Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Atheism in the Bible

Yesterday, the Times featured a story on Jerry DeWitt, a one-time Pentecostal preacher who lost his faith and "converted" to atheism a few years back. What's interesting about Dewitt, however, is that he hasn't stopped preaching.  Today, he travels the circuit of atheist conferences (and who knew there were such things?) sermonizing for godlessness.

A visitor to one of his talks speaks to his unique allure: “Then Jerry got up, and he was just, you know, preaching the message. Most other atheist leaders are academics and intellectuals, and Jerry’s not like that. He’s just talking to your heart.” That his "heart talks" draw crowds speaks to the fact that the feisty atheist movement still clings to some of the elements that animate the old-time religion it rejects: ritual and community.

We often think of atheism as a relatively modern movement that gains steam in the nineteenth century and only blooms fully in the twentieth.  But there are pre-modern examples.  I think first of Lucretius, the Roman poet who channeled the anti-religious fire of his Greek precursor Epicurus in writing On the Nature of Things.

And one can also find evidence of atheism in the Bible, perhaps most notably in Psalm 53.  That poem opens with bile-spitting critique:

Fools say in their hearts, "There is no god."
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.  (53:1)

That a Biblical author would reject atheism is unsurprising.  That he would attribute to the unbeliever "abominable acts" is also unremarkable.  Of course, secular humanists argue energetically that unbelief does not entail unethical behavior--and that atheism may indeed breed good works.  But the Psalmist disagrees: those who deny God's existence must be corrupt.

What is surprising is the author's testimony in the following verses that unbelief is so widespread in his time:

God looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one. (53:2-3).

The psalmist's pronouns are telling.  God looks to see if "any" are wise--if any attest to God's presence and goodness.  But "all" have fallen away.  "All" are perverse.  "No one" seeks the good.  "Not one" does righteousness.  Though his diction is hyperbolic, it seems as if there are quite a few in his audience who would say in their hearts, "There is no god."

Of course, unbelief among the ancient Hebrews would have been a very different animal from contemporary atheism, which is very much the modern child of post-Enlightenment skepticism.  But it's also not totally new, and perhaps Jerry DeWitt might have drawn crowds in Israel 2500 years ago, just as he does in Louisiana today.

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Luke 16: Steal from the Rich, Give to .... Yourself

Today, I continue my occasional series on parables that make me go, "What the f*&%?"

The story that gets my goat comes from the gospel of Luke; editors often refer to it as the "parable of the dishonest manager," and it is at least as frustrating as the "parable of the talents," on which I blogged last spring. In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of a man who, hearing that he will be fired, steals money from his boss. And guess what? Jesus loves him for it!

But I'm getting ahead of myself ... let me explain how I come to this parable.

A New York Times from a couple years back features a cover story on the development of new-found natural gas stores in a poor corner of Papua New Guinea. The federal government has signed contracts with ExxonMobil to extract and transport the gas--a project that will produce estimated profits of $30 billion in its first decade.

However, there are real fears that the windfall will not help alleviate poverty, as project supporters argue. Though the government promises to disburse the money to the people through sovereign wealth funds maintained by a board of advisers and overseen by the World Bank, most believe that many of the gains will be siphoned off by the rich, the powerful, and the connected. Ironically, the gas find could lead to an increase in the size of the gap between rich and poor. (At least one local leader has already been accused of skimming $120,000 from the very first round of revenues. He does not deny the claim.)

The Times goes on to report that one Father Patlo, fearing such an outcome, recently delivered a sermon to warn his congregation. His text? Luke 16, the parable of the dishonest manager. Here's the parable's introduction, in full ...

"Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty"' (Luke 16: 1-7).

Why does the manager lower these debts? Because he wants to get in good with potential future employers. But make no mistake: he's stealing here. His employer's debtors' debts are assets, and the manager is reducing them with a stroke of the pen--and clearly for his own, lucrative gain.

His master's response, upon discovering this flagrant book-cooking, is surprising: "And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light" (16:8).

As it turns out, the master prizes "shrewdness" over honesty, and though Jesus doesn't finish the tale, he makes it seem as if the master and his employee are on the road to reconciliation. But what of this "children of the light" rigamarole? What is the master's rationale for rewarding shrewdness when that shrewdness damages him?

"The children of this age," he notes, "are more shrewd." Said differently, we're living in dark times, and double-dealing is rife. The master needs shrewd employees if he is to survive. This is realpolitik at its height.

In the late nineties, the Chicago Bulls did the same thing. After years of being beat up by dirty Dennis Rodman, the Bulls signed him and bought Jordan, Pippen, and the rest three more championships. If Rodman was going to throw elbows, at least he'd be throwing them at the Knicks.

But what's more shocking? Jesus agrees. He finishes the parable with a moral: "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes" (16:9). The savior is on board. Let's isolate the aphorism for effect:

Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth. --Jesus

I dare you to pull out this quote the next time someone asks, "What would Jesus do?"

