In my talks with my family I have referenced your work, and my family typically rolls their eyes and tells me that they hold no respect for your work. When pressed on why I have gotten different answers most of them I can dismiss easily but lately they have been sticking to a new story and it goes like this.
“I have a friend from church who has a son and he as a faience who took one of Dr. Ehrman’s classes at UNC. The first day of class he walked in and asked if there were any Christians in the room. He then told them that if they were still Christians by the end of the course that they are idiots and would probably fail. “
So first off please let me know if you have ever said anything like this before and if so why or was it in jest?
I find this comment about me (from the person’s family) to be deeply disturbing and really offensive. It’s not their fault, of course. It’s something that they heard from someone else. But depending on how it originated, it is either a patently false rumor or a malicious lie. In either case, it is not simply untrue. It is the opposite of the truth.
I am not opposed to Christians and have never been opposed to Christians. Ever. I have never tried to deconvert my students. Ever. I have never tried to destroy my students’ faith. Ever. This is just false. The only question is if someone for some reason innocently thought it was the case, even though it’s not, or if someone intentionally made it up in order to slander me. That is to say: is it an erroneous rumor or a mean-spirited attack. I don’t know and have no way of knowing.
So let me tell you what my approach to my Christian students *really* is. My approach to Christians is the same as my approach to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, pagans, and everyone else. I don’t try to make them change their personal views or get them to agree with mine (that is, their religious views). Whatever their views, I want them to become more thoughtful about these views and to hold to these views intelligently, rather than blindly. The opposite of an intelligent faith (or lack of faith) is an ignorant faith (or lack of faith). Are there people who really prefer ignorance over intelligence? Unfortunately, we know that the answer is a resounding YES. But such people do not teach in universities and presumably do not enroll in universities. Anyone connected with a university prefers knowledge to ignorance.
I do not teach a particular set of religious views over another. When I teach the New Testament, I do so from a historical (and a literary) point of view. This point of view does not bias one religious set of beliefs over another. No one who takes my class is required to accept the historical views that are advanced in the class. But if a student disagrees with them, I encourage him or her to come up with *reasons* for disagreeing – preferably historical reasons (since they are historical views). I don’t think it is good enough to oppose a historical point of view because it is not what you were brought up on, or because it’s not what your mother taught you, or your Sunday school teacher. People need their *own* reasons for disagreeing with something. I encourage disagreement in my classes, and I encourage independent thinking. In my syllabus, and on the first day of class, I emphasize that I want the class to help students develop their analytical skills so they can evaluate the views of others – even the views of their professor.
The information about the New Testament I convey in my classes is not inimical to Christian belief. Not in the least. It may be inimical to some forms of ignorant fundamentalism – but even so, my goal in the class is not to attack fundamentalism. If a student is a fundamentalist, I hope they finish the semester as a wiser and more thoughtful fundamentalist than when they came into the class. If that happens, I’ve done my job.
The reality is that the information that students learn – historical and literary information about the New Testament – is just about the same as they would learn in any major college or university in the country. I get attacked only because of my personal religious views, not because of what I teach, even though people who attack me think that they are attacking me for what I teach. But in fact what I teach is pretty much what ever critical scholar in North America teaches when they teach a class on the New Testament, whether they are teaching in an Ivy League school (Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, etc.); major state school (Florida State, University of Texas, U.C. Berkeley – take your pick on any coast or in the middle); private universities (University of Richmond, Loyola Marymount, Wake Forest, whatever); liberal arts colleges (Oberlin, Newberry, Washington and Lee, wherever).
Many – probably in fact most, by a large margin – of the professors who teach in these schools are themselves personally Christian. But they teach pretty much the same historical information about the New Testament that I do. I know this for a fact, because I know many of them. How can they teach such things if they’re Christian? Because historical knowledge is historical knowledge. It’s not Christian knowledge or Jewish knowledge or Muslim knowledge or agnostic knowledge or atheist knowledge. It’s historical knowledge. Anyone of any persuasion can learn about history. And can approach the New Testament from a historical (or a literary) point of view.
This kind of knowledge is also taught in a wide range of Christian divinity schools and seminaries, by people training future ministers. It is simply ignorant to say that such information is non- or anti-Christian.
And it is offensive to me personally for someone to say that I want to deconvert people from being Christian, or try to deconvert them, or have my goal to deconvert them. That is not just false (and malicious): it is just the opposite of the truth. I want the Christians in my class to be better Christians, more knowledgeable Christians, more thoughtful Christians. Just as I want all people of all faiths – or people who have no faith – to be better, knowledgeable, and more thoughtful.