Bible  Comments Off on Armageddon
Nov 262015


These days politics and religion get horribly entangled, especially in the USA. This state of affairs strikes me as supremely ironic given that the country was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, and, therefore, when the founders wrote the founding documents they deliberately and explicitly excluded religion from all the laws. There was to be no established state religion nor religious tests of any sort. Those were different times, of course, and the founders’ main purpose was to make sure that one branch of Christianity did not dominate others. But there were deists and atheists kicking around too. The founders did not have to deal with Muslims, Hindus, etc., although Jews put many colonies in those days in a bit of a quandary (which they inherited from Europe). The idea of a secular nation, such as the USA, was completely alien to the authors of the Bible. ALL ancient nations and empires were founded on religion.

National gods were part and parcel of the overall worldview of peoples represented in the Bible, especially the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh was the national god of the people of Israel and Judah, and other nations had their gods. Monotheism did not exist. The Hebrew Bible does not assert that Yahweh is the ONLY god, simply that he is the MIGHTIEST. The Hebrew Bible is rife with stories of the Israelites following other gods whether it be a golden calf, or Ba’al or whoever, with the prophets endlessly condemning their errant ways. One big question was how to convince an errant nation that Yahweh was, indeed, the biggest and best. That’s where the Deuteronomists come in.

There is endless speculation as to who the Deuteronomists were and when they lived. I support the historians who identify them as a group of religious writers and leaders who dominated thinking in the reign of Josiah of Judah. In 721 BCE the northern kingdom of Israel had been crushed by the Assyrians and the bulk of the population deported (the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel). Only the kingdom of Judah remained (made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), and so from that point on it is legitimate to speak of Judeans, rather than Israelites, when talking of Biblical history. Strictly speaking, the history in the Hebrew Bible is, for the most part, the history of the Judeans, and their relations to other peoples.

In 640 BCE there was a crisis in Judah when king Amon was murdered. The aristocrats suppressed the attempted coup, putting the ringleaders to death and placing Amon’s eight-year-old son, Josiah, on the throne. Judah at this time was a loyal vassal of Assyria, having avoided Israel’s fate by not rebelling. But Assyria now began a rapid and unexpected decline in power, leading to a resurgence of nationalism in Jerusalem. In 622 Josiah launched a famous reform program, based on an early form of Deuteronomy 5–26 (almost certainly written by the Deuteronomists), framed as a covenant between Judah and Yahweh in which Yahweh replaced the Assyrian king as the supreme head of state. Josiah’s move in this direction was based on advice from the Deuteronomists: political reformers with a religious agenda. This agenda is laid out in their writings – Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, and 1&2 Kings.

The Deuteronomists had one major goal – to build an independent nation of Judah around the kingship of Josiah, with Yahweh as the supreme ruler, and Josiah as his “anointed one” – in Hebrew, his “Messiah.” Deuteronomistic history is really simple in its underlying principle, which is that historically the kings of Israel and Judah – and, hence, the nations as a whole – prospered when they followed Yahweh, and failed when they did not. This whole agenda was supposed to end with Josiah triumphant.

Josiah became an ardent nationalist. He tore down cultic places that were not dedicated to Yahweh, stripped the temple of “foreign” idols, killed priests who were not worshiping Yahweh – in fact purged the nation of everything that was not Yahwist. His whole kingship was centered on a “pure” national religion.

Feeling that Yahweh had his back, Josiah took on the Egyptian army on the plains of Megiddo in a battle whose site’s name would eventually be mutated in Aramaic into the place of final judgment – Armageddon. For Josiah it was the place of final judgment. His army was crushed and he was killed. Soon after, Judah was overwhelmed by Babylon and the entire upper echelon of Judah was carted off into captivity.

That was two and a half millennia ago. You’d have thought people would have got the memo by now. IF YOU WANT TO BUILD A NATION IN THE NAME OF GOD AND GO TO WAR IN THE NAME OF THAT GOD – YOU WILL LOSE. Am I being clear enough? War is not the answer – period. Jesus came along 500 years later to tell the Judeans the same thing. But his message is not getting through either. “If you live by the sword, you will die by the sword.” I don’t know how to be clearer. The only way to have peace is to be peaceful. The only way to find love is to be loving. If you try to fulfill your goals through war, you will just get more war, death, and destruction.


To be continued . . .

Marriage and Culture

 Bible, Ritual  Comments Off on Marriage and Culture
Nov 222015


Marriage worldwide, and historically, has been deeply entwined with issues of law, alliance, property, legitimacy and inheritance. Love may or may not be involved. I suggest you read a good anthropological text on the subject if you are interested. I’ll simply touch on a few key issues here.

I find it laughable when current pundits in the USA talk about “traditional” marriage and “Biblical” marriage in the context of GLBT marriage laws. Nothing could be farther from the truth than that the idea of marriage being a bond between ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN is rooted in the Bible. Sure, Adam and Eve were one man and one woman. That’s because they were the only man and woman at the time. As soon as there were many men and many women, all bets were off. Jacob, founder of Israel, had 12 sons by 2 wives and 2 concubines; both David and Solomon, pillars of Israel, had hundreds of wives apiece; Onan got in trouble with God for not sleeping with his dead brother’s wife . . .  and on and on. So called “traditional” marriage, that is, heterosexual monogamy, is a function of modern Western culture, and is not especially common globally, although as Western culture exerts its influence it is increasingly so.

Certain linguistic roots are important for our basic vocabulary: mono- (one), poly- (more than one), -gamy (marriage), -gyny (wife), and –andry (husband). In the West the last two are used by social scientists only, but they are very important when talking about global practices. When people in the West talk about polygamy they almost always mean polygyny, that is, one man with more than one wife at the same time. Polyandry, one woman with more than one husband, is exceptionally rare. It is found as a norm only in a few isolated cultures in south Asia.

Of the 1,231 societies listed in the 1980 Ethnographic Atlas, 186 were found to be monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry. That is, about 15% of cultures worldwide are strictly monogamous. A whopping 84.9% allow polygyny, and less than 0.1% allow polyandry. Of polygynous societies, more than half are regularly so, and a little less than half are occasionally so. This has to do with a number of factors, including available resources. In many societies, polygyny is allowed, but monogamy is the norm because men simply cannot afford multiple wives, but would have them if they could. Note that these statistics do not involve raw numbers of actual marriages. The overwhelming number of marriages in the world are monogamous. I am talking strictly about marriage type by culture. Worldwide, polygyny is the norm. So, saying that heterosexual monogamy is “traditional” marriage is hokum.

Marriage creates a legal and social bond, not so much between two individuals, as between two families, with numerous consequences. Nowhere was that clearer than in royal marriages in Europe in times past. When Henry VII of England wanted to forge an alliance with Aragon, he married his son, Arthur, to the daughter, Katherine, of the Aragonese king, even though they were infants when betrothed, and teenagers when married. When, unfortunately, Arthur died young, Henry VII married his second son, the future Henry VIII, to Katherine to preserve the bond. Rich families have done this in all cultures, in all times, and if love comes along, that’s just a bonus. Likewise, if two families do not want relationships with one another they seriously discourage marriage between their members. That’s how Romeo and Juliet got into trouble. They messed things up by being in love.

Marriage is also deeply concerned worldwide with the legitimacy of offspring and with inheritance by those offspring. This is a very complicated subject that I cannot get into in detail. I’ll simply touch on some important issues. Invariably when I taught about inheritance in the past, someone would raise a hand and ask “what if a couple is childless?” The simple answer is that where inheritance is important there is always someone to inherit should there be no son and daughter.

Levirate law, for example, is quite common in certain cultures, including Biblical ones. Under this law, if the eldest son dies before having heirs in a culture where the eldest son preserves the lineage, the next eldest son is expected to marry his brother’s widow and produce heirs – not in his own name, but in his brother’s name. That was Onan’s big sin. He married his dead brother’s widow, but refused to have sex with her. Or, rather, he slept with her but practiced coitus interruptus (not masturbation as the Catholic church labels Onanism), because he did not want sons in his brother’s name. His sin was letting the lineage die out. You can find explicit Biblical approval of levirate marriage in Genesis 38, Deuteronomy 25, and the book of Ruth (where levirate marriage extends the lineage that eventually produces king David and Jesus). When Henry VIII was forced to marry his dead brother’s widow so that his father could preserve the union with Aragon, he was fine with it until she failed to produce a male heir.

The practice of bridewealth is also deeply tied to lineage and inheritance. In many cultures, including Biblical ones, when a woman marries, the groom, or groom’s family, gives things of value to the bride’s father. This can be crassly seen as buying brides, but it is more accurate to see the practice as buying a woman’s children. The children become part of the groom’s lineage, and the bride’s family have no claim on them. Among other things, bridewealth strongly inhibits divorce, beause if the woman were to return to her father, he’d have to return the bridewealth. You can guess how often that happens. Bridewealth is very common in pastoral societies, and you find it in the Bible, as in Genesis 24 where Isaac marries Rebekah.

In short, I don’t want to hear uninformed ranting about “traditional” marriage practices, or “Biblical” marriage or any other such nonsense. Marriage bends and twists to suit the needs of particular cultures at particular times. Right now serial monogamy – one spouse at a time – seems to suit Western culture reasonably well, although things could change. The USA is settling into accepting gay marriage, not just because of issues having to do with love and romance, but also because of conventional marital issues such as health benefits, inheritance rights, and so forth. Marriage rules bend to suit the culture and not the other way round. There is a definite flow of causation here from the independent variable, culture, to the dependent variable, marriage. You can’t stem cultural change by rigidifying marriage rules, even though a large number of people would like that to be the case. You can’t stop culture change – period.


