Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem

Image source.

Well you guys, I read chapter 3 of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It and it was mind-blowing. (See also my thoughts on chapter 1 and chapter 2.)

In this chapter, Enns tells us that there are 4 stories of Jesus in the bible, and 2 stories of the Israel. On the surface, this is obvious. In the New Testament, we find 4 gospels, each giving the story of Jesus' life, written by different writers. Each comes from a different perspective, and indeed, I've heard this discussed in church/bible studies before, how Matthew emphasizes Old Testament prophecies, Luke was written for a Gentile audience, John only includes 7 miracles, etc.

What I've never heard before is that actually the writers embellished the story, added stuff, moved sections to other places in the story, and basically "shaped" it in order to communicate a certain view to their audience. Yeah of course I knew that each gospel comes from a different perspective and emphasizes different aspects of Jesus' life, but the idea that they wrote stuff that didn't really happen is shocking to me.

But wait right there. The phrase "stuff that didn't really happen" isn't really right. Enns explains that in ancient times, the goal of the writers was not to produce an accurate historical account of what happened. If I describe parts of the bible as "stuff that didn't really happen," it's technically a correct description, but it misses the point.

I guess. I mean, I can believe that ancient writers had different goals and methods than we modern readers expect, I just have no idea what I'm supposed to do with that.

But anyway, this perspective, where we read each gospel separately and just take it for what it is, rather than trying to force all 4 to fit together, is for me a mind-blowing new way to read the bible. Particularly in the parts where the 4 gospels differ.

As an example, Enns talks about the different accounts of Jesus' birth. First of all, it's only mentioned in Matthew and Luke. Mark and John totally skipped the Christmas story. Hmm why is that?

"AHA, THAT'S NOT A CONTRADICTION! It happened, they just didn't put it in! Next!"

Yeah that was the voice of Perfect-Number-5-years-ago if she were to discuss the accuracy of the bible with a skeptical friend. I was so good at defending the bible from all doubts, but I never actually asked why the different accounts are different. Why did Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus' birth, while Mark and John didn't? Could this tell us something about their different perspectives or reasons for writing?

Nope, I never thought about that. All I felt was thankful that this supposed "contradiction" was easy to explain, and we could move on.

All right, what about the accounts actually given in Matthew and Luke? Why are they so different? Enns even says, "Even though Matthew and Luke both include and birth story, their versions are so different you couldn't blame an innocent reader for concluding they are talking about two different births." [p 83] And, wow, yes, he's right, and how in the world have I never thought that before?

Matthew talks about the wise men and the escape to Egypt. Luke talks about the angels and shepherds and the baby lying in a manger. Both have Mary, Joseph, the virgin birth, and happen in Bethlehem. But why wouldn't Luke include the parts that Matthew did, and vice versa?

"AHA! That's not--" no, stop right there. Yes, yes, the apologetics hero is here to tell us clearly all of them happened, the part in Luke happened first, and then the wise men part in Matthew, maybe when Jesus was 2 years old. It's not a contradiction. Fine.

I know the apologetics answer. But I never thought about what it would be like to just read Matthew and engage with the story he is telling, without trying to shove in the other "facts" that we "know" from reading Luke. (Because maybe some of that stuff was actually made up to suit the story each writer was trying to tell. It makes no sense to pull it out with no context and drop it into a completely different story.)

According to Enns' book, Matthew is making Jesus look like Moses. He escaped an order to kill all the male babies. He was later brought out of Egypt. The wise men followed a star *cough pillar of fire cough cough*.

Image source.

Similarly, there are 2 stories of the history of Israel: one told in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, and the other in 1-2 Chronicles. I knew there were a few differences- Chronicles only talks about the kingdom of Judah, and generally takes a more positive view. I had no idea that the writer of Chronicles actually changed some parts of the story to make it that way.

And the example given in the book is just mind-blowing. Remember how I said everything in this chapter was mind-blowing? Yeah.

2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 both give an account of the prophet Nathan giving a promise from God to David. However, in 2 Samuel, it goes like this: "Your house and your king will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever." 1 Chronicles says it like this: "I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever." [p 93]

So how come in Samuel it's "your" and in Chronicles it's "my"?

"Are you for real? This is your example of a 'bible contradiction'? Come on, it's just one word! Same thing! It doesn't matter."

That's our friend Perfect-Number-5-years-ago again, helpfully explaining to us how the bible has no contradictions, or at least, no contradictions other than an unimportant word here or there.

But no, Enns says. It is important.

Samuel was written during the time of the kings of Judah. "Your throne will be established forever" meant that there would always be a descendant of David ruling over Judah. But Chronicles was written after the exile. The line of kings was gone. The writer reinterprets God's promise; now the account has God saying "my house and my king." In other words, even though we don't have an actual king right now, God is still in control. Have hope.

Which, I'm fine with the writer trying to communicate that message, but dang, if that's not what the prophet Nathan actually said to David, you can't pretend it is. But apparently in the culture at that time, you could.

Image source.

I learned how to read the bible through my love of logic puzzles. An example:

George and Wilma are lying dead on the floor. There are pieces of broken glass around them, and a puddle of water. They are in the living room, which also has an open window. How did they die?

And if you would like a hint:

Hint: They died of suffocation.

Okay, think it over, and then read the answer.

Answer: George and Wilma are goldfish. The wind knocked down their fish tank and it broke, so they died of suffocation, unable to breathe when exposed to the air.

Logic puzzles (or lateral thinking puzzles) like this are challenging because the initial impression you get from reading the story is wrong, and you need to go back and check what was actually explicitly (literally) said, rather than what the writer seemed to be saying. In the end, what was being described turns out to be totally different than what the story said when taken at face value.

