A Digression

TonyBA man who can’t always remember the name of the record he’s just played has been sacked by the BBC for being unable to demonstrate total recall of an event that occurred forty-five years ago. The moral of the Tony Blackburn debacle is not to grow old nor lose your whatsitsname.

As usual, the last to be considered by the BBC is the listener, the licence payer who has enjoyed listening to Mr Blackburn present Pick of the Pops every Saturday for the last five years. That’s 2.1 million of us.

Do we care whether he can remember a meeting almost half a century ago? No, we don’t. Do we want to continue to derive pleasure from hearing him on Radio 2? Yes, we do. BBC director-general Tony Hall’s cavalier attitude, towards listeners as well as Mr Blackburn, now means we can’t.

I’ve signed my last petition and written my last letter in support of the BBC. The Corporation couldn’t care less about me and at least 2,099,999 other listeners. Maybe it is time it was taken down a peg or two.

Listen to the last few Pick of the Pops Tony Blackburn presented, here, while you can.

My preciousss is mine (and mine alone)

bible3Christians have a monopoly on the Bible. No-one else should comment on it, criticise it or even quote from it. Or so Christians tell me. The reason for this, apparently, is that ‘it is absurd to contest the Bible when (you’re) missing the one main ingredient: Jesus’. Not so, of course; the Bible is there for anyone who wants to consider and ‘contest’ it. Granted one’s perspective will be coloured by how one regards it to begin with –

whether you approach it with a reasonable degree of objectivity or look at it through the myopia of faith;

whether you take what it says at face value or apply shifty exegesis to smooth out its many inconsistencies;

whether you acknowledge it was created over time by a succession of fallible men or assume it represents the accurately recorded words of God;

whether you regard it as beliefs of ancient tribesmen and religious fanatics or see it as the means of salvation and the ultimate guide to life.

It is only reasonable that those who take the first of each of these alternatives look to those who take the latter to see how closely they adhere to the demands the Bible makes of them. It’s reasonable because those who believe in its magical properties use it to tell the rest of us how wicked and/or lost we are and how much we need Jesus. If the Bible is the Word of God (as I’ve noted before, it doesn’t claim to be; it’s Christians who say it is), instructing believers on how to live their lives while spreading the gospel, it is not unreasonable for those of us on the receiving end of their ‘witness’ to take a look at how that works out. Not so well as it happens.

Now either this is the fault of the book – heaven forfend that it isn’t clear about what’s expected of God’s Chosen – or Christians themselves are to blame for failing to live as it expects. Unsurprisingly, it’s a combination of the two; a book of mixed messages in the hands of flawed human beings. When Christians refuse to acknowledge that the Bible is far from perfect they are faced with the challenge of making its impossible demands compatible with their own imperfections. They have a number of cop-out excuses that enable them to do this, several of which appear in the comments on this blog. I’ve discussed a number of them before, but here’s a quick summary:

Christians are not perfect and the Bible doesn’t say we should be (actually it does, in Matthew 5.48);

Others have no right to be critical of Christians when we’re doing our best;

You can’t use our own book against us when you don’t know Jesus (see above);

You’re a sinner so what do you know?;

You’re quoting out of context (and only Christians can do that);

You’re not applying the correct exegesis and/or hermeneutics (i.e. mine);

The Christians you’re criticising aren’t real Christians;

It is unfair to lump all Christians together.

Is it? Is it really unfair to lump all Christians together? Aren’t you all meant to be one body, the Body of Christ – you, the Pope, Westboro Baptists, the mega-churches and their celebrity pastors, Joyce Meyer, those who would stone gays, those who affirm gays, Franklin Graham, Alpha converts, abortion-clinic bombers, African witch-finders, Archbishop Sentamu, ‘Emergents’, those who belong to one of the thousands of other denominations and all your friends in your own little church? Who are you to say who’s saved and who isn’t? All Christians represent all other Christians, who represent Christ himself. The Bible says so in 1 Corinthians 12.12-26, Ephesians 4.14 -16 and elsewhere. Or did it get it wrong again?

The Embarrassment that is the Old Testament

bible2

When does the Old Testament count and when doesn’t it? When does what it says matter and when doesn’t it?

The answer to both questions is when Christians say so. It counts when something from it can be used to underline how wicked the rest of us are and when they think it’s pointing to the coming of Jesus, many years in its future. It doesn’t, of course, foretell of Jesus as such, despite its predictions of a coming Messiah and/or Son of Man. Jesus doesn’t fit its descriptions of either of these figures. Rather, Jesus’ story is read back into the older texts, their characters and events forced to serve typological and prophetic purposes for which they were never designed. The entire endeavour, which began very early in the development of Christianity, is entirely back to front, with the gospel writers, Paul and other New Testament authors pillaging older Jewish texts and forcing them to fit Jesus retrospectively (and often laughably.)

