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Response to Russ Kuykendall Review

UPDATE: Kuykendall has now deleted his review of my book from Amazon.

Russ Kuykendall left a significant one-star review of my book on Amazon.com. You can read it here. My response is below:

I’d like to thank Russ Kuykendall for taking the time engage with my book and for writing an important and thought-provoking review and critique. Kuykendall’s critique is essentially one that takes place at the epistemological level, or so it would appear, and not one that takes issue substantively with the content of the various arguments I lay out in the book.

I’d like to respond in a few ways, both piecemeal to specific features of the review, as well as generally to the spirit of the whole.

First, while it is true that I come from a tradition that was originally indebted to the paradigms of Scottish Enlightenment, Baconian Common Sense, and Lockean rationality, it would be a mistake to conclude that I myself or my tradition as it stands broadly today continues to be beholden in any kind of strict or rigorous fashion to these epistemologies. It is true that I attempt to take my tradition “a further step” than it has generally been willing to go throughout much of its history (with notable exceptions of course), but it is also true, as Kuykendall points out, that I do this in order to expose the incompatibility of the Enlightenment approach to scripture and the inerrantist dogma that thinkers in my tradition and in broader Evangelicalism attempt (unsuccessfully) to sustain in harmony. This point should not be understated, since I consider my project to be pedagogical in nature.

In other words, while it is true that I am employing to a significant extent hermeneutical principles derived in part from Enlightenment principles, I do so consciously in order to adopt the perspective of those with whom I seek to engage and critique. For that reason, Kuykendall errs when identifying me as “every bit a child both of the Enlightenment as it is now expressed in contemporary culture and scholarship, including in theology, and a child of a religious tradition profoundly shaped by 18th-c. Scottish and New England Enlightenments.” The latter identification is especially ill-fitting since the hermeneutics of Baconian Common Sense to which my tradition was originally indebted, and as applied by the likes of Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, and others, shares very few connections to the kind of historical criticism I employ in The Human Faces of God.

It is also important to call into question the veracity of Kuykendall’s assertion that the kinds of critical readings I engage in are essentially the products of Enlightenment epistemologies. Critical interpretation of texts is hardly a modern invention. For instance, well over a thousand years before the Enlightenment, scholars such as Celsus and Porphyry in the second and third centuries CE, respectively, took a critical eye to the Judeo-Christian scriptures and called into question, for instance, the biblical claims about the authorship and dating of Daniel. Like modern critical scholars, Celsus and Porphyry argued that the book of Daniel was composed during the mid-second century BCE during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. So it is hardly true that critical scholarship and readings of the Bible are derived from Enlightenment epistemologies primarily. Critical thinking has been a feature of the Western tradition since Socrates, at the latest.

Moreover, as I point out in my book, even Patristic theologians such as Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian recognized that the biblical text was sometimes very problematic when read at the historical-grammatical level; this means that even thinkers in the allegorical tradition knew how to read the Bible in the fashion I employ in my work and recognized, as I do, that such readings exposed problematic material in the Bible. When they employed allegory as a way of managing problematic texts, however, they were not throwing out the legitimacy of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic whole-cloth. They certainly employed the historical-grammatical hermeneutic as it suited them. Their reasons for rejecting the historical-grammatical hermeneutic in certain instances had to do with maintaining the usefulness of the text as scripture for the church, which is something that I myself am concerned to do in my book, although I do this in different ways than did Origen, Gregory and others, and my reasons for this are spelled out clearly in my ninth and tenth chapters.

For these reasons, the myth that historical and critical readings of scripture are necessarily indebted to Enlightenment epistemologies needs a thorough debunking, and the claim that my approach to scripture is thoroughly the product of Enlightenment thinking is a sweeping claim made without sufficient evidence necessary to substantiate it.

Kuykendall further claims that the problematic texts that I examine in my book are “especially problematic to Christians conditioned by the Enlightenment.” Implied here is a claim that these texts are less problematic, or perhaps unproblematic, for those who have been liberated from the epistemological constraints of Enlightenment. It may or may not be true that these texts are more problematic for those conditioned by the Enlightenment, but what is emphatically not true is that these texts were not problematic for pre-modern thinkers, for the Church Fathers, and for the early church itself.

