Metaphor, Hyperbole and Context

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A moderate and self-styled ‘intellectual’ Christian told me in a online discussion recently that ‘most of the bible is metaphor’. When I asked what it was a metaphor for, he decided it was time to end the discussion. A metaphor signals a deeper or alternate meaning; the bible cannot be ‘mostly metaphor’ without there being something else – what Christians might regard as a ‘greater truth’ – the metaphor is intended to convey. So, yes, I can see that the Genesis creation stories might be interpreted metaphorically (though symbolically might be a better term) as the inclination of all humans to rebel against God… but then that’s only one of many interpretations, and not actually what the text says. If the bible is mostly metaphor then understanding what God is supposedly communicating through it becomes a matter of personal, subjective interpretation, which is why there are so many factions and sects within the Christian brand.

Similarly, when I challenged Dave Armstrong on Biblical Evidence for Catholicism, about why Christians don’t take everything Jesus said literally, he told me it’s because Jesus was fond of hyperbole and it’s the point underlining his hyperbole that matters. I knew, of course, that Jesus liked to exaggerate so I asked Dave how we know which of Jesus’ remarks are hyperbole and which are not. He declared that this was ‘obvious’. Perhaps it is, in sayings like ‘when your eye offends you pluck it out’, but it’s less apparent with pronouncements like ‘sell all you have and give to the poor’ or ‘abandon everything and follow me’. Again, it becomes a matter of subjective opinion, however learned that opinion might consider itself to be, about which of Jesus’ words are hyperbole and which are meant to be followed to the letter.

When I made this point, Dave decided that, rather than it being ‘obvious’, it actually takes years of study to know which is which: ‘It’s by studying Bible commentaries and linguistic aids, and the rules of hermeneutics and exegesis (Bible interpretation).’ Jesus as the incarnation of the God of the Cosmos, and the gospels in reporting him, could surely have made it clear. Instead, it seems, it takes armies of theologians and commentators, and years of study to work it out.

The third way Christians (of all stripes) manoeuvre around the bible’s shortcomings is to say that anything they’re keen to disregard is ‘context-bound’. There are some matters, they say, that are of their time and ancient place and are therefore no longer applicable today.

There are things in God’s timeless Word that pertain only to the time in when they were written? Who knew?

So, instructions like ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ (which Paul advocates four times in his letters: Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26); ‘women should always have their heads covered in church’ (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and ‘heal the sick by anointing with oil’ (James 5:14) are now generally considered to be context-bound. This, however, creates the same problem that arose over Jesus’ hyperbole. How do we know which of the bible’s pronouncements are context-bound and which are still of significance today? Answer: we don’t.

It could be argued that, just as ‘greet each other with a holy kiss’ is a custom anchored in the first century, beliefs like

the world is populated by demons,

humans are capable of living forever,

and

incantations (that Jesus is the Saviour) work

are equally context-bound. We know categorically in the 21st century, that demons don’t exist, humans cannot live forever and magic spells don’t work. Only those in a pre-scientific age, dominated by superstition, thought so (together with those today who buy into these same ancient beliefs.)

Once believers start claiming – and it’s Christians themselves who do this – that significant parts of the bible are metaphor, hyperbole or are context-bound, then they’re acknowledging that the bible frequently makes little sense, and that significant portions  lend themselves to whatever interpretation suits the individual reader. Some parts can even be dismissed altogether, which is precisely what Christians do with them (how many Christians do you know who believe they can move mountains or heal the sick by laying on of hands?) What this shows is that they don’t really believe the bible is God’s Word, either in the literal, evangelical sense, nor in a moderate, quasi-intellectual way.

In practice, even to most Christians, the bible is a book of no particular merit.

Bible Truths

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If ever there was evidence that Christianity is an entirely human affair it’s the way believers constantly disagree with each another. If the bible really was, in some way, ‘the Word of God’ (they don’t all agree even with what this might mean) then surely it would offer greater clarity on what being a Christian entails. Given what’s at stake – heaven or hell, a life of fullness or one spent mired in sin, helping the poor and hungry or self-indulgence – you’d think God would be just a little more precise about what his expectations are.

