Swing Low

This is my response to the way some in the UK have jumped on the bandwagon of the Black Lives Matter movement. I appreciate it is different in the USA.

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‘So it’s important we get out on the street and bring down the last vestiges of colonialism.’

‘Right. So how do we do that?’

‘We tear down the effigies of those who made their fortunes on the backs of black people. Colston in Bristol, Nelson’s Column, Earl Grey in Newcastle…’

‘I didn’t know Earl Grey owned slaves.’

‘Well, no, he didn’t. But he did fund a port in London somewhere and that port was used to bring in cotton. And who was forced to grow the cotton? Slaves!’

‘I see. Yet I think you’ll find it was Earl Grey’s government that abolished slavery in the British Empire, back in the 1830s.’

‘Was it? I didn’t know that.’

‘Obviously not. I agree, of course, that we shouldn’t be celebrating anyone who was involved in the slave trade, but how is vandalising statues going to improve the lives of black people today?’

‘It shows that we stand with them. It shows we disinherit our racist past, founded as it was on the exploitation of black people; on slavery.’

‘So you won’t be using sugar any more, or visiting the Tate? You won’t be drinking at a Greene King pub? Or driving your Mercedes and reading your Guardian newspaper?

‘I don’t see what that has to do with anything.’

‘No, you wouldn’t. Don’t you think Black Lives Matter, which, might I remind you, is an American movement, has been hijacked here in the UK by well meaning, largely middle-class white people with little understanding of the past? That smashing statues, boycotting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot – written, incidentally, by one-time negro slave – and anachronistically slotting people of colour into films and TV dramas, is really going to improve the lives of black people in this country today? If you do, you’re seriously deluded. We’re not a salve for your white conscience.’

‘Look, I’m no racist, you know that, but you just don’t have any understanding of what’s at stake here. Thank God there are white people like me to look after your interests. Now are you coming to this protest or what?’

 

In which Paul takes a trip to the third heaven

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In the New Testament, there are:

8 or more supernatural ‘visions’;

18 or so ‘appearances’ of angels;

about 6 significant dreams, through which God talks to people;

a dozen apparitions of dead people and

at least 3 significant ‘revelations’, in which individuals sense God in their heads (Paul, Jesus and John of Patmos).

The man who is largely responsible for Christianity as we know it, Paul, alludes only briefly to his magical conversion to the faith, describing it as ‘in’ his head in Galatians 1.16. It’s up to the writer of Acts to elaborate and embroider this non-event. Paul does, however, give rather more detail about another hallucination he has, in 2 Corinthians 12.1-4. To avoid boasting, he says boastfully, he refers to himself in the third person:

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to gain, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or out of it I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to Paradise. The things he heard were too sacred for words, things that man is not permitted to tell.

This is evidently a psychotic episode; seeing things that are not there, experiencing events that are not happening. Paul himself admits he doesn’t know whether it was a real experience, nor does he know if he was in his body or not. (definitely in it, just out of his mind.) He heard, he says, things he can’t possibly repeat, which makes you wonder why he bothers mentioning the whole bizarre episode in the first place: ‘I had this fantastic experience, unlike anything I’ve experienced before – but I can’t tell you a thing about it.’ It sounds like a dream he’s having trouble remembering or, like, man, a really freaky hallucinogenic trip.

From psychotic episodes like this – his conversion is another one – Paul spins his entire theology. Yes, the faith of Christians everywhere is founded on the hallucinations of a first century nutcase visionary.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve better things to do with my life than base it on the dreams and visions of a psychotic who lived 2000 years ago.

 

 

Demons, demons everywhere…

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I wonder if any Christians out there can help me understand something. I know that not all of you believe in demons; some of you are far too rational to believe in non-existent supernatural beings! I know too that when the bible mentions demons, as it does often, you know it’s as a metaphor, for sin perhaps, or as the personification of evil. Presumably, you reach this conclusion with the help of the Holy Spirit (you do believe in him, don’t you?)

