Tag Archives: Christian

The Amazing Thing About Christian Belief

The amazing thing about Christian belief is that, somehow, among the billions of possible planets, and the billions of people on this one, divided into innumerable sects and shades of belief — somehow, against all odds, my group got it right! Isn’t that amazing? God could be gods, or no god; they could have four heads or five hooves, or could speak only in the language of Zoltran — but no! None of that! By a coincidence beyond “inconceivable,” somehow, when it comes to God, I’m the one who wound up being completely right! about everything!

Nothing arrogant about that, right? I mean, obviously, this core belief is as good a reason as any to get mad at people — the ones who don’t recognize my superiority, that is — and call them names, ridicule their claims to know more than I do, even kill them. Not that contemporary Christians would do any of that, or at least not the killing. That’s medieval. That was when Christians had the power to do such things. They don’t anymore, and they won’t, and that’s too bad — because, aside from the tortures and the murders and the bad science and all that, at least the Middle Ages did give people the Kingdom of God. Right?

And so the question at hand is, how can we get back to that? Because that’s what God would want and, of course, he can’t do these things without our help.

Well. I’m no authority, but I’d say the first thing to do is to make sure God stays in his place. So let’s start with theology. The science of God! Gotta chuckle about that one. Theology tells us that God has to be a Trinity, even though the Bible itself doesn’t say so, and nobody can make sense of that — because, without a Trinity of just the right configuration, certain Bible passages will contradict each other. And that’s not acceptable because that would mean God wrote an imperfect Bible. Which, in turn, is not acceptable because it would mean that God didn’t actually write it and/or that we should not treat it as a legal document, replete with numbering of chapters and verses that God, himself, forgot to add. Neither of those options is acceptable because, really, how can you ever hope to have a religion that completely departs from practicing its founder’s most important message about the treatment of other people, if you don’t have an infallible scripture with which to overrule him?

So, like I say, the first thing is to help God explain who he is (the Trinity, I mean), and help him provide that explanation in a form that we can lawyer into submission — because, rather pathetically (for an all-knowing deity), he failed to realize that we would need this, so as to have specific reasons for burning people at the stake. Frankly, there are a lot of things that God forgot to put into that Bible, starting with a list of the books that it should include, so that our forbears wouldn’t have to spend centuries (continuing to the present) disagreeing about which books those should be, and also including an explanation of how the Bible can be the word of God when it says that, no, Jesus was the word of God.

The question posed by Ms. Olmstead is this: “To what extent are we called to flexibility and empathy in our doctrinal choices?” In other words, if the Bible says something, can we disregard it? For virtually all Christians in America, the answer is a resounding yes, if it happens to be something we don’t wish to make part of our religion. There’s that classic scene in The West Wing about that, but really we don’t need TV for this: everyone knows we can come up with reasons not to stone people, regardless of what God’s supposed laws might say. I mean, you have to keep the divinity in his place. He has his laws, and we have ours, right? Am I right?

Ms. Olmstead’s title asks, “Where Should Christianity Draw a Line in the Sand?” Because you can only put up with so much guff from these people who (like oneself) selectively decline to treat the Bible as it does not ask to be treated. Because, as I say, by some unbelievable (and I do mean unbelievable) coincidence, when it comes to drawing lines in the sand, it’s like Phil Collins says: Jesus, he knows me, and he knows I’m right!

* * * * *

This post was submitted as a comment on an article by Gracy Olmstead in The American Conservative (2018).

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You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

In other posts, I have occasionally reminded Christian readers of this excerpt from Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15-23):

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. . . . A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. . . . Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not . . . done many wonders in Your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me . . . .”

Christian or not, it seems advisable to check oneself and one’s beliefs and projects, to make sure there has not been slippage between what was supposed to happen and what is actually happening.

What was supposed to happen, in Christianity, was the development of a religion reflecting the priorities that Jesus set forth during his time on Earth. In that same Sermon, he expressed one such priority: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Or, as expressed in Romans 13:9-10, “[T]he commandments . . . are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love for others is an important theme throughout the New Testament. It does seem reasonable to ask whether the project of Christianity has indeed been Christlike in the particular sense of demonstrating love for one’s neighbor. The answer is very much in the negative. The remainder of this post provides historical examples, some continuing into the present.

In my experience, Christians do not like to read this sort of thing. Certainly they are not big on preaching it and learning from it. To the contrary, they seem confident that, unlike all the generations of believers before them, they are different. They are better. They are not supporters of a disgusting religion.

That may be true of certain individuals and even of certain Christian denominations. And let us not deny that religious belief can have positive effects upon people and communities. Whether the positives outweigh the negatives is a topic worth discussing. The following evidence suggests that, over the 2,000-year history of Christian belief, the overall answer would be no: the Christian project started going off the rails within its first few centuries; it was enormously harmful for more than a thousand years; and it has become prettier and more tolerable in recent centuries only because secular political and intellectual pressures have reduced its control over daily life.

What I offer here is, obviously, only a fraction of the evidence on those matters. If any reader feels that the evidence does not support the conclusions just stated, I am open to comments and, time permitting, I will investigate further and revise this post as needed. For now, the material presented below is provided just to make clear that Christianity has been really terrible, in many ways, throughout its history.

In my view, as I say, the core problem lies in Christianity’s longstanding determination, very much against the advice of Jesus, to prioritize a lawyerly, text-oriented approach to the words of the New Testament, and on that basis to disregard the key Christlike priority: love of one’s neighbor.

Torture, Murder, and War

This section drew the bulk of my attention, as it seems to address the most extremely violent outrages committed in the name of Jesus. These are just a few examples, starting shortly after Christianity obtained political power during the Roman Empire.

  • Roman Emperor Theodosius I (380) ordered,

It is our will that all the peoples who are ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans . . . . We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, . . . shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative . . . .

[T]he successors of Constantine were ever persuaded that the first concern of imperial authority was the protection of religion and so, with terrible regularity, issued many penal edicts against heretics. In the space of fifty seven years sixty-eight enactments were thus promulgated. All manner of heretics were affected by this legislation, and in various ways, by exile, confiscation of property, or death.

  • Charlemagne (774) defeated the Saxons and gave them a choice: be baptized or be killed.
  • The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges widespread public demand, by ordinary Christians in the Middle Ages, for heretics to be tortured and burned at the stake.
  • Wikipedia on the Crusades (primarily occurring in the 11th to 13th centuries):

Crusaders often pillaged as they travelled . . . . During the People’s Crusade, thousands of Jews were murdered in what is now called the Rhineland massacres. Constantinople was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. . . . The Crusades also reinforced the connection between Western Christendom, feudalism, and militarism.

  • The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) ruled,

Secular authorities . . . shall be admonished and induced and if necessary compelled . . . to take an oath that they will strive in good faith and to the best of their ability to exterminate in the territories subject to their jurisdiction all heretics pointed out by the Church . . . .

  • Wikipedia reports that the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) resulted in countless tortures and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 executions by the Church. The Catholic Encylopedia admits that even witnesses were tortured.
  • I encountered and verified some claims by a site called Heretication (which, later, I found was probably based on a webpage in the Bad News About Christianity website).  Having determined that the claims I investigated were supported by other sources, I was inclined to believe other Heretication claims, including these:

The Waldensians . . . were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. . . . Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until [their] flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. . . .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. . . . Pope Innocent III . . . said that those who interpret literally Jesus’ statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death . . . . In 1229 Pope Gregory IX . . . [organized] a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. . . . The whole population was exterminated. . . .

It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. . . . Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostolicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect’s founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife. . . . Cecco d’Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus’ birth using the stars. . . . Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God’s will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. . . .

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists’ main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism – they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). . . . When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years. . . .

A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. . . . Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of “not thinking catholickly”. . . . In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for “obstinately refusing to come to church”. . . . Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

  • Wikipedia’s article European Wars of Religion includes some of history’s deadliest wars. Examples include the Thirty Years War, with a death toll nearly half the worldwide toll of World War I — at a time when the population of Europe was only one-quarter of its 20th-century level — as well as the Hundred Years War, the French Wars of Religion, and the Crusades, each taking roughly two to three million lives.

Other Areas of Christian History

Bad News About Christianity (BNAC) offered additional reports on a rather astounding number of areas in which Christians have displayed execrable attitudes and behavior. Here were several examples:

  • Rape. “The words of Deuteronomy 22 . . . were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted to marry a woman – whether she wanted him or not – a standard method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As “soiled goods”, she would be unlikely to find another husband, so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest of her life as a spinster. . . . [This practice] was popular well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.”
  • Freedom of Expression. I was concerned that, lately, liberal views were tending toward mild persecution of religion in the U.S. Yet it was difficult to sympathize with Christians who had brought this on themselves by failing, so intensively and for so long, to stand for scientific learning and for the universal human right of freedom of expression. Excerpts from BNAC:

Within a century of the introduction of printing in Europe a formal process was required to keep track of books that the Church had ordered to be destroyed. . . . [including works by some of the greatest minds in history, e.g., Dante, Copernicus, Galileo, and Locke]. Also placed on the Index were writings that told the truth about the forged documents that the Church had produced . . . .

