“We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives.” – Stephen James
There is a growing trend toward reinventing the bible and constructing a new Jesus. I am not referring to the “Conservative Bible,” which had all the “Liberal” bits cut out, or the one put out by the Jesus Seminar folks. Those have changes along theological lines, and are basically arguments about which version of a fairy tale is more accurate. Suffice to say, who cares? What I am referring to is the removal of “soft words” and replacing them with words that reflect a closer rendition to the words of the ancient languages used when the bible was constructed. These new words do not change context, but focus on a re-tooling that reflects the church’s attempt to re-market Christianity, as does the reconstruction of Jesus, which I will cover a little further down.
The quote I used above was written by Stephen James, a Christian author of more than 30 books, including “Flirting with the Forbidden,” which explores forgiveness from a Christian point of view, and is part of an article he posted last weekend on CNN’s “Belief Blog.” His article stood out to me because it points to the above, and is something that I had been noticing as part of my ongoing research for the articles I post here.
In James’s article, he points out that over the years the church has watered down the bible so as not to offend the sensibilities of the believer. Mind you, he is not, by far, the first believer to launch accusations about dilution. That concept is still the foremost reason for church splits and formations of new denominations and cults. James is, however, one of the minority to address it in the context of language instead of theology. James calls the bible, “gritty, raw and real,” then goes on to offer some examples, such as,
“Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead.”
He reveals that when a criminal was crucified, they would be nailed to the cross totally naked. I have yet to see an image, carving or sculpture of a naked crucified Jesus, but it does give me a neat Photoshop idea. James is correct, though, and if the character portrayed as Jesus in the bible had existed and was crucified by the Romans, he’d be in the altogether.
The author then refers to the character portrayed as the Apostle Paul’s comment that his deeds are “a pile of garbage,” as one can read in Philippians 3:8. A more accurate translation of the Koine Greek word actually reads as the equivalent of a “pile of shit.” More examples ensue regarding pissing on walls, murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex, animal sacrifice, etc.
But why are they doing this? Why the desire of late by an increasing number of clergy and scholars to go back to using a more accurate rendition of words when many of the replacement words and phrases would obviously be offensive to traditional believers? I reason that it has to do with…
The portrayal of the traditional Jesus as a stoic, perfectly groomed and well-mannered messiah-about-town was losing it’s appeal on a post-modern youthful congregation. Even the time-honored sermons by the likes of Calvin and Spurgeon that depicted Jesus as a radical are a far cry to what our younger population considers a radical today. It’s no secret that the traditional worship services filled with muted organ music and time-honored sermons about a life of quiet self-sacrifice to be followed by an eternity of sitting at the feet of Jesus are becoming a thing of the past. They are just not cutting muster with the youth, who are the future of the church. The fact that even the most conservative of churches have been offering a “contemporary” service in addition to the traditional is evidence that the old stuff just doesn’t work anymore and the old guard is dying off.
Many Pastors have been preaching a “hipster Jesus,” one who wasn’t religious, who liked to party and was no stranger to the buffet table. Kinda like going to the club, drinking with your friends and then meeting at the Waffle House afterward. They are also preaching a new Heaven, and all this is being done as part of a shift to larger churches with contemporary music, stunning audio-visual effects, cafe-style sanctuaries and jeans-and-tee-shirt worshiping. The church is trying to keep up with a post modern world that includes the Internet, video games, smart phones and electronic book readers because it is becoming increasingly difficult to draw and retain new converts.
It’s The Same Old Story…
Those like Mr. James have not diverted from the same purposes that have always been at the core of the Christian ministry. Evangelism for the un-churched and revival for those they believe have fallen into various states of backsliding. The message is the same as the old-time, fire and brimstone preachers, but for reasons stated, only the methods are different. James makes no bones about the need for the clergy to drive home their belief that there is still a need to strengthen the warning of God’s displeasure in humanity and, as he states,
“how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves.”
