Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Moses "Restoring Honor": Glenn Beck Uses (and Misuses) Exodus

The mainstream media didn't know quite what to do with Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, held last Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial. It was newsworthy--upwards of 100,000 people showed--but what was it? A Tea Party event wrapped in the mantle of religious rhetoric? More demagoguery by the bete noire of the progressive left? A pep rally for Albert Pujols, who accepted an award for "Hope." (I really need to get my hands on one of those "Hope" awards--I'm absolutely brimming with optimism. Or perhaps I should gun for an award in some other pithy ideal ... perhaps Trustworthiness, or Dyspepsia.)

Consensus opinion is that it wasn't overly political--despite Sarah Palin's headlining speech--but that it was extremely religious. If there were a thesis, it was simple: America should return to God. Here are some stray Beck quotes, pulled from rushecho.org's transcript of the event: "Look to God and make your choice." "Turn back to God." "Praise be to God." "We still have faith in God in America." "America is not just good because God has chosen her." "Oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh oh ... oh my God." (Okay, that last one was Usher, but the first five were all Beck.)

Lefties are seething at the conflation of religious sentiment and patriotism, but Beck's message--that America is holy, and that Americans should therefore be holy--is as old as the United States itself. Since the Puritans' arrival, prominent Americans have described our nation as a "Promised Land" and characterized the United States as a new Israel--a people selected by God for especial blessing. Conrad Cherry rounds up primary historical documents on this theme in a nice anthology, God's New Israel.

Beck made this America-as-Promised-Land link clear through the Biblical allusions in his keynote address. Here's the new Moses himself, courtesy again of rushecho.org, hearkening back to the old Moses:

"It occurs all through history: we fall asleep and then wake up, from time to time. It has from the burning bush: Moses, freedom, then they wander in the wilderness till they turn back to God. In Egypt, they prayed for deliverance and Jehovah sent Moses with a stick. Those bringing Freedom were just men—they were just like you! Coming across the plains they relied on God. America is not good just because God has chosen her — America is good and great because citizens are good and great.

The takeaway, as I see it, goes something like this: America is enslaved--"in Egypt"--and the "Restoring Honor" rally was Glenn ben Moshe's effort to train tens of thousands of new Moseses--"just like you"--to "bring Freedom" to the masses.

Okay, it's a cute allegory, but the progressive conspiracy theorist in me wants to finish the metaphor with the obvious subtext: the Egyptian taskmasters are Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, and their leader is that hard-hearted African pharaoh, Barack Hussein Obama! But Beck didn't go there Saturday, so I won't go there today.

However, for the sake of Biblical accuracy, it's worth noting that Beck is playing fast and loose with the Exodus myth here ... and not only because he calls Moses a guy "with a stick."

First of all, the Israelites themselves never "pray for deliverance" from the Egyptians. God merely hears "their cry" and knows "their sufferings" (Exodus 3:7-8)--and they're enslaved, so they probably cry and suffer a lot. To imagine the Israelites kneeling in Egypt, praying devoutly for the arrival of a divinely sanctioned savior is to thoroughly misunderstand their corporate character.

Indeed, the Israelites' first utterance as a liberated people paints a very different picture. Seeing the Pharaoh's army chasing them, they complain to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? [...] It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness" (Exodus 14: 11-13). This rabble is not going to be given the "Faithfulness" award at Beck's next rally.

Such kvetching is of a piece with the Israelites' attitude throughout their time in the wilderness, and a pile of other instances suggest, contra Beck, that the chosen people did not simply "rely on God" during their wanderings. Further, from my perspective, they are not "good and great," as Beck calls his gathered chosen. If I had to choose adjectives to describe God's people wandering outside Egypt, I'd choose "short-sighted" and "bitchy." Sorry. It's true! Read Exodus again.

Further, the Bible's Moses doesn't hold mammoth, self-aggrandizing rallies in front of the Tutankhamen Memorial to win recruits. He fights God tooth and nail. When God calls Moses at the Burning Bush and asks him to liberate Israel, Moses comes up with no fewer than five distinct excuses as to why he can't do what God asks: 1. I'm nothing next to Pharaoh (3:11), 2. I don't know you (3:13), 3. They won't believe me (4:1), 4. I can't talk pretty (4:10), and 5. Why me? (4:13). Beck seems to salivate over the savior's role; Moses doesn't really want it at all. Only when God gets pissed does Moses relent and take the job.

