After writing online daily for six years, I’ve learned a valuable lesson: slander sells.
If you want to get people’s attention, you’ve got to be willing to go for the click bait… or at least, that’s what I keep seeing other people do. Honestly, when controversies come about, the last thing I want to do is write (or read for that matter) is 14 articles on why so-and-so is a gospel-denying liberal who probably voted for Obama and would gladly do so again, or whatever it is that people are doing this week.
Although my example is a bit ridiculous (though, sadly, not by much), I’ve seen the approach doesn’t actually help with encouraging discussion and offering correction. Instead, it causes people—particularly offenders and defenders—to dig their heels in and double-down. Even if the people who are angrily blogging are right about whatever they’re writing about, the vitriol with which they write obscures their point.
This is something I appreciated about Nicholas Perrin’s tact in Lost in Transmission. This relatively short book was released a number of years ago to address the criticisms of Bart Erhman, he of Misquoting Jesus fame (so it might be strange to see something close to resembling a review of it at this stage).
The challenge for Christians
Perrin has two goals in this book: the first is to challenge Christians to not be frightened of challenges to their faith. For, “when people succumb to that temptation of ignoring challenges to their faith, they are in the end demonstrating that they are more committed to the feeling of having a lock on truth than they are to truth itself” (XXI).
This is something that too many of us, I suspect, would affirm yet practically deny. How quickly do we get our back up when someone challenges our position on a particular issue, regardless of significance? Are we able to engage thoughtfully with critique or do we immediately get our rage on?
There isn’t an easy answer to this question, at least not for me. I know there have been far too many times when I’ve behaved like an arrogant so-and-so because I thought I was right (and sometimes I even was). But my “rightness” was really just being unwilling to be challenged. And this simply will not do: if we’re serious about the truth, then we need to be serious about the truth. If we’re unwilling to be challenged, how do we expect to grow in our faith?
The unknowable Jesus
Second, Perrin wants to demonstrate why we need not fear—and he does this by illustrating the insufficiency of the challenges put forward by Erhman. But he doesn’t do this with mockery, but civil engagement. It is clear he’s read Erhman carefully, for he understands the heart of the matter. As a scholar, Erhman long ago succumbed to the “deeply ingrained pressure toward historical agnosticism (we can’t know what Jesus really said)” (60). This, in turn fuels religious agnosticism—that if we can’t know what Jesus said, we can’t know if what he said was true and therefore we can’t know who he really is.
If we can know what Jesus said, that puts us in a position whereby we must decide on Jesus. Either he was who he and his followers claimed him to be, or he was not. But if we cannot get back to Jesus because his words and very identity have been all but lost in transmission, then this keeps alive a corresponding agnosticism when it comes to weighing Jesus’ claims against other counteroffers. (60-61)
Now, even in his many errors, Erhman has long been a defender against those who would try to argue that we cannot know if Jesus even existed at all (something many of his critics have even given him praise for). Erhman’s issue is not Jesus’ existence, but whether we can know much, if anything, about him.
The transmuted Jesus
Thus, he offers the gnostic writings in all their peculiar glory as alternative “Christianities” that didn’t gain prominence simply because the sects promoting what we now consider orthodoxy won the fight. But, as Perrin writes, “it was not the Christians who were sitting in the second-century equivalent of smoke-filled rooms, cutting deals as to what constituted right belief and what should be in the canon” (160).
Power belonged to the Romans, not to the Christians. But the Gnostics had nothing to fear from Rome:
The Gnostics wanted to have Jesus, but at the very point at which identifying with Jesus’ mission became politically or socially awkward, the Gnostics had a way of transmuting Jesus into their own ideal of a starry-eyed mystic or Greek philosopher. (161)
It’s easier to turn Jesus into something other than Jesus than to follow Jesus when it’s not advantageous. This is what we’re seeing in our own day as people lament the decline of Christianity in the West. But that’s not what’s happening: people who didn’t believe anyway are now just admitting they don’t believe. There’s no social benefit to professing to be Christian (at least culturally), so it’s better to not do it at all.
Engaging with respect and what this book still has to teach us
As I said before, this is a relatively old book—and, honestly, I’d recommend The Heresy of Orthodoxy by Köstenberger and Kruger ahead of this if you’re looking for an evangelical critique of Erhman. But it’s it’s still one worth reading. Why? Because although it is not as thorough a refutation as some might like, in reading it, you get to learn how to approach controversial or destructive teaching with respectful engagement.
This is something I’ve tried to do for the majority of my time as a blogger (although I know there are times when I’ve failed in it). Nevertheless, it is the approach I prefer to take when possible.
Probably the most difficult aspect of this is the fact that this sort of engagement requires actually reading opposing viewpoints carefully and fairly. If anything, this is probably the most difficult thing to do. It’s easy to pick up a book by someone like Rachel Held Evans[1. Not picking on her, just using her as an example] and have pretty good sense of what it’s going to be about going in. It’s quite another to go in knowing we’re likely going to disagree with it, and still do our best to give it a fair reading.
That’s what I want to see when I engage with the ideas of others. It’s what I want to see when any Christian seriously engages with anyone’s thoughts. Ad hominem attacks, mockery, and potentially jumping to conclusions… those are easy, and lazy, and really have no place in the Christian life. But to engage with someone else’s thoughts, and to actually try to understand where they’re coming from and be able to articulate it well enough that my “opponent” could say, “Yes, that’s what I believe”—to contend without being contentious—is much more difficult. It takes a great deal more patience, which, in all honesty is the most difficult part for me (again, primarily because it is so much easier to not). But I think it’s worth it. While there might be better rebuttals of Erhman on the market (and there are), there are few that provide as helpful an example of respectful engagement and disagreement.
Title: Lost in Transmission? What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus
Author: Nicholas Perrin
Publisher: Thomas Nelson (2009)
Buy it at: Amazon