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Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Layperson’s Bible: In Which Moses Argues with God

I’ll probably never be able to stop picturing Moses as a strangely-altered version of Charlton Heston. For many years The Ten Commandments was to Easter what It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas: the one super-long movie your folks would let you stay up to watch even though it went on way past your bedtime.

Of course, at the time I didn’t see that there was anything all that special about Moses; he was just the guy who led the Israelis out of bondage in Egypt, which was cool enough in itself. But on reading The Bible many years later, it became apparent to me that what was really unique about Moses was his relationship with God. Because not only did Moses have what might be called a direct line to the Almighty, he actually had the power to influence the Lord’s decisions and behavior.

Now if you sit down and read the Old Testament, it becomes readily apparent that the Hebrews aren’t exactly quick to pick up what the Lord is putting down. I mean, although they are undoubtedly grateful for their deliverance, the living conditions while they’re wandering about the wilderness aren’t all that fantastic, and naturally as time goes on some of the people begin to wonder if their interests might be better served by worshipping some other god. In fact, during the very forty days and nights in which Moses is up on the mountain receiving the Commandments, the people have already grown impatient with their missing prophet and the God he’s been promoting:

“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.
And Aaron said unto them, Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.
And all the people brake off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
And he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf: and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:1-4)

It sounds ridiculous now, of course, the whole golden calf thing, and God, it seems, isn’t too pleased about it either. In fact, he gets really mad. So mad, in fact, that he asks Moses to go away so that he can brood in peace:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go, get thee down; for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves: (Exodus 32:7)
Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them...” (Exodus 32:10)

But Moses isn’t the prophet of the Lord for nothing. In fact, he’s pretty clever about it; counting on God’s ongoing concern for His reputation to dissuade him from vengeance:

“And Moses besought the Lord his God, and said, Lord, why doth thy wrath wax hot against thy people, which thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?Wherefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, For mischief did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people.
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.
And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people. (Exodus 32:11-14)

That’s a switch. It’s usually sinners who repent; how often do you hear of the Lord repenting? But of course, as time passes, the Israelites continue to act in ways that God finds reprehensible, and He… well, let’s just say He gets a bit testy with them. And once again it becomes Moses’ job to act as the go-between the Lord and the people: persuading the people to attempt to obey, and the Lord to forgive them when they fail. Thus when the Israelites are again complaining that the Lord has delivered them out of Egypt merely to die in the wilderness, it is to Moses that the Lord turns to vent his rage:

“And the Lord said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them…” (Numbers 14:11-12)

Moses again plays the losing-face-in-front-of-the-Egyptians card, arguing that if God destroys the Hebrews, the Egyptians will hear about it and say:

“Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.” (Numbers 14:16)

And in case the force of this argument isn’t solid enough to persuade the Lord away from his wrath, Moses supplants it with humility; even a little flattery:

“Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Numbers 14:19)

Yet even Moses’ influence with the Lord is limited, and, in the end, after all he has done to promote the ways of God, he too is punished for a seemingly minor infraction, and must die before entering the holy land:

“Because ye trespassed against me among the children of Israel at the waters of Meribah-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because ye sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel.
Yet thou shalt see the land before thee; but thou shalt not go thither unto the land which I give the children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:51-52)

Yet even this punishment may have impressed the people with the power of the Lord; even God’s most deserving servant cannot expect immunity for his transgressions. And there is no question that Moses’ unique position vis-à-vis the Lord served as the primary means by which the tribes were eventually brought around to following Him. The Lord of Moses did not exist as mere theory and speculation in some far-off realm beyond the earth; to the people He was real, a being to whom they could personally relate, and who, through His servant, made His presence tangibly known. And indeed, what could be more powerful than a God who tells you exactly what his expectations are? A God who prescribes His own offerings and details His prohibitions; who promises specific rewards for following His path. A God with an almost-human personality, who behaves like a ruler of men is expected to behave, even, at times, turning to a trusted adviser when uncertain of his way.

Moses’ fame as a prophet is therefore no doubt justified, for he did far more than bring his people to the Lord; he brought the Lord to the people:

“And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.” (Deuteronomy 34:10)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On Popular Music: Feminine Sexual Empowerment?

No Generation X-er could fail to have noticed the thematic changes in popular culture over the last thirty years. Styles of music change, of course, as do styles of movies, books, and other media, but these stylistic differences are not necessarily related to the themes which underlie popular culture. A sappy love song is a sappy love song whether it’s done in the style of rock, or country, or disco, and there are plenty of these still being created and popularized every year. However, over the last several decades, American society has become far more permissive in what it will accept on the subject of sexuality. Those who were offended by Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” when it was released must surely suffer nowadays, being only able to find refuge in the ever-dwindling number of oldies radio stations, which, if you have not listened to one lately, now often in fact play music from the eighties. But even Cyndi Lauper’s ode to masturbation “She-Bop” appears tame compared to the expressions of female sexuality prevalent in the popular music of today.

