Getting Down Funky with Religion in America: A Clarification

Things have gotten so crazy around here, with all the religious posturing and fundamental extremist stuff that I think it’s high time we had a “Come to Jesus” moment to clarify what religion is and isn’t. Maybe we can affect an overhaul of the whole design. I mean, with my background in observation and getting old, I can set the whole thing straight. Give me a chance.

Clarifying The Old Testament
Part 1: Before there were Jews

When I was a kid, I watched my grandfather nod off time and again while reading the Old Testament. I thought it was because he was old and tired, but later I realized that it truly is a deeply boring book, like a double dose of Nyquil. No one can read it for more than a few minutes at a time without drifting into stage three. It’s just not good writing, and the plot, oh my god. In modern times it wouldn’t survive the editor’s pen, and it would never find a publisher. It’s proof that a bestseller doesn’t require good writing.

So let me summarize it for you, and let me apologize ahead of time if I use offensive language. To some of you it might sound anti-Semitic, but let me stress that there are many places in this text where God himself appears anti-Semitic. But I’m not, and he’s not. He’s like your angry dad–he’s not against you, he’s just drunk. Later, he’s always sorry.

I’m also not anti-Egyptian. But that Pharaoh story, I mean, what a simpleton. This was their ruler? On the other hand, Donald Trump as President of the United States?

The Old Testament is a historic record, in a sense, but it’s also a story that’s supposed to teach people to be better or something. It is the rambling, disconnected story of the Hebrews, or Jews, a small tribe that rose to prominence by heeding God’s laws, slid into disfavor by committing the most god-awful sins, like marrying outside of their tribe, and made amends by discarding those wives and slaughtering enormous numbers of cattle and rams and sheep as burnt offerings to produce a “sweet savour” for God’s nostrils. God’s nose is obviously different from mine. Have you smelled burning hair? Then they came back into God’s grace and rebuilt Jerusalem as a walled city, then blew out again by buying food on the Sabbath and committing other outrages, and finally found themselves dispersed among the hundreds of “lands” that surrounded them. But they were trying. I know, I’m leaving out some details. This is a broad brush version. The point is, they were trying. Keep going.

God started the whole thing back in about 4000 BC, but, of course, they didn’t know about BC, so, for them, it was year one, I guess. They weren’t Jews yet, just regular folks, but about two thousand years later God chose Abraham, and he was the father of the Jews. So the first two thousand years was mostly just false starts and frustrations. In about 430 BC, the Jews almost met extinction at the hands of Ahasuerus, who ruled over everything from India to Ethiopia, and who, in a fit of anti-Semitic rage, decided to have all the Jews killed. “Just… kill ’em all,” he said in some tongue or another. But he soon discovered that Esther, his chosen queen, was a Jew! Holy Jehovah! Wait, everybody! STOP! He put the brakes on the slaughter and instead, in a lovesick fit of pique and history’s greatest one-eighty, he gave the Jews permission to slaughter anyone who didn’t like them. Imagine it! Some guy is about to hack off your Jewish head, and then he gets the king’s note and sheepishly hands the sword over to you to gleefully hack his head off. So he’s suddenly a Jew! Anyway, that’s what it says. Thank you, Esther! The lesson here is that when you decide to slaughter some clan or another, check out your wife first.

But I’ve gotten way ahead of the story. Back up three thousand six hundred years. We all know how the Old Testament starts, with Adam and Eve in the Garden, and, shortly, the massive flood that killed everybody off so God could start over, and then he confused everybody’s tongues at the Tower of Babel. You know? But I rarely run into anyone who knows how it ends. I’m not sure I understand it either, but somehow at the end of Kings and Chronicles and the Prophets, the Jews found themselves dispersed into the lands of wicked peoples of all kinds and just couldn’t seem to get back to Jerusalem. They didn’t even seem to want to. It just petered out. Once, when they rebuilt the city and got everything right by God’s Law, it barely lasted past the dedication ceremony. Tribal leaders immediately started embezzling and abusing their inferiors, and down it all went, just like every other culture in history. Nothing has changed. If you write a book like that, where it just winds down and poops out without a climax or a resolution, don’t expect to get it past an agent. I mean, story arc, people! How did this thing get into print?

Anyway, now the Jews really do want to come back to Jerusalem. But, again, I’m way ahead of the story.

Part 2: Noah and the Tower of Babel

Early on, when everything went south, God got really pissed off and almost gave up on mankind entirely. Luckily, there was one man who was still worth keeping, so God’s rage was blunted enough that he decided to destroy everything except that one man—and his wife and kids, by extension. Noah. You’ve heard all about that.

