Category Archives: dark side

Sarah

I was feeling snarky when I wrote this. Not yet ready to kill these darlings so I’ll share them here. You’re welcome.

 

“Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord.” (1 Peter 3:6)

When Sarah was a young woman, God spoke to her husband and told him to move his family from the land that they knew. God promised progeny and land. He believed and they left.

They had no sooner left what she knew when her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and protected her, not for her sake but for her husband’s.

She waited a long time for God’s promise. She was old. She had endured years of shame as a barren woman. In a culture where a woman’s value is tied to childbearing she was an easy target for ridicule. And now she could no longer conceive. Her husband knew this too. Maybe his heirs should come through her maidservant, Hagar. Sarah consented and gave Hagar to her husband. Sure enough, Hagar conceived and Sarah’s shame increased.

When her husband was 99 years old, two strange men came to speak with him. They told him that he would have a son. Sarah overheard and laughed. Not out of joy but derision. The two men made kind of a big deal about her laughter. It’s not clear why they chastised her—her husband had just done the same thing two chapters earlier.

As they continued wandering, homeless and following the whims of her husband, they found themselves in a strange land again. And again her husband gave her to another man to protect himself. God remembered the promise and ordered the man in a dream to return her to her husband.

At a very old age, far too old to conceive and bear a child, Sarah did conceive. She gave birth to her son, Isaac, a name which means laughter. This time it may very well been an expression of joy.

Not long after, her husband again heard the voice of God, this time commanding him to take Sarah’s son and to sacrifice him. We don’t know how Sarah felt about this; the bible does not seem to care. God ultimately spared the boy and people tell the story of her husband’s great faith.

Sarah died at 127 years old in a foreign land and was buried in a field purchased by her husband.

Several hundred years later an ancient work, The Testament of Abraham, was written to tell her story and that of her husband. In that work she is presented as a wise and pious woman. She helps her husband to see things he is otherwise oblivious to. Later editors of the work did not like this picture of Sarah and took away her agency and insight. Sometimes women have to be kept in their place.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under bible, dark side, feminist interpretation

I Am a Christian Terrorist. And Likely You Are Too.

cross-bloodAnd now, thanks to this post, I am on an FBI watchlist. I should not be, and maybe I won’t be. My terrorism is the good kind. The Christian kind.

As the details around the religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers come clearer into focus a familiar narrative is emerging–that dangerous and violent religion, Islam, motivated these men to terrorize the city of Boston. And despite the valiant efforts of the good folks at The Atlantic (“The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?”) and  The Huffington Post (“Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” and “Boston Bombing Suspects’ Muslim Identity Provides Few Clues to Motivation for Bombing”), who question the relevance of the men’s religion to the question of motives, this hackneyed narrative is taking hold. In this post I do not wish to argue out how the ghastly acts of the Tsarnaevs are reprehensible to the vast majority of Muslims (though this is true–this fascinating study demonstrates that American Muslims are far more likely to condemn violence against civilians than any other religious group, including Atheists). I also do not wish to argue out how we in the United States are participating in the radicalization of Muslims (this article makes makes many important observations on this front). Finally, I will simply let this piece demonstrate that although we in the U.S. are obscenely violent, we only see outsiders as the real monsters. Rather, in what follows, I hope to show that, too often, Christianity, far from a benign force for good, is dripping in the blood of the innocents.

IN THE BEGINNING
Christianity from the start was rowdy and seditious. If we are to take studies on Empire seriously, its founder, Jesus, was an apocalyptic prophet who put God’s kingdom at odds with Rome. This should be no surprise, the inhabitants of Judea were incredibly restive in the first century and just over 30 short years after Jesus’ death engaged in a full revolt against Rome. Jesus’ assault the religious establishment (which was supported by and supportive of Rome) proved to be the catalyst for Jesus crucifixion (a penalty reserved for brigands and rebels). There is some question as to whether some of Jesus’ earliest followers could have been affiliated with the Sicarii (knife wielding terrorists—see Josephus’ Jewish War, 7.253-74; on the usefulness of a sword, see the enigmatic Luke 22:36-38 and the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 98) or the Zealots (see Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13).

