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The Disaster of Right-Brained Voting

May 15, 2017

If you follow this blog, or just from its title, you know it’s mostly about issues of the human spirit.  But it’s impossible to separate spiritual issues from governance and the politics that go with it.  They affect one another, often in major ways.  In that much I agree with my more conservative friends and countrymen and women.

Besides that, I’m finding it too hard to restrain myself from at least some small contribution to what I think we must learn in America about reasoned, responsible voting.  (Note the “V” formation in the photo… an excuse to bring one in from a favorite recent hike of mine.) And not just young or new voters but older, experienced ones!

There are plenty of things I’d love to comment on that have to do with the current debacle playing itself out in Donald Trump, combined with counter-factual approaches in Congress to improving our healthcare system, etc.  But what is most urgent in my mind are the grave and even nation-threatening issues around the erratic conduct and poor ethics of Trump, combined with his incompetence and that of his administration on several levels.  I believe even most of his supporters recognize these things and the gravity of them but have psychological or political reasons to deny it.  These forces often even block reality from people’s own consciousness.

Trump would not be the serious threat to our democracy that he is, and potentially to the environment, etc., if voters had merely engaged the full powers of their brains.  Now, for many that would have required opening to additional sources of information and giving them a fair hearing.  That’s part of the process of using all of one’s brain – right and left hemispheres in balance.  It tends to be easier to listen only to one’s “tribe” (party, sub-culture, certain “talkers”, etc.). But the cost can be high, as it is right now. 

Further, it’s not a matter of excusing a Trump vote with the claim that Clinton was a bad alternative.  There were plenty of warnings well before Trump was racking up primary wins that his candidacy was a sham and that he was an unqualified charlatan.  Good left-brained analysis… taking some time to analyze his message, examine his life history and other pertinent matters, would have kept him from winning the Republican nomination.

But people weren’t operating in such a mode.  They generally are not when preparing to vote.  However, the problem has recently become even worse, coinciding with the rise in polarization and fear or loathing of those who differ.  We must begin doing a better job of cultivating the use of our critical faculties… in the sense of reasoning and critique. Critique of not only an opposing viewpoint but all arguments and sources, including the ones we tend to favor.  Again, there was plenty of strong analysis of Trump from many people who knew him well, those who’d researched his business career, psychologists and psychiatrists commenting on his character and personality, and much more.

These were often not partisan people. They just knew Donald Trump well enough, from close-up or extensive observation, to feel strongly that they had an obligation to speak up. Should we weight the opinions of such people above those of people who make their living from being on one “side” or another, or from whipping up fervor through their media platforms (especially radio talk shows)? Of course! But not enough people did.

One step further: An open and thinking voter didn’t really even need to hear from the many people just described to come to a solid conclusion that Trump, at best, was an extremely high risk candidate.  There was no real evidence… only hopes… that his experience as a businessman would mean he could transfer any skills (very few, in actuality) from there to effective governing.  History wasn’t favoring that, and that’s already been reinforced.  And what was the downside risk? Extremely high, based on things we’d already seen played out.

I realize that those who most need to hear admonishments about using all aspects and faculties of their brains when voting (and not just for President!)… to stop being mentally lazy… are not likely to discover this article or perhaps really grasp it if they do.  So, other readers, please do whatever you can to carry this message to people you probably know who do need it and may receive it better from you than from me or others. 






The Fog of History and the Birth of Christianity – Part 2

May 7, 2017

What do we know about how Christianity got started? Not much, actually.

We really only have Luke to go on, in his second book.  St. Paul makes a few statements about early beliefs but gives very little history. Luke is a major New Testament author. He wrote, as stated in the text, what almost all scholars see as a two-volume work: his Gospel followed by The Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in the New Testament).  There are many interesting and important questions about the birth of Christianity either not covered there or actually raised by what Luke does say.

For now, I’ll focus on just one: Does Luke’s own writing really support the common idea of supernatural acts by God being what enabled the birth and survival of Christian faith? That’s how he presents things: Miracles galore and the special work of God… all the way from Jesus’ resurrection to the outpouring of Pentecost, with its signs and “tongues-speaking”, to divine prison-breaks, to a married couple being “spoken to death” by Peter.  Wow! Exciting (and scary) stuff!

