Tag Archives: Jesus

Sleepy Jean

Last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article by Cristina Richie entitled “The Scandal of the (Female) Evangelical Mind” appeared. Richie points out that despite great strides being made in employing women in religious studies positions, Evangelical institutions still fall behind. This dynamic is not unexpected, however. Those of us who grew up evangelical know that no matter how much it may talk the talk of equality, evangelicalism walks the masculine walk of deeply seated patriarchalism. For those who literally “believe the Bible” there is simply no way around a male Jesus. Even if you go that dangerously risqué step and suggest that the Holy Spirit is somehow feminine, when the divine couple gets together (and Father is always in charge), the offspring must be either male or female. In any literal reading, women cannot possibly claim equality. For their very salvation they are dependent on a male. A god with testosterone. As in heaven, so on earth.

Evangelical institutions have a difficult time with women leading men. They’re not alone. As early as the first century of the Common Era, Paul had the same issues. Literal religion in a biologically dimorphic world will always be problematic. Either there is one god, or there are three. In either scenario the males outnumber the females. Should we posit a divine couple (as some in ancient Israel appear to have done—please wave “hi” to Asherah for me) we still have a culture that is dominated by men. The divine couple will always have the goddess deferring to the will of the god. And you can be sure that he will never pull over and ask for directions. We already know which way this chariot is going.

Every once in a while, the Chronicle likes to sit back and take stock of the religious landscape. Religious studies is, despite the bad press, a thriving area of academic interest. Surely to those in more quantifiable fields, our little squabbles over whether god is a man or a woman must seem pedantic and a little pathetic. And yet, the evangelical institution has an instruction book. That book, if followed word-for-word, leads to eternal rewards for those who are willing to foot the hardships. And for at least half of those (and likely much more than half) that will mean living on an earth that mirrors that realm beyond the sky. Although you can’t see it with any telescope, if you believe hard enough, it is there. And in that ideal place, the god in charge is a man’s god.

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Playing Nicaea

Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Constant Constantine keeps the halo.

Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.

It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”

Divine Election

Jesus, it seems, has given up appearing on tortillas and hedgerows to start endorsing political candidates. Of course, this is not really new news. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and now Anna Pierre, candidate for mayor of North Miami, all claimed their campaigns were endorsed by the Almighty. Seems that God isn’t that great at picking winners. Anna Pierre, according to a story on NBC, came in last in the polls. Is it any surprise? Jesus always did have a soft spot for the underdog.

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American culture is an odd mix of secular and religious. We seem to want it both ways. Citizens like to believe that they are autonomous in their daily lives, free to choose their non-religious professions and pass-times, and on Sunday God takes over for an hour or two. Charged up on religious conviction, we want society to become more sacred, less trashy. But we still want to watch Fox at night. This disconnect has long fascinated me. No matter how many times God loses the election, a new crop of candidates will spring up with divine endorsements. The electorate, at least a significant part of it, will mindlessly follow along. Perhaps we prefer to believe in a deity whose hand is too short to save. Perhaps omnipotence is best left to boasts rather than belief.

The divine approval of a candidate has become so hackneyed that it has become almost the starting point for political contests. Where do you go after you’ve invoked the highest trump in the deck? Whose word means more than the Lord’s? In the heat of the campaign when policies and platforms just don’t sway the masses, who else can you trust? Often those who play such tactics consider those of us on the liberal side of the spectrum to be cynical. Theirs is religion in the service of the higher good, apparently. We wouldn’t want to be thought of as cynical, now, would we? Otherwise we might note that although Jesus may save, it seems that he certainly can’t vote.

Sea Wonders

There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea, if we are to believe childhood songs. News reports this past week, however, have suggested that just the opposite applies to the Sea of Galilee. According to Science on NBC, a huge stone structure, larger than Stonehenge, rests at the bottom of the lake over which Jesus reputedly walked at the height of a storm. To the untrained eye, this stone pile looks like just that—a stone pile. The problem is that there is no natural source for the mound, and it seems highly unlikely that it was built under the water. This astonishing find is only one of the many underwater structures known that seem to defy conventional chronologies and logical behaviors. If this gigantic cairn was built on land, the means remain a problem. It is one thing to climb a conventional pyramid, complete with ramps and sledges, and quite another to mount a mound of apparently random stones to drop another on top. Perhaps it was built under water after all, like one of those tantalizing toys where you try to land your penny in the cup at the bottom of a tank of water.

