Sunday, May 13, 2012

Sketches on the Shore

The water at Grand Isle, Louisiana isn't clear or blue.  It's brown and murky, filled with sediments collected from across half the United States by the Mississippi River system, which empties into the gulf just east of here.  I was chest deep in that water, about a hundred yards offshore, when I glimpsed a dorsal fin sinking beneath the surface and vanishing, about ten feet from me.  I stopped breathing, waiting for it to reappear.  When it did, I heard its owner exhale, so I exhaled too.  It was a dolphin.  I hadn't really thought it was a shark, because I had already seen several dolphins in the distance that morning.  But it was good to be sure.  Still, as the dolphin's two companions revealed themselves, I realized I was out of my element with three large wild animals.  With their permanent grins, that childlike melon on their foreheads, and all the "Flipper" stereotypes, bottlenose dolphins seem friendly.  And they usually are, but they're capable of ganging up on sharks and killing them, and they've been known on rare occasions to attack humans.  I considered that fact as one torpedoed straight at me while sinking into the murk.  My skin tensed in anticipation of contact, but it didn't come. These dolphins weren't really interested in me. Grand Isle dolphins probably don't get very excited about encountering humans, since they see them all the time.  But they did circle me a couple of times before going on their way.

I turned toward the beach, still grinning like a fool from the encounter, and noticed that a big, dark cloud was piling up over the land, looking baleful.  It was a gorgeous sight itself, and I was admiring its fleeting columns and canyons when, way up in the cloud, I saw a funnel cloud descending.  I stared at it dumbfounded.  The dolphins had already put me in a surreal frame of mind.  Now I felt like I was having an old school religious vision; as if I were about to see Ezekiel's wheels, or Zeus come to smite someone who had provoked his wrath.

Then I realized that the funnel cloud was very real, and might touch down and do some actual smiting.  So I waded back toward my feeble little tent on the beach.  It was no protection from a tornado, but I figured I could run down the beach in the opposite direction if the funnel cloud came my way.  By the time I got to the tent, the funnel had retracted back into the cloud.  I was nowhere near any good shelter, so I grabbed my cell phone to get a picture if the funnel cloud reappeared.  After a few minutes, it did; about a mile away down the beach.  I got one grainy picture with my cell phone, and then the battery died.

By then the funnel had turned into a full-blown waterspout, skating down the pass between Grand Isle and Grande Terre Island, to the east.  When it got out into the gulf, its narrow funnel was sheathed at the bottom with a wider funnel of mist.  The point of contact with the water looked like a sustained explosion, which I suppose it was (in a roundabout way).  A handful of ships were waiting to go through the pass, but they were keeping a very respectful distance.  Waterspouts aren't usually as powerful as tornadoes, but they can overturn a big boat.  A couple of days after I left, a least four waterspouts appeared at Grand Isle, and one of them made landfall, turning into a full-fledged tornado and doing some minor damage.

After a few more minutes, the waterspout and everything else in the distance vanished as a wall of rain hit the beach.  I crawled into my tent to wait out the storm.  No more than five minutes had passed between the dolphins and the waterspout, but they were some of the most exciting minutes of my life.  That was a pleasant surprise, actually, because I hadn't expected much from this trip.  I had come to Grand Isle the day before because it's one of the few places to camp in southeast Louisiana.  You can't call it a beautiful beach.  The sand is brown and muddy, just like the water, and the horizon is lined with oil rigs.  When I got there, the tent camping area of the beach was crowded, and I got the very last space.  Walking past the other campers to my site, I noticed some of those scary types you always seem to run into at state park campgrounds.  One dodgy-looking character had white supremacist tattoos across his potbelly, which was not actually white, but more of a deep sunburned pink (those guys are never prime specimens of any race, I notice).  Anyway, my neighbors at the next campsite were a step up from him.  They were friendly, and invited me to come have barbecue, but I had already eaten, so I politely declined.  But they got good and drunk around sunset, pulling out a boombox and blasting some irritating screech-rock.  One of the women seemed to have a three F-word per sentence rule.  So I grabbed a towel and walked down the beach, away from the campsites.

