Con Texting

Cross2Pastor Chris Linzey didn’t like my previous post. He attacked its shoddy journalism(?), complained I exercised faulty hermeneutics and was upset I quoted bits of the Bible ‘out of context’. What he didn’t do, of course, was address the point made in the post, that Christians are selective about the parts of the New Testament they’ll accept, nor did he answer my question about how they decide which commands to follow and which not. Ironic, really, for someone whose blog has the strap line ‘Turning the Bible into Behavior’.

Christians are inherently dishonest about which parts of the supposed ‘Word of God’ – the New Testament specifically – they’ll acknowledge, believe and apply to their own lives. They mask this dishonesty, from themselves as much as anyone else, with a sleight of hand they mistake for hermeneutics (more on this in two post’s time) and by wilfully misinterpreting those who draw attention to their inconsistency. Pastor Chris didn’t seem to understand the fairly simple points I made in ‘Pick and Mix’ so came up with a couple of avoidance strategies. First, he took a swipe or two at my writing style (fair enough, though no-one was compelling him to read it) before, secondly, setting up strawman arguments to attack. They certainly weren’t my arguments he was tilting his lance at, that’s for sure. I guess this is what Christians mean by putting on the armour of God; you gotta deflect criticism by whatever means possible.

I’d like here to address though, Chris’s claim that I was quoting the Bible ‘out of context’. I have to say I find this one of the most unconvincing rejoinders – it hardly qualifies as an argument – that Christians offer in defence of their beliefs, right up there with ‘you wouldn’t dare say this about Islam’.

A quotation from any source, not just the Bible, is necessarily out of context no matter how much of it one uses. There is no way round this, even if one resorts to quoting extensive amounts of material, which I do when the meaning isn’t apparent from a short quotation, like here, for example. Nonetheless, a lengthy quotation is still decontextualised, from its letter or gospel as well as from the original time, place and culture in which it was written. In addition, while long quotations might be appropriate for longer academic papers (I have some experience of these and even there, great chunks are rarely necessary) they’re not always suitable for short, pithy blog posts.

In any case, the objection really only has validity if quoting ‘out of context’ somehow distorts the meaning. If it doesn’t, if the meaning is apparent from the lines referenced, then quoting more isn’t necessary. Readers who have any doubts can always check the source material for themselves – I always provide chapter and verse – to gain a sense of the wider context for themselves. Remarkably, the verses I cite invariably turn out to have the same meaning in their greater context as they do when quoted in isolation. The Christian objection to them being ‘out of context’ is usually nothing more than a smoke screen to avoid addressing the point being made.

What of Christians themselves? Do they ever take ‘scripture’ out of context? Oh my, yes, and they’ve been doing it from the very beginning. The gospel writers, particularly Matthew, wrenched snippets from the ‘Old Testament’ to make ‘fulfilled’ prophecy out of verses that weren’t prophecy to begin with, and, as we’ll see next time, Jesus too lifted lines from their original context to allow him to make theological points.

Nor are Christian bloggers and apologists today averse to doing the same. Then there are those devotional posters with a single, ‘comforting’ verse of scripture on them (like the one I used to have that said, ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away’); the placards that surround street preachers with ‘For God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son’ and ‘Ye must be born again’; the banners at marches and parades that declare ‘Repent or Perish’ or ‘Christ died for the Ungodly’. Each and every one out of context. I suppose if the original sense is more or less preserved then these might be seen as legitimate (if not entirely useless) but evidently taking scripture ‘out of context’ is something Christians are allowed do but others shouldn’t. Yet another case of do as I say, not as I do.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at how believers ease their cognitive dissonance – between what the Bible says they should believe and do and what they actually believe and do – by disregarding context when it suits them.


Pick and Mix

Kiss2If the Bible is the Word of God™ why, Christians, are you so selective in your use of it? I’ve previously considered how you dismiss much of what Jesus said as well as how you ignore the brutality of the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament isn’t immune from your selectivity. You disregard, for example, verses like these:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. (1 Corinthians 14.34)

I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. (1 Timothy 2.12)

For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head. (1 Corinthians 11.6)

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord (Colossians 3.18)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. (Romans 13:1)

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewellery or fine clothes. (1 Peter 3.3)

Greet one another with a holy kiss. (Romans 16.16)

Why don’t you obey these commands? You should if the Bible really is the Word of God, like you say it is. I’d suggest you don’t because like the rest of us, you derive your morals and values from the culture around you. As these change so too do your Christian beliefs; always much more slowly than the rest of society and with much resistance and tantruming, but eventually your views evolve and catch up with the rest of society. Provided you’re not part of the lunatic fringe (in which case I doubt you’d be reading this), you now generally accept values and practices that were unthinkable in the relatively recent past:

You don’t support the idea women should keep silent in church;
You accept them as preachers, ministers and bishops;
You don’t insist they keep their hair covered;
You don’t promote the idea they should be subservient to men.

