Monthly Archives: September 2012

An Old Game: Gnostic Fragment New, But Hardly News

Christmas came early this year. I am referring to the media’s holiday rite of trotting out old canards and sensational but spurious scholarship in what they call a quest for the historical Jesus. Like a burst of stale air from a newly discovered tomb, ancient pseudo-Gospels now appear with some regularity, feeding the media’s and the public’s appetite for anything heterodox.

The latest Coptic “Gospel” fragment to come to light, which quotes Jesus speaking about his “wife,” is no exception. If authentic, it is doubtless part of the same ancient Gnostic tradition that brought us the Gospel of Judas and even The DaVinci Code. These Gnostic Gospels may be new to the media, but they are hardly news to the church. In AD 180  St. Irenaeus published a book (Against Heresies) listing and refuting these writings, which had sprung up like crabgrass.

Gnosticism actually predates Christianity and finds its roots in the ancient Hellenistic dualism that divided spirit and matter. While they were attracted initially to the theology of Christianity, Gnostics rejected its core doctrines, especially the incarnation, bodily death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They believed that salvation came through the sharing of a “special knowledge” (gnosis), secret teachings not recorded in the original Gospels but that they claimed had been passed down orally from Jesus to a few select disciples.  If you read the later documents of the New Testament, you will find the apostles, especially John, engaged in anxiously refuting or even mocking Gnostic teachings, which had infiltrated the churches and posed no insignificant threat.

The Gnostics were eventually expelled from the churches, though some left voluntarily. Not a few traveled to Upper Egypt, where they established little communities in the desert– the isolation providing a safer environment for the practice of their strange doctrines. The dry climate and low humidity there also provided a unique time-capsule for the preservation of their papyrus manuscripts.

Knowing this as we do, it would seem ludicrous to treat this fragment as evidence of a shared “dialogue” within early Christianity about Jesus’ marital status. It is really nothing more than an oddity belonging to an age, like our own, that was never short of cult-leaders and crackpots.

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Sugar Wars

As some of you may recall, before the summer we had a crisis regarding our daughter’s schooling. We finally decided on a Christian pre-school in our own local church, which may not be the best academically, but at least we know (or thought we knew) the people.

A few days before the start of the new school year, however, we were again plunged into crisis.  We were originally told by the director that the school did not serve sugary snacks, that they were careful to limit the mid-morning nosh to pretzels, crackers, and fruit. “Of course,” the director added, “we have no control over what parents may bring.” We thought the comment odd at the time since, naturally, as director she would have control over what could be or could not be consumed on school premises. There is a great effort in this school to eliminate any snack containing peanuts or tree nuts, to the extent that any product manufactured in a facility that handles nuts is also banned.

You must understand that we are not sugar-nazis. From infancy our daughter has loved anything green. Her first solid food was an avocado. To this day, if allowed to roam outside unsupervised, she is quite capable of wiping  out my entire collard or lettuce crop. She loves alfalfa. We want to nurture her natural love for fruit and vegetables and to help her develop good food-choice habits for life. My wife slaves away trying to create tasty treats with sugar alternatives. Of course, as our child gets older, we are not always there to protect her (from other kids at school who want to share their dessert, or from grandmotherly types who, like snipers, pop up suddenly and without warning, to slip her a sugar fix).  So under the influence of a well-meaning but sugar-addicted culture, her tastes are gradually changing. But for now, the rules at home are still sugar-free, except for the occasional holiday treat.

I attended the school’s parent night, an orientation for parents of new students. When I read the handout, it contained a sheet listing banned and approved snack items. Apparently, parents may sometimes supply snacks for the class, for holidays or birthday parties. The approved list looked like an explosion at a Hostess factory, and included such items as chocolate pudding tubes and Krispy Kreme donuts (but not ones made in factories handling nuts). I was shocked. I looked around the room. The vast majority of parents, I noted, were morbidly obese. I could not even see around the people in front of me and had to move. I was starting to think we had just parachuted down into a lost tribe of sugar eaters, who, locked into the 1960s, still sprayed their playgrounds with DDT, dispensed Thalidomide, and pumped their kids daily with C12H22O11.

During the Q&A I stood up. “We have a no sugar policy at home. Not because we’re the sugar police, but because of health concerns, certain genetic predispositions for diabetes, and how our child reacts to sugar, which can really get ugly.”  (A few people nod their heads.) “I’m looking at your approved snack list, and I’m starting to sweat. Is there some way we can avoid this by bringing our own snack, etc…?”

