What Christian Music Tells Us About God

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Have your ever noticed how the unchanging God’s musical tastes… well, change?

In the time of David, or so we’re told in Psalm 150, he liked nothing better than the sound of lutes and harps. When monasteries were all the rage, he was pacified by the monotonous chanting (‘plainsong’) of those very same psalms. He went all highbrow a few centuries later with the likes of Bach and Handel, but found out later still that he preferred bad poetry set to rousing tunes, such as How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace (the latter by slave trader John Newton.) Not to show partiality, he’s also been known to be turned on by some good ol’ gospel music. Last night on TBN, a TV network of spectacular mindlessness, he was brought to orgasm by a third-rate hip-hop track that, like a primitive enchantment spell, repeated Jesus’s name ad infinitum. Which reminded me of a Christian rock group of that name that performed back in my youth, when God was into sub-standard glam rock. It is amazing, isn’t it, that God’s musical tastes keep pace with our own.

On the other hand, maybe it’s that we delude ourselves into thinking our changing musical preferences, be it for lutes and harps, glam rock or hip-hop (ten years past its sell-by-date), are what please the Lord. He is not a God of changing tastes but one who is a reflection of whichever culture projects its idiosyncrasies, musical or otherwise, onto their conception of him. He truly is made in our image.

Same Old Same Old

I’ve been watching a Storyville documentary on the BBC iPlayer on the phenomenon that is Hillsong Church. In case you’ve not encountered it, Hillsong is a megachurch that began in Australia in the 1980s under the auspices of a remarkably uncharismatic individual, Brian Houston. It is hip, trendy and oh so cool. Its superstar preachers minister to thousands of gullible souls in vast stadia all over the world.

The programme represented the church fairly (needless to say Hillsong disagreed), interviewing people who felt it had rescued and helped them, as well as those who believed it had taken advantage of their goodwill. In the latter category were volunteers who had given their all to an aspect of the church’s ministry – attendees are told not to be ‘stingy with God’s money’ – while its higher echelons used members donations to finance lavish lifestyles and thousand dollar sneakers. It covered the child sex abuse of Frank Houston, Brian’s father and minister of the Lord, and Brian’s failure to disclose it, as well as superstar preacher, Carl ‘marriage is for life’ Lentz’s extra-marital affair.

The overall impression was one of a church that doesn’t practise what it preaches, or at least what the supposed object of its worship preached; money and sex loom large. What the documentary didn’t show was Hillsong’s compromised doctrinal position, at least according to other arms of Jesus’s one true church; its failure to preach repentance, focusing instead on individual happiness and purpose.

How like some of the early churches Paul wrote to. Churches that strayed from his personal brand of Christianity, not yet called that of course, but which he felt weren’t adhering to the ‘gospel’ he’d preached to them, being attracted instead to the alternate versions proffered by his many rivals: Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12), the ‘Pillars of the Church’ (Galatians 2:9), Judaisers (Galatians 2:14); ‘those who preached another Jesus’ (2 Corinthians 11:4) and the unnamed smooth-talkers of Romans 16:17-19, all of whom Paul hates with a vengeance. Who is to say their gospels were any more ‘wrong’ than the aberrant nonsense that emanated from Paul’s psychotic ‘visions’? He rails too at the excesses of those early cult communities; their stinginess (2 Corinthians 8:8-9), greediness (1 Corinthians 6:8-10), muddle-headedness (Galatians 1:6-9) and sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). I have long wondered at Paul’s stubborn insistence that these were groups of people inhabited and guided by the holy spirit, when they had, according to him, no idea how to live lives of holiness, committed to (his) sound doctrine. Any lesser man would have given up; lesser that is in obstinate arrogance. How jealous he would have been of the numbers Hillsong attracts.

All of which goes to show that, as it was in the beginning, so it would be forever more; two thousand years later, the Christian church, as typified by Hillsong, exhibits all the faults and shortcomings of its progenitors. It is exploitative, self-serving, hypocritical, while other factions object, jealously, to its doctrine and success, just like Paul with his rivals. The more things change, the more they stay the same; how very disappointingly human.

