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The Gods Our Fathers Bought Us for Christmas

December 21, 2016

Some time ago I was planning an article on the non-religious “priesthood” of the modern age.  In a series of articles nearly a year ago I addressed a series of claims about gods and discussed the ways in which people worship gods other than the ones they claim to (or worship gods they rather explicitly claim not to believe in).  If people have simply swapped out portions of a complete spiritual life with poorly thought-out semi-modular substitutes in one area why not other areas?  Do we continue to have the social and cultural role of the priest in our society even when many of us have no religious priesthood that we look to?

Originally I had thought that the obvious replacement for this role were scientists.  There’s plenty to work with there, including the way that scientists reveal mysteries to us that are supposed to inform the way we live our lives.  But soon I realized that I needed to include technological innovators as well and that our culture, with its rather pathological obsession with the notion of progress, often looks to the makers of the latest gizmos and gadgets to lay out a vision for the human future as well.  But something was missing.  There was another element, at least, and perhaps more, a plethora of non-religions.  I was head down in a pile of bureaucratic paperwork trying to force the changing reality of my job to look like an orderly progression through a series of preset assessment targets in the middle of an election where one candidate was talking up his business experience when it hit me.  Business is the other priesthood.  Or at least one other priesthood.

If you don’t live in a world where this is happening it may be less clear, but I live in a non-business world (academia) where administrators love to discuss what business does and then implement similar procedures.  Business is the shining exemplar of efficiency that can be exported to academia or government or perhaps your church or home.  Businessmen are the priests of efficiency, the people who learned the lessons of efficiency and survived in a cutthroat marketplace.  But business is not a priesthood without a religion.  Right from the get-go it seems obvious that the central virtue of the business-priest is efficiency, a word I cannot find the in the Bible, and so its seems likely that the priest of business preaches a virtue-ethic outside the bounds of Christian tradition.

Around Thanksgiving I was standing in line downtown with some members of my church when I noticed a sign in front of a store that said, “Retail therapy – it always works!”  I leaned back to my pastor and said something along the lines of, “Oh look, the most anti-Christian sign I’ve ever seen is over on the sidewalk there.”  We laughed, but both of us understood it wasn’t really a joke.  A foreign system of values with its own anthropology and its own cures for the human condition was on brazen display in front of this store.

At this point you may be forgiven for deciding I’ve gone off the deep end.  After all, the author of the sign did not mean to suggest anything deep about human nature and probably did not even mean the sign to be taken seriously.  However, the idea that there is a foreign system of values tied to a foreign anthropology and suggesting novel (and deleterious) cures for the human condition is not at all frivolous.

Let’s start with anthropology.  What are humans?  In Christianity humans are beloved images of God, tragically warped by the Fall but redeemable and loved.  The measure of a human in Christian thought is, more or less, that they are human.  Obedience to God’s will is preferred but Jesus leaves the ninety-nine to find the sinner lost in the wilderness.  Can we articulate an anthropology for a religion of business?  Humans are consumers and workers.  The measure of a human is how efficiently they transfer goods and services.  A human who produces more and consumes more is better.  The measure of a man is a series of economic connections with dollar values.

What about values and cures for the human condition?  For Christians, if humans are meant to be images of God then all values and cures are tied up with this.  It is valuable to act as God’s servants and the cure, in the long run, is God’s own loving redemption and restoration.  In the short run it is to approach this by becoming ever more a creature of heaven.  For this alternate religion we are discussing the system of values is about economic activity and the cure for the human condition can only be more economic activity – either more production (normally through higher efficiency during productive hours, but also through longer hours) or more consumption.

I have, elsewhere (OK, elsewhere multiple times), commented on the extent to which consumerism swallows the Christian holiday of Christmas.  Here (in an article that has only been revamped with a Christmas theme when I realized when it was being published) I wish to complain that there is an entire alternate religion of consumerism that threatens to swallow our lives.  What ails us is (for most people who can read this article on the Internet) not a lack of things.  When we attempt to patch the bleeding holes in our very selves with new items we risk ending our lives as empty people who proverbially cannot take any of it with us.  When we look to new things to cure our world we forget that it is our broken wills that guide our technologies.  What Jesus offers us is harder in the sense that it asks us to change ourselves and not (or not just) our circumstances but both better and easier in the sense that it is available to everyone – to, fittingly, the least of us.

One final complaint: if businessmen are the priests (or perhaps saints) of a religion that reduces humans to economic activity, that prizes efficiency, production, and consumption as its core values, what god do these priests worship?  My best answer is that the dread god of this religion is named the Economy and his priests cast auguries and divine his terrible will through a series of statistical indicators.  And so my final complaint: Jesus, in his mercy, reaches to each of us as valuable.  The economy, like so many aspects of our world, treats us only in aggregate.  In some real sense Christianity does not recognize the existence of these aggregates – there are only people.  Billions of people, yes, but God has time enough for all of them.  The economy is almost the other way around.  The economy exists but individuals are just data points without trend or average.

None of this must be this way.  It is perfectly possible to re-enslave our economic activity to God’s good designs.  It just seems that for much of our world the trend is running the other way.

Election Reflections

November 9, 2016

The election of Donald Trump seems to have been rather shocking for almost everyone I know.  Some people are surprised, some are angry, and almost no one I know both expected a Trump victory and wanted to see it happen (although I suspect that this is because I haven’t seen one particular set of friends yet).  I’ve already received an email asking if Jawbone will have some thoughts and, as it turns out, I do.  These are, by necessity, rapidly-composed thoughts, but here they are.