But the director assured me that they would work with us and later, in a private meeting, reiterated that they would do all they could to respect our wishes. The teacher also reassured us. So we agreed the teacher would give us advanced warning if there was to be a snack over which they had no control. We felt some relief.

We have had similar issues with the Sunday school snacks at the church. Appropriate snacks like crackers, pretzels, or Goldfish are fine with us. Cookies, donuts, Ho-Hos and Scooter Pies are not. But from week to week, we don’t know what to expect, because the policy, as with the pre-school, is so lax there. Last Sunday, my wife had a run-in with one of the children’s directors, because our daughter was given candy. She was informed that the high volume of child allergies (nuts, dairy, gluten, etc.) made the snack choices very narrow. “There’s almost nothing left,” the woman said. When my wife suggested something from the Plantae kingdom (a sometimes overlooked taxonomic category which includes things like fruit and vegetables, and can sometimes be found in grocery stores, a few aisles over from the Ding Dongs and Doritos), she was told these were too expensive and would not store well. Ok, I understand. Then stick with Goldfish. I don’t care if my child has a fist full of Goldfish once a week at Sunday School; she’s not dining there. But I do resent someone pumping her full of sucrose and sending her home for us to deal with.

Well, this week the teacher emailed me saying a parent was bringing a special snack on Thursday, and they didn’t know what it would be. Just in case, I brought a nutritious snack for my daughter and spoke clearly to both teachers, saying, “I will trust your judgment. If the special snack turns out to be sweet, please give her the one we provided. My daughter said she would be ok with that. If the snack is not sweet, she can certainly participate.” My daughter returned from school and told me one of the teachers gave her a chocolate donut. I was livid but tried to keep calm, realizing I was putting my child in the middle of what seemed to be quickly developing into a crusade. I made sure she understood that I was not angry at her, and it was not her fault. I think she may have felt she was betraying her teachers (sure, wouldn’t you want to protect your pusher?). But I also might not have had the whole story. So the next day I asked the teacher how it went. “I broke a chocolate donut in half and gave it to her,” she said, “so she wouldn’t feel left out.” Ok. So she went with the “I trust your judgment part.” She just ignored the rest of my instructions.

Most educators know that sugar is a huge disruptor, not to mention the health issues and links to hyperactivity disorders, diabetes, and obesity. Children simply cannot learn if their brains are saturated with insulin. I think the problem at this school, and the church in general, stems from a particular root:  those in charge, who set the policy, are unable to set a boundary there because they are unable to set a boundary with their own children and in their own lives. But the problem is not confined to our church, I know. The American church in general is a major enabler of various addictions, not the least of which is sugar. Not surprisingly, there is a higher obesity rate among Christians here.

Having grown up in the South, my wife also pointed out that for so many generations after the War of Northern Aggression, the South was poor, and recipes laden with sugar and fat became comfort foods. Think of things like sweet tea, pecan pie, sugary barbecue sauce, chicken fried steak and gravy.

I wonder if, since Christian churches are so devoted to the god of sucrose, why are we attending this Wonder Bread church, with its dry Danish cookies that taste like buttered plaster, when there are ethnic churches out there, like the Greek Orthodox, where the baklava is out of this world, or the German Moravians, whose sugar cake love feast buns are a-mazing?

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Straight Talk on Poverty

Wow. I don’t normally takes sides in partisan races. My real loyalty lies with the poor and oppressed, not with any political party. Political parties are perhaps the greatest instrument of crowd control ever devised by government; they keep the lower classes (and Christians) at each others’ throats, anathematizing each other, lest they band together to begin solving the real problems, such as poverty, racism, rampant militarism, economic inequity, and injustice.

Frankly, and to put it mildly, I don’t like either candidate in this race, and I strongly feel, as a Christian, that if my fellow believers can easily cast their vote for either party, without at least some kind of semblance of a crisis of conscience, then they are not thinking biblically.

Over the past few days, however, issues have arisen that demand a response. I am referring to Mr. Romney’s insensitive, albeit “off-the-cuff” remarks regarding poverty in America. It’s not only his statements but also the response from many of his Christian supporters that demonstrate an astounding level of ignorance on the subject.

So I thought I would address some of the common myths and memes about poverty that people carry these days, a mindset that is completely inappropriate and incongruous for Christians to hold..

Myth #1:  “People on food stamps are inherently lazy.” You may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of the poor are very hard working. They have to be, if they want to survive. Two thirds hold more than one job and yet are still considered underemployed in terms of income. The idea that they could rise out of poverty merely by working harder at low-wage jobs is naive and downright silly.

