Why I’m Not Giving Up Sugar For Lent

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Lent crossYesterday was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the church calendar. It has been customary since the days of the early church to observe this season culminating in Holy Week by focusing on repentance, prayer, and fasting. Certainly, by the Council of Nicea in the year 325, Lent was an established tradition. In our day and age, Lent has also become a time for discussion of what fasting means. The term “fasting” normally refers either to going a while without any food, or to reducing the amount or variety of food for a longer period of time. Either way, fasting is usually done specifically for spiritual reasons. In Christianity, fasting is most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism, largely because the Roman Catholic church has codified what, when, and how much someone should eat in order to officially be fasting. (Essentially, Catholics who are fasting can eat one regular-sized meal and two small meals a day, but no snacks and on Fridays, no meat other than fish) However, fasting is also observed by other Christians, although it is generally phrased as “giving up {fill in the blank} for Lent”, where the thing being given up can be pretty much anything. The purpose is not only to exercise self-control, but to draw the focus towards Christ.

As it is generally practiced, giving things up for Lent seems to me to be pretty similar to a New Year’s resolution, except with a specified end date. Some people participate in this tradition by focusing on “giving up” a certain vice, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me because it seems to imply that it’s okay to pick up that bad habit again after Easter. Other people decide to give up certain types of food. I get the impression that giving up processed sugars is one of the most common forms of Lenten fasting in twenty-first century America. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel like a lot of people are motivated by the health benefits or the possible weight loss, rather than spiritual reasons.

For a couple years when I was in college, I gave up certain specific types of foods for Lent. The past few years, I’ve considered it. In fact, this year, I had briefly been planning on fasting in a fairly traditional sense by giving up several different types of food and essentially limiting my intake to a few specific staples. The reason I decided against that fast is pretty personal, but I decided to blog about it anyway because it’s helpful for me to put my thought process into words and because there’s a chance that someone out there might find this helpful to read.

Once or twice previously on this blog, I’ve alluded to the fact that I have struggled with eating disordered tendencies. I’m not going to go into the details and tell the whole story, but the relevant detail is that I’m very prone to going through phases where I essentially take a break from normal eating. I’ve never been severely underweight or dangerously malnourished, but I definitely have engaged in eating habits that count as fasting. But for me, it’s not a religious thing at all. On the contrary, it’s a distraction from God.

various types of sugarThat may sound counter-intuitive, so let me explain. In our culture, there is a trend of self-righteous attitudes about foods. Vegans and vegetarians often make it sound as if they view themselves as being morally superior to meat-eaters, which makes some degree of sense, since most people choose veganism or vegetarianism because they’re ethically opposed to eating animals. But people who eat low-carb diets or low-sugar diets or gluten-free diets often act the same way. Overeating and being overweight are associated with a lack of self-control and a lack of priorities, whereas a rigidly defined diet is associated with good self-control and balanced priorities. That’s not entirely wrong, but it’s not morally wrong to have junk food every now and then. In fact, I don’t think it would be taking Matthew 15:11 and Mark 7:15 out of context to mention those verses here. Jesus was referring to the Pharisee’s dietary rules when he said that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but rigid dietary rules defined by health guidelines are comparable to rigid dietary rules defined by Jewish law.

Of course, eating disorders are very different from—and in many ways, contrary to—a focus on healthy living and a clean diet. Even the attitude is opposite, since people with eating disorders are almost always highly self-critical rather than self-righteous. But most people with eating disorders have been influenced by that cultural idea that eating the wrong things is disgusting, unclean, and perhaps morally wrong. Eating disorders that are characterized by undereating are often (if not always) just an extreme of that concept, in which eating is seen as unclean in and of itself. Compulsive undereating tends to be driven by perfectionism and low self-esteem that is so extreme that it’s just as self-focused as arrogance and self-righteousness. For someone with a history of a restrictive eating disorder, even one as minor as mine, fasting doesn’t make room for Christ-centered thoughts, it makes room for more eating-disordered thoughts.

My decision not to give up unhealthy foods for Lent was based partly on the fact that it might lead to long-term unhealthy habits, but it was mostly because it would serve no spiritual purpose for me. I don’t want to sound preachy here, but I think that even people without eating disorders might sometimes be fasting for the wrong reason. Giving up processed sugar or cutting back on carbs or consuming fewer calories are all things that people often do for themselves, either to benefit their health or to make themselves look better. If your Lenten fast is making you focus on your health, then it isn’t really a fast, it’s a diet. Even if you are giving up something that isn’t food and isn’t health-related, it isn’t really a fast if you’re focused on yourself.

The important thing to remember in Lent is that we are all sinners, (no matter how much or how little sugar we eat) and that sin is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that nothing we do, not even willing self-deprivation, can get rid of that sin or fix the problems it causes in the world. The only thing that can solve the problem of sin is Jesus’ suffering and death. This is the time of year for us to remember how sad that is, but when Easter comes, it will be time for us to again focus on the joy we have in our salvation. And that joy and that salvation have nothing to do with what you eat during Lent.

Are Christians Hypocrites?

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cross in handsOn a regular basis, somebody who’s famous and Christian does something scandalous that leads people to question their values. The obvious current example is the story of Josh Duggar, which came to light this past week and is probably the biggest story to hit the news since the events in Baltimore several weeks ago. On the one hand, it’s sad that the media plays up these stories, often doing so in a cynical way and casting a bad light on Christians in general. On the other hand, though, you can’t really blame them; it really is a big story when someone who’s famous for their flawless morality does something shockingly immoral. Besides, there are plenty of people out there in the general public who are glad to hear things that allow them to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Sex scandals are just the big news stories; Christians do other unchristian things, too. Look at the comments on pretty much any online article dealing with religion, and you’ll see a number of complaints that basically boil down to the accusation that Christians are unkind, unloving, or unforgiving, when kindness, love, and forgiveness are supposed to be the whole point of Christianity. I sometimes think that the reason people are quick to point out high-profile hypocrisy is because non-Christians are so annoyed by the self-righteous attitude that they perceive Christians as having in less high-profile scenarios. This, sad to say, is evidently what most non-Christians in our culture see when they look at Christians.

But are they right? Are Christians, across the board, hypocritical? In the wake of the latest big-news sex scandal, this has been the topic of a lot of internet discussion. Some Christians have tried very hard to insist that the answer is no, or even to defend the actions of Josh Duggar. That’s just silly; even he himself has come forward and said that what he did was “inexcusable”. A lot of the discussion on social media points out that, for all the attention being given to the sinner in this case, not much is being said about the girls who were affected. I’m going to give the media the benefit of the doubt and assume that this hole in the coverage is protecting the privacy of these girls, but these people on the internet are right to point out that an apology doesn’t undo wrongdoing. Now I have nothing against the Duggar family, I would even go as far to say that their show is the closest thing there is to wholesome reality TV, but there’s no denying the fact that Josh Duggar committed a sin that harmed people. Nor is he the only Christian to do so.

The term “Christian values” is often used to refer to a set of values that varies slightly depending upon who’s speaking, but probably includes rules such modest clothes, no sex outside of marriage, no getting drunk, little or no swearing, and (maybe) conservative political ideals. But Christian morals, as set forth in the Bible, are more specific than that. Jesus says that even something as minor as an insult is a sin punishable by damnation. (Matthew 5:22 ESV: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”) Verses such as Matthew 5:48 and Deuteronomy 18:13 demand perfection. And, as other verses like Romans 3:23 (“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”) and Isaiah 53:6 (“All we like sheep have gone astray”) remind us, no one is perfect.

