God hates sex

This week the University of Saint Mary on the Lake concluded its annual Courage Conference. The conference is a gathering of the saints to discuss the foremost topic facing Christians: sex.

In and of itself, a conference about Christian sexuality is hardly something to criticize, much less subject to my usual level of mockery. But the conference opens itself up to parody, if not outright satire, with its opening prayer which is posted above the fold on its web site. The prayer opens innocently: “Lord Jesus, I consecrate my sexuality to you.”

How can any sincere Christian argue with that? Any reading of scripture indicates that Christians want to bring all of our desires into subjugation to God, our appetites, our health, our quest for knowledge, our ambition, our pursuit of fortune for the benefit of our families. But the next lines are nothing less than a punchline: “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic content.”

Clear my mind of all erotic content? Wow, that's pretty harsh. So if Carol bends over I'm supposed to ask Jesus to keep me from getting a little bit aroused? That kind of kills the point of marriage, doesn't it? Why bother to be fruitful and multiply? It's kind of hard to multiply if you've purged your mind of the erotic thoughts that make multiplication possible.

That would kill dating too, wouldn't it? Isn't that why kids date? Because they see other kids and they get those urges? Why get married if you've put all erotic thought out of your head? You could just be friends. Of course, that would kill Christian Mingle, not to mention all those weddings which are a major source of income for churches and companies tied to churches.

I read through the panel presentations and a couple caught my eye. My favorite was “Interior Purity: Tricky Temptation and Jumbo Chastity.” I got the “tricky temptation” metaphor, but what is “jumbo chastity?” I'm trying to picture the seminar and the speaker trying to stretch that metaphor to fit, kind of like a jumbo gum ball or jumbo condom.

The other one involved sacred imagery in art. Why would a program on sacred imagery be included in a sexuality conference? Oh wait, are they trying to hide a discussion on erotic imagery in art? Is it really a panel on replacing naked babes in painting with the Virgin mother? I wouldn't be surprised. Once Christians get an itch in their pants, they're likely to do anything.

Song of Songs: Sacred art or Erotica? This is the sacred Disney version (religion.lilithezine.com)

The conference will launch with training seminars for clergy and mental health care providers on how to pray the gay away by National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH) therapists. It doesn’t matter that their methods have been discredited by just about every legitimate therapist and medical organization (including Christian groups), if it's anti-Gay it's the Courage way.

The sessions are only the lead up to the opening mass conducted by Chicago's Archbishop Cardinal Francis George. His scheduled appearance only fueled the fires of dissent with protesting groups, even though the church consistently swore it didn't constitute an official endorsement. Unfortunately, when one of the key figures in the church presides, an endorsement inevitably follows.

Nor can we ignore the fact that the church's ardent anti-abortion stance, at least in part, stems from the belief that women should not be allowed to have sex and get off scott free. Yes, every life is sacred, but if women engage in promiscuous sex they should at least be saddled with a child to remind them of their transgressions.

Somehow during the process by which the church managed to build an institutional structure, sex got a bad rap. A very bad rap. I read the Bible and I’m not sure that was ever supposed to happen, but happen it did, and it’s one of the indications of how our drive to institutionalize absolute ways of thinking took us on a detour with the real scripture in the rearview window.

Being raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK), I was told from the beginning that sex would warp my mind and my relationships with women. Masturbation was the sin of Onan, and fornication, or sex out of marriage, was equated with homosexuality among the worst sins in Paul's accounting of sins in Romans. The only problem was, the more I read my own Bible the more I had doubts.

Onan didn't masturbate. He refused to father kids in his brother's place. There is no reference to masturbation in the Bible (or abortion for that matter). The early Old Testament saints were having sex out of wedlock all the time. They would even meet women on the road and sleep with them. And it wasn't that big a deal. And once I read the book of Romans I realized that as far as Paul was concerned, homosexuality and fornication were held to be as evil in God's eyes as gossip and jealousy. In short, all sin is pretty much the same.

So the prayer for the Courage Conference perhaps should read, “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic, malicious, jealous, spiteful, gossipy and even narcissistic content.”

As for fornication, or sex out of wedlock? After hearing a sermon on how words from the New Testament such as “baptism” were frequently mistranslated, I decided to look fornication up. It turns out no concordance I referenced would really tackle the word's etymology. It really seems to be a transliteration rather than a real translation. The real word is “pornea.” As best I could tell from reading, the early Christians were very concerned about a practice involving temple prostitutes.

