We Are What We Do

There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.

To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward.  As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible.  We are good on the content side; we have content.

But what about form?  How is content affected by form?

Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.

There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church.  Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”

Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.

Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.

For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi).  It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others.  It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc.  It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience.  It will value community more than individuality.  Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.

Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.

Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.  

Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious.  When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States.  However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.

Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month.  Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction.  People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.

Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession.  The form (orandi)  is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).

This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.

Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss.  Imputed grace is the word of the day.  Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi). 

 To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular.  In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.  

Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence.  With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.  

We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.

This should make us all wary.  

It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us.  Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.

Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content.  He said as much when he said

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)

The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless.  Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.  

Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.

I leave you with a poem.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor;

And Mercy no more could be.

 

If all were as happy as we;

 

And mutual fear brings peace;

Till the selfish loves increase.

 

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with holy fears.

 

And waters the ground with tears:

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Caterpillar and Fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit.

 

Ruddy and sweet to eat:

And the Raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

 

 

Don’t Blame Your Vote on the Bible

votethebible

A curious thing has happened this election cycle, the likes of which I have never witnessed in my 35 years of life: Christians are voting for a man that is completely morally bankrupt.

It’s an unusual place for people of faith to find themselves in. Usually, at least where I grew up, the sinner is the democrat, the evil fiend that supports partial birth abortion (which sickens me as much as many of you), cradle to grave financial assistance and condones anything, anyone, wants to do with their body.  The choice, at least in the minds of many, has always been clear.

I literally did not meet my first Democrat Christian until I went to college but that’s because I didn’t know any Democrats in my Republican evangelical bubble.  Until the ripe age of 18 I had no idea a Christian Democrat was even possible…and many still hold this opinion.

Republicans are Christian (family values) and Democrat’s support things that ain’t; It’s as simple as that.

This is what people usually mean when they say “I vote with a biblical worldview” and it usually results in social policy that reflects the Republican Party (since fiscally both parties are the same).

I know, I know, but don’t tune me out yet. I’m not trying to make you mad…I’m trying to make you think.

I am not saying that anyone has the moral high ground this election. I’m not saying that you should vote for Clinton (I’m not) but saying that morality is now relative or that one’s morality is at least better than the others (even though both Trump and Clinton have proven absent) is not an argument for anything.

It’s an argument to justify a decision.

I am stating that for many years now, at least since President Reagan, a large segment of voters have voted based on “Christian” values, and now, faced with voting for someone that doesn’t share those Christian values, but does sit atop the GOP ticket, Christians are scrambling to either jettison the importance of values or make Trump align with values he’s never embraced.

One of the many attempts to do so, and the object of this essay, is to suggest that since God used sinful people in the Old Testament that clearly means God can use sinful people to accomplish his goals and not merely use, but that God chose to implement this strategy.

Just find a random religious thread on Facebook or Twitter, a thread that uses the Bible to justify voting Trump, and you will find this argument.

I literally read in a thread (and since I have heard it countless times in various forms) that “since God used the midwives of Pharaoh, Samson, and the Assyrians to accomplish his will it is possible that God can use Trump as well…and he’s better than Clinton.”

So let me get this straight.

The reason we should vote for Trump is because he shares commonality with Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Old Testament Heroes that were narcissistic? That’s the argument we are working with here?

We are not in Kansas anymore.

God “used” these “evil” or “sinful” realities to administer world history, therefore, we should vote for someone of the same character for God to continue to do so? A character the likes of which God’s prophets continually warned against using?
If this was the case, and Christians for so long have not voted democrat for EXACTLY that reason (evil, sinful, depraved policies) then why haven’t Christians been voting Democrat all along?

Maybe we could have expedited this whole American Exile thing that many people believe we have entered.

If there is any thread that runs throughout the scriptures it is not one of obedience, but one of a called, chosen people, disobeying God, repetitively being disciplined, corrected, and then redeemed.

Israel never “gets it” so to speak. God has to use that which is not sanctified because sanctified Israel is hardly of use. But it’s not like the Bible tells us that was pleasing to God.

But since the Bible says God used those things that weren’t holy to do his will we are now ready to embrace those unholy things because the unholy is the only choice we have…

The only issue I have here is that we don’t want to admit that. We want to justify it with our faith in order to sleep at night, but the result of doing so is damage to that very faith construct.  The damage of which will be felt long after any election.

Personally, I do not care about the morality of my president (no I am not voting Trump). There was a time when people of government and official administration were mannered, polite and self-deferential for the common good. That time has long passed.

Recent American presidential history (at least from JFK to the present) gives us a cast of characters that set the bar very low when it comes to morality.

I wrote here during the primary season that it’s absurd to vote on values any longer. I argued we should vote on political principles and philosophy instead. This is how a Christian, like myself, can embrace the political philosophy of one Thomas Jefferson (an agnostic I would argue but some say atheist). We share different faith lenses but that doesn’t keep me from being persuaded of his political philosophy.

The very last thing we should do, however, is justify a flawed character because we believe the bible justified flawed characters.

This is both the problem, solution and brilliance of scripture.

Scripture has no recourse but to use flawed characters because that is literally all that it has. And that should make us all feel a little better about ourselves.
There is no biblical character, no hero of the bible, that is perfect. None of them are holy and contrite in every intention. The great heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon…they are all messed up people.

So the point is, yes, God uses flawed people because we are all flawed people.

But there is also an irony when you compare those flawed people with the cast of characters known as Assyria, Persia, and the rest: Those characters are NEVER used in the bible as exemplars of the kinds of people or nations God WANTS to use. 

This is the large message of all of these Books in the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. In these books, the people of God FAIL to live as Deuteronomy instructs them. The bible heroes in these stories are tragic displays of unfaithfulness that God continues to work around, so in an ironic twist, we see them behave like Donald Trump, disobey commands, get themselves in precarious situations. 

They are not exemplars of how to be faithful to God. God wants to use THESE people but because they are so dense he outsources to the nations and to characters who are not part of God’s people (in the narrative).

The message is: Don’t be like these people…it will not go well if you do. Samson committed suicide, Moses never entered the Promised Land, David never ruled a united Kingdom and Israel eventually went into Exile. All Bad stuff.

The fact that God has to use these other characters (Assyria, Persia, Pharaohs midwives, just pick your villain or non-Israelite cast member) is not a justification of them; it is an indictment against Israel. It is tongue in cheek.  

It is not a “go and do likewise” commandment of Jesus.

Through them scripture teaches us this lesson: so you won’t fulfill the calling I have for you? Fine. Moving right along and this way may take a bit longer.

It’s never God’s preference to use Assyria, or the Philistines, or whomever. This is what ends up happening because God’s people are of no use.

This is why we find many stories in the Old Testament in which the least suspected characters are servants of God: God didn’t set out for Israel to be misguided but misguided it has been so God has to use other actors in history, not as a first resort, not as a vote FROM his people, but because there is a mission to accomplish.

At least this is what we find in the biblical narrative, the narrative that gives us theological justification for why history happened as it did.

The Bible records events years after the events themselves. Its authors have spent copious hours trying to understand, justify and make sense of the movement of history.  What we find in scripture is the result of that process.

God using evil as a first choice, however, is never condoned. God’s people selecting kings that were blatantly antithetical to their principles as a people never happened intentionally (though one could argue that their initial intentions were flawed and such happened regularly such as King Saul or some of Solomon’s sons).

It makes little sense to use the Bible in this way, to suggest that because an event happened in the Bible and God used it, that that is God’s preferred way of doing things.

It makes even less sense to suggest that we should be implicated in wrong doing because God can use it anyhow.

Something about Jesus saying “it is written you shall not test the Lord your God” comes to mind here…

Sometimes the Bible is not a prescription for how we are to act. Sometimes it is a warning against how not to act. It teaches us what to prevent through its witness and what to avoid embracing…which is why all the Christian justification of Trump is so puzzling.

You want to vote for Trump, that’s cool, but don’t blame it on God or the Bible.  Own it yourself.

Same goes if you want to vote Hillary.  She’s not the benevolent government administrator one finds in Jacob.

I feel like we have fully become biblical Israel in this election because we have forgotten who we are and justified a vote for depravity with our faith. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sounds a lot like another story I know, a story that finds God’s people doing what they thought was right even as a golden calf was being fashioned right before their eyes.
And we know what they did for the next 40 years after that vote was cast.

Back to the Future and Syria…some lessons we must unlearn

back-to-the-future

I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future.  Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine.  This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space.  Einstein will be vindicated.

As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing.  He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”

Marty is lost.  Why should they care about Libyans?  Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!

The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover.  Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets.  Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead.  He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.

As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.

And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk:  Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market. 

I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.

Some things never change.

Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.  The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness.  This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.

The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping. 

Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will.  The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels.  If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.

In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened.  A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo.   Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others  suffered injuries.  The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.

The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).

Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo.  Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal.  Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels.  The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.

Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up.  Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.

As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?”  Should we embrace it?  Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?

There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here.  The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion.   Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.

No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over.  Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities.  Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power.    He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.

What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected.  This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.

There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans.  Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses.  Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself.  Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years.  Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).

What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”

Is our current opinion and policy warranted?  Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?

First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration.  Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.

Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice.  He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history.  As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion.  Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there.  There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.

Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration.  To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.

If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.

Second, Assad provides stability.

The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel.  The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.

How times have changed.  With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it.  This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil.  With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?

Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped?  Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way?  In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case.  If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.

As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”

We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?

Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.

The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world.  Sryia does not.  However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia.  Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US.  In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.

In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well.  After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community.  Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.

“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.  Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.  In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.  Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)

Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped.  Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.

Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.

Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change.  Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it  (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?

There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.

Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ?  Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.

Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries?  Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on  a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?

It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes.  We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie.  Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.

We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries:  We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power.  We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.

And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict.  If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers.  Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.

Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand.  In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography.  I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public.  The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country.  I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.

I loved Syria when I was there.  I loved its people.  It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.

Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed.  Study the situation.  Read some investigative journalism.  And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.

I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.

*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.

 

Have You Ever Woke Up White?

MLK POST

Have you ever work up and realized you’re white?

I don’t mean have you gotten out of bed in the morning, brushed your teeth and stared at your Caucasian skin, noting blemishes, razor nicks or an unsightly new hair.

I mean, have you ever woken up and REALIZED YOU ARE WHITE?

Well.  I haven’t either…until this week.

Last Wednesday, July 6, I was running late for an appointment.  I was driving, not recklessly, but a little too fast for the speed limit posted.  A police officer clocked me, quickly got behind my vehicle, turned on his lights, and directed me to pull over.  I was doing 55 in a 45.

The officer, who was white, pulled behind my car, parked and delayed approaching my vehicle.  After a few minutes of gathering his thoughts, or perhaps running my tag, he makes his way to my window, stands slightly out of sight and over my left shoulder and asks “How are you doing today sir?”  I could see him from my peripheral vision because he avoided standing directly beside my car, presumably to protect himself not knowing whom he had just pulled over.

My reply was instant and without concern, “Well officer, I was fine until I was pulled over.”

The officer looked at me and replied, “Well, I understand that.  Have a good day and be safe.”

I replied, “Thank you officer, I’ll watch my speed”

This entire encounter took maybe 60 seconds.  It was the fastest interaction I have ever had with an officer.  At the time, I was thankful for its brevity.

Tuesday evening, July 5, news broke about the altercation between police and Alton Sterling, a black man hustling outside a convenient store in Baton Rouge, LA.  The altercation resulted in Mr. Sterling’s death and an unsightly video of interaction went viral.

Later Wednesday evening, the nation would witness another altercation between a black man and police, which resulted in the death of one Philando Castile.  As with the Louisiana shooting, this one in Minnesota went viral with a video and commentary from his girlfriend that sat next to him as he was shot and dying.

Immediately these events started to shake the foundations of America and the quiet undercurrents of prejudice and violence once again erupted before our eyes.  It’s as if a latent existential crisis had now burst onto the national stage front and center, demanding the attention of everyone.  The shock waves of this violence were instantaneously enormous and threatened to swallow the nation in a race war with endless violence as five Dallas police officers were shot by a black man whose motive for killing them was revenge for the brutality he had recently witnessed, as well as the historical witness of police brutality against the black community.

We are not yet out of the woods.  More violence could be on the way, as one alleged plot to kill police officers has already been foiled.

In an attempt to be peacekeepers and healers, Presidents Bush and Obama spoke at a memorial service for the police, each one offering powerful words of hope and admonition for the future. Town hall meetings are taking place to discuss the tensions between policing and minority communities, protestors are clamoring with their city officials and entire communities are mobilizing to peacefully respond to the current injustices.

It’s not just black people that are seeking change, but many white people are busy advocating for their brothers and sisters in the black community as well. 

As all of this unfolded I began to ask myself, “If I were black would the police stop I encountered Wednesday have been different?”  Can I honestly say that if I were a black man (with all the historical baggage and stereotyping I would be carrying) the officer would have released me in a matter of seconds or would this ordeal have involved a bit more questioning and a longer stop?

Of course, this is hypothetical.  I am not black and there is no way of knowing what the officer would have done if I were, but I don’t think it too far afield to assume that if I were black I would have been detained a few minutes longer, I would have been asked a few more questions, and might have even walked away with a ticket rather than an exhortation to “be safe.”

I really hate writing about this.  I don’t want to comment on race.  I want to ignore it and pretend it isn’t an issue.

I don’t want to write about it.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to stay out of the fray.

It is safer to be quite and not say anything.

Yet, how can I not speak up when there is clearly a higher level of suspicion against those with black skin than those with white skin, even when it comes to routine traffic stops.

We do have a race problem in this country and the only people saying otherwise are privileged white people who have never experienced a racist sentiment against them in their lives.  Trying to be white and say race doesn’t matter is like telling someone who’s been abused emotionally it doesn’t matter that they are abused because you’ve never been abused emotionally by anyone.  Their abuse is obviously their misperception of what is happening; it’s not the truth of the matter.  The truth of the matter is they have behaved badly and they most likely deserve the emotional abuse.

Who’s going to say that to another person who has EXPERIENCED ABUSE?  My non-experience cannot negate the experience of another.  It’s simply a different witness but it doesn’t nullify someone with a contrary witness.

That logic doesn’t make any clear sense.  Yet this is exactly what white people do to black people.

We discount their experiences because our perceptions of their experiences are not the same, therefore, they must be misguided and if they’d just drop pointing out to everyone that they are black this whole thing would be better…but isn’t this the epitome of bigotry and racism, thinking ourselves better than others?  Thinking our WHITE ideas (since they happen inside our white bodies) are more exact than BLACK ideas or experiences?

If our ideas are only ideas that would occur to WHITE people, and no black person within our sphere of influence would share them, should that not cause us to pause and say “hold up, maybe my idea isn’t as objective as I thought…maybe I have this idea because I am White??”

In other words, it is not that our whiteness or blackness makes the ideas; It is our skin color that allows us the experiences in life that often give formation to the ideas.

This is a distinction that even the most brilliant talking heads fail to make.

The experiences that ingrain skills, dispositions, and habits into us are usually unconscious; it happens to us without our knowing.  In academic terms it becomes what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus.  But there is good news; we are not doomed to our habitus forever.

Bourdieu notes, “Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it.  Being a product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore, constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures.  It is durable BUT NOT ETERNAL [my bold].  Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.”

To break this down further, one might say we think, act and are disposed in particular ways because of our particular histories.  Our history provides us with normative habits we can live by and use to make sense of the world.  Our habits also usually decided for us in that they are the result of our social/linguistic conditions (religious, economic, political, sexual, etc.) and experiences therein. Further, this means that one is most likely to encounter the world in ways that agree with those already framed dispositions or habits.

In other words, you think like a white person because you are white and all that goes along with that…even if you fail to realize it.

The silver lining to this, however, is that habtius is an OPEN SYSTEM OF DISPOSITIONS that is subject to our experiences.  As that which forms due to our experiences, it can also be re-formed by new ones.  We are not stuck being suspicious of certain groups of people.  We are not stuck with certain opinions or views.  The goodnews of Bourdieu is, while habitus can provide insight into why we do what we do, and who we are, we do have the possibility to change when we encounter new experiences that challenge our current habitus!

Did you hear me, we can change!  We are not doomed!

This week, I sat in a room with black colleagues who shared their experiences. Their experience didn’t attempt to negate dead police officers.  Their experience didn’t attempt to say cops never kill white people.  It was just their stories and how these events impacted them.  It wasn’t an either/or; it was “this whole situation sucks…here is why I am.”

One black mother shared how she has to give her sons the talk about how to behave in a car for fear of being pulled over because they are black young men.  She spoke of the fear of when her 15 year old will get his license and whether she should make him wait a few more years to drive for fear of what can happen to a young black man in a car alone.

A black father spoke of the pain this produced inside him, how this impacted his community and how he was paying for his kids to talk to a counselor to make sense of all this.

An older black woman said, “I know this is a new problem for many of you, but I have been living with this problem for 60 years.  This is not new…and in our community we have known this.  I am glad many of you are now finally getting to see what we live every day.”

These comments were in sharp juxtaposition to comments I was seeing on facebook and twitter, all by white people.

Rather than see their status as white people, as privileged people, who will never have to fear that their young boys will get pulled over or fear of being followed through a grocery store because of their skin color, they commented as if they were sages…pronouncing objective truth from inside their white bodies.

Comments such as “it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or blue, we don’t have a race problem in this country, we have a death culture”…Ah, yes, spoken as only a white guy can who has never experienced racial profiling.

On the radio, hosts scream at the top of their lungs about why the President and others keep talking about white this and white that, black this and black that, ostensibly saying we only have a race problem because you all keep talking about it!  Again, only a white person can say something like this.  It’s not that black or white people want to have race as a central issue; it’s that it is a central issue regardless of what we want…and it seems that the only class or race saying it’s not a problem is the race that has never suffered persecution in this country because of their skin color!  Shouldn’t this cause white folks to pause and ask “Why are we the only ones saying this?”

Another great white response is to deflect attention from this violence and pin it on other issues, such as black single parent statistics and children raised in single parent, poverty stricken homes.  This move simply keeps the white person from actually taking a stand against brutality or racism and says that the real problem isn’t “you all” or “them” getting profiled, it’s the black community having so many dead beat dads.

