What’s the Bible About?

June 26th, 2015

I ran across this comment somewhere down the list on another blog the other day, and it struck me as, well, symptomatic of why our culture has pretty much given up on Christianity and the Bible by now:

Like many people, I suspect, I’ve spent most of my life reading the Bible as if it were about me, and only recently discovered that it is, in fact, about God. I’ve spent so much time searching its pages to find the answer to “What’s my identity?”, “What should I do with my life?”, “Am I allowed to do this or that?”. All of those questions are answered in the Bible, but I was missing the entire point. The questions I should have been asking were, “Who is God?”, “What does he love and hate?”, “How does he relate to the world?”, “What is my response to him?” I think it’s very difficult for anyone to orient their mind away from themselves, and that’s not a new phenomenon – just the expression of it is.

“We ask the Bible to tell us about ourselves, and all the while it is telling us about the ‘I AM’. We think if it would just tell us who we are and what we should do, then our insecurities, fears, and doubts would vanish. But our insecurities, fears, and doubts can never be banished by the knowledge of who we are. They can only be banished by the knowledge of the ‘I AM’.”— Jen Wilkin, “Women of the Word”

It strikes me as hard, actually, to tell the difference between the Before and the After photos here. The first reading is all about “me and God”, and the second is all about “God and me”— “I AM” vs. “I am”.

It’s hard for us to grasp that the Bible isn’t about us at all. In fact, it’s not even about God, but I think the churches— all the churches, even maybe especially the Orthodox!— are doing an abysmal job of showing what it is about. The Bible is about Israel, and about God’s dealings with Israel and Israel’s dealings with God. We can certainly learn about God and about ourselves if we want to (and who doesn’t?), as long as we study those dealings, but in both cases if we learn anything about ourselves or God, it’s necessarily something refracted through the story of Israel. And oddly, Israel is the missing dimension. There was creation, and then there were some prophecies (“typologies”, if you’re Orthodox), and then there was Jesus. And me!

These days I’m struggling to understand Matthew 11.2–16.20. There’s nothing in those chapters about me, at all. Jesus has just given his “Missionary Discourse” (chapter 10), which is all about the rejection that the apostles will face, and now in chapter 11, John the Baptist sends from prison to find out whether Jesus will say he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. Basically, Jesus points to Isaiah— and not just to a proof-text in Isaiah— this is the point usually missed— but to the whole history that Isaiah himself is talking about and responding to— and says in various ways, Yes, the whole thing that Isaiah was talking about in Israel— now it’s come to a head. And then he says some things about John and his importance at this moment in Israel’s history, and then in that context(!) the famous “Come unto me all you who labor” speech, which actually has a function in Matthew’s story and is not just a bit of pietistic sentimentality for “me”. Then there are further episodes which show two responses to Jesus, his claims, his teaching, and his activity— the Pharisees think he’s in league with the devil, and the disciples come around to confessing that he’s “the Messiah, the son of the living God”. Both responses are the endpoints of long trajectories that have been going on since chapter 8 and before.

What in any of that is about “me”? Where do people even get such ideas?? Would we read Jane Austen to see what she says about us??

The thing is, taking the Bible to be all about “me” is easy. I don’t have to go far for resources or study aids (though you can buy all kinds of em if you like)— I’m right here, and I just have to think about me!

But seriously— seventy percent (or whatever it is) of the country is Christian, and you can’t find a single serious theology book on the shelf. Has anyone ever noticed this?— how astonishingly low the quality of the “Christian” section at the bookstore is— especially as compared, say, to the Buddhist section? Pablum and pap! Drivel and pulp! Self-help and sentiment! It’s all on the level of the novels you find at Safeway. In fact, it is the novels you find at Safeway!

But to read the Bible as the story of Israel— well, we’re going to have to learn a little about the history of Israel, and about its foreign culture, and maybe even some Greek and Hebrew. Well, the churches are no more interested in teaching that kind a stuff, than the average novel-reader is interested in learning it.

But the Bible is as foreign a book as the Iliad and the Odyssey, as Gilgamesh, the Enuma Elish, or the Mahabharata.

Which makes it really interesting, but this surely raises some equally interesting questions about “mission”. Like, what is it about when I, a 21st century American trained (up to a certain point) in this very ancient, foreign text, then take this text and go to a completely “exotic” and foreign place like faraway Uganda, and attempt to teach people about it there?

I have an answer to this, but it’s as roundabout as the process of refraction that I mentioned above, and I’m not going to try to explain it unless somebody reads this and engages with me a little (and don’t just ask me “What is it”!). Otherwise I’ll just leave it right there, to pique the interest of the. . . . crickets!

But by the way if you haven’t seen it already, there’s an old flyer I wrote, called “What Your Bible Really Says”, on this page here.


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Fear Him Who Can Destroy Both Soul and Body in Hell

June 19th, 2015

Matthew 10.28— “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (KJV)— people often struggle with the meaning of this verse, for several reasons:

  1. It seems incongruous that God would be the destroyer, for Matthew’s God doesn’t generally appear as one who “destroys” people— indeed, Jesus quotes him twice as saying, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (9.13; 12.7). However, it’s true that a number of passages do threaten the wicked with fire (3.10,12; 5.22; 7.19; 13.40, 42, 50; 18.8–9; 25.41)— and yet this threat seems a little out of the blue, in this chapter, known as the “Missionary Discourse”.
  2. Perhaps he who can “destroy both soul and body in hell” is the devil. But it seems incongrous to ascribe the final judgment of human beings to the devil, who himself will be the first one cast into “eternal fire” (25.41). How would he have the final say?
  3. The first part of the verse, “fear not them (pl) which kill the body”, makes perfect sense within the context. The contrasting singular “him”, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” ought then to refer to someone specific in the same context. But who is more dangerous to a persecuted person than his persecutors, and why?
  4. Most importantly, Jesus says nothing else in his “Missionary Discourse” (Mt 10) about “heaven” or “hell”. The topic, from beginning to end, is mission and persecution— not one’s eternal fate. So why this, here?

“Rather fear him who is able to destroy”— Matthew uses the verb “destroy” (apollymi, ἀπόλλυμι) nineteen times (2.13; 5.29–30; 8.25; 9.17; 10.6, 28, 39, 42; 12.14; 15.24; 16.25; 18.14; 21.41; 22.7; 26.52; 27.20). Four of those times— a fifth of all occurrences— are found in two nearly identical verses (10.39; 16.25) where “destroying” is something one does to oneself. One of these verses appears, in fact, shortly after 10.28— “he who finds his life shall lose it: and he who loses his life for my sake shall find it” (10.39). “Lose” would be a legitimate translation in some other context, but here it obscures the fact that in Greek it’s the same word— and same active voice— as “destroy” in 10.28. Moreover, in both 10.39 and 16.25 it appears twice in connection with “life”— but “life”, in these verses, is KJV’s translation of psychē (ψυχή), the word for “soul” in 10.28. So the Greek leads us to suspect that the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (10.28) is the same one who, “seeking to save his soul”, “will destroy it”. That person is of course— oneself!

So Jesus is telling his emissaries, “Do not fear those who kill the body” but “cannot destroy both soul and body” (10.28); rather, they should confess him before others (10.32), even before enemies from their own households (10.36), for indeed “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (10.38)— and “Whoever finds his soul will destroy it, and whoever destroys his soul for my sake will find it.” (10.39; cf 16.25).

“Those who destroy the body” are not to be feared. But one can “destroy one’s soul” by seeking to save it. And thus indeed one will “destroy both soul and body in hell” (10.28).

In their mission, the apostles will meet with opposition from wicked people. Those people are dangerous, and the apostles should be “wise as serpents” (10.16). But even more dangerous than such persecutors are they themselves. Their own penchant for self-preservation— this is what they must fear! They must instead take up their cross and follow Jesus.

