The devil in American Christianity

The Thinker by Rodin

A confluence of events is proving just how dead and unchristian most of American Christianity is today. There are exceptions, most notably the Catholic Church. If you can overlook its rampant misogyny and long history of pedophilia, it still thinks it’s important to feed the hungry and shelter the poor regardless of race, color or creed but not always sexual orientation. Moreover, it puts its time and resources where its mouth is.

You have to look pretty hard to find a mainstream Christian denomination in the United States that bears some resemblance to what Jesus preached. The United Church of Christ probably comes closest, but it’s been bleeding members for years. I could also possibly include Unitarian Universalists like me, except being creedless we can’t really be called Christians, although individual members might say they are Christian. We are also a tiny denomination.

For the most part though our churches are mirroring society: becoming socioeconomic havens for tangentially religious people mostly of the same race and social status. They mirror the values of their class and society far more than they practice Christianity as Jesus preached it. Last week in Congress though we witnessed an action that pretty much proved it was dead. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan dismissed its chaplain, the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, a Roman Catholic priest, for apparently modeling Jesus a bit too much.

Conroy wasn’t too happy about it but while it lasted it was a great gig for a priest. Priests take vows of poverty but Congress paid him $172,500 a year, far more than I ever made annually in my career. Money though wasn’t the issue here. Conroy apparently got under the skin of influential House Republicans, including the Speaker for constantly reminding them of inconvenient truths about Christianity, such as Christians are supposed to look out for the poor rather than worship at the altar of mammon. Last November, for example, before the House debate on major tax legislation at the well of the House, Conroy said this:

May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Well, that’s awkward when the tax legislation was mostly about funneling new amounts of government debt directly into the pockets of rich people instead. No wonder Ryan was irked. How about a little prosperity gospel instead, preacher? These people seem to form the base of the Republican Party anyhow. (By the way, “prosperity gospel” is just another name for trickle-down economics.)

Also last week we got a rare moment of candor from a Republican politician, Mick Mulvaney in this case. Mulvaney is the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But he used to be a member of Congress. Reminiscing on those times to a meeting of the American Bankers Association, Mulvaney cut to the chase:

We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress. If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.

Mulvaney clearly believes in a government of, by, and for the corporation. If you wanted his attention, you had to bribe him through campaign contributions. No one else mattered.

Now in the ultimate irony, Evangelical Christians are wholeheartedly are behind Philanderer-in-Chief and complete moral failure Donald J. Trump. He garners at least 80% support from this group and nothing in his sinful personal life seems to dissuade them from supporting him. It’s not that they see Trump as a good Christian. Trump hardly ever attends church services. His church is the golf course. About the only time you will see him in a church will be if some prominent politician dies, and even then his attendance is iffy. He skipped Barbara Bush’s recent funeral. He clearly doesn’t read the Bible; in fact he doesn’t read much of anything.

These “Christians” tend to see Trump as a necessary evil: God working in mysterious ways. What they really care about is not his many moral failings but his willingness to move forward with a radical conservative agenda. If Trump can appoint another Supreme Court justice that overturns Roe v. Wade, doesn’t that justify their support? They must have excised Matthew 16:26 from their Bible:

What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

In truth though American Christians have largely thrown away the New Testament. What really engages them though is the Old Testament, particularly its authoritarian parts, parts that were largely replaced in the New Testament. One of Jesus’s primary missions was to redefine Judaism into a more benign, charitable and universal religion. American Christians though seem determined to place the Ten Commandments in government spaces. But they never demand that the Beatitudes to occupy such public places instead, and these are words Jesus actually said:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

With the ouster of House Chaplain Conroy, it’s clear that these thoughts are unwelcome in Congress. But that’s okay. It’s abundantly clear they are unwelcome as well in what passes for American Christianity today.

The devil made them do it.

Judgment Day? Dear God, please start at the White House

The Thinker by Rodin

For being “retired”, life sure is keeping me busy, too busy to find much time to blog. The thing about being retired is that you can do anything you want. For me this means doing more of the stuff I love, which is teaching and consulting, both of which provide some income too. Blogging doesn’t bring in any money so it tends to sit on the back burner some weeks. For the last two weeks or so I’ve had little downtime.

I’ve not been at a loss for topics though, which is why I’ve decided to skip for now my monthly Craigslist casual encounters post (sorry, fans!). Mostly I’ve been thinking about evil and by extension evil people. There are so many sterling examples of late, particularly the people in the White House. My brother-in-law, one of the few right-wingers in my life, posted a picture of Trump and a bunch of his execs in the White House praying, or pretending to pray. His remark was something like: “Something you never saw in the last administration, ha ha! Isn’t it good to have real Christians in the White House?”

