Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bad Scholarship - The Root of Much Evil

Perhaps you've heard about a website called Conservapedia founded by Andrew Schlafly, son of conservative radio commentator Phyllis Schlafly. It proposes to be something along the lines (the wrong lines) of an encyclopedia for conservatives, particularly conservative Christians. It was in the news recently when the owner announced that he's also attempting to use the device to construct a new bible geared toward conservatives. He complains that most modern bibles have been liberalized to the point of being inaccurate (he seems to especially despise gender neutral words), or that they've been dumbed down to a grade school reading level (a criticism decidedly aimed at the NIV Bible).

I'm no theologian. Even at my finest I'm just a man who does the best he can with what little common sense God has seen fit to give him. I recently mentioned that I also believe God has given me a fair amount of discernment/intuition. In addition, my father once paid me a great compliment in saying that he thought I should have been a policeman or in some other way involved with justice because he thought I would have been "fair". Common sense, discernment, and fairness may seem the tiniest and humblest of gifts to you. To me prophecy, healing, and miracles pale by comparison. I will endeavor to illustrate to you why I feel this way.

I find it increasingly rare to come across individuals today who are, in my estimation, fair in their reasoning. People tend to be jaded by circumstances. There's an old saying that hard times will either make you or break you. They seem to break most, and one of the things that gets broken more often than not is our sense of fairness. A young man dates a French girl who treats him badly; suddenly all French people are now second class and to be distrusted. Perhaps you were once passed over for a job by a factory that makes a certain brand of watches, and the man they hired instead of you is your worst enemy, so now this is a lousy brand of watch. It may have been something as simple as someone cutting you off in traffic, and now you even loathe the type of car they were driving, and nothing will ever convince you that it's a well-made vehicle. Topping it off are all the cultural prejudices we're taught growing up from our parents, our teachers, our clergymen and so on--prejudices that aren't always beneficial and which may not even represent accurate details of the various situations. I had a friend across the street in the 3rd grade who I distinctly recall telling me that Catholics like him were supposed to hate Protestants like me after he found out I was one. Of course it was just childhood gibberish. He made a poor stab at saying something he had heard an adult say and probably didn't get it exactly right. At any rate, we both quickly forgot what we were talking about and went on playing. But who's to say this conception which was already beginning to bud in him wouldn't flower into something greater later in life without his even thinking about it? You might be surprised how many unjust prejudices we pick up in childhood without realizing it.

If there's one area in which I constantly see people acting in an unfair manner it's the political arena. This is especially troublesome in the USA specifically because we're primarily a 2-party system, and these two parties, more often than not, act like two warring mafia families. I don't find liberals in America so much as I find haters of conservatives. And conversely I find many more haters of liberals than people who are truly practicing conservatism. Mr. Schlafly of Conservapedia, I believe, falls into this latter camp. Most people probably couldn't even tell you what liberal or conservative mean. I'm going to quote someone who does, but you may be shocked to find out that the quote is from a very well-known Hollywood actor:

My reputation as a conservative is valid in a lot of ways," he says, "but what disturbs me is what people think conservatives are. What conservatism represents to me is civil libertarian thought. To me, it's as simple as this: We all agree we need to solve social problems. My leanings tend toward individualist solutions. I don't like to characterize anybody, but I think liberals tend to have collectivist solutions. The twentieth century has been a collectivist century. Most of our solutions to social problems--even the term social problems--are collectivist. We've had this global experiment, and we're starting to see the end of the chain letter. I say let's try new things. I can't guarantee you they'll all work. If thirty percent of them work, I'll be happy. It's just time to reassess things and say that maybe this idea of the common good has to be translated through the individual.

I've learned by hanging out in Hollywood, where I disagree politically with most people, that most people's hearts are in the right place, and the only thing we have to argue about is the way to solve the problems. So I don't like it if the conservative philosophy becomes an 'anti' philosophy, just sheer negative thought.

If that's conservatism, I don't want to be labeled a conservative. If I can be an advocate of individualist solutions to our society's problems that are affirmative solutions, that to me is what conservatism means.

Those were the words of Tom Selleck in an interview some fourteen years ago. It's heartening to hear someone talk politics with no animosity toward others who may own antithetical viewpoints. Mr. Schlafly could learn a lot from Mr. Selleck. A cursory glance at Conservapedia easily shows conservatism gone wrong. There is properly placed prejudice and improper. There is fair and just bias and unfair. Mr. Schlafly represents to me someone whose biases have clouded his judgment to appalling ends. But I really have no wish to talk any further about his political demeanor. It's there for all the world to see. What interests me is his Conservative Bible Project.

