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.

Click here for more

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 ...
Click here for more