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The “Mythology” of Lost May 30, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Popular Culture, Religion & Theology, Television.
1 comment so far

Carlton Cuse, producer: “Fundamentally, Lost is a mystery show.”

The main problem with shows like Lost, which recently ended its six-year run, is that relatively few non-theologians understand what mythology is. “Don’t worry about Lost‘s plot making sense, just enjoy the mythology,” urged one final review I read. Um, fella: it’s not making sense that’s the core of the problem. It’s Lost‘s faux mythology.

A myth is a symbolic story about the relationship between humanity and the divine, and often includes an explanation of something came to be; for example, the second creation myth in the Bible includes the ancient nomads’ explanation of why women suffer during childbirth. Myths usually take place during some primordeal or prehistoric age, feature at least one divine or semidivine protagonist, and explain how customs, taboos, and such institutions as marriage were established.

While many people throughout the ages have believed their myths are historical, in fact a myth’s historicity is irrelevant. The myth of Noah’s Ark, evolved during the second millennium BCE and painstakingly inscribed onto tanned animal skins (“parchment”) during the first, may be based on race-memory of a huge flood of the Black Sea that took place around 5600 BCE, thousands of years before the invention of writing. More immediately it is based on a section of the Babylonian [Iranian] myths about the mighty warrior Gilgamesh. The myth of Noah’s Ark explains where rainbows come from, why seashells and fish fossils show up on mountaintops, and God’s (eventual) forgiveness of human evil.

One doesn’t create a myth “on the fly.” (Try it!) Genuine myths evolve, over decades or generations. Myths are told and retold because they provide satisfying answers for children and stupid people (“The Tower of Babel is why humans have more than one language”), while at the same time containing complex layers of subtlety for the intelligent and sophisticated. Entire books can be, and have been, written on the Bible’s creation myths alone.

Most important: Myths evolve to answer questions. How did the Universe come to be? Is there a God, and if so, how do we know and what does God want from us? What happens after we die? Why do I sometimes feel so alienated? Why do I sometimes feel so trapped and desperate? If God is good, and God is omnipotent, why did God allow the BP catastrophe to happen?

(In case you’re wondering, the highly misleading title Mythbusters is a better word than Urban-legend-busters, which is what the intrepid stars of this entertaining show actually do.)

I have followed Lost from the beginning, but not obsessively, so it’s probable I’ll get a detail wrong here and there. (A six-year run creates a LOT of details!) I recommend the Lostpedia wiki for you readers who actually want obsessive detail.

Lost‘s Island is presented to us amidst an unsorted jumble of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman myths spanning several thousand years; apparently the Island was uninterested in Phoenician, African, Asian, Polynesian, or Scandinavian seafarers. The Island is a veritable soup of mysterious electromagnetic forces, which amazingly enough only need human intervention to control between 1977 and around 2005, Island time. For no known reason, the Dharma Initiative sets up this control as a button that must be pushed every 108 minutes. (108 is a mystic number in several cultures, as well as the sum of the famous Lost quasi-lottery numbers.) For no known reason, a vision of Walt appeared to Shannon in “Man of Science, Man of Faith [the Season 2 premiere],” and urged her, “Don’t push the button. Button bad.”

At the heart of the Island is a stream flowing into a cave that glows with a golden light. There is a spark of this light of goodness in “all men” — which must be why the hermit, its protectress, eventually sees murder as a first resort; she lacks that all-important definer of true humanity, the penis. Most humans “fight, they destroy, they corrupt, and it always ends the same”; they “always want more” of the beautiful golden light, but for some unknown reason they must not obtain it.

Some time after Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire (meaning, after 389 CE), a heavily pregnant Latin-speaking woman named Claudia is shipwrecked and washes up on the Island. Midwifed by a mysterious hermit, Claudia gives birth to Jacob and, moments later, his unnamed brother, whom I’ll call Smoky. These fraternal twins grow up to look like unrelated adults, one who looks somewhat like Leslie Howard and one who looks strikingly like Pernell Roberts.

Moments after Smoky’s birth, the hermit murders Claudia. (Which is when I began to wonder about a middle-aged woman who proposed to rear not one but two newborns, all by herself. What did she do for mother’s milk, diapers, or an hour’s sleep? Pediatrician, shoes, babysitting?)

For some unspecified but probably lengthy time, the hermit has guarded the Light Cave. She murdered Claudia because she “knew” the boys were special. (“Special” apparently means “available.”) By some unspecified magic and for some unspecified reason, the hermit conferred eternal life on both boys, and also ensured that the two could never hurt each other. The hermit reared the boys alone for 13 years, along the way giving them what appears to have been a comprehensive 21st-century education — semi-miraculous, since all this home-schooling took place no later than 1847, and probably many centuries earlier.

Smoky is Mother’s favorite, but Jacob is the twin Mother chooses to protect the Light Cave. Smoky has joined the settlement of the other survivors of the shipwreck, who Mother somehow knows are evil. Smoky murders Mother, and Jacob drags Smoky to the Light Cave. Smoky hits his head on a rock; Jacob pushes Smoky’s limp body into the stream, where it floats into the cave, which instantly goes dark. A moment later, the Smoke Monster bursts out of the Dark Cave, depositing Smoky’s corpse in nearby trees.

Centuries later, Desmond, who is immune to electromagnetic fields, enters the Light Cave. The stream that enters the cave feeds into a waterfall at least 50 feet high. At the bottom of the waterfall, the stream feeds into a circular pool surrounded by skeletons, at the center of which is an ornate white plug that looks strikingly like a giant tampon. To complete the analogy, when Desmond removes the “tampon,” the light turns menacingly red and the Island begins to self-destruct as if simultaneously “on the rag” AND suffering from a semidivine case of PMS. At the last moment, Jack manages to reinsert the “tampon” into the round, red hole, and restore the golden light.