Myth #2:  “Food stamps and other ‘entitlement programs’ beget dependency and lack of initiative.” Doubtless there are problems with the system and vast room for improvement. But have you ever tried to live on food stamps or public assistance? The average welfare check for a single parent with two children is around $478. It’s not a cushy or enviable existence. Most would gladly do without these supports if they could. But what alternatives do they have? Borrow money from their parents to go to college?

The idea that women are encouraged by the system to have more babies is ludicrous when you consider that states offer only an average of $60 more a month for an additional child. That wouldn’t even pay for diapers. Some states offer only $25 or nothing at all. What kind of incentive is that?

Myth #3:  “Poverty is the result of alcohol or drug use.” True, addiction, if allowed to progress often leads to poverty. Yet the rate of drug use among the poor is about the same as among the middle class and wealthy. It just doesn’t seem that way since the rate of enforcement and prosecution is so heavily tilted against minority communities; the war on drugs is really a war of disenfranchisement and incarceration against people of color. When you are rich and addicted, your friends might hold an intervention and send you to the Betty Ford Clinic. When you are poor, you lose your job and wind up on the street.

This myth also conveniently ignores a leading cause of poverty in this country—systemic injustice. Is it merely a coincidence that such a huge share of poverty is found in minority communities? Follow the thread of poverty and it will lead you to this nation’s long and ongoing history of injustice and racism. Yet poverty is not just a minority issue. Whites still have the largest share of the poor (around 47% of the poor are white—not to be confused with Mr. Romney’s “47%”).

Myth #4: “This is a land of opportunity; anyone can rise to realize his or her potential.” This may be true if one is born white and middle class. The horizon for people of color, however, is not so simple or rosy.

Believing these myths is enormously convenient, as it requires absolutely no soul-searching, effort, or change on one’s own part. Think of it:  with a wave of the hand, one can dismiss half of one’s fellow citizens as well as one’s own personal responsibility in perpetuating injustice.

Myth #5: “The church should take care of the poor. It’s not government’s responsibility.” It is true both the Old and New Testaments clearly command God’s people to care for “the least of these.” Apparently, however, the church neither takes this mandate very seriously, nor has it nearly the level of resources required to fulfill these needs without at least working in partnership with government. Read the Prophets. It is clear what God expects from government, whether godly or pagan:  that it would provide for the poor and protect them from exploitation, robbery and wrong—in short, that government take seriously its role as protector of the weak and not to show favoritism to the rich.

Myth #6: “Charity should be voluntary. It was so under the Old Testament.” Yes and no. Israelites were commanded to help the poor whenever they could (Deut 15:7,8), but they were also required to pay a tax, or tithe, in accordance with their income, a portion of which went to the maintenance of the poor (Deut 26:12). No, we are not under OT civil law today, and yes ancient Israel was a theocracy; yet the OT law demonstrates important principles which show us what pleases God, form a foundation for all Western systems of law, as well as revealing the divine intention, or goal, for good government.

Sadly, the mindset among many middle class and affluent white voters in this country is “I’ve got mine. Go get yours.” The majority of us have no concept what it is like growing up in a racially divided and economically unjust nation. We act as if we worked and slaved to gain everything we have, without considering that we were handed a great deal from the start, that the system is rigged to work for us, but not for them.

If Mr. Romney is characterized as “out of touch,” then so are the Christians who try to defend what is indefensible. It is a case of what the apostle Paul describes, ”For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). The prophets of greed massage our prejudices, lulling us with words that appeal to our innate selfishness.

I really wish that Jesus had specifically forbade his disciples to join political parties. Party loyalty points to that which is most ugly and false in the other party, while blinding us to the chasm-like faults of our own. Today I overheard a friend who is a believer talking about Romney’s remarks. “I’m more angry at the guy with the tape recorder,” he said.

I would comment further, but such a statement causes me to sputter in disbelief.

For more surprising facts about poverty in America:


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Beyond Partisan Politics

Here we go again. It’s convention season. The election is getting closer—it promises to be a squeaker—and the campaigning grows dirtier by the day. Attack ads spew mud and lies like a dredging barge. Citizens (even Christians) cheer their favorite team and anathematize the opposition with all the enthusiasm of British soccer hooligans.

I see a lot of banner waving. A lot of the usual campaign drivel. A lot of tense nerves and name-calling. One thing in short supply, however, even among my fellow believers, is intellectual honesty.

