Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for February, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Gospel According to Bubba

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on February 13, 2014 at 10:01 pm

Read the Epistle of James here.

Scholars cannot even seem to agree on who wrote the Epistle of James, let alone exactly when it might have been written. A complicating factor is that first century Judea had far too many people walking around named Jim – a problem all modern English-speaking countries share. There was James, son of Alphaeus, whose name is listed in all three synoptic gospels as one of the original disciples, then never really mentioned again. There was James, son of Zebedee who quite prominently figured into the New Testament narrative as one of Jesus’ first and most beloved disciples. Unfortunately, he was also among the earliest martyred, in 44 AD, when Christ’s followers hadn’t yet seen the need to do much – if any – writing. Finally, as the letter appears to be written to Jewish Christians only, many attribute the writing to James the brother of the Lord, who, although not listed as a disciple in the gospels, appears to have been the pastor of the church in Jerusalem soon after Jesus’ death.

As a kid growing up in the American South, I am familiar with the dilemma of having too many kids running around bearing the same given name – not too many Jacksons, Aidens, or Liams christened in the hills of Appalachia back in those days. Looking back at my father’s generation and earlier, it seems every male in my family had some variation of only about five names – George, James, Earl, Andrew, or Donald – two of which they happily passed on to me. The only way to know whom you’re talking about at any given time in this situation is to assign a distinctive nickname or moniker to pretty much everyone you know. Thus, most of your friends end up with names like Junior, Little Billy, Fatboy, and Jimmy the Jew. Once you are stuck with a nickname – even if you eventually become bigger, slimmer, or less careful with money – you are stuck with it for life.

First century believers solved the ‘too many Jims’ problem in exactly the same way, albeit their nicknames were kinder, if not any more imaginative. So Alphaeus is known as James the Less, Zebedee as James the Greater, and Jesus’ brother as James the Just. Historians think the appellation ‘less’ had something to do with Alphaeus’ youth or stature, not an indication of his rank among the disciples. In the perverse naming process of the South, James the Less would weigh in at 300 pounds, while James the Greater would stand about five foot five. And James the Just would be either someone truly above reproach – or the town crook. Southerners can’t resist this kind of cruel yet mirthful irony. So, if you live in West Virginia and you’ve just met a guy online whose nickname is ‘Tiny’, you might want to think twice before going out on that date.

I am dwelling on a trivial bit of detail – nicknames – because as I study the New Testament, I am constantly fascinated by the cultural parallels between the group of people who created the Bible a couple thousand years ago and those who most fervently believe in it today. I am currently reading two insightful books that relate some of the history of my antebellum ancestors, the forefathers of those who inhabit America’s Bible belt.

Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Harry M. Caudill, tells a tale not often heard in high school history classes, the story of the many Scots-Irish immigrants of the early to mid-18th century who came to these shores less than willingly. Orphans cleared from the streets, petty thieves or debtors pulled from jails, even poor working men simply kidnapped from their homes, this human surplus of England’s cities and larger towns were sold into indentured servitude to the plantation owners of Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Many of these arrivals cast their eyes to the mountains that made the western frontier, and ran off into the Blue Ridge or Shenandoahs at the first opportunity; those unable to do so often joined them when their term of service finally expired.

In Deer Hunting with Jesus, Joe Bageant refers to these frontiersmen as Borderers. For centuries, their Scottish ancestors eked out a miserable, often violent existence along the ever-changing boundary between Scotland and England, with fierce Scandinavian raiders arriving from time to time to make things all the more pleasant. Hardened in both body and spirit by centuries of violent clan war and privation, they so threatened the social order that James II (another Jim!) rounded up as many as he could and sent them to Northern Ireland, hoping they might direct their energies into pacifying the Catholic Irish. When that worked out as well as might be expected, they began to arrive on colonial American shores.

These Borderers had little to offer in the way of knowledge or skill, good for only labor – and securing frontiers. In fact the landed gentry of colonies like Pennsylvania were all too happy to send these barbarians out to the edges of their territories. If they could scratch out a living while enduring the raids of the French and the feathered native, great. If they couldn’t, perhaps they might at least wipe out enough of them that the job would be easier for the next guy.

Wanted Jesus 1917

Judea is located in one of the world’s first natural battlefields, unfortunately situated halfway between two incredibly fertile river valleys, the Nile to the west, the Tigris and Euphrates to the east. The hardscrabble mountains, deserts, and wilderness areas of the land we call Israel today were no match for the well-watered agricultural lands that surrounded them when it came to raising up empires. The ancient armies that rolled through on their way to somewhere else are well-documented in the Biblical record – Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans – to name a few.