As to “body” (sōma, σῶμα), this word appears 14 times in Matthew: In addition to the two occurrences our verse (10.28, ‘those who kill the body… him who can destroy both soul and body’), we find twelve others—

5.29–30, ‘better that one of your members should be destroyed, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell;

6.22–23, ‘if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of dark';

6.25, ‘do not be anxious about your soul (KJV: ‘life’)… Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?;

26.12, ‘In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial';

26.26, ‘This is my body';

27.52, ‘many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised';

27.58–59, ‘asked for the body of Jesus… took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud’.

Interestingly, the first 8 occurrences, down through our verse (10.28), all refer to one’s own body. After that, all of the last 6 occurrences all refer to Christ’s body, except for ‘many bodies of the saints’ (27.52).

Mt 10.28 warns about “the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (KJV). “Hell” is KJV’s usual translation of gehenna (γέεννα), an Aramaic word found only in the New Testament (7 times in Matthew: Mt 5.22, 29–30; 10.28; 18.9; 23.15, 33; and 4 times in the rest of the NT: Mk 9.45,47; Lk 12.5; Jm 3.6).

“Gehenna” does not refer to a subterranean place of fiery torment that awaits the wicked in an afterlife (our idea of “hell”), but first of all to the Hinnom Valley (Hebrew: ge hinnom), south of Jerusalem, once used as a place for human sacrifice. That was the crime of idolatry which led directly to Jerusalem’s destruction and to the Babylonian Exile. As a place, thus, of extreme uncleanness and disaster, it became Jerusalem’s garbage dump, and thence a prophetic figure for the eschatological judgment that will finally overtake Israel’s corrupt religious, political, and economic leadership and those who benefit from it— they will be thrown out of the Renewed Jerusalem and burned with the trash.

The description (though not the name) of “gehenna” is given by the last two verses of the Book of Isaiah (66.23-24)— the source from which Matthew, Mark, and Luke all draw their language when they mention “gehenna”. The prophet is speaking of how Yhwh will finally restore Jerusalem to the splendor she’s supposed to enjoy. When he does that, ‘all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares Yhwh’ (Isa 66.23), and when they’re done worshipping, ‘they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh’ (66.24).

So “gehenna” is not the “hell” envisioned in our translations— that is, not an afterlife— but an image or poetic figure of how all those self-serving kings, corrupt priests, bankers, murderers, adulterers, and so forth are just so much trash, to be hauled out when Jerusalem is finally established in justice and peace!

As we saw, 10.28 does not seem to speak of a possibility of someone other than oneself destroying both soul and body in gehenna. Rather, one who “seeks his soul, will destroy it”.

Interestingly, all of the other references to “gehenna” (5.22, 29–30; 18.9; and 23.15,33) refer to a judgment to which one may be liable by one’s own actions as well. In 5.22, “whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the gehenna of fire”; in 5.29,30, “it is better that one of your [limbs, eyes] be destroyed, than that your whole body be thrown into gehenna” because of your anger or lust; the same in 18.9. Even in 23.15, Jesus says, “when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a son of gehenna as yourselves”— that is, he behaves worse than you do— and in 23.33, he calls the Pharisees, “serpents, brood of vipers”, and asks, “how will you escape the judgment of gehenna?”

That is to say, whenever that Matthew refers to “gehenna”, the one “who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna” (10.28) is never other than oneself.

That “the one who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna” is oneself fits the context of the discourse in Matthew 10 perfectly, and solves the incongruencies involved in taking this as a reference to God or the devil.

The one who can get both body and soul thrown into the garbage dump of the renewed Jerusalem is no one but— oneself!

Be especially wary of that person— and of his concern for self-preservation!


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Why Did God Command Abraham to Kill Isaac?

May 14th, 2015

So I keep an eye on, and occasionally participate in, this Mormon blog, where people discuss their doubts and discomforts about various issues in Mormonism today. Naturally, polygamy is a constant sore spot.

One correspondent there noted that while Joseph Smith was struggling with his “Doctrine of Plural Marriage”, he claims to have received an angelic visitation commanding him to take additional wives (Journal of Discourses, Vol.20, p.28 – p.29). In an essay released by the church in 2014 on its official website, this visitation is described as follows:

“Joseph told associates that an angel appeared to him three times between 1834 and 1842 and commanded him to proceed with plural marriage….During the…final appearance, the angel came with a drawn sword, threatening Joseph with destruction unless he went forward and obeyed the commandment fully.”

The correspondent continues,

When releasing this recent essay, the Church rejected a unique opportunity to move away from the polygamy doctrine which has plagued it for nearly 200 years. It could have emphasized the statement Gordon B. Hinckley made in 1998, where he said that polygamy “was not doctrinal.” The LDS Church could have moved away from the 132nd section of the Doctrine and Covenants saying that if Joseph had “ten virgins given unto him” it would not be adultery. The same section threatens Emma Smith with destruction if she would not agree with Joseph marrying and, in many cases, having sexual relationships with other women.

Well, as you can imagine, this story has generated a lot of debate.

But I was interested in the fact that the Mormon Church asserts that angels are occasionally sent by God to force people to obey. I was a little surprised at this, and asked, “Does God ever force anyone to do anything, in the Bible?” The answer, of course, is No, but I asked the question, just to see what people would say. To my surprise it generated a fair amount of discussion.

At one point a guy who’s sometimes pretty perceptive wrote,

And yet God famously commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. Would this not have been “morally repugnant” to Abraham? Or is your point that God did not “force” Abraham to kill his son?

And this provoked the attached response from me (about 5 pages), mostly a meditation on the story of Abraham. I was surprised at what came out.

Do please read this, and let me know what you think of it in the comments below.

Did God Command Abraham to Kill Isaac?

Well, the first verse of that story is really crucial. The writer states right off the bat that God was “testing” Abraham (22.1). Telling us that, he makes it clear that God has no actual desire for Isaac to die; his intention is only to prove something about Abraham and his faithfulness— faithfulness being the trait that most defines Abraham in the Bible. But what is faithfulness?

Most people think that God just wanted to find out whether Abraham would do anything God asked, even to the point of killing his own son and heir. Abraham showed that he was ready to do it, and so we should be ready and willing also, if somehow required, to make a “burnt offering” of whatever is most precious to ourselves.

But this leaves a couple of questions unanswered. First of all, since God doesn’t usually talk to people so openly these days, who else might have the authority to tell us to kill our children? And in any case, even if God himself were to tell us to do so, should we? Is it really even ok for God (let alone Abraham) to be so cavalier with the life of an innocent human being, moreover one who is Abraham’s only son and heir, “whom he loves” (Gn 22.2), moreover the heir with whom God himself has promised to make an “everlasting covenant” (17.19)? Can Abraham seriously think of doing that with a good conscience? Can God even ask it with a good conscience?

Don’t— just don’t!— tell me that “God’s ways are not our ways”! Let’s just admit that God’s demand is insane. But before we move on to something more reasonable, let’s also note the usually overlooked fact that if God, who had promised to establish his covenant precisely with Isaac, did in fact want Abraham to kill Isaac, then he wasn’t planning to keep his promise. And that means, he’s a deceiver. And how can Abraham be faithful to a deceiver? Well, he can be personally loyal— but in that case, what he does with Isaac won’t have anything to do with conscience.

And what makes the story horrific— what gives it its particular force— is that God is staking a claim precisely on Abraham’s conscience. How can a man kill “his son, his only son, whom he loves” (22.2)? If Abraham would murder his son in order to be faithful to God, he must also murder his own conscience as well. And if he does that, and if his God is thus not only a deceiver but has no trouble demanding an innocent life, what else will either of them not do?

