Some blood-drenched history

“It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.” — Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth

I did a disservice to Richard Beck’s chapel lecture on Judges 19 by linking to it the other day without more context. Thanks to Dr. Beck for providing some of that missing context and engaging in a friendly discussion here in comments.

Beck’s take on the Gospels’ shaping of “the Christian imagination” reminds me — yes, again — of George Orwell’s comment on Charles Dickens:

Where he is Christian is in his quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed against the oppressors. As a matter of course he is on the side of the underdog, always and everywhere.

For Orwell, as for Beck, the claim isn’t that this “quasi-instinctive siding with the oppressed” is exclusively a Christian trait or a matter of Christian exceptionalism. Orwell shared the same instinct himself, and he was certainly not a religious man. But Orwell regarded it as a trait that is or it ought to be a characteristic of Christians.

“Siding with the oppressed” is part of what I mean when I argue for reading the entire Bible with a Jesus-based or “Christocentric” hermeneutic. That’s how I want to read that monstrous story in Judges 19 as well as all such texts of terror or clobber-verses or blood-drenched obscenities — whether in Joshua, in Ezekiel, or in Paul’s epistles.

The complain some of my fellow evangelicals have with such an approach is that it elevates some parts of the Bible above others. Yes. Yes, it does, and yes, it should. That’s what “you have heard that it was said … But I say to you” means.

Beck and Tony Jones have both recently written interesting and thought-provoking things about René Girard’s ideas about the scapegoat theory of atonement. This is having the annoying effect of nudging me toward actually reading Girard, who seems fascinating but not exactly like light reading. Anyone else want to nudge me further in that direction? If so, where would you recommend starting?

Jones has a whole series of recent posts discussing theories of atonement — a topic he’s making more interesting than I usually find it. It’s one of those topics on which people tend to present speculation with an angry certainty. The various competing theories don’t tend to be viewed as fragmentary or complementary, but as exclusive — if it’s partly this, then it cannot also be partly that. So when I wind up agreeing with several different competing theories, the proponents of those theories tend to get mad at me.

They also seem to forget that it doesn’t really matter if any of us understands the mechanics of atonement. I don’t need to know how it works, just that it works. Kind of like my Mac.

That’s not to say that I don’t have any interest in such theories — just that I don’t think Christians’ discussions of them ought to be as urgent and as fraught as they tend to be.

The one such theory I don’t much care for is the one most emphasized at the church and Christian school I grew up in. It’s the idea of “penal substitutionary atonement.” Jones doesn’t seem to like it much either. This post from Brian McLaren offers a good summary of why I think it’s a harmful insult to God:

It posits that God is planning eternal conscious torment for all human beings, except those who gain an exemption through some facet of the Christian religion (including, for some, believing in this theory). God cannot forgive, the theory (in at least some of its versions) posits, without inflicting pain on someone. When you believe that the greatest existential threat to a human being is God venting God’s wrath on that human being — whether that wrath is deemed just or not — you put human beings in two categories: the saved and the damned, the beloved and the hated. …

How different if we believe that the greatest existential threat to human beings is human evil … violence, greed, lust, fear, pride, anger, superiority, hate, malice, apathy, haste, rage, etc. If that’s the case, then God enters the picture as the one trying to save us from the destructive effects of our own evil. God is not our greatest threat, but rather our greatest hope. God is not violent in nature and does not inflict harm … but rather is the model of nonviolence, forgiveness, reconciliation, pardon, grace, and kindness, inviting our imitation.

  • Richard

    “…right up until one of us walked up to you and said “Why don’t you
    give up your ignorant Beck ways, and join the Doggetts on the path to
    salvation and happiness?”
    “Oh, you’re a Beck! I didn’t
    know. I myself am a Doggett, virtious and noble. I can only imagine what
    Becks are like. I mean, I can see that you know how to dress and groom
    yourself, but I can’t imagine what goes on in your mind.”

