When under Rome

ZealotA question that has no answer: who was Jesus of Nazareth? Well, no single answer, anyway. When Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth came out, there was uproar. (Something, by the way, that publishers love.) How could someone suggest that not only do the Gospels disagree, but that they’re not even literal when they do? For those of us who’ve studied the Bible academically, there’s nothing too surprising here. Aslan’s perspective is often refreshing, even if he makes some basic errors (those of us who study the Hebrew Bible are pretty forgiving). For me, having the social circumstances of the New Testament spelled out in terms of the intense unrest of the first century explained a lot. It was a period of unremitting violence and frustration on the part of those coming to grips with life under Rome. Jesus was born and came of age when any outré idea could easily get you crucified. When it happened in his case, it was, as the Gospels point out, fully expected.

What might bother many readers is that Aslan doesn’t accept the story at face value. Jesus wasn’t unique as a healer, revolutionary, or messiah in first-century Palestine. In fact, Rome’s appointed rulers grew tired of such sons of gods that thousands of people were nailed up to warn others of the costs. Still, unlike the others, Jesus remained in contention even after his death. The belief in the resurrection didn’t hurt. Since Aslan is writing history, he can’t judge whether the resurrection or the healings actually took place. The traditions, he notes, are strong. He is surely correct that the Gospels aren’t attempting history. Written well after Christianity was already established, the writers had theological templates at their disposal. Not only that, they also had Paul.

Something I’d never considered was the dispute between Paul and the Jerusalem church. Yes, I’d noticed the stark contradictions between the letters of Paul and the one of James, but seeing the underlying conflict of those who knew Jesus personally (James, Peter, John) and Paul just never occurred to me. Paul doesn’t dote over the historical Jesus. His Jesus is divine from the start, and those who try to preserve Jesus’ words get in the way of the theology he’s developing. His letters express anger at those who teach what Jesus said over who he was, spiritually, anyway. Only with the destruction of Jerusalem was the way cleared for Paul’s gentile Christianity that eventually won out over Jesus’ teachings. It’s all very interesting, but I can’t buy it all. There are too many convenient connections here, and history abhors neatness. Nevertheless, Zealot is well worth reading. It tells an old story from a new perspective. And even if your Jesus is different from Aslan’s you’ll find something profound here that will only make your image stronger.


Pauline Resurrection

271px-Bartolomeo_Montagna_-_Saint_Paul_-_Google_Art_ProjectPaul is dead. Has been since the first century. In biblical studies, however, he is undergoing a kind of resurrection. Studies of Paul are coming thick and fast, with many claiming, with some justification, that Christianity was his invention. Biblical scholars have long realized, however, that many New Testament letters do not come from Paul. Some never made that claim (Hebrews), while others seemed to have played on the popularity of the epistle genre and added Paul’s name to gain authority. Or maybe they were written by somebody else called Paul. Far more intriguing to me is the fact that in the authentic Pauline letters, the apostle from Tarsus mentions other letters he wrote that were not preserved. This should strike no one as unusual; would Luke’s grocery list have been preserved as scripture if it had been found? Probably not. Still, these missing letters do raise an issue that might crinkle brows with thought. What have we been missing?

Paul, like other scripture writers, had no idea he was writing “the Bible.” In fact, the Bible is one of the most obviously cobbled together holy books in world history. It is inspiration by committee. We have known for many many decades that there were other Gospels, for example. Some scholars treat the Gospel of Thomas as canonical, while others have reconstructed Q down to chapter and verse. The Hebrew Bible cites some of its sources that have gone missing. Some of the existent biblical books in their current state are obviously somewhat garbled. An imperfect scripture. And I’m wondering what Paul might have written in those missing letters.