1. The word for this election is “capture”.

  1. First, there’s the capture of the American mind.  For months now I have watched political debates follow this formula: “Candidate A is terrible because X.”  Response: “Candidate B is terrible because Y.”  These responses in some very real way don’t make sense.  If I say that Bob is a robber pointing out that Stan is a carjacker isn’t a response so much as a mostly-irrelevant comment connected only by the theme of “crime”.  However, in a world in which one must choose Bob or Stan and only Bob or Stan any argument about the badness of Bob is an argument for choosing Stan.  Therefore, it might be countered as an argument for Stan by arguing against Stan.  The weirdness of these responses was driven home to me most clearly when a friend posted about legal proceedings against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a friend of his “countered” by complaining about the actions of someone associated with the Black Lives Matter movement.  Obviously for the friend of the friend (at the very least) Arpaio was a stand-in for conservatives/Republicans and BLM was a stand-in for liberals/Democrats.  Moreover, this argument was zero-sum.  Either Republicans “won” or Democrats did and so arguing against Democrats was the same as defending Republicans.  There wasn’t a world in which we agreed that people on both sides of the political divide could behave badly, or even that sometimes a single person could engage in both good and bad behavior.
    This is capture of the American mind.  I have, elsewhere, complained that politics has taken the place of religion as the all-encompassing system of values and this seems to be on display here.  The sides in this fight are each composed of a series of beliefs that do not necessarily hold together and yet we are all being asked to choose all the beliefs of one side.  It’s unclear to me why my position on free trade must align with the same candidate as my position on immigration but apparently they are supposed to.  This is even more difficult for me since no candidate has a position on immigration that I find acceptable.  However, such off-the-grid thinking is discouraged.  Our minds are to be caged in this simple T-maze where there are only two options.
    (As a long aside: there is a very real attempt to limit us to two options.  The scorn for people who do not vote is one sign of this.  Being completely disgusted with the system should result in a withdrawal of support but when it does you are likely to be plagued by friends who insist that there is no third way and that you cannot complain about the results of the election if you refused to support either candidate.  Third party voters get similar scorn from some quarters and in many ways are considered to be branches of the main parties as if they were some heterodox sect of the main religion.  This is consistent with my thesis that many people believe that the world naturally aligns itself along an American liberal-conservative axis and that worldviews that do not map cleanly on to this axis are just weird.)
    As a more esoteric note the replacement of transcendent community identification with identification along nation-state lines appears to be one of the core elements of the Enlightenment project’s realignment of the political landscape.
  2. Second, there’s the political capture of the evangelical vote.  This is really an aside into political theory but it’s my blog so you’ll have to live with that for a minute.  Political parties are coalitions of groups each of which has specific interests.  A group has been captured when it will vote so reliably with one party or the other that the home party of the group no longer has to make any concessions towards the special interests of the group.  A captured group can be more or less ignored by its coalition partners who can spend their resources courting less-reliable allies by meeting their demands.  Considerable discussion has occurred about whether the African-American vote has been captured by the Democratic party (a decision that hinges on whether the Democratic party is less responsive to the concerns of its African-American coalition partners than it is of its other partners) but this election seems to have shown that white evangelicals have been captured by the Republicans.  Donald Trump is one of the worst candidates the Republicans could have fielded in terms of meeting the standard demands of Christian conservatives and yet somewhere north of 4 in 5 white evangelicals voted for him.  It appears that as long as Republicans mutter “pro-life” once or twice they can do pretty much anything else and worry only about turning white evangelicals out, not turning them off.  The problem with being politically captured is that it represents a loss of political power.  If evangelical voters back candidates to influence politics for God’s good ends it seems that in many cases this deal has now thoroughly backfired.  Political capture lowers the ability of evangelicals to extract political concessions from their coalition partners and in the specific case of Donald Trump the action of supporting Trump appears to have lowered the standards of white evangelicals who are now much less concerned about the character of politicians than they were a few electoral cycles ago.
  3. Finally, there’s cultural capture.  I intend to write a free-standing article about this issue, which is hardly restricted to this election, but there’s reason to believe that this electoral cycle has demonstrated that the culture has eaten evangelicalism without nearly the stomachache is should have gotten from that.  The fact, noted above, that white and black evangelicals are sharply politically split certainly suggests that evangelicalism is less a distinct culture unto itself but a subset of other more powerful cultures.  I believe that it is inevitable that the reigning cultural paradigm will attempt to capture the dominant religion but it is unfortunate to see that it seems to have worked.

2. We are not God.  It is easy to be entranced (even captured) by the American vision of specialness.  Politicians invoke American exceptionalism and we invoke a sense of grand purpose and destiny in our lives.  However, it has not been entrusted to us to fix the world.  Our vision far exceeds our grasp and it is easy to see problems that we cannot fix and then fixate on them.  We have been called not to be super-special global heroes for good but to be God’s servants where we are.  I am called to serve my family, my friends, my students, my coworkers.  I am not called to stop the civil war in Syria (although I am called to take the actions that become available to me that might bring the world towards that goal).  I am not called to end the racial divide in the nation (although I am called to be an agent of God’s reconciliation where I live).  As Americans we can vote and these votes count.  This can make us feel that we must be able to solve the nation’s problems.  However, today I talked to two African women, each of whom comes from a different country with a fake democracy (i.e., there is voting but the same person will remain President regardless of what the votes say).  Are they less able to be Christian because their votes count for nothing in their home countries?  No – and simply because we can throw a drop in the ocean does not mean that God’s work for us is to change the ocean.  Indeed, it is possible that God does not have work for us in the sense of getting things accomplished so much as being the sort of people He has asked us to be, people full of love, mercy, justice, and compassion.  Perhaps these will have great effects on many people and perhaps they will only touch a few but it seems to me a strange form of modern works-righteousness to insist that our goodness must reach into the far corners of the world before it counts.

3. Trump won largely, it seems to me, by pulling support from one of the traditional Democratic coalition partners.  These would be the blue-collar, white, often union folks.  There has been a lot of talk about all the people Trump quite obviously does not care about but it’s worth pointing out that the Democrats lost the Electoral College (although not the popular vote) by abandoning people for whom the economy is not good and has not really been getting better.  In a world in which we had only two options we might object to this by pointing out Trump’s many faults but in the world enlightened by God’s love we should ask how to love everyone.  What does an economy look like that provides gainful employment for someone with a high school degree and nothing more?  Are we working out way towards an elite economy in which only those who can make it through years of post-secondary schooling can make a solid living?  I find Trump’s racism and misogyny horribly offensive but I am also troubled that we seem to be doing little for people whose jobs are being automated out of existence except mock them for their backwardness.