Now, if I were God, I’d have picked up Noah’s family and set them on a cloud with married couples of all the species of living things on the planet and then flushed the snot out of the earth in a toilet until nothing was left but dead fish, then set them back down at their waterlogged, moldy house again. But God, being smarter, made Noah build his own boat and round up the animals by himself. The ark. Then he used rain. Lots of rain. And that explains why there are fossils at 18,000 feet in the Andes.

There is an unfortunate but significant disconnect after the flood. Noah apparently had three sons. Their names were Shem, Japheth, Ham, and Yam. Or Yam might have been Canaan. I’m not sure why we have four names for the three sons, but that’s how it is, and we don’t need to question it. All the world’s peoples came from these three sons.

Now, I’m not sure how it worked, but within about a hundred years of the flood, the earth teemed with people. Whole nations had developed. I don’t see how this was possible, but, again, questioning these matters is not helpful. Somehow, those three sons had enormous numbers of children. Probably thousands each. And their kids, similarly, had vast litters.

Now, within a hundred years, these vast populations, being just as stupid and savage as their ancestors, began building a gargantuan tower that would reach to Heaven, where God lived. Clearly, this was a dumb idea. What did they think they were going to do, wandering into Heaven uninvited?

They called this tower The Tower. But when God measured their audacity, he was so shaken that he decided to confuse their tongues, so when they spoke, they couldn’t understand each other. They just babbled. So they changed The Tower’s name to The Tower of Babbling in Perplexing Tongues, later shortened to The Tower of Babel, being unable to spell correctly with their confused tongues. I don’t think they ever got high enough to get into Heaven, but some of them appear to have gotten high.

Part 3: Abraham, Father of the Jews

And then along came Abram, who changed his name to Abraham. By the time of Abraham, the tribe is portrayed as being led by a god who, in spite of a longstanding anger management problem, favored them over all other tribes because they were the only ones who would listen and learn. Listen and learn, people. The Philistines, by contrast, were deaf as a rock, and speaking of hearts like rocks, they were it. You know what I mean. I’m sure there were some good Philistines, but it didn’t get recorded. I have nothing against Philistines, though. Are they still around? I think I remember a couple Philistines among my graduating class.

Of course, the Jews wrote these stories about themselves, so it’s not very objective. Their biggest problem was that they didn’t seem to have a home. Everybody needs a home. But right off the bat, God sent them to a land that they could have—for free!—as long as they kept the Laws. And the journey began.

Here’s how it worked. When they were good, that is, when they followed God’s laws and commandments, the tribe expanded into neighboring kingdoms, conquering and exploiting, always attributing their successes to God’s guidance. As the text says, “God delivered their enemies into their hands.” At those times, God wanted them to be the dominant force on the planet. But when they were bad, “God delivered them unto the hands of their enemies,” and they were captured and lived among the heathens. Then they got stuck in Egypt with an idiot Pharaoh who couldn’t be convinced of Yahweh’s power even when he rained frogs on their heads, but they got led out of bondage by Moses and Aaron into a land of milk and honey and many tribes that they had to smite. “And we utterly destroyed them, as we did unto Sihon king of Heshbon, utterly destroying every city, the men, and the women, and the little ones.” (Deuteronomy 3:6, if you ever wondered what became of Heshbon). Looking at the broad sweep of history, they tried real hard to get it right, destroying everyone God told them to destroy, but it all ended with the old diaspora fizzle-out. It just wasn’t successful.

But stupid plot aside, look at how amazing these people were. No tribe except the Jews kept a running tally of their victories and losses, complete with endless genealogies and tables of rules and principles. The Babylonians and Egyptians made a good go of it, at least in terms of ruling over everybody else. They thought God was leading them, too, and they kept track of the kings’ lineages. And when you think about it, can you seriously compare a dreidel to a pyramid? But the crucial difference was, the Jews never worshipped their own kings or patriarchs. Even King David would not have been confused with God. They knew better, because Moses had reported that God lives in burning bushwood and doesn’t burn up, which, you’ll have to admit, is really out there. But the Pharaohs were worshipped as gods, and they even worshipped themselves as God. Talk about a mindfuck. Couldn’t they tell the difference? I mean, once you’ve mistaken yourself for God, it’s pretty much all downhill from there, isn’t it? We have hospitals for that. And their scriptures were all written in hieroglyphs on stone, which no one could read. Hebrew, at least, was a language. Those hieroglyphs were so boring that the Rosetta Stone, which was the instruction manual for decoding them, was lost—and not even missed—for seventeen hundred years. That, in itself, is proof that the Egyptian Pharaohs were not God. Plus, they’re stinking mummies. So in terms of the deity, the Jews were miles ahead of the Egyptians. But, make no mistake, I still like the Egyptians, too.

