Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

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Effeminate Christianity

 

Jesus is a metrosexual deity, sometimes seemingly transgender or outright feminine or at the very least androgynous. This was common among salvific godmen and divinities at the time. During the mass urbanization of the Axial Age, the old agrarian fertility goddesses became less of a focus. In their place, some male figures of worship inherited the characteristics of the old goddesses, not only aspects of their physical appearance but also key attributes such as self-resurrection and triune identity.

This mythological gender mixing has remained within Christian tradition. It pops up from time to time. Every few centuries or so, effeminate portrayals of Jesus begin appearing. This is partly because of the origins of Christianity, as within the early Roman Empire it was seen as a religion of women, slaves, and low class — an equation of power that Jesus sought to turn on its head. Jesus himself was described as taking a particular interest in speaking with, healing, and defending women. This sense of Christianity carried over even into more recent history such as how, for example, early Evangelicalism, in the post-revolution and largely unchurched South, was considered unmanly in how it initially attracted mostly women and slaves, not to mention the overly emotional (i.e., ‘feminine’) mode of religiosity.

Every now and then, some modern artist will portray Jesus as feminine. And of course, there is always outrage. But there is an ancient history to this going back to the earliest Christians. This Western crisis of gender identity is far from being a mere recent phenomenon inflicted on society by radical feminists. Supposedly ‘traditional’ gender roles have been overturned multiple times these past millennia. As one of the key figures in this ongoing anxiety, Jesus is constantly being re-envisioned.

This has lead to right-wing moral panics about emasculated males and demands for muscular Christianity. Even though women played major roles in the early church, even though there were influential female mystics and visionaries and preachers over the centuries, many conservative Christians to this day worry about women even having minor roles for fear they will turn churches into “women’s clubs”. And in American history, this fear has been real, considering churches have been places of political organizing and occasionally insurrection. The earliest feminists in the 18th and 19th centuries, after all, were feminists who often took inspiration directly from their Christian faith.

On a related note, one of the most famous black churches in Charleston, SC was the site of the planning for a slave revolt. And churches played a central role during the Civil Rights movement. In dreams of freedom, many blacks during slavery and Jim Crow took inspiration from the Bible itself (e.g., the Jews once having been enslaved and in their escape many of their oppressors died). This gives new meaning to Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity was a slave religion. It also might be noted that it was common for Southern women to be likened to slaves in the expectation of their submission to the social order, but then again Biblical figures like Moses and Jesus also were expected to submit. Rebellion from within, sometimes by women, has been plaguing the church for centuries. The First Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) along with the American Revolution unleashed these internal tensions within Christianity.

In modeling themselves after Jesus’ teachings of turning family against family, Evangelicals like other dissenter sects, from the Quakers to the Shakers, sought to break free from kinship loyalties and form new spiritual families. Following Jesus’ example, Evangelical preachers put particularly great importance on women, praising their capacity of spiritual sensitivity and vision. Many women found they could gain a new kind of confidence, respect, and authority within their adopted spiritual families:

“Pious sisters could also rely on early Baptist and Methodist preachers to affirm that women of all ages and races might exercise their gifts by speaking before public, sexually mixed, religious gatherings. Thereby the clergy endorsed the view that acceptable forms of female spiritual expression went beyond fulfilling their private roles as dutiful wives, mothers, and sisters. Indeed, rather than advising women to restrict their influence to the uplift of their households, ministers encouraged them to display their talents in churches and religious meetings at neighboring homes. To assert themselves as authoritative public presences was an extraordinary liberty for women in a culture that otherwise required them to be silent and subordinate.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 3283-3288)

This gave further evidence that these Christianities were effeminate and emasculating. As kinship loyalties were based on a highly entrenched patriarchy, this was a radical challenge to the entire social order:

“Both ritual practice and the association of fellowship and family thus sustained converts to early Methodist and Baptist churches. Separating the sexes at public worship obscured the painful absence of converts’ unbelieving family members. Condemning their upbringings eased converts out of past lives embedded in kinship networks. Identifying the church as a family endowed converts with a new circle of spiritual kin, often one more sympathetic to their religious strivings than were relatives by blood or marriage.”
(Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross, Kindle Locations 2953-2957)

Further challenges came from other of Jesus’ teachings such as, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female.” For those who took their Bible seriously, these were powerful words. Jesus didn’t only speak in this way for, through his actions, he demonstrated what it meant to defy authority. And as I’ve pointed out here, the very portrayals of Jesus showed him as a profoundly ambiguous figure who transcended the divides of social identities.

The ancient and extensive history of a ‘queer’ Jesus can’t be erased. There has always been a bit of the trickster to Jesus and the trickster, by nature, is always hard to pin down. For anyone who doubts that, ask the Roman and Jewish authorities during Jesus’ life. If Jesus were around today, he’d give the modern Pharisees a run for their money.

* * *

The Feminine/Androgynous Jesus
by Valerie A. Abrahamsen

Jesus was a man, right? In the New (Christian) Testament of the Bible he certainly was. However, in the first few centuries of the Common Era (CE), images of Jesus were not limited to male.

During this era, a great deal of Christian literature, generally called “apocryphal” or “extra-canonical,” circulated but did not make it into the New Testament (NT). Similarly, art depicting images of Jesus, his family, his disciples and their stories was also created, not all of the images taken from NT texts. In both the literature and art of the first Christian centuries, Jesus’ sexuality could be ambiguous, androgynous or even feminine.

What may be shocking, offensive or bewildering to us most likely resonated for the people of the time and had parallels in the culture. […]

What is more problematic for us moderns is the portrayal of Jesus as sexually ambiguous, with feminine traits. Examples of an ambiguous Jesus are found in both art and literature and, as Cartlidge and Elliott point out (page 66), some of this evidence leads to “intricate academic footwork” and “dodging and weaving” of interpretation; that is, scholars tend to dismiss the importance of images and texts of which they cannot make sense. […]

Cartlidge and Elliott point out that the debate about Jesus’ sexuality must have been raging from the earliest times of the development of the church, as attested in these literary and artistic pieces of evidence. If the feminine/androgynous Jesus and the tripartite Jesus are viewed from the point of view of ancient, even prehistoric, religion, it becomes more comprehensible as to why such depictions and images appeared and resonated with early Christians. The prehistoric nature goddess (whom we met earlier) was often accompanied by a young, vital male deity, especially in her aspect of the life-creating force; “male animals and humans stimulate and enhance life” (Gimbutas, Living Goddesses, 117). Taken alongside the power and influence of Mary – Mother of Jesus, Mother of God, Theotokos – the appearance of the young Jesus fits this ancient pattern. In the competitive Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine era, the pairing of the powerful Mary with the powerful, younger Jesus made sense.

Similarly, Jesus with feminine characteristics suggests that he took on attributes of powerful female deities in the Graeco-Roman and early Byzantine milieus. If Jesus had characteristics of these goddesses, devotees attracted to them might also be converted to the Christ cult.

Understanding Early Christian Art
by Robin Margaret Jensen
pp. 124-127

One of the most striking and, to modern eyes, curious aspects of the beardless, youthful image Jesus is Christ’s endowment with feminine physical characteristics, including small protruding breasts, sloping shoulders, wide hips, and long curling hair. Such representation obviously contrasts with the darker, bearded type of Jesus image, but it also often presents an image of Jesus that differs from congruent representations of the apostles, who usually are given quite masculine appearances, with clipped beards, short hair, broad shoulders, and square jaws. The contrast between Jesus and his apostles shows up very clearly on several fourth- and fifth-century sarcophagi (cf. Figures 42, 48). Such feminine features led to the original misidentification of a famous statue of Christ as a seated woman poet. […]

However, in contrast to mortal human males, long ringlets and beardless cheeks characterized the iconography of certain late antique gods — Apollo and Dionysus in particular. Moreover, Apollo and Dionysus iconographic types also share other feminine attributes seen in the youthful Jesus images, including the round shoulders, small but obvious breasts, wide hips, and full cheeks of the nearly hermaphroditic figures described by Euripides, Ovid, Diodorus, and Seneca, or portrayed in the classical iconography. Dionysus, especially, underwent transition from a mature, bearded, Zeus-like figure on archaic Greek vases to a late-classical and Hellenistic appearance as a youthful, androgynous and “Apollonian” image. However, while the changes in Dionysiac types have been noted by art historians, the variants in Jesus’ iconography (which parallel those of Dionysus) are rarely discussed in modern secondary literature.

