The Choice Is Yours

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I don’t get a lot of coments on this here blog, but when I do they’re rarely as cogently argued as this one, left recently on an old post,Unbelievers are Going to Hell:

NO OBLIVION. HEAVEN OR HELL. HOLINESS OR DEBAUCHERY, GOOD OR EVIL, VIRTUE OR VICE, JESUS OR SATAN, THE SPIRIT OR THE FLESH, GOD OR IDOLS, RIGHTEOUSNESS OR WICKEDNESS, KINDNESS OR SELFISHNESS, LIGHT OR DARKNESS, PIETY OR PERVERSION, PLEASURE OR PAIN, TRUTH OR ERROR, THE NARROW GATE OR THE WIDE GATE. THE CHOICE IS YOURS.

Difficult to argue with, I think you’ll agree. This is reasoning of the highest calibre. All those false dichotomies have convinced me I need to change my debauched, perverted ways and take on the mindset of a first century zealot. You win Watchman Outreach Evangelism!

Or, as I may have just put in my response:

Lower case or UPPER CASE
Logic or LUNACY
Reality or FANTASY
Sense or NONSENSE
Seems you made your choice already.

The Darkening Age

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I’ve been reading Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. I highly recommend it.

Its sub-title says it all. The early church’s determination to destroy any way of life, any belief system or enterprise that it didn’t agree with was deliberate, systematic and brutal. It set out to eliminate the forms of worship, culture, learning and social norms in which it found itself. It did this initially by demonising, literally as far as it was concerned, the opposition. If it wasn’t Christian then it was demonic; ancient religious beliefs especially, but also schools of philosophy, science, education, the theatre, dancing and sexual mores.

As it grew in power, the church went from holding its ‘heathen’ neighbours’ views as suspect to actively and violently opposing them, destroying temples, toppling and mutilating statues of the old gods, razing to the ground historic buildings they considered ‘demonic’. Those they regarded as ‘pagans’ were compelled to convert to the new religion. According to the Christian propaganda of the time, these pagans turned to Jesus with joy in their hearts, once shown the error of their demonic ways. What choice did people have? It was either that or lose everything they held dear.

Once Christianity became the state religion under Constantine, religious authorities legislated against other philosophies and beliefs. As the Justinian code put it, ‘we forbid the teaching of any doctrine by those who labour under the insanity of paganism.’ Free thinkers could be arrested and have their possessions, including their homes, Blog393aconfiscated. They could be imprisoned for believing and saying things that ran contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Their works were burnt, often on public pyres, and that which survived was frequently written over with pages of scripture. Soon, however, even this wasn’t enough. It became a capital offence to subscribe to alternate beliefs, to write or teach about them. Similarly, same sex activity became outlawed and punishable by death. No wonder the philosophers of the day called Christianity ‘the tyrant’.

In 392, Christian mobs destroyed the magnificent temple of Serapis in Alexandria. The Great Library in the same city had disappeared by then too, quite possibly at the hands of Christian mobs. Hypatia, one of the Library’s greatest mathematicians, was degraded in the street and then murdered. (You may have seen the 2009 film Agora where Hypatia is played by Rachel Weisz; if not you definitely should.)

By AD500, the church had successfully and completely eradicated the opposition. The culture that had preceded it had gone; its knowledge, mythologies, philosophy together with the ability to think freely and to criticise – all consigned, if not to hell, then to oblivion. Nixey reports that 90% of classical literature is lost forever (p246), including almost all Greek writing from the ancient world. As John Chrysostom boasted, the writings of the Greeks ‘have all perished and are obliterated’ (p245). From the little that survives we know that Greek philosophers had postulated that the world was made from atoms and didn’t have a beginning as such. They had also developed a form of evolutionary theory (pp35-36). It would take the world 1500 dark years to catch up with these suppressed ideas.

The elimination of Christianity’s opponents was carried out in the name of the man who supposedly said, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Nixey points out that the persecution of Christians was greatly exaggerated; many early believers aspired to martyrdom and the church undoubtedly meted out more persecution than it received.) It was done to bring the world into line with the way they thought God had decreed it should be:

That all superstition of pagans and heathens should be annihilated is what God wants, God commands, God proclaims! (‘Saint’ Augustine)

Thank Enlightenment we can’t, in the west at least, be executed these days for our beliefs and philosophies. And whatever became of Christians? Those who oppose anything in their culture they consider contrary to their tyrannical views, who would punish, perhaps execute, sexual non-conformists and who regard other belief systems, atheism especially, as demonic. The same believers who would eagerly take us back to the demon infested dark ages.

They’re still with us of course and have, in the UK where I am and certainly in the United States, a disproportionate amount of influence and power. We must be grateful they are moderate, reasonable people who wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Aren’t they?

Bathwater

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While putting together the ‘Can You Be a Christian and…’ series, I encountered on more than one occasion the line of reasoning (I use the term lightly) used by moderate Christians that, essentially, certain parts of the Bible are no longer relevant. So you can, they said, be both a free thinker and a Christian; you can be gay, so long as you disregard what the bible says about homosexuality; you can be a Christian woman if you dismiss Paul’s denigration of women; you can acknowledge evolution provided you reinterpret what the bible says about creation; you can be a realist if you ignore the bible’s supernaturalism.