Here's another logic problem:

During the creation of the world, on the third day, God said, "Let the earth bring forth plants" and it was so. All kind of trees and vegetation grew.

On the fifth day, the animals that live in the air and seas were created. On the sixth day, land animals were created first, then people. Male and female God created them.

Now no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, when the Lord formed a man from the dust. The Lord formed the animals, and brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and if a suitable helper for the man could be found. However, no suitable helper was found, so the Lord formed a woman from a rib taken from the man.

So, in what order were the plants, animals, and humans really created? (Turn to page 71 for the answer.)

Answer: Of course, Perfect-Number-5-years-ago is read to supply us with the apologetics answer. You see, Genesis 1 is more general, covering how everything in the world was created, and Genesis 2 is just the specifics of what happened on day 6. (Yes Adam totally named all the animals in one afternoon. He was a busy bee.) When it says in Genesis 2 that no plants had grown when God created the man, it just means in that particular area. Of course there were plants elsewhere in the world, but this part is just referring to the Garden of Eden, which God specifically planted just for Adam and Eve.

So, just as in the case with the dead goldfish, we see that our first impression upon reading Genesis 2 is actually not what the writer was trying to say.

That's how "defending the bible" works, and I now see that it misses the point entirely. The reality is, there are 2 creation stories, and we should let each of them stand on its own. They're not talking about things that "really happened" so there's no need to try to reconcile the stories so they occur in the same universe.

How many other bible stories have I completely changed in order to smooth out the contradictions? Well, not "completely changed"- all the literal words are still there- but they're totally reinterpreted so the end result looks nothing like the story that the writer seemed to be telling when we first read it.

And that's what we (evangelical Christians) mean when we say we respect the bible. We treat it like a logic problem, looking for little ways the writer was being tricky and saying things that actually meant something completely different than what you would think.

We should be examining the contradictions and odd bits as a way to help understand what messages the different writers were trying to communicate. Not ignoring them. Not treating them as battles and attacks from atheists.

Image source.

Anyway, all these ideas about ancient writing practices seem to make sense and make me feel a lot better about the bible, but I have to ask: If the stories in the bible didn't really happen, then what is my religion based on?

I thought that the bible was recording things that happened, things that God did, and from those accounts we can draw conclusions about spiritual and moral topics. But apparently, the writers started with their ideas about what God is like and who we are, and embellished history (or made stuff up) so that their ideas could be seen in the stories.

Rather than being a collection of spiritual teachings with facts and evidence to back them up, the bible apparently starts with the writers' opinions and goals, and builds a world based on them.

The writers' opinions. So who were these writers? Just some people living in the Middle East a few thousand years ago. Umm, so why would I care about their opinions? What makes their writing unique and worth reading? How is this different/more special than any other ancient religion? What's the point?

Maybe I'm going too far. A lot of the bible stories actually did happen, or at least are based on real things that happened. But how do we separate out which are real and which are made up? (Actually, I bet Enns would argue that trying to separate them like this totally misses the point. And that the term "made up" is not really a good descriptor here.)

What the heck is my religion? Just something I feel should be true about God? Just a story that resonates with me and gives me hope, but doesn't come with any proof or any way to show obvious superiority over other religions?

I thought the bible was the evidence, but apparently that's not what the writers intended it to be. I'm not sure what to do with that.

Image source.

Discussion questions:

Have you ever explained away a supposed "bible contradiction" in a way that totally missed the point of the story?

The bible is the best-selling book of all time. Is that because there truly is something unique about it that sets it apart from other books? Would it still have that uniqueness if the stories aren't true?

How much "making stuff up" can you tolerate before the whole religion is baseless? Personally, I agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, when he said, "If Christ has not been raised, we're all screwed." [slight paraphrase] For everything else (the most important being Jesus' miracles), it better be true or somebody better give me a really good explanation of why it was okay to write stuff that didn't really happen.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blogaround

"for any of you having an awful day, here's a kitty adorably failing to look vicious." Image source.
1. In China, a church-state showdown of biblical proportions (posted January 11) "Many Chinese no longer accept the idea that being Christian means forfeiting a Chinese identity."

2. On Purity Pledges: I Ate Cheesecake, And I Liked It (posted December 7) "Kids are being asked to make decisions about their bodies, their sexuality, and their relationships, long before they have even the faintest notion of what it’s like to be even want to date someone, let alone develop a relationship with them and want to have sex with them."

3. The Astronomically Correct “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” Is Fun and Factual (posted January 9) "Lightyears out from here to there / your light's distorted by the air."

4. One Tweet Shows the Hypocrisy of America's Reaction to White People Rioting at Ohio State (posted January 13) "If this had been a black majority, can we honestly say the rampant fires, stadium break-in and goal post destruction would be have been treated as celebratory revelry?"

5. "Jesus loves me" in Mandarin Chinese:



6. 10 Questions About Why Ableist Language Matters, Answered (posted November 2014) "You see something wrong? Compare it to a disabled body or mind. Paralyzed. Lame. Crippled. Schizophrenic. Diseased. Sick."

7. A Better Way to Talk About Adoption (posted January 14) "I feel that if I allow myself to think of anything else beyond what has happened, such as being adopted into another family or even staying in China, that that could not have been God’s best for me. That somehow my birth parents had no value in God’s eyes because God didn’t provide them the means or ability to keep me, since I was 'meant' to be in the family I am in now."

8. "I think we should 'eat somewhere else'..." Image source.


9. LGBTQ Christians: Hope for the Unseen (posted January 16) "People like you don’t exist."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

So Who's Biased?

Image source.