Christians in secular states have often managed to ban respectable works, again well into the twentieth century: Webster’s Dictionary for example was banned in Arkansas because of its entry on Darwinian evolution. Information about family planning and birth control has been banned in many Christian countries.

Over the centuries the Christian Churches have burned countless thousands, perhaps millions, of books of which it disapproved. . . . Some writers destroyed their own unpublished works, fearing the consequences of discovery. . . . Philosophers were also obliged to publish posthumously or anonymously, for fear of the consequences. . . .

The traditional Christian obsession with sexual matters resulted in prosecutions for obscenity not only against books about birth control, but also against respectable literature and even books on psychology. . . .

Christians still seek to impose their views on others. Because of Christian sensitivities the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian . . . could not be shown on British commercial television. . . . In Britain and the USA attempts were made to ban Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ when it appeared in 1988. . . .

Fundamentalists in California have managed to ban schoolbooks that deal with a wide range of subjects, including the theory of evolution, race relations, nuclear war, sex discrimination, human sexuality, birth control and the Holocaust. . . .

During the whole period of 1,500 years or so that the Church enjoyed absolute power the concept of penal reform was unknown. Prisons in 1800 were as insanitary, cramped, infested and dangerous as they had been when the Roman Empire first adopted Christianity. . . .

Christian tortures took many forms. People were restrained by irons and fetters, sometimes locked into agonising positions with neck, wrists and ankles held within inches of each other. After a short time in this position they were permanently disabled. Alternatively prisoners could be racked, beaten, flogged or otherwise abused. One method was to keep their feet in water until they rotted. . . .

The pioneer of modern penology was an Italian rationalist, the Marquis Cesare Beccaria-Bonesana, who published Dei Delitti e delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764, claiming that the prevention of crime, not punishment, should be the prime aim of an enlightened society, and that crime was deterred by the likelihood of detection rather than the severity of punishment. The Inquisition condemned his ideas. For the Churches the prime purpose was punishment and retribution, as affirmed by the Bible, not rehabilitation, which was not mentioned in the Bible. . . .

The idea that gaols should be primarily for rehabilitation was entirely a secular one. So were the beliefs that prisoners had rights; that they were entitled to basic sanitation, and freedom from flogging, torture and mutilation; and that they should receive access to medical attention, adequate nutrition, and education. . . .

[The following are captions accompanying photos on the webpage.]

[C]hurchmen branded people with crosses and with letters: A for Adulterer, B for Blasphemer, etc, Sometimes in the forehead, sometimes in the cheek, sometimes on the chin. . . . Prisoners were often chained to an immovable object, or to a heavy object . . . not only to immobilize the victim, but also to cause pain: note the spikes on the inside of the iron ring. . . . [In the Iron Shoe, a] screw mechanism allows the torturer to crush the victims foot. . . . [The Scold’s Bridle included] various mouth-pieces that can be fitted to restrict speach and cause acute pain. . . . [In the Iron Maiden,] the doors shut “slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms, and his legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.”

The Churches considered it wrong to attempt to eliminate poverty, since Jesus himself had given an assurance that the poor would always be with us. . . .

Oppression of the poor and aged has been common in all Christian countries. . . . On the other hand Churches have traditionally provided wealth and power to the younger sons of noble families whatever their beliefs. . . . Throughout Christendom the poorest were liable for a range of Church taxes. The nobility, which provided almost all senior ecclesiastics, was generally exempt. . . .

Not so long ago the rich sat at the front of the church and the poor at the back. Sometimes the rich took Communion on a different day from the poor, and sometimes the rich and poor were offered wine of different qualities. Some priests even preached that there were different heavens for the different sections of society . . . .

Churches have changed their ideas since secular principles of equality have become widely accepted. Few of them now use the third verse of the hymn All Things Bright And Beautiful although its truth was unimpeachable within living memory:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.

As in so many other areas of social improvement, the dynamos of change were almost all outside the mainstream Churches [being advocated instead by freethinkers, Utilitarians and Quakers]. . . .

[Photo caption:] Children were sold throughout Christendom . . . . This brace of babies was offered for sale around 1940 in France . . . .

Christians opposed all attempts at [workplace] reform, saying that existing conditions were natural, and reform was contrary to the Bible. Churchmen in the nineteenth century opposed the reduction in working hours, protection for women and children, and even safety legislation. Agitation to improve industrial working conditions came from freethinking Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham and J. S. Mill. Ideas like safe and hygienic factories, education for workers, and infant schools were pioneered by the philanthropist Robert Owen, who had rejected all religions at the age of 14 after reading Seneca. . . .

At this point, I desisted from providing additional long excerpts from BNAC on other subjects of interest or, should I say, disgust. Briefly, here are a few examples of what some of those summaries would have contained:

  • Family life. “Relying on biblical passages, early Christians inferred that family life was worthless and hailed virginity as the ideal.”
  • Slavery. “For many centuries slavery was perfectly acceptable to Christians . . . [who] used a number of Old and New Testament quotations to prove their case.”
  • Treatment of mental illness. “According to Christians, lunatics were possessed by unclean spirits. . . . [Thus] for many centuries no advance was made in understanding the nature of mental illness . . . . [and] many thousands of men, women and children, already burdened with madness, were confined in chains and subjected to routine torture.”
  • Abuse of animals. “The Church deduced that because animals did not possess souls, they were . . . disposable toys provided for mankind’s amusement. Activities in which animals were tortured for sport, were recorded without any hint that there might be anything wrong with them. . . .” (Examples: cat burnings; blood fiestas; dog fighting.)

About Christians Losing the Culture War

I have recently encountered several articles in which Christian writers talk about losing the culture war. This post focuses on a prominent example: an article in Time by Mary Eberstadt titled “Regular Christians Are No Longer Welcome in American Culture.” Eberstadt is promoting her book and, as this post demonstrates, she peddles falsehoods to excite the persecution narrative and stimulate sales.

I felt that Eberstadt’s title started off a bit strangely. What, exactly, is a “regular Christian”? Her article said she was referring to “American Christians who lean in toward traditionalism,” and she immediately restated that as “Traditional American Christians.”

But what is “traditional”? The answer is, it depends. For example, according to History.com, Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams in 1636 as a religious sanctuary against “the orthodoxy of New England Puritanism.” It seems the Puritans were the original “traditional American Christians.” But a funny thing has happened since then: they have pretty much vanished, being remembered nowadays as just one source upon which other Christian denominations draw.

Today, Baptists and Catholics would surely be considered “traditional American Christians” — and yet these were actually among the nontraditional types rejected by the Puritans. In this regard, Eberstadt made the mistake, common in Christian writing, of ignoring the history of her own religion. What was traditional in the 1600s is gone now; what is traditional now will probably be gone some day. That’s how it works. We don’t speak Middle English anymore; we don’t live in log cabins. Times change. The Baptists and the Catholics found a place in New England precisely because someone spoke up for those who were not the traditional American Christians of that time and place — just as Jesus did for the outcasts of his day.

As just noted, Eberstadt implies that the “Traditional American Christian” is a person who “leans in toward traditionalism.” But that’s not necessarily true. The Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians — these are among today’s mainstream, traditional Christian denominations in the United States. But being a traditional American Christian in that sense does not necessarily make a person a traditionalist in daily life. Among the members of those denominations, you don’t see much interest in, say, a Mormon-style emphasis on modest, traditional clothing. Nor do the teachings of the mainstream denominations necessarily result in mainstream beliefs among their members. Churchgoers often say they listen to the sermon, but don’t necessarily agree with everything in it. Silver (2013) offers research on atheists who attend churches for reasons of family, social connections, and church-related activities. From the Lutherans to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christianity’s thousands (some say tens of thousands) of denominations and sects exist because of the fact dramatized in the “West Wing” TV show: people feel entitled to pick and choose Bible passages, emphasizing those they like, and ignoring (or inventing alternate interpretations for) those they dislike.

Eberstadt is herself an example of this nontraditionalism among people who might claim to be traditional Christians. According to Family Life (Rainey, 2002), Eberstadt’s role as a married woman is supposed to be as follows:

  1. Be a helper to your husband.
  2. Respect your husband.
  3. Love your husband.
  4. Submit to the leadership of your husband.

