December 17, 2012

That’s not “job” as in employment in the title of this post, but “Job” as in “the Book of…”

Someone asked me on Facebook recently what I thought the message of Job is and how it relates to the tragedy in Connecticut. I said that the Book of Job has a number of points that it conveys. But in light of the recent comments by right-wing Christians (which I’ve already commented on more than once), I want to highlight one particular aspect of the book’s message:

If you interpret someone else’s suffering, you do so at your peril.

The Book of Job starts with a discussion in heaven that results in Job suffering, even though he is righteous. The large central section depicts in poetic verse discussions between Job and his friends, in which the friends interpret Job’s suffering in terms of their traditional wisdom and theology, and Job protests that their answers don’t fit his actual life and experience. In the end, God appears and expresses his displeasure with the friends for not having spoken rightly about him.

I can’t help but wonder whether James Dobson has ever read the book. He’s jumped on the “this shooting happened because…” bandwagon along with others I’ve mentioned recently, like Mike Huckabee, Eric Hovind, and Bryan Fischer – and now one Sam Morris can be added to the list. Whether they blame it specifically on the removal of teacher-led formal prayer from schools, or something else, they are all siding with Job’s friends against Job. And in the process, just like Job’s friends, they make God look like a monster even while they think they are defending him.

Just think about it. I’m quite sure that anyone who was in Sandy Hook Elementary School when the shooter was on the rampage prayed. These pseudochristians are actually saying that regular formal ritual matters more than heartfelt prayer in a moment of genuine need.

These politicians and preachers who make such statements claim to represent God. We do well to remember that so did Job’s friends. But it didn’t mean that they were actually God’s spokespeople.

In the Book of Job, the person who “spoke rightly” about God was the one who was suffering. And what he did right was not to defend God but to be honest with his questioning in the midst of heartbreaking sorrow.

Elsewhere around the blogosphere, many others have touched on this and related topics:

Some have discussed or simply quoted the president’s homily.

Rachel Held Evans calls it what it is, emphasizing that God cannot be kept out.

Joel Watts gives thanks that he is a mainline Christian. He also tackles the lie that “old time religion” keeps or in the past kept violence out of schools.

Tony Jones discusses the limits that are rightfully placed on our freedoms.

Jeri Massi suggests that many Christians would do better to remain silent.

Morgan Guyton discusses a disturbingly American image.

See also posts by Bob Cargill, Eric ReitanFrankie Schaeffer, Bob Cornwall, Caryn Riswold, Matt Reed, John Shore, Stacey Samuel, Carson T. Clark, Matthew Paul Turner, and of course many others.

January 17, 2013

Most of us have watched in horror and dismay as a small handful of people have spun conspiracy theories around the tragic shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Andii Bowsher has noted the connection with another sort of denialism, that which one encounters in Biblical studies. Andii quotes an article from The Guardian which I think is worth quoting at even greater length:

The point is that when you freeze any moment of history, then analyse it in extreme detail, you’ll always find numerous things that “don’t add up”. Every moment in history is full of them; it’s just that most moments in history are mundane, and therefore go un-analysed. And “if you have any fact which you think is really sinister … hey, forget it, man,” Tink Thompson, a private detective who investigated the case, tells Morris. “Because you can never, on your own, think up all the non-sinister, perfectly valid explanations for that fact.”

In short: it’s not that the alleged Sandy Hook “discrepancies” are necessarily fabrications in need of debunking. It’s simply that any brief span of time, probed in sufficient detail, will be found to contain plenty of them: the changing witness reports and reports about the weapons involved; the quote in the newspaper, purportedly from the school principal who had, in fact, been killed; the seemingly strange lack of records concerning the recent life of Adam Lanza. And the overwhelming likelihood is that they signify nothing at all.

Sandy Hook trutherism is unforgivable, but the essential fallacy on which it rests – that facts we can’t account for must have a sinister explanation – is a widespread, human and dangerously seductive one. There’s much about last month’s tragedy in Connecticut that defies the search for meaning. Confronting that truth, even for those of us who are just onlookers, is hard. So it’s depressing, but not exactly surprising, that the Sandy Hook “truthers” can’t bring themselves to do so.