As a theologian, I can only say: WTF? Clearly in the theology of Lost the golden light is good, so the red light of destruction must represent evil. But why must preserving and protecting Good begin with murder? Why must Destruction be implicitly feminine, held at bay by a magical giant tampon? Does Mother know she is assisting in the creation of the Smoke Monster when she apparently attempts to kill Smoky, her favorite “son”? What did Jacob think was going to happen when he sent his unconscious best (only) friend into the Light Cave? Why is “Why am I on the Island?” the most important question (6.4)? Why did Jack dedicate his life to protecting the Island and then immediately help Smoky-Locke destroy it? What force created the Smoke Monster, how, and why?

And these questions don’t even begin to cover the unresolved questions of Lost. Why are some people confined to the Island, while others, including Charles Widmore and Ben Linus, can come and go at will? What were the mysterious six numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 about? How and why did Jacob select the six candidates to replace him as guardian of the Light Cave, given that small children are not necessarily “flawed” and bereft of “meaning” in their lives? What criteria did Jacob use in assigning each number to each candidate?

Why do some people become zombies who look, talk, and act like ordinary people but are actually evil, as in the Others, as well as the other survivors of Danielle’s and Claudia’s shipwrecks? How do we, the audience, know they’re evil?

Why were women who became pregnant on the Island only in danger between late in 1977 and some time in 2005 (Island time)? Why did Walt have psychic powers? Why did the Others want Walt, and why did they want to run experiments on him? Why wasn’t Walt even mentioned during the finale? (We know what happened to Malcolm David Kelley: he grew up.) Why didn’t we see Mr. Eko, or John Locke’s girlfriend, during the final scene in the Church of All Religions? Or Charlie, or Libby, or Ana Lucia?

Blogger Adam Frazier compares Taweret, left, to the Island statue.

Why did the ancient Egyptians build a statue of Taweret, Egyptian goddess of childbirth and conductor into the Afterlife, on the Island, and why did Lost depict the goddess as male?

If Eloise is “outside” all timelines, an authority respected by all and feared by the baddies, why does the series give her so little attention or respect? Why did Claire abandon Aaron and then obsess about him for three years?

What was that business with Jacob’s cabin and the rings of ash about? When did Jacob stop living in the Temple and start living in the cabin, and why? What was with that Lady of Shalott-like lighthouse from which Jacob could spy on the six candidates he had chosen? What was up with 2004-07, where rescued-from-the-Island Sayid was a hit man for Ben?

Oh, I can think of so many unresolved questions and loose ends that Lost looks like a shag rug! Its “mythology” is a haphazard, semi-digested stew of unintegrated ideas from at least four cultures.

Myths evolve to answer humanity’s questions about the relationship between humanity and the divine. The final few episodes of Lost, and especially the series finale, raised more questions than they answered, and displayed a woeful ignorance about such points of Christian theology as the nature of purgatory. When one contemplates Lost as a six-year whole, its “mythology” looks like a cynical load of Bushwah thrown together by 21st-century males who neither know nor care about the functioning of mythology in culture. “Oh, depict the goddess Taweret as male, she’s going to be mistaken for Anubis anyway,” or “Oh, who cares why Matthew Abbadon sent a cultural anthropologist [Charlotte] as part of the mission to find the Island? Rebecca Mader is hot!”

I truly don’t mind that Lost kept us guessing all the way to the end. I mind that essentially the first, defining event of the Lost-iverse was the murder of Claudia, mother of Jacob and Smoky. I mind that Claudia and all her female friends were too stupid to notice she was carrying twins. I mind that the series told us over and over, “X is important,” and then forgot about X altogether.

(I liked it a lot when Hurley told Ben, “You were a good Number Two,” and Ben replied, “You were a great Number One.” And I laughed out loud when Kate said to Desmond about Jack’s father, “Christian Shepherd? Seriously?”)

For me, the finale of Lost was like eating an entire pint of ice cream in one sitting: I enjoyed it at the time, but it nourished neither body nor spirit. I’ll be fascinated, though, if some time we see a spinoff book entitled Aaron Has Two Mommies.

Why did Lost parody da Vinci's "the Last Supper" in this famous promo?

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Who Was Yeshua bar Maryam? May 25, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
7 comments

The Bible calls him Jesus of Nazareth or Lord Jesus Christ. So that was his name, right?

No. Jesus was Jewish. His native language was Aramaic, a sort of “Hebrew lite.” The Christian Testament was written in a form of ancient Greek called koine (pr. KOY-nay). In the Christian Testament, “Jesus” is “‘Hσουσ.” (There was no J in ancient times.) You say “Jesus.” The Romans and Greeks to whom Paul wrote his epistles would have sounded almost Spanish to us: “Hay-SOOS.” Meanwhile, at home in Galilee (not far from today’s Golan Heights), everyone who knew the man YOU call “Jesus” called him “Yeshua.”

Yeshua is another spelling of Yoshua, a name most of us know today as Joshua, the one who “fit” the battle of Jericho. In the Septuagint, the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made around 250 BCE, “Joshua” is spelled “ ‘Hσουσ.”

Yeshua/Yoshua/Jesus was quite a common name in the first century; about the same as “John” or “Robert” is today. It meant “God saves,” back in the days when a name’s meaning was important.