The process of constructing a Bible has been examined time and again by scholars. Mostly they accept the material we have to work out some scheme of how Christianity decided “thus far and no further” and these books only will be Bible. Isn’t there, however, a problem when we know that other bits of parchment were floating around out there with the apostolic stamp of approval? What if Paul changed his mind over time? His current letters, the ones that survive, aren’t always consistent. It’s the job of exegetes to try to tell us what Paul really meant, but the fact is we know that this founder of Christianity sent more advice to more people and nobody bothered to keep a copy. Those bits that were preserved are not systematic or comprehensive, making me wonder just how solid a foundation a theology built on such small bits might have. Nobody, it seems, wrote a life of Jesus in real time. It took a couple decades at least before people started to sketch out his life’s story and teachings. By then Paul had already been killed. His letters, slowly gathered over time, formed a nucleus of a faith that grew to be the world’s largest. And, despite all that, we don’t know what he fully said. And we never will.


Esau and Jacob

“Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated,” at least according to the recollection of Paul in Romans. One of the most poignant scenes in the Hebrew Bible is the story of Esau. Born as the elder brother, in ancient times one could expect certain privileges. Yes, Esau sold his birthright to his brother over a rumbling stomach, but he still knew that the blessing—the true gift—was still his. That, however, Jacob took from him by deception. Isaac, their aged father, was blind but wanted to bless his firstborn before he died. While Esau was out hunting, Jacob slipped in, in disguise, and stole the blessing before fleeing to Iraq. In Genesis 27, Esau came in as instructed only to find the blessing gone. His weeping has never ceased through the ages as his father blessed him with a sword. Years later, Jacob returned to find his brother a wealthy and powerful man. A man who forgave and forgot. But Paul remembered.

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Rubens, The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau

Hate is a strong word. As a child the worst punishment I can recall came from saying that I hated someone. That word was worse than a swear. Hatred was not worthy of a loving god. Like Esau, however, we don’t stay young forever. By our sword we make our living. For some of us that sword was the written word that we were told was sacred. The image of big, hairy Esau weeping before his blind father disturbed me. He’d done nothing wrong. In fact, he was simply doing what his father asked him to do when his brother snuck in and took something that my young mind couldn’t even parse out from the birthright earlier bargained. Clearly, however, it was important.

Upon returning home six chapters later, Jacob fears Esau’s righteous wrath. He knows his brother has legitimate cause to hate him. Esau, however, aware that he has enough, welcomes the prodigal home with open arms. There is enough to go around. Even today, with the will to do so, the hatred could be removed. This is a metaphor, not literalism. Genesis is, after all, not history. Stories, however, can convey what facts cannot. Millennia have passed and myths have come and gone. In the simple, if primitive justice of my childhood, you dare not say you hate your brother. Having grown up with brothers I learned that despite conflicts that inevitably arise, hatred is never the answer. Esau forgave, according to Genesis 33. And the land was wide enough for all.


God and King

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The King James Version of the Bible is in the public domain. (Except in Britain, where it is still royal prerogative to print the King James, and it has be licensed to Oxford and Cambridge University Presses.) In any case, that means that just about anywhere in the world, anyone can take the text of the King James, reproduce it, and sell it. In this day of electronic books, that means many King James Bibles are available online, as well as in print. Just look on Amazon. The other day, I was looking for King James editions when I noted a dilemma. When you’re listing your Bible on Amazon, who do you cite as the author? Seems pretty bold to list yourself as the either author or editor of the KJV, so there have appeared a number of improbable authors of late. The first one I noticed listed the author as El Shaddai. Either an Amy Grant fan or an educated reader, this editor chose the phrase generally translated as “God Almighty” as the author. A good, strong name. It may derive from the phrase “god of the mountains,” or a bit more racily, “god of the breasts.” El Shaddai was likely a pre-biblical god that eventually got merged with Yahweh.

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The second version (which looks the same to my untrained eye) lists a trinity of authors: Holy God, King James, and Joy Mayers. What a triumvirate! I’m not sure who Joy Mayers is, but I would certainly blush in the presence of gods and kings. Particularly Holy God. Interestingly, this is not exactly a biblical title for the deity. We do get the encomium “holy” applied to God, but I’m not sure that it ever appears as a name. Well, at least we can look up King James and Joy Mayers. The next edition I found listed the author as the safely hedged “God-inspired” (hyphen and all). The problem is that God-inspired might be taken a couple of ways. One, and likely the intended way, is to see the author, whomever it may have been, as divinely inspired. Another option, and one which sounds more exciting to me, is to think of a coffee-fueled deity scribbling away under the heat of inspiration. The inspired god, writing under a nom de plume, gave us the King James (if that was his real name).

