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28 April 2017

The Golden Rule.

As it’s called.

Matthew 7.12 • Luke 6.31

“Do as you’d be done by.”

That’s C.S. Lewis’s wording. It’s probably the briefest form of the “Golden Rule,” as it’s called, that I’ve come across. I grew up hearing it as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve found that particular wording as far back as 1790… but it doesn’t come from any translation of the bible before 1975. Must come from a popular poem, song, or saying.

It’s a simple idea, and one pretty much every religion has deduced. The difference in Christianity is it’s active: Do as you’d be done by. The form we find in other religions is passive: Don’t do as you’d not be done by. “Never impose on others what you wouldn’t choose for yourself,” is how Kong Qiu (in Latin, Confucius) put it. Analects 15.24

Jesus put it this way:

Matthew 7.12 KWL
“So as much as you want people doing for you, you do that for them:
That’s a summary of the Law and the Prophets.”
Luke 6.31 KWL
“Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

It is, as Jesus put it, “the Law and the Prophets.” No, he didn’t include the Writings, but he did essentially mean the whole of the bible. You can distill the whole teaching of the scriptures into that one concept.

27 April 2017

Textual variants.

’Cause sometimes the bible’s oldest copies won’t agree.

Textual variant /'tɛks.tʃ(əw.)əl 'vɛr.i.ənt/ n. Form or version of a document which differs in some respect from other copies or editions of the same document.

Before the printing press was invented in the 1400s, books were copied by hand.

Sometimes this was done carefully and conscientiously. The Masoretes, fr’instance, were Jewish scholars who wanted to be certain they got exact copies of the scriptures, with super-duper anal-retentive precision. So they invented a very careful procedure, including a system of checksums, to be sure every copy of the bible was an exact replica. It’s why, when you compare the first-century Dead Sea Scrolls with 10th-century copies of the Old Testament, you find astonishingly few differences. Dudes knew what they were about.

Other times, not so much.

Even when they knew this was a very important book. (Heck, back then most books were considered important. Hand-copying meant publishing was crazy expensive.) Copyists had a bad habit of duplicating books in a rush. Popular books were occasionally copied in a group: You get a roomful of scribes, one of whom slowly dictated the “original,” and the rest of whom wrote it down en masse. Naturally mistakes would happen.

Which was no surprise to any literate ancient: People make mistakes. An ancient Christian would assume if this was a verse they’d never heard before, or one they’d learned differently, it must be some scribe’s mistake. Fr’instance the Egyptian commentator Origen (185–254), in his commentary on John (my translation):

203 “These things happened in Bethbara beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” Jn 1.28 204 Yes, it’s indeed printed in all the copies, “These things happened in Bethany.” We’re not ignorant it’s like this, and got this way long ago: We’re well aware it’s “Bethany,” according to Irakléon. But we’ve come to the conclusion it shouldn’t be “Bethany” but “Bethabara”—we’ve been to these places, following the history of the footsteps of Jesus, his students, and the prophets. 205 This evangelist declares Bethany is the hometown of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, about 15 stadia [2.8 km] from Jerusalem. There isn’t any same-named Bethany in the area of the Jordan. They pointed out Bethabara, by the Jordan’s banks; our inquiries found that John baptized there. Origen, John 6.24  

Yep, Origen went to Judea, and his tour guides told him there wasn’t any Bethany near the Jordan, then pointed him to Bethabara, convinced him this was the right place, and probably sold him a few souvenirs. I once had some folks in Israel try to similarly convince me about the location of Jesus’s sepulcher, among other “biblical” sites they built churches atop.

So was Origen right? Nah. Thanks to archeology, we know there was another same-named Bethany on the east bank of the Jordan. (Today it’s called al-Maghtas, Jordan.) Hence our current editions of the Greek NT stuck with the Vitanía/“Bethany” which Origen groused was in all his copies of John. Most of our current translations follow suit.

The few who don’t are going off the Textus Receptus, which has Vitavará/“Bethabara.” That’s because Origen managed to convince some folks he was correct—and the editor of the Textus, Desiderius Erasmus, was one of ’em. Since the King James Version used the Textus as its baseline, that’s what we find in the KJV and NKJV. Jn 1.28 KJV

So there y’go: Two ways variants happen. Copyists, in their haste, slip up; and know-it-all interpreters rejigger the original to suit themselves.

26 April 2017

Do you know your bible quotes?

After centuries of influence, stands to reason some phrases from the scriptures are kinda familiar.

Generally if you’re gonna call yourself biblically literate, you oughta at least know these quotes from the bible. Probably already do; you just didn’t realize they were from the bible.

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Or “come short” in the KJV. Comes from Romans 3.23; means nobody measures up to God’s standard of perfection, but God graciously forgives us and grants eternal life. Ro 6.23

All things to all people. Or “all men” (KJV): Paul’s claim he adapted his circumstances so he can find common ground with everyone, and share Christ with them. 1Co 9.22 Y’know, “when in Rome.” Certain Christians are quick to point out Paul didn’t compromise his beliefs or behavior in so doing.

All things work together for good. In context, “to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Ro 8.28 Various Christians pull it out of context and claim everything always turns out for the best. I remind ’em to read Ecclesiastes sometime.

All we like sheep have gone astray. Isaiah’s warning to his people: They turned away from God, like sheep who disregard their shepherd. Is 53.6

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain’s excuse to God for not knowing where Abel was, Ge 4.9 though in fact he just murdered him. The phrase gets used to claim we’re not responsible for one other. In reality we often are.

Ask and it shall be given you. Jesus’s teaching that the Father wants to give good gifts to his kids. Mt 7.7

Be fruitful and multiply. God’s directives to his animals after creating them. Ge 1.22 Including to the humans. Ge 1.28

Be sure your sin will find you out. Moses’s warning to two tribes who promised they’d fight with the other ten; that if they broke their promise they’d get caught. Nu 32.23 Christians sometimes use this verse to claim every sin eventually gets found out. And many do… but some don’t.