The parallels to other sorts of “trutherism” – including but not limited to Jesus mythicism – are strikingly obvious.

Of related interest, Jeff Carter has blogged about reading Meier’s A Marginal Jew.

January 7, 2013

David Hayward’s latest cartoon depicts Jesus as having a truly prophetic ability, as illustrated by this uncannily accurate nightmare:

Presumably it would have been enough to cause a nightmare if Jesus had simply foreseen what some people speaking in his name would about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Hector Avalos, a religious studies professor who happens to be an atheist, has written a letter to the editor which offers more theological precision and insight than the likes of James Dobson when commenting on the subject.

December 30, 2012

I commented previously on some of the conservative Christian reactions to the Newtown school shooting, including in particular the attempt to connect it with the removal of prayer from schools. Today in church, as a longstanding public school principal who is a member of my church gave a children’s talk about prayer, my thoughts turned to the subject again, and I noticed a contradiction in one of the responses a conservative Christian made to one of my posts.

I suggested that it is ridiculous to think that some people in Sandy Hook Elementary School did not pray in the context of the situation that arose, the presence of a gunman in the school. A conservative Christian commenter replied that if those were not the prayers of believers, then it would not matter.

And there’s the rub, the contradiction that finally struck me. Would the presence of formalized, ritualized prayer in the school have made the children, teachers, and other employees in the school believers, in the sense of Christians with a genuine faith in Jesus? I doubt that any Christian who would answer that question in the affirmative. Indeed, most would emphatically say that it would not do so. Some might go even further, pointing out Jesus’ own teaching against formalized, ritualized, and/or public prayer. And so some Christians would also stand against imposed prayer in public schools as an expression of their faith. This could potentially not only be due to the aforementioned teaching of Jesus, but also for other reasons related to their faith. For instance, as Protestants, they probably would not want a Catholic priest to come in and teach their children to pray the Hail Mary.

You cannot have it both ways. Either the sort of prayer that Jesus taught, offered by people who are actually his followers, is the only sort that God listens to. In that case, formalized prayer will not help, while believers in the school will be praying without ceasing, privately and without show, as Jesus taught them. Or alternatively, maybe formalized prayer does indeed make a difference. But in that case, the rhetoric and stance of many conservative Christians will in fact have to change. You can’t deny the value of prayers offered in a manner contrary to Jesus’ teaching and by people who do not have a personal faith, and yet advocate for formal prayer in school, without ending up in a contradiction.

December 20, 2012

I originally posted these comments together with other links in a round-up about blogging related to the recent tragedy. But they grew to the point where they seemed to require a post of their own.

Brian LePort joined the conversation between Tony Jones and myself about the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew’s Gospel. Allan Bevere also did so. And now Tony Jones himself has responded, acknowledging that I am funnier than he is, but nevertheless insisting that I am wronger. (UPDATE: Fred Clark has also joined the conversation with a long thoughtful post on a variety of aspects of the subject. So too have Rob Davis and Kyle Roberts.)

Let me respond by saying that I think Tony is right that, since the infancy stories offer us little in the way of history, a narrative and theological approach to them is the most useful (here is a link to some earlier thoughts of mine on that topic in class notes I posted some years ago, as well one to a more recent video of a class I taught on the infancy narratives).

I remain relieved that I do not feel bound to adhere to Matthew’s theology any more than his history. It is precisely because of the seriousness with which I take the deaths of the innocent that I find myself unable to think of God in the anthropomorphic way that many Christians still do, as though God were organizing and planning every event that unfolds.

But I appreciate and agree with Tony’s point that we should not adopt a stance of smug chronological superiority, as though things that we write and say will not offend people thousands of years from now, if anyone actually reads them.

Whatever one thinks of Matthew’s story, whether as theology or as history, we don’t need it in order to reflect on the deaths of innocent children. We have plenty of modern examples that can serve just fine as a basis for reflection, unfortunately.

On a somewhat related note (about another issue in Matthew’s infancy story), there is a video with Francesca Stavrakopoulou talking about the virgin birth, suggesting that the idea arose from a mistranslation. Timothy Michael Law suggests that the LXX rendering of the verse in Isaiah is not a mistranslation, but rather the term parthenos underwent a linguistic shift after the time that translation was made. Mark Goodacre has now chimed in as well and provides the definitive treatment of the subject.

