Tagchristianity

Jehova’s Witness finds freedom to think in totalitarian China

Former Jehova’s Witness Amber Scorah on how being a missionary in China changed her life:

When I got to China, things were really different, by necessity. Pro-selytizing is illegal. Religious meetings are banned. The preaching work and congregation meetings have to be conducted underground. This means that the handful of Witnesses in Shanghai can meet only covertly, which makes seeing each other more than once a week next to impossible. Preaching in the usual structured, door-to-door fashion is also, obviously, out of the question. For me, a Witness accustomed to a life of uniform routine, this seemed like an unprecedented adventure.

A couple of weeks after I arrived in Shanghai, I received a cryptic text message from a man who called himself James (some of us used fake names; we knew the Chinese government monitored electronic correspondence). He proposed meeting in a noisy local restaurant in the French Concession. I called his number when I got to the restaurant and he waved so I would know him. We chatted a few minutes, then he immediately got down to business. With a practiced manner, he explained the instructions from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses as to how to conduct my missionary work. I was to find a job, perhaps teaching English, as a cover. Then I was to start cultivating relationships with worldly people, both Chinese and Westerners. These friendships were to be made with the sole purpose of religious conversion.

This sounded crazy to me. Every day of my life I’d been taught to stay away from these people, and I had. I was the person who made excuses not to lunch with coworkers. Who never kissed the boy who loved me in high school. I was the one who didn’t join after-school sports or attend birthday parties or my prom, all for fear of contamination. But I had my instructions; there was no other choice.

Full Story: The Believer: Leaving the Witness

(via Metafilter)

Same-sex Marriages were Sanctioned by the Early Christian Church During an Era Commonly Called the Dark Ages

Annalee Newitz writes:

Gay marriage sounds like an ultra-contemporary idea. But almost twenty years ago, a Catholic scholar at Yale shocked the world by publishing a book packed with evidence that same-sex marriages were sanctioned by the early Christian Church during an era commonly called the Dark Ages.

John Boswell was a historian and religious Catholic who dedicated much of his scholarly life to studying the late Roman Empire and early Christian Church. Poring over legal and church documents from this era, he discovered something incredible. There were dozens of records of church ceremonies where two men were joined in unions that used the same rituals as heterosexual marriages. (He found almost no records of lesbian unions, which is probably an artifact of a culture which kept more records about the lives of men generally.) [...]

How could these marriages have been forgotten by history? One easy answer is that — as Boswell argues — the Church reframed the idea of marriage in the 13th century to be for the purposes of procreation. And this slammed the door on gay marriage. Church scholars and officials worked hard to suppress the history of these marriages in order to justify their new definition.

Full Story: io9: Gay marriage in the year 100 AD

Finding Jesus At Burning Man

Pastor Phil Wyman writes about his Christian missionary work at Burning Man:

I see Burning Man as a developing festival culture in American society. Like the children of Israel, who gathered for holy days like Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles, millions of people throng to festivals such as Burning Man, the Rainbow Gatherings, and Mind Body Spirit. Such events are imbued with a hedonistic party culture, but they often foster a search for deeper spirituality. That spirituality is typically not Christian—it’s not specifically or predominantly anything. Rather, it’s at root the search for meaning. Like the Jews running out to the desert to see John the Baptist, these spiritual seekers run to festivals and find new crazed prophets. [...]

Like others at the festival, we devoted ourselves to building a large art installation—one of more than 300 built on the playa that week. Ours would be something of a sociological experiment. We were looking for people who were hoping to hear something—a still, small voice, perhaps.

I found some friends to help me—Hope Deifell, Dennis Huxley, Scott Veatch, and Matt Bender—and we built something we called Pillars of the Saints. It was an interactive meditation project based on the life of Simeon Stylites, the 5th-century Christian desert father and ascetic mystic. Simeon lived on a pillar for 39 years, seeking God and sharing wisdom with the multitudes who sought him out. Even popes asked for his advice, and Simeon’s work started a small movement of “pillar saints.”

It took us four days to build the installation: three pillars 10 to 12 feet tall and three blank walls with a flame altar in front of each. Each of the elements—the pillars, the walls, and the flame altars—had its own purpose.

Christianity Today: Finding Jesus At Burning Man

(via Al Billings)

Jacques Ellul, Technology Doomsdayer Before his Time

Christian anarchist Jacques Ellul has been on my mind lately, so this Boston Globe story on the man is well timed:

An admirer of Karl Marx’s sociological theories, Ellul came to believe that by the 20th century, the central issue facing industrialized societies had shifted from class struggle to technology—or, as he called it, “technique.” Ellul used this term to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen as a way of thinking as well as an ensemble of machines and machine systems. Technique includes the methods and strategies that drive the mechanical system, as well as the quantitative mentality that drives those methods.