To be continued . . .


Weddings and Marriage (1)

 Ritual  Comments Off on Weddings and Marriage (1)
Nov 162015


As I mentioned in my last post, weddings are a rite of passage and they are culturally universal. Anything that is culturally universal is going to draw the attention of anthropologists. Sure, there are huge differences when it comes to particulars, and I will need to be somewhat simplistic about this. But in general, marriage creates ties that are different from ties of blood. Sometimes the bride and groom are related by blood, it is true. But, nonetheless, the marriage bond created between them is of a very different kind from their blood bond. For one thing, marriage involves sex, whereas blood kinship does not.

In anthropology, blood kinship is called “consanguineal” and marriage kinship is called “affinal.” Consanguineal kin are related to you genetically, whereas affinal kin are related by law – hence the term “in-law” for many affinal kin in the West (not all). As such, marriage bonds have certain qualities that blood kinship does not. Most importantly, you can break an affinal bond, but not a consanguineal one. Certainly, you can disown a son or daughter, but they are still your children. When you divorce a spouse, that’s it. They are no longer related to you. That’s one of the reasons that divorce is such a big deal in the Bible. The ideal is that affinal bonds should be as strong as consanguineal ones, but they just aren’t. The two parties have to agree to the bond, it’s not simply given to them by a law of nature. If you want to put it another way (simplistically), consanguineal bonds are natural, and affinal bonds are cultural. All kinds of animals have blood kin, but only humans have marriage.

In my next post I am going to talk about marriage around the world. In this post I want to focus on marriage, especially the ceremony, as it exists traditionally in the West. Of course, nowadays people do all manner of things and consider it a marriage ceremony. But what are the basics at the heart of Western culture for hundreds of years? Most importantly, it is a rite of passage, but who is undergoing transition?

At first blush we want to say that they are both getting married. Yes they are. But who is making all the changes? Who is going through transition? A moment’s reflection shows that it is the woman, not the man. The traditional marriage ceremony removes a woman from the control of her father and places her under the control of her husband (and until quite recently this was a legal/financial fact in many countries). Let’s look at the details (based on traditional values – not as they are now).

  1. The wedding takes place in the bride’s home town – that is, her father’s residence.
  2. She begins the ceremony with her father’s last name and ends it with her husband’s last name.
  3. She changes her status from Miss to Mrs. When she is Miss Smith she is the daughter of Mr Smith, and when she marries Mr Jones she becomes Mrs Jones. She never has a name in her own right, only a name (and title) in relation to a man.
  4. The bride is the only member of the wedding party to wear white, the color symbol of transition.
  5. Traditionally the bride wore a wedding ring and the groom did not.
  6. The bride is walked down the aisle by her father and handed over to the groom. Until recently the service at that moment (or soon thereafter) had the words from the officiant – “who gives this woman?” Traditionally the bride’s father said “I do” and then stepped back.

In a nutshell, the woman was being passed from one man to another.

Nowadays the ceremony has been softened, but significant portions remain. When I was married in 1986 the license form had the option for both bride and groom to state what name they wished to use when married. In those days 83% of women chose to take their husband’s name. This brings up the term “maiden name,” which is a polite way of saying “name when you were a virgin” (maiden = virgin in this context). In my experience very few people, male or female, object to the term “maiden name” or what it implies, or even grasp what it implies. Yet it has no male equivalent. Underneath the term is still the concept that as a virgin a woman is under her father’s control, but once married (and hence sexual) is under her husband’s control.

So, if the culture is going to change to be more egalitarian and less sexist, the ritual has to reflect that aspiration. When my wife and I were married we did not have an aisle as such. We were married in our friends’ garden – who were also our witnesses (he signed on my behalf and she signed on my wife’s – their dog was our flower girl). We did, however, have a pathway in to the ceremony, and my wife and I walked in together (dog leading the way). No one led us in. Unfortunately the officiant, a local magistrate, was not in on the game, so at the end of the ceremony, quite wrongly but proudly, announced, “I present to you Mr and Mrs Forrest. <sigh> He should have been prepped. I am Dr Forrest and she was Dr Blincoe, and we remained so after our marriage.

I’ll end with a small note on marriage vows. One of the unfortunate modern trends is for couples to “write their own vows.” I strongly discouraged this as a pastor, although I gave them choices among different sets of traditional vows. My first issue is that vows are promises. They take the form of “I promise that for the rest of my life I will . . .etc.” They are not moments to go off on some vague ramble about how much you care about the other person. They are simple and direct promises – love, honor, cherish etc., in good times and in bad, forever. One huge point is that they are the same as the vows that married observers made at their weddings. This is a moment of solidarity. The vows reinforce cultural values. That is the whole point of ritual – to reaffirm cultural values. So even though marriage is focused on individuals undergoing transition, fundamental cultural values are at the heart. If you make a wedding ceremony uniquely personal and individual, you lose the point. It is individual and personal enough. If you take ritual out of the collective consciousness and make it individual it loses its purpose. Ritual is inherently collective.

Rites of Passage

 Religion  Comments Off on Rites of Passage
Nov 142015


My professional specializations range over the map a fair bit, but the anthropology of religion is near the center, most of the time. It’s an area I feel has been very productive in anthropological theorizing although I consider the best work is now rather dated. Most especially, I think work on ritual in general, and rites of passage in particular, has borne fruit. The key element in any theorizing is to take diverse observations and reduce them to simple principles, and in the theory of ritual I think anthropology has given us some important insights.

Let me be baldly clear here, though. Physical science is inherently reductionist. Newton’s theory of gravity and his law of universal gravitation, for example, takes myriad observations of the actions of physical objects and reduces them to a formula – “every body in the universe attracts every other body in the universe with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart.” Or, in crude terms – big things are more attractive than little things, and things are more attractive the closer they are together. Well and good – it works. Are there similar laws of social dynamics? No – for many reasons, but two are especially important. First, social behavior is inherently complex and cannot be reduced to formulae in the way that motion can be. There are too many variables. Second, it’s possible to see reductionism in social science as misguided. Clifford Geertz, for example, argues that the role of the social scientist is to expand on observations, not to reduce them to simplicity. You don’t understand Shakespeare, for example, by saying “in his tragedies everyone dies at the end, and in his comedies everyone gets married.” There’s an important germ of truth in there, but you get to know Hamlet by exploring the richness of Shakespeare’s poetry and imagery in detail and not by making crass and misleading generalizations. He’s not just a troubled kid who can’t make up his mind.

That said, I believe that the analysis of rites of passage by anthropologists has something to teach us. The two main players are Arnold van Gennep and his disciple Victor Turner. Turner’s work is better known in the English-speaking world, and, although it is more developed than van Gennep’s, is essentially a reworking of it. My comments here are a synthesis of both.

All rituals essentially reinforce basic cultural values for the people involved, but rites of passage are more focused on particular areas. Rites of passage exist because although people go through transitions gradually, they feel more secure if those transitions can be contained and codified. Everyone knows that adolescence is a very difficult time for both adolescents and their parents. Instead of letting the period of hormonal changes and social adjustment string out forever – as it often does in the West – it’s much more comfortable for all concerned if the transition from childhood to adulthood is focused on a puberty rite in which the initiate enters as a child and leaves as an adult — in a short space of time. Such rites have less force in the modern world because the attainment of adult status is gradual. Diver’s license, high school graduation, voting, legal drinking etc., all come at different ages and cumulatively mark the transition to adulthood. In simpler times it was a lot easier to take a teenaged boy aside, lop his foreskin off, teach him a few cultural secrets, and then declare him a man. Yesterday he was a boy, today he is a man.

Of course, things are not as simple as that. A 14 year old “man” is still immature in a lot of ways – in many of the ways he acted yesterday when he was just a boy. But his social status has changed overnight. In many cultures in Oceania, for example, boys live with their mothers in family huts, but men live together communally in the men’s house. Once initiated to manhood the former boy can no longer live with his mother. It’s rather like getting a driver’s license. You’re no better as a driver the day after you pass the test as you were the day before, but you have a great many more rights and responsibilities than you did before you passed. As many people can attest, you become a “real” driver only after you have passed the test and have gained experience alone on the road.

All cultures have three basic rites of passage – birth, marriage, and death – known by Presbyterians in the trade as “hatch, match, and dispatch,” the only three times many people see the inside of a church. There are a great many lesser ones which are found in particular cultures, or particular groups within a culture, including initiation into adulthood, or into specific organizations such as fraternities, the military and the like.

The key point is that transition from one category to another is a time of awkwardness and potential hazard, and for everyone’s sake this “danger” period should be minimized and controlled as much as possible. Turner calls this time the “liminal” period (taken from the Latin “limen” meaning a threshold). When you are on a literal threshold you are neither on one room or another. This place is sometimes called “betwixt and between.” Without a ritual to control the “chaos,” things can get out of hand, as they do during Western adolescence which sprawls over years and years sometimes. It’s in everyone’s interest to limit this chaos and social confusion.

Anthropology recognizes that culture’s root purpose is to bring order to a world that is inherently disorderly. We have basic color words, for example, to organize a world of infinite colors. Some cultures/languages have very few color words, and some have many. But in all of them the number of terms is very small in comparison with the visual possibilities. The same is true of the human life span. We grow older day by day, even minute by minute. But we use birthdays, rites of passage, and so forth to chunk our lives up into manageable units. Different cultures do it differently, but the underlying purpose is the same.

