Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page

Shoulders of Giants

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 21, 2012 at 12:53 am
Sisyphus, 1920


I hope you’re enjoying my comments on 1 Thessalonians – I plan to wrap up this short letter in one or two more posts later this week. I know my secular outlook on how Paul’s teachings play out in everyday American life might not be exactly the sort of exegesis everyone is looking for – believers will probably feel I’m being overly critical, non-believers may think I’m not critical enough. Since Christians rather loudly proclaim that all of our ills as a nation could be solved if we’d just follow the teachings of the Bible, I think it’s a fair response to examine those teachings – verse by verse – and see if their claim is valid. So far, it’s a mixed bag.

I’ve been thinking today about some of the influences that have been instrumental in shaping my worldview, and the Bible has to be right there at the top. In fact, I think you can’t really understand Western civilization without some understanding of the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.

My appreciation for the scriptures – and the way I read them – comes from my Dad. Dad pastored a number of evangelical / charismatic / Pentecostal churches over a span of nearly four decades, and I think it’s a shame that his congregations never numbered more than a few dozen. In spite of listening to him preach 2-3 times a week until I was in my mid-20s, I always thought he was one of the most interesting preachers I had ever heard. Dad was a real believer in expository preaching as opposed to topical sermons, which is what gave his sermons some real meat.

Topical preachers tend to get an idea for a sermon based on what they want to say to their flock – or what ax they have to grind – and look around for a few verses here and there that appear to support their ideas. This is by far the most popular method in American churches, and constitutes probably 100 percent of the sermons you hear on radio and TV. I think this is how Christians get some pretty messed up ideas  – especially those who never bother to read much for themselves. You can pretty much get the Bible to say whatever you want it to say this way. Dad used to jokingly illustrate this point by putting together Matthew 27:5 and Luke 10:37, “And (Judas) cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. Go, and do thou likewise.”

An expository approach uses a complete text – usually an entire chapter – and looks at what the writer has to say in the proper context. It helps to understand some of the circumstances surrounding the particular writing – who wrote it, to whom was it written, what circumstances did the writer feel compelled to address, etc. This kind of reading / preaching is likely to reflect the original intent of the scripture more accurately, and tends to discredit pet doctrines that have been assembled by cherry picking verses from here and there. In other words, study what the writer actually says and let the topics arise from the text itself. I hope you can see evidence of this in my approach to writing this blog.

Another influence on my personal philosophy was an essay I read in college, Albert Camus‘ Myth of Sisyphus.  It is such a powerful work that I dropped out of school for a semester when I first read it so that I could devote more time to thinking about it. His description of the ‘absurd man’ gave me meaning and hope at a time in my life when nothing else did, least of all the faith of my youth. His ideas are existential in the best sense of the word; he advises how to continue existing when it seems there’s no reason to do so. If I’d never read Camus, my life would have certainly gone in another direction; I most definitely would never have chosen to live abroad for a decade.

A number of professors introduced me to the writings of Joseph Campbell, which greatly influenced my views on the nature of the scriptures. Once you’ve read a flood story that pre-dates Noah by a thousand years, it’s hard to view the latter as ‘fact’. The same goes for the virgin birth, Jesus’ descent into hell, his resurrection, and a number of other phenomena I had previously thought exclusive to the Bible narrative. Being exposed to what Campbell has to say doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop believing, but you do have to believe in a different way. I had always heard from church folks that stories from other cultures that seemed to mimic Biblical ones were simply copy-cat versions, inspired by the Devil to try to confuse people. That must be one clever Devil to copy stories sometimes hundreds of years before the originals.

There is a half-remembered interview between Campbell and Bill Moyers that I’d love to come across again – it may be more of a mental collage I’ve made that incorporates some of his ideas with those of Douglas Adams and others; if anyone has a clearer idea of what I’m referring to, please point me in the right direction. In the interview, he compares the religion we grow up with to the software that’s installed on your computer when you buy it. There’s really no need to get rid of it, as long as it allows you to you to accomplish your goals and enjoy your experiences. Sometimes, however, there’s a problem. You come across a situation that your software wasn’t designed to handle. You’re presented with problems that you are ill-equipped to solve. You can’t enjoy certain applications that the creators of the old software were unable to foresee the need for. When you try to force things along anyway, a crash occurs. If it’s your computer, you can throw it away and buy a new one; if it’s your life, things are a bit more complicated.

Modifying your religious beliefs is akin to upgrading your software – no one uses MS DOS anymore, because you couldn’t get it to do anything you wanted it to do – watch a video, download a song, or edit your photos. Yet there are thousands if not millions of people in the world today who are trying to navigate through the 21st century with a 500-year-old translation of a 2000-year-old book. Dan Dennet and Richard Dawkins are telling us that we need to throw out that old operating system, switch to Linux or iOS or something radical.

