Monthly Archives: May 2016

Short Article (3): The Clear Teaching of Scripture – A Response to Michael L Brown

Christian author and radio host Michael L Brown recently remarked: “The ultimate reason I’m not a Calvinist is the overwhelming testimony of scripture, carefully exegeted, from Genesis to Revelation. I understand my Calvinist friends have come to the opposite conclusion based on their study of Scripture. The question is: Why?” Brown is making the sort of statement I’ve seen time and time again from theologians on any side of some controversial question: “X is the clear teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood.” Now, the problem with that sort of statement is that when you ask why people disagree with X, you are asking why they disagree with the plain teaching of scripture properly interpreted and understood, and to that question there is typically one of two answers: said person is not intelligent enough to properly understand or interpret scripture, or else they are wickedly disobeying it. With this point made – either implicitly or explicitly – the pinching and eye poking soon follows.

The problem isn’t that anyone is too stupid or too wicked (OK, sure, some theologians are one or the other, or both), the problem is that much that is pronounced as the “clear teaching of scripture” is anything but clear. Take this particular issue: Calvinist versus Arminian interpretations of scripture (we’ll leave aside for now the eminently more sensible secret option three: molinism). For either side to claim that the Bible clearly teaches their position is to vastly overstate the case. There are verses which seem to support a “Calvinist” view of providence and others which clearly support an “Arminian” one. This presents a difficulty for claiming either view is the “clear teaching” of Scripture carefully exegeted. Proponents of each position are typically adept at taking those verses which are claimed by the other side in support, and showing how they are consistent with their own position after all. Seemingly there isn’t a verse supporting Calvinism or Arminianism that can’t be interpreted differently by those with the contrary persuasion.

What is assumed more often than not in these debates is the idea that theologians – or regular church Joes – go to scripture as objective interpreters and allow it to speak to them as it actually is. But that strikes me as flat out false. We all come laden with baggage. Brown overlooks that when people approach scripture they typically do so from within a certain theological tradition and with an interpretative framework in place. Moreover, a person’s control over such things is fairly limited. Someone born and raised in a Presbyterian church is far more likely to operate from within that church’s interpretative parameters, and thus adopt a Calvinistic hermeneutic, and typically without even realising it. He’s absorbed it with his mother’s milk, as it were. It isn’t that he is less careful or less intelligent or more sinful than Michael Brown, it’s simply that his interpretative presuppositions and theological tradition differs.

This principle holds in many areas of our intellectual life. None of us – not even those brilliant internet freethinkers – arrive at our beliefs from some neutral view from nowhere after rationally and systematically following some prescribed objective method. I suspect our believing this or that is a much more passive process than we appreciate. Often, for a whole host of reasons, we simply find ourselves with the beliefs we have. Of course we can (and should) critically reflect on our beliefs, and may even effect some noetic change or other – but, by and large, the judgments we make, particularly on matters of controversy, are coloured by a multitude of factors largely beyond our direct and significant control: culture, upbringing, psychological makeup and 101 other contingencies of life. And all this before we acknowledge the all too human tendency to read one’s views into the Bible, with the result that eisegesis regularly masquerades as “careful exegesis.”

So, why does a Calvinist see the “clear teaching of scripture” differently from Michael Brown? Because they aren’t Michael Brown, and because no-one reads the Bible without some interpretative lens in place.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article (2): Abortion & Public Discourse

Is the general public now just incapable of having an intelligent discussion about an emotive subject like abortion? I rarely enter the abortion debate these days, and not because I’m a man who has no right to an opinion – I do – but because the level of public debate is now so juvenile that rarely can any good come from being involved in it. What is a critically important issue – a matter of life and death – deserves to be approached carefully, and perhaps with a certain level of gravitas. Instead the public debate is a noxious mix of cheap sloganeering, crass commentary, and venomous vitriol against anyone with a contrary opinion.

Abortion was one of the big issues discussed during the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections, largely due to a criminal case in which a woman received a suspended sentence for procuring abortion pills to administer her own abortion because she couldn’t afford to travel to mainland Britain where abortion – under certain circumstances – is freely and legally available on the NHS. However, rarely has public ignorance been so stark than when it came to discussing abortion. On a political debate programme one audience member claimed that a baby “shouldn’t be considered human” until it’s born. Another remarked that it’s irrelevant that a foetus has human DNA because, after all, “a banana has human DNA.” Sadly such mindless and uninformed comments were not isolated. They reflect the general level of the public debate recently.

