Why I Support Pope Francis

Many of my secular friends are having a hard time coping with Pope Francis, and I understand why.  He’s an enigma.  We’ve all borne witness to the likes of Pope Benedict, whose status as a theologian was overshadowed by his callous attitude and many missteps.

Pope Francis is in some ways Benedict’s polar opposite. Being a Jesuit—the first ever to hold a Papal tenure—he is humble, attempts to live a simplified life, and understands the plight of the impoverished.  He goes out at night and takes care of the sickly.  He finds humility to be a worthwhile attribute so much that he refuses to stay in the expensive Papal suite.  He gives up the Pope Mobile for an antique.  He speaks out against Capitalism. He walks the walk… even literally.

Meanwhile, Benedict’s tenure saw scandals galore: money laundering at the hands of the Vatican bank played into the notion of a Vatican City awash in Capitalism rather than the ethical behavior one expects to find at the Holy See.  He fumbled—like Bush did with FEMA during Katrina—when it came to dealing with allegations of pedophilia in the clergy.  We witnessed the proclaimed center of Catholic morality, including god’s chosen witness on earth, fall into corruption.

Rightly the secular masses are somewhat skeptical—why Francis to replace Benedict?  Is this the new face of Catholicism or just the guy they are using to spin the church right before they fall back into corruption once he is gone—like a placeholder for the second coming of Ratzinger?  Frankly, I don’t believe the highly-conservative heads of the College of Cardinals would have cast their votes for someone like Francis if they knew he was going to turn as many heads as he has; they have never cared about public opinion before and I doubt highly that they had a change of heart about it.  So the conspiracy theories that Francis is a Publicity Stunt for a dying church is growing a little tiresome.

But while there are your typical conspiracy nuts out there (especially those who just flat out hate religion, or just Catholicism in general), other secular individuals are just downright impractical.  They want Francis to allow women priests, to open up the doors to gay marriage in catholic churches, and if he doesn’t heed their demands, well, then he’s a terrible nonliberal, who does not belong in his position of authority.

Let me be clear: I’m not an atheist, yet nor am I a Catholic (in the practicing sense, but I do believe in a supreme being).  But I was a Catholic—raised into the faith and traditions and the shame (as every good Catholic, even former Catholics, knows well)—and so I am sympathetic towards Catholicism.  For me, even as an Apostate, Catholicism represents the earliest, most ‘accurate’ variant of what might be considered ‘actual’ Christianity; that is to say, it represents, to the best of its ability, the oldest continuing sect of what came from the Romanization of the dogmatic eschatological traditions of the 4th Century (which had already changed dramatically—perhaps almost entirely—from the initial post-Easter kerygma).  I’ve got a bias and I know it.

However I’m not one to let the church off easy for its many sins.  I’ve written scathing articles against the treatment of women, on confessional institutions that limit academic freedom of thought and research, and on certain conservative interpretations of the Bible.  In this respect, I am as much a Catholic as any other—one who is both reverent of its place in the world but skeptical of its own hierarchical claims to authority (said with only part of my tongue in my cheek).

Yes, I do think that the Magdalene Laundries were horrific.  Yes, I think the Crusades were unfortunate and a tragedy—especially for Muslims and Jews.  And, absolutely, I agree with anyone who thinks that every priest who has sexually assaulted or abused another human being—whether that be a child or a woman or a man—should be tarred and feathered and stuck out in the gallows at which people to throw rotten food.  And yet somehow I can’t think of a reason why I should let these terrible and historic events overshadow the present.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you all not to judge the people, or even people in general, because I think that is unrealistic.  Our world wouldn’t run if people weren’t judged by other people (it makes more sense the longer you think about it).  But maybe I’m just a stickler for judging individuals based upon their circumstances and context rather than taking the whole institution as a whole.  Maybe I don’t want to hold Francis responsible for the sins of his church fathers.

Would it be awesome if women were allowed into a priestly role?  Yes.  Shouldn’t the church allow gay marriages?  It would certainly be great for all those practicing Catholics who are also gay and who love just as deeply as a straight Catholic.  But let us be realistic here.  That isn’t going to happen now.  There are lines drawn in the sand.  It is a glorious thing when a Pope decides that it is time to cross one of those lines, let alone several—but we cannot expect total reform.  The Catholic church is a huge and ancient institution (which is a pleasant way of saying that parts of it are rather dated).  Things must happen slowly in order to take hold.