The parallels between Jesus images and Apollo or Dionysus in earlier Roman iconography raise certain fascinating theological issues, including whether some art objects were specifically commissioned by or for women, who envisioned or experienced Jesus as female, and whether they emerged in non-orthodox Christian communities that varied their gendered images of the Triune God and transferred particular attributes from the pagan deities to Jesus, including Dionysus’ role as a god of fertility. Jesus’ application of the metaphor “true vine” to himself (John 15:1) may have strengthened the parallel. […]

A more likely possibility is that representations of Jesus were simply consistent with the portraiture of the savior deities of the Hellenistic mystery cults, especially Apollo, Dionysus, and Orpheus. The iconography of Jesus merely borrowed from the traditional and familiar portrayals of those gods, perhaps in part because of their similar divine attributes. Serapis, too, was known to be represented with female breasts (although not beardless) and statues of that god are known to have been restored as the goddess Roma or Minerva. These classical types had come to be visually synonymous with the concept of deity; certain physical characteristics automatically signified divinity to the ordinary viewer. The power of association encouraged those characteristics to be transferred to Jesus iconography, as they had become a kind of artistic marker — or shorthand — for the appearance of a certain kind of god. Jesus’ transformation of water to wine at Cana and his statement, “I am the true vine,” may account for the adoption of Dionysiac vintaging scenes for Christian monuments. Perfectly orthodox Christians could image Jesus with feminine physical attributes because those attributes visually signalled characteristics that were deeply rooted in the visual language of the surrounding culture. However, not only were these borrowings intended to suggest that Jesus possessed certain god-like qualities, but in fact subsumed all divine attributes in one person.

Jupiter’s portrayal and perception as majestic and powerful — both Lord and Judge — could be borrowed to transfer these same characteristics to Jesus in compositions like the enthroned apse of Sta. Pduenziana. Certain aspects of Orpheus’ or Dionysus’ portrayal as idealized, youthful “savior” gods were likewise applied to images of Jesus. The gods featured in the mystery cults of late antiquity were immanent and personal gods with whom devotees had intense encounters, not unlike Jesus. Moreover, they were gods of resurrection who survived descents into the underworld. Orpheus additionally was often depicted as a shepherd in a paradisical setting — a figure that parallels the Christian Good Shepherd. Clement of Alexandria had already pointed out certain parallels that formerly misguided pagans might find between the old gods and the divine Son in Christianity. No wonder, then, that aspects of traditional representations of these gods would be transferred to visual imagery of Christ, including the almost feminine beauty associated with such gods in particular.

The Roman god Bacchus as a Christian icon
by Riley Winters

Bacchus was the Greco-Roman god associated with mental and physical duality. His mythology began in Greece, under the name Dionysus, a foreign god joining an already existing civilization (Dionysus and Bacchus are comparable deities, but for the purpose of this article, “Bacchus” will be utilized to discuss the pagan god to avoid confusion).

In Euripides’ Bacchae, Bacchus came to Greece from a far off land and shook up the Thracian king with his new religious practices and effeminate ways. The Bacchanalia, a procession of satyrs and overly drunken women, led to the king’s disapproval of Bacchus’ religion, eventually resulting in the death of the Thracian king. Though this particular myth is vastly different from the stories of Jesus, there are similar visual themes the Christians expertly borrowed in their symbolic portrayal of Jesus to aid the Romans in accepting the new religion, allowing it to eventually become the primary faith of the empire.

On the surface, the similarities between Bacchus and Jesus are easily evident. Both gods are first depicted as youthful and feminine. Bacchus is intended to be androgynous, with long flowing hair and a soft face. Jesus, however, is in part portrayed young to reveal his innocence, highlighting his purity. […]

There is also an important similarity between these two figures in that their early imagery reveals that their faiths were initially targeted toward women in the beginning of their worships. Men were the religious leaders of both societies, and women were commonly ignored or pushed to the side. To gain a position within the Roman culture, both Bacchus and Jesus had to show a value for women, giving them a voice in the male-dominated world. The primary worshippers of Bacchus were the Maenads, women who reached a heightened level of ecstasy through excessive drinking. According to Greco-Roman thought, the drinking allowed the women (and the few men who participated) to achieve a spiritual release they were otherwise not allowed because of the norms of their society. Religious worship, however, temporarily exempted them from these rules.

Similarly, Jesus showed an interest in women by taking the time to heal those who otherwise were ignored and exiled. One of the images found in the catacombs relates to the Woman with the Issue of Blood who was cleansed by Jesus after reaching for his robe, her faith in his power alone healing her. According to the Biblical account, the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who herself travelled with the twelve apostles. Both Bacchus and Jesus emphasized the importance of women early in their mythologies by providing women with the attention they desired from their deities right away. By focusing on women, a large faction of supporters rose around both men quickly, the power of the forgotten ones. This was a very strong image in both Greco-Roman and early Christian culture, and both were commonly depicted with women in their art.

 

Feminine Images of Jesus: Later Medieval Christology and the Devaluation of the Feminine
by Jenny Bledsoe

During the later medieval period in Western Europe, feminine representations of Jesus abounded. Medieval Christians had begun to emphasize the humanity of Jesus in reaction to the religious foci of the era before their own (early medieval focus on the spirit and Jesus’ resurrection), and seemed to find that “feminine” characteristics were most expressive of the human nature of Jesus. […]

As a result of economic changes, the later medieval period refashioned Christology, as well as conceptions of self. Feminine images of Jesus express changing ideals of femininity and also the socially accepted roles of women in the Church and the public. This study explores later medieval representations—both textual and visual—of Jesus as mother in order to determine the implications of such representations for actual women. We will sample three medieval writers who wrote about feminine Jesuses, two writing in the heyday of incarnation theology and feminized Jesus imagery—the twelfth century monastics Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen—and later, one fourteenth century theologian who inherited the legacy of her predecessors, Julian of Norwich. In her book on Hildegard’s theology of the feminine, Barbara Newman describes the shared focus and understanding of all medieval representations of a feminine Jesus: “The common denominator is a sense that the feminine is somehow problematic; being neglected, undervalued, or wrongly understood within a patriarchal culture, it needs to be perpetually redefined, revalued, and relocated in the general worldview.”1 Although all of the medieval writers subscribed to essentialist understandings of gender based in a patriarchal society, it is true that they all seemed to think that it was necessary to explore and define the feminine more fully and consider how the feminine fits within human understandings of God. […]

Feminist Theology

Some feminist theorists argue that descriptions of divine motherhood refer to long-suppressed ancient worship of female goddesses or androgynous gods. Elaine Pagels writes that the monotheistic religions are unusual in comparison to other world religions in that the former do not employ feminine imagery to describe God.2 By 200 CE, upon the establishment of the Christian canon, orthodox Christianity discouraged feminine symbolism for expressing the essence of the divine.3 While women played leading roles in Gnostic Christian groups, which sometimes described God in feminine language, the orthodox tradition banned female leadership and description of the divine as female. Pagels questions why the orthodox Christian tradition so ardently demanded that women and feminine conceptions of God be banned from Christian hegemony: “Is it possible, then, that the recognition of the feminine element in God and the recognition of mankind as a male and female entity bore within it the explosive possibility of women acting on an equal basis with men in positions of authority and leadership?”4 […]

Medieval Conceptions of Motherhood

At this point in Western culture, there was no conception of separate religious and secular realms. And so, religion defined all aspects of later medieval society, including the role of the mother. Spiritual writers define the medieval woman or mother as having three distinct characteristics: “The female is generative (the foetus is made of her very matter) and sacrificial in her generation (birth pangs); the female is loving and tender (a mother cannot help loving her own child); the female is nurturing (she feeds the child with her own bodily fluid).”15 In medieval representations of Jesus as mother, Jesus displays these feminine characteristics, all of which are based on medieval physiological theories

Meyerism and Unity Church

One of the shows I’ve been following is The Path, about a growing spiritual movement and community called Meyerism (they don’t refer to themselves as a religion). It’s in the third season. My interest has been sustained, even if not quite as good as the first season.

The melodrama has increased over time, but that is probably to be expected. After all, it is about a close-knit faith group that transitions from a cult-like commune to a respectable large-scale organization. It’s a turbulent process with an existential crisis for the community involving a change of leadership. The portrayal of faith feels honest and fair to human nature, the way people struggle and care for what matters most to them.

One aspect I like about the show is the comparison and contrast with Christianity. As the organization grows, they decide to expand their reach to provide more services. Volunteer work and generosity is central to their spiritual vision. So, they invest in a major center in the nearby city, but it is more space than they immediately need. They share the space with others, including a Christian youth group. As a community, they are confident in their faith and so don’t see other groups, religious or otherwise, as competition.

One of the young Meyerists, Hawk, who grew up in the faith soon falls in love with the also young Caleb who leads the youth group. The conflict is that Caleb’s father is a fire-and-brimstone preacher, not accepting of homosexuality. Hawk has to simultaneously come to terms with his own homosexual feelings and those of others. This causes him to question what is faith, what is religion vs a cult, what does it mean to love someone no matter what. His parents raised him in Meyerism, but after his father became the new leader his mother had her own crisis of faith. She has learned to be more accepting and offers Hawk her perspective.

This conflict for Hawk came up again in the most recent episode (ep. 10, The Strongest Souls). Hawk doesn’t want to lose Caleb, but Caleb is afraid of losing his family. Unlike Meyerism, Caleb’s fundamentalist church is not accepting in the slightest. Caleb is feeling unbearable pressure to enter into a program to have his homosexuality cured or whatever they do. In hope of helping Caleb, Hawk looks for a gay-welcoming Christian church and finds himself sitting in a Unity service. That caught my attention. I grew up in the Unity Church (part of New Thought Christianity) and it is the first time I’ve seen it portrayed in any form within mainstream media.