Trump and staff hypocritically "praying"
Trump and staff hypocritically “praying”

Yeah, right. I’m careful not to leave snarky comments with Rick, my brother in law. I have to live with him and he’s a good husband to my sister too. We can easily push each other’s buttons but choose not too and arguably I’m more publicly expressive of my opinions than he is of his.

Yet the photo really irked me. First of all, I sincerely doubt Trump has uttered a sincere prayer in his life, unless it was to plead to God to bring him more money. Second, for all of Obama’s haphazard churchgoing, Obama is something of a regular churchgoer compared to Trump. As best I can tell the only time Trump goes to church is to attend weddings, funerals and more recently political events. At a prayer breakfast in February he used the religious occasion to pray for poor ratings for The Apprentice, now that Arnold Schwarzenegger in playing the boss.

As for the rest of these White House “Christians”, Jesus would not recognize any of them as his followers. I won’t expound here about hypocritical Christians in general because I’ve done so many time, including this post. I … just … don’t … get … it. I don’t get how these “Christians” can believe they are Christian. I don’t believe Trump thinks he’s a Christian and I doubt he spends a millisecond thinking about God or concerning himself with the poor, except to pick their pockets.

The whole lot of these White House stoolies are running as fast as they can away from The Lord, by doing their damnedest to make the rich richer and the poor poorer (not to mention kill the planet) while trying desperately to humiliate the poor in the process. Include in this bunch my brother in law Rick, a faithful Catholic in the sense that he goes to Mass weekly, tithes his share but otherwise lives values wholly inconsistent with Christianity. Ironically, some of the most Christian people I know are atheists. In the unlikely event of the Rapture, I totally expect most of today’s “Christians” will be dumbstruck when their atheist neighbors ascend into heaven while the pit of hell opens up for them. It’s like Matthew 19:21 is excised from their Bibles, you know: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.’”

Speaking of brothers in law, I have another one, well, not quite a brother in law, but the husband of a niece. We recently got into something of a civilized rant on Facebook. My niece was wondering if there were any really great men in the world. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. I said: drive a couple of hundred miles south to Plains, Georgia some Sunday and watch the 39th president, James Earl Carter, teach Sunday school. Or watch him, age 90-something, nailing boards into walls at one of the many Habitat for Humanity houses he and his organization help construct. Jimmy Carter gives me hope that there really are some true Christians in the world. After all, he won the Nobel Peace Prize and the Carter Center has overseen more than a hundred elections, spreading democracy across the world.

But none of that mattered to my niece’s husband John. He has spent too much time watching Fox News. And somewhere in there he heard that Carter sent money to commies, Manuel Noriega of Nicaragua in this case, although we’re talking about the late 1970s. What a horrible man! Granted that history was not kind to his short presidency, but he did get a Nobel Prize from it and took unpopular but correct actions, such as agreeing to turn the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians. We kept the discourse pretty civil, largely due to his wife Sandy who was probably sending him IMs saying she wanted to stay on my good side. Alas, neither John nor brother in law Rick have anything good to say about Jimmy Carter, the most prominent example of a true Christian I can think of in today’s world. Jimmy Carter is by no means a saint, but he is a saintly man. He is holy in my mind, one of a handful of holy men in this world for who this honor should be obvious.

But not to John, not to Rick, and probably not to any of them people in the photo, except possibly the minister leading these hypocrites in prayer. Doubtless immediately after the photo op, the base applauded their “true Christians” while the subjects went back to deconstructing the administrative state, the professed aim of Trump’s senior adviser Steve Bannon which hopefully will include a new world war too.

I wish I could be a Christian just long enough to believe in Hell. With a few exceptions, I’m having a hard time thinking of a group of people more deserving to spend eternity there than the hypocrites in the photo. Fortunately, Jesus loves even dregs of humanity like them, even though their sacred mission seems to be to facilitate Satan by making more Americans poor, sick, hungry, anxious and scared.

Well, I’m not a Christian. Although I don’t believe in hell, here’s a toast wishing them a speedy entrance to it anyhow. The whole bunch of you in that photo can go to hell.

Why I am not a Christian

The Thinker by Rodin

It’s curious that after nearly twelve years of blogging I have never really explained my theology or lack thereof. I have given snippets of it from time to time, mostly in critiquing other religions. But I have never really explained myself fully. I thought I might start with why I am not a Christian. I hope to expand my thoughts more on other religions in future posts.

To preface, while I am not a Christian, I am religious. The denomination I most closely align with is Unitarian Universalism, which has its roots in Christianity. It does not require anyone to subscribe to a creed, which is typical of most faiths. I do identify with Christianity because I was raised as a Roman Catholic. So it’s a natural place for me to start this topic.

