I woke up this morning after a poor night’s rest, with a surly brain and tired eyes, and what do I behold as I scan through the last few day’s worth of email? Stories of faith that piss me off. So allow me to purge my demons by slapping around a few religious goofballs — it’ll take the edge of my headache and lighten my step for the rest of the day. Don’t worry, I’ll start off easy and work up to the really bad ones.
John Shelby Spong is giving some lectures. You know, I think I’d like Spong as a person, and I think he espouses some worthy humanist values, but jeez, he always comes off as a cheerful airhead. He’s essentially an atheist who skims off a bit of the moldy skin of the rotten fruit of religion, and tells us how pretty the colors are…thereby making an implicit argument to keep the decaying garbage around.
Yes, God exists, but God is not a separate deity who intervenes in our lives.
Jesus’ resurrection is not an historically accurate event, but a symbolic story of what it means to live a fully human life.
Eternal life is not a journey to heaven or hell, but a state which can only be glimpsed when we experience love.
He’s like Karen Armstrong, so taken with the language of religion that they’re willing to ignore the substance. When you’ve reduced god to the uncaring smear of cosmic background radiation and a collection of psychological quirks in the human brain, you might as well admit it: he’s dead. Get over it and move on. And deceased figments don’t need a weepy wake or much sympathy for the family.
Similarly, Bible scholars can be such nuisances. Actually, Bible scholarship is a fine thing; I appreciate historical analysis, and think the secular study of old documents is an eminently respectable academic discipline. Unfortunately, the freaking Bible is fraught with cultural connections that lead too many people to draw unwarrantedly deep conclusions from it. I’m sure this Professor van Wolde is a reasonable scholar, but her conclusions about Genesis are fine nits that need picking, nothing more.
Professor Ellen van Wolde, a respected Old Testament scholar and author, claims the first sentence of Genesis “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” is not a true translation of the Hebrew.
She claims she has carried out fresh textual analysis that suggests the writers of the great book never intended to suggest that God created the world — and in fact the Earth was already there when he created humans and animals.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a small piece of the puzzle, nice to know, tells us squat-all about the origin of the world (which van Wolde is not claiming), and a little bit about the culture that scribbled down the Genesis myth. It generates breathless excitement among the credulous, though, who believe the book actually provides some insight into the creation of the world.
Here’s how you should look at the book of Genesis. Long, long ago, a tribe of desert nomads bumped up against the more cosmopolitan culture of Mesopotamia. They learned useful skills from the city people, like writing, but at the same time, the allure of those older, more sophisticated ideas was leading to the dissolution of tribal identity, and especially to a loss of respect for the austere and demanding desert god. Who wants to worship dry old El when slinky, sexy Innini is calling?
So in a move as old as religion, almost, the desert priests slyly adopted the popular culture of their neighbors, stealing all their myths, but rewrote them to put their one great god in charge of the whole story. Genesis is an exercise in syncretism, a wholesale theft of one tradition to be repackaged with a new set of symbols. It is not about the creation of the universe. It is about resolving a conflict between two human cultures. That’s interesting, sure enough, as long as you don’t forget where you are and start building big pseudo-museums in Kentucky dedicated to your misconceptions.
It’s also a problem when you have professional rabbinical nit-pickers who use their silly fine-grained interpretations of ancient texts to demand ridiculous and irrelevant impositions on people’s lives. As a further example of scholars losing sight of the context of their great big dusty books, consider the case of Shabbos elevators. There is a strict Jewish tradition of not doing any work on the sabbath, even to the point of not flicking any switches, so many buildings in Jewish communities have ridiculous and wasteful elevators that stop at every floor, so the devout don’t need to push a button. Except that as they learn more about the technology, they are becoming afraid that it might offend their god.
But the recent ruling, whose signers included Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv — at 99, widely considered the most influential Torah sage of his generation — introduced a caveat based on new technology in elevators. The rabbis wrote that this new technology, which was explained to them by elevator technicians and engineers in “a written and oral technical opinion,” made them aware for the first time that using Shabbos elevators may be a “desecration of the Sabbath.”
They did not name the offending technology. But for several years there has been debate among Orthodox rabbis in Israel over whether devices that measure the weight in an elevator car, and adjust power accordingly, effectively make entering a car the equivalent of pressing a button.
Come on. Seriously? Listening to the most hidebound, most literal, most conservative, and most ancient geezer in your community is a useful way to maintain tribal tradition, but sometimes traditions need to break and respond to the times. Whoever scribbled down the old Sabbath laws couldn’t even imagine elevators, let alone electronic sensors, so it would make more sense to abide by the spirit of the old laws rather than trying to impose a precise meaning on them that simply isn’t there. Adapt! Your pointless dilemmas simply make you look like a gang of unimaginative old fools.
Adhering to ancient dogma kills people, too. Khristian Oliver has been convicted of murder and sentenced to die. I’d be willing to concede that he’s a bad guy who committed an evil act — nobody seems to be arguing over whether he actually committed the crime — except that his trial took place in Texas, and we’ve had a few examples of Texas “justice”. But let us, for the moment, concede that he has legitimately been found guilty. Now look at how the decision to execute him was reached.
After the trial, evidence emerged that jurors had consulted the Bible during their sentencing deliberations. At a hearing in June 1999, four of the jurors recalled that several Bibles had been present and highlighted passages had been passed around.
One juror had read aloud from the Bible to a group of fellow jurors, including the passage, “And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death”.
Holy crap. Condemned to death because of a Bible verse? By the way, if you read the rest of Numbers 35, from which that verse was taken, it’s fairly exhaustive: if somebody kills someone else with iron, wood, or stone, they’re murderers, and need to be put to death. It’s simply yet another piece of Old Testament blanket savagery: simple-minded, unthinking, absolutist, and prejudicial demands for execution of anyone who violates their rules.
The jurors also seem to have ignored the subsequent verses, where it says that you can offer an alternative verdict in the absence of malice of confining the killer to his ‘city of refuge,’ until the high priest dies, at which time he’s free to go. Is that a valid sentence in 21st century America, too?
Given that Texas is a state that can’t be trusted in determining guilt, and given that the dim-witted jurors threw away reason and justice to blindly obey an archaic book (and only a select, small piece of that book), that sentence ought to be reduced, and the death penalty in general stricken from the state law books. Until, that is, enough of the state’s population is well-enough educated to make rational determinations of guilt, at which time they’ll also be smart enough to reject the death penalty as a primitive barbarism anyway.
I feel a little better now. Still need a nap, though, and maybe some aspirin.