Beat their swords into plowshares. A prophecy about future peace—or not—found in multiple books of the prophets. Is 2.4, Mc 4.3, Jl 3.10

25 April 2017

Do we perform sacraments or ordinances?

Many Protestants are weirded out by, and water down, this “sacrament” language.

Ordinance /'ɔr.dɪ.nəns, 'ɔrd.nəns/ n. Authoritative order or decree.
2. Religious ritual; particularly one ordained by Christ.
3. What Evangelical Christians call sacraments.

I refer to certain Christian rituals as sacraments. But you’re gonna find many Evangelicals really don’t like that word. To them, we don’t call these practices “sacraments.” We call them “ordinances.”

Why? Officially, lots of reasons. Unofficially it’s anti-Catholicism.

See, a lot of Evangelicals come from churches and traditions which are historically anti-Catholic. True, all the original Protestants originated from various spats with Catholicism. But these folks were raised to be particularly leery of Roman Catholic beliefs. To them, “sacrament” has a lot of bothersome theological baggage attached. So they refuse to use it.

But we gotta call our rituals something, and for some reason “ritual” is out. So what these folks have chosen to emphasize is the fact Christ Jesus ordained certain rituals among us Christians: He ordered us to do ’em, and that’s why we do ’em. The two these people single out are holy communion 1Co 11.23-26 and baptism. Mt 28.19 (Some of them also recognize Jesus mandated foot-washing, Jn 13.14-15 but not every church is willing to list it as an ordinance. Which probably merits its own article.)

You’ll also find these Christians still practice a lot of the other sacraments. They just won’t call ’em ordinances either, ’cause Jesus didn’t ordain them. Although often the apostles did.

ConfirmationConfession of faith at baptismPeter
EucharistHoly communionJesus
PenanceCounseling, confession, and intercessionJames
Anointing the sickAnointing the sickJames
Holy ordersLaying hands on people for ministryThe LORD, to Moses
MatrimonyWedding ceremonies9th-century Christians

As you notice, Evangelicals still anoint and pray for the sick. Still lay hands on people they’re sending out to do ministry. Still perform wedding ceremonies, funerals, and baby dedications. Still counsel and intercede for people. It’s just they won’t call these other things “ordinances” because they’re not the three ordinances Jesus gave us… and they’ll still try to avoid the word “ritual,” even though it’s precisely what we’re doing.

It’s all about “not doing as Catholics do,” even though we’re totally doing as Catholics do.

24 April 2017

“I’ve never heard that before.”

When ignorance disguises itself as skepticism.

In bible studies, whenever certain topics came up in the passages we’re reading, my habit is to bring up the different beliefs and interpretations which different Christians have about them. You might notice I also do this on this blog. Yeah, I do it all the time. For three reasons.

  1. My church is hardly the only one out there. Hardly the only denomination; hardly the only tradition. Hardly got a monopoly on the truth. Lots of other Christians have pitched their two cents on these issues. Some of their ideas are useful.
  2. And some of ’em aren’t. They’re problematic. So it’s a bit of warning: At some point you’re gonna run into people who actually believe such things. (Even in your own church—what with the way Americans switch churches so often, not everybody grew up with your traditions.) You’ll wonder why the two of you seem to be talking past one another. Helps to know where they’re coming from.
  3. In general, it’s not wise for Christians to develop the idea, “There’s only one way to think about this—and it’s how I think, and everyone else is wrong.” No; we’re all wrong. So these are my reminders no one Christian, myself included, has all the answers. But some of us have different parts of the whole.

Most of the folks listen. Or politely pretend to, anyway.

But in one bible study I attend, there’s a person (we’ll call her Marlies) who regularly scoffs, “I don’t know where you meet these people. I don’t know any Christians who think that way.”

She’s hardly the first person who’s told me this. I’ve met people like this ever since seminary. I used to be this person.

Marlies has been a Christian three decades. But like a lot of people, she’s chosen to exist within a handcrafted echo chamber. Back when she was a newbie, she determined generally what she will and won’t believe. She then shunned everyone who won’t believe likewise. She doesn’t really come to these bible studies to learn, but to judge: She’s trying to make sure her church isn’t quietly teaching heresy behind her back.

But because Marlies’s entire Christian life has been spent within this echo chamber, where nobody tells her anything other than what she chooses to believe, there’s a lot of Christendom she’s wholly unfamiliar with. She doesn’t know Christian history. Doesn’t know other movements. Doesn’t know other denominations. Doesn’t care: She’s never gonna read their books, listen to their podcasts, interact with their churches. They’re not Christian enough for her, so she’s gonna pretend they’re pagans and leave them be. That is, unless she’s trying to share Jesus with them… but because their beliefs don’t line up with hers enough, she’s pretty sure they only think they’re Christian.

So when I talk about different Christians, Marlies doesn’t really believe in different Christians. Can’t believe true Christians would actually hold such beliefs. Kinda wonders about me, since I seem to think these crazy people are nonetheless Christian. Hence the scoffing: “I’ve never heard such a thing before.”

After all, Marlies figures she’s the baseline for Christianity. If she’s heard of it, or agrees with it, it’s Christian. If not, it can’t be.

It’s actually how a lot of Christians practice theology. It’s just that they tend to be quieter about it. Marlies isn’t. She’ll publicly proclaim she doesn’t know what I’m talking about. And kinda take some pride in that… even though the room is occasionally full of people who grew up in churches like that, and know exactly what I’m talking about.

21 April 2017

Don’t just believe. Behave.

We’re not saved by good works. But no works is no better.

