The real meaning of Christmas

This past Christmas was a first for Carol and I. Carol’s parents left us enough money to fly the grandkids down for Christmas and splurge on presents. As you may have guessed, blogging isn’t profitable (in fact, we lose money every time I write) and Carol’s retirement isn’t close to what she made before the Republicans forced dozens of career state employees into retirement so they could create new executive positions with twice the pay the Democrats allowed.Bryan lives in Michigan, which has an unemployment rate of just about everybody, and where high school students dream of going to college to become greeters at Walmart. Bryan was disabled while serving in the marines (fortunately, just before the Iraq war or he might have had it much worse) and given a medical discharge, which means he can barely afford to raise Eilonwy and her sister Cora.1So we flew them down and spent everything Carol’s parents left us on cool stuff for Bryan and the kids. We got a HiDef 3D TV and Blu-ray player, stereo surround sound system, iPads, iPhones, an X-Box, a Wii, dolls, clothes and, my favorite, a remote controlled velociraptor. Bryan assured me that the girls would love it. On Christmas Eve we treated them to dinner at Hudsons on the Bend, and then, when we realized the girls didn’t really like the espresso-chocolate-chili rubbed smoked elk back strap topped with jumbo lump blue crab and a lime chipotle beer blanc, or the grapefruit and avocado salad on butter lettuce with a buttermilk poppy seed dressing sprinkled with fresh pomegranates, or even the desert of ginger cheese cake with a blood orange marmalade, we took them to McDonalds for chicken nuggets and they loved it.(After we finished our grapefruit avocado salads, elk and ginger cheese cake, of course.)We watched Elf and Miracle on 34th Street (although the girls slept through most of Miracle on 34th Street since it was in boring black and white) then shuffled the girls off to bed. Then we stayed up until one o’clock setting up the new TV set, stereo system, iPad and toys, even though we knew we would tear it all down, repack it and ship it to Michigan when Bryan and the girls returned.With the girls sound asleep and the rest of us bone tired, we fell into our beds to dream of sugar plum fairies and sugar-fueled hyperactive children filling the living room with pile after pile of shredded wrapping paper. Around four in the morning I heard a clatter on our lawn and rose from my bed to see what was the matter.I ran to the living room to see Santa Claus climbing out of our living room window, and, what is more, our living room was practically bare. I followed Santa through the window and found him packing a Ford SUV with everything you were taken.”What are you doing?” I demanded.Too be honest, I didn’t exactly say, “What are you doing?” However, I shouldn’t repeat what I actually said in a column meant for Christian edification. Should you really want to know, I will refer you to a certain scene in the movie A Christmas Story. You know which one I mean.”What does it look like I’m doing?” Santa said, although at the time I doubted highly that he was, indeed, Santa. “I’m taking presents to needy children.””It looks like you’re stealing presents from my grandchildren,” I accused him.”Not at all,” he assured me. “But you know as well as I do that the economy’s bad. BP and Halliburton bought up all the shares of the North Pole and laid off all the elves. This is the only way I can get toys for children who are really in need.”In fact,” he assured me, “as soon as I leave I will be delivering most of this stuff to the School for the Deaf.”By this time I was furious. “At four o’clock in the morning?” I asked with no small degree of skepticism (or sarcasm).”Did you want me to show up when the kids were awake?” he replied.”What are kids at the School for the Deaf going to do with a state of the art, surround sound stereo?” I demanded. “They’re deaf.””They can turn it up real loud,” Santa assured me.”And I suppose the TV and Bluray player are for the School for the Blind?””Exactly,” he said. “At least they can listen to the dialogue. And the local cable service has descriptive services for the blind.”You might imagine that I had had enough by that time, and you would be right. To add to the excitement, our argument had roused Carol, Bryan, Eilonwy and Cora from their sleeps and they stood with us, albeit barefoot, on the lawn. It’s a good thing there is no white Christmas in Austin or we might have caught cold.Carol had her iPhone with her, as she always does, even in her sleep (in case a cat should need early morning rescue) and was about to dial the police when, lo, an angel of the Lord appeared before us in all her glory.None of us could agree as to what, exactly she looked like. In fact, Bryan didn’t even see the angel because he was trying to stop Cora from turning the hose on our neanderthal dog Chutney, which was something she seemed to find incredibly funny because Chutney would simply swell her chest to three times her size and then shake the water over all of us.I’m not even sure the angel was a she, but Carol, who didn’t see her either because she was trying to find a reception spot for her iPhone amidst all the trees in our yard, insists God would have never sent a male angel on a mission of such importance.Santa was trying to wrestle the TV into the back of the SUV. He might have seen her, but I didn’t ask.The girls, however, were delighted to hear that I saw a real live angel and insist they saw her too. Eilonwy, however, says she looked like Yvaine, from the movie Stardust, but with wings. Cora swears she looked like Dora the Explorer. With more wings.”Fear not,” the angel said, the night glowing bright around her. “It is better to give for the wrong reasons than to not give for the right ones.” And then the she disappeared and the night went dark.I took her appearance as a sign from God, and even though Carol thought I was crazy, I helped Santa load the rest of the presents into the SUV and I waved as he