Sunday, February 24, 2008

Lee Strobel: Biased Apologist or Champion of Intellectual Honesty?

In his books “The Case for Christ” and “The Case for the Real Jesus,” Christian apologetic writer Lee Strobel portrays liberal biblical scholars as approaching scholarship with predetermined agendas that color their presentation of the evidence. He suggests that instead of coming to the table with an unbiased perspective, these scholars have preconceived notions, and they subsequently gather, interpret, and present only the evidence that supports these notions. But is this a fair assessment? Are biblical scholars to be regarded as radicals with a skeptic’s agenda, or is Strobel himself guilty of the very biased methods he pins on his opponents? In fact, a simple comparison of the investigative and rhetorical methods of those like Strobel over against academically-trained biblical scholars reveals that Christian apologists, and evangelical scholars, are much more likely to bring bias and agenda into the picture.

Strobel himself is a journalist and lawyer who converted from atheism to Christianity in early adulthood. As such, he is not a trained biblical scholar, and his conversion was not based on scholarship, but rather on the decision that he needed God in his life (as most conversions are). In his defense, he does not pretend to be a scholar himself. His best-selling series of “The Case For” books are structured as journalistic investigations into the hot topics of traditional Christianity. His method of operation consists of interviews with biblical scholars discussing various theological components of Christianity.

In arguing that liberal scholars bring bias into the picture, Strobel routinely fails to provide much evidence for these assertions. Instead, he relies on disparaging hyperbole to paint these scholars in a negative light, while referring to those in his own camp with uplifting and respectful language. For instance, when referring to the traditionally-leaning scholar and Strobel confidant Ben Witherington, Strobel refers to him as the renowned “Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary.” Yet when quoting “liberal” scholar Bart D. Ehrman, Strobel introduces him as “Bart Ehrman, the agnostic professor of religion at the University of North Carolina.” He fails to mention that Erhman is Princeton-educated, one of the most well-respected and best-selling scholarly writers on earth, and is, in fact, the head of religious studies at UNC, not simply a professor of religion.

Strobel also throws the word “liberal” around like a smelly fish. When referring to the scholars whose work he is attempting to deconstruct, he routinely makes sure to include this emotionally-charged word. Thus, John Shelby Spong is not an eminent scholar and retired bishop of the Episcopalian Church, but is instead just a “liberal” biblical scholar. The effect of this hyperbole is twofold. First, it tells the evangelicals who make up the vast majority of his readership that this scholar is not to be trusted. I know of very few evangelicals who put much stock in the views of liberal politicians or theologians. Second, the use of this word tells his readers that this scholar is no run-of-the-mill scholar, but is instead a “liberal” scholar. The implication, then, is that this scholar is a maverick on the fringe of the scholarly world. In fact, the far and away vast majority of biblical scholars would fall under the umbrella of “liberal” by any typical evangelical understanding of the word. To refer to a biblical scholar as a “liberal scholar” would be like referring to a police officer as a “gun-toting cop.” Not only is it redundant, but it creates a misleading negative connotation. Thus, Strobel effectively uses these kinds hyperbole to diminish the accomplishments of many biblical scholars, and to paint them as mavericks on the fringe of scholarship whose opinions cannot be trusted.

And all this happens before he even gets to the first word of his argument.

Nevertheless, and biased hyperbole aside, how does Strobel’s method of operation compare to that of the academics he accuses of scholarly prejudice?

As mentioned above, Strobel formats his books as no-nonsense journalistic investigations into the authenticity of Christianity, and he interviews biblical scholars to get their opinions on the “tough questions” that skeptics ask. In doing so, however, he chooses only those scholars whose body of work supports his own Christian beliefs. Thus, in “The Case for Christ,” we get ten or twelve interviews discussing ten or twelve separate hot topics, and each of the interviewees is a known traditionally-believing biblical scholar. In other words, his “fact witnesses” (as he calls them) are all established “friends” of evangelical Christianity. This holds true for his book “The Case for the Real Jesus” as well. Not a single interviewee in either book is an established “liberal” scholar – that is, any scholar whose work points away from traditional theology. Instead, much of the interview content is an effort to deconstruct the views of these so-called mavericks.

