Monday, December 7, 2015

A Critical Review of Doctor Who's Season 9 Finale

On Saturday, the ninth season finale of Doctor Who aired, and already many critics have praised it as a strong finishing episode. Currently, it has an average score of 9.2 on IMDb, accrued from 1,458 viewers. So what I'm about to do in this post - a critical review of the finale - is apparently going to be pretty unpopular. 

Of course, some critics have shared minor disappointments with the episode, and, of course, it's always easier to be negative than it is to be positive. All this is known, acknowledged, etc. My purpose in this review is not to fanboy rant, to be edgy and 'go against the grain,' or to hate on the show. Consider this an exercise in thinking through alternative possibilities, if you will, something of which I like to think the Doctor approves.

Needless to say...

If you have not watched through all of season 9 yet, and you don't want anything ruined, close this window and come back later.



First, I want to begin by saying that this ninth season has been a great season. Many of the characters and stories were interesting, we got to see some fan favorites reappear, and the two-parter format brought a sense of anticipation back to the series that felt absent from the previous season. Peter Capaldi also really came into his own as the Doctor, delivering outstanding performances like the climactic monologue in "The Zygon Inversion." Likewise, Jenna Coleman, whose character I wasn't very fond of in the last couple seasons, stood out more here, especially in the unforgettable episode, "Face the Raven."

Then there was "Heaven Sent," the eleventh and last episode preceding the finale. And what an episode it was. Not only did Capaldi masterfully carry the show all on his own for most of it, but the writing and visuals were stellar, too. The Doctor's journey through the confession dial drew you in on the same mysterious, haunting, frightening, confining, and ultimately triumphant journey of self-realization. After Clara's departure in "Face the Raven," episode eleven was a somber and brilliant way of taking the audience along on the Doctor's struggle to overcome his grief, and to confront the numerous questions and implications raised during it.

Season 9 has been alluding to both Clara's death and the Doctor's need to face his own death ever since the premiere. Having been brought before Davros, the Doctor exclaims, "You've brought me to Skaro!" To which Davros says with a tinge of foreshadowing, "Where does an old man go to die, but with his children?" There's the Doctor's ghost in episodes three and four as well, also alluding to his death. Clara's death is hinted at in her entrapment inside a Dalek shell in the second episode, not to mention her death-like stasis in the Zygon two-parter, with her oddly phrased text to the Doctor: "I'm Awake." This is just the kind of teasing we expect from Moffat and company, though, so for some time it was hard to tell to where exactly these allusions would lead.

Perhaps predictably, one of the big complaints I have against the finale is how it undermined Clara's death in "Face the Raven." I'm certainly not alone in feeling this way, either, as Twitter users have made similar comments, the Telegraph notes. Her death was one of self-sacrifice, poignantly complicated by its unexpected inevitability. There was no Doctor saving the day. Some things can't be changed. But some things are also maybe worth dying for. Clara accepted her death, faced it with courage, and it was all to save another person. It was, by all counts, a prime example of a noble death, a theme that has been significant in Doctor Who for years now, the Doctor repeatedly facing death to save other peoples and other species.

Jenna Coleman doing the wild-eyed stare she's become famous for.
If Clara's death had really been the end of her for the season, it arguably could've been one of the best exits we've seen for a companion in the new series. After all, the Doctor regenerates usually when he's injured or dying. Clara could have become one of the first companions to do what the Doctor hasn't been able to do all these years: actually die a permanent and noble death for the values and ideals of the Doctor. And yes, I know, she still will die that death... some day. But prolonging it like the finale manages to do strips it of much of its effectiveness and impact. It turned out that what Clara initially expected, that the Doctor could save her, was true all along. And weren't we much less impressed when it seemed that Clara's motivation was to cheat the raven?

Because of the Doctor's regenerative capability, as well as the time-traveling, the show has had a long running theme of cheating death. The Doctor's own death has, of course, been addressed before, as in the episodes revolving around Trenzalore, yet there is always a way out, a way of cheating death. Season 9 held the promise of something different, for several reasons. The Doctor is older now, more mature, and 12 came onto the scene following a series of episodes that made a great deal about the Doctor exhausting his allotted number of regenerations. The ninth season was poised to finally show a Doctor who could learn to face the finality of death. Instead, we managed to cheat death again for the Doctor's latest favorite companion.

Another frustration I had with the season finale was its abrupt switch in the Doctor's mood from episode eleven. In "Heaven Sent," the Doctor didn't just make his confession, he also went to confront his death untold times, in a strikingly spiritual-seeming act of self-transformation, as if breaking the cycle of rebirth within the confession dial. This moving scene of repeatedly enduring the same moments, punching the same impossible wall, making the same confessions - all of it became moot in the finale when it was revealed that the Doctor snapped under the pressure. What seemed like a desperation to break free and return home to Gallifrey turned into a madman's quest to rescue Clara.

Yes, Moffat certainly gave us "unpredictability" in the ending episode of season 9, as Ross Ruediger calls in an article for Vulture, but what precisely makes that in itself worthy of praise is a bit cryptic. An unpredictable story isn't necessarily a good story, nor is a predictable one necessarily terrible. A lot can be said for execution mattering far more than originality, and it's why, for example, films like The Godfather and Goodfellas stand out among so many other flicks about mobsters and gang violence.

While we're on the subject of Gallifrey... oh boy. After so many seasons of the Doctor pining for a return to his homeworld and to his own people, we get an incredibly anti-climactic homecoming. The man who fought to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and became so excited at the prospect of it being spared in a frozen moment of time, came back not even with a vengeance, but more of a meh. 'Gallifrey? Whatevs, I'm only here to save my friend.' Oh, and that frozen moment in time plot point? Dismissed without explanation in a single sentence. How did the Time Lords unfreeze themselves? How did they arrange for the Doctor to be sent to the confession dial? "They must've found a way."

Furthermore, the Doctor proceeded to shoot one Gallifreyan standing in his way, to threaten several others, and hijacked Gallifrey technology to pull Clara out of time. Mind you, 12 was one of the many Doctors we saw working to save Gallifrey in "The Day of the Doctor," and although it never made reference to when that was in his timeline, it's hard to believe he suddenly forgot all the effort he's put in to mourning, repenting for, and trying to save his homeworld over the centuries. The Doctor may have snapped from his confession, but his arrival at Gallifrey still seemed to have zero impact on him emotionally.

Granted, all of these issues I've talked about mostly revolve around the prophecy of the hybrid, which was clearly the focal point for the two opening and two ending episodes. Admittedly, I went back and forth on the idea of the hybrid throughout the season. It was kept intentionally vague, but also did not seem to really get fleshed out much until the very last few minutes of the very last episode. Clara and the Doctor together being the hybrid was not entirely a bad idea, though it did feel like it could've been done better. All during season 9, Clara pushes the Doctor to be a better person, and then suddenly she's causing him to push himself too far. It could've been nice to at least build up to that concept over the duration of the series.

But let's talk about how things are resolved in the finale. Me/Ashildr served as both a good reminder of the Doctor's need for moderation, and as a contrasting immortal for him to converse with about the pain of eternity. It was maybe an interesting development to have the Doctor's memory wiped instead of a companion's, though yet again this seemed like a dilemma that didn't need to be there. It was really only posed because Clara wound up cheating death, thanks to the Doctor. And frankly, I'm not so sure having the first older Doctor in a very long time wind up forgetting his close friend in a bout of self-induced Alzheimer's was a great choice.

"Anyone seen my TARDIS keys?"

Clara and Ashildr flying off through space in a TARDIS felt like a mix of indecision, childish fancy, and poorly-done fan service. We didn't need Clara to survive, and we didn't need her to become her own Doctor, either, especially when the option was there, right under everyone's noses, of having her do something surpassing even the Doctor in its meaningfulness. Sure, this point could be argued, since her death was only delayed, not avoided altogether, but this is in actuality the case with everyone the Doctor rescues. They all die some day, and Clara was not the first companion to endanger her life for other people.

As other reviewers have observed, this raises a big question about what made Clara different enough for the Doctor to risk ending the universe. Was Rose not that important? Donna? Amy and Rory? Danny Pink was able to die and stay dead, despite the glaring inconsistency of Orson Pink appearing in the future for an episode of season 8. I suppose that possible afterlife reunion of Danny and Clara will just have to wait a few billion years, though.

To wrap up this review, I have to confess that I don't get the love that the season 9 finale has been receiving from critics and fans alike. True, the season has been quite good overall, but that's also part of what I feel made this ending episode that much more of a letdown. So much got glossed over rapid-fire in the Doctor's senseless quest to resurrect Clara, including a throwaway line about Missy bringing together 12 and the Impossible Girl (it would've been nicer to see her in the finale). In all honesty, the season could have concluded on its strongest note with "Heaven Sent." What we got for a finale felt rushed, unnecessary, and, at its worst moments, almost incoherent.

That said, I'm still absolutely rooting for the Doctor. There have been bummer episodes before, and even downright awful ones. The season 9 finale may not beat out "Daleks in Manhattan," with its ridiculous penis-headed Human-Dalek, or the unbelievably abysmal "Love & Monsters," but sometimes it's nearly worse when a season comes so close to nailing it, then punts at the last minute. At least we have the return of River Song to look forward to with the Christmas special, and here's to hoping season 10 will be able to pull it together better.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Notes from the Margins: 1. What's the Value of a Communist?

As a sufficiently non-wealthy university student, I tend to purchase a lot of used books, primarily through Amazon, though also on occasion from Half Price Books and other venues. Often the books I acquire will come with little bonuses in the form of notes scrawled in the margins of the pages by a previous reader. These not only provide some fuel for essay topics and further research every now and then, but I think they add a bit of extra charm to the book, too. Perhaps my enjoyment is partly because I don't do margin notes myself, and so they contrast curiously with my usual habit of note-taking electronically or on separate sheets of paper.

