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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.

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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.


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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.

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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’ – “”

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What are you doing for Lent?

That’s the question I’ve been asked by two friends of mine (one Catholic, one Episcopal). It’s a stumper, it’s like being asked what I’m going to do for Boxing day, or if I have gotten my Columbus day cards in the mail yet.

So I guess I’m doing my “usual” for lent, that is, nothing at all…

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Compassion fatigue (crossposted with Yemen Blog)

I caught a bit of an interview on NPR today. Terri Gross was interviewing a former Episcopal minister (also a woman) and the ex-minister was talking about how she noticed “compassion fatigue” when she got out of the ministering business. It was a huge load off of her, and she didn’t even realize that she had it!

I identified with that. Not so much with compassion, but with some other things while I was in Yemen. It occurs to me that while I was there, I was always trying to be the model American and the model Christian. For many of the locals, I was the only one of either that they had ever met, and I might be the only one they ever meet. I was always conscious of having to set an example. I felt that if I did something to upset them or offend them they would most likely generalize that experience to include all Americans and Christians.

After a while, it became routine for me, but it was always there. When I got back, I knew I had to recuperate, but I couldn’t really put my finger on what I was recuperating from. I think a big part of it was getting used to not sticking out anymore. I’m just another guy here, I’m not the Christian, the American, I’m just another person… The anonymity is really nice, all the pressure is gone. I don’t think I realized what kind of strain that put on me until I got used to the idea that I wouldn’t have to be an example any more. It was a huge weight off of me, and I feel much better because of it.

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I brought “The Logic of Political Survival” along with me to the beach house. I haven’t touched it though. Instead, I have been listening to “Orthodoxy” by Chesterton. It was one of two books that I downloaded from emusic when they started their audiobook service. The other one was “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”

In any case, I hadn’t listened to either of them yet. Mom offered me the use of her iPod (I should get one of those at some point) and I’ve been listening ever since. I had been expecting something about Eastern Orthodoxy, but it is simply Christian apologetics. He does a good job, good enough that I’m still listening to it. It’s been a long time since I have delved into any philosophy, so it is a bit hard to get through at times. It does help to be familiar with Plato, William James, and several other, mostly materialistic philosophers for the first part of the book to make any sense.

So far, there are two things that have stood out to me. The first is how he made clear the difference between things that must be true vs. things that happen to be true. The essence of that distinction is that in one case, we cannot imagine it being any different and the other we can. For example, 2 plus 3 is 5. There is no imaginable alternative to that outcome (assuming base 10). If I say that she is my mother, it always means I am her son. Contrast that with the idea that grass is green. It’s easy to imagine an alternative to that. How about the idea that if you snip an apple off of a tree, it will fall. Maybe, if it were on a satellite, it would just hang there…

The other, less pedantic, idea that really resonates with me is how Christianity is built upon paradoxes. This is in fact a strength, not a weakness. I’m in the middle of his explanation, so I’ll report back if it is explainable in a way that I can handle.

This is slow going stuff, even for me. I usually will listen for 20 minutes or so and then switch over to music while my head explodes. Of course then Cara (one of my nieces… step nieces?) wants me to read a book to her. I can do it, but going from religious philosophy to talking about colors under the sea gives me extreme intellectual whiplash. We’ll see what I get out of the first run through of this…

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I’m surprised

I was doing a little reading about the differences between the Orthodox churches and the Catholic ones here and I found something that really surprised me. They do not believe in the concept of original sin! They believe that all things are born innocent and without sin. That has some bearing on how they view Mary, but I think that it’s a bit of a minor thing (as a non-Catholic).

I have to say, I think that it’s rather refreshing to hear that there are Christians that believe that we are born without sin. Are there any other churches that believe that? The article also does a good job in communicating the different “feel” to the theologies. I’m not sure which one I find more compelling, but it’s nice to see it explained so well. I wish the Orthodox were better known here in the states, I think that it’s a church worth looking into.

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The Bible

One the things I enjoy when I come back to Gloucester is talking with one of my friends. G. is a super good guy and is the one that turned me onto the advantages of considering oneself a Christian. He’s a very genuine guy and we can stay up to all hours talking religious stuff. I feel a little bad in thinking this, but I also like the fact that he goes a little further into the deep end with the stuff than I do. I don’t feel quite as crazy…

Anyway, he does make me think quite a bit, and that’s a good thing. The only trouble I have is that he’s one of those people that believes that the Bible really is the “Word of God.” I have some issues with that (read about them here if you’re interested) perspective. The Bible was constructed folks, it was put together by men. Men wrote it, men put it together, and it was men that said that it is word of God. The Bible never says that it is the definitive anything, let alone the word. How could it? The Bible didn’t exist until well after all of those books were written. I’m not saying that the Bible isn’t worth reading or that you can’t learn a great deal from it, but I am saying that we don’t know who wrote those books or how “accurate” they are. I’m not even going to get into the various issues with translations…

If you’re really interested in what the Bible means, you should go and talk to the organizations that put it together. The church that put that together already had its beliefs hammered out for the most part, and the Bible they constructed reflects those beliefs. The Orthodox and Catholic churches now argue over which one is more authentic, but either of them will give you a much more fleshed out, more nuanced view of what the Bible means than any protestant church or Bible study ever will.

The difficulty is that the people that believe in sola scriptura (like my friend) are constitutionally unable to go to the churches that could help them the most. There is a totally unreasonable hatred of anything Catholic in protestant circles. The Orthodox is mostly unknown here, especially in the south, but a casual protestant observer would be forgiven for mistaking them for Catholics.

I can understand not liking the Catholic church, but why deny the history? Why try and reinvent the wheel? If you believe the Orthodox churches, they’ve been at this for 2000 years. What are the odds that someone in a mega church is really going to add a lot to what has already been gone over before? Or for that matter, why do people think that they can take on a book like the Bible on their own and understand it better than a church that had a hand in making it?