Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The REAL Story About Why I'm the Wrong Monkey

The name seemed like a good idea at the time. But you've got to consider that I was kind of upset.

The time: 2008. The world was younger then, and so was Ronny Cox. (What? He was.) George W Bush made us all laugh with giddy joy at the thought of his administration ending soon. I mostly hung out at one Internet forum, as opposed to splitting my Internet-forum time pretty evenly between several. That's how I usually roll: one forum at a time. And this was a fine forum, full of sophisticated and polite people -- extremely polite compared to many if not most Internet cliques. And so perhaps I didn't see as clearly as I might have that I didn't fit in. This wasn't the sort of situation where one of the other forum participants was going to tell me, "Steven, twenty of us had a secret meeting and talked it over and held a vote. Four people abstained, two said they liked having you around and sixteen said they wanted you to stop posting here and leave us alone. So, if you don't mind... Skedaddle, please." That just wasn't going to happen. What actually happened was that someone said to me that I might like this other forum. And I took that to mean: "Steven, twenty of us had a secret meeting and talked it over[...]" and so forth.

And my feelings were hurt. And I did leave that forum and go to the other one, and instead of calling myself Steven Bollinger I logged into the new forum as The Wrong Monkey, because I had sublimated my sadness over not fitting in into anger and grandiosity, and was saying things to myself like, "I'll show them! I'll show them ALL! I'm going to be a huge superstar and they'll be sorry they dissed me, but it'll be too late! THEY DONE GONE AND MESSED WITH THE WRONG MONKEY!" All in all, it closely resembled the process by which Butters became Professor chaos.

That's the ugly truth. That's where the handle came from, and the blog name came from the handle. (Which is sometimes abbreviated as TheWM or TWM.)

Did I show them all? No, I don't think so. Not yet, anyway. Did I completely mis-read the first forum, and do sixteen of them actually miss me terribly, while only two are glad I left? Gee, I'd sure like to think so. It's possible. But I don't think so. Am I glad that I've been referring to myself for several years now as The Wrong Monkey? Yes, although at the same time I find it very strange and somewhat embarrassing, if that makes any sense.

Friday, March 23, 2012

I Accuse You, You Cowardly Closeted Academic Mythicists!

After writing a post yesterday in this blog responding to Bart Ehrman's emphatic expression of his lack of any doubt that Jesus existed, delivered with a healthy portion of disdain for all who do entertain such doubts, stating that their number currently includes not a single legitimate professor in a relevant field in the Western world, I was made aware that Richard Carrier had also responded to Ehrman's article. Carrier's response to Ehrman is much longer, more authoritative and detailed than mine, but we share a dislike of the way Ehrman attempts to declare the question closed of whether or not Jesus existed, and to discourage, and disparage, any further discussion of it. We both call Ehrman out for closed-mindedness.

Near the beginning of his blog post, Carrier makes the following remarkable statement:

I personally know a few professors who [...] feel this way: they do not touch this topic with a ten foot pole, precisely because they fear the kind of thing Ehrman is doing and threatening. They do not want to lose their jobs or career prospects and opportunities. They do not want to be ridiculed or marginalized.

So, Ehrman and Carrier are asserting two very different things: Ehrman says that no credible scholar believes that doubts of Jesus' existence are serious enough to be worth discussing, while Carrier maintains that such a discussion would be serious, but is squelched by professors' fears that they would hurt their careers by opening it.

They fear to be honest, because it might hurt their careers. If this is true, then in my opinion it ought to make very many people very angry. Generally speaking, in academia free and open discussion is supposedly prized. If a meteorologist or a geologist deliberately falsified their findings, or deliberately hindered open debate in their fields, or twisted their interpretation of data to give the appearance that they believed things which they did not believe, one thinks, it would much more likely be cause of damage to their careers than advancement. (Unless, of course, they were to leave academia altogether and work as shills for the petrochemical industry.) If what Carrier is saying is accurate, that in the faculties of New Testament studies and Christian theology one of the central questions, perhaps the most central question, is being systematically repressed, and that people's careers often depend on their consciously-dishonest complicity in that repression, yes, I think that ought to make people very angry indeed. What struck me most about Carrier's statement about professors willingly engaging in duplicity to cover their asses is how similar it is to statements made by Rudolf Augstein, founder and publisher of Der Spiegel for over half a century and its editor for almost that long, in his book Jesus Menschensohn and in interviews about that book: theologians and Biblical scholars, quite prominent ones, had told Augstein privately, so he said, that the party line of there being no doubt that Jesus was a real historical figure, as real as Julius Caesar or Otto von Bismarck, did not convince them. That they had doubts. Private doubts. But they kept their doubts private, and so the party line thrived, and dissenters continued to be relegated to outsider status and routinely mocked by the mainstream.

