Thursday, December 27, 2007

What it means to be A Christian…

..or not.

You are dying. As you lay in the hospital bed, with the ambient noise of the nearby nurses’ station and people passing, you can feel your body shutting down. The doctors have stopped bothering to run tests—there is no good news to be found. The staff continues to care for your body, but you can see their eyes are concentrating on other patients. Other tasks.

Death is so imminent you have lost the fear of it, due to its inevitability. The “Get Well” Cards have limply bowed their faces; knowing their words of promised health have failed.

And in this long pause between worlds, a young intern rushes in. He seems live and vibrant and vigorous.

“Look, I know they say you are dying. I know what you must be feeling. I was once dying, too. I was just like you are now. Only I took this blue pill. You won’t believe what it can do. If you take it, I promise you life will never be the same. Ever.”

What’s the harm? If it was poison, it would only shorten the delay by hours. Even pain might be relief to this calm passing. So you take the pill with little expectation. But…then…you can start to feel…different. Your stomach starts to soften. Your heart begins to pound with enthusiasm rather than exhaustion. You can feel blood pulsing through your arms and legs and face. You stop gasping for air, and gulping it instead.

“See? See? I told you this was something, eh?! These little babies really do the trick!”

The trick? In Spades!

“Now, I ask you to do a favor for me. I’m only one guy, and there are worlds and worlds of sick people out there. I’m giving you a handful of these pills. All I ask is you give out as many of these as you can by the time you walk out of this hospital.”

As many as you can? Is he kidding you? This is fantastic—a whole new life. A moment ago you were dying, and now you feel as if you could run a marathon! Only a handful? You want more—buckets and backpacks and bushels of the blue pills. You aren’t going to one hospital—oh, no! You are going to every hospital in the city. Heck, every hospital in the state! You are going to be giving out more blue pills than imaginable.

“Look, start with this handful. When you are done, I will be certain to find you and give you some more. ‘kay?”

Pishaw! He will have to find you before you have left this floor. So you bound out the door, ready to share this pill with the first person you meet…which happens to be me.

“Whoa…slow down their fellow! You sure are excited. What has you so riled up?”

You tell me about the blue pill. Seeing my hospital gown and presuming I have need of such a thing, you start to push one toward me.

“No, no thank you. Turns out I have no need for your blue pill. The funny thing is this—I, too, was not doing well. Thought I was dying. And some lady told me about this clever breathing exercise and…well…next thing ya know, I am on my way to dress and leave.”

“The queer part is she told me the same thing—to show everyone on my way out this breathing exercise so they could be well, too.”

You think joining forces would be a swell idea.

“Well…I did think about it for a minute or two. But I look at it this way—I have a whole new lease on life. If I start to stop and give this breathing exercise out…that’s gonna take time. Time I now realize I have precious little of.”

You look at those blue pills…

“Think about it. This is no easy task. I am going to stop and show every one of those people how to do this breathing. That could take hours.”

You are going to have to explain these blue pills to every person, too.

“Some of them are not going to believe it, so I will go through my medical history, explaining how sick I was, explaining how I didn’t believe it at first, and how it has helped me.”

You may have to give some medical history…

“And some of ‘em are going to reject me, regardless of what I say. I am not so sure I can handle that type of rejection.”

Rejection always hurt you more than most.

“So do I want to spend the next 8, maybe 10 hours of my life, working my way out of this hospital, room by room by room, when I could be out appreciating the gift of life this lady gave me? Besides, I think she was moving on to the next room. When she saves that patient, they will go room by room giving out the breathing exercise. Heck, my doing it too is a waste of good resources…way I figure it!”

The young intern WAS headed toward another room. And it sure seemed like a lot of blue pills to pass out. They feel more like little blue anchors in your hand.

“I’m sure someone else will hand out your blue pills. Maybe a doctor or nurse—you know—someone more gifted and qualified in explaining blue pills. Hey, I’ve got some tickets to the Giants/ Patriots game; want to come? Maybe we will run into some sick people there, and give ‘em the blue pill or breathing exercise. What do ya say?”