But if you’re going to disregard anything the bible teaches that appears incompatible with what we know about psychology, sexuality, biology and reality, then how does the Bible’s central objective truth, as one commenter on here calls it, survive? What makes its core message (that, in some way, Jesus’ death and resurrection is capable of saving humankind) an immutable, eternal truth, while almost everything else can be compromised, deemed to be ‘culture-bound’ and metaphorical, to the point of irrelevance?

I recognise, of course, that fundamentalist Christians don’t do this. For them the bible is inspired, infallible and immutable. They’re prepared to compromise themselves, science and reality in order to honour and preserve what the book says. For them evolution, feminism, homosexuality and independent thinking will always be wrong. The alternative is to acknowledge that the bible doesn’t get everything right and to take the approach of the liberal progressive Christian who is prepared to adjust and adapt what it says; to emasculate it.

Which brings us back to asking where this process stops. If progressive Christians are prepared to dilute to the point of meaninglessness what the bible has to say about creation, women, sexuality and reality itself then why not what it teaches about Jesus and salvation?

It’s a fact that almost all varieties of the Faith, including fundamentalism, are happy to ignore completely Paul and Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God was due to arrive, in all its glory, in their own time. It’s the same with Jesus’ moral extremism (giving to all who ask, loving enemies, turning the other cheek.) So why not the rest of it?

Why are Paul’s muddled theology and selected bits of the Jesus stories considered to be the baby while the rest of the bible is the disposable bathwater? On what basis do progressive Christians decide what is inessential and what is crucial, critical, indispensable? Ideas about angry deities, blood sacrifice, the sins of the people and the resurrection of god-men are every bit as culture-bound as the bible’s perspective on all those other issues.  

Because really, in the end, it’s all bathwater.

 

The Voice in my Head is my Only Friend

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I hear it clearly, the voice in my head. It speaks to me all the time; telling me I am marked out for greatness. I am the Chosen One. I shall make this country and these people great again too. It all falls to me.

The voice speaks sure and true; it does not mislead me. It is of the Lord. Others tell me they have a voice within, but they are misled; the hear merely their own thoughts. I know this, for once, long before, I listened to that same voice, the endless annoying sound of the self, undermining, planting only doubt, questioning my true destiny. It was Satan’s voice, whispering sweet and low. But his is not the voice I hear now. It is God who speaks clearly to me now, strengthening me, reassuring me, directing my path. His voice sounds for me and me alone. It is my constant companion and there is no need of any other. I listen only to him.

He directs me to gather around me those I need to realise my mission. There are others who do not share my vision; the vision he gives me. It matters not; they matter not. Those who do not do my bidding fall by the wayside. Others take their place, true believers in the work I am doing. God himself tells me so, God alone guides me.

For I am the Chosen One; this he has made clear. I am his Son, his appointed Savior for this dissolute age. All else will pass away but what I do will never pass away. For I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.

 

The Chosen One

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Donald Trump is chosen by God. His powerful friends in The Family have decided. Other influential Christians, like the odious Franklin Graham, have endorsed it. Trump himself made reference to it in a speech recently. He claims this was a joke, but we know what’s said about words spoken in jest; the Donald believes what his Christian chums have told him.

Evidently Trump cannot have been chosen by God when there is no God to do the choosing. Nor does Trump’s behaviour indicate that he’s God’s man. He is ignorant, self-obsessed, spiteful, vindictive, boorish, narcissistic and cruel. Not only is he ignorant generally, he is ignorant about the bible, has no idea about what being a Christian entails and is unable to answer any questions about his supposed faith.

Why then do Christians of all stripes claim he is specifically chosen by God to be president? How do they know? Allowing for a moment that there is a God, the notion that he chooses his agents here on Earth is fraught with insurmountable problems. That he predetermines who will serve him or even who is saved is an insoluble paradox that I’ve written about before, here and here.

No, Christians who say Trump is God’s Chosen are convinced of this only because he supports and implements their agenda; he is anti-abortion, anti-gay and anti-immigrant. He favours guns, white people, Israel, the wealthy and evangelicals. This is why Christians like him, why The Family says he is chosen by God, because these are their priorities and therefore, they conclude, they must be God’s priorities too.

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For any Christians reading, particularly in the U.S., the process goes something like this:

1. You decide what is important to you.

2. You find support for your priorities in the bible (because support for just about anything can be found somewhere in the bible. Alternatively, you can just say what you believe is in the bible. Nobody’s checking.);

3. You disregard any apparent contradiction in the words attributed to Jesus;

4. You tell yourself that because God supports your agenda somewhere in the bible, this must therefore be his agenda also;

5. You exercise cognitive dissonance, a.k.a. dishonesty, to enable you to conclude that any influential agent who is prepared to support your priorities must therefore be chosen by God.