As I show throughout the course of my arguments, many of the questions we have about problematic texts were questions shared by some of the writers of the Old and New Testaments themselves, and we can clearly see the various ways in which they attempted to struggle with and resolve the problematic nature of biblical material. The same is true for many of the Church Fathers; as already mentioned, Origen, Gregory and Cassian explicitly rejected the literal sense of certain texts precisely because the literal sense rendered the texts problematic. Thus, it is clear that many of the texts I evaluate in my book have been problematic from the very beginning, and long before the Enlightenment imposed upon us its totalizing materialist and rationalist epistemologies. Thus, Kuykendall is mistaken if wishing to imply that it was the Enlightenment itself that made these texts problematic, though in fairness this claim is not explicitly made in Kuykendall’s review.

For these reasons also I ought to note my objection to the way that John J. Collins (who holds my utmost respect and admiration), in his foreword to my book, characterizes the issues of biblical genocide and human sacrifice as problematic to us “in the modern world.” No doubt Collins would want to clarify that these are not problems only from a modern viewpoint, but I want to stress this point with a certain degree of urgency. These texts are problematic to human beings in any age, as is clear from the fact that the Bible itself consists of a variety of perspectives on these issues. Perspectives assumed by some biblical writers were condemned as thoroughly problematic by others. The contradictions we find in scripture on issues such as corporate or individual guilt and punishment display that it is not simply our “modern” perspective that renders many of the biblical ideas problematic.

Kuykendall states that I “refuse a mask,” even as I unmask “Enlightenment evangelical Christians.” To be honest, I am unsure exactly what Kuykendall is suggesting when stating that I “refuse a mask.” If this statement is meant to suggest that I pretend to come at these issues from an objective standpoint, free of all tradition, then Kuykendall is again mistaken. I make no such claim, nor would I, as I am acutely aware of many of the traditions, ideologies and epistemologies that inform my approach to the text. If Kuykendall’s critique is that I do not devote sufficient space to the articulation of my assumptions, this is a point well taken. Such discussions are indeed helpful, but my decision simply to engage the text without an extended prolegomena on methodology and epistemology is one I made for the sake of brevity.

If Kuykendall or others wish to suggest that the absence of such a prolegomena inhibits understanding of my project, then I am happy to respond to specific questions in order to make my argument more intelligible to those who are having trouble apprehending the nature of my position. However, it is my thinking on this that such discussions are often more helpful when they are offered in response to specific questions in conversation, rather than made as blanket statements abstracted from the concerns of various individuals and interpretive communities. I find that often when writers attempt to address all possible methodological and epistemological objections, the discussion becomes unruly and distracts from the cogency of the project at hand.

That said, it is clear that Kuykendall believes that my project was at least somewhat successful and coherent without such a prolegomena, since Kuykendall believes that, “in his removing the masks [of Enlightenment epistemologies], Stark does service.”

However, Kuykendall goes on to call into question the necessity of my overall project. Kuykendall asks, “But once the unmasking is done (and it should be), does the world really need yet one more Enlightenment reading and deconstruction of the biblical narrative? Beyond the unmasking, where is the charity in any Enlightenment reading of the biblical narrative?”

Here I take issue with Kuykendall’s characterization of the situation on a couple of points. First, as I have already articulated, Kuykendall has only assumed and has not shown how my reading of the text is beholden to Enlightenment. Again, it is patently not true that critical readings of scripture (or any text) are the invention of, and belong entirely within the domain of, Enlightenment epistemology.

Second, Kuykendall asks whether “the world” needs another book deconstructing the biblical text. This is an important question, I suppose, but I do not think that there can be any definitive answer to it one way or the other. In fact, it seems to me that Kuykendall oversteps appropriate bounds when asking this question on behalf of “the world.” It seems clear to me from the fact that Kuykendall gave my book a one-star rating on Amazon.com that Kuykendall did not find my book necessary. I have a few things to say in response to this.

First, I am very glad to hear that my work is not necessary to Kuykendall and (presumably) to a significant number of other human beings throughout “the world.” It is obviously my hope that books like mine will one day no longer be necessary at all, though I am extremely dubious that humankind in general, and Christianity in particular, will ever attain to such a state of (if I may be ironic here) “enlightenment.”

Second, it may very well be that another book like mine is not “necessary,” but ultimately the question from my perspective is not whether my book is “necessary” but whether it is “useful” or “helpful” to those who read it. There are many things in this life that are not necessarily necessary but which are nevertheless useful and helpful for us as we seek to navigate our worlds. It is my hope that my book will prove useful for some, though I do not have any pretensions that it will or ought to be useful for everybody.

The reality is, however (and I articulated this in my preface), that I have tried to write the book that would have been useful for me, ten years ago. Moreover, the dozens of responses I have received so far from those who have read my book and found it useful indicate to me that despite its superfluity to some like Kuykendall, it is a book that many in “the world” will find useful for their own purposes. That is all I hope for, and never made any claims about the significance of my book more totalizing than that, nor would I.

