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Reading the Bible in a Postmodern Context

posted by xscot mcknight

Saturday I was up in bitterly cold Minneapolis where I addressed a gathering of Covenant pastors and lay folks on reading the Bible in a postmodern context. This was the first time I’ve spoken about the stuff I’ve been writing for my book called The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible. I’ll not summarize everything, but I want to suggest there are some major shifts going on right now that are altering how many read the Bible and I hope my book can give us some grounding for rethinking how we do what we do.
First, I want to thank Jim Fretheim and the good folks of the Northwest Conference of the Evangelical Covenant Church for the invitation and for the willingness to let me think through some of these ideas with them.
I met a bundle of folks who regularly read and comment on this blog; this is becoming one of my highlights of speaking events. (I met the pastor who wrote me the “pesky Calvinists” letter.) And it was good to see Pastor Dave Clark of Faith Covenant Church who was the host pastor.
Second, I began with how I think the postmodern generation is reading the Bible more and more and here are my six reflections. They partly overlap; they are not comprehensive; but still, I’m seeing such things:
1. De-throning science as the sole Story.
2. En-throning a subjectivity as part of the real Story.
3. Embracing a local story as part of the real Story.
4. Epistemic humility about what one concludes from the Bible.
5. Acceptance of myth and fiction as capable of truth-telling.
6. Admission of cultural influence on all texts, even the Bible.
I focused on three words that are helping us all — postmodern or not — rethinking how we read the Bible: Story, Listening, and Discerning (I’m concerned about “picking and choosing” but I hope I can say some surprising things about this in the future).



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Scott M

posted January 21, 2008 at 12:43 am


If I understand what you mean, 4 seems like a no-brainer to me. And I’m confused why 5 is seen as “new”? Madeleine L’Engle said something about finding truth through fantasy that struck me at the time I heard it. In fact, the greater truths are only accessed through the imagination. And then only in part. Cultural influence is also obvious. I’m not sure what the “even the Bible” means. How can you understand it at all without developing some sense of the culture behind the words? I’m not entirely sure what the first three mean. Was science ever the sole story?



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mariam

posted January 21, 2008 at 2:34 am


I attend a church where 90% of the congregation are probably over 70, and yet, if the 6 things you list above are the way “postmoderns” read the bible, I believe most of those grandmas and grandpas are “postmodern”. I guess postmodernity is getting a bit long in the tooth.



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Ben Wheaton

posted January 21, 2008 at 6:35 am


Mariam-
Or maybe, “postmodern” Christianity is just old liberalism.



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JACK

posted January 21, 2008 at 6:59 am


I too am not sure why those items are “new” in any sense. Some of it reminds me of my old bible study in college. I participated at the time in a bible study run by the Assembly of God. I made the comment one day how verses and chapter numbers weren’t something the original authors put into the text and so maybe we should read scripture more in context than (what was common in that bible study) focus on single verses. It was like I had revealed to them the most important new discovery of the modern age. Of course, I had done nothing of the sort. I had just pointed out the obvious. But it was new to them. It had popped through a lifetimes of habits and unconscious assumptions of how to approach scripture that effected the way they read things.
So I suppose that we should be grateful whenever someone discovers as new (for them) what the rest of us see as just plain and obvious and as having always been there.



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Aaron Rose

posted January 21, 2008 at 7:01 am


G’day Scot,
I’m liking the sound of your new book thus far. Are you going to explicitly discuss inerrancy and its impact on a post-modern reading of the Bible?
Thanks heaps for your blog – always enjoy it.
Cheers!



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Scot McKnight

posted January 21, 2008 at 7:43 am


Ben,
The one thing postmodernity is not is old-fashioned liberalism. There are plenty of differences, but it wasn’t my intent to sketch it all but to highlight some themes that are influencing how some today are reading the Bible.



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 8:14 am


What? Science isn’t the whole story?



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Scot McKnight

posted January 21, 2008 at 8:17 am


RJS,
8)



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Ben Wheaton

posted January 21, 2008 at 8:35 am


Scot,
I stand corrected.



