The Washington Post has an engrossing story today about theologian and Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman, author of "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why." The story of people who lose faith is as old as time, of course. But what’s interesting about Ehrman’s journey from fundamentalism to agnosticism is how Biblical scholarship played such an important role. The legion of inconsistencies and the vast treasure of scriptural scholarship that has come into our hands in the last few decades proved too much for Ehrman to maintain the fundamentalist mantra:
"In Matthew, Mark and Luke, you find no trace of Jesus being divine," he says, his voice urgent. "In John, you do." He points out that in the other three books, it takes the disciples nearly half of Christ’s ministry to learn who he is. John says no, no, everyone knew it from the beginning. "You shouldn’t think something just because you believe it. You need reasons. That applies to religion. That applies to politics … just because your parents believe something isn’t good enough."
When you look at the rise of fundamentalism in the West in the last couple of decades, this context is often over-looked. It is the Darwinism of our time in its impact on religion. What we now know about the thousands of different texts in the New Testament, the thousands of discrepancies, the layer upon layer of historical re-writing, the more the contrast between what Jesus may have said and what his church came to teach emerges.
Jefferson, in other words, was onto something. But this attempt to ask who Jesus really was is, of course, very unnerving to believers. I remember distinctly deciding not to study theology in college, despite my intense interest, because I was frightened that the more I understood, the less I would believe. And so fundamentalism becomes more attractive in modernity. Why? Because it is the only kind of faith that simply banishes all such arduous and nerve-wracking sifting and thinking and doubting. A Christian faith that tries to integrate current Biblical scholarship into active doctrine and action requires a huge amount of nerve and tenacity. The end of that path for Ehrman was agnosticism and reason. Many more are choosing fundamentalism and authority as an alternative. The question is not whether a third way will be popular or triumphant. It may very well be neither. The question is whether it is the only Christian option compatible with truth. And that can hardly be a minor issue for faith.