Granted, Francis is accountable for his own actions, in his own time (presently), in the broader context of the current state of the church.  And right now they are the actions of a decent man trying to desperately to teach his fellow Christians how to ‘Christian’ correctly—at least the way he sees as ‘correct’.  Given his predecessors, that is a tremendous leap forward. We should take that for what it is and be grateful.  Any man who risks his own life to sneak out and feed the poor—especially after angering so many dangerous people—is a man who is heroic.  When was the last time we had such a Pope? That is why I support him. Dimidium facti qui coepit habet.  Given time, it is my thinking that his accomplishments will be the light which shines the path for those who follow.

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Now in North America!

ISD (twitter and Facebook) has informed me that ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ has finally hit the shores of North America and you can get it at a huge discount!

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Click to embiggen.

20% off!  Consider ordering your copy directly from ISD, follow the instructions in the image, cut out the middle man, save 20%, and get your copy sooner!  Sounds like a superb deal to me.

They also asked me a series of questions yesterday and I thought I’d share with you their questions (slightly modified for formatting) and my answers in full below:

  • ISD: I was hoping you might be interested in providing a personal statement about compiling the book.

Tom: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ was a project that started five years ago and was my first step into academia.  It was definitely a labor of love for Thomas and I, and I am pleased to say that we both survived the project.

  • ISD: What were some of your experiences?

Tom: Besides owing a huge debt to my colleague and co-editor Thomas L. Thompson, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of contributors, all of whom are just superb human beings; they were all very patient with me despite my lack of experience.  I will say that my first time indexing reminded me of Hell Week when I attended Valley Forge Military Academy–except it lasted for a lot longer than one week and I got less sleep.

  • ISD: What you’ve learned from this project?

Tom: As an undergrad working with some really amazing scholars–Thomas Thompson of course, Roland Boer, Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche, Mogens Muller, James Crossley, everyone who contributed to the volume really–who are all very well established, I took away a lot from this project.  Besides developing a greater appreciation for the scholarship of all those involved, the most important lesson I’ve taken away from this project is the need for patience.

  • ISD: Why are your passionate about the subject?

Tom: I can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve never had an interest in history; my love of the ancient past is perhaps just deeper than my love of, say, American history.  I think it has a lot to do with the questions that are being asked–every person living today comes from an ancient family line; we are all descendents of some great empire or another that thrived thousands of years ago.  Digging into that ancient history, in a lot of ways, brings me closer to those ancestors. .  In other words, I don’t view history as a random series of dates or names. It is so much more personal than that.  History, for me anyway, is the study of the human experience.  And I feel that needs to be protected for my children, and their children, and so on.  Of course, I’m an idealist and probably far too optimistic for my own good.

On Using Terms Like ‘Incompetent’ to Describe Others in Academia

You all know the drill.  Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

This tactic helps exactly zero people.  Unless someone is just plain wrong (i.e., they place the fall of Jerusalem in 40 CE, or something comparable which is completely bonkers, and they defend this point without any evidence), this polemical attack does nothing but alienate sides farther from each other without any real benefit to the audience.  Case in point:

“I will write a complete response to McGrath’s entire review in a future post. However, for now I am incensed enough at his outright incompetence (or is it plain old intellectual dishonesty?) and failure to write a straight and truthful account of Brodie’s Memoir that I will address just one of his remarks.”

Now whether or not James McGrath is missing something, or he is not reading Brodie sympathetically, or he is merely interpreting Brodie differently, is obviously an important part of a discussion.  But this does not ipso facto implicate James as ‘incompetent’ (he isn’t) or ‘dishonest’ (simply because he disagrees with something).  James holds advanced degrees which he could not have earned had he been incompetent (incompetence is when someone barely passes or fails a course–these people don’t generally find work in academia and I doubt many could write a successful dissertation) and he would never have received his Bachelors had he been dishonest (dishonest people are the sort who copy-verbatim-Wikipedia articles and turn them in as assignments; this is something I’ve witnessed happening in my own classes).

