Donald Andrew Henson II

Pure Religion

In American Society, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on March 17, 2014 at 6:17 pm

Read James 1:27.

I have received a few emails from readers who don’t understand why I’m writing. On the one side are those who think I’m wasting my time looking at the Bible and trying to reason with believers about its inconsistencies. Like Sam Harris, this group feels that the best thing to do with religion is to eradicate it. On the other side are believers who think that I unfairly paint all Christians with the same brush, or that I waffle between saying the Bible isn’t true and chastising them for not following its teachings more closely.

To the first group, I would say that, while I am a big fan of Mr. Harris, the elimination of religion is neither constitutional nor within the realm of possibility. I am unequivocally against any form of what I would call ‘thought police’, whether it be for or against religion. I am free to question the claims made by Christianity and other religions – others should be free to accept them. What people do in the public sphere is another matter; if Christians want to push American scientific understanding back into the dark ages, for example, that hurts all of us – and therefore non-believers need to push back.

To the latter group, my reasoning goes something like this: There is a very vocal group of conservative Christians in our country that feel the Bible is a guidebook of sorts on how America should operate. These folks are convinced that their interpretation of ‘the word’ and how it applies to government is in line with God’s plan. Anyone who disagrees with them is either motivated by Satan or Socialism. I am told there are many moderate Christians who do not feel the same way – if this is true, they are certainly very quiet. In the US at least, I don’t see much resistance against the politicization of Christianity and the hard right ideological direction it continues to go in. If you pass along Sarah Palin quotes on your Facebook account without criticism, I’m going to assume you agree.

Of these folks, I would ask two things. First, try to really understand the nature of the document on which you base your worldview. If necessary, ask your church to offer a Bible history class so that you really understand where the New Testament came from and how it was put together. If you’re going to say you have the road map, you should learn how to read it. Second, if you decide that you still want to read the New Testament as the literal, inerrant word of God, then pay attention to ALL of it, not just a few pet passages. I mean, really, it isn’t that long of a book – would it kill you to read it in a couple of different translations, maybe think about how it fits (or doesn’t) into the scheme of a democratic form of government?

Once the believer has done these things, it is my hope – not that he will lose his faith – but that he will realize that his religious claims are no more or less valid than those of any believer of any other creed. Perhaps he will at least realize that many of the claims he makes really do not have that much basis in the actual writings of the New Testament, but more in our American interpretations of those writings. That, in my opinion, is the kind of secularism that would be an important step in getting our democracy back on track.

liberty-religion

A case in point would be a reading of the last verse of James chapter one. Here he says real religion, accepted as pure and faultless by God, involves basically two things – taking care of widows and orphans, and keeping oneself from moral pollution.

Let’s look at the latter part of this verse first. No matter how ‘moral pollution’ is defined, it doesn’t seem like church folk are doing a very good job on this front. Numerous studies show that those who call themselves believers differ very little in their daily habits from those who do not. There are a few minor variations – Christians smoke a few more cigarettes than non-Christians do. They drink a bit less, but pay for a little more pornography. Young people who take ‘chastity pledges’ remain virgins on average about six months longer than other teenagers. But by and large, there is little difference between believers and non-believers when it comes to infidelity, child abuse, theft, fraud, drug use, murder, prostitution, alcoholism, and a host of other activities that could be described as immoral.

Notice that the writer does not demand that Christians rid society of immorality – he admonishes them to purge themselves of impurity. James is not pleading with Christians to become more politically involved. He is asking them to to raise their lives to a higher level of morality than those around them. Ted Haggard should have spent less time preaching about how homosexuality was ruining America and more time worrying about his own activities – even if you don’t classify homosexuality as immoral, certainly extra-marital, paid-for sex, crystal meth use, and jerking off in front of one’s parishioners would qualify.

I know, I know – for every Haggard, there are hundreds of Christians living wholesome lives, winning some battles with sin, losing some, but mostly managing to do right by most everyone, raise families, and stay out of jail. But the same could be said for Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well. In fact, atheists, by almost every measure, are more ethical than the religious.

