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Why I’m To Be Pitied for Having Been the Wrong Kind of Fundamentalist

Several readers of this blog have pointed me to an article in the conservative journal First Things;  the article (a review of a book by the  evangelical scholar Craig Blomberg) was written by Louis Markos, an English professor at Houston Baptist University.  The title is called “Ehrman Errant.”   I must say, that did not sound like a promising beginning.

I had never heard of Louis Markos before – had certainly never met him, talked with him about myself or my life, shared with him my views of important topics, spent time to see how he ticked and to let him see how I do.   I don’t know the man, and he doesn’t me.  And so it was with some considerable surprise that I read the beginning of his article.

“I feel great pity for Bart Ehrman.”

So, from someone I don’t know, that’s a bit of a shocker.   I can understand why a friend of mine might feel some (but not great?) pity for me at some points of my life – when I had such difficulty, for years, finding a teaching position even though I had a PhD from a very fine program; when my father died at the sad young age of 65; when I went through a divorce and was forced, then, not to see my kids grow up every day.   There have been bad times in my life, and my friends grieved with me through them.

But that’s not why Dr. Markos feels “great pity” (not some pity – but great pity).   No, he feels great pity for me because when I was a fundamentalist I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist; if I had been the right kind of fundamentalist I never would have left fundamentalism:  the kinds of things that I found to be highly problematic about fundamentalism are problematic only for the kind of fundamentalist that I was.   And if I had remained the right kind of fundamentalist, I would still hold to the truth, and my life would be fantastic and not to be pitied — as opposed to the life I live now which is, evidently, greatly to be pitied.

I really can’t help but think that if Dr. Markos knew anything at all about my life, he wouldn’t consider pity, great or small, to be the most obvious or appropriate response to it.   My life is flat-out fantastic, in every respect.   There are hard times, and sad times, and grievous times (in this past few months, e.g.), but my life is great and I relish it.  I hope Dr. Markos’s life is as good as mine.   But if he spends his time pitying people he’s never met, whose lives he doesn’t know, then I wonder what kind of life he actually has.  On the other hand, frankly, I don’t wonder too much, since I tend not to pity people I know nothing about.

In any event, Dr. Markos goes on to explain the source of his great pity for my pathetic life:

It appears that the kind of fundamentalism in which the Christian believer [Ehrman] turned biblical debunker was raised did not prepare him for the challenges he would face in college. He was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years.

 I find this statement so puzzling on so many levels that I don’t know where to start.   His basic point is that we can’t judge the Bible by modern forms of thinking, logic, evidence, modes of verification, scientific knowledge, and so on, but by the intellectual terms that were available before the Enlightenment.   That is, we should not read the Bible as intelligent modern people but as ignorant pre-modern people.  And if we do that, we won’t have any problems with it, and we’ll see that in fact there are no contradictions (from the perspective of ignorant pre-modern people).   So, I am to be “greatly pitied” because I never realized that the most valid approach to the Bible is that of ignorant pre-Enlightenment people.

Right.  OK, so as I said.  Where to start?

First off, let me state that when Dr. Markos indicates that I was raised in the kind of Fundamentalism that insisted on modern modes of analysis and verification and that this did not prepare me for college, he shows that he doesn’t know the first thing about my life.   The fundamentalism I acquired was what I acquired precisely in college (Moody Bible Institute). (Before that I was an avid Episcopalian and presumably, then, much more to be pitied!)  My kind of fundamentalism was one that says there are no mistakes in the Bible of any kind, doctrinally, ethically, historically, scientifically.   There are no absolute contradictions (even though there may be places that look like contradictions: these can be reconciled).  There are no scientific errors (The world really was created in six 24-hour days, with evenings and mornings; Adam and Eve really were the first human beings).   There are no historical mistakes (Quirinius really was the governor of Syria when Herod was King of Judea).   Everything the Bible affirms to be true is true.  This was what I learned precisely *in* college.  Strikingly, it’s the kind of fundamentalism that Dr. Markos himself appears to embrace, as I’ll explain in a later post.