Again, only a white person can say this.  It lacks any sense of empathy to relate to black people and their history with police.

And finally, here is a laundry list of comments by white people that attempts to deflect issues of race, “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t know what they are so mad about…that was 150 years ago, they should get over it…if black people wouldn’t talk about race than race wouldn’t be an issue…This is not my fault…the cops wouldn’t have shot him if they didn’t have good reason…don’t be in the wrong place and bad things won’t happen…black on black crime is the real problem, not police brutality…why do just black lives matter, don’t all lives matter…why do they have that chip on their shoulder anyhow, it’s just a crutch to keep race an issue…why do they keep complaining, if they would go find jobs and get off government they wouldn’t have these problems”

And these same white people that make these comments say we don’t have a race problem.  Uh huh.  And on and on and on.

I have heard all this and more, in person and online.  And I, admittedly, used to think of some of these same responses…but I did so, not out of attempting to empathize with the black community, but because I was white and I was unable to see the world outside of my white experiences, and therefore, my white habitus.

But this past week, I woke up and I realized I am white.  It had been a long time coming, but I have finally saw myself in a very literal way, as the skin that covers who I am.  Of course I am not just my skin color, but at the least whatever I am does involve my skin color.  I can no more separate my person from my body than my body from my person…and this means my whiteness and my being are linked…but that doesn’t mean I can’t change.

But Nate, you seem like a thoughtful guy, how could you have held even one of those ideas as an opinion???  First, I am sorry that I have not always thought rightly about race.  Since living in Atlanta and Nashville I have actually enjoyed the difference and it is what I miss about large cities.   I have not been prejudiced for a long time, but I have also never seen my whiteness as clear as I do now.  I have never knowingly done a racist thing but I cannot say I have never had a racist or bigoted based thought.  For these unspoken sentiments I ask for forgiveness.

I believe Jesus once said something about seeking forgiveness for thoughts of the heart and not just actions of the hands.

Why would I have ever had those ideas?

Well.  I’m 35 and I am white.  I’m Protestant.  I am old enough to have had grandparents that referred to candy as “n#**#r toes” not as a conscious attempt to be mean, but as a subconscious linguistic association about black people.  I am old enough to have been told when I was younger to not go to certain parts of town, “where the blacks live…in boogeytown.”  I am old enough to have ridden in cars and been told “lock your doors, we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  The only people I saw on the corners were black people.

I am white enough to have not had much interaction with black people except on school sports teams.  My family did not have any black friends growing up.

No, I wasn’t raised to hate black people.  I wasn’t raised to hate anyone, but I was raised with a subtle racism, inculturated within me, so that fear of black people and difference was part of the story as a child.

That fear shaded my adult life where it bred my inability to see my own privilege as a white male.  Now, at 35, I’m still white, but it’s worse, I am white, educated, have a good job, have a position in the church, and I don’t have any close black friends…only acquaintances.  Given all this how would I see otherwise??

The problem, however, is that this fear can breed misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding can breed apathy, or even worse, it can breed hate and bigotry.

Privilege doesn’t mean that society gave me stuff or that I didn’t have to work for what I have.  I did work hard; no one gave me anything.  All my degrees and work based accomplishments were earned.  Privilege simply means I did not face any societal obstacles or experience public disadvantages or scrutiny because of my skin color.  I was, and am, free to move about the country.  From what I understand, this is also what black people want, the ability to work hard and move about freely, providing themselves and their families with a good, secure life.

As a white man (who usually votes libertarian), I am now aware of my privilege.  I couldn’t see it before, but now, with the help of black and white colleagues, I see it.  Yet I do not understand how being aware of that privilege and acknowledging that black people in general do not enjoy that same privilege is a liberal or conservative observation.  Why is this a republican or democratic issue?  Seems to me this is just finally seeing the elephant in the room.

I am not black.  I am now aware that my experience cannot speak for or in place of a black experience.  It is unfair of me to impute my white eyes over a situation and impute that understanding on black people that have a much different experience.  I’m aware that I do not see the world as my black colleagues.  I don’t fear for my three sons growing up that they will be stopped and harassed by police.

I can speak of equality as an ideal because I am white.  I can criticize my black brothers and sisters for making a big deal of this or that police brutality and I can point to the “facts of the case” and justify why officers did what they did, but all that does is tell the black community (who has suffered these recent losses as well as many losses we will never know) that I am blind, deaf and therefore too dumb to speak as an advocate for a community that bears the brunt of police violence at the hands of white silence.

I want to be a partner and neighbor with all people, but at this time especially with my black colleagues.  I want to insure that their children can grow up feeling safe.  I want my fellow black Americans to feel safe when they are stopped by police.  I want police to feel safe around black people and not assume guilt when they make a traffic stop or question kids on the street corner.  I want an equitable world that looks like white people and black people sharing in this nation and helping one another achieve rather than pointing at the others deficiencies.  To quote MLK, I too want to see a world where children and people will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We are not there yet…we are not there yet.

I used to think this country didn’t have a race problem, but as I have watched and listened to stories and media I have come to an epiphany: We do have a race problem and denial by those who have NEVER been marginalized doesn’t solve this problem…it just means they are clueless and it places our collective societal goals at risk in order to assuage a white peace of mind.

Hillary Clinton, Prophet of the Anthropocene

Anthropocene_Era

Today, as I listened to Hillary Clinton on the radio, I heard something profoundly more troubling than rote populist verbiage or party line politics.  I heard her tout this statistic, and I paraphrase, “Our Economy is a 70% consumer economy; therefore, the more expendable income everyone has the better the economy can be for everyone.”

Of course this comment surfaced while she was waxing eloquently about black employment rates, the disproportionate pay of men to women, the lack of good paying jobs post the “great recession,” the role that employee unions play in securing benefits and pay for their members, etc.  It was a speech on the economy she gave while campaigning in North Carolina.

Besides the ideology she seemed to be dousing upon herself , the statistic she shared was abruptly disturbing.  So disturbing, in fact, that I listened to little else she was saying.  The statistic took me back to David Harvey’s text (see my previous analysis) The Enigma of Capital and Richard Heinberg’s text The End of Growth.

To provide a little context to this, earlier today I read about the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs.  It was shared by one of my more intellectual facebook friends who never fails to recommend a thoughtful read.  Thanks for the read Ashton.

I don’t know if you know this, but, we are apparently in one of the largest bleaching events in recorded history.   Bleaching is the means by which coral attempt to save themselves from rising water temperatures or other changes to their environment that threaten them.  To do so, they release the algae that grow on them and provide them with life. If conditions do not change, the algae is released and never returned.  The coral will die.

As best as scientists can tell, the bleaching is a result of rising water temperatures across the globe.  For ecosystems as fragile as coral reefs, even a half a degree rise in water temperatures can make a sizeable negative difference.  Coral reef bleaching is not new.  In fact, it has been around as long as coral have been around, presumably thousands to hundreds of thousands of years.  What is new is the scale we are witnessing and rapidity with which it is being repeated.

The culprit scientists are suggesting?  Carbon.  Our world, functioning as a greenhouse, is causing these temperature fluctuations and in return can also cause fragile ecosystems to become disequilibrialized and in return die.

What generates Carbon? Well, lots of our machines and manmade activity causes carbon.  The issue isn’t carbon per se; the issue is too much carbon.  Nature cannot adequately deal with the amounts we are now producing.   Yes, there have always been cow flatulence and forest fires and other natural phenomena that can cause carbon.  The issue is not that since cows cause carbon we should therefore kill cows or keep them from farting.

The issue is we are producing too much carbon for our existing carbon reducers (aka Forests) to handle and the over abundance is causing the world to heat slightly more than multiple ecosystems can sustain.  I really don’t understand how this is a conservative or a liberal issue but I do see how ideology can blind a person to the common sense of this.

This rise in ocean temperatures is one issue, nevermind the acidification of oceans and pollution that is causing changes we have yet to feel as land sharks.

Bleaching of coral reefs are not the only issue we have in the oceans.  Apparently, garbage can form islands the size of Texas and who really knows how bad or good all that garbage is for the oceans.  Just google “garbage island.”

Back to Hillary’s quote.  We live in a 70% consumer economy.  70%!  Do you realize how large that number is and what it means?

What it means is that the only way our economy can grow and the only way wealth can be grown, redistributed, whatever, is for the human race to make more things, buy more things, waste more things, dispose of more things, and deplete natural resources for more things.

There is no other way.  All matter has mass and takes up space…and the production of things to consume will follow this law as well.

As a consequence of all this “making” we will be producing a lot of carbon.  Machines make things.  Burning forests allows us to make things.  Creating toxic chemicals that cannot be absorbed into the earth is the result of making things.  Making things requires industry, especially if we are talking the scale that is 70% of the US economy and this not to mention what all this making would mean for the economic demands of the rest of the world.

A byproduct of all this making? Carbon.

The United States Gross Domestic Product last year was roughly 17.8 TRILLION dollars.  GDP is how we measure our economy and its health.  It is the measure of everything our country makes and sells, either at home or abroad.