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The last one I found was the most parsimonious. The author was listed as Anonymous. This comes the closest to the historical truth of the matter. We know very little about the writers of the Bible. Probably the best attested is Paul, along with his companion Pseudo-Paul. We know this historical person wrote a number of letters. There’s little reason to doubt that people named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote some gospels. Who these people are, we don’t rightly know. Once we get back to the Hebrew Bible we find authors writing about their own deaths, and events that take place thereafter with embarrassing frequency. It could be that people saw further back then, not having to strain their eyes at a computer daily. Of course, if it weren’t for computers, we couldn’t sell our own Bibles on Amazon. I’m just waiting until I learn the actual author’s name before I post mine for sale.

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Whence Jesus?

Either he did, or he didn’t. Exist, that is. Jesus of Nazareth, I mean. When a friend sent me a link to a conference on proof of the non-existence of Jesus, I had to look. Such claims have been made before, but new documents are being found all the time and I supposed that I had been too busy commissioning books on religion to find out what was happening in religion. After all, the Gospel of Judas emerged, reversing, for a while, the idea of Judas’ good-guy/bad-guy polarity. A Coptic fragment suggested Jesus had been married. Maybe something new had come along. The story on PR Web announces that Joseph Atwill will unveil his new discovery later this month, proving that Jesus did not exist. While the article doesn’t give too many specifics (why would anybody come to the conference if it did?), the initial hype seems overblown. The gist of it is that the Romans invented a peaceful messiah to try to calm the foment to rebellion that constantly plagued the borders of the empire. Is he onto something?

Perhaps what Atwill has unwittingly stumbled onto is the truth that proof derived from ancient written documents is notoriously difficult to verify. Historians have criteria for determining whether ancient documents are “historical” or not. Their methods, while not foolproof, have rescued some great lights of human thought from the netherworld of fiction: Socrates, Solomon, and Gilgamesh, a shaky consensus holds, were historical characters. Of course, each of them has their detractors. No one is perhaps as contentious as Jesus of Nazareth, although, all things considered, his historical place is fairly secure. The Gospels are not eyewitness accounts. Paul seems to have been misinformed on some points. No authentic, contemporary documents describe Jesus. If, however, he was an obscure figure until some thirty years after his death, we would not wonder at such lack of attestation.

What does it mean to be a historical person? I used to pose this to my students. Each of us in the classroom knows we exist. There are records to prove it. How many of us, however, will make it into the history books? After the zombie apocalypse occurs, and civilization collapses, written records may be destroyed. Are we, Guy Montag-like, destroyed with our papers? Historical existence is something determined by others long after we are gone. Most of us don’t stand a chance of making it into the twenty-second-century’s history books. We simply will have been. But what of Mr. Atwill’s proof? Well, we don’t have it yet. Even if he has a letter from Caesar Augustus or Tiberius saying “let’s make up a story of a baby born in a manger,” it is pretty certain that the historical importance of Jesus will remain secure. If you can drive through any one-horse town in this country without finding a church of some kind or another, perhaps I may be wrong. In another century or so, I won’t be in the history books, but I will be history.

Come listen to a story 'bout a man named Josh... (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)

Come listen to a story ’bout a man named Josh… (photo credit Ricardo André Frantz, WikiCommons)


Sleepy Jean

Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article by Cristina Richie entitled “The Scandal of the (Female) Evangelical Mind” appeared. Richie points out that despite great strides being made in employing women in religious studies positions, Evangelical institutions still fall behind. This dynamic is not unexpected, however. Those of us who grew up evangelical know that no matter how much it may talk the talk of equality, evangelicalism walks the masculine walk of deeply seated patriarchalism. For those who literally “believe the Bible” there is simply no way around a male Jesus. Even if you go that dangerously risqué step and suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow feminine, when the divine couple gets together (and Father is always in charge), the offspring must be either male or female. In any literal reading, women cannot possibly claim equality. For their very salvation they are dependent on a male. A god with testosterone. As in heaven, so on earth.

