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Are the Jedi Religious?

May 4, 2018

One of my persistent claims is that “religion” and “gods” are not all that clear-cut. I’m working on another post that will revisit this and attempt to tease apart why the specific history of the West has made us liable to accept these divisions of the world as real, but for Star Wars day (May the Fourth) I thought I would do something a little different. Star Wars is well-enough known that it can be discussed without assuming too much special knowledge. It also involves something that is, in some of the movies, called “the Jedi religion”. Since the movies are partly the work of George Lucas and, now, partly the work of others the Jedi religion might be a plausible candidate for a modern, Western idea of religion. So, are the Jedi “religious”? In what ways, and what does this tell us about the illusory beast known as religion?

We should first ask a more basic question: does Force-use make one religious? The Jedi aren’t the only Force-users in the Sta Wars universe. The Sith are also notable Force-users, and recent movies indicate that there are a number of Force-users that are neither Jedi nor Sith. (This itself is probably the result of the religious views of the creators of the new movies. Since the Force is basically synonymous with importance and coolness in Star Wars and being a Jedi is religious, while being Sith is evil, the introduction of non-Jedi, non-Sith Force-users into the movie canon allows for a tolerant, religious pluralism in which everyone can be cool. These same views also show up in the “wise” sayings of some of the characters who are canonically supposed to be wise, and stand out by making them sound more like someone who watched a lot of self-help-themed daytime TV than anyone wise.) It is possible that Force-use alone is sufficient to make someone religious and that the Jedi are religious because they are Force-users. However, it’s also possible that Force-use is not inherently religious but that the Jedi still manage to be religious.

The two most ridiculous ways that Force-use by itself could make one religious are as follows. First, the Force is kind of spooky. It’s supernatural, except that “supernatural” is another one of these extremely loaded words that turns out to mean next to nothing. (Problematically, once the existence of something is no longer a point of debate it ceases to be supernatural and becomes an unexplained phenomenon.) Point of fact, the Force is “supernatural” in the sense that it is “super natural”, being in some sense an expression of the nature of the universe. It is also supernatural in being beyond nature, but if “religious” just means “involved with something I think is kind of mystical” then it’s time to take the word out back and bury it.

Second, the Force could be questionably real. Admittedly, Force-use in the Star Wars universe is hardly subtle or uncommon (in the movies) but it seems that there remain people who are unconvinced of the Force’s reality. (Although in the case of Darth Vader’s famous quote, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” the subject of faith may be the efficacy of the Force as compared to the Death Star and not whether the Force exists. Presumably Grand Moff Tarkin is clear on the reality of the Force given that Vader uses it to choke him.) Perhaps Force-use is religious simply because it involves trust in a reality that is not universally believed in. However, this would also make a large number of healthy living practices religious and so it would be nice to have a better basis for the claim.

The third reason that all Force-use could be considered religious is not nearly so poorly thought-out. The Force appears to have a will. This means that the Force might be some sort of reasonably impersonal god. In this case Force-use could be considered theism.

However, the will of the Force is frequently irrelevant. I cannot think of a single incident in the movies in which the Force decided it didn’t like something someone was doing and stopped them. Want to shoot someone with lightning? You don’t need the Force’s permission first. It won’t step in because it likes the guy you’re about to shoot and deny you that power. Instead, the Force’s will seems to relate to the Force’s power either not at all or only in the few actions the Force itself seems to take, like, perhaps, granting the capability to have Force powers to sentient beings.

The Force is, 99% of the time, a collection of superpowers. Does the will of the Force matter? This may be where the Jedi begin to look more religious. We could imagine that the Force is a given for most educated people in the Star Wars universe. (i.e., Force-doubters are restricted to places where direct experience of Force-users and knowledge about the outside world is rare.) However, the will of the Force might not be. Does the Force have a will? Should we care? Should we care in that we listen and obey or care merely because the Force is powerful and we want to keep tabs on it? Force-users no doubt have a set of beliefs about these matters and at least one set (the Force has a will, it’s important, we should listen to it) amounts to theism light. This is especially important because it could exist alongside other ideas about the Force which would make a Jedi who attempted to live according to the will of the Force substantially different than someone who simply used the Force for some extra powers.

