Totalizers and Tentative Investigators

Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic ExcursionThe following is taken from a post by Rick Kennedy at the Biologos Forum, part 5 of his series Jesus, History, and Mount Darwin: An Academic Excursion. While it was written about college professors, I would suggest that it applies more broadly to writers, to bloggers, to preachers, and indeed to anyone who expresses their opinion:

One way to categorize college professors—an overgeneralization but a useful one—is to split them into Totalizers and Tentative Investigators. There are Darwinist and Christian professors of both types.

Totalizers use their classrooms to preach that if all people are perfectly rational they will all ultimately agree. Usually there is some sort of declaration that the progress of knowledge has one glorious end: light and magnetism will be understood, democracy and capitalism will prove to be the best systems for all situations, and natural selection will answer all questions about life. All rational people ride one train of progress together. Tentative Investigators, in comparison, are wimpy. Ask them a question and they give you at least two answers joined by “on the other hand.” The Totalizers are the more popular teachers, their books are easier to read, and the news media finds them easier to interview. Tentative Investigators are like cats. They can’t be herded and can rest easy in the midst of household chaos. Tentative Investigators don’t disagree with the notion that knowledge is progressing; however, they are pretty sure that progress is uneven, experiencing fits and starts, and that we can never be sure at any one point whether we are taking one step backward or two steps forward. Totalizers are often scared that someone—especially some religious or political authority—is going to block progress. Tentative Investigators are less worried that progress can be stopped.

Richard Dawkins is a Totalizer. Among the Greeks, Plato was a Totalizer. Plato preached a triumphal, Dawkins-style, one-size-fits-all rationalism. Socrates, Plato’s hero, in over a thousand pages of Dialogues, never finds himself to be wrong. Socrates is rational and never has to apologize. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have a long tradition of waxing poetic about some ultimate simplicity that is supposed to exist in nature and/or God. Simplicity, especially in an aesthetic of “elegance,” is supposed to be guidepost to truths.

Me? I believe God is Truth, but my life and my Bible don’t give me any evidence of an ultimate simplicity. God, the personal God, the triune God, is Truth; however Isaiah warns: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

I would side with this author and count myself as a Tentative Investigator, against all the Totalizers who I so often see among vocal atheists and religious believers alike. While it would be too strong to accuse all Totalizers of being fundamentalists – and indeed some Christian Totalizers have quite different doctrines from Christian fundamentalists but similar attitudes – it is this assertion of certainty that one is correct and arrogant dismissal of other opinions that underlies fundamentalisms of all kinds.

Was Jesus born into a poor family?

Rod of Alexandria writes an interesting post God Is Santa Claus: How the Prosperity Gospel Poisons the Spirit of Christmas (which he also links to at Unsettled Christianity, thereby kindling Joel’s apparent ire). I agree with most of his criticism of prosperity churches and ministries, and indeed of any churches which allow their life to “center around the wallets of the monied, and their interests”.

But I disagree with Rod on one point. He writes (corrected by me):

In Luke 2, when our Jewish Savior was presented at the temple, his family was so poor, Mary and Joseph had to give two doves or pigeons, according to the law of Moses (Luke 2:24). The author of Luke had in mind Leviticus 5:7 (NIV): “Anyone who cannot afford a lamb is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the LORD as a penalty for their sin—one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering.” Mary and Joseph could not even afford one of the lambs that was probably in the manger with them the night Mary the Theotokos gave birth to our LORD.

First, I would correct Rod’s reference to Leviticus. The passage Luke had in mind is surely not 5:7, concerning the sin offering in general, but 12:8, which is specifically about purification after childbirth. But the wording is almost identical. Even in 12:8 one of the birds is for a sin offering, implying that there was considered to be something sinful even in Jesus’ birth.

Two turtle dovesAs Rod notes, Mary and Joseph chose to offer not a lamb and a bird, but the poor person’s alternative of two birds. Very likely what they brought was the first alternative in the Hebrew, two turtle doves – not on the second day of Christmas but on the 33rd day, according to Leviticus 12:8.

In other words, Rod is claiming that Mary and Joseph were poor. But is there in fact any evidence for this?

