Welcome to Pianonoise!



“The proper way to understand, the proper way to live out orthodox biblical Christianity is to understand that it is characterized by an irreducible plurality…and that’s exactly what God intended. It is the divine design. It is the blessing of God to the church.”

 --Jurgen Moltmann, Preface to “Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology”  (XV)

    Home    About     Listen     Site Index     Godmusic     Blog   091 < >


Godmusic blog page #4          June 2011--present


Helping the Poor
posted June 16, 2011

I get frustrated when I hear people completely misrepresent the Biblical witness on issues of justice--pulling out a verse or two--or part of one--to back up what they think it should say, and ignoring the legions of verse that go very pointedly in the opposite direction.

Someone I know has taken to quoting a particular verse of scripture early and often whenever a discussion about politics and that dreaded term social justice comes up. “Well, you know,” she says, “Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you.’” The idea is that the rest of that sentence apparently should read ‘so don’t really bother helping them.’

If you’ve got your mind made up about the matter you should probably stop reading, because I’m about to give several reasons why that understanding of that verse is baloney, and how it reflects an incorrect understanding of the scriptures in general. It's not just my crazy Liberal opinion--it seems to be the Bible's crazy liberal opinion as well.

The first thing to remember is that even Satan knows how to quote scripture. He made us of it during Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matt 4). Why don’t you go throw yourself off the highest part of the temple, he said. And he backed it up with a verse from the Psalms. “He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (Psalm 91:11, 12)” quoth he. And Jesus did NOT say unto him, “well, Satan, you’ve come up with a bible verse to justify what you think I should do, and if the Bible says it than I should believe it and that settles it. Good point. I’ll go do that now.” Instead, he quoted scripture right back at him. Now as it happens, if you go to biblos.com and do a search under the word ‘poor’ out pop 327 references, including verses like the following:

He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
...  (proverbs 14:31)

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind ... (Luke 14:13)

If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. (Deuteronomy 15:7)

If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13)

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 21:7)


And so on. Read through the list. They don’t all tell us to help the poor just because they have the word poor in the verse somewhere, but there are plenty that do. Frankly, even with 300 plus hits I’m surprised that there aren’t more verses. I know there are places in the prophets where you can practically throw darts and hit verses telling you to help the poor. The entire Deuteronomic holiness code is practically based on making sure they don’t get exploited.

If you want a fuller picture, of course, you can look up the words like ‘needy’ ‘exploit’ ‘justice’ mercy’ and for more than a snapshot glimpse into the issue, actually read the full passages where these words occur to see what the writer is really saying in each case.

The point being that, if we are going to play biblical duel, and you are under the impression that the bible says nothing about helping the poor, or worse, that it thinks we shouldn’t, you really need to be bothered enough to notice the mountain of evidence that says otherwise. It’s not even that hard anymore to do it. It’s not as though you need to actually read the bible: just do a quick search. Takes a couple of seconds. Notice what is there that you haven’t seen before.

The second thing about that verse is that it is missing something. The portion of it quoted above (“the poor you will always have with you”—full stop)  is really short. It is missing the rest of the sentence. That is because the rest of the sentence is not part of the point our speaker wants to make. In fact, the rest of the verse kind of unsays that point. The full sentence reads “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for selling all of your goods and giving them to the poor (which is something Jesus recommends at another point in the gospels) but it does not tell us not to bother with them.

At this point, though, you may be shaking your head, saying, no no no, that’s not how that verse ends, it says “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” You would be right—sort of. And that takes us into an interesting discussion.

When a historian wants to be sure something actually happened, he or she tries to find as many independent sources as possible for that event. In other words, people who weren’t copying off of each other, or depending on getting the news from one another. If they have no motivation for reporting something the same way, all the better. For instance, if there is a battle, and country A’s historians say they killed 350 gadzillion enemy soldiers and country B’s historians say they only killed 2, we can only guess that reality was somewhere in the middle but can’t be sure, based only on those two sources that we know what happened. If, on the other hand, even country B’s historians are saying that 350 gadzillion of their own soldiers were killed, we can feel pretty confident that it is the truth, especially since they aren’t likely to want to report that much devastation of their own people since it makes them look like they weren’t as tough as they’d like to be.

Now when people think of the gospels, they flip that process upside down. When only one gospel writer reports something it automatically gets included in the tradition. Think of the parable of the good Samaritan, the visit of the magi, the passage about being born again, the appearance of the resurrected Jesus at Emmaus, changing water into wine—all things that are only in one gospel.

When something occurs in more than one gospel, we take the most imaginative account, which spares us dealing with the contradictions we might run into otherwise. For instance, at Pentecost we always read from Luke’s sequel, Acts. The gospel of John also includes an account of the coming of the Holy Spirit, where the resurrected Jesus simply breathes on his disciples and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ But John doesn’t have a crowd, a noise like a violent wind, tongues of fire, and people speaking in different languages. Luke’s account is much more exciting.  

Unfortunately, when gospel accounts do not say the same thing, we can also choose the more convenient version. So, in a contest between ‘blessed are the poor’ (Luke 6) and ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matt 5) Matthew wins (meaning most people don't seem to be familiar with Luke's version) because the haves in the world like to believe that’s the way God wants it. And as it happens, the haves probably wrote at least two of the four gospels, Matthew, and John.

Luke, though, is very concerned with the poor, and contains more verses about helping them than the others. Luke probably felt that the whole verse about always having the poor would muddy the issue (maybe that people would abuse the interpretation? nah....) so he leaves it out altogether. Thus we are left with three different accounts of this event, with two renditions of “…but you will not always have me,” (Matthew and John) and one of “…and you can help them any time you want.” (Mark)

Most Bible Scholars are under the impression that Mark’s gospel came first, and that Matthew and Luke used Mark to write their own gospels, that John’s came latest and may have used Mark as well, though his account differs the most from the other three in a number of ways. That would make ‘…and you can help them any time you want’ the earliest version. It might not necessarily be the most authentic just for that reason, but it is more likely that the others were dependant on that version and changed theirs to reflect what they thought was a more important emphasis.

Be all of that as it may, however, what would Jesus be saying in this verse in either case? He does not say ‘the poor you will always have with you so don’t help them.’ At the very least, as in the softened accounts of Matthew and John, he implies that helping the poor is necessary—especially if you take into account all of the other places in the gospels where Jesus spells that out quite obviously. But in this very verse, what is really going on has nothing to do with the poor, who, as so often, are simply the pawns being used in an argument about something else.

Jesus’ critics (different in all four gospels) are complaining about a woman who has just dumped a very expensive jar of perfume on his feet. Now, in order to lend force to their complaint, they are going to look for something that would be true in another context—in other words, they are going to argue like adults. You don’t sponsor a bill in congress to build a 4$ billion dollar bridge across a pond in Iowa and call it the ‘Let’s Build Expensive Bridges across Small Ponds in Remote States” bill. You call it the ’I love Apple Pie and Babies and the American Way’ bill (or at least the “creating jobs in the heartland” bill). Then if anybody votes against it, in the next election campaign you tell everyone that your opponent doesn’t like babies and apple pie and the American way. People are like that. 

So Jesus’ critics, whose real motivation is that they don’t like the kind of woman (or maybe even women in general) who is keeping company with Jesus, and they are probably also jealous that they didn’t think of it first, are critical of what she has done, and they think the best way to argue against her is to put forth an alternative that nobody could actually argue with. Who wouldn’t want to help the poor, after all?

Well, Luke’s been around the block actually, and has seen who does and who doesn’t, and he doesn’t even want to go there. Instead, for him, the issue really IS the woman, the ‘sinner,’ and how her behavior contrasts with that of the Pharisees, the ‘righteous.’ He leaves out the verse about helping the poor entirely. It seems like an odd thing for Luke to do, given his concerns about the poor, but then, he probably had some idea of what people would do to that verse, and he knows it isn’t the point of that particular argument anyhow. Interestingly, when John relates the incident, it is Judas—not the Pharisees, and not the disciples en masse—who puts out the bullsh*@$t about wanting to help the poor. And John makes sure we know, in the very next verse, that the reason Judas said that had nothing to do with helping the poor. Instead, he wanted to help himself to the money once the woman had liquidated her asset.

Jesus, who couldn’t directly confront their argument, knew what they were up to, and said, this is a unique situation. I’m here, and she is doing this for me now while she can. And the poor can be helped anytime YOU (hint, hint) want to help them. Which will be tomorrow, and the next day, and any time after that. I won’t be around though so she’s got her one chance to do this for me. You will not always have me. But you can always show concern for the poor. Which, by the way, is another way of helping me (see Matt 25: ”Whatever you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me”)

I mentioned that Matthew and John don’t seem all that concerned with the poor—in their gospels, Jesus does say things about helping them, sometimes very pointedly, but in other situations, when we compare the same sayings in Luke or Mark, we get a stronger directive. Matthew and John seem to like to water their sources down, in other words. But that assumes only that their source came from another gospel. What if the saying is older than that? Remember, Jesus seems to know his scripture really well. He quotes it a lot. Especially Deuteronomy (as in the duel with Satan, above). So do the gospel writers, who know their scriptures really well. We are, of course, talking about the Hebrew scriptures--the so-called Old Testament. The point I’m getting at is that what is really interesting about this verse is that it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is quoting something.

In fact, the first part of this verse is actually a direct quote of Deuteronomy.  It is from the 15th chapter. If you went and did the search at Biblos you’ve noticed it already. The whole verse reads like this:

‘There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and the needy in the land.”

Which is the complete opposite of any possible excuse we like to think Jesus gave us in our out-of-context verse snatching. Jesus may have merely implied it, knowing that his opponents weren’t the least bit interested in helping the poor; they were merely looking for an argument-proof way to condemn the woman with the perfume. Jesus knew their real motivation. As he did so often, he didn’t simply take on their argument, he took on their reason for making it in the first place.

Whether concern for the poor is implied, or explicitly spelled out, as it is in so many places in scripture, what is your response? Are you going to claim to follow everything in the Bible and yet somehow manage not to love your neighbor, even the least of these? And if so, how do you know you will not wind up with the goats (Matt 25) on the last day?


Seriously, ...who is my neighbor, again?
posted August 18, 2011

A church in the neighborhood sent out some edifying literature, which, good churchgoing young man that I am, I am supposed to find agreeable. Alas, no. It has an article in it entitled ‘Three more reasons I want to go to Heaven’ part of a series of articles intended to beef up interest in the glorious afterlife, which is apparently one of, if not the, main reason(s) to be a Christian—for the benefits package. You know, the ‘retirement plan’s out of this world!’

This is the silliest article I have read in a long time. In it, a pastor from somewhere in the Midwest-- (it may seem less scholarly this way, but when I’m making fun of someone I try to keep their names out of it. That way I can take issue with what they say and not make it seem like a personal attack)—said pastor describes how great heaven is going to be when we all get there. Well, maybe not you. Or me. I’m too much of a freethinker.

There are three good reasons to go to heaven, apparently. One of them is that you get to meet celebrities.  “Have you considered” he writes, “that you may live across the street from Abraham?”

This is an interesting proposition. Suppose I did live across the street from Abraham. Now I can’t imagine that Abraham’s heaven and my heaven are the same heaven. We are talking about personal wish fulfillment here, aren’t we? It might be very cool to live right by a big important man of the faith (makes me important, too, I guess), but—dare I ask: would Abraham find it appealing to live across the street from me?

We are assuming, of course, that Abraham has been situated in a nice, middle class, suburban neighborhood, vintage 21st century America. If there is any question about that, the author refers to a whole slew of other biblical bffs with their names on the ‘mailboxes of your street.’

This is the same Abraham who lived in tents, and wandered about as a nomad, with a huge retinue of slaves and cattle? Does he not get to keep any of that? Or does he have to just suck it up and mow his lawn with a riding mower like everybody else, and drive his SUV out to the ranch where his cattle are conveniently penned up outside the city limits?

I suspect Abraham must speak English now. That’s only fair, right? If he’s going to live in our neighborhood, he and every other biblical celebrity needs to knock it off with the Biblical babble and talk like a real American. We could posit, if we were feeling more generous, that somehow everybody magically speaks Heavenese or some other language that everyone can magically pick up with no effort, like the way that the characters on Star Trek can understand all the alien races they encounter by way of some convenient technological marvel.

