“God is all for immigration”: A fundamentalist-Bible proof

hqdefaultOver ten years ago, Pastor Steven Anderson proved from the bible that God is all for immigration (May 7, 2006). It’s interesting that this sermon is being recirculated online in view of the current “Muslim ban”, which deserves a few comments before getting to Anderson’s argument.

Some are defending Trump’s executive order by noting that it isn’t really a ban on Muslims entering the country, but only a moratorium (temporary halt) on immigration from seven particular jihadist hotspots. While that is correct, it’s not the most compelling justification, given that Saudia Arabia isn’t on the list, even though it spends millions of dollars promoting jihadist warfare all over the world, and even though most of the 9/11 hijackers came from there. Not a single American has been killed by a citizen of any of the seven banned countries in 40 years, so the question is why do we need a moratorium for proper vetting to occur?

On the other hand, Trump’s critics aren’t always on the ball. Their claim that places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon were excluded from the order because of Trump’s business interests is highly questionable. The list of seven countries was established in laws signed by Obama in the last two years, and Trump’s executive order does not even list the seven countries by name except (obviously) Syria. It simply refers to the “countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12).” All Trump did was lift a preexisting template. I’m not saying it’s a good one, and I don’t support a moratorium in any case — not even against a place like Saudi Arabia. It’s just not a proper way of dealing with refugee plights, and I believe it’s also an ineffective counter to the (very real) jihad threat. But let’s not spin-doctor Trump’s motives either.

On to Anderson’s sermon…

The sermon is noteworthy because Anderson is a renowned hate-preacher (at least when it comes to gay people) and he is so hardcore in his fundamentalist beliefs that he has been disowned by most other fundies. So when he goes out of his way to condemn Donald Trump as an “abomination to the Lord”, and that anyone who supports Donald Trump is “wicked as hell” (see here), and on top of that defends the rights of immigrants in the eyes of God, with assertions that Muslims or anyone else should be able to come and practice their religion in the U.S. without any governmental interference — well, that’s rather saying something.

Here is his biblical proof:

**** God is all for immigration****. “Everyone in America is an immigrant,” says Anderson, “except for the Native American Indians,” and so anyone opposing immigration sets themselves against God’s will. Against those who say that the less people we have, the better off we are, God’s wisdom says that the more people we have, the better off we are (Proverbs 14:28). God, moreover, specifically tells his followers to welcome and love the immigrant:

  • “The stranger (immigrant) that dwells with you shall be as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34).
  • “You shall neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21; cf.23:9; Leviticus 19:33).
  • Ruth wondered why she should receive grace, given that she was an immigrant from Moab. Yet Boaz took care of her anyway, and told others to treat her well. (Ruth 2:10-16)

Anderson offers the following caveats:

1. Immigrants must obey the laws of the land. God, in other words, doesn’t approve illegal immigration. Natives and immigrants are bound by the same laws: “You shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger as for one of your own country” (Leviticus 24:22). No double standards are allowed.

2. Immigrants must learn the language of the land. Anderson appeals to the example of Nehemiah, who went ballistic over immigrants who couldn’t speak native Hebrew: “I saw Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves.'” (Nehemiah 13:23-25)

3. Immigrants can practice their religion, but they must respect the religion of the land. Anderson is a staunch libertarian: “Immigrants should have freedom of religion, and to practice whatever religion they want. If they want to be a Muslim, that’s fine. God bless them, I don’t want them to be forced to be a Christian, I’m totally against that. I’m 100% for religious freedom.” But he also believes they must respect Christianity in the way immigrants had to respect the Israelite faith in Old Testament times: “When they start blaspheming the religion of the land, they cross the line (Leviticus 24:16). They can practice whatever religion they want, but they have no right to come here and badmouth the religion of the land, or to try and change it.”

Anderson says, “I’m probably the most non-racist person you’ve ever laid eyes on in your life. I’m not racist at all. If half of this nation was Hispanic, or if 75% of this nation was Hispanic, or if 99% was Hispanic, or black, or anything, I would be thrilled. But what I’m against is when they say, ‘I don’t want to be like an American with freedom. I want to bring my culture and my language and change your country, so it can be like the hell-hole that I came from.'”

That last may not be the most diplomatic way of putting it, but for a fundamentalist of Anderson’s stripe, his biblical case for immigration is, on whole, rather impressive. I certainly wouldn’t object to hearing it preached from more pulpits across the nation.

Thrown into the Sea: Recovering the Exodus

horse-and-the-riderThe song about “the horse and the rider thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21) was a Sunday school favorite when I was growing up. It’s ridiculously cheesy but gave me thrills to imagine a pissed-off deity raining destruction down on slavers and despots. Even at that age I had the bloodthirsty streak that would find its outlet in horror and war genres. Today my interest in the exodus is more secular and esoteric. I have believed there is little historical basis to the biblical origin of Israel, because archaeology has nothing to show for it. But it depends on when, as much as where, you look for the evidence.

Until recently I had looked in the time of Ramesses II, as most scholars do. Let’s review the options.

Option (a): Ramesses II (c. 1250 BC)

The common view is based on Exodus 1:11 and 12:37, a literal reading of which places the exodus in the time of Egypt’s 19th dynasty under Ramessess II. Because there is zero archaeological confirmation of an exodus and military invasion of Canaan during Ramesses’ reign, the following alternative theories have been offered to explain Israelite origins in the 1250-1100 period.

  • Peaceful Infiltration. In The Settlement of the Israelites in Palestine (1925), Albrecht Alt proposed that instead of the conquest out of Egypt described in Joshua 1-11, there was a gradual influx of nomads with their flocks from the eastern deserts into the central hill country. The infiltrators searched for pasturage and eventually settled the sparsely populated areas between urban centers. In other words, the stories of Joshua 1-11 are myths.
  • Peasant Revolt. In “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine” (1962) and The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (1973), George Mendenhall argued that the origin of Israel was neither the result of a military invasion nor peaceful settlement, but a peasant revolt. Self-identified Israelites grew out of the indigenous shepherds, peasants and farmers rebelling against their Canaanite overlords. A small group of Semitic slaves may have escaped from Egypt and provided the catalyst to all of this, which would be the kernel of truth behind the war stories of Joshua 1-11.
  • Agricultural Resettlement. In The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein (with coauthor Neil Asher Silberman) maintained there was no military invasion, peaceful infiltration, or peasant revolution. Israel emerged directly from within the Canaanite society of the lowlands, when it came into conflict with the Canaanite centers of the hill country. The emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause, coming mostly from within. In other words, the early Israelites were Canaanites themselves.

It’s worth noting that Alt was a pacifist, Mendenhall a hard leftist who wrote in the wake of the Cuban revolution (1953-59), and Finkelstein has gained voice in a time of increased sensitivity for modern Palestinians (=”ancient Israelites”) who are deemed to have as much claim to the land as Jews (=”Canaanites”). Which isn’t to say that biases rule out the theories, only that these readings cut against the grain of the text and carry meanings in an age where ideas about military conquests and national invasions are increasingly out of favor.

