Tag Archives: bible

Is Ruth a Rapist?

You were probably expecting something pertaining to same-sex marriage today.  This article does focus on the story of Lot, but as we know, that story has nothing to do with homosexuality or gay marriage.  I previously wrote about rape in the Bible and how, contrary to popular criticism, the rapists are handed some of the most severe punishments in the Old Testament.  However, this only seems applicable to male rapists; it’s troubling that the female rapists in the Bible all seem to get away with it with impunity.  Lot’s daughters rape their own father by deception in Genesis 19:30-36.  Tamar, in disguise, similarly tricks her own father-in-law into sleeping with her in Genesis 38.  While technically not a rape, Potiphar’s wife sexually assaults Joseph in the next chapter.

Lot’s daughters are the example of the most intertextual importance.  The story shares a common form to Noah’s post-survival narrative which suggested sexual misconduct by his son, Ham (Gen. 9:18-28).  But more importantly, the oldest unnamed daughter gives birth to Moab (19:37), and this incestuous etiology informs the complicated Israelite-Moabite relationship in the rest of the Bible, from their co-existence after the conquest of Canaan, to their place in the genealogy of the Lord.  Particularly, this should be contrasted with a difficult passage in the only book of the Bible named after a Moabite, Ruth.  Sunday school lessons tend to focus on Boaz’s compassion for Ruth as she gleans in the field, while ignoring their overnight encounter.  Scholars are in disagreement of this incident at the threshing floor in chapter 3:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet!  Ruth 3:7-8

'Landscape with Ruth and Boaz', Josep Anton Koch, 1768

‘Landscape with Ruth and Boaz’, Josep Anton Koch, 1768

Moral sensibilities tend to predetermine the interpretation that this was an asexual encounter.  The protagonists, it is argued, could not have committed anything considered sinful by virtue of this book’s placement in the canon (This same rationale also drives a sanitized interpretation of Song of Solomon).  But if “uncovering his feet” is an obscured euphemism, their spending the night together is harder to overlook.  To modern standards of mutual consent, Ruth’s actions while Boaz sleeps border on assault even if there was no sexual contact.  It also doesn’t help that she leaves almost shamefully “before anyone could be recognized” (3:14).

There are obvious comparisons intentionally made to Lot’s daughters in the text, and it is through this lens that it can be better understood.  Instructed by a relative, Ruth sleeps with a close relative after he has been drinking, as Lot’s oldest daughter impregnated herself with her drunk father and then compelled her sister to do the same.  Lot was unaware when his daughters lay down or got up, but while Ruth enters stealthily and leaves without being recognized, she does reveal herself to Boaz in the middle of the night.  Ruth’s narrative is deliberately structured after the prior rape incident, but as a literary construction it actually functions as its opposite.  Lot’s daughter gives birth to Moab through incest and rape, but it is her descendant Ruth who redeems her people even as she is redeemed by her near kinsman.  Unlike her ancestor, Ruth does not engage in deception and seeks a legitimate and lawful relationship with a man who had previously shown interest in her. As is typical for Biblical narratives to undo a curse in a like manner to its origin, the ambiguity of the passage in Ruth can be attributed to the text’s forced similarities to Lot’s daughters.  Scholars and clergy will forever debate the extent of Ruth and Boaz’s premarital romance, but it should certainly not be confused with the rape text that it intends to counteract.

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How Did Christianity Become the New Relativism?

“It’s true for me”  This was said during a famous debate between conservative political commentator and Christianity-enthusiast Bill O’Reilly and atheist scientist Richard Dawkins.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I had been conditioned to eschew this wishy-washy postmodernist thought.  “True for me but not for you” was liberal, “worldly” thinking that Christians were supposed to know how to combat, not use themselves.  Yet here it was the conservative Christian saying it and not the godless liberal.  Apparently just as shocked by this role-reversal, Dawkins responded with the absolutist logic which I had previously only associated with Christianity: “You mean true for you is different from true for anybody else?  Something’s either got to be true or not.”

Christianity and relativism have been at odds since the dawn of postmodernism.  Christianity is a religion which makes absolute claims of truth, and relativism is an ideology which rejects the very concept of absolute truth.  Yet strangely, it is increasingly Christians who have unwittingly been the proponents of relativism in recent times.  I’ve previously written about how sectarianism tends to prioritize subjective and relative morality over objective morality.  Most Christians today haven’t transcended the culture of postmodernism even if they claim to be against it; they are still very much products, if not prisoners, of that mindset.

Even Christians who believe relativism is a problem may not be able to correctly identity what relativism actually is.  For instance, some Christians erroneously oppose any religious pluralism because they have mistaken it for cultural relativism.  But while relativism is a form of pluralism, not all pluralism is relativistic.  Pluralism, in the narrow distinction between the two, is simply the tolerance of opposing beliefs; it is the pragmatic acceptance that those who hold beliefs which are untrue still have the right to equally coexist in the same society.  Relativism, on the other hand, is a doctrinaire opinion that there is no objective truth.  Relativism leads to the same tolerance as pluralism, not for the admirable reason that people who are wrong should still be treated fairly, but rather because it cannot make an evaluation of right or wrong in the first place.  Pluralists, however, can still tolerate relativists without losing objective truth.