That's when I realized the trip was going to be worth it.  The sun was setting back behind the beach, and it was giving the clouds that kind of glow that's so vibrant that an accurate painting would look tacky.  In real life, of course, it's gorgeous (can nature look tacky?).  The tide was low, and a mother plover was leading her babies out onto the wet, mirroring sand to look for food.  A squadron of brown pelicans glided along the beach. There's something primal about the way pelicans fly, that always makes me imagine I'm looking at pterosaurs gliding along a Jurassic shoreline.  Of course, all birds are descendents of dinosaurs (not pterosaurs), but seabirds and wading birds show it more than sparrows or robins.  Maybe it's their long necks?  Anyway, pelicans have been around for 30 million years, so they're plenty ancient compared to us humans.  The beach was also littered with small spiral shells.  They looked empty at first glance, but the skittery claw tracks gave their current occupants away as hermit crabs. These are astounding beasts--crustaceans that have evolved an asymmetric, spiral-shaped body, so they can live in a shell created by another animal.  Hermit crabs date back to at least the lower Cretaceous, around 130 million years ago.  They're old enough that they once lived in the shells of ammonites; extinct animals that looked like a squid with a shell.

The full moon rose as the sun set, scattering its light off the waves and making it bright enough to walk around the hermit crabs. It was a fabulous way to spend an evening, and I hadn't even seen dolphins and waterspouts yet.  Of course, taking a trip to the beach to forget the stress and chaos of the modern world is one of the biggest cliches out there.  But it's a cliche because beaches do have an unusually powerful psychological impact, for all kinds of reasons.  Once you get away from the crowds, beaches have an eternal, timeless feeling.  The waves roar and crash rhythmically, unceasingly, as they have since the continents formed billions of years ago.  The oceans are where life first emerged, so it's no wonder that looking at the ocean gives us a sense of looking at our deepest origins.

Then there are the metaphors that are simply inescapable at the beach.  The beach is where two worlds meet, and we look out from our landlubber world, and imagine what's out there.  "Here be dragons", as the old mapmakers said.  There's also mystery in the depths.  What's down there under those waves?  Krakens?  Dragons?  Probably not, but there are plenty of things just as fearsome or awe-inspiring. The first time I saw a whale, from a beach in Newfoundland, I was so stunned I almost had to sit down.  A creature the size of a city bus had just appeared from the depths--who wouldn't be stunned?  Its back emerged from the water, and just kept on emerging, as I thought, "It can't really be that big, can it?"  But it was.  Ever since then, I've had occasional dreams of being on a boat, with huge shadowy whales swimming below me.  Of course, this is another metaphor.  Our unconscious mind is the deep, dark ocean, and we only rarely glimpse the creatures that live there, when they break the surface of consciousness.  Maybe our unconscious minds see themselves in the oceans, or the oceans in themselves, and in dreams they spiral inward like the body of a hermit crab.

Of course, part of a beach's impact may be purely physiological.  It's likely that the rhythm of the ocean waves captures the rhythm of our brain waves, putting us in a relaxed, meditative state of mind.  Staring off into the distance relaxes our eyes, and contributes to the same reflective state.  That distance, and the hugeness of the ocean, doesn't exactly make me feel small, but it does give me get that meditative sense of merging with my surroundings, feeling--or rather realizing--that the boundary of my self is not the same as the boundary of my skin.  People who study such things call this an "oceanic" feeling, and it's no wonder.

But the ocean isn't always relaxing.  It's dangerous, and we know it.  People have drowned at the very beaches I was admiring, sometimes swept out to sea by rip currents more powerful than the strongest swimmer. You can escape a rip current by swimming parallel to the beach, but that won't help with a shark, and sharks are surely at the back of everyone's mind. Once I was body-surfing at the beach in Florida.  A big wave came up, sucking the water at my feet back toward it.  As I got ready to drop down and start swimming along with the wave, I looked into the wall of water and saw the shadow of a fish as big as me.  It was swimming longways down that wave, totally at home.  As I stood there thinking about sharks and barracudas, the wave knocked me over.  I went and sat on the beach, rattled and coughing, reminded that there were things out there that might see me as dinner.