For years I accepted Mendenhall’s view. I was taught it in my Old Testament class back in 1989, and it seemed a reasonable alternative. True, I was aware of the artificiality of a “peasant Israel”, since in antiquity blood ties were everything and trumped social-class bonds. (For the latter-day Jesus to base his religious family on social kin at the expense of biology is one thing; for an entire nation to emerge on the premise of social-class kinship is quite another.) But unlike the other two theories, it at least takes the text of Joshua with some seriousness. The point is that all of these theories exist because there is literally not a shred of archaeological confirmation for an exodus or military invasion in the period of Ramesses II.

What’s surprising is how popular this option remains when the text never refers to the person of Ramesses. Exodus 1:11 refers to the city of Ramesses, in the same way that Genesis 47:11 speaks of the land of Ramesses. No biblical scholar believes that Gen 47:11 refers to the actual time of Ramesses, but when it comes to Exodus 1:11 they suddenly do. One is just as much an anachronism as the other. For clarity, the biblical writer of Genesis and Exodus used the current name of the city for the benefit of people living in his time (the seventh century BC). They would have known the location by the name of Ramesses but probably not the older name of Goshen or Avaris. It’s no different from Americans saying that Dutch colonists founded the city of New York, even though they founded it as the city of New Amsterdam (in 1625), which later became New York (in 1664).

Option (b): Thutmose III (1446 BC)

If we forget Ramesses II and take I Kings 6:1 at face value, then the exodus happened in 1446 BC — the favored theory of evangelical scholars. The Pharaoh in 1446 was Thutmose III and he was basically the Napoleon of ancient Egypt, mightier than even Ramesses II (though less of a megalomaniac), who prosecuted countless military campaigns and made Egypt into a true empire under the 18th dynasty. Historians call his reign the strongest epoch in Egypt’s history. That doesn’t sound like an era in which a prophet and his Yahweh-god brought Egypt to its knees. (Though who am I kidding: to an evangelical, the humbling of the mightiest pharaoh would resound to God’s glory all the more.)

Those who like this option tend to manufacture questionable evidence. Consider Thutmose’s campaign to destroy all images of his stepmother Hatshepsut, who had not only reigned as a female pharaoh but as his own co-regent in his youth. Most Egyptologists ascribe his crusade to sexist pride: this Napoleon king would not have wanted to be recorded for posterity as the man who ruled for an entire 20 years under the thumb of a woman. He rewrote Egyptian history to liberate his own, and to portray a smooth succession of male rulers. The evangelical scholars, however, suggest a different reason. They claim that Hatshepsut was Moses’ Egyptian stepmother — the bold young queen who supposedly drew Moses from the Nile (Exod 2:5-10). If that’s true, and she raised Moses as her own son in the royal court (Acts 7:21), then after the Reed Sea calamity, Thutmose would have returned to Egypt on a vicious crusade to erase her foul memory from every corner of Egypt and remove all possibility of her spirit ascending to the afterlife.

It’s a rather silly theory. For one, I doubt there is any historical basis to the legend of the baby Moses rescued from the Nile. No one knew or cared who Moses was when he was a baby. Like the infancy narratives of Jesus, it’s a story ascribing honor to a prophet-nobody who became somebody. Thutmose’s crusade to wipe out Hatshepsut’s images is perfectly understandable for the reason Egyptologists tell us, and is no different from other efforts in Egypt’s history to obliterate memories of objectionable pharaohs (like the heretic Akhenaten, kings with questionable lineage, etc.).

The most relevant piece for this dating option is the battle of Jericho. Evangelicals feel confident dating it to around 1400 BC — in other words, to about 40 years after the exodus (on the 1446 option) as the bible implies. In her archaeological dig in the 1950s, Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of Jericho to around the 1550s BC. But in his article, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence” (1990), Bryant Wood re-dated the destruction of Jericho from 1550 to 1400, primarily on the basis of pottery analysis (Kenyon also based part of her analysis on pottery, so go figure). Wood has not gained support for his view outside the wishful-thinking of evangelical circles. All the pottery experts have dismissed his claim, and later analyses in the ’90s confirmed that Jericho was destroyed during the late 1600s or 1500s, basically as Kenyon said. Which takes us to the next option.

Option (c): Dudimose (c. 1650 BC)

Either of the above two options — the skeptical (a) or the evangelical (b) — puts the exodus in the New Kingdom period (1539-1069 BC), for which there is no evidence (Wood’s protest about Jericho notwithstanding). There is however a string of evidence that spans the Middle Kingdom (2060-1649 BC) and Second Intermediate Period (1649-1539) which is widely ignored in scholarship. David Rohl is the lead proponent of this view. Among the evidence he considers, there is:

First, the archaeological record of Semitic/Asiatic populations found at Avaris (the name of the city before it became Ramesses) in the 1800s-1600s. Based on the Ramesses theory, scholars had looked for evidence of the Israelite sojourn in either the 1400s-1200s (assuming a 215-year sojourn), or the 1600s-1200s period (assuming a 430-year sojourn), and never found anything. But everything that archaeologists have unearthed at the earlier site of Avaris indicates the people came from Canaan. They were shepherds and traders who began settling in the delta around the mid-1800s.

Evangelicals who advocate the Thutmose theory can fudge here by accepting this 1800s-1600s evidence and extending it down to the 1400s, on the assumption of a 430-year sojourn. But the dig at Avaris doesn’t show Semitics/Asiatics that late, and the idea of a 430-year sojourn has always been a problematic reading of the bible. The textual evidence for a 215-year sojourn outweighs it. Most sources (Septuagint, Samaritan Pentateuch, Josephus) are unanimous in stating that the 430 years began only with Abraham’s arrival in Canaan, with Jacob’s arrival in Egypt marking the start of a 215-year sojourn. The archaeological record supports this.

By the reign of Sobekhotep III (26th ruler of the 13th dynasty, 1755-1751), the size of the Semitic population had grown. The archaeology shows a huge expansion of Avaris and more than twenty other sites containing Canaanite pottery. Around this time also comes evidence for slavery, with graves of skeletons showing signs of malnutrition and stress, and also an increase in infant graves, from a typical 25 percent rate to 50 percent — and on top of that, an increase in the remains of females who made it into adulthood as compared to male remains. This would align with the biblical account of male infants being put to death. There are also papyrus documents of the time which show that about half the domestic and estate slaves were Semitic, and it was probably even more than half since many of the Asiatic settlers had married native Egyptians and given their children Egyptian names.