Part 4: The Prophets

In Jewish lore, when their rulers trespassed one or more of the commandments, God sent prophets to them to tell them how disappointed he was. The prophet was then beaten or abused or even beheaded until his prophecy caught up with the miscreant king and exposed him as failure in the eyes of God, at which point he wept bitterly. Letting God down is a scary proposition, as angry as he seems to have been most of the time. They’d better be weeping. Some of the prophets, like Daniel, were actually thrown into a furnace before the king realized that he should be weeping. But it’s hard to burn a guy who’s in favor with the Lord, as Nebuchadnezzar discovered. Since God sits in flaming bushwood and doesn’t burn up, water-boarding might have been a better torture.

Noah’s success at ark-building aside, when God had to rely on his earthlings to get things done, it wasn’t usually a happy experience. King David was a dancer. That was nice. I wish he could have been on “Dancing with the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance.” David’s dancing was probably better than God’s early efforts with people. And as later nations tried to apply the Old Testament’s message, they usually just sank to the level of miserable savages. As a kid, I often wondered why, if God were omniscient, didn’t he know ahead of time that this approach wouldn’t work? When you reward people for killing, why would they come back to you all warm and fuzzy? I mean, war is tough. And we didn’t invent PTSD. I’ll bet a lot of those early warriors came home pretty screwed up. It seems like a crude method of producing a faithful tribe. My dad, devoutly evangelical, agreed that God was omniscient and that he certainly knew the whole story before he began. But there was no better way to do it. The Jews were the only ones who would listen. That’s why he chose them. Duh. “Why are you always questioning this?” he asked me. “Isn’t it obvious that the Philistines wouldn’t listen? LISTEN!”

Part 5: Loneliness and longevity

But remember that all this happened because God was lonesome. If modern astronomers’ estimates are close, God spent over fourteen billion years all by himself, shepherding his myriad worlds, waiting for something besides an echo to return his speech. But nothing did it for him, I guess, so he eventually felt bereft among his stars. So God created man, as if this lowly mongrel scavenger would somehow answer his need for closeness and comfort. Really? And then he created woman, man’s helpmeet, as the King James has it. Helpmeet? Imagine that at the company party. “Say, Milt, have you met Eve, mine helpmeet?”

On the other hand, don’t forget that man had one thing no other creature had. A huge brain. That was God’s ace in the hole. Gray matter. With that massive organ full of wet circuits in his head, surely man would learn, given time, to reflect upon himself and his origin, get over his PTSD, treat his helpmeet with respect, and turn of his own free will to honor his creator and pledge to serve him. Or at least keep him company. God probably doesn’t need of lot of services. But that loneliness problem might be addressed with anything that could talk and sing. Or dance. So why did he make humans so belligerent? Why not work with pandas?

Early on, people lived long lives—several hundred years, at least for the gentlemen. We don’t know about the women, although if they outlived their male counterparts like they do today, some of them might still be alive. Methuselah lived to be 969 years old, although it is hard to imagine how he kept track of his birthday for that long. I’m barely seventy, and I’m already a little uncertain, even on a good day, how old I am. On a bad day, I’m not even sure I was born in this century. So, 969? I don’t know. And yet, wouldn’t you round it to 970? Or “nearly a thousand?” So someone must have been making marks on a tree—or, wait a minute—on a rock or something. I’d like to be the archaeologist who unearths the rock with 969 ancient tick-marks on it. I’m sure it’s down there somewhere.

But that’s not important. It’s just that living that long should have given the guy a platform for a hell of a speech about how to stay alive. But as far as we know, he was a dullard, not logging a single experience for others to learn from. Except his birthday and that stone, somewhere under the ruins.

Anyway, the point was that these extremely long lived earthly creatures and their helpmeets were being asked to come home to their creator by their own free will. Commanding them to come to him was a joke. What’s the point of that? It’s like creating a robot that would act like a dog, and programming it to come and lick your face when you called it. You’d get tired of that right away. You might even get a rash. Wouldn’t a real dog be better, something that could fetch a stick or swim out into the lake for dead ducks? Or even drop a turd in your shoe. Ever get a dog really pissed off at you for leaving him alone too long while you’re out with your date? But that was the point of the creation. God wanted his creatures to turn to him out of a sense of depravity and defeat, and accept his grace. But we’ve never gotten past shitting in his shoe. I mean, if you think you’re doing better than the ancient Jews, then you haven’t been listening.

I feel a little sorry that God pursued this line of attack all this time with so little to show for it. God, as the story seems to tell it, is dumber than we are. That just doesn’t seem possible. I didn’t know there was anything dumber than we are. Even dung beetles can navigate by the Milky Way. Really. Look it up.

Anyway, at the end of the Old Testament, God is saying, through the prophets, like Zechariah and Malachi, “What is wrong with you people? I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I’m going back to Jerusalem to wait until you get your shit together and come back and rebuild the city. I will smite your enemies, but, man, you have to keep the commandments. Just keep the freaking commandments! Jesus Christ! Am I wasting my time here?” I paraphrase.

