Monday, May 27, 2013

In Memoriam: Kurt Stein

On October 18, 1941, a young German soldier with a Jewish-sounding last name was arrested for desertion. He was Kurt Stein, my mother’s half-brother from her mother Gertrude Stein. She learned of him only decades later, while going through old papers and photographs left by her father after his death. One of those papers was a letter from Kurt to his mother, my grandmother. It ended with this greeting that shocked her from the long-dead past: “Much love to my little sister Mary.”

My mother researched her family, aided by the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now relatives and records in the former East Germany were available to her. Here’s the story she learned.

Kurt Stein: 1920-1941

Kurt had been conscripted after his country invaded Poland, but was appalled at what he was hearing about the Nazi treatment of the Jews. My mother writes:

It was hard for him to believe the stories as he was not involved in this operation. He had many Jewish friends and now they had to wear a star representing the Star of David on their clothing to show they were Jews. Our grandparents, although they were Lutherans, were named “Stein.” Kurt asked his friend Hans about this new military action against their own citizens only because they were Jews. Hans answered that they didn’t have to be concerned because it was the work for the SS troops. Kurt spoke to a German officer who proudly boasted that he had been promoted and was going to the SS to be part of Hitler’s solution to exterminate the Jews.

A combination of factors led to Kurt’s desertion. He learned that he was going to be sent to fight in Russia and that his grandfather was dying. But he was also upset about the Jewish situation. He was granted leave to see his grandfather, who told him, “I don’t want to see what is ahead for Germany and for you my dear son.” Kurt did not return, hiding in garden houses and stealing food until he was captured.

After several months of imprisonment, Kurt and another prisoner killed a guard and escaped. His freedom only lasted a few weeks, until his second arrest. At one of the two prisons in Torgau, he was given the death sentence and executed by firing squad. He was 21 years old.

For more about my mother’s remarkable family and her own life worth remembering, see A Life Celebration: Mary Suominen.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Jockeying for Jesus

Book Review: Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. Edited by Frank R. Zindler and Robert M. Price. Cranford, NJ: American Atheist Press.

I can hardly be considered an objective reviewer of this book, holding Robert M. Price as a dear friend and owing Frank Zindler the favor of a very kind blurb and Amazon review of the book that Dr. Price and I co-authored. Readers obviously have shared interests, too, at least in following Price’s writings: Each book is currently first on the other’s Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought… list on My review is also hindered by the fact that I have not read the work toward which Zindler and Price’s collection of essays directs its ire, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? (New York: HarperOne).

All this full-disclosure preamble leads to an important opening point: Objectivity seems to be a rare trait in Historical Jesus studies. Indeed, the Zindler-Price book leaves the reader wondering if any of the scholarship supporting the historical existence of the man revered by two billion Christians is more than a thin coat of respectability varnish painted onto agenda- and consensus-driven apologetics.

Robert Price makes that point right on page one, saying that Ehrman “is an apologist for a new orthodoxy, ‘mainstream scholarship,’ the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) magisterium.” Price calls this the “‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ school of biblical scholarship, where nothing out of the comfortable bell curve of theories can be taken seriously.” The author of the next chapter, Dr. Richard Carrier, takes pains to distinguish himself from his fellow skeptics, both in the book and in a blog posting that personally made me cringe. But he pulls no punches in reinforcing Price’s point: “The modern ‘consensus’ that Jesus existed has simply not been founded on any logically valid or properly employed methodology” (p. 15).

According to one of the several fine essays Zindler himself contributes to the book, Ehrman accuses those who deny Jesus’ existence of having an agenda that is served by such denial. But Zindler asks a pointed question in reply: “Is he unaware of the immense monetary agendas served by many who affirm the historicity of Jesus? Does he not realize that most of his [Christ] Mythicist opponents have come completely unwillingly to their positions and that many have suffered professionally and financially in order to serve their ‘agenda’ of denial?” (pp. 230-31). As René Salm notes, “Saying that Mythicists are not professionally engaged academics—as Ehrman does repeatedly in his book—is simply unfair, for a Mythicist may possess all the customary credentials yet still be unable to find work in academe” (p. 330). It is their views rather than a lack of credentials that bars them “from the guild,” Salm says (p. 331).

