Exploring “The Bad Jesus” and New Atheism (Part 1)

16 Sep

Introduction

Are you on a journey that involves deconstructing your past, inherited beliefs about God? If this describes you at all, then this series of articles I will write on these subjects should help you to do just that.

A few years ago, I was researching the topic of “biblical literacy” for a paper I was writing for the Evangelical Homiletics Society conference. I wasn’t able to attend the conference, but the paper I wrote somehow made it in. During this research phase, I came across a wide variety of points of view on this subject of biblical literacy that literally ran the gamut.

The interesting aspect of what I discovered are what I ended up calling the various “stakeholders” in the discussion. It turns out that there are at least four groups who hold a share in the subject: first, church leaders and denominations; second, professional biblical scholars and professors; third, teachers of English literature; and fourth, Bible publishers.

(If you want to read more about my conclusions, then check out the 5-part series of articles I did on the subject of biblical literacy and preaching here).

Encounters with the “New Atheism”

By far the most refreshing voice I encountered in doing the research belonged to Dr Hector Avalos, who is Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University. Avalos has written extensively about this issue of biblical literacy, and his unique ability is that he—as a trained scholar—can point out objectively many of the flawed presuppositions operative in so much of what passes for objective, historical scholarship.

(Additionally, there are 2 Preacher’s Forum podcast episodes coming out beginning the 6th of October featuring an interview with Dr Avalos).

In terms of his own beliefs, Avalos describes himself as a “New Atheist”; this movement has come about largely since the events of 9/11, and exists primarily to caution people about the dangers of religion, and religionism.

What exactly is “religionism?” It is displayed in extreme religious fervour or zeal that may drive followers to commit extreme acts of terror against people or the environment, for example. Avalos and his fellow New Atheists aren’t trying to disprove the existence of God—as in classical atheistic thought—but as trained scholars, are seeking to warn and inform people about how any religion can end up being a dangerous entity, and a threat to both people and the environment.

Why is 9/11 such an important date for New Atheists like Avalos? He comments that New Atheism views the phenomenon of this event “as illustrative of the potential of religion to bring global war and even the destruction of the ecosphere.”[1] New Atheists have gone beyond the work of such well-known authors like Dawkins and Hitchens, and seek to bring the element of trained scriptural (not just biblical, but all “ancient sacred texts”) into the conversation. Technically, this newest development should be described as the “second wave” of New Atheists, since they are trained biblical scholars, unlike the work of non-biblical scholars that dominated the first wave.

What exactly makes New Atheism a unique development in terms of biblical and scriptural scholarship? Avalos remarks that “the most salient feature of the New Atheism is that it has gone beyond the basic philosophical and scientific arguments against God and the Bible. The New Atheism emphasizes the immorality of religious thinking itself. It challenges the ethics of Christianity and the Bible, in particular.”[2]

Challenging Christianity and The Bible

As a New Atheist who has written extensively on a variety of subjects, Avalos has come under his share of attacks for his work, mostly by conservative evangelicals. He dares to question such “sacred cows” that have long had a home in Christian scholarship and churches, such as: which Bible? Is there such as thing as THE Bible? The fact is, he points out, that “the text of our New Testament is a hypothetical reconstruction that is identical to no single manuscript extant in the first few centuries of Christianity.

Our canon should have been made of many combinations and included books that we do not consider part of ‘biblical studies.’ Therefore, ‘the Bible’ is partly the construction of scholars (ancient or modern), and today the power to define the Bible still resides mostly with ecclesiastical authorities, as well as with academic biblical scholars. So, even if believers hold ‘the Bible’ to be relevant, it is because clerics and scholars have not divulged how much of it is constructed by scholars.”[3]

Moreover, he points out, what passes for “objective historical scholarship” is often masquerading as theologizing or apologetics by Christian scholars. For one thing, beyond this issue of “which Bible we are using,” in turn it raises a corollary question of “what exactly are the original forms of Jesus’s teaching?” NT scholars, for example, he remarks, “ultimately pick and choose what representation agrees with their opinion of Jesus’ historical teachings.”

In other words, the methods often used by Christian scholars and NT ethicists are as follows: first, paint whatever portrait of the Jesus you want to construct in the first place; and second, find “historical teaching” from the Gospels that backs up your point of view. In this way, the “Jesus of the Gospels” can become whatever we want him to be: a peace-loving, all-inclusive, pacifist guru who never did anything wrong, or said anything wrong. But if he was truly a human being, argues Avalos to the contrary, then surely he must have had flaws—as do we all.

The problem is, he points out, that the counter-argument most Christians would advance to such a claim—that Jesus, as both man and God, was somehow supra-human—doesn’t really fit the evidence from the Gospels that Jesus may have in fact made mistakes, or demonstrated real human flaws. All too often, however, the plain reading of the text (that seems to demonstrate that Jesus had human flaws) is explained away or sanitized.

Such practices by NT scholars and ethicists, seeking to construct a “perfect Jesus” on which to base modern ethics, has in turn led to an even greater problem. New Testament ethicists, for example, have both sanitized and protected those portraits of the Jesus they construct, “regardless of how historical they may be. Whether or not Jesus said or did anything claimed in the Gospels is not as important as the fact that these portrayals have become normative for modern Christians.”[4]

Conclusion

In other words, if what Avalos is saying is correct about the Bible and much of Christian scholarship, we as Christians have some deconstructing to do here. You may have, in fact, been sold a bill of goods here. We may well deride certain people for proof-texting from the Bible to “prove” their theological point, or to buttress their argument. But it turns out that, as Avalos points out, so much of what passes for “objective historical scholarship” by Christian theologians and ethicists is essentially doing the same types of things—just on a higher, more “academic” level.

The problem is, however, that whatever goes on in the ivory tower of academia will eventually filter its way down to the street level. Pastors trained in such methods in seminary, by professional biblical scholars, will eventually have to translate the method into practical theology, sermons and Bible studies. This is where such teaching makes its way into churches, and the lives of ordinary, everyday average Christians.

Can you question it? Welcome to the journey of discovery and deconstruction.

Footnotes

[1] Avalos, Hector. The Bad Jesus: The Ethics of New Testament Ethics. Sheffield: Phoenix Press, 2017: 13.

[2] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 14.

[3] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 25.

[4] Avalos, The Bad Jesus, 13.

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