GDP is also built on the assumption that infinite growth of 3% each year is “normal” and “healthy.”   Politicians, particularly those infatuated with Ronald Reagan, love to bandy this 3% around as if it’s as absolute as John 3:16.  Forecasts  for 2016 is a 2% growth rate OVER that 17.9 Trillion, so around 18.4 Trillion.  Astonishingly, the forecast of GDP by 2026 is a whopping 27.6 TRILLION GDP. Just take a look at these CBO projections for yourself. Wow.  Just wow.

There is nothing to scale that can sustain our global economy in a carbon free way and do so at such percentages.  The technology simply isn’t there.  In order for America to continue on this trend we will be making lots of things, running a lot of machines, creating a lot of waste, and in turn, having an even larger impact on the planet then than we do now.  To think we can just recycle everything as some infinite remainder that can be dealt with really means we do not understand what an infinite remainder is.

I know the naysayers: The planet has always changed.  Seasons come and go.  Etc.  Thanks for the anecdotal nursery rhymes Sean Hannity…

This is true, but it’s also equally true that this planet has never had as many people on it as it does today.  There has never been as much global activity as today.  It doesn’t mean we’re special or that we have to buy into some weird notion of manifest destiny.  It’s just a fact.  There is simply nothing analogous about our current global situation to the past…thus all analogies must fail.

They may, however, allow you sleep better at night.

Thus we come full circle with Hillary’s statement and the reality of a world where coral reefs are bleaching and garbage islands appear ex nihilo, both as a product of human activity and a planet changing faster than anyone can comprehend.

Welcome to the Anthropocene everyone. (If you don’t know what the Anthropocene is, this may help)

May we ask a few questions at this point?

What exactly is the consequence of putting all of our marbles in this economic model that requires we CONSUME in order to live?  What have we done to ourselves to place ourselves in such a tragic situation?  A situation that doesn’t seem to have many large scale answers OTHER THAN RUIN!  What happened to a time when people USED things for needs instead of consumed things out of desire?  And is this economic model, as taxing as it is on natural resources and the economic strophes it creates, not somehow also akin to what it means to say the world has fallen from grace?  Could it be that this unbridled desire that has “created wealth” is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing?  Are we finally seeing the eclipse of Andrew Carnegie?

Yet for some sins, even forgiveness will not be enough.

We most certainly are not in Eden any longer…and in fact, a great irony has occurred.  We long for Eden, yet in order to get back to Eden we are seemingly hell bent on destroying it in the process as we quest for what Eden is supposed to look like.  We are so far removed from a sense of Edenic contentment that all our quests now are simply idols.

70%.

70% consumer economy.

I fear for the world my children and their children will inherit.  Those percentages at compounded rates and those rates compounded by population growth should cause us all to pause and consider our daily routines and contemplate what a 70% CONSUMER economy really means.

May God help us because I fear there is no turning back from this precipice especially if the world continues to lack the global will to change it.

 

 

 

 

I Don’t Believe in Jesus

Magellan

This is the newest rage…and by people far less intelligent than Magellan.  (FTR, I support Magellan, Galileo and Copernicus)

Just go onto any social media outlet and you’ll find people clanging the cymbals of disbelief.  And not just disbelief in general (for which there may be justifiable cause) but disbelief in Jesus, his actual historical existence.  Magellan disagreed for sound reason.  Today, people disagree because they don’t WANT to agree…baseless disagreement and decisions abound.

Pseudo-intellectuals that want to sound smart and flex their post-modernism resound uniformly, “I Don’t believe in Jesus.”

Like this is the new popular belief that all the cool kid’s hold…cool kids who are not experts in history, Jesus or modes of belief…hell, people who hardly read a book or if they do its Richard Dawkins lite.

This very phrase was actually used in a recent conversation I had with someone that should know better.

After I spoke about my very historical trip to the Middle East and some of the reasons for going, out of nowhere this phrase comes flying in, as if from a resident twitter atheist, “I Don’t Believe in Jesus.”

I mean, what does that even mean?  What are you expressing when you say that?  Cause when I hear that, without any kind of qualification, I immediately ask myself, “which part of Jesus do you not believe in?”

And then things become drowned in the absurd.  The illogical leap is made from the presumed, “I don’t believe in the Divinity of Jesus,” (which I understand and am willing to discuss) and quickly devolve into the “I don’t believe he EVEN EXISTED?”

Seriously?

In our collective attempt to sound enlightened or flex our autonomy from the strictures of the Bible belt, let’s not look stupid.  We can be critical thinkers without being idiots.

Let’s be clear: those that deny that Jesus even existed are on shakier ground than those that believe all the dogma about Jesus ever contrived.  There is simply no warrant for disbelief in the historical personage of Jesus other than the ideological preference for his non-existence (and thus not having to deal with his historicity…I digress).

Like anything else, if we hear others say it, and we tell it to ourselves, we can eventually believe the most ridiculous things…things like saying Jesus wasn’t even born.  That he never walked the earth.  And that all the people who heard stories and read stories of this figment of our imagination were equally duped into retelling them.

Now, we can debate the nature OF his birth.  We can debate the PURPOSE of his life.  We can discuss his ROLE in the historical plane of the 1st century.  We can even debate his HUMANITY and its relation to God, but we cannot debate that he was born, had a purpose (we all do), had a role and he was a human that made sense of his life within the drama of God (if you don’t think about your life like that fine, but most 1st century Jews did…this part is called history for those of you wanting to make historical statements about Jesus not ever setting foot in history).

So how do we know?  What are our sources?

First, there is the Bible.  I know I know.  The Bible.  It’s a book ridden with fairy tales, myths and absurdities.  I agree.  It is.  But so is your life and mine.  Deal with it.

We cannot discount the Bible based on the logic that all literature therein is of a singular type.  The Bible is NOT A BOOK.  It is a compilation of many books.  Think of it as an anthology.  As such, it is comprised of many TYPES and KINDS of literature.  Some of this literature is poetic.  Some is mythological.  Some is historical.  Some is hyperbolic.  Some is biographical.  Some is personal, like letters.  Some is apocalyptic, etc.  Therefore, we cannot reduce the content of one type of writing in one part of the anthology because writing in other parts includes things like talking asses and floating ax heads, stories shaded as much by theological intent as by the event itself.   This means that the literary character of  Genesis 1-11 or parts of the loosely historical books can logically discount the content of the Gospels.

The Gospels are our primary source for information about Jesus especially that he existed.  The literary type that is the Gospels was basically brand new in the 1st century but its closest of literary ken was Greco-Roman Biographies.  These biographies included three elements usually: a birth narrative, a life with work and pivotal moments of significance and a narrative of death.  Greek biographies were not synonymous with “lies” or “myths.”  They addressed real historical people and attempted (with some literary freedom) to interpret that life for their audience.  T

This literary genre was in no way synonymous with what we today know as fiction.  Thus, the nature of the Gospels as writings indicate that the kernel with which they deal is real and historical and this not even mentioning the striking historical accuracy of geography and Jewish custom found in the Gospels.  In addition, there is diversity of witness about Jesus in the Gospels, yet in this diversity is a singularity of a historical personality: Jesus of Nazareth.

Further, there is an entire field of research that deals with issues pertaining to the “historical Jesus” and scholars that participate in that endeavor range from fervent believers in his divinity to fervent detractors of anything about Jesus that has to do with “saving” the world.

Yet, what they all agree on is that Jesus did EXIST and the Gospels offer us clues to the more or less accurate details of the life of Jesus.  The literature here is too dense to describe here in detail, but if you are so inclined a quick googleing of “historical Jesus” will bring up enough sources to remain occupied for a lifetime.  There you will find the criteria for why parts of the gospels may be more or less historical, how that criteria is judged, and the implications of this research.  I recommend, for a juxtaposed study, to begin with Dominic Cross and John Meier.  They disagree on everything, but they both believe as historians that Jesus existed.  One believes Jesus was resurrected; the other thinks he bodied decayed like all bodies but he lives on metaphorically in Christians…so you get the drift.

Secondly, we have the Apostle Paul.  I know I know.  He wrote the “Bible” so that makes his letters a bunch of lies and myths.  Humor me for a minute.  He didn’t write the Bible.  He wrote letters that came to comprise large portions of the New Testament.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we have the earliest extant Christian reference to the last supper.  Paul writes,

“ For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread;  and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”  In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This is important because Paul is writing about an event that presumably took place, historically, and the events of that night were passed on through oral tradition.  The Gospels have not been written yet when Paul writes this.  Paul says this in a letter.  Paul’s Letters, while theological, were not fictitious rehearsals of history.  We can debate Paul, his theology and anything else you want, but what cannot be debated is that Paul in a very personal letter to a real historical church mentions an event that was remembered to have happened with Jesus and his disciples even before that event was recorded in any Gospel.  Oral history does not equal fiction.  While this passage obviously carries some Christian dogma, the kernel of the event remains tucked inside.

This passage alone, and its authentically Pauline character, gives reason for most scholars to say that the Last Supper, along with Jesus’ Baptism and death, are THE three most historical moments in the life of Jesus that can be explored by the unbiased critical historian.

