When I was seventeen years old I lived in the Bronx. The stomping grounds went from the upper 190s north along the Grand Concourse (starting from around Poe Park) and then hang a right at Bedford Park Boulevard, all the way to the Botanical Gardens. The gully between Decatur and Marion Aves. was one of the regular hangs.
I was recently contacted via email by one of the people I knew back then. We used to call him Pinhead, not in any pejorative way, it was just a name he had acquired in grade school, long before we had met him—something about a haircut gone awry.
He was a good kid; always a smile and a kind word to even the stranger.
I haven't seen this guy for probably twenty years. In his email, he asked me what I have been up to in recent years. I made the mistake of mentioning my decade-long interest in all manner of scholarship regarding the birth of Christianity, describing myself as an atheist Jesus freak in that first exchange. I didn't intend to stir up a hornet's nest; it was just a brief mention of one of my interests.
Shortly after that, he showered me with email after email after email (thirty of them in total) of citations (he is particularly fond of Jerome and the canonical Epistle to Titus). I wasn't expecting this barrage of questions or biblical citations. It struck me as a little odd, but I figured it would only be fair to at least try to respond. I addressed a few of the points he made in his first emailing spree and managed to send it off.
His messages were full of really bad apologetics.
It's hard to refute really bad apologetics, not because it contains any compelling argument, but because its proponents are not really interested in listening to counter-arguments. The art of apologetic is really the art of preaching to the choir (read an insightful essay on this phenomenon here by Robert J. Miller). It is a way to persuade adherents to a faith system that that system is not only acceptable theologically, but is also rationally and logically plausible. I think that people, once sold, are sold, period; it is almost impossible to deconvert the pious (which is why I admire people who manage to break free of the chains of dogmatism so much) and would rather defend their religion than listen to another's pitch.
Anyway, I quickly realized that Pinhead, my long-lost friend in adolescence, has become a pious Jehova's Witness convert. And it was obvious that he didn't appove of some of the things I might write about from time to time in this blog.
I was willing to play along and answer some of the questions he raised, most of them are quite easy to tackle. I even saw it as an interesting way to focus my thoughts on these topics through the lens of my own critical mind. After absorbing both the liberal and the conservative literature of the last century, I think I have a pretty good idea of where current scholarly consensus lies in any given controversial question regarding early Christian history.
I won't go too deeply into the bad apologetics he showered me with; one example should suffice:
He insisted that the Gospel of Matthew was completed by the year 41, before the Gospel of Mark, in "Palestine" (whether he means Judea or Samaria is unclear, but this kind of anachronistic shape-shifting is used in all of the apologetic material).
I tried to point out a couple of things which make such an early dating of Matthew improbable from a historical viewpoint. Some of the things I touched on were:
- The obvious reference to the destruction of the temple
- The almost universal scholarly consensus that Mark must have preceded both Matthew and Luke by at least a decade
- The fact that some of the redaction from one gospel to the other makes no sense at all if the direction of redaction is from Matt to Mk (especially in light of the fact that some of these redactions would even be anathema to the nascent Ekklesia — I'm thinking Mk 3:19 here)
Anyway, like I said, I was willing to play along and go point by point. But one of the email subject lines caught my eye: "Expletives."
I skipped over the long list of emails and opened that particular one. It was a request that I refrain from using "expletives" in my responses. I guess that in my long expositions I must have thrown in a Bronxism or two. Lord knows I'm no vulgarian, but I'm not a prude either. Prudes are a red flag to me.
It kind of shocked me. It set me to meditating on the meaning of all this for some few moments.
This changed everything. It became obvious to me that Pinhead was acting in the role of missionary here.
I decided then to remind him where we both came from. I proceeded to remind him of who we had both been during those days when we hung out together on the streets of the Bronx. We did things together that would be considered scandalous in those days, even profane things, like rolling joints with paper from a Bible (the thinness of the paper is perfect for the task—those were the days). I'm not boasting here. I realize we were just stupid kids. My point is that people should not put on "holier-than-thou" airs, is all.
We had grown up in the Bronx, for God's sake! And now he was asking me to please not use the word "shit."
I'm not really sure what he expected me to respond with to his manic fanaticism—in hindsight, I realize that only a conversion would have satisfied him—but what he got from me instead was a scolding. What had been a pair of expletives slipped in for frivolous effect in my previous note were now intentional less-than-polite exhortations to mind the logs in his own eye.
What makes it all sad, is that he really is a sweet guy, generous and genuinely caring. Too bad he can't keep his preaching to himself. I wouldn't take that from my own mother, much less from one of my adolescence buddies.
"Let me get this straight:
You want me to adopt the religion that you espouse because you feel that it is somehow superior to the one I already may or may not have . . .does that sound about right?
. . . hmmm . . . I see . . .""
Sorry, man. I love you, but the last thing I need in my life right now is a fanatical Jehova's Witness droid up my ass, dude. If you can't see beyond your religious pretensions to reach out and talk to ME (not some potential convert), there's just no point to it.