First, let’s consider the evidence from them bringing the supposed poor person’s offering. I researched this a little a few years ago, and from what I remember there is very little evidence of what offerings were actually presented after the birth of a baby around the time that Jesus was born. (If anyone reading this knows of any evidence, please mention it in a comment.) On this basis we can only speculate. But my own guess would be that, given a free choice between offering a lamb or a second bird, and given human nature, most people would choose to give the bird. It would very likely have been only the ostentatiously wealthy and religious, such as the Pharisees, who would have offered a lamb – and made a big show of doing so. I doubt if the really poor brought even birds as offerings for each of their many children, especially if that involved a long trip to Jerusalem every time, which may be part of why the Pharisees dismissed them as ignorant of the law and cursed (John 7:49).

Anyway, even if Mary and Joseph were normally quite prosperous, their finances would surely have been seriously stretched by the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the stay in Judea of more than a month, probably with little chance of work for Joseph. (Here I assume a traditional understanding of the biblical nativity stories.) In these circumstances a lamb would have been a significant expense even for someone quite wealthy.

So, if we discount this evidence from the offering in Luke 2:24, what can we say about the economic status of Jesus’ family? Well, I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in this field. But it seems clear that they were not in the main class of the poor of the time, agricultural day labourers like the ones in the parable who were waiting to be hired for work in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Joseph, by contrast, was a skilled craftsman – the Greek word tekton means not so much “carpenter” as “builder” (Matthew 13:55). Very likely he found good building work at the Romanised city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth.

More than 30 years later Jesus himself was known as a tekton (Mark 6:3). But by the time of his ministry he had apparently moved away from Nazareth to Capernaum. Very likely one reason for this was that that was the home of his relative Zebedee, whose fishing business was profitable enough to support not only his sons James and John but also hired workers (Mark 1:19-20). So, although his standard of living was surely well below what would now, in the West, be considered the poverty line, Jesus was by no means among the poor of his own time.

Yes, Jesus did become a homeless wanderer who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), but that was not because of his family background, but because he chose to follow his Father’s call into itinerant ministry.

Yes, the Apostle Paul did write about

the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

(2 Corinthians 8:9, NIV)

But the poverty that Paul had in mind here was far more than physical want. Ironically, if this verse is about Jesus’ material poverty, it must also be about his followers’ material riches, and so it must justify the prosperity gospel which Rod criticises. And the context in 2 Corinthians 8-9, a passage on a collection for the poor, requires that this verse cannot be taken purely spiritually. Nevertheless it can hardly be taken as a literal statement of Jesus’ socio-economic position.

So, what can we conclude? Jesus and his family were not rich people. But neither were they poor, by the standards of their time. It may be anachronistic to speak of a middle class, but to the extent that there was one they were in it. Jesus’ poverty and dependence on voluntary support during his ministry (Luke 8:1-3) were because he voluntarily gave up his building work for the work of building God’s kingdom. At the end, although he could have avoided it, he submitted to the ultimate poverty of being nailed naked to a cross. And this became the way to the Resurrection which brought true riches, not only to himself but also to us who follow him.

On which day did God create turkeys?

This evening’s pre-Christmas Carol Service at Meadgate Church, Great Baddow featured brilliant imaginative re-tellings of Bible stories, starting with Genesis 1 and continuing through the traditional Christmas passages to the end of Revelation.

A male wild turkeyOne small feature of the first reading caught my attention. The fifth day of creation was illustrated by a vivid description of the sounds made by birds created then. But “gobbling”, presumably intended to be the sound of newly created turkeys, was among the sounds heard on the sixth day.

So on which day of creation did God create turkeys, and other flightless birds? Was it on the fifth day, along with “every winged bird” (Genesis 1:21), or on the sixth day, along with “the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals” (1:24, NIV)?

Well, turkeys have wings, so it sounds as if they should be included in day 5. But God’s purpose on that day was to “let birds fly above the earth” (1:20), which turkeys don’t do, and on day 6 it was to fill the earth with land creatures (1:24), which include turkeys.

