This blog is moving; please come with us

Greetings, loyal readers. Religion Bulletin is growing up! We are pleased to announce that we are moving to our permanent home on the webservers of Equinox Publishing, Inc. If I’ve done everything right — which is, as the saying goes, a big “if” — this shouldn’t affect you. All old links should simply redirect to the new address. However, if you’re reading this in a feed reader or via an email subscription, you should make sure you’re subscribed to From now on, if you want to pass on the site URL to your friends, colleagues, and students (and why wouldn’t you want to?), you can give them the eminently user-friendly address Thank you for reading!

Posted in Housekeeping, Nathan Rein | Leave a comment

Only With His Eye Lasers

From the Fail Blog:


Posted in Craig Martin, Humor | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Religious Essentialism

I spend a good bit of time in my courses trying to disrupt religious essentialism: the idea that all practitioners in a religious tradition share some essence, that such an essence determines their behavior, or that their beliefs are the essence that directly informs their behavior. Since I teach at school with a predominantly Catholic, homogeneous student body, I can use the following pedagogical exercise to interrupt religious essentialism.

I start by asking the students, “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Qur’an?” They may or may not know the answer; if they don’t, I tell them: “Kill them.”

Then I ask them, “How many of you identify as Christian or know someone who identifies as Christian? Raise your hand if you or those Christians you know believe in the Bible or hold it to be a sacred book.” Usually I get a lot of raised hands.

Then I go on: “What does it say to do with idolaters in the Bible?” They never know the answer to this one, so I have to tell them: “Kill them.” “So all of you who raised your hands want to kill idolaters, right? Or the Christians you know are lining up to kill idolaters?” They giggle.

I go on to point out that the relationship between stated “beliefs” and practitioners’ “behavior” is always complex. The “beliefs –> behavior” formula is absurd upon reflection. Just because someone says ze “believes” in the Qur’an doesn’t mean ze wants to kill idolaters, any more than my own students who “believe” in the Bible want to kill idolaters.

The idea that beliefs drive action is a popular theory of religion, but it’s a bad one. Something much more complicated is going on with talk about “beliefs,” and we would be wise not to take belief-talk at face value.

Posted in Craig Martin, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Worst Book Cover in Religious Publishing Awards 2010

Religion Bulletin would like to open nominations for the The Worst Book Cover in Religious Publishing Awards 2010. This is the first year in which these awards have been run, and we sincerely hope it will become an annual fixture.

You have until December 31, 2010 to nominate the book you consider boasts the worst book cover in religious publishing in 2010. Nominations are open to all. You may either nominate a book for our supreme award, The Worst Book Cover in Religious Publishing, or for one of the specialist categories:

  • The Worst Book Cover in Academic Religious Publishing Award
  • The Intentionally Worst Book Cover in Religious Publishing Award
  • The “I Have No Idea What They Were Thinking” Award

As always, there is some stiff competition for hideous design when it come to religious books. Here are three of the nominations we have already received:

Brad Warner, Sex, Sin, and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between (New World Library, 2010).

This cover was, we understand, designed this badly on purpose. And although you wouldn’t know it by judging the book by its cover, the content is surprisingly quite good. But, man, what were you thinking with that cover? And “polyamory” – what is that? Some sort of weird parrot fetish?

However kitsch that was, bear in mind that the unsightly design of this next book was in fact due entirely to a complete lack of taste:

Arthur Goldberg, Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change (Red Heifer Press, 2010).

This book cover is in deparate need of, like, a total makeover – a queer eye for the straight jacket.

Incidentally, the author of Light in the Closet is the “Co-Director” of JONAH (Jews Offering New Alternatives to Homosexuality). Yes, really.

But my favorite worst book cover so far is this one:

Randolph Wright, Mikhail Gorbachev is Gog and Magog: The Biblical Antichrist (AuthorHouse, 2010).

Stunning. I have only awestruck questions. Gorbachev??!!! Are there really still crazed dispensationalists out there so stuck in the 1980s that they still think Gorby is a contender for the job of Antichrist? Or is it perhaps the case that the author has been working on this book ever since the 1980s? And you say Gorby is both Gog and Magog? What? … yet, on the other hand, that picture of the pink devil with his hand on Gorby’s shoulder certainly looks compelling.

Please make your own nominations in the comments section below!

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Pedagogy, Religion and Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

November 2010 Biblical Studies Carnival – Call for Submissions

The Biblical Studies Carnival is a monthly blog carnival which has been running (albeit with a few interruptions) since April 2005. It collects and showcases a selection of posts on academic biblical studies, and is normally run by a different biblical studies blogger (“biblioblogger“) each month. It features biblical studies of all specializations, interests, and points of view, whether composed by academics, students, or keen amateurs. Following on from the Bulletin for the Study of Religion’s recent special edition on biblioblogging (which as Tim Bulkeley kindly pointed out, is available by subscription only), Religion Bulletin will be hosting the November 2010 Biblical Studies Carnival (LVII or נז) on December 1, 2010.