Evangelical institutions have a difficult time with women leading men. They’re not alone. As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul had the same issues. Literal religion in a biologically dimorphic world will always be problematic. Either there is one god, or there are three. In either scenario the males outnumber the females. Should we posit a divine couple (as some in ancient Israel appear to have done—please wave “hi” to Asherah for me) we still have a culture that is dominated by men. The divine couple will always have the goddess deferring to the will of the god. And you can be sure that he will never pull over and ask for directions. We already know which way this chariot is going.

Every once in a while, the Chronicle likes to sit back and take stock of the religious landscape. Religious studies is, despite the bad press, a thriving area of academic interest. Surely to those in more quantifiable fields, our little squabbles over whether god is a man or a woman must seem pedantic and a little pathetic. And yet, the evangelical institution has an instruction book. That book, if followed word-for-word, leads to eternal rewards for those who are willing to foot the hardships. And for at least half of those (and likely much more than half) that will mean living on an earth that mirrors that realm beyond the sky. Although you can’t see it with any telescope, if you believe hard enough, it is there. And in that ideal place, the god in charge is a man’s god.

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Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”


Happy Mother’s Day

Women’s voices raised in prayer. What could be the objection to that? Religion, of course. A story from the Los Angeles Times reports that chaos broke out in Judaism’s most sacred site, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, as women prayed in a newly won, court-authorized action. The ultra-orthodox flooded in to block the sacrilege. No doubt religions have come a long way in trying to redress the wrongs perpetrated against women in their holy names, but true equality remains a distant dream. I’m not picking on Judaism here—nearly all religions contain knots, sometimes Gordian in stature, of males who hold their mythology close to their genitals. God made men first, gave them a few extra inches of flesh in a precisely designated region, showing that they are superior. Penis frenzy. Yes, manliness is more than next to godliness, it is divine. So we are taught.

Religions like to make universal claims. How is it that they cannot see that, at least on this planet, universal is half female? It certainly doesn’t make me feel secure knowing there’s an omnipotent guy with an almighty packet hovering in the sky above me. For five thousand years of human religions we’ve yet to see any solid evidence that such is the case. There are even places in the Hebrew Bible where God is referred to as female. Hosea has God say, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them,” (11.4) a translation nearly obliterated by the good old King James. Those who bent down to feed children, in the days before Playtex, were mothers.

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Women have, informally, been the keepers of religious teaching, in the home. Father might be the authority figure, but mother knew the facts of the faith. Even today, especially in the western world, active members of most religions are female. Men, however, reserve the right to make the rules. They say it is God. Our projections on the divine are reflections of our own wills, much of the time. Even patriarchal Paul would claim that in Christianity there is no male and female. But in fact there are. Since Paul’s day, and even before, there always have been. The three major monotheistic traditions agree that Adam was the first created, and Eve came tumbling after. Let the women pray at the Wailing Wall. They are the ones who have, in the name of religion, most cause to wail. Until men can learn the meaning of true equality, it is the least we can ask of common decency.


Sacred Sexism

holymisogyny How terrifying to observe religion from the eyes of women! In the monotheistic traditions it begins as early as Genesis 2 and continues unbroken through to the twenty-first century. While the origin of such views seems a mystery, they may be partially understood by reading April DeConick’s Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. Not that anyone fully comprehends the insidious idea that women are somehow less than men, but DeConick offers some insight into the issue. She suggests that sacred misogyny is, like much of life, an embodiment issue. The monotheistic traditions from the beginning have had trouble with women’s bodies. Men can’t control their urges and blame the victim. That is over-simplifying, I know, but the basic gist is about right. What can’t be missed from reading Holy Misogyny is that the idea has embarrassingly deep roots in religious thought.

