Donald Andrew Henson II

Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Medieval Mind, Modern Mayhem

In American Enlightenment Tradition, American Society, Current events, Religion and Society on September 16, 2012 at 9:00 pm

An Egyptian Coptic Christian makes a movie that pokes fun at the Prophet Mohammed, so Libyans attack the American consul in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a man who helped save their collective asses from annihilation only last year. This is how the Medieval Mind solves modern problems.

As the craziness continues in the Muslim world this week with unrest in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Australia, and God knows where else, it will be difficult for many to keep from joining in on the criticism of Islam and the role that it plays in so much of the trouble in today’s world. Mostly Christian commentators in this country will point out, once again, that Islam, as opposed to Christianity, is inherently violent. And of course, President Obama will be faulted for apologizing to Muslims.

To be fair, adherents of Islam – some of them at least – appear to be more willing to inflict pain and suffering on others than followers of other religions are. I know there are child abuse issues in Catholic churches, and that Christianity played a role in the violence that occurred in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Lebanon and Northern Ireland as well. And perhaps it is cultural bias for someone from a Western nation to view Islam as dangerous, in much the same way that some white guys might feel some apprehension at seeing a black guy walking around the neighborhood. But you have to admit that there is a certain kind of Muslim that refuses to accept the world as it is, and is willing to use violence to change it, and that this particular group far outnumbers similar groups that might exist in other religions.

When was the last time you heard of a Sikh suicide bomber or a Tibetan Buddhist terrorist?

But the truth is that this is just another example of medieval thinking in a modern world. The reason Christians don’t become suicide bombers has less to do with the inherent goodness of Christianity or the pacifism of the scriptures, and a lot more to do with the influence the Enlightenment has had on our societies. In other words, the Islamic world is simply operating according to its medieval principles in a way that Christianity is not – and when Christians say that America should operate by Biblical precepts, they are talking about a return to the Dark Ages.

Christianity is not the moral framework on which our society precariously hangs – Enlightenment thought is. If you follow the teachings of Christianity to their logical conclusions – as Sam Harris does in this fantastic video – you find that there’s no firm basis there for what I think of as morality. Take an unbiased view of what Christianity preaches – you can be a mass murderer or serial killer and still go to heaven, but if you are a devout Hindu, perhaps even covering your mouth so that you don’t inadvertently inhale and kill an insect, you will certainly spend eternity burning in hell.

Think about that for a minute, and the weight of medieval thinking will nearly crush you. Mohandas Gandhi, a man of peace, a proponent of non-violence, has been burning in hell for decades, with nothing to look forward to but thousands upon thousands of year more of the same. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, on the other hand, whose crimes included murder, rape, necrophilia, dismemberment, and cannibalism, is, at least in the view of some Christians, in heaven with Jesus.


Photo credit: rogiro

One point Brian Flemming made in his documentary is that a moderate approach to religion is nonsensical. If our everlasting souls are in danger of perishing, what is there to be moderate about? In the West, like it or not, (I tend to like it) our religious beliefs have been softened by modern thought – most of us don’t think that diseases are caused by demons or that angels are in charge of keeping us safe from traffic accidents (although, unfortunately, some still do). We understand the difference between allowing for Freedom of Speech and being in agreement with said speech. We understand that some will denigrate our deity, and we are upset about it, but we don’t throw a rocket launcher over our shoulder and head over to the nearest consulate.

But those who really believe, who have truly embraced the medieval mindset, are ready and willing to act upon their beliefs. We’ve become complacent through comfort and capitalism; they have not. Enlightenment thinkers have shown us that human life is precious and valuable; people of the Book have learned no such thing. What separates you and I from those who flew planes into the World Trade Towers a decade ago is not so much the gospel of Luke as the essays of Locke, not Jesus so much as Jefferson.

What’s happening in the Middle East today is an example of the ineptitude of medieval thinking in today’s world. The answer to our problems will not be found in believing in one kind of medieval myth as opposed to another. Believing in the Easter Bunny more fervently because a belief in Santa Claus isn’t working would be madness. No, instead, we need to abandon ancient ways of thought in order to secure any kind of livable future.

When a modern mind like Michelangelo or Mozart or Joseph Campbell contemplates ancient human beliefs, some of our best art and understanding result. If, on the other hand, the medieval mind tries to understand the modern – we are left to witness the carnage on the evening news. Anyone who tells you that a return to pre-Enlightenment thought will make for a better society – that person is a danger to us all.

A return to faith will only make things worse, not better.

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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.

The God Who Wasn’t There

In Blogging the New Testament, New Atheism, Religion and Society on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 am

I’ve just spent the last hour watching the documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There. I had watched part of Loose Change on Netflix, and this was one of several films that appeared in my ‘recommended’ queue. (Loose Change, by the way, is very watchable, but you only have to do a brief ‘net search to see that much of it has been debunked. It’s somehow deliciously diabolical to think that 9/11 was all just a huge conspiracy, but the gross mismanagement of the our country during the Bush administration ought to be proof enough that the same team wouldn’t have been capable of such a devious plot). If you’re interested in watching it, you can check it out on Netflix or watch the YouTube version – not sure if it’s legally posted.

