I’ve been reading about Paul.You know, that Paul.What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense.Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions.Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about.A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.
There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims.At some points he sounds downright modern.Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power.Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people.This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues.Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth.The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome.Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.
The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes.Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected.There are no committee minutes.We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing.With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible.Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all.He makes reference to letters that we don’t have.What might he have written therein?Is part of divine revelation missing?The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.”Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless.Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial.For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.
The cult of celebrity is dangerous. The results of both biological and psychological sciences inform us that mammals, especially primates, hold “alpha” individuals in awe. We don’t know what quality makes them irresistible to some, but in the case of humans before you know it everyone is talking about this Kardashian or that Trump. Valorizing the power of media as we do, those who appear ubiquitously on screen gain in magnitude merely by the attention paid to them. Others have vetted the details, and those who are deemed important enough for constant, widespread television exposure are worthy of our worship. Most of the time it seems banal, harmless. But when those without scruples are willing to exploit it, it is dangerous.
Paris rejecting the cult of celebrity
For example, the other day my wife and I rewatched An American in Paris. I know my wife likes the movie, but when it was over I couldn’t help noting that Jerry Mulligan chauvinistically claims his right to a woman he’s just met, and who is, moreover, engaged to a friend of his who had just lent him money. The fact that he doesn’t know about the engagement is no excuse. Lise tells him “No,” and when she gives him a false telephone number he doesn’t take the hint that she doesn’t want him to call her. He stalks her in a selfish and predatory way. Only because she laughs at his antics with some perfume bottles does she agree to meet with him later. He takes advantage of another woman who clearly has feelings for him and who sponsors him, using her money but not reciprocating her feelings. He’s aggressive and eavesdrops to get Lise’s name. He lies to her and about her (saying he knows her so her friends don’t object) and refuses to take no for an answer. Laying out my grievances, my wife politely listened and then said, “But it’s Gene Kelly.”
Like many people, I was jilted a time or two when I was younger. Losing out to a rival lover leaves a lasting scar. How can we hope that on New Year’s Eve Lise will leave Henri for the interloper Jerry? But it’s Gene Kelly. The cult of celebrity allows those on various pedestals to get away with many things. Trump was likely correct in saying he could stand in the middle of a crowded street and shoot someone and his base would not object. The cult of celebrity ’sn’twonderful, ‘sdangerous.
The striking thing about Evangelicalism is its protean nature. The earliest forms of this conversion-based “Christianity” began with the Reformation among Pietist Protestants. They sincerely believed in two things: the Bible and Jesus. Today Evangelicals deny both. They believe in Donald Trump. Racism and subordination of women are their two main foci. And yet, they wish to keep the brand. Daily we see the standards of traditional “Christianity” tumble: turn the other cheek, love your neighbor as thyself, if a man asks your cloak give him your coat also. All of this jettisoned like so much non-capitalist clap-trap. Thing is, it’s in the Bible. Thing is, it was said by Jesus. And also anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery, let alone those who pay them off so they can grab another on the way out the door. All of that’s now “Christianity.”
The funny thing is that those who object to such behavior are what Evangelicals scornfully call “liberals.” So much for the group that just three short years ago advocated the reinstitution of biblical law. Now that 45 would have committed a capital crime according to such laws, they have changed the Good Book rather than rebuke the pastor in chief. Ironically, some of the children of famous evangelists have drunk deeply from that Kool-Aid. It’s fine to sleep around as long as you lie the right way at the right time. Bear false witness? What does that even mean? You’d think liberals were suggesting that those God loves are chasteneth by him, for goodness sake!
Many of us feel as though we woke up to an alternate reality in November of 2016. We supposed the Republican Party would show some backbone, but when they didn’t we weren’t all that surprised. What shocked us most is that the leopard has changed its spots. Those of us brought up with the Bible were led to believe this impossible. After all, who can change a hair from black to white (although some of us would rather have it go the opposite direction)? We thought that Holy Writ would guide the Evangelical heart. We thought they would remember who Jesus was. All of this is negotiable now. The only solid rock on which they build their church—those to whom they give the keys to the kingdom—are those that fall into goose-step behind a “leader” for whom the truth changes daily. Opportunist be thy name. Were Jesus alive to see all this, surely he’d weep.
