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Review of a Radical Book — a Vision of Christian Action in Community

November 28, 2017

Don’t trip over the title. Counter-Imperial Churching for a Planetary Gospel is a very important book.  Author Timothy Murphy is aware that it is aimed at a relatively small audience.  But it’s an influential audience of progressive (and potentially other) church leaders and various thought leaders.

He repeatedly refers to the contents of the book as “this project”. The point seems to be that he is implementing the perspectives and practices he lays out and intends that others follow suit.  Many of his readers will be ministers and institutional leaders in progressive Christian circles generally and in Process theology circles more specifically.

I attended the same Process-oriented school of theology (Claremont) at which Murphy now teaches and am generally familiar with “Process” and what it tends to emphasize.  But he took me further and deeper.… I found his summarization of Process and the key points of some of its leaders clear and enlightening. (Not light reading but worth one’s effort.) It also lays an important foundation for his development of a “radical political theology”. He does a great job with a set of concepts simple in the end but challenging to explain in non-technical terms. (He does use some in-house Whitehead terms, but in a way that most educated lay people I think can follow, especially given his care with explanations.)

This aspect alone makes the book worth reading for those wondering what Process thought is and why it matters.  That is, if they come with some foundation in related areas such as theology, political theory, systems analysis, etc. Lacking this, I expect most would bog down and miss much of the real value in this work, value that is “real world”, not just theoretical.  Because of this, I’ll take the space to give some substance here, in order to deliver some of the value to lay readers.

Now, what does the difficult-to-remember title mean? It’s a very thought-out one, each term deeply developed in the book.  “Counter-imperial” expresses Murphy’s stance that God’s call, modeled in Jesus particularly, is to operate on another level from, and often in opposition to the typically oppressive and violent nature of systems controlling the world, often denoted as “Empire”.  “Systems” indicates that, while specific people need to be held to account for their actions, the problem is much deeper.  It includes their operating context, institutions, power dynamics, etc.  All of this is covered thoroughly in the book.

“Churching” clearly changes the noun, “church”, or “The Church” (as a theoretically universal entity) into a verb… something followers of Jesus (or others) do.  Murphy’s concept of churching is broad enough that an explicit tie to Jesus is not actually necessary although his concern is churching within Christian communities and individuals.

This churching activity is part of proclamation of a gospel for our planet.  Unlike the Evangelical mission, teaching about Jesus, assertions on things like his divine (or human) nature or concerns for our personal afterlife destiny (salvation) are not forefront.  They take only a background role.

Murphy also reminds us that “global” is a less concrete and Earth-and-life involved term, so he prefers “planetary.” And, rather than being only a broadly general concept, the “… gospel offers good news to the situations we find ourselves in”. (p. 185).  In the same concluding section, as throughout the book, he specifies what we may properly call “Christian” in it: “… the good news that Jesus brings or reveals.” This good news, in Murphy’s context, is all about this life, with no speculation on the nature of the next or connection of this life to the next beyond the idea of continuation of consciousness (or “eternal life”, as we often term it, in some form).

In good beyond-postmodern fashion (what might also be called “Integral”), Murphy locates himself in terms of both his views and his institutional affiliations (Disciples of Christ/Christian Church, United Church of Christ, recently the interdenominational Progressive Christians Uniting, and several other church involvements in addition to teaching at Claremont School of Theology).

In the preface, Murphy says he writes “particularly for those who like myself desire to hold together as inseparable both spirituality and social commitments. They are not merely two things that are held in tension or as a paradox.  Rather, they are inextricably bound together.”  He further explains this is why he often compares and contrasts authors who “… sometimes… would not be interested in each other’s projects. Yet somehow there is the sense that these thinkers need each other, that what they are saying is connected so thoroughly, even though they offer differing insights”. (p. v).  I applaud this appeal to cross-pollination, including across academic disciplines (little seen anymore).

This inter-connecting Murphy does is one of the values of the book.  Should one want to explore any of several innovative scholars on issues related to his themes, he gives helpful summaries and many endnotes.  He points out both what he likes and finds helpful and what he doesn’t, with a sense of fairness and appreciation…. After all, one of his key themes is listening to and appreciating differences.

