Tag Archives: Jesus

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.

Truth under Fire

As Evangelicals continue their unflinching support for Trump, Rudy Giuliani has at last said something that rings true with these “Christians.”  According to a Washington Post story 45’s lawyer declared, “Truth isn’t truth.”  This was regarding the Russia probe, something that would’ve led to the ouster of any real president by now.  We’re all used to Trump’s constant state of obfuscation after all these long months, and the former mayor of New York has just come clean—truth is what we want it to be, no more, no less.  It is a meaningless word, a chimera.  If the son of god in the White House has broken the law (and he has) then the truth is there’s no law to be broken.  Democracy is just a made-up word in the hands of the Republican Party.

Now, I don’t have much truck with politicians.  Leopards, according to a certain book, can’t change their spots.  Nevertheless, Evangelicals should object to Giuliani’s direct assault on their sacred text.  The Good Book, you see, is all about “the truth.”  But the truth isn’t the truth.  When it claims that Jesus died to atone for your sins, that can’t be the truth because the truth isn’t.  The only truth is what Trump personally wants.  And the GOP won’t lift a finger to stop him.  Long ago it was clear that the party of Lincoln had abandoned the will of the people they’re elected to lead, but if there were truth we’d see the deep, stinking muck of corruption everywhere within its doors.  At least you’d expect the neat and clean Christians to object.

A certain man about two millennia ago said, according to the Book, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  But Rudy says “Truth isn’t truth.”  The Beatles said they were more popular than Jesus and the public revolted.  Rudy says Trump has more authority than Jesus and the Evangelicals cheer.  The capacity for untruth has always been part of politics.  Most politicians know to lie discreetly, when fact-checking will reveal some ambiguity.  Now the gospel-truth is whatever comes from the unholy mouth of Trump.  There is no truth.  There are alternative facts.  There’s fake news.  Surely the Prince of Peace wouldn’t have cancelled a military parade.  Meanwhile someone once said “the truth will set you free.”  The great Giuliani has informed us, however, that there is no truth.  And if truth isn’t truth, there’s no hope of freedom.  At least according to a guy named Jesus, whoever he may be.  

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.

Recognition

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.