Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV Part 1

(Movie Review)

Why I Saw This Movie
Following Richard II, this is the next movie in the BBC's adaptation (W) of Shakespeare's Henriad (W).

My History with this Play
This was assigned reading in one of my college literature courses.  It made an impression on me, so I remember it well.  More recently, I also used to have this play on audio book  and (before my ipod erased it) became more familiar with this play by listening and re-listening to it numerous times.  It's the Shakespeare play I know the best.

Positives and Negative
* Positive: This is one of Shakespeare's best plays, so any adaptation of it has a lot going for it right off the bat just from the original source material.

* Positive: Related to the above point, as compared to it's predecessor Richard II, this play is generally a lot more watchable-- a lot more action, comedy and fast dialogue

* Negative For some reason I'm not sure about, they didn't keep the actors consistent between this movie and Richard II--I would have thought the whole point of doing Shakespeare's Henriad as one coherent project would have been to keep the actors consistent from movie to movie.

* Positive Although I'm somewhat disappointed they didn't keep the actor for Henry Bolingbroke consistent, Jeremy Irons does a great job in this.

* Negative One of the disadvantages of watching a Shakespeare play you're already familiar with is that you tend to be disappointed with the delivery of lines you already know--some of the lines which I remember as having a lot of dramatic force or humor on the audio book recording, got under-delivered in this movie--either mumbled, or stepped on.

* Negative: Related to the above point, the tavern scenes weren't quite as funny as they should have been, as a result of some of the punchlines being missed or under-delivered.

* Negative Related to the two above points: Falstaff was played a bit subdued in this adaptation, and didn't come out as the fully larger than life character I was hoping for.

* Positive But on the other hand, it's probably unfair to compare individual line readings from different adaptations--any adaptation will have to pick and choose which lines get the most dramatic force, and although this adaptation under-played some memorable lines, it did a good job with others.

* Positive Considering this was a made-for-TV movie with a made-for-TV budget, the battle scenes came off looking decently impressive.

* Negative Still, at the risk of being greedy, you can't help but wish that these battle scenes hadn't been on a made-for-TV budget, and had gotten the fully Hollywood movie treatment--alas!

The Review
There were a few missed opportunities in this adaptation--the tavern scenes weren't as rich or as funny as they could have been.  But there were some successes as well.  Jeremy Irons was brilliant as Henry IV, and the film's versions of his big confrontation with Prince Hal came through with full force.

Rating :
7 out of 10 Stars.  (The original source material gets a solid 9, but I'm taking a couple points off for some missed opportunities in the adaptation.)

For my take on other plays in the Shakespeare history saga, see my college paper on Henry IV part 2 here, and book review of Richard III here.  Many of the same themes of Henry IV are in Oliver Stone's movie W. and (although I can't find the article now) I once saw an interview with Oliver Stone in which he claimed he deliberately modeled the beginning of W. on  Henry IV , so here is my review of W.

External Links
The AVclub's review here.  I agree with them on some points, and disagree with them on some points, but the folks at the avclub can always be counted on to put in a good thoughtful review.

Link of the Day
Education: For Whom and For What?

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Subtitle: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

(Book Review)

Why I Read This Book
This book came to my attention because of an e-mail from a friend, who wrote me the following:

 You mentioned on your blog about wanting to find a good defense of Christianity while acknowledging the Bible's unreliability. Well, there is a blog I read once in a while by Rachel Held Evans, who has sort of made a name for herself as a Christian who is not afraid to ask the difficult questions about faith and the Bible. Yesterday I saw that she'd posted a review of a book by Peter Enns called The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read it. Here's her review:
So I wrote back:

Thank you for the recommendation.  I've come across Rachel Held Evans before.  I forget exactly how, but I think someone I know on Facebook must have linked to her blog in the past or something.  I haven't read a lot of her, but my impression is that she is pursuing a dialogue within the Christian faith.  She's defending a liberal view of Christianity against the more conservative view she grew up with.  When I was 20, I would have been very much on board with her, but since then I've moved on into agnosticism, and my question now is, why believe in Christianity at all?  I'm not sure this question is addressed so much in her writings, but I guess I haven't read enough to say.  I get the impression from her book review that The Bible Tells Me So is also more concerned with defending a liberal view of Christianity against a conservative view, and maybe not so much of interest to an agnostic like me who is wondering why to believe in it at all.  But all that being said, I admit to having my interest piqued.  At some point I will try to track down that book and judge it for myself.
And my friend gave me the following response:

I'm not surprised that you've encountered stuff written by Rachel Held Evans before. She has gotten quite a bit of attention, and I've noticed people on Facebook linking to her work as well. I see what you're saying about her writing from the perspective of faith. I did read this post, in which she talked some about her skepticism, but overall, you're right that she's writing as a believer. What made me think the Peter Enns book she reviewed might be of interest to you is that it seems to show how to address problems with the Bible (many of which you've blogged about), while still maintaining faith in God. I did manage to get a copy of it from the library, and I'm about a quarter of the way through it. It's written in a conversational tone, which makes it an easy read, but it also doesn't feel very rigorous. The author seems to take for granted that there is a God and that Christianity is true, even if the Bible is not meant to be read as a rule book or an authoritative account of history. How or why he maintains his belief is unclear to me. (I'm probably not expressing this well, and I should really finish the book before coming to any conclusions about it.) It does seem to be an interesting way of viewing the Bible, and very different from the way I was brought up to look at it, but yes, you may be correct that it won't explain why a person should believe in Christianity in the first place. I'll let you know when I finish it.

To which I replied:

 Yes, that's exactly the impression I got from reading Rachel Evans book review of The Bible Tells Me So. Her review seemed to be focused on convincing conservative Christians that the Bible wasn't supposed to be taken literally. It didn't seemed focused on convincing skeptics why they should believe in the Bible given all the problems with it. But as you continue reading it, let me know your thoughts. Are you finished with it? Is it worth reading? 
 And my friend replied again:

I did finish the Bible Tells Me So book. I'd say it's a good introductory book for getting people to think about the Bible differently. I feel like it's for people who have a lot of questions about the Bible, but still have an underlying belief that there is a God and that he sent his son Jesus to earth. I'm not even sure I'd recommend it to conservative Christians. I think they'd find the book to be too flippant. Peter Enns jokes a lot and uses pop culture references to keep the book light, but that, along with his views, might make people think he's not a serious biblical scholar. If someone were absolutely convinced about the basics of Christianity, I would say that Enns provides the best explanation of how to view the Bible--as a book written by imperfect people in different times and places, who shaped the story to fit their spiritual needs at that time. But you're right that it's not the kind of book you'd want to read as a defense of Christianity.  So for you, this type of book might not be worth your time.
As you can see from this correspondence, there's some ambivalence about whether this book would address exactly the concerns I wanted it to address.  And yet, it did sound interesting.  And in the end, I decided if there was any doubt about it, it was better to err on the side of reading the book rather than not reading it.  After all, you don't lose anything by reading it.
[...Although (spoiler alert) most of my initial reservations about the book turned out to be correct!]

The Issue (And My Background with it)
I'll spend a few words laying out the issue before I get into examining the book.
The idea common in traditional conservative Christian communities is that the Bible is perfectly true in every detail.  This is known as Biblical Inerrancy (W), and is more or less the traditional view of Christianity that most of us were brought up with.