In fact, the third chapter, following a meaty Introduction and “Proclaiming the Planetary Gospel” (Ch. 2, touched on above) is “Practicing Differentiated Solidarity”.  This scholar-speak means basically that we can and should stand in solidarity with others who have significant differences from us. The search for common ground is important but not at the expense of recognizing and respecting differences.  Often common goals (such as fostering counter-imperial communities) can be approached from very different starting points and with different methods. Not knowing or grasping context is often the key to why we so often fail to move in solidarity with others, including other Christians.  When it comes to “churching”, Murphy repeatedly emphasizes that there is no general or universal pattern for how it should look.  Churching is localized, in widely varying contexts, while it also reaches out to new and different contexts.

In this chapter, Murphy describes the work of Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-lan, who develop the similar concept of “deep solidarity”.  He says the term “differentiated solidarity” was “coined by the feminist political theorist Iris Marion Young” though utilized a bit differently.  As to Rieger and Kwok, it “includes yet also transcends their economic model.” (p. 69).  He remarks that they “primarily focus on the class solidarity of the 99%” and his use of the term “… extends beyond that context to wherever one sees and is moved by oppressive actions (which quite often include class dynamics)”. (p. 70).  A key point of Counter-Imperial Churching regarding these two and related appeals for broad, inclusive solidarity is this: the mutual interest of all…. We are all interconnected, in more ways and more powerfully than we tend to realize.

The first three chapters have covered two of Murphy’s three-point outline of the activity of churching: kerygma (proclamation) and koinonia (fellowship).  Chapter four comes to diakonia (service), titled “Political Influences in the Struggle for (and Struggles of) a Radical Ecclesiology”.  For readers unfamiliar with churchy lingo, “radical ecclesiology” is the concept of being (or doing) “the church” truly at the root of things.  It’s thinking and acting on the most basic of the attitude-and-action-oriented teachings of Jesus.

Here are a few bullet points from this crucial and potentially most controversial chapter of the book:

  • “Mainline” Christian liberalism should more thoroughly critique itself, expand its consciousness. It is still too enmeshed with the blinded nationalism of civil religion. (However, I might add, less so than the “religious right”.)
  • A “grassroots democracy of direct participation” is possible.
  • It’s possible because “… the multitude [potentially everyone] can become a force of counter-globalization that avoids Empire’s controlling functions”. (p. 97).

The book is basically about how Jesus-followers, especially in groups locally or regionally, can and must lead this force.  God is behind and within it but is not restricted to the efforts of these people, who mostly self-identify as Christians.

At the same time, Murphy is very specific in educating readers.  He wants us to see how systems of oppression are set up and operate; how political (governing) processes are a part of but not the totality of injustices; how movements must be more self-aware and sophisticated for broad effectiveness.  In these important details, he is addressing mainly thought leaders who often are activists as well, or certainly can influence “the multitude” of activists.  The book is mainly one of scholarship (vs. popularization) in terms of this.  In this vein is also his coverage of many other thinkers and approaches to “counter-imperial” action for the good of humanity.

As to the service aspect of churching, the counter-imperial approach “… requires being able to say boldly who you are and show how you are confronting the systems that ignore people’s value.  Otherwise, you are functionally irrelevant, both to your context in American society and to the planetary gospel that needs proclaiming in your setting”. (p. 115).

Note that this goes beyond the also-important service of meeting immediate needs and supporting hurting or marginalized people.  Is it controversial and dangerous in some sense? Murphy implies “Yes” throughout the book.  And is rocking the boat with “political theology” needed? Yes, because “… there can be no clear division between the secular and the religious, as they are co-constituted in their very constructions”. (p. 115).

In the sixth chapter, Murphy tackles the vast subject of approaches to ecclesiology (or “The Church”) as they contrast with or contribute to his own vision and what he seeks to promote among Christians concerned with good news for the whole planet.  He deals mostly with three theologians: Jürgen Moltmann, Marjorie Suchocki, and Marcella Althaus-Reid.