According to van Gennep and Turner, rites of passage have three well defined stages:




During the separation phase the people undergoing transition are separated from the rest of the community in one way or another. This might involve special clothing, special actions etc. What is important is that these people are focused upon, usually in a ritual way, rather than the focus being on the whole community – although the community has a part to play. From this point on, the people undergoing transition are in a liminal state until they re-enter society in their new status. Certain colors, especially white, are very common for dress and adornment, but red and black are also used frequently. Worldwide, white, black, and red are conceived of as primary colors signifying purity and danger (Purity and Danger is the title of a classic work by Mary Douglas on liminality). People in a liminal state are vulnerable and therefore need to be kept pure. But, as such, they can be very powerful. I’ll have more to say about liminality in later posts.

Following the period of separation, people undergoing transition are isolated for a period of segregation from the rest of the culture. So, for example, initiates to manhood in many African cultures are circumcised as part of separation, and then live together separate from other villagers whilst their wounds heal. During this time they may be accompanied by senior adult males, who teach them the duties of manhood.

Having been segregated from the community, for a period, those undergoing transition are reintegrated into the community under their new status. During the period of segregation they have learned the expectations of their new roles, and the community has adjusted to thinking of them in this new light. There may be a celebration at this point, and then the community returns to normal.

By controlling and containing the transition of certain members via rites of passage everyone is kept safe. The community has remained stable during the transition of some of its members, and, in the process, everyone has had a chance to reinforce core cultural values. To see how this works in detail, I will next examine marriage ceremonies in various societies. Marriage is a universal practice, so it must be very important to culture as a whole.

To be continued . . .


 Bible, Religion  Comments Off on Ritual
Nov 082015


I am going to devote several posts, in sequence, to rituals, first in general terms, and then focusing on specific ones. Rituals are important to everyone whether they are religious or not. Anthropologists talk about secular rituals to distinguish them from their sacred counterparts, but much of the underlying purpose of both is the same. Rituals provide us with stability in life as well as a sense of personal identity and group solidarity.

Sometimes people use the term “ritual” when they really mean “routine,” for actions in everyday life. For example, I would call a person’s morning activities their “routine,” rather than their “ritual.” Nothing earth shattering hinges on going to the bathroom before you brush your teeth or putting on the coffee. It’s mostly a matter of convenience and habit. Routines and rituals have a set order, usually, but with rituals there’s a greater sense than with routines that you have to follow a set order or pattern. If you don’t, the ritual loses power. English tea making is often called a ritual, but I would call it a routine. Things have to be done the right way in a certain order primarily for practical purposes, and not because the world will fall apart if you get it wrong.

In this sense ritual has a spiritual quality even if God per se is not part of the deal. Ritual, when done properly, gives you a sense that all’s right with the world. To this end, rituals are usually group activities. The sense of group solidarity achieves the goal of spiritual union even if the activity is secular. So, for example, chanting at a political rally or protest unites all present by turning myriad voices into one. The physical action of ritual creates the abstract mental sensibility. Presbyterians close their eyes and bow their heads to pray, whereas Catholics and Episcopalians get down on their knees. The former are emphasizing quiet focus, the latter, humility. My point is that ritual has an outward physical component that leads to an inward sensibility.

The Protestant Reformation got rid of a lot of physical ritual including kneeling, genuflection, crossing oneself and so forth that was intrinsic to Catholicism. Physicality is making a bit of a comeback in a few Protestant circles, but tends to be viewed with suspicion still. The problem is that ritual is, by definition, routine. But if it is routine and nothing else, it is meaningless. Worse still, routine can be seen to be magical – do it the right way and it has to work regardless of your intention. Protestants are really big on intentions and down on magic. You don’t go to church because the priest tells you to, and God will reward you for being in the building even though you are playing video games on your smartphone. You go to church because you WANT to be there. I remember being part of the clergy ensemble at an ecumenical Thanksgiving service one year at the local Catholic church (we rotated around our churches), which started with a deacon saying, “I’m glad to see so many people here even though you are not under obligation.” At that point a little girl in the congregation whispered (a little too loudly) to her mother, “you mean I don’t have to be here.” To my mind, ritual is not about obligation but about desire.

Anthropologists divide rituals into two general categories: rites of passage, and rites of intensification. Rites of passage involve personal transformation from one status to another – baptism, marriage, bar mitzvah etc. and I will talk about them in subsequent posts. Rites of intensification focus on the entire community and are acts of solidarity. Regular Sunday worship is a classic rite of intensification. Presbyterians have a clear ideology about Sunday worship which is drummed into us as candidates for ordination, although it’s common for congregants not to know this ideology. To me it is powerful. It centers on THE WORD (always in upper case), meaning a reading from the Bible. That is, the Bible is the essential component to which every other component refers. It is placed in the middle to mark its centrality, and quite different from the Catholic mass which comes at the end. Communion is of minor importance in Reformed churches in comparison with THE WORD.

Selection of THE WORD can be pastor’s choice week to week, or you may use a lectionary, such as the Common Lectionary. The Common Lectionary is an ecumenically agreed upon and fixed series of weekly readings from the Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible, Psalms, and Epistles that work through the Bible thematically over a 3-year period. Some pastors find such a system too constraining and go off on their own. I like the Common Lectionary because it has a built in sense of wider church unity. When I was a pastor and on vacation I could visit a distant church and yet still hear the readings that I would have used were I at home.

A Presbyterian service – no matter what the focus – should always follow this template:

Gathering to hear THE WORD

Preparing to hear THE WORD


Responding to THE WORD

Departing with THE WORD.

How you go about this is very important in my mind. It starts with “gathering.” You are not just filling up the pews like going to the movies. It’s not a time to talk about the shocking price of milk or the glorious weather we are having. It’s a time of quiet meditation when you calm your spirit for what is to come. Some churches do this, others not. It largely depends on the history and habits of the particular church. I always made a habit of entering the sanctuary 5 minutes or so before the beginning of a service and sitting in silent prayer and meditation before beginning. This was a good time for me to focus my thoughts and, I hoped, modeled the notion of gathering to hear THE WORD for others.

“Preparing” to hear THE WORD can involve any number of things. Typically there are topical hymns and prayers of the people. Among the latter may be prayers of confession. In the Presbyterian tradition confession is part of public worship but it is a private act – typically a period of silent prayer or meditation followed by a public announcement of forgiveness. The purpose of all the forgoing is to ready oneself to hear THE WORD with a clear mind and an open heart.

THE WORD thus becomes central to worship both in timing and in meaning. Using the Common Lectionary makes the choice of readings simple, and eliminates the personal element. I’ve known many preachers use the pulpit for thematic series of their own choosing – sex and marriage, politics, morality etc. I tend to think of this as personal indulgence even if something good comes of it. The Common Lectionary is akin to a spiritual Iron Chef – here’s your ingredients make something good out of them.

The sermon is clearly the common way of “responding” to THE WORD. There is a general principle in the Presbyterian tradition that you cannot read THE WORD without responding to it in some way. Otherwise it just sits there. I used to prepare my order of service on Monday mornings so that the church secretary had time to print it up. So, from Monday to Saturday I would mull over the readings, then write up my sermon on Saturday night or (more usually) Sunday morning. Even though I had a printed sermon, I often deviated from my own text. For me, “responding” to the word was about distilling out the essence. I was following the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount – focusing not on literal meaning, but finding the spiritual message beneath the words.

There are numerous other components to “responding” to THE WORD. Usually there is an offering, which I always felt was a little too secular for a church service. I’d much rather that church donations were handled privately. As it is, in the Presbyterian tradition the pastor is excluded from the budget process. This is handled by a budget committee and reported to the pastor, who has no say in the matter (although many manage to insinuate themselves anyway). Praise the Lord for that mercy. The pastor may comment on budgetary matters, but decisions are made by committee and the session of elders, and the pastor does not have a vote. In fact the pastor has no vote in any church matters because he/she is not a member of the congregation. By church law the pastor may not know what individuals donate – that is entirely between the congregants and the treasurer. It’s a good system in my opinion because it leaves the pastor free to devote to spiritual matters only.

“Departing” with THE WORD often tends to be as amorphous as “gathering.” Sometimes there is a coffee hour after the service which could, in theory, be used to discuss the sermon, but is usually just a social time. That’s all right, I suppose. The underlying purpose of the ritual is unity in fellowship which can be achieved in a number of ways. Being together as a community is important, and I will talk about this more in later posts when I talk about how I would like to see a church organized.


To be continued . . .


Unconditional Love

 Bible, Religion  Comments Off on Unconditional Love
Nov 062015


The notion of unconditional love is a hard sell in the modern world, and probably always has been. Getting, or giving, something for nothing just does not sound right to most people. Unconditional love, however, sits at the very center of Christianity. According to Paul and the gospels (especially John), Jesus freely gave himself over to crucifixion as a sacrifice for OUR sins – not his own, because he was sinless. It was an act of pure, selfless, unconditional love. We did NOTHING to deserve it, but he did it anyway. In consequence we are freely forgiven. It does not matter to me whether you buy into this theology or not. Regardless, it’s a token of what the Christian life should be all about. Jesus provided the quintessential model, and if we aspire to be Christ-like (i.e. a Christian) we should follow that model and live a life of unconditional love as well. Therefore, I have no hesitation in saying that if you do not aspire to that model, you are not a Christian. Note, I said “aspire.” I did not say “succeed.” Unconditional love is hard to practice, but we must, at least, try. If you don’t at least try, in my eyes you are not a Christian.