The Bible starts out pretty fair. Except from the beginning the masculine pronoun is used for God, even though theologians from very early days declared God neither male nor female. How do you believe that an “it” really cares for you? Wants the best for you? Loves you? We are gender embodied. We want to know who it is that’s loving us. Genesis 1, on the human level, has man and woman created together on the same day, at the same time. The essence of their embodiment appears to be divine: “in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” “Human” is gendered humanity. But then the apple falls. We turn the page to find that the not yet monotheistic religion of the Bible is already pointing sticky fingers at Eve. I know that I can’t read Tertullian without wanting to hide my face when he castigates women as the source of evil.

Holy Misogyny is a disturbing book. It should be. What it does demonstrate, however, is that a wide variety of opinions and options existed for early Christianity when it came to the perception of women. Some of the Gnostic sects of Christianity came much closer to a kind of equality, but they lost out to an unremittingly masculine “orthodoxy.” The Bible itself, although written in a patriarchal world, is an ambiguous document. At points even Paul seems to indicate the genders are equal in God’s eyes, but then, he (or someone writing in his name) tells women to keep quiet in the church. Ask your husband at home. I’ve talked to a lot of church guys in my time, and Paul, I have to contest you here. Women who want to get proper instruction in matters of the soul—or of the body—would be better off reading DeConick than asking their husbands. We’ve got two millennia of unfortunate history to prove the point.


Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.


Cain’s Dilemma

As I tweet the Bible into cyberspace, Cain strikes me as a most misunderstood character. Mercilessly portrayed as an ungrateful boor, the first vegetable farmer in folklore is demonized as the father of all sinners. Genesis, however, is impossibly vague on Cain’s crime. A close reading of Genesis 4 indicates that Cain was the first human being to offer a sacrifice to a higher power. Being a tiller of the soil, that sacrifice was of the fibrous kind, bereft of any fat or blood. The divine nose (metaphorically) is turned up at this attempt at pacification. In steps Abel with his bloody slaughter of animals and God is well pleased. Traditionally, Christian readers have attributed Cain’s evil intent toward Abel as jealousy. Genesis doesn’t seem to bear this out. “But unto Cain and to his offering he [the Lord] had not respect.” Cain was not jealous, but “wroth.”

Much later in time Paul of Tarsus will tell fledgling Christians that God is “no respecter of persons.” Still, in that first moment of divine favoritism, prior to any explicit instruction being given, we catch a glimpse of the future of this nascent religious movement. Even today, the literalists tell us, God expects something from us. What, exactly, differs from interpreter to interpreter. Cain’s crime was simply being human. Even more poignant in this case is the fact that the divine allowance for consuming meat has not yet been made. Abel raises animals for God’s appetite while Cain raises vegetables for human consumption. No sentient being is harmed in Cain’s offering. Abel, one might say, is the first killer in human history.

We all know the story. Cain will rise up against his brother and slay him. He will then receive a prototype of the mark of the beast and scamper off to rustle up a wife somehow. All this before the third natural born human being, Seth, is even conceived. Beowulf will reflect Cain’s dilemma centuries later, as Grendel is the spawn of the first murderer. The descendents of Cain are routinely demonized while the children of Seth repeat the cycle of divine favoritism over again. Here is Cain’s problem: God will like whom God will like. The rest cannot earn divine favor. The bloody consequences of this reading of history continue to play themselves out even today. Those who need divine approbation will go to any lengths to feel special, while all of us, the true heirs of Cain, have to work it out as best we can under silent skies.


Genesis Too

My Twitter Bible verse yesterday landed on a passage that has been routinely ignored by the church in favor of a different mythic construct in Genesis 2. Assuming the Bible to have been written by a human-like god, the natural expectation is that the manuscript would have been checked for inconsistencies before being sent to the publishers. Any close reading of the Bible, however, reveals a number of contradictions that have crept into holy writ through what seems to be poor editing. The verse to which I’m referring is Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Readers and commentators have endlessly remarked upon the tripartite structure equating deity-male-female in this passage. This single verse, however, is soon forgot once the need to harmonize with Genesis 2 sets in. There man is given utter primacy and woman comes almost as an afterthought, even after the animals. That is the version fundamentalists consider inspired.

