Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘American Society’

1 Thessalonians 5

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 29, 2012 at 12:30 am
Thessaloniki Film Festival

Thessaloniki (Photo credit: Recovering Vagabond)

Read 1 Thessalonians 5 here.

In my previous post, I maintained that Paul’s views on the Kingdom of God may have evolved over time – originally, Christ’s followers appeared to have believed that his return was imminent – meaning measured in months, not years. There wasn’t much need to develop an opinion on what might become of someone who converted to Christianity and then died of old age before Jesus’ return. As the years rolled by and people began to die off, the need arose. I suspect that Paul meditated / prayed /thought it over, and decided that Jesus’ resurrection was a precursor to that of believers – the ‘first fruits’ doctrine that he develops later in his letter to the Corinthians.

Conservative Bible commentaries seem to abhor the idea that Paul may have developed this doctrine later, as the situation arose. Most seem to explain 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 by saying that Paul was simply telling the Thessalonians something he had neglected to mention to them before. I find this implausible. To teach a resurrected Christ without mentioning the promise of resurrection to deceased believers just doesn’t seem likely.

It seems much more likely to me that his central message for two decades had been Christ’s immediate return to set up a kingdom. I think the part about the dead in Christ rising first was something he came up with as the situation changed. This is not to say he made it up necessarily; if you’re a believer, you might think that he simply received further enlightenment from the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure why many commentary writers feel the need to insist that he had simply neglected to inform his flock of so critical a piece of information.

In chapter 5, Paul again returns to the topic of the return of Christ, and the sparing of believers from the coming wrath. It seems to me that it is a topic never far from his mind as the wrote this letter. He tells them to forget about trying to predict the exact time or day when Jesus would be coming back; it wasn’t something that was possible to do. This hasn’t deterred many of his followers from trying to do so over the centuries. Seems the last guy to do so was sometime within the last year or so.

Basically, Jesus is going to sneak up on everyone – just when they think things are going pretty well, he’ll return. However, Christians are not to be caught unaware, for they are to live their lives in a constant state of preparedness for his return. He may not come back tomorrow, but believers should live as if he will.

Again, I would take issue with those who might neglect their civic duty in a democratic government due to their belief that Jesus is going to come back and fix everything. I believe the problems that we face as Americans are quite fixable, so long as everyone is truly interested in fixing them. If a large proportion of the population feel that the purpose of government is to prepare for Jesus’ return – not to try and create a better society – then America suffers due to their belief. Even if you think Jesus is coming back, you shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. What if he waits another 2000 years?

I’ve found several things in this letter that I think do potential harm to American democracy, but finally, here at the end, is some advice that, if taken, would actually improve it.

Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Imagine if we always strove to do what is good for each other and everyone else – what a brilliant democracy we would have. Why is it that we seem to be only looking at what’s best for us personally, or what fits into our particular worldview, instead of what would be good for America? Paul’s admonition to be positive is also not bad advice, as long as we don’t insist that problems don’t exist.

He ends the letter with instructions that prophecy not be treated with contempt; that is, allow people to say ‘thus sayeth the Lord’, but to ‘test’ what they say, and to hold on to the good prophecies and forget the others. However, he doesn’t really spell out what kind of test would be appropriate, and this is troubling. How am I supposed to know when someone is really speaking for God, or when they are just a little stirred up about something themselves? For the average believer, it usually boils down to accepting the prophecies they agree with, and neglecting the ones that might actually require them to change their views.

I actually had one believer tell me, just today, that when she was unsure whether the ‘voice’ she heard in her mind was God or just her own, she might ask God to give her a sign – through her dog, if I understood her correctly. Pardon me if I sound dismissive, but in a democracy, I’d rather folks use the mind God gave them to make important decisions, and not seek out canine oracles. But I guess if  in the Old Testament, God spoke to Balaam through an ass, he must speak through dumb-asses today.

And finally, I don’t know what a holy kiss is – but I’m glad that’s one custom of the early church that didn’t make it to the 21st century.