Regarding ancient Jewish texts as an Old Testament – that is, as representing a previous agreement/covenant between God and his people that has since been superseded – is a political, interpretive manoeuvre of the later religion. (While it’s true Jesus is made to speak of a new covenant, it is debatable how authentic his words are; rewriting the past is not only confined to the New Testament’s treatment of the Old.) This kind of slippery manoeuvring was also endorsed by those who later compiled the Bible as we now know it,* when they relegated the writings that Jesus and all the New Testament writers would have regarded as sacred Scripture to nothing more than a forerunner of the real thing.

Believers want to hang on, naturally, to Genesis, because that’s where it tells them God created everything using nothing but magic and breath from his holy lungs. It relates too how everything went pear-shaped after some mythical people ate some fruit. Noah’s ark is there too, which is a jolly good fantasy, apart from that weird bit at the end where Ken Ham gets an eyeful of his old man’s old man (Genesis 9.20-27). Christians are less keen on those Old Testament stories where God instructs the Israelites to massacre other tribes (1 Samuel 15.2-3; Deuteronomy 2.34 etc) and rape their women (Isaiah 13.15; Zechariah 14.1-2 etc) but nonetheless they’ll defend these unpleasant, barbaric stories just because they’re in the Bible. The Psalms are nicer, what with their words of comfort and paranoia, but best of all are the Old Testament pronouncements that can be used for clobbering sinners. Leviticus 20.13 – ‘If a man lies with a male as with a woman both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them’ – is a particular favourite, as is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah for much the same reason. But when it comes to other diktats, Christians are less interested; rules about not eating shellfish or wearing clothes of mixed fabrics, they are quick to point, are entirely negated by the new covenant; they don’t count any more, even though they’re in the same list of largely petty rules as the homophobic one (Leviticus 11.10 & 20.9.)

So how do Christians decide which Old Testament laws are applicable and which are now inessential? There is no shortage of know-alls Christian scholars who make it up as they go along and can tell them. It’s easy you see; the old ‘ceremonial’ rules of the old covenant are now redundant while the moral precepts still stand. Needless to say, the Bible itself suggests no such thing, with Jesus saying precisely the opposite in Matthew 5.17-18 and Luke 16.17; evidently another of his strange ideas that can safely be ignored.

So how do we know which of the Old Testament’s prescriptions are ceremonial and which moral? The same self-appointed experts can tell us this too, though it’s actually easy to work it out for oneself. As a general rule of thumb, verses that condemn other people are still applicable while those that Christians themselves don’t care for are not. So the shellfish and mixed fabrics directives can be disregarded, because obviously they’re ceremonial, while the anti-gay stuff isn’t – obviously. And there’ll be no public stoning of wayward teenagers (Deuteronomy 21.18-21) because that’s obviously ceremonial too – and don’t even think of having sex with the slaves, not even ceremonially. These days, thank God, it’s considered so uncivilised (even if, in Numbers 31.17-18, Yahweh says it’s okay. )

The Old Testament then; an embarrassment Christians are compelled to defend as part of their magic book but which they nevertheless feel free to use selectively, according to taste. Not unlike the New Testament really.

*There are, we should note, several variations of the Bible within Christendom; God can’t seem to decide which books are or are not part of his Holy Word.

All in the mind

Disaster

A new minister at the church near where I live has announced his plans to bring ‘God’s love’ to people in the parish. This sounds laudable enough, I suppose – it’s better than delivering God’s condemnation and judgement as many holy rollers are prone to do – but it begs the question why God doesn’t deliver his own love in person. Why is it he feels he can only channel his love through flawed and fallible human beings? Why doesn’t he engage intimately with his creation and let his love be known and felt directly? Why doesn’t he show his love by eradicating cancer, say, or preventing natural disasters, or exterminating the mosquitoes that cause the deaths of up to 2.7 million people every year? Why, in anything that would count as a tangible expression of God’s love for the world, as declared in John 3.16, is there a singular lack of evidence for both his love and his very presence?

‘Ah, but wait!’ say any Christians reading this. ‘God’s love is made manifest through his people, just as the new minister suggests.’ But this is my point; if I only ever expressed my affection for my loved ones through intermediaries – or even strangers, as this minister is to me – or only through a succession of Valentine’s cards, what sort of impression of my love would they have? They would, I think, be unconvinced of it, because love is not just a distant expression of feeling; it’s what we do for others. Love is action.

‘Ah, but wait again!’ say the Christians. ‘What about the second part of John 3.16 that tells us that God showed his love for the world by sending Jesus to die for us?’ You’ll pardon me, won’t you, if I find that a paltry and pathetic expression of love? If I had somehow expressed my love for others millennia ago, no-one at this distance would be impressed by a largely symbolic ‘gift’ proffered only after its original intended recipients declined it (Matthew 22. 8-10).

