Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"Why Christians Don't Need to Take a Stand Against Evil" ?

I just read a blog post by someone named Jared. Jared argued that Christians need to show more love and compassion, but that by taking a stand against evil we often become "the voice of the accuser, while those who are not connected to God function as the voice of love."  

I tried to respond to Jared's post on his blog but was unable to log in so I sent the following response to him via the contact form on his blog:

Good article, Jared. Well written and thought provoking. I agree with you that we need to focus more on showing love to others—even to our enemies. I agree with you that Lady Gaga’s visit to homeless LGBT teens was commendable. I would add, however, that I suspect that all the aid Gaga and her like-minded multi-millionaire friends give to the needy does not even compare to what relatively poor Christians give through organizations like Samaritan’s Purse, WorldVision, Compassion International, Feed My Starving Children, Operation Blessing, etc. Nevertheless, we do need to do more to reach out and show the love of Christ in tangible ways to others.

On the other hand, we will have to agree to disagree on Christians as the “voice of the accuser.” If I really thought that it was wrong to “Take a stand against evil” I would have to take a stand against the prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. Jesus fully affirmed what we Christians call the Old Testament (Mt 5:17-20), and the Old Testament prophets powerfully took a stand against the evils of their society. For example, Isaiah calls the people of Judah “offspring of evildoers,” a “sinful nation” who are “laden with iniquity” (Isa 1:4). Jeremiah condemns those who have killed the “innocent poor” (Jer 2:34) and “…have defiled the land with your prostitution and wickedness” (Jer 3:2). Hosea writes that the land was full of “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery…”(Hos 4:1-2). Ezekiel condemns the people of Jerusalem for immorality, bribery, unjust gain and extortion (Ezek 22:9-12). Zephaniah condemns Jerusalem as a city of rebellious, defiled oppressors (Zeph 3:1). Joel attacks the drunkenness of his society and calls them to repentance (Joel 1:5). Micah pronounces woe on those who oppress others and “devise wickedness and work evil on their beds” (Micah 2:1-2). Malachi tells the people that God will “come to you for judgment” and “will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice…”(Mal 3:5). These quotes barely scrape the surface of the prophets’ stand against evil.

That stand against evil continues in the New Testament when John the Baptist comes preaching baptism for repentance saying, “…You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt 3:7-8). He then warned of fiery judgment for those who do not repent (Matt 3:12). According to Luke, John the Baptist tells people to share what they have with those who don’t have. He tells tax collectors not to collect more than what is required, and he tells soldiers not to use extortion or false accusations (Lk 3:11-14). John was preaching to people from all over Judea and his preaching included a stand against evil.

Jesus also took a stand against evil. In fact, the very first words Matthew and Mark record Jesus saying at the beginning of his public ministry is a call to repentance (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15)! It is a call to get one’s heart right with God and it applies to everyone. Contrary to popular opinion, Jesus did not just publically criticize religious leaders—he criticized his whole society calling them an adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), a “faithless and perverse generation” (Mk 9:19/Mt 17:17//Lk 9:41) and an “evil generation” (Lk 11:29//Mt:12:39; 16:4).

In John’s gospel Jesus proclaims that it is the world, not just religious leaders, that hates him because he testifies “that what it does is evil” (John 7:7; 15:18, cf. 17:14). More specifically, Jesus publicly calls out sins of hatefulness, adultery, easy divorce, judgmentalism, and evil-doing (cf. Matthew 5-7). He made clear to his disciples that such sins as “sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” began in the heart (Mark 7:21-23). When Mark begins discussion of Jesus’ ministry with his public call to repentance, these sins were undoubtedly among those he had in mind.

Then right after the resurrection, Peter preaches to an enormous crowd in Jerusalem. His message is not a warm, fuzzy, feel-good sermon designed to win friends and influence people. He says, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:38). Peter then calls them to repentance! The result is that many got saved and they “gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44).

Similarly, when Stephen preaches, he does not announce God’s understanding and tolerance, or a new social program by the newly formed church. Stephen calls them“…stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears!” (Acts 7:51). He tells them they have always resisted the Holy Spirit and that they have not obeyed the Law (Acts 7:51-53).

When Paul preaches in Lystra, he does not talk about their culture’s great religions—he confronts their idolatrous culture publicly, saying, “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God…” (Acts 14:15).  When Paul was on trial before King Agrippa, he pretty much summarized his whole ministry starting with his conversion on the way to Damascus saying, “First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached the they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). Proclaiming Jesus without calling people to repent and turn from their sins is not really proclaiming Jesus at all!