No doubt evolutionary biologists will say that flightless turkeys are descended from birds which could fly, and so should be classified among the day 5 creations – although of course those biologists could accept the six days of creation only as symbolic. But the ancient Hebrews who wrote Genesis did not use modern biological classifications.

The issue becomes even more complicated with geese. Our modern western domesticated geese cannot fly, but they have been bred by humans, over perhaps the past 4000 years, from wild greylag geese which can fly. So I suppose they were created on the fifth day.

Perhaps the real point here is that the we should not press the distinctions which the biblical authors made, or to take them as literal chronology. The authors probably weren’t interested so much in telling exactly where turkeys fitted into their time line as in telling a beautiful poetic story. This evening’s imaginative re-telling may have come close to that original purpose – and by questioning its details, as I am in this post, I am, I suppose, guilty of ruining poetry.

But for turkeys, and geese, perhaps the more pressing issue just at the moment is not the day of their beginning but whether their end will come on the fifth or sixth day of this coming week.

David Cameron writes like the KJV

David CameronPrime Minister David Cameron in effect writes “Like the KJV”, but he also writes like the KJV. Not that he uses old-fashioned language, thee’s and thou’s etc (see what David Ker wrote about how these are misunderstood today), but that like KJV (in most editions), the written record of his words, from his speech in Oxford yesterday about that Bible version, is chopped up into short lines, often only part sentences, typeset as separate paragraphs.

I thank Eddie Arthur and Archdruid Eileen for pointing me to the full text of Cameron’s speech, which meant that they were able to comment more fully and intelligently than I did last night. As I already wrote in a comment on that post, I agree with Eddie’s conclusion, in line with my earlier post, that the PM has missed the main point of the Bible. Perhaps, as leader of a multi-cultural and multi-religious nation, he was politically obliged to skirt around it. But his self-description as a “vaguely practising” Christian suggests that there is more to this than political expediency.

Nevertheless, there are some parts of Cameron’s speech which I greatly appreciate, such as this:

I have never really understood the argument some people make about the church not getting involved in politics.

To me, Christianity, faith, religion, the Church and the Bible are all inherently involved in politics because so many political questions are moral questions.
So I don’t think we should be shy or frightened of this.

I certainly don’t object to the Archbishop of Canterbury expressing his views on politics.
Religion has a moral basis and if he doesn’t agree with something he’s right to say so.

But just as it is legitimate for religious leaders to make political comments, he shouldn’t be surprised when I respond.
Also it’s legitimate for political leaders to say something about religious institutions as they see them affecting our society, not least in the vital areas of equality and tolerance.

I have copied this extract from the official website without reformatting (unlike the extracts I quoted yesterday from the BBC report) to show something of how it is divided into very short paragraphs. Indeed in some places they are even shorter, as here:

I think these arguments are profoundly wrong.

And being clear on this is absolutely fundamental to who we are as a people…

…what we stand for…

…and the kind of society we want to build.
First, those who say being a Christian country is doing down other faiths…

…simply don’t understand that it is easier for people to believe and practise other faiths when Britain has confidence in its Christian identity.

Why is the text divided up like this? Is it so that each phrase can fit on to a teleprompter screen? Is it to help Cameron with phrasing and intonation as he speaks? In any case, it is a reminder to us that Cameron’s text, like the KJV in his own words, was “intended to be read aloud”. He makes a good point in criticising other versions (he mentions NIV and the Good News Bible):

They feel not just a bit less special but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.

As Eddie points out, understanding of the Bible text has to be primary, and so it should not be presented in mysterious or obscure language, as over the centuries much of KJV has become to many English speakers. A translation should be as clear to its readers as the original text was to its intended audience. But just as the Bible was written primarily to be read aloud, and to sound good as such, it is right for translators to produce versions which when read aloud sound good, warm and meaningful.

David Cameron does God

Some years ago I noted that Tony Blair does God, but only after he had left office, and that the next Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also reluctant to talk about God while in office.

