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!


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.”

In Which I Continue To Rant About Bad Theology On the Internet



The picture used in the article being discussed

The picture used in the article being discussed

A few days ago, I happened to see this online article: 10 Political Things You Can’t Do While Following Jesus, by Mark Sandlin. After wondering whether it was meant to be some kind of satire and looking for signs of sarcasm, I have had to come to the conclusion that it was written in all seriousness. It just sounds silly because it misrepresents Jesus so badly. What bothers me about it is that I’ve heard these exact same arguments from so many people on so many occasions. I understand that the people who say and write these kinds of things are doing so out of good intentions, genuine interest in other people’s well-being, and the belief that they are doing what the Bible tells them to do. But the Bible isn’t a handbook on social justice, and if you read it that way, you’re missing out on a lot. Furthermore, many of these arguments just aren’t supported by the Bible anyway. I’m writing this blog post in the format of a direct response, but I’m not so much criticizing that particular article as explaining why I’m frustrated by the common mindset behind it. Here are Sandlin’s ten “things you can’t do while following Jesus” and my response to them.

10) Force your religious beliefs and practices on others

If the point here is that it’s impossible for government to enforce faith, of course that’s true. And if the point is that it’s immoral for the government to try to enforce faith, I agree to some extent. A theocracy based upon Biblical doctrine is a nice idea, but that’s not the kind of government we have, and we wouldn’t be doing any good if we tried to turn this country into a theocracy. But I don’t think that’s what this article is saying, given the fact that it continues, “One of the strengths of the faith Jesus taught was its meekness. The faith he taught valued free will over compulsion- because that’s how love works.” Really? Jesus was so humble that He didn’t care if people believed what He said? And Jesus said that free will is the same thing as love? Where does the Bible say that? I’m finding verses that say things like, “…but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God”, (John 3: 18) and “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16) Contrary to what Sandlin says, Jesus talks about freedom less frequently than He talks about belief, and when He does discuss freedom, he says things like, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32) I have a feeling that’s not what Sandlin means when he uses the term “free will”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we can or should try to force people to become Christians. The Bible also says that “this [faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) and that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) I am not by any means advocating for a campaign to turn this country into a theocracy. But there is no Biblical basis for the postmodern belief that religious differences don’t matter or that we shouldn’t want people who we love to come to faith.

9) Advocate for war

Jesus: An Artist's Rendition

Jesus: An Artist’s Rendition

Interestingly enough, the first actual Bible quotation cited in this article is quoted in order to disagree with it. Sandlin quotes Matthew 10:34 (although he doesn’t actually give the reference in the article), which says, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He even acknowledges that there are a couple other verses that say the same thing, but discounts them because “they don’t hold a candle to the more than fifty-some verses where Jesus speaks about peace and peacemaking.” He doesn’t offer any such verses, so I got out a concordance and looked them up. I counted, and Jesus used the word “peace” or a form thereof 24 times in the four gospels in the King James Version. In many of these cases, it is part of the phrases “hold thy peace”, “peace be with you,” or “go in peace.” In the parable being told in Luke 11:21, the word is “safe” in most translations, and it refers to possessions, not people. Luke 14:32 also is part of a parable, and “peace” is not what the parable is discussing, as is made clear six verses earlier. Then there is the aforementioned Matthew 10:34 and the corresponding verse in Luke, and a couple verses in Matthew and Luke in which Jesus tells his apostles to bring their peace to a house that is worthy, but not to a house that is not worthy. That leaves five verses that Sandlin could have quoted. I have a feeling that Matthew 5:9 (“Blessed are the peacemakers…”) is what he had in mind here. (Incidentally, the beatitudes tend to be misused; one ought to remember that a person who is “blessed” is someone who has received a gift, not someone who has earned a reward.)The others are Mark 9:50, (which ends “…and be at peace with one another”) Luke 19:42, (“Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!”) John 14:27, (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you”) and John 16:33. (“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”) There’s a big difference between “In me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” and “In the world you will have peace because of me.” Jesus said the first one; He never said the latter one, and Matthew 10:34 (“I did not come to bring peace, but the sword”) is not, as Sandlin implies, in contradiction with the rest of the Bible. Of course, war is a bad thing and should be avoided. But it happens, (Matthew 24: 6 and 7) and when it’s necessary, Christians are not compelled by their faith to oppose it.

