The future looks bright Language can help to shape the way we think about the world. Richard Dawkins welcomes an attempt to raise consciousness about atheism by co-opting a word with cheerful associations Saturday June 21, 2003The Guardian http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,981412,00.html
I once read a science-fiction story in which astronauts voyaging to a distant star were waxing homesick: "Just to think that it's springtime back on Earth!" You may not immediately see what's wrong with that, so ingrained is our unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism. "Unconscious" is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in.
I suspect it is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the south pole on top. Now, wouldn't that be an excellent thing to pin to our class- room walls? What a splendid consciousness-raiser. Day after day, the children would be reminded that north has no monopoly on up. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents.
The feminists taught us about consciousness-raising. I used to laugh at "him or her", and at "chairperson", and I still try to avoid them on aesthetic grounds. But I recognise the power and importance of consciousness-raising. I now flinch at "one man one vote". My consciousness has been raised. Probably yours has too, and it matters.
I used to deplore what I regarded as the tokenism of my American atheist friends. They were obsessed with removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance (it was inserted as late as 1954), whereas I cared more about the chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag in the first place. They would cross out "In God we Trust" on every dollar bill that passed through their hands (again, it was inserted only in 1956), whereas I worried more about the tax-free dollars amassed by bouffant-haired televangelists, fleecing gullible old ladies of their life savings. My friends would risk neighbourhood ostracism to protest at the unconstitutionality of Ten Commandments posters on classroom walls. "But it's only words," I would expostulate. "Why get so worked up about mere words, when there's so much else to object to?" Now I'm having second thoughts. Words are not trivial. They matter because they raise consciousness.
My favourite consciousness-raising effort is one I have mentioned many times before (and I make no apology, for consciousness-raising is all about repetition). A phrase like "Catholic child" or "Muslim child" should clang furious bells of protest in the mind, just as we flinch when we hear "one man one vote". Children are too young to know their religious opinions. Just as you can't vote until you are 18, you should be free to choose your own cosmology and ethics without society's impertinent presumption that you will automatically inherit your parents'. We'd be aghast to be told of a Leninist child or a neo-conservative child or a Hayekian monetarist child. So isn't it a kind of child abuse to speak of a Catholic child or a Protestant child? Especially in Northern Ireland and Glasgow where such labels, handed down over generations, have divided neighbourhoods for centuries and can even amount to a death warrant?
Catholic child? Flinch. Protestant child? Squirm. Muslim child? Shudder. Everybody's consciousness should be raised to this level. Occasionally a euphemism is needed, and I suggest "Child of Jewish (etc) parents". When you come down to it, that's all we are really talking about anyway. Just as the upside-down (northern hemisphere chauvinism again: flinch!) map from New Zealand raises consciousness about a geographical truth, children should hear themselves described not as "Christian children" but as "children of Christian parents". This in itself would raise their consciousness, empower them to make up their own minds and choose which religion, if any, they favour, rather than just assume that religion means "same beliefs as parents". I could well imagine that this linguistically coded freedom to choose might lead children to choose no religion at all.
Please go out and work at raising people's consciousness over the words they use to describe children. At a dinner party, say, if ever you hear a person speak of a school for Islamic children, or Catholic children (you can read such phrases daily in newspapers), pounce: "How dare you? You would never speak of a Tory child or a New Labour child, so how could you describe a child as Catholic (Islamic, Protestant etc)?" With luck, everybody at the dinner party, next time they hear one of those offensive phrases, will flinch, or at least notice and the meme will spread.
A triumph of consciousness-raising has been the homosexual hijacking of the word "gay". I used to mourn the loss of gay in (what I still think of as) its true sense. But on the bright side (wait for it) gay has inspired a new imitator, which is the climax of this article. Gay is succinct, uplifting, positive: an "up" word, where homosexual is a down word, and queer, faggot and pooftah are insults. Those of us who subscribe to no religion; those of us whose view of the universe is natural rather than supernatural; those of us who rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal, we need a word of our own, a word like "gay". You can say "I am an atheist" but at best it sounds stuffy (like "I am a homosexual") and at worst it inflames prejudice (like "I am a homosexual").
Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell, of Sacramento, California, have set out to coin a new word, a new "gay". Like gay, it should be a noun hijacked from an adjective, with its original meaning changed but not too much. Like gay, it should be catchy: a potentially prolific meme. Like gay, it should be positive, warm, cheerful, bright.
Bright? Yes, bright. Bright is the word, the new noun. I am a bright. You are a bright. She is a bright. We are the brights. Isn't it about time you came out as a bright? Is he a bright? I can't imagine falling for a woman who was not a bright. The website http://www.celeb-atheists.com/ suggests numerous intellectuals and other famous people are brights. Brights constitute 60% of American scientists, and a stunning 93% of those scientists good enough to be elected to the elite National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to Fellows of the Royal Society) are brights. Look on the bright side: though at present they can't admit it and get elected, the US Congress must be full of closet brights. As with gays, the more brights come out, the easier it will be for yet more brights to do so. People reluctant to use the word atheist might be happy to come out as a bright.
Geisert and Futrell are very insistent that their word is a noun and must not be an adjective. "I am bright" sounds arrogant. "I am a bright" sounds too unfamiliar to be arrogant: it is puzzling, enigmatic, tantalising. It invites the question, "What on earth is a bright?" And then you're away: "A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view."
"You mean a bright is an atheist?"
"Well, some brights are happy to call themselves atheists. Some brights call themselves agnostics. Some call themselves humanists, some free thinkers. But all brights have a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism."
"Oh, I get it. It's a bit like 'gay'. So, what's the opposite of a bright? What would you call a religious person?"
"What would you suggest?"
Of course, even though we brights will scrupulously insist that our word is a noun, if it catches on it is likely to follow gay and eventually re-emerge as a new adjective. And when that happens, who knows, we may finally get a bright president.
· You can sign on as a bright at http://www.the-brights.net/. Richard Dawkins FRS is Charles Simonyi professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University. His latest book is A Devil's Chaplain.
Two "Brights" Side by Side:
an open letter by Good to Dennett, and Dennett's rejoinder
With permission of the authors
Dear Dr. Dennett:
Thank you for your op-ed piece in The New York Times. I am delighted to discover that atheists and agnostics have organized and chosen a name ("brights"). We need you. By "we" I refer to all of us who call ourselves people of faith even though we are chagrined by the popularity of a form of religion that is divisive, dogmatic, and anti-intellectual. We know that society is not well served when people like them monopolize the public forum. So, to your major idea--that society should respect non-believers and make room for you in public debates--I say "amen" (you will have to forgive my language).
Nonetheless, some particulars in your essay I found troublesome. I hope I do not add to your sense of isolation when I raise a few points. My first concern has to do with that difficult word, "god."
I think of myself as religious, but, according to you, I may, in addition, call myself a "bright". Brights, as you describe them, do not believe in "ghosts, elves or the Easter Bunny--or God." There could exist no question that I am with you in three out of four of those. Perhaps in the matter of god, also, depending, of course, on what you mean by "god." You never define that important term. But as I read your essay I feel you must be talking about that Great Policeman in the Sky who is checking to see who is behaving well enough to deserve eternal life. Or maybe you have in mind what a former parishioner of mine refers to as the "Cosmic Bell-hop," whose primary reason for being is to run errands for me. If this is the meaning of "god," then I am a bright. One hundred percent. Four out of four.
You indicate that you suspect that some of the nation's clergy are closet brights. That is a bright conclusion. Let me introduce myself. I am a clergyman who may qualify as a bright, but not as a closet bright. You see, I have never tried to hide the fact that I do not believe in the kind of god I just described. I have so many doubts about dogmatic belief systems that I often say to my friends that I am an agnostic on alternate days of the week. I shared all that with my congregations. They seemed delighted.
But let's get back to you. You, wisely, have rejected the popular version of the divine. However, I do not know how you react to Paul Tillich's concept of a deity who is not a separate being, but is The Ground of All Being. Or to Alfred North Whitehead's process theology, which focuses on a God who is enmeshed in the fabric of an interconnected reality and who evolves as the universe evolves. And there is Charles Hartshorne's "panentheism" (not to be confused with "pantheism"), the idea that God both permeates and transcends all reality. You probably dismiss those ideas also. But surely you cannot dismiss these profound concepts with the flippant ease that is evidenced in your essay.
The point is that theological thought is in ferment today. Many religious folk defer to no one in having what you refer to as "an inquisitive world view." We would enjoy having you join us in a spiritual adventure--an exploration of Ultimate Mystery. No advance commitments are required.
I take special umbrage at your implication that brights have a superior ethic, that you are "the moral back bone of America," because you "don't trust God to save humanity from its follies." I do not mean to be unkind, but those comments make me wonder what planet you have lived on during the past several decades. Even the religious right--who make the afterlife a central focus of their teachings--are not waiting for the divine to make things right here on earth. They are in there slugging, a fact that I admire even when I disagree with their every stand.
Those of us who see religion as a this-world, liberating force have also been active. In late winter a group of us who saw the invasion of Iraq as a horrible moral error stood with our lighted candles in public places around the city of Roanoke (VA) in hope that others who shared our concern would know they were not alone. We were a small group: Quakers, Church of the Brethren, Unitarian/Universalists, a scattering of Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Catholics. No atheists chose to join us. Surely you have heard of the oppressive regimes overthrown during our lifetime under non-violent, religious leadership: Bishop Sin in the Phillipines, Bishop Tutu in South Africa, the Pope in eastern Europe. I am confident you know of the religious motivation of Mohandas Ghandi. And where were those who are the "moral backbone of America" when Martin Luther King, Jr. was fighting off attack dogs and looking into water cannon? The graves of civil rights martyrs are filled with those who identified themselves in religious terms.
None of this is to imply that you have an inferior ethic. The atheists and agnostics I have known have possessed a consistent, deep moral sensibility. I am confident I speak for religious activists everywhere when I invite you to join us in the public arena, and especially in those public settings where taking a moral stand involves risks to life and limb. We weary of taking these stands alone.
There is one other nit I want to pick. For God's sake (there goes the language problem again), choose another name. Yes, you told your readers not to confuse the adjective with the noun, that calling yourselves "brights" was not a proud boast. But my mind does not make such distinctions easily. As long as I have spoken English, "bright" has meant--well, "bright." The opposite of "bright" is not "religious." The opposite of "bright" is "dull." Which means that a number of people who have shared my lifetime, Reinhold Niebuhr, John Updike, Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Rooselvelt, Mother Therea, Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few, must be placed on the dull side of the ledger. Which doesn't compute. Nonetheless, this is the arrogant message that you communicate through your name. I truly want you to succeed; I say this for your benefit. Your arguments against "self-righteously preening" politicians loses much of its punch when you call yourselves the "brights" and when you claim a superior status as the moral backbone of the nation.
My last request is a personal one. After you have changed your name and taken some of the egotistic air out of your public pronouncements, send me a membership form. Let me know the entrance fee for someone who wants to belong on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Jack Good, Pastor (Retired)The United Church of Christ
Dear Dr. Good,
Thanks for your thoughtful response to my op/ed piece in the New York Times. You are apparently a bright, whether you like the term or not. Many don’t, and they share your reasons. (There is no entrance fee, of course, and I suspect that on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends your convictions would still qualify you as a bright, since we brights harbor doubts all the time, and are constantly reconsidering our convictions. Welcome to the club.) The main thing, as you yourself make clear, is that you are a naturalist. You and I do not believe in ghosts or angels, or in an anthropomorphic God–your aptly named “Cosmic Bell-hop.” In short, you and I don’t believe in miracles in the literal sense–suspensions of physical law–not the everyday sense of washday miracles and miraculous comebacks in football games, which are quite common occurrences, of course.
You wonder what I make of the refinements of the concept of God by the theologians you cite: Tillich’s Ground of All Being or Whitehead’s process theology, for instance. When I studied these authors and others like them many years ago, I came to the conclusion that they were both ingenious and sincere, brilliantly trying to salvage as much as possible from the wreckage of the old ideas, rather like the desperate propounders of Ptolemaic epicycles in response to Copernicus and Kepler, but unlike those theorists playing intellectual tennis without a net, making up the rules as they went along. I didn’t think they served any useful purpose aside from providing mental exercise for the small cadre of academics who like that sort of thing. (I am not really into atonal music either, but I’m glad it exists and may those who love it flourish.)
More recently, however, in the wake of 9/11, I reflected that it was really a pity that–so far as I have been able to discover–Islam hasn’t had a similar tradition of theologians negotiating a graceful retreat, providing safe and respectable resting places for those who need a presentable alternative to the literal creeds they were taught as children. Theology to the rescue? Maybe, but I also have my doubts about the effectiveness of such sophisticated theorizing. A few pages of Tillich or Hartshorne and I find my eyes glazing over. If even a professional philosopher like me tends to grow impatient with the mountain of subtleties one has to climb to convince oneself that one has understood these theologies–let alone been persuaded by them–I doubt if they are anything more than a sort of reassuring elevator-music-made-of-words to those religious folk who don’t actually despise them as high-falutin’ “intellectual” attempts to obfuscate the Revealed Truth of whatever text they hold holy.
My considered view, then, of liberal theologians and their efforts to redefine God in ways that make God compatible with naturalism parallels my view of the late Stephen Jay Gould’s similar effort, coming from the other side, to blur the hard edges of science, to downplay the conflict between science and religion. It was a nice try, and well-meant, but it couldn’t work. Gould’s persistent misrepresentations of evolutionary biology were motivated, I believe, by a sincere desire for peace between science and religion, and he went a long way to confirming my view in one of his last books, Rock of Ages–a book that failed to persuade either scientists or religious folk. But perhaps what can’t work in science, with its ceaseless and aggressive demand for verification and its intolerance of misrepresentation, might work in religion. The consensual acceptance–indeed celebration–of the convenient veils of mystery may permit religion to paper over the cracks until they are forgotten–or just cease to be of interest to the next generation. History does not invite optimism on this score, but I don’t rule it out. Yet.
I take your point about religious folk having been a powerful moral force, and I honor all your examples, but you go overboard. Where were the atheists when Martin Luther King confronted the attack dogs? Marching beside him, in many cases. The graves of civil rights martyrs include many an atheist, I am sure, but even more surely, those who put them in their graves were self-proclaimed Christian Soldiers. (Almost all, wouldn’t you agree? Or were there atheist chapters of the Ku Klux Klan that have gone unreported?)
Many brights are observant members of churches precisely because they appreciate the impressive power of religious organizations to generate teamwork for moral causes. (As one correspondent of mine observed recently, trying to organize atheists would be like trying to herd cats.) When there’s a great evil confronting a people, joining forces with the most vigorous religious group in the neighborhood can often appear to be the most effective plan, but it is a dangerous policy. Two clear examples: it took the intense loyalty and dedication of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s followers to overthrow the Shah of Iran, and it took the self-discipline of the Taliban to confront the warlords in Afghanistan. As the Sorcerer’s Apprentice learned, you better make sure you know how to turn off the troops before you turn them on. Until someone figures out how to do this, I will continue to welcome the moral phalanxes of religious folk when they come down on the side I believe to be right, but I will also continue to thank heavens (if I may put it that way) for the brights whose entirely secular investigations of the issues help me to figure out where goodness lies on each issue. Religious thinkers and actors do not hold a pre-eminent position when it comes to deciding what we as a nation should do: they may be the moral arms and legs of the nation, but the backbone is still secular, thank goodness.
Finally, a point about the word “bright”. It was not my choice, and I shared your misgivings at first, but the term is growing on me. I, like E. O. Wilson, am a wholehearted believer in the Enlightenment, a movement that had its excesses, but gave birth to many great things, including, pre-eminently, American democracy. I prefer bright to enlightened, which smacks of revelation, a phenomenon we brights are more than a little skeptical about. The opposite of gay isn’t glum; it’s straight–a nice enough epithet, unlike, say, crooked. The opposite of bright isn’t dull (or cloudy); it hasn’t been coined yet, and could be, if you like, great or splendid. Let those who are not brights hijack the word of their choice and see if it will play. I’m glad we have a positive and provocative name to call ourselves. It’s a word that even churchgoers like yourself might take to. I look forward to press conferences outlining the views of Bright Catholics for Birth Control, or the Alliance of Bright Muslims and Jews for peace in Palestine.
Dr. Daniel DennettTufts University
8. Brian Flemming Brian Flemming, an award-winning playwright and former Christian fundamentalist, gained notoriety in atheist circles for his movie, "The God Who Wasn't There." The documentary, which argues that the story of Jesus is a myth, had a limited run in theaters but gained attention through grassroots promotion of the DVD. Promotion materials for the film purport that viewers will discover that "contemporary Christians are largely ignorant of the origins of their religion" and that "God simply isn't there." Flemming is currently working on a feature film with a similar theme; titled "Danielle," the movie is about a young girl who accidentally finds evidence that the biblical Jesus didn't exist.
1. Sam Harris Sam Harris catapulted to prominence with his 2004 book "The End of Faith," which won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction and spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. In the book, Harris argues that the root claims of religion can lead to terrorism and the oppression of women, and that religious tolerance itself is a problem; broad-minded people excuse fanatical behavior by invoking religion. While Harris has spoken out against religions (especially Islam), he told Beliefnet that he practices Zen meditation and sees value in mystical experiences. His new book, "Letter to a Christian Nation," will be released in September.
6. Daniel C. Dennett Joining Sam Harris on many best-seller lists this year was Daniel C. Dennett, a professor of philosophy at Tufts University who specializes in the philosophy of science and of the mind. His controversial 2006 book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" calls for a scientific investigation into the legitimacy of religious claims. Loyalty to religion, he says, often trumps what people really believe: more people believe in belief itself than believe in God. Dennett, who helped popularize the term "Bright" as a way to describe non-believers, told Beliefnet that with this book he reluctantly took on the role of "village atheist," encouraging his fellow non-believers to open up about their atheism.5. Ellen Johnson Ellen Johnson has been President of American Atheists since 1995. A self-described New Jersey "soccer mom," Johnson heads what is often described as the most militantly anti-religion and activist atheist organization in the U.S. Johnson organized the Godless Americans March on Washington in 2002, which drew 2,000 atheists to protest increasing religious rhetoric in the public sphere, and she formed the Godless Americans Political Action Committee to endorse political candidates who believe in the separation of church and state. Johnson hosts the cable access show "The Atheist Viewpoint" and is a frequent guest on nationally-televised talk shows and news programs, where she debates religious leaders and politicians about church-state issues.10. Paul Kurtz Paul Kurtz is the octogenarian founder of numerous humanist and scientific organizations, including the Council for Secular Humanism, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Free Inquiry magazine, and the Center for Inquiry International. Kurtz, who still speaks and writes widely on humanist topics, argues that secular humanism is different from atheism because of its emphasis on positive ethical values. His goal is to promote "living the good life without religion," he told Beliefnet in 2002. Kurtz also founded Prometheus Books, an independent publisher of books on humanism, science, philosophy, and through its newest imprint, science fiction.4. Reginald Finley Reginald Finley is known to his fans and others in the atheist community by the name of his popular online radio show, "The Infidel Guy." He hosts such eminent atheists and philosophers as Richard Dawkins, the Oxford evolutionary biologist, and Michael Ruse, the prominent critic of creationism. Recently, Finley spread the atheist gospel to a television audience when he and his wife, Amber, appeared on the ABC reality show, "Wife Swap," paired with a fundamentalist Christian couple. Once dubbed "America's most dangerous black atheist" by the parody website Landover Baptist Church, Finley also co-founded the Atheist Network and Freethought Media, collections of atheist-themed online radio shows and podcasts.2. Julia Sweeney Actress Julia Sweeney may still be best known for her androgynous "Saturday Night Live" character Pat, but she is building a name for herself as the country's foremost atheist entertainer. Her funny and touching one-woman show, "Letting Go of God," chronicles her life from her Catholic upbringing to her wrestling with belief and the Bible during college, during tough moments in her career, while her brother was dying of cancer, and after her own cancer diagnosis. Sweeney eventually settled on atheism and opened her show about the journey in October 2004. She has been working on a memoir, "My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story," and will release a CD version of "Letting Go of God" in September.3. Michael Newdow It has been four years since the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Michael Newdow in his suit to take "under God" out of the Pledge of Allegiance, but he remains one of the country's most outspoken atheist activists. The case made its way--unsuccessfully--to the Supreme Court and made Newdow one of the most reviled men in the U.S. (His song "My God Is in My Soul" recounts some of the many death threats he received.) Newdow, a doctor and lawyer who argued his own case before the High Court, lost on a technicality (he didn't have custody of his daughter, on whose behalf he sued), but he has since filed another suit against the Pledge, as well as one to remove "In God We Trust" from federal currency.