 

Goodbye, Jesus

The Jesus narrative is a made-up story, originally created by a member of one of the many branches of a first century cult centred on a supernatural being experienced in visions. We call this cult member ‘Mark’. His ‘gospel’ was not written to convert anyone – I doubt any of them were – it was written as a ‘what if?’ story for fellow cult members: ‘what if our celestial saviour had lived on Earth?’ It is made up of St Paul’s teaching, Old Testament mythology, and ideas taken from pagan dying-god myths (probably in that order). It amalgamates the cult’s rules with what cultists believed about the end of the age: that their celestial saviour would very soon be coming down to Earth to save them and annihilate their enemies.

Ten or fifteen years later, another writer took Mark’s fiction and rewrote much of it for his branch of the cult. This was a group who saw themselves as still firmly within Judaism, so ‘Matthew’ toned down Paul’s teaching, eliminating a good deal of it. He heightened Jewish teaching for his co-religionists, and created a Jesus who was a manifestation of prophecy, as he saw it, from the Jewish scriptures. This construct had no time for any magic salvation-formula; like the cult who created him, he taught obedience to Jewish Law and believed that serving others was the way to eternal life.

A few years on and a third sect found Mark and Matthew’s stories weren’t entirely to their liking. They didn’t quite get Jesus right. So they took them and altered them again. Their scribe, known now as Luke, created a third Jesus. It’s possible this sect didn’t realise the original story was fiction. There’s some evidence Luke thought Jesus had really existed, 50 years or so before he remodelled him.

Later still, the creators (plural) of a fourth gospel created a Christ totally unlike the other three. This branch of the cult had ceased to believe, perhaps because it hadn’t happened when earlier believers said it would, that the saviour would be coming through the clouds at any minute to set up God’s kingdom on Earth. That part of the original idea was dropped; this Jesus is made to preach an internalised salvation, and everlasting life in heaven is beginning to be hinted at.

And that’s it. The adventures of Jesus on Earth began as a ‘what if?’ story created for existing cult members. Other branches of the cult took it and reshaped its central character so that he suited their needs and beliefs. A real Jesus was not necessary for any of this to happen. Just as it was for Paul, whether one existed or not is immaterial,. Even if he did, we can know nothing about him. The Jesuses created by each sect is a product of what they imagined their saviour to be, just like the various Christs that are worshipped today.

So, I’m saying a final goodbye to Jesus – or rather to all the Jesuses, Christs and made-up Messiahs spawned by the visions, fantasies and fan-fiction of the first century. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

This blog will be taking a new direction in the new year. Next time, though, I hope you’ll read one of my Christmas stories, as featured on the BBC.

Stay safe. 

God’s Messenger

He was sent by his Father above to save us all. Little is known about his early years though they were traumatic from the start. He grew up in a sleepy backwater with his Earthly father, J, and mother M, only occasionally showing the promise of what was to come. As an adult, he moved into the wider world, where a band of staunch supporters gathered around him. One of these, a fiery, impetuous young man, he considered his closest friend. He also became closely associated with a remarkable woman whose first and last names began with the same letter.

He performed mighty works with his miraculous powers, while all the time exemplifying meekness and humility. He opposed the forces of evil wherever he could until one fateful day, dark forces overcame him. He was killed while saving the world. After three days he rose again, through the miraculous intervention of his father, and was seen by many people. He gained in repute from that day forth and much was written about him.

His original name meant ‘God’s messenger’, but while he was with us it was changed – to Jesus.

Er, no hang on – that’s not right. It was changed to Superman. And like Jesus everything about him is complete fiction.

 

What Second Coming?

Richard Carrier notes in On the Historicity of Jesus (p560) how Paul never speaks of a ‘second coming’, prompting me to look at all the predictions of Christ’s future arrival in the New Testament. Here’s a selection of verses, some of them supposedly the words of Jesus himself, where this coming is ‘prophesied’:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory (Mark 13.26).

You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62).

For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24.27).

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man… they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24. 37, 39)

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all his angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of glory. (Matthew 25.31).

You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Luke 12.40).

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4.16).

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 5.23).

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11.26).

Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord… Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand (James 5.7-8).

Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2.13).

Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him (Revelation 1.7).

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done (Revelation 22.12).