I’m glad Abraham sees it my way. That is what heaven is about, after all. But it gets better. The list of cool people from the bible that you get to meet in heaven isn’t limited to five. It goes on and on. And just when you think you are beginning to really like this place, “but wait! There’s more!”

Every story in Genesis is obviously literal history so naturally you will get to meet Adam. You will get to ask Noah what his experience felt like (unless too many reporters with too many microphones have done that already and Noah has retreated into his ark-themed split-level with a forbidding ‘no trespassing sign’ out front and a pistol to back it up). You’ll want to ask Abraham and Isaac to re-enact “where the knife was poised before God stopped the human sacrifice” because I’m sure Isaac can’t get enough of re-living that trauma.

Oh, and you’ll want Moses to show you how he parted the red sea. And to make things more interesting, “perhaps we can even get the Israelites who were there to re-enact the entire scene.” Because they have nothing better to do. They might have a little trouble getting people to play the drowned Egyptian army, though. Unless Satan has some kind of furlough program.

That’s right, kids! Heaven is one glorious theme park, with one gratifying attraction after another. You’ll get to hear Jonah lecture about being inside the whale, and Paul speak on Romans. ("Actually, I’ve written several more epistles since I’ve been up here. How about---"  No thanks, Paul. We want your greatest hits. Over and over and over.) Bring your camera. Don’t worry about how tired David looks from singing “Rock of Ages” again and again (no kidding. That’s in the article).

Remember, nothing new happens in heaven. It is all about reliving great moments in history the way we are sure they happened. When we ask Peter to repreach his Pentecost sermon, we are sure it will be exactly the way it is printed in Acts. King James version. Which will make it conveniently short so we can all get to the potluck afterward.

The only thing I can’t figure out is why we have to die to get there.  Since there will soon be a theme park in Kentucky that sounds an awful lot like this version of heaven, why not just go there? Oh, right. This one is for later!

There won’t be any long lines in this heaven. There won’t be any suffering of any kind. Red letter point number two assures me of that. If you've had a rough life I'm very sympathetic. If, on the other hand, your idea of suffering is having to circle the block a couple of times to be able to park your Hummer, you might want to check out the sixth chapter of Luke. After all the 'blessed are yous' (I'll wait).

And then, in red capital letters, the third reason: “I WANT TO GO TO HEAVEN TO CLAIM MY INHERITANCE.” I haven’t gotten my letter yet from the angelic version of Ed McMahon that I “may already be” one of the elect, but I’m sure it’s coming. But the last part---claim my inheritance. I really hope heaven isn’t a time share. My parents went on a couple of those and first they hit you with a really long spiel (I’ve already done that part thanks to various door-to-door proselytizers) and then the gift isn’t nearly as good as they said it was going to be.

The sad part of all of this is that it is so self-centered that the author (and the target audience) don’t seem to realize just how self-centered it is. True, there are some encouraging words for others. I was a little surprised to find out that ‘the poor’ will have an inheritance in heaven. Maybe that means we don’t have to do a thing for them down here. Isn’t that great?

With all of that hustle and bustle going on up in our getaway spa/afterlife I can’t help wondering who will take care of the food arrangements, clean our houses while we are off hearing Paul talk about being stoned, or just generally serve our every need. Where are the servants? It would be a shame to have cultivated an attitude of serving one another on earth and then have it go to a total waste in heaven. Now who was it that kept talking about that. I’m trying to think….

That funny Galilean guy, whatsisname… The last shall be first. The whole washing the feet of his disciples thing. Yeah, that stuff.

You know what’s odd? In the whole article, there’s never anything about God. I could see that, since he only interferes when we can’t find our car keys or something. But you know who else is missing? Think really big time character from the bible. Hint: New Testament.

Yeah. Jesus. He doesn’t seem to be in this heaven. Maybe he just didn’t want to show up. And, frankly, I don’t blame him.


It Must Be a Sign
posted October 7, 2011

I jog past their church a lot so I see the sign every few days. About a month ago it read “The 10 commandments are not multiple choice.”

Now I’m not a big fan of church signs in general. Usually I find them rather clunky and cute, like somebody’s dad trying to be cool at a party and not managing very well. It is the church trying to be Hallmark (which is all they’ve got room for on those signs anyhow) but only managing to be a knockoff.

So my reaction to this sign was not bound to be generous. But this sign, this one in particular, had one other thing going for it. It seemed to tap into the judgmental side of the Christian experience. The one that non-churchgoers like to point to as the number one reason not to get involved. My reflex action was to envisage a sign at our own church which said, “There are three versions of the 10 commandments in the bible. Which one are we talking about?” I imbibed large quantities of Mark Twain in middle school so I have a bit of sarcasm in my blood stream. And it wasn’t just the rigidity of the sentiment that got me, it was the simplicity of it. So often we find judgementalism coupled with ignorance. So I thought I’d take a run in that direction. Which version are we talking about?

There actually are three, you know. One in Exodus 20, the famous one, and two others in Deuteronomy. I’m not suggesting they are wildly different; mostly the ordering changes or the justification for observing the Sabbath, or something. It isn’t like it is ok to kill people in one of them and not in another. And it isn’t as though I would advocate ignoring any of them. I don’t know anybody else who would, either. They seem pretty basic. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, etc. Telling us that they are important is really just another example of the church beating up on straw men to seem tough, isn’t it? Because who really thinks the commandments are not, well, commandments? At least rhetorically. If you ask 5 people on the street, is there going to be a difference of opinion? Now behavior, that’s something else entirely. Suppose that church got an electronic sign (all the rage these days) and they could put up specific messages as motorists rushed by: “John, don’t cheat on your wife,” “Geraldine, you shouldn’t lie to your sister like that” “Steve, it isn’t a good idea to watch that much television—it’s becoming an idol, and you know how I feel about idols. Even the American kind. Signed, God.” Kind of make it personal. But they’re stuck with low tech. Although the by-line from God does show up on church signs an awful lot.

Years ago I used to regularly walk past a guy on a street corner in downtown Cleveland who would yell at passersby: “Jerry, you need Jesus! Margaret, you need to be saved! Gwynneth, you are going to hell unless you accept Jesus!” In all the times (at least a hundred) that I passed the guy, he never once got my name right. I presume he thought the Holy Spirit was revealing our names to him, but it didn’t seem to be working. Not that I can speak for everybody. If my name were Ichabod and he managed to get that, I would have an entirely different impression of him. But Michael is an awfully common name, and not even once to just happen to get it right? Anyway…

Then there’s the biblical source. Why is it, whenever somebody wants to wag their finger in your face and tell you rules have to be followed, it is always from the books of law? This is a Christian church, mind  you. What about “Jesus didn’t merely suggest that we love one another.” Because it says in the gospel of John that Jesus is giving us a new ‘commandment.’ How about ‘loving your neighbor isn’t merely a suggestion?’ because I’d really like to see some church take that theme and run with it for a change.

Generally, when I argue about something I’ve seen or heard that seems to me to be in need of correction, I give the other side what I hope is a fair chance. So on this morning. I tried to think about how someone, even though unpopular, really does have to stick up for laws and standards and remind us that we can’t just go around rewriting them whenever convenient. Possibly the people who put this on the sign feel that we live in a confusing, chaotic world, and that they have to draw lines and boxes somewhere because somebody has to and the people at large aren’t doing a very good job. That may be a bit of a phobic view of the world, but it isn’t all imaginary.

I read somewhere that when the right on red law was first introduced traffic accidents went up something like 70 percent. Apparently, when you trust people to stop, look to their left, and make a good decision about whether they can proceed or not, a lot of people just can’t. Hence the law, which does not make a determination about who can handle something and who can’t, but draws an inflexible line in the societal sand and make that decision en masse. You are 14 and think you ought to be allowed to drive a car? You can’t because even if you could most of your peers are still going to be crashing into things when they’re 25, never mind 14. You think that white lie isn’t going to hurt anybody? It might be an ethical dilemma for you, but justification for a whole lot of other people.

In other words, people make bad choices all the time, and the law is supposed to limit their ability to do it, even if it offends those who feel they could handle the grey areas. If you kill somebody, a jury might decide you had a good reason, but you don’t get to. Save us from ourselves.

So I get that people sometimes feel that they have to stick up for the non-negotiality of the law, especially when they encounter people who seem offended by the idea that they might have to follow them occasionally (met one of them online the other day), but I was still not thrilled to see that sign. And then, they changed it.

“Have compassion. What would Jesus do?” it said. The opposite side of the argument. And that changed my feeling toward that sign. And the tone of this article. Tempering justice with mercy. Not posturing that they might be surrounded by a hostile community of lawbreakers. Suggesting that there is more to scolding the populace when it comes to the mission of the church.

Ok, forget that the back half of the message is a sing-songy formula. It was as if the sign had thought about it long and hard that week and decided to change direction. Maybe the leadership even saw what was on the sign, had a conversation with the person who put it there, and said, we ought to send a different message. Well, I can dream, can’t I? (I usually spend about and hour and half running in the mornings that I exercise so I have time for all kinds of wild fantasizations)

Then, the following week: “Jesus is the open door.” Oh yes, the whole, everyone is welcome thing. I trust the Methodists won’t sue for trademark infringement over that whole ‘open doors’ bit. Great, I thought. It may be wimpy liberal touchy-feely stuff, but it beats sour-faced we-know-better-than-youism any day of the week.

Anybody think I’m taking this too seriously?

Because it had crossed my mind, at possibility #604, that all that was really going on is that somebody had a list of ‘clever’ things to put on church signs and was simply going down the list without thinking about it too hard. Because they’ve got to come up with a new slogan every week, right? And how many people want to have to think about it? In a local church. Come on. They have resources from the national clearinghouse of all things church crap where you can buy your ideas. Plus it keeps everyone on the same page doctrinally. All We Like Sheep, you know. National merchandise keeps the sheep from wandering off.

The next week it was back to good old tried and true doctrine: “Seasons change, God doesn’t.” I’ve never been able to figure out what difference that makes, from a logical point of view, unless you don’t like change, or you are worried that God is like your flaky friend who says she’ll pick you up from the airport and then decides to go to a party. Evidently those images cover a lot of ground with a lot of Christians, because it is a popular idea. Know what? I like that the seasons change. Put me down for a heretic.  What about God doesn’t change? His character? His love? His Himness? I change. You change. Glaciers even change, though I doubt we’ll notice, being on a much tighter schedule than our icy friends. Does God? Does it matter? Does God grow, evolve, experiment, think….how can we know this?

Right. Overthinking. Got it. This is what the church tries so hard to prevent, and here I am, eschewing the well-trod path and going off on tangents of innovation. Perhaps I need to undergo some church sign therapy.

The following week’s entry might help. It also pretty much settled the issue about who was or wasn’t at home when they posted their weekly communication. Have you heard this one before? I think it is one of our pastor’s ‘favorites:’

"ASAP—Always Say a Prayer"

Cute, huh?


Actually, They did ask directions…
posted December 13, 2011

This is one of those communicable email forwards that has been flying around the internet for years:

“What would have happened if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men?
They would have asked directions,
arrived on time,
helped deliver the baby,
cleaned the stable,
made a casserole,
and brought practical gifts.”

It ought to be unworthy of the attentions of this blog to refute this bit of doggerel—it certainly will be unwelcome to persons who find it funny. It is of no help that someone has attached a doxology to the email in which the women come in for similar stereotypical punishment: as vicious gossips, vindictive shrews, and so on. There is no equal time where crude caricatures are concerned. As is usually the case when we are trying to be funny about something by way of general complaining, we don't want to be bothered with contradictory evidence, even if it is staring right at us.  And we certainly wouldn't want to let an accurate reading of the gospel get in the way of a little man bashing. At any rate, you can send your emails, headed ‘oh, lighten up’ to ‘[email protected]

As we all know, men never ask for directions, and pointing this out constantly is terribly funny. As the author has been known to wander around stores for upwards of two or three minutes before asking a sales person for help, the full real-lifeness of this trope may have escaped him. The story of the visit of the Magi from the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew says something rather different, however. The ‘men’ did ask for directions. Stopping in Jerusalem, which is a good place to assume something important is going to take place, they go to see Herod, and ask ‘Where is this child who is to be King of the Jews?’ Herod’s advisors are able to point them on the right path (no less than the chief priests and teachers or the law, which I suppose is a bit more exulted than asking a gas station attendant).