So (to answer your question), yes, my (previous) point was that God didn’t force Abraham to kill his son. In the Bible, God never forces anyone to do anything, although he sometimes stops them from doing things— for example, from killing Isaac. But in particular, he never forces anyone to act against their conscience. But might he?

Well, the question of “forcing” is the wrong one to ask about this story, because God neither threatens, nor even so much as warns Abraham of consequences in this case at all. In fact, the only consequence in view is the obvious, if implicit one, that if Abraham does obey, then his son— “his only son, whom he loves” (22.2), the sole heir of God’s own promise— will die, and die childless. And if Isaac dies childless, then God was being deceitful when he promised to make with Isaac “an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).

So if Abraham obeys, he accepts that God is a deceiver, and just goes with it. In that case, he shows that deceiving has a divine origin, and there’s no further need for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness! And yet— if he refuses— again he shows that he thinks God is a deceiver— whether or not he was serious about the covenant, or whether he really wanted Abraham to kill his son or not, is immaterial; he was deceiving!— and again, if God is a deceiver, there’s no further use for conscience, covenant, or faithfulness!

That’s the test, then— not just “will Abraham sacrifice what is most precious to him”, but— “what kind of God does Abraham obey, and what kind of obedience does he obey him with?” And the test is really clever— a kind of double bind— although, as we’ll see, there’s one way out, which will save both Isaac and God’s honor at the same time. But strangely enough, the outcome will depend on God, not on Abraham.

For his part, Abraham makes only one comment in the whole story, and it shows that he’s no more interested in killing Isaac than God was when he decided to “test” Abraham. “Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.” At this point, Isaac, apparently not yet aware that God has demanded his life, asks, “‘My father! my father!… Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ And Abraham said, ‘God will see to the lamb for the burnt offering for himself, my son'” (22.6-8— most translations have “God will provide”, but the Hebrew verb is “see”, in the sense of “see to it”). Abraham’s only comment is, “God will see to it”. He says nothing to Isaac about having to die.

From our viewpoint (and, we may surmise, from Abraham’s as well), God seems to have laid a morally repugnant, unconscionable, insane demand on Abraham, but precisely because Abraham is “faithful”, he accepts it without the least mental reservation— and indeed, to act without mental reservation is the meaning of hᵉyêh ṯāmîm— “be thou perfect/wholehearted”— the requirement God laid upon him in 17.1. But Abraham’s apparent prevarication to Isaac shows that he accepts this new demand of God only in full view of the promise God earlier made to him: “Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him” (17.19).

So what’s Abraham doing?

By not telling his son, he isn’t just protecting Isaac’s feelings or his own. He leaving open the possibility of another outcome. And in the space of his prevarication, Abraham is calling God’s bluff. He has accepted the test, but only as a very high-stakes game of chicken. Who is even testing whom, at this point?

But this is Abraham, that wily merchant who just a few pages earlier, dared to bargain— with God!— over Sodom: “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?… Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” (18.23,25). And even though the city was very wicked, he even secured God’s assent: “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten” (18.32). Abraham knows whom he’s dealing with, and he isn’t afraid to play hardball— with God!

But God is testing Abraham. What he wants to know isn’t, as I said and as people usually suppose, just whether Abraham is so incredibly faithful that he would even go so far as to sacrifice “his son, his only son, whom he loved” (22.2), if God asked him to do so. If that were the end of it, he might be a nice moral example for the kids in sunday school— but the grownups would be left with a rather serious question as to just when, exactly, we’re supposed to draw the line. After all, what if somebody— a respected religious leader, perhaps— comes to a woman and says, “In the name of God you have to sleep with me even though you’re married to another man”? The test isn’t to see whether Abraham would actually kill his son for God. It’s to see just what kind of obedience Abraham has; in what way he will be obedient.

And again here’s the game: If he trusts God, he will do as required, and kill the heir of the Promise. But if he does as required, he proves God can’t be trusted. If he refuses to do as required, he proves he doesn’t really trust God. But if he doesn’t trust God, then the covenant, whose only condition was trust, is finished. Again, if he goes through with it, he shows that he worships a powerful, but deceiving God, and is prepared to do so at the price of his own conscience (not to mention his son’s life). But again, on the other hand, if he bases his refusal on his own integrity, and chooses to live without God, he forfeits the promise.

And remember— the promise was not just “I will multiply thee exceedingly… [and] make thee exceeding fruitful” (17.2, 6), but “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (12.3) with the same blessing. In other words, In thee, the sin of Adam will be undone, and the blessing Adam lost will be restored— for the entire human race.

So God has thrown down just this gauntlet, and now it’s Abraham’s move. Fully conscious of God’s promise, Abraham climbs the mountain, lays out the wood, binds Isaac, seizes the knife, grasps Isaac by the hair and pulls his head back, and—

God blinks.

Suggestively, for our discussion here, he even sends an angel, not to force Abraham with a knife, but to stop him from wielding one. God admits defeat, and Abraham sacrifices a ram that God provides, just as Abraham said he would, and together with his son Isaac, whom he loves, worships a faithful God with a pure conscience.

Abraham is not a daredevil who takes his son’s life lightly, even when God requires it. But God himself initiated the contest, and Abraham had no choice but to play. But Abraham trusted that whatever else he says, God will be faithful to his own word. But he trusted God, faithful to his own conscience too. That’s why he said to Isaac only, “God will see to it” (22.8).

But he can trust and be faithful to both God and his conscience only if God himself is trustworthy and faithful. If the God who set the contest keeps his promises, then to keep his promise to Isaac, God will have to blink. Abraham may have to go all the way to the mountain, but “as it is said to this day, On the mountain of the Lord, it will be seen” (22.14). “To this day”— because Abraham has shown, once and for all, that when it comes to conscience, that’s what God is looking for.

Of course it has to be the mountain of the Lord, not just any mountain. But on that mountain, where the Lord has authority to demand, Abraham had to obey. But as a righteous man (15.6), who once held even God to conscience (18.23,25)— he obeys in view only of a righteous God. A slave does what he’s told because he fears consequences. But, as it turns out, it was precisely the conscience of his covenant partner that the righteous and faithful God wanted to prove— so that he could, in the end, show his respect for it.

The point of this story, then, is not so much that God could say, as he does at the end, “Now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me” (Gn 22.12)— rather, the point is that, having seen that Abraham fears both God and his conscience, he stayed Abraham’s hand. And in doing so, he revealed his own faithfulness once and for all. God was faithful precisely to Abraham’s conscience. That is why “Abraham called the name of that place Yhwh-yireh [The LORD has seen]: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen” (22.14).

Now, the remarkable thing is the way in which, by making his demand, God actually invited Abraham to participate in and to constitute God’s own self-disclosure in the world. If Abraham had gone through with the sacrifice, he would have shown that God was a deceiver. If he had stood on his own integrity and cut himself off from God, then his last word about him would again have been that God is a deceiver. God put his own honor at great risk, making it dependent on the response of a mere man. But that is what was at issue in Abraham’s choice. God “tested” Abraham (22.1), to see if he had faith with conscience, not just faith for its own sake. And Abraham took it right to the mountain, to test whether God would honor his promise.

For all who believe, now, in this God, themselves, Abraham’s test has settled once and for all whether they would ever have to violate their own conscience out of obedience to God or to anyone else. By accepting the demand and playing chicken, Abraham was faithful to God’s promise and to his conscience, and he made God expose his own faithfulness— and thereby to show that he respects the consciences of those who are in covenant with him. As to those who are not— well, God is One: he respects conscience— but for their part, they’re on their own.

