the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Protection, salvation and immortality. I'll have some of that, thanks.

ah, the sweet taste of smugness

Having now read the gospels, albeit in Peterson's dubious updated version, I want to give a brief appraisal of Jesus and his message.

Peterson's version is even entitled 'The Message', and the message, put most simply, is 'Jesus saves'. To be saved, to be safe, protected. The gospels have three areas of focus, to my mind: the miracles, the moralising, and the message, and of these, the message is given most weight. This is especially so in the gospel according to John - my least favourite of the four currently canonical gospels. In John, Jesus says that the greatest punishment is reserved for those who don't believe. The nature of the punishment isn't specified, but we can guess. Unbelievers will find themselves outside Yahweh's great safety net, come judgement day. That means the eternal fires of hell, folks.

Monotheism is something of an advance in religion, because it simplifies the message. The one god has a simple father-child relationship with believers. The advent of Jesus complicates matters a little, but not too much. Jesus saves, essentially in the name of the father. I'm not sure, but what seems to have happened is that Jesus was first hailed as the Messiah, the king of the Jews, and then, after his death, he became the vehicle for a breakaway religion - largely driven by Paul. Christianity was no doubt keen to preserve the benefits of monotheism, so in turning Jesus into a divinity they also emphasised that he was very much a chip off the old block, a pure instrument of the will of Yahweh.

It was a tricky business, this transformation of one of many local Messianic cult figures into the lynchpin of a new religion, a religion that, from the start, realised its survival depended upon spreading itself beyond a highly suspicious and conservative Jewish community. The contradictions are evident in the gospels, where, as previously mentioned, two contradictory genealogies are presented for Jesus, both with the evident intention of linking him back to the house of David and Judea's quasi-mythical past. Now, it's pretty obvious that, if Jesus really was the son of Yahweh, his earthly origins would ultimately be of no relevance - in fact, to give him a more universal appeal, it might have been better to cut him off from any local princely line. What has resulted is a transformation of the meaning of the term 'Messiah', which, to most modern Christians, is just a term for Jesus himself, or maybe 'saviour' - while it still retains its more specifically Judaic connotations for that particular religion. The inventors of the new religion were, of course, intimately linked to the Judaic religion and wanted to keep onside with its believers, both for pragmatic, survival reasons and because of their own no doubt genuine belief in Yahweh.

The message of salvation appeals because of its mixture of vagueness and absolutism. The promise is that believers will be protected or saved from their own mortality, no less. From the consequences of their actions, too, which, in a way, is a by-product of mortality. The term 'forgiveness' is another example of this absolutism. 'I'm not perfect, just forgiven', says the insufferable bumper sticker. Not hard to imagine the appeal of such a message for certain kinds of people, but it can't be emphasised enough that this is not a moral message - in fact, with its emphasis on belief rather than good works, even instead of good works, it apears to be an amoral message, in spite of good Samaritans and rich men languishing outside the gates of heaven.

The appeal is primal. It's said that one of the greatest traumas we experience in early life is that which accompanies the realisation that our parents can't always protect us, or save us. That they let us down. The heavenly father doesn't let us down. He knows everything about us and can do anything for us, or to us. He even encourages us to believe that, if we can keep onside with him, we can transcend our own mortality and share in his supernatural being. It's a fantasy that's more than just comforting, it's potentially exciting. Kids love investing themselves with supernatural powers and slaying supernatural monsters. Does there ever come a time to put away childish things? Apparently not.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

a famous but contested passage

'Christ with the woman taken in adultery', Guercino, 1621. Not quite the way I pictured it.

Every page of the gospels could be commented on - and of course has been commented on - fruitfully from many perspectives. My own perspective is that of a sceptical dilettante of course, and since I know barely a word of Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic, my commentary is of doubtful value, but I feel compelled to plug away...

I want to look at the 'good stuff' - to borrow from the Skeptic's Annotated Bible - to be found in the parables and conversations attributed to Jesus. So now I'll turn to John 8: 1 - 11. This is the famous passage in which the Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in the act of adultery, and asks what should be done with her - should she not be stoned, according to Mosaic Law? Jesus finally says, after some poetical writing in the dust, possibly playing for time, that anyone present who's without sin should throw the first stone at her. The crowd disperses, the woman is left without accusers, and Jesus tells her to go and sin no more.

The passage is often cited as an example of the mercy of Jesus, but it turns out that there's a lot more to it than meets the eye. Before I talk about that, though, I'll give my 'innocent' take on the scene.

