Archive for category Culture

Found Jesus? Try looking in Hell


“Hell is the absence of God”.  This is a pithy definition that many Christians find attractive. It shoves under the rug any suggestion that God might have created Hell as a place of eternal torment and punishment for human disobedience.  Since God will not force us to love ‘him’, we must make the choice ourselves, or so it goes.  And what Christian would not choose  the presence of God in Heaven?  If God is omnipresent, if “he” is everywhere, then his absence is ‘no where’.  Hell is the last death, annihilation.   This makes the bitter pill of damnation a bit easier to swallow.

But Jesus is suggesting something else, that God is not in Heaven but may actually spend a lot of time in Hell.  Many of his followers readily choose to spend time in Hell, living with and helping those who cannot escape, at least not on their own.  Classic examples are Father Damien,  Dorothy Day, Albert Schweitzer, Corrie ten Boom, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa.  Thousands, if not millions, of others, have forfeited comfortable Sunday church meetings, choir practice and Bible study to devote their time and energy in the service of the sick, the poor and the imprisoned.  This is where they find God.  This is where they lead others to God. Not through pseudo-evangelical proselytizing about Hell and Heaven.  Not through fear and intimidation, but through self-sacrifice and love.

The other day I suggested that,  to many Evangelicals, both progressive and fundamentalist, if you took away Hell you would take away their vision of Jesus.  Hell may even be a more important tenet of the Christian faith than Jesus, because without Hell what is there for Jesus to save us from?

But maybe there’s another way to look at Hell, a way that is not so doctrinaire but more holistic.  Maybe the closest we can get to God is in Hell, though not by reflecting on our own pain but through focusing on the pain of others.  No gains or rewards, no divine pats on the back.  Just encountering the beauty and presence of God in some of the vilest and most horrifying cesspits of the world.  Why else would anyone willingly live their lives with those people, in those places? A love of God that I can only imagine.

Perhaps this points us to what Heaven ( or more accurately, the Kingdom of God ) might look like.  It’s not a place where we go when we die and it’s not a return of the mythical Garden of Eden.  It’s not something God gives to us for being good, but a world that we must earn by working towards eliminating our man-made Hells.  Of course, the chances of this happening does not look  good, but some amazing people are busy making it happen, one piece at a time.

2 Comments

No Hell = No Jesus


As long as I can remember  my mother has said, “As a Christian you have to believe in Hell but you don’t have to believe anyone is  there.”  This is her gracious understanding of an essential Christian doctrine.  Though she didn’t know it,  this understanding is a Christian “heresy” called Universalism, a heresy  that says all of us,  even non-Christians, will go to Heaven. And it was expressly against Catholic, and most Christian doctrine. But wasn’t she right about one thing:  Don’t you have to believe in Hell to be a Christian? This must be the case, if Universalism is a heresy.

Not long ago Rob Bell was  in the hot seat with many Evangelicals (and some Catholics)  because his recent book, “Love Wins”,  suggested that no one goes to Hell.  He set the conservative Christian bogs on fire and most of them essentially condemned Bell to hell for not believing in Hell.

The ensuing progressive  Christian defense of Bell was great.  Many Emerging Church and progressive Christian bloggers  busted the chops of people like the Three Johns ( Piper, MacArthur and Hagee) for accusing Bell of  Universalism . They rightly criticized the conservative Christian tendency to make Hell such a big part of their theology, to the point where this doctrine  obscures a lot of the Gospel message.  But, unfortunately, few of them go far enough.

Because in their defense of Bell they made it quite clear that they also believed in the doctrine of Hell, they just adapted it to make it more palatable.  Most seemed to accept the conventional orthodoxy  of a Final Judgment and the potential prospect of Hell (even with little or no scriptural support for it) coupled with the salvic solution of Jesus dying for our sins on the cross, as God’s blood sacrifice, to free us from eternal damnation.  Which, to me, flies in the face of what Jesus spends a lot of time telling us about God.  As I heard a pastor once say, God is either merciful or God is just, but God cannot be both.