So let’s be clear.  James is not incompetent and he is not dishonest.  Is James perhaps guilty of not fully reading the material on which he writes?  Perhaps.  He has been called on this before–but this doesn’t make him incompetent.  It doesn’t make him dishonest.  And if one were to simply direct James to the information responsibly–you know, like civil human beings will do–then James can then correct or amend his claims based upon information he may have missed.  As an academic, James has many responsibilities–responsibilities that an amateur like Mr. Godfrey cannot understand fully (as he does not have these same responsibilities–nor would he likely want them).  But this is why so little is ever fruitful in conversations with Mr. Godfrey.  Every response James gives, regardless of its tone, is understood by Mr. Godfrey as an attack or assault upon some cherished belief.  He will likely interpret this very post as some aggressive move against him, rather than the constructive criticism it is.

So maybe we can start treating each other with a little more respect here?  Maybe we can do away with all the polemical name calling?  It is intolerable and I find that I have a hard time reading through all the vitriol to find the point that is being made.

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.

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“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?

Related:

See this (Joel Watts).

On the Problem of Free Will and Original Sin

In a conversation about this post, someone remarked to me that god made man in his own image.  There are a lot of implications to this position, but the most troubling for me is the concept of original sin and free will.  So god creates man in the image of himself (so his pattern), but man has the ability to sin.  Ergo god has the ability to sin (because we’re made from his pattern).  It also implies (a) god is not perfect (we are not perfect), (b) god can be evil (we can be evil), (c) god can make mistakes (we make mistakes), and so on.

But perhaps the most troubling position here is the rather absurd way god is portrayed.  That is to say, god is portrayed as a vindictive megalomaniac with serious social and commitment issues.  Think about the Genesis account: God makes the world, god makes man, god tells man he is ruler over the other living things on earth so long as he does not commit sin (eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) even though god made the tree and made man with the ability to eat from the tree. Does god create Satan or does he share the same preexistence as god?  Either way, god creates woman, Satan convinces woman to eat from the tree, woman convinces man to eat from the tree (that god put there), man and woman commit sin, god casts them out from paradise with all these problems (pain during childbirth, working the soil and toiling for survival, etc…).

Now, let me situate this in an analogy focusing on one aspect of creation; that is to say, the idea of creation itself.  Suppose you have all the powers of god for a moment. You decide to create a Ford truck. But what you really want is a Cadillac. You can’t blame the truck. So then you scrap the truck and make another truck, but this time you give it the ability to change into a Cadillac–but then it doesn’t do that, it stays a truck. Still, it isn’t the truck’s fault! You created the damn thing as a truck! Finally, let’s say you scrap the truck, create another truck with the ability to change into a Cadillac, and then try to show it all the amazing benefits it would have it would just change into a Cadillac–and if it doesn’t change into a Cadillac you’re going to burn it in hell for all eternity. But despite your pettiness and threatening tone, the truck remains a truck and in the end you’ve only proven you are a hopeless megalomaniac with sadistic tendencies. You still cannot blame the truck–if you wanted a Cadillac so badly, you just should have made a Cadillac.

If that isn’t twisted enough, how about the whole ‘temptation’ bit in the forest?  Consider this carefully now and don’t just react to what I’m saying.  Give it some thought while reading this analogy.

Let’s say your a parent.  You bake a batch of cookies and place them on the kitchen counter.  You then take your 4 year old and put them in the kitchen and, before leaving, you tell them to not eat the cookies from the cookie jar.  They have free reign of the kitchen, but they can’t eat from the cookie jar.  Then you walk out and lock the child and the cookies in the kitchen behind you.

Now let’s take a moment to reflect: 4 year old, kitchen, cookie jar (not tucked away in some cabinet, but sitting in a reachable position).  Let’s also presume that you have omniscient powers (like god is supposed to have, according to the bible, e.g., “…for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” [1 John 3.20] and”The Lord certainly knows everything that people do; he knows their imaginations and their thoughts and their hearts.” [2 Esdras 16:54]).  So you knew that if you left the cookie jar there full of fresh cookies, your 4 year old would open it up and eat a cookie.

That is just what happens, too.  The child goes over to the cookie dish, eats a cookie, and you burst into the kitchen and you say, ‘well, guess you’re doomed to a lifetime of toil and, by the way, you’re going to burn for eternity.’  And then you shove your 4 year old into an oven.

Too harsh?  I agree.  But this is the story of the Genesis account.  Adam and Eve, who had no knowledge of good and evil (so, they were essentially innocent) and had just been created like five minutes before Satan showed up, committed a very forgivable act (eating fruit from the tree) and instead of doing the logical thing (you know, like removing the tree or putting it out of reach–like make it float or hover twenty feet up–or just not creating the damn tree in the first place) he places the tree within reach and gives creates evil and creates Satan (presumably) and allows all of this to happen even though he knew it was going to happen (because the Dude is all powerful and all knowing).  And still damns man to a lifetime of toil and also misery after death (the Christian view of Hell, for our modern audience).

