Saturday, September 28, 2013

Teaching Christian Values?

A few weekends ago, Mrs V and I went to South Carolina for the Labor Day weekend. Mrs V's best friend lives in Greenville, and we love to get down to see her, and her husband.

One afternoon, as we drove back from Downtown Greenville, I spotted a martial arts centre with a sign in the window saying 'Christian Values Taught Here'. I was confused and asked rhetorically 'what are Christian values?', to which responses of 'restraint', 'discipline', and 'self esteem' came back.

Now, forgive me if perhaps I am a little naive, but while those 'values' are generally regarded as being positive I fail to see how they are specifically 'Christian', but that is not the thrust of this post. My problem here is teaching 'Christian' values through the medium of cramming someone's head in.

Again, forgive me if I am still something of an idealist, but if a person if going to claim to be a Christian and to uphold Christian values then the teaching of Jesus must surely be the paramount ideology that defines that person's life? To put that another way, if Jesus said something in the Gospels which directly contradicts other parts of the Bible, mainly the Hebrew Scriptures, then the Christian, if they are to be truly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth must go with Jesus every time. Let's look then at what Jesus had to say about how his followers should respond to violence.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” - Matthew 5:38-42
Hmmm, that's pretty unequivocal really isn't it? If someone slaps your cheek, then the Christian response is to turn the other, not roundhouse kick the assailant in the head. Would I be right then that martial arts centres that trumpet their teaching of Christian values never actually win a single bout, because the kids will just stand there and take it, because they have been taught the Christian value of non-violence?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus of Nazareth is quoted as saying:
'Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.' - Matthew 5:3-10
Strangely Jesus doesn't have any blessings for the kind of Christian values that are taught with the punch to the face. Meekness, mercy, and peacemaking are the hallmarks of Christian values if you take the teachings of Jesus seriously, all things which are antithetical to the macho world of martial arts. Oh and don't get me started on the whole 'self-esteem' thing, especially not when the Jesus of the Gospels expects people to hate 'even his own life' in order to be a disciple.

This really gets to the heart of much of my problem with swathes of American Christianity, it doesn't seem to be particularly Christian. It wants to get its knickers in a twist about homosexual couples having the same legal rights as heterosexual ones, but doesn't keep its own house in order by rebuking those who think bashing someone other the head is a perfectly legitimate expression of Christianity. I have said before that there are times when I think that American Christianity is a myth, rather there is a lot of American Religious Nationalism that has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and as such is not Christian.

I find a saying of Mahatma Gandhi to be most apt:
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Invisible Festival

Where I live, Virginia if you are not sure, is one of the most religious places I have ever lived. As I have written about before, there are churches on practically every street corner, as well as a couple of churches in between the corners.

Religion, the Christian religion that is, is very much part and parcel of life and society in this neck of the woods, and in much of the US it seems, especially the South. As a result of this open, and accepted, religiosity I find it astounding that there is no holiday for Easter, no Good Friday, no Easter Monday, they are just regular work days. This weekend is the most important festival of the Christian calendar and in this most religious of nations it is not a holiday, I find that astounding.

 Of course there are the usual symbols associated with Easter, painted eggs, fluffy bunny rabbits and indulgent amounts of chocolate, but you would have thought that with so many people cramming into churches each weekend there would be more of a focus on the Gospel narratives of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in the popular culture.

 I guess bunnies and eggs are just an easier sell than the bloody and painful realities of being nailed to a plank of wood.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

'The Bible' is Awful

It was a Sunday night and I had just got home from working at the Starr Hill Brewery. Just to bring you up to speed as I haven't posted on this particular blog since 2011, I am currently without full time employment, having been laid off from my last job, for a company called Silverchair, back in October. My gig at Starr Hill is part time, basically serving beer to visitors and talking about it - I like to think I am pretty good at it.

Having eaten my dinner and wandered down into our living room to rot my brain by watching television, more updates, Mrs V and I bought a house last June, when I had a nice job with a good income. On the History Channel that particular Sunday was part one of the new mini-series 'The Bible', so we decided to give it a whirl.

Now, Mrs V are not church goers, or religious in general, but we do have religious backgrounds, in my case even studying to be a minister, and we share an interest in religion as an expression of the human experience. I have come to expect little from the History Channel, other than Jesus, Nazis and aliens, but 'The Bible' really scrapes the barrel.

'The Bible' is essentially a dramatised version of an insanely abridged potted history of the Jewish people that takes a literalistic interpretation of the Old and New Testament texts and presents them as authentic history. Even the early stories of Abram, Lot and Lot's wife are presented as historical fact rather than the hagiographical accounts of a people's origins, to put it bluntly 'The Bible' is disingenuous to the core.

