No! Not … the comfy chair!

No! Not … the comfy chair! March 26, 2011

By this point, I’ve come to expect the Spanish Inquisition.

This is how things work in the evangelical subculture, where stridency is rewarded with prominence. You invite suspicion, inquisition and spontaneous catechism whenever you quote anything from the Bible that’s outside the usual limited parameters — such as anything it says in hundreds and hundreds of passages about wealth and possessions and the poor. You can expect the same thing whenever you question any of those things that everybody seems to know the Bible says even if it never actually says them.

There’s a very strange if … then logic at work behind this steady stream of questions and questioners. The idea seems to be that if you believe that Jesus said to feed the hungry, then you must not believe that Jesus was the Christ, the only begotten Son of God. Or if you believe that the origin stories of the early chapters of Genesis were not written as journalistic accounts (“Dateline: Eden”) and thus should not be read as such, then you must not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, vindicated by God and victorious once and for all over sin and death.

Very, very strange logic, that. I do not see how the supposition follows, but I am no longer surprised to see the supposition made. (It’s being made again, right now, as the next wave of inquisitors parses the words “for all” in the paragraph above. I shall be hearing from them shortly, I’m sure.)

Ultimately, I suppose, the logic of this illogic is the idea that any Christian who is not precisely and exactly the kind of Christian that one’s particular megapastor or favored author or radio host demands all Christians to be isn’t really a Christian at all, just a “liberal” impostor claiming the name to lead the unwary astray. For most of my inquisitors, it seems, the world is filled with such impostors. And that makes the world a very scary place.

I remember being taught what it meant to live in such a frightening, perilous world. It was not pleasant.

Responding directly to my catechists rarely gets at the root of their fears, but every once in a while I try to respond anyway, so let me do that again here with the latest “Gotcha!” inquisition from comments.

INQUISITOR: “So what happened to the physical body [of] Rabbi Yeshua bar Joseph after he was executed as an insurgent in the year 33 CE?”

MY ANSWER: I highly doubt that Jesus was executed in the year we call 33 CE.

Pin-pointing the date of Jesus’ birth is a tricky business due to the general difficulty of dating most first-century events precisely and due to the thin and not quite harmonious clues in the Gospels. Not to mention the complications that arise simply from the fact that no one living in 33 CE thought of themselves as living in “33 CE.”

I had a brilliant astronomy professor in college whose best guess, based on the sort of thing that would have gotten the attention of the magi as the “star” of Bethlehem, was that Jesus was born in what we would call 6 BCE. As he was much smarter than I and had given the matter much more thought than I likely ever will, I’m prepared to go along with that guess on this bit of adiaphora.

Now, see, what happens next is my inquisitors note that if I can’t accept the clear biblical teaching about the date of Jesus’ death, then I obviously don’t respect the infallible authority of the scriptures, and therefore, they assume, I’m John Shelby Spong.

(They haven’t actually read anything by Spong, but they’ve been assured that he is eeeevil. I haven’t read anything by Spong either, so I really can’t say.)

The arithmetic is straightforward and simple: If I do not believe what the Bible says about the date of Jesus’ death, then I must not believe that Christ is risen or that Christ is Lord. If I don’t accept the simple, straightforward fact of what the Bible teaches about the dates of Jesus’ birth and death, then I must not really be a Christian at all — just one of those liberal impostors your pastor warned you about.

Funny thing, though: the Bible doesn’t actually say what year Jesus was born or what year he died. Any guess as to those dates is nothing more than that — a guess.

And this, in a nutshell, is the dynamic of the never-ending evangelical inquisition. People who insist that the Bible says what it never actually says attack anyone who refuses to pretend that it does, accusing those people of not taking the Bible seriously because they refuse to substitute fantasies, fabrications and far-fetched extrapolations for the actual thing itself.

Hence again that constantly repeated exchange: “About 4.5 billion years.” “You Spong you!”

The inquisitors are ever-eager to exclude, condemn, ostracize or categorize away anyone who refuses to play along with the idea that “the Bible clearly teaches” things it does not clearly teach or things it clearly does not teach. That is not the right way to go about being right. Mainly because it’s wrong.