Part 6: The Upshot

Well, I think I’ve covered it all pretty well. The Jews are still around, amazingly, and seem to be, for the most part, great examples of our species. And if their religion works for them, then maybe God succeeded after all. I’ve always heard that it’s hard to become a Jew if you’re not born into it, but in Esther’s day, when the Jews got the go-ahead to slaughter their enemies wholesale, a lot of people suddenly became Jewish (Esther 8:17 for you skeptics). So there’s hope for all of us.

Here’s the take home: Even though God’s plan didn’t seem to work, it actually did work. Sorta. As well as might be expected with us stupid war mongers. In general, the Jews were misguided in thinking that they should establish a mighty theocratic kingdom here on earth in which they would follow all of God’s commandments all the time. LOL. That wasn’t the point. Through thick and thin—and their Islamic counterparts and Germanic tribes and others have made sure things were plenty thick—they kept doggedly following their original quest to hear and follow the inward sensibility that they believed was God, calling to them. It’s an internal thing. They’ve argued it all out for six thousand years, trying to get it right. Some would say they’ve taken things way too far with all the Rabbinical interpretation of the laws. If you’re not on the inside, it sure looks that way. But thousands of years later, they’re still pursuing a dream of living in a way that makes the creator happy. And look, they don’t bully people or proselytize or behead visiting journalists or try to conquer neighboring lands or any of the other things that make some religions so stupid. Well, okay, they bully a little, and they push their borders a little, and some of them won’t sit next to a woman—any woman! not even Jennifer Lopez!—on an airplane. What th–? But they’ve taken the lessons about living in captivity, living a life true to their faith under the rule of despots, pretty well to heart. Apparently, all that about the Messiah coming to set up the ultimate kingdom just wasn’t the point.

Clarifying The New Testament

 

Part 1: Jesus Christ

Or was it? So by this time the Jews are scattered all over the place again, like where the Old Testament left off, and things, generally, are not great. There’s Judea, who’s king is only nominally a Jew, and there’s Galilee, and both of them are under the rule of Rome. And, like everyone in history, the Romans don’t like the Jews, especially not the rebellious ones. And then along comes a Jewish prophet, one in a long line of rabble rousers, to make the problem worse. He’ll rub everyone’s nose in it. But Jesus of Nazareth (even though he was born in Bethlehem, he was considered a Nazarene, I think because it sounded more grave than Bethleheemian) fired a major curve ball at the world. He removed God from “out there” and put him “in here.” That was perplexing to everyone, even the Rabbis whose hermeneutics included the idea that the perception of God is largely a subjective, inward impulse. Even them. I don’t think there was a human outside of Africa and Australia who wasn’t scratching his head on that one. We’re still scratching our heads, and not because of lice or scabies. Well, some of us. Anyway, it’s just plain perplexing to start putting the God of the Universe between your ears. Or in your “heart.” It’s easier to think of him as sitting at the seat of creation, somewhere off in the deep space. I mean, at least out there we have something to hide from. You could get under a rock. This way, he’s under the rock with you.

Even as he spoke parables that no one understood, Jesus somehow acquired a following. He said confusing stuff, and his disciples said, “Okay, well, whatever. I guess we’re still with you.” And then he said still more confusing stuff. He kept doing that until, in the end, only about eleven stayed in his camp, all uneducated men, but, obviously, that was more than enough to start eleven major world religions.

In Galilee he did miracles. At least in the eyes of casual onlookers. That set him up for some serious criticism. Once, he turned water into wine. I’ve tried that myself on occasion, but it’s easier with apple juice. And his was apparently good to drink. Mine was so nasty I was afraid to pour it out of the bottle.

Jesus’ main problem was that he didn’t fit into any of the proscribed roles for priests and prophets. That, and he didn’t care whether people liked him or not. It was a formula for a short life, but that, too, didn’t seem to concern him. It’s hard to say whether he had less respect for the Romans or for the Jews, but the latter seemed more directly in the line of fire. The Romans were among the lost, non-chosen minions of the earth anyway, so it didn’t matter much what happened to them. Screw the Romans. But the Jews were the chosen people and had a longstanding habit of fluffing off God’s laws and shitting in his shoe, so they stood between Jesus and the revelation of this new, inner-dwelling-god idea. “The kingdom of Heaven is within you,” he said. And they said, “And you are…?” And it spiraled down from there.

