The Passion of the Christ-Deniers

Time for (that’s right) YEAR IN REVIEW — the blogs you sort of liked.

The New Oxonian

he recent uptick of interest in the historical Jesus is fueled partly by a new interest in a movement that was laid to rest about seventy years ago, but has received a new lease of life  from a clutch of historical Jesus-deniers.  The rallying point for the group is a site maintained by a blogger by the name of Neil Godfrey, an Australian university librarian who, like many others who have assumed the position, comes from a conservative Christian background.

In the broadest terms, the movement feeds and thrives on the thesis that Jesus of Nazareth never really existed.  There are various permutations of that basic position: (a) That he was concocted lock, stock and cross by a second century religious movement that (also) produced the documents of New Testament; (2) He is a composite of semi-historical characters, but no one in particular; (c) He is the reworking of an assortment of ancient dying and rising god myths, a little from here, a little from…

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High Noon and Gun Control

My friend Joe Segor, whom I’ve had a couple of enjoyable evenings with in Miami, had a good comment on “A Secular Argument for Gun Control.”  He writes:

“An excellent essay. Unfortunately, it won’t convince the gun nuts. Not even those who can understand the argument. The people at the top of the NRA are there to protect the arms industry. Most of the rest have a fanatical belief in the right to own firearms. A friend of mine is rational on every subject except guns. He is beyond persuasion.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Usually I let my occasional comments rest quietly in the Comment section where they die a peaceful death in 24 hours (or earlier).  But here is what I said to Joe:

“I doubt any gun nut would make it through the first paragraph, or even stumble on the site unless they think New Oxonian is a new British micro-brew.

There is only one good analogy for the cowardice and lack of moral resolve the national government shows in the stare-down with the gun lobby.

It’s a scene we all know from watching too many Hollywood Westerns–a collage:

The good but morally conflicted tenderfoot sheriff from back East who takes the place of the former sheriff (who was last seen galloping out of town while the gittin’ was good) is trying to restore law and order to Dry Gulch.

But the town is held hostage by a gang of roustabouts who shoot first and ask questions later. And prefer not to ask questions. The sheriff asks them politely to put their guns away. They spit, take a slug of whisky and knock his hat off. Then they go upstairs to visit Miss Kitty, rob the bank (again) and ride out of town to terrorize some stage coaches hauling gold from Joplin to San Francisco.

The sheriff [strains of “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’”] wags his head and wonders why some men are just plain ornery. His glance becomes steely. He reaches to his side and remembers, he’s got a gun too–a gift from Aunt Emma in St Louis when she heard he was going to Injun country. By gum, he says, I’ll do it. “Somebody’s got to! I’m tired of being pushed. I think I ought to stay,” says Will.

In the movie, there will be a showdown between the sheriff and the quick-triggered outlaw in the black hat and matching whiskers, the smartest in a gang of eight whose next-smartest member can only count to five but can shoot a rattlesnake through the eye from half a mile away.

In Washington, there won’t be–a showdown I mean–even though that sad city is just as surely being held hostage by a gun totin’ mob as Dry Gulch. And just like in High Noon, they own the law, the lawmakers and a few judges. Hell, what kind of American are you effn you don’t carry a Bible in your right hand and a gun to defend it wif in your left.

It’s even worse than I just painted it, because the guys with guns–Joe’s gun nuts– probably love High Noon and they think they’re the sheriff.  After all, don’t Gary Cooper solve his little problem because he knows how to use a gun?  And don’t it make his pacifist Quaker wife Amy look like a silly stewing woman–until the end where she gets spunky and tussles with Miller to give the marshal a clear shot and BANG problem solved.

So pardner, whaddya reckon?

It isn’t the gun owners we need to go after: a lot of them can’t count to five either. It’s the gang. It’s the NRA with their belief that they own the law and the lawmakers and ain’t no sheriff strong enough to do nothin’ about it nohow. They seem to be right. Where is Grace Kelly (Amy) when you need her?

Know what I think? That the best line of that paradigmatic film belongs to Martin Howe: “The public doesn’t give a damn about integrity. A town that won’t defend itself deserves no help.”  Aren’t we fickin sick of public outrage that lasts for two news cycles and then dies away?   My argument, you’re right, will persuade no one in the Miller gang.  But we have empowered them and we are too cowardly to take their guns away.  And you can’t do that with guns. Apparently you can’t do it with votes either. This isn’t Hollywood: we are caught in a real life Western. Welcome to Hadleyville–Dry Gulch.