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 8:37 am


Ok – more seriously, I am looking forward to this book. This is a much needed discussion. And contrary to what Jack and miriam seem to imply – I have not yet been in a group of any sort where such issues don’t need to be addressed. Of course the top concerns vary from place to place. In much of liberalism – whether admitted or not science is an enthroned story, and Catholicism has had its own set of blinders.



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ChrisB

posted January 21, 2008 at 10:21 am


I’m not sure what you mean by #1.
#6 is a landmine we’ve been dealing with for a while (I don’t mean cultural influences on style or transmission so much as the “cultural” vs universal truths or principles). I hope we get better at it.
I look forward to the book.



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Mick

posted January 21, 2008 at 11:24 am


I look forward to hearing more on this and how we may help others “see their seeing”. Except for #6, I think most of these seem to correlate well with how the premoderns approached scripture which is why they feel both new and old. Systemically, you may be able to enter anywhere in this list and begin to engage differently with scripture. But listening humility is always our best posture before the Word.



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Julie

posted January 21, 2008 at 1:11 pm


Re: Science – subjectivity.
Would you mind commenting on this more? One of the tendencies I see sometimes in emergent evangelicals is that because science is “being dethroned” they are comfortable accepting the premodern cosmology by calling it myth or story… yet when we get near orthodox doctrines, the desire to call the resurrection or virgin birth “literally” true persists.
In other words, science may not be the only story, but what is the postmodern take you are suggesting for miracles (are they metaphorically valuable, are they to be understood as defying science, are they representations of a pre-scientific worldview)?
I’m not sure I understand what “dethroning means” in this context or what subjectivity means (can we all draw different conclusions – subjective conclusions – and still acknowledge one another as Christians?).



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Scot McKnight

posted January 21, 2008 at 1:46 pm


Julie,
Good question but probably impossible to answer in a comment box. A good summary is found in Proper Confidence. In essence, we know that science itself make assumptions and is not as neutral and objective as it sometimes claims. (I believe we do need to be cautious about this whole point, but something important here is being said about the inevitability and admissibility of some subjectivity in all of our epistemic claims.)
Having said that, a claim that Jesus’ body was raised can’t be just a subjective comment. To make a claim about real bodies and real tombs and real clothes means one’s claims can be challenged by the normal standards of what such a claim entails.
So, a Christian postmodern take is not a total acceptance of subjectivity but a chastened and humble epistemology or a critical realism.



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Anonymous

posted January 21, 2008 at 1:54 pm


Monday Mashup – January 21, 2008 | Subverting Mediocrity

[...] Scot McKnight: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern Context.? Read it. [...]



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 2:07 pm


Actually Sot, I don’t think that the nature of science as subjective, objective, or neutral need come into this discussion at all. And we would probably disagree within a discussion of this topic.
But science has nothing meaningful to say about the resurrection or the virgin birth or the other NT miracles. None of us claim that these are repeatable occurrences within the natural order. I also think that linking cosmology and incarnation is a red herring. Fundamentally we must first address the questions of observed naturalism vs. a broader world picture admitting of something beyond the observable, beyond that capable of experimental inference. We must second address the question of the most reasonable governing story for the existence and trajectory of the world. Science directly addresses neither of these. But scientific naturalism (ontological naturalism) assumes no meaning and no ordained direction or trajectory.



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 2:08 pm


That should be Scot of course. Most people add an extra t; I seem to suffer from vanishing c syndrome.



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JACK

posted January 21, 2008 at 2:11 pm


That’s a good response Scot. I think, for many of us, we here “subjectivity” as sometimes being “relativism”, and that scares some people and delights others.
The proper issue at hand is one of moral certainty. How does one develop certainty on moral things, which is clearly different than the certainty developed through the methods of science and the certainty of mathematical logic. And of course the difference between certainty that allows one to act and a tendency of us to give our certainties an armor against new evidence and reexamination that they don’t deserve at times.
What I appreciate about Scot’s post — if Scot forgives my reading into his comment — is the renewed emphasis on the “subject” part of subject-ivity. I have felt that we have too often made objectivity and subjectivity enemies. But when it comes to moral matters — human matters — one cannot remove the I from the equation. It is in this way that there’s more than just universal truths (which there of course are) but the contextualization of them in connection with my subject, my I. And that’s a far more complicated terrain. But we make a mistake if we, in deference to protecting capital T truth, we reject any talk of subjectivity as relativism, for we are divorcing the human component from the question. And we make a mistake if we, in deference to the subject, we deny any objectivity can be present in the experiential, reducing it to mere preference and opinion. I see that as a big challenge that Christians today are grappling with.



