This week the atheistic / skeptical podcast “Reasonable Doubts” (henceforth RD) devoted a significant portion of their program to providing a response to my critique of John Allister’s defense of the Amalekite genocide as well as my alternative proposal for reading violence texts that I lay out in a presentation on the imprecatory psalms. You can find the episode here: “Episode 110: Clever Hermeneutics“.
I am grateful to RD for engaging with my arguments. I just wish all the attention they gave those arguments was adulatory. Well, at least some of it is. Incidentally, I won’t bother distinguishing them because I got lost quickly as to who was speaking at a given moment; and I apologize for engaging with the distinct voices on the broadcast indiscriminately as “the RD hosts”. With that caveat in place, the four RD hosts start off by expressing appreciation for my honesty and directness regarding the moral difficulties presented by the biblical genocide passages. However, that adulation melted away as soon as it got to the alternative proposal for dealing with problem texts that I outlined briefly in the above-mentioned lecture on the imprecatory psalms. And so it is here that I shall focus my critical response.
From my perspective, a big part of the problem is that the show opts for an irreverent, iconoclastic tone and a barely concealed intent to dispatch the views of their chosen interlocutors as quickly (and humorously) as possible. Consequently, the pattern often looks something like this:
Host One begins to offer a decent summary of the chosen interlocutor’s position.
Host Two interjects: “So you mean it’s like …” and then makes some inane, silly comparison which has the rhetorical function of marginalizing the position of the chosen interlocutor as utterly implausible if not downright ridiculous.
All hosts laugh heartily and move on.
Certainly this kind of approach makes sense if your goal is to entertain a very partisan audience. And these days most audiences are very partisan. That’s one of the (many) reasons why “Fox & Friends” dwarfs the viewership of “Democracy Now”. To borrow a line from Clint Eastwood’s film “Flags of our Fathers”: “We need easy to understand truths and damn few words.”
Listening to the program I did benefit from the succinct introduction the hosts provided to truly partisan broadcasting. First, you adopt the “Strawman-or-something-close-to-it Analysis” (Strawman for short) in which you eschew a nuanced and charitable articulation of your chosen interlocutor’s position in favor of over-simplified analysis bordering on a strawman and punctuated with those important inane humorous side-commentary which ensures the position is not taken seriously whilst providing an opportunity to flash the “Applause” light for the live studio audience (if you happen to have one).
Second, while raising all sorts of criticisms against the position of the interlocutor, you are careful never to apply that same critique to yourself. I call this the “Introspective-Critique? What’s-that?” Analysis
Lesson 1: Strawman-or-something-close-to-it Analysis
Let’s start by taking a look at the strawman analysis. The hosts of RD provide a decent summary of portions of my argument in my imprecatory psalms lecture in which I set up the distinction between the “sensus plenior” (the sense of a text intended by God) and the “sensus litteralis” (the sense intended by the human author). I given the example of how Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, a text talking about Israel’s escape from Egypt, as if it applied to Jesus’ exodus from Egypt. In this case, Hosea’s original prophecy (applied to Israel) represents the sensus litteralis of the text while Matthew’s appropriation (applied to Jesus) represents the fuller sense, or sensus plenior. And these two senses are quite distinct.
Note that I offer this analysis in the lecture to a Christian audience. That audience will accept that Matthew and Hosea are part of an inspired canonical whole, and thus when Matthew quotes Hosea there is some point within the canonical whole for him doing this. Not surprisingly, the hosts of RD don’t accept this assumption. Immediately one of them attempts to undermine the analysis by saying that Matthew’s take on Hosea’s prophecy is “overreaching” (i.e. illegitimate). Well of course from the perspective of the RD host this will appear to be over-reaching, since the host doesn’t accept the inspiration and canonical unity of Matthew and Hosea to begin with. So for that skeptic my proposal is damned at the outset. I might as well propose some new market regulation reforms to an ideologue categorically committed to Chicago-school economics. The proposal can’t get out of the starting gate for those not prepared at the outset to consider the proposal as a serious possiblity.
But for those who do grant that Matthew and Hosea are both inspired and part of a canonical whole, we do need to address how the meaning of Hosea’s prophecy can differ in Matthew’s citation of it and for that audience the distinction between sensus litteralis and sensus plenior is very relevant indeed. It also provides the basis for dealing with all sorts of other apparent tensions in the canonical whole, including the hatred of enemy expressed by the imprecatory psalmist when contrasted with the love of enemy expressed by Jesus.
In my lecture on the imprecatory Psalms, I lay out two views of the imprecatory psalms. The first view, which is defended by John Piper, is to endorse the moral voice of the psalmist when he wishes curses on his enemies and expresses his hatred for them. The second view, which is defended by C.S. Lewis, proposes that the psalmist’s voice in those moments of expressing hatred cannot be defended. Instead, it is included for several other reasons. To begin with, the psalms are meant to provide the panoply of real human emotions. Sometimes we are angry at others and we want to strike out at them. The psalmist is honest about expressing these emotions to God and we can be too. But this doesn’t mean we have to baptize these expressions as moral in themselves. On this view they aren’t. However, we can learn from them by finding in the voice of the psalmist’s returning evil for evil a picture of how we so often do the same. (For those interested in this discussion I recently wrote two articles on appropriating Psalm 137 in this way. See here and here.) I note in the lecture how Jesus challenges the voice of the imprecatory psalmist when he advises love of enemies rather than hatred of them.