Now, I don't want to suggest that Beck's casual treatment of the Bible is unique; his understanding of Exodus isn't too far removed from that of other Americans. But because most devout Christians and Jews don't understand their scriptures, paper tigers like Beck can use them as, dare I say it, propaganda. He can twist the Bible in such a way as to convince the masses that he is from God, and that they should be from God too.

However, in Exodus, just about no one turns to God, relies on God, or rejoices at being chosen by God. They turn from Him over and over again. And Beck is not a new Moses--he is a savior of his own creation, leading his flock we know not where.

Of course, Beck's rally at the Lincoln Memorial drew criticism because it took place on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, given at the same location. King, too, famously uses Exodus to frame his project, but he does so with better knowledge, and with a darker sense of nuance. He evokes Moses's death--outside Canaan--in another speech delivered shortly before his own assassination. This is the closing movement of his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech:



Watching King, I take a page from Beck and tear up.

But let's make one thing perfectly clear: I prefer King's Exodus. Click here for more

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Qur'an Burner Hasn't Read the Qur'an!

I was reading this morning about Terry Jones, the Gainesville, Florida pastor who has garnered national attention--and international disdain--for planning a Qur'an burning on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

The New York Times reports that Jones is organizing the conflagration because he believes that the Qur'an is "full of lies." His claims, previously ignored, come at a particularly sensitive time, given the national debate over the Muslim community center set to be built in Lower Manhattan.

However, for me this story of mind-blowing bigotry morphed from tragedy to farce when I discovered one fact: Jones has never read the Qur'an! The Times quotes him, “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.”

Pardon my French, but holy shit.

So let me step away from my usual harangue about reading the Bible and scream to Jones and anyone else who might be listening, READ THE QUR'AN TOO, especially if you're planning on ignorantly slandering it. One of my dirty little secrets is that I'm not just for Biblical literacy--despite the subject of this blog--but for all literacy. And that includes familiarity with the Qur'an--the other world-shattering scripture of the monotheistic West.

Maybe if Jones read the Qur'an, he'd learn that the Prophet Muhammad promulgated a religion of tolerance--one that promoted an unprecedented level of spiritual dialogue among Muslims and people of other faiths.

Indeed, Muslim scripture holds special regard for Jews and Christians, calling them "People of the Book," or Ahl al-Kitāb. In the first centuries of global Islam, Jews and Christians living in Muslim lands were granted special status as dhimmi. Dhimmi were offered protection and were allowed to practice their religions freely, without compulsion to convert.

Indeed, the Qur'an reads, in 2:256, "There is to be no compulsion in religion. True direction is in fact distinct from error: so whoever disbelieves in idols and believes in God has taken hold of the most reliable handle, which does not break." Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike "disbelieve in idols and believe in God," and Muhammad lauds all who join his crusade against idolatry.

(This translation is Thomas Cleary's, from his Essential Koran, a distillation of some of the most important passages from Muslim scripture. It's not a comprehensive volume, but it's great for those looking to get a foothold.)

If only Jones would take Muhammad's lead and treat American Muslims as dhimmi in his own land, we could stop talking about burning scriptures and start talking about reading them.
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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Evangelical Nerds Salivate as German Company Announces Massive Bible Video Game

When I was a little kid, I got my hands on a game for the original Nintendo Entertainment System called "Bible Adventures." The game featured modules based on three stories from scripture: "Noah's Ark," "Baby Moses," and "David and Goliath." I mainly remember the first one, a clunky side-scroller in which a rectangular Noah walks around a painfully 2-D jungle picking up animals and, with luck, lofting them into a menacing gray-brown cavern--presumably the ark, though it always looked to my adolescent mind like a big sinkhole.

I vaguely recall the Moses game too, but only because you can't kill the baby--it's a Christian game, after all. I spent most of my time lofting the infant savior of the Israelites like an over-ripe turnip, into bad guys and streams.

"Bible Adventures" was independently released by Wisdom Tree Games because Nintendo never officially approved it. It's hard to see why, though: they clearly passed up a goldmine. I mean, what kid wouldn't want to drop $35 on a NES title whose main objective is hoisting animals over your head, rushing around gunning for the best prize of all: Bible verses!

However, fans of "Bible Adventures" wet their pants earlier this week when German company FIAA GmbH--pronounced "fee-aah gim-buh" (kidding)--announced the release of a massive multiplayer online (MMO) Bible game appropriately titled "Bible Online." That's right, "World of Warcraft" meets "Word of God." In a fight to the death, who will win?