The Birth of the Messiah Legend: A Post-Epiphany Reality Check


The New Oxonian

In Honour of America’s Annual Nativity Feeding Frenzy

(First published as First Century Pulp Fiction: CBS at the Manger
A review of the recent CBS 48 Hours special “Birth of Jesus”

Once again the American media and a few scholarly mercenaries have tried to focus attention on New Testament mythology as though startling historical facts are waiting to be discovered beneath the layers of legend.

It happens every year, at Christmas and Easter: new revelations, startling discoveries (often described as “archaeological” to give a scientific ring), the latest scholarly finds, expert opinion. Given the lineup on CBS’s recent 48 Hours special on the birth of Jesus—John Crossan, Elaine Pagels, Michael White, and Ben Witherington (appropriately the gamut from skeptical to credulous in their approaches)—the ready supply of expertise (read: informed opinion) is no more in doubt than a burned out bulb in a marquee display.

But the opinions are…

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A ‘Secular’ Argument for Gun Control

Technically speaking, there is no such thing as a “secular argument.”  All arguments are arguments until the reasons adduced in making them become religiously or theologically grounded.  Although rule or deontological arguments are sometimes used in ethics to bolster what are essentially situational or contextual (or functional)  arguments, a knock-down, “indefeasible” argument for gun control is probably not possible.  That is why discussion of the issue, especially in the American context, quickly becomes a discussion of morality, warrant, or Constitutional guarantees rather than an examination of premises.

A nonreligious person can argue for example that statistics show that countries with rigid control on weapons ownership have lower gun related murders and instances of mass killings than a country like the United States, which has both the highest rate of gun ownership (about 37%), the largest number of privately owned weapons (approximately 45,000,000) and the highest rate of death from shootings, both deliberate, criminal, and accidental (33,000 in 2012, 346,000 assaults involving guns).

Presumably, a secular argument would be based, as the word implies, on the good of the state.  It can be seen for example that in the history of civilizations, the state has always regarded it a cardinal good for persons  to be secure from harm and, thus, that it is an obligation of government (“lawful authority”) to protect persons from injury,  even when it is necessary to use force and violence to do this.  To protect a majority of persons from injury, the state may inflict injury on others:  Thus the state or lawful authority is empowered to punish criminals, send men to war, and sometimes ostracize, intrude upon or punish sub-populations thought to be dangerous to the common good.  This is possible because the “common good” is not a settled term but a political one that has been understood differently in different times of national histories.  Kings and politicians routinely appeal to this and equivalent terms (e.g., “God and country,”  “the American people”) which in fact are more metaphysical than real constructs.

As many writers have noted, the public good is a hypostasis of the wishes of the state in any given situation, and often also corresponds to the success of the state in securing or defending these wishes as commensurate with the needs and wishes of the people A recent example of the principle is the “security mentality” of America between 2001 and 2008, derived from the success of government in persuading citizens that their best interests were at stake in pursuing a war policy in the Middle East and returning a particular political party to power, even among growing doubts about its motives in prosecuting two wars and an invasive policy of domestic surveillance.

For the same reason, a state can argue that a segment of the population has become treacherous as was done in Nazi Germany, and to a less dramatic effect in 1950’s America or during the slave uprisings in the post-colonial southern American states.  Both a sovereign and a democratic government can say that citizens may not possess firearms because it encourages civil unrest and aggravates violent crime and assault, both of which are conditions hostile to the “common good.”

However, in other situations a constituted authority, especially a fledgling  state,  can argue that the role of government is limited to ensuring the personal liberty of citizens.  Indeed, it was the “limited government” argument that led to the framing of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which was inherently guarded about creating a permanent military force.  However, advocates of the individual liberty thesis often have a very limited understanding of the origin of the idea.  As Pauline Maier has noted in her study From Resistance to Revolution (1972), “private individuals were forbidden to take force against their rulers either for malice or because of private injuries….” Instead, “not just a few individuals, but the ‘Body of the People’ had to feel concerned” before the right of revolution was justified and with most writers speaking of a “whole people who are the Publick,’ or the body of the people acting in their ‘public  Authority,’ indicating a broad consensus involving all ranks of society (p. 73).  The discussion of the Constitutional “right to bear arms” stemmed almost exclusively from the 1689 provision in the English Bill of Rights, which in turn emerged from the fear of Protestants, in the reign of the last Catholic monarch, James II,  that the Crown was empowered to disarm them without consent of Parliament.