Second, the account from a third century BC Egyptian chronicler, Manetho, who describes God (in the singular) “smiting” the Egyptians in the reign of Pharaoh Tutimaos (Greek for Dudimose). God smote the Egyptians in some way, which left them powerless so that foreigners could take over Egypt without bloodshed. The only time that happened was with the Hyksos, who brought the Middle Kingdom to and end and took over Egypt in the Second Intermediate period of 1649-1539. Manetho evidently understands the exodus (in which God wiped out the Egyptian forces at the Reed Sea) to have preceded the Hyksos takeover, which would be in the reign of Dudimose (c. 1653-1649).

Some Egyptologists say there were two pharaohs by this name, Djedhetepre Dudimose and Djedneferre Dudimose (Dudimose I and Dudimose II), while others say it was the same king who changed his prenomen mid-reign. If the former is true, then the exodus pharaoh is Dudimose II. Whichever is true, the evidence from excavations at Avaris indicate that the eastern delta suffered a calamity in Dudimose’s time, and the Asiatics picked up and left. Pits were found with bodies tossed in on top of each other, many face down. They apparently died from plague, and perhaps it was this mystery plague that was turned into God’s act in the tenth plague of Egypt. Which takes us to the next piece of evidence.

Third, the 13th-century Ipuwer Papyrus, containing the incomplete literary work called The Admonitions of Ipuwer which has been difficult to date. At first it was thought to be written around 2181-2060 BC, during the First Intermediate period and the time of civil war. But in 1966 John Van Seters made a strong case for dating it to the end of the Middle Kingdom on the eve of the Hyksos takeover. Of interest are the remarkable similarities between the catastrophes described in the Admonitions and the ten plagues of the bible. The parallels are usually dismissed since a 1600s date of composition precedes the date of the exodus by centuries. But if the exodus didn’t happen in either 1250 or 1446, but around 1650, then it’s right on the nose with Ipuwer. Here are the parallels.

Ipuwer Papyrus Exodus
Plague sweeps the land. Blood is everywhere with no shortage of the dead.

Egypt has fallen to the pouring water. And he who poured water on the ground seizes the mighty in misery.

The river is blood. As you drink of it, you lose your humanity and thirst for water.

There was blood throughout all the land of Egypt. (Exod 2:6)

Yahweh said, “Take some water from the Nile and pour it on the ground. The water you have taken from the river will turn to blood on the dry land.” (Exod 4:9)

All the water in the Nile turned to blood. The fish in the river died and the river stank, so that the Egyptians could not drink from it. (Exod 7:20-21)

Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire. Lower Egypt weeps.

Gone is the grain of abundance. Food supplies are running short. The nobles hunger and suffer. Upper Egypt has become a wasteland. Grain is lacking on every side. The storehouse is bare. Women say, “Oh that we had something to eat!”

All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan and are left to stray, and there is none to gather them together.

Fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field. (Exod 9:23-25)

The flax and the barley were ruined. All the livestock of the Egyptians died. The locusts covered the surface of the ground until the land was devastated. And they devoured whatever was growing in the fields and all the fruit of the trees. (Exod 9:31, 9:6, 10:15)

“The hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, and there shall be a very grievous sickness. Gather thy cattle, and all that thou hast in the field.” And he that did not fear the word of the Lord left his servants and cattle in the field. (Exod 9:3,19,21)

What can we do about it? All is ruin.

Those that had shelter are now in the dark of the storm. The whole of the delta cannot be seen.

Pharaoh’s servants said to him, “Let the people go, that they may worship Yahweh their god. Do you not yet understand that Egypt is on the brink of ruin?” (Exod 10:7)

For three days there was thick darkness throughout the land of Egypt. (Exod 10:22)

Children are dashed against the walls. The funeral shroud calls out to you before you come near. He who buries his brother in the ground is everywhere. Wailing is throughout the land mingled with lamentations.

The slave takes what he finds. What belongs to the palace has been stripped. Gold, lapis, lazuli, silver, and turquoise are strung on the necks of female slaves. See how the poor of the land have become rich while the man of property is a pauper.

At midnight the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt. And there was a great wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without its dead. The Egyptians were burying those of their own people whom Yahweh had struck down. (Exod 12:29,30, Num 33:4)

The Israelites did as Moses had told them, and they asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewellery and for clothing. Yahweh had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians that they let them have what they asked. So they plundered the Egyptians. (Exod 12:35-36)

And fourth, the destruction of Jericho, which as we saw was dated by Kenyon and her later supporters between the late 1600s and mid 1500s. If the exodus was c. 1650, then the battle of Jericho would be c. 1610, which fits the time frame. But that’s not all. Kenyon’s findings were rather amazing: (1) Jericho was apparently destroyed by an earthquake, which matches the biblical legend of the walls falling down flat (Joshua 6:20); (2) Jericho was also destroyed by a massive conflagration, leaving ash several layers thick, which supports the account of Israelites burning Jericho to the ground (Joshua 6:24); (3) cave tombs at Jericho show multiple and simultaneous burials, which Kenyon had suggested as some kind of catastrophe or plague being responsible for, and which could be the same plague that the Israelites carried from weeks before (Numbers 25:1-9); (4) abundant supplies of unused grain were found in home storage jars, which supports the biblical testimony that the siege wasn’t long at all, only seven days (Joshua 6:15); (5) there could even be evidence for Rahab’s house — in a poor part of the town Kenyon found the only excavated part of the wall that did not collapse, with houses built into the wall just like Rahab’s (Joshua 2:15). The archaeological pattern of Jericho fits the biblical stories to a tee. But it’s where scholars refuse to look — in Egypt’s 2nd Intermediate Period, not the New Kingdom of the 18th or 19th dynasties.

New Chronology: The Work of David Rohl

But it’s not that simple, because this string of evidence — for the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — creates as many problems as it solves when pushed back to the 1800s-1600s. It would mean that a lot of other biblical events (the Philistines, the period of the judges, David’s reign, the consecration of Solomon’s temple, etc.) need be pushed back too, and there is no justification for such a massive realignment of biblical chronology. On the other hand, there are good reasons to revise Egyptian chronology, and this is what scholars like David Rohl have been doing since the 1990s. In his revision, the Middle Kingdom and 2nd Intermediate Period get reassigned from the 1800s-1600s to the 1600s-1400s, which means that the sojourn, exodus, and conquest — which, per the evidence above, align with those Egyptian periods — don’t end up getting pushed so far back after all.