You don’t see a man’s hair style as having anything to do with his faith or place among you.

You don’t endorse slavery.

You do oppose governments and authorities when you think they’re denying you your rights.

As for holy kisses… not so much.

You excuse yourself from adhering to the Biblical position on these matters by saying that here (and here alone) its teaching is culturally bound. These stipulations, and these only, you say, stem from views of women, conduct and practices at the time Paul and others were writing. As such, you claim, they are not binding today. You’re right of course, but then you insist that other of the Bible’s pronouncements, many of which, like its invective against gay people, are equally insupportable, are absolutes and binding for all time. How, I wonder, do you know which is which?

I’m confident that you don’t research the Graeco-Roman culture of the first and second centuries to determine where the New Testament’s writers are reflecting the mores of their day and where they’re providing eternal truths. No, what you do is decide arbitrarily, occasionally with the help of ‘experts’ who know no more about it than you do, which of the teaching you will accept and which you won’t.

It all comes down to a matter of taste, personal biases and what is compatible with your particular culture’s values. This is why you will, before long, come round to accepting gay people – unless you live in a part of the world that still reviles homosexuality, in which case your views will continue to reflect that of your culture. You can then go on claiming, for a little while longer, that your prejudice is derived from the scripture.

But let’s have no more insistence that the Bible is the Word of God offering eternal values and absolute standards. You don’t believe it yourself; if you did, you would apply all New Testament values and standards consistently and completely in your own life and within your church. You don’t. To paraphrase Paul Simon, you believe what you want to believe and disregard the rest.

A Long Long Time Ago

ShinyJesusHe was a man of great charisma, a provocative individual who challenged the establishment and the norms of his day. Some said, as he implied himself, that he had come to visit the Earth from a higher plane and that perhaps, again as he occasionally hinted (though maybe he was only being contentious) that he was some sort of Messiah. He certainly inspired and gave hope to others who, like himself, found themselves on the fringes of society, who felt unaccepted and down-trodden. Some of what he said and did may have enabled such people to accept who they were or, better still, who they wanted to be.

He refused to accept that he was ‘good’, and certainly he acted as he did because it suited him to do so, not because he felt any need to impress others. Nevertheless, many found him to be humble and kind. His detractors said he was a charlatan and claimed he was demon-possessed; he was all things to all people.

His death came as a shock, what with its suddenness and the manner in which it happened, but nonetheless he seemed to have been prepared for it. In his final messages he suggested he was returning to the higher place from where, perhaps, he’d originally come.

Those who had followed him mourned him and talked of him as an important figure in their lives. They couldn’t, they said, believe he was gone. Some felt that even though he was no longer a physical presence in the world, what he had meant to them would always live on in their hearts, especially when a few of them would gather together to reminisce about him. Others talked of how they hoped and prayed God would raise him from the dead and allow him to live again.

It wouldn’t be long before someone claimed to have seen him back among the living.

So much for David Bowie (there really is a petition asking God to bring him back to life, in spite of his already having been cremated and there being no God.) Within hours of his death being announced, Bowie was elevated to a sort of godhood, his work and sense of alienation imbued with a kind of profound mysticism. The reaction we’ve seen, particularly in the UK, to Bowie’s demise is a common human reaction to the death of a revered one. It happened when John Lennon was killed (a saint he was not) and with Elvis Presley, who, in the years following his death was frequently seen alive in the supermarket or laundromat, and with Diana, Princess of Wales. Elevating larger than life characters to hallowed status when they die is a human trait that helps us mourn them and deal with bereavement.

Is this not what happened when Jesus died? The profound grief, bewilderment, fear and shared memories of those who idolised him, together with their desperate search for meaning in his pointless end, led to his elevation to quasi-godhood and, eventually, to visions of him, if not in the supermarket and laundromat, then back amongst them somehow. If such a thing can happen still, in the technological world of the twenty-first century, how much more could it happen in the superstitious backwaters of first century Palestine.


