Have you finished? Good. Now for the airing of grievances.
My initial problem with the lecture was on account of the dates. You will notice that the two pieces date from the summer of 2011. It is now January 2013, and nothing has changed. Now, I have no problem with an academic lecturer giving the same talk multiple times in different places several months apart. Nor do I have a problem with an academic giving a lecture at about the same time it appears in print. But delivering a piece a year and a half after putting it in print is suspect. To be sure, if the lecture's argument is sophisticated, or if the lecturer is an engaging public speaker, this mitigates the situation. What matters in attending a lecture is that you leave knowing something that you could not have known going in, or needed a refresher on going in.
Wood's lecture did not do that. His lecture consisted of three main points, summarized as follows:
1. The New Atheist screeds are not capable of adequately treating the doubt, fluctuation, ambiguity, incoherence, and even absurdity that comes with practicing a life of faith.
2. Novels are.
3. Isn't that great?
Now, I agree with all of these. Even so, these insights require little critical discernment, and they are not substantially developed further in the course of either of the essays that form the lecture. Wood calls out the New Atheists on several counts: that they have not made any real intellectual developments since Bertrand Russell (save the addition of evolutionary neuropsychobiology to their arsenal), that they take the text of the Bible far more literally than it deserves, and that they have a lack of sympathy to a life of faith. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Wood's understanding of faith and theology is any more sophisticated than that of Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. The reasons he gives for why he lost his faith are unconvincing. For instance, his understanding of unanswered prayers is naïve. The argument is that if God exists, surely He will answer prayers. I do not recall an answered prayer; therefore I see no evidence that God exists. “If you pray for a member of your congregation to get better and she dies, your prayer was not answered.” What Wood does not grasp is that the prayers for the lives of the cancer-stricken congregation members were answered—in the negative. A negative answer to a prayer is often painful. But why should God, of all persons, not be allowed to say no? The prayers were answered, only not in a way that Wood was hoping for.
Wood falls victim to at least one vice of the New Atheists that he does not mention: the refusal to give propositions of faith their due. There is a facile glibness about the essays that is irritating to someone who takes religion seriously. “To worship Christ...was to worship the bastard child (in the strict sense of the word) of an absolute bastard (in the vernacular sense of the word)” is a line that could have been filched straight from Hitchens. The closer Wood gets to central Christian tenets, the shallower appears his grasp of their importance for the believer. For instance, giving “you must change your life” as a gloss on John 3:5 is about as accurate as glossing John 15:13 with “love hurts.” You need a savior to be born again; you can use a therapist, twelve-step program, or a little willpower to change your life. Wood thus reduces a supernatural mystery to a self-help slogan. This is essentially to say that a sinner does not need salvation. He just needs to make better choices. Were this all Jesus meant when he spoke to Nicodemus in John 3, then the Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection were overkill.
Wood is also strangely silent about the matter of how to read the Bible. We are to avoid exclusively literal readings, but how should we properly read and understand Sacred Scripture? The only view Wood seems to give as a favorable alternative is to read the Bible as you would “any other book,” and I would guess that Wood has the novel in mind. This proposition will not work. In the first place, there is no one way to read a novel. More importantly, no accepted critical methods of reading treat the text as a final authority. No one believes that Melville provides salvation, nor does any reader dogmatically claim that The Brothers Karamazov is the authoritative novel, whatever that would mean. If we read the Bible as a novel, we are deciding to read it as still one more book that we need not submit to. We would also be reading it as a work of fiction, which means that we would already be prepared to exclude one possible result of our reading: that these events happened and are true. Finally, one important tenet of Christianity divides the Bible from other texts—the Bible's divine inspiration. Christians take the Bible to be the Word of God; that is to say, they expect God to reveal Himself through a reading of these particular texts. That is to say, when you read the Bible, there will be divine power at work in the act of reading and comprehending. By contrast, no one invokes the Holy Spirit when reading Proust or Salinger, unless he has an exam the following day. To read the Bible as a novel, then, is to not read it as a believer, or at least to read it without entertaining the possibility that it contains divine truth. The Gospels, for instance, do not ask for merely sympathetic readers; they ask for readers who want to know more about Jesus.