Not all notes in the margins are charming, of course. Some are illegible, some are messy, some merely state the obvious, and some are only there to mark sections or passages for reference. I suppose the sign of a good note is that it typically sparks thought and makes you want to have a conversation with the note-taker, yet there are some instances where the opposite is true. You read the scratches of a prior owner and think: '...what.' It's not unusual for face-palms, sighs, or frowns to follow thereafter.

Consider this the first entry in a likely series of posts discussing some of the Notes from the Margins I have encountered in my reading. At the risk of belaboring the gag, they are marginal in more than one sense.


Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why It Matters is a brief little book that lays out the UNC philosopher's view on what constitutes a meaningful life. Taken from some of her lectures, the book primarily distinguishes meaningfulness from morality and happiness, and suggests that an important component of a meaningful life involves activities or ends that are objectively valuable. She mostly addresses the latter issue in the second chapter, where she discusses intersubjectivity, the metaphysics of value, and so forth. 

To give a very simplified summary of her view, Wolf believes that a meaningful life must be about more than just personal fulfillment, it should be about loving the kinds of things that are worthy of love. The paradigm example of Sisyphus rolling a rock up a hill for eternity is not made any better if we suppose the gods bestowed him with a deep and lasting sense of fulfillment in his task. What he does is still pointless on the whole. The only time fulfillment can really give meaning to our lives is when it is aimed at certain worthwhile pursuits, and here "worthwhile" means objectively valuable.

In the middle of chapter two, Wolf considers whether intersubjectivity and Ideal Observer Theory (though not called by that name) contribute to an adequate understanding of objective value. Both are inadequate, she argues, and in fact there is no reasonably complete and defensible account of objective value. It is an unsolved problem at present. This should give us pause about to what kinds of things we attribute worthiness. She writes,

My own inclination is to be generous in my assumptions about what is valuable in the sense required to qualify as a potential contributor to meaning. I expect that almost anything that a significant number of people have taken to be valuable over a long span of time is valuable. If people find an object or activity or project engaging, there is apt to be something about it that makes it so - perhaps the activity is challenging, the object beautiful, the project morally important. (p. 47)

Next to this passage in my copy, a note is scrawled in red ink:

So she judges value based on majority view, which is not a philosophical way to think about it, but rather a communist? blind follower's way to think about it.

Underlining, punctuation, and capitalization (Das Kapital?) here are original to the note.

Having just studied Marxism in a recent Political Philosophy course, it's amusing to see Communism here distinguished from philosophical thinking. Apparently this reader sees it less as a political philosophy and more as a "blind follower's way," tied in with majority opinion. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that the lowercase 'c' denotes something more like communalism, as in allegiance to a specific community. But whether it is communalism or Communism we're talking about, I'm not sure why exactly one can't be a reflective, thoughtful participant. It would seem that both call for some level of philosophical and sociological consideration in distinguishing themselves as their own social identities. Then again, that could just be the indoctrination talking.

What's more interesting is how this reader pulls something so foreign out of Wolf's text that it should alarm their presumably conservative American economic sensibilities. Right after the author says in the very same paragraph that the unsolved problem of objective value gives us "all the more reason to be tentative in our judgments," this reader concludes that she has passed value judgments based on majority view. Rather, what Wolf is doing is expressing a willingness not to dismissively judge the ethical intuitions of others. This is pretty much the total opposite of being a blind follower, it is having the awareness, humility, and courtesy to recognize that we aren't the only ones with ideas about value. The author's support of objective value is maintained not out of majority opinion, but by those objects or activities having "something about [them]" - perhaps intrinsic to them - that makes them valuable.

In the very next paragraph, Wolf observes that there are plenty of things that remind us that people also waste their time on frivolous pursuits. From the context, it looks fairly clear she is not endorsing the idea of 'majority rules' or anything of the sort. She is simply sharing the complexities involved with the kind of view that she articulates. Indeed, it strikes me that there often are many concerns people have with moral realist accounts, especially that they may trample the rights and values of the less fortunate. Several other margin notes in the book suggest that this reader had quite similar concerns. Yet in their urgency to find fault with Wolf's position, they missed her actual point, which was in fact lending some credence to their own reservations.

A great deal of philosophy may be about questioning received wisdom, but it's equally important to make sure you understand what is being claimed in the first place. Whether one agrees with his conclusions or not, Marx criticized Capitalism not out of ignorance or a blind belief in Communism, but from an informed position, which is discernible in his writings from his engagement with the work of Adam Smith. It is also the received 'wisdom' of a certain group of people in American culture that Communist thought (or communalist thought) isn't really thought at all, but a blind faith ideology based on laziness and entitlement. Might these influences and factors upon our thinking be just the sort of reasons for which Wolf advises that we be reluctant to make strong, explicit declarations of value?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Privilege Appropriates the Language of Oppression

I used to be one of the many human rights advocates suffering from a condition I like to refer to as 'why-cant-we-all-just-get-along'-itus. By this, I do not mean so much that I was a peacenik who wanted us to all see past our differences and come together to sing kumbaya. Rather, what I mean is that I had a fairly whitewashed view of the cultural and social climate in which we each live. I did not want us to see past our differences because I had grown up being told and believing that we had no real differences. Race, gender, sexuality - these were all constructs of bygone ages, outdated relics we needed to repudiate and reject in order to overcome. And weren't we the lucky ones to live in a time where we knew better, a time where we were overcoming.

A good number of us living in the West tend to have this idea that the social is not real. We construct concepts like currency and make frequent use of them in our societies, yet the things on which we base them do not actually have any such intrinsic value. There is nothing inherent to the dollar that, even in better economic times, has made it count for a certain amount of gold or silver. Nor is there anything inherent to gold or silver that makes it particularly valuable. These things have what we call instrumental value, they are valuable to us only to the extent that they are useful to us. So it may seem to us that these social constructs are illusory in a sense, that they are not real things existing independently in the world.

Because I saw concepts like race, gender and sexuality as social constructs, I saw them as being somewhat similar to other social constructs like currency. They were projections made by people, placed onto other people, and defended by those people because they found them useful. Whether their motivations were to marginalize those of any particular group, or just to generalize for more studious purposes, the concepts themselves were only instrumentally valuable, and therefore had an illusory quality to them. What matters most, I felt, is that we are all human beings. Why get so hung up on illusory things? Those aren't what's real. Our shared humanity is.

This became something to be defended almost as fervently as some would defend the social constructs that mattered most to them. Somewhere in the haze of it all, insistence on these instrumental valuations became, in my eyes, an insistence on division. When someone said women are discriminated against, a deliberate distinction was made between men and women. This always pointed to the simple fact that someone was clinging to an outdated relic, treating women as if they mattered less, but other times it took on the appearance of treating women as if they mattered more. We're all people, and we're all human, aren't we? I thought. Why divide us by acting as if some problems are more important than others?

Lately this thinking seems to be behind certain sentiments expressed in reaction to various claims of oppression throughout our world. The "Black Lives Matter" movement has been met with responses like "All lives matter" and "Cop lives matter." The Men's Rights movement has at times tried to show that some types of discrimination affect men in a parallel way, or greater way, to how they affect women. Allegations of fat-shaming are answered with accusations of skinny-shaming for suggesting there is an unrealistic social standard of beauty. Though I have not cited any here, the examples are numerous, recent, and easily accessible from a Google search.

One of the ideas behind these reactionary sentiments seems to be that focusing on the experience of any one social group minimizes the experience of other groups. However, this assumes a general uniformity of experience across social boundaries, which is the very thing being disputed by most social justice activists. I also think this assumption comes to a degree from the view of social constructs mentioned above. If differences of gender, race, sexuality, and so forth are like illusory projections, are not the experiences people have as a result of those projections equally illusory? This does not follow any more than it follows that the social nature of currency means our experiences with currency are in a sense less real than our experiences with other, objective facts in the world. But I believe the bigger issue lies with the reality we assign to social constructs.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that there are three elements that constitute an empirically adequate view of how societies are shaped:

Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society. [1]

Berger says that society is the result of our putting our selves and our ideas out into the world, of our selves and our ideas taking on a reality in how they affect us and others, and of our adoption of that reality back into our conception of our selves and our ideas. This well explains the way in which we both participate in our societies and yet the societies we belong to also participate in us. It likewise shows that social constructs have a non-illusory reality in that they are indeed made part of the world, able to influence and impact us in ways that are external to us. That is, they will exist and affect us whether we will them to or not. This is true as well for currency, which can affect us in a very real way, especially if we find ourselves unemployed or in great debt.

Social constructs are abstract concepts, and so there may be some controversy over whether they are real in the same sense that particulars are real. Physicists and biologists have not found evidence to suggest that race, gender or sexuality are out there in the material world, existing in space and time like a chair exists in space and time. But there are problems with a strict reductionist materialism just as there may be problems with a Platonist view that sees abstractions as having reality. For starters, time and space have experiential aspects, and they are what Immanuel Kant called the synthetic a priori - they make sense of our experience, but are prior to experience and yet not attained through reason alone. Wherever one falls on the issue of abstract concepts, though, it does seem that they at least have effects in the world that move us in respects that have real consequences.

On Berger's view, we not only see how social constructs can have a reality to them, but we also see how experience is not uniform across social boundaries. Externalization involves an outpouring of selves and ideas into the world that will not be equal, for a variety of reasons too numerous to elaborate here, though not difficult to imagine. Objectivation sees the products of externalization transcending their producers, and they take on a reality capable of affecting others, which will affect different people differently, as the initial outpouring was unequal. Finally, internalization is the absorption of that reality back into individual minds.

Privilege and social advantage often go hand in hand, but both are usually invisible to those that hold them. Social privilege provides something of a luxury in not having to consider anything that is not directly relatable to oneself. The privileged person tends to take the limited view that they do see as the absolute truth or the norm. Psychologist Beverly Greene remarks that we are each of us in a "matrix of categories and contexts, where in some contexts we may be privileged, and in others we may be disadvantaged," [2] and we exist at the nexus of these many categories and group identities.

