How Many, Now?

One thing you can say for the Bible—it’s been interpreted six ways to Sunday.  This point was brought home to me in reading Michael Willett Newheart’s “My Name Is Legion”: The Story and Soul of the Gerasene Demoniac.  Part of the Interfaces series, now apparently defunct, it takes an unusual biblical character and explores it.  Them, in this case.  The story of the Gerasene or Gadarene demoniac is one of the more famous episodes in the Synoptic Gospels.  Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee and the possessed man runs out at them.  He has superhuman strength, and he lives among the tombs.  Jesus asks the man, or the demon, its name only to receive the reply “Legion.”  He then casts the demons into a herd of swine that drown themselves in the lake.

Newheart approaches the story creatively, first by considering the Gospel of Mark as a book, and then treating his version of the story via narrative criticism.  This was pretty good, and I learned quite a bit from his analysis.  The book then moves on to psychological criticism.  I have to admit that this approach is one I haven’t ever used and, like many reader-response methods, it can seem somewhat arbitrary.  That’s not to suggest it shouldn’t be utilized, but rather to note that results could be uneven.  Your psyche’s not my psyche, savvy?  Subjective approaches may be all that we really have when considering an ancient text, but I always tend to look at things historically.

This book caught my attention because I’m researching demons.  You can’t really ignore a book with this title if you’re trying to figure out how the New Testament looks at them.  In any case, the historical method seems to me the only way we can really engage the question of what the ancients thought demons were.  I don’t want to say too much or you won’t have any reason to buy my next book.  (That’s a joke, by the way, before anyone suggests I’m exploiting my readers.)  Newheart doesn’t really raise the question of what demons are.  He does briefly mention The Exorcist, but it isn’t his main interest.  The character of Legion, however, is difficult to place if we can’t really say what demons are.  I did find the allusion to the Roman occupancy to be worthy of consideration.  The demoniac, however, may have begged to differ.  It couldn’t have been easy being an unnamed character in the Good Book.  And demons are often not what they seem.

Read, Mark and

One of the persistent questions of Christianity, given that there are four Gospels, is how to account for the differences between them.  The issue isn’t unique to Jesus-followers, however, as the composition history of the “books of Moses” shows.  Discrepancies in Genesis got the whole ball rolling, after all.  In fact, once I learned about historical criticism I decided that I’d better stick to the Hebrew Bible—there are some things you just don’t want to know about your own faith.  The way doctoral programs are set up these days, you can’t specialize in both testaments anyway, although that’s becoming a lot more common among scholars in these latter days.  In any case, I was reading about the Gospel of Mark lately and the question kept coming up of whether certain phrases went back to Jesus, were coined by Mark, or had their origin in the early church.

The picture that emerges from this kind of jigsaw gospel is of Mark sitting down, pulling his sources together like a graduate student in the days before computers.  Only Mark won’t get a doctorate when he’s done.  More recent scholarship asks the question of what if Mark wasn’t really a completed book after all—we read the gospels through lenses that were ground in the eighteenth century, at the earliest.  Nobody thought to question that Moses or Mark would sit down to write a book just like anyone did then.  (People writing books on their phones in electronic form only, as they do these days, will play havoc with future historical critics and their theories.)  Maybe these weren’t meant to be finished books.  Check out Gospels before the Book by Matthew Larsen and you’ll see what I mean.

The Bible, in other words, is a very complex book.  We know little of its authors beyond Paul of Tarsus.  We don’t even know that they were setting out to write Holy Writ.  Bible is a matter of interpretation.  As I thought about Mark—whoever he was—shuffling his papers about, mulling over what it would mean to become the first evangelist, I thought how like us we’ve made not only God, but also the writers of sacred texts.  True, they weren’t worried about tenure committees, or bad reviews, or being accepted by prestige presses.  It seems, however, that they were also not thinking of what readers down the millennia would do with their words.  When it’s all done we still don’t know who said what, but at least we have persistent questions that can’t be answered.  And job security ensures that Bible reading will continue as long as there are discrepancies to debate.

Sinful Thoughts

Nothing is quite so scary as that which is undefined.  I learned that as an Evangelical child.  There’s a verse in the gospel of Mark—I’ll use Mark because it’s the earliest, by consensus—that reads, “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:  But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.”  Now, that was heavy stuff for a kid.  There was an unforgivable sin.  Naturally, the mind goes to what exactly blasphemy against the Holy Ghost might be.  I hadn’t learned much about context by the point, but Mark places this statement right after the good people of Capernaum accuse Jesus of casting out a demon by the power of Satan.  In context the unforgivable sin in stating that what comes from God is of the Devil.  By extension, vice versa.  Keep that in mind.

A few chapters later Jesus is describing sin again.  This time he lists: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.”  If you read the news these characteristics sound very much like the repeated and continued behavior of 45.  Jesus himself cites this as evil—and here’s where it’s important to remember the unforgivable sin—to claim that such things come from God is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.  Yet Evangelicals are doing precisely that.  Every time they exonerate Trump and his ground in behavior that for any other human being would be condemned as “sinful,” they are committing the unforgivable sin.  And they’re not even scared.

When I was a child, Evangelicals took the Bible seriously.  It was more important than anything—even railroading anti-abortion judges through to the Supreme Court.  Little known fact: Evangelicals of the 1950s supported abortion.  Since that time they’ve lost their faith.  And their mind.  Sucked into a political activism controlled by forces they don’t understand—if any man have ears to hear, let him hear—they committed the unforgivable sin that kept me awake countless nights with the fires of Hell roaring in my head.  I set aside the gospel of Mark and scratched my head.  How’d we come to this?  A nation, one might say a house, divided against itself.  The kind that Jesus, again speaking of Satan, declared could not stand.  No wonder Evangelicals avoid the Bible these days.  It is a very scary book.

Asp and Receive

Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.

774px-Snakehandling

According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.

Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.