Over the last month or so, I’ve been listening to Frank Viola‘s Pagan Christianity: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices via Audible on my 10k runs. The entire book has been utterly fascinating, particularly for someone like me who saw quite a bit of this over the years but could never quite give it voice.
The story of the Letters of Marvin Snurdley was a particularly fascinating example found in Chapter 11 (of 12), but the only place I could find it online was on a blog called “Common Sense Atheism“, and since they go on to attack Christianity in general, I thought I would copy it here with no commentary other than these notes and a strong recommendation to acquire and study this book for yourself. The story, in case it isn’t clear, is a direct examination of exactly what happened to form the largest single piece of the New Testament: The Pauline Epistles. Frank then does a great job throughout the rest of the chapter of examining and explaining why the issues presented in the story of the Letters of Marvin Snurdley unfortunately affect us all in the real world.
Marvin Snurdly is a world-renowned marital counselor. In his twenty-year career as a marriage therapist, Marvin has counseled thousands of troubled couples. He has an Internet presence. Each day hundreds of couples write letters to Marvin about their marital sob stories. The letters come from all over the globe. And Marvin answers them all.
A hundred years pass, and Marvin Snurdly is resting peacefully in his grave. He has a great-great-grandson named Fielding Melish. Fielding decides to recover the lost letters of his great great grandfather. But Fielding can find only thirteen of Marvin’s letters…
These letters were all written within a twenty-year time frame: from 1980 to 2000. Fielding Melish plans to compile these letters into a volume. But there is something interesting about the way Marvin wrote his letters that makes Fielding’s task somewhat difficult. First, Marvin had an annoying habit of never dating his letters. No days, months, or years appear on any of the thirteen letters. Second, the letters only portray half the conversation. The initial letters written to Marvin that provoked his responses no longer exist. Consequently, the only way to understand the backdrop of each of Marvin’s letters is by reconstructing the marital situation from Marvin’s response.
Each letter was written at a different time, to people in a different culture, about a different problem. For example, in 1985, Marvin wrote a letter to Paul and Sally from Virginia, who were experiencing sexual problems early in their marriage. In 1990, Marvin wrote a letter to Jethro and Matilda from Australia, who were having problems with their children. In 1995, Marvin wrote a letter to a wife from Mexico who was experiencing a midlife crisis. Unfortunately, Fielding has no way of knowing when the letters were written.
Take note: twenty years – thirteen letters – all written to different people at different times in different cultures – all experiencing different problems.
It is Fielding Melish’s desire to put these thirteen letters in chronological order. But without the dates, he cannot do this. So Fielding puts them in the order of descending length. That is, he takes the longest letter that Marvin wrote and puts it first. He puts Marvin’s second longest letter after that. He takes the third longest and puts it third. The compilation ends with the shortest letter that Marvin penned. The thirteen letters are arranged, not chronologically, but by their length.
The volume hits the presses and becomes an overnight best seller.
One hundred years pass, and The Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly compiled by Fielding Melish stands the test of time. The work is still very popular. Another one hundred years pass, and this volume is being used copiously throughout the Western world.
The book is translated into dozens of languages. Marriage counselors quote it left and right. Universities employ it in their sociology classes. It is so widely used that someone gets a bright idea on how to make the volume easier to quote and handle. What is that idea? It is to divide Marvin’s letters into chapters and numbered sentences (or verses). So chapters and verses are added to The Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly.
But by adding chapter and verse to these once living letters, something changes that goes unnoticed. The letters lose their personal touch. Instead, they take on the texture of a manual. Different sociologists begin writing books about marriage and the family. Their main source? The Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly. Pick up any book in the twenty-fourth century on the subject of marriage, and you will find the author quoting chapters and verses from Marvin’s letters.
It usually looks like this: In making a particular point, an author will quote a verse from Marvin’s letter written to Paul and Sally. The author will then lift another verse from the letter written to Jethro and Matilda. He will extract another verse from another letter. Then he will sew these three verses together and upon them he will build his particular marital philosophy.
Virtually every sociologist and marital therapist that authors a book on marriage does the same thing. Yet the irony is this: Each of these authors frequently contradicts the others, even though they are all using the same source!
But that is not all. Not only have Marvin’s letters been turned into cold prose when they were originally living, breathing epistles to real people in real places, they have become a weapon in the hands of agenda-driven men. Not a few authors on marriage begin employing isolated proof texts from Marvin’s work to hammer away at those who disagree with their marital philosophy.