Against the European pattern of maintaining permanent armies and militias, the founding fathers of the United States understood armies as specifically and “occasionally” constituted by free men to protect the common good:  it is not that a free man has the right to bear arms because he is free but because he is a member of the “body of the people” whose freedom would be jeopardized without the right of defense against tyrannical and usurpatory powers. In other words, there is no individual right apart from the collective, public right of consensus; moreover, that right does not include the “right to bear arms” as an end: arms are the mechanism or means to achieve a public end, not the end in itself.

In the language of the time, the right of a citizen to bear arms was not universal: it excluded indentured farmers, men without property, and slaves.  The terror of armed non-citizens raising a rebellion against the landowners weighed heavily on the minds of men like Jefferson and a succession of presidents prior to the Civil war.  He was especially  unsettled by the slave revolt in Haiti (1793), fearing it would infect the slaves on the American plantations.   However, the debate of the 19th century was not about the right of “gun ownership” but rather the right of citizens in a nation unprotected by a standing army and an antiquated “sheriff and posse’” system of local law enforcement, to defend themselves by force and with firearms.  The debate in short teetered on the distinction between a protected state (the armied nations of Europe) and an unprotected state.

Convincing consequentialist arguments can therefore be created based on the need to suppress and the need to possess weapons.  An unprotected state will lack the required stability to ensure prosperity and peace: it will be at the mercy of stronger powers, enemies without and destructive forces within.   Yet a state where the right to possess firearms is interpreted as an unrestricted constitutional guarantee, stripped of context, may lose control over civil order, cede to individual persons the duties normally entrusted to law enforcement agencies, encourage the dissemination of weapons among untrained and dangerous (including criminal and psychologically unstable) individuals, and therefore encourage the very violence and instability that a well governed state is supposed to prevent.  Even in consequentialist terms, the argument cannot be based on an abstract right, whether it is thought to derive from the Constitution or from divine writ; rather the nature of the right must be assessed in relation to a prior assessment of the essential nature of the state and its motives for permitting or suppressing the individual “right to bear arms.”  It is further important to distinguish the right to bear arms from the imprecise phrase “gun ownership’: the former is a phrase grounded in political, legal and constitutional history. The latter refers simply to the practice of purchasing and keeping firearms without reference to purpose or necessity.

Thus a secular argument for gun control in relation to the right to bear arms must include the distinction between a protected and an unprotected or vulnerable state. In 1775 America was a fragmented collection of thirteen disparate colonies working under the general protection of Great Britain.  The existence of state militias loyal to the crown through the governor of the colony (the precursor of today’s National Guard) was nonetheless a worrying aspect of this relationship.  The concept of a national army did not exist until the time of the revolution and even then depended on the cooperation of state militias under the general authority of a “supreme commander in chief.” As in the case of most revolutionary movements however, the liberty and freedom movement that brought the United States into existence had become by 1787, the year the national constitution was adopted, evolved painfully: after the revolution, the continental army quickly disbursed; soldiers were given land grants for their time, and republican suspicion of “standing armies” prevailed.  The United States Army was not formally construed until 1796 and grew in fits and starts between the War of 1812, its first humiliating defeat, and the Civil War.  Citizen soldiery disappeared from the scene before the end of the nineteenth century; the national military academy was founded at West Point in 1802 to ensure a professional army command and the national naval academy at Annapolis in 1845.

Following the model of the powerful European states the United States moved from being an unprotected state reliant on the collective, occasional and fragmented efforts of an armed citizenry to a protected state, secured by a standing army and (though these developed more sporadically) municipal law enforcement agencies in the 19th century.

If it is granted that the basis for any argument in favour of unrestricted possession of firearms has to depend on a discussion of the nature of the state, then it is problematical to hold that the right of individual citizens to possess firearms for the protection of the state in a state already duly protected is consistent. It is also problematical, absent any indication that the state is operating contrary to the public good or will of the majority, to maintain that such weapons are necessary to maintain a ‘right of revolution’ against despotic or tyrannical government.  The right (or in Locke’s view “obligation”)  of revolution in any event is a theoretical rather than a constitutional one, since presumably any such rebellion would be directed against constitutional authority, as any examination of the history of revolutions makes plain.