The first chapter is called "The Heroes" and is apparently based on stories from Genesis, or "the Genesis," as the slightly askew English translation of the press release reads. It continues, "As the leader of their tribe, players have to construct their villages, manage recources [sic] and the budget." God, I love the chapter when Isaac manages his budget--I'm so excited to see how Feyah Gimbah will do it!

After successfully managing a budget--if players can stand the excitement--they'll begin questing for the Promised Land in an effort to get Abraham to Canaan. But it's not all Abraham's show here, folks: "The game also offers role playing elements. The birth right system introduces Abraham's successors Isaac and Jacob. Side quests allow users to experience less known stories of the Genesis."

Now, I'm not sure what the "birth right system" is, but I know for a fact that God was just waiting for the day when someone would finally allow Jews and Christians to learn "the Genesis" through "side quests." I'm personally looking forward to one from Genesis 38, in which Judah sleeps with his daughter-in-law Tamar. It's probably going to be like a kinky Japanese anime video game.

There's no word yet on whether "Bible Online" will include other pieces of the Torah: the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Simeon and Levi's slaughter of Shechem, the creation of the world. (I always wanted to see what the universe would have looked like if God made light after he made humans--I picture lots of primeval heads bumping on doorposts.) I'm also hoping for a Wii-style power-pad race up Jacob's ladder.

Nonetheless, one thing's for certain: I want in on the beta testing ... it starts September 6.


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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Bible Is a Forgery

Last week, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that a Muslim Egyptian publisher has released a new version of the Bible that, its editors claim, proves Christian scripture to be a forgery.

In the text's introduction, the Islamic Enlightenment Publishing House's Abuislam Abdullah writes that there are many versions of Christian scripture and argues that the texts included in his "Bible" predate the Tanakh. Their existence, he concludes, proves that the Bible as Jews and Christians know it is a fabrication.

Of course, most Biblical scholars--even devout ones--agree with Abdullah's contention that scripture exists in many versions. (For reference, see the variant copy of Isaiah found with the Dead Sea Scrolls.) Further, early reports suggest that the "forged" Bible is actually of 16th-century Arab origins.

Nonetheless, Egypt's Coptic Christians--who make up 10% of the country's population--are outraged at the implied critique, and at least one Coptic leader has considered filing a complaint with Egypt's attorney general. (I can imagine it now ... "Dear Egyptian Attorney General, Abuislam called our book fake. Can you yell at him? Love, Christians")

But this miniature debate obscures a simple fact: much of the Bible is "forged," at least by contemporary standards.

Most simply understood, a forgery is a fraud, an inauthentic object passed off as authentic. Discussions of forgery usually begin with either money--where good fakes can earn a bank, or fill one--or art.

Regarding the latter, one of the most frequently forged painters is Corot, whose style is easily aped. (That's his "Interrupted Reading" above.) Though Corot himself produced just a few thousand original works, it is said that thousands more "Corots" circulated during the height of his popularity. A Louvre curator once joked, "Corot painted three thousand canvases, ten thousand of which have been sold in America."

Forgery persists in the modern era because with paintings, sculptures, or even books, there is a huge difference between real value and symbolic value. Three charcoal lines on a placemat are worthless ... unless Miro's signature floats beneath. A scrap of poetry is doggerel ... unless T.S. Eliot scribbled it down in his youth. Certain artists have cache, and works attributed to them are extremely valuable, no matter their putative quality.

The same can be said about many of the early heroes of Judaism and Christianity. And quite a few Biblical books attributed to these heroes--but not necessarily written by them--made it into the Bible.

Take, for example, the New Testament writings of Paul. Paul was the epistolary genius of the early church, and his letters both spread the message of Christianity around the Near East and articulated the earliest Christian theology. However, most scholars argue that of the fourteen letters traditionally ascribed to Paul, only half were likely written by the man himself (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philemon, Philippians, and 1 Thessalonians).

Significant stylistic, theological, and historical variations suggest that the other seven were written later, likely by students of Paul trying to capitalize on his fame and influence. The authors of these deutero- or pseudo-Pauline letters were not trying to steal Paul's thunder; instead, they were attempting to keep his word alive. Examples from the ancient Greek world suggest that such pseudonymous authorship was an acceptable--if not laudable--way of carrying on a teacher's message.

