“Patterns of Evidence” and patterns of culture-war rhetoric: (2)

“Patterns of Evidence” and patterns of culture-war rhetoric: (2) February 17, 2015

patterns of evidenceToday’s post is the second of three on the recently released documentary “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus.”

As I said in my first post, the concern I have is with the culture-war rhetoric the documentary seems to promote concerning the historical reliability of the exodus story.

Below is the rationale for making this documentary taken from the film’s website. Stated are: The Problem, The Source of the Problem, The Attack on the Bible, and the Approach taken in the film.

I’ve inserted some comments in red at points that I think demonstrate the culture-war rhetoric.

**********

THE PROBLEM

  • Stats show that over 50% of self-identified born-again Christians who enter college walk away from the church by the time they finish school. Trends show that is rate is growing rapidly.  One study shows that church attendance could be cut in half within 10 years.
  • The assumption made is that “walking away from the church” is rooted in a failure of the church to defend robustly the Bible’s historical veracity, and that a better apologetic is needed to defend the Bible and stop the bleeding. 
  • The real problem, however, is expecting college-aged young adults to “hold on” to views that are simply untenable outside of their evangelical bubble. 
  • Young people leave the faith not because they haven’t been immunized well enough to the academic world, but because they have not been taught well how to engage it, without fear that they are losing their faith if they older ways of thinking to lack explanatory force.
  • The viewpoints of those inside the church, on many issues, match the general views held by the culture. The morality of the culture is heading downhill at an alarming rate.
  • These statements are manipulative and result only in clouding reason by injecting fear. 
  • The reason viewpoints inside the church match those outside is that once young people leave the church, they see alternate views that make more sense than the views they were raised to hold. And they don’t want to make believe otherwise.
  • If the concern is losing young people, the church would do well to create a welcoming environment where ideas can be discussed openly, honestly, and without fear of retribution. When that does not happen, people sense inauthenticity and leave to seek alternate spiritual communities–which can include atheism.
  • Also, just what “church” are we talking about, anyway? The presumption is that the conservative evangelical iteration of “church” is the norm. It isn’t. I am also surprised it only took 4 sentences to raise the slippery slope argument, that doubting the exodus and moral decline are part of the same package.
  • At this point I am not confident I will hear a truly fair rendering of evidence.

The Source of the Problem – The Perception of the Bible

  • A basic shift has occurred – where “God” was once the authority, “man” is now the authority. The world is being taught that the Bible is not credible. People are being persuaded to think that they can’t believe the Bible. To do so would be complete surrender of their intellect.
  • The perception of the Bible is not the source of the problem. The source of the problem is biblicistic literalism, which requires untenable ideas about the Bible to be held to with a tight fist. That is what people are being “persuaded” to leave behind.
  • And, as above, we see the implicit assumption that views being left behind are “normal” for Christians to hold, and any deviation is met with the full force of unfortunate apologetic rhetoric (like posing the problem as God’s authority vs. man’s.)

THE ATTACK ON THE BIBLE

  • For more than 50 years the vast majority of the world’s most prominent archaeologists and historians have proclaimed that there is no hard evidence to support the Exodus story found in the Bible.
  • If it is a”vast majority of the world’s most prominent archaeologists,” then there are likely some very good reasons for it. And it’s also been much longer than 50 years. Suggesting “50” makes this seem like a recent trend, a blip that can and should be put to rest. Serious archaeological work in Jericho–i.e., concerning the conquest of Canaan–is now 100 years old.
  • The attack centers on the early historical record found in the Bible (from Abraham, the Exodus and Conquest, through Solomon). 
  • That word “attack.” Not helpful. These are scholars, not culture warriors. They’re not perfect, but give them a little credit, too. For bright people who read their books or sit in their classes and this rhetoric will evaporate within a week. And then young people will wonder about what else they were lied to.
  • Not coming from a fringe group of scholars. Rather, the vast majority of mainstream archaeologists promote a very skeptical view of the Bible.
  • Again, correct. Series, seasoned scholars who are in the vast majority have drawn conclusions on the basis of public presentation of evidence and the interpretation of that evidence. They are not keeping evidence from anyone. And to call them not “skeptical” of the Bible is another scare word; it suggests simply an unfounded philosophical bias. 
  • The attack is most intense on university campuses.
  • Again with the attack language. Some college professors can be real insensitive jerks about the spiritual background of their students. But, again, presenting the state of knowledge is classrooms is not an attack. A better word is “education.”
  • If you can’t trust the Exodus, why would you trust the rest of the Bible?
  • A slippery slope scare tactic: if you can’t trust the Bible here, how can we trust it anywhere?
  • The issue is whether there is evidence for a “public” historical events of a mass scale, like the exodus and conquest as reported in the Bible. These sorts of mass, public, events leave historical footprints. Jesus walking on water, feeding the the multitudes, or rising from the dead do NOT leave historical footprints.
  • It’s also not a matter of “trusting” the exodus story, which already presumes the proper reading of the story, but of understanding it–why it was written and what it meant to those who wrote it.