While departing from the highly influential Moltmann, Murphy affirms Moltmann’s purpose of encouraging “… moves away from large organizations to small-scale communities… [with] a shift from church as ‘religious institution’ that cares for people into more of a real community in, through, and with people”. (p. 118). Murphy critiques the tendency of Moltmann, typical of most orthodox views of the Christian church, to reassert “… too quickly… a universal unity at the expense of particular expressions of the good news”. (p. 120). The idea is that a planetary gospel is essentially the collection of many, many localized efforts and communities.  It is not a single message or movement spread throughout the world.

As to the work of process feminist theologian, Suchocki, Murphy is basically in agreement and support.  The process foundation of forward-focus and becoming, with the impetus of a God of true love (uncontrolling being a crucial feature), he sees as vital.  His main critique is Suchocki’s willingness to leave it to others (such as himself and many local act-ers) to be specific in reforming church traditions and institutions in needed directions.

One of these directions, for Murphy, is to stop being so concerned to be “decent” (or supportive of the status quo). He likes Althaus-Reid’s (who is Argentinian and female) steps toward what is often considered “indecent”, particularly in sexual identity and sexual ethics. Not an “anything goes” approach but rather one that removes boundaries for inclusion and supports the struggles of the marginalized, including those marginalized for the nature of their sexuality and its expression.  For example, he quotes her saying that her “particular” (vs. universal) church “… is constituted by ‘Queer dissidents in search of paths of holiness through social practices of justice in sexual, religious and political areas of their lives’.” (p. 153, footnote 166).

The last chapter is “Living Out a Counter-Imperial Ecclesiology”. How does one, with one’s faith community, go about this churching thing? Even here there is substantial material.  One aspect may be useful to younger or somewhat evangelically-leaning readers: Murphy’s comparison of his concepts to the nature of the emerging church movement (ECM). He says of his approach, “Like the ECM, it challenges the use of traditional religious space and time. It seeks active participation among worship attendants, such as the use of prayer stations. It is more decentralized than pastor-driven churches and is open to forms of postmodern philosophy…” and self-emptying thinking (p. 160). However, on the movement’s shortcomings, he says “it misses its privileged place in globalizing”. (p. 160). It is privileged places of class, wealth, etc., and their support of oppressive systems which are particularly attended to in Murphy’s churching model, whether the support is knowing or unknowing.

One could say the book includes a call to become more informed, more world-aware.  As he says in New Testament fashion, “we are in the System, but not of the System”. (p. 161). Historically, Christians and Christian institutions have usually bowed to or even imitated systems of the world rather than stood against them.  In this final chapter, Murphy emphasizes again how counter-imperial churching is not just against Empire and its evils… it is locally and practically proactive.  One example he cites is Urban Mission in Pomona, California. Only one of its centers is for worship. It went about assessing “… the spiritual, physical, and social needs of the primarily working-class Latino community in which it found itself.… With multiple bi-vocational ministers, one focuses on healthy eating and ecological living, while another specializes in ministries of re-entry and restoration for the formerly incarcerated, and another leads engagement with the real needs of the community.” (p. 174).

I found this defining statement particularly cogent: “Churching is not a refuge for the lost, a place for private solace, or a community of the saved separated from the remainder of the world.  It is a means by which divine values and desires are reflected and revealed for the world”. (p. 177).

Note: Thanks to Process Century Press for kindly providing me a copy for review. This has not influenced my thoughts regarding the book.  


Hobby of Artifacts Runs Amok… Due to Childish Faith

July 7, 2017

In case you’ve not heard the recent news on stolen and smuggled ancient artifacts here it is: Hobby Lobby and its CEO, Steven Green, have just reached a settlement over having purchased ancient Iraqi artifacts outside of proper credentialing and against warnings. The big “whoops” involves about 5,500 artifacts such as cuneiform tablets and similar objects, according to Newsweek, NPR and other news sources.

Per the settlement with the US Dept. of Justice, Hobby Lobby will pay a $3 million fine and forfeit the artifacts, which will be returned to Iraq.  Why the Green family would want so many of this kind of artifact was news to me… or that they were even in such a collecting business! The situation is this….

The Greens, according to reports, have put 500 to 800 million dollars into building a vast Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC.  I’m posting this, for timeliness, without doing much research into this project.  But I’ll venture a couple educated guesses on what this is about.