Unfortunately, Christians have not only attacked the wrong problems but also promoted the wrong solutions. For years Christians have been incorrectly told that absolutism is the counter to relativism.  They’ve been led to believe that as long as they refuse to compromise on their beliefs then they are immune to relativistic influences.  Doubling down on the Bible or church authority as their sole argument for everything, they’ve ignored that this sort of weak reasoning can and is exercised by people of all faiths.  Christians are usually at a loss to explain why Islamic or Mormon claims to absolute truth on the basis of their sacred texts differ in any way to Christian claims to absolute truth based only on the Bible.  Obviously, anyone can be an absolutist on any position, that in itself is not a remedy for relativism.  The missing component is objective truth, truths which can be communicated and accepted without first having to believe in a religion.  Religious identity is the last resort of people who have failed to present an objective truth.  Saying “I can’t have an abortion because it’s taking an innocent life” is a more compelling argument than saying “I can’t have an abortion because I’m Catholic.”  If the only justification you have for why you do something a certain way is your religion, then you probably don’t have a sufficient reason; otherwise, you would have given that as your reason in the first place.

The same-sex marriage battle is a fascinating study of how conservatives in general have lost all sense of objectivity.  At seemingly every turn, they have contradicted their own arguments if it suited their cause.  When the Defense of Marriage Act was on the books, they argued that federal law trumped state law, but after DOMA was ruled unconstitutional (and even before) they’ve been champions of so-called “states’ rights” ever since.  Conservatives heavily criticized the Obama administration for not defending DOMA before the Supreme Court, but then remained quiet when governor Scott Walker similarly refused to defend Wisconsin’s domestic partnership registry in court.  Contrary to purported claims about executive duty and the rule of law, the rightwing will seemingly take up whichever argument they feel will support their predetermined crusade.  While there’s no denying these conservatives are absolutely against gay marriage, their duplicitous attempts to try to achieve their ends at any cost betray any claim to objective reasoning.

There are numerous things that churches have absolutely opposed in no uncertain terms, only to completely reverse their positions later: abolition, women’s suffrage, integration, interracial marriage.  The Republicans’ latest retreat into “religious freedom” measures–allowing business owners, workers, or officials to refuse business or involvement in same-sex wedding ceremonies out of personal religious beliefs–underscores the consummation of modern Christianity’s journey into fully realized postmodernism (it should be pointed out that there was never any regard for religious freedom of churches who performed same-sex marriages before it was legal).  As has already been demonstrated in case after case, conservative Christians are completely at a loss to present any objective reasoning why consenting adult same-sex couples should not be afforded the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples.  Now that this loss seems inevitable at the Supreme Court level, conservatives seem to be preparing to cease universal bans and instead allow individuals to opt out.  It’s noteworthy that conservatives didn’t really entertain this solution in their past failed culture wars.  While some Christians still tried to maintain segregation in their private schools, they don’t try to allow volunteers at polling places to refuse women, or to permit businesses or state officials to refuse interracial weddings.  These Christians are now put in the awkward position of having to justify why a nationwide ban was considered so absolutely necessary yet the same practice is now permissible on a personal level.  There just doesn’t seem to be an objective way to re-phrase “I won’t provide this service for you that I do for everybody else because you’re gay.”  Effectively, these individuals would be telling gay couples that their beliefs are “true for me but not for you.”

Conservatives would argue that this is merely a legal compromise on an issue forced upon them, but that alone doesn’t explain why this strategy is being deployed here when it wasn’t for other positions they opposed just as absolutely.  This is likely because conservatives came to the simple realization that there were no satisfactory reasons to forcibly segregate drinking fountains.  Conversely, conservatives have held their ground more capably on the abortion issue where they were able to find objective arguments based on life ethics.  If conservatives behaved the same on gay marriage as they do on abortion, then we ought to have expected a stronger reaction than it simply being a matter of personal conscience (but perhaps they’ll surprise me and start an insurrection in June).  While they may not be intentionally relativistic in their reasoning, this nevertheless has all the trademarks of it.  Little by little, conservatives are eroding a cooperative pluralistic society by not merely tolerating nonfactual beliefs, but by permitting those beliefs to have dominance over facts.  Conservatives haven’t outright rejected that an objective truth exists, yet their inability to objectively support their positions has netted the exact same results as if they had.  Or perhaps worse, it looks like they’ve achieved cultural relativism without the pluralism that usually accompanies it.

Conservatism, with Christianity at the helm, is now steering us towards a relativistic society where individuals are free to ignore anti-discrimination laws if they claim it violates their personal beliefs.  As much as they want to limit it just to homosexuality, I have yet to hear a good reason why sincerely held beliefs on sexuality should be protected more than equally sincere Bible-based beliefs on racial superiority or gender inequality.  They might argue that sexual orientation shouldn’t be a protected class, usually for disingenuous reasons such as claiming homosexuality is a choice, somehow differing from other protected categories like religion, pregnancy, or marital status which are also choices (I should also point out that, contrary to what many conservatives erroneously think, the classes in anti-discrimination laws do not single out minorities, women, or gays for heightened protection; instead they are based on universal attributes applicable to everyone: race, gender, and sexual orientation).  I would counter-argue that needing to protect classes of people should be unnecessary in the first place, and contrary to Republican assumptions, an individual doesn’t actually need to be a member of a group on an itemized list to make a valid case of discrimination.  It says more about the flawed deontological morality of these discrimination advocates that they only seem to believe it’s wrong to refuse service to a black person just because the law specifically prohibits discrimination on race.  Ultimately, their problem is the same fault underlying all relativism: they don’t really know basic right and wrong.

In a bizarre twist of the Republican party’s role reversal from formerly being the progressive party to presently being the conservative party, the GOP has also become a powerful champion of postmodernism.  Their challenges to the Affordable Care Act have been some of the most blatant postmodern arguments in recent memory.  The first case challenged the birth control provisions strictly on the personal beliefs of the employer, because they disapprove of birth control or incorrectly believe it causes an abortion.  The present case before the court amounts to trying to invalidate the law on the basis of a strict reading of a typo rather than the stated intent of the law, which commenters have compared to the “Moops” doctrine from the sitcom Sienfeld.  Of course, the irony is that the ACA originated as a conservative idea, effected in Massachusetts by Republican Governor and Obama Presidential opponent, Mitt Romney.