Naturally your agent need not demonstrate any other traits that might reasonably be expected of a God-follower (humility, love, hospitality, treating others like they themselves like to be treated and so on.) These things are unimportant so long as the agent is carrying out your agenda.

6. You tell others only of point 5, thus furnishing the entire process with a high-sheen spiritual gloss;

7. You accuse anyone who doesn’t support your agenda and your Chosen One of betraying God.

A good deal of self-deception and deceiving of others is required to pull this off, but Christians are more than up to the job. That’s why Trump is in the White House and why his Christian fixers are never far from his side.

How to spot a Christian

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What is being a Christian actually about? Do you qualify as a Christian if, like Paul seems to suggest, you believe a particular set of propositions; ‘right belief’ that ensures you’re saved and will go to heaven after you die? Do you have to sing songs about how marvellous Jesus is and how much you love him? Do you show you’re a Christian by defending God’s ‘standards’, which you know about from a very selctive reading of the bible? Does being a Christian entail arguing vociferously that Jesus is God, that he rose from the dead and that the bible is God’s inspired word? Is it insisting, with all the loving aggression you can muster, that non-believers are bound for hell, that homosexuals are disgustingly evil and that these, like every other period in the past two millennia, are the end times?

This is what a modern Christian looks like. He or she does these kinds of things, and a whole lot more, that Jesus, as he’s portrayed in the synoptic gospels, wouldn’t recognise. His idea of a Christian (not that he’d know the term) is a very different animal. Here’s what Jesus expects of one of his followers –

They:

cut themselves off from their family – hate them, in fact – just to follow him (Luke 14.26);

deny everything about themselves (Matthew 16.24-27);

forsake home, job, wealth, status, credibility and comfort to help bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth (Mark 10.29-31 etc);

slave tirelessly in the service of others (Mark 10.43-44; Matthew 23.11 etc);

sell their possessions so that they can give the proceeds to the poor (Matthew 19.21; Luke 14.33);

turn the other cheek, repeatedly go the extra mile and give away the shirt and coat off their back – if they’ve still got them after giving everything away – (Matthew 5.38-40);

welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison (Matthew 25.35-40);

forgive again and again and again (Matthew 18.21-22);

don’t judge others in case they’re judged in return (Matthew 7.1-3);

love their enemies (Matthew 5.44);

regard persecution and injustices done to them as blessings (Matthew 5.11);

do miracles even more impressive than Jesus’s own (Mark 16.17-18; John 14.12);

heal the sick, raise the dead and cast out demons (Matthew 10.7-8);

are granted whatever they ask for in prayer (Mark 11.24; Matthew 21.22);

don’t subscribe to a magic salvation-formula (found nowhere in the synoptic gospels).

Yes, Jesus was completely insane, demanding all this, and more, of those foolish enough to align themselves with him. But demand he did.

I’m sure there are Christians today who do everything he expected… somewhere, possibly… but I don’t know any. They’re all too busy enjoying their affluent, middle-class lives, singing songs at PraiseFests, judging others and squabbling about doctrine from behind their keyboards. It makes you wonder why they call Jesus their Lord when they don’t do a thing he tells them (Matthew 7.21).

Get your false Messiahs here…

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There was this guy who said he was the Son of God and the Messiah of his people. God appeared to him in a vision that enveloped him and changed him completely. Afterwards he discovered he had a knowledge of scripture that he previously hadn’t possessed and a invigorated sense of mission: God had appointed him to redeem his people. He changed his name and began to teach his people with power and a knowledge that all of them testified they had never experienced before. He brought them close to God and showed them how the world was coming to an end and how God would soon establish his Kingdom on Earth. He prophesied too, however, that he himself would die at the hands of the authorities, but that his followers should have no fear, because God would not forsake them: they would be part of the coming Kingdom.

And so it came to pass. At the age of 33, the Messiah died at the hands of the state.

And the name of this guy? Jesus, maybe? Well, it could be, but it wasn’t. Saul/Paul perhaps? Again, possibly… but no.

This guy’s name was David Koresh (real name Vernon Howell), leader of a Christian sect called the Branch Davidians. You may remember him from such massacres as the 1993 seige at Waco, where his church was based. He made all the claims above, just like Jesus and, to a lesser extent, Paul before him. None of his followers, it’s true, claimed to see him after his death, but some of those who survived the seige believe still that he will be resurrected and will return to lead them personally into the Kingdom of God.

I was watching a programme about him recently, a Storyville documentary originally broadcast in the States last year, which showed how easily we create our Messiahs and Saviours. The recipe, it turns out, is easy:

Take one charismatic individual who thinks he’s speaking for God;

Mix in an obsession with scripture;

Add some absurd self-promotion, and

Bake for a few years in the over-heated adulation of some desperate sycophants.

So – Jesus, Paul, Koresh. What’s the difference?

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*Actually, the quote in the picture up top is not Jesus at all; its Koresh, from an interview with the FBI (see first link above.) John 14.6 says ‘No-one comes to the Father except by me,’ which is much the same.