Pacman's Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Pacman’s Sea of Galilee from Wikimedia

Ancient monuments are one of the great fascinations of antiquity. When no rational explanation is forthcoming, a religious one will be declared. Without written records, we know nothing of the real purpose of Stonehenge or Avebury, let alone Galilee-henge. With the pyramids of Egypt we have a better set of data, and we can feel justified calling them religious structures. But why were ancient people building massive rock mounds in what was to become the Sea of Galilee? The place has irrevocable religious associations to the modern mind. Did it possess such connections in the deep pre-Israelite period as well? The false mountain of Silbury Hill, not far from Stonehenge, comes to mind. People are mountain makers.

Cairns have been among the most persistent of human monuments, but what makes this new finding of interest is its location. Baptized in the very lake that holds the headwaters of River Jordan, the mysterious mound has already claimed its sanctity. Who built it, why and when, will take backseat to the fact of its holy location. Archaeologists will eventually dive and probe and will declare an anthropologically sound explanation for this newly found, artificial, miniature mountain. Mountains and gods go together, however, as readily as offering plates and churches. Whatever this newly discovered structure may turn out to be, it will always be a religious site for those who believe.

Human Show

TrumanshowAt least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.

Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.

Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.

Portrait of God as a Young Man

Famed swing state Ohio is back in the news with Jesus in the front lines. It was an unlikely setting to notice such a thing. I was sitting in a conference room at work, awaiting the start of a meeting. A laptop was set up with a projector, and the homepage cast upon the screen was msn.com. There, on the wall at work was Jesus’ name.

The story has to do with a public school in Jackson City. A student group had donated a portrait of Jesus to the school in 1947, but in a multicultural world the constitution sometimes has to take on the Prince of Peace.

CompositeJesus

While the legal issues are thorny, I have an even more probing question to ask. What makes a portrait a religious object? There is a fair bit of dispute about the historical Jesus—who he really was, where he was from. Despite the sangfroid of the New Atheists, there is little reason to doubt that there was a historical person Jesus. If that is the case, what makes his picture any different than that of Woodrow Wilson or Ronald Reagan? Or Churchill, with his religious-sounding name? One could argue that we don’t know what Jesus looked like—and this is true—but neither could we really identify many historical figures before the advent of photography.

The making of a picture into a religious object comes down to intent. Intent on the part of those who hung it, and on the part of those who view it. The 1940s were a different era. The Second World War was just ended, America was proudly Christian after fighting for the cause of truth, justice, and, well, the American way. Could the school group have donated Jesus in that era as the portrait of a great man? Without supernatural implications? I suspect we all know the answer to that.

Fast forward a few decades. The world has changed drastically. We are multicultural. The internet entertains us with such stories as this. If not for the internet, and a casually chosen homepage, I would never have even heard of Jackson City, Ohio. Is it possible that we could look at a picture of Jesus in our day without religious adoration? Quite possibly. But the furor raised by the religious right every time a perceived slight stirs up the dust would seem to make such an association impossible. Any prominently displayed picture of Jesus in a government location, no matter how local, is perceived as a religious act. It seems that we’ve lost our ability to appreciate the wider realm of possibilities. And that is sad. Who was Jesus, really? Historians and theologians come to no consensus on the issue. One thing is for certain, he’s sure to set people against one another wherever he appears.

Real World Ethics

Do yourself a favor. Spend five minutes watching this video:

(note: the video has been removed and a “family friendly” version is here: Kai)

Although it has a whiff of the apocryphal about it, I choose to believe that Kai is really who he claims to be. I don’t know what actually happened here, but this is ethics divorced from armchair pundits and congressional committees. Sometimes you see something and know it’s just wrong. Most of us wring our hands and await some authority figure to sort it out. When Kai met someone claiming to be Jesus, he was willing to be “the Antichrist” to save innocent people with no regard for himself. I am very impressed.

No, vigilantism is wrong. In fact, I wouldn’t trust a who coven of Republicans to ever arrive at so parsimonious a solution as Kai. He saw evil, he confronted it. I don’t know the backstory here, but I know that I feel a lot less threatened by the street people I see nearly every day than I do by those hiding away in limousines. Ethics is all about figuring out what is right. Kai has his head on straight here. If he could go back in time to stop “Jesus” reincarnated from harming an innocent bystander, he would. No regrets, no questions.

I have watched, and personally experienced, religious leaders intricately plotting how to ruin the life of their neighbors to maximum effect. I have read about politicians who shamelessly increase their earnings while knowing that some of their constituency live in poverty and persistent hunger. I have seen a president declare a war to fulfill a personal vendetta. And I have seen Kai lifting a hatchet to save a person he didn’t know.