Sin isn't a word in my vocabulary, and I don't consider adultery a crime, especially knowing that the historical context is one of largely forced, arranged, loveless marriages, often accompanied by horrendous domestic violence. Jesus's response was a clever one, in that he managed not to flout the Mozaic Law while also securing freedom for the woman. His assumption that the woman has sinned merely makes him a man of his time, though probably a lot more compassionate than most.

There's no evidence that Jesus said anything attributed to him in the New Testament, the historical JC being as elusive as the gryffon, but this passage - the Pericope Adulterae as it's affectionately called by us scholars - is more tenuously connected to the allegedly self-styled Light of the World than the rest of John's gospel. It was apparently a later intrusion, not present in any of the earliest and most reliable texts. It was circulating orally in the 2nd century AD, according to this analyst, and would presumably have been inserted at that time. There's also internal evidence of linguistic inconsistency with John's style (its Greek being more suited to the synoptic gospels), though this is contested, naturally.

I don't want to get too bogged down here, though, in amateur Biblical scholarship. There's plenty of that elsewhere. I'm more interested in the psychology behind religion, of which more anon. All the same, I'm still reading the New Testament, and will feel the need to let off some steam about it from time to time.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

the good news bible, or Christianity tailored to your sensibilities

blurring the message

A few points. After posting on the 'Story of Investment' in Luke 19, using Eugene Peterson's translation/modernisation, I checked out what the Skeptics' Annotated Bible had to say on it. They use the KJV, and lo! what a difference in the modernisation. Peterson's version ends thus:
'As for these enemies of mine who petitioned against my rule, clear them out of here. I don't want to see their faces around here again.'
The King James Version of this parable ends a little differently:
'But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.'
Now, had Peterson not been so flagrantly dishonest in his 'updating', my criticism of this parable would've been a tone harsher. Sadly too, it means that I've lost all faith, if I dare use that word, in Peterson's version. I can imagine the excuse:

Peterson: Hey, I'm writing this to bring new people, young people, to the faith, I don't want to scare them off with gratuitous violence.

USSR: But isn't this the word of God, mate? You can't play fast and loose with that, can you?

Peterson: We have to update the language, and the context. God's message is eternal, I grant that, but it must be chanelled through the writings of all-too-human conduits, embedded in particular, changing cultures. I've kept to the spirit of Jesus's words, but the times have changed, we no longer find it acceptable to kill people who disagree with us.

USSR: Yet Jesus found it acceptable - he used the language didn't he? And he doesn't appear to be censuring this wanton killing.

Peterson: He came down to this earth in brutal times, and used the language of the time. Don't forget that this is a parable, a story - nobody was really killed. It's really about other things - it's not advocating despotism, though it accepts despotism as a given.

USSR: Yes, it's about devotion to the master, but there's this clear subtext about power and what can happen to people who question power, or the powerful, like God. And by softening this message about absolute authority, you're changing the nature of God aren't you...?

And so on.

A quick squiz at other versions of Luke 19: 27, by the way, shows them all agreeing with 'slay' or 'kill'. One of them has 'cut them to pieces'. Nice one Jesus.

Must say I was much tickled by this contribution to the most tedious debate imaginable, the debate on miracles. Still, I intend to enter that debate more fully soon.
Particularly enjoyed this comment, on some scientific pundit's attempt to attribute the walking-on-water miracle to a build-up of ice on the Sea of Galilee:
I've always found this kind of “Bible skepticism” story slightly silly. Yeah, maybe Jesus walked on frozen ice. Or maybe people made stuff up! Ya think?

Monday, August 07, 2006

by his own words let him be judged

Jesus rabbi-ing on. Pay close attention

In my last post I was trying to make the point that it's not really possible to simply ignore the miracles and try to evaluate Jesus purely as some early or dare I say primitive version of a moral philosopher. Not only do the miracles influence all the moral teachings and exhortations, but these exhortations are interspersed with supernatural claims about the kingdom at hand, heaven and hell, the doom that's to come. These gigantic claims and gigantic miraculous acts tend to dazzle the reader into meekly accepting every pronouncement Jesus makes, no matter how outrageous or questionable. Some just strike me as risible - as for example in Luke 21, when he has the hide to warn his audience against 'doomsday deceivers' who turn up claiming they're the One. Peterson's version goes on thus:
"..Don't fall for any of that. When you hear of wars and uprisings, keep your head and don't panic. This is routine history and no sign of the end."
He went on, "Nation will fight nation and ruler fight ruler, over and over. Huge earthquakes will occur in various places. There will be famines. You'll think at times the sky is falling...."
And so it goes on for a number of verses - the standard claims of the doomsday deceiver. Some might try to argue that this is unfair on Jesus - the 'real' Jesus probably didn't say these things, just as he didn't invent bogus genealogies for himself, this was the work of the gospel writers who were desperate to raise the guy's profile. Maybe, but we only know Jesus through these guys - there's no 'real' Jesus beyond these texts, so, though you might be happy to select and reject passages in order to shape Jesus into the guy you want need and love, that provides real problems for the organisers of religion, who, once they've made the Big Decisions about what constitutes Holy Writ, are obliged to treat every included word as sacred, no matter how absurd or embarrassing.

