Friday, April 10, 2015

How to read the Bible

John Dominic Crossan came up to my little corner of the world this week. He is a highly respected theologian, and for good reason. He is also quite entertaining and his presentation is enhanced by his diminutive stature and Irish accent. And the lecture was free. If you ever have an opportunity like that, take it. He is a founding member of something called the Jesus Seminar, a primary source of material for liberal Christians.

In this instance, he was selling his new book, “How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian”. This interested me because reading the Bible is exactly what made me an atheist. Also, reading one of his earlier books got me into the church for 17 years. That was “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time”. In both of these books, he lays out the contradictions of the New Testament and speaks to why they are there. In this recent lecture, he goes further than I've ever heard him go before into problems with the Vatican now and how the message of Jesus was corrupted and altered from the very beginning.

The core of his message is that Jesus and his early followers were non-violent protesters who sought peace through the means of justice. The parallel system at the time, being attempted by the Romans, was peace through victory, using violence. Crossan begins the lecture with some ancient Roman writings speaking of Caesar using much the same language as that used for Jesus, as in “Son of God”, stuff like that. The question for us today is to look at both of those writings and choose which is the better path.

I'm with him to a point with this, but when he says “choose”, he is saying to choose who's claim about being God is true. In this lecture at least, he didn't consider the option that both are wrong. He was more than willing to show evidence that humans changed the words and intentions of Jesus, and not 1,500 years later when Martin Luther said we should read the Bible as the word of God, but immediately, in the book of Matthew. It's blatant cherry picking, but he has so much scholarly knowledge about who did the twisting, how the parables compare, the translation of the words, the dates the redacting occurred, the political reason for the redacting, and on and on, that anyone who would dare attempt to argue with him would be drowned out by such detail.

After the talk, he took questions. I asked about the “still believing” part, because it didn't seem that he really covered that. He said it was a choice, it was a commitment and said it several more times using slightly different words. I felt that the length of his reply showed he knew his answer was lacking in some way. He also relied heavily on his analysis of human culture since the Neolithic period.

He claims that for the last 10,000 years, people have grown steadily more violent. The symbolism of the farmer Cain killing the herder Abel and then building the first city is also significant to this narrative, but how that kind of life is somehow less peaceful than the hunter-gatherer life is not clear. Anyway, he asks us to look at this increased violence, then look at the non-violent Jesus movement and choose what we are committed to. Why I can't choose non-violent Buddhism, I don't know. Why I can't choose the non-violent protests of Occupy Wall Street and choose no god and no church, I don't know.

This is typical for a modern Christian theologians. They can talk all day about flood stories coming from Mesopotamia and how the early Israelites had to incorporate that story and add a rainbow at the end. They are more than happy to find that a letter from Paul they don't like was not written by the same Paul that appears earlier in the New Testament. They won't bother much with how God and man were one in Jesus, and instead focus on the message. And when they're done, they say, "oh yeah, and God's real". I don't understand how he hangs on to that. One of his fellow members of the Jesus Seminar, Robert Price, could not. So we can see two people, equal in scholarly knowledge making different choices.

To me what it came down to is he was asking me to choose between my faith in my fellow humans or faith in the story of a failed non-violent protest that occurred 2,000 years ago. And somehow God fits in there too. What I really meant to be asking was, why does he think the movement failed? Clearly he believes the message of the original stories were severely corrupted. He can no doubt go into great detail about how that corruption happened and the forces at play that ended with Jesus on the cross. And he can see the beauty in living up to the call for non-violence to the point of accepting the verdict and paying the ultimate price. None of that helps me believe anything divine was at work during any of this, no matter what form it actually took back then.

I don't fault him for bringing a new and modern message to Christians who have been handed a corrupted message for generations. A message that has increased in the level of corruption in the last 100 years as it has tried to deal with modern science and philosophy. People who can show a lifetime of commitment to the gospels and a deep love for the tradition can reach far more listeners than I can. But as long as they continue to say that despite all the historical knowledge, they still believe in something that can't be documented, something magical that we are somehow missing today, then they are part of the problem. It's why the movement failed then and why we still have problems discussing religion today.

This lecture, though disappointing, serves as a bookend to my journey of the last 20 years. He said he came to Duluth exactly 20 years ago, and I'm pretty sure that would have been when I first saw him speak at United Theological Seminary in the Twin Cities. At that time, things were much worse in Ireland, and he drew parallels of the evil empire of Rome and the occupying force of Britain. He didn't use the words himself, but one of the people who asked a question afterward said, “so, if I'm hearing you right, we are the Romans”. John Dominic smiled and bounced up on his toes like a leprechaun and said, “mmm, hmm”.

It is a message we need to get. Christians today aren't the oppressed minority crying out in the wilderness. They certainly have nothing in common with the slaves in Egypt. They often talk like they are, all the while filling their mega-church parking lots with gas guzzling cars that have enough food tucked in their seat cushions to make an actual oppressed minority in the wilderness salivate. But what Crossan is telling them, actually more like hoping they will get it, is they are the ones who are enforcing a peace through violence. Rome co-opted their little community of house churches a long time ago and put the Christian God in charge of anointing Kings and blessing armies. They kept the part about peace, but managed to twist the part about how it is best achieved. They sold them on the lie that they would do just a little bit of violence, in God's name, then it would be better.

Crossan brings a great message, and one I'm all for. If we don't get it, we are doomed to repeat the history of Rome. But I don't think that message will ever be fully transmitted until you say all of the message comes from people. As long as you hold out that somewhere in there is a force that can only be found through faith, you'll never untangle human corruption from the message of love. The problem is, it's all corruption. We all want to love everybody, but as soon as we start thinking about how we're going to do that, we start compromising. As soon as we start compromising, we start feeling guilty. After that, each of takes off in a different direction trying to deal with those feelings, whether it be by eating chocolate, doing yoga or having a string of meaningless relationships.

For some, the way to deal with it is to confess those personal faults once a week and get together with others and sing familiar songs. And there's nothing wrong with surrounding yourself with people who love you despite your shortcomings, with finding people who can listen to your troubles, who can watch you fail and still support you and still believe in you. Religion does not have the corner on the market for that type of community. It also helps to have people around you who will challenge you, who won't let you sink into a pit of despair no matter how many times you've screwed up. That's something a good church leader does. It's also something any good leader does. It's something bad leaders don't do, and there are plenty of bad church leaders. 

Crossan doesn't deal with why the movement failed because he doesn't want to see it as a failure. He says he sees a heartbeat in the Bible, of a coming together as a community, then being corrupted by power and falling apart, over and over. Well, of course he does, because that's been happening since before recorded history. The Bible chronicles some of the times that happened to certain people who carried a tradition with them through success and failure, even through exile and slavery. It's pretty cool. That doesn't inform us at all about their god actually existing.
There may have been times when bonding over their belief in that god helped them. Since before Jesus, there has been plenty of disagreement about that god. It really just got worse after the first century. When Christianity combined with Rome and became the sole purveyor of power in Europe, I can see why some who didn't believe in that power clung to it anyway. They wanted to eat and live near what they called home. Increasingly today, there are fewer excuses for continuing to choose to cling those beliefs.

As I often say at the end of my blogs, all we have is each other. This isn't an exact quote, but John Dominic Crossan basically agreed with me during this talk when he said church isn't a place, it's wherever we gather. Of course he would say that once we get together God appears.  Sorry Dom, that's creating disagreement where none is necessary.

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