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Ron Rhodes: Assessing Alternative Gospels/Christs/Chistianities

Ron Rhodes had the unenviable duty of giving the first talk on Saturday; his topic was Assessing Alternative Gospels, Christs, and Christianities [mp3|stream].

He wasn’t first on the schedule; first we had opening prayer and three songs, just like a church service. This is one of the things that makes me uneasy about the way material is presented at the Discern conferences; the talks are presented as if we were about to hear something authoritative, rather than theoretical, with some of the trappings of a church service, and unfortunately no question and answer session afterward. I suppose this is a stylistic choice; I wouldn’t make it this way.

As I mentioned before, these talks tend to live on a continuum between a lecture and a sermon, and Rhodes to his credit hangs out between the middle and the lecture end of the continuum. He occasionally breaks up his presentation with a funny picture, video, or story, but by and large he tells a fairly linear, factish, sourced story and doesn’t leave much of his argument resting on his own authority, rhetoric, appeal to prejudice, etc.

His talk was an old-fashioned “how to tell a heretic” talk, where he laid out descriptions of a number of groups on a helpful grid on the basis of

  • Whether they have a different Bible (an aberrant translation, additional holy books) or have a low or aberrant view of Scripture
  • Whether they present Jesus differently than do orthodox Christians

This struck me as an attempt to put a number of relatively new or obscure groups on a familiar cult apologetics frame. I think he mostly succeeded. He dealt with the following groups:

  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Mormons
  • Unitarian Universalists
  • New Age/Mind Science/New Thought groups
  • Oneness Pentecostals
  • Psychics/Channelers/Christian Psychics
  • Gnostic Gospels (e.g. Gospels of Thomas, Judas)
  • Claims that Christianity borrowed from contemporary pagan groups (Dan Brown, mostly)
  • Variant text interpreters (Bart Ehrman)

To my ears he took a framework that works well for the four groups and reasonably well for the fifth and attempted to apply it to the latter four groups or individuals. I don’t think this worked:

  • The psychics and channelers are really part of the New Age movement; I don’t think he really presented any cases of anyone who plausibly claims to be an orthodox Christian and also channels the voice of some dead person.
  • The other three groups don’t present a different belief or religion so much as attempt to undermine the Christian canon and/or church; they don’t really present a positive alternative (something to believe) to Christianity so much as offering a negative attack on historical Christianity.

At this point I think I have to point out one of the problems with “apologetics conferences” or “discernment conferences” generally: contrary to their stated purpose they don’t prepare the hearer to deal with someone who is actually in one of these groups, but rather defend the mind of the believer from an alternative point of view. The presentations of the groups above were shallow and almost cartoonish (seriously; does anyone think a real LDS missionary will agree that he believes Jesus is the brother of Lucifer? Do Unitarians really see themselves as belonging to a religion?) to the point of being unhelpful. The groups he mentioned were worth a session each, and Rhodes gave them less than ten minutes each.

Finally, Rhodes’s summary dismissal of these groups used an approach I’m accustomed to seeing in Fundamentalist circles but surprised to see in even nominally evangelical circles: he quoted Scripture verses that refer to “doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:16, Titus 1:13, Ephesians 4:14) and verses that could be bent to refer to doctrine (Revelation 2:2 and 20) and took them to mean some unstated true thing he never stated, thereby implying that whatever the Apostles taught is the same thing as whatever we’re hearing at church.

He also dealt in a typical fallacy popular in Fundamentalist circles where he described all these groups as being tools of Satan rather than being simply wrong, misguided, self-seeking, or whatever. He just posited that all these errors come from a single source without detailing how or why; I can’t think of a less-helpful way to arm someone against error.

On balance I’d say that the overview of what these groups believe is helpful, but Rhodes’s analysis was not. I wonder as I always do what the typical listener’s takeaway was from his talk.

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