Externalization takes in these privileges and disadvantages, and some will be more predominant than others. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the privilege of the majority is always a literal privilege in numbers. Power structures and institutions often undergird majority privilege even where there may not be a literal majority. These structures and institutions play significant roles in all three moments of Berger's social process, especially in externalization and internalization (lobbying and advertising would perhaps be the most apparent examples). Privileges and disadvantages become objectivated, and we internalize that reality which we perceive. In a society with lots of people, power structures, and institutions that privilege a particular class, the step of internalization may explain why so many partaking in the predominant privilege seem to be unaware of the fact. What they absorb as the norm, or objective truth, is what they have all put into the social process to begin with.

As I see it, this is all quite relevant to the increase of reactionary sentiments that I mention above. It additionally shows why these sentiments are misguided at best, and are at worst further efforts to marginalize others and defend privilege. Julia Craven writes in an article for The Huffington Post:

Race brings on individual issues for each minority group. Saying "all lives matter" causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces. Saying "all lives matter" is nothing more than you centering and inserting yourself within a very emotional and personal situation without any empathy or respect. [3]

The purpose of "Black Lives Matter," as she notes earlier in her article, is to draw attention to the fact that our nation has a history of suggesting some lives do matter more than others. Replying that all lives, white lives, or cop lives matter is to miss the point, because even while it is true that all lives should matter, the rejoinders fail to address the central problem: not all lives are understood to matter equally. These responses likewise ignore privilege and the structures in our society that protect it, and so unwittingly call for the status quo, wherein the problem lies. Philosopher Judith Butler explains that "to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it." [4]

Melissa Fabello makes some very similar distinctions in discussing the differences between fat-shaming and skinny-shaming, noting that fat-shaming not only expresses a general fatphobia of Western society, but that "the very structures that hold up our society prioritize the comfort and safety of thin bodies." [5] Later in her post, she comments on how calling out fat-shaming is sometimes treated as being itself an instance of skinny-shaming, like how Black Lives Matter is misunderstood as an exclusionary statement. Again, most of us seem to agree that all bodies should be respected, but this fails to address the actual problem that some bodies are given more respect than others within our society.

None of this is meant to suggest that skinny-shaming is acceptable, or that there are no cases of discrimination against white people, or anything remotely along those lines. But it seems to me that even having to make that qualification says something about the intense sense of entitlement that exists in these responses and that tends to come with privilege. It's an entitlement to always be represented in conversation, to be acknowledged even when it isn't so relevant. It expresses an attitude of suspicion, not willing to give even the benefit of doubt, or to look honestly and nakedly at the stated experience of someone else. Phrased in the dialectic of Hegel, it is the self's attempt to force recognition for itself from the other by negating the other and treating them as an object.

Cultural appropriation has recently become a widely discussed topic in light of celebrities who are alleged to be taking from the cultures of other ethnicities and races in their stylistic choices. In certain contexts, this may be another example of objectifying the other in the struggle for self recognition. I think another way this has been happening in the modern day is in the appropriation of language used by some groups and cultures to describe and respond to their own oppression. This is most notable with the Black Lives movement, whose rallying cry against oppression has been appropriated into an almost antithetical slogan that minimizes the experience of many African Americans.

Another example may be found in the current controversy over the actions of Kentucky's county clerk Kim Davis. Released only days ago, Ms. Davis was jailed for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses to couples after the Obergefell ruling. She and her supporters have claimed that issuing the licenses would violate her freedom of religious belief. Rather than resigning, as many county clerks have done because of Obergefell, she chose to refuse to do her duty as a public servant and served jail time as a consequence. Davis' legal support have suggested the whole ordeal could've been prevented by just removing her name from the licenses, however as Zack Ford of Think Progress notes, Kentucky law defines what goes on the licenses, and the only time that has changed was in reaction to the Obergefell ruling. [6]

While using the language of freedom and liberty for herself, Ms. Davis has asked the state law and federal law to change to accommodate her in denying the freedom and liberty of hundreds, if not thousands, of couples who are now legally able to be married. Despite a marriage license being a legal certification and not any statement of moral or religious authority, she feels it is her religious duty to violate her constitutional duty and refuse to provide the licenses. The LGBT movement has pushed for decades against the oppression that has denied them their right to marry, and even though the tide has at last begun to shift in the US, they are still far from being in any position of privilege. Christians, on the other hand, have a long and standing history as a privileged majority in America.

Privilege appropriates the language of oppression to assert itself over and above those it oppresses. It minimizes the experience of others and marginalizes their self expression in order to try and reclaim the recognition of which it feels it is more deserving. The morbid irony is that the privileged rarely ever lose recognition, it's only that they increasingly come to feel like they should have more than is currently there. It's no wonder, then, that its favorite answer when confronted by the oppressed is not a mere reassertion of power, but a grab for further power. The risk of losing recognition - either by a decline in its own influence, or a rise in the influence of the others - is too high a price to pay, even when the scales are already grossly unbalanced.

1. Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (1967, Anchor Books), p. 4.
2. Beverely Greene, in Psychological Perspectives on Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Experiences, ed. Linda Garnets and Douglas Kimmel (2003, Columbia University), p. 391.
3. Julia Craven, Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter, The Huffington Post (Nov 25, 2014).
4. Judith Butler, interviewed by George Yancy in What's Wrong With 'All Lives Matter?', The New York Times (Jan 12, 2015).
5. Melissa A. Fabello, 4 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Skinny-Shaming as 'Reverse Discrimination', Everyday Feminism (Oct 21, 2014).
6. Zack Ford, The Kim Davis Saga May Last Until At Least January, If Not Longer, Think Progress (Sept 11, 2015).

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Gary Habermas Shows Why the 'Minimal Facts' of Jesus' Death Can't Establish the Resurrection

Gary Habermas is a New Testament scholar and philosopher of religion at Liberty University who has devoted much of his career to defending a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. For over 30 years now, Habermas has collected and analyzed scholarly materials published on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, distilling them down to a core set of trends. His work has been cited by numerous Christian apologists, perhaps most notably in The Case for Christ and the debates and writings of William Lane Craig.

Recently, Dr. Habermas appeared on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast in dialogue with James Crossley on whether the "minimal facts" surrounding Jesus' death support the resurrection. Crossley is an agnostic New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield and the author of a book called Jesus and the Chaos of History. The minimal facts are intended to be general points of agreement acceptable even to skeptics, and the two criteria Habermas gives are that they be facts with multiple lines of argument supporting them, and they share in a consensus made up of the "vast majority" of New Testament scholars.

Habermas identifies 6 minimal facts in the show, which are as follows:

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the risen Jesus.
3. Some among the disciples died for their belief.
4. James, a skeptic, was converted.
5. Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of Christians, was converted.
6. The earliness of the proclamation of the risen Jesus.

One immediately noteworthy thing missing from this list is the empty tomb. To his credit, Gary concedes that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact because of the many biblical historians who dispute it. As the host, Justin, remarks, this seems contrary to what some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have attempted to cull from Dr. Habermas' work. In his book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, co-written with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor Craig writes: "There are at least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians today." (p. 22, italics mine) Dr. Craig then goes on to articulate some of the reasons that "most scholars" accept the empty tomb.

Of course, it could be contended that this is just another way of saying that the majority of scholars favor the empty tomb as a historical fact. However, 1/3 to 1/4 of experts dissenting from a given viewpoint is not a negligible difference. Things get even sketchier when you look at the methodology behind Dr. Habermas' 2005 study and discover how that figure is calculated. The survey is not a comprehensive one of thousands of New Testament scholars, it's a survey of select literature published in German, French and English since 1975. While Gary's work offers important insights, he also has not released his data, despite requests for it, and the closest we get to an idea of how many sources he's surveyed is "more than 1400" in that 2005 study of his. Break that down over 30 years and that's a ballpark average of 46.7 studies examined per year. It's hardly a robust amount of data from which to assess the opinions of New Testament scholarship on the whole.

This methodological problem has implications beyond the empty tomb, too, for all of the six minimal facts mentioned above, as well as any other facts that could be conjured up on the same basis. So whether Dr. Habermas wants to single out 4 facts, 6 facts, 12 facts, or his exceedingly generous 21 facts, the fatal flaw remains present in all cases. Statistical analysis is only as good as your data and the method you use to analyze that data, and a study like the one published by Dr. Habermas in a religious studies journal would not pass in an introductory level Stats class (I say this from experience). Granted, it was probably not Gary's intent to do a rigorous statistical analysis, but the limitations of this research need to be noted when attempts are made at extrapolating certain trends from it. For more on this specific concern, see Richard Carrier's article, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix.

But what real use is a list of even roughly calculated minimal facts when it requires another list of supplementary philosophical assumptions in order to support the resurrection? Near the end of the discussion on the podcast, Habermas explains that the way he sees of moving from the death of Jesus and the reports of his postmortem appearances to the involvement of the supernatural is by bringing in "worldview aspects." This is, in fact, something he notes early on in the show. Among these assumptions are conclusions about the character and identity of Jesus, and the continuation of life after death, though I would argue there are additional assumptions about the existence and nature of god. In a chapter from The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Robert Greg Cavin outlines still more hidden assumptions in the standard resurrection story of Jesus, which is not just revivification, but has to do with Jesus being raised as a living supernatural body sometime after his death.

At one point in the episode, Dr. Habermas refers to the resurrection allegedly supported by the minimal facts as "mundane," saying that the gospels depict the postmortem appearances as if seeing a dead friend at the supermarket, acting as normal. Yet the point by Cavin above reveals this to be naive. A mundane resurrection in that sense would be as easily dismissed as any incident of a grieving loved one hallucinating their dearly departed. There is nothing especially impressive about it. The minimal facts are where many apologists say that the resurrection differs from other allegations of resuscitation or revivification of a corpse. If the transformation of the disciples is a stand out feature of the resurrection story, it would seem to play a part in discounting the mundane nature of events as Habermas portrays it. After all, we're often told, people might see the dead after they're gone, but they generally don't go to be martyred for them. If this famous image of the disciples valiantly accepting death having seen the risen lord is as true as apologists claim it is, then the resurrection simply can't be a mundane occurrence by their own reasoning.

