As well as reading the Book of Acts, as I said a few days back, my following of the Episcopal lectionary has taken me back to the story of Samuel, Saul and David. I have absolutely no doubt that the best approach to these stories is to read them as poetic, or, if you like, to regard them as being about as historical as Hamlet or even The Lord of the Rings. They are clearly legendary tales, albeit with a core of history. Archaeologists and scholars differ on just what that core consists of, but there is a certain attraction in the minimalist position of Thomas L Thompson..
The history of Palestine and of its peoples is very different from the Bible’s narratives, whatever political claims to the contrary may be. An independent history of Judea during the Iron I and Iron II periods has little room for historicizing readings of the stories of I-II Samuel and I Kings.
The implications of such a position are of course enormous, serving the interest of none of the parties in the current mess that is Palestine/Israel. I do not believe the historical reality of Abraham/Ibrahim as represented in the Bible or in the Quran, a point I argue elsewhere, finding it utterly tragic that belief in such matters has been the occasion for the deaths of so many innocents down the years. I do accept the right of Israel to exist, but I deplore the way this project has been carried out. The United Nations should have been taken far more seriously on all sides of this matter, and the USA should have been far more critical of Israeli irredentism. In my view Jerusalem should be no-one’s capital, but an international enclave. Not many agree with me. See, however, Mitchell Plitnick of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Given all that, I sympathise with Sam Harris’s The End of Faith (pb 2006).
Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility… Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not.
However, Harris goes on to reject the very position which I see as a way out of this dilemma, a critical reading of these sacred texts which values the teaching while rejecting the infallibility and the historical accretions of dogma and false certainties. None of that would surprise the writers on Radical Faith, nor would such thoughts be alien to people like Karen Armstrong or John Shelby Spong.
In The Twilight of Atheism (2004), which I first alluded to in July 2005, Alister McGrath quite properly punctures many of the dogmas of atheism, including the delusion that it is necessarily more tolerant than its opposite; there is an atheist fundamentalism as well, just as vicious, when given the chance, as any other.
McGrath’s book is particularly strong on certain aspects of European, especially British, literary history. I would recommend him to anyone on the Romantic poets, for example, and on what Shelley meant by atheism. On the other hand, I find it sad that he could write a book arguing for theism from such a narrow cultural base, ignoring, really, over a billion of the world’s monotheists. The time for such parochialism is surely over. The most curious aspect of the book is that he makes postmodernism strangely attractive, while ostensibly arguing against it — in a chapter, I might add, that is good in itself but very poorly documented compared with the rest of the book, constantly referring to texts which are not listed in the bibliography at the end. Again McGrath rejects the position that probably makes most sense, so there is a curious convergence, in that respect, with Sam Harris.
One interesting minor point in McGrath’s account of Charles Darwin is his assertion that much of the received account of the great debate between Bishop “Soapy Sam” Wilberforce and T H Huxley is legend rather than fact. This may be so: I have found the article McGrath mentions but does not footnote: “Wilberforce and Huxley: A Legendary Encounter” by J R Lucas. Make what you will of that. It is ironic that McGrath seems reluctant to apply the same historical methodology to the Bible.