In this post, Bob Jones University’s Reported Attitude Toward Assault Reflects Fundamentalist Theology, Dianna Anderson presents the idea that shame is a foundational component of purity culture (and of evangelical Christianity in general). She writes:
Ingrained in its evangelical DNA is a belief in shame as an essentially positive thing, which manifests in its reportedly condemnatory attitude toward survivors of sexual abuse and violence as well as those who engage in consensual sex.

...

Engaging in sexuality in unapproved-of ways—as in, anything but heterosexual intercourse within a marriage—is considered a descent into sin. And so, after such a failure, shame is regarded by proponents of purity as good: It is God “convicting” us of our sin, and in turn, God prompting us through negative feelings to turn back toward God’s love and grace.
And that is why I did not recognize that crying whenever I'm alone and constantly feeling like I'm a bad person is not a normal and reasonable thing. Like, of course I feel like I'm a bad person- I am a bad person. I do impure things with my boyfriend.

I felt awful, which meant my conscience was working as it should. Right?

But, as I said in the previous post, Let me tell you about my "God-shaped hole", I eventually realized that no, this is not normal and right and good, this is depression and let's get treatment for that. For the past several months, I've been talking to a therapist, which is really helping.

Or, Perfect Number went to find a doctor who would tell her it's okay to have sex. So she could deaden her conscience.

Right?

From my doctor's perspective, there's nothing wrong with anything I'm doing with my boyfriend. Statistics show that most Americans start having sex way younger than I am now. (Though this isn't even about sex, it's about all the other things that are definitely dirty and impure but not past that line. And actually it's not even about that, it's about the fact that I don't trust myself to be able to make my own decisions.) So he wants me to think about why I feel shame, and why I believe the things I do about sex/dating, and is there actually any evidence for it. And I'm getting better. I'm not depressed anymore.

But according to purity culture, that's not the right approach at all. Clearly, the problem here is my sin. And the fact that I have a background in purity culture and I know very clearly that this definitely IS a sin makes it that much worse. This is willful defiance against God.

Obviously, from the perspective of purity culture, there is one clear solution to my depression. Repent of my sin, and go back to God. Quit living with my sweetheart, maybe even break up with him. Obviously, the problem here is that I've broken my relationship with God, and the only solution is to repent. All of this "going to therapy" stuff is just a distraction; at best, it will delay my returning to God and experiencing true healing, at worst, the therapy will work so well that I'll come to actually believe there is nothing wrong with having sex outside of marriage, and of course everything in my life will go to hell as a result.

How dangerous for me to be trusting a worldly doctor who is so biased, right?

And that's the problem. We have here 2 completely opposite ideologies- how can we determine which one is reasonable and which is biased? Each looks unbelievably extreme and dangerous from the other's perspective.

How can we know?

How about from seeing the actual real-world effects of these competing ideologies?

The fact is, in modern American culture, most people have sex outside of marriage. That's normal. And it seems that clinging to a belief that premarital sex is absolutely infinitely bad (that's what "sin" means, yes?) causes things like shame, fear, and depression for a lot of women.

It looks like believing in purity culture adds to one's problems, rather than solving them.

Let's suppose we do a lot of research and find this conclusion is true. Still, supporters of purity culture could argue that the problems caused by purity culture were actually a result of understanding it incorrectly. (This is the "no true Scotsman" fallacy.) No no, if you were following it right, you wouldn't have that shame and fear. Yeah. Okay. Sure.

Or they may argue that deep in their hearts, those who have "lost" their "purity" have such dark and wide-reaching problems that they don't even realize people weren't meant to live that way. So it wouldn't have shown up in the survey results.

If all else fails, they could claim that those who don't follow purity culture are on their way to hell. Sure, you think your life is fine, but you've chosen sex over God. Maybe you live your whole life thinking this is normal, and then you go to hell. Conveniently, this is impossible to prove or disprove.

Image source.

So which side is "biased"? It's impossible to prove, so maybe I'll always have this little bit of doubt- "maybe by rejecting purity culture and rejecting abstinence, I actually am rejecting God." Overall though, it seems to me that "yeah sex is normal" is a much more reasonable view that's grounded in reality.

To believe otherwise is to say that shame is good and my depression is a blessing from God.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Let me tell you about my "God-shaped hole"

Image source.

I wrote this in October 2014. I'm ready to publish it now.

---------

Sometimes, when she's alone, she wants to run away.

This life, the person she's become, how is it possible?

To get up in the morning and go to work is a battle. On the bus, she wants to cry. And why? Because all she can think about is how she's become such a bad person. A bad person. So bad.

Perfect Number and her boyfriend are living together. And that reality, that label, over and over it hits her and beats her down. Living with one's boyfriend is bad. It's so bad.

Because, everyone knows, people who are living together are having sex. Except, she's never had sex with him. She's still terrified. She's done sexy things, but hasn't actually had actual sex. But who lives with who is a totally acceptable topic for small talk, and every time someone asks, "So are you here in China alone?" she wants to justify herself, she wants to explain in detail which sexual things she does or does not do with him, because saying "I live with my boyfriend" is the same as announcing to the world that she is having sex with him and is therefore a bad Christian and dirty person- but no, no, trying to clarify would just make it worse.

And here she is, in this perpetually sinful state of being- "living in sin." And she likes it. She loves him. But she feels that God can't love her any more.

-----------

Yeah, you guys. That's what's going on. That's me.

And from a purity-culture perspective, it makes perfect sense. I disobeyed God. I did impure things. I'm unrepentant. Now I have so much guilt and I feel like I'm a bad person. Well of course.

According to purity culture, my feeling this way is right.

But when I wrote The God-Shaped Hole Sounds Like Depression To Me, it changed my mind. This is depression, and this is NOT the way it should be. I need to get treatment.

I always write about purity culture and how it's bullshit and I don't believe it anymore. But the problem is, I still do kind of believe it. I still believe I'm a bad person because of all the lines I've crossed with my boyfriend.