8) Favor the rich over the poor

This one is absolutely true, and in fact Sandlin could have used Bible verses to back this one up, particularly from the Proverbs (14:21, 19:17, 31:9) and then there’s the Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55, which doesn’t actually include the word “poor”, but it does say “those of humble estate.” And Jesus Himself occasionally talks about giving to the poor.  I’m a little puzzled as to why the author of this article didn’t choose to quote the Bible. I rather suspect, though, that he’s hinting his disapproval at some particular law or practice in our culture, and I’m not even sure what that is, unless, of course, he’s arguing for a communist or socialist society. In that case, it’s obvious why he can’t find verses to go with that idea. Jesus wasn’t a political figure and he didn’t have a lot to say about politics except “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21) which isn’t exactly a radical or controversial statement. Jesus is saying that we’re supposed to respect and obey the government, which applies to any kind of political system and has nothing to do with who is rich and who is poor.

7) Cut funding that hurts the least of these

Who ever said anything about government funding? The government in Judea under the Roman Empire did not, as far as I know, have any kind of welfare system at all, and there is no place in the Bible where Jesus has much to say about that lack. If He had had a choice, perhaps Jesus would have been in favor of a welfare system, but we don’t know because the Bible doesn’t
specifically say. It obviously wasn’t an important enough issue to have a place in Scripture. There’s a reason for that; the Bible is about what Jesus did for us, not about how Jesus thinks the government should treat us. Here, Sandlin finally gets around to quoting something from the Bible to support his argument: “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” He doesn’t give the reference, though. I can’t actually find it, but I think that this verse was taken out of context; I seem to recall that Jesus was talking about children, not poor people. If I’m incorrect about that, I do apologize, but either way, this verse isn’t about government welfare and budget cuts.

6) Let people go hungry

Pictured: Not Jesus

Pictured: Not Jesus

Ooh, now we get a Gandhi quote! Seriously, did he not have his Bible accessible when he was writing this article? Or did he look, and realized that there’s no Bible verse that says, “And Jesus said, ‘When anyone is unable to provide food for his or her self, it is the government’s job to provide food for them.’”? Sorry for the sarcasm, but it’s just absurd to quote Gandhi in an article about what “Jesus-followers” should do. Of course Jesus didn’t want people to starve; in fact, He performed miracles on a couple of occasions in order to feed His followers. But there was nothing political in that act of providence, and He never said anything to indicate that we are required to view it as a precedent for government policies.

5) Withhold healthcare from people

When did Jesus discuss healthcare specifically? Sandlin makes this point on the basis that Jesus healed people. Yes, He did, that’s true. The author goes on to acknowledge that we cannot work the miracles that Jesus could, but says that modern health care is pretty close to a miracle. That statement is dangerous; it sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to put modern medicine and/or government funding in the place of Jesus. There’s a word for something that tries to take the place of Jesus; that word is “antichrist”, and it’s generally considered by Christians (or “Jesus-followers,” if you will) to be a bad thing. Again, I’m not denying that Jesus was in favor of taking care of people, but how do you start from that premise and suddenly insist that this means that Jesus expected the government to pay for healthcare?

4) Limit the rights of a select group of people

Okay… what “select group of people” are we talking about, and what “rights”? I agree with this statement as presented, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a subtle way to refer to some specific issue, and I’m not even sure which one. But anyway, Jesus didn’t talk a whole lot about “rights”, and an awful lot of the things that twenty-first century Americans label as “rights” aren’t discussed in the Bible. The phrase “certain unalienable human rights” comes from the Declaration of Independence, which is a very nice document and one that we, as Americans, should respect. But we ought to recognize the difference between biblical doctrine and American ideology, even where they don’t conflict and we agree with both. And even the Declaration of Independence says that these rights are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which is so vague that you can’t use it to really make a case for many of the political agendas that I think the author may be subtly referencing. I want to reiterate once again that I’m not completely disagreeing with the goodness of the principle, or saying that it’s totally incorrect. But this principle in and of itself is not biblical and cannot be used to support the kinds of arguments that I think are being implied here.