Supporting such conclusions, Family Life quotes numerous Bible passages, starting with Genesis 2:18, in which God’s stated purpose in creating woman was “to make a ‘helper suitable for'” the man. But that is a gentle way of putting it. Valerie Tarico cites the Bible as the foundation upon which traditional theologians described woman as “the devil’s gateway” (Tertullian) and “an instrument of death leading to all perdition” and that this is “why today she is placed below and that she bears within her ignominy and shame” (Calvin). Tarico further cites Bible passages stating that a wife is a man’s property; a daughter can be sold, and a raped daughter can be sold to her rapist; menstruating women are spiritually unclean; and so forth.

Eberstadt is no doubt a good person in many ways. But her concept of tradition depends on the selective, self-serving style of interpretation commonly taught in Bible study. One hopes that, somewhere in her writings, she has honestly admitted that, historically speaking, she is a liberal, not traditional at all — that, traditionally, she would not be voting, would not be telling men what to think, and would not have had an opportunity for higher education. She apparently wants to wrap herself in the mantle of tradition, without doing the hard work of actually returning to where tradition has historically kept women, in this country and elsewhere.

So I think what Eberstadt really means is not “traditional” but rather “conservative.” She doesn’t seem dedicated to a return to traditional ways. She just prefers a go-slow approach. And that is not necessarily bad. There will always be a tension between those who leap at opportunities and those who urge us to look before we leap. The leapers and the lookers can produce a beneficial balance. But this doesn’t make either superior. There are risks and advantages in both directions. Some people are rich or successful because they were careful; some are poor or unsuccessful for the same reason.

Conservatism is particularly interesting in Eberstadt’s “culture war” context. Let us be clear: Christians of her type are not suddenly losing a culture war. The more accurate statement is that they are always losing the culture war, because they are always fearfully clinging onto past ways, afraid of losing the advantages that they have enjoyed as established members of a dominant community, looking down on minorities and outsiders. Conservative churches are often depicted (and in many cases deserve to be depicted) as narrowminded, hypocritical, judgmental places where “our type” of people pat each other on the back for helping to preserve their own advantages and fantasies.

Slavery is an example. As conservatives — that is, usually following rather than leading social, political, and economic trends — Christians have a history of widely accepting and supporting slavery. As another example, for some reason, “Thou shalt not kill” has not resonated against the wars, murders, and other horrific crimes recorded in the Bible and practiced by Christians down through the centuries.

But, whoa, same-sex marriage! Now that is evil. More to the point, it is a new thing and, to a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, that tends to mean it’s probably bad. Again, it’s not that the knee-jerk conservative reaction is intrinsically wrong; it’s that many conservatives don’t seem to want to stop and think about their own habit of stopping and thinking. Let’s just pull the brakes on everything, and then be dragged into it anyway, kicking and screaming and feeling wronged. Consider the criteria by which Wheaton College decided who would be eligible to join its faculty in the 1920s (Cole, 2008, pp. 252-253):

To prospective instructors a questionnaire is submitted bearing such interrogations as . . . “Do you dance, play cards, attend theatres, attend movies, or associate with worldly people in other amusements such as are indicated above?”

We, today, might find this absolutely bizarre — that God forgot to put in the Bible that he did not want people to play solitaire or even watch movies about Jesus. And yet that was the conservative Christian mindset a hundred years ago — culminating in (among other things) the disastrous social experiment known as Prohibition. Not that anything was learned from that fiasco: conservatives needed to inflict it upon us again, once again at enormous cost to lives and nation, in the mindless War on Drugs. This is where conservatism becomes most dangerous: when it radically departs from tradition, in pursuit of a harsh and unrealistic dream.

Gay marriage is relatively new; we did not have it when the Constitution was written, 200+ years ago. But then, we did not have bicycles 200 years ago either. When the newfangled bicycle contraption did come into existence, it remained in the legal shadows: for seventy years, according to Wikipedia, cyclists were given “no legal right to use the roads or walkways.” In other words, the gay movement itself only started in the 1960s. We had gay people; we had marriage; we had gay people who wanted to marry. We just didn’t have a political environment in which that desire could be taken seriously. The question did not previously have political force. Now is the first time when it has become a real possibility on a national level. There is no golden past to go back to, other than the centuries when supposedly respectable Christians were comfortable with an arrangement in which gay people had to lie about who they were and what they wanted.

There is no legal right to force gays to endure a substandard existence. That’s what the courts have decided, now that the question has been squarely presented for consideration. But the more shocking fact is that there is no religious right to do that either. A growing number of mainline Christian denominations have concluded that the matter is not so simple. For one thing, if homosexuality were so terribly important, why would Jesus overlook it? In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said nary a word about homosexuality, but had strong words against adultery and divorce. Much the same is true throughout the Bible. So why aren’t Christians distinguishing themselves with a principled demand for laws forbidding adulterers or divorcees to remarry? Because that would be unpopular. Frankly speaking, it would cut too close to the collection plate.

Christianity purports to be following in Christ’s footsteps. But in fact it often does the opposite. Just like the Jews of Jesus’s time, so-called Christians like Eberstadt reject his concept of Messiah. In both cases, it was because he came as a savior, not as a conqueror. Specifically, Eberstadt wants victory in the cultural war. She cites abortion as an area in which Christians are losing. And yet what kind of “Christian” would be involved in such a struggle? Abortion was a reality in ancient Rome. Jesus himself was a survivor of Herod’s notorious Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus was eminently qualified and able to make abortion a big issue, if he considered it one. He didn’t. The abortion fight gets people upset and excited, but it doesn’t make them the least bit Christlike. Others have been trying to tell them this for the past forty years. But they just haven’t wanted to hear it. Being Christlike is not their priority; they would rather fight and attack people than seek the truth. And so we follow this twisted path to Eberstadt’s complaint about losing the culture war — to which the schoolyard retort is quite apt: if you can’t finish it, don’t start it. Stop inventing reasons to pick on people. Mind your own business. Or as Jesus put it, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Eberstadt cites “school prayer” as another front on which today’s alleged Christians are losing the cultural war. Some want to force kids of all denominations to pray together in public schools. The underlying fantasy appears to be that most Americans are Christians and, as such, are apt to construe prayer in approximately the same way. If that fantasy had any truth to it, we would see those schoolkids’ Catholic and Protestant parents praying together in their churches. These people want to bully teachers and school administrators into achieving an ideal unity that they, themselves, do not even hope to achieve. And so Eberstadt would return us to the mindset of the Dark Ages: if you can’t persuade the Jews, Muslims, pagans, and agnostics through the strength of your ideas, then hammer them with the force of your laws. Forward to the Crusades!

Alternately, there is the quest for voluntary school prayer opportunities — “voluntary” in the sense that the kids will supposedly not be browbeaten into participating in it when, in point of fact, their parents are being forced to accept it. Once again, we have a muscular, coercive, conquering concept of Christian faith that involves shoving one’s beliefs down another person’s throat. It is more the mentality of the Spanish Inquisition than of the New Testament. People who are mindful of the religion’s history can plainly see that such efforts besmirch the name of the God who gets dragged into it. But people who are willing to see the religion’s history in that light are not likely to remain within it. The ones who are left seem, too often, to be those who don’t want to know the truth.

Eberstadt’s article contains a remarkable number of borderline and just plain false statements. An example of the latter: “Religious expression is under attack,” she says, because of recent events, “including the Supreme Court decision overruling Texas’ restrictions on abortion clinics.” That Supreme Court decision had nothing to do with religious expression. According to Fox News, conservatives criticized that decision on grounds that it “erodes States’ lawmaking authority to safeguard the health and safety of women and subjects more innocent life to being lost” (quoting Texas Governor Greg Abbott). There is not a single reference to “expression” in that Fox News writeup of the Supreme Court decision, nor in the writeup offered by the conservative Wall Street Journal.

Eberstadt complains that people like her can no longer count on receiving “civil criticism of people’s most-cherished beliefs.” That complaint is disingenuous. What are a Christian’s most-cherished beliefs? A search leads to such topics as the deity of Christ, his resurrection, and salvation by grace. Eberstadt’s article is not about anything of the sort. Instead, she offers the example of a teacher in New Jersey who was suspended for giving a student a Bible. She doesn’t mention that the act violated a school policy against distributing religious literature on school grounds. (If necessary, think “Koran” or “porn” or “hand grenade,” instead of “Bible,” to be reminded of why a school district might try to discourage teachers from creating unnecessary controversies involving middle-school students and their parents.) In other words, there are multiple problems with Eberstadt’s example: it’s not about uncivil remarks, nor about anyone’s “most-cherished beliefs”; it is not a deliberate suppression of Christianity (suspension would have been equally appropriate for an atheist teacher giving a student a leaflet attacking the Bible); and all of these facts are left unmentioned, in hopes of tricking Eberstadt’s reader into believing something that is not true.