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Julie

posted January 21, 2008 at 5:22 pm


RJS, can you elaborate on what this means:
But science has nothing meaningful to say about the resurrection or the virgin birth or the other NT miracles. None of us claim that these are repeatable occurrences within the natural order. I also think that linking cosmology and incarnation is a red herring.
Are you meaning that these were empirically observable/experienced events by the first century persons, but that given distance and time we can’t now verify them using a scientific methodology?
Is it possible that the subjective descriptions of these events meant something different to the first century person than to a post-Enlightenment, scientifically formed person today?
In other words, what I find difficult when this kind of discussion gets going is that I still don’t really know what anyone means. Are we allowing for the possibility that virgin birth, miracles and resurrection are terms used to describe a story/life experienced in a more mythologically based era yet that (if it happened today) would be understood differently today?
Or are we saying that in spite of today’s understanding of science, these events were every bit as “real” as if they did happen today, but we just don’t have the means to examine them with the scientific tools and methodologies available to us now due to the passage of time and unrepeatable nature of the events?
And finally, how do you decide between these two?



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 8:57 pm


Julie,
I mean that given time and distance, historical method may have something to say about the events, but science cannot say anything except such events are astronomically improbable in the normal scheme. Since we all agree that they were not “normal” occurrences, science doesn’t actually add much to the mix. If we assume naturalism, science says they don???t happen, if God exists that changes the picture.
It is possible that the subjective descriptions of events meant something different to the first century person. This is a historical question and clearly a question for discussion. I also think that the miracles vary ??? some would likely be interpreted differently today, either as “natural” or as miraculous in a different sense, others I am not so sure. But the resurrection is either myth or miracle ??? I don’t think that it is likely that this was “misinterpreted”.
Of course, how we decide between “real events” and “mythological embellishment” or “misinterpretation” is the big question. Doesn’t this ultimately come to faith? I don’t think that there is an objective proof either for or against the Christian story. I do think that there are cogent arguments for Christianity.



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mariam

posted January 21, 2008 at 9:56 pm


#10 RJS
I wasn’t implying that this topic doesn’t need to be addressed and I am looking forward to Scot working through this. My point was only that there are churches out where these ideas are the comfortable norm (and perhaps I am looking forward to feeling on the inside rather than the outside). There is a tendency for the American evangelical churches to be very insular. Because conservative evangelicals often write off Catholics, Anglicans and liberal Methodists and Presbyterians (let alone Unitarians and Quakers) as not really Christian they don’t think anything they do in those churches is relevant. One thing that has impressed me here is a softer voice of evangelicalism that hasn’t circled the wagons and has been willing to look at the possibility of learning from other strains of Christian belief.
I think there is a tendency in the evangelical camp to fear these sorts of discussion because any sort of discussion of subjectivity in relation to scripture threatens the notion of inerrancy which seems to be a cornerstone of their theology. Subjectivity leads to liberalism which leads to heresy, moral decay and general anarchy (with ritual Satanic abuse thrown in for good measure). Similarly, in the “liberal” churches, anything sounding like a declaration of inerrancy is seen as leading to fundamentalism which leads to self-righteousness, exclusivism, witch hunts, fascism and suicide bombers. There is a softer approach that can be taken on both sides and I think Scot may just be able to tread that middle ground. The question is how do we read the Bible to discern that which is true (whatever truth means) and hold that dear and inviolate, while respecting others and leaving room for the possibility that we may be wrong.