David CameronBut their successor seems to have set aside this reluctance, perhaps a reflection of him being leader of the party traditionally associated with the Church of England. Indeed a BBC headline proclaims that David Cameron says the UK is a Christian country. This initially unlikely sounding assertion is explained in some of Cameron’s words:

We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so …

Let me be clear: I am not in any way saying that to have another faith – or no faith – is somehow wrong. I know and fully respect that many people in this country do not have a religion. And I am also incredibly proud that Britain is home to many different faith communities, who do so much to make our country stronger. But what I am saying is that the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.

Referring to Alistair Campbell’s comment that politicians shouldn’t “do God”, Cameron continued:

If by that they mean we shouldn’t try to claim a direct line to God for one particular political party, they could not be more right. But we shouldn’t let our caution about that stand in the way of recognising both what our faith communities bring to our country, and also just how incredibly important faith is to so many people in Britain.

So is this statement an unacceptable intervention by the state, in the person of a Prime Minister, into matters of religion? Or is it, from the other side of the coin, unacceptable for Cameron to bring his personal Christian faith into the political arena?

I would say it is neither. It is good and proper that a professing Christian is leading our country (that is by no means an endorsement of his policies!) and is prepared to speak out about his faith, in an appropriate context. It is right that he doesn’t “claim a direct line to God”. I’m not sure I would quite agree with his assertion that “We are a Christian country”, even in the way that he explains it, when there are so many here with other faiths or none at all. And it might have been politically wiser to avoid saying this, and possibly offending those who are not Christians. But it is his right as Prime Minister to do so.

It is also excellent that Cameron has been prepared to play a prominent part in marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, not only in his speech in Oxford today but also in contributing to the People’s Bible project (whatever I might have thought about his choice of verses for the latter). I hope that this publicity will prompt more people to read the Bible, either in the KJV or better still in a more modern version that they will understand more clearly. And I hope and pray that they will not just read it but will take its message to heart and come to know the God revealed in its pages.

Under-Realised Eschatology vs. "Dominionism"

Brian LePortBrian LePort of Near Emmaus writes an excellent post Jesus and the Occupy Movement. There is a lot that I could say in response to this and concerning the Occupy movement. But I am still busy here in the USA, so I only have time for this quote, which is peripheral to Occupy but central to the more basic issue of Christian involvement in politics:

Another approach is an under-realized eschatology wherein all “change” in this age is not worth pursuing. There is no hope for good to prevail until Jesus establishes his Kingdom on earth. If we oppose violence we are trying to “establish” the Kingdom of God. If we oppose greed we are trying to “establish” the Kingdom of God. Often this comes from people who are quite comfortable with the current dynamics of this world. This allows them to ignore Jesus’ Kingdom activities which challenged the systems of the world and that he expected his disciples to continually reenact.

This is certainly an important insight, that those who object strongly to Christian activity in the political world have an “under-realised eschatology”, that is, they don’t understand the extent to which the work of Jesus in saving the world has already been accomplished. These people complain about so-called “dominionism”, which they see as Christians trying to take control of the world, because they fail to see that Jesus has already defeated the powers of evil and set up his kingdom.

Ironically only yesterday I reacted in a comment to the opposite error. Phil Whittall, in his review of When Heaven Invades Earth by Bill Johnson, questioned “why God has to invade His own earth and infiltrate governments that He presides over”, suggesting an over-realised eschatology in which God is already in complete control of the world and so Christian activity to take this control is unnecessary. I pointed out how this contradicts 1 John 5:19; it also goes against what we see in our nations today.

In contrast to both of these positions, I would take a middle line, that God’s kingdom has been inaugurated on earth and is already breaking into the world system controlled by the evil one. On this basis the Christian responsibility is to seek to extend this kingdom, not so that the church can take control of the world but so that God can, so that Jesus can truly reign as King.

Of course this raises all kinds of questions about how the kingdom should be extended in practice. Certainly some of the ways that have been suggested, such as the Reconstructionist agenda of imposing Old Testament law on modern society, are sub-Christian and quite wrong. But we must resist the under-realised eschatology which leads to passive acceptance of the wrongs of this world – especially when this is used as an excuse by comfortable and prosperous Christians to refuse to do anything about the evil and the suffering which they see around the world and very often even in their own neighbourhoods.