Monday, 30 January 2012

Heresy

Being something of a heretic myself, in a modest sort of way, I was interested to read Alister McGrath's Heresy.  McGrath is currently a theology professor at Kings College, London and has a glittering academic carreer, representing the educated face of moderate orthodox Christianity in the UK and beyond.  I've enjoyed a couple of his previous books - The Twilight of Atheism provides a handy, accessible summary of the trajectory of atheist ideas in modern Western thought, while The Dawkins Delusion provides a pithy response to Richard Dawkins The God Delusion.

Here he's moved on from atheism, which challenges the church from without, to heresy, which provides a challenge from within.  He is at pains to stress that heretics ancient and modern are not outsiders attacking the church, they are insiders trying to reform it, generally with the best of intentions. 

So what is it that distinguishes heresy from orthodoxy?  There is a thread of thinking in 20th and 21st century theology that identifies heresies as "suppressed orthodoxies" and sees the church enforcing orthodoxy as a way of asserting its power.  In this analysis, what defines heresy is that it challenges authority, not that it is intrinsically less true or less helpful than orthdoxy.  For a-post-modern theologian it is a short step from here to embracing heresy as a form of liberation.

McGrath challenges this viewpoint for two reasons.  First of all, he says that the "classic" heresies date from a time when the church authorites had no secular power and no way to enforce conformity on erring churches or church leaders.  Secondly, many of the classic heresies were far from liberating, often much less so than orthodoxy.

Instead, McGrath views heresies as failed attempts to express the ultimately inexpressible truth of Christianity.  He sees orthodoxy as the best approximation of this truth although always open to restatement and refinement. 

Heresy is best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilising, or even destroying the core of Christian faith.  Both this destablisation and the identification of this threat may be spread out over an extended period of time.  A way of making sense of one aspect of the Christian faith, such as the identity of Jesus of Nazareth - an aspect that may initially be welcomed and find general acceptance - may later have to be discontinued on account of the potential damage it is subsequently capable of causing.

Behind this view is a view of gradually developing orthodoxy.  The first Christians, he says, were not that concerned with articulating an orthodox theology, since their focus was on survival in a hostile social environment.  Later, church leaders realised that to engage with the culture in which they found themselves it was not enough to simply restate the views of the apostles - these needed to be explained and systematised in a way which made sense in the social and philosophical environment of the late Roman Empire.

Using this framework, the middle section of the book examines a number of classic heresies from the first five centuries of the Church.  Nascent orthodoxy is shown charting a difficult middle course between absorption back into Judaism (the Ebionites) and severance of all connection with its Jewish roots (Marcion); between seeing Jesus as a god who pretended to be human (Valentinism) and as a man specially chosen by God (Arianism); between libertarian laxity (the church in Rome post-Constantine) and focus on moral perfection to the exclusion of forgiveness and grace (Pelagianism and Donatism).  In each case, he shows orthodoxy as an emerging consensus rather than the imposition of some sort of church authority - Constantine personally favoured Arius, but supported the clear majority at the Council of Nicea, Augustine was seen as a rural outsider by the Pelagians in Rome yet his views ultimately triumphed. 

All of which begs the question.  As a protestant, how does McGrath account for his own status as a heretic in the eyes of the Roman church?  He deals with this, to some extent, in the final part of the book.  Later in the church's history, he says, it became a secular power, and the declaration of heresy became a weapon in the fight to retain social control.  Wycliffe was condemned for challenging papal authority, not for holding any hereticial views.  Luther and Calvin were branded heretics when actually they were entirely orthodox but critical of certain peripheral church practices and teachings. 

Perhaps it's just me, but this seems like a rather uneasy compromise.  One the one hand the classic heresies - the ones McGrath rejects - are eliminated by an emerging consensus as subverting or damaging the "core of the Christian faith".  On the other, the ones he accepts (the key issues on which Protestantism differs from Catholicism) are peripheral issues mislabelled as heresies and are victims of the abuse of political power.  He argues his case well, but it seems just a little too convenient.