Does this not also say something about the exceptional kind of assumptions that are required to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection function at all? We are not talking about spotting someone in the supermarket, alive and apparently well when they'd been dead the day before. We are talking about something much less "mundane," and it's the reason why the case for the resurrection has been turned into an argument for the existence of god by an apologist like William Lane Craig. There is an element of the supernatural, a "worldview aspect," as Habermas called it. It isn't simply that Jesus appeared again to his followers, like in a daydream, it's that he miraculously rose from the dead, in a way that his followers took as a vindication of their ideas about his teachings and his identity. It meant, for them, that god not only existed, but that he was the god represented by Jesus, and Jesus was the sort of person god not only had the power to raise back to life, but wanted to raise, did raise, and had the power and will to raise into something more than just a reanimated earthly form.
The miracle of the resurrection is the saving grace of many Christians. To Paul it gave hope for a life beyond death and for a righting of the wrongs faced in this life. Entertaining the historicity of the resurrection without the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions behind it is practically unimaginable, not only for atheists and skeptics but for believing Christians, too. This brings us to the awkward position of either asking each other to buy into our philosophical presuppositions, or leaving things at a set of bare minimal facts that is by itself incapable of showing anything except what it already contains. The minimal facts are, one might say, minimally interesting. Even if we put aside the troubling concerns with the methodology that undergirds them, they aren't what's really doing the work in winning minds. Rather than minimizing background assumptions and asking us to buy into some ample facts, the apologetic case for the resurrection minimizes the facts and asks us to buy into some ample assumptions.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Should Bioethics Become Less Religious?

The following post comes from a paper I wrote for a Spring Bioethics class. I figured the material in it would be interesting and relevant enough to be featured here. Enjoy!    -Taylor


In Genesis 2:7, Adam is given life when God breathes into his nostrils. Taking inspiration from this and other passages, some interpreters of Jewish law hold that death occurs only at the moment when breathing stops. Consequently, organ donation can be a touchy subject among certain Jewish communities in cases where breathing continues with the aid of a ventilator even after brain function has ceased. Israel currently has one of the lowest rates of organ donation among developed nations, with a waiting list for kidney transplants that has increased by 40% over the last ten years since laws were enacted limiting the circumstances for donation.[1] Religious belief is in conflict with what medical science has to say about death, as well as with the ethics of refusing organ transplants to those who might die without them.

The focus of bioethics is on how ethical theory ought to inform decisions in medicine.[2] Of significant concern to bioethicists like Gregory Pence is a question such as, “What makes an act right?” Numerous avenues for consideration are available to those who might ask about the rightness of denying organ transplants on religious grounds, or of letting any religious belief inform any medical decision. Beneficence may motivate us to emphasize the medical well-being of a patient, yet respect for autonomy may involve concession to other aspects of a patient's well-being, including their religious views. This picture becomes all the more complicated when religiously-oriented cultural values are permitted to affect the health and well-being of those who may not share such values.

A line must be drawn somewhere, it seems, and recently one bioethicist has suggested that line be drawn at religion itself. It's one thing to show respect for people of different beliefs, but quite another thing to give preferential treatment to their beliefs in medicine. Religion must be 'exorcised' from bioethics, according to this argument, where it currently holds a privileged status it ought not hold, and with it gone the field will be better able to take an unbiased look at health and human welfare. It is my contention, however, that the case for this irreligious bioethics rests on problematic assumptions about religion, ethics, and science. I begin with a discussion of the argument, followed by some considerations in support of it, and end with objections.

Irreligious Bioethics

In his paper, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” Timothy Murphy argues that the discipline of bioethics should strive to separate itself from, and even offer critiques of, religious views.[3] The article is largely a reaction to arguments like those advanced by Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, who contend that the modern bioethical paradigm, structured as it is on predominantly Western notions of individualism and individual rights, is incompatible with the religiously-grounded traditions and worldviews of many non-Western cultures.[4] In seeming agreement, Murphy proposes that religion be jettisoned from bioethical theory and practice. Though respect is to be shown to those of different beliefs, and understanding the influence of religion upon one's culture is to be regarded as important, all religions, Murphy recommends, must be treated “with a hermeneutic of suspicion.” Such an approach will allegedly offer benefits not afforded by a secular or religious bioethics, including primarily a greater promise of objectivity.

Following on from Fox and Swazey, Murphy defines religion as a focus on “basic and transcendental aspects of the human condition, and enduring problems of meaning, to questions about human origins, identity; the 'whys' of pain and suffering, injustice and evil; the mysteries of life and death; and the wonders and enigmas of hope and endurance, compassion and caring, forgiveness and love.” Against this broad definition, he defines irreligion as “a lack of religious belief or being at variance with religious principles.” The crucial distinction here seems to be that bioethics ought to consider cultural backgrounds, even be able to learn from religion, but what it adopts cannot be adopted on theological grounds, it can only be adopted based on separate moral or logical reasoning. The advantage conferred in doing this, Murphy claims, is that it offers bioethics “a detached vantage point” from which to observe and judge religion in concert with concerns about welfare or medical technologies, for example. One is free to ask a question like 'Does belief in God undermine efforts to protect people from harm?' in a way that religious bioethics presumably cannot ask without falling into bias.

As an illustration of irreligious bioethics in practice, Murphy discusses intercessory prayer. Why don't those praying for others prioritize their prayers according to things like contributory negligence? Why not pray for everyone everywhere, instead of praying as if only certain conditions or certain individual people can be effectively helped by prayer? Why even think God responds to prayer as though the ones not prayed for will be neglected? Murphy cites studies by Herbert Benson and Leanne Roberts casting doubt on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, leading up to his conclusion that bioethics has no good reason to affirm the value of prayer, and so must proceed irreligiously, framing its concepts and designs without reference to it.

Where religion seems to most conflict with bioethics is, in Murphy's view, that it relies on assumptions that are “unfalsifiable, infinitely mutable in the face of objections, rooted in personal experiences that defy independent analysis, or rooted in the murk of human history.” Just as metallurgy is able to do its work without invoking divinities, deities, revelation, miracles, or theological accounts of human lives, bioethics should be able to proceed without capitulating to religious views, perhaps even be better off. By seeing the immanent world as the only world, Murphy thinks irreligious bioethics can better concentrate on the work to be done here and now.

Imagine No Religion

Something can be said for the incompatibility of the modern bioethical paradigm with religious traditions. Howard Brody and Arlene Macdonald note that contemporary bioethics operates under a rational secular mode of thought, which they connect with John Rawls and liberal philosophical tradition. “To produce an ideally fair outcome,” they explain, “Rawls envisioned a group of choosers who were rational, mutually disinterested, and concerned to advance the interests of themselves and those they cared about most.”[5] On this approach, the public sphere came to embody things like government and public institutions, while religion, family, and voluntary associations were relegated to the private sphere. In the interest of creating a just and orderly society with the greatest amount of assent, comprehensive doctrines are excluded from the public square. Yet these doctrines contain fundamental teachings about virtues and principles that do not always coincide with the kind of individualistic, rational, or secularist values at the forefront of the paradigm on which modern bioethics is based. As Brody and Macdonald note, this favored approach has come under “increasing criticism” in recent years, not just from religious believers, but from feminist circles as well.

Is this really reason to jettison religion from the fold, though? In fact, there is some research to suggest that religious skeptics perform better on analytical tasks than religious believers. Pennycook et al. assigned syllogisms to a group of 91 psychology undergrad students and measured for their ability to determine the validity of a syllogism, as well as their own assessment of the believability of the concluding statements.[6] Even after controlling for variables like sex, socioeconomic status, age, education, and so on, the study found a negative relation between analytic thinking and religious belief. This seems to be part of what Murphy has in mind when he recommends irreligious bioethics as a means of “getting past biases implicit in religious views.” An ability to recognize and correctly evaluate the logic of religious assumptions is indeed important for ethics and for medicine, arguably for religion itself, and this ability being associated more strongly with religious skepticism is a point in favor of a skeptical approach to religion in bioethics.

What about moral reasoning? One's ability with logical syllogisms could have nothing to do with their abilities in forming moral judgments. However, two studies published by Jennifer Wright and Ryan Nichols show that religiosity does influence moral judgments, particularly when it comes to appraising the motivations and moral character of non-believers. Between the two studies, over 500 participants were presented with cases varying in terms of religiosity, action valence (moral/immoral), and action duration. Participants evaluated scenarios where the same action was performed, albeit with variation in whether the agent involved was described as Christian or atheist. Wright and Nichols conclude their paper with a summary of the general opinion found among the religious believers in their studies: “atheists are not only people who feel less bad about their immoral actions, but they are also people from whom immoral behaviors should be expected, given their beliefs and their shared community values.”[7] If we are concerning ourselves with questions about religion's potential interference with ethical choices and medical decisions – the questions Dr. Murphy wants us to ask – studies like these seem to call for more than a cursory glance at the arguments for irreligious bioethics.


It's one thing to note the flaws in human judgment or the biases behind certain ways of thought, and it's quite another thing to propose that these are best resolved by weeding out the influence of religion, as if treating a disease. Exactly how Murphy's bold new vision for bioethics should be applied is a question left largely unanswered, but it raises important concerns, such as how far is too far. How sure can Murphy be that his own solution is not just exchanging one set of doctrines for another? In response, Jennifer Miller observes that we often tend to be overconfident in assessing our own objectivity and abilities, a point amusingly illustrated by reference to polls revealing that 93% of American drivers and 69% of Swedish drivers consider themselves better at driving than the average motorist, despite this being statistically impossible.[8] Indeed, whatever studies may say about the rationality or morality of non-believers, confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance are known to affect us all, regardless of where we align ourselves socially.