    I can see that. Really, that’s a powerful point. I’m thinking here of Luke 18.9-14.

    All I can say is that I wasn’t being congratulatory or triumphant with the students. I was trying to persuade them of something that they hadn’t really been convinced of, or even thought of. So the Doggett conversation would look more like this: “You stand up to bullies because you’re a Doggett!” “Really, that’s what Doggett’s care about?” “Yes, that’s what Doggett’s care about.” “Are you sure?” “Yes, I’m sure.”

    If I heard that conversation over and over I’d hear something less self-congratulatory and something closer to the tone of a chapel talk in West Texas to a group of Christian college students….

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Wait. It does not go to “issues of charity.” 

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary

    You are doing something that many of us have been subjected to before: calling us “cynical” for saying, “wait a minute, that ain’t right.” I’ve even seen people do this in relation to those who say the murder of Trayvon Martin was motivated by racism! I, for one, do not appreciate being told what my motivations are by someone else. 

  • Heartfout

     Actually, the lines that got me thinking that were ”
    The gospels have taught us to read the story from the victim’s perspective” and “We’ve been trained to read that story from Jesus’s perspective, from the victim’s perspective”, although as I have stated, if it weren’t for the lack of words like `should` used, I wouldn’t have come to that.

  • Richard

    “it is necessarily exclusionary”

    All I can say is that I don’t see it that way. Maybe I’m blind here, and likely am. I wasn’t questioning motives. I was simply saying that if I was looking in on that Doggett conversation I could read that as either inclusive, because we shared values, or exclusive, that they were necessarily trying to exclude me, a Beck. And reading it as “necessarily exclusionary” would, in my opinion, be both strange and sort of cynical. The Mom was just trying to get her kid to shape up and wasn’t trying to make comments about the virtues of others.

    Applying all this to a response to my own chapel talk I’d say that one could read it this way, “Here’s a guy trying to convince a group of largely evangelical Christian students to see standing up for victims as central to their Christian commitments” versus “Here’s a guy who thinks Christians are better than non-Christians.” I’d like to describe the former reading as more charitable and the latter reading as more cynical. Why? Because I’m assuming we all agree that standing up for victims is the right thing to do and that Christians, by and large, do a piss poor job of it. Thus, given that we’re all working on the same task one would either applaud or cut some slack to the guy trying to leverage the religious commitments of a group to get them to own and live up to that vision.

    I mean, goodness gracious, yes it could have been worded better. But it was a chapel talk worth giving.

  • Richard

    “it is necessarily exclusionary”

    All I can say is that I don’t see it that way. Maybe I’m blind here, and likely am. I wasn’t questioning motives. I was simply saying that if I was looking in on that Doggett conversation I could read that as either inclusive, because we shared values, or exclusive, that they were necessarily trying to exclude me, a Beck. And reading it as “necessarily exclusionary” would, in my opinion, be both strange and sort of cynical. The Mom was just trying to get her kid to shape up and wasn’t trying to make comments about the virtues of others.

    Applying all this to a response to my own chapel talk I’d say that one could read it this way, “Here’s a guy trying to convince a group of largely evangelical Christian students to see standing up for victims as central to their Christian commitments” versus “Here’s a guy who thinks Christians are better than non-Christians.” I’d like to describe the former reading as more charitable and the latter reading as more cynical. Why? Because I’m assuming we all agree that standing up for victims is the right thing to do and that Christians, by and large, do a piss poor job of it. Thus, given that we’re all working on the same task one would either applaud or cut some slack to the guy trying to leverage the religious commitments of a group to get them to own and live up to that vision.

    I mean, goodness gracious, yes it could have been worded better. But it was a chapel talk worth giving.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond
    charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be
    ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re
    white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary.

    Hm.

