Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christianity's Son-Drenched Future

Second in a series on the evangelical pamphlet Our Daily Bread that I found in my door one day. The title of the second day’s meditation is “Sonrise”, and the text is as follows.

My state’s name, “Idaho,” according to one legend, comes from a Shoshone Indian word “ee-dah-how.” When translated into English, it means something like, “Behold! The sun rising over the mountain.” I often think of that when the sun breaks over the eastern peaks and spills light and life into our valley.

Also, I think of Malachi’s promise: “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). This is God’s irrevocable
promise that our Lord Jesus will come again and all creation “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Each new sunrise is a reminder of that eternal morning when “bright heaven’s Sun” will arise with healing in His wings. Then everything that has been made will be made over and made irrevocably right. There will be no throbbing backs or knees, no financial struggles, no losses, no aging. One Bible version says that when Jesus returns we will, “go out and leap like calves released from the stall (Mal. 4:2 NIV). This is my highest imagination and my hope.

Jesus said, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20). Even so, come, Lord Jesus! –David Roper.

I can never think of Jesus “coming quickly” without thinking of this giant billboard in West Virginia that said, “Jesus the Bridegroom: ‘Behold, I come quickly.’” I always thought, “Maybe so, but I wouldn’t brag about it.”

Resisting my childish impulse for now, I will point out that this whole Lord Jesus-thing is fiction. The book of Malachi talks about the LORD, the Lord, God, and fathers (or Fathers), but there’s absolutely no textual evidence to interpret this as anything like Jesus of the New Testament. That’s just reading Jesus back into a text that has nothing to do with him. I’m sure the author feels justified in interpreting it this way in the same way you might reread the first chapter of a mystery novel and substitute “the butler” for “the murderer” after you’ve found that the butler was the murderer. But there’s really nothing to connect them in the text here. There’s absolutely no reason to interpret “The LORD” as Jesus rather than God or a more primitively conceived warlord deity.

More important, does the suggested reading, the book of Malachi, especially chapter 4, support the author’s friendly picture of the Lord (Jesus or not) coming soon to make us all happy and take away all our suffering? It seems a little unlikely that he’s going to show up to take away your knee and back pain when somehow he couldn’t manage to get here in time to stop (as a brief sample) the execution of his early followers, their internecine struggles in interpreting the new religion, the corruption of the Roman Empire, the destruction of that empire and the loss of life resulting from the destruction of European civilization in the dark ages, the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, to say nothing of countless other wars, natural disasters, famines, pestilences and more mundane pains and deaths. If Jesus were coming quickly, you would think he could make it in time to stop the Holocaust at least. Maybe he got stuck in traffic.

In any case, if the Lord were going to release us all from our stalls, maybe we should consider who put us in those stalls in the first place. Apparently consistency is not the hobgoblin of good Christian minds.

Anyway, wanting to get the full benefit of biblical wisdom, I started at the beginning of the book of Malachi. Holy crap! Does anyone read this stuff?

Chapter 1 says that the LORD (who is not in any way a provincial and anthropomorphic warlord deity) is quite upset at the people of Israel because they defiled him but not giving him the proper sacrifices. It condemns the Israelites:

“When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. (1: 8)

It continues:

“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.
. . .
“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. (1: 9-14)
So, the LORD is angry because he’s not getting the best food, and he’s going to be famous and successful someday, so you (Israel) will totally regret not giving him a decent meal or make the house smell nice with a little incense when he comes home smelling of booze. This is not of a perfect, loving being but a drunken, abusive husband with delusions of grandeur. (Hey, not every place lights incense for him, so even now the scenario he paints is delusional. Maybe that’s still in the future.)

Chapter 2 doesn’t get much better:

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.
“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants[a]; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the LORD Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe
of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is
the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” (2: 1-9)

The footnote [a] says, “Or will blight your grain”. So, either the LORD will rebuke the descendants or will blight his grain. One or the other; they’re basically the same.

Anyway, the LORD’s upset so he’s going to put s#*t on their faces and they’ll be carried off, whatever that means. It seems as though this dude wants the people to follow him, but they aren’t so it’s too late and he’s going to punish them (and maybe their descendants) anyway. This LORD-dude seems particularly distraught about the Levi guy dying and his kids not keeping up with his traditions. I wonder if maybe someone could have figured out that this was going to happen and put a stop to it.

In the rest of the chapter he explains how much he dislikes divorce and Judah cheating on his wife by getting a divorce and marrying a younger woman. Sounds like the LORD must be a big fan of Newt Gingrich.

Anyway, let’s see if chapter 3 paints a more enlightened picture of the LORD. The LORD says maybe they can put things right again (despite his already saying it was too late). He’s cheesed off but he’ll give them a chance by sending someone to test them and purify them as a laundry soap does. (I’m really not making the laundry-soap thing up. Great metaphor, God.)

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
“I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. (3: 5-7)
So, the LORD will give some of them a second chance as long as they don’t oppress widows and orphans, rip off their workers, or commit perjury, adultery or sorcery. If there actually were sorcerers, then I’m sure they’d be in real trouble. Anyway, what about those who aren’t bad?

Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name.

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. (3: 16-18)
The LORD will spare those who continue to worship him the same way that a father doesn’t kill his own children if they serve him. I guess at this point in history if you didn’t serve your father, he could kill you with impunity. It must have been fun for kids who didn’t want to do their chores. The LORD needs someone to write down all these names; otherwise he’ll forget and punish the wrong ones (for failing to honor and fear him, primarily). Maybe the LORD turns out to be a little smarter in chapter 4. Chapter 4 is short; it goes like this:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and
dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (4: 1-6)
So, the LORD wants us to worship him and if we do we will frolic happily and crush the non-worshipers (aka the wicked and arrogant) under our feet. This is more of that good Christian desire to crush those who do not believe as they do (and other bad people, of course). The LORD then promises to strike the land with total destruction unless the hearts of parents and children are turned to each other, and I guess that’s happened because the land has not been totally destroyed yet.

In all seriousness, why is a perfect being so worried about who and how many people fear and worship him? It’s not a flattering picture of a perfect being. This whole book describes a petty tyrant who wants everyone to fear, honor and respect him by giving up all their best things for him and who looks forward to the day when everyone will give him the respect he deserves. I wonder if Rick Santorum’s household is like this.

If I didn’t know better, I would think that the authors of this Our Daily Bread pamphlet (and Christian apologists more generally) are picking out only the parts of the Bible that say the things they want it to say and leaving out all the objectionable other material. It’s almost as though they are cherry-picking the evidence to support their preferred picture of the divine being. Or maybe they just don’t read the whole book. After all, a booklet so full of commonsense wisdom and goodness would never include deliberately suppressed evidence, would it?

Passages such as the book of Malachi illustrate why atheists and agnostics are more likely to have read the Bible than are typical Christians. Reading the book, rather than the carefully sanitized version of it presented in standard Christian propaganda, leads ineluctably to the conclusion that it’s an imperfect, human book describing the construction of their provincial deity, trying to enforce conformity, and reflecting their petty concerns and primitive morality.

By the way, Wikipedia has this to say about the name “Idaho.”

The exact origin of the name remains a mystery. In the early 1860s, when the United States Congress was considering organizing a new territory in the Rocky Mountains, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested the name "Idaho," which he claimed was derived from a Shoshone language term meaning "the sun comes from the mountains" or "gem of the mountains". Willing later claimed that
he had made up the name himself.

It would be fitting if the introduction to the Daily Bread story was based on a fabrication. Anyway, I always thought “Udaman” was a more positive name than “Idaho.”

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