Saturday, October 30, 2010

Theology vs Truthiness

In my previous blog I illustrated that claiming having lustful thoughts are exactly the same as being an adulterer is not only stupid, it destroys the entire Christian faith.  Now you may have read that and thought to yourself, "Well hold on, that may be a well reasoned argument* but that doesn't change what it says right there in the Bible."  You would be correct of course, it certainly does look like Jesus was agreeing with Christine O'Donnell when you read the passage in question.  But is that really all there is to it?

The answer is that no, there is actually a lot more to it.  Many Evangelical Christians prefer to use the Steven Colbert approach to Bible reading.  It's a lot easier to just believe what your gut tells you ought to be true and forgo all the hard work of exegesis, understanding context and looking at the bigger picture.  The problem is that this doesn't always lead you to truth.  You are far more likely to end up with "truthiness".  Just because it feels true that doesn't mean it is true no matter how convinced you may be that the feeling in your gut is actually the Holy Spirit.  See the Bible wasn't written for any of us.  Every Biblical author wrote at a specific point in time and space and addressed the work to a primary audience with a specific background, language and culture.  If you aren't willing to understand Scripture the way the original recipients understood it then you may be better off not studying it at all.

In this specific passage in Matthew we don't have an English speaking Caucasian pastor addressing a western mega church.  Instead we have a First Century Jewish Rabbi addressing a group of Jews seeking religious instruction.  Rabbis were not only people who taught you what God commanded (the Torah laws) but also tried to show people how living according to God's commandments was supposed to look practically (called halakhah, "the path that one walks").  So then we find Jesus in Matthew 5 using a rabbinic practice called "putting a fence around the Torah" (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:1).  See, the rabbis reasoned that since small missteps can (not inevitably though often enough) lead to the actual breaking of Torah law, the best solution was to give rulings that prevented people from even coming close to breaking the actual Law.  For instance, one such ruling taught people not to handle tools on the Sabbath lest the temptation to work became too strong.  (I have never struggled with that particular temptation myself but you can see the principle at work here. ) In short the idea was that if you never took the first step towards the slippery slope, the chances of you actually slipping were nullified.

Lest ye doubt me, here are some examples of the same practice by other rabbis, bearing a rather striking resemblance to Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

"He who violates, 'Love your neighbour as yourself', will ultimately violate, 'You shall not hate your brother in your heart', and 'You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge', until in the end he will come to shedding blood" (From a Rabbinical commentary dating around 200 to 300 AD)
The train of thought is pretty clear here.  While only murdering your neighbour is actually against the law, the rabbinic restrictions are there to keep you from ever going down the path that could possibly lead to murder in the first place.  Best to stay as far away as possible from small sins lest they lead to big ones.

They also - just like Jesus - seemed to come out very harshly against relatively mild transgressions like gossiping and humiliating someone in public.
"To which is gossip more similar, robbery or murder?"
"Murder, because robbers can always give back what they have stolen but gossips can never repair the damage they've done"
"... one should rather fling himself into a fiery furnace than humiliate someone in public." (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a.)

[Interested in learning more about the Jesus as a Rabbi?  My source here is "Sitting at the feet of Rabbi Jesus" by Spangler and Tverberg.  Its an accessable and easy read that does a great job at exploring the Jewishness of Jesus]

Actually I just realised that I'm wasting energy even explaining this.  Firstly, no one actually leveled any such criticisms at me.  Then again, there are probably not a lot of Biblical literalists who would regularly read a heretic's blog.  Secondly - and this is the big one - no one actually believes that claim, not for a second.  Oh they would say they do, but they don't.  If you asked Christine O'Donnell or Ray Comfort (or anyone who regularly speaks to Christian teens) if they believed that lustful thoughts were the same as adultery in the eyes of God they would reply without hesitation that yes they do believe that because that is what the Bible teaches.  But they lie.  They may not realise that they are lying but actions speak louder than words and no one lives as if they actually believe that.  Think about it, let's say you are totally committed to Biblical Literalism and you find out your pastor/spouse had a sexual relationship outside marriage last week Tuesday.  You would be upset right?  You would be asking for a resignation/divorce immediately.  Now what if you found out that last week Tuesday your pastor/spouse saw an attractive person and had a quick sexual thought about them, what would your reaction be then?  The same?  Somehow I doubt it.