...I say "more or less" because in actuality it's not so simple.   For one thing, I don't think there's any such thing as a community where every person believes exactly the same thing.  Although growing up the predominate assumption of my community was (more or less) Biblical Inerrancy, I recall some debates among the outskirts of that doctrine.  And related to the above point, Biblical Inerrancy is itself a somewhat complicated philosophy with many different variation and shades of grey.  For example, some Biblical inerrantists might believe that there are no errors in the Bible, but there might be metaphors or simplified accounts (as in the creation story) and some doctrines that might have been true at one time, but were no longer culturally relevant (like Paul's commands for slaves to obey their masters, or Paul's prohibitions on women having authority over men).   And even if a Christian is prepared to admit errors in the Bible, most Christians are more comfortable with minor errors than with major errors.  For example, there were many teachers in my childhood who might have been perfectly comfortable admitting that Luke had made a minor mistake about the time of the governorship of Quirinius of Syria (W), but would have been a lot less comfortable admitting that the whole birth narrative in Luke was fabricated (as in fact there is good evidence for).
Errancy versus inerrancy is not a simple "either-or" debate, is what I'm trying to say here, but more of a scale with many different gradient positions.

To get too much into all of these nuances is going to confuse the issue, so for the purposes of simplicity, in this book review I'm going to attempt to posit Biblical Inerrancy as one philosophy, and to identify this philosophy as the dominate one in my Christian education, and furthermore go on to presume that this is the dominate cultural form of Christianity in North America.  And for simplicity's sake, I'm going to define Biblical inerrancy as the belief that there are no mistakes in the Bible.

The difficulty with the inerrantist position is that it's not true, and it's not true in a way that can be proven.  The Biblical narrative has been contradicted by archaeology and outside historical sources.  Plus even inside the Bible, there are a lot of internal contradictions.
And not just in little nit-picking ways either--whole huge chunks of the Biblical narrative are now disbelieved by historians.
To list but a few brief examples (from many): The exodus never happened.  The conquest of Canaan never happened.  The Gospels contain two contradictory narratives about the birth of Christ, which mean at least one of them must be wrong.  There are 4 contradictory accounts about the resurrection, which suggest at least 3 of them must be wrong.   And the list goes on and on.
(I'm not going to list all the problems with the Bible in this one post, but it is, as my friend mentioned in the correspondence quoted above, an issue that I have spent a lot of time discussing on this blog the last few years.  See for more reading on the subject see my reviews of: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens,  The Unauthorized Version by Robin Lane Fox, The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine,  Forged by Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman, my hostile review of the claims made for the reliability of Christianity in The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, my comments on the Yale University Lecture series on the Old and New Testament my review of the BBC series Bible Mysteries my many nitpicks in my Bible Trivia series, comments on the problems of 2nd Peter, and also see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here et cetera.)

For me, as someone raised with an inerrantist view of the Bible, the conclusion seemed unavoidable.  The historical truth claims that the Bible made were false, therefore the Bible was false, therefore Christianity as a belief system was unsupportable, and the obvious conclusion was to become an agnostic.

What complicated the issue, however, was that many Christian scholars knew about the historical problems with the Bible, and yet still believed in Christianity.  And in fact my understanding is that there has been a lot of work done over the past 100 years by some liberal theologians to explain how Christianity could still work as a belief system despite all these historical problems.
This was not my background, but I was aware that these views were out there somewhere.  I was skeptical that Christian scholars would be able to square the circle--argue that the Bible could be wrong, but Christianity could still be true--but I was curious to see how they would try.  (And, as my friend indicated in the above e-mails, I have expressed on this blog a few different times the desire to at some point read these liberal Christian arguments--here, here and here, for example.)  This book, then, seemed like it might finally scratch that itch: to present a defense of Christianity while simultaneously acknowledging that most of the historical narrative in the Bible was deeply flawed.

The Review

There's a lot to chew on in this book, but I'll start with some general comments about the tone and readability, before moving on to the content of the argument.

Tone and Readability:
The book is written in a very conversational, easy to read tone.  The author has done everything he can to try to lighten the scholarship with humor, and just about every paragraph is punctuated with a joke.
How much these constant jokes are appreciated, however, may vary from reader to reader.  Many of the reviewers on praise the "engaging", "humorous", "lively" style of this book.  And I didn't completely hate it myself, but it did sometimes strike me as a bit...desperate.  Sometimes I got a sense of a writer trying just a little bit too hard to be constantly funny--like the old stereotype of the youth pastor who tries too hard to be hip.
I don't know--it's a mixed bag.  Sometimes the jokes can help liven up the material, but I  also found them a bit distracting from the subject material, and it ended up making it harder to stay focused on the book rather than easier.   I got tired of reading through too many corny jokes at one time, and as a result I had to read this book in small doses.  (At least one other person has told me she had a similar reaction reading this book.)
But the slight annoyance of corny jokes aside, over all it really is a quick and painless read, and I got through it in just a few quick days.

But, forget about the writing style, what is the author actually arguing here?

The Arguments This Book is Making

Despite the light tone of the book, there's a lot of heavy stuff that needs to be addressed here.  Some issues are addressed very well, and on some issues the reader is just left hanging.

Because the predominate view of Christianity in North America is the inerrantist position (and again, I know this is an oversimplification, but just go with it for now), Peter Enns first needs to demolish the inerrantist position before he can set up an alternative philosophy for reading the Bible.

And it's not just the history of the Bible that Peter Enns finds problematic--it's also the morals of the Bible that are a big problem.  The vengeful, murderous, genocidal God of the Old Testament is just as much of a problem for Peter Enns as the fact that the archaeological evidence doesn't match the Biblical narrative.
So Peter Enns has to argue against both the history of the Bible, and the morals of the Bible, and then set up what he views as an alternative.  That's a lot of lifting for a slim 244 page book (with big print.)

On the positive side, I think he does a good job of demolishing the inerrantist position.  However,  I'm not sure he does a good job of providing an alternative that makes sense.

Peter Enns starts out his book with the most problematic Bible story of all: the conquest of Canaan, and the fact that God ordered the Israelites to commit genocide against entire nations.
This is doubly a problem for Christians because (1) the archaeological records indicate it never happened, and (2) even if it did happen, it is utterly and completely morally reprehensible.

Enns addresses the second point first.  The genocide of the Canaanites was completely morally unacceptable, and it's useless to try to pretend it wasn't.  He addresses all of the rationals conservative Christians have traditionally used to justify it (The Canaanites were really evil so they deserved it, God is God so he gets to do whatever he wants, God needed to do this for his grand divine plan to work, et cetera) and he effectively demolishes each of these arguments in turn.  There's just no justifying genocide, no matter how you look at it.

But then Enns gets to the kicker.  Archaeological records show that the Biblical narrative concerning the conquest of Canaan is completely wrong.
Here, at least, Peter Enns must be given credit for tackling the historical problem head-on.  In contrast to the blatantly dishonest Christian apologist Lee Strobel, who wrote in The Case for Christ that "Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible", Peter Ennis makes statements like:"Biblical archaeologists are about as certain as you can be about these things that the conquest of Canaan as the Bible describes did not happen: no mass invasion from the outside by an Israelite army, and no extermination of Canaanites as God commanded" (p. 58) and later "What most everyone is certain about ... is that the Bible's version of events is not what happened" (p. 60).