pulled out of the drive way.I explained to Eilonwy and Cora that they were very fortunate to be able live with their dad, and that many kids in state schools didn’t even get to go home for the holidays. Some deaf kids don’t even talk to their parents because their parents refuse to sign and it’s very hard to read lips or hear adults—even when they’re mad and yelling really, really loud.So instead of the Christmas we planned, we hauled out the old 27 inch TV and watched It’s a Wonderful Life on one of the many cable channels that re-runs old movies all day long. We drank hot chocolate with marshmallows and ate Carol’s homemade chocolate orange pound cake. During the commercials I explained that, when Carol and I were the girl’s age, a 27 inch TV was just about the biggest television you could get. And that we didn’t get color TV until we were much older and our parents made more money.We planned to do Christmas dinner at Threadgills and all was right in the world except that just as we were leaving for lunch a county deputy showed up. He told us they arrested the Santa burglar and wanted us to press charges against him. It seems the Santa burglar devoted his Christmas eves to burglarizing houses while dressed as Santa, and even drinking the milk and cookie children left out for the real one. This was the first time they caught him with the goods still in his SUV.The deputy didn’t remember me, but I remembered him. You see, this was the same deputy that tried to break up a protest when an out of state company wanted to build a gravel plant in our neighborhood. “I don’t care what your beef is,” he told us, “these are legitimate business men and they don’t deserve to be hassled by the likes of you.” Then he said, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut up and go home and be good citizens and stop behaving like riff raff.”I suggested he arrest us all and explain to the JP why they were having to conduct bail hearings on two hundred local residents. The rest of my neighbors decided that was a good idea and only after he radioed the sheriff to tell him he was arresting us all and listened to shouting we could hear several yards away did he let us lose.A couple of years later he pulled me over for a rolling stop at my street corner. I explained that I had stopped completely, but he said, “If you know what’s good for you you stop, and count to ten, and then slowly accelerate. Otherwise, if I catch you, it’s a ticket.”Sometimes I don’t think before I speak and when he handed me the ticket I said, “Next time I see you that’s exactly what I’ll do. I won’t even wait to see a stop sign, just in case.”He ran my license plate and discovered I had an outstanding parking ticket. I assured him that I had paid that ticket, and I had the receipt at home to prove it. He could follow me if he wanted. At that point, he had me pull my car off the road, arrested me and hauled me downtown to the Travis County jail for outstanding tickets and resisting arrest. The entire drive he told me that the problem with guys like me is that we never knew what was good for us.Carol brought the receipt proving that I had, indeed paid the ticket, but the deputy wouldn’t release me on bail for resisting arrest because she only had her debit card. She had to drive to the bank to get cash. Before they released me seven hours later, the deputy personally came to greet us and told me, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll pay the next ticket before I have to throw you in jail. I have no patience for riff raff like you.”The judge dismissed the case, but several times Carol reminded me, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll just say ‘yes, sir,’ and ‘no, sir,’ the next time he pulls you over.And now, four or five years later, he stood at my front door and, believe it or not, he was still just a deputy. I probably would have gone ahead and pressed charges, except that before I could get a word in, he told me, “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll let us put the riff raff away for good.”For some reason, when the deputy said those words, my entire history with him flashed through my mind. At the same time I pictured the angel telling me it was better to give for the right reasons than to not give for the wrong reasons. I knew what Jesus wanted me to do.I told him that I would not press charges. The so-called Santa burglar was delivering those presents for us to the kids at the School for the Deaf.”At four o’clock in the morning?” he asked with no small degree of skepticism.”Did you want him to show up when the kids were awake?” I replied.”What are kids at the School for the Deaf going to do with a state of the art, surround sound stereo?” he demanded. “They’re deaf.””They can turn it up real loud,” I assured him.”And I suppose the TV and Bluray player are for the School for the Blind?””Exactly,” I said. “They can listen to the dialogue. And the local cable service has descriptive services for the blind.”The deputy was furious, but I sent him off with no charges to press. Besides, I doubted he would remember me next time we met.Carol, Bryan and the kids had the best Christmas ever. Bryan did a really good impression of the deputy, and soon the girls were doing it as well. We found a deck of cards and I taught them a wonderful game called “Bullshit,”2 which involves guessing who’s lying about the cards in their hands. We found White Christmas on another cable channel and the girls were bored to sleep which was fine with us.I don’t know what happened to the Santa burglar, but I hope they gave him a nice meal before they let him go. It was Christmas, after all. I also pray that at some future Christmas the Santa burglar will visit your house and allow you to relearn the meaning of Christmas as he did with us.And the next time someone asks you for a dollar to catch the bus home or change for coffee, don’t rationalize that they will just spend it on drugs. That’s not what Jesus ever did. It really is far better to give for the wrong reasons than to not give for the right ones.