Because we look at history from the point of view of the writers of the OT, we tend to think of Israel as being in the center of what was really happening in the world; in truth, it lay at the periphery. Other cultures were building massive cities and monuments as early as 3000 BC; two thousand years later, Jacob’s progeny had only managed to build a tiny fort on a scrubby hill – the City of David – the crowning achievement of which was a temple so small Joel Osteen couldn’t manage a staff meeting inside.

No, Israel wasn’t at the center of things – the Judeans were the Borderers of antiquity. They had been smashed on every side for centuries. They were slaves in Egypt. They saw the finest of their people carted off by the Babylonians. The Romans burnt their holy city nearly to the ground. Their scrubby patch of land never allowed them to produce the sheer number of soldiers needed to fight off the armies of the great empires. They were a tiny cog in the great machinations of international schemes.

What’s a Borderer to do? Both groups grabbed hold of their religion and held fast. They rankled at the thought of any authority other than God himself. They dreamt of apocalypse, when those who had oppressed them would get what was coming to them. After hundreds of years, they continue to name their children after heroes, men who may have existed, or are perhaps no more than ancient fairy tales.

The men at the forefront of Christianity in the first century were the religious rednecks of their day. They were uneducated, blue-collar workers, carpenters, fishermen. For nearly two decades after Jesus’ death, they didn’t even bother writing anything down. They weren’t theologians, they were preachers; the Holy Ghost wasn’t something you explained, it was something you felt.

I’ve heard uneducated, uncouth backwoods preachers claim that they know more about the New Testament than any Harvard-educated professor ever could. In a sense, there is some validity to this claim. Today’s Bible belt believer is the natural heir to the first century Christian, like it or not.

So, who wrote the Epistle of James? Well, it was either James, or someone named James, as the old joke goes. We could call him Just, or Lesser, or even Bubba if we wanted. What we should truly concern ourselves with is how its message is playing out today in American churches – and American society.

Be sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.

Please Don’t Forget Rena

In Current events, Wars and Rumors of Wars on February 8, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Bodies-of-children-wrapped-in-shrouds

I wrote months ago about how the tragedy in Syria is wreaking havoc on that nation’s children, and I fear not much has changed since then. At that time, there was a news story about a 4-year-old girl named Rena had been shot by a sniper while playing near the window in her family’s apartment. She died a few hours later, gurgling blood as she called our her for her mother. Now there are thousands more like her being starved out in besieged cities. Parents brave snipers’ bullets as they search the ruined streets and alleys for something – anything – that might feed their children. But it is estimated that perhaps half of the 100,000 dead in the conflict are children. At first I posted the CNN video into the body of this post, but I decided it may just be too hard for some to watch. Yes, even harder than the photo I decided to post above. So I’ll link to it instead – you can read the news story without seeing the video if you think it might be too upsetting.

Anyone who knows me would tell you that I’m not a bleeding heart. I am ashamed to say that I, like most everyone else, am pretty quick to change the channel when those Feed the Children commercials start appearing late at night. I wish I could say I didn’t. It’s so easy to get caught up in one’s own problems – even if they are infinitesimally smaller than those so many in the world face. But I don’t know how anyone can read of children being shot in the face or intentionally starved, and think that war in the Middle East – or anywhere – would somehow do some good. I was in Israel during the intifada in the 90s, and my heart grew sick at the site of crying mothers and fathers clutching their dead children – newsreels not seen in America. Twenty years later, it is obvious that wanton killing has not led to a solution. Nor has it in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, or a host of other countries around the world.

It seems we should have done something in Syria. The cynic in me says we didn’t because there’s no oil there. The realist knows that the American public is weary of war-mongering in the Middle East – for now at least – and the support for another mission there did not exist. I am against the use of drones – at least the way we’re using them right now, as the President’s personal play things – but if we’re going to use them to ‘take out bad guys’ it seems preventing people from starving young children would rank high on that list. I don’t know – I don’t have the answers.

The parties involved in the conflict are supposed to be meeting with each other in Geneva as I write this. I hope that first on the agenda would be a ceasefire and end to the sieges that are causing such misery. I am not an expert on the political situation there, and as always, it seems that what seems like a good solution at the time in that region often comes around to haunt us. But I hope that the kids there will be given food and warm clothing before more of them die.

The videos are hard to watch – you might just want to ignore them. But do me a favor, please. Before you jump on the next war bandwagon that rolls around in the US, come back and watch them. Look right into war’s grim face before you join in a glib chorus of ‘Bomb Bomb Iran‘.