Anyway, we'll soon get to see if his theory works.  The church in the 21st century is in a very similar situation to that in the first, second and third.  It is fragmented, it has no political power and weak central control (none in the case of Protestants), and it is under threat in many places.  Christians are struggling to rearticulate their faith in the light of new scientific knowledge, new global challenges and new philosophical understandings of truth.  Is it possible for a new consensus to emerge organically, as McGrath thinks orthodoxy did in those formative centuries?  How would such an agreement be reached, and what would be the fate of the currently competing viewpoints?  More importantly what would such a consensus, if it could be achieved, actually look like?

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Stopping the Boats

So, the talks between Government and Opposition on reviving offshore processing have collapsed.  Even though both government and opposition want basically the same thing, each wants their own version of it and neither will compromise.  This is undoubtedly good news for asylum seekers, at least in the short term, because Australia's current laws as interpreted by the High Court are more compassionate than either of our main parties would like them to be.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbot has plumbed new depths of absurdity in this increasingly absurd debate, suggesting that a Coalition Government would return boats to Indonesia.   As usual, Abbot is a little short on practicality here. 

First of all, there is the issue of detecting the boats.  The ocean is wide, the boats are small.  Often the first Australian authorities know of their existence is when they chug into the dock on Christmas Island.

Secondly, there is the issue of the process of their return.  Most of the boats are not seaworthy, so it is irresponsible to send them back unaccompanied.  The alternative of towing them back, or ferrying the passengers back on coastguard ships, is unlikely to be popular with our friends in Indonesia - not to mention that while the towing is taking place, other boats can't be intercepted.

Speaking of Indonesia, what do they think of all this?  Well from the evidence in the Australian media, they are sensibly staying out of the silliness that passes for Australian politics.  However, I suspect that they are likely to say that Australia should solve its own refugee problems, and refuse any such boats permission to enter Indonesian waters.  All of which is also very unhelpful.

Hence we have seen Abbot, Australia's most prominent cyclist, back-pedalling furiously, inserting the words "where possible" into the equation and going back to the same old same old of Temporary Protection Visas and reopening the Nauru detention centre.

Which brings me to the real point.  Before anything else, good policy is about clearly defining your objectives, and then finding credible ways of achieving them.  If you can't find a way of achieving your objective, or the achievement of the objective causes too much collateral damage, you need to change your objective. 

Both of our major parties have allowed themselves to be persuaded that the major objective is to stop unauthorised arrivals into Australia.  Their main way of achieving this is to provide a deterrent - imprison the smugglers, hold refugees in detention for long periods.  When this doesn't work, their response is to up the deterrent - Labor wants to send them to Malaysia, the Coalition wants to send them to Nauru or back to Indonesia and if they can't do that re-introduce Temporary Protection Visas.  Flogging is presumably not far off, and some of the proposed solutions already look unconscionably close to drowning.

I have two problems with this.  Firstly, I think the objective is wrong.  These are people fleeing persecution, war or other forms of suffering, and the prime objective should be to provide them with refuge and safety.  This is not to say this needs to happen in Australia.  One of the reasons people make these boat jouneys is that neither Indonesia nor Malaysia are signatories to the United Nations refugee convention so asylum seekers are unable to gain any legal status in those countries.  Changes in those and other countries would save people a dangerous boat trip.  However, until those changes take place, we need to be prepared to deal humanely with those who do arrive here.

Secondly, the collateral damage is too great.  The financial cost of our deterrent measures is exhorbitant, and increases as we try to up the deterrent.  Latest Immigration Department estimates suggest that re-opening the Nauru detention centre will cost $1.7b.  This figure may be inflated for political purposes, but even the previous estimate of just under $1b is exhorbitant. 

However, this is a lesser concern to the human cost.  Extended detention (especially in overcrowded centres), long periods of uncertainty and deportation are huge sources of trauma for refugees, already traumatised by their experiences in their home countries.  These are people whose only "crime" is to seek refuge.