 This leaves aside the question of whether it may, at some point, be desirable for citizens to possess arms in exigent circumstances, e.g., to foment rebellion against an unjust or abusive state; indeed, that is the right claimed in 1776 and is being claimed by some  conservative and libertarian groups in 2014.  For that logic to prevail however, there would need to be overwhelming evidence that the protections granted to citizens through the state (or whatever “rights” the state at its creation was assumed to offer its citizens ) have been systematically violated and that the protections granted following a rebellion would substantially alter their condition.  It is not clear for example that the political history of America would have been very different had it followed the natural path of devolution rather than armed revolt. But that point is merely academic.  The Declaration of Independence was not a declaration of war; it was a carefully written bill of grievances based on the Lockean principles of natural social rights.  However, Locke’s arguments as well as those of the founders did not extend to the mechanism of revolution—the possession of weapons as a right—but only to the conditions under which a state can be considered badly governed, unprotected and thus entitled to self-defense against tyranny.  The right to bear arms is always framed collectively and socially, never as an individual right for disgruntled persons intent on defending personal rights or settling private grievances by force.

Absent that evidence, it can be concluded that there is no basis for the individual possession of weapons by the citizens of a protected state.   It can also be argued that there is a sound argument for the possession of weapons for individual protection in the case of an unprotected state, where government has become abusive or incompetent with regard to the safety or tranquility of society.  The latter case is not representative of modern American society and has not been representative since the nineteenth century.

Most European states regard their elected governments as broadly representative of their interests and their armies and law enforcement agencies as mechanisms for social harmony and domestic tranquility. In the protected state, the “right to bear arms” as an individual right contradicts the overarching right of citizens to be free of fear from an armed or dangerous minority.

In a protected state such as the United States where government is broadly representative of the interests of its citizens and where professional armies and law enforcement agencies exist to serve their interests, there is a strong ‘secular’ argument for the abolition of the absolute right of individual citizens to possess firearms.  The individual citizen is not sovereign over the duty of the state to protect the totality of its population nor over the way in which the state exercises its responsibility.  The protected state however has a clear obligation to prevent the individual from  creating instability within the “general body politic.” The provision of laws that guarantee gun ownership, especially guns for which there is no purpose except as weapons of war, creates a situation which positively injurious to the majority because it leads to the perpetuation of conditions that characterize an unprotected and insecure state and thus operate against public good.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. (Article 2, 1791)

It is clear that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution does not envisage an indefinite or unlimited right to bear arms apart from the heuristic need for a protected state through a standing military force, the existence of which in a protected state renders any individual right null.

A Christmas Carol: The Dumb as a Doorknocker Atheist War on Jesus

t’s  a shame that when they chose their targets atheists decided to pick on Christianity as the epitome of what’s wrong with religion.  In particular, their singling out of nativity scenes and their use of Christmas exuberance as an affront to their sensitivities is so singularly stupid that I sometimes wonder who runs their PR campaigns.  Clearly not a Jesuit.  I suspect a smiling Pope Francis has brought more people back to the Faith in six months than a sour-faced atheism has driven away in six years.  But that’s just a guess.  Probably the Pope’s batting average is much higher than that.

And there’s a good reason for it.  No one is sure anymore what it is that atheists find so objectionable about religion, atheists least of all.  True, they object to religious clotpoles getting involved in politics. So do a lot of churchgoers.  In fact if only atheists objected to religious overreach (considering the massive influence that can be posited of a 1.8% voting bloc, if they all vote), the fundagelicals would rule the day.  Atheists object to the whole agenda of the Christian Right, but the Christian right is not mainstream Christianity and the most effective opposition to the CR comes from liberal and secular elements within mainline Christian churches.  Besides, atheists collectively until very recently have not been interested in progressive liberal causes such as LGBT, women’s rights, and erosion-of-civil rights issues. There too the lead has been taken, long since, by liberal protestant denominations and lobbying groups, alongside more specifically secular (but not anti-religious) organizations.

True atheists and the (now quaintly named) “secular humanist” movement like to think of themselves as victims these days, but frankly no one is buying it, not even all atheists.  The whole “You can be good without God” campaign soon morphed into a victimization mentality that sent out tendrils to “other” victimized cadres.  It failed largely because the point was too obtuse to focus anyone’s attention, a fact sufficiently driven home when the Pope made just the same point.  In any event, people aren’t not  becoming atheists because they are afraid of being avoided at lunch, pelted with rosaries, or stalked by armed and dangerous Southern Baptists.  They are not becoming atheists because atheists manage to be loud, boring, and incoherent at the same time.  They are the ideological equivalent of the Tea Party, all diss and no dat.