There are lots of reasons why I am not a Christian, but one emotional reason in particular is relevant. In short, I got way too much Catholicism growing up. It included nine years of parochial school, daily rosaries at home, years as an altar boy, strict attendance at mass every week and regular Catholic education classes until I turned 18. It was overwhelming and stifling. Everything in my life was viewed through the Catholic prism, which was mostly about whether something was sinful or not. When I no longer lived at home, I simply stopped going to church, cold turkey. It was an easy decision for it removed an oppressive weight off my shoulders that simply did not agree with me and was not working for me. And except for an occasional wedding or a funeral, I haven’t been back.

However, my time as a Catholic was not entirely a negative experience. I got an appreciation for the devout, the importance of ritual in life, and the comfort it gives many of certainty in an uncertain world. I will still seek out cathedrals when I travel and they usually feel instinctively holy places. As a denomination, Catholicism has some strengths over other Christian denominations. It’s one of the few denominations that truly cares about the poor and the sanctity of life and puts its money and people where its mouth is. In that sense, it reflects the Jesus one finds in the gospels, and stands head and shoulders above many Christian denominations.

Calling oneself a Christian though is kind of like saying you believe in love. What does love mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? That is open to a lot of debate. If nothing else there is a huge variety of opinions on the matter. My take is that to be a Christian at a minimum you must agree that Jesus was a human manifestation of God. Sorry, I can’t go there.

Early Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God. At least that’s the opinion of the noted biblical scholar Bart Erhman in his book How Jesus Became God. But even a cursory understanding of the history of the New Testament strongly suggests that the gospels grew in their telling. The simple Jesus revealed in the first gospel, Mark, for example, is strikingly different from the mythological one revealed in the last one, John. Moreover, it’s well documented that it took hundreds of years for Christianity to define itself as a faith and the mythological Jesus, part of some trinity, simply was not part of early Christian thought. These Christians ruthlessly suppressed those Christians that did not tow their interpretation. The early Unitarians (who did not believe in the trinity) sought refuge in what is now Hungary and Romania to escape persecution. Many others died for their heresies, hardly Christ-like actions. Christians are still at it. The core of Christianity that is unmistakable from reading the Gospels is that brotherly and universal love should be the center of our behavior, something sadly absent in most Christian denominations.

There is no evidence that Jesus existed. I think that Jesus existed, but obviously I can’t prove it. It’s a reasonable enough inference, since a meme like Jesus is hard to develop without a kernel of truth to it. The Romans left no record of Jesus, nor did anyone else other than the Christians. The hazy view we have of Jesus is through the gospels, which have been rewritten numerous times and errors introduced in translation, point to an interesting and revolutionary man for his time. It’s entirely reasonable to think a contrarian and rabble-rouser like him would be betrayed and crucified. Jesus’s surreptitious behavior after his alleged resurrection though suggests to me he was not God, i.e. not Christ. He seemed anxious not to be seen, except to disciples. That’s hardly a way to convince people that you are God. If he had walked past Pontius Pilot three days after his resurrection, and the Romans had recorded that, now that would be pretty convincing.

Jesus’s divinity aside though, Christians should at least reasonably model Christ if he walked among us. When I was a young and impressionable Catholic, we sang a song that included the lyrics “You will know we are Christians by our love.” Not that there aren’t such Christians out there, but they are a tiny minority of those who claim to be Christian. The vast majority of “Christians” have so wrapped themselves around orthodoxy and warped notions of sin that they no longer see the forest through the trees. You can bet that if Jesus were alive today the whole notion of a prosperity Gospel would leave him gob struck. A devout follower of Jesus would live without possessions and minister among the poor. Know of any Christians like that?

Neither do I. The truth is that this kind of Christianity simply does not work in 2014. Christianity, as imperfectly revealed to us in the Gospels, is obsolete and generally more harmful than helpful. It doesn’t fit in our current reality. Maybe in Saint Paul’s time, when almost all of us lived short and shallow lives and lived at or just above the poverty line, it would have fit the times.

Almost any religion though has some body parts that can be reused when an autopsy is performed. Christianity has some, and those few parts I hold close to my heart, particularly the virtue of universal love and tolerance. But by themselves they don’t make me a Christian.

Going to the dogs

The Thinker by Rodin

It was a brief moment today. I was driving to work through a residential neighborhood. As I often do on Tuesdays, I had to wend my way past the trash truck. I give these guys a brake and wait for them to say it’s okay to pass them. Today though the guys on the trash truck were oblivious to me. They were petting a dog.