I'm dirty, and if I ever break up with him, my life will be ruined.

According to purity culture, this is a correct assessment of the situation. Yes, Perfect Number, you are dirty. Yes, you have done unspeakably sinful things. You feel terrible. Of course you feel terrible.

But I chose to go to the doctor and get treatment for depression instead.

I reject purity culture.

And this is me saying NO, it is not right and normal for me to feel like I'm a terrible person. NO, this is not because of a "God-shaped hole." NO, this is not the obvious result of living a sinful life.

I started going to a doctor that specializes in psychology (and was trained in the US). We talk about my problems every week. I will get better.

There is no "God-shaped hole."

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blogaround

Image source.

1. The Parents (posted January 5) "We cannot condemn parents for not supporting their LGBT children without first asking them why they feel like they can’t, without first hearing the story of the father who told me, 'I felt like Abraham. I believed I was being tested to see if I was willing to sacrifice my son in obedience to God.'"

2. Jesus on the water board: a Christian responds to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report (posted December 12) "If you don’t see Jesus on the water boarding table; if you don’t get that it’s Jesus standing for hours in a dark room on a broken leg; if you don’t realize that it’s Jesus dying of hypothermia on a cold, urine-soaked floor, and if you don’t understand the ultimate target of the anal probe, you don’t grasp what happened on Good Friday and, just as significantly, you haven’t reckoned with our complicity in the extra judicial crucifixions outlined in the Senate Committee’s report."

3. Leelah Alcorn and Evangelical Storytelling (posted January 4) "Many evangelicals aware of Leelah’s suicide will likely believe that it was telling Leelah Alcorn that being transgender was natural and okay that was the problem—and that what Leelah needed was Jesus, Christian counseling, and fellowship with believers."

And a follow-up post: Putting the Chicken before the Egg: Evangelical Perspectives on LGBTQ Suicide (posted January 6) "These evangelicals place the blame for higher suicide rates and other negative outcomes on being gay (or transgender) rather than on bullying, discrimination, or lack of societal acceptance. And as a result, they also place blame on LGBTQ activists and support groups, as they 'promote' and 'encourage' that 'lifestyle.'"

4. Leelah Alcorn and What It Means to be Pro-Life (posted January 1) "The isolation, disregard, or flat-out rejection of LGBTQ people by Christians is in direct opposition to Jesus’ commandment to love one another, full stop."

5. Being a cop showed me just how racist and violent the police are. There’s only one fix. (posted December 6) "Cops routinely called anyone of color a 'thug,' whether they were the victim or just a bystander."

6. The new rules for black people in America (posted December 3) "Black people are supposed to fight to make it so that if we are strangled to death or our 12-year-olds are shot while unarmed in front of millions of viewers, it should be considered a violation of the law."

7. As families grieve, China manages public emotions (posted January 6) "She said many relatives believe their phones are being monitored and that they have come under pressure to cooperate with authorities."

8. 3 {other} things to say when the “R-word” comes to mind (posted January 6)

9. Please forgive me for the actions of extremists I have never met who commit acts of violence that I have never advocated (posted January 7) "My failure to promptly condemn Patrick Gray Sharp for specific actions I have previously condemned more generally cannot be excused just because the lawn needed mowing."

10. FBI looking for man regarding explosion near Colorado Springs NAACP office (posted January 7)

11. The plight of the bitter nerd: Why so many awkward, shy guys end up hating feminism (posted January 10) "Scott’s story is about things that happened inside his brain. Amy’s story is about actual things that were done to her by other people against her will, without her control."

12. It's not about the danger or difficulty of police work, it's about Respecting My Authority (posted January 3) "People don't talk about 'garbage collectors, risking their lives for us every day' -- even though it's true."

13. Stop asking Muslims to condemn terrorism. It's bigoted and Islamophobic. (posted January 8) "The implication is that every Muslim is under suspicion of being sympathetic to terrorism unless he or she explicitly says otherwise."

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture)

Image source.
I'm reading through Peter Enns' book, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It, and like I said last week, it's great. Here are my thoughts about chapter 2, which discusses the question of "WTF?!" in regard to the battles against the Canaanites.

Though the chapter is mostly about the Canaanite genocide, Enns points out that all through the Old Testament, there are stories of God killing people, for reasons that may or may not be justified. On pages 30-31 he says:
As early as the sixth chapter of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, God floods the entire earth and kills every living creature except Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark. Later God tests Abraham by commanding him to slit his son's throat as a sacrifice (though God stops Abraham at the last second once he knew Abraham would go through with it). In the Exodus story, God's tenth and final plague against the Egyptians is to strike down their firstborn, and then a few lines later he drowns the entire Egyptian army in the Red Sea.

Later in the book of Exodus three thousand Israelites who built an idolatrous "golden calf" are purged by their own people with God standing by. In the book of Leviticus, Aaron's priestly sons, Nadab and Abihu, are consumed by the fire of God for some unexplained misstep while officiating over the sacrifices. Numerous laws carry the death penalty, like worshipping other gods, blasphemy, working on the Sabbath (the prescribed day of rest), or adultery. And we're only in the third book of the Bible.

God killing people, both Israelites and others, isn't a last-ditch measure of an otherwise patient deity. It's the go-to punishment for disobedience. To put a fine point on it, this God is flat-out terrifying; he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.
Read the Old Testament, and it seems like God's always killing people. And for Christians who have been taught that we must believe that everything the God said or did (according to the writers of the bible) was perfect and right and good and just, this means coming up with baseless embellishments to make God's victims sound especially evil.