God didn’t really do this, of course; he didn’t send Jesus, didn’t instruct Paul to extend to all and sundry the offer of salvation Jesus made only to Jews, didn’t transmit any sort of time-travelling compassion to reach us in the present; doesn’t express his love through other flawed human beings today. How do we know this? Because there is no God to show us love nor to judge or condemn us. Any judgement, condemnation or love is expressed by other human beings, frequently in the name of one god or another but humanly derived even when drawn from a holy book. Gods don’t write books; they’re human creations too.

Everything to do with God, from his very existence and all of his supposed attributes – his aversion to sin, his revelations about himself, his miraculous and mysterious ways, his answers to prayer, his non-answers to prayer, his supposed offer of eternal life, his holy books and his hatred and love – derive from human hopes and fears and our need for explanation. We know this because God’s love and all his other supposed characteristics are made manifest through human agency and in no other way; they have no existence outside the human imagination. So the new minister’s love can’t really be from God. At best, it will be a level of interest and concern for a limited number of people, because that is all that is humanly possible. Even so, it’s more than a God with no direct dealings with his creation can manage. Every expression of who he is, how he thinks and how he behaves is a projection of how human beings think and behave. That is why he is so maddeningly inconsistent across cultures and even within them depending on which cult (and they’re all cults) denomination or church claims to be representing him. The Christian God is, like all the others, a human creation and all manifestations of him – including his much vaunted love and the relationship believers claim to have with him – are entirely human too.

Hermeneutics = Sameoldtrics?

Paul&JCHermeneutic consistency is the means by which Christian apologists try to harmonise disparate parts of the Bible. Saddled with the premise that the Bible is the Word of God they need to demonstrate a consistency it doesn’t have because God, as its ultimate creator, could not possibly be the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14.33). Consequently, they set about ironing out the Bible’s many discrepancies and contradictions to arrive at what they claim is a consistent and uniform Salvation Plan.

Unfortunately, this being an essentially dishonest enterprise, they have to pretend that New Testament authors with conflicting ideas about what it means to be a follower of Jesus are really saying the same thing. As I demonstrate in Jesus v Paul Round 2, there are vast differences between Paul’s good news and that ascribed to Jesus in the synoptic gospels. In the latter, Jesus is made to say that ‘righteousness’ can be cultivated in a measure-for-measure arrangement so that the extent to which a person forgives, gives to others and demonstrates compassion and mercy is mirrored exactly in how much God forgives, gives and shows mercy and compassion to that person in return. Paul on the other hand sees ‘salvation’ as being entirely undeserved. It is, rather, the result of God’s ‘grace’, which is given even though unmerited. According to Paul, showing compassion and mercy and offering forgiveness has no bearing on whether one is saved or not. These – Jesus’ path of righteousness and Paul’s unearned salvation – are two entirely different, and mutually exclusive, ‘ways to God’. Christians choose to remain blind to this fact.

They see no difference between the two ways to redemption because they are taught that Christianity is one grand scheme, woven, as it were, from a single piece of cloth. From this perspective, Jesus and Paul are simply drawing attention to different aspects of what is taken to be a consistent pattern. But this isn’t so; the New Testament is more like an untidy patchwork, a series of explanations by at least a dozen hands of what Jesus was about. Its most prominent voice is Paul’s (and those who pretend to be him); Christians prioritise Paul’s teaching over and above that of the synoptic gospels, which is markedly different, and interpret their ‘good news’ in the light of Paul’s mysticism. What doesn’t fit, they discard.

This has been a problem ever since the start of Christianity; the differences and disputes between Paul and the original disciples is well documented in the New Testament itself. Paul did not regard those who had walked and talked with Jesus as having a grasp of the true gospel (his) and was not reticent about saying what he thought of them. In Galatians 5.12, for example, Paul is so pissed off with the apostles he wishes they would accidentally castrate themselves.

Enter Luke, the original hermeneutic harmoniser. His Acts of the Apostles is designed to reconcile the radically different doctrines. By and large he succeeds, with most believers down the ages, perhaps because they haven’t wanted to, unable see the joins. But Acts doesn’t get Paul’s itinerary right, let alone his theology. The speeches Paul makes in Acts are not about the salvation through grace that concern him in his letters. They make concessions to other teaching – that of repentance and forgiveness (for example in Acts 13.38 and 17.30) while the real Paul makes no such compromise. There are no exhortations to repentance nor the promise of forgiveness in Paul’s own writing; there he mentions repentance only once, in a strikingly different context (Romans 2.4), and forgiveness not at all.

