Repost: Why the Ethics of John are Dangerous for Both the Church and Political Discourse (Skinner)

The TwelveNearly a year ago (last October 11, 2013), I published the following post on my previous blog. Today during a the Q & A portion of a fabulous lecture given by Dr. Willie Jennings (Duke Divinity School), a stranger from the audience stood up to sermonize (rather than ask a question) and much of what he said betrayed the sort of thinking I discuss below. So, I thought it would be a good thing to share again. Enjoy.

Few writings have shaped orthodox Christian doctrine or the popular Christian imagination as much as the Gospel of John and its story of an enfleshed God who stepped down from heaven to do the Father’s will. Apart from John’s presentation of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine Chalcedon ever happening. And if you have been exposed to much teaching or preaching within contemporary Christianity, you have no doubt heard language and themes drawn largely from the Gospel of John. (I often tell my students that John, along with Paul’s letter to the Romans, are the two most foundational NT writings shaping both early doctrinal developments and the current American Christian ethos).

Against the backdrop of John’s importance within contemporary American Christianity, I see a significant problem which goes largely undiagnosed. One characteristic feature of John’s Gospel is its use of dualistic language to tell the story of Jesus. We see this from the beginning of the narrative: the Word is the “light of humanity” which “darkness” has not overcome (1:5). Jesus is “from above” and he has entered the realm “below” to fulfill his mission. Were we to draw the picture comprehensively, we would have to look at the language of truth v. falsehood (also present in the Epistles of John); flesh v. spirit, and on and on. In my opinion, this sort of language is often swept uncritically into the Christian lexicon without the necessary attention given to the rest of the NT which, by and large, does not work in such extremes. A simple comparison of Jesus’ teaching in John with his teaching in the Synoptics will easily support this point. So here’s the undiagnosed problem as I see it:

Given the Gospel’s influence, many Christians are led to the uncritical stance that the external world is to be regarded in the same extremes we see in John’s story of Jesus. And in my experience, this also creates an ethical dualism in which individuals are only able to conceive of ideas or proffer opinions rooted in right v. wrong,  good v. evil, black v. white, or whatever dualism you prefer. This creates an imbalance in which Johannine ethics become the dominant way of thinking about the world and people. (I can already hear some of my colleagues objecting that this statement is ironic since there has been much discussion over whether there is any such thing as ethical material in the Gospel; I think there is by the way). This sort of either/or thinking is dangerous in virtually every area of discussion, but I think it has the potential to be even more destructive in the context of current American political discourse. Despite a common insistence that there is or should be a “separation of church and state,” we can all see that religion and politics are inextricably intertwined in this country (for more, see here and here).

Political discourse in the US needs no help thinking in such extremes, but the introduction of Christian language in current political squabbles only serves to confirm my suspicion that American Christians are thinking too much like John’s Jesus and not enough like the Jesus-mosaic we get through a balanced reading of the entire New Testament. Left unchecked and devoid of nuance, an acceptance of the ethics of John is not only dangerous, but potentially destructive for the American church and much of our political discourse.

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The “Response Book”: A Few Reflections on a Uniquely Evangelical Phenomenon (Skinner)

How God Became JesusOver the past few days my social media feeds have been inundated with various posts about two recent books: Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God  and a multi-author “response” volume entitled, How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman. Various memes have even been created to promote one side or the other (see here and here). The latter book boasts an international lineup of evangelical luminaries, including Simon Gathercole, Craig Evans, Michael Bird, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling. The book has also received endorsements from academic heavyweights like Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham. Many of the comments in my Twitter and Facebook feeds have offered words of praise for the “response book” while suggesting that Ehrman’s book is self-serving and part of the “same old story” he continues to tell. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I know several of the individuals involved in these projects, I respect all of them, and have benefited from some of their past work. That said, I wanted to take a moment to offer a few (perhaps unpopular) reflections on the things that come to my mind when I see yet another evangelical publication aimed at responding to or refuting the work of some scholar outside the evangelical fold. For the record, I have not yet read either book in this debate (both are on the way to my office), so I can’t yet speak to the substance of this particular “response book.” The following reflections are more about the culture that continually feels compelled to produce such responses:

(1) I remember sitting in my first theology course (at an evangelical institution) and hearing my professor lament that many in the evangelical world were too interested in reacting or responding to the arguments of non-evangelicals, with the result that they rarely, if ever, engaged in projects that were genuinely creative or constructive. Sadly, I have found this to be true over the past 15 years. Reacting to those with whom you disagree appears to be a critical part of the warp and woof of evangelical life. So many of the positive comments about the second volume that I have read to this point use descriptors like “brilliant defense” and “cogent response,” which at least gives the impression that those who are reading the book believe this is why the “response book” exists. This general impression makes me sad and a little uneasy, especially since I hold the conversation partners in this debate in high regard, as scholars and as individuals.

(2) To my mind there is an interesting irony in the “response” to Ehrman: the very faction that wants to strip him of his credbility unwittingly contributes to his acclaim. They end up giving him more attention when they really want people to stop reading him. Further, they also unwittingly give the impression that it takes five or six evangelicals to counter one non-evangelical scholar. Evangelicals can’t wait to read a book written by “some of the most learned and faithful scholars within evangelicalism” (an actual quote I read), but the wider, non-evangeical public often views this scenario as an army at war with an individual…which brings me to my next thought. 

(3) One word: Fear. Projects like this one give many non-evangelicals the impression that evangelicals are afraid of the arguments that contradict their own. Whether this is true or not is debatable.

(4) I know many gifted and creative scholars working both within and outside of evangelical circles. Those who get the most attention are not necessarily those who propagate a non-evangelical narrative or even a non-Christian narrative, though I often hear this critique. Generally speaking, those who get wide attention do so because of the quality of the work they put forward. Yes, Bart Ehrman gets a lot of publicity. Much of this is related to his ability to write compellingly for non-specialist audiences. He communicates, both on television and in print, in a creative and original way. You may not be thrilled with his narrative, but you can’t doubt his ability to connect with the wider public. When the evangelical faction as a rule begins to do truly interesting, creative, and constructive work, they may begin getting the same attention. However, this might also require a re-thinking of the evangelical narrative in which greater nuance is applied and ground is ceded to those with better, more compelling, and more convincing arguments.