One of my greatest frustrations as a believer was that there was little evidence of the power of the gospel in the life of most believers, including my own. If being a Christian makes one no more able to live a ‘good’ life than anyone else – then Christianity loses one of its major claims to relevancy. If my life as a Christian differs from that of the non-believer in only what I say, not what I do, then I have succeeded in becoming nothing but a hypocrite. If my religion makes me feel guilty about my actions while offering no real means to improve myself, then it’s no good. Most people want to live a life in harmony with society – in a melting pot like America, religion is not conducive to that goal.

James does not say that the purpose of faith is to cleanse society of immorality – he only says that it can effectively cleanse the believer. I would say that statistics generally do not support that claim, and that Christians who want to legislate morality understand neither the thrust of the gospels nor the foundations of democratic government.

But go ahead and believe if you want, if you feel it makes you a better person. Just don’t claim that others are infringing upon your religious liberties when they disagree with you.

As for the first part of James 1:27, taking care of widows and orphans – well, that’s another post.

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When the Church Had No Bible

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on March 9, 2014 at 7:10 pm

Saint_James_the_Just

Read James 1:21-27 here.

Sometimes you are reading a passage from a book or text that you’ve read many times before, and inexplicably, you see something so obvious you can’t believe you never saw it before. Back in my Sunday school teacher days, if this occurred while reading the Bible, it was taken as evidence that God had spoken to me, revealing spiritual truth to my heart by his grace, through the power of the Holy Spirit, a truth my fallen nature was unable to comprehend through the reasoning of my natural mind alone. Yes, I used to think and talk that way.

Today when such an epiphany occurs, I recognize that it is my brain responding to a new piece of information acquired since my previous reading. In other words, there was a gap in my knowledge at that time that has now been filled. Or a faulty bit of information was lodged in my mind that, now removed, allows me to understand a key phrase or idea more clearly. You can translate the phrase laissez les bons temps rouler easily enough, but the full meaning never really clicks until after you’ve visited New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. You realize using the word ‘party’ to describe both that event and your last office birthday gathering is criminally misleading.

Or, in the case of the Epistle of James, you imagine that when he writes about ‘the word’, he is referring to the Bible – when of course this couldn’t possibly be true.

There is a haziness – some would say laziness – in the thinking for most believers when it comes to how exactly the New Testament was put together. When I was a churchgoer, for example, I guess I just sort of assumed that the four gospels were written by four of Jesus’ disciples, you know, people who would have first-hand knowledge of his life. But if pressed, I wouldn’t have been able to name all twelve of those disciples – I doubt many Christians could. Imagine my surprise at finding that there were no disciples named Mark or Luke. Matthew’s gospel may or may not have been written by the same Matthew know as Levi, the tax collector. And even the most conservative Christian scholar places the writing of John’s gospel a full 40+ years after Jesus’ death. Pretty shocking when you realize that the supposed words of Jesus cannot possibly be direct quotes, as they were written down decades after he would have said them, often by people who weren’t even there at the time. Any other biography written to this standard would never be published.

I know that Christians, even when faced with these facts, will argue that they really don’t matter, because the Holy Spirit is the true author, and the men whose names are attached to the letters and gospels were writing as the Spirit moved them – this was my line of thought in my fundamentalist days. But I never stopped to think it through. So, there are these documents that are supposed to persuade me to believe in Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. However, the main evidence supporting these documents is that they, themselves, were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Which means I’d have to buy into the argument before accepting the facts that are meant to prove the argument. Can you say circular logic?

This really hit home as I was reading James’ letter earlier this week. In the very first verse, there are cross-references to Galatians and Acts; in other parts of the first chapter, James seems to be referring to John, Romans, Thessalonians, even Revelation. Of course, he could not have had any of those writings in mind – as they hadn’t been written yet. With the exception of perhaps 1 Thessalonians, the Epistle of James is the oldest of the canonical New Testament writings. These references were of course added by an editor at a much later date, perhaps in an effort to show the ‘harmony’ amongst the various letters and gospels.

So James – along with every other first-generation Christian – had no New Testament. No written gospel. No letters of Paul or Peter or John. No Bible. In modern Christian parlance, when we say ‘the word’, we mean ‘the Bible’. But there’s no way this could be what James means – as there wasn’t one yet. In fact, the New Testament as we know it today wouldn’t exist until a man named Eusebius put it together early in the 4th century AD. One could be forgiven, I suppose, for not realizing this, as it certainly isn’t something that would come up even in the most advanced Sunday school class – perhaps not even in the vast majority of conservative divinity schools.

