Christianity

Reza Aslan calls Dawkins a “fool” and a “buffoon” … and you’re probably wondering who Reza Aslan is …

Reza Aslan, my friends, is the author of a few books on religious history, including his most recent, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, now a bestseller on Amazon. He’s been catapulted to what may or may not be brief fame for Zealot’s pretty sophisticated PR campaign, helped inadvertently by this dastardly interview on Fox News, where commentator Lauren Green attacked his credibility to pen a historical work on Jesus because, of all things, he’s a Muslim.

Aslan correctly pointed out to Green that one’s personal religious beliefs do not disqualify someone from writing a work of historical scholarship, and that he has several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in sociology with a concentration in religion (even though he refers to it somewhat slyly as a doctorate in the “history of religion” which actually doesn’t exist at the university where he studied), making him well-qualified to write such a book. I defended Aslan in a previous post here, prompted by the unconscionable campaign of defensive Christians to review-bomb Zealot on Amazon, even though they had clearly not read a single page of the book.  I’ve now read Zealot, and it was fine, though, exactly as I suspected, it’s mostly a popularization of other peoples’ work, namely Schweitzer and Meijer. Aslan is much more of a writer than a historian or scholar (his current professorship is in Creative Writing, not any type of history or religious studies, for instance), and he doesn’t put forward any new ideas. In fact, he rather bizarrely treats many events in the Gospels as historically reliable in order to complete his narrative, even though that’s far from the modern consensus (see critical review of Zealot’s scholarship here). All in all though, Zealot is a fun read – he does a good job of summarizing the historical events leading up to the time of Jesus, including the complexity of Jewish culture, and has a very interesting section on the theological divisions between Paul and James, and why Paul’s view ultimately won out (which differs greatly from that of the historical Jesus…at least as best as we can tell, which we can’t very well).

But I won’t be defending Aslan anymore. Reacting to a controversial tweet from Richard Dawkins the other week (see post here), Aslan goes on to call him a “fool” on twitter and then a “buffoon” in a recent interview . This baffles me, particularly when one compares the professional accomplishments of one to the other (go ahead, just google it). Even Dawkins’ critics, and my goodness he has many, aren’t so silly as to say he’s not an intelligent person. If there’s anything Dawkins is not, it’s a fool. But I suppose when you’re just a lowly creative writing professor enjoying his first bestseller, there’s no better way to get attention than to attack the man just voted the world’s top thinker.

As Washington Post columnist Manuel Roig-Franzia notes in this fairly critical piece on Aslan, he’s a bit over-eager to be taken seriously as a scholar, often exaggerating his credentials (see Fox News article above, and note his slightly pompous self-assertion that he’s “actually quite a prominent Muslim thinker in the United States”) and academic expertise.

Hm, I’ve never seen Dawkins exaggerate his credentials. I wonder if it’s because he doesn’t need to?

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The Blind Men And The Elephant – Reblogged from The Rookie Theologian

Re-posting an interesting article from this blog that highlights another example of Matt Chandler’s skilled rhetoric and deceptively poor logic. Again, this is why I think Chandler is dangerous – he’s sophisticated and entertaining enough to maintain credibility with his congregation (you can just imagine his parishioners nodding their heads in agreement during the referenced sermon), but not quite smart enough to well…reason effectively. I’m not qualified to comment on the weaknesses or merits of his personal theology, but I suspect it has its problems too (if he can make such glaring logical mistakes like in the post below and in this video, how can anyone trust him to interpret the Bible?!?)

Post starts now (click the link below to read in full):

The Blind Men And The Elephant

The Neo-Calvinist preacher Matt Chandler, who belongs to the same doctrinal camp as Mark Driscoll and John Piper, is responsible for this video. But before I get into discussing the video’s content let me first say that while Chandler and his cohorts may lay claim to “bare-bones Gospel” theology, what they proclaim is just as much a culturally and historically derived variant of Christianity as any that can be found in the theological marketplace of Protestantism. They all claim that their orthodoxy and orthopraxy parallel that of the early Church in Pre-Constantinian Christianity, but this is simply not the case. Chandler, Driscoll, and Piper all adhere to a denominational form of Christianity that is the product of thousands of years of religious evolution. Unfortunately, these men are some of the loudest voices representing Christianity in America. It is important that we remember that they do not speak for all of Christianity, but only a single form of it. With that being said, let’s move on to the video.

The video is called “The Elephant and Blind Men Contradiction.” As its name suggests, the video is Chandler’s response to The Blind Men And The Elephant, a parable by John Godfrey Saxe, which addresses the mutually incomplete and imperfect understandings of God in the world’s enduring religious traditions. Chandler’s claim is that there is a philosophical contradiction in the parable that undermines its central message. What I am going to do here is argue for the parable’s philosophical validity.

Here we go…

continue reading at: The Blind Men And The Elephant.

Bart Ehrman – Making Biblical Scholarship Sexy

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Biblical textual criticism probably doesn’t sound like the most interesting subject in the world, but Bart Ehrman, a historian and scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is somewhat of a rock-star at making it so.

