Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Reveiw: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman

Most people who self-identify as “bible believing Christians” operate under a certain understanding of the history of Christianity. Whether their view of this history is learned or assumed, it usually goes something like this in a nutshell: The canonized scripture is the inerrant word of God. The New Testament was formed sometime shortly after Jesus Christ’s resurrection and ascension—most of it from first-hand witnesses to Jesus’s ministry. Because Jesus’s teachings were so clear, and his great commission so compelling, the early church quickly formed and mobilized to spread the gospel around the world. While there may have been false teachers around this time trying to pollute the teachings of Jesus, they were few and relatively insignificant. Orthodox Christianity was the earliest and truest form of Christianity, and the creation of this religion is precisely what Jesus set out to do, which is why orthodox beliefs survived while the rest faded from memory.
While this view of church history is certainly neat, tidy, and faith affirming, it couldn’t be further from the truth. The truth is far more interesting. If you want to start learning the truth, Ehrman’s Lost Christianities can serve as a very nice jumping off point. But before you take that leap, you might want to check your reserve chute—especially if your view of history mirrors the summary in the preceding paragraph.
So what is this particular work by Ehrman about? The dust jacket sums it up rather nicely: “…a compelling look at the early forms of Christianity and how they came to be suppressed, reformed, or forgotten…Ehrman examines in depth the battles that raged between ‘proto-orthodox Christians’—those who eventually compiled the canonical books of the New Testament and standardized Christian belief—and the groups they denounced as heretics and ultimately overcame.”
Before I continue with my review, it might be helpful if I introduce the author a little more. From his website:

Biography of Bart D. Ehrman
Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.
A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Professor Ehrman received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-four books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews.
And a little more of his biography from his book, God’s Problem, includes the following:  As a young boy he was baptized in a Congregational church and reared as an Episcopalian, serving as an altar boy from the age of twelve through high school. He became very serious about his faith after attending a Youth for Christ club and eventually decided to train for ministry at Moody Bible Institute, where he earned a diploma in Bible and Theology. He completed his college training at Billy Graham’s alma mater, Wheaton, where he learned Greek so he could study the New Testament in its original language. He couldn’t get enough of this, so he went off to Princeton to complete a master of divinity and then a Ph.D. in New Testament studies. While he pursued these credentials he was actively serving in different churches, from being a youth pastor at an Evangelical Covenant church to serving a year as interim senior pastor of the Princeton Baptist Church. And after all this, he eventually lost his faith. Not, says he, because of problems he has with the Bible, but because he realized he could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life—in particular the problem of suffering.

Now that you know a little more about Ehrman’s life journey, impressive academic credentials, and probably more importantly, a little about his faith journey, I shall proceed with this review.
If you take a look at the customer reviews for this volume on Amazon, you’ll find that many people awarded this work less than 3 stars, mostly because they viewed it as an attack on their faith. So why does this book make Christians so upset? The answer is simple. Erhman brings up some seriously tough issues. He forces the reader to consider the possibility that their understanding of Bible (along with their particular brand of faith) might be rooted in something other than the Truth. And for many people, this is a very threatening notion.

In my own faith journey, I see myself as a truth seeker. Most Christians don’t view themselves this way. Most of them are quite certain they already know the truth, even to the point that they can justify legislating their moral beliefs so that the rest of society must conform (hence the righteous battle for a ban on gay marriage.) Where do these Christians point when asked about Truth? To canonized scripture, of course.
But what if some of the Truth was forged? What if the Gospels we cherish left out some of the essential details about who Jesus really was? What if there really was a secret version of Mark, a longer version with tantalizing homoerotic undertones that some first-century scribe edited out because those parts didn’t fit with the particular brand of Christology currently popular in his region? What if, and here I’m directly quoting Ehrman from another one of his works, “rather than being an inerrant revelation from God, inspired in its very words, the Bible is a very human book with all the marks of having come from human hands: discrepancies, contradictions, errors, and different perspectives of different authors living at different times in different countries and writing for different reasons to different audiences with different needs?”

These are all really big what ifs. Christians can respond with the bumper sticker slogan “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” or they can actually start investigating the origins of their beliefs. In Lost Christianities, Ehrman offers an accessible overview of these origins, and in my view, reading this work is only the beginning of an essential journey that every person who claims to know the Truth should take. But if you want to take that journey you’d better buckle up first.
I give Lost Christianities 4.5 out of 5 stars. High marks for clarity, accessibility, degree of thought-provocation, and tantalization. Only wish it had delved deeper in some areas, as it was a little narrow, but as I said before, it makes for a great starting point.

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