Second, let me say that the clear implication that Dr. Markos makes – that I don’t realize that there are differences between modern modes of verification and ancient modes – is ludicrous.  I spend my entire career teaching students that modern forms of rationality (including the kind Dr. Markos subscribes to, I might add), would not have been possible prior to the Enlightenment, and that the ancient world saw things quite differently.  For ancient readers, it would have been no scientific problem for God to make the “sun stand still” in the book of Joshua so that the Israelites could continue the slaughter of their enemies (they would have no moral problem with the passage either.   Damn Canaanites: they deserved to be slaughtered!  They weren’t us!).  Modern scientists might wonder how that could happen since (a) it is the earth that is rotating, not the sun moving, and b) stopping the earth from rotating for a long afternoon would have destroyed the planet.   Ancient people didn’t have that problem.

Third, I should say that it does indeed seem appropriate to me to study the Bible not only to see what the ancients would have made of it or to see what they would have found problematic about it, but also to see what we moderns can make of it and find problematic in it.  If we want to know whether it is possible for the “sun to stand still” – do we want to ask that as ancient people as modern scientists?  Do we want to adopt ancient views of things because those were the views of the Bible and the times of the Bible?  Let’s think about it for a second.   Suppose you have a hammering toothache.  Since you want to live and think like they did in biblical times, do you want to implement the solution for your toothache that they had in ancient times?   Or to you prefer to go to a modern dentist who has, for example, a handy supply of xylocaine?

My point: of *course* biblical authors had different ways of evaluating truth claims and of accepting historical, geographical, scientific views than we do today.   Am I really to be pitied (greatly!) for thinking that modern people should think like modern people?   Of course we should work to see how ancient people read and understood their texts – that’s my day job, it’s what I do all the time.  But to say that since ancient people didn’t see problems in the stories they told (e.g., that there was a flood that covered the entire world killing everything on it; or that an angel of death destroyed on one night all the firstborn children in all of Egypt; or that someone made an iron axehead float on the water – pick your passage) we shouldn’t see those problem either is a case of naivete of the worst sort.

I’ll say more about Dr. Markos’s little article in subsequent posts, but I’m planning to space them out a bit.  I’ll probably do the next one next weekend.


Who Changed the Bible and Why? Diane Rehm Show
What Is Different in My Textbook?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    jsullivan  November 1, 2014

    This is one of your best posts. His argument is a variation of Ken Ham’s argument about how modern science doesn’t apply to test the things asserted in the Bible because we can’t know if modern scientific techniques were valid then (e.g., radiometric dating). It is nonsense, as is Ham’s position.

    • Avatar
      sashko123  November 6, 2014

      jsullivan,
      The association of Ken Ham with science is like the association of Trofim Lysenko with science. Because it is not clear what Markos meant by his vague comment “he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years,” I’ll withhold placing him in the same category as Ken Ham and his anti-science loons, who don’t like science when it discredits their beliefs. I’m not sure whether Markos really appreciates the thrust of his own comment, which seems to accuse Dr. Ehrman of too much hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Shame on you, Dr. Ehrman, for being too reasonable!

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 1, 2014

    Those defending Mr. Markos in the comments section below that article is just as entertaining as the article itself.

  3. Avatar
    Judith  November 1, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Thank you for sharing all this with us. I find it most interesting to get a glimpse into your life and think you are most generous to allow us that.

    Judy

  4. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  November 1, 2014

    When is the next time your coming to Denver Bart?

  5. Avatar
    prairieian  November 1, 2014

    Fundamentalist habits of thought are a disaster no matter the topic. By fundamentalist I mean anyone who has a doctrinaire, ideological and blinkered view on a subject at hand and is hence oblivious to nuance, thought or reflection. The answers are at hand through a given prism be it liberalism, conservativism, libertarianism, free market capitalism, Marxism, Christianity or Islamism and there is no need to consider any train of thought or evidence that might be at odds with one’s world view.

    It is a comfortable place, but anyone who lives in the real world it is absurd.

    After much personal contemplation over many years, my position is that of an agnostic. The evidence at hand makes virtually any written religion as infallible and all seeing as a constitution. Indeed, anything involving humans is almost certain to be untidy and messy. Atheism also lacks evidence, it seems to me. We just don’t know. But if there is a deity, it certainly cannot be the one described in any religious text.