The second item on our list concerns the idea that they arrived late. Curiously, even my study bible proclaims confidently in a footnote that they arrived several months after the birth, despite the fact that the Gospel account does not give a time table. It does, however, say that they arrived after the birth—a consequence, apparently, of having to follow a star in the sky which was not clear enough to permit them to go directly to Bethlehem without asking directions from Herod.  If they had arrived in time for the birth, our unknown humorist assures us that they could have assisted with the delivery, as though Mary would want a bunch of strangers from a foreign land attending her at such a time. Probably, being men, they would have been immediately sent off to go boil some water at the inn (yuck! yuck!).

I’m not sure why the wisemen ought to have felt it was their province to clean somebody else’s stable, particularly if the proprietor did not want his animals disturbed—for all we know, Mary and Joseph are trespassing.  Anyhow, if we are going to be bothered with facts, the wisemen hail from the Gospel of Matthew, which does not say anything about a stable. Very well, they can help Mary around the house, perhaps take out the garbage and so on. Would it have been worth mentioning in the gospel account if they had?

As far as the practical gifts are concerned, I am not sure I can defend them, except to suggest that if you are a poor family in 1st century Palestine, cash is always welcome. Gold is about as helpful as you can get it you are about to take a trip to Egypt for a while. The inns along the way are probably not so cheap as they ought to be, and it is possible that Joseph had left his traveler’s cheques at home.  Maybe things are different in the 21st century, but back then, money was valuable, and it could be made to serve nearly every purpose by way of exchange. The Myrrh was also doctrinally useful: it is supposed to have come in handy at Christ’s burial, although it would have to remain on the shelf for 33 years. It is only the Frankincense that might have to be regifted (I’ve recently learned that it signifies the priesthood). Maybe that woman, variously known as Mary Magdalene, and as ‘unidentified,’ will want it so she can pour it on Jesus’ feet later on.

It is true that the wisemen could use a decent publicist. Some of the songs about them are just silly. Take "Do You Hear what I hear?" for instance: somebody thought it would be a good idea to include the line 'A child, a child, shivering in the cold, let us bring him silver and gold.' Which rhymes, of course, which is why it is supposed to trump all kinds of stupidity. Did anybody think about maybe getting the child a blanket instead? How is silver and gold going to ward off pneumonia? This was brought to my attention by my wife, Kristen, who also noticed that one of the verses of "Silent Night" is missing a verb.  To be honest, I stopped paying attention to the words to some of these carols years ago as a defense against having my brain explode. The scansion in "The First Noel" still makes me want to do unChristmassy things to whoever wrote it. Look-ed? Pres-ENCE? Come on.

At any rate, the wiseguys do their thing, which is to pursue their star-gazing hobby to the ends of the earth (do you think their wives were waiting at home fuming?), drop off their inappropriate gifts, and leave. So like men. Didn't want to be involved in the actual raising of the child. Apparently it wasn't so interesting after that first night in Bethlehem. They must have had other stars to follow.

All these charges may be laid at the feet of the wise men, but we must remember any errors in transmission belong to the writers of the gospels—also men. Actually, Mark, Luke and John should not be blamed: they do not mention the wise men. And, when all is said and done it must also be admitted that Matthew had an agenda, that politically dirty word that always means something rotten when describing the motives of the other political party. Here it simply means that the author of the Gospel was trying to make a point about the significance of the visitation, and tailored the facts accordingly. The eminence of the visitors (or their taste in gifts) is a show of the importance of the One whom they were visiting. The great distance they are thought to have come shows that the baby they have come to worship will be a light to the nations, although Matthew does not give them Royal status nor tell us that they were necessarily from more than 10 miles east of Jerusalem. Probably it is not doing violence to the message that he was putting forth to tease out these undeveloped clues and make them Kings from the Far East—I am sure they will not mind the promotion. Anyhow, where would scholars get such expensive gifts?

The point of the narrative, in the end, is to show what kind of child this Jesus was going to be, how even the heavens poured forth signs and wonders, and how those with their heads and their hearts ready to receive the message—from anywhere—those in the know—will go to great lengths to proclaim His message. The long journey, the status of the visitors, and the exulted gifts, all point to this conclusion. A trio of stereotypical superwomen, being in all things practical, caring, and truly wise, would not have raised such an argument from this text—in fact, it would have drawn attention to the women. We would have praised their utility and nurturing skills and forgotten the babe who could make casseroles appear in the desert if necessary. It seems to me that the ‘men’ served their purpose quite adequately.


ps. I couldn't care less whether the visitors from the east really were men or women, or both (assuming that this is actual history to begin with). In recent years several people have come forward to suggest that there may have been women in the party. The evidence appears to be pretty thin, and, given the status of women in those times, it might not be very likely. But if the idea appeals to you, and you want to include both sexes in your Christmas play, I say go for it. And Merry Christmas, whatever your gender.


Jesus Apologizes for being a Liberal
posted February 9, 2012

Jesus Christ held a press conference late Friday in which he apologized for most of his major teachings.

I have thought long and hard about what I said when I was here last, and I am convinced now by the interpretations of so many pastors and teachers that I was in error. I am deeply sorry for the confusion I have caused in people who have read my teachings.

Jesus went on to distance himself from what he described as a “liberal distortion,” saying that the phrase “love your enemies” had been taken out of context, and that what he really meant by “blessed are the peacemakers” was “blessed are the ones who fight for peace by destroying the enemies of peace.”

Some of the other ‘Beatitudes’ to accede to the editorial pen include Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6) which he began with “blessed are the poor” followed a few verses later by “cursed are the rich” which Jesus called an unfortunate example of class warfare. It now reads, “Blessed are you who create jobs and stimulate the economy. You should remain free from government interference.” He said he regrets his admonition to “give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

Jesus then went on to describe a new book he had written to be released in the spring (“verily, verily, I say unto you, it shall be available at fine Christian bookstores everywhere”) which would set straight the core of his message, and rescue it from the leftist bias it gets in the mainstream media.

It’s title is ‘What I Really Meant by the Parables’ and I wrote it myself this time, because I decided I couldn’t trust ghostwriters anymore,” a slap at the quartet of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in whose works Jesus’ disciples are frequently portrayed as not understanding his message.

Some of the revisions included a new ending to the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan tells the man in the ditch to “get a job” and gets an angry retort from the man, who says he wants to spend his life in mud by the side of the road so he can get welfare checks and collect disability insurance. Later the man is relieved when he finds out he could have been jailed for helping a foreigner.

Also, in a bid to make his stories more interesting for general audiences, the prodigal son gets stomped to death by the pigs he is feeding.

I intend to speak out on issues like homosexuality and abortion a great deal more than I have in the past.” He said he was embarrassed that he inexplicably forgot to mention either of them on his last trip to earth.

There are already at least a million pre-ordered copies of the book on Amazon, and Jesus’ website is flooded with requests from conservative churches for speaking engagements. He recently launched a weekly blog, which will give fans something to read until the book is released. Jesus is now also on Twitter and Facebook.

At least one aspect of his ministry is unchanged.

Follow me,” he said.


God Vs. Google
posted June 30, 2012

Since I am starting a blog in the fall I was playing with all the bells and whistles, and was pleasantly surprised to find a new gadget which allows readers to easily translate my priceless effusions into one of many languages courtesy of one drop down menu. Before now, the internet had been regularly reminding me of my inadequacy in the multiple languages department, but now it will not be necessary to spend the wee hours translating my posts into attempted Spanish and German and French and Swahili, and so on.

The Google never sleeps. While we mortals slumber, the Google is thinking up, even now, even as you read this, new gadgets to improve our lives, or at least to involve us in the Google collective with greater intensity than ever before. The Google knows what we want—thinks it knows, anyway.

Actually, it can still miss its target. I was fiddling with the calendar, and, while trying to see if I could link to a map of one of my concerts this summer--in Vienna—fed it an address it did not understand, whereupon it furnished a map of the United States. You are not likely to find Vienna in the United States. Not the one most people have heard of, anyway. I am not talking about Vienna, Illinois.

But it got me thinking. Here's an interesting question, posed with all the Evangelical severity I can muster: Does the Google think it can outgun God?

I am steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition, partly because I grew up in it, and partly because my mind will allow me to store the ideas put there for later use—steeped, therefore, because those stories and concepts are always with me. It was inevitable, therefore, that this new Google app would get me thinking about the Tower of Babylon.

The Tower story hails from the 11th chapter of Genesis, and is apparently a product of the days before God acquired his status as an Almighty and unique Diety. In a world full of various tribal gods all bent on picking on their siblings to show their superiority, a god had to flex its powerful right arm pretty often. What is interesting about this god, though, is that not only is this god a jealous god, sure to punish those who do not give him his divine due, this god is even jealous of those non-divine lumps of mud that he created. In other words, not only is he in competition with other gods for our attention, he's in competition with us. He’s even threatened by us. And the thing that bothers him, apparently, is that we are too united. A group of Babylonians sets out to build a pile of rocks all the way up to heaven, which wasn’t nearly as far away back then, and God doesn’t like the idea, not simply because they might accomplish it, but because if they are all on the same page with this hair-brained scheme, they might be able to do anything (including take over?). Apparently, heaven isn’t really into having all those tourists. So God puts an end to their unity by causing them all to speak different languages, thus ending their little building project in disaster. ("Put that rock over there." "No habla ingles, senor." "I said put it....oh, never mind.")

For the literal-minded, then, a question: If God was so irritated by this little rock pile, why does he seem so unconcerned with all the skyscrapers that adorn Modernia which are vastly taller than anything you could build by stacking stones atop one another? True, every once in a while one of these enormities comes crashing down but it is still a case of selective destruction. Still you can find voices certain that God likes to go around kicking over the sand castles of the people he doesn’t like, even when he leaves so many others on the beach. And in a homiletic vein, let us remember that it was pride, that favorite enemy of the church, that motivated these people to build their enormous tower. It goeth before a fall (except for the times it doesn’t; we’re going to ignore those and keep right on preaching).

But it’s the languages that make this story so interesting. God didn’t wipe out their stone circus; he confused the people working on it and made them stop working together. Which might tell you something about the biases of the storyteller. Diversity is confusing. If everyone spoke the same language we’d all be able to work together. We could understand each other. But difference is defeating. A modern descendant of this thinking is that it is the Devil who likes to divide us (I’ve heard that a few times recently). Infighting is a sign that we are not of God.

In this regard, the stories of Genesis challenge our ‘modern’ viewpoints. Because here it isn’t an evil force that caused chaos—it was God. And if you really don’t like all that diversity, who are you going to blame for it?

These days, a lot of tribalist regimes are in the news. Folks like the Taliban, or the repressive regimes in Syria or North Korea, tend to focus on one thing: authority. Theirs. And one thing they do not appreciate is a lot of people expressing different opinions. They want a society well-ordered, and the sacred scriptures interpreted one way, and that one way will support the societal pecking order they want to establish. Generally, there are rights for a few, and a few rights for the rest. And it would be a colossal problem for somebody’s Deity to go scattering everybody by taking away the tools they have to understand each other (I mean, besides violence). Read from this perspective God has done something not at all to be wished for. In fact, it is the opposite of a good thing. Isn't God supposed to be good all the time? Not that this reading is all that bizarre, given its context. The next time you are in the biblical neighborhood, check out all the verses that actually suggest God does evil. There’s one in Hosea 6, if I remember rightly. You can find the rest on your own. It is a theological perspective most of us do not share, particularly because we have the devil for that sort of thing now. But that wasn’t part of the theological universe then. God caused everything, good and bad. You don't need to reinterpret this act of destruction as a good thing in order to get God off the hook if you share this challenging perspective.

