Money and metaphor

We’ve seen so much rhetoric on the role of wealth and job creation recently that I find myself bewildered, especially when so much of it comes from the religious right and the emerging evangelical megachurches. The message is that God isn’t hostile to wealth, he wants Christians to create it.

Nor is this message new, we can date it back to Calvinism as it took root in the colonies. Puritans preached that wealth was a sign of God’s favor to those who worked hard.

There is some truth to this, but not in the modern spin. The Gospels make it clear that God isn’t hostile to wealth so long as the wealthy recognize that they are the primary caretakers of the poor and underprivileged. I say this because, contrary to the Christian right—who claim to be Biblical literalists—this is the only position we can take if we wish to interpret the Bible literally.

Unlike many theologians, I studied literature and literary criticism in grad school, and while they get many things wrong and often look down the wrong trails, they do understand the lines where texts cease to be read literally and enter figurative territory. In addition, they understand the function of motifs, themes and rhetorical devices as well.1

This doesn’t make me more knowledgable about theology, it allows me to understand reading a little better. Here are a few things to remember:

  • Some statements are meant to be read literally, e.g. “Feed the poor.”
  • Some statements are metaphorical but we can interpret them as though they are literal. The statements, “God watches over us and keeps us” or “God is a loving father” are metaphoric because we don’t understand the literal process of God watching and keeping (or God’s fatherhood). God is not a physical, biological entity with eyes and sperm. But the metaphor is “God is man/father” and it is safe to interpret the phrase, literally, to mean that God cares for us.

  • Some statements are clearly metaphorical and meant to be interpreted so. When the psalmist says we will mount up with wings as eagles, the literal meaning would suggest we take wings and fly. But to assume this is what the psalmist meant is, quite simply, ludicrous. I have never heard even the most fundamentalist evangel suggest we will fly with wings. The meaning of passages such as this is more ambiguous and subject to interpretation.
  • So let’s look at a couple of passages in Luke and see what Jesus literally said about money, the love of money and the responsibility of wealth.

    Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind

    “Then Jesus said to his host, ‘When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.'” (Luke 14:12-14)

    Literally: Don’t lavish your gifts on friends and influential people because there is no charity in it. Give it to those in need if you want and you will be rewarded at the resurrection. “Friends, relatives and rich neighbors” literally means friends, relatives and rich neighbors. The poor, crippled and lame aren’t the spiritually bereft. They are literally poor, crippled, lame and blind.

    There is no metaphor here. In the context he is speaking to a wealthy patron. Furthermore, Jesus phrases the statement as an imperative. He is not informing the rich man of his options; he is telling him what to do.

    The parable of the dishonest steward

    Immediately before the previous command, Jesus relates the parable of the dishonest manager. The dishonest manager knows he is to be fired, so in his final act he discharges portions of the debts owed to his master. He doesn’t keep the money, he merely makes friends who he can later turn to in need.

    Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t condemn this in the least. He considers this a shrewd use of someone else’s money. This is pretty damn close to the kinds of statements the Christian Right would consider to be socialist class warfare.2 While he doesn’t say outright that we should rob from the rich to give to the poor, he doesn’t condemn the manager (nor, in fact, does his boss). He makes it clear, however, that the point of wealth is to take care of others and build a place in heaven.

    Who’s your master?

    Just in case those listening didn’t get the message, Jesus spells it out: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Luke 14:13)

    There is only one metaphor in this passage: “master.” But even this metaphor falls into the second category I mentioned above, a figurative statement we can treat literally. The metaphor “master” is merely intended to suggest “To whom you are loyal, to whom you have pledged your devotion, the figure who is responsible for your livelihood, the one whose interests you serve.”

    Nor is this a difficult metaphor to interpret. But the literal meaning is clear, if money is your primary concern (think profit motive) you can’t follow God.

    Just in case you miss this, however, the Gospel goes on to say: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.'”

    Those pharisees sound exactly like modern day Republicans. They love money and justify themselves in the eyes of others. Now admittedly, this description fits a lot of Democrats and progressives too. The difference is they don’t claim to speak for God and they don’t claim people can’t be Christian if they aren’t Democrats.

    The rich man and Lazarus

    Luke 16 relates the sharpest condemnation of the wealthy who refuse to assist the poor. And in case you doubt me, you can read it in the King James Version authorized by Jesus, or the NIV, which is a real translation written for modern speakers of English.