Having then established the principal of historical problems with the Biblical narrative, Peter Ennis then goes on to highlight several other problems.
For example:
*The first 5 books of the Bible appear to have no historical value, and are largely just myths that the Israelites created to explain their current political situation with their neighbors.
*The exodus from Egypt and the wanderings in the desert are not supported by outside history, and appear to be contradicted by archaeology.
*The Jewish laws of Moses are contradictory to each other, appear to be based on separate sets of different laws that were collected over time, almost certainly did not come down from the hand of God on Mount Sinai, and appear to be of human rather than divine origin.
*The narratives of the monarchy period are relatively historically accurate, but even here the writers are adjusting the facts to suit their point of view, and because of this there are two separate and contradictory accounts of the same period: one contained in 1st Samuel through 2nd Kings, and the other account contained in 1st&2nd Chronicles.
* The character of God himself in the Bible is wildly inconsistent, because the Biblical writers were all writing from different points of view.
* The Gospels contradict each other, because the Gospel writers are freely re-arranging the facts to suit their narrative style and point of view
* Things Jesus probably didn't say are put in his mouth by the Gospel writers when they want to emphasize a certain point.
*An acknowledgment of some of the contradictions and historical problems in the birth narratives of Jesus Christ, and at least the suggestion that the Gospel writers might be inventing these details for theological reasons rather than historical ones.
* And the same thing for the resurrection accounts.
* The New Testament writers were taking the Old Testament prophecies and passages out of context to imply that they meant something the original Old Testament writers never intended to.
Et cetera.

All of these cases are much better developed inside the pages of the book, so if you haven't read the book you'll just have to take my word for it that Peter Enns makes a convincing case for each of these points.
It's also not a complete list of all the historical problems in the Bible by any means.  There are a lot, lot more problems than this (see some of the books, lectures, and articles that I linked to above).  But the problems that Peter Enns has chosen to highlight are more than enough to make his point, and an impressive list of problems for a Christian writer to admit to.

So, if this is the problem, then what to make of all this?

Peter Enns' view is that the Bible is written by human writers, and so represents their flawed view of God, rather than the perfect view of God we might have expected.  For example, to return to the conquest of Canaan, it appears that at some point in their history, the Israelites must have invented a mythology of the conquest of Canaan that never happened historically.  (Possibly the story was based on a series of local tribal conflicts, the retelling of which got more and more exaggerated over time.)  The Israelites then imagined that not only did they wipe out the Canaanites, but that God had commanded them to do so, because this is how their warlike tribal culture viewed God.
The Bible then represents not a picture of God as he really is, but as a record of how humans have attempted to interpret God over time.

I don't know about you, but I didn't find that very satisfying as an answer.
Admittedly, part of the evaluation depends on what you expect from the book.  If all you want is for Peter Enns to state a possible alternative way of reading the Bible, then he does lay out one possible alternative here, which you can take or leave as you like.
 But if you want the book to defend this position, to argue it effectively against possible criticisms, and to credibly prove it, then this book is going to disappoint. Peter Enns does a good job of effectively demolishing the inerrantist position, but he does absolutely no work to establish his own position as credible.

Peter Enns doesn't even address the most common concerns that an inerrantist would have.
It's important to remember what the inerrantists are arguing, and what they are not arguing.  Take a look at any website defending Biblical Inerrancy.  (See for example HERE, HERE or HERE.)
Now, notice that absolutely none of these guys believe in Biblical inerrancy because they think the inerrancy is self-evident from the text itself, or that any person reading the Bible and examining the evidence dispassionately would inevitably arrive at the inerrantist view.  In fact they're fully aware that it's the opposite.  But they view inerrancy as a theological problem, and not a historical one.  For theological reasons, they believe that the Bible has to be inerrant, and then they work backwards from that assumption to deal with the historical problems and internal contradictions.  So when Peter Enns only addresses the historical problems of inerrancy, he's taking for his argument as an end point what really should be his starting point.

For example, nowhere does Peter Enns give a satisfactory rebuttal of some of the inerrantists arguments like:

The Bible stands or falls as a whole. If a major newspaper were routinely discovered to contain errors, it would be quickly discredited. It would make no difference to say, “All the errors are confined to page three.” For a paper to be reliable in any of its parts, it must be factual throughout. In the same way, if the Bible is inaccurate when it speaks of geology, why should its theology be trusted? It is either a trustworthy document, or it is not.

The Bible’s message must be taken as a whole. It is not a mixture of doctrine that we are free to select from. Many people like the verses that say God loves them, but they dislike the verses that say God will judge sinners. But we simply cannot pick and choose what we like about the Bible and throw the rest away. If the Bible is wrong about hell, for example, then who is to say it is right about heaven—or about anything else? If the Bible cannot get the details right about creation, then maybe the details about salvation cannot be trusted either. If the story of Jonah is a myth, then perhaps so is the story of Jesus.

If the Scripture is unreliable, can we offer the world a reliable gospel? How can we be sure of truth on any issue if we are suspicious of errors anywhere in the Bible? A pilot will ground his aircraft even on suspicion of the most minor fault, because he is aware that one fault destroys confidence in the complete machine. If the history contained in the Bible is wrong, how can we be sure the doctrine or moral teaching is correct? The heart of the Christian message is history. The Incarnation (God becoming a man) was demonstrated by the Virgin Birth of Christ. Redemption (the price paid for our rebellion) was obtained by the death of Christ on the Cross. Reconciliation (the privilege of the sinner becoming a friend of God) was gained through the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ. If these recorded events are not true, how do we know the theology behind them is true?

Peter Enns just completely by-passes all of these questions.

And it gets worse than that.  To explain how unsatisfying Peter Enns's explanation is, let me briefly contrast him with another possible Christian view.  Some other Christians have argued that the historical accuracy of the Bible is not important--it doesn't matter whether these things happened historically or not, what matters is that God wants us to believe that they happened.  The message is more important than the history.  So, for example, in this view whether or not Abraham and Isaac actually existed is of less importance than the message God wants us to learn about how Abraham was so devoted to God that he was willing to sacrifice his only son.

But notice, that this is not what Peter Enns is arguing.  When it comes to the genocide in the conquest of Canaan, Peter Enns argues that not only did the ancient Israelites get the history wrong, but they also got the message completely wrong as well.  So of what value is a Bible that not only gets the history wrong, but also gets the message wrong?

Traditional Christianity has always taught that humans get their morality from the Bible.  Peter Enns seems to be advocating that Christians have to use their pre-existing morality to determine which parts of the Bible apply to them or not.
Well, why do we need the Bible then?  Why not just rely on our innate sense of morality, and disregard the Bible completely?

Based on what Peter Enns believes about the Bible, I could possibly see maybe regarding it in a Joseph Cambell-esque way.  That is, I could understand regarding the Bible as one of many human myths about the divine, which may or may not tell us some truths, and is valuable as a record of man's struggle to make sense out of his existence.  But in this way, it would be no more valuable then the myths or religious texts of any other culture.  I would not believe that the Bible is the one true word of God, and that Christianity is the only true religion.  And Peter Enns has done absolutely no work to support this view.

