Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Blogging the Bible’ Category

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.

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Let Us Make God in Our Image

In American Society, Blogging the Bible, Religion and Society on September 30, 2012 at 3:44 am

Earlier in the week, while writing my Tower of Babel post, I stumbled across a number of images that I found quite interesting. It seems the story has captured the imagination of many artists over the centuries, each artist with his own interpretation of what the Tower may have looked like.

Here’s an illustration from Germany, around 1370:

This artist’s rendition is very simple, almost childlike. The Tower resembles a kind of watchtower, which would be the best interpretation of the original Hebrew word used in the story. Notice the lack of any kind of background detail or lack of historical cues. Ropes a pulleys are the method of construction.

Here’s a work by a French illustrator in 1425:

Notice that the artist’s time and culture constrain his imagination; everything in the picture looks like 15th century France, while nothing at all resembles Mesopotamia or 5000 BC – except perhaps that lone camel. The tower is modest, almost delicate, a mere five stories tall, the materials, technology, manner of dress – all decidedly medieval France. I’m no expert, but I get the feeling that this artist had access to the work of the prior one, and made his version look more ‘authentic’. Still using ropes and pulleys, and the work-shed has been moved to the other side of the frame. Striking illustration, but no one could consider it an accurate representation.

By the 16th century, there are several paintings of the Tower that bear a striking resemblance in style to the Coliseum of Rome, including one of the more famous works by Pieter Brueghel the Elder:

Of course we know that by this time, Europe was leaving the Middle Ages behind, and artists were beginning to paint with greater realism. A great age of travel and commerce was beginning, meaning that artists and others were able to actually see other countries, with architectural styles much different from their own. They were able to paint or draw more convincingly due to a greater knowledge of the world and better access to technology. The Tower is much more imposing – but is still perhaps only 15 to 20 stories high.

By the 19th century, Europeans were ‘discovering’ the remotest parts of the Earth, and were by this time familiar with the Pyramids of Giza, pre-Giza ‘step-pyramids’, and Mesopotamian ziggurats. They had learned that the ancients were able to build on a scale much larger than had previously been imagined. They found that the Bible story of Babel had not previously created the right images and ideas in their minds – nor had they realized that the ancients had possessed better technology than medieval Europe. It was now possible for artists like Gustave Dore to render a much more imposing structure:

I’ve gone to the trouble of posting all these pictures to make a simple point about our perception of God. Many believers contend that the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts and makes the scriptures ‘real’ to us, explaining exactly what it is that God meant when he inspired their writing. These paintings and drawings of the Tower of Babel would seem to suggest otherwise. The artists that created these images, inspired though they may have been, were not able to see outside the confines of their own space and time, were not able to grasp exactly what the Bible was describing – probably Etemenanki, rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar just before the Judean captivity.

When we read something in the Bible that was written hundreds of year ago, we look at it through the prism our own culture, technology, and understanding of the world around us – we simply cannot help ourselves. There is simply no evidence of a supernatural substance that reveals God’s mind to us. When we read the Bible, we interpret what we read based upon the knowledge and assumptions of our particular society. It is not God’s mind that alters our perception, it is our own minds that alter our perception of God. The images in our minds of what happens in the Bible are not controlled by God, but rather, our minds control what God does or says.

In other words, God did not create man in his image, man created God in man’s image. We make gods that fit into our culture and conform to our pre-conceived ideas about how the world should work.

Ever notice how when angry preachers talk about God, he’s angry? When laid-back guys like Joel Osteen try to explain what God is saying, God sounds positive, cheery, motivational? To the mystic, God is transcendent; to the guilty, he is merciful, to the terrorist, he is vengeful. God is, in fact, pretty much whatever we need him to be when we need him to be. He is our handiwork, not vice-versa. Those who say that God is no longer necessary to explain the world are only doing what men have always done, which is to understand the divine through the bias of culture and technology; it just so happens that 21st technology has advanced to the point that not even the ‘prime mover’ of Deism is necessary.

Travelling around Asia, I could always tell what kind of Buddhist temple I was in by what the Buddha images looked like. Fat and happy? Chinese Buddha. Intense, languid eyed – Indian Buddha. Serene, calm – Thai Buddha. In fact, each culture creates images of the Buddha that very much look like their idealized cultural self. And if Buddhists make Buddhas that reflect the notions of their societies, you can bet that American Christians do the same thing.

God helps those who help themselves. Jesus may have appeared poor, but he was secretly rich. God wants you to live the American dream. We’ve made God in our own image.

One of the best images I ran across last week was M.C. Escher’s version of the Tower of Babel:

His rendition is completely modern. A tower can be a hundred stories high with today’s technology; you need only walk the downtown of a major metropolis to feel the awe of  dozens of such structures towering above your head. And Escher’s point of view is modern as well – his perspective is not that of a man on the ground looking up, but from the sky looking downward.

Modern man has become God’s equal – perhaps his better. He can look down upon the Earth from space and see all things, big and small, as they happen. And unlike the Genesis god who had to ‘come down’ to see the Tower, we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our own homes.

Too bad God didn’t have Google Earth back then.