Before I even think about doing that, I’m going to read through that old instruction manual one more time. I hope you’ll join me.

1 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

Read 1 Thessalonians 2 here.

OK, I’ll admit that it didn’t take me too long to get worked up about something while reading the Bible; a scant ten verses in, and I’ve already found a popular Christian belief that I feel damages American society. Living your life as if Jesus were coming back in your lifetime leaves very little incentive for improving things for the next generation.

I think this kind of thinking really took off in the 1960s. With all the social change, students fighting policemen in the streets, the Vietnam War, the drug culture – many felt the ‘end of days’ had arrived. Folks like my parents got into a church and dug in hard, preparing for what would surely be the ‘coming calamity’ they had heard about when they were children. You can’t really blame people who live in difficult times of change to believe the worst might happen; it’s just that, contrary to what my parents thought back then, contrary to what Paul believed nearly two thousand years earlier – Jesus just didn’t come back. My take is that we need to operate our civic institutions under the assumption that he never will.

Paul begins the second chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians by talking about his prior ministry there – his good results, how he was mistreated by the authorities there, how he preached to please God and not men. Then he seems to insinuate that – even though neither he nor Silas nor Timothy availed themselves of financial support from the Thessalonians – as apostles, they had every right to do so. I admire the fact that they worked to support themselves; I’m a little concerned that they seem to be saying it would be acceptable for ministers to live off of the good will of the people they are nurturing.

Now I know this is the way of things, and always has been – that preachers, prophets, and priests make a living from preaching, prophesying, and – what is it priests do? (Insert punchline here.) But I can’t help but think of all the fat-cat church leaders out there, making their fortunes off of the donations of grandmas on fixed incomes, and desperate, jobless folks trying to send in ‘seed money’ or hoping they can ‘cast their bread upon the water’. (Those of you attending an American church know what these phrases mean – I’ll explain in a later post to the rest of you – apologies for now.)

If you follow the American Secularist Facebook page (and you should if you want to know about my posts the minute they are posted, plus enjoy links to other articles I’m reading on a daily basis), you’ll already know about the latest of a long line of stories of financial abuse within the church, the TBN scandal. It seems to me that Paul didn’t really know what he was starting here by justifying the idea of ministers making a living from their flocks. The enormous wealth these shysters take in is completely tax-free; is it time for a change? Comments on a previous blog of mine seem to indicate that at least some people think so.

TBN World Headquarters, offers a variety of ac...

TBN World Headquarters

But this isn’t the only problematic teaching I find in this chapter; verses 14-16 give a glimpse into what would become full-blown anti-Semitism by the 4th century, and would last for centuries more. Notice it isn’t the Roman government that killed Jesus, nor is it the Devil, or, in this verse at least, part of God’s great plan. It was the Jews. And their actions are deserving of God’s wrath – pretty strong words.

A final disconcerting idea in this chapter isn’t nearly as troubling as anti-Semitism, but it is troubling, nonetheless. In verses 17-18, Paul writes “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” Ok, what bothers me here might be hard to see; it’s subtle, but bear with me. Paul says that he wanted to do something – not God wanted him to do something or the Holy Spirit prompted him to do something – but Satan blocked it. This is an interesting way of talking, if you think about it. Why not say, “I wanted to come, but I wasn’t able to,” or “circumstances prevented me,” or my favorite, “I was detained by a subsequent engagement.”

No, Satan opposed MY will – a very developed sense of ego on the part of Paul, don’t you think? This strain of thinking so permeates the day-to-day talk of Christian folk, that it’s easy to dismiss the audacious pride contained therein. Satan made me lose my house. The Devil tried to take away my job. Or, even more mundane, Satan created a traffic jam to make me late; the Devil made it rain during my beach vacation. It’s nonsense – but a very ‘me’ generation sort of nonsense, that seems to say whatever I want must be the will of God, and if you want something different, you are obviously in league with Beelzebub.

My problem with this kind of thinking – whether I’m criticizing it from a Christian point of view or a secular one – is that it makes a demi-god out of the individual believer. Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, spoke of this on Dylan Ratigan’s show a day or two ago. He said that a popular but polarizing concept in American churches today is that “whatever is coming out of my own soul must be the voice of God.” I don’t have to tell you how this is playing out in American politics. The GOP (God’s Own Party, apparently) want to run the country a certain way and, by golly, Satan (the Democrats) are blocking the way.

So, 1 Thessalonians 2 is a troubling little chapter – justification for fleecing the flock, good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, and a little bit of self-aggrandizement thrown in for good measure. God bless help us.

1 Thessalonians 1

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Government on May 16, 2012 at 12:12 am
Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece. Site of...

Olympion Cinema. Thessaloniki, Greece.

Read 1 Thessalonians and follow along.

