God or Superman?

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An early problem faced by the creators of Superman, only a few years after his first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938, was his impotence in the real world. Here was a character with incredible super-human powers – not quite as phenomenal as they would later become – who could defeat gangsters, wife-beaters, bullies and evil dictators with a flick of his little finger, but who, when a real life bully emerged on the world stage, couldn’t do anything. Stories could have been written about how he single-handedly defeated the Nazis and restored world peace but none of this would have been reflected in the real world. It’s true that today with its alternate realities and constant rebooting that Superman could be made to defeat modern-day fascism; but that would be on some other fictional Earth, not the real one. In the real world, Superman would remain impotent, having little effect beyond raising awareness and morale, which is what he did – or, more accurately, what his creators had him do – during World War II. There wasn’t anything else he or they could do.

By now, coronavirus should really have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Last Sunday was National Day of Prayer in the US. Independent of Donald Trump’s ‘initiative’ in calling for a day of grovelling in front of the Almighty, many other Christians have also been begging God to protect their church community from covid-19 (the godless can fend for themselves). Still others have commanded the virus, in the name of Jesus, to leave them and the USA alone (the rest of the world be damned.)

The effect of all this pleading and commanding has been that the coronavirus has continued to spread, heedless of borders and indifferent to the religious beliefs of its victims. Either God doesn’t give, as we say in this neck of the woods, a rat’s arse about who contracts covid-19, nor who dies from it, not even his born-again Chosen Ones. Everybody’s gotta die sometime, right? The important thing is that they’re right with the Lord before they do.

Or – God’s just like Superman. We can imagine him doing all sorts of incredible things, like healing disease, curing illness and saving the world, but in reality, none of them ever happen. He’s not going to protect people from coronavirus in precisely the same way he failed to protect them from 9/11, AIDs, the Holocaust, Spanish Flu, The Great Plague, Black Death and Leprosy. It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he’s not there. He’s no more real than Superman and is every bit as impotent as the Man of Steel.

I’m a big fan of Superman – I’ve been reading the comics he appears in for 57 years now – and I’m fully aware he’s not real; he was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster 82 years ago and has been embellished by every writer and artist who’s worked on him ever since – much like God. If only those who plead with the Almighty, and worse, tell the rest of us what he thinks of us, would recognise that he is fictional too. He exists only in a fantasy realm, outside of which he has no super-powers, no influence, no ability to save us from coronavirus or anything else.

Remember the sequence in the Simpsons episode where Homer is, as usual, in lots of trouble; he looks to the sky and pleads, ‘I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me… Superman.’ That’s exactly what Christians are doing right now, and the result will be the same as it was for Homer and for everyone else who’s ever called on Superman God to save them.

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.

 

Can you be a Christian and … a Realist?

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If you’ve been reading this series of posts, you’ll pretty much know how this one’s going to go. You can’t really be Christian if you have, as the old song goes, half a brain. Still, it won’t hurt to see how compatible faith is with reality as we know it. You never know, we might be surprised.

Speaking of songs, I always liked Billy Joel’s ‘An Innocent Man’ from the album of the same name. Of course, by Christian reckoning there’s no such thing as an innocent man, nor woman or child – no, not one – because all have fallen short and are worthy only of death (Romans 3:23 & 6:23). All the same, we’ll give Billy the benefit of the doubt. In a song of insightful lyrics, the lines I particularly like are

Some people hope for a miracle cure
Some people just accept the world as it is
But I’m not willing to lay down and die
Because I am an innocent man

Christians seem to have such difficulty accepting the world as it is. They’re constantly upset that the world, which I’m taking to be synonymous with reality, does not and will not conform to what they expect of it. And when it doesn’t, it’s the world that’s at fault, that has it all wrong.

When the evidence is presented for climate change and our contribution to it, some believers announce, with no hint of irony, that God will never let it happen. He’ll step in, just like he always does, to prevent it. So take that Australia with your bush fires, Java with your floods and all you polar bears with your melting icebergs: God’s got it all in hand.

When a Hollywood movie depicts a same sex couple in the background of a scene for a nano-second, the born-again are apoplectic about the world’s immorality. When two female performers wiggle their bits, Franklin Graham – arch-supporter of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief – has the hypocrisy to claim, ‘I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children.’ Clearly he does expect the world to act like the church (which as we know is both spotless and sinless.) All these modern-day Jeremiah’s do.

