Culture and the Bible

“It rains on the just and the unjust alike. What do you think that means?”

“Oh, teacher! It means good things happen to both good and bad people.”

 

That was an exchange I had with my class in Yemen. The saying is from the Bible (I can’t remember where in there) and my first reaction to the student was that they had it completely backwards. WIth just a second’s worth of thought though, I realized that their view of what rain means is probably a lot closer to the Bible’s than my Euro-centric vision. Rain is a good thing when you live in a parched place. While we usually associate rain with melancholy, cancelled picnics, and general ickiness, they rightfully see it as a life giving gift.

It made me wonder what else we have been getting precisely wrong out of the Bible because of the culture we are in now. Some things that seem obvious to us might have had a very different meaning back then. We need to remember who was being taught to. I don’t have any hard evidence, but it certainly seems like Yemen is much closer in climate and culture to 30 AD than we are in the US. With that cultural filter put into place, let’s take a look at two different well known teachings from the New Testament.

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

This is usually seen as a straightforward appeal to pacifism by Jesus. If a guy hits you, you shouldn’t resist, right? Well, it could be a little different… The translation of that passage is pretty consistent, with most translators using slap, some use smite. The really interesting thing is that they all say “cheek.” None of them say, “If someone gives you a black eye, don’t hit him back,” or even “If someone slugs you in a bar…” No, it says if someone slaps your cheek, you should offer the other one to be slapped as well. What’s the significance of a slap on the cheek?

Even in western culture, a slap across the cheek is the universal symbol of disrespect. There is no damage involved, there are far more violent things you can do than slap someone. What a slap offers that a punch doesn’t is shame. I was warned by some of the expat “old timers” in Yemen to never slap a guy. If I got into a fight, well, that can happen. But if you slap him, he will be forced to defend his honor and that will have much worse endings than a brawl.

With that in mind, that passage may not have much to do with pacifism but with keeping your cool and not escalating things. Don’t let concepts of “honor” drive you to committing a worse sin than the guy that hit you did. Modern day Yemen, and I’m sure all of Semitic culture going waaaaaaay back has many problems with honor related violence. I’m pretty convinced this passage is addressing that instead of being a blanket exhortation of pacifism.

 

Homosexuality isn’t actually mentioned all that much in the Bible. Lots of conservatives will point to the Old Testament’s “sodomites” as a counter example but word is a really dodgy interpretation. The King James version sounds weighty, but most Bible scholars lament its awful translation. A more accurate translation is “temple prostitute.” It certainly makes more sense when read that way.

Jesus didn’t actually say anything at all about homosexuality. I think that’s significant as I put the most weight on what “The Man” says more than anyone else. But others disagree. Paul was pretty straightforward in his commendation of homosexuality though, and that’s where a lot of nontrivial discussion about it in Christian circles comes from.

My personal opinion is that a lot of Paul’s writing sounds like Paul spouting off. He certainly doesn’t sound like Jesus, and he wasn’t around for any of Jesus’s teachings. But let’s ignore that for the time being… It shouldn’t be a surprise, but there is actually a fair amount of confusion about the translation of the word Paul used that most conservatives assume is homosexual. It could mean a variety of other things instead. But let’s ignore that too and concentrate on the audience that Paul was preaching to.

One of the worst kept secrets in the middle east is how much guy on guy sex there is. To our eyes, it is clearly homosexual sex, but they have a little different view of it in Yemen. Keep in mind that guys never see any women over there that aren’t their mother or sister until they get married. Starting in puberty, guys are only with other guys. Hormones being what they are, things go on. From a western perspective, they are all engaging in homosexual acts. Over there, people tend to mostly ignore younger guys fooling around with each other. It’s a little more tricky when they are older. Yemen, like most Arab countries doesn’t consider the one “giving” to be engaging in a homosexual act. It’s my understanding that if you’re married and doing this, it’s a much more serious problem…

My point is this, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that the same behavior was going on back then. Taken in that context, I think it very likely that Paul would be addressing the guys screwing around because they are horny. That’s a far cry from people wanting to marry each other.

Maybe I’m full of it, but I really do believe that a lot of the stuff we supposedly learned from stories in the Bible have been twisted around completely. That is a translation issue, but we need to understand how big a role culture plays in understanding what is said. Somehow we need to put ourselves into the hot, arid, conservative culture of 30 AD. Yemen is about as close as we’ll get today.