Eberstadt wants to bemoan the disappearance of “civil criticism” among those who question her beliefs. Let me offer a clue: lying for the Lord is not going to promote the desired civility. She is jumping into combat on some of the nation’s most contentious issues; she is firing at the enemy — sometimes making statements that, as shown here, are downright nonsense — and then she is complaining that the enemy shoots back. If Eberstadt were to completely rewrite her piece in a spirit of Christian humility, with a visible commitment to be honest and fair in her remarks about her own beliefs and those of others, then (a) Time probably wouldn’t publish it, because it wouldn’t contain all this posturing on behalf of the self-styled righteous, and (b) on the other hand, readers not similarly minded might find it more difficult to dismiss her as one more phony self-congratulator.

Eberstadt admits the great difference between “the horrors of ISIS-led genocide against Christians in the Middle East and what Pope Francis calls the ‘polite persecution’ of believers in the West.” Regrettably, she goes on to muddle that with a complaint that “some American citizens are fearful of expressing their religious views.” Well, yes, and some people are fearful of leaving their bedrooms. The fact of fear does not demonstrate the existence of a genuine threat. When 63% of us are absolutely certain God exists and an overwhelming 77% describe themselves as religiously affiliated (to cite the numbers quoted in her article), it is doubtful that most American Christians experience anywhere near the persecution experienced by American atheists (~3% of Americans). Moreover, among Christians who do fear ridicule, some deserve it: to varying degrees Christians themselves ridicule others.

Simply put, Christian belief per se is not being widely persecuted, politely or otherwise. What Eberstadt characterizes as persecution seems, for the most part, to be just the logical elimination of theories that do not stand up to scrutiny. There certainly are reasons why an intelligent person would doubt Christianity. It has had its share of high-profile fakes and frauds. It makes excessive and false claims about itself. When your religion conflates its most solemn holy events with the Easter Bunny and with one of ancient Rome’s biggest party times, you can expect people to wonder whether it is for real.

Eberstadt offers a separate set of examples in support of her claim that “Some Christian institutions face pressure to conform to secularist ideology.” But that’s America. It is a secularist nation. We have never had a state religion. At times, the secular state and the religious preference are going to conflict. At those times, the secular state will tend to prevail, because the country does not exist to serve the religion. As a different example, some Jewish people treat the U.S. as if its purpose were to serve Israel. As with Eberstadt, their wish is not reality, nor should it be.

She offers the example of Gordon College, which came under fire for policies that seemed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. So, OK, let us review: you aren’t supposed to discriminate in America. We are all supposed to be equals here. Christians may not like it — they may want to shove the gays back into the dark — but fortunately their attitudes do not control the law of this land. Even so, on the particular issues in the Gordon case, a Christian lawyer’s analysis concludes that Gordon’s position has enjoyed the support of law, right up to the Supreme Court. That hardly points toward what Eberstadt decries as “an insidious intolerance for religion.” Another article suggests that, in fact, it is the school’s LGBT students “who feel they can’t say anything out of fear about what that will do to their college experience.”

In America, Christians have enjoyed virtually limitless opportunities to organize their practices, research their claims, market their views, and attack their opponents. After all that, if they still cannot achieve anything like the growing popularity of the first-century Christian movement that began with Jesus, it is fair to suggest that perhaps they are not really very much in touch with Jesus after all. In that case, Jesus made clear what he would say to such people: “I never knew you. Depart from me!” As the Matthew Henry commentary says about that,

Christ here shows that it will not be enough to own him for our Master, only in word and tongue. It is necessary to our happiness that we believe in Christ, that we repent of sin, that we live a holy life, that we love one another.

This article demonstrates the falsehood of arguments by which Mary Eberstadt tries to engage would-be Christians in fights that detract from the message of Christ. Replace people like Eberstadt with genuinely Christ-seeking writers who are committed to finding the truth, humble about what they know, and loving of others, and then let us revisit the questions of whether there is really a problem of religious intolerance in today’s America, and of whether followers of Christ should be jumping into a war to control the nation’s culture.

Lying for the Lord: The Fundamentalist Christian Minister as B.S. Artist

Contents

Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion
Focus: Pathological Christian Lying
Case in Point: Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher
The Core Epistemological Issue
Conclusion

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Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion

In a previous post (How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian), I mentioned a term I had heard from some Mormons: “lying for the Lord.” I had experienced something similar as a fundamentalist Christian. The concept was that we wanted and were expected to present our Christian faith in the most positive light, so as to persuade others to join us and be saved. We would lie about what we were actually experiencing, so as to make our lives and beliefs sound superior and desirable.

As described in another post (Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God), we were similarly untruthful in our interpretation of scripture: we would ignore what it actually said, time after time; we would invent bizarre readings that would give us some excuse to claim that the Bible was what we wanted it to be. We were not at all honest about the scriptural difficulties arising from our mode of interpretation, choosing instead to force-fit biblical texts to our preconceived notions.

This urge to twist the religion in one’s preferred direction is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Loren Franck discusses “Ten Lies I Told as a Mormon Missionary.” Further afield, in a New York Times editorial, Mustafa Akyol states that Islam traditionally considers it blasphemous to mock Mohammed, and treats such blasphemy as a capital crime — and yet such views are not based on the actual words of the Quran (Koran), but were rather invented and added to the Islamic religion by later scholars to serve political purposes. As another example, scholars (e.g., Obekesekere, 2004, pp. 253-254; Seshadri, 1992) have indicated that so-called Hindu fundamentalism is another modern concept invented for political reasons, and is supported by neither the texts nor the traditions of Hinduism.

This post focuses on Christian falsehood simply because that is where I have personal experience. In the posts cited above, I described my own growing awareness that we Christians were lying to ourselves and to others. I was not alone in becoming aware of Christian untruthfulness. For example:

  • Brother Ken at Burning Bush Christian Crusades suggests that professing Christians lie because they have ceased to fear eternal damnation and because they have lost their reverence and respect for God.
  • Jaimee at CloseYourEyesDream.com says that Christians embellish their stories and tell white lies, in mundane day-to-day interactions, for reasons such as immaturity, lack of devotion to God, rebelliousness, and desire to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
  • Peter Davids concludes that Christians lie about sex in order to maintain a hypocritical denial of their own sexuality.
  • Jon Acuff proposes that Chrstians — especially pastors — lie “To hide what they’ve done or hide the fact they’re still not the person they wanted to be by now.”

The problem of lying has been acknowledged by Christian ministers, writers, and scholars. For instance:

  • In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wonders, “Why do Christians lie about each other so much?” Stetzer points out that such behavior violates the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness [or “give false testimony”] against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That particular form of deception is distinct from the more general command of Leviticus 19:11: “Do not lie to one another.” Stetzer says, “We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because [we believe] they were being passionate for truth.” Stetzer seems to be correctly recognizing that Christians do not necessarily see God’s truth as forming a cohesive whole: they may decide that God would want them to defend a seemingly big truth by telling a seemingly small lie.
  • On the question of “Why Christians lie,” Jenny Rae Armstrong says, “I’ve had one too many friends leave the church because [their sincere questions were met] with a horrified gasp, followed by impassioned arguments that . . . came across as either ignorant or disingenuous.” Armstrong offers the example of political debate, where “we can get pretty worked up about those issues, defending our side at all costs, even when it compromises our character.” She suggests that such behavior, inconsistent with “the gentle humility with which Christians are supposed to express their faith,” arises partly from fear that the nonbeliever’s question is a good one to which the believer does not have an answer.
  • In an article in Relevant magazine, John Piper reviews a number of Bible passages and concludes that “lying may be acceptable in rare situations” but also that “the Bible never commends lying.” To the contrary, he says, “The mind has to be filled with falsehood-fighting truth”; the believer’s faith can conquer “the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and possessions that causes us to distort the truth.”

Google searches (1 and 2) led me, not only to the foregoing examples, but also to other writers who describe their own problems with and/or reasons for leaving fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the unnamed author of the Path of the Beagle blog says he had been a creationist for 20 years; but when it came time to decide whether to send his kids to a Christian college, he ran into difficulties. The most upsetting discovery, he reports, was that “the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me.” For him, this creation issue was “a real wake-up call.” Similarly, in an article on ExChristian.net, Michael Runyan reports difficulties with creationism among numerous other problems in Christian belief. On the subject of truth, he observes that Christianity has “overvalued the exercise of faith, or believing in things without supporting evidence” that “allows for unscrupulous people to dupe others into accepting on faith a false promise or assertion.” Such remarks suggest that believers as well as nonbelievers may be best served by a determined orientation toward honest truthseeking.