In fact, the common icon representing James (see above) shows him holding what looks like – you guessed it – a Bible! Some have said this denotes his authorship of a venerated letter – and indeed, very early icons show New Testament writers holding scrolls or pieces of parchment. But by Eusebius’ time, James, Paul, and others are all depicted with a heavy tome under their arms – perhaps a kind of retroactive stamp of approval for the new canon?

Christians are guilty of this kind of proleptic thinking all of the time. We cannot help but read first century writings through the lens of our own time, twenty centuries later. We ask, “What would Jesus do?” when there is no possible way for us to know what he or any other person living at the time might do. Even men who spend their lives studying that specific juncture in history could not do more than postulate on what a given individual might or might not do.  So, rather conveniently, ‘God’s will’ ends up being pretty close to our own. Yes, yes, I hear you God – buying the Cadillac would certainly bring you more glory than the buying a Ford. Jesus hates homosexuality, so I’m agin’ it too.

What then could James possibly have had in mind when he wrote his most famous verse, “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only…”? Well, he could have certainly been referring to the Law of Moses, copies of which would have been available at the synagogues where Christians were at this time meeting. In fact, in the next verse he says that anyone who really studies the law, really looks into it, will be blessed. So the only written ‘word’ that James could encourage his flock to read would have been – – and then the epiphany.

Look closely. James isn’t demanding that people read ‘the word’ at all – he’s demanding that they listen. He clearly differentiates his vocabulary – study the law, read the law, look closely at the law – but hear the word. What’s the difference? ‘The word’ is not the Bible, it is not something that is written – it is whatever James says it is. When James says you have to hear and do the word, what he really means are his words - because, of course, he speaks for God. A year or two after this writing, the church decides that Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised, not because of some new findings about Moses’ law – but because James decides that it’s OK with God.

Searching several online versions of the Bible, I was amazed to find that not a single New Testament writer demands that we read ‘the word’ - they all basically make the same connection that James makes – the true Christian must hear the word and do it. Go ahead and read the law for yourself, my friend, but if you want to go to heaven, you have to agree with my interpretation of what it says. Faith comes by hearingnot by reading, and the believer needs to do what he hears the preacher say. This is what James is truly saying, and Paul, John, and others say the same thing elsewhere.

James was not a disciple of his brother when Jesus was still alive - he did not believe. He was not an eyewitness of many of the events listed in the gospels. Nor was Paul; not only was he an unbeliever in Jesus’ lifetime, he actively persecuted Jesus’ followers, encouraging a mob to kill the first martyr, Stephen. Yet these men claim to know God’s will – even though they obviously didn’t recognize Jesus as the Son of God when he walked in their midst.

You have to believe in Jesus, and you must believe what I tell you about the scripture – or you’ll die and go to hell. Why? Because you were there? Because you heard the words fall from Jesus’ lips? No. Because after Jesus died, God spoke to me. And, as is always the case in these situations, he told me what you need to do.

How convenient.

Christians Should Shut Up, Calm Down, and Listen

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on March 2, 2014 at 12:49 am

Before you get too wound up, you should probably have a look at James 1:1-21, paying particular attention to verse 19. While my headline addresses Christians in general, I’m thinking mostly about that vitriolic group of Americans known as the Tea Party. Of course the groups are not one and the same, but I don’t think anyone can argue that the vast majority of Tea Partiers would self-identify as Christians. So if you’re not the angry, White, American Republican variety of Christian, please forgive my generalization; headlines can only be so long, you know.

James’ letter was probably written around 46-48 AD, a couple of years before the Council of Jerusalem put Gentile believers on equal footing with their Jewish Christian brothers. Hence, it is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered across the nations”, referring to the Jewish communities that existed in almost every city across the ancient world. These communities often practiced a form of Hellenistic Judaism, meaning that they combined their Jewish religious traditions with elements of Greek culture. As they were open to new ideas and philosophies, they were among the earliest adherents to the new faith of Christianity. Because most of the New Testament was originally written in koine Greek, instead of Aramaic, some historians think the early Christian church may have been composed almost exclusively of Hellenistic Jews; the fact that many Old Testament quotations in the letters of the disciples appear to come from the Septuagint strengthens this argument.

