LOST techniques of Biblical criticism

Today James McGrath published a post on an intersection between LOST and biblical studies. I know, who would have thought he’d do something like that? Check it out if you don’t believe me.

The gist of the post was that neither the Bible nor LOST are inerrant and that we shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing far-fetched and overwrought theories that explain away internal tensions or the limitations of the authors/writers. Good point. But as a way of highlighting a couple shortcomings of some of the techniques of biblical criticism I’ve recently noticed, I’d like to explain why I find his specific example of inconsistency within LOST to be somewhat wanting.

If you haven’t seen LOST yet, you are forbidden to read the section between the spoiler alerts, on pain of being banned from the Internet. (Oh trust me, I’ll know.) Just pick up reading after the closing spoilers tag — you should still be able to catch on to my point.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

It’s not too much of a stretch to consider that MiB may have also been sent on the same time-lurch that JL et al were; if there’s a plot hole, it’s in that, but it’s conceivable that because he was using CS’s body and CS was a “passenger” of 815, he also participated in the time skipping (for that matter, why was it only the Oceanic people who participated?). How he appeared specifically at the frozen wheel is still unanswered, but it’s not going to great lengths to imagine that:

1) the MiB of all people would know the entrance to the wheel that was used by whoever completed work on the wheel in the first place; JL got in the hard way, but it’s likely there was another way. Or that…

2) before the Island started to “skip the groove,” MiB was already there in that underground place (which was presumably behind the Orchid, considering the sonar image Pierre Chang saw). Perhaps MiB went there waiting for this to occur, given that he was the one who told Locke/Ben to turn the wheel in the first place.

Now, these explanations I gave aren’t necessarily to be attributed to the writers; indeed, they probably hadn’t considered who built the wheel or how the well got filled in or anything else like that by the end of Season 4. However, unlike the Bible, I think it’s actually quite faithful to what LOST tried to be for us to attempt to imaginitively fill in the holes (so to speak).

Still, barring the nitpicky details they couldn’t have conceived of, we shouldn’t go too far in assuming a plot hole in the placement of CS at the frozen wheel as soon as a straightforward answer isn’t immediately available.

Oh, there are certainly plot holes in LOST; far more troubling to me than McGrath’s example is CS’s appearance to MD on the freighter (but I could be missing something here, too). Here’s my beef with the “Christian and the wheel” issue: by the time of the fourth season finale, I seriously doubt that the writers hadn’t plotted out what the CS apparition and the Smoke Monster actually were. In fact, if I’m not mistaken they had already confirmed via the official podcast that at least some instances of CS were the Smoke Monster. Presumably they already knew that Smokey was a human using CS’s body, and that this man was using JL to get his body; CS’s last words to JL, “Say hello to my son,” ended up being an instrumental plot point in getting JS to reconsider a return to the Island.

Whether you agree or disagree with my reasoning here, maybe we can at least agree that although the writers are undoubtably fallible, it’s an unjust insult to the showrunners’ ability to plan (or their intelligence) to just assume they dropped the ball before looking at plausible ways in which they may have justified writing plot points like CS and JL at the wheel.

***END SPOILERS***

Welcome back, benighted non-LOST folk.

What the foregoing highlights is the truism that although we shouldn’t think the writers of LOST or the Bible were more than human, we should be careful not to think them less either.

I’m a huge fan of biblical studies, and I always take the chance to read a good rethinking of biblical data. A good bit of the biblical criticism I’ve been reading lately presumes for the authors of the New Testament an undue level of  ignorance, a predisposition to (self-)delusion, and/or ulterior motives, all of which are assumed to be perpendicular to an honest (or even a vaguely accurate) presentation of facts. “Sure, they said this, but they couldn’t have meant it. Because [insert ulterior motive here], surely they constructed their story to convey this:…”

What I don’t find very plausible is that, although both Judaism before Christ and Christianity by the second century was self-conscious about moral purity (such as honesty), there was somehow a huge lapse in moral and ethical consciousness concurrent with a predilection for spinning good yarns in the face of the facts just when it came time to write the NT — which just happened to be centered around the exaltation and exemplification of Jesus as a preeminently righteous Jew! Given what we know of the ethics behind Judaism and the Christianity that emerged, I would like to see a little more presumption of sanity and altruistic motive on the part of the early Christians.

This bothered me about a recent post from (the usually excellent) Ken Schenck that confidently asserted an alternative history not only absent from but contradictory to the actual texts we have. In a strange way, this and other attempts seem to be based upon an ironic desire paralleling that of inerrantists, viz. to iron out the whole NT into a cohesive story. Biblical scholars are just more likely than inerrantists to disregard chunks of their material in order to do so. No doubt this is a worthy pursuit for academics, but it must be recognized to have its limits. Biblical scholars rightly eschew tidy concordism with the text and harmonization attempts; the accuracy and continuity of Scriptural testimony is impeded by the fact that the biblical writers were fallible and had motives other than a dispassionate explication of facts. However, they must also adequately realize the extent to which modern scholarship’s accuracy is impeded by the same limitations. Or should we assume that every scholar working has no motivation other than “just the facts, ma’am” and a superhuman ability to uncover and reassemble those facts?

