Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Jesus Seminar Silliness

Today I came across an article about a Jesus Seminar event held in March at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The speakers were Bernard Brandon Scott (Darbeth Distinguished Professor of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, University of Tulsa, Oklahoma) and Joanna Dewey (Harvey H. Guthrie, Jr. Professor Emerita of Biblical Studies at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, MA). Here are some interesting portions of the article:

Early Christianity was an oral culture launched by an illiterate Jesus Christ, according to two liberal New Testament scholars who spoke recently at a Jesus Seminar event in Washington, D.C.

The claim was one of several bold assertions made during a recent March workshop in which the prevalence of Evangelical Christianity was bemoaned and scripture was “reimagined” from a feminist perspective. The Salem, Oregon-based Jesus Seminar dismisses scripture’s historicity and draws from sources outside of the Biblical canon in order to produce what they claim to be a more authentic view of Jesus than the church teaches. ...

During one session of her presentation, Dewey donned a head covering and dramatically sought to “re-imagine” a female-centered telling of Mark’s gospel, performing as an imaginary late first century woman.

“I think something like this could have happened,” Dewey proposed, titling her performance “the Gospel of Ruth.”

The Episcopal seminary professor described such a “reimagining” of Mark’s gospel as an important step in countering alleged sexist distortion of Biblical history. Women, Dewey argued, would be at center, rather than periphery, of any actual gospel events.

Scott agreed, asserting that “These days, unless you are a right-wing conservative, a feminist reading of the Bible is typical.” ...

Sweeping claims by Scott and Dewey, including an assertion that monastics rejected episcopal authority, went mostly unchallenged during the workshop at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. Scott at one point suggested to the audience of 40 mostly elderly participants to “make up your own canon” of scripture.

“I would trade the book of Revelation for Hamlet any day,” Scott announced, adding that he would swap the Pastoral Epistles for any two Emily Dickinson poems. “We’d be way better off.”

The United Church of Christ layperson also categorized Revelation as the book of “a left-wing bomb thrower” violently reacting against the violence of Rome. ...

Both Scott and Dewey shared their dismay at the continued worldwide spread of Evangelical Christianity and the failure of liberal religious thought to gain widespread traction. Both of the Jesus Seminar speakers complained that the prevalence of evangelicalism led to assumptions that it is the only viewpoint of Christianity, resulting in either adherence to evangelical belief or a rejection of Christianity altogether.

Mainline Protestants also earned Dewey’s scorn, as the retired Episcopal seminary professor expressed frustration at “pressure still there to preach [Bible] stories as true.”

“We’re not just talking about Evangelicals – but liberal, east coast Episcopalians,” Dewey fumed. Scott agreed, sharing that he no longer revealed to fellow airplane passengers that he was a New Testament scholar out of frustration with preconceived notions he encountered.

“We have lost the public battle for what it [scripture] means, and that’s unfortunate,” appraised Scott, with Dewey adding that the church was going through a “profoundly anti-intellectual” period.

Where does one even begin to engage the multiple levels of caricature, oversimplification, hubris, and just plain silliness in all of this? Fortunately, David Fischler has offered critical remarks in response to this event that are worth a look, so read it all.

I'm reminded of an observation by one of my clergy colleagues who characterized much of what passes for "progressive" theology these days as Tinker Toy or Play-Doh Theology. The presupposition is that there is nothing given via revelation for theology to deal with, no substantive content to the Christian faith that makes a claim on our lives and loyalties. So if you don't like the configuration of tinker toys you find in the Church, you simply take them apart and make something new that better reflects your personal theological, ethical, and political views (this was called "constructive Christian theology" back in my divinity school days). And if you don't like the shape of play-doh that you find in the Church, you simply mash it up and reconfigure it into whatever shape(s) suits your fancy.

But what if you don't like tinker toys or play-doh to begin with? No problem. You simply throw them out and find other "toys" to play with. Like throwing out the Book of Revelation for Hamlet, or the Pastoral Epistles for a couple of Emily Dickinson poems. Or (in the case of another scholar), you throw out the Gospel according to John for Gnostic Gospels like Thomas. You could even make up your own canon of Scripture!

Although his posting on the Jesus Seminar was not in response to this particular event with Professors Scott and Dewey, I'll give Robert S. Munday some of the last words:

For those who aren't familiar with The Jesus Seminar, it is made up of religion and theology faculty members in liberal institutions who have already evidenced skepticism about the Bible before they even get to join. They then analyze the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels and vote on how few of those words they think he actually said.

It is a remarkable way to make a living. Skeptical academics write skeptical articles and books that are peer reviewed by other skeptical academics, and everyone gets paid.

Jesus Seminar "scholars" make a career of disputing the authenticity of Jesus' words when there is absolutely no way anyone will ever be able to verify objectively whether they are correct (at least not in this lifetime). This would never pass for scholarship in the hard sciences or even as a worthwhile achievement in most professions.

It is, indeed, a remarkable way to make a living!


The Underground Pewster said...

The market for something new is inexhaustible. Even St. Paul had a few choice words about these snake oil salesmen. Of course, Paul has been conveniently discredited by these modern day false teachers who have been given the keys to way too many a church and far too many a young pliable mind.

Bill Dilworth said...

So when Our Lord opened the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, what was he doing - looking at the illustrations? Pretending to read? Their assertions read like caricatures not of canonical Christianity, but of themselves.

Over at the Episcopal Cafe there is a notice of the reimagining by the Rev. Ms. Cynthia Bourgeault of the Passion reading for Good Friday, because the original, presumably patriarchal one doesn't have the word "love" in it, or give any lines to St Mary Magdalene.

They really are making it up as they go along, it seems.

C. Wingate said...

Bill, the whole point of the word "illiterate" is portray the modern theologians as wiser than Jesus! From the point of view of actually reading what the gospels SAY about it (I'm looking at you, Nicodemus) this is the most rockheadedly bizarre approach to take, but it's the fundamental justification for their "we know better than scripture" principles.