Peter Enns does consider the Bible to be the word of God (he refers to it as such several times throughout the text) but what exactly he means by this is never clear to me.  Nor does Peter Enns attempt to give any sort of proof that the Bible is the word of God.  Or that Christianity is a true religion.  The logic of the book, such as it is, seems to take it as an assumption that Christianity must be right, and that the Bible must be the word of God, and then works backwards from there.  Since we know that the Bible must be the word of God, how do we fit in all these problems with the Bible into our view of God?  Because it is not an option (for some unspoken reason) to disregard the Bible, but it is equally not an option to accept the view of a genocidal God from the Old Testament, then we have to just assume the human writers got the details wrong, but the overall message of Christianity is true.
[Certain passages of Peter Enns book put this backwards logic on full display.  For example, when discussing the numerous contradictions in the law of Moses, Peter Enns writes "The editors of the Bible were obviously quite happy to include these law codes just as they are and leave them be.  They didn't smooth things over, and they didn't seem to fret over how confused this would make God sound to people like us.  The Bible they were happy to produce is complicated, challenging, and messy--and if you believe God had some say in producing the Bible, you have to conclude that God was apparently quite happy to let them do it." (p.163)  Notice that backwards logic--he's not arguing that it's self-evident that God created the Bible because the Bible is such an obviously divine document.  He's already starting from the proposition that God was behind the Bible, and then arguing backwards that this must mean God was quite happy with what is inside it.]

Part of the problem with this book is that it's not a fully developed argument.  In order to develop an argument that in any way made sense, Peter Enns would have to explore the ramifications of this view in response to a number of questions.

 For example Christianity, as it has been traditionally defined, is a faith based religion.  That is to say, your salvation or damnation is supposedly based not on what you do, but on what you believe.  Does Peter Enns believe this?  And if so, what does he think it is necessary to believe in order to gain salvation?
Peter Enns spends a great deal of time telling us where he thinks the Bible is historically unreliable, but where is it reliable?  Does Peter Enns believe Jesus died on the cross and rose again?  Is Peter Enns arguing that the historical accuracy of the Bible is in doubt at every point except for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or is he just as skeptical of the resurrection story as he is about everything else?  If he does believe Jesus rose from the dead, on what basis does he believe it (given that the Bible is so unreliable on everything else?)  And if he doesn't believe in the death and resurrection of Christ, then what exactly is his idea of Christianity based on?
And why did Jesus need to die on the cross?  Was it to redeem humanity because of original sin?  But if the creation story never happened, then how did original sin enter the world?  And how would humanity be responsible for original sin if death existed millions of years before humans even evolved?  But if humanity is not guilty of original sin, then why did we need to be redeemed on the cross?
Does Peter Enns believe in heaven and hell?  He appears to be skeptical of the traditional doctrine of hell, as he indicates on pages 41-43, but then he doesn't fully develop his thoughts, or express what he believes in its place.  If there is no hell, is everyone going to heaven?
The New Testament repeatedly indicates that it is to your advantage to believe in Christ, and to your disadvantage not to believe.  The doctrine of heaven and hell, as cruel as it was, at least made sense out of this kind of talk--it was very clear what that advantage and disadvantage was.  If Peter Enns doesn't believe in hell, then what is the disadvantage for non-believers?
Also, traditionally, Christianity has claimed exclusivity--that is, it is the one true religion, and all other religions were false.  Does Peter Enns still believe this, or is he a religious pluralist?  If the Bible is nothing more than a record of how humans have (often incorrectly) perceived God, then what makes it different from the stories of any other religion?  Aren't the Greek myths also stories of how humans have historically tried to make sense out of the divine?  Wouldn't these stories then have just as much value as the Bible?  Or does the value only apply to monotheistic religions (like Islam)?  And if we do accept that the religious writings of other religious traditions have some value, then would this also apply to religions created by obvious charlatans, like Joseph Smith, or only serious religions? And who would decide which was which?
And if the Bible is the only true word of God, then on what basis does Peter Enns believe this, given all the problems with the Bible that he's identified?
What does Peter Enns think is the central message of Christianity?  And how would he know?  Peter Enns uses the teachings of Jesus to disprove the genocide in the Old Testament, but if the Bible got the genocide part wrong, how do we know the teachings of Jesus are true?  In fact, Peter Enns himself argues at one point in the book that the Gospel writers are putting words into Jesus's mouth.  So which of Jesus's teachings are authentic, and which ones are not?

Peter Enns never addresses any of these questions, and so I'm left feeling like he hasn't developed a coherent belief system in place of the inerrantist position he has demolished.

It's not so much that Peter Enns completely ignores the difficulties with his position, but rather that he tends to awkwardly side-step them.  For example, on page 62, Peter Enns addresses the question of why God would allow the genocide stories to get into the Bible in the first place, when it goes against everything God wants us to believe.
 He's God, after all?  Why does he even work with a script written from a violent and tribal mindset?  Why didn't God stop the storytellers.  "No, sorry...we're not going to do it that way.  You have no idea how much trouble Richard Dawkins is going to cause with all of this.  Plus, Jesus is going to demolish this 'kill your enemies and take their land' business.  Best to avoid the problem altogether." 
Instead of working within the system, God could have disallowed it.  Then the Israelites could have written a wholly different kind of story altogether, a story no one had ever seen before, and knocked everyone's socks off.  That's the kind of ancient storytelling I would have signed off on--if I were God. 
But I'm not, and I've given up trying to get into God's head, and I wish others would too. (p. 62)

But this is not an explanation of the issue so much as it is an escape.
A lot of religious apologetics will, sooner or later, invariably fall back on some sort of version of "we can't know the mind of God," or "God is so infinitely beyond us that it's no good trying to expect God to measure up to the standards of human logic."  (Although I never got around to it in my monster review of Lee Strobel's book, Lee Strobel also fell back on this logic once or twice.  Almost all religious writers use it sooner or later.)
However, this does not work as a defense of a religious position.  If you want to say "we can't know the mind of God" then you can go ahead and become an agnostic.   But to argue any sort of religious position is to argue that, in some measure, you are claiming to understand an aspect of God.  That's the very definition of religion--to make some sort of claims about the divine.  It is then unacceptable to on one hand claim to know an aspect of God, but then to use the line that "we can't know the mind of God" as an all-purpose escape whenever your claims about God run into logical difficulties.
This is why I, as an agnostic, find the arguments of Peter Enns so frustrating.  On the one hand, he is evading trying to explain why God would include the genocide of the Canaanites in his holy book.  But on the other hand, he is definitely defending the Bible as the word of God.  And he is defending a certain interpretation of the Bible (in his case, the non-rule book interpretation) as the interpretation God intends.  On a certain level, he definitely is "trying to get into God's head".

Furthermore, the inclusion of these genocidal stories in the central document of the major religion of the Western World has had demonstrable harmful effects.  Numerous Christians in history have used the Canaanite genocide to justify their own brutalities.  To give but one example from many, Oliver Cromwell used the Old Testament to justify his near genocidal campaigns against the Irish.
If you believe that God had some sort of hand in creating the Bible (and Peter Enns does) then it just makes no sense at all that God would have signed off on any of this, especially since, as Peter Enns argues, the genocides never really happened, and it was the opposite of the message that God wanted, and God (presumably) must have known what harm these passages would do in Western history.

This book has gotten a number of good reviews from liberal Christians (see, for example, Rachel Evans review linked to above) but I'm inclined to think liberal Christians will be the only ones who like it.  Peter Enns hasn't done any of the work necessary to convince conservative Christians, or agnostics like myself.  Like so many books in religious publishing, this book is only meant to be read by people who will already agree with it.

