North Hall Society

Friday, December 24, 2004

Christmas Reflections

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another,
Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pas, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. (The Gospel According to Luke, Chapter Two, Verses 13-20)

Every Christmas, it seems, NEWSWEEK or TIME magazine will come out with an article featuring the "latest scholarship" concerning the "authenticity" of the Christmas story. The scholarly authorities cited are consistently and incorrigibly one-sided, usually including scholars like John Dominic Crossan who dissent from Church teaching, or more ostensibly mainline scholars like Raymond E. Brown (now deceased) who have been quite thoroughly corrupted by the Humean philosophical presuppositions of the historical-criticism of the biblical narrative. The upshot is always the conclusion, or at least the suggestion, that the Gospel writers are unreliable and not to be trusted, and certainly not to be taken at face value. Just how ludicrous this all is can be seen by almost anyone with a bit of intelligence and familiarity with literature, mythology, and history. One of the best examples of a powerful antedote to this kind of foolishness is a little essay by C.S. Lewis entitled "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," which is available in a collection of essays by Lewis entitled Christian Reflections [Amazon link] (1967; reprinted by Eerdmans, 1994). The following are some excerpts from Lewis' essay, which begins on p. 152 and contains four objections (or "bleats") about modern New Testament scholarship:
1. [If a scholar] tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour...

I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one [of the stories in the Gospel of John, for example] is like this... Either this is reportage - though it may no doubt contain errors - pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative...

2. All theology of the liberal type involves at some point - and often involves throughout - the claim that the real behaviour and purpose and teaching of Christ came very rapidly to be misunderstood and misrepresented by his followers, and has been recovered or exhumed only by modern scholars... The idea that any... writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance.

3. Thirdly, I find in these theologians a constant use of the principle that the miraculous does not occur... This is a purely philosophical question. Scholars, as scholars, speak on it with no more authority than anyone else. The canon 'if miraculous, unhistorical' is one they bring to their study of the texts, not one they have learned from it. If one is speaking of authority, the united authority of all the Biblical critics in the world counts here for nothing.

4. My fourth bleat is my loudest and longest. Reviewers [of my own books, and of books by friends whose real history I knew] both friendly and hostile... will tell you what public events had directed the author's min to this or that, what other authors influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why - and when - he did everything... My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure.

The 'assured results of modern scholarship', as to the way in which an old book was written, are 'assured', we may conclude, only because those who knew the facts are dead and can't blow the gaff... The Biblical critics, whatever reconstructions they devise, can never be crudely proved wrong. St. Mark is dead. When they meet St. Peter there will be more pressing matters to discuss.

However... we are not fundamentalists... Of course we agree that passages almost verbally identical cannot be independent. It is as we glide away from this into reconstructions of a subtler and more ambitious kind that our faith in the method wavers... The sort of statement that arouses our deepest scepticism is the statement that something in a Gospel cannot be historical because it shows a theology or an ecclesiology too developed for so early a date...

Such are the reactions of one bleating layman... Once the layman was anxious to hide the fact that he believed so much less than the Vicar; he now tends to hide the fact that he believes so much more...
If you're interested in ordering the book, click on the link below:
C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, edited by Walter Hooper [Amazon link]
Merry Christmas everyone!

Friday, December 03, 2004

Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon weighs in on the First Amendment debate

Patrick Henry Reardon, a priest of the Antiochean Orthodox tradition and editor of Touchstone magazine, weighs in on the current separation of Church and State debate with a provocative essay entitled "Free Press & Pulpit: On the First Amendment." This article was used (with permission of the author) as a basis for the December Colloquium of the Center for Theology at Lenoir-Rhyne College, with Dr. J. Larry Yoder leading the discussion.

One of the issue to surface, left unaddressed by Reardon, was the issue of the tax-exempt status of Churches. While some present felt the question irrelevant, others pressed the issue, some arguing on the one hand that this should prevent churches getting mixed up in politics, others arguing that churches ought to abandon their tax exempt status in order to freely address the public square and endorse political candidates.

It seems to me that one of Reardon's most salient points was implicit in his title: "Free Press and Pulpit." The press has traditionally been seen as the public arena where "the facts" (policy issues, etc.) are freely addressed and debated. The Church has been viewed for some time as properly belonging to the sphere of private and personal "values" (religious and moral beliefs). This distinction conforms to the post-Kantian bifurcation of "facts" and "values." The problem, however, as we now see clearly, is that the press does not withhold its value-judgments in addressing various public policy issues. Likewise, Church teaching is replete with implications for the public sphere of politics. The "fact" vs. "value" dichotomy, as tidy as it looks, just doesn't work. The fact is, genuine values (the immorality of rape and murder, the goodness of courage and mercy) themselves are facts, as Peter Kreeft notes in his book, A Refutation of Moral Relativism. The upshot of Reardon's article, at least in my reading of it, is that the Church ought to be freely proclaiming her teachings, and she shouldn't be hesitant to do so just because these teachings have implications for public policy, as do Church teachings (at least of the Catholic and Orthodox churches) on such matters as abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex "marriage."