To list all the reasons for Rohl’s revisionist project would demand multiple blogposts, but for now here’s a significant one: the problem of equating the biblical Shishak (925 BC) with Pharaoh Shoshenk I (the first pharaoh of the 22nd dynasty). The equation was made back in the 1820s by Jean-Francois Champollion, and it has become a thrice-damned unmovable mountain in our chronology of the ancient world. They are very doubtfully the same pharaoh. The biblical Shishak conquered Judah and plundered Jerusalem (I Kings 14:25-26; II Chronicles 12:1-12). Shoshenk did not. In the 1880s, it was found that Champollion was wrong in translating the hieroglyphics in Shoshenk’s campaign relief as “Judah the Kingdom”. It actually reads “Hand of the King”, has nothing to do with Judah, and in fact the campaign relief indicates that Shoshenk avoided Judah on his military campaign in (northern) Israel. Of the fifteen fortresses strengthened by Rehoboam to resist attack from the direction of Egypt, only one (Ajalon) appears on Shoshenk’s campaign list, and it’s the one directly on the route crossing the hill country north of the Judean border. Shoshenk was going to battle the armies of Aram-Damascus, who were plundering northern Israel and encroaching on his sphere of influence — not to attack the people of Judah. But since the 1880s everyone has kept assuming that he was Shishak. Virtually all of our Egyptian chronology, and thus of the ancient world, hangs on this biblical date of 925 BC connected to the probably wrong pharaoh. (As far as the real identity of Shishak, Rohl argues that he was a king of the 19th dynasty, not the 22nd; that’s three centuries off right there.)

In Rohl’s revised chronology, historical events get adjusted by on average 2-3 centuries by a massive re-evaluation of all the data. Here’s a snapshot of his revised timeline of the Middle to New Kingdoms of Egypt, from our conventional (C) dates to his new (N) ones.

Middle Kingdom
12th dynasty: 1938-1802 (C) –> 1803-1632 (N)
13th dynasty: 1802-1649 (C) –> 1632-1439 (N)

2nd Intermediate Period
14th-17th dynasties (Hyksos and rival Thebans): 1649-1539 (C) –> 1439-1202 (N)

New Kingdom
18th dynasty: 1539-1292 (C) –> 1202-962 (N)
19th dynasty: 1292-1190 (C) –> 962-866 (N)

So the pharaoh of the oppression, whom Rohl believes to be Sobekhotep III, reigned c. 1755 in our conventional chronology, and c. 1545 in the revised chronology. Dudimose, the pharaoh of the exodus, reigned 1653-1649, which translates to 1450-1446. This means that the exodus actually did happen in 1446, as the evangelicals claim (I Kings 6:1 is correct after all), but not in the time of the New Kingdom’s 18th dynasty, rather two centuries before, at the end of the Middle Kingdom’s 13th dynasty. The conquest of Canaan moves from c. 1610 to c. 1410, which again makes the evangelicals technically right, but profoundly wrong in how they align biblical events with the rest of the world.


I’m not urging overnight conversions to the new chronology or the acceptance of every new dating period fixed by Rohl (of which there are hundreds). But the project does deserve to be taken seriously. In a documentary called Patterns of Evidence (2014), Israel Finkelstein is interviewed and scorns revisionist efforts, saying that the margin of error for our conventional dating is surely no more than ten years. But that’s not true. All you have to do is pick up a book written by an Egyptian specialist, for example Toby Wilkinson’s Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt (2010), which in the first pages provides a timeline of all the dynasties from 2950 to 30 BC. The timeline is prefaced by a warning that the margin of error for the dates is “within a century or so” for the period of 2950-1300 BC. In other words, for at least the period we’re concerned with (prior to 1300 BC), this historian acknowledges the margin of error to be at least a century. That’s a revealing admission, and I suspect Wilkinson is low-balling the figure, considering some of the flimsy foundations on which our chronology rests. David Rohl’s shifts of two to three centuries don’t seem so radical in this light.

At the very least, I’m persuaded to abandon the peasant-revolt theory in favor of a traditional conquest. Not in a maximalist way, to be sure. The bible is full of legendary embellishment. But if I’m skeptical of the bible, I’m just as skeptical of hyper-skepticism.

Reading Roundup: 2016

This was a really good year for books. Read all of these if you can make time.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. If you can only make time for one book on my list, pick this one. It’s a milestone in putting to bed the biggest academic myth of our time, and comes from a Harvard scholar, the last place you’d expect on this subject. We’ve been taught that Muslims, Christians, and Jews co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony in medieval Spain, where the reality is the opposite. Christians and Jews were treated horribly under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. Medieval Spain was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. None of this should be controversial, but university presses are a bit paralyzed; they want to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia” and so present Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as relatively benign. The idea of Christian dhimmis being content under Islamic rule is as much a fantasy as that of American blacks happy as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest, and Visigoth Spain was left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner.

marginal2. A Marginal Jew: Probing the Authenticity of the Parables, John Meier. If Meier is right, and unfortunately I think he is, then the parables aren’t the guaranteed voice of Jesus. Of the 32 stories, we can salvage perhaps four — yes, only four — with confidence: The Mustard Seed (God’s rule was already at work in human activity, and however small that seemed now, it would bear fruit on a huge scale in the end), the Great Supper (a warning that one’s place in the kingdom can be taken by those who never had any right to it), the Talents (along with sovereign grace and reward comes the possibility of being condemned in hell for refusing God’s demands contained in his gifts), and the Wicked Tenants (Jesus knew what awaited him if he confronted the Jerusalem authorities, and he accepted a destiny of irreversible martyrdom). All other parables, even the long-standing cherished ones — The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Leaven, The Sower, The Seed Growing Secretly, The Laborers in the Vineyard, The Unmerciful Servant, The Shrewd Manager, The Pharisee and the Toll Collector, The Unjust Judge, The Friend at Midnight, The Rich Fool, The Rich Man and Lazarus — either shout a later creation, or can at best be judged indeterminate. Meier shows that the dominant view is a house of cards: there is no warrant for giving the parables pride of place in the teachings of Jesus. Full review here.

moh_and_cha_revisited3. Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy, Emmet Scott. The premise of this book is that without Muhammad, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. Meaning that if not for the Islamic invasions of the seventh century, the medieval world as we know it would not have appeared. There would have been no “Holy” Roman Empire, and Western Europe would have remained fairly Roman under the continued influence and communication from Constantinople. The Viking raids wouldn’t have occurred, nor would there have been crusades or inquisitions. Without the Islamic example of slavery, contact with Indians in the new world may have unfolded differently, not to mention Europe’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa. That was Henri Pirenne’s thesis 80 years ago, and Scott improves on it with special attention to the archaeological record. It’s clear that the barbarian invaders weren’t mindless destroyers or ineffectual hold-outs, but rather they adopted Roman civilization to the extent that classical culture not only thrived but revived over against the deterioration of the third-fifth centuries. This state of affairs wouldn’t change until the second quarter of the seventh century, with the jihad invasions of the East, Middle-East, and North Africa. And from the ravages of Islam would rise Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire in response. This is essential reading for understanding the genesis of medieval Christendom. Full review here.