If you haven’t yet, I recommend you read my lead-up to this post in Part 1 of the 2-part series. There I mention how the Jerusalem form (vs. the Diaspora or mainly Pauline form) of Jesus-following was a largely-tolerated sect of Judaism with its particular Messiah figure. (This was not uncommon around then).

I note that Pentecost was 50 days after Passover.  So this period includes the 40 days in which Luke claims that Jesus appeared to and taught his disciples and the Apostles, ate with them (establishing his bodily rather than ghostly presence), etc.

But why should anyone now-a-days care?

The “practical” issue for modern Christians I would put this way: If Christianity is founded upon supernatural actions of God it is one thing.  If it has a human, non-miraculous foundation, based on this-world teachings of Jesus (along with Paul), including a fresh approach to God, it is something quite different.

In an oversimplified nutshell, this represents the difference between historic orthodoxy (Roman, Eastern or Protestant) and various versions of “liberal” or “progressive” theology and church practice.  There is a whole lot of tension and various levels of fighting between the constituents of these broad concepts…. Energy that could be devoted to at least those aspects of Christian mission which both groupings agree on, such as love and care for others in an active way.  

Without going into the reasons for now, I’ll say that it is worthwhile to encourage the growth process of Christianity itself.  People who think it, or religion more broadly, may soon disappear are dreaming, as are people who think it has not essentially changed over the centuries. Christianity is never totally “stuck in the past”, but it changes generally at a glacial pace.  The push for growth should be specifically in the direction of understanding its foundation as being astounding but not miraculous; not due to forceful interventions by God or one-time epoch-changing events like the Day of Pentecost, as we’ll mention here.  This understanding is not undercut by the Bible itself, if carefully read, including Luke’s account – his origins story.  That conviction of mine, with the important implications, is why I write articles like this.

So let me now cover one interesting plot hole in Luke’s account which adds to many other indicators that he is making up much of the story to fit his agenda, and that his work is not actually historical recounting of miraculous events.  So, his Acts is useful and has some historical basis, but is not to be taken as reliable history in the way it was by almost every type of Christian for 1700 years or so, and still is by far too many yet today.

This plot slip involves the figure famous in both Judaism and Christianity, Gamaliel, the highly respected rabbi of Jesus’ time and following.  Gamaliel serves as a good character to use in connecting Judaism and Christianity beyond obvious shared beliefs. Gamaliel, as used by Luke, can help explain what does not fit well with the Pauline vision of Jesus’ purpose and mission.  That poor fit is the ongoing existence of Jesus-followers in some fair number right within Jerusalem as observant Jews, not as believers that the Temple and “the Law” had become irrelevant, no longer to be followed.

Luke has previously, in both his Gospel and the opening of Acts, made a significant point of not only the bodily resurrection of Jesus, but of the miraculous events surrounding the crucifixion and the days after the resurrection until Jesus’ bodily ascent into heaven before the eyes of some disciples.  This is why the introduction of Gamaliel in Acts 5 is so fascinating.  I’ve written about the same issue here in a bit more expanded way than I will right now.

Added to that earlier post is this: You remember “the Road to Emmaus” story? In it Luke (Ch. 24) has made a point of having Jesus’ disciples explain, to the incognito Jesus, that the dramatic events surrounding the crucifixion were well known throughout Jerusalem! And the city was packed with up to a million visitors (as estimated by historians) coming and going over Passover season. Together, the Gospels claim miracles that indeed would have been impossible to miss.  Three hours of mid-day darkness.  A massive earthquake capable of cracking open rock tombs and releasing resurrected “saints” who then made a point of showing themselves around the city (per Matthew 27).

If you’re in Jerusalem, you can’t miss this stuff!

Also a huge deal for all the priesthood and religious observers (nearly everyone) around the Temple, a major economic as well as religious center, was the reported tearing of the “veil of the Temple” from top to bottom.

This was a massive, many-feet-high and inches-thick curtain between the Temple’s “Holy Place” and the inner, highly restricted “Holy of Holies”.  There is obvious and powerful religious symbolism in this occurrence, if it happened, and in the mere claim if it did not.

