Dropping in here for a moment between writing PBS and living a normal work-family life.
Upon a recent visit to amazon.com I saw one of their “recommended books”: Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible. Despite something of an embarrassing cover featuring a photo of that Nazi treasure hunter from Raiders of the Lost Ark, I stuck it in my wishlist within seconds.
There was another recommendation in the “people who bought this book also bought” section on that book’s page: The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity: A Sociohistorical Approach to Religious Transformation. After clearing my head at the accuracy of Amazon’s book recommendation logarithm, I wishlisted that book as well.
I did some quick searches on the latter book and came upon this article. I have no commentary on it—just presenting a section here for the intellectually curious.
The main question in the controversy is this: Is Christianity a force that supports or opposes the efforts of the right to defend the European-American way of life? Christians on the right argue that their religious commitments are central to Western civilization, while pagans and secularists on the right (especially in Europe) argue, with Spengler, that Christianity undermines the West by pushing a universalism that rejects race, class, family, and even nation.
Mr. Russell, who holds a doctorate in historical theology from Fordham University and teaches at Saint Peter’s College, does not quite answer the question, but his immensely learned and closely reasoned book does suggest an answer. His thesis is that early Christianity flourished in the decadent, deracinated, and alienated world of late antiquity precisely because it was able to appeal to various oppressed or dissatisfied sectors of the population—slaves, urbanized proletarians, women, intellectuals, frustrated aristocrats, and the odd idealist repelled by the pathological materialism, brutality, and banality of the age.
But when Christian missionaries tried to appeal to the Germanic invaders by invoking the universalism, pacifism, and egalitarianism that had attracted the alienated inhabitants of the empire, they failed. That was because the Germans practiced a folk religion that reflected ethnic homogeneity, social hierarchy, military glory and heroism, and “standards of ethical conduct … derived from a sociobiological drive for group survival through ingroup altruism.” Germanic religion and society were “world-accepting,” while Hellenic Christianity was “world-rejecting,” reflecting the influence of Oriental religions and ethics. By “Germans,” it should be noted, Mr. Russell does not mean modern residents of Germany but rather “the Gothic, Frankish, Saxon, Burgundian, Alamannic, Suevic, and Vandal peoples, but also… the Viking peoples of Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Britain.” With the exception of the Celts and the Slavs, “Germans” thus means almost the same thing as “European” itself.
Given the contradictions between the Christian ethics and world-view and those of the Indo-European culture of the Germanic peoples, the only tactic Christians could use was one of appearing to adopt Germanic values and claiming that Christian values were really compatible with them. The bulk of Mr. Russell’s scholarship shows how this process of accommodation took place in the course of about four centuries. The saints and Christ Himself were depicted as Germanic warrior heroes; both festivals and locations sacred in ancient Germanic cults were quietly taken over by the Christians as their own; and words and concepts with religious meanings and connotations were subtly redefined in terms of the new religion. Yet the final result was not that the Germans were converted to the Christianity they had originally encountered, but rather that that form of Christianity was “Germanized,” coming to adopt many of the same Indo-European folk values that the old pagan religion had celebrated.
It’s a common question but there’s a lot of philosophical assumptions behind it, much like the loaded question logicians have pointed out. One has to take a step back to really address it properly. Julie Borowski, who isn’t much of a skeptic from what I can see, asked this on her personal Facebook page. I answered but I made sure to really think it through:
Personal, revelatory, non-falsifiable, a priori, properly basic knowledge of metaphysical truths.
A more accurate question could be, posed to a non-fallibillistic atheist: how could one know if all religions are completely false?
To make it simpler: statements about religious truths—not just religious belief—can only be known as true to the individual person making the statement.
I asked that last question because religious belief allows for degrees of truth in considering other ones; Islam overlaps with Christianity, which overlaps with Hinduism, which overlaps with Buddhism, which overlaps with Zoroastrianism. If you consider one religion as the true one, then it’s reasonable and even logically mandatory to say every other religious belief system has a degree of truth in it, some greater than others. Pick any form of theism, put in front of you, shine a light on it, and you’ll see the shadow of all the other ones you rejected being cast onto it.
The “proof” is that an overwhelming number of people in the world have had a sense of the supernatural. If we’re talking materialist reasoning here, the burden of proof is on the non-fallibillistic (gnostic) atheist to demonstrate how all of them are completely mistaken.
EDIT: An addendum to this post is here.
EDIT 2: Closed comments on this post since so many spammy comments are breaking through.
Person A: “The ‘Dark Ages’ weren’t as bad as you might think. There was a lot of development in science and philosophical thought.”