Focus: Pathological Christian Lying

People are often tempted to lie to protect or to advance themselves. With some frequency, they also encounter opportunities to lie on behalf of friends and family members. In addition, it is quite common to lie, and to be expected to lie, in service of one’s employer, customer, or client. A person who has no employer, no friends, no surviving family members, and few personal interests or ambitions, will tend to have fewer opportunities and motives for lying. Another way to think of it: juggling more balls at once will tend to increase their likelihood of interfering or colliding with one another.

So it seems that, if you consider it highly important not to lie, you would be well advised not to acquire many obligations, connections, and interests. Conversely, as you acquire more obligations, connections, and interests, it seems you may find it helpful, indeed necessary, to lie more frequently, on behalf of yourself and others. Failure to lie on cue — that is, being honest with people — may tend to result in the loss of various acquaintances and opportunities. Despite rare pockets of deep (but not absolutely reliable) integrity, deception (including failure to disclose information that a fully honest person would disclose) tends to pervade interpersonal interactions.

The sources cited above, and my own experience, suggest that Christian faith is an important interest. Adding it to one’s life greatly increases the number of things to lie about. That increase is especially likely if one’s chosen form of Christian faith entails — as fundamentalism does — conflict or incompatibility with a vast number of people, ideas, and experiences arising in daily life. It can feel as if everything, everywhere, is set against the Christian fundamentalist. There is a fundamentalist response — that this conspiracy of nontruth stems from Satan — but such a dramatic explanation is not necessary, nor does it address the command’s expectation: regardless of satanic influence, do not lie. Period.

No doubt the situation becomes less difficult when one does not know, or seriously care, what one’s religious texts or leaders may say. Countless people have attended Sunday morning church services, year after year, with little interest in theology, philosophy, science, or other intellectual areas in which their professed faith raises major issues. That is, even within Christian fundamentalism — even within a specific congregation — people may vary widely in the extent to which they see any need to distort facts or avoid the truth. It is no doubt possible to avoid some lies by avoiding certain kinds of discussion or lines of thought. Not that such evasion would make one more truthful; it may be merely a means of simplification.

There are also, no doubt, many people whose limited mental capacity leaves them unable to engage in deliberate falsehood on matters of religious belief. People can have brain damage; they can be severely short of logical capacity; they may operate under pervasive misconceptions that somehow leave them unable to grasp seemingly elementary conclusions. In the terms used by Jenny Rae Armstrong (above), there may be a distinction between those who are ignorant and those who are disingenuous, although determined ignorance probably amounts to deliberate deception.

Much the same could be said about fear. Fear plays a great role in the deceptions practiced by many Christian believers. People can be so afraid of eternal damnation that they hesitate to question their faith or otherwise step out of line. For social reasons, likewise, people may have simply concluded that a dedicated pursuit of truth often entails serious risks to personal survival in this world.

A concern with pathological lying begins to emerge, then, among certain subsets of Christian fundamentalists. Those subsets may include people who would commit any evil in order to save themselves, and those (e.g., ministers) who have a demonstrated commitment to or investment in the assumed truth of their beliefs. Such people could be honest about difficulties with Christian faith, but choose instead to cross the line, using falsehood and even absurdity to deceive people. When you see such behavior continuing for years on end, you might fairly ask whether this person is thriving in Christian fundamentalism precisely because s/he has no serious problem with the level of falsehood required to persist in that kind of belief.

Sarah Sumner examines such thoughts in a Christianity Today article titled “The Seven Levels of Lying.” Drawing on work by Budziszewski (2011), Sumner suggests that the most objectionable forms of lying are No. 6, “You develop your technique” and No. 7, “You see it as your duty to lie.” Within Sumner’s analysis, even these worst forms of lying are understandable when they seem to be required to survive and thrive within a dysfunctional family or bureaucracy. And that, in the view of many nonbelievers, is precisely the nature of fundamentalist Christianity: a dysfunctional entity compelling and/or encouraging falsehood. Consistent with that view, Dromedary Hump offers these quotes from famous historical Christian leaders:

Often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived. [John Chrysostom]

We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides. [Ignatius Loyola]

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them. [Martin Luther]

But one need not revert to historical texts for illustrations. A search leads readily to the continuing stream of scandals in which priests, preachers, and evangelists deceive their congregations and the public about assorted financial, sexual, and psychological abuses. It does not appear that people of this nature would be good guides in the matter of how to live one’s life, much less the truth about one’s eternal salvation.

One often hears such people called “pathological liars.” But that does not seem like the right term. In an article in Psychiatric Times, Charles C. Dike (2008) notes that pathological lying (PL) is not a settled psychiatric diagnosis within the psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (See also Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, 2013.) Dike suggests there is nonetheless some consensus as to the core elements of PL: “excessive lying, easily verifiable to be untrue, mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way, and even possibly harmful to the liar, yet told repeatedly over time.”

Note, then, that — at least by that sense of the term — a good liar and a pathological liar are two very different things. The person who obtains success, wealth, and/or power by deceiving and manipulating people may have some other kind of mental health issue, but s/he would not be a pathological liar — would not be, that is, telling falsehoods that are “easily verifiably to be untrue” or “mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way.” His/her success comes precisely because s/he is good at misleading people.

Pathological lying (PL) — like psychopath and sociopath — is a popular assessment, used in assorted and sometimes conflicting ways, sometimes based on knowledge and experience but often abused by people with poor training or no training in mental health. A search leads to any number of people who claim expertise on the matter. For example,

  • WikiHow defines a pathological liar as “someone who tells lies habitually, chronically and compulsively. It has simply become a way of life for this person, to make up things for a variety of reasons and eventually, the truth becomes uncomfortable while weaving whoppers feels right to them. This kind of lying tends to develop early on in life, often as a response to difficult home or school situations that seemed to resolve better if the child lied. It’s a bad habit, not a manipulative trait — this is how to differentiate a pathological liar from a sociopath who does seek to manipulate.”
  • LoveToKnow says, “Pathological liars are people who tells lies when there is no clear benefit for them to do so. An individual who is not a pathological liar may lie to avoid punishment or ridicule. He or she may be less-than-truthful to avoid hurting someone else. When the problem of lying is at the point where the person is unable to control it, that person is considered to be a pathological liar. Even though pathological lying isn’t listed in the [DSM], it is considered a disease by some experts.”
  • New Health Guide says, in somewhat similar terms, that “A pathological liar lies compulsively and impulsively, almost without thinking about the consequences of his action. He lies regularly on a spontaneous basis even if he gains no benefit from it, or even if he traps himself into it. A pathological liar cannot control his impulse to lie and it is usually a self-defeating trait.”

Those materials suggest several observations. First, it may be true that — as I was informed by a source that I have cited in another post — the ministry is one of the ten professions most likely to attract psychopaths. Especially when one enters the arena of wildly unrealistic and dishonest claims about Christian faith and practice, It may take a remarkably cold and clever manipulator to keep on preaching, week after week, without any concern for the kinds of problems that I have discussed in the posts cited above. It is certainly interesting to read the suggestion, by Pater Familias, that “many fundamentalist Christians become atheists in college or seminary.”

Of course, not every minister is a televangelist with a congregation of thousands. As I know from observing the work of the Lutheran minister for whom I was an office assistant during high school, many work for a pittance, struggling to keep their congregations going despite congregational politics and negative and sometimes abusive parishioners. Ministers of this ilk — and many of the confused congregants who spend their week ping-ponging among dissonant theories of what God wants and what they have been doing right and wrong — may come closer to the concept of pathological lying. They are not seriously attempting to manipulate anyone, and would rarely be able to do so. They are just trying to string together a chaotic pack of random ideas in a bid to say something that, to them, sounds good at the moment — even if it does strike the casual listener as grotesque self-deception. This behavior often entails great costs, in terms of time and money wasted and opportunities foregone, including other careers that the minister might have pursued, and more truthful (and, probably, more rewarding) ways of pursuing his/her religious calling.

Dike distinguishes pathological lies from other kinds of disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) by their “elaborate, fantastic, or complicated nature.” That description does seem applicable to the tangled webs of doctrine, and the incredible supernatural entities and events, with which fundamentalists weave together their ideas about themselves and their world. Dike also distinguishes “the blurring of fact and fiction that occurs in PL” from “the absolute conviction” experienced by delusional persons — which is interesting, in light of the contrast between the extraordinary claims that contemporary Christians make about miracles and other supernatural events, and the limited extent to which they demonstrate real belief in such phenomena.

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

This tentative impression should be cushioned, again, with the warnings that pathological lying is not an established psychiatric diagnosis and that, if it is to be used, one might consider it a call for compassion, not a charge of willful manipulation. Without denying the harm done by such beliefs, nor for that matter the positive aspects of religious belief and community, in these specific ways these people are confused and, for the most part, cannot be helped, but are rather left to help themselves, often by growing more relaxed and less serious about the most problematic aspects of their faith.