There will always be sick people. What difference really does it make if you hand out those blue pills today, this afternoon or tomorrow? Tomorrow would be a better day anyway—the Giants and Patriots aren’t playing tomorrow.

And the day passes. And the week. Every year or so, during the spring cleaning, you come across a baggie of blue pills and resolve that THIS will be the year you call the young intern ‘cause you gave all of them out. Some years you even put the baggie in the car for the next time you drive by the Hospital. By Fourth of July they have moved back to the closet to make way for the firecrackers.

And then you find yourself on the internet explaining your story, how you believed in the blue pills, and if only other people would take these blue pills, they would be well. And how, just like everyone else, you think the idea of giving out blue pills to sick people is grand and noble and good, but you are just too busy. Not enough time.

Someone else can do it; ’cause you are too occupied…just…like…everyone….else.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Inside Out

My wife is typically cold. She starts to thaw only when the temperatures reach about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In a catalog, I discovered a hand cream which was supposed to cause your hands to warm. On a lark, I purchased it for my wife.

She tried it. Didn’t work. I brought it to my office for me to use. Doesn’t work on me, either. Last Friday, I rubbed some on my hands and about ten minutes later, without thinking about it, went to the bathroom. I started to get warm. REALLY warm. Apparently it does not work on one’s hands nearly as well as it works…elsewhere. ‘Bout like Ben-Gay in the jockstrap! Unfortunately, we only have public restrooms, and I thought it would be a mite bit inappropriate to be discovered with my pants around my ankles, splashing away at the sink so I sweated it out. Literally.

I told this tale to some family members, and one brother turned to another brother, saying, “Remember that time you were cutting wood, and you did not know you had touched poison ivy?” Nothing more needed to be said. We all got the picture immediately—recalling the incident with howls of laughter.

I’ll bet any reader who had a family gathering over the past month also had short snippets of statements which would mean little to an outsider, but bring back overwhelming memories and associations to each of the participants.

“Yeah, just like your fishing…”
“…As good as Grandma’s pie…”
“Uncle Ted was so scared, he arrived early!”

Sure, an outsider may get a flavor of the meaning, due to the context, but to the insider participants, the words and the pictures they bring to mind provide a fuller and richer portrayal the outsider could never quite completely appreciate.

I know at times people may read what I write, and bemoan I am not accurately painting Christianity. Or I use too broad a brush. Or I push it out beyond limits it was designed. Can I remind you that I was an insider? I know the catch-phrases, the histories, the nuances. I know the rituals, the steps, the backgrounds.

I also know the excuses, the justifications and the rationalizations.

“Put Christ back in Christmas.” Please. I know how much “Christ” is IN Christmas for the vast predominance of Christians.

It means performing a play or Cantata. For other Christians. It means gathering food, and perhaps sponsoring a family. But only through a Christian organization, of course, and sponsoring a “deserving” family. It means going to Church on the Sunday before Christmas, and (if one is dedicated enough) the Christmas Eve service. It means having a Nativity scene on the Television Stand, and being indignant one is not at the Courthouse. It means reading Luke 2 after watching “Nightmare Before Christmas.”

What it does not mean is doing without. It is not a holiday in which Christianity rises with one accord and demonstrates to the world the extent to which their claim of Christ’s gift of himself is appreciated by giving to the point of sacrifice.

Oh sure, a Christian gives—but to the point of doing without? How many Christians did not have desert at their meal, ‘cause they had given so much they could not afford it? How many Christians reading this blog did without presents so that others could have theirs?

I am now an outsider; looking in. And what I see is the “Christ” most Christians put in Christmas is not very much. Like us outsiders, Christians get together with families and friends, eat too well and too rich, exchange gifts we don’t need, and enjoy the festive spirit.