This leads to the next point on Strobel’s methods. In his books, Strobel will introduce a conclusion presented by a liberal scholar or noted skeptic (such as Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, and a slew of others), give the gist of the conclusion (for instance, “Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah,”), and then proceed from there on a discussion with an evangelical scholar who proudly criticizes and attempts to demolish the conclusion. This demolition, naturally, includes a one-sided presentation of evidence very obviously fine-tuned to support the deconstruction.

What Strobel fails to do is provide both bodies of evidence in detail, thereby allowing the reader to determine the conclusion for him- or herself. Instead, Strobel presents only the conclusion of the scholar or skeptic (“Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah”), and intentionally leaves out the systematic gathering of evidence that was vital to the formation of the conclusion. Such an approach is analogous to putting a person on trial for murder, and then only allowing prosecution witnesses to testify. Strobel simply does not give his readers both sides of the story. To a traditionally-believing Christian, an assertion like “Jesus of Nazareth never claimed to be the Jewish Messiah” would be shocking and troubling, and it would be easy to convince them of the absurdity of such a statement by only producing evidence against it, rather than evidence both for and against. For a trained lawyer like Strobel (who, ironically enough, writes “The Case for Christ” against the metaphor of a court trial), this is unacceptable. Despite his altruistic claims to the contrary, it would seem clear that his motivations go beyond simple unbiased investigations.

In light of this, what do we see when we approach so-called “liberal” scholarship? Do these scholars bring biases and agendas to the table?

No reputable biblical scholar would ever claim to have absolute answers on anything relating to the Bible (which automatically puts them at odds with Bible literalists – like Strobel – who claim the Bible is historically factual and inerrant). The job of the biblical scholar, then, is to set aside personal belief, gather the available evidence, analyze the available texts, and make reasoned conclusions based on that investigation and study. This is the classic Socratic principle of “following the evidence wherever it leads,” even if it forces you to rethink your own beliefs and preconceived notions.

This method is exactly the method employed by the “liberal” scholars Strobel loves to denigrate in his books. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, James M. Robinson, Elaine Pagels, and Burton L. Mack (to name only a few out of thousands) have consistently put forth arguments in their books and scholarly papers that fall in line with the principle of following the evidence where it leads. Putting their own personal beliefs aside, they simply gather the evidence and draw reasoned conclusions. Any scholar of any subject who did not approach scholarship this way could not be considered a reputable scholar.

Having said this, what evidence can be found to illustrate these scholars’ willingness to lay aside agendas, preconceptions, and personal beliefs?

One way would be to study all the writings of these scholars for one’s self. That takes time. But on a more compact level, we can simply review the religious testimonies of many biblical scholars. In the world of biblical scholarship, are you more likely to find atheists, agnostics, and liberal Christians, or are you more likely to find evangelical and traditionally-believing Christians? Even traditionalists like Strobel can agree that most biblical scholars fall into the first camp (which is why he writes books to deconstruct their conclusions). Bring up the issue of biblical scholarship to an evangelical, and you will likely get heaped with scorn and/or pity and be reminded that Christianity is about faith, not science or the scientific method. This is illustrated most succinctly in the famous warning by St. Augustine in his “Confessions,” wherein he cautions Christians not to think too much about their faith and not to delve too deeply into history and scholarship. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestant theology, also gave dire warnings against intellectual theological pursuits, warning that "Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has," and suggesting that "Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason." For St. Augustine, Martin Luther, and most every other Church father, reason and intellectualism were certain paths toward heresy. Why are they certain paths toward heresy? Because following the argument where it leads in regards to Christian theology is a sure-fire way to legitimize doubts, uncertainties, and suspicions regarding traditional Church doctrines.

But the religious leanings of most scholars, alone, do not tell us much about whether these scholars are intellectually honest. Maybe they started out as skeptics. Instead, to see the whole picture, we must also look at where most of these scholars began.