Anthropologists talk about two markedly different kinds of relationships: transactional and incorporative. This is not exactly a black-and-white dichotomy, more two ends of a spectrum. We are all familiar with transactional relationships – sometimes called reciprocal relationships. The simplest of them would be buying something. I want a bar of chocolate. It costs $2. I take the chocolate and give the vendor $2. That’s a simple transaction and we are both content. Our relationship lasts for as long as it takes to exchange chocolate and money.

But there is also delayed reciprocity when items are not exchanged immediately. The country store in the village where I did fieldwork in coastal North Carolina used to allow locals to run up credit. There was no interest charged; it was just a convenience so that you did not always have to carry money around or in case you were broke until payday. The benefit of such credit is that it created a bond of trust between owner and customer. There were two competing stores in the village, and you always went to the one where you had credit. Once I saw the owner accuse a young man of stealing gas. The young man was so furious that he asked the owner how much he owed, pulled out a wad of bills, paid it on the spot, and never returned. He obviously could have paid his credit off at any time, but kept it running as an act of delayed reciprocity – of loyalty. Paying the debt broke the bond. Birthday presents can also be a form of delayed reciprocity. I buy you a gift on your birthday and would expect one in return on mine.

Reciprocity may be symmetric or asymmetric. Buying a bar of chocolate is completely symmetric. Birthday presents among friends may also be more or less symmetric, although not necessarily completely so. Birthday presents between parent and child may not be at all symmetric, however. A parent may lavish gifts on a child knowing that the child does not have the money to repay equally. Exact equality of giving is not expected; but something is.

People in the Western world have the habit of conducting most, or all, relationships through some species of reciprocity. They can be asymmetric, delayed, whatever . . . but reciprocity is still underneath it all. Parents do many, many things for their children and usually expect something in return. It’s built into the culture. I often hear parents say to their children, my students, “I’m paying the tuition, I expect you to work hard and get good grades.” Marriages can work the same way too – “you clean the house, I cut the lawn.”

Mosaic Law was transactional too and I’ve discussed this already: “An eye for an eye” is obviously transactional. There is another kind of relationship, though: the incorporative.

Transactional relationships are based on reciprocity; incorporative relationships are based on love. The absolute ideal of incorporative relationships is unconditional love. “Unconditional” is the key word here – NO CONDITIONS. You love purely because you love, not because you expect anything in return. Paul’s immortal words from 1 Corinthians 13 hang on this principle:

3 If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.
4 Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud,
5 doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil;
6 doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;
7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails.

Incorporative relations take a lot of hard work and of realigning our thinking. Jesus makes this clear in the Sermon on the Mount when he says that it’s easy to love people who love you. Even pagans do that, he says. It’s a great deal more difficult to love someone who hates you. But that’s what he asks us to do. Do modern politicians who claim to be Christians advocate this? Of course not. We should bomb our enemies, and kill all who stand in our way. Love is seen as a sign of weakness. The fact is, though, that it is a sign of immense strength, trust, and hope.




What about Paul?

 Bible  Comments Off on What about Paul?
Nov 042015

st paul

Paul comes up a great deal in discussions about the Greek Bible. He’s a very important figure in the early church. His writings are demonstrably as close as we can get chronologically to the time in which Jesus lived and worked. That in itself should be enough to secure for him a central place in church history. But there’s so much more to Paul than that. It’s not going too far to claim that without Paul there would be no Christianity today. An enormous amount of what contemporary Christianity is today is wrapped up in Paul’s messages. Paul did two crucial things. First, he traveled the known world preaching and setting up churches in the Gentile world. Second, he created a solid theological structure for the Christian church. The second was, in many respects, a key component of the first. Early Christianity was an outgrowth of Judaism, and a great deal of its message required an understanding of Judaic practice. Paul provided Gentiles with the necessary background, but he went much further. He also addressed corollary questions. Do Gentiles have to convert to Judaism when they become Christians? What is the status of Mosaic Law for Gentile Christians? Should Gentile Christians be circumcised? In the process of addressing these, and other, questions he laid out a program of belief and devotion for all to follow.

Strip away Paul from the Greek Bible and there’s not much left. The earliest gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are theologically quite impoverished. They give us the kernel of Christian belief along with the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection. But that’s it. Without Paul we cannot fully make sense of any of it. Even a well educated Jew would have had trouble making all of the pieces fit. What we have in the gospels is the story of a renowned preacher and healer who got executed and was raised back to life. This is certainly powerful stuff. But what does it mean for you and me? Paul supplies the answers. Paul shows us how the life and death of Jesus can be fitted into a theological and devotional framework. He shows us how to worship. He’s a nuts and bolts guy. He gives us the day to day pragmatic details that the gospels do not.

For the thinking Christian Paul is a literal Godsend because he gives us things to think about. He was brought up in a world dominated by Greek philosophy, and so was able to take philosophical concepts and shape them to suit his theological musings. These sections of his writings give us something to sink our teeth into intellectually. But he was also trained in the temple tradition of the priests and the Torah. He knew a great deal about sacrifice and worship along with the workings of the Law. Because of this he was able to take what he knew about the life of Jesus and blend it with his Judaic and Hellenistic backgrounds to create a satisfyingly complex, yet understandable, philosophical religion.

I think that the first thing that we have to acknowledge is that Paul as an evangelist was a troublemaker. He was not just some shill bent on protecting normative first century Middle Eastern culture as some modern critics would have him, even though there is no doubt that he comes out of a particular cultural milieu which we have to acknowledge when reading his works. There is no question that the Middle East of the first century was patriarchal and authoritarian, as was the religious hierarchy of classic Judaism. Paul was deeply invested in this culture. He had been a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. He had also been zealously legalistic and a jealous guardian of Jewish tradition. But his conversion on the road to Damascus was genuinely life altering. He came to see the world in a completely different light. Yes, he used the vocabulary and imagery of his old religion while crafting the new. But the new was really new. Huge segments of his old life got tossed. A Pharisee who lets go of the Law (and he clearly did) is a fundamentally changed man.

It’s also very clear from his letters and from the historical facts of which we can be reasonably certain, that the new Paul was not faint hearted about social change and upheaval. He strode right into the thick of controversy when necessary. We cannot just dismiss him as some mindless traditionalist clinging on to a sexist, misogynistic, autocratic worldview because it suited his temperament. To do so is to do him a grave injustice. We also have to be fair and admit that without him Christianity would probably not have survived the turbulent times of the first century. Paul’s evangelical ministry saved the church, and so we should start on that high point and move from there.

When Jesus was crucified the leadership of the church was passed on to his disciples. If we can accept the broad strokes of the Acts of the Apostles, it seems that the followers of Jesus rather quickly began the task of creating an institutional church in Jerusalem. In many respects I find the institution they created worthy of emulation, and will have more to say about that at some point. When the church is in need of reformation and revitalization, as I believe it is now, the early church model is a great place to start. They called their new system The Way (or The Way of The Lord). The followers of The Way lived in communes and held all property in common. As such they were primitive socialists. They ate their main daily meals together and worshipped jointly. They were probably millenarians, that is, believing that the second coming of Christ was imminent and the world as we know it would soon come to an end. In preparation for this new world they were also probably worldly ascetics, practicing daily austerities that could have included celibacy, simplicity in worldly activities such as food and dress, and plain worship activities.

One battle that was never really resolved throughout the first century was whether The Way was essentially a branch of Judaism, or whether Gentiles could join in. The Jerusalem church seems to have been oriented primarily towards Judaism and drew its new members predominantly from the Jewish population. They celebrated Jewish holidays, worshipped at the temple when necessary, and followed the Law as appropriate. Acts presents a somewhat confused picture and we should not rely on it too heavily as a source. But it is quite evident that the Jerusalem church was sharply divided as to whether Gentiles should be preached to or not; and if they became followers whether they should be circumcised and follow the Law. Some of the early Jerusalem disciples saw the importance of including Gentiles, but Paul was the true Gentile evangelist. He went all over the place founding churches and bringing converts to The Way.

It’s also clear from Paul’s letters and from Acts that Paul and the Jerusalem apostles did not see eye to eye on a number of critical matters, so that the division of labor whereby Paul went off on his missionary journeys while the apostles mostly stayed close to Jerusalem, suited all parties. (There are many tales that some of the apostles, Thomas, for example, traveled the world preaching and establishing churches, but no hard evidence of this exists and I am seriously given to doubt it.) For Paul to be successful in his proselytizing he had to be able to explain his religious convictions to people who had little or no idea about the basics of Judaism (although it is also quite likely that he began his missionary activities with the Jews of the communities he visited).   In some ways, therefore, Paul acted as a kind of applied anthropologist, translating the cultural values of the Jews and their religion into a format that Gentiles in the Greek world could appreciate. In the process he imported a great deal of Greek thinking that would have been alien to the Jerusalem sect.

In the year 70 CE the historical development of Christianity was transformed. In response to political circumstances in Judea, the might of the Roman army came crashing down on the Jewish state. The temple was destroyed, men, women and children were slaughtered, and Judaism centered on Jerusalem was effectively wiped out. With it the nascent Christian church was smashed as well. If The Way as centered on Jerusalem had been the only branch of Christianity, the religion most likely would have died at that moment. But ever since the late 30’s Paul had been busy developing churches all across the Middle East and Europe, and they were relatively unaffected by the loss of the temple. They had not been centered on Jerusalem at all to begin with. The city was not their Mecca. To be sure there were Christians who saw in the destruction of the temple the beginnings of “end times” and the second coming of Christ. But when this did not happen they settled in for the long haul. They created formal church institutions with leaders and administrators, and regularized a code of worship. Paul’s ideas, disseminated through visits and letters, were an immense help in this codification process.