After Jesus’ death, the first followers of “the way” continued to cause trouble. In 49 C.E., some 16 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the emperor Claudius was moved to expel all the Jews from Rome, on account of Jews making “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (see Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars 5.4; the episode is also mentioned in passing in Acts 18:2). Scholars are in general agreement that Chrestus is a variant of Christus. The conflict about Jesus had apparently become a nuisance to the populace. Some 15 or so years later, Tacitus (Annals 15.46) tells us that Nero was convincingly able to blame Christians for a towering inferno that consumed nearly the whole of the city (Tacitus, Annals 15.40, reports that only four of the fourteen districts were untouched). Tacitus is clear that Nero started the fire. What is compelling to me is that Christians could be plausibly identified as the culprits. It is only after they are mercilessly punished and put on display that pity from the general populace arises.

It is perhaps in the wake of the horrible failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome that Christians realized that rebellion and sedition were not the way to bring God’s kingdom. It is after the Jewish revolt that the New Testament is written. (I will have more to say on this in a moment.)

Now this historical reconstruction may not be plausible to you (I honestly am a little nervous to put it out there). Perhaps the first followers of Jesus were simply a persecuted minority who held beliefs contrary to the majority, who also held absolute power. Perhaps this fact led to suspicions and outright bigotry and persecution (sound like something happening today?). In this case, we can turn to the earliest Christian articulations of belief which are equally horrific. They nearly universally suggest the bloodlust of a Father who kills his Son to atone for the wrongs committed by humanity. Language of sacrifice is ubiquitous. Christians celebrate this good Father by ritually drinking the blood of the Son and, in the words of the Gospel of John, munching on his flesh (see John 6:54). Violence is the way in which God “redeems” the world.

THE WORD WAS GOD
We turn now to the biblical text. Now, I would never equate the Bible with God (though some do, if not in belief, in practice). But the biblical text has authority in Christian communities and it is littered with divine sanctions of violence. As a part of the contentious dispute about whether or not homosexuality as we know it is clearly condemned in the Bible (in my opinion, it is not), Dr. Robert Cargill has recently been writing on those uncomfortable parts of the Christian Bible. We can add violence to his list of things the Bible explicitly condones and even encourages.

The first followers of Jesus, as good Jews, turned to the Jewish scriptures for inspiration. The first Bible (that some will quickly dismiss as “Old”) that Christians of all stripes used speaks of God’s deliverance by way of the divine annihilation of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. Later, in the Exodus, those Hebrews who stray from the path are ruthlessly cut down. As the people enter and occupy the “Promised Land” they are commanded to kill everything—man, woman, and child. In fact, according to Judges, the problems that the fledgling nation faces are the result of their failure to do just that. In an earlier post, I discussed how 1 Samuel 15 continues to affirm this practice into the monarchy (and the New Testament book Hebrews implicitly condones the act too!). In Psalm 137:9, the writer laments the loss of Jerusalem and declares, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The joyous tale of Esther (whose inclusion in the canon at this time is debatable) delights in the massacre of Persians. Many early Christian Bibles included the Apocrypha with all its sordid tales of rebellion and violence (read 1 Maccabees for a good sampling).

The New Testament is not immune. In spite of the failure of violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, Christians still penned gruesome images that tacitly endorse violence. We have already looked briefly at the way in which Jesus’ death is interpreted. We can also point to Paul’s wish that those of the circumcision party in Galatians 5:12 would go ahead just lop the whole thing off! The bloodbath that is the Revelation to John graphically describes for us how God will finally bring God’s kingdom.

THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH
The text as it was received and then written thus endorses and even encourages violence. This is the text that was ultimately adopted and became canon. And the violence that is sanctioned in the Bible becomes the norm for Christian behavior. We can perhaps point to Constantine as the villain here (he was, after all, the first to make the cross, a symbol of death, the emblem of Christianity and of the Roman Empire).  The cross went before him and led him to victory.