night-comes4. Night Comes: Death, Imagination, and the Last Things, Dale Allison. I make a point of reading everything by Dale Allison, even when it goes outside my comfort zone. He’s a solid historical critic and well-rounded thinker that makes him equipped to tackle big theological questions. This book is about death and how we cope with the idea of it. The first chapter is a meditation on the fear of death, how we push for longevity, and how our increased longevity has effected our perception. In the days of Jesus, for example, life would have looked different if you could only hope to make it to 30 instead of 80. (Imagine, says Allison, how Jesus’ prohibition against divorce will look to a 500-year old Christian, if science ever gets us that far.) The second chapter deals with the resurrection, suggesting that no matter how physical (like the gospels) or spiritual (like Paul) we favor the idea, there’s no neat answer to the objections against both, though Allison leans more in favor of Pauline discontinuity between the old and new bodies. Modern cremation and organ donation, not to mention our increased detachment to the physical remains of loved ones, means that corpse-like resurrection becomes less important to modern Christians. The next chapter is about judgment, with a fascinating discussion of near death experiences and “life reviews”, which according to survivors forced them to watch the replay of their entire lives in an instant, and to grasp the consequences of everything they’ve done. Then there are chapters on the question of an afterlife. Like many of Allison’s books, Night Comes unnerves you no matter what you believe.

atheist-muslim5. The Atheist Muslim, Ali Rizvi. This book is the best example I know of how to criticize religion — and with a razor when necessary — without attacking people in the process. Rizvi begins with Thomas Jefferson who launched the first U.S. international war against Islamic jihadists who were for no apparent reason attacking U.S. ships sailing into the Mediterranean. Jefferson wanted to know why, and in the words of the Muslim ambassador, they were simply doing as Muhammad commanded, that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise. This was two centuries ago, long before ISIS or Al-Qaeda, the Iranian revolution, modern drone strikes — and long before any established “U.S. foreign policy”, which is not what calls forth jihadist warfare in any case. Rizvi refutes false dichotomies (with zingers like “saying that culture is the problem and not religion is like saying, ‘It’s not falling out of the airplane that kills you, it’s the ground.’”), and suggests that what makes the Qur’an so dangerous is that it combines the worldly violence of the Old Testament with the afterlife violence of the New. His chapter on free speech, and the necessity of defending even hate speech, is unassailable. This is a book that anyone can and should learn from, even if you don’t particularly identify with atheism (as I don’t). Full review here.

chaos6. Harnessing Chaos: The Bible in English Political Discourse since 1968, James Crossley. I like the use of 1968 as a benchmark. I was born that year and it probably says something about me. Crossley calls it “the key moment of historical chaos” that triggered huge cultural shifts worldwide. Fury over Vietnam. Flower power. Hippies and drugs. And the backlash to all of this. Crossley focuses on the impact of this chaos in the U.K. and on four evolving English views of the bible: (1) the Cultural Bible of western heritage and literature, (2) the Liberal Bible of democratic thought (freedom of conscience, rights, and consensus against tyranny), (3) the Neoliberal Bible of Margaret Thatcher (individualism, free trade, the priority of the market and individual responsibility against state power for the common good and elimination of poverty), and (4) the Radical Bible of liberation theology (socialism and revolutionary transformation). It’s an excellent chronicle of how politicians and public figures use the bible, and confirms my long-standing opinion that the Judeo-Christian tradition is saturated with ideas that lend themselves to both socialistic and individualistic values in almost equal measure. Be sure to get the revised (2016) version, which improves on the 2014 with a chapter covering the past two years, especially David Cameron’s speeches upholding the Neoliberal Bible while Jeremy Corbyn’s invoke the Radical Bible. I’d love to see Crossley write a book like this focused on American politics.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). This was published in 2015 but I read it this year. If you want to know what specialists say about the crusades without reading dense tomes this is exactly the book for you. It’s easily accessible and grounded in peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord example of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, tailored for medieval knights whose profession was sinful to begin with, and they were never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, and to my surprise, many people have thanked me for recommending it. Further notes about the book here.

paul-behaving-badly8. Paul Behaving Badly: Was the Apostle a Racist, Chauvinist Jerk?, E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. For an evangelical book I have to admit it handles Paul pretty evenly. The authors apply the idea of a “trajectory hermeneutic”, where biblical principles that initially have little effect produce significant change over time. So if Paul required women to be submissive and dress appropriately in certain contexts, he also considered women to be his missionary colleagues, not to mention deaconesses, which means that his teaching was at least in a direction of liberating women. Same with slavery: in antiquity it was the natural backbone of society, with rigid lines between slaves and masters, and Paul could never have condemned the institution and be taken seriously. But he did teach that slaves and masters were brothers on equal footing in the Christian family, and because of that, masters can’t assault their slaves with impunity. Paul at least pushes in a direction of protection and liberation of slaves. On the subject of homosexuality, Paul’s trajectory is in the negative direction. In Roman culture homoerotic sex may have shamed the passive male, but it celebrated the dominant (penetrating) one. Paul condemned both active and passive roles, pushing in a direction of more restriction rather than liberation, even concluding — though the authors frankly avoid this unpleasant point — that sodomites are “worthy of death”. On whole this is a balanced treatment that helps one understand the importance of trajectory hermeneutics, and why it’s not the case that scriptures are malleable to the same degree, or in the same direction, on any issue.

assholes.jpg9. Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump, Aaron James. Now that Trump has been elected, this book is more sobering than entertaining. On the one hand, it’s true that much of Trump’s success owes to American anger with the establishment, income inequality, leftists who make honest discussions (about free speech, Islam, etc.) difficult, and other things. That’s understandable; he’s an outsider to a system that has failed us. But he isn’t a competent or humane outsider. He’s an asshole, and recognized as such even by his fans. How does an ass win the presidency? “To sum up my answer,” says James, “he flashes between different asshole types, boorish one moment, self-aggrandizing the next, then bullshitting, all while managing to be very entertaining. Trump is a stunning, even likable showman. His display of the asshole arts — as schoolyard bully, or cutdown boxer — is unrivaled, and its own spectacle. The question is then why enough of us are not flatly revolted. My answer is that we — most of us — really like an ass-clown. We are drawn to him even in revulsion, and his supporters forgive or overlook his transgressions. Our pleasure in the spectacle leaves us unsettled in our feelings and him free to do pretty much as he likes.” He’s about to plant his worthless ass in the Oval Office, so get ready for the worst next month. Full review here.

Is anti-abortion biblical?

bibleNot directly, no. But it arguably aligns well with biblical beliefs.

