The Meming of Life: on secular parenting and other natural wonders

JOHN (bookin’ through the bible 7)

[back to MATTHEW and LUKE]

john 3:16
John 3:16 Guy, a.k.a. Rollen Stewart

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THE GOSPEL of JOHN

If we’re trying to make historical sense of the Bible — and many, many people persist in the effort — the differences between the three “synoptic” gospels and the Gospel of John is a problem best not pondered too much. “John’s testimony is so different from that of the synoptic gospels,” wrote Tim Callahan in Secret Origins of the Bible, “that if his is accepted, theirs must be discarded.” But once you accept the folkloric nature of the Gospels, you can discard all of them as any kind of historical record and just enjoy the variations as evidence of oral handling and glean the occasional meaningful message from it. Liberal Christians do exactly that.

I’ve already confessed a certain affection for Luke. Part of it is familiarity, certainly, but it also includes a really attractive mythic narrative. But the Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, the crazy aunt in the Christian attic, is the one that really grabs me by the bollocks:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

That’s the way to start a book about a god, not with a rambling genealogy or by banging on about vague prophecies! Religious moderates are often embarrassed by the weirdness of John, while Born-Agains, anti-Semites and rainbow-wigged endzone dwellers find their raisons d’etre in it. Yes, John has inspired more than its share of grief and ongoing lunacy. But considered as literature, as folklore, I find myself thoroughly grabbed by its metaphors (2:19 Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up) and its brutal, vivid directness:

6:53 Jesus said to them, I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.

No wonder “from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him”! And in verse 6:66, no less! If you want passing, veiled references, go back to the synoptics. John makes the gristle of Christ squeak between your teeth.

My favorite gospel story, and the favorite of religious moderates everywhere, is John 8:4-11:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say? They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

They are asking this of the man who affirmed every “jot and tittle” of the Law of Moses, remember, including Lev 20:10. John describes the scene with this wonderful small detail:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger, as if he had not heard them.

We’re in the midst of one of the greatest Bible moments here, a wholly uncharacteristic one. It’s more of a Buddha moment, really, and a marvelous piece of scene setting. It’s not the only one in John—“Jesus wept” (11:35) is another. In most of the gospels Christ is drawn with the wooden two-dimensionality of a grade school nativity play. But here, in John, he pops to life.

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. And again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.

Jesus straightened up and asked her, Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?

No-one, sir, she said.

Then neither do I condemn you, Jesus declared. Go now and leave your life of sin.

The pace, the detail, the dialogue—none of it would be out of place in a modern novel. And unlike most of the Bible, there’s some genuine, original wisdom in it.

Gospel Hero No. 1: Judas

I’ll close by acknowledging two genuine heroes in John. In both cases, their heroism is interestingly set against the intransigence or cynicism of Jesus. The first is Judas in John 12:3-8:

Mary took a pint of pure spikenard ointment, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.

He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

Why hello there, John. Editorialize much? Methinks he protests too much about Judas’ motives. Even if the dialogue is pure fiction, a graduate lit seminar would credit the character of Judas here and distrust the petty narrative voice. Judas didn’t say the money should have stayed in “the money bag.” He specifically suggested the 300 dinarii—a year’s wages for a laborer—should have been spent, but on the poor instead of on a luxury. And the character of Jesus responds with unworthy cynicism:

Leave her alone, Jesus replied. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.

Webber and Rice side with me on this interpretation in Superstar. Judas is the conscience and hero of the film:

Christ redeems himself (now there’s a turn of phrase) in 13:34 with a brand-new commandment, and a cracking good one:

A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.

Gospel Hero No. 2: Thomas

I’ll close with my other gospel hero, Thomas, who thought to ask for a bit of simple evidence before believing:

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, We have seen the Lord! But he said to them, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, Peace be with you! Then he said to Thomas, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas (1601) by Caravaggio
caravaggio thomas

Thomas said to him, My Lord and my God!

Then Jesus told him, Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

Oh really. I haven’t seen Joseph Smith’s golden tablets either. Shall I believe in them? Why not? How about the Mohammedan revelations? David Koresh, Jom Jones? This is the elephant in the church: When you say “Have faith,” which unevidenced claim shall I believe? The one I was born into? The one that gets to me first? The one with the loudest proponents or the worst threats? Perhaps the one with the least evidence? The story of Thomas would have been perfect if it ended 23 words earlier.

You can’t really blame Jesus for missing the point of the Thomas story. He was dead on his feet, after all. I’ll stick with Thomas, a biblical hero well worth introducing to my kids.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: John 3:16 Guy, a.k.a. Rollen Stewart, is currently serving three consecutive
life sentences for kidnapping and for threatening to shoot down planes in preparation
for the Rapture. No reflection on other fans of the Gospel of John or others with rainbow
hair, of course. But it IS a reflection on believers in the Rapture.]

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Next week: EXODUS, with a special guest blogger!

Read Exodus online
Believers on Exodus
Skeptics on Exodus

[Onward to EXODUS]

laughing matters 3: the bible gal

[back to laughing matters 2]

csc

I taught at a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota for 15 years. Half of my courseload was an interdisciplinary seminar in writing and critical thinking.