Jared, you are absolutely right that “we never hear of them protesting or boycotting,” but then again, they didn’t live in a democratic society with freedom of speech, and that makes a huge difference. When I was in Russia, one of the believers told me that they have absolutely no say in their government—all they can do is try to be faithful to God regardless of what the country throws at them. That is not unlike the plight of first century Christians. We in the United States, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to live in a nation where “we the people” have a say in the future direction of our country. I reject the notion that because we are Christians we should just shut up, sit on the sidelines, and let secularists determine the direction of the country our children will inherit. I’m quite sure our founding fathers (and mothers) would have rejected such a notion. As I understand Jesus’ affirmation of the prophets and his command to be salt in the world, I suspect he may have rejected it too. We have the privilege of calling out our society’s evils and attempting to affect change—especially though calls to repentance, but also by influencing voters.

Anyway, my point is NOT that we should immediately walk next door and tell our neighbor what a sinner he or she is. I’m NOT saying we should stand up on a desk at work and preach against office sins. And all this certainly doesn’t mean we should self-righteously look down our noses at others as if we ourselves are not worthy of God’s judgment! But it does mean that proclaiming Christ is not JUST about showing love and compassion (as important as that is). People cannot be saved unless they are confronted with the seriousness and horribleness of their own sin, respond in genuine heart-felt repentance and turn in loving devotion to Jesus as the only one who can save them from the penalty of their rebellion. If ALL we preach is love and compassion, we are not preaching Jesus. I suspect you would agree with this.

So, Jared, you make some very good points in your article but I don’t think it tells the whole story. And without the rest of the story, it may give fuel to some of your professing Christian readers who really just seek to avoid being hated by the world at all costs (but see John 12:25; 15:18, 19; 17:14; 1 John 3:13) and seem to imagine God to be an all-tolerant, non-judgmental, cosmic Santa Claus who accepts our sin and exists to makes us healthy, wealthy and prosperous. Such a god is merely an idol, a figment of self-centered imagination.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mind and matter

I just finished reading Mind & Cosmos; Why the materialist New-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, by Thomas Nagel who is a world-class philosopher. I need to preface my remarks by saying that my field is not philosophy. That, combined with the fact that I read the book rather quickly (which is not usually the best way to read philosophy) means that my understanding of the book may be quite limited and even wrong at points.
Nevertheless, as I understand it, Nagel argues that it is virtually impossible for mind, consciousness, reasoning and values to emerge spontaneously from matter in a Neo-Darwinian system. Consistent with his atheism, Nagel rejects theism and intelligent design but, in my opinion, without adequate reason (other than the fact that he just doesn’t like it).

If I understand Nagel correctly, his very tentative solution seems to be that purpose is somehow just built into the fabric of the universe. Nagel’s reasoning seems to be:

1) It is pretty much impossible that mind could evolve from matter under a Neo-Darwinian system [I agree]

2) Theism is not worth serious consideration [Nagel mentioned but did not seriously engage with arguments for intelligent design other than to agree that proponents have raised serious questions about the origin of life under a Neo-Darwinian system].

3) The only alternative seems to be the idea that purpose is built into the very fabric of the universe [but if it is impossible for matter to spontaneously evolve into consciousness and mind, how is it possible—without a Designer—that dead matter is somehow endued with purpose from the start?]


Deep, thought provoking read from an honest, non-militant atheist perspective.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

An open letter to Democrats and other progressives on the 2016 election


Lately it seems that Democrats have been blaming everyone but George W. Bush for losing the election—Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, James Comey, Huma Abedin, purveyors of fake news, Russian hackers, the media, and even the Electoral College system. As a conservative Evangelical Christian I’d like to suggest one more reason Hillary lost this election, and make a proposal about how Democrats might do better next time.

I think I speak for most conservative Evangelicals when I say that we were appalled when we saw a few Evangelical leaders unconditionally promoting Donald Trump. Evangelicals who had so strongly insisted that character matters when it came to Bill Clinton were now unapologetically promoting a man whose morality was even worse than Clinton’s! Not only that, but Trump’s whole personality was deeply troubling. Here was a man who made very personal and often cruel attacks on everyone who crossed his path, and would seemingly sue just about anyone who got in his way! These are very disturbing traits for a man who seemed to think he could run America like a CEO runs a company! Many of us were (still are) concerned that he is a megalomaniac who has the potential trampling people’s rights with a pen and a phone like someone else who comes to mind.

So the fact of the matter is that many of us Evangelicals almost threw up in our mouth when we voted for Donald Trump! Why would conservative evangelicals vote for someone who was so thoroughly repugnant to our values?

There are numerous reasons, of course (many residing in Hillary Clinton herself), but among the most significant was the fact that we believed that the Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were waging war on our freedom. Hear me out—There are millions of us “deplorables” and unless you at least try to understand our position you have little hope of ever getting our vote!