That was over 20 years ago, and I still remember it every time I swim in the ocean.  But I keep going back, and I don't even mind that it scares me.  In fact, I'm glad.  It's good to let nature scare you sometimes, to let you know that out there beyond our city ordinances and air conditioners, the natural world is still a wild and mortal place.  I'm not a religious man, but I think it's a sacred feeling--if not always a comfortable one--to stare into a world so much older, bigger, and more powerful than we are.  It's this sacredness that the drunk, foulmouthed people on the beach were missing.  They should have shut up and paid attention for a while.  It's not that I have anything against partying on the beach.  It's just that we need to remember to stop and look at where we are when we're in places like that.  We need step away from the crowd--at least for a while--and rediscover our sense of the sacred; of a world older than humanity.  Everybody, whether traditionally religious or not, needs to be able to stare out at the sea and be awestruck.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Huck Finn and the Learned Astronomer

It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened. Jim he allowed they was made, but I allowed they just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them; well, that looked kind of reasonable, so I didn't say nothing against it, because I've seen a frog lay most as many, so of course, it could be done. We used to watch the stars that fell, too, and see them streak down. Jim allowed they'd got spoiled and was hove out of the nest.
-Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It's hard for modern city dwellers to really appreciate the stars. Only the brightest ones shine through the city lights. You have to work, traveling far from town on a clear night, to find the kind of sky that would have enveloped Jim and Huck as they slipped down the dark, 19th century Mississippi river. We forget what a truly overwhelming sight it is to see the whole dome of the sky filled with lights and buttressed by the arch of the Milky Way.

The Milky Way  Gemma Stiles
On the other hand, today we can appreciate the stars another way, trading the nightly spectacle for the modern scientific vision of what the stars really are, and how they work. We don't have to rely on naked eyesight, or blind speculation, the way Huck and Jim did. Our telescopes can spot objects millions of millions of times fainter than what we can see with our naked eyes, showing us that the most spectacularly starry night reveals only a fraction of the stars that are really out there. Today we can find out, in a way Huck and Jim never could have, what the stars really are. These days, any attentive schoolchild knows that the stars are all varieties of suns, and that they are only dim because they are so incredibly far away. We know the moon and stars are two different kinds of things, and falling stars still another. But this knowledge also requires effort - painstaking scientific observation, trips to libraries or planetariums; time set aside for reading. The stars don't yield their secrets easily.

In the poem I Heard the Learned Astronomer, Walt Whitman describes attending a lecture on stars. Finding the numbers and theories sterile, he walks outside to gaze on the stars firsthand. Whitman obviously feels that trading the nightly spectacle for hard facts and complex theories is a losing proposition. No doubt he would have preferred Huck's or Jim's poetic vision of the stars to that of the "learned astronomer". He does have a point - scientific explanations are not substitutes for raw experiences like the sight of a starry sky on a summer night; or for poetic comparisons like the idea that the moon laid the stars. But what he misses is that science only kills the poetry of experience if we extend it so far as to obstruct other views. We don't have to let it. We don't have to trade visceral experience or metaphor for science, because it isn't a tradeoff situation. We can have all three; if we realize they serve different purposes. The trick is too assign each to its own realm, without letting any take over. Better yet, we can find out how each realm fits in with the others, and find a point of view that transcends all three. Of all the secrets of the stars, this one may be the hardest to appreciate.


This post is lifted from a book I tried to write a few years ago:  Here's the original in context.

More old writings about the same ideas here:  The Scientific vs. the Romantic View of Nature

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Would Jesus Do? Good Question

A few months ago, a former school teacher of mine shared a cartoon on Facebook, entitled What Would Jesus NOT Do?  It shows a haloed Jesus sitting on a rock looking thoughtful.  Among the things it says he wouldn't do are "beat homosexuals", "own a gun", "hate his enemies", "attack the poor", and "side with the rich".  The cartoon was shared from the Facebook page for a liberal Christian group called Christians Who Are Tired of Being Misrepresented.  So far, the cartoon has been shared nearly 9,000 times, and the comment count is approaching 3,000.