For my upcoming plot-hole-revelation, add this context.  Less than two months after Jesus’ death, Luke claims the miraculous arrival of the Holy Spirit in such dramatic fashion as to draw big crowds and add 3,000 new Jesus-followers in one day.  So Luke has presented the launch of “the Church” as filled with miraculous “signs and wonders”… done either for everyone’s notice (darkness, massive earthquake) or for a great many nearby observers.  A partial summary: risen dead people [per Matthew only], Temple curtain torn apart, appearances by Jesus himself, in bodily form, miraculous language-speaking in unlearned languages, astounding healings, prison-breaks.

Now Gamaliel, of Jerusalem himself and a respected leader there, decides to intervene among the religious leaders on behalf of the Jesus-followers when they were being opposed and persecuted, apparently in the early days (no timeline by Luke).

And what is his primary appeal? To give some time to see whether their activity is of human origin or “from God”.  He cites two failed rebel leaders of recent years, and how their movements came to nothing.  His conclusion is that if this new movement is from God it will be unstoppable, so not to be opposed.

What? How does this “if from God” get said?

Hasn’t Luke been making the point, over and over, that many very public things from the killing of Jesus to the time of Gamaliel’s speech have been clearly miraculous?… No real possibility they were of human origin? If Gamaliel had somehow missed it all firsthand, he could not have missed all the buzz about it in the populace and certainly among his fellow religious leaders.  It was all about their business! That astonishing curtain-rending at the core of the Temple particularly!

Now, I actually think that something like Gamaliel’s speech (not the actual time/place/wording of it) probably is one of the historical aspects that Luke clearly is careful to include here and there in his Christian origins story.  He lines things up with known political figures and such (and may well have used historian Josephus as one source). And it is helpful in his pushing Judaism/Christian continuity.

It is a potential plot hole in this way: If all the miraculous stuff really happened, as Luke certainly seems to be claiming (though not necessarily believing himself), Gamaliel’s speech, to make much sense, would have to be much different.  It would have to go something like this:

“Men of Israel” (5:35)… we all are witnesses of the many signs and wonders surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth and attending these people since, who believe he is our long-awaited Messiah. But, astonishing as this all has been, and certainly meaning something, we haven’t yet figured out quite what it means. Only his followers say they’ve seen and been taught by Jesus as raised from the dead. Why not some of us leaders? I’m certainly a seeker of God, as are many of you, eager to follow the truth.

We certainly can’t explain all the miracles, but many have been fooled several times before about messianic figures.  So, despite all these evidences which have been plenty to satisfy several thousand from among our annual visitors and our approximately 50,000 residents, we just need more time.  It sure seems God must be behind all this, though maybe it was Beelzebub.  After all, Jesus did not deliver our nation, and if he lives, he’s nowhere around now.  So we have to figure out what is the significance of all the miracles surrounding him and now his followers. But meanwhile, it’s not fair to persecute these people because they do still observe the Law and worship among us.  We need to further discuss the meaning of all these incredible miracles and signs.

Luke may have put the speech into Gamaliel’s mouth as he did, which avoids all this, in an attempt to “have it both ways”…. For certain readers, the miraculous events could impress and instill faith.  For others, the reasoned “wait and see” of Gamaliel may have been more believable.  Plus, it served well for all, including Roman officials, to tie the new faith to Judaism via a key figure who would have been well-remembered in the time of Luke’s writing (around 90 to 110 CE).  It being more than puzzling how Gamaliel could make such a speech if Luke’s other “facts” are valid may not have entered Luke’s mind. When one is creating mythology (such as an origins story), it is tough to make everything fit just right.  Especially when connecting to known history.

The take-away I suggest is this: Luke may have inadvertently given us a peek into the real attitude of Jerusalem’s Jewish leaders toward the Jesus-followers. Gamaliel indicates concern but ambivalence.  Maybe God is behind their movement.  But if not, it’s dangerous indeed! This is a good distance from how the Gospel writers, including Luke, generally present the posture of Pharisees (as was Gamaliel) and priestly leaders, and how they “predict” the treatment of Jesus-followers, as being persecuted and thrown out of synagogues.  In the process of relating this episode, Luke may have given us more of the real history of early Jewish-Christian relations than in the miracle and persecution stories.  Perhaps the relationship was relatively open and respectful, rather than the idea that the Jews stubbornly resisted a string of convincing miracles.