    A rich man refused to give a beggar even the scraps from his table. Guess which one goes to hell? Ironically, the rich man in hell is so self-absorbed he wants the beggar, who he wouldn’t give the time of day, to be the person to help him. He wants the beggar to put a drop of water on his tongue.

    How’s that for trickle-down economics?

    Now a good Republican story of justice prevailing would have the beggar say, “Look who won, sucker. I won the race. I did it right and you did it wrong, so you got your just reward.” The liberal version would have the beggar rising to the occasion because he understands suffering and recognizes a soul in need.

    In Jesus’ parable there is no indication of the beggar’s intentions, because it doesn’t matter. The chasm between the just and unjust is so great it can’t be crossed. (Although I would suggest that this, in itself, is a poignant metaphor for the chasm between charity and greed).

    Here’s where some Christians fall into the mistakes of rhetoric. Most would get into arguments about whether heaven and the afterlife are real or figures of speech. Fundamentalists would claim this is definite proof that God punishes sinners with physical torment. More progressive Christians would spin the entire story as a fable.

    As far as the intent of the parable, however, it doesn’t matter whether heaven is real or a metaphor. What matters is that the command to spend the wealth of the world on the needy. That isn’t metaphor, it’s God’s policy and imperative.

    Many passages in the Gospel of Luke stand Christian Right policy on its head. If the rich want to earn God’s favor they provide for the poor—even though they get nothing back financially. Nor should the Right argue that they shouldn’t pay taxes because they already tithed.3 Early Christians surrendered all of their wealth willingly.

    Far too often I hear conservatives claim that charity shouldn’t be a function of government, it is the responsibility of private citizens. As a political statement, this is debatable. But even if we accept this as true, wealthy Christians then have to hold up their end of the bargain and feed the poor and needy. The Right, however, interprets charity to mean symphonies and arts and computer labs—all of which can be written off, and little of which benefits those in need.

    But, again, the Gospels make it clear, there is no act of charity if we get something in return. It is simply more commerce, a trade of another kind. Christians should give willingly, and if the government asks for more they should give that willingly too.

    I shouldn’t have to remind readers about the command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. (Literal translation, pay taxes).

    So let’s sum up what the Gospel of Luke really says about the pursuit of wealth and the responsibility of the wealthy to the poor.

    • God doesn’t care about worldly rewards. There is no profit motive in Christianity.
    • You should take care of those in need, and other Christians, in return, will remember your kindness should you find yourself in need.
    • If God graced you with wealth, it was to care for the needy.

    In addition Jesus said that believers are as obliged to pay taxes as they are to give to God. That’s what I call tough love for Republicans.

    1For a good example of the role in literary analysis in reading the Gospels, see L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus. Far from being the dreaded “higher criticism” I was raised to run away from, this is an exercise in using literary studies to understand the intent of the four different Gospel authors (although, yes, he does imply God didn’t dictate the Gospels word for word). back

    2When I was a teenager, during the sixties, I heard more than one Baptist minister and Sunday School teacher say that, yes, Jesus invented Communism, but he didn’t intend it for us. The Christian Right won’t even grant us the Communism part. According to contemporary Christian Right thinking, Jesus always intended for Christians to behave like free market entrepreneurs, and if someone falls behind they should have been better Christians. back

    3And tithes are tax deductible anyway, so it’s not like they’re being double billed.back


    Is being mean becoming the social mean?

    I know I’ve written about this before, but it just seems like American and Christian culture embrace an essential meanness I can’t recall experiencing previously in my lifetime.

    This could be old fogey syndrome. I remember laughing at my father and grandfather when they complained how things were better when they were younger. But it seems that for all the members of the radical left who advocated violent action when I was young, there were as many, if not more of us who preferred peaceful resistance and fighting gun barrels with flowers.1

    I also doubt that times are as contentious as the decades preceding the civil war when Congressman Preston Brooks beat Congressman Charles Sumner to the floor with his cane. Admittedly, Sumner compared one of Brook’s relatives to a pimp during a speech in the House, which was mean spirited in itself, but the caning may have been over the top.