A side effect of the Right’s opposition politics is an inability to articulate what they actually stand for.  They seem to be willing to reverse a position to spite an opponent, or commit to one in spite of facts.  Even when I specifically ask conservatives what they’re for, I get a response that’s merely a restatement of what they’re against.  Liberal positions, on the other hand, do not depend on a pre-existing “other” to oppose.  When liberals stand for equality, we mean that everybody should be treated the same under the law; inequality does not need to be an antecedent.  Positions, not principles, seem to drive conservative strategy these days.  Principles are what guide us to conclusions, whereas positions are fixed conclusions irrespective of principles.  The use of contradictory arguments to support the same position is patently unprincipled reasoning.  While changing a position because of new information is admirable, changing principles relative to a position is not.

Maybe objectivity is something Christianity has lost, or maybe I just wasn’t paying close enough attention in my youth and conservatives never really had a grasp on objective truth.  Either way, if Christianity is going to find its foothold, it cannot be with the same logic advanced by conservatives for the past decade.  Just pointing out conservative relativism can get you accused of being a relativist yourself, but only because that identifies your opposite belief as liberal and conservatives associate liberalism with postmodernism.  Conservatives need to stop basing their beliefs on what their opponent believes and find out in objective terms what they actually believe themselves.

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Undoctrination

 “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  This bumper sticker slogan popularized by some conservative Christians  encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the way many Christians see their faith.  Aside from the fact that this statement does not include any distinctly Christian descriptor and could just as easily be said by any theist–Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i, etc.–this mindset is a nonstarter in any religious conversation with a non-Christian even if it were referring specifically to the Bible.  If these Christians were really honest with themselves, then the Bible ought to say something to the effect of this statement, but it doesn’t.  It becomes apparent that the intent of this motto is not the advancement of Christianity, but instead the promulgation of a philosophy to make the religion doctrinaire:
doc·tri·naire /däktrəˈner/ adjective:  seeking to impose a doctrine in all circumstances without regard to practical considerations.
  Now in the broadest sense, any belief system can be said to be doctrinaire compared to a belief system without any distinctive doctrines (such as New Thought or Unitarian Universalism), but for the sake of clarity I will focus the meaning here to a specific methodology of doctrine formation.  Doctrines themselves are not necessarily problematic, the problem is when the doctrine itself is the starting point for a belief, rather than basing belief on reason, fact, or evidence.  A real doctrine should be the conclusion of an argument, not the origin.  The logic in the above example works just the same with the more straightforward re-phrasing: “I believe it, that settles it.”

  Doctrinaire thinking is not unique to Christianity.  Communism is an obvious example of a doctrine system that’s tried often despite all evidence demonstrating it simply doesn’t work (as is trickle-down economics).  Other religions, like Islam and Mormonism, are even more doctrinaire, demanding belief in their sacred texts first for their books’ claims to be believable.  Even the total rejection of doctrine can ironically become a doctrinaire position.  The difference with Christianity, however, is that doctrinaire thought is not essential to believing Christianity, and I would argue the religion is better without it.

  Doctrinaire faith leads people to seek support for pre-determined beliefs, as opposed to the proper method of arriving at conclusions based on supporting facts.  A doctrinaire believer is characterized by having their own set of “facts” in harmony with their faith but in conflict with reality.  These doctrinaire assumptions can eventually distract from their original intent altogether and take on a life of their own.  For example, racist doctrines devised to discourage race mixing, such as black skin being the mark of Cain or rock music coming from darkest Africa were still perpetuated by people removed from segregation who no longer saw themselves as racists.  The insistence of a literal reading of Genesis started as an attempt to defend the Bible against equally-literalist critics in light of scientific discovery, but has now become an association of so-called “ministries” that focus entirely on their interpretation of Genesis as if that were the essence of Christianity.  Ken Ham’s Ark Encounter comes to mind as a literal embodiment of doctrinaire ideology, going so far as to try to make it a physical reality in theme park form.  In this way, doctrinaire doctrines tend towards redundancy, because the end goal is just to support the original premise.

  But does Christianity actually need to be so doctrinaire?  Its basic assumptions about life are well grounded in observable reality:  men are imperfect, prone to do wrong, and die once.  In contrast, the doctrines of reincarnation or inherent divinity found in eastern religions, or pre-existence in Mormonism, require unprovable doctrinal assumptions.  The cardinal belief of Christianity in life after death is demonstrated by a man rising from the dead and supported by witnesses.  One does not have to believe in a book first to believe this is true.

  Not only does it unnecessarily affect theology, but doctrinaire beliefs can pollute the overall practice of Christianity in the most basic ways Christians treat other people.  Much of the criticism the church has earned in the last centuries have been due to indefensible policies that people would only accept if they already believed a certain version of Christianity.  Church leaders jump to the conclusion that every natural disaster, every epidemic, or every act of terror is God punishing innocent people for some unrelated sin because faith.  At a loss to explain why things are right and wrong outside of a deontological “because we say so”, they try to control people with empty threats of hell and damnation which they never have to prove.  Christians perpetuated the inequality of women, blacks, and gays based on nothing more than a prejudiced scripture reading.  I expect some of my readers might cringe at my inclusion of gays in the list of the oppressed, but when institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention have cried wolf about slavery, lynching, segregation, women’s suffrage, abortion (whichever side you’re on, they’ve been on the other side at some point) and interracial marriage, it’s hard to convince me that banning same-sex marriage is the one thing they’ve been right about.  Strangely, when I grew up in a fundamental baptist church, I was taught that Southern Baptist churches were wrong, but never for the obvious reason that they only exist because of a split over slavery.  Looking back at historical sermons from the South, it’s a marvel that the church today has so easily forgiven its past racists when those same preachers effectively condemned virtually every Christian living today as Satanic heretics.

