Friday, April 03, 2015

Bible belting

Though I'm not personally religious I have always been fascinated by religion.

As Mark Twain said, its kind of like dandruff; a lot of people seem to have it and spend an inordinate amount of time and money fooling with it.

My Salvation Army grandfather gave me a King James Version Bible back when I was just a little proto-atheist and I've always treasured it just for the connection to him and the poetry. Whether or not you buy the religion the KGV does have some pretty terrific poetry.

I think part of being irreligious but intrigued by religion is that I was raised in a conventionally religious household but also raised United Presbyterian.

In case you're not familiar with this suburban sort of American Protestantism I should note that it's perhaps the whitest of Wonder Bread religions in this country. Even the Episcopalians (who are probably "whiter" in the pasty-faced Aryan sense) have their smells and bells and their faux-Catholic imagery. The Presbies?

Let's put it this way; when I was a kid I'd actually watch the service and take in what happened and what seemed important and what didn't. Finally one Sunday morning I asked my mother "So...what's so important about the money?"

Because to eight-year-old me the most exciting, most fun, most interesting part of the morning was when people got up and started passing these big brass dishes around. They were heavy, shiny brass with a broad brim and red velvet on the bottom of the cup-shape in the middle. Everybody put money in them while we all sang a song and then the passers took them up front and set them on a table and we all sang another song. It seemed like the highlight of the whole occasion, so I kind of figured that the object was to worship the money. This "God" stuff seemed pretty opaque but the money had its own cool dishes and songs and everything.

My mother was pretty irked at how I missed the point to churchgoing as she saw it. But that is a pretty good summation of how religion never really "took" to me.

So when speaking of the whole "buying the religion", the other morning my Bride (my rose of Sharon, my lily of the valley, my sister, my spouse...) asked me "Are you an atheist, or an agnostic?" and for the life of me I couldn't come up with a good answer. Given my background that probably shouldn't be a real shock, but, still.

"I haven't really thought about it enough to say." was my reply, and I realized that I really hadn't. In a backhanded way I suspect that I'm open to the idea of a god or gods - if no other way simply because I don't know enough about Life, the Universe, and everything to rule out a god or gods - but in my everyday life I really have no use for one or more of them. If there is a god, or are gods, it and they seem to me to be pretty careless of human lives. Both "careless" in the sense of casually throwing them away or bending and breaking them and "care less" in the don't-give-a-shit sense. If there are then they owe me huge for the death of my oldest child. But I don't see anything that makes me suspect that there is anyone there. Our lives appear to be just what we, and others, make of them.

I can see how comforting it'd be to think that there was this incredibly powerful mystical Being that cared about me and had my back. I just don't see any evidence that's true, and don't see the sense in spending a great deal of time fretting about that. I have all sorts of intellectual and moral wellsprings to learn from and to guide me. I don't feel the lack of or the need for a deity for that, so I guess the best way to describe wouldn't be "atheist" or "agnostic" but "indifferent".
So that's my religious condition taken care of.

Anyway, I got to thinking about all this when I came across Jim Wright's post over at Stonekettle Station about the recent brou-ha-ha over "religious freedom" and hatin' on Teh Gays that cited a bunch of the usual directives from Leviticus. You know what I'm talking about, right? Don't eat owl, leave seed in the field for the poor, don't bonk a guy like you would a girl, that sort of thing.

As you'd expect, down in the comments section several discussions ensued about the Levitican prohibitions and how they apply, or don't, to Christians. And that was sort of fascinating to me, historian and self-identifying scholar that I think I am. Because they all circle back to a single source; the text of one of the Gospels, Matthew, chapter 5, verses 17-19:
"Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."
That made me run down a bunch of commentary on this piece of Matt, which seems to be one of the more contentious issues in Christian exegesis.