Take the story of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), for example. All it says is they "offered unauthorized fire." So uh, what does that even mean? WELL WE DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS BUT WE KNOW IT MUST HAVE BEEN BAD. I mean, of course when God kills someone, they deserve to die, we know that with 100% certainty, right? So in all the sermons or bible studies about this passage, people add to the story with creative fan fiction to help us understand why Nadab and Abihu had to die. OH CLEARLY the reason they did it was deliberate rebellion against God. OH CLEARLY they were selfish and thought they knew better than God did- so this story teaches us that when God gives rules, God is dead serious. OR PERHAPS this was not an isolated event; those guys must have had a history of being sinful and abusing their power as priests, and God finally put a stop to it.

And we sit there speechless, with our bibles open to Leviticus, and someone reassures us, don't worry, they were bad people. It's okay. Move on.

How about when God killed Uzzah (2 Samuel 6), as he grabbed the ark of the covenant to keep it from falling? Well he should have known. He clearly violated God's law. Definitely deserves to die. All is well, folks. Move along.

Or what about the stories where God commands someone's whole family to be killed because of one person's sin, as was the case with Achan (Joshua 7)? Oh, well, CLEARLY they must have been in on it. It's okay. They all deserved it. God did nothing wrong.

In every example, we can find (or imagine) some kind of mistake or sin that the victim made, before God zapped them. Usually it's a small sin and doesn't seem worthy of death. But we believe everything the bible says God did is just, so we have to believe it was worthy of death.

Hey what's it called when we pick apart someone's life and choices and search for some small sins or things they could have done differently, and point to these as proof that they deserved whatever violence happened to them, and therefore declare the case closed and justice done...?

What's that called? Blaming the victim.

Someone got raped? Well she shouldn't have been wearing that. Shouldn't have been drinking. Shouldn't have been dating that guy in the first place. And therefore all is well and there's no reason to press charges.

An unarmed black man was shot? Well I mean, he did get arrested for doing drugs that one time. Sounds like he was a bad person and there's no need to fight for justice here.

Someone was killed by God in the Old Testament? Oh come on, God CLEARLY told everyone what the laws were. He should have known. This is what justice looks like. Yep, what a nice and tidy bible story that teaches us the importance of obedience.

Or perhaps I should have given those examples in the opposite order. Perhaps placing blame on God's victims in the bible trains us to blame the victims when violence happens in our own society.

Furthermore, blaming victims' deaths on their own sins, no matter how small, only really works if you believe that everyone deserves to go to hell for being imperfect. Oh, someone died? Well, you know, they deserved worse, so, whatever! It's an awful theology that results in horrifically insensitive one-liners being thrown around in the aftermath of terrible tragedies. It's a perversion of justice that leaves us apathetic about seeking real justice for the real victims who really live among us right now.

(Jesus said love one another. And that's not love.)

Image source.
Enns discusses a few of the justifications commonly given for the Canaanite genocide, and it's so refreshing to read someone straight-up honestly saying, no, that makes no sense. Refusing to settle for some half-baked explanation just because we have to come up with a way to get God off the hook.

And here's his answer: It didn't really happen. In ancient times, when people wrote about their history, they didn't mean it in the same way we would if we wrote the same thing in modern times. Back then, it was common for every culture to have stories about how their gods fought for them against the other nations, who are portrayed as nothing but bad.

The bible stories tell us about the ancient Israelites' view of God, and their interpretation of events that happened. They're important and we can learn from them, but don't take every word as gospel truth.

And really, that makes me feel a lot better. Even though, for those of you coming from an evangelical background, it's terrifying to entertain the possibility that the stories of the bible are anything other than a factual account of events, I hope you accept how much of a relief this is.

How could God do this terrible thing? Well, God didn't.

Thank God.

Image source.

Suppose your friend saw a superhero movie, and came back and told you what an awful depressing movie it was. She explained how the movie is about a city which is often attacked by giant monsters, and people constantly live in fear. The police always go out and fight bravely, but they are powerless against the monsters. Unfortunately, the city has to rely on random vigilante superheroes to stop the monsters. These superheroes- who may have been created by similar mutations or nuclear accidents to those that produced the monsters- operate outside the law, and there's no regulation or required training or anything.

Your friend tells you what a sad movie it was, and how she can't stop thinking about how the residents of that city must feel so powerless. They have little freedom; they're dependent on these self-declared superheroes who have too much power to be questioned.

What would you tell this friend? "No no no, you missed the entire point of the movie. It's about courage and the battle between good and evil. See the sacrifices that Spiderman had to make in order to protect others?"

And your friend just gives you a blank look, confused at how you can say it's a good thing that thousands of people were terrorized and helpless, just because at another point in the story a single individual learned to make selfless decisions.

She missed the point, right? Well... no. If the events in the story really happened, then everything she said is true, even though most viewers wouldn't have thought of it from that perspective.

But she missed the point because the story did not really happen. It is not a true story. The creators of the movie were making it for a specific purpose: entertainment (and possibly also to show us what bravery/love/etc looks like). The intended interpretation can be found by looking at the way the story is told, rather than thinking through the logical consequences of every single event described therein.

(Cracked.com likes to write articles about "the horrifying implications of" this or that classic story. For example, 6 Horrifying Implications of the Harry Potter Universe.)

That's exactly what I'm doing when I'm upset about what God did in the bible- I'm discovering the horrifying implications of that particular bible story. The writers intended for it to be a lesson about trusting God or whatever, and wrote in such a way that this would be communicated to their audiences. Modern readers come at it from a different perspective and see these horrifying implications, and are, rightly, horrified. But those aren't the point of the story.

If the story really happened, all the horrifying implications are true too.

If it didn't really happen, the horrifying implications are where we might say "the analogy breaks down." That wasn't the point. You're overthinking it.