Teaching critical thinking at a Catholic college is strange, but only half as strange as it seems. Every official college document, from the Mission Statement to the Catholic Identity Statement, trumpeted the vital importance of critical thinking, open intellectual inquiry, the vigorous exchange of opposing views, etc. So critical thinking was alive and well in writing. Just not in practice. Issues of religion, race, and gender, among many others, had accepted, unchallenged orthodoxies. Unorthodoxy was killed off in one way or another, usually with suffocating silence.

My head eventually began to hurt from the dissonance. To relieve the pressure, I turned to humor, writing the satirical novel Calling Bernadette’s Bluff, the utterly fictional story of a secular humanist male faculty member at the utterly fictional College of St. Bernadette, a Catholic women’s college in Minnesota. It’s still selling the occasional copy after five years, which is nice, and reviews were good. Most of all, it saved me a blown cerebral artery by allowing me to get some things said. And by doing so humorously, I got the same reprieve as Erasmus from the (direct) wrath of the Powers that Were. For a while.

A few months after publication, a couple of students asked if I would like to form a student humanist group on campus, “like the one in your book.”

Like the one in the book? I thought. Surely not.

I reminded them that things in the book went seriously unwell for the group in question, and for the college itself. They shrugged. So we did it. And things went badly.

How they went badly is a good story in itself, eventually involving locked doors, bad press for the college, the first student protest in the school’s history (against the censorious college president), hate mail for me, equal measures of faculty courage and cowardice, and a tenure standoff with the college deans. But that’s another story. This series is about humor and critical thinking.

nuns with guns
My tenure committee

In the service of my children’s addictions to food and clothing, I hung around for as long as I could, then gave notice in May ’05 that I would leave in May ’06. My resignation was gratefully accepted by the president. Many faculty colleagues expressed genuine and eloquent grief over my decision, something that warms me to this day.

I had to decide how to disengage with the place I’d worked most of my adult life. I felt tremendous bitterness at the hypocrisy and cowardice at several levels. But instead of giving in to that, I decided to say goodbye with a humor.

I approached the editors of the faculty e-newsletter with the idea of a mock advice column called “Ask the Bible Gal.” After some knee-clacking, they consented to run it. I decided to use it to gently skewer hypocrisies on campus and in religion generally.

You may recognize the influence of a famous Internet satire in the first installment:

ASK THE BIBLE GAL
A Lighthouse in the Wilderness

Dear Bible Gal:

I have a colleague who teaches a Weekend College class on Sunday, thereby working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states that she must be put to death — but am I morally obligated to do it myself?
Mystified in Minneapolis

Dear Mystified:

Excellent question! If the college administration doesn’t take care of it, then yes, I guess it’s up to you to lend a hand. Just don’t do it on the Sabbath, or you’d be working too! Thanks for writing, and be sure to let me know how it goes!
BG

The next week had this follow-up:

Dear Bible Gal:

Longtime reader, first-time correspondent. I’m writing on behalf of “Mystified in Minneapolis,” a colleague of mine who wrote recently for advice on dealing with a Sabbath-breaker. She took your advice, and – well, let’s just say there’s one less Sabbath-breaker this Sunday, praise God!

“Mystified” would have written to you herself, but at the post-retribution party (you’ll get a kick out of this), somebody pointed out that she had in turn violated the Sixth Commandment against killing! Oh, you should have seen her face, she turned as red as a tomato! We all had a good laugh, then killed her, of course (Leviticus 24:17, “If anyone takes the life of a human being, he must be put to death”) – and boy then did we have a problem, since we had to kill the killers…

We want to do this “by the Book,” so here’s the question: what should the last person do? – Stumped in St. Paul

Dear Stumped:

There’s a scriptural solution to every problem. In this case, WWSD: what would Saul do? (1 Sam 31:4). Problem solved! Let me know how it…oops. Never mind :-)! BG

(Saul kills himself.) A dozen faculty members whispered their approval of the satires in passing on campus. Others glared. I felt a little less pressure in my head each week:

Dear Bible Gal:

Each August, I am appalled anew by a festival of sin at the Minnesota State Fair. In case you don’t know about it, images are graven into blocks of butter, a clear violation of the Second Commandment and an encouragement to every type of unholy transgression. I’ve enclosed photos of this past year’s outrage. Can’t these people read?? It’s further proof that we need the Commandments posted in public schools for easy reference. – No Margarine for Error

cowShades of Mooby

Dear Margarine:

May I gently suggest that you read the Commandment before casting stones about unholy oleo! The Second Commandment forbids not just graven images but the making of “any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.” Any likeness, dear, which means your little snapshot constitutes a first-class ticket to the Ninth Circle! Why, the film The Ten Commandments was itself one gigantic violation! Cecil B. DeMille’s skull is surely the drinking-gourd of Lucifer even as we speak.

As for me, I pray to see the Second Commandment posted in art classes, for the much-needed boost it would give to Abstract Expressionism. – BG

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Dear Bible Gal:

I am a Bible-believing high school senior and feminist, in search of a Bible-believing feminist college. How thrilled I was to hear about the College of St. Catherine, a place that knows the greatest source of empowerment for women is the truth of Scripture!