In addition to his published scholarship on the Bible, Ehrman, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor UNC, takes the time to write trade books for the rest of us. The most popular titles have been Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and WhyJesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), and God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer, among others. If you have any interest in the Bible, no matter your religious affiliation or personal beliefs, then I couldn’t recommend these books highly enough. The titles are a bit controversial, but I think that is more or less an incentive to sex up a traditionally dry subject (see this blog post’s title) – Ehrman admits the majority of what he covers is consensus among Biblical scholars, and generally what has been taught in seminary for decades now (most ministers and pastors, however, fail to include these facts in their weekly sermons).

Ehrman’s personal trajectory is also of note, having moved from a Born-again fundamentalist Christian to a progressively more liberal Christian, renowned scholar, best-selling author (see interview on the Colbert Report here), and eventually agnostic. He is an expert on Greek and ancient languages, and, obviously, the Bible, which is why his debates are so interesting to watch (he also has somewhat of a temper).

Here he is debating Dinesh D’Souza, an intelligent but rather slimy and obnoxious apologist, who like most apologists, is great at rhetoric but not so great at logic. And unfortunately for D’Souza, he is up against someone who already knows all the arguments, and who knows the Bible much more intimately than he.

Finally, Ehrman’s personal website – – is notable for its philanthropic membership model. You pay a few bucks a month and you are provided access to his various blog postings during the week. All the money goes to charity. Quite novel, I think – at least I’ve not seen that anywhere else. I wonder if Joel Olsteen would do it?

Sophisticated Ignorance – An Evangelical Preacher’s Denial of Evolution

Matt Chandler is a likable guy. He really is. I don’t have any trouble understanding how he’s been able to turn what was originally a dying congregation at Highland Village Baptist Church in Flower Mound, Texas into a 10,000 member, four campus mega-community of worshipers now collectively known as The Village Church. I get why he was recently named President of the Acts 29 Network, a church-planting initiative founded by Seattle-based preacher Mark Driscoll. I get why he’s got the #3 podcast in the “Religion and Spirituality” section of iTunes and a best-selling book, The Explicit Gospel. I get it. He comes across as real and genuine and somebody you want to be friends with. I’ve felt this way about him myself while sitting in on several of his sermons in Dallas.

But Matt Chandler is dangerous. He has that rare combination of charisma, ignorance, and influence that endears him to many and makes him seem trustworthy (…George W. anyone?). His book, The Explicit Gospel, has what must be the most frustrating section on science I have ever read (you can read my review of it on Amazon here, but just to give you a preview, he calls himself an “agnostic” on science…despite having just survived brain cancer). He of course denies evolution, but as you’ll see in the video below, he does so in a moderately sophisticated way, appealing to straw man arguments and misinformed rhetoric. When I first found this video, it had zero “dislikes” – I’ve tried casually to bump that up through initiating discussions in the comment section, but don’t think I can rest until that figure overwhelms the number of “likes”.

It isn’t just that Chandler is dangerous for people like me, who care about scientific integrity and truth, but he’s also, I think, dangerous for Christianity. He asserts a dichotomy between evolution and belief  (ie. you must pick one or the other) that I don’t think can survive the modern age of science and reason. Evolution is not going anywhere and Christians who insist on denying it will isolate themselves even further along the fringes. So, in a strange paradox, I think as many believers should be just as upset with Chandler as nonbelievers (I should point out that Chandler simply doesn’t seem to understand evolution…it’s possible, but not likely, that if he did he would come around).

Of course, I actually agree with Chandler that it is a dichotomy – that evolution is incompatible with evangelical Christianity – but I’d rather see moderate Christians embracing evolution (no matter how logically inconsistent the idea of “moderate” Christianity may be) than creationists continuing to insist that it’s “just a theory”.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms” – Muriel Rukeyser

That pretty line above is from poet Muriel Rukeyser, and it’s used skillfully by physicist Sean Carroll in his keynote speech at the 2013 American Humanist Association Conference in San Diego just a few days ago. The talk is titled “Purpose and the Universe” and if you’ve never heard Carroll lecture before, I recommend sitting down for an hour and giving him a listen. He’s entertaining, likable, and has a knack for lucidly explaining concepts like quantum field theory in just a few slides.

Highlights for me included:

  • Carroll’s claim that the “laws of physics underlying the experiences of our everyday lives are completely known.” He’s of course not saying that physics is done or that there aren’t undiscovered particles or fields, but that we do know a complete regime of physics, and anything else we discover won’t have any real application to our lives. He explains exactly how we know that, and why we can rule out certain alternatives (assuming quantum field theory is correct). The completeness of this regime has obvious explanatory power, and can absolutely demolish particular claims that would require a different set of physical laws – one obvious one is astrology and another, which is equally implied by the laws but harder for many to accept, is life after death (see this blog post by Carroll for more on that).
  • Carroll’s disagreement with many of his atheist/humanist colleagues that science will be able to supply answers to questions of purpose, right and wrong, and ultimate meaning. These concepts, Carroll thinks, must be judged more practically and cannot be reduced to the laws of physics (though any answers we come up with certainly shouldn’t be incompatible with the laws of physics).
  • Learning that the underlying reality of the universe is made up not of particles but of waves and fields. The act of observation distorts the field in a certain way so that we “see” particles, though at its base nature is simply a collection of vibrating fields.
  • Special guest Richard Dawkins (who was in town to moderate a panel on “Religion as Child Abuse”) asking a question at 1:00:56 and making a slight correction to one of Carroll’s slides. How cheeky.