This may sound like an odd way of introducing a book review, but hang with me….
In his 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Cordon writes about an American serviceman, captured during the Korean War, who was brainwashed by the Communists. This former POW, and son of a prominent U.S. politician, was being manipulated to try to assassinate a U.S. Presidential candidate. The story was originally put to film in 1962, a classic starring Frank Sinatra.
Though fictional, The Manchurian Candidate was based on news reports of American soldiers, who were captured as Prisoners of War (POWs), but who refused to repatriate back to the United States, once a truce was agreed upon by both the United Nations and North Korea. Out of nearly 3,500 returning POWs, 23 Americans had chosen to stay in North Korea. Why did these 23 servicemen, in the latter category, defect?
In the 1970s, a study was done to try to learn why these Americans refused to come home, after the fighting had ceased. It was discovered that nearly all of these American defectors came from one, single United States military training camp. In that particular training camp, the military indoctrination trainers were teaching the troops that the North Koreans were evil to the core, that the North Koreans all hated Americans, and that they could not be trusted for anything. The experience in that camp was in contrast to the vast numbers of American POWs, who received either no indoctrination training, prior to capture, or whose indoctrination materials were more moderate in their description of the North Koreans.
According to author Peter Boghossian, in his How To Have Impossible Conversations, the research demonstrated, that when the captured American servicemen were actually treated with kindness and compassion, by their North Korean captors, the American POWs from the hardline indoctrination camp were far more likely to defect to North Korea, than were the vast majority of American POWs who returned to the U.S., who received either no indoctrination, or whose training was less extreme.
I call the defection of those American soldiers, to the Communists, an example of the “Manchurian Candidate Effect.”
The Danger of Misrepresenting the Beliefs Held By Others, Who Do Not Exactly Hold Your Own Convictions about Christian Faith
In my years of doing Christian youth ministry, I have seen this scenario sadly played out multiple times: A worried Christian parent would tell me that they were fearful that their son or daughter was in danger of walking away from the faith, in which they were taught. In many of these cases, the parent’s concern was genuine, as harmful influences were indeed tugging away at the young person’s fidelity to their parent’s faith.
But every now and then, upon closer inspection, I would learn that the parent was teaching their kids ideas that misrepresented the character and/or beliefs of their child’s non-Christian, non-believing influencers. In some cases, such misrepresentations were even of other Christians, who were still orthodox in their Christian beliefs, but who held to particular views that were still out of step with what the parents believed.
Yet when the child began to learn that their agnostic, atheistic, etc. teacher, coach, or new friend, truly cared for them, and did not fit in with the caricature painted by their parent, this would inevitably raise questions in the mind of that child. The child would learn that not all atheists desperately hate God, or that their new sports teammate, from a Muslim home, was really a nice person, and not the terrorist that their parents imagined them to be. When that happened, the wayward child’s fidelity to their parent’s faith would begin to unravel. They would begin to wonder if their parents had mislead them about other, more fundamental teachings about the Christian faith, a form of doubt that would put their commitment to Christ in jeopardy.
Invariably, such misperceptions would also apply to other Christians, who might have read the Bible slightly differently from the child’s parents. For example, if the wayward child had a Christian friend, who adopted a different view of the age of the earth, or the historicity of the Book of Job, than that being taught by the child’s parents, the orthodoxy of the friend’s faith was viewed with grave suspicion, when in fact, the fundamental orthodoxy of the friend’s faith was never seriously in question. Again, like pulling a thread out of a nicely knit sweater, the complex structure of a rigid form of Christian belief would start to fall apart. This is the “Manchurian Candidate Effect” in motion.
At the same time, it is true that the forces that tug away at undermining Christian belief are constantly at work, and they do creep in and influence the church. Having discernment as to what properly constitutes those negative influences is essential. But like the hardline indoctrination received by those American defectors to North Korea, it is counterproductive to demonize other people in ways that completely misrepresent them.
There is no surefire way to prevent a child from abandoning the faith. No magic formula will guarantee that a child will adopt the faith of their parents. The obstacles to maintaining an orthodox view of Christian faith are extremely difficult, in a culture that is constantly bombarding believers with alternative messages. Biblical illiteracy is at an all-time high, even in many otherwise solid evangelical churches, and the attacks on Christianity, within the wider culture, only make the task of Christian discipleship all the more difficult.
Prayer is the key to see the Holy Spirit at work, but it is also deserving to have a fair look at why critics of the Christian Bible hold the positions that they do. A Christian can offer a reasonable defense, to such criticisms, without sticking one’s head into the sand.
What are the Top Questions that Critics Have About the Christian Bible?
Why is it that so many people today conclude that they can not believe the Bible? In the age of the Internet, social media, and the skepticism of popular scholars, like Bart Ehrman, such issues are unavoidable. I know that many of my Christian friends are not interested in these matters, but as I work on a college campus, I run into these type of issues, almost on a daily basis.
Here are some of the top questions that many are asking today:
- Are not the copies of the Bible hopelessly corrupt?
- Was not the selection of books for canon just political?
