Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Blogging the Bible’ Category

And We Hid Our Faces From Him

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the Old Testament, Nostalgia for God on September 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

In my last post, I discussed the documentary The God Who Wasn’t There, a fairly pedestrian movie promoting an idea which is much more prevalent than I knew – the idea that Jesus never existed. I suppose, coming from a fundamentalist background, that I always thought that almost everyone believed that Jesus was a historical character, but that unbelievers thought he was just a good guy, an unorthodox teacher, and Christians worshiped him as the Son of God. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that some intellectuals considered the life of Jesus to be entirely mythical.

That documentary showed a few scenes from another, much more powerful movie, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Brian Flemming, the narrator and director of the documentary, said that Gibson’s movie is far and away the most popular Christian movie of all time, and he criticizes Christians for their love of blood – if you’ve never seen The Passion, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Seeing these scenes again stirred up a lot of old feelings in me, and I just wanted to think aloud about some of them. I once read a quote, something to the extent that agnostics are atheists with a nostalgia for God – if you know who said it, please drop me a line.

I saw The Passion of the Christ at a movie theater in Bangkok, Thailand, where I was living at the time, and I’m sure it was a very different experience from what viewers in the US might have enjoyed.  99% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist, and many have no understanding whatsoever of our Christian beliefs. I once had a Thai student ask me, at Christmas time, if Christmas was a distinctly American holiday. I replied that Christmas was a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, and that most countries with a Christian heritage enjoyed celebrating Christmas. The Thai student smiled and nodded her head, which is the Thai way of saying that I don’t understand what the hell you’re talking about, but I don’t want to look like an idiot by asking another question. So, I asked whether the student had ever heard of Jesus before. She replied that she had not, but she had read of other famous Americans, such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Needless to say, when I arrived at the movie theater to see The Passion, I was surprised to see a full auditorium. I didn’t think all those Buddhists would give one whit about the life of Christ. But Thais love all things American, especially Hollywood movies, so they had come out in droves. They had no idea what the movie was about. I’m sure you think I’m kidding, but the same Thai student who can tell you every single aspect of the story of the Ramayana (Ramakien in Thai) couldn’t place WWII in the proper century, and couldn’t tell you if Washington, Lincoln, Plato, and Hitler all lived at the same time or in different centuries. Western Civilization is not taught in high school nor is it a mandatory course in college – why would it be? I could never be too critical as a teacher there – most American students couldn’t tell you how many years there are between Plato, Washington, and Hitler either – and wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about if you said ‘Ramakien”.

Many Buddhists are vegetarian, as they can’t stomach the idea of taking the life of any sentient being, not even a fish or a bird. Imagine watching such a brutal movie with this group of people. They were totally unprepared for what transpired on the screen. I knew that Jesus would be beaten and spit upon, that by the time he reached Golgotha that he’d be nearly unrecognizable as a human being. But the gentle Thais had never heard of such a gory hero as Jesus. They flinched when the Roman soldiers slapped him, moaned when the cat-o-nine-tails dug into his back, shrieked when the crown of thorns was thrust upon his head, and wept as Mary kissed his feet as he hung on the cross.

This was powerful stuff, this passion story. I remember my sister, one year older than me, watching horror films, covering her eyes at the scary parts. The Thais did the same thing – they were so appalled at the gristly nature of the film, that they covered their eyes with their hands, hiding behind one another and the high-rise seats. I couldn’t help but think of Isaiah 53 –

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.

Isaiah describes the natural response to such human misery; yet, we are so accustomed to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that we can tell it to our children, perhaps with a smile on our faces. Yet, agnostic that I am, I still can’t watch such a graphic portrayal without choking up.

Isaiah 53 was always a favorite scripture of mine.  I thought of it as tragic poetry – real history, but expressed in beautifully painful language. That the Son of God could appear on Earth, and receive such vile treatment – it was finer tragedy than Oedipus Rex. Today, scholars attribute the writing to someone other than the Isaiah who wrote the first 50 chapters of the book named after him, some anonymous prophet who had been carried off by the Assyrian captivity. And Orthodox Jews contend that this scripture in no way, shape or form refers to an individual person, let alone the Christian Messiah. Nevertheless, for Christians, it resonates deep within the heart.