They may add a program—but is it that different from a tradition of seeing “A Christmas Carol”? They may add a reading—but is it different from a tradition of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas? They may put a bit more in the plate—just like we give a bit more to Salvation Army since it is right there.

Am I too tough on Christianity? I think not. I have been inside. I know the difference. Having now celebrated three Christmases on the outside, I am fully realizing how little Christ is in Christmas. How Jesus is not the reason for the season.

Only I am seeing it is not the secularists removing Him—it is the Christians themselves.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Does the Bible apply today?

We are all aware of the language barrier inherent in discussing both the Tanakh (Hebrew) and the New Testament (Koine Greek.) While we have lexicons and dictionaries, and other contemporary works—what we don’t have is a 8th Century BCE Israelite or a 1st Century CE Judean to explain the individual words themselves within their culture. We can do an antiseptic translation, stating “yowm” means “day” or “division of time” or “period” yet the argument will rage as to whether the “yowm” of Genesis 1 are 24-hour periods, or eons of time.

Or the word ”theopneuostos” of 2 Tim. 3:16. We can see the word is a combination of “God” (theo) and “wind” or “breath” (pneuostos) but since it is not utilized in other literature, not even anywhere else in the Bible, we can only surmise as to the author’s intention of this unique, made-up word. It has been translated as “inspired by God” or “God-breathed;” the exact nuance is ultimately unknown. And yet this is a foundational claim of someone who holds to the divine nature of the Bible!

This point was forcefully made to me in my first semester of Spanish class. If you have ever taken a language class—they make you pick a Spanish name, hopefully one close to your own. For those of us who haven’t a close name to translate—we were able to pick our own. Being me, I choose “Burrito” to be funny. All semester I was called “Burrito” by my fellow classmates and the professor (who had a sense of humor, luckily.)

We learned in Spanish, you add an “-ito” to a word to make it cutesy, or childish. Similar to the English equivalent of adding “-y” to words such as “doll” to become “dolly” or “horse” to become “horsey.” “Muchacho” (young boy) would become “muchachito.” The professor turned to me and dead-panned, “And since Burro means ‘Ass’ then Burrito would mean Little…” The students laughed, getting the joke.

In order to appreciate what he was saying, one would have to understand the implementation of “-ito” in the Spanish language, what a “Burrito” normally is, and that “Ass” can mean a four-legged pack animal…or something else.

While we can sterilely translate the words, can we translate the meaning behind the words? How many times have we typed some comment on-line, and someone else takes it completely unlike we anticipated? How many times have we bemoaned that sarcasm and wryness do not translate well in the written word? The Bible was not written with smilies to provide further information. A “;-)” behind a Proverb to clue us in to whimsy involved.

Take Mark 15:39 where the centurion watches Jesus die, and says, ”Truly this man was the son of God.” Many people interpret this to be a straightforward confession of Jesus’ reality. But is that the author’s intent? What if the author wrote it mockingly? As if the centurion, seeing Jesus humiliated and killed, said, “Oh sure. This was the son of God. And I am the King of Spain. Ha ha ha ha.” (Note the priests were just calling Jesus “Christ, the King of Israel in verse 32, yet we do not consider those words a confession of faith.)

We simply don’t know. We can speculate. We can view the context and hypothesize. But in the end, it is a matter of weighing alternative speculations, in which we can only hope one theory is more persuasive than another.

Worse, the Bible was written to a culture and society we know very little about—and what we do paints a picture very unlike our own. Take Marriage. In the Tanakh, polygamy is treated cavalierly. The greatest limitation is that Kings should not have too many wives. Deut. 17:17. The stories of romance are noted for their being an exception. Wives and marriage were a means to an end, and love was not considered a necessary part of that means.

By First Century Judea, marriage was a means to gain honor or join houses in the society. “Love” had nothing to do with it—it was an arrangement made by the families for the parents’ mutual benefit. The wife was always considered a bit of an outsider; never quite part of the new family. She was expected to obtain her emotional support and relationships through other female friends and her children—not her husband!

