The Straw Man and the Arrogant Modernist

God save me from smug, ill informed, modernists who spend their time deconstructing faith thinking that they know what is true. The latest, and conceivably the worst, contribution to this genre being Divinity of Doubt by Vincent Bugliosi.

It makes me angry because, while they legitimately dismiss the mythic constructs of faith formed in pre-modern times, they fail, utterly and completely fail, to recognize the validity of the experience those ancient constructs sought to illumine. They described those experiences, and reflected on their meaning for the life we live, using the language and worldview available at the time. Has our worldview evolved? Certainly. Do we know more than they about the working of the physical world? Of course humanity has made great strides along that line of development. But has either the modernist or post-modernist worldview provided a context for meaning that can sustain and guide human society in the face of the cataclysmic change which even now bears down upon us? Most assuredly not, for that line of development has atrophied.

As a matter of faith, and further as a matter of experience, I believe those mythic-literal forms of religion were pointing towards something real. We ignore them at our peril. Place yourselves in the arrogant hands of Mr. Bugliosi and that is precisely what you will do.

The jacket cover suggests that Bugliosi is “joining the 2000 year old conversation which no one has contributed anything significant to for years,” (Oh please), and that he “shakes the very foundations of Christianity by establishing that Jesus was not born of a virgin, and hence was not the son of God.”

He succeeds only in setting up a straw man – an idea about God that is constructed as near as I can tell, from a literal reading of the Bible, and poll data about what Americans believe – (not my first source for theological reflection thank you very much). Then he neatly and smugly tears it apart. Well congratulations Vince, you have discovered that the ancients were operating from within a less evolved world view than ours. This is your contribution? There haven’t been thousands of others before you?

Nearly every page contains an example of Bugliosi’s brand of arrogant, modernist thought. But time and again it comes down to his uninformed view of the nature of scripture. He devotes a chapter to questioning the veracity of the Book of Genesis, “the first and most important book of the bible,” according to him. (We don’t capitalize the names of books anymore?) His first problem? We don’t know who wrote it. Well, duh?

Of course we don’t know who wrote it. The Book of Genesis, (and if he were to bother reading the most rudimentary modern scholarship before spouting off he would know this), had many authors, many layers of editing before coming to its current form.

He then complains that “following Genesis Chapter 1, we progress, supposedly chronologically, to Chapter 2 where we find God creating Adam.” Wrong, but thank you for playing. Genesis 1, the poem about the formation of creation, and Genesis 2, the fable concerning the creation of humankind, are two separate stories, written by two separate authors, and included in the text of Genesis at two different times in history.

Again, if the author had bothered to read the most rudimentary modern scholarship he would know that the ancients told stories of the origins of creation as a way to understand their place in it all. Good God man, we still do it. What do you think the story we now tell about the 13.7 billion year creation which has proceeded through a process of evolution from its origins in the big bang to this precarious moment in human history today? Why would we care to discover if it didn’t have something to do with the context within which we live life?

He treated us to more of his amazing tricks, slicing and dicing more straw men – Jesus, the “son of God,” who “died for our sins,” the inconsistencies he finds in scripture. (It was written by thousands of authors over thousands of years and he expects consistency? As a friend of mine likes to say, “If it were any tidier, I wouldn’t believe it.”)

Then as if on cue he raises the two big ones. First, the question of suffering. If it exists how can their be a God who purports to love God’s people? Well, there can’t, if what he means by “God” is a personified power that controls all the events of history. Yet another straw man. Then there is my personal favorite: there are many religions, Christianity has no valid claim to exclusive truth. Gosh, now there’s a news flash. Of course we don’t. We are talking about God. God, who cannot be contained by words. That is why the Apostle Paul said, “The righteous walk by faith and not by sight.”

I’m a Christian, and so I continue the great conversation within my tradition. I believe we are onto something. But do I think we’ve got hold of the truth? Certainly not. Such arrogance would be absurd.

I save the most pathetic claim for last. Bugliosi says that religion has nothing more to offer than the “the golden rule” and we don’t need religion for that. Well, how do I say this? Has he not noticed that the golden rule derived from the context of meaning established in the world’s great religious traditions? Frankly each would say that the rule isn’t worth spit if it is left to be applied by those who believe they are responsible only to themselves in all that they do.

Do I write to convince Vince Bugliosi of my point of view? No, that would be a waste of time. I write to the rest of you, to those who know there is something beyond what we can see, hear, taste, touch and smell. I’m writing to those of you who are yearning for a context of meaning, but who have rightly rejected the mythic-literal frame of the world’s religions. I write to say that there is something beyond that. Enter the conversation. We’ll find it together.

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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