Along about three and thirty years into his difficult life, Jesus ran afoul of everyone. The Sanhedrin especially. They were an upper crust Jewish Supreme Court. But Jesus had alienated most of the public anyway, with the significant exception of prostitutes and tax collectors and anyone who felt they needed a break from the puffed up, narrow-minded evangelicals of their day. Well, they weren’t evangelicals because there wasn’t an evangel yet. But they’d flip soon enough. But even Jesus’ followers put some distance between him and themselves as his day of reckoning approached. And when it all fell apart, everyone abandoned him and he was all by himself on a cross. All alone. Even God turned his back on him, although I never understood why that was necessary. Maybe you can’t really descend into Hell unless God rotates away from you. But whatever the reason, Jesus hung up there all alone in the world. His dream of…, of…, of…, whatever he dreamed of came crashing down utterly. He died a failure, and said so himself. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Had he forgotten that God was supposed to be “inside?”

The crucifixion itself was too grim to go into here, although it was the climax of the story arc. I’m not trying to gross anyone out or make you feel guilty. The Jewish authorities actually did the deed, and the Romans said, “Haha, and he was one of you. Haha.”

But was Jesus really a failure? Word says, he only needed three days of death. He came back, although in an unrecognizable form, and walked among us. And about three and thirty years later, someone with a charcoal stick and a piece of papyrus began writing down this story, and what came out was a little different from what it looked like on that last miserable day. It started a revolution that was soon coopted by kings and princes from Constantine on down. And people started wading into rivers to find salvation from their sins.

From there it wound through a series of twists from Mohammed to the Vatican to Martin Luther to Joseph Smith and got really scrambled. Those all seem like dim shades of the original story. I mean, have you checked out Joseph Smith? Oh my god. But I still like Mormons.

The upshot of the New Testament is that the messianic movement, which had trouble getting off the ground, needed a kick-start. The whole story is written as an effort to convince the Jews that they had become stuck in a stagnant, external religion that would never succeed in establishing God’s rule. Here was the spark plug that could once and for all smite the godless pagans and build a city in the sky. Forget temples and sanctuaries! All they had to do was step back and rethink the last six thousand years. It was all leading up to this. The Messiah. And when he finally came, they mistook him for a common rebel and killed him. Silly Sanhedrin! What were they thinking? So John, the beloved apostle, would set them straight.

So this is a heavy epic, written with the same gravitas but with a better plot line than the Old Testament, and deserves some critical reading. The formula for salvation into eternal life came out of this story, but I think that deserves a special section. According to the New Testament, the Jews had six thousand years to figure this out and failed. Eternal salvation is a concept that no one understands. Even I don’t get it. So, continuing the lesson, I’ll write about it for you.

Part 2: Eternal Salvation and the Four Spiritual Laws

Squeezing the concept of eternal salvation into four simple-minded laws is quite an exercise in compaction. Especially when it concerns the most important single element in the history of the universe, at least from our perspective. But it allows your average Joe to understand the message and compare it with his own stupid, purposeless life.

Let’s look at those four “spiritual laws” and break them down into some red meat. Here’s how I was taught them. First, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. You don’t know this because, second, you were born in sin and have fallen so far short of glory that you’ve crapped your pants and don’t even know it. Your wheels fell off when you stuck your head out of your mother’s vagina. Third, God sent his only begotten son to die in your place, to reap the harvest that you deserve for your unconcern—namely, eternal torture. That would serve you right for missing the point. And fourth, if you will just open your eyes to the sunshine of God’s love, he will accept Jesus’s sacrifice on your behalf and save you from, again, eternal torture. Whew! Thank you, Jesus! Literally. But I don’t know. Is that summarization really entirely adequate? If so, why all the hundreds of pages of stories?

Let’s take these laws one by one to make sure we have it right. There is no place for a blunder when our eternal souls are at stake. So, again. One. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Well, maybe. But anybody who thinks that God’s love is true agape (agape), unqualified love like no other, that involves unconditional acceptance “just as I am, without one plea,” and prepares a mansion in Heaven for you hasn’t finished reading the New Testament. God’s “unconditional” love is actually offered on one ponderous, existential condition, which, if not met, will result in fiery damnation for eternity, endless suffering and misery and pain. Salvation is not free. There is a condition, alright, and it is this. Basically, you have to take the first step, and it is a big one. You have to learn to ignore or flagrantly disavow the mountain of visible evidence to the contrary and accept on blind faith that, even though it seems absurd, given your miserable lot in life, God exists and cares about you. He loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, but he’s not going to initiate the relationship. He will let you pursue as nasty and vile a life as you like. He will sit back and watch you revel in your own shit pit as long as you can stand it. You can drown in it. It is your job to seek forgiveness. God’s not going to initiate the friendship. He already did that, twice, a long, long time ago, first by making Adam and Eve, which brings us right back to the Old Testament, which tells us that God, being lonely, created us to fill his lonely place, but insists that we come to him of our own will. And second, by putting Jesus up on a freaking cross. So the take-home lesson is, it’s your problem. Just like it was Adam’s. Or, well, I guess Eve was Adam’s problem. Silly woman, taking up with a damn snake. But our problem is like Eve’s problem. That crazy snake is still out in our garden, showing us the obvious fact that when you die, you’re dead.

