The Fable of Honesty

So! -- this is an oldie, but...


.... uh... well... it's an oldie... where I come from....

(Originally posted on Themestream long, long ago in the early days of internet blogging. Recalled for purposes of contributing to a Facebook post about a similar satire in these modern days. I actually did have the dream as a dream, but with somewhat less detail. No doubt inspired by Gregory Boyd's Cynic Sage or Son of God, which I had been dictating to tape at the time.)

I had a dream one night, that put me in one of those stressful situations which although highly improbable is still possible enough to be frightening.

In this case, I found myself on a floodlit indoor lecturing stage at a small wooden desk with a microphone. This was to my left; on the other side of the stage, at a desk similar to mine, sat another man who looked very annoyed to be wasting his time there. Between us, set forward closer to the stage edge, stood a podium, also with microphone, and a transparency projector. We faced what seemed to be a large university lecture-hall; the sort that keeps going up and up rather than back and back, so all audience members can be as close as possible to the speaker. It was entirely full of dim shapes, impossible to distinguish in the glare of the stagelights above us, but which I knew to be adult students and scholars of most critical mien. Their murmurs and chatters between themselves as they awaited the start of the program, showed they were at least in a good, if occasionally rambunctious, mood.

It came upon me with a flash, that I was there to engage the learned author across from me in a debate, on some subject I knew not what, and for which I was consequently unprepared.

"Well," I thought to myself as I looked around nervously, "at least I'm not naked..."

I knew myself to be dreaming, so my panic wasn't as great as it might otherwise have been. I knew I could pull myself out of the fire if (or when) things became too nasty. That being the case, I resolved myself to play through the dream on its own terms as much as possible.

With that resolution came another: I might not know what topic I would be called to discuss, and I might not know much about the topic when it was revealed, but I was reasonably confident I would at least be able to analyze the self-consistency of whatever elements of the case were presented by my opponent.

Fortunately, the debate moderator (who, by the way, looked exactly like my high-school senior English teacher) called upon my opponent for opening comments, thus giving me some breathing space to evaluate my position and my chances.

I quickly learned I had been summoned to debate a currently popular and outspoken historian who specialized in New Testament criticism. This being a dream, at first I thought I was hearing his name as Tom Bunrack or Tom Backrun, but eventually I decided it must be Tom Branuck. This knowledge made me more nervous -- Branuck was notoriously contentious -- but also helped me out a little, as I at least had a smattering (though only a smattering) knowledge of his controversial book, which we would be debating that night: The Fable of Honesty.

In this book, Branuck had argued for a villainous and indeed treacherous dishonesty on the part of the author of one of the NT Gospels, the Gospel According to Mark, to the effect that the document was almost utterly unreliable historically; which unreliability had thoroughly permeated every subsequent narrative account, and (claimed Branuck) still echoed to this day in Western cultures. Branuck had grounded this deconstructive reinterpretation of what the Gospel 'really' meant and what the author 'really' was doing, by analyzing the document (and the NT generally) through a battery of sociological principles. Displaying a transparency for us, Branuck summarized what religious documents 'really' are:

"1.) Myths, rituals, and symbols are ways of thinking about, or making sense of, social practices and orientations to the world.

2.) What has come to be called religion is actually a social mode of thinking about social identity and activity.

3.) Religion is the way in which a people make their world work, position themselves in their world, acknowledge their agreements, reflect upon their relationships, inculcate their manners and codes, rectify displacements, and meditate upon their social system in light of accident and the impingements of history."

Branuck explained this to the audience in his opening comments. Then he vented some exasperation: he had been led to believe, he said, that he would be debating a serious historian on this issue -- instead he finds that his opponent is not a historian by profession; has no credentials to speak of; and whose chief qualification seems to be that he happens to think the NT accounts to be pretty reliable historically (which opinion Branuck wouldn't give a straw for) and that things such as the Resurrection are possible and have happened (which opinions Branuck considered to be "outside the guild of serious New Testament scholarship"). Branuck finished his vitriolic opening comments by stating, that despite being misled as to the potential quality of the debate, he would stay so the assembled scholars wouldn't have completely wasted their time with whatever extremely lightweight and very embarrassing tactics a "fundamentalist" such as I might be ignorant enough to put before them.

I agreed (silently) that real historians, not I, should be debating him; and I must admit I bridled at being called a "fundamentalist". (I very seriously doubt any real fundamentalist would describe me as such.)

Then a delicious plan occurred to me.

As Branuck resumed his seat, I sauntered out to the podium, and consciously slipped into my best Southern Baptist drawl. Why disappoint him...?

"Mr. Branuck," I began, "I see you have kindly provided us with nice, concise statements here, on this transparency," which I re-presented for the audience on the screen. "Very nice, very nice," I murmured theatrically, and also a bit vaguely and pompously.