The character of technique is ruthless, Ellul believed. It relentlessly and aggressively expands its range of influence. Its single overriding value is efficiency. Because human beings are hopelessly inefficient by technique’s exacting standards, they must be forced or seduced into conforming more precisely to its demands. This amounts to a fundamental degradation of the human spirit. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility,” Ellul wrote. “Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.”

Full Story: Boston Globe: Jacques Ellul, technology doomsdayer before his time

Ellul also wrote on propaganda.

See also: Abe Burmeister on being a hypocritical luddite (a position I’ve come to embrace myself).

Prometheus (the Movie) Deconstructed

I thought Prometheus was an awful movie, but I loved writer Adrian Bott’s analysis of its mythological underpinnings:

Prometheus contains such a huge amount of mythic resonance that it effectively obscures a more conventional plot. I’d like to draw your attention to the use of motifs and callbacks in the film that not only enrich it, but offer possible hints as to what was going on in otherwise confusing scenes.

Let’s begin with the eponymous titan himself, Prometheus. He was a wise and benevolent entity who created mankind in the first place, forming the first humans from clay. The Gods were more or less okay with that, until Prometheus gave them fire. This was a big no-no, as fire was supposed to be the exclusive property of the Gods. As punishment, Prometheus was chained to a rock and condemned to have his liver ripped out and eaten every day by an eagle. (His liver magically grew back, in case you were wondering.)

Fix that image in your mind, please: the giver of life, with his abdomen torn open. We’ll be coming back to it many times in the course of this article.

The ethos of the titan Prometheus is one of willing and necessary sacrifice for life’s sake. That’s a pattern we see replicated throughout the ancient world. J G Frazer wrote his lengthy anthropological study, The Golden Bough, around the idea of the Dying God – a lifegiver who voluntarily dies for the sake of the people. It was incumbent upon the King to die at the right and proper time, because that was what heaven demanded, and fertility would not ensue if he did not do his royal duty of dying.

Now, consider the opening sequence of Prometheus. We fly over a spectacular vista, which may or may not be primordial Earth. According to Ridley Scott, it doesn’t matter. A lone Engineer at the top of a waterfall goes through a strange ritual, drinking from a cup of black goo that causes his body to disintegrate into the building blocks of life. We see the fragments of his body falling into the river, twirling and spiralling into DNA helices.

Ridley Scott has this to say about the scene: ‘That could be a planet anywhere. All he’s doing is acting as a gardener in space. And the plant life, in fact, is the disintegration of himself. If you parallel that idea with other sacrificial elements in history – which are clearly illustrated with the Mayans and the Incas – he would live for one year as a prince, and at the end of that year, he would be taken and donated to the gods in hopes of improving what might happen next year, be it with crops or weather, etcetera.’

Can we find a God in human history who creates plant life through his own death, and who is associated with a river? It’s not difficult to find several, but the most obvious candidate is Osiris, the epitome of all the Frazerian ‘Dying Gods’.

And we wouldn’t be amiss in seeing the first of the movie’s many Christian allegories in this scene, either. The Engineer removes his cloak before the ceremony, and hesitates before drinking the cupful of genetic solvent; he may well have been thinking ‘If it be Thy will, let this cup pass from me.’

So, we know something about the Engineers, a founding principle laid down in the very first scene: acceptance of death, up to and including self-sacrifice, is right and proper in the creation of life. Prometheus, Osiris, John Barleycorn, and of course the Jesus of Christianity are all supposed to embody this same principle. It is held up as one of the most enduring human concepts of what it means to be ‘good’.

Seen in this light, the perplexing obscurity of the rest of the film yields to an examination of the interwoven themes of sacrifice, creation, and preservation of life. We also discover, through hints, exactly what the nature of the clash between the Engineers and humanity entailed.

Full Story: Cavalorn: Prometheus Unbound: What The Movie Was Actually About

I still think the movie was terrible (see also: Prometheus in 15 Minutes), but Bott’s analysis shows how much more interesting it could have been. (Ridley Scott, if you’re reading this, it seems you could do a lot worse than Bott as a screenwriter for the sequel.)