(Parenthetically: Most people in the first century seem not to have cared about naming girls at all. In first-century Palestine, 40 percent of all females were named Mary or some variation thereon (Maryam, Mariam, Miryam, Miriam, Mariamne, etc.), and another 25 percent were named Salome (pr. SAL-oh-may). In Rome they cared so little that most girls were named after their fathers. If Julius felt like it, his daughters were named Julia, Julia, Julia, Julia, and, for a change of pace, Julia. One assumes that at home they were known as Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and so forth.)

In the first century, there were no surnames or middle names such as we use today. In first-century Palestine, two men with the same name were distinguished by the Aramaic for “son of,” bar: Cephas/Caiaphas (same name, different transliterations) bar Jonah as opposed to Cephas/Caiaphas bar Shmuel. Sometimes we have no idea what the man’s “real” name was; we only know him as bar Tholomew, bar Nabas, or bar Abbas.

But it was always “man’s name son of man’s name” UNLESS the name of the father was not known. In the first century, if the name of your father was not known, that was instant proof that you were a bastard, a mamser, “the sh*t of the community.” In Mark 6:3, when Mark calls Jesus “son of Mary,” that meant that the name of Jesus’s father was not known.

So if you, dear reader, managed to learn Aramaic (a few people still speak it today), get a time machine, travel back to first-century Galilee, and ask around for “Jesus of Nazareth,” no one would have had the slightest idea what you were talking about. THEY knew him not as “Jesus of Nazareth” or as “Yeshua bar Yusuf [Joseph],” but as “Yeshua bar Maryam.”

Okay, okay, I hear you say; but why make such a big deal about it?

As Christians know, when the Jesus Movement was in its first, formative years, one of its most ardent persecutors was a zealous young man known as Saul of Tarsus. (Tarsus was in what today is Turkey.) Then one day, Saul had a profound religious experience that changed his life forever. For several days afterward, he was blind. His vision is said to have been restored by one of Jesus’s earliest followers, and a few days later Saul changed his name to the Greek Paulos, known to us as Paul, and began preaching the gospel of Jesus the Chosen One (Hebrew: Messiah; Greek: Christ), God in a man-suit.

In other words, Paul knew virtually nothing about Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life wandering teacher, healer, and sage, when he began proclaiming the gospel. The real, historical man simply wasn’t important to Paul — not compared to the divine being whose glory had stricken him blind. (Acts 9)

All my life, I wondered why the pre-resurrection Jesus — humble, loving, forgiving, funny, “a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34) — was so different from the humorless and judgmental post-resurrection Jesus Christ, Only-Begotten Son of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, God in a man-suit. Finally, it came to me: the difference was Paul of Tarsus. Who knew nothing about the real Yeshua bar Maryam when he began proclaiming the gospel of Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.

In the 21st century, two thousand years after the fact, it is impossible to prove Jesus’s alleged divinity one way or the other; otherwise we’d all be Christians, or we’d all worship the Invisible Hand, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whoever the true God proved to be. But it seems to me that if Jesus really was “God in a man-suit,” Christianity ought to take what he said much more seriously than it takes what Paul said about him. And if Jesus wasn’t “God in a man-suit,” who cares what Paul said?

(And yet, I would guess at least 90 percent of every worship service I’ve ever attended has focused on “God in a man-suit.” We’re lucky to get a minute or two of what Jesus thought was interesting and important, during the gospel reading.)

Several years ago, the Jesus Seminar published The Five Gospels (Thomas ought to be in the Bible) and The Acts of Jesus. These respected scholars voted, verse by verse, on how likely they thought it that the real, historical Jesus — Yeshua bar Maryam — actually said or did what the gospel writer said he did. They coded their votes as red (probably yes), pink (well, mostly yes), gray (probably not), and black (not a chance).

A few years ago, out of curiosity, I culled out all the red and pink passages. What’s most interesting, when you look at them all together, is how very human the red and pink Jesus was — how very pre-resurrection. Not once does this Jesus proclaim, “Believe what I tell you because I am God in a man-suit!” This Jesus is wholly uninterested in his own alleged divinity. “Why do you call me good?” he challenges one brown-noser. “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18)

So, I stopped following Paul of Tarsus. I follow Yeshua bar Maryam, the real-life wandering teacher, healer, and sage on whom Jesus Christ is based. His teachings are based on two simple truths: You get back what you dish out; and you become what you pretend to be. To get back love, dish out love. Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. Forgive not just once but over and over: make a lifestyle of it. Prefer compassion to justice, because that’s what you’d like to receive from those who judge you.

Rand Paul’s Many Faces May 21, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Humor, Politics.
3 comments

Now that he’s beaten the unethical jerk Republican in the Kentucky primary, Rand Paul is eliciting much glee on the left with his far-right libertarian views, and a deafening silence from the few rational people left on the right. Myself, I’m obsessed with how out-of-balance his face is. Check it out. Here’s his official portrait:

Rand Paul, official portrait by Gage Skidmore

Rand Paul, official portrait by Gage Skidmore

Now look what happens when you make portraits out of each half of Rand Paul’s face:

First composite half Second composite half

To me, this looks like two different men — or three, if you count Rand Paul himself! For those of you who remember Laugh-In: I think the Paul on the left looks slightly like Rowan, and the Paul on the right looks a lot like Martin.

And all three have these funny little devil-horns of hair. The next time Rand Paul has an official portrait made, he should brush his hair first, and he should avoid standing near a bright window that casts disconcerting reflections on the left side of his face.

River Song and the Weeping Angels May 17, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Uncategorized.
1 comment so far

(This blog entry is primarily for other fans of Doctor Who. If you’re not one, you’ll probably be bored. Sorry!)

“Blink” and the two-part “Silence in the Library,” both by Steven Moffat, are three of my all-time favorite Doctor Who episodes. So when I saw that Steven Moffat was the author of the two-part “The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone,” featuring both the Weeping Angels (“Blink”) and River Song (“Silence in the Library”), I suspended my doubts.