So what do we have? Diversity is bad. God caused it. It is still bad. But it was our fault, anyway. Also, We used to be united, back when life was good (oh, a nickel for every time….). We could have used that singleness of purpose for a construction project to house the poor or something, but instead we’re building condos to heaven.

As a result, most of earth’s inhabitants will have to read this article in a poor approximation of their own language in order to make any sense of it. And now, thanks to the Google, that has been made easier. What they unveiled last month wasn’t anything completely new as far as language translation is concerned, but it is much simpler to employ. I’d also swear it was a little smarter than language translation programs of old, since, while reading the biography of a pianist from a Danish website, I was pleasantly surprised to find that at least some of the sentences read in very good English, while most of the rest were close enough you could guess at the meaning. A few were very funny, of course, and some made no sense whatsoever. Sometimes the terms were mis-guessed. Since the German word for playing the piano is also the German word for playing a sport, and since Danish seems to be pretty close to German as language groups go, I found that the pianist in question was often talking about his game instead of his playing.

At any rate, the Google is continuing the forward march of global humanity, continuing to role back God’s confusion and diversity program a bit at a time, much like the corporations who have been split apart in anti-trust suits eventually start to merge again, priming the process to start all over.

Of course, if you think like an artist, you are always finding thematic connections in the biblical material, and there is plenty to work with. It isn’t simply a matter of God finding new languages to keep us apart. And Google isn’t the only one trying to bridge the divide. The story of Pentecost in the 2nd chapter of Acts finds God doing the same thing, and getting the jump on Google by two millenia. Suddenly, the Spirit is using all of those different languages to get across the gospel to some very surprised cosmopolitans. Luke, who is very literal about things, may have confused glossolalia, which is speaking in tongues, with the idea of speaking in different languages. In the former case, the language employed (even today by some Pentecostals) is an unrecognizable effusion of noises given by and for the praise of the Spirit of God. A translator is required to make human sense of what is being said. This is what Paul was referring to in the 12th chapter of 1st Corinthians when he suggests it would be better to speak five words of instructions that 10,000 in a tongue. In any case, we have a short-lived example of getting across the same message to everyone in their own languages in an act of instantaneous communication (including, by the way, some dead languages Luke didn’t just throw in for comic effect but to make a point about the universality of the message). Ever since, Bible societies of various kinds have been translating scripture and all manners of Godly campaign literature into an impressive array of languages.

So which side is God on? One of the problems of taking a tale like the tower of Babylon literally is that it seems as though God has had some major policy shifts. As creator, God seems to have imbedded an incomprehensible hugeness in the created order—at least from our perspective. We, naturally, feel threatened by the incomprehensibility of it all. So, we assume, does God, who gave us a central message so we could sort it all out. And yet, God’s the one who made it next to impossible to talk to each other by creating all of those languages—as if everyone who speaks the same language gets along glowingly (it may be one of the naivest parts of the story to equate unity of language with unity of everything else) —and then, in an act of Divine “Doh!” realized too late what a mess that created and decided to bridge the gap by spiritually shortcutting the need to learn each other’s languages. Well, at least it’s sad and funny.

Or we could look at the stories contrapuntally, as a pair of complimentary themes which illustrate both the need to communicate, and the differences which are necessary in order to have something to communicate in the first place. One thing the two stories do have in common is that they both feature groups of humans all hanging out in the same place and God basically making sure they go someplace for a change instead of staying put and clinging. He wants them to let go. What we don’t know is how Google fits into all this. But those of us with modern brains have learned something in the meantime. God isn’t threatened by our supposed unity. It was all a pipe dream, anyway, and an evolutionary throwback from the days when everybody’s gods were punishing anyone who threatened their tight and tenuous hold on power (take that, Prometheus!) These days, God’s got better things to do.  And somehow, some way, those connections that we manage to make with each other, halting, temporary, and beset by many obstacles, are every bit as important as the fact that God, as a creative artist, has an awful lot of range and quite a lot of technique. He gives us those obstacles in the first place, as well as the means to overcome them. With God’s help—and hindrance. So maybe it isn’t about God vs. Google. Maybe, in some ineffable way, God is using Google to effect the Divine purpose. Maybe Google is, unknowingly, and a bit selfishly, nevertheless working for God.

Actually, I hear that’s how the devil got his start.


posted August 1, 2012

In 2011 I wrote several blogs which were critical of the literature, signage, and comments of other Christians. It has occurred to me that in 2012 I ought to leave off these negative undertakings and describe positively how I think we ought to live and move and have our being. I would, however, like to address my motives for my earlier posts. There will of course have been some Christians who felt themselves under attack, and others, from outside, who will have said to themselves, well that just proves that there is nothing to this Christianity stuff since all Christians can’t get along.

I think under examination that last sentiment, however nice it might seem, will prove to be a bit silly. When in the long history of humankind has a large group of people ever gotten along in every particular? Where is there a mass of humanity a billion persons wide and 2,000 years deep that has not involved itself in a great deal of squabbling? I’m not suggesting all of this has been productive, I am simply being a realist.

But then, if you honestly feel that some of your brethren have gotten it wrong, that, say for an example,  when Jesus said “love your enemy” he really did not envision marching armies taking over large swaths of the Middle East, or that ‘forgive us as we forgive others’ calls into question that behavior of some of your fellow Christians, is it better to say, “well, they call themselves Christians, and however they choose to live it out is their business” or to try to correct their attitudes as best you can, not out of self-righteous smugness, but because you can see the harm that results to actual people and you want to do what you can to prevent it?

A less abstract example: One of my students was parking her car for a piano lesson and I mentioned the difficultly we’ve had at our church—which is next door to an elementary school whose parking lot is connected with ours--with parents who whip through our parking lot at dangerous speeds and how that had come up at staff meetings. My adult student said to me “I suppose you decided that the Christian thing to do was not to say anything about it” to which I responded “No, we decided that the Christian thing to do was to make sure that the children didn’t get run over!” That, incidentally, has resulted in a few of our staff members getting flipped the bird by angry parents who didn’t like it when they came over to their car and asked them to slow down. The altercations came despite what I understand was a very productive encounter with the school administration over the issue; that did not stop some heated exchanges from taking place in the parking lot, however.

There are some folks whose criticism of the Christian enterprise results from the stereotype that we are a namby-pamby bunch who value politeness over all else (guilty, sometimes); others who think it is our incivility that is the problem (also guilty some of the time); and those for whom we are too much in the middle (correct!). There is, in short, something for everyone who wishes to avoid being part of our enterprise, and evidence that can be stretched, if necessary, to show that contact with us is undesirable, and that life would be better if we would just go away. The diversity in attitudes of disparagement suggests to me that both the choice to be a part of, and the choice not to be part of, this or any group, is really more about one’s impulse, one’s motivations, one’s heart. The evidence can be found either way.


Persons outside the Christian world sometimes find it astonishing, and unfortunate, that Christians seem always to be arguing over issues of faith. The lack of unanimity and brotherly accord is thought to be good reason to avoid the enterprise altogether. This idea is itself odd, since there seems to be no human endeavor free from partisan bickering.  Forget politics—I suspect that even model railroad enthusiasts get together and argue about the best way to mold mountains. This doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t on to something.

For years, many of us have been questioning a dominant way of thinking about the whole point of Christianity, finding it overly simplified, and with the wrong emphasis. Since the gospels show Jesus himself engaged in all sorts of religious controversies (mixing it up in fine form) there is really nothing new about this, or unusual. It is, in fact, an old conversation. Martin Luther got involved. So did John Calvin. Or Martin Luther King. And today the parade of personages eminent and anonymous goes on.

My argument here is not with so exalted an opponent. I plan to take on a religious tract that was brought to my attention last year in one of our Methodist churches.

It is a comic book of sorts, and seems primarily designed to scare people into making a commitment to Christ. It is motivated by what might be considered the dominant strain in American Christianity in the 20th century. A number of people in the church (and outside it) are reacting against it in our day, finding its ideas about God quite unflattering (to God) and its use of fear as the prime motivator shallow. In other words, it doesn’t work very well for some people. To which the people whose thinking produced the tract might respond that it doesn’t matter whether it works for you or not, it matters what God thinks, not you. There is merit in this line of thinking; however, I have a suspicion that the tract writers then substitute their own hopes and fears for the mind of God: their phobic way of viewing the world suddenly “becomes” God’s own. That is why I am not so worried about challenging them. I think we would all be better off if we could put this kind of theology aside and concentrate on a larger vision.  Not that I am holding my breath waiting. This is a product that has sold very well over the years. It is a vision of Christianity that primarily concerns what happens to you after you die. If you don’t accept Jesus you are going to hell forever. That’s it. Nothing about how to live your life while you are here on earth (that is just a side issue, after all)--or very little, beyond keeping your nose clean and going to church, nothing about social concerns or being your brother’s keeper, just a desire to save your own butt and get it into heaven. Beside the fact that Jesus didn’t say much—if anything—about that idea, it reflects a selfish concern that was, I think, quite the opposite of what he did talk about, which was doing for others, losing your life in order to save it, loving your friends and your enemies, and so on.

I wonder what he would think if he knew that for many Christians the entire message of Jesus was to pray, read your bible and go to church so you would go to heaven when you die. I have a feeling he’d have a problem with that. Once you have purchased salvation, or rather, acknowledged the fact that Jesus purchased salvation for you, you are one of the good people (not on your own merits, of course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel superior to others anyway) and you can avoid the fear that there might be something more for you to learn, or to do.


It seems like, and has sometimes been described (glowingly) as a simple insurance policy: too simple, in some respects. It has the unfortunate odor of a salesman insisting that you have a huge problem but that he (and only he) can fix it, and quite easily, but that you need to do it right now and you need to do it his way. And there are riders attached. As we go along, it turns out that there are really a number of other requirements to be part of this club, preoccupations to which we have to subscribe. The person selling the product is convinced that this is what it means to be a Christian; others have puzzled over how the portrait of Christ as found in the gospels seems to differ so radically from the one being presented in so many circles today. One hopes, of course, that this tract is simply meant as a way to get people in the door, after which a more mature vision of living in the Kingdom of God will gradually emerge. But it doesn’t seem to for many churches or their congregations.

Here is the tract in case you’d like to follow along as we unpack it. Since this is for education purposes I assume the authors will not mind the redistribution: besides, maybe somebody reading it will get saved despite my misguided efforts to “undermine” it. In any case, let us begin the story: a young man (does it seem to you that the authors would not consider using a protagonist of the other sex?) has died and is about to find out what happens when you don’t buy the heavenly insurance policy:

He is an arrogant, brash young man. And he seems to be the portrait of all persons who have not committed their lives to the church, or its founder. It is not a nuanced or sympathetic rendering—the point, later on, will in fact be to introduce a power struggle between the person who wants to satisfy the wishes of their own ego over and against God’s. Not that this idea is anything new; you can find the same kind of vivid contrast in Paul’s “sin lists” in parts of the New Testament, even if Paul doesn’t unpack the idea with the same thoroughness. Anyhow, he gets buried, and then is very surprised to find out that he has been resurrected, and is off to face judgment. He expresses surprise—no, indignation—that this is happening to him because he steadfastly maintained that hell was something that happened on earth. I understand why this narrow interpretation bothers some Christians—the idea that hell happens to us before death (and not after)--but then sometimes I wish they would visit certain regions of the earth and then get back to us. In any event, he is wrong: too bad for our liberal humanist friend, the narrative is not his and he is not setting the rules. We shall hopefully not gloat too much. And there is a verse from the Bible to back this up; in fact, the tract writers seem to have done their homework to the extent that one authoritative blurb from the Good Book will accompany us on each stage of the journey:

“And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29)

Here is a theme we shall be returning unto frequently. Verily, it is strange. Notice the thesis as we go along: it comes from a type of Christian mindset which I will describe as very binary: the entire point of your life is to end up going to the good place instead of the bad place when you die. How does one go to the good place and not the bad place? Glad you asked. In fact, those opening panels are very specifically designed to make sure you asked. Belief in Christ. Period. Here’s what I want you to notice as we go along: sometimes the verses from the Bible that the author uses to support this thesis don’t seem to play along with the narrative very well. In this particular case, the verse talks about people’s deeds (they that have done good and they that have done evil), which is not the criteria that the tract writers have in mind, but we’ll visit this in more detail later. For now it’s enough to observe that it’s almost as if the whole salvation-comes-from-believing-in-Jesus-or-else-you-are-going-to-get-tortured-in-hell-forever thing came along after the bible was written, say by 19 or 20 centuries, and thus is not always reflected in the biblical text as well as would have been convenient. It is not as though you can’t find verses that seem to support what they are trying to say, but that often these verses have to be stretched, taken out of context, and so forth, in order to service an idea that may not harmonize with Biblical themes as well as many Christians would like to think. I say this, well aware that many people will have never considered that the two ideas—what’s in the Bible, and what they have been taught in church--are not necessarily blood brothers, and will assume I must be reading my bible incorrectly. Ah, well. There is nothing new under the sun. But to continue….