In similar fashion, many books of the Hebrew Bible are traditionally ascribed to its most notable characters. Many orthodox Jews still believe that Moses wrote the Torah, that David wrote the Psalms, and that Solomon wrote the Song of Songs. Historical research has made all these claims extremely doubtful--as scholars can confidently date the composition of many Biblical books to centuries after the lives of their "authors." Nonetheless, such traditions persist.

And why shouldn't they? There is a poetic allure to imagining that David wrote Psalm 51 while atoning for the murder of Uriah. Or that Moses dictated the Torah from his deathbed with God's help. Or that Ephesians is as much a part of the Pauline corpus as Romans. Such claims--whether they are "true" or not--only deepen the meaning of scripture and open up new interpretive possibilities.

So I agree, Mr. Abdullah. The Bible is a forgery. But not because of your book.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Iowa Pol Finds AIDS in the Bible!

Initially, I didn't want to spend too much time on Iowa State Senate hopeful Jeremy Walters, who recently reported on his facebook page that AIDS is God's punishment for homosexuality. (And why, again, do campaigns allow their candidates unfettered access to facebook?) But after scanning his brilliantly asinine assault on reason, common decency, and basic grammar, I can't help myself ...

As support for his radical claim, Walters trots out an old favorite of the gay-bashing right, Leviticus 20:13. "If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them."

Crippling the English language as he cripples his candidacy, Walters begins his piercing commentary, "This tells me alot so should we kill them NO." Well, we've got a humanitarian in our midst, don't we! I can see the campaign posters now: "Jeremy Walters '10: He won't summarily execute homosexuals!"

But Walters isn't done; he continues, "They also need to know that when it says that their blood shall be upon them that tells me it is AIDS." You heard it here first, folks: ancient Jewish jurists identified the HIV virus more than 25 centuries before modern scientists did--and Jeremy Walters has the scriptural evidence to back it up!

But Walters is humble about his remarkable discovery. He wraps up his post, "Thats how I feel." Let it never be said that modesty is dead--though correct apostrophe usage is teetering dangerously on the brink.

In a follow-up post, Walters comes out swinging: "homosexual 'GAY' is not of God!!!!" Personally, I wasn't sure I agreed with him until the fourth exclamation point. After quoting the Leviticus passage again in full, he ends with a flourish: "Only a Fool says there is no God." And only a luminary of Walters's caliber could transition so fluently from epidemiology to exegesis to theology in the span of two short status updates.

To sum up, I can only chime with fellow facebook aficionado Jason Bellinger and "like this" (see the posts, below). I'm signing up to campaign for Walters later this afternoon, because this is clearly change we can believe in.

Click here for more

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Deuteronomy 22: On Stoning

Readers of the New York Times woke up to a chilling story on the front page of today's paper. Over the weekend, Taliban leaders in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz stoned a young couple to death for eloping. The woman, Siddiqa, was 19 years old; her father promised her to a relative of her lover, Khayyam, but the couple were unwilling to part. They escaped their village to marry but were lured back under the false assurance that their marriage would be allowed. Upon their return, they were hastily tried before a group of local mullahs and sentenced to death by stoning. Nearly 200 men--including Khayyam's father and brother--participated in the execution, which, the Times reports, took on a festive air.

Siddiqa and Khayyam were convicted of engaging in a sexual relation forbidden by local religious authorities' interpretation of sharia law--the body of Muslim legal precedent, derived from Muslim jurists' exegesis of the Qur'an and their understanding of the sunna, or examples of the Prophet. (There is no one global sharia; indeed, religious scholars approaching Muslim scripture with different hermeneutical assumptions may develop widely varying interpretations of the text.) This strident display of Taliban power suggests that their influence in the country is waxing, but a chorus of voices in Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world has roundly condemned the killings. Even some conservative Muslims have decried the execution as an unacceptable form of vigilante justice. (Radio Free Europe's web site continues the discussion here.)

Nonetheless, the mullahs' sharia is not the only religious code that calls for the stoning of men and women convicted of sexual impropriety. The Torah also demands that those involved in certain illegal romantic relationships be stoned.

The Hebrew Bible explicitly recommends--er, requires--that no fewer than seven types of criminals deserve stoning as punishment for their sins, among them blasphemers, idolators, witches, and children who disrespect their parents. (A handful of passages in Exodus also outline crimes for which oxen can be stoned--poor oxen.)