One can understand why there seems to be an undercurrent of hurt feelings pervading much of this book. For all their diligent efforts, countless hours of probing around dusty writings and dead languages, the Mythicists are left at the edges of the cafeteria looking wistfully at the Historical Jesus table where all the cool kids are sitting. Zindler’s description of the e-mail correspondence between himself and Ehrman (which he republished with permission) feels like the story of one of those poor cafeteria nerds working up the nerve to ask if he might sit at the seemingly vacant chair at that table and show what a worthwhile guy he really is, even without the letter jacket. Mr. Popular looks up at the interloper awkwardly carrying his tray, and asks, “What are your qualifications to talk about first century Palestine in the writings of the early Christians? Or do qualifications, in your opinion, not matter?” (p. 86). For Ehrman, whose very limited replies to Zindler in their lopsided correspondence include requests for Zindler’s curriculum vitae and an explanation for the circumstances of his departure from SUNY (p. 116), qualifications seem to matter a great deal indeed. Or, more specifically, credentials.

What about all the things this amazing man actually knows, and communicated amply in his lengthy, mostly unanswered emails to Ehrman? I’ve had the privilege of sharing one hour of Zindler’s 73 years of life in conversation on the phone, and was overwhelmed at the intelligence and wisdom behind that sparkling voice on the other end of the connection. To see what short shrift this is all given, because of what Zindler calls a “hyperparochial attitude” that seems to have prevented Ehrman from reading “my books and papers because I am not a doctoral graduate of a seminary or similar program” (p. 88) is maddening to read.

But even having the right combination of letters on their diplomas did not seem to earn Drs. Price or Carrier much fair attention from Ehrman. Is that a hasty conclusion for me to make just from reading this book, and not Ehrman’s? Very possibly, and you should weigh it accordingly. But consider Price’s statement that Ehrman “could at least have done me the courtesy of replying to my arguments” (pp. 11-12) and Carrier’s that he “just cherry picks isolated claims and argues against them, often with minimal reference to the facts its proponent has claimed support it” (p. 19).

And Carrier isn’t impressed by the way Ehrman responded to his criticisms, either. On one issue that goes over my head and possibly those of most readers, for example, Carrier says “Ehrman refused to admit his mistake,” claiming “it was just a typo” (p. 28). No it’s not, Carrier replies in his essay, which is peppered with polemic that would have done Martin Luther proud. He says Ehrman’s “dishonesty and inability to admit real mistakes call into question everything he argues. His excuses are destroying his reputation. What else has he misrepresented? What else has he fudged, screwed up, or lied about? Can we ever trust him on this subject?” (p. 29).

Flavius “Whaddya mean, Nazareth?” Josephus

Strong words, but this book is strong medicine. I learned quite a bit from it. An ancient historian attested “that Osiris was believed to have died and been returned to life,” using the same words as Christians did about the resurrection they believed in (Carrier, p. 37). Pagan resurrection stories included the themes of vanishing bodies and a dying-and-rising hero (Carrier, p. 40), as well as the idea of a ritual baptism for the washing away of sins (Carrier, p. 45; Zindler, p. 132). The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus [37-100 CE] “mentions 45 cities and villages in the tiny territory of Galilee,” but not Nazareth, despite having worked to fortify a town less than two miles from the location of that present-day tourist destination (Zindler, p. 263). One of the pieces of evidence now touted to support the existence of the place when Jesus was supposedly living there is from an excavation “associated with a multimillion-dollar mega-resort called the Nazareth Village,” which “has been well funded by an international consortium of Christian groups” (Salm, pp. 343-44).

Then there are the issues with the primary sources referenced by those questing for a Historical Jesus: Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, written roughly in that chronological order. There’s just not much else to go on, certainly not from Paul with his lack of detail about any earthly doings of the Jesus he met only in a vision. Nor, as Earl Doherty lays it out in his discussion of Jesus outside the gospels, are things any more solid in the Epistle to the Hebrews. “Yet again,” Doherty says after noting that Hebrews doesn’t give any thought to actual words of an earthbound Jesus, “Ehrman’s ‘references to the life of the historical Jesus’ have evaporated into the wind” (p. 496).

Jesus talks plenty in the canonical gospels, but why do their stories have any more authority than, say, the one in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas about a pimply Jesus in the shop fixing his stepdad’s carpentry problems? D.M. Murdock notes that “there remains no clear and unambiguous evidence of their emergence in the historical record before the last quarter of the second century at which point they suddenly begin to be discussed by a number of Church fathers” (p. 398).

Zindler reminds us that, “as bearer of the Historicist banner, Ehrman has to stake everything on the Gospels and other documents of the canonical New Testament because there are no eyewitnesses or contemporary writers who could vouch for the existence of Jesus or any of his 12 disciples/apostles.” And then Zindler offers this zinger: Nobody in early times ever described Jesus’ physical appearance, but 1 Corinthians 15:6 has Jesus appearing to 500 people at the same time. How did they recognize him? (p. 526). It’s the same problem that Price has pointed out regarding the Transfiguration: Peter, James, and John are treated to the ascended Moses and Elijah having a pre-game mountaintop pep talk with the not-yet risen Jesus. Despite being remarkably thick-headed about many other things, Peter gets it right away: Let’s build a tabernacle for you, Jesus, and Moses and Elijah, too! Did they have name tags?