UPDATE: Joel Watts, John Byron, Henry Neufeld, Anthony Le Donne, Deane Galbraith, Michael Heiser, and Matthew Malcolm have chimed in about the above topic too. Andrew Perriman’s post on Immanuel and others in Isaiah is also relevant.

Richard Land has argued that the Golden Rule leads naturally to owning firearms. No, seriously.

Peter Wehner has commented on James Dobson’s callous theology. See too the posts by Frederick Clarkson and Carol Howard Merritt.

Last but not least, Frankie Schaeffer added some thoughts today on Evangelical responses to the Newtown shootings. He concludes with the following:

Who hates Jesus? It isn’t the so-called new atheists like Richard Dawkins. It’s the Christian leaders bent on taking Christianity down with them into their private hell of stupidity. With friends like these Jesus needs no enemies. The re-crucifixion of Jesus by his “followers” continues.


December 20, 2012

HT Christians Against the Tea Party on Facebook

I’ve commented several times on what prominent would-be spokespeople for Christianity have had to say about the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Initially I added additional links I came across to those posts. But there continue to be so many that I thought I should share some of the beautiful and horrific things that have come to my attention.

The Lead has had a steady stream of reporting on sermons and prayers connected with the tragedy, as well as other religious perspectives and reflections.

Fred ClarkBob Cargill, Red Letter Christians and Hemant Mehta all responded to James Dobson’s interpretation of the shooting.

Stephen Prothero made a list of things he doesn’t want to hear after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Rabbi Boteach says that America is the most religious country on Earth, and so explanations of the shooting in terms of lack of religion are nonsense.

Think Progress reports on a conservative source which said that if there had been more men in the school, things might have turned out differently.

Max Lucado and Bernie Goetz make an interesting combination.

A wall of considerate police, firefighters and other people formed to keep Westboro “Baptist” “Church” demonstrators away from mourning families in Newtown.

Jerry Coyne had a negative reaction to William Lane Craig’s comments about the shooting. P. Z. Myers offered another atheist reaction to many more conservative and allegedly Christian comments.

The Beatles prove stronger than Terry Jones.

Tom Bartley has had enough of guns making the damage inflicted by human beings so much worse.

Kim Fabricius reflects on the gun as American idol, and Richard Hall discusses the combination of weaponry, fundamentalism, and mental illness.

See also posts by Carson T. ClarkJim BurkloJoe Hoffmann, Frankie Schaffer, David HensonJoel WattsAmanda Mac, Tom Verenna, Bob PattersonLibby Anne, and of course many others.

December 19, 2012

I have been struck by the language some atheist bloggers I read have used in recent days, in reference to how they felt about President Obama’s speech/sermon in Newtown.


As a progressive Christian, and as someone who has studied Biblical studies, theology, and philosophy of religion, I often feel something that could be described as “alienation” when I hear others use religious language, even in my own church.

But I am part of a diverse congregation, and am a minority. And so I have come to the conclusion that I should not expect most people to be talking about God or the Bible or religion or everyday events in the way that I would. All that would mean was that instead of me feeling alienated, most other people would.

If we are to be a diverse nation with religious freedom, then we are going to have to learn to live with alienation. A diverse society means precisely a society in which there are large numbers of people who think differently than you do and view the world differently than you do.

As a Baptist, I am a strong supporter of the separation of church and state. I have never understood the latter to mean that a president ought not to be allowed to attend church, or speak in a way that reflects or mentions his or her own religious views. I understand the concern that someone in a position of power and authority can be influential just through their association with a particular religion or ideology. That is why we adopt the measures that we do in public schools, to prevent any teacher or school board deciding to influence the children of others in ways that their parents might disapprove of. On their own time and outside of their role as teachers, they are free to speak as they see fit.

On the one hand, a presidents are different. They are constantly in the public eye, and any distinction between “private” and “public” becomes largely meaningless. But they are also speaking more to adults than to children, and so the concerns that we have regarding school-age children do not apply in quite the same way.