Religion Be Damned
Richard Dawkins defends the godless among us.
Will DVR's kill the 30-second TV spot?
Religion Be Damned
The Dark Side of the Boom
The Growth Market in Walls
Low Rates and Bankruptcy for All
[an error occurred while processing this directive]How is a meme created? You can sit back and observe the spread of a new fashion, a new slang word, a new way of walking or talking - and let a meme burst onto the scene in its own good time. An example would be the current epidemic of basically, which, as a synonym for er, has infected a ludicrously high proportion of sentences now uttered by English speakers. But the ultimate test in science is experiment: You don't just wait for something to happen and observe it, you make it happen.
I don't know whether gay - meaning homosexual - just happened, or whether it was launched. Either way, it has been a successful meme. The new definition is in the dictionary, and it is used more or less universally by heterosexuals. Did some syndicate deliberately release gay into the memosphere? Or did it spring up spontaneously, then take off as a brush fire? I don't know how, or when, gay got its start, but 2003 is seeing the deliberate launch of a new meme. It is bright, and we are at its birth. The bright meme is intentionally imitating gay's provenance in the explicit hope of copying its success.
The gay meme improved the image and, I dare add, the happiness of a once unpopular minority. Similarly, bright is intended to come to the aid of another beleaguered community in the US: those who, in the most religiose country in the Western world, have no religion, who are variously labeled atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, philosophical naturalists, secularists, or humanists. A Gallup poll in 1999 asked American voters the following question: "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be an X would you vote for that person?" X took on the following values: Catholic, Jew, Baptist, Mormon, black, homosexual, woman, atheist. Six out of the eight categories secured better than 90 percent approval. But only 59 percent would vote for a homosexual, and just 49 percent would vote for an atheist. Bear in mind that there are 29 million Americans who describe themselves as nonreligious, secular, atheist, or agnostic, outnumbering Jews tenfold and all other religions except Christianity by an even larger margin.
Emek The same questions had been asked by Gallup in 1978, and there are revealing differences. In 1978, only 26 percent of the American electorate would contemplate voting for a homosexual. Is it possible that the word gay, and the gay pride movement that came with it, has been partly responsible for the improvement to 59 percent by 1999? If so, all the more reason for the despised 29 million to seek their own "gay."
I am a bright. You are (quite probably) a bright. Most of the people I know are brights. The majority of scientists are brights. Presumably there are lots of closet brights in Congress, but they dare not come out. Notice from these examples that the word is a noun, not an adjective. We brights are not claiming to be bright (meaning clever, intelligent), any more than gays claim to be gay (meaning joyful, carefree). Whether there is a statistical tendency for brights (noun) to be bright (adjective) is a matter for research. I would dearly like to see such research undertaken, and I know the result I am betting on, but it is no part of the definition of the noun.
The noun bright was coined in March by Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell of Sacramento, California. In April, I heard them give a presentation on the new word in Florida, and they launched The-Brights.net soon after. The new meme was almost immediately given a boost by two enthusiastic articles in large-circulation newspapers. On June 21, I wrote "the future looks bright" for the Guardian, one of Britain's leading national dailies. And on July 12, the distinguished philosopher Daniel Dennett followed up with "the bright stuff" for The New York Times op-ed page.
So, the bright meme is launched. Will it spread, like gay, and basically, and the backward baseball cap? Or will it nose-dive into the sand? I'm hoping it will take off. I'm even betting that it will, despite the hostility of those who misunderstand the humble noun as an arrogant adjective, and those who, notwithstanding the success of gay, resent all such coinings out of hand. But mostly, I am simply curious, as a disinterested scientist, to see what will happen.
Richard Dawkins is a professor at Oxford University. His books include The Selfish Gene and, most recently, A Devil's Chaplain.
[Brookfiled lady w/ Photo-Resoration husband // that invited me to a dvd movie @house w New Zealand neighbors]
A Look on the Bright Side of Social and Religious Issues
by Marilyn LaCourt Featured in CNI's August 6-7 "At Ease" section
Forty years ago, it was the blacks who were coming. And then came black pride and black power. Today the derogatory names and racial slurs that were common before World War II and Martin Luther King are politically incorrect and unacceptable in mainstream, fresh-air America. Enlightened people of all colors will silence anyone who uses the old hateful and degrading labels and the name callers are the ones to lose face.
African Americans have gained respect and a voice in social, political and ethical issues and they are being taken seriously. They're mayors and senators. One day soon, we'll have an African American President.
A short couple of decades later, the gays were coming. And then came gay rights and gay pride. The battle for gay rights isn't over. But, there is progress and hope. Gays have gained respect and a voice in social, political and ethical issues. There have always been gays in public office.
However, today many of them are out of the closet and demanding respect.
What do gays and blacks have in common? Both of these minority groups have been bashed by mainstream Americans, and have sought refuge in closets. Some lighter skinned African Americans attempted to pass for whites. Some homosexuals have hidden their identity behind heterosexual marriages. Both of these minority groups have been denigrated and denied their civil rights. Both have been discouraged from taking pride in their identity. Both have understood the power of words. Both have chosen new names or labels for themselves. More power to them!
There's another category of citizens that has been the subject of denigration, disrespect and bashing. Atheist bashing is fairly common. The word atheist however is not in and of itself a negative term. However, it's used to infer something negative by those who misunderstand the word's origin, those who assume that atheist means against theism.
Look at it this way: Asymmetrical doesn't mean against symmetry; it means not symmetrical. It's a simple concept. Atheist means not theistic. There's nothing about being against theism implied in the word.
However, the atheist bashers, the ones who want to blame everything that goes wrong, from 911 to hurricanes, on atheists, choose not to use the word with an understanding of its proper syntax, even if they know about the formal properties of language. The ones who say there are no atheists in foxholes discount the authenticity of a person's belief system. They show their utter disrespect and contempt for anyone who says they do not believe in God.
When our elected officials call for public prayer they show their contempt by shunning 29 million nonreligious citizens. For this reason, Many atheists are closeted. If they want to be heard--that is, taken seriously, and respected--they feel they have to keep their identity as atheists secret, closeted.
People whose world-view is naturalistic--that is, free of supernatural or mystical elements--refer to themselves as Brights. The Brights have learned something about the power of words from African Americans and gays. In this new connotation, Bright is a noun, like the word black is a noun when used to refer to an African American, and gay is a noun when used to refer to a homosexual person. Some Brights, like some African Americans and some homosexuals, are very intelligent. Others are average, ordinary people.
Who are these Brights? They are humanists, free thinkers, agnostics, skeptics and atheists. They are barbers, teachers, waitresses, doctors, philosophers, construction workers, and scientists. They are mothers and uncles. They are your next door neighbors. They are Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians. And yes, some of them are members of your church, mosque or temple.
The only thing Brights have in common with all other Brights is that they base their ethics, morality, decisions and behaviors on a naturalistic worldview as opposed to one based on faith.
So often I hear the phrase freedom of religion. What does that mean? Does it mean we can choose any religion we want? Does it mean that in order to be considered credible citizens loyal to this great country, we must choose a religion? I don't think so. That just doesn't make sense. Freedom of religion must imply freedom from religion, or there is no real freedom regarding religion. Brights are free from religion.
What do these Brights want? They want the same thing blacks, gays, Christians, Jews, and Moslems want. They want a voice in social, political and ethical issues. They want to be heard and respected.
The Brights are coming, and they will staunchly support the separation of church and state. They will protest tax money being used to provide help of any kind with religious strings attached. They will protest tax dollars being spent to support schools that teach children to make important decisions based on faith as opposed to reason and scientific evidence.
Brights are not against religion or people who practice a religion, as long as they do not break the laws of the land.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Marilyn LaCourt is the author of two novels, The Prize and soon to be released, The Almost Brother. Her Web site is http://www.lacourt-m.com/.
The Fundamentals of Extremism: The Christian Right in America
Authors Include: Kimberly Blaker, Edwin F. Kagin, Bobbie Kirkhart, John M. Suarez, Herb Silverman, and Edward M. Buckner.Editor: Kimberly BlakerISBN: 0-9725496-1-7-9To Purchase: http://www.newbostonbooks.com/
Finally, here is a well-documented book about the dangers of Christian fundamentalism, both Protestant and Catholic. Mind control, including a strong relationship between fundamentalism and prejudice, discrimination, intolerance, and hate crimes are exposed with fact and credible evidence. Women, especially, suffer not only in fundamentalist homes, but also from the political results of fundamentalism.
John Shelby Spong, retired Bishop, Diocese of Newark, New Jersey and the national best-selling author of Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, and 14 other titles:
"Kimberly Blaker and her associates have put together a blockbuster exposé of the activities of the Religious Right. With incredible precision and cogent images, they tell their story in such a way that readers may turn quickly to their sources with confidence and security. This is no shallow treatment of an emotional subject, but a thorough analysis of a present crisis...That is no small achievement."
Richard Dawkins, Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, author of Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, The Selfish Gene, and other books:
"I have just read this brilliant book from start to finish, almost without a break, and I am stunned and horrified by what I have learned. The fundamentalist Christian Right is America’s Taliban...Not least, the book persuaded me how muddled the fundamentalists are. They think they are patriots, yet they fight the letter of the Constitution and the spirit of the Founding Fathers every step of the way. The Religious Right is, in the deepest and truest sense of the word, un-American."
Nadine Strossen, President of American Civil Liberties Union, Professor of Law, New York Law School, and author of Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex, and the Fight for Women's Rights and The Government Vs. Erotica: the Siege of Adam & Eve.
"The Fundamentals of Extremism is an especially important book for all who care about the rights and well-being of women and children. It explores religious extremists' attacks on the civil liberties of women and children, in general. It also exposes the dire effects of these attacks upon women and children within too many Christian fundamentalist homes, in particular."
John M. Swomley, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, Saint Paul School of Theology, author of Liberation Ethics, Religious Liberty and the Secular State, and other books, and president of The Churchman Co., Inc.:
“In fact, this is the most careful and devastating evaluation of the impact of fundamentalism on American society, politics and customs ever produced in the United States...
Gerald A. Larue, Emeritus Professor and Religion Adjunct Professor at University of Southern California, author of Playing God: Deciding Your Life and Death, Freethought Across the Centuries, and other titles, and Humanist Laureate serving on the Secretariat of the International Academy of Humanism:
“As Kimberly Blaker and her colleagues illustrate in this powerful exposé of the aims, purposes and programs of the Religious Right, the real threat comes from within...In other words, this book is a "must read" volume.
Back to "Books by Brights" Index
William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy
Author: Roger PetersISBN: 0-476-01587-1To Purchase: The four volume slipcase set costs NZ$195.00 plus postage and handling. It can be bought either directly (NZ customers) from the booksellers listed at http://www.quaternaryinstitute.com/ (click the publication link, then the purchase link) or through the same booksellers' website shopping carts (international customers).
The 1760 pages of William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy present comprehensive evidence and argument to show that Shakespeare had a thoroughly naturalistic world-view. Volume 1 shows how Shakespeare, around twenty years after he started writing plays, structured his Nature based philosophy into the Sonnets of 1609. Volume 2 examines each of the 154 sonnets line by line to show that the embedded Sonnet philosophy is the basis for understanding their individual contributions to the set. Volume 3 analyses a selection of Shakespeare's poems and plays to show that they can only be fully understood from the vantage of the Sonnet philosophy. Volume 4 features an in-depth study on the shared mythic logic of Marcel Duchamp and Shakespeare, and then in ten other essays examines the attempts of other thinkers/writers to understand Shakespeare.
By revealing for the first time in 400 years the brilliant and systematic Nature based philosophy published by Shakespeare in the Sonnets of 1609, the four volumes show that Shakespeare goes further than any other thinker or writer ever in articulating the natural logic of the human mind, and in particular its capacity for the highest or mythic level of expression. If Galileo demonstrated the natural logic of the planetary system, and Charles Darwin demonstrated the natural logic of organic life, Shakespeare by 1609 had written out a systematic philosophy for the full gamut of the human mind. The sophisticated thematic and numerological structure of the Sonnets enables Shakespeare to interrelate ethics ("truth") and aesthetics ("beauty") and other traditional concerns such as the logic of the body, mind, time, immortality and music with unprecedented consistency.
Visit the website http://www.quaternaryinstitute.com/ for more detailed information, and for images of the covers and selected pages of the slipcase set.
About the Author
Roger Peters is an artist and independent scholar who graduated from the Elam School of Fine Art in Auckland New Zealand in 1974. He currently lives with his wife, artist and teacher Maree Horner, in the countryside of South Taranaki New Zealand. Ten years ago he attended a reading of the complete set of Shakespeare's Sonnets and has worked full time since then preparing the findings for publication. He received a substantial grant to publish the four volume set, and has since created the company Quaternary Imprint (NZ) Ltd.
"I'll Pray for You"
Below is a sampling of possible response options sent in by Brights. Look over the listings and select your favorite(s) to use. Variations in nonverbal communication could vary the meaning considerably.
Note: The replies are only loosely categorized. A contributor's name appears if the suggested reply was a single instance. Absence of a name indicates receipt of multiple suggestions (along much the same lines).
(reception of / gratitude for kind intent)
It is a comfort that you will be thinking of me.
That’s reassuring, thanks.
Thank you for thinking of me.
Thank you, it is nice to know that.
Thank you for your good wishes.
(smiling) Please do. I'm flattered. (Marvin)
Thanks. I appreciate you are keeping me in your thoughts. (Dustin)
(return of good wishes)
I wish you the best as well.
All the best to you!
The general affection is mutual.
Sending our love and good thoughts your way.
And I also wish you well. (Linda)
I'll/we'll keep you in our thoughts and hearts. (Bill)
A gentle rebuff
("but" = evaluative judgment)
Ohhhhkayyyy (puckered lips and hesitation)
Thank you, but that won't be necessary.
Thanks, but I can handle this on my own.
Fine, but I'm not religious at all.
Very sweet of you, but not necessary. (Gerard)
Thank you, John, but you know I'm a bright. (Tony)
Thank you-but actually I'm an atheist. (Reginald)
Slightly edifying, or somewhat “corrective”
Thanks for the lovely intent!
Thank you; the human mind is a powerful tool. (Jeff)
There could be some use in thinking positively. (Lania)
…and I hope that does you some good! (John)
Sorry, I don't believe in spells. (Gregory)
...and may self-honesty be your creed. (Graham)
You know, I wish more [people] would study the work of Joseph Campbell
(perhaps best accompanied by a chuckle; listed here without attribution)
You are not praying hard enough. Pray harder because it's not working.
"Oh, please don't! If there's anyone up there, I really don't want to draw his attention!"
I wouldn't tell God what to do, if you know what's good for you....
Thanks, but I think God is busy helping sports celebrities win important games right now.
Thanks. And may Vishnu give you four thumbs up on his tenth descent!
YUCK!! Get it off me! It buuuuuurrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnssssss!!" (And then I go wash.)
Not necessary, but would you ask Him to spare 50,000 volts for Donald Trump's hair?
Some folks turn away from friendliness, even from cordiality, when acknowledging the “praying for you” message. They take the route of being testy, perhaps even brazen, in their replies, and abandon a civil demeanor. Responses such as (“And I’ll think for you,” “Please, don’t waste your time,” and “Instead of praying, why not do something useful”) are examples of ways to get across rather clearly that one places no value in the efficacy of offered prayers. However, given limited resources at Brights’ Central, such replies are not seen as helpful to the aim of the Toolbox - offering assistance to Brights who are earnestly seeking ways to interact in fruitful ways with their fellow citizens.
Comments on the "I'll Pray for You" Subject
"God Bless You"
Below is an illustrative array of potential responses sent in by Brights. Look over the listings and select your favorite(s). A few of these - if to be viewed in a constructive light - would necessitate that a smile or a laugh accompany the verbal delivery.
Note: The replies are only loosely categorized. A contributor's name appears if the suggested reply was a single instance. Absence of a name indicates that multiple suggestions (along much the same lines) were received.
(reception of /gratitude for good intent)
Thank you for your kind wishes.
I appreciate the sentiment.
Thank you for your good wishes.
Thanks for your sentiment!
I appreciate that.
(return of good wishes, with a focus on health or fortune)
Salud! (Spanish, “Your health!”)
Santé (French, "health")
Good health to you, too.
Thank you - be happy and healthy!
May Lady Luck bless you and keep you. (John)
To your health! Peace! (Ed)
May fortune favor you. (Brian)
Thank you very much. May you live a blessed life also. (Joseph)
And you are in my thoughts. (Johnnie)
A gentle rebuff
("but" = evaluative judgment?)
Thanks, but Nature already did.
Thanks, but Nature beat him to it.
Thanks, but I'm already fully blessed.
Thanks, but I'll take my chances unblessed.
Thanks, but I'm allergic to blessings.
Something of a twist
(contains hints of a naturalistic perspective)
Thank you. And may the universe be kind to you too. (Marvin)
And may nature shine on you, as well! (Tracee)
And a Bright day to you! (Joe)
And Nature bless you! (Brian)
Thank you for your tangible sentiment! (Craig)
May science illuminate you. (Shelley)
Perhaps slightly "corrective"?
Your blessing is thanks enough!
Your blessing is all I want.
Your own blessing will be fine.
Why, thank you. Of course, I'm much more appreciative of your blessing. (Richard)
My thanks for your blessing. (Michael)
I appreciate the intent!
Thanks for meaning well! (Ed)
The blessing is from the doing ( Elizabeth)
Thanks for being sorry that something got up my nose (Pamela)
Popping up from "left field"
(divergent thinking, without attribution)
May the force be with you! (from Star Wars)
May your soul remain in your body forever! [which greatly confuses people these days]
Thanks, Tiny Tim. Please pass the potatoes.
Curse you, Red Baron!
Comments on the "GBY" Subject
For years I have been replying to "God Bless You!" with a polite, yet insistent "No thank you!". I make a point of smiling as I say it, particularly if the greeter is a stranger to me, to show that I mean no offense by my unusual reply. My reply usually evokes a quizzical look from the other person.
Random Ideas Bonus Bag
After Making Your Donation...
Here’s a reply idea from Reginald. He uses it as a rejoinder to the GBY that comes from a recipient of his donation or charitable gesture.
"It's not for God, though—it’s for [charity name]"
Upon Hearing Someone Else Sneeze...
Max offers this unique alternative to the customary remarks. We found it rather captivating:
You say, "Einstein!"
He explains: For the last few years or so, my family and I say "Einstein" when any of us...or anyone...sneezes. It works well. It's quick, easy and encapsulates the essence of religion vs. science in one fell swoop.
More Reply Examples
Not all persons take kindly to a "God Bless You!" message. The verbal part of a rejoinder can range from mildly brusque to unfriendly to downright rude. We can only conjure facial expressions that accompany these examples, which show more diversity, but lesser alignment with our submission criteria. They are included, though, as illustration of the range of what we did elicit! :)
More Reply Examples
A Note on "Gesundheit"
Most people think "Gesundheit" is synonymous with "God Bless You". The confusion over the real meaning of the word Gesundheit, which means simply "health," probably dates back to the time of the Bubonic Plague, where sneezing was a symptom of the disease. Sneezing was supposedly the person's soul making a break for it! It was believed that sickness arose due to the lack of a soul. And so "soullessness" and ill-health became synonymous during the middle ages.