The thing is, even if your life is going really great, even if you’ve got a good car and a nice house and a pretty wife of one gender or the other, you still have to learn to interpret it as a lost cause and find reason for regret. That’s on you. Don’t be deceived by appearances of success. You are in a compromised condition from which you can’t recover by yourself, however rosy your glasses. The deck is ultimately stacked against you, and even though you didn’t create the situation, it’s your problem. Success here means nothing. Eternity is the point. Sooner or later, you’ll die like all the rest. So get with it. Wake up! That’s the first law. Whew!

Two. Man has sinned. The Apostle Paul said, “I was born in sin, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” There’s no escaping the fact that you are just as dumb as your mom. However you phrase it, you’re a loser with a big fat L. You can’t hide it. Your efforts to save yourself are a joke. Don’t even go there. It is hopeless. You’re done for.

Just kidding. I don’t know about hopeless. But the whole salvation theme doesn’t play very well unless we’re hopeless, does it? So let’s just say we’re hopeless. Can we do that? We’re all hopeless.

Then there’s more. Three. When man failed to recognize and worship his creator, God devised a plan that could save his wayward creation’s hopeless ass and help it find its way home. Seeing man’s hideous condition, he sent his “only begotten son” into the world to offer us a clearer path. I don’t know why we always read that Jesus is God’s “only begotten son.” I must imagine that God has a lot of other sons, none of whom was “begotten.” Only Jesus passes this test. Remember that he was begotten when an angel came to Mother Mary and somehow impregnated her without her knowing it. He had to tell her he did it. How embarrassing is that? It wasn’t, “Was it good for you?” More like, “Guess what I just did.” Anyway, God’s only begotten son took the punishment we all deserve, offering himself to an unruly crowd to be beaten, humiliated, tortured, and killed slowly and painfully so that we don’t have to suffer for our sins. Do you see the logic of that? God had to do what Abraham didn’t have to do. Kill his own kid. Ah, hell, I completely forgot that story in the Old Testament part. Abraham was told to kill his son to show how much he loved God (isn’t that how we all want to do it?), but God gave him a goat instead, so Isaac could live a normal life. So he killed the goat. Jesus was God’s goat, even though he’s sometimes call the “Lamb of God.” Lamb, goat, whatever. Okay? Goat of God? Are we good?

Four. So all we have to do is accept Christ, and all of our hideous history of sin is erased. We’re absolved. Of course, when this law was first passed, many years after Jesus’s death, there was some controversy about what it meant to “accept Christ.” I mean, it doesn’t sound all that difficult if you consider the history to be accurate and if you buy that beautiful logic. Jesus died to save me? Okay, I’ll take it. He died so I don’t have to suffer forever, but instead can live in a mansion in Heaven forever. Wow, peace out, dude. Is that what it meant to “accept Christ?” Or was there more to it?

So this last law is a little suspect. It’s calling for some response to God’s offer, but it’s vague about what constitutes an acceptable response. Different interpreters have different criteria. I always hoped it meant that I could just say, “Great, I accept,” like a job offer. Yes? Wouldn’t that be a trip?

But what if it means something deeper? What if we are asked to change something? Like, discard all the evidence we find on the earth and accept instead a completely inscrutable, hidden, unexplained purpose that never expresses itself in our lives, but resides behind all of creation in a cryptic, mysterious longing that plagues God, and we have to jump off the cliff in a gesture of pure belief in the unseen, and as a result change the way we pursue life from seeking fun stuff to seeking dull stuff with the promise of fun stuff later, stuff that we can’t see or even imagine? What about if all that? That’s a hole nuther thing. In fact, it has deep shades of what the Jews were describing thousands of years earlier. (I know, I know… hole nuther. Get over it.).

So I can’t figure out what the requirements are. Some cults say you just say yes and you’re done. Others say you have to live a strict life with a beard and a horse buggy. Those Amish people must have a lot to talk to conservative Jews about. Like, “What did we miss over the last two thousand years?”

Anyway, I think Jesus could have been a bit more specific, since we’re dealing with eternity, here. The text says in several places that Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man, which we all know was a slip of the tongue for Son of God. Silly Jesus. He had Adam mixed up with God. And I think he said something like, “Follow me,” noting that if people followed him they would find “life,” which obviously meant eternal life, since they were already alive. In fact, he said he was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no man could come to the Father but through him. So it’s like he tried to make it clear, but it’s hard to be sure what he really said and what was attributed to him several decades after the story got going around all over the place. The four gospel writers don’t agree on everything, unfortunately. My dad thought that the gospels were written in a different dispensation, or time of history when God was directing their pens so they couldn’t make mistakes, but apparently they could still remember things differently. Anyway, it was destined to be a best seller regardless of inconsistencies. I’d like to write a book that was destined to be a best seller regardless of how confusing and ambiguous it was. How did this happen?