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RJS

posted January 21, 2008 at 10:22 pm


mariam,
I agree whole heartedly on the need for a softer conversation – listening not merely asserting. Hearing what others are saying.
Getting to some of the rest of this discussion though – I think that we need to listen to the story told by scripture, discuss that story, and take or leave the story, not modify it to fit our whims. If God exists, miracles are possible – if miracles are impossible, God does not exist. The NT relates a miraculous intervention of God in history – and interpretation that denies miracle as a priori impossible denies God, remaking the story into a “safe” moralism.



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CA Dan

posted January 21, 2008 at 11:56 pm


Scot,
I think you’re spot in in your list of the characteristics of postmodern Bible readers. 2, 3 and 4 are the center of the game, especially when you think about the emergent reaction against the “pulpit-centric” nature of the contemporary mainline church–that is, the notion that somehow those of us not preaching are just spectators in God’s Story. That is a structural issue, not a question of whether the “new” emergent postmodernism is a form of the old liberalism. I think that missing this distinction will lead to a lot of emergents and emergings missing from our local congregations.



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Shane Trammel

posted January 22, 2008 at 12:10 am


I like what Ben Wheaton said

Or maybe, ???postmodern??? Christianity is just old liberalism.

I think Ben has correctly nailed the postmodern mind as basically liberal in many cases.
Shane



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Shane Trammel

posted January 22, 2008 at 12:15 am


If Ben is correct and Postmodern is really just liberalism remixed, you may find this article helpful.
J. Gresham Machen and the Problem of Christian Civilization in America



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sheryl

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:03 am


In a Biblical Theology class in seminary, the professor went around the table asking each student what the passage meant to her/him. Two-thirds of the students had completely different interpretations and ideas about the specific passage, all of which had nothing to do with the original historical-context or any context! Most began, “What this passage means to me . . .” That was a frightening moment. I think #2 is a serious issue in postmodernity and the lack of humility in coming to that conclusion (#4).
Scot, just a clarification in #6, are you saying allowing CURRENT cultural influences on all texts?
I am very much looking forward to this book. What’s the expected publishing date?



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Scot McKnight

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:07 am


Sheryl at #26,
Yes, but I also mean that culture shapes the biblical text as well. All texts are culturally-shaped products.



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Dave Wollan

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:19 am


Scot,
I’m a lutheran who snuck in with my covenant friend last Saturday. It was a great presentation and I am really looking forward to the book.
Us lutherans are really into the power of the word and put a lot of emphasis on the word as “living word.” I’m curious to know how that fits into your thesis of the Bible as God’s story. Is it a living story? A story that grabs hold of the listener and makes them a part of it…?
Thanks for letting the lutheran in!



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sheryl

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:30 am


thanks Scot. So then, the problem with #6, as I see it, is postmodernity NOT allowing the original historical-cultural context to define the text. What I often see as the starting point in the postmodern context (and in many pulpits) is one’s CURRENT cultural context to define the text, akin to reader-response or even folk religion, completely void of the H-C context. That presents a significant problem and is a slippery slope.



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sheryl

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:34 am


sorry, I don’t think I was clear in my last response (#29). I mean that good exegesis allows the original H-C to define the text. Then, we bring the text(s) into our culture and determine how to interpret it, i.e., descriptive/prescriptive and continuity/discontinuity issues. But the starting point is the original H-C context that frames the interpretation and we go from there.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:37 am


Dave,
Well, sure, I think it is a living story that lets us in — like the Dawn Treader! And it is also alive today.
sheryl,
Yes and yes — we have to know the context of the ancient text and we have to know the context of our own readings of that ancient text!



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Bob Brague

posted January 22, 2008 at 11:57 am


What?! Scot McKnight making a literary reference?!? And a fictional one at that. It is truly morning in America. :)



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RJS

posted January 22, 2008 at 12:01 pm


Scot,
You are not much for “slippery slope” arguments, I am not much for a “major change” watershed moment view of history (ok – I am not much for slippery slope arguments either). Theological thought is always changing and frequently repeating, like a meandering stream. What appears to be a major change when on the ground is part of a general pattern when viewed from the sky. But I have a couple of questions here.
Who do you consider the “postmodern generation”?
What do you mean by “epistemic humility” in #4?
How much of what you see in 1-6 do you consider a necessary corrective to past excesses or errors and how much do you see as introduction of new (or a renewal of alternative) excesses?