Parables like these remind me that Christ will never stop challenging me--as a reader, as a thinker, and as a student of religion. Here, his logic is so dark, so pessimistic. This age is shitty, he seems to say, so make the most of your roll in the mud. (This logic drives the evangelical leaders who star in Jeff Sharlet's recent book, The Family.)

Nonetheless, we may now return to Father Patlo, preaching in Papua New Guinea. Clearly, when the priest invokes Jesus's parable, he's undertaking a marvelous misreading. Those political leaders who would steal the country's natural gas wealth, by graft or by fraud, are themselves "dishonest managers"--we need to fight them at every turn. Thus, Patlo is sermonizing against Jesus. And why wouldn't he? If he were to take Jesus at his word--at least in this parable--he'd abandon his flock, throw in with local leaders, and make a buck. Or $120,000.

Right? Or do you have a different take on this parable? I"d love to hear it ...
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Thursday, August 4, 2011

REELigion ... My Take on "Captain America" and the Death of Khal Drogo

A couple of weeks ago, my good friend Patton Dodd, editor over at Patheos.com--a very slick, ecumenical web site on faith and religion--asked if I'd begin contributing to a new religion and film blog they're hosting.  I'm a pushover when it comes to seeing my words in print, so I agreed.  Hence, every once in a while, I'll devote my weekly Eat the Bible blogging to this new site, REELigion

This week, I submitted a post on religion--or lack thereof--in the new Captain America film.  Check it out!

But don't just go to REELigion for me; other luminaries in the field--among them Bradley Herling, Martyn Oliver, and Mr. Dodd himself--will occasionally contribute.  And they're all a lot smarter and funnier than I am.  Click here for more

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Exodus 3: Can We Say that God Is Good?

As part of a book project, I've been picking through David Blumenthal's deeply challenging post-Holocaust theology, Facing the Abusing God.  Perhaps I'll get to his argument in a later post, but I've been meditating on Blumenthal's reminder that Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and theologian, contends that God is without attributes.  More simply, God is so thoroughly beyond comprehension that we may not simply stick adjectives to his name.  We may not say that God is "mighty," or that God is "present," or that God is "powerful," because these modifiers constrain a deity whose being is beyond human expression. 

In making such a statement, Maimonides takes part in what comes to be known as "negative theology."  Simply put--and perhaps too simply put--negative theology starts with the premise that God is so beyond our wildest imagination that we can only say what He is not.  As a consequence, the most effective theologies may deal in negation, paradox, contradiction, and perhaps even in skillfully deployed silence.

It occurred to me, however, that Maimonides's argument is prefigured by a very early Biblical text, Exodus 3,  in which God "introduces" himself to his first prophet, Moses.  Here are the relevant lines:

"But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am'. He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you."’"

The Divine Name as rendered here is "I am who I am"--an evasive nomenclature if ever there was one--and we likely do not envy Moses his task.  At worst, God's name feels redundant, repetitive, and frankly, dismissive.  Here, I always picture God as the tired executive, lounging back in his desk chair, knees crossed, waving his hand in a slow circle.  He might be talking a little bit like the Godfather, too. 

However, this gnomic utterance--"I am who I am"--is not the only available translation of the Hebrew original, ehyeh asher ehyeh.  In the King James Version of the Bible, Exodus 3:14 names God as "I am that I am."  This rendering has allowed generations of English-speaking scholars to suggest that in this passage, God is defining himself as Being--pure essence. 

But when I teach this text, I always say what my Bible professors taught me: Biblical Hebrew does not make a clear-cut distinction between the present tense and the future tense.  Thus, one may acceptably translate this name of God as "I will be what I will be," a version that gets us back to Maimonides and negative theology.  With this third naming, we learn that we cannot name God; only God can name God.

We cannot say what God is, or what God "will be."  Only He can.

Such heady statements may lead to some downright frightening conclusions.  Because for the purest of negative theologians, God is not "loving," or "compassionate," or "rational," or--most disturbing of all--"good."  God is only "what he will be."  And we are not privy to what this "what" is. Click here for more

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Job 38: "The Tree of Life" and the Voice from the Whirlwind

In my heart of hearts, I consider myself a true cinephile.  My credentials are sterling: I trashed Titanic when it won the Oscar, I claim to understand the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and for many years, I wrote reviews of movies made for teen girls for a newspaper I like to call "the Grey Lady"--The Kalamazoo Gazette.  (Is that nickname already taken?)

So it was with chagrin that I recently realized I had never seen anything by Terrence Malick, the reclusive American auteur.  (I may have slept through Thin Red Line in college, but even I won't count that.) 

And thus, it was with head humbly dipped that I trooped down to the Kendall Square Cinema last week to salvage my reputation and watch The Tree of Life, Malick's most recent film and a newly minted Palme d'Or winner.  (If you don't know what that is, I'm not going to tell you; I'm a real movie guy.)

Tree is a hybrid film.  Half mid-century, father-son drama, half cosmological speculation, it juxtaposes scenes of family life in rural Texas with sublime panoramas of the universe in flux--stars, planets, suns, and nebulous gas clouds.  Brad Pitt--playing an overbearing father of three--shares the screen with a small herd of CGI dinosaurs, if not at the same time.  This idiosyncratic fusion has caused some viewers to walk out of the theater after minutes.  (Though I've got a name for them--pansies.)

