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Notes:
Anonymous by request; name on file.

Thief in the Night or The Strange Case of the Missing Millennium, by William Sears:
Review

by Anonymous

1998
Thief in the Night, or, The Strange Case of the Missing Millennium
Author: William Sears
Published by: George Ronald, Oxford, 1961
Review by: Anonymous (name on file)
[Note: this is a message posted by an individual Bahá'í to an Internet discussion list in 1998, as part of a discussion concerning inerrancy and the writings of the Hands of the Cause. It attempts to put William Sears' book Thief in the Night into context with regard to the historical development of the Bahá'í community and Bahá'í studies. The author, who consented to its publication, prefers to remain anonymous.]


William Sears was one of the most gifted communicators and dedicated servants the Cause has known. His book Thief in the Night, which was written as a detective-type story, was largely based on ideas found in and adapted from Seventh-Day Adventist literature, notably the book Our Day in the Light of Prophecy by W.A. Spicer, a book that is now quite dated. Several of the other sources used by Sears are culled from the same work. In this way Sears correlated the Bahá'í Faith with selected beliefs and interpretive ideas already held by a segment of the Christian population. Many of the errors that occur in Thief in the Night are due to the fact that Sears relied upon his Christian sources without checking them, and this we can assume because he felt his audience (i.e., Christians) accepted the arguments. I think he would have been surprised to find Bahá'ís today religiously holding to these arguments even after Christians had mostly abandoned them. Although its prophetic arguments are often problematic and it does contain numerous errors, Thief in the Night nonetheless presents many basic Bahá'í principles and teachings effectively and accurately.

Unfortunately other Bahá'í authors assumed that Sears' information was correct and copied ideas from it, giving them added attention and currency in the community. The absence of critical thought and independent investigation of truth among Bahá'í authors does not serve the community well. It perpetuates unnecessary mistakes and gives critics more opportunities. This is just another reason why the Association of Bahá'í Studies needs to be supported. There is no compelling reason for Bahá'ís to canonize the earliest efforts of its authors, and it is worth noting that in time other early Bahá'í books have been replaced by more accurate or contemporary works. Even before Thief in the Night there were other books about prophecy now long out of print and largely forgotten.

It may be that Thief in the Night has been one of the most effective or persuasive books available, but unfortunately there are no scientific data supporting such a theory about it or any other Bahá'í book. For years it was the most extensive secondary Bahá'í book regarding prophecy. Because of George Townshend's obvious credentials he was much more qualified to write such a book, but he never did. Bahá'ís seeking to present the faith to Christians had few other options fitting this description, so we can understand why so many copies were sold to Bahá'ís over the last 37 years.

Christians have tens of thousands of books about prophecy, whereas today Bahá'ís still have only a few to choose from. As the Association of Bahá'í Studies develops we can hope that more individuals — persons with qualifications, for example, like Stephen Lambden — will write and expand the scope of Bahá'í literature concerning biblical themes and subjects. When that happens, and if the community is blessed again with a communicator as gifted as William Sears, then that communicator will have a body of credible and well-researched Bahá'í literature to draw upon — something William Sears unfortunately did not have. It is to William Sears' credit that he did as well as he did given the circumstances and sparse resources available to him and that he had the courage and commitment to do his best despite the limitations confronting him. The Bahá'í community needs both scholars who can reach educated people (both religious people and those who are not) and persons who can effectively communicate to people who are not academics. Presently there are very few Bahá'í scholars giving any real attention to biblical and Christian studies.