Secondly, we have extra-biblical sources that testify to his existence.

The most notable source is Josephus, a Jewish historian during the time of Jesus’ life that kept history for the Romans, traveled with their armies, and who never believed on Jesus or his teachings.  Josephus writes this,

“About this time arose Jesus, a wise man. He drew to himself many; and when Pilate, on the indictment of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not cease to do so, and even to this day the race of Christians, who are named from him, has not died out.” (Antiquities 18.63-64)

This is a reconstructed passage that takes out agreed upon Christian interpolations of Josephus’ writings.  In fact, there has been a lot of ink and keyboards spilled on scholarly opinion regarding Josephus’ statement about Jesus but the central idea that Jesus lived, was killed and had followers, is virtually agreed upon by all scholars as authentically Josephus.

Josephus has no reason to play into the make believe fantasies of Christians.  He has no reason to reinforce the idea that Jesus lived.  While his writings are not free of historical error, he is widely held as an authoritative voice in Roman history and his work, especially writings free of ideological content as the above.  Josephus, at this point in his work, simply mentions “Jesus” as one who was also killed by the Roman empire at this time and that people who followed him are still called Christians.

That is history.  That is an event of some kind.  That is a real historical person whether you like it or not.

Josephus, however, is not the only extra-biblical source that confirms that Jesus existed.  Roman historian and Senator, Tacitus, also mentions Jesus aka “Christ” in his writing.

He notes

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”  (Annals Book 15).

Tacitus was not alive during the time of Jesus (Born in 55AD) but he was also not known for perpetuating falsehoods.  As a Roman historian and Senator he would have taken his work seriously and would have only recorded what he knew was of definitive importance and accurate.  Tacitus’ mention of Jesus, or his posthumous personage “Christ”, demonstrates the existence of one Jesus and his followers.

I could continue to offer other Roman authorities or very early Christian sources that would also continue to provide these historical centralities: that Jesus was born, lived, was killed by the Roman Empire and continues to have followers.  Time would fail me and this blog would bore you more than it has already.

We can say many things about Jesus.  We can debate a lot about him.  We can disagree on his nature or if Christianity is a total waste of time.  But what cannot be debated is that Jesus was a real person.  He lived.  He existed.  He taught people.  And he was executed.  Just because you don’t want to follow him doesn’t mean you should make yourself look foolish by denying his existence.  The former can be a respectable choice; the latter, a childish outburst to deal with your daddy issues.

You don’t have to believe what the church says about him but church dogma and historical existence are two different things.

So when you say, “I don’t believe in Jesus, “ at least think about which Jesus you don’t believe in because the historical Jesus is one that you disbelieve at your own discretion and at the display of your own ignorance.

The Beauty of Love: Learning from Thomas Jay Oord

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As the events at Northwest Nazarene University continue to unravel in the coming weeks, I wanted to offer some positive words about my good friend Tom Oord, and perhaps introduce him to those who know the man of the books, but could also benefit from knowing the man behind them.

It was the year 2003 and I was a senior Religion major at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had worked hard, emerged from the cocoon of my theological raising, and spent the last 4 years of my life preparing for ministry. For my efforts, the Religion  Dept at TNU granted me the Systematic Theology Award for my graduating class. We had lots of smart folks in my class that year, folks whom I highly respect, so getting this award was a surprise even as it was an affirmation of how hard I had worked, how much I had read and the newly assimilated theology I was beginning to develop.

The award didn’t grant a person much, just bragging rights and a piece of paper with my theology professor’s signature (Dr. Henry Spaulding, now president of Mount Vernon Nazarene University). It also included a 25$ gift card to Cokesbury bookstore in downtown Nashville. My four years at TNU taught me to love books…making this 25$ almost as awesome as the award itself.

I’ll never forget the book I bought.

I perused the shelves and looked at all the textual options until I came across a book edited by a fellow Nazarene, a scholar with whom I had only began to become acquainted in my studies at TNU. The book was Tom Oord’s dual editorial with Bryan P. Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. This book absolutely peeked my interest. I had begun to really appreciate process theology at the time (at least as much as an undergrad religion major could) and was definitely interested in seeing how my Wesleyan roots might connect with this more progressive theological movement that placed a heavy emphasis on God’s relationship with creation, rather than God’s relationship above or in juxtaposition to it.

Tom’s article “A Process Wesleyan Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God,” radically shaped the way I thought about Theodicy, a theme that was very important in his earlier work and continues to echo in his more direct explorations of Love. One could argue that this early essay is an issue that continues to motivate Tom as he continues to think about things like sin, death, evil, salvation and freedom in light of God’s name and nature of holy love.

As a young theology student I was really struggling with ideas central to the idea of God and our doctrine of such. One thing I came out of TNU clearly convinced of: classical theism and Greek Metaphysical theologies couched in the Bible didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I needed something more and I needed it to be more biblical and more Wesleyan.

Tom gave that to me.

He talked about how we as creatures are free and that God does not over-ride our freedom even to perform God’s will. He discussed the nature of evil and how God wishes to deal with evil through the almighty persuasion of human bodies to shape history and proclaim God’s goodness. The concept of “indirect bodily impact,” that God chooses to shape the world through us, not in spite of us, made a lot of sense methodologically and it was consistent with the ideas that God is holy, God is love, and we as creatures are free.

Most indicting in this essay is when Tom is busy being a great teacher and delineating differences of various theodicy’s employed in the church. Once he outlined multiple ways of talking about God’s absolute power in relation to conditional evil in the world, he gets to the crux of the matter. We can’t talk about God as being all-powerful in the traditional way of understanding that statement without God in some way being culpable for evil that God could otherwise prevent. If God is a God of perfect love, and that love is in some way intelligible, we must be able to speak in some way positively about that perfect love. He says it like this, “Because the God of accidental free-will theism fails to override or withdraw the freedom of such perpetrators, attributing perfect love to this God seems implausible.”

In other words, to have the power to prevent evil, and then not prevent it, makes one culpable for the action…and its hard to ascribe that sort of willful declension as loving.

He goes on to argue that God is not culpable for evil because God allows the world to be free and such freedom cannot be over-ridden by God. Thus God’s power must be understood in ways that are more relational and not coercive. This is where divine persuasion and love comes into the mix and Tom speaks of how scripture demonstrates to us God’s loving insistence to persuade humans to act, rather than coerce them to do. (a take that is also empirically verified in our daily lives)

This theodicy has proven indispensible to me as a Wesleyan thinker and pastor because it takes serious our Wesleyan insistence that God is love and God is relational…and that holiness is located in a relational holiness between God, world and others. Tom is simply trying to make theological and philosophical sense of how that might best work in a way that is methodologically responsible and also avoid creating a bastard theological hybrid between Wesleyanism and Calvinism, a marriage that never did make pretty babies.

In 2004, at the Wesleyan Theological Society’ meeting in Seattle, I met Tom Oord for the first time. I asked him some questions about this essay. He didn’t know me from Adam, but I remember the hospitality with which he engaged me and took me seriously. I followed that meeting up with emails and Tom always gave me thorough responses. He treated me as if I was one of his students, not the alum of a sister institution for which he had no time.

Since this first essay and meeting with Tom, I have learned that Tom is second to none in his support of young scholars in our tradition.

In 2009, I gave a paper at WTS in the science and theology section. Tom Oord was the head of that section and accepted my paper for presentation. Later in 2009, over some science and freedom discussions, Tom sent me a complimentary copy of his book Creation Made Free. The only caveat was he asked I write a review and get it published. I did so and that review appeared in the Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Journal that same year. In 2011, I attended the Bible Tells Me So conference in Nampa, ID. After the conference, I noticed the intended publication from that conference did not include a particular essay that I found profoundly important on the relationship between the Academy and the Church. I wrote Tom. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but the essay was included in the final text. Later in 2011, I told Tom a fellow pastor and myself were going to read his text Defining Love. He sent me two copies, both signed, and even asked how the study went. In 2012, I asked Tom about proposing a paper on Arminius and Inter-religious Dialogue at the upcoming WTS in Nashville. I also wanted to get it published in the WTJ. After inquiring with Tom, he encouraged me to propose the paper, that it had a good chance of publication. In 2013, my first WTJ article appeared in the Spring 2013 Issue. And lastly, when I was applying to do Phd at Emory, Tom spent 45 minutes with me on the phone discussing a career in the academy.

Had it not been for Tom Oord, there is much I would not have learned from his multiple books, but there are also many chances I would not have been given in our tradition. Without his help, the doors of Wesleyan academia would probably have remained shut to me.

My seminary degree was done at a Bapstist institution. I have had multiple chances to publish in print and online, give papers and be a part of projects through my Baptist connections. I have had zero opportunity in my own tradition, except what has been granted by the hospitality of Tom Oord, the gifts he saw in me and the gift of his friendship. I never had him as a professor, but he has worked with me as if I was one of his students.

Our tradition needs teachers like Tom Oord.