Therefore, yes, Christianity is a religion full of hypocrites. The only way to avoid that fact is to inaccurately redefine sin in order to incorrectly deny that we are sinners. (Something that some people and even some entire denominations do seem to do, but that’s beside the point) Otherwise, it is inevitably true that Christians do not live up to the high moral standards that Christianity says is necessary. It’s true of Josh Duggar, it’s true of politicians who get involved in scandals, it’s true of people who shoplift or commit any kind of violent act, it’s true of anyone who’s ever told a lie or said something mean, and it’s true of everyone who’s ever driven above the speed limit. And no Christian who has any kind of understanding of sin and the Law can deny it.

CrucifixBut Christianity isn’t just a list of impossible moral rules, or a harsh statement against people who break those rules. The sinfulness and hypocrisy of Christian people isn’t the end of the story. Yes, sometimes Christians are guilty of making it sound as if that’s the whole point, but it isn’t. Jesus did more than preach sermons about what it means to be a good person. Jesus paid for all of our sins through his death on the cross. That’s the actual point of Christianity. It’s what ought to come to people’s minds when they hear the word “Christian”, rather than a vague concept of “Christian values” or a cynical criticism of the lack thereof. I think that both Christians and non-Christians have a tendency to forget that Christianity is fundamentally about Christ.

In short, it’s true that Christians are hypocrites in the strictest sense of the word. It’s true that we’re all sinners by the definition of our own religion. Most of us have not committed the kinds of sins that make headlines, but none of us live the kind of flawless, wholesome, godly lives that Christians are supposed to live. We’re sinners, but we’re forgiven sinners.

There’s This Book I’m Reading, Episode 8

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The dangerous thing about working in a library is that you no longer feel a need to control the urge to collect books. Since you constantly have the opportunity to help yourself to as many books as you want, for free and for a short period of time, you forget about the expense and the clutter that result from buying books frequently. I’m used to coming and going with an armload of books. I think that’s a good thing in and of itself, but then late one evening, I found myself in a bookstore. I spent too much money that day, because books are cool and I wanted to take them all home with me. Every single one of them, but a few dozen in particular. Instead, I only got six.

Simply Good NewsOne of the books that caught my eye was Simply Good News: Why the Gospel is News and What Makes it Good by N.T. Wright, a biblical scholar in the Church of England. I used to read a lot of books by biblical scholars written for a popular audience, which is probably why I gravitated towards that particular title on that particular evening. Usually, I don’t actually enjoy such books. For one thing, they generally aren’t theologically solid. In college, I was taught that every Christian denomination besides Roman Catholicism could be lumped into two categories: evangelical or liberal/mainline. That’s an extreme oversimplification, but it does seem to be true of Christian books written for the popular audience. In particular, there are a lot of books that are more concerned with debunking Christianity than affirming it, but still claim to be Christian books. Those are the worst, not only because they are full of half-truths that deliberately undermine people’s faith, but because they tend to be full of absurd straw-man arguments, they often take the approach that the author’s credentials make him more reliable than the Bible itself, and they are written for the purpose of sensationalism rather than truth. Many theological writers for the popular audience will grasp at any excuse to say that the canonical gospels are unreliable, but will then ignore their own logical principles in order to promote non-canonical writings of uncertain origin or authenticity. Those books will claim that they are taking a historical approach to Christianity and viewing all ancient documents without allowing their beliefs to bias them, but that’s just rhetoric. What they are actually doing is trying to come up with new and sensational ideas to write about in order to attract lots of readers and build up their names as theologians so that they can sell even more of the next sensational book they might write. Of what I’ve read, Bart Ehrman is the worst. If I was important enough to have a nemesis, my nemesis would be Bart Ehrman, because he’s especially bad about a lot of those things.

So, for all those reasons, I went into Simply Good News without much confidence that it would be a book of any theological value. I just finished it immediately before giving this blog post a final re-write, and my overall evaluation is that it’s incredibly suspenseful. It has kept me on the edge of my seat (if I’m even sitting down instead of pacing around the room while reading) and I have had a hard time putting in down. For a novel, that would be the sign of success, but for a nonfiction book told in non-narrative prose, suspense doesn’t really seem to be the point.

The reason I find it so suspenseful is that I can never be quite sure where Wright is going. For the first 23 pages, he equivocates on the meaning of the phrase “good news” (and points out that the word “gospel” literally means “good news”, which he introduces as if it’s a little-known fact) without being specific about what the “good news” of Christianity is. I hoped that he would rightly identify the good news as salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I was more than a little afraid that he was writing this book for the purpose of proposing a new idea of what Christianity is all about. Fortunately, Wright did eventually get around to pointing to the cross and the empty tomb. To my delight, he introduced the “good news” by quoting the Bible: “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible; he was buried; he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Bible…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, although I’ve cut out part of the quotation.) At that point in the book, Wright seemed to be deliberately avoiding addressing the reality of sin, which meant that the gospel is really watered down despite the fact that that’s what he’s specifically trying not to do. But at least he isn’t redefining Christianity itself, which is something that happens all too often.

So, throughout the first three chapters, I was pretty pleased with Simply Good News. I wouldn’t say that I agreed with every word of it, but it was refreshing to read a book of this type that is not dismissive of the Bible, and is not a self-help/inspirational book disguised as religious literature. In fact, much of what Wright has to say in the early chapters of this book is to lament the fact that popular Christianity in our culture so often takes that route, treating Jesus as a wise man who gave good advice rather than as our savior. That’s very true. To use the over-simplified distinction that I was taught in college, evangelicals tend to see Jesus as a moral leader whose example must be followed, and liberals tend to see Jesus as an advocate for equality and social justice. Neither of those concepts are devoid of truth, but they’re not what Jesus’ mission was about, and they’re not what the “good news”  really is.

About eight pages into chapter four was where the suspense started to pick up again. By then, I had basically come to the conclusion that Simply Good News was indeed a good book that sets forth to put the Christ back into Christianity, not just in the sense that it talks about Jesus, but that it recognizes Jesus as the Christ who came to save the world from sin and death, rather than just a cool guy who came to tell us all how to be cool, too. Even the beginning of chapter four, in which Wright asserts that the Bible can be trusted, and in which he dismisses Ehrman’s pretense at scholarly superiority without mentioning Ehrman by name, is really great. But then Wright starts describing three “problems that prevent those in our time from grasping the idea of good news”. The very first of these “problems” is an over-emphasis on the redemption. To quote from page 65, “The church has latched onto a way of speaking about the gospel that goes like this: you are a sinner, deserving death; Jesus died in your place; therefore believe in him, and you’ll go to heaven after all. This can be shortened even further to something like, Jesus took my punishment. This assumes, first, that I deserved it, and second, that because Jesus took my punishment I therefore go free. There are many churches in which preaching the gospel means little more than repeating, explaining, and illustrating this statement.”

To which I can only say, “Yeah, you got a problem with that?” Because I belong to a church body that puts the emphasis on the cross and the salvation that comes from it. And that’s a good thing, because what can be more important and more precious than salvation? Of course, no pithy statement about Jesus includes every truth that can be found in the Bible, but pointing to the Law and Gospel message of sin and salvation is the closest you can get to fitting the whole of Christianity into a nutshell.

But, as it turns out, Wright’s objection to this description of the good news is basically that he has heard it in contexts where there are other theological problems happening. In particular, he associates it with the idea that dying and going to heaven is the end, and not understanding that the new creation is more good and more permanent than whatever it is that happens to us between death and the end of this world. (Granted, that is something that is rarely discussed, and may come as a new piece of information to many people who read Wright’s book.)