But if an angel appears and demands that we do something contrary to our conscience, we can be sure, after Abraham, that that angel is a demon. And if someone says that such an angel has appeared, he is saying it either to take advantage of someone, or to cover his ass for having taken advantage already. The faithful God does not violate a person’s conscience.

But returning to the issue of whether God forces people to do things— whether against their conscience or not— you also ask,

But really, isn’t most of Christianity at bottom exactly the sort of “forcing” you mention? Isn’t God saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment?

(To which someone responded, “Amen!”)

At this point, I hesitate to say much, because I don’t want to appear sectarian, but we’re going to have to make some distinctions if we want to avoid defending the indefensible, or overlooking the key facts. But let me offer the following as information— it’s up to you to make of it what you will— but the answer to your question lies at least partly in history, and there are different histories, and they’ve had different consequences.

So— “most of Christianity”. . . .

Have you ever noticed that conditions we consider permanent are often of more recent origin than we think? Did you know, for example, that less than 100 years ago, pink (as a shade of red, an aggressive color) was considered more appropriate for boys, while blue was better for girls? I suspect it’s not even possible to dress a baby boy in pink today!

But how possible is it that what we think of as “most of Christianity” is actually only about a thousand years old, and much of it only five hundred years old, and an awful lot of it even less than that? Yet facts are facts.

Just at the time of the final split between Eastern and Western Christianity, Anselm (11th c) was rethinking the atonement in terms Western European feudalism. He sought to understand God’s justice within the context of honor and satisfaction, where justice played out in the world he knew. By breaking God’s rules (and who hasn’t?), he reasoned, we have insulted God. But for Anselm, the magnitude of an offense is measured by the honor of the person offended, and that is the measure of the righteous wrath that has to be appeased. So if you offend your neighbor, you say “Pardon me!”, but if you offend the king, you crawl on your knees and say, “Pardon me”, and offer a great gift!

God is infinite, though. We finite creatures can never appease or satisfy or atone for the insult we’ve given him, because we have no gift commensurate with his infinity. But since he’s infinitely just, God can’t just let us get away with it; his wrath must be appeased. But he’s infinitely loving at the same time, and wants to save us as well. However, justice requires satisfaction; and wrath, appeasement. That’s why, as Anselm and the Scholastics who followed him explained, he sent his Son, the only person who could appease his wrath by offering infinite satisfaction.

Anselm’s theory caught on and became the ruling paradigm in Scholastic theology; and both Luther and Calvin (16th c) were highly trained in this style of thinking. That’s how it came about that in “most of Christianity”, we now have a Savior who saves us from a feudal God (a friend of mine calls him “Zeus”) by taking the punishment we deserve. That’s the “atonement”, in “most of Christianity”.

But of course, behind this, the story is still “follow God or be punished forever”, as you put it. We don’t really follow God very well, so we simply can’t avoid being punished forever— unless of course we accept that Jesus took the blow for us. Jesus is our Get Out Of Jail Free card.

The Book of Mormon strikes me as informed by this Scholastic-Reformation theory only in a general way, as one would expect if it had been written by a frontier American who got his theology mostly from popular preaching rather than, say, a university-trained theologian living in Vienna or Rome. And in many respects, the writer actually seems a little confused. In addition, Mormonism also advances its own peculiar take on the atonement, centering on his agony in the garden more than on the death of Christ. In various ways it seems that the American culture in which Mormonism emerged was no longer quite in sync with feudal ideas of honor and satisfaction, and all of this looks like an effort to explain anew something that no longer quite makes sense, but nobody can quite put their finger on why. But I honestly think that the “Zeus” of Anselmian and Calvinist scholasticism is still more or less by default the God who still appears in, or is assumed by the Book of Mormon and related literature. That’s why the Book of Mormon is so chock-full of threat and punishment (plus of course lots of miracles for the believing). 1st Nephi provides as many examples as any, but 18.20 put it quite succinctly: “There was nothing save it were the power of God, which threatened them with destruction, could soften their hearts”. The “power of God”, because the Book of Mormon is for the most part about the God of power.

To be fair, God’s threats are generally addressed to unbelievers who always seem peculiarly obtuse in the face of prophetic proof, and generally they appeal to their better sense of things. They don’t usually demand a suspension of conscience— although Korihor (Alma 30) provides an interesting example to the contrary. But precisely in those endless stories of threat and punishment, the book seems to share this idea of God-as-Zeus with “most of Christianity”, and certainly with the part of it that was common in American frontier churches in his day. Nothing convinces me that the church Smith founded doesn’t share it with “most of Christianity” even now.

But here’s where we rejoin our discussion of Abraham: Because Smith and the average American frontier Protestants with whom he was speaking both more or less thought of the biblical God precisely as the kind o’ guy who would “shock” people (1Nephi 17.53) and threaten them with drawn swords anyway, Smith could readily tell people that an angel with a drawn sword forced him to enter into a union that he claimed was (initially) against his conscience and morally repugnant to him. That was to be expected! But it strikes me as no accident that just as people are starting massively to question the idea of God-as-Zeus in other churches, Mormons are starting question this story of Smith’s as well.

More generally, though, something doesn’t quite add up when, as you put it, “God is saying that we have our choice, but if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment”. Such an ethical regime entails all the morality of “Obey or die, slave!”— and seems particularly suspicious, if not odious, when Zeus is telling us to violate our conscience or die.

Yet isn’t that the demand of the angel with the fiery sword— the demand Smith acquiesced to, and then imposed on Emma and other reluctant church members— for an obedience which, in the face of deadly threat, is willing to renounce its own conscience?

To the extent that God is like Zeus, this is understandable. Zeus is power, and conscience has nothing to do with power.

But as we saw with Abraham, such an idea is actually quite at odds with the God of the Bible— and not in a minor way, for that’s actually the point that the Bible is making, in view of a lot of other deities on offer in the ancient world, including Zeus himself, and Moloch, who demanded the sacrifice of children. Conscience is key. But if “most of Christianity” tends to believe in this Zeus, and promotes a kind of slave morality (as Nietzsche pointed out, only about 50 years after the Book of Mormon was published), then we might ask, was there or is there some other part of Christianity that ever said or says anything else?

We can look behind Anselm and his feudal-Scholastic friends to see how people dealt with the question of conscience and atonement before them. As it turns out, Christianity everywhere, both East and West, taught that even if we have sinned, we were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and that all of us, without exception, will indeed see him— for “unto thee shall all flesh come” (Ps 65.2), and “with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light” (Ps 36.9). So “we now see in a mirror, darkly, but then we shall see face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known” (1Co 13.12)— and this is true of both sinners and saints. And when we see God face to face, we will understand that “God is love” (1Jn 4.8), and that he really does love everyone equally and indiscriminately, regardless of their moral status. For “God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5.8). God loves everyone with the same love, both the saint and the devil, for “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1.5). We were all created to see God in his uncreated glory, and without exception all of us— “all flesh”— will indeed see him.

Whoever we are, then, and no matter what we’ve done, we will spend eternity in God’s light. So the idea that “if we do differently than he wants, we will spend eternity in punishment” is not exactly correct. It may actually surprise you to learn that the doctrine of “hell”, as popularly assumed in our culture (and in the Book of Mormon), was simply unknown during the first thousand years of Christianity, and was not taught in the East at all— nor is it found in the Bible. (Whenever the word “hell” does appear in the Bible, it always translates she’ol or hades, which are simply “The Grave”, the “Land of Oblivion” (Ps 88.12) where the dead dwell.

So we all die and go to hades. But when the veil of this life is removed, the light of God’s infinite love appears. To the righteous, it will appear as “gladome light”, but as “consuming fire” to the ungodly (Hb 12.29). Accordingly, our own manner of being will determine whether our vision of God will be light or fire, heaven or gehenna, reward or punishment. This has nothing to do with a “spiritual feeling” or a “burning in the bosom”, but with our actual transformation from selfish love to Godlike, self-emptying love. This transformation originates in the Spirit, but requires our cooperation.