3) Turn away immigrants

Again, where does this come from? Sandlin lists travelers in the Old Testament and points out that “Christian heritage runs through Judaism. We are an immigrant people. Even our religion began somewhere else.” I understand the point, but where does Jesus say that a government is compelled to never deny immigration? Examples do not make a principle. If Sandlin is speaking against racial discrimination, he could build a better case by quoting any of the several verses in the Epistles that talks about Jews and Gentiles, but even then, this in no way indicates that the government doesn’t have the right to turn away an immigrant when those in authority believe that there is good reason. The current immigration issues in our country are problematic, and I personally don’t know what needs to be done, or whether a “liberal” or “conservative” approach is better.  Certainly we shouldn’t make it illegal for people to move, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be any restrictions, or that we shouldn’t do anything to prevent people from sneaking across borders without the approval of both governments. It’s not an issue with only two sides; there are many different things that our political leaders need to take into consideration. The Bible doesn’t give an answer on this issue. It doesn’t specifically discuss the political aspects of immigration.

2) Devalue education

Sandlin says this based on the use of the word “wisdom” in the Proverbs, which isn’t really a valid point because “wisdom” is not synonymous with “education”.  Perhaps that’s splitting hairs a little, but once again, what does this have to do with government funding? The author’s assertion is making the assumptions that a) education is the responsibility of the government and that b) more funding automatically means better education. Both of these are debatable, and neither of these is something that Jesus talked about.

1) Support capital punishment- execution

Christ on the CrossThis is the worst part of this list, and what makes it even more horrible is the fact that it comes in at number one. It isn’t the sentiment itself that I mind so much. Although the Bible doesn’t say anything against capital punishment, in theory there wouldn’t be anything wrong with a country deciding not to use that particular authority. But the argument that Sandlin gives has nothing to do with the authority of the government or with the Bible. It starts by saying, “Jesus died by execution. He was an innocent man.” For just a moment, it looks like there’s finally something in this article that sounds like Christianity. Here we finally have a mention of Jesus’ death on the cross, and even a hint that the purpose of his death was sacrificial. But that’s not where this article is going. It goes on to say that it’s unloving to kill, and ends, “It’s time to stop the government-sanctioned killing.” Is this article really telling us that the message we’re supposed to get from Jesus’ death is that capital punishment is bad? Instead of seeing what Jesus has done for us, we’re supposed to see a reason to criticize our own government? Instead of receiving forgiveness of sins and salvation, we’re supposed to receive motivation to push for the abolishment of a law we think is “unloving”? This isn’t just ignoring the cross; it’s using the image of the cross to cover up the purpose of the cross!

I know that there are Christians on both sides of any social or political issue who see Christianity as a reason for their position, and I know that both Republican Christians and Democrat Christians often have a tendency to mix religion and politics. Sometimes, that isn’t even such a bad thing, because it’s true that religious morals should cause us to do good things in our lives, including the areas where politics are concerned. But when we use faith to inform our political and moral values, and when we use the teachings of Jesus to explain these values, we need to make sure we’re actually agreeing with those teachings, not just manipulating them and mixing them with clichés and Gandhi quotes in order to say whatever will justify our political beliefs. And, even more importantly, something is wrong when we think that Christianity is just about politics. It’s horrible and frightening when people can talk about their “Christian” faith without mentioning Christ and his crucifixion and the forgiveness of sins. It’s even worse that law and gospel have gotten so lost that people can actually talk about the crucifixion without seeing salvation and grace there. Jesus came to die for your sins, people! If Jesus’ teachings inform your political opinions, that’s a good thing, but don’t let your political opinions redefine Jesus!

Stuff That Isn’t in the Bible


Five in the morningMistakes

“You are worth dying for.”- Jesus

You are worth dying forFor the sake of not being mean, I’m not going to specify where I saw this or who put it there. (Although I am rather hoping that they will see this blog post and realize that my objection to it went beyond the fact that it involves ending a sentence with a preposition.) The context where I first saw it isn’t actually a relevant point, because this phrase can be found in many places on the internet, and it would seem that it’s something of a cliché in the internet Christian community. As great as it is that many people use the internet to talk about religion, the problem with the internet Christian community is that it tends to be dominated by clichés.