In our culture, we look at marriage as the instituting of a new home. At that time, it was looked at as assimilating the female into the male’s family. There was no “new home” but a continuation of the old.

We occasionally hear, at weddings and such, how a couple will become “one flesh” and this means a joining of heart, spirit, mind, personhood, blah, blah, blah. Poppycock. “One flesh” to the authors who utilized the term considered it to mean sex. 1 Cor. 6:16. Oh, you can glamorize it, and extrapolate meaning out of it—but that isn’t what the authors intended when they wrote it.

Which causes me to wonder—given the language barrier, the translation difficulties, our lack of knowledge and the social differences—does the Bible apply today? How much are Christians taking a 2000+ year old book and trying to shoehorn it into a prescription for today? And how well does it fit?

We recently had a discussion regarding Jesus’ words of not worrying about what a person would eat or drink, or be clothed in. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself. Matt. 6:25-34. To the audience of Matthew’s time, their sole concern as peasants would have been basic survival. They were no thoughts of slowly accumulating a fortune. There were thoughts of obtaining enough food to survive another year.

How applicable is that today? Most of us have closets of clothes. Pantries of food. Refrigerators and second freezers bulging with enough food to last for weeks. Are we worried about tomorrow’s food? Nope—we are worried about our son’s college fund. Our retirement package. Does Matt 6 still apply in the age of bank accounts and IRA’s?

Is 1 Tim. 2:9 still good law? Are Christians claiming women should not wear gold and pearls? Or is that 2000 years behind the times? Full and fair warning: If one provides some crack about not taking 1 Tim. 2:9 literally, and we should look at the principle of the thing, I will question why Rom. 1:26-27 should not likewise be taken “in principle” rather than literal.

When is the last time any of us went to the butcher to get some meat sacrificed to idols? 1 Cor. 8:4. Or worried about women having their head covered when they pray? 1 Cor. 11:5. Who goes to church to be cured of an illness? James 5:14

Not long ago, in many conservative circles drinking alcohol was a sin. In the Bible Belt of America, there are “dry” counties—no sale of alcohol, which is still reminiscent of the general feeling of prohibition. Yet in the society of the New Testament, alcohol was a common drink. Most Jews drank about 1 liter a day. Is the Bible out-dated?

Slavery existed both in Canaan and First Century Judea. The Bible tacitly endorses slavery by providing instructions both for the masters of slaves and slaves themselves. Eph. 6:5-9. 1 Peter 2:18-20. Should the Biblical principle of slavery be re-introduced? Or have we grown wiser than the Bible?

And what I see is instead of following the precepts laid out; Christians allegorize what is contained therein to some modern application. Slavery? Oh, no—we will give a sermon on employers/employees using these passages. Meat for idols? Oh, no—we will give a talk on how one can’t listen to Christian rock-n-roll ‘cause it will lead others to listen to actual rock-n-roll (Which leads to dancing and orgasmic sex. All bad.)

Women can wear gold and pearls—that’s just fine! The principle of the thing is that they need to be “modest” about it.

They are already doing it! They already understand what was fine and good 2000 years ago just doesn’t fly today. “Sell what you have and give to the poor” (Matt. 19:21-22) 2000 years over its expiration date; doesn’t apply today! “Give to anyone who asks” (Luke 6:30) Well! This is the 21st Century—they didn’t have homeless people crowding the streets like we do today. That verse doesn’t apply, either!

Even Christians are proclaiming what the Bible actually says is not what it actually means in our day and age. ‘Cause things are different. At what point do we realize applying a book compiled of other books written from 800 BCE to 130 CE in 2007 CE is not going to work?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Why do Churches have locks?

Recently we were informed of another incident in which a person shot a number of people in a public location—in this instance a Church camp and a Church. It is a sad commentary on our times--we have become so acclimated to this on the news, we refer to it as “another” shooting, and before the media has completed their frenzy on one situation, we have heard of a new one.