Now you may not believe this, but the comments suggest that not everybody agrees about what Jesus would or wouldn't do.  Shocking, right?  Liberal Christians mostly love the cartoon, but conservative Christians aren't thrilled with it, and non-religious types declare their indifference to the whole question.  The points of view expressed are amazingly diverse, and very often contradictory.  Here's a sampling, copied verbatim from various comments:
"I see no way in which you can be Christian and own a gun"

"If Jesus were alive today, he would own many guns and join a militia, the muslim hoards are coming"

 "Corrections, he made weapons! Come on people, in the temple? The rope, that he made into a whip? And then used it to chase the vendors out?"

"He wouldn't beat homosexuals or anyone else. But it clearly states it is WRONG."

"If Jesus were around today he'd have words of love for single mothers, homosexuals, and every down-trodden class"

"Nor would he support abortion, gay marriage, divorce, pornography, or theft :)"

"One point is that Jesus did not advocate violence at all. We are ALL loved by him."

"The bible contradicts itself constantly. How can anyone decide what it means?"
Personally, I tend to agree with the last statement, and the comments under the cartoon make me think we will never agree on what Jesus would or would't have done. Still, after reading through a couple hundred of them, I decided to take another look at the Bible, to see what impression I got about the type of person Jesus was.  I had read the gospels before, but it had been awhile, and I wanted to read them with an eye to determining how much truth there is to the liberal versus the conservative versions of Jesus.  The short answer is, I think they're both wrong.  Modern American liberalism and conservatism are responses to a completely different kind of society than Jesus lived in, and it takes some real mental contortions to cast him as one or the other.

Gospel Puzzles

Before I offer my meager thoughts on Jesus after reading the Gospels, I should say something about how I'm approaching them. As I've said elsewhere in this blog, I'm an agnostic who doesn't believe in the supernatural.  I do think Jesus had some real wisdom to offer, but I'm not a Christian in any traditional sense. I don't think Jesus was the son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that his death offered salvation to a sinful world, that he was resurrected, or that only by believing in him will I go to heaven and avoid hell.  I'm not sure Jesus believed most of these things either, and I'm deeply suspicious of the very existence of heaven and hell.

None of this means I lack respect for Christians who do believe these things.  Some of the kindest and most admirable people I know are Christians who see the Bible as the inspired Word of God.  I just don't happen to agree with them.  I'd be happy to explain the reasons why to anyone who asks, but that's not what I want to talk about in this post. Here, I want to try to understand what kind of person Jesus really was.

I'm approaching the gospels as I would any other ancient religious text about historical figures: trying to understand the mindset of the people who wrote them, and to peer past the layers of myth and interpretation to glimpse the real people underneath.  I'm assuming the gospels were written by normal humans, without the aid of God, and with all the biases and myopia humans tend to have.  I'm also assuming some of the things in them are true, some half-true, and some false.

For those who don't pay much attention to biblical matters, there are many ancient documents about Jesus called gospels, but the four that made it into the Bible are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Most scholars today believe that Mark was the first of the gospels to be written, probably around the late 60's or early '70's AD; around the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem. This means it was written about 40 years after Jesus' death.  Matthew and Luke were probably written in the '80's AD, and John around the turn of the first century.  Many scholars believe Matthew and Luke were composed independently, using material from Mark (sometimes copied verbatim) and from a hypothetical source known as Q.  Since these three gospels are very similar, they're called the Synoptic Gospels.  John is the exception.  It's much more abstract and theological, and focuses much more on Jesus as a divine being.

People who study the historical Jesus use several criteria to try to identify the most accurate and authentic passages.  For example, the earlier the source of a scripture, the more likely they are to see it as authentic.  This means Mark is likely to be more accurate than the other Gospels, especially John.  Historians also think that if something happens in multiple gospels, it is more plausible than if it only appears in one.  Stories that would have been embarrassing to early Christians, such as the story of Judas Iscariot betraying Jesus, or Peter denying him three times, are seen as more likely to be true, because the authors had nothing to gain by making them up.

