Them’s Fightin’ Words

Over at Pharyngula, an individual by the ‘nym of Rieux and I have been discussing the work of Hector Avalos, religious-studies professor at Iowa State University and author of six books, the most notorious of which are Fighting Words (2005) and The End of Biblical Studies (2007). The former treatise lays out a theory of religious violence, proposing that religious beliefs create scarce resources over which humans then fight. Avalos illustrates this thesis with examples from Christianity, Judaism and Islam; I’d like to see similar work done with Hinduism and other beliefs from beyond the Abrahamic clutch. The latter book expounds Avalos’ position that the modern field of Biblical studies — which encompasses textual criticism, “Biblical archeology” and more — is intellectually moribund. Its only outcome has been to undermine confidence in the very scriptures it tried to uphold, showing that holy writ was the product of a civilization whose practices would be anathema in modern society.

For Avalos, the only respectable mission for Biblical scholars like himself is to become physicians, working towards their own obsolescence.

Or, in less muggled terms, Avalos kedavros!

This is heady stuff, and we could argue about it until the raptors come home, hungry and looking for dinner, but hey, it’s the weekend! So, a few thoughts of littler consequence:

Rieux and I agree that Fighting Words was not copy-edited as closely as The End of Biblical Studies. At least in the printing I read, Fighting Words had more glitches (quotation marks, footnote placement, a few cloudy word choices, that kind of thing) which a thorough copy-editing would have fixed.

Rieux says,

FWIW, I thought Fighting Words was considerably better than End of Biblical Studies. So much of the latter book was devoted to heavily scholarly issues of biblical interpretation and theology; I found it a lot more abstruse than Fighting Words.

I’d say that a judgment call like that must take into account the audience. First, I’ll admit that the chapter of TEoBS on Biblical archeology was pretty heavy reading, but I found the rest fairly easy. Then again, I am a nut for some abstruse topics. Having argued on the Internet about stuff like the Comma Johanneum, I rather appreciated Avalos’ chapter on “Textual Criticism.” He quotes Alister McGrath — yes, that one — as saying, concerning the variations among the Greek New Testaments used in the KJV,

It must be made clear immediately that this does not call into question the general reliability of the King James Bible. The issue concerns minor textual variations. Not a single teaching of the Christian faith is affected by these variations, nor is any major historical aspect of the gospel narratives or early Christianity affected.

[In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture (2001), p. 242.]

To which I can only say, McGrath has never met King James Only advocates on the Internet. (Come to think of it, he’s also making the judgment call that snake handlers and faith healers do not belong to “the Christian faith”, since Mark 16:18 is not included in the oldest manuscripts.) And of 1 John 5:7-8 — that troublesome Comma! — the only explicit endorsement of Trinitarianism in the NT, Avalos writes the following.

Today, this verse is almost universally rejected, and most modern translation no longer have it. The NSRV says: “In fact there are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are in agreement.” Peter J. Thuesen, a historian of translations, has documented how often American ministers reviled these changes in the text. Thuesen quotes Homer Ritchie, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, as saying that the translators of the RSV “omitted the verse without so much as a footnote to acknowledge their crime.” If no doctrine is changed by such alternations, then it leaves unexplained why so many self-described fundamentalists are so outraged by its removal in modern versions.

It’s not as grandiose as the bloodshed over Jerusalem, but for me, it strikes closer to home (“home” being Alabama and the Internet, in chronological order).

After I noted this, Rieux commented as follows:

Fair ’nuff; I certainly liked the (several) instances in TEoBS in which Avalos lays bare the hypocrisy and special pleading of folks like McGrath. There was just an awful lot of thick scholarly stuff the reader has to get through in order to reach those moments. (Which is not to say that Avalos’ approach is poorly chosen; I suspect I’m just unaware of the academic counterarguments he’s heading off. It occurs to me that the tendency to cut out the abstruse stuff is exactly what makes fairyologists and Courtiers so infuriated about The God Delusion, so I guess it’s useful to have a critic who knows Bellini’s On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat all too well.)

For the Courtier Bellini and his treatise, see The Courtier’s Reply, or listen to it read by Richard Dawkins.

Sometimes, I find a book which covers an important topic in careful, scholarly fashion, a book which people should read but which is not too accessible to the novice reader, precisely because it was written by a scholar mostly for other scholars. Books like TEoBS and Meera Nanda’s Prophets Facing Backward (2003) are good “second books” to read on a subject, but I get the feeling the “first books” haven’t been written yet. (Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax might provide a “first book” for Nanda, judging by Sokal’s “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism” essay.)

And just in case people think I have nothing but cultish praise for Hector Avalos, let me say right now that he has a much higher opinion of Baudrillard than I do. I had to read Simulations and Simulacra back in college, and man, that was a waste of trees.

But there you go: I must be an unrepentant Sokalist.

One thought on “Them’s Fightin’ Words”

  1. TEOBS’s central premise reminds me of the old quip from the logical positivists that philosophy is the disease for which it ought to be cure. But, oddly enough, there is still no shortage of metaphysical scheming, from ruptured ceramics or otherwise. So I think Avalos’ case is overblown. The Bible will continue to be studied, whether every academic who does so purports to believe or not, and those of us who are ‘faithheads’ will still, at the end of the day, have to grapple with good scholarship that may not dovetail with our prior commitments.

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