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At the close of this debate, my impressions of Mr. Holding are as follows. He is obviously intelligent and well-read on the subject of New Testament history, and he is an adept writer with a clear conversational style and a talent for metaphor. I even found myself laughing at some of his wittier and more colorful figures of speech.
Nevertheless, I obviously continue to disagree with him, and if I had to identify a single flaw of his that was primarily responsible for this, it would be this: his persistent and arrogant refusal to ever admit defeat. I concur with Earl Doherty when he characterized this argument style as "aggressively apologetic." Mr. Holding's position is one that will concede no ground and countenance no loss, no matter the evidence or logic arrayed against him, no matter how soundly he is trounced, no matter how hopeless his case is. In such circumstances he will clutch at any argument, no matter how strained, and present it with a belligerence usually inversely proportional to its strength.
Closely related to this is a marked lack on Mr. Holding's part of the humility so often said to be the defining characteristic of a Christian. He may be educated, but he is anything but humble. His repeated use of ad hominem attacks, his sneering demeanor, his contemptuous and dismissive tone, his scorn and derision of anyone who differs from him - such patterns of expression permeate his site, and are often deployed, as above, to intimidate opponents and so camouflage arguments that are patently weak, faulty, or irrelevant. Mr. Holding would do well to learn a principle that I, as a veteran of many atheism/theism and creationism/evolution debates, have witnessed in action repeatedly: hostility and invective never convince anyone, but rather, only cause them to cling harder to their own position and defend it all the more fervently. Only through gentleness, civility and understanding can one who believes differently be induced to change their mind - only when they no longer see the opposing position as a threat can they come to accept it.
(I acknowledge that I myself may occasionally become frustrated or annoyed and fall into these same tactics; indeed, I did so deliberately throughout this article, having decided Mr. Holding was overdue for a taste of his own medicine. I do try to avoid such things where possible, but I never claimed to be anything but human. Perhaps I am leaving myself open for a charge of hypocrisy, but I would ask what the point is of Mr. Holding's religion, if it cannot even make him a better man than I, the evil, godless atheist.)
In regards to more substantive material, it is my impression that Mr. Holding essentially has only one argument, only one defense to skeptical attacks and charges of contradiction. This defense recurs throughout his site, phrased in a variety of different ways and appearing in a number of different guises, but it always boils down to the same thing. This defense, as I have pointed out before, is essentially, "The Bible doesn't mean what it says."
Naturally, though, Mr. Holding is never this blatant about saying so, and he has devised a wide variety of ways to say it so as not to appear that he is repeating himself. He might say that the Bible can't be "read like a newspaper". He might say that statements in it are "paradoxical" or "in tension", but they are never contradictory. It's not true that God doesn't know everything, but nevertheless there are some verses where he "feigns ignorance" and acts as if he doesn't. It's not true that two gospels depict the same event as having happened at different times - that's just an example of "dischronologized narrative". If a blanket statement contradicts some other verses, that statement is "proverbial literature" and thus non-absolute; or else there were exceptions "implicit in the social context". Or else that statement is a "strong, colorful expression", an "outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique", or an "exaggeration for emphasis", the product of a mindset that was "given to expressing itself in hyperbole and extremes". If an entire book contains many such blanket statements, it is a symbolic "discourse of a man who lives without knowledge of God" and we're supposed to realize that nothing in it can be taken literally. If a statement contradicts other statements by saying "don't do X," it's a "negation idiom", and what it means is "do do X". And if all else fails, Mr. Holding simply declares the contradiction "intentional", which "puts [it] beyond the measure of 'contradiction' and into the semantic realm of artistic license." After all, a Van Gogh painting can hardly be construed as "contradicting" a Picasso.
(I hear some major corporations have been using similar tactics in court lately - arguing that the blatant errors and discrepancies in their books were "intentional", which puts them beyond simple-minded measures of "legality" and into the semantic realm of artistic license. If only the investors had done their homework and learned to view reality through the eyes and mindset of a modern executive, they wouldn't have foolishly assumed these balance statements were intended to be true in all places and at all times!)
My comments above about Mr. Holding's straining for any explanation rather than admit the errancy of the Bible apply with force here. In his bid to defend this book, which he believes to be the true Word of God, he has indeed actually declared some of the contradictions in it "artistic license". While the ludicrousness of the lengths he will go to may provoke laughter, the fact remains that he is deadly serious, and can offer such incredibly forced arguments without irony. This is, of course, another symptom of fundamentalist religious indoctrination, that memetic virus which has locked itself around the minds of Mr. Holding and those like him, preventing them from viewing the world through any lens but their own rigid preconceptions, and removing their ability to ever admit error or uncertainty in any matter of theological significance. (A clear case of Morton's Demon in action.)
Of course, I know what Mr. Holding would say in response to this. No doubt he would again charge me with failing to understand the Bible - arguing that it was originally written in different languages to reflect the different needs and cultural mores of the time, that not just anyone can sit down, crack it open and understand everything it says, and that the skeptics who try to do this and from there derive contradiction are naively imposing their ignorant, ethnocentric expectations on a text far more subtle and complicated than anything they could comprehend. In the past, he has directly accused me of failing to "do my homework" and stated quite bluntly that I am not qualified to comment on the Bible.