The above remark was one of several variants received. If you see that any correction is needed, please send authentication to firstname.lastname@example.org
58 of 64 people found the following review helpful: Comprehensive and clear; well worth reading, December 21, 1999
Cole Mitchell (Tuscaloosa, AL) - See all my reviewsDrange's _Nonbelief and Evil_, as should be obvious, sets out twoatheological arguments -- one based on evil and one based onwidespread nontheism. He directs most of his argument at "theevangelical Christian God," the conception of which is vulnerableto Scriptural arguments about divine motivation (i.e., would theChristian God really want to end evil and nonbelief? Let's check theBible and see!) Drange spends a nearly exhausting portion of the bookrefuting anticipated theodicies before spending two chapters on therecent "skeptical theist" response to such arguments (theHoward-Snyder, van Inwagen, etc. line of response). Flanking thiscentral line of argument are reflections on atheological arguments ingeneral, the cognitive status of religious claims, free will, thefine-tuning argument, and other relevant topics.One of the primaryvirtues of this book, in my opinion, is the fair-minded way in whichDrange approaches the subject. He is quick to admit ignorance ofsubjects and concede the (at least initial) plausibility of certainobjections to his arguments. So, whether or not you agree with all thearguments and sub-arguments presented, you know exactly where Drangestands and where to begin analyzing the problem.....==============
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful: Excellent contribution to atheist philosophy of religion, August 22, 1998
http://www.amazon.com/gp/pdp/profile/A16M3UILJFSYDI/ref=cm_cr_auth/002-0736029-3328066?ie=UTF8 (USA) - See all my reviews_Nonbelief and Evil_ is a fascinating, thorough, and (in my opinion) persuasive presentation of two arguments for the non-existence of God: nonbelief and evil. Drange presents his own unique formulation of the Argument from Evil, along with rebuttals to virtually every theistic defense against the argument from evil, including Alvin Plantinga's Free Will Defense, John Hick's Soul-Making Theodicy, the Unknown Purpose Defense, and much more. And the Argument from Nonbelief -- the argument that the mere existence of nonbelievers constitutes evidence for the non-existence of God -- is an original argument by Drange. I think the book will serve as a major contribution to the philosophy of religion. _Nonbelief and Evil_ also includes some interesting appendices on related issues including the argument from the Bible, the concept of an afterlife, and the fine-tuning argument. I enthusiastically endorse Drange's book.=======
4 of 13 people found the following review helpful: A sub-par atheistic reference, October 14, 2004
Francois Tremblay (Montreal, QC Canada) - See all my reviews As a strong-atheist, I was very keen to read Nonbelief & Evil. Drange's book treats, as its title says, of two important strong-atheistic arguments, the Argument from Nonbelief (which holds the existence of nonbelief as evidence that no god is there to ensure that we all believe in it) and the Argument from Evil (which uses the existence of evil as evidence of the absence of an omnibenevolent Creator). The majority of the book is dedicated, however, to proving these arguments as regards to evangelical Christianity, not theism in general, so strong-atheists may be dissapointed on the limited application of the book. In part 1 (p21-96), Drange introduces his approach. He explains why, for one thing, he uses suffering as evidence for the PoE instead of evil, the different types of PoEs,discusses divine hiddenness, and formulates his arguments. One nice feature, that is found throughout the book, is the reliance on Bible verses and Christian doctrine to support points against evangelical Christianity. Drange has obviously well-reszearched his position. The last chapter is interesting, in that he tries to refute what he calls "objections from the left", that is, noncognitivism (which he assumes is against both atheism and theism). It is nice to see him addressing that issue, but he does not seem to understand the scope of noncognitivism, especially when he concludes that the god of the Bible is sufficiently cognitive for the purposes of argumentation. In part 2 (p97-230), Drange defends the ANB and PoE to the god of evangelical Christianity against various theodicies, concentrating on the Free Will Defense and the Unknown-Purpose Defense. Since he argues from contracausal free will, materialists will probably want to skip some parts. In Part 3 (p231-295), Drange applies the arguments to the god of Orthodox Judaism, the god of Liberal Christianity, and "god in general". In this he merely rehashes his previous positions and presents virtually nothing new. To be honest, I found this book extremely dull, riddled with errors and absurdities, reflecting shoddy thinking, and rather unoriginal. Apart from presenting a novel argument (the Ignorance Argument) and making and making a rigorous case against evangelical Christianity, it seems to have little redeeming quality. The thick and interesting appendices do not redeem this total mess. Do not buy unless you are specifically interested in these two arguments as regards to evangelical Christianity.=======
3 of 28 people found the following review helpful: Based on false understanding of theology, July 13, 2004Reviewer: A readerI have looked at this book, and as a previous reviewer writes, "Drange uses Biblical support to show that god wants everyone to be saved and "come to know the truth" by the time they physically die, and yet we observe that even after 2000 years only 33% of humanity is Christian (and by the way, that number is dropping)."
However, this is not a good argument since it is not relevant to the biblical concept of God. For example, the argument would clearly leave a Calvinist COMPLETELY UNTOUCHED. In fact, if you use this argument against a relatively informed Calvinist, you might make him fall to the floor and laugh really hard, but that's about as far as you are going to get. So, nice try, but not really.============
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful: World Class Powerhouse of Atheist Argumentation, August 17, 2003Reviewer: A readerTheodore Drange's achievement in Nonbelief and Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God sets a standard that few other authorscan match. Drange is meticulous, precise, thorough and very painstaking. No one who reads this book should expect entertainment or recreational reading. Drnage is utterly serious and deeply committed to the project of constructing the most powerful arguments against the existence of God that can be conceived. He can only be compared with such atheist authors as Michael Martin, J.L. Mackie, and Kai Nielsen. He has not yet received the kind of attention that the last three have, but that may soon change. Drange does something that few other atheist philosophers do. He straightforwardly explains that no argument on this subect is possible unless one begins by stating which "God" it is that one is claiming exists or does not exist. The God of the Bible? The God of classical western philosophical theism? A sort of God-in-general? The God of evangelical Christianity?Drange makes the invlauable point that each of these alleged deities is different in important ways and, thus, different sorts of arguments and analyses must be made in the case of each one.
Drange repeatedly and exhaustively considers possible defensesagainst his arguments. He makes numerous admissions of possibly strong counterarguments from theists and he characterizes theistic ideas and arguments in a remarkably fair and objective way.
Drange has published most of his philosophical work in professional journals and on websites, including his own, which I encourage readers of this review to discover for themselves.It is a matter or mind-boggling importance that Drange is dealing with here. The world continues to be rocked by conflicts that are in some ways inseparably bound up with theistic religion. To consider that philosophical arguments that may seem dry and abstract to many could be applied, in a somewhat more popular form, to the roots of age-old, ongoing, blood-soaked human conflicts is a deeply sobering reflection. In my own experience,confronting American theists with the general premisses of Drange's argument from nonbelief produces mostly bewilderment,embarrassment, silence and (be warned!) deep hostility.
Divine Hiddeness: A list by James A. Gibson
Religious Studies Through Time: A list by ReeRee "still breathing"
A Rationalist's Required Reading List - Part 5: A list by T. Fuller Dean "Doctor Jazz" Create a Listmania! list
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Historical Jesus TheoriesThe purpose of this web page is to explain and explore some of the theories offered up by contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus and the origins of the Christian religion. Issues include the nature of the historical Jesus, the nature of the early Christian documents, and the origins of the Christian faith in a risen Jesus Christ. An attempt has been made to include historical Jesus theories across the spectrum from Marcus Borg to N.T. Wright and to describe these historical Jesus theories in an accurate and concise way.
The authors are listed in alphabetical order. For convenience, the authors are also listed by the general view that each has on the historical Jesus. Much information is lost when a person's view is reduced to a slogan, and even scholars placed under the same rubric have different views on Jesus. The information on this web page is no substitute for reading what these writers have to say. The recent publications of each writer on the historical Jesus are indicated, with links to amazon.com to view reader reviews and buying information. Online articles by or about the author are also listed. The editor's favorites are shown in pictures on the right-hand side, and these titles are recommended for further reading on the historical Jesus.
Please support this web site by buying the CD with over 250 MB of information and texts!
For more information on the debate over the historical Jesus, visit the Christian Origins web site.
Jesus the Myth: Heavenly Christ
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
Jesus the Myth: Man of the Indefinite Past
G. A. Wells
Jesus the Hellenistic Hero
Jesus the Revolutionary
Jesus the Wisdom Sage
John Dominic Crossan
Stephen J. Patterson
Jesus the Man of the Spirit
Jesus the Prophet of Social Change
Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet
John P. Meier
E. P. Sanders
Jesus the Savior
Luke Timothy Johnson
Robert H. Stein
N. T. Wright
The Meaning of Jesus : Two Visions (Harper San Francisco 2000)
Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (Trinity Pr Intl 1998)
The Lost Gospel Q : The Original Sayings of Jesus (Ulysses Pr 1996)
Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (Harper San Francisco 1995)
Jesus in Contemporary Scholarship (Trinity Pr Intl 1994)
Jesus : A New Vision (Harper San Francisco 1991) A Portrait of Jesus (online) -->
A Renaissance in Jesus Studies (online)
David Friedrich Strauss: Miracle and Myth (online)
The Historical Jesus and Christian Preaching (online)
Borg makes two negative claims about the historical Jesus: he was nonmessianic, which means that he didn't claim to be the Messiah or have a message focused on his own identity, and he was noneschatological, which means that he did not expect "the supernatural coming of the Kingdom of God as a world-ending event in his own generation" (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, p. 29). Borg summarizes his view of the historical Jesus in these words: "he was a spirit person, subversive sage, social prophet, and movement founder who invited his followers and hearers into a transforming relationship with the same Spirit that he himself knew, and into a community whose social vision was shaped by the core value of compassion" (op. cit., p. 119). By "spirit person," Borg means that Jesus was a "mediator of the sacred" for whom the Spirit or God was a reality that was experienced. Based on his experience of the sacred, for the historical Jesus compassion "was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God" (op. cit., p. 46). Jesus spoke against the purity system in sayings like "blessed are the pure in heart" and in parables like that of the Good Samaritan. The historical Jesus challenged the purity boundaries in touching lepers as well as hemorrhaging women, in driving the money changers out of the temple, and in table fellowship even with outcasts. Jesus replaced an emphasis on purity with an emphasis on compassion. The historical Jesus spoke an alternative wisdom in aphorisms and parables that controverted the conventional wisdom based upon rewards and punishments. The earliest Christology of the Christian movement viewed Jesus as the voice of the Sophia. The images of Jesus as the Son of God and the Wisdom of God are metaphorical, just as much as the images of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the Word of God.
John Dominic Crossan
Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (Harper San Francisco 2001)
The Birth of Christianity (Harper San Francisco 1999)
The Jesus Controversy : Perspectives in Conflict (Trinity Pr Intl 1999)
Who Is Jesus? (Westminster John Knox 1999)
The Essential Jesus (Book Sales 1998)
Who Killed Jesus? (Harper San Francisco 1996)
Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Harper San Francisco 1995)
In Parables : The Challenge of the Historical Jesus (Polebridge Press 1994)
The Historical Jesus (Harper San Francisco 1993)
An Inventory of the Jesus Tradition by Chronological Stratification (online)
An Inventory of the Jesus Tradition by Independent Attestation (online)
Common Sayings Tradition in Gospel of Thomas and Q Gospel (online)
Seminar: HJ Materials & Methodology (online)
A Closer Look at the Mustard Seed (online)
Was Jesus Buried? (online)
Alchemy and Accuracy (online)
A Review of John Dominic Crossan's The Birth of Christianity (Harvard Theological Review 2001, reproduced online)
Danny Yee's Book Reviews: The Historical Jesus (online)
Simple Choices? A Response to John Dominic Crossan
In the work of John Dominic Crossan, there is a refreshing emphasis on methodology. To this end, Crossan has compiled a database of the attestation for the Jesus traditions by independent attestation and stratification, provided by Faith Futures Foundation in the links above. Crossan in The Historical Jesus explains that his methodology is to take what is known about the historical Jesus from the earliest, most widely attested data and set it in a socio-historical context. The bulk of the common sayings tradition shows itself to be specific to the situation that existed in the 20s of the first century in Galilee in which the agrarian peasantry were being exploited as the Romans were commercializing the area. The historical Jesus proves to be a displaced Galilean peasant artisan who had got fed up with the situation and went about preaching a radical message: an egalatarian vision of the Kingdom of God present on earth and available to all as manifested in the acts of Jesus in healing the sick and practicing an open commensality in which all were invited to share. The historical Jesus was an itinerant whose mode of teaching can be understood on analogy with the Cynic sage but who was nonetheless a Jew who believed that the kingdom was being made available by the God of Israel to his people. The revolutionary message of Jesus was seen to be subversive to the Roman vision of order and led to the fateful execution of Jesus by Pilate on a hill outside of Jerusalem.
In The Birth of Christianity, Crossan re-iterates an emphasis on methodology in laying out his presuppositions about the gospel texts as forming the basis for all of his other judgments about the historical Jesus and early Christianity. Among these are the existence of an early Cross Gospel reconstructed from the Gospel of Peter as elaborated in his tome The Cross that Spoke as well as his belief that the Gospel of John is dependent upon Mark. Crossan also explores the development of two different traditions from the historical Jesus, the Jerusalem tradition in which Jesus is believed to be the resurrected Christ, and the Q Gospel tradition in which Jesus is remembered as the founder of a way of life. For the former, Crossan reconstructs a group in the city of Jerusalem who shared everything in common and awaited the coming of Christ in power. For the latter, Crossan identifies Q, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Didache in which itinerants preach the teachings of Jesus and are supported by sometimes-critical communities. Both traditions are connected in their practice of share-meals and their origins in the historical Jesus.
Jesus the Healer : Possession, Trance, and the Origins of Christianity (Continuum Int. Publ. Group 1995)
New Testament Fundamentals (Polebridge Press 1994)
The Revolt of the Widows : The Social World of the Apocryphal Acts (Southern Illinois Univ Pr 1980)
The Gospel of Thomas and Christian Wisdom (Seabury Press 1983, reproduced online)
The Gospel of Thomas Homepage (online)
Summary of Jesus the Healer (online)
Doing away with the unproductive model of the historical Jesus as a teacher, Stevan Davies proposes that spirit possession played a crucial role in earliest Christianity. The texts themselves - Acts, John, Paul - tell us as much. Davies uses current anthropological research on spirit possession in order to shed new light on the history of early Christianity. Davies speculates that Jesus developed an alternate personality as "the spirit of God," by which he expelled demons in his healings. In this way, it is possible that much of the sayings material in John and sayings like Q's "No one knows the Father but the Son" reflect a tradition of the sayings of Jesus as possessed by the spirit of God. Davies explains the origins of Christianity in theorizing that took place concerning the disassociative experiences. For the idea that Jesus was divine, it took only a simple equation of identifying Jesus with his alter-ego as the spirit of God. In this way, Davies's theory fulfills a criterion that is overlooked in many reconstructions, that of explaining the development of Christian theology from the life of the historical Jesus. For fuller commentary, see Davies's own summary linked above.
Challenging the Verdict: A Cross-Examination of Lee Strobel's "The Case for Christ" (Age of Reason 2001)
The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity begin with a mythical Christ? (Canadian Humanist Publications 1999)
Historical Jesus or Jesus Myth? The Jesus Puzzle (online)
Earl Doherty holds that Christianity began with a mythical Christ. Earl Doherty argues that the diffuse undercurrent of religious thought called early Christianity can be shown to be a plausible descendant or cousin of Jewish mystical speculation on the scriptures (found in such writings as the Odes of Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Philo of Alexandria) and was probably well-received by those converts to early Christianity who were influenced by Platonism and Hellenistic soteriological ideas of the day. According to Doherty, religious thinking of the time saw the heavens as multi-layered and would understand the descent of a heavenly Christ to be sacrificed in the lower spheres of the heavens before being raised to the right hand of the Father. This is called the "Jerusalem Tradition," and it is exemplified by the epistles of Paul, seven of which are accepted as authentic.
As the other tributary to early Christianity, we have the "Galilean Tradition," a separate Kingdom of God preaching movement located in Syro-Palestine. According to Doherty, the earliest version of Q had no mention of any kind of founder of the Q community but rather was an anonymous wisdom collection. Doherty maintains that the final redaction of Q as well as the Gospel of Thomas derived from this original document and added the "Jesus said" references only at a subsequent stage. Doherty sees the author of the Gospel of Mark as one who had been brought up in the "Galilean Tradition" and devised a brilliant bit of religious syncretism in identifying the fictional Q founder with the exalted Pauline Christ in fashioning the passion story whole cloth. Mark's narrative (c. 85-90 CE) was the sole basis upon which the later evangelists retold the story: Matthew (c. 100 CE), Luke (c. 125 CE), and John (c. 125 CE) all depended upon Mark. The book of Acts is a catholicizing fiction of the mid second century. Although certain second century apologists continued to espouse a purely divine Christ, the Gospel myth eventually came to dominate Christian thought.
Jesus : Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (Oxford Univ Pr 1999)
The New Testament : A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford Univ Press 1999)
After the New Testament : A Reader in Early Christianity (Oxford Univ Press 1998)
The New Testament and Other Early Christian Writings : A Reader (Oxford Univ Press 1997)
The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (Oxford Univ Press 1996)
The Neglect of the Firstborn in New Testament Studies (online)
Text and Interpretation: The Exegetical Significance of the "Original" Text (online)
Text and Transmission: The Historical Significance of the "Altered" Text (online)
Bart Ehrman compares the historical Jesus to the apocalyptic prophets that have appeared throughout history proclaiming the end of the age. Ehrman argues that since John the Baptist was apocalyptic and since Paul was apocalyptic and since the Palestinian Jewish milieu was apocalyptic, it only makes sense that the historical Jesus was apocalyptic too. Ehrman argues that those documents with elements of realized eschatology - the Gospel of Luke, the Gospel of John, and the Gospel of Thomas - prove to reflect the softening of apocalyptic expectation at the end of the first century or in the early second century. Ehrman proposes that the teachings ascribed to Jesus make sense as an "interim ethic" that is intended to apply to the short period of under a generation between the time of Jesus and the end of the age. Ehrman also makes sense of the cleansing of the Temple in the context of the eschatological expectations of the historical Jesus. Ehrman believes that the model of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet is the best lens with which to understand the life of the historical Jesus and the history of the movement that continued his legacy.
James the Brother of Jesus (Penguin 1998)
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the First Christians : Essays and Translations (Element 1996)
The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (Penguin 1993)
Paul as Herodian (online)
Robert Eisenman's James The Brother Of Jesus: A Higher-Critical Evaluation (online)
In the tradition of S. G. F. Brandon and Robert Eisler, Robert Eisenman has argued that the original Jamesian Christianity consisted of Torah-observant and nationalistic Jews of insurrectionist bent. In order to reconstruct the historical James, Eisenman peers behind the texts as we have them to get to the source of things; for example, Acts and the Pseudoclementine Recognitions are maintained to be both dependent on a source, now lost, which is better preserved in the Pseudoclementines. The Gospels are seen to be pro-Gentile, pro-Roman fictions which deliberately portray Jesus as a pacifistic, spiritual Messiah. In the Gospels, the original Heirs of Jesus are played down for political reasons.
Ancient tradition has it that the first Jewish revolt was sparked by the unjust execution of James the Just. In order to disassociate James the Just from his brother Jesus, the Gospels split him into two: on the one hand, the family of Jesus including James think Jesus is mad; on the other hand, James the son of Zebedee is one of the trio of James, Peter, and John as found in the Gospels. Yet the fiction is exposed when we look at the earlier letters of Paul, in which the trio is James the brother of the Lord, Peter, and John - what an odd coincidence, which so many scholars take at face value, that one James the son of Zebedee should have died only to be conveniently replaced by another by the name of James, the brother of Jesus! Yet, Eisenman argues, the Gospels and Acts are full of this kind of misinformation designed to obscure the significance of the James faction and to domesticate Christianity for Gentile consumption.
In addition to propounding his central thesis that the original Christianity of James was a Jewish nationalist resistance movement and that Paul transformed it into a Hellenistic cult, Eisenman has an auxiliary theory that has likely drawn both impressive book sales and scholarly derision, which is his attempt to bring the Dead Sea Scrolls into the mix. Eisenman identifies James the Just with the Teacher of Righteousness and Paul with the spouter of lies, figures vaguely identified in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, in so doing, Eisenman must strenuously argue against the use of carbon-dating and paleographical methods which suggest that the documents in question were written prior to the Christian era. Fortunately, his identifications for the characters in the Dead Sea Scrolls need not be seen as essential to his thesis.