The theme of David Guetta’s recent hit “Turn Me On,” provides an interesting example. The main lyrical premise of the piece, sung by Nicky Minaj, can be adequately summarized by its refrain:

Make me come alive,
Come on and turn me on.
Come on, save my life
Come on and turn me on.
I’m too young to die
Come on and turn me on.
You’ve got my life in the palm of your hands.
Come, save me now, I know you can.

At first listen, this sounds like a bold stroke of female sexual empowerment. The female is the aggressor; she demands sexual attention, perhaps even satisfaction. But listen a little more closely, and it becomes clear that even here, the woman is utterly dependent upon the man, not only for her sexual needs, but for her very life. “My body needs a hero,” she cries; “Don’t let me die young.” She literally cries out to the man for salvation, almost as if her sexuality is a burden, a drag on her very existence.

The issue is similar in Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been?” in which the singer declares:

I’ve been everywhere, man
Looking for someone
Someone who can please me,
Love me all night long…

You can have me all you want
Any way
Any day
Just show me where you are tonight.

Again, the female singer’s sexuality is at stake here, and not the male’s, yet again, there is a sense of dependence on the man. Although Rihanna’s tune does not imply that death is imminent if the singer fails to find the lover who can satisfy her, it does suggest that she has been searching rather endlessly (“all my life”) for this magical being that she suspects is hiding from her. The image of a woman who’s “been everywhere” hunting for the right man can hardly be called empowering, and furthermore, her desire for a man who will “love her all night long” is unrealistic and bound to end in disappointment, particularly if this is what is required to please her. Once in a while, okay, but people need to sleep, after all. At bottom this is a song of frustration, not of desire, which actually makes it very similar in theme to “Turn Me On,” if different in form. Finally, there is nothing in the least bit feminist about the singer’s desperate cry of “You can have me all you want!” which rather only implies that she’s willing to strike a bargain, offering sexual complicity in the man’s desires in exchange for fulfillment of her own.

Of course, there’s at least some sense of fairness in that, particularly when contrasted to the odiously pathetic “Brokenhearted” by Kashmir, a nearly fifties-themed anthem of the dependence of feminine happiness on the behavior of men. This seemingly harmless, lighthearted tune features the following reprehensible refrain:

I’ve been waiting all day
For you to call me, baby
Come on, finish what we started
Don’t you leave me brokenhearted tonight.
Honest baby, I’ll do
Anything you want to
Let’s get up, let’s get on it
Don’t you leave me brokenhearted tonight.

Can you picture Jane Fonda sitting around waiting all day for a man to call her, and then blindly agreeing to do whatever he wants? But this point is so vital to Kashmir’s theme that she even repeats it in her spoken-word interlude:

Anything you want to do
I’ll be on it, too.

Which leaves one wondering whether men really like women who bow to their every whim. Popular musicians certainly seem to think so.

Interestingly, it is Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” that, to me, portrays feminine sexuality as most nearly on an equal footing with masculine sexuality. The opening chorus is sung by the female, Sia:

Hey, I heard you were a wild one
If I took you home, it’d be a home run
Show me how you’ll do
I wanna shut down the club with you
Hey I heard you like the wild ones…

The male voice then interjects with verses which expound upon the man's interests ("I like crazy, foolish, stupid, party goin' wild, fist-pumpin' music" and so on) and then the female chimes in again:

I am a wild one, break me in
Saddle me up, and let’s begin
I am a wild one, tame me now
Runnin’ with wolves, and I’m on the prowl…

Very interesting. Now the song is not about the particular desire of either the man or the woman; rather, it concerns two like-minded people, “wild ones” who happen to find each other. Both parties are the pursued and the pursuer; neither the man nor the woman is dominant. However, the same theme of submission as an expression of feminine sexuality that dominates Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is also present here: the female singer wishes to be “tamed” and “broken.” If we’re uncertain about this, we only have to listen to the second-to-last line of the male singer in response to the female’s refrain:

Tear up that body; dominate you till you’ve had enough.

The language is harsh, borderline offensive, yet it's along the line of what the woman appears to want; he promises to fulfill her desire (“till you’ve had enough”) by putting himself in control over her body. Think of the similarity to Christina Aguilera’s line in Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”:

You wanna know how to make me smile
Take control, own me just for the night.

Which, again, leaves one wondering whether men really like women who bow to their every whim. Or whether women really wish to be the ones to bow.