We saw our freedom threatened in two areas in particular. First, was the issue of abortion. Many Evangelicals view abortion as nothing less than murder. This is not just political rhetoric. This is honestly what we believe (the fact that human life begins at conception is supported by science). So it’s bad enough that our country legally permits that which from our perspective is practically a holocaust, but when Democrats began trying to legally force Christian-owned organizations to pay for abortion coverage, it crossed a line. It is one thing for a government to engage in immoral practices we oppose—Evangelicals are not personally accountable for that. But many Christians believed that being forced to pay for insurance packages enabling their workers to obtain abortions would make them personally accountable to God for a practice they honestly believe to be murder. Forcing people of faith to support issues which they believe to be in violation of God’s law is tyranny. This country was founded by people who fled such tyranny!

Second, was the issue of gay rights. What began as a movement that urged tolerance has become one of the most intolerant movements in country! Christian bakers, florists, psychologists, and others are being run out of business (and have even had their lives threatened) by gay rights advocates. Contrary to the way Evangelicals are often portrayed, we do not hate gay people! In fact, these Christian business owners were happy to serve gay customers—they just could not support the institution of gay marriage.

For example, Christian bakers were happy to bake cakes or cookies for gay customers, but they honestly believed (rightly or wrongly) that baking a wedding cake for a gay wedding constituted providing support for an institution that violated God’s laws.

There were, of course, plenty of other bakers who would have loved to have the gay customers’ business but that wasn’t good enough. Gay rights advocates chose to intimidate, threaten and use government regulations in an attempt to force these Christians out of business. Even some gay people were scandalized by the intolerance exhibited toward these Christians. Would Democrats want the government to force a gay baker to provide baked goods for an anti-gay rally? Of course not! In most other cases, Democrats recognize that forced speech is not free speech.

It is very important to understand, however, that this is not just about government forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do. For example, when I lived in Arizona, the state government required us to get the emissions checked on our cars every year. I hated that hassle, but it didn’t violate my convictions so I complied. It is an entirely different matter when governments try to force people of faith to do things they sincerely believe to violate God’s laws. Christians who are serious about their faith simply can’t comply. “We must obey God rather than man,” St. Peter is quoted as saying.  Forcing people to violate deeply held religious convictions is not freedom—it is tyranny.

So when the Democrat Party and Hillary Clinton aggressively supported both of these attacks on Christians—and would have certainly appointed justices to the Supreme Court who would ensure compliance—what choice did we have? We could have sat this election out, but that would have ensured a Clinton victory and the continued erosion of our liberty. In our view it was better to take our chances with Trump who might possibly threaten our freedom in the future, than to vote for Hillary who was already threatening our freedom today.

So how could Hillary have won the election? Imagine if Hillary had said:
·        "I am absolutely committed to fight for abortion rights—but in America we also uphold religious liberty. We will not force people of faith to violate their religious convictions. We will not go after doctors or nurses who, because of sincere religious conviction, cannot perform or assist in abortions and we will not force Christian-owned businesses like Hobby Lobby or Christian book publishers to pay for abortion coverage. But apart from such rare religious exemptions, we will fight vigorously to uphold abortion rights."

·         Second, "I will relentlessly fight for gay rights including gay marriage—but in America we uphold freedom of speech. While we will insist that all businesses must serve all customers regardless of race or gender, we will not force people of faith to support the institution of gay marriage. And we will not force Christian churches, charities, missions, schools or colleges to hire or enroll anyone who refuses to comply with their religious behavior codes. But apart from these relatively few religious exceptions, I will be a staunch defender of gay rights and gay marriage."

If the Democrats in general and Hillary in particular had campaigned on this I am absolutely convinced that Hillary would have won the election hands down. That is because many, many Evangelicals were on the fence in this election due to their strong distaste for Donald Trump. It wouldn’t have taken much to swing their vote to Hillary. In fact, there are many Evangelicals who would like to vote Democrat because they (naively, in my view) see Democrats as caring more for the poor. Personally, I was about as strongly opposed to Hillary as one could legally get, and yet, my distaste for Trump was so strong that if Hillary had only been tolerant in these two areas, even I may have voted for her!


Intolerance was one of the factors that cost Democrats this election. If Democrats would practice the tolerance they preach, they just might win next time.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Christian and politics

Jesus came from a long line of political agitators who spoke out against the personal sins, social evils and even political policies of their rulers and governments. Nathan (1 Ki 13), Jehu (1 Ki 16), Elijah (1 Ki 18; 2 Ki 1), Micaiah (1 Ki 20, 22; 2 Ki 3), Elisha (2 Ki 3), Isaiah (2 Ki 20), Zephaniah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea Amos, Micah, Malachi and even some unnamed prophets (1 Ki 13, 1 Ki 20, 22; 2 Ki 3; 2 Ki 21).