    If someone says “I got a good science and math undergraduate education because I went to MIT” I am not inclined to think they mean that there are no other universities that provide good science and math undergraduate educations. I think that’s charity on my part, not ignorance. A charitable reading would be, instead, that there are colleges other than MIT that don’t provide good science and math undergraduate educations.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m male,” on the other hand, it’s harder to be charitable in that sense. Granted, “there are genders other than male that aren’t brave” is, technically, a different statement from “there are no genders other than male that are brave,” but it’s a fair bet that the speaker is operating in the context of two genders. So to reject the “females aren’t brave” reading takes more than just charity.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m a man,” though… I dunno. It’s possible that they meant to contrast themselves to boys, for example, who are not expected to be brave. Is it likely? It depends a lot on the context. There are certainly contexts where “I’m a man” and “I’m a woman” both mean that I’m a responsible adult, not an immature child. There are also contexts where they both mean that I have a particular gender, and not some other gender. Depending on context, charity might be sufficient grounds to reject the “women aren’t brave” reading.

    None of this is to in any way make an assertion about your motives, merely to reject an assertion about other people’s ignorance.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

     

    If someone says, “we’re brave because we’re men,” it would be beyond
    charitable to think they did not mean to exclude women — it would be
    ignorant. When someone says, “we do the right thing because we’re
    white/Christian/Doggets” it is necessarily exclusionary.

    Hm.

    If someone says “I got a good science and math undergraduate education because I went to MIT” I am not inclined to think they mean that there are no other universities that provide good science and math undergraduate educations. I think that’s charity on my part, not ignorance. A charitable reading would be, instead, that there are colleges other than MIT that don’t provide good science and math undergraduate educations.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m male,” on the other hand, it’s harder to be charitable in that sense. Granted, “there are genders other than male that aren’t brave” is, technically, a different statement from “there are no genders other than male that are brave,” but it’s a fair bet that the speaker is operating in the context of two genders. So to reject the “females aren’t brave” reading takes more than just charity.

    If someone says “I’m brave because I’m a man,” though… I dunno. It’s possible that they meant to contrast themselves to boys, for example, who are not expected to be brave. Is it likely? It depends a lot on the context. There are certainly contexts where “I’m a man” and “I’m a woman” both mean that I’m a responsible adult, not an immature child. There are also contexts where they both mean that I have a particular gender, and not some other gender. Depending on context, charity might be sufficient grounds to reject the “women aren’t brave” reading.

    None of this is to in any way make an assertion about your motives, merely to reject an assertion about other people’s ignorance.

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Going to MIT is a thing you do, not a thing you are. “I got a good education” does not work as a substitute for “I have empathy.” If someone said, “I went to MIT, therefore I am a good person,” that would be parallel.

    Further, considering I’ve read things like “I’m brave because I’m a man” that were most definitely excluding women — excluding me — over and over and over again, ever since I was a small child, please excuse me for not first thinking that maybe this time someone didn’t mean it that way. It is not the job of the group that is not privileged to give “charity” to the group that is privileged. I don’t expect black people to think I’m well-meaning right off the bat and not remember all the things white people have said about and done to them. I have to prove that I am well-meaning, and for very good reasons. And no matter how well-meaning I am, because I am white I cannot know certain things that they have to know because they are black. 

    And if I said a phrase that had been used over and over and over again to exclude, demean, and insult black people? And expect them to read it “charitably”? And accuse them of “cynicism” for not doing so? No. 

  • Richard

    Hi Everyone,
    It’s Spring Break here in Texas so I’ve been able to spend a lot of time on the threads these last two days. However, I’m going be away from the computer for a while from this evening on.

    So, thanks for all the conversation. I’ve learned a great deal. It is probably cold comfort to hear, for those I offended, that my heart (as best I can tell) was in the right place. As ill-executed and myopic as my post/talk might have been, I was trying to do the right thing.

    Peace.

  • Anonymous

     

    Who showed more empathy, Ayn Rand or J.R.R. Tolkein?

    Tolkien, hands down.  Even if you’re making an equivalence between the two (I can’t really tell), any amount is greater than zero.