At least that’s what I thought St. Kate’s was. My faith in that school crumbled on a recent campus visit, when I learned that women actually teach there, despite the admonition of 1 Timothy 2:12 (“Do not permit a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence”). How on earth can a college claim to empower women if it doesn’t even follow the Holy Word of God?! – Real Feminists Aren’t Timothy-Leery

Dear Real Feminist:

You truly dodged a bullet, dear! That darned place has a long history of disregarding all of the powerful feminist Scriptures. I’ve heard they don’t even require women to be silent in church – as if the Apostle Paul didn’t know what was best for women’s empowerment! You want real scriptural feminism? Go to St. Thomas, girlfriend! – BG

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Dear Bible Gal:

At last, after eleven years, our church expansion is completed! Last week the Building Committee voted to inscribe the last words of Christ over the entrance to our new educational wing and coffee shop. But at the meeting, someone pointed out that the Gospels – well, I wouldn’t say they contradict each other, of course, since that’s not possible, but they seem to render the true words in three different ways – in Matthew (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”), Luke (“Father, unto thy hands I commend my spirit”), and John (“It is finished”). Is one of these truths more, you know, true than the others? – Stumped by a Cross Word Puzzle

Dear Cross Word:

Eleven years for one building project! I’d suggest you go with John! – BG

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Dear Bible Gal:

Last Easter weekend my husband and I stayed in the basement suites at the Days Inn in Charleston, South Carolina as part of their WWJD Easter package – “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40), just like our Lord! We checked in on Good Friday and “arose” on Easter Sunday. Get it?

My husband – apparently using secular math – blasphemously suggested at the front desk that we should have been charged for only two nights! Obviously he was wrong: Friday afternoon through Sunday morning must equal “three days and three nights” – or else Christ Himself misspoke in the Scriptures! Aack!

Easter’s approaching again, and we’re Carolina-bound. I don’t want him to embarrass me again. Please help me to help him see his error! – Counting the Days Inn

Dear Counting:

Your husband is getting caught in that literalist trap! When the Lord said “three days and three nights,” He was speaking of a metaphorical three days and three nights. I hope that clears things up, and further hope you were charged in allegorical dollars. – BG

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And on it went, for a year. By the time I left, I felt fine.

Many on the faculty apparently had the least desirable reaction of all, the same one they had to all controversy—they wished all the icky conflicting views would just go away, wished for the return to the silent, smiling denial of dissonance that had driven me first crazy, then away.

Perhaps that silent, uncommented dissonance returned after I left, I dunno. But I can’t help hoping that the genie, once out of her bottle, has continued flying around that place, knocking things over and crapping on the carpets.

[onward to laughing matters 4]

IMAGINE: a science-literate president

head in sand
Official U.S. policy on global warming

My 12-year-old son Connor asked a heartbreaking question last week: “Is our next president going to be a good one?”

His tone was pleading, and I knew what he meant. From the time he was five, Connor has known only one president. Please don’t make me type the name. During that time, Connor has developed a love of science, a deep concern for others and a passion for preserving the Earth. Connor is an optimist and works hard to be part of the solution. He has donated money to save several acres of rainforest and used a Barnes & Noble giftcard received at Krismas to buy An Inconvenient Truth. His long-term goal is to start an engineering company that creates a device that eats greenhouse gases. He recently resumed a long-delayed project to design a website to encourage donations to charity. In the meantime, he spends untold hours on the website Free Rice earning rice for the hungry, twenty grains at a time.

I love and admire him for all of this. He’s my hero and my conscience in many, many ways.

Because people like me did too little to prevent it, Connor has grown up under a presidency of surpassing, mind-numbing ignorance and deeply screwed-up values. Assuming two terms for the next president, next November’s election may well decide who sits in the White House throughout his high school and college years, making policies that affect global warming, stem cell research, educational policies, and countless other things that he cares about very deeply. There are so many things I hope for in our next executive. But at minimum, I would like my boy to experience life under a president who is scientifically literate.

carbon

Science is at or near the heart of nearly every major issue facing the world community. We cannot afford to have another U.S. president as thunderously and willfully ignorant of science as the current one. The planet can’t afford it. Nor can my son’s fragile optimism.

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EMBRYONIC STEM CELL

Scientific literacy should be a central issue in the upcoming election. We need to know whether these candidates have a working knowledge of the basics. To that end, a group of concerned scientists and activists has begun a call for the inclusion in the current election cycle of a debate on science and technology:

A Call for a Presidential Debate on Science and Technology

Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.

Add your name to the petition here.

Read the article “Let’s Have a Presidential Debate on Science” at Salon.com.

santatheology

coal

One of my essays in Parenting Beyond Belief (“The Ultimate Dry Run,” p. 87) argued that the Santa myth, in addition to being a hugely enjoyable and harmless fantasy, can serve as a dry run for thinking one’s way out of religious belief.

It’s hard to even consider the possibility that Santa isn’t real. Everyone seems to believe he is. As a kid, I heard his name in songs and stories and saw him in movies with very high production values. My mom and dad seemed to believe, batted down my doubts, told me he wanted me to be good and that he always knew if I wasn’t. And what wonderful gifts I received! Except when they were crappy, which I always figured was my fault somehow. All in all, despite the multiple incredible improbabilities involved in believing he was real, I believed – until the day I decided I cared enough about the truth to ask serious questions, at which point the whole façade fell to pieces. Fortunately the good things I had credited him with continued coming, but now I knew they came from the people around me, whom I could now properly thank.