James 1.22-25

I grew up among Christians who believe they’re saved by faith. Not, as the scripture teaches, God’s grace. It’s weird, too; they read the very same letter of Ephesians as the rest of us (“by grace ye are saved” Ep 2.5 KJV), yet they somehow bungle their interpretation of 2.8 (“for by grace are ye saved through faith” Ep 2.8 KJV) and assume through takes precedence over by.

This isn’t a unique phenomenon either. To this day I run into Christians who think they’re saved by faith. All they gotta do is believe in Jesus—which is correct; it really is all we gotta do—and they’re saved. But they’re not saved by believing in Jesus. Nobody is. We’re saved by grace.

If we were saved by faith, it’d mean in order to be saved, I have to believe certain things. Believe ’em really hard. Reject every other belief, no matter how likely I might be to believe them instead. Sort out my beliefs so I’m believing all the correct things. Get my theological ducks in a row. And then I’m saved.

Um… doesn’t that sound like work to you? We’re not saved by works. Ep 2.9

“Well yes,” these folks reply: “We’re not saved by works. We’re saved by faith. Faith’s not a work! It can’t be, otherwise we wouldn’t be saved by it.” And then they proceed to demonstrate how they’re not saved by works… by not doing any.

What kind of [synonym for “messed”]-up Christians did I grow up among? Well, like I said, it’s not a unique phenomenon. Loads of Christians figure the only thing they need do, as Christians, is straighten out their theology. Good deeds are for those people who don’t really believe they’re saved by faith—who probably don’t have any faith anyway. So they practice “works righteousness,” and try to earn salvation. Unlike them, whose strenuous efforts to get every last obscure doctrine correct… somehow isn’t an attempt to earn salvation.

Anyway, these folks don’t know at all what to do with the letter of James. ’Cause not only did he equate faith with works in the next chapter (a lesson they’d love to call heresy, except it’s in the bible), he had lots to say about people who figured their beliefs matter, but their deeds don’t. Like so:

James 1.22-25 KWL
22 Become doers of the word, and not merely self-deceiving hearers,
23 because if you’re a hearer of the word, yet do nothing,
you’re like a man studying the face he was born with in a mirror:
24 He studies himself… and goes away, and quickly sets aside what sort of person he is.
25 You who look down into the perfect, freedom-giving Law, and remain there,
aren’t becoming forgetful hearers, but doers of good work.
What you’re doing is awesome.

James drilled directly down into their lifestyle. It’s not enough to listen to sermons. It’s not enough to shout “Amen!” when the preacher says clever things. It’s not enough to memorize bible verses and church doctrines. We gotta act on the word, the message, the prophecies, as given. We gotta behave like Christians. Not just believe like Christians.

20 April 2017

The explosive power of God?

Humans covet power. It’s why we regularly misinterpret what the scriptures have to say about it.

Dynamis power /', usually 'du'nə.mɪs 'paʊ(.ə)r/ n. The extra-mighty sort of power God possesses.
[Dynamite power /'daɪ.nə.maɪt 'paʊ(.ə)r/]

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” So wrote poet Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism, and a lot of people stop there. They figure what Pope meant was be careful with knowledge. Knowledge is power, and knowledge is dangerous.

Read the whole poem and you learn different.

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

The Pierian Spring was a fountain in Macedonia dedicated to the Greek goddesses of wisdom and talent, the Muses. Drink from it, and you’re supposed to gain knowledge. Sip from it and you get half-truths. That’s what’s dangerous: A little learning, partial knowledge. Don’t be satisfied with tricks or trivia. Dig further.

One obvious example is popular Christianity’s teaching on “dynamis power.” I first heard it before I went to seminary, and learned Greek. I’ve heard it countless times since.

Pastors are impressed by how similar the word dynamis (or dunamis, depending on who’s converting ΔΥΝΑΜΙΣ from Greek to Latin letters) is to our English words dynamic or dynamite. They’ll spend a lot of time on the dynamis power of God. Or as one of them regularly put it, “the dynamite power of God!” ’Cause once the Holy Spirit gets in there and does something, BOOM!”

It’s an exciting image. It’s that excitement which indicates someone’s been sipping from the spring of knowledge again. Not drinking deep.

But when I first heard this idea, what did I know? I hadn’t learned any Greek yet. And even for quite a few years after my Greek classes, I perpetuated the error: God’s power is ’splodey like dynamite.

Anyway. One Sunday 10 years ago, after yet another sermon in which God’s explosive power came up, I decided to finally double-check the idea against a Greek dictionary.

19 April 2017

“The gates of hell”: Just how won’t they prevail?

Lots of weird pop culture interpretations of this one. Typically they’re wrong.

Matthew 16.18

Jesus once asked his students who they thought he was. Simon Peter, his best student, correctly identified Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Mt 16.16

(Since we Christians recognize Jesus is the Father’s only-begotten son, Jn 1.18 we tend to read that into it, rather than recognize “Son of God” as one of Messiah’s titles. In historical context it’s not what Peter meant. But I digress.)

In response Jesus pointed out how awesome this was (KJV “blessed”) because Peter hadn't just deduced it; this was a case of supernatural discernment, or special revelation. The Father had personally revealed this to Peter. Mt 16.17 Which is kinda awesome.

Then Jesus said this:

Matthew 16.18 KJV
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The words Jesus used were pýlai ádu/“hades’s gates.” Latin turned this into portae inferi/“inferno’s gates.”—inferno being their word for the underworld, but in the day’s popular culture, this’d be hell. So that’s how Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, the Geneva Bible, and the King James interpreted it; and the ESV, ISV, Message, and NLT follow their lead.

But as I explained in my article on the four hells, that’s not what hades means. Hades is the grave. The afterlife. The place of the dead. That’s why other translations went with “the powers of death” (Expanded Bible, J.B. Phillips, NCV, RSV) —although that interpretation also has its problems.

18 April 2017

Prayer’s one prerequisite: Forgiveness.

God puts a huge priority on our ability to share his grace with others.