    Still, it seems to have been a week filled with incivility. The Florida courts decided that Casey Anthony should pony up court costs even though she was found not guilty of murder and served her sentence for obstruction of justice. These added penalties may make people feel good and that she got what she deserved, but it also seems like double jeopardy.

    This is an interesting precedent in meanness. We don’t like the original verdict so we’ll make you pay for the cost of the trial. It kind of reminds me of schoolyard fights where the small kid nobody liked won, so everyone ganged up on him afterward.

    An even meaner gesture may have been Lakewood, New Jersey’s lawsuit against members of a homeless camp because they “irreparably” ruined public property. The city claims they would never remove them until they have somewhere to go, but the homeless haven’t vacated the property until now precisely because they have nowhere to go.

    In addition, homeless advocacy groups have already been working to find alternative shelter. But that isn’t good enough for Lakewood. In addition, they want to sue for court costs and attorney’s fees (as if they could collect).

    Property damage is never irreparable. Trees grow back and lawns can be resurfaced. And if the homeless aren’t allowed on private property, where else can they go but public property? For Lakewood to say that they want the homeless to find shelter but that they’ll be suing them in the meantime reminds me of the passage in James: “If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (2:16 NIV)

    But lately the pretense of civility seems to mask hostility. Lakewood is no longer saying to the homeless, “we’re sorry but we wish you luck,” they’re saying, “you’re destructive and we don’t want you.”

    It’s tempting to say these two anecdotes are hardly indicative of an overall mean-spiritedness, except that I’m not the only one commenting. Incivility seems to be a constant theme on the news, with good reason. Nor am I speaking of ordinary Americans who risked their own lives to save a motorcyclist from a burning car, but of our leaders—many of whom profess to be Christians.

    After promising to be more conciliatory and bi-partisan in the wake of the debt ceiling fiasco, Republican leaders have drawn the same lines in the sand, “No new taxes, keep the military, cut the programs your voters like.” Only now the President for the first time has removed his own olive branch and decided he won’t compromise on Medicare and Social Security.

    Things could get a whole lot worse before they fall completely apart.

    Although I wouldn’t be the first to predict such gloom. Both Yeats and Sontag feared that “the center wouldn’t hold” and predicted that the great beast was slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Even though both are writers I love, the center still holds (shaky, yes, but it holds). So I’m not ready for the apocalypse yet.

    But when Christians embrace this meanness of spirit, I find it deeply disconcerting. The most recent example of meanness of spirit is Pat Robertson, who claimed that Alzheimers patients are spiritually dead and therefore it would be not only Christian, but Biblical to divorce them. (Jesus only allowed marriages to end due to death or adultery.)

    What disturbs me the most is not that he feels this way. His comrade in arms Newt Gingrich famously abandoned one wife as she was dying of cancer (which would be acceptably Christian since she was on her way out anyway). What disturbs me is that once again Christians who claim they accept only a literal reading of the Bible are perfectly content to create metaphors that contradict the literal meaning of scripture.

    Jesus did not use “death” in the case of marriage as a metaphor for “mentally dead.” He used a good many metaphors and parables, but in this case dead meant dead. If anything, he would consider abandoning a sick spouse to be the worst kind of betrayal. As would the early church, who felt it their duty to take care of the needs of widows who couldn’t support themselves.

    We do not abandon the living when they need us the most. To do so by claiming that you speak for Jesus is the worst kind of hypocrisy. It is also mean-spirited in the first order, the exact opposite of what Jesus would do by any reading of the Gospels.

    The good news is that many of my friends who lived at the radical fringe in the sixties (including me) became swept up in the outpouring of love called the Jesus movement in the seventies.

    The bad news is that the Jesus movement gave way to the Moral Majority who (in the gilded and nostalgic light of memory at least) look kind in comparison to today’s religious right.

    I can only pray and have faith that we will experience another revival like the Jesus movement to correct the scales again, if only for a decade or two, to inspire a generation of hope and not another generation of spite.