I suggest, however, that violence was already inherent in the faith (witness all of the above, as well as the preoccupation with “martyrdom”—on this, see the important newish book by Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution). The vitriol that is reserved for those who are not of the emerging early catholic faith is astonishing (and the road goes both ways… and I suppose some things never change). Spend some time with the Letters of John (late 1st-early 2nd century) or with Tertullian. These are not exactly paragons of pacifism. Moving closer to Constantine, it is well documented that Jolly Ol’ St. Nick punched a fellow bishop over a disagreement at Nicaea. Bishops on the losing side of the debate were banished and exiled (poor Athanasius… who himself could be a bit of a prick). Violence and mutual disdain is the norm in early Christianity.

The subsequent history of Christianity is littered with religiously sanctioned violence. The Crusades (some eight [?] of them). The Great Western Schism. The Reformation. The Counter Reformation. The Inquisition. The 30 Years War. Bloody Mary. Even bloodier Elizabeth. Colonization. Manifest Destiny. Nazism. KKK. Westboro Baptist Church. And on.

AND TENTED AMONG US
To this day many breeds of Christianity sanction violence (thank you Brethen, Quakers, and others for showing us another way). And if you are the United States, and you pay your taxes, you participate in acts of terror. Secret drone attacks (I am still twistedly enamored by this piece that argues from a Christian perspective that drone attacks are moral). Israel’s occupation (motivated by absurd Christian Zionism). Colombia’s war on drugs. The predictable marriage between Christians and gun rights. I have not even mentioned our complicity in propping dictatorships in the interest of “national security” and the imposition of policies that keep people here and abroad hungry and impoverished.  And, perhaps most pertinent to this post, senseless acts of violence against Muslims (or people who look like Muslims) who are our neighbors and friends.

Why then do we point out the religion of these two men? Why is their faith highlighted as the violent one?  Why do we not look to the religiously tinted language that pervades the notes of Timothy McVeigh? As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued, violence is inherent in many religions, and Christianity is not immune (see his book, Terror in the Mind of God or listen to this excellent podcast, courtesy of Per Smith). Islam is no more inherently violent that other faiths, and certainly not more than Christianity (Dr. Dawkins, please hang up your bigoted screed).

I am a terrorist and my faith is bloodied, just like the Tsarnaevs.

2 Comments

Filed under culture, dark side, politics, religion, violence

Good Friday. God Is Dead.

In my introductory theology courses I organize the syllabus around the three legged stool of Anglicanism. Good theology, I tell my students, will engage text, tradition, and reason (which seems to me to be very closely related to experience). On any given question each must be given its proper due, lest the stool wobble and ultimately fail. This Lent, however, I have been reflecting on the fact that each of the legs themselves are incredibly unstable. The stool, it turns out, does not stand up to scrutiny.

TEXT
Let’s look at the text first (here I have been deeply influenced by Robin Scroggs little article, “The Bible as Foundational Document”). Despite fundamentalist cries to the contrary, the authority of the text has been thoroughly deconstructed.

1) More than 5,000 Greek witnesses and more 10,000 Latin witnesses (to say nothing of the other important early versions) do not allow for any sense of the purity of the text. At best we can reconstruct a 2d-3d century approximation of the New Testament.

2) The historical accuracy of the text presents serious issues. Leaving internal contradictions and questions about the miraculous aside, many events described in the bible simply do not line up with the archaeological and historical record. An Exodus of hundreds of thousands of slaves at the height of Egyptian power? Not likely. A sudden and total destruction of Jericho? No evidence of any such event. A mass arrival of a foreign people into Palestine? No material artifacts supporting the claim. In the New Testament, no massacre of babies by Herod and no census under Quirinius present the same challenge.

3) Some may argue that these historical problems are insignificant since the bible is primarily a theological and moral document. And yet, the theological and moral claims of the text have been found wanting as well. Again, we can point to the conflicting visions present within the text itself (Are there many gods or just one? Is divorce permissible or not?). We could also look to places where the text is relatively consistent and see that the vision of God and notions of morality are lacking as well. The prophet Samuel’s anger with Saul in 1 Samuel 15 is a good example here. God, through Samuel, commands Saul to attack and “utterly destroy” the Amalekites, not sparing man, woman, child, infant, or animal. When Saul fails to obey the command (which is abhorrent to us today and raises serious problems with respect to God’s justice), God strips the kingdom from him. Astonishingly, the author of Hebrews finds this story instructive in his argument for fidelity to God.