As mentioned, it's hard to extract basic ethical writings from heaven-and-hell fare, though it might be worth trying to replace 'these people will go to heaven' with 'these people are doing the right thing' and see where that leads you. Now take the old eye of the needle story, mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Peterson's version, from Luke, we have this:
Jesus said, 'Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who have it all to enter God's kingdom? I'd say it's easier to thread a camel through a needle's eye than get a rich person into God's kingdom."
"Then who has any chance at all?" the others asked.
"No chance at all," Jesus said, "if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you trust God to do it."
You can see here how difficult it is to weed out the promise of heaven or 'God's kingdom' and present a quasi-socialist ethical message. The suggestion here is that if you 'have it all' in a material sense, you won't get into heaven. But the meaning is quite elusive - how do you define a rich person (more importantly, just how poor do you have to be to get in?), and is it all right to accumulate lots of wealth in your lifetime and then divest yourself of it just before entering the 'kingdom'? There's no clear guidance in these matters. And how are we to take the last words of Jesus quoted above? It seems clear enough - you can't get into heaven by your own works, no matter how worthy. You have to trust in God first and foremost. You have to be a believer.

In his intro to the gospel according to John, Eugene Peterson writes '... our words are more important than we ever supposed. Saying "I believe", for instance, marks the difference between life and death.'

Here's where ethics dies the death and faith and 'salvation' take over. Jesus himself underlines this in a passage almost immediately following the one quoted above:
Peter tried again to regain some initiative: "We left everything we owned and followed you, didn't we?"
"Yes," said Jesus, "and you won't regret it. No one who has sacrificed home, spouse, brothers and sisters, parents, children - whatever - will lose out. It will all come back multiplied many times over in your lifetime. And then the bonus of eternal life!"
What is being talked about here has nothing to do with morality. It's all about losses and gains, with a big bonus at the end. It's worth noting that most of the 'items' sacrificed by the followers of Jesus are in fact living and breathing human beings, but that's okay, these 'items' will be multiplied many times over - the followers will get many more siblings and parents and such. They might not be the same ones, but, hey, what's the difference?

Not long after the eye-of the-needle remark, in Luke 19, comes another revealing parable - The Story about Investment, Peterson calls it. It's a little long to quote verbatim, so I'll summarise it.
A man descended from a royal house had to make a long trip back to HQ for authorisation for his rule. He called ten servants, gave each a sum of money, and instructed them to use it effectively till his return. As it happened, the citizens of the area hated him and petitioned against his rule. When the man returned with the authorisation, he asked the ten servants how they'd fared with the money given them. The first said, 'I've doubled it'. 'Bravo', said the ruler, 'For that, I'll make you governor of ten towns.' The second had made a fifty percent profit on the money and was rewarded with five towns. The next servant gave his boss the money back, saying 'I kept it hidden in the cellar. To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid. I know you have high standards and hate sloppiness, and don't suffer fools gladly.' This servant was right, apparently, for the ruler was so angry that he took the money from the trembling servant and gave it to the servant who had doubled his money. When the others began to protest, the ruler said: 'Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe, and end up holding the bag.' He went on to say, 'As for those enemies of mine who petitioned against my rule, clear them out of here. I don't want to see their faces round here again.'
In no time at all we've moved a long way from the rich man who couldn't get into the kingdom of God. And here again we must ask ourselves where the morality is in this parable. It's certainly one that the Packers and Murdochs of this world would approve of. The would-be ruler, who might stand in for Jesus himself, receives 'authorisation' for his rule, in spite of the will of the people. No social contract here, it's pure despotism. How justified is the hatred of the citizens? How valid is the external authorisation? We'll never know. The real message here of course, is not about the rights of rulers and the ruled, it's about taking risks and going to extreme lengths for the sake of your ruler, your leader - Jesus, in this case. It's about loyalty to the master and effort directed to his cause. It's a parable designed to warm the hearts of cult leaders everywhere.