I can be critical of Unity. It is as idealistic and as liberal of a church as you are likely to find. As someone dealing with depression, the idealism I internalized in my youth has been a struggle for me. It has messed up my mind in many ways, a bright light casting a dark shadow. But at the same time, the Unity Church represents some of my happiest memories. I attended Unity youth camps and the experience blew me away. Unity theology is all about love and light. I was never taught any notion about sin, damnation, and hell. These were foreign concepts to me. It is a beautiful religion and the positive feeling and support I felt growing up was immense. It showed me the world could be a different way. But returning to high school after one of those youth camps, it sent me into a tailspin of despair. The idealism of Unity didn’t match the unrelenting oppressiveness of the world I was forced to live in on a daily basis. Positive affirmations and visualizations were no match for the cynical culture that surrounded me. I felt unprepared to deal with adulthood in an utterly depraved world.

Yet that was long ago. For a moment in watching Hawk in that Unity service, I remembered what was so wonderful about the Unity Church. It’s a place where you will be accepted, even the lowest of the low. It’s a church that actually takes Jesus’ message of love seriously. If you think you hate Christianity for all the ugliness of fundamentalism, then you should visit a Unity Church. It has nothing to do with whether or not you want to believe in God or have a personal relationship with Jesus. I can’t say all Unity Churches are equal, as I’ve been to some that felt less openly welcoming than others. But the best of the Unity Churches can give you an experience like few other places.

Aesop and Jesus

“The Life of Aesop and the Gospels”
by Mario Andreassi
p. 164, Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel

While individually heterogeneous, the analogies so far highlighted show the similarities in narrative structures of the biographies of Aesop and Jesus. However, analogy certainly does not mean textual interdependence, but it does led to the thesis that the authors of the Life of Aesop and the Gospels aimed, where possible, to place the life of the protagonist in a literary and narrative context known to the public and variously attested in the lives of the philosophers and in the Christian aretalogies. Apart from its complex editorial genesis and notwithstanding many severe judgments in the last century, the Aesop Romance belongs within a wider and consciously literary production: it is no paradox to maintain that ‘those who wrote the Gospels were likely influenced by the same literary model that gave rise to the Life of Aesop’.

‘Aesop’, ‘Q’ and ‘Luke’
by Steve Reece

The last chapter of the gospel of Luke includes a story of the risen Christ meeting two of his disciples on their way from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus and chastising them with the poetic expression ὦ ἀνόητοι καὶ βραδεῖς τῇ καρδίᾳ ‘O foolish ones, and slow in heart’ (Luke 24.25). No commentator has ever observed that Jesus’ expression occurs verbatim, in the same iambic trimeter metre, in two poetic versions of animal fables attributed to the famous Greek fabulist Aesop. It is plausible that Luke is here, as at least twice elsewhere in his gospel, tapping into the rich tradition of Aesopic fables and proverbs that were widely known throughout the Mediterranean world in the first century ce.

The Fisherman and his Flute
from Wikipedia

Commentators have seen a likeness to the story, although only in the detail of dancing to the pipe, in Jesus’ parable of the children playing in the market-place who cry to each other, “We piped for you and you would not dance; we wept and wailed and you would not mourn” (Matthew 11.16-17, Luke 7.31-2).[8] There is an echo here too of the criticism of unresponsive behaviour found in Herodotus.

[8] Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable 3, Brill 2003, p.20 (“The proverb in the Gospels may be compared with the fable in that it uses the same musical metaphor of dancing accompanied by flute-playing.”)

Aesop’s Fables in the Bible
by Kent West

About five-hundred and fifty years before Yeshua was born, Aesop collected and/or created many fables, one of which was “The Fisherman and His Pipe”:

There was once a fisherman who saw some fish in the sea and played on his pipe, expecting them to come out onto the land. When his hopes proved false, he took a net and used it instead, and in this way he was able to haul in a huge catch of fish. As the fish were all leaping about, the fisherman remarked, ‘I say, enough of your dancing, since you refused to dance when I played my pipe for you before!’

[…] Nearly six hundred years later Yeshua makes reference to this same fable, having probably learned it as a child:

To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other:
“We played the flute for you,
and you did not dance….”
Luke 7:31-32

Aesop as Context for Matthew 7:15-23
by Brandy Vencel

The passage begins with “beware of false prophets.” We must consider the entire passage in light of this introductory phrase. We are given a metaphor, in order to better understand false prophet: they are wolves which get in amongst the sheep by dressing up in sheep skin. {This is a direct reference to Aesop’s The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, but we will come back to that.} […]

What makes me so sure that this is an entire passage is its perfect parallelism with Aesop. It is said that Aesop lived around 500 years before Christ. His fables were so powerful, they were the first principle of the progymnasmata writing and rhetoric curriculum, which we know was formalized as early as 100 BC. Because Aesop was utilized not only to instruct in wisdom, but to teach writing and storytelling, and because almost every student would have had to retell Aesop’s fables, we can safely assume that this idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing had slipped into the culture and provided a frame for discourse for at least 150 years, if not half a millenia, before Christ said these words.

Please realize that He was taking a universally known cultural story, and applying it those who would hurt His sheep.

Aesop’s tale of The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing has two parts. In the first part, the wolf has trouble getting any sheep to eat because the shepherds are so good at protecting them. The wolf’s problems are solved when he discovers a discarded sheepskin and puts it on. Almost immediately, he manages to snag a sheep for lunch. This is the fist half.

The second half takes an interesting turn. In this half, one of the shepherds decides that he’s in the mood for mutton broth for dinner, and heads out to the flock. He grabs the first sheep he finds…which just happens to be the wolf. The wolf becomes soup, not unlike the fool of Proverbs, who falls into his own pit.

Depending on your version of Aesop, you will have different morals attached {the morals were added much later}. One is: Appearances are deceptive. The other is: The evildoer often comes to harm through his own deceit. {There may be others, of which I am unaware.}

Jesus recasts the wolves as false prophets, and instructs His followers in how to pull the sheepskin off {look at the fruit}.

In the first half, Jesus covers deceptive appearances, and in the second half he covers the harm that comes to the evildoer in the end, as a result of his own choices and actions.

Just like Aesop.

Humor in the Gospels
by Terri Bednarz
pp. 208-209

Whitney Shiner (1998) gives interesting insights on humor when he compares The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark. Both of these works, the argues, were built by editing together various independent narrative episodes. These episodic narratives share common features: 1) their writing style lacks sophistication, 2) they were concise and short, and 3) their main characters persistently outwit antagonists. The main characters tended to be populist tricksters who succeed in unmasking the foibles of the elites, thus making them appear ridiculous. The tricksters target their antagonists with satirical barbs.

Shiner writes that The Life of Aesop advances its plot much more simply than the Gospel of Mark. Aesop merely outwits his antagonists in episode after episode. In hearing the stories of Aesop, one would more likely say, “Not again!” The Gospel of Mark has a more complex plot in which Jesus must repeatedly perform miracles, relate wise dicta, and outwit opponents in order to convince the audience of his ability to get the better of his antagonists. With the Markan Jesus, the hearer would more likely say, “Prove it!” Both the Markan Jesus and Aesop succeed in making their antagonists look foolish.

Shiner details other similarities in the Aesopic and Markan plots. Aesop’s rank and success increase in accord with the mounting hubris that leads to his eventual death at Delphi (Herodotus 2.136). The Markan Jesus also increases in stature, entering Jerusalem as a king (Mark 11:19-11), which also comes at great cost. Like Aesop, Jesus will meet a political death. Shiner notes another similarity: the use of divine causation. For Aesop, there is divine intervention in disputes, in posing and solving riddles, and even in his death. For the Markan Jesus, there is a divine plan that keeps unfolding until it culminates with Jesus’ death.

Shiner examines the ancient practice of intercalation, where an episode is woven into the middle of another episode. He argues that intercalation increases tension in the audience. This technique is found in both the Aesopic and Markan narratives. He gives an example from the Gospel of Mark where Peter stands in the shadows as Jesus is led into council. The audience is led to suspect that Peter follows Jesus in order to watch for an opportunity to express his bravery (Mark 14:53-54). Then Mark inserts the intercalation (14:55-65), which recounts Jesus’ courageous testimony, but then Mark jerks back to Peter where the audience hears Peter’s own bravery melt into a dramatic account of cowardliness (Mark 14:66-72). Shiner then presents an example of Aesopic intercalation. As Aesop cooks his lentil, there is an interruption in which Aesop and Xanthus engage each other in agonistic rhetoric, after which the scene of the cooking of the lentil resumes (Aesop 39, 41).

Shiner stresses that the episodic narratives and the intercalations are designed to keep the audience engaged, but not in the modern sense. Modern audiences anticipate that characters will break from their characterizations, and evolve into more complex figures. Shiner argues that this is not the case with ancient audiences, which expect characters to be static and predictable. For example, Xanthus will always be the butt of Aesop’s witty barbs. For ancient audiences, the episodic narratives do not produce tension by introducing the unexpected but by fulfilling what they anticipate will happen. In other words, the tension builds because the moment of comic recognition is delayed. Aesopic and Markan episodes and their intercalations simply postpone what the ancient audience expects will happen. They know that the antagonists will always receive Jesus’ witty or barbed riposte, or that Peter will stumble yet again, or that Aesop will once more outwit Xanthus.