It seems pilgrims visited temple prostitutes as part of pagan worship (and no doubt to enrich the temples, not to mention keep up membership). Now I ask you, which practice do you think would upset practicing Jews and early Christians more, sex out of wedlock or sex with foreign gods and goddesses? I've got to think fornication more likely referred to temple prostitution than kids fumbling around in the courtyard when their parents weren't looking. Especially since those two rascals would probably end up married in a month or two anyway.

Yes, the Bible acknowledges that we can be driven by lustful thoughts and impulses. But we can also be driven by greed, pride and hatred. Nor am I suggesting that Christians seek out meaningless sexual encounters with multiple partners, or drop into bed just because the body moves them. The question is whether or not the enjoyment of sex, or even eroticism itself bad.

Any good BPK knows where I'm going with this. The great white elephant of the Bible. The Song of Solomon. That poem puts DH Lawrence to shame and yet it has been twisted and lied about and interpreted in every possible way to brainwash us into thinking it's not about sex.

It's about sex. It relishes sex. It is the most erotic poem in the history of Western Civilization.

I know, I know. As a BPK I was told it's an allegory, it's symbolic of our love for Christ written hundreds of years before Jesus was born, it's about anything but sex. Unfortunately, we're Baptists. Every word of the Bible is literal. And that means it's good to think about breasts and kissing and exploring what's between a woman's legs and her exploring what's between mine. Literally.

Which brings us back to the Courage prayer: “cleanse my mind, my memory, my imagination and my dreams of all erotic content, and please take the Song of Songs out of the Bible because if I stumble across it in my daily devotions, I have to clean my mind all over again.”



Special: Don’t blame God for the weather

Here's an example of Old Testament thinking:

My brother-in-law Jim recently left his congregation in Olathe, Kansas to take a parish in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Clearly he displeased God because God punished Oklahoma with tornados.

God did not unleash the tornados on Oklahoma. It wasn't a punishment, it wasn't God's will, nor were the tornados part of some design plan. I haven't heard anyone seriously blame the tornados on gay marriage, Moslems or evolution in schools yet (perhaps because it was Oklahoma or there were so many children involved), but, sooner or later, it's bound to happen.

This is Old Testament thinking. As a Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK), I was raised to believe Old Testament thinking is New Testament thinking. After all, the Bible is the Bible and every word is literally true (even when Paul says something is symbolic, by the fact that it's in the Bible, it ceases to be symbolic). And Jesus said he didn't come to replace the law but to fulfill it.

When we fall back on that statement, we overlook the fact that the law is a small part of the Old Testament. Three books, minus the narrative. “The Law” in the Bible was actually a reference to the Torah, which was the first five books of the Old Testament. So when Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, he was only referring to the law itself, not the Old Testament, which Paul said was given to us for example and instruction.

More importantly, when Jesus said he came to fulfill the law he meant he came to change the way we think about the law; how we understand it. In the Torah, the law was an external code. We obeyed it because an authority told us too. Jesus taught us the law is something written in our hearts. We don't need a written code as a literal map for our lives, we follow what we know to be true inside after following Jesus.

God doesn't use nature to target people. He doesn't need to. We're good enough at targeting people ourselves. As Christians, our response to disaster shouldn't be to point the finger but to serve. We can serve the victims of disaster if we can, or, we should find opportunities to serve others every day. We should do this whether or not disaster occurs.


Strong Drink and Papal Privilege

We have a new pope, and with him a mixed message. The Catholic Church may or may not change direction on significant social issues, especially the use of contraceptives to prevent sexually transmitted disease. Not too mixed, however. The consensus is probably not. Let's face it, if you're at risk of catching STDs, you probably not having sex with your lawfully married reproductive partner, so I can't see the Pope or the moral majority expressing much sympathy for you.

I was thinking how the entire papacy is based on a single verse in the Gospels, Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter (literally rock) and upon this rock I will build my church.” Even though there are no examples of a single human church leader in the entire New Testament (rather elders and deacons), even though Jesus has become our priest in the scripture and even though God warned the Old Testament Jews of the dangers of transferring power from a group of judges (e.g. elders) to one man, this verse has become the cornerstone of the justification for an absolute dictator ruling church policy.

A dictator whose power is so absolute that only a succeeding dictator can amend his policy.

Being raised Baptist Preacher's Kid (BPK), the idea of a church dictator was about as far from divinity or democracy as you could get without being a Godless Commie. That idea remained paramount in our assessment of the Catholic Church until Roe v. Wade convinced good evangelicals and fundamentalist that politics trumped theology.

