Sunday, December 5, 2004

A Milestone

Today Viewpoint passed the 10,000 hit mark on our traffic counter. This is a very gratifying milestone for us, and Bill and I wish to thank all of our readers for visiting with us and for linking us to your friends. We started this blog last May having no idea how it would fare and have been both surprised and gratified in equal measure with the response.

We know that some of the big blogs get 10,000 hits in a day so we have plenty of room for growth, and we're going to keep working to make our site worth visiting. It's our ambition to post something worth reading every day and we're delighted that so many of you apparently feel that we're succeeding.

Your support means a lot to us and so we extend our sincere thanks to each of you.

Bill and Dick

'Tis the Season

" 'Tis the season," Richard Neuhaus writes in First Things (subscription required), "to once again complain about the season," and so it is. Neuhaus has in mind specifically complaints about the consumerization and secularization of Christmas which are indeed at once both tedious and moronic. But there's another aspect of the Christmas season which has become as wearisome as it is dependable - the debunking of the Christmas story. It is fashionable in certain quarters to point out this or that difficulty with the Biblical record in order to justify the sneers of urban sophisticates and to discredit the celebrations of those dopey Christians. Rather than focus on the significance of the incarnation of a transcendent God, why He did it and what it means for us today, we're treated instead every Christmas to the semi-scholarly pontifications of journalists and academics who are convinced that it didn't really happen.

Sometimes efforts to cast a shadow over a particular Christian tradition like Christmas are more subtle than others. John Meacham of Newsweek authors an account of the debate over the historicity of the events surrounding Christ's birth which is more respectful of the tradition than some others, but he still seems to make assumptions that irritate.

He seems to assume, for example, that if an event, like the virgin birth, is an article of faith then that excludes it from being historical fact. Meacham states that:

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the virginal conception is not a fact but an article of faith, there are other explanations for Matthew's and Luke's Nativity accounts.

This sounds as if Meacham believes that the virgin birth can only be one or the other, fact or article of faith, but there's no obvious reason why Christians cannot believe something occurred which did, in fact, occur. Faith which is not a belief in facts is delusion.

He also writes throughout the piece as if what Matthew and Luke were doing in writing their accounts of Jesus' life was composing a good story rather than compiling accurate history. They were concerned, he implies, with presenting a narrative that would make Jesus appear divine in order to persuade people to embrace the new religion begun by his followers. Here are a few examples:

By asserting Mary's virginity, Matthew and Luke are taking the device of the miraculous conception farther than any other Jewish writer had before.

Matthew portrays Mary and Joseph as residents of Bethlehem who were later forced to move north to Nazareth. With a keen dramatic sense, he also adds two stories evoking the memory of God's deliverance ....

Luke's conundrum is just the opposite of Matthew's: how to get Mary and Joseph, who in his Gospel were living in Nazareth in the north, down to Bethlehem in the south.

Setting Jesus' birth at a moment when the princes of this world are exerting temporal power over the people is a deft device....

This is a dangerous way to look at the Gospels for if it is true that the writers were more concerned with salesmanship than historical accuracy then nothing in the Gospels is reliable, and if that's the case Christianity is worthless. There is, however, no reason to accept the view that the Evangelists weren't trying to faithfully record history except the a priori assumption by some scholars that the events they chronicle never really happened.

Meacham also offers arguments from some scholars which are embarrassingly fallacious. An example is this:

Where did the details-of miraculous conception, of birth in Bethlehem, of stars in the sky, shepherds in the night and wise men on a journey-come from? Apparently not from Jesus. John P. Meier, a Roman Catholic priest and professor at Notre Dame, the author of a monumental series, "A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus," points out that there is no convincing evidence Jesus himself ever spoke of his birth, and neither Mary nor Joseph (who is not a figure in the years of Jesus' public life) appears to have been a direct source.

Meier's dismissal of Jesus as a source is a fallacy logicians call an argument from silence. Because the Gospels don't mention Jesus talking about the circumstances surrounding his birth, the reasoning goes, it's therefore safe to assume that he's not the source of this information. This is silly.

Moreover, how Meier can conclude that Mary is unlikely to have been a direct source is not explained, but one would certainly like to know why she should be ruled out. She was probably in her late teens when Jesus was born and thus in her late forties when he died. She may well have lived another thirty years or more after his death and would have had ample opportunity to discuss with others her memories of Jesus' conception, birth, and childhood. Why discount her?

Meacham finds it strange that there's not more made of the virgin birth in the New Testament:

If the virginal conception were a historical is somewhat odd that there is no memory of it recorded in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry or in the Acts of the Apostles or in the rest of the New Testament.

Yet it's mentioned by both Matthew and Luke and the latter is the author of the book of Acts. Luke doesn't mention Mary's virginity there, perhaps, because that book was a history of the early church, not a biography of Christ. Why the Gospel writers should have emphasized the unique circumstances of Jesus' conception more than they did is left unexplained. How often does Meacham think it should have been mentioned, anyway? How many mentions would have been sufficient to satisfy him? He goes on to say that:

It is also striking that in parts of the Gospels Mary herself appears unaware of her son's provenance and destiny....If Mary had received Gabriel's message, then she should have known her son was not mad, but the Messiah. And even if she were not around in this story in Mark, had Jesus been born in such extraordinary circumstances, it is logical to assume that those closest to him would have known at least something of it....

Contrary to the interpretation Meacham puts on the apparent surprise Mary and the disciples continually experienced at Jesus' words and deeds, these stories strike our ear as profoundly true to human nature and experience. It's often the case that even though we know something is true we're surprised when we encounter evidence of it, and the evidence is often not even recognized as such until well after the event.