The tract opened with the portrait of a young man very pleased with himself and his prosperity, and then showed that, nevertheless, he is not in control of the narrative of his life. It doesn’t matter what he thinks, it matters what the author thinks—I mean, it matters what God thinks. He thinks he has it made: he doesn’t. He was sure death was the end of life: it isn’t. He refuses to believe what is happening to him: too bad. Now up to a point, that kind of story arc makes sense. A person who jumps off a cliff and believes they are going to be able to fly is going to fall anyway. But I am also considering the psychology behind the representation of the man. It seems to me to be a bit mean. It finds itself threatened. It assumes, I think, that the people in its target audience are arrogant, and are not bothering themselves with paying attention to what the author’s tribal values. It likes to paint portraits (I have seen them many times) of people who think they don’t need to bother with this Christianity stuff, who are blithe and dismissive, and who are about to be very abruptly and unpleasantly surprised when it turns out they are wrong; and boy are they going to be in trouble for it, too! And you get the uncomfortable feeling that the persons responsible for this literature are sort of rooting to see these bad guys get what’s coming to them, which is a whole lot of eternal hurt.

This is because, in the mind of the authors, the Christian narrative and the world’s narrative (there is only one of each, remember, because everything is binary) are in being set in direct competition with each other, and only one will prevail. And it will only be through bloody conquest. (aside: I saw one of those bumper stickers today with the a little fish that said “Darwin” inside it being swallowed up by a much larger fish that said “Truth” on it. My first thought was of how Darwinian it was. Don’t these folks know anything about irony?)

Anyhow, if you are looking forward to this brash young fellow getting his just desserts for being a successful jerk—I mean, a worldly successful jerk, you’ll love what happens to him next:

An angel whisks him off to be judged, despite his huffing and puffing. He thought heaven and hell were things that happened on earth, did he? Think again, buddy (you can’t blame the authors for throwing this in. If they are wrong about the afterlife they’d better rub their correct version in our faces now because they won’t get to do it later). In the waiting room, he protests: “I’ve lived a real good life. I was no different than anyone else.” Now, the continuity seems to break down a bit there, but the point that the author is trying to make is revealed in the verse below: “…There is none righteous, not even one.” (Rom 10:3) The point being that YOU NEED JESUS! Which is why being just like everyone else isn’t good enough. In fact, if we are to press the psychological frame a bit further, it is probably just enough to get you damned. Because everybody who isn’t for us is against us (which is in the bible, by the way, in one place. Surprised they didn’t use it).  As a purely theological argument, the idea that good just isn’t good enough is quite possibly the major impulse behind protestant Christianity itself, and provides some basic assumptions for this author as well. As I’ll suggest in a moment, marshalling biblical evidence to unilaterally support this position may be more problematic than he or she thinks. But it is more of a concern to me to witness the kind of psychology at work here. Are we, or are we not, supposed to be enjoying watching this young man writhe and struggle in the net of eternal i-told-you-so because he thought being good was good enough and didn’t bother himself with the doctrine of saved-by-faith?

General contempt for humanity (in theological clothing) aside, the author seems intent also on establishing the uselessness of being ‘good.’ Jamming these themes together in only a few words provides the economic jumble of which I spoke; on the one hand he lived a ‘real good’ life, and yet he inexplicably thinks it will be better for him to portray himself as not better than, but the same as, the mass of humanity (an odd defense); I suppose I might congratulate the author for getting so much into two sentences that it’s taken me two paragraphs to digest it. On the other hand, the two sentences don’t really fit together very well. Sometimes, in our eagerness to get in as many shots as we can at our favorite enemies, we fire the whole arsenal indiscriminately, at everything.

Of course, some of the man’s arguments may turn out to be a little exaggerated, a bit self-serving, as we’ll find out as the heavenly surveillance cameras release their footage in the frames to come. For now, he will have to sweat it out before the Judge, as it sort of says in the good book.

There follows an incredible scene, one which George Lucas would love to CGI, and a verse says “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which was the book of life; and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”

Actually, the original is in all caps, which we all know makes it more powerful. This is how we know Christians are speaking truth: they leave their caps lock on their computers. It is only us liberal pseudo-Christians who use lower case.

I’ve italicized the last part of the verse, however, because it is the second time the biblical source material has silently pointed this out, and, while for reasons of formal cohesion I let it pass earlier, in the panel using John 5:29, I want to emphasize it now. This is the second time the dastardly word “Works” has come into play.

The reason this is a problem is that we are encroaching upon one of the fundamental tenets of Protestant faith. It goes back to Luther, who was justifiably upset about some of the abuses in the Catholic Church at the time. People were quite literally being told that they could buy forgiveness for their sins, or shorten their time in purgatory, with a donation to help build the new St. Peter’s church (or participate in the Crusades, or raise money for something else—popes were indulging in these abuses throughout the Middle Ages.) Luther wanted to make it clear that the righteous “are saved by faith alone”—so much that he added the word alone to the verse from Romans (Paul wouldn’t mind, surely). In fact, he made it so clear that anybody who even thinks of bringing up the idea of doing good in this world can be accused of ‘works righteousness’ or ‘trying to buy their way into heaven.’ Like many things born of argument, it seems to me that we vastly exaggerate this doctrine. About the time someone can pass on feeding thousands of starving children because they want to make sure nobody thinks they are trying to get into heaven on the basis of good works, there is a real problem. One would like to imagine that this is simply a bastardization of a perfectly good theological understanding—or a straw man, but I am afraid that it is far too often the real philosophy of too many of us. Protestantism is constantly in danger of being a religious understanding that makes no difference in the world: persons who think salvation is simply a matter of ‘accepting Jesus’ and then pretty much doing whatever they want, so long as it includes going to church with some regularity, and ignoring the despair of the people around them—this is quite the opposite of what our founder taught.

So here is the problem: so far, we have had two verses which have mentioned being judged according to works, when the thesis (it will come, trust me) will be that works have no place in God’s plan of salvation (by the way, I’ve just gone over the verse again, and noticed that the whole things reads: We are justified by faith and not by observing the works of the law (Rom 3:28, Galatians 2:16) which does not sound to me like a very good excuse for avoided doing anything for your neighbor. The thing being opposed to faith, in Paul’s estimation, is the Law of Israel—it is not faith or works, it is faith or works of the law) of course, I am not an exegetical expert, and I am sure that many who say they are will be getting in line to set me straight. I still think this exaggerated misreading, time-hallowed within Protestantism though it may be, provides far too convenient an excuse for living like a social Darwinist.

By the way, before we go on, can I ask about one minor detail: the books that will be opened. Surely God has a Kindle by now, doesn’t he? Or would that be an unrighteous concession to technology? Just asking.

Now the man’s life is going to be reviewed, in detail, because “there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.”

It might be worth finding out where this verse comes from. In its new context, it sounds like you’d better not do anything you don’t want anybody to find out about, which is probably why people always stop using foul language or talking dirty when they find out our pastors are pastors. Or why the folks putting on a folk concert some years back felt so guilty swearing in a church sanctuary (because it’s ok everywhere else, just not when God is listening). Better be good, or God’s gonna find out and broadcast it on his heavenly security camera. The funny thing, though, is that if you look up Mark 4, Jesus is talking about something else entirely. He is talking about the new of the coming of the kingdom of God, a good thing, and using the image of a lamp being hidden under a bowl or a bed to hide its light. Would you light a lamp and then keep it hidden? That would be crazy. Exactly Jesus’s point. You’d want it to shine its light everywhere. That’s what we should be doing with the Good News of the kingdom of God. You can’t keep it a secret. It’ll get out. Not so scary the way Jesus talks about it; in fact it’s pretty marvelous. But it doesn’t scare people that way the tract’s authors want it to so they leave out the setup. Jesus sounds like a pretty grim figure when he’s actually being far more inviting—even funny (that lamp joke would have been a stitch in 1st century Palestine, I’m guessing).

Now they are going to play a cosmic version of “this is your life” complete with every embarrassing incident our protagonist wishes was stricken from the record. Too late! Let’s see what he’s been up to…

It’s time for social concerns to kick in. Our anti-hero liked to tell dirty stories. He also admired good-looking women. Since a good deal of the church’s energy has been spent trying to combat the male sex drive, either by pretending he doesn’t have one, or by making it a mortal sin, it is not surprising that we will get off track theologically in order to explore this obsession. The bible verses try to keep up, but mainly their function is to remind us that we can’t keep anything hidden, so don’t tell any dirty stories unless you want them to go in your permanent record.

It’s not that I am unsympathetic to this impulse, joyless that it is. Drawing a wide prohibitive circle around what is often such a destructive obsession, a naturally possessive and self-centered drive that, unless tempered, can tear at the fabric of society—it might not be a particularly popular position to take, but grown-ups are there to keep society from imploding, even if it means the children don’t get to heedlessly obey their every impulse—that is, to have any fun.

And Jesus did, after all, say that any one who so much as looks at a woman lustfully might as well have already committed adultery with her—here is a verse that matches its context pretty well. Although, frankly, if Jesus were here I’d really like to talk to him about this. It seems as though it would be far healthier to allow, with caution, the very natural process of men looking at women with thoughts of desire. Obviously to act on, or even emphasize, that behavior could be a very bad idea with consequences in many directions, but to be convicted under a heavy burden of sin simply because of having a sexual thought (I read about a study once about men having sexual thoughts every 45 seconds!) seems like it would set up an unhealthy cycle of self-loathing and repression which would make dirty magazines all the more appealing, not less. Every time some good citizen/minister from the Bible belt gets caught in a scandal (every thought that is hidden will be revealed!) I wonder if he would have handled things differently had his society not fought so hard to make all of his natural inclinations seem unhealthy and sinful. I don’t mean telling everybody random orgies are a good idea, I mean not encouraging such a stern repression of sexual identity to the point where sex goes underground and becomes lurid and fascinating.

In other words, there are healthy ways to handle your psychological impulses and then there are the ones that just make things worse: denial, hostile aggressive supression, harsh judgementalism, disproportionate fear, and so forth. To illustrate this turn of mind, here is a fellow from the interwebs who believes that if you give “Satan” an inch, he’ll take a mile. I found this on a website recently:

“If you take one sip of beer, you will take two, three. You start drinking the wines, then the hard liquors. In the drug scene you go from the marijuana and the hash to the hard drugs. It's a progression. "Earthly, sensual, devilish." A little bit of evil to a lot more evil. The Bible warns the Christian to stay away from vain babblings because "they will increase unto more ungodliness" (2 Timothy 2:16). They increase. It's the snowball effect. You put a little snowball at the top of the hill and roll it awhile, and soon it will gather more snow and more snow, and pretty soon you have a whole snowman, or an avalanche, or something else much bigger than the snowball you started with. It's a snowball effect….” [that would be a heckuva way to build a snowman!]