Mark 11.25 • Matthew 6.14-15

In the Lord’s Prayer we have these two lines,

Matthew 6.12 BCP
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Jesus briefly elaborated on this in his Sermon on the Mount:

Mark 11.25 KWL
“Whenever you stand up to pray, forgive whatever you have against anyone.
Thus your Father, who’s in heaven, can forgive you your misdeeds.”
Matthew 6.14-15 KWL
14 “When you forgive people their misdeeds, your heavenly Father will forgive you.
15 When you can’t forgive people, your Father won’t forgive your misdeeds either.”

Elaborated on it even more in his story of the unforgiving slave.

Matthew 18.21-35 KWL
21 Simon Peter came and told Jesus, “Master, how often will my fellow Christian sin against me,
and I’ll have to forgive them? As much as sevenfold?”
22 Jesus told him, “I don’t say ‘as much as sevenfold.’
Instead as much as seven seventyfolds.
23 For this reason, heaven’s kingdom is like a king’s employee,
who wanted to settle a matter with his slaves.
24 Beginning the settlement, one debtor was brought to him who owed 260 million grams silver.
25 Having nothing to pay with, the master commanded him to be sold
—and his woman and children and as much as he had, and to pay with that.
26 Falling on his face, the slave worshiped his master, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
27 Compassionately, that slave’s master freed him and forgave him the debt.
28 Exiting, that slave found his coworker, who owed him 390 grams silver.
Grabbing him, he choked him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe!’
29 Falling on his face, the coworker offered to work it out with him, saying,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back everything.’
30 The slave didn’t want to, but went to throw him in debtor’s prison,
until he could pay back what he owed.
31 Seeing this, the slave’s coworkers became outraged,
and went to explain to their master everything that happened.
32 Then summoning the slave, his master told him, ‘Evil slave:
I forgave you all that debt, because you offered to work it out with me!
33 Ought you not have mercy on your coworker, like I had mercy on you?
34 Furious, his master delivered him to torturers till he could pay back all he owed.
35 Likewise my heavenly Father will do to you—
when you don’t forgive your every fellow Christian from your hearts.”

The “delivered him to torturers” bit Mt 18.34 makes various Christians nervous, and gets ’em to invent all sorts of iffy teachings about devils and curses and hell. And misses the point: God shows us infinite mercy. What kind of ingrates are we if we don’t pay that mercy forward?

17 April 2017

Who’s the Man? That’d be us Christians.

American Christians’ persecution mentality… and the sober reality.

There’s a 2006 Sprint commercial pertinent to this discussion. I attached the video… which has been on YouTube a while, so let’s see how long it continues to stick around. The dialogue:

Stickin’ it to the Man.
Assistant. “Is that your new Sprint phone?”
Boss. “Uh-huh. With Sprint’s new Fair and Flexible plans, no one can tell me what to do. I can talk when, and how I want. It’s my little way of… sticking it to the Man.”
Assistant. “But… you… are the Man.”
Boss. “I know.”
Assistant. “So you’re sticking it to yourself.”
Boss. “…Maybe.”

Sprint’s sales pitch follows.

What makes this commercial funny is the idea someone in the ruling class, underneath all his success, still has a little bit of rebellion in him, getting satisfaction from the idea of resisting someone who’s got one over him.

What also makes it funny is it’s self-delusion. In fact he’s resisting no one. Sprint wants people to have their phone and data plan. They invented the packages and sell them to anyone, whether the Man or not. Hence the ad. This guy can imagine he’s sticking it to the Man all he likes, but nobody’s harmed by the fact he can spend all day on the phone. Well, depending on what he does on that phone.

By “the Man” we usually mean someone in the ruling class who can actually get consequential stuff done, even change things for the better… but doesn’t, ’cause the status quo profits him. For that matter, the Man created the status quo to profit himself, and won’t change it until he sees profit in another direction. If fighting pollution suddenly became super profitable, we’d see a whole lot of people miraculously come to believe in climate change. (The downside is the common misbelief that when something is profitable, it’s probably a scam; it’s a view which keeps the gears of conspiracy theorists spinning.)

Here’s the issue. If this dude is the Man, but he imagines someone else is the Man, you do realize he’s not utilizing any of his power to improve anything. He figures that’s someone else’s job.

It’s a common problem we have in the United States. Because we’re a democracy, we imagine everyone’s equal. And yeah, as far as votes are concerned, we are. But as far as power’s concerned, we’re not even slightly equal. Some of us wield a great deal of power: Authority, wealth, charisma, public influence, political capital. Others wield little to none. As Stan Lee famously put it, with great power comes great responsibility. Or as Christ Jesus put it, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.” Lk 12.48 KJV

But those who can make positive changes, who are best equipped to do and fix and improve things, don’t. Not ’cause they really can’t, or don’t care: It’s because they believe it’s not their duty. They don’t have the power. They aren’t the Man. Someone else is.

And there’s a popular mindset among Christians where not only are we not the Man, but the Man’s busy crapping all over us.

14 April 2017


Or “Resurrection Sunday,” for those who are paranoid about what “Easter” might mean.

On 5 April 33, before the sun rose at 5:23 a.m. in Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. Executed only two days before, he became the first human on earth to be resurrected.

He died the day before Passover. This was deliberate. This way his death would fulfill many of the Passover rituals. Because of this relationship to Passover, many Christians actually call this day some variation of the Hebrew Pesákh/“Passover.” In Greek and Latin (and Russian), it’s Pascha; in Danish Påske, Dutch Pasen, French Pâques, Italian Pasqua, Spanish Pascua, Swedish Påsk.

But in many Germanic-speaking countries, including English, we use the ancient pagan word for April, Eostur. In German this becomes Ostern; in English Easter.

Because of the pagan origins of the word, certain Christians avoid it and just call the day “Resurrection Sunday.” (Which is fine, but confuses non-Christians.)