Tower of Babel

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Religion and Society on September 24, 2012 at 1:48 am

English: The Construction of the Tower of Babe...

Read Genesis 11.

I know I’m supposed to be blogging the New Testament, not the Old, but indulge me if you will. As a student of several languages and the acquisition of language in general, this Biblical story is obviously of interest to me.

You don’t have to look at this Tower of Babel too closely to realize that it’s a complete and total myth, an etiology told to explain why the peoples inhabiting different regions spoke languages that were unintelligible to one another. The story was supposedly written by Moses, but context cues place it more probably in the time of the Babylonian captivity, in the 6th century BC, perhaps a thousand years after Moses’ death. It most likely incorporates the image of the Babylonian ziggurat, Etemenanki, which had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, with a traditional oral story about how the languages were separated. The impressive, foreboding ziggurats – erected in worship to the god Marduk, were meant to inspire awe; the captive Jews would have seen them as a trespass against the one true God.

Placing the imposing towers into a story about rebellion against God wouldn’t have been much of a stretch – to worship any God but Yahweh was rebellion. Babel, or confusion, would have been a nice play on words; Babylon, a place of confusion, not only of language, but of belief. Any city that shakes its fist at God in such an audacious way will certainly face retribution.

But if you don’t buy into this modern, secular explanation of the story – have a look at the scriptures themselves. I think you’ll find a lot of information that doesn’t quite fit together.

A few generations after God had flooded the Earth, some of Noah’s descendants have headed east to the Plains of Shinar, which is usually a reference to Mesopotamia / Tigris and Euphrates region / Babylon in the Old Testament. Once they got there, they decided to bake bricks – in the OT narrative, they decide to bake bricks first, then to build a city with them, but we’ll assume that the intention was to build a city and a tower all along. Why the focus on bricks? Since important Judean structures were made of stone, the Babylonian custom of building with brick would have been novel – if you admit that the narrative as we have it today were composed during the captivity. If not, it seems a rather strange detail.

These descendants, led by Nimrod, according to tradition, get the idea that they should ‘make a name for themselves’ by building a tower that would reach to the heavens. When I was in Sunday school, my teacher seemed to think that they were literally trying to build a stairway to heaven; later, other Bible teachers seemed to think that they were trying to build some kind of astrological tower, to ‘reach heaven’ in a metaphysical sense, not literally. This second rendering does seem to be more consistent with what we now know of Babylonian ziggurats in general, that they were places of divination and worship.

Now, let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the Bible only counts four generations between this event and the catastrophic, worldwide flood that nearly wiped out humanity. It would seem that such an act of defiance so soon would be unthinkable on the part of Noah’s descendants. What’s really astounding is God’s response.

First of all, the scripture says that God ‘came down’ to see the tower that Nimrod had built. Where was he in the first place? Why did he have to move to get a better view? If Earth is God’s ballpark, why was he sitting in the cheap seats? This sentence gives credence to the idea that whoever wrote the original story did not see God as omnipresent; he was instead an anthropomorphic god who shared some of the same limitations of other Semitic gods – including Marduk. If you believe that every single word of the scripture is inspired – you can’t write off the moving of a supposedly omnipresent God from one place to another as some kind of grammatical error.

Secondly, why was God so concerned about what they were doing? Because they had learned how to build a tower, God decides that “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.” Is this a bad thing? Humans working together to do what seems to be impossible? And furthermore, confusing their languages didn’t stop them from building other towers – as evidenced by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, Chinese, and other ancient cultures. And building a tower? Where’s the threat? It’s not like they split the atom – which, incidentally, God did not prevent either. So you’re telling me that God miraculously confuses language because people are building a tower, but stands by in silence while they actually do split the atom? It doesn’t make sense.

If they were trying to build a literal stairway to heaven, no intervention would have been required; they’d have all passed out due to lack of oxygen at around a mile. Actually God should have known that they’d have never made it this far with bricks anyway; kiln-baked bricks would have disintegrated under the weight of the structure long before the mile marker. If they were building an astrological tower, a way of ‘reaching heaven’ through divining the stars – why do the Pyramids, Stonehenge, Machu Picchu and myriad other structures still stand?

And why any need for such sudden intervention? Surely God is aware of the fact that as groups of people are separated by time and distance, their languages become unintelligible to each other without divine intervention. The US and the UK have been separate social and political entities for only a couple of hundred years, and we still technically speak the same language, but you try understanding a Glaswegian or a Yorkshireman with a scotch or two in his gullet – impossible.

Even the Apostle Paul casts doubt on the validity of he story, when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14 that “God is not the author of confusion.”

If this story isn’t literally true – which it certainly cannot be, no matter how you approach it – then it must be some kind of analogy or metaphor, a story with a moral. If the OT contains stories that aren’t intended to be taken as objective truths – who gets to decide which ones are allegory and which ones are literal?

Of even greater significance, to me at least, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that God does anything to intervene – for good or ill – in our lives today. Thousands of innocents die daily while God looks the other way. But a tower made of tar and brick – a tower that had absolutely no chance of succeeding at whatever purpose it was being built for – required God’s immediate attention?

Quite literally – unbelievable.

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