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Scot McKnight

posted January 22, 2008 at 12:14 pm


RJS,
I avoid setting dates on this one — it’s now for many and it has been now for many.
Epistemic humility is to recognize that all conclusions we draw are caught up in a linguistic and cultural web and therefore cannot be absolute truth. True but always capable of improvement.



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RJS

posted January 22, 2008 at 12:34 pm


So then, epistemic humility is simply a variation and extension of scientific method.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 22, 2008 at 1:05 pm


RJS,
I can think of no better example than Antony Flew, of all people. It is spirit as much as method. Some scientists draw far-reaching conclusions well beyond the evidence and the method. Others let the evidence say what it says and not say what it does not say. That’s epistemic humility.
Even better, when we recognize our predilection for our own views we become epistemically humble.



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RJS

posted January 22, 2008 at 1:55 pm


Exactly – and I was composing a follow-up before I saw your response – now somewhat revised in further dialog.
I realize I came off a bit flippant in #35 – but in this instance I didn’t mean to, I am serious. Good method requires a willingness to evolve, revise in the face of compelling evidence or argument, change paradigm if necessary. Our understanding is true but always capable of improvement – creative scientific investigation demands such an approach. In fact, if I understand your meaning, epistemic humility is required in all areas of creative scholarship. Drawing far-reaching conclusions is useful – as long as one realizes that they may or may not stand the test of time.
On the other hand – if epistemic humility engenders a position that there is no “truth” to be sought – I disagree. There is a difference between the admission that I (we) will never know absolute, unbiased truth and the statement that all is relative and subjective. There are some extreme scholars at the University who will hold that not only must we recognize our limitations – but we must recognize that because of limitations there is no universal truth.
Turning around and applying this to our theology and understanding of scripture – epistemic humility requires a realization that no one has or ever has had everything right. Our biases influence our definition of what scripture is and what it is intended to be.
If the Christian story is true there are some fundamental truths – (1) God exists – this means that the world and the universe is created not “natural”. (2) God acts within his creation and is capable of miraculous intervention in his creation. (3) God created humans in his image. (4) The NT and the OT relate an important part of the story of God’s action within his creation. (5) The NT relates a pivotal historical event in the history of the world. (6) This pivotal act includes a miraculous intervention of God within his creation to redeem mankind through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But the bias that scripture is intended as the rock of all faith and the ultimate source of all knowledge is not one of these fundamental truths. It isn’t even scriptural. Neither is the bias for propositional truth within scripture one of these fundamental truths.
Ah well I am still evolving in my thinking.



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Julie

posted January 22, 2008 at 3:13 pm


RJS: Getting to some of the rest of this discussion though – I think that we need to listen to the story told by scripture, discuss that story, and take or leave the story, not modify it to fit our whims. If God exists, miracles are possible – if miracles are impossible, God does not exist. The NT relates a miraculous intervention of God in history – and interpretation that denies miracle as a priori impossible denies God, remaking the story into a ???safe??? moralism.
I think it’s difficult to assert that there is “a” story that we all agree on is God’s by reading Scripture, as 2000+ years of various interpretations prove and millenia of human history and varieties of experience demonstrate.
I also found it startling that you reduced the choices about God to: If God, then miracles are possible, if no miracles possible, then no God.
Doesn’t this presuppose a type of God more than the possibility of divinity?
Lastly, the resurrection: myth or miracle…? Another option: interpretation based on first century cosmology that allows for a variety of conclusions about the spiritual world and how it interacts with the physical (possibly literal, bodily, possibly spiritual vision, possibly validation of a proximity between spiritual and physical worlds we don’t today accept/realize/understand/beieve…?)
Julie