Moreover, Paul is adamant that he did not receive his doctrine from Peter or anyone else (Galatians 1.11-12). Instead he insists he got it direct from the Lord – i.e. through the hallucination he alludes to in Galatians 1.11-12 and 1 Corinthians 9.1 & 15.45 – which explains why it is so radically different from the original believers’. In Acts, however, Luke isn’t very happy with this – he’s trying to harmonise, after all – and has Paul meet Peter and James very soon after his conversion (Acts 9.26-30). Following some initial sheepishness, Luke implies, they all get on famously.

According to Paul, however, he and Peter didn’t meet for the first time until three years after Paul’s conversion (Galatians 1.18) and it was fourteen years later before he talked with a larger group of disciples (Galatians 2.1), when ‘the pillars of the church’ summoned him because of his wayward teaching. Paul records how he ‘rebuked’ Peter shortly after this (Galatians 2.11-13) because he objected to Peter’s interpretation of what was involved in following Jesus. In short, Paul and the apostles could not agree on what constituted belief in Jesus and what part Jewish law played.

Two questions result that Christians need to ask themselves, though invariably they don’t:

1. Where there are discrepancies between Paul’s theology and account of events, and Luke’s – written 15-20 years after Paul’s death – which is more likely to be correct?

2. Who is more likely to have the greater understanding of Jesus’ teaching: Paul who never met him but made it all up in his head, or Peter and the other disciples who spent years with him, listening to what he said?

In answer to the second, Christians down the ages have opted for Paul, the one who made it all up. His Salvation Plan is, after all, easier to buy into than Jesus’ mad idea of giving everything away and loving your enemies. Having chosen their man, it follows that the rest of the New Testament must be forced to comply with Paul’s ideas.

This is hermeneutics in the hands of Christians; an intellectually dishonest sleight of hand designed to bring everything into line with their interpretation of Paul’s idiosyncratic take on a man he never met. As for those who are unimpressed by their contortions, well, it must be that they have a faulty hermeneutic. Praise the Lord!

Consensual text

BiblePastor Chris Linzey has taken me to task for quoting the Magic Book out of context. Interestingy, the latest post on Chris’s blog, written by his father, does just that, so it must be okay for Christians to do it even if no-one else can.

Let’s take a close look at a couple of verses, Matthew 19.4-6, that God’s Chosen like to quote out of context, entirely altering their meaning in the process (but that’s okay, because you know, Christians are doing it):

Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ (Matthew 19.4-6; Jesus quoting Genesis 2.24 out of context).

As it stands, this passage seems to suggest that Jesus is endorsing marriage between one-man and one-woman (only) but pan out from the isolated section and this not what he’s talking about at all. He’s discussing divorce. Here’s the verse in context:

Some Pharisees came to (Jesus), and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’ (Matthew 19. 3-9)

What the one-man, one-woman verse can now be seen to be saying is that once a couple are married, they should stay together and not divorce; Jesus isn’t prescribing marriage at all. Add even more context and what we find following the lines about divorce is this:

His disciples said to him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But he said to them, ‘Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.’ (Matthew 19.10-12)

In other words, Jesus doesn’t recommend marriage in any shape or form, not even between one man and one woman; his view is that it is better not marry at all. He goes further still: it is better to be completely sexless, as if without testicles, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. He acknowledges, bless him, that not everyone will be able to comply with this ‘teaching’ – who’d have thought it?

Zoom out further still and set this part of Matthew’s gospel against Luke 20.34-35 where Jesus really is talking about marriage:

He said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that [Kingdom] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.’

This time the message is that only those mired in the ways of the world marry, costing themselves a place in the coming Kingdom. Those in the know, however, avoid it and so guarantee their resurrection and transition to the new age. Whatever else it is (wackadoodle nonsense?) this is not a ringing endorsement of marriage. The verses from Matthew and Luke when taken together show clearly that not only did Jesus fail to endorse one-man, one-woman marriage, but that he disparaged the entire institution. He believed that when the Kingdom came to the Earth, marriage would be done away with altogether and advocated abandoning it in the interim as well. You wouldn’t know this though from the decontextualised use of Matthew 19.4-6.

We might ask here why it is that today’s Christians don’t comply with his directive. Why don’t they shun marriage as their Lord and Saviour says they should? Why do they regard his commands as optional? Why don’t they want to guarantee themselves a place in the coming Kingdom by vetoing marriage? Have they abandoned all hope of God’s Kingdom ever coming to the Earth? Shifty hermeneutics won’t help them here either, because Paul is of a similar opinion (1 Corinthians 7.8-9; 28-29). Evidently this is the kind of teaching Christians are free to discard, perhaps because they see it – unjustifiably – as specific to the first century, like the coming Kingdom itself.    

So, yes, context can be important, given the haphazard and disjointed fashion in which the Almighty chose to express himself. But it doesn’t always produce the result Christians might like. That’s where the sleight of hand known as ‘hermeneutic consistency’ comes in. We’ll try that out next time.

 

 

Some material in this post has appeared before; specifically here. I hope I didn’t take it out of context.