I think one reason why so many Christians are unyielding about Hell, and why the progressives still can’t shake the doctrine off, is that, in reality,  Hell is the cornerstone of the Church, not Jesus.  Because without Hell, what is there for Jesus to do? What does he save us from?

No Hell = no Jesus. Or at least the Jesus that many Christians claim to believe in, have faith in.  Without Hell he loses his job description. He loses his purpose along with the primary meaning he may have for millions of Christians. So the idea that there is no Hell is just too damn frightening to consider.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 1 John 4:18

, , , , , , ,

12 Comments

The Bible is not The Good Book or a bad book. It is just a….book.


The Bible is a collection of diverse ancient Hebrew writings by many authors who never intended their works to be collected between the bindings of a book.  It is full of spiritual stories, poems, myths, biographies and various historical accounts. It may or may not include recorded attempts at predicting the future. Wisdom and beauty abound within its pages and the reading of this book has helped millions of people, in many spiritual ways,  to encounter God.  By this definition alone, it is a sacred book.  But as St. Paul  once said, the scriptures are useful for instructing a person in the ways of God, implying that they are only some of the tools at our disposal and not the sole repository of spiritual wisdom.

The common thread that runs through this assortment of writings is how a particular group of people interacted with their God over a very long time, in ways that were both moral and immoral.  Inspired by a sense of wonder, the authors attempted to understand God’s nature, God’s will and how, why and if God works in their lives, often depicting God as speaking and acting within the natural world.

The second, smaller part of the Bible concerns Jesus of Nazareth, his life, crucifixion and resurrection. It also includes his teachings and the teachings of some of his disciples.  These teachings have undoubtedly inspired generations of people to live lives of peace, mercy and love while at the same time championing justice.  At the same time,  different interpretations have helped others to rationalize behavior not so commendable.

The Bible had no release date, there was no publishing date. At some point, around 1700-1800 years ago, powerful religious men decided what Jewish scriptures would be included in what we call the Canon and the Apocrypha.  Everything else  (probably more than what was included) was discarded or destroyed, though some of these manuscripts survive today. Throughout its history the Bible has been translated in different ways and there have been a few cases where it has been altered to serve a religious agenda, but these were rare occurrences.  There has always been a very active, and often heated,  debate over what many portions of the Bible actually mean.

The Bible may, or may not, be relevant to us today.  The stories and poems and letters within have been used as a guide for morality, compassion and self sacrifice.  They have also been  used to justify genocide, torture, slavery, misogyny, bigotry and war.  If God has spoken through the Bible then some have certainly heard the voice of Satan as well.

Although a great work of historical literature and sacred to millions,  it has no magical qualities or powers. It needs to be interpreted contextually, framed within the time and circumstances of the people who populate it, lest whatever lessons it might contain remain hidden.   It is undeniably a very, very important book.  It is certainly a great book, one of the world’s greatest.  But it is not the GOOD book any more than it is a bad book.  In the end, with all that it has to offer, it is still…just…a…book.

14 Comments

Alack, those intolerants!


Over on Facebook I’ve been engaged in another round of a continuing argument that a friend and I have been having over the years. He charges that my criticisms of those I call intolerant are hypocritical, because, in essence, this is just another form of intolerance.  To be intolerant of intolerance, he says,  is a type of circular reasoning.

He’s not the first one to say this about me, or anyone of a number of people outspoken against intolerance.  On the face of it,  this argument sounds logical but to me it seems  so obviously incorrect.  This accusation must be the one based on circular reasoning.  To be intolerant of intolerance just seems to make sense, like having nothing to fear but fear itself.  But I have never really been able to come up with a solid rebuttal.

Until now. It really boils down to a simple matter of semantics.  We are not talking about the same thing here.  According to no less an authority than Merriam Webster, “tolerance” has multiple, subtle yet significant, meanings.


Definition of INTOLERANT

1 :
unable or unwilling to endure
2
a : unwilling to grant equal freedom of expression especially in religious matters
b : unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights : bigoted

This clears things up.  I am doing my best to be the first definition as it encounters both elements of the second.

, , , , , , , , , , ,

15 Comments

If Jared Loughner is not evil, then who is?


Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding.  In the words of Job, “when I looked for light, then came darkness.”  Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.  –President Barak Obama

And if you read back my statement of defense, it wasn’t self defense. It was defending those who are innocent, talk show hosts, talk show host listeners, those who have nothing to do with a crazed, evil gunman who killed innocent people. –Sarah Palin

For once, Obama and Palin agree on something. But they are both wrong. As awful as this shooting is, as tragic the deaths, and in spite of what some are saying, it cannot be denied that Jared Loughner is a mentally disturbed, obviously delusional, and probably psychotic young man.  Perhaps this could be said of anyone guilty of such an act. So is there such a “thing” as evil? Well, apparently some very powerful  people think so.  In addition to Obama, both George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan were outspoken in their shared belief that evil exists, particularly in the guise of heinous tyrannies.  Were they correct, or were they falling back on centuries old superstition?

In 2009, Roger Simon, of Politico,  talked about how, though once a skeptic,  he now believes he has literally met evil,  in the person of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. In another article two days ago, he wonders whatever happened to a general belief in evil and why so many are willing to accept an ‘insanity defense’ for Jarred Loughner’s actions:

Which leaves me with just one question: Whatever happened to evil?

Why have we rushed to the judgment of insanity? Legally, very few defendants are found guilty of insanity.

We know that anybody who guns down innocent people or sticks dead bodies under his house or eats them, for pity’s sake, has got to be crazy.

And we believe that because we do not want to believe, as our ancestors believed, in evil. Evil is even more frightening than madness. Madness can be treated. All we need is early intervention and clinics and more resources devoted to the problem.

We hope. We live in an age in which virtually all our problems have been medicalized. Not that long ago, compulsive drinking, compulsive gambling and even compulsive eating were looked upon as human weaknesses. Now, we treat them as medical problems.

Evil has been medicalized (sic) into insanity. But only up to a certain point. There seems to be a correlation between the number of people you kill and whether you are called insane or evil.

Loughner allegedly kills six and is insane.

Hitler kills more than 6 million, and he is evil. The same is true for Stalin and Mao. We don’t say they needed the intervention of community health clinics, we say they were the ultimate examples of evil on earth because they murdered tens of millions of people.

Is the difference just numbers, however? You kill a certain number of people, and you are nuts — but you cross the line and kill more, and you are evil? Is that how it really works?

Or, in our modern times, are we embarrassed by the term “evil”? To some, it seems too primitive or too religious, or both.

And we would much rather believe that all sick people can be cured by medical intervention.

Because that is a lot less scary than believing that evil walks among us.

Simon raises some interesting questions. But I think the ultimate conclusion he comes to is incorrect.  Perhaps there is is such a thing as evil. But there is a significant difference between the Tuscon killings and those committed by the regimes of  Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao and Saddam Hussein.  Infamously atrocious acts but,  at the risk of offending some,  I would like to add to this list the American enslavement of black Africans, the genocides of  Sullivan’s March, Wounded Knee, Rwanda and Dar-fur, the horrors of Andersonville, the Rape of Nan King, and the indiscriminate bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Maybe even the corporate dumping of toxic waste like what the Hooker chemical company did at Love Canal.  If the definition of evil requires that violent or harmful actions be premeditated and that the actors be perfectly sane, placing their own well being above the suffering of innocent people, then all of the above certainly qualify.

The difference between Jared Loughner and Adolf Hitler is not just about the numbers, although the real difference certainly would certainly seem to result in many more deaths than otherwise might take place.  The real difference here is that in one case we are talking about the tragic work of one lone madman as opposed to  institutionalized murder, which requires the wholesale complicity of a nation, a political party, a corporate entity –  a community.  The difference between the compulsive behavior of the delusional versus the calculated and coordinated machinations of those who certainly should, and do, know better. When we blame ‘evil’ for violence and murder we tend to deflect the focus away from the real causes, in which we might possibly even play a part. Which is a lot more scary than believing evil walks among us.

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

14 Comments

Thumping loudly on the Bible and the Constitution


Today the Republicans in the House of Representatives are reading the Constitution aloud, as symbolic token to the Tea Party’s devotion to the document.  A good civics lesson, or “sanctimonious reverence” ?