Whitney Shiner, “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

Shiner (pg. 155) begins her analysis by noting that there are “two distinct ways” that the Gospels have been read. One approach, following the from critics, is to view the Gospels as a conglomeration of self-contained episodes that have been stitched together from oral tradition. The other approach is to view the Gospels as a continuous narrative. Shiner argues, however, that these approaches can be harmonized through an “extended episodic narrative.” As Shiner (pp. 155-156) explains:

“In reading the Gospels as episodic narrative, one must see the narrative as simultaneously episodes and as extended narrative. The extended narrative is built from more or less self-contained blocks. Continuity in the extended narrative is found not so much in the continuity of detail in action and characterization between episodes as in continuity in the overall impact of the episodes. To take an analogy from art, extended episodic narrative is like a mosaic.”

Shiner goes on to note that the Life of Aesop, much like the Gospels, is built around narrative episodes that are largely independent. These independent episodes, however, are organized to advance the plot of the macronarrative. As Shiner (pg. 156) explains:

“This is especially true of the most extensive section of the Life, in which Aesop repeatedly outwits his master, the philosopher Xanthus. Much of the macronarrative structure of Aesop, such as Aesop’s sale to the philosopher, his manumission, and his entering into service to Lycurgus, serve to move the narrative from one type of episode, appropriate to Aesop’s earlier situation, to a different style of episode, appropriate to the new plot situation.”

Shiner (pp. 169-174) identifies eight different narrative strategies shared between the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark that are used to weave episodes into a continuous plot:

  1. Similar episodes are repeated to develop a point […]
  2. Within the plot as a whole discrete sections are created that are, in terms of size and content, amenable to episodic development […]
  3. The discrete sections are ordered to suggest a coherent plot development from one to the other […]
  4. Sustained conflicts between the hero and another person or group are established and episodes are used to illustrate conflict […]
  5. Episodes of various lengths are presented to create variety […]
  6. Narrative within episodes is elaborated to enhance the narrative quality of the whole […]
  7. Discrete episodes are interwoven to extend narrative tension or to provide keys for interpretation […]
  8. Similar episode plots are presented at different places in the narrative to recall earlier episodes and to suggest an underlying unity of theme or plot […]

Through these narrative strategies, therefore, Shiner argues that the episodic structure of the Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark does not conflict with a continuous narrative. Instead, these strategies are employed to weave continuity within the narrative and a continuous plot.

Lawrence Wills: “The Life of Aesop and the Hero Cult Paradigm in the Gospel Tradition”
by Matthew W. Ferguson

After identifying novelistic biography as the best analogical model for the Gospels, Wills goes on to argue that the anonymous Life of Aesop makes for the best comparison. Wills (pg. 23) explains:

“The tradition of Aesop as a teller of barbed fables … is found as early as the fifth century B.C.E., and the account of his life, which circulated in multiple versions, may derive from narrative traditions that are as old. The extant versions, however, are dated to about the turn of the era, that is, roughly contemporary with the gospels…”

The process of composition described above is very similar to The Certamen of Homer and Hesiod, where an anonymous editor compiles multiple earlier accounts into a single episodic narrative (which then circulates with multiple textual variations). As I explain in my essay “Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels,” the NT Gospels are also better described as edited volumes, rather than the unique work of a single author, based on how they borrow and redact earlier materials (often verbatim), with the editor of the text remaining anonymous.

Beyond these structural observations, however, Wills also notes a number of thematic similarities between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop. As Wills (pg. 23) explains about the subject of the biography:

“Aesop is introduced in the Life as an ugly and misshapen slave who is in the beginning unable to speak. He is devoted to Isis, however, and after he shows kindness to one of the priestesses, falls into a sleep and is granted by the goddess the power of speech. This gift he uses to the utmost–he never stops talking, but with an acid wit skewers the pretensions of his new owner, a philosopher, and also the owner’s wife and fellow philosophers.”

Aesop is prominent for teaching in fables, a form of fiction quite similar to the parables used by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. On this point, it is also worth noting John Dominic Crossan’s recent book on the subject, The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus. For his teachings, Aesop, like Jesus, runs into problems with the authorities and is executed. As Wills (pp. 23-24) explains:

“Through his cleverness he manages to help both his master and the citizens of Samos, and ultimately attains his freedom. Once free, however, he soon runs foul of the citizens of Delphi, and rebukes them with his sharp-pointed fables. They condemn him to death on a trumped-up charge, and he is executed. When a plague strikes the city, they consult an oracle of Zeus and learn that they must expiate their sin through sacrifice.”

Here, Wills draws a major parallel with the life of Jesus, namely the wrongful execution of the subject, followed by divine vindication. As Wills (pg. 28) argues:

“The relationship of blame, violent reaction, impurity, expiation, and immortality of the hero are drawn close together. Similarities to the expiatory death of Jesus can be seen here, especially if we begin to consider the latter in terms of ambivalent worship with his people, that is, to Jews, Israel, or Jerusalem.”

Wills (pg. 29) also notes that the length of the Life of Aesop is a bit longer than Mark and John, and and about the same length as Matthew and Luke. Wills points out, however, that in terms of structure the Life is more similar to Mark in John, particularly in how the text does not begin with a narrative of the subject’s birth (though Aesop is briefly said to have been born a slave in Amorium of Phrygia, without discussion of the circumstances), or his early growth and development, but is instead focused on his adult life.

 

“The Aesop Tradition”
by Lawrence M. Wills
pp. 223-224, The Historical Jesus in Context

The Aesop tradition is important for the study of the Gospels for two reasons. First, Aesop’s fables can be formally compared to Jesus’ parables. Readers will recognize in some of the fables below individual motifs that re also found in the Gospel parables, as well as the use of ideal scenes that provoke reflection, even if the point to be taken from them is quite different. Second, the Life of Aesop is roughly contemporary with the Gospels and bears some remarkable similarities. These similarities may derive from the fact that the Life and the Gospels both dramatize the life and death of the ostracized hero, told in an age of prose novels and novelistic histories. (Later Christian tradition [Acts of Peter 24; Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.1] even adds that Jesus was ugly, based on a reading of Isaiah 53:2.) The Life is about the same length as the Gospels, written in a relatively low style. Like the Gospels, it gives the sense of being a longer text composed of many originally independent episodes. If Jesus in the Gospels is more prophet than sage, and Aesop is more sage than prophet, the difference is minor compared with the overall similarity in structure:

  1. The protagonist has lowly beginnings but experiences a deity’s favor.
  2. The protagonist has a period of ministry with a salvific message.
  3. The protagonist is despised as a result of the message.
  4. Trumped-up charges involving blasphemy of the deity are brought forward.
  5. The protagonist is executed as a result.
  6. A cult of the protagonist is instituted.

Within some of the general similarities, we can perceive even closer parallels in the details. The Life of Aesop begins with a visitation by the goddess Isis and the bestowal of powers on Aesop, not unlike the scene of Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of the Gospels with the voice from heaven. At the end of the Life there is a geographic shift from Samos to Delphi, that is, from the periphery to the center of the worship of Apollo, just as there is a shift in the Gospels from the periphery of Galilee to the center at Jerusalem. Finally, at the transition at the end of these texts from ministry to a trial and passion, the process by which this shift occurs is also similar. In both groups of texts, conflicts that are punctuated by the use of a special kind of discourse arise. and this leads directly to the trial and execution of the protagonist […]

In addition, in all three texts the charge of “blasphemy” figures heavily in the conspiracy to execute the protagonist (Life of Aesop 132; Mark 14:64; John 10:33). This is true even though the charges of blasphemy n the three cases are not clearly stated and may be quite different. In Aesop, the protagonist is accused of being a temple robber; in Mark, blasphemy is often discussed by scholars in terms of Jewish law on this subject (Leviticus 24:16), but the charge seems to focus instead on Jesus’ implication that he himself is the coming Son of Man; in John the Jewish authorities tell Jesus that the charge of blasphemy arises because “you are making yourself God.” Blasphemy should thus be seen in its literary context as the “standard” false charge that separates the wise hero from his people. It is also roughly equivalent to the false charge of impiety leveled against Socrates. In Socrates’ case the charges were corrupting the young, neglecting the gods, and introducing new ideas (Plato, Apology).

The difference in tone between the Gospels and the Life of Aesop — urgent and demanding in the case of the Gospels, broadly satirical in the case of the Life of Aesop — can be attributed to the difference in the protagonists’ message. Jesus brings the good news of God’s plan of salvation at the end time, while Aesop the Cynic sage preaches a gospel of liberation from human convention and complacency and an awareness of the true nature of things. (Some scholars would argue that this places the Life of Aesop closer in religious outlook to the sayings source Q or the Gospel of Thomas. If that is the case, then the Life of Aesop is structurally closer to one part of the Gospel tradition, and thematically closer to another.) This overall literary similarity between the Life of Aesop and the Gospels indicates that the genre “gospel’ was not as unique as some have thought, and the particular motifs of the Gospels may owe more to the general background of reverence for philosophers than has been previously acknowledged.