It may be that when the angel announced to Mary that she had been chosen by God to bear a son that she neither recognized this being as an angel at the time nor understood at the time the full significance of what she was being told. She may have thought in her youthful naivete that she'd been visited by a prophet and never really grasped the astonishing import of his words until much later, if at all. Even when she found herself inexplicably pregnant she might have never realized that the child she was carrying was the Son of God. It would've been easy to push all these things to the back of her mind as the years went by and the daily issues of life pressed upon her, especially if subsequent events never gave her any reason to recall them.

Meacham also seems to accept the unfortunate opinion of skeptics that:

[A]lmost nothing in Luke's story stands up to close historical scrutiny; Brown finds it "dubious on almost every score." Augustus conducted no global census, and no more local one makes sense in Luke's time frame.

We don't profess to be Biblical archeologists, but we have to wonder how Meacham and Brown handle the scholarship which suggests that there was indeed a census about 6 or 7 B.C., the time period when most conservative scholars place Jesus' birth. To say, moreover, that Augustine conducted no global census is a bit of a red herring. The wording in the gospels would have referred to the Roman empire, not the globe, and it is known from Josephus, the ancient Jewish/Roman historian, that such a census was indeed conducted around 6 or 7 A.D. and that these counts occurred about every fourteen years. That would have placed an earlier enumeration at around 6 or 7 B.C. or just about the time that Luke suggests.

As Viewpoint has discussed in earlier posts (see here for example), the problem that scholars have with the virgin birth is really a problem that they have with miracles in general. They just can't bring themselves to believe either that God works that way or that there even is a God to perform a miracle in the first place.

If the latter belief is true, of course, then there is no point in talking about Christmas at all, and if the former position is true, that God doesn't intervene in human history, then not only was there no virgin birth, but there was also no Resurrection. If neither of these events actually occurred then the Bible is completely untrustworthy, and we have no particular reason to think that God cares how we live nor any reason to think that there is life after death.

The significance of Christmas, and of the Virgin birth, is that if these momentous events really did happen then there is a basis for a wonderful hope that life has meaning and that we are not all alone in the cosmos. There is reason to believe that love is better than hate, that altruism is better than egoism, that might does not make right, and that each of us is cherished beyond measure. Christmas means that God cared enough to join us in our existential predicament so that we may ultimately enjoy Him forever. This means that we are not just dust in the wind but rather that we are truly important, that we have dignity and value in the eyes of God.

We don't wish to sound as though we're critical of the entire Newsweek article. There are sections where Meacham is to be applauded. His conclusion, for instance, is excellent:

A man with no human father, a king who died a criminal's death, a God who assures us of everlasting life in a world to come while the world he made is consumed by war and strife: Christianity is a religion of perplexing contradictions. To live an examined faith believers have to acknowledge those complexities and engage them, however frustrating it may be. "We are in a world of mystery, with one bright Light before us, sufficient for our proceeding forward through all difficulties," wrote John Henry Newman, the great Victorian cleric whose intellectual journey led him from the Anglican priesthood to the Roman Curia. "Take away this Light and we are utterly wretched-we know not where we are, how we are sustained, what will become of us, and of all that is dear to us, what we are to believe, and why we are in being." The Christmas star is just one such light; there are others. Whatever our backgrounds, whatever our creeds, many of us are in search of the kind of faith that will lead us through the darkness, toward home. In Luke, the angelic host hails the Lord and then says: "on earth peace, good will toward men"-a promise whose fulfillment is worth our prayers not only in this season, but always.

Just so, but the only faith which will lead us through the darkness is one based upon truth and upon something beyond ourselves and our world. Take away the truth of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and death and all that is left is darkness...forever.


Much has been written about the intellectual and ideological monoculture of today's universities. Academia is eager to celebrate diversity in all things save political opinion. University faculties are overwhelmingly liberal and the professoriat sees it as their professional responsibility to do all they can to proselytize their students.

A recent article in The Economist has some interesting things to say about this state of affairs.

Tom Wolfe's new novel about a young student, I am Charlotte Simmons, is a depressing read for any parent. Four years at an Ivy League university costs as much as a house in parts of the heartland - about $120,000 for tuition alone. But what do you get for your money? A ticket to "Animal House".

In Mr Wolfe's fictional university the pleasures of the body take absolute precedence over the life of the mind. Students "hook up" (i.e. sleep around) with indiscriminate zeal. Brainless jocks rule the roost, while impoverished nerds are reduced to ghost-writing their essays for them. The university administration is utterly indifferent to anything except the dogmas of political correctness (men and women are forced to share the same bathrooms in the name of gender equality). The Bacchanalia takes place to the soundtrack of hate-fuelled gangsta rap.

Mr Wolfe clearly exaggerates for effect (that's kinda, like, what satirists do, as one of his students might have explained). But on one subject he is guilty of understatement: diversity. He fires off a few predictable arrows at "diversoids" - students who are chosen on the basis of their race or gender. But he fails to expose the full absurdity of the diversity industry.

Academia is simultaneously both the part of America that is most obsessed with diversity, and the least diverse part of the country. On the one hand, colleges bend over backwards to hire minority professors and recruit minority students, aided by an ever-burgeoning bureaucracy of "diversity officers". Yet, when it comes to politics, they are not just indifferent to diversity, but downright allergic to it.

The likelihood of much changing in universities in the near future is slim. The Republican business elite doesn't give a fig about silly academic fads in the humanities so long as American universities remain on the cutting edge of science and technology. As for the university establishment, leftists are hardly likely to relinquish their grip on one of the few bits of America where they remain in the ascendant. And that is a tragedy not just for America's universities but also for liberal thought.

It's worth reading the entire piece.