Isn’t this strange? None of them refer to Christ’s arrival as a ‘return’ or ‘second coming’. You’d be hard pushed to find any such ‘prophecy’ in the New Testament*. His appearance here on Earth is described as the coming of a celestial being. Even Jesus is made to talk about the manifestation of such a figure, taken by Christians to mean his own future self, as if he’s talking about someone else: the Son of Man, who hasn’t yet appeared but will do so in the near future. It’s as if the gospels’ fictional Jesus is being made to predict the arrival of the ‘real’, celestial Jesus.

More importantly, the Son of Man and Paul’s version of the same figure, the Christ, are spoken of as ‘coming’ or ‘descending’, not ‘returning’ or coming again. It’s as if Paul, the writers of the synoptic gospels, John of Patmos and other first-century Christians* didn’t believe that the Christ had already visited the Earth. They talk instead as if he’s about to arrive for the very first time. When he does, they believed, he would be coming as an avenging angel, rescuing those who believe in him – as a celestial being who carried out his salvific work in the heavenly realms (1 Corinthians 15, Galatians 1.11-12 etc) – and slaughtering those who don’t. This is the apocalypse – the revealing or uncovering of the heavenly Christ for the very first time.

That Jesus will ‘return’ or make a second coming is an assumption made by later believers on the basis of verses like those above. In fact, they say no such thing. The earliest Christians wrote as if they didn’t believe their envisaged hero had ever been on Earth. For them, his one and only arrival was still to come.

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* An exception appears to be Hebrews 9.28 which says, ‘so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him’. Hebrews, however, regards the Christ only as a supernatural high priest, operating in the heavenly realms. This second appearance then can only refer to this character, who is not conceived as having had any existence here on Earth.

Will the real Jesus please stand up?: Conclusion

There will no doubt be Christians reading this blog who are keen to tell me that no-one in their right mind would believe in a made-up Jesus.

No? Yet the self-righteous are still making up Jesuses in their own image. Jesuses who bear little relation to any of those in the Bible. Jesuses that suit their own agendas: White Republican Jesus, America First Jesus, Catholic Jesus (with his heart outside his body), anti-LGBT Jesus, Evangelical Jesus, Social Justice Jesus, Prosperity Jesus, Mormon Jesus, Jehovah’s Witness Jesus, Jesus who gives glimpses of heaven, Jesus who communicates with his ‘prophets’ here on Earth… and many more.

Every single one of them is a made to order, manufactured Jesus, every single one imaginary. The Jesus worshipped by individual Christians and churches is a figment of the imagination. He may be loosely based on one of the Jesuses of the Bible (I’ll generously give them the benefit of the doubt) but he is unique to every sect and to every single person within it. Each individual sets up an altar to the idol in their head and worships him there.

Christians: your personal Saviour isn’t real. You worship a construct of your own making.

From which, two questions follow:

If no-one in their right mind would believe in an imaginary Jesus, what does this tell us about you?

Given you believe in an imaginary Jesus, why is it so difficult for you to accept that the earliest Christians did too?

Stories

 

  • Many Christians believe that God himself impregnated Mary and that her son, Jesus, was God Incarnate. Yet they don’t accept that numerous others, including Perseus, Buddha and Vishnu, who were all fathered by gods, are in any way divine. Why not?
  • Evangelicals and other Christians believe that Jesus performed many miracles. However, they dismiss other miracle workers as frauds or mythical beings. As John Oakes puts it on the Evidence for Christianity website, ‘religious figures (such) as Osiris, Empedocles or Krishna almost certainly were not real people, making stories of supposed miracles they worked irrelevant’. Why?
  • Christians believe Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 fish and 2 loaves. They don’t believe the Qur’an’s story that Muhammed did much the same thing. Why not?
  • Christians believe Jesus was visited by the long dead Moses and Elijah. They believe Paul saw Jesus after he died. Yet they dismiss the Mormon claim that Joseph Smith saw Jesus and God himself. Why?
  • Christians believe Jesus came back to life a day and a half after he was killed. However, they regard the resurrection stories of Dionysus, Osiris and Attis as counterfeit. Why?
  • Christians believe Jesus rose into the sky to take up his place in heaven. Yet they think it preposterous that Muhammed went there on a flying horse. Why?

When it comes to their own stories Christians are adamant that they are reliable accounts of events that really happened. Jesus really was God’s son. He really did do magic; really did feed 5,000 people with a few scraps; really did rise from the dead and really did beam up to heaven. Paul really met him on the road to Damascus.