From a social scientific perspective what happened to the church in the first century is quite similar to what happens whenever a brilliant leader ushers in a new intellectual or socio-political era. There is even a whole theory concerning what are called revitalization movements. First you have a general climate of dissatisfaction that forms the background for the movement. Out of this social discord a charismatic leader emerges. This leader (usually male, so I’ll use the male pronoun), paints in really broad strokes. He envisages a completely new world order, a new age that is right around the corner (“the kingdom of God is at hand”). He attracts a large following of the poor, oppressed, and disenfranchised who, at this point, are caught up in the generalities of the visionary message. No one is concerned about day-to-day details because this world we live in, this old order, is going to be swept away. It’s an intoxicating time filled with zeal and enthusiasm and, most of all, hope. But time passes. The leader dies. The new world does not magically appear. If the movement is to survive it has to live on more than passion and hope. It needs structure.

The second phase of a revitalization movement is institutionalization (or bureaucratization, if you’re feeling dismal). A second generation leader, or set of leaders, emerges to take on the task of guiding the movement. They have a daunting task. They do not have the charisma of the original leader, although they may be inspiring in their own right. The problem is that they are conveying the message second hand. Glimpses of the original vision are there, but it is less compelling now. These new leaders have to start dealing with the practicalities of everyday life. The followers want to know what to do next. Thousands upon thousands of picky practical questions have to be addressed. How will our leaders be chosen? Will they be paid? If so, how much? Should we build churches? Where will the money come from to build them? What colors should my clothes be? Can I wear jewelry? What foods are acceptable to eat? And on and on. The new leaders are, thus, a mix of spiritual guide and administrator.

Once the movement is on the path of institutionalization it becomes more and more dogmatic and rigid. Doctrines get set in place. What was once a counter-cultural revolution starts becoming another component of the status quo. Eventually, in fact, it becomes another piece of the problem where once it was the solution. It too becomes the focus of disaffection. Members rebel. A new charismatic leader arises, and the process begins anew.

Within this analysis, which I think is penetratingly accurate, we can peg Paul as the most important member of the second generation of Christian leaders. He was both inspiring teacher and nitty-gritty administrator. It is instructive to note that when Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), he mentions church administration along with speaking in tongues and faith healing. When bookkeeping and auditing are seen as gifts of God, you know you are dealing with the second generation.

In pieces like Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church you see both sides of him. He is wonderfully inspirational in the broad strokes tradition of the charismatic leader. Chapter 13, the famous passage on love, is every bit as moving and passionate as the recorded sayings of Jesus. But in the same epistle he also deals with basic pragmatic concerns within the fledgling church such as whether it is acceptable to eat meat sacrificed to pagan idols, or whether Christians need to be circumcised. He gives advice about celebrating the sacraments. He also addresses matters that many would consider minor: the length of a man’s hair, and what a woman should wear in church. These are parts of the institutionalization process.

The thinking Christian needs to deal with Paul in this light. His role was much needed and we should not in any sense be patronizing of him. But we must realize that he is an interpreter of the vision and not the visionary himself. The fountainhead is Jesus, and Paul is his minister. In some sense Paul was attempting the impossible. He was preaching a radically revolutionary gospel that had the potential to turn the world upside down, and at the same time he was trying to establish and maintain social order within the church. I believe that we should have nothing but praise for the superb job he did of treading that razor’s edge. But in so doing we also need to contextualize what it was he was saying.

Contextualizing Paul’s writings can be done in two rather different ways. First we can measure what he is saying with what Jesus said. If there is a conflict then we must side with Jesus and against Paul. Inspired though he may be, Paul is the servant and he is not infallible. Just as the Bible is inspired but demonstrably errant in spots, so is Paul. Second, we cannot avoid interpreting some of his pronouncements in the light of the particular occasions that prompted them, as well as the general social milieu in which he lived. As such, a number of his decisions were important for specific occasions but need not be seen as having universal applicability.

Let’s take Paul’s statements on hair length as a case study. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul is addressing the specific question of whether women should cover their heads when they pray. In the process he says the following (1 Corinthians 11:14-15)

14 Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him,

15 but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering.

Paul is making a general argument here that has no merit whatsoever. In modern terms he is saying that it is “human nature” for men to have short hair and women to have long hair. The Greek term for nature that Paul uses, physis (which gives us “physics” and “physician”), literally means those things that occur because of natural laws. Human desire or artifice play no part in them. Paul’s contention is, thus, plainly ridiculous. He is saying that short hair on men is as natural as gravity. If it were natural for men to have short hair they would be genetically incapable of growing long hair. Short hair for men and long hair for women is clearly a cultural preference which may (and does) change over time.

Paul was, of course, aware that certain Biblical men, with especially high standing in the eyes of God, had long hair. Samson comes to mind immediately. Samson’s mother had taken a vow that her son would be a Nazarite whose vows included abstention from wine, avoidance of dead bodies, and not cutting their hair (Numbers 6:5). Most men who took such vows did so for a fixed period of time, but some of the holiest men in the Bible, such as Samson, were perpetual Nazarites. The prophet Samuel is another example (1 Samuel 1:11). The prophet Elijah may not have been under a Nazarite vow, but he was readily identifiable by his long hair (2 Kings 1:8).

So, how can long hair on a man be both degrading and a mark of holiness? One simple answer, often heard from modern conservatives is that deliberately degrading oneself is the whole point. These men took it upon themselves (under God’s command) to look shameful as the very mark of their holiness. If you like, they look wild and woolly so we see that they are set aside from culture; they are special because they have set themselves apart from normal cultured behavior. But that just proves my point. Short hair on a man is a cultural choice. That means that if wild and woolly were the norm (as it is in some cultures), then short hair would be radically counter-cultural.

Even if that argument is not enough there is the case of Absalom, king David’s son. He is described in 2 Samuel as the most attractive man in Israel (2 Samuel 14:25):

Now in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty; from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.

The passage goes on to say that his (literal) crowning glory is his long hair (2 Samuel 14:26):

And when he polled his head–now it was at every year’s end that he polled it; because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it–he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels, after the king’s weight.

A shekel is estimated at about 11.5 grams, so his annual hair cut took off around 2.3 kilos of hair. We can allow for hyperbole here, but the point is that the author is indicating that Absalom had very long hair, and rather than this being disgraceful it is seen as quite the opposite. The quibbler might point to the fact that Absalom’s hair was eventually his undoing. When fighting his father’s troops, his hair (the text actually says “head”) gets caught in a tree’s branches allowing soldiers to catch up with him and kill him (2 Samuel 18:9ff). But we can’t pin his death on his hair. He was killed by the general Joab against the express orders of the king, and, in any case, his great sin was not having long hair but rebelling against his father. Nowhere is his hair perceived as degrading.

Paul’s argument as a general case is clearly bankrupt. But maybe we can salvage a little bit of it in context. The Sermon on the Mount, our ultimate touchstone, condemns ostentation. Vanity diverts our attention from the proper focus of our love, namely, God and others. So, if long hair is not part of the normal cultural conventions that men are living under, then long hair becomes vain and self directed. This may have been part of Paul’s intention. The word that Paul uses for long hair here is not found anywhere else in the Greek Bible, and is not the normal Greek word for hair. It comes from a root that implies special care and attention. Paul may be saying that when a man puts a lot of effort into maintaining his hair it is vanity. But we still have a cultural bias here, because he goes on to say that when a woman puts the same effort into keeping her hair nice it is a blessing. Paul is confused. But we are thinking Christians, so we can expose this confusion and not let it corrode our faith. Nor do we need to discount Paul on everything else because he is confused on this point.

In fact I’m going to go a step farther and say that whenever Paul says something that seems really objectionable we need to be especially careful not to simply turn our backs on him. After all, if the gospels are at all accurate, Jesus asks us to do some pretty outrageous things. He asks us to pull out an eye or cut off a hand or a foot if it is causing problems (Mark 9:43-47, Matthew 18:8-9), he commands us to sell everything we own otherwise we cannot be his disciples (Luke 14:33), he tells one man he is unfit to be a disciple if he takes time out to bury his father (Luke 9:59-60), he admonishes another to leave his family for discipleship without as much as a farewell (Luke 9:61-62), and commands us to devote ourselves to him rather than to our families (Matthew 10:34). These are tough, tough commandments. So we can’t just dismiss Paul’s commandments on the grounds that they are extreme or difficult to follow. Christianity is hard. Get used to it.

Nevertheless, Paul does sometimes tangle up the culturally specific and the general. This happens entirely because he is a second generation administrator. He has to deal with specific issues that have arisen in specific locations. So he sometimes ends up responding to local issues in such a way that his statements feel as if they have absolute force when they do not. Therefore a careful reading of the historical and cultural context is invaluable. This is one of my rules of interpretation.

We also must cope with the fact that Jesus was teaching and preaching very much in a classic Hebraic tradition and Paul’s sentiments come from a Greek background. In a way Paul is very useful to us as modern Westerners because our worldview meshes much more with the Greek than with the Hebraic. So Paul is giving us useful tools. But he may also be leading us astray if we follow him too literally. Most especially we need to be wary of the fact that Paul was a classic dualist (and Jesus was not). Paul divided a human into a physical part, which he called “the flesh,” and a non-physical part which he called “spirit” and “soul.” Sometimes he speaks of spirit and soul as being the same, sometimes he speaks of them as having separate qualities. But we can still see him as essentially dividing a human into a physical part, which tends towards sin, and a non-physical part that tends towards God. These parts are often at war. His classic formulation of the flesh and spirit battle appears in Galatians 5:17-23:

17 For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.

18 But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness,

20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions,

21 occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,

23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.