- Can we trust any of translations of the Bible?
- Do not the issues rule out biblical inerrancy?
- Are not several narrative genres of the Bible unhistorical?
- Do not all the miracles make the Bible mythical?
It is within the context of these questions about the Bible that Craig Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe the Bible?: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions is a valuable resource for encouraging Christians to have a greater confidence in the Bible, as truly being the reliable Word of God. I bought this book at an apologetics conference five years ago, and I finally made my way through it just recently. In an age where godly, Scriptural discernment and responsible scholarship is sadly lacking in many corners of the church, Blomberg’s work is like a breath of fresh air and clarity, providing sound answers to all of the above questions.
Craig Blomberg is a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. For those readers unfamiliar with Blomberg, but perhaps familiar with the more well-known writings of Timothy Keller, it is helpful to know that Craig Blomberg is the “go-to” source for all of Timothy Keller’s research on the reliability of the New Testament documents.
There are a lot of areas where one could focus on the Bible’s trustworthiness, such as the Bible’s relationship to science, or the moral teachings of the Bible. But in Can We Still Believe the Bible?, Craig Blomberg focuses his attention on the six questions highlighted above. The passion out of which Blomberg writes is to defend the Bible against unbelieving critics, who would completely reject the trustworthiness and inerrancy of the Bible. We live in an age of relentless skepticism, and Craig Blomberg suggests that there are still good reasons to believe the Bible. Yet Blomberg finds dangers on the other side, advanced by those who contend for hyper-conservative views of the Bible, mischaracterizing more moderate voices, even to the point of labeling such moderate positions as “liberal” or “compromising.”
For example, some critics, like the famous agnostic Bart Ehrman, say that the New Testament we have today is made up of copies of copies, of copies, of copies, of copies, of copies, of original documents, that are completely lost to us today. This claim suggests that we simply have no reliable way to get back to the original New Testament documents, with the manuscript data we currently possess, making our degree of confidence in our English Bibles extremely low. Skeptical voices, like Bart Ehrman’s, dominate today’s media outlets, and percolates down to social media. But Blomberg demonstrates that such pessimism about the Bible is not the case. The plethora of New Testament manuscripts, available to scholars today, instead reveals an embarrassment of riches, demonstrating that we really can get back to the original writings, of say, Paul or Luke, with a very high degree of probability.
Likewise, on the hyper-conservative side, many King-James-Only (KJV) advocates strongly assert that modern Bible translations can not be trusted, as they are based on the false premise that the original Greek text, behind the New Testament of the older KJV translation, represents a more recent tradition, as opposed to an earlier tradition of reliable manuscript data. By misrepresenting modern Bible translations, this claim introduces a different form of doubt, in the minds of some Christians, who wonder if they can really trust their modern English translation. While such hyper-conservative arguments may succeed at keeping certain Christians within the KJV-Only fold, they may also trigger the “Manchurian Candidate Effect,” leading other Christians to distrust ALL Bible translations, and waver in their faith.
Again, Blomberg successfully shows how modern translations in no way take away from the fundamental teachings of Christian doctrine, such as the deity of Christ. In other words, if you use the ESV, or English Standard Version of the Bible, it is not the “English Satanic Version” of the Bible, as so many KJV-Only proponents claim. But rather, it is the result of years of faithful research into understanding how God has preserved the essential reliability of His Word, across the centuries.
Appreciating the Diversity of Literary Genre in the Bible
Perhaps the most contentious area that Blomberg addresses concerns the question of whether or not certain biblical narratives are historical. But Blomberg discusses the use of how different literary genres are employed throughout Scripture, even within otherwise primarily historical narratives, such as the Gospels. In particular, Blomberg argues that the trustworthiness of Scripture needs to be defined within the standards of antiquity, when the text was actually written, as opposed to arbitrarily imposing contemporary, 21st century standards upon the text.
Most Christian know that the parables told by Jesus are fictional in nature. Jesus actually, historically told these parables, but the parables themselves appeal to metaphor, and not observable history, to make their theological points. But are there other cases, where a mixture of literary genre exists within an otherwise historical narrative?
For example, is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in Luke 16:19-31, to be considered as purely historical narrative? Since this is the only story told by Jesus, whereby Jesus gives names to the main characters, Lazarus and Abraham, in describing the afterlife, some contend that Jesus is describing a historical event, assuming a type of human eyewitness perspective. In other words, advocates of this view believe that Lazarus was a real, historical person who died, sometime before Jesus told this story to his followers, and Jesus is describing Lazarus’s experience in the afterlife, with the Rich Man, from the eye-witness perspective of sometime living in that afterlife world.
But since this story follows immediately after Jesus is telling his disciples three unambiguous parables, that are understood to be fictional, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Rich Man and Lazarus story is also a fictional account, designed to teach profound theological truth, just as the parables are designed to do.