According to “Blink,” the Weeping Angels evolved near the beginning of the Universe. They are “quantum-locked,” which causes them to turn instantly into stone when observed by another life-form — even another Angel, which is why (in “Blink”) one saw only faces covered by hands unless the Angel was a split-second from striking, and why they are also known as the Lonely Assassins; they may not even look at each other. “Blink” never explained how or why a species would evolve to be unable to procreate except blindly.

In “Blink,” the Angels “eat” by touching their victim, which sends the victim back in both time and space; Kathy Nightingale was sent from London back 87 years to a moor in Hull, while the Doctor, Martha, and Billy Shipton were all sent back 38 years, Billy from indoors to outdoors. For some unknown reason, the Angels have evolved a mouthful of really frightening fangs.

In other words, the Angels “eat” by consuming the potential temporal energy the victim would have had if he/she had NOT been transported back in time. (This makes no sense to me, though I’d love to be able to live off of potential food. But never mind.) The Angels are, the Doctor says, the kindest of killers and psychopaths, since they do not kill, but allow their victims to “live to death.”

Other rules laid down in “Blink”: the Angels move both silently and amazingly fast when not observed, yards and yards in a fraction of a second. It is implied that they are stone only when observed.

“Angels/F&S” changes these rules. Now the Angels live off not merely temporal energy (uh-hunh), but also electricity, not to mention the various other forms of radiation emitted by a Galaxy-class Star Liner. Whoever looks into an Angel’s eyes becomes an Angel — even if she looks only into a video image of an Angel’s eyes. (Well, that’s one way to procreate, though it doesn’t sound like fun!) The Angels move significantly more slowly and noisily. They now murder their victims by snapping their necks. Although they crave the time-energy of the TARDIS, the pure time-energy emitted by the Crack will kill them. (Drowning in time itself, I suppose.) They no longer worry about covering their faces. At one point during “F&S,” we all observe the Angels moving. There are several scenes in “F&S” when no one is looking at the Angels, but the Angels continue to stand around inertly. Although a few Weeping Angels “ate” and converted thousands of two-headed natives after the crash, no one Angel-ized the commando-priests Christian, Angelo, and Bob.

Most startling, the Angels can now reanimate a dead brain, dead lungs, and a dead voicebox and use them to communicate. “Come look at this” is the most imaginative thing they can come up with to lure Christian and Angelo to their deaths, but they use poor “Angel Bob” to become almost chatty.

Okay. I can live with these changes in the rules, I suppose. But I’m not sure I understand the changes in River Song.

In “Silence in the Library,” River Song recognized the 10th Doctor as the Doctor at first glance, but had no idea that he was such an early incarnation that he hadn’t met her yet. She began by suggesting that they compare diaries, apparently not noticing that he had no diary and was bewildered by her familiarity with him.

Although we all gather that the Doctor and River will go on to have a diary-full of adventures together — including but not limited to the Bone Meadows, the picnic at Asgard, the opening of the Pandorica, a journey to the End of the Universe, and, just before their first/last meeting in the Library, a trip to hear the Singing Towers of Darillium. During most of “SitL,” River refrained from telling the Doctor more than she had to, to protect their future relationship from “spoilers,” but it is clear that she has been/will be much more to him than a mere Companion. For one thing, she knows the Doctor’s name, a secret so deep that she apologizes with urgent sincerity for whispering it into his ear.

For those who are doggedly reading along without being Doctor Who fans: At the end of “SitL,” River sacrifices her life to save the Doctor. She lives on today only as data in the Library’s CPU. Any River we audience members meet from now on is a younger woman than the one whose body died in the Library.

In “SitL,” the older River does not realize that the 10th Doctor has not met her yet. In the just-aired “Angels/F&S,” a younger River recognizes the 11th Doctor, informing him that, apparently unlike her older self, she keeps “pictures” of all the Doctor’s incarnations. The younger River knows that she and the Doctor keep meeting each other out of sequence. Apparently they have so many adventures together in the Doctor’s future that the older River does not remember “Angels/F&S.”

The younger River is better at flying the TARDIS than the 11th Doctor is, and tells him she learned from the best, and it’s too bad the Doctor wasn’t around that day — implying that instead of only the Doctor being able to fly the TARDIS, at least three people can. The younger River has no trouble implying to Amy that she and the Doctor have a quasi-spousal relationship. The younger River is occasionally annoyingly smug.

Most puzzling of all, the older River recognized Donna Noble, who would go on to save the Universe as part of the DoctorDonna. But even though it is clear that Amy Pond is connected to the Crack in time in a way that will end up saving the Universe before she can retire and marry her Rory — i.e., just as important to the Doctor as Donna was —, the younger River appeared not to recognize her.

The theme song of the late, lamented Mystery Science Theater 3000 commented, “If you wonder how they eat and breathe, and other science facts, / Repeat to yourself: ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax.’ ” I realize that as a staunch Doctor Who-vian, I am required to believe in giant flying salt-and-pepper shakers, super-high-tech aliens whose spaceship-ambulances can’t tell the difference between animate tissue and artifact, monsters who suck faces off through TVs, and giant scarlet spiders who create vast criminal enterprises unnoticed.

But I still think that once a TV show has established an alternate reality, it ought to stick to its own rules. Either the Angels kill by sending you back in time OR they kill by snapping your neck. Either the Angels can’t communicate with you OR they can reanimate dead brains. Either River Song has never seen the 10th Doctor before OR she is totally blasé about meeting the 11th Doctor for the first time, the Doctor himself for the second time from his point of view.