OUR APPROACH

  • NOT a frontal attack that preaches to a world resistant to the truth of God’s Word.
  • Are you sure? I hope so, but from reading this I’d need great odds before placing my bet.
  • Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus seeks to open a dialog with the world, not to be overly declarative, and to be in the center of the argument. We seek to do this respectfully, in a fair-minded way and allow the audience to choose which views to favor. But, we show the evidence that the scholars don’t want the world to see – because it could cause them to shift their long-held positions.
  • I have no doubt whatsoever that the sentiment here is sincere. Truly. 
  • But, if I may raise a bit of skepticism, it may be that such openness to dialogue is heralded because (producer/director) Tim Mahoney thinks he has a good chance of winning. How open would he be, however, if he is shown that his “evidence” is discredited? Would he then change his mind and counsel others to do likewise? With so much at stake, as we read throughout, I am doubtful.
  • We also see here a staple of evangelical apologetic rhetoric: “We only seek to be fair-minded, open to where the evidence leads, and reasonable. It’s those others out there who have evidence they are keeping from you, to keep you in the dark and protect their egos.”
  • This rhetoric is also manipulative in that (1) it gives the imprssion that discussions to this point haven’t been fair-minded but biased, and others have now arrived on the scene to set the record straight;
  • (2) dismissing their own view, no matter how idiosyncratic or barely plausible in the minds of these other benighted academics, is therefore to be close-minded, and so to have lost this debate, at least to the satisfaction of those supporting the film’s agenda. (This is a variation on the “teach the controversy” rhetoric among creationists.)

The diagnosis and proposed approach presented here indicate a rather clear agenda that is not driven by fair-minded scholarship, but evangelical culture wars.

If we truly want to keep our young people in church and keep them from falling apart spiritually their first half-semester in college, we need to do better than that.

In my next post, I will comment on two reviews of the film by conservative evangelicals, which confirm how this film can and is being used in popular venues.


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  • I kinda wish you had waited until you had seen the film, but it’s your blog. This post certainly had a better foundation than the last one.

    • peteenns

      I understand, but I seriously doubt I’d be surprised, Solomon. The film itself claims to bring long suppressed evidence to light–not new. Nothing has been suppressed. If there really were something new and groundbreaking out there, it will be all over the journals.

      • I totally agree with you, nothing has been suppressed. Anything that comes out gets jumped all over by everybody. The problem with the idea of conspiracies is that rarely can anybody keep their mouth shut. And you’re right about the culture war mentality. I’m so disgusted with Christian tribalism.

        By the way, college didn’t bother my faith at all. First of all, it was nothing like culture warrior scare tactics would lead us to believe. Secondly, I’m not scared that some inconvenient fact will change my mind about something. There’s no reason to sequester myself from the data. Go where the evidence leads. What bothers my faith are Christians who are unlike Christ.

      • Lark62

        I agree. When someone claims have secret knowledge that “Big Scary Group” (government, pharmaceuticals, whoever) is trying to suppress, watch your wallet.

      • I’m not questioning this, but surely there are fads which can distort matters? For example, from sociologist Peter Berger:

            Another exaggeration may have been the conventional view of the reach of scientific rationality. One does not have to look at religion only in order to find this thought plausible. It is amazing what people educated to the highest levels of scientific rationality are prepared to believe by way of irrational prejudices; one only has to look at the political and social beliefs of the most educated classes of Western societies to gain an appreciation of this. Just one case: What Western intellectuals over the last decades have managed to believe about the character of Communist societies is alone sufficient to cast serious doubt on the proposition that rationality is enhanced as a result of scientifically sophisticated education or of living in a modern technological society. (A Far Glory, 30)

        I’m also reminded of Alvin Plantinga’s criticism of contemporary analytic philosophy in his Advice to Christian Philosophers. Perhaps if the public could get a more accurate idea of the kind of bad stuff that goes on in academia, they would be less likely to think up ridiculous scenarios?