The bottom line seems to be the question of "when the Christ said "fulfilled" what did he mean by that?" The passage in Matthew seems to suggest that the old Levitican strictures - indeed, all the laws and directives laid down prior to the 1st Century C.E. - might "pass" once "all is fulfilled". And it seems that many Christian theologians think that with the Christ the law was fulfilled; that with the events that are reported as occurring 2,015 years ago the old laws "pass". These scholars cite passages like Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter 10, verse 4: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth."

What the hell does that mean?
Certainly it doesn't mean what it says: "...the end of the law..." Western Christians, American Christians, live hedged about with laws like every other American. Local laws, state laws, federal laws. Certainly being the spiritual heirs to a god's sacrifice doesn't let you beat a speeding ticket.

But does it mean that modern Christians are exempt from the stuff laid down in the Old Testament?

(As an aside, let's hope so. There's some pretty appalling shit in there. Take, for example, Exodus, chapter 21. That's the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" bit that a lot of us think of when we think of "Old Testament-y" crime and punishment. But that's actually pretty mild compared to the slavery. Selling your daughter into slavery? Jake with the Lord. You just can't sell her to smelly foreigners. Or if you and your wife are slaves after six years you get your "Get out of slavery free" card. But...if you married during those six years? Your wife and kiddies belong to your former master. Seriously.)

All this is good fun, but the question before the floor remains; are modern Christians bound by the Levitican strictures against homosexuality and homosexuals? Or does Christ "fulfill" those strictures and replace them with his own words, none of which discusses the question of who gets to go into the Fun Zone and how and whether that's bad?

Lemme cut to the crux of the biscuit: it doesn't really matter. You either don't get to hate on the queers...or hatin' on the homos is the least of your worries.

If old laws still apply, and if you want to hate the homos you also can't eat fat (Leviticus 3:17) or pet a dog (Leviticus 5:2) or wear cotton-poly fabrics. You basically can't live a modern life. I suppose if the idea of a couple of husky bears kissing reeeeeally drives you wild you could do that, but I'd put the actual number of Americans that could in the low single digits.

Go read that Leviticus stuff. I'm serious - it's completely fucking whack.

Or they don't, and you pretty much have to go with what J-dawg said:
"And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these."
Don't see "...except for the homos" after the "thyself". Seems to pretty much settle that.

So Christopath-Americans? You can all go home now. You're wrong.

Sue, kiss Sally. Joe, kiss Matt. Everybody happy now?

The hell with all this legal parsing. Let's have some poetry.

"Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks.

Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.

Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.

Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.

Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.

Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards.

Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck.

How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!

Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.

A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard,

Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices:

A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon."

(Song of Solomon 4:3-15)


Ael said...

I think that you are best described as *both* an atheist and an agnostic.

And yes, the old law doesn't have to apply to Christians. Mark describes Jesus healing people and his disciples harvesting grain on the Sabbath (Thereby driving the legalistic religious types so crazy they started to plotting against him)

FDChief said...

And as I recall there's a passage in Acts that says something to the effect that God - not the laws of Moses - determined what is "clean" and "unclean". It's meant to be about Jews vs Gentiles, but the implication is that the old laws have been at the very least altered by the Christ.

That said, tho, then a true "Christian" must heed Christ's teachings - and those emphasize inclusion and love. Everyone - Samaritans, usurers, prostitutes, Romans...Christ takes them all in. So as I said in the post; the Levitian prohibitions on homosexuality need to be reexamined in light of the Christ...

Lisa said...

You either don't get to hate on the queers...or hatin' on the homos is the least of your worries.

Of course, Jesus was not about hating anyone, but loving. He didn't go about calling people "sinners". But the whole forcing gay marriage on the Christian church thing is also totally out of line, IMHO.

Anyone should have the right to be legally partnered, but if you're a practicing homosexual, leave the Church behind b/c the dogma doesn't support you.

BTB: Just read that the Rev. Robert Schuller died. As a kid, I used to love waking up early and watching the Hour or Power while my parents slept in. Oh, I felt so subversive, and I just loved all the bells and whistles, the prayer mats for a mere $25, etc., etc.