I’ve taken a sip of beer. I don’t care for beer very much, so I don’t drink it much. Wine I like. I probably have in the neighborhood of a dozen drinks a year. If my wife and I go to a fancy restaurant, we order a glass of wine with dinner. Occasionally we’ll have a meal that we pair with a glass of wine at home. Rarely, we’ll have a wine cooler (I think a four-pack sat in our refrigerator for about 6 months). My point is not to downplay, and certainly not to mock, persons who have trouble controlling their urge for alcohol, it is simply to suggest that not everyone is like that. Many of us take pleasures in moderation. Some things are temptations for us, and some are not. Doritos used to be one of mine. I’d finish a bag in a couple of days, then buy another. Eventually I started having stomach problems. I disciplined myself by simply not buying a bag because the moment I brought it into the house it would disappear. As I write this, however, we have four bags in the kitchen. I bought two on sale over a month ago (two for one—darn things are expensive, so I get them when they’re cheap) and my wife bought me two more bags at couple of weeks later when they were having another sale. She hadn’t realized I still had two bags. I have yet to touch any of them. I still like Doritos, but I would say I pretty much have the binging problem licked. I have not graduated to harder potato chips, nor has it led me to a life of crime. Again, I’m not trying to be insensitive to people who can’t handle certain things, or who feel powerless in the face of certain temptations, I am simply saying that the idea that the devil is using practically every one of life’s possible pleasures to wreck our lives, that one sip of beer or one glance at a woman’s legs (or a man’s) is going to lead you inexorably to ruination, is, at best, one possible outcome, depending on your temperament, and, may I suggest, your way of looking at things. If you see the devil around every tree, trying to lead you astray, your fixation, your very unrelenting fear, is probably a bigger enemy than the temptation itself, which you very likely could rob of its power if you simply allowed yourself to engage in that behavior or activity like a healthy adult and realized it was but a small part of life. If you have a serious problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling or some other sort of behavior or substance, this does not apply to you. But you could still benefit, I think, from realizing that it is not the whole hosts of Hell lined up against you trying to drag you into a sin which you cannot control, it is your own weakness that you either must learn to deal with somehow, or get help from others. Or both.

The authors then decide to wrap up this section by repeating the verse about hidden things being made known, because nothing says evangelical Christianity like ‘we’re gonna find out about all your guilty secrets, and you’re gonna be sorry.’ Also, ‘We tried to warn you, but you wouldn’t listen. Now you’ll get what’s coming to you.’ You know the strangest thing about this? Some of the people who are the biggest purveyors of this nonsense are at the same time the most worked up about the idea of surveillance when the government does it. They want their privacy. Wouldn’t you think, at some level, that would create a kind of friction between their religious ideas and the rest of themselves—I mean, God here is basically violating one of our/their most cherished rights. Ok, so he’s God, he can do that, but—do we have to like it? We can’t say anything about it; we have to grin and say that’s peachy, but are we really down with all of this?

Actually, the worst is yet to come. It seems this young man didn’t even pay attention in church! Can you believe it? It is too bad the writers of this comic strip couldn’t find any verses in the bible about what will happen to you if you don’t pay attention in church. I didn’t find any, either, but maybe if I looked harder.

Then the climax. “I don’t need God” he says, giving voice to the contemptuous smirk he’s had on his face through the last several panels. Note to you sinners out there: you’re all like that, all of you. No redeeming features about you. Now join our club already.


Now it is time for this ne’er do well to get what he has coming to him. Confronted with the evidence he falls to his knees and pleads guilty. Now would it be time to show him a little mercy? After all, in an American court, a guilty plea usually results in a shorter sentence. No dice. Here it is one-sentence-fits-all. Apparently God was just kidding when he brought up that mercy thing. (quick, unscientific biblos.com search: the term mercy appears in the Bible 586 times).

On the other hand, a last-minute confession when you’ve already been caught may understandably not carry a lot of weight. Besides, even mercy has a catch: the first verse in the biblos search I did above summarizes a major theme of Jesus’ parables: it is from the book of James: “…judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. [yet, somehow] Mercy triumphs over judgment!” Because this young man did not show any mercy in life (let’s assume; I mean, he has no other redeeming features, so why not?), he will not be shown any now.

Ok, anyone think we’ve gotten off the theologically-beaten path, here? There’s no mention of mercy in this tract, anywhere. It is simply not the yardstick. Instead, as our tract spells out, God and this young whippersnapper are on a collision course. This fella thought he didn’t need God, and now he’s gonna find out differently.

This is the dynamic at work here: our unchristian Everyman is an egocentric jerk who thumbs his nose at the Christian establishment. He does not respect the rules for admission, which is the acknowledgement of our founder’s claim on the world. Here’s what bothers me about that: as a representative of the great unwashed-in-the-blood, he is a window into how these folks see the citizens of the world: not as lost sheep who ought to be pursued,, brought into the fold and cared for, not as people who are already recipients of God’s love, but, like the rest of us, just aren’t there yet, but as big jerks who deserve heavenly contempt because, after all, they started it. In the battle of them Vs. God, you know who is going to win. They think they are living large now, but they are headed for a big fall. This sounds a lot like a persecution complex. Or, to view it another way, this fellow is living his life in contempt of our rules, and we feel toward him the way Principle Rooney feels toward Ferris Buller: he’s not a young man who needs both discipline and guidance, to have his unsocial impulses curbed but his gifts encouraged (say, his creativity), to know that he will be punished when he breaks the rules, but that his principal really wants the best for him in life and thinks he is a pretty neat human being right now; no, Rooney spends all his time trying to ‘get’ Ferris for rule-breaking. In this panel, God is a lot like Principal Rooney. I suppose it is an open question: if people in ‘the world’ think the church has this unflattering idea of them, that they are all a bunch of slackers, how bad are they going to want to get saved?

At this point we get one of the most interesting of the biblical proof-texts, as God tells him to depart into an everlasting fire. Earlier, I mentioned the disconnect between the idea of being judged by works as the verses from the bible suggested and the doctrine of being saved only by accepting Jesus, works not applicable in any way, shape, or form. In order to solidly hold their thesis it would have been necessary for the tract writers to abridge the verses themselves, something they were apparently unwilling to do. Here they are able to operate with more latitude.

The two verses about departing to eternal fire come from a parable Jesus tells about two groups of people. Commonly known as the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25), it has something for everyone. For conservative evangelicals, it includes the bit about the everlasting fire, which sounds like an image of hell (could Jesus be speaking metaphorically here? Nah).  It also projects a ‘big sort.’ Everybody gets put into one of two groups, destined for the “joys of the kingdom” (Jesus doesn’t use the word heaven, but whatever) and the other to that eternal fire some Christians so love to talk about. In between, though, the words of Jesus get taken out and replaced with what Jesus apparently meant to say, which is about accepting him as your personal Lord and savior so you can go to heaven.

In the Bible, the two groups get sorted on the basis of a rather different question, which is, what did you do (ugh! Not works again) for the least of these, my brethren: did you feed the hungry? Did you visit the sick and imprisoned? Did you clothe the naked?

If this seems unnecessarily liberal you can see why it was cut from the finished product. Jesus is our star witness only up to the point he says something we can use to get people into church. That other stuff is a useless digression. Or it might be something you need to know if you take the parable seriously, think it really does have something to do with your eternal destiny and would like to know what Jesus really said about how you get where you want to go. Like liturgical lawyers on redirect, we again see biblical material refashioned so it suits the needs of the tract. Think you don’t have a serious problem? Think again, you contemptuous fool. Now that you’ve been convinced of your guilt, what can you do to be washed clean? Let me show you. Asked and answered. And don’t go around thinking it has anything whatsoever to do with doing good works, even if we’ve bumped against that concept in our biblical salvaging several times now.

Now our young hero is sentenced to the eternal fire. And it isn’t for listening to the teachings of Jesus or loving one’s neighbor;  rather it is for telling dirty jokes and falling asleep in church. Does it seem like we may have missed the point here?

Still, there is something you can do if you want your life to turn out differently. You can get down on your knees and pray right now. And to get you acclimated to a lifetime of obeying the church hierarchy, here is what you ought to pray, all written down so you don’t go being an individual and getting confused. If you don’t know what you are saying it doesn’t matter as long as you are saying the words. I hope I’m not pressing this point too hard: I realize a lot of people need a lot of direction, but I also think a conversation or two with an actual person might be a better idea before praying a printed prayer that apparently works a lot like swallowing a pill. If you die before you get the prayer said I have a hunch God’s bureaucrats have a little more sense than ours and the big sort will be a little more fair—maybe too fair for some of us to tolerate.

Anyhow, after you’ve prayed the prayer you can get a Bible. I like how it is supposed to be a King James’s version. As I am writing this (late 2011) the KJV is celebrating its 400th birthday and verily I shall deliver up from my bowels a mighty shout-out. It’s a shame that all the king’s scholars and all the king’s translators couldn’t come up with a better version in 400 years, particularly since most of us don’t talk like that anymore and won’t have a foggy clue what half of it means in the King’s English. But it stuns me how liberally we pass out Bibles and think that if people would read them occasionally they would be enlightened when in reality there are huge parts of it that are really incomprehensible/boring/downright odd and full of bizarre social conventions and/or dirty stories we wouldn’t allow our kids to read in any other book and yet we pass out Bibles to 3rd graders every year. (Hey kids? Want a really dirty story? Try reading the 19th chapter of Judges.)

This does not mean the Bible isn’t a colossally fascinating book, it just means that you can’t approach it like the phone book, looking up a verse or two that says something convenient and then leaving out the rest, and honestly believe you are engaging with the Bible.

The problem with that is it takes a lot of discipline to read the bible, a lot of help to understand what all is going inside its covers, and every organization is made of masses of people who don’t have the time or the ability or the desire to do more than scratch the surface.

Besides the theological problems or verses that don’t really line up with the message, or the psychology of meanness that seems to motivate the salesman approach to the whole God thing, there is also generational conflict lurking there. I can’t imagine anybody these days really taking this comic seriously enough to want to rethink their life rather than just lampooning its contents. The rather over-dramatic black and white imagery, with the dated mid-twentieth century aesthetic, would probably push most people away. I suspect the church that furnished it has not had many new people darken its doors anyhow, although various forms of this message, updated and slightly repackaged, do continue to thrive because somehow it fits human psychology rather well. Jesus’ actual message, which revolves around how we deal with each other, and says nothing about accepting him as a personal savior, reading our Bibles every day, or finding time to spend with God, unfortunately does not.

So here I go again suggesting that the kingdom of heaven is more than a simple prayer or a guaranteed spot in heaven if you say you believe Jesus died for your sins. And that trying to sell that message on the basis of fear mongering is really in poor taste. But I think it has been a success with respect to numbers. Millions have bought the product; the question is what they have bought and whether it has a thing to do with Christianity.

These days there are an increasing number of voices questioning that slimmed-down version of the Christian message. I am not confident that it is becoming much more sophisticated for the swelling numbers of new converts—large numbers of people gravitate to something simple and relatively maintenance-free (even if it includes reading a book once in a while). But it does seem as if there is something generational in my rejection of the message of the tract, in addition to my loathing for its immature psychology and tribalist outlook. It ought to be a vestige of something old that is passing away to be replaced by a more mature understanding of what it means to live in the love of God and neighbor. It sells its customer very short, assumes him to have no interest in things eternal unless threatened with his own extreme demise, and has no compassion, either. All the more disheartening that the tract is copyright 2002. Perfect love, says a verse not to be found in this tract, perfect love casts out fear, even though, it does not go on to say, fear may sell better.

In the end, though, I wonder about something. This strain of popular Christianity seems to gather around the idea that it will help people deal with their fears, their feelings of shame and guilt and unworthiness. But it doesn’t seem to be doing a terribly good job of it. First it must preach that we are all lost sinners and that we need Jesus. Then when we get Jesus we are supposed to feel really good about it--not just a little, but euphoric. It is as if a cosmic switch has been thrown and all the bad stuff we couldn’t deal with has magically gone away. It seems like that would be the sort of thing that would make people better: full of love and compassion and joy. One substantive change begests another, doesn't it? But not nearly always. Instead they often act like bullies, or people who think they are themselves being bullied by the world and are itching to get back at it. Where is the love of God in that? Something has gone wrong here. Is it the message? Is it the way it is delivered? Or is it just the way humans are made sometimes?

A king has forgiven his servant an enormous debt. The man turns around and throws his fellow man in jail because he cannot pay back the man a much smaller debt. Sound familiar? Jesus knew something about people, didn’t he? What is it about fear that takes hold of people and doesn’t let go? The tract writers may think they are scaring people into heaven. But maybe they’re just scaring themselves.


