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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.



But if you’re a Christian, then what am I?

Over on the Wall Street Journal blog, one of the members has (hopefully) started a thread by asking this question:

How do Christians define Christians? What makes you or not a Christian?

I often come across the argument that “said person is not a real Christian”, many tend to use this argument to exclude particulars who happen to shame the religion calling themselves part of it, or act in the name of it.

I think it would be interesting to see, how does every one define it, is it simply believing in a higher authority?. Is it taking every literal word of the bible?. Is it following the “reasonable” aspects of the bible?

Now, so far, only one person has given an answer, and it is one that I suspect the majority of American Christians would agree with:

A Christian is somebody who believes that Christ died on the Cross and shed his blood as the ultimate atonement(replacement for the blood sacrifice of the Old Testament law) for the sins of mankind. They believe that Christ is who He said He is. ie, The Son of God, and therefore God Himself. The concept of the Trinity applies here. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Christ was the product of the immaculate conception. Christ was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. Isaiah 53:3-7 is an example, among others of the prophesy.

The first chapter of John in the New testament, gives a good representation of what Christians believe about Christ.

To be saved (ie a Christian), is nothing more then the realization that man is born into sin, and the acceptance and acknowledgment of the free gift of eternal life(made possible because of Christ sacrifice on the Cross), that is offered to mankind, should they(exhibit their “free will”) except it. It is nothing more then Gods grace being demonstrated through mans faith.

If all of the above needs to be believed in order to be a Christian, then I guess I am not one.  Of course, for many reasons I think the above definition, although perhaps “orthodox”,  is incorrect.

Over on Ric Booth’s blog there is an interesting conversation taking place about a new organization that John Shore is spear-heading called ThruWAy Christians, particularly their controversial acceptance of gays and lesbians.   The stated goal of ThruWAy Christians is to provide moderate Christians with a new forum.  As it says on their website:  “If you find conservative Christianity too oppressive and exclusionary, and progressive Christianity too theologically tenuous, you’re probably a ThruWay Christian.”   Which means that, though I agree with much of the content of their founding document, my theology is much too “tenuous”  (something which I am sure the Conservative Christians could accuse the ThruWay people).

Surprisingly,  I don’t believe my theology is any weaker than theirs or any one else.  It’s different to be sure.  Maybe not as orthodox as they would like.  And like Christianity, it is evolving. But that doesn’t mean that it is “flimsy, insubstantial or lacking in strength”.  This is a charge that the orthodox have always levied at those who had the audacity to question theological authority.

The good folks over at ThruWAy Christian are not really challenging conservative Christian theological authority, though. They are only challenging the  conservative interpretations of certain scriptures that they believe lead to intolerant and mean spirited attitudes and behavior.  But I would suggest that the overarching theology that both the moderates and the conservatives still hold in common ( much of which has been condensed by the commenter from the WSJ blog and jives with the  first line of ThruWay’s creed )  is actually what drives this intolerance.  And has for centuries.

I ‘ve found that it is nearly impossible for Christian moderates to  engage Fundamentalists in any meaningful dialog that might result in a change of perception on the part of either, so  I’ve given up on it myself.  If this is the goal of the folks at ThruWAy, well then, have at it.  But  if they would be open-minded enough to engage some Christians whose convictions are not quite as solid, substantial or strong as theirs then perhaps they might find that ‘progressive’ is not such a bad word after all.

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George Washington’s advice to the Tea Party: Tone down the rhetoric

A little over 214 years ago, President George Washington announced to the American people that he would not seek a third term, one he was sure to win.  He did so by publishing a letter in independent newspapers under the title of “The Address of General Washington To The People of The United States on his declining of the Presidency of the United States”.  The primary intent of this letter was to give the young nation advice on how to conduct its affairs now that it would no longer be under the firm, guiding hand of Washington.  In it, he put forth some very clear notions on how political adversaries  should conduct themselves. It is ironic that,  for a people who claim a sacred succession of principles from our Founding Fathers, his advice is not being heeded.  What follows are those passages that address this issue (emphasis mine).