Catchy slogans have replaced carefully nuanced argument. Prolife people are told to “get your rosaries off my ovaries,” as if everyone who opposes abortion is a practicing Roman Catholic. When two evangelicals appeared on TV as part of panel discussion the comments aimed at them were hideously ugly. There was next to no engagement with any of their points, as critics were over-focused on the fact that they held a religious faith. Consider also the well worn “my body my rights” slogan, used to silence those who disagree, when the fact of the matter is abortion is an ethical issue precisely because it isn’t just a woman’s body that is at stake. Perhaps the most ridiculous slogan touted was: “If abortion is murder then a blowjob is cannibalism,” because pro-life people argue for the full humanity of sperm cells, right? A classic case of trying to be smart and witty, but instead sounding silly and classlessly vulgar.

Nor can we let the so-called “prolife” movement off the hook here. Sadly many vulnerable young women are verbally abused by “prolife” activists simply for entering the premises of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. They are often called sluts or murderers. A friend of mine received abuse at the hands of these zealots, who mistakenly thought she too was entering the clinic when in fact she was going to the offices next door. Additionally, we have the rather disgusting spectacle of placards bearing the mangled bodies of foetuses, images which don’t belong in a public place, and from which I’ve had to shield a young child.

Even the terms “prolife” and “prochoice” create a false dichotomy and contribute to a general lack of nuance in the public arena. Bernadette Smyth, the leader of Precious Life – a rather extreme anti-abortion group who would outlaw abortion under any circumstances – makes much of the fact that Northern Ireland is “prolife,” claiming the majority agree with her. The truth is a tad more complicated. Whilst Northern Irish people are perhaps more reserved about abortion than the rest of the United Kingdom, to say they agree with the staunch “no abortion in any circumstances” position of Precious Life is wildly inaccurate. There’s an entire spectrum of views. A majority would agree with abortion when the mother’s life is at serious risk. A large portion of this group would also agree with abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and perhaps slightly fewer would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest. And of course people will disagree about the time limit for abortions – 12 weeks, 20 weeks, 24 weeks. Very few people are either utterly against abortion or in favour of it under any circumstances right up to 9 months of pregnancy (despite the fact that many of the standard “pro-choice” slogans logically support abortion on demand for any reason at any stage of pregnancy).

Everyone has a right to an opinion, but too few want to do the difficult spade-work of serious moral reflection. What features of human life make it valuable? When does a human being become conscious? What is personhood and when does a being possess it? Does abortion cause pain to a sentient being? At what stage does a being deserve to be protected from being killed? Is there a moral difference between a being inside the womb and one outside, and if so why? What are human rights, where do they come from, and when can a human be said to possess them?

These are just a few of the difficult questions we must face with abortion. Unless you are willing to seriously reflect on them your opinion will be little more than a clanging cymbal.

Stephen J Graham

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Short Article (1): Healing & Disobedience

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Readers tell me they would like fewer long articles and more shorter pieces, so here’s my first.
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Alan Scott, the leader of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Coleraine, Northern Ireland has me blocked on Twitter (for having the audacity to question him), but one of his tweets was retweeted by John Dickinson – a Presbyterian minister in Carnmoney, Northern Ireland – who I follow. The tweet – aimed at a Christian audience – said “The call to heal the sick is inescapable. If you don’t have the gift of healing, try out the gift of obedience.” A little perplexed by this notion I asked is it really the case that failure to heal the sick amounts to disobedience on our part. Unsurprisingly I got nothing from Scott, but Dickinson responded with: “Matthew 10:8.”

I looked it up:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.”

Frankly I was even more baffled than before. First of all, if this verse means we are disobedient to a command of Christ by failing to heal the sick then we are equally disobedient for failing to raise the dead. In any event, Dickinson appears to have taken little or no notice of the context of this verse: a narrative in which Jesus sends out his disciples on an evangelistic mission. There is no indication whatsoever that this is a divine injunction for all believers everywhere for all of time. I made the point to Dickinson – asking him, perhaps a little cheekily, when he had last raised the dead – but sadly he didn’t respond.

I confess I feel sorry for the people who choose to sit under the teaching of those who would place such a burden on their backs. You don’t heal the sick? Then suffer the guilt of being disobedient to Christ. When I read the tweet to my wife she asked, “what about people like me? I don’t know how to heal the sick. How am I supposed to obey a command to do something I can’t do?” Despite not being philosophical astute, my wife had hit upon the ethical principle of “ought implies can:” if it is the case that I ought to do something, then the thing in question must be something I am indeed capable of doing. My wife can of course pray for the sick, but as for actually healing them, that’s beyond her power. Is she therefore disobedient? On the theological ruminations of Scott – seconded, seemingly, by John Dickinson – the answer is “yes.” But isn’t that simply a reductio ad absurdum of their position?