I trust Steven Moffat. I do. I rank him in the same pantheon as Joss Whedon, Russell T. Davies, and Jane Espenson. (Moffat’s “Silence in the Library” was beaten for a Hugo Award by Joss Whedon’s “Doctor Horrible’s Singalong Blog” — by about 100 votes!)

The “Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone” two-parter gave us Bishop Octavian, whom I liked a lot, as well as important information about the Crack and important clues about the significance of Amy Pond. I think Moffat was right when he said Amy was the best Companion yet. I’ll watch reruns of this two-parter without much complaint.

I realize that each of my quibbles can be rationalized. The “new” Weeping Angels are so slow because they were dormant for so long. Unlike billions of generations before them, this generation has evolved a way to survive looking at each other. They’re so slow because they starved for so many centuries that their brains have been affected.

But did River Song have to be so annoyingly smug so often? And what was that Bushwah about being able to refuse a mental image by closing one’s eyes? I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m better at seeing mental images with my eyes closed! That whole business about a mental image needing to grow into a Weeping Angel that would eventually exit Amy through her irises OR complete her transformation was simply lame. If a growing mental image had that much power, Glenn Beck would be wearing a pink tutu as he cleaned the toilets in a maximum-security prison.

The Bible is NOT a History Book! May 13, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
1 comment so far

Repeat after me: One: The Bible is not history as you and I are accustomed to think about history. Two: That does NOT mean that the Bible is not true!

History and Culture

Roughly three-fourths of the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, was set into writing in the Bronze Age, between about 900 BCE and about 500 BCE. The Christian Testament was written between about 55 CE (Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians) and about 250 CE, with a few later tweaks and interpolations.

The Hebrew Scriptures were laboriously inscribed onto tanned animal skins, called parchment. The Christian Testament was laboriously inscribed onto mashed river reeds, called papyrus. It was difficult, painstaking, time-consuming work.

Parchment lasts pretty well. Papyrus does not. There are more fragments of the Christian Testament in existence than there are words IN the Christian Testament. (Some of these fragments contradict each other: “Jesus said X” versus “Jesus said not-X.” Which fragment is the holy word of God and which fragment is human error?)

ALL of the Bible was written when the highest level of technology was the war chariot. The Earth was shaped like a gigantic dinner plate (Job 26:10), suspended above the waters of chaos on four gigantic pillars (Job 9:6). It was covered by a hammered metal dome, called the firmament (Gen. 1:6), upon which God walked (Job 22:14). The sun revolved around the Earth (Josh. 10:12-13). The entire world could be seen from the top of a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 4:8). (Mt. Tabor is about 3,000 feet high. Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet high.)

What today we call mental illness, they knew as demonic possession. The invisible world of ghosts, demons, and spirits was as real to the people of Bible times as the invisible world of the Internet is to you reading these words. There was no electricity. There was no indoor plumbing, and unless you were fabulously wealthy and had access to an aqueduct, the only running water was in rivers and streams. Most people got up before dawn, worked hard all day (except the Jews on the Sabbath), and fell into exhausted slumber shortly after sunset.

Perhaps three percent of all men were literate, if that. Perhaps one-tenth as many women were literate. “Teaching a woman to read is like teaching pornography,” sniffed one first-century rabbi. There were no newspapers. There were no public libraries. There was no photography.

Many people who consider themselves religious and “Bible-believing” appear not to understand these facts. They don’t appear to understand that the Hebrew Scriptures were written in Hebrew, and the Christian Testament was written in an international version of Greek called koine. They don’t appear to understand that the Bible was written in a different era from our own, for different audiences from us, out of different cultures and world-views from ours, for purposes we no longer comprehend. Instead, these “Bible-believers” act as though they believe the Bible was written in 1611, in medieval English, out of a culture identical to their own, for an audience identical to themselves.

Worse, they believe and preach that the King James translation of the Bible is as perfect and “inerrant” as God is, or in other words, that a human artifact is as divine as God is. This is called bibliolatry.

The problems I’ve outlined above — the lack of understanding of the Bible’s context in real-world history — all spring from the pious zeal of early Protestants, starting with Martin Luther, to make the holy word of God available to everyone. Thousands of translations of the Bible have been made into hundreds of languages. (I myself own about 20 translations, and I’m not a collector!)

What all these translations mean, in practice, is that anyone who can read believes that he/she is capable of reading and understanding the Bible. They know nothing about the world the Bible was written in or the audiences the Bible was written for; they just assume that if they can read the words, the words must have been written in the same context the daily newspaper is written in. Here’s one example of what I mean: I don’t know how many passionate discussions I’ve heard in my life about Mary and Martha and working in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42), and in first-century Bethany, there were no kitchens!

Historie vs. Heilsgeschichte

Now here’s another, huge problem: The Bible is NOT a history book. Even back in those primitive times, there were historians. Very little of the “history” recorded in the Bible is reflected in the historical records of the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, etc.

But although they were primitive, people were just as intelligent then as we are today. The priests, prophets, and Jewish and proto-Christian scribes who laboriously inscribed the Bible onto tanned animal skins and mashed river reeds knew the difference between historical fact (“My father was named Samuel”) and historical interpretation (“My father loved my brothers best”). The events described in the Bible that seem to our modern eyes like history are actually a form of myth called Heilsgeschichte.

Thanks largely to today’s popular culture, virtually everyone alive who is not an expert in the Bible believes that myths, legends, fairy tales, and imaginative stories are all of them fiction, and that even the psalms are historically factual. Both ideas are untrue. Myths are NOT fiction.

Theology is the study of God: Who is God? How do we know? What has God done? What does God want, especially from us? What happens to us after we die? For thousands of years before the invention of writing, people wondered; remains have been found from around 50,000 BCE in which bodies have been prepared for entry into the afterlife.