Jesus : One Hundred Years Before Christ (Overlook Press 1999)
Ellegård believes that first century Christianity developed within the Jewish matrix of the Essene Church of God: "Thanks to the 'evangelisation' carried out by the earliest apostles, Paul and his contemporaries, the communities were made to realise that the great teacher and prophet whom they took to be the founder of their Church, and who they believed had been dead for over a hundred years, had now been seen in Heaven, and should be regarded as the Messiah, their Saviour. In the Qumran texts - largely unknown to the Diaspora communities - he was never named, but referred to by the title Teacher of Righteousness. But after the apostles had been overwhelmed by the experience of seeing him in Heaven, they began to use instead, exclusively, the name Jesus, a name meaning, roughly, Salvation, and therefore very appropriate for somebody they had now come to look upon primarily as their Saviour. The designation Teacher of Righteousness disappears completely." (Jesus: One Hundred Years Before Christ, p. 120)
In addition to arguing that the earliest Christians believed their Jesus to have lived in the past (the time of the Teacher of Righteousness depicted in the Dead Sea Scrolls), Ellegård argues for a redating of several Christian documents. Ellegård argues that 1 Clement, the Pastor of Hermas, the Didache, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Revelation of John were contemporary to Paul. Ellegård argues that Ignatius (c. 110 CE) represents a halfway point between Paul and the Gospels, which were written well into the second century. Ellegård concludes that the story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by Pilate, was a fictional construction.
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews : A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (Vintage Books 2000)
From Jesus to Christ : The Origins of the New Testament Images of Jesus (Yale Univ Pr 2000)
Jesus, Purity and the Christian Study of Judaism (online)
What You See is What You Get: Context and Content in Current Research on the Historical Jesus (online)
Excerpts from Paula Fredriksen (online)
Fredriksen summarizes her position in three paragraphs (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, pp. 266-267):
The Jesus encountered in the present reconstruction is a prophet who preached the coming apocalyptic Kingdom of God. His message coheres both with that of his predecessor and mentor, John the Baptizer, and with that of the movement that sprang up in his name. This Jesus thus is not primarily a social reformer with a revolutionary message; nor is he a religious innovator radically redefining the traditional ideas and practices of his native religion. His urgent message had not the present so much as the near future in view.
Further, what distinguished Jesus' prophetic message from those of others was primarily its timetable, not its content. Like John the Baptizer, he emphasized his own authority to preach the coming Kingdom; like Theudas, the Egyptian, the signs prophets, and again like the Baptizer, he expected its arrival soon. But the vibrant conviction of his followers even decades after the Crucifixion, together with the unprecedented phenomenon of the mission to Israel and the inclusion of Gentiles, suggests that Jesus had stepped up the Kingdom's timetable from soon to now. By actually naming the day or date of the Kingdom's coming, perhaps even for that very same Passover that proved to be his last, Jesus galvanized crowds gathered in Jerusalem who were not socialized to his mission - its pacifist tenor, its emphasis on divine rather than human action - and who in praising the approaching Kingdom proclaimed him Son of David and Messiah. It was this combustible mix of factors - the excited popular acclaim, in Jerusalem at its most densely populated pilgrim festival, when Pilate was in town specifically to keep his eye on the crowd - not his teaching as such, nor his arguments with other Jews on the meaning of Sabbath, Temple, purity, or some other aspect of Torah, that led directly to Jesus' execution as King of the Jews.
Finally, a Jesus whose itinerary is sketched primarily not from the Synoptics but from John - a Jesus, that is, whose mission extended routinely not only to the Galilee but also to Judea, and specifically Jerusalem - can speak to the anomaly that has propelled this investigation, namely, that Jesus alone was killed as an insurrectionist on that Passover, but none of his disciples were. A repeated mission in Jerusalem, especially during the pilgrimage holidays when the prefect, too, of necessity, was there, explains how Caiaphas and Pilate would both already know who Jesus was and what he preached, and thus know as well that he was not in any first-order way dangerous. Just as the crowd's enthusiasm for Jesus as messiah accounts for the specific manner of his death, so Jesus' dual focus - Judea, especially Jerusalem in and around the Temple, as well as the Galilee - accounts for the high priest's and the prefect's familiarity with his mission, and thus explains why Jesus was the sole focus of their action.
Although Fredriksen does not make an argument for its authenticity, the authenticity of the saying in Mark 14:25 as defended by Lüdemann and Meier would support Fredriksen's contention that Jesus expected the end to come immediately, a contention which Fredriksen defends as the best explanation for the fact that Jesus was crucified. For, as Fredriksen argues, the point of the crucifixion as a mode of execution was the display for the crowds, and the eschatological fervor surrounding a specific prediction of immediate cataclysm would have been enough for Jesus to excite the imagination of the crowds. Fredriksen maintains that Jesus did not present himself as the Messiah but that such a claim was made for Jesus by the crowds in Jerusalem, which led to the expedient of Pilate to contain the situation by crucifixion.
Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy
The Jesus Mysteries : Was the "Original Jesus" a Pagan God (Three Rivers Pr 2001)
Jesus and the Lost Goddess : The Secret Teachings of the Original Christians (Harmony Books 2001)
CNN: Raising a holy ruckus
Freke and Gandy argue for the Jesus Mysteries Thesis: "Could Gnosticism be the original Christianity, which developed from the Pagan Mysteries with the Jesus story as a Jewish version of the perennial myth of the dying and resurrecting Mystery godman?" (The Jesus Mysteries, p. 110) Freke and Gandy explain the development of the Gospel story like so: "The Messiah was expected to be a historical, not a mythical, savior. It was inevitable, therefore, that the Jesus story would have to develop a quasi-historical setting. And so it did. What had started as a timeless myth encoding perennial teachings now appeared to be a historical account of a once-only event in time. From this point it was unavoidable that sooner or later it would be interpreted as historical fact. Once it was, a whole new type of religion came into being - a religion based on history not myth, on blind faith in supposed events rather than on a mystical understanding of mythical allegories, a religion of the Outer Mysteries without the Inner Mysteries, of form without content, of belief without Knowledge." (The Jesus Mysteries, p. 207) The authors support their thesis by drawing parallels between the Christ of the Gospels and the Osiris-Dionysus myth.
The Gospel of Jesus : According to the Jesus Seminar (Polebridge Press 1999)
The Acts of Jesus : The Search for the Authentic Deeds of Jesus (Harper San Francisco 1998)
The Five Gospels : The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (Harper San Francisco 1997)
Honest to Jesus : Jesus for a New Millennium (Harper Collins 1997)
The Jesus Seminar Description Website (online)
Premises and Rules of Evidence (online)
The Jesus Seminar: Decisions of Authenticity (online)
Robert Funk is founder of the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars whose purpose was to examine the historicity of the sayings and deeds of Jesus. The reports of their deliberations are available in The Five Gospels and in The Acts of Jesus. The premises and rules of evidence are available in the link above, and some of the deliberations in favor of authenticity are also linked above.
One claim of the Jesus Seminar is that the historical Jesus was not apocalyptic: "The views of John the Baptist and Paul are apocalyptically oriented. The early church aside from Paul shares Paul's view. The only question is whether the set of texts that represent God's rule as present were obfuscated by the pessimistic apocalyptic notions of Jesus' immediate predecessors, contemporaries, and successors. If Jesus merely adopted the popular views, how did sayings such as Luke 17:20-21 and Luke 11:20 arise? The best explanation is that they originated with Jesus, since they go against the dominant trend of the unfolding tradition. Fellows of the Jesus Seminar are convinced that the subtlety of Jesus' sense of time - the simultaneity of present and future - was almost lost on his followers, many of whom, after all, started as disciples of John the Baptist, and are represented, in the gospels, as understanding Jesus poorly." (The Five Gospels, p. 137) The Fellows also note that most of the parables do not evince an apocalyptic view of the kingdom.
Although Robert Funk does so in Honest to Jesus, the Jesus Seminar did not attempt to make a sketch of the historical Jesus on the basis of their decisions on individual sayings. Yet a distinctive portrait does emerge from the data, as indicated for example in the comments on Lk 12:22-31: "In these sayings, Jesus depicts the providence of God who cares for all creatures - birds, lilies, grass, and human beings. Fretting about food and clothing does not produce food and clothing. Serene confidence that God will provide undergirds Jesus' lifestyle as an itinerant, without home or bed, without knowing where the next meal will come from. This is the same sage who advocates giving both of one's everyday garments to someone who sues for one; who advises his followers to give to every beggar and to lend to those who cannot repay; who humorously suggests that a rich person can no more get into God's domain than a camel can squeeze through the eye of a needle; who sends his disciples out on the road without money, food, change of clothes, or bag to carry them in; who claims that God observes every sparrow and counts the hairs on every head. This bundle of sayings, all of which commanded red or pink designations by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar, indicate why they also believe the heart of this collection on anxieties originated with Jesus, although not precisely in the words preserved for us in Q. When these sayings are taken together, a portrait of the historical Jesus begins to emerge." (op. cit., p. 340)
Hearing the Whole Story : The Politics of Plot in Mark's Gospel (Westminster John Knox Pr 2001)
Whoever Hears You Hears Me : Prophets, Performance, and Tradition in Q (Trinity Press Intl 2000)
Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs : Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (Trinity Press Intl 1999)
Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee : The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Trinity Press Intl 1996)
Galilee : History, Politics, People (Trinity Press Intl 1995)
Sociology and the Jesus Movement (Continuum 1994)
The Liberation of Christmas : The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (Continuum 1993)
Jesus and the Spiral of Violence : Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Fortress Pr 1992)
Horsley describes his view of the historical Jesus in these words (Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp. 207-208):
The focal concern of the kingdom of God in Jesus' preaching and practice, however, is the liberation and welfare of the people. Jesus' understanding of the "kingdom of God" is similar in its broader perspective to the confident hopes expressed in then-contemporary Jewish apocalyptic literature. That is, he had utter confidence that God was restoring the life of the society, and that this would mean judgment for those who oppressed the people and vindication for those who faithfully adhered to God's will and responded to the kingdom. That is, God was imminently and presently effecting a historical transformation. In modern parlance that would be labeled a "revolution."
The principal thrust of Jesus' practice and preaching, however, was to manifest and mediate the presence of the kingdom of God. In the gospel traditoins of Jesus' words and deeds, we can observe the kingdom present in the experience of the people in distinctive ways. Jesus and his followers celebrated the joys of the kingdom present in festive banqueting. In the healings and forgiveness of sins and in the exorcisms, individual persons experienced the liberation from disease and oppressive forces and the new life effected by God's action. Jesus' interpretation of the exorcisms, moreover, points to the broader implications of God's present action among the people. That is, since the exorcisms are obviously being effected by God, it is clear that the rule of Satan has been broken. But that meant also that the oppressive established order maintained by the power of Satan (according to the apocalyptic dualistic view of reality that was shared by Jesus and his contemporaries) was also under judgment. The old order was in fact being replaced by a new social-political order, that is, the "kingdom of God," which Jesus was inviting the people to "enter."
Indeed, Jesus was engaged in catalyzing the renewal of the people, Israel. Far from being primarily a "teacher" of timeless truths or a preacher of cosmic catastrophe calling for authentic "decision," Jesus ministered "to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He summoned the people to recognize the presence of the kingdom and to enter the kingdom, but if they did not respond to the historical crisis, he did not hesitate to pronounce judgment. It is precisely in the pronounced woes against whole villages or against the whole (sinful) "generation" that we can discern that Jesus was not simply addressing individuals but was calling for collective, social response.
While not saying that Jesus was antifamily, Horsley says that Jesus called for "renewed local covenantal communities conceived of in nonpatriarchal familial terms" (op. cit., p. 240). Unlike Cynics, Jesus' disciples "focused their activities on the revitalization of local community life" (op. cit., p. 231). These communities were called to be egalitarian. Horsley argues that there is no evidence for a continuous "Zealot" movement founded in 6 CE but rather that the Zealots themselves emerged only in the middle of the Jewish revolt. Attempts to use Zealots as a foil for an apolitical Jesus are misguided. Horsley argues that the passages in which Jesus associates with tax collectors and sinners are apologetic inventions against the false charge that Jesus consorted with the wicked. Because all belonged to God in Jewish thought, the "render" saying of Jesus in Mark 12:17 was ostensibly noncommital while actually advocating nonpayment of tribute. Jesus called for a social revolution in which the people "the people were to enter a new spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance, even in relation to their local enemies" (op. cit., p. 325), while in anticipation of the political revolution to be effected by God.
Luke Timothy Johnson
The Writings of the New Testament : An Interpretation (Fortress Pr 1999)
The Real Jesus : The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and Truth of the Traditional Gospels (Harper San Francisco 1997)
"Whose Faith Saves?" Summary of a Lecture by Luke Timothy Johnson (online)
The New Testament and the Examined Life: Thoughts on Teaching (online)
Reshuffling the Gospels: Jesus According to Spong and Wilson (online)
Higher Critical Review. The Real Jesus. By Robert Price. (online)
Jesus at 2000: The e-mail debate (online)
Luke Timothy Johnson criticizes the Jesus Seminar and scholars such as Burton Mack for what he considers to be unchecked optimism (or pessimism, depending on your feelings about the Jesus Seminar) about what can be known about early Christianity and about the historical Jesus. Johnson calls for a more cautious approach to history that states what few facts that can be known - for example, the baptism and the crucifixion - and does not venture to speculate about what cannot be known. In place of such speculation, Johnson advocates a fideism in which we accept any additional items - for example, the resurrection - on the basis of the tradition and the authority of the church. Johnson believes that Jesus is who the New Testament and the creeds say he is: the Son of God who came to suffer willingly and die for our sins.
Jesus After 2000 Years : What He Really Said and Did (Prometheus Books 2001)
The Great Deception : And What Jesus Really Said and Did (Prometheus Books 1999)
Virgin Birth : The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus (Trinity Pr Intl 1998)
What Really Happened to Jesus : A Historical Approach to the Resurrection (Westminster John Knox Pr 1996)
Heretics: The Other Side of Early Christianity (Westminster John Knox Pr 1996)
Resurrection of Jesus : History, Experience, Theology (Fortress Pr 1995)
Gerd Lüdemann on the Secular Web (online) Craig-Lüdemann Debate: Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? (online) -->
Gerd Lüdemann's Homepage (online)
Lüdemann sets out four criteria of inauthenticity and five criteria of authenticity in The Great Deception, which is something of an abridged and popular version of his subsequent comprehensive work Jesus After 2000 Years. The first criterion of inauthenicity is that sayings presupposing Jesus as the exalted Lord are not from the earthly Jesus. The second is that actions that presuppose the violation of natural laws are unhistorical. The third states that sayings that appear to be devised to answer the problems of later communities are inauthentic. The fourth criterion of inauthenticity says that sayings or actions that presume a Gentile rather than a Jewish audience do not go back to Jesus. The first criterion of authenticity says that sayings or actions that are offensive to Christian sensibilities are not likely to be fabrications. The criterion of difference states that sayings that do not appear to reflect the ideas of post-Easter communities likely go back to the historical Jesus. The criterion of growth says that material around which additional traditions have accumulated may be old enough to go back to Jesus. The criterion of rarity indicates that sayings with few parallels in the Jewish sphere are likely to be distinctive to Jesus. The fifth criterion of authenticity, that of coherence, says that a saying or action that fits in seamlessly with other identified authentic material may also be deemed authentic. An examination of the authenticity of all the Jesus traditions with use of criteria such as these can be found in Jesus After 2000 Years.
According to Lüdemann, Jesus like many first century Palestinian Jews went to be baptized for the remission of sins and believed in the imminent end of the world preached by John the Baptist. Lüdemann says that Jesus developed the Baptist's ideas in a new direction in three ways: "first, in the long term he did not like John's fundamentally ascetic attitude. In keeping with this, secondly, he had a tremendous experience of the kingdom of God which was prefigured in meals with him to which anyone could come. And thirdly, he found his capacity to heal an overwhelming experience which he also associated with the coming of the kingdom of God." (Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 689) Lüdemann thinks that Jesus saw himself in battle against Satan in healing sickness and sin, which were inextricably linked.
Lüdemann writes (Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 690): "In its decisive phase, Jesus' life was shaped by the unshakable faith that he had to interpret God's law authoritatively in God's name. Broadly speaking, his interpretation was to be perceived as an accentuation of the will of God. Thus he forbade divorce with an appeal to God's good creation, by which in marriage man and woman irrevocably have become one flesh (Mark 10.8). He focussed the commandment to love on the demand to love one's enemy (Luke 6.27). He forbade judging (Matt. 7.1) and swearing (Matt. 5.34). Now and then he reduced the law in sweeping manner and by so doing in fact made the food laws irrelevant (Mark 7.15); he focussed the sabbath on human well-being (Mark 2.27). But anything that - in modern terms - looked like autonomy was grounded in theonomy. Jesus could ordain this free and at the same time radical interpretation of the law only because he had received the authority to do so from God, who he addressed lovingly, as Paul did later, as Abba (a term denoting deep intimacy and affection). At this point Jesus and his heavenly Father were almost one, and that must have been most offensive to his Jewish hearers."
Against those who would make a strict dichotomy between the timeless wisdom and eschatological expectation in the words of Jesus, Lüdemann insists that wisdom and apocalyptic exist side by side in the thought of Jesus as it does in the thought of Paul. That Jesus expected an imminent end is indicated, for example, by Mark 14:25, which Lüdemann deems authentic, saying "Only Jesus' expectation of the future kingdom of God stands at the centre, and not Jesus was redeemer, judge, or intercessor" (The Great Deception, p. 77). On Luke 11:20, Lüdemann writes: "The flight of the demons is a sign that the power of the evil one has been overcome, even if a final destruction of the evil powers will only take place in the final judgment, which is imminent" (The Great Deception, p. 83).
Lüdemann comments on passages such as Thomas 98, Luke 16:1-7, Matthew 13:44, Luke 12:39, and Luke 18:2-5 as being stories of immoral heroes: "However, Jesus did not just make immoral heroes the main characters in his parables. In a way his own life was that of an immoral hero. Occasionally he deliberately transgressed the sabbath commandment (cf. Mark 2.27). He taught those who should have taught him. He called on the people to love those whom they really should have hated. In public he was regarded as a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, as a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7.34). The life of Jesus was not that of a hero who went his way to victory without hindrance; his life was not the kind that had a happy ending. Jesus' condemnation, his death on the cross and the immediate failure of his activity formally made him the opposite of a hero. Putting all existing values in question and thus turning them upside down, he became an extremely immoral anti-hero." (The Great Deception, pp. 96-97)
Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (Free Press 1992)
Paul and Hellenism (Trinity Press International 1991)
The Mythmaker : Paul and the Invention of Christianity (Harper San Francisco 1987)
Hyam Maccoby writes (8/5/01): "I write on Christian origins from the standpoint of a scholar of the ancient Jewish writings, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Midrashim. My view on Christian origins is that Jesus was a Jewish messiah-figure who had no intention of starting a new religion. The real founder of Christianity as a separate religion was Paul. Jesus died on a Roman cross because he was considered a threat to the Roman occupation of Judaea, not because he was regarded as heretical or blasphemous by the Jewish religious authorities, the Pharisees. His Jewish opponent was the High Priest, who was a Roman appointee, who acted for political, not religious motives, in arresting Jesus. Jesus was not a military figure, but, like Theudas, and some other contemporary messiah-figures, relied on the hope of divine intervention, which he thought would take place on the Mount of Olives." Maccoby has a book to be published in 2002 titled The Pharisee Jesus from SCM Press.
Christian Myth : Origins, Logic, and Legacy (Continuum Pub Group 2001)
Who Wrote the New Testament? : The Making of the Christian Myth (Harper San Francisco 1996)
The Lost Gospel : The Book of Q & Christian Origins (Harper San Francisco 1994).
A Myth of Innocence : Mark and Christian Origins (1988).
Following up on earlier suggestions, such as by Koester and Robinson in Trajectories through Early Christianity, Mack identifies numerous social groups lurking behind the scenes of early Christianity. Quoting from The Lost Gospel, p. 214: "The Q people were not the only group that formed within the Jesus movement. To take five additional groups as an example of the experimental nature of the Jesus movement, there is some evidence for (1) a group of Jesus people distinguished by its allegiance to Jesus' family, (2) Jewish followers who took up residence in Jerusalem for a time, (3) the people who designed sets of (five) miracle stories as their myth of origin, (4) the Jesus movement in which Mark was at home and in which the pronouncement story genre was highly developed, and (5) the tradition within which Luke was at home, a tradition with a sketchy history but one in which a distinctively human view of Jesus prevailed." Famously, Mack reconstructs the social history of the early Q people on analogy with the Cynics, libertines with a fondness for paradox and humor who traveled lightly and used their sharp words to controvert social conventions. Although Mack is hesitant to make pronouncements of knowledge concerning the historical Jesus, there is the distinct possibility that these early Cynic-like Jesus people were following the practice of their founder. Mack is among those who stratify Q, and the apocalyptic polemics characteristic of Q2 are thought to reflect anger and disappointment over the failure of their Jewish brethren to repent and live in the kingdom of God.