One of the homeowners had her dog on a leash and was doing walkies along the sidewalk. This dog, like most dogs, is a friendly dog, as was evident by its wagging tail. I didn’t quite catch the breed, but it was smaller than most, and black. The guys hauling the trash, unsurprisingly I am sorry to say, were also black. There were two in the back and one in the cab. The two in the back normally gather trashcans from both sides of the street at once, and the guy in the cab drives.

Today though the crew had gone to the dogs, er, dog. Both of them had stopped the hauling and were petting the dog that was happily making their acquaintance and straining at his leash as if he wanted to sit on their nonexistent laps. The lady at the other end of the leash was laughing. The guys on the street were laughing as they petted the dog. The guy in the cab smiled through his side view mirror at the encounter. I pulled around them cautiously and made my way to work, smiling as well.

That one dog provided a lot of happiness. Moreover, like most dogs, this was a colorblind dog, both physically and metaphorically. Dogs, bless them, have no sense of social class. One friendly human is as good as another to them. Black face, white face, brown face, red face – it just doesn’t matter to them. All that matters is their sense of you and how you relate to them. Everyone in this encounter appeared to be a dog lover, at least for that moment. No one cared if a minute or two of productivity was lost. There was a friendly dog that wanted some attention and was glad to give some attention. At least until that encounter ended, social class simply did not matter. The dog had brought together people who would probably never talk to each other otherwise.

In the gospels we learn that Jesus was a man from Galilee, he was definitely human and that he was also a holy man who many believe was God in human form. Jesus of course spent some years in Galilee and Judea preaching about love and inclusiveness. It’s hard to know where Jesus was in the social class of Judea at the time. If he was truly a carpenter’s son, he could probably be considered middle class for those generally impoverished times. For a while he developed quite a following, at least according to the Gospels, but he also developed enemies. The priests in the temple did not like him because he was so different and because people called him a rabbi. The Romans put him to death. And it appears he drew the scorn of many because he hung out with losers like Mary Magdalene, a common prostitute in the eyes of many, as well as lepers, the homeless and general miscreants. Our understanding of Jesus is of course imperfect. We have only the legend of Jesus, as there is no scrap of evidence that he actually lived, and the original gospels have long ago returned to dust. But Jesus as he is depicted certainly believed in transcending class, and in universal love, and in recognizing our common humanity.

Jesus, in other words, was a man who had gone to the dogs. It would not have surprised me if his family had a dog. For if you have to learn about love and have no other guide, in most cases you can get it courtesy of the family or neighborhood mutt.

I am a cat person more than a dog person, simply because my wife introduced me to cats and I had no pets to speak of growing up except for a family parakeet. I have spent enough time though with dogs to know they are fundamentally different than cats. Cats are Republicans. They want to know what’s in it for them and it’s almost always me first. In general, they will only return affection when they first get some. They may rub at your heels for attention, but their attention tends to be fleeting. If you ignore them for a few weeks, you will probably lose any affection they had for you.

Dogs, on the other hand, are Democrats. Certainly not all dogs are friendly, and many will be affectionate only with their master. But once you have earned their trust, and it usually takes nothing more than a chew toy, snack or just a scritch of their heads, you are part of their tribe. It may be fleeting or it may be permanent. Dogs are all about finding joy in life and in getting in touch with the feelings of creatures around them. Class means nothing to them. Most of the time they will radiate love, particularly with their owner, but often with anyone in their locality. If you don’t look happy they will sense this and come over to you, and darn well try to make you happy. It’s their nature.

Christians are still waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believe he will descend from heaven through the clouds, with his radiance pouring down across the earth. Then the saved will be saved and the damned will be damned. As for me, today’s encounter makes me think that Christ has already returned. In fact, he’s been here for a long time and you can find him nearby. Just seek out your family or neighborhood dog. Feel their love, feel their radiance, feel the cares of the world recede when you are with them or, as I saw today, see class barriers momentarily disappear. If you want to be more Christ-like, perhaps you could just imitate your mutt more. Be friendly, be open, be loving by nature and if you sense someone is hurting go over and say you want to help them feel better.

We should all go to the dogs.

Decking the secular halls

The Thinker by Rodin

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

The Antichrists have arrived and they are called Christians

The Thinker by Rodin

Sorry, Jesus. But it appears that most of the people who claim to follow you are more in line with Satan than with God. At least that’s the way it seems lately. Yes, I know my observations are judgmental and you warned us not to judge others. So I’m judging. So are, best as I can tell, most of the so-called “Christians” out there.