In short then, the purity of the text, the historical accuracy of the text, and the theological and moral claims of the text each undermine any claims to the authority of the the text.

TRADITION
We (or at least I) find similar problems with the tradition. Tradition can be conceived broadly as the history of the church and more narrowly as the creeds, dogma, and doctrine received. With respect to the former, the history of the church is nothing to be emulated. The great tradition is marred with petty infighting, greed, power grabs, blatant racism and sexism, and violent upheaval (both within and without). We whitewash it to to tell the great story of the triumph of the church, but really it looks a whole lot like any other empire in history.

The church today looks the same. Church folk boycott gay rights while covering up for pedophiles. They drop 50,000 eggs from a helicopter on Easter Sunday but are unresponsive to global poverty. Too often Christianity is little more than an identity marker, a club in which to claim membership. Church attendance has become little more than a weekly reminder of the impotence of the Gospel.

As to creeds, they suffer from many of the issues that plague the broader history of the movement. They are political compromises that represent who held the power at the time. The Nicene Creed, a form of which is faithfully repeated in many churches every Sunday, originally contained a series of curses for any Christians who thought differently. The insistence on papal infallibility was in response to the challenges of the Enlightenment. The perpetual virginity of Mary arose out in the midst of historical-critical challenges to the bible that were discussed above. Lutheran insistence on sola scriptura, in addition to displaying incredible naivete with regards to the role of the reader and the reader’s culture in interpretation, was little more than a convenient way to distance itself from the Roman Catholic Church.

Political forces aside, the creeds and dogmas, with all their venerable tradition, are largely irrelevant. First they are historical documents reflecting concerns from an earlier time. We are no longer Neoplatonists concerned with how Jesus is fully God and fully human. The question is just not too pressing for us. Good Lutheran theologians recognize the impossibility of sola scriptura and have moved on to the bigger questions that confront us today. Second, creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are primarily concerned with belief, and the belief has been framed in terms of intellectual assent. We can debate how valuable we find orthodoxy (certainly some do, I’d venture to guess that many more do not) but we cannot deny that there are more compelling ways of thinking about how the world works. After the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution affirming many creeds requires suspension of judgment that many cannot bear.

REASON (AND EXPERIENCE)
The two previous legs have been undercut by reason, but reason itself is not infallible. The modern conviction (dare I say belief?) that science and reason can explain the great mysteries of life and existence is misguided. First of all, and this is because I probably read Peter Berger when I was too young and delicate, I understand any epistemology to be shaped and defined by culture. In other words, there is no absolute way to know anything, all understanding is limited by the scope of one’s worldview. Sure, science and reason make great sense to me (I’m a fan!) but I am also a post-Enlightenment product of the Global North who has spent way to much time in the academy. And there are places where a scientific ethos may be of help. I’ll take my anti-malarials before I visit a shaman in a remote African village. That said, there are limits to what science can answer. There are times when life is irrational.

Second, reason is also grounded in experience. The collective wisdom of a tribe determines the limits of what can be known and I as an individual interact with the world as constructed. I choose which parts of the ethos makes sense and which can be abandoned. These choices will be somewhat arbitrary based on my nature and my nurture (but mostly the latter :)). Here I come back to the Masters of Suspicion, who, as I understand them, invite me to apply a radical hermeneutic of suspicion to everything I think I know. The world that I construct is fraught with neurosis, self-medication, and will to power. My experience must be relentlessly tested. And whenever I honestly apply that hermeneutic, I find that I am not a very reliable interpreter of the meaning of life.

WHERE TO NOW?
So there you have it–my argument that the stool upon which we sit when we do theology is horribly unsteady. No matter how careful we are in our deliberations, the work is little more than individual and societal projections on material that is more or less archaic and irrelevant. Theology may be helpful for critical self-reflection but I am not sure about much else. However, the big problem is not for theology as a discipline. There is still much to be examined and dissected–histories to reconstruct, ideas to be unpacked, theologies to be contextualized. What is scarier to me are the implications of this post (and they do scare me). I am not just talking about the limits of our understanding but also how we encounter and understand the divine. If text, tradition, and reason/experience are unreliable guides, where then shall we turn?