Now go back and read that paragraph again, changing the ninth word from Santa to God.

Santa Claus, my secular friends, is the greatest gift a rational worldview ever had. Our culture has constructed a silly and temporary myth parallel to its silly and permanent one. They share a striking number of characteristics, yet the one is cast aside halfway through childhood.

I offer as further evidence the following conversation between my son Connor — 12 years old and well post-Santa — and his sister Delaney, six, whose Santa-belief Connor has apparently decided must be kept alive at all costs. The setting is Grandma’s house on Krismas Eve for the Opening of the Early Presents:

GRANDMA: Oh, look, here’s another one: “To Delaney, from Santa!”

DELANEY: EEEEEE, he he hee! (*rustle rustle*) Omigosh, new PJs!! With puppy dogs!!

GRANDMA: Now, if they don’t fit, we can exchange them. I have the receipt.

DELANEY, with accusing eyebrows: What do you mean, you have the receipt? How could you have the receipt?

GRANDMA: Oh, I mean…well, Santa leaves the receipts with the gifts.

DELANEY, eyebrows still deployed: Uh huh.

CONNOR: Laney, be careful. If you don’t believe in Santa even for one minute, you’ll get coal in your stocking.

DELANEY: I don’t think so.

CONNOR: Well, you better not doubt him anyway, just in case it’s true!

DELANEY: I think Santa would care more that I was good than if I believe in him.

Holy cow. Didja catch all that? The whole history of religious discourse in 15 seconds. Reread it, changing Santa to God and get coal in your stocking to burn in Hell. For the finishing touch, replace Connor with Blaise Pascal and Delaney with Voltaire.

(P.S. The boy and I had a small chat after this. We don’t ban much in our house, but thoughtstoppers are definitely out. The Doctrine of Coal is as verboten as any other idea designed to squash honest doubts.)

MATTHEW and LUKE (bookin’ through the bible 6)

[back to GOSPEL OF MARK]


Gospels of Matthew and Luke

linus
An amazed witness to the birth of Mithras

You are a scribbler living somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean—maybe Antioch, maybe Alexandria—a devoted follower of a scattered and struggling Jewish sect that worships Yeshua, a rabbi who died in Jerusalem fifty years earlier. Your language is Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the known world in the last quarter of the first century.

Your parents raised you on tales of Yeshua, as they themselves had been raised on them. Dozens of accounts of the life of the rabbi had been written down by others, including a book of the sayings of Yeshua, a.k.a. Jesus.

One in particular has caught the popular attention. It would eventually be known as the Gospel of Mark, though it was no more the work of John Mark than your soon-to-be-contribution was the work of the apostle Matthew. That’s right: you’re about to write a gospel.

“Mark’s” story lacked a certain something. A beginning, for example, and an end. Also missing were the details of the teachings of Jesus that had come down to you through oral tradition. You decide to write your own version using a popular technique of the time, the merging of elements from many traditions into a single new narrative. “Mark” will do fine for a framework, so you start out with your 517 favorite verses from Mark and call it a day. Your Gospel is half done.

Eager to bring the message of Jesus to life, you draw on four other sources: the aforementioned book of sayings, which would later be called the “Q” source; the prophecies of the old Law (OT); the stories you heard at your mother’s knee; and the hands-down coolest religious superhero yet conceived: the Persian god Mithras. Or perhaps more to the point, oral tradition had already merged these threads. Your gospel will simply record the story of Jesus as it emerged from three generations of oral improvement.

Mithraism was already 1500 years old by the time of Christ, but recently it had begun spreading like wildfire into the Roman Empire. And the Mithraic narrative should, to put it mildly, ring a bell for modern readers.

Born on December 25th, son of the sky god, his birth witnessed only by shepherds, Mithras was called the Way, the Truth, the Word, the Light, the Son of God, and the Good Shepherd. His followers celebrated his birth each year with hymns and the giving of gifts, as well as a sacrament involving bread and water. At the end of his life, goes the story, Mithras was laid in a tomb of rock for three days, after which he rose from the dead and appeared before his twelve disciples before ascending into the sky to join his father.

Luke, which many scholars consider the likely work of a woman, would shortly follow.

I’ve always had a love of compelling mythology, so Matthew and Luke have always appealed to me. When I heard many years later that nearly all of the details of Jesus’ birth narrative were borrowed from the Mithraic religion of Persia, it only enhanced my affection for these gospels.

Like most of my generation, my first direct contact with the Gospels was through Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas:

Luke 2:8-11 is pure loveliness, especially in the KJV. I have to shake myself out of the fog of familiarity to really hear it, to imagine myself as an ancient shepherd standing in country-darkness, then being enveloped in heavenly light. Just like Bellerophon riding Pegasus to the gates of Olympus or Brunnhilde plunging through the world-fire to return the Rhinegold to the riverbed, this is a mythic scene I saw vividly in my mind’s eye as a child.

