


Undergroundpewster said...

It would be kinda fun to sic the Jesus Seminar on the Roman Catholic liturgy and watch the response from the Church. I bet the response would not be the acceptance, promotion, speaking engagements, and book sales that my Episcopal church lent to the "Quest for the Historical Jesus" crowd.

David Chislett said...

I am amazed at how seriously the Jesus Seminar people are taken by the Anglican theological establishment, and how they have managed to get themselves into the position of controlling the "ministry formation" process all over the world. I'm sure that you have hit on the real reason why these things are so!

My coverage of a debate between Dr Paul Barnett and the Jesus Seminar is at:

Jack said...

When I dipped a toe into the Jesus Seminar, years ago - maybe something by Crossan, I disremember - I thought, "This whole thing is designed justify conclusions they had already made." I suppose they cheer each other on.