Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Dale Allison's "The Historical Christ & the Theological Jesus"

Dale Allison is a weird guy.  Nearly flawless, lucid thinker, incredibly introspective guy, and great big, standard-setting name in secular historical Jesus studies...AND...also a Christian somehow.  Want to know how that is after reading his scholarly stuff you'd swear was written by a non-believer (I'm also currently reading his "Constructing Jesus" book and have read his "Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet" book)?  Well, Allison's "The Historical Christ & the Theological Jesus," is the 119 page book for you.

Allison is full of helpful historical tidbits and analogies throughout his book.  It does help to be basically familiar with the scholarly terrain he covers in his other books.  This icing is sitting on that cake.  If you can't skip from peak to peak with him, this may not be the book for you.  I, however, was delighted.  It is an interesting thought experiment to try and split the difference between raw, generic Christian belief and extremely sober, informed scholarly thinking. generally not be really screwy about it.  But, he is kind of screwy about it on some points.  We'll get to that.

Spoiler alert:  It's all a metaphor.

Perhaps Dale can *metaphorically* go to heaven after he dies.

In his preface Allison basically says he didn't think much about how his historical potatoes touched his theological peas until teaching a particular class on Jesus studies with lots of students who were all like, "Bro, but theology man!"  Then he was like, "Oh, right...that."  

Allison moves on to set the stage of the problem in his first chapter "The Problem of Theological Utility," Mission Impossible style.  He does this well and without apology.  Snip out a hopeful sentence or two and it's basically a case closed on New Testament theology.  Allison rampages through the biases of other Jesus scholars and kicks up all the appropriate dust on how we basically will never know what exactly Jesus said versus what the Bible says he said.  General trends of early New Testament evidence probably count as a "gist" of Jesus, or otherwise we just don't know Jesus.  Do we even know Jesus?  Well, I guess we probably do or something.  Allison says no scholar is keen enough to sort the wheat of genuine Jesus from the chaff of mythological bs in the mix.  This is staple Dale Allison.

In chapter 2, "Disputed Questions," Allison starts making his way from describing the carcass of the debate to prescribing a palatable theological interpretation.  About on page 39 we start getting to the standard liberal post-modernist bs of "any interpretation is good."  By page 41 Allison seems to have let the categories of "history" and "truth" drift apart.  We get our first near howler on page 42, where Allison asks the rhetorical question, "If only the sayings that Jesus really spoke impinge on us, does this not imply that John's Gospel, whose discourses are so widely thought to be mostly post-Easter meditations, must lose its canonical status?"  Um...why not?  And why not toss out all the fake books, dude, for starters, at the very least?  Quality control goes where?  Allison basically lays out the case that everything unravels if we "go there."  Yeah...and why shouldn't it?  There's only a foggy remnant of "real Jesus" hidden somewhere in the NT and you can't tell the real from the fake.  A normal person would say, "Game over."  But perhaps we can look "deeper," well beyond reality, and into a world I'd like to call..religion.  

I had to laugh out loud when Allison noted that we keep the textual insertions in, say, the gospel of John, on the woman caught in adultery, but "surely" we'd toss it out if it weren't so edifying?  Oh really?  So who in Christianity land is finally going to get rid of the dubious dancing-with-poisonous-snakes ending of Mark and the blatantly misogynistic verses inserted into Paul?  Are those edifying keepsakes as well?  Or is Christian tradition more like a woo hording, face-saving, pack rat?  If we get rid of anything, we're going to ride the huge dubious pile of garbage all way the down to the bottom of pure unbelief.  I think it's more like we're held hostage by the woo:  Nobody touches nothing till the end of time...

Allison has to know better than this.  It is reasonable to suspect believers like him and Barack Obama are faking it for various reasons, but on the other hand I imagine there really are "10 bold-calorie Christians" out there.  Why not these two?  And others.  So whatever.

Then there's this howler on page 44: "For theologians or preachers effectively to ignore those portions of the Gospels that some contemporary historians deem unhistorical is to change the rules of the game.  It is too late for that."  Too late for what?  To not be a Christian?  To see Christianity as a failed worldview?  What the hell, dude?  There's some unchecked presupposition hiding in there that we gots to be Christian no matter what.  And we're gonna do it even if reality relentlessly says, "F*ck no!"  We say, "F*ck yes," back!

By page 46 Allison has started apologizing for there being so many contradictory Jesus reconstructions, because you know, lots of real famous people are understood differently, too.  [/eyeroll]  He can't possibly mean this at the proverbial 11 like a fundamentalist apologist would mean it to excuse away endless blatant contradictions between the gospels and shore up everything as inerrant, but normally we might pick the most likely biography of some famous person and not try to accept every Spider-man of the Spider-verse as Spider-man.  Or perhaps a Clayface analogy works better.