First, the Bible is part of an extremely powerful mythology under-girding the development of Western culture.  This began to change about 3 centuries ago with the Enlightenment.  However, the Bible, and certain interpretations of it, are still consciously foundational for a large portion of particularly the American populace.  Of course, below most of our consciousness, the Bible and “Judeo-Christian heritage” is indeed the foundation of much of our law, culture, etc., even as their direct influence has waned.

But the changes begun in earnest in the 18th century, both outside and within Christianity, are still what drives efforts like a fundamentalist Museum of the Bible.  “The Bible is under attack”! (Well, in one sense, yes… all the way back to its inception, but particularly in the modern/postmodern era.)  Of course the broader concern is that “Christianity is under attack”.  (Well, certain forms of it, yes.) But its existence is far from threatened.

And I’d bet my genuine page of the first edition of the King James Bible (1611, KJV) that it is actually the subcultural values and beliefs of fundamentalists that they most seek to defend.  It’s an entire view of life, culture, history and the world that they think is “under attack” and needs defending.  And what better than a “rational”, quasi-educational “infotainment” center (museum) to do it?

With this you can not only attract big crowds but also weave a selective story “proving” the historicity (and authority) of the Bible and the events it records.  

I see it akin to two other endeavors: First, the Creation Museum in Kentucky, founded by creationist Ken Ham. It’s also large and splashy and seeks to present the (very short, under 10,000 year) history of humanity under God’s direction.  Second, The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  They present aspects of culture mixed with religion in an appealing way which creates a veneer of being “mainstream”.

Without knowing much about the Museum of the Bible, I’d venture to say it will aim to appear very scholarly and to tell a story of and about the Bible that is at least superficially believable.  Particularly to the faithful.  But it may pull in others with little background or discernment with which to evaluate their claims.

Why the drive to obtain rare and valuable ancient artifacts, even if not directly related to the Bible or its creation? One answer would be to raise interest for people to come see the museum along with some cool story-telling inside it.

Unfortunately, it’s quite telling (in a not-so-spiritual story) that in reaching a large settlement including a fine, the collectors are tacitly admitting they breached their own supposed ethical standards in their zeal.  Worse yet, purchases of black market antiquities from the Middle East have been shown to sometimes fund the work of terrorists, whether or not this is known to buyers.

Evangelicals Can Yet “Correct” their Votes for Trump

July 1, 2017

No, Trump’s voters don’t need to wait until 2020 to effectively “undo” their misguided votes. All they need to do is look more closely at what is happening and make it clear they are no longer in support of him.

I’m actually calling on them to do this, and in visible ways.  Mr. Trump has had more than the chance many of his supporters wanted to give him to prove he has the qualities, especially the temperament, to be President.  He’s proven over and over that he cannot or will not modify his most immature and immoral behaviors — behaviors that Evangelicals, along with most Americans, clearly find unacceptable.  They are often repulsive under any kind of religious or moral standard.

I realize that powerful opposition to Hillary Clinton (often driven by misinformation) was a key factor in much of Evangelicals’ support for Trump.  Now that’s out of the way.  If Trump should leave by either resignation or being legally forced from office, they’d get Mike Pence as President.  I can’t see a downside for Evangelicals in this.  Pence actually is and lives as an Evangelical, while Trump clearly does not.  Pence’s support for Evangelical’s freedoms and causes would be no less than Trump’s, and probably greater.

Maybe Evangelical delusions are about effectiveness.  Perhaps they still, after 5+ months of evidence to the contrary, think Trump is able to “get things done” that they want or they think will improve their lives.  I suppose he might continue issuing executive orders toward that end, but often on things that go against Evangelicals’ stated principles: respect, compassion, care for the needy (and not necessarily via government programs), etc.

Natural human reactions play in to people’s resistance to facing reality, no doubt.   For example, reluctance to admit having been wrong.  But so much is in peril that is important to Evangelicals as well as the majority of Americans, that people need to look beyond their own egos and rise above this!    

My purpose here is not to build the case about the dangers of a continued Trump presidency.  That is easy to find in great depth elsewhere.  If Evangelicals would “buck up”, as many of us who have been one of them in prior years are urging, they can find plenty of solid arguments and data to support their switch.  And reversing themselves may help clear their consciences!  I think there is little doubt it would bring them into greater consistency with their beliefs and practices.