Easter is our most important holiday. Christmas tends to get the world’s focus (and certainly that of the merchants), but it’s only because Christmas doesn’t stretch their beliefs too far. Everybody agrees Jesus was born. We only differ on details.

But Easter is about how Jesus was raised, and that’s a sticking point for a whole lot of pagans. They don’t buy it. They don’t even like it: When they die, they wanna go to heaven and stay there. Resurrection? Coming back? In a body? No no no.

We’ll even find Christians who agree with them: They’ll claim Jesus didn’t literally return from death, but exists in some super-spiritual ghostly form. Which returned to heaven, and that’s where we’ll go too. No resurrection; not necessary. Yes, it’s a heretic idea, but a popular one.

So to pagans, Easter’s a myth. It’s a nice story about how we Christians think Jesus came back from the dead, but it comes from ancient times, back when people believed anyone could come back from the dead if they knew the right magic spell. Really it’s just a metaphor for spring, new life, rebirth; just like eggs and baby chicks and bunnies. They’ll celebrate that. With chocolate, fancy hats, brunch, and maybe an egg hunt.

But to us Christians, Easter’s no myth. It’s history.

13 April 2017

Jesus’s resurrection: If he wasn’t raised, we’re boned.

It’s kind of a necessary doctrine.

Of Christianity’s two big holidays, Christmas is the easier one for pagans to swallow. ’Cause Jesus of Nazareth was born. That, they won’t debate. There are a few cranks who think Jesus’s life is entirely mythological, start to finish, but for the most part, everybody agrees he was born. May not believe he was born miraculously, but certainly they agree he was born.

Easter’s way harder. ’Cause Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. And no, he didn’t just wake up in a tomb after a two-day coma following a brutal flogging and crucifixion. No, it wasn’t a spectral event, where his ghost went visiting his loved ones. No, it wasn’t a “spiritual” event, where people had visions or mass hallucinations of him, or missed him so hard they psyched themselves into believing he’d made an appearance.

Christians state Jesus is alive. In a body. A human body. An extraordinary body; apparently the new body can do things our current bodies can’t. But alive in a way people recognize as fully alive. Not some walking-dead zombie, nor some phantom. Jesus physically interacted with his students, family, and followers, for nearly a month and a half before physically going to heaven.

That, pagans struggle with. ’Cause they don’t believe in resurrection. Resuscitation, sure; doctors can revive frozen people, or people whose hearts recently stopped. Returning from the dead happens all the time. But permanently? In a new body? And took it with him to heaven? They’re not buying it. They’re more likely to believe in the Easter Bunny.

But that’s the deal we Christians proclaim on Easter: Christ is risen indeed. It’s not the central belief of Christianity; God’s kingdom is. But if Jesus didn’t literally come back from the dead on the morning of 5 April 33, it means there’s no kingdom, and Jesus is never coming back to set it up. Nobody’s coming back from death. There’s no eternal life; at best an eternal afterlife, which ain’t life. There’s no hope for the lost. The Sadducees were right. Christianity’s a sham. There’s no point in any of us being Christians.

No, I’m not being hyperbolic. It’s precisely what the apostles taught.

1 Corinthians 15.12-19 KWL
12 If it’s preached Christ is risen from the dead,
how can some of you say resurrection of the dead isn’t true?
13 If resurrection of the dead isn’t true, not even Christ is risen.
14 If Christ isn’t risen, our message is worthless. Your faith is worthless.
15 Turns out we’re bearing false witness about God:
We testified about God that he raised Christ!
Whom he didn’t raise, if it’s true the dead aren’t raised.
16 If the dead aren’t raised, Christ isn’t risen either.
17 If Christ isn’t risen, your faith has no foundation.
You’re still in your sins, 18 and those who “sleep in Christ” are gone.
19 If hope in Christ only exists in this life, we’re the most pathetic of all people.

No resurrection, no kingdom, no Christianity. Period.

12 April 2017

Theists and deists: The ways people believe in God.

Most pagans do believe in God, y’know.

THEIST /'θi.ɪst/ adj. Believes in the existence of God or gods.
2. Believes in one God, a personal being, the universe’s creator, who interacts with its creation.
[Theistic /θi'ɪst.ɪk/ adj., theism /'θi.ɪz.əm/ n.]
Deist /'di.ɪst/ adj., n. Believes God exists, specifically as a creator who doesn’t supernaturally intervene in his universe.
[Deistic /'di.ɪs.tɪk/ adj., deism /'di.ɪz.əm/ n.]

If you believe in gods, you’re a theist. People tend to bunch theists into different classifications, depending on how many gods they believe in, and how. Both religious and irreligious people (and the Christian term for the non-religious is “pagan”) alike fall into these slots:

  • MONOTHEIST: Just the One God, thanks.
  • POLYTHEIST: Multiple gods. Sometimes two, a good and bad god, in a dualistic system. Sometimes three, among heretic Christians who really misunderstand the trinity. Sometimes a whole pantheon.
  • HENOTHEIST: Multiple gods, but they only deal with the one, so functionally they’re more monotheist than polytheist. The other gods are off limits, bad, or have their own realms which don’t involve us any.
  • PANTHEIST: The universe is God. (People often assume Hindus are polytheist, ’cause of all their gods, but really they’re pantheist.)
  • NONTHEIST: No god.

There’s a certain category of theist called deist, a person who believes in God… but believes this God largely leaves us humans alone, so in return we largely leave him (or her, or it, or them if you’re polytheist) alone.

This God created the cosmos. Made the Big Bang go bang. Maybe directed evolution so humans would arise; maybe didn’t. Probably provided us some form of afterlife, so when we die we don’t simply cease to exist. May expect us humans to be good… or maybe he doesn’t care. See, pagans don’t believe in organized religion, so they don’t accept anyone else’s views—not Christian, nor Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, nor anyone—as to what God’s like. Nor do they believe we can deduce what he’s like from nature, either. Their conclusion: God’s unknowable.