So, in sum, the gospel message is a real piece of work. And, of course, that’s not the end of it.

Part 3: The Great Commission

If you ever wonder why Christians of so many ilks are hiking around the streets door-to-door to deliver pamphlets and a harangue, I can clear it up for you. Here is one of the greatest divergences from Judaic thinking. Jewish people are not proselytes. In fact, if you want to convert to Judaism, they’ll say, “Whatever for?” But when Jesus ascended into the sky, they say, he left his followers with a charge: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.” Actually, the Gospels of Luke and John don’t even mention this, which constitutes a major lapse. The Great Commission is so central to Christian dogma that I can’t believe that those two impassioned writers could miss it entirely. So maybe Jesus didn’t say it, or maybe only a few people heard it, or maybe he meant to say it and forgot. Or maybe he said it and they forgot. But how could you forget that? Anyway, Matthew and Mark both record something like this.

Now, on the face of it, this Commission is simple: Go everywhere and tell everyone the good news about God’s grace and love and forgiveness. In fact, according to Matthew, Jesus added a few helpful notes: “…baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

Obviously, we’ll have to break this Commission down and be sure we’ve got it right. This is no time to take another dump in God’s shoe. One of these days he’s going to rise up and flog the hell out of us for that. We’re probably not the only dog in the pound.

The text says to bring the Gospel to every living creature, but I think we can agree that every living human is more to the point. Or at least, to every sentient being. The early people of Jerusalem didn’t know whether the target audience on the earth would necessarily all be people. Maybe there would be, like, apes. Or Vulcans or something. When early mapmakers wrote “Where There Be Dragons” out in the margins, they probably meant it. And some of those dragons were rumored to be pretty smart. And, in fact, chimps and dolphins and elephants and crows are all pretty damned educable. In some ways they may seem smarter than your teenager, huh? I mean, on bad days. But I’m not sure Christians are called to spend time leading other animals in scriptural teachings. So, can we agree on humans? If not, you’re done here. See you in the jungle.

Now to the harder parts. Spreading the gospel. Hmm. That ending part in Matthew… Hmm. This could get a little dicey. “…Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…”

So let me make a little list of what the Bible means and does not mean in terms of the Christian message to the world today. I’ve suddenly gotten current, in case you missed it. And remember, I’m trying to be objective, here.

It says to bring the good news.

What it means: It means to tell people about God’s sacrifice of his son to save their sins, so they can find eternal life.

What it does not mean: To take such offense at their refusal of your proposal that you should deny them goods and services and treat them like second class citizens. It doesn’t say that you should demand compliance, and if you don’t get it, punish the bastards. That part isn’t in there.

It says to forgive seventy times seven times and that we should love and support new converts to the faith.

What it means: As people accept your faith and try to become Christians, you should help them in any way you can, by teaching and by giving them assistance as they grow. That would include pointing out their missteps, guiding them to decisions more consistent with Jesus’ teachings, and forgiving them when they fail. You might even give them a good deal on a car or therapy or something. Cut them a little favor, maybe? Or maybe you don’t want to go that far.

What it does not mean: If people decide not to follow Christ, you should stone them (an old Jewish custom), burn them (an old Salem custom), secretly detonate a bomb among them (a new Islamist extremist custom), or open fire in their theaters and churches and night clubs (a modern racist or homophobic custom). This whole thing about punishing people for not being believers just isn’t part of the Commission. Jesus didn’t do it, and he didn’t teach his followers to do it. He said to love and forgive and turn the other cheek and stuff like that. A whole different spirit from the slaughtering thing. Sheesh.

It says to teach people to live in a way that observes all things whatsoever he hath commanded.

What it means: It means to live consistently with Christian tenets of faith so that your message is not confused with lower, instinctual, or more vulgar values. It means that you should not molest your sisters or bugger your step-sons while you are preaching the good news. It means that you shouldn’t be hateful and shrill while you’re trying to convince someone of God’s goodness. It means that you should deal fairly in your businesses to be sure that you are above reproach, unlike money changers in the Temple. It means, in short, that you should live and teach all the things whatsoever he hath commanded.

