Sunday, April 26, 2015

Taste of the BWCA

I found this one at TJ's Country Store in Mahtowa, MN, where the wurst is best. Seriously, they make a huge range of bratwursts and jerkies and they have locally made cheeses. If you don't know what the Boundary Waters are, google it. Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is the full name and pretty much describes it. The only problem here is, you shouldn't take glass with you when you go there. Camp responsibly, take only pictures and leave only footprints, but when you get back to civilization, have one of these to refresh. It is not too syrupy but sweet enough to replenish the sugars you burned while portaging your canoe 100 rods. Even if you're not a creme soda lover, you might want to try this one. The flavor is not overpowering and leaves no after taste.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It's on you

This answer to an audience question from Tony Jones presents a huge dilemma to Christians. He is saying the political statements of the past that were justified by religion, but have since been determined to be wrong, must be addressed by Christians today. In my opinion, that they aren’t addressed accounts for many of the reasons people say they don’t go to church today.

It can’t be avoided. If you say Tony is wrong, you’re making a political statement yourself. The question (not shown in the video) was about how to address the centuries of anti-Semitism. If you say it was wrong, you’re saying great theologians throughout history, including possibly John the Apostle, were wrong, which leads to the question of what else they were wrong about. If you say it was right, then you are anti-Semitic. If you try to ignore the dilemma, it won’t go away.

When I have asked people questions about slavery or hell directly I have received a spectrum of answers, from being given books that describe the reasoning of the people in those times to blatant lies about what the Bible actually says. When I speak of those responses in general to others, I’m told I’m going to the wrong church, and that if I went to their favorite church, I’d get the right response. This is the run around on a grand scale.

To keep chasing the rabbit down this hole, I have to show up on Sunday to some new church, show I’m sincere, put money in the basket, get a meeting with the pastor, take an Adult Sunday School class, read the material, ask a specific question, and get one of those responses from the spectrum I mentioned above. If I ask enough of those questions, and continue to express dissatisfaction with the answers, I’m told that maybe religion is not right for me. Actually, in most cases I’ve figured that out for myself. Rarely do I need to be asked to leave.

What Tony is saying is, it’s time religion put that burden of asking questions on itself. He addresses specifically people who write about religion, I’m saying all churches and all religious people should be doing this. I should be able to walk into a church or have an open discussion with any religious person and ask a straightforward question about their stand on homosexuality, treatment of women, relationship with Jews and Muslims, slavery, smiting, or genocide, and I should get a straightforward answer. They don’t need to know every Bible verse, but if I show them one that disagrees with their views, they should agree it’s wrong, or the burden is on them to explain it.

Some people, when confronted with verses like these will tell you some abhorrent behavior is okay if God says so. Take the one about beating your slaves, some people have told me that they think slavery should be legal. More often people say something more generic about believing in the Word and not being open to argument about it. I don’t respect their logic or their conclusion, but I respect them for being clear and firm about their stand. I respect them more than the person who tries to make excuses for God’s behavior or starts out making a logical argument but then switches to a faith statement when their logic fails.

I could make an extensive list, but try a few for yourself. Think about what your view of morality is, how the world should work, then look at these Bible passages.

Exodus 21:20
20 If a man strikes his male or female servant with a stick and he or she dies as a direct result, the master must be punished. 21 But if the servant survives a day or two, the master is not to be punished because the servant is his property.

There is a beautiful passage in 1 Kings, chapter 19. You've probably heard it, the one about the still small voice of God. But the standard lectionary ends at verse 15, because at that point, God instructs Isaiah to build an army. In the pages that follow, those armies follow what God tells them to do here:
15 The Lord replied to him, “Go! Return to Damascus, and when you get there, anoint Hazael as king over Aram, 16 anoint Nimshi’s son Jehu as king over Israel, and anoint Shaphat’s son Elisha from Abel-meholah as a prophet to replace you. 17 Whoever escapes from Hazael’s sword Jehu will execute, and whoever escapes from Jehu’s sword Elisha will put to death. 18 Nevertheless, I’ve reserved 7,000 in Israel who have neither bowed their knees to Baal nor kissed him.”

This is from a parable in Matthew 3. You tell me what's going on here:

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Or this one. What the?

2 Kings 6:29

So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said to her on the next day, Give your son, that we may eat him: and she has hid her son.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Not really a soda

I bought this at the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth. That's not part of the chain, they had the name before Whole Foods got to be a big corporation. I tried an original flavor Kombucha before and couldn't finish it. It's sort of like a mushroom shake, with some sawdust added. This was basically the same, with some orange flavor attempting to mask it. You don't see these outside of co-ops much. You really have to be dedicated, or into some sort of sacrifice to get your nutrition this way. It's actually live, some sort of organism. I don't really want to know anymore. It doesn't really qualify as a micro-soda anyway. I just posted this as a public service, not really part of my craft soda series.