Amy Grant once recorded a rendition of O Sacred Head, Now Wounded  that I would listen to over and over again for hours. It seemed at the time to epitomize Christ’s sacrifice for us. Perhaps looming even larger in my childhood was a collection of songs recorded by Jimmy Swaggart; two albums named Worship and Healing. Each track of the albums featured a traditional composition of an old hymn, and Swaggart read a portion of scripture as the music played. With his Bill Clinton-esque ability to convey emotion in his voice, the combination of music and scripture was quite powerful.

My favorite was a song called ‘The Healer’. It was an old hymn that I had grown up hearing in church, one that I can remember my Dad trying to sing, and his mother as well – neither of them had any talent at singing, but they loved the old songs.

On the cross, crucified, in great sorrow he died; the giver of life, was he.

While this beautiful hymn was sung, Swaggart read from Isaiah, with emphasis:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

I stopped believing in this sort of thing a long time ago, but it still has the ability to tug at my heartstrings. When my mother was so sick with cancer, she posted pieces of paper with scriptures on them all around her bedroom – scriptures that promised healing. I searched everywhere for a copy of the old Swaggart album she had once loved so much. I thought that listening to it would comfort her. I finally found a CD version online and ordered it – it arrived a couple of days after her doctor told us that she had only a few weeks to live. I tossed it in the trash.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is sad, but there’s no way to know if it’s true or not. A Tale of Two Cities is a sad story too, and O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi will make you well up every time you read it. But the difference is that these stories don’t promise something that they can’t deliver, they don’t give dying people false hope, nor do they try to persuade people that a man died for them a couple thousand years ago. My mother spent her whole life believing in the gospels, but she fought death off until the end – there was no “looking forward to being with Jesus” for her – something inside her knew.

I don’t really have any conclusion. I love the old gospel songs, and they can still move me. I appreciate the poetry and tragedy of some of the scriptures. I wish I could believe in some kind of afterlife where I might be able to meet up with loved ones again. But just because I choke up watching Toy Story 3 doesn’t mean I think it’s a true story; just because a scripture like Isaiah 53 is beautifully tragic doesn’t make it any more real than the movie Somewhere in Time.

I once cried to think that humankind would hide its face from God’s son; if there is a God, it’s obvious he turned his face from us long ago.

2 Thessalonians 2-3

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 14, 2012 at 2:58 am

Apocalypse (Photo credit: Rich Man)

Read 2 Thessalonians 2-3 here.

Let’s finish up this letter today and move on to a new topic later this week. In the last post, we looked at Paul’s view (or whoever wrote 2 Thessalonians) that the Antichrist would have to appear before Jesus could return. For a brief but very informative description of where the idea of this evil figure originated, have a look at the PBS / Frontline website and its discussion of the apocalypse – some very interesting information about the historical context in which the idea of an Antichrist arose, and how the original ideas were re-interpreted during Medieval times into the narrative we have today.

Basically, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem was an unimaginable terror to the Jewish people, including those who had adopted Christianity. The reaction in this country to the events of 9/11 might be a kind of parallel – the fear, the disbelief, the insecurity. Many first century Christians and Jews were sure that the end must be near, and drew upon the apocalyptic literature from earlier chaotic times – the writings of Daniel and 1 Enoch during the Greek occupation, for example – to explain the events occurring at the time.  In fact, apocalyptic writings were widespread throughout the Mediterranean for 2-3 centuries leading up to the time of Christ. Our fascination with ‘end of the world’ stories continues today in the form of novels and Hollywood movies.

Paul closes out the 2nd chapter of this letter by admonishing his followers to ‘hold fast’ to the teachings he has given them, either by letter or in person. He also uses a new term that is fairly important in many Christian circles – sanctification. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans will explain this idea more fully – which could be evidence that this letter was really written later – so a short explanation will suffice here.

Justification is what happens at the moment of salvation. The sinner realizes he is guilty before God, and takes the grace offered him by the atoning death of Jesus. At that moment, God accepts Christ’s righteousness in his stead, and the sinner enjoys divine communion with God. However, the old sins and customs the sinner has practiced for years may still have a strong influence on his life, and the new saint needs to conform his life to that of Christ. This is the process of sanctification. You’ve accepted the gospel of Christ, but it may take some working of the Holy Spirit in your life before you completely escape your old habits and desires. The more fervently you believe in the truths of the gospel, the more complete this process becomes.