Well, it's Anno Domini MMXII. It's high time to end such medieval, Inquisition-style crap. It's time for these cowards to be outed. We trust them with the education of our young men and women. They're supposed to be role models. They're supposed to have more integrity than shills for the petrochemical industry. Biblical studies and theology continue to claim that they are fully modern academic disciplines and not medieval warrens of deceit. Richard Carrier, will you out these worms? Augstein died a decade ago, he can't do it, not unless something is found among his papers...

Of course, you cowardly little worms, this would all be so much more dignified if you would out yourselves. Think of Bruno Bauer. Think of Friedrich Nietzsche. Think of Karlheinz Deschner. Look at your own damned selves in your mirrors, if you can. Think of your children. Man and woman up. It's 2012, God damn it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

It's Settled! (Not!)

Bart Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has for a few years been very popular among atheists interested in the early history of Christianity, having written a few books for popular audiences on New Testament textual criticism, New Testament apocrypha and the rise of Christianity. He's been popular with the atheists in part because he's more open about his agnosticism than many other agnostic and atheist Biblical scholars and theologians, in part because of his talent for finding cameras making TV shows and documentaries and placing himself in front of them, and partly because he's generally an affable, likeable guy. But it appears that he just went and ticked off a large part of his audience, the part who didn't realize that he was firmly of the opinion that Jesus existed. The firmness of that opinion could be said to be the subject of Ehrman's newest book, Did Jesus Exist? I was never a big fan of Ehrman's, it always seemed to me that many atheists overestimated the distance between him and the theological-Biblical-historical mainstream and overlooked the sensationalism inherent in much of his work -- for example, the way he suggested to unwary lay readers in his book Lost Scriptures that New Testament apocrypha represented an entire alternate history of early Christianity, while greatly underplaying the dates of these apocryphal books from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and even 6th centuries. By the 6th century it's beginning to be a stretch to talk about "early" Christianity, whether established or alternative. Ehrman hyped this non-existent alternate universe much like History Channel likes to do.

Back to Ehrman's latest book, about the historical Jesus. Ehrman is firmly convinced that Jesus was a real man and not a fictional character. This is not a change for Ehrman, he's held that opinion all along, but it appears that many of his atheist fans who are not of the same opinion were not yet aware of this. Indications of shock and disappointment are widespread. But it's more than just Ehrman making his opinion on this matter book-length clear. What stings even more for those who so long ago were his adoring atheist fans is that Ehrman doesn't state it as an opinion but as a fact: "Jesus certainly existed."

I was surprised by this too. If Ehrman had merely said that he was firmly convinced, implying that reasonable people may hold different opinions on the matter but that it seemed clear to him, that would have been one thing. But in the manner of traditional Christian theology and New Testament scholarship, Ehrman states that there is no controversy, no uncertainty.

But it's not merely that Ehrman declares the discussion to be over: he states as well, on no firm basis whatsoever if you ask me, that no accredited professor in the Western World "who teaches New Testament or Early Christianity or even Classics" disagrees with him. That already puts Ehrman into no-true-Scotsman territory. But he doesn't stop there. He compares those who disagree with him and the theological mainstream with Holocaust deniers and birthers.

Ehrman is quite simply wrong when he states that it's certain that Jesus existed. That's the part that hurts his admirers so. But in the larger context the more serious problem is that Ehrman is right when he states that the vast majority of his academic discipline agrees with him. He's wrong when he claims that this virtual unanimity extends to all academics with any competence in any fields related to ancient history. Flat wrong. But when it comes to Christian theology and New Testament studies, he's right that they're almost all on his side. And they almost all state their opinion not as an opinion but as a certainty. and many of them, perhaps not all, also verbally abuse anyone with the temerity to actually want to discuss the matter as if it were not settled.

170 years ago the Prussian government withdrew Bruno Bauer's permission to teach in their universities because he published works stating his opinion that Jesus may have been every bit as much a mythical construct as Abraham. In those 170 years much has changed for the better in freedom of expression. But Bart Ehrman has made it very clear how far theology and Biblical studies continue, not only to lag behind that progress, but to stifle it. Academics in those fields are not inclined to discuss the historicity of Jesus, and many of them are perfectly willing to behave with crude, medieval contempt toward anyone who does.