Candy from heaven

One of the most profound lessons I learned as a teacher is that people get upset when someone gets candy from heaven and they don’t. They even get upset when people get something they earned and they don’t get it too, whether they earn it or not.

Candy from heaven is my metaphor for a free gift or benefit that only one or two people get. It could be the person next to you finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk, the person in front of you receiving a cup of coffee made by accident and given away because it wasn’t what the previous customer wanted, or a teacher giving the answers to the pop quiz on a day you weren’t in class.

It never occurs to people that sometimes we get candy from heaven as well when others don’t. It’s always fine when you get free candy, it’s only unfair when some else does.

When I was ran the multimedia classes at one of the pioneer charter schools, I was told to give every one of my students a merit award so no one would feel left out. The administrators felt that students who didn’t get awards would feel cheated. It never occurred to them (even after I pointed it out) that perhaps the students who actually earned the awards might feel cheated as well.

Nor was I allowed to give additional awards to more meritorious students. It was one award per student. So I printed out a certificate on my inkjet printer for every one of my students and handed them out at the ceremony. I was surprised to discover that the very teachers who proposed one award per student also gave out presents to special students.

This was considered acceptable because the presents weren’t awards so no one would feel slighted. Except someone did feel slighted. Not the students who didn’t get the cool gifts, but the teachers who used a black and white laser printer to print awards. Those teachers felt cheated because their students didn’t get color certificates like mine did.

So the administrators told me that from then on I would be responsible for creating special certificates for every student at the school. I offered to find room in my budget to give color ink jets to other teachers (they were, what, a hundred dollars?), something other teachers would never have considered doing with their budgets. But that wasn’t good enough. It seems my certificates were not just color, they were prettier too.

A worker at my wife’s office noticed one day that a few workers were leaving ten minutes early in an attempt to beat traffic. She complained and convinced management to require everyone to sign in and out. That was when she realized she would have to start showing up on time instead of fifteen minutes late the way she usually did.

Even Jesus was aware of the candy from heaven principle and discussed in in the parable of the laborers, a passage that bothers many Christians because it seems so unfair (which was actually the point).

In the parable the boss hires workers for a hundred dollars a day.1 Two hours later he hires more workers for the same wage and after lunch hires even more for the same wage. At the end of the day every body gets a hundred dollars, which really pisses off the workers who worked for eight hours a day.

The message of the parable is pretty clear (and, in case we don’t get it, Jesus spells it out). God’s gifts are his to give freely to anyone he chooses. More importantly, they are his gifts to give. More importantly, everyone gets the same gift no matter how or where it is offered.

This isn’t a question of fair or just, it’s a question of grace and gratitude.

The Christian Right has an even more perplexing reaction to candy from heaven. God gave them his gift and they accepted. So they have absolutely nothing to be upset about. And yet they get upset when people don’t want their candy from heaven.

Instead of saying, “Wow, we got a gift nobody else wants,” they want to force that gift down everyone else’s throat. It’s almost as though they are saying, “You have to accept Jesus whether you want him or not.” They seem to believe this is God’s country, and the rest of us are duty bound to comply.

Grace is neither grace nor a gift when it’s compulsory.

1to those literalists who remember the story differently, let me assure you I’m just paraphrasingback


Rebirth and maturity

Last week I made a comment that it seemed silly to insist every word in the Bible was literally written by God just to cling to the belief in the virgin birth, there were no dinosaurs and the world is only seven thousand years old. This upset some readers who hold at least one of those beliefs to be sacred.

If I upset creationists, I can hardly be surprised, since they get upset when textbooks don’t take their side, either. This is why they continue to seize the textbook selection process, so they can tell authors who spent years studying the sciences that they are ignorant, and people like themselves, who read the Bible once (if that), are experts.

No humility there, but Jesus never espoused humility as a virtue anyway. Arrogance and self-certainty defined his ministry.