What Does Atheism Have To Offer? (Part Three)

Celia17. Atheism offers knowledge instead of belief
‘But you must,’ Christians have said to me, ‘believe in something greater than yourself’ and ‘You can’t deny your spiritual needs.’ Well of course there are things greater than me and of all of us. The universe for a start; love, beauty, friendship, music, great art, nature, the night sky – sex even. Who hasn’t had a spiritual experience through their appreciation of these things? The fact they exist though, makes ‘belief’ in them redundant. We only need ‘believe’ in those things for which there is no evidence – which is why you can’t ‘believe’ in evolution; you can only know it as fact. Similarly, atheists know there are greater things than themselves. They don’t, as a rule, worship them, but appreciate them, often in awe and wonder, for what they are. As for such experiences being ‘spiritual’, we do not, of course, have ‘spirits’ either to nurture or express. We are emotional creatures and the value we find in those things greater than ourselves often stimulates sublime emotional responses. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but our responses reflect conditions within us, not the supernatural without.

8. Atheism offers the embrace of reality
Part of the inherent honesty of atheism is its recognition that this life is all there is. Atheism faces up to the fact that we are organic beings and like all organic beings our lives come to an end; there is nothing in us, no part of us, that survives death. Knowing heaven and eternal life are impossibilities atheism promises neither. Religions do, of course, and that is their great selling point but no-one, apart from atheists, seems to notice that they never actually deliver what they promise (because they can’t.)

Christians also tell atheists that it takes more faith not to believe in God than it does to believe in him. They need only look to their own experience to realise this cannot be so: they don’t need faith not to believe in Allah, Santa Claus or any number of other mythical beings. Equally atheists don’t exercise any faith at all not believing in Yahweh.

9. Atheism offers, unfortunately, an unsatisfactory name
One thing I wish atheism made possible but doesn’t – not yet anyway – is a better term for one who is unencumbered by gods, the supernatural and superstition. I have no wish to be defined by what I’m not, which is how ‘atheist’ works. It also implies that being a theist is somehow the default position and that any other is an aberration. I quite like ‘humanist’, but that doesn’t quite capture it either, but I’m not keen at all on Richard Dawkins’ suggestion of ‘bright’. The tide is turning though and once absence of belief becomes the norm, the right name for the true default will present itself.

10. Atheism offers a sense of well-being
Happiness, tranquility, peace perhaps don’t come from atheism per se, but they do stem from it: the opportunity for the consciousness I think of as ‘me’ to experience life in the here and now. I know many are not able to enjoy being here to the same extent that I and many in the west are able to, but this only makes it more important that we all do something to help improve the lot of others. As the nineteenth-century atheist Robert Ingersoll expressed it, ‘the time to be happy is now, the place to be happy is here, and the way to be happy is to make others so,’

As I write, Queen’s ‘Who Wants To Live Forever?’ is playing on the radio. It hardly matters who wants to; we can’t and we don’t. And – same group, different song – it’s true that ‘nothing really matters’. Really, it doesn’t, and so we are free to get on with living instead of trying to impose our beliefs on others, exterminating those we don’t like or squandering our one and only life because we think there’s a better one waiting. Atheism is far from nihilistic – it allows us to see the value of this life and helps us live it to the full.

So, what has atheism to offer? Freedom, honesty, meaning, contentment. Or, to put it another way, and to paraphrase what somebody or other once said, atheism really is the truth that can set you free.

What Does Atheism Have To Offer? (Part Two)

Think4. Atheism offers genuine morality
Having no magic book to tell them how to behave (not that Christians derive their morals from theirs) atheists work out their own morality. They don’t do this in a vacuum, however, recognising that morality is culturally derived, evolving as the means by which primates with complex social arrangements relate to one another. It’s likely they adhere to their moral codes imperfectly, as do believers of various stripes. Not having an ideology they feel compelled to impose on others, they don’t regard their fellow human beings as mere conversion fodder. The atheists’ world is big enough to embrace all, though they lament the damage wreaked on it by religion. Atheist terrorists are a much rarer breed than their religious counterparts, while secular societies are among the most peaceful and prosperous in the world today (with the more religious generally at the opposite end of the spectrum.) Nor do atheists attribute their behaviour to supernatural forces; neither god nor the devil inspires them to act. Rather they recognise and take personal responsibility for what they do.

5. Atheism offers authenticity
An atheist is free to be him or herself. There is no striving to maintain the imagined standards of an imaginary god, no need to represent the perspective of a ‘sacred’ book or to defend the indefensible. The atheist does not see themselves or other people as lost, worthless, sinners, suppressors of truth, goy, infidels or any of the other disparaging terms used of non-believers in so-called holy books. The atheist can be a free-spirit, possessed of self-respect, and true to themselves and their nature, whatever that may be. Here’s how pastor-turned-atheist Ryan Bell put it in a recent blog post:

I don’t have secrets anymore, which is a huge mental and moral relief. I also wrestle with less cognitive dissonance than ever. All of this means I’m more at peace and more comfortable in my own skin. I give far fewer fucks about what people think of me and my decisions. My ire is raised, from time to time, by unfair attacks, and I will probably always struggle with my tendency to be a people pleaser, but I am in recovery. I’m learning to tell the truth on a more regular basis and trust that people can handle the truth (whether they actually can or not). I’m learning to trust myself and what I know while remaining open to critique and able to say I was wrong.

6. Atheism offers free thought
Having no dogma to represent or promulgate, no myths to restrict them and no cult leaders, shaman or gurus dictating to them, atheists are free to think for themselves. Religion demands that its adherents begin with myth or dogma, which the facts are then forced to fit. When they don’t, which is invariably the case, the believer is compelled to dismiss the facts to preserve the fantasy (if you think not, you’ve never visited Answers In Genesis). The atheist, on the other hand, can begin with the evidence and reason from it to make up their own mind about ethics, the issues of the day and the human condition.

to be continued…

What Does Atheism Have To Offer? (Part One)

Station-12-ArtistOver the next few posts I’m going to do my best to answer the question, ‘what does atheism have to offer?’ that a commenter on Facebook has put to me – that’d be you, Dave – because, he says, I’m too sneery about Christianity. Some of my response will of necessity be personal in nature, and you can take or leave whatever I say; you won’t go to hell if you disagree (or heaven either.)

1. Atheism offers the truth
Christianity wasn’t delivering; it didn’t ring true for me any more and lacked explanatory power. As a result, a need to know the truth of why we’re here and what life is about preceded my atheism. I set about examining the facts of our existence as we know them, together with all the evidence. I became committed to this pursuit regardless of where it might lead. I didn’t, initially, confine my questioning and subsequent reading only to secular or scientific sources, but continued to explore religious and spiritual explanations of life as well. These quickly paled in comparison with empirical evidence; they were vapid and unsubstantiated, relying as they did on talk about ‘energies’ and entities that no-one had ever seen and for which there was no evidence.

Drawn increasingly to scientific explanations of life – biology, genetics, psychology, astronomy – I became increasingly aware that God wasn’t and isn’t required to explain anything about life, the natural world, the universe or indeed anything. Natural phenomena (and they’re all natural phenomena) have, on the principle of Occam’s razor, natural, not super-natural, explanations. The only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from this was that he wasn’t and isn’t involved in any of them. His very superfluity demonstrates his non-existence; a god who is not evident in any aspect of reality is a god that doesn’t exist. This pursuit of truth therefore led to atheism as something honest and inherently truthful.

2. Atheism offers a real life in the here and now
Living without recourse to the supernatural is refreshing. There is no god (no angels, devils, spirits, ghosts or demons either) watching over us, waiting for an opportunity to punish or bless us; no god whom we are answerable to either in the present or at some future judgement; no god of vengeance who must be obeyed; no god who will vindicate us at the end of time; no god to grant us eternal life; no set of frequently bizarre rules to follow and no empty promises to claim. Atheists take full responsibility for their own lives and behaviour; they construct their own meaning, knowing this life is the only one they’ll get. Atheism alone grants this responsibility and privilege.

3. Atheism offers a humanist perspective and approach to life
This is not the End Times™ as salaciously envisaged by Christians ancient and modern, just as the first century wasn’t – even though Jesus and Paul both thought it was (Matt 16:27-28; 1 Thess 4.15-17 etc.) The atheist accepts that the only help we’re going to get in solving our problems is from ourselves. There is no god waiting in the wings to put things right; no end time scenario when he will come to rescue a chosen people. (This is, incidentally, one of the most pernicious ideas ever to have been devised by humankind, causing more strife and ‘excusing’ more inhumane treatment of others than any other we’ve devised.)

Apart from natural disasters – and we seem to be contributing increasingly to those – the cause of all of our problems is us. Equally, the solutions will have to come from us too. More positively, all of our endeavours, our achievements, our scientific, technological and social progress are ours alone too. We have the potential to do great good, and often do, just as we cause great harm. Free of religious restrictions, the atheist is at liberty to help others out of fellow-feeling, not because a (non-existent) god demands it.

to be continued…