It is hard to generalize, since people use – and refrain from using – religious language in different ways in different contexts. And so let’s keep the focus on the present example. In the midst of a tragedy, I personally find the mention of God tends to create more problems than it solves. But I understand that others are seeking comfort and finding it through such use of language.

What do readers think? Is there any way that a president could speak – or refrain from speaking – about religion or in religious terms, that would not alienate someone?

Am I right to think that the only way to have a diverse society is to learn the maturity necessary to accept that there will always be those whose way of speaking and thinking alienates us – and that our own way of thinking and speaking will have the same effect on others?

But even if we agree on this point, there is a conversation to be had. At universities, we often emphasize the need to use inclusive language in order to at least recognize that our own gender, skin color, perspective, culture, or nation, is not the only one. It is not about compromising your own perspective, but recognizing that just because you are a “he” doesn’t mean that you can assume that any president, even in the future, will be a “he.” It is not about denying your morality or religion, but about writing and speaking in a way that recognizes that not everyone who hears or reads your words will share your identity.

So how might a president – or anyone else – speak in the midst of a tragedy in a way that would comfort and acknowledge believers and unbelievers of various stripes and descriptions? Is such a thing even possible?

Do any of us have a right to not feel alienated by the language used by others? Even by those elected to represent us? Do we not need to remember that our representatives represent us in our diversity, and not any one group among us – and does that not entail that they will inevitably not be representing some of us, in some ways, at least some of the time?

And when it comes to situations of tragedy and heartbreak, do we we simply need to accept that when we mourn we do not always express ourselves with the care or the consideration that we might otherwise, and make allowances for that?

December 16, 2012

In the wake of tragedy, we may view things differently.

While some at church this morning spouted offensive platitudes (despite the pastor’s explicit mention of the pain they cause and their inappropriateness), I found myself thinking about the text of the sermon, about the massacre of the innocents in Matthew 2.

In the story, it is God who alerts Herod to the birth of a king in Bethlehem. The star is obviously not a real star, since it could not lead people to a specific house. But in the story, it brings the Magi to Jerusalem first, alerting Herod and sending him down the path of planning murder.

God is then depicted as warning the Magi and Joseph about Herod, but choosing not to warning the other families in Bethlehem.

If Matthew had had more sympathy towards those who lose children, and more theological concern not to depict God in a manner that people would eventually find morally problematic, he could have used his imagination and added still more details to the story he concocted. He could have had the other parents in Bethlehem also be warned, so that the soldiers reached Bethlehem and found no one with young children, and realizing that God had accomplished a miracle, they could then have gone back to Herod and told him that the mission was accomplished.

But Matthew was content to depict God as more like a human being in our less generous moments. God is depicted here as concerned with his “team” – special guests he invited from afar, and of course his son, but although Jesus is to be the Savior, for some reason Matthew chose not to have God act to save innocent children, but instead to actively bring about their slaughter by making Herod aware of the birth of one who will be king of the Jews.

Aren’t you glad that we have no reason to think that this story Matthew tells actually happened?

Instead, we can attribute it to the shortcomings of Matthew. And we can take a lesson from it.

Real life includes murders and tragedies – like that which happened in reality at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut recently, and like that depicted in story in Matthew’s Gospel.

But when we insert God as a character and say that God acted to save some, we turn God into a monster who chooses for inscrutable reasons to spare some but lead others to the slaughter.

Do we not do better to simply express our gratitude and our relief for those who survive, and our mourning and heartache for those who died and for their families in the midst of indescribable grief?

When we try to introduce divine action into the story, the God we portray is one that few will find it appropriate to thank. Those who will are those who are concerned for their own comfort, and not the comfort of those who are most affected by the tragedy.

In Matthew’s story, it doesn’t matter so much, since we have no evidence that young children in Bethlehem were in fact slaughtered as per Matthew’s story. More likely, Matthew is working in details from the story of Moses in order to highlight the similarity between Moses and Jesus.

The Moses story and Pharaoh’s order to kill male Hebrew children also disturbs us.

But try as we might, when we seek to work a divine plan or miraculous interventions into the stories, we never end up depicting God as just, but rather an unjust.

