Tag Archives: Jesus

Belief Matters

What you believe matters. This is shown clearly in the case of exorcism. Brian P. Levack admits to personal reasons for interest in this dark subject. His The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Christian West is a masterful treatment of a topic that it considers from many angles. As a form of Christian practice it goes all the way back to the beginning—Jesus’ initial fame was as an exorcist of sorts. He didn’t require any ritual or authority to expel demons, but he became a public figure largely because of his ability to do so. Levack’s study focuses mainly on the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. The latter was the high-water mark of possessions until the resurgent interest of the post-Exorcist twentieth century.

An aspect of exorcism that had raised my curiosity more than once was its Catholic disposition. Many Protestants believe in demons, but only the Roman Church has the grand ritual to drive them out. There are Protestant exorcisms, but they have a different goal—they’re intended to eliminate sin. This leads Levack to a strong contrast between Catholicism and that most extreme of Protestant traditions, Calvinism. Few Calvinists suffered from possession. Those who did were not held blameless, as in Catholicism (if you were being controlled by a demon you could hardly be held responsible for your actions). Calvinists believed only the sinful could be possessed and since their God is Republican you can hardly count on any mercy. In fact, if you were possessed, chances were you would become a witch. And everyone in early modernity knew what the cure for that would be.

We tend to think that the Enlightenment drove such beliefs extinct. In fact, the height of both witch hunts and demonic possession came after the scientific paradigm took hold. Levack makes the point that this is a kind of theater—performance undeniably plays a part in exorcisms. Both science and Calvinism, taken neat, can leave a body feeling cold and in need of some emotion. As the book notes, you could generally find a Catholic priest who’d be glad to drive out your demons. It seems that the great forces of good and evil play themselves out not only in the spiritual realm, but in the varieties of religious experiences in the all-too-political world of the church. The Devil Within is a fascinating book with a plausible thesis written by an author who understands that ideas have consequences that aren’t always easy to expel.


I was reading the account of the Transfiguration the other day, the way that you do, when a thought occurred to me. How did Pete, Jim, and John know that Moses was there? Yes, Elijah came along too, but the Bible physically describes Elijah. They at least knew what he wore. But Moses lived some thousand years before and the Good Book says nothing about what he looked like or his clothes. Fashions didn’t change so quickly back then. When they did it was often because an invading army from another nation was living in your town. If you wanted to blend in you’d start dressing like a Persian. Or an Assyrian. Otherwise people tended to have a set of clothes that might help identify them at a distance. But holy Moses…

One of the commandments he handed down declared images to be prohibited. There were no pictures made of Moses, no portraits. Our view of Moses comes from sources like Michelangelo and the Charlton Heston character based on Michelangelo’s vision. The inner circle of disciples could presumably make some educated guesses—Moses would be bearded, but so would most men. Beyond that, how do you recognize someone who’s been dead for over a millennium and for whom no images or recordings were ever made? Peter was so confused he suggested camping out on the mountain in housing with private booths. Was it something Moses said that gave him away?

Photo credit: Jörg Bittner Unna, Wikimedia Commons

Or did he have a shiny face and/or horns? The Hebrew Bible’s a bit unclear on the point. Horns, far from being a symbol of the Devil in those days, were a sign of divinity. All the gods were wearing them. Call it divine fashion. Uncomfortable with the implications, later readers decided the Hebrew word meant something like “shining” or “glowing.” That fits in well with the Transfiguration theme, but horns had been signs of power and authority for millennia. Rewriting history, however, has become the fashion of this day. Picture the scene: four men on a mountain top, a bright cloud comes down and engulfs them. Now there are six, a holy half-dozen. Moses, tradition said, had been translated to Heaven. Same was true of Elijah. But also Enoch. Of the three only Enoch has no recorded words in canonical scripture. Then suddenly the mountaintop experience is over and the apostles have to face another Monday. At least they’d had a glimpse of Moses and apparently had no doubt of who he was.

Old Salt

Time has been at a premium lately, but when I have a few spare moments I like to read the Oxford Dictionaries blog. Those of us who make a living with words often find them utterly fascinating. Simon Thomas’ post, “Worth their salt: words and phrases with roots in ‘salt’” brings a number of interesting facts to light. Salt, now on the list of public enemies, is essential to our well-being in small doses. His clever post includes “salt of the earth,” a phrase biblical through-and-through. It reminded me of the fact that the Bible’s become so porous that few people can say what’s actually in it. It’s kind of a big book, and who has the kind of time needed to read it all, let alone remember what it did or didn’t say? Many phrases are attributed to Holy Writ that don’t appear within its covers, while others that do come thence are thought to originate elsewhere. Strange but true.

We may never come to an agreement on what Jesus actually said, but “salt of the earth” is a phrase attributed to him. Indeed, he may have coined the term “saltness,” but I haven’t researched that thoroughly. The idea of essences, I’m told, is outmoded. But the idea is fascinating—what is salt that has no taste? Would it work to clear our roadways in winter time? There’s a layer of salt on my car already, and it only just snowed for the first time this year. We all know what salt is, what it tastes like—but what is its essence? (If such things exist?)

Thomas notes that Roman soldiers were paid it salt. I wonder if this was behind a phrase my step-father used to use about work. Although he and I did not get along, now that he’s gone I come back to the hidden bits of wisdom he sometimes shared. He worked very long hours, and seemed happiest when he was doing so. Early in the morning he’d limp through the house and say, “Time to get back to the salt mine.” He wasn’t a literal miner, although we lived in coal country. Salt could mean food, and the salt mine was where you worked to provide food for your family. I may not have gotten along with my step-father, but he worked hard to support a family with three kids not his own. He may have been bitter about that, but today anyone who stays with a family in hard times is considered salt of the earth. And that’s biblical.