We need scholars that provide us with a broad theological landscape and challenge us to think through our ideas not just with our existing ideas. We need scholars that will drop the proverbial Barthian Bomb on our theological playground and equip us with the tools to engage the world with responsible and mature reflection. We need teachers with whom we may not always agree, because in disagreeing, we may be given a stronger intellect if it leads to a more thorough discovery of the weaknesses of our position. We need folks like Tom Oord that aren’t content to just give us buzz words and pledge allegiance to the old guard, but really believe our theology of holy love is worth doing…but it must be done right and without trite. And lastly, we need scholars like Tom who will stand beside young scholars, encourage, equip and give them the opportunities they need to be the future teachers of the church…teachers who aren’t worried about the good ole boy Wesleyan or Nazarene club but sincerely want to shape the future through influencing young scholars.

I am thankful for the decade long history I have with Tom Oord. He has shaped me in ways he’ll never know…but I do know I am simply one among many to have been changed by his life and work.

I am thankful for the ministry and academics of Tom Oord. I am thankful for his friendship. And I am thankful for what is happening on NNU’s campus as some of the steps of recent days are being reconsidered. The truth is, despite everyone being worried about Tom’s future, the real future we should be worried about is ours. Administrations may think they are doing Tom a favor if they let him keep his post, but the reality is, We, our tradition, need Tom…perhaps even more than he needs us.

So Tom, thank you for who you are, what you stand for and all you do. Your efforts have not returned void.

Heaven Doesn’t Matter

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn't have one of these, but I'm sure you'll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

Yellow (gold) Brick Road, heaven doesn’t have one of these, but I’m sure you’ll need the high heels to dress for the occassion

I mean who does care about heaven?

We care so much about heaven we speak of it as often as we speak about hell. (see my previous post Why the Hell does Hell Matter? wherein I describe the banality of this idea more academically than my approach here to heaven)

Equally we spend as much time trying to keep people out of hell as we do get them into heaven…makes me wonder if we really believe in either one. We spend precious little time doing either.

At least I’m honest about this. Why keep giving attention to irrelevant concepts that don’t help me love, live and embrace beauty around me?

These are theological buzz words that define your camp. They are not words that mean a damn thing for any of us when we start each morning.

Heaven, and its corollary hell, are nice ideas in church on Sunday, but when I’m running my business, playing with my kids, talking with my wife or hanging out with my band of brothers, heaven and hell might as well be the man on the moon. Is he there and if he is do any of us care?

A friend of mine likes to say that most Christians are practical atheists and Christian only by confession. I think he’s right. Heaven and Hell are ideas we feel the need to acknowledge but nothing that constitutes our attention daily.

By practical atheism he means that we do not really embrace, or incarnate, a theocentric worldview, one that would rely on the deity for our very sustenance.

To the contrary, most of us live very secular lives for very secular reasons. We just participate in religion because we are scared of the man upstairs. We are scared of the opposite of heaven…and because there is a “hell to shun, there is a heaven to gain.”

Yet this idea of shun and gain, has little import on how our worldviews are constructed or how we attempt to orchestrate divine responses from the heavens.

We no longer NEED it.

We know God doesn’t really supply our food. Dirt, water and agro-manipulation allow us to eat. God doesn’t shelter us from the heavens. Our air conditioned and heated homes do that. God doesn’t bring the rain. Weather patterns of the globe bring us rain. Etc.

I could continue the list, but generally speaking we are all practical atheists because we can be, and when our atheism runs dry or hits a space of unknown geography, our God comes in handy. We then give him control by saying he’s in control, but in reality, we will practically live into tomorrow as we have lived into today: very independently, ideologically and self-sufficiently.

We believe in Moses and manna from above, but not that much.

Our lives are NOT centered on these grandiose eschatological schemes any more than our lives are centered on other solar systems. They simply do not matter. And neither does heaven or hell.

Just because we think we have to believe in something, doesn’t make believing in that something a constitutional priority over how we regulate our daily activities.

If this were the case, then all the Christians who are consequently good capitalists would quit their jobs and invest in “eternal” matters because the “matter” of matter really doesn’t matter. Right?

At least until Monday morning when heaven doesn’t matter and the material world is more valuable than any hymn we hypocritically sung the previous Sunday morning.

Heaven doesn’t matter, and neither does hell, at least not as much as we think it does.
But they do matter as much as we act upon them, which means never.

As the psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Zizek is quick to point out, we are not the sum total of our beliefs. We are the sum total of our actions because our actions embody what we really believe, even if you want the preacher and fellow cultural Christians to think otherwise.

Heaven doesn’t matter because it doesn’t matter, affect, how we live in the world. Maybe we can be good Platonists, or Neo-Platonists, and adopt a bizarre dualism that history challenges with each passing day, but otherwise, heaven doesn’t matter.

(And if it did matter, even a little, I bet it matters to you for wholly different reasons than it mattered to Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t worried about what happened to him.  He was crucified.  Us?  We like our bodies and our souls a little too much than to volunteer them for a cross or the great unknown of the grave.  Buncha Christian narcissists confusing heaven with ideal ego.  I digress.)

But we should take heart. We can be honest about this and not fret the hell fire of a God that lives to be right. We need not worry about a God that longs to be holy and can’t wait to tempt us with neat little things such as trees and gardens, all the while knowing what we will do, so that he can then provide a way of redemption for us, you know, so God can feel good about being God. A prearranged ideal foreordained for the faithful. We need not worry about this or that heaven doesn’t matter.

Why?

Well, because the Bible doesn’t seem to care a whole lot about heaven either.

Heaven is not the reason Jesus came. The coming of God into creation was the reason Jesus came. This seems to be at least a little what Jesus might have meant about the Kingdom of God arriving with him, in him, through him, and remaining after him.

Jesus didn’t spend any time talking about heaven the way preachers today talk about heaven. Sure, go read the Gospels. There are some cryptic sayings one might deduce to be the heaven we all know and love, the same heaven that matters very little on a daily basis, but that is only because we are reading the Gospels through the Book of Revelation.

Guess what? Jesus never read the Book of Revelation and his view of heaven was not redacted with images of Johns Revelation.

Jesus’ idea of heaven was not hijacked by the scariest book of the Bible, one so scary that not even the scariest of Reformation theologians, John Calvin, could write a commentary on it.

Jesus used Jewish eschatological concepts in his preaching and there is very little Jewish theology that would look anything like disembodied spirits floating at the feet of Jesus.

I think of this and I’m reminded of that scene in the Little Mermaid with all the damned souls floating in Ursella’s abyss…only our idea of heaven is the opposite. That’s just weird and if your Christianity makes you believe something like that, go right ahead but it’s not what Jesus came preaching and it’s not consistent with St. Paul either.

But it would make you a good heretic in the early church and that’s pretty cool.

And check this, not only did Jesus not read Revelation for a clue about heaven but Revelation isn’t even about going to heaven!

Seriously, it’s not.

Revelation is about God restoring justice in the world and bringing redemption to the nations. That’s why in this apocalyptic letter the New Jerusalem (the place where God is) comes to us and dwells with us.

We don’t go to it.

Sound familiar? Well it is. Jesus. Incarnation. Gospel of John. Jesus came and dwelt among us.

Revelation is not interested in a literal picture of heaven anymore than heaven matters to us on any given day. Revelation is using metaphor, simile and symbolism to create an apocalyptic vision of what the dwelling of God looks like through the lens of a finite creation.

The Streets are not literal Gold. The gates do not have real gems. The measurement of heaven is not an exact geometric line with plane and circumference.

That’s why phrases such as, “And I saw something LIKE…” or “and it APPEARED AS…” I mean come on people! We get this all the time in movies and books and never take it literal, but when these words are used for the Bible they becomes EXACT?!?

All of these things are simply portrayals of the place where God is and how fantastic that place is when all that is good comes into the realm of all that is wrong, God taking up permanent residence with us in this vision.

John in the Book of Revelation is not interested in talking to us about heaven and hell or the devil or Rosemary’s Baby.

John is interested in giving us the story of God via a unique apocalyptic literary genre that employs Old Testament imagery to tell the story of God in Christ as such unfolds in the face of Empire and anti-christological forces.

Therefore, it is not a map, a literal description or a future prediction. It is a letter to Christians that lived 2000 years ago and needed a good word from their preacher. Revelation is that letter.

I’m sorry you’re reading someone else’s mail and misunderstanding it.

No, I’m not surprised.

So heaven doesn’t matter for us. If it doesn’t help us organize and structure our daily lives or cast us into the world unabated by financial necessities, than it doesn’t matter. It’s a belief we hold out of obligation and guilt, not one we hold because it matters one iota.

If it doesn’t matter for Jesus, at least not the way we like to think of it as evangelicals, than the idea of heaven we hold certainly doesn’t matter because it didn’t even matter to Jesus.

And it doesn’t matter to the writer of the Book of Revelation, chapter 21 being the chapter that tells us EXACTLY what heaven is like. If even the chapter on heaven doesn’t think heaven literally matters…then I guess we are in good company.

It’s OK to be practical atheists and have a faith that doesn’t shape how we live, at least its eschatological contours and end doesn’t enjoin us to act as if it did.

It’s OK to continue living like practical atheists when it comes to heaven. We are in good company. Neither Jesus, nor Paul, nor the Book of Revelation seems to care much about either.