However, the Jedi are far, far more than merely people who believe in the Force and its will. The Jedi, as seen at the height of their institutional power in the prequel movies, are a well-organized, internally-governed cult. They have a set of rules for members that are not strictly linked to Force power (Anakin does not lose any power by engaging in a romantic relationship with Padme, although the relationship is against Jedi rules). Members join in an odd way: they appear to be selected, quite young, by older members. Either then or slightly later (Anakin is “too old”, and so we cannot assume he does not skip the step for the youngest children) a younger member acquires an older mentor with whom he or she spends most of their time for years to come. Members may sometimes acquire new names (as do the Sith) as evinced by the fact that Obi-Wan Kenobi is also the much more Star Wars-normal “Ben Kenobi”, which may signify the beginning of a new life with a new “family”. Training is rigorous and includes combat training from a young age. If the Old Republic has a society anything like our own there are articles in grocery store magazine racks with titles like, “I Escaped the Jedi Temple: Brutal Child Combat Ring Exposed” and op-eds asking whether a modern society should allow strangers to adopt children and indoctrinate them into a warrior society. (Of course, since the Old Republic is actually a society in which having child-slaves race death-trap machines for amusement is apparently just fine I suspect that nobody really cares about what the Jedi do with their proteges.) The Jedi have some system of internal ranks which culminates in a Jedi Council. Notably, the Jedi Council members do not seem to be all that gifted in combat, although since the prequels can’t decide whether individual characters are killing machines or incompetents between scenes that may just be bad directing. The Jedi also have some sort of system of temples which have been built according to some ideas about where the Force is concentrated and these temples are almost certainly built by the Jedi order as part of its official activities.

It is in this sense that the Jedi are most deserving of the title “religion”. “Religion” actually comes from a word used for what we now call religious (or cultic) practices and the Jedi have plenty of distinct practices. These practices are bound up in their ideas about the Force but are distinct from those of other Force-users. The Jedi also have some sacred texts, although they are so unimportant that nobody in our world knew about them until shortly before they got destroyed. (Given the Western background of the creators of these stories it’s unsurprising that the Jedi have texts. The West tends to default to aping Christianity when attempting to be generically religious.) These characteristics all separate the Jedi from the rest of the Force-using world, and do so quite strongly. However, in modern usage “religion” is theoretically about belief, not practice. So far the Jedi are more like a medieval guild, only instead of regulating tinsmithing or masonry they regulate Force-empowered combat.

One Jedi distinctive that is more about beliefs than practice is that the Jedi are all Light-Siders. While Obi-Wan screams at Anakin that only Sith deal in absolutes (again, probably the influence of Lucas’ religious beliefs) Obi-Wan is an absolutist about the Light versus Dark Side issue. It appears to be Jedi dogma that the Force is properly divided into a Light Side and a Dark Side and that the Light Side is the correct one to follow. If the Force has a will the Light Side/Dark Side distinction is problematic. Does the Light Side will you to be altruistic while the Dark Side wills you to be self-centered? For the Jedi this issue of the Force’s two wills may be the sort of thing Jedi scholars debate but as a practical matter the Light Side is always deemed correct. What is interesting about this is that the Force itself provides no rational way to choose sides. The Force continues to empower both flagrantly evil Sith and noble Jedi alike. When balance is brought to the Force is seems that “balance” means “less good, more evil, because good was winning”. In this regard the Jedi are applying a firmly-held external morality to the issue of the Force. They could be compared to the X-Men, who are engaged in debates about what people with superpowers do with those powers (protect others or build up themselves at the expense of others), with the X-Men themselves being the group who has decided to defend others. However, we don’t generally consider the X-Men to be a religious organization, so are the Jedi any more religious in their moral outlook? Part of the reason the X-Men aren’t considered a religion is that several of them are canonically members of real-world religions, and their reasons for defending others with their powers do not come from their X-Men membership. Indeed, the curriculum of instruction for X-Men seems much lighter on moral teaching than the Jedi Academy. The Jedi hold their moral opinions because of their status as Jedi, as far as we can tell.

Given all of this, it makes sense to call the Jedi a religion. They have an institutional structure with a code of morals, a code of conduct for life in areas that aren’t clearly about morality, they have specific rituals they observe, they have a unique method of acquiring members and promoting them, and all of this is tied into the Force, which itself appears to be a sort of quasi-deity in Jedi belief. However, we reached this conclusion without defining a religion. None of these characteristics (except, perhaps, the quasi-deity part) are reliably characteristics of religions and religions only (and the “quasi” part of “quasi-deity” points out how hard it can be to define gods). However, the sum of all of them sounds religious because it looks most like medieval institutionalized forms of real-world religions. Direct comparisons to warrior-monastic orders like the Shaolin or the Knights Templar can easily be made and many individual elements (oaths of celibacy, the willingness [although not the requirement] to take children into the order, government by a council of individuals chosen for their supposed wisdom, and so forth) are clearly shared with real-world religions, often several different real-world religions simultaneously.