This criticism of government even took a violent turn roughly 160 years before Christ when Mattathias and his sons revolted against a foreign government that was slaughtering Jews and outlawing the worship of Yahweh. The Jews violently liberated their Temple and established an annual celebration of that event (Feast of Dedication aka Hanukkah) that even Jesus apparently celebrated nearly 200 years later (John 10:22). This critique of government continued with John the Baptist who was beheaded for his criticism of Herod. And as I mentioned in my last post, Jesus’ strong condemnation of Israel’s religious leaders included their political leaders as well.

Of course all this was a long time ago in a different place and different culture. You can’t simply assume that such examples can be directly applied to the 21st century. In fact, even in ancient times, reaction to one’s government may have depended to some extent on the situation. For example there is no indication that Joseph condemned the government of Egypt in which he served. Similarly, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are not recorded as publicly confronting the social evils of Babylon, though they did refuse to obey some of Babylon’s laws. Mordecai worked quietly behind the scenes to influence the government but did not openly confront it. And while Paul was not shy about publicly condemning the world’s religions he is never recorded as publicly criticizing Roman government injustices about which he had no say and no reasonable chance of influencing. Similarly, when I was in Russia last year one of the Christians there told me they have absolutely no say in their government so they just try to be faithful to Christ in whatever circumstances they find themselves. In their situation, that is understandable.


We in America are in different circumstances—at least for now. Our government was established to be a government of the people, by the people and for the people. In our government citizens are expected to speak out, to influence, and to vote. We can even protest peacefully. If Christians, both as citizens and as Christians, abdicate that responsibility, we become like salt that has lost its saltiness—“no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men” (Mt. 5:13).

I say all this because I sense in many Christians an uneasiness or outright hostility against those Christians who are politically outspoken. It is almost as if we should keep quiet and just assure everyone that Jesus loves them (which most people hear as, “Jesus is OK with me even when I continue in unrepentant sin”)! It is almost as if some Christians are afraid that if we become too vocal, non-Christians won’t like us. We certainly can’t have that can we (John 15:19; 1 John 3:13; James 4:4).

Thursday, August 4, 2016

The New Testament in a Nutshell

Matthew
Matthew writes so his audience will know that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Son of God, and so his audience will repent and follow Jesus. Matthew places particular emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Jewish Messiah-King.

Mark
Mark writes so his audience will know that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Son of God, and so his audience will repent and follow Jesus.

Luke
Luke writes so his audience will know that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and Son of God, and so his audience will repent and follow Jesus. Luke places particular emphasis on Jesus’ concern for outcasts—women, children, the poor, disabled, sick and “sinners.”

John
John writes so his audience will know that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing in Jesus they can have eternal life. John places particular emphasis on Jesus as the embodiment of God.

Acts
Acts is the story of the work of the Holy Spirit through the early church—specifically through Peter and Paul—in spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and Rome. The story covers from Jesus’ ascension in AD 30 or 33 to Paul’s imprisonment in AD 60-62.

Romans
Paul announces his plans to visit the church in Rome and introduces himself with a systematic presentation of his Gospel. Paul says the Gospel is the power of God for salvation, which produces an obedience that comes from faith in Christ for both Jew and Gentile.

First Corinthians
Paul responds to a letter telling of divisions and problems in the Corinthian church. He urges unity and addresses problems regarding immorality, marriage and singleness, food offered to idols, worship and the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and the resurrection of Jesus.

Second Corinthians
Since Paul’s second visit to the Corinthian church did not go well, Paul recounts how he sent Titus to them with a tearful letter and how Titus had just returned with great news that the Corinthians were eager to see him again. Paul tells of his sufferings for Christ and his love for the Corinthians. He urges generosity toward the Christians in Jerusalem who are suffering from famine.

Galatians
Paul forcefully insists that salvation is by grace through faith alone, and not by doing good works. Paul says that all those who belong to Christ by faith inherit the promises given to Abraham. He warns, however, that those who live lifestyles of habitual, unrepentant godlessness will not inherit eternal life.

Ephesians
The first half of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians emphasizes the spiritual blessings we have in Christ—including the fact that we have been saved by grace through faith and are God’s workmanship created to do good works. The second half of this letter instructs and urges Christians to live a life worthy of these blessings.

Philippians
Paul writes of his love for the Philippian believers and about his current imprisonment. He urges them to follow Christ’s example in looking out for the interests of others and to continue to work out their salvation, because it is God who is working in them. Paul closes by thanking them for the care-package they had sent to him while in prison.

Colossians
Paul prays that the Colossian believers would “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way.” He says Jesus is the image of the invisible God and that the fullness of Deity (God) lives in Jesus. Paul warns against a false spirituality which involves harsh treatment of the body. He tells his audience to avoid all sexual immorality, lust and greed, and to live lives of compassion, humility, patience, forgiveness and prayer.