Like most Americans I have trouble getting over the button-down image of Evangelicals that has now become so distinctive. In reality Evangelicalism has nothing to do with Jesus, but it comes down to basically two things: a conservative haircut and belief in the superiority of males. The latter point is made by Rodney Hessinger and Kristen Toby in an opinion piece on Cleveland.com. Asking the question that’s on all logical minds—how can Evangelicals stand by a president who credibly cheated on his wife just after their child was born?—they come to the conclusion that patriarchy trumps all forms of righteousness. I know this from sad personal experience. The Bible, Evangelicals claim, gives men the headship of the household. They may sin, yes, but even with that their lordship must remain intact. That is the non-negotiable fact of Evangelicalism.
I was a teenage Evangelical. I grew up in a household where my mother refused to divorce her alcoholic husband because it was against Evangelical teaching. Sexual sins were well nigh unforgivable. In fact, adultery, of which 45 has credibly been accused, was a death-penalty offense according to the Good Book. About the only thing worse than sexual sins way lying. I can’t believe I’m getting old school on Evangelicalism, but I have to say Fundamentalism isn’t what it used to be. In college I knew people who believed we should reinstitute stoning for adultery. Instead we now use it as an excuse to elect unqualified presidents. And yes, we’d like to keep the brand, thank you. Commandments have now become negotiable.
Our society is very sick. Unlike the narrative Evangelicals weave, the illness is within them. Divorce rates are higher among Evangelicals than among atheists. Evangelicals are more likely to own guns than Unitarians. Evangelicals will lie more readily than any agnostic. Some of the more extreme want to reintroduce slavery. Through it all they claim to follow the Bible. Their support of Trump has given the lie to what they claim as a religious faith. Even Jesus, meek and mild, had harsh words to say about adultery. This is something you just don’t do. Promise your faith to one woman until a porn star comes to play at your resort—I don’t recall that being in Scripture anywhere. Evangelicalism hasn’t lost its soul, it’s lost its mind. Given what they’re doing in his name, Jesus must be rolling over in his grave.
They’re scratching their heads. The media, I mean. In this distorted world of Trumpism, newspapers have rediscovered religion. Some say Trump is the altar boy of the evangelical right with people like Franklin Graham wetting himself over the president. Others say evangelicals want to change their name to distance themselves from Trump. Everybody seems to want to know who evangelicals are, but they’re afraid to ask. The weird, or perhaps expected, thing is universities decline to help. For years now they’ve been cutting positions in religion, a topic no longer relevant or of any interest. Academics aren’t always good at seeing what’s right in front of them, of course. So it is that the media’s scratching its collective head. Is he or isn’t he? What can you say about a man who’s so clearly heathen and yet a sparkling example of Christ-like compassion and values?
It’s doubtful whether any university administrator or televangelist could finger Jesus of Nazareth in a police line-up. They have no idea of who he was or what he taught. All that matters is he was God and he protects unborn babies so that he can arm them with automatic rifles when they’re of age. Oh, and he’s definitely not a woman. Or gay. Is that about it? Just in the past week major media outlets have run stories about the evangelical relationship to the commander-in-thief who’s told more lies in his first year than all other presidents combined. Who said Jesus of Nazareth was honest? He just stood for the right causes.
Having grown up evangelical, studied religion with evangelicals, and having been fired by evangelicals, I know them well. They have a mental capacity for biblicism that’s nearly incomprehensible. The Bible is so sacred that no other book should be placed atop it. It should never be set on the floor. Memorizing chapter and verse is more important than knowing what they might mean or how to live by them. This is old-school blind faith. And proudly so. Trump doesn’t know the Bible but he says he does. His actions resemble the carpenter from Nazareth’s about as much as Joseph Stalin’s. He was a good Christian, too, wasn’t he? After all, the Bible says Russia is our ally. Reagan—another evangelical—may’ve said they were our worst enemy, but one thing we know for sure about the Good Book: it never lies. For that it takes evangelicals and politicians.