Further, like the version of sharia acted upon by the mullahs of Kunduz, Deuteronomy 22 also demands that certain sexual miscreants be stoned. Verses 13 through 21 describe a first sex crime punishable by death: if a man discovers that his new wife is not a virgin, she can be stoned to death outside the city "because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house" (v. 21).

However, verses 23 and 24 describe another romantic relationship--also punishable by stoning death--nearly identical to the "crime" committed by Siddiqa and Khayyam. That passage reads as follows: "If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst." This passage would cover situations like that of the young Afghan couple, and would call for death.

Contemporary Christians and Jews, though they still condemn adultery, no longer demand such heinous retribution. However, later Biblical evidence suggests that some believers in the early first century still did.

In John 8, Jesus is approached by a group of Pharisees escorting a convicted adulteress. Confronting Jesus, the Pharisees say, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" (8:4-5)

In response, Jesus draws a line in the sand and challenges the crowd: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (8:8). Jesus's gambit works, and as the crowd--the whole crowd--disperses, Jesus turns to the woman and says, "Neither do I condemn you" (8:11).

Tens of millions of Muslims all over the world share Jesus's sentiment when they hear the story of Khayyam and Siddiqa: neither do they condemn them. And nor do we.
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Friday, August 13, 2010

Islam's Jesus: "The Gospel of Barnabas" on Lebanese TV

Reports out today from the BBC note that protests by Lebanese Christians have led to the cancellation of a television series based on the life of Jesus. What? Shouldn't Christians be excited about a TV show starring Christ, you ask?

Not if its hero is more Muslim than Christian.

Believers are upset because the series's narrative relies heavily on the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas, a late retelling of Jesus's life that is ascribed to Paul's traveling companion in Acts. (Scholars note that Barnabas directly quotes Dante's Inferno, so most argue that it was composed between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, hundreds of years after Jesus's death.) The earliest manuscripts are in Spanish and Italian, but they borrow huge chunks of the Vulgate Bible--Saint Jerome's fourth-century Latin translation of holy writ.

However, this "new" gospel isn't controversial for what it borrows from previous texts, but for what it leaves out--specifically, Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. In the book, Jesus teaches, does miracles, and speaks with God, but he is neither killed by Romans nor brought back to life by the deity. Given these deletions, Barnabas's Jesus closely resembles Islam's depiction of the Christian savior.

Muslims believe that Jesus, like the prophet Muhammed, is a rasul: a "messenger" of God even cooler than a run-of-the-mill prophet, or nabi. (According to the Qur'an, other Biblical heroes, like Moses and Noah, also earn the title rasul.) For Muslims, Jesus has a direct line to the divine, but he is not God's son. Nor is he raised from the dead. He is a holy man and an influential teacher, but he is not the atoning sacrifice he is for Christians.

Because of such similarities, many see Islam's version of Jesus in Barnabas. For years, some Muslim scholars have contended that Barnabas is an authentic gospel that corrects the mistakes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--and of Christianity, for that matter.

Of course, Muslims are welcome to their views--both on the putative divinity of Jesus and on the authenticity of this late gospel. But Lebanese television producers' decision to broadcast a Barnabas-based TV show during Ramadan--Islam's holiest month--was unnecessarily provocative to the region's Christians. And authorities' decision to cancel it is a smart move toward inter-religious reconciliation in the hotbed that is the Middle East.

Nonetheless, I admit that I'd like to see the series, if someone would care to subtitle it for me. Its cancellation, while advisable, reinforces the perception that there is one "correct" understanding of the Christian savior--the Bible's. Indeed, there are literally dozens of other gospels, all of which deliver different perspectives on the life and death of Jesus. And while none is so early or influential as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, all can provide valuable insights into the ways new generations of believers--and non-believers--understand and interpret the man who Christians say died for their sins. Even the Gospel of Barnabas. Click here for more

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Matthew 19: Jesus Against Gay Marriage ... and All Marriage!

Last week, Justice Vaughan Walker--a Reagan appointee, left--handed down a decision declaring California's gay-marriage ban unconstitutional. (If you hadn't heard, please stop trying to get your news from my blog.) Excerpts from Walker's decision can be found here.

Walker's decision has unleashed an expected gush of bile from the American right, and the blogosphere is once again awash with 1) fearful warnings that marriage is under renewed attack, and 2) fervent declamations that gay marriage is un-American, immoral, and irreligious.