So – I’m calling for your submissions of blog posts on academic biblical studies during the month of November. You can make your submission at any time during the month by emailing it to deanegalbraith [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] nz. Feel free to submit your own post or even somebody else’s, and submit as many posts as you like. Just remember to at least include the URL and the name of the individual blog post.

Currently, the Biblical Studies Carnivals are coordinated by Jim West (Zwinglius Redivivus). The latest Carnival (for October 2010) is available at ξἐνος (Xenos), and you can volunteer to host a future carnival by emailing Jim.

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Pedagogy, Religion and Popular Culture | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Standards and Censorship

The recent discussion in the blog-o-sphere about Roland Boer’s controversial SBL paper title (see Deane Galbraith’s recent Bulletin post for the details) raises important questions about what sort of professional standards scholars should strive towards. Standards are both necessary and stifling: how can we draw lines (e.g., between scholarship and stand-up comedy or propaganda) without needlessly advancing centrism or arbitrary social codes?

The specific reason I ask myself this question requires me to tell the following story. When I read Roland’s post I laughed out loud and thought to myself: “Oh man, what a mess! I can’t believe the SBL is trying to push him around!” However, not 24 hours later Deane sent me an email notifying me that he had written up a post for the Bulletin about the topic (I have to approve posts and schedule them for release). In the post’s title Deane used a rather provocative (and crude!) euphemism for a penis. At that point I cringed and thought to myself: “Deane, you’re killing me! Why are you putting me in a situation where I have to be responsible for posting this?!”

Since I was busy, I put off responding until I could draft a carefully worded email suggesting he might change it. But later that day (or early the next), I got another email from Deane prompting me to check out his post. So I went back and pulled it up again, noticing that the colorful euphemism had been removed. Without me saying a word, Deane had censored himself, apparently in anticipation of my response. [Deane has since explained that he did not censor himself, but that upon rereading the piece he decided the subtler approach worked better.]

So would I have been right or wrong to refuse it? Sometimes genitalia-related jokes are patriarchal or sexist, but this one wasn’t—so I couldn’t have refused it on those grounds. To what standard would I have appealed other than my own discomfort, especially when my discomfort reflects my social class of origin more than it reflects any standards of scholarship? Should we have a policy of “anything goes”?

Posted in Craig Martin | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Sausage” Blacklisted by the Society of Biblical Literature!

A controversy threatens to expand out of all proportion over an academic’s use of the term “sausage” in the title of his paper scheduled for the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in November.

The paper, by ballsy Australian biblical scholar Roland Boer, is provocatively entitled “Too Many Dicks at the Writing Desk, or, How to Organise a Prophetic Sausage-Fest.” SBL administrators apparently received complaints from inflamed members who considered the term “Sausage-Fest” to be “offensive.” Looking to cool a potentially explosive and sticky situation, the Manager of Programs, Charlie Haws sent an email to Boer, with the request that Boer excise his offending sausage.

This request by the SBL is a deplorable attempt to censor an academic paper, based on nothing more than the questionable sensibilities of certain unnamed members. In addition, the request comes very late – less than a month before Boer is due to deliver his paper on November 20, 2010. In fact, the paper’s title has already been printed in the SBL’s 2010 Session Guide, which was earlier sent out to all 8,500 SBL members.

The SBL’s attempt to censor Boer has been met with something of an outcry from less prudish biblical scholars. Discussion has been hot and heated on Boer’s blog (here and here), and throughout the blogosphere (see here, herehere and here). The controversy is yet to be resolved, but Boer is hopeful that he will be allowed to freely and openly display his “sausage” at the November 20 session.

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Pedagogy | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Jesus vs. Google

Yesterday evening, as I happened to be walking to the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I noticed this amusing piece of street art:

Jesus versus Google

(Moray Place, Dunedin, New Zealand – Artist unknown)

Not bad … but wrong font choice.

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Religion and Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Odds on the Resurrection of Jesus: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1

There are quite a few academic and quasi-academic studies in which statistical analysis seems to be employed as a substitute for thinking. It is, perhaps, fairly understandable why some people are tempted by the allure of numbers. Those mysteriously complex formulae, mindnumblingly boring statistics and obscure mathematical notations lend a magical aura of scientific objectivity and plausibility to even the most patently absurd claims.

What gets me talking about this at this moment is my dumbfounded reading last night of an article published by Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew, entitled “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” (2009). In this article, the McGrews utilize Bayesian probability in order to argue to the “scientific” conclusion that the probability of the resurrection of Jesus is a “staggering” 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Are you staggered? overwhelmed? swooning? Were you previously skeptical about the Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected, but now you’re feeling pretty silly? Perhaps not.