Now first, know that Tree isn't nearly so avant garde as those early exiters would have you believe; we're not watching David Lynch here. Nonetheless, any honest effort to interpret the film must reconcile its two major strands: the celestial and the domestic.  But with a little help from the Bible, I believe that it's not so hard a job as you might think.  Here's why ... 

Malick opens the film with a brief quote from the book of Job.  The translation he chooses reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" (38:4,7)

He then dives into his tale.  The opening fifteen minutes are dominated by two images: first, a mother (played by the luminous Jessica Chastain, shown above) receiving word that her son, a soldier, has died; second, a stellar explosion that most reviewers read as the Big Bang.  The rest of the film plays out both moments.

In one half, Malick delivers the pre- and post-history of that military death.  In the other half, we get a de facto history of the universe, from the first explosion to the primordial goo to early fish creeping onto land to velociraptors to ... well, I could go on. 

It is the book of Job that bridges the gap between the two.

Job, of course, is the story of a man afflicted by God.  After losing his riches and then his children in a string of not-so-freak accidents, Job sits down in a pile of ashes to lament his sorry state.  And the next thirty-five chapters of harrowing debate boil down to a simple question: Why? Job, you see, is a good man, a righteous man, and a man of God.  That his life should be so devastated seems, to him, tragic--or at least tragically unfair.

However, the miracle of the book is that Job, unlike all who suffer today, receives an answer from the deity.  In a passage that many simply call "the voice from the whirlwind," God takes four chapters (38-41) to respond in detail to Job's complaint.  They open with the following verses, from which Malick takes his epigraph:

"Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man, I will you question you, and you shall declare to me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings started for joy?" (Job 38:2-7)

These verses--and the hundred-odd that follow--give Job a God's-eye view of his own suffering.  "Your torment feels big," God seems to say; "Well, let me show you big."  So God takes Job to the beginning of the universe, challenges him with the mystery of life, escorts him to the peak of the world and to the depths of the abyss.  And Job is hushed by the comparison.

Malick, I believe, does the exact same thing with us; he shows us poignant loss and weighs it against the whole universe.  Halfway through, I was ready to retitle the film Job: The Movie; the answers that Malick provides to the thorny questions of human suffering are downright Biblical.

Ah, but are those answers persuasive?  I'll leave that question for another day. 
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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Herman Cain, Keith Ellison, Sharia, and the Bible

Have you heard of Herman Cain?  No?  Well, that's fine.  Don't read any further; I'm not sure I want to give him any more coverage than he's already stolen.

Cain, a Republican, is a former Federal Reserve Bank chair and Godfather's Pizza CEO who's been able to grab a few headlines by forming a presidential exploratory committee.  As soon as a Palin or a Romney or even a Pawlenty throws his or her hat in the ring, we'll stop hearing about him. But for now, we must be submitted to his blather.

The latest of which is an interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham in which Cain claims that he'd never put a Muslim in his cabinet. Now, Cain will never have a cabinet that doesn't hang on his kitchen wall, but I digress ... here's the clip in full: 

Cain goes on to argue that he doesn't trust Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, himself a Muslim, because Ellison swore his oath of office on a copy of the Qur'an.  The Minnesota Independent delivers Cain's full quote in a recent article: "If you take an oath on the Qur’an, that means you support Sharia law. I support American law." Sharia is Muslim legal thinking--a set of juridical principles drawn from legal speculation on the Qur'an.

(Oklahoma's state legislature recently passed a bill that bans the use of sharia law in state courts. Here's slate.com's recent coverage.  If you're wondering, no one had ever tried to use sharia law in Oklahoma, but legislators wanted to stay ahead of the game. Rumor has it they've also tried to pass bills pre-emptively curtailing efforts to name cricket the official state sport and gayness the official state sexuality.)

Now, Ellison doesn't support the promulgation of sharia in the United States.  Like most American Muslims, he's pretty happy with American law.  But that's not my beef with Cain. My problem is Cain's seeming ignorance of the fact that the Bible also features a very explicit set of legal principles--the Torah--most of which we no longer follow.

His flawed logic suggests that because Ellison swore an oath on the Qur'an, he will necessarily seek to subject all Americans to its strictures. By extension, then, every American legislator who has sworn an oath on the Bible must then be similarly bound to try to pass its laws. 

But I have yet to hear of Paul Ryan proposing legislation that makes chicken farms illegal (Deuteronomy 22:6).  And I don't think that Nancy Pelosi has any plans to make adultery punishable by stoning (Deut. 22:22).  And as of yet, Mitch McConnell has never tried to ram through a bill that mandates the construction of parapets on all new buildings (Deut. 22:7).  But now that I think of it, I have seen him carrying around lots of suspicious blueprints lately ...

Of course, you probably knew all this already, and I'm probably just blowing hot air now. I'll stop, but for the love of dog, I hope Cain will stop talking soon too. Click here for more