4. Practice builds character.  One of the most troubling things in this election has been that many people supported and then voted for someone they didn’t particularly like.  The act of defending someone not only influences other but also yourself.  When you say, “Such and such a thing is bad but not so bad,” you speak to yourself first and others second.  It’s rather clear from the sharp shift in how evangelicals perceive the importance of character in politicians that repeatedly saying that Trump’s character wasn’t an issue had an effect.  What other actions have people spent months defending that they probably shouldn’t have?

5. For my liberal friends who are amazed that the uninterrupted march of progress towards a tolerant society seems to have stepped backwards: Christianity has something to say to you, and it’s that evil is predictably common.  It’s not a rare aberration to be stamped out by careful teaching and, once eliminated, never to be seen again, but a pernicious, returning malignancy.  Only constant vigilance is ever a defense against evil, and even then evil is creative and multifaceted.  Personally, I find that both parties are unhelpfully sanctimonious in dispensing moral advice and are generally blind to their own deep moral flaws.  So remember that evil does not rest, and neither must you.  You cannot simply pledge loyalty to a movement and stay on board without constantly reflecting on its direction.  As I said in point #3 liberals probably lost this election by dropping former coalition partners in the crapper (probably at least moderately evil).  However, the loss of power is a pragmatic concern and we are, hopefully, motivated by love of God and not mere pragmatism when we engage in self-reflection.

The Language of Our Apologies

October 9, 2016

Since I seem incapable of getting a normal-length post out these days and since the second Presidential debate, which will generate all sorts of data for this article’s thesis, is on right now I am going to try to take a point I have been wanting to make at length for quite some time and make it briefly.  At least, more briefly than that sentence.

Everyone[1] operates within a moral language.  This isn’t to say that everyone takes morality seriously but that everyone has an idea of what morality is and has a way to speak about this.

This has two effects: first, the moral language a person uses may have little to nothing to do with their own morality.  Some people who are confident in their own morality will use their own moral language, but many people will instead attempt to adopt the moral language of their target audience.  This section was once intended to be much expanded as it explains many odd features of societies.  I’ve touched on the issue of religious wars before and this theory here explains why non-religious conflicts would be framed religiously.  It’s the moral language of that society.  Medieval Europe had a Catholic moral language and the medieval Middle East had an Islamic moral language.  Anyone justifying anything to anyone else in either of those societies could be expected to draw upon religious moral language.  Similarly, after the USSR enshrined a moral language based on Marxism a number of decidedly non-Marxist decisions were made and justified in Marxist terms.  Why?  Because people reach for the moral language of their society (or cultural splinter) to justify things, whatever those things actually are.

Second, if you want to understand the moral language of a culture you can’t do much better than listen to immoral people justifying their immorality or being berated for it.  Moral language is the language of a quasi-legal discourse and if you want to listen to legal discourse you need to listen to legal cases.

For instance, a number of celebrities have had to apologize for bad behavior that occurred while drinking.  In many cases they have defended their actions by pointing out that they were drinking.  This suggests that the idea of morality they are appealing to is one where their actions are morally worse than being drunk.  When Akio Toyoda issued a public apology for faults in Toyota cars he discussed how the issues with the vehicles damaged his name.  While I don’t pretend to understand Japanese culture well that’s the sort of statement that feels very Japanese to me – it’s framed in terms of honor.  However, I also don’t know exactly how it functions, and so its presence speaks of a moral language that I’m unfamiliar with.

Where this ties back to tonight’s main event (the second Presidential debate) is that politicians are constantly defending themselves on the campaign trail and in doing so give us an idea of what sort of moral values they think their constituents have.  While I have generally found this political season to be horrible it has also been a fascinating window into American moral values (which differ between parties).



[1] Feral children might be an exception.  Might be.  People who live in societies have moral languages.

The Pope and Climate Change

June 23, 2015

On June 18th Pope Francis issued an encyclical on climate change in which he said that climate change was caused by humans (at least primarily), caused harm, and should be addressed. The encyclical’s main ideas had floated around for months before that and a leaked draft of the encyclical appeared the Monday before the official release. The encyclical creates an interesting issue for conservative American politicians, many of whom play up their Christian faith and also deny climate change (or at least that it is human-caused).

One of the standard lines is that the Pope is just out of line to issue an encyclical on this issue. Jeb Bush said that religion, “ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting into the political realm.” Rick Santorum criticized the Pope for speaking on science and suggested leaving science to the scientists. Months ago I heard a conservative commentator on a news show make the claim that the Pope should stay out of politics and focus on religion when asked to comment about news of this encyclical. This general idea has clearly been widely adopted – but it’s crazy.

Now, one common criticism of these claims is that people like Bush and Santorum have been pretty up-front about mixing their religion and politics before. Backing off now seems hypocritical[1]. The reason I won’t be discussing this criticism further is that it isn’t a criticism of the argument per se but of the arguer. However, the arguments are all terrible in the abstract and I wish to demonstrate that, not that politicians are (surprise!) hypocrites. So, here are a few of the counter-arguments.

1) The Pope is not deciding an issue of science. While conservative American politicians like to pretend that climate change is the center of some active scientific debate it really isn’t. It’s the center of a debate that takes place mostly between scientists and non-scientists. While there are scientists who don’t believe that the earth’s (demonstrable) climate change is caused by humans they are in a small minority and are concentrated in less-relevant fields[2]. Furthermore, the scientists who argue against the majority position now aren’t arguing that the world isn’t warming (which they used to) but that humans aren’t causing the warming. At the level of general overview it would appear that the case for the majority viewpoint is only getting better.

Imagine, for a second, that the Pope accepted Rick Santorum’s admonition to leave science to the scientists and that the Pope wished to know about climate change. The only way for him to do this (without doing science himself) would be to see what scientists think and so he would quite easily decide that the earth is warming because of human activity – the majority of scientists think so and the viewpoint has been gaining strength. So the Pope isn’t actively weighing in on science, he’s allowing scientists to tell him what they think (unlike people like Santorum, who is a politician doing science) and then making comments about this.

2) The Pope is a politician. Vatican City is its own country. The Pope is a head of state. Now, one could ask that the Pope stay out of American politics in much the same way that the Chinese routinely ask America to stay out of Chinese politics but that line is fuzzier than asking the Pope to stay out of politics entirely since the Pope is also the head of an organization that owns land and has employees all across the world.

