The Criterion of Embarrassment, And Why You Shouldn’t be Embarrassed By It

The more I read the Old Testament, the more amazed I am that a people could be proud of such a book. I’m currently reading through Jeremiah, a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah that was shortly to be destroyed by the Babylonians as God’s judgment for their sin. The northern kingdom of Israel endured God’s judgment, having been conquered by the Assyrians, a hundred years earlier

Jeremiah weeps for his people because, as he says, “they are all adulterers, a crowd of unfaithful people.” Images of sexual infidelity are woven all throughout the prophets’ writings as they declare the Lord’s judgment upon his people. They prostitute themselves to false gods who are worthless idols in whom they think they will find their salvation and fulfillment.

What kind of people (the Hebrews/Jews) would write a book about their history that is so unrelentingly negative? I would argue people who are writing history that really happened! We can have confidence that this is so because of the criterion of embarrassment. Human nature is such that we are loathe to reveal embarrassing information about ourselves. We even lie in the face of facts that are less than flattering to us.

Often when the gremlin of doubt about this whole God and Christianity thing infects my mind (and what psychologically healthy person doesn’t doubt—see some of my thoughts about doubt in previous posts), I often go back to the criterion of embarrassment. What would be the point of making up a story over 2000 years that consistently pounds home the message that your ancestors are horrible, terrible, unfaithful, and adulterous people? It makes no sense, especially when you understand the predictability of human nature, which makes the odds very great that what is recorded in the Old Testament is true. What about the New Testament?

The Gospels are a treasure trove of embarrassment, and I can only scratch the scratch of the surface here. As you read through the Gospels next time keep this in mind. Here are a few:

  • Let’s go right to the beginning. Jesus was conceived by a women who wasn’t married. Think about it. The man who we claim as our Savior and Lord, God himself in the flesh was a bastard! And in the small villages where Jesus was born and grew up, everyone knew it.
  • When Jesus was born, who did God choose to be witnesses to his very own birth? Was it by kings or Caesars in great halls of power? No, it was cultural low-lifes of the time, smelly shepherds out in a field. Would you make up a story of God’s coming to earth this way? Doubtful.
  • How about Jesus’ followers? They were an impressive bunch, no? And their big mouth leader, tough guy that he was, saying he would die for Jesus, ends up denying three times that he even knows the man! Why report such an embarrassing event about the leader of your new religion unless it actually happened? Good question.
  • One more example—women. Women were second class citizens in the ancient world, at best. Yet Jesus allows his feet to be washed by the tears of a known prostitute. Who showed up at the foot of the cross to witness the crucifixion? Women! The cowardly men, save one, all ran away. Not exactly a flattering portrait of a new religion’s leaders. And who were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Women! This at a time when a woman’s testimony was almost never admissible in a court of law.

All of these details, and many more, give the Bible the strong ring of historical authenticity. No other religious book on earth even comes close.