My Flesh Is Meat Indeed
by Meredith J. C. Warren
pp. 54-55

In addition, Berenson Maclean points out the generic compatibility found by other scholars such s Lawrence Wills between the biography of the poet-hero and the Gospel of John in particular. Wills’ study argues that the novelistic pattern of the poet-hero’s life and death, including the poet’s antagonistic relationship with both the city and a deity, makes it appropriate for comparison with John’s structure. Specifically, Wills suggests that The Life of Aesop fits the same pattern as Mark and John; for instance, all three begin at the adulthood of the main character rather than with his birth and all three involve, close to the outset, an experience from heaven. Jesus’ ambivalent relationship with the Temple and oi ioudaioi also make John’s comparison to Life of Aesop appropriate.

Nagy’s work on the hero now becomes very relevant to the discussion: “by losing his identification with a person or group and by identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity.” The expiatory understanding of Jesus’ death is apparent in early Christian works such s 1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 3:25, 1 Corinthians 5:7, and Mark 10:45. For Wills, this further locates the early Christian understanding of Jesus in the context of the Greco-Roman hero, though he cautions that the paradigm of the hero is more variable than a single genre could contain. Gunnel Ekroth concurs with this point, saying, “a characteristic of heroes and hero cults is their heterogeneity.” Rather, for all three of the texts Wills examines, the paradigm of the hero is narrated in a way that establishes the cult even if not all the elements are present in any given text and with the reservation that there is no single paradigm that encompasses all of early Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death.

pp. 209-212

Nagy’s treatment of the Aesop tradition is significant for this study of John because in it, Nagy is careful to pint out the feedback loop present in the myth and ritual: Aesop’s death is the cause of the ritual institution he critiques while at the same time, his death in the narrative is caused by his critique. That is, everything is occurring at the level of narrative. It is this relationship that establishes the association of Aesop with Apollo. Thus Life of Aesop, too, reflects the understanding of the relationship between chosen human and god that is recorded in literature from the time of the epics to the turn of the millennium and after. In particular, the complicated cause-and-effect relationship between the antagonism, the ritual, and the divine identification found in Aesop as observed by Wills and Nagy is also found in the Greek romances. As I have illustrated above, this feedback loop of antagonism — sacrifice/cannibalism — divinity is a key manifestation of the type of relationship Nagy finds between heroes and gods in Homer’s epics. Likewise, I argue that this “antagonism in myth, symbiosis in cult” is also found in John.

Further, Wills notices similarities with the ways in which Jesus and Aesop die. In Life of Aesop, the Delphians put him to death in a way that makes him a pharmakos, a scapegoat. The act of putting a person to death is polluting, and the only way for this act to be purified is with the establishment of the hero’s cult. Wills’s outline of Jesus’ death shows the parallels between his sacrifice and the trope of heroic death in the Greco-Roman world. He points out that (likely pre-Pauline) formulas speak of Jesus or Christ as one who has died for the sins of others — in other words, as an expiation. In particular, Wills observes that the oracle uttered unwittingly by Caiaphas in John 11:50 makes a significant point of contact with the heroic death narratives, where frequently the “sacrifice of the hero is demanded or predicted by an oracle.” Caiaphas’s words, “It is expedient that one man should die for the people, so that the whole nation not perish,” make it clear to the readers (though ironically not to Caiaphas himself) that Jesus’ death is on behalf of the nation and can therefore be seen as expiatory. Jesus’ death at the request of certain factions of oi ioudaioi results in his worship by certain other factions of that same community.

Wills also observes that Jesus’ death in John occurs at the same time as sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Jerusalem temple. As I have observed earlier, John’s Gospel avoids discussion of the expected Christian rituals of baptism and Eucharist and yet maintains a concern for the practice of ritual; Nagy, too, notices this feature in the heroic epics that are the focus of his work, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The fact that John shares his concern for right ritual practice with Homer suggests that the leap from literary death to cultic concern is indigenous. Likewise, John’s location of Jesus’ death at the time of that other, ordinary expiatory sacrifice further establishes Jesus’ death in a sacrificial, and therefore heroic, context. In other words, John’s concern with right ritual practice combined with the manner and timing of Jesus’ expiatory death, as prophesied by Caiaphas, creates an image of Jesus that shares significant points with the hero of the epic and with Aesop. Jesus’ and Aesop’s manners of death are therefore comparable; in this way, Jesus can also be viewed as heroic pharmakos.

Wills also points out that there seems to be striking similarities between Aesop’s characterization and Jesus’: the travelling distributor of pithy wisdom is persecuted and eventually executed as a kin of scapegoat/pharmakos. Clearly much of Jesus’ narrative follows a very similar pattern, especially, Wills observes, if we consider Jesus’ relationship to his own community, oi ioudaioi. It is especially appropriate for the current study that Wills there quotes Nagy:

By losing his identification with a person or group and identifying himself with a god who takes his life in the process, the hero effects a purification by transferring impurity. . . . In such a hero cult, god and hero are to be institutionalized as the respectively dominant and recessive members of an internal relationship.

This method of establishing such an eternal relationship can also be observed in the romance novels we have been discussing so far. In each case, the protagonists have experienced alienation from their communities. There are some differences worth articulating: whereas in the novels, the great beauty of the heroines gave them away as divine creatures, Aesop’s disfiguring ugliness is remarkable. John Winkler calls this satirical characterization of the main character the trope of the Grotesque Outsiders, one who is more capable of penetrating humanity’s veneer because of his or her marginal status. As such, this characterization marks the novel as satirical, but this, Wills is quick to point out, in no way effaces its usefulness in examining the finer points of the genre as a whole, especially since Leucippeand Cltophon might well fall into the satirical camp itself. The overarching theme of alienation and execution in both Aesop and John also plays out in the romances; Aesop’s satirical ugliness functions has a reversal of the goddesses’ beauty, but further, the trope of the outsider is clearly visible in all the examples. In short, while Wills compares just Aesop and John for his comparison, for the purposes of this project, where consumption is also a factor, it is significant that the romances also follow this narrative pattern in which the protagonists experience exile.

Paul and the Rise of the Slave
by K. Edwin Bryant
pp. 57-58

I also employ The Life of Aesop as a resource for conceptualizing how Paul’s construction of messianic life reclaimed slaves from the deadening violence imposed on conquered peoples. This investigation makes full use of Aesop as a hero who, in grotesque disguise, utters critical truths and contests the legal and political definitions imposed on slaves. Aesop is a common man’s Socrates who “cloaked his wisdom in foolishness.” We suggest that Rom 6:12-23 demonstrates how slaves of Messiah Jesus re reclaimed from the sinful domination of Empire, and subsequently illustrates how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life provides eschatological comfort to the “vanquished.” Paul’s language in Rom 6:12-23 has more in common with the theatrical representations of slavery in the mine, than with the elite philosophical discourses of wisdom. Locating Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus in the language of comedy, jest, and the mime maybe controversial. Nevertheless, it seems clear that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was formulated from a grotesque perspective, in response to violence, and to facilitate an upsurge of the human spirit that challenged slaves to rise above the profane and juridical conditions imposed upon them. […]

The life of Aesop provides suggestive parallels between Aesop’s fables and Paul’s characterization of his calling as that of a slave, particularly in the ways that both resisted and contested power relationships. That Aesop is presented as a hero who is ugly, deformed, and disabled contests the Hellenic picture of wisdom and intellect. The Life of Aesop frequently portrays Aesop’s wisdom as disconcerting elite persons and challenging them as subjects. Yet, at times, Aesop is unable to transcend his grotesque appearance. On other occasions, Aesop consciously employs his wit and ingenuity to create anxiety in members of his master’s social class. The Life of Aesop is polemical in that Aesop ruptures the legal and social definitions of the slave as a subject, and annuls the impact of the power imposed upon him. Xanthus’ students marvel as to how Aesop’s intellect is greater than their professor’s. That Aesop constantly brought about a reversal of expectations indicates that the problems associated with his grotesque appearance were intermittent. Nevertheless, it would have been difficult for most slaves to subvert the continuum of power without the help of a construct like Paul’s ethic of messianic life. […]

pp. 65-66

It may be that the grotesqueness of The Life of Aesop, and the positive valuation of the slave as a subject, will infuriate the “modern bourgeois readers.” Such a reading will undoubtedly elicit scandalous remarks and reactions. In contrast to the bourgeois reactions, the staging of Aesop’s many reversals “provide the only defense, and occasional revenge, for those who routinely suffered maltreatment.” Now let us imagine the implications for slaves in Rome, if they too, had an encounter with the divine and awakened to a new way to conceptualize their existence. This analysis does not suggest that Paul’s readers had access to The Life of Aesop, but does highlight the fact that a contemporary non-Christian source portrayed slaves with the capability to transcend power relationships; one can only imagine how Roman slaves could replicate the same conditions by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus through baptism. The Life of Aesop presents a literary source contemporary with Paul that, in a similar way, challenges slaves to subvert how institutions and power structures imposed identity on slaves as subjects. Paul’s theological concept of identity formation subverts how the Empire imposed identity on subjects. Such a reading also asserts that Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus resonates with aspects of the slave Aesop’s identity that had been silenced by conquest. The Life of Aesop suggests how Paul’s polemical construction of messianic identity may have facilitated a role reversal that generated the acceptance of one’s new calling as a Slave of Messiah Jesus. On the one hand, this reversal of fortune annuls the negative implications of social cohesion and formation. On the other hand, we suggest that Paul’s polemical construction of messianic life contributed to an upsurge of the human spirit.