In his paper, Murphy concedes, “we all belong somewhere on the continuum of ideology, but,” he continues, “some people are more prone to ideological excess than others, and religious believers can be vulnerable in this regard.” Evidence of this special vulnerability is not provided, yet one still wonders why bioethics specifically should be tasked with the responsibility of stamping out religious explanations. If it's a case against faith Murphy is seeking, analytic philosophy in general has a long and rich history of challenging the claims of religion. William Stempsey, Professor of Philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, goes so far as to argue that, “bioethics too often takes philosophy so superficially as to fall into outright error, as when autonomy, understood as the freedom to follow one's own desires, is attributed to Immanuel Kant.”[9] If the worry is that bioethics is especially susceptible to poorly reasoned views when under the influence of religion, one can respond, as Miller does, that the interdisciplinary nature of the field – drawing on law, history, psychology, economics, utilitarianism, deontology, and a range of other methodologies – serves as an effective safeguard against any sort of widespread 'corruption.' In fact, a compelling argument can be made that it is this very openness of the discipline that gives it the strength and relevance it has.

There is no “view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel once explained. In ethics, as in most of philosophy, one often comes to accept different starting points, priors, or principles that involve as much debate and defense as any application of any one of them may involve. Irreligious bioethics seems to have in mind a way that bioethics should do its normative work, and though the ideas are not made explicit, they are nevertheless open to dispute. Bioethics is not like metallurgy like Murphy supposes; it can be and ought to be informed by science where appropriate, but the ethics component of it distinguishes it in a vital sense. We don't distinguish metallurgy from 'irreligious metallurgy,' because the concepts of metallurgy come from a naturalistic methodology available to the religious and non-religious alike. If there is a distinction between forms of bioethics, it serves to distinguish the field from sciences like metallurgy, and in some important ways.[10] Murphy's example of intercessory prayer is instructive here, for not only do the arguments against its efficacy stem largely from that naturalistic methodology, which has long been part of the sciences, but anything that might be further drawn out of such studies, like whether it's permissible for a nurse to pray for their patient, would simply be outside the realm of empirical science. Normative judgments are not discernible through the scientific method alone.

What is so problematic for bioethics if room is left for theologians to offer their own views on certain bioethical matters? In fact, a number of theologians have critiqued prayer studies like those mentioned by Murphy for failing to understand the purpose of prayer, a point that can just as effectively be used to discourage prayer from being implemented as any sort of clinical medical treatment in place of other, far more effectual treatments.[11] In an ironic twist, then, religion can be useful in countering certain strains of religious reasoning that threaten to encroach upon the territory of bioethics. Why not make use of arguments and ideas from wherever we can? Bioethics itself has religious roots in many of its foundational figures, including Beauchamp and Childress, who articulated the four principles of autonomy, justice, beneficence, and non-maleficence. Religious traditions can and do offer ethical ideas that can be accepted on secular grounds, such as Catholicism and natural law, Judaism and Noahide law, or even the Golden Rule, found among innumerable religious and philosophical teachings. Of course, Murphy says he is not opposed to allowing bioethics to “cannibalize” ideas from pretty much anywhere it can, so long as they can be accepted on non-theological grounds, but this already seems to be how the discipline operates. Irreligious bioethics would seem to prematurely shut the door on anything that even resembles religious thought, when some of their views and arguments could prove quite helpful in doing some of the work that Murphy wants to see done in bioethics, like overcoming archaic notions of health and healing, and moving towards a more robust understanding of medicine. Excluding religion from the playing field will only create division where it need not exist, and may actually evoke a kind of change that not even Murphy wants to see.


Would the situation for organ donations be better in Israel if physicians and bioethicists across the country decided to abandon religious considerations in one fell swoop? It's difficult to imagine how this could be. Even if all medical practitioners complied, a lot of religious patients would suddenly find themselves with fewer options, some probably, to their minds, with no options at all. Although lives would likely be saved, they could well come at a cost. When stark lines are drawn and people feel they are no longer being listened to on matters that concern their well-being and their very deepest convictions, they are often influenced into taking highly polarized sides, and the outcome can indeed be toxic, as may be best illustrated in the controversies and crimes that have occurred over the issue of abortion.

That religion creates problems is something that few religious believers would deny, but to ignore the resolutions it can also inspire is to be guilty of the same biased thinking that irreligious bioethics is supposed to reduce. While organ donation is low in Israel, and the kidney waiting list is long, the circumstances have motivated many in the Jewish community in Israel to step up and promote transplants from living donors, leading to a two-thirds increase in donor registrations, a record number of kidney transplants in 2013, and a large drop in the number of patients going abroad for donations. Perhaps just as importantly, the debate over this issue has presented the opportunity for many Israelis to reassess their own beliefs and reconsider what their religion teaches about life, death, and our ethical obligations to one another. Changes like these seem unlikely to develop on a view like Murphy's, where religion is actively expelled from the public square.

Exactly where the boundaries should be between religion and bioethics is a matter of no small contention. Yet just as we can talk about harms without having an absolute and agreed upon definition of concepts like health and well-being, it seems to me we can discuss and evaluate approaches to doing bioethics without having an absolute and agreed upon notion of the purpose of bioethics, or an all-encompassing idea of the proper roles for certain phenomena within bioethics. As a paradigm, irreligious bioethics would filter out a great deal of things from which the field could stand to gain. Many ethical systems are premised on metaphysical claims at the higher, ontological levels, and Murphy's anti-transcendentalist approach would seem to undermine these. In addition, the paradigm holds itself to a standard that even it arguably cannot meet, claiming to offer criticism of religious views when analytic philosophy is better equipped, and claiming to 'protect' bioethics when the discipline of ethics seems entirely capable of thorough self-examination. Indeed, it appears that quite a leap of faith is required to believe that irreligious bioethics could do anything besides further exacerbate the tensions and problems already present in bioethics.


1. Kevin Sack, “A Clash of Religion and Bioethics Complicates Organ Donation in Israel,” The New York Times (Aug 17, 2014). Available at:
2. Gregory Pence, Medical Ethics: Accounts of Groundbreaking Cases, 6th ed. (2011), p. 339.
3. Timothy Murphy, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 3-10.
4. Renee Fox and Judith Swazey, “Ignoring the Social and Cultural Context of Bioethics is Unacceptable,” Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, vol. 19, no. 3 (2010): 278-282.
5. Howard Brody and Arlene Macdonald, “Religion and bioethics: toward an expanded understanding,” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, vol. 34, no. 2 (2013): 133-145.
6. Gordon Pennycook, James Allan Cheyne, Derek J. Koehler and Jonathan A. Fuggelsang, “Belief bias during reasoning among religious believers and skeptics,” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 20, no. 4 (2013): 806-811.
7. Jennifer Wright and Ryan Nichols, “The Social Cost of Atheism: How Perceived Religiosity Influences Moral Appraisal,” Journal of Cognition and Culture, 14 (2014): 93-115.
8. Jennifer Miller, “Irreligious Bioethics, Nonsense on Stilts?” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 15-17.
9. William E. Stempsey, “Bioethics Needs Religion,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 17-18.
10. D. Gareth Jones and Maja Whitaker, “Reorienting Bioethics by Releasing It From Any Religious Moorings,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 24-26.
11. Audrey Chapman, “In Defense of the Role of a Religiously Informed Bioethics,” The American Journal of Bioethics, vol. 12, no. 12 (December 2012): 26-28.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Blessed are the Cake Makers?

A judge in Northern Ireland ruled yesterday that Ashers Baking Company was guilty of discriminating against a customer by refusing his order for a cake bearing the words: "support gay marriage." The ruling has upset a number of Christians, including David Robertson, who has compared it to suing a Muslim baker who is unwilling to bake a cake depicting the prophet Muhammad. Although we in the West live in societies that prize free speech, the pursuit of happiness, and consumerism, cases like this one highlight the complex intersection of these issues and ideals that sometimes emerges to challenge our values.

Certainly it is problematic to legally force a person to violate his or her conscience. I would even go so far as to say it's unethical. On the other hand, there is also something that feels wrong with allowing businesses to discriminate however they please. It seems like those same values of freedom of expression and the pursuit of happiness that are often used to defend businesses should likewise come to the aid of consumers. Despite the confident assertions of its devoted emissaries, the free market will not right all wrongs and restore peace and tranquility to the universe.

That said, I want to set aside the topic of law and law enforcement for now and turn to a question that is of more interest to me in this "gay cake" debacle. Is it consistent with Christian beliefs for a Christian to refuse to bake a cake like the one ordered from Ashers Baking Company? Is this perhaps exaggeration in a similar way to how many American Christians feel persecuted when they are not permitted to go freely proselytizing wherever and however they like?

First off, I should make one thing clear. I am not a Christian myself, if the title of this blog hasn't yet given it away. I understand this is a touchy subject, then, with a non-believer talking about how Christians live up to what they profess. So let me say that I don't intend this to be an accusation of hypocrisy; more like a thought experiment of sorts. As I see it, there are some interesting nuances involved in this case that pose some questions - hopefully fruitful questions - about what it means to live in the way that a Christian claims to live. 

Why do I care, you might ask. I care partly because I think we aspire to some of the same things: to love others, do justice, and live humbly. And truth be told, I admire many things about the Christian message. I think grace, forgiveness, and charity are very worthwhile pursuits, and I think they play a large role in giving purpose to our lives. Yet I also care because I try to take notice of when those pursuits become empty symbols rather than meaningful and motivating forces. As someone who values love, justice, humility, grace, forgiveness, and charity, I want to pay attention to where disconnections occur, in order to be more aware of my own susceptibility.

When Christians tell me of the wonderful things their faith has done for them - how it's made them more compassionate, more patient, more hopeful, more peaceful, more caring, more blessed - I sit up and listen. When they say how it's transformed their lives and made them a new person, I can't help but smile, and some bit of me even wants to cheer them on.