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    As a college-aged fellow myself, I want to raise a bit of pushback on why college-aged evangelicals walk away from their faith. I don’t think either of these explanations is correct. Instead, I’ll raise an explanation that I would have bitterly mocked only a couple years ago. I think that a lot of kids who abandon their faith in college do so because of moral failings. This is something that I gradually became convinced of after seeing it from the inside. Over and over, one of my peers would publicly disclaim their faith because of ostensible intellectual issues. Whenever I knew them from the inside, however, I knew that they had recently experienced sex for the first time. I’ve also seen the opposite side of the coin. I’ve seen kids struggle very seriously with evolution, the historical veracity of the Bible, and other issues, but remain morally genuine- and somehow, they seem to hold on.

    I’m not making the claim that this rule holds true in every single case- and I wouldn’t tell someone struggling intellectually that they MUST be struggling with a moral failing. But I do think there’s something to be said for this.

    • peteenns

      I think this is a very valid point.

    • Lars

      Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I’ve seen just the opposite and lived the opposite. I remained ‘pure’ well past the death of my particular fundamentalist faith because I had no interest sowing my oats. That sort of thing is really hard to do when you’re pathologically self-aware.

      I’m less-inclined to blame spiritual/moral failings than I am to blame God/evolution for giving us puberty and raging hormones as teenagers when we are not only least able to control them but most likely to act on them. If it’s such a divine moral failing, why weren’t we created more like the Vulcans and get our arousals every seven years? Then you wouldn’t have three kids in college at the same time. That just seems so, what’s the word….? Alas, our bodies, after millennia of conditioning, are certain we’ll be dead by 30 and that our species survival is our real prime directive.

      Looking back, I guess I have Hell to thank for not being blind at 16 or a dad at 18. It’s a fabulous motivator. And for what it’s worth, I don’t know a single college peer that’s abandoned their faith. Thirty years later their Facebook posts are just as spiritual as their conversations were back in the day and I’m left to wonder, what the hell happened to me?

    • ajl

      In my interactions with students (I am a Professor), I agree wholeheartedly with you. For most students it’s just more fun to have sex with their girlfriend than to go to a Bible study or wake up for a quiet time.

    • Stuart Blessman

      I think that a lot of kids who abandon their faith in college do so because of moral failings. I used to believe that as well, but realized it wasn’t always true, yet used as a scapegoat every time. It’s a clever passing of the buck so that no one has to really question if they are doing anything wrong or have wrong beliefs about something.

      When people realize those “moral failings” are built on sophistic lies, of course they will start “breaking” them.

    • Johnny Number 5

      You’re implying that there’s something distinctly different between these two arguments. In Peter’s, the student feels intellectually stifled and so decides to reject Christianity when presented with facts. In yours, the student feels morally stifled and so decides to reject Christianity when presented with opportunities to follow biological impulses. I’m not sure why you see these as distinctly different things. Conservative Christianity likes to stifle people in all areas of their life. When students go off to college and are no longer being watched closely by their parents, they often feel free to not live such stifled lives, and when life seems better without such strictures, they abandon what to them was primarily an external controlling mechanism. As with studies, so with sex. And I say this as someone who didn’t even consider non-marital sex until after rejecting the evangelicalism of my youth on intellectual (and political) grounds.

      Side note: saying “moral failings” instead of “had sex” could easily be criticized as being the same kind of indirect culture-warrior rhetoric that the website critiqued above uses, as it implies these colleagues of yours have already lost a major battle.

    • jbarlow

      I think it’s much more of a process than that. Here’s the process woven into narrative, loosely based on my own experience.

      Perhaps I decide that the prohibition of sex before marriage made sense only before paternity tests and birth control. The real immorality addressed by prohibitions against premarital sex was (as a male) fathering a child and not taking responsibility for it, as that would certainly not be “loving my neighbor”.

