Response to Randal Rauser’s criticism of episode 110

The latest episode (rd110) featured a conversation about how Christians interpret some of the most horrendous passages in the Old Testament such as the commanding of genocide and the imprecatory Psalms. We expressed sincere praise for apologist Randal Rauser’s refusal to whitewash these passages, though we did not find much substance in the alternative method of interpretation he presented. After reading his response to our episode it is clear that Rauser does not share the same high regard for us. I’ll get to why that is in a moment but first I would like to summarize Rauser’s position and our critiques of it.

Rauser defends what he calls a “qualified embrace” the scriptures. He maintains that God inspired the authors and that God had a purpose for including all the senseless violence and hateful curses contained in the text. But just because all scripture is inspired by God does not mean all scriptures are morally inerrant. The command to violence and the cursing psalms are examples of moral errors in the text. They represent what the human author intended (sensus litteralis) but God had a different purpose (sensus plenior) for including them. But is there any criteria to guide us in distinguishing between the authors voice and God’s intended message? Rauser says we must look to the overall tone of the Bible. Through the life of Jesus we see God to be a merciful and compassionate God that desires us to love and not curse our enemies. Clearly then, the genocides and imprecatory psalms are the human voice. But what was God’s purpose in including them? Its hard to say, but one possible reason was to carry the story forward. At least in the case of the imprecatory psalms they might also be examples of irony. We gleefully share the hateful sentiment of the psalmist towards the enemies of God but then stand condemned when (centuries later, I’d like to point out) we discover God really wanted us to love them all along .

The doubtcasters offered two challenges to Rauser’s “clever hermeneutic”

1. The genocidal passages play a pivotal role in the overall narrative of the Old Testament. They cannot be removed as merely the human authors prejudice without significant damage being done to our understanding of the OT.

2. it is not at all obvious that the vengeful passages are inconsistent with the overall tone of the Bible. If “overall tone” is our criteria for separating out the sensus litteralis from the sensus pleniur of the text, the merciful statements of Jesus are the ones that should be contextualized.

Let me briefly reiterate the case for both points while adding a  few small details not mentioned in the episode.

First, the OT presents a coherent narrative of the rise and fall of Israel in which the genocidal conquest of the Canaanites plays an pivotal role. Having been promised the holy land by God, the Hebrews, upon reaching its borders do not trust Gods guarantee that they will be successful in their military campaign against these powerful enemies. For their lack of faith they are cursed to wander the wilderness until the nation is purified by repentance. At the end of their conquest it is clear that Joshua and his men once again, have not followed God’s commandment…they have not finished the job of whipping out the Canaanites. This failure will lead to their downfall as God predicts in Joshua (23.11-13) because the Israelites will intermarry with the non-Hebrews who still remain and will eventually be seduced into worshiping their Gods. That is exactly what happens. As punishment for their apostasy, God eventually banishes them to exile. After they are once again purified by repentance they return to the holy land.  Making sure not to make the same mistake twice they send away the families of those who remained and intermarried making sure the “holy seed” (Ezra 9) is not contaminated again.  The whole story turns on the attempted but incomplete genocide of Canaanites. Had they been faithful to God’s commandment they would have benefited from God’s blessing. Instead they “whored” themselves out to the peoples of the land and their gods and must endure God’s curse until they reach repentance. What sense would the Old Testament make if God did not wish a bloody conquest of the promised land but instead for the Israelite to love and pray for their enemies?

Turning to the New Testament we find Jesus who does preach mercy, compassion and forgiveness…that is, when he isn’t warning people to get on the right side and escape the wrath to come.  Christians are quick to emphasize Jesus’ forgiveness but In the synoptic s the “gospel” that Jesus himself preaches is “repent and be baptized for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. One cannot fairly emphasize only the merciful passages and exclude the scores of parables and direct teachings which portray this coming kingdom in apocalyptic terms–God’s mercy is never more than a few breaths away from his judgment in these texts. Even in the Gospel of Luke, which softens Jesus apocalypticism (compared to Mark and Matthew) one of the first word’s out of Jesus mouth is a threat to the Pharisees “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The message is clear: we are all sinners but God has given us yet another chance. Repentance is available for time but then, wrath. This sentiment is echoed by Christianity’s earliest writer, Paul: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord (Romans 12:17-19).If overall tone is our guide then we see that the New Testament fits neatly with the vengeance of the Old, only the wrath Jesus warns us of will claim more than a handful of cities and villages. A few will  slip through the narrow gate and enjoy God’s mercy. The majority will wish they could be so lucky as the Canaanites.

I believe these critiques offer a serious challenge to Rauser’s interpretation of the text. Sadly Rauser did not spend any time answering the substance of our critique but instead chided us for cracking a few jokes to lighten the discussion (2 brief, not that funny jokes and one reference to a stunned face, by my count).  These mild moments of humor amidst a rather thorough discussion of his viewpoint is enough for Rauser to dismiss us as a show that has abandoned serious discussion opting instead “for an irreverent, iconoclastic tone and a barely concealed intent to dispatch the views of their chosen interlocutors as quickly (and humorously) as possible.” This was news to me. Our podcast frequently wins praise from fans (including Christians and Christian apologists) precisely because we give strive to present a fair-minded & thorough presentation of viewpoints we oppose. I’ll let our reputation speak for itself in this area but I do want to address a few of Randall’s more serious critiques.