Wright spends most of the rest of the chapter discussing two other problems that are extremely prevalent and not talked about enough. One is what Wright calls the “split-level world”, that is, the idea that God lives upstairs and the world is down here and that there’s a boundary between the spiritual and the “real”. This perspective is characteristic of Deism, a not-really-Christian belief that God created the world but hasn’t been really involved in it for a while. But a lot of individual Christians take a similar approach in any number of ways. The whole “spiritual not religious” thing is one of those ways, as is the idea that religion is not something that we should discuss in polite conversation outside of specifically religious contexts. According to the heading of the section, Wright essentially sees this problem as a conflict between the philosophies of rationalism and romanticism.

The other problem Wright discusses in this chapter is best summed up in delightful phrase “chronological snobbery” which he uses on page 85. Since the Enlightenment, Western civilization has been obsessed with the idea of progress, and that concept has been fully engrained into the minds of pretty much everyone born in the last couple centuries. We look at history as if things are progressively getting better. Certainly, in many specific areas, that is true. Medicine, technology, scientific knowledge in general, living conditions in most places… but not truth or morality. But yet we use the statement “It’s the twenty-first century!” as an argument for changes in moral or social perceptions, and we take it for granted that “progressive” means “good”. We all know from the events of our personal lives, as well as major news events, that change can be either good or bad, but any changes in societal values are perceived to be a good thing. That isn’t always false, but it isn’t always true, either, and I personally think it’s especially dangerous in the postmodern era, since postmodern thought is, by definition, so anti-universal-truth, and therefore anti-Christian. I could say more about both of these topics, but since I’m writing about Wright’s book, for now I’ll just say that, for those twelve pages, Wright totally gets it right and that I would whole-heartedly recommend that section if it was practical to recommend small sections of books rather than whole books.

The remainder of the book contains a number of valid points and interesting discussions, but it gradually drifts into evangelical-leaning territory. In fact, near the end of the book, Wright contradicts earlier statements of his by restating the “good news” several times, using words like “glory” and “honor” rather than “Christ” or “Jesus’ death and resurrection”. Worse, he spends a lot of pages talking about us as Christians “becoming good-news people”. I think he may have meant that in a third-use-of-the-law kind of way, and I appreciate that he mentioned the idea of vocation a couple times, but still, that phrase implies legalistic ideas, as if our Christianity only “counts” if we behave correctly. Earlier in the book, I had been slightly disturbed that Wright was so determined to describe heaven as a place on Earth, (Ooh baby do you know what that’s worth?) but I had come to the conclusion that he was talking about the new creation. But now, in light of the last chapter of the book, I’m a little skeptical about whether that’s what he meant. It also occurred to me towards the end of the book that Wright never discussed the sacraments, which is a pretty glaring omission that I’m surprised didn’t bother me sooner.

All in all, my takeaway from this book was that I’m really glad I’m Lutheran. Every part of this book that I agreed with and thought was well-articulated were the parts that sounded like they could have been written by a Lutheran, and every one of my quibbles and qualms has to do with the fact that it wasn’t more in line with confessional Lutheran teachings. But what struck me most is that everything that Wright introduced as a surprising and unusual perspective that will enlighten his readers is something that Lutherans already know and preach as the gospel truth. (Minor pun intended) To Wright—and, evidently, to his readers—it actually seems like an unusual perspective to treat Christianity as good news about divine deliverance rather than as advice. But in confessional Lutheranism, Jesus’ death and resurrection is always the central message, and Jesus’ role as savior is always the point. Wright stresses that Jesus was a fulfillment of the Old Testament, which he puts forth as something that most Christians don’t understand, and that therefore detracts from the “good news.” But that’s how I’ve always been taught to see the Old Testament. In fact, the current Sunday morning Bible study where I go to church is looking at how the familiar Old Testament Bible stories point forward to the cross. (Shout out to Pastor Fisk. In case he happens to see this blog post, HI PASTOR FISK!) Thanks to the wonders of the internet, you too may hear this Bible study!  Wright seems to think that he’s saying something downright revolutionary by talking about the resurrection of the dead and the new creation, but Lutherans talk about those things sometimes. Wright is dismissive of a redemption-based description of Jesus because it sounds to him like it portrays God as being unloving, and he writes as if he is introducing an unfamiliar idea by pointing out that the very reason that God wanted to save the world was because he loved it so much. But that’s exactly what Lutherans hear in church every Sunday.

In short, I would recommend this book to someone who is interested in a little religious food for thought, but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who is hoping to have questions answered. It’s a lot better than most of the Christian books for the popular audience, but it definitely has its shortcomings.

Jesus Christ Superstar

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Jesus Christ SuperstarAndrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a really great musical. I am aware that it was a successful stage play before it was a movie, but the 1973 movie version is what I’ve loved and seen at least once a year for most of my life. (Although I believe that the CD my family has was made with the 1996 London cast) As in all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, the music is incredible. Besides that, there’s something fascinating and powerful about the anachronistic setting and the opening and closing scenes that show the actors arriving at and departing from the setting. The casting is great, too. Still, it is the music that really makes Jesus Christ Superstar excellent.

But Jesus Christ Superstar is not a Christian musical. It technically is about Jesus, and the characters and events are relatively closely based on the Bible, but that’s about as much as can be said for its religious value. It is my understanding that neither Andrew Lloyd Webber nor Tim Rice consider themselves to be Christians or claim that Jesus Christ Superstar is a specifically religious movie. Although there isn’t anything that directly denies Jesus’ divinity, there certainly isn’t anything that affirms it, either, and there is no discussion of His salvific work. Very few of the lyrics even come from the Bible.

 

"Every time I look at you I don't understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand."

“Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand.”

Much of the musical is shown from Judas’ point of view, and his frustration with Jesus is the main theme. After the introduction that shows the cast arriving in the desert and setting up, the movie opens with a musical soliloquy by Judas in which he rants and rails about how things have gone too far. Over the course of the movie, we see Jesus ride into Jerusalem, get betrayed and arrested, appear before Pilate and Herod, and get sentenced to crucifixion. Throughout all of this, we see Jesus’ other followers’ devotion to him, his apprehension concerning his upcoming death, and Judas’ confusion and conflict as he decides to hand Jesus over and then regrets it. In the end, Judas hangs himself, Jesus is sentenced to death, and, before the crucifixion scene, there is a concluding song and dance number in which Judas and a group of scantily clad female backup singers sing the title song, asking questions about Jesus’ identity and mission that the movie never answers. At least this movie shows the crucifixion as being the most significant aspect of Jesus’ life, which is more than some movies about Jesus do. But Jesus Christ Superstar completely leaves out the resurrection. It’s almost as if Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice didn’t know what to do with it, so they ignored it.

At any rate, ending the movie with the resurrection would have detracted from the emphasis that the movie puts on Judas’ questions to and about Jesus. It’s actually really sad that the movie ends the way it does. To quote 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” And anyway, the questions that are asked in Jesus Christ Superstar would not be left unanswered if this was a Christian movie that portrayed the resurrection. Okay, I get that the line “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” is there because “sacrificed” rhymes with “Christ”, and that it’s completely obvious what Jesus sacrificed. But the song asks other questions, including “Do you think you’re what they say you are?” and “Did you mean to die like that; was that a mistake?” At that point in the movie, Jesus is done talking. There is no final song in which Jesus responds to Judas and to agnostic viewers who share Judas’ questions. This portrayal of Jesus never explains that he is to die to atone for the sins of humanity and to bring salvation and eternal life. He just dies and disappears, and the rest of the actors break character and climb back onto the bus and leave without him. The end.

