Why I Can't Critique Harpur

I've just written a short essay on why I can't, according to his own criteria found on his website , critique Harpur's book, The Pagan Christ.

Yesterday I was reading Harpur s website on which was a page indicating what he felt was a reasonable approach to critiquing his book, The Pagan Christ. In a nutshell, here they are:

1. Anyone who is a priest, minister, pastor, seminary professor, or church official of any sort is disqualified from critiquing his book because naturally they are deeply threatened by his ideas. For these people to even concede one fact would be like taking out the corner stone of their precious traditions, and their whole edifice would fall. They are excluded from critiquing his work because they are naturally defensive and therefore biased.

2. Harpur claims that anyone who hasn t read the original sources, such as Higgins, Massey, and his personal favorite, Kuhn, can t critique his work.

3. He next criticizes what he calls the general professional academic who may be dissatisfied with the sparseness of Harpur s documentation. He claims that The Pagan Christ is a popular book, and needs to be judged on that merit alone. To question his sources is, he claims, unfair to the book that is intended for popular consumption, not academic dissection.

4. His last reasonable approach is that the critic not nit-pick the book apart, therefore discrediting it. The critic should be only concerned with the main thesis of his book.

I emphasize that I m not at all referring to Harpur s content at this point, but the 4 requirements of a reasonable approach pretty much disqualifies me on all counts. Here s why:

1. I am a pastor and therefore a church official.
2. I haven t read his original sources, nor will I have the time and money to do so.
3. I believe references are a must for a book that so heavily depends on original sources for its thesis.
4. If the main thesis of the book is so radically true, then I think it should endure serious criticism.

Let me fatten this up a little:

1. Just because I am a church-official, it doesn t mean I am unable to put aside my personal convictions to read a book with as much objectivity as I can muster. It also doesn t mean, just because I may disagree with him, that I can t have sound criticism to his theses. What scholar right from the beginning excludes certain groups of people from criticizing his or her work? I ve never heard of this before. The Wikepedia Dictionary calls this argumentum ad hominem: An ad hominem argument, also known as argumentum ad hominem (Latin, literally argument against the person ) or attacking the messenger , involves replying to an argument or assertion by attacking the person presenting the argument or assertion rather than the argument itself. I realize how self-defeating this can be. It is like in a recent workshop I attended on burn-out. I made a statement with some emotion behind it, and the general response was, Hmm. I smell burn-out! I said, I m NOT burnt-out! But, I realized as soon as I said it, that I might as well shut up. Like trying to convince a psychotherapist that you re not crazy. Same here: as soon as I start critiquing Harpur (not even his ideas yet, just his method), I will be accused of being defensive and biased, towing the party line.

2. One the one hand, Harpur says that his book is popular and not intended to satisfy academic scrutiny. But then on the other hand he demands that you can only critique the book when you ve read all of his sources. Higgins, Massey, and Kuhn are his favorites. Does this also mean that I have to read Higgins , Massey s, and Kuhn s sources the Egyptian original texts? Then does this mean I have to read the Egyptian s sources the Ancient Druid texts or whatever? Shouldn t a work of this magnitude stand on its own? Shouldn t I, as a thinking human being, be able to sniff error or recognize truth from the document before me without having to dig around the archives? Besides, he received grants and time allotments to complete this book. Do all of his readers? Maybe just the uncritical ones!

3. I suspect most scholars realize that when they make a bold claim it should be supported by evidence. As a friend said to me recently: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I think that is only fair. So, for instance, when Harpur says, What cannot be gainsayed by anyone is that the history of the early centuries of the Christian religion witnessed the perpetuation of a extensive series of what all later historians refer to as pious frauds (p. 56), I personally think such a bold, sweeping claim as all later historians needs some kind of evidence. Otherwise, the gullible masses which have swallowed Christianity whole may also swallow this whole.

4. Doesn t a scholar expect his thesis to rest upon the evidence? To give a series of incredible claims that are called facts, and then say: the truth, I have discovered, is that this inner experience of the presence and power of God as the Christ within our own consciousness is the best proof of the authenticity of true Christianity (p. 176), is self-defeating. To build a case, as Harpur does, based on his own investigation of his sources, and to call them irrefutable and beyond repute, then to say that the best proof is his inner experience is not good scholarship. I am in dialogue with people right now who are agnostics and atheists, and for me to say, I just feel Jesus in my heart and hope that carries weight with them is just not good argumentation.

Again, I want to emphasize that I am not at all engaging with the content of Harpur s ideas yet. This is just a discussion of his method. I have problems with it.


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