In other words, even in the popular music of today, the sexually-desirous woman is still submissive; hopelessly subject to the whims of a man, and furthermore, seems to want it that way. The only difference appears to be that in the new century, she begs for sex instead of love. Not what I would call empowering. Ultimately one must conclude that although the sexual content of popular culture has increased, and the sexuality of women in particular has grown in acceptance, that the songs of today are no more liberating, and possibly even less so, than those of a generation ago. They’re just more graphic. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Layperson’s Bible: The Cult of Christianity Part II – The Insider’s View

There seems little reason to doubt that religious cults were more prevalent in ancient times than they are today. In the ancient world there existed a wide variety of theologies and a large number of “local” gods, of which the original God of the Hebrews was almost certainly one (a subject for another post). The modern world has such a wide variety of accepted mainstream religions that one has to be truly unusual to acquire “cult” status; I mean, who besides the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians really know what the differences are between Episcopalians and Presbyterians?

But what is particularly interesting about the cult of Christianity is that it is one of very few cults of the time that not only took hold and flourished, but that also left a written record of its operations, its means of existence, and the manner in which its members perceived themselves. Why did Christianity survive? Was it merely better managed than the other cults of its time? Did it draw on time-tested traditions common to the cults of yesteryear as well as those of today? Or did it perhaps succeed because its members were prepared to sacrifice as much as the man they so devotedly followed?

Whatever its type or status, one matter is clear concerning cults: that they are organizations like any other; businesses, if you will, dependent for their continued existence on advertising and sales of their particular products. And the same was true two thousand years ago: a cult, even one devoted to its members’ personal poverty, still needed money with which to operate. In fact, this quest for cash forms a noteworthy portion of Paul’s epistles, which were unquestionably as concerned with earthly as well as spiritual matters. Read, for example, what Paul, who was by enemies termed a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5), writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

“Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches of Galatia, even so do ye.
Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come.
And when I come, whomsoever ye shall approve by your letters, them will I send to bring your liberality unto Jerusalem.” (Corinthians 16:1-3)

Many pages of zealous religious exhortations close with this: a very practical admonition to collect donations promptly so that Paul might deliver them to headquarters as quickly as possible. But, as is still true today, even those who give willingly may yet be subject to criticism for not giving more. Consider the story of Ananias, one of the faithful, who sold a piece of land that he owned, donated a portion of the proceeds to the church, and then lied about the price his property had fetched:

“But Peter said, Ananias, Why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?
Whilst it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” (Acts 5:3-4)

And if the lecture wasn’t enough to convince you not to have double-dealings with the Lord, consider the punishment: both Ananias and the wife who helped him to cover up his deception immediately fall down dead. Not only does it make one question why Ananias’ generosity wasn’t simply accepted on good faith, the story also makes one wonder whether Ananias was pressured into selling the land in the first place. Indeed, personal subservience to the needs of the cult is both encouraged and expected:

“And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.” (Acts 4:32)

This verse presents a pretty picture of a socialistic utopia centered on community, cooperation, and commonality of ownership among those inside the cult, an idealized bonding with one’s fellow-believers that the unfortunate Ananias apparently did not share. Contrast this with the cult members’ view of those who stood outside the cult; even one’s own family members were not to be trusted:

“And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death.” (Matthew 10:21)

However, while this sounds like a surprisingly sinister punishment for merely following that rebel Jesus, it is important to recall the context; this was, in fact, one of the Lord’s commandments: the Old Testament Lord, who was very clear in arguing that even one’s nearest relations were not exempt from the law of the jealous God:

“If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers;
Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far off from thee, from the one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth;
Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him:
But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-9)

John in particular seems to have a good understanding of how the faithful of the outside world must have viewed the Christians; he even appears to recognize that there is some theological justification for the persecution of Christ’s disciples:

“They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.” (John 16:2)

The apostles, too, are well-aware of their status as outsiders among their own people; they repeatedly express a strong sense of being universally despised as well as harassed:

“For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men.
We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised.
Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace;
And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it:
Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day.” (Corinthians 4:9-13)

Jesus himself, having ample experience with oppression, never pretended that his disciples would receive any better treatment than he did; but neither does he accept abuse or injury as an acceptable excuse for not performing the work of the Lord:

“If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.
Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you: if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.” (John 15:19-20)

So if belonging to the cult of Christianity is so detrimental to happy or healthy living, why, then, do the cultists persevere in following Christ? Maybe because they’ve been promised that after the apocalypse, they will have their eternal revenge:

“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held:
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9)

But perhaps there is another, equally-human motivation behind cult membership, one that goes beyond the desire to be with like-minded people or to belong. Ultimately the cultist may be motivated by the same force that inspires members of the mainstream to despise the cult: a sincerity of conviction and belief.