The term liberal often means something different among theologians than it does when speaking of politics, although in Mr. Schlafly's mind it appears the two often get intermingled. Bibles that purposely change words from their original gender specific expressions such as he to something like they are no doubt using liberal ideologies when doing so. We often use the word man alone when speaking of all humans, as in mankind. We've all come across feminists who dislike this broad terminology and would rather see a text read humankind. Most of us probably aren't concerned whether a writer uses one or the other in most instances. But what if a feminist placating bible translator decides it's more decorous to use vague terms when speaking about God's own gender and chooses to use it instead of he or him? Then things start sounding convoluted. They may also be inaccurate because, for all we know, God may have more manly traits about him than feminine ones. Schlafly dislikes this treatment of God. I don't blame him. But does he dislike it because it's an inaccurate translation of the original texts, or because of his aversion for liberals and feminists? A theologian, like a scientist, or a school teacher, has got to be fair-minded. If he allows for the faintest hint of prejudice in his work he will have tainted all of it. People will then be able to point out the blemished parts and easily form a bias against the whole. Mr. Schlafly has caused a bias against his own work before he has even gotten past the opening stages.

Schlafly hardly stops there. If modern bible translators show any progressive leanings in their theology (whether these leanings are come by honestly or not) they're to be rejected on the spot. This basically comes down to the fundamentalist (biblical inerrancy) verses non-fundamentalist camps. Schlafly will have no part of the latter.

More importantly though, I find his reasoning often void of any substance or precision. For instance, he gives several reasons why he believes modern translations such as the NIV are frequently incorrect. One example he cites is the following:

At Luke 16:8, the NIV describes an enigmatic parable in which the 'master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.' But is 'shrewdly', which has connotations of dishonesty, the best term here? Being dishonestly shrewd is not an admirable trait.

Go and read Luke 16, and I think you will quickly see the problem with Schlafly's argument. The parable never says that the rich master is himself a good man or any better than his servant. In fact, that the master "commended" the dishonest actions of his servant shows us a great deal about the master's own lack of morality. There's also the fact that Jesus is painting a picture of a man he calls a "rich master", and we all know how hard it is for the rich to enter Heaven according to Jesus. If he were going to tell a story about a good businessman and a dishonest servant, he probably wouldn't have prefaced it by indicating that the businessman was rich. What disturbs me even more, however, is the fact that Schlafly depicts the word shrewd as having something in common with dishonesty. It does not. Shrewd simply means wise. In every text of Luke I know of (and of course all are in Greek), the Greek word used is "pronimos" which does indeed mean shrewd, wise, astute etc. The word Schlafly suggests using is resourceful which isn't necessarily incorrect, but it's not as accurate as shrewd either. Resourceful denotes a certain kind of creativity at work. There used to be a TV show called MacGyver about a man who was very resourceful indeed. If you needed a way to listen in on satellite telephone conversations, Angus MacGyver could probably tear apart an old radio and use the parts, with the aid of his ever present Swiss army knife, to build a working cell phone interceptor in less than ten minutes. His exploits often reminded me of the Professor on Gilligan's Island who could build just about any modern convenience from two coconuts and a hairpin. If the rich man's servant in Luke showed any resourcefulness at all, it certainly wasn't much. But he could unquestionably be described as being shrewd.

Another disconcerting aspect to Schlafly's translation efforts has to do with the fact that he's using the King James as a source to start from. Actually, what he's trying to give us is not so much a translation of a new bible as it is a paraphrase of an old one. He suggests to his helpers that they use the KJV as a starting point and then look up words in a Strong's Concordance for further assistance when needed. Part of his reasoning for doing this is because the KJV is in public domain, so they can use it freely. There is a great problem with this approach however. The translators of the KJV used Hebrew texts exclusively when translating the Old Testament because they assumed that the Jews would have more accurate copies even though they are considerably later than the Greek Septuagint and Theodotion copies we have. This assumption turned out to be incorrect. If you ignore the older Greek copies you will never have as accurate a translation because there are some passages the later Hebrew copies simply got wrong. An example I've always used is that of King Saul's daughters. The KJV says the following:

II Samuel 6:23 Therefore Michal the daughter of Saul had no child unto the day of her death.

II Samuel 21:8 But the king took the two sons of Rizpah . . . and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul.

Obviously the two verses cannot both be right. If Michal can die barren and yet have five sons she would have one-up'd the virgin Mary considerably. Why does the KJV read this way? Actually 21:8 should read Saul's other daughter Merab as having those five sons. We know this because I Samuel 18:19 correctly tells us Merab was married to Adriel.