    1In fact, this statement is little more than a literary device. In the spirit of honesty, the more I think about it the more I can recall how mean spirited people—including Christians—have been all my life. They made fun of people they didn’t like or understand, and condemned them to hell from the pulpit. Christians loved calling boys with beards and a long hair “girls,” and even refused service to “dirty hippies” (not to mention Blacks and Hispanics). I even remember a particularly vitriolic sermon condemning rock and roll and the youth who listened (i.e., me) as communists and corrupt to the core.
    The only redeeming comment in the sermon was the remark that we need more Christian and patriotic songs like Oklahoma Hills, which was written by socialist and labor organizer Woodie Guthrie. The song, by the way, has since become a personal favorite.
    Literary devices aside, however, even though I feel the world is less hostile to me now, it certainly feels as though this country is experiencing an overt and sanctioned mean-spiritedness. Hate radio is no longer hate radio, it seems to be mainstream programming. The hate speech once relegated to fringe publications is now available to anyone on the internet. Nor does it matter, really, whether or not incivility is more common now than earlier so much as the fact that Christians are supposed to turn the other cheek and welcome their enemies with love regardless of the culture around us.back

    The phenomenology of faith

    This week I ran across a curious post at the factorysense blog. The post claimed that prominent British intellectuals and atheists A.C. Grayling, Polly Toynbee and the better known Richard Dawkins were “chickening out” of a debate with intelligent design apologist William Lane Craig (who I don’t doubt is as well known to evangelicals but not very well known to the rest of us).

    The blog was little more than a short frame for a very long video in which Craig (or his producer) cut and pasted brief snippets from the terrible three to make them look like uncivil bastards and Craig like the forgiving and understanding lamb of God. 1

    Of course I had to switch to my Mac to watch the video because it wouldn’t play on my iPad, so maybe I was already slightly unreceptive to Lane’s message. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to set aside any plans to poke Rick Perry or rhapsodize on the anniversary of 911 as so many others will in order to ask why Christians would even care about a debate over whether or not God or intelligent design can be proved.

    Christians accept the reality of a personal God experienced through an encounter with a resurrected Jesus. This has nothing to do with philosophy or reason. If we did feel compelled to talk philosophically, we might call this a phenomenological experience.

    If our faith is real, it really doesn’t matter whether God’s existence can be proved, whether the Bible reflects the current thinking in science, or others find faith to be an irrational and even superstitious experience. If we have to prove God’s existence by appealing to objective, scientific and rational criteria, then we lack the faith we profess. We lie to no one but ourselves.

    When Paul preached to the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens, he didn’t construct a philosophical argument. He simply used the notion of “an unknown god” as a launching point for an exposition of his faith. When most of his audience mocked him or and the others dismissed his to “take it up later,” he didn’t get upset.

    Unlike Dr. Craig in is response to Dawkins, Toynbee and Grayling, Paul didn’t call the philosophers cowards for not publicly debating him. He simply left.

    Their unbelief did not affect his own faith and he saw no reason to drag the confrontation out.

    I don’t understand why some Christians feel compelled to drag others into the light against their will. Nor do I understand why they feel they need to make society teach Christian beliefs to their children rather than accepting that they alone are responsible for their children.

    Christianity, like science claims to be, is purely empirical. Only the standards of verification differ. Christians base their faith on a personal experience of God and the community of other saints. Scientists insist on rigid experiments.

    The most important difference is this: If my experience of faith isn’t duplicated exactly by someone else’s, my own faith isn’t undermined. I understand that faith will manifest itself differently with circumstance, society and even maturity.

    With science, the opposite is true. So scientists create testable conditions, which unfortunately involve trying to create artificial environments based on variables that may or may not reflect the real world. And since there is no way to guarantee that the results of any set of experiments will be duplicated exactly (that’s the problem with the inductive hypothesis), scientists fill in the gap with mathematics and logic—neither of which are empirical.

    The conditions of their enterprise force scientists to test, retest, debate, hypothesize and argue. Christians simply argue because they mistakenly think they should to behave like scientists. That may be the scientists’ fault or the fault of their own insecurities.2

    But it’s hardly an article of faith.

    1So forgiving and understanding, of course, that he resorted to the same aspersions and out of context accusations as them. He hired a snide and sarcastic sounding narrator to read the snippets and highlighted them in bold yellows and reds, while videotaping himself looking compassionate and kindly as he extended his challenge, making sure to look perplexed as to why they would possibly refuse his kind offer. It was a bold and transparent piece of theatrics to just about anyone who had no vested interest in hearing what either side had to say.back

    2And, perhaps, the fact that Christian officials ridiculed and harassed scientists for so many centuries that they made themselves look like ignorant morons. Kind of the way many Christians do today.back

    Literal love

    Over the past couple of weeks I’ve droned on about literalists, but I want to stress that I’m a literalist myself. At least when it’s clear the literal interpretation makes more sense than twisting the meaning and redefining words with meanings that can’t be found in standard dictionaries.