Even liberal Christians like Joel Anderson, while acknowledging there is much that is suspect in the Jesus story, argue with all the cognitive dissonance they can muster, that the gospels are nevertheless ‘historically reliable’. This really won’t do. Evidentially, the gospels are as ‘historically reliable’ as the tall tales involving Osiris, Buddha, Vishnu, Muhammed and Joseph Smith. Gods only make visits to the Earth in stories, individuals only rise from the dead in stories, magic and miracles only occur in stories. The Christian examples of these tropes are as imaginary as all the others. The heroes of such stories – be it Empedocles, Perseus, Mithras, Buddha, Krishna or Jesus – are fabrications too.

If it’s constructed like a story, has all the components of a story and reads like a story then that’s exactly what it is. 

Making it all up

While the Old Testament is made up of myth and legend and the New created from the visions and dreams of a few disturbed individuals, we are expected to believe that the gospel accounts nevertheless shine out as beacons of truth.

We know, however, that much of what is contained in the four canonical gospels is fiction. I’m not referring here merely to how contradictory they are (though there is that), I’m talking about the parts that are clearly made up, invented for theological and literary purposes. These include:

The nativity stories: These are myth, created so that the Godman has an origin similar to those of other Godmen: There is no historical evidence for a wand’rin’ star, a census that involved the mass movement of populations or the Massacre of the Innocents.

The virgin birth: relies on a misreading of ‘young woman’ in Isaiah 7.14

The flight to Egypt: a misapplication of Hosea 11.1.

Genealogies: invented. Matthew’s and Luke’s are completely different and don’t, in any case, include sufficient generations to reach back to ‘the first man’.

The Magnificat: Written as a Greek poem. It is not an outpouring of a young peasant woman.

The temptation in the wilderness: Jesus did not have a conversation with the devil. He was not attended to by squadrons of angels; we know such beings do not exist. In any case, which eye-witness was present to record these fanciful encounters?

Angels: 12 appearances across the gospels. Demons and other evil spirits: at least 20 mentions. Myth, pure and simple.

The miracles: all of them make a theological point. This is their purpose. They are literary.

Jesus’s teaching: designed to encourage members of the cult, a cult that could only exist after the events the gospels purport to relay. Everything he’s made to say comes from different sects, Paul’s teaching, Old Testament wisdom literature and even pagan sources.

The sermon on the mount: created and written in sophisticated Greek, not delivered by a semi-literate itinerant preacher.

John’s self-obsessed Jesus: nothing like the character in the synoptic gospels. Either he’s made up or they are. Or both.

The Transfiguration: Elijah and Moses do not return from the dead to have a chat with Jesus. This is completely made up.

The Eucharist: first appears in Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 11.23-27. It is distinctly pagan but is accommodated in the gospels because Paul insisted he got it directly from his (imagined) Christ.

Judas’ betrayal: suggested by Zechariah 11.12-13 (which in context is not a prophecy).

The custom of freeing a prisoner (Barabbas): no such custom existed. The event is symbolic.

Resurrected corpses emerge from their graves: Matthew made this up. No-one else seems to know of it and Luke makes a point of cutting the episode out of his version of events.

The Crucifixion: based on Isaiah 53 and various Psalms.

The Resurrection: based on the visions of Cephas, Paul and others with added, invented detail, incompatible across the four accounts.

The Ascension: Jesus levitates into the stratosphere, in front of witnesses no less. Or perhaps not; Luke invented this impossibility.

There is much more in the gospels that is evidently and demonstrably made up. We can, as Christians do, believe it all really happened. We can insist that the stories are not based on other sources but that these sources are prophecies of real events that took place in history. From this perspective, Paul’s and others’ visions are then the result of these same events.

But which is more likely? –
The Old Testament is packed with prophecies about Jesus’ life and death, and that what Paul and others saw in their heads was because Jesus really existed and spoke to them once he’d returned to Heaven…

Or: The Jesus story is fictional, a patchwork of Old Testament snippets, mystical visions, invented symbolic events and pagan ideas of resurrecting Godmen.

And If the gospels are fiction – and they evidently are – then why not Jesus himself? If there was no real history to be written about him, just this mish-mash of other sources, that can only be because there was no Jesus who walked the Earth 2000 years ago.