That’s an abbreviated reason I don’t believe in heaven. The Bible doesn’t ask me to believe it and it wouldn’t matter even if it did because it’s never a matter that mattered anyhow.

I actually like that heaven, and hell, doesn’t matter because now I can be Christian for a plethora of reasons that doesn’t involve saving my own soulish ass.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Ridley Scott and the Red Sea you think you know

exodus-gods-kings red sea

 

Let’s turn to Ridley Scott.

What did he say that has biblical literalists in a tizzy?

I quote, “the parting of the Red Sea will be F*#!ing Huge.” Ok, so people are not so concerned about the F Bomb, but clearly the fact that he would use an F Bomb means his entire movie can be discredited.

The main issue, apparently, is that Ridley doesn’t express biblical fidelity to Red Sea incident.

In this scene, from what I have read, Ridley doesn’t have God “doing” the parting of the Sea at the hands of Moses; he has an earthquake make the magic happen. Ridley opts for a different natural cause than the one the Bible uses: Wind.

BOOM! Unbiblical alert!  Entire message may now be discounted.

How can Ridley be so obtuse? The Bible clearly has Moses raising his hands above the water and then God’s giant mega hand coming out of heaven and parting the sea with a divine comb like I part my kid’s hair in preparation for school each day. The Wind, of course, being interpreted as the hand of God.

Ridley confesses that he learned a lot about Moses as he re-read the texts (can I even get an “amen”! a Hollywood producer is reading the Bible and LEARNING!! And fundies are still protesting) and found the Moses story extremely inspiring! I quote, “it [the story of Moses] has to be one of the greatest adventures and spiritual experiences that have ever been.”

Man, Ridley totally hates the Bible and wants to destroy the narrative. He even confesses he attended Sunday School as a boy and apparently didn’t pay attention (boo/hiss!).Shame on him for trying to make the biblical narrative a totally awesome cinematic experience. Shame on him for perhaps gaining a greater appreciation for this story via its production than via his Sunday School teachers.

As for the parting of the Red Sea, none of us were there. The writers of the text were not there.

The actual verse itself, Exodus 14.21, states, “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea and the Lord swept (or caused to go) the sea back BY a strong East WIND ALL NIGHT and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.
Later in 14.29-30 the text states, “the sons of Israel walked on dry land through the midst of the sea and the waters were LIKE a wall to them on their right hand and on their left…thus the Lord saved Israel.”

This entire episode is tricky because the text itself indicates that parting the Red Sea was work, it took time, and it was not an instantaneous event like Charlton Heston would have us believe. The text says the wind took all night to accomplish this.

So this is an event that required some interpretation, some ability to look at the natural world around it and come up with an explanation that would continue to resonate with earlier Hebrew themes of God creating a way of salvation when there seemed to be no way of salvation. The Hebrew editors perhaps taking the same sorts of liberty to make sense of the event as Ridley does in his movie.

The point is not “how” the sea was parted; the point is that God harnessed the natural elements and delivered his people. So technically, just as the Hebrew editors, via oral tradition, found ways to talk about this event when there was no way to talk about this event, so Ridley stands in the tradition of continual interpretation that doesn’t change the outcome, just makes use of another possible means.

The biblical message remains in tact.

Thus, one of the texts main points is not that God literally historically parted a sea (even though a way was made through a “sea”), but that God has continued to harness nature (and in case you were wondering, nature Gods were a big deal in ancient Egypt but are apparently helpless here), a theme that will also remain consistent throughout the rest of scripture even into the story of Jesus.
God has not only harnessed nature to preserve his people, but the impassible sea, where death awaits all who enter, is passed at the willing of God.

Get out a bible dictionary or Theology of the Old Testament and look up how important the metaphor of sea is for ancient people; it’s a theologically and sociologically loaded theme. God hovers over it, sea monsters live in it, no one can cross it, people are saved through it, pigs drown in it and Jesus walks on it and in Revelation God destroys it.

The sea is bad ass in the bible.

But the kicker: God is more bad ass.

In addition to this significance of detail, a few other minor details must be noted that allow Ridley some directorial freedom when creating this event.

Biblical literalists please put down your King James Version and take note.

reed-sea

First, the Bible does not literally say in the Hebrew language (what the OT was written in) that they crossed the Red Sea. It says they crossed the REED SEA.

Scandalous!  Definitely doesn’t have the same biblical sex appeal does it?

The Hebrew yam sup, most likely refers to a sea of “weeds, rushes, reeds, papyrus plants.” Translators have messed this up and in the process confused a lot of people. This is not surprising though, since this language occurs nearly 20 times in the Hebrew Bible and at times refers to the Gulf of Aqabah, Gulf of Suez and also the sea of the Exodus event (all 3 distinct geographical areas).

The Red Sea is a HUGE body of water that separates Arabia from Africa, but it is FAR south of where the Hebrew People most likely crossed. The REED SEA is more north, a marshy area filled with shallow waters and REEDS that are an extension of the Nile River Delta. Most scholarly research, even from scholars who grant a lot of historical veracity to the Exodus Event (in other words scholars who believe it literally happened), believe the most likely passage based on text and archaeology was in this northern region, at the mouth of the Nile Delta around the Ballah Lakes region.

This is important because if we care about what the Bible LITERALLY says we can start by revising what we think about the Red Sea and actually change all of our Bibles to REED SEA as it should be. Translators have taken liberty to deviate from the plain simple meaning of the text, and instead, embellish it with a more grandiose picture of divine action that will captivate the imaginations of readers that God is in the business of violating every physical and metaphysical law in the universe when it comes to HIS “will.”

So let’s give Ridley a break. We give the Bible a break by not learning the original languages. So Let’s give Ridley a break.

If you want things literally how they are in the Bible, better start learning the literal bible we have, not the one translated in your lap.

And who wants to watch Wind? Did you ever watch the movie Twister in 1996?

Definitely not Oscar material.

Ridley’s going take a little liberty and let an earthquake split the sea. Isn’t it more fun to see an earthquake recreated than to watch wind blow around on the big screen? That’s a far lesser crime than actually mistranslating the Bible and confusing a whole generation of people that think God is a cosmic “magician” (to use Pope Francis’ recent word) that builds walls of water 2 miles high as 2 million people walk across dry land in one day, while also believing this is not enough time for Egyptians to catch up to them.

I mean seriously? Have we even thought if this is logistically possible simply given the details of the biblical account? Maybe God has Star Trek “beam me over” powers. SMH.

I’ll save that for another post.

So Ridley will take some liberty, just as biblical translators have done. Big deal. It doesn’t bother us that our bibles have been tampered with, why should a movie bother us?

Secondly, and lastly, the Exodus account is an INTERPRETATION of an event.

It’s an attempt to understand HOW God delivered and what sorts of obstacles GOD overcame WITH the people to deliver them.

Many of the categorizations of the event, either in biblical description, or in commentary on the Hebrew Bible in Talmud, are attempts to ascribe meaning and make sense of an event that people believe is being guided BY GOD. There is no literal proof that God harnessed winds and made a way through the Sea of Reeds. There is no literal proof that God was busy unscrewing the bolts with his divine hands in order to make the Egyptian chariot wheels wobbly. But wobbly chariots do make sense if they are trying to ride through a marshy muddy plain while the Hebrew fugitives move by foot.

Those declarations in the Bible are declarations of FAITH that God is at work. It’s an interpretation of their history through their theology.

Case in point.

If I apply myself, find a good job, make good money, and alleviate my financial stresses, then I would consider that a blessing from God. God did it. God helped me. God delivered. I interpret my personal history through my theology. The reality is: I applied myself, worked hard, was productive, another human felt I was worth paying, and I took care of my creditors. God is not involved at all, literally, BUT spiritually I believe that, just as I believe all good things come from God.

When we are reading stories in the Old Testament it is important to remember that these are INTERPRETATIONS of events through a particular theological worldview. These people see their history through God, but the same history could easily be seen from another perspective.

Another curious fact is that it is now widely accepted in scholarly circles is that the Old Testament was most likely finally edited and compiled when Israel was in Babylonian Exile!In other words, the oral traditions of Exodus, the prophets, those great vacation bible school stories in Exodus…they all take final form in a written text when GODS people need to be delivered and are lost, far removed from a sense of identity and deliverance.

They need a sense of hope and purpose, a perspective on the God they serve, where they have been, who they are and where they are going. And what do their preachers do? They preach stories that empower, unite, define and provide hope. A lot like your pastor does each Sunday.

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), which includes the Book of Exodus, is part of this purpose.

The Exodus event is arguably THE MOST important event for the shaping of the people of Israel, even more primal in purpose than anything that comes in Genesis. The Exodus event casts a very large shadow over these people, as does the personage of Moses, and this event as described in the Bible reflects the seminal importance in its retelling and interpretation for a community of folks who need to know if God is still in the business of overcoming the odds, doing the impossible and fulfilling promises.

The Exodus telling has an agenda. It is not an objective history, just as none of the rest of the Old Testaent is free of ideology, but that doesn’t mean it’s not inspired and that it doesn’t also carry the word of God in its very finite human telling and writing.

The proof of it’s inspiration being that the Holy Spirit continues to use it. My compliments to Karl Barth. Barth says it. I believe it. That settles it.