Problems in Thief in the Night are not confined to ideas at variance with modern scholarship and contemporary biblical studies, but are on a more fundamental level. Sears appears, for example, to have relied solely on a surface reading of the King James Version of the Bible, i.e., he was reading the archaic English from a modern perspective and without the benefit of commentary on the original Hebrew and Greek. This caused him to misunderstand the meaning and to infer things that are not apparent in the manuscript evidence. Such misunderstanding caused mistakes that extend to matters that indicate a general lack of familiarity with major biblical themes and terminology. And this is one reason why even Christians without scholarly backgrounds can see problems in the book. That is, even a person familiar with only the King James Version would not make some of the errors made by Sears. They may therefore reject the arguments in the book not because they are blind to the truth or hard hearted, but because it lacks credibility in their eyes for justifiable reasons. One of the reasons for some of the problems in the book is also because William Sears appears to have been unacquainted with sound scholarly methodology. In particular, he failed to review his documents and evidences in a manner that would have prevented some of his misunderstandings about the meaning and significance of the documents. I would not argue that this makes him irresponsible, though, since he was an entertainer by profession, not a trained scholar.

It is also worth keeping in mind that books such as The Prophecies of Jesus do not depart from Sears' approach on account of adopting secular, scholarly views. Prophecies of Jesus, like Thief in the Night, holds to the view that the Bible is inspired. Secular and religious scholars, given as they are to diverse opinions, would find objectionable ideas in both books. Prophecies of Jesus was an attempt to present a more updated and thoroughly researched presentation of Bahá'í writings relating to the prophecies of Jesus. It draws not mainly on secular religious studies but quite deliberately emphasizes a wide spectrum of sources respected by conservative Christians. Thus far, there is no secondary Bahá'í book written with the aim of presenting the faith to secular scholars specializing in critical biblical studies.

If we attempt to create the impression that all the books written by Bahá'í authors — including books written by Hands of the Cause — are without errors, minor or significant, then every time a person finds an error, he or she will feel misled and deceived. If, on the other hand, it is assumed that all such secondary books may contain errors like any other books, then we can openly advise people to read, with critical minds, not just one opinion about the Bahá'í Faith, but as many as they like. That is, we can offer all such books as merely the opinions of the authors rather than the last word on the truth.

Personally, I think it is to the credit of the Bahá'í community if the friends feel able to openly discuss the merits and flaws of secondary Bahá'í literature. If the world understands that it is a Bahá'í methodology to deny all errors or conceal them, than it simply indicates that one cannot rely on information obtained from Bahá'í sources. In order for the community to have credibility in the eyes of critical thinkers there must be freedom in the Bahá'í community to point out errors without being censored. This is particularly important with regard to peer review, that is, that persons qualified within a given field of study be allowed to openly critique each other's work both before and after publication. This process means that writers and readers gain from the critical review of experts and specialists. For example, imagine if a scholar publishes opinions and findings about a new drug, but none of the scholar's peers felt free to criticize the article. If this were to happen, then the author who writes in good faith fails to benefit from the collective wisdom and knowledge of others — as do people using the new drug. It would mean that ideas could circulate without being corrected and without alternatives being offered. It would be hard for a society governed by such attitudes to advance. Open consultation and independent investigation of truth are essential to the advancement of knowledge. Constructive criticism is essential to progress.

There are a number of books available that can be used to present the Bahá'í Faith to Christians. Bahá'ís are not limited to Thief in the Night or Prophecies of Jesus. Although it is not a catalog of prophecies, I'm surprised that George Townshend's work The Heart of the Gospel was not mentioned as another alternative. At this point in Bahá'í history, a Bahá'í might consider introducing a number of available works to a seeker, pointing out the merits of each and even offering critical thoughts. The seeker can then decide for his or her own self what type of book he or she would like to read. Increasing the diversity of approaches and opinions available in secondary Bahá'í literature will increase the range of persons to which the Bahá'í community will be able to reach. It will also dilute the tendency to uncritically attribute too much authority to any one author's opinions — and that's a good thing.

Which is better: to only hear about errors in Bahá'í literature when non-Bahá'ís discover and point them out, or to have Bahá'ís themselves discover them first and freely point them out? Surely most Bahá'ís would not want to think that the only way they will get a critical assessment of the quality of a Bahá'í publication is when a non-Bahá'í points it out to them. That would basically mean that if you want to know what's going on you couldn't rely on a Bahá'í to tell you.
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