Second, the reclamation of identity generated the courage for slaves to resist aspects of the identity that Roman rule imposed on conquered peoples. After receiving his gifts from Isis, Aesop became aware of the maltreatment of slaves and contested how the propertied class exploited the ambiguities of slavery. Aesop was also conscious of how Xanthus attempted to exploit his intellect. In ways similar to the Life of Aesop, Paul’s description of himself as a slave of Messiah Jesus facilitated an awakening of Christian identity. The final episode in The Life of Aesop reveals Aesop’s willingness to be hailed by the deity in order to thwart the attempt of the men of Delphi’s to kill him. Instead, Aesop accomplishes his own fate to prevent dying at the hands of moral slaves. That Paul describes himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus serves as an invitation to auditors who were slaves to realize their calling by participating in the death of Messiah Jesus. We posit that the grotesque perspective generated the grammar required for urban slaves to imagine an existence apart from their legal condition.

p. 76

To contest the ways that dominium ideology facilitated violence required slaves to employ a grammar of resistance that permitted them to subvert the identity that Rome sought to impose on its subjects. Our exploration of The Life of Aesop revealed a representation of a slave who possessed the intellectual prowess to negotiate, and in some ways transcend violence, and subvert how masters understood the legal and political definitions of the slave as subject. Thus, The Life of Aesop provides a helpful resource for appreciating the language of Paul’s letters, at the same time that it illustrates how slaves tried to imagine an existence apart from the identity that Rome imposed upon them. In this context, we may form an impression of how Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus was understood by members of urban slave congregations. We propose that Paul crafted Rom 6:12-23 to convince Slaves of Messiah Jesus, who were restricted to conditions similar to modern ghettos, that they might awaken to a new messianic life. Thus, Paul’s description of himself as a Slave of Messiah Jesus functioned to reclaim slaves from the negative implications of subjectivity and generated a positive valuation of the slave as subject.

p. 200

Turning now to Paul, it is impressive how closely Paul’s requirements for slave participation in messianic identity parallel Aesop’s decision to take his own life rather than allowing the men of Delphi to force a meaningless death upon him. Paul’s exhortation to slaves in the “now” time signals that the only way to “rise” from the profane verdict assigned to slaves involved the willingness to share in the death of Messiah Jesus — only then can one generate a new meaning for life that transcends the imposition of Rome’s demonic rule. Paul’s repeated use of the word vuv (now, present time) in Rom 6:19, 21, and 22 confirms our exegesis of Rom 6:18-20. The process of interpelation awakened slaves to a new messianic consciousness that facilitated an awareness of how humiliation, torture, and violence were employed to reinforce the subjectivity of slaves as subjects. Thus, the positioning of “now” in Rom 6:19-23 announces an end to the domination, humiliation, and torture produced in a context of shame. Paul’s reference to the “now time” of salvation signals that slaves encountered “new ethos that had ethical and theological implications.” Roman Imperial ideology assigned slaves as weapons of wrongdoing: slaves can now participate in community with a “messianic consciousness.” Based on Paul’s use of […], we can say that slaves who participate in messianic community are able to reimagine their existence in positive ways without shame (cf. Rom 1:16).

Who and where is the enemy?

I was looking at some books on the ancient world. A few of the books were on Rome, specifically the changes that happened after Christianization.

People often talk about the Barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome. But the fact of the matter is that the German tribes that ‘invaded’ were already there living in the empire. They had been mercenaries for generations and were trained by the Romans. They weren’t really ‘Barbarians’, in the sense of being a foreign pagan population that showed up from the wildlands beyond the Roman frontier.

These Germans were even already converted to Christianity, but it was at a time when Christianity was splintered in diverse traditions and beliefs. It’s quite likely that those in power feared the Germans because they adhered to heretical forms of Christianity. As far as that goes, most early Christians would be labeled as heretics by the heresiologists. That was fine until the heresiologists attempted to oppress and kill all competing Christian adherents. Maybe the German Christians took that personally and decided to fight for not just their sovereignty but also their religious freedom.

So, it was really just one population of Christians in Rome deciding to take power from or simply overthrow another population of Christians in Rome. Those Romanized and Christianized Germans would become the great monarchies and empires of Europe, such as the French Normans that turned much of Britain into England. And it was the Norman-descended Cavaliers who reinstated the monarchy after the English Civil War, creating modern England.

All that was meant in the ancient world by someone being Barbarian was that they were of a different ethnicity. It literally meant someone outside of one’s door, which is to say outside of one’s community. And in the Roman Empire, many ethnicities maintained separate communities. The Jews were Barbarians as well and the Romans feared them as well, although their earlier revolt failed.

It is interesting to think about those early German Christians that helped topple the Roman Empire. Maybe they were practicing for the later Protestant Reformation.

The original Lutherans, Anabaptists, Pietists, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, etc were Germans. Calvin’s father came from the northern borderlands of the Roman Empire, in a town established by Romanized Gauls, and after Calvin escaped France Calvinism took hold in Switzerland. Huguenots also lived in the border regions of what once was the Roman Empire. The population out of which Puritanism arose, influenced by some of these German Christians, was of German descent. The English Midlands where the Scandinavians settled gave birth to Quakers and other dissenter traditions.

German Christians, along with other Northern European and British Christians, were constantly causing trouble. This challenging of religious authority lasted for more than a millennia. And to a lesser degree it continues. In the majority Germanic Midwest of the United States, this struggle over Christianity continues with much challenge and competition. The Midwestern Methodist church where my Germanic grandfather was once minister ended when some in the congregation challenged central church authority.

Christian authority is on the wane these days, though. American fundamentalists like to think of the United States as the last great bastion of Christian authority, like the Christianized Roman Empire once was. But if Washington is to fall as did Rome, it will likely be from an invading army of non-believers, of secularists, agnostics, and atheists. Maybe similar to those Germanic mercenaries but minus the Christianity, the defense contract mercenaries will grow so powerful that in their Godless capitalism they will turn against their weakened American rulers. Corporatism will be our new religion, as the American empire collapses and disintegrates into corporate fiefdoms. Some would argue that corporatism is already our new religion.

Anyway, if history is to be repeated, the so-called barbarians at the gates are already here. And they have been here for a while. They won’t need to invade, as they were welcomed in long ago and were enculturated into our society. The mercenaries of our society, whether taken literally or metaphorically, might turn out to be a fifth column. The enemy within might be those we perceive as protecting us, until it’s too late. Mercenaries aren’t always known for their loyalty. So, who are the mercenaries in our society, the guns-for-hire? And who is the real enemy in this situation? The mercenaries of our society would answer that question differently, as did the German mercenaries living in the Roman Empire.

Christians Dancing

In Dancing in the Streets, Barbara Ehrenreich writes that (p.58):

From a Roman perspective, Christianity was at first just another “oriental” religion coming out of the east, and, like others of similar provenance, attractive to women and the poor. It offered direct communion with the deity, with the promise of eternal life, but so did many of the other imported religions that so vexed the Roman authorities. In fact, there is reason to think that early Christianity was itself an ecstatic religion, overlapping the cult of Dionysus.

The Roman Empire looked east, to the “Orient”. Almost everything of significance was came from that direction where most of the other great empires, societies, and cities were to be found: Persia, Greece, Alexandria, etc. Jews and early Christians, to the Roman mind, were perceived as Easterners. A practice like circumcision made Jews stand out in Rome, but in the East there were other religions and ethnic groups that did the same thing.

Jews and Christians, along with Stoics and the worshippers of Dionysus, Isis, and many others — they were all hard to tell apart. Before the Romans came to power, the Greeks developed a worldview of everyone who wasn’t Greek was therefore a Barabarian. In the ancient world, it was only the ruling authorities of the empires that eventually became concerned about sorting people into the proper box and labeling them accordingly.

So, if you vaguely looked like or did anything approximating the behavior of some known group, that is who you’d get lumped with. Simply refusing to eat Pork because you were a vegetarian could get you accused of being a Jew. At times, being Jewish had great advantages and so large numbers converted to Judaism. And at other times, some other identity was preferable. Ancient people were often taken at their word. If you claimed to be a member of a particular religion, ethnicity or nationality, you’d likely be treated as such.

It wasn’t usually a matter of deception, though. Most ancient people had fluid and overlapping identities. The distinction between one group and another was often rather fuzzy. The various populations were constantly intermingling, borrowing traditions from each other, incorporating foreign elements into their religions, and otherwise shifting their identities and cultures as social and political conditions changed.

Ancient people didn’t think in modern terms. But there was beginning to be changes. With the rise of colonial and expansionist empires during the Axial Age, the greater contact put greater emphasis on identity. This can be sensed most clearly in the late Axial Age when religions like Christianity arose. If you were in the growing Roman Empire, how a group defined themselves and were perceived became increasingly important. This is why, “The obvious parallel between the Christ story and that of pagan victim gods was a source of great chagrin to second-century Church fathers” (p. 58). Paul, as a Roman citizen, was particularly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Roman authorities and within Roman society.

