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struggle, spirituality, absurdity

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Jesus and the IRS

There’s nothing like mixing politics and religion to upset everyone. As you might have guessed by the title, I’m referring to the (in)famous “Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s.” See Luke 20:19-26 for the full story. I encounter this passage a lot, usually as a way of giving voice to the complicated relationship between Christianity and politics, and often in relation to taxes.

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Ten Grand and Genesis

Young Earth Creationist has offered a $10,000 prize to anyone who can “disprove” the “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1.

The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. CrumbThere’s that word again…”literal.” While I am not qualified to talk about science with any authority, I can talk about the Bible. And I cringe every time someone uses the word “literal” to describe the way they interpret a set of documents that are at minimum 2,000 years old (quite a bit more than that for Genesis, as it were).

When we start using words like “literal,” “metaphorical,” or “allegorical,” we are unwittingly imposing modern categories on ancient texts. Ancient writers simply didn’t think in those terms, and herein lies my biggest concern: when we assume the Bible possesses a modern, post-Enlightenment worldview, we inevitably force the texts to say things they never intended. And that’s a problem.

We can see that Joseph Mastropaolo is making this exact mistake because he is seeking to argue that Genesis 1 (the creation narrative of 6 days) is the most “scientific” explanation of origins. But assuming that Genesis 1, along with the rest of the Bible, made sense in its original, ancient context, why would we want to apply a thoroughly modern category like “scientific” to something that came to its final form well before even the pre-modern era?

People don’t read the Bible for instruction in anatomy and physiology (e.g., they believed our thoughts came from our intestines) or geography (they thought the Earth was a disc or “chug”), so why do we assume that the Bible is fine for other scientific questions?

This isn’t an attack on the Biblical Narrative (as anyone who knows me will attest, I take it very, very seriously), but it is a short plea to stop and evaluate what the Bible is and isn’t trying to tell us.

Ultimately, I think we have lost our ability to read these ancient writings with historical empathy. In our narcissistic minds, we assume that the ancient writers perceived and talked about reality much in the same way as we do today. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and it doesn’t take much effort to see it – though we must be willing to look.

If this peaks your interest, I will be co-hosting a seminar on faith and science at Redeemer Lutheran Church on April 14th, 6:30pm. We will look at some of these issues in much more depth… but there won’t be any $10,000 prizes, unless you are feeling generous.

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Lenten Meditation on Suffering

While praying in the garden, Jesus knew where the next few hours were going to lead him. He had poked at religious and political authority throughout his short career, and as as we all know, authority tends to poke back. The Jewish ruling council did not have the power to execute their criminals, since that right was reserved for the Romans, so Jesus likely knew that any attempt at killing him would involve an appeal to their power. Rome didn’t particularly care about Jewish squabbles, however. Their denominational conflicts not only bored the Romans, they annoyed them, which meant that Jesus’ enemies would have to convince the Romans to do their dirty work.

Cicero, the famous orator, once wrote that no decent Roman citizen should ever say the word ‘crucifixion.’ He considered the topic taboo, too offensive to be on the lips of a proper Roman. I suppose there were many reasons for this prohibition, but it really comes down to two: First, crucifixion was a horrible process, designed to maximise the pain and humiliation of the victim so that any other potential criminals would be deterred from causing trouble. Second, crucifixion was typically reserved for enemies of Rome – rebels, rioters, and political enemies of the empire… which is why Jesus himself suffered this fate.

A single line from Jesus’ prayer right before he was arrested says it all:“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.” These words resonate with me. They are filled with agony on the border of despair, as Jesus stares down the barrel of immense suffering. And so we also pray, “God please take this away… I can’t take it anymore. I simply can’t move forward.”

I have been sick since October, first with pneumonia that refused to go away, and then, as a twisted denouement, kidney stones requiring multiple surgeries (and resulting in so many complications that I stopped keeping track). In the midst of the excruciating pain, I asked, begged, and pleaded that God would take this cup of suffering away from me as my ability to cope diminished.

But going back to Jesus, right before he was arrested, did you noticed that God’s answer to Jesus’ request is an obvious “No”? Jesus pleaded with God that his suffering would stop (or never start)… and God told him no. I find that funny, because God frequently gives me that same answer. Jesus and I have something in common.

God’s answer to pain, throughout the Biblical narrative, is never ‘not pain’. He never simply takes it away. In that sense, God is decidedly not like the painkillers that I had clung to over the last couple of months to keep me from going insane with agony. He is not percocet, prescribed to numb us from our brains down to our feet, and it always makes me nervous when God is used simply to cope with pain.

Karl Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses,” though I suppose I could update that translation and say that religion is the oxycodone of the masses. But the hope we read about in the New Testament is decidedly not pain management.

Instead, the hope of the Bible, of Jesus, is the transformation and redemption of pain by the promise of his presence. God is present in our suffering. He does not feel threatened by it, and he is not afraid of it. He is patient as we suffer and understanding while we mourn. He redeems. Think about it: when Jesus was crucified, it was a dark moment in human history. And through it, God explosively brought redemption and reconciliation into the world a few days later.