Of course, some things make passages in the scriptures less likely to be true.  For example,take the episode in John 7:53-8:11, in which a woman is "caught in the very act of committing adultery".  Jesus challenges the people who are about to stone her to death, saying, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her".  I've always thought this is one of the wisest and most beautiful statements in the Christian tradition. I still do, but here's the thing: this passage wasn't not in the original gospel of John.  It didn't appear in manuscripts of John until the 300's AD. This means it was probably added by a scribe long after the time of Jesus.  It could have been part of an accurate oral tradition about Jesus, but it's more likely that it never happened.  It's still a great message, but somebody besides Jesus most probably came up with it.

Another thing that casts doubt on gospel passages is contradiction.  This happens quite often.  For example, while Mark (the earliest gospel) begins with Jesus as an adult, being baptized by John the Baptist, Matthew and Luke begin by describing Jesus' birth and genealogy.  In Jewish prophecies, the Messiah was to be descended from King David, who was from Bethlehem.  Matthew and Luke both claim Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but they have different stories to tell.  First, the genealogies linking David to Jesus are very different. The two gospels also differ in explaining why Jesus grew up in Nazareth, but was born in Bethlehem.  Matthew begins with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem, apparently living there.  Herod, the Jewish king who ruled Judea on behalf of the Romans, wants to kill Jesus, so he kills all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two.  However, Mary and Joseph had been warned by an angel, so they had already fled to Egypt.  Later, they settled far from Bethlehem (and who can blame them?) in Nazareth.

In the beginning of Luke, on the other hand, Mary and Joseph are living in Nazareth, but Caesar Augustus orders people across “all the world” to return to their hometowns to register for a census. They go to Bethlehem, because Joseph is descended from the house of David.  Jesus is born there, in a manger, and shepherds come to pay their respects. Matthew doesn't mention a manger or shepherds.  Instead, wise men from the east come to see the baby Jesus.  People have tried to unify these accounts, but the impression many historians get is that at least one of them, and maybe both, are false.

If the gospels mention a major event, but historians can find no record of it anywhere else, that casts doubt on the passage. Both Matthew and Luke mention just such events. Matthew tells the horrifying story about Herod killing all the babies in Bethlehem. You would think something this shocking would be recorded elsewhere, but it isn't. Just as problematic is the Roman census in Luke. There was a census in the region around 6 or 7 AD, but that is ten years after the death of Herod. Most scholars think Jesus was born around the time of Herod's death--around 4 BC--so the census was ten years after Jesus was born. Not only that, this was a merely a census of some Roman provinces in the Middle East, not a census of “all the world”, or even the entire Roman empire.  All these differences between Matthew and Luke don't necessarily mean Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, but both authors seem to be trying hard to put him there in order to fulfill prophecies, and they are telling two different stories in the process.

The larger point, though, is that there are discrepancies like this among all the gospels (and all through the Bible as a whole). The obvious conclusion is that the gospels were all written by very different people in different places, with different points of view and agendas, decades after Jesus' death. Parts of them are likely to paint an accurate picture of Jesus, and parts of them aren't. The trick is deciding which is which.

Impressions of Jesus

I'm am not remotely competent to take on that task, so I'm just going to briefly discuss my impressions from reading all four gospels.  First of all, I'm absolutely positive Jesus didn't feel scorn for the poor, as many hardcore fiscal conservatives do today.  He was from a humble background himself, and so were most (but not all) of his followers.  He associated with the poor and unfortunate, and generally had very nice things to say about them.  Consider the Beatitudes (which may come from the Q source, and appear in different forms in Matthew and Luke).  In Luke, Jesus says "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God".  In Matthew, he says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  The "in spirit" part probably means those who are humble, or even spiritually broken.  In either case, Jesus is showing his typical compassion for the downtrodden.

Jesus has far less encouraging things to say to the rich.  In Luke, Jesus' four blessing are followed by four "woes", beginning with, "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."  Apparently, the rich should enjoy their riches while they can, because they will have a very hard time entering the kingdom of God.  Of course, this doesn't appear in the other gospels, so the author of Luke may have added it.  Still, Jesus reinforces this message in other places. In a famous episode which appears in all the synoptic gospels, a rich young man comes up and asks Jesus what he should do to have eternal life.  Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  When the man replies that he already does that, Jesus says "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  The rich young man leaves in despair, unwilling to give up his worldly goods.  Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God".  Now, people have tried to explain this away, saying the "eye of a needle" was once a small gate into Jerusalem, or that the word translated as "camel" really meant "cable".  But there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence for these interpretations.  I think Jesus probably meant exactly what he said.  To compare for yourself what Jesus said about these things, take a look these two links: poor, rich

Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems to be saying that in the coming kingdom of God, society will be flipped on its head.  The poor and oppressed will be glorified, while the rich and powerful will suffer, or not make it into the kingdom at all.  At the end of the episode with the rich young man, Jesus says "But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first". Similar sentiments show up throughout the gospels.  Some people have argued that Jesus was trying to bring about a social revolution in this world, and that he was a sort of a religious proto-socialist.  Maybe, but I think it's more likely that he was actually talking about a coming kingdom of God, in which the world as his contemporaries know it would end cataclysmically.  The righteous, kind, and humble would be in heaven, while powerful, hypocritical people like lawyers and priests would be cast out, or even go to hell.  I tend to agree with those who think Jesus believed the end of the present world was coming any day.  Even after his death, many early Christians seemed to think the apocalypse was near, and some Christians have thought that ever since.

While Jesus was all for poverty and modesty, and even for drastic upheavals in the social order, he certainly wasn't a hippie born 2000 years before his time.  He believed in upholding the commandments, and he would have had nothing to do with a free love lifestyle.  He was against divorce, and said that not only should one not commit adultery, but that "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart".  But he wasn't a stickler for following every restriction in the Jewish law.  He ignored many of the laws about what to eat, whether you can touch unclean people such as lepers, and whether you can do necessary work on the Sabbath.  He seems to have been a "spirit of the law, not letter of the law" kind of guy, but he held the spirit to a pretty high standard.

The "hippie Jesus" idea also seems misguided to me in another sense.  I don't think Jesus was necessarily preaching a message of peace and coexistence.  When George W. Bush (an evangelical Protestant Christian) said "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists", he was actually echoing a remark by none other than Jesus.  When Jesus was accused by Pharisees of casting out demons using the power of "Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons", Jesus took offense, saying it was by the Spirit of God that he cast out demons.  He tells them it is blasphemy to call the work of the Spirit of God the work of demons, and says, "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."  Jesus clearly thought there are two sides in this world, and woe unto you if you are on the wrong side.  While Jesus told his followers not to judge others, he did seem to think God would judge people, and harshly.  He often talks about the violence and sorrow that will befall evil people in the final judgement, and seems to think many will go to hell (though it's debatable what his concept of hell was).  Bush's black and white view of the world was terrifying to me, but Jesus may have had similarly stark views about good and evil (albeit wildly dissimilar views about wealth).  This is a case where I look at what Jesus most likely thought, and think "I can't agree with that".

I think Jesus would have also differed with George W. on the use of violence.  I don't think Jesus advocated violence, at least not deadly violence.  He did overturn tables, and possibly even use a whip made of ropes, when he drove the money changers from the temple.  And it may be that, just before he was arrested, Jesus told his disciples to sell their cloak and buy a sword (but only in Luke).  However, he may have wanted a couple of his disciples to have swords in order to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah, because his very next statement is, "For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled" (Luke 22:37; Isaiah 53:12) .  When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples cut off the high priest's slave's ear.  In all the gospels but Mark (the earliest), Jesus tells his disciples to stop fighting.  In Matthew, he famously says, "all who take the sword will perish by the sword", while in Luke, he even heals the slave's ear.  Jesus seems to become more of a pacifist in the gospels written after Mark, but he's certainly not an advocate of violence even in the earliest portrayals.

Another passage where Jesus talks about a sword is sometimes cited by hawkish conservatives who claim that Jesus was OK with a little killing here and there. This is Matthew 10:34, where Jesus tells his disciples, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword".  This seems pretty clear, right?  Not so fast.  The passage is mirrored in Luke (and may therefore be from the hypothetical Q source), but in Luke, he says, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!".  This suggests that the sword is a metaphor meaning that Jesus will cut social and familial bonds.  In particular, Jesus is talking about families, because in both gospels he then says he has come to set fathers against sons, mothers against daughters, and mothers in law against daughters in law.  It may come as a surprise to family values types who haven't read the gospels closely, but Jesus consistently tells people to abandon their families in favor of following him.  In some places, he seems to reject his own family, in some passages, they seem to think he's lost his mind (Mark 3:21).