What did the writer intend to teach us, in the story of Nadab and Abihu's deaths? Or Uzzah's death? Or any of the deaths ordered or carried out by God? I don't know, but I know what the horrifying implications are. If you make one mistake, God will kill you. And we all deserve to die and go to hell anyway.

That's not what the bible says. That's not what the bible means. 

Thank God those are nothing more than horrifying implications of stories which did not literally happen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Everyone is Talking About the Stampede

All the screenshots in this post come from videos linked in this article, which lists the names of the 36 people who died.

You may have heard about the stampede in Shanghai on the night of New Year's Eve, where 36 people died. You guys, I live in Shanghai. Some of my colleagues were actually there at the Bund when it happened (you know, along with 300,000 other people). (The Bund, or 外滩 [wài tān], is a massive tourist-y area in the center of Shanghai, right by the side of the river. I don't like to go there because white people always get harassed by people selling stuff or working a tea scam.)

Here's a picture I took one time when I was at the Bund. This is the iconic skyline of Shanghai, on the opposite side of the river from the Bund. You can see the Oriental Pearl tower on the left and the bottle opener building on the right.
And people are all talking about what happened. My colleagues are talking about it. My students are talking about it. Apparently someone knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who died there. People are talking about how awful and scary it is that something like this could happen. There's been a lot of talk about the cause (usually accompanied by a shrug and a comment that "China has too many people"). At first we thought there was someone throwing fake money and everyone was rushing to get it, but it turns out the fake money thing was unrelated. Now people are saying the problem was the massive crowds with very few police officers to keep things organized or do crowd control. And apparently the stampede happened on a set of stairs, when a huge crowd was trying to go in one direction and another huge crowd was trying to go in the other direction.


There was a time in the past when if I had heard the news "there was a stampede in Shanghai and 36 people died" I would have chalked it up to "well you know in those less-developed countries, stuff like that happens" and, feeling totally unable to relate to the people who were affected, I would subconsciously think they were worth less than me, so it's more okay that they died. (Now I see this as a form of blaming the victim; in other words: "Well that's what you get for living in a country that's not as good as the US.")

Here's a picture of the crowd, taken before the stampede happened.

But now I can relate to them. Now I'm very familiar with what it's like to be in a huge crowd of Chinese people. They're just regular people. Sure, we don't really have the concept of personal space here, we're used to being crowded together, we're used to being pushed, we're used to being packed into subway cars during rush hour. We live different than Americans, and maybe it was those differences that created an environment where a deadly stampede could happen. But we are still just people.

(However, you can't entirely blame this on China's ridiculously large population. Stampedes have happened in the US too. And yes it is possible to hold a massive event with thousands upon thousands of people and keep everything organized and safe.)

I read a few of the names, from the list of people who died. 5 years ago, those names would have seemed to me like nothing more than a mass of unfamiliar and unreadable characters. And it's easy not to care when you can't identify the humanity in something that comes across so foreign. But you guys, now I can read Chinese, and it hits me that each name there is so unique, each one is a whole person. Most of them were young people, in my generation, and that just makes it even worse because my generation was created by the one-child policy. Their families didn't just lose a child; they lost their only child.

The people that died were just like me. It could have been me or my colleagues or any of my students. Without a doubt, there were people taking selfies (or 自拍 [zì pāi], in Chinese) on their iPhones just minutes before being caught in the stampede. I can relate to that, so I know there's no way this can be twisted to make it seem somehow okay. There's no reason that these deaths are any less awful than if it was me or my friends who died. There's no platitude you can offer that makes it sound not-so-bad. There's no way to distance myself and dehumanize the victims, as if the world were just and they somehow deserved it.

It's just luck and probability that keeps us safe and alive. Just because tragedies like this are so incredibly rare, when you consider the entire population of the world. God doesn't protect us- if that were true, then we'd have to believe that the victims were less valuable, less worthy of protection. But we are all people.

Years ago, I would have reassured myself that the people who died were so different from me, so it's okay. But no. It's just not okay, and there's nothing you can say that could make it okay.

But we keep living. (For those of us in Shanghai, we keep living, still with no personal space, still pushing people to get on the bus.) Every day there's a microscopic miniscule chance of dying in an accident- God won't keep us safe, only blind and senseless probability will. But we need to just keep going, do our best, and try to make the world safer for everyone.

On January 1, people left flowers at the site where the stampede happened.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Blogaround

"The look your parents give you when you come home late." Image source.
1. What Makes You You? (posted December 12) "What if the mad scientist, after capturing you and Bill Clinton, instead of swapping your physical brains, just hooks up a computer to each of your brains, copies every single bit of data in each one, then wipes both of your brains completely clean, and then copies each of your brain data onto the other person’s physical brain?"

2. Transgender teen struck and killed on Ohio interstate in apparent suicide (posted December 29) "I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it."

I recommend donating to organizations like The Trevor Project.

3. Dozens Are Killed in Stampede in Shanghai (posted December 31) This is so sad.

4. January 1, 2015 — Email Jubilee (posted December 28) "Select all. Delete."

5. Death Of Tanisha Anderson, Mentally Ill Woman In Police Custody, Ruled A Homicide (posted January 2)

6. Crosspost: How Modesty Teachings Hurt Men Too (posted January 3) "They conditioned and brain-washed him to think there was something wrong with seeing females in clothing they didn’t approve of."

7. The Bible is clearly ambiguous, but not that kind of ambiguous (posted December 29) "They will respond by demonstrating that the Bible is, in fact, not lacking in clear, definitive and categorical statements on the subject."

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Worst Bible Story

Image source.