This makes a point about real-world religion: the term “religion” doesn’t seem to have a meaning independent of a list of known religions. Often when we define things we want to do so on the basis of characteristics. For instance, let’s say that a door is a hole in a wall that you use to enter and exit a room. To determine that a window is not a door we examine its characteristics: it is a hole in a wall but you aren’t supposed to go through windows. However, it’s also possible to define things by comparing them to a set of known items. Non-experts often attempt to identify unfamiliar animals this way, saying things like, “It looks like a crocodile, sort of.” But what if the set of items was artificial? “It looks like one of the things in your backpack,” is also a valid comparison, but what if the items in my backpack are unrelated except by location? The point to be made is this otherwise odd, off-topic article is that “religion” may actually be a backpack full of unrelated things. I would actually argue that in reality often “religion” just refers to older worldviews. Are hippies religious? No. Would we consider them to represent a religion if the movement dated back to 1167? Almost certainly. Similarly, if Confucianism dated from 1940 nobody would argue about whether it was a religion or not – we’d all agree it wasn’t. While this isn’t a complete explanation (Stoics and Socratics represent ancient philosophies, not religions) it does capture a surprising amount of the trend.

Eventually, I’ll write out this idea (that what we consider a “religion” is a set of disparate ideas united only by historical accident) more fully. For now, though, consider the difficulty we had determining whether Jedi-ism, invented as a fictional religion, was actually a religion. If “religion” means something clear this article could have been a lot shorter.


Politics Made Strange, Religion Made Invisible

January 24, 2018

Yesterday, in a move that surprised many, Tony Perkins went on the record saying that President Donald Trump’s purported affair with a porn star wasn’t going to change evangelical support for the President. This didn’t surprise me, in part because we have seen so many strange political moves by (mostly white) evangelicals recently. Cataloging even a small number of these moves seems pointless at the present time, since recent political history has resembled nothing more or less than a satire in which the audience is asked to believe ever crazier things, but since these articles stick around for years it seems necessary to supply some context to a potential future audience.

Frankly, the first bizarre turn in this story is “President Donald Trump”. Trump won the Presidency in part because of very high levels of support from white evangelicals. However, Trump was already known to have multiple divorces, to have bragged about affairs, to have made large sums of money off of running casinos, and to be a symbol of consumptive wealth. There were also allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and a constant torrent of comments that were inflammatory in all sorts of ways. In the initial primaries there were sixteen Republican hopefuls, and it seemed clear that Donald Trump was the one that evangelicals would find least suitable. Instead, he won with evangelical support.

However, the story isn’t just about Donald Trump. Roy Moore was recently a Senate candidate in Alabama and was running a campaign that relied on evangelicals as its core backers. When allegations surfaced that Moore had not only attempted to have affairs with women other than his wife and that these women were not interested in Moore back but rather found him creepy, but that these women were underage teenagers, this changed very little. He may have lost some support, because he lost to a Democrat in Alabama, but he didn’t receive a massive rejection by evangelicals.

This sort of behavior has been increasingly commented on in the press. Aren’t evangelicals the people pushing for good public morals, of exactly the sort that these candidates violate? Why aren’t politicians who violate “family values” in their private lives under more suspicion from the family values voters? The simplest answer is that many Christians are now voting to win on policy goals unrelated to Christianity and ignoring Christianity to do so, or perhaps voting to win on a tiny slice of Christian policy goals and ignoring others. But the question I’m interested in on a theology blog is how we got to this place. If Christians are ignoring Christianity when they vote why is knowing that someone identifies as an evangelical still a good predictor of their voting behavior? Evangelicals have long been given flak for having a divorce rate that matches that of the general population, but that’s a case where being an evangelical means nothing at all. In voting being an evangelical means something, but it’s not the things you’d expect.