 

It's harder to see in a still image than the video, but you can still sort of see the shepherd dude near the left hand side.

It’s harder to see in a still image than the video, but you can still sort of see the shepherd dude near the left hand side.

But then, in the last couple seconds of the movie, something cool happens. We get a view of the sun setting behind the cross that the actors have left behind, and the faint image of a human figure walks across the frame. This was actually a blooper; when they were shooting the movie, they accidentally caught a random local shepherd on film, but they thought it was a cool visual effect, so they used it. I don’t know whether or not they even realized that it really looks as if the shepherd is Jesus Himself. That final image almost seems as if it is an acknowledgement of the resurrection after all. I’m not going to claim that this was divine intervention; God doesn’t need to miraculously show His hand by speaking through secular art when He already communicates with us via the Bible. But it’s pretty satisfying to see that, despite their efforts, the moviemakers were incapable of totally ignoring the resurrection.

Happy Easter! He is risen!

Easter

There’s this Book I’m Reading, episode 7

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Da Vinci CodeA number of years back, I read something in the newspaper that has stuck with me ever since then. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when or exactly where I saw it, so I can’t properly cite it. I don’t even remember whether it was a review or an opinion piece or a column, but it was about The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. It began by quoting the opening sentence of George Orwell’s 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Although there’s nothing unrealistic or fantastical about the idea of a clock that doesn’t start over at twelve, it’s just jarring enough to alert the reader to the fact that the story isn’t set in the real world. George Orwell is introducing a fictional reality. It isn’t characterized by magic and mythical creatures, but they count hours slightly differently than we do, so we are aware from the outset that there is a disconnect between the book and the real world. As the book progresses and the reader gradually learns about the historical events that were made up for the book, the reader remains conscious that those facts are part of the story. The Da Vinci Code, the newspaper writer said, lacks this subtle acknowledgement that it’s not based in reality. And unfortunately, the result is that many people believe the alternative historical facts that were made up for the book. My teenage self found this point to very profound even though I hadn’t read either 1984 or The Da Vinci Code at that point. But I remembered that statement last winter when I did read 1984 and again this autumn when I did read The Da Vinci Code. And I still think that it’s a significant point.

OrwellIt seems to me that Orwell’s 1984 is actually considerably less fanciful than The Da Vinci Code. The historical facts that Orwell fabricated were, from his perspective, near future. The historical facts that Brown invented are distant past.  As I indicated in this blog post from last year, I think that Orwell’s imagined version of the 1980s was a fairly realistic possibility of the direction that the late twentieth century could have taken. When it comes to Dan Brown’s fabricated history, it doesn’t matter whether or not his facts are realistic because he wasn’t guessing about the future; he was writing about own version of historical events that have already happened.

I really enjoyed reading The Da Vinci Code.  Both as a recreational reader and as someone with a degree in English, I thought it was interesting and well-written. The plot is exciting and engaging, the characters are believable and likable, and there are a number of interesting themes and motifs. An additional appealing factor is that it involves historical details from a variety of time periods, which gives it the tone of a time-travel story even though most of the novel takes place in a single night. It’s highly intellectual for a sensational bestseller, and it’s very fast-paced and eventful for a novel that is essentially about historical research. Not only is it a gripping page-turner, but it raises the kinds of intellectual questions that leave you thinking long after you finish the book. What is the relationship between a symbol and a symbolized idea? If a symbol needs to be decoded, does that make it more meaningful or less meaningful? When it comes to ancient artifacts, is it more important to preserve something or to bring public awareness to it? What is it about human nature that makes us believe that secrets are meant to be discovered and revealed, and is that an impulse that should be followed? From an academic perspective, is it more important to debunk mistaken beliefs or to allow the continuation of a historically rich religious tradition?

But this book has raised other issues that aren’t about the questions and experiences of the characters, but rather about the relationship between the author and the reader. Dan Brown’s goal was to create a fascinating story with religious themes, and in that, he succeeded. It seems to me that he also was deliberately expressing his distaste for religion in general and Christian beliefs in particular. He succeeded in that, too. In the process of writing a novel that has sensational appeal, raises the intellectual and academic questions that he wants to bring to readers’ minds, and expresses his negative views of Christian theology, he alters historical facts. This is something that fiction writers do all the time to make a point or to tell a good story. Historical fiction often tends to be wildly inaccurate because the writer is not only trying to bring history to life, but also to tell a story that is interesting and original. Since readers know that fiction is, by definition, made up by the author, it isn’t necessarily immoral for an author to alter historical facts in order to tell the story that he or she wants to tell. But does the author have a responsibility to make sure that the readers know which facts are made up? Is it immoral for the author to put fabricated details into the mouths of academically respected characters? Is it wrong for the author to write about altered versions of actual people and organizations?

booksIn general, I’d have to say that the answer to the above questions is no. An author who writes a fictional story shouldn’t have to be responsible for ensuring that readers don’t accidentally believe that the story is true. If it’s okay for Margaret Mitchell to tell us that there was a woman named Scarlett O’Hara who lived in Georgia during the Civil War, if it’s okay for people like Thomas Malory and T.H. White to tell us stories about a medieval king named Arthur, if it’s okay for the BBC to tell us that there’s a man from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time in a blue box, then it should be okay for Dan Brown to tell us that there was a man in first-century Judea named Jesus who was married to a woman named Mary Magdalene and that religious leaders have since then gone out of their way to keep this union a secret.

But there are a couple things that make the situation regarding The Da Vinci Code a little different. One is that Jesus wasn’t just any historical figure; he is the basis of a large religious tradition that Dan Brown is undermining and discrediting when he makes up stories about Jesus that he hopes readers will believe to some extent. I gather that Dan Brown himself is not a Christian and that he doesn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so from his own perspective, it’s no more heretical and immoral to fictionalize Jesus than it is to fictionalize any other historical person. But even if we are to take this issue from Dan Brown’s point of view and leave Jesus’ divinity out of the debate, it seems to me that it’s still awfully irreverent and insulting to write a story that knowingly and deliberately contradicts other people’s faith while presenting the fabricated details in a way that attempts to persuade readers of their legitimacy. I know that Dan Brown himself has said that The Da Vinci Code is just a story, but he makes all of his characters academic experts and cites imaginary sources that sound real.

That brings me to the other problem, which is that Dan Brown tries too hard to hide his imaginative hand in his version of Jesus. Sure, any intelligent and discerning reader knows not to believe everything that he or she reads in a novel, even if it involves a real person, but people are going to have a harder time distinguishing fabricated facts from actually true background information when both kinds of details come from the mouth of characters who are described as leading experts in their fields. It’s not unreasonable for readers to subconsciously assume that, when a fictional expert states a historical fact, that the author has done research and verified the truth of that fact. When Leigh Teabing, a fictional scholar in ancient documents concerning Jesus, claims that there are 80 extracanonical gospels and implies that they are consistent with each other, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that this is true, when in fact Dan Brown exaggerated the number to make his point seem sensible, and that the extracanonical gospels are not at all in unity with each other. When Robert Langdon, a fictional authority in the field of symbols, interprets almost everything as a symbol of the sacred feminine, it’s only natural that many readers will take it for granted that it’s true that a surprisingly large amount of famous artwork and literature contains hidden allusions to Mary Magdalene and/or pagan goddesses and/or a vaguely theistic concept of femininity itself. When a prose passage that is evidently Robert Langdon’s train of thought says that the word “Jehovah” is a blend of the Hebrew words for the sacred feminine and for the Hebrew male God “YHWH”, it’s only natural that many readers will think that’s true and totally forget that “Jehovah” is a Latinized spelling of “YHWH”, not a combination of another name with “YHWH”. (That one struck me as being particularly absurd. The worship of YHWH did not involve the belief in the existence of a corresponding goddess or an abstract divinely female entity, and if there was such a female divine being, her name wouldn’t have begun with the letter J or a Hebrew equivalent of it, because there was no Hebrew equivalent of the letter J.)