1His wife didn’t divorce him because he insisted on naming his eldest daughter after a character in a fantasy novel only fans have read, but most of us would consider it sufficient reason for filing. Sorry, Bryan, but a little constructive criticism….Well, what am I thinking? Kids never listen.back
2Some people call the game “I doubt it” around their kids but to me that’s like telling them there’s no Santa Claus. Childhood should be spent having fun, not learning to behave appropriately around adults who will judge them harshly no matter what they do.back

Charity begins with generosity

A couple of weeks ago CNN ran a feature on education in America. One of the main premises was that corporations only ship jobs overseas because Americans aren’t educated enough.Even Bill Maher has criticized American students for preferring liberal arts degrees over degrees in science and engineering. The question he never asked is why students would choose an art degree over a degree in a lucrative field like engineering. The pressure on American students is not to rise to a challenge but to improve their GPA.Students aren’t dumb. They will find the best strategies for achieving the grades that will keep their parents and scholarship boards happy. This includes negotiating with teachers, wearing them down, and selecting the classes most likely to earn them the highest grades.I find it ironic that we pressure students to come home with the highest grades possible, and then complain about grade inflation.Of course, we also complain about paying the taxes the education system needs. The same corporate tycoons who claim they must go overseas because students aren’t educated are the first to undercut American education by dodging their tax responsibilities.Who do they think pays for the education systems for the high tech work forces in India and China? The people who pay taxes. Sure, wealthy families will always find good educations for their kids, but, as with the families of privilege in America, families of privilege anywhere want their kids to go into management and influence peddling.Should these same corporations move overseas, they would be the first to demand cuts to taxes to fund the education systems there.Rather than acknowledging their responsibility for the problem, they lay out every red herring possible to distract us from their ploy. They blame teachers unions, and the lack of quality coursework, and the grade inflation caused by demands that students have good resumes with good GPAs rather than sound educations.Are teachers unions the reason teachers are so bad? Partly, but why do they protect incompetent teachers? Because the pay we offer is so crappy the schools can’t attract the top performers. Of course, the unions protect mediocre teachers. They understand that if we let the mediocre teachers go, the odds are they will have to pick up the slack themselves, and they are already facing a workload with more class hours and more students.The demand for standardized tests to “prove” students learned what they needed handcuffs the best and most innovative teachers. Why do we need those tests? To prove the few tax dollars we begrudge education are doing their job. It’s kind of like telling auto manufacturers to make cars for half the price with half the resources, and then demanding each car pass more rigorous inspections than before to prove they’re still reliable and safe.The real joke is the lack of high level classes, such as engineering and advanced calculus, especially in high schools. Here’s the reality of offering high level classes. You need to hire teachers qualified to teach them. But those guys are working for six times as much in the private sector. The few teachers who might be qualified are overburdened with five other more mundane classes with thirty-five students. This hardly leaves them time to prepare.The same thing has happened in our universities and community colleges. Administrations, looking to maximize every educational dollar in terms of numbers, no longer hire as many full-time professors with a reduced class load that gives them time to research and prepare. They hire adjunct professors who have to carry six classes at several different schools to earn anything close to a decent living.In addition, you have to offer smaller classes because you can’t teach advanced calculus to a class of thirty-five students. Even if you could attract them, which you probably couldn’t. Usually the advanced classes attract twelve to fifteen students, and high schools can’t justify classes that small on their budgets. So they either don’t offer the classes, or pack them with students who don’t want to take them, and that creates an unmanageable situation for teachers.Even community colleges and universities have stopped teaching the smaller classes, because they don’t justify the teachers’ salaries. Even if students have an interest in and talent for these specialized fields, they may have to stick around another year or two just to find the class on the schedule and hope it doesn’t compete with another class required for graduation.Corporations love to create endowments, but endowments come with strings attached. Sadly, so do the few tax dollars that trickle down to the schools. If corporate America really wanted a highly motivated and educated class of students they would support more education, demand higher salaries from teachers, give their own top-level employees teaching sabbaticals, and make sure that the advanced classes we need are taught. Best of all, they would kick in the tax dollars to make sure important classes are limited to ten or twelve students so that teachers can give students the time and attention they need.In the meantime, the Christian right wants to decimate education, because it doesn’t teach children to be Christian enough. Home schooling and school voucher programs diminish schools further, and create an entire class of children who see no value in the education corporations need to keep jobs at home.Jesus made it clear that when we share gladly God gives back abundantly. Not necessarily in direct payment with interest. If we meet other’s financial needs when we’re financially well off, he will meet other needs—usually through other Christians. If we aren’t financially well off, we still share and others will return with what we need.The riches in God’s kingdoms are trickle up. God blesses us as we bless others, and we don’t have to restrict those blessings to those who share our beliefs. In fact, the parable of the Good Samaritan stresses that we shower our own blessings on those who don’t believe as we do.Corporate leaders may think they’re protecting the bottom line by refusing to pay taxes to support education (not to mention defense and infrastructure), but they’re only hurting themselves. Christians should remember this as well. God commands us to give more, not less, and to give with a glad heart as well.