1 Thessalonians 2

In Blogging the Bible, Blogging the New Testament on May 18, 2012 at 12:02 am

Read 1 Thessalonians 2 here.

OK, I’ll admit that it didn’t take me too long to get worked up about something while reading the Bible; a scant ten verses in, and I’ve already found a popular Christian belief that I feel damages American society. Living your life as if Jesus were coming back in your lifetime leaves very little incentive for improving things for the next generation.

I think this kind of thinking really took off in the 1960s. With all the social change, students fighting policemen in the streets, the Vietnam War, the drug culture – many felt the ‘end of days’ had arrived. Folks like my parents got into a church and dug in hard, preparing for what would surely be the ‘coming calamity’ they had heard about when they were children. You can’t really blame people who live in difficult times of change to believe the worst might happen; it’s just that, contrary to what my parents thought back then, contrary to what Paul believed nearly two thousand years earlier – Jesus just didn’t come back. My take is that we need to operate our civic institutions under the assumption that he never will.

Paul begins the second chapter of his letter to the Thessalonians by talking about his prior ministry there – his good results, how he was mistreated by the authorities there, how he preached to please God and not men. Then he seems to insinuate that – even though neither he nor Silas nor Timothy availed themselves of financial support from the Thessalonians – as apostles, they had every right to do so. I admire the fact that they worked to support themselves; I’m a little concerned that they seem to be saying it would be acceptable for ministers to live off of the good will of the people they are nurturing.

Now I know this is the way of things, and always has been – that preachers, prophets, and priests make a living from preaching, prophesying, and – what is it priests do? (Insert punchline here.) But I can’t help but think of all the fat-cat church leaders out there, making their fortunes off of the donations of grandmas on fixed incomes, and desperate, jobless folks trying to send in ‘seed money’ or hoping they can ‘cast their bread upon the water’. (Those of you attending an American church know what these phrases mean – I’ll explain in a later post to the rest of you – apologies for now.)

If you follow the American Secularist Facebook page (and you should if you want to know about my posts the minute they are posted, plus enjoy links to other articles I’m reading on a daily basis), you’ll already know about the latest of a long line of stories of financial abuse within the church, the TBN scandal. It seems to me that Paul didn’t really know what he was starting here by justifying the idea of ministers making a living from their flocks. The enormous wealth these shysters take in is completely tax-free; is it time for a change? Comments on a previous blog of mine seem to indicate that at least some people think so.

TBN World Headquarters, offers a variety of ac...

TBN World Headquarters

But this isn’t the only problematic teaching I find in this chapter; verses 14-16 give a glimpse into what would become full-blown anti-Semitism by the 4th century, and would last for centuries more. Notice it isn’t the Roman government that killed Jesus, nor is it the Devil, or, in this verse at least, part of God’s great plan. It was the Jews. And their actions are deserving of God’s wrath – pretty strong words.

A final disconcerting idea in this chapter isn’t nearly as troubling as anti-Semitism, but it is troubling, nonetheless. In verses 17-18, Paul writes “out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way.” Ok, what bothers me here might be hard to see; it’s subtle, but bear with me. Paul says that he wanted to do something – not God wanted him to do something or the Holy Spirit prompted him to do something – but Satan blocked it. This is an interesting way of talking, if you think about it. Why not say, “I wanted to come, but I wasn’t able to,” or “circumstances prevented me,” or my favorite, “I was detained by a subsequent engagement.”

No, Satan opposed MY will – a very developed sense of ego on the part of Paul, don’t you think? This strain of thinking so permeates the day-to-day talk of Christian folk, that it’s easy to dismiss the audacious pride contained therein. Satan made me lose my house. The Devil tried to take away my job. Or, even more mundane, Satan created a traffic jam to make me late; the Devil made it rain during my beach vacation. It’s nonsense – but a very ‘me’ generation sort of nonsense, that seems to say whatever I want must be the will of God, and if you want something different, you are obviously in league with Beelzebub.