At the age of 8, I was riveted in a way could never be again.

Lisa said...

p.s. --

Song of Solomon is some pretty erotic stuff, no? :)

Lisa said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hyper said...

Forgive me for butting in, but isn't your "indifference" the result of understanding it's all superstitious BS?
My guess is you'd be very interested if prayer-engineering were a scientific discipline.

FDChief said...

Lisa: These "religious freedom" things aren't really about voiding laws that are forcing churches or even congregations from doing ANYthing for homosexuals (or any other group they don't like/approve of). The laws requiring equal treatment don't require a pastor to perform a gay wedding, for example.

They DO, however, require governing bodies to treat contracts between individuals (regardless of gender) equally and those working for those governments to perform those services equally. And they require those offering public accomodations to serve the public without prejudice within the law.

So if you're gay or lesbian and you want a Catholic wedding mass? Ain't gonna happen, and these "RFRA's" are just bullshit. BUT...if you serve pizza to the public you gotta serve pizza to the public and not pick and choose which "public" don't get served.

FDChief said...

And I seem to recall that "Hour of Power", too...but not with any particular nostalgia. It seemed like your basic TV preacher thing to me - entertaining in it's way, but, still...Rocky and Bullwinkle was funner...

FDChief said...

And, yes...The Song of Songs has some delightfully salacious and imaginative imagery. I would never have thought of comparing breasts - lovely and useful things that they are - to twin deer...

FDChief said...

Hyper: I suspect it has more to do with simple pragmatism. I've never seen any evidence that god or gods can be used to do any actual good or ill in human lives; it all seems to come down to people - even the people who claim to be doing "God's will". And I have a very low tolerance for nonsense, no matter what the flavor.

Were there a clear sort of "science" to religion - were there a way to conduct some sort of actual test of prayer and a control for divine intervention - then assuming that the result showed that there WAS a verifiable sort of statistical trend that showed that praying produced the prayed-for result then I'd be less skeptical (and more interested) it is, the whole "religion" thing seems like a fairly pointless self-indulgence, and one that has the unpleasant side-effect of often requiring the adherant to believe and act in some ways I consider highly inhumane.

So...hence the indifference.

Ael said...

I find it interesting that many people who are not religious also claim to have ethical beliefs which are fairly close to nominal "Christian" ethical beliefs.

They clearly believe in *something* even if they don't believe in an old guy flying on cloud and looking down.

Podunk Paul said...

However you cut it, people do better when they adhere to something larger than themselves. A Fifth Avenue bus stopped on AA member from drinking, military discipline saved many lives, and love of a wife, or husband or children gives us the strength to go on. Love of God (who may not exist) is the last resort for those of us who have nothing or very little. In many cases it helps in ways that are more important than practical effects. Prayer may not cure cancer, but can for many provide a context for continuing to live.

FDChief said...

Ael: Possibly because the Christian canon is largely designed around a set of ideas that are fairly universal to people. Most people want to be treated even-handedly, respected, and given a relatively decent chance at a productive, happy life. Most religions seem to include some variation of the sorts of "commandments" that aim for the above...

Paul: Interestingly, I just read something about AA's claimed success rate that suggests that the whole "higher power" business may not be as all that as AA claims it is.

(the article is here, BTW: )

And while there's no question that for some people faith - whether it is in a god, or gods, or Scientology, or yoga, or meditation - is terrific and a force for good for others its an excuse to let all their inner barbarian out to play and then claim that "Deus Vult" or "Inshallah" or "By the Power of Grayskull" or whatever.

While prayer in particular may come from love and mercy and hope in general it can (and often does) take the form of praying for some personal lust or for the ill-fortune of someone the pray-er hates.

So...I not only have no religion myself but have my doubts about religion in general.

But THIS post wasn't about that; it was about the particular issue that a group of fundamentalist, political conservative "Christians" have seized on in order to do what conservatives and fundamentalists do best - hammer on some group or individual they loathe.