When I challenged the movement humanists and new atheists a few years ago to come up with the names of the schools, charities, universities, hospitals, benevolent associations, workers’ rights groups and social causes they have significantly contributed to in their mercifully short history, there was a slight ruffling of papers and then a lot of spew about how Christians only do these things because it makes converts.  Actually, it probably doesn’t.  They do these things because they are supposed to do them in the name of conscience, a word (and a function) that Christianity has had a monopoly on for two millennia.  They did them during the plague, in storm, during wars, in peace.  It was Pope Francis’s own religious order that tried to put a stop to the predation of native Americans by European exploiters, and ultimately it was liberal religion that marshalled public opinion against slavery in America. They do them because it is the cultural outgrowth of what Jesus taught.  That is why they squirm when they see Pope Francis preaching about social justice: How dare a man who believes in God do that.  Social justice is something atheists should be talking about.  But they aren’t: they are talking about the manifold stupidity of people who think a man could walk on water. Number of papal sermons devoted to this poignant topic:  0.

That leaves me, uncomfortably, with the impression that atheists don’t like the Jesus cartoon (others would call it a straw man, but that’s a quibble) they have created for themselves.  Their major premise is, Religion stinks. Their minor premise is that Christianity is a religion.

Their conclusion is therefore plain as the nose on the face that smells it.

But it’s really too bad because Christianity is not just any religion, except to people who think one religion is much the same as the next.  I can only assume these people don’t drink wine or have sex.

Christianity may have had its dark ages but its illuminations are far more impressive.  It gave us modern books. Fueled the dissemination of learning with better means of production, like the printing press.

“All that has been written to me about that marvelous man (Johannes Gutenberg) seen at Frankfurt is true. I have not seen complete Bibles but only a number of quires of various books of the Bible. The script was very neat and legible, not at all difficult to follow—your grace would be able to read it without effort, and indeed without glasses.” (Pope Pius II, 1455 on Gutenberg’s inventions)

It gave us libraries. It gave us modern universities.  And though the average athée nouveau will hate to hear me say this, and the statement needs to be unpacked historically, which calls for more intellectual patience than this bluff crowd can muster, it gave us science. The facile juxtaposition of Christianity and science is so ludicrously wrong that I would be ashamed to utter it in learned company.  Which tells you something about the kind of company many atheists keep.

But what really irks me at this time of year is the way they have taken to picking on Jesus.  A slim majority have bought into the idea that Jesus never existed because they have already bought into the idea that God doesn’t exist.  Maybe if they go far enough with this historical and philosophical skepticism they will reach some critical, Cartesian point of wondering about their own reality.  But their incipient pyrhhonism aside, they simply can’t make up their mind whether to support the thoroughgoing mythical school of thought or punch holes in the “supernaturalism” of an otherwise historical record.  To do that, they would first need to distinguish between metaphysical propositions like “There is a God”, historical assertions, such as the idea that Jesus really existed, and theological doctrines such as the statement that Jesus was God.  I see no race among atheists to make such distinctions.  They end up sounding more like Elmer Fudd on finding a rabbit hole empty:  Jesus cannot be the son of God because God doesn’t exist so it is entirely plausible that he didn’t exist either.

The thing atheists need to know is that a lot of religious people do not believe the Bible is totally true, divinely inspired, or historically and scientifically accurate.  It has been a long time since believing in bell, book and candle was required to make you a practicing Christian.

What a Christian might believe however is that Jesus was a unique figure among the religious teachers of his day.  –That he preached peace and forgiveness among sectarian Jews perpetually at odds with each other and with their Roman overseers. –That he preached a kind of social equality within a society of xenophobes and law- and status- crazed disputants, as litigious as anything you can find in modern America. That he had a healthy respect for women in a culture of male entitlement.  That he cared about the poor and the sick—a fact that withstands scrutiny even if you deny that he really performed cures or made the blind see and the lame walk.  The motif of Jesus’s care for poor, sick, and marginalized people is as clear a theme as anything we have in ancient literature—in fact, we have nothing else quite like it.  It seems merely fatuous to postulate this overwhelmingly human and personal concern of a mythological figure.