I forgot, however, that the virgin birth is an even more sacred concept than creationism. People almost seem to believe that if Mary wasn’t a virgin, Jesus was a fraud. Sadly, this entire belief depends on whether the scholar in question interprets the gospels to read that Jesus was born of a virgin or born of a young woman.

I’ve been around enough scholars to know that the interpretation of the passages about Mary involve a debate that will never be resolved. Why? Because if the scholar believes the virgin birth is essential to the faith, the passages will be interpreted to reflect Mary’s virginity. If the scholar is neutral, or convinced a virgin birth is impossible, the translation is likely going to reflect Mary’s status as “young woman.”

In this way, scholars are very much like Baptists. If they agreed on anything, they would be neither scholars nor Baptists. All of them will provide compelling reasons why their translation is no doubt correct. God forbid that ancient writers could be any less ambiguous than modern ones.

I just have a hard time believing Christians should turn one or two passages into articles of faith.

I was thinking of another metaphor in the New Testament, the passage in John 3 where Jesus speaks of the need to be “born again.” He speaks to Nicodemus, who is basically the set-up guy in the piece. Ironically, Nicodemus asks Jesus if he is speaking literally, and Jesus makes it clear he is speaking metaphorically. Believers must be “born again” into water and spirit.1

As a Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK), we were taught that the born again experience was literal. It was a one time experience that transformed us once and for all, and we would know it when we experienced it. The reason we believed this is because the Bible was literal, and since birth is a one time experience, so must rebirth be a one time experience as well.

When we realized we weren’t fulfilling the ideal of the rebirth experience, we “rededicated” our lives, which meant we weren’t born again so much as rebooting. We couldn’t be born again again.

Being born again is one of the cornerstones of Baptist theology, as important as baptism. Unfortunately it is a cornerstone theology built on a single reference, much like the virgin birth.

It didn’t need to be. If we weren’t so determined to be literal, we would be able to recognize that the rebirth metaphor is an important thread that runs through Paul’s writing as well. When we pursue that thread, however, we have to rethink rebirth altogether.

Although Paul doesn’t use the term “born again” himself, he very much discusses the fact that believers are new beings. He even refers to himself and his fellow apostles as mothers experiencing labor to bring new Christians into the new life. He refers to new Christians as babes drinking spiritual milk who need to grow into adulthood where they can eat meat.

The rebirth theme isn’t as well developed as others in the New Testament, but it certainly complements other themes of nurturing and supporting fellow Christians (and the needy and the poor). The key difference between the rebirth theme extended through Paul’s letters and the Baptist reduction of rebirth to a singular experience is an important difference, however.

Rebirth doesn’t end with accepting Jesus as savior. It is a lifelong process, just as the first birth is a lifelong process. As newborns grow into adulthood, Paul expects new born Christians to grow into maturity. This is a message lost in the evangelical thought I grew up with, a thought that equated revival not with new energy for individual Christians to apply to maturity, but to “growing the church” by recruiting more born again first timers.

The consequences are significant. If we are born again once and forever, we have no reason to mature. But Paul believed we should be completely transformed, and that the mature Christian would resemble the newborn Christian no more than adults resemble the children they were. We recognize the similarities, but the immature newborn expecting the world to meet his needs and not serve the needs of others around him is long gone.

1I say Jesus is speaking metaphorically, because no one believes that the born again experience involves, literally, birth into water. They at least recognize that being born again of water is a reference to baptism.back


The recent decision by the State of Texas to make rape victims pay for their own rape kits is one of the most cynical and the least Christian moves I can think of. The decision was prompted by the State’s refusal to accept Federal funding in areas such as education, health and law enforcement, leaving the state without money to aid victims of rape. Or at least that’s the Attorney General’s spin.

Basically, the decision means that taxes Texans pay to the federal government get spent on other states instead. In essence, they’re giving our taxes to someone else to make a political point. But the rape kits have to be the kicker.

