Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Is That All It's About, Part 6

The saddest songs are the happiest The hardest truths are the easiest Put yourself to the test And tell me if you still need me And I will swallow these words See if I can still believe --Over the Rhine, "What I'll Remember Most" We've come (he says with a sense of forlorn hope) to the last stop on this little inner journey. It's a place I don't approach lightly, as this is the point of apocalypse, of change that cannot be unmade. At least, it was for me. This, as with everything I've put down in this series, is not the attack of an outsider, but an attempt by a former believer to make an account of the questions that kept him up at night. When all else failed, when all other faith seemed lost, I retreated to the centrality of the Christ story to see if I could make a final stand there. I couldn't. At least not in any way that's recognizable as a form of organized Christianity. If I may presume to borrow the words of scyllacat from a comment yesterday, "it turned out the Christians were right: Once I let 'the world' in, I 'turned from' Christ, but not because I denied that I was a sinner, or that I needed ideals and morals, but because their story--everything they'd PROMISED was true--just wouldn't hold up under any kind of scientific or historical scrutiny." I'd gotten tired of having my questions answered with, "You need more faith," or, "You need to study your Bible more," or, "You just need to find someone to mentor you." I began to suspect that those non-answers were an issue of existential fear. The standard response to any question based on human reason was, "The wisdom of god is folly to man." That's just a cop out, a way to end conversation and inquiry, probably because that inquiry goes to dangerous places. So let's go where angels fear to tread. The New Testament tells a chronological story. It starts with the Gospels, moves to the Acts of the Apostles, then goes in to the writings of those trying to put together the early church. Finally, the story literally ends at the end of the world. It's all quite neat. There's a reason for that. It was artificially created a good four centuries after the death of Jesus by the Council of Nicea. Up until the setting of the canon we now know, churches pretty much used whatever they wanted and whatever was available for teaching. Many of those non-canonical books remain. Some of them are even still in the Catholic and Jewish Bibles. Some of them tell stories of Jesus as a child, some of the fates of the apostles after the events in Acts, some are simply collections of quotations. But the Apocrypha, as the works are collectively called, is regarded as basically Biblical fanfic. The truth is somewhat more complicated. The first extant canonical works we have are the letters of Paul. His Damascus road epiphany aside, Paul never met Jesus. Yet the church owes its current setup and, to a large extent, very existence to the man. In this we could put Paul in the role of Xenophon; elevated to command out of nowhere following the death of a charismatic leader and forced to pull a disparate collection of conflicting ideologies together under a single banner. For Paul, the sea or home was what we would call Christian Orthodoxy.* Much like the Ten Thousand found they had wildly different definitions of home and few ended up there, anyway, nearly two thousand years have passed since Paul wrote his epistles and Christianity is farther away from a consensual orthodoxy than ever before and moving on an outward trajectory. We get insight in to the fight for orthodoxy in many parts of Paul's letters, but often not in ways we realize. For instance, one of the best known passages of the New Testament is 1 Corinthians 13, a homily on love that is often read in whole or part at weddings. The first three verses go thusly: "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing." This is not, as it's often interpreted, a warm and fuzzy reflection on the nature of love. It's a scolding. See, the church in Corinth was divided in to four camps: those who believed that excellent preaching was sign of god's favor, those who believed speaking in tongues was, those who believed prophecy was, and those who believed that god would elevate those who sacrificed all. This was Paul telling them all in turn, "Hey. Shut it." Throughout the Epistles we see evidence of Paul's turf war with a host of competing theologies. There were the Judaizers, who wanted Jewish "Christians" (as they weren't yet called) to stay and gentiles to become Jewish. There were the Gnostics, who believed in a special, imparted secret knowledge (undoubtedly taken from the Greco-Roman concept of the mystery cult). There were the ascetics, who believed that the goal was to withdraw from the world. He even had it out rhetorically with competing preachers, especially someone named Apollos who has no voice of his own that we know of. But Paul's role as adjudicator of orthodoxy leads to an extremely important question. Why does his say matter more than the Gnostics, Judaizers, or, for that matter, Apollos? For that we must go back to Xenophon (if I could marry an abstract concept, it'd totally be extended metaphor). Xenophon and Paul shared two particularly important qualities. First, they were each, in their own way, members of the aristocracy. Xenophon came from a wealthy, landowning Athenian family. Paul was a Roman citizen (which meant