Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Death, taxes, and magazine articles about the Virgin Birth

At Evangelical Outpost, Joe Carter has a post on this year's Christmas crop of what-does-the-birth-of-Jesus-mean-and-did-it-happen articles. The primary target of the post is this article by Jon Meacham. Joe writes:

The primary problem with Meacham’s article isn’t that it’s unashamedly biased (though it certainly is that) nor even that he “doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” No, the fatal flaw is in Meacham’s assumption that we don’t know what he doesn’t know. Like many others in the media, Meacham simply believes that he knows more than his audience. Epistemic humility, however, is an essential attribute for all journalists who work and live in what my friend John Coleman calls, “the world of people much smarter than me.”

First, no one ever loses points with me for recommending epistemic humility, and this highlights a cool effect of the blogosphere on the role of the journalist. As has been pointed out countless times, the decentered nature of the blogosphere undermines the traditional privileged position of the journalist vis-a-vis truth. This idea has been roiling the blogs for a while, but this may be one of the better articulations, since it ties decentered fact-checking to the norm of epistemic humility. Usually, media critiques of this type just end with the warning that journalists need to do a better job of fact-checking; this, however, recommends a set of virtues that correspond to the journalist's new position in the media structure.

One small point about one of the rebuttals that Joe links to: there's a moment in Albert Mohler's response to David Van Bierna's article in Time (subscription only, I'm afraid) in which he implies that literal truth (which I'll just call logos after this) and mythological meaning are mutually exclusive. From Mohler's article:

Schaberg...argues that the virgin birth is about transmuting "a ritually taboo pregnancy into an occasion of glory in the birth of the Holy Child." In other words, there was no Virgin Birth, and it was simply an invention of the early church. (emphasis mine)

I could be making a mountain of a molehill, but that 'in other words' seems quite telling, in that it sets up logos and mythos as a binary either/or. Yet from Origen (at the latest) onward, we see the idea that mythos and logos are actually co-extensive. I'd imagine that the response to this point would be that Van Bierna himself opposes the two, and the critique is just tracing its arc through his article. In other words, Van Bierna tells the reader that mythos and logos are opposed, and he asserts the mythological meaning throughout the article, giving the reader the impression that the logos of the story is false.

That seems like a fair response to me, but if it actually tracked the reasoning of the critique, I would have expected to have seen that up front, instead of existing as a hidden or implicit premise (which is precisely the danger that Mohler continually points to in his article).