Monthly Archives: December 2010

A Race Against Time Before Christmas

I have a stack of books on my wishlist for Christmas. Because of the way Amazon works, I can see that many of them have been bought for me. Unfortunately I have a stack of books I had pencilled in before Christmas too, and thanks to Zero1, I have some more to think about too.

So I’m on a reading rush.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying reading Dale Allison’s Constructing Jesus, a new historical Jesus work that attempts to take seriously recent psychological research on the memory. Its thesis, which I am very warm to, is that the way Historical Jesus work has been done to date (analysing individual statements of Jesus over multiple sources to track which are well enough attested to be likely original) is psychologically naive. Right at the start of the book Dale concludes that, if there is anything of Jesus at all in the writings of the early Jesus movement, it is in the broad brush strokes: Jesus was an exorcist, an apocalyptic preacher, a healer. The best thing about the book is that it makes explicit a kind of niggling dissatisfaction I had reading, say, Crossan’s Historical Jesus (though Crossan’s book is also a masterwork in its own terms).

I’m also reading Larry Hurtado‘s Lord Jesus Christ, an analysis of the development of Christology as a cultic phenomenon (i.e. how devotion to Jesus is practised in the earliest period of Christian history, as opposed to the development of the theology of Christ). This is currently more heavy going, and I’ve had several nights where I’ve fallen asleep without remembering much about what I’ve just read. But I’ve only just started this, so I’m sure I’ll get more into it when I begin to pick up his main thread (incidentally Dale Allison’s book is superb for that – he hits you with it in the introduction and keeps throttling the point for the 50% of the book I’ve read so far).

And today Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith arrived, the book of the 1984 british TV series where he explores and puts forward his vision for a non-realism in Christianity. He takes the process of demythologizing through to its logical conclusion and determines that God is a wholly constructed human artefact. But concludes that it is no less worthy of building a religion around for that. I suspect I’m going to agree heavily with this book and be frustrated at his conclusions in the end. But I am willing to be surprised!

I’ve also got Don Quixote, and Heart of Darkness (yet again) on the go on my kindle, a monograph relating to my old PhD topic to catch up with, and I need to read some Borges for work (no, really).

What are you reading at the moment?

Edit 2010-12-15 – Just edited ATTR’s comment: by default wordpress puts ‘nofollow’ in your comment links. I’ll manually edit this out for any suggestions here, so feel free to give your recommendations some link love! I’ll have to fish comments with more than 3 links out of the moderation queue, however, so give that time.

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Consider the Ravens — Luke 12:24

Think about ravens. They don’t sow or harvest, they have no store or barn, yet God feeds them. How much more valuable are you than birds!

— tr mine

The common raven (Corvus corax) can live for up to 40 years. They mate for life (though can be unfaithful), and reproduce from the age of 2-3, one time each year. In each brood they average around 5 offspring.

Imagine an initial population of 100 breeding ravens and assume 5 chicks per year per pair, and 3 years before reproduction. After 1 year there would be 350 ravens. In 2 years 600. In three there would be 850, and in 5 years 1,975. After 10 years there would be 21,974, and after 30 years 28,200,000. Clearly this doesn’t happen. Some ravens must die off sooner. How many? Well to keep a stable population of ravens, over 70% of all ravens must die every year.

Ravens have very few natural predators. A few are killed, a lot die of disease. But most die from starvation, despite spending the vast majority of their energy trying to secure food. The raven neither sows nor reaps, nor builds barns, but God most definitely does not feed them. He allows the majority of the population to starve to death every year.

Jesus (who made the statement I quote) knew none of this. It is a curious fact that even this simple arithmetic wasn’t noticed for centuries of civilization. It took until Malthus in 1798 to draw attention to the implications of this elementary school math.

Jesus seems to be saying that the ravens spend less energy and less concern for eating than we do. Yet they find enough food to eat (by God’s provision). In this he was dead wrong.

A literal approach to the bible isn’t just bad biology when it comes to evolution or the history of the natural world. If you think Jesus is right in this statement, you have to deny Malthus’s basic arithmetic too.

And if you don’t like your biblical inerrancy literal, but instead seek to find metaphoric truth, well I think you are still in trouble. Because as metaphoric as it is, it is a metaphor for the wrong thing. In fact, as a metaphor it works perfectly for my point of view. Because to consider the ravens is to understand that there is no God who will ensure your needs are met.

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Slut, Virgin, or Male

There are three important female characters in the gospels and early christian history. And the treatment of each speaks volumes about the systematic disenfranchisement of women in the church. Each has been abused in their own way, to transform them into a controllable stereotype.

Mary Magdelene. A key disciple and apostle. She is described in early christian texts as an apostle to the apostles. A favorite of Jesus, and a key member of his inner circle. Later she is increasingly marginalised and left to be only a footnote among the key disciples of Jesus. Most significantly she is sexually maligned, being associated with the woman caught in adultery, and then being identified as a prostitute. Both of which there is no evidence at all. Mary Magdelene is the epitomy of sexual sin and female danger. We can dismiss her as a slut, and all the implications of her apostleship can be sunk under the prurient fascination with her invented sex-life.

Mary the Mother of Jesus. The changes to Mary start early, as early as the gospels. By a fluke of bad translation in the Septuagint, she has to be portrayed as a virgin. But that isn’t enough. The church has to control her sexuality completely and retroactively. She is made a perpetual virgin, forever untainted by the sin of sexual desire and the stain of sexual encounter. If this were not true, if she were not so pure, why would God have chosen her? Robbed even of the motherhood of Jesus’s siblings, and forced onto a pedestal of sexual abstinence and denial of female sexuality, she is made the ideal for all good Christian women, even the married and mothers.

The Holy Spirit. In the beginning the holy spirit wasn’t intended to be a person, but in the fracas of theology in the early church, the coequal coexistent father and son seemed open to further extension. And in the process the ‘it’ of the Holy Spirit became a person. Some early churches and writings clearly understood the Holy Spirit as female. And grammatically that was true too. So the third member of the trinity, if interpreted as a person, would and should have been female. But a female in the Godhead? That didn’t last long. Not only was the Holy Spirit made a ‘he’, but the grammar was retroactively changed to make it male. If we interpret the female as male, then we can make progress. We can even do it with a nod and a wink and saying “well the male pronoun basically covers both genders” or “the Holy Spirit is neither male nor female, so we may as well call him he”.

These three twisted models of female participation in the Jesus movement, formed through the power of the men who shaped doctrine, have served to control and frame female participation ever since. Maybe some Christians can start again now, and build the church of women that could have been. Or maybe the whole edifice is so shot through that it is irredeemable.

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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

I’m just finishing up reading Philip Pullman’s fantasy on the historical Jesus. There’s some interesting stuff there, but currently I’m massively underwhelmed. I’m hoping he pulls it round in the ending though, so I won’t pass full judgement yet. This quote did jump out today, and I thought I’d share it with you.

The quote comes from Jesus, praying to God in Gethsemane. He realises that if Christ gets his way, a church will be founded, and that church will be a terrible thing. He prays:

Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That is should wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not like a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in the season, and in time, gives up its good sound wood for the carpenter; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that the new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say to the sparrow, “Get out, you don’t belong here?” Does the tree say to the hungry man, “This fruit is not for you?” Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?

Amen, Jesus.

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