Readings of scripture are done only with the pre-decided outlook of the believer. We do this all the time, unconsciously, when we read. We approach texts with expectations, outlooks, and assumptions firmly in place. When dissonant notes sound, we try to harmonize. We’ve got a whole chapter stating that man was god’s first thought, and woman only comes later. We have only a single verse stating their equality. Before Paul and company distorted the story of Eden into a “fall” narrative—note the words “fall” and “sin” occur nowhere in the account of Eve and Adam—some ancient readers toyed with the idea that maybe the first human was actually intersexed (or hermaphroditic) and the word translated “rib” meant “side.” Genesis 2, in this reading, understood women and men to be equal and of the same creative moment of God.

Some in the early church, however, valued doctrine over equality. Afraid that heterodox teaching might win out—we know there were many early Christianities, not a uniform body only latterly split apart—what came to be orthodoxy rallied around Paul and his fallen humanity with man first and woman second. And thus it has stayed in the sand castles of power for two millennia. Setting aside the unreliable narrator, our present sensibilities for reading are generally to take the first information as correct and later changes to be embellishments. In the case of Genesis, this tendency is overlooked. Too many men have too much invested in male priority to suggest that the Bible actually says what it does. Such is the problem with sacred texts—they are far too serious to be read for its plain sense, which is, after all, its common sense.

We're all in this together


Old Smoky

I don’t mean to hit below the Bible Belt, but I find myself in North Carolina for a round of campus visiting this week. Since I’ve only ever passed through North Carolina on my way elsewhere before, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d experience culture shock. Since I’m visiting multiple schools, I needed to rent a car. As I climbed in, it was clear that I was in tobacco country. The problem with the rich, satisfying taste of tobacco is that it doesn’t translate well. I grew up forced to inhale many cubic meters of second-hand smoke, and I can’t stand the wretched odor. It stands to reason from my previous sentence that I grew up knowing many smokers, and it was entirely obvious to me that they did not realize just what a legacy their habits left behind. I went to school smelling like burnt industrial waste, and when I climbed into my Hertz Nissan Versa in North Carolina all of that came back to me in an instant.

When tobacco was king, or at least Duke.

In my evangelical childhood I was taught that smoking was wrong, although, perhaps understandably, Jesus had little to say on the subject. This highlights one of the thornier aspects of drawing ethics from the Bible. Apart from the obvious damages to health, the Bible gives no guidance either way on the smoking issue. The same may be said for contraception, abortion, drug use and stem cells. For all its laws, the Bible is remarkably non-issue driven. What you choose to do with your body is less important than the impact your actions will have on somebody else’s body. God is the parent who is driving the car shouting at the kids in the backseat, “Keep your hands to yourself!” So, here in the land of tobacco, the teeth of my biblical argument are extracted. I can hear some readers objecting that Paul says your body is a temple of the Lord. Problem is, they used lots of incense in the temple—and that smoke can be even more choking than cigarettes (I write from experience here).

Morals, as ethicists are increasingly realizing, come from custom rather than scripture. Rules are based on what society holds to be of benefit to the greatest number. The Bible has a voice in this debate, but no vote. Rules handed down from on high lack the human touch. We share the planet with our fellow humans, so they must be our focus when it comes to ethics. Some habits, unfortunately, share a little too much. I’m not the kind of person to tell other people what to do, but when I climb out of my rental car smelling like burnt industrial waste I somehow feel slightly wronged here. Maybe one of those rules should be, if you don’t own it, don’t smoke in it. Is that smoke I see rising from atop Mount Sinai?


Exposed or Expelled

I live in a relatively small town. Having grown up in communities of 10,000 or less, I am used to the ways of those who live close to their neighbors. Even in small towns people live secret lives. Returning to my small town from Iowa, the headlines for New Jersey’s largest newspaper feature a coaching assistant at Immaculata High School, the Catholic school in my town. Patrick Lott, Assistant Principal at another local school, is an assistant football coach at the aptly named Immaculata. He is accused of videotaping boys in the shower. As if not disturbing enough, this is the third Immaculata individual to be arrested for sex crimes in the last twenty years. While each individual instance is bad enough, it is the long-term pattern that is even more disturbing.