The most recent and egregious example is “Pastor” Charles Worley of the Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, North Carolina. He wants to exterminate all gays and lesbians, not just shooting them outright but through starvation. He’s got a plan: build two big pens and make each, say, a hundred or 150 miles long. Put all those homos and lezzies inside, one camp for each. Don’t call it a concentration camp. That might be too good for them because at least the Jews in concentration camps got fed, at least some of them, before eventually going to the gas chambers. No, put all our gays and lesbians in big pens and don’t feed them anything. They eventually die. Thus endeth our problem with those sinful gays and lesbians. And his congregation cheers “Alleluia!”

Gah! As if killing gays and lesbians will mean there will never be another gay or lesbian again? Where does he think they come from? In vitro fertilization? Maybe in a handful of cases, but clearly at least 99% of gays and lesbians come from heterosexual parents. Oh but that’s right, he also believes that your sexual orientation is a choice. Like you can turn heterosexual with the right prayer or something. Clearly, science doesn’t matter much to him, but he also probably believes the world was created six thousand years ago as well.

It seems that most Christians here in America are doing the complete opposite of what Jesus preached. If there is one word that defined Jesus it is simply this: love. More specifically, love broadly and universally. How on earth can someone like Charles Worley become a pastor and not get that? Love, love, love! Love people! Love everyone. Jesus was very clear about this. He made this clear in numerous parables, but particularly in the parable of the Good Samaritan. At the time most Jews in Judea scorned Samaritans. They thought of them as apostates. Jesus went out of his way to make sure his followers understood that they were brothers too. You had to love those who are very different from you, and everyone has the same capacity to love.

Jesus was not about exclusion; Jesus was about inclusion. He hung out with the dregs of Judea: the lepers, the thieves and the prostitutes. About the only thing he hated were the moneychangers at the temple. Jesus was not about hate; Jesus was about toleration. Jesus was not about getting rich, he was only concerned about spiritual riches. In fact, he told us it was hard for a rich person to get into heaven, perhaps because their priorities were misplaced. The currency that really matters, he told us, was your ability to live a compassionate life and thus model what God believes.

How on earth could such an overwhelming message get totally missed? “You will know we are Christians by our love,” we used to sing as a youth when I was a Catholic. Now the Catholic Church is sending goon squads to make sure its sisters spend their time keeping women from getting health care.

This is all so terribly wrong, so antithetical to everything Jesus preached. You can argue about whether Jesus thought homosexuality was a sin or not, but his approach would not be to cast judgment (he specifically said do not do that) but to love them unconditionally instead.

I think it might help if Christians threw away the Old Testament. Trying to resolve the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments seems to be driving “Christians” crazy, and the Old Testament seems to be winning. “Christians” seem crazily focused on select passages from the Old Testament, like killing homosexuals and adulterers, while selectively ignoring the ones that should bother them, like their self imposed views against polygamy. (Look up how many wives David and Abraham had, just for starters.) There is plenty in the New Testament to throw away too. Paul said we should be kind to our slaves. Doesn’t that imply it’s okay to own slaves? Paul said it was better to marry than to burn. Doesn’t that imply we should avoid marriage to prove we are sufficiently spiritual? Or that marriage, rather than being sacramental, is kind of a moral failing?

I am not a Christian. I am not a Christian in part because I don’t believe Jesus was divine, just very wise. But also I don’t want to be associated with most Christians because like Charles Worley they march off in a completely different direction than the one Jesus tried to lead people toward. However, if I did believe in Jesus’s divinity, I would be a member of the United Church of Christ. It’s one of the few denominations out there that seem to get real Christianity.

Christianity as Jesus preached it is about loving universally, sharing communally, being tolerant, open and accepting and giving your whole heart and soul to all people. You do this so they can be free of misery, to help them find God and to understand Jesus’s true message. Real Christianity is about a welcome table.

So yes, I, a judgmental non-Christian (but in some ways a follower of Jesus) must say simply that most of you Christians are not the least bit Christ-like, but are modeling the Antichrist. You have a twisted and frequently sick theology based on exclusion, hate and misery, rather than universal love and brotherhood. If you want to experience real Christianity, the closest you are going to get to it will be at a United Church of Christ congregation near you. So why not attend a service and get the real Jesus?

Anthropomorphosizing Jesus

The Thinker by Rodin

If clocking more page views were my sole goal in blogging, I would spend this evening writing another entry about pornography. However, I simply cannot find anything else to say on the subject. Perhaps I should try harder. Despite being published more than two years ago, my entry Sharon Mitchell: Porn Saint often brings in a dozen or more Googlers every day.

Writing about sleazy sex is another way to push up my page views. While I will not give away too much about my personal life, I can say that I do not have a whole lot of experience in the sleazy sex department. This is probably a good thing. It markedly improves the odds that I will survive to be an old man. That is not to say that I would not necessarily want to imbibe in some good sleazy (but harmless) sex now and then. In real life though, imagination typically has to suffice. Therefore, I have pontificated as if I really know something about it the world of sleazy sex. Such was the case last January when after spending a few hours browsing through the Craigslist Washington D.C. Casual Encounters site, this entry popped out of my brain. This one entry alone now often overtakes Sharon Mitchell as the biggest reason strangers will connect with my blog.