I often come across good Christian people who can’t stop beating themselves up over this process. The problem is, so much of what the New Testament says is contrary to what one finds to be true in daily experience. The struggle to believe something that is often of so little help in real life leaves people discouraged and confused. Jesus healed the deaf and blind in the Bible, but he won’t take my friend’s cancer away. Paul says I should stay single, but I’m really lonely and would be happier if I had a husband / wife.

I read a recent blog by rabidmongoose in which he details the struggles he’s going through because he doesn’t really believe in the resurrection of Christ. Instead of just admitting what his natural, rational intelligence informs him of – that it most likely didn’t happen – he continues to beat himself up because he feels his faith is not strong enough. Sad. The only way to really believe all this stuff is to ignore everything else, hang out only with others who believe, and spend most of your social time talking about your faith. Sanctification, in essence, is a kind of social engineering designed to make your life conform to the teachings of the church.

The final chapter is just a few verses long, mostly blessings, prayers, asking for prayers and the like. But one short passage really stands out, and forms one of the major tenets of American life, both religious and secular. Apparently, some of the Thessalonians had decided that Jesus was coming back so soon, that there was no reason to do more than just get by until he returned. So they stopped working, and began to look for handouts from others to support themselves. Paul disapproves of this and advises everyone to avoid idleness, with the famous phrase, “if any would not work, neither should he eat”. This King James rendering is the way I always heard it as I was growing up, but I think I prefer the NIV rendering, “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat”, because it seems to insinuate that the willing but unable must still be fed.

Nobody likes a freeloader, not today, not two centuries ago. This lies at the heart of the debate over entitlements in the US today. We don’t like to see welfare recipients become generational – that is, those who are on welfare today producing children and grandchildren who remain on welfare in the future. It lies at the heart of the Protestant work ethic that the lazy and shiftless are not chosen of God, and they have no earthly inheritance.

I can’t say that I disagree – I am an American, after all. But I need reward for my work other than the heavenly. I do think we need to have a discussion about what constitutes ‘work’. For a few decades now, we’ve admired Wall Street robber barons whose sole purpose seems to be taking money away from the financially unsophisticated – you and me – and enriching themselves at our expense. A spate of articles in the news recently describe how the 401k system, which was meant to replace the old company-sponsored retirement benefits with shiny new self-managed accounts, have mostly failed – except in their ability to enrich the companies that manage them. Much of what financial institutions proudly describe as their ‘work’ is high tech highway robbery.

So, in short, 2 Thessalonians contains a couple of ideas that are quite powerful in American thought – God rewards those who follow him, often financially, and has unimaginable punishment awaiting those who do not. The spirit of the Antichrist is already among us, and the political and economic systems we love and cherish are going to go through some pretty scary transformations before Jesus comes back to make everything right.

In the meantime, keep your nose to the grindstone.

2 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Religion and Society on August 12, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Read 2 Thessalonians 2 here.

Sorry for the long delay between posts; I should be back on track for a couple of posts per week. I’ve been reading some very exciting things that I want to blog about, but first —

We were talking about Paul’s vision of the Second Coming of Christ. It seemed to me – though one comment disagreed – that Paul was saying to those who suffered persecution, “it may be tough now, but God’s going to pay everyone back in spades one day”. Paul promises that Jesus will return and destroy everyone who doesn’t believe or follow the gospels. According to the Pew Forum, around 2 billion of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth profess some sort of Christianity. That means, God will destroy 5 billion people if Jesus comes back in the next couple of years. Staggering.

As I said before, this doesn’t sound like the supreme being of the universe to me – the most degenerate human would not dream of such a thing. And remember that half of that 2 billion Christian are Catholic, so if you’re a Protestant, you’d probably rule out another billion. And let’s not forget the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, etc. that Protestants say are not really Christians either. Perhaps God might decide that everyone who didn’t buy a Joel Osteen book or send 10 bucks to TBN is S.O.L.

But wait – before God wipes out billions of people at the blink of an eye, something else unthinkable has to happen – the Antichrist has to appear.