What’s next? Making homicide victims pay for the crime lab work and clean up? Making burglary victims pay for the finger print kits? Wealthier families will have no problem paying for the lab work, but this leaves the poor with no real recourse to justice since they won’t be able to pay for the investigations.

Screen shot of Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign poster. He has offered it to the Republican party for their other campaigns and they may adopt it.

screen shot of Perry's campaign poster

This callous and cynical, and decidedly unChristian kind of thinking made me realize we need a second ethical guideline as a yardstick for decision making. We have the positive example, WWJD (or, more specifically, What Would Jesus Really Do), but we need a negative yardstick as well: WWS&RD.

This is not aimed at all Republicans, I admire many of them. Unfortunately they cower in the shadow of the religious right and the Tea Party every bit as much as Democrats.

Republicans and Tea Party members will no doubt be upset that I pair them with Satan, but they’ve pointed the Satan finger so unjustly and so successfully for so long that I’ve decided it’s time to call them on it. After all, the Inquisition may well have been one of the most powerful tools in Satan’s arsenal. Why shouldn’t he continue the tactic?

Let me segue for a few paragraphs to explain where I’m coming from.

You don’t have to be an idiot to have idiotic ideas

Liberal Christians (LCs) make the same mistake about Fundamentalist beliefs that secular liberals make about theirs. They assume that because fundamentalists and evangelicals (FECs) cling to a few ideas they perceive to be idiotic, then the entire fundamentalist belief structure must be wrong. As a consequence, many LCs reject wholeheartedly any notion that Jesus was more divine than any other man or that there might be a resurrection of the dead.

Both sides ignore the fact that all of these issues were heavily debated in the early Christian community1 and, it could be argued, orthodoxy only became standardized with the enforcement of empire.

But we may also have to acknowledge that many fundamentalist ideas are held to be idiotic because in some ways they border on the idiotic.

Of course, the problem is that to true believers idiotic never seems idiotic. It makes perfect sense because, by God, that’s what someone important told them. This is why Bill Maher’s Donner Party is doomed from the outset, as much as I pitch my hat to them. Most Donner Party followers will join only with a sense of irony, and idiots have no irony. In the end, faux idiots like those of us in the Donner Party, will always cave to the force of sheer idiocy.

Being raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) I was taught that the Bible was literally true. Every word of it. In fact, when I discussed the Bible with family members, they seemed to believe that God literally seized the writing hands of the Prophets and Apostles and everything in the Bible was merely a matter of automatic writing (or, since that has overtones of magic, taking dictation).2

Even casual observation and reading made it clear this couldn’t possibly be true. For one thing, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that he isn’t writing from God but as a fool. But since it appears in the Bible we are left with something even worse than the “this sentence is false” dilemma. Paul says the passage isn’t the literal word of God, but merely the words of a fool.

But if the entire Bible is the literal word of God, it is the literal word of God (and Paul should have known it) and, even worse, the literal words of God are the words of a fool.

Of course, even Fundamentalists balked at scriptures that completely challenge their faith. For instance, the Bible says the eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. And that when a couple are married they become one flesh. Catholics, God bless them, don’t back down on these beliefs.

According to the Baptists, however, marriage and communion were symbolic sacraments (as opposed to baptism which was a bona fide sacrament). Now in my book, “symbolic” means “not literal.” In fact, in the Baptist book it means not literal too unless we’re talking about scripture. In the context of scripture, symbolic means literal, just not literally literal.

The Song of Songs presents a similar problem. If we interpret it literally, the Song of Songs celebrates the joys of physical sex. Let’s be honest. It’s about the joy of fucking.3 If we want to talk literal, I don’t see how we can get more literal than that.

The Song of Song even says it’s okay for a man to want to enjoy a woman’s breasts while they get it on (and, we can infer, for a woman to enjoy a man dawdling around her breasts as well). I learned more about sex from the Song of Songs than I did from National Geographic (the only other publication with breasts I was allowed to see).