Fabricating JesusIt would be an interesting project to go through the book and meticulously factcheck each piece of information that is presented as a nonfictional fact. It wouldn’t surprise me if some authors have actually done so, since I know that The Da Vinci Code has sparked a phenomenal amount of discussion. I do know of one book that dedicates a fair amount of time and space to explaining where Dan Brown got his ideas. (The book is Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels by Craig A. Evans, and I would recommend it. Although it isn’t absolutely unbiased, it’s less biased than most for-the-general-public books on the topic. He isn’t deliberately making up sensational theories for the sake of making a name for himself, which is what some of the “modern scholars” who he mentions have done.) Interestingly enough, not all of Dan Brown’s made-up facts are actually original. It seems that he did do at least a little research on some of the most extreme ideas that historians have suggested about Jesus and the early church. Evans lists some of the fabricated facts that Dan Brown uses and points out the lack of credibility in those sources. In theory, as a fiction writer, Dan Brown has the prerogative to pick a few radical and bizarre theories and create a story in which they are true. But this makes his misinformation particularly insidious, because it gives him the ability to frame his imaginary facts in a scholarly context.

Admittedly, there’s a very fine line between making up facts to tell an interesting story and making up facts that fool readers, and it has more to do with the readers’ perception than the author’s intention. But I do think that Dan Brown went too far. I lost count of how many times while I was reading The Da Vinci Code that I suddenly realized that it was responsible for the spread of a blatantly untrue fact that I’ve heard people say time and time again. (For instance, it’s absolutely false that the gnostic gospels were favorable towards women and were hidden by the Roman Catholic church because the popes were sexist. The four gnostic gospels that I have read are far, far more sexist than anything in the Bible.) People don’t even need to have read The Da Vinci Code themselves to have heard and repeated these falsehoods. Then these things get passed around as fun facts or as ammunition against Christianity, and few people are going to feel the need to look them up and see if they’re accurate.

The problem here isn’t the fact that someone wrote a book that isn’t historically accurate. The problem is that our culture enjoys debunking Christianity so much that there are people who are willing to believe anything they read in a fictional book that backs up their arguments, even if they are otherwise intelligent people wouldn’t take that approach to any other topic. Although I am suspicious of Dan Brown’s motives in writing such a book, I certainly wouldn’t argue for censoring his work because of the factual liberties that he takes. But I do think that the general reader population ought to keep in mind that Dan Brown is not a theological expert or a historical expert, that his religious-themed writings are fictional, and that his version of Jesus is not the Jesus who actually existed and who is the foundation of Christianity.

He Knows If You’ve Been Bad or Good: A Story for Christmas

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Note: Although this blog post is written in first person, it is fictional and not autobiographical. Neither the characters nor the events are real.

 Christmas candle

My memories of childhood Christmases are fairly typical and maybe even a bit cliché. I was obsessed with snow, and it was a major disappointment if the grass was visible on Christmas day. My family loved Christmas music and Christmas decorations and Christmas cookies. Our tree had far too many ornaments to actually look tasteful, but we always thought it was beautiful anyway. Every year, my sister and brother and I would try our best to be good and would live in fear of Santa Claus’s judgment. By the day before Christmas, the suspense level had mounted to the point that we didn’t hear a word of the Christmas Eve service, despite the fact that our parents tried their best, year after year, to teach us that Jesus was the point of Christmas. And then, every Christmas morning, there would be presents under the tree and candy in our stockings. Despite the inevitable lapses of good behavior, we somehow seemed to always end up on Santa’s nice list. At least, that was the way it happened for the first few Christmases of my life. But then, there was the year when we didn’t make the cut.

In retrospect, I recall that we had gone overboard in our Santa obsession that year. Mom and Dad had been feeding us “true-meaning-of-Christmas” messages in the form of corny holiday movies and serious talks about Jesus, but we couldn’t help focusing on the all-important goal of being on Santa’s nice list. We didn’t deliberately disregard those lessons, but it’s a little hard to concentrate on abstract notions of joy and love and peace when you’re worried about whether or not you’ll get those toys you want. After all, both Jesus and The Christmas Spirit were around year after year without our active involvement, but those Christmas gifts from Santa required ongoing effort and dedication from us. Naturally, we couldn’t help focusing on the one aspect of Christmas that depended completely upon our behavior.

One of the biggest mistakes that I remember from that year happened about two weeks before Christmas. We were having company for dinner, and Mom had asked me to keep an eye on Susan and Davy so that she could devote her full attention to the fancy meal that she was preparing. The three of us closed ourselves up in the bedroom that Susan and I shared and sat quietly on my bed with a stack of books. We were determined to stay out of the way until dinnertime and to thereby impress Santa Claus with our obedience and dedication to goodness.

All went well for a while. When Mom checked on us, she found me reading aloud from a picture book, with one younger sibling at each elbow. “There you are,” she said, smiling at the adorableness of the scene. “You’re doing such a good job reading, Gloria. Thank you kids for being good and staying out of my hair.” And she was gone again, leaving all three of us proud of our behavior, and leaving me proud of my reading ability.

But I didn’t have quite enough reading skill to keep it up for long, and Susan and Davy didn’t have the patience to sit still and listen to me. The next thing we knew, the floor was covered with crayons and colored pencils and paper and we were busily making Christmas cards, oblivious to how messy the room had suddenly become.

“I need scissors,” Davy announced. “Gloria, can you get me scissors?” I was the only one of the three of us who was tall enough to reach the shelf in the kitchen where the scissors were kept. I should have said no. At that time, my parents had a strict rule against scissors in the bedrooms, which had been instituted a year and a half earlier when I had cut my own hair. Besides that, fetching the scissors was going to be a dangerous mission. I was going to have to invent a reason for going into the kitchen even though I knew that Mom wanted to be alone in there, and then sneak the scissors away without letting her notice. I knew it was wrong to break the rule, but as it so happened, I needed the scissors, too, and the temptation was irresistible.

“Mom,” I said as I entered the kitchen, “Susan wants a drink of water.” I stealthily approached the shelf of interest and eyed my target.

“I don’t want you taking water into your room,” said Mom. “Tell her to come here and I’ll give her some water myself.”

My hand slowly crept across the shelf. I was safe from Mom’s gaze; her head was down as she chopped an unidentified vegetable that I hoped I would be able to remove from my own food when the time came.

“She doesn’t want to come because we’re busy coloring,” I explained. My fingers reached the scissors, and I skillfully snatched them and had them safely concealed behind my back in a split second.

“Well, she can just wait until dinnertime then,” said Mom.

“Okay, I’ll tell her that,” I replied. And thus, I made my exit and returned to the bedroom, scissors in hand.