The Tea Party. Why is it that bible thumpers (of which the Tea Party abounds) claim to love the Constitution so?   Because it’s not that the two world views are inextricably wed, there are plenty of conservatives and libertarians who are religious moderates or even atheists (like Ayan Rand).  And there are even a number of left wing Evangelicals like Tony Compalo and Jim Wallace. But today’s political conservatism embodies the yin and yang of both Christian and historical fundamentalism.  Biblical literalism meets Constitutional orginalism.

Which I guess should not be too surprising.   It makes sense that if you hold to a literal and inerrant view of the Bible that you would look at the US Constitution in much the same way, especially if you you believe that Americans have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people (and  like the Israelites, we have often gone astray).  If we asked a  Tea Partier,  I think we would hear some interesting similarities in how  both the Constitution and the Bible are viewed.

They both:

-should to be taken literally, meaning that the written words are to be  understood precisely as they were written and not subject to individual interpretation

-share the ultimate authority on how Americans should live their lives, holding to the author’s  original intent (and God’s will)

-are able to transcend time, speaking  as authoritatively on today’s issues as within their own day, having been written by devoutly religious  men who were directly inspired by God to be  both prophetic and prescient, able to anticipate every correct response to all future events.

These assertions are, of course, absolutely incorrect, as proven by a reading of the historical record, accompanied by a dash of the much heralded “common sense”.  It is obvious to most who study scripture that the circumstances and situations  addressed in the Bible are not always, if even very often,  germane to today’s world.  Christian fundamentalists realize this as well, since they are very selective about which ‘fact’ they will believe or which stricture or dictate they will obey. Very few still believe that the Earth is flat, as suggested in Genesis, and no one (outside of the Chalcedon Foundation) wants to have sassy children put to death.  Though they may not allow women to be ordained, they no longer force them to wear scarves in church.

Times change and not everything written 200 or 2000 or 4000 years ago is relevant today. Though it may have made perfect sense in that time and place, neither the Bible or the Constitution present the perfect solution to every challenge we are presented with today. They were written by flawed men (and maybe women) who were doing their best to define the truths of the universe while addressing the challenges of their day.  Like it or not, their work must be interpreted, which means that there will always be differences of opinion and no accurate or permanent orthodoxy can ever take form.  No orthodoxy  has ever endured without some sort of evolution.  Centuries later we cannot delve into the writers’ minds and we cannot know their intent, any more than their writings can convey to us the true will of God.  Nor are the authors’ intentions (or their understanding of God) necessarily relevant today.

Though the Constitution is undoubtedly a work of genius and in its time came very close to offering the ideal formula for engineering a sustainable American liberty, it was not then and is not now perfect.  If it was perfect then it is unlikely that there would still be heated scholarly debate over its meaning.  The perfect Constitutional solutions to so many problems have long eluded us.  If perfect, there would have been no allowance for slavery and there certainly would have been no Civil War.

If Americans had allowed themselves to become slaves to their rigid interpretations of both the Constitution and the Bible, we would have no Emancipation Proclamation, no Civil Rights Act, and  no women voters.  Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams  and St. Paul could  never envision a world in which the injustices of slavery and misogyny did not exist and each day produces new challenges that they never could have imagined.

But there is something very comforting to think of both Bible and Constitution in special supernatural ways, providing us with a cosmic link to the past and the men we have come to see as our spiritual fathers.  And as devoted children, we develop a fierce defensive posture whenever the work of our fathers is threatened, or even questioned.  Especially when that work provides us with a sense of security, a defense against those who might take from us or as a means of preventing rewards being bestowed upon those who do not deserve it.  “Strict” interpretation of both Constitution and Bible have been used to shore up the positions of the powerful and the entitled at the expense of the underrepresented and the different.

I can think of no other reason for the forced marriage of the Bible to the Constitution other than that religious fundamentalism and a fundamentalist view of history are both the result of psychological insecurity and fear. Which becomes  abundantly clear when we see the slogans and signs and  hear the speeches emanating from the Right, hysterically linking God the Father with the Founding Fathers,  equating love of the Bible with love of the Constitution. It is ironic  that so many of these folks, when asked to provide some positional support from their two most sacred texts, seem to know so little about either of them.  Or of those who wrote them.