      So I decide I can have sex with my girlfriend as long as we’re protected. Afterwards, I begin to question why the church is apparently so obsessed with controlling people’s sexual behavior. I wonder why my girlfriend is shamed for our decision, but I’m not. I realize that the church’s teaching on sexual ethics is patriarchal and abusive, and I find this inconsistent with the idea of a loving God. In other words, we took a step away from the church and found it treated us with disdain rather than, well, anything positive and loving.

      Then my friend finds out I experienced sex for the first time, and now dismisses my doubts because he thinks I’m just rationalizing my moral failings (sorry, couldn’t resist) rather than trying to live ethically in the best way I know.

    • Chris Falter

      Thanks for sharing your observations, Seraphim. As I reflect back to my college days, I do remember some departures from faith that followed the path of your peers. However, my own relatively brief departure was propelled by my inability to reconcile scholarship, especially science, with what I had been taught by evangelical orthodoxy. I have reflected at some length on my departure and return in this blog post, if you are interested in the details.

    • Lark62

      This is what preachers want people to think: Leaving religion means you want to be immoral. Since most people want to see themselves as moral, this is an effective message.

      The reality is that the wisdom of the Bible is highly immoral and the biblical view of sexual relations is abhorrent. Nowhere in the Bible is there any requirement or expectation that a woman consent to sex. She is property.

      When kids leave the evangelical bubble they may see that the sex guilt trips are far worse than respectful, consensual sex between adults. This is not at all the same as “wanting to sin.”

      Plus, if you’ve come to the conclusion that the biblical god is just another myth, the idea of rebelling against it is laughable. If I concluded that the reason you don’t floss is that you are angry at the tooth fairy, you would view me with the same pity.

    • There’s always the scriptural gloss:

      But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. (2 Tim 3:1–5)

      Maybe people disbelieve because there is no power. It doesn’t help to read pretty things like this:

      And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)

      If such passages don’t seem to mean anything, if they’re not actually lived out in the church (and proven to be possible), then why believe the stuff is real? My suspicion is that the reason it is those who claim to follow God who blaspheme the name of God among all nations (Rom 2:24) is that they pretend that “there is a better way”, without actually demonstrating it. Many people can only take so much promising with no delivering.

  • Seraphim Hamilton

    Also, I don’t mean to be difficult or overly critical. I’m a real caffeine addict, and I tend to comment a lot on this precious substance

  • AHH

    While “eduction” is indeed a word, probably the better word you meant was “education”.

    More important, I couldn’t agree more with the analysis of the rhetoric. The demonization of experts, the whiffs of conspiracy, portraying themselves as the heroic line of defense against “attacks” on the faith, the slippery slopes, the misdiagnosis of why college kids think they need to give up on the Bible, the near-idolatrous Biblicism.
    Change a few words and the analysis applies to much rhetoric from the “creationist” and ID movements. Also a lot of overlap with climate-change denial rhetoric.

    • peteenns

      I almost made that point, AHH, but I figured I should open up two fronts at once 🙂

  • Hello Peter.

    “For more than 50 years the vast majority of the world’s most prominent archaeologists and historians have proclaimed that there is no hard evidence to support the Exodus story found in the Bible.
    If it is a”vast majority of the world’s most prominent archaeologists,” then there are likely some very good reasons for it. And it’s also been much longer than 50 years. Suggesting “50″ makes this seem like a recent trend, a blip that can and should be put to rest. Serious archaeological work in Jericho–i.e., concerning the conquest of Canaan–is now 100 years old.

    Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2015/02/patterns-of-evidence-and-patterns-of-culture-war-rhetoric-2/#ixzz3S3gvoPHK

    I have two questions.

    1) I do believe that the archaeological evidence isn’t compatible with all the information found in the Bible and that it does refute inerrancy.

    That said, I (along William G. Dever) consider it quite possible that a small group of semitic Slaves in Egypt escaped from the country under the guidance of a charismatic man, had a religious experience underway and that they in turn mixed with Canaaites to form the proto-Israelites.

    There is no denial that the Biblical record was written many centuries later and contains much (if not mostly) inaccurate information.

    But the existence of such a small “exodus” doesn’t seem at all at odds with archeology and it could even help explain some elements lost in the Biblical tradition which suggest some remembrances on Egypt at that time.