At that precise moment, Santa Claus wasn’t specifically on my mind anymore, but I still found enough kindness within me to let my brother use the scissors first. He made a couple seemingly random snips in his work and then graciously handed them to me. My project was a little more complex. My older cousin had recently taught me to make paper snowflakes by folding a circular piece of paper into a wedge shape and cutting little bits out of the edges. I was determined to master this art myself. It proved to be more difficult than I had remembered. The first challenge was figuring out how to cut a piece of paper into a circle, and when I finally succeeded in getting one that was good enough to use, I couldn’t get it neatly folded. Once I had more or less mastered that step, I thought I had gotten the hang of making paper snowflakes, but my first two attempts ended with a snowflake that came out in multiple pieces. It took every bit of patience that I had to keep trying until I finally produced a snowflake that resembled my cousin’s work.

With pride and a sense of accomplishment, I held my snowflake aloft for my siblings to admire. Clearly, this work was worthy of a mother’s approval, so I brushed the paper scraps off of my lap and got up to bring my snowflake to her, completely forgetting that I had already committed a misdeed by taking the scissors without permission. At that moment, the error of my ways suddenly became much more serious. As the scraps of paper fluttered to the floor, they were accompanied by little pieces of dark fabric. With horror, I realized that I had unknowingly cut pieces out of my pants.

Davy and Susan stared at me in utter shock. This was the naughtiest thing that any of the three of us could remember ever having done. Destruction of clothing seemed to our immature minds to be an unforgivable vice, and there was simply nothing to be said that would adequately express the gravity of this situation. I did the only thing I could. I quickly changed into a similar pair of pants, rolled the damaged ones up into a tiny ball, and hid them in the back of the closet.

If Mom and Dad noticed that I had changed, they didn’t question or comment on it. The original pants stayed safely hidden for a long time, and I actually don’t know what eventually happened to them. At any rate, I never did get in trouble for cutting them. We did get in trouble for making a huge mess and for sneaking scissors into the bedroom, but that seemed like a minor point compared to the pants incident. As far as we were concerned, events turned out in our favor. But, for the two weeks that followed, we couldn’t shake the fear that Santa Claus knew more than Mom and Dad, and that we had gotten ourselves in serious trouble with him.

Then there was the matter that arose at the children’s Christmas program in church several days later. I can’t entirely explain why we acted the way we did that day. It didn’t help that we had been given cookies and candy in Sunday School prior to church, and were consequently all in a rambunctious mood. Stage fright may have also played a role, because that was the first year that I had been given something to memorize and recite in front of the entire congregation, and it was a stressful situation. But I think that the biggest factor in that day’s trouble was the plain and simple fact that we hated Cassie.

Cassie was in my Sunday School class. I hated her partly because she sometimes teased me, but mostly because she was Mary in the Christmas play and I wasn’t. Davy hated Cassie because she had hit him once, or so he claimed. Nobody else could ever remember when that had happened. Susan hated Cassie because she was a very devoted little sister and dutifully hated anyone that Davy and I hated.

The service was about to start, and all the kids were huddled together in a group at the back of the church. We were supposed to be forming two lines to march down the aisle singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”, but it is a plain and simple fact of nature that children are incapable of organizing themselves into lines without the assistance of adults who know where each child is supposed to go. I knew that I was supposed to go behind Tommy and in front of Cassie, because we were in height order. That was the way we had always practiced it and that was the way that the grownups had told us to do it. But for some reason, that wasn’t the way Cassie remembered it.

“You’re behind me,” I whispered at her. My whisper came out too loud and attracted the attention of all of the other kids, but the grownups took no notice. Several of our Sunday School classmates quickly took sides. My friends insisted that I came before Cassie, Cassie’s friends insisted that Cassie came before me, and everyone else insisted that we were being too loud and had to shut up now because church was starting.

It was crowded, and there was no way I could reposition myself in front of Cassie. I focused a dirty look at the back of her head, covered with the envied light blue cloth. The hymn started and the disorganized group of children began moving forward, but I didn’t sing. I was busy trying to formulate a plot for getting into the right spot at the front of the church, despite being in the wrong place in this formation that was supposed to be a line. We passed the pew where my parents were sitting, and they each gave me a look that said that they knew what was going on and were disappointed in me for acting grumpy and childish when I was supposed to be singing “O Come All Ye Faithful”.

When we got to the front of the church, the Sunday School teachers faced the consequences of failing to ensure that our lines were neat. As they tried to herd us into the pews at the front of the church, the grownups in the pews behind us laughed at the cuteness of our disorder. The little kids stood there idly, looking utterly baffled and lost, while the older kids hissed directions at each other under their breath. And Cassie stood there, looking so prim and proper as she waited to make her way into the pew that I wanted to yank her Mary headpiece right out of her hair.

But I didn’t. Davy did. I didn’t see him coming up behind me, and I didn’t see his hand reach for Cassie’s costume. But the next thing I knew, Cassie was shrieking and holding her hands to her head as if she’d been physically hurt, and Davy was standing next to me, giving me a triumphant look as he held the piece of blue fabric. Despite the surprised and amused reaction of the entire congregation behind us, we shared a moment of sibling comradeship. As far as everyone else was concerned, Davy had just done something childish and stupid because he was a little boy in an unruly mood. But from my perspective, he had just done something noble and unselfish in my defense.

Actually, we didn’t get in trouble for that at all. The adults all thought it was pretty funny, and the incident was more or less forgiven and forgotten as soon as the blue fabric was back on Cassie’s head. Even Cassie herself didn’t have anything to say about it after the fact. But Davy and I both knew that misbehaving in church was a serious offense. Later that evening, we discussed the question of whether or not Santa Claus would hold that against us. We wanted to believe that Santa Claus understood that we had to do something to respond to Cassie’s hatefulness, but it seemed unlikely that this was an adequate excuse for being mean to her in front of the entire congregation.

As Christmas day got closer, the pressure to be on Santa’s nice list increased. But, as any kid knows, it is simply impossible to avoid being rambunctious when it’s almost Christmas. There is simply too much energy to burn off, and that’s really all I can say to justify the time when Susan and I were playing catch in the living room. Susan started it, but I was older and supposedly knew better.

As any grownup would have predicted, the ball went off course a number of times. The game should have ended when an ornament got knocked off the tree, but as luck would have it, the ornament didn’t break. Susan gaped at it with her mouth wide open in a silent gasp. She had perfected the art of overly dramatic facial expressions, which served to enhance her natural cuteness. In this particular case, cuteness was not the objective; she was genuinely shocked at the misdeed we had just committed. But I simply picked up the ornament and put it back on the tree. And then I threw the ball back to Susan.

Only a minute or two later, something worse happened. The ball hit the fancy lamp on the little end table next to the sofa. It wobbled back and forth a couple times, while I stupidly stood motionless instead of running to catch it. Then it toppled off the table in slow motion, hit the floor, and dramatically broke into a million pieces. It would have been a spectacular sight if it wasn’t for the fact that breaking a lamp was, as far as we knew at that time, one of the most horrible things that a person could do. And there was absolutely nothing we could do to fix it or to avoid the parental wrath that was sure to ensue.

Instinct kicked in, and I grabbed Susan and hid behind the Christmas tree with her. I was old enough to know that hiding solved nothing, and if I had been thinking logically, I would have known that the safest course of action would have been to quietly sneak away and hope that Mom and Dad would find no evidence to tell them who had committed this crime. After all, they had three children and a dog, so it wasn’t unreasonable to hope that they would have no idea who to blame and would end up blaming no one. But I wasn’t thinking along those lines at that moment, and it seemed logical to hide behind the tree and wait to see what would happen.

Susan snuggled up against me, evidently feeling reassured to have a partner in her wrongdoing. “Do you think Santa Claus saw that?” she asked me.