The real war on Christmas

Thanksgiving ended Thursday night, and at midnight the nation launched the official celebration of Jesus’ birthday with the most holy of holy events: Black Friday. That’s right, before the dinner table is cleared of the remaining leftovers, families began the Christmas holidays with their annual pilgrimage to the gilded cathedrals and the world’s largest houses of worship.I mean the malls, of course. Not to mention Walmart, K-Mart and Target who have announced the newest dispensation to worshippers in the form of layaway. You no longer have to use credit to buy things for Christmas. On the other hand, what do you think all those businesses expect to happen on Christmas eve when people discover they still can’t afford to remove those items from layaway in time for Christmas?Credit cards out, layaway redeemed.What better way to end a day devoted to thanking God for his blessings than by gorging on consumer crap? What better way to set aside a day to think about God and the gift of his son than by wading through seas of shoppers in aisle after aisle crammed with stuff we will most likely shelve or regift—or even toss—before the next Thanksgiving holiday?Thanksgiving also marks the beginning of the season of declaring yet another war on Christmas. The Christian right will begin to lament the fact that

  • We can’t make Arab, Hindu, Native American, Asian Black and Hispanic children celebrate the way Protestants do, and, at the same time
  • We can’t forbid children from other cultures exposing our own kids to their beliefs.