    I first got in trouble for this in my high school freshman English class when I told my teacher that the rose in a poem could simply be a rose. (And this was before I read Gertrude Stein). Even in college poetry workshops, I felt that a poem that couldn’t be read literally first probably couldn’t support a meaningful symbolic structure.

    So when I question the belief that every word in the Bible is to be taken literally, it’s not because I don’t feel literal interpretations aren’t important. In fact, I think it could be dangerous to ignore the literal meaning of passages. I simply believe that snipping verses and passing them off as “God’s literal word” can lead to as many problems as refusing to accept any basis of truth in the scripture.

    Take the phrase “it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” There is a metaphor involved but the metaphor isn’t the point. It doesn’t really matter what the eye of the needle is or how hard it is for the camel to get through it. The point is the literal meaning, which is that rich people will have a hard time getting into heaven.

    Even if we don’t understand the metaphor of “eye of the needle” at all, the context of the saying makes it clear. It follows a literal declaration making the exact same point with no metaphor whatever. “…I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” It doesn’t get more literal than that.

    The syntax of the sentence (It is easier for A than B) makes the meaning clear as well. Take other examples: “It would be easier to split a rock with your head than separate something glued with epoxy,” or “It would be easier to survive water torture and electrocution than to sit through another Republican primary debate with Rick Perry involved.” When anyone encounters that structure in ordinary language, we don’t stop to reinterpret it to mean “this will be easy” (or in the case of Christian Republican theology, essential).

    And yet I have sat through any number of sermons explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean it was hard for rich people to get into heaven. I’m not just pointing my finger at Baptists here (although most of the sermons I heard came during Baptist revival when giving was at its highest), but Episcopalians and Presbyterians as well.

    I write this because I remember a long night spent arguing with a family member about Matthew 22. This family member, whom I won’t name, argued that homosexuals couldn’t be Christians because they didn’t obey God. In fact, she argued, no one could really be Christian if they weren’t in complete obedience. People who weren’t in complete obedience didn’t deserve God’s love or forgiveness.

    So I quoted (or paraphrased) Matthew 22: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (This is the NIV version, but it isn’t too much different than the others).

    She claimed that verse wasn’t talking about agape love, so we looked it up on the Internet and it was. Then she said, “but love means ‘obey.’ So the commandment is really saying that if we love god we will obey every commandment.”

    Sadly, this kind of tunnel vision drives too much of Christian thinking. When the time comes to read a verse literally, we can’t accept it.

    I’ve looked up every definition of love and agape on the web (and that includes a number of cranky sites) and couldn’t find one that defined agape as obedience. I’m sure, however, that this meaning has popped up in more than one discussion. It’s easier to redefine words when the dictionary isn’t in front of us.

    Here’s my thinking. If the definition of love is to obey, then Jesus was really saying the the most important way in which we can obey God is to obey God. I don’t think Jesus was given to that kind of circularity. If anything, he was too much of an out of the box thinker for most Christians.

    But if this is what he really meant, then we are left interpreting the second commandment to mean, “Obey your neighbor as you obey yourself.” I don’t want to discuss the linguistic twists that follow from this thinking.

    More accurately, this is a case where we need to think literally. If we really want to obey God we will love him and love each other. Love, in essence, is a commandment, and that doesn’t mean tough love or doing what’s best for someone in spite of their desires, or denying them the love of God because we think they’re disobeying God themselves.

    It’s tempting to walk away from such clear injunctions because they seem so trite and obvious. The Beatles said, “All you need is love,” so it must be more difficult than that. Who wants their most important imperative to be reduced to a jingle?

    But in the case of Jesus’ followers, it’s an order. If you want to obey God, you will love him and everyone else. Homosexual or not. Unwed parent or not. Had an abortion and still believing it was the right thing to do or not. Planning on having an abortion or not. Or, in my case (and that’s what makes it so hard to love them) whether or not they believe in creationism (as opposed to creation), support the Tea Party, and think Obama is the antiChrist.