The details of Jesus’s life were completely unsuited to the religious biographies and hero-stories of his day.  He was remembered as a failed radical, whose message became more prominent and popular—perhaps even prophetic– in hindsight.  Even the most skeptical of New Testament scholars revert constantly to the theme of the radicalism of the figure of Jesus, so much so that the debate is really not about the theme but about its “morphology” – what accounts for it?  It is this radicalism that turns the story of a historically exceptional figure into the unique story of a man who saved people from misery and poverty (attributed to sin, in the theological taxonomy of the day) and promised them a better life hereafter.  It is easy to see how that story, Hellenized, could become the story of a god’s triumph over the forces of evil—a story that frankly has no explicit purchase on the gospels.  It is easy to see how, in the wake of the implosion of Judaism in the late first century, the renewed energy of his teaching became a resurrection story.  Prophets are only prophetic after the fact (Matthew 23.37).

Whether he meant by heaven what the Church would later mean by heaven is highly doubtful and probably impossible.  But what seems clear is that the basic message of hope he preached was a memorable and unique call to people of “faith” (a word that simply means trust in God) and little faith to lead better lives, turn themselves around, facing back to God, away from selfishness, and learn to be at peace with their neighbor and their enemies.  It is really as simple as that.

To ridicule this singularly useful teaching on account of how it was transformed by legend, explicated in doctrine and memorialized in worship seems merely churlish and ignorant to me.  It stretches atheism to the splitting point, the point where no one can take it seriously because it has lost its major premise in a slough of distractions that have nothing  whatever to do with the existence of God.  Atheists who accept the historicity of Jesus are still obsessed with whether Jesus thought he was God and what the church meant when they called him that.  They seem stuck in Tom Paine’s garden, repeating the familiar rationalist critiques of the bible and doctrine that were all the rage among deists and 18th century Unitarians, but have ceased to be compelling for a long time. They are still ridiculing miracles.  They are still yacking about the resurrection.  They are still pounding the table over the story of the virgin birth.

I would agree that any Christian who insists on the literal accuracy of the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth is naïve.  I will agree that anybody who says silly things about the “normativity” of Christian or gospel “teaching” should be ignored, or avoided as a menace.  But I don’t think that the solution for a naive literalism is a naïve rejectionism.  What neither the fundamentalist Christian nor the atheist literalist gets is that the gospel is a narratively complex expression of simple ideas, not an impacted statement of unexplicated ideas—doctrines– as the church would later claim.  Both need to return to their eighth grade chapter on metaphor, figures of speech, and poetic diction before they are permitted to pick up a Bible again. Feeding the hungry, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, revering the peacemakers, forgiving rather than avenging—those are real things. The Centurion’s confession –“Truly, this man is a son of God”—is an interpretation and not even a clear one.

So I say, let the Christian nation beloathed by atheists have its Christ child, its manger, its new beginning, even its myth of virginal purity in Mary and patient and longsuffering fatherhood in Joseph.  Let the Christians have their wise men three bearing precious gifts from orient lands afar, because life is precious after all, and to its parents every newborn is a prince or princess.  Let those who adore him as Christ the Lord keep the message of salvation, and forgiveness.  Turning the other cheek when we are wronged will always be an ideal, but it is an ideal we need to value above rage and vengeance–whether individual or socially sanctioned by the state.  Let us have the Jesus who preached against war, the prince of peace.  Even if there are “other” faces of this Jesus in the gospel, the dominant one is a Jesus who taught the fatherhood of God as a merciful and forgiving and loving father.  There are other faces of God in the Bible, too; but this is the one Jesus talked about.

Finally, let the Christians have their cross and crucifixion:  the tragic symbol of a life poured out in unfulfilled service against an establishment that would not be changed, could not be moved by love and grace.  I do not know how Jesus died; but we have reason to think it was a judicial killing by Jewish and Roman collaborators, each of which had their own interest in bringing him down.  We know that his skirmishes with moneychangers and lawyers and religious pretenders is a judgment on every profiteer, politician and evangelical shyster who bends his knee at the name of Jesus the lord while throwing people out of their houses or opening envelopes filled with money for “prayer requests.”  Let the religious keep these images because they are fundamentally good images.  I think they should be permitted in the public square because they tell us more about what is important in life than a ten-foot high illuminated “A.”