What do you see here?

The Fog of History and the Birth of Christianity – Part 1

April 28, 2017

We have a lot of dramatic and culture-creating stories from the life of Jesus and early Christianity. But we have very little established history.

Of course a great many people, both Christians and others, believe that the New Testament contains historical accounts of the founding of Christianity.  We do have a few snippets that can be regarded, in the view of most historians, as having almost certainly happened: Jesus living (even this is disputed by a few historians), gaining a following and being crucified. James, probably a blood brother of Jesus, but not the Apostle James, becoming the main early leader.  (This was perhaps after a brief period in which Peter or someone else may have led.)

This group was a Jesus-as-Messiah Jewish sect in Jerusalem initially.  We also know that “Saint” Paul, soon after Jesus’ death, first opposed and then aligned (at least partially) with this sect and became our earliest written source.  His accounts deal mainly with the Jewish-Gentile form of Jesus-following given his operating almost exclusively outside of Jerusalem and Israel.

But… how and why did this off-shoot of Judaism take hold relatively quickly and grow rapidly, gradually breaking off as a separate religion? (It’s a misconception that it right away was a separate religion apart from other varieties of Judaism.)

Many entire books have been written on how it all happened.  Just one example of such informative work is From Jesus to Christ by Paula Fredriksen, pictured.

Now, some calendar stuff we do know. If you are a church-goer, you may recall that 50 days after Jewish Passover (between what is now Good Friday and Easter) is Pentecost.  Even if not, you’ve probably heard of “The Day of Pentecost”. Certainly of Pentecostals, who take their name from the Jewish celebration and the famous first Pentecost after the crucifixion of Jesus, according to Acts of the Apostles.

Without going into the specific theology involved, the events of that Pentecost as reported by Luke in Acts represent the miraculous “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit. This is essentially what launched the Christian Church in Luke’s telling.  It also serves to let him, and Christians since, tie the story of victory through Jesus back to Hebrew Scripture and Judaism and validate the new direction with a powerful blessing and action of God, so claimed. But is it historical? If something powerful happened that day, was it as described?

In the Empire setting, the sect-becoming-a-religion needed ancient roots which Luke knew both Jews and pagans would expect.

Luke also knew the power and importance of a supernatural story.  And this is a dramatic one for sure! You should read the brief story in the first part of chapter 2 unless the specifics are fresh in your mind.  Read the lead-up in chapter one while you’re at it.

Luke has carefully thought through how he would present the birth of Christianity.  As mentioned,  some of what he had to show was its connection to Judaism — essentially the extension of it — plus the boost of miracles.  This was to prove something he could pull off well enough to give the new faith a founding story that has worked for “faith” and church-building purposes…. However, that began to change about 2 1/2 centuries ago.

Scholars began to look more analytically and historically at Luke’s work in both his books, at the other Gospels, and at the rest of the Bible. More on one of the holes in the embellished part of Luke’s “history” that is not commonly noticed in part 2 coming soon.  And, with that, why so many modern believers struggle with the historical reliability of the Bible still claimed in a majority of Christian churches.

Read more…

Does Employment Affect Spirituality?

April 25, 2017

Did you finish figuring out what you were best suited to do before more-or-less locking into a career or type of job? Did you complete the process of learning the job options in your preferred career area and gaining the qualifications?

If you are not in the right line of work, are you more spiritual or less as a result? That is, more engaged with your spirituality? Most of us probably are more engaged if dissatisfied, out of work or under-employed.  Either we’re blaming God or seeking some special guidance, maybe even a “miracle”! But we may be more positively engaged if we have satisfying work, feel we are contributing.

What about while preparing for the job market… for a career? Do we tend to approach that with a view toward our spiritual beliefs and practices? Or does it seem irrelevant?

