Tom Holland Asks the Right Questions About the Bible

Tom Holland Asks the Right Questions About the Bible May 10, 2021

For long-time fans of the Unbelievable? radio show, the evolution of the program has been fascinating to watch. It first emerged in the golden age of the contemporary Christian vs. atheist debate, arranging high-profile matchups between apologists on both sides. Through the years, it’s tackled all manner of hot-button religious and political topics. But not every program has been framed as a debate per se, particularly in recent years as more Christian-friendly non-Christian public figures have emerged.

One of these figures, Tom Holland, has now appeared multiple times on the show and is slated to join a panel of Christian speakers at an Unbelievable? conference later this week. His inclusion on the panel is a sign of the broader shift in Christian-atheist discourse, as he is speaking neither as a debate partner nor as an evangelical convert ready with a neat testimony. As he once phrased it to me in a Twitter exchange, he currently sees himself walking in “an Anglican twilight,” one foot in the sea of faith and one on shore. Of course, this has made him all the more tempting a target for nagging from persistently pesky evangelicals like Justin Brierley, who never misses an opportunity to do a “check-in” on his friendly agnostic guests.

A new episode with Tom and biblical scholar Andrew Ollerton was no exception, as Tom and Andrew worked through thought-provoking questions about the Bible’s provenance and relevance to the modern age. Tom endorsed Andrew’s recent book The Bible: A Story That Makes Sense of Life (UK Amazon link here), which tries to present a grounded but fresh sense-making picture of the Old and New Testaments for the contemporary reader.

Andrew opens right away with a meta-comment about the shifting conversation: “Culturally, perhaps previously, we were more concerned with is the Bible reliable, and I think the conversation’s shifted. I think more and more people would almost shrug their shoulders and say well, even if you can prove that it’s reliable, why would I bother with it? There’s plenty of other things to watch on Netflix. Why is it still relevant?” I think this is right, even as I also still believe there’s value in having the conversation about reliability (especially since I think many of the popular apologetic options on offer actually do a poor job in this department). But Andrew puts his finger on a very real phenomenon here. I treated this at length on the Substack last week (btw, have you subscribed?), pulling in Freddie deBoer’s incisive commentary on the simultaneous decline and hidden cultural victory of New Atheism. Dawkins and his cohort might not have made converts to atheism like they hoped, but Freddie argues that a culture full of “apatheists” may be a soil even more resistant to the seed of Christianity.

The main targets of deBoer’s annoyance are “New Pragmatists” like Jonathan Haidt, who make an “evolutionary argument” for Christianity but seem rather glibly content with its not mapping onto a historical reality. But I would argue that writers like Tom Holland occupy a different space yet again. True, like Haidt in his field of social science, Tom in his field of history is also making an outsider’s case for Christianity. But unlike Haidt, Tom is willing to grapple with and acknowledge the weight of the deeper probing questions. As he jokingly puts it to Ollerton and Brierley when he talks about opening himself up to the possibility of seeing the Bible as a sacred text, “I have to let off the safety lock.” Indeed.

At a couple points, Tom compares the Bible to Borges’s Library of Babel, an illustration I’m quite annoyed with myself for either never having heard or having forgotten, as a philosophy nerd who holds a higher math degree. For those like me who are unfamiliar, the Library of Babel is a library that contains every possible book. You can have all kinds of fun with this thought experiment of course, some of which is unpacked at La Wik. Tom pulls it in while explaining his fondness for the church father Origen:

[Origen] talks about the entirety of scripture, and he says, he’s quoting his Jewish teacher who says that the whole of scripture is like an enormous mansion with many rooms, and the keys are scattered around this mansion in different places so you have to go through all the mansion to find the keys and then find them to match them with the correct lock. And I kind of love that as a kind of almost Borgesian metaphor, this idea that the Bible maps on to, I suppose, the entirety of the cosmos, that it’s transforming the whole of the cosmos into a collection of texts, a collection of books, and yet that there are keys and that you can turn them and go into new rooms and discover new things.

By contrast, Tom gets in a dig at “foghorn-wielding Christians, the kind of fundamentalists, the people who say there is a definite solid answer, it tells us this, it’s absolute, you’ve got to take it literally.” Likewise, he sees atheists on the other side of the same coin, “also assuming that this is what the Bible is.” To this extent, I think Tom does also display a little bit of the spirit that’s getting under Freddie deBoer’s skin. And speaking for myself, I have to confess that I always have an instinctive contrarian urge to side with the fundamentalists when I hear these sorts of statements, especially since the word is so often flung about without getting specific and using examples. Typically, though, I find that when people are pushed for specifics they punt to things like creationism, the worldwide flood, etc. Perhaps this is what’s lurking in the back of Tom’s mind too, especially given that he’s talked at length about his love for dinosaurs and the clash he sensed even as a child with a YEC framework. A bit more on this anon.