The question, then, is not whether we “do differently than God wants”, but whether “Christ be formed in us” (Ga 4.19). We ourselves need to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Rm 12.2)— then we shall be “conformed to the image of his glory” (St Basil, quoting Rm 8.29 and Ph 3.10, 21). If we’re not so transformed, then “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3.19-21). This isn’t particularly hard to grasp— lust and hatred have no place in love, but if we prefer them, we may have them— yet in the light of God’s love, the truth of what we’ve choosen will be very painful to eyes accustomed to darkness. So, if we “do differently than God wants”, we will “suffer punishment”, in a sense, but only in the sense that the hell of a conscience that condemns itself and is condemned by itself in the light of love is not at all the same thing as being condemned to hell by a Judge who didn’t like that we didn’t do what he wanted.

One absolutely indispensible condition of the transformation to which God invites us is a pure conscience.

Accordingly, great spiritual teachers are not about telling us “what God wants”— whether polygamy or tithing or fasting on Fridays— but about helping people to purify their consciences, so that the vision of God’s glory will be heaven for them, and not gehenna; reward, and not punishment. That’s why St Paul wrote, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience…” (1Tm 1.5). All other teachings, sacraments, books, and practices have this transformation as their fundamental purpose and context.

But how can this ever work, when angels with drawn swords tell us that God requires us to violate our conscience?

You concluded,

Even with Joseph Smith’s angel story, Joseph still had his agency. He could do as the angel directed or be slain.

I know that isn’t much agency to speak of, but I am not sure how it is appreciably different from the doctrine that we have our agency to follow God or be punished forever.

It seems to me like the latter is even more severe than the former.

Is there really any difference at all between “follow God or be punished forever”, and “do as the angel directs or be slain”? Either way, it’s the morality of slaves. And as Nietzsche announced out, the God of slaves, is dead.

But my point has been only that this mutilated Christianity never existed outside the West and before the Middle Ages, even if “most of Christianity” is unaware of that.

In the Bible and the early church fathers, we find a Christianity in which the ultimate, final, and unsurpassable revelation of God is Jesus, who did not threaten with a drawn sword but said to Peter, who had drawn his sword, “Put your sword back into its place… or do you think that I cannot pray to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26.52-53). For as you know, he didn’t.


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‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’

April 9th, 2015

Just for the record— something I wrote the other day on facebook went sorta viral, so I edited it and incorporated subsequent discussion, so if you didn’t see it there, it’s presently the top item here— entitled as above— ‘I hold the keys of death and Hell’. As I say there, the terms gehenna, hell, she’ol, and hades— as well as what the Bible and Christian Tradition say about where Christ went when he died, and what he did there, and where we go when we die, and what we do there, are no longer well understood, so they need some discussion. Comments invited!


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Africa’s Catholic Church Steps Up to the Plate

March 25th, 2015

Interesting article here. I think people aren’t really aware of Africa’s power, but surprises are on the way.


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Shell Game

March 6th, 2015

Over on Ancient Faith, Eric Jobe, a PhD candidate at U Chicago and biblical instructor for the OCA’s Diocese of the Midwest Vocations Program, tries to justify the violence in the Old Testament, or at least to soften it, by lining up some modern scholarly insights along with some patristic allegories, to show the compatibility of both approaches. His argument is that we don’t have to read the Bible literally, and that modern critical insights give us new ways of not doing so. Therefore, about the the violence—

we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts were never intended by their authors as reporting factual history. Rather, they reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books.

To be more specific, Jobe avers that Joshua was first written at the time of Josiah, one of the last kings of Judah, to justify his own reconquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had fallen to the Assyrians. Ultimately, his Reconquista failed and Josiah himself was killed. Some decades later, after overthrowing the Assyrians, the Babylonians came and sacked Jerusalem itself, and hauled Josiah’s great grandson and all the nobles and artisans of Israel off into exile. But at that point, the exiles expanded the book of Joshua into an even bigger lie enhanced Josiah’s failed propaganda by adding material that retrojectively anticipated their own return to the Land from Babylon— and since this actually happened, Joshua is now part of the Bible as we have it. And so,

[a]s Joshua is depicted conquering the land of Benjamin, so Josiah wished also to view himself as a new Joshua taking back land that had been captured by the Assyrians. In the same way, Christ, the New Joshua (Yeshua), leads the people of God to reclaim the “Land” of their heart, overtaken and captured by sin. . . .

All well and good, even if some have a problem with the theory that Joshua originated as a bit of Josianic propaganda. In their view, if it’s not a “reliable record of history”, then it’s not true (truth being defined as a “reliable historical record”).

But a more serious objection, I think, is that if the case is something like what Jobe says, then you have to explain why and how a piece of failed political ideology became Divine Scripture— and then why we should still honor it as such. Because the Return from Exile turns out not to have been altogether irenic itself, though in that case, the history seems to have been written (but not entirely erased) by the victors (Ezra and Nehemiah).

But ok, let’s go with Jobe for a moment. He’s saying that if Joshua isn’t actually historical in the first place, then we don’t have to worry about whether God is a violent God, because the violence never actually happened! But the problem isn’t whether the violence ever happened; the problem is that the text we revere speaks of it as if it did, and seems to sanction it!

In fact the effort to extricate ourselves from the problem of violence in the OT is already an admission that the violence in the OT is a problem. And you can’t solve the problem by explaining it away. “The Text says what it says, but it doesn’t really mean it. Or at least, doesn’t mean it literally. Violence? Violence? Do you see any violence? Lookie here— no violence to be found!

It’s the oldest trick in the book.

In positing a redaction of the Book of Joshua during the time of Josiah and the Exile, we are able to move away from an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book. If indeed the book was composed in order to express certain ideological and theological ideas, then such a historical-factual reading would in that case not even be “literal.” If Joshua was composed to promote the ideology of Jewish kingship and the hopes of an exilic community awaiting their own “Exodus” and return to the Land, then a properly “literal” reading will take these ideas into account.

So— it’s only “an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book” that finds a lot of violence in the Scripture, and thinks this might be a problem for a religion of love?

Jobe isn’t the only one trying this approach. It’s become very popular lately among Christian apologists of all stripes, especially those who want to rewrite, or excise, the parts of the Bible that seem to clobber gays, women, and so forth. But for one and all, this is the wrong tack altogether. The violent passages are there, but they’re only part of a larger pattern, and it’s precisely that big picture that we don’t see! And that’s why we have a problem with the violence in the Bible. There’s a murder that takes place in Crime and Punishment too, but if we read only that chapter, our view of Crime and Punishment will be distorted, at best!

As Jobe knows (he alludes to this in his discussion of the book’s origins), Joshua is part of a series of books— Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings— that form a continuous narrative with common themes, style, vocabulary, point of view. Scholars call this sequence the “Deuteronomic History”, and its author was likely Jeremiah or someone in his circle (perhaps his secretary Baruch). If we read Joshua within the whole of the Deuteronomic history— together with Jeremiah and related books, and the rest of the prophets— we discover something much different than a mere “inspired record” of divinely sanctioned violence— let alone a justification for it.

We discover a prophetic view of the violence in history. And the violence of history is a problem. In fact, it’s the problem, and the Bible is all about it.