This was a challenge. It was obvious to everyone involved that Christianity had borrowed heavily from diverse religious and philosophical traditions. There was nothing unique about early Christianity. There were thousands of small cults like it. The worst part about it, from a Roman perspective, is the stark similarities and connections to Eastern groups. And how could it be denied. The first Christians were themselves Jews who were from the East.

The Jews had spent centuries mixing up various oral traditions with elements of nearby religions before writing any of it down. Then the Jews became heavily enmeshed in Greek culture. In the centuries immediately prior to Christianity, many Jews were worshipping pagan deities, including the ancient practice of conflating deities. Yahweh, for many Jews and non-Jews alike, had become identified with Zeus and/or Dionysus, the relation between those two Greek gods laying the ground work for the relationship between Yahweh and Jesus. Ehrenreich briefly quotes from Robert M. Price’s “Christianty, Diaspora Judaism, and Roman Crisis” and here is the passage she quoted from:

What about the challenges of Diaspora assimilationism? There surely was such a thing as Jews taking attractive features of Gentile faiths and mixing them with their own. My caveat is just to say that wildly diverse Judaism already existed back in the Holy Land. And I would say the mythemes later assimilated from Hellenistic Mystery Religions were able to gain entry because they answered to elements already present in Judaism, perhaps all the more attractive once they had become forbidden fruit in the wake of Javneh. In other words, when the family next door celebrated the death and resurrection of Osiris or Adonis this might appeal to a Jew who was dimly aware that his grandfathers had celebrated pretty much the same rites in honor of Baal, Tammuz, or even Isaac, years before.17 2 Maccabees 6:7 tells us that Antiochus converted large numbers of Jews to the worship of Dionysus. One suspects it was no arduous task, given that some Greek writers already considered Jehovah simply another local variant of Dionysus anyway. The Sabazius religion of Phrygia is plainly an example of worshipping Jehovah as Dionysus. The Phrygian Attis was another version of Adam, his mother and lover Cybele a cognate form of Eve. No wonder the Naasene Document identifies the resurrected Jesus with both Attis and Adam. No wonder we have Jewish sarcophagi from this period depicting both the menorah and the symbol of the resurrected Attis.18

The temptations and challenges of the Diaspora only served to increase the diversity of ancient Judaism, a diversity directly reflected in emerging Christianity, which demonstrably partakes of Jewish Gnosticism,19 Zoroastrianism,20 the Mystery Cults, etc. As Rodney Stark has shown, Diaspora Jews remained a major and continuous source of new Christian converts on into the fifth century.21 Christianity would have been, Stark very plausibly surmises, the ideal assimilation vehicle, since the “new” faith allowed one to retain the cherished ethical monotheism of Judaism yet without keeping up the walls of purity rules that separated one (arbitrarily, as it seemed, and as it would seem again to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Reform Jews) from one’s neighbors. It seems to me that adherence to Christianity (the “true Israel”) would also have been the natural way of clinging to traditional elements of popular Judaism upon which Orthodoxy had frowned but which, as Barker shows, had never died out. I suspect that such Christian-leaning Jews eyed emergent Rabbinic Javneh Judaism as a modern product and viewed it as most pious non-Pharisaic Jews had always viewed the stricter party of the Pharisees (and the Essenes). It would have been entirely natural for Christianizing Jews, hanging on to cherished “underground” mythemes, etc., to have viewed themselves as the real Judaism, the old-time religion. We have, again, been too eager to take the Rabbinic claims to pedigree and originality at face value. Perhaps one more piece of evidence that this is a proper way to view matters is the otherwise odd fact that many Christians continued to attend synagogue for centuries, alongside church, often to the great consternation of their bishops. This implies that the synagogue-attenders viewed the defining label for their religiosity as Judaism, not as a new, split-off religion. Their Christianity was Judaism in their eyes, even if Christian bishops (like Chrysostom) and Jewish Rabbis alike bemoaned the fact.

That fascinates me endlessly. It was such a different world. Monotheism had yet to become monolithic because monotheism itself was a rather fuzzy concept. Sure, you could believe there is one true god, but which god and how many forms could he take. In practical terms, there is no absolute distinction between monotheism and polytheism. Even the Jews often referred to their god using a word that was plural, Elohim. There was a polytheism within Judaism that was very much within living memory of many ancient Jews. And it seems a cultural memory of this continued into the early centuries of Christianity, which maybe explains why there came to be so many violent purges by the heresiologists who gained power. In order to make Christianity into a new religion, they had to annihilate the last remnants of the old time religion. They were never entirely successful, but not for a lack of trying.

An area of struggle was the ecstatic tradition of Christianity. That is part of Ehrenreich’s focus in her book. What has dancing and related practices meant to humans over the millennia. We modern Westerners, especially Americans, don’t associate dancing with the Christian tradition. But there has been a long struggle about this within Christianity itself. And this struggle has taken many forms. One site of struggle has been the dancing so typical of carnivals and festivals. These ecstatic forms of religiosity have sometimes been included within Christianity, at other times they were merely tolerated, and at yet other times they were forbidden. There is evidence that in early Christianity dance was considered by many as a normal expression of worship and devotion. But it isn’t entirely clear what kind of dance it was. Ehrenreich discusses this in great detail (pp. 65-66):

Most of what Christians of the first and second centuries actually did together—whether they even possessed a standardized form of worship, for example—is unknown to us today, but the general scholarly view is that “church services were noisy, charismatic affairs, quite different from a tasteful evensong today at the parish church.”20 They met in people’s homes, where their central ritual was a shared meal that was no doubt washed down with Jesus’ favorite beverage, wine.21 There is reason to think they sang too, and that the songs were sometimes accompanied by instrumental music. 22 Justin Martyr, a gentile convert who died at the hands of the Romans in 165 CE, once wrote that children should sing together, “just as in the same way one enjoys songs and similar music in church.”23 Very likely, Christians also danced; at least this is how the historian Louis Backman interpreted various statements of the second-century Church fathers. Clement of Alexandria (150-216 CE), for example, instructed the faithful to “dance in a ring, together with the angels, around Him who is without beginning or end,” suggesting that the Christian initiation rite included a ringdance around the altar. At another point Clement wrote that in order to invoke the “zest and delight of the spirit,” Christians “raise our heads and our hands to heaven and move our feet just at the end of the prayer—pedes excitamus,” where, according to Backman, pedes excitamus is “a technical term for dancing.”24

So Christians sang and possibly danced, but did they dance ecstatically, as did members of the old Dionysian cults? The evidence for ecstatic dancing, such as it is, hinges on Paul’s instruction, in his letter to the Corinthian congregation, that women should keep their heads covered in church (1 Cor. 11:5). This may represent nothing more than a concern that Christianity remain within the normal pagan and Jewish bounds of gender decorum. After all, Paul did not want women prophesying or even speaking in church, despite the fact that he worked with women as fellow proselytizers and had at one point proclaimed that “male and female are one in Christ.” An alternative explanation for the head-covering rule, proposed by the theologian E. S. Fiorenza, is that the women of Corinth were becoming a little too exuberant for Paul’s tastes.

It seems that during their ecstatic-pneumatic worship celebrations some of the Corinthian women prophets and liturgists unbound their hair, letting it flow freely rather than keeping it in its fashionable coiffure, which often was quite elaborate and enhanced with jewelry, ribbons and veils. Such a sight of disheveled hair would have been quite common in the ecstatic worship of oriental deities.25

Roman women spent hours on their tight coiffures, leaving the long, unbound look to the worshippers of Dionysus, Cybele, and Isis. If we know one thing about Paul, it is that he was greatly concerned about making Christianity respectable to the Romans, and hence as little like the other “oriental” religions—with their disorderly dancing women—as possible.

This may seem like a rather tenuous inference, but the association between hair-tossing and ecstatic practice is widespread and was well established in the ancient world.

All that we know of early Christianity, along with most other early religions, is a fading memory of what came before. It was that fading memory that was written down and typically written down by those who were attempting to eliminate the traces of that memory. All that we can be certain of is that modern Christianity probably has little if any resemblance to early Christianity, in either substance or form.

 

* * *

Dance of the Savior

The Round Dance–text and commentary
by Michael Howard

Singing with the Savior: Reconstructing the Ritual Ring-dance in the Gospel of the Savior
by Erik Yinglin

The Evolution of Sacred Dance in the JudeoChristian Tradition
by Jade Luerssen

Greek Dance: An Ancient Link — A Living Heritage
by Athan Karras

Jesus as Lord of the Dance
From early Christianity to medieval Nubia

by Paul Dilley

American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues

I broke my policy and wrote a comment on an Atlantic article, Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church by Emma Green. I’ve tried to stop commenting outside of a few select places on the internet because it usually ends up feeling pointless. Some of the responses were unworthy in this case, but it turned out not to be that bad of a discussion, relatively speaking.

