Who’s afraid of Deutero-Isaiah?

Growing up in evangelical America, the evils of high textual criticism of scripture were frequently referred to and dismissed in the course of bible study. The kinds of “insights” (in scare quotes) that these (probably faithless) scholars came up with nearly always served to undermine to gospel – sometimes directly by calling into question some key component of redemptive history, but often by threatening it slowly through eroding traditional confidence in the text. It was usually suspected that these high textual critics were, at worst, doing this kind of sabotage quite on purpose because they hated God. At best, they were Godly men and women who were misguided and stifled from hanging out in the academy for two long.

The prime example of textual criticism gone to seed was the work of the Jesus Seminar from the early 1990s. Their conclusion that Jesus didn’t say nearly anything attributed to him in the Gospels was truly eye-roll inducing. But does that mean every last nuts-and-bolts technique the scholars used at coming to this ridiculous conclusion was total garbage? That’s a much larger and more complicated question, but one it seems few are willing to put much effort into answering.

Later in my adult life when I encountered well-read and highly intellectual evangelicals, usually of the Reformed variety, this kind of allergy to archeological or linguistic insights into scripture persisted. Simply the idea that such-and-such a passage may have been added by an editor and not the stated author is still something to be scorned and dismissed as clearly anti-biblical and by extension, anti-Christ.

“If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”
– 1 Cor. 15:17

Paul is emphatic that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then all our faith is worthless.

BUT, what if, when the present world is all over and all mysteries are revealed, it turns out that Isaiah chapters 40-55 actually WERE written by a different prophet than the guy that wrote chapters 1-39? Is our faith worthless then? I don’t think so. What if the prologue and epilogue of Job were added later? Does that HAVE to mean they are uninspired by the Holy Spirit and clearly full of lies? I’m always hearing “no, but…” followed by some kind of flimsy slippery slope argument. Better to just not talk about that stuff. One minute you might think Paul didn’t write Hebrews and before you know it, your sleeping with copies of the The Golden Bough and the Nag Hammadi and thinking about voting for democrats.

This kind of persistent fear is obnoxious and undermines our faith rather than strengthens it. We can trust Jesus and God’s gift of scripture without resorting to this kind of dishonesty toward any kind of technique that might have been tainted by the enemy at one time or another. Those things can be redeemed too, and should be.

* Post-script disclaimer: I realize I’m conflating higher and lower textual criticism, but fearful resistance to it often conflates the two as well. Also, it is not my intention to advocate for textual criticism as a deep well of untapped insight that we should all be enthusiastic about. Though I think its utility is limited, censorship is a foolish response.

Believing what the community believes (in Africa)

Back when I last visited Ethiopia, I asked one of the priests I met with if he had any books to recommend to understand African culture and thought better. He said that even though it was kind of old, Mbiti’s African Regions and Philosophy was probably still the best serious place to start. I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it this year.

I didn’t make a lot of notes as I went, so I’m only going to post this quote emphasizing how hypo-individualist (is that a word?) traditional African culture is, across virtually the entire southern part of the continent. It’s the opposite of America. Even in relatively modern African cities, this doesn’t pass away easily from the minds of the people. “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” is still largely the rule.

[Africans] have no creeds to recite: their creeds are within them, in their blood and in their hearts. Their beliefs about God are expressed through concrete concepts, attitudes, and acts of worship [prayers, songs, offerings]. The individual believes what others in his community believe: it is a corporate ‘Faith’. And this faith is utilitarian, not purely spiritual, it is practical and not mystical. The people respond to God in and because of particular circumstances, especially in times of need. Then they seek to obtain what He gives, be that material or spiritual; they do not search for Him as the final reward or satisfaction of the human soul or spirit. Augustine’s description of man’s soul being restless until it finds its rest in God, is something unknown in African traditional religious life. – John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, p.67