    2) Could a Conservative Christian maintain a largely historical (albeit not inerrant) view of the Bible by placing the events in the following contexts:

    a) the Israel were not enslaved by Egyptians but by Hyskos

    b) they escape from the Hyksos through devastating miracles documented by the Ipuwer Papyrus around 1590-1570 BC.

    c) they experience God in the mount Sinai

    d) in 1550 BC. they launch a genocidal war on Canaan which correspond to the massive destructions at that epoch

    e) between 1550 – 1200 (book of Judges) they live in a half-nomadic way and war against the Canaanites who describe them as “Habiru” (Amarana letters)

    f) around 1200 BC, they become sedentary and naturally use the technology and culture of the land they’ve been living in for more than three centuries

    Do you think that this scenario is compatible with the archaeological and historical evidence we dispose of?

    I’ve carried out extensive researches on that topic and found absolutely no mainstream historians or archaeologists who considered this possibility and rejected it.

    The negative consensus seems to be limited to an Exodus having taken place between about 1250-1200 BC and 1460 – 1400 BC.

    Obviously, there’s no positive reason to think that the scenario I sketched is what happened.

    Yet it also does seem compatible with the facts.

    So I’d be curious to know if you think this can be ruled out.

    I’m asking all of this as someone not only rejecting inerrancy but also going so far as supporting the notion of an “open Canon”:

    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

    I also believe that a morally perfect God cannot order soldiers to commit a genocide.

    https://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/divine-genocides-and-biblical-inerrancy/

    • peteenns

      My opinion is that Israel’s “exodus memory” is not a fabrication but rooted in a presence in Egypt. The memory is simply too strong–as is a northern memory (Aram) or southern (Yahweh comes up from Seir). I don’t think the presence in Egypt is an “Israelite” presence but an “Asiatic” (Canaanite/Semitic) presence, and that Israel’s origins is a mixed (one which also seems to be part of the “Egypt memory” with the reference to a “mixed multitude” (Exod 12:38). Of course, these are impressions and anything here can be disputed, but it is a scenario that seems to ring true to other scholars. But I would say that Israel’s origins remains mysterious.

      • Thanks! I agree it remains mysterious and unclear.

      • Dr. Donny

        The recent conference entitled “Exodus: Out of Egypt” has a lot of good information on the topic. I particularly liked Richard Friedman’s video and his recent article in BAR which pointed out that only Levites have Egyptian names and, like you, he supports a real, but smaller, exodus involving only part of the Israelites. The conference videos are available on-line.

  • Kim Fabricius

    Thanks, Pete. I’m pressed for time, so I can watch either Patterns of Evidence or Fifty Shades of Grey, but not both. I think I’ll go for the latter: it looks to be more edifying, telling me more about radical feminism than the former does about sound biblical theology.

  • It’s impossible to treat all this as merely an academic discussion when many among the film’s target audience a) cannot allow themselves to be persuaded by evidence due to their theological precommitments to their view of Scripture and b) are committed to painting a wide and diverse group of mainstream scholars that disagree with them as “hiding something.” The arguments always have to go back to the first principles of epistemology and intellectual integrity. Otherwise it becomes a moralizing food fight over who just wants an excuse to reject the Bible so that they can sin. The film’s promoters do a great job of whistleblowing all the right terminology to let the conservative evangelical audience know they will feel safe and placated by the film. I’d be surprised if any views were challenged other than those of lost, “deceived” non-evangelical academics.

    And all the filmmakers need to do is draw implications – like in the trailer for Patterns of Evidence where they imply that scholars are not accepting some alleged pieces of evidence because “it would undue a lot of their books, wouldn’t it?” This is all the audience will require to throw major distrust on a century’s worth of scientific and historical studies.

  • The best book I’ve ever read on Exodus (ok the only book) is The Particulars of the Rapture. It’s an exploration of the midrashic tradition interpretation of this gripping story of redemption. It contains some profound insights about God’s relationship to his people and the man chosen to lead them. It is utterly unconcerned with the historical accuracy of the exodus.

  • Jeff Y

    Thank you. This was simply great. Great responses. I’m for fair discussion. But, the manipulative statements that permeate most of fundamentalist arguments is continually troubling. I run into it continually. Thanks again for this great rundown.

  • PSF

    These are helpful comments, Peter, thanks. I’ve been immersed in faith and science dialogue a fair bit lately, and all of your comments apply so well there too. Thanks for expressing them.