The most interesting bit though, he could have created Adam and Eve with the ability to not sin.  And since he is god, all powerful, he could have done it so it wouldn’t influence our free will.  He could have created us with the ability to be free without committing murder; we already have limited free will (we can;t just sprout wings and fly, even if we want to do that).  So why not give us, say, wings and not give us the ability to commit murder?  Seems rather odd, right?  If he wanted Adam to not sin, then he should have created a being that couldn’t sin.  It is patently absurd–in fact everything about free will and original sin is absurd.  And if you are still following at this point, you can see why I feel that way.

Bill O’Reilly and the Polarizing Political Figure of Jesus

It has come to my attention that Bill O’Reilly will be publishing a book on the life and death of Jesus. This news has been making the rounds on the interwebs and of course I’m concerned. It isn’t necessarily because I don’t like O’Reilly, or because I find his views on generally everything to be atrociously flawed and morally questionable, but I am concerned because the last thing we need to happen is a “Which way would Jesus vote?” debate start dominating the conversation about the figure of Jesus.

Of course I’m aware that Jesus is often called upon by various politicians of all affiliations. But politicians most likely use this rhetoric to reflect what popular culture supports and, unfortunately, culture supports some crazy ideas. Consider sites like Rapture Ready (a website for fundamentalist Christians who believe the world will end within their lifetimes) which make the following (generally popular) claims about Jesus found in certain wings of evangelical Christianity:

There is one thing certain we can state, based upon the integrity of Bible truth. Jesus would never endorse or be a member of any party whose platform supports abortion, gay rights, and a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.

Interestingly, Jesus is portrayed to have spoken thousands of words between all four Gospels, yet not one of those words was about abortion or gay rights. So what should one do about people who are hostile to Bible-believing Christians? Well, it gets a little hairy in this area, but there is that oft-quoted phrase “turn the other cheek.” So I’m not sure how certain anyone can be about endorsements for any particular political party.

When it comes down to it, scholars have enough trouble coming to any sort of consensus on what Jesus may have said and what he might have done, let alone what his political views might have been.

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And now that we’re on the subject, I don’t really hate bankers, or what they do, I just don’t want them doing their business in my house!

And those politicians on the right side of the aisle are not the only culpable ones. While Jesus spoke of social change in theological terms, he was not the liberal, leftist ideologue that some would suggest (like those at Jesus is (was?) a Liberal believe). He did not come to bring class equality, he did not come to preach against the corporate state (‘render unto Caesar’ and all that), he did not bring it to ‘the man’ (‘the man’ crucified him). He did not resolve to rid the world of poverty, he only eased their suffering by promising them a better world when they died (of leprosy, of starvation, of a beating by a slave owner, etc…); he certainly never promised the poor their freedom from their current, earthly state of poverty-stricken existence.

Yes, the authors of the Gospels portray him as feeding the multitudes, but he only does that occasionally as a demonstration of his similarity (sameness?) to Elijah/Elisha, who both performed similar miracles, and to show the power of god (which the poor would see when they died). He never lifted a finger to end poverty. The Jesus of the Gospels could care less about class warfare; in heaven, he would argue, the tables would turn. Here on earth, well, you’re stuck with what you have–even if that is nothing.

And while it may shock some of you, on occasion, he got involved in a little saber rattling. Jesus was not portrayed as a pansy. He had his moments of testosterone (can god have testosterone?) fueled rage and sometimes he was pretty blunt about what to do with those who crossed him (“those who are not with me are against me” and “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and “these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”).

Many of these verses were used during the inquisition to torture heretics and were justifications to launch the crusades. Whether they were right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion) it just demonstrates how that liberal, hippie (not to be confused with ‘hipster’) Jesus with the ‘anti-war’, pacifist attitude is a myth (in John 2.15, Jesus made a whip out of cord and he whipped the crap out of people for goodness sake!). But it is a myth in the same sense as the conservative, anti-gay, pro-guns Jesus that the right loves so much.

“I’m saving this lamb from the evil butchers–it’s free-range for this guy!” – Said Jesus never.