“For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (Corinthians 1:18)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Layperson’s Bible: The Cult of Christianity Part I – The Outsider’s View

It is well-known that Christianity – perhaps like all theological systems – began as a cult rather than as a full-blown religion. Indeed, it seems evident even from the very nature of Christianity, which grew out of and even today remains highly intertwined with Judaism, that it evolved as a kind of revolt against the strict tenets of the Jews of the time (a subject for another post). However, what is most interesting about Christianity’s cult status is that in reading The Bible, it becomes apparent that the cults of ancient times were operated in much the same way as those of today, and furthermore, that they were likewise perceived with as much derision and suspicion by the unfaithful.

First of all, it is important to realize that by New Testament times, the Jews had finally accepted the Lord as their God. This was a pretty big deal, because a large part of the Old Testament concerns the efforts of the God of the Hebrews to convince the Israelites to stop “whoring after other gods” and to follow His commandments, which, after many failings and rebellions, it appears that they finally do. And then along comes Jesus, who virtually attempts to make the Jews disbelieve everything they have spent centuries learning to believe. Now, of course, by this point, the Jews have not had a great deal of luck when disobeying God’s orders, and naturally they’re somewhat reluctant to listen to this one crazy cultist who says he’s bringing them a whole new – albeit gentler – set of rules at their heavenly God’s behest.

From the Christian point of view, it may seem appropriate to berate and criticize the Romans and the Jews for their treatment of Jesus and his followers, but we must remember that we’re seeing it this way, today, centuries later, long after Christianity had become widely accepted. To the people of the time, it must have sounded absurd. Imagine, if you will, that some dirty long-haired weirdo claiming to be the Son of God comes and knocks on your door, and then tells you to forget all that law and commandment garbage that was supposedly the Word of God, and listen to his Word of God instead. Even worse, he argues that according to this New Testament, that salvation cannot be achieved through following the laws of God and Moses, but only through faith. And more specifically, only through faith in this same wacked-out stranger, through belief that he is, in fact, the Son of God.

Well, of course it sounds nuts. If a guy like that showed up on your doorstep today you'd probably call the cops or the looney bin and have him taken away, just as the ancients debated his sanity as well:

“There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings.
And many of them said, he hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?
Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:19-21)

And remember, Jesus’s teachings were not harmless to the Israelis; they were a hazard to the very society he sought to convert. The Jews had spent many years being punished for worshipping other gods; how could they not but fear a man who set himself up as a god?

“The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not: but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” (John 10:33)

The fact is, without direct divine intervention telling them what to believe, the Jews were kind of stuck here. If they accepted Jesus, they went against their own God, which, in general, was a pretty bad idea. Besides, why believe in Jesus? Crazy sect-leaders of the time were constantly setting themselves up as possessors of the true revelation:

“But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:
To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God.” (Acts 8:9-10)

“For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nought.
After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished: and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.” (Acts 5:36-37)

In fact, it would hardly have been reasonable for the Jews or, for that matter, any of the other ancient peoples to merely accept Jesus at face value; unreasonable and possibly perilous, as the fate of the cult leaders and followers aforementioned so clearly demonstrates. And popular opinion, of course, was understandably no more receptive to these radical new ideas than it is today:

“For as concerning this sect, we know that every where it is spoken against.” (Acts 28:22)

At best, the Israeli leaders advised caution when dealing with the new cult:

“And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought:
But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)

In other words, there was a great deal of uncertainty in how to handle a cult that had derived a large following, and that seemed to be able to provide some evidence for the validity of its hero’s claims, namely, Jesus’ healings and other miracles. But even Jesus himself could offer no more convincing proof of his holy standing, a marked contrast to the Old Testament God, who expends a great deal of effort in proving his existence.

“If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.
But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” (John 10:37-38)

The fact is, without the miracles and faith healings, Jesus would have been as long forgotten as the less-successful cult leaders Simon and Theudas and Judas and all of the nameless others who preceded and followed them. But it is this very power to perform that makes him so dangerous, for the cult threatens to subvert the existence of the nation itself, a fate against which the men in charge vigorously fought, in line with the accepted methods and thinking of the day:

“But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death;
Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” (John 12:10-11)

“Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:47-48)

Jesus’ execution is even proposed as a measure necessary to preserve the people:

“It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.” (John 11:50)

A surprisingly logical conclusion, even if founded on irrational beliefs. Whatever one’s faith, it must seem wrong to us today for a kind, caring, devoted man to have been shamelessly and painfully executed for having committed no greater wrong than proffering a religion disastrously at odds with those of the day. But modern people view Christians as meek, humble, harmless; even beneficial to contemporary culture as a whole. In ancient times they were merely cult members and followers, outrageous proponents of dangerous, unheard-of beliefs, struggling along the fringes of civilization like the modern cults which, to those who exist outside of them, can only be perceived as strange and frightening by the mainstream bulk of society.