Jesus and Taxes

I’m getting sick of the recent meme going around asking the rhetorical question, “Surely Jesus commanded us to help the poor. What kind of Christian nation is this really if we don’t do that?” It’s considered a “gotcha” when critiquing the tea party stance on paying taxes. Surely good Christians (and the Tea Party and Republicans in general are overwhelmingly Christian) shouldn’t object to helping the poor. In fact, their resistance to paying taxes proves that they really don’t give a shit about the poor. Using Christian’s duty to help the poor is trying to be used to paint the entire tax resistance movement as heartless hypocrites that are only interested in their own money and inexplicably invested in rich people keeping all of theirs too.

 

The first thing that comes to my mind is how odd it is that every left leaning person automatically equates taxes with charity. They act as if paying taxes is the same thing as donating to the Red Cross. Never mind that a considerable portion of those taxes go towards wars and other things that the left is supposedly against. Incredible incarceration rates of blacks? Done by the government. Deporting Mexican workers? That’s the government. The ongoing futile war on people getting high and relieving their pain? Guess who? The biggest outrages committed against poor people, minorities, and people spread across the world are funded by your tax dollars either directly or through proxies.  Never mind all of the bailouts and handouts to corporations and other types of legal graft that our taxes contribute to. Nope, it’s all about charity! What would Jesus think of that?

 

I can’t speak for all Christians, but here’s this Christian’s view on Jesus and taxes. Yes, Jesus did tell us to take care of the poor, the weak, and the imprisoned. Funnily enough he didn’t mention that the government was the only way to do that. Taxes? He did say something about taxes… I’m going to paraphrase here, but He said something along the lines of, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s.” The bottom line? When you pay taxes, you are paying for Caesar’s ambition, Caesar’s wars, Caesar’s folly. If Caesar helps the poor, that’s a bonus, but remember, you are supporting not only Constantine, but Caligula. You have to pay taxes regardless of who is in power, but we are always capable of helping the poor on our own.

 

The limits of Logic and world views

I know that I think differently than a lot of people do when it comes to things like economics, politics, and religion. What strikes me is the reactions I get from people. There is a common belief that if someone has deduced things logically, they must be right, and therefore I must be wrong. They confuse making sense for reality.

Imagine if told someone that parallel* lines can intersect and in some cases must intersect. If that person were in an argumentative mood, they might point out that the very definition of parallel lines forbids them from crossing. If this were a political, economic, or a religious point, more times than not I would be dismissed as an idiot. I’ve gotten that reaction fairly frequently. What I almost never get asked is why I might think that way. It turns out there’s a whole bunch of other types of geometries out there, as soon as you put lines on curved surfaces, basic rules of geometry get changed.

The point is that both I and my mysterious debater can logically defend why my view is right or wrong. The efficacy of logic is limited by the initial conditions or beliefs you start with. If you think you live in a Euclidian world and I think I live in an elliptic world, we are never going to come to any agreement or understanding if we rely on logic to stake out our claims.The same thing goes for any other world view you can think of. Once you believe you know the basic underpinning of your world, everything else follows logically.

Most people do what “males sense” to them based on their beliefs. If you try to point out that any given view they have is incorrect or, too often these days, tell them that they are stupid, you won’t get anywhere because they are a long ways down the causality chain. If you want to convince them to change their mind about something, you need to go to much deeper. When I talk to people about religion, economics, and even politics, I am usually pointing out that we don’t live in a Euclidian world despite appearances and how much sense it seems to make. It takes time, but ultimately you have to convince people you live in a better world than they do if you want them to come around to your way of thinking. It may not be a great way of scoring quick points, but it does give them some things to think about. That can lead to real conversations as opposed to slogans and name calling.

Of course, it’s a lot easier to not do any of this. Gotta keep telling myself that it’s worth doing. I think it pays off long term, if only for my mental health…

 

* I am using Euclid’s definition of parallel. Loosely, that is that if there is a line and a point off that line, there is only one line that can be drawn through that point that does not intersect that line. That’s Euclid’s 5th postulate, we call it parallelism. In elliptic space, there can be no parallel lines as Euclid postulated.

Ramadan TMI… almost

I went over to my favorite Pakistani place for lunch today. I wasn’t even sure they’d be open since Ramadan had started. For those of you not in the know, Ramadan is a month long holiday that involves fasting during the day. They were open, too many white folks to feed apparently…

 

Anyway, I was talking to the waitress and mentioned that I almost felt bad eating in front of them (although clearly not bad enough to not eat). When she asked why, I said because of Ramadan. She waved away my worry and said, “I’m not fasting right now either.” I started, thinking that she had just told me she was menstruating. It’s not the kind of thing you expect to hear from your waitress… You see, menstruating women, the sick, children, and (everyone’s favorite modern day loophole) travelers are exempt from fasting.