*In my head you are very well mannered and courteous, whoever you are. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Getting Stuck in a Pumpkin or How To Destroy Christianity through Biblical literalism

Up until very recently, very few people outside the United States had even heard of the state of Delaware.  Then Christine O’Donnell came along and changed all that thanks to a seemingly endless stream of clips of her making statements that make Sarah Palin look like a reasoned intellectual.  Now there have been a couple of doozies but arguably the most famous is the one of her arguing against masturbation, claiming that based on the Bible it was the same as committing adultery.

The strange thing is that this is probably the least crazy of her statements.  A very large subsection of Evangelical Christians would tell you the exact same thing – especially if you’re a teen at a Christian Youth Camp.  Many Christians would tell you that Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28 – “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." should be interpreted literally and therefore it’s a sin to even fantasize about another person.  I bought into this too as a teen and suffered endless guilt for being normal.  Eventually I figured out a loophole for myself.  Since the verse specifically mentioned “adultery” I would therefore be OK as long as I never fantasized about a married person.  I still recall the sad day that all my Sarah Michelle Gellar posters had to come down because she got married...  But I digress.  I mentioned this in an earlier post on the Ten Commandments but this literal interpretation is a vital weapon in the evangelism arsenal of groups like Way of the Master.  To recap, their method of evangelism typically goes as follows:

  • Ask the target if he/she considers themselves to be a good person.
  • When they answer “yes”, test them against the Ten Commandments (aka God’s rules for being good enough to make it into Heaven.)
  • When they do well on this test (and they tend to since most people aren’t adulterous, thieving murderers), go “Oh Snap!  But what about thought crime?”
  • Then convince them that since God counts sinful thoughts the same as sinful deeds, they are horrible, evil people deserving of an eternity of torture.

Now this approach is surprisingly effective at making converts but it does have a rather severe flaw built in.  See, while it can convert you, it cannot convert you to Christianity.  This is because if the premise of this method – that God punishes thought crime – is true then Christianity is false.  Don’t believe me?  Let me show you how a literal interpretation of Matthew 5 utterly destroys the Christian religion in just a 3 easy steps:
  1. If you take Matt 5:28 to mean that lust in your heart is literally the same as adultery in the eyes of God then it follows that anger must literally be the same as murder to God, according to Matt 5:21-22.
  2. Now then the Bible records several instances of Jesus being angry (Mark 3:2-7; John 2.13-22; Matt 23:13-36).  Therefore Jesus must have been guilty of several instances of murder in the eyes of God.
  3. Therefore His execution would have been just and He could not have been the sinless Lamb of God who bore our sins in our stead and impugned his perfect, sinless life to us. 
Presto, the entire Christian faith is invalid, all because you just had to have the thought crime stick to beat people with!  Thing is, you don’t need the weapons of guilt and shame to win converts – you would be hard pressed to find examples of anyone in the Bible doing that and Christianity somehow spread just fine back then.  However, some people just can’t do without it.  They have to make people feel as rotten about themselves as possible, they have to make them feel ashamed and since people are rarely as evil as they need them to be, they need thought crime to do it.  They never stop to think of the logical consequences, they just have to have guilt as a weapon.  It reminds me of how baboons get trapped.

See a popular way to trap a baboon is to anchor a pumpkin securely to the ground and to then make a hole in it just large enough for the baboon to squeeze his hand through.  When a baboon then reaches inside and grabs a handful of tasty pumpkin flesh he can’t pull his stuffed fist back out of the hole and so becomes stuck.  The thing is, the baboon can be free at any time, he just needs to let go of the stuff in his hand, yet they never think that far.

It’s exactly the same with many Evangelicals.  There is a world of freedom out there but they cannot enter into it because they are stuck holding on to the notion that God will damn you for your emotions and thoughts.  Even though it traps them in a religion that cannot – by their own rules – exist.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lazy Language

For sale here

I’m trying to make healthier eating choices lately and since I’m going off meds for a month starting today, I need to make healthier choices than ever.  It’s not easy though, I like good food.  On the one hand both my father and paternal grandfather died of heart attacks but on the other hand I don’t want to live in a world without delicious bacon!  So I’m trying to find a good balance between eating well and eating healthy only to find that the marketing department of every food manufacturer is trying to make that as hard as possible.  Worst part is that they are using my own laziness to do it!

