Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fish, Ehrman, Flew, Oppenheimer and Wright

There is an interesting piece in The New York Times in which Stanley Fish reviews new books by Antony Flew and Bart Ehrman:

Suffering, Evil and the Existence of God
Bart D. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies and his book is titled “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.” A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Ehrman trained to be a scholar of New Testament Studies and a minister. Born-again as a teenager, devoted to the scriptures (he memorized entire books of the New Testament), strenuously devout, he nevertheless lost his faith because, he reports, “I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the fact of life . . . I came to the point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge.” “The problem of suffering,” he recalls, “became for me the problem of faith.”

Much of the book is taken up with Ehrman’s examination of biblical passages that once gave him solace, but that now deliver only unanswerable questions: “Given [the] theology of selection – that God had chosen the people of Israel to be in a special relationship with him – what were Ancient Israelite thinkers to suppose when things did not go as planned or expected? . . . . How were they to explain the fact that the people of God suffered from famine, drought, and pestilence?” . . . .
The article goes on to look at Antony Flew's new book, There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, but what really caught my attention was the appended reference to an article also appearing over the weekend in the New York Times:

The Turning of an Atheist
Mark Oppenheimer

The article is a fascinating and ultimately quite depressing account of the genesis of a book that, according to Oppenheimer, has more to do with a certain Roy Varghese and Flew's failing memory than it does to Flew's own rigorous academic research. The key passage is here,
“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.
The article is a must-read, an impressive piece of investigative journalism. But there is another angle that will be of interest to New Testament geeks, something not mentioned in Oppenheimer's piece.

The Atlantic.com yesterday published a comment from Ross Douthat on Oppenheimer's piece, and it notes that Tom Wright provides an appendix for the book in which he "responds to questions from ('from'?) Flew along the lines of 'what evidence is there for the existence of God?'". Douthat's concluding comments express some concern:
On the basis of his [Oppenheimer's] reporting, There Is A God is a disgrace, the publisher ought to be ashamed of itself (ha!), and N.T. Wright, whose reputation is deservedly sterling, ought to disassociate himself from the project. Anthony Flew’s turn to deism seems genuine, but he’s in no position to have his name and reputation associated with a book about so important a topic, and the people responsible for taking advantage of his friendship have brought only scandal to the name of the beliefs they hold so dear.

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