In which I use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to spend inordinate amounts of time googling things

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valentine's dayToday, my news feed on facebook and my dashboard on tumblr seem to be mainly composed of posts relating to four categories: 1) Expressions of affection for a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/other family member/best friend, etc. 2) Expressions of sadness  that the individual writing the post in question is “celebrating Valentine’s Day alone” 3) A statement that either praises the customs associated with Valentine’s Day or condemns the holiday as overrated/corny/stupid/commercialized, and then often goes on to criticize anyone who doesn’t agree, and  4) Philosophical musings about the definition of “Love”.

Interestingly enough, I have yet to see anyone on the internet say anything about Valentine. That word is generally used to refer to the type of card that people give or receive on Valentine’s Day, or to a person to whom one would give such a card. But the word Valentine is actually a name, and the holiday Valentine’s Day is named for a person named Valentine. So I decided that this would be a nice time to write a blog post about Valentine, but I had a little problem. You see, I know absolutely nothing about Valentine. (Except that he is presumably a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, because that is the likeliest explanation for why he has a day named after him, and why it is occasionally called “Saint Valentine’s Day”) So I have enlisted the help of Google and Merriam Webster’s Biographical Dictionary in order to bring you some information about Valentine and the history of Valentine’s Day.

Saint ValentineThere are in fact multiple significant historical figures named Valentine, although the internet doesn’t seem to be quite sure how many. Three seems to be the most common suggestion, but I am finding references to what seems to be a lot more than three distinct people. One person named Valentinus was pope for forty days in the year 827, according to the biographical dictionary, which doesn’t give any other information about him. Another Valentinus was a second century Gnostic heretic. Then there were three Roman emperors by the name of Valentinian. The famous two Saint Valentines (who may or may not actually be the same person) were/was a Roman priest who was martyred by Claudius II in 269 and a bishop of Interamna, which is now called Terni. Thanks to Google maps, I now am capable of informing you that Terni is a province in central Italy, 106 kilometers away from Rome, and that if you were to drive from Rome to Terni, that route would have tolls. (Just a heads-up. You’re welcome.)

Saint Valentine’s association with romance seems to be mainly a thing of legend. One story that I saw online says that Valentine was in prison and fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine”, thus beginning the customs associated with Valentine’s Day. Given the fact that we don’t even know how many different people this guy was, I find this story to be somewhat unreliable. But it is true that the list of things of which he is the patron saint includes “love” and “happy marriages”. I don’t know enough about the way the Roman Catholic canonization process works to know whether or not that might be a result of traditions that later became associated with his holiday.

Saint ValentineEvidently, the actual origin of the holiday we know as Valentine’s Day was a Roman holiday known as Lupercalia. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15, and it was a pagan festival of fertility, associated with the god of agriculture and with the legendary founders of Rome. When Rome became Christian, Lupercalia was outlawed because it was pagan, but when February 14 became a holiday in the late fifth century, it would seem that some of the pagan associations with that particular time of the year gradually became associated with the new holiday. Our idea of Valentine’s Day as a romantic holiday originates in medieval France and England. The oldest known Valentine’s Day card was made in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans. It was to his wife, whose name was Bonne d’Armagnac, a piece of information that required an additional google search on my part. Charles wrote this valentine from the Tower of London, where he was in prison for being French and getting captured by the English in the Battle of Agincourt.

Esther A. Howland

Esther A. Howland

Valentine’s Day was commercialized by a woman named Esther A. Howland, who began making mass-produced valentines in the 1840s. One final google search reveals that Esther Howland lived from 1828 to 1904, although she retired in 1881, and that one of her contributions to the traditions of Valentine’s Day was putting red paper behind the white lacy part of a valentine.

The other really important Valentine’s Day tradition originated when someone once wrote a “recipe” for a cooking magazine that my mother used to get, which pointed out that if you combine un-jelled red jello with un-set pudding (both made from boxed mixes) and then put that combination in a pan and stick it in the refrigerator, then cut it with a heart-shaped cookie cutter, you get red jello-pudding hearts.

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

What valentines looked like in the days of Esther A. Howland

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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’.