If you know the history of the Jews during the time the gospels were written, the elation at the idea of an arriving Deliverer becomes all the more believable. Messiah refers to a political savior, not a spiritual one. The destruction of the Jewish nation and the dispersal of its people was nearly complete. Jerusalem was in ruins. The final rebellion (bar Kohkba, 132 CE) was just around the corner. Three years after that, the Romans would obliterate the last remnant of Jewish nationhood. It would take over 1800 years and another Jewish Holocaust before such a thing would rise again.

I can easily see what the Messiah concept would have meant to Jews at the time, and how the alleged arrival of a savior could have spawned a new religion.

Matthew also gives the best view of the actual teachings of Jesus. Many seem obvious and commonplace now, but at the time the suggestion in the Beatitudes that wealth and power were illusory and that the poor and meek might inherit the earth and God’s grace represented an absolutely radical inversion of the social system. It’s nothing less than revolutionary proto-Marxism, and I’m behind it 94 percent of the way.

Once I began to see the harm done by biblical literalism and the powerlessness of liberal religion to address that harm, the synoptic gospels also came to my aid in combating literalism. I pointed out Mark 7:9-10 last time, in which Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for ignoring the Old Testament requirement to kill disobedient children. In Matthew and Luke, we hear an even more precise endorsement of the continuing relevance of every last bit of the Mosaic Law (Old Testament):

Think not that I came to destroy the law or the prophets: I came not to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass away from the law, till all things be accomplished. (Mt 5:17-18)

But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one tittle of the law to fall. (Luke 16:17)

This should be the end of the argument that the Old Testament was bad but was intended to be superseded by the New. Jesus begs to differ. So they both rise or fall together.

There is so much more to say, from petty geographic and historical errors (Luke 2 has the reigns of Quirinius in Syria and Herod in Judea overlapping at the birth of Jesus, though Quirinius didn’t begin his rule in Syria until ten years after Herod’s death) to the newly created resurrection narrative. But again, I run long, so I’ll close with three thoughts.

1. The Gnostic Compass

One of the greatest questions in gospel scholarship is why these four won the lottery. Among the gospels that fell off the table were several childhood gospels (Jesus turns his playmates into goats and is scolded for it) and the riveting Gnostic gospels, in which Jesus

was a new god trying to free the world from the domination of the old god Yahweh, who was in reality only a sub-creator called the Demiurge, the architect of the flawed material world, a world of illusion and death. Jesus did not really get crucified; he sent a double to take his place and transcended the physical world. (Callahan, Secret Origins of the Bible, 363)

2. The Blood Curse

In the synoptic gospels are the powerful seeds of 2000 years of anti-Semitism. To ensure the survival of their struggling sect, the gospel writers were keen to avoid antagonizing Rome. Hence Pilate’s washed hands and other extravagant attempts to lay the Christ-killing squarely at the foot of the Jews. Clearest of all is Matthew 27:24-26, the so-called Blood Curse:

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

The last clause would merely rank among the least probable and most ridiculously Pythonesque pieces of crowd dialogue in the Bible if not for the tragedy and hatred it has wrought through the centuries since it was written.

3. “[do not devote yourselves] to myths and endless genealogies…” (1 Timothy 1:4)

The last is something that has fascinated me for several reasons, but I bring it up here as the single most useful example of biblical errancy in the whole damn book: the conflicting genealogies of Matthew 1:1 and Luke 3:23.

It was very important for the fulfillment of prophecy that the eventual Messiah be descended from the House of David, so both Matthew and Luke provide long genealogies to establish Jesus’ lineage. Several things immediately strike even a casual reader:

    (1) that aside from David and Joseph, they share nothing in common—not even Joseph’s father;
    (2) that Luke records 42 generations from David to Joseph, while Matthew records 26; and
    (3) that Joseph’s genealogy is irrelevant anyway, since he was not related to Jesus.

Many gymnastics have been tried to resolve the genealogies, including the suggestion that one is actually Mary’s lineage. This explanation works only if “Mary” is a six-letter word starting with J.

Such inconsistencies are not a problem for those who’ve grasped the folkloric nature of the bible, of course — but the majority of Americans are still literalists, as the following postscript makes clear.

Postscript

It’s not hard to see why the message of the gospel (literally “Good News”) resonates with humanity. The Jews of the 1st century turned their own dream of rescue from political oppression into a claim that death itself, the greatest oppressor of all, had been conquered. No wonder literal belief persists.

George Barna recently completed one of his periodic polls regarding literal belief. As I noted in a comment on the Gospel of Mark post last week, The Barna Group is the one evangelical source I trust. Barna’s stated goal is to tell the church what it needs to hear, not just what it wants to hear. He uses scientific and transparent methodology to keep his finger on the pulse of American Christianity.

The Barna researchers asked a sample of 1005 adults whether they considered six key bible stories to be literally true or to be narratives that were not factually accurate but were designed to teach principles. Three of the six were in Matthew and Luke.

75 percent of respondents said that they believe Jesus Christ was literally born to a virgin.
69 percent embraced the story of Jesus turning water into wine as literally true.
68 percent view the story of the loaves and fishes as factually accurate.
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RECOMMENDED READING

Barnstone, Willis. The Other Bible. Includes ancient scriptures that did not make it into the canonical bible, including fascinating alternative gospels, even alternative creation stories.
Helms, Randel McCraw. Who Wrote the Gospels?
Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible. Ridiculous name, terrific book. Details parallels of biblical stories and elements in earlier religious traditions.