"And," I continued, "these things are true only because you say they are true, correct?"

"No," he chuckled in unkind amusement. "Those statements are grounded upon a rational set of necessary presumptions. This isn't merely the way I wish religions -- including your religion -- were; it simply is the way religion is, as we social anthropologists have discovered. I can understand if that upsets you, of course..." -- this garnered answering chuckles from the crowd.

I stroked my beard for a moment, gazing intently at the statements hanging above us on the screen.

"Do you mind," I asked, waving my hand generally toward the screen, "if I make some guesses as to the necessary presumptions you are applying to generate these statements?"

"I doubt you'll get them correct, but by all means try," he grinned confidently.

With a thin black marker and a fresh transparency, I tabulated two general presumptions, and presented them for everyone to see:

1.) Claims to 'truth' are always fundamentally bound up with power plays.

2.) A critic must first and foremost read a text against itself in order to expose its originatory social location, its fundamental ideological commitments, and its rhetoric by which the author of the text is attempting to impose his or her authority over the reader.

"Would you say these are reasonably fair representations of the presumptions underlying your blasphemous proposals?" I grated loudly. I made sure to emphasize 'blasphemous', hoping to distract his attention.

"Quite so, quite so," he clapped his hands slowly. "I see you've expended at least a little clear thinking after all; and on such a blasphemous topic as well!"

"Hmph!" I snorted dismissively. "I read something similar in a book somewhere. It seemed to fit." I didn't tell him it was in a book leveling a trenchant criticism at Branuck's work. As it happens, the author more-or-less skipped what I was about to try; but then again he had access to far more material. I had to work with the little available to me; but I imagined the author would agree with my tactic here, in principle, if not strictly with its presentation.

"Isn't it true!" I whirled on Branuck, in what I hoped was my best southern-fried lawyer voice. "Isn't it true that you designed those presumptions specifically to attack one particular book, and that they are essentially useless except as a devilishly question-begging attack--!" But Branuck was shaking his head and continuing to chuckle.

"Those principles are entirely rational, scientific and topic-neutral," he corrected me, ticking off the points on his fingers.

"You're... telling me you didn't just invent these? That they'll work on any book?" I asked, injecting a tad of wavering uncertainty into my bluster.

"Any book, no matter how special you think it is, can be accurately and incisively examined as to its meaning using these principles."

I flared my nostrils, and stomped off to my desk with high dudgeon. From a bag (which appeared at my command under the desk -- this was a dream, after all), I produced a thick, dauntingly leather-bound folio. I returned to the podium carrying the book reverently; from the audience I heard mutters to the effect of "Uh-oh... here we go... time for some testifying..."

"Are you telling me, sir," I breathed with menace into the microphone, glaring in Branuck's direction while holding up the Book, "that you can stand here in the sight of God Almighty and shred the plausibility of the author of this book, using these... these..." I grasped for a term, as I waved at the presumptions "...abstract GNATS!?"

"Nothing could be easier," Branuck replied with a sigh; he seemed to be getting bored. I turned to the gathered crowd.

"I DON'T BELIEVE IT!" I thundered, and slammed the book on the podium's top, just under the microphone -- and a very solid, satisfying, preachifying 'thoom' it made. I saw, in my peripheral vision, Branuck jump. But he settled back again, rolling his eyes as I continued to boom into the mic in my best 'expostulating' voice.

"I think even you, sir, would acknowledge that this book in front of me has the potential of affecting the belief of every man, woman ,and child on this planet, concerning their relation to the person of Jesus Christ! Furthermore, I think even you, sir, would -- must! -- necessarily affirm that the book I hold in my hands has come to us, in its present state, through the tireless efforts of many scholars and wise men whose concern for accurate, useful, reliable history is virtually unmatched in any other similar endeavor; who have stood against the howls of derision sometimes thrown at them; who pursued with single-minded forthrightness, in the face of every conceivable adversity their opponents could logically bring to bear against them, the task of educating the world as to the character and the fitness of Jesus as Lord of our lives! I have utter, ironclad, rock-solid FAITH that this book, sir, is entirely capable of shrugging off those principles of yours! If, sir, if you really think those principles are the most effective means of discovering the 'real' meaning of an author, when he claims to be describing historical events accurately and honestly, even events the acceptance of which would have deep impact on the religious life of the reader -- IF you think you have chosen the proper means of doing this, then I dare you, sir... yes!" I emphasized, turning to the increasingly annoyed Branuck, "I DARE you to come up here in front of us and apply those principles of yours to... this... book." And I gentled my tone, laying my hand upon its cover. "I swear to you, sir, in front of all these people, that if you can honestly, fairly, and neutrally apply your principles to explain to us what the author of any chapter of this book really means -- that is, as opposed to what he claims to us to mean -- then I will gladly stand before all of you and disavow this book's authority, cogency, and reliability in its claim to give us the most useful picture of what and who Jesus really was. I hereby forfeit any further time on my part; come here and show us just how effective your principles truly are."

