As you may recall, I spent this past weekend attempting to help John Loftus articulate the argument he seemed to hold, but with premises that remained stubbornly hidden from view. When he finally articulated a three-step argument, it seemed to me that the first proposition of the argument was actually conflating two distinct ideas. I described these as follows:
“Thought 1: for a person to be justified in believing that a purported revelation is in fact of divine origin, there must be some evidence that the revelation cannot be plausibly explained simply with respect to human causes.”
“Thought 2: if a purported revelation is widely misunderstood or misinterpreted in such a way that it has very negative consequences for many people, then this constitutes a defeater to the claim that the purported revelation is in fact of divine origin.”
Enter ismellarat, a commenter at Debunking Christianity, who observed:
“I’ve especially been wondering about something like Thought 2 for much of my life. But the emphasis should be more on why a god who knew there would be widespread *honest* misinterpretations of his revelation wouldn’t have chosen to communicate them in a different way. Maybe your answer will have something to do with people who are simply mistaken not being judged very harshly in the end.”
The problem here is a token example of the problem of evil. If there is an all-powerful and all-good God, then why are his alleged communications with others not manifestly clear? Why is there any room for misinterpretation? John Loftus refers to this as the “problem of miscommunication” and he develops the problem in an essay in The Christian Delusion. In my essay “What John Loftus has is a failure to communicate” I offer a critique of Loftus’ argument. More on that in a moment. But first let’s consider some examples of the problem. To do that we will begin in an unlikely place, with a famous scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”. In this scene some folk are attempting to listen to Jesus while he is delivering the famous beatitudes. Unfortunately they don’t quite get the message:
Blessed are the cheesemakers? How could an all-powerful and all-good God allow such an egregious case of mis-hearing?
Of course there is a ready response. We don’t know that anybody actually misheard or misunderstood Jesus.
Except that this isn’t quite true. Jesus often spoke in parables and perplexing pithy platitudes that left those around him guessing. If clarity is a sign of divinity, you might think Jesus’ humanity was well on display in the gospels. Just what was going on?
Consider the following famous exchange between Jesus and a Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28:
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
This is an astounding response, isn’t it? Jesus calls this woman a dog. He appears callous, aloof, and disturbingly prejudiced. How do Christians explain this text?
According to one explanation, Jesus doesn’t actually mean what he says at all. He doesn’t believe he was sent only to the Israelites — the children — nor does he believe that the Canaanites are “dogs”. So then if that is the case, why does he say it? Why does he say he was sent only to “the lost sheep of Israel”? Why does he say the Canaanites are dogs?
Well as is so often the case, pulling back a moment to get the wider context can help us. If we read the first part of Matthew we discover something very interesting. Immediately prior to the Canaanite exchange we find Jesus having an encounter with the Pharisees and teachers of the law over the issue of ritual washing before a meal. In short, the Jewish leaders complain that Jesus’ disciples aren’t following this ritual washing and are thereby violating the traditions of the elders. Jesus responds by charging them with a concern with external purity instead of inner purity. They have focused on external signs of fidelity to God instead of a transformation of the heart and the fruit of a Spirit-filled life.
From there we go directly into our problem text in which Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a “dog”. What’s going on here?
Perhaps more than meets the eye. Ask yourself two things. First, how do the Pharisees and teachers of the law look at the end of the first exchange? Petty, small-minded, superifical. Right? Imagine to be concerned with ritual handwashing at the expense of the real works of the Kingdom. Why, that’s almost as petty as judging a fellow Christian for drinking a beer!
And how does the Canaanite woman look? In fact, she’s the perfect contrast. She comes across as noble, thoughtful and clever. Isn’t this fascinating? After all, Canaanites were viewed as equivalent to dogs in Israelite society. (And the attitude toward dogs in Israelite society was not a sentimental one. Indeed, they were not far above vermin: unclean, dirty scavengers.)
Now ask yourself an important question. Why does Jesus seem so pleased that the Canaanite woman gave the “right” response?
The most likely answer is that Jesus did not in fact hold the attitude he expressed. He did not himself believe that Canaanites were mere “dogs”. Nor did he believe he was sent to the Israelites alone. Instead, he was expressing the attitude of the very Pharisees and teachers of the law that he had just confronted. He was, in effect, role-playing their racism, performing their prejudice, acting out their antagonism. He did so with the end of providing the Canaanite woman the opportunity to rise above that racism. And she does, showing by her clever and generous response that she is not a dog but in fact is far nobler than the hand-washing hypocrites.