I’ve been reading Fr. Stephen Freeman‘s book “Every Where Present”. In this book Freeman discusses how the Enlightenment, in an attempt to end religious conflicts (the Protestant-Catholic wars that sprung up in Europe after the Reformation), invented a new concept of secular space. In this space religion didn’t matter. A person of any religion could operate in secular spaces without issue. This makes a lot of sense in a world in which serious religious conflict and bloodshed is a real threat. However, two things came along with this change. One of these is that it created a mental universe in which, for the first time, God did not live in exactly the same space as humans. Instead, God lived in part of the universe and didn’t live in the other (secular) part. Freeman, borrowing a term from another author, calls this a “two story universe”. God lives upstairs, we live downstairs. How these stories communicate isn’t always clear, and perhaps we believe that God comes downstairs and visits sometimes, but mentally there is a large space in our lives where God doesn’t live.

The other thing that comes along with this (and I have now returned to thoughts that are mine and not Freeman’s) is that someone steps into the vacancy God left. When we lived together with God He ran everything but now that He lives upstairs someone has to keep the downstairs organized day-to-day. The Enlightenment saw not only the rise of secularism but also the rise of the State. The kingdoms that Europe had seen in the medieval era were different than the Enlightenment states, which stepped in to organize secular space. Were you Catholic? Maybe, but in a lot of spaces that was very clearly not supposed to matter, so what identity were you in those spaces? French. And, in France, there eventually was a serious effort to make sure that you were only French and never Catholic in any space (during the time period around the French Revolution).

I’ve written elsewhere about how politics has become a secular religion and I mean this seriously. However, political religions come in multiple flavors. It’s not that there is a religion called “politics”, but that in secular space the dominant religions are often political. You can push religion out but another religion will just rise up in its place, perhaps without the specific characteristics (like a god) that you targeted. Given this, we should expect that many people are religious bigamists, married to two religions at once. In secular space you may be a socialist, a Republican, or a tireless advocate for Catalonian independence. In religious space you may be a Hindu, a Protestant, or a Muslim. However, like a sailor with a girl in every port, you try not to let your two spouses meet. You are either a Catholic in religious space or a libertarian in secular space, but you aren’t (in some way) both at once, just as you couldn’t be sleeping next to your wife in Boston and also eating dinner with your other wife in London.

So how does this explain all the recent political nonsense? Because politics is secular space. People might want to be simultaneously Christian and Republican in the same space but when those two religions conflict the default is to recognize that nature of the space and give precedence to the religion which “owns” that space. So, for our hypothetical Christian Republican, when the Christian part dislikes what the Republican part likes a second (unconscious) question is asked: what space are we in? If we’re in political space our hypothetical person becomes a Republican first. If we’re at church we’d expect the same person to be a Christian first. I believe that many people are stuck in this place and they aren’t stuck there because they are stupid or lazy, but because the Church has not offered them a coherent vision of a world entirely inhabited by God.

This should be a warning to us. The first great stroke of secularism came because Christianity became a tool of barbarism. The religious wars that raged across Europe were carried out in the name of the Prince of Peace, and the abuses of the wealthy clergy were carried out in the name of the man with no place to lay his head. When Christians fail to be Christian people look for other options, and, frankly, we can’t blame them.

However, that is a small warning. We already know that religiosity is on the decline in North America. My American readers are either preparing to live in a world where they are a religious minority or they are deluded. A more dire warning is found in the New Testament: no man can serve two masters.

Writing Christian Literature

July 31, 2017

True story: I love webcomics1. I read about 15 as they update and around 100 on a more random basis. I should specify, since many people don’t think of comics as serious, that the comics I really like are story comics, and the best one have an end in sight when they start (i.e., they are working towards a fitting resolution to the whole story, even if they take a long, long time to do so). These comics are common enough on the web but are maybe not familiar to people who know about comics mostly from newspaper comics (which are probably some of the worst examples of the art form these days) or from superhero comic books (which quite deliberately have no end in sight for the story). If you are going to have trouble treating comics as literature for this article just imagine that I am discussing stories that are more visual than a book but less so than a movie.

A while ago I saw a link from a comic I read to another comic and decided to check it out. It was a well-written fantasy comic called Daughter of the Lilies and I decided I should definitely bookmark it2. Much more recently I realized that there was some sort of furor in the comments which had started because the comic authors had mentioned that the comic would include Christian themes (or some such similar language). This makes the story (the story about a magic-user who, in the first episode, fights cannibalistic cave-elves) Christian literature. But how, and in what way, can such things to be Christian literature?