On page 48-49 Allison recounts the vision of a friend of his of Jesus appearing and forgiving her of all her sins.  Liberal Jesus makes house calls, too?  Sweet!  He also appeals to the "mountain of evidence" for "perfectly normal people" having hallucinations.  He says he's not so quick to judge, and that's nice, but why in the world would you base your worldview on such uncertainties?  I can say, "Yeah, sure, who knows?" but I'm not going to become a Christian.  Anymore than I'm going to await being beamed up to the mother ship just because someone tells a compelling alien abduction tale.  This stuff is only sexy if you want to want to be irresponsible with your beliefs.  Reasonable people recognize it as jerking off.

Chapter 3 "How to Proceed"

It is helpful to have Allison summarize his gist conclusions about the historical Jesus (that basically go no further than secular gist).

From pages 62-63 Allison lists a number of bits on Jesus and concludes, "I infer from this collection of materials that Jesus made uncommonly difficult demands on at least some people," and that it is at least reasonable to suppose this may have been motivated by "eschatological expectation."  You don't say?  So Jesus wasn't just consistently exaggerating?  And it is reasonable to see his consistently  unsustainable extremism in light of his false belief the end was nigh?  Good...

From his "where there is lots of smoke, we may infer some fire" (not a quote of his) method Allison assures us that this leads to a "large number of conclusions."  Allison continues, "Jesus must have been an exorcist who interpreted his ministry in terms of Satan's downfall.  He must have thought highly of John the Baptist.  He must have repeatedly spoken of God as Father.  He must have composed parables.  He must have come into conflict with religious authorities."  And on page 65, "Jesus probably believed himself to be not just an eschatological prophet but the personal locus of the end-time scenario, the central figure of the last judgement..."

lol, all those years of Jesus studies and basic reading comprehension of trends in the early data is all they got?  Impressive.

Some exceptions apply: "Miracles are of course a problem for any who want to find much memory in the Gospels."  "Do we not know that tradition always exaggerates and that a tendency to mythomania seems to be part of human nature?"  On page 69, "It is no mystery why Reimarus, Strauss, and Bultmann regarded the miracle stories of the Gospels as pious fictions.  They were just being reasonable --and treating the Gospels the same way that the rest of us treat the fantastic fables of the Greek gods."

So should a reasonable skeptic suppose that, "...the miracle-ridden nature of our sources defeats [Allison's] method, which posits that we can be confident of finding Jesus above all in the repeating patterns."  Surely, " is an instance where a repeating pattern must be the product not of reliable memory but of early Christian fancy."  " was the habit of the early Christians to score theological points by inventing fantastic, picturesque stories."

One might pause and wonder.  But Allison basically gives us an ultimatum.  It's either the gist of Jesus as found between the earliest sources or we got nothing.  And of course we have something, right?  Or do we?  [BTW, here's what Allison has to say on the "we got nothing" idea:]

Allison quotes at length The Acts of Peter and Andrew on the one hand to show an example of obvious myth-making and the examples of reports of Seraphim of Sarov and Sri Sathya Sai Baba that seem to be eye witness accounts of the miraculous, with albeit palatable secular explanations.  Allison wants to show that some of the miraculous accounts *could* still retain legitimate "memory" of a real Jesus.  Which is a fair enough point to keep in mind.  But then on page 77 Allison suggests this might carry for the Jesus miraculously feeding of the thousands.  Seems like a stretch to me.  If Allison is fine with saying that the Satan/Jesus temptation bit is obvious myth, then there's an obvious precedent.  Jesus walking on water.  Flying up to heaven.  Etc.

Allison gets pretty explicit on page 78 with his own compartmentalization between history and theology.  He's definitely making theological baby Jesus cry.  But we can't verify that historical baby Jesus isn't crying. 

Chapter 4 "Some Difficult Conclusions" 

Page 79, "When the historians are done, much is left undone, and the theologians are just getting started."  A reasonable person would read a sentence like that as, "When the road runner stops at the end of a cliff, Wile E. Coyote is just getting started..."

Much of this is interesting reading for various reasons, but I'm going to skip along to what interests me most.

On page 87 Allison points out that granting a historical Jesus too high of a Christology makes him seem egocentric and mentally ill.  Sorry, C. S. Lewis.  Why can't a guy tell people to do morally extreme things, completely blow off sustainable living, and promise to come back with an army of angels to terrify and eternally torture most of the human race without getting accused of being a psycho?