To be sure, there are some fascinating suppositions in Dr. Schenck’s post that are completely plausible to me. Let me state emphatically that I fault scholars not for coming up with brilliant alternative hypotheses, but 1) for being too confident that an alternative hypothesis, any hypothesis, must always trump the actual text and 2) for quixotic confidence that disbelieving this author here and tweaking the motives of that author there will unearth a pristine, complex narrative relic that will “almost certainly” tell us something. My problem is with the presumption that if we steamroll every text in search of an obscured subtext we’ll uncover a coherent narrative leading us to the historical “real story” behind it all. It’s fun to try, of course, but given the characteristically dynamic nature of historical and textual criticism of the Bible, I doubt very much if many conclusions we can be “almost certain” about are in the cards any time soon. How often has this sort of historical methodology been independently and conclusively demonstrated to have accurately reconstructed a situation that actually existed?

I’m no inerrantist, and I’m certainly not saying we should view every biblical text with an assumption of “history until proved a fairy tale”. We should dig down as far as we can, prying up the surface to get a peek of what lies beneath each text. Criticism of the Gospels is quite interesting, and I have gone on record saying that I find many of the Jesus Seminar’s positions to be intriguing and likely to be true. But a lot of it presumes at best a clumsy moral ambiguity in the presentation of historical material, and self-conscious disregard for known facts in favor of self-serving agendas at worst. We can find ulterior motives and dubious agendas behind any number of good actions on the part of well-intentioned people. My main point, I suppose, is that just because we can imagine clever alternative scenarios doesn’t mean we should feel unduly confident in them. Like the authors of Scripture, we’re only human, after all.

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  • Keith Reich

    You seem to take issue with “biblical criticism” in general, but then narrow your focus to a very specific area within biblical criticism, one that attempts to reconstruct what “really happened” from the apparent untruths, or you fall short of calling them lies, propagated by the New Testament writers. You seem to be criticizing a specific group of historical Jesus critics, yet you fail to mention whom you are actually criticizing, aside from a brief mention of the Jesus Seminar.

    I agree that Historical Jesus critics tend to “psychologize” the motives of the NT writers, attributing to them “ulterior motives” in their apparent deception of the audience. Yet, this presupposes a modern view of history, one that is concerned primarily with getting the facts strait as its number one priority. Ancient historians on the other hand were concerned more about portraying the “truth” of history rather than the facts of history (see my recent blog post http://keithreich.blogspot.com/2010/06/truth-fa… if you are interested). I do not think that it is necessary, or even beneficial to psychologize the NT writers and attribute to them ulterior motives in their distortion of history. Instead, we should try to understand their writings as part of Greco-Roman historiography. They were not distorting the truth, they were telling it the best way they knew how, according to their cultures way of telling the truth.

  • Keith,
    Thanks for your comment.

    I am quite disappointed if I came across as overly critical of biblical criticism. I thought I did my best to affirm it, even while critiquing certain “techniques of biblical criticism.” I enjoy it very much, and am something of an apologist first it generally. I didn't want to start wars I am ill-equipped to wage, but I did mention a case in point with Ken Schenck's post.

    I will say it again: I love hearing alternative explanations, even of the “psychologizing” type. My biggest complaint is the hubris required to become overly confident in our revision of ancient documents, Christian or not.

    I loved your blog post, and quite agree. I have advocated a very similar position on this blog (for instance: http: //undeception.com/outsider-analysis/). It is wrong for us to attribute bad motives or incompetence from our ivory towers two millennia after the fact.

    Thanks again for commenting!

  • Keith,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I am quite disappointed if I came across as overly critical of biblical
    criticism. I thought I did my best to affirm it, even while critiquing
    certain “techniques of biblical criticism.” I enjoy it very much, and am
    something of an apologist first it generally. I didn't want to start wars I
    am ill-equipped to wage, but I did mention a case in point with Ken
    Schenck's post.

    I will say it again: I love hearing alternative explanations, even of the
    “psychologizing” type. My biggest complaint is the hubris required to become
    overly confident in our revision of ancient documents, Christian or not.

    I loved your blog post, and quite agree. I have advocated a very similar
    position on this blog (for instance: http: //
    undeception.com/outsider-analysis/). It is wrong for us to attribute bad
    motives or incompetence from our ivory towers two millennia after the fact.

    Thanks again for commenting!