A few things noted…

There are many other little flashes of brilliance (alas, not from any heavenly vision) in this book: Carrier’s observation that false stories—about things Ehrman wouldn’t defend as historical, like the transmutation of water into wine at Cana—“cannot support the existence of real people” (p. 53, my emphasis); Zindler’s schooling of Ehrman about where the burden of proof really lies (hint: same place it did with “the Boston divines who all universally agreed that lightning was the wrath of Jehovah,” p. 307); Salm’s observation that faith “constitutes a curious blind spot in our human psychology, a mental drunkenness in which jettisoning reason is [considered] altogether laudable” (p. 360).

Certainly, Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth is not perfect. Some of the essayists are so well versed and impassioned about the “of Nazareth” part that they go on to the point of tedium about there being no such town for a “Jesus of Nazareth” to have claimed for his mailing address. Carrier’s invective against Ehrman (e.g., “he not only sucks as a writer but can’t even tell that he sucks as a writer,” p.23) are the kind of thing you would more expect to see in the comments for a YouTube video than in the otherwise stellar discourse of a razor-sharp academic.

But it is an important and very worthwhile book, filled with nuggets of information and insight. It is a must-read for anyone really interested in the question of whether there was an actual Christ behind this gigantic edifice of Christianity that confronts non-believers every day in our culture. I am the better for having read its 500+ pages, and Bart Ehrman would be, too.

See also A Christ-Myth Carol, reviewing Raphael Lataster’s fine book There Was No Jesus, There Was No God, and Myth, Method, and the Will to Believe, which discusses the “Christ Myth” viewpoint of Dr. Robert M. Price.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Book #2: Evolution & Christianity

My second book, co-authored with the gentle genius Robert M. Price, is Evolving out of Eden: Christian Responses to Evolution. It was truly an honor to work with this man. I’ve learned a great deal from him, not just about the Bible (which he seems to have memorized several times over), but also about the history and theological nuances of my former faith as well as the craft of writing itself. He sure knows how to turn a phrase, making serious points in an engaging, even amusing way.

The book’s layout centers around three main “branches” of theological conception that are each profoundly impacted by evolution:

I: The Word (the Bible) that was produced by human beings,

II: The Creature (Homo sapiens) who wrote and now expounds on the Word,

III: The Creator, whose recognition and appeasement is the ultimate object of Christian theology.

This tree-branch metaphor is inspired by the idea of an evolutionary “tree of life,” which Darwin illustrated in an 1837 notebook. We’ve adapted his drawing for this image. A different version of it heads up each of our book’s six major sections.

You can read the first half of our “Cast of Characters” chapter online for free. You’ll learn not just about the book and the faith journeys of its authors, but perhaps also a few things you didn’t already know about the wonders of evolution.

The Amazon reviews have been very gratifying. As of September 2014 (when this post was last updated), it’s got 4.4 out of 5 stars there.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The New Testament Disproving Itself

Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence, then, evil?
—Epicurus, c. 300 BCE

Here are three concepts from the New Testament that cannot be assembled into a coherent whole.

1. God wants people to be saved.

“God our Saviour . . . will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:3-4).

“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

2. God can do anything.

The disciples “were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:25-27).

3. Most people will not be saved.

Jesus: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13-14).


There is no way to combine these three concepts. It just cannot be done, because doing so would empty the words of meaning. You can talk all day long about a square circle if you want, but it is just nonsense no matter how eloquently you say it.

Message from a Loving God

With 1+2, you have Universalism, which is certainly not a new concept. But it doesn’t get much traction, perhaps because it lacks the “us vs. them” element that has such appeal for group cohesion. I like the way Robert M. Price explains the idea of Christian universalism (neither of us is Christian, but we both have a sort of tough-love outsider’s affection for Christianity): “Jesus died on the cross to save all mankind and, whaddya know, it actually worked!

With 2+3, you have the disgusting sadism of predestination. The idea of God creating people with the intent to torture them forever violates the most basic of our own standards of decency, especially when you are forced to believe that he has created the vast majority of humankind with exactly that diabolical plan in mind. In his fine book Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists, Ed Babinski said that he could not “conceive of any reasonably good person maintaining an eternal concentration camp, let alone God Himself” (p. 214).