The problem with saying “Christian literature” is that it doesn’t mean anything too specific. What it indisputably means is “I can tell that this work reflects ideas that come from Christianity”. However, that definition is tied to (amongst other things) the definer’s ability to recognize Christian themes. I might be able to read a book and tell that the author was not only Christian but Catholic, for instance, whereas a non-Christian might miss all of that. Moreover, some works bear the imprint of Christianity but are actively rejecting it. Most of the more vocal atheists in the West are not rejecting gods so much as they are very specifically rejecting Christianity.

Part of the problem here is that almost any work can bear some imprint from Christianity. If I were to write a restaurant review it might be that my Christian ideas about what the good life actually consists of would bleed through. From a Christian perspective all stories can be Christian stories because all stories can be viewed through a Christian lens. However, from the perspective of having “Christian literature” mean something it’s best to be able to use this term in a manner that decisively excludes, say, Battletech fanfiction.

The only way to really handle this well is to think about Christian literature as existing on a scale. On one end is direct allegory (things like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) and stories in which conversion to Christianity is a major driver of the story. These stories are obviously Christian to anyone who has even the faintest idea about the basic tenets of Christianity. On the other end are works that incorporate Christian ideas without them being so noticeable. I will call these ends the obvious end and the subtle end for reasons that are hopefully themselves obvious.

It would be easy to say that the obvious end of the scale is more Christian because the Christian content is so obvious. What I wish to argue is that what we really need more of is the subtle end.

The obvious end of the scale has a limited audience: Christians, generally. Obviously some works escape these confines but it’s hard to imagine a hard-core atheist reading the Narnia series to their child. The obvious end of the scale also has some limits in story-telling. If the stories are direct allegories they are literally re-telling a story, and any additions will need to be made extremely carefully. If the stories are about other Christian themes another set of limits comes into play. How much do you want to “fix” a story to make it Christian? If everyone fixes their lives by becoming Christian that’s not a realistic story. If God acts directly in the story you probably want to be careful with the actions you attribute to God. I’ve seen this all done well, but it’s tricky.

The subtle end of the scale does not suffer from the audience limit. Lots of people read Lord of the Rings even though it definitely has some Christian ideas in it. However, they are so well woven into the story that people argue endlessly about them. Is Aragorn supposed to be Jesus to Isildur’s Adam? Is the Ring of Power sin? No, wait, maybe it’s nuclear weapons. Maybe Aragorn is King Arthur. (All of these are real ideas that have been floated, and Tolkien himself seems to have felt that attempting to make Aragorn someone other than Aragorn and the Ring of Power something other than a ring containing the power and evil of Sauron was stupid. He apparently did not like allegory and did not like being accused of it.)

Part of the reason that the subtle end of the scale has less issue with audience is that it is also free from some of the storytelling constraints of the obvious end of the spectrum. I could write a story about a mob boss into which I wove themes about how power is an unsuitable end and violence an unsuitable means and plenty of people who like all sorts of fiction would read it. A story about how a mob boss stopped being bad by becoming a Christian would only really be interesting to people who find conversion compelling.

The potential objection to this claim about the audience for stories is that it may sound as if I am arguing for stealth evangelism. Some people may remember that I have rather clear opinions about the means by which evangelism is accomplished and stealth evangelism may sounds like it falls outside the bounds of allowable means. However, stealth evangelism is already occurring around us every day. When we wake up we are bombarded by the evangelical tracts of the modern nation-state, the altar calls of the prophets of commerce, and the muttered prayers of the observant hedonists. Our lives are soaked in evangelism for the non-Christian religion of modern life. Many of these evangelical moments come as stories. Advertisements tell us short stories about how commerce redeems and how it can be woven into the fabric of our lives, as a simple example. What I propose is that subtle Christian literature provides an antidote to this.

One of the great projects of modernity (begun by the Enlightenment) has been to place religion in a box. Religion exists in a private sphere that influences very little. You go to church on Sunday (or mosque on Friday, or synagogue on Saturday) but outside of that religion should touch very little. When you ask questions like, “How do I conduct myself acceptably while searching for romantic love?” or “What must occur to make the killing of another human being a moral act?” or “If my neighbor and I disagree on how to run our community how do we resolve this?” (and who is my neighbor, anyway?) these questions are answered by the culture or the state. They exist in separate boxes from religion, with labels like “romantic relationships”, “conduct of war and capital punishment”, and “politics”. In such a world this Enlightenment project has reached its full fruition. In such a world religion is a vestigial organ and will be gradually reduced into nothing. And, in such a world, subtle Christian literature is impossible.

