Horstman Researches Belief in 'Thoughtful' Look at Christianity

Scholarly study “does not have to lead to disbelief,” says the history professor emeritus. “It can lead to a deeper understanding and a deeper faith.”

February 18, 2015 | By Jake Weber

History professor emeritus Allen Horstman
Traverse City-based Allen Horstman taught in the Albion College History Department from 1977-2005. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

"There are a number of people who sit in the pews every Sunday and say, 'Oh, you've got to be kidding' when the Scripture is read," says history professor emeritus Allen Horstman, explaining the inspiration for his latest book. "You don't have to check your brain at the door when you go to church."

A noted scholar and author of books on European history, Horstman applied his professional skills to a very ambitious personal goal: explaining controversial and contradictory parts of the Bible. Using ancient texts and contemporary scholarship in fields as diverse as history, anthropology, psychology, and political science, Horstman compiled research and reflection into 498 pages of Christianity: A Guide for the Thoughtful (Skeptic or Believer), released in 2014 by Tall Trees Publishing.

While noting that "there’s a scholarly industry of Biblical interpretation," Horstman asserts that his book was also a response to a gap he saw in that industry: research-based information written for readers with little or no biblical scholarship to fall back on.

"Nobody writes overviews any more. Somebody needed to bring the scholarship into an accessible book," Horstman explains. "My book doesn't assume that you’re 'educated' about the Bible. But I may show that what you’re questioning has more validity than you might think."

For instance, Horstman's explanation of Jesus' virgin birth is based on "a large number of scholars who write about this. … If nothing else, you'll see that it is OK to question even core beliefs," he says.

As a result of sorting through the research, "I’m more tolerant of the oddities," says Horstman. "I don’t believe the virgin birth occurred but I understand why it’s in the Bible. Over time, Jesus became the Son of God and it was natural to assume he became a son the way other gods did. Metaphors can become facts, at least for some."

He's aware that his views may not reach the most ardent of followers, but for other believers—and nonbelievers—"I’m hoping they will discover there’s a wealth of information out there that they didn’t know about."

And while Horstman knows that many find his subject matter to be as serious as it gets, his commentary is filled with humor. When he discusses problems with the text of the Bible, he collects some humorous misprints. For example, a 17th-century printing dropped “not’ so the seventh commandment read “Thou shall commit adultery.” And a mid-20th-century mistake produced the 122nd psalm with “Pay for the peace” rather than “Pray for the peace.” Generally, Horstman keeps a light touch and, as one friend remarked, “You write like you talk.”

From reading his book, "I think that a skeptic could say 'I’m not sure I’m persuaded, but maybe it’s not just silly superstition,'" Horstman concludes. "Research into Christianity does not have to lead to disbelief. It can lead to a deeper understanding and a deeper faith. It certainly has with me."