3) It is the Pope’s job to talk to us about climate change. And it’s his job to talk to us about the Internet, determinism, the sexual revolution, the tensions between India and Pakistan, the economic policies of the IMF, and hundreds of other things. The whole idea of the Pope is that the Pope (and his various advisors) study the world we live in and issue guidance to Catholics based on theological and moral precepts. When one says, “What is the Catholic view on competing on reality television contest shows?” the Pope is the final answer to that. And to do that the Pope must learn about the world we live in order to evaluate it in a moral and theological context. This means that when one says, “Should Catholics act to prevent climate change?” the Pope is also the final answer to that. When the Pope speaks about issues in the modern world he is doing exactly what he is there to do – to explain how ancient Christianity speaks to a changing world.

4) The distinctions that are key to these various arguments against the Pope’s issuance of the encyclical are imaginary. This is the counter-argument that I regard as actually interesting and the reason to write an article about this whole issue. The first three counter-arguments play ball by the same rules that the original arguers use. They recognize a private sphere of religion, a separate sphere of politics, and another sphere of science. They work by asserting either that the Pope isn’t encroaching on foreign territory or that it is actually his job to do so. This fourth counter-argument is different: it insists that the rules that the original arguers have established are the wrong rules.

Jeb Bush provides a great example of this when he says that religion should make us better as people but avoid the political realm. How does anyone do that? Being better people can’t be a private activity. Sure, you can have better thoughts or better prayers but it should also cause you to care more about others and to care more that society is structured in a just and kind manner. Christians have insisted that their care for others should result in political action everywhere from abolition and prison reform to abortion.

The problem that politicians are trying to dance around is that the Enlightenment political project is based on a fictional universe in which everything is neatly categorized in non-interacting boxes (something I discuss partway through this article). A politician can’t deny the Enlightenment fiction (it would be political suicide in a multicultural society, and a terrible idea in said society even aside from political aspirations) but in reality religion makes requests of politicians that cross the boundaries of those boxes. When the Pope says that climate change is a threat to humans (especially the world’s poor) and that Christians should care about this he’s made a claim that crosses from the Enlightenment box of private religion into boxes with labels like “economics” and “politics”. This is extremely dangerous for a politician who wants to appear pro-Catholic. Do you listen to the Pope (thereby denying the Enlightenment’s non-interacting boxes) or do you respect the imaginary boxes and deny the Pope?

One of the major issues with the Enlightenment fiction is that it diminishes moral authority. Here the Pope has tried to exert his moral authority to protect the world’s poor and has been criticized for it on the basis of imaginary fences that somehow prevent us from having to ask moral questions about our economic and political policies. This is, frankly, a terrible idea. We cannot grant sections of our world immunity from moral criticism.

One final lens to view this through: the divine right of kings. This is, oddly, both an admission that there are no clear divisions between aspects of the world and also the beginning of the Enlightenment project. A lot of people seem to think that the Church invented the divine right of kings. Actually, kings invented the divine right of kings to fight the Church (especially the Pope). The idea was that a king had been appointed by God and so the king could speak to religious issues and the Pope couldn’t interfere. The conflict is a simple one: religion claims to describe the nature of reality and define what is meaningful in life which gives it effective dominion over everything.  Politics claims the same dominion since it runs everything.  This is the strange way that the divine right of kings begins the Enlightenment project. The king (later the state) claims dominion over all things and then grants other entities (like religions, academies, and individuals) limited jurisdiction. These boxes aren’t part of the nature of the world but of the nature of the state. Of course the Pope will come into conflict with politicians. This isn’t because the Pope is going off and “doing politics” but because politics and religion are locked in a turf war. When politicians criticize the Pope for doing politics they simply asserting their claim to the contested turf.


[1] It’s also remotely possible that these people have changed their minds. They haven’t said so but we do actually need to be more open to the idea of politicians changing their minds. The current attitude that any change of mind is wishy-washy flip-flopping is an attitude that prevents politicians from doing important things like expressing personal growth or learning from mistakes.

[2] This isn’t to say that there are no dissenters within the ranks of climate scientists. However, there are a few dissenters in every field. To find large numbers of scientists who don’t think that the climate is changing because of human activity one has to leave the fields of science that are relevant to climate science. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to see lists of climate change skeptics that are padded with medical doctors. Yes, medical doctors have a lot of training, and it is sort of like science. But none of it is about climate – it’s all focused around the human body.

Bad Public Morals

June 18, 2015

There is a general evangelical and fundamentalist sentiment that public morals have collapsed. I do not share this sentiment for a variety of reasons but I believe both generally and theologically that public morals are terrible. It’s merely that they always have been, which is what we should expect since humans are drawn towards evil and oppression like a dying star to a black hole (with similar end results). However, since I last wrote here (shortly after Easter – perhaps my own morals concerning the prompt updating of blogs have collapsed) several major public incidents involving morality have become hot news items. Ironically, one of them was the fall from grace of a family who was quite convinced that everyone else’s morality was faulty. However, one of the more recent incidents, now imaginatively termed the “McKinney Pool Incident” (at least it’s not McKinney-Poolgate) continues a fairly long-running discourse in recent American social consciousness about policing, especially the way in which black people seem to be the targets of unusual levels of police violence. If this issue is foreign to you (perhaps because you don’t live in the US) or not of interest to you there’s no need to read further.

Why would I, on a Christian blog, discuss policing? One of the issues that should interest Christians is how we make moral decisions as a society. The discussion about policing is full of fallacies and bad moral reasoning. Moreover, while I will be treating relatively specific claims in this article these sorts of failures of reasoning are common to all sorts of claims about public morals.

I will assume that if you’re at all interested in this article you are already familiar with the basics of this public discussion. If you aren’t go read up on it elsewhere – I will be jumping right into analysis. Specifically, I will start with a list of terrible justifications I have heard from people who support the police actions that have been called into question. This is largely because I will stick to real arguments I have actually heard and while I gather that there are some crazy people suggesting (and enacting) violent retaliation against the police for these actions I don’t know any. I will, however, deal with them briefly when I discuss the main reasons that people make bad moral decisions in these cases. Without further ado, here’s a short list of bad arguments:

Bad argument #1) Some people are violent towards the police. They should stop and then the police can afford to be nicer.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: “Some people”. Violent police responses to actual violence don’t draw public outcry. What draws public outcry is when the police response is out of proportion to the violence the officer faces. You don’t get to shoot me because Bob once shot at you.