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.

Filmy Substance

It’s all about Jesus. Well, that’s an overstatement, even in context. One of the amazing things to me about books addressing the Bible in film is just how often Jesus movies come up. If it’s not Jesus movies, it’s movies that have a “Christ figure” or some such Christian trope. Don’t get me wrong—I have no issues with Jesus. It’s just that the Bible and film have so much more in common than this. David Shepherd’s edited collection, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, has some insightful pieces in it and some of what has become “standard fare” already in a field that’s so new. I found Richard A. Blake’s response fascinating. Maybe this was because he doesn’t approach the topic from a biblicists’ point of view.

I’m not really complaining about scholars who look to cinema for a rich source of reception history. I do it myself from time to time. Most of the books on this topic are collections of essays and collections are, by default, uneven. There’s an amazing amount of biblical material in movies that simply goes overlooked. Also, I would suggest, movies offer valid interpretations of the Bible. Somewhere along the development of the discipline we seem to have slipped into thinking that only certain people can legitimately interpret the Good Book. If it is a sacred text, however, it is as much in the public domain as any text can be. And texts in the public domain can legitimately be interpreted by hoi polloi. That’s the nature of being a text with universal assertions, I suspect. Directors and writers, therefore, are legitimate interpreters. We could learn a lot about the Bible from going to the theater.

Like many who’ve taught Bible to undergrads, I sometimes discussed films with them. I always believed students were legitimate interpreters of Scripture, too. This is a dialogue. One of the more interesting aspects of Shepherd’s collection is the pieces that focus on non-Hollywood movies. I don’t see a problem discussing Hollywood since we can assume a larger body of those who’ve seen the film. It is nice, however, to be reminded that “foreign” films also delve into what is sometimes treated as propriety material by Christians. Hindu representations of the life of Jesus? That’s a very interesting idea! Of course, not everyone likes to know how “outsiders” see them. That’s one of the beauties of using cinema as a means of interpreting the Bible. Those of us who study it don’t have the money to influence movies enough to make them in our image. It’s fun to watch someone else’s interpretation.

Heal Thyself

One thing we can say about the misguided leadership of this country is that they’re taking the Bible seriously. As the Republicans roll out a “healthcare” plan that would leave the elderly and poor at the mercy of the rich—known for their compassion—they’ve clearly displayed their belief that the followers of Jesus who voted them into office will once again rely on the carpenter from Nazareth for their healing. Those of us who’ve spent more than a few devotional hours with the Good Book may be a little less sanguine about the prospects for our aging parents (and let’s be honest, none of us is getting any younger). I guess we can call “Trumpcare” a blatant trumpet blast for the Second Coming.

It truly amazes me that Trump supporters don’t see the shady practices of the age-old business deal at work here. Cut my costs, offer you something that you don’t really want, and walk away looking like the guy who was only trying to help. As Kenny Rogers reminded us decades ago, you’ve got to “know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” Only folding’s not on the table any more. If enough dissatisfied people die off in the next couple of years you won’t even have to worry about midterm elections, I guess. As a member of the human race who’s watched my elders age I don’t see how anyone could ask to have the healthcare taken away from their parents. But then again, this will save the uber-rich in this country quite a bit of money, so there must be a silver lining after all.

It’s unfortunate that nobody seems to care that irony is in such short supply. Presidential campaigns waged on hate deliver when it comes to taking away the services of those who voted them into power. Swamp dwellers all. A healthcare bill to make our country sick and weak—who could’ve thought of such a stroke of genius? You’ve just got to trust the rich to have everyone’s best interests at heart. Isn’t it clear that they always do? I often see them hobnobbing with the people who live in cardboard boxes on the streets of Manhattan. I seem to recall a guy with a reputation for healing once saying something about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into his hospital. Only he didn’t come up with a healthcare plan before he left. Does anybody have Jesus’ smartphone number?

Seeing Thinks

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a dude! What what is it? It’s actually a cloud. I enjoy the entries on Mysterious Universe, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It seems like decades since I laid down on the ground and looked at the clouds, seeking shapes. The sky is nature’s cerulean canvas and although they’re just water vapor, clouds take on endlessly fascinating shapes. Since religion has historically been projected onto the sky, many people take signs in the sky as somehow divine. The photo on Mysterious Universe is of a cloud that some thought was Jesus and others thought was Mary. Herein lies the rub of pareidolia. You see what you want to see.

There is, in traditional Christian thought, a world of difference between Jesus and Mary. You really don’t want to mix the two up. I mean one is divine and the other is only venerated. Don’t want to cross that line into worship because idolatry leads to all kinds of trouble. So who’s in the sky? Someone that we should perhaps think sacred: water. In a world quickly running out of fresh water (of course since now, officially, there is no global warming we’ll have to find another way of explaining our disappearing ice caps) we should all perhaps worship our clouds. The harbingers of fresh water. It won’t last forever.

I, for one, complain when it rains too much. I suppose that’s because I’ve lived most of my life in the rainy climates of the eastern United States and Scotland. Days can pass without a glimmer of sunshine. I get depressed and truculent. Yet the freshwater falls. Water tables are replenished. In much of the world—indeed, in much of the United States—it is not so. Water shortages are bad and are growing worse. We use far too much and when the ice caps are gone, the largest reserves of freshwater on the planet will be empty. Then again, capitalists have never been too keen on saving up for the future. Most of us alive today, at least in the rainy climes, will have our lifetime supply. The future, however, looks pretty hot and thirsty. So who is it in the sky? Could be either gender—wearing robes makes it hard to tell at this level of detail—but whoever it is, let’s hope they’ve brought plenty of friends with them.

Look like anybody you know?

Look like anybody you know?