Case in Point:
Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher

I had been vaguely curious about lying by Christian preachers ever since hearing about Marjoe Gortner, an evangelist who exposed fraud within the world of fundamentalist ministry, in a production that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I lost touch with that sort of thing, later in the 1970s, when I rejected fundamentalism as a route to spiritual truth — although I did hear, with the rest of America, about fraudulent and abusive priests and evangelists throughout the years to come.

Despite my rejection of fundamentalism, I remained in loose contact with several fundamentalists, including a few with religious training and/or positions in the ministry. I was moved to write this post after repeated Facebook encounters with one of them. I was not deeply acquainted with that preacher (referred to here as “Jack”) and his wife (“Jill”); but within my face-to-face experience they were generous, nonjudgmental, and basically kind people. As often happens, however, our online interactions tended to highlight differences in our viewpoints. It was harder to think of the person as a whole, and to disregard various absurd or offensive things that s/he might say, when written expression became our primary means of interaction.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. First, as detailed below, I wanted to wrap up that series of Facebook encounters with Jack. Over a period of months, I had concluded that Jack was wasting my time with insincere and sometimes ridiculous remarks. It seemed best to unfriend him, so as to eliminate that source of fruitless distraction, and to direct him to this post if he was interested in an explanation.

Unfriending Jack on Facebook did not necessarily imply ceasing to be friends in fact; that would depend on future developments. Indeed, it seemed that removing Facebook from the equation might actually be beneficial to the friendship. At this point, it could hardly hurt. So it seemed appropriate to compose this explanation, and to leave it to him to see if he could understand and respond appropriately to it.

Second, I decided to write this post because, as in other posts in this blog, I had prior personal experience that I thought might be useful to others. As noted above, I, myself, had been a lying inventor of bogus “explanations” for the problems that arise when one takes a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. In that role, I may well have contributed to the confusion and pain experienced by fellow believers. I certainly was not contributing to any real solutions. As I observed various things that Jack and Jill posted on Facebook, I became concerned at the damage that they, and others like them, might be doing. I had been hearing, for some years, about what might have happened if people had not looked the other way when they found priests and ministers misbehaving. It seemed appropriate, indeed obligatory, to speak up.

So, as I say, I found myself engaged in repeated disagreements with Jack and Jill on Facebook. In the early months, these were limited to the occasional expression of dissent on some random item. Once, for example, Jill posted something like this:

2015-01-07-VaccineTrumptweetborder

I don’t believe that was the actual item; it is just an illustration of the type of thing she posted. In this case, it was something about vaccines for children. She added a remark; as I recall, it was, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

I was aware that some parents were afraid that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were supposed to prevent. But as far as I knew (and as still appears to be true), adverse reactions were rare and generally less harmful than the diseases in question. Indeed, it appeared that those who refused to vaccinate their children could pose an unreasonable threat to others. So I posted a reply, saying something like, “Polio, measles, tuberculosis — who would want to go back to that?”

There were several similar exchanges. At some point, reviewing my Facebook history, I noticed that Jill seemed to have deleted some of the posts to which I had objected, including the one about vaccines. It occurred to me that perhaps I had sensitized her to the existence of alternate viewpoints of which she had been unaware — that maybe I had helped her to recognize the foolishness of some of the things that others had been telling her. It was gratifying to imagine that I might have introduced some caution into her sharing of potentially harmful advice with members of her congregation.

Meanwhile, it appeared, for a time, that Jack enjoyed online debate. That was not the impression he had given in person. When talking in person, he had sometimes dominated the conversation, going on and on about his beliefs. I understood his viewpoint — as I say, I had been a fundamentalist and a pre-ministry student myself — but he had not seemed reciprocally inclined to understand and explore my views. Since then, online, he had described himself as not being open-minded. At some point I concluded that he was, ultimately, the typical preacher, primarily interested in telling you what to think, and not very interested in learning whether his way might be imperfect or just plain wrong.

So, to continue with the example of vaccines, eventually I did come to realize that Jill had not in fact learned anything from my remarks about vaccines. She was still agreeing with Jack, months later, when he posted this on that subject:

I have been accused of being crazy because I do not use vaccinations for my kids or myself as a general rule. If I suggest other listen to why I feel this way, then words like medieval, barbarian, cave man, etc. are thrown around. The only argument for being totally for vaccination that I have heard is the elimination of polio, or smallpox.

This seems like a pretty good argument, though, right? Let us explore this argument for a minute. The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: If by vaccinations we can eliminate the deadly disease polio, then all vaccines are good and acceptable to be used on every child starting with the day they are born. . . .

Who oversees the production of Vaccines? Government. Did you just shudder? I know I did! . . .

So, really, am I really that crazy? You do what you want. I will not call you crazy, even if I know better. I will walk the path I have chosen, regardless of your choices and demonizing of my choice.

To me, it seemed that anyone who had looked into vaccines at all would know that they were tested individually. There was no simpleminded acceptance of any and all vaccines, across the board, merely because the polio vaccine worked many years ago.

It was also obvious that the government of the U.S. had achieved remarkable successes, in projects that nobody else was inclined to tackle. Examples over the previous two centuries had included the fighting of the Civil and World wars, developing a reliable post office, breaking up monopolies, building an interstate highway system, and landing people on the moon. The presidents pursuing such projects, Democrat and Republican alike, had enjoyed wide public support for such initiatives. Certainly there were major mistakes in those and other projects. But it made no sense to speak as though governmental involvement, in itself, would automatically imply poor quality in a specific vaccination project.

In that area of vaccines, and elsewhere, Jack did not seem motivated to look into the facts of the matter before telling others what to think. Instead, he was content to hold forth with an uninformed opinion, notwithstanding its potential to cause serious harm to less educated or less capable people, including his own children, who might be depending on him or looking to him for guidance. In the case of vaccines, he and Jill persisted in this approach despite his report (above) that numerous others had challenged it. He received those challenges, not as evidence that he might be mistaken, but rather as “demonization,” as though others had behaved inappropriately in pointing out real dangers in his words and acts.

Over the months, Jack challenged a number of items that I had posted on Facebook. He was not the only person to express disagreement with such items. In his case, unfortunately, the challenges did not entail reasonable give and take, where one would strive to understand the opposing viewpoint before trying to rebut it, much less acknowledge credible aspects of that opposing viewpoint. Here, again, Jack admitted that he was not interested in an openminded pursuit of truth. He demonstrated no willingness to seek truths that might be painful or inconsistent with his preferred beliefs. Nor did he demonstrate anything resembling Armstrong’s gentle Christian humility (above). He did not even make a serious attempt at logical argument. The situation seemed to be that he knew himself to be right, on a given issue; he accepted that others were too blind to perceive their wrongness; and he was not very motivated to demonstrate his rightness and their wrongness in much detail. He just contented himself with tossing out a few hints pointing toward his personal wisdom, and leaving others to find their own way toward him and his Truth.

I don’t intend those remarks sarcastically. In all seriousness, that did appear to be how he saw things. Moreover, his propensity to insulate himself from reality was not limited to people like me, or to venues like Facebook. He was also insulating himself from the patent facts of his own scriptures. Jesus was not known for his love of guns and his insistence on a right to carry weapons, to cite another of Jack’s predictable areas of interest. (Jack would go on to start a sporting goods store, so that he could sell guns for the Lord.) Jesus was also not famous for his views for or against particular politicians.

Indeed, a casual reader of the New Testament might conclude that Jesus’s tendencies often ran somewhat opposite to Jack’s. What Jack knew was not really Jesus; it was just the culture into which he, Jack, had been born, and the ways in which that culture had distorted Christ’s life and words for its own purposes. Jack seemed to be the kind of person who, born in Iraq instead of the U.S., would have defended his family’s version of Shiite or Sunni Islam with the same narrowminded indifference to truth, selectively adopting or ignoring facts and arguments as needed to arrive at his preferred conclusions.

A few examples may help to illustrate the situation. Consider Jack’s responses to a cartoon I posted on Facebook:

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The cartoon could have said more — about the European wars of religion, for instance, and about the Spanish Inquisition, and about the behavior of conquering Christians in the New World, indeed about the history of Christian slaughter and torture going back to the time of Gregory of Tours, never mind the attitudes of people like Jack toward American behavior in the Islamic world over the past two decades — but the basic point was clear enough. Christianity has been secularized and restricted by relatively unsympathetic governments and societies in the West, and has thus become less of a threat in recent centuries; but its history presents grounds for serious concern that, if such controls were removed, people would once again be committing enormous atrocities in the name of Christ.