I think we are better off sitting quietly, sobbing, weeping, and if we are near to the one whose loss is greater than ours, hugging. Don’t try to offer explanations. Would any explanation offered be a comfort? If the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem really did experience the things Matthew described, and then read Matthew’s account, would they find it comforting or simply adding to their pain, depicting a God who takes care of others but inflicts heartache and misery on them?

There are places in Scripture where it seems that an author has failed to fully live up to and write in a way that does justice to some of the most lofty principles Scripture calls us to aspire to. I think Matthew’s story is an example of that. While he manages to highlight parallels between Jesus and Moses, he does so at the expense of not showing sympathy towards those who mourn.

Or maybe he never imagined that anyone would think his story was literally factual in all its details, the way some today assume it to be?

There have been conflicting accounts circulating about some details regarding what happened in Newtown, Connecticut just days ago. But one thing we know is that it is a true story of the slaughter of innocents.

And so I appeal to you: Don’t make the same mistakes Matthew did. Because here you are dealing with real tragedy, real loss of life. And the harm your words can inflict is real.


December 15, 2012

Rev. Jeremy Smith posted some thoughts in response to those who claim that God being “uninvited” from schools has something to do with the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Randal Rauser did the same.

I would go even further than they do, even further than I did in my previous post on the topic.

The shooting in this elementary school was not carried out by some elementary-age child who had rebelled against God and, as a result, decided to kill lots of people. It was carried out by someone who came into a school where children, despite there being no formal religious activity or education imposed on them, were behaving in a civilized manner towards one another (as much as can be expected from children no matter their religious affiliation). And many lives were saved because teachers in that school, teachers who never imposed their religious views on the children, acted heroically to save their lives.

The claim that this has something to do with prayer being taken out of schools is absolute vile garbage.

But if you are still not convinced, then consider all the places where God is formally recognized, invoked, and addressed in prayer, while people within the congregation, in some instances even a pastor or priest or other member of the church's staff, engages in sexual or other forms of physical abuse against children.

Mentioning God is no safeguard against tragedy, nor against those who invoke God being engaged in heinous acts against children.

And so before you applaud the comments of Mike Huckabee, Eric Hovind, Bryan Fischer, and others like them, keep in mind that you are elevating the paying of lip service to God over concrete actions of faith and heroism, of the sort that are responsible for many lives having been saved in Sandy Hook Elementary School.

If you have nothing to say that is comforting, nothing to say that is not a thinly-veiled attempt to use intense suffering as an opportunity to try to score points for whatever team you think you represent, then you would do better to stay silent.



December 14, 2012

As always, when some individual or groups pull out their guns and mow down innocent victims, as happened today in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, there are people who will try to profit from it.

I'm not talking here about the makers and sellers of guns, although they do indeed profit both at the front end, arming the killers, and then in the aftermath as still more people purchase guns in the vain hope that adding still more guns to the mix will make them safer.

No, I am talking about the lowlife pseudochristians who say things like this:

That anyone could be foolish enough to say such things is sad enough. That some will applaud when such things is sadder still.

Europe is far more secularized than the United States is. Canada is a lot like us but has socialized health care. Japan is hardly a bastion of American Christian values. Yet we are the ones that continue to see bloodshed on our streets and in our schools. If there were a correlation to be made, perhaps it would be that having more fundamentalist Christians who promote pseudoscientific nonsence and dogmatic absolutism leads to a rampant self-righteous individual-against-the-world attitude which is bound at times to erupt in violence. But those who recognize that there seems to be such a correlation seem, for the most part, to have the sense to realize that when people are in shock and heartbroken is not the time for such discussions – although we desperately need to have them.

I am not sure what profit people like Eric Hovind, Bryan Fischer, and Mike Huckabee hope to gain most. Fans for their twitter account. Attendance in their churches and money in the offering plate. Votes for their party of choice. Maybe just the deflecting of blame away from their own absolutist approach to life which engenders hatred and violence – from the evil within themselves. It sickens me that anyone would use deceitful tactics in the midst of tragedy to seek their own selfish gain. I hope it sickens you too.

Let us mourn. And then let us act, not in ways that clearly have nothing to do with the matter, but in ways that might actually make a difference. Because if we can't talk in the midst of a tragedy, and don't talk after, then we are unlikely to do anything that might prevent the next one.


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