In previous installments, I have written two blog articles on my observations regarding an interview of Bart Ehrman by Sam Harris on What is Christianity. Bart Ehrman is an agnostic, New Testament scholar at Princeton, and Sam Harris is one of the so-called “new atheists”. In the first article, I relate portions of Ehrman’s story about his “loss of faith”, and I question whether he really had anything but a very shallow idea of faith to begin with. In the second installment, I talk about a certain wooden fundamentalism that continues to be apparent in how Ehrman sees the Bible. It’s a kind of all or nothing approach. Previously, he accepted all of it; now he accepts none of it.
Before moving on to other observations, I want to stop and raise a couple of points related to the portion of the interview already covered. First of all, I want to go back to the comment made by Ehrman about the charismatic youth leader who influenced him in a local Campus Crusade for Christ chapter. Erhman describes the “sinner’s prayer” he recited as an induction. The same youth leader urged him to go to Moody Bible Institute if he wanted to be a “serious Christian”.
Erhman was obviously influenced by this charismatic youth leader. Many of us are similarly influenced by charismatic people that we meet along the way. Some of us are influenced to do things that we might not otherwise do and which have no lasting import to us when we leave the circle of that influence.
I hadn’t noticed this before, but as I think back on the interview, I see a pattern. When Erhman was at Princeton Theological Seminary, digging into the biblical languages and nuances of the biblical text, he describes an experience in which he wrote a 30-page paper trying to harmonize a reference by Jesus to “the days of Abiathar the high priest” with the story in 1 Samuel at which time Ahimelek (not Abiathar) was the high priest. The professor, Cullen Story, shook Erhman’s understanding of the Bible with a very simple statement: ““Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” (See Ehrman on Abiathar: Is the Bible Ever Mistaken?)
Erhman recalls that the comment “went straight through me”. That statement shook the foundations of Eherman’s fundamentalist approach to the Bible. The experience led Ehrman to respond, finally, “Hmmm. . . maybe Mark did make a mistake…. Once I made that admission, the floodgates opened.” From that point on, Ehrman swung to the opposite shore and has, since, made a career out of questioning the authenticity and reliability of the Bible.
It dawns on me that Ehrman seemed to have been quite influenced by people with strong opinions. A charismatic leader led him to take a course of action (say the sinner’s prayer, the “induction”) that he didn’t fully understand. Ehrman says he did not know what he needed changing from, though he took the action to become “born again” anyway.
The same Christian leader urged him to go to Moody Bible Institute if he wanted to be a “serious Christian”. His “induction” into Christianity and decision to be a “serious Christian” where influenced by a strong personality. Ehrman’s faith was built on a strong personality and social acceptance. It was not rooted in a personal encounter or experience with God. It was not supported by a strong rational or spiritual framework. Erhman’s view of faith was shattered by another strong personality.
We might call a tendency to be influenced by strong personalities the cult of personality.
I see Erhman as a chameleon. While he was in the Campus Crusade chapter and at Moody Bible Institute, he saw himself as a fundamentalist. When he matriculated to the more “progressive” Wheaton College and then to the “liberal” Princeton Theological Seminary, things changed. He began to see the world through the lens of the new environment in which he found himself.
Since he published Misquoting Jesus in 2005, Bart Erhman has become the darling of the modern, liberal world, championing the worldview they prefer. This is the world of most academicians on most college and university campuses. This is the world of the modern intellectual elite. This is the world of the modern media. Erhman has become one of them, having been inducted into their social circles and fully embraced for giving them exactly what they want to hear.
This cult of personality and social influence is a problem in the church. It threatens the integrity and authenticity of faith. I have experienced the influence myself, though it was not in my becoming a believer or choosing to become a “serious Christian”.
I became a believer through a serious of encounters and relationships with people whose names I cannot even remember. The people I do remember I never saw again after the brief period of time in which God used them to draw me. I recognized clearly at the time that God was the one drawing me, not any particular people.
My continued commitment to follow Christ occurred in the context of the college environment in which the strong personalities were neutral or even hostile to my commitment. The personal and social influences were ever pulling me in the opposite direction.
My experience with the cult of personality came later, through a church that I wanted to believe was the “perfect” example of an authentic “New Testament Church”. I dove in head-first and, without realizing it, found much of my spiritual hunger fed by the vitality of the personalities in the church. I didn’t realize it until some of those personalities began to exhibit imperfection, and the church itself began to fracture and disintegrate as a result of those very human imperfections.
This was devastating to me. I thought I had found the perfect Church led by strong men of God. It turns out they were very human, and the church was subject to the same human frailties that every human institution is. By “human Institution”, I do not mean that the Church is not sanctioned and ordained by God. I mean, simply, that any institution run by people is going to have issues because people are sinful. Sometimes our sinful natures get in the way of our budding spiritual nature that God is nurturing within each of us.
This is all part of God’s plan, but it took years to recover. It was a tough lesson. We cannot lean harder on other people, or even the church, than we lean on God.
I note the parable Jesus told about the sower and the seed. Some seed fell on hard rocky ground. It grew up fast, but its roots were shallow. When the sun came, the plant shriveled and died. Some seed fell on the path. It struggled to grow; it was trampled and died. Other seed fell among the weeds. It grew up strong, but the weeds grew up around it and begin to choke out the life. Finally, some seed fell on good soil. It grew strong, and its roots grew deep.
Bart Ehrman’s story, perhaps, reflects seed that fell on shallow and hard, rocky soil. He understood the experience only as a sort of social induction. He expressed a lack of understanding regarding why he had to be born again, why he had to be changed (“changed from what?”). He was influenced by a charismatic youth leader. He wanted to be part of the social group.
His shallow, fundamentalist thought carried him a ways, but when the sun came and burned hot upon him, his shallow faith began to shrivel and die. His faith was not rooted in God. His faith was rooted in the social influence of a charismatic leader and group of people with whom he wanted to be accepted. His faith was not rooted in deep understanding. He wasn’t even sure why he did what he did, but he did it anyway.
I have always maintained that we must have sincerity and integrity in our faith. If we have doubts, we are better off expressing them and wrestling with them earnestly, with integrity. It does no good for any of us to be talked into belief in God, as someone just as easily can talk us out of it.
Our faith must be rooted in God alone. The work of the Holy Spirit has to be evident in that process if we are truly to be born again.
We see many children growing up in the church. They are influenced strongly by their parents, teachers and other authority figures in their lives. As they begin to flex their own intellectual, emotional and spiritual muscles, they naturally begin to pull away from those influences. Sometimes children gravitate toward other strong personalities of their own choosing. These influences usually lead them away from the spiritual influences of their youth. The only influence that can truly make a difference is God, the Holy Spirit, working in our lives
Faith in God must be much deeper than social human experience, or it will not last and it isn’t real.
In the next blog post, I focus in a different direction than the previous posts about the Ehrman/Harris interview. In the next post, I explore the standard of proof they create for measuring whether God exists. They set the bar unreasonably high for the proof of God.