First Thessalonians
Paul recounts how he had sent Timothy to encourage the Thessalonian church during persecution and how Timothy had returned with the good news that the church was thriving and spreading the Gospel. Paul urges them to continue pleasing God in their behavior and instructs them about Jesus’ coming again.

Second Thessalonians
Paul gives additional instruction about Jesus’ coming again and warns against laziness.

First Timothy
This is Paul’s personal letter to Timothy whom Paul had left to pastor the church in Ephesus. Paul urges Timothy to teach sound doctrine and to oppose false doctrine and ungodly behavior (including adultery, murder, homosexual behavior, and slave trading). Paul gives qualification for elders and deacons, and reminds Timothy “how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household.”

Second Timothy
Paul tells Timothy to be prepared to endure suffering for Christ and to correct, rebuke and encourage his people with sound doctrine. He tells Timothy to pursue faith, love and peace, to flee youthful passions, to preach the Word and to bring others to Christ. Paul says the time of his death is near so please come soon.

Titus
This is Paul’s personal letter to Titus whom Paul had left to pastor the church in Crete. Paul instructs Titus about appointing godly elders who can oversee the church well, ensuring sound doctrine. Paul specifically condemns those who claim to know God but deny him by their actions. He gives instructions for how believers should behave in order to attract unbelievers to “our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Philemon
Paul returns Onesimus, a runaway slave whom Paul had converted, to his owner, Philemon. Paul begs his friend Philemon to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul himself, and hints for the slave’s release. Paul says, if Onesimus owes anything, Paul will pay the debt personally.

Hebrews
The author says Jesus is the radiance of God and the one through whom God created and sustains the universe. This being the case, the author warns his audience to beware of drifting away from the faith or hardening their hearts as the Israelites did in the wilderness. He says Jesus is our great high priest and author of the new covenant so beware of falling away because Jesus is the only way of salvation. He tells them to persevere in faith, like Abraham, Moses and other Jewish heroes of old, and prays that God would work in us what is pleasing to Him through Christ.

James
James urges his audience to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. He condemns ungodly behavior and gives specific examples of how Christians should demonstrate their faith by their actions.

First Peter
Peter writes to a church facing severe persecution, saying their endurance in suffering demonstrates the proven character of their faith. He urges them to set their hope fully on their salvation, to turn away from their previous evil lifestyles and to maintain good conduct before non-Christians so they will see their good deeds and glorify God. Peter says they should rejoice that they share in the sufferings of Christ.

Second Peter
Peter urges his audience to add knowledge, self-control, godliness and love to their faith. He strongly condemns false teachers who were leading many astray with their ungodly lifestyles. Peter says believers must conduct themselves in holiness and godliness knowing that Jesus will return like a thief at which time the heavens will melt away and the earth will be laid bare.

First John
John warns against false teachers who say Jesus didn’t really come in the flesh. John writes that if we claim to have fellowship with God (be saved) and yet keep on walking in darkness (habitual, unrepentant godlessness), we are lying, but if we say we have no sin we are also lying. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and our advocate with the Father. Those who say they are in Christ ought to behave as Jesus did. They should love one another in deed and in truth, and shouldn’t be surprised if the world hates them. John writes so that his audience might know that they have eternal life.

Second John
John urges his audience to love one another saying: This is love—that we walk in obedience to Jesus’ commands. He warns of many deceivers who have gone out into the world and says that that Christians should not support their ministry.

Third John
John says that Diotrephes, a church leader, is spreading malicious slander about him. Diotrephes refuses to show hospitality other believers and excommunicates Christians who do. John warns not to imitate what is evil and says that those who practice evil do not know God.

Jude
Jude tells his audience he wanted to write about their common salvation but felt compelled to encourage them to contend earnestly for the faith. This is because certain men had secretly slipped in among them–immoral, divisive scoffers who had turned the grace of our God into an excuse for evil behavior. Jude strongly condemns these people and urges his audience to keep themselves in the love of God by building up their faith and praying through the Holy Spirit.

Revelation

John uses apocalyptic imagery to teach that as the second coming of the Lord approaches, worldwide natural disasters, human evil and persecution will increase to unprecedented horrific levels. John urges believers to remain faithful even unto death. When Jesus is revealed he will destroy all opponents in a final battle and bring his people into his kingdom of peace and righteousness.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 5)

Ehrman begins chapter three of his book, Jesus before the Gospels, referring to a staged event that occurred in 1902. In this event, “a well-known criminologist named von Liszt was delivering a lecture when an argument broke out. One student stood up and shouted that he wanted to show how the topic was related to Christian ethics” (Ehrman 87). A fight ensured, a gun was drawn, and while Professor von Liszt tried to intervene, the gun when off (Ehrman 87). The professor then called the class to order assuring them that the whole scene had been staged as a test of observation and memory. Some students were then asked to write immediately about the event. Others wrote the next day or a week later. Still others were deposed under cross examination. Ehrman then reports that “The most accurate accounts were in error in 26 percent of the details reported. Others were in error as many as 80 percent” (Ehrman, 88). Ehrman concludes that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