There is nothing new about these kind of claims. You can find similar claims in populist apologetic works ranging from Robert Anderson’s The Coming Prince to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict. And in every case, the flimsy basis for the odds is covered over by meaningless statistics that are intended only to impress. What is disturbing about the McGrews’ article is that it appears in a volume published by academic publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, and is typical of the approach of those trying to “resurrect” that impossibly inconclusive field known as Natural Theology. While both of the editors of the volume are academics, one, William Lane Craig, is better known for engaging in popular apologetic debates, and the other, J.P. Moreland has recently disclosed that he once “had an encounter with three angels.” This descent of purportedly academic publications and fields to the field of popular apologetics has its counterpart in recent biblical studies publications where the line between the apologetics and scholarship is increasingly hard to draw. Essentially apologetic works such as N.T. (Tom) Wright’s The Resurrection of The Son of God and Joseph (“The Pope”) Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth have been widely received within New Testament studies, a field now dominated by U.S. Southern Baptist Seminaries and Universities – a state of affairs which has meant that even a book as out-of-touch with scholarship as the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth could be largely uncriticized within the field and in fact championed by scholars in the response volume, The Pope and Jesus of Nazareth: Christ, Scripture and the Church (2009).

The major trick Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew pull when they produce their tremendous, if not entirely fanciful, odds for the resurrection of Jesus is to cover up the substantial issues regarding the resurrection of Jesus in layers of probability formulae. Moreover, by already assuming the accuracy of the Gospel accounts, the paper is as close to circular reasoning as one can get, without being completely circular. The assumptions pragmatically, if not technically a priori, rule out in advance any alternative explanations, because the Bible is assumed to provide the most accurate idea of what really happened: the major implication being that alternatives are already effectively deemed less likely. The whole exercise is deeply and unavoidably farcical. Therefore, as you read the following formulae, bear in mind that what their claim all boils down to is one very old and tired apologetic claim: if we accept the Gospel stories as credible eyewitness accounts (which is itself at best a highly disputed contention), the best explanation of what really happened is exactly what the Gospels claimed to have happened.

First up, here is the McGrews’ statistical formula for, in effect, saying “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

P(F1 & … & Fn|R) / P(F1 & … & Fn|~R) >>1
where P=’probability of’; F=’fact’; and ‘R’ is ‘resurrection’

The McGrews then provide a derived formula for multiple independent facts, which, again, basically says, “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(F1|R)/P(F1|~R) x … x P(Fn|R)/P(Fn|~R)

The McGrews then consider three “facts” (taken from the Bible) in order to apply this formula: the reports of the resurrection by the women who visited Jesus’ empty tomb (“W”); the testimony of the disciples (“D”); and the conversion of Paul (“P”, again). And this provides the following formula, which basically equates to the claim, “Given what the Bible says, especially about those women, disciples, and Paul’s conversion, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

“P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(W|R)/P(W|~R) x P(D|R)/P(D|~R)x P(P|R)/P(P|~R)

For reasons that escape both me and the authors themselves, the probability concerning the women is then assigned odds of 100:1, the disciples each 100:1, and Paul’s conversion 1000:1. As there are 13 “disciples” mentioned in the stories, the McGrews multiply the 100:1 odds for each one of the disciples – even though they all appear in the same story – to get 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000:1. And if you multiply that by the women’s odds (100:1) and the odds from Paul’s conversion (1000:1), you get another five zeroes: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Which is a real scientific way of saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Religion and Popular Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

What would British Novelist John le Carré have asked Tony Blair had he interviewed him?

What’s the one question that British novelist John le Carré would have asked Tony Blair, if he had had the chance? John le Carré answers in a recent interview with Democracy Now:

I think I would have asked him one question, perhaps, and I’d have asked it repeatedly. I’d have asked him about his faith, because we were told, when journalists asked about Blair’s faith, the reply was, “We don’t do God here.” Well, of course, he does do God, and he reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him. I think that the question of somebody’s religious faith is absolutely central to what we think of them, if we are members of the electorate. We have to know. If it is, for example, somebody’s conviction, widely held among Christians in the United States, that the second coming of Christ is not possible ’til the Greater Israel is established, we need to know that. That’s an important political perception. In Blair’s case, I would have asked him that question, and I’d have pressed him on it. I’d have asked him whether God had ever restrained him. I find it very strange that we elect a politician who then claims to serve a higher deity who guides him: “I did what I believe is right.” Well, will you tell us, please, how that relates to the Christian ethic? Do you believe in war first and negotiation afterwards? Exactly how does this work?

Posted in Deane Galbraith, Politics and Religion | Tagged , , | 1 Comment