Here’s the thing about shortcuts – we can’t live without them.  We need shortcuts.  Sure, its lazy but can we live any other way?  If we had to do life Ent style and take endless hours to ponder every decision in detail civilization as we know it would grind to a halt.  It’s a good idea to carefully consider some things of course, but who has the time to carefully consider everything?  That’s why we have clich├ęs and stereotypes, for better or worse they’re real timesavers!  Unfortunately, advertisers figured this out a long time ago and have been using it against us ever since.

Fat free tea.  Because apparently that was a problem that needed solving.  
Obviously they can’t tell a bald faced lie about their products because that’s the kind of thing leaves them drowning in lawsuits.  However it’s not illegal to tell the truth about your product, even if it’s a very creative truth.  For instance, a few years ago a couple of sunflower oil manufacturers advertised that their products had 0% cholesterol.  This was technically true but only because cholesterol is an animal product and you were never going to find it in a plant product anyway!  Most of the time it seems they just let us do the heavy lifting ourselves.  By just using a few “shortcut” words, we jump to our own conclusions and they don’t have to go making too many claims that need factual backing.  These are words that make you instinctively assume something good (about their product) or bad (about a competitor) when in fact these words are actually quite neutral.  They can mean something good or bad but over time we have associated some with good things and other with bad.  Some examples would be words like:

Traditional.  Ahh yes, you see the word “traditional” and you immediately assume this product is just filled with the goodness and wholesomeness of the good old days.  Just hearing the word brings to mind your grandma’s kitchen – which is probably the intention!  But wait a second, who said “traditional” was the same as “good”?  The word “tradition” only refers to “a long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting”.  In other words it’s simply a way of doing things that’s been around for a while.  That doesn’t necessarily make it bad but it certainly doesn’t make it good and it definitely doesn’t make it the best way.  If you go back a 100 years you would find that people were probably doing the best they could with the knowledge and technology they had, but you wouldn't assume they were doing it better than we currently do in any field - except apparently with food.  For instance the traditional way of traveling between continents was by using a ship.  These days we travel by airplane.  Now is traveling the traditional way bad?  No, certainly not.  However it’s definitely by no means better than the modern form!  Just because something is older does not make it better.  If you find a 200 year old recipe for lemonade that includes 2 cups of badger urine, would you choose that over a different brand simply because it’s “traditional”?

Sometimes "Traditional" is just another word for "pain in the ass"

Natural.  If you see that a product is “natural” then you know it’s good for you because everything from nature is good for you right?  Well no, no it’s not.  Lots of things from nature are terrible for you!  Some of the most poisonous thing in the world are 100% natural.  The thing is that while there certainly are a whole lot of wholesome things in nature, you will find that nature can be pretty vindictive too.  Plants actually produce their own pesticides to ward off bugs, so odds are that the totally organic broccoli you bought from that hippie at the farmers market is probably still full of pesticides.

Chemicals.  Grrr, argh, chemicals bad!!  No one would want chemicals added to their food right?  You probably wouldn’t like it if I added 2-oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4- lactone-2,3-enediol to your juice would you?  How about if I added some extra Vitamin C, would that be OK?  Sure, no one would object to that, even though Vitamin C and 2-oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4- lactone-2,3-enediol (or L-ascorbic acid for short) is exactly the same thing.  Think back to your basic chemistry classes for a second.  Everything is made of chemicals.  Your body is full of chemicals and so is everything you eat.  Water, air, carrot juice, rump steak – all made up of chemicals.  There are good chemicals and bad chemicals so to simply and reflexively consider the word “chemical” equal to “toxic waste” is just lazy thinking
Di-hydrogen monoxide - it kills thousands of people each year!!!
Processed.  Again, here is a word that we associate with bad, plastic food almost immediately.  Sometimes that is most definitely the case (looking at you processed cheese).  However, the term “processed” when applied to food simply means that the food has gone through some kind of process.  If it was sliced, peeled, dried or even just washed it’s technically processed.  Therefore if you want your carrot “unprocessed” then you better have it fresh from the ground, dirt and all.

I hate having to be so on guard when I’m grocery shopping, but these people leave me no choice.  Bastards.  They are forcing me to confront my shortcuts!  Not cool guys!  Now I have to judge every product on its individual merits!

So these are some examples of lazy language I have come across so far.  Does anyone else have some more for me?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Two Mars Hills


I had barely published my previous blog on the wonders of yoga when I was confronted by this video by Past. Mark Driscoll explaining how yoga is evil and demonic and all who practice it are hellbound.  At times like these I am astounded by the difference between Mars Hill and Mars Hill.