The setting of a Catholic school has long been a trope for abuse of power. In this respect it mirrors ecclesiastical history. Such is the way of human institutions. When they are placed on a pedestal and proclaimed divine, trouble starts. The problem arguably began as long ago as Augustine, and before him with Paul, the architect of Christianity. Both men spewed many negative words about sexuality, with or without abuse need not matter. Their views—which one might be tempted to call perverted were they not from religious men—perceived sex as a bizarre form of divine punishment. Funnily, neither one has much to say about why a good God designed such a sinful system for animals to propagate as well.

Sexual predators, of course, are not limited to Catholic schools and parishes. It does seem, however, that those religious institutions that most vocally castigate sexuality are the ones most often caught with their metaphorical pants down. Why such things happen is better answered by psychologists and sociologists than it is by theologians. What is always interesting is observing the response by religious leaders. The shock and distress may be real enough, even when one school claims a hat-trick of the sexual kind. I have no answers to proffer, merely some lay observations. If religions dropped their pretensions instead of their pantaloons, the world might quickly become at least a more honest place. If individuals with problems sought medical help rather than theological forgiveness, we might actually begin to make some progress.

Is this the right message?


Zombie Jesus

It must still be October. Despite a snowstorm before Halloween (one of nature’s trick-or-treats), all the signs are still there. My daughter showed me a Venn diagram yesterday, during a whole-day marathon of putting plastic around our drafty old windows, showing the intersection of three “monster” traits: resurrected from the dead, local townspeople fear and revere him, and convert as many mindless followers as possible. The creatures that inhabit this eerie universe are Dracula, Frankenstein, Zombie, and, where all three intersect, Jesus Christ. Obviously this was just for a laugh, but interestingly, one of the traits of Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!, is his rather frequent reference to Jesus as a zombie. Then I clicked over to Religion Dispatches, and the lead story is headlined, “Praying to the Zombie Jesus.” Ours is a world of mindless, quick connections where the compelling idea of resurrection has lost its appeal. Despite our religious culture—or perhaps because of it—we have come to see Christianity as just one more peddler of a wonderful, disturbing idea.

As regular readers of this blog know, I find the abuse of religious ideals inexcusable. Using one’s faith to beat another down is just plain wrong. Nevertheless, to focus on the folkloristic aspect of resurrection (or perhaps it is a metaphor) is to miss what drew the very earliest followers to Jesus. Before the idea of rising from the dead came a message that people should love each other and treat one another with respect and dignity. By the end of the first century of the common era, or perhaps as early as Paul, that idea grew to be a quasi-magical resurrection from the dead. No longer were women counted as equals among the followers of Jesus, and no longer were wealthy compelled to give it all up. Paul’s faith looked to a future world, beyond death, and was willing to consider this world, well, to be polite, crap. The reasons for this transformation are legion: the persecution that Christianity was undergoing, the failure of an apocalypse to take place, the disenfranchisement of the believers. They needed something to look forward to.

Zombies are likely a passing fad. When we start seeing books of zombie Christmas carols, zombie haikus, and zombie apocalypse survivors’ guides, we seem to be reaching the peak of the plateau. The zombie is mindless, rapacious, and entirely selfish. It will not go away. It is the perfect denizen of October. When I stare into those uncomprehending eyes, and see the disturbing lack of compassion and the desire to consume human brains, I start to make connections of my own. Analysts often describe zombies as the ghoul of the common folk. But all these characteristics taken together suggest that perhaps the month in which to expect zombies is November. Surviving another snowpocalypse, earthquake, and hurricane, the human spirit is difficult to dominate. And yet, when the polls open up in the darker season of the year, zombies will rise. The plastic on my windows does nothing to stop these chills.

Borrowed from a friend's site