And speaking of the Alien franchise, see also: James Cameron’s responses to Aliens critics

Just Thinking About Christianity Makes People More Racist

pure white

Yikes, according to a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science:

Participants subliminally primed with Christian words displayed more covert racial prejudice against African-Americans (Study 1) and more general negative affect toward African-Americans (Study 2) than did persons primed with neutral words. The effects of priming on racial prejudice remained even when statistically controlling for pre-existing levels of religiousness and spirituality. Possible mechanisms for the observed effect of Christian religion on racial prejudice are discussed.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Does thinking about Christianity make people more racist?

The link only has the abstract, so I’m not sure about the methodology, but that’s a kind of scary result considering all the religious propaganda in the States.

Update:

Trevor Blake provided a link to a PDF of the full study, and that sheds some light on the subject. Of particular note is the “Caveats” section (emphasis mine):

It should be noted that, in both experiments, the baseline level of covert racial prejudice was in the neutral range. Furthermore, the magnitude of effects in this study was small. Priming Christian concepts did not cause a large increase in racial prejudice, but it did lead to a small, significant increase. As such, we cannot conclude that priming Christian concepts causes racism per se; our data do not support this conclusion. However, we did find that priming Christian concepts causes a negative shift in existing racial attitudes and that the direction of the shift represents a slight but significant increase in racial prejudice.

The sample sizes of the two studies were quite small. Only 73 in the first experiment and 43 in the second. Participants were mostly white and Christian, but other ethnicities and religions were represented.

The second experiment replicated the results of the first, but further replications by other researchers are needed – preferably with larger sample sizes – before any conclusions can be drawn.

Also, the section “Christian Concepts, Racial Prejudice, and Possible Mediators Between the Two,” which covers the paradoxes of current religious priming research, is worth reading.

Why are there no contemporary accounts of Jesus?

Buff Jesus

An essay containing a list the supposed historical Jesus’s contemporaries who likely would have written about him if, as is claimed in Mark, he his public appearances were attracting thousands of people. Good reference material.

While some apologists attempt to wave this problem away by claiming that “Jesus” would not have been a noteworthy figure, this apologetic tactic contradicts what the Gospels say about Jesus. One cannot hold, at the same time, that the Gospels are true eyewitness accounts of actual events, AND that the Jesus figure in those works would not attract the attention of men like Philo, Pliny or Seneca. It’s an absurd contradiction.
Even the relatively sober account of Jesus found in the first gospel, The Gospel of ‘Mark’, presents us with a Jesus who garnered quite a bit of attention. Consider for example, Mark 2:1-12, where the crowd coming to see Jesus is so great, that a paralytic has to be lowered through the roof of a building Jesus is in, in order for Jesus to see him. Elsewhere Mark tells us that the crowds that Jesus drew were so overflowing that he has to lecture from a boat on the Sea of Galilee. When Jesus travels from Bethany to Jerusalem, throngs of people line the roads to welcome him. Mark also tells us of how Jesus performed miracles before thousands: on two different occasions Jesus feeds thousands through miracles.[2]
In short, ‘Mark’ gives us a ‘Jesus’ who is bigger than the Beatles, and I believe the Beatles analogy is a good one: we even have a nice parallel between the story of Jesus’ lecture from a ship at Galilee, and the Beatles famous ‘rooftop’ audition, where they were forced to play an impromptu concert on a rooftop, lest the crowds that would rush to see them cause a riot. In both cases, the crowds had reached, hysterical, historically noteworthy, proportions. Yet, John E. Remsberg, in ‘The Christ: A Critical Review and Analysis of the Evidence of His Existence’[3] makes the curious observation that no one from this era wrote a single word about the Jesus Hysteria. Remsberg notes: “(While) Enough of the writings of the authors named in the foregoing list remains to form a library, (no where)… in this mass of Jewish and Pagan literature, aside from two forged brief passages in the works of a Jewish author (Josephus), and two disputed passages in the works of Roman writers, there is to be found no mention of Jesus Christ.”

A Silence That Screams

(Thanks Paul!)

The Bible Doesn’t Say Jesus was Crucified, Christian Scholar Claims

Historical Jesus

I’ve read before that although the Romans kept meticulous records of crucifixions, there is no surviving record of a Jewish radical from Nazareth being crucified in the claimed time period. I don’t have references handy, but I can dig some up if anyone’s interested. Christian scholars, when presented with this lack of evidence, have sometimes argued the lack of a record is due to the fact that Jesus was crucified by Jews, not by Romans. However, this Christian scholar actually argues that Jesus wasn’t crucified at all:

The legend of his execution is based on the traditions of the Christian church and artistic illustrations rather than antique texts, according to theologian Gunnar Samuelsson.