Young-earth creationism? Not in the Bible.

Premillennial dispensationalism? Not in the Bible.

Idolatry? That’s in the Bible, quite a bit of it, actually, but it’s not what the Bible teaches.

Gandhi is damned to eternal conscious torture? Not in the Bible.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and chauvinism of every kind? See “Idolatry” above.

Light travels at roughly 186,000 miles per second? Not in the Bible — but still true!

That last one I’ve included as an example of a whole other category of statements that prompts more catechizing by evangelical inquisitors who have been taught to be suspicious of any truth from any source other than the Bible. (“You keep claiming that Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota,” they say, “where in the Bible do you find support for this claim? Sola scriptura!“) That’s a related, but separate, confusion that I will have to try to address separately in a separate post.

Now I realize that the main substance of my most recent inquisitor’s question wasn’t primarily concerned with the precise date of Jesus’ death. The main substance of his question was an attempt to catechize me on what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion. My answer will not satisfy him, because it is an answer only to his spoken question and not to his unspoken fears. But let me tell you what I believe happened.

I believe Jesus was taken down from the cross and buried in a grave that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea.

And then, on the first day of the week, he rose again.

Mary saw him. A bunch of us did. Scores of us.

And so we know that Jesus, who was descended from David according to the flesh, was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace. So Christ Jesus died, yes, and was raised, and is at the right hand of God and indeed intercedes for us so that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is what I believe happened to Jesus after his execution. And that, by the way, is actually in the Bible. Although I suppose it doesn’t really count, since it’s from Paul and, you know, Paul was one of those sentimental, liberal, unbiblical impostors who failed to stand with Team Hell.

Anyway, that’s the short version of my answer. For a longer version, I’d recommend N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. It’s a massive book — luminous, but not light reading. But then when one is tackling the subject of the most important thing that ever happened, one shouldn’t expect a quick and breezy read. (I should confess I haven’t finished it yet myself, so let me reserve the right to revise or amend this recommendation if Wright takes some unexpected, bizarre turn near the end of the book.)

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  • Rikalous

    Well, it’s hard to say what Paul meant without someone explaining the connotations of the Hebrew word that got translated as “destruction”, but “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” is certainly suggestive. If someone were annihilated, there wouldn’t really be anything to shut out. To me it sounds like Paul’s condemning people to the “virtuous pagan” section of Dante’s Inferno, a place where the only eternal punishment is being separated from God with the knowledge that you screwed up your chance to spend all that time in paradise.

  • I didn’t mean it that way and I apologize if that’s what it sounded like.

    What is with all the “I apologize if” statements lately?

    Friends! Strangers! Little green peoples from Alpha Centauri! If you want your apology to be read as genuine, apologize that you did something. “I apologize if” implies doubt as to whether you really did the thing you are apologizing for, so you’re only offering that apology conditionally. Because you think that apologies are only available in a limited quantity or something, and you don’t want to have wasted one if it turns out the person telling you that you sounded like a condescending jerk was in fact totally lying about that.

    Consider the following:

    Person A: “Ow! You just stepped on my toe!”
    Person B: “Really? Oh. I apologize if I stepped on your toe.”
    Person A: “WTF? I just said you did step on my toe. What the frak is up with the ‘if’? You think maybe I’m mistaken about OW MY TOE IS IN PAIN?!”

    See how silly that sounds?

    KA, given that a bunch of people said that’s exactly what it sounded like, cut the frakkin’ “if”. There is no “if.” Learn how to apologize genuinely, sincerely, and unconditionally.

  • PJ Evans

    One of my friends has a similar view, and says the miracle is getting all those tight-fisted hard-headed people to contribute what they’d brought for their own meal to the group meal.

  • Nixnutz

    I realize that this is terribly late and I probably shouldn’t expect a reply but I feel I’m missing a couple of implicit points which seem to be clear to the rest of the readers (since I don’t see anyone asking). Namely, what are we to presume is the belief system/spiritual orientation of the questioner and what in turn does he believe happened to the body? An atheist “inquisitor” makes the most sense to me but the context seems to be of literalists challenging Fred’s Christian bona-fides so that seems wrong.