But here’s the thing. If you’re FEC, The Song of Songs isn’t really about sex, it’s about Jesus. (In fact, even many LCs blush over that one and prefer the “spiritual interpretation.”) This means that—not only is there an entire book of the Tanakh that we can’t discuss literally—all those good people who read the Song of Songs before the birth of Christ were left totally clueless. It’s amazing they were smart enough to put it in the Bible.

Here are some other bizarre problems with literalism. The parables couldn’t be stories, they must have actually happened. Paul really experienced childbirth as did the other apostles. Jesus is not only a person, he’s a lamb and the holy spirit is a real dove. And the Bible never claims to be the literal word of God (except for the Ten Commandments and the Laws, many of which fundamentalists ignore—for instance, the verses about making women stay outside of town during their monthly periods).

This leads me to the most perplexing problem. In this literalist interpretation of the Bible, God is incapable of using metaphors, simile and allegory. People can do it, but God can’t because every word he utters (in English) is literal. But even if God can use metaphors, once his words are written down in the Bible, every one of those metaphors ceases to be a metaphor and becomes literally true.

And God doesn’t really get to speak to us with any authority any more because everything important he said was already written.

All of this just to preserve Mary’s virginity, keep the world seven thousand years old and make the dinosaurs go away.

Sure, I get it. If every word of the Bible isn’t literally true, we have to justify our faith in the resurrection with more than “the Bible.” The problem is, nobody believes the Bible but us, so it isn’t very useful for proof anyway.

I understand the impulse to defend the literalism of the scriptures. We don’t want to reduce them to fables and fairy tales either. But I’m hard pressed to find either position particularly intelligible. Or scriptural.

This qualifies as an idiotic belief no matter how profoundly we cling to it. I didn’t used to feel so strongly but I finally had to face the facts. Nobody, and I mean nobody, interprets every sentence of the Bible as a literal expression of truth. Everyone I’ve ever discussed the Bible with has found some reason to explain away the literal meaning of passages they don’t like, even when the example under discussion is really intended to be taken literally (e.g., love your neighbor as yourself).

So to claim that you do is to lie to yourself so loudly and so well that you literally believe the lie you live no matter how thoroughly you fail to actually practice isn’t even simple ignorance. It’s shortsighted, and possibly even dangerous.

But let’s take the example of a man often held up as an example for his defense of fundamentalism and the literal truth of the Bible, William Jennings Bryan. A man I consider one of my personal heroes even though he could be shortsighted. Bryan was a two-time candidate for President who would have been horrified at modern fundamentalism’s right wing politics. Ridiculed for his belief in creation, people forget that his concern was as much about the consequences of evolutionary theory on political and social engineering as he was about the veracity of scripture.

At the time, evolution was frequently tied into a social and political theory called eugenics. Its proponents believed in another idiotic idea—that evolution justified engineering a superior race and citizen (with the implication that the poor and non-white peoples were genetically inferior to wealthy white people).

Bryan was a defender of famers’ and labor movements, and wanted to detach US currency from the gold standard to create more money and improve the lives of the poor and the middle class. He rejected evolution because he didn’t like its use in justifying a war on the poor and less fortunate.

The phrase “eugenics” has passed from the lexicon (except for Star Trek fans) but the social engineering Bryan feared remains firmly entrenched in the hands of Republicans like Rick Perry. Based on his Presidential announcement and his decisions in the past week, this is Perry’s platform:

  • Tax the poor.4
  • Deny justice to poor people when the wealthy rob them of their lives and livelihood.5
  • Make rape victims pay for their own investigation.
  • Take insurance away from the poorest Americans.6

As with eugenics, this is an all out assault on the poor and underprivileged to funnel what little wealth and dignity they have to the deserving rich. Perry and the Republican vanguard (and make no mistake about it, this new virulent strain of the religious right now controls the party) want to make sure that not only can we never dine at the table, the rich don’t even have to throw us their scraps.

