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.

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.

Hasa Diga Eebowai*

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I went to see The Book of Mormon at the weekend. It’s offensive, blasphemous (if there is such a thing) and very funny. I recommend it. I’d say that, by and large, it represents the Mormon faith pretty accurately, mocking the Latter Day Saints’ belief that Jesus visited America about a year after his resurrection. Beaming into the proto-U.S.A, he converted the Nephite civilisation and turned them white, while the Lamanites, who were ‘so wicked’, God eventually curses ‘with (a) dark and benighted and loathsome condition’ (he made them black.) Sadly, all the archaeological evidence for these two civilisations has since been lost.

Three centuries later one of their number, a fictional character guy called Mormon, wrote down their adventures with Jesus on some gold plates that happened to be lying round. After Mormon died, his son Moroni buried these plates for safe keeping, as you would. 1500 years later still, Jesus prompted a chancer called Joseph Smith to dig them up again and, with the help of the returning Moroni and some magic stones, Smith translated them from the original Gibberish into stilted English. The plates and stones were never seen again, but every true Mormon knows that he/she will be resurrected after they die, provided, of course, they are wearing their special underwear. According to some, they’ll then be given their very own planet to rule.

Ludicrous, right? How could anyone invent such twaddle, let alone believe it and allow it to determine their lives? Yet, they do. But is it any more far-fetched than the fantasy on which it’s based? A guy called Yeshua goes round spouting platitudes and proclaims himself king of the New Age that’s coming soon. He gets killed and after 36 hours comes back to life, walks through walls and takes off into the sky. Not long after, a crank who never met him, decides this Yeshua must really have had super powers, and that all anyone has to in order to live forever is believe in a magic spell he, Paul, just made up! More than this, he’s convinced Yeshua will return to the Earth soon, when he’ll condemn most of its inhabitants to an eternity of hellish torture. Unbelievable! Literally unbelievable, and yet millions do believe it.

Joseph Smith’s hokum deserves all the mockery The Book of Mormon and others heap on it, but the original story is every bit as preposterous. Why can’t mainstream Christians see it?


*The phrase ‘Hasa Diga Eebowai’ appears in The Book of Mormon. It definitely doesn’t mean ‘no worries’.

Between Jesus and Paul

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When I joined the group – which I’m not going to call a cult; other people call it a cult, but it’s not. There’s nothing cultish about it – when I joined the group, the leaders told me I had to ignore whatever my family said about it. They instructed us all that the best way to really commit ourselves was to turn our backs on our families. Of course they were right – hadn’t the Teacher himself said so? – families belonged to our old lives. They didn’t understand the Teacher’s message or how important his mission was and how much he loved us. So I turned my back on mine. They weren’t worth a thing next to Him.

Then they said I should give everything away. Sell it all and hand it over to the poorest in the group because possessions only hold us back. Get rid of them, they told us the Teacher had said, and don’t even hang onto the money you got for your stuff. Give that away too. Because, you see, nothing material matters. We’re in the last days. God is going to use the Teacher to do amazing things, to change the world so that those of us at the bottom of the pile rise up to the top, and those on top now – the rich, the powerful and the cruel – well, they’re going to get their comeuppance. Nothing else matters. How could it, really? God’s New Kingdom is going to arrive any day now.

So I spend all my time going out into the streets, proclaiming this great news to the lost. Most of them don’t want to know, of course. They say there have been a thousand would-be messiahs who’ve declared that the world is about to end soon and it never does, and things go on just the same.

This time, though, it’s different. The Teacher is different. He said, the leaders who knew him say, that we should act as if the Kingdom has already arrived. So we try not to judge the foolish ignoramuses who ignore his words of warning, and we make ourselves servants, always doing more than people demand of us, turning away meekly when they spit at us or strike us in the face. We give to anyone who asks – not that I have much to give these days (only what the group graciously provides for me) – and we visit the sick and those in prison. We feed the hungry and give our clothes to the poor, specially our impoverished brothers and sisters in the Lord. Truth to tell, I’m one of those myself now – one of the poor – but I have untold riches stored up in Heaven.

So I have no regrets. I’m doing what the Teacher commanded. I follow his blessed instructions, which his followers passed on to our revered leaders. And it won’t be forever, will it. Just a short while now and we will have our reward. The Teacher will return and he will usher in God’s magnificent Kingdom on Earth and there’ll be no more crying and no more serving; the Lord will lift us up to great heights and we will inherit the Earth.

Didn’t the Teacher say so?