Lisa said...

To clarify:

I was transfixed in the way that only an innocent could be by the televangelist huscksterism, as only an 8-year-old, who also loved other fantasy, could be fascinated by the pomp of it.

Tammy Fay and Jim Bakker brought it to another level of vulgarity.

As I learned, I understood the absolute simplicity and humility of Christian dogma (as it is written). "Upon this rock", and "wherever two or more are gathered" ... none of this absurd Crystal Cathedral, quadrophonic speakers and wall-to-ceiling video streaming.

I knew my parents would disprove of it, seeing it as I do now from an adult perspective: the gross exploitation of the needy masses who could ill-afford that $25 made in China prayer rug.

But like Tim Hardin sang, people just want a reason to believe. And as Podunk Paul wrote, sometimes that is enough to carry you through a dark night of the soul.

So I was simply being a subversive little 8-year-old, and I've never looked back.

Looked at another way, it's all maya. May as well make it good (for you).

Lisa said...

I don't understand the whole Indiana brouhaha. I mean, we already have freedom of religion per our Constitution, freedom from persecution and the right to redress grievances.

Plessy v. Ferguson has been decided; separate but equal doesn't hold water anymore.

Podunk Paul said...

So here I am in Houston, four o’clock in the morning, stuck on a fucking book, the text a disorganized mass. At this point the book should be stirring, reaching for its own voice. Instead it just lays there, stillborn. So to write something, I’ll tell you about Don.
He’s 56 years old, skinny to the point of emaciation, lives in a garage down the street and comes by the house for food. My ex-wife feeds him and, although she’s too old to be driving on freeways, sometimes takes him to his part-time job as a security guard. A couple of weeks ago, we gave him a bicycle. “Praise the Lord,” Don says, “I’ve been praying for a bicycle for months. Now I can go to church.” I felt pretty good, and maybe he won’t be bothering Marie for transportation. Then he brings another bicycle by and I spend the better part of a day chasing parts and making the repairs. If you can’t write books, at least you can fix bicycles.
Don attends the Lakewood mega-church, said to be the largest in the country with tens of thousands of members. The church has a 16,000-seat arena, 32 video games, and a vault to hold the “offerings.” Don tithes, contributing 10% of his sub-minimum wages to the church. I asked Don how Pastor Osteen’s $10.5 million mansion fit in with Jesus, a homeless fellow who owned nothing except the cloak his executioners threw dice for. He replied “Jesus was poor so we could be rich.” Fuck a duck.

Ael said...

I am not sure that Christian "ideals" are in some sense universal across time and space.

They may have *become* more universal in our modern world.

For example, we like to think that everyone is entitled to some basic universal human rights.

However, in most pre-civilized societies, strangers are not treated as human. There are no laws governing what can or can not be done to them. A person has no obligation to treat them well, or indeed permit them to live. Futhermore, expecting a stranger to treat you fairly is the height of foolishness.

FDChief said...

Ael: Good point. Humans seem to have very similar expectations of other humans in their own in-groups. Between "out-groups"? No such animal.

Still, the major religious faiths do seem to have some broad similarities in expectations for human conduct; that is, there seems to be very little exhortation to "kill the infidel" as compared to "revere God and your daddy..."

That, and I think that most religions have moderated the old tribal dictates as times and mores have changed. It used to be that the pizza-makers and the decapitators were the bog-standard for believers. It's indicative of how far we've moved away from that that these people are now the ones seen as the whackos and loonies rather than the ordinary joe Christians or Muslims...

FDChief said...

Lisa: I think the bottom line behind the Indiana (and Arkansas and Georgia...) "religious freedom" laws is that fundamentally the whole business of being openly rude and hateful to people who aren't like you has become gauche for most Americans, especially younger people, and especially on the issue of sex and gender. Race...well, we still have a huge issue with that.