To sum up, the Jesus I see when I read the gospels doesn't conform to modern American liberalism or conservatism very well at all.  He was a radically anti-authoritarian but deeply religious Jew living in a completely different world than ours.  I think he was probably an apocalyptic prophet, whose predictions of the end of the age and the new kingdom of God didn't come true as he expected.  I could be wrong.  Maybe he was speaking metaphorically, and the kingdom of God he was talking about was a social ideal, or even a spiritual state of mind that would lead to heaven on Earth if people embraced it.  Maybe I'm completely wrong, and he really was the Messiah of Christian faith, come to save the world from its original sin. Maybe he really was the son of God, and lived a life packed with miracles. I doubt it, because (and please believe I mean no offense when I say this) these ideas seem like pre-scientific ways of thinking. They don't match the universe I think we live in, which operates according to natural laws, not miracles; and, while beautiful, is amoral and entirely indifferent to our welfare. I think we probably get one life--in this world--and if we want to make it better, it's up to us.  I do think Jesus had some very good ideas about how to make it better, though I don't think we would want to follow his every command.  Is it really a good long term strategy to abandon our families and sell everything we own? 

Jesus' pre-scientific outlook strikes me most when I read the gospel passages where Jesus casts out demons.  Jesus, and most other people of his time, truly believed people with mental and neurological disorders were possessed by demons.  In one passage, he heals a boy (who is almost certainly epileptic based on the description) by casting out a demon.  Two thousand years ago, the demon possession theory of epilepsy would have seemed reasonable.  Today, we know better.  Now we know epilepsy is cause by problems with neural firing, not problems with evil spirits.  Science offers no evidence for evil spirits. Ancient wisdom, it seems to me, is most valuable when it doesn't try to offer explanations for natural phenomena.  People generally got that wrong before the scientific method came along.

What Jesus Would NOT Do

What ancient wisdom can tell something us about is human nature and ethics. One thing that strikes me when reading the gospels is that, while Jesus was quite willing to associate with sinners from the lower orders, he reserved his greatest scorn for hypocrites, especially powerful ones. Over and over again, he blasts the religious establishment--the Pharisees and Sadducees--for judging others while ignoring their own moral failings. They claim they are living according to God's law, when they are really rationalizing their own preferences and lifestyles. In Luke and Matthew (probably Q source) Jesus says, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will clearly see to take the speck our of your neighbor's eye".

Despite the fact that Jesus spoke as forcefully against hypocrisy as he spoke against anything, for 2000 years many of those who have claimed to be his followers have lived in ways that are entirely contrary to his teachings--scorning the poor, abandoning the weak and sick, killing and robbing...and saying they are doing it in Jesus' name.  Jesus wept, indeed.

I don't claim to be any kind of expert on Jesus, but I know people shouldn't claim to follow Jesus without making an honest attempt to understand what he really stood for.  They also need to take a hard look at themselves, and ask if they are really following him, or hypocritically remaking Jesus in an image that suits them.  I wish I could say it was easy to look at the gospels and figure out what Jesus really stood for, but it isn't, and the world has seen a great deal of sorrow because of that.  As for me, I will probably never become truly knowledgeable about Jesus, because I think there are other, clearer sources of wisdom out there, from Buddha to Darwin. I don't claim to be a Christian, so if I don't follow Jesus' example, then I may be in the wrong, but at least I'm not being a hypocrite. While there are a lot of truly amazing Christians in the world--people whose selfless kindness leaves me in awe--there are also a lot of "Christians" who live for themselves, judge others freely, and despise those who aren't in their social group.  Those people need to take another look at their Bible, and another look at themselves.  The gospels may not always be easy to understand, but they are crystal clear about one thing:  Jesus was compassionate and forgiving, but he didn't suffer hypocrites gladly.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go check for logs in my eyes.


Ehrman, Bart.  1999.  Jesus:  Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium

The HarperCollins Study Bible : New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books