I wonder how this wonderful “gift of obedience” works out for Scott (or Dickinson). In practical terms how does one obey Christ by healing the sick? Scott’s friend Mark Marx regularly performs the “leg growing” wonder which I’ve written about numerous times before. He simply commands legs to grow – he commands muscle and sinew and bone to grow in the name of Jesus. Is this what we should be doing to obey Christ, commanding body parts to normalise, diseases to leave, and tumours to shrink? Does Scott (or Dickinson, if he agrees with this theology) do this or is there some other method available? Do they regularly see the lame walk? The blind see? The dead rise? I doubt it, though if they wish to present evidence to the contrary I’ll gladly consider it.

As well as putting a burden of guilt on the backs of other believers, such theology achieves another purpose: the elevation of the leader in the eyes of the congregation. This kind of theology creates the illusion that the leader sees much more success in healing people – because, unlike regular believers like you and I, these guys really really obey Jesus. This mix of guilt and admiration is a bewitching brew used as a form of social control over the lives of often vulnerable and impressionable people. It keeps the flock in check, and helps create and maintain the sort of spiritual hierarchy in which a certain breed of modern – typically charismatic – church leader thrives. However, it’s fundamentally abusive and leaves people emotionally and spiritually shipwrecked. My wife and I have suffered our fair share of abuse at the hands of such theology and the men and women who preach it. It was most liberating to leave it behind and come to realise that despite all the hype the preachers of such theology don’t have much success themselves. They certainly do, however, possess the gift of beguilement.

Stephen J Graham

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Modern Miracle Claims & the Limitations of Eyewitness Testimony

It is not uncommon for those who claim to have witnessed miraculous events to chastise sceptics with lines like, “you weren’t there, I was!” And that’s understandable, since humans quite naturally ascribe great weight to eyewitness testimony. However, psychological research in the past few decades has documented numerous problems with eyewitness testimony, particularly when it comes to events which are shocking, surprising, alarming, or “miraculous.” In this article I want to briefly explore some of these problems to show that when it comes to examining alleged miracles eyewitness testimony carries far less weight than is typically assumed. It needs to be examined very critically, analysed in the context of other evidence, sometimes taken with a pinch of salt, or even rejected altogether.

A report by the Innocence Project estimated that 73% of 239 convictions that were overturned by DNA evidence had been initially based on eyewitness testimony. John Munkman, an expert in court advocacy writes: “The most honest witnesses frequently give evidence which is unsound, though they are quite sure that it is true.” There are several reasons for witness mistakes which I will examine in turn.

1. Errors of Perception

In order for observations to be accurate the person must have the opportunity to observe – he or she must be in the right place, under the right conditions, and paying close attention. Errors of perception are particularly more likely when events happen very quickly, or a lot happens in a short space of time. Most witnesses in such cases see and hear only a fraction of the total occurrence, and of course we can be easily distracted from one thing by another. In fact, a bigger picture of an event is typically created subsequently – as smaller mental images are linked together by inference and imagination. Further, psychologists tell us that surprise and excitement, as well as the presence of intense pain or strong emotion, can make a picture confused and obscure the precise details, so much so that our senses can be prevented from operating normally and produce memories which are distorted or completely imaginary. Moreover, if an eyewitness has a personal interest in the matter then his or her attention will be focused on those parts of an event which are – or can be interpreted as – favourable to him, whilst ignoring those which aren’t.

So, just because someone happens to be in a room in which an alleged miracle occurs does not make them particularly useful witnesses. What exactly did they see and hear? Were they in an atmosphere of intense emotion and hype? Are they so focused on one thing that they miss something else? This tends to happen to those who claim to witness the supposed leg growing miracle: they are so focused on one leg “growing” that they miss the fact that a loosened shoe is being pushed back on the other foot to create an illusion of leg growth.