There will certainly be those who would condemn such quick thinking and right action as immoral. For those who object from a Christian outlook I would remind them of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the darlings of the Evangelical world. Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis because he did what he knew to be right. Even though his bomb plot failed to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew what Kai knows—those who sit around and watch evil happen as just as guilty as those who perpetrate it. And that’s like trying to surf when the ocean’s at a dead calm.

Moocher Man

Influenza seems to be going around. Since I spend at least three hours a day on a crowded bus I get to observe all kinds of uncouth behavior. Not that I’m always Mr. Manners (New York has a way of doing that to you), but I do cover my face when I cough or sneeze and sometimes I feel that I’m in the minority. My wife, concerned with supplies dwindling, made an appointment for me to get a flu shot at the local clinic. I went in and took a number. I guess I’ve been cursed with good health, and that may be a good thing. For my first five years in New Jersey I couldn’t afford health insurance—this was known as Bush Care—and hadn’t needed to see a doctor. Yesterday was my first time in the clinic. Although I had a confirmed appointment, a kind of argument broke out in the office (this is, after all, New Jersey) because non-patients weren’t supposed to be given the inoculation. Or they were, but they had to pay for it. Or their insurance would be charged and they could get the shot as long as they had insurance. Or why didn’t people just go to Walgreens instead. In the midst of the melee, a nurse called my name and a few minutes later I was being jabbed and sent on my way.

In all of this, one of the largest ethical issues of this country is highlighted. Who has a right to basic medical care? Among the conservative crowd that even includes some who can’t afford insurance, there are those who decry moochers. I grew up without health insurance. My mother relied on welfare to help raise three boys whose father had disappeared and our medical care was very, very basic indeed. Maybe people just didn’t say it in front of kids back in the 60’s, but I never heard anyone grousing that the poor should be left to fend for themselves. That took Reaganomics. In any case, working as hard as I could to break out of that lower class, I earned a Ph.D. only to be turned out of a job by a devout worshipper of George W. Bush. No medical insurance. Again. Now with a child of my own. What I’ve heard since the new millennium is that for those who can’t afford insurance—too bad! Just get a job, bum!

JesusHealing

I often think about those who make such statements and how they valorize the Bible. If I recall correctly, Jesus handed out free health care. Socialized medicine existed in his corner of the world twenty centuries ago. And we in one of the most prosperous nations on earth argue about who can get a flu shot. In the end, I paid for it; I’d even taken my checkbook along with that intent. Nobody thought to ask me. But as I sat there within full view and certainly full conversational distance, I was objectified by the medical system. I wasn’t a guy who sits on a crowded bus with people who don’t cover their mouths. I was a moocher. A liability. In the waiting room around me I noticed patients tucking away passports and green cards. This is New Jersey, after all. For many, however, despite the cold we’re experiencing, it might feel like a much, much hotter place indeed. A place where, the Bible intimates, nobody cares about anybody else and the flames never die.

Chrismahanukwanzadan

Happy holidays from a pluralistic world! Whenever I see the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs that crop up this time of year, I think of the wonderful profusion of holidays that people from most faiths can share without being territorial about it. After all, the Pagans got there first—the Christian Christmas predates Jesus by centuries, it turns out. So when my daughter wished me a happy Chrismahanukwanzadan—from a mix of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Ramadan—I had to smile. Seems like some in the younger generation are really starting to get it. It doesn’t matter what you call it, but a holiday that celebrates people getting along is worth the effort. Being possessive of our holidays rings of hollow triumphalism—I feel happy because I have something that you don’t. Is this really the spirit of this secular season of giving wrapped in many confessional names? I’m sure shepherds and Magi didn’t exactly share a Weltanschuung.

Those who despair the lack of Christmas have not spent much time with history. As a cultural holiday the celebration of Christmas is younger than the United States, at least in this context. From the beginning Christmas was a pastiche of traditions from different religions celebrating aspects of Odin, Sol Invictus, Jesus, and Zarathustra, at the very least. Bringing these religious figures together into a season that represents the human need for light amid a dark and cold time of year, who would want to exclude others from their own holiday traditions? Having stood in the bleak fields of the Orkney Islands in a massive stone circle aligned to the winter solstice and constructed over a millennium before the birth of Christianity, I have to believe Christmas is one of the earliest expressions of human desire and certainly not limited to Christians.