[forward to the GOSPEL of JOHN]
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NEXT WEEK: The Gospel of John

Gospel of John online
Believers on John
Skeptics on John

Elv(e)s Lives!

elf

ERIN (9): No, they don’t.

DELANEY (6): Yes, they do!

ERIN: Laney, they don’t.

DELANEY: They do!

It was my girls in their bedroom on the first day of Christmas break, (damned) early in the morning, apparently engaged in Socratic discourse. Let’s listen in from the hall:

ERIN: They do not.

DELANEY: They do so.

ERIN: Laney, there’s no way they come alive.

DELANEY: I know they come alive, Erin!

I walked in.

DAD: Morning, burlies!

GIRLS: Hi Daddy.

DAD: What’s the topic?

ERIN: Laney thinks the elves really come alive.

DELANEY, pleadingly: They do! I know it!

I didn’t have to ask what elves they were on about. It’s apparently an extremely old or very new tradition here in Georgia — I’m new in town and wouldn’t know which. Kids buy little stuffed elves and place them somewhere at night before they go to sleep. In the morning, the elf, having come to life in the night, is somewhere new.

ERIN: How do you “know” it, Laney?

DELANEY: Because. I just do.

ERIN: What’s your evidence?

(Oooooooo, the old evidence gambit! This should be good.)

DELANEY: Because it moves!

ERIN: Couldn’t somebody have moved it? Like the Mom or Dad?

DELANEY: But [cousin] Melanie’s elf was up in the chandelier! Moms and Dads can’t reach that high.

ERIN: Oh, but the elf can climb that high?

(Pause.)

DELANEY: They fly.

ERIN: Oh jeez, Laney.

DELANEY: Plus all the kids on the bus believe they come alive! And all the kids in my class! (Looks at me, eyebrows raised.) That’s a lot of kids.

So how to handle a thing like this? I want to encourage both critical thinking and fantasy. Fortunately Erin wasn’t being snotty or rude. Her tone was relatively gentle. As a result, Laney was not getting overly upset by the inquiry – just mildly defensive.

Erin finally looked at me and said in a half-voice: “I don’t want to ruin her fun, but…”

“You’re both doing a great job,” I interrupted. “This is a really cool question and you’re trying to figure it out! You’re asking each other for reasons and giving your own reasons, then you try to think of what makes the most sense—I love that!”

They both beamed.

“The nice thing is that you don’t have to agree.” (Celebrate diversity and all that. Only the Monolith is to be feared.) “You listened to each other and hashed it out. Now you can think about it on your own and decide, and even change your mind a million times if you want.”

I say that last line all the time. The invitation to change your mind knowing you can freely change it back makes it less threatening to test out alternatives. If you don’t like a new hypothesis, go back to your first one. It’ll still be there. That permission makes for more flexible thinking.

I also try to make the point that no one else can change your mind for you. You should always find out what other people think, but you don’t have to worry that they will reach in and change your mind without your consent. It’s amazing how powerful that simple idea is. In the end, only you can throw that switch and change your mind, so wander on through the marketplace of ideas without fear.

ferrell elfSo they let it go. Erin got practice at gentle persuasion, and a little critical seed was planted in Laney’s mind, along with the invitation to hang on to the fantasy as long as she damn well pleases. When her love affair with reality becomes so well-developed that knowing the truth is more important to her than thinking stuffed elves come to life, she’ll happily move on. But just as in other areas of belief involving dead things coming to life when no one is looking, I want her to make decisions under her own power.

merry krismas to all

kris kringle
OUR HERO

Oh, how completely I adore this.

I had an interview today with Rev. Welton Gaddy for the Air America program STATE OF BELIEF. Among the questions was the classic “How do nonreligious families celebrate Christmas?” My staple answer usually includes phrases like “Many different ways, there’s no need to all conform to a single expression,” “The winter solstice celebration is as old as humanity,” “Food, folks and fun,” and “Oh, there’s a religious version, too?”

Three hours too late, I learned from a comment on the PBB Discussion Forum that I don’t celebrate Christmas at all, and never have. I celebrate Krismas. As Jacob Walker, one of the namers of the holiday, put it:

Krismas is a secular holiday that celebrates the myth of Kris Kringle, commonly known as Santa Claus. It happens on December 25th of each year, and is also closely associated with Krismas Eve, which occurs December 24th… Krismas is about giving gifts, especially those “from the heart”; it is about the magic of childhood; it is about peace on earth; and it is about goodwill towards humankind, and anything else you wish it to mean that does not involve the Jesus as a savior bit.

Apparently this idea is three years old. Leave it to me to miss it. This is not merely cute; the more I think about it, the more genuine brilliance I see. Here’s more from Jacob:

I loved Christmas growing up. I treasure those memories buy amoxicillin. I treasure the mythology of Santa Claus, Rudolph, Elves, etc. I treasure the idea of giving gifts, the beauty of Christmas lights and the smell of Christmas trees. This is what Christmas was about to me. These are the secular mythologies and symbols that we have made Christmas about.