The problem with this particular cliché is that it attributes a quotation to Jesus that isn’t actually from the Bible. One must always be careful when putting words in Jesus’ mouth, and when I say that one must be careful, I really mean that one shouldn’t do it. Paraphrasing is a dangerous thing when the distinction between paraphrasing and quoting is not clearly made. That’s true in academic writing and it’s true when talking about God.

I’m not saying that paraphrasing is bad in general, because it isn’t. As an English major who is used to writing a lot of papers, I can’t deny that there is definitely a place for paraphrasing. If I tried to deny that, I would earn the disapproval of many professors. Sometimes, paraphrasing is the most efficient way to make a point, especially when you’re trying to express a simple idea by referring to a text that discusses multiple ideas and therefore uses complex language. Sometimes, it’s the best way to draw together two related ideas that come from different texts. Paraphrasing is often necessary in order to have an opportunity to use your own writing style and voice, and it’s the only way to show your professor (or any other reader) that you actually understand what you’re saying and have put thought into your topic. Some of those reasons to paraphrase can definitely apply to talking about the Bible, and others may or may not, depending upon the context. But, just as in any form of academic writing, it’s always important when talking about Jesus to distinguish between an actual quotation and paraphrasing.

The idea behind this particular cliché paraphrased quotation is obviously to express Jesus’ love for us, which is so great that he willingly sacrificed himself to pay for our sins. That’s a good idea to express, and it’s Biblical and true and important. The problem is that it isn’t really what that phrase is saying. It’s way too easy to equivocate on the word “worth”. Actually, I’m not sure that even counts as equivocation, because the misunderstanding is what the expression is actually saying, and the intended meaning requires redefining words a little.

CrucifixThe problematic word here is “worth”. “Worth” is an expression of value, and value is generally understood to be a property of the thing being valued, not the person by whom the thing is valued. To say “you are worth dying for” is to imply that the “you” being addressed has inherent worth and is worthy in and of him/herself. This is contrary both to Lutheranism and to Christian doctrine in general. It is important to understand that our worth and worthiness are not the reason that Christ died for us, they are a cause of the fact that Christ died for us. In and of ourselves, we are not worth anything, and we certainly are not worth something as valuable as the life that Jesus sacrificed for us. If this cliché included the prepositional phrase “to me”, that would help a little, but there’s still something wrong with the fact that “you” is the subject of the sentence while Jesus is being pushed into a little prepositional phrase. Yes, it’s true that there are many Bible verses where the word “you” is the subject, but that’s different because every Bible verse is surrounded by a large and rich context. (That is, the Bible) A religious cliché that doesn’t come from the Bible has only an implied context, so if it doesn’t stand on its own, it’s in danger of saying something it really doesn’t mean. (Or at least, we really hope that’s not what it actually means.)

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

I left this on my computer after I posted it on facebook for Easter, so I might as well use it here now.

Even though the intended meaning behind “You are worth dying for” is a Biblical idea, the accidental meaning is directly anti-Biblical because it contradicts Romans 5:6-8, which says, “ετι γαρ Xριστος, οντων ημων ασθενων ετι, κατα καιρον υπερ ασεβων απεθανεν. μολις γαρ υπερ δικαιου τις αποθανειται; υπερ γαρ του αγαθου, ταχα τις και τολμα αποθανειν; συνιστησιν δε την εαυτου αγαπην εις ημας ο θεος, οτι ετι αμαρτωλων οντων ημων, Xριστος υπερ ημων απεθανεν.” Or, in other words, (English ones) “For Christ, when we were still without strength, according to the right time, for the ungodly he died. For rarely for the righteous will one die, yet for the good man, perhaps someone would even dare to die, but God commends his love for us that, we being sinners, Christ died for us.”

(As a side note, I confess that about 70% of the reason for my recent inclination to use Greek words on my blog is that it makes me feel clever, even though I realize that there’s a big difference between knowing something and knowing how to look something up. But it’s worth noting that about 7% of the reason for my use of Greek words is that Greek is just awesomer than English, and the other 23% is that quoting Bible verses in Greek is more accurate because the New Testament was in Greek in the first place. And I think that those are both valid reasons. As another side note, I would like to acknowledge the likelihood that I may have made a mistake in the preceding paragraph. As yet another side note, I would like to point out how excited I am that I only had to peek in the King James a little bit to figure out what the Greek of Romans 5:6-8 is in English. And, yeah, I think that’s enough side notes for now.)