Rauser claims we were addressing a straw-man version of his argument or “something close to it.”  He does so because we took issue with one of his reasons for making the sensus litteralis/ sensus plenior distinction.  Rauser points to a passage in Hosea as an example of where human authors intended one meaning (Israel as the “son” God is calling out of Egypt during the exodus)  but when we turn to the Gospel of Matthew we discover God had intended another meaning altogether (The “Son” is Jesus returning to Nazareth after hiding from Herod). We noted that the Gospel writers lifted many Old Testament passages out of context in order to claim they were prophecies  fulfilled by Jesus. Rauser says he is writing to Christians who accept the inspiration of the bible and ” since the host doesn’t accept the inspiration and canonical unity of Matthew and Hosea to begin with…my proposal is damned at the outset.” It would be a fair charge had the comment not been a brief aside to our skeptical listeners (instead of our primary case as Rauser’s post may lead one to believe) before continuing to consider and critique Rauser’s case on its own terms. Later he accuses us of having no familiarity with literary criticism (Again, news to us. Especially the one of us is who’s degree is in literature and the other who is a professor of ‘Bible as literature’) because we seemed incredulous that one could sort out the authors real meaning from a literal reading of the text. Contrary to Randall’s assertion, we never doubted that possibility. We only asked for a criteria to follow, recognizing that all too often scholars and apologists like to use their own feelings as a guide. Later we are accused of not being fair to Randall because we only cited one verse for a key part of his case—the  compassion of Jesus. This is a ridiculous charge as no one doubts the merciful passages in the gospels are many. If Rauser’s blog was scripture we might be justified in taking his earlier complaint about those who “eschew a nuanced and charitable articulation of [their] chosen interlocutor’s position in favor of over-simplified analysis bordering on a strawman” as a case of irony (will he hear the prophet Nathan saying “you are that man” as he reads this?). We cited only one verse because in the chapter and PowerPoint lecture Randal used to make his case, it was the only verse cited. Presumably, like us, Rauser didn’t think he needed an exhaustive list. Having mentioned irony, Randal also takes issue with our comic dismissal of the genocides as an incidence of this literary tool. Randall only thinks the imprecatory psalms are cases of irony. I’ll humbly concede that we made a mistake at this point in assuming this could extend to the genocidal passages as well. That being said, none of the hosts rejected the notion itself that irony could be used as a literary device in the scriptures, though Randall seems to think so. We only thought it was dubious to apply such a reading to those passages.

Rauser completes his post as he begins: by poisoning the well against us instead of answering the substance of our critiques.  Alluding to our “God Thinks Like You” segment, Rauser says “The hosts suggest that I’m engaged in a type of ‘projection’. It is not surprising that they’d say this. After all, their entire engagement with my position is predicated on the assumption that the Bible is not an inspired, canonical whole…If one has this assumption then it follows trivially that any claim to finding a divine voice in the text is mere projection” As previously mentioned,  with the exception of a short aside, we presented Rauser with an internal critique of his position. But beyond that, the discussion he is referring to was no mere accusation of projection to discredit Rauser. It was a review of research on the tendency of believers to encounter cognitive dissonance over the passages that create tension with their political/moral worldviews. The study and analysis we presented concluded that believers acknowledge such passages exist, and admit inner conflict, but they resolve that conflict by emphasizing the passages that match their own view as the truly important passages to Jesus, in effect, giving heavier weight to them, and ignoring or trivializing as not the essential message. We ended the discussion on a note sympathetic to well intentioned apologists such as Randall. For as frustrated as we get with their selection of evidence it is not always a case premeditated dishonesty…everyone falls into these traps.  It was a study fit to follow our discussion of Rauser’s’ hermeneutic which rests on the case that the overall tone of Jesus message is merciful (to the degree that it is irreconcilable with OT violence) despite many passages to the contrary. While Rauser thinks the other doubtcasters and I regard ourselves as above bias, in reality knowing these cognitive errors are so pervasive is what motivates us to ask for sound criteria when interpreting the scriptures…a criteria Randall has not delivered. Still, the world would be better if the believers of scripture had a sound reason for dismissing its most horrendous passages. We would like to challenge Rauser to offer a stronger version of his hermeneutic by engaging with and answering our actual criticisms of his position.

-JB

Episode 110: Clever Hermeneutics

What is a thoughtful, compassionate Christian to do with all the outrageous violence and hatred in the Old Testament? Many liberal Christians will reject the notion that these texts are inspired by God but in rescuing God’s character they sacrifice the divine authority of the scriptures. Fundamentalists will often bite the proverbial bullet and accept that God really did command these atrocities but how can one give any intelligible account of God’s holiness if He commands such evil deeds? Are these the only options available to a believer who wishes to keep the Bible and their conscience too? Apologist Randal Rauser doesn’t think so. He advocates an approach to interpreting the Old Testament which he calls a “qualified embrace” of the scriptures. It’s a clever hermeneutic but does it succeed in providing an intellectually sound way out of this dilemma? Also on this episode: Jesus shares your political views but he is more extreme, the Boy Scouts of America consider admitting gays and we conclude the episode with a touching Polyatheism segment.