However, what Mr. Holding does not seem to realize is that, through his claims about the detailed study required to understand Christianity, he is accomplishing nothing except depriving his own faith of the universality that has always been claimed to be one of its biggest points of appeal.
Is he saying that only his level of knowledge is sufficient to truly understand Christianity? If so, then I will have to excuse myself and regretfully announce that I will never be a Christian, since I have no intention of devoting myself to a course of study in millennia-old languages and literary forms. I do have other things I want to do with my life. Or am I supposed to believe in Christianity without understanding it? Ironically, even if Mr. Holding is right about everything he's said, then all he's succeeded in doing is moving the Word of God further out of my reach.
In reality, one is hard-pressed to imagine what possible reason God would have for making his word so obscure, if his desire was that everyone would be saved. Mr. Holding's position is like that of a Muslim apologist who says that no one is qualified to understand or comment on Islam and the Qur'an unless they are fluent in Arabic. Or, for that matter, like a Scientologist who says no one has any right to criticize his church unless that person has first paid it tens of thousands of dollars to learn its teachings. If Mr. Holding actually holds to his own standard, he would have to admit that he has no right to pass judgment on the validity of either of those religions. (He might say he knows enough about Christianity to know that it's true and that all other religions are false, but couldn't the Muslim or the Scientologist make the same claim about his own beliefs?)
I think Mr. Holding is trying to create a false dilemma when he insists the Bible has to be comprehensible either to modern people such as me or to ancient people who were alive at the time of its writing. Could his omnipotent God not create a message that was universally understandable? Even if differing cultural norms made this logically impossible, why couldn't God have just sent some more recent prophets to guide the production of an authorized updated version, or better yet, why couldn't he personally oversee modern-day translations to make sure they conveyed exactly the message he wanted to get across? (This is, in fact, the position of what I suspect is the majority of conservative Christians, those whom Mr. Holding disparagingly calls "KJV-Onlyists" and frequently denigrates.)
I don't think this is a selfish or unreasonable expectation on my part. I'm merely saying that, if God wants his message of salvation to be heeded by all generations, he should make sure his message of salvation can be understood by all generations, and he should not unfairly require one generation to go through detailed study and education to be able to understand it while another can access it with relative ease. Is Mr. Holding disputing this statement? Does he claim that making his Word comprehensible is not God's highest priority?
The KJV-Onlyist position does have a few points in its favor, despite its deficiency in most areas. At least they claim that anyone can understand the Bible with little or no special training, whereas if Mr. Holding is correct, I shudder to think of the vast numbers unknowingly marching towards damnation because God's Word has been placed far beyond their intellectual grasp. Mr. Holding's constantly castigating skeptics for failing to understand the Bible just further goes to show how many souls are slipping away because, according to him, God has made his message to mankind confusing, obscure and inaccessible to most. And judging by the time Mr. Holding spends correcting his fellow believers - which is far less than the time he spends tearing into skeptics, but no matter - even most Christians can't understand the Bible. (Since the population is far larger today than it was when the Bible was written, if only one generation would get to understand it in their native lingo, shouldn't it have been us? More souls would have been saved that way...)
As far as I can see, Mr. Holding's place on the Christian spectrum has put him on the horns of a unique dilemma. He's liberal enough to claim that the Bible is the product of its time and place of origin, that it reflects the culture of the societies that produced it, and that modern lay readers probably won't be able to understand it for that reason. But he's conservative enough to argue that the Bible really is the only way to salvation and that those who reject it because they don't understand it will be lost. Needless to say, this is a very awkward position for him to occupy. If he were a bit more conservative, he might say that the Bible is universally accessible, that anyone who reads it can understand it and so those who reject it have no excuse. Alternatively, if he were a bit more liberal, he could say that the Bible isn't the only way to salvation and that those who reject it may still come to find God through other paths. Either of these options would give him a much more internally consistent theology; but he will have neither of them, and so he is trapped, balancing where he is.
Now, there is one way out of this I have not yet addressed: Mr. Holding could say that the Bible may be obscure and local to a specific culture in its incidentals, but that the core of its message - its most fundamental doctrines - are simple enough to be universally accessible. At first glance, this would seem to offer a way out of the dilemma.
However, in essays such as "Foundation of Sand", I have strived to show that the problem admits no such simple solution. My essay was devoted specifically to pointing out that the Bible is inconsistent on core doctrinal issues such as whether God desires or accepts human sacrifice, whether agnostics are for or against Jesus, whether we should obey God's laws only or human laws as well, whether we should let others see our good works, whether anyone has been or can be truly sinless. In addition, I have pointed out contradictions in historical incidentals which should lead us to conclude that the Bible is also untrustworthy in matters that cannot be as easily verified. Plainly, even if I am wrong about all of these - and Mr. Holding has not begun to show that I am - then we would still have to conclude that the Bible's culturally local and generally inaccessible nature is acting as a barrier to modern-day belief in it.