    Re-reading the post I find this is less important to the main themes than I first thought but I still feel that I was supposed to understand those points.

  • My understanding of the question is whether the body remained a corpse and eventually decayed, as bodies of humans generally do, or whether it got up and walked out of its tomb, as the body of Jesus is said to have done, with the inquisitor’s implication being that what actually happened is that it got up and walked out of its tomb, but that Fred would be reluctant to say that, since (the inquisitor putatively implies) he’s not a real Evangelical but some kind of wishy-washy Unitarian-in-Christian-clothing or something whose theology is impure and unreliable.

    More generally, my understanding of the context is that Fred is accustomed to having his bona fides as a Christian Evangelical challenged because he does not profess belief in some of what he considers countertextual cultural artifacts (e.g., Hell) but many Evangelicals consider part of the text.

    This comes on the heels of a longer discussion in the comments of an earlier post, where several people were speculating on where Fred stands on the actuality of various supernatural phenomena described in various texts.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

    Evolutionary psychology is just the latest attempt to scientifically prove that someone’s cultural beliefs are actually revealed truth, and when someone points out how easily these ‘truths’ are contradicted by simply living in another culture or knowing a bit of history, the response can be an enlightening insight into what makes someone a true believer in the currently named field of evolutionary psychology.

    Maybe you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, here? I’ll admit evolutionary psychology gets WAY overused, but it seems pretty undeniable to me that “not only are humans evolved form apes, we are a LONG way from completing the process.”

  • Caravelle

    it seems pretty undeniable to me that “not only are humans evolved form apes, we are a LONG way from completing the process.”

    I agree we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater on evolutionary psychology but I’m not sure what that sentence is supposed to mean. Evolution isn’t a process that ever gets completed. And phylogenetically speaking, no amount of natural evolution will make us not-apes. Surely there are better ways of expressing the concept that our mind and behaviors were shaped by evolution.

  • Indeed. Human beings are and always will be apes, at least as long as we continue to be physical, biological beings.

  • Rikalous

    Well, it is technically possible that we develop tails or feathers or something else that would classify us as something other than apes. Not saying that it’s very likely, but it’s definitely possible.

  • Nope, we’d still be apes that had developed an unusual evolutionary adaptation. Clades are determined by ancestry not by features (although features can be used to figure out ancestry based on parsimony).

  • Nixnutz

    Thanks, so it’s “you deny the literal truth of this thing (which is often not in the text), do you even believe this other really important thing?” Yeah, now I see why the rest of you got it, I should have figured that out.

  • Guest

    I think to say the bible doesn’t support homophobia or sexism is naive. What about the passages that say gays should be put to death? What about the part where it’s claimed the people of soddom and gomorrah were punished with ‘unnatural appatites’ and turned gay? What about Paul’s claim that gays won’t go to heaven?

    Then there’s the rape laws that say a woman should marry her rapist if she’s a virgin and that if she’s raped in a town and doesn’t cry out, she should be put to death. The whole nasty symbolism of eve being made after adam, and of taking the apple first. The fact that God himself seems to be sexist- he punishes all womankind with the pain of childbirth, he selects mostly male prophets and male kings. Even Jesus had mostly male diciples. There’s Paul, who thinks women should be quiet and not be teachers. It’s a deeply problematic book.

    As for racism, you could make the arguement that God himself is racist, since he favours the jews above all others and never has a black or asian prophet.

  • Guest

    There’s no direct evidence that Jesus exsisted. He never wrote anything himself (or if he did we haven’t found it) and there are no eye-witness accounts of him, or second-hand accounts of people claiming to meet him.

    As for why the church sprang up, it’s possible that some-one had a dream that the messiah had been born, or heard a rumour, and then convinced other people. Cults were springing up all the time back then.

    I don’t consider churches to be evidence for his exsistence. People worshipped Hercules; he never lived.

    There are many folk-tales and non-canon ‘gospels’ about Jesus that are treated as untrue, but really, how can anyone tell? There’s no established truth about Jesus to compare them to.