Tag Archives: Christianities

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.

Persecution Myth

The myth of persecution is a great cover. Christians, we are accustomed to think, are timid and loving individuals eager to turn the other cheek. In this sophisticated world of science and technology, they might appear a little naive, but they’re not really out to hurt anyone. Or at least some of them aren’t. I grew up among what would now be called Fundamentalists. Harsh to their own sins, they’d not imagine harming others. The story went that in the Roman Empire days it was open season on Christians and the oppressors liked nothing better than killing off a dozen before breakfast. That myth has largely been debunked by historians. Yes, there were some brief periods of intensive persecution, but for the most part the early Christians were left alone.

Many of the more zealous among the literalist sects today feel the loss of that mythology keenly. What can you do when you learn that your primitive ancestry wasn’t as heroic as you thought it was? For some, that myth must be kept alive today. When it is acknowledged that our world has become a smaller place because of technology, we get exposed to those who give the lie to our prejudices. Moral Muslims (despite the media portrayals), Hindus, Buddhists, and even secular humanists, abound. News, however, thrives on negativity. After all, it too is a capitalistic enterprise. We see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry. The myth lives on. Christian Dominionists have simply given up on the rest of the race. The Bible, after all, says few will be saved. And they have thrived for decades based on the simple fact that nobody takes them seriously.

I have seen the lack of compassion in evangelical eyes firsthand. A coldness that declares education to be evil since the only truth was revealed long ago in unchanging form. The word of God stands forever. It says so itself. And among the most despised of all human beings are those who study that word instead of “just reading” it. Those outside this camp know there is no such thing as “just reading.” They also know that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all and that translations are merely approximations. It’s difficult to build absolute laws on approximations. Among themselves these groups claim that legislation to treat others equally is a direct affront and insult to them. In fact, they claim they are persecuted because of the fair treatment of others. The thing about democracy is that any system can be gamed. Even Putin can be your friend, for this is the world of myth.

Come Together

Although today is Easter for some, for many it generally isn’t. And I don’t mean just those who follow faiths outside Christianity. One of the hallmarks of religions is their tendency to fragment like a sugar egg under Thor’s hammer. Christians have long disagreed on the date of Easter depending on which time reckoning scheme they follow. That which makes it onto most work calendars is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox after the Gregorian calendar. After all those afters it’s easy to get confused, but the fact is this kind of precision makes it possible to date Easter until the Earth slows on its axis or Mitch McConnell learns to look at things from someone else’s point-of-view, although we all know which is more likely. This year, in a rare coincidence of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, however, Orthodox Easter is the same as Catholic Easter. Could it be sign of hope?

You see, calendars aren’t just markers of time. They’ve always been religious devices. In fact, our current calendar, the Gregorian, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. The world still marches to the beat of Rome’s drum. Nature, it seems, is indifferent to our calendrical needs. The point of all this time keeping was to help those who lived by the soil to know when to plant and when to harvest. That might seem simplistic, but if you follow how it feels outside there would’ve been some sowing going on in February around here. Global warming, for those who’ve advanced to the Gregorian calendar (that’s okay Mr. McConnell, you may leave the room) will throw that off, and maybe we’ll be needing a new calendar. Will we retain the one with it’s pagan month names or shall we adopt one with months of evangelical heroes? But wait, not all evangelical groups celebrate Easter!

I had a college roommate who believed all holidays were of the Devil. His sect of Christianity didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. So even as Orthodox and Heterodox join together in recognizing today as Easter, not everyone’s together on that point. Some mythologize bunnies and eggs while others dismiss them as hopelessly pagan. So it is that we have to agree to disagree. Teach the controversy, right Mitch? While some celebrate resurrection today others put their Peeps in the microwave just for the fun of having that kind of power over the weak.

Having your cake, and having it too.

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.

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Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.