But the old days of bashin' some faggots are considered horrifying to many people, and that's hard for those who still get squicked out at the thought of Doug kissing Larry or Susie gettin' busy with Sally. They REALLY want to force their homosexual neighbors back into the closet so they can pretend that they're not there.

But...if they can't, they can still make it clear that they WANT to...and these RFRAs are a legal punch in the nose. It's a way for people to be able to get the message "fuck you, faggot!" across without having to actually shout that.

Anonymous said...

>> I would never have thought of comparing breasts - lovely and useful things that they are - to twin deer...<<

O ye of Little Imagination! :D

Think Santa's Rudolph


Lisa said...

Podunk Paul,

The mega-churches and Mr. Osteen in particular seem so inhuman. I can't understand good people getting entangled in it. I suppose pomp and fanfare has always held the innocents in thrall. (Why, just look at a Republican nominating convention.)

(As an aside, when a wicked friend of mine wishes to shock me, he will embed a photo of Joel O's grimacing otherworldly rictus-smile in a post. It is always a "liquid alert" moment", a queasy one at that.)


Yes, we like to think there are some universal human rights to which we are accorded, and that Christianity somehow embodies this idea, but it is far from a universal fact. Our rights are accorded by man and durable only inasmuch as the laws designating them can enforce them.

Otherwise, we got nada. I think the Holocaust was a good recent example of this. Not even our basic human-ness is guaranteed to us in this veil of tears led by often powerful and vicious self-serving men.

My main beef with the whole issue of forcing gay anything, other than to recognize their humanity and protect them from hate crimes, is that it seems like the feeble last agenda of the liberals, and one which encroaches upon our basic rights in a capitalistic society.

I think the leap we need to make is to ensure that gays are accorded full rights to civilly partner with their mates, and gain all attendant rights and protections afforded therefrom, as any couple enjoys.

Beyond that you can't demand that religious institutions change their doctrine, or that their believers alter their beliefs. They may come to that within the community of believers, but outside enforcement is guache, and moreover a violation of the separation of Church and State.

Lisa said...

An aside to Hyper, et. all:

Studies are showing that belief can have a beneficial effect upon surgical outcomes. Belief (in something larger than oneself) appears to matter.

While religion has motivated some of the most horrific undertakings of man, it has also inspired him to create magnificent things in testimony to that idea of a higher power.

The idea is perplexing, cleaving (in both senses), animating, and therefore not worthy of dismissal.

Like Dylan wrote,You Gotta Serve Somebody.

Podunk Paul said...


"Joel O's grimacing otherworldly rictus-smile" couldn't be said better.

I don't think we will ever come to terms with the contradiction between personal freedom, self-expression, lust or whatever and absolute demands imposed by religion or some other path that promises dignity. The Jews and Greeks fought it out in places like Alexandria and went their separate ways.

Lisa said...


Per Joel -- he sure is something else, as they say in the South.

Yes, it's an interesting dichotomy you pose between absolute freedom and the demands of a faith system (or any system).

Since most humans favor the "self-directed" model, and we are sneaky animals be design, it seems we need something to compel us to consider the needs of The Other. It'd be nice if we all had an internal GPS to direct us to "good behavior", but alas, whoever were to develop the thing would cant it to his fancy.

As Viktor Frankl, Aristotle and many others have suggested, a good life is a purposeful life. Then you've got that word to be defined: "purpose". It can't be Al Capone's purpose, so I guess it always comes down to consideration of The Other, the Golden Rule.

But don't just serve, meet your own needs while respecting the other, and you'll do well. "Love they neighbor AS thyself." It's not a call for martyrdom.

Here's a good Atlantic piece,

There's More to Life than Being Happy.

Podunk Paul said...

Lisa, thanks for the reference. The Baumeister article is something I’ve been thinking about for a year or more. To circumvent the paywall, the article can be downloaded at

“May I be given a god's duty; a burden that matters," is the way the Egyptian Book of the Dead puts it.

Lisa said...

Thank you for providing the link for us, Paul.