Instead, what do we get? A rag bar collection of myths, pseudo-history, folklore, poetry, fantasy, yet more pseudo-history, letters, forgeries and invective. Muddled and inconsistent about what the Supreme Being requires of his creation, it ranges from a forever agreement that says following a set of arbitrary laws is what he wants, along with a spot of male genital-mutilation (Genesis 17.1-16), to a new scheme that involves magical incantation (Romans 10.19), to yet another that says helping those in need is what he requires (Matthew 25.31-40).

I’ve been involved at different times in my life with writing policy documents for a range of organisations. Despite creating what I’d estimate to be around 50 of these documents, it never occurred to me to cobble together myth, stories, letters and fake news in even one of them. They needed to be precise, detailing how the organisation worked, what its take was on various areas of operation and, most importantly spelling out for people as clearly as possible what was expected of them. This precision was important; the documents had to be water-tight and open to as little interpretation as possible. They couldn’t allow for the possibility of one part of the organisation acting in one way in a given area while another acted completely differently in that same area.

If I, a fallible human, could manage this more often than not, why couldn’t God? Why could he not, for example,

Declare definitively how old the Earth is so as to leave no room for dispute?

Why could he not set out his requirements for pleasing him as one single, unequivocal list? (he’s not averse to bullet points – see his ten commandments, of which he manages to present two largely incompatible versions, both of them fairly useless.)

Why could he not ‘inspire’ scribes contemporaneous with the figures in the Old Testament to record what happened as they happened and not centuries later?

Why could he not ‘inspire’ eye-witnesses of Jesus ‘ministry’ to write about it at the time, instead of waiting decades before giving the job to strangers who’d never met him?

Why could he not say decisively what happens to people when they die?

Why could he not present one definitive way of how to get in his good books instead of offering a range of confused alternatives, about which he is prone to change his mind?

And so on and so forth…

If the managing director of an organisation produced policy documents as shoddy and shambolic as God’s they wouldn’t last five minutes. Nor would the organisation.

But of course God didn’t write, inspire or otherwise cause the bible to be written. It’s human through and through, culturally-bound (to a range of ancient cultures) and not intended by its myriad authors to be a single volume. This fact doesn’t trouble most Christians; they read it selectively, if they read it at all, and believe what they are told about it. Others, who are aware of the bible’s shortcomings, have a variety of ways of negotiating around them. All of these entail great dollops of cognitive dissonance. We’ll look at some of them next time.

The only True Christians

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Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana and Democratic hopeful, isn’t a Christian. No, he isn’t, because, you see, despite saying he is, despite being committed to Jesus and regarding himself as saved in some way, he can’t be a Christian™. Why not? Because he’s gay. That precludes him from being a Christian of any sort. We all know how much God hates gays and their ‘lifestyle’, don’t we. It says so right here in this article from Charisma News, reposted on Bruce Gerencser’s blog.

Catholics are not Christians either. Nor are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, they say they are, but True Christians™ know better. Catholics, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses are not True Christians because they’ve added to the simplicity of biblical faith: popes and saints and alternate holy books. Only those who believe exclusively in the original holy book are True Christians.

Except those who don’t interpret it properly. Charismatics, for example, are not true Christians. Yes, they profess Jesus with their hearts and voices, but the age of special spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues and prophesying, has ceased. Christians with the wisdom to reject such things are clear about this. (I’ve no idea where this leaves Charisma News. Maybe it’s heretical too.)

Preachers like Beth Moore, Paula White and Joyce Meyer are not Christians. They’re not doctrinally sound. They’re false teachers, wolves in sheep’s clothing misleading the flock. I know this because respected Christian leaders say so (here and here and here.) In any case, they’re women, and women shouldn’t teach or be in a position of authority over men (1 Timothy 2:12.) That alone rules them out from being True Christians.

Moderates aren’t True Christians either. They’re too… well, moderate. They’re bland and compromising. Christ calls for Christians to be bold and zealous in spreading the gospel. Moderates though are neither hot nor cold, so he spews them out of his mouth (Revelation 3.16).