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    Nope, I’m there with you too.  As Dave said, unless there are only two groups I tend not to take “X is/does…” statements to mean “Not-X is not/does not…”.

  • WingedBeast

    Remember, Richard, your statement wasn’t prescriptive.  “You are to empathize with the victim because (among other things) that is in line with the requirements of Christianity.”  It was descriptive, you had asked if they had identified with the unnamed woman who, in this story, was victim, and when they had, you said their empathy was because they were Christians.

    In other words “Your Christianness explains your meeting this minimal standard of decency.”  Was that your intent?  Maybe, maybe not.  But, to use a statement that I learned from a related website, “intent is not magic”.

    With that claim of explanatory power of Christianity with regards to the basic repulsion at a woman getting killed, not only by a city full of people, but by the callous use of her as a thing by a man that she served, you are insulting… everybody involved.

    Your notion that “You stand up to bullies because you’re a Beck” was a different matter.  It was a statement that, because you are a Beck, you have certain responsibilities… which, again, was not your statement.

    Even within an “in group”, that’s insulting.  You are saying “You don’t meet this minimal basic decency standard because you, on your own, can be trusted to meet even so low a standard, but because Christianity made you that way.”  And, that is a disgusting thing to say.

    What’s more, it does real damage to any intended effort to encourage empathy for victims.  That suggestion that Christianness is an explanation for empathy is less an encouragement to empathy with victims, but an encouragement to deny empathy to non-Christians.

    Even within that in-group setting, the claim is still insulting for two reasons.  A.  Non Christians still exist.  B. So do Christians.

  • Michael Pullmann

     No, you are not. I got it from Fred’s piece, too. It’s not exclusive to the group, but it is (or should be; we are, after all, talking ideals) intrinsic to it.

  • Anonymous

    As an Atheist- I’m with Richard on this one. 

    Look- inclusivity is excellent. But that isn’t the only good thing. Some things are, yes, exclusive.  I’d find it odd if Richard commented on something I wrote from an atheist perspective and started trying to put it in a Christian context.

    Look- sometimes we’re all jes’ people, and sometimes we’re groups.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with groups- Richard is a Christian, I’m an atheist. We are part of very different groups with very different beliefs.   

    Actually, lets make it something less controversial.  Richard is a Star Trek fan. I’m a Doctor Who fan. Neither of us cares much for the others preference. 

    If Richard writes a paper talking to a bunch of Trekkies about how all morality can be derived from Jean-Luc Picard, and I write one about how all morality can be derived from the Doctor, neither one of us is insulting the other. Neither one of us is even THINKING about the other. I’m talking about my thing, he’s talking about his thing. 

    And if we’re on the street and see someone being bullied, and I jump up and say to my people “C’mon! We’re WHOVIANS! THIS IS WHAT WE DO, THIS IS WHAT THE DOCTOR WOULD WANT!”  and he yells “C’mon! WE’RE TREKKIES AND THIS IS WHAT JEAN-LUC WOULD WANT US TO DO!”….then all we’re doing is motivating our various groups with things that are personally meaningful to them. 

    If Richard was talking to me, I expect he would use different language- the Christ story doesn’t resonate with me.  But he was talking to people for whom the Christ story had incredible meaning. If he was telling this story to me, he might’ve said “you read this story and instinctively sympathize with the victim because that’s what your grandfather taught you.”

    That doesn’t mean mine was the only grandfather that passed on that sort of wisedom, it doesn’t mean that people without grandfathers are incapable of morality. It means that to get a point across to ME he used something meaningful to ME just as when he talked to THEM he used something meaningful to THEM. 

    TL;DR:  Ultimately, this wasn’t addressed to us. Richard (obviously) doesn’t mind us reading it, but we are not the audience. It was intended to move and inspire and change a group of young people with one giant factor in common, and so he used that giant factor as leverage. 