And at last we come to Allison's brand of theological self abuse, compliments of a Jesus that still manages to reach through the fog of being almost completely theologically neutered: "What good is Jesus if he does not trouble our theological dreams?"  *sigh*  Reminds me of liberal Christian scholar Thom Stark's bit in his epic response to Paul Copan with "Is God a Moral Compromiser?"  Stark wrote in the preface, "We have to struggle if we want to find God. And we have to learn to identify and resist any and all attempts to lull us into docility. Jacob did not defend God; Jacob wrestled against God. And he came out wounded, not whole. And that is what it means to be Israel."  Any chance, while these folks are so busy championing intellectual honesty and basic human decency despite the best efforts of their religion, that they can stop advocating self abuse?  Thanks.

Chapter 5 "Some Personal Impressions" 

Again, I'm skipping lots of things to focus on what I'd like.

On page 110, Allison claims Jesus never constructed a theodicy or tried to apologize for the evil of the world in light of his all good, all powerful, all knowing god.  However this is not true.  Jesus' eschatology is a theodicy.  In Jesus' parable of the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 Jesus explains how a farmer "wisely" ignores the weeds growing in his crops until the harvest.  Evil is okay for now because it'll be taken care of later.  But by page 111 Allison is trying to spin this as though Jesus' eschatology isn't just an obviously bad explanation of evil.  This is apologetic sleight of hand and hardly worthy of Allison who wants us to believe that not even trying to explain evil is somehow a virtue.  Check out this apologetic double speak, "For although eschatology is not the solution to the problem of evil, without eschatology there can be no solution."  Sorry.  Jesus tried.  Skeptics wept.  Jesus thinks procrastination is a virtue and judging people is much more fun when they do a whole lot of flagrant evil to each other that a god doesn't try to prevent.  Let's not kid ourselves.

I think I'll end there.


I imagine Dale Allison saw most of a review like this coming.  He's probably heard it all before and always gives that impression even when he's not making the counter argument to himself.  I have no idea why anything resembling "creedal Christianity" sticks in this guy's head.  He knows Jesus is a false prophet.  He knows Genesis and Revelation are both fake.  He knows all the layers of theology on top of a basic historical Jesus are bs.  He knows the difference between wishful thinking and having the evidence on your side (or rather prudently taking the side with the evidence on it).  Why would we want to lift meaning out of evil theological stories?  And what rudimentary human sensibilities (like love and hope) can't be more efficiently extracted out of endless other material available to a modern person?  I get plenty out of comic book mythology and modern mythology of all sorts with modern values inlaid into it.  But less cultural woo, so screw that, right?



Newton Finn said...

You and I didn't read the same book. His last chapter, for example, when he gets personal and theological, linking his thought processes to his best efforts at reconstructing at least a good piece of the historical Jesus, is far and away the finest summation of somewhat traditional Christian belief I've ever encountered, unfashionable as such belief has become these days. And I say that after years of professional training in this area and decades of reading theology and biblical criticism, from classical to pop.

Do you realize how much of your own presumptions are glaringly obvious when you approach a work of this nature? Why do you even bother when you seem to have it all figured out ahead of time? Any war on error worth fighting begins with at least a semi-open mind, including the humble recognition that one's own thinking may be erroneous.

Ben said...

Newton Finn,

Unfortunately you've given me little more than bluster to interact with as though I should just know whatever it is that makes the book worthwhile from your perspective.


I doubt you even read my whole review as it seems you flippantly were set off by some bit of rhetoric or another that keyed in some premature value judgment on your part and decided that I must be some close-minded know-it-all because I didn't read Allison's book just like you did in order to salvage some veneer of legitimacy to what happens (by accident of history) to be my cultural's most prominent religion. It is true I see no virtue in that.

I gave Allison plenty of props in the beginning of my review and interacted with what I thought were the most critical bits separating our worldviews. Why shouldn't I do that? Allison's still the go-to guy (in my book at least) for the most reasonable historical Jesus studies and I’ve learned tons from him. However I still expect good reasons to believe in even minimalist Christianity and inevitably we just get the same poor excuses and bad reasoning we get even defending maximalist fundamentalist Christian religion, as I explained in this review (that again, you probably didn’t even read).

I’m happy to tolerate as much venting as you feel the need to pollute my comments section with, but next time (if there is one) do be a dear and at least include an actual argument or some specific bit of misrepresentation on my part so that we can have a proper interaction.

Hallvard N. Jørgensen said...

To the author of the review: If you want to delve more deeply into Allison's personal beliefs, you might want to read his books on spirituality, i. e. Luminous dusk, Love there that's sleeping, Night comes. And of course esp. Resurrecting Jesus includes many of Allison's own reflections on faith.