I've already said what I think we should do and if you missed it you can read it here.  It's time for us to wake up and rediscover our compassion and generosity.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Flood and Fall

Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that the book of Genesis began life as a series of orally transmitted stories which were turned into literary form relatively late in the piece.  It is possible that the first eleven chapters, in particular, consist of orginally unconnected material, with the genealogies serving as a literary device to tie them together.

If this is true, then it is possible to see that there is not one but four stories of the Fall in Genesis.  There is the one we usually associate with it, found in Genesis 2 and 3.  Then there are the stories of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4), the Great Flood (Genesis 6-8) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).  All four stories feature the same core elements - humans fail to live up to God's standard, God intervenes to punish them or prevent them from doing more harm, and there is a form of redemption at the end.  I'll talk about Cain and Abel and Babel later, but first the Flood.

Two things surprise me about this story.  The first is that it doesn't give biblical literalists a lot more trouble.  Of course I've heard the rather unconvincing explanations about oceanic fossils on mountaintops and geological features caused by wave action (all easily refuted in the light of what has been discovered about geology and paleontology in the 200 years since such claims were last taken seriously by scientists) but the biggest killer for me is how the creatures managed to survive afterwards.  Even assuming the herbivores could find enough to eat in the devastated landscape, they would all be eaten by the carnivores in the first few weeks after which the carnivores would starve and the earth would be left to the cockroaches and cane toads.

But enough pot-shots at easy targets.  A more interesting surprise is that this story is an incredibly popular children's tale.  Of course boats and cute animals do provide a lot of opportunities for illustrators, but this is the darkest of the Fall stories.  Here's how it begins in Chapter 6.

5 The LORD saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. 7 So the LORD said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.” 8 But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.

It's easy for the cute animals to blind us to the scale of destruction.  Whereas in the Adam and Eve story there are only two humans, and they are the only ones punished, here there are lots, and everyone gets it.  Not only the humans (including presumably infants) but all the animals and birds, despite their innocence of human crime, are given the death sentence.  The rest of the tale tells how it was done.  The LORD inundates the earth with water, huge volumes of water, for 40 days.  It takes 150 days to recede.  All terrestrial life is wiped out, save for a small remnant - Noah and his family, and a breeding pair of each species of animal (plus a larger stock of domestic animals), sheltering in a huge boat the LORD has ordered Noah to build.

This is where it doesn't pay to be a literalist or to believe in inerrancy.  A god who actually does this kind of destruction would be a monster.  Explain that to your Sunday School class.  This is one of those difficult stories, and Christians who don't struggle with it are just not paying attention.

I don't know the answer, but let me suggest a couple of things. 

Firstly, stories of great floods are widespread around the globe, because flooding is pretty much universal.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is extremely unpleasant and destructive, and something of this universal experience is translated and exaggerated in this story.  It reminds us of how precarious our lives really are.

Secondly, the story is a classic warning tale.  Noah sets a standard for human behaviour.  It is not a moral standard - no morality is discussed in this story - it is a standard of fidelity.  He obeys God in the building of the ark, but more importantly the first thing he does when he steps on dry land is build an altar, and make a sacrifice.  This is how we should all act, it says.

Thirdly, the story contrasts an imagined past with a much better, safer present.

21 The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma and said in his heart: “Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.
22 “As long as the earth endures,
seedtime and harvest,
cold and heat,
summer and winter,
day and night
will never cease.”


Just as the LORD made clothes for Adam and Eve after the fall, so here he promises future protection to Noah's descendents.  The readers of the story need not fear a repeat of such destruction, because God favours them and promises to care for them.  This promise is open-ended.  The rainbow is seen to this day as a symbol of hope, or new beginnings, of good times following bad.  As we face the possibility of another ecological catastrophe, perhaps this story can give us hope.

Monday, 16 January 2012

God's Undertaker

Oxford mathematics professor and Christian apologist John C Lennox has recently acheived a high profile in Australia due to an appearance on the ABC's Q&A.  He has also debated noted atheists like Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer.  All of which means that sooner or later I was bound to check him out.