I also can’t resist a bit of an aside about the phrase “foghorn-wielding Christians,” which generally functions as shorthand for that generally embarrassing type of Christian who marches up and down the street or around the flagpole on a college campus waving placards and shouting at people about hell, homos, and all that. Coincidentally, this came up in a question recently posed to Anglican Twitter (yes, we exist). The questioner is a Christian, but he’s concerned about the public witness of street preachers, feeling it does more harm than good and can only hinder the spread of the true gospel. The general consensus in replies was that while bad street preaching is a thing, good street preaching is likewise a thing, and at this cultural moment Christians should be at least as concerned about the opposite pitfall of tight-lipped over-timidity. I like the hot take from “High Church Queen” here: The apostles were street preachers actually.

But I digress. Fortunately, Tom and Andrew’s conversation doesn’t stay in the realm of vague generalities. In fact, it gets down to some gritty specifics. At a key moment where Ollerton is discussing his appreciation for the Bible’s grittiness, including its flawed characters, Tom raises his hand and asks, “What about the Old Testament God? Is He a flawed character?” A good question. Because, as he quite rightly notes, a fair number of churches these days seem to think so. The ghost of Marcion haunts the ensuing discussion as Ollerton thoughtfully takes the question in stride, while having the grace to say he “hasn’t got easy answers” when it comes to known hard passages like the Canaanite or Amalekite conquests.

I appreciated Ollerton’s touch with this question, because I do believe there is a needle that has to be threaded quite carefully here, and I find in practice that it’s difficult for many Christians to do so. Per Tom’s observation, more liberal Christians have simply followed in Marcion’s train and told people they can do what they like with anything in the Old Testament that makes them squeamish (generally in contexts where they’re capitulating to cultural progressivism on homosexuality). On the other hand, I confess I have also been troubled by a failure on the conservative side to grapple fully with the above-mentioned “hard passages,” specifically the divine mandate to kill children. There’s a limited supply of “stock answers” to questions about these passages, none of which I’ve ever found satisfying, often delivered in a painfully tin-eared tone. Ollerton was more rhetorically sensitive than many, but I wasn’t persuaded by his attempt to place this in a broader “accommodationist” frame either. The problem is not merely that God allowed child-murder to take place, but that we are told He expressly commanded it.

This is far too heavy a topic to wade into at length without giving it its own post, so I’ll just say a couple things here. First, like Andrew, I’m not pretending to have easy answers. And indeed, I’ll go farther than Andrew and say that I’ve concluded these passages are places where the text must be in error. I won’t lie, I had a bit of a vertigo moment back when I went through my initial stage of really examining and wrestling with them. I felt a twinge of what I hear when sincere fundamentalists ask me how I’m going to avoid a slippery slope. Once you start picking and choosing, they ask, where does it stop? How are you any different from progressives who decide the Bible’s statements about homosexuality are morally repulsive?

My first answer to that question would be to say even setting aside our innate moral sense of right and wrong, the plain text of the Old Testament (let alone the New), includes clashing passages on God’s feelings about killing the innocent. The same God who is on record commanding that infants be speared is also on record saying He is angered by the shedding of innocent blood. So you can’t escape this tension just by pooh-poohing the natural light, as some Christians unfortunately do.

But, obviously, I don’t think you should pooh-pooh the natural light! And in fact, my answer to the selectivist charge is that my take on baby-killing and sodomy is consistent under the natural law: They’re both wrong. Much more could be said here, but I’ll leave it at that for now. (Meanwhile, my book on how to make friends and influence people is available for pre-order, for all who were wondering.)