Person B: “Well, I would never want to live back then. They didn’t even have electricity!”
Person B’s argument only works for people who know the comforts of electricity. In the world of logic, it ‘works’ only in a very contextual manner—supposing they were traveling back in time or to a place without electricity. This argument might provide a strong reason not to do so. To the people of the Medieval period, “lack of electricity” just means life as usual; to the people back then, and to anyone who never had electricity, the argument loses its “love lost” effectiveness.
Another example, this one more anthropology-based.
Person A: “Religious belief, even if ultimately false, still can do some good for some people, like provide a sense of purpose in life.”
Person B: “Maybe. Christianity and Islam have a history of misogyny.”
For “misogyny” to be meaningful to anyone requires a very specific political and social context that was absent for most of world history, and still is absent in many parts of the world. To a Muslim or Christian of a certain social background, the term “misogyny” has no meaning or would be seen as a nonsense concept. Trying to convince them of it is equally nonsensical.
Even libertarians, who by nature tend to easily sniff out socially preprogrammed bullsh*t, commit this fallacy in atrocious form:
Person A: “We’re moving to North Korea. Huzzah!”
Person B: “You know North Koreans live in near slavery, right?”
Despite objectively “bad” things that North Koreans might face, many people living there might not see their political system as oppressive or totalitarian in the same way others might.
Many Christian artists live between two strange worlds. Their faith in Christ seems odd to many of their friends in the artistic community—almost as odd as their calling as artists seems to some of their friends at church. Yet Christians called to draw, paint, sculpt, sing, act, dance, and play music have extraordinary opportunities to honor God in their daily work and to bear witness to the grace, beauty, and truth of the gospel. How can pastors (and churches) encourage Christians with artistic gifts in their dual calling as Christian artists?
As a pastor and college president, I have made a sad discovery: the arts are not always affirmed in the life of the local church. We need a general rediscovery of the arts in the context of the church. This is badly needed because the arts are the leading edge of culture.
Not a new revelation to those of us who stand with one foot each in the church and artistic worlds. I’d rather qualify this a little further to say that its church leadership in particular that doesn’t affirm art by their church membership, not necessarily the body corporate itself.
That’s not important. I wanted to focus on this reason:
Demand artists to give answers in their work, not raise questions. Mark Lewis says, “Make certain that your piece (or artifact or performance) makes incisive theological or moral points, and doesn’t stray into territory about which you are unresolved or in any way unclear. (Clear answers are of course more valuable than questions).” Do not allow for ambiguity, or for varied responses to art. Demand art to communicate in the same way to everyone.
I’ve been on the receiving end of “can you clarify so we know it’s for JAYSUSS” imperatives from churchian gatekeepers, and I’ve witnessed, in real time and in person, the same phenomenon happen to others. My background is in music with some in journalism/writing and I can say since I’ve been involved that nothing much has changed for the better in either field.
It might be the western church’s fixation with reducing divine truths down to a series of propositions with which someone agrees or not, as a litmus test for racking up the conversion tally marks. While I think there are some things about God that we are granted to apprehend as a yes/no binary, the Bible portrays God as a being who carries the ontological bulk of himself on a much more transcendent level.
And this is where art might be important. It deals with material, binary things but can temporarily transcend it as someone consumes it. This is to say, if I can borrow a bit from Hegel, that the art plus the consumer synthesizes and produces a third thing. The task of the Christian artist could be to use art to synthesize faith within the consumer (or consideration of faith or to apprehend some sincere portrayal of it). Having a milquetoast buttinsky of a church elder come in with his red Sharpie and puritanize your short story* or still life for JAYSUSS kills the synthesis process and makes art a sermon rather than a productive dialogue** between art and consumer.
That’s fine if you want to write a sermon, but artists are not formal ministers nor preachers, and the church shouldn’t hammer them into that role.
Photo by Katie@!.
* Imagine what A Wrinkle In Time or Wise Blood would be like had a modern evangelical pastor got ahold of it. You can do it. I’ll wait until you’re finished.
** “Dialogue” is a horrible word for this because of the many modern usages in religious contexts but I’m using it anyways.
From The End of Christendom:
Against the new leviathan, whether in the guise of universal suffrage, democracy, or of an equally fraudulent triumphant proletariat, he (Kierkegaard) pitted the individual human soul made in the image of a God who was concerned about the fate of every living creature. In contrast with the notion of salvation through power, he held out the hope of salvation through suffering. The Cross against the ballot box or clenched fist; the solitary pilgrim against the slogan-shouting mob; the crucified Christ against the demagogue-dictators promising a kingdom of heaven on earth, whether achieved through endlessly expanding wealth and material well-being, or through the ever greater concentration of power and its ever more ruthless exercise.