Another way to bring in readers is to write controversial entries about religion. For many, religion is such a focus of our lives that writing anything that contradicts or even gently lampoons our personal beliefs is likely to draw notice and maybe even some ire. So perhaps tonight, while I poke a little fun at Jesus, my page views will go up. The devil made me do it.

This entry was inspired by my annual visit to the Jesus of the Week web site. For many devoted Christians, Jesus is sacrosanct. To them, he is certainly not a subject of parody. In a way, I agree. Jesus, or at least as he is portrayed in his buffed up form in the Bible, does deserve respect, if not downright admiration. While I have a few problems with Jesus’ portrayal in the Bible (for example, it is inconsistent of Jesus to say, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” and elsewhere call the Pharisees hypocrites), mainly he comes across as a wise and learned teacher. However, I am often fascinated by how we anthropomorphosize Jesus.

If you are feeling a bit irreverent toward Jesus, or just assume that Jesus is big enough to have a sense of humor, then the Jesus of the Week web site is for you. The site owner pokes gentle fun at the many otherwise excellent (and not so excellent) artistic Christians out there who get perhaps a wee bit carried away imagining Jesus. This is hardly a new phenomenon. As I mentioned when my family and I toured the Louvre last summer, the paintings of Jesus typically portrayed him as a flaxen haired Anglophile. You would be hard pressed to find any visual depiction of Jesus in most mainstream churches in this country as anything other than a longhaired Caucasian. This is probably a good thing. Since Jews were Semites and Semites are hardly a flaxen haired, fair-skinned race, it would be hard to get Junior to identify with a man with dark skin and long, kinky hair. Who knows? Maybe Jesus wore dreadlocks. African Christians of course typically portray Jesus as a black man, which was likely much closer to the truth. Christians in the Far East see him as Oriental. Since no one knows what he looked like, your guess is as good as mine is. However, the odds are he looked more like Yassir Arafat than Sting.

At Jesus of the Week we web surfers get to psychoanalyze the devoutly Christian artist. The results are frequently hilarious. Admittedly, the site owner may skew results to match his audience, which likely consists of mostly disgruntled former Christians, i.e. the damned like me. These artists keep creating depictions of Jesus that, like an excellent bad movie, are hilarious to the dispassionate observer, but which appear devoutly inspired to the believer. Along with each depiction of Jesus comes a short tongue in cheek essay on the picture of the week, yet written in such a way as it is almost never denigrating.

Other web sites out there are less subtle at poking fun of modern Christianity. Perhaps the best known of them is the Landover Baptist Church site and their related sister sites like Betty Bowers and their White House parody site. Arguably, Landover Baptist is such an over the top and rude parody of the bizarre right wing of Christianity, that regular readers may develop something like sympathy toward the Jerry Falwells of the world. That these folks have kept it up for so many years attests to something: probably that they got way more weird religion shoved down their throats during their formative years than they could possibly process and are determined to spend their adult lives getting even.

I have made my own attempt to understand the historic Jesus. It may be that I am as guilty of anthropomorphosizing Jesus as everyone else is. For most of us, whether we choose to or not, we simply must frame Jesus in a modern context. We do this because we live in the present, not two millennium in the past. Only academics like those involved in The Jesus Seminar can come close to fully grasping the historic Jesus and the times in which he lived. Lacking their scholarship and patience, the rest of us are left with the New Testament, which we know has been translated and retranslated and likely does not portray very well its original intent. Most of the original texts have long ago returned to dust. We also know that early Christians ruthlessly suppressed the Gnostic gospels. It is not surprising then our minds fill in the gap between the gospels and the present.

Consequently, the Jesus that emerges depends very much on our personal imagination of him. In many ways, although these depictions of Jesus on Jesus of the Week are often hilarious, they are also comforting. For myself, I find that I want Jesus to be the friendly father type so lovingly depicted by his contemporary followers. I like my image of Jesus as a man surrounded by children whom he gathers in his big arms, or Jesus walking through a meadow full of flowers carrying a lamb under the crock of one arm. I like Jesus as a hunk rather than Jesus as a balding, nearsighted man with dirty feet, a tattered robe and with dirty, unwashed hair. If Jesus were alive today, he would smell so bad you would not want to get within a dozen feet of him. So by all means, give us an idealized image of Jesus. I will smile, I may laugh, and I may even smirk. Occasionally, I may feel touched. At least these Jesuses are typically idealized as loving and harmless.

