Editor’s Note: New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, pops off at a professor from an Evangelic college who criticizes him for having an “agenda”. Of COURSE he has an agenda – we all do (sometimes several). But his is not to convert people away from Christianity. Personally, I think his accuser’s agenda was to get a rise out of a famous New Testament scholar. If so, he was successful! /Linda LaScola, Editor
By Bart Ehrman
Sometimes people say the most ridiculous things. Especially when they want to argue against you. It’s amazing what people can dream up.
And not just in politics – just in everyday life. You no doubt have noticed yourself… I want to talk about an instance of this, which, for me, gets particularly bizarre near the end of this post.
You probably have this experience too. People who don’t know me say all sorts of things that just make me scratch my head. WHAT??? Interestingly, given my situation, I get vitriol mainly from two sides, which stand at polar opposites from one another. On one side are some fundamentalists/very conservative evangelicals who think I am out to destroy the faith (that side is understandable; at least I myself understand it, having once been a fundamentalist/very conservative evangelical who said nasty things about liberal scholars whom I thought were out to destroy the faith) and the other are some “mythicists” – the ones who think that there never was a historical man, Jesus, but that he was invented whole cloth — who think I’m weak-minded, unwilling to follow an argument to its logical conclusion, or, at heart, a closet evangelical.
In any event, I’m not going to spend my time here on nemeses on the left but those on the right. I have very, very good and friendly relationships with lots of evangelicals, including evangelical scholars. But many on the far right really do see me as the spawn of Satan and are deeply concerned that I am leading people straight to the pits of hell.
A few weeks ago I got an email from a fellow I’ve had some correspondence with over the years. A working man, wanting to get a college education and go from there to do graduate work in biblical studies. One never knows if that is a plausible goal or not, without spending substantial time with a person and getting a sense of whether they might have the intellectual abilities to do it. I myself do not have the abilities to do most of things I’d love to do, from playing second base for the Yankees or qualifying for Wimbledon, to teaching astronomy or, well, understanding the first thing about physics. Some people have some abilities and some have others; those who do PhD’s in an area of the humanities simply have a very refined but small slice of remarkable ability. I don’t know about this person.
But I have very much encouraged him to get the college degree, study what he was intrigued by, and pursue his passions. As I said, he is a working guy; I suspect he has a family. His first step was to get into some college courses. He couldn’t move to another place to attend a college or university full time, so he applied and got admitted to a school near where he lives. It is a hard-core evangelical school.
That’s perfectly fine in a sense. He himself has a Christian background. But he has learned over the years a good deal about the Bible that is different from what is taught in that kind of school, and it is causing a bit of cognitive dissonance for him. He’s a genuinely curious guy, wants to know the truth, and is passionate about looking into it. Great!
So he writes me a few weeks ago. He had a conversation with one of his professors and my name came up. His professor harshly warned him against me. Why? Because I “had an agenda.” The student was writing me to ask if I had an agenda.
My reply was very simple. Of *course* I have an agenda. EVERYONE has an agenda. The people you need to look out for are those who claim that do NOT have an agenda. They’re either covering up something for the sake of making themselves look objective in an attempt to achieve their agenda or, more often, they are so blithely ignorant of themselves and totally lacking in introspection that they don’t realize that much of what they think and do is connected with their agenda. Neither option is at all good.
I explained that to the fellow: we all have agendas. In fact, we all have lots of them. He himself has an agenda: he wants to be better educated, for example. Why? Because he is genuinely interested in knowledge and wants to become a better person and possibly wants to get a better job possibly so he can get more of the things he wants in life and make life easier for his family and … and that’s just one slice of his life. His professor who wants to cast aspersions on me has an agenda – for example, to promote Bible-believing Christianity as the greatest truth and to protect his version of Christianity from attack from liberal scholars like Ehrman, etc.
I too have an agenda. With respect to this particular topic, my agenda is decidedly NOT to drag people away from their faith. It is to make people better informed about the NT, the historical Jesus, and the history of early Christianity. I frankly don’t care an iota for what people personally believe, so long as what they believe doesn’t do any real harm to anyone. And it’s true, I think some forms of religion do *incredible* harm. I’m opposed only to the harm, and to the enacted views that lead to it — but whatever people think inside their own heads is fine with me. My real agenda is to have them think about it based on, well, real information.
My view is that anyone who doesn’t have an informed faith has an ignorant faith. Do you really want to be ignorant? Some people do. Not just fundamentalists but also many atheists and materialists and mythicists and so on.
Anyway, I explained that to the fellow via email. He went back and talked to his professor about it. And that’s when it got *really* bizarre. The professor told him that it was clear that my goal was to deconvert students from their Christian faith because that’s why I teach undergraduates. If I didn’t want to deconvert people, I wouldn’t be teaching undergrads.
When the fellow wrote me that I was completely baffled and told him I didn’t know what he meant. Literally, I didn’t know what he meant. This is my day job. It’s what I do for a living. I’m a professor at a university. Why wouldn’t I teach undergraduates? How could I have this job without teaching undergraduates? Why would teaching undergraduates reveal that I must have an agenda to deconvert them?
He went back and asked his professor, and his professor knowingly informed him that anyone who looked into the matter would know that teaching undergraduates puts a faculty person on the lowest end of the payscale. Uh…OK then. This professor appears to think that at a school like UNC, the top faculty can choose to teach only graduate students and get paid much more that way. A top faculty member who chooses to teach undergrads would be taking a major pay cut. And the only reason they would want to do that is because they “have an agenda.”
I was virtually speechless. The ignorance of some people! A professor in the humanities at a research university who can choose not to teach undergraduates and so get paid more??? Good god. And this is coming from a person who teaches in a university? What world is he living in? University professors in the humanities teach students. Surely he knows that. If he doesn’t, I’m afraid it’s probably not the full extent of his ignorance. But I do love the irony, that *I* have an agenda….
Let me just state this as clearly as I can. I think it is perfectly fine for all of us to have disagreements about really important and fundamental things. We do. I have very strong views about numerous matters connected to religion, politics, social programs, current events, and on and on, and I disagree with lots and lots of people. We ALL do. But just makin’ stuff up to convince people of our view, or speaking nonsense because we don’t think people will know better, or just being so flippin’ ignorant that you don’t realize how ignorant you are – none of these is the way to engage in civil discussion to make our world a better place. When we disagree, we should at least have an idea of what we’re talking about.
**Editor’s Question** What’s your religion-related agenda?
Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs, like this one, from The Bart Ehrman Blog
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