Now, a brief explanation of why I’m spending time even writing what might seem a futile message, hoping it will get to at least a few Evangelical (or other conservative) voters. (Will you help by sending a link and recommending this article?)

First, I do believe that Trump continuing as President is seriously damaging in a number of ways, even if no new crises emerge to threaten even worse things.  So, although I’d not like the policy direction of a President Pence, he would almost certainly be some improvement.

Second, I believe it would be much better for Trump to be pressured into resignation by serious erosion of support from Republicans, particularly in Congress, than to be legally removed by impeachment or use of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.

Going one step further back… what will prompt key Republicans to end their troubled support for Trump? Loss of support for Trump among Trump’s base back home in their districts and states! Most of that support overlaps with their own support.  Also, if they do take representing their regions seriously and those are well over half opposed to Trump’s continuation as President, they may do their job of representation.  Let’s assume they would, though it is indeed an assumption.

Now, numbers, including in levels of support or opposition are highly symbolic.  Trump support is, amazingly to me, still in the mid-to-upper 30s range.  We make a big deal out of round numbers, especially by the 10s.  So Trump’s “approval” ratings are just a few points from the big three-o.  That could be the tipping point level of support.  Or maybe it would have to get down to 25.  But somewhere around there, things would get moving more toward Trump being pressured out or removed.  We’re not that far away!

Let me make clear that I do not think that the inevitable tensions over his leaving office, one way or another, would be easily dealt with and overcome.  And again, I’m definitely not eager to see Mr. Pence become President (or Speaker Ryan if they happened to both leave together for some reason).   But I think we now have plenty of evidence that Trump continuing indefinitely in office for even just 4 years is worse.  And it is people of good will and moral/ethical concerns (or also Christian ones) who supported Trump in the past who can tip the scales toward righting our seriously listing “ship of state”. 


A 50-year Reflection on a “Life of The Mind”

June 25, 2017

Here is a reflection on the development of my mental life after high school, shared with my classmates at our 50-year reunion from our June, 1967 graduation.

There are a couple insider references which I’m purposely leaving in.

Memory is a wonderful thing.  Isn’t it why we do class reunions? Now, it can distort as well as re-call our experiences, or those of our families and communities.  With this in mind, I offer some recollections of how my life has unfolded… in one particular aspect we all have shared in attending school together, being friends, discussing things.  Not thinking of a better term, I’ll call it “the life of the mind”.

To set the life of my mind in broader context, I’ve always sought balance and been blessed in many regards… the gift of family and friends, good health, travel, and much more.  Just that much said, for brevity, I’ll go on to the development of my thinking since leaving ROCHS.  (You all remember the OC for overcrowded, right?)

It may not surprise you that I get real joy from intellectual activity, from the ever-expanding spiral of curiosity, to exploration, to new insights… and back to curiosity, and so on.  But it wasn’t really so up to and through high school.  Sure, I did what was required so I’d get good grades, but I certainly wasn’t very “into it”.  I much preferred hunting, hiking, fishing or even “running the circus” (as my baseball-playing friends called track) over doing homework! And classes? Mostly a necessary evil back then.

I still wasn’t much into formal studies my first year or 2 into college.  I certainly didn’t let studies get in the way of my education! No way you could call me a serious student.  But I clearly recall, in those years, how a light bulb seemed to turn on.

I was reading a bit on the side and a particular Christian thinker wrote some books that got me seeing the interconnection of the various subject areas we all study in school, even if we don’t go on to college, but especially if we do.

That greatly piqued my overall interest in education… for myself, and as a process I could use to impact others.  The budding insight which has grown and grown over the years is that everything affects everything else.  Everything is interconnected… In more ways than we can ever see or know.  But the more we do know and see it, the wiser and more adaptable we are.

As I began to look deeper for the many connecting points within human knowledge… history, math, science, religion, psychology, the arts, etc., “book learning” finally grabbed me.  I started paying attention to the work of various great thinkers and lines of thought.  Now history began to seem meaningful.  It didn’t take a Steve Richardson approach to make me pay attention to it.