He claims the Bible has been misinterpreted as there are no explicit references the use of nails or to crucifixion – only that Jesus bore a “staurus” towards Calvary which is not necessarily a cross but can also mean a “pole”. [...]

The ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew literature from Homer to the first century AD describe an arsenal of suspension punishments but none mention “crosses” or “crucifixion.”

Mr Samuelsson, of Gothenburg University, said: “Consequently, the contemporary understanding of crucifixion as a punishment is severely challenged.

“And what’s even more challenging is the same can be concluded about the accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t say as much as we’d like to believe.”

Telegraph: Jesus did not die on cross, says scholar

(via Dangerous Meme)

However, I would expect the Romans would have kept records of all executions, crucifixions or not, though I suppose the “he was executed by Jews” caveat would still apply.

Samuelsson also claims “That a man named Jesus existed in that part of the world and in that time is well-documented. He left a rather good foot-print in the literature of the time.” My understanding is that there are no surviving contemporary accounts of Jesus, but I could be wrong.

(I still subscribe the “composite character” theory of Jesus – he was based on several historical Jewish radicals, not a historical single person, and later sexed up with Pagan mythology to make Christianity more palatable)

See also:

Paul Verhoeven’s book on Jesus

The God Who Wasn’t There

Jesus Never Existed

What Did Jesus Do?

The Historical Jesus FAQ

What did Jesus do?

Jesus

Adam Gopnik reviews recent literature deciphering the gospels:

And yet a single figure who “projects” two personae at the same time, or in close sequence, one dark and one dreamy, is a commonplace among charismatic prophets. That’s what a charismatic prophet is: someone whose aura of personal conviction manages to reconcile a hard doctrine with a humane manner. The leaders of the African-American community before the civil-rights era, for instance, had to be both prophets and political agitators to an oppressed and persecuted people in a way not unlike that of the real Jesus (and all the other forgotten zealots and rabbis whom the first-century Jewish historian Josephus names and sighs over). They, too, tended to oscillate between the comforting and the catastrophic. Malcolm X was the very model of a modern apocalyptic prophet-politician, unambiguously preaching violence and a doctrine of millennial revenge, all fuelled by a set of cult beliefs—a hovering U.F.O., a strange racial myth. But Malcolm was also a community builder, a moral reformer (genuinely distraught over the sexual sins of his leader), who refused to carry weapons, and who ended, within the constraints of his faith, as some kind of universalist. When he was martyred, he was called a prophet of hate; within three decades of his death—about the time that separates the Gospels from Jesus—he could be the cover subject of a liberal humanist magazine like this one. One can even see how martyrdom and “beatification” draws out more personal detail, almost perfectly on schedule: Alex Haley, Malcolm’s Paul, is long on doctrine and short on details; thirty years on, Spike Lee, his Mark, has a full role for a wife and children, and a universalist message that manages to blend Malcolm into Mandela. (As if to prove this point, just the other week came news of suppressed chapters of Haley’s “Autobiography,” which, according to Malcolm’s daughter, “showed too much of my father’s humanity.”)

New Yorker: What Did Jesus Do?

See also: Paul Verhoeven talks about his new book on Jesus

(Thanks Paul)

Paul Verhoeven talks about his new book on Jesus

Paul Verhoeven

I saw Verhoeven speak about his new book Jesus of Nazareth last night. It was a great talk and I really look forward to reading the book. I particularly liked the comparison of the last year of Jesus’s life with the final year of Che Guevara’s life.

Here’s an interview Verhoeven did with a local alt weekly:

WW: Many books have been written about Jesus, at least one of which is still in print. So why this book, and why now?

Paul Verhoeven: You could argue that nearly all books that are written about Jesus where people have done thorough research, are written by Christians. And here is somebody [me] who looks at it from a completely secular point of view. So I think that would be interesting for people who also have their doubts about divinity, but are still perhaps interested in the figure of Jesus, as a historical person who changed the whole world by his teachings. That’s what it is all about and not, not in my opinion, that Jesus was elevated to divine status. That, I think, was a mistake.

You’re trying to restore what you see as his ecumenical ethics to the man himself.

Yeah, clear. In my opinion Jesus was wrong about certain things, but even as he was really wrong in thinking that the Kingdom of God was going to be there shortly, and that the exorcisms were approved, at the same time—I call it a paradox nearly—he invented these parables, and the parables are expression of an innovative ethics.

Willamette Week: The man who made RoboCop dies for our sins.

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