Before writing, the only way to convey theological thinking was in stories told around the evening campfire. Why do women suffer during labor? Why are there so many different languages in the world? Why don’t those maniacs over the hill worship our God? Over many generations, stories evolved to answer these and other questions — stories told in terms that on the simplest level are understandable even to children or the mentally challenged, and yet that contained layers of meaning complex enough to engage even the most brilliant. A myth is not fiction, because it is told not to entertain but to inform: this is what God has done. This is what God wants. This is what makes God angry or pleased.

Almost everyone alive who is not an expert on the Bible thinks the canonical gospels are biographies, and much agonizing has been done attempting the impossible, to produce one story line that reconciles four points of view. This misses the point. History knows so little about the historical Jesus that valid arguments exist supporting the idea that no “historical” Jesus ever existed in the first place. It is indisputable that even if every word in the canonical gospels were history instead of theology, Jesus would STILL be a myth.

In the decades immediately after the crucifixion, the original members of the Jesus Movement remained good Jews, attending Sabbath services faithfully each Saturday. As they still do today, Jews hear a complete read-through of the first five books of the Bible every year. All four canonical gospels were written to synchronize stories about Jesus with the Jewish lectionary. For example, on a day when Jews hear about Moses parting the Red Sea (Ex. 14), members of the Mark community heard about Jesus walking on water and quieting the storm (Mark 6). When Jews hear about Pharaoh decreeing that all Jewish boys be killed (Ex. 1), members of the Matthew community heard about Herod decreeing that all Jewish boys be killed (Matt. 2).

Virtually nothing in the Bible is historically true, and yet everything in the Bible is True. Let me introduce you to a concept explained by German theologians during the 19th century: the difference between Historie and Heilsgeschichte. Historie is unadorned historical fact.

The German word Geschichte, on the other hand, refers to the significance of a historical event. For example, if a child says, “Look, the milk and cookies that we left for Santa Claus are gone,” that’s Historie ­ — the glass is empty, all but a few drops, and the plate has nothing but a few crumbs on it. If the parent replies, “Santa Claus must have come, look at all the presents under the tree,” that’s Geschichte.

Historie: George Washington was born February 22, 1732. Geschicte: As a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then honestly owned up to his misdeed. (This story, a myth, was invented in 1809.)

Here’s a third ten-dollar word: Heilsgeschichte, or holiness-history. (Christian theologians call it salvation-history.) Heilsgeschichte is a form of myth — that is, theology in the form of narrative — that may or may not be factual as well. For the ancients who wrote the narrative, the point was not whether the story was historically accurate; the point was what the story meant.

Take, for example, the related myths about the birth of Moses and the birth of Jesus. When the ancient scribes of the Bronze Age were tanning animal skins and grinding their own ink, people took for granted that the more important a person was, the more likely it was that the events around that person’s birth would be unusual, even miraculous. It was said by the Egyptians that the gods chose Queen Hatshepsut and nursed her with goddess-milk. It was said by the Persians that King Cyrus, when an infant, had been left exposed on a hillside to die, but he was rescued by the gods and lived to kill his would-be killer. The great or miraculous events around a birth were signals of the baby’s future greatness.

If the Egyptian king (possibly Ramesses II) had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn’t some historian outside the Bible have recorded the fact? If, more than a thousand years later, king Herod had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn’t more than one historian outside the Bible have screamed in outrage at the monstrous evil of such an act? If the sky had actually filled with angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” wouldn’t some historian outside the Bible have noticed?

Remarkably little of the Bible is Historie-history, and the parts that probably are, are the parts that most religious leaders don’t like to talk about —­ like the king who was murdered while his attendants thought he was having a bowel movement (Judges 3:20-25).

But all of the Bible is Heilsgeschichte ­— holiness-history. Every story in the Bible has a truth to teach us about the human relationship with God. The difficulty lies in most of the Bible being more than 3,000 years old, written in a different land, in a different language, with a different culture that had different values and different expectations. The theological points behind many of the stories in the Bible mystify us today. Take, for example, Exodus 17:10-16. In this passage, Moses wins an important battle against the Amalekites through the power of his prophetic body odor. Then, entertaining, YHWH says to Moses, “Put this into writing, AND tell it to Joshua: I will totally wipe out the memory of the Amalekites from under heaven.” Uh, YHWH? No one would know anything about the Amalekites today if you hadn’t told Moses to write it down. . . .

Fundamentalists insist that the Bible is 100 percent Historie-history; the Earth is flat, rabbits chew their cuds, insects have four legs, stars are little dots that can fall out of the sky like the lamp The Truman Show, and much similar nonsense. The people who inscribed the Bible onto papyrus or parchment never heard of the Enlightenment, never heard of Edward Gibbon, and didn’t think that Historie was anywhere near as important as Heilsgeschichte ­ and, yes, I know they didn’t know those words either.

I say, if you’re going to study the Bible, don’t try to figure out what the stories meant in 1611 (the King James Version) or 1764 (around Gibbon’s era), or even in 2009. Try to figure out what the stories meant to their original hearers, anywhere up to 3,600 years ago. Go for the Heilsgeschichte. Most of the Bible is myth, and ALL of it is True.

And, if you’re currently doing it, stop practicing bibliolatry. In all the Universe, only God is perfect. The Bible is not a history book, and it was never intended to be a history book. The Bible is theology — stories that explain the relationship between God and the Universe in language simple enough that even children and simpletons can understand, while for the intelligent packed with so much complexity of thought that entire tomes can be written about a few verses.