I really didn’t think much about the birth of Jesus while growing up; it was just another mythology surrounding the time, and I never believed in Jesus as a savior. As I have grown, I have come to believe that the notion of Jesus being a savior, and many of the ideas of fundamentalist Christian churches, and the Catholic church to be detrimental to peace, acceptance and love in our world. So I didn’t want to support them any longer. It also would not be true of me to celebrate Christmas when I really don’t follow what many people consider the MAJOR tenet of that holiday. So I decided to create a new holiday that would support the tenets that I believe are good and righteous.

In recent years there has been a movement by many fundamentalist Christian groups to “pull” Christmas back to being a religious holiday only. I think that is fine. We can have Krismas, they can have Christmas.

(Many thanks to BornAgainHeathen for the tip!)

More about Krismas.

the reason for the season

Spread the word.

axial tilt

laughing matters 2: the powa of yuma

[back to laughing matters 1]

melbrooks

Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.
Mel Brooks

I got in trouble in fourth grade. Mrs. Schloss had just given us an oral spelling test and was grading it at her desk. “Dale McGowan!” she said, curtly. “Come here at once.”

Ooooo, purred my classmates.

My breath quickened as I walked to the front of the room. She was a tiny woman with half glasses on a chain and an odd accent I never could place. Her head barely cleared the top of her enormous wooden desk.

“What is this?” she said, pointing to one of the words on my test.

I looked. “Yuma,” I said, helplessly.

“Are you making fun of me?”

“Wha…no! I…I didn’t know what that word was. I never heard it before you said it. So I just…I wrote it like it sounds.”

“I am supposed to believe you’ve never heard the word ‘yuma’ before.”

“Never.”

She straightened up. “Well allow me to expand your vocabulary, mister. YUMA, noun. ‘I hev a good sense of yuma.’ Now set doon and write it 100 tames.”

It’s not nice to make fun. But in this case, for once in my school career, I was innocent of the charge of attempted comedy.

redressing the balance of power

Laughing at someone is considered less kosher than blistering argumentation for several reasons. For one thing, satire is almost impossible to respond to. George Carlin calls comedy

a socially acceptable form of aggression. It’s an unfair response to an unfair imbalance of power – a seizing of the joystick. You get to name the targets, you get to fire the bullets – and what you’re essentially doing is putting those people in an impossible situation where they’re forced to like it. There’s a great deal of hostility involved – and the wonderful part is, after you’re finished, you say, ‘What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke? This is humor, sir!’ You can shame them into agreeing that the attack is acceptable. Nobody wants to be accused of not taking a joke. It’s a double-bind.

This “response to an unfair imbalance of power” is an important point. Jokes directed downward in the power continuum are considered in bad taste – ethnic jokes by powerful whites, jokes about the disabled by those who are not, and so on – while jokes directed upward at the more powerful can be a means of redressing the imbalance.

But there’s more to the strong reaction against satirical comedy than just the victim’s difficulty in responding. Much of it has to do with what satire actually is.

“I fear that the item you have posted engages in mere ridicule,” said the theologian in his note protesting the office-door satire I mentioned last time. “Ridicule does nothing to enlighten.”

Tell that to Erasmus, buddy. Tell it to Voltaire. Time for some definitions:

Ridicule
The contemptuous declaration that something is ridiculous and worthy of scorn.

Satire
The use of wit to attack the vices and follies of humankind.

Ridicule can be an element of satire and often is. The difference is that ridicule outside of satire often exists as a simple attack for its own sake. Satire by definition has a point to make, a critique to offer, and the Onion satire, to my mind, made a damning point about the inconsistency of the Vatican’s simultaneous work toward ecumenism (cooperation and understanding among religions) and the continued position that only Catholics are saved.

so…what is yuma?

Satire seeks change using humor as a medium. So what is humor? There’ve been many theories of comedy, but three elements consistently pop up: contrast, truth, and what I’ll call the revealed obvious.

Humor works best when it deals in sudden, shocking juxtapositions. The contrast between appearance and reality, between expectation and actual outcome, between someone’s self-image and the way others see him, between what should be and what is – contrast is indispensable to comedy.

The truth element is most important to its critical value. A joke is often funny in direct proportion to its revelation of something that is true but hidden by a fig leaf. The laugh comes as the fig leaf is yanked away, and the strength of the laugh is like a Geiger counter for the truthfulness of the joke’s premise. I’ll try to demonstrate this later in this series.

But the third piece is the really damning one, the one that makes satire such anathema to its targets. In delivering a satirical attack – and it is a form of attack, just like most types of critical challenge, let’s not mince words – in writing satire, I am essentially saying not just that someone’s actions or beliefs are ridiculous, but that I am counting on the ridiculousness to be so immediately obvious that the audience will roar with laughter when I strip that fig leaf.

What I’m saying to my target, really, is this: not only are you wrong, but the wrongness is so obvious that when I point it out, there will be a spontaneous and delighted recognition of truth from my audience.

Pretty insulting, right? Better not insult the target. Oh, unless it matters – unless we’re talking about institutions and attitudes that really need changing if we are to strike a blow for justice and compassion and reason. When that’s the case, why not bring out the big guns?

But the opening quote by Mel Brooks also reveals the pitfall of comedy: that it can, when uninformed, simply reflect the inability to see things from another person’s point of view. Fortunately the truth meter comes to the rescue again. A joke based on ignorance is generally less funny. It’s the revealed obvious that really kills.