In a way, this segues into another key point in the dialogue, where Justin asked Andrew to make the “mapping” between story and history concrete, to give an example of something that’s true both in the Christian story-verse and the real universe. I thought Andrew’s first answer would be the resurrection (we get to that), but interestingly the first answer he gave was the imago Dei, the idea that man is made in the image of God. Of course, my ears pricked up right away. Here’s Andrew:

It’s remarkable to say in such an ancient culture that humans male and female are made in the image and likeness of God. Now, for me, the question then is, is that simply a social construct? Is that something that has arisen as a way of honoring and thinking of dignity and the sacred value of humanity, or, and without going into the details of which particular theory of creation or evolution you adhere to, is there nevertheless some divine being who is superintending the whole process of human origin such that we are actually made in the likeness and image of God? And therefore, when you model that and affirm that, it resonates deeply with the human condition, and that human condition is trans-cultural? So whichever nationality or context or historical moment you are born and raised in, the human condition hasn’t fundamentally changed. The map that says we’re made in the image and likeness of God corresponds to the landscape of what you see when you hold a child in your arms that’s a newborn, and what happens when you say goodbye to a loved one for the last time. It deeply resonates that that’s actually true.

Indeed, to push this further, it corresponds to the landscape of what you see when you see a child stirring in utero, or a woman in a coma, or a man with dementia, all of whom certain societal forces have spent their energies trying to convince us we could dispose of without guilt.

Here, I understand Andrew’s bracketing the evolution debate to make his point. It was the right choice for the conversation. But it should be said, it is around this point that a Richard Dawkins is going to come along and insist on asking awkward questions, in that classically rude but to-the-point way that he has. I’m thinking in particular of a bit in one of his debates with John Lennox (around 55:00) where Dawkins asks, “You think you’re going to survive your own death, I gather?”

“Yes I do,” Lennox says.

“But so you think that even though your brain dies, something else…I mean at what point in evolution did that remarkable faculty emerge?”

“I haven’t a notion,” Lennox says. “It’s part of…God has created human beings in His image.”

“What on earth does that mean? In His image? He looks like us?”

“No, no.”

“Well, what then?”

“That we have personality…We are persons. God is a person. And therefore, we can relate to him…”

Dawkins interrupts, “Was a homo erectus a person?

“Well, I can’t decide by looking at fossils whether it was a person or not, but you are a person…”

Dawkins interrupts again, “But do you think it happened gradually, do you think it happened gradually? Or was there a moment when a child was born that was a person and its parents weren’t?”

Lennox hesitates. “I…my own feeling is there was a point when God did something special…”

Interrupting Dawkins, off-camera: “A-ha!He is pleased, of course, because now he’s caught Lennox tentatively flirting with the “c”-word, “creationism.”

Lennox tries to say that it would be very hard to detect this from a scientific investigation. Dawkins pushes, “So God suddenly kind of dived into the evolutionary process and said right, from now on they’re going to be persons?”

“Well, whether he dived into an evolutionary process or did it specially…”

“You don’t believe in evolution, or, or…?”

Lennox affirms evolution in the sense of what Darwin observed, but also points out that by now they’ve digressed off the path of whatever the original question was. The moderator begins to re-state it, but Dawkins holds up his hand. “I want to hear that ending. I want to hear whether he believes in evolution.”

Such zeal! Such fervor! By now even gentle Irish uncle John is getting a wee bit annoyed with Richard and repeats that he can accept natural selection, etc., to a point, but he is skeptical that it can bear all the weight that’s put on it (“A-ha!”), like the origin of consciousness. He also stands his ground on the possibility of intervention, rather than shrinking from it like it’s an unseemly or unthinkable concept in a “scientific” milieu. “But I’m not going to be over-dogmatic on that tonight,” he wraps up, “because those aren’t the places where I rest my faith in God.” Things finally move on from there.

Now, to me, this is a fascinating little exchange, not unlike the moment when Sam Harris was trying to force Jordan Peterson to say he denied the resurrection in their staged debate. Sam and Richard are cut from the same cloth, playing the same status game, using questions like “Do you believe in the resurrection?” or “Do you believe in evolution?” as touchstones to gauge whether a conversation partner is “in” or “out” of the rational cool kids’ club. In this case, I think Lennox handled the bullying about as well as possible. However, I’ve always wished Dawkins had had a chance to grill a theistic evolutionist this way, pushing him to get specific on how exactly the process of common descent is supposed to have shaken out anthropologically. Because the thing is, if we really want to get good and speciesist about this, if we want to tell Peter Singer to piss off, if we want to say that mad scientists manipulating human embryos in the lab is Very Bad Juju, I think we need to take seriously A. J. Balfour’s comment that “for a creed to be truly consistent, there must exist a correspondence between the account it gives of the origin of its beliefs and the estimate it entertains of their value; in other words, there must be a harmony between the accepted value of results and the accepted theory of causes.”