Whatever It Is, the GOP is Against It May 10, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Humor, Politics.
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To the tune of “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”:

I don’t know what Dems have to say,
It makes no difference anyway —
Whatever it is,we’re against it!
No matter what it is or who commenced it,
We’re against it.

Your legislation may be good
But let’s have one thing understood —
Whatever it is, we’re against it!
And even with our hundreds of amendments,
We’re against it.

We’re opposed to it —
We lost the election, not the war on progress!

Chorus: They’re opposed to it!
They’ll lie, smear, and distort:
They’re opposed to it!

Now, ever since Obama won,
The propaganda smears go on.
Whatever he wants, we’re against it!
And we’ll keep lying as if we’re demented.
We’re against it!

Based on “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It,” by Harry Ruby (music) and Bert Kalmar (lyrics), performed by Groucho Marx in Horse Feathers (1932).

Was Jesus Divine? May 8, 2010

Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
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Was Jesus divine? And why, really, should anyone care?

The fact is, outside of the Christian Testament, there is no real proof that Jesus even existed, much less that he was the “God in a man-suit” that most believers take him for today. And although virtually no one today understands this, the Bible is NOT a history book; nor was it ever meant to be a history book. That’s what historians are for!

Much of the Bible looks to our modern eyes like history — especially the canonical gospels, which are routinely confused with biographies. But every word in the Bible is theology: the ancients’ answers to humanity’s most ancient questions: Does God exist? If so who is God? What has God done? What does God want from us? To use a fancy German word, the Bible’s stories are not history but heilsgeschichte — “holiness-histories” that present theological ideas in a form within the grasp of even children and fools. This is the difference between a thousand-word scholarly essay on the value of truthfulness and the myth (invented by Parson Mason Locke Weems in his 1800 The Life of Washington but taught in school as historical truth) that as a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree.

All we today can know for certain is that Jesus existed, that he preached and he probably healed, and that he was executed by the Roman Empire for sedition — that is, for stirring up resentment and resistance against the Empire. Every other statement about Jesus’s nature and actions in the Christian Testament is mythology. Everything. Even if every word of the Christian Testament were proven to be historically true — an impossible feat — it would still be mythology. (And before you get angry and defensive, remember that myths are NOT FICTION! As I said a moment ago, myths are stories that convey complex theological ideas in a form that even children, fools, and neoconservatives can understand.)

If Jesus was in fact divine, then his followers today ought to take what he taught much more seriously than what Paul of Tarsus and his followers taught about him. And if Jesus was NOT divine, if he was true human being but not true God, then what Paul and his followers believed and continue to believe is irrelevant.

The four gospels that appear in the Bible are by no means the only gospels written. At least 90 noncanonical gospels exist (that anyone knows about). Most of these “apocryphal” gospels portray Jesus as so obviously divine that to question his divinity would be ludicrous; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, to take one famous example, portrays a five-year-old Jesus who creates life out of clay, kills with a word a playmate who jostled him, and responds to the playmates’ parents’ grief and anger by striking them blind for their blasphemy.

But these gospels of divinity are by no means the only ancient point of view. The Gospel of Thomas (no relation to the Infancy Gospel) is approximately 20 years older than the Gospel of Mark, and five to ten years older than Paul’s earliest known epistle. It is a collection of Jesus’s wisdom sayings, many of them close to identical to the canonical sayings. Most reputable scholars today believe that the (adult) Gospel of  Thomas is as valid a gospel as any of the four in the Bible. In 2003’s Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, the renowned scholar Elaine Pagels sets out a cogent and to me highly plausible argument in favor of the idea that the fourth and by far the most gnostic gospel of the Bible, commonly called John, was written specifically to contradict the Gospel of Thomas.

For the first three centuries after Jesus lived and taught, his followers fell into two camps that were roughly equal in size: The “Jesus was LIKE God” camp (the fancy word is homoiousis) and the “Jesus WAS God” camp (homoousis). In the decades immediately before the first Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, the arguments grew so heated that followers fought pitched battles, with bloodshed rivaling that of a hard-fought Manchester soccer match today. 1999’s When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome, by Richard E. Rubenstein, is an entertaining history of the epic battle between the Arians (homoiousis) and the Athanasians (homoousis). The Bible reflects the side that won this battle — scholars call it the battle over the most significant iota in history.

What bothers me most about Christianity is its insistence that Jesus was in fact “God in a man-suit” and its obsession not with what Jesus taught but rather who he is alleged to have been. At least 80 percent of every Christian worship service I have ever attended has been about what Paul considered important — Jesus’s divinity — rather than about what Jesus considered important. Christians are urged to believe that they were born sinful, that they are morally responsible for murdering God, and that they must acknowledge their guilt and renounce their sinful nature by believing in Jesus’s divinity or scream in hell for all eternity. Roman Catholics are urged to extend their belief in Jesus’s divinity to the divinity infallibility of the Roman Catholic Magisterium. Protestant fundamentalists are urged to believe in the divinity perfection of the 1611 King James translation of the Bible, which they allege to be as “inerrant” as God is.

Whatever Jesus was, he attracted “thousands” of followers during his lifetime without ever once saying, “Believe what I tell you because I am God in a man-suit.” The Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, even quotes Jesus as telling a follower, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (10:18). If the Jesus who is worshiped today is Superman, the Jesus who attracted “thousands” of followers during his lifetime was Clark Kent.

In 1993’s The Five Gospels, scholars of the Jesus Seminar voted on which teachings of the Christian Testament probably came from Jesus, and which words were probably put into Jesus’s mouth by devoted followers. A vote of “black” meant the scholars were certain the words were not original to Jesus; “gray” meant “probably not”; “pink” meant “probably”; and “red” meant “yes, we’re pretty sure Jesus originated this or something like it.” 1998’s The Acts of Jesus continued the scholars’ work by assigning the same color system to what Jesus is said to have done.