Reality doesn’t, and won’t, conform to what Christians want it to be. So what to do? Either join with Graham and those other evangelicals railing pointlessly against reality, like Don Quixote and his damn windmills, or (and this a much more comfortable position to adopt) be like those climate change deniers and tell yourself that whatever sort of state the world is in, God will be step in any time soon to sort it all out. After all, this is what Jesus believed. He didn’t rant and rave about the state of things, brutal Romans and all, he just had a simple, smug faith that his Father was going to set everything right real soon and put him in charge.

Christianity demands that Jesus’ disciples deny the world; reject it, despise it. The faith has denial at its core, even of oneself. It demands reality be replaced with a fantasy version of the world.

As I’ve written before:

Christians, even moderate ones

Those older links could easily be replaced with up-to-date, reality-denying ones. This is what it’s like in the Christian bubble; with all this denial taking up space, there’s no room for accepting the world as it is, and trying to change what needs changing and improve what needs improving.

Again as I’ve said before, truth, reality and other people are the casualties of religion’s life-denying efforts at self-preservation. Fantasy and reality are just not compatible.

Can you be a Christian and… gay?

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No. You can’t. The church regards your gayness, your same-sex attraction, as sinful. If you act on your feelings you are, according to the bible, an abomination. You cannot enter the Kingdom of God if you have sex with someone who’s the same sex as yourself, not even if that’s within a committed, loving relationship:

…do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men (1 Corinthians 6:9)

Paul doesn’t mince his words in Romans 1:25-28 either:

…God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error… God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper…

There’s no getting away from this: the bible is emphatic and unequivocal about how it views homosexuality and those who ‘practise’ it. There’s no ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ here. Gay people are unnatural, degraded, indecent, dishonourable, wicked, unrighteous, sinful and more: this, Paul is clear, is how God sees it too.

Some people, however, want to be both; they’re gay and they also consider themselves to be Christians. They’ve answered the altar call/been born again/baptised into the family of God and have made a commitment to Jesus/God/the church in whatever way their particular ‘fellowship’ teaches they should. Now they’re faced with what to do about their sexuality, when the bible, and in all probability their church too, finds it abhorrent. What to do?

Not all Christians are alike, of course, and not all churches the same. Some, a scattered few, are gay affirming. They say it’s okay for you and your partner to be gay, they still welcome you and see your homosexuality as a cause for celebration: you can, they say, be gay and Christian. To do this, however, they have to find ways around what the bible says about homosexuality. So they argue that the condemnation of the Old Testament is no longer applicable and doesn’t, in any case, refer to committed same-sex relationships. They make the case that Paul is really only referring to temple prostitution and promiscuity, not to loving couples.

If they’re honest, they acknowledge that these are pretty weak arguments and resort instead to ignoring everything the bible says about homosexuality (which is actually very little) and find comfort in the fact Jesus himself doesn’t appear to have mentioned it.

There are several problems with this way of thinking:

  • If you’re going to ignore these parts of the bible, what else can safely be ignored? It’s a slippery slope, brethren, a slippery slope;
  • Dismissing the bible’s grave warnings about same-sex sex, doesn’t mean that they’re not still there;
  • you’re engaging in a form of collective cognitive dissonance in pretending they’ve somehow disappeared or are no longer applicable;
  • You’re out of step with most other branches of Christianity, nearly all of which noisily disapprove of homosexual sex, relationships and even “marriage” (note obligatory scare quotes.)

In any case, gay-affirming churches are few and far between. The chances of living close to one are remote. Chances are, you’re stuck with a common-or-garden church. Chances are it disapproves of you. Chances are it will want you to renounce your sexuality. But there’s good news! If you’ve been saved/washed in the blood of the lamb/baptised, it’s easy. Your sins are forgiven and you are a new creature: God/Christ/the Holy Spirit will free you from the shackles of same-sex attraction. Here’s how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 6:10-11:

And such were some of you (idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, that is). But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

So that’s it then. You can’t be a Christian and gay. The gay has to go.

That’s the Christian perspective anyway. I hope I’ve represented it fairly enough. I can’t help but feel there’s more to it than that, however. We’ll consider whether there is next time.

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.

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.