Jack did not want those things to be true of his religion. Like most fundamentalists, he was not very interested in the long and horrible record of violence committed by so-called Christians. He preferred to assume, as Christians have doubtless assumed for centuries, that his generation would be different. So in response to that cartoon, Jack posted several long tirades filled with tangential and in some cases nonsensical remarks. Each time, I replied with relatively brief rebuttals. I can illustrate the tenor of those exchanges with this excerpt from one of my rebuttals:

Jack, your remarks seem incoherent. I did clearly distinguish the fundamentalist branch of Christianity. See previous comment. It is self-contradictory to refer to the liberals as a mere “fringe” and then say they are responsible for causing wars: fringes do not have that power. Such a claim is also historically ignorant: there were virtually no Christian liberals at the time of the Crusades and the European wars of religion. Do present-day fundamentalists submit to secular government? Only by force. For decades, they have been seeking to make it less secular and more theocratic: Ten Commandments in public places, for example. Finally, I don’t know whom you’re accusing of defending Radical Islam; that’s certainly not me.

Of course, it would be easier to interpret that excerpt if I were to provide the words, from Jack, to which I was responding. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because, after several lengthy discourses, Jack decided to go back and delete all of his comments. I think that may have been the only time, in my several years of using Facebook, when anyone has done that. It seemed odd. Eventually, however, he did offer a bit of an explanation for this behavior, in a concluding post that ran to 419 words (i.e., the equivalent of nearly two double-spaced typed pages). Here is an excerpt:

If you feel I was calling you disingenuous, then that was not my intention. I said it seems disingenuous to hold all of Christianity accountable for the past actions of a few, then excuse a few Islamic groups using the past actions of that same “few” of Christianity. . . . I have not wish to further argue with you on the subject. If I would have wished to continue in the argument then I would have not erased the comments I have made. From any outside observer stumbling across this thread, It will appear you are the king of the hill on your Facebook page. If your goal is to stand uncontested in your opinions, then you have achieved it. You win. If you want to convince me that you have the right-headed thinking, then you will probably never win. I am as set in my ways as, I hope, you are in yours. . . . If you were offended by me calling you disingenuous, then I do sincerely apologize. . . . I am sorry I cannot do more for your complaints than this. God Bless you.

So, to paraphrase, Jack admitted calling me disingenuous, but also said he did not intend to call me disingenuous. What was disingenuous, he said, was to hold all Christians accountable for the past actions of “a few” — where Jack’s concept of a “few” can include a good chunk of the population of Europe. He did not clearly explain why he would remove his comments, but it sounds like he wanted to make it appear that I was arguing with myself. He started the debate, but then characterized my replies as “complaints” with which he was trying to offer assistance.

This did not seem to be the behavior of a sincere debater of belief. Frankly, given his repeated indications that he was set in his ways and intended to remain so, it seemed to be the behavior of a troll — of, that is, someone who had no genuine interest in shared pursuit of the truth of a matter, but who simply liked to provoke disagreements. It appeared that, when someone took the bait, he would treat their response as an invitation to share his own views at length — not for the purpose of genuine engagement or learning, but merely to preach.

That impression probably would have been too hasty, despite the absurdities in Jack’s argument, if we had just gone back and forth once or twice about that cartoon. It seemed less hasty, however, as the matter dragged out over the course of a week, each day bringing a new tirade. Some skepticism toward Jack also seemed appropriate in light of his reactions to a number of my other Facebook posts. Here is an example of a photo, to which Jack responded and I replied as follows:

Fracking

JACK: Oh no! the poor fish! (as I am filling up on gas that is cheaper than it has been in years)

ME: Unbelievable.

ME: Jack, maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. It sounds supremely ignorant. Do you not go fishing multiple times per week?

JACK: I do not go fishing several times a week, right now. I have been fishing several times a week, though. What about any of you guys? Do you people like to fish?

Nobody replied to Jack’s question. I admit: as my reply indicates, he was becoming tiresome.

On multiple occasions, as in that example, Jack started by questioning or ridiculing what I had posted — but then, when I challenged his remarks, he would try to change the subject, or would claim that it was all just a matter of opinion or belief, and there was no point debating it. But it was not a matter of belief: it was a matter of real-world actions and their consequences.

Such exchanges seemed to support the widespread perception that Christian fundamentalists use the Bible as an excuse for sociopolitical views that do not always make much sense — and that, if they were in power, they would behave as fools who (in the foregoing examples) would help to see the environment wrecked and the country ravaged by preventable disease. I would like to say that Jack was unusual — that other Christian fundamentalists, in other private and public communications, have displayed far more responsibility and common sense. Unfortunately, too often, that has not been the case.

The Core Epistemological Issue

This post has looked at the topic of pathological lying, and at the problem of lying among Christians; it has looked in more detail at a few exchanges I had with a fundamentalist minister on Facebook. Ideas presented here could, perhaps, be developed into an argument that fundamentalist Christians, or a subset of such Christians, or at least some fundamentalist ministers are pathological liars, or psychopaths, or sociopaths. There might be some truth to such an argument.

That, however, is not the point here. Fundamentalists like Jack do not need to be psychologically screwed up in order to become bullshit artists. As developed more fully in the posts cited at the start of this piece, the real problem is not that a subset of such fundamentalists have mental health issues. It is that fundamentalism, by its very nature, is opposed to the search for truth. To the fundamentalist, truth comes from the scriptures, and from what one’s preacher or other accepted commentator says about the scriptures. The result is a mishmash of views, ranging from the reasonable through the murky to the absurd. People are so determined to have a religion, or to defend the one they were born with, that they will accept an enormous amount of nonsense rather than be honest with themselves, and with others, about the real world and about what their own scriptures actually say.

Epistemology is, in essence, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it. The epistemological question posed by fundamentalist Christianity is whether one can reliably obtain factual knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion, from the Bible, from Bible commentators, and from preachers like Jack. Even if there were no scientists for them to disagree with, it would appear that the answer to that question must be no, else there would not be such a plethora of divergent Christian denominations and cults, each insisting that it alone has arrived at the correct interpretation of scripture.

In that light, the primary issue of pathology arises at the level of the culture, not of the individual. In other words, the real question is not whether there is something wrong with this or that believer; it is whether the culture of Christian fundamentalism is itself sick. Such a question could draw upon the reasoning of Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15). Fromm, reacting to Nazi Germany, pointed out that “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Needless to say, not everything that Christian fundamentalists do is automatically stupid or evil. Taking a cue from Fromm, one must recognize that even Nazi Germany achieved notable advances — in medical and public health research and practice, for instance (Proctor, 1999). The issue is not one of pure good and evil. It is, rather, that regardless of the outcomes achieved, the means employed are simply not acceptable. The point is not that one should prohibit Naziism, fundamentalist Christianity, or other forms of belief per se. The more appropriate response is surely to demonstrate, and to keep on demonstrating, with rationality and human kindness, that fundamentalists are relying upon a flawed and often destructive worldview, and that there are better ways.

The example of Jack highlights a consequence of fundamentalist Christian epistemology. If you already know what you believe, and if nothing is going to shake you from it, then much of what the world cares about is just a joke. A person like Jack can post silly remarks about fracking and fish because he is more interested in taunting and ridiculing intelligent people than in thinking seriously and speaking responsibly on sociopolitical and economic issues. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about many things in our world, because his religion taught him that all he needs to know and care about is contained within the Bible (with, of course, certain homemade additions about guns and politicians).

Jesus seems neither to have written down his own words, nor to have solicited anyone else to do so. But apparently that is not important to those who claim to be Christlike. In the behavior of the fundamentalist, who wants to support his/her preexisting culture by highlighting preferred Biblical texts and by interpreting those texts in preferred ways, the actual person of the historical Jesus can be surprisingly unimportant — which is just what Kazantzakis indicated, near the end of a film that fundamentalist Christians abhor.

Philosophers and scientists do not appear to be very surprised that Christian fundamentalism, epistemologically and fanatically rooted in an ancient book, has produced substantial amounts of folly and evil. That is because philosophers and scientists spend whole careers struggling to achieve small advances in the very difficult project of figuring out what one can really know, and how one can be sure that one really knows it. People doing that kind of work tend to realize that there are no shortcuts. It takes work. Lacking any commitment to that sort of project, Christian fundamentalists are left to fire cheap shots at things beyond their understanding, and to demand that their schools, their states — if possible, their country and their world — be managed in ways consistent with their ignorance.

Conclusion

This post has observed that Christian fundamentalism has a problem in the area of truthfulness. The post began with a look at individual experiences and concerns having to do with lying. There was a glance at concepts of pathological, psychopathic, or sociopathic falsification. But the primary concern was that the problem of truthfulness is endemic to the faith — that Christian fundamentalism is built upon, and glorifies, the rejection of the human search for truth. The false hope, and claim, is that the Bible (as construed by one’s preferred scholars) gives the believer a pass, an easy out, a way of avoiding epistemological engagement with the things that concern mere mortals. Private and public concerns about honesty, science, life, and other people are all subordinated to the words of the biblical text.