Most Bible scholars believe this to be the oldest of the New Testament books (although James has its supporters as well). It was written to the people of Thessaloniki, a city that exists to this day in northern Greece. In Paul’s day, it was a key trading city that lay on an important overland route from Rome to the gateway of Asia. Paul, Silas, and Timothy started a church here around 50 CE, but were forced leave in a hurry, as their lives were in danger. Later, Timothy returned to find the church doing well, and Paul writes his first letter to the Thessalonians upon hearing the good news. So, this letter would have been written 54-56 CE, making it the very first Christian writing that we know of today.

Now you might ask why the earliest known Christian writing occurs a full 25 years or so after the death of Christ. Well, this dating is not the work of some liberal scholar trying to convince us that the whole of Christianity is a myth created long after Jesus’ death. In fact, conservative scholars pretty much agree with this date as well. There are a couple of reasons why the early church leaders waited so long to write anything down.

We have to remember that Jesus and his disciples were pretty much a rough and tumble bunch of carpenters, fishermen, tax collectors, and the like, which means they may not have known how to write – we do have the story of Jesus writing something in the sand, but we don’t have any information other than that. Remember that Palestine at the time of Christ was the backwater of the Roman empire, not a bastion of learning and education – sort of the Alabama of the empire. Paul of Tarsus, on the other hand, was educated in both the Hebrew and Classical forms of education, according to tradition, which made him well-qualified to present the ideas of a religion steeped in Jewish history to the masses of the Roman state. But why wait so long?

The consensus seems to be that the original followers of Jesus were so sure that he was coming back any day, that they didn’t see any need to make any written records of their ideas. All of Jesus’ followers were fervently preaching the ‘good news’ as hard and fast as they could – before Jesus returned. If Jesus was coming back within their lifetimes, there wasn’t much time to worry about all the intricacies of doctrine – they simply wanted as many converts as possible. Only after time had passed – and the prospect that Jesus may not return as soon as they hoped began to loom large in their minds – only then did his followers began to feel the need to write down a few important ideas for the faithful who might outlive them. We’ll see the writers of the NT address some of these concerns as we move through the different letters and gospels.

Looking at 1 Thessalonians 1, there isn’t anything that will surprise you if you’ve ever attended a church service. Believers already refer to each other as brothers and sisters, even at this early date. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead by is also mentioned in this chapter; from a Christian point of view, I think it’s critical to see this belief as evident from the very first Christian writing in existence.

In verse 10, however, there is an idea that causes me some real concern – waiting for Jesus to return from heaven and save believers from some sort of ‘coming wrath’. I can try to understand why Paul and others living in the first century might expect Jesus to come back from heaven; nearly 2000 years later, I don’t understand why many folks are still waiting. Why can’t we admit, after all these years and hundreds of calamities from which Christians have not been spared, that perhaps Paul was mistaken? He never met Jesus face to face, having only encountered him in a powerful vision. Is it possible – just for the sake of argument – that the church is incorrect in this aspect?

I remember listening to sermons about the rapture when I was a teenager, and feeling a little bit guilty that I seemed to be the only one who didn’t want it to happen right away. I wanted to go to heaven, for sure, and missing out on any future calamity seemed pretty good too. I just wanted God to wait and let me enjoy life here for at least a little while first. I wanted to fall in love, get married, see some of the world, maybe enjoy a few earthly luxuries – then it would be alright for him to come back. The fear of the ‘coming calamity’ certainly kept me on my toes, but inside, I hoped it wasn’t true.

Whether or not you believe in the imminent return of Christ, the rapture of the church, or other related pre-determined futures, take a minute to at least see the dangers these ideas present to our current society. Many churches preach that the world is going to get worse and worse until Jesus comes back to fix everything himself. Don’t worry if you’re a Christian – you won’t be subjected to the worst of it. In fact, you’ll live a happy, healthy and wealthy life until just before all hell breaks loose (literally), at which time you’ll be snatched away to heaven.

I’d say this ideology does a lot of damage to our democracy. If Jesus is coming back any day now, what need do we have to try to make sure American society continues to progress 20-30 years into the future? No need to cooperate with anyone else to make the world a better place – Jesus is coming back to fix all that anyway. Peak oil? Not a problem – Jesus will come back before we run out of oil; in fact, maybe a global war for oil is just what is needed to hasten his appearance! The world’s political systems have to be broken so that Jesus can reign as king on Earth. Scary stuff, unless you think you’re going to be raptured – what’s to worry about?

Here’s where a strong dose of secularism is needed. I’m not going to ask you to surrender your faith, but as an American, it is your civic duty prepare for our future as if Jesus were not coming back, soon or otherwise. It is your duty to elect officials that will strive to improve our lives – not morally, that’s the work of the pastor, teacher, or philosopher – but in real, measurable and observable ways.

We Americans must stop pretending there will be no tomorrow, or that someone or something other than our own intellect can make a better tomorrow – or start preparing to be servants to those not hindered by such ideas.