    I guess I’ll have to dig out the article and see what it might say. I do understand the frustration of getting lectured at from afar. FYI – Louis Markos did a Great Courses lecture series on “The Life and Writings of CS Lewis”.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 1, 2014

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I look forward to your subsequent posts on this topic. I am often stunned by how some people can “spin” the evidence no matter what.

    I know you don’t want to write a lot of personal stuff on this website, but when you do, I always find it to be quite helpful and so similar to my own, somewhat less scholarly, search.

    The article by Dr. Markos really upset me. Please don’t get discouraged with such criticisms as those from Dr. Markos. I spent decades asking questions before I finally read one of your books and then finally I found an author who understands my questions and writes about them clearly. Keep going….

  7. Avatar
    GJohnson391  November 1, 2014

    LOUIS MARKOS

    Louis Markos is Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities.

    Education
    BA in English and History from Colgate University (Hamilton, NY)
    MA and PhD in English from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, MI)

    Courses Taught
    Ancient Greece and Rome (for the Honors College)
    Victorian Poetry and Prose
    Seventeenth-Century Poetry and Prose
    C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien
    Mythology
    Epic
    Film (classics, Hitchcock, Capra, Hollywood Studios, musicals, etc.)

    Teaching Focus
    While at the University of Michigan, he specialized in British Romantic Poetry (his dissertation was on Wordsworth), Literary Theory, and the Classics.

    So, what you are dealing with is an English Professor with no graduate training in critical historical investigation, biblical history or theology. It appears he strays into modern Christian apologetics and explaining fundamentalist theology in his writings – his books include

    Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis;
    Apologetics for the 21st Century;
    From Achilles to Christ;
    On the Shoulders of Hobbits;
    Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Traditiion

    Sounds like he thinks taking you on (indirectly of course, as cowards usually do) will give him “Biblical Cred” among his fundamentalist cronies. Too bad he lacks the education or background to do so with any authority.

    I wonder how you are able to suffer such fools so lightly.

  8. Avatar
    Mark  November 1, 2014

    If memory serves, I recall your writing about how early church fathers like Irenaeus weren’t ignorant of contradictions between the gospels, didn’t seem to be especially troubled by them, and yet maintained a very exalted view of them. I don’t think you necessarily wrote those three points down in one place, but those are impressions I’ve taken away from reading a lot of your books. This leads me to think that there must have been some other criteria by which these ancients saw truth in them; criteria that I can’t quite wrap my modern head around.

    On one hand, their approach doesn’t seem to fit a modern, liberal protestant understanding that seems only concerned for preserving some kernel of ethical or spiritual truth to which notions of historicity are irrelevant. But on the other hand, I don’t read about them doing the kinds of logical gymnastics required to smooth over the historical contradictions. How did they manage to know so much, believe so much, yet stay so sanguine about contradictions?

    Since it seems like this question might require a long answer, feel free to just point me in the direction of a not-too-technical book or chapter of a book if it’s easier. I do admire how much time you must take answering questions.

    • Avatar
      christinegibbons  October 25, 2015

      Fascinating Mark
      You’ve managed to express my feeling exactly. It seems to me that cultures remote from our own experienced ideas and language in ways we “moderns” can’t really access. This is one of the areas I think Karen Armstrong has explored well even through I think her writings employ a double standard when comparing world religions in the contemporary world. Contemporary culture makes it very difficult for Westerners to read “sacred” works without treating them as flat literal instruction manuals containing consistent programmes of action or thought. Thus fundamentalism substitutes of nuanced poetic readings.

  9. Avatar
    Jana  November 1, 2014

    I don’t think someone whose teaching forte centers on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien can be taken too seriously despite posting calculating essay titles. Do you?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2014

      Well, he’s certainly not trained in biblical studies!

  10. Avatar
    doug  November 1, 2014

    To be pitied by the right people is a compliment (altho I sometimes wish they would compliment me in a more complimentary way!).