Mack views these Jesus movements as the earliest expressions of incipient Christianity. In a particular group of Jesus people in northern Syria, the kerygma of Christ developed. In the mix of Hellenistic Jews and converted Gentiles, these congregations began to view Jesus as an innocent who had died "for us," for the congregations of Christians, in line with Greek traditions of the noble death. This martyrology, in which Jesus died for the kingdom of the God of Israel, allowed the first Christians to think of themselves as belonging the new configuration of "Israel," the people of God, justified in the inclusion of gentiles. The same first Christians developed the notion "that God raised Jesus from the dead as a vindication for his faithfulness to the cause for which he had died" (p. 218). Then came the idea that "Jesus was recognized by God as the rightful heir to his kingdom," as the "son of God whom God designated as a king." Jesus became the Christ, the lord of God's people, the Christians. "With such a dramatic mythology focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, the congregations of the Christ no longer needed to cultivate the memories of Jesus as a teacher." (p. 219) Mack continues, "The evidence from Paul's letters is that the congregations of the Christ were attractive associates and that their emerging mythology was found to be exciting. A spirited cult formed on the model of the mystery religions, complete with entrance baptisms, rites of recognition (the holy kiss), ritualized meals (the lord's supper), the notion of the spiritual presence of the lord, and the creation of liturgical materials such as acclamations, doxologies, confessions of faith, and Christ hymns." (pp. 219-220)
Thus, out of the soil of the Jesus movements, an entirely different movement sprouted up in the congregations of the Christ. According to Mack, the Gospel of Mark effected a reduction of the Christ myth into terms comprehensible to Jesus people. For the author of Mark, the "lord's supper" is merely the last supper, "not intended as an etiological script for ritual reenactment" (p. 222). Mark stayed a course between the Christ myth and the Jesus traditions and succeeded in getting people in the Jesus traditions to think of Jesus as the Messiah and to think of his death as a martyrdom for the cause. A different combination was effected by the Johannine tradition, in which the cross of Christ "revealed a divine world of life and light that had always been present but never clearly seen until Jesus as the son of God had made it known" (p. 223) Later second century documents such as Acts created the notion of an apostolic age in which true doctrine was handed down once for all.
John P. Meier
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 3 (Anchor Books 2001)
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 2 (Doubleday 1994)
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 1 (Doubleday 1991)
Finding the Historical Jesus: An Interview With John P. Meier (online)
The Present State of the 'Third Quest' for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain (online)
The Historical Jesus and the Historical Samaritans: What can be Said? (online)
The Historical Jesus and the Life of Faith (by David L. Bartlett, reproduced online)
"Companions and Competitors" - and Context? (online) The Meier Primer (online)
Review by Dennis Ingolfsland (online)
Review by James A. Bacon (online)
In the first volume, Meier looks at "the roots of the problem and the person." Meier distinguishes between the real Jesus, the actual person who walked the sands of Palestine, and the historical Jesus, an abstraction representing what we can know about Jesus. Meier identifies Q, Mark, special Matthew, special Luke, and John as representing five independent sources within the New Testament. Bucking a trend of the "Third Quest," Meier rejects the attempts to argue that the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, and other noncanonical material may be independent of the New Testament. Meier argues that Josephus provides independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, but the other references in Jewish and pagan literature have little value. Meier lays out his criteria of historicity; five primary criteria of embarrassment, discontinuity, multiple attestation, coherence, and "rejection and execution" as well as four dubious criteria of traces of Aramaic, Palestinian environment, vividness of narration, and tendencies of the developing synoptic tradition. Meier argues that Nazareth is a more likely birthplace than Bethlehem as well as that Jesus had real brothers. Meier argues that Jesus was unlike many of his contemporaries in that he was literate. Meier attempts an analogy for the economic status of Jesus as "a blue-collar worker in lower-middle-class America" (p. 282), by which he means that Jesus' economic situation was typical of Galileans, though this in itself was not great.
In the second volume, Meier examines "mentor, message, and miracles." Meier argues strongly for the baptism of Jesus by John. Meier also argues that the historical Jesus, like the historical John, preached the Kingdom with a future sense, not just a present sense. "Jesus not only presented himself as the eschatological prophet of the coming kingdom of God, not only presented himself as the Elijah-like miracle-worker who made the future kingdom already effective and palpable to his followers, but at the same time presented hmself as a teacher who could tell Israelites how to observe the Law of Moses - indeed, who could even tell Israelites what they should or should not observe in the Law." (p. 1046) Meier states that an Elijah-like miracle-working eschatological prophet is not so readily relevant to us today as a domesticated "kindhearted rabbi who preached gentleness and love" (p. 1045). Yet, Meier says, the historical Jesus was such a prophet.
The Fifth Gospel : The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age (Trinity Pr Intl 2000)
The God of Jesus : The Historical Jesus and the Search for Meaning (Trinity Pr Intl 1998)
The Search for Jesus : Modern Scholarship Looks at the Gospels (Biblical Archaeology Society 1993)
The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Polebridge Press 1992)
Stephen Patterson writes: "Of particular importance is Kloppenborg's influential study of the redaction of Q. Just as we have already seen that Thomas and Q1 agree in opting for a non-apocalyptic interpretation of Jesus preaching, so also now it is to be noticed that neither Thomas nor Q1 seem to be much interested in Jesus' death. It is, at any rate, not a primary point of departure in their respective theological orientations. The convergence of Thomas and Q1 on these points is very important, for it helps us clearly to locate reflection upon the death of Jesus and the use of apocalyptic scenarios in the sayings tradition to the synoptic trajectory alone, and to its later stages at that. It is becoming ever more difficult to imagine a Jesus who reflected upon his own death, and preached an imminent apocaylptic judgment to be visited upon the world." (The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus, p. 231)
Patterson suggests "that Jesus was a wisdom teacher, and that the early Jesus movement thought of itself as a kind of wisdom school" (op. cit., p. 232). Patterson continues, "By moving the wisdom mode of discourse in a more speculative direction, one could account, on the one hand, for the wisdom-oriented opponents of Paul reprimanded in 1 Corinthians, and on the other, for the emergence of the descending/ascending revealer Christology that comes to predominate later in the Gospel of Thomas and in John." (op. cit., p. 233) Patterson also sees social radicalism as an essential part of the earliest Jesus movement and, by extension, of the historical Jesus: "Utterly destitute, the wise sage is called upon to dispose of his or her money (Thom 95, par. Matt 5:42//Luke 6:34-35a, Q), and to take no care for such necessities as clothing (Thom 36 [Coptic], par. Matt 6:25-33//Luke 12:22-30, Q) or food (Thom 69:2, par. Matt 5:6//Luke 6:21a, Q). Their poverty is to be a sign of blessing (Thom 54, par. Matt 5:3//Luke 6:20b, Q)." (op. cit., p. 234) Patterson thus paints the historical Jesus as an itinerant wisdom sage with a message of social radicalism.
The River of God : A New History of Christian Origins (Harper San Francisco 2001)
One Jesus, Many Christs : How Jesus Inspired Not One True Christianity, but Many (Fortress Pr 1997)
Resurrection Reconsidered: Thomas and John in Controversy (Fortress Pr 1995)
From the title of One Jesus, Many Christs, one might expect three themes in the text: the first theme is the identity of the one and only historical Jesus, the second theme is the diversity of Christian images of Christ, and the third theme is how one gets from the former to the latter. Instead, we find that the first and third themes are missing entirely. The book by Riley is solely about the different ways in which early Christians viewed Christ and particularly in how these views of Christ are all based on the model of the Hellenistic hero.
Riley concludes his first chapter with these words (p. 14): "The story of Jesus was the story of a kind and righteous man, a man from God, the son of God, whatever was meant by the phrase, who followed the will of God against evil to the death and thereby not only gained resurrection for himself, but could offer it to others who would do the same. And in so doing, the early Christians brought new meaning to the word 'martyr.' I think that Tertullian was right: the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. That is the kind of energy necessary to start a world religion and call forth the commitment that requires one's whole life. That energy is ofund in only one place in the Greco-Roman world - in the tales of the heroes that had been told for a thousand years. The very culture was founded on them, and the people lived and died imitating them. For those who heard the story of Jesus in the ancient world, whichever doctrinal form it came to them in, Jesus was a hero. He was also, of course, many other things to his followers far more familiar to us arising out the many doctrinal formulations. But why the story of Jesus was able to inspire so many people in the ancient world, why they imitated him and followed him to the grave, was that, in some way lost to us, he was their hero."
Chapter 3 of the book is quite valuable, in which Riley explains "The Story of the Hero and the Ideals of Antiquity." Riley begins with an exploration of the different types of living beings according to Plutarch and Hesiod. Hesiod combined the story of the Four Ages of gold silver, bronze, and iron with the concept of the types of living beings: gods, daimones, heroes, humans, and animals. According to Hesiod, gods and humans came from the same source, and the Golden race was happy and favored by the gods. Hesiod says that the souls of those living in the Golden age became daimones, "agents of Zeus who now invisibly watch over human affairs, kindly spirits who guard and deliver us from harm (Works and Days, 122-24)" (p. 33). The daimon was not to be seen as purely evil until the rise of dualism after the Exile in intertestamental Jewish literature. After the golden age comes the silver age and the bronze age, which are successively more unhappy and violent. The bronze age destroys itself, and instead of leading to a further degeneration (in line with the ANE myth of the Four Ages), there comes the Age of Heroes: "they are not degenerates, but righteous demigods, literally hemitheoi, 'half gods,' again to be ruled over by Kronos in his new capacity as sovereign of the blessed afterlife. Yet they are curiously human like ourselves; they fight the battles and suffer the pains and death of the famous epics of Greece, the battles of Thebes and the Trojan War. These are the classical heroes of antiquity." (p. 34) After the age of heroes, comes the age in which we live, the worst of all ages, known as the Age of Iron. Yet, according to the myth, the age to come will be a return to the Golden Age.
Riley notes that the hero is typically "the offspring of the union between divine and human parents," as reflected in Greek literature and even in Gen. 6:4. The hero is known to be a person of remarkable talent, such as a Homer or Alexander the Great. The fate of the hero is interwoven with the fate of the hero's people; "their very genetics placed them in the mids of destiny on a larger-than-human scale" (p. 43). Continuing his exploration of the hero in Greek culture, particularly in the Illiad, Riley notes: "This choice to die for principle and with honor became one of the most famous heroic events to be imitated in the entire tradition." (p. 47) And Riley says: "The issue of destiny, often fatal destiny, points to another aspect of the heroic career - heroes have divine enemies." Riley observes that heroes have rulers as human enemies and that the rulers who abuse the hero bring suffering on their cities (such as Troy and Thebes in Greek legend, or Jerusalem in Christian). Riley states: "Common to all stories of heroes is the test of character - the critical situation that is the hero's destiny and shows forth the true character of the soul," as is most obvious in the choice of Heracles between Vice and Virtue and subsequently in the labors (p. 51). Riley claims: "The fate in which the hero is bound while alive often forms a complex pattern of divine justice in which the gods themselves are partners: the hero suffers humiliation, privation, and even death as a kind of bait in a larger divine trap designed to catch and destroy the wicked." Riley points out the example of Odysseus, whose wanderings eventually led to the destruction of the wicked suitors. Riley also argues that the hero dies "in the prime of life, in the midst of the very test, the crisis for which they were destined" (p. 54). The prize of immortality is a theme among some stories of heroes: "One may see here the concept that among the ancient heroes suffering led to a prize. The prize for Heracles was immortality, but for the rest of us, in spite of the assurances of the philosophers, the prize was an uncertain remembrance of bravery among our friends and family, or perhaps nothing at all." (p. 58) The hero could act as an intermediary: "What remained after death was the right of the hero to stand on behalf of his or her worshipers who themselves passed the test. This was true because through death the hero became a transformed being." (p. 58) Riley also notes: "Heroes not only offered help - their stories also provided understanding of the proper modes of action. They were models, examples, and ideals." (p. 59) This sums up the concept of the hero.
Riley boldly declares: "If one is not a New Testament scholar, one may see with little difficulty from the preceding chapters that stories of the life of Jesus were very much set in the mold of the stories of the ancient heroes." (p. 61)
E. P. Sanders
Paul : A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ Pr 2001)
The Historical Figure of Jesus (Penguin 1996)
Studying the Synoptic Gospels (Trinity Pr Intl 1990)
Jesus and Judaism (Fortress Pr 1987)
Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Fortress Pr 1983)
Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Fortress Pr 1983)
Jesus in Historical Context (Theology Today 1993, reproduced online)
Duke Department of Religion: Prof. E. P. Sanders (online)
E. P. Sanders provides this list of things we know about Jesus (Jesus and Judaism, pp. 326-327):
I. Certain or virtually certain:1. Jesus shared the world-view that I have called 'Jewish restoration eschatology'. The key facts are his start under John the Baptist, the call of the twelve, his expectation of a new (or at least renewed) temple, and the eschatological setting of the work of the apostles (Gal. 1.2; Rom. 11.11-13, 25-32; 15.15-19).2. He preached the kingdom of God.3. He promised the kingdom to the wicked.4. He did not explicitly oppose the law, particularly not laws relating to Sabbath and food.5. Neither he nor his disciples thought that the kingdom would be established by force of arms. They looked for an eschatological miracle.II. Highly probable:1. The kingdom which he expected would have some analogies with this world: leaders, the twelve tribes, a functioning temple.2. Jesus' disciples thought of him as 'king', and he accepted the role, either implicitly or explicitly.III. Probable:1. He thought that the wicked who accepted his message would share in the kingdom even though they did not do the things customary in Judaism for the atonement of sin.2. He did not emphasize the national character of the kingdom, including judgment by groups and a call for mass repentance, because that had been the task of John the Baptist, whose work he accepted.3. Jesus spoke about the kingdom in different contexts, and he did not always use the word with precisely the same meaning.IV. Possible:1. He may have spoken about the kingdom in the visionary manner of the 'little apocalypse' (Mark 13 and parr.), or as a present reality into which individuals enter one by one - or both.V. Conceivable:1. He may have thought that the kingdom, in all its power and might, was present in his words and deeds.2. He may have given his own death martyrological significance.3. He may have identified himself with a cosmic Son of man and conceived his attaining kingship in that way.VI. Incredible:1. He was one of the rare Jews in his day who believed in love, mercy, grace, repentance and the forgiveness of sin.2. Jews in general, and Pharisees in particular, would kill people who believed in such things.3. As a result of his work, Jewish confidence in election was 'shaken to pieces', Judaism was 'shaken to its foundations', and Judaism as a religion was destroyed.
Sanders writes of the 'connecting link' (op. cit., p. 334):
We went in search of a thread which connects Jesus' own intention, his death and the rise of the movement. We found first a general context which embraces both Jesus and the movement which succeeded him: hope for the restoration of Israel. Second, we found a specific chain of conceptions and events which allows us to understand historically how things came about. Jesus claimed that the end was at hand, that God was about to establish his kingdom, that those who responded to him would be included, and (at least by implication) that he would reign. In pointing to the change of eras, he made a symbolic gesture by overturning tables in the temple area. This is the crucial act which led to his execution, though there were contributing causes. His disciples, after the death and resurrection, continued to expect the restoration of Israel and the inauguration of the new age, and they continued to see Jesus as occupying first place in the kingdom. Also, as we saw in ch. 8, they continued to look for an otherworldly kingdom which would be established by an eschatological miracle, although its locale may have shifted from this world to the heavenly one. The person of Jesus himself was also progressively interpreted: he was no longer seen just as 'Messiah' or 'Viceroy', but as Lord. Some who were attracted to the movement began to win Gentiles to it. The work of the early apostles, which is so well reflected in Paul's letters, fits entirely into known expectations about the restoration of Israel.
Sanders believes that this reconstruction is the one that gives the most natural explanation of the life of Jesus and of the birth of Christianity.
Robert H. Stein
Studying the Synoptic Gospels : Origin and Interpretation (Baker Book House 2001)
A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible : Playing by the Rules (Baker Book House 1997)
Jesus the Messiah : A Survey of the Life of Christ (Intervarsity Press 1996)
The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings (Westminster John Knox Pr 1995)
Luke (The New American Commentary, Vol 24) (Baptist 1993)
An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus (Westminster John Knox Pr 1981)
Stein writes: "Without an openness to the supernatural, the result of any investigation of the life of Christ has predetermined that the resulting Jesus will be radically different from the Jesus who was born of a virgin, was anointed by the Spirit, healed the sick, raised the dead, died for the sins of the world, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Yet it is this supernatural Jesus that humanity desperately needs, for only this supernatural Jesus can bridge the gap between human sin and God's holiness. What the world so critically needs is a Savior, but only a supernatural Jesus can be a Savior." (Jesus the Messiah, p. 13) Stein continues: "In writing this work I have assumed the presence of the supernatural in the life of Jesus. In other words, this life of Christ has been written from a believer's viewpoint." (op. cit., p. 13)
Stein considers the virgin birth, Herod's slaughter of the children, and the visit of the three wise men to be historical incidents. Stein contends that Jesus was sinless although his family did not notice this fact. Stein believes that Jesus, assured of his status as Christ at the baptism administered by John, worked out what it meant to be the Messiah when tempted by the devil in the wilderness: "He would not use his messianic powers for his own ends. Jesus rejected all political concepts of messiahship and especially the path of the Zealots. Instead he would accept the path of the suffering servant that God had ordained for him." (op. cit., p. 110) Jesus chose the twelve disciples to be the foundation of the church. Stein recognizes that "the ethic of the kingdom" is realized in living as God's children and loving outcasts, sinners, and enemies.
Stein writes: "The events of Caesarea Philippi were clearly the watershed and turning point of Jesus' ministry. It is at this point that the disciples came to acknowledge, despite their own misconceptions, that Jesus was indeed the Christ. Upon receiving this confession Jesus began to prepare the disciples for his forthcoming passion. This new teaching would cause even more confusion during Jesus' ministry, but after the resurrection the disciples would be able to see clearly that the cross was not a tragedy or mistake but part of the divine mystery. The resurrection would not create a new understanding of the person and work of Jesus, the Christ. Rather, it would confirm what he had taught all along: Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world." (op. cit., p. 165)
Stein writes that Jesus "claimed authority to purify the temple and to pronounce judgment on it" in the action of the cleansing of the temple (op. cit., p. 196). Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a memorial of his redeeming sacrifice. Stein emphasizes that God was fully in control in the betrayal of Judas, the desertment of the disciples, the denials of Peter, and the execution of Jesus, all of which were predicted by Jesus. Stein rejects any attempt to deny the involvement of the Jewish leaders in the death of Jesus. Stein reviews the arguments against the idea that Jesus was not crucified and for the idea that his tomb was found empty by the women on the third day. Stein concludes by saying that the life of Jesus did not end with the crucifixion, as Jesus rose from the dead and will return on the last day.
The Religion of the Earliest Churches (Fortress Pr 1999)
Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology (T&t Clark Ltd 1999)
The Gospels in Context (T&t Clark Ltd 1999)
The Historical Jesus : A Comprehensive Guide (Fortress Pr 1998)
Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition (T&t Clark Ltd 1998)
The Shadow of the Galilean (Fortress Pr 1987)
Comprehensively Questing for Jesus? (online, by Mark Goodacre)
Review of The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide (online, by Peter Kirby)
Jesus joined up with John the Baptist to confess his sins. "Like everyone else he, too, expected the imminent judgment of God." (The Historical Jesus, p. 569) In his own ministry, the historical Jesus taught that the time before the end had been extended by the grace of God but that evil had already been overcome, as shown in his exorcisms. Jesus chose twelve disciples to rule the soon-to-be-restored Israel. The belief in a God who would bring deliverance to the poor, weak, and sick stood at the center of his message. Theissen writes, "his vision of the future rule of God was that of a great shared meal in which Jews and Gentiles were no longer divided by commandments about food and cleanness" (op. cit., p. 571). Jesus was an itinerant with a "radical ethic of freedom from family, possessions, home and security" (op. cit., p. 571) Jesus foretold that God would substitute a new temple in place of the old, and he deliberately attacked the legitimacy of the temple in the symbolic action of cleansing the temple. The Jewish aristocracy arrested him for his criticism of the temple but accused him before Pilate of the political crime of seeking to be a royal pretender. He was condemned to be executed, and his disciples fled.