Ehrman got this story from a book by Elizabeth Loftus (Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA : Harvard Univ. p 20-21). Loftus was quoting from someone named Hugo Munsterberg (On the Witness Stand. New York : Doubleday, 1908; 49-51), and Munsterberg was recalling the event which had been staged by professor von Liszt six years earlier. Unfortunately, Munsterberg gave no further detail on this study so it is difficult to know what to make of the statistics cited. For example, Ehrman didn’t happen to mention that in this study, any “Omissions… wrong additions and alterations” were counted as mistakes (Loftus 20-21). But in recounting any event, different parts of the event may stand out to, and be emphasized by, different people. The fact that two or more people should omit parts of the whole may be due to factors other than memory. Without knowing more about what was omitted or added, or the nature of the alterations, the statistics are not much good.

It would have also been helpful to know what percent of the gist of the story students got accurate.  Students undoubtedly got details wrong, but did any students remember the event entirely differently? Did anyone think the professor shot the student? Did anyone think both students were shot? Did anyone say there was no gunshot at all? My guess is that the gist of the event could have been reconstructed quite well from the eyewitness accounts even though minor details would vary from student to student. Nevertheless, Ehrman uses the story to make the point that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

As an aside, it may also be worth noting that Ehrman is trusting Loftus’ summary of Munsterberg’s memory of von Liszt’s eyewitness account in an effort to show that memory can’t be trusted!

Another study cited by Ehrman related to the crash of an El-Al Boing 707 (Ehrman 89-91). Ehrman cites a study by psychologists Hans Crombag, Willem Wagenaar and Peter Van Koppen regarding a Boeing 707 that crashed into an apartment near Amsterdam in October of 1992 (Hans. F.M. Crombag, Willem A. Wagenaar, and Peter J. Van Koppen, “Crashing Memories and the Problem of ‘Source Monitoring,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 1996: 95-104).

Ten months after the crash, Crombag and his colleagues surveyed 193 university faculty, staff and students about the accident. Specifically, participants in the survey filled out a questionnaire which asked, “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” (Ehrman 90; Crombag 99). Of the 107 who responded, 55% said yes. Later another questionnaire was given to 93 law students. Ehrman relates that “In this instance 62 (66 percent) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film. There was just one problem. There was no film” (Ehrman 90). Ehrman concludes that “they were imagining it, based on logical inferences…” (Ehrman 91).

What Ehrman doesn’t mention—and what is only relegated to a footnote in Crombag’s article— is the fact that “some networks showed a schematic computer animation of the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact” (Crombag 95 n.1). A television computer animation could legitimately be considered “a television film.” So those who said they saw the television film were not necessarily mis-remembering a non-existent film. They may have thought the questionnaire was referring to the television computer animation film which did, in fact, exist and was shown on TV. Even though this film “did not show how the plane crashed” it did show “the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact (Crombag, 95 n.1). The existence and airing of the computer animation on TV calls this entire study into question.

The possibility that those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the computer animation is supported by the fact that the researchers were actually puzzled by the fact that it would be very improbable that a video would exist of the actual impact (the study was obviously before 911). They wrote, “only very little critical sense would have made our subjects realize that the implanted information could not possibly be true. We are still at a loss as to why so few of them realized this” (Crombag 103). It is actually quite easy to explain. Those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the television animation film they had seen.

A follow-up study regarding the crash asked more specific questions, for example whether the plane was burning when it crashed, or whether it came in nose up, nose down or vertically, etc. (Crombag 100). Some who answered the questions admitted they had not seen the TV film of the crash. The researchers concluded that “The fact that in Study 2 many of the respondents answered the ‘memory’ questions’ after having admitted that they had not seen the (nonexisting) TV film indicates that they thought that all that mattered was getting it right” (103).
The researchers fail to realize, however, that this also undermines their study. The respondents simply misunderstood what they were being asked. They apparently thought this was a survey about what happened—and they pieced together what happened from memory of the extensive TV coverage of the aftermath of the crash. They were really being asked about what they personally remembered seeing on a television film. 
One of the points made in this article was that “Witnesses in legal trials must therefore be explicitly reminded that they can only testify as to what they know first-hand” (Crombag 103). Those who did the study should have followed their own advice. Were the respondents in Crombag’s study “explicitly reminded” that they were only to answer very specifically regarding what they had actually seen on a TV video (not an animation) of the actual crash—not what they inferred to have happened from videos of the aftermath? There is no way of knowing, therefore, whether these questionnaires were measuring memory or interpretation.