So when we consider the buzz that will be happening around this Movie over the next few months, give the directors and actors a break. They are trying to bring to life what has been lost in the dustbin of history as Bible reading has fallen out of favor with the vast majority of the world.
And they really aren’t doing anything to the biblical story, that hasn’t either been done already by the biblical authors themselves or by our imaginations of these events through the lens of our faith traditions.

*Source used in this blog: Anchor Bible Dictionary (Doubleday: New York, 1992), Volume 5.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Christian Bale & the Moses you don’t Want to Know

Gods and Kings movie

 

Sometimes, it’s just embarrassing to be a Christian…

-like when all the Christian idiots are already dissing the new film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” based on comments by Christian Bale about his presumed knowledge of Moses’ mental health.

Then, in another interview, Director Ridley Scott dropped an F bomb describing the parting of the Red Sea cinematography.

Well, that won’t do much for the Christian faithful either.

I’m not surprised.  It happened with all the idiot rambling about Noah (see my Speaking of Noah under related posts) and it’s going to happen again and again in regard to the newest epic about Moses to be released  December 12, 2014.

Every day lay-folk, pastors and presumed experts are already offering popular commentary on Exodus texts and traditions based on their white evangelical protestant perspective and not from out of the cultural milieu of the text and tradition itself.

It seems not only was Noah everyone’s best buddy (despite not really talking in his story), but Moses is a close second.  We KNOW him, practically in the biblical sense.

And God forbid we take some creative license and liberty where the Bible leaves some gaping holes, cause you know, the Bible includes every detail of every event in all of history and is the MOST entertaining book in the world…all biblical authors being equally good story tellers and writers.

I mean, there’s nothing more captivating than the brilliant writing in the Bible.  Take the Gospel of John, for instance, where we get the powerful descriptions of Jesus’ inner turmoil over an unfaithful city as it turns its back on God.  We are stirred to our emotional core when we read, “Jesus Wept.”

I mean, that is Pulitzer material right there.

Even Better is this famous Genesis passage, “In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth…” Whoa.  That is powerful writing.  I’ve read science books more poetic and descriptive than that.

We treat these biblical events and figures as if they are stagnant fixtures in a dynamic text and we remove their humanity for the sake of our piety, propping them up as idols rather than seeing them for what most of them really are: humans trying to make sense of the world and follow a calling from a transcendent other into places no one had presumably gone before.

How full of ourselves are we and what imaginary la la land do we think these biblical characters lived in?

We are so much better than them, right?  Because without reluctance we’d totally jump on the prospect of Moses’ calling with anticipation and not possess even a smidgen of self doubt, anger, fear nor can we imagine that a human being so holy would possess any negative personality traits…especially in a guy so even tempered that not even GOD would let him in the Promised Land!

Or so the Bible literally tells us.

OMG People, get real.  You protest too much already and my head is about to explode…AND this movie is still 8 weeks from release.  I’m gonna need a valium.

And let’s not forget the whole Moses gets pissy and breaks the 10 commandments thing, because Moses was perfect and never experienced rage.  But on that we give him a pass because God’s man is allowed to do whatever the hell he wants…you know, because he’s God’s man.

Can all of you who need a sanitized version of Moses please give us the Bible back?  You are clearly not reading it well and making all the rest of us who happen to think its inspired look like a bunch of idiots.

And time would have me be remiss of the epic Maury Povich Show that is almost the entire Book of Genesis.  I mean good grief; these people are messed up and if ANY of us had written the Bible we would have cleaned up all the messy nasty details that make the bible inspired.

The whole Brother killing brother (Cain and Abel), Noah getting drunk AFTER God saves him? WTH??, Jacob STEALING his brothers birth right and God apparently dismissing that sleight of hand and blessing Jacob anyway!!! Huh?!, Abraham sleeping with a servant only to kick her out of his house and even Lot sleeping with his daughters after Sodom and Gomorrah is destroyed (Did they really think there were no other humans anywhere to sleep with?).

There is more trickery, deceit and unholy behavior by “Gods” people in Genesis than we care to believe!

I’m glad we didn’t write the bible because pious Christians would have made all the “biblical hero’s” robots and edited out their humanity.  Thank God the Hebrew’s were not Puritans or incarnations of how an American Jesus after the advent of the Great Awakening would live.

I digress.  Back to Exodus: God’s and Kings and Christian Bale’s  “slamming” comments.

What did Christian Bale and Ridley Scott say that is inciting the protectors of the one holy faith?  In this post, I’ll tackle Bale.  Ridley Scott and his directorial deviations I’ll address this weekend.

First, Bale, in an attempt to position himself as a critic and actor in a recent interview, said that Moses was “barbaric” and “schizophrenic.”  Trouble is Bale plays the character of Moses…so Bale is essentially calling his character mentally unstable and uncouth.  Neither of which can be fully ascertained historically with any medical specificity.

Can I just say this?

Let’s not take Bale so seriously.  Have you ever heard him speak in an interview?  He only sounds smart because he has an accent.  He’s not really smart.  And he is prone to verbal outbursts.  YouTube/Google his Terminator outburst caught anonymously on mic and you’ll see what I mean.

The word schizophrenic is overused in our culture.  Everyone who knows nothing about psychology but thinks they know psychology uses this term wrongly in order to sound smart, but really its making most people that use it just sound dumb.

This is a buzz word that grabs attention, especially when said about a divine biblical figure.

Could Moses have been schizophrenic?

Well, who knows?  We do not have access to his mental state, but I would not doubt he had delusions or was prone to them given the monumental tasks set before him.  And if we take the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness seriously, I’m sure everyone was seeing an Oasis from time to time.

Have you ever been into the Sinai Desert?  It’s basically a giant death trap with a lot of sand, a lot of rocks and not much else.

Not sure that being lost in this death trap would make a person schizophrenic, but one can certainly understand why Moses is prone to angry outbursts and a whole host of other unseemly human behavior that is, and is not, recorded in the Bible.

Did Bale overstate the character of Moses?  Maybe.  Maybe not, but if he’s like other biblical characters I’d say there’s more unsanctified behavior in Moses than we care to admit.

And let’s not even talk about the hierarchical, patriarchal and Levitical priorities Moses seems to affirm and help establish in the Pentateuchal tradition.  He was such a swell guy by modern standards.

Plus, Bale is trying to create Buzz.  He has a movie to promote and a blogosphere (ehem) to fill up.  And it worked. The only thing he could have said to create more buzz was accuse Moses of being a bi-sexual that was tempted with bestiality…since you know, the two go hand in hand.

Moving right along, Bale also commented that Moses was “Barbaric.”

Ok, that just sounds bad.  It sounds bad because we are modern people.  It’s an easy label to use.  But by our standards today most ancient people would probably seem barbaric, from the way they live, to how they killed food, treated one another, and engaged their enemies.  But contextually, that’s just how it was.  Go do some homework folks.  Barbarism is relative to context.

But if you call killing an Egyptian out of anger domesticated, go right ahead and give Moses that pass.

I happen to think that murder is and always will be barbaric.

And let’s not mention that Moses curses the land in order to punish Pharaoh and kill all the newborns that were not Hebrews as a final plague, because you know, it’s totally Christian and not barbaric to desire that innocent children of the enemy should just have their heart stopped by the Angel of death.

Blame it on God, Blame it on Moses, or Blame it on Pharaoh for the collusion of God and Moses in this atrocious scene.  Regardless, it’ still barbaric and your Christian eyes on God’s perfection allow you to see nothing abnormal in a deity being so petty as to kill a human.  As if it was ever any contest?  Really?

So Nothing Barbaric here…moving right along, because God did it, I believe it, He’s God, I’m not, and that settles it and God’s not barbaric.  Another small caveat: Moses doesn’t even show an ounce of compassion for the children that will die.   BUT, he’s a stand up guy.

I can definitely see Jesus in heaven waving his pom poms as the lead cheerleader of this event.

Holiness unto the Lord is our watchword and Song even if it means we collude with sanctified barbarism to make a point.

I guess the same Christians that think this is a good thing would also be the first to push the nuclear button that would obliterate the Middle East, since God uses violence in non barbaric ways against people that don’t follow HIM.

Funny how for those of us who believe in God everything is permissible, even the things we think are abhorrent we excuse in the name of our faith.

So was Moses Barbaric?

For many of us, probably so.  Go read all of Exodus and Numbers and you tell me if Moses was Mother Theresa, but I’m not going do all that homework for you since you obviously know Moses better than even the historians and editors who wrote about him in the Bible.

Perhaps eventually we can free ourselves from our own ideas enough to actually see these characters for who they really are: flawed but holy.  Communicators of a divine word, but not embodiments of it at every turn.

So were Bale’s comments baseless and ill-spoken.  Somewhat.  The lack of nuance certainly shows he’s not an intellectual giant.  But he at least brings up the topic of the humanity of Moses rather than the idol that he and a myriad of other biblical characters have become for those of us that think Christianity and religion is about saving us from out of ourselves, rather than freeing us to be ourselves in the first place.

I’m just glad Bale didn’t comment on the humanity of Jesus.

*Part Two on Ridley Scott’s comments coming soon