Other Addenda
* Theological issues aside, the history geek in me is often interested in how much of the Old Testament is historically reliable just for the sake of knowing history.
If you're like me, then this book does kind of scratch that itch a little bit.  It's not the most thorough book on the subject out there I'm sure, but Peter Enns does get into the history a little bit.
Basically, Peter Enns seems to have a very similar view to atheist Robin Lane Fox's book The Unauthorized Version.  Both Peter Enns and Robin Lane Fox believe that the Old Testament narratives were written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem, so that the history closest in time to the fall of Jerusalem is the most reliable, and as you move further and further back in history it gets less and less reliable.  Basically anything before the start of the monarchy has just no historical reliability whatsoever (stories of the patriarchs, exodus, conquest of Canaan, et cetera).  However, these stories are interesting because they exist as a political explanation of Israel's relationship with its neighboring countries at the time these histories were written.  Thus the political prejudices of Israel were written backwards onto the pre-history account.  For example, the Israelites showed their contempt of their neighboring rival Moab by describing the origin of the Moabites as a drunken incestuous coupling between Lot and his daughters.

* Peter Enns shows how the New Testament writers were constantly distorting the meaning of the Old Testament scriptures--for example, taking Old Testament prophecies that had nothing to do with the Messiah, and taking them out of context to make them appear as if they were prophesying about Jesus.
Jesus also commits the same sin as the narrators of the Gospels.  Jesus will repeatedly twist the meaning of Old Testament texts and stories to make them mean something the original authors never intended.  (Peter Enns discusses this in his, somewhat provocatively titled, chapter "Jesus Gets a Big Fat "F" in Bible pages 167-170).
Robin Lane Fox and Thomas Paine make exactly the same point in their respective books.
But whereas Robin Lane Fox and Thomas Paine see this as disproving Christianity, Peter Enns views this as a positive example of how the New Testament writers  and Jesus were in constant dialogue with their scriptures.  Because the Bible records Jesus himself reinterpreting scriptures for a new era, Peter Enns claims that this is how God wants us to interpret the Bible.  After all, if Jesus himself did it, and the Bible records Jesus as doing it, then it must be correct, right?

* But then, in another part of the book, Peter Enns implies that the Gospel writers were probably putting words into Jesus's mouth that Jesus never spoke at all.  On page 186, in the context of describing what Jesus said about the Old Testament food laws, Peter Enns writes:

Jesus also swims against the stream concerning the Old Testament dietary laws. 
Both Matthew and Mark relay a story (although differently) where Jesus says, "what goes into you from the outside does not defile, but what comes out of you"--an odd statement, given that the dietary laws in Torah are exactly about how certain foods entering your body from outside defile you.... 
Mark's Gospel goes into more detail [than Matthew's] about how evil comes from the inside, like theft, adultery, murder, and so on.  He also adds that Jesus was actually declaring that the Old Testament food laws were now null and void. 
We need to be a little careful with Mark's version.  Most biblical scholars think that Jesus didn't declare food laws null and void.  This comment was Mark's own creation written in hindsight and, as we saw in chapter 3, reflects his purpose for writing--specifically to make sure later Gentile followers of Jesus understood they didn't need to keep those laws. 
Also, in the book of Acts (about ten years or so after Jesus's resurrection) early followers of Jesus deal with the topic of food laws for what seems like the first time rather than simply referring back to something Jesus explicitly taught.  Paul also makes a big deal about dietary laws in the book of Romans, but never hints that he is following Jesus's lead. (p. 186)
So, I'm confused here.  On one hand Peter Enns is arguing that Jesus shows us the correct way to interpret scripture because the Gospels show Jesus creatively reinterpreting scripture in order to suit the present day.  But on the other hand, Peter Enns admits that the Gospel writers are putting words into Jesus's mouth that he probably never actually spoke.  So how is anything the Jesus of the Gospels said or did supposed to be in any way reliable?

* Another point I'm confused about.  When disproving the genocidal stories in the Old Testament, Peter Enns argues that these are actually human stories rather than divine stories, and to help prove this, he shows that the exact same stories showed up in the literature of the other nations.  He gives the following example:

A ninth century BCE stone monument from Moab, one of Israel's next-door neighbors to the east...illustrates how the Canaanite extermination in the Old Testament fits in an ancient mind-set.  On this monument is carved a revealing--if also boastful and exaggerated--record of the Moabite king Mesha's military campaign against the Israelites. 
The Israelites had been in control of Moab for some time, and the reason, Mesha tell us, has nothing to with Israel's might (of course not, why would you think that?), but because his god Kemosh was angry with Moab (yeah, that's it).  Allowing foreigners to overrun them was Kemosh's punishment.  Even when Moab is down, Moab's god is still in control. 
But now all is right again between Kemosh and Moab, and Mesha's given the thumbs-up to go through the towns of Moab and kill all the Israelites as a sacrifice to Kemosh and take back the land that rightfully belongs to them.  When Mesha got to the town of Nebo, we read that he "put to the ban the entire town, meaning he killed the entire population, seven thousand people in all, as an act of devotion to Kemosh.
If you think this sounds like what we read in the Bible, join the club.  Both Mesha and Moses (and later Joshua) were told by their deity to invade a land they believed rightfully belonged to them and "put to the ban" the entire population as an act of devotion and obedience to God.  Hebrew and Moabite languages are very similar languages, and they even use the same word for this ban. (p.56-57).
Robin Lane Fox in his book, and Christine Hayes in her Yale lectures, also makes the same point.  The entire Old Testament polemic--the idea that military success meant God was pleased with the Israelites, and military defeat means that they were being divinely punished--is not unique to the Bible, but found in other Near Middle Eastern cultures, as was the idea that they were divinely commanded to kill all their enemies.

The obvious conclusion, then, would be to include that neither the Bible nor the writings of Moab can be considered the word of God, right?  But Peter Enns still believes the Bible is the word of God, he just believes that human errors crept into it.  But I'm confused?  Would he then make the same allowances for the Moabite writings?  Or does this only apply to the Bible?  He never explains this at all.

Link of the Day
Remarks on Religion

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

(Movie Review)

* None of these characters are likable, but as in all Scorsese films, there is a kind of fascination of a train wreck watching how they are going to achieve everything they want, and then ruin it all.
* It's safe to say at this point that Scorsese knows what he's doing, and he delivers good story telling mixed with narration, and pop music.

* I absolutely hated all the characters in this movie
* Some of the scenes went on for too long and were overly indulgent.

The Review
Ideally, films shouldn't have to be only about likable characters.  Sometimes you can learn a lot more about the human condition by films in which all the characters are absolute jerks.  In theory, we should probably have more of these type of films.
And practice it can be hard to sit through a 3 hour movie with no likable characters at all.  (I was even cheering for them to all go to jail at the end.)
However, in this day and age of excess and irresponsibility on Wall Street, it is definitely a very timely film.

This film drunk review by the folks at absolutely nails the film's high points and its faults.  The whole thing is worth reading.
And, in the category of: they are just not getting it yet: Wall Street Bros Loved Wolf of Wall Street.  Because of Course.
and Honest Trailer Wolf of Wall street

Rating :
6 out of 10.

Link of the Day
Correlation between Paris Commune and Occupy Wall Street

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

(Movie Review)

* Action sequences are getting pretty far-fetched.