But it still remains a single verse, one of thousands that say nothing of the sort, that has created a situation in which change within the Church is next to impossible because one man dictates the beliefs of Catholics worldwide. Disagree too publicly and you're out of there. Even Vatican II, which many considered a cornerstone for possible reform, was significantly undone by Pope Benedict during his short tenure.

As I mentioned earlier, in the New Testament, decisions regarding belief in the early church were made collectively, by apostles and (locally) elders and even then open dissent did not lead to excommunication. In fact, most of our New Testament theology was written by an Apostle, Paul, who openly challenged the man whom Catholics believe to be the original Pope.

Selective theology, the practice of building an entire doctrine around a snippet, can lead believers to read scripture with blinders, and even ignore the true intent of the authors (or, as my Baptist family would insist, God). Many families were convinced to give away their life savings to charlatans with Prosperity doctrines derived from the verse “out of the words of your mouth you will be condemned,” which, in context, was a reference to judicial proceedings.

Generations of Baptists were told to avoid liquor because “strong drink is not for kings,” neglecting the remainder of the passage which said strong drink is for the dying and wine for those in misery so they can forget their poverty. Poverty and injustice brought about, according to that passage, by those very kings who chose to party rather than administer justice.

I don't see the church getting rid of the Pope anytime in the next millennium, so it may seem like a moot point. But I think we should hold the example of the entrenched doctrines of a single religious ruler to mind before we take a single verse as a guidepost for our lives.

Rejoice in the Lord but don’t be gay

North Carolina joined the ranks of the states willing to secede (or resecede) from the union when it declared same sex marriage and civil unions to be unconstitutional. After all, nothing poses a greater threat to marriage than couples who can’t produce kids.

Cousins can still marry cousins and further narrow the gene pool. But that’s not a threat to marriage at all. Just society in general.

Jesus didn’t speak to me about that. That’s just my opinion. But opinion seems to carry the weight of Gospel these days, so I might as well add mine. Carol was listening to a pundit on CNN while I was in the bathroom this morning so I didn’t get his name (and I didn’t find it worth rewinding), but he argued that gay marriage is a threat to society because homosexuality is picked up from our environments.

His implicit conclusion? Having more gay couples accepted will make more kids gay. He didn’t come out and say this, most likely because the interview would have been posted to YouTube with a laugh track. Facts are facts. Kids grow up in the same communities with the same exposure to gay couples. Most turn out to be straight. So clearly environment isn’t an issue.

Personally, I think the all those Defense of Marriage Acts should be called the Defense of the Definition of Marriage Acts. After all, if we define marriage as “between two people” then same sex marriage isn’t an issue.

So one question we should ask is, does the Bible really define marriage as “between a man and a woman?” The traditional answer is Matthew 19:5 where Jesus said, “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh.” But that verse doesn’t say a wife is a woman. So what’s all the fuss over men marrying men? Maybe we could twist the verse to mean that women can’t marry women. But clearly there’s no prohibition against men marrying men.

I can already anticipate the objection. But Jesus says in the previous verse that God created male and female. So clearly “wife” means “woman.” But I was raised Baptist Preacher’s Kid (BPK) and I know that it’s dangerous to make one verse’s meaning depend on previous verses. (It’s called “context.”) Otherwise we would be forced to acknowledge that homosexuality and gossip are equally distasteful to God (read Romans).

Besides, if we are going to insist on context, Jesus is talking about divorce, not same sex marriage. Based on that verse, the defense of marriage would prohibit marriage between previously married partners.

What amazes me is that the Christian right, who is all about religious freedom, wants government to dictate to churches who they can and cannot marry. Banning same sex marriage not only affects the legal status of gay and lesbian couples, it dictates whether or not churches can perform rites for their parishioners, should they choose.

Think about it. Your church accepts that same sex marriage is unlawful in the eyes of God. Even before the defense of marriage act, no government would force you to marry a gay couple. Nor would you need to. If a gay couple was even brave enough to admit their love to the congregation (assuming they were clueless enough to be members of your church) they would still have to get married in a state that accepted same sex marriage, and they could have a civil ceremony if they couldn’t find a liberal elitist secular church that would marry them.

But you would be furious if the government told your church it had to marry that couple. In fact, I can imagine that if the government included divorced partners in the defense of marriage act, your church would be up in arms.

This may seem inconceivable, but forty years ago many churches (including the Catholic Church) felt the same way about divorced couples that many Christians feel about same sex couples now. Some churches thought it was heresy for a church to sanctify a marriage involving a divorced spouse. I suspect those same churches would insist on first marriages between a man and woman only. This, in fact, was the point I was making about the original intent of Matthew 19:5.