Jesus is the same as his near contemporaries Osiris, Dionysus and Mithras. Like them, he is entirely mythological.

What are the Odds?

To look at it another way…

The stories of the Old Testament are largely fictional. They’re myth, legend and otherwise fabricated. There was no Eden, no world-wide flood, no slavery in Egypt, no Exodus. There’s no evidence that the characters around which events supposedly took place actually existed: no Noah, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jonah or Daniel. Their stories were created long after the time they purportedly lived; centuries later. The stories written about kings – which, if they existed, were no more than half-remembered tribal chiefs – and the so-called great prophets are constructed from folktales. In short, nothing we read in the Old Testament actually happened.

When we get to the New Testament, we find convoluted exposition of Paul’s ‘revelations’ about Jesus; visions and imagined sightings of a celestial being he had in his own head. It’s the same for the fruitcake writer of Revelation who envisaged an unreal comic book Jesus; invention every bit of it. The Acts of the Apostles offers a fanciful and wholly inaccurate ‘history’ of the early church, including angels, teleportation and fatal miracles. Of the 21 letters in the New Testament, at least 11 are forgeries, known to have been written by anonymous authors who were not who they claimed to be. The other 10, including Paul’s genuine letters and the likes of Hebrews, make up all sorts of mystical stuff about an angelic Godman-cum-high priest.

 And yet, in the midst of these myths and legends, made-up characters and stories, forgeries and fantasies and mystical musings stands the indisputable truth of the gospels. Or so Christians and theologians would have us believe. These particular stories, surrounded as they are by fiction on all sides are historical, factual and true.

What are the odds?

Will the real Jesus please stand up? (part 4)

All of which begs the question: was Jesus a real person who became a mythical celestial being within 3 or 4 years of his death or was he a mythical celestial being to begin with who was historicised within about fifty or sixty years of his creation?

The time scales are important. Christians today argue that Jesus can’t possibly have been an imagined being because fifty to sixty years represents an insufficient period for him to have transitioned into a fully realised historical figure. Yet this is precisely what we see between Paul and others’ visions of Christ and the writing of Mark and Matthew’s gospels. (Richard Carrier makes the case that the writer of the former was cognizant of the fact he was not writing history but allegory. If so, Matthew’s gospel, circa 80CE, is the first to depict Jesus as an actual person.)

As related by Paul, his vision of the heavenly Christ followed those of Cephas, the twelve and 500 others. His experience is usually dated to between 34 and 37CE. These visions appear not to be rooted in reality. Paul writes at length about his Lord Jesus Christ yet shows no knowledge about the life, relationships, teaching or miracles of the character who later appears in the gospels. His Christ exists only in a celestial heaven where Paul believes his sacrifice also took place there.

Christians argue instead that Christ was a real person. He lived, preached and died in a specific geographical area (though the gospel writers don’t all agree where this was) at a particular time (they don’t agree on this either). After his resurrection he ascended to a heaven believed to be above the sky. He became a spiritual entity at this point, having lived a real life on Earth. Later Christians would argue he resumed the role of celestial being. After his ascension he began communicating with mortals attuned to him using visions and dreams; hence Paul’s and others’ revelatory experiences.

But wait. If fifty years is too short a period for a celestial Christ to be seen as a real person, then 4 years or less – the time between Jesus’ supposed ascension and Paul experiencing him in his head – is even shorter. If we’re judging how probable either transition is in terms of the time it took, the Christian preference of 3-4 years is by far the less likely.

A transition is involved either way: from a wholly spiritual entity to human, or from human to a celestial being. The first, taking about 50 years, is too short a time for Christians. They prefer the second, which involves only 4 years. It also entails supernatural intervention, with God required to engineer the transition from the human to the quasi-divine.

Taking Occam’s razor to the evidence – Paul’s genuine letters, the other early letters and the book of Hebrews – it is clear the transition happened the other way round. Christ was originally an imagined spiritual being, envisaged by Paul and others. The spiritual Christ was subsequently, 50 years later, given an earthly back story, like one of those shaky prequels created for an already successful TV series. This story in its different versions eventually came to dominate, stories being easier to remember and believe than complex theories about invisible beings.