Back to Andrew and Tom, this is what Tom is circling around when he responds to Andrew by saying he’s haunted by this question because there’s “nothing in the science” to support such a lovely humanistic idea—as Tom has said before, it’s not an “objective” idea (though I’m getting bothered about that word the more I hear it used in these contexts, because so often it’s used in a way that smacks of scientism, but anyway). Tom says the temptation for someone in this precarious position is to succumb to the idea that “there isn’t really any plan and there isn’t really any dignity, and the only dignity to be had is to kind of stare down the fact that there isn’t any dignity.” This is what Douglas Murray is so afraid of. This is how, as Tom beautifully puts it, “one could just as easily wind up a Nazi as a liberal.” (Did I mention Peter Singer in here, at some point? I feel like I did.)

I actually hit this very question in a published essay, something I contributed to the Jordan Peterson anthology Myth & Meaning (check out an excerpt here if you haven’t already). Of course, like Andrew, I didn’t have space to open up an entire can of worms that would go beyond the scope of my immediate purposes for the essay (see here for some further arguments and reading). I simply left it with an echo of C. S. Lewis: Perhaps it is time to try doubting something else. This is something I think Christians in the public square should be willing to say, and allow the slings and arrows to fly accordingly, even if, regrettably, some of them are being launched by other Christians. That doesn’t mean I’m saying a YEC framework, specifically, is the One True Framework. I think there are options here. However, to the extent that “the fundamentalists” insist that there’s something special about Adam and Eve, I don’t think it behooves other Christians to sneer at them. Because I don’t think they’re wrong.

This blog is already over-long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t hit the resurrection, which Ollerton calls the “sharp edge” of where the mythos of Christianity maps onto gritty reality. He says that to varying degrees, maybe you could “concede” everything else, but that’s where the rubber meets the road. Now, I like to avoid talk of “concessions,” myself, just because I don’t think it’s rhetorically or epistemologically helpful. Also, “everything else?” I mean, no. But I understand what Andrew is trying to say here. I might put a little more meat on it by saying that the gospels generally, or the New Testament generally, is the place where I think we have the most light regarding provenance, tethering books down to a particular source, a particular moment in space-time. Indeed, Christ’s entire life, death, teachings, miraculous ministry and resurrection constitute a “sharp edge.” The French writer Jean Guitton quotes another Frenchman who said, “All the Creed is true, except under Pontius Pilate.” Along the same lines, he explains a Polish phrase, “to come like Pilate into the Credo,” meaning to come in randomly, to be out of place. “How wrong this proverb is!” Guitton exclaims. “There is nothing of greater value in the Creed than the mention of Pontius Pilate.”

Why does Guitton say this? Because this is the scandal of particularity. This is the great intersection of story and history. This is the true myth, the one that happened at this time, in this place, under this particular petty bureaucrat.

I’m sure Andrew would agree, and I’ve invited Tom to have a fresh look at the presuppositions he may have inherited as part of his own scholarly heritage here. One thing I always stress in this context, picking up on a comment he makes that this kind of investigation is “enormously complicated,” is that I’ve come away from my own investigation of these things believing that this is not necessarily true. My friend Jonathan McLatchie has put this well, that the evaluative process is actually a fairly straightforward process that’s been made artificially complicated by the gradual accrual of scholarship that invents elaborate problems for itself. Tom deprecates himself as an “amateur,” daunted by this massive body of work. But I would encourage Tom (and all self-proclaimed amateurs similarly daunted) that the vast majority of that work could be committed to the flames, and no value or real insight be lost thereby. Truly.

I’ll wrap this up on a musical note, apropos of another of Tom’s good questions in the conversation, asking whether we should see Jesus at work in the Old as well as New Testaments. Is it Jesus in the burning bush? Is it Jesus wrestling with Jacob? Much theological ink has been spilled over these questions, obviously, as Andrew knows and could only touch on in his reply. But meanwhile, I was smiling because I was thinking of an old black spiritual on a tape I wore out as a kid. If you know anything about the black musical heritage, you know that it’s saturated with the language of the Old Testament, identifying with the Jewish people as they suffered under persecution and slavery. This particular spiritual, “This Same Jesus,” sets Jesus at the heart of Old and New Testaments alike. I’m sure you could find a theological treatise to quibble with it. But I choose to simply enjoy the music, and trust you will as well.

This same Jesus, who walked in Galilee

This same Jesus, who taught beside the sea

This same Jesus, by faith I have been told

This same Jesus will save your soul

“This Same Jesus” (1977) Breath Of Life Quartet – YouTube

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