1 Samuel 18:19 But it came to pass at the time when Merab Saul's daughter should have been given to David, that she was given unto Adriel the Meholathite to wife.

In II Samuel 21:8 the KJV again uses the wrong name for Saul's daughter:

But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite....
So, now here it is saying that Michal was married to Adriel when it just got done telling us that Merab was married to him instead. If you read through the two books of Samuel you will come to realize that it had to be Michal who was barren and Merab who had the five sons. The problem with the KJV in this instance is that there are only two Hebrew fragments of II Samuel which show the correct names, and to the best of my knowledge neither of these were known of until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s. However, even though most of the Greek Old Testament copies got the name jumbled too, there were some that got it right. If the KJV translators had bothered to use the Greek manuscripts they could have easily figured out the correct name to use in each verse. In using the KJV as a starting point for the Conservative Bible, Schlafly will be making many of the same mistakes they did. It's simply bad scholarship corrupted by a combination of poor thinking skills and a bias that favored the Hebrew text over the Greek.

Schlafly also talks about trying to get the "precision in the original language" accurate with his new version. The problem is that we don't know how the original Hebrew Old Testament texts read since there are no extant copies from the B.C. era. There aren't even many fragments until much later. If you follow Schlafly's logic, he seems to think there must have been something majestic about it which explains why he's so fond of the KJV. There are two problems here. I'm not fluent in it, but I know that ancient Hebrew was actually a very simple language, especially compared with Greek. The Greeks had amassed a huge vocabulary by the time the Septuagint came into being while the Jews still had a very small one by comparison. Ancient Hebrew had very little by way of conjunctions and connecting words that we take for granted today. For instance they didn't have a word for that. I've always likened the language in those days to something very similar to various native American Indians. If you can recall Indians speaking in the old cowboy movies, they might give directions by saying, "Go north two moons, look great oak, valley down many buffalo." In other words, travel north two days until you get to a big oak tree, and in the valley below you will find large buffalo herds. While ancient Hebrew may have been slightly more sophisticated, it wasn't by much. There was nothing majestic about it. The Greeks made it look more majestic than it really was, but the KJV translators did even more so. When the original KJV first came out in 1611, it was negatively criticized in its own day for being in an archaic form of English that was no longer used even then. People had stopped using words like thee and thine at least two or three centuries earlier. Critics of the KJV at that time accused the translators of trying to pretty it up and make it sound grandiose. Apparently Mr. Schlafly will be doing the same. If the NIV translation is written at a grade school reading level (which I judge to be a false claim) it's only because the bible was written at one. There's nothing difficult in the words themselves. The more important truths don't need difficult words to express them. They're inexpressible anyway.

My hope is that you are beginning to see why I consider common sense, discernment, and fairness of such great importance. Without them, truth and accuracy are unachievable. This is why most books are bad books. I don't want to single out Mr. Schlafly though. let me give you another example of bad scholarship. I made a short film a while back on beauty not being in the eye of the beholder. In other words, that it's not subjective at all, and I showed where this ungodly notion came from. If you search on the internet you can find several websites devoted to showing the origins of words, phrases, and sayings. Of course there are several books that do this as well. One of the more popular websites for this type of thing is called The Phrase Finder. I will post below the information they give for the origins of the phrase, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Keep in mind that other similar websites give almost identical information.


This saying first appeared in the 3rd century BC in Greek. It didn't appear in its current form in print until the 19th century, but in the meantime there were various written forms that expressed much the same thought. In 1588, the English dramatist John Lyly, in his Euphues and his England, wrote:

" neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose, as the stalke to the rynde, as the earth to the roote."

Shakespeare expressed a similar sentiment in Love's Labours Lost, 1588:

Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,
Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:
Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,
Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues

Benjamin Franklin, in Poor Richard's Almanack, 1741, wrote:

Beauty, like supreme dominion
Is but supported by opinion

David Hume's Essays, Moral and Political, 1742, include:

"Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them."

The person who is widely credited with coining the saying in its current form is Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (née Hamilton), who wrote many books, often under the pseudonym of 'The Duchess'. In Molly Bawn, 1878, there's the line "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", which is the earliest citation of it that I can find in print.

I agree that Hume was the first to suggest this concept, and Ms. Hungerford only rewords his thoughts slightly. This isn't to say that no one had the thought before Hume. I'd be very surprised if someone hadn't said similar things before Plato was ever born. But so far I've not found it in writing. More importantly though, is the fact that every listing this website gives prior to Hume is incorrect.