A few years ago, for my own curiosity, I went through both of these books and tweaked out everything the scholars had voted as either red or pink. What is most striking is that none of these sayings and actions focused on Jesus himself. The pre-resurrection Jesus was wholly uninterested in being idolized and adored. What concerned Jesus, what he taught during his human lifetime, was why and how to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind and strength, and how to love the rest of God’s creation as much as one loves oneself. One passage that sums this teaching well for me is this black-gray-pink:

The Scriptures say, ‘Do no murder,’ and ‘Whoever murders is subject to judgment.’ But I say, it’s not just murder that’s wrong, it’s anything that hurts someone else. It WILL boomerang on you. If you’re angry, you’ll be taken to court. If you say to a friend in your worship community, ‘You’re a moron,’ you’re guilty. If you say, ‘You’re an idiot,’ you deserve to be thrown into the trash incinerator. So even if you happen to be in a worship service, getting ready to give your money to God, stop right there. Go and get right with your friend, and only then return and offer your gift to God. If you’re on your way to court, settle with your opponent while you’re still on the way, or your opponent will hand you over to the judge, the judge will turn you over to the bailiff, and boom, you’re in jail. I swear to you, you’ll never get free until you’ve paid the last red cent.” (Matthew 5:22-26; my translation)

And here’s another:

Jesus said, “You phony! You see the speck in your friend’s eye, but you don’t see the two-by-four in your own eye. When you take the redwood out of your own eye, then you will see well enough to remove the speck from your friend’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:5; my translation)

The pre-resurrection Jesus taught love, compassion, forgiveness, and mercy. The few red sayings include (but are not limited to) turn the other cheek; love your enemy; congratulations to the poor, the hungry, and the sad; the parables of the Good Samaritan and the dishonest manager (good luck figuring that one out!); and a few sayings about what God’s Perfect World will look like when it arrives. (More on GPW in a moment.) The pink sayings, of which there are 75, include the parable of the Prodigal Son and the friend at midnight, and the rueful-sounding comment about how no hometown-boy-made-good gets any respect from those who knew him back when he was a snot-nosed brat.

Nothing about Jesus himself, much less his own alleged divinity. Nothing about hating and persecuting (women, minorities, gays, abortionists, liberals, illegal immigrants, fill in the blank) in Jesus’s name. Nothing about heaven and hell — nothing about the afterlife, period. Nothing about who God loves and who Love hates. Absolutely not one word that could be construed as “Believe what [the pope / James Dobson / Joel Osteen / Glenn Beck] tells you about Me or scream in hell for all eternity.” The pre-resurrection Jesus was just not interested. The one who attracted all those followers. The real-life Yeshua bar Maryam on whom the mythical post-resurrection Jesus is based.

In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999), scholar Bart Ehrman comes to the conclusion that while he was alive, Jesus believed sincerely that during his own lifetime, or at any rate well before 70 CE, “one LIKE a human being” (Daniel 7:13) would overthrow the Roman Empire by force of arms, single-handedly, and found a new empire in which God would rule the Earth. This Rambo-led perfect world of peace and justice is called “the kingdom of God” in the Christian Testament (and it is this world, not any sort of hereafter). But God has no physical body, and therefore can have no gender; furthermore, the Hebrew Scriptures, which waste not a word, tell us twice that God created women in God’s image (Gen. 1:27 and 5:1-2).

I believe that Jesus’s entire message — the red and pink portions, that is — can be summarized as, “Live as if the world were already a perfect world of peace and justice, so the imperfect world can see what a great place that would be.” What the Christian Testament calls “the kingdom of God,” and what I call God’s Perfect World. As I phrased it for my Twitter account: “Live as if the world were what it should be, so the world can see what it could be.” If you’ve ever been confused by the Christian Testament, think of it this way: GPW is already here, all around us (and our job is to see it); and GPW is coming soon (when we start living there and get others to join us).

Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. Love the rest of God’s creation as much as you love yourself. Forgive “seventy times seven,” or in other words, forgive every hurt, every insult, every crime against you. Love your enemies (accepting that in an imperfect world, you will always have enemies). Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who persecute you.

(Have you noticed that not one Christian church in a hundred thousand prays for Osama bin Laden every Sunday? I have never in my life attended a church that prays for its enemies on Sunday mornings! — only U.S. fighting forces in the Middle East.)

Do all this NOT for the benefit of those whom you love, bless, forgive, and pray for. Do this because it’s good for YOU. Nursing anger and resentment is like letting the one who hurt you live rent-free in your head. Forgiving, blessing, and praying for the one who hurt you leads directly to “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). What Jesus, the red-and-pink Jesus, cared about was who you are, not what you say you believe.

And remember, the “Christian Pharisees” who parade their piety and rant about heaven and hell, while practicing hatred, judgment, and exclusion in God’s name (especially of gays, abortionists, and uppity women) have their reward now and can expect no special treatment later. “God is Love” (1 John 4:8), and Love has nothing to do with hatred, judgment, and exclusion.

Was Jesus divine? I don’t know. I have no way of knowing. What’s more, I don’t care. The pre-resurrection Jesus didn’t give a flying fig about his own alleged divinity, so why should I?

If Jesus was in fact “God in a man-suit,” he knows my heart and loves me just as I am, without requiring me to believe in papal infallibility, biblical inerrancy, or flat-Earthism. And if he was not “God in a man-suit,” nothing said about him by the pope, James Dobson, or any other Christian is remotely relevant.

Was Jesus divine? Who cares? I gave up following Paul of Tarsus years ago. I follow Yeshua bar Maryam.