As Candida Moss has pointed out, Jesus did offer some semblance of free health care, healing poor and curing people without ever taking a cent. Obviously there were some caveats, because god, but these were largely faith-based (you don’t see poor people acquiring a referral because of their HMO in order to be touched and healed by Jesus, for example). So the whole concept that Jesus wouldn’t stand behind universal health care seems a little out of place.

The Gospels are also pretty clear that being poor and being a Christian are sort of hand-in-hand. He tells a rich man that in order to follow him, he must give up all his possessions (because he will be rewarded ten-fold by his faith after death in heaven):

“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

After this man left, he states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, according to Jesus, get poor or GTFO! This doesn’t quite jive with conservative capitalism, does it?

Similarly, while not in the Gospels, god (and therefore Jesus) advocates communism over capitalism and those who refuse to adhere to it cannot be a part of the Christian church. Period. Do not pass go, do not collect eternal life. And if you refuse to give up all your possessions and then lie about it, well, god strikes you dead.

So am I concerned about O’Reilly’s foray into historical Jesus studies? Oh, god yes. I’m terrified. But I’m terrified because of the way lay people and politicians will continue to construe and deconstruct the Jesus we have–even as unstable and contradictory an individual as he may be–and scholarship will continue to remain within a relatively isolated community of experts. In other words, books by the Bill O’Reillys and the Clint Willises (author of Jesus Is Not a Republican) of the world are the only books on Jesus that anyone will read. Because they will be the only books available and accessible.

Besides, broadcasters and talking heads don’t have the facts straight when it comes to their actual jobs (reporting the news). Bill O’Reilly can’t seem to figure out what causes the tide, so just how well do you think he’ll do getting the historical Jesus right? Keep in mind, scholars can’t even seem to figure it out entirely–and they’ve spent their professional career trying to find answers. I’m betting that O’Reilly will not produce a very accurate picture.

He is already imaging Jesus much like how he views himself, a “beloved and controversial young revolutionary” who is constantly persecuted, but who fights for that in which he believes. It is a stunning pseudo-autobiographical portrayal of Jesus through O’Reilly’s eyes. And had O’Reilly been trained in the field, he would know that George Tyrrell pointed out this troublesome factor of historical Jesus scholarship decades ago. But O’Reilly isn’t a scholar, nor even an educated layman on the subject; he is a pundit on a news network with an agenda (like all politicians and political-pundits). That is precisely the problem.

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“I should write a book on Jesus… but also on aliens.”

Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels is multifaceted because we have at least four portrayals. But the nuance of the figure of Jesus is much greater, and so limiting Jesus to particular synchronic values does nothing but narrow his value to everyone. Even as a secular student of history, I can find value there because the study of these nuances is important to all–not conservatives, not liberals, not any particular sectarian group. So this is my plea to everyone: leave Jesus out of politics. You are not salvaging history, you’re destroying the future (of history).

Books to Review

And I have a plethora.

Seriously, though, I do have a lot of them.  I am in the midst of reviewing some I have already started on this blog (but haven’t found the time to finish) and I have a handful I just received that I plan to review this month.  Here is the stack I have waiting for me:

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Since I am anxious to start the review process, let me give some first impressions of these books (in the order they are listed in the picture):

Thomas Brodie’s new memoir is interesting.  My first impressions were somewhat skewed in two directions prior to even seeing the book: (1) Richard Carrier’s not-so-positive review and (2) my great respect and admiration for Brodie’s work over the past few decades.   But I’m not at all impressed with Carrier’s review as I feel it takes the genre of Brodie’s work for granted.  Brodie is not writing a ‘mythicist book’, but a memoir about his life, his discoveries, the directions he has taken with his scholarship, and the direction that his scholarship has taken him.  As someone who has read (and enjoyed) the memoir of another Irish Catholic New Testament scholar (John Dominic Crossan’s, A Long Way from Tipperary), Brodie’s book fits perfectly within such a category and shines, in my humble opinion.  The first few chapters I’ve read demonstrate his struggle with the question of Jesus’ historicity through his time in the ministry, living in different parts of the world trying to teach the New Testament critically as a devout Catholic theologian and as a trained historian.  In many ways I’m sympathetic to Brodie’s positions–not because I think Jesus is a fiction, but because I find his reasoning to be justified within the framework of his career as an expert in literary criticism, as someone tested within the field of New Testament.  He could not have reached this conclusion lightly and therefore I am sympathetic, even if I disagree with the strength of his premise (i.e., Jesus never existed).  But I still have more to read and so I will continue to review it as I can find the time.