And if you believe in prayer, please pray for these children.

Editor’s note:  reading this 3 years later, right after President Trump’s missile attack on an airfield there. So little has changed.

Thessalonians Revisited

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on February 5, 2014 at 11:58 am

My main goal this year is to blog the entire New Testament. At 260 chapters, that’s less than a chapter a day. (By the way, did you know that the entire Bible can be read aloud in about 70 hours? Yet so many Christians have never bothered to read or listen to most of it. How many have watched every episode of Friends – a feat that would require roughly 90 hours?) A chapter a day is still a pretty tall order, since I am often distracted by other readings – today I bought a copy of Deer Hunting with Jesus and I can hardly put it down. (No joking, I’ll be posting on it soon.) Nevertheless, let’s aim for a year, and be happy if it takes no more than two.

We were last looking at Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Pretty much everyone agrees that Paul wrote the first one in the 50s AD, but opinion is split on whether he wrote the second one shortly thereafter or if someone using his name wrote it around 40 years later. For our purposes, it really doesn’t matter – what is most important is to look at how Americans read it today, and how it influences our society and the political debate. Let’s look at the positive first.

Thessaloniki

My favorite verse in the letter in 1 Thessalonians 5:15, “…always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” I can’t think of another Bible verse that would do more good for American society if it were whole-heartedly followed – nor of one that is so blatantly anti-capitalist. Paul is basically saying to consider others when you decide to do something, and make sure whatever you are doing is good for everyone else. Imagine how much better our society would be if we constrained our actions in this way. No one would cut you off in traffic. Your neighbor wouldn’t walk his dog in your front yard. A stock price wouldn’t rise when a company sacked a few thousand workers, because this wouldn’t be good for society as a whole.

Adam Smith assures us that the beauty of capitalism is that everyone can work towards their own self-interest, without giving too much thought to what effect it might have on everyone else. The invisible hand will somehow make this work out for society in general.

In my personal economic experience, it has been more of an invisible backhand, Stanley Kowalski in a wife beater undershirt. Perhaps for the 1%, this hand is more satisfying, more like an invisible hand job from an expensive escort. In any event, someone is wrong, as there is an obvious contradiction here. Either the Apostle Paul got this one wrong, or Mr. Smith did.

Is it possible that you can’t believe in capitalism and the writings of the apostles at the same time? It’s no problem if you’re intellectually lazy – you’ve never read the tenets of either. But if you sincerely want the government to run according to Biblical principles, you might have to say goodbye to Wall Street. We’ll find this sort of anti-capitalist sentiment even more prevalent when we start looking at the words of Jesus himself.

Paul also encourages all Christians to live moral lives – nothing wrong here, except that in modern American society, this is obviously more easily said than done. It seems every few years an influential pastor or preacher gets caught with his pants down. It shouldn’t be funny, but getting caught with the organist is always going to get a few laughs.

If I think of his admonishment in only general terms, this would definitely be positive. Who wouldn’t agree that we should all do our best to be moral? However, in real terms, which is to say political / legislative ones, this is something that is really tearing America apart. Who gets to decide what constitutes morality? The Catholics? The Mormons? Me? You? And – a question nearly as old as the Constitution itself – can morality even be legislated? While that question might appear to be rhetorical, the obvious answer is – no, it can’t. Ken Cuccinelli would disagree, but I think this is mostly because he’s pissed off about having a last name that sounds a lot like Italian for vagina.

Other problematic ideas in Thessalonians that we’ve already discussed include:

In short, there are many ideas in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians that could hurt us as a nation, and only one (largely ignored ) that would make America better. In my opinion, the worst thing Thessalonians does is lay the groundwork for a Christian ideology that isn’t interested in improving American society. If Jesus is coming back in my lifetime – what me worry?

Some Christians would say that these ideas are off the mark – that few Christians espouse these them. I disagree. It is the fact that these ideas have basis in the scripture that make them so dangerous. It’s not like the so-called fringe are pulling these ideas out of thin air – they can point to chapter and verse.

As long as a huge group of Americans think they’ll be meeting a magic man in the sky before their grandchildren graduate high school, it will be very difficult to make some of the tough decisions that our country needs to make – the outcomes of which will decide if we prosper or decline in the coming years.

Enjoy my writing? Make sure to ‘like’ americansecularist on Facebook to get posts as soon as they’re published.

Also, check out my newest blog – nevercomingback – for tales from my travels abroad.