Wouldn’t this be what it was like for some of those early followers of Yeshua Bar Yosef? Those who came immediately after the disciples, but who heard ‘the good news’ only second or third hand? Followers of the Way, known in some circles as ‘The Poor’, whom Paul persecuted? Believers who were around in those few years prior to Paul getting his hands (and unhinged mind) on the message and altering it beyond all recognition? Those ‘Christians’ (the name wouldn’t have existed back then) must’ve believed something and it couldn’t have been Paul’s mystical salvation plan, which didn’t yet exist. From the evidence that survives in the synoptic gospels and from Paul’s disputes with the disciples, I surmise that, for someone who took Jesus’ message seriously in those very early days, it must have been something like the experiences of the hypothetical follower above. As misguided and futile as all of this was, it is, nevertheless, a far cry from the bloated, self-serving travesty that is Christianity today.

What have reason and logic to do with faith?

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Last time I considered the Christian claim that reason and logic can only derive from God, and that non-believers’ use of them is nothing more than a illicit hijacking of powers supplied by the God they deny. Why is it important to modern day Christians to attribute reason to their God? After all, the bible only ever speaks disparagingly of reason. It is, it says, the path to self-delusion; Proverbs 3.5 warns ‘trust not in your own understanding,’ while faith, according to Paul far surpasses the limitations of reason and rationality. More than this, as I discuss here, the God of the bible is far from reasonable and logical himself. His response to every issue is the death penalty, mass murder and blood sacrifice.

According to Christians, human reasoning makes no sense if it is ‘merely’ the product of evolution. A random and undirected process cannot produce a reliable rationality on its own. Naturally, they are never entirely clear why this is the case; evolution has, after all, led to other distinctly human characteristics on which we regularly depend, imperfect though they may be: language, memory, social bonding and creativity among them.

However, having singled out reason and dismissed evolution as its cause, Christians then jump to the conclusion that the human capacity to think must come from God. According to Tim Keller, rationality is a ‘clue’, planted in every human being, to God’s existence.* It has evidently never occured to Keller that, by the same token, the human capacity for unbounded irrationality is likewise a ‘clue’ to the non-existence of any rational deity.

Human reasoning – and there’s no other kind – is, like every other evolved characteristic, flawed. It is only as secure as the premise from which it proceeds. Get that wrong, by adopting a premise with an insufficiency of evidence (such as ‘God is a God of Reason’) and human cognition will only ever abandon us in the blind alley of faith.

*The Reason For God, p141

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.

Woe to you hypocrites!

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Independent Fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Donnie Romero, an associate of Steven Anderson’s, resigned from his church this week after he was discovered paying prostitutes for sex, smoking weed and gambling.

Well, who cares really what such a pathetic little man gets up to in his spare time – apart, maybe, from his wife – except that Romero, like Anderson, is virulently anti-gay. He preaches that LGBTQ people are filthy animals who prey on children and calls for the state-sanctioned execution of all ‘homos’. He rejoiced when LGBT people were killed in the Pulse shooting a few years ago.

Christians can argue all they like that the bible is the Word of God™, that Jesus really did rise from the dead and that he was the Son of God come to save us, but even if all this were true, which it isn’t, it makes not the slightest bit of difference. Romero and his predilection for ‘sin’ demonstrate, once again, that Christianity does not work.

According to the bible, those who are born again are washed in the blood of the lamb (Revelation 1.5) and are cleansed and purified (1 John 1.7). They cannot sin (1 John 3.6), being possessed by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6.19- 20) who changes their nature (John 3.3–7; Titus 3.5) and gives them victory over sin (Romans 6.1–10). So how do Christians explain believers like Romero, and the multitude of others who fornicate, abuse, steal, bear false witness and even, sometimes, resort to murder? Were such people ever really Christians in the first place?

IFB doctrine says they were; once a Christian always a Christian. Despite what Romero has done, he will be going to heaven.

Others say not; a Christian who visits prostitutes is not and never has been a real follower of Jesus, because visiting prostitutes is not something a real follower, one who has the indwelling Holy Spirit would do. Yet Paul admonishes some of the early church (1 Corinthians 6.15-18) for doing just this, without, strangely enough, tell them they were never true believers. Looks like Christians with prostitutes has been a problem from the very start.

Perhaps believers who cheat and fornicate are redeemed a second time, once they’ve sought forgiveness for their trespasses. The comments on the YouTube version of Romero’s resignation speech speak of how noble he is for confessing his sins, making him ‘a true man’ according to one. They seem to miss the fact that he does nothing of the sort. He leaves fellow zealot Anderson to explain what has happened. Is it scriptural that a believer can fuck up (literally) as many times as he likes, and so long as he admits it he’ll still be one of the Chosen? Hardly. Still, there’s got to be a free get-out of jail card for today’s fornicating minister, and this is as good as any. How long until Romero is back in front of a gullible and duped forgiving congregation? In the meantime his place has been taken at the ironically named ‘Stedfast church’ by an ignorant jerk who is every bit as hate-filled.

By their fruits shall ye know them, Jesus is made to say. I can’t help but think that prostitute sex, cannabis, gambling, homophobic rants and bare-faced hypocrisy weren’t quite what he had in mind.