Thursday, November 23, 2006

Pander Bear meets Groucho Marx


“I think Wise is forgetting some of the major ‘terms of the text’; We have a ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’. We have a ‘tree of life’. Both are cosmic in their scope and supernatural powers, which is unusual for an historical account of a tree. And of course, we have a talking snake. In Numbers 22 we also have a talking animal, Balaam’s ass. But by verse 31 we have the angel of the LORD standing over Balaam, with sword in hand, and Balaam trembling, prostrate before him. Clearly to Balaam, and to us by the text, this was a miraculous intervention in animating the ass to rebuke Balaam. In the Genesis 3 account, Eve gives no indication of surprise to find herself being addressed by a snake. She is not laid prostrate by the angel of the LORD, we do not see a historical resolution testifying to extraordinary nature of the snake that talked.”

i) Notice how the Evangelutionist uses “mythical” and “miraculous” interchangeably.

ii) To say the two trees have “supernatural powers” is deeply misleading. In Scripture, God often attaches certain blessings or cursings to certain objects. For example, when the pagans captured the ark of the covenant and brought it into their temple, they suffered a plague (1 Sam 4-5).

This doesn’t mean the Biblical narrator regards the ark of the covenant as an unhistorical symbol or an object having supernatural powers.

The effect is coming from God, not the tangible token.

iii) I’ve done a lot of blogging on the serpent, as well as the donkey, so I won’t repeat all of that here and now.

But a modern reader, if he’s serious about understanding the text in light of original intent, has to ask himself what a “serpent” would signify to an ANE reader.

He needs to think about the “serpent,” not as something you find in your local pet store, but in terms of ANE ophiolatry and ophiomancy. The serpent as a numinous, occult being.

The name of the “serpent” is also a pun. To a Hebrew reader, it would trigger imprecatory associations.

iv) The talking donkey is meant to be unnatural and highly ironic, a point well brought out by Iain Duguid in his recent commentary on Numbers.

“Way at the other end of the Bible, we find the red dragon speaking blaspheming the name of God (Rev 12). This is a dragon with seven heads and ten horns. I think it’s the rare exegete that considers Revelation historical narrative, so here again is another symbolic utilization of an animal speaking. Is it a historical account? Not in the sense Wise is using it, I suggest. Is it perfectly *true*? I believe it is. These are mythic elements, the talking serpent, the trees with supernatural capabilities.”

This is a sloppy comparison on a couple of grounds:

i) We don’t treat Revelation as a historical narrative because it doesn’t belong to the genre of historical narrative. To begin with the genre of Revelation, and then classify Genesis by taking Revelation as the frame of comparison is hardly a scholarly procedure.

ii) In terms of intertextual parallels between Genesis and Revelation, Genesis is the primary text, while Revelation the secondary text. A secondary text doesn’t determine the meaning of a primary text.

“If you were to pick up a text that you were told was ‘true’, but contained the account of trees with supernatural, cosmic powers, and a talking serpent along with a pair of humans, would you suppose that the truth was *scientific* in its telling, or moral/figurative?”

Several issues:

i) That depends on which text we’re picking up. The distinction between an inspired text and an uninspired text is scarcely inconsequential.

ii) It also depends on your worldview. The average unbeliever would ask precisely the same sceptical question with respect to every supernatural agent or event in Scripture.

iii) Notice the false dichotomy between scientific and figurative.

The opposite of figurative or moral truth isn’t scientific truth.

Historical truths aren’t interchangeable with scientific truths. But this doesn’t mean that historical truths are merely moral or figurative.

“Would he find similarities for the book of Nehemiah in Babylonian mythology as exist between Genesis and Enuma Elish, or the Gilgamesh epic? Those are manifestly mythic texts, and I can’t see that Wise would be unfamiliar with those comparisons. Would he characterize Gilgamesh as an historical account in form, if false in its actual historicity? I’m not setting up either the Enuma Elish or Gilgamesh as truths or peers to Genesis theologically, but one must purposely ignore them to omit them from comparisons to the literary style of Genesis.”

Another slipshod comparison:

i) There are no specific parallels between Genesis and the Enuma Elish.

There have been some fanciful attempts to read certain parallels out of the Enuma Elish. What happens is that framework of Genesis is imposed on the Enuma Elish, everything disanalogous is discarded, then a few incidental elements in the Enuma Elish are raised to a higher level of abstraction and compared to analogous elements in Genesis.

ii) Yes, there appear to be some genuine parallels between the Biblical flood account and the Mesopotamian flood account. How is that “manifestly mythical?”

Since, according to Genesis, the ark came to rest in upper Mesopotamia, from which point the survivors fanned out to found Mesopotamian civilization (the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Assyrians), how does the existence of Mesopotamian flood traditions render the Biblical account suspect? Why wouldn’t we treat that material as corroborative evidence?

“Here’s a little project for you, the text of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’.”

No, this text is not a little project for us. Rather, that’s a diversionary tactic which has nothing to do with either Biblical literature or cognate literary genres in that time and place.

“Well, that’s not a problem. If we were reading the Bible in a vacuum, with no real world around us, I think your demands would be more reasonable.”

Ancient Jews lived in the real world, too. And it’s “their” world which supplies the standard of comparison.

“We would probably read Isaiah telling us that the trees will clap their hands, and think that trees really *do* have hands, whatever trees are.”

The Evangelutionist is grasping at straws.

“But we don’t – I don’t – live in a vacuum, but instead in the real world God created for us. If we take the Bible seriously, we don’t maintain a “vacuum view”, a compartmentalized indulgence of some mystical version of the truth of the Bible.”

“Mystical.” He’s very fond of that word. It’s so much easier to use a pejorative adjective than it is to mount a reasoned argument.