Subtle Christian literature requires that there be a Christian way to deal with subjects that everyone deals with. If you can write a story about someone falling in love that is subtle Christian literature then you are asserting that Christian ideas say something about romantic love – perhaps its value, perhaps how to treat people you claim to love, perhaps the purpose of romantic love, but that romantic love is enmeshed in a web of ideas that have Christian options. As such, subtle Christian literature asserts that Christianity does not exist in a box but permeates life. Subtle Christian literature normalizes thinking about Christian ideas in non-church contexts.

At this point you might remember that this discussion started around a webcomic about someone who can shoot fire from her hands and who fights monsters that do not exist in our world. How can this sort of literature normalize Christian thought? I have never engaged in magical combat with creatures who defy physics and I do not need to be shown how ideas drawn from the rich well of Christian thought might change my conduct in these battles I do not engage in. There are two responses to this.

First, both science fiction and fantasy settings can be used to up the ante on certain more ordinary decisions. When (to use a well-known example) Frodo must choose to take on the burden of the Ring of Power the situation heightens the stakes on a moral decision that bears a lot of resemblance to smaller ones we go through daily. When an adventurer who is saving lives literally fights creatures empowered by self-doubt this highlights the importance of dealing with self-doubt within the story.

Second, if Christian has hope for the world it has a lot to say. If Christianity has a lot to say then it can say things about worlds that do not even exist. I once worked out the outlines for a story in which the primary moral dilemma would focus on a pastor trying to decide if artificial intelligences could sin and be saved. I liked this idea because Christianity has resources to deal with this question (which, I fear, will cease to be a merely academic one within my lifetime). Showing that Christianity can handle off-the-wall questions is in some sense just muscle-flexing. One of the ways to show that Christianity does not belong in a small box is to show that it can expand clean out of the box of the real world.

So I embrace subtle Christian literature. I want to see more people writing things that look like they can’t possibly be informed by Christianity because they break too many of our expectations of Christian literature and yet end up expanding our horizons. We as Christians are being flooded with non-Christian values. When we bring Christianity to the table in new ways we provide some pressure back in the other direction.



[1] Remember that a lot of what I read, both for work and pleasure, comes with footnotes and references, and much of it can be used to humanely euthanize animals just by reading it out loud in a monotone. Just in case you were wondering why A) I think it’s acceptable to stick footnotes in almost all my posts and B) why I might like some of my stories to come as pretty pictures.

[2] If you going to go read the comic you should start at the beginning. Why should you read it? The single thing I found most compelling is that the first story arc introduced a couple of mysteries. However, rather than focusing on these mysteries, the direct action of the plotline focused on the characters surviving a period of danger. There’s this promise that behind the action of the individual sub-stories there is at least one other long story being told which I am very interested to see the conclusion of. Mind you, there’s more going on now, but by the time I had read the first small story arc I had already reached the conclusions I outline here.

The Leaven of the Pharisees

June 22, 2017

The Pharisees are both rather boring and rather important characters for most readers of the gospel. Boring because they are relentlessly predictable – they hate everything Jesus does. Important because the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees is a foundational story for Protestantism and stands as the example of the divergence between the old way (Law) and the new way (grace). While there are plenty of critics of this simple version of the story there are also plenty of adherents. After all, the Pharisees cite the Law again and again in their confrontations with Jesus. Their conflicts are sparked by minor points of the Law – rules about washing, rules about eating, rules about which specific actions constitute work on the Sabbath. However, the test case for this version of events seems to be missing.

If, as a scientist, I wanted to set up a situation in which we formally tested the hypothesis that Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees was driven by their adherence to the Law instead of grace I would want to set up a situation in which Jesus would engage in a discussion with a Pharisee who followed Torah extremely well – one who not only followed the hand-washing rules, the food-rules, and the Sabbath regulations but one who loved his neighbor, gave to the poor, and cared for the widow and the sojourner in the land. I would want to do this because any other case allows the possibility that Jesus is unhappy about how the Pharisees interpret or follow the Law; that he takes issue with the manner of their Torah-following and not that it exists. What we see instead of this hypothetical Pharisee points in a different direction.

In the beginning of Luke 12 Jesus has just finished delivering woes to the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. As thousands gather to hear him speak he turns to his disciples and says, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” Left by itself a number of modern readers would probably assume that the leaven of the Pharisees is legalism, but Jesus goes on to define it – “which is hypocrisy.”