And people live that way, year after year, century after century, proud of their imagined superiority or perhaps fearful for their salvation, but in any event never admitting that they are simply wrong. So I wind up with a clown like Jack, and many Christian believers wind up in private hells of falsehood and confusion, because their culture prohibits open, honest, and humble engagement down here with the rest of us, on the level of reality. The world is cursed with a horde of bullshit artists, some quite solemn and sincere (within the severe limits of what they are willing to contemplate), because that is precisely what their faith respects.

What Is a “Christian”?

This item was originally posted on October 15, 2011 on my other blog.  It drew a few comments there.  I have left the empty post and those comments at that location.

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I had someone ask me, today, what a Christian is.  I decided to look it up.  I started with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED); but when I boiled down its many meanings into those involving religion specifically (as distinct from e.g., a part of the historical titles of kings of France), I wound up with more or less the same list as I could get, from Dictionary.com, without a paid subscription:

  • a member of a particular church or denomination; or
  • a person who believes in Jesus Christ; an adherent of Christianity; or
  • a person who exemplifies in his or her life the teachings of Christ.

So, for example, some say “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”; some say that “faith without works is dead” (i.e., if you don’t live a Christian life, your claim of belief is probably false); some say you have to be baptized or confirmed — in general, or into a particular denomination or sect.

In practice, these several different ways of being a Christian have produced tens of thousands of different Christian denominations, sects, and cults.  These varieties of Christianity have emerged for various reasons.  Some are due to historical developments (e.g., the split of the Roman Empire); some were formed by charismatic leaders who decided to break off and go their own way; many emerged from doctrinal disagreements.

As an example that may combine all three of those sources of dispute, it seems that Martin Luther, founder of the Protestant denomination in which I was raised, believed that the papacy was the Antichrist.  This can sound bizarre to people from some contemporary denominations who are forever running around, looking for reasons why Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, or other politicians are the Antichrist.  Either way, people have been playing the guess-who’s-the-Antichrist game throughout the history of Christianity, targeting individuals as diverse as Arius of Alexandria; an unspecified Jew from the biblical tribe of Dan; various individual popes; and Czar Peter the Great.

That example may illustrate how scriptures — intrepreted creatively by people with all sorts of different fears, hopes, ideas, and agendas — can give rise to an endless set of reasons why those who belong to one so-called Christian sect can violently disagree with other so-called Christians.  Violent warfare among Christians began in the early years of the various churches.  For example, starting within a few centuries after Jesus, the Arian variety of Christian belief was murderously suppressed.  Since those early centuries, wars about “true” Christian belief — wars in which one kind of so-called Christian killed another — have claimed countless lives.  The 16th and 17th centuries were especially notable for that, but they weren’t alone; it has continued right up through the horrific atrocities committed by “Christian” armies fighting each other in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  Of course, so-called Christians have also prayed and sung and quoted the Bible on behalf of the troops that they have sent off into non-religious wars down through the centuries, thus trying to implicate God in the outcomes of everything from the medieval Crusades to the American invasion of Iraq.

Murder in the name of Christ appears to be especially common among people who think they know exactly what they are talking about.  In other words, it’s more difficult to justify hating people for their failure to understand Christ in the “proper” way, if you approach faith from a humble and questioning perspective.  People cannot do that, unfortunately, when they fear that they would go to hell for honestly admitting and investigating their doubts.  This results in an regrettable situation in which many so-called Christians try to make the Bible — particularly the New Testament — into the Word of God, when it is very obvious that God, himself, made no such claim.  It is also hard to imagine any such thing about the New Testament when you learn a little about the ugly fights regarding the question of which books should be considered part of the Bible.  (That question remains unsettled.)  Calling the Bible “holy,” as these people often do, appears to represent willful blindness to the realities.  Once again, the supposedly good God is dragged into a process that has plainly been very human.

These remarks may begin to indicate that the three approaches to the definition of “Christian” listed above are only the most superficial summaries of the countless ways in which alleged Christians actually do define themselves.  These remarks have focused especially on the first and second of those approaches to definition.  Basically, someone can claim to believe almost anything, can cook up some reason to claim that their belief makes them “real” Christians, and can use that putative reasoning to justify horrible acts in God’s name.  It’s not just the random crackpot who shoots an abortion doctor, nor even the “Onward Christian Soldiers” mentality that imagines God playing a role in religious wars.  The same mindset appears in the average “Christian” suburbanite who thanks God for giving them a life in which they can buy things made by Asians earning pennies a day, in manufacturing processes that wreck the environment.

I haven’t yet said much about the third of those three briefly summarized approaches to the definition of a Christian.  In that third approach, the emphasis is not upon the lawyerly demand for a rigid text, contrary to Jesus’s own advice, nor upon the mystical notion that there is a magical thing called “faith” or “belief” that somehow rises above reality.  To clarify how the third approach to definition differs from the second one, consider the famous claim that there are no atheists in foxholes.  The concept is that, if you put someone in a situation where other people are trying to kill them, they’ll remember how to pray quickly enough.  In other words, what people say they believe is not necessarily what they really believe — and they, themselves, may not know the truth of the matter until they find themselves in a sufficiently harrowing situation.  But that knife cuts both ways.  Consider, for instance, the people who suddenly discover a belief in abortion when it is their own wife, sister, or daughter who was raped or at risk of dying in childbirth.  The point is, so-called “belief” — an idea held loosely in mind — it not necessarily what a person really believes.

In the third approach to defining “Christian,” as noted above, some people have been called Christian because they try, in some sense, to practice the teachings of Christ.  It is impossible to be exactly Christlike — not only because, supposedly unlike Jesus, we are all born sinful but, also, because Christ’s example doesn’t always fit.  Nobody is able to walk on water.  People can’t pay their taxes by pulling coins out of the mouths of fish.  In America, nobody is going to be able to die on a cross for preaching the coming of God’s kingdom.  Although the New Testament makes it sound easy, Christianity does not in fact seem to be a religion in which people can cure blindness by waving their hands around, much less raise the dead.  Another reason for the impossibility of Christlikeness is that it is self-contradictory — that in various regards it requires people to do or believe opposing things.  Moreover, in some ways it is not even desirable to be Christlike.  For example, Jesus cursed a fig tree that had no fruit, when figs weren’t even in season.  It can take centuries before humans are able to invent plausible explanations for such antics — explanations that God himself, supposedly involved in the writeup, didn’t see fit to provide — and there is no way of knowing whether such invented explanations correspond to what actually happened.

Defining a Christian in terms of Christlike behavior can bring endless quandaries.  Does a person become a Christian by trying to buy the SUV that Jesus would have bought?  That question, somewhat laughable in itself, does illustrate that the New Testament does not remotely contain enough material to provide meaningful insight on the many questions that have always complicated people’s lives, never mind the especially complex questions of current times.  If one must sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Jesus, as he reportedly advised one person to do, where does that leave the would-be follower who is responsible for looking after his/her own family?  Does Christlikeness really require people to treat their own mothers and siblings as strangers?  Some of these are the sorts of difficulties that one would expect, in any effort to convert first-century ideas and stories into meaningful guidance for very different lives two millennia later; some are pecularities about the message(s) of Jesus.

The usual response to this sort of concern, from people who really want to emulate Jesus, seems to be to treat him as a sort of early Gandhi or late Buddha — to extract, that is, those parts of his reported messages and stories that seem most readily convertible into vastly different current terms, more or less consistent with one’s personal inclination.  This appears to be a relatively philosophical approach to Christlikeness, where being Christlike is somewhat like being Aristotelian:  you find your guiding philosopher, you master his/her worldview, and then you reconfigure it into something that works for today.  It’s not necessarily a bad approach, though this, too, can wind up being quite remote from what others consider the real story of Jesus and from what it really means to be a Christian.

So I have at least provided some thoughts on what appear to be the three major ways of defining what a Christian is.  This is a blog post, not a peer-reviewed article.  I realize that there is much more to say, and also that there are probably errors of various sorts here.  Nonetheless, this post seems adequate for the basic purpose.  The ability to choose among several different ways of defining a Christian appears to mean that you can find some reason to call yourself a Christian, if you want to.  Like so many other terms, “Christian” seems to be a vague word that means what people want it to mean, for purposes of saying, believing, or doing what they wish to do.  It seems that the same person can even mean different things by the word, for assorted purposes arising at various times.  Under such circumstances, maybe the best one can do is to offer a very vague, general definition:  maybe a Christian is someone who tends to draw from a collection of linguistic strategies in order to cite Jesus, or some religious or political authority arguably derived from Jesus, as the justification for his/her inclinations.

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