Ending with a tremulous derision, I slowly paced back to my seat, leaving the book grandly undefended on the podium -- with plenty of sighs at my back. Branuck rose, rolling his eyes again for the benefit of the audience. "Amen!" someone said, to general laughter, as the eminent historian took the podium.

"Now that we're past that..." he began, once more to general laughter. I assumed the most haughty air of injured dignity.

The gist of Branuck's remarks over the next minute amounted to this: that this was precisely the sort of pabulum which he generally refused such engagements in order to avoid. Nevertheless, if I was fool enough to give him free rein to expound on the book, he would take the opportunity to demonstrate to the audience what real historical analysis can do to uncover the truth of an author's contentions, which the author cannot help but leave behind, no matter how well-accepted his book has been by anyone in the world, or how cogent the book may seem at a quick, uncritical glance. He was confident he could open the book virtually at random and demonstrate the validity of his procedure using any given bit of material; but since I hadn't specified exactly where in the book he should begin, I would have no objections to a spot at about the 3/4 mark...? (Renewed chuckles from the audience; I flicked my fingers unconcernedly in his direction.) Very well; with a deep breath of confidence, Branuck opened the book to the general location, and...


Silence. Branuck blinked once or twice. Then he paged randomly through the text in a few directions. Then he furiously flipped to the title page within the leather binding. The audience grew disconcerted. With a strangled grunt, he slammed the book shut, stomped to his desk, threw his papers into his briefcase, and stormed out of the building.

The audience now roiled with confusion. The debate moderator (I have a feeling my lately departed senior English teacher would greatly appreciate this dream!) cautiously inched to the podium to offer her apologies to the audience for Branuck's abrupt departure. But her curiosity overwhelmed her; she edged the book open...

and puzzlement bloomed on her face! She also turned to the title page within the leather binding.

Then she started laughing so hard, she had to grab the podium to keep herself up.

Rising to my feet, I trod up behind her, shaking my finger and admonishing her with mock gravity:

"I don't very much appreciate people laughing at my leatherbound copy of Tom Branuck's The Fable of Honesty!"

I am not sure how the audience responded, however, for at that moment I awoke.


Jason Pratt said…
It's easy to win a dream debate, of course, with a sneaky rhetorical trick. {wry g}

I came close to using Kurn Cambot instead: it's Mystery Science Historical Analysis 3000!!

Relatedly, also Mat Rockbun. (HUGE ROCKLARGE!)

Anyway, registering for comment tracking.

Joe Hinman said…
LOL thqnks Jason.
Joe Hinman said…
Brilliant, amazing and entertaining.
Don McIntosh said…
Love it.

That reminds me of arguments against intentionality and purpose in apparent design. If successful, they seem to suggest that the arguments themselves may very well have been designed unintentionally and without purpose.
Jason Pratt said…
Thanks, guys.

The same could be said for the solvent rabbithole of trying to logically justify our justification ability despite the supposedly non-rational foundation of all our behaviors; or else trying to logically justify that we don't need logical justification ability to function successfully.

Atheism leads directly to that self-contradictory dichotomy; theism doesn't (although theists can fall into it, too, if we're not careful.) Which is the rather subtle formal theistic Argument from Reason that Lewis was using in his cardinal chapter of MaPS (at least in the revised second edition). That chapter gets misunderstood a lot.

Anyway, to be fair, I think Meta would say there are proper ways to use the type of post-rationalistic Derridian... um... whatevers... that "Buncrack" was trying to apply to sociological science. {g}

Don McIntosh said…
Honestly I don't get the reference to MaPS (Miracles?) But it doesn't matter! By Dr. Buncrack's time-tested principles, any edition of ANY book is subject to the same withering criticism that Dr. Buncrack used to demolish...The Fable of Honesty.

Jason Pratt said…
Right, chapter 3 of Miracles: A Preliminary Study (2nd edition).

A very much extended version of that argument can be found starting here at the Cadre Journal (in a long series of posts).

A fictional dialogue illustrating the two legs of the argument can be found in the same section starting here.

A more recent and briefer reference to the argument in relation to moral considerations (and theistic theodicy theories) can be found here.

Joe Hinman said…
"Anyway, to be fair, I think Meta would say there are proper ways to use the type of post-rationalistic Derridian... um... whatevers... that "Buncrack" was trying to apply to sociological science. {g}"

Joe Hinman said…
"Right, chapter 3 of Miracles: A Preliminary Study (2nd edition).

A very much extended version of that argument can be found starting here at the Cadre Journal (in a long series of posts)."

ah the good old days! when the CDRE was happening

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