At the same time, extreme Christians aren’t True Christians. Westboro Baptist Church, for example, is just an embarrassment to real True Christians. So are Steven Anderson and other fanatical preachers. They might be getting their hatred and prejudices from the bible, and what they say may be what True Christians believe in their hearts, but, really, such people need to be kept at arm’s length. Even though they profess faith in Jesus, their fanaticism prevents them from being considered True Christians.

No, the only True Christians are the ones who agree with me. I know it sounds stark when put like that, but it’s the truth. Only those who have the same beliefs as me, who interpret the bible the same way I do and have arrived at the same doctrinal position as me are True Christians. There aren’t many of us, it’s true, but isn’t that what the bible says? That in the last days only a remnant will survive as the true church, being faithful to the Words of the Savior while others succumb to apostasy? Yes, it does, in Romans 11.2-5, and I and my church are that remnant.

Not that lot over there who say they are. They’re not true Christians at all, despite the fact they claim to believe in Jesus. They’re apostates who delude themselves and others.

God’s Very Good Creation

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I’m recovering from a viral condition that’s affecting people in these parts. It’s set me thinking about how many diseases and conditions humans are susceptible to. An online search suggests the figure is unquantifiable. There are, for example, over 5,000 viruses known to affect human health, including the 200 that cause various versions of the so-called common cold. Of these 5000, we understand only a few hundred. There are also some 6,000 diseases caused by single-gene defects, and even more by other genetic disorders. In case that’s not enough, there are also hundreds of infectious diseases caused by bacteria, fungi and parasites. While some of these cause only minor discomfort, it remains the case that almost every one of us will die, or has already died, from one or other of these diseases, conditions or illnesses.

How does Christianity account for all of these horrors? Here’s the cerebrally challenged Ken Ham to explain:

We need to start with the fact that God created everything perfect, and this perfect creation was then marred by sin. This is the only way the gospel makes sense. You need the foundation of the history in Genesis in order to fully understand the gospel!

Yup, God made everything perfect and a pair of mythical humans messed it up by ‘sinning’. Everything that’s bad about the world is the result of Adam and Eve’s one-off disobedience. That single act opened the floodgates not only to all of the illnesses to which we and the animal kingdom are prone, but also to natural disasters and the brutality we inflict on one another.

But don’t worry, God has a cunning plan! Ken wants us to teach our children about it:

Teach them about God’s original “very good” creation. Instruct them that mankind’s sin broke God’s creation and brought death and suffering into it. Teach them that we needed someone to pay the penalty for our sin, and that’s why Jesus stepped into history… and now offers the free gift of eternal life to all who will put their faith and trust in him.

You see, as Ken likes to say, only this explanation makes sense of our susceptibility to disease and illness. Only this explanation makes sense of the gospel too; the good news that Jesus sacrificial death will put everything right.

                   Eventually.

                            No rush.

                                   Whenever…

It also demonstrates what a complete and utter bastard the biblical God is, that he condemns his ‘very good’ creation to a disease ridden, disaster stricken existence, simply because he himself made the first humans as fallible as he did.

But no. Neither this explanation nor its concommitant ‘gospel’ makes any sense, whichever perspective you look at them from. The development of innumerable diseases, and the viruses, bacteria, parasites and genetic conditions that cause them, are clear evidence of evolution; of an unsupervised arms-race in which the best-adapted invader or host survives to reproduce/replicate. Having then had the chance to transmit their DNA/chemical data, their purpose is served. They die. They stay dead.

The men who created Genesis 1 & 2 did not know about evolution, microbes or viruses. They did, however, see the deficiencies of the world in which they lived, the struggle for existence, illness and death, and found these impossible to square with the benign creator God they imagined existed. And so were formed the Genesis myths of a perfect creation spoilt by the only agent whom these men believed capable of causing such havoc; they themselves. There is no denying their accounts have been remarkably influential, and also completely wrong.

No gospel is needed to put right a fallen creation. It isn’t fallen, it is what we should expect if life evolved; if each species, organism and virus that exists today has spent millions of years constantly adapting in order to survive. Jesus’ supposed sacrifice has no bearing on any of this; it is superfluous, unnecessary and entirely irrelevant. The salvation myth is a virus in its own right, existing, like the meme it is, merely to perpetuate itself.