In fact, most people who choose to enter religious scholarship do so because they are already Christian believers. To name just a few, Bart Ehrman, Elaine Pagels, Marcus Borg, Robert M. Price, and John Shelby Spong all began their scholarly careers as traditionally-believing Christians. Yet for each of these scholars, and countless others, their willingness to engage in unbiased research, and to follow the argument wherever it led, ultimately conducted them away from traditional beliefs. Ehrman now calls himself an agnostic; Pagels, Borg, and Spong are all strong voices for progressive (that is, non-traditional) Christianity; and Price, despite having a doctorate in theology and being an ordained Baptist minister, has since renounced religion all together and is now an atheist. The personal spiritual paths of these named scholars mirror that of many hundreds of others in the field.

On the opposite side, how often does someone enter the field of biblical scholarship out of purely academic interests? How many scholars start off as atheists, agnostics, or progressive Christians? There are a few out there, but I do not personally know of any scholar, past or present, who began their scholarly career as an atheist or skeptic, and then converted to traditional Christian beliefs based on their scholarly work. Such a scholar may exist, but I am not familiar with him or her. In fact, the only traditionally-believing biblical scholars that I am familiar with began their careers as traditional believers, theologians, and evangelicals.

It is a simple fact that most biblical scholars start as traditional believers, and then their scholarship leads them to non-traditional forms of Christianity, agnosticism, or even atheism.

When the evidence is viewed this way, it casts a long cloud of suspicion and doubt on those biblical scholars whose scholarship serves simply to confirm their beliefs, rather than to send them on a divergent path. It would be hard for a scholar to convince anyone that they began their scholarly career as a traditional believer, spent their career gathering and analyzing evidence, and in the end determined that the evidence showed they had been right all along. Yet this is, in fact, precisely what Lee Strobel does in his various books. He begins from a position of traditional beliefs, puts together only that evidence which supports his beliefs, and then concludes that all the evidence reinforces what the Church has been teaching all along. In the academic world, this is known as pseudo-scholarship, and Strobel is one of the modern kings.

Of course, it is certainly possible to draw a conclusion about something based on a gut feeling, and then later investigate its reliability and determine that your feeling was correct. For instance, someone may conclude that Japanese cars are better than American cars, based on gut feelings about the Japanese work ethic. After developing this “gut feeling,” this person may then actually look at the evidence and determine that, in fact, Japanese cars are more reliable than American cars. But car reliability – or any other simple analogy one might think of – is a far cry from the vast field of religious persuasion and revelation. It seems unlikely that a truly intellectually honest look at Christian history and biblical scholarship would only serve to reinforce traditional doctrine, dogma, and theology. Again, if that were the case, why do so many evangelicals, and why do Church figures such as St. Augustine and Martin Luther, warn so stringently against it? It would seem that they, in fact, agree: intellectually honest scholarship negatively impacts traditional faith.

In the end, Lee Strobel’s method of operation betrays his biased agenda. He uses hyperbole to diminish the accomplishments of his enemies and to paint them erroneously as fringe mavericks whose work cannot be trusted; he gathers only the evidence that supports his predetermined beliefs; and he intentionally fails to present the evidence of the skeptics and “liberals,” presumably out of fear that it might weaken his position. Furthermore, he accuses his enemies of agenda and bias, despite the fact that the vast body of evidence seems to point to the exact opposite conclusion regarding mainstream biblical scholars. The very fact that most biblical scholars start as traditional believers, and end up as skeptics and liberals, indicates that they are, in fact, approaching the field without bias or agenda. It would seem, then, that Strobel is guilty of the very “sin” he accuses his enemies of committing – blatant intellectual dishonesty.

I think Shakespeare said it best in “Hamlet”: Methinks thou dost protest too much, Mr. Strobel.

10 comments:

Laura said...

This really captures traditional believers, and conservatives for that matter for me: "Strobel also throws the word “liberal” around like a smelly fish." Liberal comes from the Latin, līberālis of freedom, befitting the free, equiv. to līber free. How did it becomes such a stinky word? Any free-thinker is discouraged, especially in religion, and what fascinates me is how you've managed to maintain freedom of thought and bias (for the most part, after all, who is 100% unbiased?)while walking the razor's edge of salvaging what good there is left in religion and addressing doubt. Thanks for another thought-provoking post.

Scott said...

