Thursday, December 8, 2011

David Marshall: Is Christianity a Curse?

For my write-up today on David Marshall’s The Truth Behind the New Atheism, I’ll blog about Chapter 9, which responds to the charge that Christianity is a curse.

1. On page 156, Marshall states: “Jesus said you will know a tree by its fruits (Matthew 7:18-20). The legitimacy of a teaching can therefore be judged by its effects…’Saints are sinners, too,’ some Christians respond glibly, then drop the subject as quickly as possible. That won’t do. The claim isn’t only that there are bad apples in the gospel barrel, or even that some criminals co-opt Christianity to do evil. The claim is that there’s something in this faith, when taken seriously, that leads to the murder of the innocent.”

This is the question: Is there something within the Bible or Christianity that leads people to murder the innocent? Marshall does not believe so. He argues that the sorts of things that are blamed on Christianity (i.e., killing witches, inquisitions, and anti-Semitism) have been present in non-Christian and pre-Christian cultures as well. He questions how devout the population was when the Crusades and the Holocaust occurred. (He states on page 168 that “the percent of SS troops who belonged to the Catholic Church plummeted during the war”, and that “While six percent of university students studied theology in 1933, when the Nazis took power, that figure fell to only two percent by 1939.”) He appeals to heroic things that Christians did, such as saving witches from death in medieval times and rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.

Marshall interacts some with the Bible itself to determine if the Bible is part of the problem. Regarding witchcraft, he refers to the healings of demoniacs by Jesus and Paul (Mark 5 and Acts 16). He also affirms that the New Testament does not promote hatred against the Jews but commands us to love everybody. But what about the apparently problematic biblical texts? On page 161, Marshall states: “The Old Testament does seem to give explicit warrant for what would come: ‘Do not allow a sorceress to live’ (Exodus 22:18). Some modern witches argue, however, that the Hebrew term referred not to wicked herbalists, but ‘black magic.’”

I think that Marshall should have wrestled a bit more with the laws in the Hebrew Bible, for they seem to have analogies to the things that Marshall says we should not blame on Christianity. Crusades? The Torah presents the Israelites conquering Canaan at God’s command and slaughtering men, women, and children. Killing witches? Well, Marshall cites Exodus 22:18, which mandates the death penalty for them. The Inquisition? The Torah has laws prescribing the death penalty for idolatry and apostasy. “But that’s the Old Testament, and we live in New Testament times”, Christians could retort. But isn’t it problematic that God at any time commanded these sorts of things?

2. Marshall says on pages 165-166: “Of course it’s a terrible shame that anyone cooperated with the Nazis. That’s easy to say, sitting in a leafy twenty-first century American or English neighborhood! But what is surprising about murder and cowardice from an evolutionary point of view? It’s just as Dawkins and Hauser predict: one looks out for one’s own, not for the ‘out-group.’ What’s surprising is when people risk their lives to save people of another race.”

I actually like this point because I myself can be quite timid. I can easily rhapsodize about how I would have done the right thing in the time of the Nazis or segregation, but who knows? Perhaps I would have been most concerned about protecting my own skin and not making waves. That’s why I admire the Christians (and others) who loved people enough to do the right thing, at potential risk to themselves. In my opinion, that’s the strongest argument for Christianity: that it can give people the courage to do what’s right, even when it’s hard.

3. And yet, Marshall states on page 172: “‘Accepting Jesus’ does not, I admit, magically transform the beast within. Jesus didn’t say it would.” I think that Christianity advertises itself as something that does change people, since II Corinthians 5:17 affirms that those in Christ are new creations, and Paul’s Gospel concerns the death of the old, fleshly, sinful man and the birth of a new man who walks in the Spirit and serves righteousness. But the problem is that so many Christians don’t appear to be new creatures. I’m not going to get on my high horse and smugly say that they’re not “real Christians”, as do many evangelicals whom I know (as if they’re so perfect). But I do wonder at times if Jesus changes people and, if so, how, for I myself realize that there is a “beast within” me, and me saying the sinner’s prayer several years ago did not make that beast magically go away.

I think that, on some level, change can come if we really want it (and I’m talking about really wanting it, not feeling that we have to want it because God will send us to hell if we don’t). An experience or new knowledge may convince us that our current way of doing things is wrong and so we should pursue an alternative path. But I also believe that there is a place for trying to make the best out of who I am now, rather than waiting for God to zap me and make me different. I think of my introversion, for example.

On the issue of change, see Bruce Gerenscer’s excellent post, Does Jesus Change People?

4. Marshall says on page 163: “Did Jesus only care about Jews, as Dawkins claimed? Or is Harris right that the gospel teaches us to hate Jews? Perhaps we should leave Dawkins and Harris to hash it out between themselves and come up with a single coherent accusation?”

I think that one can believe both of these things simultaneously, on some level, and a reason is that the Gospels themselves are multi-layered. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jesus cared only about the Jews, but he does focus on Israel in the Gospels, enough to say that his mission is to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. At the same time, the Gospels reflect concerns after Jesus’ earthly ministry, such as the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church, and many scholars have argued that this issue was projected onto the life of Jesus. The Gospels, after all, were telling about the life of Christ, but they were also addressing issues that their audiences faced.

Did Jesus favor the inclusion of Gentiles? This is debated. Many ask why, if Jesus said or did anything that favored Gentile inclusion, Paul does not make reference to it to buttress his case. But then some conservative scholars will retort that Paul’s concern was not Gentile inclusion, but rather the issue of whether or not Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the law to become part of God’s people. All Christians agreed that they should be included, but they differed on the criteria of their inclusion. And, even in the Gospels, Jesus does not appear to address that particular issue, so what saying of Jesus would Paul cite?

Does the Gospel teach us to hate Jews? I wouldn't phrase it that way. But I do believe that Israel is stigmatized in the New Testament, and this was due to a variety of factors: the rivalry between Jews and Christians, the Jewish establishment's persecution of Christians, Christian frustration that most Jews were not seeing what Christians believed they were seeing in the Hebrew Scriptures (Christ), etc. This view on the Jews was passed down from generation to generation, and it came to circulate apart from its original context. Can anti-Semitism be blamed on the Gospels? No, for the Jews were stigmatized before Christianity, since they often stood out as people with peculiar customs, and they were believed to be clannish and xenophobic. But, in my opinion, the New Testament did play a role in accentuating criticism against Jews and Judaism. Even if criticism of the Jews within the New Testament was by Jews themselves (which is sometimes the case, as with Paul, and sometimes may not be, as with Luke and Mark), as Marshall argues, the growing influence of Gentiles in the church led to the criticism snowballing into outsiders' hostility towards Jews.

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