Jesus can’t save you from the common cold, let alone death.

Measure for measure

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I get so tired of being told how I should live my life. Christians do this quite often, either directly or indirectly. Most don’t know me but they think they have a God-given right to tell me, purely out of love of course, that I’m a sinner who lives life in such a way that it’s going to cost me my eternal existence. God has, apparently, given me over to the wickedness of my own depraved mind (Romans 1.26-29) and they just can’t stop telling me. Being judged relentlessly, and condemned, by a couple of Christian ‘friends’ a few years back was what started me writing and blogging about Christianity in the first place.

When the self-righteous tell me how I should be living my life I usually point them to Matthew 7.1-2 where Jesus is fairly clear about where he stands on the judgement issue:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

His followers today, however, as they’ve always done, have all sorts of reasons why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said. He never does when they don’t like what he’s saying. Doesn’t he elsewhere, they point out, judge people for their sins? Yes, he does, which only goes to show how inconsistent he was – or at least how inconsistent those who were inventing his stories were. It’s an own goal, but what do his modern day followers care if it gets them off the hook?

So instead, I try 1 Corinthians 5.12 where Paul says,

What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?

Now, I’m quoting out of context. Paul is, in any case, speaking rhetorically/metaphorically/symbolically/out of his arse. (Actually they don’t suggest the last of these even though it’s the closest to the truth.) Christians demand the right to judge. From prominent Christians like Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson to common or garden evangelicals, they are commissioned to tell you the good news of Jesus, an integral part of which is to judge you for the louse they think you are. Conveniently, they ignore the fact that Jesus is emphatic that they themselves can expect to be judged in exactly the same way they judge others. Should you object to their sanctimonious condemnation, or worse still, if they have to face the consequences of judging those outside the church, they claim they’re being persecuted, denied their freedom of speech and are having their religious ‘rights’ trampled on.

I grow increasingly intolerant of their intolerance, which I’d say is the sort of measure-for-measure Jesus says can be expected. As far as I’m concerned, they can all take their ‘good news’ and shove it where the son don’t shine.

You too can be free

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One of the most liberating aspects of jettisoning Christianity was the realisation that nothing I did had cosmic significance. Nothing anybody does has cosmic significance. Yet to hear the cult’s leaders and spokesman talk, now as then, everything matters.

First and foremost, what you believe determines whether you lived forever in Heaven or not. Can you credit that: what you believe. So better get that doctrine sorted out! Right thought makes all the difference. You only have to read a few Christian blogs to realise how important this still is. Believe something only minimally unorthodox and your eternal life is in jeopardy. Not only that, but what you think in the privacy of your own head about issues like abortion, homosexuality, politics and society is subject to the Lord’s scrutiny. Better get it right – ‘Right’ being the operative term. It means recognising that Trump is God’s Chosen One because the Almighty is really only interested in the USA. He has much less time for other nations, except maybe Israel, so better get your thinking straight on that score, buddy.

God is, or so his self-appointed mouthpieces like to tell you, obsessively interested in how you, as an individual, spend your time, the language you used and whether you’re a faithful steward of the money he supplies (that’s the money you work hard for yourself). He lays it on your heart about how you should spend your time, the only valuable way being in the service of his Kingdom-that-never-comes. You’re made to feel that if your marriage isn’t close to perfection then you’re not really working at it (though god knows the biblical view of marriage is nothing like the one promoted by today’s Christian leaders). You’re made to feel you must share the gospel with everyone else you have relationships with: children, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, complete strangers. Don’t they too deserve to have a chance at eternal life? You don’t want them denied it because you failed to speak up, do you? Well, do you?

And then there’s the guilt when you can’t do all of this. You’re not sure you believe all the right stuff. You think you do but then you’re told about some point of doctrine you hadn’t considered and it is, apparently, really essential you do. So you consult the Holy Spirit who you think lives in your heart and you wonder why he hasn’t spoken up before now. Maybe you have liberal views about abortion. And really, you can’t find it in yourself to condemn all those ‘sodomites’ you’re told about; what difference does it make if you do or don’t? And your marriage is less then perfect. In fact, it’s a little bit messy, like human relationships tend to be, and sometimes you want just to relax, maybe laze a little bit. Not everything you do has to contribute to the Kingdom, after all.