Finally, Kuykendall asks where the “charity” is in any Enlightenment reading, and this question puzzles me somewhat. I am not sure what to take to be the implication here. If Kuykendall is suggesting that my appropriation of the data is wholly deconstructive and not constructive, then I take sharp objection to this evaluation. As for the question of whether there can be “charity” in critical readings of the scriptures, my view is that critical readings are emphatically charitable, in the sense that charity depends upon truthfulness. It would be uncharitable not to read morally and theologically problematic texts critically. In my book I argue that in order to have a constructive biblical theology that can employed in service of charity, we must be honest with our texts. In short, I look at critical readings of the texts as the first step in what one might call a “tough love” hermeneutic. My approach is both critical and constructive, and I argue that one without the other results in a false charity.

Kuykendall references Alasdair MacIntyre’s Gifford Lectures, which were formative for me early in my theological journey, and which I believe are not incompatible with the approach I take to scripture and tradition in my book. In fact, I contend that my discussion of authority and tradition in my final chapter could be articulated in thoroughly MacIntyrian terminology. To understand my position to be in tension with MacIntyre’s discussion of the way traditions work and develop is either to misunderstand my argument, or to misunderstand MacIntyre’s. This is true despite my disagreement with some of MacIntyre’s more sweeping claims about the incoherency of liberalism. I am in considerable agreement with Jeffrey Stout’s criticisms of MacIntyre’s sweeping denunciations of liberalism as well as with his criticisms of the mythological nature of MacIntyre’s portrait of a purist pre-modern epistemology.

Kuykendall asks where the “Enlightenment self-awareness of what predicates its critique” is in my work. In response I can only say that Kuykendall has failed to identify at what point in my critique I am indebted to an untenable set of Enlightenment assumptions. While it is true that I am (like everyone else in the Western world) in part a child of Enlightenment, the reality and totality of the picture is much more complex. There is no sharp line that can be drawn between pre-modern, modern, and post-modern thought, and the penchant in contemporary discourse to use these descriptors as a short-hand and totalizing dismissal of a given project is in my estimation a reflection of a broad discursive malaise that is characteristic of a general human propensity for polemics over patient and careful dialogue with the Other. These epithets do little more than to create gulfs between interpretive communities and are not characteristic of the vocabulary of those who seek genuine understanding.

Kuykendall further asks where “the reading on the biblical narrative’s own terms” is in my work, and to this question I can only gaff. The mistake Kuykendall makes is to place the possessive apostrophe on the left-hand-side of the “s” in “narratives.” The reality is that there is not one biblical narrative in the singular, but a variety of biblical narratives, and to misunderstand this point is to do precisely what Kuykendall implies I have done: to fail to take these narratives seriously on their own terms. Taking the biblical narratives seriously on their own terms is exactly the project I have undertaken in my book, and if it takes an “Enlightenment” epistemology in order to do that, then we all ought to thank the heavens for the Enlightenment. Of course, as I have argued, modern human beings do not owe their capacity to listen to voices on their own terms either to the Enlightenment or to any other mythological epochal construct. We have in every epoch, however, fashioned many ways to avoid listening to voices on their own terms, and this is what I have sought to avoid in my work, as much as is possible.

What Kuykendall seems to have failed to see in my work is that my project is essentially about letting the multiple and diverse voices in the biblical text speak to us on their own terms, first, before we as participants in an ongoing tradition begin the process of engaging those voices critically and constructively. The voices in the Bible must speak to us out of their own contexts first, before we can appropriate those voices in a collective fashion as Scripture. If we do not permit them to do so, then Scripture is only a one-sided dialogue with ourselves and is therefore not Scripture. Scripture is not solely what the Bible says, nor is it solely what the Church says. Scripture is the Bible and the Church in dialogue with one another. My position should not be mistaken for a thoroughgoing materialist position; though it contains materialist elements in the initial reading of the text, it goes beyond materialism once the text has had a chance to speak in its own voice. I clearly articulate a hermeneutic that makes room for the Spirit to speak through the text to the faith community.

That is the argument of my book, and the argument I think Kuykendall has failed to apprehend. However, I am deeply grateful to Kuykendall for raising these very important issues and in doing so, forcing me to make my position clearer to those who come to texts (the Bible and my book) with Kuykendall’s assumptions. It should be clear that those who share Kuykendall’s assumptions were not my primary audience, but I have no wish to ignore them, and so I am grateful for the opportunity here to engage with them in this fashion.