I spent most of that first episode muttering to myself, and occasionally exclaiming quite openly that the fare being served up was a pile of steaming shite. I guess I should have been wary when in the story of Abraham they used the names 'Abraham' and 'Sarah' all the way through rather than 'Abram' and 'Sarai' - see Genesis 17 for the reasons behind the name change. 

As the show progressed though I realised that there was another historical problem, the cast all looked as though they had been aboard the 3 legendary ships that carried the early Anglo-Saxons to the British Isles, white, blue eyes, you get the picture, not a Semitic feature between them.

I guess my major problem with the entire show is that it is a complete failure as a work of historical inquiry, as such, and forgive me if I am being zealous about history, has no place on the History Channel (neither does a lot of the shit they serve up but that's a different rant). Shows about the history of the Bible, sure, that would actually be interesting, unless they went along the 'God wrote it' line rather than the truth that it is a collection of ancient writings which have little internal correspondence to each other. A show about the history in which the events of the Bible are purported to have taken pace, yep that would be interesting too, if we could ever get some consensus on when the Exodus took place for example.

As it is, 'The Bible' simply sucks at best and is an act of simony at worst.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Human Thing

Some people like to see faith, religion and spirituality as separate things, often ranking them as spirituality = free spirited awesomeness to religion = conservative compliance and dull, with faith kind of bobbling along in the middle.

It is true that the three words came into the English language from the same source, Latin via Old French since you ask, and they have different meanings.
  • religion - from "religare" meaning "to bind fast", the modern meaning, "recognition of, obedience to, and worship of an unseen, higher power" dates from the 1530s
  • faith - from "fides" meaning "trust, reliance, credence, belief", the term entered the theological sphere in the 14th century as a synonym for "religion"
  • spirituality - from "spiritualis" meaning "of concerning the spirit" though from the 14th century it meant "of concerning the church"
What is evident though from that little survey of the words is that they covered the same ground, and are essentially synonymous terms. Faith is religion is spirituality. Looking though at the origins of the words, it is easy to reverse the modern popular order of preference and see spirituality as some vague nebulous concept not requiring action, while religion is pinning your flag to the mast and living a life defined by your spirituality. I wonder if this is what the Evangelist had in mind with the parable of the sheep and the goats? Your vague spiritual wafflings will ultimately not help you one jot in the Christian view of an after life, it is all about how you live and what you do.

Personally I am convinced that faith, religion and spirituality are all one and the same thing, expressions of a human need to understand the world around them. There isn't a single human culture in history that didn't have some form of belief system to explain their environment and the things that went on within it. Religion ultimately says more about the society that created it than it does about any external deity. I suppose that is why religion is so endlessly fascinating to me, because humans are endlessly fascinating.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Putting Culture Before Convictions


Conflict and paradox, two words which sum up the life and thinking of the majority of people in the world, I was going to say "the modern world" but I guess it has ever been thus. Nowhere are these two experiences more evident in the Church than when it comes to politics, where preachers regularly abuse their pulpit in order to support, however tacit and indirect, a given political standpoint, which is essentially Christianised and then presented as the only way to think for the genuine "Bible believing Christian".

Most often this politicised Christianity is a right-wing phenomena, again it is tempting to say "far-right" phenomena, but that would be unfair given that the centre point of politics in America is so clearly in a different place. One of the most shocking things about living here is discovering that although in Europe Mrs Velkyal and I are pretty centrist and middle of the road in our politics, over here we are perceived by many as out and out Socialists, bordering on Communists. This may be a slight exaggeration, but to be labelled a Marxist in early 21st Century America requires only that you stand slightly to the left of Genghis Khan.

I would however venture, returning to my theme, that right wing politics and the teachings presented in the Gospels are uneasy and even un-natural bedfellows.

Let's think for a moment about the death penalty, a cruel and unusual form of punishment which is the ultimate sanction in all but 13 of the 50 states of the Union, including the Commonwealth of Virginia. The current frontrunner in the race to be the Republican candidate is Rick Perry, an enthusiastic supporter of execution, having notched up 234 deaths in 11 years as governor of Texas. At the same time, Perry, as is common with most people hoping to get the Republican nomination, is unabashedly Christian. How is it possible to square away believing that the death penalty is just with belief in a man who told those wanting to stone a woman caught in adultery that "he who is without sin, cast the first stone"?

I often have the feeling that the right's appeal to religion as a basis of legitimacy is to entirely misunderstand, or worse wilfully neglect, the teachings found in the Gospels. I find it interesting that you rarely hear those on the right, or the left for that matter, discussing their belief in the Jesus as presented by the Evangelists, preferring the more nebulous belief in "God". This lack of definition allows their followers to project their own concept of God onto the politician and to assume that they think just like them. Those that believe in the death penalty usually quote the Old Testament concept of an "eye for an eye", preferring to ignore that the Gospel writer has Jesus overturn it with a message of mercy. This is not to suggest that crime should go unpunished, but rather that mercy should be the guiding principle of a Christian legal system.