"After his death Jesus appeared first either to Peter or to Mary Magdalene, then to several disciples together. They became convinced that he was alive. Their expectation that God would finally intervene to bring about salvation had been fulfilled differently from the way for which they had hoped. They had to reinterpret Jesus' whole fate and his person. They recognized that he was the Messiah, but he was a suffering Messiah, and that they had not reckoned with. They remembered that Jesus had spoken of himself as 'the man' - specifically when he was confronted with excessively high hopes in himself. He had given the general term 'man' a messianic dignity and hoped that he would grow into the role of this 'man' and would fulfil it in the near future. Now they saw that he was 'the man' to whom according to a prophecy in Dan. 7 God would give all power in heaven and on earth. For them Jesus took a place alongside God. Christian faith had been born as a variant of Judaism: a messianic Judaism which only gradually separated from its mother religion in the course of the first century." (op. cit., p. 572)
See also my review of The Historical Jesus linked above.
The Changing Faces of Jesus (Viking Pr 2001)
The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin 1998)
The Religion of Jesus the Jew (Fortress Pr 1993)
Jesus the Jew : A Historian's Reading of the Gospels (Fortress Pr 1981)
Interview: Providential Accidents (online)
Excerpt from The Changing Faces of Jesus (online)
Geza Vermes portrays the historical Jesus as a charismatic teacher, healer, and exorcist who believed in the soon-to-be-realized Kingdom of God. Jesus was a Hasid, a Galilean holy man, on analogy with other holy men such as Hanina ben Dosa. Jesus was also a prophet, one who expected decisive action from the God of Israel in the near future. Jesus used the term "son of man" only as a circumlocution for his own person or for people in general. Along with other Galileans, Jesus had little interest in the halakhic matters that consumed the Pharisees; indeed, Jesus flaunted them "in his table-fellowship with publicans and whores" (Jesus and the World of Judaism, p. 11). The conflict between Jesus of Galilee and the Pharisees would "merely have resembled the in-fighting of factions belonging to the same religious body, like that between Karaites and Rabbanites in the Middle Ages, or between the orthodox and progressive branches of Judaism in modern times" (op. cit., pp. 11-12). Like John the Baptist, Jesus was arrested and executed because he was seen to be popular with the people, and this alone justified suspicion of seditious intent.
G. A. Wells
The Jesus Myth (Open Court Publishing Company 1998)
The Jesus Legend (1996)
The Historical Evidence for Jesus (Prometheus Books 1988)
Did Jesus Exist? (Prometheus Books 1987)
The Jesus of the Early Christians
G. A. Wells on the Secular Web (online)
Wells argues that most of what is said of Jesus in the canonical gospels is put in question by the fact that it is not confirmed by extant Christian documents which are either earlier than the gospels or early enough to have been written independently of them, i.e. composed before they or the traditions underlying them had become generally known in Christian circles. Paul, for instance, wrote before any gospel existed, and his Jesus lived on earth as a shadowy figure of the indefinite past. Such early Christians developed their beliefs in the tradition of Jewish Wisdom speculation about a supernatural personage who sought an abode on earth but was rejected by man and who then returned to heaven.
However, in his latest books, Wells allows that such a complex of tradition as we have in the synoptic gospels could not have developed so quickly (by the end of the first century) without some historical basis; and so some elements ascribed there to the life of Jesus presumably derive ultimately from the life of a first century Galilean preacher. The essential point, as Wells sees it, is that this personage is not to be identified with the dying and rising Christ of the Pauline and other early documents, and that the two have quite separate origins. The Jesus of the earliest Christians did not, on this view, preach and work miracles (or what were taken for such) in Galilee, and was not crucified by Pilate in Jerusalem.
N. T. Wright
The Meaning of Jesus : Two Visions (Harper San Francisco 2000)
The Challenge of Jesus (Intervarsity Pr 1999)
What Saint Paul Really Said (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co 1997)
The Original Jesus : The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997)
Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress Pr 1997)
The New Testament and the People of God (Fortress Pr 1996)
The Wright Quest for the Historical Jesus (online)
Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire (online)
One God, One Lord, One People (online)
God's Way of Acting (online)
Jesus' Resurrection and Christian Origins (online)
Defending Nicea (online)
In The New Testament and the People of God, N. T. Wright sets forth a critical realist account of knowledge. By this, Wright means that it is impossible to do "mere history" from a supposed objective standpoint, just as much as it is impossible to see an object without using one's eyes. Wright states that the text and our own worldview stand in dialogue, with historical knowledge as the interplay of text and worldview in public dialogue.
Wright sketches Second Temple Judaism as telling the story of Israel's relationship to God and as using the symbols of Temple, Land, Torah, and Ethnic Identity. Jews held to creational monotheism over against henotheism, pantheism, deism, and Gnosticism. Jews held to providential monotheism, according to which God is continually active in the world. And Jews held to covenantal monotheism, in which God plans to restore the world through Israel. Jews rejected the forms of dualism in which there are a source of all that is bad and a source of all that is good, in which the material world is a shadow of the ideal world, and in which human beings are composed of body and spirit in opposition. Wright contends that Jews hoped for the revolution of the current world order but not a destruction of the material world in a final conflagration as depicted in Stoic philosophy.
Wright writes, "it should be quite clear that what united early Christians, deeper than all diversity, was that they told, and lived, a form of Israel's story which reached its climax in Jesus and which then issued in their spirit-given new life and task." (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 456, emphasis original) Wright turns the typical form-critical assumption on its head in saying that it is likely that pericopes originally contained narrative contexts but were stripped of them in a process of Hellenization, as is seen in the Gospel of Thomas. Wright rejects the "Q-plus-Thomas hypothesis" of a non-eschatological Jesus movement and states that Q, if it existed, was in form much like Community Rule from Qumran in containing both future and realized eschatology.
Wright elaborates on his disagreement with scholars such as Crossan and Mack in his book Jesus and the Victory of God. Wright uses as his principal tool the criterion of double similarity, according to which material that makes sense in a Jewish context and explains the rise of the church is likely to be historical. Wright maintains that Jesus planned for his own death: "Jesus, then, went up to Jerusalem not just to preach, but to die . . . Jesus believed that the messianic woes were about to burst upon Israel, and that he had to take them upon himself, solo" (Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 609). Wright believes that the development of soteriology in the church cannot be explained adequately unless it had its seed on the far side of Easter.
Go to the Early Christian Writings web site.This web page is copyright © 2001-2003 Peter Kirby <E-Mail>.Permission is given to link to this HTML file.
CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION
© 1999 Robert D. Lane
First the inevitable question: Why another book on the bible? Answer: (1) Teaching a class in which I use the Bible as a text has taught me that many liberal arts students have no familiarity with the book, and have difficulty approaching the Bible for a number of reasons. Most have never read it, yet some find it irrelevant, and some find it too "sacred” ever to read it. This book is intended as a secular Midrash and students' companion to the Bible. I treat the Bible as comprised of stories, human stories, to be approached with curiosity, not religious awe. I treat the texts of the Bible with the respect due to any great literature. I try to show that the Bible is not irrelevant, but has an importance to the contemporary consciousness. (2) Many colleagues in the liberal arts report a lack of Biblical knowledge on the part of their students. This lack of familiarity with the stories of the Bible makes it difficult to understand and respond to many of the literary texts of our culture, which often assume a familiarity with the basic stories of the Bible. (3) I love these stories, and I love writing and thinking about them. (4) I am on sabbatical leave and I have to do something.
I employ no particular literary theory, if that is possible. I was trained in old-fashioned New Criticism where I learned that the text itself is important and primary. But, I deconstruct when doing so helps to point to useful information or to understand what the story means. I mention literary forms when that is useful, and I point to features of the texts that may have been overlooked. I draw on the works of historians and of critics who know more than I about the times and places referred to in the stories. I have certain beliefs, which will manifest themselves in the readings I offer. I do not pretend to be a Bible scholar; I too, like most readers, know the work in translation. If this approach is eclectic I offer no apology. The critic's task is always to point - to point to aspects of the work that may have been overlooked or under-emphasized. I want to de-mystify the texts and make them accessible to readers as important literary texts. I remember vividly my own sense as a child that the Bible was somehow special and otherworldly - too sacred to be read or thought about. I assumed that only priests and pastors had the “right stuff” which allowed them to read the text. And I noticed that they did nothing to dissuade me of that belief.
My general notion of literature includes these claims: literature is about the world, interpretation is a creative act, intention is a necessary condition for writing of any kind, there are four focal points for any work of literature: poet, text, world, and reader. In what follows, if I emphasize one of these over the others it will be text. The biblical text is complex and sophisticated narrative exhibiting many layers of intention in its final form. In the second book of Samuel, for example, we read the exciting love story of David and Bathsheba, and learn how David, driven by desire for the beautiful Bathsheba, brings her to his bed and makes her pregnant while her husband Uriah is in David's army fighting the enemies of Israel. David eliminates Uriah by sending a letter (carried by Uriah) to the commander telling him to place Uriah in the fiercest fighting and then to fall back leaving him alone to be killed. After Uriah is killed Bathsheba mourns for him for the appropriate time and then David brings her into his house and takes her as his wife. (2 Sam. 11,12) Shortly after this we are told "what David had done was wrong in the eyes of the Lord." And then, as we read in the King James Version:
And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto
him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one
rich and the other poor.
2. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
3. But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb,
which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together
with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and
drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a
4. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he
spared to take of his own flock and his own herd, to dress for the
wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man's
lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
5. And David's anger was greatly kindled against the man;
and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done
this thing shall surely die:
6. And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did
this thing, and because he had no pity.
7. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith
the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I
delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
8. And I gave thee thy master's house, and thy master's
wives unto thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and Judah;
and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto
thee such and such things.
David will pay for his lust; the child he conceived in sin will die and the other threats will also come to pass. The punishment will fit the crime: the child conceived in sin will die; the man who could not control his sexual appetites will be punished by having his wives taken in front of everyone. Note the layers of narrative here. Nathan tells David a parable. David is moved by the story. He sentences the fictional man to die. Nathan tells David that he is the man. The story is used to get the king to see himself and to judge his own acts. Just as Uriah carries his own death warrant to Joab in the form of a letter of execution, David comes to issue a death sentence on himself through Nathan's story. When Joab opens the letter carried by Uriah he will see David's intention; when David "opens" the story carried by Nathan he will see the Lord's intention.
Nathan relates a fictional narrative in order to get the king to see the truth about his own situation. Nathan's intention is clear - he uses story to reveal truth. Once he gets David to see that the rich man in the story has done wrong then all he has to do is get him to see that he is like the rich man in the appropriate moral way. Self-delusion, though powerful in human affairs, can be broken by story. David has then judged himself. But there is another layer of intentional meaning here also. "The Lord sent Nathan..." adds a layer to the narrative which reveals another story of alleged divine intervention in the understanding of the events. And this story in turn is related by a writer or editor who is shaping the larger story of the books of Samuel for his audience. We get the sense that David would never have admitted guilt for killing Uriah in order to have Bathsheba, but he is able to see and respond to characters in stories. As readers we too are to respond to the stories and to that end have been given narrative access to the larger story pointed to by phrases like "The Lord sent Nathan...."
The Old Testament version of Esther begins:
Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus, (this is the Ahasuerus which reigned, from India even unto Ethiopia, over an hundred and seven and twenty provinces:) (King James, Esther 1)
Not only does this sentence signal that the reader is to accept the story as a report but it also establishes time and place. "The events here related" functions like "and it came to pass" except that "the events here related" stands between a past "lived" event and the report of the event while "and it came to pass" is most often used to suggest an inevitable and divinely ordered string of events manifesting themselves in time. While Nathan used fictional narrative in order to get the king to see the truth, the writer of Esther uses the truth, or at least what we might call "factoids" to establish a fictional narrative. That is, we are given a list of events which are placed in time and space by markers that sound decidedly like those of factual reports or historical documents. The story unfolds quickly: the king is giving one enormous party for the people, to show off his majesty, and after several days of drinking and feasting he decides to order his queen to dress up in something pretty and come forward to display her beauty and at the same time make the king feel even more mighty and splendid. She refuses to come in answer to the royal command, and the king, not used to being disobeyed, is incensed by her disobedience. He confers with his wise men, who are versed in law and religion, and they advise him that in order to keep order and not have women getting "uppity" he must punish the queen by banning her from his sight and replace her with a queen who is more able to conform to the rules of the kingdom. He does ban Queen Vashti, and he begins the search for a new queen. This plot device is necessary in order to get Esther into the king's bed. After trying out many young and beautiful virgins the king chooses Esther as his new queen. We just do not know if there really was an Esther who was a Jewish queen at this time, but the story uses every device to make the events appear to be actual. Real or fictional matters not for the story goes on to show how Esther under the direction of her kinsman, Mordecai, is able to save the Jewish people from an execution order by outsmarting Haman who, as the king's second in command, has gotten the king to order the destruction of the Jewish people in all the provinces. Esther, at threat of death, pursues a plan to overturn Haman and to topple him from power while at the same time preventing the destruction of her Jewish people.
At a crucial point Haman misreads the king's intentions, for when the king asks Haman "What should be done for the man whom the king wishes to honour?" Haman believes that the king is speaking of him. Misreading intentions can be dangerous and Haman misreads not only the king's intentions but also Esther's intentions and in a complete reversal of fortunes he ends up hanged on the very gallows he had built to hang Mordecai. The letters from the king to the provinces are changed to allow the Jews to defend themselves and they end up killing 75,000 of their enemies instead of being destroyed themselves. The story is one that is read by rabbis on Purim, one of the great festivals celebrated by the Jews every year.
After reading the book of Esther in the Old Testament then you should read the version that appears in the apocrypha. The second version differs from the first in having about 140 more lines and all of those additional lines tell of God's involvement in the plot. Dreams and portents are suddenly present and the intention of the author is clear in the additional lines. God, who does not appear in the Hebrew version, is suddenly omnipresent in the Greek version, and we can read the intentions of the Greek author in those added lines. Now God is the author of human events and is directly involved through dreams and intervention in the unfolding of events. We readers are to see that God is directly responsible for the outcome of stories and is controlling the events from afar.
Much of the great writing of our Western tradition comes from a Judeo-Christian culture. It is difficult to read Dante, Spinoza, Milton, Goethe, Shakespeare, Descartes, Newton, Kant and hundreds of others without some knowledge of the stories and the ideas of the Bible. Contemporary artists continue to draw on the images and forms of the biblical stories to create their stories, and whether they are believers or not the basic patterns of the Bible are still present to be considered, incorporated or dismissed. The biblical stories, of course, have special meaning for Jews and Christians because they are believed to be a record of God's covenant with a chosen people. In the Old Testament this covenant is in the form of a promise of land in return for obedi- ence to a set of rules. In the New Testament the covenant is in the form of a promise for salvation in return for obedience and belief. The "promised land" of the Old Testament is land on this earth; the "promised land" of the New Testament, as described by Paul and other early Christians, is not of this earth.
It seems obligatory in a book like this to state where I "am coming from." I am not a Jew. I am not a Christian. I was raised in a Christian family. We attended an Episcopal church when I was a small boy; after my mother remarried we attended a Lutheran church where I was confirmed at a young age. Shortly after that we started to attend a Methodist church, but none of these changes was, to my knowledge, based on any matters of doctrine, but rather on social reasons. I remember getting in trouble with the Lutheran pastor as a child because in Bible class I would ask real questions. "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me," it said in the catechism. Why? The canned answer was: "The Lord, thy God, is a jealous God." "Why is he jealous?" I would ask, "what would God have to be jealous of?" "Don't ask questions," the pastor would say, "just memorize the material." That was the lesson of the church: do not ask questions; just memorize the stuff. There really was no life in the church. People came in, sat down, listened quietly, put some money in the collection plate, and then left to carry on with their lives as before. After hearing a sermon on the evils of "drink" and card playing, in which the punishments for disobedience were extremely uncomfortable, we would all get in our car and go to one of my step-uncle's for an afternoon of drinking beer and playing pinochle. I learned to hate Jews (for they were somehow responsible for killing Jesus), Catholics (for they had all the riches), and Methodists (I cannot remember why). I learned hypocrisy, racism, and sexism (now called the "traditional" values by nostalgic writers who find the word "traditional" all fuzzy and warm). I read the Bible frequently because the stories were full of violence, sex, and mystery. I remember asking my mother what `womb' means and she was very nervous and asked me where I had heard that word. When I told her I found it in the Bible she did not seem to know what to say. I had her! She arranged for my step-father to teach me about the "birds and the bees." He in turn sub-contracted to a teen-aged farm hand who gave me a brief but descriptive lecture about things that I already knew. (The lecture, I remember, started like this: "So, you want to know about f...ing...," my teacher at least exhibiting a sense of the dramatic.)
After a few years in public schools and four years in the United States Marine Corps, I learned about sex and violence in more direct ways, and stopped reading the Bible until I was in university. At the University of California in Santa Barbara I was assigned as a teaching assistant to Professor Douwe Stuurman, who taught a course on the Bible. His classes were always full of interesting people. In the front row were the nuns, who, he said, were there to spy on him. Then came the middle-aged students looking for therapy, the literature and philosophy students, and the atheists who sat in the back. I tried to sit in a different part of the room each time. Stuurman had a Freudian, Eastern, Calvinist, Proustian background and the ability to mesmerize an audience. Above all he opened up the text for me. I read it with fresh eyes. These stories were marvellous works of art! Stuurman's lectures were inspiring (I used to call them "Stuurman on the mount") and unlike my Lutheran pastor, he asked questions all the time. When not at the university I spent my time cleaning the Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, which meant that I had the op- portunity to talk with Lex Crane, who was ministering there then. His background in literature was extensive and we used to have long talks about "meaning" while I should have been cleaning the toilets. I flirted with the idea of becoming a Unitarian minister, but never got the "call." Because of this and more, I believe the Bible is worth reading and studying, not as moribund scripture but as living literature.
The first few stories in the Old Testament develop a recurring pattern in human affairs:
- the creation creation (innocence)
- the fall and the first murder conflict (sin)
- the flood suffering (purification)
- the rainbow resolution (salvation)
- the tower of Babel beginnings
This pattern is familiar to us because we do in fact find ourselves in a world that we cannot explain the origin of, even in our most thorough going scientific descriptions. "Why is there anything at all?" is a basic question that defies answers. We can easily understand how that question leads to religious answers, to answers that defy verification, for it is difficult to imagine an answer to that question that would be verifiable in the strict scientific sense. The answer we are given is a story that begins: "In the beginning of creation, when God made heaven and earth...." The story tells us how not why. It does not presume to know why but takes as "evidence" for what might have been a clear notion of what is: we find ourselves walking on the earth, surrounded by the sky, nurtured by sunshine and water, sharing our world with many other species of animals, fish and birds. Plants, trees, flowers abound. Where did they come from? In this story we are told that they come form the creative command of a powerful spirit-god who creates by fiat. "Let there be light" - and there was light begins the whole chain of events. Other stories tell of the beginnings of life in different ways. For example, the Hopi Indians have a creation myth which tells the story this way:
In a remote time Spider Grandmother thought outward into space.
She thought and breathed and sang and spun the world into
existence. So threads and stories, spinning and spirals all began
with Spider Grandmother.
"Thought," "breathed," "sang," are the operative verbs in this story. They suggest a certain kind of creation: mental, intangible, structured. Diction, which is merely choice of words, reveals intent. A particular recipe lies behind a description which employs just these words, a recipe which includes a pattern for building "reality" as well as a description of a given "reality." Reading stories always entails paying close attention to the writer's diction, for in the selection of a vocabulary a writer chooses a value system. Look at these lines by Wordsworth:
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither feels nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
What a simple vocabulary Wordsworth uses to tell us of a motionless young woman who has died. The words "force," "motion," and "diurnal" come from the vocabulary of science and are used here to contrast life and death with the scientific vocabulary of Newtonian physics. "Diurnal" is the only word in the stanza likely to send a reader to the dictionary. And what does this word mean? "Daily." Wordsworth could have used "daily" in the line; it is a word he would have had in his vocabulary. But he chooses "diurnal." What does he gain by this choice? "Diurnal" hints at "die," "urn," "eternal" - all words, and through them images, which cluster around the chosen word and reveal a complex of emotional and intellectual concerns that "daily" just does not. It is in the choice of diction that the poet negotiates the meaning transfer from intention to interpretation.