something, as citizenship wasn't exactly tossed out like candy at a parade for subject peoples of the Empire) from influential Tarsus and, probably more importantly, a Pharisee. In the Jewish world of the time, being a Pharisee was roughly analogous to being a member of the aristocracy anywhere else. It conferred upon the individual a higher status and the moral authority to tell others what to do. Second, while Xenophon pointed to a dream from Zeus as justification for his leadership, Paul laid claim to direct contact from Jesus on the Road to Damascus. This blessing from god combined with the general imperiousness of aristocratic background was a potent combination for both. We can, in fact, see the common results in the works of both. Xenophon was not shy to compliment his own leadership ability and compare it favorably to that of those he held in high esteem while denigrating anyone he didn't like as of lower quality than himself. Paul, meanwhile, would often affect an air of humility interspersed with exhortations to follow his example and be like him. And he wasn't above arguing with Simon Peter, the rock upon which Jesus chose to build his church, then crowing in a letter about how he'd won the day. Meanwhile, he was stitching together the church with constant travel and writing while nothing so organized was around to counter his sheer force of personality until the Gospels were put together and disseminated. The Gospels themselves are an interesting story. We don't actually know how they came in to being, even though they're widely regarded as being basically eyewitness accounts to the life and teachings of Jesus. This stands in contradiction to pretty much everything we know. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, came some thirty or forty years after Jesus' death, followed about a decade later by Matthew and Luke. Then, another or decade or two on, we got their half-brother, the Gnostic Gospel of John. In much the same fashion as the creation of the Torah, historians hypothesize a collection of earlier sources. To borrow the imagery of the prof I learned this from, imagine you're sitting down at your desk and about to write the Gospel of Luke. In front of you would be the Gospel of Mark, what I'm currently calling the "L Source" (I don't think that's right, but it serves as a placeholder), from which you'll get the material that's in Luke but not Mark or Matthew, and possibly a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus. Meanwhile, imagine that somewhere else in the Roman world your counterpart is sitting down to write Matthew. In front of him sits Mark, the "M Source," and possibly his own collection of quotations. The irony is, and this is sheer conjecture, since we don't know for sure, some of the books in the Apocrypha may well be source material for canonic Scripture. These three Gospels, meanwhile, are very, for lack of a better term (which I'm sure is out there), earthy and written with a Jewish mentality. Matthew begins with a genealogy. The earliest versions of Mark ended with the empty tomb but kind of left the idea of the resurrection up in the air. Luke reads like a lot of other histories of its day. But then we hit John. If Matthew, Mark, and Luke are earthy, John is ethereal. It opens with this high concept that in the beginning there was the word, and the word was with god, but the word became flesh and moved among men. And from there it moves in to territory heretofore unexplored in the Jewish Bible. In fact, I can now take a sharp detour and point out that Christianity contains many motifs that are simply lacking in its parent religion, but quite common in a neighboring belief system. So let's take a look at Zoroastrianism. Until that point, Zoroastrianism was a somewhat unique case in the world of religion and certainly Western belief. For one thing, it was based on belief instead of ritual (thanks to Robin Waterfield for that small but significant bit of insight). For another, it divided the universe in to two great spheres in constant conflict: good and evil. This should sound familiar. Judaism, by contrast, was a fairly conventional religion for all the innovation of its supposed, celebrated monotheism. The Jews, you see, weren't actually monotheistic. They were what is called "henotheists," a term given to those who believe in many gods, but reserve a special, privileged status for only a single deity. The Baals and Dagons of the ancient world were very much real to the writers of the Jewish Bible. They simply did not stand muster when compared to Yahweh. This particular attitude even makes it in to the epistles of Paul when he warns believers against eating meat sacrificed to idols, lest they bring ruin to a weaker co-believer due to the other's continued belief in the powers of the pagan gods (this would have been a great hardship to the Greek believers, as Greeks generally only got meat during pagan religious festivals). The Jewish world, meanwhile, revolved around the temple and the many festivals. The synagogue system familiar to modern minds wherein the religion is built around weekly fellowship meetings did not rise to primacy until after the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. The Jewish worshiper up until that revolution in thought had more in common with competing co-religionists than we realize. Yahweh's dwelling place on earth was limited to the Holy of Holies in the temple, much the same way that a pagan god's presence was