Clearly for Paul flesh is not just inert matter, but an active agent opposing the will of the spirit in us. The flesh pulls us down into depravity while the spirit raises us up towards the will of God.   Here we have the age old battle of good and evil going on in the core of our beings. I could stretch out Paul’s theology and anthropology at great length, differentiating between spirit and soul, looking at his concept of heart in relation to the modern concept of “mind,” examining the terms “body” and “flesh,” and all the rest of it. But there’s no need. I don’t accept his analysis at all. It is as outmoded as the classic Hebraic cosmology that sees the sky as a vast dome with windows in it, and a path along which the sun can travel. Paul was using terms that made sense to people around him in the Hellenistic world, and we need not be bothered by them too much as long as we accept that the message he was trying to convey is still legitimate: some actions help us spiritually, and some hurt us.

I am not sure there is too much in the lists in Galatians to quarrel with. I don’t care for his metaphysics, but I can agree with the results regardless of how he obtained them (with the possible exception of sorcery, although in this case it is not clear what he is referring to). These are very general abstractions concerning wrongdoing. It’s pretty hard to dispute with them precisely because they are so vaguely generalized. When he starts talking about concrete acts, his metaphysics produces some results that collide with a modern worldview. Most importantly for me as an anthropologist is his inability to see the influence of culture on behavior. Our case study of his view on hair length is a good example. He goes too far quite often, as this example shows, in ascribing to “nature” behaviors that are clearly cultural. The more serious ones, that have been battlegrounds for centuries, are Paul’s ideas concerning gender roles and homosexuality.

Paul seems locked in his own personal struggle between social values and spiritual values. He seems to want to embrace a kind of universal spiritual equality, for example, yet he also finds himself upholding traditional social hierarchies. The following is very Christ-centered and egalitarian (Galatians 3:27-8):

27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Despite this radical statement Paul does not advocate slave revolt or gender equity in marriage. Rather, he appears to constantly affirm all the norms of inequality in society. He seems to say in a variety of ways that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a master owning slaves, nor with a husband being the dominant force over his wife and family. He is very concerned about the abuse of such power roles, but takes it as given that they exist.

The simplest way to read Paul in this regard is to interpret him as saying that human institutions are a distraction, so if you can avoid them so much the better. Men and women should try to stay free of marriage, people should avoid selling themselves into slavery, and so on. The obligations that are incurred thereby sap our energies and divert us from the spiritual path. If we have an earthly master to serve, then it is hard to serve God as well. On the other hand he is saying that if we are already committed to those institutions we should not try to escape their obligations. Furthermore he is saying that tenderness and gentleness should be the norm within the social roles that we are locked into. Parents, for example, deserve to be respected because of what they do for their children. But parents need to respect their children also. They cannot rule the roost tyrannically just because they pay the bills. They have obligations towards their children which they must carry out in love. Thus, there may be an asymmetry in the relationship but this asymmetry should not be cause for exploitation on either side.

As I have said all along here, Paul’s job is a lot tougher than that of Jesus. Jesus commanded people to leave their jobs, leave their families, leave their homes and follow him. And they did. Jesus talked in a very carefree manner about not concerning oneself with the petty things of life like where to sleep, where the next meal was coming from, who was going to pay the bills. God would provide, just as he provided for the birds and the animals. It is all truly inspiring stuff. It inspires me. It keeps me going through the tough times. But I have had a mortgage to pay and a family to feed. I couldn’t just walk away from it all and follow Jesus. Among other things that would be incredibly selfish, and, therefore, unChrist-like.

There’s a clear double bind here. If I stay at my job and stay with my family I am not doing what Jesus commands of me. If I abandon all the people who are relying on me I am not doing what Jesus commands of me. So, to boil it down to the basics, whether I stay in my job or quit my job I am doing the wrong thing. Paul is working with the problems that people like me have with the Christian message. He’s trying to make it work given the realities of daily life. Anyone with any insight at all can see that Paul’s task was impossible. He had to make Christianity work as a real and powerful social movement, and not just as a set of high flown ideologies. To do so he had to make sacrifices and he had to be a pragmatist. For this he should be praised. But he should also be treated with a certain degree of respectful distance when we are looking for solutions to social problems of the twenty-first century. What worked two thousand years ago may not work now.

Once again we must use the Sermon on the Mount as our lens. We can take practical issues like how wives should behave to their husbands or whether Christians should own slaves and try to find our answers from the Sermon. Did Paul adhere as best as possible to the Sermon when he proposed answers? Let’s take slavery as a poignant example. In the modern world I have no hesitation in saying that slavery is absolutely wrong and cannot be tolerated. In Paul’s world it was also wrong, but it would not have been possible to get rid of it with the sweep of a hand without causing the entire economic system of the Roman empire to come crashing down. Some people might argue that the demolition of the Roman empire would have been a good thing, but that’s a trifle myopic. When any culture crashes everyone suffers. Innocents – men, women, and children – die or decline into hideous lives. Paul could not advocate the elimination of slavery without countenancing the death and destruction that would inevitably follow.

For me a modern analogy to illustrate the problem would be the existence of the U.S. military-industrial complex. From a Christian perspective it has no redeeming features. The military brutalizes people by training them to be warriors. Warfare kills, wounds, and maims all people involved, either physically or mentally or both. The industrial complex that supports the military occupies itself constantly with research into new ways to kill and injure fellow humans. It is hideous from stem to stern. I would be overjoyed to see the whole edifice dismantled. But if I wiped it out tomorrow with a pen stroke, Western civilization would collapse. The results would not be pretty. Most likely I would die, and so would you. Is that following God’s plan for us do you think?

My goal as a Christian has to be to work for the abolition of the military, but I have to devise an agenda that will not destroy everything in its wake. That’s the Pauline approach. By taking this stance you might accuse me of being too soft. Maybe it looks as if I am not a real pacifist. Maybe Paul looks like a misogynist or a homophobe. It’s easy to sling such accusations around from the comfort of our safe modern perspectives. In contrast it’s hard for me to forget that Paul gave up a really privileged life when he became a Christian. For the rest of his life he lived on the edge. He challenged authority and stirred up powerful people against him. He risked life and limb on numerous occasions. He was beaten and imprisoned. To the best of our knowledge he was ultimately executed by the Roman authorities for his faith. Unless we are prepared to suffer the same fate I think we do well not to judge him too harshly. If we are true followers of Jesus we won’t judge him at all.


 Bible, science, Spirituality  Comments Off on Miracles
Nov 042015


I have several reasons for believing in miracles. The chief is that I am unwilling to reduce my world to a crass scientistic materialism. As ever, I want to make myself completely clear. I am not getting down on science here. I adore the explorations of the natural sciences. I don’t act like so many modern people who turn glassy eyed as soon as science is mentioned. I’m not a mathematical simpleton: quite the opposite. I revel in the modern discoveries of science and mathematics. Carl Sagan once said:

A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

He also said:

There is a place with four suns in the sky-red, white, blue, and yellow; two of them are so close together that they touch, and star-stuff flows between them. I know of a world with a million moons. I know of a sun the size of the Earth – and made of diamond.

This is all quite wonderful. But never mind suns made of diamond. I recall with vivid clarity the moment, only a few years ago, when I bought a four inch reflecting telescope and saw the moon through it for the first time. It was breathtaking. I gazed with wonder at the craters and moonscapes. It just held me awestruck to see the previously two-dimensional moon pop out into three-dimensions: to become “real.” I love to see nebulae and twin stars and other wonders of the sky. I also love to use a microscope just for the pleasure of seeing the structure of an insect’s wing or the life in a drop of pond water. I am fascinated by mathematical objects as well. I especially love the realm of symmetry and set theory, and have been known to get lost for days on end solving theoretical puzzles to my great delight.

I also used to like the simple pleasures of walking in the woods by my house in the Catskills or seeing the sun rise over the river that flowed by my study window. I took photos of the sunset from my balcony in Buenos Aires every night because it never failed to hold me captive. I delight in its endless beauty and infinite variety. The natural world rocks. Science rocks. Math rocks. I love them all. But I want MORE. Science can explain why sunsets occur, it can NOT explain why they move my soul.

Physical science in all its many manifestations can address a great many questions of vital importance to me. But it cannot answer all of them. So, showing me a sun made of diamond, or ruby, or platinum, or mango yogurt will dazzle me for sure. But it won’t solve all of my problems. In fact it won’t solve any of the really important ones.

Let’s learn what science has to teach us, but let us not be so blinded by its power that we believe it has the answer to all of life’s mysteries. When scientists (and their disciples) claim that their methods allow us to dispense with God, they go too far. Likewise we are misguided when we attribute to supernatural forces those phenomena that have a natural explanation. In this respect we have to be careful how we use the word “miracle.” It can be used quite sloppily and unthinkingly. When I used to drive to work in the morning I would pass a billboard advertising a local auto showroom with the blazing motto “EXPECT MIRACLES.” That’s a misuse of the term. Getting a car for less than you expected is most decidedly not a miracle. Anything that can be explained using naturalistic terms is not a miracle, no matter how awe inspiring it might be. (Cheap cars don’t inspire awe in me at all !!)