The poet who wrote the creation story in Genesis also reveals intention through diction. One repeated phrase that in its repetition is highlighted as surely as is the light which results form the first command is the phrase "God saw that it was good" repeated after each creative act. From the very beginning we are told of a world that has value and goodness built right into it by the act of the creator-god. Good is not added like a cosmetic but is shown through the language to be a fundamental part of the cosmos. As the myth of our beginnings unfolds in the thoughts and spinnings of the Genesis poet we see that into this place of perfect good enters chaos as a result of disobedience and jealousy. Good is followed immediately by its opposite and God drives Adam from the garden.
One way of approaching these early stories is to think of them as maps. They were constructed after the fact as ways of explaining and charting the unknown past of how and why. In that respect they are backwards looking. But they also contain a perspective from the present projecting into the future. They contain within them a story about how we ought to be. And the language of these stories is often the language of dream - symbolic language - a language that means more than it says, a language that is found in poetry and in children. When our immediate family experienced the first death in the family which our kids experienced it happened like this: the phone call came saying that Grandpa Jim had died and that his funeral would be in a military cemetery in a few days. Margaret, our daughter, was about three years old. She heard her mother on the phone and guessed that something was wrong. She asked her older brothers (seven and eight) what was going on. "Grandpa Jim is dead."
"What does that mean?"
"They will put him in a hole in the ground."
"And put dirt over top of him."
"And you will never see him again."
She was puzzled. Later she went off to bed without saying much of anything. In the middle of the night I heard her weeping quietly in her crib. I went to pick her up and held her against my chest. She was in that state between sleeping and waking and was sobbing over and over again: "I don't want to go down in that hole; I don't want to go down in that hole." That is symbolic language. What heart knew head guessed. The stories of the Bible are written in that kind of language. At the level where the human cry of mortality and mystery emerges is to be found the story line of the best of the stories from the Bible collection. At another level, of course, is the official line, which offers an explanation, a reading of the stories, proclaims an interpretation, an ordering conceptual map.
The Bible stories can be seen as maps - maps of concepts constructed in language which trace psychological or social processes. But do they record or construct the facts? In what follows I will argue that, like all literature, they do both. A recent literary critic puts the distinction this way:
The recognition that our concepts are constructions of language
systems...tells us nothing about their relation or lack of relation to
reality. It follows that the antithesis between "constructing" and
"recording" is unreal, for it opposes a genetic category to a logical
one; it confuses the process by which formulations come into being
(constructing) and the logical status of these formulations ("record-
ing"). The opposition becomes unreal as soon as we recognize how
much constructing is required in the process of recording. The fact
that a reader's interpretation of a text is, in a sense, his construc-
tion is no argument against (or for) its adequacy to the text.
Similarly, the fact that a literary work is constituted by the imagina-
tion, or by a system of literary conventions, does not prevent it
from qualifying as a record or representation of reality.
A valuable approach as reader is to consider that reading a text is a performing art. I do not mean by this that one needs to learn to be an oral interpreter, although that is a good skill to develop. I mean that in reading a text one must engage every bit of creativity, of sensitivity, of intellect and feeling that one possesses. The story is in the text, but its full experience is in the mind of the reader. The story provides form and directs responses, and the reader completes the communicative act. Think of the text as a musical score and yourself as a performing musician. The notes are there - are in the score - and you must be able to perform them on your musical instrument. You need to bring technical skill, sensitivity to nuance, and knowledge of the language of musical notation to the task.
I believe that most of us at some time or other confuse items from one logical category with items from another, and, as a result end up believing and stating silly or nonsensical things. Sometimes we confuse the menu with the meal, or the map with the landscape, or our theory with reality; in short we sometimes make category mistakes. We sometimes confuse our favorite theories about the world with the way the world is. Stories often contain theories of a kind (or official lines as I will call them) - these are combinations of presuppositions, conventions, assumptions, and assumed value judgements. And these official lines are evident in the verbal structure of a compound narrative. In what follows I will try to show that separating the official line from the story line is a necessary aspect of reading the Bible. Stories provide maps of a culture's deepest hopes and fears, of its value system and its "take" on reality. Maps, of course, like language, select certain features and ignore others; and like language, maps are cultural expressions of elements significant to a society.
Look at a reproduction of the Roman Peutinger Table, a ribbon map originally some twenty-five feet long by one foot wide showing the Roman world from Britain to India. A complex strip map, it was apparently constructed to aid generals and merchants to find their way around the empire. It is a map with Roman efficiency: great chunks of recalcitrant land are forced into a narrow highway from Rome to the ends of the world. Physical space is distorted to fit the utility of the enterprise. In another marvellous map of the thirteenth century, the Ebstorf map, which is some nine feet in diameter, Jerusalem is shown in the very center of the map with Christ's head at the top, feet at the bottom and hands to the east and west. The mapmaker projects certain features from the worldview into the view of the world. "Maps are by nature distortions of physical space." And interpretations are by nature distortions of stories.
We can say that a map is distorting physical space only if we know what would count as non-distorted physical space. Just as there can be no counterfeit money unless there is some genuine money, there can be no distortion unless there is some way of knowing about it. Stories too are like that. A general model for map making and story telling looks like this:
Scientists, story tellers, and map makers
1. select certain features from the physical world based upon
complex considerations of beliefs, function, and reality;
2. make guesses about the way the world works, and put these
guesses in the form of hypothesis, map, painting or story;
3. these guesses are improved upon, amended, corrected, or
The stories in the Bible grow out of a certain place and a certain people. By now they are overlaid with centuries of interpretation and have become presented as Repositories for Truth instead of vehicles for truth. The god of the Old Testament, for example, is a complex projection based in part on the needs of a nomadic people: above all this god had to be a portable god, not one assigned to a particular valley or mountain, but one that moved with his people. Place dictates image. We can expect to find in these stories a concern with survival in a near-desert climate - a desire and hope for the oasis with its life giving water, shelter and comfort. Is it any wonder that the Garden of Eden appears as the perfect place for human life? Later ages will describe this metaphoric place not as "a palm at the end of the mind" but as a place with streets paved with gold. And that change in image tells us something about the story tellers.
The Bible is sometimes referred to as a "transparent" text or a "laminated" text. The images here suggest an important aspect of the biblical texts. If the text is transparent what is it we readers are supposed to see through the text? And if laminated what makes up the layers? The transparent text is supposed to reveal the Truth of God. Readers, says this approach, are to look through the text to see the hand of the divine at work behind the scenes. Reading in this way requires the reader to have a point of view to begin with, to start with an official line which is used as a template for the stories' meaning. In this way the text is not so much transparent as it is a mirror. One tends to see one's own preconceptions when looking through this "transparent" text. To think of the biblical text as laminated is to become aware of the layers of textual accretions that have built up over the years and through the translations. Stories, legends, poems, oral materials, chronicles, letters, have all been folded into the final product, with frames and transitions added, and with direct commentary from time to time.
In what follows I want to point to the excellence of the Hebrew texts in translation, suggest a way of reading those texts which depends upon the creative involvement of the reader, and provide you with some sense of the excitement of reading these stories with fresh eyes and an open mind. Reading these stories is a way of reading yourself.
THE HOLY LAND
The stage for the Biblical drama is the world of the ancient Near East, the meeting place of three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. This territory today is made up of the modern states of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran. Now (1990) the area is well known to North Americans from daily maps on television used as backdrops for news reports about the United Nations action against Iraq in the area. Once more the winds of war are blowing in the Middle East, an area of the world buffeted by those winds for centuries. It is an area of conflict between peoples looking for a home. It is an area of conflict because for centuries other countries have dominated various parts of the land for military strategy, for religious strategy, or for commerce. Today oil brings the armies to the desert. In the past it has been land, water, agriculture, trade routes and other reli- gious concerns of the day.
The Middle East is an area of widely contrasting terrain, climate and culture. It includes the rugged mountains of Armenia, the great Arabian Desert, and, in between, the long, crescent-shaped strip of land known as the Fertile Crescent, which stretches from Egypt on the southwest, up the Mediterranean coast through Israel and Syria, and down the Tigris-Euphrates Valley to the Persian Gulf. It has always been an exciting and romantic setting for the magnificent characters who have walked on its stage. The patriarchs walked the desert sands with their flocks. Pharaohs built pyramids for their long sleep. Legendary heroes like Moses and Jesus are to be found here in the desert, conversing with their God, teaching their flocks. Here Alexander the Great stretched out his arm of conquest. Here too the Roman armies fought the local peoples. Caesars walked the earth here. David and Solomon reigned briefly over a united kingdom of Israel. In Egypt Antony and Cleopatra loved and lost. Deborah, Rebekah, Jael, Mary and Elizabeth, Sarah: these powerful and strong women people the stories set in this landscape. Today tanks are strewn across the landscape; a reminder in sculptured and bullet pocked iron of the continuing conflict in this desert of despair.
At stage centre, as far as Hebrew history is concerned, is the land of Palestine, a narrow corridor between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Desert with Syria and Lebanon on the north, and Egypt on the south. Pushed up against the Mediterranean on the west and with Jordan on the east, the modern state of Israel is impressive first of all because of its size. It is very small. Measuring about 150 miles "from Dan to Beersheba," the Biblical idiom for its north-south extremities (Judges 20:1), it has nevertheless always played a significant role in the political, economic, and cultural life of the ancient world. Situated astride the major highways joining Egypt and Mesopotamia, Palestine commanded a strategic location for military and commercial affairs. Trade between Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Egypt often moved through the lands of Palestine. Too often the larger neighbours were also moving soldiers, chariots and war machines into the area as the power struggles between larger nations waxed and waned. At times in her history, for example, during the uni- fied reigns of David and Solomon, Israel was able to capitalize on her strategic location and gather income from the trade caravans travelling north and south. But more often than not, one of the larger nations was on her soil as an invading army or as a landlord exacting tribute and taxes from the people.
In such a small country one does not expect the vast topographical differences that one finds. Southern Israel (the Judean Wilderness) is dry rocky land that looks like places on the moon. Rough, rocky terrain gives life to a few thistle-like plants, small trees, and tough grass wherever there is any moisture at all. This is the land of the Dead Sea, a large land-locked body of water so filled with salts as to make sinking in it impossible. Around the Dead Sea are the hills and valleys in which Qumran and Masada were built over 2000 years ago. Here the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in the caves around Qumran, and here Herod the Great built a magnificent castle for his family and for protection should he ever need it. Summer temperatures climb to 48 degrees Celsius as the brilliant sunshine is reflected off the rocky terrain much like a reflecting oven. With a stark beauty of its own the Judean Wilderness fig- ures prominently in many of the bible stories from both the Old and New Testaments. Even here some rain falls in the winter months and provided water for the hardy settlers who stored it in deep underground cisterns for use during the dry summer months. There are really just two seasons in Israel: summer and winter, the first running from May to October. The moisture laden winds from the Mediterranean and the long season of winter rains nourish olive, fig, orange and date trees on many of the hill slopes of the Judean Wilderness. Fields of grain and vineyards are spread across the intervening valleys.
The Central Highlands have been divided historically into three regions of Galilee, Samaria (Ephraim) and Judah (or Judea). Galilee, in the north, is separated from the central heartland of Samaria by the important east-west Valley of Jezreel, through which passed the major trade route linking the Palestinian coast and Syria. The Valley of Jezreel is a fertile plain drained by the Kishon River and across from which Mount Tabor (1,843 ft.) and Mount Gilboa (1,6987 ft.) face each other. It was at Mt. Tabor that Deborah gathered her armies to defeat Sisera as we are told in the book of Judges.
North of Jerusalem one finds vegetation and a hospitable landscape, and though no well-defined geographical feature separates Samaria from Judah one has to travel but a few miles south or east of Jerusalem or Bethlehem before entering upon the forbidding Judean Wilderness mentioned above. Here the stony, gray hills support no vegetation throughout most of the year. South of Beersheba the Judean Hills flatten out into the barren southern steppe, the Negeb, which merges with the Sinai Desert.
The Jordan valley is the most characteristic geographical feature in Israel. A part of the great geological rift which extends through Syria and continues southward as the Wadi Arabaly it parts the country lengthwise from north to south, and through it the Jordan River descends in its serpentine course. The Jordan's waters are supplied by springs at the foot of Mount Hebron and empty finally into the Dead Sea. The Jordan supplies three lakes, and one gets a sense of the rapid descent of its waters by contrasting the surface level of the three. Lake Huleh is 223 feet above sea level; the Sea of Galilee is 695 feet below sea level, and to the south, the Dead Sea is 1,285 feet below sea level. From the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea is, as the crane flies, only about 65 miles but three times that distance as the river meanders from north to south.
Claims and counter claims to the lands in the Near East have been an integral part of the history of the area and continue to be a source of conflict. Prime Minister Begin of Israel has argued since 1967 that Israel should hold the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Jordan because the country is so defined in the Bible. So far Israeli tanks have been able to provide backing for the Biblical argument.
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Samson, Deborah, and all the other characters from the Old Testament stories live their lives here in this land where water is so precious and where the sand and the stars meet at the horizon on endless clear nights. The Judean Wilderness is just that: a wilderness. To cross it took a wily, tough and hardy people who knew how to survive in an inhospitable land without easy access to food and water. Where rocks are everywhere in the landscape it is no surprise that they play an important and recurring part in the imagery of the stories. When water is so scarce it is not surprising that wells and rivers become central meeting places for bringing together the people and the flocks. Every betrothal scene in the Old Testament is set by a well. Moses' main concern while leading the tribes through the wilderness is to find water.
For one raised in North America with its vast distances, miles and miles of countryside, forests that go on for miles and miles, it comes as a shock to discover that Bethlehem is but three miles from Jerusalem. In my Sunday School memory the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was a long journey indeed especially when travelling on a donkey. But then my Sunday School memory was filled with all sorts of falsehoods.
One of the most interesting sites is the marvelous Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea. Built about 2000 years ago, Caesarea still exhibits evidence of the Roman influence, with its baths, its wide streets, and its arena for sporting events. Herod the Great, who figures prominently in the Jesus story, was a rich and powerful king who has to be one of the world's greatest opportunists. As powerful men struggled for ascendancy in Rome and one "Caesar" after another crossed the Tiber to seek the highest office on earth, Herod was able, by quick maneuvering and clever "politicking" to stay always on the side of the person in power. He snuggled up to the right general time after time and hence was able to keep the power and influence required to rule and exploit the country. He was also interested in architecture, was influenced by the Romans in all things, and built many of the lasting monuments in Jerusalem, Jericho, Masada, and Caesarea.
As Martin Noth puts it:
About 22 miles south of the Carmel solient there was a fairly old,
quite small place called "Strato's Tower". This place had been made
over to Herod in the year 30 B.C. with a whole coastal area. On its
site Herod had a magnificent city built at great expense over a
period of twelve years, with artificial harbour installations and with
all the public buildings such as theatre, ampitheatre, and hippo-
drome which formed part of a complete Hellenistic-Roman city. In
the year 10 B.C. it was ceremoniously opened with magnificent
games for which Augustus and Livia gave a considerable sum.
...Herod called the city "Caesarea"....
Caesarea, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nazareth: all are cities we have heard of from Sunday School days on. But the most famous, the most beloved, the most complex and mysterious of cities is Jerusalem. Even before David's time Jerusalem was an important city, but from David on its place in history was assured. To go there today is to go back in time at least 3,000 years, and it is to visit the holy site for three of the world's largest religions. Divided into four quarters (the Jewish Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, and the Arab (Moslem) Quarter), old Jerusalem thrives behind its ancient walls with some of its inhabitants waiting for the Messiah to arrive through the Golden Gate, others waiting for the Second Coming of Christ, and others waiting for Mohammed to reappear. This is the city of Godot. Everyone is waiting. Waiting for Godot. Waiting for God. It contains more temples, mosques, and churches per square foot than any other city in the world. Bullet pocked stone walls are silent testimony to the fact that the religious conflicts of thousands of years are still very much alive. Evidence from the first temple period abounds and one feels while walking in the Old Jerusalem that there are several layers of city below one's feet. It is here that David chose to build his capital: "In view of the jealousy and bad feeling between the two Kingdoms of Judah and Israel...with the sure instinct of the wise statesman he chose a city on neutral soil between the territories of the two kingdoms. This was Jerusa- lem..." Later Solomon would fortify the city and still later battle after battle would be fought there as it became the holy place for Jews, Moslems, and Christians, and the temporal place to capture if one wanted to control the area. Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, each motivated by different urges fought and died there to gain control of the city - this magic and bloody city of Jerusalem. The three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share few things: these are one God, the patriarchs, especially Abraham, and Jerusalem.
To Jews and Moslems one belief is central: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord of our God, the Lord is one" or as Moslems put it, "There is no God but God."
Both religions demand submission to the will of God - "Islam" means "submission" - and regard fulfillment of his commands as the main road to salvation. Both separately, have a large body of law, a regimen of rite and custom. Jews derive theirs from the Hebrew Bible and the rabbinical traditions of the Mishneh and Talmud. And more, because Judaism is ready to develop and to disagree: it has several strands today, conservatism of belief going, usually, with strictness of observance. But all agree that a covenant with God, sealed at Sinai, selects the people of Israel for special favour - including the "land of milk and honey" - in return for special devotion.
Moslems draw their beliefs from the Koran , the word of God revealed through Mohammed; and from the quite distinct Hadith, traditions of what the Prophet himself said or did. An Arab trader, he received his first "revelation" about 610 A.D. (the start of the Moslem era). Moslems are not free to develop their tradition just because times have changed: "the messenger of God" was the last of the prophets (of whom Jesus was one), and the revelation he received final and complete. Belief in God, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity are the pillars of Islam.
Christianity is the odd religion out. Central to it is not the oneness of God, but his incarnation in the person of His son, Jesus Christ; who, we are told "was crucified, dead and buried. The third day he rose again...he ascended into heaven." Why? For the redemption of humankind, from the sin it had in- herited from Adam and Eve. In the Christian story it is God's grace expressed through His only son which promises redemption and victory over death.
The common denominator: Jerusalem. Hence, it is not strange that Jerusalem is, to continue the theatrical image, at the very heart of stage centre, bustling today with Jews, Christians, and Arabs who live, work, pray, and fight together focussed by their beliefs and sharing a complex, violent, and passionate history.
The Bible gives us a particular, a prejudiced, look at this history; though, of course, it is not a history book in the modern sense of history. As Auerbach says, "the Old Testament presents universal history: it begins with the beginning of time, with the creation of the world, and will end with the Last Days, the fulfilling of the Covenant, with which the world will come to an end." Throughout this "history" some sense of place is essential in understanding the feelings of the characters who are working out their destinies on this particular human stage.
1. Quoted here from “Hopi” a Corporation of Public Broadcasting film produced by New Day Films in New York.
2. William Wordsworth “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, W.W. Norton and Company, Third Editon, page 142.
3. Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itslef, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1979, page 199.
4. Martin Noth, The History of Israel, Harper and Row, New York, 1958, page 415.
"Myth and the Meaning of Life" and "Where to Look for God" - two sermons by Dr. John Crane
Introduction by Robert D. Lane
Lex Crane, Ginny Crane, Karen Lane, two members of the Nanaimo congregation. July 1998.
This chapbook contains two sermons by the now retired Unitarian-Universalist minister John Alexie Crane. Dr. Crane has served as a minister in several churches over the years including ones in Arizona, Colorado, British Columbia, and California. After he retired from the church in Santa Barbara, California, where I first met him, he continued to be in demand as a guest minister, a guest speaker, a teacher, and a counselor. In July of 1998 Lex came to Nanaimo to visit and was invited by the local Unitarian Fellowship to hold a service at the Boys and Girls Club in Nanaimo. The first sermon, “Myth and the Meaning of Life” is that sermon. The second piece, “Where to Look for God” was originally delivered at the church in San Diego, California.
A key word above is “delivered.” We need to note that these sermons were written to be delivered to an audience to be read, performed. They were not written to be published. Hence, the use of short sentences, the rhetorical devices of repetition, the sentence fragments used for emphasis. As you read these works try to hear the unique human voice that is right there behind the words. A thoughtful, passionate voice.