I hadn’t really thought ahead to how I was going to finish this blog post, and now it’s morning and it’s time for me to do daytime stuff, so I’m just going to leave it there.  The end.

A Good Friday Blog Post with Greek Words in It

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Jesus' arrestI noticed something fascinating and awesome during the Good Friday service today. It was in the Passion reading from John 18 and 19, and the particular verse was John 18:8, when the chief priests and officers have arrived in the garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Twice, Jesus asks them who they are seeking and they say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” John 18:8 is Jesus’ response the second time. In the ESV, the verse reads, “Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.’” The bit that made me notice something fascinating and awesome was the “let these men go” bit. I remembered hearing on Worldview Everlasting, my favorite youtube addiction, that there’s a certain Greek word that is often translated “forgiven” that can also be translated as something along the lines of “sent away” or “separated”, among other things. (Which is really interesting, because it means that the phrase “your sins are forgiven” is equivalent to “your sins have been sent away”)

Even after much searching, I have failed to find the Worldview Everlasting video in question, and I actually don’t remember exactly what it said or which verse it quoted. (Although I think it may have been Matthew 9:2) I did, however, find the Greek word in question.  It is αφίημι and the various forms thereof. For example, the last phrase of Matthew 9:2, “Your sins have been forgiven” in the ESV, is “αφίενταί σου αί αμαρτίαι”in Greek.  αφίενταί, according to a certain library book, is the present passive third-person form of αφίημι.  And the beginning of Matthew 6:12, “And forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses” (in the Lord’s Prayer) is “καί άφες ημίν τά οφειλήματα ημων.”  άφες  is the second-person imperative active form of αφίημι. I have here in front of me a book that has approximately a bajillion examples of places where forms of αφίημι are found in the Bible, with a variety of different English translations depending upon the context. The point is that it is indeed a word that means forgive/ let go of/send away, etc.

The other point is that John 18:8 is in that list. (Or at least, it’s presumably there somewhere; I can’t actually find it at the moment, and I am hereby acknowledging that, just in case I’m wrong that it’s a form of the same word.) According to the internet, in the Greek, John 18:8 reads, “απεκριθη Ιησους, Ειπον υμιν οτι εγω ειμι. ει ουν εμε ζητειτε, αφετε τουτους υπαγειν”, except that I left out all of the accent marks and stuff because I’m too lazy to deal with them. (Also, some things, like the breathing marks over leading vowels, don’t appear to exist on Microsoft Word. That’s annoying.) The part that the ESV translates “Let these men go away” is the part that says “αφετε τουτους υπαγειν” in Greek. (Incidentally, τουτους is a pronoun, not a noun, so wouldn’t it make more sense for the English translation to be “Let them go away”?) αφετε is evidently the second-person imperative form of αφίημι. That’s not speculation; I looked it up to be sure, and that is indeed what the plural second-person imperative of a Greek verb is supposed to look like.

So, to make a long story short, I have spent the last few hours using various books and internet resources to verify that the Greek word used in John 18:8 was indeed the word I thought and hoped it was. A better and much quicker way to verify this would have been to ask Pastor before I left church, because the fact that I don’t actually know Greek rather holds me back from knowing what stuff means in Greek. But, y’know, on Good Friday we’re supposed to leave church in silence, so that’s what I did.

crucifixThe interesting point that I have thus far failed to make is that it’s cool that the word used in John 18:8 is the same as the word translated “forgive” because of the reason Jesus was being arrested, and then crucified. At the moment of his arrest, Jesus told his captors to forgive/let go his disciples, rather than arresting them too, just as, through his death on the cross, Jesus forgave/let go us from our sins, rather than condemning us for them.

The point of all this, in summary, is that forgiveness and salvation come through Christ’s sacrifice. Yeah, that’s basically what I was getting at here.

Letter to Santa Claus

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Santa Claus

Dear Santa Claus,

I never really believed in you. As far as I can recall, I always knew that the presents under the tree and even the Christmas stockings came from my parents, just like Thanksgiving dinner and Easter baskets. But I used to believe in all the things you stand for; and I don’t mean that stuff about joy and peace. I mean the idea that happiness comes from the acquisition of material objects, and that Christmas is about getting whatever toys one wants that particular year. Your name gets associated with joy and peace, but that isn’t really the point of you; it isn’t what your image really means in this society.

