Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘Religion and Society’ Category

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.

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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