In calling gay marriage irreligious, many critics point to the Bible's putative support for heterosexual, monogamous marriage. Most begin with some form of the tired, old argument, "It's Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." But frankly, they can't get much further.

On CNN's Opinion page, Bishop Harry Jackson defends heterosexual marriage on Edenic grounds ... but, hilariously, can only cite the same passage from Genesis three times as support. (He cites Genesis 2:24 and then two Gospel passages that quote it too.)

Now, as I hope all of you know already, the Bible has nothing to say on the topic of gay marriage--an institution about as old as Miley Cyrus. And its statements on male homosexuality are negative but often ambiguous. Many argue that Paul, whose writings are frequently cited in condemnations of homosexuality, is actually more concerned with ending male prostitution. (The Bible says nothing about lesbianism.)

However, the Bible's silence on the issue of gay marriage aside, its support for monogamous, heterosexual marriage is not so uncomplicated as its defenders would suggest.

First, many heroes of the Tanakh--among them Jacob, David, and Solomon--are polygamists. Impressively, Solomon has 700 wives, according to 1 Kings! To adjust the aphorism, it's not Adam and Eve ... it's Adam and Eve and Sarah and Kelly and Liz and Ethel and Havilah and Rachel and Sue.

But second, and more importantly, Jesus himself takes a very dim view of the institution of marriage. His advice? Avoid it if you can!

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus addresses marriage twice, first in Mark 12. (Different gospels narrate these episodes with only slight alterations). Here, Sadducees come to Jesus with a question: if a widower remarries, which wife will he have in heaven? (The Sadducees are trying to trip Jesus up.)

He answers their challenge with the following: "when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Mark 12:25). For Jesus, marriage is a this-worldly convention that will be left behind in the next. It's a stepping stone that will fall beneath the waves when we all become angelic.

It's not heavenly; it's not even permanent.

However, Jesus's unvarnished feelings on marriage come out in Matthew 19--a discussion of divorce. In the first part of the chapter, Jesus harshly condemns those who would seek to end their marriages casually: "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery" (19:9). Translation? You may not divorce your wife unless she is unfaithful. Jesus's stance significantly intensifies Moses's command, in Deuteronomy 24, that a husband who wishes to divorce his wife must notify her in writing--itself a win for early women's rights.

(Here, I repeat the important point that that Jesus repeatedly condemns divorce in the gospels but says nothing about homosexuality.)

For the disciples, Jesus's new law is difficult, perhaps untenable; they respond, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry" (19:10). Jesus's effective reply? "Yep." He says, "there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can" (19:12).

Now, we're not entirely sure what a "eunuch for the kingdom of heaven" is, but most believe that it's someone who avoids women as part of his spiritual seeking. The New International Version of the Bible makes no bones about it, calling these "eunuchs" those who have "renounced marriage." More simply? Avoid marriage if at all possible, as it will hinder your religious progress.

To tweak the old saw once again, it's not Adam and Eve, it's, well, just Adam.

Of course, actions speak louder than words, and this is advice that Jesus himself follows. And for all the hot air and spilled ink let loose by conservative Christians, they must conveniently ignore the fact that the institution they so revere is one that Jesus himself eschews.

It's worth noting that Paul--the other pillar of New Testament teaching--also stays single, saying, "to the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am" (1 Corinthians 7:8).

Thus, I close by agreeing with all those who scream that marriage is under attack! But "the gays" aren't mounting the assault. Jesus is.
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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Scripture as Red Herring: The Bible and "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

As a part-time, tongue-in-cheek Bible commentator, I don't have many chances to do spoiler alerts. With the Good Book, the juicy material has been out on the table for more than two millennia.

Eden spoiler alert: Eve eats the fruit.

Genesis spoiler alert: Lot sleeps with his daughters.

Genesis spoiler alert 2: Judah sleeps with his daughter-in law.

Judges rhyming spoiler alert: Jephthah slaughters his daughter.

Gospel of Mark spoiler alert: Jesus dies. (Twist: Jesus comes back.)

Apocalypse of John spoiler alert: There's an apocalypse. (No twist: The world actually ends.)

But today, I'm writing about Biblical allusions in Stieg Larsson's summer must-read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I will give away the ending ... so, um, spoiler alert! For real!

Tattoo follows an unlikely pair of Swedish detectives--Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist--as they track down a murderous member of one of the country's leading industrial families. As the bodies pile up, Salander and Blomkvist discover that the killer seems to follow a Biblical logic when choosing his victims, eliminating those who transgress Levitical law.