  • Russell

    Richard- thanks for stopping by and having the conversation. I cannot improve on Lliira’s comment-it really hits the nail on the head and I commend at least one or two more reads of it to you over the next couple of days (after the tension of the conversation has settled).

    I’ll just offer a couple more brief points:

    - the context of your talk is important, but please recognize that we do not share that context and that we read and interpret it in a different context, and will always necessarily do that. So claiming context as a rationale is really just an excuse. I say that advisedly as a member of several groups that both frequently speak in a special context and are (rightly) called to task for it when our comments escape that context.

    - along the same lines, please consider how your words, spoken in the intended context and to the intended audience, colors their view of the out group. Clearly you did not mean to offend, but you probably did reinforce a view of the other amongst your intended audience: that outsiders are not as virtuous

  • Anonymous

    Well… I obviously can’t speak for anyone, but I don’t think the commenters here especially doubted your intention. I think it wasn’t really made clear, since it’s sort of a base-level assumption in the community unless explicitly stated otherwise, but I’d hazard that people do largely believe that you sincerely did not intend for your talk to be exclusionary or boastful, even if a sizeable chunk of the comments have been pretty harsh. 

    Thing is, while you’ve been defending your wording by explaining that you wouldn’t feel excluded or annoyed by the “You do X because you’re a Y” setup, regardless (well, mostly) of the contents of X or Y, you aren’t your audience. I mean, absolutely, your audience does and will contain people of various beliefs who feel the same way you do, and they’ll readily agree that they did not see anything really problematic about your talk, and that they understood your intention from the start. This is true. 

    But it also contains people who don’t feel that way. It contains non-Christians who have heard similar words from many arrogant and self-aggrandising Christians, and are too tired of the same old rhetoric to give you the benefit of the doubt; it contains Christians who are disgusted with the culture of Christian superiority cultivated by so many intolerant churches, and are uncomfortable with how easily some of your words could be used to bully others, simply by reading them in a different tone of voice; it contains people who confidently identify as Christian, regardless of how valid you might think that is, and do believe that Christians are more moral, more empathetic, that Christians are naturally better people, and may happily read your words as an encouragement and endorsement of their self-righteous pride. 

    Yes, your intention was good. You wanted people to draw a deep connection between their Christian identity and their empathy, and that’s not a bad thing. I think the point was that yes, if read charitably, with a good understanding of the kind of person you are, then a reader can definitely find your intended message in your talk, and come away happy that someone out there is trying to make Christians feel good about doing good. But the context and understanding that makes this interpretation the most likely one is not something you can assume that everyone in your audience has; even if they appear to be pleased by what you’ve said, you can’t assume that the message they heard is the one you meant to convey. 

    Obviously, you can’t guarantee against misunderstandings 100% of the time, but in this case, I think it’s safe to say that your intended meaning was not self-evidently the most likely one, and I think there are things that could’ve been added to your talk that would’ve made your genuine message stand out a lot more, without making it sound any more mechanically formal. For me, simply the understanding and acceptance that the “You do X because you’re a Y” setup means different things to different people seems like it would naturally lead to you trying to be more explicit about your meaning. And maybe that would’ve been enough. 

    O’course, “This may mean different things to different people; have I provided enough context within the piece itself to strongly suggest what I mean when I say it” seems like a pretty good general-purpose idea to remember when writing all sorts of things, but your mileage may vary on that front. 

    Sorry this got so long. 

  • Anonymous

    Russell- I really have to disagree. There are many, many times in our lives when we will be addressing one specific group. Addressing that groups motivations and beliefs will of necessity involve ignoring all the other motivations and beliefs. That doesn’t mean those aren’t valid viewpoints, those just aren’t OUR viewpoints.  

    A Christian sermon might have a great deal that is edifying and useful to an atheist. Certainly I cannot see anyone complaining that an atheist read their sermon. But trying to pretend it wasn’t a sermon is silly. This was a religious piece on a religious subject presented to a religious group for the purpose of challenging and shaping their faith. 