But the guilt won’t let you. What kind of Christian are you, anyway? And as for witnessing at every opportunity, you wonder why you feel like a dog that’s compelled to pee at every lamp-post. Can’t friends just be friends? Can’t you just appreciate others for who they are, not as sinners who need saving? Apparently not.

What a wonderful release it is then, when you finally realise that none of this crap matters. Nothing you do, say or think makes the slightest bit of difference to whether you or others live forever (Spoiler: you won’t, they won’t.) How you act may help others feel a bit better about themselves or provide you with a sense of fulfilment but that’s the extent of it. Outside your immediate context, you’re insignificant, and there’s great significance to that. The pressure is off; God is not watching you to see whether you’re a good and faithful servant. Your time, money and thoughts are yours and yours alone. It’s entirely up to you how you use them, free from the tyranny of religion.

 

Hope v. Miserable Christians

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I am without hope.

Well, I’m not actually, but I am according to many of the Christians who engage me in futile dialogue about how lost I am, how much in need of repentance I am and how not believing in Jesus leaves me entirely adrift in life. ‘Hope of what?’ I invariably ask, and they tell me of being resurrected after I die, of avoiding the judgement of God in the post-mortem state and of spending eternity thereafter with the Lord.

And I have to agree, I am without hope of these things. In return I tell them that evidence shows us that people do not live forever, that because no-one survives death there can be no judgement after it and that no-one therefore gets to spend eternity with the Lord (never mind the fact there’s no Lord to spend it with.) No-one in the entire history of humankind, I tell them, has ever done such things. They say then that they feel sorry for me, because the bible promises they will happen and that only as a Christian (repent! repent!) can I have hope that I will enjoy them for myself.

Just in case you were wondering, all this Christian ‘hope’ in impossible events might sound like it’s indistinguishable from wishful thinking, but it’s not! Here’s how the Desiring God website puts it:

When you read the word “hope” in the Bible (like in 1 Peter 1.13* ‘set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ’), hope is not wishful thinking. It’s not “I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but I hope it happens.” That’s absolutely not what is meant by Christian hope.

Christian hope is when God has promised that something is going to happen and you put your trust in that promise. Christian hope is a confidence that something will come to pass because God has promised it will come to pass.

*written by someone who wasn’t Peter, but we’ll overlook that.

So, you see, Christian ‘hope’ is fixing one’s own wishful thinking onto the wishful thinking of people who lived two thousand years ago, people who believed with certainty that Jesus would be coming to the Earth through the clouds to rescue them at any moment. Having hope today is trusting in this mistaken belief; wishing and hoping that these guys were right, when clearly they were wrong. The hope of today’s wishful thinkers is that the wishful thinking of the past will eventually happen. But these first century wishful thinkers were making it all up; wishing and hoping and praying that Jesus would be back soon, that the resurrection process that they thought he’d begun would continue with them and that they’d inherit the Earth and live forever. As Word of God for Today puts it:

Paul spoke* of the “…hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time… (Titus 1:2). Only in Christianity is there such a promise of glorious life beyond the grave. The hope of eternal life is very important, and even if we Christians have hope only in this life we are of all people most miserable (1 Cor. 15:19).

*Not Paul, but we’ll overlook that too.

I sometimes ask Christians to point me to one person, one ordinary mortal who has ever achieved immortality – not someone from a story or (biblical) myth; not Jesus who wasn’t, according to them, an ordinary man, but an incarnate deity – who has survived death and gone on to live with God forever. They can’t, of course. None of the bible’s scenarios for the end of the age, the return of Jesus, the resurrection of believers and the rest has ever come to pass. Nor will it.

Despite their denials, hope that all these fantasies will come true is wishful thinking, just like the Rastafarians hope that Haile Selassie will return from the dead to rescue the descendants of slaves from Jamaica, or my fantasy that one day I’ll win the lottery when I don’t even buy a ticket. It’s wishing, as countless people from different cultures and religious background have throughout history, that life doesn’t end when we die.

Christian hope is futile wishful thinking in an impossible dream. I for one am glad to be without it.