There are two famous churches in the USA which go by the name “Mars Hill”.  One is in Seattle, Washington and is headed by Mark Driscoll.  The other is in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is headed by Rob Bell.  Superficially they seem very similar at first.  Both are very large and both are well known and popular far outside their respective city limits.  Both are thoroughly modern with pastors who are engaging public speakers – not to mention that they both sport interesting hair and non-traditional dress sense.  Yet these two couldn’t be more different from one another*.

If you sat down the leaders of both Mars Hill churches and made the statement that “everything is spiritual” then they would both agree with you but for very different reasons.  For Rob Bell, the statement “everything is spiritual” means that your spirituality involves the entirety of your life.  In other words, you don’t have a “spiritual life” and a “normal life” separate from one another.  Therefore everything you do can be an act of worship and God is involved in everything you do.  I suspect Mark Driscoll on the other hand would agree because he thinks there are demons behind everything.  Yoga?  Demons.  Popular works of fiction?  Demons.  Popular movies?  Demonic.  Mormonism?  Founded by demons.  I’m sure if I looked harder I could find more examples but clearly the man lives in a demon haunted world.

Mark Driscoll
This leads to the two Mars Hills preaching very different versions of Christianity.  Pastor Driscoll’s demon-centric worldview necessitates a tough kind of Christianity.  At his Mars Hill Church, God is tough as nails who tolerates no sin or deviation from doctrine.  He is the Yahweh the Warrior, the God of the predestined, the One who saves only a select few from this world filled with demons and deception.  In this Mars Hill they do not flinch from using strong language or violence.  This is a church that is into MMA and Christian Cage Fighting**.  Here the measure of a man is tied to his prowess in the field of battle.  Because of this you will find no gentle Jesus here.  At Mark’s church Jesus is the ultimate Alpha Male, a tough guy who can beat up your dad (much like Mark himself).  To him, “Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.” 

Rob Bell
Rob Bell on the other hand doesn’t strike me as much of an alpha male.  In fact I’m pretty sure your mom could beat him in a cage fight.  His Mars Hill Church is far more geek friendly and you are far more likely to hear a Star Wars reference than an Ultimate Fighting metaphor from his pulpit.  Doubters, heretics, the lost, the weak and the broken are all welcome.  The God of this Mars Hill is far more welcoming and has hope for all mankind.  Rob Bell’s Jesus is more likely to give you a hug than an uppercut.  One quote by Rob has always stuck with me.  In Velvet Elvis he wrote “Why blame the dark for being dark?  It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn't as bright as it could be.”  That pretty much sums up this Mars Hill.  It isn’t focused on sin or demons at all.  Instead there is a constant focus on being a light in a dark world by doing good to others.  I think the closest I’ve heard him come to apologetics was his suggestion to those struggling with their faith to join a program that helps underprivileged children.  That is where their God lives – amongst the poor and the broken.  Like the one in Seattle this Mars Hill is also quite aggressive, only here they are aggressively into charity (both domestic and internationally).

Now if my tone wasn’t a clear enough indication, I’m not a fan of Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill but I am extremely fond of the Mars Hill of Rob Bell.  The funny thing is that when I was half as old as I am now it would have been the other way around.  Back then, I would have agreed with Rob’s detractors that to not preach on sin, hell and the demonic is simply unchristian.  The sheer manliness of Mark’s church would have been far more attractive.  I considered all that peace, love and charity stuff to be uncomfortably close to the antichrist agenda.  Not so much anymore though.  Nowadays the “lets call everything we don’t like/understand demonic” brand of aggressive Christianity that claims to always be right despite all evidence to the contrary drives me toward agnosticism.  It is only Rob Bell’s brand of Christianity that makes me believe that there is something to this faith after all.  I don’t think I would want to worship a God that would like to beat me up.  Violence and aggression is not the same as being tough.  An angry child can swing a fist.  Self-sacrifice, now for that you need to be tough.  Opening yourself up to constant hurt by trying to heal the messiness of humanity, that takes courage.  Cage fighting doesn’t scare me, caring for the helpless does.

*To be fair, I have never attended either one of these churches.  I have heard sermons from both and I have seen plenty of video from both so I’m fairly certain I can offer my opinion fairly here.
** A term that had a completely different meaning in the Coliseum in 1 AD methinks…