Plantinga, armed with some Aquinas and Calvin ordinance, called the working apparatus that utilizes this epistemology the sensus divinatus; our “sense of the divine”. I’m not aware of how much Plantinga knew of ME epistemology but from what I know of his ideas and the ME method, he seems to describe some version of it. If you are a Christian or any kind of religious person you accept the ME method of knowing things of the supernatural even if you don’t name it as such.
The other side of that coin is that, if someone makes any statement at all concerning the metaphysical realm, he uses the ME epistemological method to induce this. In other words, a definitive statement about metaphysical things is intrinsically a-rational, because it does not involve the Aristotelian faculties. This includes claims of atheists, who have the tendency, de rigueur, to claim religious belief as irrational. All of the philosophical dodges involving withheld judgments of God’s existence until “scientific proof” is presented are incoherent because science is unable to measure anything metaphysical. Those who maintain a “scientific, rational” mind while at the same time insist on God’s nonexistence are using non-scientific, non-rational methods to conclude it.
It’s easy if we think of ME epistemology as a sense, like sight. There are people who look and see a tree outside of the window and maybe determine some of its qualities, and there are people who look and see no tree. Both are using their eyes, even if the latter claim that eyes do not exist in the first place and that trees do not exist because they conclude that trees must be, say, felt in order to really exist.
Looking at it this way, the only ones who can legitimately claim non-use of the ME method are strong agnostics (“No one has eyes to see this concept of the tree, so we cannot say whether or not they exist.”), and possibly weak ones (“I don’t know if we have eyes or not, but if we do we may be able to figure out if tree exist.”). If one claims Aristotelian epistemological methods are the only valid ones, then a statement about the supernatural cannot be made. Such a statement would be considered incoherent. There are no eyes to determine if the tree is not there.
I first heard, and heard of, Zacharias on a Christian-oriented AM radio station in Connecticut. I appreciated his broadcast, which were really recorded speeches, because he was an academic lecturer and not a pastor or preacher. The western church in general has an abysmal record for placing effective people in academia, and it was a relief to hear Zacharias, with his Indian lilt and persuasive cadence, on a Christian station where the norm is having an radio-vangelist bore to tears anyone under the age of 70 with droning JAYSUS talk.
The bulk of the book has Zacharias explaining how atheism will lead to existential despair, and how theism—Christianity in particular—can provide the meaning that searching souls are looking for. In a broader, more cultural and political sense I think this is accurate: when the metaphysical foundations for morality are done away with, a la Nietzsche, man as a heroic being has to recreate and affirm morality. This was kind of Nietzsche’s prediction and warning to those that have found God “dead”. Unfortunately, the desire to recreate intrinsic moral laws is a delightful prospect for politicians (usually despots) as a way to expand the state to obscene, lethal proportions at the expense of the individual.
It seems that Zacharias believes that the despair of atheists is inevitable. In fact, he spends a chapter or so on the loss of meaning in the atheist’s life and later attempts to remedy that with a metaphysical solution. But I don’t think it’s necessarily true on an individual level. It’s not that complicated, really: the theist finds meaning in life through divine revelation and it stretches beyond the material universe. The atheist finds meaning in life through material epistemologies and intellectual apprehension, and it doesn’t go beyond physical death*. The new Christian can experience similar despair when he abandons a former belief system and enters into the Christian one, however short-lived it may be.
If it sounds like I’m just badmouthing the book, I don’t intend to. There’s lots of little pulses of information and arguments to to be found scattered around the whole book, wrapped in Zacharias’ endearing expository prose. The most informative section, for me, was Zacharias’ sectioned summary of intellectual skepticism through mini-biographies of philosophers past, from Descartes up to Sartre and Russell. He did a great job of summarizing the scope of skepticism of belief in absolute morality and demonstrating the weaknesses in each thinker’s philosophy (he thankfully didn’t hold back on the theistic philosophers, either). Because some of the book presupposes theism to be true in order to accept some of the arguments, this section is more objective and can hold the most value for any reader.
*It’s important to remember that there are different kinds of atheism that allow for a supernatural reality or a type of god. Buddhism is technically atheist because it does not posit a God, but asserts some kind of metaphysical reality. Additionally, there can be some atheists who believe in some sort of god, though it has to be wholly material (Zacharias, at some points, seems to annoyingly conflate atheism with materialism).