She continued on and explained that she is working three jobs and simply can’t keep up with the fasting. Luckily, I don’t think she caught on that I know enough about Ramadan for her to be embarrassed. Yay for narrowly avoided awkward religious moments!

Son of Sam and redemption

A friend of mine posted this article on her facebook profile with the comment “Sad proof that people will look anywhere for answers to life’s questions…” The article is a NYT piece about David Berkowitz, a.k.a the Son of sam, and his transformation over the years from a crazed serial killer to someone that is almost completely different.

I’m not sure what Jen’s issue was with the article, but I found it quite compelling. He found Jesus a while back and has since tried to reach out and share some of what he has found. He is also trying to act as a cautionary tale to younger folks. There are some skeptics out there, the article got some statements from some of the folks that tracked him down and helped prosecute him. They are having a hard time believing that someone that was like that could be anything else. In Berkowitz’s defense, he has written to the governor and expressed his opinion that he should never get parole and he doesn’t make any money from his appearances or writings. He also spends his days as a mobility guide and as an assistant to mentally ill prisoners. It certainly looks like he’s on the up and up. If he’s not, he has managed to fool a lot of people without any obvious gain for himself.

I find this story interesting on several levels. First off, this is a perfect example of why capital punishment just is not a good thing. Even serial killers are redeemable. Those of you that say, “Sure, he’s a nice guy now, but he should PAY for what he did!” I hope you can hear the vengeance speaking. Does killing him make up for 7 lives? Does it change anything? No and no. Locking him up, protecting everyone else from him was the right thing to do. In the meantime he has changed considerably.

The idea of redemption is a tough one for both atheists and Christians. On the one hand, many people that don’t believe in God do believe in people’s ability to change and get better… unless of course the guy is a monster, then he should probably die. Similarly, Christians hold life sacred, unless of course you do something really bad, then “God’s laws” say that you should die. It is people like David Berkowitz that really show us where we stand when it comes to the value of a human life. I have a binary view on that, in my mind you either value life, or don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I would be sorely tempted to kneecap Stalin or Pol Pot but I like to think that I would manage to not kill them if I had the chance.

 

I am heartened to see evangelicals paying attention to Berkowitz, there are too many of them that scream “An eye for an eye” instead of “Turn the other cheek.”  I’m going to do another post on the religious aspects of this but suffice it to say that I think this is the kind of effect Christianity should have on people. Some may sneer at his evangelical beliefs, I myself refer to that type of Christianity as “comic book religion” in my less charitable moments. But as my friend Dana pointed out, “Anything that makes someone not a serial killer is a good thing.” Simplistic or not, Berkowitz’s beliefs have changed him, and they have the potential to change others. Does that forgive him for what he did? Well, no. Forgiveness can’t be earned, it can only be asked for. I will leave it up to you as to whether he should be forgiven, I am happy to see him asking at all.

Image Makeover From Admirers of ‘Son of Sam’ – NYTimes.com: “”

Is God one thing, 3 things, 99 things, or what?

Sometimes I think that if more Christians and muslims got together to discuss religion, the better off we’d be. Think about this, every muslim I have ever talked to is unable to comprehend the trinity. They have been taught from a very early age that the trinity is equivalent to three distinct gods. Many muslims have told me that God can only be one thing, not three. I’ve always found this silly, after all God can be whatever He wants to be. If He chooses to present Himself in three ways, what’s to stop Him? What I also found interesting was that even though they were adamant in their view of God being one thing only, they regularly think of Him in many different ways.

Curiously enough, many Christians do claim that God is only one thing. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “God is love.” For the record, I think that anytime someone says that God is “x,” you can follow it up with “Yes, but…” Anyway, whereas many Christians say that they have a single, tripartite God that is one thing (love), muslims have a single, monotonic god that is at least 99 things!

In Islamic tradition, there are 99 names of God. Yes, “the Lover” is included in there along with “the Majestic,” “the Vast,” “the Truth,” and more. Interestingly enough, there are also names like “the Avenger,” “the Destroyer,” and “the Bringer of Death.” I really do think that muslims have a broader view of God than most Christians do. They have both the nice and frightening aspects of Him in mind.

In the Christian world, there is a split. Typically, the evangelicals and more conservative Protestant groups concentrate in the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation. This shows God as wrathful, jealous, judgmental, and lots of other scary things. On the other hand, the more moderate and liberal churches tend to concentrate on the Gospels only. That shows God as a forgiving, loving one. I find it rare to meet a Christian that can keep both views in mind at the same time.

That’s really just a long winded way of saying that people are funny when it comes to how they think about God. We swear that He is one thing, and then proceed to break HIm into three or think about Him in 99 ways. In truth, there are an endless number of attributes to God. It would be nice if we could all talk together and appreciate how the other “side” thinks.

