Thursday, May 16, 2013

How do Bad Ideas Continue to Stick Around?

I usually don't take work home with me, but right now, I cannot help it.  Richard Bauckham's book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony has me hooked.  Last night, as I read in my recliner at home, I found myself enlightened and bewildered at one and the same time.

As I wrote yesterday, I was taught biblical criticism which had its roots in form criticism.  As I read through Bauckham's thoughts on this matter, I found myself sitting right back in Theology 101 and New Testament 301.  "This is exactly what I was taught," I thought.

And then Bauckham began listing the criticisms of form criticism.  These criticisms had never seen the light of day in my theological education--and they were enlightening.  There were no less than nine criticisms which effectively shattered the assumptions form criticism were built upon relegating this form of biblical study to the academic scrap heap--at least one would think it would have done so.

But Bauckham writes something very, very telling (bold emphasis mine):

Even a few of these criticisms would be sufficient to undermine the whole form-critical enterprise.  There is no reason to believe that the oral transmission of Jesus traditions in the early church was at all as Bultmann [one of the movement's chief proponents] envisaged it.  It is remarkable that this is not more widely acknowledged explicitly, though, once one is aware of it, it is not difficult to see that many contemporary Gospel scholars acknowledge it implicitly by ignoring form criticism in its classical form.  But what form criticism has bequeathed as a long enduring legacy is the largely unexamined impression that many scholars--and probably even more students--still entertain: the impression of a long period of creative development of the traditions before they attained written form in the Gospels.  The retention of such an impression is not defensible unless it is justified afresh, for the arguments of the form critics no longer hold water.  pg. 249
I can attest to the truth of the bold statement.  And it made me wonder two things: 1) why weren't the criticisms noted by Bauchham taught by my professors?  and 2) Why does this stuff continue to stick around even though it has been thoroughly debunked?

The first question, I cannot hazard to guess as I do not know the hearts and minds of my professors.  Perhaps one day I will get the gumption to ask, but at this point, it doesn't really matter.

The second question is a bit more troublesome because I have an educated guess.  Mind you, it is educated, but it is still a guess.

The reason this particular idea has stuck around for so long is that it gives a theologian who is taught in this manner the permission to explore "what Jesus really said" and slough off anything he or she perceives as added by a particular community.

Paraphrasing the infamous words of Depeche Mode, it allows a person to build his or her "own personal Jesus."

One of the things I remember most about attending Texas Lutheran University in the theology department was the deep seeded distrust and animosity toward "Fundamentalist Christians."  Particular animosity was directed to the exclusivity of said "Fundamentalist Christians."  There were many at TLU who didn't like anything which proclaimed to be exclusive, and great pains were taken to be extremely inclusive.

However, this does pose a bit of a problem when studying the Gospel stories of Jesus--especially when traveling through the Gospel of John.  Jesus makes numerous exclusive claims in this book most notably the claim read at many, many funerals from the 14th Chapter of the book of John, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me."

How does one reconcile this passage with inclusivity?

Easy enough if you subscribe to the form criticism assumption that it was communities of faith who put together these stories after a long period of time to state the community's thoughts instead of what Jesus supposedly, really said.   One could say, "This snippet from the book of John reflects more the community's thoughts about Jesus instead of the actual words of Jesus." 

And in one fell swoop, one can discount what Jesus reportedly said in this book so that one can maintain his or her ideology surrounding inclusivity.

Of course, this doesn't have to be limited to Jesus' claims of exclusivity.  If someone doesn't like Jesus' teaching about wealth, one could use the same methodology to point out that this was what the community's thoughts of Jesus were and not what Jesus actually said.  Of course, that won't do for those who believe Jesus really did say stuff about wealth and privilege, so therefore, they have to come up with ingenious ways of discovering the historical nuggets of what Jesus really said embedded in the Gospels.

But, as I pointed out yesterday, it is striking how the historical nuggets most often come to reflect the personal biases of those who seek to "discover" them.

Yet, this is not surprising.  We all would like Jesus to confirm our particular way of life and how we look at the world, and we're not too comfortable when His teaching confronts us and shows us to be in error.  Early Christian thought and teaching called a person to repentance when such a thing happened--but today, it's much easier to explain that teaching away instead of actually following it.

This is why, in part, I believe the impression left by form criticism has stuck around--even though the technique itself has been thoroughly shown as bad.  Will it ever go away?  Not likely--especially if people can continue to construct their own images of Jesus instead of seeking to be transformed into His.

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