Perhaps it really is too much to ask that those on the religious right seek to interpret their politics through the prism of the teachings found in the Gospels, rather than the other way round.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

So Much Chatter

One of the big differences between life in Europe and life in the United States is the proliferation of churches, or at least churches which are used for their intended purpose. I still find it remarkable that a town the size of Charlottesville has so many churches of various types, both denominational and non. According to a church directory website, Charlottesville has:
  • 8 Baptist congregations
  • 2 Independent Baptist congregations
  • 1 Southern Baptist congregation
  • 6 Roman Catholic congregations
  • 2 Christian Disciples of Christ congregations
  • 6 Episcopalian congregations
  • 2 Lutheran congregations
  • 5 United Methodist congregations
  • 7 Non-denominational congregations
  • 1 Greek Orthodox congregation
  • 1 Pentecostal congregation
  • 5 Presbyterian congregations
That's 46 congregations on a church directory, and I am sure there are a few missing from that particular source. The thing is, Charlottesville has a population of only about 43,000, so that is at least 1 church for every 930 people. There is one street in Charlottesville which has at least 5 churches on it, about twice as many as my home island of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. This post though isn't about the proliferation of churches in American cities, but rather about the titles those organisations give themselves.

Lately, the trend seems to be ditching the world "church" and branding yourself a "worship center". Perhaps it is an attempt to make church seem a bit more approachable and "customer friendly", but I can't help but think it is an attempt to be trendy and "relevant". It also makes me wonder what is understood by "worship", and the cynical side of me is fairly sure that it is the touchy-feely, U2-lite sing song version of "worship" that prevails.

On my way in to the office this morning, I drove past a church, sorry "worship center", with a sign saying at said meeting place you could "enjoy Christ-centered worship here". Perhaps I am over egging the pudding a bit, but I find that sign mildly disturbing. Let's start with the idea of that worship is something you "enjoy". When you look at the dictionary definition of "worship" there are words like "pay homage", "reverence", "honour" and "adore", there isn't anything about actually "enjoying" the act of worship, especially given that "enjoy" means to "experience pleasure for oneself". The very thought of "enjoying" worship seems almost antithetical, if not downright oxymoronic. That's not to say that worship should be dull and lifeless, but rather that to "enjoy" it is to bring the focus on the individual rather than the object of worship.

The second part of the slogan again seems pretty innocuous, but could also be read as a sly dig at other churches, I mean "worship centers" (please note I am only using the American spelling of "centre" because that is the context in which I have seen these titles). Is the worship at the meeting place in question more Christian than at other churches which don't feel the need to state the obvious? Surely for Christian congregations, all worship is "Christ-centered" because Jesus of Nazareth is the basis of the religion?

Again then we come back to that word "worship" and its meaning, but first a little etymology. The origins of the word lie back in the days of Old English and the word "weorthscipe", which can itself be broken into "weorþ" and "scieppan". The word "weorþ" when used as an adjective means "worthy, honoured, noble, honourable, of high rank; valued, dear, precious; fit, capable", while "scieppan" is a verb that means "to shape, form, make, create". Put the two words together and you have the idea of making something honourable, something worthy, something precious. Note, there is no enjoyment here, but rather paying due homage to a superior. Eventually "weorthscipe" morphed into "worthship" and from there the modern "worship".

So what would be a good definition of "worship"? Well, I would propose something along the lines of "paying due homage to a person worthy of receiving it", hence the word "worship" does not have a uniquely ecclesiastical usage. Going back to the time of Chaucer, at the very beginnings of English literature, "worship" was used as an honorific title for mayors, which was eventually extended also to Justices of the Peace and magistrates. As such, worship is an act of respect, not something from which to gain gratification.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Must Try Harder

I was recently asked if I had given up writing this blog, which is understandable given the last time I posted some thoughts was back in March, and that to tell people that I was tinkering with the design.

I write much less on this blog than I do for Fuggled largely because I prefer to write longer, more in-depth posts than I do other there. It is quite easy to write for Fuggled at times, simply because I am writing about something I do rather than something I think about in great depth. I am sure this is a sign of being a zythophilic dilentante, but I simply don't spending ages reflecting on the nature of a hop pellet or similar.

Thinking though on things philosophical and religious is something that potters through my head an awful lot, and my opinions are constantly being challenged and melded, as such I post when I have worked through the process more thoroughly. Perhaps though, that should change? Perhaps I should post my half baked thoughts and ideas in the hope that people will comment and a discussion ensue? Perhaps the blog should become less a pulpit from which to pontificate and more a forum for conversation (kind of the point of Web 2.0 anyway)?

So, in 2011 I will try to post more regularly, and hope that readers will engage with the posts by commenting, even if you disagree viciously with me - tell me why and try to present a reasoned argument - aggressive, bigoted and offensive comments will be simply deleted.