“Santa Claus knows it was a mistake,” I told her, and hoped that was true.

We didn’t have to wait long before Mom walked into the room and found the broken lamp. “All right, who did this?” she yelled at anyone within earshot. There was a brief silence before she added, “I see you two back there. Come on out.”

There was no way to deny what we had done, so we came out. “We’re sorry,” I mumbled. “It was an accident.” Susan echoed my words.

“I forgive you, but you need to be more careful,” Mom said. “I can’t have you breaking things. Now go away until I get this mess cleaned up. I don’t want you stepping on anything sharp.”

She sounded angry, but she wasn’t punishing us. Susan and I scurried away, grateful to escape from that debacle so easily, and no more was said about it. But it was one more thing to add to the list of reasons that we were scared of how Santa Claus would judge us this year.

In spite of that, we really were relatively good kids. Those three incidents were really the only times we got in trouble for the entire month preceding Christmas that year. There were a few arguments that got a little out of hand, including one time that Davy bit me, and there were a few cases of staying up late without permission or sneaking disliked food to the dog. There were even a couple tantrums. But in general, our good behavior outweighed the occasional bouts of naughtiness. At least, that’s what we thought, and we were pretty sure it was what our parents thought, too. We could only hope that Santa Claus agreed.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Mom and Dad called us together into the living room. They looked so serious that we knew something was wrong. Dad held up a handwritten letter on elegant stationary and shook his head sadly.

“I’m very sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but we got a letter from Santa Claus today, and he said that you aren’t on the nice list this year.”

Even amid the stunned silence, an ambiance of grief suddenly filled the room. Susan started to sniff. “Let me see that,” I demanded.

He wasn’t bluffing. “To the parents of Gloria, Davy, and Susan,” the letter said in perfectly neat handwriting “I regret to inform you that your children have not met my official standards for goodness this year. Because of their behavior, we are unable to put them on the nice list. Sincerely, Santa Claus.” It looked legitimate. If the handwriting was in fact my mother’s, I didn’t notice, and if she was struggling to keep a straight face as I read the letter aloud, I wasn’t aware of that.

Davy let out a wail of sheer despair, and Susan burst into tears. I stared speechlessly at the paper in my hands and thought back to various wrong things I’d done and hated myself for every one of them.

“But we tried so hard to be good,” I said.

“I know,” said Mom. “I guess you just weren’t good enough.”

“I’m very sorry,” said Dad, “but you know there’s nothing we can do about it. Now you all need to go and get changed for church.”

It seemed horribly cruel for them to bring us to church on Christmas Eve when we had nothing to be excited about the next day. We had to sing Christmas hymns without any feelings of joy and we had to listen to the pastor preach about how Jesus is God’s ultimate gift when we were saddened by the knowledge that we weren’t getting any other gifts that year. After the service, people cheerfully wished us a merry Christmas, and Mom and Dad responded with an equal degree of Christmas joy, but the three of us kids were quiet and somber. We came back home and went to bed without all of the chaos and exuberant excitement that normally characterized Christmas Eve. Mom and Dad put us to bed and wished us a good night and a merry Christmas with so much affection that it was slightly comforting, but there was nothing they could say or do to heal the heartbreak of a Christmas without gifts. That night, I fell asleep to the sound of my little sister sobbing quietly, in a way completely uncharacteristic of children that young.

Most years, on Christmas morning, the three of us woke up absurdly early and dragged Mom and Dad out of bed to start our Christmas celebration long before it was daytime by any reasonable standard. But that Christmas, the digital clock on my dresser said 7:38 when Susan woke me up to ask for help with a zipper. I helped her and got dressed myself, and then Davy joined us as we went downstairs to see if Mom had made anything special for breakfast, like she usually did on Christmas. At least that would be one nice thing about today.

“Good morning, you sleepyheads!” said Mom. “Merry Christmas! You certainly took your time getting up today!”

We looked around the living room in amazement. There were presents under the tree. Mom and Dad sat on the sofa, where they had apparently been waiting for us for a while now. They looked happy and excited and impatient to get started with Christmas morning. But how could there be presents under the tree?

“I thought Santa said we were naughty,” Davy said.

“You have been naughty,” said Mom. “You’re naughty every year. Sometimes you’re very good, but that doesn’t make up for all the times you misbehave. But you know what? Christmas gifts aren’t a reward for being good. We give you Christmas gifts because we love you, and we forgive you when you misbehave.”

“After all,” Dad added, “does God only give gifts to people on His nice list? Are any of us even good enough to be on God’s nice list? Or did he give Jesus as a gift to everyone, even though we’re all sinners? We aren’t going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by punishing you for not always being good. It’s better to celebrate Jesus’ birthday by letting you see that you can’t earn gifts. You haven’t earned these Christmas presents and you haven’t earned the forgiveness and salvation that comes from Jesus. But you get to have them anyway.”

That was the Christmas that I stopped believing in Santa Claus and learned that the presents under the tree came from my parents. But more importantly, it’s the year that I realized what’s wrong with the legend of Santa Claus. Now that I think back on the Christmases of my childhood, the Santa Claus tradition strikes me as being ironic and sad. Why would we celebrate Jesus’ incarnation, which is the ultimate example of an undeserved gift, by teaching children to believe in a moralistic system whereby gifts are a direct result of good behavior? Christmas is a time to rejoice in the knowledge that God gives us gifts even though we don’t deserve them. The most important gift of all comes through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Santa Claus might be a fun little story that is harmless when it’s used for entertainment, but the moralistic message of Santa Claus is completely overshadowed by the salvific message about Jesus Christ. And since none of us deserve to be on any kind of a nice list, that’s extremely good news.

 

 

The Face and Name of Jesus

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JesusIt’s a face that pretty much everyone would recognize. It has a kind and gentle expression and is framed by a medium-length light brown beard and long, wavy, light brown hair. The eyes are slightly downturned and can be either brown or blue; it varies from picture to picture. The face is a bit narrow with somewhat high cheekbones, and the nose is a little on the long and narrow side. That’s Jesus’ face. Of course, we are aware that our idea of what Jesus looked like is based on artwork and that we don’t know precisely what he looked like.  In fact, his skin and hair were probably at least a bit darker, and the proportions of his facial features were probably a little less Caucasian. But we picture Jesus the way our artwork portrays him.

The question is whether this has any theological implications. Some people would say yes. I have seen numerous internet debates that say or imply that it is racist to depict Jesus as being white just because we live in a culture where whites are a racial majority and middle eastern Jews are a racial minority, and that by inaccurately depicting Jesus’ appearance, we are misrepresenting his identity and worshipping a fabricated version of Him. Therefore, people who worship Caucasian Jesus are following a white supremacy religion. Granted, I’m paraphrasing the most extreme version of this argument that I’ve ever seen, and most people wouldn’t go nearly that far. And, of course, the first part of the argument is true. Jesus was not European, and it does seem to reveal the racist traditions of our society when we forget that Jesus wasn’t part of the racial demographic that is slightly most common and generally most powerful in this country. But does that necessarily mean that we’re worshipping a false Jesus if we imagine his appearance incorrectly?

Jesus name transliteration

Keep in mind that the Hebrew and Greek used different alphabets from what is shown here, and that not every letter in one language’s alphabet has a corresponding letter in every other alphabet. For example, Greek has no sh sound.