More specifically, the Bible’s big, sprawling story is about Israel in history. But it’s not just a book of history; it’s a book about history, or rather, about Israel’s experience of history, in which Israel experienced violence on both the giving and on the receiving ends. And it has its own development. It sets out, in the beginning, to get you all enthusiastic for Israel’s conquests, to draw you in: “Hooray for our side! How dare those dastardly Canaanites— baby-murderers all!— oppose the Great March to Victory of God’s Own Chosen People!!” . . . . and you read on through all the ups and downs (well, there are a lot of downs; somehow those kings just never seem to work out)— until you get to the other end of the story, where all the violence comes down on Israel herself, and for the same reasons (including murderous sacrifices of babies). In the end, sick of the violence, you seriously doubt God approves of any of it. The whole story was just to get you to think about your own attitudes. And it’s more than obvious by that point that people insist on violence— just read the papers even today!— and people *believe* in violence, and so there will be violence. Do you have a problem with it? You bet! That’s the point!

But in the final analysis, the Bible’s story turns out to be about God calling one people— Israel, as much prone to violence as anyone else— to bear witness to the fact that God will ultimately use the violence and the injustice of the nations to bring the nations to repentance, beginning with his own people.

That’s the story in the Bible.

Jobe is actually fighting two battles in his Ancient Faith piece, and I think he fails on both counts, not least because he doesn’t keep his battles clear. There is the problem of violence in the Scriptures, his ostensible topic, which as I say I think he get’s wrong. But there’s also the problem of fundamentalism in the Church, which has to face up to the problem of violence in Scripture precisely because it insists on a “literal, historical-factual reading of the book” without ever seeing the story whole. For as Jobe says,

This is a pastoral issue. There are many people out there who reject Christianity because of such literalist readings of the Bible. It is incumbent upon Orthodox Christian leaders to assure them that the God we believe in is not a genocidal maniac, and our Bible does not have to be read in such a manner. Furthermore, we do not need to try to justify such heinous acts in order to support a literalistic reading of the Bible.

He urges that when critical scholarship puts the history into question, it becomes easier to accept patristic allegory as a “true” interpretation— closer than historical literalism to what was intended by the writers in the first place. Thus,

While the Fathers did not have recourse to modern critical scholarship, they nevertheless interpreted the Bible in non-literal ways which are able to work harmoniously with critical scholarship, in that both allow us to transcend literalist readings.

“To transcend literalist readings”. Sigh. The point is, if you read the Bible, “literally” or not, the violence is there. It’s dishonest to pretend that it isn’t. And to reach for allegory before or instead of looking at the literal meaning is not to take the Bible seriously.

This is a kind of Docetism: the Old Testament is flesh in appearance only.

In the comments, Fr John Whiteford weighs in with his usual anti-critical Nazarene-fundamentalist idiocy. I do get tired of his nonsense. Of course, blind as he is, he correctly wants to avoid Jobe’s Docetism, and understands well enough that to reach for allegory is to ignore the text; and he half-gets that to reach for it first is to ignore the text altogether. So, half-converted from Protestant fundamentalism, he can’t give up his “literal understanding” of the text, even though he’s found in the Fathers something to be all the more fundamentalist about. Joshua has to be literally historical, and we have to follow the fathers in interpreting it typologically or allegorically. Thus he falls into a kind of Marcionism, where the Old is there, but the New supersedes and replaces it. But he can’t really get rid of the Old, because he’d then have nothing to allegorize. So the violence still attaches to him, like an ugly leech, because we have to take it literally.

Nobody actually wants to look at the text as a whole, partly because mastering a book that’s about 2,500 pages long requires a huge effort; and as a result, nobody ever teaches it as a whole. So we have to come up with explanations of why it doesn’t “really” sanction violence because we’re afraid it actually does sanction violence and we know in our heart of hearts that we can’t support that.

Well, explain away the violence in the Bible as best you can, but unless you can actually explain it, I won’t believe a word you’re saying.

The violence is there. We have to tell why it’s there.

[Be sure to read the comments below.]


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Where Was Jesus Coming From? (Mt 8.1–9.36)

November 30th, 2014

I just posted my notes (about 21 pages) on chapters 8 and 9 of Matthew, for any who are interested, and especially for those who’ve been part of the Matthew Discussion Group at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church for the past year.

Coming between what are usually called the Sermon on the Mount and the Missionary Discourse, this section mainly deals with the question of Jesus’ authority. Thus I’ve called my commentary, “Where Is Jesus Coming From?”

In general, I’m trying to approach Matthew as a *book* with a structure, plot, and development of its own, rather than as a collection of unrelated episodes aimed somewhat at “showing that Jesus was the Son of God” or “building faith” or whatever.

In particular, the section on the centurion and his ‘boy’ (Mt 8.5-13) has turned out to be very interesting. Regardless of the identity of the ‘boy’ (which I discussed with a number of people separately a week ago or so), it seems unquestionable that *both* the centurion and the Pharisees of 9.32-34 have the same view of Jesus as a ‘centurion of demons’, though the centurion regards him positively and the Pharisees negatively.

Also unexpected is the fact that Matthew is not trying to assert or prove Jesus’ authority, but (as a good storyteller would) letting us see how the people around Jesus actually *struggled* to understand “what kind of man this is” (8.27).

You can download the notes by clicking the fourth item listed here.

Comments invited, either here or on FB or by email.


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Human Slaves Are Feeding Your Cat

August 18th, 2014

Americans’ love of pets— not just a psycho-pathology, but an environmental, political, and spiritual pathology as well.

In my experience, it’s always been women who go crazy about animals; guys often have dogs or even cats, but not usually four or five or ten of them. Not being an essentialist, I refuse to speculate what it might be about the “female psyche” that makes women go crazy about cats, but I wonder what it is about women’s lives that takes this toll. Best I can come up with is that maybe in a world of men spinning out of control in places like Ferguson, MO and Iraq, if we can keep our little feline friends happy, then we can feel good about ourselves. A friend of mine, whose mother had this illness, puts it this way: “But they’re hungry, you see, and you need to feed them. The whole world is hungry…!” So it’s a sort of metastasis of the compassion instinct— but in response to what?

I’m no stranger to bonding with animals. I had a kitty in Kampala, and i liked my little kitty. And since it turns out a lot of Africans were mildly afraid of cats (witchcraft associations), keeping it was an interesting experiment in social interaction. Problem is, I like to connect the dots even more than i like to connect with kitties.

So today I noticed that all the canned cat food i feed to the SIX cats i take care of (I should explain that I’m house-sitting; they aren’t mine) is labeled, “Product of Thailand”.

Well, about that Thai fishing industry— wouldn’t you know— it’s a major location of human trafficking; see also this article, and this one, and this one; and for good measure, here’s one about the Thai prawn industry as well. I particularly liked the part about where one guy beat up on a boss who was torturing him, so once the crew subdued him, they summoned three other boats, tied each of his arms and legs to one boat, put their engines in reverse, and— pulled him apart, alive, as the other slaves were forced to watch.

I’m personally not eating shrimp again, or any fish caught in Thailand.

But UPS brought me this big box of cat food today, a monthly occurrence:

  • Weruva (“Because Weluvya”) Chicken in Gravy;
  • Tiki Cat (“Gourmet Whole Food”) “Molokai Luau” tuna on rice with calamari;
  • B.F.F. (“Best Feline Friend”) Tuna & Beef Baby-Cakes (“wild-caught & dolphin free”)

And a 30-lb bag of dry food:

  • Taste of the Wild “Rocky Mountain Feline® Formula with Roasted Venison & Smoked Salmon”, “The balanced diet that nature intended”— with “Fruits & Vegetables”.

Well, this dry food includes “Dried Chickory Root… helps support a healthy digestive system”; “Blueberries & Raspberries… packed with powerful antioxidants to help keep the body healthy as the days go by”; and “Tomatoes… an additional source of antioxidants”. The cats like it well enough, but come on!— Is this really even cat food??!