Language in worship, who needs it?

I have been going to a book church book club (despite not belonging to that church) and we got onto an interesting topic. One of the ladies there mentioned that she was looking for a church but every time she went to one she became uncomfortable with what was being said. I feel exactly the same way about being in a church, so I don’t go. Unlike her, I don’t feel any particular urge to be with other people for stuff like that.

But what do you do if you are drawn to that but keep getting put off by what is said? I suppose you could keep looking, but there is no perfect fit for someone like that unless she started her own church. I had what I thought was a pretty stupid idea at first, but I’ve warmed up to it now.

I enjoy some operas. The music is powerful, the singing is amazing, and a story os told by the music and the actions on stage even when I don’t understand the words. I absolutely hate musical theatre like your typical broadway show. What’s the difference? I can understand the words in the broadway show and they drive me nuts. They are emotionally overwrought, sappy, and just plain stupid. It turns out the same thing is true in opera if you translate the lyrics. So if I knew German, Italian, or French well enough to follow the operas, I’d probably hate them too.

My point is that sometimes some vagueness around the edges will enhance the experience. If you feel a presence in a church because of the architecture, the actions of the parishioners, the music, the decorations, etc. but are put off by the idiot up in the pulpit, perhaps opera is the answer. I suggested that she go to a service in a different language, one in which she will understand very little. Let the spirit of the occasion sink in without the details and see what happens.

Surprisingly enough, she said that her most powerful spiritual experience occurred in a situation when she was chanting with other people in a language she didn’t understand. So now maybe she’ll go to a Greek Orthodox service or something. Maybe the Catholics had something with the Latin mass after all…

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Funny, but not 100% correct… (Daily Show)

Here’s the Daily show’s take on the Mumbai mess (at the end, don’t know why there’s so much space…)I think that’s hilarious, I really do. John basically summed up my feelings when I was watching that on the news, I was yelling along too. There’s only one little problem, this violence was not about establishing a world wide caliphate. This was about Kashmir.

Usually, when something big like this happens, there are political motives rather than religious ones at play. The Kashmir issue is a political one although the parties involved are split along religious lines. The same could be true of the day to day demands and goals of Al-Queda. They want foreigners to leave the Saudi peninsula, they want the US to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Those are all political issues. They use religion to attract and recruit people for political ends. We shouldn’t fall into the same trap.

There is indeed religious violence in the world. Men killing woman because they aren’t wearing hijab, wackos blowing up abortion clinics, etc. are all examples. Perhaps the attackers in Mumbai were indeed personally motivated by religious extremism, but the aim of the operation was to try to cause a conflict in Kashmir.

Here’s my bet. I bet that if these people were referred to as Kashmiri separatists instead of Islamic extremists, we in the US would not have heard nearly as much about it. We’re more willing to stomach political violence than religious violence. That’s why Hitler is so universally reviled while Stalin, Pol Pot, Kim Jong-il and Mao are not thought about in the slightest.

Whenever we hear the media trumpet religious violence, we should take a step back and ask ourselves if the aim of that violence is actually political in nature. Violence should always be decried of course, but let’s blame the right problems, shall we?

Fear and fundementalism

I’ve been going to a book club the past 3 weeks or so. It’s held at an Episcopal church and not surprisingly, the books revolve around religion. Right now, we’re doing a book about the Gospel of Mary (Magdalan). The stuff about the book is interesting but often times the tangents are more interesting.

I had an interesting discussion after the meeting the other night and one of the ladies brought up something that rang true to me. I can’t remember the exact way this was put (Mary, please correct me if I’ve butchered this) but the general idea is that all fundamentalism seems to be driven by fear.

The fear could be of any number of things. They could be afraid of being wrong, of other people thinking they’re wrong, of the influence of people outside the group, or maybe even schisms inside the group. The one thing they never seem to be afraid of is the one thing they should be. They don’t seem to be afraid of God. They don’t have any problem with judging and carrying out what they think of as God’s will. They feel the need to point out the errors of others if not carry out justice in the here and now. They seem to also fear anyone “getting away” with something. It’s as if they don’t trust God. They want justice NOW! Why wait? What if the offending party doesn’t end up in hell?

The lack of trust can also manifest itself in inflexability. God must be a certain way, things must be a certain way, and they will yell until things get that way… All of the religious people I’ve met that I respect seem to be comfortable with a certain level of uncertainty. There is an understanding that things will work out, that things are going the way they should be. Or as Mary pointed out the other night, they trust God.

So think about those things the next time you hear someone on a religious rant. I hope it isn’t me… 🙂