These depictions of Jesus likely say more about us than of Jesus. It suggests we are still naïve and sappy creatures. These are not necessarily bad traits for us human ancestors some two thousand years later. It means we have a blind side to us, but at least it is a softer and less cynical side.

Review: The Da Vinci Code

The Thinker by Rodin

Full disclosure: I have not read Dan Brown’s now ultra-famous book The Da Vinci Code. My daughter has read it and greatly enjoyed it. My wife got a few chapters into it before putting it down. She felt the quality of the writing was too poor for her to endure any further. Between the endless publicity, the hype about the movie, and the recent plagiarism case in Great Britain against Dan Brown, reading the book seemed superfluous. Anyone in a first world country who does not know the book’s central thesis is likely living a cloistered life. In that sense, seeing the movie is probably anticlimactic.

However, my 16-year-old daughter saw the movie when it first came out. She said it was a good movie, and volunteered to see it again with me. So partly to have an opportunity to get away with my daughter, we saw the movie together yesterday.

I assume you know the basic key points in the book, so consequently there is little to spoil. However, if you were recently released from cloisters then read no further because I will spill some of its main plot points and dubious assertions.

The Washington Post says the movie may be the first movie that takes longer to watch than to read the book on which it is based. At times, it certainly felt this way. Since my daughter read the book and liked the movie, I strongly suspect your appreciation for the movie will depend on how vested you felt reading the book. As for the rest of us, you may find that the movie to be an over-hyped disappointment.

I do not think that the movie of The Da Vinci Code is bad. Another movie I have seen lately truly qualifies as a bad movie. Instead, it is a mediocre movie. It is a movie that with a different director and cast maybe could have pulled off a satisfying movie. Tom Hanks is an excellent actor. However, that does not mean he is right for every role, even when a movie is formulated to be a blockbuster. He struck me as out of his element as Robert Langdon, an apparently real expert in symbology at Harvard University. In The Da Vinci Code, Hanks seems unable to find a way to express the character, so he wings it and in the process badly misses the mark. Perhaps this is because his character is never well defined by either Brown or Ron Howard, the director. In the movie, Langdon is simply a catalyst to move the movie forward. Hanks though really looks like he wishes he were doing some other movie. Maybe he knew this movie was a waste of his talents, but he could not turn down the millions of dollars he was offered.

However, Hanks is positively brilliant compared with Audrey Tautou. She plays Sophie Nevue, a.k.a the latest direct (and for a while, believed to be the last) living descendent of Jesus Christ. I have to assume she too was stunningly miscast, since this is the same woman who delighted millions with her performance as Amelie in the French made subtitled movie of the same name. Granted in Amelie her role was more of a comedic one. Perhaps she is more suited to comedic roles. Here she comes across as mostly one-dimensional and she is about as interesting as a flat soda. For someone who should be very excited by all the discoveries being unearthed, she seems largely dispassionate.

The movie is supposed to be suspenseful but largely failed to engage me. A few scenes may frighten you a bit. Most of the twists and turns are not hard to anticipate, even if you have only a passing familiarity with the key revelations (as I had). Ian McKellan, as Sir Leigh Teabing, helps to enliven the tedium. Like Robin Williams in the otherwise dreadful movie Cadillac Man, McKellan can help make an otherwise mediocre movie endurable. Paul Bettany is also suitably creepy as the brainwashed masochistic Opus Dei cult henchman Silas. (It was hard to believe this is the same man who played Stephen Maturin in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He certainly is a versatile actor!)

The book is apparently filled with short chapters. Each chapter end with a cliffhanger. This makes it difficult not to turn the page. The movie tries to emulate this aspect of the book. It certainly does move along at a brisk pace. Unfortunately, in spite of this the movie largely failed to engage me. It is not that I do not find conspiracy theories interesting. I think it is certainly plausible that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. She could well have been pregnant at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Most Protestants take it as given that when the Bible speaks of James as Jesus’ brother, he was his biological brother, not a fraternal one. Naturally, the Catholics would find the notion of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife the most offensive. Since for all but the last 500 years or so they controlled the Christian church, it is plausible that they would want to hide or minimize Jesus’ affection for Mary, since it would go against doctrine.

No, the whole notion of Opus Dei and a plot to keep “the truth” about Jesus obscured for 2000 years is where The Da Vinci Code breaks down for me. It fails my Occam’s Razor test because it is just too far out in left field. Heck, even Jesus’ divinity is more plausible than this preposterous tale of the search for the Holy Grail. At least Monty Python’s movie was funny. This one tries to make you believe the ludicrous. Perhaps as a result the longer the movie went on (and it never seemed to end) and the stranger the plot twists became, the more I started yawning and the less I cared about the conclusion.

