Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Society’ Category

GOP: All Faith No Works

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament, Current events, Religion and Society, The Trump Administration on February 5, 2020 at 10:26 pm

Trump with Billy Bush

Read James 2:14-26

As a person who grew up in an Evangelical church in the Reagan/Bush years, I cannot help but be astounded by the rapid moral decline in the Republican Party these past couple of years. It used to be that the ‘moral majority’ supported the GOP because the leaders of the party appeared to hew more closely to Christian beliefs than the Democrats did. Who were you more likely to support – family men like the Bushes or Romney, or womanizers like Bill Clinton and John Edwards?

This seemed to change with the election of Barack Obama. Suddenly, a guy who attended church weekly, never cheated on his wife, was never involved in a moral scandal of any kind – this guy was somehow viewed as the devil himself by a great number of Evangelical Christians. So much so that nearly all of them supported the election of a known adulterer and liar, known blasphemer and shady businessman, and suspected rapist, whore-monger, financial fraud, and tax evader to the nation’s highest office.

In fact, Donald Trump commits, in full view of everyone, every single one of the 7 Deadly Sins on pretty much a daily basis. Pride, Wrath, Envy? This could actually be the name of his Twitter feed or the title of any one of his campaign speeches. Greed? By his own admission, it’s a defining quality. Lust? He’s an admitted adulterer and the guy who bragged about ‘grabbing ’em by the pussy’. Sloth? Leaked schedules show that he spends 60% of his work day in ‘executive time’, meaning no appointments. So he’s watching Fox News for more than half the day and doing little else. He complained that Obama golfed too often at once every 12-13 days; Trump golfs every 5.

And gluttony? You need look no further than his big fat ass. (Actually, by the looks of most American church-goers, they seem to have forgotten that over-eating is one of the go-straight-to-hell-do-not-pass-go trespasses).

Now, it’s fair to say that not all Christians have thrown away their Bibles so that they can worship a big orange peacock. Only about half of Catholics and main-line Protestants approve of Trump’s handling of the job, and non-White Catholics as well as Black Protestants overwhelmingly disapprove, the latter group giving him a consistent 12% approval rating.

But White Evangelicals – they can’t get enough of the man. Trump consistently gets support of 70-80% of this group of Christians for pretty much everything he does. And evangelical leaders such as Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr., Rick Warren, and Franklin Graham stumble over one another to publicly excuse his many sins.

It’s easy to chalk this up to shared racism – which is what the media routinely does. White Bible-thumpers are all racists, so the story goes. Some closet racists, some blood-and-soil, white hood-wearers – but all love Trump because they all hate the yellow, brown, and black people.

While I’m sure this is true of some, I’m thinking (hoping) it constitutes a very small minority. In fact, I think the second half of James 2, and the difference in how these verses are interpreted by Evangelicals and main-stream Protestants has more to do with this than what at first meets the eye.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?

Traditionally, this has been interpreted by Catholic and Protestant alike to mean that there must be evidence of the working of God in a Christian’s life – evidence that shows they are changed creatures. You can’t just say you believe – your life has to show it. Given that the example given by James is feeding and clothing the poor, historically, this has been a big part of the Church’s work in the community.

However, from their origins, Pentecostal movements never followed suit. Part of this stems from practicality – small, poor, independent church bodies simply were not able to do much for their communities, even if they wanted to. And if there’s a bit of extra money, the thinking was it should go to missionaries.

But part of it is rooted in a doctrine that frames the evidence of God’s approval of an individual not in his works – but in his gifts.

Can you speak in tongues or prophesy? Can you preach or sing with anointing? This is the evidence of your faith – how much God has blessed you. Notice how many Americans refuse to say, “Well, I’m lucky to have a good job and home, etc.” Now, it’s pretty much mandatory to say, “I’m blessed to have a good home…” This comes straight out of the Evangelical churches. To be gifted a home or job by God is evidence of faith.

By the ’70s, these groups were calling themselves charismatic believers – at first referring to possessing the Gifts of the Spirit, but eventually meaning that they were recipients of all of the blessings of God, both spiritual and material. With the economic boom of the ’80s and ’90s, these Christians became wealthier and more influential in their communities. But, in the main, these churches did not contribute more to their communities as they grew richer. Instead, this was the beginning of the rise of the millionaire tele-evangelist. There are no vows of poverty taken by current leaders of the movement such as Kenneth Copeland or Joel Osteen – the possession of great wealth is evidence of great faith.

What’s known in church parlance as the prosperity gospel has completely overtaken Evangelicalism. If you don’t have material wealth, your faith is not pleasing to God. You need to figure out what you are doing wrong.  If you do have material wealth, God is pleased with you – you’re on your way to heaven.

But a more troubling extension emerges – if a person with material wealth is forced to share his blessings with the less fortunate – through taxation, for example – the will of God is circumvented. A government that requires the wealthy to contribute to society is immoral, in that it moves against the workings of God.

Donald Trump is gifted in this worldview, and thus, accepted of God. It doesn’t matter what his works are – the evidence is in his wealth, his charisma.

Now, of course this worldview runs contrary to what James writes. Abraham was accepted because of his obedience, not because of his wealth. Rahab is judged by her righteous actions, not her gifts. And, when we get to 1 Corinthians, we’ll see that Paul expressly warns believers not to be taken in by charismatic con-men – a warning unheeded by Evangelicals over and over again.

So what can we say about the GOP – and the White Evangelicals who support them?

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

They are bodies with no spirit. They put innocent kids in cages. They take food and education away from children. They labor day and night to figure out a way to take medical care and Social Security away from those who need it most – remember it’s only an immoral government that would ask you to re-distribute what God has distributed.

They have sold out their core values for 2% economic growth, tax cuts, and a bevy of conservative judges. But in doing so, they have hastened their demise.

The Church is quickly losing its relevance by worshiping a clearly flawed and immoral man. And by hitching its wagon to a party that delights in injustice.

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.