Saturday, December 22, 2012

Western Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with HimWestern Values Versus the Gospels - What Jesus Really Values and Why We Shouldn't Agree with Him by Peter Woolcock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm just over half way through this book and have given up on it by jumping to the conclusion which is a good summary of the main argument. The essential message of the author is that the values of Jesus in the gospels, as the author construes them, are mostly incompatible with Western values, as defined by the author. The author's view of Jesus' values can be summarised by a paragraph at the start of Chapter 8:

... the only thing that Jesus believes to have intrinsic value is God himself. Humans only have a conferred value, one conferred on them by God's valuing them. The special feature possessed by humans that God specifically values is their capacity to worship him out of gratitude for the benefit he has bestowed upon them in creating them.

The author, Peter Woolcock,takes a very cynical view of Jesus' values. While it is definitely worth considering whether or not the values held by Jesus (and by many Christians) are instrumental rather than intrinsic to being human, Woolcock can only arrive at his view of Jesus's values by completely ignoring the historical and cultural context of the gospel narratives. In the gospels Jesus was a Jew speaking to Jewish people, including the "professional clergy" who were steeped in Jewish law and culture. Jesus was speaking to them in the framework of that culture and their historical situation. In fact, Woolcock makes the same mistake that many Christians make when they take the biblical narratives as propositional content and lift it from its context making it universally applicable.

Woolcock's writing is boringly repetitious - after the first couple of chapters the pattern is the same. First, show how one of Jesus' values is theocentric and instrumental (purely to please God and God's intentions) rather than something that is inherent in being human. Second, compare that with a Western value construed in the most positive way possible to show that it is better to subscribe to Western values than Jesus' values.

Woolcock's interpretation of the gospel narratives frequently draws on an evangelical conservative study bible commentary on the one hand and citations from the controversial Jesus Seminar on the other. His interpretations of Jesus's values basically ignores the best scholarship around Jesus' subversion of his culture's values and the terms "presumably", "it may be the case", "it seems to me" occur over and over again hinting at the biased perspective. Woolcock would do well to read some of the covenant theology for a more nuanced understanding of what values non-fundamentalist Christians support within a new covenant framework. For example, Woolcock assumes that the ten commandments are what are binding on Christians when this is not the case according to the best covenant theology. There is also the interesting idea of disinterested benevolence which specifically addresses the need to love others for their own sake rather than any instrumental or salvivic value they may or may not have.

Let me end by saying that I agree that values must be intrinsic rather than instrumental. I think Woolcock has a point. He is right in what he affirms but wrong (in my view) in what he denies. Too many Christians see the entirety of reality in terms that are only about what God wants - even to the point of making the abhorrent suggestion that God is involved in bringing suffering on people to achieve God's purposes. Woolcock quite rightly criticises, for example, William Lane Craig for his offensive comments regarding the slaughter of the Canaanites.

I agree that many Western values are excellent and we see these values coalescing and being clarified as more proponents weigh in on the discussion, including atheist contributions. Ultimately, this book is a provocative position worthy of consideration but is undermined by cynicism, bias, and boring writing.

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