One more defense remains for Mr. Holding: to argue that the fault is not with the Bible, but with me; that my determination to read verses as literal and absolute even where the context clearly indicates otherwise is what is leading me into problems, and not any actual flaw in the text.
In response to this, let me be the first to say that I in no way think the Bible really does have to be taken "wooden-literalistically," as he has called it. In fact, I would go the other way, and argue that virtually the entire Bible - Old and New Testaments - is not and never was intended to be taken literally, but should instead be read as fictional allegory, myths written with a meaning and a purpose. For the Old Testament, that purpose was to unite the Jewish people in a common sense of national, racial and religious pride, by telling stories of a divine origin and a glorified past (as Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman assert in The Bible Unearthed). For the New Testament, that purpose was to instruct a community of believers in matters of morality and salvation, by syncretistically blending a tradition of a spiritual Redeemer Son of God with the ethical preaching of a diverse and sprawling wisdom movement through a process of midrash on scripture (as Earl Doherty capably argues in The Jesus Puzzle). Wooden-literalism? It is Mr. Holding, not I, who insists on taking the text literally even when there are clear indications otherwise. I am merely pointing out that if I were a Christian, if I believed the Bible was the Word of God and necessary for my salvation, I would be compelled to view it this way; but since such an interpretation inevitably leads to severe self-contradiction and inconsistency, I must discard it as a possibility.
Puzzlingly, though Mr. Holding does believe the Bible is the Word of God, he seems to have few qualms about reinterpreting it at leisure to suit his own desires and beliefs. The concept of "negation idiom" he introduced is one of the best examples of this. It is hard to see what would prevent Mr. Holding from using this concept and others like it to grant himself an exception to any biblical rule he found inconvenient. "Thou shalt not commit adultery"? Oh, that's just a hyperbolic negation idiom! What God really meant is that a little adultery is okay. "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Proverbial literature, obviously; not meant to apply to all times and places. "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast"? The Semitic mind was naturally given to expressing itself in extremes like that! It's just an outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique. Only a stupid and ignorant skeptic would think Jesus really meant for us to sell all our possessions. What Jesus plainly meant was that an occasional small donation to charity is more than enough. "Treat others as you would like to be treated"? Don't be ridiculous! The Bible can't be read like a newspaper. There were plenty of exceptions that were implicit in the social context of the time. Only those moron skeptics would conclude that this rule was actually meant to be universal.
And yet, though Mr. Holding obviously does not do this, what he has done is draw a line in the sand and firmly declare that we can go no farther; he claims to know exactly how literal, and how metaphorical, the Bible is supposed to be. He flat-out rejects the allegorical interpretations of the two Testaments I offered above, but absolutely insists on allegorical interpretations of many verses that others, even other Christian scholars, have argued can and must be taken literally. I do not see how he knows where to draw this line, nor can I conclude that his decision in this respect is anything but arbitrary, tailored by him to suit his own prejudices. Though I hold no hope of convincing him of anything, where possible I have attempted to target my responses to his like-minded believers, pointing out that his rules for interpretation offer no consistency, and that as soon as one sets foot on the slippery slope he has created, there is nowhere to end up but my interpretation.
In closing, I will repeat a challenge I have offered to Mr. Holding twice before. On both occasions he chose to dodge, rather than answer, the thrust of the question - an evasion which I think speaks volumes about his intellectual honesty and willingness to consider alternative viewpoints.
What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?
What I mean by this specifically is: Mr. Holding, what would it take for you to admit that the Bible contained errors? What would it have to say to be discrepant? Can you give an example of a contradiction that you would accept as impossible to harmonize, and that you would agree casts doubt on the Bible's overall reliability and trustworthiness? All your erudition appears to have provided you with no end of creative ways to explain contradictions away. Is there any even hypothetical contradiction that could not be resolved by any of these techniques?
In my experience, asking this question is the way to tell the difference between an open and a closed mind. Closed-minded theists, such as I believe Mr. Holding is, may present very persuasive-sounding arguments elsewhere, and they may appear compelling and in command of the facts, but present them with a question like this and they will not - cannot - answer it. They will bob and weave, they will evade and segue into irrelevancies, they will give long lists of reasons why the question is unimportant, they will attack the questioner for asking it, but they will not answer it. So far, Mr. Holding's behavior fits this pattern to a T.
The first time I asked him what would convince him he was wrong, he replied only with the non-answer, "More than you've provided." When I pointed this out, he composed an amusing second reply in which he claimed his answer was far more than that - but still refused to say what his answer actually was. Well, such evasive maneuvers will not help him. What's so hard about answering this question, Mr. Holding? What would you accept as a contradiction? We all await your next reply with bated breath.
In the meantime, I will continue to write and expand my site. Mr. Holding and those like him will doubtless provide comfort to those who want easy answers, but if there are any among his followers who possess a spirit of honesty and curiosity, if there are any such people who find their way to my site... if that happens, even once, then my entire purpose in writing this response to him will have been well served.
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