  11. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 1, 2014

    Hello Bart,

    I bet Prof. Markos goes to a dentist for his toothaches, as do the great majority of fundamentalists. I find it fascinating, as well as somewhat disturbing, fundamentalists can compartmentalize the way they do. From what you shared, Prof. Markos at least does not believe you are also morally suspect–or perhaps he is just doesn’t say so. Common responses from some believers of church I left are I left because

    I wanted to sin. Hey, I like a good cup of coffee and better sex. If that’s sin, well, I’m a sinner.

    I was offended by some minor affront. Actually, I was offended by white-washed history, repugnant social policies, and nonsensical beliefs.

    I really don’t understand. On the contrary, it was understanding that my religious beliefs didn’t square well with a modern understanding of reality that got me out. I was told I thought too much and knew too much to belong. I agree.

    One thing about English professors, having earned a undergraduate degree in English myself: Many of them believe they can comment knowledgeably on anything and sometimes dabble in amateur psychoanalysis.

  12. Avatar
    ElazarusWills  November 1, 2014

    …turned biblical debunker? I find you an “explainer” rather than a debunker. Or debunker of flawed literalist readings of the Bible, maybe.

  13. Avatar
    Matilda  November 2, 2014

    Bart, I wouldn’t give this idiot the time of day. People like him are just fearful and lash out at anyone who threatens them. It’s like having a discussion with a two year old when he/she is having a tantrum. I will tell you this, you have helped me immensely. I have put you in the very exalted category along with Richard Dawkins, and my hero Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. Bart, you are in good company in my book.
    Christopher said something like religion was having its last dying gasp. Good riddance when it is gone and replaced by common sense, science, and enough bravery to face the human condition without superstition.
    Maybe someday psychologists will find the answer to why humans cling to religion when there is an entire universe to enjoy. Until then, carry on because the world need you.

  14. RASkeptic
    RASkeptic  November 2, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman, maybe you should take this article as a back handed complement. To paraphrase Shakespeare,
    “He doth protest too much, methinks.”
    If he did not think your books might cause his kind of fundamentalists to “Doubt”, he wouldn’t waste his ink on you

  15. Shanewag1
    Shanewag1  November 2, 2014

    I was actually invited by Markos to attend some of his lectures at HBU’s honors college one time. Afterwards, he was kind enough to discuss biblical scholarship (one of my primary interests) with me. I brought you up and told him about how you had really changed and expanded many of my perspectives. The only thing he said in reply was, “Man, I wouldn’t want to be that guy on judgement day.” Anyways, I did my best to explain to him that regardless of one’s worldview, one can still be a fantastic, honest religious scholar. I’m not really sure if he got the message or not…

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2014

      Good grief. Not that he’s judgmental or anything. But, really. Judge not lest ye be judged!

      • Avatar
        Wilusa  November 3, 2014

        That statement by Markos confirms what I’d been guessing: that he “pities” you because he thinks you, and everyone who’s rejected what he perceives as the “truth,” are destined for eternal damnation. Maybe we should pity him, for all he’s missing as he goes through life with such a narrow mind…

  16. Avatar
    Loring  November 2, 2014

    It is interesting that Papal Infallibility in the Catholic Church became dogma in 1870 (not that it was created then, but it was codified and defined at that time), followed within a few decades by the Protestant idea of Biblical Inerrancy. I read somewhere that both of these movements may have reflected (ironically) the increasingly scientific approaches they were responding to. Attempts to shore up the authority of the Pope and the Bible were actually shaped by the Enlightenment itself. Because of the Enlightenment, people were asking questions that had never been asked before (see Bart’s comments above regarding the Sun standing still, for example).

    Bart, I find it odd that Dr. Markos would challenge your “brand” of fundamentalism. Whether Moody Bible Institute, where you attended, or Baptist Bible College of PA or Grace Theological Seminary, where I attended, I’m sure we were taught the same approach to inerrancy. I learned how to defend inerrancy and “Biblical Creationism” from John C. Whitcomb himself. In my years as a fundamentalist, I didn’t see very much variation in the fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy. It has now been more than 30 years since I considered myself a fundamentalist, so it is possible that the current situation has changed. My limited exposure to fundamentalists today, however, makes me think it has not.

    • Rick
      Rick  November 3, 2014

      I have often wondered whether protestant views on inerrancy of the Bible were developed to fill the “authority” void in Protestant theologies left by the “kicking out” the Pope.

