As I read through Paul Manata’s review of You’re not as Crazy as I Think two words continually sprung to mind: caricature and irony. To begin with, he accused me of caricaturing my opponents, ironic since I lampoon the very practice in others. But the irony is redoubled because Paul makes his case by ironically caricaturing, misunderstanding and misrepresenting the arguments I was presenting. So while I am grateful for his review like a farmer is for the rain, I also must say that like a torrential rain after an extended drought it was at best a mixed blessing.
Paul does have a few positive things to say about the book but he summarizes them with the classic damnation by faint praise as “rather commonsensical points….” In other words the most my book can offer is good old basic native intelligence. If that is the case then why not save the fifteen bucks, plant yourself behind the wood pile, and just think hard for an hour or two? Common sense. That was about it for the positives.
As for enumerating the problems, it is here that Paul clearly hits his stride with his “the glass is half-empty” approach to most everything I say.
To start off, Paul claims that I often appear to be “hypocritical”. Evidence? Well for starters, while I warn that crisis and warfare language is amenable to indoctrination, Paul finds a few cases where I use such language. For instance, I say the evangelical world is in a state of “crisis” regarding its credibility about truth. Sure, but warning that “crisis” language can be abused doesn’t mean it isn’t ever appropriate.
Paul also accuses me of setting up my own “binary opposites” (another thing I criticize in others):
“Rauser sets up binary opposites. Either you can be the sophisticated, tentative, complexity appreciating Christian, or you will be a simplistic, passion-driven, convinced truth-hinderer. It’s either Rauser’s road or the road of “Sol,” a Woody Allen character who would rather believe in God than truth (1-4).”
This is completely false. I explicitly argue that only Christ is fully truth, and thus a truthful person. The rest of us find ourselves on a continuum on a daily basis as more or less conformed to the discipline of truth (20). Later when I talk about “brainwashing” I point out that indoctrination is much subtler than we realize, that it can affect some dimensions of our thinking and not others, and that we are all affected adversely by the ubiquitous confirmation bias. So I have no idea how Paul could possibly claim I hold to a binary opposition. Take Paul himself. He clearly doesn’t think much of my argument, but he is also nowhere near the character of Sol.
Here’s another excerpt where Paul claims that I caricature my opponents even as he does that very thing to the argument in question:
“For example, the people he [that is, Randal] wants to critique—evangelicals—are ‘taken in by the notion that a truthful person is simply one who exudes passion, conviction, and simplicity’ (27, emphasis mine). But who thinks like this?”
First off, let’s understand what I’m saying here. I’m saying that when people are looking for trusted authorities, they often gravitate to the loudest voices that express the simplest views with the most intensity. Who thinks like this? What kind of question is that? This is a pervasive problem in contemporary society. Here’s one vivid example: Rewind to the 2004 presidential campaign and get in your mind’s eye legions of Republicans caricaturing John Kerry’s complex foreign policy decisions by holding sandals in the air and chanting “Flip flop!” (Incidentally, as I note in the book, political lefties are just as likely to caricature their conservative rivals.)
Next Paul observes that “Rauser complains that the evangelicals often buy into urban legends.” But then he suggests I have bought into an urban legend myself. Why?
“He tells a story of a missionary he knows who needed money, he was three hundred dollars short. Just when the missionary was about to give up, the missionary received a call from someone who ‘felt God laying on his heart the need to support him . . . at three hundred dollars a month.’ Apparently, nobody but the missionary’s wife knew of the need. These LAMPs happen all the time according to Rauser. But why isn’t this an urban legend? Because Rauser knows the guy?”
Yes actually that is correct: because I know him. It isn’t just “a friend of a friend” (the classic hallmark of an urban legend). That missionary was William Lane Craig (yes, he was briefly a missionary working in Europe in the late eighties). To be sure, this true and documented account could grow into an urban legend (as all sorts of things can). But I’m not guilty of any inconsistency here. I would never use an urban legend. Now let’s get to the real question: why is Paul so anxious to attempt to “nail” me on an inconsistency? Why doesn’t he instead lament with me the tragic ubiquity of urban legends among evangelicals? This type of analysis makes Paul look like a real contrarian. (Of course he’ll disagree with that.)
Paul then comments on “Ted”, an average (albeit fictional) evangelical that I repeatedly use as an example to make points. Talk about caricatures! I find Paul’s description of Ted to be inexplicably hostile and distorted, and also completely dependent on his own subjective response to the character:
“Perhaps the most egregious caricature is Rauser’s “Ted.” Ted is supposed to be a benchmark of evangelicals. The paradigmatic evangelical. He is introduced to us as pretty normal, and level-headed. Throughout the book, though, Ted is a ridiculous, loud, obnoxious, wasteful American evangelical. He is emotional rather than thoughtful, drives a gas guzzling SUV, mocks the liberals at the church down the street like some kind of Neanderthal. He’s an angry, small-minded, bigoted, rash, and arrogant man. It begins to look as if Ted is just fodder for Rauser’s war with those wasteful, environmentally inconsiderate, doctrinally dogmatic, consumerist American Christians he so often takes issue with on his blog.”
Ted is based on my own life in the past, the way I’ve marginalized others, as well as the same tendency I’ve seen among other evangelicals. I find him to be a sympathetic character. Paul suggests I make him a “Neanderthal”. I would ask the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.