* Related to the above point: I know Captain America has a super serum which gives him super-strength, but even given that super-power, his body should not be surviving all these high speed crashes and falls.

* So many unbelievable coincidences are used to keep the plot of this movie going.

* Related to the above point: so many plot holes

* Lots of bad movie cliches: from "bad guy tells them all about his evil plan for no reason" to "they never kill the hero when they have a chance"

* As much as I was rolling my eyes at how much physics and human biology was getting disregarded in these action sequences, I've got to admit they were pretty high adrenaline, cool and cinematically well directed.

The Review
This is a popcorn movie. If you can turn your brain off and enjoy all the explosions and people flying through the air and just watch it for the spectacle that it is, you'll enjoy yourself fine.  If you try to make sense out of any of this mess of a plot, your brain will explode.
The movie starts out with what looks like it might be a promising plot, but it quickly degenerates into just another super-hero action-fest.  On the plus side though, the action sequences are exciting, even if they are pretty ridiculously unreal.

Other Things I was Talking About If I Wasn't Limiting Myself to 100 Words
* Wow, the body count in this flick is really high--Remember when we were kids, and there was that unwritten rule that superheros were never supposed to actually kill anyone, unless you were specifically going for a darker edgier superhero movie?

Rating :
4 out of 10 stars.  (Really really dumb, but action sequences are at least delivering the adrenaline thrills.)

For my take on other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe see Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Captain AmericaThor, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

External Links
So, as I'm watching this, I'm thinking: "Oh man, Cinema Sins is going to have an absolute field day with all the plot holes, unrealistic action sequences, coincidences and cliches in this movie."  And then I googled them, and sure enough, they do not disappoint.  They find enough material here to make a 22 minute video detailing everything that was wrong with this movie.
I love Cinema Sins.  It makes it a lot easier to just link to them then to attempt to detail all of this stuff myself.

But that being said...I think there's even more ridiculous stuff in the movie then they caught.  I caught a few more things watching this movie that they don't even mention.

Honest Trailers was somewhat more complimentary--and I agree with them, the action sequences in this movie are pretty cool (provided you can turn off that nagging little voice in the back of your head that keeps telling you how unrealistic they are.)  But I agree with their nitpicks more than I agree with their praise, and they do get around to nitpicking this movie as well.

Link of the Day
Grammar, Mind and Body A Personal View

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Hollow Crown: Richard II

(Movie Review)

Why I Saw This Movie
Ever since I was in college, and found out about Shakespeare's Henriad (W)--a series of Shakespeare plays that form one long interconnected history saga--I thought: "Wouldn't it be cool if someone did all these plays as one series of films," and then I came one day to find that the BBC actually was doing exactly this project (W).

My History With This Play
* The memory is regrettably not so sharp on this point, but at least some of these scenes and dialogue is familiar--I may have read this in college.  (At any rate, I definitely remember reading the sequel Henry IV Part 1 in college.)

* For us history geeks, there is the historical interest of Shakespeare's history sagas.
* As always when watching Shakespeare, the constant: "Oh, so that's where that quote comes from" moments.
* Something like this might be mostly broccoli [SEE HERE], but broccoli movies have their uses--we all have these classics we're meaning to get around to someday, and it's good to knock another one off your list
* Any Shakespeare adaptation by definition has  to be a broccoli movie--you'll never get a popcorn movie out of Shakespeare--but that caveat aside, the directing, acting, and production values of this film are about as good as you could possibly hope for.

* Oh man, I had forgotten how talky Shakespeare is--for those of us interested in this story primarily because of the history, it takes forever to get to its point!
* Long

The Review
So, there's no getting around it, the expectations of the Elizabethan stage audiences are different than the expectations of modern movie audiences.  Back in Shakespeare's day, characters were supposed to go off on long poetic monologues--it was how you filled time on the stage in the days before special effects.  So be forewarned.
But the acting, directing, and general production values of this film are great.  Even if it did drag a little bit into the long side.
Also for us history geeks, there is interest in seeing a key moment of England's history dramatized.

External Links
The avclub does a good job of reviewing this film:
Among other things that caught my eye in their review:  this play is not only a prequel to the first history tetralogy, but also a prologue to the relationship and rule of the Henrys Bolingbroke and Monmouth.If you’ll allow for a ridiculous analogy, the other prequel that flashed into my mind when watching this production of Richard II was The Phantom Menace. Not because of quality—this is so much better than trade federation squabbling that ruins compelling mythology. But the pressure on Richard II is to set in motion the dominoes that fall across seven subsequent plays.
Agreed.  If memory serves, the story gets more interesting as the plays go on, and we get to better characters like Prince Hal and Falstaff.  But tetralogy needs this play to set up the whole thing first.
The avclub also did a good job of hitting the film's faults:
The martyrdom imagery isn’t just thick. It’s oppressively omnipresent. A few minor suggestions of Richard’s belief in divine right to rule and his willingness to die for that line of thought would have sufficed, but instead the Jesus parallelism hits hard and fast once the usurpation plan has been stated. The callback to the painting Richard admires in the first act during his unfortunate and brutal assassination in prison doesn’t carry the same weight after the audience is numb from biblical imagery.
I know I've already complained about the movie being too long, but I confess being a little bit conflicted on this on--the completeist in me is upset that stuff got cut out of this adaptation, but the short attention span addled 21st century guy in me thought the movie was too long already.  (This is a contradiction, but since most of us are just masses of contradictory thoughts and emotions anyway, I'm going to allow myself this.)  I guess the best of both worlds would be for a complete unabridged film version of Richard II, but one which I didn't have to watch all in one sitting, and could break up over a couple nights.

Ben Whishaw is perfectly cast as Richard II in this movie--I had previously enjoyed him as Q in Skyfall and Freddie Lyon from The Hour.

Watching Richard II, I was reminded of comments I had made reviewing the book Rubicon.  To quote myself: "the ancient Romans put such great faith in their republican traditions, institutions and laws that many of them never seemed to realize that laws and constitutions do not enforce themselves. The Roman Senate never realized that whoever controls the largest army ultimately gets to decide the law. As long as the army’s leaders agreed to play by the republic’s rules, the republic could exist. But as soon as someone at the head of a powerful army decided they didn’t want to play by the rules anymore, then there was little the Senate could do about it."
Flip the politics from Republican government to Monarchical government, and this is exactly the tragedy of Richard II.  Richard II had such faith in the system of monarchy that he never really realized that power does not necessarily go to the King, but to whoever has the largest army.
Ironically enough, even after Shakespeare's time, English kings continued to make this mistake.  This was also the exact same mistake that got Charles I beheaded.  (You have to wonder if Charles I ever read Richard II, and what he would have made of it.)

The BBC radio show This Sceptred Isle mentions this play as as performing a role in British history at one point.  Supporters of the Earl of Essex (including Shakespeare's patron) paid to have this play performed during the Earl of Essex's planned revolt.
And actually, speaking of that same show, the very name, This Sceptred Isle, comes from a line in Shakespeare's Richard II.  

Lastly, for my review of the Shakespeare play at the exact end of the history saga, see Richard III here.

Rating :
7 out of 10.  (I suppose whenever you attempt to rate Shakespeare, you're rating yourself more than you're rating the play--if I were a more intelligent person I'd give it 10 stars, but as a philistine I found it hard to sit through the whole thing, so I'm knocking 3 stars off on the "watchability" factor.)

Link of the Day
The Concepts of Language

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Movie Review)

The Review
Admittedly not everyone likes Wes Anderson's quirky humor, but I'm generally a fan.  And I found this movie to be his best yet.  It was laugh out loud funny in several parts.  It had an interesting plot (lots of moving pieces, and it really kept you guessing as to where the story was headed) great characters, and lots of famous actors.  Also I loved the bizarre set-up of the movie (the flashback within a flashback within a flashback).  And unlike some of Wes Anderson's previous movies, it never dragged or got bogged down in sentimentality.

10 out of 10 Stars.  (Assuming you're a Wes Anderson fan, this is the best movie he's given us yet.)

My other Wes Anderson reviews: Moonrise Kingdom, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and The Life Acquatic

External Links
I part company with the folks at avclub slightly on this--they give it a mixed review, I'm inclined to think this is Wes Anderson's best work ever.  Nonetheless, I'll take the liberty of quoting them only from the sections I agree with--the ones in which they're praising the craft of the film:
the writer-director applies several layers of narrative remove, his story beginning in a modern-day cemetery, as a teenager cracks the spine of a novel called The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film quickly rewinds to the ’80s to meet the author (Tom Wilkinson), then further back to the ’60s to encounter him as a younger man (Jude Law) staying at the once-mighty, now-dilapidated hotel of the title. There, the aging owner, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), reminisces about his own 1930s salad days as a lobby boy (Tony Revolori) under the tutelage of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). These multiple narrators are crucial: Like a piece of juicy gossip passing through a crowd, the past becomes romantically distorted each time it’s retold.
Yes, I quite liked that bit as well.  Very clever, very interesting. And:
His visual imagination in overdrive, Anderson stages several inspired chase sequences, a daring prison break, a suspenseful pursuit through an empty museum—all accompanied by the thrum and jangle of Alexandre Desplat’s lively score. Even more so than usual, the director seems to have drawn inspiration from the morbid illustrations of Edward Gorey: His black-clad villains, played by Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe, are right out of one of the artist’s macabre collections, as are the sudden flashes of darkly comic mayhem.

Link of the Day

Sunday, December 21, 2014

12 Years a Slave

(Movie Review)

The Review
I knew I probably should see this movie, but I delayed it for a long time because I was worried it would be depressing.  And yes, it is depressing.  But it's also fascinating.  The story of the trials and tribulations of an ordinary American slave can never be called boring. And every actor in this movie (and it's chalked full of famous actors)  really brings their A-game in an amazing way.
The fact that it's based on a completely true story makes it all the more fascinating.

While watching this movie, I was reminded of The World on Fire by Amanda Foreman--not because it's the only or the best book on the slavery issue, but just because it was the book I had read most recently.  One thing included in that book is the horror of some of the recollections of British travellers through the American South who actually observed slavery in action--apparently the slave auctions really were awful things to witness, and apparently some of the owners of these slave plantations did tend towards cruelty and sadism.

External Links
Wikipedia's section on the Historical Accuracy of this movie. Wikipedia is skeptical both of the original source material, and of some of the choices of the adaptation.  Personally I'm inclined to give the original source material a pass, but am less forgiving of liberties taken by the film adaptation (albeit it looks like it's minor here.)
Also, the folks at the avclub do a good job of describing why this movie is able to be more than just another feel-bad historical drama about slavery. Deeply, and unsentimentally, 12 Years A Slave delves into the unpleasant details of Northup’s 1853 memoir, taking a few dramatic liberties along the way. Yet it’s more than just a litany of sorrows, the ultimate slavery movie it’s already been dubbed. Channeling the evils of human bondage through the experiences of one weary figure, McQueen has constructed another intensely physical character study about a man trapped in his own flesh

9 out of 10 stars.  (A somewhat depressing subject material, but about as perfect a handling of this material as you could ask for).

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Glenn Greenwald with Liberty and Justice For Some

Friday, December 19, 2014

Historical Problems With the Christmas Story

[Sick of me hearing me talk about historical problems with the Bible?  I agree, Ihavebeengoingon -about  - it - a - lotlately.  Feel free to ignore this post if you've hit your limit.
I'm writing this for two reasons.  One reason is because during the Christmas season, I constantly get the urge to tell people all about these historical problems, and not everyone wants to listen to me go on at length about it.  So writing this blog post is my outlet for it.  Secondly, I'm going to tie in some of these issues in a forthcoming book review I'll be writing soon, so I wanted to first write down clearly what these issues were.]

The first problem with the birth of Christ narrative is that it appears to be a late addition to the Jesus story.  None of the earliest Christian documents mention anything about the virgin birth or the trip to Bethlehem or any of it.

So what are our earliest documents?  The letters of Paul are the first written Christian documents.  This is slightly confusing, because in the Bible Paul's letters are placed after the Gospels.  But the New Testament is not arranged in order of publication date, and actually Paul's letters (or at least the 7 authentic ones (W)) were written before any of the Gospels, somewhere around 50 to 60 AD.  There are no references in Paul's letters to the virgin birth or the divine conception or being born in Bethlehem.

Our earliest Gospel is Mark (probably written around 70 AD), and Mark has absolutely no reference to the birth of Christ, or any of miracles which supposedly accompanies it.  In Mark's Gospel, the story starts when Jesus is already an adult.
It's not until the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, written somewhere between 70 AD and 90 AD, that the stories of the birth of Christ even appear.  This late date alone should raise a lot of questions, and presents the possibility that the story of Christ was being more and more mythologized as time went on.
(John, although it was the last Gospel to be written, also says nothing about the birth of Christ.  It is hypothesized that although John is the latest Gospel, it comes from a completely separate tradition than the Synoptic Gospels, and in that tradition there apparently were no miraculous stories about the birth of Christ.)

Both Matthew and Luke are copying from the Gospel of Mark (for a fuller explanation of why scholars know Matthew and Luke are copying from Mark see this post on the Synoptic Problem here).  So wherever they can use Mark as a common source, they're relatively on the same page.  The problem comes when they're writing about things that Mark left out of his Gospel: the birth of Jesus, at the beginning of the story and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus at the end of the story.  In both of these instances, they write completely separate and contradictory stories. (The resurrection stories are also problematic for similar reasons--they appear to be a later addition, and they contradict each other.  However the problems with the resurrection account must be another post for another time.)

There are two points of similarity in the separate birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Both have the virgin birth, and both have Jesus born in the town of Bethlehem.  These might have been the two touchstones which had developed in the Christian community since the time of Mark's Gospel, and which the subsequent Gospel writers were obliged to address in some way.

The virgin birth is not surprising.  Almost every religious figure in the ancient world had a story of miraculous birth attached to them, and the virgin birth story was already a cliche by the time of Christ (see complete list at Wikipedia Here).

The birth in the town of Bethlehem seems to be in response to a particularly Jewish problem with the prophecies of the Messiah.  Jesus was well known to have been from Nazareth (see Paul's letters and the Gospel of Mark.)  But the Old Testament prophecies dictated that the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem.    Therefore both Matthew and Luke have to square this circle somehow--get Jesus down to Bethlehem to be born, but then back up to Nazareth to grow up.  And, operating from completely different play books, they solve the problem in completely separate ways.