Whether or not it rings true (and therefore rings funny) often depends on your point of view. Next week I’ll post some short satires I wrote for the faculty e-newsletter at the aforementioned Catholic college. The difference between those who found them hilarious, and those who found them pointless, had everything to do with diet — specifically, whether a faculty member’s diet included a regular infusion of wafers.

[on to laughing matters 3]

Six things the religious (generally) do (much) better than secularists

One of the central messages of Parenting Beyond Belief is that there are secular ways to achieve all the benefits of religion. It’s true. I’ve even been so bold as to suggest we do some things better. Also true. It’s time to let that other shoe drop. Here are six things religious believers in the U.S. on the whole do much better than the nonreligious:

1. Give generously

Though the nonreligious outpace the religious in volunteerism once “church maintenance” volunteering is eliminated (Yonish and Campbell, “Religion and Volunteering in America“), when it comes to actual giving of actual money, there’s no contest: churchgoers have us licked. Even outside of church-based giving, the average churchgoer in the U.S. gives 2-3 times as much as the average non-churchgoing American. Obviously there will be notable exceptions, as there are on the other side, but the overall picture of giving by secular individuals needs improvement. [Note: Outdated stats removed 6/1/11]

Part of the solution is the systematizing of giving. That offering plate passing beneath one’s nose has a certain loosening effect on the wallet.

2. Connect their good works to their beliefs

As noted above, the nonreligious are very good about rolling up their sleeves and volunteering. But we are abysmal at making it clear that those good works are a reflection of our humanistic values, so the presence of nonbelievers doing good works is often overlooked. That’s why Dinesh D’Souza was able to write the ignorant screed “Where Were the Atheists?” after the Virginia Tech tragedy. Nonbelievers were present and active as counselors, rescuers and EMTs at the scene, but because they were not organized into named and tax-exempt units, their worldview was invisible. We must do a better job of making it clear that we do good works not despite our beliefs, but because of them.

3. Build community

I’m at work on an extensive post about this, so for now I’ll just point out what should be obvious—secularists are miserable at forming genuine community. We fret and fuss over the urgent need for more rationality in the world, completely ignoring more basic human needs like unconditional acceptance. Most people do not go to church for theology—they go for acceptance. They go to be surrounded by people who smile at them and are nice to them, who ask how their kids are and whether that back injury is still hurting.

Most freethought groups are not good at making people feel welcome and unconditionally accepted. Whenever I walk in the door of a new group, either to attend or as a speaker, I mill around and look at the walls for ten minutes before someone says something. It’s a painful ten minutes for anyone, and makes them less likely to return. Get a greeter at the door to welcome new faces in and introduce them around.

Becca made an observation that I’d never thought of before: This lack of social awareness may be tied in part to the fact that freethought groups are predominantly male, and churchgoers are predominantly female.

Until we recognize why people gather together—and that it isn’t “to be a force for rationality”—freethought groups will continue to lag light years behind churches in offering community.

4. Use transcendent language

There are many transcendent religious words without good secular equivalents. There is no secular equivalent for “blessed.” I want one. And no, “fortunate” doesn’t cut it. I also want a secular word for “sacred.” I want to be able to say something is “holy” without the implication that a God is involved. I want to speak of my “soul,” but do so naturalistically, and not be misunderstood. This list goes on and on.

5. Support each other in time of need

Individuals do a lovely job of supporting each other in times of need, regardless of belief system. But when it comes to the loving embrace of a community, religious communities once again tend to do it much, much better than any nonreligious community I’ve seen.

I once learned that a member of a freethought group I belonged to, a sweet man in his late seventies, had been in the hospital for nine days, and not a single member of the group had been to see him. We all signed a card, someone offered, knowing full well how lame that sounded.

If the man in the hospital had been a member of a church, you can bet he’d have had a stream of visitors to sit with him, talk to him, see him through it. Volunteers would have brought dinner to his wife. I’ve seen this as well. It is heartwarming, and the worst church I’ve seen does it better than the best secular organization I’ve seen. Much.

Yes, they have the numbers, and yes, they have the structure — but I’ll also give them credit for recognizing the need and having the desire to fulfill it.

6. Own their worldview

Yes, it’s easier for Christians in the U.S. to be “out” about their Christianness, because Christians are everywhere. Guess what—we’re everywhere too. Current estimates put the nonreligious at 15-18 percent of the U.S. population. There are more nonreligious Americans than African Americans. Think of that. Coming out of the closet and owning your worldview makes it easier for the next person to do so. So do it.

Need more incentive? Think of the children. I want my kids to choose the worldview that suits them best, and yes, I’d like secular humanism to be one they consider. The more visible and normalized it is as a worldview, the better chance that it will appeal to them. But in the meantime, it would also help if we gave more generously, connected our good works to our beliefs, built communities, learned to use transcendent language, and developed a better collective ability to support each other in time of need.

This is a partial list—I didn’t even touch on inspirational art and music—and I welcome your additions. We are not generally good at these things, and Christians, after millennia of practice, generally are. We could learn a thing or two. Or six.
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A similar post at Friendly Atheist.