    Since I am not religious and I do not have faith, that entire aspect of the talk was directed at someone who is by definition, not at ALL like me. Thats fine- not everyone is or should be like me.   But just because he’s talking to those people over there doesn’t mean he hates these people over here- just…thats who he’s talking to right now.  Notably, Richard hasn’t come in here swinging defensively, but has engaged with us in our own way. He didn’t try to quote the Bible at you, or use it as the ultimate argument. He engaged with you in your way, in your context, and he engaged with them their way, in their context.

    Context and intent are not magical pills that fix anything. But neither should they be totally ignored. 

  • Anonymous-Sam

    To paraphrase the Tao te Ching, “If you want to divide people, try to unite them.” You can’t designate a group of people without highlighting the differences between them and others. Praise that group, and by association, you insult everyone not belonging to it.

    You know what saddens me? How quickly racism enters the Bible.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    You don’t need me to excuse you for inferring that the speaker was being exclusive. It’s an entirely plausible inference, and even if it weren’t it’s hardly my place to excuse you or not excuse you.

    I don’t believe you’re obligated to think the speaker meant anything in particular, or to not-think they did. And even if I did believe that, my beliefs on the matter would not constitute any sort of obligation on your part.

    I don’t believe it’s your job to give charity to anyone, especially not people more privileged than you. 

    I don’t think I said any of those things, or even suggested them, but clearly I didn’t do a good enough job of expressing myself in a way that made it clear that I don’t believe those things. I apologize for not having been clearer. Hopefully I’m clearer here.

  • Ursula L

    There is certainly a valid argument that (some forms of) Christianity teach one to look at any given situation with empathy towards the victims.

    But that isn’t the same as saying that one looks at a situation with empathy for the victim (only) because one is Christian.

    In teaching that being Christian requires looking at situations with empathy for a victim, it’s very important not to teach that one only can look at a situation with empathy for the victim through a Christian lens.  

    Because it is really, really easy for someone to interpret that teaching as meaning that only Christians can be properly empathetic towards victims. And that is particularly true when you’re teaching the lesson in a specifically Christian situation such as a chapel.  

    Teaching Christians, in a closed Christian environment such as a chapel sermon, that they look at a situation with empathy because of Christianity is deeply damaging, because it denies and ignores the empathy that every decent non-Christians feels towards victims in these types of situations.  

    You can’t encourage empathy while also teaching the non-empathy of believing that empathy is a special quality of your own in-group.

  • Anonymous

    Also, I think you’re neglecting the Bayesian point here: we’re all used to hearing “Christian” used in the public discourse as an exclusive category — even a synonym — for “decent human being”, so we have a strong prior probability on “You sympathise with the underdog because you’re a Christian” being meant that way. If you-all Christians want to change that, I wish you the best of luck; converting the common use of such a construction from a magic get-out-of-jail-free word into a statement of responsibility would be wonderful. I can’t really help, because I’m not a Christian and never have been, and thus am totally unqualified for that job.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve never really been anything but the atheist I was born, and I still have to remind myself forcefully that there actually are people who DON’T sympathise instinctively with the victim.

  • Anonymous

    This is having the annoying effect of nudging me toward actually reading
    Girard, who seems fascinating but not exactly like light reading.
    Anyone else want to nudge me further in that direction? If so, where
    would you recommend starting?

    I’m not remotely an expert on Girard, but Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to read pretty quickly.  It’s rambly and inexplicably transcribed entirely from interviews, but that very fact keeps the writing from getting too impenetrable.

    As for critiques of Girard, you might try this article by Richard Landes, or this one by Robert M. Price.  Mind, neither of those directly addresses the big question of whether there actually is much evidence that early Western religion was all about scapegoating.  My impression is that the answer is no, and so obviously no that few working historians and anthropologists are even thinking about Girard’s argument on that front.  But again, not an expert.


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