Christmas TreeIt’s a bit cliché to complain about the commercialization of Christmas, but the point is valid. Stores start stocking Christmas merchandise and advertising their Christmas sales long before Christmas. People feel a need to start thinking about Christmas shopping long before they’re in the mood for Christmas joy and peace. They are preparing for the coming of Santa Claus rather than the coming of Jesus, not only in Advent, but for several of the preceding weeks as well. Any corny Christmas movie will claim that Santa is separate from this commercialism, that he laments it himself, but that’s an utterly pointless discernment. When these movies make that point, they are merely replacing superficial consumerist values with abstract “Christmas Spirit” values. Santa Claus, I hold you partially responsible for both the commercialization of Christmas and the corniness of Christmas. Your message is not one of joy, unless joy is getting a desired toy. Your message is not one of peace, unless peace is getting a Christmas vacation. And you can’t give me what I really want, for Christmas or otherwise, unless what I really want is some trivial material object.

JesusSanta Claus, you brought me some degree of joy when I was little and you filled my family’s living room with toys, and if I have outgrown that childhood Christmas joy, it’s not because of cynicism or a lack of Christmas spirit. It’s because I no longer think that happiness comes from having new dolls or the latest book in a series I like.  I still appreciate and enjoy the aesthetic awesomeness of a lighted Christmas tree with wrapped presents under it, and I still think there’s something exciting about the very nature of gift-giving. And, of course, I like getting new stuff. Getting new stuff is cool. But that’s not the real point of Christmas. In fact, fruitcake and Christmas cookies aren’t the real point, either. As hard as it is for me to admit, even Christmas music and Doctor Who Christmas specials aren’t the real point. Almost any Christmas movie will tell you that the true meaning of Christmas has to do with love and joy and peace and goodwill towards your fellow human beings, but those are all abstract ideas, even if you add a few sentimental things about family. Those are the traits of a happy Santa-Claus-Christmas. Santa Claus offers a trite and superficial kind of Christmas joy. The meaningful and significant kind of Christmas joy doesn’t come from a white-haired man in a red suit with fluffy white trim; it comes from a man who was born in Bethlehem about two thousand years ago. He didn’t come bringing candy that was quickly eaten or toys that were quickly broken; he came bringing forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life. No offense, Santa Claus, but you just can’t compete with that.


P.S. With all that being said, I have been very good this year, and I wouldn’t actually mind if you brought me a whole lot of awesome stuff and if you made my car work again. Thanks, Santa.

Christmas letter

Peace, Love, Jesus

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Last week, I wrote this blog post, and while I was writing it, I decided that there were other things I wanted to say that weren’t really part of the point I was making there. In the final paragraph, I alluded to the other things I wanted to say, but I decided to write another post about it another day. Today is another day.

I go to a Methodist college, and it has really emphasized to me just how much difference there is between denominations. I realize that, just as not all Lutherans are the same, (the ELCA and the LCMS really don’t have a whole lot in common aside from the fact that they both have L’s in their names that stand for the word ‘Lutheran’) not all Methodists are the same, and I can’t make generalized assumptions about what all Methodists believe. I can say, though, that there are specific Methodists who believe certain things that are just not biblical. In fact, one of these beliefs is the idea that the Bible isn’t really completely reliable because it supposedly contains contradictions and is flawed by human error and inaccuracy. There’s no way to respond to that; you can’t really have a meaningful discussion when the person with whom you’re talking doesn’t acknowledge the validity of the ultimate primary source. I’m not entirely clear on what it is that these people trust above the Bible. Their own fallible human logic? Fallible human science? Televangelists? Or, worse yet, their own emotions?

This is not a very complete summary of Christianity

It seems like various denominations of Christianity (and, unfortunately, some congregations in other denominations) like to put their personal opinions of Jesus ahead of biblical teaching. They like the Bible verses that talk about loving people and peace and stuff like that; everyone likes love and peace. If you isolate a bunch of happy, positive, loving, and peaceful bible verses like John 15:9, Romans 8:38-39, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22-23, (and so on) you can paint a very pretty picture of Jesus and Christianity. As a bonus, you also get a handy guide to how to live a good, moral Christian life. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. Morals are good, and it’s right for people’s morals and values to be determined by religion. It’s just that basing all of your beliefs on a few bible verses and ignoring others results in missing the big picture, and missing the big picture results in distortions in the little pictures.