Download RD110

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

RD Extra: Debating the Amalekite Genocide

not_very_nice_yahwehWhen Richard Dawkins wrote “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.”, he was spot on. Many Jews and Christians recognize the deep problems these texts present to their views on the most basic moral questions. Unfortunately, it’s become commonplace for some christian apologists to claim they ‘wrestle’ with these difficult passages when, in reality, they are rewriting them. Recently, Justin Schieber was invited to debate God’s command to slaughter the Amalekites on the popular christian radio show, ‘Unbelievable’ against apologist John Allister. In this episode, we give you the debate, response emails and closing commentary.

Download RD Extra

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

Episode Links:

‘Unbelievable’ podcast

John Allister’s blog

RD Extra: The Nativity Debate with Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser

why_does_mary_look_like_a_dudeDon’t get into heated debates with your family this Christmas without first getting your facts straight. Check out this debate between Jonathan Pearce and Randal Rauser on the historical reliability of the Nativity narratives so you can impress your family by being the most informed troublemaker at the dinner table. Merry Christmas from the Doubtcasters!

Download RD Extra

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

Episode 109: The Biology of Religious Patriarchy

womenWhy are religious moralists so preoccupied with sex? Attitudes on sexuality are far more predictive of religiosity than attitudes on charity, social justice or any other measure. Religious scriptures abound with rules and restrictions aimed at controlling women’s sexuality in particular. Is the current religious obsession with sex just an unfortunate result of religion’s male-dominated history or are there deeper forces at work? On this episode the doubtcasters review recent studies which illuminate possible procreative strategies underpinning religious patriarchy. Also on this episode: the supreme court hears gay marriage cases, the Pope Who Stole Christmas and fan favorite Ed Brayton joins us to discuss his new book about the violence and intimidation many secular activists face when defending the separation of church and state.

Download RD109

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

Episode 108: Post-Election Withdrawal

The doubtcasters collectively work through their post-election withdrawal symptoms by examining how demographic shifts are changing the American political landscape with special focus on how religious vs. secular polling locations influence voting. Also for this week’s counterapologetics Justin Schieber presents a presuppositionalist argument for atheism developed by Stephen Maitzen.

Download RD108

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

RD Extra: Is Abortion Murder? (Debate)

Contrary to what we hear shouted from both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life divide, abortion actually is a complicated issue. Is it possible to make progress on an issue that seems to straddle the line of our deepest philosophical differences? If it is, it certainly won’t be done with pictures of dead fetus’ or insisting that a women’s right to choose is the only morally relevant factor to consider.
This RD extra is a debate between Justin Schieber and John Barron on the issue of abortion. John keeps a blog at Siftingreality.com. There John blogs about Christianity, atheism, gay marriage and, of course, abortion.

Download RD Extra

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

Episode 107: Are We Born Depraved?

The discovery that children have a natural inclination to believe in invisible, immortal, super-knowing agents has some religious apologists boasting that science has found the sensus divinitatis. Despite possessing this inner sense of the divine, John Calvin declared children to be morally corrupt by nature.  This doctrine of total depravity has served as a justification for authoritarian child-rearing practices aimed at instilling obedience in strong-willed children.  But a close look at the data suggests our theistic inclinations are byproducts of our cognitive development and not a special God-given faculty. Likewise, studies on the moral development of children reveal the foundations for empathy are present even at a young age. Authoritarian parenting may hinder that development and contribute to a variety of social ills.

Download RD107

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast

Episode 106: Moonie Madness

The Unification Church was virtually unknown in America until the 1970′s when concerned parents, anti-cult groups and members of congress raised alarm about the powerful “brainwashing” techniques used by “moonies” to lure new converts into their dangerous cult.  Now that the self-proclaimed “messiah” Sun Myung Moon has died a group of sociologists are defending the Unification Church. While their beliefs and practices may strike most as odd they are hardly the predatory cult some have made them out to be (these sociologists claim). In particular, researchers of new religious movements object to the pseudoscientific notion of “brainwashing”–insisting that what compels people to join groups like the Unification Church amounts to nothing more than ordinary forces of group psychology at play in any religion. Anti-cult groups have fired back accusing these researchers of engaging in apologetics and secretly accepting financial kick-backs from the same groups they defend. What is a cult and how is it different (if at all) from a religion? Is there any scientific support for the concept of brainwashing? We will attempt to answer these questions and more. Also on this episode: violence across the Muslim world, blasphemy laws backfire in Pakistan, and Mark Regnerus’ research on homosexual parenting is dissected for this weeks “God Thinks Like You”

Download RD106

Or subscribe and listen in iTunes or any podcast client:

 Podcast