This entire movement is, and has always been, a fortification of the belief that the Christian should expect persecution and receive it gladly – even unto death – because there is a reward to come in the afterlife. Christianity is still a religion that focuses on the extremes between this life and the one they believe comes after our time on earth comes to an end. Rewording the bible with even more detriment and self-loathing would, by definition, make the believer long even more for the afterlife. All they had to do was make the afterlife more inviting that what we have in the here and now.
James fortifies this by stating,
“Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited.”
Who would want to miss out on an eternal party? James and those like him play on the need for the spiritual, but the disdain for the compulsory. On love over ritual and on peace over guilt. They decry the “dry, dusty duties of religion” and focus on cutting loose and celebrating. And it is working. Membership in the traditional denominations is declining at about the same rate as membership in the modern church, with it’s fearless use of modern language, rock and roll music and the aversion of the traditional is growing. The bait was cast, and our youth are swallowing it – hook, line and sinker.
Still A Death Cult…
Christian doctrine has not changed, however, no matter how the words in the bible change. It still brings on feelings of guilt and has a morbid promotion of death over life. The cross is still a symbol of suffering, torture and death. Naiveté and willful ignorance are still at the core of the faith, which is contrary to the development of knowledge through reason and rationality. It clearly teaches people not to trust in reason, and to only accept – without question – the dogmas of the church. James states this dogma well, when he wrote,
“I don’t believe we’ll ever recognize our need for the light until we’ve seen the depth of the darkness.”
These more progressive churches with their gritty language and modern accouterments remain true to the fundamentals of the same religiosity the church has had throughout it’s history. The whole idea of heaven and hell is a perfect illustration of just how the core of Christian doctrine is antithetical to reason, rationality and even life. It elevates ignorance and non-productivity and suppresses creative and innovative thought. No matter how hip Jesus is made out to be and no matter how shocking the words in the bible are translated.
I rarely comment on CNN’s belief blog, but today I chose to add a reply:
I used to be fond of saying, “you can’t polish a turd.” Adam and Jamie have disproved this. You can, indeed, polish a turd. However, as the Mythbusters pointed out – a polished turd is useless for anything other than having a shiny piece of shit. The experiences that are offered in the modern church are attractive to the part of the brain that controls fantasies, and church leaders do understand this. This is why there are more conversions and re-dedications of faith at services that resemble rock concerts, complete with light shows and other visual effects. This same concept is used during Halloween in the productions the church calls “Hell Houses” or “Judgment Houses.”
The whole process is designed to make “receiving Christ and the Holy Spirit” invoke “warm and fuzzy” feelings, which are then explained as a genuine interaction with the divine. Telling someone they have been personally touched by the supernatural is a powerful way to convince them that their religious experience is real, and that it must be reciprocated with a confession of sin and dedication of service to the faith.
This serves as the perfect venue to convince the new believer of the validity of doctrine and dogma, in spite of the fact that many of these doctrines have been disproved many years ago. Thus we have self-propagation. Of course, in reality, this experience is a purely physical one that is the result of the stimulation of the temporal lobes of the brain. It can be duplicated in a lab.
Mainstream, moderate Christianity is still the dominant religion, and it is making great strides to keep up with a post-modern world. Progressive denominations are recognizing the facts of evolution and are becoming more relevent to a changing world. But this does not make for exciting news. The virus of fundamental Christianity is getting most of the press and although it is often marketed as the true religion of love and tolerance, inwardly it is a destructive force that causes division, promotes willful ignorance and retards intellectual growth. Broken families, ruined lives and destroyed friendships are prevalent because of the infection of fundamental religion.
It is my hope that one day reason and rationality will prevail, and the infection that our society suffers due to the virus of fundamental religion will be eradicated. It is only through the minds that have been freed of superstition, fear and irrational beliefs in non-existent deities and mythological saviors that our society will achieve it’s potential.