Thanks for your kind words, Laura. It's funny you should comment on the bias thing, because I set out specifically in this essay to write calmly and with as little bias as possible. I actually asked my English teacher (for whose class this essay was written) to evaluate how well I had maintained a non-aggressive, neutral tone. I think I definitely failed in a few spots, but overall, I was pleased with how the tone turned out.

What you said is definitely correct about the core of my writings on religion -- I attempt to salvage what is good in religion and use that to reform religion, while refusing to back down from doubts and legitimate theological conundrums.

Laura said...

Scott,

One thing I've learned about professors is that I could be the second coming of Hemingway in one class, and a rote hack in another. I think your writing is excellent, and you do a terrific job of balancing some difficult concepts. By the way, at your suggestion I've been reading Dawkins' The God Delusion. Talk about balancing...his tone can be very condescending and dismissive, but the writing is easy to follow. Thanks for the recommendation.

Laura

Scott said...

Yeah, I'm about halfway done with the God Delusion now. I think his science is very, very sound, and he makes some really good points. However, a lot of his arguments for why this means that religion should be destroyed do not resonate with me. He seems to be unable to separate fundamentalism and unexamined superstition with religion as a whole. He attempts, in at least one spot, to deny this, but I think his method of operation implies something else.

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Just stumbled upon this post after reading "Case for Christ." As a liberal Christian, I see where you're coming from. To me, the "conservative" demonization of the word "liberal" is just another tactic in an omnipresent "us vs. them" mentality. Like Laura, I'd love to bring the word back to its original meaning in the vernacular.

At the same time, I can't help but sympathize with Strobel's journey. He seems to be the closest thing to a scholar who converted to traditional Christian beliefs after doing his research. He's not a scholar — I grant you that — but he did his research, seemed to make an informed choice, and that informed him to Christianity. No?

Scott said...

Thanks for the comment, Anon. Yes, according to Strobel's account, he was an atheist who investigated the evidence and ended up converting to Christianity.

I can't help but be a bit skeptical of that simplified version though. His writing is so apologetic and at times even polemical that it is hard for me to imagine that his conversion to Christianity was solely and simply based on an investigation of the evidence. What emotional needs/desires may have informed his decision and what sort of evangelism did he receive? Furthermore, what was the content of the scholarship he studied that led him to Christianity? Prior to conversion, did he study both evangelical and mainstream scholars, or only evangelical scholars?

Of course, that is true for anyone, and in general it is only fair to assume that he is telling the truth in terms of how he can to be saved.

Laura said...

That's a great observation, Scott. What emotional and/or psychological needs are served by adhering to or converting to religion with it's reassurances about the afterlife and it's seemingly black/white view of the world? From a purely intellectual perspective, I doubt he could've arrived at the conclusions he did.

Scott said...

I agree, Laura.

Anonymous said...

Interesting....
Like Laura, I found your unbiased blog to be quite biased. When I find writers who are forced to debate for the side they disagree with... well, then you get some interesting, and sometimes insightful literature. Topics like freedom to choose and government's role in our lives, easily expose a person's natural biases. I haven't read an article in some journal paper that has not easily shown where that writer stands. What I've seen is the inability to truly state the strong arguments for the side they disagree with. Whether it is Strobel who is selling books or converting people to Christianity, or Erhman who is selling books and converting people to non-Christianity, you sense their biases. Becoming discerning is difficult. Pride on both sides gets in the way of doing good work. I would put Ehrman and Strobel in a camp of Prideful writers... unfortunately that doesn't help any of us very much.

Scott said...

I get your point, Anonymous...you're essentially saying everyone is biased. I agree. We'd be robots if we weren't biased.

I always liked what John Dominic Crossan said about this in his book The Birth of Christianity. He was talking specifically about religious scholars, but it's true of any field, really. He basically notes that it is impossible to be "unbiased," but it IS possible to bring as little bias as reasonably possible to the table. It IS possible to address all sides of an argument fairly.

He equates the work of the biblical historian to a person looking into a deep well. They will always see their reflection shining back at them, but if they are discerning, they can see beneath the water too, even though the image of their own face won't ever disappear completely.

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