limited to their temple or a particular idol. In both cases a professional class of priests handled the day-to-day duties of prayer, sacrifice, and keeping the people in contact with god while the laypeople largely went about their business, interrupted only by the requirements of the festivals and the occasional trip to Jerusalem/[insert non-Jewish holy site here] as dictated by the rules of their own personal tradition. So similar, in fact, was Judaism to neighboring religions that the Jewish history as recorded in their own National Epic is filled with episodes of slipping in and out of religious experimentation with neighboring gods. Biblical injunctions against homosexuality and prostitution, for that matter, may well have been an attempt to set Jewish ritual apart from their neighbors by banning temple prostitutes and the sexual ecstasy that was so often a part of ancient religious rite. In more obvious examples, the rule against boiling a calf in its own mother's milk that later became the kosher injunction against combining meat and dairy was a specific attack against a certain rite in another culture's religious tradition (which one in particular escapes me at the moment). How, then, did the very earthy religion of Judaism, which didn't even have a concept of an afterlife, give birth to Christianity? How did the corporate us v. them struggle of Judaism become the personal good v. evil struggle of its offshoot? The answer most often posited, which shouldn't exactly be a surprise, is Zoroastrianism. We get glimpses of this transition in the Bible itself, most obviously in the character of Satan. Although tradition indicates that the serpent in the Garden was the Devil hisownself, the first place we're explicitly introduced to him is in the book of Job, wherein Satan is quite simply indistinguishable from the being of pure, malicious evil we think of today. The Satan of Job is a familiar character in mythology, however. He's the Trickster, a sometimes malevolent, sometimes helpful, always devious character who isn't really one of the gods, but is allowed free passage at their courts for whatever reason and sows chaos wherever he goes, often getting hapless humans caught up in the wake of his schemes. So poor Job's life was ruined for the sake of a bet, a construct that seems odd to modern readers, but would have been accepted as a totally normal state of divine affairs by the ancient pantheistic religionist. By the time Satan shows up again, it's to offer the famous temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as recorded in Matthew and Luke. Satan, again, is playing the role of Trickster, attempting to wheel and deal and distract Jesus as opposed to actively opposing him. In the Gospel of John, however, we see the first indications of the more sinister version of Satan, when Jesus calls him the father of lies and later he's directly said to have entered the mind of Judas before the famous betrayal in the Garden. The only place in the Gospels with a remotely similar idea of Satan to the book of John is a passage in Mark where the religious teachers accuse Jesus of casting out demons in the name of Satan. Even that doesn't quite offer the image of a universal, malignant evil, however. The image evoked by Jesus, instead, is one of a blasphemer, something that's still more consistent with a Trickster than a fundamental, universal evil. It's not until Revelation that Satan makes his final Biblical morph. Here we see him as the leader of all evil forces, marshaling his army against the righteous power of god. It's in the Battle of Armageddon that we see the influence of the eternal Good v. Evil struggle of Zoroastrianism fully realized, then quashed by the Jewish influence of the primacy of the most high god. From Job to John to Revelation, however, we never really get anything other than a highly symbolized, extremely fuzzy portrait of Satan. We owe our idea of who and what Satan is more to tradition, apocryphal sources, and, most importantly, a combination of medieval iconography and the poetry of Dante and Milton. It may be hard to believe, but the most complete picture of one of the most important individuals in all of Christianity was put together over a thousand years after the Biblical canon was closed in Milton's Paradise Lost. And Milton depicts Satan as a sympathetic character. To attempt to quickly sum up a disgustingly long point, we ignore the tweaks, twiddles, and extra biblical modifications to the Christian story at our peril. To those who lay claim to their view of Biblical truth as an outgrowth of faith, I can say very little. But those who claim in due course that the Biblical story is a matter of incontrovertible historical fact are simply incorrect in their assertions. The history, as is so often the case, is far more complicated than the story. And now that I'm looking at a four and a half page entry, I must breath a heavy sigh and leave Constantine to a future date yet again. Stay tuned. *Wow. Am I glad I wrote that Xenophon post before I came to this one. My next best option for comparison was Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but that was a much, much harder to work and would have opened me easily to accusations of an anti-Christian bias. Plus, the more I think about it, the more I realize that Paul and Xenophon offer one of the coolest opportunities for an extended metaphor I've ever come up with.

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