The Not Quite So Good Samaritan
posted Oct 1, 2012

Hey, kids! It's time for story hour. Jesus is up on a mountain somewhere praying today, so we've asked his disciple Thaddeus to fill in for him. Thaddeus, do you have a story for the kids?

I sure do! A certain man was travelling near Panama on a cruise ship, with his wife. They were on the deck one morning, using binoculars, when they noticed a fishing boat in distress. One of the guys on board had his shirt on a stick and he was waving it up and down frantically, trying to get the cruise ship's attention. So the man and his wife did what they learned they were supposed to do in Sunday school--they went to the crew of the cruise ship and said, "There are some people in a boat and they need help! Let's help them!" But the crew said, "No way!" The man and his wife tried everything they could think of to convince them that those poor people needed help, but it didn't do any good. The crew just wasn't interested.

About eleven days later, the couple was back home, reading the newspaper. They were horrified to learn about a fishing boat that had been in trouble and how some of the people on board had died because they hadn't gotten rescued in time. Only one of the fisherman was still alive. Once they heard this they decided to sue the cruise ship for not helping the poor boat. Yes, Tommy?

Is it illegal not to help people on this high seas?

Yes it is, Tommy. The people who make laws for the oceans decided that there were too many Priests and Levites out there and that, since there weren't many people around, it was absolutely critical that anybody who came across someone else in trouble stop and help them, since it might be their only chance to survive.

So I guess those people are sorry now, right?

Well, not really. The man and his wife took a picture of the boat they said was in trouble, but the people on the cruise ship said, hey, that's not the same boat as the one in the newspaper. That was a DIFFERENT boat in distress.

You mean they didn't help TWO people?

Doesn't matter. All they need to establish is that the people suing them can't prove that they broke the law in that particular case.

Billy spoke up: So why aren't they on trial in a criminal court if they broke the law?


Jenny said, This is a really rotten story.

Yeah, said LaQuica. It doesn't sound like a story at all. It sounds like something that actually happened.

Phillip came in to see what all the ruckus was about. Well, he said, Thaddeus here is not very good at making up stories, so he told you something he heard on the radio this morning. If he had made it up like he was supposed to (here he gave Thaddeus a shot in the ribs) the people on the boat would have gotten rescued and you wouldn't all have nightmares and wake up your parents and get them mad about Disciple DayCare. Plus, I'm not even sure he got half of the facts right.

Hey, said Thaddeus, I was doing the best I can. Jesus didn't pick me for my ability to tell stories. Anyway, I think this incident could provoke an interesting discussion.

Well I think any five year old could see that the people on the cruise ship should have helped the people on the fishing boat, said Jenny, casting a glance at her little brother.

I think that's obvious, returned Pedro. And I think it is a yet another depressing commentary on the human condition.

Phillip looked at Thaddeus as if to say, there is no way a five year old just said that.

Thaddeus whispered, he came to us out of a Shakespeare play. The Almighty liked him so much he sent him here.

Phillip thought, that explains it. He knew that kids in Shakespeare plays always sound like adults.

Say, while we're off the subject, my pastor was preaching about grace the other day and happened to mention an incident where a child was asked about the story of the good Samaritan. The story means, said the young man, that if I'm in trouble somebody has to help me. Not so, said my pastor. That isn't grace, that's a feeling of entitlement. Which is good point. But the next day I'm listening to this story on the radio and thinking, yes, but there are situations when it is not only someone else's moral duty to help, it is actually illegal not to. Such as on the high seas. And in the wake of all those Good Samaritan laws, it just seems like the decent thing to do. You know, in the original version of Jesus' story the Samaritan is placing the injured man on his donkey and he manages to fracture one of the man's ribs in the process, whereupon he gets sued for everything he owns. But we've come a long way since then. People trying to help actually get some protection from the law. And apathy doesn't always get away with it.

Which opens up its own interesting can of worms. I've heard people say again and again that you can't make people better by force: you can't legislate morality. People have to be able to make their own bad choices and the law should stay out of it. This is usually in company with the idea that one's own choices do not adversely affect other people. As if the guy who decides not to wear a seat belt and ends up splattered all over the road does not cause his relatives to grieve, my tax dollars to be spent on the cleanup, my insurance to go up, and my friend to be late for work (along with 100 other people). In a related vein, let's admit that the person who decides to court lung cancer and smokes several packs a day for years doesn't singlehandedly pay for their own health care, nor are they the only ones breathing the air.

I remember hearing the old argument in the wake of the Illinois smoking ban: it won't work. Look what happened during prohibition.

I don't know if the rates of smoking have gone down (yet). But I do know I haven't seen as much of it lately, and I haven't had an asthma attack, either, which is sort of a good thing. Will this latest prohibition hold? Not drinking, surely. But maybe smoking.

Drunk driving fatalities are down, I've read. Maybe all that publicity and public shaming in the 80s and 90s and all the tougher laws made a difference after all. So can we make people better by force of law? Maybe some of the time. It's a mixed record. But still, it's not completely without success.  Maybe we need to refine our terminology: We may not be able to legislate morality, but we can, sometimes, legislate behavior.  People still do what they can get away with.

It would be wonderful to think that people are doing kindnesses to their neighbors voluntarily, and even taking better care of themselves just because they ought to. We obviously can't hold our breath. Some will. But don't forget that the law is not neutral. The Pharisee and the Levite didn't just not feel like helping; they had the law to back them up. Laws that said it was forbidden to touch corpses (who knows, that guy might be dead) or that blood made you ritually unclean. They had the perfect thing to hide behind because in their case it might actually have been illegal to get involved. Who is my neighbor? Not that guy. He's ritually impure. I don't do people who aren't perfect. God wouldn't want me to show concern for that guy. Until his rebellious son came along and did otherwise.

The folks on the boat are trying to cover their tracks, surely. And having a law that says they have to help their fellows won't make them cheerful about it. I suppose I shouldn't judge them too harshly until I have more facts. One of the stories I came across said that this particular ship wasn't subject to those laws, anyway, because they flew under a flag of "convenience."-- apparently, they can be subject to various jurisdictions as it suits them. This is apparently designed to allow Cruise ships to waive all kinds of requirements. It is like tax incentives for corporations, although in this case it appears to be legal incentives.

In which case, the crew didn't do anything illegal, which is why they are being sued in a civil court. But the people who brought the suit are convinced they still did something wrong. The spokesman for the Cruise line says the captain never got the word from his subordinates. They are all passing the buck. Shame we couldn't legislate some morality here. Forcing the Cruise line to do the right thing wouldn't make them cheerful about it. But some of those fishermen would still be alive to tell the tale.


Interesting reading. Different facts and/or slants in each story. Keep reading:

In our first story, the cruise line doesn't come off sounding too bad. (moral: don't expect a sales representative to do anything but sell you stuff)

Sometimes a spokesman says things that really sound, er, fishy....

This one really looks bad for the cruise line. But then, NPR is just a bunch of liberals, aren't they?

so is it actually illegal not to  help, or isn't it?: (oh, and I love the advertisements!)


About that Earlier Blog....
posted November 2, 2012

Toward the beginning of the year I posted a blog entitled "Jesus Apologizes for being a Liberal." It was, I confess, a provocative title, and unlike newspaper columnists I can't blame my editor for attaching it to an otherwise thoughtful and bland post. Although I can't help indulging in a bit of sarcasm from time to time, blanket characterizations and generalizations are really not my style, nor is ridiculing opposing points of view (whatever you might think about the last post). And although these days I myself tend to be of a more liberal persuasion, if you read some of the older essays on file here at Pianonoise, you'll find me sometimes arguing from a more conservative point of view, but always, I hope, from the conviction that issues are more complex than labels allow and that people deserve respect even if you don't agree with them. On the other hand, I am also aware that if you try to be too even-handed you risk not really saying anything by the end, and that people are more likely to read things that they think will get them angry, so a voice of moderate, reasoned thoughtfulness may be an exercise in getting ignored.

Still, the post did cause me to squirm a little, and to imagine that I would soon post a kind of rebuttal to it, in a more reasonable tone of voice, explaining why I said what I said. And yet, I thought, I need to just leave it out there for a while and let it be what it is, even if it makes me a little uncomfortable. Jesus is kind of like that anyway.

This was during the primary season, and conservative candidates (there were twelve of them, remember? Some years that is more entrants than the Kentucky Derby)--conservative candidates were trying to out-conservative each other and to show their base just how tough they could be. Compromise was a dirty word. Compassion was a even a dirty word, which naturally meant it only attached to liberals. Frankly, that doesn't seem like a very Christian stance to me. And, of course apologies were out. Definitely out. One of the lead runners even wrote a book telling us on the cover what an awful thing it was to say you were sorry. This is a very popular idea right now, it seems. In fact, I know a lot of four year olds who feel the same way. Saying they're sorry just cramps their style. (question for (extremist) conservative mothers: does it seem at all odd to you to want--no, force--your child to apologize when he deliberately hits some other kid but feel that your country should never apologize for anything--ever? By the way, I think we live in a great country, too, but that doesn't mean we never do anything wrong.)

Which made the title delightfully ironic, I thought. Apologize for being a liberal? Why, that's a dead giveaway! In extremist conservative land, only a liberal would apologize. But before I start enjoying myself too much, let me get to the part that really made me wonder if I should have posted it in the first place. It was because I called Jesus a liberal. Self-congratulatory tribalism is a thing I hate, but it would not have been too unreasonable to conclude, just based on the banner, that what I was saying was: Jesus is one of us! Yeah! We've got Jesus, and the rest of you guys don't! Jesus would have voted for our guy this year. Which puts you, very decidedly, on the wrong side of everything. Check and mate.

Coming to embody, or at least incorporate, the very thing you are set against is an interesting and common dynamic in political arguments. For instance, I don't tolerate your intolerance! (which is ok, right? I can hate you if I know you to be full of hate) If you got the impression that that's the kind of argument I was making, I apologize. Really.

I don't think we have a claim on Jesus that way anyhow. Because, honestly, I think he was several paces to the left of what passes for an American liberal. That's right, even liberals aren't liberal enough. And if that makes you squirm, well, think about it.

What about the Jesus who said to the rich man, sell everything and come follow me? Was he advocating sharing the wealth? Did he have to go and tell rich people that they would have a harder time entering the kingdom of heaven than a camel would have going through the eye of a needle (he meant the space needle in Seattle, right?) And did he have to tell rich people that they were cursed right after he told poor people they were blessed? He doesn't really sound like a good ambassador for capitalism. And then to tell people to pray for their daily bread, rather than to think ahead, which seems to me like the very bedrock of civilization, and on top of that, he didn't just tell people to give some of their clothes to Goodwill occasionally, but that if you have even two coats to give the extra one to someone who doesn't have one. Does Jesus want us to go around in possession of only one coat? One coat? Granted, he was living under a very different economic system. But one coat? That's not a very high tax bracket.

What's interesting about it is that many conservatives these days seem to have a pretty exaggerated idea of what a liberal is: a guy that hates economic growth and prosperity, and definitely rich people, who would like to take all of their wealth and redistribute it and force them to live in a cardboard box under a bridge somewhere, who doesn't know how to do anything for himself, and is driven entirely by envy. The moocher class, they've been called. The 47 percent. I would suggest that there is sort of a difference between suggesting that the extremely wealthy could maybe pay a few more percentage points in taxes and not miss it and the sort of childish rhetoric that equates that with making war on the upper class. But if you read the gospels, that extremist point of view that everybody with a D next to his or her name is supposed to have, seems to actually be on display in the teachings of Jesus. I mean, he doesn't temper his comments at all. He never says anything remotely nice about the rich, and his foreign policy, as Christopher Hitchens pointed out, could be really dangerous. Love your enemies? Obama routinely gets in trouble for even talking to them. And whatever you might think about his bows, he's not that into group hugs with foreign leaders. Or lifting sanctions, apparently.