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RJS

posted January 22, 2008 at 4:21 pm


Julie,
In making such a statement I am certainly presupposing a meaning for the word “God” connected with a type of being. You could even use my statement to define in part the meaning I attach to the word.
Although one can always find exceptions, I think that this definition falls within the bounds of Christian and Jewish thought that has been accepted almost “always, everywhere, by everyone.” So when, within the last several hundred years, different “Christian” definitions are proposed – it should be realized that this is a fundamental revolution. In particular, eliminating from consideration the possibility of “miracle” is a profound change.
In all of this I don’t mean to deny that there have been significant variations in the interpretations of scripture or in the telling of the Christian story. And I think that we need to consider local, cultural, historical influences on the Biblical texts, both on the writers who composed the texts and on the interpretations of the texts throughout the centuries.
With respect to resurrection – I think that the first thing we each need to do here is make an honest assessment of position. If we start with a view that from our 21st century perspective we know that resurrection is impossible, although the first century Christians from their first century world view may have been sincere in their belief and representation of the event, that will of necessity color our interpretation of the story. If we start with the view that resurrection is possible – we may come to the conclusion that the historical evidence doesn’t support the story, or we may come to the conclusion that the evidence does support the story.
Recently I read both Marcus Borg’s book “Jesus” (published 2006) and Crossan’s “The Birth of Christianity.” Crossan makes no bones about the fact that he eliminates “supernatural” from consideration at the outset. Borg isn’t quite so clear. NT Wright on the other hand makes it clear from the beginning that “supernatural” remains in the mix. (As an aside I also read Pagel’s “Adam, Eve, and the serpent” because you referred to it in one of your comments a while back.) Frankly I find Crossan the least convincing of the bunch.



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Julie

posted January 22, 2008 at 5:05 pm


Thanks RJS! I appreciate your fuller explanation of what you feel/believe/accept/reject. Cool that you read Pagels after I mentioned it.
I’ve read the authors you cited too (Wright, Crossan, Pagels, Borg). I’ll reserve my own thoughts for now since I was asking for your ideas, not looking to put mine forward. I get better where you are coming from vis a vis miracles/resurrection etc.
If we start with the view that resurrection is possible – we may come to the conclusion that the historical evidence doesn???t support the story, or we may come to the conclusion that the evidence does support the story.
I agree with this statement, actually. ;)
Julie



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RJS

posted January 22, 2008 at 5:51 pm


Thanks Julie.
By the way Scot – it is never “bitterly cold” in Minneapolis, merely pleasantly nippy. My biggest disappointment with current location is the mild winters.



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Bob Brague

posted January 22, 2008 at 10:33 pm


@RJS (#41): I hate to disagree with one of my favorite posters, but Minneapolis is so “pleasantly nippy” (your term) that the city fathers have constructed a huge, multi-block network of second-floor crosswalks between buildings and across streets just so the citizens won’t have to go out in the “nip.” :)



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RJS

posted January 23, 2008 at 8:12 am


Bob,
Not only that but – outside of the city – apartment buildings and motels without garages often have plugs available for engine block or dipstick heaters.
And in places streets are plowed on the lakes for access to fish houses.
But nothing matches the beauty of a walk on a bright sunny January day over the crunchy snow.



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Scot McKnight

posted January 23, 2008 at 8:14 am


RJS,
A walk on crunchy snow … exactly the comment Kris made to me two evenings ago — under the sky with light flaking. Loved it.



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Bob Brague

posted January 23, 2008 at 11:03 pm


A Minnesotan misleads half the country, and a Chicagoan backs her up. Me, I’d rather walk on the beach in the tropics. But that’s probably just me. (Sorry, off-topic.)



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Anonymous

posted January 29, 2008 at 9:49 am


McKnight on Reading the Bible in a Postmodern Context | Through a Glass Darkly

[...] Posted on January 29, 2008 Scott McKnight offers some helpful thoughts on reading the Bible in a postmodern context. He says: I think the postmodern generation is reading the Bible more and more and here are my six reflections. They partly overlap; they are not comprehensive; but still, I???m seeing such things: [...]



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