It is important to hear that human voice in that the full sense of “human” is such a central part of the message of Lex Crane. He says, “ we are free to find salvation now in the fully lived, fully realized human life. We will find it in art, in science, in close relations with people we love. We will find it in ourselves. We will find salvation in being as fully human as it is possible for us to be.” It is hard to imagine a more fully human being than Lex Crane. He is a veteran of World War II, wounded in action and decorated. He is in demand internationally as a speaker. He is a good friend, a fine writer, a devoted family man, a student of philosophy and of life.
I met him some thirty-eight years ago when he was a young minister at the Santa Barbara Unitarian Church and I was the church’s janitor. I used to stop in his office for long talks while cleaning the Parish hall. We shared interests in literature and philosophy and spent hours together talking about ideas while I was a student at the University of California. Many years later I asked Lex to write the introduction to my book on the bible, Reading the Bible: Intention, Text, and Interpretation, which he did.
Although we hadn’t seen each other for many years we both reported feeling as if the conversation had only just been interrupted briefly.
Lex can shock. Try this description from the second sermon, “I am an atheist who loves God.” His description of that theological position is interesting and challenging. More and more Lex is sounding like Spinoza. In fact, one of the key ideas in “Where to Look for God” comes from Spinoza: "The more we understand individual things, the more we understand God."
Whether Lex is successful in arguing for his position as an atheist who loves God I leave to the reader. And whether the claim that God is truth is more than a tautology I also leave to the consideration of the reader. In any case these two sermons offer many ideas for consideration and rumination.
Myth and the Meaning of Life
Dr. John Alexie CraneI. A Dream That Is Dying
"... each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth."There is a god-like perspective on human life caught up in these two lines from a poem by Arthur O'Shaughnessy [19th century British]. Each epoch in history, the poet observes, is one in which an old, old way of viewing the world is decaying, or one in which a new world view is taking form. It appears to me that both of these movements are occurring in our own time: an old vision of the meaning of life is dying, and a new one is coming to birth.
In the Bible, in the book of Deuteronomy in which the Ten Commandments are listed, there are hundreds of other commandments set down, all said to have been given by God to Moses for the guidance of his people.
One of the commandments reads like this: "If a man has a stubborn, rebellious son who will not obey his father or mother, even though they punish him, then his father and mother shall take him before the elders of the city, and... then the men of the city shall stone him to death. In this way you shall put away this evil from among you, and all the young men of Israel will hear about what happened and be afraid."
Another brief commandment for the regulation of certain interpersonal conflicts reads: "If two men are fighting and the wife of one intervenes to help her husband by grabbing the testicles of the other man, her hand shall be cut off without pity."
These are laws, plainly, conceived by a relatively primitive people, in the early stages of developing a civilization, laws no more infallible or inerrant than the laws of the state of California. It is hard to see now how anyone could read these two passages, and still look upon the Bible as the word of God, an infallible and ultimate guide for the behavior of human beings. Yet, a substantial, though dwindling number of people in this country still do so. For centuries our forefathers had little difficulty holding this conception.
This is because the mythical mode of thought, out of which this traditional story of God, Moses and the commandments grew, does not function critically, rationally, empirically, as we have become somewhat accustomed to doing.
Rather it explains and gives meaning to human experience by creating stories that satisfy the human need to know about things, to have order in our minds and in our lives, stories that satisfy human feelings, allay fears, enhance the human ego, that create meaning, comfort, order, peace, bring an assurance to people that they know all it is important to know about the nature of things. The myths created a kind of protective canopy to shelter and structure human life. A shelter desperately needed by our species as it groped its way into conscious life.
It appears to me (and many others) that this old mythical mode of apprehension is a dream that is dying. Even among fundamentalists controversy has developed over whether or not the Bible is actually inerrant, without error, the literal word of God. The Wall Street Journal reported on the controversy a few years back. It pointed out that some of the fundamentalists can now see that "there are just too many areas where the Bible can't stand up to close scrutiny."
Others argue forcefully in defense that "once the Bible's authority is questioned on any point, no matter how trivial, it's only a matter of time until the entire book is questioned." And this is quite right, of course. Once you admit the analytical and critical faculties to the study of an established mythology, its magic, its marvelous power to integrate, explain, and order human experience begins to decay. The two modes of thought are not compatible.
And we can't seem to prevent ourselves from subjecting the myths to rational scrutiny. The lure, the promise, the rewards of the rational mode of thought are such, evidently, that we have developed our capacity to use it even though it has undermined the power of the traditional myths to bring us meaning, comfort, confidence, ego gratification, and a substantial degree of psychological security.
II. One That Is Coming to Birth
It is a profound, world-shaking shift in the organization of human life, this change from the dominance of the mythical mode of thought to the ascendance of the rational mode of thought. It is at the level of a cultural mutation, an evolutionary change that will affect human life for centuries to come.
It is not yet clear whether the rational mode of thought is the primary contents of the dream that is coming to birth, or if it is only the agent of decay of the dream that is dying. My intuitions tell me that the rational mode is essential to us but is not the ultimate answer, that the new dream is yet to be born. I sense that it has begun to take form, but is still not within the range of our vision.
It has taken centuries for the change to develop and ripen. You can see its beginnings in Socrates in ancient Athens, then again in western Europe in the fifteenth century. It began to grow more rapidly in the eighteenth century, more rapidly still in the nineteenth century; and in the past thirty years it has been moving swiftly forward. The radical changes in the religious tradition that have taken place in recent years are a reflection of this swift acceleration of the pattern.
The scholar, Joseph Campbell, who probably knew as much about mythology as anyone in our time, says in his book, Myths to Live By  : I like to think of the year 1492 as marking the end or at least the beginning of the end of the authority of the old mythological systems by which the lives of humanity had been supported and inspired from time out of mind.
Why 1492? The view of the universe that most people carried in their minds up until that time was the image expressed in the Bible. In this view the earth was seen as flat, shaped something like a dinner plate, floating on a great ocean. This world view was very old, dating at least as far back as 2000 BC. The people who wrote the Bible understood the world to be structured in this way, and this was the way most European people perceived it in 1492.
There was another, more sophisticated world view held by learned people of the time which was derived from the ancient Greeks. Here the earth was seen as a motionless, solid sphere, enclosed by seven revolving, transparent spheres, each of which contained on its surface one of the planets: the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Thus, the earth was seen as being the center of a set of transparent spherical globes which enclosed it. Beyond the seventh sphere was the brightly lit celestial realm where God was enthroned.
This was the view held by most educated people in 1492, though these were relatively few in number at that time. The popular view was of the earth as flat, floating on a cosmic sea. But then, soon after Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the New World, Magellan sailed all the way around the globe. Our species had begun the systematic, empirical exploration of the actual earth, rather than remaining content with either of the old mythological images.
Then, fifty years after Columbus first voyage, Copernicus published his argument that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system; and a little over sixty years later, Galileo made a telescope which enabled him to see directly what Copernicus had worked out mathematically . The telescopes we have today are, of course, far more powerful than Galileo s. We can now see almost inconceivable distances out into the universe.
We no longer hold either of the ancient myths. The one in the Bible is relatively primitive. We know now that the sun is the center of the planetary system of which the earth is a part; but far more than this we know our sun to be one of about two hundred billion other suns in the galaxy in which our solar system is involved. This galaxy is a vast collection of suns and planets shaped like an immense lens, hundreds of quintillion miles across. We know also that this enormous galaxy is only one of many millions of other such galaxies dispersed in infinite space.
This is the view of the world that all school children now learn. It is the world view, roughly, that most of us carry in our minds. It has displaced the old myths in defining the world for us. The displacement began, broadly speaking, in 1492; and as Campbell put it: "Actually, the occasion for an experience of awe before the wonder of the universe that is being developed for us by our scientists is a far more marvelous, mind-blowing revelation than anything the pre scientific world could ever have imagined."
We are on the edge of a new era in the development of our species. Campbell makes very clear a fact we have been only dimly aware of, namely, that "there is no divinely ordained authority any more that we have to recognize. There is no anointed messenger of God's law. In our world today, all civil law is conventional. No divine authority is claimed for it: no Sinai; no Mount of Olives.
Our laws are enacted and altered by human determination, and within their secular jurisdiction each of us is free to seek her own destiny, his own truth, ... to find it through her own doing. The mythologies, religions, philosophies, and modes of thought that came into being six thousand years ago and out of which all the monumental cultures both of the Occident and of the Orient Ñ of Europe, the Near and Middle East, even early America derived their truth and their lives, are dissolving from around us, and we are left, each on his own to follow the star and spirit of her own life."
No divinely ordained authority... Each of us is free to seek her own destiny, her own truth, to find it through her own doing... Mythologies are dissolving around us... We are left, each on our own to follow the star and spirit of our own lives...
Those are the words of Joseph Campbell, a leading authority on the mythologies of the world. Do his conclusions sound familiar, sound Unitarian Universalist? This is the world view we have been developing since about the year 1800.
Since that time we have gradually, one by one, set aside each of the elements in the mythological tradition as not being essential to the religious life. It is not that we have been leading the way. It is just that, because of our free organizational structure, we have been able to evolve as new knowledge accumulated. We found our way to this conclusion a little earlier than most other churches. But all are moving now in this direction.
III. The Natural Meaning of Life
We are aware now that our lives are conducted in the context of a vast universe outside us, as well as of a vast universe of experience within ourselves. Campbell points out that there is an extraordinary linkage between the world within and the world without. Our human nature is characterized by an intimate, electric congruence with the nature of the universe as a whole.
We were able with our minds long ago to spell out mathematically the laws of motion that govern the behavior of the suns, planets and galaxies strewn out in infinite space. Our minds are so constructed that we can, with effort, grasp to some considerable extent the immense nature of things in which our individual lives are set down.
We know that our being grows out of its being. Our nature was formed out of its nature. We human beings emerged out of this immense universe, are made of its substance, contain its potential for being. Each of our acts and thoughts and feelings is part of the whole process of being. We are the universe seeing itself, beginning to understand itself. We are the eyes, the ears, the mind of the universe, and are an intimate part of its vast being.
We are launched now on a great new adventure, that of exploring the infinite space within us, the infinite space outside us. We have begun to probe physically into the nearby planets in our solar system; we have begun to probe the depths of the human psyche. As we begin this series of explorations, we do so after largely setting aside the old mythological mode of thought.
Instead, we are now asking that each individual develop the capacity of looking at the world in a free and independent way, that each approach the world insofar as possible without preconceptions, being analytical, critical and creative: not simply reproducing inherited patterns of thought and action, but becoming oneself an innovating center, an active, creative center within the life process.
Having begun to transcend the limitations of the old mythological way of organizing life, we are free to find salvation now in the fully lived, fully realized human life. We will find it in art, in science, in close relations with people we love. We will find it in ourselves. We will find salvation in being as fully human as it is possible for us to be.
By learning to think, to feel, to run, to dance, to work, to play. By learning to love wisely and well. By learning to be deeply in touch with the beauty of the natural world. By enjoying music, reading, people, sunsets, skiing, children, woodcarving, philosophy, cooking, stained glass, birds, sculpture, soaring mountains, trees, waterfalls, fountains.
A group of close friends, the warmth and beauty of faces close by, and the quiet pleasures of being alone. By learning to be in touch with our own inwardness, coming to know, accept, and respect ourselves, our feelings, thoughts, intuitions, the things we feared and had fled from.
Coming to know and love ourselves, to love others, to love the world; and to become a part of this wondrous adventure in the infinite universe of which we are an intimate, inseparable part, in which we live and move and have our being; and in which we are evidently invited to play an extraordinary and influential role.
"...Each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth."
Where to Look for GodDr John Alexie Crane
First Unitarian-Universalist, Church San Diego, CA 92103
I. Strange Gods
I recently found myself moved by a flash of insight into the nature of Unitarian-Universalist religion that I had been dimly aware of for years but had not clearly grasped. I found my way to the place where humanism and theism intersect. Contemplating this intersection, in turn, led me to a deepened understanding of our unusual kind of religion.
I began by reflecting on the theme, "where to look for God." As I am sure you have noticed, the word is heavily charged. On one hand, it is for many a source of meaning and comfort; and for many others it is thoroughly repugnant. For others still, it is just incomprehensible.
When you look back in history, you can see that a wondrous number of atrocities have been committed in the name of the traditional God of the Western world, the almighty Lord and Ruler of the Universe. Omnipotent, omnipresent, just, merciful, loving. Creator of the heavens and the earth.
This has been the dominant idea of God in the West for centuries. It evolved out of the Hebrew tradition in the ancient world, was taken into and reshaped by Christianity. This is the God of our Fathers. I confess that I do not now and never did believe in this God. Though as a child I was heavily exposed to the idea, I found no meaning in it. It baffled me.
It was not until much later that I came to understand that this idea was not actually God, but simply our culture's long accepted conception of God. That it was in fact an idol: an image of God made by the hands, heads, and hearts of humanity.
What I want to discuss today is not any particular conception of God's nature, but rather that something, that reality to which the word points our attention. I can't tell you much about the nature of God, but I can, I think, tell you where to look for God. Where to seek an experience of God.
II. Atheism and Understanding
I am an atheist. I do not believe in God. Never did. But there is more. I also love God. I am an atheist who loves God. I am aware that this is a peculiar theological position, not a popular one.
For the first thirty years of my life, the concept of God was almost a complete blank for me. In theological school, it was, of course, my duty to study the idea, and I found that the more I learned, the more irritable I became. I was an active, practicing, militant atheist all through the period of my professional education, and was delighted to find that I could run rational circles around all believers, even terrorize some of them.
Still, I continued to study the matter off and on, as I intuitively sensed some significance in it. Then, one rainy day, it all fell into place, and I saw, I understood, it made sense. I still did not believe in God, but I knew then where to look for her or for him.
As I now see it, if people find they require belief or faith in order to relate to God, they are looking for her, for him in the wrong place. If they do not know where to look for God, they must believe in somebody else's conception of the deity. We do not have to believe in the moon. We know where it is, and can go have a look at it. Similarly with God. If we know where to look.
I feel uneasy about belief. I try to keep my beliefs to a bare minimum. Beliefs can be exceedingly destructive, especially beliefs about the ultimate. Joseph Campbell points out in The Power of Myth that belief is actually more of an obstacle than an asset to experiencing God.
Campbell quotes Carl Jung, who said once that a religion, a system of beliefs, "is a defense against the experience of God." Belief and faith are required not in God, but in your culture's or your church's or your guru's conception of God. I think the problem has been that the dominant idea of God in Western culture, the God of our Fathers, the idea of God as Lord and Ruler of the Cosmos has created widespread theological confusion.
Alfred North Whitehead, shed light here: "When the Western world accepted Christianity, Caesar conquered..." The Christian God was fashioned "in the image of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman imperial rulers... The Church gave unto God the attributes which belonged exclusively to Caesar."
This traditional concept never touched me, reached me. I neither feared nor loved this ancient deity. However, I think I now have some understanding of the basic meaning of the word "God." I know what the word points to. I have a relationship to God that matters profoundly to me; but I do not find either belief or faith necessary.
It appears to me now that everybody - atheist, agnostic or theist - has a knowledge, an awareness of God; but because of the prevailing idea of the deity in the Western world, they may not connect the awareness with the word.
The 17th century philosopher Spinoza once said, "The more we understand individual things, the more we understand God." This has been a key insight for me, one that unlocked many doors. It points to the meaning of God I want to explore. It told me where to look for God.
"The more we understand individual things, the more we understand God."
III. Humanism and God
Humanists often feel uncomfortable or irritated or angry if they hear God mentioned. This is easy enough to understand. Hideously oppressive and brutal acts have been committed in the name of the reigning God of the Western world.
One of the first ministers to preach humanism from a Unitarian pulpit was John Dietrich, who spoke out in 1916 in Spokane, Washington. He was a brilliant speaker, an unusually learned and gifted man. Though he was a pioneer humanist, he can teach us significant things about the meaning of God.
Dietrich said, in a Humanist Magazine article published in 1953, that his earlier humanism (in the 1920s and 30s) seemed to him to be "too narrow in its conception of the great cosmic scheme."
"...we should not have drawn such a hard and fast distinction between theism and humanism, making them contradictory. That was all right so far as orthodox theology and supernaturalism were concerned, but there is a type of theism which does not stand in opposition to humanism, and I have come to accept that type."
In an essay he was working on in the last few years of his life, titled "Thoughts on God," Dietrich added an insight that I think is exceedingly important in knowing how, as well as where, to look for God. He said that to approach understanding and awareness of God, we must use the intuitive rather than the rational approach. "He [or she] must be felt and experienced rather than thought of and reasoned about."
This is a crucial insight. God must be felt and experienced rather than thought of and reasoned about.
IV. Joseph Campbell on God
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell said that the word God is a symbol that points to the ultimate mystery of being: beyond philosophy, beyond theology, beyond the reach of language. The mystery must be experienced directly, without the mediation of words. One's whole being is involved in the experience, not the intellect alone.
God is a wonderfully rich symbol that may, if we can rise above our negative experience with the word, call up a significant awareness in us, renewed again and again. The fact is that our lives are totally dependent upon a vast reality which we know only in part, and yet, to which we are intimately and inextricably related. Personally related.
Science reaches out to embrace the entire cosmos in both time and space. How the world began, and how it will end. In its own way, the Bible does the same thing. Which, in turn, is a reflection of the fact that human nature is such that we experience a sense of relationship with all that is,
Our minds and hearts reach out in relationship to the whole of being. Of reality. This vast whole flowing through time matters profoundly to us. It is the ultimate context of our lives. We understand it in part. Much of it remains in mystery. But we are intimately related to it all. In thought and feeling we are in touch with the whole of reality.
It is not compulsory that we use the word God in either thought or speech to designate this reality. It is not a matter of hellfire and brimstone. We simply do not need the word in the urgent sense that we need air, water, or sleep. In much the same way, we do not actually need music. But the presence of music can greatly enrich the quality of our lives. So it is with the word God. It is an exceedingly rich symbol.
The word God serves as a symbol, a focus for the thoughts, feelings, and intuitions that go into our intimate, inward relation with the whole of reality, both known and unknown, seen and unseen.
V. The Meaning of God
Wilfred Cantwell Smith is Professor of World Religions at Harvard, and a leading thinker on the great religions of humanity. One of his books, Questions of Religious Truth, was published by Scribner in 1967.
His understanding of where to look for God, I was pleased to discover, was very similar to my own. The idea is breathtakingly simple, but radically different from the most widespread conception of God in our society. Listen closely to Smith's wonderfully concise way of framing it: "Any statement is the word of God insofar as it is true." This is so because "God is truth... Wherever truth is found, there is God. And wherever truth is stated, there God is speaking."
Any statement is the word of God insofar as it is true. Because God is truth.
I ask myself then, what is the connection between truth and reality?
Every day, each day of our lives, we move about in reality, in the real everyday world; and as we move about in it, we take experience of it into ourselves, where it accumulates in some form, whether biochemical, electrical or symbolic. When we have lived for twenty, thirty, forty years, we come to contain a vast store of experience of reality, encoded in our own being. Within us.
God is truth. Truth is reality encoded in some form, in some way in human substance. In each of us. In each human culture. Hence, it is also true to say that God is reality. God is that vast reality, which we know only in part, that ultimate mystery in which we live and move and have our being.
Truth is what we know about reality. Hence, as Spinoza said, "the more we understand individual things, the more we understand God."
This is what we strive for in our churches: ever growing understanding. As we grow in understanding of individual things, we grow in understanding of God. Of reality. It is our love of God, of truth that moves us to seek an expanding, deepening understanding of the nature of things and of ourselves set down in it.
Our lives are totally dependent upon a vast reality, which we know only in part; and yet, to which we are intimately and inextricably related. And in which we live and move. We take God into ourselves, so that, it is within us that we are closest to her or to him. Within. That's where to look for God.
As John Dietrich put it, God "must be felt and experienced, rather than thought of and reasoned about." One's whole being is involved here, not the intellect alone. Out of this feeling and experience, an intimate, inward, personal relationship emerges. Awareness of mystery in the nature of things is kept alive, is repeatedly renewed in us.
Comments to Dr. Crane. Return to IPP.
Get your Rapture hats ready, kiddies! The sky is falling, and our wise gift of nuclear winter will propel us all into the loving arms of the all-knowing and all-everywhere G-d.
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