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.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Why the religion debate must be settled

The reason we have a battle going on today between fundamentalists and mainstream religion, is the question of who God is was never settled. This is true in most religions, but it is most obvious in Christianity. Fundamentalists have taken advantage of ignorance to win the debate for the last 1,700 years. The consequences of them winning again are much bigger than they have ever been.

We know the name St. Augustine because he defeated his adversary in debate and gained the favors of the Roman Empire and they proceeded to destroy anyone who disagreed with their theology. They burned their writings, their churches and sometimes the people.

We know the name Martin Luther and we have Lutheran churches because he supported the edicts written a thousand years before him that said we are born sinners and must pay the church to get us into heaven. Today, we know the names Rick Warren, Billy Graham and Ted Cruz.

Augustine and Luther had the advantage of a mostly illiterate populous. Today’s leaders don’t unless we deliberately look away. Augustine and Luther could say they understood the will of God. We can figure that out for ourselves. Augustine and Luther had armies to promote their philosophies. We absolutely cannot allow that to happen this time.

The reason we don’t know as much about the losers of these debates, is, they lost. The winners picked the books that went into the Bible and translated it. For a long time they read it to us like children. Once the dust settled of the fall of the Roman Empire, the story changed from being an argument to a story of how the church fathers had friendly theological discussions and reconciled the differences between Peter and Paul and figured out what Jesus really meant when he first told his disciples to gather swords then later to put them away.

What’s funny is, most people today are much closer to being Pelagianist than they are to being Augustianist. Most people would agree with the writings of Erasmus over Luther, even though beyond the Erasmus B. Dragon joke, they aren’t familiar with the name. The problem is, when you try to read these things, you find their reasons for believing man does or does not have the will to choose a good action over an evil one is rooted in something Adam did or something King David said or how God entered the world through Jesus or all sorts of theological rhetoric.

It’s not too hard to find discussions of Augustine vs Pelagius that are written from the fundamentalist Lutheran or Evangelical point of view. They often end like this one, saying,

Eventually the Council of Carthage (417) condemned Pelagianism. Sadly, this was not the end of it. A concept of semi-Pelagianism surfaced and was addressed in the Synod of Arles (around 473) and the Council of Orange in 529. On occasion, the ideas of the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians still surface today.
I think the reason you don’t find mainstream discussions of this is, that’s not how modern people think. Modern people don’t care about what two people in funny hats argued about 1,700 years ago. They don’t feel at all affected by a conversation between Eve and a snake. Erasmus and Ficino and Pico della Mirandola and other early Christian humanist writers referred to Jesus because that was the philosophy of the day. That was what you learned if you went to University.

Today, we have a wealth of philosophies to draw on. We (and I’m talking about people who live in free countries here) have the ability to evaluate many religions as well as secular philosophies and not lose our jobs or get our heads removed. We don’t do what Augustine did and simply look at babies who fight over food and decide original sin is real, we notice how they aren’t prejudice until we teach them, we ask them to solve problems of unfairness and see that they do it by sharing, we also look to nature and see caring and cooperation in our animal cousins. Love is everywhere and it is good, we’ve figured that out.

Most modern people who go to church don’t want to engage in theological debate because they don’t see a position there worth defending. And they are right. Unfortunately, that gets misunderstood to mean that Pelagius and Erasmus were wrong to say that human dignity is more important than practicing a certain ritual a certain way. The idea of loving your enemy was profoundly expressed by a community in the first century. Erasmus said God gave them the will to choose to do that but ultimately it is human nature to do good. Augustine said they had no choice, it was grace. Why they thought that doesn’t really matter. We have much better reasons today for putting the needs of a single mother above the need to have a consistent doctrine that connects our desire to care to the words of an author from a dead language.

Liberals lose debates with fundamentalists because they don’t play the fundamentalist's game. Both sides walk away feeling they’ve made good points because neither side is listening. Large churches have to accommodate both, or they won’t be large churches. That’s why I say, if you go to church this Easter, and you don’t agree with everything the preacher says, don’t put money in the basket. We treat every other speaker in the world like that. If we don’t like them, we don’t buy their books or pay to hear them speak. Why do we give churches a pass? If you feel that there is something wrong with what your church is doing, speak up. If you don’t, this civilization will go the way of Rome and the way of the European feudal system.