Does the type of literary genre being used here by Luke in any way compromise the doctrine of biblical inerrancy? Craig Blomberg makes the most persuasive case that the answer is surely, “NO.” These are matters having to deal with the correct means of biblical interpretation, and they do not impinge on the trustworthiness of Scripture itself. Blomberg defends a more nuanced approach to the inerrancy of the Bible, that allows for scholars to hone in on a more accurate interpretation of the Scriptural data, without any compromise of inerrancy itself.
As a corollary to Blomberg’s discussion about genre, one might wonder if the story of Jonah and the big fish should be understood as a specific historical event. The great Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, had his doubts, as expressed in a letter to Corbin Carnell, dated April 4, 1953:
- “….the question about Jonah and the great fish
does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole
Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different
kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament
narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.”
C.S. Lewis, who is hailed as a hero by most evangelical Protestants today, undoubtedly did not embrace a strict definition of biblical inerrancy. Ironically, Lewis therefore would not be allowed to teach at many evangelical theological institutions today, that revere him so highly, partly because of his view of Jonah.
Yet perhaps the story of Jonah is indeed an historical narrative, but with a few metaphorical elements mixed in. Perhaps the metaphorical imagery of the great fish describes the calamity of Jonah’s being thrown overboard, and his miraculous survival, as opposed to asserting something like a massive whale shark, capable of supplying Jonah a ready supply of oxygen, for Jonah’s three day and three night underwater journey. Perhaps the great fish was a metaphor for Sheol, the realm of the dead, and the story of being vomited out upon the seashore testifies to how God rescued Jonah from death.
Craig Blomberg would not want to rule out the use of the fish as a fictional metaphor here, as an interpretive possibility. Jesus did attest to the story of Jonah and the big fish. But Jesus also used parables, which were clearly fiction, to teach essential theological truth.
Blomberg’s suggestion does not imply a flat-out skepticism of the miracles in the Bible, as a whole. Far from it. If one accepts the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection as an historical, bodily event, as one must to be a truly Bible-believing Christian, then that paves the way open to accepting any miracle story in the Bible as historical event, at least in principle. If we really are talking a great, non-metaphorical fish swallowing Jonah whole, then we need to be prepared to accept it. But it need not conflict with the possibility of God using something like the fish story, as a metaphorical image instead, to convey God’s Truth. The trustworthiness of various stories in the Bible need not be rejected, simply because we assume a particular way of reading, that would be alien to the intended literary purposes of the writer.
Interpretive decisions, regarding how one should read particular texts as metaphorical or non-metaphorical, must be made on a passage by passage basis, paying careful attention to the particular literary genre, and other elements of literary context. This is a nuanced, evidentially informed, sensible, and wise approach to the Bible. Blomberg’s work is balanced, a good example of how evangelical Bible scholarship has improved over the recent decades, avoiding the pitfalls of liberal critical scholars, who undermine the Bible’s authority, as well as hyper-conservative defenses of the Bible, that often invite ridicule. I wish I had something like Craig Blomberg’s book in my hands, when I was a 1980s college student, struggling with difficult questions about my faith, particularly regarding issues like biblical inerrancy.
When Christians are presented with challenges to their faith in Jesus, and their trust in the Bible, by antagonistic critics of Christianity, it obviously can be disturbing to those who feel like they are not prepared to defend their faith. But it can be even more disconcerting when otherwise well-intentioned “defenders” of the faith, misrepresent the views of other Christians, who also believe the Bible, but who nevertheless find themselves being the object of scorn by supposedly fellow Christians. It often feels like living through the backstory of The Manchurian Candidate.
Can We Still Believe the Bible? is not an exhaustive look at the issues about the Bible, as the Bible is indeed a big book, and scholars continue to pour their lives into the faithful study of what God is continually revealing to His church, about the plans and purposes of God. But Blomberg’s fantastic work, while being a bit technical for the average, casual reader, is an incredibly helpful resource for those who study the Bible with the utmost seriousness and intensity, who nevertheless find themselves asking good, honest questions about Scripture’s reliability. Craig Blomberg presents enough case studies in his research to make a profoundly compelling case that, yes, we can still believe the Bible. He effectively steers a middle course, between an unbridled skepticism and an overzealous, anti-intellectualism. Blomberg’s work has received enthusiastic reviews, from some evangelicalism’s top scholars, such as Michael Kruger, and Dan Wallace. For those who are concerned about whether the Bible can still be trusted, I heartedly recommend this work by Craig Blomberg.
Craig Blomberg wrote a followup to Can We Still Believe the Bible?, which focuses in greater detail on apologetic concerns within the New Testament. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs (B&h Studies in Christian Apologetics) is on my “to-be-read” list, as it taps into Blomberg’s particular focus area of scholarship, the New Testament.
Can we still believe the Bible? In walking away from my reading of Craig Blomberg, the answer is clearly, “YES!”
The following is a 2016 lecture Dr. Blomberg gave at Cornell University, covering the main themes of Can We Still Believe the Bible?:
November 26th, 2019 at 3:12 am
Considering the way secularists and people of other religions often misrepresent and demonize Christianity to their students and offspring, hopefully the Manchurian Effect can apply to young people raised in these environments when they encounter Christians.