I did think it’s a little off center given my religious belief system to be posting words to a magic spell, though they only exist in the minds of a show’s/book’s writer(s). It wouldn’t matter, though, to some religious people. The fact that the magic in Bleach is not anything like what the Bible describes as magic would not deter criticism from that camp. Bleach’s magic is a string of spoken words that cause something to actually, really, truly, observationally happen in the physical/superphysical Bleach universe (explosions, points of light, wounds being healed, voiceover artists getting a steady paycheck, etc.). It’s simple, quantifiable cause and effect, like pouring gas to make an engine run, not a plea for phantoms to show favor. No religious belief is needed.
The magic in Bleach also doesn’t have anything to do with God/Jesus/the devil or Christianized versions of fantasy worlds from the approved list of Christian authors (Lewis, Tolkein, Peretti, et al.). This is another point of contention for people who want to look for points of contention.
Here’s the story background. Feel free to skip down to the actual incantations—I put four of them—or if you’re feeling especially languid simply hit the video at the end for a quick visual fix:
Bleach is about a teenager, Ichigo Kurosaki, who becomes a shinigami/Soul Reaper—basically what we know as the Grim Reaper—and his workings between the world of the living and the world of the dead. He works alongside other Soul Reapers from the Soul Society, a group of spiritual beings that protect the world of the living from souls held back in the physical world and gone sour (Hollows), escort souls to the world of the dead, and maintain the balance between the two worlds. The Soul Society, stuck in feudal fashions and carrying huge, unique swords, practice a form of magic called Kidō in which their “Spiritual Pressure” is channeled, using words, to do magic-y looking things.
Here they are. Be sure to cross yourself and douse your monitor or iPhone in holy water after you read each one.
Senjū Kōten Taihō (Thousand-Hand Bright Heaven Culling-Sear):
Limit of the thousands hands, respectful hands, unable to touch the darkness. Shooting hands unable to reflect the blue sky. The road that basks in light, the wind that ignited the embers, time that gathers when both are together, there is no need to be hesitant, obey my orders. Light bullets, eight bodies, nine items, book of heaven, diseased treasure, great wheel, grey fortress tower. Aim far away, scatter brightly and cleanly when fired.
Kurohitsugi (Black Coffin):
Seeping crest of turbidity. Arrogant vessel of lunacy! Boil forth and deny! Grow numb and flicker! Disrupt sleep! Crawling queen of iron! Eternally self-destructing doll of mud! Unite! Repulse! Fill with soil and know your own powerlessness!
Sōren Sōkatsui (Twin Lotus Blue Fire, Crash Down):
Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man! On the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus. In the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens.
Raikōhō (Thunder Roar Sear):
Sprinkled on the bones of the beast! Sharp tower, red crystal, steel ring. Move and become the wind, stop and become the calm. The sound of warring spears fills the empty castle!
Maybe it’s a good idea to resurrect book banning. This is why: I’ll only be on this earth for a finite number of years — probably a few hundred. Part of that time is being spent reading, and since time is scarce I had better make my reading hours count for something. With the Internet I can know of and have access to almost any book in existence. There’s a lot to sift through so I need to have some way to know what I should probably read, and it would make the search a heck of a lot easier if someone (the government), somewhere (where I live) told me I’m not supposed to read it under threat of force.
I dislike didactic fiction but I don’t mind offending the state apparatus. There’s plenty of ways an author can offend the state while entertaining; an author’s task is to construct imaginative scenarios in which some people know some things and others don’t anyways, so why not take it a step further into reality and smuggle some dangerous liberty under the nose of bureaucrats? It doesn’t have to sparkle on its chest, it just has to suck the blood out of Bella Bureaucrat. By owning private property embodied in the physical book you’re already one step there. Just go with the flow.
I’m looking at you, Christian writers, mostly. Let’s put aside the eschatological Revelation rewrites and the back-patting, self-help redundancy. And while we can lobby back and forth whether or not it’s okay to have our protagonist say “goddamn”, there’s plenty of other things we can address. The whole breadth of scripture is awfully unapproving of government ubiquity, those thrones and dominions of the earth with the monopoly on coercion. The church — except when it falls in love with the state — works on covenant, not by entrapment. It offers salvation as it’s asked. It’s not enforced, whereas the state is defined by force. In the end, we know who loses, and you don’t even need to be a minarchist to believe that. What happened along the way to make the church forget this tradition?
So I’m casting my vote for banning books — any books, really. And make the consequences dire, but I need a government to do it. Any chump with a clubhouse following can come up with and issue a list of banned books on his website, and everyone else will laugh and sip their teas anyway. Too, this whole thing about reading books that aren’t banned anymore doesn’t count. It’s smacks of Dandies foraging for scraps for fashion. Take the stupid button off and get burned alive, 451-style…at least you’ll know you read something worthwhile while you were alive.