Hence, the investigators assume that a woman found stabbed to death next to a slaughtered cow ran afoul of Leviticus 20:16: "If a woman approaches any beast and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the beast; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them."

And a fortune-teller whose head is bashed in with a rock appears to have broken Leviticus 20:27: "A man or a woman who is a medium or a wizard shall be put to death; they shall be stoned with stones."

A cryptic diary entry confirms a few more of these connections.

But as the plot thickens, this easy correlation falls apart, and it turns out that the father-and-son serial-killing team--indeed, there are two--are just sadistic freaks. The Bible is an arcane standard arbitrarily applied to the occasional victim, likely to throw law enforcement off the track. For the police and for the reader, scripture is a red herring.

Having had a little bit of time to digest the novel--which, though entertaining, does not deserve all the superlatives thrown at it--I admit that I'm bothered by this false lead.

First, I'm troubled by Larsson's unsubtle implication that Torah law, if strictly applied, would be deeply, violently misogynistic.
Larsson's probably not wrong; nonetheless, I don't appreciate his gruesome demonstration of the discovery. (The novel's murders sadly recall scenes from Afghanistan and North Africa where conservative Islam's version of sharia is applied to women in similarly frightening ways.)

But I'm more troubled by the fact that Larsson is careless in his treatment of such grave Biblical themes. Scripture's blood need not be hastily multiplied, and Larsson lets it flow. And whether you're a believer or a non-believer, the Bible deserves a modicum of respect; Larsson gives it none.

Having solved the case, Salander and Blomkvist reflect on the killers' motives: "There's some sort of Biblical gibberish that a psychiatrist might be able to figure out, something to do with punishment and purification in a figurative sense. It doesn't matter what it was."

Biblical gibberish? Leviticus is the foundation of Judaism; how can Larsson be so flippant? And why is a psychiatrist best suited to plumb the depths of religious thought--even perverse religious thought? Have we dispensed with priests and rabbis, only to hand spirituality over to the other men in white coats? (It's worth noting that the novel's other religious emissary--an aging pastor--is a barely coherent defender of the faith.)

Further, how is it that such material "doesn't matter"? The purifying power of violence is heavy, complex, and yes, troubling stuff. But Larsson's casual dismissal of his own conceit suggests that it is not the "Biblical gibberish" that doesn't matter, but his own treatment of it.

Now don't get me wrong: I don't mind authors--even mystery novelists--working with the dark parts of religious and Biblical history. Umberto Eco does so gorgeously in The Name of the Rose. But to do so as Larsson does, with a glib smattering of keyboard strokes, smacks of opportunism. His treatment of the Bible seems carefully prepared to take advantage of the often unreflective atheism of the European left and the book-buying public's disturbing taste for the macabre. It's a disconcerting combination.

Now, I probably shouldn't lay into Larsson, who's been dead for nearly six years. Nonetheless, I do want to take issue with the critics who call Tattoo "super-smart" (Fresh Air), "meticulous" (The Boston Globe), and "intricately plotted" (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). It's not. It's a shallow, dark page-turner that will keep you reading--but not thinking.
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Monday, August 2, 2010

Joseph Smith's Bible

If you've got $1.5 million lying around, you can buy a true piece of Americana--the family Bible of Joseph Smith. The Deseret News reports this morning that financial distress has forced an anonymous seller to unload the precious text.

Joseph Smith, for those who haven't been keeping up on American spiritual history, is the founder of Mormonism, the Utah-based religion whose most famous members include presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and Donny and Marie Osmond. For a completely unsubstantiated list of other famous Mormons, go to www.famousmormons.net. (Aaron Ruell--who played Napoleon Dynamite's older brother--is also a Mormon. Isn't the web great?)

Though the Mormons' best-known scripture is the Book of Mormon, they join Christians in revering the Bible as the inerrant Word of God. Smith's Bible--an 1831 edition--was originally owned by him and his first wife, Emma Hale, whose descendants held onto the text for years before selling it to a third party. (Smith, the old charmer, had over thirty wives during his short life; you can find a full list here.) This Bible is especially valuable because an inset between the Old and New Testaments features a hand-written copy of Smith's family tree.

I mainly report on this story because it gives me a great chance to post a hilariously campy '70s-era cartoon outlining pieces of the Mormons' very trippy creation myth. But let's not kid ourselves--most creation myths are pretty trippy.

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