The hosts of RD assert that I’ve only provided this one “short clip in the gospels” of teaching on the love of enemy from the Sermon on the Mount and they suggest that I’m merely picking the parts of Jesus I like. Of course this is a danger that we create God in our own image. But as I’ll note on the second point, it is a danger that applies equally to the hosts of RD. The main point I’d like to make here is that the criticism is quite unfair. I don’t simply appeal to one excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. The most important character in the Bible is Jesus, the very revelation of the Father heart of God. And the most revealing event of Jesus the revelation of God comes in his death on the cross:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2)
How does the cross revolutionize our concept of what it is to be like God? Christian theologians are still grappling with this impact. Suffice it to say, my rereading of the imprecatory psalms isn’t simply a snippet from a sermon: it is motivated by the implications of the central event in the entire Bible.
This is where we move into analysis that is frankly ironic. After the hosts have dispensed with my rereading one of them provides an extended discourse on his admiration for the ancient Egyptian God “Bes” who looked goofy, was disarming, kind to children, and basically deconstructed the popular ideas of a God of arbitrary sovereign power and otherness.
And I’m thinking: really? You’ve dismissed the God that washed the feet of his disciples, who invited the children to come unto him because children represent the kingdom of heaven, who proclaimed in the Beatitudes a complete reversal of the power structures that have dominated organized civilizations since time immemorial, and that as a servant subjected himself to death on a cross. And instead you’ve lighted upon the descriptions of goofy Bes as the true exemplar of a deity you’d like to serve? And what do you suppose the chances are that the RD host’s description of Bes is made through rose-colored glasses? (But that belongs to my next point.)
Suffice it to say, the hosts of RD really make no serious attempt to understand the position I’m proposing or how this position (developed with respect to the imprecatory psalms) might be applied to other texts (like the genocide texts).
The hosts of RD have some fun with the fact that I appealed to ironic readings as one avenue for appropriating a sensus plenior reading of a text. They intone incredulously that certainly the Amalekite genocide can’t be read ironically. But then I never said it could. The point about ironic readings was being applied to the imprecatory psalms specifically.
The hosts of RD suggest that the invocation of ironic readings makes God into a “hipster”. But Jesus used irony all the time in his engagement with opponents. (Who can forget the image of the fellow with a log jutting out of his head intent on helping his neighbor with a speck of dust?) For those serious about exploring the role of irony in the Bible they could do no better than to start with the work of Carolyn Sharp. See her book Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible.
The hosts of RD then throw out a few more biblical passages in an attempt to undermine my position. For example, they note that Jesus said he came to bring peace, not a sword. Hmmm, do you think that Christian pacifists just might be aware of that passage and have a reading of it? But no matter. The hosts of RD are unapologetic about their motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. Everything they present is a one-sided case-building process to discredit my reading.
Lesson 2: “Introspective-Critique? What’s-that?” Analysis
Now for the second lesson in partisan broadcasting: don’t apply the critiques of your interlocutor’s position to yourself. Introspective critique is verboten.
Case in point: the hosts of RD make joking comments about how one would identify the sensus plenior of the biblical text. The way they raise the criticism suggests that none of the hosts has a background in literary criticism because if they did they would be aware that there are no special problems here. Asking what did God mean by x? is no different in principle from asking what did any author mean by x? In other words, the debates about the “real presence” in the written word have included written texts from Shakespeare to stop signs. And while the debates sometimes veer into the postmodern absurd (I think we all have a decent handle on the meaning of a stop sign), there still is ample room for humility in our reading of more complicated texts, as the various forms of literary criticism in recent decades have demonstrated.
The lesson from all this literary criticism is not that the human author’s voice — the real presence — is lost to us. The lesson, rather, is that getting at that real presence is hard work done by fallible readers. And that’s the exact same state faced by a human reader aiming to find the divine voice coming through scripture. Even if the text itself is infallible that doesn’t mean the readings of it are. But neither does it mean that those readings are lost in hopeless projection. Unless you begin with the assumptions of the RD hosts that of course all readings for the divine voice are hopeless projection because of course there is no divine voice to hear.
I don’t need to tell you that this is yet more begging of the question. But then a partisan broadcast aimed at entertaining a partisan audience is not going to be particularly concerned about begging the question.
The hosts suggest that I’m engaged in a type of “projection”. It is not surprising that they’d say this. After all, their entire engagement with my position is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is not an inspired, canonical whole but is instead merely a fallible collection of human documents drawn together by the accidents of history. If one has this assumption then it follows trivially that any claim to finding a divine voice in the text is mere projection.
The hosts note that a study shows Christians tend to read Jesus in line with their views. Yes, this is certainly true. Indeed, I seem to recall a telling image in this regard bequeathed to us a century ago from Albert Schweitzer. Something about a deep well…
But then we get to the really telling moment when one of the hosts candidly observes:
“If we’re both making Jesus out to be extreme versions of our own view and we’re misremembering scriptures to support it, you know, I mean the overall message of this is that ‘these cognitive errors everybody engages in them.'”
Stop the presses! The hosts of RD are on the cusp of recognizing that they too are prone to cognitive errors. Perhaps they may even come to recognize that they are liable to provide unfair and one-sided critical engagements with their chosen interlocutors!
Then we move one tantalizing step closer to this concession when one of the hosts observes:
“Atheists tend to focus on the separation of church and state and not the free expression clause whereas religious people do the opposite….”
But alas, they never quite circle back around and apply these legitimate (and sobering) observations to their own critique of my position.
And what if they had?
In that case my position wouldn’t merely be a bald, hopeless and laughable example of projection. Rather, it would represent the outline of a program for Christians to engage some passages in the Bible in a way that would remove putative defeaters to those texts by reading them in light of the cruciform Christ.