Bart Ehrman is a classic example of a scholar who has the ability to present sensational ideas in a very readable format and, consequently, make them highly accessible and acceptable to a broad audience. In his Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, he convinced many that the biblical texts were hopelessly corrupted through ecclesiastical power plays and political manipulation. In Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew he ‘demonstrated’ that early Christianity comprised a hodgepodge of diverse and hopelessly conflicting religious traditions, most of which were eventually quashed when the ‘proto-orthodox’ began their rise to power and dominance. Neither of these arguments, of course, is new. Both have a long pedigree in the history of anti-Christian writings. Ehrman’s distinction comes from his ability to articulate these idea in fresh ways that attract much attention (and financial success).
Apparently he has continued his approach with his most recent book. God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. In this book, Ehrman sets out to establish that the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil is fundamentally unsatisfying. Though I haven’t read it yet, Will Willimon has written a rather scathing review. Willimon’s basic points are: (1) Ehrman does not offer anything new; (2) his anthropocentric focus on our suffering as the fundamental question is misplaced; and (3) his reductionistic approach and lack of imagination leaves him unable to re-conceptualize ‘power’ and ‘love’ in truly biblical ways. If Willimon’s assessment is accurate, Ehrman’s recirculation of old ideas with a reductionist bent is again on full display. Here are a couple of the more interesting quotes from Willimon’s review.
Ehrman proves the dictum that old fundamentalists never die; they just exchange fundamentals and continue in their unimaginative, closed-minded rigidity and simplicity. It’s just too confusing to imagine that God’s alleged omnipotence might be something other than what we think of as omnipotence or that God’s love might be other than what we conceive of as love.
Without much argument, he assumes that suffering is the whole point of the Bible. It seems not to occur to him that one reason not every part of the Bible is preoccupied with suffering and the few biblical discussions about suffering are unsatisfying is that unlike us, biblical people may have had more to think about than themselves. Perhaps they were unconvinced that the question of suffering is the only question worth asking.
I know that Ehrman wants to present a readable, popular argument, but the total effect of his reductionism is likely to be that readers will come away wondering how on earth these Jews could have been so dumb as actually to live and die for so inadequate a philosophy of suffering.
And Willimon’s conclusion is equally biting:
Readers will naturally expect Ehrman to offer his own constructive answer to humanity’s most important question, but they will be sorely disappointed. Ehrman’s answer is the one that we modern, educated, affluent North Americans love, now that there’s no God but us: “to work to alleviate suffering wherever possible and to live life as well as we can.” I find it amazing that after the bloodiest century on record there is someone still arguing that humanity just might be able to get organized and straighten out what God almighty has messed up. This book seems an awful lot of fuss to reach so banal a destination.
Although I tend to shy away from such strong language and prefer a more collegial tone when engaging another person’s work, given the popularity and influence that Ehrman’s other books have enjoyed, along with their own one-sidedness and casual dismissal of contrary perspectives, Willimon’s strong response might well be justified.