English: Satan as Antichrist

Satan as Antichrist

Chapter 2 opens up by encouraging the believers in Thessaloniki that the end times have not already passed. (Maybe encouraging is the wrong word, in light of what is supposed to happen.  I for one would be relieved to learn that I’d somehow missed out on the apocalypse). Apparently, some teachers were saying that Jesus had already returned – I’m not sure why that would make sense to anyone, due to the fact that their lives / religion / political system remained unchanged. But Paul assures them that Jesus had not yet returned, and reminded them that a key development would have to take place before he could.

Enter, the Antichrist. Here’s where some scholars point out similarities to John’s Revelation, written long after Paul’s death, to say that 2 Thessalonians wasn’t written by Paul. I guess believers could say that the similarities are due to the fact that the Holy Spirit is the true writer. In any event, the New Testament maintains that, in the last days on Earth, an extremely talented and gifted man will take over the political system. He is ‘the man of lawlessness’ or, as some manuscripts have it, ‘the man of sin’. He will apparently do miraculous things, just as Jesus did, but his power will come not from God but from Satan. He will “set himself up in God’s temple”, which I assume to mean the temple in Jerusalem.

If this was written by Paul, the temple would have still existed in Jerusalem – so points to those who favor a Pauline authorship. If this was written around 90 AD as some assert, then some retrograde logic or prophesy regarding a re-building of the temple would be required. Jesus speaks of rebuilding the temple himself, but it is generally regarded by Christians that he was talking about himself, not the building erected by Solomon and restored by Ezekiel and later Herod.

Many American Christians believe this temple will have to be rebuilt a third time at some point in the future for Biblical prophecy to come true. The problem is that there is currently a Muslim mosque, the Dome of the Rock, standing on the exact same site – regarded as third only to Mecca and Medina as the holiest places for Muslims. A good way to start World War III would of course be to try to build such a temple. It’s scary that many Americans would support such a move, so that Jesus could eventually return.

Paul’s justification for the destruction of those who follow the Antichrist is pretty interesting. They didn’t believe in Jesus, even though Jesus performed miracles and the Holy Spirit remained to point the way. Granted, they didn’t see these miracles with their own eyes, but they were supposed to believe anyway. Then, someone appears in their own lifetime, performing many of the miracles that Jesus performed, and is also assisted by a spirit, but this one is evil. They believe what they see over what someone wrote about a couple of thousand years ago, and “for this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth”. Sounds fair to me.

I won’t get into all the nasty things this guy is supposed to do – I’ll save that for our reading of the Revelation; and besides, you’ve seen so many Antichrist movies already, I’m sure. At first, it will seem like he solves a lot of problems. Then, he’ll become supreme dictator of the world. At some point, he will proclaim himself a God.

English: The Dome of The Rock Mosque, in the t...

The Dome of The Rock Mosque

In reality, this isn’t so much a prophecy as it is a thinly veiled indictment of what the Roman emperor had already done in Jerusalem by the end of the 1st century – and Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians and Persians had done before. It was a common practice in the ancient and classical worlds to enter the temple of a defeated nation, proclaim yourself or your god as superior to theirs, usually leave an obelisk or graven image of some kind in the temple that had to be worshiped, either along with or instead of any local god. The Romans respected Judaism at first, due to its antiquity, and exempted Jews from some of the practices that were required of other conquered nations.  This all ended in 70 AD. The Romans, having had their fill of rebellions in Judea, destroyed the temple, killed a million Jewish people, and enslaved perhaps a quarter of a million more.

The mainstream of Jewish religion pretty much changed from that time until now, giving up messianic and apocalyptic prophesy in favor of focusing on how to live a better live in the present. Christian teaching moved in the opposite direction, at least in part because they believed the messiah had already come.

But the real takeaway from this chapter is much more frightening than any Hollywood movie or religious nightmare. There are ultra-Orthodox Jews who want to rebuild their temple on the site of a holy Muslim mosque, so that they can make blood sacrifices as described in the Old Testament. (Not all Jews, but a militant minority). There are Christians who believe this is the right thing to do – after all, the end times and Jesus’ return can’t happen unless the temple is rebuilt. So, a very real conflict could occur in the Middle East because of the religious fantasies held by a few.

If there’s anything more frightening than the specter of the Antichrist, it is the chance that a few religious zealots could return us to the Dark Ages.

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