And yet other, lesser brethren are led by that same Spirit to see demons as 100% real.

Take this guy, Jeremiah Johnson, a preacher/prophet/author from Florida who recently had a real live conversation with a demon:

On the night of May 30th, while praying and pacing over the United States in my home around 2 am, a demonic entity appeared right before me in an open vision. This type of encounter has only ever happened one other time while I was ministering in a foreign country in 2015. I have always engaged in this type of spiritual warfare while asleep and dreaming prophetically, but rarely if ever to this degree while awake.

This demonic entity had a visible and deep scar underneath its right eye, but it also had the ability to mutate or rather change forms. I watched this “being” morph several times right in front of me, yet the gash below its right eye remained.

As I see it, there are three options here. Either –

a) This really happened, or

b) Jeremiah made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Jeremiah’s disturbed mind

Can you advise me which it is? I’m leaning towards b) or c). I say ‘leaning’ when what I mean is I rule out a) entirely, though I’d be interested to know which conclusion the Holy Spirit is leading you to. (Actually, reading the comments following Jeremiah’s posting of his ‘Urgent Prophetic Alert and Warning’ on Facebook, I already know what 4 thousand of you think: you fall for this crapola hook, line and sinker.)

Of course, not all supernatural encounters are with demons. Sometimes your fellow believers have encounters with angels, or dead people from the bible. Here’s an example of that:

I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, ‘O Lord, what Church shall I join?’ Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious Personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said [of] the second, ‘Behold this is my beloved Son, hear him’” 

Wow, that sounds amazing, doesn’t it? Joseph Smith recounting his first ‘vision’.

Again, you’ve got three options:

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Joseph made it up, or

c) It happened but entirely within Joseph’s disturbed mind.

If you’re a Mormon, the Holy Ghost will have led you to embrace option a). I lean myself towards b), possibly c). If you’re an evangelical Christian, however, you probably think Smith’s vision was demonically inspired. Can I ask you why you think this? Is it because that’s what your version of the Holy Ghost tells you? Ain’t it amazing how ‘he’ always confirms what you already believe?

With that in mind, let’s look at one final example:

When Jesus stepped out of the boat, a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”  Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”  He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mark 5.1-20)

Either:

a) This really happened, or

b) Mark made it up, or

c) Mark made it up but it’s a metaphor for something or other.

I’m guessing most of you, including those who regard yourselves as rational Christians, opted for a): you think this really happened in some form. Why? Because this time it’s your hero, Jesus, who’s involved.

However, and this is my point, Jesus’ encounter with a demon – and it’s not the only one in the gospels – is no different in kind from Jeremiah Johnson’s or Joseph Smith’s. If you believe one really happened – the Jesus one – you really haven’t any reason not to believe the other two. And yet, my Christian friends, you reject at least one of the other two, don’t you. You dismiss Smith’s encounter with God and Jesus as, at best, a delusion and at worst, a fiction intended to dupe others. You may, as I’ve suggested, see it as demonically inspired (even though no actual demons appear, unlike in the Jesus and Johnson accounts.)

You may also, if you’ve half a brain, dismiss Johnson’s ridiculous story too. I hope so. So why persist in believing that Jesus met with demons? It’s not the Holy Spirit who convinces you that this story is the only plausible one of the three. The Holy Spirit is only as real as Johnson’s morphing demon. No, the only reason you give Jesus a free pass, but not Smith or Johnson (possibly), is that the Jesus story is in the bible.

So, what’s the answer to the question at the top of this post: which of those men, Jeremiah Johnson, Joseph Smith and Mark’s Jesus, is deluded? The answer is… all of them. And at least two of them are frauds.

Myself, I’m leaning towards all three.

 

The many and varied, Spirit-inspired interpretations of the Kingdom of God

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For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16.27–28).

Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 24.34)

See also Matthew 24.27, 30-31; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34; 1 Corinthians 15.51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17; 1 John 2:17-181; Peter 4.7

The Kingdom of God. What does it look like? When will it happen? Has it happened? You’d think that with the Kingdom of God being a central part of Jesus’ teaching, the central part, in fact – his ‘good news’ is about nothing else – that these would be questions Christians would find easy to answer.

They don’t. The Holy Spirit inspires a variety of incompatible responses from the faithful to the what, when and where questions. The most popular is, of course, that the Kingdom of God equates with Heaven: the saved are all going to heaven when they die. Post-mortem bliss, most Christians would tell you, is what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God. After all, doesn’t Matthew refer to the Kingdom as the Kingdom of Heaven? Yes… but no: an after-life in Heaven is not what Jesus and his scriptwriters meant by the Kingdom. If it was, they would have said so, rather than promising, as they do, that God’s Kingdom was coming to the Earth real soon.*

So, when Jesus says the kingdom is just around the corner, which he does repeatedly in the synoptic gospels, he can’t have meant Heaven. Let’s try another favourite: Jesus meant that God’s Kingdom on Earth would manifest itself thousands of years in the future – in our time, no less. It’s all to do, you see, with Jesus’ return and the final judgement. As these have yet to happen then the final part of God’s plan – his reclaiming of his creation – will be in the (far) future too. A neat solution to be sure, but one that runs counter to everything in the gospels and in Paul. Admittedly it’s an idea that was taking shape in 2 Peter (3.8), a forgery written about 150CE, long after it had become apparent the Kingdom was running way behind schedule. However, you won’t find it in the synoptic gospels or the Pauline epistles because it isn’t what Jesus, Paul, the gospel writers or the earliest Chrsitians believed.

Where does this leave Jesus’ devotees today? With a Jesus who didn’t really mean the Kingdom would be manifesting itself in the physical world. This Jesus proclaims the Kingdom as something that exists inside his followers as an internal state of being. It’s true some of his pronouncements appear to fit this interpretation; the Kingdom is within you and all that, but what these statements are about in context is the Kingdom’s immanence at the time; what Jesus was saying was, ‘the Kingdom is arriving now; look at the signs – it’s all around you.’ A gnostic flavoured restructuring of what he actually claimed is yet another Spirit-led interpretation we can dispense with.

Consequently, some Christians accept that, yes, Jesus preached a Kingdom that would dramatically materialise in the real world close to the time he was speaking. That it didn’t in any observable way creates a dilemma: as God Incarnate, perfect and infallible, Jesus can’t have been wrong. This must mean the Kingdom did arrive when he said it would and we are living in it now. The Kingdom, these Covenantists say, is another term for the Christian era; the reign of the church, the Age of the Holy Spirit. We’re living in the Kingdom and have been for two thousand years!

How’s that working out?

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Yes, this looks exactly like the Kingdom of God Jesus promised: An eternity of peace with death and illness banished and the meek having inherited the earth; the social order reversed, God in charge and Jesus and his pals running the show. Or not.

So, however the faithful (re)interpret his words, however much they twist, cherry-pick or just plain ignore them, Jesus was wrong. The Kingdom of God did not arrive on the earth in the first century as he predicted. It’s definitely not here now. It won’t be coming in the future and it doesn’t await in an after-life; these were never the deal. (See my earlier series, Making Excuses for Jesus, for more detail.)

Whatever Christians do, wherever their imaginary Holy Spirit leads them, they end up with implausible and incompatible ways of explaining (away) the non-arrival of the Kingdom of God that Jesus promised. It’s a fallacy, a fantasy, another delusion sustained by the wilfully ignorant.

*John 18.36 does have Jesus say that ‘his’ Kingdom, as it’s become by the time of the fourth gospel, is not of this world. John, however, bears little relation to the other gospels and was written at least 70 years after Jesus lived. In any case, it doesn’t say or mean that common-or-garden believers are going to Heaven when they die.