But there is no love when I look at how a good number of Christians are reacting to this ruling on the Ashers bakery. There is no grace extended, no charitable will in serving another, no appreciation of forgiveness that might instill humility. There is no real cry for justice, only for a one-sided defense of discrimination.  Self-entitlement, rather than self-sacrifice, seems to be the order of the day. I don't see transformation or rejuvenation, nor do I see Christ-like behavior, I see all the hallmarks of the "fallen" and "sinful" past they say was left behind when their savior redeemed them. Anger, selfishness, bitterness, resentment, fear, arrogance. I see shining examples of what I don't want in my own life.

The Bible doesn't actually endorse anything like freedom of speech or freedom of conscience. Many of the Old Testament commands prescribed death by stoning for those who might have a different way of doing things. For worshiping other gods (Deut. 13:5-10), for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), for adultery (Deut. 22:23-24), for disobeying your parents (Deut. 21:18-21), and for breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-56), you were to be killed. In the New Testament, Jesus warns his followers, "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," and predicts that his message will divide families against each other (Matt. 10:34-36). Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit, he says in Luke 12:10, will never be forgiven. Intolerance is biblical, you could say.

So what real justification is there for a Christian refusing to bake a cake supporting gay marriage? Note what the cake was not saying. It was not saying, "The maker of this cake supports gay marriage." It was not saying, "Gay marriage is biblical."  It was not saying, "God loves gay marriage." In that respect it is nothing like Robertson's poorly thought out analogy to a Muhammad cake, since the actual equivalent would be a cake blaspheming Jesus - not even close to what was really requested. The ordered cake would've said simply, "Support gay marriage," in the same way we see campaign flyers everywhere urging us to support one or another candidate for public office. It was perhaps a suggestion to others, but most of all it was to be a statement of the beliefs of those who ordered it. In our capitalistic Western society, especially in this age of mass production, there is a general understanding that what craftsmen and employees make isn't necessarily something they wholeheartedly endorse, or even like at all (if you've ever worked at a food place you'd never eat at, you know exactly what I'm talking about!). To suppose that making the cake in question would have been any sort of reflection on the Ashers bakery is practically ludicrous.

Well, except for one thing. It would have said the bakery cares most about meeting its customers needs. It would have said they act out of diligence and service rather than personal interest. It would have said they know the impact a kind gesture can have, especially on those who know you feel differently. It seems to me it could have been a great opportunity to show that selfless love of Christ that I've heard so much about from Christians in my life. Instead, the decision to refuse the order only communicated that, "my beliefs are more important to me than you are."

"There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy," reads James 4:12. "So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?" Paul cautions his audience in Romans 2:1: "you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." Similarly, Jesus says in Matthew 7:1-2: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get."

Is it passing judgment on someone to refuse to bake a cake for them? The reasoning behind the refusal is, as one Christian has told me, to keep a clear conscience by abstaining from participation in an event 'celebrating' gay marriage. We've already disputed some of these concerns, but the bigger point is that such a basis for refusal is still an instance of judging your neighbor. You think gay marriage is wrong. You feel you have the right to protest why you think it's wrong. You feel you have the right to specifically protest it to the person who orders the cake from your store. Somewhere along the line there, from step 2 to 3, a personal belief turns into a judgment cast on another person. In essence, what the Ashers bakery was saying was, "What you are asking me to do is wrong, so I'm not going to do it."

Of course, the real kicker is that the Bible certainly has not a thing to say about the ethics of baking a cake with some words about gay marriage on it. The wrongfulness is about more than the cake, it's allegedly about what it represents, and therein lies the catch. The Ashers Baking Company felt obligated to not just refuse to bake a cake, but to protest a sexual orientation and "non-traditional" form of marriage to someone who believes in it and is perhaps living it. That is judging your neighbor, plain and simple.

Some may try and argue that judging others isn't actually wrong for Christians. After all, there are passages in the New Testament that basically address how to judge and deal with the behavior of members of the church. Yet these passages are quite a bit removed from the situation with the Ashers bakery. Internal ecclesiastical maintenance is a different beast from serving customers as a business. It's also unconvincing to suppose that making a cake with a pro-gay message is anything like guilt by association, and it's a far cry from being in a homosexual relationship yourself. So while the Bible itself may denounce homosexuality, that fact alone can't be of terribly much help in as complicated a situation as this "gay cake" ruling, and the Bible likewise denounces judging others, as we've seen.

Can a Christian consistently show the love of Christ in serving others and still maintain their conscience by declining to do something supportive of a cause which they believe to be sinful? In theory, yes, of course. But conscience is a tricky and convoluted field of emotions and thoughts and reasons, and sometimes it is used as an excuse to prevent further introspection into one's beliefs. This is particularly odd in the case of Christianity, a religion that teaches that our human faculties, including our conscience, have been corrupted by sin. It's not uncommon to hear opponents of gay marriage argue against resting an opinion on the subject on what one conscientiously feels, but in this case conscience is interestingly brought front and center. Might it be that this is an instance where conscience can be deceiving for some of us?

Would Jesus bake a cake he disagreed with? If the question seems silly, perhaps the objections to it are silly, too.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

5 Things People Think the Bible Doesn't Say (But It Does)

An author at Cracked has recently written up a nice list of 5 Stories Everyone Assumes Are In The Bible (But Aren't). There are quite a few such lists circulating on the web, but part of what I like about this Cracked article is that it features more prominent and believable myths about the Bible, whereas other articles may tend to focus on sayings or colloquialisms that, in my experience, few people actually do confidently take to be found in scripture. In addition, some of the material that makes it onto certain lists is only missing from the Bible verbatim, though it is expressed in other ways. For example, a CNN blog post by John Blake claims that "God works in mysterious ways" is a phrase not found in the Bible, but comes from a 19th century hymn. While this is technically true, it's not hard to see how a passage like Romans 11:33 can be the inspiration behind such a phrase, where it says of god, "How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (NRSV) Inscrutable ways sounds pretty darn close enough to mysterious ways, I would say.

I think the real point in explaining what misconceptions we have about the Bible (or about anything, for that matter) should be in giving us pause for thought and causing us to re-examine our beliefs. This probably won't be accomplished by calling attention to things that are indirectly, and not explicitly, mentioned in scripture. Perhaps more importantly, we don't want to mislead others in what we say, no matter where we fall in accepting or rejecting claims to biblical authority. So, with that in mind, I've decided to present a list of my own, one with the opposite focus of the Cracked article, on some of the things people say are not in the Bible, but which actually are. For each of these, I will try to source the initial statement (what's allegedly not in the Bible) and justify why it is.

5. The Bible Doesn't Say Divorce is Wrong

Divorce is often an unpleasant outcome of unpleasant circumstances in a relationship, and on top of this is the further exasperating question confronting many Bible-believing Christians: is divorce a sin? They may hear it affirmed by their fellow church-goers, by friends, and even by family. On the other hand, there are also those who insist that divorce is not a sin, like Lorraine Day, author of an article, What Does Jesus Say About Divorce and Remarriage? Why is divorce not sinful? "The best example is that of God Himself," writes Day. "God admits that He is a divorcee" (see Jeremiah 3:8). If it was not sinful for god to divorce Israel, how can divorce be sinful for us?

Curiously absent from Day's article is any reference to Malachi 2:16, where god says unequivocally, "I hate divorce." In addition to hating fags, figs, shellfish, and a lot of other things, god apparently also hates divorce. But if he hates it so much, why did he divorce Israel? Some explanation can be found in the surrounding context. Verse 14 reveals that god was witness to Israel's unfaithfulness. Jeremiah 3:8 makes this same suggestion, noting that even after god divorced Israel, Judah was not afraid, but still went and "played the whore." Thus, marital infidelity seems to have been god's reason for leaving Israel - a metaphorical way of saying that the Israelites strayed from Yahweh and worshiped other gods.

In Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus makes one exception for divorce. "I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery." Here we find a possible distinguishing factor that explains why god's divorce of Israel was not sinful. Israel was knockin' boots with other nation's gods. Yet in Mark 10:2-9 divorce seems to be ruled out altogether:

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."

Jesus claims that because god created husband and wife to be joined as one, they are not to be separated. Previous provisions for divorce were only given because of the people's insistence (which is kind of a funny capitulation for the creator of the universe, if you think about it; whiny children getting their way from old dad). How does this fit with Matthew 5:31-32, cited above? One answer may be that even while Jesus says that divorcing someone for unchastity is not adultery, the real point is not that divorce is acceptable in that instance, but that such an unchaste person is already guilty of adultery! This is perhaps made more plausible by the fact that the passage comes on the heels of the teaching on adultery in Matthew 5:27-30.

"Well, Bob, you see, if your wife is already a-whorin', then you don't cause her to commit adultery. She was a ho befo'!"

Of course, this still faces the problem of contextualizing god's divorce. But the situation may be different for god for a couple reasons. First of all, god can drown hundreds of people in a flood, firebomb Sodom and Gomorrah, and yet we're commanded not to murder. What's right for god isn't necessarily right for us, the argument could go (or else there'd be a lot more discarded foreskins in the world). Second, it seems pretty clear we're not talking about divorce in the same sense for both cases. One involves two people supposedly preordained to be together, while the other involves god's covenant with a nation. It might be sensible to say that we shouldn't destroy what god has brought about, but I'm doubtful most Christians would say that god is eternally obligated to honor a covenant even when others are unfaithful. Doesn't being the creator of a contract entitle one to a bit of leeway? The difference is that, according to scripture, god creates the contracts for married couples in advance, so if he says they stick together, then that's that.