  Some might argue that churches arrived at those horrible conclusions because of a misreading of Scripture.  That may be true, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the same churches from being repeat offenders.  The convenience of doctrinaire thinking is that you always find what you were looking for in the Biblical text, therefore the solution should not just be a commitment to better Bible reading, but a complete overhaul in how we formulate doctrines.  I don’t demand or expect that every Christian on earth could instantly convert to my way of thinking, but I will attempt to lay out some guidelines that I think everyone could consider whether they come from a literary or literalist approach to the Bible.  First, Christians should take inventory of their essential beliefs and determine, like the ones I listed above, those that are grounded in reality.  These principles, rooted in love, life, and liberty, should be the driving force of the faith that we communicate to the world.  Next, we should calculate the risk of positions that have the potential to cause more harm than good; a position that can’t stand up to objective scrutiny probably isn’t suitable for public policy, and we should avoid looking like we just want to control the behavior of unbelievers. Christians should be especially cautious when judging others, focusing less on subjective sins and more on universal, objective morality.  Note that as critical as I am of certain churches for documented moral lapses, I have still never judged them as strongly as they have judged me for imaginary reasons.  Some have accused me of trying to create a “Christianity for atheists”, but that’s not really my intent.  I’m not trying to strip Christianity of doctrines or the supernatural, I just want to promote and strengthen its best doctrines which all too often take a back seat to shameful ideologies.  Perhaps in that way it is a Christianity for atheists, I always want to present a Christianity that’s for everybody.

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Unsaved

A Sunday school song I used to sing in my childhood:

One door and only one,

And yet its sides are two,

I’m on the inside,

On which side are you?

Looking back, I have to wonder the intent behind having children recite this verse over and over.  After all, it’s not a song of praise or worship.  It doesn’t embody any distinctly Christian theology (aside from a nondescript allusion to Jesus as the “door”, which probably went over the heads of most children).  The only purpose it seems to serve is to to establish and reinforce an ingroup and outgroup mentality.

An ingroup is a social group to which a person identifies as a member, whereas an outgroup is one in which they do not identify.  I would say that the clear motive behind a song like this is indoctrinating an ingroup mentality, not a statement of faith or a belief in exclusivity as some might argue.  After all, this song is taught to children of all ages and levels of understanding, by those raised in the church and by first time visitors alike.  Far from evangelism, what it taught children even from before the time they made any personal confession of faith (let alone understood the concept), was to divide the world into two groups: those on the inside, and those on the outside.

Ingroup/outgroup psychology is prevalent in a lot of religions, but it’s noticeably pronounced in the world of Evangelicalism, particularly on the outgroup side.  It has been said that developing a belief in assurance of salvation was the defining moment that distinguished Evangelicals from their Puritan and Protestant forbears.  In fact, some Evangelicals practically make a secondary conversion out of this today.  I can recall going to Baptist youth camps as a teenager, where the attendees were mostly from church groups like me.  The fire and brimstone sermons and altar calls were directed not just to the lost, but also to the faithful, where preachers encouraged the teens to go forward to talk to a counsellor either to pray a standard “sinner’s prayer” to be saved, or receive assurance that they already were saved.  The college hosting the camp would record and report on the number of decisions made, first those who had accepted Jesus as their lord and savior, and second those who had received assurance of their salvation.  In retrospect, it seems almost absurd to me how people who sincerely believed Christianity, attended church regularly, tried to be like Christ, and had made a public confession of faith were made to feel as if they were missing something in their life.  After all, they generally weren’t struggling with any doubt about the truth of their religion, it was the sincerity of their faith that probably caused them to respond; instead what they questioned was their salvation.

You see, to Evangelicals one’s salvation isn’t just an act that occurs when one converts or believes, their salvation is a status if not a status symbol.  Indeed, questioning another’s salvation (or even just being perceived as doing that, such as by calling out an obvious heresy in their theology) can be seen as a supreme insult in Evangelical circles.  They tend to divide the world into the “saved” and the “unsaved”, but not from any reading of Scripture.  The word “saved” appears numerous times in the Bible, of course, but always as a verb, never as a noun or adjective the way Evangelicals use it.  The word “unsaved” never appears at all.  There are certainly many Biblical words that they could choose to refer to non-Christians, such as “lost” or “unbelieving”, but this distinct term persists so prominently in the Evangelical lexicon largely because it serves their outgroup mindset.  “Lost”, for instance, is a difficult word to apply in a predominately Christian society where most of the prospective converts are simply members of other denominations, not other religions.  It’s also hard to use “unbelieving” when they’re trying to seed insecurity among fellow believers.

It’s troubling on many levels how Evangelicals express their soteriology through terms entirely absent from the Christian Scriptures.  In comparison, Islam has the term “kaffir” to refer to non-Muslims, which is used repeatedly in the Qur’an by prophet Muhammad.  Often misunderstood in the West to mean “infidel”, this term more closely resembles a derogatory slur.  Outgroup hostility is undeniably written into the doctrine of Islam, but this need not be the same in Christianity.  In contrast, while Muslims freely use “kaffir” derisively to people’s faces, Evangelicals are more guarded with how they use “unsaved.”  You don’t really see them telling prospective converts that they’re “unsaved”, it seems to be a word limited to insider conversation.  In that sense, it can be borderline cultic, a secret doctrine reserved for the initiated.  And like in an Islamic state that becomes 100% homogenized, wherein the Muslims simply target other sects of Islam for outgroup hostility, similarly Evangelicals in ideological isolation may start to focus on their own co-religionists as the outgroup.

Considering how these same Evangelicals try to be Biblical in almost every other area, it would seem easy for them to avoid the potential problems of this word by simply not using it.  Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.  Just challenging the Evangelical ingroup/outgroup complex can be seen as an attack on the essence of Christianity itself, effectively putting oneself in the outgroup.  Even if you aren’t of the outgroup mindset, suggesting that it’s wrong to Christians who are may ironically be perceived as outgroup hostility towards them.  They may not only be unable to relate to a Christianity without it, it may be so ingrained in their nature that they cannot imagine anybody else not thinking the same way too.  Evangelicalism seems to have become an obsession with classifying people into “saved” or “unsaved” groups, graduating beyond mere assurance of salvation to assurance of damnation (other people’s, that is).

Of course, there are many ways to end up on the outgroup list.  Seemingly inconsequential disagreements, like not believing a six-day, literalist interpretation of Genesis or not thinking the U.S. Constitution has any basis to ban same-sex marriage or marijuana (even if one personally doesn’t approve of either) can cause you to lose your salvation status among your friends.  Historically, it could have been for supporting integration in the Bible belt.  Once you’ve been “outgrouped” by Evangelicals, it can be hard if not impossible to recover your standing among them.  Different rules of engagement are employed when they interact with the “unsaved.”  They may hold beliefs that further alienate the outgroup, such as believing that God doesn’t hear the prayers of the unsaved, or that the unsaved can’t really understand the Bible.  The outgroup mindset has an unfair advantage (in their mind, anyway) in that they can shut you out because they believe you’re going to hell, but if you don’t really believe people are damned for petty political differences, then you can’t even honestly fake it in return, not even to level the playing field (even though they may mistakenly think the field is level anyway because they assume everybody would naturally think that).  Outgroup psychology trumps the universal languages of logic and reason, an outsiders ideas and views are rejected simply because they’re an outsider, like the Republican party’s irrational opposition to the “Muslim, Kenyan, socialist” Obama.

When the outgroup hostility isn’t even based in reality, but on imaginary criteria there’s little that can be done about it.  But if you’re an Evangelical reading this who feels threatened that I criticized a cherished children’s song or knocked the legs out from under your core theology, don’t write me off because you consider me an outsider.  You can think whatever you want about the fate of my soul (which you conveniently never have to prove), but I can still appeal to your desire to live a Biblical faith.  Just stop using the word “unsaved”.  That’s all I ask.  Limit yourself to the terms actually used by Jesus and his followers in the Bible, and you may find your theology naturally changes because of it.  You may then ask yourself whether certain songs or words are used for a theological purpose, or whether it simply serves the outgroup mentality.  Just like me, you may find your outgroup mentality eroded when the words that reinforced it are no longer available to you.  You may risk becoming less Evangelical, but you may gain becoming more Christian.

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Islam = Antichrist

a church in Mosul with the cross removed by ISIS

a church in Mosul with the cross removed by the Islamic State

Islam is antichrist.  No, this isn’t a fanatical End Times-obsessed piece trying to insert persons or organizations into John Nelson Darby’s dispensationalist eschatology, as seems to be commonplace these days.  I am not an alarmist claiming ISIS is a sign of the end of the world.  My interest in making this claim is not to advance an unprovable prophetic timetable, effectively reducing the Bible to a coded warning that only has meaning to believers already convinced that it predicts a specific eschatology.  This study of doctrinal differences is not intended to suggest Islam is wrong because it is not Christianity, which would merely be an inversion of the Islamic method of claiming Christianity is wrong simply because it is not Islam.  Instead, I’m going to present a rationally-based comparison of what each religion factually teaches to demonstrate that Islam is undeniably antichristian by design.  That is to say, this is not a biased polemic by a non-Muslim attempting to demonize Islam, this can be objectively argued regardless of whether one believes either religion or not.

Some people wondered why in a recent series devoted to the Torah I spent most of the time talking about religions other than Judaism or Christianity.  The reason is that I strongly believe interreligious studies are a highly beneficial but regrettably neglected way to better understand one’s own faith.  Christians often fail to understand how the boundaries of orthodoxy that separate other religions from Christianity differ from the divisions that separate between denominations within Christianity.  As a result, they may incorrectly engage people of other religions within the framework Judeo-Christian thought, failing to make the necessary paradigm shift to understand a completely foreign belief system.  Without realizing it, they may treat Islam as another church, the Qur’an as another Bible, and Muhammad as another prophet.  This can be troublesome because prophets, sacred texts, and theologies are not actually interchangeable like that.  The Bible makes very different claims about its authorship than does the Qur’an (although I will concede too many Christians want the Bible to be a revealed text dictated word-for-word by God similar to what the Qur’an claims, even though the Qur’an itself fails to measure up to that claim), and people tend to believe in different religious teachers for dramatically different reasons.  After all, everyone would more likely gravitate to the same figure if they were all looking for the same thing in a religious teacher, but the truth is Muslims are conditioned to seek a far different personality in Muhammad, just as they are to seek a different personality in Jesus Christ.

Christ

It’s a well-known fact that Islam’s principal theology is the complete denunciation of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, rejecting the deity and sonship of Christ, the fatherhood of God, and the Trinity.  Of the many examples in the Qur’an:

“O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, “Three” (Trinity); desist – it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs.”  An-Nisa 4:171

In Islam, shirk, or equating “partners” beside God, is the greatest sin, and is unforgivable (I can’t resist going off course momentarily to comment on Islam’s horribly flawed moral center which prioritizes subjective theology over objective immorality, such as harming other people.  This tends to result in a tribalistic deontology in which Muslims don’t seem to care much about harming others over petty theological differences).  The explicit rejection of the deity of Christ is embodied in the shahada, the creed Muslims recite to convert to Islam:  “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  To reiterate: one absolutely cannot be a Muslim and believe in the deity of Christ in any sense, simply converting to Islam is a rejection of this distinctly Christian doctrine.

Interestingly, however, Christianity has never really been so totally strict in its adherence to Christ’s divinity or the Trinity.  For centuries this was openly debated among theologians until mostly settled at the Council of Nicea, nevertheless Arianism, Unitarianism, Modalism, and other heresies persisted throughout church history.  At the risk of sounding heretical I would say it has always been possible to be a Christian and not believe in the deity of Christ or the Trinity.  To the many supposed Trinitarians gasping that I might say such heresy is permissible, I like to point out that most of them likely confuse Modalism for Trinitarianism.  Even among professed Trinitarians, accurately understanding this doctrine has never been an absolute requirement.  So while Islamic Unitarianism and Trinitarianism may be mutually exclusive concepts, Christianity has still never been as hostile to Unitarianism to the severity that Islam is toTrinitarianism.

Crucifixion

Unlike in Islam, theology is actually secondary to Christianity.  The Qur’an had nothing else to offer from a (supposedly) singular author centuries removed from the events and eye witnesses he described.  Muhammad’s claims could not have gained traction unless followers were dogmatically required to accept it in its entirety on a theological basis.    Christianity, however, relied on compelling arguments and the testimony of witnesses to back its claims.  One didn’t have to blindly believe in a prophet or a sacred text because for the first decades of Christianity no New Testament even existed; the idea of a written record came about only later, as a form of preservation.  Rather than being driven by theology, they were driven by events, namely the life of Christ.  And the single-most important event in the life of Christ was his death and resurrection.  Christians can possibly get everything else wrong about their religion, as evidenced by the wide range of irreconcilable theology across thousands of denominations.  According to Christ’s own teachings, his followers’ identity was observable by their actions, not by knowledge of a series of creeds.  But the Passion is one definitive belief of which the absence calls into question a group’s Christian identity.  As a matter of course, Islam rejects such a disgraceful death for a prophet of God, and consequently his resurrection:

“And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.  Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. And ever is Allah Exalted in Might and Wise.”  An-Nisa 4:157-158

Once again we see Islam uncompromisingly set itself at variance with a Christian doctrine, so that one could not be considered a Muslim and still hold that belief.  This ironically puts Islam in an awkward position, because it still holds to the belief of a general resurrection into eternal life either in heaven or hell, yet it has no rational basis for such a belief like Christianity does.  The three theories available for what happens after death are: annihilation, reincarnation, and resurrection.  Annihilation is simply the belief that one’s existence ends when one dies; while it cannot easily be proven, this is admittedly a very logical assumption, which is why it is generally the default position for atheism (it also seems to have been popular in Judaism).  Reincarnation is the belief that one’s existence continues on in another form after death; while popular among eastern religions, it is virtually impossible to prove objectively.  Resurrection is the only available theory which could possibly be proven objectively, all it would need is for somebody to die and rise again.  In fact, it doesn’t actually even need to be a historical event, a belief system that teaches resurrection on the basis of someone hypothetically dying and living again would still be more logical than another which doesn’t.  Before Christianity, Judaism had no real consensus on what happens after death, clearly Islam borrowed its appealing afterlife theory from the Christians, yet the Muslim’s hope in an afterlife rests purely on dogmatic theological claims and not on any reality.

Communion

It’s my theory that Islam was deliberately engineered as a system to suppress competing religions.  Some of these efforts may have been unintentional and only have the coincidental benefit of Islamic supremacy.  Other choices in constructing Islam were harmless and merely intended to make Islam decidedly different from its neighbors.  For instance, the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer, was obviously an innovation to differentiate itself from Christian church bells and Jewish shofars.  Friday prayers were picked because the Jews already had the Sabbath and the Christians had Sunday.  Other choices, however, seem to have an underlying sinister intent.  The Muslim requirement for a divorced woman to consummate a marriage with a new husband before being able to return to her ex-husband is clearly a deliberate albeit nonsensical, if not outright mean-spirited, negation of the Hebrew prohibition against remarrying an ex-spouse after another marriage (Deut. 24:1-4).  It’s likely that the Muslim aversion to dogs is based on little more than an attempt to suppress Zoroastrians, for whom dogs are considered sacred animals.  Similarly, I suspect the Islamic prohibition of alcohol was designed to some extent to try to ban the widespread Christian custom of the Eucharist.  Originally, the alcohol ban was specific to coming to prayer inebriated (An-Nisa 4:43), as it was believed the Christians did by incorporating wine into a religious ritual.  This total rejection of one of the primary symbols of Christianity made it clear that Christian customs, just like the distinct Christian beliefs mentioned above, were unwelcome in the mosque.  In practice, this was far different from Mormons similarly electing to substitute water in place of the sacramental wine within the confines of their own church (although I would also argue to a lesser extent that this substitution still makes Mormonism anti-Christian).  It’s one thing to have uncompromising custom variations in a pluralistic society, it was another thing entirely in the conquest days of Islam when churches were forcibly converted into mosques.  Unlike the early church who felt at home in the synagogue without forcing radical changes on the Jews already there, Islam attempted to co-opt existing religious infrastructures while simultaneously eradicating the traditions of those communities.

Conclusion

As is typical of Islam, tolerance is a one-way street on which Islam expects to receive but gives none in return.  Islam doesn’t just prohibit certain beliefs and customs among its own members, it considers such things a sin for all people, including non-Muslims.  I would venture to say that tolerance as is understood in the West is a non-existent concept in Islam.  This can be demonstrated by Westerners who think they’re having an interfaith dialogue with Muslims when they promote tolerance because “we’re all God’s children”, unaware that they’ve just committed an unpardonable sin in Islam.  Under total Muslim supremacy, not only can a Muslim not believe like a Christian, it is difficult if not impossible for a Christian to believe like a Christian.  To the Muslim mindset, a good Christian is one who doesn’t commit shirk by believing  that Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God, doesn’t believe Jesus was crucified, and doesn’t memorialize his shed blood when they drink wine.  The tolerance that Muhammad extended towards Christians as “people of the book” really applies as long as Christians don’t actually hold orthodox Christian beliefs.  This amounts to zero tolerance, otherwise any religion could say they tolerate others as long as those people believe and behave the way they want them to.  People like to think of Indonesia as a tolerant Muslim country because it allows five religions (Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Hinduism), whereas intolerant countries like Saudi Arabia only permit Islam.  But if you don’t have the freedom to believe any of the thousands of religions banned in Indonesia, like Mormonism, Sikhism, Judaism, Jainism, Baha’i, or just plain atheism, then really you have just as much freedom of religion as any non-Muslim in Saudi Arabia.  Freedom of religion only on Islamic terms is not actually freedom.  This is the reason why I say Islam is antichrist, because it forces Muslims and Christians alike to be less Christian.

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The Pentateuch, Part 1: Migratory Patterns

I’ve resolved to blog more consistently this year, which means I’m ready to start a series of a textual analysis of the Pentateuch.  Actually, I’m not sure I’m really ready for this, the more I study the Torah the more amateurish I feel about it.  While I’m sure I’ll never be studied enough for my own satisfaction, I do feel confident nevertheless that I’m capable of dispelling some of the common misunderstandings about the writing processes of the Torah.  From my experience, most Christians don’t seem to acknowledge a writing process is indeed involved in the creation of scripture.  But even if they may admit to that, it doesn’t necessarily mean they intellectually understand the ramifications this has for the interpretive process.   Yet Christians both learned and ignorant have high esteem for the Books of Moses, some to the point that they believe it contains a rulebook for the ideal civilization, even if they don’t really follow that in practice.  Hopefully in the next few weeks I can impart some of the theories and conclusions I’ve made from my personal study, and help you see these books in a radically different way.

One interesting feature of the Pentateuch as a whole is that the entire text has a migratory pattern that reflects the internal migration within the narrative.  The ante-deluvian stories share many similarities to Sumerian creation and flood myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh.  After the call of Abraham from Ur, however, the text becomes more apparently self-reliant: there are three interdependent sister-wife narratives within the book of Genesis  (Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 20, Gen. 26:1-11) and incrementally fewer references to outside source material with each passing patriarch.  By the time we get to Joseph the book has a decided cultural identity, but upon the Exodus traces of multi-culturalism resurface.  The rescue of Moses from the Nile has similarities to exposure narratives of the Assyrian legend of Sargon and others, coincidentally right before this exiled prince would end up in the land of Midian, later to be part of the Assyrian empire.  Returning to Egypt as a prophet, the text shares some similarities with ancient Egyptian stories: in Se-Osiris and the Sealed Letter, an Ethiopian magician turns a sealed roll into a serpent (similar to Aaron’s rod in Ex. 7:9), and also casts a spell of darkness on the land for three days and nights (Ex. 10:22); a lake is parted in the Golden Lotus.

When Moses gives the Law on Sinai, the text itself is in between Egypt and the Promised Land.  The Ten Commandments echo the Negative Confessions from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, while the influence of the surrounding legal systems of Babylon’s Hammurabi, the Hittite Code of the Nesilim, the Persian Avesta, and others is undeniable.  It’s also interesting to note that the Hebrews acquired the punishment of stoning while wandering in the Arabian desert, where this method is still in effect to this day for the same sins, although the Jews seem to have discarded it after settling in the Holy Land.  While the Qur’an was a book of rules written by an authoritarian seeking inspiration in a dark, desert cave with little outside exposure, the Law of Moses is clearly written from observation and experience.  Aside from the more familiar “thou shalt not’s”, it includes a great deal of casuistic legal rulings that demonstrate the experience of a lawgiver who had settled cases himself from morning till night (Ex. 18:13).  Occasionally, contextual narratives are joined to the rulings to give insight into the case process (Lev. 24:10-16, Num. 15:32-36), but other times the reasons are frustratingly lost to the ages, such as the prohibition on boiling a kid goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 34:26, Deut. 14:21).  Nevertheless, we can see these were not arbitrary rulings dictated by a single-minded tyrant, there is no attempt to hide or disguise the writing process and rely solely on a claim of divine inspiration to demand blind obedience, as the writers of other holy books have done.

The narrative doesn’t just move through time as it progresses forward, it also visibly moves through space.  It has a timestamp and a location stamp that corresponds perfectly to where the text ought to be at a specific time and place.  Parallels to contemporary literature sometimes make the more hardline fundamentalists uncomfortable, and they react either with outright denial or the insistence that the Bible was always the original source that other cultures borrowed.  This obsession with primacy is really just to satisfy the fundamentalist’s psychological need for closure, but they really need not be so threatened at the thought of the Biblical authors borrowing from another source.  That fact certainly discredits the Rabbinic tradition that the five books of Moses were dictated to a single author in their final form except for the last chapter of Deuteronomy, however, anybody who understands the process of how a book is written and edited can reconcile that process with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  A believer who can’t do that simply has a flawed understanding of what divine inspiration actually means.

Rather than disproving the Bible, as the skeptics jump to conclude, the migration of the text is a strong testimony of its authenticity.  This book has indeed travelled through the cultures and periods that it claims.  On the other hand, fraudulent holy books like the Qur’an and the Book of Mormon are easily disproven by how they do neither.  Muhammad’s Qur’an does not have a linear concept of time, and all the Biblical characters simultaneously inhabit a continuous, mythical present.  His book never left the Arabian desert until his followers did.  The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, is more careful to tell a linear story but fails to visit any other culture except the one Joseph Smith imagines; he doesn’t dare attempt to give specific cultural details until his characters have safely stepped outside of the Holy Land, and history.  Even then, the animals and technological advancements he depicts contradict with what we know factually about pre-European America.  The only conclusion available is that both these books are frauds, and no amount of belief in them being divinely inspired can change that.  Quite the opposite, the Bible’s authenticity is reinforced by comparative study, and could be trusted without any belief in its inspiration at all.