“I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind, (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion, that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the Government, and serve to keep alive the spirit of Liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in Governments of a Monarchical cast, Patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in Governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And, there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be, by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

President George Washington,September 19, 1796,

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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.

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The longest word in the dictionary is all about the problem with Christians in politics

When we were kids they told us that the longest word in the dictionary was antidisestablishmentarianism. Though I could spell it, I never really knew what it meant.

Until recently, when it occurred to me that if the Founders had actually been Christian, as many neo-evangelicals claim, and not the Deists they actually were, then it is unlikely that the United States as we know it would ever have existed.

Because the founding documents were not Christian, but the product of secular deistic philosophy, they  expressly forbade the establishment of a national religion in general, not just in specific, as many of today’s religious conservative suggest.  It is not only that they made sure that no denomination – Anglican, Congregationalist or Roman Catholic – would hold sway over other denominations but that Christianity itself would not be privileged.  Which makes sense when we remember that Deists are generally distrustful of organized religion, particularly of Christianity, which many of the most influential founders had personally rejected.

Without the constitutional disestablishment of religion, in an America governed by explicitly specific Christian values, I seriously doubt we would today enjoy any of the rights that we  take for  granted.  Because  a Christian (near) theocracy would find itself  at odds with true democracy.  True democratic principles – individualism, free thought, self-reliance, the right to protest authority – are not exactly compatible with those  Christian doctrines about the sovereignty of God and the power he has granted authority (as some Christians will admit).

There are many Christians who believe that Satan is real, and that he influences those who do not accept Christian doctrine.  These people are not on the fringe,  but make up the bulk of Christian Right, who have tremendous influence within the Republican party.  It is not too difficult to imagine a Christian government that would accuse those who oppose their God-given authority as being in the clutches of Satan.  After all, this is a frequent complaint coming from the pulpits (and radio pulpits) of American neo-evangelicals, many with strong political ties and a few having sought political office.  Is there any reason to think that they would leave their religious doctrines on the Capitol steps or outside the doors to the White House, as John Kennedy promised to do? On the contrary, they’ve made it plain that they would be intentionally deliberate in applying (their conservative)  religious principles to the execution of political office.

When the media criticized General William Boykin for dressing in combat fatigues, touring churches  and telling them that God was on America’s side while the  idol worshiping Muslim’s are destined  for defeat,  Christian conservatives rallied to his defense.   President George Bush favorably compared American military intervention with God’s will and Sarah Palin recently has said much the same thing.

It is easy to think this way, especially if  your enemies happen to be non-Christians. The prevailing neo-evangelical wisdom is that Islam is a false religion, that Mohamed was a false prophet and that Muslims are misguided pawns of Satan. The Tea Party movement is outspoken about their love of Christianity and their fear and hatred of Islam.

Many Bush appointees  were influence by conservative Christian ideals and now conservative Christians have a loud, if not controlling, voice in the House. There is a very good chance that in 2012 they may find themselves in control of the Senate and the White House as well.

Do we want a government that takes Genesis into account while considering environmental action? Or makes judicial decisions based upon scriptural precepts? (Which is OK as long as that scripture is from the Bible and not the Quran). Or crafts economic policy according to a narrow reading of the Old Testament (which, btw, conveniently  ignores the teachings of Jesus in the process?)  Should our civil rights legislation be pre-determined by men who wrote over 2000 years ago?

Some people asked similar questions back in John F. Kennedy’s day.  To be elected Kennedy had to promise that he would be led by the Constitution and not Roman Catholic orthodoxy.  If an irreconcilable difference presented itself, he would resign his office.  He did not try to square the Constitution to his religion, claiming that our government is founded on his religion, as so many  conservative Christians are saying today.  But he understood that a complete separation of church and state, that which  kept the Protestant majority in check, was the only reason a Catholic would ever be allowed to run for office.