I have never had special confidence in “interfaith” discussion because it is nothing more than a kind of wilderness experience for over-conscientized religionists–a group hug based on the notion that religions really all teach the same thing.  It proceeds from a laundry list of noble ideas that all religions would like to have as their defining message, ideas that actually find their core and center in the teaching of Jesus. But the truth is, religions, even the book religions, don’t teach the same things.  They never have.  That is why we have different religions.  Without saying what I think the distinctive elements of Judaism and Islam (and other religious philosophies) are, I am quite sure I know what the distinguishing elements of Christianity are.

They are situated in the personality of a first century teacher who did not claim to have revelations, did not write or reveal or make any claims about a book, did not found a dynasty or a chosen “nation”of believers or even a church.  For the transgression of being almost inconspicuous—a secret messiah whose followers could not keep his secret—he was killed as a public menace to the Pax Romana and the more brittle Pax Iudaeorum.  He was killed before his opposition to the religious establishment in Jerusalem could solidify, before the Temple came tumbling down (an event understandably remembered by his followers as God’s judgment on his execution), before the people were raised to (yet another) furore over the slime and deceit of the Herodians and the priesthood, before his message of forgiveness foundered and failed on the stumbling block of the Judaeo-Roman pact, which finally ruptured in the second century following a series of provincial rebellions.

The strangest of those rebellions was the Galilean reform movement put into motion by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth, about whom we know too little, but enough to know that he is an unlikely figure for mockery and abuse. The Roman garrison tried that, remember? It didn’t work.

The Jesus atheists love to hate is indeed a mythical figure. But he is their myth. Not a myth of the gospels or a man made up by storytellers to deceive future generations or to prop up a church. It’s entirely appropriate that once a year we spend some time remembering the solemnity of his birth and life.

Scipio and the New Atheism

The New Oxonian

Mathilde‘s opens at 10 on Sundays, so Scipio and I usually meet at 9:55 sharp so that we can watch people scurrying to the service at First Church.  Scipio enjoys this much more than I do. Today a mother with two over-polished kids in tow pushed past us without saying excuse me.

Then she turned.  “What did you say?,” she said.

“Nothing,”  Scipio said, with that perfect little way he has of meaning something when he doesn’t mean it.  He looked at me slyly. “I didn’t say anything.  But you might have said ‘Excuse me’.”

“Actually,” she said, “I’m English. We normally say ‘sorry’ and slog on. So, sorry”

“I hear it now,” Scipio said. He did hear it because he tries hard to sound British, a habit he picked up from having attended a summer school session at the University of Leeds.

“So, sorry,” she said again, casting a faint…

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The Big Idea

Christopher Hitchens died on 15 December 2011, about a week after this blog was posted.

The New Oxonian

by admin Posted on December 7, 2011

Christopher Hitchens is, of all the atheists I admire, the one I admire the most. I want him to live forever. But as that is impossible–for any of us–it’s his voice I will miss the most.

He is a journalist, a polemicist, a bad boy. But he is also a keen observer. And, though he may hide it, a well-trained philosopher. All of the so-called “New Atheists,” except for Harris, whose star sets, were Oxonians. In a group so small, you have to admit, that is unusual–until you think “Shelley.” I would even say Wycliffe, but it would take too long to explain why.

Hitch’s atheism is almost an accoutrement of his personality. He has always reminded me of the cynicism of a young Malcolm Muggeridge who would have hated the old Muggeridge, when the old Malcolm got religion. Hitch and I…

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The Jesus Process

Let’s see if there are any worms left in the can…

The New Oxonian

“Born of a Woman”: Paul’s Perfect Victim and the Historical Jesus

by R. Joseph Hoffmann

One of the more absurd aspects of Christ-myth studies is the suggestion that the “neglect” of  the historical Jesus by Paul is at least indirect proof that Jesus never existed.  This absurdity is sometimes compounded by the suggestion that Paul did not exist, creating a kind of literary dittograph of Russell’s famous teapot argument  as it is sometimes argued in the philosophy of religion: If the fate to be avoided is Aquinas’ infinite regress as it applies to finite causality, then What created God?  In this case the question has to be,  Who created Paul, and why?

Implicitly the answer would be, So that “Paul,” in a singular act of farsightedness, could create Jesus (who might have lived at any point in time except when he is supposed to have lived), who would then…

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