This recent situation ended differently than most in that an armed security guard shot and killed the assailant during his assault. Although the details are sketchy, the media reports this guard was in place because of concern over security issues, both from past embarrassments (Ted Haggard) and possibly being forewarned of the shooting at the camp.

For full disclosure, I should note I own handguns myself, I strongly support the concept of qualified citizens privately owning guns, and I have had a concealed weapons permit in the past. I am genuinely glad this guard was armed, used her weapon, and was successful in stopping this murderer. I am thankful the church had the foresight to instill this program.

However, it does bring in to sharp focus the fact of how little Christians act as if there is a God. Every church I have ever attended had locks on the door. Every church I attended in the past two decades also has an alarm system.

If God was in control—why would there need to be locks? Oh, we can claim God doesn’t want us to be stupid, and we should use common sense and wisdom, yet this flies in the face of 1 Cor. 1:20-21 which says the wisdom of the world is foolishness. Banks put locks on doors. Stores and business put locks on doors. We would say that is wise of them to do so. But is a Christian demonstrating a lack of faith by doing the same thing the world does?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said to not worry about what you will eat, or drink, not even to worry about your life! Matt. 6:25-34. Why, then, should Churches have to lock their doors to worry about robbers?

Ever attend a church which has a building project? Perhaps needs a new roof? The same thing—a chart is put up in the lobby in the form of a thermometer, with each “goal” of contribution being a mark, and as the money comes in from the members, it is slowly filled in with red. Does the church say, “We need a new roof—don’t worry—God will provide”? Nope. The church says, “We need a new roof. Let us pray, and pass the plate.”

Part of the line items in a church budge is “insurance.” Including fire insurance. The author and finisher of the universe is unable to stop a fire? Of course not! The church just does not quite have enough faith to think it would for them!

And in this situation a church recognized a viable problem, and instituted a safety precaution. Just like any business would. The church felt God might not stop an assailant, but the bullets propelled from a gun fired by a person would. And they were right.

Although I am informed by many theists there is a God, what I observe is they don’t act like there is one. The church says there is a God watching over them; but has a lock on the door. There is a God who will provide; but has insurance. Here, the Church said, “There is a God; but just in case we better get a gun.”

For the sake of the people who were not harmed, I am glad the theists didn’t believe in their God on that day.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Before you put those Magi in the Nativity Play

I am currently reading “Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels” by Malina & Rohrbaugh and highly recommend it. Amazon Link It provides insights into the Social setting of First Century Judea, and its impact on how we understand the Gospels.

Since we are entering Christmas season, thought I would share some of what they say regarding Matthew’s record of Jesus’ Birth.
Greek handbooks called progymnasmata provided exercises in which students were taught to organize their remarks praising a subject around a series of conventional topics. It is amazing the degree to which Matthew’s birth story follows these school instructions.

For example, Hermogenes instructs his students to being with the subject’s origin and birth. They are to speak of “race, as the Greek, a city, as Athens, a family as the Alcmaeonidae.” Matthew did that with his genealogy.

Next, they are told to describe “what marvelous things befall at birth, as dreams or signs of the like.” Matthew does this too. There are dreams (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19), astronomical phenomena (2:2, 10), angelic appearances (1:20) and even attending astrologers with wonderful gifts (2:1, 11). Quintilian also tells rhetorical students to note things that happened prior to the birth such as prophecies “foretelling future greatness.” Matthew provides these as well (1:23; 2:6)

According to the progymnasmata of Menander Rhetor, one of the first things the writer of a piece in praise of someone should do is praise the city from which the subject comes because honor is ascribed to those born in an honorable city. To pull this one off, however, Matthew had to resort to some deft literary gymnastics. When he quotes the prophet Micah regarding Bethlehem, he turns Micah’s meaning around completely. Micah had called Bethlehem “one of the little clans of Judah.” (5:1). [sic – it should be 5.2 ed.] In Matthew that becomes:

And You, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
For from you shall come a ruler
Who will govern my people Israel.