Chris Heard, a rather strong anti-abortionist, sums it up like this:

“Let me be completely clear and honest: I despise abortion. I think that a biblically-informed valuation of human life leads one in that direction. But I also object to bad exegesis. There is no biblical proof-text against abortion. Deuteronomy 30:19 (“choose life”) has nothing to do with abortion; it has to do with being party to God’s covenant with Israel. Psalm 139:13-18 is less relevant to the issue than most people think; a careful reading of that psalm reveals that the “mother” in whose “womb” the psalmist was known by God is Mother Earth (notice the parallelism between “my mother’s womb” and “the depths of the earth” in the inclusio of vv. 13-15). Exodus 21 is very difficult, but it certainly does not speak directly to abortion; at most, it relates to an accidentally induced miscarriage, though it may refer to a premature birth. That interpretive decision is crucial, and I’m not sure how to resolve it. As far as I can tell, the only biblical passage that I know of that directly mentions a practice like we would think of as abortion curses a man who did not practice it on the fetal Jeremiah (Jeremiah 20:14-18).”

Indeed, in the Jeremiah passage the prophet curses the day he was born and laments the fact that he was not aborted — hardly of help to the anti-abortionist cause.

Heard does believe that a biblical case can be made for anti-abortion, but that it would have to be a “cumulative theological case” rather than a direct case based on proof texts. I think he’s probably right (for the record, I’m as pro-choice as they come), and history speaks for itself. The Jews and Christians of antiquity were known for despising infanticide and abortion.

In fact, in the book I recently reviewed, Mohammaed & Charlemagne, Emmet Scott revisits the historical claim that Constantine adopted Christianity, at least in part, to halt the population decline in the Roman empire. As early as the end of the first century, people like Tacitus and Pliny the Younger complained about the problem of childlessness and the common view of children as a burden; baby girls were especially unwanted and discarded. The only groups in the empire that were increasing by normal demographic process were the Christians and the Jews (in no small part because they extended the sanctity of life to children, infants, and the unborn), and Constantine may have been trying to capitalize on this.

Anti-abortion, in other words, is not biblical in the way that homophobia, post-tribulation eschatology, and (NT) pacifism are. It’s more biblical in the way that anti-racism or (NT) separation-of-church and state is. A convincing case can be made for it by building on related biblical ideas, but the platform doesn’t span the bible.

The Five “Biggest” Myths about Jesus

jesusThe Daily Beast has a fun article by Candida Moss on the five “biggest” myths of Jesus. She gets most of it right except for one.

1. Jesus wasn’t tall and white. “He was a socially and politically disenfranchised man with tanned skin who was living under the hand of an oppressive foreign government. He didn’t enjoy the privileges of white men today.”


2. Jesus wasn’t the messiah the Jews expected. “First-century Jews, most of whom were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the messiah, had a number of opinions about what that messiah would be like. Most were hoping for a military or political leader who would overthrow the Jewish authorities and become a ruler like King David.”

Basically yes. Other options included a priestly messiah, prophetic messiah, and heavenly arch-angel messiah (see John Collins’ The Scepter and the Star). In the gospels Jesus is presented as a variant combo of the prophetic and heavenly arch-angel.

(X) 3. Jesus wasn’t a pacifist. “Even if he wasn’t the political messiah people hoped for, he wasn’t a 1960s hippie either. In fact, he explicitly says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth’ (Matt 10:34). Sure, he tells Peter to put away his sword when the temple guards come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he announces ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ during the Sermon on the Mount, but his overturning of tables in the Temple during Passover week has to be read as an act of aggression. In the Gospel of John he actually uses a whip to drive people out of the Temple.”

Frankly this is silly. As presented in the sources Jesus certainly stands as a pacifist. Mt 10:34 is a blatant metaphor about severing family blood ties in favor of fictive kin, and so obvious that not even the crusading theologians of the medieval period tried using it to justify the holy wars (they got pretty creative in distorting biblical passages but didn’t bother attempting with this one). And if Jesus used a whip to drive out the money-changers, that hardly disproves he was a pacifist.

4. Jesus wasn’t that concerned about family, but was strongly opposed to divorce. “Jesus identifies his followers, rather than his biological relatives, as his family, and instructs his disciples to leave their old [families] behind and follow him. The one place Jesus is truly supportive of marriage is when it comes to divorce.”

Check. Many of us implicitly (and regardless of our religion) subscribe to the philosophy of “love your families and hate your enemies”, but Jesus was known for “love your enemies” and “hate your families” (Lk 14:26).

5. Historians know almost nothing about who Jesus was. “There have been a number of best-selling and shocking books about Jesus of Nazareth that purport to tell us who Jesus actually was. The historians writing these books purport to peel back the layers of history and deliver a biography of the real Jesus. These are entertaining, iconoclastic, and sometimes well-written reads, but they’re something of an intellectual hoax. Many of the criteria employed by scholars work with assumptions about ancient society and Jesus’ place within it, but…it is often impossible to evaluate whether Jesus’ words and deeds were plausible, embarrassing, commonplace, or radical.”

I’m afraid I have to agree. I’ve been increasingly less confident in efforts to reconstruct a reliable historical Jesus (beyond a bare-bones apocalyptic prophet). I’m glad to see William Arnal’s The Symbolic Jesus cited: “Historical portraits of Jesus don’t matter because ‘the Jesus who is important to our own day is not the Jesus of history but the symbolic Jesus of contemporary discourse.'” Though I’d put it a bit differently. Historical portraits always matter, but at least we shouldn’t “need” a historical Jesus to ground any of our contemporary agendas.

Pulling Down the Veil: Myths, Illusions and the Taboo

The meme is as follows: ten books or bodies of research that either correct common myths or beliefs, engage taboo subjects, or illuminate the human condition in a surprising way. On my list the topics are drawn from the fields of biblical studies, rape fantasies, neuroscience, the crusades, lies and deceptions, drug addiction, and the wild west.

mythandalusianparadise_frontcover_final1. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Dario Fernandez-Morera. 2016. The historical myth of our time is the medieval age of Islamic tolerance, especially in Spain where the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed fruitfully under an enlightened Islamic hegemony. The question is why this myth persists even among experts if it’s so thoroughly false. Jews and Christians were anything but protected under Islam. As dhimmis they were subject to a whole raft of degrading laws that made life barely tolerable. It was a society in which the abuse of non-Muslims, slaves, and women was written into law and sanctified by holy writ. Even at its most prosperous the Caliphate of Cordoba was never a tolerant or humane society. Perhaps, the author suggests, university presses don’t want to get in trouble by presenting an Islamic domination (of even centuries ago) as anything but positive, and that ongoing fears of “Islamophobia” paralyze academic research. But seriously, to promote the idea that Christian dhimmis were content under Islamic rule is as preposterous as saying American blacks were content as slaves in the antebellum south since their masters made them “part of their family”. Had there been no Islamic conquest and Visigoth Spain left to grow and interact with eastern Christianity, the Renaissance would have happened much sooner. This is the book we’ve been waiting for, and that it came from a Harvard PhD is quite a surprise.

bivona2. Rape Fantasies, Jenny Bivona. 2008-2012. The data accumulated on rape fantasies since the ’70s has been considerable, but the subject is so taboo that you can’t find a professional book about it. Jenny Bivona should write one. Her research in the last decade has put to bed common theories about rape fantasies — that they are supposedly pathological and can be blamed on rape-culture conditioning or guilt-ridden sexual repression. In fact, she finds, women who fantasize about being raped often have more positive attitudes toward sex and high self esteem. Bivona has considered no less than nine theories which have tried explaining the puzzling phenomenon. Puzzling because it’s usually not pleasant to imagine being harmed. I.e. To imagine getting into a car accident, or suffering from cancer, isn’t pleasant. But many women (31-57% of them) enjoy rape fantasies that would be traumatic and repulsive if they happened as imagined in the real world. The most plausible theories seem to be those of sympathetic activation (biological arousal resulting from negative feelings), and adversary transformation (psychological excitement provided by negative feelings), which combine and cause negative feelings to co-occur with, or convert into, good ones. Bivona’s research hints at bio-psychological paradoxes that we’ve only begun to grasp.