I’m currently reading The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns, and I’ll be blogging my thoughts about it. Enns is a biblical scholar, and he writes about how his understanding of the bible has changed and expanded. He says that conservative Christians tend to have this idea about what the bible is “supposed to” be- it’s “Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual” (p 10). And of course, these conservative Christians truly value the bible and believe we should study it very seriously- but when people actually do this, they find the bible is not so perfect and clear after all. It’s weird. And we’ve been told that Christians must believe the bible is so clear and straightforward and 100% correct and every word is applicable to our lives... so what do we do when we find it’s a book that’s not really like that at all?

He’s absolutely right. I was always encouraged to ask questions about the bible- all questions are okay!- but with the understanding that I would then find “the answer” and I’d have to accept it. In bible study, people were allowed to say “wow, what God did here sounds awful” and then we’d have a discussion about it, the goal of which was to find some explanation that would help us believe what God did actually was NOT awful.

“I think this is wrong” was not a valid opinion we could hold. It was fine to say it, to honestly give our reaction to the passage being read, but we all knew it couldn’t actually be wrong, and we trusted that with enough research it could all be explained.

In the past when I read the bible, I believed that everything it had God saying or doing was by definition good and right. There could be no “God did something really bad here” or “I think this was just the writer’s opinion, not what God actually commanded.”

Reading the bible in this way has definitely affected my view of God. Seeing all the genocide and misogyny and horrifically graphic curses and believing it all must be good and right because hey, God said it IN THE BIBLE... what kind of God does that leave me with?

Perhaps this can best be shown by an example. I present to you: The Worst Bible Story Ever. It’s a story that has lurked in the back of my mind for a long time, haunting me and causing me to wonder if God is acting in my life the way God acted in this story.

Go ahead and read it: 2 Samuel 21:1-14

So. Basically, God sent a famine on Israel because a long time ago, before David was the king, Saul massacred some of the Gibeonite people. Yes, Saul did this terrible thing, and then several decades later, God decided to suddenly, out of nowhere, punish David and the Israelites for not making it right.

So there’s a famine for 3 years, and David legitimately has no idea why. Eventually God tells them it’s punishment for that one time when Saul killed the Gibeonites. Long ago. So David goes and asks the Gibeonites how to make it right, and they ask for permission to execute seven of Saul's male descendents.

And that’s what David does. He hands over seven of Saul’s male relatives for the Gibeonites to kill. There’s this weird little aside about how David spared Mephibosheth because you all remember the Sunday school lesson about David showing mercy to Mephibosheth, what a nice guy. Mephibosheth is not a red shirt, so David doesn’t have him killed. Wow isn’t David so nice?

And it works. So those people- who may or may not actually have had anything to do with the human rights abuses against the Gibeonites- get killed, and God apparently approves of it all. God ends the famine and all is well.

The end.

So, you know, I read this story and the obvious question is “WTF?!” I’ve read a few commentaries about it, looking for answers, but none of them addressed the question of “WTF”. They barely mentioned this passage, or just gave some little statement like “having Saul’s relatives killed may seem barbaric to modern readers, but really it was totally legit, trust me. Nothing to see here. Anyway, this story teaches us to be obedient, like David. Isn’t David a great guy?” That’s all.

And what did I learn from this, the Worst Bible Story?

It taught me that sometimes God causes bad things in our lives as punishment for a completely unrelated sin, which we might not even be aware of. And the punishment will only stop once we figure out the specific sin and make it right- and “make it right” might mean doing some highly questionable things. You know, obeying God even when it doesn’t seem to make sense. That’s the only way to stop the punishment.

If David didn’t kill those guys, God would have let that famine go on forever. You gotta obey God, regardless of others’ opinions on what’s acceptable behavior.

And I’ve been haunted by that for a long time.

The fear that problems in my life are punishment from a God who can’t find any other way to communicate. And I’m just screwed until I figure out which sin it was that’s being punished. And it might be something I wasn’t even involved in. And then I have to do the right thing, even though it’s ridiculous and risky and actually seems like a really bad idea- but that’s the only way God will end the suffering.

(And that’s why I thought maybe if I deleted from my computer all the music I had downloaded illegally, my friend whom I had been praying for would finally become a Christian. I deleted it. She did not become a Christian.)

Less than a week after I began dating my previous boyfriend, I got sick. My stomach felt sick, constantly, and this continued for weeks. And I wondered if it was God telling me I shouldn’t be dating him. At that time, I was beginning some baby steps of rebelling against purity culture- I had committed the awful sin of acquiring a boyfriend without a clear “yes” from God. I had decided that he was a pretty great guy and it would be worth it to date him and find out if we could be compatible (and yes, that was a good decision based on the available information at the time. Not "the right" decision; there is no one magical "right" decision. Just varying degrees of good or bad decisions). 

But, you know, purity culture says that we need to wait until God shows us our perfect soul mate, and just deciding to date someone because it seemed like a good idea (while being aware that we don’t know until we try) means I don’t trust God and I’m giving in to my fleshly desires. (5 bucks to anyone who can find an example of “fleshly” being used by someone who’s not an evangelical Christian.)

And I got sick. And I wondered if God would heal me if I broke up with him. Even though there was no reason- there was nothing wrong with our relationship. Except that maybe it was a horrible sin. And maybe God sent the sickness as a punishment.

And I wondered, and I told myself, no I don’t view God that way anymore, I believe God gives us freedom to make choices like this and God wouldn’t do that. (This was right around the time I quit believing that God sends people to hell for being mistaken about religion.)

(And no I did not break up with him at that time, and I ended up getting surgery to remove my gall bladder, and everything got better, and then later we broke up for different reasons. So. Did God send that gall bladder problem as punishment? I don’t think so.)

I don’t believe in a God like that anymore. But that’s the God we see in the Worst Bible Story, and I’ve wondered and worried many times if that could be the reason for problems in my life. 

Image source.