James tells believers to be happy when they are facing trials, as these will serve to perfect their faith. In an earlier post dealing with Paul’s discussion of persecutions in Thessaloniki, it wasn’t clear what he might have been referring too. However, there would have been lots of friction between Aramaic-speaking, traditional Jewish believers and Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jews at the time of James’ writing. The recipients of his letter would have been subject to the disdain of their own Jewish brethren, perhaps ostracized from the synagogue for their belief in this person called Jesus. It is probably this religious persecution that he refers to.

According to James, God will give wisdom to anyone who asks for it, as long as they really, really believe when they ask. If you doubt – forget about it. God will give you nothing. Over the years, I have seen so many Christians beat themselves up over this verse. What they ask God for seems reasonable enough – the wisdom needed to sort out their marriage or their children, or direction in a financial decision – but they receive nothing. When their marriage or finances fall apart, they tell themselves (or are helpfully reminded by more successful Christians) that they just simply don’t have enough faith in God. Many of the largest evangelical churches across the US preach this kind of doctrine. The church leadership, enriched by the tithes of the faithful, tell the less fortunate among the flock that they need only the tiniest bit of faith, and they too can be rich and successful. If you are struggling in life, it’s your own fault for not being able to muster up enough faith. It has nothing to do with the fact that the economic system is rigged against you or that you were never able to complete college. No, your life is a mess because Jesus thinks you don’t believe in him enough.

It’s ironic that most of the TV preachers are telling us that we should all be rich; James doesn’t have many nice things to say about the wealthy. This is one of the major inconsistencies evident between a literal reading of the Bible and modern American Christianity. Americans all want to be rich – who doesn’t? – while Jesus, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers see wealth as a detriment to the Christian life. In fact, the wealthy are viewed as oppressors, not ‘job creators’, not as men of great faith. A great deal of rhetorical acrobatics is required to twist these teachings into something that supports our acquisitive, materialistic American lifestyle.

In fact, James thinks it is the poor who should be proud, as their lives are not focused on the material. At God’s table, the rich won’t get the best seat – if they are invited at all. In most American churches, the wealthiest members hold the coveted positions of leadership. In God’s kingdom, Tom Perkins certainly wouldn’t get a million more votes than you or I.

Phidippides

Two metaphors in verses 12 and 18 show how skillfully the writer weaves together ideas from both Jewish and Hellenistic worldviews. He compares the Christian life to an endurance race, something that can be won with perseverance. Marathons, the glory of victory, laurel crowns – these are Greek ideas that are not found in Old Testament writings. Christians today talk about “running the race”, “fighting the good fight”, and “wearing the whole armor of God”, little realizing that these ideas are all drawn from Greek legends, not Jewish or Christian ones. James was likely reminding his readers of Pheidippides, using that story as a source of inspiration for living the Christian life. Note that in Merson’s rendering above, the hero has truly laid aside every weight to run the race.

When he refers to his fellow believers as “a kind of firstfruits”, James is alluding to a type of agricultural offering that had existed in both Greek and Jewish cultures for centuries. He appears to be changing the significance of the offering – instead of humans giving the first part of their harvest to a temple, James seems to be saying that the first group of believers are offered to God as the first of many more believers to come. Modern churches, however, prefer the ancient meaning – every religion in every culture has rituals that are meant to sustain – and often enrich – the priesthood.

While partisans from all parts of the political spectrum are guilty of lowering the quality of the debate in our country, I offer this next verse as Biblical instruction to the Tea Party in particular. James says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” If a godless, reprobate secularist won’t listen and spouts off all the time, at least he isn’t breaking his own moral code – you, Mr. Tea Partier, are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is the anger of the Tea Party that is driving the greater part of the rancor and real ugliness in our politics today. I didn’t think George Bush was very bright, but I didn’t call him a subhuman mongrel. I wish evangelicals didn’t always vote Republican, but I certainly don’t hope they burn in hell when they do.

We can’t solve any of the many serious problems our nation faces as long as we think and act this way. We have to respect each other – talk to one another – to get things done. So, Mr. Tea Partier, it’s not just me who thinks you need to shut up, calm down, and listen every once and a while. No, your friend James – Jesus’ brother – thinks so too.

The road to getting our country back in shape is likely to be a long one – we need to put our energy into running that race.

If it’s ok with you, I’ll be keeping my clothes on.

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