In the fourth chapter of The End of Christianity Hector Avalos promises to explain “Why Biblical Studies Must End.” I’ll engage with the essay in three steps: first, a quick reading of what I take to be the main take-home point; second, an observation on how the essay found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time; and finally, a suggestion for the kind of essay Avalos should write for the second edition of The End of Christianity.
The Take-Home Point
Avalos ably points out some of the places where religious commitments adversely affect the scholarship of some his fellow scholars in the guild of biblical studies. This is evident in the fact that many English translations of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 obscure the polytheistic implications of the text (119). In addition, some translations, such as the CEV, soften what appears to be Jesus’ endorsement of genital mutilation in Matthew 19:2. Avalos quotes evangelical scholar Stanley Porter who rhetorically asks: “Is it possible, in light of the overtly evangelistic purpose of the CEV, that the New Testament has been toned down in some places so that it does not scare off those attracted to Christianity?” (Cited in 113) Of course the question answers itself.
Here’s the thing though: Christians (or “religionists” or “theists”) aren’t the only ones who have presuppositions that can skew their read of the data. Everybody has presuppositions which can potentially distort their engagement with the texts and that includes those committed to no religion at all. Indeed, sometimes those who reject Christianity appear to demonstrate an unjustifiable skepticism about the texts the Christian community accepts as sacred. F.F. Bruce put it like this:
“Somehow or other, there are people who regard a ‘sacred book’ as ipso facto under suspicion, and demand much more corroborative evidence for such a work than they would for an ordinary secular or pagan writing.” (For more on this seem my discussion here: http://randalrauser.com/2011/03/on-deferring-to-scholarly-consensus/)
This is where Hector Avalos’s essay appears to take a turn into the grimly ironic. And this is where the charitable interpreter in me wants desperately to save it from that grim irony by distinguishing Avalos the author from”Avalos” the narrator while chalking the ironic blunders of the latter up to the sly intentions of the former.
For example, “Avalos” says that “believers think that they have ‘the Bible’ when all they really have is a book constructed by modern elite scholars.” (109) “Avalos” never justifies this staggering claim. The most he can do is show how contemporary readers of the Bible must wrestle with the rebarbative and alien dimensions of the text just like they would with any text written in a foreign cultural context and/or foreign language. True enough. It is not easy to read Russian novelists or Metaphysical poets, or ancient Greek philosophers either. But who would be so foolish as to suggest that the modern English reader’s engagement with Dostoyevsky or Donne or Plato is really just an engagement with the constructions of “modern elite scholars”? So why contend something so extreme in the case of the Bible? Alas, it would appear that “Avalos” is so concerned to marginalize the text for the community of faith that he adopts an extremely skeptical and thoroughly unjustified assessment of the degree to which that text is inaccessible to that community.
There are many other places where “Avalos” evinces a distorted engagement with the biblical text. For instance “Avalos” raises skepticism about the criterion of multiple attestation: “even attestation by two ‘independent’ sources really proves nothing more than the existence of a ‘tradition,’ rather than the existence of the actual words or deeds of Jesus.” (119) Yeah, right. And the fact that the burglar’s DNA was found on both murder weapons only proves that he had handled the kitchen knives at some point during the home invasion. Whether he actually murdered the home owner, who can say? (Big eye roll.)
If I could leave things there I could commend this essay twice over. Excellent full on, “straight” critique of conservative Christian scholars complemented by a clever, ironic portrayal of presuppositional distortion in the liberal essayist. But alas, I fear no such irony was intended. As best I can see, there is no distinction between “Avalos” and Avalos and so the irony that so richly saturates this essay was not intentional. While that fact may be unfortunate for Avalos, it is actually a boon for the reader who, upon recognizing the plank in the eye of the author even as he discourses about specks, is given an unforgettable lesson.
An essay in the wrong place at the wrong time
As I already noted, Avalos’s essay makes a legitimate point about the challenge of entering the “strange new world of the Bible” (to borrow a Barthian phrase). That’s fine, but what is it doing in a book boldly proclaiming “The End of Christianity” (cue scary organ music and a raven fly-by)? This essay feels like a civil rights activist staging a legitimate protest who is inadvertently caught up in a race riot. Suddenly a legitimate appeal for justice is drowned out by the surrounding hullabaloo. Similarly, the modest and legitimate warnings at the heart of this essay do not belong in a book of such bloated pretension.
A Proposal for Avalos’s Essay for The End of Christianity, 2nd ed.
So now for the third and final part of my review. Here I’d like to suggest what Avalos should do for the second edition of The End of Christianity. He should write a new essay which actually seeks to mount a case for the end of Christianity by undermining or otherwise critiquing the place of scripture in the community of faith. Perhaps he might argue like this:
In this essay I will present defeaters for all the major broadly orthodox theories of scriptural inspiration and authority, thereby demonstrating that a Christian can no longer reasonably believe the Bible is inspired or authoritative.
Of course in arguing that thesis Avalos will have to offer critiques not only of conservative Christians but also of more moderate and mainline scholars like Nicholas Wolterstorff, Peter Enns, Kent Sparks, Thom Stark and Marcus Borg.
In closing let me note that I share Avalos’s moral critique of some parts of scripture, most perspicuously the genocidal texts. But the very fact that I, as an evangelical scholar, share that critique simply highlights the important point that a rejection of particular readings of certain texts is fully consistent with a confession in scripture’s inspiration and authority.