Bad argument #2) Some (perhaps many) of the people who are subject to police violence in these incidents have police records or were caught committing minor crimes, or sometimes just being stupid. If they had not committed crimes/acted in a smarter manner nothing bad would have happened to them.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: We could play this argument for anything bad. If you hadn’t built your house in Kansas you probably wouldn’t have been killed by a tornado. If you hadn’t walked down that street you wouldn’t have gotten mugged. In fact, people use these arguments a lot when the crime is rape and are (quite justifiably) condemned for doing so. The question isn’t whether the person who gets hurt could have changed their behavior in any way to avoid it (because they almost always could have in almost every circumstance, at least if you granted them the ability to see the future) but whether what happened to them is a just result given their crime or mistake.

Bad argument #3) The police do hard, dangerous jobs and we have to give them the latitude needed to protect themselves.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: The hard, dangerous job the police do is protect us. When the police need “latitude” to hurt us to protect themselves this is actually a request to turn police into criminals.

Bad argument #4) You wouldn’t want to live in a world without police.

Reason why it’s a bad argument: True, and irrelevant. I also wouldn’t want to live in a police state. Neither would you. We all want a middle ground between anarchy and brutal control.

Bad argument #5) Black people are far, far more likely to be killed by other black people than by the police so why aren’t we focusing on that?

Reason why it’s a bad argument: We’ve already decided that the problem of people being killed by criminals is so serious that we’ve set up a force of people paid for by taxes to stop criminals. We call this force the police force. If that force becomes a problem in its own right who do we call? (Additionally, this argument often focuses on race but every race is most likely to be killed by their own race because you’re most likely to be killed by someone you know or live by, and that ends up meaning “people of the same race and socio-economic status as you” in most American cities.)

These five arguments fall into four major categories of larger failures to do good moral reasoning. All five arguments fall into the trap of tribalism. #2 overestimates our control of the world. #3 fails to consider the nature of heroism. #3 and #5 fail to understand responsibility.

Let’s start with tribalism, which also provides the background for the crazy people who now hate all police because some police are demonstrably bad. (I’ve seen some police brutality statistics and they vary quite a bit from place to place – any argument that assumes all police are good or all police are bad contradicts the data.) Tribalism seeks to identify bad guys and good guys by simple markers. The first four arguments all treat the police as a monolithic tribe who we as the tribe “non-criminals” (and normally “white non-criminals”) want to see win against some equally-monolithic opposing tribe. Argument #1 treats everyone else in the world who in any way opposes the police as that monolithic tribe whose members are all as guilty as the worst members. #2 treats everyone who has committed any sort of crime as the same (and, again, assigns a high level of guilt not a low one). #3 only makes sense if the police are expected to lump everyone they deal with together. #5 lumps black people together into a tribe and insists that within-tribal violence is more serious than out-of-tribe violence. The problem is that tribalism just doesn’t reflect the real world. Every police officer has their own record and behavior and so does every person they run into. However, tribalism is an easy trap that runs a huge amount of our public dialog. It’s much easier to treat everyone in the public space by assigning them to a few dozen groups than it is to learn about them specifically. I’ve treated tribalism in more detail elsewhere so I will wrap what could be a much longer set of thoughts up by noting that it doesn’t work any better here than it does in any of the other situations where I’ve criticized it.

I also claimed that argument #2 overestimates our control of the world. One reason we love to make up explanations in which people have bad things happen to them because of their own actions is because this is a narrative in which we can prevent bad things by acting correctly. If someone dies of a heart attack because they ate too much fast food (and not because they were dealt bad genes) then heart attacks are safe – we know how to keep them at bay. If we admit that bad policing could strike us that’s scary. It’s easier to make up a scenario in which we are in control even though the real scenarios that we are looking at are ones in which someone is hurt because they have so little control. In essence, we can end up blaming other people because it makes us feel safer.

Argument #3 fails to understand heroism. One of the worst counters I’ve seen to the claims about police brutality is the “Police lives matter” campaign which is (extremely tribally) meant to counter the “Black lives matter” campaign. The problem is that our society is in general agreement that police (and firefighters, and EMTs, etc) are heroes and that their lives matter. There are roads and bridges named after police officers killed in the line of duty. There’s no audience (beyond criminals who care about the lives of almost no one else) who need to be convinced that police lives matter. We all seem to be clear on the idea that police work is dangerous but good and therefore heroic. The problem is that there are two models of heroism we could draw on. One is essentially tribal – heroes fight for us and as long as they are doing that what really matters is that they win, the more decisively the better. The more danger, and the more opponents the hero beats, the more heroism (perfectly in line with argument #3 – the hero needs latitude to win even more decisively and therefore heroically). The other version (what I will call the correct version in an attempt not to bias anyone) is that heroism involves facing danger on someone else’s behalf. In this version putting others in danger to increase one’s own dangerousness is anti-heroic and so arguments about the police needing to be allowed to be occasionally excessive with force in order to protect themselves are arguments that the heroes should sometimes get to be villains in order to keep being heroic. This version simply doesn’t allow argument #3 to make any sense.

Arguments #3 and #5 also fail to understand the nature of responsibility. By focusing on the role of the police as the people who get the bad guys we can lose sight of the actual job of the police – to protect us. That’s the primary responsibility of the police. Imagine the following insane scenario: there’s a town with a one-way portal to a vast uninhabited land. A criminal kills someone and makes a run for the portal. The police chasing the criminal come across a terrible accident where many people’s lives are at risk. If they stop and help the accident victims the criminal will escape through the portal and be gone forever. If they chase the criminal some of the accident victims will die. Under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility the police should chase the criminal. Under the “protect the people” model of responsibility they should help the accident victims – the portal is one-way and no one lives beyond it so the criminal’s escape threatens no one. It’s also only under the “get the bad guy” model of responsibility that argument #3 or #5 make sense. If the police are there to protect the people it’s a very serious issue if they become a threat to the people. Criminals are always a threat and that’s why we have police but if the police are a threat what do we do? (Who guards the guardians, to ask the question in a much older form.) Police brutality becomes the opposite of policing.