Deism insists God’s too foreign, too transcendent, too far beyond figuring out… other than assuming he’s good. Generally deists agree God’s good. (Won’t always agree what they mean by “good,” but still.) Since God’s good, we should be good. Concentrate on that. Be selfless and noble and rational and generous, and strive for all those other humanist ideals.

But as for what God’s like: Don’t know, so don’t fret. He’s too different. Probably not at all interested in what we’re going through, ’cause we’re too puny and petty to be worth his worry. If he cares about us at all (and maybe he does) he’ll sort us out somehow. If he doesn’t… well, what can we really do about it? Best to just live our lives. Be good. But otherwise don’t worry about God.

I know: This apathetic attitude towards God sounds an awful lot like a nontheist’s apathetic attitude towards no God and no religion. Both groups definitely have apathy in common. But the big difference becomes obvious once deists and nontheists drop apathy. When deists finally decide to take their beliefs about God seriously, they tend to fall into a religion. Whereas when nontheists decide to take their beliefs in no God seriously, they pick fights with theists.

11 April 2017

When we’re surrounded by sickness and evil.

A psalm for whenever we feel like we’re crapped upon.

A lot of the “problems” westerners go through are what we call “first-world problems”: If you’re rich and comfortable, little annoyances get exaggerated into big huge crises. Like when your phone battery dies, or the grocery store shrinks your favorite yogurt from 150 grams to 100 and raises the price a nickel, or somebody cut in line at the coffeehouse, or someone misunderstood your latest tweet and got all offended. Now your day is just ruined.

Poor people just laugh at these woes as ridiculous. ’Cause they are.

Parents of teenagers know what I’m talking about. I used to teach grammar, and my kids would write poetry, and sometimes they’d write really awful poems in which they’d bellyache about the “problems” in their largely problem-free lives. Rarely were they legitimate—like not having enough food, like fighting a difficult disease, like child abuse. Just a bunch of first-world problems. This or that kid was mean to ’em. Parents wouldn’t give them the money to waste on toys or clothes or concerts. And who needs good grades when you’re gonna be in the NBA someday? Teenage angst is largely the result of new hormones affecting a young mind that doesn’t yet know how to handle ’em. But kids assume it’s all this other dumb stuff.

Anyway. You want some real suffering, kids, you listen to David ben Jesse. Dude peaked too soon, making his king crazy jealous, forcing him into hiding for years. Once he finally took the throne he had to fight three civil wars—and that’s on top of all Israel’s external foes.

Plus, at the time he wrote this psalm, David apparently hadn’t changed his drawers in way too long, leading to a savage case of crotch rot in verse 7… and that’s the optimistic interpretation. Best I don’t speculate further. But you think your life sucks? David’s really sucked.

Yes, my translation made it rhyme again.

Psalm 38 KWL
0 David’s psalm—something to remember.
1 LORD, don’t correct me angrily, instructing me in heat,
2 because your arrows fall on me. Your strong hand has me beat.
3 My flesh’s instability from your indignant face;
my bones lack peace; my sinning moves your presence out of place.
4 I’ve more misdeeds than height! a heavy, heavy load for me.
5 My wounds all stink and rot thanks to my clear stupidity.
6 I’m twisted, bent way down; I walk in darkness all the day.
7 My burning genitals!—unstable flesh just wastes away.
8 I’m numb. I’m very crushed. My groaning heart through which I’ve cried—
9 My Master, my desires and sighs are obvious. Don’t hide.
10 My heart vibrates. My strength is gone. My eyes’ light: Also gone.
11 My loves and friends both shun my plague. My nearest: Far along.
12 Some want to trap my soul, have me wreak havoc, do what’s wrong.
They meditate on tricks to play upon me all day long.
13 I’m deaf, so I heard nothing. Mouth not open. I stayed mute.
14 Much like a man who doesn’t hear, I’d nothing to refute.
15 I hope in you, my LORD, my Master God. Reply, I plead:
16 I said, “These big shots hope to see me trip on my own feet.”
17 For I expect to fall! It’s like I’m walking on a thorn.
18 My evil I confess; my sinning causes me to mourn.
19 My enemies, alive and strong—and liars—come in droves.
20 Instead of goodness, vice; since I chase goodness, they oppose.
21 Don’t leave me, LORD! I need you here. Please don’t be far away.
22 Save me quick, my Master and my savior—come today!

10 April 2017

Passover: When God saved the Hebrews.

And how Christians observe it. Or don’t. Or do, but medieval-style.

“Why don’t we celebrate Passover?” asked one of my students, when I once taught on the topic.

“We do,” I said. “Christians call it Pascha or Pascua or Páques. But in languages with a lot of German words mixed in, we call it Easter. And obviously we do it way different than you see in the bible.”

So different, English-speaking people routinely assume Easter and Passover are two entirely different holidays. I can’t argue with that assumption. Christians don’t bother to purge our homes of yeast or leavening. Don’t cook lamb; nor do we practice the modern Jewish custom of not having lamb, and emphasizing it ’cause there’s currently no temple to sacrifice a lamb in. Don’t put out the seder plate, don’t tell the Exodus story, don’t have the kids ask the Four Questions, don’t hide the afikomen and have the kids search for it. Although both holidays have eggs, and we do have the kids look for eggs.

Well, some Christians observe Passover as a separate holiday. Some of us do it Hebrew-style, as spelled out in the scriptures, in Exodus and Deuteronomy. More often it’s observed as practiced by Jews today.

The Messianic Jewish movement wants to emphasize the Jewish origins of Christianity. As they should. But many Messianic Jews aren’t all that solid on their history, and wind up teaching medieval rabbinic Judaism instead of the stuff Jesus and his first-century followers actually experienced. So when they observe Passover, their haggadah—the order of service—is nearly always adapted from Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Which means it dates from the 10th century. Not the first.