3. Waking Up, Sam Harris. 2014. It’s curious that an atheist of Harris’s reputation would co-opt the term “spirituality”, but you quickly see why. I doubt there is a better word for the experiences he covers in this book, which are attained by the meditation techniques of Buddhism (the safest way) though also the more risky highways of psychedelic drugs (like MDMA and LSD). These mind experiences are caused by changes in consciousness that are so severe they break the illusion of the self, and this, according to Harris, is the key to spirituality: the cessation of all thought. When we completely stop thinking — believe me, it’s much more difficult than it sounds — we can be happy without needing to become happy in the transitory way of fulfilling our various desires. Successful meditation dissolves the illusion of the “I” self and causes thoughts to appear as discrete objects while emotions are accentuated, like love — boundless love even for strangers. You no longer feel like there is an “I” perched in your head behind your eyes, looking out of a body you control. This isn’t new-age quackery, but secular spiritualism grounded in neuroscience. If meditation can produce egoless communion, good will, and improved mental health, that’s a skill worth honing.

paul and palestinian judaism

4. Paul and Palestinian Judaism, E.P. Sanders. 1977. I started reading this book for the fun of it (during a fateful ice storm in the winter of ’91), after a Christian relative told me, apropos Rom 7, why he thought the purpose of the law is to “break you and lead you to Christ”. I found that a curious explanation for moral regulations, but then I wasn’t raised Lutheran. Reading this book showed me what biblical scholars do when they’re at their best in understanding the ancients on their own terms. In the case of ancient Jews, what we think of as legalism was mostly alien to their way of thinking. In Paul’s case, he broke with Judaism by opposing the law and Israel’s special place in the divine cosmos, but not because of a supposed legalism or because Judaic religion was inherently problematic; and certainly not because Paul couldn’t keep the law himself (a practicing Pharisee he’d been perfectly righteous by the law). It was because Christ’s bizarre victory over evil made everything else so trivial that nothing was sacred anymore. As a result, Paul began digging himself into holes explaining why the sacred used to be — and then desperately out of these holes, the steepest slopes being those of Rom 7 and 11. This was the myth-breaker that hooked me in the field of biblical studies.

206285. Why We Lie: The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, David Livingstone Smith. 2004. That 60% of people tell 3 lies for every 10 minutes of conversation is sobering, and if you’re reading this right now, you probably think you’re among the 40% who lie less often. That’s what the people in controlled studies thought too, and when they watched their taped conversations played back at them, they were flabbergasted. Thus writes David Livingstone Smith: “Deceit is the Cinderella of human nature; essential to our humanity but disowned at every turn. It is normal, natural, and pervasive. It’s not reducible to mental illness or moral failure. Societies are networks of lies and deceptions that would collapse under the weight of too much honesty.” We deceive others and ourselves all the time, because it’s advantageous to do so as a species. We have to fit into social systems and at the same time look out for ourselves above all others. Lying helps on both fronts. This has in view all kinds of lies: socially acceptable lies (normally not considered lies), blatant or bald-faced lies, lies of omission (silent lies), and other forms of deception, including self-deception. Since reading this book I’ve considered honesty the most overrated myth of our species.

gospel hoax

6. Gospel Hoax and The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, Stephen Carlson, 2005, and Peter Jeffery, 2006. For a real-life conspiracy thriller, the story behind the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” is pretty good, but that hoax was obvious from the start. The “Secret Gospel of Mark”, while always obvious to some, took decades to debunk, and it still has defenders. The two detectives, Carlson and Jeffery, published within a year of each other and with no knowledge of what the other was doing. Neither was a biblical scholar: one was a patent attorney (who has since become a biblical scholar) and the other a musicologist, and each used the insight of forgery experts that texts reflect the personalities and time periods of the forger. Carlson spotted the anachronism of Clement’s salt metaphor (which assumes the 20th-century invention of free-flowing salt) and the homoeroticism between Jesus and the young man tied to Gethsemane (which evokes the mid-20th century oppression against gay men in public parks). Jeffery saw other give-aways, like the baptismal symbolism of mid-20th century Anglican Catholicism (Smith had been an Episcopal priest), and a hilarious allusion to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (Wilde was a gay martyr). Morton Smith was passionate about the church’s view of homosexuality, he was probably gay, and he wrote on the subject in a time when the subject was rarely discussed.secret mark unveiled His “discovery” of Secret Mark allowed him to claim that Jesus was gay, specifically that Jesus’ baptism ceremonies were used to enter a state of hallucination and ascend into heaven, while their spiritual union with Jesus was accompanied by a physical union of sex. But there’s more. Right before his “discovery”, Smith published an academic paper connecting both Clement of Alexandria and “the mystery of the kingdom of God” (in Mk 4:11) to sexual immorality (in T. Hagigah 2:1), which of course is exactly what Secret Mark is about. Also, Smith was intrigued by the 19th-century debate over whether Clement of Alexandria believed that lying was justified if it served the causes of the church. His “discovery” answers that very question: in the supposed letter, Clement says that one should tell bald-faced lies — indeed, should lie under oath — to those who are easily misled by the truth. I’ve always admired Morton Smith for his brilliance and humor, perhaps less so for his arrogance, but there’s no question that all came together in one of the most successful academic fakes of all time. Carlson and Jeffery show the pitfalls of trust when experts ignore red flags and persist under illusions of academic integrity.

seven myths7. Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred Andrea & Andrew Holt (editors). 2015. For ambitious readers I recommend Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War (2006), which is the definitive treatment of the crusades replacing a dated classic of the ’50s. But Tyerman’s 1000+ page tome can be rough going. Here’s the substitute for less committed readers who still insist on professional, peer-reviewed scholarship. It corrects longstanding myths about the crusades, like being greedy unprovoked attacks on a benign Muslim world (the Christian holy wars were defensive responses to Muslim conquests of Christian land, and they were economically suicidal expeditions), anti-Jewish (the church never preached a crusade against the Jews, though some crusaders turned things in this direction), or the western equivalent of the Islamic jihad (jihad is a permanent state of being, tied to the warlord authority of Muhammad; the crusades were unique events requiring the papal approval, voluntary, theologically problematic, and never seen as essential to Christianity). It’s an economical book that packs useful information in short space, with scholarly gusto, and people have thanked me for recommending it. My longer review is here.

