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.

    Render unto God and to US

    For a nation of Christians, we sure are cheapskates.

    I’m not going to get into the details of how we thirty years of politics have pushed us the debt ceiling crisis because nobody cares anyway. They’ve drawn their lines in the sand and they only care about today’s posture.

    The Democrats will give up some aspects of entitlements, but not the programs themselves. They will settle for tax loophole reform if they can’t get tax increases, but they want to bring more money in. They’ve retreated to their line. In fact they’ve retreated past their original line and drawn this new one and I’m not sure they’re willing to go much further.

    The Tea Party Republican line is total capitulation by the Democrats. They haven’t budged, and I can’t imagine they will.

    More moderate Republicans are trying to resolve the crisis by removing the vote from Congress altogether and leaving it to the President (who will, of course, raise the debt ceiling). Then they can pretend they had nothing to do with raising the debt ceiling.

    This is like those arguments where my wife or I say to the other, “Okay, you make the decision, but it’s your fault when it backfires.” Well, no, it’s my fault too because by allowing her to make the decision, I made the decision with her.

    But the Tea Party members claim to be Jesus’ representative in politics, so I get to address this question to them. Why isn’t anyone asking WWJD?

    In this entire debate I haven’t heard anyone ask WWJD? We can’t blame the Democrats for this because we all know they’re godless atheists, Moslem sympathizers and eagerly wait the second coming of Karl Marx. But how about those Republicans, especially Tea Party Republicans who only want what Jesus wants? Why haven’t we heard WWJDATDC on Fox News, when Republicans appear on CNN and MSNBC to explain their position?

    Probably because Jesus would answer, “Give God his due, and give the government theirs.” Oh, wait, he did say it. It’s Matthew 22. And readers who know the historical context know that the question was posed to get Jesus to come down one one side of the other on the issue of tax resistance. In other words, they were asking him if he supported the Jewish equivalent of the Tea Party.

    Here’s the amazing part about how this verse applies in America. In America, we are the government. The US is us. When we give to the government, we give to ourselves.

    Modern Republicanism, at it’s heart, is based on a modern spin of Adam Smith capitalism. It’s called “the profit motive.” It argues that people should be allowed to pursue wealth as their primary objective, and the most important role of government is to protect the pursuit of wealth.

    And why should we not pay taxes? Because taxes interfere with the pursuit of wealth. And the subtext for less wealthy Republicans is “taxes make you poor.” Somehow, if you didn’t contribute a small portion of your check to defense, schools, roads, police and education, you would suddenly be as rich as Donald Trump.

    Jesus made it clear that the pursuit of wealth was a destructive distraction from the pursuit of God’s realm. The writer of Timothy says, without equivocation, “the love of money is the root of evil.”

    When we pay taxes we are paying for the country’s (our) defense, our education, our roads which we need to get to work and (more importantly in America) shopping, the police who keep us safe from the increasing numbers of the poor who will be stealing from us now that we’ve taken their welfare away.

    To say, “I will pay no taxes,” is not only to slap Jesus in the face, but to steal from yourself. Jesus said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” or, in essence, pay your taxes. He doesn’t equivocate. If you’re a Christian, you should pay your taxes.

    But you’re also stealing from yourself. Let’s face it, you cannot afford to install roads and utilities to support your home. Not even if you’re rich. You may be able to afford to install the wiring, plumbing and driveway, but you can’t afford to build the road to work, the road to church and the road to school. You can’t afford to sink a well, purify the water and dispose of it. You can’t afford to raise an army to defend your home against terrorists.

    Not if you want to maintain your standard of living.

    Right now in the Oak Hill to Dripping Springs area new subdivisions are advertising themselves as free from county water taxes. This sounds like a good thing to Tea Party members. But people who move into those subdivisions will have to get their water from somewhere.

    Where will they get their water? From private contractors who charge upwards of $200 a month. We pay county taxes and our water bill is far less, closer to $30 a month (a bargain even with the $75 annual tax added on). If the Tea Party managed to eliminate county water taxes we would be paying a lot more, and so would our tenants, who already have a hard enough time feeding their four kids.

    So we help each other by paying taxes to do collectively the things we can’t do by ourselves. Now this may sound unAmerican and unChristian, but it’s not. Our founders didn’t fight the revolution to end taxes, but taxes “without representation.” In other words, taxes imposed by representatives we didn’t elect. They were never stupid enough to believe that governance, even self-governance, is free.

    Early Christians turned over everything they owned to their local church to make sure every one was fed. Read the book of Acts. They even sent money to other churches where it couldn’t possibly be used to benefit them. They turned over their money to take care of widows (read social security) and the poor.

    Here’s the WWJD wrinkle. Jesus would not only have us give, he would have us give gladly. This lies at the heart of the faith. Christians should want to support those less fortunate. To give to the poor is to give to the angels. We should not only give to Caesar (or in our case US), we should rejoice that God has given us a means of supporting the best government on earth-ourselves.

    But Americans are so cheap we don’t even want to give to ourselves. We want to hold onto every penny even if it starves us. Jesus taught us to be of service to others. Americans want to give to themselves, not ourselves. Mine, mine, mine.

    The truth is, if we stopped paying taxes altogether we wouldn’t be rich, we would just be less poor.

    Or would we even be that? If we got rid of taxes, got rid of government, would we even have the standard of living we have today?

    Imagine the country with no government at all, or one devoted only to allowing businesses to pursue profit without restraint. Do we really believe companies would start hiring more Americans? At least before we agreed to work for the same wages as laborers in the Philippines? (The same companies who are now shipping jobs from India to even cheaper labor in Indonesia?)

    Do we believe the corporations would build roads for everybody, and provide the same policing for everybody? Do we believe the large corporations would encourage small businesses with potentially competitive products and services?

    Many Americans and Christians don’t know that before the US government, at the request of the voters, established reforms and legalized labor unions, companies often forced their employees to live in company towns, buy from company stores and pay company doctors. After working twelve hours a day, six days a week (and sometimes six hours on Sunday) workers ended up in debt to their own employers.

    I’m all for reducing the deficit, but to me reducing the deficit means paying our bills. And if you asked Jesus WWYD, he would also say, “pay your bills.” Oh, wait, he pretty much already did. It’s easy to say, we can’t incur any more debt, but we still have to pay the debt we owe. And don’t blame the politicians either because we elected them.

    But you see, we’re cheapskates. We don’t want to pay. We don’t want to give to God, or US, just clutch on to every penny until it buys us nothing. And there’s nothing Christian about that.