The big question for me as the sun sets on Good Friday is whether or not I should be waiting for a resurrection. God is dead. Can God rise?

I am sure that there are many points that can be refuted, corrected, or nuanced. I would love to have your feedback. Let the conversation begin!

11 Comments

Filed under dark side, religion

Pornography and the peasant revolt

social-mediaThis term I have been toying with active engagement in social media to see if it could create additional dialog outside of the classroom. So far the results have been marginal. But that is another post. At present I want to put forth what I have seen as I have delved into the dark underworld that is the Twitterverse. I want to then suggest what this may mean for the future. As usual, critical feedback is invited.

First, I want to affirm the value that many find in social media. Twitter allows for the rapid sharing of ideas. You can learn a whole lot from many different perspectives very quickly. On both Twitter and Facebook you can find like-minded people and build an online community. Following a continuous stream of ideas and interactions can be intoxicating. The snark is unmatched.  In spite of these strengths, I want to draw attention to some of the weaknesses I have observed in my short time breaking in. 

First, there is a radical democratization. This is not a bad thing per se. The more voices at the table, the better. And there are certainly some voices that have historically not been heard and now need a hearing. That said, and perhaps this is particularly true in my field of religion, there are some pretty crazy ideas out there and it seems to me that some of the least qualified people have the largest audiences. While this is true of our society in general, it seems to be particularly true on social media. Maybe I am too ensconced in an archaic and hierarchical ethos, but it seems to me that credentials should matter. Right?

Second, and related, ignorance is offered and extolled in spades. In one blog, housed on a generally reputable website, I learned that the NT understanding of Satan and Hell were derived from the Jewish historian Josephus (I offered what I think is a better explanation, but did not hear a peep from the author or any of his readers). In another blog I learned that it was a waste of time to read the bible from cover to cover because someone might let it go to their head. Rick Warren (whose Purpose Driven Life is second to only the Bible in worldwide sales–YIKES!) helpfully tweeted a litany of inane comments disparaging academic theology… to nearly a million followers. These are just a few encounters but I would say that such seems to be the norm.

Third, and also related, the ignorance is dispensed viciously. Yes, it is easy to get sucked in, but the objectification that happens is frightening. There is no dialog as atheists disparage religious people, religious people damn secularists, conservatives vilify liberals, and liberals excoriate conservatives. (A whole post could be devoted to tribalism.) We are often left with quick nasty quips (the dark side of snark) that don’t really help us understand the issues. (There was a fascinating article posted just today on the effectiveness of nasty comments from internet trolls). We are not challenged to move beyond where we find ourselves.

This is where I find the rub. Face to face interaction is in decline. Yahoo continues to take heat for its decision to make its employees come to the office to work.  The brick and mortar shops in which we used to congregate are slowly being replaced by amazon.com or their own online outlets. Online college degrees are touted as the future of education. Regular participation in church is in decline. Are we moving towards a place where social media is our primary mode of interaction with other people? Is the radical democratization, general ignorance, and tribal ad hominem that runs rampant on social media the future?

The situation reminds me in some ways of Europe during the Reformation. New ideas were bringing a certain democracy and people had to figure out how to use their newly discovered freedom for good and leaders had to learn how to govern people who had learned that they had a whole lot more power  than previously realized. It was a tumultuous and violent time out of which a new way of being and doing emerged. Might we be living in a similar time? Is this our peasant revolt that too will one day pass? Is this an adolescence that we will grow out of?

There is much to nuance from this post. Perhaps I have painted an unfair picture? Maybe your experience is different? Maybe you think I am spot on and have some suggestions to make the internet a better place. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

7 Comments

Filed under culture, dark side

The spirit of the Lord is upon me, maybe. Probably not.

St. Darth

St. Darth

Either way, let’s consider together the dark side of God and faith. I’d love to have you join me in conversations about the Bible, religion, culture, politics, justice, and whatever else makes me uncomfortable. Hopefully once a week.

In seminary we used to solve the world’s problems over martinis. In grad school it was through 30 page academic articles. A blog seems like a happy medium.

It will be fun. Promise!

4 Comments

Filed under bible, culture, dark side, justice, politics, religion