What makes a holiday holy? Is it exclusive rights like those slapped on every movie you pop into the DVD player? The trademarking of an idea someone else thought of? Religions have a long history of forsaking the spirit of the law for the letter—its most familiar name is dogma. No matter who came up with the idea of doing what we can to bring a little light back into the dreary world around the time when night seems unending, it is a cause that any person of any religion, or none at all, can fully appreciate. Instead of marking territory, should not those who claim Christmas as their own be glad to share it with all? If the one who’s birth the church proclaims at this time of year in no way improves our outlook to others we might wonder if there should be cause to celebrate at all. My answer, such as it is, is Happy Chrismahanukwanzadan!

A holiday in anyone's book

A holiday in anyone’s book

Rock Hard Cafe

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At first glance it may not appear to be much. A small chunk of rock, probably limestone. Hardly large enough to be used in a sling against a giant in a pinch. Still, it is special. What makes this rock special is the context from which it was removed. A friend has recently returned from Israel and he brought this rock for me. It is from the Mount of the Temptation, atop which sits a lonely monastery cared for by a single, elderly monk. The thought of someone thinking of me in such a (literally) God-forsaken wilderness is touching. My brief travels through the desert of Judea offered plenty to occupy my restless mind. I’m pretty sure we zoomed by the base of the Mount of Temptation in an air conditioned bus one day on our way to somewhere less desolate. Or more. The sharp-voiced little skeptic in my head immediately kicks in: if Jesus was alone when tempted, how could anybody possibly know where it happened? I can’t picture him leading a tour there later—“and this is where I almost turned stone to bread; don’t those pebbles look like challah to you?”

But then, it’s not about historical accuracy. This little stone in front of me is a symbol. Broken off of the karst geography of the rocky spine of the Holy Land, this shard is meant to remind me to avoid temptation. A nearly identical piece of stone from Israel sits among my teaching trinkets. One of my students went to Israel back in my days at Nashotah House and returned with a bit of limestone for me. She said, “you can keep it as long as you put it on top of my gravestone when I die.” This was a custom I’d observed long before I’d even heard of Nashotah House. Long before religion grew flinty and unyielding. Stones bear remembrance. Although Israel is not as arid as many people believe it to be, rock is a natural resource of uncommon abundance. We age and die, but the rock remains. The rock remembers.

My six weeks in Israel were spent among the rocks of an ancient settlement known as Tel Dor. Archaeology, I learned, is mostly just removing the dirt from the rocks in the ground—at least at the entry level. Those stones tell a story. They were once a city, a district administrative center. Now they lie in dusty profusion, and only the most ardent of Bible readers will recall ever seeing Dor’s name in the pages of Holy Writ. Built by Solomon, the Bible grandly claims. Now all is ruins. The grandeur of a king toppled with the passage of time. My mind is drawn back to a treeless stretch of a mountain devoid of even the hardiest plants. A person can grow mighty hungry there. Mighty hungry indeed. Temptation comes, unbidden. Life is an unbroken chain of temptation, for those willing to be honest in the desert. That little stone is, in truth, bread.

Mrs. Jesus

First we learned that Yahweh was married. Then we hear, “like father, like son.” A Galilean tempest in a Wonderland teapot. A papyrus fragment from centuries after the fact implies Jesus might have been married and the media smells blood. The scholars who translated the materials tried very hard to demonstrate that their efforts indicated nothing about the historical Jesus, but that doesn’t sell newspapers, magazines, and website hits. Jesus being married does. Spying an article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education recently, I pondered why this might be. Why the great fuss over Jesus’ potential marriage? This is not an easy fabric to unweave. Americans have been routinely taught to idealize Jesus in order to underscore his divinity. A man without warts, no faults, perfect hygiene, completely symmetrical. His unwed nature is silent testimony to male superiority—when God chose to incarnate, he picked a masculine template. And for a man to need anything is a sign of weakness. If some Coptic Gnostic suggests that maybe Jesus had a weakness after all, well, that’s scandal enough to sell a million copies right there.

Theologians are quick to say that God is really beyond gender, but we sexual beings are so, well, focused on our biological packaging that we just can’t conceive a deity any other way. American culture thrives on the concept of a personal relationship with God. It is difficult to have a relationship without assessing the sexual roles. More than reproduction, our sexuality defines how we interact with others. By recasting Jesus as a married man, the whole dynamic is thrown off. Girls who are taught to uphold the virginal Jesus as an ideal man would now have to create room for the other woman. Boys would no longer have to consider the monastery. Overestimating the impact of marrying off Jesus in this country might well prove impossible.