It has become popular to insist that politicians reveal their religious beliefs.  Let’s  be honest; this demand is almost always made to satisfy the doubts of Christians (who question  the wisdom of having non-Christians in office).   Apparently,  Americans of other religions, in minority positions,  need not be concerned about who governs them. Or their own political aspirations.   Fortunately, the Constitution protects politicians from having to comply, although some go to great lengths to  prove their Christian bona fides.

Looking at it from a different perspective,  I believe that any outwardly religious person,  anyone who  is willingly  outspoken about his or her faith or uses it as a political tool towards election,  should take an oath similar to Kennedy’s.

Though not on a Bible.

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VA orders crosses removed from national cemeteries out of respect for fallen Jewish soldiers

In a provocative move today, the Veterans Administration ordered the removal of all Christian crosses from national military cemeteries commissioned during or after World War II. This was in response to a growing fervor on the part of Jewish American veterans of that war and their families:

“I lost two brothers in the Battle of the Bulge” said Robert Hirsch, who served as an infantry captain from 1942 to 1945. ” My mother lost two sisters and an uncle at Bergen-Belsen. We can never forgive the Nazis for what they did and we can never forget that they were Christians. A cross on this hallowed ground is offensive to all Jewish Americans.”

OK, so this hasn’t happened. But, if you are a Christian, how did it make you feel, if for only a moment? I’ll wager that whatever you felt, it wasn’t ‘good’. But isn’t this the same argument being waged by opponents of the proposed Islamic center (not a mosque) in Manhatten?

The folks who want to build this mosque, who are really radical Islamists, who want to triumphfully (sic) prove they can build a mosque next to a place where 3,000 Americans were killed by radical Islamists. Those folks don’t have any interest in reaching out to the community. They’re trying to make a case about supremacy… This happens all the time in America. Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. – New Gingrich

Aren’t they assuming that all Muslims are violent? Or that since so many Muslims are violent (allegedly) that they practice a violent religion? Does anyone remember that Hawaii has a large Japanese population who were living there long before the Navy anchored any battle ships at Pearl. So any visible Japanese presence adjacent to the base (like a Shinto Shrine) is forbidden? I don’t think so. (Even though Newt says that this “happens all the time in America”)

Doesn’t it follow, based upon Islamophobic logic, that all Germans and all Japanese are somehow complicit in the atrocities of WWII? (and what about those Teflon coated Italians?)

No, that would only be the case if they were objecting to Arabs – which would be an openly racist campaign against a certain ethnic group or nationality, and we just don’t do that in America anymore.

Instead the Islamophobes have an ax to grind against the growing presence of what they believe is an aggressive, warlike and anti-American religion, a tiny fraction of which has committed violence against the United States. So, using this logic it would be safer to say that all Christians are somehow complicit in what the Germans (and Italians) did during WWII, as they were Christian nations. (Not enough Shintos around to worry about them, right now.)

Why haven’t Jewish Americans made the same types of accusations and placed the same demands against Christians? Is it because they are in the minority, like the Muslims?

Or am I just mixing up Christian apples with Islamic oranges?

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The heresy of the dogma that bit the Church

I remember once asking my new Christian friends why – if Jesus is The Way and his Good News is all we need to hear – then why bother with the Old Testament at all?  Who needs to know all that old stuff if the Gospels and Epistles have all the information we really need?  It seemed to my novice ears that this was precisely what the apostle Paul was saying.  Besides, there are so many glaring inconsistencies between the Old and the New Testament’s messages.

The typical response was that the Old Testament clearly predicted Jesus’ coming as Messiah. This made the Hebrew Scriptures an important source of evidence for Christian apologetics. As far as any inconsistencies go, well they weren’t really inconsistent.  There was just a change in the way God related to us, now that Jesus had made everything right with his death and resurrection.  And after all, the Old Testament was still the Word of God.  Just incomplete.

Anyway, I don’t struggle with that stuff anymore.  I think the Hebrew Scriptures (the term “Old” Testament is so…condescending ) are very important for Christians to study.  All of the Hebrew scriptures, not just those found in our Bibles. We totally screw up when we forget that Jesus was a Jew, living in Palestine with other Jews, and most of these scriptures (no Bible yet, remember) were the source of his theology and his cultural traditions. And it doesn’t help when we exclude Jewish interpretations of their own scriptures, either.