This study was a good reminder for those conducting court trials but has little relevance to historical studies. No one doubts that eyewitnesses get details wrong. What matters is the big picture or “gist” of the story. While the details in Crombag’s study varied, no one to our knowledge questioned the big picture, i.e. that a large plane (not a train or truck) did hit a building (not a soccer stadium) near Amsterdam (not Paris or London) and the result was chaos and disaster!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 4)

After attacking the work of Birger Gerhardsson in chapter two of Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman then focuses on the work of Kenneth Bailey. From decades of work in the Middle East as a missionary, Bailey observed that small villages would tell and re-tell the stories of their community’s history. Only the most knowledgeable and senior members of the community were allowed to tell the stories. They had some degree of freedom to tell the stories in their own words, but the core of the stories had to be accurate or it was considered shameful, and the community would correct them in no uncertain terms. Bailey argued that this model would explain what we see in the Synoptic Gospels in which the core of the stories are the same, but minor details vary from Gospel to Gospel.

Ehrman argued that there was no evidence to show that early Christian communities functioned that way (72-73). Ehrman is right that there is no direct evidence for Bailey’s theory from Jesus’ time, but the value of any hypothesis is its explanatory power—and Bailey’s hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power. Some scholars would argue that Bailey’s theory (especially as refined and elaborated by James Dunn in Jesus Remembered) makes sense of what we see in the Synoptic Gospels better than any other theory ever proposed. At least Bailey’s sources come from Middle Eastern culture and relate to the transmission of history, unlike the Form Criticism model, on which Ehrman seems to rely, which was developed from relatively modern studies on how German folklore was transmitted!

Ehrman asks, “Are we to imagine that eyewitnesses fanned out and rooted themselves in every village of Palestine where someone told stories of Jesus?” (73). Ehrman adds, “according to the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus stayed for the most part in Jerusalem once the church had begun after Jesus’ death” (73). Ehrman’s argument is apparently based on Acts 8:1 which says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Notice that although the apostles remained headquartered, so to speak, in Jerusalem, believers were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). So it is entirely possible—even likely—that those who were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” included eyewitnesses who “fanned out and rooted themselves in every village….”

And although the apostles remained headquartered in Jerusalem, that doesn’t mean they never left. Church leaders like Peter, John and Philip traveled throughout the region as well, ministering to churches as they went (Acts 8:25-26; 9:32-38; 10:24). When the church in Antioch got large enough, the apostles sent a representative (Barnabas) to oversee the church (11:22) and when a dispute broke out, representatives from Antioch went up to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles (Acts 15:1-4). In fact, after his second missionary journey, even Paul may have given account of his ministry to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 18:22). In other words, unlike some ancient version of the telephone game, the earliest church had apostles, teachers and other eyewitness who were able to keep the stories of Jesus from wildly spinning out of control. If someone was preaching things about Jesus that wasn’t accurate, there were apostles and eyewitnesses who would certainly correct the story.

Curiously, after seemingly mocking the idea of eyewitnesses in Judean, Samarian and Galilean villages, Ehrman then concedes that false stories would have been corrected. But he finds fault with that too:

Possibly when someone tells a story, someone else corrects him. In fact, that seems more than likely: it almost always happens when one person tells a story that someone else knows. Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75).

Ehrman says that cognitive psychologists have discovered that “when a group ‘collectively remembers’ something they have all heard or experienced, the ‘whole’ is less than the sum of the ‘parts” (75). In other words, if you interview ten people separately, you will get more information than if you interview them as a group. As proof, Ehrman cites “Collaborative and Social Remembering” by Rebecca Thompson (chapter 9 in Memory in the Real World by Gillian Cohen and Martin Conway, 3rd ed. New York : Psychology Press, 2008).

Citing other research, Thompson stated that nominal groups (groups in name only, in which responses from individuals are added together) did better than collaborative groups (those that actually worked together as a group). Both groups did better than individuals. But Bailey is not talking about eyewitnesses collaboratively working together to remember something. Bailey is taking about someone retelling a story of a community’s history to a group that already knows the story well and is in a position to correct the story if the storyteller makes a mistake. Ehrman seems to be comparing apples to oranges.

Significantly, Ehrman leaves out a couple of other important aspects of Thompson’s article. First, one of the studies cited by Thompson found that when “when collaborating, individuals encoded to-be-remembered items together (in an episodic task) and they actually outperformed the nominal groups” (Thompson, Memory in the Real world, 260). Episodic memory is “recalling things that happened to you personally” as opposed to semantic memory which “involves factual information about the world, quite apart from whether you have personally experienced it” (Ehrman 18). In the case of Bailey’s theory, we are talking about episodic memory, i.e. personal memories of Jesus by the apostles or other eyewitnesses. So by way of application, if the apostles jointly remembered the words and deeds of Jesus during the 40 days they were together before Pentecost, that would increase their memory even above that of a nominal group.

Second, Thompson says “The accuracy of collaborative output has been detrimentally affected in certain situations and improved in others. Using a simulation of a police interrogation, Stephenson et al. (1986) reported an overall higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance compared to individual performance” (Thompson, Memory, 253). The “higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance” seems to contradict the Ehrman’s negative assessment of Bailey.
But all of this is actually a moot point. Ehrman began by asking, “Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75). As proof, Ehrman cites a quote from Thompson’s article that pertains to the amount of information groups or individuals remember but says nothing about the accuracy of what they remember.

For some reason, Ehrman didn’t quote from the part of Thompson’s article that addresses accuracy. For example, in one of the memory tests that showed lower accuracy, groups of people were shown a picture of “a common household scene, containing a variety of common objects.” They were only allowed to look at the picture for 15 or 60 seconds. When the groups collaborated together to recall what they saw, one member of the group deliberately “recalled” objects that were not there. This negatively affected the accuracy of the group’s memory as some of the other adopted that false memory (Thompson, Memory, 254).

One really has to wonder, however, whether 15 and 60 second showings of a picture in an artificial experiment for which nothing is at stake and in which false information is deliberately inserted, is analogous to memories of the life and teachings of Jesus by disciples whose lives were on the line. After all, Jesus had just been executed—his disciples had every reason to be concerned they could be next! Not only that, but an experiment in which people are asked to recall details of pictures of common items they had seen for less than 60 seconds, is certainly not comparable to the rememberances of Jesus’ apostles, or other eyewitnesses of Jesus (like some of the women) who traveled with him for up to three years and heard him preach, teach and explain the same or similar things over and over and over again! Besides, Thompson’s article presented no indication that the overall memories of the pictures were inaccurate, only that a few details had be deliberately inserted. 

Although Ehrman didn’t cite this part of Thompson’s article, it is important to keep this study in mind when you read of psychological studies that supposedly demonstrate the unreliability of memory.
Ehrman continues,

“But there are bigger problems with group memories. They are often more frail and faulty than individual memories—just the opposite of what you might expect. For one thing, if one person—say, a dominant personality—injects into the conversation an incorrect recollection or ‘distorted memory’ that others in the group do not remember, they tend to take the other person’s word for it. As one recent study has shown, ‘The misinformation implanted by one person comes to be shared by the group as a whole. In other words, a collective memory could become formed around misinformation. Misinformation shared by one person may be adopted by the rest’ (Ehrman, 75-76).

As an example, Ehrman cited a study that “found that 65 percent of the participants actually changed their views because of social pressure exerted on them (not necessarily consciously) by the group as a whole. About 40 percent of these errors were ‘persistent,’ that is, they became ‘permanent’ memories of those who actually did not at first have them” (Ehrman 76, citing Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan, and yadin Dudai, “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity,” Science 333 (2011: 108-111)).

In this test, 30 participants were shown “an eyewitness-style documentary on a large screen in groups of five.” Three days later they took a memory test. Four days after that, they were given the same memory test, but this time they were deliberately misled, being told that four others in the group gave a different answer than they had. One week later they were given the same memory test again, but first they were accurately informed that they had been misled about the group’s answers.

The result was that the “participants conformed to the majority opinion in 68.3 +_ 2.9% of the manipulation trials, giving a false answer to questions they had previously answered correctly…When the social influence was removed (test 3), participants reverted to their original correct answer in 59.2 +_2.3% of the previously conformed trials (transient errors) but maintained erroneous answers in 40.8% (persistent errors). (Edelson et al., 108). The experiment demonstrated that social pressure can lead people to conform to the group. In the case of this experiment, the social pressure came when some test subjects were deliberately misled about answers from others in the group.

No one argues, however, that intruders had infiltrated the group of apostles and deliberately inserted false memories of Jesus, so this experiment has little if any relevance to Bailey’s theory. On the other hand, the social pressure discovered in this experiment is a double-edged sword that could cut both ways. In the experiment false information was deliberately communicated to the participant. Apart from an artificially concocted experiment, a more likely scenario would be that someone in a group mis-remembered something she saw and the group corrected her. The social pressure from the group may actually cause her to conform to the group’s accurate remembrance. This seems much more analogous to the scenarios proposed by Bailey in which everyone in the group knows the story so if the one telling the story changes the story significantly, the group will correct him.

In real life scenarios in which people are motivated to get the story right (these early Christians were, after all, basing their lives on accurate rememberances of the ministry and teachings of Jesus), it would seem that the social pressure may have actually served to preserve the accuracy of the stories of Jesus. Ehrman’s conclusion that, “It seems that the idea of a group ensuring the accuracy of traditions is not psychologically defensible” (76), is simply not warranted by the psychological evidence he cites in Edelson’s article.


These, of course, are not the only studies of eyewitness memories cited by Ehrman. I’ll discuss more of them in the next post.