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human”    – Thomas Jefferson

, , , , , , , , , , ,

6 Comments

The founding fathers know best: the TV Land version of American history


"Listen to this, kids. We can now live free or die. It's our choice."

Sarah Palin summed things up best. When her history teacher, Mr. Beck,  asked who her favorite Founder was, she replied: “Well as for me ummmm….thats a hard one, cuz all of them have a special place in my heart.”.  Which is like being asked who your favorite candidate for president is and you saying you couldn’t make up your mind, they all were that good.  (But I guess when you are busy reading everything from the Nation to National Geographic to Penthouse it can be hard to make up your mind about a lot of things.)

It’s like people really believe that the ‘founding fathers’ were of the same mind, with the same goals and ambitions.  That almost overnight they became angry at the British and, looking around and seeing ALL the other angry Americans, got together, wrote the Declaration of Independence, formed the Continental Congress and ratified the Constitution.  Somewhere around 1776.

A lot of people on the right claim to be  modern day patriots,  who (incorrectly) see themselves fighting for the same things as did colonial Americans 240 years ago.  They are not alone there:  ill-informed politically minded people have claimed the divine right of Minutemen before, both on the right and on the left.  And of course, none of them were anywhere near the truth, either

The issues facing the colonial rebels at that time were nothing like those we face today, no matter how we may like to stretch the truth.  Like our current tax policies or not,  in this country every citizen, no matter their gender, race, religion, educational background or financial status, is represented by their vote.  Something that the colonists did not enjoy and something that they did not grant most Americans when they took power from the British. And they never said much of anything negative about government health care (though there were some positive words spoken about similar ideas).

"Martha, I've told you that Dan'l Boone handles problems with the Beaver."

In spite of all their lamentations, I don’t think that Revolutionary-era ideals are what the Tea Party & Co. are pining away for.  They know too little of history to convince me of that.  What they really miss is Parson Weem’s America, as taught in classrooms of the 1950’s and early 1960’s, when so many of them grew up. It was a rosy and glorious history,  full of anecdotes and myths about their country’s heroes that gave (almost) everyone a warm feeling inside.  It was the fifties, the big war was over, victorious America was super powerful and the times were prosperous, while the somewhat distant Soviet threat united many of them in common cause.  Life was good.

Unless you were black,  Jewish, an ambitious woman or a homosexual.  In that case you probably didn’t rate a pool-side martini with Doris or a corner office on Madison Avenue.  (OK, maybe some Jewish guys did alright there. And Rock was gay…) But non-WASPs,  many of whom played major roles in our nation’s early history, were almost never mentioned in Baby-Boomer text books  (as some non-experts would like to do with our text books today).  Instead they were told that it was the noble, virtuous  and Christian men of the colonies,  who would quickly shed their white wigs and frock coats whenever another musket was needed, who led a nation of united Americans (including their slaves) in the common cause of freedom and liberty for all (except for the slaves, of course. And women).  Anti-historical rubbish.

I know there are a few minorities swimming in conservative Republican waters right now, even some gays. But I think it’s pretty obvious that the bulk of the angry people are angry because they are the descendants of what were once the entitled and privileged class of America.  Not the super wealthy, but those who never feared that hard work and good morals would be insufficient to make it in America. Those that never had to worry about being denied a job or a place of residence because of what they looked like.  Those that never had to stand outside in the dark, looking wistfully into the living rooms and kitchens of suburbia, wondering what that would be like, if only things could be different.

And now they are. And that pisses a lot of people off because nobody wants to share their toys, especially the white Christian right who have spiritually possessed the Republican party.  And as we all know, it is an American Christian mantra that “he who dies with the most toys goes to heaven”.  Toys like health care and pensions. And cheap gas for their SUVs. And really good schools that keep the property values up (Or at least they did for a while. Rats!)

And that’s the point of the anti-history lesson being taught by the Tea Party and Glenn Beck:  life used to be so much better. For the heirs of the Founders.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 Comments

%d bloggers like this: