Waiting for Armageddon

Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I have lived around End Times theology and theories all my life.  Many a lunch break was spent discussing what would happen during the rapture in middle school and high school.  Everyone wanted to be rapture ready because being left behind was unthinkable.

I inherited the mentality from my friends, not my family.  And that was before all the Left Behind books became popular.  As each voyeuristic episode grew more destructive and violent, more people were hooked, and more people started writing their own versions.  (We lived across the street from a semi-popular “left behind” novelist.)  Apparently, millions of Americans love the idea of horrible harm coming to those who do not think as they do.  A compassionate Jesus? Who needs him if you are waiting for Armageddon?

Waiting for Armageddon, a documentary by Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi, explores the people who believe that Armageddon is around the corner and that Israel will be the site of Christ’s second coming.  It begins by stating that more than 50 million Americans believe that the Bible lays out the future of humankind in precise detail.   Among these, many believe that Christ will return to lead a final holy war in the land of Israel.  The show claims that 20 million Americans believe Jesus will return in their life time.  And remember the Pew statistics I quoted the other day?  41% of Americans believe Jesus will return before 2050.

According to many who believe in Biblical prophecy, the world will be destroyed in a chain of miraculous events:

  1. The Rapture – believers are snatched up by Jesus
  2. The Tribulation – seven years of war, violence, and destruction for those left behind
  3. Armageddon – the final epic battle between good and evil
  4. The Millennium – the return of the believers to a paradise on earth where there no longer is any evil

First comes  “The Rapture” which is based on Thessalonians 4:17: “We will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”

The Rapture comes from the Greek word harpazo which means to snatch up or take up.  When Christ returns in the clouds, he will snatch up believers with him.  This will happen in an instant.  Suddenly, the 50 million or more believers will be gone – whisked out of their offices, homes or wherever it is they happen to be.  One minute they are here.  The next, poof!  Gone.  They will be snatched out of their cars, leaving them unmanned on the road which will cause accidents.  It will completely terrorize those who are left behind.

Second comes “The Tribulation”, based on Matthew 24:21: “Then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world.”   Those who chose not to believe in God before “the Rapture” will be left to suffer the seven year tribulation.  75% of the earth will be wiped out.  Ecological disasters, meteors hitting the earth, episodes like 9/11 happening every day, 1/3 of the waters will turn to blood.  Five to six years into “The Tribulation”, half of the world will be dead.  Violence and wars will radically increase. This is the time period when God finishes his judgment and discipline of Israel.

There is a belief that during this time, there will be enough Jews to create a nation.  Supposedly, 144,000 Jews will convert and evangelize. The Jews who do not convert, will perish. The temple will be rebuilt. (The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine. Leviticus 25:23.)  Thousands of Americans who believe in End Times make pilgrimage to Jerusalem every year to visit the Islamic mosque that used to be the temple.  This can be problematic because both evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Jews hope for the destruction of the mosque in order that the  temple can be built again.  Jews because they believe it is their right.  American evangelists because it points to Armageddon.  In fact, many Americans interviewed in the documentary dream of something absolutely horrible happening to destroy the mosque (like an earthquake or nuclear boms) so the temple can be rebuilt. Very few are interested in peaceful negotiations.  It’s no wonder things are so contentious.

American evangelical fundamentalists explain Islam as a world dominating religion. Believers are required to take over the world for Allah. Yet, throughout history, it could be argued that Islam has been far more tolerant of Jews than Christianity.  And get real – it’ not as though the fundamentalists love the Jews.  They fully expect them to convert or be destroyed by the wrath of God.  It would seem that the God of Christianity wants Christians to take over the world for God more than does Allah want the Muslims to take over the world for Islam.  It’s a projection – cast the finger out there at “those people”, when the finger should really be pointed at yourself.

But that’s the nature of fundamentalism.   You have to have something to point the finger at so that you don’t have to look too closely at yourself.  In the 1970s, the “evil ones” were Red China and the Communist Block of Russia.  But with the fall of Russia and the end of the cold war, the evangelicals have had to find new “evil ones” so have shifted their focus to Islam. There must be an evil “them” in order to have a righteous “us”.  Doesn’t matter who it is.

Apocalyptic literature was never meant as a script for those in power.  It was written for those persecuted by those in power.  In the hands of the powerful, it is no longer inspirational, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy of violence and destruction. For example, John Hagee called for a strike on Iran because of what he understands as Biblical prophecy.  Yet, no where does the Bible claim that WWIII is part of God’s plan.

Armageddon is the third stage in the chain of events.  “Their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, and their eyes will rot in their sockets.”  Zechariah 14:12.

I’d never heard this before, but mysticism is of genuine concern for many evangelicals because they claim it has led to an interpretation of the Bible that isn’t literal.  Yet, mysticism has been around a lot longer than has fundamentalism and has always been the common link between world religions.  According to Huston Smith, fundamentalism didn’t come into being until the 19th century.  Far from creating bridges, fundamentalism creates deep divides by claiming that it’s way is the only way to Truth.

Anyway, the story goes that the Jews will sign a peace treaty with their Arab neighbors that turns out to be false.  This treaty allows the antichrist to move into the temple and declare himself God.  This will be when the Jews realize he is not the promised Messiah and this will lead to Armageddon, the epic end-time battle.

The Millennium is the fourth stage in the chain of events.  “And they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” Revelation 20:4.  Christ is going to trash the planet, but he’s going to clean it up for the millennium.  No EPA necessary.

All of this would simply be amusing if there weren’t so many powerful political personalities who believe it.  These people are organized and are making their way into every part of politics, both local and national.  It’s so bad that many evangelicals who don’t share these particular End Times theories are concerned by the power of those who do.

A Serious Man

I have now watched A Serious Man three times and could probably go on watching it. Certain films draw me in and keep me, and this is one of them.  I’m not Jewish, but I have definitely ventured down several routes in search of certainty and have found all wanting.  And I think that is why this film resonates with me.  I love the Coen Brothers and I love this movie!!

I also love what Liel Liebovitz said in his review of the film in Tablet:

…once upon a time, there was a people, the Jews, whose faithful sons and daughters lived in small shtetls and spoke Yiddish and realized that certain phenomena lay past the realms of their understanding and accepted that God moved about in the world in ways they couldn’t possibly know. When members of this nation immigrated to the New World, however, and shaved off their beards and shook off their mamaloshen, their mother tongue, they quickly became besotted with the promises of modernity. They were urged to replace the yearnings for Olam Ha-ba, the messianic and redemptive world to come, with lust for the trappings of Olam Ha-ze, the earthly realm in which we live. They exchanged the Talmud for the law book, the medical text, the tax code. Even when they pursued theological studies, they did so with deference to the principles of the Enlightenment that had emancipated them. And, like other sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, they embarked on the pursuit of the precise, devoting their lives to erecting strict systems of thought that sought to explain life in all of its infinitesimal detail. This transformation came with its rich rewards, but it also exacted a devastating price, chief among which was the loss of the ability—to paraphrase a quote by Rashi the Coens use as an epigraph—to receive with simplicity everything that happens.

Simplicity is the enemy of modernity, doubt, and a middle class that strives toward certainty.  According to Liebovitz, salvation lies with the stoner son who isn’t as traditional as his ancestors.  But unlike his father’s generation, is equally capable of transcendence.

I also like what Jessie Tisch has to say in Interfaithfamily.com: Quoting (or maybe paraphrasing) the rabbi who quotes Jefferson Airplane, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies, then vat?”  Don’t you want somebody to love? Tisch says the movie is about “vat to do when the world has fallen apart, not vhy it has fallen apart”.

There is a huge debate on whether A Serious Man is based on Job or not.  Those who take a more Christian approach to Job – as a battle between Satan and God – understandably don’t see the similarity.  But is Job about a battle between Satan and God?  I don’t think so.  God instructs Satan to try Job.  There’s no battle.  Satan simply does exactly what God tells him to do.  And Job lashes out in anger.  He blames God, not Satan.  And it is God who should be blamed.  If Cain had blamed God for his misfortunes rather than Abel, then maybe humanity wouldn’t be in this horrible fix it’s in today. 

Who wants to deal with reality?  We’d much rather blame our brothers and sisters for what happens to us than to simply accept reality.   But Job very rightly blames God (not Satan) and this seriously upsets his friends who tell him that he must have done something wrong to deserve what is happening to him. Job knows he’s done nothing wrong and continues to blame God/Reality for all of the horrible things that are happening.  He demands an answer which he doesn’t get.  Finally, he simply accepts that things are the way they are.  And when he comes to this acceptance, his suffering ends.  The battle isn’t between God and Satan.  The battle is internal.  Denial of what is brings suffering.  Acceptance of what is brings peace.  It’s not about following rules.

Remember the Rashi quote at the beginning of A Serious Man?  “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.”  Also, remember the Korean student who bribes Gopnik for a better grade?  He’s received a failing grade because he didn’t do the math that explains the physics behind Schroedinger’s cat and the uncertainty principal.  Yet the student understands it far better than does Gopnik.  The father of the Korean students tells Gopnik to “accept the mystery”.  The Koreans have set up an entanglement for Gopnik that he can’t get out of. They understand the paradox and are using it to entangle Gopnik who is far too rule based to understand, even if he can do the math that explains the physics behind the uncertainty principal.

Gopnik has followed the rules.  He’s done what he’s supposed to do. There should be some sort of meaning behind what is happening to him.  “Why is he going to make us feel the questions if he isn’t going to give us any answers?”   What is it Rilke says? “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

When the truth is found, to be lies.  And all the joy within you dies.  Don’t you want somebody to love?

Yeshua of Nazareth

Every Wednesday night I drop my daughter off at dance, and I’m left with an hour to kill. Where do I kill that hour? At the new HalfPrice Bookstore that just moved in 2 minutes from the dance studio! This poses a bit of a problem because I am a used book junkie! My son’s guitar lesson used to be in the same center as the largest HalfPrice Bookstore in town and my library grew by leaps and bounds during that time period. There is no way I could possibly read every book I bought, then. But they were all great books at a fantastic price!

Money is really tight so I can no longer afford to purchase books I don’t have time to read. However, I discovered the clearance section at HalfPrice when we were looking for textbooks for homeschooling purposes. It’s amazing what you can find for 50 cents or a dollar in the clearance section! Last Wednesday, I found a little out-of-print book called Yeshua of Nazareth by Richard W. Chilson for a dollar and I am so glad to have read it. It offered a nice balance to Spong’s book.

Chilson studied Buddhism at the California Institute for Integral Studies and he says this practice brought him back to Jesus. When I converted to Catholicism just after I married my Catholic husband, I was assigned a sponsor who had grown up Methodist but had become a Buddhist in his young adulthood. He also claimed that it was Buddhism that brought him back to Jesus, and that the Buddhists all encouraged him to return – to follow where he was being “led”. He ended up in Roman Catholicism where he met the most wonderful woman you could ever possibly meet! (Physically blind, but had tremendous sight!!)

Chilson is a Paulist Priest (Roman Catholic) and finds no conflict between the Christian and Buddhist traditions. He says “the way of Jesus” belongs side by side with the ways of all of the other great spiritual masters and traditions, but that it is especially difficult for Christians to discover the way of Jesus because we’ve been brainwashed by centuries of theological formulation and religious practice.

Yeshua of Nazareth is an attempt to reintroduce us to what Jesus taught, outside the teachings of religious institutions. Chilson works through many of Jesus’ parables in a poetic, personal, and somewhat conversational manner (not sure what to call the style he uses, but it works). He weaves in Sufi tales and Buddhist wisdom.

Chilson says that some of Jesus’ main teachings are forgiveness in the place of judgment. Full acknowledgment of anger so that it can be dealt with rather than piously suppressed. Letting go of anxiety through trust. Gratitude. Hospitality. Compassion. Chilson says that the terms used in Jesus times to describe God’s “kingdom” no longer work for us today. We don’t have an appropriate relationship to the terms (both carry far too much baggage). He suggests a better way for us to understand what Jesus meant by “God’s Kingdom” or “Heaven” is Love’s Dominion. God rules in Love’s Dominion. This is where the God of Love rules.

Two teachings that particularly struck me…

According to Chilson, the repression of any individual, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, etc. is not based on Jesus’ teaching because such repression is based on judgment, and Jesus stood outside of judgment. Judgment is not part of “Love’s Dominion.”

Nor was Jesus all about “justice”. Most of us know the parable of the prodigal son, but Chilson presents it just slightly differently than I’ve heard it presented before. For each of Jesus’ parables, he suggests we try and identify with every character in them. In the parable of the prodigal son, for instance, the youngest son has run off with all of his father’s money and squandered it. We usually identify with the father or the son in this parable, but Chilson turns his attention to the eldest son. The eldest son has been the model son. Totally obedient to his father. So he is very irritated when the younger son, who has been anything but obedient, gets a party for coming home. We can understand why the father would want to throw a party. He’s happy his son is home. But we can also understand why this would completely irritate his older brother. The eldest son is angry with his father, because his father has never thrown a party for him even though he has always done what the father asks of him. Chilson says that Jesus is suggesting it is better to attend a valid celebration than to avoid it just because you think “it isn’t fair”. That’s all about ego. Not Love’s Dominion.

Or consider the parable of the workers in the vineyard. The master went out early and hired several laborers who agreed to work for a denarius a day. Later in the day, he hired more workers and told them he would give them fair pay. When it was time to pay all of the workers, those who had worked for hours were payed the denarius, as were those who had only been there an hour. Of course those who had worked longer felt this was unfair. But the master reprimanded them and told them he was doing no wrong. They had agreed to the pay. Chilson reminds us, “”If we believe we did something worthwhile, we are quick to look for acknowledgment and reward. Like those hired first, or the elder son. Our first cry will be ‘where’s the justice in this?’ ” But that cry, alas, is one that emanates from the ego that’s always sizing up things and trying to hog center stage.”

Chilson suggests we read, with an open mind, St. Paul, St. John, St. Francis of Assissi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther King Jr., Teresa of Calcultta. But also, don’t forget Guatama the Buddha, Mohammed the Prophet, Lao Tsu, Ramakrishna, the Christian Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, and, wait for it……A Course in Miracles. ACIM continues to be recommended by a wider and wider circle of people I admire.

Homosexuality and the Bible

It’s that time of the month when I become extra EXTRA obsessive compulsive and so I jumped in to a conversation about homosexuality, against my better judgment, with a fundamentalist Christian.  He seems like a really nice guy who means well. And of course it was like banging my head against a brick wall.  What else would it have been? 

The Christian movement was initially a liberation from the oppressive rules of Judaism and Rome, but once it became the only religion of Rome, it also became an oppressor.  And that’s just the way it is. So why do I get into arguments with fundamentalist Christians who, to this day, uphold the Roman hierarchical patriarchy?  I know better.  But like I said, it’s that time of the month so it’s the fault of my period, I swear!!

But I did end up learning a lot, afterward, because I obsessive-compulsively had to look everything up to make sure I wasn’t just talking out my ass.  And here is what I discovered…

Sexual orientation was not used as a social identifier in Ancient Greece and Rome like it has been used in Western cultures for the past 100 years or so. Stop and think what that means. Sexual orientation is the pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction to men, women, both genders, neither gender, same gender or different gender.  In modern Western society, this gives you a particular social identity – heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual…  In Ancient Greek and Roman societies, it did not.  There is no word in either Latin or Ancient Greek for what we think of today as homosexuality. It’s not that it didn’t exist, it was simply regarded completely differently than we regard it today. The ancients were relatively indifferent to the sex of one’s partner.  What mattered most was role, age and status.

In Ancient Greece, pederasty was common. This is categorized as a form of age-structured homosexuality.  Older mentor/student relations, etc.  While we typically lump pedophilia and pederasty together, the two were differentiated in Ancient Greek culture. Like today, pedophilia was considered grossly pathological carnal behavior by the Ancient Greeks. But pederasty was thought to be of a spiritual nature.  I didn’t dig deeply enough to find out what differentiates the two.

In the Early Roman Republic, pederasty was generally condemned.  It was thought to be a degenerate Greek practice.  Around 100 BC and into the time of Jesus and Paul, a new form of same-sex relations emerged.  It became acceptable for male masters to penetrate their male slaves, and slaves were considered legitimate male partners whether they wanted to be penetrated or not. The master was the penetrator, the slave (usually an adolescent slave, by the way) was the penetrated. So make sure you are getting this, because it’s important.  It wasn’t considered unnatural for a master to penetrate his slave.  But it was considered unnatural for a slave to penetrate his master.

After Christianity became the main religion of Rome, homosexuality became punishable by death (around 390 ACE).

Jesus never says a word about homosexuality. Not one thing.  Neither do any of the Jewish prophets.  There is hardly anything mentioned about it in the Bible at all. Just for grins, I went through the verses that Fundamentalists refer to the most and tried to sort them out:

  • Genesis 19: Story of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Ultimately God destroys Sodom because of greed, not because of homosexuality. 
  • Leviticus 18:22:  “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”  Seems to be a pretty clear condemnation of homosexual activity between men, but Leviticus is part of the Mosaic Law.  There are laws for everything!  Don’t eat pork or shrimp but it’s ok to eat beetles and grasshoppers.  Males must be circumcised. Don’t sleep with women on their period (punishable by societal excommunication).   The cross-breeding of plants is forbidden, which means no GMOs or tangelos.  Don’t sell food for a profit.  Cancel debts every 7 years.  So if Leviticus 18:22 is so important, why aren’t fundamentalists insisting upon the cancellation of third world debts, demanding an end to the food industry, and shouting down GMOs?  But hypocrisy aside, to read this as being about homosexuality is probably taking it out of context.  The verses before it are about ritual worship of the Cannaan god Molech. The followers of Molech believed that by engaging in ritual sex, they would please Molech which would bring them fertility and prosperity.   Verse 21 forbids ritual sacrifice of children to Molech. So it follows that Verse 22 is specifically forbidding ritual sexual activity meant for Molech. It’s forbidding idolotry.  (I don’t know if this is true or not, because I don’t know anything about Ancient Hebrew and I’d have to research more reliable sources, but somewhere I read that “zimah” is the Hebrew term for something that is considered wrong, in and of itself.  In the original text, the term that is used for “detestable” is not “zimah” but is “toevah”, which refers to taboo/idolotry.)
  • Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.”   Again, it seems pretty clear.   But just a few verses before this (20:9) it states that everyone who curses their mother or father will be put to death.  So again, it’s pretty hypocritical to use this verse to condemn homosexuality in today’s world.  This verse in its original form is very similar to 18:22.  So this is likely part of the purity code that the Israelites held to in order to differentiate themselves from the Canaanites. Jesus put an end to all of the purity laws, so both verses in Leviticus shouldn’t matter to fundamentalist Christians, anyway.
  • Romans 1:26-27:   This is the verse that gets thumped the most and it’s the trickiest:  “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.”  This is written by Paul.  Remember at the beginning of this post, I mentioned that it had become popular for masters to sleep with their adolescent male slaves, whether the slaves concurred or not?  Yet throughout his letters, Paul frequently tells slaves to obey their masters but never qualifies it by saying, “except when they want to penetrate you”.  And as was mentioned at the beginning of this post, in ancient Rome, what was considered natural in terms of sexual intercourse had very little to do with gender and far more to do with roles, age, and status.  It was unnatural for a master to be penetrated by a slave, but natural for the slave to be penetrated by the master.  So maybe that’s why Paul doesn’t add any qualifiers when he tells slaves to obey their masters.  If the verses in Leviticus do refer to ritual sexual activity (which was still quite common during Paul’s time), then I wonder if that might be what Paul is referring to here, as well?  Or, maybe he’s referring to specific kinds of sexual acts that were considered unnatural at the time?  There were major philosophical debates between what differentiates carnal sex and erotic/spiritual sex in Ancient Greece and these were not gender specific discussions.  Sex based on lust is a very different thing than sex shared by two people who love and cherish one another.  So maybe he is referring to ritual orgies.  Or maybe he is talking about exactly what it is we think he is talking about, but his point isn’t that these people should be singled out, but rather forgiven.  I mean look at all of the verses in that first chapter of Romans.  He’s pretty much condemning everyone to sin.  In 2:1, he then writes, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”  So whatever it is Paul means in Romans 1:26-27, it sure doesn’t seem that he is giving fundamentalists the right to judge homosexuals, does it?  Then later, in 3:21, he writes ” But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”  What is this, if not Paul’s way of reminding us that Jesus has put an end to the purity code?  This is the verse people quote the most as proof that the Bible condemns homosexuality.  But what Romans seems to be saying is that God condemns those who judge others!  Jesus said this too, didn’t he?  “Judge not lest ye be judged?”  And one final point – what human beings consider natural is confined to space/time.  It changes within various cultures and generations.  So even if Paul is condemning homosexuality (which I’m not convinced he is – I think it’s very likely that he’s condemning ritualized sex performed for the favors of Pagan gods), that doesn’t meant he would condemn it if he lived in our day and age.
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:  “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Again, written by Paul.  And since Ancient Greece did not have a term for “homosexual”, clearly, this NIV translation is somewhat faulty. The KJV reads, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”   Issues with what is effiminate would not necessarily be about homosexual behavior.  In the times of Paul, it was not considered effiminate to penetrate another male, but it was considered effimate to be penetrated. Roman males did not want to be effiminate because it was viewed as lacking verility or being “soft”.  So what acts are being discussed?   “Abusers of themselves with mankind” is translated from arsenokoitai.  But the meaning of this term has been lost so the best interpreters can do is guess and they guess different things.  Scholars have looked at other writings about homosexuality during Paul’s time and this term never comes up.  Many have concluded it means is one male raping another male, and that it probably has to do with child molestation.  I mentioned earlier that the Greeks engaged in pederasty but still viewed pedophilia as pathological, carnal behavior. If Paul had wanted to refer to homosexuality as practiced in his day, he would likely have used the term paiderasste.  But he doesn’t.  So again, fundamentalists have no right to use this passage against homosexuals because nobody really knows that it actually IS about homosexuals.
  • 1 Timothy 1:9-10:  “We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”  This is the NIV translation, but in other translations, homosexuals is substituted for perverts.  Again the problem is that the term “arsenokoitai” is used.  And this probably refers to forced entry, not consensual sex.  What interests me is that the NIV is one of the more conservative translations, yet it does not use the term, “homosexuals”.
  • Jude 1:7:  “In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.”  Again – we encounter translation issues.  This is the NIV, but here is the King James Version:  “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”   There is an ancient Jewish legend that some of the women of Sodom engaged in sexual relations with angels. If that’s the case, then this passage is about bestiality, not homosexuality.   The term “sodomize” came about because of a faulty translation of the story of Sodom and Gemorrah in Genesis 19 (see above).  So we automatically assume homosexuality in this verse, but that’s based on a modern bias.

Paul’s Radical Views

My husband and I have been attending a Methodist Church and gave Adult Sunday School a try.  It was actually quite interesting.  The class has been going through a series with Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.  Today the lecture was given by John Dominic Crossan on Paul’s view of women.

Remember this from Galatians 3:28?

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free man, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ.

I don’t profess to know what Paul meant by this, but Crossan makes an interesting point that Paul had totally radical ideas about slaves and women. For instance, Paul was very clear in the first chapter of Philemon that once an individual becomes a Christian, in good conscience, he must free his slaves.  Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had run away to Paul and Paul sent him back to Philemon.  Paul writes to Philemon…

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. 15Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good— 16no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

Crossan says this is proof that all of the other passages condoning slavery were not written by Paul, like these statements in Ephesians and 1 Timothy, both of which are attributed to Paul by some scholars…

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear.  Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5) Christians who are slaves should give their masters full respect so that the name of God and his teaching will not be shamed.  If your master is a Christian, that is no excuse for being disrespectful.  You should work all the harder because you are helping another believer by your efforts.  Teach these truths, Timothy, and encourage everyone to obey them. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)

So what’s going on?

The same, exact contradiction occurs with women.  Paul sent his letter to the Romans by way of a female.  Phoebe is a deacon/minister – diakanos.  (Paul uses the term, diakanos, 34 times.  But the only time it is interpreted as “servant” is when it is used with a female.).  He had to entrust her to not only deliver the letter, but to be able to read it to the various congregations and also to be able to explain it to them.  In Romans 16: 1-16, he heaps praise on several females and goes so far as to say Adronicus and Junia are outstanding among the apostles and were in Christ before Paul.  So what happens to Junia in the interpretations?  She becomes Junianus in the middle ages – which is to say – she becomes a he. Crossan says the early Christian Church didn’t have a problem with female leadership but as the Church increasingly adopted the Roman hierarchical structure, women were denigrated so passages were re-interpreted and rewritten and sometimes scribes added their own views.

Why, for instance, would Paul entrust Phoebe with his letter to the Romans, but then in 1 Corinthians write:

As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. 35If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.

It really doesn’t make any sense.

Personally, I don’t know what happened back then and I’m not sure any historian can say with any certainty that he/she does, either.  We don’t have the actual texts to know for sure.  We have copies of ancient texts that were copied by scribes, who translated the texts according to their own interpretations.

Obviously, I find Biblical history fascinating.  But I’m not as interested in it now as I once was.  I think why I found it so interesting, previously, was that I needed to unlearn all of the crazy things I had been taught. I don’t know that Crossan’s interpretations are the “right” ones.  But I think what they help to show is that the Bible is not infallible. Until about 10 years ago, I felt the need to prove that something was “right” or “ethical”, etc. because it says so in the Bible.  It took a very, very, VERY long time to get over that need, however.  Like most of us, I was taught to trust in authority rather than myself.  I am slowly, but surely, learning to trust my own inner wisdom.  But I’m not completely confident about this yet so I sometimes get defensive. I’m getting much better, though!

Anyway, don’t think I’ll go back to this Sunday School class even though it is very interesting. Studying Biblical history just keeps me in my head and I already spend far too much time there.  Opening my mind was the first step.  Now I want to open my heart.

Jesus’ Plan for a New World, The Sermon on the Mount

Paraphrasing and directly quoting Richard Rohr…

…….There is no way to peace.  Peace is the way. There is no path toward love except by practicing love. War will always produce more war. Violence can never bring about true peace.

Much of the content of the Sermon on the Mount has to do with this agreement between means and ends. (It is one of the most ignored aspects of Jesus’ teaching, and I am convinced it explains the attraction of many former Christians to Buddhism and nonviolent teaching. They had to leave home to find out what was hidden in their own closets.)

Furthermore, Jesus has a different understanding of personal freedom, too. Freedom is not the capacity to be what you are not, but the capacity to be fully who you already are, to develop your inherent self as much as God allows. The perfect and full freedom of a fig tree is to become a perfect and full fig tree. Thus Jesus curses one that does not (see Matthew 21:19).  Contrary to our Western understanding since the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, it is not freedom for a fig tree to try to bear oranges or apples, or to try to be a horse or a wastebasket. Surely there is a certain freedom from constraint here, but this is not a very helpful kind of freedom. It only frustrates and finally destroys. It obstructs the fig tree’s own fruitfulness and makes its own success impossible. It cannot work.

Many of us are like sick or dead fig trees, but with a happy face painted on our anemic apples shouting, “But I’m free!”  Our addictive society has to do what it wants to do.  The freedom offered by all great spiritual traditions is quite different; spiritual and true freedom is wanting to do what you have to do to become who you are.  For some reason, humans rebel at what feels like an outer mandate. When they listen for a while, they can often realize that it is also their deepest inner desire. All things desire to be themselves now has a different ring to it! No longer is it a scary search for private authenticity, but now a patient acceptance of truth.  Such is the difference between wisdom and mere reaction, and it takes most of us awhile to get there…….

And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, he (Jesus) went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” and the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:19 NRSV)

THREE TEMPTATIONS leading up to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 4:1-10).

The three temptations that Jesus must face are the necessary three temptations that every would-be believer, would-be evangelist, would-be Christian must face.

For me they are summarized in this way:  The first is the need to be effective or relevant, to turn stones into bread (see 4:3), the need to see the fruits of your own action and to meet people’s needs.  Jesus has to give up that need.

The second is the need to be right: to “stand on the parapet of the Temple” (see 4:5).  It’s the need to use God, to stand on religion for your own purposes. Jesus even has to give up that assurance of being right, an ego need. It is very symbolic that it is the devil who made him stand on the Temple. It’s also the only time when the devil quotes Scripture in the entire Bible. Matthew is showing that you can use religion for diabolical purposes. Religion is both good and subject to misuse. Jesus’ response is, in effect, “Don’t play games with God” (see 4:7).

The third temptation is the need for power or control, symbolized by the devil showing Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour” (4:8b). Jesus is aware that power has many forms and many disguises in all of us. The devil names the common price for power: “…Fall at my feet and do me homage” (4:10).  Jesus rejects him with finality.  “Then the devil left him…” (4:11). Once you refuse to seek power in any form, there is not much that Satan can do to you.

These three demons are in all of our lives: the need to be effective, the need to be right and the need to be powerful or in control. Until those demons have been faced and exorcised you will very likely not preach the gospel: you will preach your own self.

It’s only after Jesus exorcises these three demons that he sets out on his public ministry.

As he was walking by the Lake of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon, who was called Peter, and his brother Andrew; they were making a cast into the lake with their net, for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of people.” And at once they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-20)

Did it happen exactly like that? The point is that Jesus gave people major vision and challenge. He thus always appeals to risk-takers. Somehow this man did fascinate people and with some ease they left and followed him. But I find the next paragraph more confounding.

Going on from there he saw another pair of brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John; they were in their boat with their father Zebedee, mending their net, and he called them.  (Matthew 4:21)

Observe two things; First, they’re with their father. There the patriarchal family – James’s and John’s loyalties are clearly to Zebedee. Second, they are working. Those are the two sacred cows of kinship culture; family and occupation. You don’t call those into question. Yet Jesus does!” “And at once, leaving the boat and their father, they followed him” (Matthew 4:22)

Family and jobs are not bad things.  But falling into easy patterns can keep us from asking new questions about life…..

Jesus tells his followers to leave their families of origin because the families we grow up in keep most people from asking bigger questions. Conventional family wisdom tells you to be a nice kid in your hometown and to do what nice kids in your hometown do.  For this reason, most religious founders tell you to leave your family. Call it necessary detachment, to break away, to get a bigger worldview instead of just filling Mama’s and Daddy’s dreams for you. Does this mean you have to leave geographically? Not necessarily (although sometimes it can help). But eventually you must leave them spiritually, psychologically; you must look at their values critically and form your own, not necessarily opposed to theirs, but not theirs just because they are your parents’ values…….

Like it or not, Jesus in the Gospels says very little that’s highly positive about the small family (See Matthew 10:37-39 or 12:46-50).  Jesus broadens our vision.  Ironically, the neo-conservative movements today often hide behind the word family. Yet “family values” is sometimes a cover for a very self-protective and narrow agenda.  This is true in Europe, in Latin America and here in the United States. For some reason, a positive buzzword is usually sufficient to cover up another agenda.

Jesus requires his first disciples to call into question even their families and “family values.” In our own time, we’ve discovered that call in a new way. Many people have recognized that if you don’t break from a dysfunctional family, you become a part of the sickness yourself. The Twelve-Step movement has taught us to recognize what is sick about our families and what is good about them. For some, that means separating from the family, then freely entering back into them when there’s the possibility of love and forgiveness. Leaving our “father and our nets” may also involve questioning our career choices, our family prejudices, and our class perspective.

Matthew 10:37-39: Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lost it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 12:46-50: While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus’ replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”  And pointing to his disciples, he said, “here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Doubting Thomas

My brother in-law is in Chennai, India right now. Chennai used to be known as Madras. The name Madras may have come from an Islamic term – madrasah – which is the Arabic term for any type of school, religious or secular. It may also have been named after a prominent family because the term madra can also mean succeeding in years. India has such an incredibly rich history! Who knows? Wherever the name actually came from, it was thought to be a Portuguese name so was renamed Chennai, a Tamil term, in 1996.

Chennai was established by the British 350 years ago and they brought with them Christian Churches and Christian legends. There is no factual evidence for any of these legends, but they are certainly plausible!

According to my brother in-law, legend has it that St. Thomas (Doubting Thomas – who has gotten an unfair wrap like Judas), travelled to Chennai, India and died there. A Catholic Church is built upon his ruins. There was a tomb excavated in the 1980s in Israel that claims to hold his remains, too, so who knows? (The Discovery channel had a show about this last year: The Lost Tom of Jesus.) When I read about Thomas dying in India, I had to find out more!

There is definitely a long held tradition that he traveled to India to spread the gospel. People have long speculated that Jesus traveled to India and met the Buddha, too. (Some claim he may have even been the Buddha.) There were trade routes between the Middle East and India so it’s not really a far-fetched notion that Jesus or Thomas would have visited India. If Thomas was actually in India, that gives more credence to the idea that Buddhism and Christianity aren’t that different from one another. Especially if you cast aside the Greek rationalism that crept into Christianity through Paul and then was enthusiastically adopted by Roman Catholicism in the middle ages. Greek rationalism continues to be the basis for modern Christianity but it was not the basis of the original Jesus movement. Hebrew is a very different baby than is Greek. The marriage between Hebrew Individualism and Abstract Greek thought has produced some troubled off-spring.

It is more very likely, however, that Thomas was buried in Israel, but there is no factual evidence either way. We don’t even have any factual evidence that Jesus actually existed. People weren’t worried about factual evidence back then like we are now. Story, metaphor and life were important. Now it’s facts, rules and rationalism. We don’t like mystery – we want to KNOW without a doubt and we don’t like being questioned so we claim the questions represent a lack of faith because it challenges our so-called “knowing”.

Thomas seriously got the raw end of the deal in terms of how he has been handed down to modern Christianity. He is presented as sinful for questioning. But this is unfair. Thomas may have been a bit skeptical, but he wasn’t closed-minded. Maybe not even as closed-minded as some of the other disciples. For instance, when Lazarus was dying, all the other disciples tried to dissuade Jesus from going to him because he might get stoned, Thomas encouraged Jesus to go and said the other disciples should go, too: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16). So – maybe, on the one hand, that’s likewise a lack of faith. He thought Jesus would get stoned. But he was willing to get stoned with him! 

Doubting Thomas got the “doubting” part of his name because he refused to believe that Jesus had been resurrected until Jesus showed his wounds to him. It’s significant that Jesus obliged him in this. He didn’t say, “screw you”. He showed him his wounds and allowed Thomas to touch them.

Perhaps this is meant as metaphor? It would be one thing if Thomas only looked at the wound. But he touched them. Metaphorically speaking, he experienced Jesus’ wounds. It wasn’t mere observation. This actual experience is much deeper than a belief based upon observation (or upon so-called textual/factual “evidence”). It wasn’t the observable facts Thomas was after. He was after the experience. HUGE difference! He wasn’t after factual evidence. He was after experiential evidence. In the Gospel of Judas, he’s known as Thomas the Believer, not Doubting Thomas.

I read the Gospel of Thomas many moons ago. It is considered to be a Coptic version (Egyptian) and is comprised of 114 sayings that are attributed to Jesus.

Is it significant that Thomas’s text is Egyptian? What does that say about the Israeli and Indian claims to Thomas’s remains? Maybe his remains are in Egypt! Who knows?

Many scholars think this Gospel upholds the idea that Thomas traveled to India because the sayings of Jesus (which may have influenced other Gospel sayings) reflect Indian wisdom. It could have been exposure to Eastern mysticism that influenced Thomas’s gospel. (It could have been exposure to Eastern mysticism that influenced Jesus’ teachings, too.)

Thomas’s gospel is somewhat troubling for traditional Christianity. It claims that Jesus was married, for instance. But according to a scholarly priest at the Catholic Church we went to in Dallas, it would have been very weird for Jesus not to have been married. He would have been asking for trouble by not marrying. This particular Catholic priest had been granted access to some of the gospels that were discovered in the Middle East that have since been locked up by the Muslims. He thinks that once these texts are released, Christians are going to have to question a lot of long held beliefs.

We have a difficult time realizing that people in Jesus’ times didn’t care one about facts in the same way we do. They told stories that pointed to the truth but weren’t necessarily factually correct. Factual authenticity (journalism) is a modern phenomenon. It came about with the beginnings of fundamentalism which isn’t particularly surprising since fundamentalism is based upon factual belief in a modern technology – the written word.

So anyway – that church may very well be buried on St. Thomas’s bones. It would be very interesting to know what the practitioners at the church think of The Gospel of Thomas!