Mark Goodacre’s work is always a pleasure to read.  It always engages you critically and tends to have a Cartesian quality that challenges those long-held presuppositions of a text about which you never knew you had.  When I first read his Case Against Q, I was instantly persuaded (though, admittedly, I did already have my doubts about Q for some time).  With the Gospel of Thomas, I likewise started from a position of doubt; that is to say, I suspected that the author of Thomas had a familiarity with the synoptics.  Mark Goodacre’s new book does not strengthen my suspicions as much as it forces me to interact intellectually with them.  Thomas and the Gospels takes all my inclinations and lays them out for me to see, with a range of textual criticism and analysis for which Mark Goodacre is known.  He presents each argument, thus far that I’ve seen, with the intent of demonstrating the familiarity he argues for, rather than simply restating his premise over and over as I’ve seen in so many other studies on Thomas.  I anticipate that I will continue to enjoy this volume and the functionally-useful arguments that Goodacre gives throughout.  I can’t wait to continue reading this one!

Candida Moss’s new book The Myth of Persecution looks extremely promising, conceptually.  I hesitate to speak more about it yet because I am participating in a blog tour for this book in March and would much rather share my thoughts on it then.  However, I will say this is on a subject I have blogged about recently.

cpcisChanging Perspectives is a relatively new project under the Copenhagen International Seminar Series.  The goal of this project is to “publish volumes of collected essays and research articles, which have had a significant effect on the methods and scholarly research of its author as well as on the field of Old Testament and its related disciplines in the course of the last 50 years.”  I have received two volumes of the four to review: Thomas Thompson’s volume and Niels Peter Lemche’s volume.  I am confident in saying that both of these volumes are must-owns for anyone who wants to do serious scholarship in the field of Old Testament and literary criticism.  They are exceptionally important.  Some of the articles are known to me through my years of dialog with Thomas, who has on occasion directed me to them prior to the publication of this book.  However, some are new to me and many of which I would have to order through inter-library loan or pay to get my hands on them.  Thankfully, having them in this volume solves all of that as I can easily reference a particular argument, especially over stages of its development, which is very helpful.  I also learned something about NP Lemche that I had not known: he has a history of being a non-minimalist!  Who knew?!  I didn’t.  But now I do!  Thus we see the evolution of his critical mind in action from the 1980’s (where we see a more conservative Lemche) into the present (into the minimalist we all–well, most of us anyway; the smart ones–love).  I cannot recommend these two volumes enough and would quite enjoy reviewing Philip Davies’ forthcoming volume as well as John Van Seters’ volume, so long as Acumen is feeling generous enough.

Paul and Jesus by James Tabor looks to be a thought-provoking book.  I should preface this short introductory review with the fact that James and I do not always see eye-to-eye, but I like him as a person and find him to be a very serious scholar.  And I see both of those attributes reflected in his new tome on Paul.  I also see some not-so-distant (yet still faded) reflections of Hyam Maccoby and Gerd Lüdemann, along with Bultmann in this hypothesis.  The idea that Paul is really the man behind the movement of Christianity, rather than Jesus, is not new in and of itself.  In fact I would agree with this argument, as it seems that Paul’s theological foundation has played a pivotal role in the early Christian movement.  I won’t say much more until I’ve completed the book, but I do believe this title is worth every New Testament scholar’s consideration, as Tabor presents some challenging arguments that must be dealt with in new ways (as the old ways simply do not cut it, as Tabor demonstrates), even if his premise does not convince a whole lot of people (though particularly those in the more conservative wings of scholarship will find his reconstruction of the early Christian movement unpalatable).

Finally, we come to it at last.  But what exactly it is… Well, I am just not sure.   I get the feeling that Douglas Templeton is trying to do something very, shall we say, flamboyant with the literature, make it burst forth from the pages as would a description of a novel as explained by Derrida.  I’m just not sure what is going on and the volume comes across as very pop-culture-meets-anecdotal-meetup-group-esque.  I want to like this book, but it is so weird I just can’t begin to get attached to the discussion (that is, when I find it).  Honestly, I don’t think I have a firm enough grasp on the functionality of the book, if there is such a thing, to appreciate it.  Someone, I’m sure, will love it.  That certain ‘someone’ just isn’t me.

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