As a bonus, I will also tell you the Second Worst Bible Story. 

Go over and read it: Numbers 25.

So, this one time, Moses was leading the Israelites through the desert, and a bunch of them started having sex with Moabite women and worshiping the Moabite idols. God was not a fan of this, so, of course, God started killing a bunch of the Israelites. But then, one courageous man, Phinehas, leapt into action. He saw a man and woman go into a tent, presumably to have the worst kind of God-hating sex, and he threw his spear and it went right through both of them and they died there and God’s honor was restored and the plague stopped. Wow what a hero!

And what did I learn from this story?

Obviously, the meaning is this: Sometimes people are doing things in their own personal lives which God considers immoral. Even though these immoral people are not directly hurting anyone, they are indirectly destroying society because God sends a plague on all of us as punishment. In some cases, the sin is so horrible that, even though it’s a situation that doesn’t involve you at all, you would be right to jump in there and just STOP THE SIN by any means possible. Even violence may be acceptable.

And I’ve even heard this story cited to show that there is a biblical argument for murdering abortion doctors. It’s definitely not something my friend who made this argument would actually seriously do- you know, because Christianity also highly disapproves of murder and we are quick to distance ourselves from the kind of person who would do that, but... there is a biblical argument for it. You need to stop the sin. There’s no time to be reasonable.

On another occasion, a friend of mine, let’s call him Hector, brought another friend, let’s call him Carl, to church. Carl claimed to be a Christian, but he hadn’t been attending church or anything, and Hector and I knew that he didn’t have a real “relationship with God”, you know, because evangelical Christians are all about judging who is and who isn’t a “real Christian.”

So Carl came to church. And that week, we had communion, and Hector stopped him and explained, you know, honestly, you’re not a real Christian, so you shouldn’t take communion. And Carl was really hurt by it (can you imagine), but I admired Hector for taking a stand like that. Defending the wafers and grape juice from those who don’t have the “correct” view on Jesus.

I would never have done what Hector did, because I was not confident enough in my understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 and I had never seen anyone stopped from taking communion before. (At the church where I grew up, they clearly explain that it’s for all Christians, regardless of denomination, but it’s not like anyone’s guarding it and checking if you’re a Christian or not. And actually, one time I did invite a non-Christian friend to church and she did eat the wafer and grape juice, and I didn't say anything because ... well I mean, clearly I was more worried about what people would think of me than about honoring God. Or maybe because I was trying to be a good and loving friend. Take your pick.)

I would never have done that, but I really admired Hector for the way he stepped out in faith and took a stand for God, even though other people didn't accept it.

Remember what Phinehas did. He just jumped in there, no time to explain, no time to ask questions. Just STOP THE SIN, and it doesn’t matter who gets killed in the process. We need to defend God.

Image source.

So those are my top two Worst Bible Stories. Now I have a different view- I don’t think that’s actually how they happened; I think the writers were giving a creative interpretation of events in order to teach the readers something. (What that “something” is, I have no idea, but I’m willing to believe it’s something useful, because I value the bible. Or, you know, maybe not something useful, and it was a mistake to put them in the bible. Who knows.)

Readers, here’s my question to you: Is there something in the bible that affected you the way that these affected me? Do you have a Worst Bible Story?

And if you have any insight on the Worst and Second Worst Bible Stories I shared (if you can help address the question of “WTF”), that would be useful too. These two examples definitely need a lot of cultural background I don’t have if they’re going to come close to making any sense. So let me know what you think. (But only if you respect that I don’t have to agree and that I’m allowed to believe they are the Worst Bible Stories and still be a Christian. None of this “let’s tell Perfect Number how she clearly interpreted the bible wrong and actually nothing in the bible is bad or confusing.”)

Monday, December 29, 2014

Blogaround

Image source.

1. Jesus really wasn’t born in a stable (posted December 22) "In the first place, it would be unthinkable that Joseph, returning to his place of ancestral origins, would not have been received by family members, even if they were not close relatives."

2. Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege from L.L. Bean (posted December 18) "The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege is great for carrying questionable things like weed, Ponzi schemes, and sex crimes. I have lived in dense urban areas my whole life, and the cops never once search my Invisible Backpack. Then again, that’s probably just because, like people always tell me, I have a really trustworthy vibe as a person."

3. A Love Bigger Than Our Shame (posted December 19) "And this is the lasting effect of purity culture – not a generation of holy Christians saving themselves for marriage but a generation of people – women, in particular – who are ashamed of their bodies, ashamed of things that happen to them, ashamed of being perceived as sexual beings."

4. NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence (posted September 9) "I also want to stress that this utterly reprehensible behavior is something we will in no way tolerate as long as the footage is completely uninterrupted and the entirety of the assault takes place within frame."

5. Lifting up the lowly and bringing down the powerful from their thrones (posted December 25) "And that, Theophilus, is what Christmas is all about."

6. China tightens church control ahead of Christmas (posted December 24) China is really inconsistent about this- persecution like this happens, but generally churches exist (yes, with large obvious crosses on the roofs) and seem to be operating just fine, and Chinese people are aware that Christianity is a religion that exists in China (but most haven't heard about any persecution).

7. The Longsuffering Godly Abused Wife (posted December 23) "If you are in a relationship gone bad and your partner isn’t willing to work with you to fix things, leaving is probably your best option. But then, for evangelicals, leaving is not presented as an option."

8. This tumblr post from Dianna Anderson. (posted December 17) "Because purity culture teaches us to have superhuman and super unrealistic expectations of our future spouse, and it inevitably sets us up for disappointment because there is no way a human being can hold up to all those expectations. Your spouse is not going to be the person you pictured in your head at 12 years old when you made that purity pledge. And that’s okay, because if they were, there’s something weird going on."
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...