According to the Christmas warriors, even the phrases “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” are subliminal secular propaganda designed to rob us of our faith. The rationale being, I assume, that true faith is far too fragile to risk exposure to the devil’s distractions.The real war on Christmas begins on Black Friday. At least, Black Friday may well be the equivalent of the season’s Normandy invasion. I can think of nothing so likely to tempt us away from a Gospel of salvation, service and love than the false gospels of greed and consumption.I spotted a book, “Christmas is Not Your Birthday” by Mike Slaughter advertised in the latest issue of Sojourners. The book challenges Christians to remember that we should recall that Christmas is not about going deeper into financial debt, but recalling that Jesus wrote all of our debts off the books. It’s hard to take a stand against rampant consumerism, because the main target in the war is our children. It’s tough to tell children that Christmas is about something greater than toys, because every television show, every Christmas special and every TV ad says, “Christmas means more stuff.” The Christmas classic Polar Express is little more than an exposition of the glory of toys.Nor is it enough to buy one or two presents, and help our children make presents or work hard to earn money to buy a few. As soon as they turn on the TV or rush over to see their friends, they will feel cheated and deprived. Stressing the spirituality of Christmas makes them feel robbed of something greater, something far more tangible (something which, in reality, is valueless).We can lay the blame directly at the feet of the culture warriors, who try to distract us from the real war on Christmas with accusations against a secular society, a society that cannot be expected to preserve Christian, Jewish, Amish, Mormon, Adventist, Moslem or Buddhist values except as cultural traditions which make our society richer as a whole.We can safely lay the blame at culture warriors, because they chose to climb into bed with the corporate interests who reap massive profits off of conspicuous Christmas overconsumption. Anyone contributing to a campaign to stop the wars on Christmas is building the political war chest of the very interests who undermine everything truly Christian in our society.I’ve recently labelled this the Corporate Christian Complex, but that’s another post altogether. I understand that the gift giving tradition at Christmas can be justified (very thinly) by the story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew. The Magi bought gifts to Christ on his birthday. But if we are to truly honor that scripture, shouldn’t we be giving gifts to Jesus by feeding and clothing those in need as he would have done? Jesus got the gifts, not his parents and siblings.1We should also remember that Jesus rarely became angry, except when commercial interests tried to profit off worship at the temple. I can think of no greater analogy to the merchants in the temple than the merchants who steal the sacredness of Christmas from our children. I don’t mean the shopkeepers who want to make children happy in order to feed their families. I mean the corporate, media and advertising executives who place children in the front line of battle.We can’t fix our family Christmas overnight any more than we can fix our economy. I do think we can start to make some changes. We can still give gifts, but limit the number of gifts. We might say one per family member. Period. We could insist that before they expect a present from Uncle Phillip and Aunt Carol the nieces and nephews should find or make a present for them. We can explain to our children that they may get only six gifts, unlike their friends, but other children get none.Limit stocking stuffer items to fruit and books (real books, not comic books). Trade one or two presents for events (or tickets to those events) our children enjoy so that they can appreciate an experience and not the disposable plastic.We could ask the children to select a gift for Blue or Brown Santa. We could ask our children to pick one of their unopened gifts to take with them to church to give to needier family members. We could encourage children to perform other family members’ household chores as Christmas gifts.Instead of a Christmas eve service, why not sponsor a soup line for the poor? After the soup line closes we could invite the servers and those we served to a service. We could end the service by washing feet instead of lighting candles. Church families could agree to ceilings on their Christmas budgets, and make sure to involve their children in the decision. Families with more to give could have their children bring an envelope to the Christmas service containing a check to help families too poor to reach those ceilings.If the Corporate Christian Complex intends to declare war on Christmas through our children, then we need to fight back by teaching our children that they should be giving at Christmas and not drowning in wrapping paper. One of the ways the can give is by expecting less.

Corporate Christian Complex: Eisenhower never saw it coming

Before he left office in 1961, President Eisenhower warned Americans of the rising influence of the Military Industrial Complex. Little did he know that the Military Industrial Complex was only a precursor to the much more insidious Corporate Christian Complex, an unholy alliance between corporate interests and Christian marketing designed to seduce true believers into the unholy heresy that Jesus wants big business to be even bigger.

The Corporate Christian Complex grew out of televangelism and telemarketing, thanks to the well meaning hippies and stoners who dropped out and tuned into Jesus in the seventies, and I count myself one of them. Until the Jesus movement, evangelical Christianity kept itself separate from popular culture. In fact, evangelicals prided themselves on being in the world but not part of it.

Sure, televangelists sold Bibles, blessings and prayer squares over broadcast television, but evangelism was decidedly unhip and determined to remain that way. Christians (at least white bread Christians like my family) didn’t listen to rock and roll, they listened to gospel or Ralph Carmichael, who was to Christian music at the time what Robert Goulet was to pop culture.

Christians didn’t have the New Christy Minstrels, we had Up With People. Sure, they sold a few albums, but it was for inspiration and to keep the work of the Lord going. But when the fans of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones realized that Ralph Carmichael made Neal Diamond sound like Roger Daltry, they did what they always did. Started their own bands.

Those bands made money. Much bigger money than the backup singers for Billy Graham. It went further than that. Jesus Freaks bought Jesus Freak translations of the Bible with leather fringe covers, and even leather belt pouches for their pocket editions. They bought Jesus jewelry and Jesus beads, and in a few short years Big Business discovered a huge market for modern day relics as well.

Hippies and Jesus Freaks were political, too, and that scared the evangelical and charismatic sponsors looking to adopt them. Many of us intended to cast our first eighteen-year-old votes for George McGovern. Our evangelical foster parents tried to convince us that Christians avoided politics, but we marched against the war and went to Woodstock.