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Cliché-anity

I find myself relating less and less to fellow Christians, sometimes when I survey the comprehension level of those around me I start to wonder if we even belong to the same religion.  Among Evangelicals in particular, I see Christians more aligned with American folk wisdom than with anything resembling Biblical Christianity–even when they’re quoting from the Bible!

American Christianity seems to have become as predictable as the the Republican Party agenda: a few rehearsed talking points on some controversial wedge issues, gut feelings, and a lot of denial.  Difficult situations are met with common canned responses like “God is in control”, “Everything happens for a reason”, or when stumped by a theological question that they can’t explain, they defer to Isaiah 55:9 (“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways”).  It doesn’t matter to them if the context in Isaiah has nothing to do with the divine nature of Christ or the destruction of the Canaanites, it’s a catch-all stock answer for anything they don’t understand.  They know little of the sophisticated philosophy presented in Job, Ecclesiastes, or the prophets, and favor catchy sound bites instead.  Ignorant of centuries of complex theological development within the Judeo-Christian traditions,  they reduce Christian thought to a dumbed-down catechism of clichés, a phenomenon that I’ve coined as “Cliché-anity.”  While this might be expected among lay adherents of any faith, it troubles me to see it prevalent even among the clergy and church leaders.

Too often, Evangelical Christians view the Bible as a revelation in itself.  This is problematic, because it dilutes the claims of the Bible to the level of any other religion claiming its scriptures as direct revelation from God, such as the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon.  While this approach may not be as noticeable a problem among believers in the Bible, or even between believers of other religions, it’s absolutely meaningless for nonbelievers.  In this manner, the Bible is only authoritative to those who already believe it, therefore expecting anyone outside of a Christian worldview to accept it as truth just because it says so is a logical fallacy, and goes completely against why the Bible was written!

A prime example of this is how Evangelicals generally seem unable to express Christian exclusivism except by reciting John 14:6’s “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  This is so ingrained in the Evangelical mindset that I can already hear some readers starting the fire to burn me at the stake just for criticizing it, as if I’m denying the Bible is true or promoting universalism.  However, this reliance on textual citations for truth claims is actually a greater disservice to absolute truth.  Atheists, for instance, are prone to compare this statement with any of Muhammad’s claims in the Qur’an, and dismiss them both as competing fairytales.  After all, if Jesus can be the only way to heaven just because he says so, then Muhammad’s requirements to believe in him as God’s prophet would have to at least be equally considered, if not equally valid.  This usually forces the Christian into the unnecessary position of having to discredit Islam to prove Christianity true.  It becomes even sillier when Christians try to use this prooftext methodology to refute the faith of Catholics, Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, who also accept Biblical authority.

Probably the best expression of Christian exclusivism that I’ve heard in the last decade came from Asia Bibi, an illiterate peasant Catholic in Pakistan, who has been sentenced to death under her Islamic country’s draconian blasphemy laws simply for defending her beliefs in saying, “My Jesus died for me what has Muhammed done for you?”  No chapter and verse citation, no verbatim memorization, yet she demonstrates the essence of the gospel’s exclusive claim to salvation better than any of the learned Evangelicals, who would probably dismiss her just for being Catholic.  Perhaps she would have been accused of blasphemy either way, or even if she had said nothing at all, but I can’t help but think her accusers were more offended by this statement because it cannot be cancelled out by a competing Islamic claim: if Christ is indeed the Savior, then no claim Muhammad could make can trump that.

I wouldn’t say that all Christians who use this canned response don’t really understand the concept of salvation in their religion, but it does leave me wondering.  If their grasp of truth is entirely dependent on the claims of a text and nothing more, then their religion could easily be changed simply with the introduction of a new text.  This helps explain why Mormons and Muslims are so successful at converting today’s Evangelicals.

Unfortunately, there is no quick remedy for this problem.  Actively learning or re-learning one’s religion more thoroughly is certainly harder than it was to acquire a set of clichés.  My first suggestion would be a complete overhaul of the way Christians perceive the Bible as God’s Word.  Too often the doctrine of divine inspiration is mistaken for divine revelation, which the Judeo-Christian scriptures are not.  Unlike Muslim, Mormon, Baha’i scriptures, etc. that claim to be directly revealed, the revelation of Christianity is not in a book but rather the revealing of God himself.  The Christian concept of inspiration is not what gives the scriptures their authority, they would still be true even without that doctrine.  There were no Muslims until Muhammad started to recite the Qur’an, there were no Mormons until after Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon, but there were Christians before any of the New Testament was committed to writing.  The revelation of God in Christ and the truth of Christianity are indeed recorded in the Bible (in case you were doubting my faith in the written word), however both would still exist without it.  Nothing is true just because the Bible says so, as is the common misconception, but rather the Bible is true because of what it contains.

Make no mistake, I am not proposing that Christians abandon the Bible, since (as I hope to explore in greater detail) many of the common Cliché-anity catch-phrases have no connection whatsoever to Biblical Christianity anyway.  But this over-used method of reducing the Bible to a collection of proof-texts can certainly turn believers into doubters if they miss the overall point of scripture because they’re unable to pinpoint a specific text to support a doctrine.  Ultimately, it leads to losing battles with outsiders about the absolute truth of Christ, and major and minor doctrinal squabbles within the church.

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