And if that doesn’t remind you of one of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t matter if the Bible is the literal word of God or not. You haven’t been reading it.

So, yes, I propose a new measure, the anti-WWJD. What Would Satan & Republicans Do (WWS&RD)? For far too long Perry and his ilk have accused those who would follow the example of Christ of being enemies of Christ. And this is definitely a move we would expect from the angel of light.

1Readers who believe the early Christians held a monolithic interpretation of the faith haven’t really been reading their Bibles. Early Christians argued like Baptists over who had the “true” message. They argued about whether gentiles could be converted, and once they let the gentiles in the argued about whether they needed to be circumcised. They argued about whether one church should support the work of another church. They argued about the spiritual status of sacrificial meat. They argued whether or not Christians could also serve the Roman empire.
They even argued over the resurrection of the dead. If you doubt it, check out Paul’s defense of the resurrection, which is addressed to believers. (1 Corinth 15) If the resurrection of the dead was a universally accepted belief among early Christians, we have to question why he would feel the need to argue so passionately that none of the faith is meaningful without the hope of resurrection.back

2Ironically this is an Islamic and not a Christian belief. The idea that God literally dictated his precepts to the writers of scripture appears nowhere in scripture. He inspires prophets, he speaks to them, but they remain free agents in the transmission process. Mohammed, however, did describe the Koran as a literal message from God which he wrote down word for word.
So it could be argued that people who believe God took control of the people who wrote the Bible and forced the words through their hands are actually Islamists.back

3Before you go getting all weird about my saying “fucking” in a Christian column, let me assure you I debated whether or not to use the word for fifteen minutes (which is a long time for me to debate myself; in fact it shows exceptional restraint and reflection on my part, as Carol and the rest of my family will attest). But I finally decided that if we’re going to talk about the consequences of literal interpretations, there’s nothing more literal than that.
When I was in Nashville as a teenager I ran across a protestor outside the publisher of the Living Bible. Now I’m not a fan of paraphrased Bibles because they aren’t even translations so much as “the Bible as I would say it” (which should cause even more problems for Baptists who believe the Bible is the literal word of God and who also read the Living Bible). He was upset because the paraphraser used the words “crap,” “piss” and “bitch.” I asked him if those weren’t the real words in Hebrew and Greek. He admitted that, yes, they were but the writer still could have used words that were better suited to Christians. Sometimes you just have to call something what it is.back

4What else are we to make of his pronouncement, “half of Americans” don’t pay taxes? Let’s put aside the fact that the number seems highly exaggerated. The Americans he refers to don’t make enough to pay taxes. And most of them do give the money to the government only to have it returned at the end of the tax year. This allows the government to at least earn interest on the money in the meantime, helping generate the revenue to build roads and pay for bullets for our soldiers in Afghanistan. back

5Aka “tort reform”back

6Aka “repeal the Health Care Act.”back

It’s their fault. Always.

Blame, blame, blame, blame, blame.

We’ve become a culture of blame. It’s the fault of the liberals, Obama, illegal immigrants (excuse me, aliens), secular humanists, bad teachers, taxes , corporate executives, bankers, the tea party, Bill Maher, Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck.

Never ourselves.

In this supposedly Christian society we no longer hear, “How can I serve you?” We no longer hear “ask what you can do for your country.” We no longer even hear, “the devil made me do it.” Instead we hear, “the devil made them do it and they ruined it for everybody.”1

Jesus said, “Go your way and sin no more.” That means, at least in part, that we should take responsibility for our own lives and quit bitching about what everybody else is doing wrong. You can’t answer for others, you can only answer for yourself.

Politicians will never be accountable until we hold ourselves accountable first.

1For instance, John Boehner cackled that he got 98 percent of what he wanted from Obama on the debt ceiling deal, and then turned around and blamed Obama when S&P downgrades our credit rating (even though it was his deal). I reduced this to a footnote because even though I see it as an example of the very problem I am addressing, others will accuse me of using the example to blame all Republicans myself. back