 

 

 

Why I feel sorry for Tebow

No, it’s not because he lost. Losing is part of playing, he had a great season, blah blah blah. I don’t really follow football – nothing against it, just doesn’t grab my attention.

I am concerned for him. He has, whether he meant to or not, become a very public image for American Christianity. Pop-Christianity has elevated him to “Christian Celebrity” status, which means that Sunday schools across the country now have a new hero to point the children to, pastors have another sermon illustration, and aspiring Christian athletes have another role-model.

And this is a problem.

Americans love celebrity. I imagine an embarrassingly large percentage of our time, attention, and money go to various elements of celebrity culture like a bunch of cats hitting the neighborhood catnip bong – aggressively and ferociously. American Christianity is no different, and it is really one of our more unique features. It is also extremely unhealthy.

Tebow has, unwittingly, been placed in an impossible situation. While Christians love to create faithful celebrities after whom we may follow, it also places an incredible amount of pressure on that poor soul. And we tend not to be very forgiving when that person messes up. Not “if,” but “when.” Remember how Mel Gibson was our hero when he Made Passion? One DUI and a few racial slurs later…

All that to say, it’s great to have people that inspire us. Please remember that Tebow is human, and when he says something stupid, has a moral lapse, or simply has a bad day and tells the cashier at the store what he thinks of her mis-priced beans in a very unambiguous way, lighten up. All our heroes are human.

Jesus was highly political. Why can’t we seem to remember that?

I read an interview by a prof from UCSB on his new book on religion and politics in America. I tend to quibble about everything, but even reading the short interview I found myself muttering true but…., or oh come on do you even know what you are talking about. But again, I can usually punch holes in just about any series of arguments, which is a skill that is decidedly not conducive to a healthy marriage.

In any case, there was one quote by the author of the book, Thomas Mates, that particularly made my skin crawl:

The principle thing is the idea of being politically active, which Jesus refused to do and Paul didn’t do. All of the key figures in the New Testament are renowned for going to their deaths without putting up a fight. Jesus fought to clean up the church, not city hall. No one is told in the New Testament to beat or join the Romans.

No, no, and a very loud, frustrated NO. Jesus (not to mention Paul) was highly active politically, but we will fail to see how if we assume that politics is always like what we experience in modern, western America. Taking a look at the life of Jesus through first-century eyes, we see a doubly radical political figure whose death was inevitable.

Consider this question: Would Rome (and its delegated officials) be interested in killing a wandering “spiritual leader” who taught about” spiritual realities” and wanted his followers to do “spiritual things?” Of course not. Itinerant spiritual wanderers are about as threatening as a hamster who has no teeth. At worst, he would be mildly amusing.

But Jesus was executed as a threat to the empire, and Rome reserved a special method of death for these types – crucifixion. So the question is, why? What was so political about his teaching?

Take, for example, Jesus’ famous statement (from Matthew 22), “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God’s the things that are God’s.” As separation-of-church-and-state Americans, the meaning seems clear: The political realm is separate from the religious realm. However, we must understand the historical context to really feel the sting of Jesus’ rebuttal.

Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to pay the tax to Caesar. This was a very sore point for the Jews, God’s chosen people, as they were in subjugation to Rome and were forced to pay tribute. During Jesus’ lifetime (6 CE) there was a revolt against Rome, lead by Judas of Galilee, specifically in opposition to a tax census. For you New Testament geeks, this is mentioned by Rabbi Gamaliel in Acts 5. The Romans, doing what they do best, killed a lot of people as they put down this rebellion, which certainly would have been in the collective memory of the people witnessing the life of Jesus.

If Jesus says no, it was not ok for them to pay the tax to Caesar, then they would have a clear admission by Jesus that he was an advocate of Judas of Galilee – which they could use to get him killed by the Romans. If Jesus said yes, however, then he would have committed a certain kind of blasphemy. On the coin in question, written around the face of Caesar Tiberius, would likely have been written: Caesar Tiberius, son of the Divine Augustus. That would imply that Caesar was the son of a god and therefore divine – quite the crime within monotheistic Judaism. Also written on the coin was the statement that he was the “High Priest,” which in Roman civil religion, he was.

So Jesus can’t say yes, as that would be agreeing that Caesar was divine and violate the Jewish understanding of who God is, but saying no will get him arrested immediately. So what does he say? “Give me a coin.” Oddly enough, one of his interlocutors has one, and Jesus makes him identify the face on the coin. It was Caesar’s, along with all the titles I mentioned above. So what does Jesus mean when he tells them to give to Caesar what is his, and to God what belongs to him?

Think about it. Caesar is claiming to rule the world, and he holds the title of “divine son of a god.” He claims total dominion. So does God. Jesus’ response forces his questioners to face the reality that these two “realms” aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact, they are diametrically opposed. This is a very dangerous political statement to make, and one that will likely get you killed if you say it loud enough.

Which leads us to our own times: Who is really in charge around here?

 

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