I don't want to argue that there aren't parables worthy of our attention and our praise, such as the tale of the good Samaritan. What I do want to argue is that we look at these parables and pronouncements critically. They'll repay that sort of effort in surprising ways. If we have our own strong sense of morality, we can use it and our analytical powers to shoot some of the self-serving propaganda of Jesus and the hot gospellers to pieces.

Friday, August 04, 2006

the wee issue of Jesus' miraculous roadshow

Cana back in the good ole days - Jesus' first magic trick

Years ago I compared Jesus unfavourably with Socrates as mentor-to-youth-type figure. I'd read a few of the dialogues, and I had a vague knowledge of the gospels. Today I'm full as a boot with the words and deeds of Jesus, and Socrates has shuffled off into the distance, but I still far prefer the old hemlock-bibulator.

In Eugene Peterson's translation, Jesus comes across at times as a pushy, hectoring figure. 'Are you listening? Really listening?' he's constantly saying to the disciples. Of course, as with Socrates' interlocutors, the disciples rarely get any of the good lines. You never hear them saying, 'actually Jesus, I'm communing with my own thoughts right now, so if you'd just turn off the self-serving clap-trap for five minutes, I'd really appreciate it.' No, the disciples' essential role is to serve as humble vessels for the pouring in of the good oil from the Messiah.
So how good is this oil, really?

But before I examine the quality or otherwise of Jesus' message, as well as his method of delivery, I need to address a rather awkward but very large point.

Jesus captures the attention of his audiences not by what he says, first and foremost, but by what he does. He performs miracles. Socrates certainly can't compete with that.
He heals the sick, he raises the dead (himself included), he expels demons, he calms the waters, he increases the catch of fisherfolk, he changes water to wine and feeds the multitude with a few loaves and fishes.

After such performances, people will be inclined to listen to what you have to say - though certain sceptics might find it all a bit of a cheat. I suppose that fundamentalist Christians, and non-believers, won't have a problem with these miracles. For the fundies, of course he performed miracles, that was the whole point, he's the S of G, hallelujah. For the non-believers of course he didn't, it was all propaganda, everybody was credulous in those days, and every self-respecting Messiah performed his quota of miracles. It's the reflective believers - if that's not a contradiction in terms - who'll have the problems, and I've no idea how they resolve them. I mean, if they believe that Jesus was resurrected - and how could they not believe that and still claim to be Christians? - then it's not much of a leap to believe that he raised other people from the dead, healed the sick etc. And if they go that far, why not swallow the whole set of Jesus miracles? And if that's acceptable, why not believe in the parting of the Red Sea, walls falling down at a trumpet blast, or for that matter the creation of the universe in six days? How far into this morass of irrationalism are people prepared to let their faith take them?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

genealogical animadversions

genealogical lines from here to eternity

A brief response to my last post - I'm told that my conversationalist didn't get her info fromTabor, so I'm sorry bout that, but the point I was really making is that believers, being understandably defensive about the lack of empirical evidence about Jesus, would naturally latch onto any source that encourages them to think that more is known about Jesus than other characters of the period. When those sources use the gospels to back them up, or when those sources are the gospels themselves, we must be sceptical. The gospels are not trustworthy as history.

Before examining what I can make of Jesus' character, I'll comment on what I read this morning in the book of Luke. This was the 'genealogy' of Jesus, and it traces his lineage back to Adam, proving that, since Adam was 'the son of god', so was Jesus. Unfortunately, it fails to recognise that we must all be able to trace our lineage back to Adam, the first man, so we're all the children of God and Jesus is no different from the rest of us.

Perhaps more importantly, Luke uses the genealogy to connect Jesus to David, the former King of Israel, or at least of Judah. He also includes some other Big Names, like Abraham and Noah.

Naturally, there's no mention of how Luke obtained this genealogy. Presumably God slipped it to him. This raises a bit of a difficulty as there's another genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of Matthew. That one is given in the reverse direction, and only begins with Abraham. Needless to say, it's completely inconsistent with the one in Luke.

Genealogies were of course very important (as they still are to some extent) as proof of legitimacy. The number of bogus genealogies would've outweighed the accurate ones by an astronomical factor, and this was well recognised even in biblical times - two New Testament passages admonish against the writing of or paying heed to genealogies - yet there was no other obvious way to back up Messianic claims. Surprising then that the early biblical redactors and scribes, who weren't by any means averse to eliminating awkward passages here and there, didn't try to match up these two genealogies, or to chuck out one of them.

In Luke, too, Jesus often likes to refer to himself as the Son of Man (I'm using Eugene Peterson's version). I'm not sure what the significance of this is.