Just focusing on the suffering most of our 7 billion fellow humans endure in their short lifetimes right here on earth “means that something is wrong with God’s ability, or his goodness, or his knowledge,” as John Loftus puts it with characteristic clarity in his masterpiece, Why I Became an Atheist. He considers that “as close to an empirical refutation of Christianity as is possible” (2nd ed., p. 215).

Now consider how infinitely worse the sufferings of eternal hellfire would be! An omnipotent Deity who would consign even one soul to such a fate—for any offenses committed during 80 years of limited human life and knowledge—is a vicious psychopath guilty of far worse evil than anything some Satan might have done. That is Loftus’s conclusion to a devastating single paragraph dismantling this “theological determinism,” one of the most powerful I’ve ever read against my former beliefs: “Who needs a devil with such a God?” (p. 350).

And what a mockery the idea makes of human existence, including all its modes of worship and piety! We are relegated to being mere predestinated puppets, making futile motions at the hands of the divine puppet master, who has long since decided which of the two boxes he will be tossing us into at the end of his scripted show.

With 1+3, you are left with a limited God who is unable to achieve his will in the majority of cases. That’s not the Deity worshiped by Christians, or even monotheists.

A Shrinking Sun in a Broadening View  [Flickr page]

This isn’t something preachers can wave aside by denigrating “carnal understanding” or “human reasoning,” mouthing empty non-answers like “God’s ways are not our ways.” It is a fundamental incoherence in the idea of God, a contradiction that goes to the heart of Christian theology and its view of the Bible as God’s inerrant word. Epicurus figured it out 2300 years ago, but Christian preachers have been disregarding his point, and the plain words of their own Bible, ever since.

Contains material from a Facebook post on 4/11/13 and An Examination of the Pearl, §4.9.3. For more about the moral absurdity of hell, see my blog posting Healing from Hell Horror.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Peeling the Onion

The arguments that I had used to defend the truth of Christianity were peeled away from me like the many layers of an onion’s skin. I put up all the intellectual resistance I could, and winced at each layer’s removal. I suffered through dark nights of the soul pondering whether my beliefs might not be too narrow or even wholly false. Imperceptibly, my fears, doubts, and grief blossomed into relief, relaxation, and joy.
Onion and more onion, all the way down [Flickr page]

I’ve been asked if An Examination of the Pearl is just about Laestadianism. That is the underlying theme, yes, but there’s much more to it. Enough so that a Jewish friend of mine—who knew there was some reason why I’d been having so many kids but had never heard of Laestadianism—is now on p. 370 and tells me it’s “very interesting stuff.” He sent me the Spring 2013 issue of Reform Judaism magazine with a note that I might “be interested in comparing [my former church] newsletters with a magazine of a definitely non-fundamentalist religion.” I was indeed.

An Examination of the Pearl peels the onion of my former Conservative Laestadianism faith, layer by layer. The outer layers are the LLC and SRK, which, despite official protests to the contrary, are not entirely the same. Then there is Laestadianism as a whole, with all of its various factions.

Further layers are Luther, Christianity, the Bible, and finally the traditional theological views of God. For me, it was all on the examination table. Many readers choose to retain that core, having found an authentic belief in Christianity apart from Laestadianism. I appreciate that, as well as the security of conviction displayed by those of you who subscribe to the book’s Facebook page and respect my writings despite my irreverent scrutiny of the onion, all the way down.

Are you religious? Then may you continue to derive inspiration and comfort from the faith that you have found—by yourself and for yourself, and not by some mere accident of being born into a small, isolated community that is sustained by mandated fertility and church pews packed with indoctrinated children. John 15:16 has Jesus saying, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” but it might as well be a statement from Laestadian churches to the children in their Sunday Schools.

And how many of those children will grow up to never appreciate that untold millions of people feel the call of Jesus just as strongly in their own hearts? Those little Laestadians are denied any such connection with other Christians because of the malignant exclusivity that has metastasized into their faith. I am not a Christian, but I can appreciate the value of the Christianity they have missed out on, where Jesus is the focus rather than hundreds of nit-picking rules, and where passages like John 3:16 and Romans 10:8-9 are not eviscerated of all meaning.

Some parts of the book are organized by various topics of Laestadian teaching, and there you will find lots of quotes from and discussion about Laestadianism, though mixed in with more general commentary. The other parts are of more general interest—about Luther, early Christian history, and the Bible itself.

There’s a hyperlinked Table of Contents on the web site, so you can get a free preview that way, or even read the whole book online if you wish.

A composite of postings on the Examination of the Pearl Facebook page, 3/6/13 and 5/10/​13. Photo credit: Dan Bruell, CC-ND licensed.