If director Ron Howard had at least taken the time to throw in a little romantic tension, perhaps the movie would have been more enjoyable. Yet Hanks and Tautou are not given any opportunities to develop chemistry. Their mutual interests are wholly academic. The closest they come to any sign of affection is a chaste kiss Hanks gives Tautou on her forehead at the very end of the movie. When it finally ends after 149 minutes, I felt mostly relief.

The result is a B movie masquerading as an A movie. It gets 2.7 on my 4.0 scale.

(If anyone wants my take, not necessarily on the movie’s central thesis, but on the meaning of Jesus’ life, read this entry.)

Will the real Christians please stand up?

The Thinker by Rodin

I had a brief flirtation with the Methodist Church in the 1990s. We were shopping around for a Sunday school for our daughter, who needed some religious education. Terri had taught Sunday school for a Methodist Church in her single days and thought the religion was pretty benign. There was a church close by so off we went. It wasn’t a bad experience. This particular church had a female minister, which seemed cool to someone raised in the Catholic faith. The church was bright, the classrooms clean and well run and it had a very wholesome feel to it. Yet it was a bit too Christian for my tastes. That’s why my daughter eventually ended up at the religious education program at a Unitarian Universalist church.

I can’t claim to know much about their theology but I know enough now not to ever go back. Why? Because yesterday a Methodist Philadelphia minister was defrocked for violating a church law that requires ministers not be practicing homosexuals. The minister, Irene Elizabeth Stroud, was found guilty of being “a self avowed practicing homosexual.” Oh, the horror! Imagine what would happen if more Methodist ministers were homosexuals. Why, Methodists might get comfortable with the idea that homosexuality by itself has no more bearing on someone’s ability to minister than the color of their hair!

I have to wonder why is this an issue in the first place. Don’t Methodists read their Bibles? In the Bible that I read Jesus is a wholly nondiscriminatory human being. He hung out with prostitutes and lepers. In Jesus’ time the Jews treated Samaritans with contempt. Jews would even walk around areas of Palestine where they lived. Yet the clear message from the Parable of the Good Samaritan was that no one should be scorned simply for being different. We are all the same.

It is way past time to give homosexuals equal opportunities in all professions. But forces would much rather keep us stuck in the past. The major networks, for example, recently refused to air ads from the United Church of Christ. The ads emphasized that their denomination accepts gays and minorities while many other churches do not.

The ad features two bouncers standing outside a symbolic church selecting people to be permitted to pass the velvet rope to attend Sunday services. The bouncers reject two men and an African-American boy and girl, while letting a white heterosexual couple through.

What was the Church of Christ’s real sin here? It’s not that it welcomes homosexuals and minorities in its membership. The real sin was that it emphasized that other churches — lots of other churches — are quite comfortable with the practice. And it points out quite correctly that Jesus did not turn away people who came to listen to him. Not only do virtually all mainstream churches refuse to ordain homosexual ministers, but lots of mainstream churches also are openly hostile to gays in general. The Mormon Church’s wholly unenlightened interpretation and almost sneering attitude toward gays comes immediately to my mind. Want to see the Samaritans in contemporary Christendom? Talk to a Gay Mormon. They can tell you how the Samaritans felt.

No, we must not hear the truth about rampant, ignorant and prejudicial intolerance in mainstream Christian denominations. Instead we must project a false image of Jesus and real Christianity. We must ignore that much modern Christianity is about as Christ-like as Ghengis Khan. For example, is there any doubt what a 21st century Jesus would have said about the United States invading Iraq? Just in case you forgot, turn to Luke 6:29:

If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either.

But what are we getting from so called “mainstream” ministers about homosexuality? From Jerry Falwell we get vitriol like:

“These perverted homosexuals … absolutely hate everything that you and I and most decent, God-fearing citizens stand for. Make no mistake. These deviants seek no less than total control and influence in society, politics, our schools and in our exercise of free speech and religious freedom.”

From Pat Robertson:

What kind of craziness is it in our society which will put a cloak of secrecy around a group of people whose lifestyle is at best abominable. Homosexuality is an abomination. The practices of those people is appalling. It is a pathology. It is a sickness, and instead of thinking of giving these people a preferred status and privacy, we should treat AIDS exactly the same way as any other communicable disease.

Were I a Christian I would be seeking out churches that not only have read the words of Jesus but also actually try to live by them. So congratulations to the Church of Christ for getting the real message of Jesus. They must have read Matthew 7:

Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravaging wolves. You’ll recognize them by their fruit. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, but a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit; neither can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So you’ll recognize them by their fruit.