Friday, February 20, 2009

Father Issues

Somebody linked to this article over at Slacktivist yesterday. I find it absolutely fascinating, but not for what it says. There are such deep layers of what is intentionally not said that it's difficult to plumb them all. For starters, though, it's refreshing to see someone take on the traditional approach of Christianity as a simple and obvious continuation of Judaism. For whatever reason the main monotheistic systems on our terrestrial ball have this weird habit of claiming Judaism as a source, but then saying that they've got a newer, better version thereof. It's the sort of thing that gets everyone in a hell of a lot of trouble and that is not even remotely true. I came to an increasingly uncomfortable revelation over the course of my journey from Christianity that the basic claims made by my religion were simply false. I'm not talking about Jesus and the propitiation of sin. That can be taken in any way, shape, or form and we simply have no evidence in either direction. No, I'm talking about the fact that in order for Christianity to be a logical follow-on to Judaism, the latter has to be horribly mangled. Jews, of course, know this already. It's why there's only a tiny minority of Jews that have converted in spite of the fact that there are a lot of Christian evangelizers scratching their heads about it. They make up bizarre explanations about how it's all part of a grander plan or there's some need for additional cleansing by the Jewish people. Which is complete and total bullshit, might I say. Not to tangent too horribly, but let's assume for a moment that there is some sort of cosmic scale upon which the actions of a people group can be judged. There's no such thing, but we like to believe the scales balance and everyone gets what they deserve. For the sake of argument, too, take away the events in the Holy Land from, say, 1967 until today. What the hell could the Jews have possibly done to deserve the shit they've gone through as a people group? I mean, for fuck's sake, you've got a bunch of people running around claiming the Holocaust was some sort of group cleansing, but that it's just not enough so they need to have the Tribulation, too. And all this for the sin of killing Jesus? The dude who was supposed to die to fulfill the cycle of cosmic justice? Really? I'll leave that one to the theologians, I think. Because there's a much simpler explanation as to why Jews haven't flocked to Jesus in droves: Judaism and Christianity are completely different religions, but the difference glossed over by the origins of Christianity. Jews get this. Christians don't. The Jewish people look at Jesus and they're like, "Hey, he was a good dude. But he wasn't a Messiah." I strongly suspect that this is because there was a strong Messianic fervor in Israel from the time of Alexander the Great to the Diaspora. Every couple of years a new self-styled Messiah showed up, took the mantle, got people all riled up, then got caught nailing little boys or got nailed to something. So when this Jesus fellow showed up and his followers remained excited for long enough to write a bunch of stuff that completely and totally twisted the scriptures around in order to make everything fit the larger community was like, "Yeah, whatever." It happens. And like I said, it's fascinating to see a book by a Christian theologian that explores the idea. It's equally fascinating to see the absolutely convoluted way in which the book apparently attempts to explain away the discrepancies. I'm not sure if the author realizes it, but what he's actually written is an apologia for Islam and Mormonism. If god's revelation is such that it can be torn away from its roots and evaluated completely differently by subsequent generations, why were Muhammed or Joseph Smith inherently incapable of doing exactly the same thing Paul did? These are questions, too, that must be taken to Gershom Gorenberg's The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount. Fred recommended it a couple weeks ago and I picked up a copy, mostly because I'm apparently a patsy for the man and the man's name is Fred Clark. Turns out, as with many things Fred recommends, that it's well worth the time. I keep wanting to write about it, but have no idea where to begin, due mostly to the fact that it's dripping with interesting ideas. So I'll start with Isaac and Ishmael. Or maybe Jacob and Esau. Possibly the Prodigal Son and the Brother who Stayed Home and was Pissed that He was Ignored. Religion, after all, is a story. Whether the practitioner believes that it's a story in a newspaper, a book of myths, or a work of fiction matters little. There is a central story and the people who take the story seriously are both players and authors in that story. And every story, as we know, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We know the beginning. There was nothing, then there Was. Now there is. That's the middle. Eventually there will be an end because there has to be. This, I think, is the central core of any and all apocalyptic narrative. We see the universe as a story and we know that all stories end, so we assume that ours has to, too. We know, further, that there's an end to the individual story, but that's really not enough. If my story ends and your story ends then that means that The Story must end. For that to happen there must be a grand Storyteller. We give that storyteller the name god. Anyway, we've got a story. Isaac and Ishmael. Their father is Abraham, the Jew. Isaac is Jesus, Ishmael is Muhammed. Or maybe it's the other way around. It's tough, since both religions are technically the illegitimate bastard son of Abraham. That, uh, that might seem unnecessarily harsh. But, really, does Judaism want either of the religions that claim it as heritage? When it gets right down to it, Judaism acts towards the two younger religions about like a guy getting ambushed for a paternity test on Maury. And the kids, well, they're just waiting for dad to die so they can get their inheritance. Or, y'know, actively trying to kill the old man off. Either way, it's a weird thing. I don't have a problem with religions claiming to come from other religions. I mean, I am my father's son. That doesn't mean that I am my father. It also doesn't mean that I have to replace my father, nor do I have to make the same choices that he did. What's my point? I don't know quite yet, honestly. It's a little bit weird to sit back and watch what's unfolding with religion these days, though. The Christianity I grew up with is tearing itself apart in a way that's mirrored in the fundamentalism of its two familial fundamentalist movements. There's a weird cognitive dissonance that says the truth is advancing, but we're losing. It also says, "We're Judaism 2.0 and if the old model Jews don't get it it's because they don't know how to read their own Holy Book." Admittedly, that's been going on for as long as there's been a New Testament. But it was a lot more obvious when Christians were killing Jews or kicking them out of their countries. Now we've got Israel as a secular state where fanatics on all sides are attempting to drag it kicking and screaming in to an apocalypse. But there are three main apocalyptic strands concentrated on the city of Jerusalem and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of sub-strands for each of the major ones. Moreover, we're reaching a state of panic, at least on the Christian side. We're coming to the end of the story but it's increasingly looking like there are a lot of pages to go in the book. Christians have been trying to discern the actual moment of the Second Coming ever since Jesus left. The one thing that was a problem from the start was the lack of an Israel to play its role as the center of the apocalyptic play. Once Israel re-appeared on the world stage as a player the problem disappeared. Sixty-one years on there's precious little sign of the end of the world. This isn't particularly surprising, but it is a reason to panic for those who believed that they were living in the End Times and are now getting close to not living the dream in their lifetimes. Something changes in the brain when it's exposed to prophecy that doesn't seem to be happening. It makes the sane crazy. It makes the docile active. This isn't a good thing. I don't know how to stop it. And I'm a little worried to see the lengths that theologians will go to when they realize that Christianity does not follow directly from the Jewish Bible to make it a harmony. Jesus doesn't actually have to be the Jewish Messiah (and I could find any number of Jews and Muslims who would agree with me on this). It would be a hell of a lot easier if he wasn't. Either way, I feel that there's a lot more to write about this and I've barely managed to scratch the surface. I also fear that I'm barely coherent. So I'll regroup, probably go figure out how to explain why I can't even get through the Introduction of 1421 without laughing, and come back to this at some later point in time.