Yes, some of its customs are in the Mishna, so they do date back to the first century. Still, these weren’t standard practices; not even in the 10th century. Just as Christians celebrate Christmas every which way, Jews then and now got to choose their own customs. Hence families have unique traditions, and various synagogues emphasize various things. Medieval Jewish communities in eastern Europe, north Africa, Spain, and the middle east, all individually came up with their own haggadahs. (As did the Samaritans.)

The point of the haggadah is to teach the Exodus story to the children. But remember, Jesus’s students weren’t children. Teenagers certainly, but still legal adults who knew the Exodus story. If they hadn’t heard it at home, Jesus would’ve taught it to them personally. So, just as some families don’t tell the nativity story every Christmas after the kids get older, don’t be surprised if Jesus skipped the haggadah’s customary Four Questions (why matzot, why bitter herbs, why roasted meat, and why the food gets dipped twice) as redundant.

Christians don’t always realize this. So whenever they attend a Passover seder, or ritual dinner, and hear whatever haggadah the leader came up with, they routinely think it’s so profound how Jesus “practiced” and “brought such meaning and fulfillment” to these customs. Even though it’s highly unlikely he practiced any of these customs. It’s pure coincidence his ministry “fulfilled” them. But y’know, not every Christian believes in coincidence.

07 April 2017

Holy Week: When Jesus died.

Our yearly remembrance of Jesus’s death.

Sunday is Palm Sunday, the start of what we Christians call Holy Week, or Great Week, Passion Week, and various other titles. It remembers the week Jesus died.

It took place 9–17 Nisan 3793 in the Hebrew calendar; and in the Julian calendar that’d be 29 March to 4 April in the year 33.

The Holy Week schedule.

And the week had started so well….

Of course Jesus rose on Sunday the 5th, the day Christians now designate as Easter.

06 April 2017

Baptism: Get saved, get wet.

Christianity’s initial ritual.

Baptism /'bæp.tɪz.əm/ n. Religious ritual of sprinkling water on a person’s forehead, or immersing them in water, symbolizing purification, regeneration, and admission to the church.
[Baptist /'bæp.təst/ n., baptizand /'bæp.tɪ.zænd/ n., baptismal /bæp'tɪz.məl/ adj.]

Whenever the ancient Hebrews did something ritually unclean, before they went to temple they had to make themselves ritually clean. How they did that was to simply wash themselves with water and wait till sundown. After which point they could go to temple.

Since you only had to go to temple three times a year, this didn’t require a whole lot of ritual washing. That is, till the Pharisees showed up. To them, any form of worship required people to be ritually clean. So if you went to synagogue, whether daily or just for Sabbath, you needed to be ritually clean. Gotta wash.

How the Pharisees (and today’s Orthodox Jews) did so was to create a mikvéh/“collection [of water].” Basically a vat, pool, or something large enough where a person could stand upright underwater. It had to be “living water,” by which they meant running water: Something had to be dripping into it, and preferably draining from it. You walked into it, fully clothed; then walked out and waited for sundown. This, they called váptisma/“dipping, soaking,” and it’s where we get our word baptism.

If you were a new Pharisee, you’d be baptized as part of joining the synagogue. And that’s where John the baptist got the idea for his form of baptism: If you were repentant, and wanted to turn from your sins to follow God, here was baptism.

Since Jesus (though he personally had no sins to repent of) submitted to John’s baptism, and instructed his students to baptize any new students, Mt 28.19 baptism has become the rite of Christian initiation. You’ve decided to follow Jesus? Get baptized in water. Get forgiven. Receive the Holy Spirit. Ac 2.38

There’s another form of baptism, called baptism of the Holy Spirit. I discuss that elsewhere.

Like every sacrament, Christians get obsessed with doing it properly, or believing all the correct things about it. Sacraments, you recall, represent something God’s doing. Not so much us. We do the ritual, but God does the spiritual reality behind it, and that’s the relevant part. Still, you know how self-centered we humans get: “Oh, if you did it that way, it doesn’t count.” As if God’s not gonna embrace a new follower because we used a bottle of water instead of the nearest river.

05 April 2017

Misreading and mistreating those who mourn.

How the first of Job’s friends wrongly advised him.

Job 4–5

After Job suffered the tremendous disaster of having his children, employees, and livestock all killed in one day, three of his friends came and sat shiva with him. Jb 2.11-13 For a week they said nothing.

Then Job vented for a chapter.“Wish I’d never been born; Jb 3.3 why didn’t I die at birth; Jb 3.11 I wish I were dead.” Jb 3.20-22 The usual stuff people say when they’ve suffered an earth-shattering loss, particularly when loved ones die. Stuff we’re supposed to listen to, sympathize with… and watch these people in case they actually try to act upon any of it. (Half the time they’re all talk, but sometimes they’re not, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.)

But you know how humans are: We try to fix one another. We don’t leave it in the hands of professionals, who know how to guide people to make good choices. We tell ’em, “You know what you oughta do,” and tell them so. Or worse, we try to do it for them.

So in Job, here’s where all the bad advice begins. The first to talk was Job’s friend Elifáz of Teyman (KJV “Eliphaz the Temanite”). Therefore he’s gonna get picked on first. It is, as the LORD told Elifáz at the end of the book, wholly inaccurate information about the LORD. Jb 42.7 Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my fellow Christians proclaim all same foolish things. It’s like they never even read this book… well, beyond the first chapters and the happy ending.

Job 4.1-6 KWL
1 Elifáz of Teyman replied. He said:
2 “Are you too weary for anyone to prove a thing to you?
Who’s able to stifle your sayings?
3 Look, you’ve strengthened many, and made weak hands strong.
4 Your sayings upheld the stumbling and strengthened bent knees.
5 But now this comes to you, and you’re ‘weary.’ It smites you and you panic.
6 Wasn’t your fear of God overconfidence? Your path of integrity your hope?”