In this way Matthew tells of a Jesus who comes from a royal city, has royal ancestors, and is to be a ruler of Israel. (some citations omitted) pg. 27-28

This explains a great deal to one of the problems I have always struggled with regarding the Synoptic Problem. As we know, the Gospel of Mark does not record the birth or childhood of Jesus. He appears on the scene at the very beginning of his ministry, and we are given one year in the life of Jesus, ending with his apparent resurrection.

Along comes Matthew who uses Mark, but introduces a lengthy birth narrative. Luke, also using Mark, also provides a lengthy birth narrative. The problem is how much they contradict, yet where they strangely agree. They contradict as to the year of Jesus birth, the reason for being in Bethlehem, the Magi compared to the shepherds, the angles appearing to Joseph as compared to Mary, the genealogies, the trip to Egypt, and the yearly sojourns to Jerusalem. Those contradictions have been discussed at length in numerous accounts.

The interesting aspect (to me) though is where Matthew and Luke agree. They both agree on a virgin birth, on a birth in Bethlehem but a childhood in Nazareth, on angelic appearances, and both feel a genealogy is necessary. How is it, if each was completely independently making up the birth narrative, they happened to agree on these factors? If they were each using a common source, was it only a bare-bones account that included virgin birth, angels, Bethlehem and Nazareth? But why the divergent genealogy?

And if Luke was using Matthew, why would he modify Matthew’s story so much?

This has always puzzled me, and up ‘till now I listed as one of those things I didn’t know, and if pressed would have speculated as to a bare-bones account they each used.

However, if Matthew was using a Greek method of introducing an individual, and Luke recognized it as being fictional history within that Greek method, he easily could choose to disregard it. Luke could have had Matthew in front of him, and been rejecting Matthew’s use of Greek form!

Simply put, Luke was correcting Matthew’s embellishment of Jesus’ birth by providing a different form of establishing honor.

Fun thoughts to puzzle upon during this Christmas Season….

Monday, December 03, 2007

Wipe out Christianity?

The popular non-believing writers of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris propose we would have a better world if Christianity as a belief went the way of the belief of child sacrifice to make crops grow.

Should I, as an atheist, be actively attempting to wipe out Christianity?

I struggle with this. I do see good in Christianity. I see a moral system that makes many people act better than they would without it. How many (million) times have we heard, “If I was an atheist, I would murder, rape, rob, pillage and steal”? Please, if you believe this way, Stay A Theist!

I see the chance to provide charity (regardless of the motive) and the convenience of weekly opportunity literally being passed before one’s wallet. I see a social camaraderie, a oneness of purpose, a desire to be better humans, all hanging on a person’s Christianity.

And really, there are many, many beliefs I think are “wrong” that I am not actively petitioning against. So what if a group of people want to believe some guy who died 2000 years ago is still alive and looking down on them when they masturbate.

But on the other hand…

I also see the hate. I see the division. I see the claim of superiority because “God choose them” and not me. I see the justification for harm, particularly towards minorities. (Women, African Americans in the past, and homosexuals now.)

And…let’s face it…I am firmly convinced they are wrong. Jesus didn’t resurrect. The Bible is not any more divine than the list of ingredients on my potato chip bag. There is no “Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

But on the other hand…

Can we really rip Christianity from people’s lives and expect them to be “just fine.” I had Christianity ripped from mine, and I cannot claim it as a pleasant experience. I do not recall a single deconvert referring to it as a “breeze.” It hurts. It is painful. And while it made me a better person…would it everybody? Are there people who are barely holding on to the threads of morality by fear of hell? If we could absolutely prove Christianity 100% wrong and did so—would the world be better 20 years from now? 50 years from now? (Or would we all be speaking Arabic?!)

I swing back and forth on this. Some days I wish Christianity were eliminated by the harm it has caused. Some days I am glad it still exists for the little good it provides.

Does the harm outweigh the benefit? What do you think—should Christianity be wiped out?