My problem with this kind of thinking – whether I’m criticizing it from a Christian point of view or a secular one – is that it makes a demi-god out of the individual believer. Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, spoke of this on Dylan Ratigan’s show a day or two ago. He said that a popular but polarizing concept in American churches today is that “whatever is coming out of my own soul must be the voice of God.” I don’t have to tell you how this is playing out in American politics. The GOP (God’s Own Party, apparently) want to run the country a certain way and, by golly, Satan (the Democrats) are blocking the way.

So, 1 Thessalonians 2 is a troubling little chapter – justification for fleecing the flock, good old-fashioned anti-Semitism, and a little bit of self-aggrandizement thrown in for good measure. God bless help us.

Blogging the Bible

In Blogging the Bible on May 13, 2012 at 11:34 pm

By Rembrandt.

This week I’m happy to get started on what I hope will be a central feature of American Secularist – a blog of the New Testament. Back when I taught Sunday School on a regular basis, I was a real student of the NT, reading it through a number of times. I believed, and still do, that anything happening in a person’s life that is part of his Christian experience should be measured against the words written in these twenty-seven books.

But why, you might ask, would a secularist blog be interested in looking so closely at the New Testament writings? Well, if I wanted to understand Russian culture, I might spend a bit of time reading Dostoyevsky or listening to Tchaikovsky. If I wanted to delve into the French mind, a bit of existentialism might be in order. Just as it would be impossible to understand Thai society without an appreciation for Buddhism, I think it’s impossible to understand how Americans think without some knowledge of the second half of the Bible, and the teachings that stem from it. To be sure, there are other influences on American thought, but in the mainstream, the Bible is still the most influential book.

I hope to take a fresh approach to the early Christian writings, looking at them without any pre-conceived ideas, as either a believer or a skeptic. A ‘scholarly’ approach would be a little heavier than what I have in mind as well – there are plenty of books available along those lines, if you can stay awake long enough to read them. As I read the scriptures, I simply want to answer a few questions about the relationships between mainstream American ideas and the Bible.  Some of the questions rolling around in my head are:

  • what exactly do Jesus and the Apostles have to say?
  • can we be reasonably sure that the Bible as we have it today accurately represents their ideas?
  • are there any recent discoveries that help us understand the context of the New Testament?
  • what doctrines / beliefs have Americans constructed from these writing?
  • is American Christianity an accurate representation of the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles?
  • what relationship, if any, does the New Testament have with democratic government?

To give credit where credit is due, I also hope to continue the task one of my favorite on-line writers started, but never finished. A few years back, Slate writer David Plotz started blogging the Bible, but seemed to lose interest after the Old Testament. As he comes from a Jewish background, I can understand why he wouldn’t have much interest in the New Testament – and I guess after blogging on the Bible for two years, he may have just wanted to write about something else. Nonetheless, I always enjoyed reading his comments, so I was disappointed that he didn’t keep going. Here’s what he had to say about reading the Bible through:

Should you read the Bible? You probably haven’t. A century ago, most well-educated Americans knew the Bible deeply. Today, biblical illiteracy is practically universal among nonreligious people. My mother and my brother, professors of literature and the best-read people I’ve ever met, have not done much more than skim Genesis and Exodus. Even among the faithful, Bible reading is erratic. The Catholic Church, for example, includes only a teeny fraction of the Old Testament in its official readings. Jews study the first five books of the Bible pretty well but shortchange the rest of it. Orthodox Jews generally spend more time on the Talmud and other commentary than on the Bible itself. Of the major Jewish and Christian groups, only evangelical Protestants read the whole Bible obsessively.

That last line is one I may have to disagree with – I’m not sure that evangelicals read the whole Bible obsessively; popular Christian books and television programs seem to focus only on those scriptures that reinforce particular ideas, like the prosperity gospel. But I’m committed to keeping an open mind – please call me out whenever I fail to do so.

Will you join me in reading every single verse of the New Testament?