The woes themselves are also telling. The Pharisees receive three woes. First, because they tithe off every small thing in their spice cabinet but neglect justice and the love of God. “These you ought to have done, without neglecting the former.” Second, the Pharisees love their social position and the advantages that come with it. Third, (confusingly) the Pharisees are “like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it”.

The first woe is the only one that even mentions the Law. The Pharisees are here assiduously following the tithing rules with their foodstuffs, tithing even the flavoring for their food (which Jesus seems to agree is a good thing for them to be doing). But this is, apparently, not because the Pharisees follow Torah with the same zeal. Instead, they have neglected the greater matters of Torah to follow the minor details.

It is easy to think that anyone who would weigh out their mint so that they could tithe a tenth of it is a person very serious about Torah. However, it is much easier to weigh out mint than it is to change your heart. Moreover, it is easy to see if someone is tithing their mint but much more open to debate whether someone loves God. Jesus seems to be complaining that the Pharisees followed picky, but ultimately straightforward, rules without following general, but much harder, rules. (Indeed, Jesus’ opening statement ties these ideas together. “Tithe the things that are within.”)

This ties directly into the second complaint: the Pharisees like, and exploit, their social position. Needless to say, the things the Pharisees seem to be doing (and enforcing) are laws that are relatively clear-cut. The things the Pharisees do are also probably things that set them apart. Can a poor person afford the time to carefully inventory all their food and tithe separately off of everything? Can they afford to fetch water for washing before every meal (especially since the Pharisees may have practiced multiple washings)? The people of the day may have felt that these were all good things but they were also logistically hard to do for many people. These people might have wished to live a life where they could do all of these things but felt unable to (like modern-day people who say, “One day when I don’t work three jobs to keep my kids fed I’ll go to church regularly”). Sabbath-keeping, another focus of the Pharisees’ conflicts with Jesus, marked out a line between Jews and Gentiles. Much of what the Pharisees observed best seems to have been laws that highlighted how special they were.

The standoff between Jesus and the Pharisees here is not one between Law (Torah) and grace but a prophetic-style complaint against those who do not follow through on their beliefs. I believe that Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees here runs as follows:

  1. The Pharisees are not following the main points of Torah, which are “justice and the love of God”. The lack of justice is a common theme of the prophets (who, we learn in Luke 11:47, are revered by Jesus’ audience) and love of God is the first part of the summary of the Torah offered by the expert in the law in Luke 10:27 (the parable of the Good Samaritan). I believe everyone in the dispute would agree that justice and the love of God were higher values than hand-washing (which kicks off the dispute) or tithing everything exactly.
  2. The Pharisees are following, and insisting that everyone follow, the minor rules.
  3. By ignoring the major rules and focusing on the minor rules the Pharisees have put forward a front of false righteousness and implicitly endorsed this weak-willed Torah-obedience.

This criticism is familiar from the prophets. Isaiah 1:10-17 makes substantially the same claim – that God does not want offerings and festivals (minor Torah-following) from people who neglect the major issues of doing right and doing justice.

Of all the points in this passage only one, the first woe delivered to the teachers of the Law, appears to be a credible case against legalism. However, while the teachers of the Law may “load people with burdens hard to bear” it is odd that they are somehow unburdened themselves. With the Pharisees it seems that the Pharisees bind themselves under the same (or stricter) rules that they exhort others to follow. Since the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees frequently act as one body it is hard to imagine that they actually have radically different stances on this issue. I see two solutions to this.

First, Jesus may mean that (like I have suggested of the Pharisees) the teachers of the Law have created a number of picky interpretations of the Law that are hard for ordinary people to follow. In this case the teachers of the Law follow these rules but do not find them burdensome because they are insulated from the issues these rules create by their social standing.

Second, Jesus may mean that the teachers of the Law are simply doing something else with their teaching that makes life difficult for people. Perhaps they restrict access to Torah scrolls, or (somewhat like modern lawyers) create an impenetrably arcane system of judgment that is hard for ordinary people to navigate, or maybe they just give really unhelpful, supposedly Torah-based advice.

What I do not see as credible is that Jesus is attacking the Pharisees or the teachers of the Law for being obedient Torah-followers. Instead, I believe he is attacking them for the opposite – being frauds who “follow Torah” only for show.

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.