“The Bible is real world. When Christians realize that their interpretations about the earth being the center of the universe is bogus, they ought to give way to a better interpretation of scripture that doesn’t offend God’s creation.”

The point of reference for that debate wasn’t Scripture, per se, but Ptolemy.


“The YEC literalist view just isn’t a serious view of scripture. It scoffs at God’s Word as something that is really true in the real world. I only need to have you read Steve’s recent replies to me as powerful evidence of this. The unbelievers see YEC theology, then think about what they know about God’s creation, even not knowing or admitting who created it all, and they see YEC theology as a powerful argument that Christianity is cynical hoax, the Gospel a lie. It’s only true if you can mysticalize yourself and tie yourself in horrible philosophical meta-scientific existential knots.

So my rationale for my “higher criticism” is this: YEC theology is cyanide for the spread of the Gospel. It’s Dawkins most powerful asset. He’s got nothing, nothing close to the powerful argument he has in merely pointing reasonable, honest folk at guys like Steve, and you, from what you’ve said here.

Is that good enough? Is the fact that your brittle, anachronistic, reductionist interpretive frameworks produce absurdities, logical contradictions and cascading conundra that drive people who think *away* from Christ a good enough reason to wonder if maybe you’ve got things off a bit? If the Gospel is true in a real and immanent way, a present and vital truth in the lives of real people in the real world, then YEC interpretations are completely unworkable.


Quick question: what do you get when you crossbreed a Pander Bear with a Groucho Marxist? Answer, a freak mutant hybrid popularly known as the Evangelutionist, but technically known as Ursus marxus.

The Pander Bear is notable for its chameleonic range of chromatic variation, which enables it to blend into whatever environment it is placed.

The Groucho Marxist is known for its distinctive mating call: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t’ like them, well, I got others.”

The family resemblance between Touchstone and Ursus marxus is uncanny.

Ursus marxus occupies a very limited habitat. On the one hand are specimens who come out of a conservative Christian background, have taken a left turn, but—for sentimental reasons—can’t bring themselves to make a clean break with the faith.

On the other hand are specimens who come out of a secular background, but feel a sentimental need for certain Christian values to fill the void, yet are unable to embrace the faith as a whole.

Specimens range from sophisticates like Bultmann, Rahner, and Ricoeur to cheap popularizers like Spong and Fosdick.

Modern man, so we’re told, can’t accept the precritical, prescientific view of Scripture.

i) It it’s most consistent and systematic form, Pander Bearishness treats the entire Bible as a symbolic code language, and then constructs a parallel belief-system in which every Biblical doctrine is simply a cipher corresponding to a suitably fashionable analogue.

ii) Notice how the Pander Bear begins, not with the question of what the Bible means, but the question of what people—meaning people like him—are prepared to believe. The Bible is then reconstrued to mean whatever people like him are prepared to believe.

iii) While Pander Bearishness is able to win over a few converts to the cause, what they believe is not the Bible itself, but the analogical system which has been superimposed on Scripture.

v) Complementing Pander Bearishness is Groucho Marxist exegesis (GME)—not to be confused with the grammatico-historical method (GHM).

GME is a tasty recipe for make-believe. It raises a moist index finger to the wind, then discovers a convenient reinterpretation which just so happens to coincide with the scientistic flavor of the month.

For the Evangelutionist to accuse “us” of using an anachronistic paradigm when we employ the grammatico-historical method while he glosses the Bible to instantly dovetail with evolutionary biology, quantum cosmology, and historical geology is an amusing exercise in ink-blog exegesis, but has all the intellectual merits of using string theory as the prism through which to “truly” understand Dante’s literary universe.

The Bible means whatever it meant at the time it was written. It means what the author meant it to mean for his target audience.

While GME is able to win a few sweet-toothy converts to the cause, many unbelievers have no difficulty discerning in this hermeneutical method an exercise in special pleading and intellectual denial.

Truth is both unitive and divisive. Some people are drawn to the truth while others are repelled by the truth. That’s what made Jesus such a polarizing figure.

“If you want to be able to answer a colleagues question about ‘Hey whaddya think about that supernova on the news last night, almost makes me think there’s a God’ with something better than mumbling about metrical conventionalism, you’re gonna need a different crystal ball than the one you’re peering through.”

Observe how the Evangelutionist turns himself into a parody a King James Onlyist with a cage of snakes:

“Don’t you go a-messin’ with my head, what with that new-fangled, all-fired meTRIcal convenshunalISM. I’ll have none a-yer pointy-headed foolishness. If the earth looks flat, that’s good enuf fer me. I reckon the next thing your gonna palm off on me is that mountains-n-hills aren’t REALLY smaller at a distance.

1 comment:

  1. Just a few quick observations:

    1. The idea that the Bible has to be adapted to the wisdom of the age in order to attract modern man is odd. We are told that 'the world by wisdon knew not God.' and that the Gospel is 'foolishness to the Greek'. Why should we expect this age to be any different?

    2. If the account of the creation is offensive to modern, "Scientific" man, so is the Incarnation and the Atonement. Are they to go, too? After all, this is how liberalism got a boost in the late nineteenth century.

    3. If the early chapters of Genesis are poetry/allegory, where does the allegory end and the history begin? Is all of Genesis myth? And what of the rest of the historical books of the Bible? What, indeed, of the Gospels? Or must we all adopt the position of Richard Carrier?

    Once we start playing with the plain meaning of scripture, we have to be very, very careful. And, I might add, this applies as much to literalistic readings of passages which are plainly allegory to allegorical readings of passages which are NOT allegory. This is one reason why the medieval 'fourfold sense' of scripture was so offensive. It reduced the scriptures, substituting an infallible interpreter for the book of God.