It seems to me that something like this is the best way to explain the text. This proposed reading is not merely a blushing attempt to remove an embarassing exchange. Rather, it reveals the exchange to be a profound deconstruction of prejudice and pettiness. (When you think about it, it is nearly inconceivable that an author like Matthew should have included such a pericope if the lesson were simply to illustrate how a dog Canaanite one-upped the revered rabbi.) So there are excellent reasons to hold this kind of interpretation.
This reading may nullify the sting of a classic hard saying of Jesus. But in doing so it presents itself as an exemplar of the problem of miscommunication. How many people have read this story and failed to capture the subtle nuances in tone and pitch that Matthew provided to signal the true intent? How many have found that the text provided nothing more than an irritating grain of sand in the proverbial clam shell? How many found their faith disturbed by this story? How many may attest to this story as one plank in their boardwalk to unbelief? How many may have drawn precisely the wrong conclusion from this story and used it to justify a prejudicial attitude against some other group of “dogs”? To sum up, does a history of similar misreadings constitute a defeater to the claim that this text is inspired?
This brings me to my response to Loftus in the above-mentioned article. In that article I pointed to what I called “The problem of the brilliantly subtle classic.” In the example I provided, I compared and contrasted two great American novels: Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny got his Gun and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. While critics all agree that Trumbo’s work is a powerful tract against war, critics are split on the reading of Red Badge. Some interpret it ironically as a similarly devastating critique of war, but others read it straightforwardly as an endorsement of courage in the face of war.
At that point I note the absurdity of anybody denying the greatness of Red Badge because of the disputes of interpretation. A complex, multi-layered text that leaves room for some ambiguity of interpretation could be a great text. Indeed, many of the greatest texts in the western canon fit that description, and Red Badge is arguably among them.
So then is it possible for God to be the primary author of a text which has its own multi-layered meanings and nuances? Is it possible for God to be the primary author of a text that allows some ambiguity? It seems to me the onus is on the critic to say why not.
Was it wrong for Randy Newman to sing “Short People” because some people would completely misunderstand the song and use it as a pretext for intolerance against short people? (Back in the late seventies a lot of people didn’t know where Randy Newman was coming from. But these days there’s no mistaking the satire of his new single “I’m dreaming of a white president.”)
This raises an important point. Subtlety of communication is always a trade-off, whether it involves a pun, a parable or a parody, because as soon as you venture off the straight and well trod path you will likely lose some folk. (And if they get too far away they might even mistaken “peacemaker” for “cheesemaker”.)
Tim Roberts worried about the tradeoff in his 1992 mockumentary of a fictional Republican running for office called “Bob Roberts”. The star (you guessed it, named Bob Roberts) was a crooked conservative (is there any other kind?*) who played conservative folk anthems at his public events, songs like this. (This song, called “Complain”, is apparently about the 47% that Mitt Romney said will always vote Democrat because they’re like trained rats addicted to government sponsored food pellets.**) I enjoyed the movie when it came out twenty years ago and I thought the soundtrack was hilarious, so much so that I went out and tried to purchase it. No luck. Strange, doesn’t every movie have a soundtrack? Especially one with a whole bunch of new tunes? I later heard that no soundtrack was released because Robbins was worried that the songs would no longer be understood as satirical when removed from the context of the film. In other words, he made a calculation that one instance of satire (the film) was justifiable but another (the soundtrack) would not be.
Every talented author who has moral commitments to forming society through his/her work is likewise concerned about these kinds of calculations. And so each must decide where the tradeoff is. How much misunderstanding is tolerable given the profound understanding that results in other occasions?
When it comes to the Bible, I’d think the answer is simple: if a person believes a perfectly good and all-powerful being inspired the Bible then it follows that however much misunderstanding results from failure to read and hear portions of the text will be offset by the compensating good of those who succeed in reading and hearing it appropriately in all its richly textured glory. And thus, for example, all the misreadings of the slighting of the Canaanite woman are offset by the far and transforming impact upon those who read the text correctly.
And so, unless I have a ground to say otherwise (I don’t) it follows that I don’t have a good defeater to the Bible being the Word of God based on alleged miscommunication.
*By the way, that comment was ironic humor. Perhaps you missed it and thought I was serious in which case I have to ask whether losing your vote was worth it.
**Yet more dangerously ironic humor.