God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? is Lennox's summary of his arguments against the "scientific atheism" of the likes of Dawkins and Shermer.  Its central question is whether the evidence of science has really killed off the idea of God.  His main antagonist in this debate seems to be Dawkins, and a number of chapters in this book are direct refutations of claims made by Dawkins - that the process of natural selection is sufficient to explain the origin of life, that an interventionist god violates the laws of nature, that David Hume's arguments are a conclusive philosophical refutation of the possibility of miracles.

In the process, Lennox brings to bear the findings and observations of a range of distinguished scientists - Nobel Prize winners, Fellows of the Royal Society, professors at prestigious universities, and so forth.  Some of these are Christian, others are agnostic and some are even atheists, but they appear to share the view that science does not of itself disprove religion.  On what grounds?

Well, interestingly, the central theme of this book is a revival of the "argument from design", roundly mocked by atheists in the form popularly proposed by William Paley in the 18th Century - the analogy of discovering a watch and inferring the existence of a watchmaker.  Paley, and Lennox, both suggest that life as we know it is irreducably complex, that it could not come about by chance and the only possible explanation is that it has an intelligent designer. 

Lennox gives this argument a 21st Century makeover using the findings of modern physics, cosmology, genetics, and even paleontology.  Not surprisingly, as a mathematician he applies a liberal dose of probability calculation.  His calculations quickly exhausted by limited maths, but his conclusions are clear.

Firstly, he highlights the sensitivity of the boundary conditions for life set by our universe's physical constraints.  The slightest difference in such parameters as the nuclear background radiation required for the creation of carbon, the ratio of the nuclear strong force to the electromagnetic force or the rate of entropy would make life impossible.  There is no theoretical reason, he says, why things have to be the incredibly improbable way they are, yet somehow they got to be just right for our arrival.

His most sustained attention, however, is focused on the probability of the chance emergence of the building blocks of life - amino acids, proteins, DNA and RNA.  "Pure" evolutionists argue for the emergence of these molecules gradually, over a period of billions of years.  Yet the information encoded even in amino acids is incredibly complex.  How could this complexity come about by chance?  His calculations of the probability of these chance developmentss produce mind-bogglingly large numbers, and he concludes that in practice they amount to impossibility within the time-frames available.

What's most fascinating is that of course Dawkins et al also know this.  Their response is that obviously there is something more than pure chance going on - nature is able to select for certain things, so that once they appear they self-perpetuate and accumulate.  Lennox turns this argument on its head, arguing that this can only be the case if the pattern for life is already existent, so that the process of evolution somehow "seeks" that pattern.  In Lennox's hands, Dawkins' attempts to demonstrate the possibility of chance producing life turn out to be examples of intelligent design.  Dawkins's computer simulations only work if they are already encoded with their end goal. 

I can hardly do justice to the full scope of his arguments.  His maths is beyond me, as is his physics, cosmology and genetics.  His array of eminent sources is certainly impressive as is his own scientific pedigree, and he is certainly not to be dismissed lightly.  Still I can't help thinking that his argument is a little circular.

It seems to me that he is far from proving his case and perhaps that is not his intent.  He has strayed into realms of such massive uncertainty that in the end we just have to say we don't know.  We know a lot about how things work now.  We have mapped the human genome and the extent of the galaxy.  We have detailed knowledge of biochemistry and a huge, although partial, fossil database.  However, the task of projecting backwards from this evidence to its origin is so incredibly speculative that it will inevitably be tainted by our worldview.  Lennox sees God, Dawkins sees chance.  Which God, or which chance?  These are questions of philosophy and theology, not of science.  In the end, Lennox convinces that the debate is still alive, and Dawkins' strident claims of victory are hugely premature.  Rumours of God's death are greatly exaggerated.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Kindness of Strangers

Speaking of the Fall, my relaxing holiday reading this Saturnalia, has been AJ Mackinnon's lovely travel story The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow.  Mackinnon tells the story of his journey through the waterways of Europe, from Wales to the Black Sea, in a 10 ft sailing dinghy.  It's glorious fun, with the odd hair-raising incident to keep the adrenaline going.  Like to try crossing the English Channel in a dinghy?  Without any larger craft accompanying?  Like to be accosted by pirates in remote Bulgaria?  Like to be stuck in Serbia as NATO is about to begin bombing?