2. Errors in Interpretation

Perception is just one stage in building up a picture of an event. Our minds are also engaged in the interpretation of events as they happen. We interpret events through a complex mix of perception, inference, previous experience, and imagination. Errors can very easily occur at this stage – through mistaken assumptions or poor inferences. So, eyewitnesses at a WV Grant healing crusade will witness people being pulled out of wheelchairs and conclude that paralysed people have been healed, despite the fact these people were not in fact paralysed to begin with. People might more easily believe that paralysed people are healed before their very eyes because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment, or simply have a bias that makes them too easily interpret an event as miraculous when a much more plausible explanation is available. Seeing a person rise out of a wheelchair after prayer is not the same as seeing the lame walk, though the former is often interpreted as a case of the latter.

3. Errors of Memory and Imagination

Too many people buy into the “video recorder” view of memory, a view which has long since been discarded by experts in the phenomenology of memory. On this conception our mind simply records an event and later on replays it just as it really happened. Psychologists, such as the eminent memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus, tell us memories are “reconstructed” rather than “played back.” Rather than storing information exactly as presented to us, we extract from it the gist or underlying meaning, storing information in a way that makes most sense to us, even reconstructing memories to conform to our beliefs and expectations.

Memory also fades with the lapse of time, and is frequently supplemented by imagination. In fact, psychologists are aware of several factors which accentuate our natural tendency to use our imagination to supplement our memory of some event. For example, psychologists are aware that after an event witnesses talk to each other and run things over in their minds. During this process a picture of the event is filled out – certain details get omitted, others get added, and memories get modified. Witness A might talk to Witness B and in the course of the conversation B mentions aspects of the event that A was either only hazily aware of or not conscious of at all. However, it frequently happens that witness A will later report this aspect of the event as if he himself actually witnessed it clearly.

Even more importantly is the power of suggestion. In discussing a very basic coin trick, Derren Brown shows how it’s possible to make a person remember seeing something they never actually saw. At the beginning of the trick a coin is placed on a table. The magician goes to pick it up but in doing so simply slips the coin into their lap. He holds up his hand as if still holding the coin and makes a gesture as if he’s moving the coin into his other hand. The magician blows on this hand, opens it, and the coin has “gone.” The person guesses it must still be in the first hand, which is also empty. As the person is stumped the magician talks about the stages of the trick: “you saw me lift it, hold it up in front of you, pass it into my other hand….etc…” In most cases the person will agree that they actually saw the coin in the magicians hand before he passed it into his other hand. It’s a simple trick of suggestion, and people are most prone to being fooled by it when they are puzzled, confused, or in a high state of emotion. The creation of false memories has been reported time and time again by psychologists. Elizabeth Loftus’ experiments demonstrated how false facts are introduced into memory; she was able to have subjects remember false images, and even to change their memory of an event simply by wording questions about it in a certain way. Crucially, many of the subjects of such experiments are certain that their memories are real. This is well-known in the legal world, with the judge in the case of Krist v Eli Lilly writing: “memory is highly suggestible – people are easily ‘reminded’ of events that never happened, and having been ‘reminded’ may thereafter hold the false recollection as tenaciously as they would a true one.”

We should be wary then of eyewitness reports of miracles, particularly when they occur in the context of a healing crusade or charismatic worship service. Under such conditions people who are susceptible to miraculous interpretations of events can very easily imagine that a miracle of some kind has occurred, especially if they have discussed the events with others of a similar disposition, or if a charismatic leader has – whether consciously or not – used the power of suggestion.

4. Errors of Expression

No-one reports an event exactly as it happens. We tell stories, and these stories are selective. We omit details that are seemingly superfluous, or we exaggerate elements which we hope will surprise and delight the person we are talking to. If I had a pound for every time I heard phrases like “people were being healed all over the place!” Often this phrase simply means people were being prayed for all over the place, and the person was assuming they were being healed. Or “we prayed for Joe yesterday and the pain he’d had for 30 years totally left him for good.” Crucially, our stories can actually change our memories of the very events in question. Laura Englehardt writes, “Memory is affected by retelling, and we rarely tell a story in a neutral fashion. By tailoring our stories to our listeners, our bias distorts the very formation of memory – even without the introduction of misinformation by a third party.”

This is very common amongst charismatic leaders, who seem to thrive on personal anecdotes about wonders they have performed around the globe. One is left wondering to precisely what extent has their memory of some event been modified by the telling and retelling of such stories.

What all this means is that eyewitness testimony – as important as it can be – should be examined thoroughly, preferably by someone who was not present at the event in question. With claims of miraculous healing we are right to require additional evidence such as medical histories and expert opinion, rather than simply believing the testimony of an eyewitness, who could be – and in many cases is – in error about what exactly they witnessed or remember happening.

Stephen J Graham

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