Of course I get that cats like fish. So… salmon. Though really, I don’t know why we don’t raise mice for cat food; it would probably take a lot of burden off the seas. But smoked salmon? In fact I wonder where they even get the smoked salmon and especially the venison for this feline fruit-and-meat salad. Are there gigantic deer farms somewhere in Missouri (apparently, that’s what the Taste of the Wild company means by “Rocky Mountains”), where deer are bred and raised to become cat food?

Of course we love our kitties and we want only the best for them. Our kitties, ourselves. The whole marketing pitch is all about pampering and comfort and indulgence. “Poor witto Beau-Beau. Did pussie get his antioxidants and venison today?” Our kitties, ourselves. And there is something terribly weak, something deeply out of balance not only with the diet, but with the attitude.

In Kampala, I could buy these little tiny dried fish that people used to make a popular fish sauce out of, for about 5¢ the handful, and one handful fed the cat for several days. So “Eat Local” was a real option. And my cat was a real killing machine that kept the rat, mouse, cockroach (eww!), and lizard populations down as well. Too bad about the lizards; as a Southwesterner, i’ve always thought they were cool, but as the saying goes, you can’t take sides in the jungle. However, here in America we don’t have the little dried fish or the giant cockroaches, and not so many rats or mice, so we feed our cats tuna, which comes in packages of aluminum (which can now be recycled in many places) as well as plastic (which can’t), and which is transported from Thailand by an industry that runs on fossil fuels.

Oh, and about that tuna: In the first place, even if a lot of the fish in those cans looks suspiciously like sardines— nonetheless, it says “tuna”, and we need to consider the implications of feeding tuna (especially slave-caught tuna!) to our cats:

In 2010, Greenpeace International has added the albacore, bigeye tuna, Pacific bluefin tuna, Atlantic bluefin tuna, southern bluefin tuna and the yellowfin tuna to its seafood red list. “The Greenpeace International seafood red list is a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.”

It is widely accepted that bluefin tuna have been severely overfished, with some stocks at risk of collapse. According to the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (a global, non-profit partnership between the tuna industry, scientists, and the World Wide Fund for Nature), Indian Ocean yellowfin tuna, Pacific Ocean (eastern & western) bigeye tuna, and North Atlantic albacore tuna are all overfished. In April 2009, no stock of skipjack tuna (which makes up roughly 60 percent of all tuna fished worldwide) was “considered” to be overfished. However, the BBC documentary South Pacific, which first aired in May 2009, stated that, should fishing in the Pacific continue at its current rate, populations of all tuna species could collapse within 5 years. It highlighted huge Japanese and European tuna fishing vessels, sent to the South Pacific international waters after overfishing their own fish stocks to the point of collapse.

A 2010 tuna fishery assessment report, released in January 2012 by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), supported this finding, recommending that all tuna fishing should be reduced or limited to current levels and that limits on skipjack fishing be considered. [source: Wikipedia]

It’s going to be interesting when we fished the oceans to the point of collapse to feed our cats, and cat food starts costing $ten per tin, and global warming wipes out our own land-based food supply (paid for anything at the supermarket lately?)

Will we start eating our cats? Well, if we don’t want to go there, I’m thinking it’s about time we started to look seriously at what our addiction to pets is costing a world where, in addition to the environmental issues i’ve mentioned, one out of every eight people goes to bed hungry each night and billions more are doing barely better than that. I’ve met people who would be happy to eat cat— except for the witchcraft issue— and that might just be negotiable.


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“Self-Reliance Team” to Go to Uganda Church in October!

July 29th, 2014

I just received OCMC’s latest fundraising newsletter. It contained this item:

“Also departing on October 27th will be a [short-term] team bound for Uganda. This team will continue the work begun last year with the blessings of His Eminence Jonah aimed at helping the Church in Uganda to be more self-reliant. This year’s team will teach Christian stewardship workshops in various communities across the country.”

Potential donors and missionaries should know that there is NO teaching in the Uganda Orthodox Church. Most of the priests have NO training. There are NO catechetical materials, NO icons, NO service books (except for the few I printed at my own expense), NO prayerbooks, NO knowledge of the Scriptures, NO knowledge of the Liturgy, and what little idea of basic Christianity there is, comes from the state-sponsored “Christian Religious Education” (CRE) classes required in the national school system— an ecumenical pablum of ethics and civics, with a few bible tidbits thrown in, guaranteed to offend neither Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, nor Catholics and Orthodox.

So, given all that, and given the fact that Greek and even American funding has all but dried up for the diocese— OCMC now proposes, under Bishop Jonah’s direction (the same who has never put into motion even a half-serious catechetical program in the 20 years or so that he’s been bishop)— to build the church with MONEY rather than the Gospels.

Well, that’s how it always was, but now the MONEY is to be raised locally, and we’re sending a “TEAM” to show em how to do it!!

Good luck on that!!

(Btw, once i’d been there for about 3 months, nothing has ever convinced me that OCMC even has a clue about Africa!)

I shake my head in amusement, amazement, and sorrow, all at once. And I can’t recommend supporting it.

Ocmc does have medical missions, which can do some good. i don’t have a huge problem with those.

Sometimes they send “short term education missions” as well. That’s when they drop a “team”— they don’t seem to have a clue how loathesome their corporate gibberish is!— of people who have absolutely no understanding of the local culture, don’t speak a word of the language, and don’t have the foggiest about what the church actually needs in that country— onto peasants who may have a third-grade education, if any, and have never so much as even seen any orthodox service except the divine liturgy MAYBE. There, they will tour as many villages as possible for eight weeks giving seminars on things like “sacraments, God in Christ, and women saints”, as one prospective missionary wrote me. But the one that made me really want to laugh, cry, and scream when i read about it was short term “team” that went to Turkanaland a while back to talk about “Orthodox parenting” to naked cattle nomads.

Well, i respect naked cattle nomads a good deal. I’d survive about 5 minutes in their environment, and they have a whole thriving culture. But you just have to picture a small “team” of unmarried privileged freshly scrubbed snot-nosed american college kids in their Patagonia® active wear and sunscreen presuming to tell cattle nomad women who’ve been married since the age of ten, living mostly outdoors, and drinking a mixture of blood and milk for breakfast, whose rigidly traditional culture REQUIRES YOU EITHER TO DO IT THE SAME WAY YOU’VE ALWAYS DONE IT OR YOU ALL DIE— but never ever once in their lives even seen, much less held, a pencil or tapped an iPhone®— how to be “good Orthodox moms”. In addition, of course, to cluing them in on Orthodox Sacraments and Women Saints.

About the Bible, or the basic apostolic kerygma, not so much. But then, we’re not really familiar with those, ourselves.

The “self-reliance teams” to which i refer above are a new thing. As i may have intimated, the Orthodox churches of Greece and America have created in Uganda (and i suspect most other places on the “dark continent”, as the Greek newsletters unerringly describe it) a number of local churches that are completely dependent on outside money and unable to do much of anything for themselves. The Orthodox Church has not yet been forced to face the consequences of its colonialism, like the Catholics and the Protestants have, at least to an extent, and so we still fantasize that this is some kind of viable “mission”.

But apparently the Greek money has completely dried up since the 2008 financial crisis. So who’d a-thunk?— where there has never been even the slightest thought of supporting the church before— people became orthodox so they could get supported!— now there’s a need to tell them that they have to cough up and support their priests! Add to that the fact that altogether too many of the priests are kinda famous for “just using the church as a way to eat”, as the saying goes— the picture does not inspire visions of success for these “self-reliance teams”. My informants on the ground are fairly amused by the whole show, but they look forward to the free lunches.