There y’go, Elifáz. Start smacking him while he’s down.

Before this disaster, Job was a great man, a wise man, full of good advice, ready to help people when they were in need. Then disaster struck, and he understandably fell to pieces. “So where’s your God now? Where’s your faith? Did you even have faith before?”

Okay. In the Christian life, sometimes we’re gonna go through crises of faith. Which is totally normal: When we don’t know any better, we mistakenly put our faith in the wrong things. Rituals instead of relationship, things instead of people, feel-good ideas instead of truth, “I now know best” instead of “I’m wrong but Jesus is right,” putting people on pedestals where they don’t belong, declaring doctrines non-negotiable when they totally are, and conversely prioritizing favorite attitudes over the real non-negotiables.

In order to set us right, sometimes the Holy Spirit has to smash these idols. Which will really discombobulate us. We thought God gave these things to us, or wanted us to believe or have them, or would never interfere with such things… and how mean it was of him to take ’em away. Like pouty children, sometimes we even don’t care to talk to our Father for a good long time afterwards.

But this wasn’t at all what Job was doing.

Job hadn’t made an idol of his kids, employees, and livestock. He didn’t turn on God; he’d made a big point of saying such behavior was stupid. Jb 2.9-10 Job had integrity: He didn’t follow God only when times were good. We get like that. We love him when we’re prosperous, but when times get rough we’re no longer sure he’s around—or if he even exists. Job wasn’t going through any such crisis of faith. But Elifáz’s words suggest that’s what he assumed was happening. He totally misread the situation.

04 April 2017

So you feel unclean. Pray anyway.

Stop letting your sins keep you from prayer. God already forgave you.

Probably the most common reason Christians don’t pray… is because we don’t feel clean enough.

I’m not talking about ritual cleanliness. Most Christians don’t even know what that is anyway: It’s the idea of ritually washing yourself before going to temple. Since the Holy Spirit now dwells in us Christians, we don’t need to ritually wash before temple; we are his temple. But like I said, it’s not about that. It’s about feeling clean because we haven’t sinned. Or because we’re pretty sure we haven’t sinned; as far as we know we’re good.

But if we have sinned, we figure we’re not worthy to approach God. We feel we’re too dirty, or he’s too righteous, for us to be around him. Some Christians even teach God is repelled by our sins; that if we’ve got any sin in our lives, there’s no point in approaching God ’cause he’ll just turn away from us and ignore our prayers. Or even leave, in offense and outrage.

It’s because these Christians either don’t understand, or don’t truly believe, Jesus covers everything. Every sin we’ve ever committed in the past, every sin we’ll commit in future, even sins we’re committing this very instant. (Cut that out, by the way.) Jesus knocked out everything. God doesn’t dole out grace on a sin-by-sin basis. You’re his kid. He’s happy to talk with you!

Now I can say this, and you might understand it and sorta believe it… but Christians still find this a really difficult hangup to get past. For two reasons. Mostly it’s because other people don’t act this way at all, so it’s a wholly foreign mindset, and we’re not familiar with it. And the other is because the devil would prefer we never pray, so the longer it can keep us acting upon this unhealthy belief, the better.

03 April 2017

What became of Judas Iscariot.

His death… however it happened, since the scriptures don’t match.

Matthew 27.3-10 • Acts 1.15-26

Technically Judas bar Simon of Kerioth, the renegade follower of Jesus whom we know as Judas Iscariot, isn’t part of the stations of the cross. Whether St. Francis or St. John Paul, neither of ’em figured his situation is specifically worthy of a meditation for Good Friday. Although we should study him some, ’cause he’s an example of an apostle gone wrong—an example we don’t wanna follow. Nor repeat. But Jesus was too busy going through his own suffering to really focus on what was happening with Judas.

So Judas came up when he turned Jesus in to the cops… and in three of the gospels, that’s the last we hear of him. The exceptions are Matthew—and since the author of Luke also wrote Acts, it’s kinda in another gospel, ’cause Acts is about how the apostles started Jesus’s kingdom. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Here’s the problem: For the most part, the Matthew and Acts stories contradict one another.

Not that inerrantists haven’t tried their darnedest to sync them up, and I’ll get to how they’ve tried it. But first things first: The passages.

Matthew 27.3-10 KWL
3 Then Judas, who turned Jesus in, seeing the Senate condemned him,
feeling greatly sorry, returned the 30 silvers to the head priest and elders,
4 saying, “I sinned; I turned in innocent blood.”
They said, “What’s that to us? Look out for yourself.”
5 He threw the silver back into the shrine, left, and hanged himself.
6 The head priests took the silver, saying, “It’s wrong to put it in the offering,
since it’s a payment for blood.”
7 Taking it, the Senate bought a field with it from a potter, for the burial of foreigners.
8 Thus this field was called Bloodfield to this day.
9 This fulfilled the prophet Jeremiah’s word, saying, “They took 30 silvers.
The penalty payment which they paid for Israel’s children.
10 They gave it for the potter’s field, as the Lord instructed me.”
Acts 1.15-20 KWL
15 In those days Simon Peter stood in the middle of the family.
He said, “The crowd is more than 120 people I can name.
16 Men, family: We have to fulfill the scriptures the Holy Spirit foretold through David’s mouth
about Judas, who became the guide of those who arrested Jesus.
17 Judas was counted among us.
He received a place in this ministry.
18 He thus got himself a plot of land from his unrighteous reward,
and was found face-down, burst open, his innards all spilled out.
19 All Jerusalem’s dwellers came to know it,
so the plot’s called in their dialect Khaqal-Dema” (i.e. Bloodfield).
20 “It’s written in the book of Psalms: ‘Make his house desert, and don’t let settlers in it.’ Ps 69.25
And ‘Another person: Take his office.’” Ps 109.8