A miracle, properly defined, is an instance of the breaking of natural law through divine agency. In other words, a miracle is quite literally impossible, but happens anyway. It is a revelation of the divine to the human world. Many “liberal” Christian theologians in the modern world deny the possibility of miracles. They treat them as pious frauds inserted into the Biblical texts to bolster the faith of the feeble minded or weak hearted. They treat miracles as illusions or conjuring tricks or mysterious, but natural, phenomena or simple fables. They treat those who believe in them as gullible or ill educated, to be gently patronized. Well, thanks, but I don’t need their condescension.

I would like to challenge these liberal theologians to tell me how they recite the creeds without hypocrisy. Here are a few statements from a classic creed that cannot be recited with honesty unless you believe in miracles:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

   the Creator of heaven and earth,

   and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,

   born of the Virgin Mary . . . (Apostles’ Creed)

Most importantly it avows that Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb by a spirit and that she was a virgin at the time of his birth. These are classic miracles: they defy the normal laws of physical science. My answer is simple, and perhaps a little surprising given the nature of this post. I don’t believe in the virgin birth. I am inclined to believe it was one of those pious frauds perpetrated with good intentions. So I cannot recite this creed honestly – and I don’t (any more).

As an anthropologist with a specialization in world religions I am painfully aware of the fact that the sacred narrative of a god/man hero born from a virgin is widespread in the ancient world. It’s one of the stock credentials of the hero. I am also quite willing to believe that the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke took the narrative of the virgin birth at face value, in much the same way as they accepted all the miracles that were reported to them and which they incorporated into their works. I don’t think there was any conscious effort on their part to defraud the public. But that does not mean I accept the virgin birth or any of the other miracles in the gospels at face value.

What I am trying to get at here is that I am not some kind of credulous patsy who will swallow anything as long as it’s in the Bible. So much should be clear already from previous posts. I suspect that the bulk of the so-called miracles in the Bible either did not happen at all, or have perfectly acceptable naturalistic explanations. But there is one miracle which I accept wholeheartedly, namely, the resurrection of Jesus. So I have to accept the proposition that miracles can happen. More strictly, I have to believe that ONE miracle happened. By extension, though, I accept the proposition that more than one is possible although I am not going to rush headlong any further and assert that more than one actually has occurred.

One thing that ought to be evident to anyone who knows the Bible at all well is that miracles are not terribly common. So it’s easy to blow them way out of proportion. It’s also quite possible, as scholars have been delighted to show for centuries, that many of the acts described as miracles have perfectly natural causes. As such they are not miracles at all; merely improbable or strange natural occurrences. Strange natural events do inspire awe. They can stir our souls. I understand the response of the ancients to natural events such as comets and meteor storms. They create an immediate sense of wonder, as Carl Sagan points out in his paean to star-stuff and diamond suns. Many such “wonders” are surely recounted in the Bible under the heading of miracles. I remember seeing a meteor storm one morning that made my head spin. I was expecting it, but it still blew me away. What if I lived in an era when such events could not be predicted? I also believe that there are mysterious happenings that we cannot explain at the present time, but which do have natural explanations.

What I would like to do is create a taxonomy of strange and inspiring events in the Bible that sorts out the miraculous wheat from the chaff. I am going to suggest that there are three categories of such events: natural wonders, natural mysteries, and true miracles. I am aware that these terms have theological as well as popular usages which may differ slightly from mine, but I believe that my definitions are not too wide of the mark in this regard.

I define a natural wonder as any event or object that inspires awe or delight in us, but which has a completely naturalistic explanation (and which is, for the most part, known to contemporary science). All manner of phenomena fall into this category. These things are the basis of what Sagan seems to want to create a religion out of – a sort of naturalistic religion in which we act in reverent admiration of the natural world. Comets and meteor storms are obvious examples, but the catalog is almost limitless. Let’s move away from the heavens and down to earth. Some human activities that seem miraculous are, in fact, natural wonders. Fire walking is a great example. It seems impossible that a barefooted person could walk unharmed across a pit of red hot coals. Yet it is a well documented practice in many parts of the world.

Modern science tells us that there is nothing supernatural about fire walking. If you like it is a simple magic trick that is impressive, but can be done by anyone provided certain precautions are taken. I suggest that anyone who is really interested in the trick should look up a more complete explanation. Otherwise the oversimplified explanation is that firewalkers always walk on beds of coals that have been burning long enough to form an insulating layer of ash. The act takes place at night so that the ash is not too evident, and the coals look impressively fiery. If the same event happened during the daytime, the coal pit would appear grey and unimposing. As important, fire walkers do not dawdle. They walk briskly to avoid long exposure to the coals. Old coals are almost pure carbon, which is a poor conductor of heat. So it takes time to transfer heat from the coals to the foot. The coals are certainly hot enough. Given constant contact over time they would grill a steak. But quick contact and release prevents much heat transfer because of the poor conduction of the carbon.

Natural wonders of this sort are used all the time to move the spirit. That’s all right, I suppose. Firewalkers impress me even though I know the scientific explanation. Even knowing the explanation I’m not about to try it myself. In that regard such acts still have the raw capacity to test faith – in this case faith in science. No doubt some of the “miracles” recorded in the Bible are no more than natural wonders. Many faith healings fall under this rubric, I am sure. It is well documented that many physical infirmities are induced by psychological stress. So, if you remove the stress you relieve the physical symptoms. Belief in a faith healer may, therefore, eliminate the underlying stress and, in the process, cure the physical problem.

Many of the events described as miracles in the Bible are perhaps natural wonders. In fact believers and non-believers alike have often attempted to demonstrate this notion, or have presented plausible scenarios that explain such “miracles” in naturalistic terms. There are common attempts, for example, to explain how Moses and the Israelites crossed a sea (Reed Sea or Red Sea) by examining the effects of wind and tides on large bodies of water. I’m also very fond of the explanation of the feeding of the five thousand that argues that a lot of the people in the hungry group following Jesus really did have some food with them, but were selfishly keeping it to themselves. When the boy offered to share his plain lunch with them all they were ashamed and pulled out what they were hoarding. In that respect the narrative parallels the old folk tale of stone soup.

Natural mysteries are akin to natural wonders, but test our credulity somewhat more. I define a natural mystery as an event or object that is inspiring, but for which there is a naturalistic explanation. However, that explanation is not covered by modern science (as yet). The placebo effect in medicine is a possible example of a natural mystery. In some patients a drug known to be ineffective can, nonetheless, produce significant positive results provided it is presented to the patient as effective. Double blind trials of new drugs are conducted precisely to rule out the placebo effect. For a new drug to be considered effective it must do better than a placebo (where the placebo’s effects may not be zero). There are also well known cases of spontaneous remission of illnesses, that is, the cure of a medical problem that typically requires intervention (such as a malignant tumor) but which occurs without medical assistance. I want to tread very carefully here. I am not making any claim that spontaneous remission is documented as having happened because of spiritual, rather than medical, intervention. I am simply claiming that spontaneous remission can happen.

There are also strange events that have occurred and which have no easy explanation. One of my favorites is the Tunguska event. This was an unexplained gigantic explosion that happened in Siberia in 1908. The effects of the explosion have caused investigators to estimate its size as between 10 and 20 megatons, equivalent to some of the largest nuclear bombs. Here is an eyewitness account:

On the 17th of June, around 9 in the AM, we observed an unusual natural occurrence. In the N Karelinski village (200 verst (slightly more than a kilometer) N of Kirensk) the peasants saw to the North-West, rather high above the horizon, some strangely bright (impossible to look at) bluish-white heavenly body, which for 10 minutes moved downwards. The body appeared as a “pipe”, i.e. a cylinder. The sky was cloudless, only a small dark cloud was observed in the general direction of the bright body. It was hot and dry. As the body neared the ground (forest), the bright body seemed to smudge, and then turned into a giant billow of black smoke, and a loud knocking (not thunder) was heard, as if large stones were falling, or artillery was fired. All buildings shook. At the same time the cloud began emitting flames of uncertain shapes. All villagers were stricken with panic and took to the streets, women cried, thinking it was the end of the world. (Sibir newspaper, July 2, 1908)

Many hypotheses have been offered as to what caused this explosion, but no one knows for sure. It was more powerful than anything that could have been made by humans for 50 years to come. Its magnitude was so great that no one is entirely sure what natural phenomenon could have produced it.

Many times, of course, folklore and misinformation produce belief in supposed mysteries that are not mysteries at all. The Bermuda Triangle is one such non-mystery. The claim is often made that numerous ships and planes have been lost in the area without a trace and for no apparent reason. However, this is one of the busiest sea and air lanes in the world so one would expect higher than normal losses in absolute numbers. In percentage losses, though, the number does not exceed the world-wide average. Furthermore, most of the reputed mystery losses have clear explanations. For a simple, pragmatic confirmation of the fact that nothing unusual happens in the region we can note that insurance companies do not require planes and ships entering the area to take on additional coverage. When financial losses are at stake they would be the first ones to sit up and take notice.

I’m inclined to believe that a fair number of the events described in the Bible as miracles actually fall under the heading of natural wonders and mysteries. Let’s take as a possible example the healing of (Simon) Peter’s mother-in-law in Mark 1:29-31:

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John.

30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once.

31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

I don’t see much here that couldn’t be explained naturalistically. The fever could have been psychosomatic and could well have been abated by a gentle touch and a powerful presence. (By the way, the fact that Peter had a mother-in-law means that the first “pope” was married!) Many “miracles” could be of this sort. But there is no getting around the fact that some acts described in the Bible cannot be explained away in naturalistic terms.

