Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review/Essay "A Case for Christ"

The Case for Christ
By Lee Strobel

A review by Fred Shira

“Whatever gets you through the night”

To quote Tennessee Williams from his play, Suddenly Last Summer: he writes in the tragic voice of Catherine, “We are all of us children in a vast kindergarten trying to spell God’s name with the wrong alphabet blocks”.
Lee Strobel makes no attempt to deceive us with his title, The Case for Christ. He sets forth with lawyerlike precision an argument for the existence of Jesus Christ as presented to us in the four gospels of the New Testament. Strobel, a professional journalist with legal training and experience covering criminal cases for the Chicago Tribune, builds his case with a collection of interviews with some of the world’s most highly reputed biblical scholars. But like any good trial lawyer he hand picks his experts to elicit the answers he needs to advance his theory ignoring those that will refute his theme.
There is no mention of the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the scrolls that were discovered in a cave in 1945 that have been authenticated by the most reputed biblical scholars. These document the fact that there were other gospels as well as those included in the New Testament. Even the Bible tells about seventy apostles, not just twelve. During the first few centuries there were several competing sects for what was to the be the true church. Orthodox Christianity became the strongest movement edging out the others, except for a couple that still survive today: the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and some of the branches of the Eastern Church. The Roman Church was further strengthened during the reign of Constantine; the emperor allegedly gave the power of the Empire to the Church in Rome: “The Gift of Constantine”. Although this was later proven false it did put in place the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold, makes the rules”.
Strobel submits his case to us in three sections with fourteen postulates each requiring that you accept the gospel writers as definitive sources of history. He pays little heed to the fact that the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are self evident with little or no outside confirmation.
In the first section, “Examining the Evidence” Strobel takes down a winding path of assumptions and questionable logic. His first hypothesis is that the Gospels as recorded were handed down to the writers by eye witnesses, and that there were other witnesses to make certain of the accuracy; therefore the stories could not be corrupted by legend. The Gospel of Mark was the first written, and most scholars have concluded that at least six authors made contributions. Mark was written about 70 CE which would have been some forty years after the death of Jesus. Now if you consider that forty years had passed and that the life span was probably around fifty years, or so, the life spans stated in the Bible do not stand-up against biological fact. With fifty years the normal there is little chance that there were many, if any, dependable eye witnesses. In his book, Who Wrote the Gospels, Randel McCraw Helms predicts that there were at least five transitions through the oral phase before they were written down. When you consider the mythology that has grown up around 9/11 in just a few years, it makes any historical approach to the Bible suspect.
Strobel assembles his proposition much like an artist who chooses to fill in the negative space around a painting to reveal the central object. In order to find the clear and truthful picture you need to arrange all the negative space components leaving out none and adding nothing that should not be there. Not only must you have faith in the picture you also must have faith in the artist’s intentions of portraying the truth. Therein lies the quandary: what do you accept at face value and what do you question? Strobel suggests that we use simple logic to determine the truth; however, logic and reason are the two biggest enemies of religion in general, and orthodox Christianity in specific. All religion is a construct, that is, it is an idea without any clear proof of fact. It has no empirical basis in reality; we can only know it by what someone else has told us. We can not smell, nor see, nor hear, nor taste, nor can we have a tactile experience with religious thought. We have no a priori relationship with religion; that is, we are not born with a concept of God. This must be learned. A child only knows, “Jesus loves me, yes I know because the Bible tells me so”. Remove the Bible from the argument and there is no argument.
Throughout the entire book Strobel cites “The Jesus Seminar”, a group of 150 biblical scholars who have worked collectively over the past twenty-five years to explore the life and times of Jesus and place him in an historical context. Of course, their conclusions run counter to those of Strobel; therefore, he denigrates them at every turn. This is much like miscoloring a portion of the negative space.
The two seminal questions in the second section, “Analyzing Jesus”, are: was Jesus the Son of God, and did he know it. How do you answer such questions? Here all we can do refer is to the New Testament. Is the Bible a textual history or an edited amalgam of the pieces and bits gathered to support orthodox Christianity. If, in fact, there are answers to the questions, the starting point for discovery would possibly be in the deep corners of the Vatican library. Strobel quotes a Biblical scholar, Dr Carson, “So part of Christian theology has been concerned with not ‘explaining it all away’ but with trying to take the biblical evidence and, retaining all of it fairly, find ways of synthesis that are rationally coherent, even if they’re not exhaustively explanatory”. Thus like any good prosecuting attorney, set the answer then construct the evidence to reach that conclusion.
The resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of orthodox Christianity. If the resurrection were proven false then the whole of western religious thought would crumble bringing down with it a good deal of western civilization.
First what do we know from actual historical records about the crucifixion of Jesus. We now that a person called Jesus of Nazareth was arrested, tried, beaten, made to carry a heavy wooden cross through the streets to Calvary Hill. There he was nailed to the cross members and raised above the ground then his feet were nailed to the upright member. After six hours Joseph of Arimetheia received permission to remove him from the cross if he were in fact dead. We know that his side had been pierced by a roman spear, to what extent we can only guess. After he was removed to a crypt owned by Joseph of Arimetheia his wounds were dressed and he disappeared sometime in the night. That is what we know. All the rest is faith, believing with no guarantee. Stobel presents us with a story founded in biblical references and logic. Here again it become incumbent on the reader to believe or not believe at his own volition.
The great American thinker and psychologist William James ended his essay, “The Will to Believe” with a quote from Liberty, Equality, Fraternity written by Fitz James Stephens.

“What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? … These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. … In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark … If we decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that too is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man think otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong and of good courage.’ Act the best, hope for the best, and take what comes… If death ends all, we cannot meet death better”.

In the final analysis all we can do is find someway of thinking, some method of ontological perception, that helps us get through that long, dark metaphysical night.
To further paraphrase William James, we will not know the answers, if in fact there are answers, until the back cover is closed.

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