What it does not mean: If you run up against people or a government that does not accept the Gospel, you should form a political party to overcome that government to restructure the country to better impose your interpretation of God’s grace. It does not mean that you should seek power to force nonbelievers to live according to your take on God’s laws. Believers must live according to God’s laws, or seek forgiveness if they transgress them. But nonbelievers are under no such mandate, no threat from believers. Recompense is God’s business. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay them.” Thus saith the Lord, somewhere. The Great Commission does not mean that you force your way on others or pass laws to mandate behaviors that conform to your beliefs. Islamic extremists, such as Boko Haram, ISIS, or the Taliban do this because they have misinterpreted the scripture in an attempt to create “purity,” a world pure, like them, where we can all wear black hoods and masks and explosive vests and carry assault rifles. The world must be purged of infidels, people like you and me who can’t line up. The idea of setting up a theistic government that forces people to believe in a certain way, or wear a headscarf just so, or marry according to one standard or another, or refrain from drawing cartoons, or accept only half of your inheritance (if you’re a girl), all on pain of being stoned to death or beheaded is so antithetical to Jesus’ teachings that I’m having a hard time being funny, here. I mean, if those things were a part of the mix, wouldn’t Moses or Jesus or the Apostles have been doing them regularly? Wouldn’t it have been recorded? Seriously, if the text said, “And Jesus went thereunto into the courtyard where the Horaborite woman was taken in adultery, and he in his time led the throng of believers in a stoning, burying her according to scripture to her neck and hurling large rocks until she was departed from life,” we’d all be clear on the savage killing thing. Or if it said, “And so it came to pass that Jesus formed a political party called Transgressions? Enough Already! TEA, and ran them against the Sanhedrin until the time of a majority was accomplished, after which new laws were passéd that forcéd all citizens to wear crosses around their necks and affix fish symbols to their chariot bumpers,” then we’d be on firm ground with political solutions to spiritual problems. But that’s not how it’s presented. Imagine if it said, “And Jesus took unto himself an ashen hood, as applied unto his head for disguise, and went he then into the Temple with malingering and malice, and took he there unto his disciples three hostages who were sinful, and beheaded he them and offered their blood upon the altar to make a favorable incense unto his Father’s wind. In this way did he inscribe on the hearts of man his Father’s mercy and loving kindness.” That, I suggest, would clarify things a great deal. Sharpen your beheading knife!

I guess the problem is that even after two hundred forty-eight pages of tiny type in the King James New Testament, we’re still left wondering what they meant by it all. I mean, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” seems clear, but cripes, that’s a tough pill, so it must mean something beneath the surface. What constitutes “love?” And who exactly is your “neighbor?” And “Love… thyself?” Huh? Love your sinful wormness? So, I mean, even the clearest instruction is fraught with ambiguity. How can we possibly know anything?

Part 4: The Upshot

So maybe it’s time to dumb it down even further than I already have, which is really a stretch. But by now, you know that I’ll try.

Any interpretation of scriptural teachings, Old or New, that gives license to degrade, denigrate, demoralize, impugn, insult, throw rocks upon, explode, behead, or otherwise kill other people is not Judaic and is not Christian. Jacob didn’t do that, and Jesus didn’t do that. Er, well, wait a minute. Gideon did it. A lot. And Jesus did call some of the big shots “vipers” at least once. Unless one of the gospel writers made that up. And he did turn the money changers’ tables over in the Temple, and he had hard words for them because they were desecrating the holy place. So I’m partly screwed up, here.

But look at the options Jesus passed up! He didn’t arm himself and spark a military rebellion. He didn’t sneak into the Temple or the market place and start swinging a sword at random people of various faiths. He didn’t manufacture a bomb that would explode after he left (remember, being the Son of God, he probably could have made a spectacular IED if he wanted to; he could turn water in wine, so he sure could turn salt into ammonium perchlorate). He didn’t start a political party to gain civil power to enact laws to reduce his tax burden.

What Jesus did do was make a lively symbolic gesture that made his point and still has people talking about it two thousand years later. Personally, I don’t think he gave a rat’s ass about the sanctity of the Temple. Look at the disdain he had for the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The whole system was rife with compromise. What he seemed to want to do was supplant this outward brick-and-mortar religion with an internal one based on faith, hope, and love. Isn’t that consistent with his values in general? And, oddly, isn’t it very much in line with what the Jews had already come to?

But it didn’t work. After all those various versions of Christianity across those thousands of years, we still have ministers, pastors, and priests abusing people, molesting children, organizing a political party to pass “Christian laws” to govern everyone. I mean, the whole basic point of the exercise just didn’t work. Christendom today is a pathetic misrepresentation of what Jesus appeared to be standing for.

So if you think the Jews had trouble in the Old Testament, I think you can multiply that failure tenfold with respect to New Testament Christianity. Talk about shitting in God’s shoe. What a joke. But I still like Christians, just like Egyptians and Jews and Mormons.

Before the world explodes, I think we all need to calm down and appreciate the butterflies before it’s too late. We’ve forgotten to take time to smell the flowers. The next time you start feeling the need to slap that thirty-round ammo clip into your assault rifle and set a few things straight, take a minute to breathe. Don’t shit in God’s shoe again. Check out your wife. Maybe just… let people be? Smell the roses, and let it go. Just… let it go. Are we good, here?

Author: Samuel A. Johnson

This blog is about hiking, thinking, and writing.

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