For example, a certain guest speaker once told my class that Jesus’ main message and mission was social acceptance. After all, the Bible tells us that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, healed the sick, and cared about the poor. The conclusion that he drew from this was that Christianity is about being non-judgmental, helping the poor and needy, and love and peace and stuff. Apparently, he thought that any times when Jesus wasn’t particularly docile (Matthew 10:34, Mark 11:15-19, etc.) were examples of biblical self-contradiction and inaccuracy, because how could Jesus be anything other than peaceful and affectionate towards humanity? The goal of this discussion was to lead into a political agenda in favor of increased government welfare, support for Obamacare, liberal economics, acceptance of things like homosexuality, and love and peace and stuff. Not only do I politically disagree with that agenda, (except for the love and peace part) I also think it’s absurd to claim that Christianity necessarily supports those things. Regardless of what you think about Obamacare, you can’t say that Jesus put a very strong emphasis on the issue of health insurance. Regardless of what you think about welfare programs, you can’t say that Jesus put a very strong emphasis on government funding for welfare. When Jesus talked about the government, he mostly said things like “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), which doesn’t really align him with either of the major parties in current American politics. The Bible has more to say against homosexuality than it has to say in favor of welfare programs, which is already a flaw in the peace-love-and-liberal-politics perspective on Jesus. But, more to the point, this particular guest speaker was using these ideas about social acceptance to bash the more conservative Christian perspective of sin, which is that the Bible means what it says in Romans 3:23 (For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God) and in the first part of Romans 6:23 (For the wages of sin is death). Jesus didn’t say that sin was okay; he said that it was forgiven. He didn’t talk about tolerance; he talked about grace and forgiveness. Even if you can somehow read through the gospels without seeing that, it’s quite explicit in the aforementioned verses in Romans, the beginning of Ephesians 2, and various other places in the epistles, not to mention the Old Testament.

I think that John 14:27 is saying a little more than this.

But this view of sin and salvation was contrary to the points that this guest speaker was trying to make, so I did not exactly endear myself to him when I pointed out that Jesus always said “Your sins are forgiven” when he healed people, and in many other situations as well, so doesn’t that indicate that Jesus saw sin as something serious that required forgiveness? If I had thought it through a little more and if I’d had time right then to look up a few specific Bible verses, I could have done a better job of making the point, but what I did say was already enough to mess up his argument.  (To be honest, he had some cause to be annoyed with me because I had called him out on something else he had said not long before. He had pointed out a self-contradiction in the Bible that wasn’t a contradiction at all when the verses were kept in their contexts. He had quite affably admitted that I was right and then gone on with his talk, while all of my classmates, who had long since characterized me as the quiet one who never talked in class, wondered what I thought I was doing arguing with a respected authority in the Methodist community.) No longer affable, the guest speaker coldly informed me that when Jesus said “Your sins are forgiven”, he wasn’t talking about literal sins and literal forgiveness. What he actually meant was more along the lines of “Your physical infirmities which society views as being indicative of sin have been removed, thereby allowing you to be accepted in society.”

So there you have it. All that stuff about grace and forgiveness and salvation is really just a metaphor for social acceptance. It kind of makes you wonder why Jesus bothered to die on the cross. What was he doing there if he wasn’t paying for our sins? He’d already told us about how much we should love and accept each other, so how much good could it do to die a horrible and violent death? Yes, he did rise from the dead again and keep on saying stuff after that, but what does death and resurrection have to do with the message of being nice to other people? Couldn’t he have done that without dying?

Pictured above: Love

Or here’s another idea. Maybe, the Bible verse 1 John 4:8 (God is love) doesn’t mean ‘social acceptance and being nice to everyone and stuff like that’ when it says ‘love.’ Maybe it has something to do with the very next verses, 1 John 4:9-10, which say “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world  so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins.” And maybe this is also related to verses like John 3:16, which says “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life”. And maybe that’s the most important point in Christianity and the most significant message in the Bible.

It’s interesting the way the Bible stops contradicting itself when we stop randomly redefining words like ‘love’.