The defense of marriage acts deny churches the right to marry same sex couples if they feel that is the Christian thing to do. This sets a dangerous precedent. By refusing to allow citizens their Constitutional rights, Christians are opening the door to government to curtail their own rights as well. This is not just hypocrisy, it’s stupid.

Jesus did not endorse or approve of this blog. At least not explicitly.

So far as I know.

Keeping the Bible Honest

After years of complaining about the Jesus Seminar and their ruthless dismantling of Jesus’ message, conservatives are fighting back. They will be replacing all the verses the Seminar kicked out and cutting out all the verses the Seminar kept in. Their rationale? We have to keep those liberals out of the Bible business.

Maybe I’m exaggerating slightly, but not much. The Conservative Bible Project has decided to embrace the enterprise of the Jesus Seminar by engaging in a worldwide online collaborative effort “to render God’s word into modern English without liberal translation distortions.” This means, among other things, eliminating gender inclusive language, replacing outdated words such as “peace” and “miracle” with modern conservative words (presumably words like “preemptive strike” and “the invisible hand of the free market”), eliminating questionable liberal passages such as the injunction to be sinless before you cast the first stone,1 and rephrasing economic parables with modern free market language.

Some history: The Jesus Seminar is a long established symposium of international scholars who gave themselves the mission of trying to decide which passages in the Gospels include the authentic words of Jesus and which came later. They are among the movers behind the increasing public awareness of the Q manuscript (a proto-gospel of sayings attributed to Jesus) and have at last count successfully reduced the number of historically authentic words of Jesus to about three.

Okay, all of the words of Jesus are probably authentic, the question is whether he used them in the specific order recounted in specific passages. And there is some merit to the enterprise if we insist every word in the Gospel is the literal word of God and yet the Gospels record them differently.

By contrast, the Conservative Bible Project is a spin off of Conservapedia.com, which claims to be the “trustworthy encyclopedia.” This week’s highlights include an article about God’s sense of humor, “a simple mystery the lamestream media and public schools ignore,” the “Question Evolution campaign” which poses 15 questions that allegedly continue to baffle atheists and scientists2 and a “humorous” article comparing Joseph Stalin and atheist Richard Dawkins. On the surface I would say the credentials of the open-source contributors to the Conservative Bible Project clearly trump those of the Jesus Seminar.

Ironically, the Conservative Bible Project is precisely the kind of post-modernist enterprise that conservatives hate. Deconstructing biblical texts brings to mind the work of Jean-Francois Lyotard and Jaques Derrida, French liberal scholars who question the stability of texts as they undergo translation and the passage of time. The postmodernist impulse to suggest meaning is, in part, a matter of commercial and cultural viability. Or, to put it more simply, any crazy idea gains merit if you can sell it to enough people.

But why not have a Conservative Bible Project? It isn’t too different from the Fundamentalist Papers circulated early in the twentieth century (and to which I am far more sympathetic). As former President Bush used to say, you have the right to your own belief even if it’s wrong and I intend to ignore it.

We could speculate that the Project is little more than an attempt by the Corporate Christian Complex to hijack the scriptures and the moral ground. After all, it’s a small step from saying Jesus was a capitalist to saying Jesus wants us to vote for Romney to saying Jesus wants corporations to pollute our rivers, poison our kids and lay us off by the millions because the love of money is the root of all progress.

To me it the Project sounds like a strategy often suggested by Baptist leaders when I was younger: Fight the devil with the devil’s tools. If the Jesus Seminar wants to rewrite the Bible for the devil, we should rewrite the Bible even better. Because that’s what Jesus would do. And that, I can assure you, is a direct literal quote from the honest-to-God Bible. I just don’t remember where it is.

1Admittedly the passage about the adulteress snuck into the Bible rather late appearing in some, but not all the early manuscripts. back
2Mainly because they don’t accept the answers posed by atheists and scientists, they just hold their fingers in their ears and shout, “La la la.” Example: how did sex originate? The answer: The same way every other adaptation originated. No, I don’t want that answer, I want a better one that accounts specifically for sex and nothing else. This is kind of like the athiest’s old dilemma, “Can God move an immovable rock?” (Think, “can God create a round square?”)
Okay, many are worth discussing, because scientists ask them as well, but they hardly demolish evolution any more than the problem of evil demolishes the possibility of God. It’s kind of like asking how you could possibly drive the direct route from Austin to Detroit since no highway connects them. You can’t, but you can still get there. back

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.

    Rebirth and maturity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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