The 3rd century Greek writer they refer to is Theocritus. What he says is, "...for in the eyes of love that which is not beautiful often seems beautiful." He does not say beauty is in the eye of the beholder but merely says things sometimes seem beautiful whether they are or not. But he never for a moment suggests that this beauty is a realty.

This website quotes Shakespeare without realizing that his wicked queen is saying exactly what Shakespeare, like all just men, disapprove of. Elsewhere in the poem it says:

O, who can give an oath? where is a book?
That I may swear beauty doth beauty lack,
If that she learn not of her eye to look:
No face is fair that is not full so black.

These are the words he gives to a very ignoble character. He gives her wicked words to say because she is wicked. Shakespeare makes plain his dislike for any nonsense involving subjective beauty in Sonnet 127:

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow'r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow'r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress' eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland'ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.

What he's saying is that once women with fair complexions were considered beautiful, but in his day people had begun saying that it was the women with dark complexions who were accounted beautiful. He goes on to say that it was becoming fashionable for women to paint themselves up and use powders to feign the look of beauty. He laments that beauty has been so mistreated because if everything can be beautiful then nothing is beautiful. And there lies the sophistry of the subjective argument. If beauty is not universal then beauty does not exist.

Lyly is quoted from, but let me quote the entire line:

And as rare it is to see the Sunne with-out a light, as a fayre woeman with-out a lover, and as neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose, as the stalke to the rynde, as the earth to the roote.

Fancie here does not mean imagination. It means desire as in, "She fancied going to the opera". Therefore it has nothing to do with beauty being in the imagination, and if it did, the line would make no sense.

Franklin is also quoted, but he did not say this. He was quoting Jonathan Swift who wrote the line ten years earlier in his poem Strephon And Chloe:

For Beauty, like supreme dominion,
Is best supported by Opinion:
If Decency bring no supplies,
Opinion falls, and Beauty dies.

The poem is about a married couple who realize after marriage that, though initially attracted by physical beauty, they are still human and have to "poop and fart" (Swift's very words) like everyone else. They try to put a pleasant face on it as though it's still part of the beauty, but clearly Swift toward the end of the poem says they are wrong to do so. Also, if you read the above lines carefully you'll see that he isn't saying what this website seems to think he does. He in fact is saying just the opposite. He is not talking about individual opinion, but is simply saying that the more people who can agree on a thing being beautiful, the more likely it is to be so. This attests to beauty being universal rather than subjective.

Other websites mention Plato as being the first to suggest beauty as being subjective in the following.

Plato ~ Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may.

They're completely misinterpreting what Plato said. He's simply saying that beauty is transcendent from God, and that when the mind taps into this beauty, it is tapping into a real place within the mind of the creator. Had they read The Republic in school, they would have realized right off that this is an element in his Theory of Forms.

It was the atheist (or at least agnostic) philosopher David Hume who actually came up with the notion of beauty being a matter of taste. He says in 1742: "Beauty, properly speaking, lyes in the Sentiment or Taste of the Reader", and "Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them." Again I must say that if everything can be beautiful then nothing is beautiful. What Hume has actually managed is the abolition of beauty (as C. S. Lewis might say).

Speaking of Lewis, let me close with some choice words he has to say about poor scholarship. From his essay, Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism, later titled Fern-seed and Elephants:

First then, whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading. It sounds a strange charge to bring against men who have been steeped in those books all their lives. But that might be just the trouble. A man who has spent his youth and manhood in the minute study of New Testament texts and of other people's studies of them, whose literary experience of those texts lacks any standard of comparison such as can only grow from a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general, is, I should think, very likely to miss the obvious thing about them. If he tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel. But I had better turn to examples.


Finally, from the same Bultmann: 'the personality of Jesus has no importance for the kerygma either of Paul or John... Indeed, the tradition of the earliest Church did not even unconsciously preserve a picture of his personality. Every attempt to reconstruct one remains a play of subjective imagination.'

So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament. Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all men except him see? What evidence have we that he would recognize a personality if it were there? For it is Bultmann contra mundum. If anything whatever is common to all believers, and even to many unbelievers, it is the sense that in the Gospels they have met a personality.

That then is my first bleat. These men ask me to believe they can read between the lines of the old texts; the evidence is their obvious inability to read (in any sense worth discussing) the lines themselves. They claim to see fern-seed and can't see an elephant ten yards way in broad daylight.

Don't think for a moment that because someone has a PHD and many years of education or even a high IQ that this qualifies them as good scholars even if they are well-read. As Lewis once pointed out, a man can read all the right books and still get the wrong things out of them. He also mentioned that John Bunyan, with less than four years of formal education, went on to write a book which has astonished the world. Common sense, discernment, and fairness can take some men a very long way indeed.

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