It is clearly relevant for some…. people interested in church ministry or other religiously-oriented jobs.  But what about the rest of us? A good chance we give it little thought.  My contention is that we should. And more than just passing thought.  There are more tie-ins between our “spirits” and our work than we generally realize.  That goes whether you consider “spirit” in a loose and broad way (like “team spirit”) or believe you have a spirit that is distinct from your body or even your “soul”.

I am gearing up to begin a series of posts on career development, an area of increased focus for me, and in which I find a great need among particularly young adults, but also young teens, beginning to make choices, on up to people of retirement age.  There are few good structures or processes in the US (or most countries, to my knowledge) to help guide the “novice” adult toward finding and entering the work area and setting that’s most fitting for her or him…. What is likely to bring both strong success and satisfaction.  It’s not hard to be more likely to than the haphazard or poorly informed way most people, even with a college education, get into jobs.

Almost any systematic focus on exploring oneself and the career options most likely to fit well will bring some benefit.  The key is systematic… and sustained over a good period of time, in most cases.  There are people who, from an early age, have a clear sense of their passion and their natural abilities line up well so that entering a career involving that is a “no-brainer”.  All goes pretty well, though often with some barriers to overcome.  But people who are that lucky are a small minority.  I’d guess less than 10%, maybe well less.

So it is for the other 90% or more who struggle and often fail to get into a suitable and satisfying career (many surveys show the dismal numbers) that I begin this focus.  As I plan out this series, which will be the basic outline and content of a book I intend to publish in a few months, I would love to get your input….

What situation are you in regarding work or career? What would you like guidance on? Do you know where to find it?

Do you know or sense, personally, a “calling” that you would or might consider “spiritual”? 

What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to other seekers or dissatisfied workers? What you share with us here will be a big help in making what I design and share more suited to my audience and more on target.  Thanks!

Earth Day, Science Marches and Christianity

April 22, 2017

Today I hope you’re at least hearing and seeing a lot about “Marches for Science” and other commemorations of Earth Day.  Better yet, have participated in one, which I confess I’ve not been able to.  Would have loved to.

Science and theology, together, are at the top of my interest list.  These days most people think of them separately or discuss the conflicts between “science and religion”.  And not without basis.  In the day of Isaac Newton (pictured) theology was still “queen of the sciences”.  Most top scientists were also churchmen (virtually no women yet).  They weren’t necessarily bucking the Church, either, though sometimes major conflicts arose.

Over the course of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, specific points of conflict (as Galileo experienced, building on Copernicus, who was a better “politician”) morphed into what we might think of as one giant point of conflict.  It’s still with us in a variety of ways.  Hopefully, today marks a new level of consciousness which will lead toward increasing resolution and greater collaboration between science and religion (including its political expression).

I can’t go into detail in a short blog post, but I want to feature another little-known scientist-theologian of the 20th Century to highlight the core of this conflict… one of “paradigms”.  (This term was popularized just around a half-century ago, mainly through Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and hardly needs defining now.)  The person is Alfred North Whitehead.  “Scientist” mainly as a mathematician of some notoriety, working with Bertrand Russell.  He understood well both Einstein’s relativity and budding “quantum mechanics” in his working days of the early to mid 20th Century, first in England and then the US.  But he turned to philosophy, having had a solid foundation in Christian theology in his youth.

220px-Alfred_North_Whitehead (2)

A. N. Whitehead, Father of Process Thought in British/American form

The result? “Process” philosophy and theology.  It’s too much to cover, here, even the basics of the approach, which I’ve done before on this blog.  For my purposes now, I’ll say that Whitehead has been that rare kind of intellectual who devoted himself to understanding and integrating data coming from all kinds of sources.  Here, I mean “data” as not just objective measures but information impressed upon us in what might be called “intuitive” ways and abstract thought experiments.

So you can see, in that statement, how he was addressing the gap that had developed, and bothered Whitehead perhaps more than most thinkers, between “objective” science and “subjective” religion (or even non-religious philosophy).  Objective had come to be valued much higher than subjective.  The subjective was rightly seen, though in a distorted manner, as ephemeral, flighty, undependable.  Also not “practical”.  The Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution had pushed us to prioritize the practical… material results.  Of course Christianity, by the 20th Century, had already begun its serious counter-attack, or at least self-defense.  This was basically “fundamentalism” and a doubling down on pre-scientific orthodoxy.