Apart from the comedy and high farce, one of his most persistent themes is the kindness of strangers.  Just when he is about to despair, his boat is ready to fall to pieces, he is starving and out of cash in a Visa-less country, or some other disaster strikes, some complete stranger steps up with carpentry tools and expertise, good home cooked food, a towrope, a place of shelter, a kind word or gesture.  Across the length and breadth of Europe, pirates and Milosevic notwithstanding, kindness far outweighs cruelty or indifference.

Meanwhile, in a different kind of fall, my cousin and fellow blogger Roo had a mountain biking accident on New Year's Eve.  No permanent damage but a painful injury meant his son had to call the ambulance and they had to retrieve him from bushland.  Exploiting the privileges of confirmation bias to the full he says:  "People were so wonderful, generous and helpful. Sorry, my Christian brethren, but I don't think humans are 'fallen' at all."

So twice proves it, and it led my thoughts to Creation Spirituality and a book I read years ago by one of the founders of the CS movement, Matthew Fox, called On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear.  Despite its unblievably kitschy title and equally kitschy 1970s cover, this is actually a brilliant book which has had a huge influence on me over the past 20 years.

Fox's basic idea is that creation represents the "original blessing".  He opposes to the life-denying tendencies of traditional theology, influenced by the neo-Platonists and passed to us via Augustine and the likes of Thomas a Kempis, a life-affirming, joyous spirituality based on appreciating and enjoying God's gift of creation, and working fervently to preserve its goodness in all its forms.

For we have numerous instances in Western spiritualities of life-denying rather than a life-affirming spirituality....  Repression, not expression; guilt, not pleasure; heaven, not this life; sentimentality, not justice; mortification, not developing of talents: these are the earmarks of what Western spirituality has for the most part done with the thought of Plato and the neo-Platonists (who always preferred a different world to this one); of Augustine (who...dichotomised the body and soul, man and woman, creation and grace and founded Chrisitan faith on belief in the Fall rather than in creation)....  (These spiritualities) can lead to life-denial and deep human pessimism.  Yet they have invariably been the more popular and influential spirituality in Christianity.

By contrast, Fox has spent his life trying to build an alternative kind of spirituality.  He works towards a "creation-centred, that is, a life-affirming spirituality", knowing "how to enjoy life without feeling guilty", while at the same time "preparing to 'stick out his chin' for justice's sake - that is to share life whatever the personal cost.  This tension is the substratum on which an adult, creation-centred spirituality is based.  It is the spirituality that Jesus practiced...."

Fox doesn't deny the Fall, in that he recognises that things in the world are not as they should be.  There are still pirates, NATO still drops bombs, people like Milosevic still get to ruin countries.  He emphasises the prophetic tradition which calls for justice and opposes oppression.  Yet he doesn't believe the presence of evil in the world negates the basic goodness of God's creation, the value of this life or the image of God which each of us carries.  We can be kind to stangers - indeed, we often are - because that is how God made us, and that is how God is. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

Discovering We Are Naked

Prompted by reading an essay by Wendell Berry, I've been thinking about the second and third chapters of Genesis and what they have to say about our current environmental predicament.

Many scholars think these two chapters represent the earliest Hebrew version of the creation account, with the opening chapter added at a later date.  They record the creation of humanity, and the fall of the first humans from their state of innocence.

We are accustomed to think of ourselves as somewhat separate from nature, as shown in the diagram below.