At this stage, by the latter part of college, I developed a dual love and a dual specialization: psychology and theology.  Or you might say science and religion, in which I see harmony on a deeper level.  I went on to three years of seminary.  After this I was still loving the learning but puzzling on how to apply it in a career.  That took a little longer, and more study of psychology, before I entered a 10-year counseling career.

With counseling came strong interest in the growth process.  That’s the 2nd insight area I’ll leave you with, tied to the first of things being interconnected… from our deepest pain to the awesome mystery and joys of life.  Among the important things I’ve learned is that some attention to our “life of the mind” is vital, whether we are scholarly or not! Of course, we can’t just study our way to rounded growth.

But, on the other hand, growth is limited if we do not grow in our understanding of ourselves, others and the world around us.  Healthy growth involves expanding our circles of compassion as our understanding grows.

We have family.  We have “tribe” in one form or another. Then there are other circles, further out from us, in which compassion may come less easily.

If we are Christian, Jewish, etc., or merely humanitarian, we feel the call to care for the “stranger among us”.  But there may be competition, threatening to undo this! This is an example in which actively engaging the mind, looking beyond our immediate circle and interests, can help solve the inner and outer tensions.  We’re called on to gather information, purposely look at the larger picture as well as the specific people we may touch, whether in compassion or in rejection.

In this process, we may be intellectually as well as emotionally stretched.  It isn’t always easy but I’m here to remind you that some of the discoveries, the shifts most of us make, can bring real satisfaction… a sense of being here for a reason.  At least that’s how it’s been for me in my 50-year process since high school.

Jesus, Trump and The Paris Climate Accord

June 2, 2017

For those who follow Jesus in one manner or another, did he say anything about climate change? Well, maybe…

Ever heard (or maybe sung, as a kid) “The wise man built his house upon the rock…”? When the flood hits, this man’s house stands.  The foolish man’s, built on sand (Mt. 7:26), cannot withstand the flood. Of course this is a simile.  Jesus’ says the wise builder is like the one who hears and does what Jesus says, not just hears but doesn’t act.

So this saying had nothing to do with weather, really… let alone climate over an extended period.  But the call to hear and act accordingly does apply to our current climate situation.  

And what is our Foolish-Man-in-Chief doing? He just took another step in building on sand… disavowal of the Paris Climate Accord.  Not that this, in itself, will necessarily mean a lot in practical terms.  But it is consistent with both rhetoric and policy that will make real differences… and it’s not houses or even the American economy at stake, but the welfare of the entire planet.  

He and fellow Republicans are rightly concerned about leaving a massive national debt to our kids and grandkids. But will that even come into play if the planet is barely hospitable and adequate food production unsustainable?

Even Trump implies, if he seldom states directly, that he accepts a human involvement in climate change. So my Trump-supporting friends (and some readers here?) might appeal to the obvious: We don’t know exactly how much we are affecting the climate or that it will necessarily lead to catastrophe.  But so what if we don’t? What is the “wise builder” approach vs. that of the “foolish builder”?    

And what words of Jesus should we be acting upon that relate to climate (and other environmental) challenges? I imagine you can think of others, but a critical principle he pounded upon, in saying after saying, parable after parable, was this: Act in the interest of others around you; sustain the foreigner and stranger. Be kind and cooperative (and only resist when the evil is clear and harming others).  Where is the message of competition? Encouragement to beat others out, to be “great again?” (Wasn’t there something in there about the one who is greatest will be least, and vice-versa?)

Sure, Jesus gave hints of supporting capitalism. I’d not say his message or his vision of the “Kingdom of God”, in earthly expression, was what we think of as socialism.  But it clearly was not about dominating or seeking to gain an advantage over others.  Just the opposite! 

O.k… some of you are probably thinking, “That was about personal behavior, not between nations”.  Don’t be too hasty! What can you base that on? Why should it not extend out to an international scale?

I like the approach of French President, Macron, much better than that of Trump, whose rationale for withdrawal from the Paris agreement was “Make America great again”.  Macron’s: “Make our planet great again”. Win together, not “We’ve been unfairly treated… we need a better deal…” The planet approach seems to follow the spirit of Jesus a lot closer.  What do you think?

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.  So 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, in his telling! 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 the continuity of Judaism and Christianity.

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).  That it would be 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?