I started this article by promising to examine the way public moral decisions are being made and that the answer would be “badly”. These examples are, of course, just one debate. However, the public moral reasoning on offer includes tribalism (on both sides), a desire to control the world that is so strong that we blame the victims rather than admit that we don’t control the world, an idea of heroism derived from action movies, and an idea of responsibility with similar origins. Needless to say, I think Christian moral thought can (and should) do better than this. Christianity insists that Christ sees through all sorts of tribal barriers that we erect. It insists that God, not us, controls the world and that attempting to control the world can be fundamentally idolatrous. The model we see in Christ is of self-sacrificing heroism aimed at lifting up the broken, something vastly different than notching up wins in fights.

Unfortunately, Christians haven’t done a great job with this particular moral issue. I heard arguments #2-#5 from other Christians (and I don’t know the religious affiliation of the people I heard make argument #1). White Christians don’t tend to do a great job with any issue that deals with race. I hope that one day this will change. I hope that one day Christians can be a voice for better public moral discourse.


This is really almost a separate sub-article. However, I write these articles well in advance. This one has been cooking along for about a week with me making tweaks, adjusting arguments, and generally editing things until I liked it enough to post it. And, as it happens, I’m posting it on a day when we’re hearing about how a suspected white supremacist sympathizer shot up a black church killing multiple people. I simply can’t not add a comment or two about this.

Racism is a terrible and pervasive form of tribalism. For the shooter in the incident I just mentioned “white” became a tribal affiliation at war with every other tribe. Racism is so pervasive and hard to get rid of because tribalism is so natural to humans (even though it’s morally terrible). It’s just so easy for our brains to find patterns that don’t really exist that categorize humans into simple groups based on easily-seen characteristics. It’s part of human nature to find a group that we fit in and attempt to make it “win” against other groups. It is insufficient to sit by and passively do good by avoiding direct evil. Those of us who are white must identify with our brothers and sisters who are black and see their problems the way we see those of our white friends and neighbors. If we accept a society where white people look out for white people and black people look out for black people with very occasional and passive help from white people we are accepting a society in which the problems of race won’t be solved anytime soon. Paul did not consider it enough that Christians from a Jewish background might generally agree that Gentiles could become Christians too. He said they must eat together, fellowship together, pray together, and care for one another. I suspect Paul would look at our functionally-segregated American churches and proclaim us a failure.

I will add that if your reaction to this incident was, “How could this happen in 2015?” you need to re-read that last paragraph. I’m not surprised this happened. I’m horrified, but I hear enough about pervasive, low-level racism from the African-Americans I know that I’m simply not surprised to see evidence that the extreme ends of the American distribution of racist ideas includes people who would shoot up a black church. Frankly, I think you have to live in a pretty white (or highly sanitized) world to be truly surprised by this.

I may comment more about this in another article. For now, let us pray for those who lost friends and family, for those so consumed by hate that they would kill other people because of the color of their skin, and for the blindness that prevents our society from facing this issue and dealing with it properly.

The Grand Recap

June 14, 2015

I know that this blog has been quiet for a while causing some of you to believe that this was the quiet of the grave. It’s not, although I’m realizing how little time I really have to spend on this blog with my other commitments. However, I’m working on some additional articles right now and I hope to get some real content up soon. While I did this I re-read a lot of the archives to see what I’ve discussed to death and what I haven’t covered. And so I think it’s worth sharing some general observations about the material I’ve posted on this blog over the years as I prepare to get my act back together.

1) I was surprised to note that in two articles I was searching for a creature that represented complete non-comprehension and both times I independently decided on hamsters. I owned a hamster as a child. I guess he didn’t strike me as any too bright.

2) Perhaps like Tolkien I don’t seem to care much for machines either. (For those of you who missed the Tolkien reference there’s a short bit of dialog in the Two Towers where Treebeard pejoratively describes Saruman as having a “mind of metal and wheels”. This is an excellent insult and I have a number of people I would like to apply it to.) A few examples are here, here, here, and here.

3) The three most popular posts of all time (by pageviews) are Women and Marriage in the Old Testament, A Man in the Land of Uz: Job I, and Women in Ancient Israel. These appear to be popular because it’s hard to find information on the Internet about women in ancient Israel/the Old Testament or about Uz. While it’s lovely to be doing well in some tiny niche these are hardly my favorite articles. In fact, one of my favorite articles I’ve ever written (What is Salvation?, which involved a crazy metaphor about fish) is ranked dead last in pageviews. It’s so low I don’t believe the numbers (there are literally less pageviews than people who wrote comments) and I think it must just have been published and viewed before most of the record-keeping that WordPress does. This article also happens to host the longest comment section of any article ever. This is unfortunate because it’s the sort of comment thread that makes you wish you’d just punched yourself in the face to use up that time instead.

4) “What is Salvation?” isn’t the only early post that continues to have echoes in my more recent ones. Three other posts written within the first six months of this blog’s existence that say things I continue to say (in one case in a departmental meeting last semester) are Two Questions, Glory, full of Grace and Truth, and Personhood.  I should point out that those are posts written and also published within the first six months of this blog’s existence. Like a large crocodile waiting just below the water’s surface I play for the long-haul. There’s a draft in my Posts bin in the admin Dashboard that I wrote in February of 2011 that continues to be held back to be the starting article for an entire enormous series I haven’t written. I published the Inerrancy series in September of 2013 and yet I knew I intended to write it and was laying the groundwork for it when I wrote the very first post of this blog in January of 2010.

5) Speaking of series, I’ve neatened up the blog categories so that every series[1] has its own category tag, There are between 19 and 21 series depending on how you count them (one series has a sub-series). However, not all series are created equal. A number of series are two articles but Women in the Bible is a mega-series of 27 articles and nowhere near done. (In point #4 I mention another series I have planned. This is also a mega-series and won’t happen until I finish Women in the Bible. Your grandchildren will enjoy reading its opening article as it posts, I’m sure.)