Now if I hunted a little I could probably find some things that might make Jesus appear to be conservative. For instance, what about those parables in which people invest what they're given and the ones who are successful get congratulated for it? That is really not about wealth--images of wealth are really symbols for growth of the kingdom--but still, Jesus seems to be employing language that a conservative business major would understand. I don't know if that makes him very business oriented, but at least it suggests that Jesus is a pretty complex teacher, capable of using several modes of illustration. It also suggests that, if I gave it a little cranium power, I could probably make a pretty good case because I am capable, if I really try, of making a pretty good case, regardless of the evidence. In fact, I would probably do a better job than most conservatives. This is because the strategy of most religious and political conservatives through the years has not been to engage the material and slant it the way they want but rather to ignore the material--ignore Jesus' life and teachings--and focus almost exclusively on his death and resurrection and tell us that is the only thing that is important. That way, if he says anything that doesn't sound very amenable to your current customs or lifestyle you don't really have to worry about it. For instance, if he tells you to pay taxes, even though the reason the Pharisees asked him that question wasn't because they honestly wanted to know, and even models the idea by doing it himself by telling Peter to catch a fish and use the coin that is going to be in its mouth--how fair is that? You didn't work for that, Jesus! And don't you know that money is probably going for Roman entitlements, including feeding the poor? (surprising how many of the same issues the Romans were dealing with, actually. Many of them didn't like the idea, either)

What about when his buddy John tells the Pharisees that they needn't congratulate themselves on being children of Abraham because God could make children of Abraham out of rocks if he wanted to. Wasn't he supposed to say instead, "and never apologize for being God's chosen people! You are exceptional!"

But the problem with self-congratulation is it works both ways. I could spend all day contrasting what Jesus said with what conservatives were (and are) saying, but pretty soon I might start thinking I had it all figured out and forget all about the beam in my own eye. On the other hand, if I spend the whole time rigorously examining myself, afraid to speak out because I might look like a hypocrite, I'm basically letting people who don't speak for me run the show because that's what happens in a democracy when you don't say your piece.

I figure that's at least partially the fault of my upbringing. The nice people who taught my Sunday school, passing out Bibles and telling me to be like Jesus, maybe didn't count on the fact that I would actually read it. Because they were always telling me to be nice. And after all, didn't Jesus say to love everybody, and not to judge and to be merciful and all that? Telling other people how to behave isn't very nice.

And yet the prophets, who wrote practically half the Hebrew Bible, were doing just that. They were intensely political, calling the king and the temple into question constantly (hey! Love it or leave it!)--Jeremiah actually got jailed for being a traitor to his country. Some of them did not tell the king what he wanted to hear, like how they were going to be victorious in every battle. That was apparently the function of a whole mess of other prophets that for some reason don't have books in the bible. The ones who told Israel they were secure and not to worry about those Babylonians because God was happy with them and not to listen to that blame-Israel-first crowd that was telling them they were about to be conquered. That does make for a pretty liberal slant. Why weren't those other prophets represented? Is it because they turned out to be wrong?

And that Jesus fellow seems to have been no better. Sure, he could be a nice guy (especially to the wrong sorts of people, like women and foreigners) but he knew how to mix it up--there are plenty of fierce debates with the religious establishment. And, you'll note, when he got to the temple, and his disciples were so impressed with it, he told them it wouldn't last, not one stone on another. He did not get up before the assembled multitude and say "you built that!" He said it was going to be torn down.

So here am I , nice little boy turned nice little man, trying to love my neighbor as myself, and here are all these prophetic types denouncing people in no uncertain terms, and warning them to change their ways. I was told it is never a good idea to mix religion and politics, and yet, outside of the handful of verses we trot out at Christmas that we say forecast the coming of the Messiah, that's practically all the prophets want to talk about (and even some of those verses are actually political). Sometimes they are rude, sometimes they are sarcastic, and, funny thing, they keep talking about justice and mercy, but not in a pleasant gee it would be sorta nice if we all could get along kind of way, but in a loud, searing, outcry, as if they were speaking the language of the powerful bullies that were doing their best to make sure they had all the stuff and the system was designed to feed them well and not to worry so much about the rest. They were taking sides.

What do you do with that? You want to be a nice fellow, to be conciliatory and kind to your neighbors, regardless of their political views, saying things that will bring out the best in all of us and have us feeling united in strong bonds of fellow-feeling? You certainly don't want to pour gasoline on the fire during an election season and get people at each other's throats, taking a holier-than-thou position and just inviting all kinds of animosity.

But then there's that Jesus fellow again, telling the Pharisees where to stick it in the 23rd chapter of Matthew, using language that would have made my Sunday school teacher blush. Funny aside, did you notice how Jesus is so worked up about all those extra little "rules made by men" that the Pharisees want everybody to follow? You could say he's against overregulation! (Except that these rules aren't designed to protect people from harm, their effect is rather to stratify them, to decide who is in God's favor and who isn't by whether they wash their hands or not. That's a bit different than, say, a certain pharmaceutical company not bothering to sterilizing their equipment because they weren't required to and lots of people dying of fungal meningitis. Could we possibly consider that some regulations might be a good idea? I don't want my food to contain lead just because it's a cheaper alternative and returns a higher profit to the company that makes it. I do, however, expect companies to complain about the government looking over their shoulder and making them spend money they don't want to to take precautions they don't want to the same way a child complains when mom makes you do your homework. Stinkers that we are.)

Now this doesn't mean that I personally don't think that things like fiscal responsibility and freedom from unnecessary interference aren't good ideas, it's just that Jesus doesn't talk about them anywhere. In defense of conservative mindsets, the best argument I've heard is that Jesus never mentions any government social programs, either. Of course, in Jesus' day the government wasn't the people, and it wasn't as effective at giving people what they wanted while hiding the costs (or 'bribing people with their own money' as Alexis d'Toqueville put it) These days it is an extension of us. And it can, therefore, reflect our concerns, or lack thereof. If we are concerned for the poor in our society it can react accordingly, putting our resources to work. Or it can ignore them, jobless parasites that they are. It is difficult to suppose it to be neutral, particularly in an age when so many people are receiving government money to boost their businesses. Many of these are quite wealthy. Does this reflect a concern for the wealthy? Or is it merely a concern for ourselves, since, we might suggest, the industries we subsidize are necessary to the common good and therefore, by putting our money behind it we will insure the enterprise will not fail? Farmers get subsidies. Corporations get tax breaks. How much of that is necessary to their survival? Meeting the argument on its face we are forced to conclude (indeed our Republican friends want to make sure we are not so stupid as not to see this interdependence) that it is to the advantage of all that those with the means be given what they need (or claim to need) so that they will be able to provide jobs for the rest of us and invest in the economic system. Soaking the rich, they would remind us, just hurts us all. "I never got a job from a poor person" said one guy on the radio. Yet somehow these folks get proportionately richer year after year, squirreling much of it away in foreign accounts rather than putting it back into circulation, and their success seems to have little to do with whether or not the rest of us are able to break even.

And then there's Jesus. I can't imagine him approving of corporate tax breaks, or CEOs who need millions of dollars just to retire peacefully after they've ruined their company. But I also can't imagine him considering things like job growth and stimulating the economy by luring a multinational corporation to your home state. In fact, I don't see Jesus as being very nuanced about this at all. When I wrote that bit about his teaching from Luke 6, in which he outright cursed the rich, and later called it an example of class warfare, I had a curious sensation, because, you see, I'm not sure it might not BE class warfare. Class warfare in our times has been redefined as what happens anytime one questions the wealthiest among us getting everything they want because we have no middle ground, apparently, between total freedom and total destruction. In FOX news world, for instance, suggesting tax rates increase for billionaires by a few percentage points is class warfare. Jesus is well to the left of all of us on this one. He doesn't suggest the rich ought to pay their fair share, he just outright condemns them. In a world where war did not mean feeling picked on but actually was still reserved for the harsh reality of a real onslaught, Jesus' words would still rise to that definition, wouldn't it? What do you do with that?

Ignore it, mostly. I'll bet most of you didn't know it was even in there. That's how we neutralize Jesus. People have been remaking him for centuries now, glossing over the things they find troubling, repackaging him for popular consumption, and so he fits nicely in with the rest of our agenda. But if you've really vetted this guy you have to conclude on the basis of at least a dozen of his sayings throughout the gospels, that he was not much of a conservative economically, or much a liberal either. A more accurate title to my article would have been "Jesus Apologizes for being a Communist." But the times being what they were, my article was conditioned to the atmosphere of making this most extreme right-wing mood seem like a virtue. During the primaries one candidate even accused another of being (horrors!) a moderate, which is where I got the idea for my little postscript. I have no intention of actually writing that sequel.

But when things have gotten so bad that trying to see both ends of an argument and having a respectable dialogue about it is seen as a vice one has to speak out. Come, let us reason together. There's plenty of room for honest debate, honest differences, and respectful exchange. Maybe if you look at Jesus' actions even he wasn't such an extremist. He did, after all, look at and "love" the rich young ruler. He ended the camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle saying with a loophole that God could exploit where needed to get rich people into the kingdom of heaven. And he ate at the home of rich people even while criticizing them (was Jesus a freeloader?).

Still, he said, forgive a person 77 times. He didn't say "don't apologize." The farther to the right we drift, the farther to the left Jesus gets. And sometimes a bit of sarcasm seems like the friendliest way to point this out. I mean, I could have said "you Christian Conservatives, trying to out-Christian Conservative each other to prove how Christian and Conservative you can be having no freakin' clue what Jesus taught about any of this and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You are behaving like four-year olds. You need to grow up and also read your Bibles a little." That wouldn't be very nice. And it robs me, as far as anyone who wants to nail me for this is concerned, of any right to speak out about anything because I wasn't very nice about it and also clearly because I have an agenda.

Like you I occasionally lose my temper. But I'm never sure when that doesn't have a positive effect. There are plenty of times when I want to leave plenty of room for us both to be right about something and times when you have to draw a line and say this isn't going to fly. Unfortunately we do that last bit so often in politics these days that it has made us at best weary of each other and at worst made us into a bunch of beasts. If we can get it back into some of our politician's heads that compromise and reasoned debate aren't such bad things we might really have gotten somewhere. Where do we start? And, honestly, how helpful is Jesus going to be in all this? Maybe if we concentrate on the Jesus of love your neighbor and love your enemy and blessed are the peacemakers and sort of forget about some of the other things...but then we'd be right back where we are now. We use Jesus' nice teachings and ignore the radical ones. But maybe the problem is that we don't consider those nice teachings radical enough--that is, we don't actually apply them. How do you stop arguing from frustration and fear and start doing it on the basis that you really, truly, care about your neighbor? Rather than just show how wrong he or she is, maybe we could try to see what might be gained by examining the wisdom of each. That does, however, require a certain amount of good faith from both parties. And it isn't like we're just going to abandon our principles. Fun as that last post was, playing the Jesus card on people can be a bit tricky, particularly because Jesus never seems to quite play along. But then, we do have a record of things he said, which makes it a bit difficult if you aren't at all interested. And, lets be honest: a lot of folks, even those who say they are Christians, don't seem to be all that interested. Some of that is in the interpretation? True, but that never stopped Jeremiah. Or Jesus, for that matter.

We've complained a lot during this political season about how nasty and polarized everything is getting and then we take a breath and go back to breathing venom on each other. (helpful hint: you can avoid thousands of nasty adds by turning off your television. Even now I probably have thousands of nasty political ads coursing through me in wave form that I can't actually hear and that has actually made me less weary of the whole thing.) Bipartisanship, or at least treating your opponents like reasonable human beings starts with us. I hope I've treated you like one by spending all this time writing this. And if you've managed to read it all I thank you for your kind attention. You're certainly welcome to add to the debate, and if you are conservative and you at least don't mind sharing the planet with some people who aren't I applaud your tolerance and hope we can work together on the pressing issues of our time. We all have our warts, don't we? And I'll make you a deal. The next time somebody in your camp says you can't compromise with those other people and you shouldn't even bother listening to what they have to say you call them on it. I'll do the same thing from my end. We'll try to see if we can get just a touch of civility into our discourse, and just maybe we'll even fix our government a little.

Now then, what should we tell Jesus?

[email protected]