We understand that we are, to some extent, natural beings.  We know we need to eat and drink, that we get sick.  However, we see ourselves as fundamentally different from the rest of creation.  Hence, we see "nature" as something to be conserved, managed or exploited by us.  This is why we are able to talk so easily about balancing environmental and economic factors, for instance, as if the economy was something seperate from the environment, or nature was just one factor of production.

This is not the picture I see in the second chapter of Genesis. 

...the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

We are made of dirt.  God did not make the earth, and then make us.  He formed us from the materials that were already there.  We are wholly creatures of the earth, coming from the dust and returning to it. 

The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.

We live in the garden, and our primary task is its care.  The garden was not planted for us, it was planted by God for reasons which are not explained.  Instead, we were created - from the same materials used to create it - to care for it on God's behalf.  The diagram should really look like the one below.


We are a part of God's creation, with our own job to do and our own particular characteristics amongst all the other diverse creatures God has made.  So how did we come to see ourselves as separate from it?  Chapter 3 gives us the answer.

The serpent, it says, tempted Eve with the prospect of becoming "like God, knowing good and evil".  There is no word in the English language adequate to translate the Hebrew word yada, rendered here as "knowing".  When we think of "knowing", we think of intellectual knowledge, of information.  Yet the word is used in a wide variety of contexts.  It serves, for instance, as a euphemism for sexual intercourse, as a description for intimate friendship or acquaintance, as an ability to discern or decide, to declare or instruct. 

Good and evil, the serpent suggested, would become Adam and Eve's constant companions, the subject of their deepest thoughts.  They would not only recognise good and evil when they saw it, they would declare some things good and others evil.  They would no longer simply occupy their place in the natural world, they would stand above it as its judges, arbiters and controllers. 

The results were immediate.  They knew themselves to be naked, and they hid.  They were no longer comfortable in their own skins, in their natural state.  They needed something more - leaves, animal skins.  They began to exploit nature, to cover their nakedness and make up for their discomfort with who they were.  They began to justify themselves (another aspect of yada) and to make excuses.

The LORD understands that there is no going back.  Indeed, he himself placed the cherubim with the flaming sword to bar that way.  The human dream of a return to Arcadia, that state of blissful nature, is just that.  We have knowledge and we cannot un-know.  The question is, how will we use it?  Will we remember our own nakedness, our own vulnerability?  Will we remember that we are made out of dirt, the same substance that made the forests, the animals , the birds?  Will we learn once again to tend the garden?  Or will we persist in defining good and evil in a way that ensures our return to the dirt from whence we came?

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Bible Unearthed

Happy New Year everyone.  I trust 2012 is a better year than 2011 or, if 2011 was the best year of your life so far, that at least the comedown is unspectacular.

In between eating, sleeping and watching cricket I've been reading The Bible Unearthed, an earlier book by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of David and Solomon.  This book operates on a broader canvas, providing an overview of the latest (at least up to their time of writing in 2001) archaeological evidence about the times in which the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are set.

Finkelstein and Silbermann are serious and distinguished historians and archaeologists, not eccentric amateurs like Tony Bushby or Stephan Huller.  They carefully cite and sift their sources, build their arguments from evidence and are careful to avoid overclaiming.  Nonetheless it is important to remember that archaeological evidence is intrinsically partial.  In a country which has been continuously occupied for millennia, there is little that is undisturbed, and many key sites can't be excavated because they are still being used.  For instance, there is little archaeological data available about the Jerusalem temple because the site is currently the second holiest mosque in Islam and digging it up would be considered sacrilege.  Another major discovery, or another decade or two of patient research, could turn the whole thing on its head.

Still, there's a surprising amount of evidence.  The absence of any trace of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) doesn't tell us much, because a small band of nomadic pastoralists would be unlikely to leave much evidence.  However, the absence of any independent verification of the Exodus is more telling.  The cumulative failure to uncover any evidence of a mass emigration from Egypt, a large group of people wandering in the Negev, or a sudden devastating conquest in Canaan,  types and scales of events which would leave an imprint on the landscape and on the cities of the time, provides a much stronger suggestion that the exodus and invasion are not actual historical events.