6) This blog also exemplifies some of the strange contradictions that make me who I am. The massive data-dumps of articles like Bloody Souls, The Spirits of All Life, Let Us Reason Together, I Feel it in My Kidneys, the entire Canon series, A Bad Answer is Worse than No Answer: Kephale and Authority 1, the entire Diakonoi, Presbuteroi, and Episkopoi series, Gehenna, She’ol, HaTaniynim (התנינמ), Judges, and Polygamy (which includes the line “I was able to locate twenty-seven characters in the Bible who are unambiguously polygynous…”) are probably why this blog has such a low readership (that and my recent inability to keep a schedule). However, they are also the works of a man who would like all the data in the world, the flicker of every firefly, the heartbeat of every whale, and the growth rate of every blade of grass normalized for a series of twenty-seven climatic variables. However, some of my very favorite articles are very, very different. What Do I Believe?, Grace for the wicked?, and We Didn’t Know it was You. I wish I could write the second sort of article all the time but I can’t. Sure, I could throw some crazy words together but I can’t always see a thing to describe to you in such an orthogonal way.

One of the reasons the articles hear haven’t been better, or more frequent, is exactly this lack of vision. I can still see the harsh bleeding edge that Neiztche calls “the will to power” and the great offense of the cross that subsumes this power in love. But the thing that lights up my mind like a nuclear flare and then wipes clean what it once made clear? The thing you grasped when you awoke from your dream and understood everything for a frail, fleeting second in which the sky rolled back and the all the gears of the world were laid bare for your understanding? The thing that propels me to write articles like Talking is not Knowing, Here Be Dragons: A Carthography of Mysticism, or Inerrancy Part III: What We Cannot Speak Of? If I saw that better we’d have better articles. Instead, you get a hamster attempting to explain calculus to you.

7) You can’t have gotten this far without detecting my strange sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me in trouble. I still get weird emails about Reading the Bible like it’s Science Fiction. I frequently suspect that the authors haven’t really managed to read the article in any genre. Other times it just produces some of my favorite article titles. There’s no way I can end this recap without mentioning Your Best Life Martyred or In Which the Baby Jesus Fights Santa Claus.

Much like John the Evangelist (but with fewer literary critics) I think seven is the right number of divisions to stop at. New content will come soon, because whatever else has changed in my life and made it harder to write I still think that Scripture is Beautiful.

However, just like John (and Tolkien) get to end the story twice I’ll end for real by saying that our sidebar of blog-friends needs cleanup. I know some of what we currently link to isn’t active. If you link to us and would like a link back (and aren’t crazy – I know at least one of our incoming links is) tell me.

[1] Defined as a minimum of two articles which are directly linked either by their title, by originally being a single composition, or by being incomplete on their own with the intention being to finish the whole thought in another article. It is necessary that this recap have at least one footnote since those have also been a long-running feature of my articles (and it’s even more fitting that this is a methodological footnote). Unfortunately, footnotes still don’t import properly into WordPress and so every footnote you’ve ever seen has been manually re-coded after WordPress screwed it up.

Good Thursday?

April 8, 2015

This Easter my father-in-law asked me if I was familiar with the arguments for believing that Jesus was crucified on Thursday instead of Friday. I was only vaguely familiar with this subject and promptly looked it up. It’s not even remotely difficult to find this claim. Search “Good Thursday” on any decent search engine and you’ll get plenty of hits. What is odd, though, is that almost none of the articles you turn up will argue against the idea. Think about this for a minute: most churches who mark liturgical time in any serious way mark Good Friday. Some churches even have special services or other religious obligations on that day. Despite this, it is much easier to find people arguing for the minority claim than the majority one. What’s going on?

The first answer is that the claim that Jesus was crucified on Thursday (or any other day except Friday) never seem to have made it out into the larger denomination ecosystem. Perusing the articles on the issue I began to recognize the sorts of subtle tells (largely word choices and a fondness for using the KJV) that suggest that many of the articles were written by people coming from a particular sub-section of the Protestant world. Many of the people who might argue most vociferously for Good Friday have probably never heard the Good Thursday claim.

However, the issue is much more interesting than that. Having reviewed the evidence I have decided that the Good Thursday claim is pretty badly supported and rests on a series of intelligent-looking mistakes. I am fond of finding intelligent-looking mistakes because these are the ones that fool most people. Mistakes that are obviously stupid are much more easily avoided.

Let’s start with the reasons for making the Good Thursday claim. There are two reasons to even start down this path. The first, and most often explicitly mentioned, is that Jesus says in Matthew 12:40 that the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Attempting to get three days and three nights out of a Friday death and a Sunday morning resurrection is pretty much impossible. The second reason is that combining John’s chronology with the chronology found in the other gospels supports the Good Thursday interpretation.

The first reason, the count of days and nights, is actually deeply problematic. The prediction “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” is known as the sign of Jonah. Jesus refers to it in this manner in the verse right before the one just quoted and also references it in Matthew 16:4 and also Luke 11:29. In neither of these other instances is an exact count of days given and in Luke the sign may actually consist of something entirely different as the discussion is about how Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites (none of whom are recorded in the book of Jonah as having witnessed Jonah getting barfed out of a giant fish). On its own this would be weak evidence – Matthew 16 may leave of the day count since it was covered in Matthew 12 and Luke 11 may leave off the day count because a different point was being made about Jonah. However, it remains that there are three mentions of a sign of Jonah and only one contains this three day and three night claim. There are, however, eleven instances in the New Testament where Jesus is predicted to rise/said to have risen on the third day. Three times in Matthew (16:21, 17:23, and 20:19) and three times in Luke (9:22, 13:32, and 18:33) Jesus predicts his death and resurrection and states that he will rise on the third day[1]. Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection on the third day (using those words) is also mentioned in Matthew 27:64 and Luke 24:7. In Luke 24:46 (post-resurrection) Jesus explains that the Scriptures said that he would rise on the third day. Finally, Acts 10:40 and 1 Corinthians 15:54 state that Jesus was raised on the third day.