Read Part 1 here.
The New Testament books make up for a smaller section of canon yet they read much more densely because of the theological implications of the words and actions of a Jewish preacher named Yeshua bar Yoseph, which is the original Aramaic name for Jesus Christ. Instead of the religious regulations, historical accounts, and poetry of the Old Testament we have four accounts of Yeshua’s life as a preacher, followed by letters written mostly by a Jewish preacher named Paul, to various other groups of fellow followers. Closing out everything is a strange apocalyptic prophesy written by an exiled disciple.
Yeshua was probably one of many Jewish ascetic preachers of the time, and he had gained a significant following despite the controversial theology. I don’t know to what degree his teachings were different than his contemporaries, but he seems to have constantly invited antagonism, intentionally or not, from fellow Jewish leaders and, to a lesser degree, the Roman government.
Though he was quite culturally and religiously Jewish, he did and said some very non-Jewish things: he talked to non-Jews and women publicly, openly dealt with undesirables (even going so far as to invite them into his inner circle of apostles), labored on the Sabbath, and spoke some intense words to religious leaders. He preached at length about money, hell, moral and religious duty, and the arrival of the Jewish God’s kingdom on earth. There were many accounts of his miracles, which were very body-centric in nature in that they involved the recovery from sickness or food and drink.
This garnered him a lot of attention for sure, but nothing did more than Jesus’ claims, both implicit and explicit claims, to be God. Jesus’ insistence on the matter looks to be what got him in the most trouble, since equating oneself with God was a big no-no in Judaism. Enough religious leaders with influence within the Roman government wanted him dead. Nothing unusual there, as criminals, insurrectionists and sundry “problem citizens” were executed daily by the Roman state.
Besides claiming equality with God, nothing caused an uproar more than the claims that Jesus rose, very literally it seems, from the dead after his execution. After his death, Jesus’ followers, calling themselves “The Way”, were hell-bent (sorry) on carrying on his teachings using the resurrection as the capstone theological event that made everything make sense. Paul, in his letters to groups of believers abroad, takes a cue from the Greeks and Socratically develops the logical implications of Jesus’ resurrection and how it should be regarded by this growing new strain of Judaism.
A wonderful example of Paul’s method and a summary of the importance of the resurrection is in his first letter to the believers in Corinth, and it also makes clear the theological weightiness of the event:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
Like I said in the first part, there were many ways this review could go. This ended more like a book report (remember those?) rather than a review because I didn’t want to turn this into a marathon of didactics. There are, however, a few things I wanted to say about criticisms of the Bible and Judeo-Christian thought in general. There are some that believe the Bible promotes slavery, subjugation of women, or racism, or anti-scientific thought, or some other undesirable belief or institution drawn from the grab-bag of historical ills — ills that very few today would purport to endorse. In my reading I saw very little of this, and most of it was non-prescriptive accounts of “what happened” rather than “God commanded” such things. With such a large collection of texts written pre-Galileo and in pre-hyper-egalitarian Eastern social climates, someone is bound to find something unsettling if they look hard enough, neverminding the chronological/anthropological snobbery that accompanies it. I don’t expect 21st century Americans to think and act like 30th century French neo-feudalist (how would we begin?), so why would I expect Jews from 1st century, Roman-occupied Israel to think and act like me?
Even if all of these charges were true, it doesn’t really breach the question of whether the supernatural events — the ones meant to be taken literally, such as the resurrection — actually happened. In a strange way that’s not even my concern here. It’s rather the idea that, throughout the millennia and passing through many different hands, that the religious thought presented in in Judeo-Christianity is a product of a conspiracy to control people. Though, who is doing the controlling, why they chose to exploit people’s tendency toward the supernatural, and to what purpose or end people are being controlled, is not crystal clear, but that doesn’t stop people from creating all sorts of pretzel-logic backstories to explain away misguided religious belief. It seems to me that the amount of effort to keep whatever it is secret from the millions of Jews and Christians would not be worth the benefit. If such a cabal of conspirators of had the resources to keep their true purposes secret, why would they need to control anyone? The details of such a claim would need immense e support — support that I don’t think has been found yet.
The easiest and most sensible explanation, based upon what we know, is that the writers of Biblical supernatural events sincerely believed what they saw and experienced. Whether or not the some or all of the writers were under mass hypnosis, suffering from a delusion or psychosis, or just plain mistaken, depends on our own individual bank of knowledge and belief system.