The new era of rock festivals for Jesus proved to the evangelical old guard that we could be co-opted, and so the evangelicals harvested the energy to march to form the religious right. They might not convince us to give up politics, but they could convince us to change political alliances. If we could give up pot for coffee and scripture, we could give up McGovern for Reagan.

And the dollars rolled in. And in, and then began to flood. You see, the Corporate Christian Complex wasn’t new, it had been lying dormant since the Renaissance and Reformation. Shrewd businessmen cashed in on Christians with relics, pilgrimages and even mass crusades. If you couldn’t bring your husband to Christ, you could buy his way into heaven once he died. If you wanted to be pure and keep on drinking and whoring, you could buy an indulgence.

Today we have Christian Broadcasting Networks, and more commercials for Christian music CDs than the commercials that used to sell Slim Whitman tapes. Even the BBC will sell air time to songs of praise CDs. Churches sell coffee, and their pastors sell books and tapes. Good Christians can now own (and probably do) at least six different translations of the Bible and two more paraphrased editions.

You can find home-based Christian businesses on the internet. You can worship Jesus with t-shirts, mugs, coozies and coolers. You can sit through worship with your Starbucks coffee and power bars. Michael Jackson may have appalled people with his Jesus Juice, but only because he thought of it first. In a few years we can expect to see Jesus Juice, Jesus Jolt and cans of Red Gospel.

Go online and you can order Nativity stickers, Jesus gliders, birthday stickers for Jesus, and bouncing Jesus balls. Headingtoheaven.com promotes itself as a “Christian superstore” with shirts, jewelry, books, games and even home communion kits. Sounds a lot like Walmart. How about c28 or Christiangear.com?

Nor is it surprising that corporate and Christian interests pour millions of dollars into Republican and Tea Party politics. After all, when you’re raking in cash hand over fist from the rubes, you don’t want to pay taxes to fund a government that might regulate your enterprise.

If you read the Gospels, you know that Jesus forgave a lot. He forgave drunks, adulterers, pagans, hookers, and adulterers. He rarely got mad, but one thing really pissed him off. He lost his cool when he saw the entrepreneurs cashing in on God. He got so pissed off he kicked their tables over and drove them out of the temple.

The businessmen and religious hypocrites he challenged got even. They got in bed with the Roman government and had him killed. In other words, they formed their own version of the Corporate Christian Complex, and there was nothing Christian about it. These were the Bible’s bad guys.

So how did they become the heroes now?

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


    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.

    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


    WWS&RD?

    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


    Give us this day

    Our father who art in heaven, give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses, because the Tea Party is having none of either.

    I planned on not writing about the debt crisis, but the issue doesn’t seem to go away and we can lay the blame on the modern day pharisees and saducees , the House Republicans and the Tea Party (the Republican zealot wing). And make no mistake about it, holding the nation hostage to a political agenda and then claiming they are just trying to stop Obama from capitalizing on an election issue, is not WJWD.

    Jesus was not, contrary to current belief, committed to extreme positions. If anything, he would always listen to those in need and find a way to help them. When a non-Jewish woman asked him to cast out demons and he said the law forbid it, she reminded him of the responsibility to at least feed scraps, and he gave her everything.

    When the Centurion asked him to turn his attention from the needs of his own people to heal his own sick, non-Jewish daughter, Jesus did it. When the family of a sick man interrupted him by lowering a sick man through the roof, he didn’t get indignant or refuse. He healed him.

    When he was accused of breaking the law to heal the sick on the sabbath, Jesus basically said, sometimes we have to ignore the law to serve those in need. He reminded us that the meek were blessed, and we should turn the other cheek when someone asked us to carry what we perceived to be an unfair burden.

    The one time he truly lost it was when he discovered that the temple had been turned over to the service of greed (read K Street and wealthy lobbyists).

    Jesus had two positions, treat others with love and your faith will make you whole. I’m no longer sure our faith in the political system will make us whole.

    Jesus never ever held anyone hostage to his ideology. I would ask that House Republicans do the same.

    One last request

    And I would also suggest that Obama simply lift the debt ceiling with an executive order and kick it back to the Congress to overturn it.

    Congress can overturn executive orders by passing legislation replacing the debt ceiling at its current levels, or by refusing to authorize money for payment to debts in excess of the ceiling. But of course, that would require House Republicans to actually agree on something, which they no longer seem to be able to do.