  17. David
    David  November 2, 2014

    Well, Bart, I really had a good laugh reading this latest post. You may recall that I was a former evangelical Christian, and that I have been engaged in a decades-long debate with a Christian friend of mine. He has remained a believer for over 40 years, and no amount of reasoning that I have presented has swayed him from his faith. As you pointed out, such efforts are generally ineffective, and have only served to reinforce his defences. I have told my friend that if there is a God , it is not the Judeo-Christian version. To me, the divine is something beyond our comprehension and certainly not a super human like being with attributes similar to our own, as depicted in Scripture. So, I have come to a place of “I don’t know.” I am learning to live in the mystery of it all. My friend finds this completely unsatisfactory, and often laments my looking for “the unknown God.” Just this morning, he sent me an email that ended with this statement: “The unknown god David doesn’t exist…….I hope you will come to your senses sooner rather than later. I feel very sorry for you that you are not at peace with yourself.” He finds uncertainty as it pertains to God and ultimate reality to be intolerable, and so feels sorry for, or pities, people like me (and you LOL). So, the timing of your post here was rather, shall we say, timely? I may forward the post to him, even thought he despises all things Ehrman LOL.

    • Avatar
      prestonp  November 3, 2014

      “I have told my friend that if there is a God , it is not the Judeo-Christian version. To me, the divine is something beyond our comprehension and certainly not a super human like being with attributes similar to our own, as depicted in Scripture.”

      Why wouldn’t he be just like one of us?

      • David
        David  November 10, 2014

        This question is “off” in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to begin. Just one comment: If you were to take all the time that has passed since the universe began (about 14 billion years ago according to Science), and thought of it in terms of an hour on a clock, then we humans arrived on the scene in the last few seconds. And you think it’s all about us? Even the scripture says “God is not a human, that he should lie.” (numbers 23:19). Or “God is a spirit..” (John 4:24). Let’s face it, throughout history, most of the worlds religions depicted their Gods as being human-like, whether it be Zeus, Apollo, Vishnu or Jehovah. It could just as easily be asked, “Why wouldn’t he be just like….well…..just about anything your imagination can conjure up. He/it could not possibly be “like one of us” and still be omniscient, omnipotent and, most important, omnipresent.

  18. Avatar
    bonnie43uk  November 2, 2014

    Ha, i suppose one of the pitfalls of being a fairly well known author and a former fundamentalist Christian is that you are an obvious target for mud to be slung at. When I first came across this blog site I was a little taken aback that If i was to subscribe, it would cost me money.. Oh, it’s like that is it.. Ehrman wants our cash i thought ..Typical!. But then reading on, i found that all the money was going to good causes and the poor. My initial misjudgment was totally wrong. Also, i have to say, I’ve only been on this site a few weeks, and like a lot of people, i have lots of questions which I’ve struggled with all my life concerning biblical issues which to me, made no sense. For a number of years now I’ve tried to get answers from priests, pastors and anyone with “Christian ideals”, but my questions have fallen on deaf ears, or at the very least, I’ve had very glib answers followed by silence. In the past 2 weeks you’ve been gracious enough to reply to my questions, which I’d never thought I’d receive due to your busy work schedule. Thanks Bart.

  19. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  November 2, 2014

    Yet another fundamentalist desperately trying to justify his own irrationality …

  20. Robert
    Robert  November 2, 2014

    “Modern scientists might wonder how that could happen since (a) it is the earth moving around the sun, not vice versa and (b) stopping the earth from moving around the sun for a long afternoon would have destroyed the earth.”

    No need to stop the earth from moving around the sun–that, combined with the orientation of the earth on its axis, would merely stop the cycle of seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. Rather, modern scientists would wonder how that could happen since the earth is rotating on its axis and the sun is already relatively stationary.

    It appears that the Moody Bible Institute needs to update their scientific curriculum a bit. I also wonder if the science classes that student athletes at the University of North Carolina take are any better. 😉

    • Bart
      Bart  November 2, 2014

      Ha!! That’s good. That’ll teach me to dash off these posts! How embarassing. I’ve made the revolutionary (or rather, rotational) alteration in thye post….

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