Friday, 13 February 2015

Evangelical Hero-Worship

In my days as an evangelical Christian, one thing that struck me was how much certain people, often theologians, attracted hero-worship within the movement. This was to such an extent that it bordered on idolatry, at least within the paradigm of evangelicalism. Back in my day, such “gods” were people like John Stott, F.F. Bruce, or even the-then-emergent Richard Bauckham. Note that of course they were all men.

How little has changed in the intervening decades! At least, the heroes have somewhat changed, as new ones have come along and old ones have faded from memory, but the same cult of personality persists.

Prof. Holloway (H.T. Otagosh)
This phenomenon has not gone without challenge, but when a certain Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament at the University of the South (USA), objected to an honour being bestowed on object-of-evangelical-idol-worship, Professor N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham (England) and current professor of New Testament at St Andrews University (Scotland), all hell was unleashed, at least online, from a significant section of the evangelical faithful.

Holloway’s “crime” is to out Wright as an apologist rather than a scholar. He did this in a letter to the editor of the student newspaper at the University of the South (available here).

Anyone familiar with Wright’s work would know this denunciation to be correct. Wright is a virulent homophobe who used his unjustified privilege in the British parliament's House of Lords to promote his bigoted views. He writes copiously about the New Testament, but always with a slant on trying to prove the NT correct in some way, in order to please biblical-inerrantists and assorted fundamentalists.

In Holloway’s brief letter, he mentions Wright’s homophobia, before moving on to his main objection to Wright being bestowed an honorary degree from Holloway’s own University, namely that the University

…has recognized Wright as a scholar in my discipline, when in fact he is little more than a book-a-year apologist. Wright comes to the evidence not with honest questions but with ideologically generated answers that he seeks to defend. I know of no critical scholar in the field who trusts his work. He contradicts what I stand for professionally as well as the kind of hard-won intellectual integrity I hope to instill in my students. I feel like the professor of biology who has had to sit by and watch a Biblical creationist receive an honorary degree in science.

One of the problems of short letters to newspapers is that there is simply no room to set out one’s evidence for one’s claims. Anyone who wasn’t intimately familiar with Wright’s work might not realise the truth of Holloway’s claim – his fellow evangelicals are certainly not going to let on.

Of course Wright was a bishop in the Church of England, and so some people might suspect he is not the most independently-minded kind of person. The See of Durham was traditionally awarded to someone with some theological expertise or insight, but after David Jenkins showed too much insight in the post for the Church of England’s liking in the 80s and early 90s (he questioned the virginal conception and implied that the resurrection was not merely “a conjuring trick with bones”) the bishopric has subsequently gone to evangelicals, who will toe a very conservative doctrinal line. The sequence of Durham bishops to follow Jenkins shows this very clearly: Michael Turnbull, Tom (N.T.) Wright, Justin Welby (now Archbishop of Canterbury), Paul Butler. So no source of inspiration can be found any longer from Durham!

Evangelicals have, of course, already infiltrated university theology faculties the world over, adopting a veneer of academic respectability whilst churning out their bible-is-right-as-has-been-predetermined material in ever growing quantities. Non-evangelicals look on in dismay as their discipline is reduced from research into apologetics. This has undoubtedly led to Holloway’s letter, which at times uses some language that I wouldn’t have chosen. Nonetheless, well done Prof Holloway for speaking out!

Then came the backlash.

Some of this backlash you can see in the comments online below Holloway’s letter. Whilst there is some support for the professor’s stand, the evangelicals have got organised, and it worries me, to an extent, where this might lead.

For now, some of the evangelical comments are quite amusing (not intentionally). I particularly like one from a certain Dan V Bennett (I hope I’ve parsed his name correctly), which I wondered initially whether it was an intentional parody, but on reflection I don’t think it is, particularly as it starts off with a valid point – that Holloway isn’t a “book a year” apologist, he writes rather more than that; I haven’t checked this, but it seems to me likely to be correct, at least until he wrote his recent tome on Paul.

Bennett includes gems such as:

[Wright additionally produces] endless lectures, debates and sermons delivered in a schedule that would exhaust men a third his age.
 N T Wright is a living saint. His YouTube videos alone have carried the Gospel as forcefully, with as much true Christian love as any Evangelist in Christs’ [sic] service today.
 Just so we don’t miss it, let me repeat: N T Wright is a living saint. He is a soul-saving Christian brother who radiates the Truth of the Gospel with love, modesty and humor to the world at large.
 Next time, Dr Holloway, I suggest you limit your rants an [sic – perhaps “to” is meant] in-house email. Using N T Wright as a keyword will only bring his thousands–millions?–of supporters to his defense [sic].

Fantastic! I had forgotten how much we evangelicals revered our super-heroes. In my time as an evangelical, I did have an evangelical friend who had the insight to point this out; but that level of insight was rare in evangelical circles.

For another example of this kind of evangelical love-fest, take a look at how Professor Larry Hurtado fawns over Professor Richard Bauckham’s review of his work (here). Hurtado doesn’t offer this kind of veneration to anyone outside the evangelical fold – you should see his disdain for Professor Bart Ehrman, to whom he had to apologise recently for falsely imputing financial motives to Ehrman for some of his work, when in fact Ehrman gives the money to charity (here “And, if colleagues such as Ehrman have no personal stake in the matter, why the repeated readiness to engage in those public debates? Simply the handsome fee involved? Maybe.”)

Finally, I thought I’d mention one trick used by evangelicals: a slight denigration. Professor Nijay Gupta, George Fox Evangelical Seminary, wrote a blog article where he, unsurprisingly given his evangelical stance, took issue with Holloway’s objection to Wright receiving an honour (here).

There are many fallacious arguments he raises there, some of which are dealt with by others (see Otagosh, or, if you can stand the mythicism, Vridar, the latter having a nice, but unprovenanced quote from retired Professor Niels Peter Lemche). But something I noticed was how he dealt with the titles of the 2 professors involved: Wright he accords as “professor”, but Holloway gets merely “doctor” from Gupta. So I wrote a comment on Gupta’s site questioning this.

Rather than deal with this slight of hand openly, Gupta has taken refuge behind a webpage on the university site which accords both titles to Holloway; Gupta fails to mention that this page also describes him as “professor”. He also fails to mention that the university directory lists Holloway as “professor”. Also he is strangely silent about the fact that Professor Holloway’s original letter was signed “Paul Holloway, Professor of New Testament”. Instead, the technicality of one webpage using the title “doctor” alongside “professor” is sufficient for Gupta to think he can get away with this.

Of course the onslaught from the evangelicals has only just started. I hope Holloway can get through this. Standing up for what’s right isn’t easy; good on him that he’s got this far in face of the opposition.