While the director and narrator, Brian Flemming raises a few interesting points, this is pretty much a rehash of ideas critical of Christianity that have been floating around for some time. Anyone who’s ever taken a comparative religion or literature class, or who has read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces will be familiar with many of his ideas. Flemming sometimes comes across exactly as his former school superintendent – who appears in the film – would like to portray him; as an adult who is still angry about wrongs committed against him as a kid. I’m pretty sure that Mr. Flemming is preaching to the atheist choir, as his message and methodology are unlikely to convince anyone who isn’t already on his side.

The first ten minutes or so of the film tells the story of Jesus, illustrating it with clips from old films. The intent of this seems to be to make the story appear as ridiculous as possible. However, he uses a pretty neat video trick to make an important point, one that I had never considered before – and I once thought myself a student of the New Testament. He places all the stories he’s just shown on a sort of grid, then crosses out all the ones that the Apostle Paul seems to have not known about – almost all of them.

Jesus died somewhere around 33 AD, and the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. Since the Gospel of Mark makes reference to its destruction, it must have been written after 70 AD, and since the other gospels appear have used Mark as a source document, that means that there are about 40 years of silence between Jesus’ death and the writings that describe his life – except, of course, for the writings of Paul.

But therein lies the problem – of the two dozen or so stories about Christ’s life that every modern Christian is familiar with, Paul seems to know about only two or three. In all of his writings, he never mentions the shepherds of Luke 2 who were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth, the three kings, the flight to Egypt, the twelve-year-old Christ in the temple – or most of the other events described in the gospels. In fact, according to Flemming, the only well-known events in Jesus’ life that Paul does refer to are his death, his resurrection, and apocalyptic events surrounding his return.

Flemming’s argument here is that Jesus was mythological, not historical. Paul’s writings are the oldest in the New Testament, pre-dating the gospels, and Paul doesn’t seem to know anything about the historical person who was his contemporary, not even by hearsay. My immediate response to this insight was to look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “Neither did I judge myself as knowing anything among you, except Yeshua The Messiah, even him as he was crucified…” in an entirely new light.

The argument seems to go something like this: in the 1st century AD, there were many stories circulating that were similar to the Jesus story, and pretty much everyone knew they were just allegories or myths. Paul must have erroneously believed the Jesus stories were true, or else he used them to advance a set of doctrines to which he adhered, or he simply made up the whole idea himself. After Paul’s death, the writers of the gospels felt the need to fill in a ‘history’ for the person of Jesus, in order to advance their cause.

Cover of "The God Who Wasn't There"

The God Who Wasn’t There

This Christ Myth Theory, as it’s known, is interesting. I was already aware of the fact that many other religions and myths contemporary to Christ had made many of the same claims – the virgin birth and atoning death included. But I had never given much thought or research to the fact that Paul himself was ignorant of many of the facts of Jesus life. Even when I was a fundamentalist Christian, I had a real problem with the explanation that Satan had created other myths which replicated facts about Jesus in order to lead many astray – especially since some of the so-called Satanic versions pre-dated the real one by sometimes thousands of years. The idea gives way too much prescience to Satan. I still find it difficult, however, to discount the existence of a historical person named Jesus who preached for a few years in Galilee and Judea.

Of course, if you believe Mark’s reference to the temple’s destruction is a prophecy, you can date it immediately after Jesus’ death, and part of the problem goes away. This does not, however, explain why Paul makes so little mention of the events of Jesus’ life.

Another interesting idea is Flemming’s dismissal of moderate Christianity. He sees Holy Wars and the Inquisition as very much in line with the teachings of the Bible, not dangerous aberrations. If one’s immortal soul is in danger – what is there to be moderate about? Unfortunately, he may have a point – which means this blog would be an exercise in futility. A few snippets of an interview with Sam Harris really drives this point home.

A final argument he makes touches on the religious education of children. Religious schools indoctrinate children according to the wishes of their parents – but is this the right thing to do? Children have not yet been schooled in critical thought, and aren’t likely to say to themselves ‘hmm, well that’s one theory’ when presented a viewpoint from an authoritarian figure. And there’s the fear factor as well – question what your teacher is saying, and you might just end up in hell.

I’m intrigued by the assertion that Paul may have been completely unfamiliar with the events of Jesus’ life, and I intend to scour his writings to see if I come to the same conclusion. I don’t think anyone who believes in Jesus will stop doing so due to this film, nor do I think non-Christians will learn much that they didn’t already know. And the final scene of the film is simply juvenile. But, The God Who Wasn’t There is an interesting way to spend an hour.

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