hapax said...

Uh, Geds, by your logic, modern Judaism isn't really descended from Biblical Judaism either. The transformation from a temple-based, priestly religion revolving around sacrificial rituals tied to a particular geographical area is to a text-based non-sacerdotal international body of practices is as radical as anything done by Christianity or Islam.

A practical reason that early Christianity insisted so loudly that it was a continuation of Judaism is that Jews were allowed a certain legal freedom in their religious practices in the Roman Empire because of the Classical respect for the antiquity of their traditions. (It's also one of the reasons that Christians tried to glomp onto the Sybilline prophecies)

The Romans had very little patience with religious "innovations."

Geds said...

I apologize if this seems like little more than an elaborate shrug, but if my logic leads to the conclusion that Judaism isn't actually Judaism...meh. I would argue that any split between Biblical and modern Judaism is more like a Baptist and a Catholic claiming the other isn't a real Christian if pressed, however. Traditions, forms, and scripture have been altered, but the fundamental underpinnings are still basically the same.

This, too, is why I ended with the claim that I feared I was barely coherent on the topic. There's a significant amount of background information and thought that goes in to the train of thought I was attempting to write that it takes a great deal more than three pages to untangle the whole mess.

My baseline point is this, though: Christianity claims a direct and obvious continuation from Judaism. Yet if you separate yourself from either tradition and just look at it logically the line is not at all obvious or direct. One of the things I kept getting gnawed at was the fact that there was a claim that Jesus fulfilled such-and-such prophecy, then I'd go back to the prophecy and find that there was absolutely nothing prophetic about the original statement.

So to see a book written by a Christian theologian and reviewed in Christianity Today where the author says, "Huh, Paul mangled the older passage to make it fit, that's worrisome," is to be applauded. To then see the lengths that the author (or that the reviewer puts in the author's hands) goes to say, "But we can still totally buy the revelation and don't have to think about it too much," is kind of annoying. Actually, it's more saddening.

This, I suppose, is something I approach as a historian, not a theologian. If we were to read a book that claims Napoleon stole the battle plans for Waterloo from Robert E. Lee we'd call B.S. If we then saw that the author of the book claimed Lee was actually 155 years old when he died, we'd question his methods and probably reject pretty much any historical document that came from him.

The overall problem I see here is a claim to an additional revelation based off of claims that require a twisting of the original tradition. I also tend to think that the two thousand years of Jewish people of all stripes apparently refusing to see the obvious supports the idea that Christianity ain't as related to Judaism as any number of apologists would have us believe.

So maybe Marcion was right. I mean, his method was wrong, his anti-Semiticism wasn't so great, and he may well have been nuts, but the whole divorcing Christianity from Judaism thing was pretty good.