The issue here is that you can’t both be raised on the third day and also be dead for even parts of three days and three nights without being killed at night. (Night 1, Day 1, Night 2, Day 2, Night 3, Day 3 and resurrection.) Since Jesus’ death is pretty clearly placed in the day this gives us no option for making the two ways of counting time reconcile – Jesus will be raised during day three before night three. Any attempt to shift the chronology of Jesus’ death from Friday to Thursday to get three days and three nights to protect the count given in Matthew 12:40 throws off eleven other verses.

Now, it is clear from reading some of the pro-Good Thursday articles that some of the authors are worried that atheists will claim that the three days and three nights discrepancy invalidates the Bible. I will point out that any atheist attempting such a tactic is faced with several problems. Firstly, the actual problem is that the book of Matthew itself contains two irreconcilable time predictions. Secondly, this is a magical contradiction – the fact that both counts exist in the same book indicate strongly that the original readers assumed that one of the counts of days (probably the one only mentioned once) was a loose allusion to the Old Testament and not a precise estimate.

As I mentioned earlier there is also the matter of John’s chronology. This is, I think, a far better argument since it involves a careful reading of John’s gospel and an attempt to tie it in to the other accounts rather than careless reading of a single verse. However, the problem here is also quite pronounced. John’s gospel is (usefully) very clear on when Jesus was crucified. In John 19:14 we learn that Jesus’ trial before Pilate is wrapping up at about noon on the Day of Preparation before Passover. In one regard this is the same chronology as is found in the Synoptics (the name for the other three gospels): these gospels also record that Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation. However, Matthew 26:17 tells us that on the first day of unleavened bread Jesus’ disciples ask him where he wishes to eat the Passover, placing the Passover meal prior to Jesus’ trial. Some articles advocating for Good Thursday suggest that Jesus ate Passover early and was then killed the following day when other Jews were preparing for Passover (which would have begun at sundown of that day). If this were all of our data that would make some sense although it would be very odd for someone to eat the Passover early since the commands in Exodus 12 regarding the Passover are strict about the timing. It would also require us to ignore the most natural reading for “the first day of unleavened bread” which is that it is the first day of the feast of unleavened bread, which is Passover, and assume that it actually meant the first day on which leavened bread was banned, the day after the Passover meal. One site making this claim points out that the Greek reads “the first day of unleavened bread” and not, as most English translations say, “the first day of the feast of unleavened bread”. However, this is a weak case. We say “the Feast of Unleavened Bread” because we are unfamiliar with it. In fact, in some places English translations will also say “the Feast of Passover” when the Greek just says “Passover”. People who are familiar with the names of holidays generally don’t feel obliged to add adjectives reminding their audience what the type of holiday it is.

Moreover, both Mark and Luke add additional detail. In Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7 we run across the same “the first day of unleavened bread” formula but also a note that this is when the Passover lamb was traditionally killed/must be sacrificed. This is not a note about the behavior of Jesus and his disciples but a note about a point of time within the calendar of Jewish feasts and it clearly places the Last Supper on Passover. Mark 15:42 adds another important note by saying that Jesus died on the Preparation Day before the Sabbath. So, while all four gospels agree that Jesus died on Preparation Day they disagree on which Preparation Day (since Passover is also a Sabbath, although not always a Saturday). The chronology in John’s gospel has Jesus dying on the day before Passover (during the time period when the Passover lambs were slaughtered) and rising on Sunday (thankfully, all four gospels clearly mark the resurrection as “the first day of the week”, an unambiguous way to indicate the day we now call Sunday). This places Passover on Saturday (with the meal after sundown on Friday), making Passover a High Sabbath on a regular Sabbath. The Synoptic chronology has Passover happening on Friday (with the meal after sundown on Thursday) which makes Passover fall on what would normally be the Day of Preparation for the normal Sabbath.

There are two viable options that I see. One adopts the same fast-and-loose approach to the time of Passover exhibited by some of the articles that I criticize here. However, instead of assuming that Jesus celebrated Passover early we might assume that some Jews figured that since Passover fell on Friday they’d just celebrate it on the Sabbath that was already coming on the next day. This would have some Jews (perhaps hard-core traditionalists) celebrating when Jesus (who was a rabbi, after all) did while other Jews, perhaps laxer Jews who felt that they couldn’t afford to take two days off work in one week, celebrated Passover a day late on the normal Sabbath. This allows both versions of events to be entirely true – there were lambs being sacrificed for Passover on the day that Jesus told his disciples to prepare the Last Supper and also on the day when he died. The other option is just to assume that one chronology isn’t right. Now, this probably worries some people a lot but John’s chronology often doesn’t match that of the Synoptics and I’m not entirely convinced that John’s chronology is meant to be chronological rather than topical. (This appears to be an allowable way to handle chronology in some ancient histories.) Moreover, both accounts agree on a substantial amount of chronological details: Jesus died on a Day of Preparation and was raised on the third day which was Sunday. The argument is exactly when Passover fell amongst all of this and the disagreement amounts to one day’s difference. Eyewitness of events that happened last month can differ more than that.

While this is already a lengthy article there is one more issue of interest to me. It turns out that the Good Friday tradition is quite old. Justin Martyr (First Apology, Chapter LXVII, early second century) says that Jesus was crucified on Friday. The reason I find this interesting is that the rejection of the Good Friday tradition is the rejection of a very old tradition. However, it does not provide a very good explanation of where the Good Friday tradition came from at this early date. If, as I have argued, Jesus was crucified on Friday the tradition comes from receiving that information from those who knew about it or (since I think it’s not that hard to figure the chronology out from the gospels) deriving it from Scripture. The incorrect idea, Good Thursday, would come from people trying to deal with the sign of Jonah, but not very well, and this is why it is both recent and relatively poorly-known. If the Good Thursday people are right then presumably the church began knowing this and Justin would have had to be unaware of this despite very active engagement with Christian theology and writing, indicating that this knowledge had been more or less entirely forgotten. This is an odd claim, although not a lethal one, and it demonstrates one of the reasons I am hesitant to challenge traditions that date to within only a generation or so of the apostles.

What is a lethal blow to the Good Thursday theory is the chronology found in Luke and Mark concerning the timing of Passover relative to the Last Supper and the widespread agreement that, despite the sign of Jonah, Jesus was raised on the third day and not after three days and three nights had passed.

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