The Chronicle takes a bemused look at the issue, as befits a disaffected, intellectual publication. For most Americans the relationship can never be so diffident. Scholars may find it funny, but we are vastly outnumbered. Like a divine paternity test, ink analysis of the papyrus fragment is out at the lab. If it’s just another forgery, life goes on much as before. The fact is, as has been stressed all along, all that can be potentially proven is that some people in the fourth century thought Jesus had a main squeeze. People have wondered that for centuries, with or without a papyrus to spark discussion. We are sexual beings, and like Xenophanes’s horses, our gods must look like us or become like the shadow over Innsmouth.

“And I think the couch should go over there!”

Pipe Dreams

While I was off in Indiana, Jesus was coming down in New Jersey. Well, at least a graven image was. My wife saved the front page of Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger that had a front-page, above the fold headline, “Workers give Jesus a much-needed lift.” The caption notes that in a gusty storm on Tuesday the 200-300 pound Jesus (this is America, after all) tumbled off his pedestal at Saint John’s School in Orange. A crane hoisting the fallen Lord dominates the first page. Clearly a bit of irony on a slow news day, the social commentary is thick indeed. Despite Magritte’s assertion, we still say the painting is a pipe. The representation is the object. This is the native logic behind the “idols” of old—to capture an image is to somehow to encompass some of the essence. This is precisely why the Hebrew Bible forbids images to be made.

I realize that “essence” is a disputed concept these days. Some scientists have declared that no such thing exists, along with souls, deities, and free will. Nevertheless, most mornings I wake up aware that I am me and not you, that my physical body is relatively near where I last remember it being, and that it faces the same hopes and limitations it did the day before and before and before. Perhaps this continuity is an illusion, but I can’t afford to treat it as such. It’s hard for an identity-less person to hold down a job. As usual, it is money that comes back to define us.

We recognize that it is disrespectful to mistreat representations of what we hold sacred. Does Jesus suffer any real harm for his image laid out on the ground? The nuance necessary to separate likeness from reality is something we obviously possess, but as we deal with the physical world the distinction frequently fades. Religion may have lost much of its explanatory value for the material world we inhabit, but images of a fallen savior demonstrate that we still operate otherwise. Much of our religious life concerns appearances. And for many people that step between appearances and reality is a very small step indeed.

Dearly Beloved

Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).

The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.

Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.

So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”

Rounding up the usual suspects?

Wizards and Saints

Hagiography has gone out of style. Since the Reformation we’ve come to see even our most promising lights as flawed and sullied, and no one retains the sheen of unadulterated goodness. It is the new realism. Yet somewhere in our psyches we still need our heroes—those who give us something to which we might feebly attain. A couple years back I visited Edison’s Orange labs in New Jersey—his last inventing paradise—and partook of the mythology that is Edison. Thoughts of that visit keep coming to me, so I read Randall Stross’s The Wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Alva Edison Invented the Modern World. Like a wonder-struck schoolboy, or Homer Simpson, I was ready to find stories of incredible creations Edison conceived. Instead Stross’s account is devoid of hagiography and presents a tarnished hero that is much more in keeping with the spirit of the twenty-first century.

Edison was known, even in the nineteenth century, for his atheistic leanings. He was one of the proponents of the human spirit of achievement, a perennial hard worker who believed we could solve our own problems. In many respects, although he didn’t foresee the practical aspects of his inventions, he was ahead of his time. As Stross points out, during his days as a telegraph operator Edison got into trouble for transcribing Jesus Christ as “J.C.,” following the standard practice of rendering time as “B.C.” (Before Christ). Others saw this as sacrilege, perhaps falling into that perpetual myth that Christ was Jesus of Nazareth’s surname. Abbreviation, no matter how sacerdotal the content, is eminently practical in telegraphy.

When entertaining Henry Stanley during his days of phonograph fame, according to Stross, Stanley asked whose voice Edison would most like to hear from history. (Keep in mind, at this time, before records, magnetic tape, and MP3s, a recorded human voice seemed to be a way of communicating with the dead.) When Edison answered “Napoleon,” Stanley expressed surprise suggesting he would’ve supposed the most important voice to be that of Jesus. Edison replied, “Well, you know, I like a hustler.” Even for Edison hagiography was dead. But he did see that the world had gone after the hustlers. Watching the political game unfold again, of which I’m already deathly sick, I hear echoes of Edison’s cynicism. Political leaders would have us believe they are in it for our best interests. Anyone who has studied history (which most politicians despise and discourage us from doing) knows that Edison was right. For all his flaws, Edison will remain a symbol of light in dark times.

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.