Along a similar vein, I saw something on youtube several months ago in which someone was claiming that Christianity is all wrong because we worship someone named “Jesus”, and that wasn’t His name. Jesus’ name probably would have been pronounced Yeshua (accent on the second syllable) in Aramaic and Hebrew, although not everyone agrees on that. Apparently, Galileans had a distinctive accent, and that has something to do with the debate. In the early church, the pronunciation of Jesus’ name changed over time because of the transition from Hebrew to Greek, from Greek to Latin, and from Latin to English. Considering the fact that there were different alphabets involved, this isn’t surprising. Incidentally, Joshua is technically the same name as Jesus, but it came through the translations differently because Old Testament names were transliterated straight from Hebrew to Latin without the Greek stage.

But does that mean that we don’t believe in the real Christ if we pronounce his name “Jesus” instead of “Yeshua”? Is the pronunciation that important? Some people say yes, and they make a very interesting and understandable argument based upon the importance of names. Hebrew culture in particular places a fascinating emphasis on the power of the spoken word, and a person’s name is a very specifically significant kind of word. The name of Jesus is particularly special because it is the name of God. There is certainly a logical basis to the assertion that, if you change the name of your god, you’re making up a new god. (Incidentally, Christians don’t use the name YHWH very much anymore, either.)

As the History Channel taught us, Jesus had beautiful hair. I wonder what kind of shampoo he used.

As the History Channel taught us, Jesus had beautiful hair. I wonder what kind of shampoo he used.

In retrospect, I wish I’d used this issue as the topic for my final paper in my postmodern class my last semester of college. It has to do with the very postmodern question of how much meaning language has. The typically postmodern answer is that words are just words; they only carry any meaning at all because a large group of people agree to use them in a certain way, but their meaning is vague and transitory; there’s nothing inherently meaningful about a word, a name, or any symbol or artistic imagery that’s used to represent something. I don’t remember specifically discussing names in that class, but it seems to me that a completely postmodern thinker would have to conclude that the collection of sounds that we use to refer to people is entirely arbitrary and can change over time without any change in meaning, because it doesn’t actually have any meaning in the first place. The opposite approach, which is at least somewhat closer to what Hebrew culture assumed, is that a name is inseparably linked  to the person who bears that name and that the name therefore does have meaning in and of itself.

Google Earth tells me that this is what Nazareth looks like now.

Google Earth tells me that this is what Nazareth looks like now.

Of course, Jesus lived in a time and place when pretty much everyone was multilingual, and they were presumably accustomed to the fact that even people’s names can change between languages. Based upon the culture and political conditions surrounding Jesus’ life, and based upon the context of certain conversations described in the Bible, we can say with certainty that He knew both Hebrew and Aramaic and that there’s at least a good chance that he knew Greek. I’ve also heard speculation that he might have known a little Latin, although I don’t know whether or not there’s much of a basis for that claim. Most likely, Aramaic would have been his primary language. At any rate, Jesus probably heard more than one version of his name used during his life. Besides that, there are numerous titles used for Jesus in the Bible, such as Rabbi/Teacher, which his disciples often called him, and “the son of man,” which he frequently used for himself, and, of course, Christ/Messiah. If we’re going to insist that the exact set of sounds is what matters, we can’t allow any titles. But since Jesus himself was okay with them, that must mean they’re okay.

Jesus' nameWhile I disagree with the postmodern disregard for the importance and significance of words, I also think that it doesn’t make any sense to fixate on how a name was supposed to be pronounced in the original language. It’s true that there was something important about Jesus’ name in the original Hebrew, but that important thing isn’t the sounds, it’s the meaning. Most Bibles have a footnote on Matthew 1:21 and/or Luke 1:31 that tell us what “Jesus” means, but I looked it up in a couple other places as well in the hopes of finding more information than just a definition. Yeshua is a shortened form of Yehoshu’ah, which is basically the name Hoshea (which means “salvation” or “he saves”) with Yeho (from YHWH, God’s name) added as a prefix. It literally means “God saves,” where God is specifically the Hebrew God of the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, it’s pretty clear that the Jews had a thing about choosing names with relevant meanings. Jesus’ name wasn’t just a bunch of sounds, it was a description of what He was doing in this world. “God saves” is the message we’re supposed to be getting from the name of Jesus.

The image on the right was created by forensic anthropologists associated with the BBC, and is considered to be an accurate representation of an average Hebrew man from Jesus' time and place.

The image on the right was created by forensic anthropologists associated with the BBC, and is considered to be an accurate representation of an average Hebrew man from Jesus’ time and place.

It seems to me that the issue of how we depict Jesus’ appearance is similar. There is room for philosophical debate about the relationship between identity, name, and appearance, (I would argue that a person’s name is more closely tied to their identity than their physical appearance is) and there’s also room for debating the social implications of incorrectly depicting Jesus’ race. It is certainly understandable that some people, particularly those who are part of racial minorities, would be troubled to see Jesus portrayed as if he was a European, and it doesn’t seem far-fetched to argue that this tradition in Christian artwork may have contributed to racism in Western ideologies over the last couple millennia. If that is the case, it certainly is sad, and it’s clear evidence of the fact that we are sinners. Even the most devout and well-meaning Christian is not immune to horrible, sinful attitudes towards other people. But it doesn’t mean that we worship a false Christ if we imagine Christ looking more like a European than He really did.

The image on the left is a picture of the shroud of Turin; you can see the faint image of a face, although it doesn't show up well in the photograph. The image on the right is the negative, which shows the face much more clearly.

The image on the left is a picture of the shroud of Turin; you can see the faint image of a face, although it doesn’t show up well in the photograph. The image on the right is the negative, which shows the face much more clearly.

It’s worth noting that our artistic images of Jesus were not randomly made up out of the blue by racist Caucasian people. At least since 1350, it has been speculated by many and believed by some that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ burial cloth. It is marked with an image, believed to have been left by radiation, of the man who was wrapped in it, including his face. The shroud is shrouded in mystery and controversy. (Pun intended) If you Google it, you will find lots of articles about it that contain compelling evidence supporting conflicting opinions. Many believe that it was a hoax from the 1300s; many others believe that it does indeed date back to the early first century. In the last few decades, technological advances have allowed the cloth to be examined more extensively, and that has not ended the controversy or answered all the questions. Considering the fact that John 19:40 specifies that Jesus was wrapped in linen cloths, not a shroud, I’m not inclined to think that the shroud of Turin was Jesus’ shroud. (Yes, I’m aware that some English translations of the other gospels use the word “shroud”, but I’m pretty sure that in all three cases, the word σινδονι ought to be translated simply as “linen”, not “a linen shroud.” I could be wrong about that, but John 19:40 is pretty specific about how Jesus was buried.) At any rate, whether the shroud of Turin shows a genuine image of Jesus or not, some religious artists from many centuries ago believed that it did, and based their depictions of Jesus on that image without any racist intentions of making Jesus look specifically European.

This picture was closely based on the face from the shroud of Turin, and looks very much like the popular image of Jesus' face.

This picture was closely based on the face from the shroud of Turin, and looks very much like the popular image of Jesus’ face.

But the important thing is that our salvation does not depend upon whether or not we accurately picture the way Jesus looked. The Bible tells us that he was true God and true man, born to live a sinless human life and die an innocent death on our behalf, which is what we really need to know. It also tells us about many of the things that Jesus said and did during his ministry, because those are important details, too. But it didn’t tell us what Jesus looked like because that information isn’t necessary or relevant. On the one hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to keep the pictures we have of a face that we identify as Jesus, even though we don’t know what he really looked like. But on the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for us to try to make educated guesses about what He did look like and to have a preference for artwork that is more likely to be accurate. We just have to remember that Christianity isn’t about racial controversy, it’s about “God saves.”

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