But science was certainly not slowed down much, if any.   So many Christians merely compartmentalized the findings and work of science separately from the beliefs and traditions of their religion (mostly Christian, in the West).  They particularly did so if they worked in science.  And a disproportionate number of scientists were or became atheists.

Now, shelves and shelves of books have been written on “science and religion” since the early days of Whitehead and a parallel track of “process” via the Catholic paleontologist-theologian, Teilhard de Chardin.  So why do I feature Whitehead and his accomplishments, built upon by many other philosophers and theologians?  Because his understanding of reality was applied particularly to one general line of Christian faith, akin to “old-line liberalism” and growing out of it primarily, yet differing from it significantly.

And that view, Process theology (in a single term), I would contend along with many of my Process friends, is a very “practical” one.  It happens also to be an inwardly satisfying and intellectually sturdy way to approach oneself and the world.  I should add “God” in as well, but I do it last because the way Whitehead and Process have understood God is a good distance from the traditional or dogmatically orthodox view.

And the “clincher”: that understanding of God-in-process, as a primarily relational being, not only allows for but elevates the importance of science and particularly the earth sciences, on this Earth Day and day of Marches of Science.

Christian History: Facing the Appalling

April 19, 2017

I’m much less “orthodox” or traditional in Christian belief than Christianity Today magazine, considering myself a simple Jesus-follower with more universal views.  So I seldom read something there I take real encouragement from.  But I just did!

I’m not familiar with the author, Andrew Wilson, but he’s British, so that may be part of the reason….  Even when relatively conservative, Brits tend to have a bit more nuanced and reasoned (?) view of the Bible and the Church than American Evangelicals.  It’s encouraging that Wilson is facing the implications of the many dark aspects of Church history and reflecting seriously on them.  He’s not justifying things inexcusable in any day and age. I don’t find that often among Christian authors and leaders.  Not as represented in Christianity Today, particularly.  And that resource is actually more moderate and thoughtful than a great deal of the American church world.

I won’t recount what Wilson says specifically in the article, titled “The Strange Encouragement of the Church’s Appalling History”.  I’ll stay with just the positive factor of his taking a serious and thoughtful look at Christian history without excusing or rationalizing atrocities committed in the name of God and under Church authority.  He notes the inconsistencies between “biblical principles” (my quotes) and the actions of even many beloved leaders who went along with conventions of the day such as slavery and other kinds of degradation and abuse.

He seems to be grappling, without spelling it out, with what may have been wrong with “orthodoxy” itself.  With aspects of theology that have been carried over to this day.  The ones that play into the human imperfections that get exaggerated particularly when people are “in power”. Kudos, Mr. Wilson! I hope your reflection keeps you open to continuing modifications of how you understand and express the “good news” of God and of Jesus.  And that it prompts others of a generally traditional view of God, the Bible, and the Christian Church to do the same.  In the process, I hope they realize orthodox beliefs only became orthodox gradually, have always been evolving and will continue to do so, hopefully at a picked-up pace.

For those who “fall off the log” on the other side… remaining ignorant or forgetting that Christian faith, through many church or other organizations, has prompted untold amounts of compassionate and wonderful things, I also have a word.  Wouldn’t it be proper to withhold negative opinions and comments about the dark side of Christian history until you have taken a serious look at the good as well?  If you still want, as I often do, to remind about the negatives, the failures, you may at least be more fair and place things in better context.

Easter Brings Discussions of Jesus Broader than Just Resurrection

April 15, 2017

Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.

My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations.  Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now.  I hope you take time to read some of them.  Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating on more than one level.  Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.  This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history.  And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.    

One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The GuardianAnother, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here.  They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them.  Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.

Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have).  There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else.  Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods.  Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.

I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making.  This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom.  It’s right that it should come up.  Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular.   And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.

My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”.  This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues.  I will say categorically,

It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it.  This is particularly true for “Christian America”.

The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.)  He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail.  It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory.  Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not.  So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.

But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area.  Too many to begin naming them here.  But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.).  This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.