Nonetheless, god does say he hates divorce, and Jeremiah 3:8 makes it seem like he wasn't especially happy about divorcing Israel. Passages like Malachi 2:16 and Mark 10:2-9 strongly suggest that divorce is against god's wishes, and that it should not be seen as a "conditional contract" as Day describes it in her article. Even though 1 Corinthians 7 is often referenced as supporting divorce in some circumstances, it also says in verses 10-11 that "the wife should not separate from her husband" and "the husband should not divorce his wife." It's difficult to imagine how something which god hates, and Jesus teaches against, could be interpreted as 'not really wrong' on any worldview that prides itself on taking the Bible as authoritative.

Then again, there are a lot of ministers who don't seem to have read the warning against offending little ones in Matthew 18:6.

4. The Bible Doesn't Say to Obey the Government

In an article provocatively titled, Should Christians Obey Criminal Government?, David J. Stewart attempts to defend civil disobedience from a biblical perspective. Amidst a sea of paranoid conspiratorial remarks about the New World Order and Communism, Stewart states that "when a government is run amuck with crime, tyranny and injustice, we are not Biblically obligated to submit anymore." Railing against abortion, pornography, alcohol, fornication, and gambling, he subtly affirms that American Christians are not prohibited by their beliefs from rising up against the US government.

However, the passage quoted at the beginning of Stewart's rant poses a significant problem for his position. Romans 13:1 says (in the KJV here, since Stewart is a KJV fetishist), "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God." Note the last sentence. There is no power but of god, and the powers that be are ordained by god. It won't do to act like this only applied in Paul's time when Stewart treats all scripture as applicable to modern times. Even so, David tries to weasel out of things by referring to verse 3 of the chapter: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil." This, he argues, means that Christians only need to obey good governments. And, of course, good governments just so happen to include only those governments that receive the David Stewart Seal of Holy Hysterical Approval.

Consider what the government of Paul's time was like when he wrote Romans 13. The Epistle to the Romans has been dated to the late 50s, when Nero was emperor of Rome. Though there are reports of Nero torturing and executing Christians during his reign, these seem to come later, after the Great Fire of Rome around 64 CE. Still, there is reason to believe Paul was aware of the corruption of the Roman government when he wrote Romans 13. The Acts of the Apostles tells of a number of objectionable aspects of Rome in the eyes of early Christians, including Herod Agrippa I's claim to divinity (12:21-23), Drusilla ditching her husband for Antonius Felix (24:24-26), and it hints at Agrippa II's rumored incestuous affair with Berenice (25:13,23). Many of the things in Stewart's moral tirade against the US were going on in ancient Rome too, yet Paul was able to advise his fellow Christians to submit to the Roman authorities. It doesn't look as if Paul considered them too evil to be obeyed.

"Rome, who some Christians called Babylon? The guys who later killed a bunch of us? Naaah, they're alright. I mean, look at me. Am I bothered?"

It's also worth noting that Paul is not the only New Testament author to encourage obedience. In 1 Peter 2:13-17, we read the following:

For the Lord's sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Scholars typically place 1 Peter around the end of the 1st century, during the reign of Domitian, who was regarded as a tyrant by ancient historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, and was alleged to have persecuted both Christians and Jews. So how could the writer of 1 Peter urge his readers to "Honor the emperor"? The logic of this follows from the example of Christ, according to verses 21-23:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

Did the Roman government do wrong in executing Jesus, an innocent man? Part of what makes Jesus' silence before his accusers so admirable is that he was not guilty. We wouldn't find it particularly commendable for a guilty man to refuse to speak, especially if his word might incriminate him. 1 Peter 2 drives this point home, that despite the intentions of Rome, Jesus trusted god and did not resist. Paul says something like this in another way, observing that since all things are from, through, and for god (Romans 11:36), the logical consequence of this is that all governing authorities are instituted by god. This would have to include corrupt and evil governments. Otherwise, the implication is that god either had no ability to stop their rise to power, or he had no desire to do so, in which case it's hard to see how god was not willfully allowing a corrupt/evil government into a place of authority. And come on, god just let Canada exist even though they gave us Celine Dion. He is not a good god.

Stewart says in his article that to teach that Christians cannot rebel against any government is to "condemn America's founding father's [sic], who if they hadn't revolted, there would be no America today." In fact, this raises an important point, because even the biblical passages that appear to sanction civil disobedience only do so under very specific circumstances. Moses led the exodus after receiving a direct order from god. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow to an idol and were sent to a furnace where an angel delivered them. Herod asked the three magi to tell him where the infant Jesus was, and they did not do so. Two of these involve peaceful protest and at least one involves a face-to-face divine revelation. It's questionable how comparable these are to any situations today or 300 years ago, but note that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not said to resist being led to the furnace. There is nothing in scripture that is even remotely analogous to an armed rebellion against England on the grounds of unfair taxation, quartering of soldiers, and so forth. Fortunately for us in America, some of our most active founders, like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, were not Christians, and even held a well-known disdain for Christianity in their day (see Paine's The Age of Reason and the Jefferson Bible).

So why do some passages seem to make it okay for Christians to disobey their rulers? One explanation is that these passages come from different people living at different times who held different views on the issue. It's still true that Paul and the author of 1 Peter both instruct obedience to governing authorities, even if other texts do not. The question at this point becomes about what gets more weight in the Bible, which is too massive a subject to cover here. Another explanation might have to do with the nature of the different documents. Romans and 1 Peter are clearly written with the intent of advising other Christians on how to live. The stories in Exodus, Daniel, and the birth narrative of Matthew, however, are not written as instructional, their focus is on events and persons and places. Sometimes there may be moral lessons in the stories, but not every passage has them and the ones that do can involve careful exegesis. In the cases mentioned, there is no suggestion that these should serve as across-the-board examples of how everyone everywhere should behave. If these stories are not meant to give guidance on how to interact with government rulers, then they have been misinterpreted.

In sum, it may be true that the Bible as a whole doesn't say to just give up, give in, and accept whatever asshole is in charge, being grateful, like Hobbes, that you're no longer burdened by all that awful freedom you used to have before tyranny came to town. There are instances in scripture of people asserting their right to their faith in spite of government prohibitions. On the other hand, Romans 13:1 offers a tough problem on all this. If god is all-powerful and all-knowing, and he has set some sort of plan in motion, why doesn't this include the worldly powers that come to be? And if it does, then isn't it fighting against god's plan to disobey the rulers he has chosen?

3. The Bible Doesn't Support Redistribution of Wealth

This one is a favorite point of argument between politically liberal and conservative Christians. Many argue that the concern for social justice that is found in much of the Bible should be taken as support for governmental policies intended to help the poor and disadvantaged. Others, like Baptist seminary professor Craig Mitchell, claim that free markets are "far more compatible with biblical Christianity," whereas the redistribution of wealth is theft born out of the sin of covetousness.

"Help others? God wants you to help yourselves by helping me help myself to your money!"

As seen above, though, the Bible contains commands to honor and obey governing authorities, and it's not at all clear that such commands are meant to be 'suspended' whenever one's political opposition comes into power with a different take on economics. There is indeed a lot of teaching on social justice in the Bible, too, which seems like it should be regarded as more than just an optional, personal decision for Christians. The author of the Epistle of James writes:

Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? (James 2:5-7)

Ask a good number of conservative American Christians about the poor and you're likely to get an answer more in line with 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." Contrary to James, the poor are not "chosen" by god, but are where they are in life because of their own bad decisions. However, the 2 Thessalonians passage is referring to the treatment of church members who had become "busybodies" in the author's day, being idle rather than working for the good of the community. In fact, rather than conflicting with the admonition in James 2, this seems to fit well with what the writer of that letter says elsewhere, that "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27) Those in the church who are more interested in looking out for number one than in caring for others and living the faith they've been taught have a "worthless" religion, says James.

The real kicker comes in Acts 4, where we learn about how the early Christian community saw wealth and possessions. "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul," reads verse 32, "and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." You can see this going over well with Americans who fear Obama taking their guns. Of course, when a church is stockpiling guns, you tend to call it a cult. "There was not a needy person among them," verse 34 continues, "for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need."

Wait just a minute. The early Christians had a communal fund where goods were given to each according to their need??! That kind of thinking is straight out of Marx! Yet Art Lindsley, vice president of theological initiatives at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, claims that Acts 4 describes a communal giving that was entirely voluntary. "These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily," he says. Weeeeeell, there's just one problem with that.

Immediately following the verses in Acts 4 already mentioned, we get the cheery tale of Ananias and Sapphira. The couple sells some of their property, but "kept back some of the proceeds," only giving the disciples a portion of what they made. Do the disciples, being good free market capitalists, just stand for this? Do they wag the finger at Ananias and Sapphira, but otherwise let them be? Not quite.

"Ananias," Peter asked, "why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!" Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. (Acts 5:3-5)

Ouch. Shortly after this, Sapphira is brought in, also lies about what the two contributed, and falls down dead just like her husband. Somehow this is all voluntary, according to Lindsley, probably in the same way that accepting Jesus at the threat of eternal damnation is a "voluntary" decision.

Now, there's something to be said for the passages thus far cited only having to do with Christians and Christian communities. There isn't any direct encouragement that these ideas be adopted into government policies. But part of the problem with using this detail to dismiss any pro-redistribution argument based on scripture is that a large number of these same conservative American Christians believe the United States was founded on Christian principles. While I disagree with this view, it still implies that there's nothing really wrong with establishing a nation on biblical teachings, which in turn would mean that there's hardly a good reason to see Acts 4-5 as inappropriate for national policy. Modern American Christians may have a tough time swallowing this because they've grown up accustomed to capitalism, but other American Christians of the past were not so sold, including Francis Bellamy, author of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a well known Christian Socialist.

"One nation, under God, who will smite us on the spot if we don't give all our money to the community..."

A lot of Christians like to point out that the Bible never says money is the root of all evil, it only says "the love of money" is (1 Timothy 6:10). Though this is true, it kinda misses the point. Earning money may not be an evil in itself, but there is something fundamentally askew about professing a firm belief in a religious figure who said the way to eternal life is to sell all you have and give to the poor (Luke 18:18-25), and insisting that social programs are wrong in asking that we give some of what we have to help others. It seems very much like there is a whole lot of money-loving going on there, one might even call it coveting.