There’s just absolutely no program of evangelization, let alone catechesis, let alone community building, let alone pastoral care in the Uganda Orthodox Church. It’s a leadership issue, and things won’t change until there are new leaders, if then. I don’t know how it is elsewhere except in South Africa, where pretty much one patient deacon and his wife are struggling more or less alone. Which is a real tragedy because the churches he helps had been around for a hundred years, were completely self-supporting and very active until they became Orthodox, and then we turned them into passive basket cases entirely dependent on Greek largesse, which is seldom actually forthcoming (some discussion here, but still looking for another link specifically about the fortunes of the independent churches that joined the Orthodox.)

Our notions of “Orthodox mission” are so deeply flawed and in fact colonialist that it’s hard to know where to begin. They are generally the natural outgrowth of our endemic ethnophyletism; I recall reading one Greek bishop’s glowing report, after visiting Congo a couple a years ago, about how all the young men there just couldn’t wait to learn Greek and become Greeks! Well, Ocmc, being American, is beyond all that, but we still imagine that dropping a Greek church on an African village is going to build an African church.

And then there was that Ocmc “education team” (loathesome word!) that we had to host when i was in SA, which probably spent over $10,000 on air fare alone— when i was trying to live on less than $500/month and supporting a couple of other people— so they could come and yammer on about their “lovely wives and successful kids” back in America, and then get on to some prepared lectures, read from notes, in english, to isiNdebele-speaking teenagers who about as much interest in hearing about Orthodox sexual ethics as you might guess. If you want, i have pictures.

But I can’t recommend strongly enough Vincent J Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered, about the evangelization of the Maasai. I don’t think i agree with about 30% of what he says, but even the parts i take exception to absolutely must be answered. And yet, generally, we aren’t even aware that there are questions there. And by “we”, i mean the Ocmc in particular.

I bet this reaches Ocmc’s Fr Ritsi’s desk by tomorrow afternoon, and I’d be curious to know what he says, but since i’m no longer working for the church, let alone for Ocmc, i’m feeling free to embrace my inner gadfly.

Africa seared me. I realized i knew nothing. But I think if you know that, you can at least get started. But I honestly wonder what Ocmc thinks it’s doing, since they clearly don’t actually have a clue as to what they’re actually doing.

What a colossal waste of money and time! To say nothing of the sheer nonsense of trying to start a church with money!


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Genesis and evolution

July 7th, 2014

A friend of mine writes,

I was just trying to figure out a way evolution could work with the Biblical view of God creating a ‘good’ World. As evolution requires creatures to be fighting with one another for survival it seems to contradict the ‘good’ idea. I guess this continues on into the human experience (that we appear to be born into or evolve in a fallen world or imperfect world rather than beginning in Eden).

My response:

Any attempt to relate Genesis to the scientific account of origins (human or cosmic) is going to lead to insurmountable problems. Whatever way you look at it, you’re going to be trying to match the wrong answer to the right question, and you just can’t make it fit. The reason why people keep trying is that the wrong answer (creation; evolution) of course is the right answer when you ask the question that leads to it, but neither answer is ever going to be the right answer to the other question. Both questions (science; religion) are valid and legitimate and necessary, but they address different aspects of the human experience and therefore use different orders of discourse. Or as Steven Jay Gould says on an article that you can read here on my site, they belong to “Nonoverlapping Magisteria“.

The problem is really cultural. No society was capable of asking the sophisticated physical, biological, geological, astrophysical, etc questions that we refer to when we say “science”. People honestly did think the stars were just out of reach and that the world was 4000 years old at the time of Jesus (5500, if you read the Septuagint). I forget which Greek philosopher it was who brought a lot of ridicule on himself for proposing that the sun was bigger than a bonfire, perhaps even bigger than Greece, and quite far away. In such a thought-world, it wouldn’t occur to anyone to doubt or question the Genesis account of the Seven Days or of Adam, Eve, and Eden. So we grew up, as a culture, naturally assuming that the stories in Genesis were “scientific”. But it is a sheer impossibility to take those accounts as “science” today, except in bad faith and by means of the anti-biblicism of fundamentalism.

But such a move is so unnecessary! Biblical studies have amply and fascinatingly demonstrated that the story of the Seven Days is the account of a building of a Temple— an account reflected, moreover, in the building of the Tabernacle in the desert, and in Solomon’s Temple later on. In this Garden/Temple, God installs Adam as his image, high priest, and king. The Eden story is about how the Image of God, the Royal High Priest, got thrown out of the Temple and banished into Exile. And that and nothing else is precisely the story of Israel in the Bible. It is everything that the Bible is about— how it happened, why it happened, and what God is doing about it. The Genesis accounts are a brilliant and profound preface/introduction to the rest of the Bible. But they no longer work for us as an introduction to science; they once did, but it is the nature of science to ask critical questions and because of that, Genesis no longer serves as an introduction to astrophysics or biochemistry.

But scholars also point out that in the context of the ancient imperial societies and their myths, with which it was in dialog, Genesis gives voice to a deeply scientific and critical impulse. In other words, it gives us the question that is science but not the answers that science has found. Stanley Jaki’s book, The Savior of Science, is good on this point. Interestingly, the Bible gives us the question of science precisely as it summarizes and elevates Israel’s history to a reflective myth which it then uses as the introduction to an elaborate and profound discourse about What Happened to Us (Israel) in History, and Why. It gives us the critical question that is science as it gives us the religious question that is theology.

NT Wright and others have made the point that evolutionary theory became popular as the mythos of nascent industrial capitalism. People (especially the owner class) liked the idea of the “survival of the fittest”, since it meant that if you were surviving, you must be the fittest, and therefore obviously justified in whatever it was you were doing. We’ve since come to recognize that competition and conflict are not the only stories being played out in nature, and that in fact we owe a good deal more to cooperation and symbiosis. I understand that even the cell itself— every cell from algae to humans— started out zillions of years ago as a symbiotic union of two originally distinct organisms, one of which somehow got inside the other. Worked out pretty good, considering the number of cells in the world now!

But the ‘good world’ that God created in Genesis is not that world. Nor is it the mythical Neverneverland of popular imagination, or the dishonest and lying fantasy of “Creation Science”. The popular imagination is utterly unschooled in the Bible even while, even among the least informed, it is far ahead of our ancestors in its properly scientific understanding of the world. That’s why we don’t need more conferences on “Science and Religion”, where we try to fit something called “religion” to “science” (or, supposedly, vice-versa); what we need today is a serious conversation about the Bible!

The ‘good world’ that God created is the world of the Eternal Covenant, known and appropriated within Israel through the Temple. The Seven Days is the mythos of the Temple. The Bible repeatedly stresses how this covenant was broken and how this has resulted in disaster and exile. We don’t have much of the mythos of the royal priesthood— this would have been associated with Melchizedek and the king, rather than with Aaron and Moses— but the story of Adam and Eve tells us in symbolic terms why it was lost. Jesus’ promise to the guerilla on the cross is that the Eternal Covenant is now restored and the Exile is over. Paul calls him the New Adam, and Hebrews calls him the New Melchizedek, the great High Priest.

Genesis is not about single-celled organisms emerging from the primordial soup, but about priesthood and covenant. If we start from where the Bible starts in our reflections on Genesis— from the history unfolded subsequently in the rest of the Bible— we will end up in a place that does not at all conflict with our scientific equations, but rather, at the Messianic Banquet. If in our reflections on Genesis we start from where the Bible does *not* start— from scientific questions about the nature of matter and the origins of the terrestrial biome— we will end up with nothing but insurmountable conflicts with our science.

In a context of moral evaluation, Jesus said you don’t pick grapes from thistles. But in another, less value-laden context, he could as well have said you don’t pick apples from an orange tree.

On this website there are a number of articles under the “biblical studies” tabs and others that address some of these issues separately, or lay the foundation for what I’m saying. I won’t try linking all the ones I think are relevant here, but they are many.


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