Let’s face it. Politics is a dirty business. As Mark Twain once said, “When you are in politics you are in a wasp’s nest with a short shirt-tail.” It is an arena the devil loves to parade in—a fact that may cause many Christians simply to bow out. Yet Christians are not called to cop out of the human race. We’re called to be loving but active, respectful but vocal.

There are other Christians who strive to gain the ascendancy in every arena, from broadcast media to politics, to grasp the greasy pole and kick their way to the top. Gaining enough power, they believe, will force America to become righteous, from the top down.

But Jesus didn’t live that way. His example was that of the lowliest servant. “He who would be great among you, must become slave of all.”

Christians are called not to control the political arena, but to influence it. Not to grab for power, but to speak truth to power. To call greed greed. Deception deception. To call our elected officials to a greater level of accountability and civility and honesty. And most importantly, to speak up for those who have no voice:  the weak and marginalized, the poor and disenfranchised.

What is really at stake in this election, as in every election, is not the worldly ambitions of particular parties, but the question of whether simple values such as truth, community, civility, and caring for one’s neighbor can continue to have a role in American politics, or whether they will be shunted aside by Corporate Greed’s selfish mantra, “I Got Mine.”

I prefer not to live in a country where greed shows nothing but contempt for the weak and poor, where hatred, militarism, racism, and sexism masquerade as patriotism, where arrogance guised as industry beats its breast and claims, “Look what I built!” and shares no credit with the humble worker on whose back all fortunes are made. To call such superciliousness “consistent” with biblical values is a blasphemous delusion.

Don’t think that by saying this I am endorsing any particular candidate or party. I am not. Neither party has a corner on God, righteousness, or biblical values. Neither will solve our country’s major problems, simply because both parties are part of the problem. Our country needs its citizens, and its Christians, to put partisanship aside and work together to confront the big wooly demons of poverty, yawning income inequality, militarism, racial injustice, and the domination of corporate cash over government. These are issues that should unite, not polarize Christians. The fact that they do so often divide us tells a lot about where our priorities lie.

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, Private Willis, a sentry guarding the British Parliament, intellectualizes on the profundities of politics and God’s creation:

I often think it‘s comical – Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive – Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That‘s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!

There is no shame in being a liberal or a conservative, unless, of course, we forget that we are Christians first, citizens of heaven, owing obedience primarily and always to the One who called us out of darkness into his glorious light, and owing one another the debt of love. Are you a conservative? Fine. True conservativism conserves what is good, lasting and beneficial to all. Are you a liberal? Great. True liberality is generous in mind and purse. Conservatism gives society stability; liberals give it vision and change.

One error both liberals and conservatives often fall into, however, is to make God over in their own image. Jesus was neither liberal not conservative. Ideally, therefore, Christians should not lock themselves into one camp or the other. (Oh, what mischief comes from our overidentifying ourselves with a single party, as recent history demonstrates!) If we are honest and truly following the teachings of our Lord and his Word, then we will frequently find ourselves on both sides, depending on the issue. As the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople said during a recent visit to the U.S.,

“By calling Christianity revolutionary, and saying it is dedicated to change, we are not siding with Progressives—just as, by conserving it, we are not siding with Conservatives. All political factions believe God is on their side—as Abraham Lincoln said of the Union and Confederacy, ‘Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.’ The only side we take is that of our faith—which today may seem to land us in one political camp, tomorrow another—but in truth we are always and only in one camp, that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

Outspokenness regarding such biblical issues as poverty, war, and justice will make you a “freaking liberal” in the eyes of many of your conservative friends. Meanwhile, if you hold a biblical line on abortion and homosexuality, the liberal camp will consider you a right-wing fanatic. We cannot please everyone, nor should we even try. Jesus does not call us to fit into any mold or swallow a whole platform, but to follow him on a very narrow path that often takes us “outside the camp.”

Again, Twain:

“Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.”

Shame on us if we jump on any bandwagon, spouting talking points without prayerfully digesting or fact-checking them. And call us foolish if we ever put our trust in men or believe their promises. All politicians lie. So do governments. God’s Word calls us to respect and obey authority (so long as it does not force us to disobey Him), but nowhere does he command us to implicitly trust or believe authority. Let us be honest: both parties ultimately are underwritten by men whose god is money and whose motto is More. There is no fear of God in them.

No single person can effect the changes needed in this country, even if they wanted to (and not many do). Power never cedes anything, except in response to the sustained and outraged protests of people working together. Real and lasting change occurs only with the steady, consistent banding together of people who share similar concerns. These bands of people become movements, and those movements become a roar that cannot be silenced.

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.—Hebrews 13:13,14


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