But just wait for the next edition of the NIV, where translators will suddenly remember that what Jesus actually said was, "sell some of what you have and give to the poor, but don't forget that you earned that money yourself and you're damn well entitled to it!" They can call it the Bootstraps Edition.

2. The Bible Doesn't Condemn Homosexuality

Frankly, this opinion is one that surprises me by the ground it keeps gaining these days. As already seen, we know that the god of the Bible hates a lot of things, including competition (Exodus 20:3), divorce, and withholding money from his communal fund. We also know that this guy isn't exactly tolerant of certain groups, such as wizards (Leviticus 19:31 - God hates Gandalf!), cross-dressers (Deuteronomy 22:5), or even people of other religious views (Deuteronomy 13:6-8). Christians today tend to be a bit more accepting, by and large, and it's widely recognized that although the Bible has much to say about the inferiority of women (1 Corinthians 11:3-9, 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, 1 Peter 3:1, etc.), we have since moved on in our views about sex and gender. It would make plenty of sense that the Bible also has an antiquated outlook on homosexuality, yet some liberal Christians, like John Shore of the Not All Like That project, maintain that there is no scriptural condemnation for it. "Reconciling the Bible with unqualified acceptance and equality for LGBT people," writes Shore, "does not necessitate discounting, recasting, deconstructing or reinterpreting the Bible."

This reconciliation may prove somewhat challenging, though, when the Bible includes such loving teachings as Leviticus 20:13:

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Or how about Romans 1:26-28:

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

In verse 32, Paul affirms the Old Testament instruction in Leviticus, saying "They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them." This makes it a bit hard to picture Paul as one of those "I have gay friends" types of homophobes.

To be fair, there's a lot that can be said about these two passages. Neither specifically commands Christians to hate or marginalize gay people anymore than passages denouncing adultery command Christians to hate or marginalize adulterers. In fact, just three verses before the verse on homosexuality in Leviticus, the Bible orders that adulterers be put to death. Yet for some reason (maybe having to do with the fear of difference) there is far more attention given to how the church and society should treat homosexuals than there is with respect to the treatment of those engaged in adultery. Of course, adultery is still a harsh contrast. Remember that this god guy also isn't a fan of wizards, cross-dressers, or pretty much anyone who doesn't accept his narrow standards of behavior. It's kind of like worrying over pleasing the dictatorial principal at your high school. No kissing in the halls!

On the other hand, it seems fairly obvious that if the Bible calls something "an abomination," and declares that those who participate in it are worthy of death, then it's kinda, sorta, maybe, actually condemning it. We aren't talking about the fun abominations here, either, like cleverly swapping out a president's last name for the first five letters of the word, we're talking about the kind that apparently anger the biblical god. And if you've ever read about the biblical god, you know he's no one you want to piss off. Get him all riled up and he's bound to delight in some pretty nasty ways of exacting his vengeance, like dashing your infant children against rocks (Psalm 137:9).

Because anyone willing to exterminate men, women and children must be a moral authority worth following!

Some argue over what the Bible means by its depiction of same-sex relations, claiming that it only forbids non-consensual gay sex or something like the pederasty of the ancient Greeks. Others draw attention to the fact that Jesus never really says a word on homosexuality in any book of the New Testament. However, even if technically true, these constitute arguments from silence rather than serving to vindicate a biblical position that's positive towards homosexuality. For example, it's a tricky matter to suggest that because many biblical passages imply an antiquated view of women as property, we can dispense with all the verses on female inferiority; for if the authors had only had our view of women, they never would have said what they said. The problem is that the ancient writers didn't have our view of women, and we are not really in any good position to estimate what they would have believed under (radically) different circumstances.

Hard as it may be to swallow (hey now, get your mind out of the gutter), the Bible is quite rabidly homophobic. Christians who oppose gay marriage may insist that it's not, but calling same-sex tomfoolery abominable is about as homophobic as it is when you see those friendly people waving their oddly colorful signs preaching bigoted intolerance. In Romans 1:26-32, Paul not only says that gay attraction is a "degrading" passion, but he proceeds to associate homosexuals with every conceivable sort of evil from envy and folly to murder and hatred of god. Ironically, chapter 2 turns around to warn: "in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things" (v. 1). And, of course, this eventually leads to the words in Romans 3:23, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

So even while the Bible is pretty explicitly against homosexuality, it is also pretty explicitly against the kind of self-righteousness that leads sinful people to pass judgment on the sins of others (see Matthew 7:1-5 especially). And as already noted, the Bible seems to regard almost anything and everything as a sin. There's probably even something in there that can be taken to show how awful a sin it is to engage in the witchery of reading script off lit diodes. We all fall short indeed of the glory of god's holographic Heads Up Display. Perhaps the lesson in all this is to have a little humility, an appreciation for historical context, and a recognition that the times they are a-changin'.

1. The Bible is Not Pro-Slavery

It seems like a religion which teaches that we are all children of god, and tells us that god's son came down to earth and paid the ultimate sacrifice to free us from sin, should be rather unambiguous in its opposition to inequality. Shouldn't it? It seems like a religion that places a lot of value on caring for the poor and downtrodden should be blameless in its denunciation of oppression. It seems like a religion that has the exodus from Egypt as one of its most famous stories should be leading the march to end the subjugation and ownership of others. And this is how many Christians see the Bible when it comes to the uncomfortable issue of slavery. "The Bible condemns race-based slavery," says an article at, "in that it teaches that all men are created by God and made in His image."

Nonetheless, this bit of doctrine didn't prevent the authors of the Torah from making several provisions for the buying and selling of slaves. Leviticus 25:44-46 encouraged the ancient Israelites to purchase slaves from other nations, or from among the foreigners in their own land, and to treat them as property that could even be part of the family inheritance. However, Israelites could also still be enslaved, though they were to be released after seven years (Exodus 21:1). Well, the males could be released. Females weren't so lucky. Exodus 21:7-11 stipulates:

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Why such strict rules about when female slaves are freed? Surely, it has nothing to do with sex, right? We've all been assured that the Bible is the word of god, uncorrupted by those sorts of worldly interests. We make its stories into children's books because we find them morally praiseworthy. And yet here we find it talking about how important it is that a slave pleases her master, how a daughter can be rightly sold into slavery by her own father (family values!). It seems like someone in the Holy Editing Room really should have caught that part.

"That son of mine! He's so busted - thinking he'd get away with sneaking the Bible into this adult novel!"

But don't worry! It's all okay, because you see, slavery in biblical times wasn't like slavery in the 19th century American South. "The key issue," explains the GotQuestions article linked to above, "is that the slavery the Bible allowed for in no way resembled the racial slavery that plagued our world in the past few centuries." This, of course, means it was A-OK for ancient Israelite dads to sell their daughters into slavery, where they would have had to toil and serve as the property of some other man for an inestimable amount of time. Because the worst thing about slavery is not the violation of human rights that comes in possessing another human being, it's just the racial aspect to it that happens to have existed for a fraction of the time slavery has existed throughout the world.

The aforementioned article goes on to claim that a Christian acting like a Christian just will be against slavery, because they'll recognize, like Paul, that even a slave is "a brother in the Lord." Of course, in his letter to Philemon, Paul never instructs that Philemon's slave Onesimus be set free. This is critical for interpreting what Paul means in a passage like Galatians 3:28, where it is said that, "there is no longer slave or free... for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." The focus is not on abolition, it's on the idea that social status has nothing to do with how Christlike a person is. The New Testament also contains instruction for slaves to obey their masters (Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-25, 1 Timothy 6:1-2), even "those who are harsh" (1 Peter 2:18-21), which causes no small amount of problems for the notion that someone who is truly saved will be against slavery. Were the authors of these New Testament passages not saved? They certainly didn't seem to see any conflict between professing faith in Jesus and accepting slavery.

In fact, this is exactly what is echoed in the pro-slavery arguments of many 19th century American Christians. In his 1857 writing, Cannibals All!, George Fitzhugh defended American slavery by emphasizing the general need for slavery, even a form not based on race: "if white slavery be morally wrong, be a violation of natural rights, the Bible cannot be true." If the authors of scripture saw no disconnect between owning slaves and believing in Yahweh, then why should Christians a couple centuries ago, or even today, feel any differently?

The Last Word?

Perhaps the problem lies in the kind of authority that's often attributed to the Bible. Just the fact that articles like these exist tells us that we attach a lot of importance to what the Bible says, more so than with most ancient texts. Yet even the biggest literalists fail to observe some of what's been covered in this article. And sure, there are usually excuses, like the new covenant somehow removing the need to follow Old Testament laws, but the point is that there is always a willful act of interpretation going on. The Bible is not self-interpreting, as practically any biblical scholar or theologian will agree, regardless of how in tune with the Holy Spirit someone thinks they are. We have turned away from a lot of what the Bible says, and with good reason, I would argue. Our time is not the time of ancient Israel, or of the early Christian community. Does it really mean someone is not a good Christian if they acknowledge this and allow it to factor into their view of scripture?

The truth of the matter seems to be that, whether or not we pretend to accept the Bible as the last word, it's long beyond the ability of any of us to actually do so. History moves on, and it takes us with it; some are brought kicking and screaming, but they're brought along nonetheless. It isn't only that we stop seeing divorce as sin, or that we start seeing homosexuals as people instead of monsters, it's that we forget even what the original words and concepts mean, and so we bluster our way to acting as if all is well. We are displaced, lost in the wilderness, so to speak, but deathly afraid of opening our eyes. The Bible can no longer be the last word for any of us, despite how desperately some may want it to be. At this stage, it's rather our word on the Bible that will be the last for each of us.

Maybe, then, we ought to stop worrying so much about what it says and start to be more aware of what our own minds have to say.