I no longer struggle with trying to square the apparent inconsistencies between the  angry, violent and vengeful Yahweh with the forgiving and merciful Father of Jesus (even though the Hebrew Prophets presented us with much the same portrait of God as Jesus did ).  I simply no longer believe that any of the scriptures, old or new, are the Word of God.  They are not inerrant nor are they infallible.    They were written by men (and maybe women) who were certainly ‘inspired’ to come to some sort of understanding of God, but they were not God’s secretaries taking divine dictation. And they do not always paint God in a favorable, or accurate light. It’s when we try to take literally all the words found in the Christian canon, on face value and without any historical context, that our problems begin, whether we are orthodox, heretic or atheist.

I didn’t realize it then, but in some ways I was a Marcionite.  Marcion of Sinope (ca. 85-160) was an early Christian thinker who also had problems squaring the Hebrew Scriptures with the Gospels and especially with Paul’s Epistles. He could not accept the idea that the loving “Father” that Jesus prayed to was also the angry Yahweh of Hebrew scriptures.  So he came up with an alternative theology, one steeped in Greek philosophy and mythology, in which Yahweh is the flawed creator god, subordinate to the ultimate (and good) deity: God, the Father of Jesus.

According to Marcion, Jesus comes from the Father to redeem the walking dead from the clutches of Yahweh and the misery of this corrupt world. In this way Marcionism is similar to Gnosticism.  (For a nice movie parable watch “ The Matrix” trilogy.)  Marcion composed what is probably the first Christian canon, the first compilation of Holy Scriptures, but they contained only a syncretized form of the Gospels and the letters of Paul.  Paul’s epistles were the primary source of his theology and it is Marcion who first placed them in an anthology.

Now, with all due respect to Rey (who got me to thinking about Marcionism) I do believe that, in this case, those church fathers who ended up as history’s Christian victors were right to label Marcion a heretic.  Of course,  they were begging the question because there was no such thing as orthodoxy at the time– there was no Christian consensus on doctrine or dogmas – there were none of the creeds Christians recite today. In fact, the first creeds were likely written and imposed in response to Marcionism, which had a great following.  Now, I don’t think that the Church’s surviving theology is altogether that faithful to the teachings of Jesus either.  But there is little, I think, in Marcionism to commend it to someone who wants to follow Jesus. Because Jesus without Judaism is not Jesus at all. It is something completely different.

What so many orthodox-loving Christians, then as well as today, fail to recognize is that much of this heretical doctrine infused itself into the surviving Christian theology. So many of these destroyed and forgotten heresies had very large followings – their influence would not disappear by mere decree (or by book burnings and hangings). Just a few examples:

-To this day Paul has an inordinate amount of influence on the Church’s doctrine.
-Throughout the Church’s history there has been a tendency to place our focus on another, better realm that await us beyond this fallen and depraved world.
-Our fixation on a battle between good and evil, between God and Satan, is reminiscent of the dualism found in Marcion and Gnostic theologies.
-And, of course, the Church has tried it’s best take the Jewishness out of Jesus (and make villains out of the Jews – some believe that it was the Church’s repressed Marcionism that helped fuel the dogma of Hitler’s  ‘Final Solution”).

As outlandish as Marcion’s theology may sound to us today, who have known nothing other than modern Christian ‘orthodoxy’  (the theology of the victors), does it really sound any more outlandish than the concept of a triune God? (Try asking your Jewish or Muslim friends that question.) Again, the problem seems to lie within the combined ideas of Biblical literalism and inerrancy.  A more relaxed, though possibly just as devout, reading of scriptures can solve this problem and, in my experience, help immensely with one’s understanding of God.

It was the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to believe contradictory ideas, ideas not just found in a literal reading of the Bible but ideas thought up by theologians in their attempts to square their own contradictory readings of scriptures, that had me doing the same thing that the ‘orthodox’ had already done and continue to do: embracing heresy to prove orthodoxy.

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