In Matthew's Gospel, Mary and Joseph start out living in Bethlehem.  But because of the persecution of King Herod the Great, they have to flee to Egypt.  Eventually, God gives them the signal that it is safe to return, but they are warned in a dream not to return to Bethlehem, and instead go up to settle in Nazareth instead.

In Luke's Gospel, Mary and Joseph start out living in Nazareth, but have to go down to Bethlehem for some crazy census that (for some reason) requires everyone to go back to their ancestral towns.  Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and then they return to Nazareth.

Notice how suspicious all of this looks already before we even get into the historical problems with each respective account.  The fact that these are late additions to the story would be suspicious enough, but then Matthew and Luke completely contradict each other on every point.

There are some Christian fundamentalists who have put enormous intellectual energy into ironing out all the contradictions between Matthew and Luke.  (For example, the famous contradiction that Luke has Mary and Joseph starting in Nazareth, and that Matthew has Mary and Joseph starting in Bethlehem has been explained away many times.)  But as Yale Professor Dale Martin says, the two accounts don't feel like two separate halves of the same story--they feel like two completely different stories that are made to be read independently.

Even if you ignore the outright contradictions, the sins of omissions are still troubling.  Luke, for example, states clearly in his preface: "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning" (Luke 1:1-3).  But if Luke investigated everything so carefully, then how did he completely miss all the information that Matthew has in his Gospel?

And where are Matthew and Luke getting their information from anyway?  If Matthew has a reliable source, then Luke is clearly not aware of it, and if Luke has a reliable source, then Matthew clearly has no access to it.  It raises a lot of suspicions that at least one of them is just inventing details.
(Just about all the details that we associate with the Christmas story come from only one of the two narratives, and the other Gospel writer appears to be clearly unaware of it.  Luke is unaware of the star of Bethlehem, the visit of the 3 wisemen, and Herod's massacre of the innocents, and the flight to Egypt, et cetera.  Matthew is unaware of the huge census that encompassed the whole Roman world, and Jesus being born in a stable because there was no room at the inn, and the angels appearing to the Shepherds, et cetera).

But aside from the internal contradictions in the New Testament, neither one of the Gospels lines up well with outside established history.
First of all, the star over Bethlehem is problematic.  Of course it's impossible to prove a negative (i.e., we have no account of some contemporary first century historian taking the time to explicitly note down anything like "no strange star over Bethlehem today"), but we have no positive account for this in any other source besides Matthew.  Besides which stars, as we normally think of them, are millions of miles away.  They cannot hover over one specific town.

Also from the Gospel of Matthew: King Herod the Great's massacre of the infants in Bethlehem is recorded in no other historian, and no other place in the Bible.  Not even the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote extensively about King Herod, seems to be at all aware of such a massacre.

On to Luke.
Luke identifies Jesus as being born in the time of King Herod the Great and when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But both of these names are known to historians, and Herod the Great died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn’t become governor of Syria until 6 AD.
Furthermore, Luke records that a census took place throughout the whole Roman Empire, and this was the reason why Mary and Joseph had to move to Bethlehem.  But to the best of our knowledge, no such census took place, and historians are relatively sure that if such a massive census had taken place, we would know about it.  The reign of Caesar Augustus, (when Luke places the census), is one of the more well documented periods in Roman history, and we have absolutely no record of the census in any historical account, or anywhere in the Bible outside of Luke.  To the best of our knowledge, the Romans never conducted any massive census that encompassed the whole Roman empire.  They did conduct local censuses in regional areas occasionally, and when they did there's almost always evidence left behind from these local censuses (tablets, papyrus fragments).  But there is absolutely no evidence of the census that Luke talks about.

Furthermore, in the Gospel of Luke there is a further bizarre detail about this census: everyone had to return to their ancestral town.  So Joseph had to go back to the town of Bethlehem, not because he had ever lived there, but because he was from the house of David.  David's line itself hadn't lived in Bethlehem for centuries--before they disappeared from history, the Davidic bloodline had been ruling and living in Jerusalem.  But some 1,000 years ago David had originally been from Bethlehem, and so now (according to Luke) Joseph has to return all the way to Bethlehem for the census.
 But this is not normally the way the Romans conducted censuses, and furthermore it doesn't even really make logical sense.  Can you imagine the huge upheaval it would cause to a society to have everyone stop their work for several days to move back to the towns their ancestors were from?  (Nowadays most people wouldn't even be able to tell you where their ancestors had lived 1,000 years ago, and it's reasonable to assume the ancient world would have had the same problem.)

Neither does it make any sense to imagine the Romans would have had any interest in the numbers of people that could be traced to ancestral towns.  The Romans conducted censuses for the purposes of tax collection, which meant they would only have been interested in where people were living currently, and what their assets were currently.  They had no interest in where anyone's ancestors were from.

What's more, the Romans only conducted censuses in areas that they directly administered.  During the time of King Herod the Great, Judea would not have been a Roman province, but a client state under King Herod. (Which is why "King" Herod was, after all, referred to as a king.)  So Herod would have been responsible for sorting out his own taxes, and simply paying a tribute to Rome.

Direct Roman rule in Judea was not established until 6 A.D., at which point the Roman governor Quirinius did conduct a census (W).  This census may have been what Luke is getting confused with, but it was only a local census (not the whole Roman world, as Luke reports) and nobody had to move back to their ancestral homes.
And even then it still would not have included the Galilean town of Nazareth—In 6 AD Galilee, unlike Judaea, was still a client state ruled by a client king and would not have been included in a Roman census or direct taxation. Since Luke positions Mary and Joseph as living in the Galilaean town of Nazareth, they would still have been exempt from the census.

The angels in Luke proclaim the birth of Christ in language that is very similar to how the Romans talked about the the birth of Caesar Augustus:  "good news," "bring peace", et cetera.  This isn't a historical problem per se, but it does raise questions about why God, or the angels, or the writer of Luke, or whoever is responsible for these words, feels the need to copy from the language of the Romans so directly.

Finally, there's the question of where this whole story is coming from in the first place.  Matthew and Luke, even if they really did write these Gospels, wouldn't have been present at the birth of Christ.  (And by the way, modern scholars are almost certain Matthew and Luke did not write the Gospels attached to their names--for more on that, see here).
One church tradition says that Matthew and Luke are going directly to Mary as their source.  But then why did Mary tell them each completely separate and contradictory stories?  And how would Mary even know most of this?  Mary wouldn't have been present when the angels appeared to the Shepherds.  Mary wouldn't have been present when the wisemen talked to King Herod.  Mary couldn't have known what the wisemen saw in a dream--especially since she never saw the wisemen after they had that dream.  The Gospel says the wisemen simply returned to their homes in the faraway East by a different route.  So how could anyone ever find out what they had dreamed that night?
So are these stories coming directly from the mouth of God?  Is this just divine inspiration?  But then how come God has given us two separate and contradictory stories for the birth of Christ?

Lest I be accused of trying to appear smarter than I am, I should clarify that absolutely none of these historical problems are my own ideas or discoveries.  This is all based on information I got from:
The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible by Robin Lane Fox [My review here]
Jesus, Interrupted by Bart Ehrman [My review here]
Yale Lectures on the New Testament by Dale Martin [My comments here]
The Historical Jesus Lectures by Thomas Sheehan [itunes link here]
and The Bible Tells Me so by Peter Enns [My review coming soon]

I just found a Youtube video on the same subject:

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Syria, China, Capitalism, and Feruson