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Today’s post, as well as several posts to come, are excerpts from my new book, Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Sometimes I find it odd that certain scholars have so much trouble seeing how history and theology are intertwined, and how one with a theological agenda can, in fact, labor faithfully to pass on reliable history. This is hard for me to fathom because, frankly, I am motivated all the time by a theological passion that calls me to be a faithful historian.
My agenda leads me to tell stories because I believe stories communicate powerfully in today’s world. Most of my stories concern events that really happened, either in my own life or in the lives of people I know, though sometimes I use items that have appeared in the news or other sources. When I tell a true story, I make every effort to get the crucial facts right. This also reflects my “agenda,” because I believe that my congregation will trust me if I am a reliable historian. Moreover, my theology tells me that truth matters.
My commitment to telling the truth means that when I hear some wonderful story from a friend or from the Internet, I work hard to verify its truthfulness before I use it in a sermon. Sometimes the most heartrending stories turn out to be fictitious. A notable example is the tale of little Teddy Stallard (or Stoddard), the disadvantaged student who became a success because of the love of a teacher, Miss Thompson. This saga has been used in hundreds of sermons, sometimes by pastors who talk as if they know Teddy personally. But, alas, Teddy is a fictional character, made up in a short story by Elizabeth Ballard. See my blog entry on little Teddy.