Our final category, therefore, is that of true miracles: those events that are physically impossible. There are quite a few of these in the Bible, and they are there for a very specific reason. A true miracle is designed to elicit an extraordinary response. They indicate that there is a supernatural power in the universe that lies beyond the realm of natural law. My main problem with true miracles is that to accept their validity we need extraordinary attestation. The one true miracle I have discussed at length so far is the resurrection of Jesus. I have spent much time on this because the whole of Christianity hinges on it. Logically, if one true miracle has occurred, others are possible. But despite the crucial role the resurrection plays in my life and that of so many Christians, I have not been able to do an awfully good job of constructing an argument that leaves little doubt that it happened. So I’m not sure I can do much better with the “lesser” miracles.

To be brief about it I’m going to declare point blank that there is no way given the state of sources and scholarship that we could ever get anywhere near a legitimate argument that any of the miracles in the Hebrew Bible actually happened. In most cases we don’t know who the authors were, never mind where and when the books were written or redacted. I would say that the chances that any of the texts were written by actual eye witnesses to the events they describe are virtually nil. Therefore, there is not much we can do to corroborate the descriptions. That does not mean, though, that I cannot get something spiritually rewarding from the narratives.

Let’s look at the story of manna in the desert. The Israelites had left Egypt and were now traveling in the desert but had nothing to eat, supposedly. Here’s what happens (Exodus 16:10-15):

And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the people of Israel, they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of The Lord appeared in the cloud. And The Lord said to Moses, “I have heard the murmurings of the people of Israel; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am The Lord your God.’ ” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning dew lay round about the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. And Moses said to them, “It is the bread which The Lord has given you to eat.

I am not inclined to accept the veracity of this tale for a whole slew of reasons. Most importantly I don’t accept it because I do not believe that the exodus ever occurred. The historical record outside the Bible coupled with the archeology of Palestine and the Middle East speak very strongly against it. Even if we accept the narrative as written, though, it still makes no sense for the Israelites to be starving. They were pastoralists !!! It is expressly recorded that Moses would not allow the people to leave without their flocks and herds (Exodus 10: 24-25) and that when they left, they took their animals with them (Exodus 12:32). How could they be starving? They had milk and meat aplenty.

Even if none of this ever happened, I still find an important message here that pre-echoes the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon commands us not to fret about material things, not to worry about basic needs, and not to concern ourselves with the problems of tomorrow. The story of manna does just the same (Exodus 16:16-21):

This is the thing which the Lord has commanded: ‘Let every man gather it according to each one’s need, one omer for each person, according to the number of persons; let every man take for those who are in his tent.'” Then the children of Israel did so and gathered, some more, some less. So when they measured it by omers, he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack. Every man had gathered according to each one’s need. And Moses said, “Let no one leave any of it till morning. Notwithstanding they did not heed Moses. But some of them left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. So they gathered it every morning, every man according to his need. And when the sun became hot, it melted.

So I take spiritual guidance from the story regardless of the underlying historical legitimacy, or lack of it.

Much of the Greek Bible suffers from the same problems as the Hebrew Bible. As we have seen in connexion with the resurrection, many of the historical sections were written by people who were quite expressly not eyewitnesses, and were written some time after the events they record. Even the segments that were supposedly written by eyewitnesses cannot reliably be proven to be so. Thus, I am not going to hang too much on them either. If extraordinary claims (i.e. the occurrence of the physically impossible) require extraordinary evidence, we don’t have it. Even if extraordinary claims would be satisfied with regular old evidence (which I think is fairer), we’re still a little light.

I got as far as I could with the evidence for the resurrection, but had to rely on faith for bits and pieces of it at the end. I was content to do this because the entire edifice of Christianity hangs on that one miracle. And it is a genuine miracle. Raising the dead is physically impossible. I also believe that, given the nature of the claim, the evidence is reasonably solid. Not so for the rest of the miracles recorded in the New Testament although we do have vague affirmation in a couple of places from Paul’s pen:

I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. (Romans 15:18-19)

I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not least inferior to the ‘super-apostles,’ even though I am nothing. The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. (2 Corinthians 12:11-12)

Paul asserts that miracle working is the sign of an apostle, and that he has performed them himself. In the case of the letter to Corinth he is asking the Corinthians to recall the miracles he performed in front of their eyes. But we have no more specifics than that. He also claims in a prior letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 12:10), that the ability to perform miracles is a gift of the Spirit. Something was going on; but we do not know what.

Did Jesus walk on water? Did he turn water into wine? To tell the truth, I don’t really care one way or the other. If he did, that’s great. If he did not, his power is not diminished in my eyes. Even if he did I’m still going to have to go to the market for a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. In the end miracles don’t help us very much. They don’t make converts out of skeptics. If the gospels can be trusted at all they tell us that Jesus performed miracles all the time and people still turned away from him. If a true miracle occurred today I doubt that it would convert anybody. They are more like comforts to those who are already faithful.

What did most of the Greek Bible miracles really accomplish anyway? Some sick people got healed. Some wedding guests had their party extended. Some fishermen got better catches. Some people got an unexpected picnic. These are not earth shattering events, even if a miracle is involved. Admittedly, a few of the miracles reported are a bit more dramatic – such as raising Lazarus from the dead. But he died again. At best these miracles serve as confirmation of Jesus’ identity. But the resurrection does that for me; I don’t need anything else. The other miracles come in a very distant second to the resurrection in terms of my faith and my theology.

If we turn back to the Sermon on the Mount as our touchstone we see that miracles are absent. They do not lie at the core of our faith. They’re sort of a nice supplement, but not necessary ingredients. They spice up the basics. In that regard I am not going to go to great lengths to try to prove that any of them happened. However, I am going to use them in sermons and spiritual discussions because they all have a point to make. We are all spiritually deaf; we all need God’s help to hear. We are all blind; we all need help to see.


Camels and Needles

 Bible  Comments Off on Camels and Needles
Nov 012015


I’ve talked before about literal and figurative interpretations of the Bible. Now I want to narrow things down to the Sermon on the Mount. In many places in the Sermon Jesus makes some bold, seemingly impossible, demands, and these have caused interpreters over the years to try to soften them. “If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30) Does he mean this literally? It’s very difficult to imagine that he did. So once again we get to think about when we need to treat the Bible literally, and when, figuratively. We simply cannot get away from the fact that everyone plays this game.

My favorite passage for this game is Matthew 19:24 where Jesus tells a rich young man, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” For my money (!) this saying is easily understood in light of Jesus’ general statement that no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). The obvious point is that if you love money, you cannot also love God. So, if you love money it is as impossible for you to enter the kingdom of heaven than for the proverbial camel to thread the needle. Seems very clear.

Unfortunately there are a lot of rich people who claim to be Christians, and about the last thing in the world they want to do is give it all away and follow Jesus, as he instructs the rich young man to do. He’d like to have money AND God but Jesus denies this possibility with his image. That’s the point and we are meant to take it literally. But here is where some people with money try to weasel out of it by saying that what Jesus is saying should not be taken literally. Well, you can choose another image besides camels and needles, but you cannot get away from the literal fact underlying the image – you can’t love money AND God.

My rule of interpretation is fairly straightforward – let Jesus interpret Jesus, or, let the Bible interpret the Bible. Start with the Sermon on the Mount as your baseline. Can the rich enter the kingdom? No, because they cannot serve two masters. Jesus is not saying that one master is better than another. It’s OK to love money if that’s what you want. Just don’t try to get into the kingdom as well !! Camels can’t squeeze through the eye of a needle. Victorian clerics made up a tale about ancient walled cities that had a tiny gate called “the eye of a needle” that late night travelers with their camels could squeeze through – barely. Nice try. A fable made up by rich people who wanted it both ways. No such gate existed. Jesus should be taken literally here. It is IMPOSSIBLE for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, and the absurdity of the image hammers home the point. I’ll bypass other crude attempts to skirt the image. It means what it says.

But how about cutting off your right hand? Here I am inclined towards the metaphorical, but there is still an important point at heart. I am not sure about Jesus’ understanding of the body. In the Hellenic worldview the flesh was definitely an active agent. Paul speaks of the “sins of the flesh” and speaks of the spirit and the flesh as being at war. I think he meant this literally. Whether Jesus felt the same way is a difficult question. Cutting off your right hand because it has led you to sin seems to favor this interpretation. But elsewhere in the Sermon he makes it clear that it is intentions that matter, although the flesh may be mixed in. He talks about anger being the root of murder, and lust, the root of adultery. Do these emotions stem from the flesh? It’s hard to say. I imagine your genitals could be blamed for your lust if you wanted to keep the flesh/spirit dualism – and if you cut them off it might solve the problem. People have actually done this.

I sense that in this case Jesus’ image is figurative, but making a vital point. Sin keeps you from God, so you have to be drastic in your solution. He is not saying that a quick prayer will make things right. You have to be ruthless with yourself – as ruthless as cutting your hand off or plucking out your eye. So, even though he is speaking in metaphors he is not being soft. Do whatever it takes whether you think in terms of flesh, or spirit, or mind or whatever to get right with God. The road is not easy. That to me is the essence of the Sermon. Don’t cop out. If you are rich, give your money away to the poor. If you fall into any error spare no pains to resolve it. It’s hard, but the rewards are great. This is a very tough life lesson to learn. Few make it.

To be continued . . .