Thursday, January 19, 2006

Reading with a grain of salt...

Rodney Stark has written a book that I'll probably never read: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Random House, 2005).

I say "probably" because even though I am interested in the debate over the role that Christianity played in the rise of the West, the little that I've read about this book leads me to suspect that Stark attributes far too much to Christianity.

But I might read it just to see if it's as bad as Alan Wolfe thinks.

Wolfe, a contributing editor at The New Republic (TNR), has reviewed Stark's book in a current issue.

Wolfe genuinely detests the book, as the opening lines of his review, which quote Stark, will demonstrate:
"Had the followers of Jesus remained an obscure Jewish sect," concludes Rodney Stark in his new book, "most of you would not have learned to read and the rest of you would be reading from hand-copied scrolls." ... Firmly ensconced in the dark ages, our societies would be horrendous places to inhabit, lacking "universities, banks, factories, eyeglasses, chimneys, and pianos."

Thought experiments have their place, but Stark's, it must immediately be said, is vile: even the most notorious anti-Semites give Jews credit for the banks.
The retort about anti-Semites is witty, but there are other ways to read the line about Christianity not remaining an "obscure Jewish sect," nor is attributing Western Civilization's success to its Christian culture necessarily an antisemitic move.

Still, Wolfe might be correct, and I'm tempted to read Stark to find out.

However, I am not impressed by Wolfe's knowledge of some issues. Here is what Wolfe says about how Stark shows the Church using reason to reconcile Mary's virginity with the New Testament's mention of Jesus's siblings:
One of the examples Stark proposes to justify his attribution of special status to Christian theology illustrates this theological bricolage. Was Jesus born to a virgin? The early church leaders were not sure; Paul, for one, thought that Jesus had brothers, which would make the case for Mary's virginity difficult to argue. Aquinas, Stark writes, was able to step in and settle the matter. Using his powers of reason and deduction, he concluded that the brothers of Jesus were not blood relations and that, as a result, Mary was a virgin after all. The whole controversy, as Stark tells the story, testifies to Christianity's intellectual superiority. Aquinas was able to do what no theologian from any other religious tradition could do, which was to use "persuasive reasoning" to alter church doctrine.

Although the Catholic Church would revere Mary and insist on her virginity, Mary's story in fact owed a great deal to non-Christians. For one thing, Mary's virgin birth has what Freeman [i.e., Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind (Vintage, 2005)] calls a "shaky" scriptural basis, given that the Gospels mention her siblings and that one of them, John, does not mention her at all. There is a verse in Isaiah proclaiming, "Behold a virgin will conceive," but this verse, as Freeman continues, comes from the Greek version of the Old Testament, and uses the word parthenos, which could also mean young girl, rather than the Hebrew almah. When Christian thinkers in the fourth century developed their love for Mary, moreover, they borrowed extensively from paganism, especially the Greek goddesses Rhea and Tyche, as well as the Egyptian goddess Isis. Given this background, arguments on behalf of Mary's virginity testify as much to the needs of so many religions to contrast good and evil -- in Christianity's case, Eve's original sin with Mary's later purity -- as they do to powers of logic and reason.
In these two paragraphs, Wolfe conflates issues concerning the virgin birth of Jesus with the immaculate conception of Mary and adds a confusing remark about the Greek parthenos and the Hebrew almah.

On the virgin birth, Stark does not distinguish between the virgin birth of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of Mary. For the former, Mary need only be a virgin at the time of giving birth to Jesus; for the latter, she would need remain a virgin thereafter.

On the immaculate conception of Mary, which I assume is meant by the reference to "Mary's virgin birth" and the problem posed by "her siblings," Wolfe notes the shaky scriptural basis for the dogma and then cites Isaiah's proclamation that "Behold a virgin will conceive," which is not about the immaculate conception at all but has been taken by Christians as a prophecy foretelling the virgin birth of Jesus.

Concerning his citation of Isaiah 7:14 in this context, Wolfe appears to misunderstand the usual debate about the Greek term parthenos and the Hebrew term almah, which it translates, for biblical critics have in times past argued that parthenos means "virgin," whereas almah means not "virgin" but simply "young girl," and thus that the early Christians misunderstood the original text of Isaiah, which was not speaking of a virgin. Wolfe seems to reverse this traditional critique when he refers to Christians using "the word parthenos, which could also mean young girl, rather than the Hebrew almah." What does Wolfe think that almah means, "virgin"? If so, he would appear to have the traditional argument backwards despite what must have been his intention to cite it against Christian dogma concerning the virgin birth. At any rate, this entire debate has been superceded by the more recent scholarly recognition that almah can also mean "virgin."

Finally, what does Wolfe mean when he states that concerning Mary, the Gospel of John "does not mention her at all"? Does he mean merely that John does not mention Mary by name? So what? John certainly mentions the mother of Jesus -- several times, in fact. But what does this have to do with the virgin birth anyway? Presumably, Wolfe means to say that John does not include the virgin birth story in his gospel, but there are surely less obscure ways of saying this.

Talk about "theological bricolage"! And using broken materials, too!

Given the mixture of misunderstandings, then -- to shift metaphors -- I would take Wolfe's review with a grain of salt.

Has anyone out there read Stark and would care to comment?


At 12:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read Wolfe, but as I was reading the excerpt you posted, I was also getting confused trying to figure out whether he was referring to the virgin birth or the immaculate conception. Since he doesn't seem to recognize the distinction between the two in that snippet of his argument, I'll take your word about the rest of what he has to say.

Thanks for the link, by the way. Your writing is pretty interesting, and I've subscribed to the RSS feed.

At 9:12 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Darren, for visiting again. I'm indebted to you for your Plagiarism Checker -- as you and everybody else now know. I hope that you get some traffic from the link that I set up.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:13 PM, Blogger nijjhar said...


I can prove the Virgin Birth of Christ Jesus and also His arrival in India in 1469.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Nijjhar, but I've heard this story before, or stories like it.

One is that Jesus went to Kashmir and is buried there. If I recall, the Amadiyya sect of Islam teaches this.

I'm sure there are plenty more such stories, and they aren't convincing to me.

So, you'd probably be wasting your time. Thanks anyway.

Jeffery Hodges

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