Chasing-the-Scream8. Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari. 2015. This is a wake-up call to legalize drugs and reconsider what causes drug addiction. For years, opponents of the drug war have been making a case similar to Hari’s: that we ruin the lives of nonviolent drug users (especially nonwhites in poverty) by imprisoning them, and make room for them in prison by paroling dangerous offenders like murderers and rapists; that we make crime worse by empowering gangs and drug monopolies; that the solution to addiction isn’t incarceration but education and rehabilitative support networks. Hari appeals to the example of Portugal, whose population of addicts went down by half after ending its own drug war through legalization. As for the cause of addiction, the right-wing theory says it is caused by moral failure (hedonism and partying too hard), while the left-wing insists that the brain is hijacked by drug chemicals. Research shows that both theories are flawed; it’s neither our morality nor our brain, but our “cage” — a life full of isolation, stress, and/or misery — that makes drugs attractive to addicts. Which is why, for instance, people who take diamorphine (heroin) for long periods of time for medical reasons, like pain relief after a hip replacement, don’t become addicts. And why addicts isolated from society in prisons or rehab facilities usually continue using.


9. Sex, Wives, and Warriors, Philip Esler. 2013. More than any book I know, Sex, Wives, and Warriors probes the disturbing world of the Old Testament while making us feel connected to it whether we’re religious or not. In this sense Esler shatters the myth of the alien Other. For some people these stories will be repulsive, but you’ll certainly feel alive as Esler funnels them through the culture of the Mediterranean. The barrenness of Hannah, whose vicious co-wife shamed her at the shrine of Shiloh. The lies of Judith, which resounded to her honor as she decapitated a general with his own sword. (Is Judith a proto-Islamic jihadist?) The duality of David, whose insults, on the one hand, were as honorable as Judith’s flatteries, and whose vorpal sword like hers saved Israel against impossible odds; but whose ruthless banditry and mafia-like protection rackets cast an ugly shadow. The madness of Saul, who seems to have suffered panic attacks. His feelings of helplessness, not being in control, delusions of persecution, homicidal impulses, and spirit-possessed behaviors all describe an anxiety disorder to a tee, and make perfect sense of his repeated cycles of eyeballing David with envy, doing his damnest to kill him, then bewilderingly making amends and “becoming friends” again for brief periods before returning to murderous intent. Yet he ended in the bosom of the Lord. The rape of Tamar by her sadistic half-brother (Amnon), which made her spoiled goods. Forced to beg her rapist to marry her, she is refused and discarded. As part of the Judeo-Christian heritage, these stories force questions about our common humanity.

Bat10. Bat Masterson: The Man and the Legend, Robert DeArment. 1979. This one is a bit self-indulgent. Recently I was made aware that Bat Masterson (1853-1921) is a distant limb on my family tree, a cousin of my great-great grandmother, which my father never spoke of as he wasn’t pleased to be related to this “despicable” figure of the wild west. Bat’s notoriety, however, has been put to bed since the publication of DeArment’s research. This biography proves that Bat wasn’t the trigger-happy gunslinger of journalistic sensationalism, but rather the result of a joke played on a writer for the New York Sun in August 1881. The reporter was looking for tales of wild-west gunfighters to feed his readers in the east states, and Dr. W.S. Cockrell fed this reporter ridiculously wild fictions of Bat as a maniac who had killed 26 men, sometimes even cutting off their heads as trophies. The reporter wrote all this in the New York Sun, but it was printed in newspapers everywhere, and this “Bat Masterson legend” would persist for decades. Of the 26 people Bat supposedly killed, only two are factual, and they were justifiable homicides in self-defense and defending others. This is a riveting book that makes you live the danger of frontier towns like Dodge City in the 1870s, and I couldn’t put it down for that reason alone.

Inside Higher Ed’s “Case for Religious Studies”

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed made a good Case for Religious Studies:

“If the only people who understand Christianity are Christian, or Islam are Muslims, or Hinduism are Hindus, we are condemned to a world of misunderstanding, conflict and sectarianism. If we cede understanding of religious ideas to religious individuals, we lose the capacity to comprehend the motivations behind the thoughts and actions of anyone beyond our own religious tradition… For those aspiring to leadership in the 21st century, knowledge of the religions of the world from a nonconfessional perspective is not a luxury but a necessity. Study of the variety of religious traditions around the world makes it abundantly clear that different people operate under different assumptions about the way the world works. To understand their actions, we must also understand their motivations.”

By whatever laws of serendipity obtain, on the same day I ran parallels between popular perceptions of crusaders and Pharisees. In the medieval and ancient periods, arguably none have been more misunderstood in terms of beliefs and motivations.

In discussing this and the Inside Higher Ed piece with someone else, I speculated two reasons why people are predisposed to accept patently false things about religious groups or religious phenomena. One is that people tend not to take the field of religious studies seriously like they do other fields. Sometimes you can’t blame them. When an evangelical like Tom Wright argues to wide acclaim that Jesus’ resurrection happened as a historical event, it’s rather strange to see this happen in a professional field. Historians usually don’t make ontological claims about supernatural events, even if they personally believe them. While any historian can be bias-blind for any number of reasons, I think it’s fair to say that biblical scholars get a disproportionate number of free passes with their intruding ideological commitments. That casts a shadow on the field, and probably suggests in the minds of many that the experts can be taken with a pound of salt.

A second reason, I think, has to with our collective moral outrage against organized religion, especially Christianity. If Jesus married Mary Magdalene along with other wild DaVinci Code elements (and it’s astonishing how many intelligent people believe this stuff), then that sticks it to the mother church where it hurts. If Pharisees were cold legalists, then they’re a timeless foil for spiritual supremacists. If crusaders were offensive boors, they represent all that’s wrong with western Christianity, not to mention western foreign policy, and serve as a foil for a fictionally benign Islam. While evangelicals use religious studies as an apologetic playground, our liberal theologians dig for nuggets, including false gold, to fire at the orthodox and western powers.

I have nothing personal at stake in defending Jesus’ prophetic celibacy, Pharisaism, or medieval crusading. (The values implied by all of these are alien to my libertine secular pacifism.) I want to understand the beliefs and motives of anyone, past and present, on their own terms, as reliably as possible, for reasons explained by the Inside Higher Ed. We can’t understand people without understanding what drives them; we can’t fix problems that are falsely diagnosed; and we certainly can’t build bridges without seeing clearly what’s on the other side.