At this point Paul attempts to mount a clever attempt to paint me into a corner.
“Rauser’s argument also implies that all atheists and other non-Christians are not truthful persons. If being a truthful person is to be made into the image of Christ, and if this is only done by the Holy Spirit to those who have been justified, then no atheists, Hindus, etc., will be so conformed. But this has the implication of viewing those we disagree with has not possessing characters conformed to the truth. They are not truthful persons, for “we become truthful persons only insofar as we conform to Christ” (20, emphasis mine). But this turns Rauser into the kind of person he rails against. One who paints the opposition as having some deep and serious character flaw. How will the atheists and other non-Christians Rauser seeks to appeal to feel being told they are not and cannot be (unless they see things Rauser’s way) be people of truth? Or, will Rauser say that atheists &c. can be “conformed to the image of Christ?”
Paul’s analysis utterly fails because he begins by assuming something I don’t: namely that a person can only be objective and truthful if they have been justified and have the Spirit dwelling within them. I emphatically reject this notion. I write “an entity can be more or less true, depending on how well it matches up to the standard of perfection for the type of thing that it is.” (20) And the fact is that there are many people who, in the disciplines of the mind, are closer to the truth than others who have been justified and in whom God’s Spirit dwells. Oh irony of ironies! This “dilemma” only obtains if you accept Paul’s binary opposition to begin with. (To see how fine this line can be, consider the difficulty between distinguishing a pre-conversion “talent” from a post-conversion” gift”.)
Paul doesn’t like what I say about liberal Christians in chapter seven. Apparently this chapter was doomed from the start. The first red flag is that Paul continues to refer to “liberals” as a separate category of suspect Christians over-against Paul and his contingent. But the very first burden of the chapter was to demonstrate that “liberal” is a relative term. For example, there are Christians out there (albeit I suspect not many) who would consider Paul himself hopelessly liberal. So does that mean Paul is a heretic?
Paul also obsesses about the fact that I point out many people more liberal than him are sincere. So what? He wonders. You can be sincerely wrong! Yeah, yeah, we know that. But this observation brings us back to the core thesis that people might hold a particular view of a doctrine not out of sinful rebellion or ignorance but rather because it makes the most sense in light of where they’re at. And that is not a common idea. I assume Paul is well read in church history so he must be familiar with the degree to which the opinions of those who have dissented from the orthodoxy of a particular time and place have typically been marginalized as being linked to a sinful character straight back to the first legendary heresiarch Simon Magus.
In closing I’ll simply note that Paul’s characterization of the main argument of the liberal Christian chapter evinces a terrible misreading. He writes that the argument of my chapter
“is whether not all liberals are heretics, not whether all liberals are “honest people.” They can be as honest and convinced against the great truths of Christianity as is possible, they’re still not Christians if they deny the resurrection. Indeed, they’re heretics. For Rauser, it appears you can deny all the tenants of Christianity, except maybe belief in some kind of being we call God, and still be a Christian!”
This is an infuriatingly false claim. The title of the chapter is “Not all liberal Christians are heretics.” So what is a liberal? As I noted above, “liberal” is a relative term so the argument minimally means that people should not be discounted as heretics merely because they’re more liberal (or conservative!) than you. And that means that you need to listen to and try to understand those of a more liberal (and conservative) bent than you.
I never argued in the chapter that Marcus Borg, the denier of the resurrection, is an orthodox Christian (although I did present an intriguing scenario based on Paul Maier’s book A Skeleton in God’s Closet which Paul ignored). What I did argue was that we can see how a person could deny the doctrine of the resurrection for reasons other than wickedness or ignorance of the evidence. We may still choose to excommunicate such a person from Christian fellowship, but that is another issue entirely.
Nor did I argue that Christianity is mere moralism. Here’s what I actually said. First, I quoted J. Gresham Machen:
“It is said, Christianity is a life, not a doctrine. The assertion is often made, and it has an appearance of godliness. But it is radically false….”
I then commented:
“Perhaps Machen is correct, but it seems to me that the liberal view that places the deeper roots of Christian identity in ethical action at least deserves a closer look.” (136, emphasis added)
So I didn’t argue that the “liberal” view is correct. Machen, as I said, may be right. I simply presented a case for why those who take the “liberal” view are not necessarily evil or ignorant for doing so. The point of the chapter – and the book – is not to sell a particular theological agenda (e.g. one more liberal than that accepted by Paul Manata). Rather, it is to remove the roadblocks that keep us from hearing, and learning from, others.
Why is it that Paul, who is so wonderfully adept at splitting the most minute hairs, appears to be incapable of grasping some of the book’s central arguments? I don’t know, but it is difficult not to see some of the very problems I lament and seek to combat in his deeply skewed analysis of the book.
Having said all this, let me close on a positive note. First, the worst fate for a book is not that it be reviled (or mistrusted, or placed on an index of forbidden books) but that it be ignored. Paul has done a real service to me in engaging so fully with the book. Second, I don’t take this kind of critique personally. In my limited engagement with Paul in the last couple months I have found him to be very polite and intelligent, and I thank him for the attention he has given my little book, even if it is not half as crazy as he thinks.