Other bits of evidence are more positive.  For instance, a comparison of the locations of events in Genesis with archaeological data reveals that the historical setting of the partiarchal tales is not the world of the Bronze Age where the Biblical chronology would place them, but of seventh century Canaan.  Whatever the origin of these stories, the authors of Genesis have placed them in their own world, in the places their readers would know and recognise. 

It's also fascinating to get a picture of the social conditions in the time of the Israelite kingdom.  According to their best evidence, the settled population of Israel and Judah in the time of David and Solomon would have been around 50,000 people.  The peak population of the kingdom of Israel in the time of Jereboam II would have been around 350,000, while that of Judah in the time of Hezekiah would have reached no more than 100,000.  Of these, most were illiterate peasants, with a small population of "elites" - soldiers, priests and royal officials.  These two kingdoms at their peak were closely integrated, economically and politically, with the empires of the Near East, particularly the Assyrians and later the Babylonians.

These are just samples of the wealth of evidence the authors bring to bear.  The picture that emerges from their combination of archaeology and biblical scholarship is strongly at odds with the literal view of the Bible.  The core of the Old Testament history as we know it - what biblical scholars call the "Deuteronomistic history" including the early versions of the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as well as edited versions of the rest of the Pentateuch - was created in seventh century Judah, especially the time of King Josiah.  This is not to say that the stories themselves were created then - they are almost certainly drawn from pre-existing oral and in some cases written accounts.  But the stories were adapted and retold to fit the purpose of Josiah's court, to tell a story which united the Hebrews as a nation, justified Josiah's territorial ambitions (and those of his grandfather Hezekiah) and their religious reforms which centred the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem and outlawed alternative religious practices. 

What is presented in these stories is not so much a history as a theory of history.  According to this theory, Yahweh chose the Hebrews to be his own special people and gave them the land of Canaan.  However, in return the people and leaders needed to remain faithful to Yahweh.  In the times they were faithful - during the time of David, for instance, and in the reigns of Jehosophat, Hezekiah and Josiah - Yahweh blessed them and protected them.  When they were unfaithful he punished them by allowing them to be invaded by the surrounding nations, particularly the great empires.  The conclusion was that Israel should remain faithful to Yahweh, obeying His law, keeping separate from the surrounding peoples and forsaking all other gods.

Unfortunately, on Finkelstein and Silberman's reading the evidence is at odds with this theory.  The glories of David and Solomon are at best exaggerations, contradicted by the archaeological evidence of a poor, sparsely populated region with no evidence of widespread literacy or centralised rule.  The most prosperous periods in the Northern kingdom were those of the Omride kings, particularly the notorious Ahab.  The eras of greatest prosperity in Judah were those of the "bad" Davidic kings Ahaz and Manasseh, whose cooperation with the Assyrians led to increased wealth and booming populations.  By contrast, the kings most highly praised by the Deuternomistic authors - Hezekiah and Josiah - followed a course which led to disaster.  Hezekiah managed to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem but the rest of Judah was devastated as the Assyrians put down his revolt.  Similarly Josiah's ambitions led to the invasion and ultimate destruction of the kingdom. 

The Deuternomists said Israel should isolate itself from the surrounding nations, pursue ambitious territorial goals, and rely on Yahweh for military assistance.  The lesson of the archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is that if you want your kingdom to prosper you should integrate with the surrounding peoples, appease the great powers and trade to your heart's content.  This is not, of course, without its dangers for a small kingdom.  You can back the wrong imperial power, as the later northern kings did.  If the empires change their policy, you are powerless to resist.  You can lose who you are.

This is where the genius of these stories lies.  Of all the peoples conquered and dispersed by the Assyrians and Babylonians, how many retain their identity to this day?  The ideas of the Deuternomists were disastrous as political strategies, but as strategies for cultural survival they were brilliant, motivating the return from exile, the creation of an enduring Jewish identity, and the spawning of a set of religious ideas that sit at the base of the two largest world religions today.  It doesn't have to be history to do that.