Despite the frustration often involved, part of me enjoys the challenge of formulating an informative comment that actually adds to public debate. Plus, it got me thinking about one of my ancestors, a country abortion doctor who operated when abortion was technically illegal in Indiana and yet the law apparently wasn’t enforced at the time.

That was a different world, when communities decided which laws they did and did not care about, no matter what distant governments declared. Most people were fine with abortions, just as during Prohibition most people were fine with drinking. Laws are only meaningful when they can be enforced and the US political system has often left much of the power of enforcement at the local level, which is how so many bootleggers avoided prosecution as their neighbors were the jury of their peers.

The following are my comments, my original comment first and then two following comments. I had several other comments in the discussion, but those below are the most significant.

* * *

Sertorius wrote: “These liberal Christian denominations have experienced a massive drop in membership. Example: the Presbyterian Church (USA) had more than 3 million members 30 years ago. It now has half of that.

“This is unsurprising. Why would people go to a church which doesn’t take the Bible seriously? What is the point? How is it different than the local meeting of the Democratic Party?”

Most young Christians, including most Evangelicals and Catholics, identity as progressive or liberal. Most young Christians also support gay marriage and pro-choice. They do so because they read the Bible for themselves, instead of trusting the words of fundamentalist preachers.

Thomas R wrote: “Do you have a source for this odd assertion? I believe a good part of why millennials come out so socially liberals is they are less Christian than other generations.”

I always find it odd when I’m asked a question like this on the internet. If you really wanted to know, you could find such info in a few minutes of doing web searches. Maybe a bit more time, if you were really curious.

I’m sure you believe all kinds of things. But your beliefs, if uninformed, are irrelevant. Many other Christians would also believe that you are less Christian. BTW, if you go back some generations to the early 1900s, many Christians were progressives and the religious left was a powerful force. This kind of thing tends to go in cycles. But there is always a split. Even as the religious right became loud and demanding, a large swath of silenced Evangelicals remained liberal/progressive.

Belief is a funny thing. Surveys have found that the atheists on average know more about the Bible than do Christians on average. So, if Christian belief for so many self-proclaimed Christians isn’t based on knowledge of the Bible, what is it based on? Does God speak to Christians personally and tell them what to believe? Or are most Christians simply following false prophet preachers? Since these preachers are false prophets, should they be killed as the Bible commands?

If you look below at my response to rsabharw, you’ll see how little fundamentalists actually know about the Bible. The irony of their literalism is how non-literal or even anti-literal it is. Literalism simply becomes a codeword for ignorant bigotry and dogmatic politics.

Anyway, most Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.

It should be noted that, on the issue of abortion, Millennials are in agreement with Americans in general and so it isn’t a generational gap. Young Evangelicals have always had high rates of premarital sex, going back to the largely Scots-Irish Evangelicals of Appalachia and the Upper South. Millennial teen sex rates now are as low as they were more than a half century ago (drug use and violent crime rates among the young also are low right now). Sexuality hasn’t really changed over time, even as rates slightly shift up and down in cycles. Even in early America, most marriages followed pregnancy and hence premarital sex. No matter what a belief states, humans remain human.

It’s similar to other issues, although often with more of a generational gap. Consider guns, a supposedly divisive issue but where the majority of Americans simultaneously supports strong protection of gun rights and the need for stronger regulation (and enforcement) of guns. Even liberal Americans state having high rates of a guns in the home. There is no contradiction between someone being for both gun rights and gun regulations, both being liberal positions, one classical liberal and the other progressive liberal.

In general, most Americans are fairly liberal, progressive, and economic populist on most major issues. But this political leftism cuts deep into the part of the population that outwardly identifies as conservatives. So, even conservatism in the US is rather liberal.

Public opinion, across the generations, has been moving left. But it is most clearly seen in the younger generation. Still, even the oldest living generation seems liberal compared to the generations that were alive before them. The Lost Generation (i.e., WWI vets and 1920s libertines) were judged in their youth by older generations just the same as young people today. This would be obvious, if so many Americans weren’t historically ignorant.

The greatest differences in opinion aren’t necessarily between generations. Nor even between Christians and atheists. The growing divides in the US are often seen most clearly within Christianity, between: Catholics and Protestants, Mainline Christians and Fundamentalists, white Christians and minority Christians, etc. But that has always been true, going back centuries. The entire Protestant Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and religious wars including the English Civil War) were about Christians struggling over who would get to define Christianity for others and who would be free to define Christianity for themselves.

Many of these are old issues. Catholics, for example, genocidally wiped out the Christian Cathars for practicing gay sex. Many denominations that exist today were created by congregations being split over social and political issues. That will continue. Rifts are developing within churches, such as the Catholic Church that is equally divided between the two major parties. The small town Midwestern church my grandfather preached in was shut down over conflict between the local congregation that was fine with a gay music director and the national church organization that was against it. In place of churches like that, new churches will form.

Thomas R wrote: “The rules on abortion and homosexuality are part of the faith. Both are found in the writings of the Early Christians and in the Catechism. (See Cyprian, Ambrosiaster, St. John Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), Severian, the Didache, Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, Canon 1398) As well as the statements of Popes.

“At the very least abortion after the first trimester is consistently considered wrong by the faith.”

Even most pro-choicers treat third trimester abortions differently. There is also a reason why pro-choicers like me are more concerned about preventing abortions entirely than are most supposedly pro-lifers, it being a question of prioritizing either moral outcomes or ideological dogmatism.

Your knowledge of Christian history is obviously incomplete. That is problematic.

Among early Christians, there were different views about life, ensoulment, abortion, and murder. There was no unanimous Christian belief about such things, something you would know if you knew Christian history. There is no scholarly consensus that most early Christians treated abortion as a crime. It was often a standard sin, like most other sex-related sins. As far as that goes, sex itself was considered a sin.

It’s hard to know what early Christians believed. When they spoke of abortion, they had specific ideas in mind based in a cultural context of meaning. That depended on when one considered the fetus or baby to gain a soul. Not all early Christians thought life, much less ensoulment, began at conception and so early endings of pregnancies weren’t necessarily considered abortions. That is a main point that many pro-choicers make.

None of the New Testament or Old Testament writings clearly and directly discuss abortion, infanticide, and exposure. It apparently wasn’t considered important enough issue even to be mentioned specifically, much less condemned. It was only in the following centuries that Christians made statements about it. So, if Christianity isn’t directly based on Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, then what is Christianity? What kind of Christian tradition isn’t based on the earliest known Christianity that formed by Jesus’ first followers?

Aborton didn’t become much of a legal and political issue until modern Christianity. Plus, beyond decrees in the following centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion, there is no evidence that early Christians were ever any less likely to have abortions than non-Christians, as decrees imply something is common in persisting and so requires condemnation. So, is Christian tradition based on what church elites decree or on what Christians practice?

If the former, then all of Protestantism is false Christianity, since it was founded on defying the church elite of the time (even the Catholic heresiologists were defying the Christians in the church that came before them, such as Valentinus and Marcion). But if Protestants are correct about individual conscience of the Christian, then what Christians do has more validity than what church elites decree.

This is no minor point with profound theological and moral significance, especially considering most American Catholics seem fine with not absolutely following Vatican declarations. This is further complicated since the various church elites over the centuries have disagreed with one another on fundamental moral issues, including on abortion.

Anyway, shouldn’t Scripture supersede the personal opinions of church elites, no matter how authoritative they like to pretend to be? No one speaks for God but God. The fact that church elites disagreed and argued with one another proves they are far from infallible. Even the Vatican didn’t consider church positions on abortion to be infallible teachings.

However individuals wish to interpret all of this, there is the issue of one’s response as a Christian. Since only liberal policies have proven to decrease unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortions, it would be the religious duty of any pro-life Christian to support liberal policies. Yet they don’t and instead promote policies that either increase the number of abortions or don’t decrease them. Those Christians are committing sin, in placing their political ideology above their faith.

When someone acts in such a way that inevitably promotes a sin, what should the Christian response?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-dudley/how-evangelicals-decided-that-life-begins-at-conception_b_2072716.html
My Take: When evangelicals were pro-choice
https://eewc.com/FemFaith/evangelicals-open-differing-views-abortion/
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/returntorome/2013/01/evangelicals-and-abortion-in-the-20th-century-a-hidden-history/
https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2013/01/22/roe-v-wade-anniversary-how-abortion-became-an-evangelical-issue/11238
http://religiondispatches.org/the-not-so-lofty-origins-of-the-evangelical-pro-life-movement/
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Christian_thought_on_abortion

“There is scholarly disagreement on how early Christians felt about abortion. Some scholars have concluded that early Christians took a nuanced stance on what is now called abortion, and that at different and in separate places early Christians have taken different stances. Other scholars have concluded that early Christians considered abortion a sin at all stages; though there is disagreement over their thoughts on what type of sin it was and how grave a sin it was held to be. Some early Christians believed that the embryo did not have a soul from conception, and consequently opinion was divided as to whether early abortion was murder or ethically equivalent to murder.”

http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/History_of_abortion#Early_Christianity

“Neither the Old nor New Testament of the Bible make any specific mention of abortion, though Numbers 5:11-31 refers to a ritual known as the “ordeal of the bitter water”, which will test if a woman has been faithful to her husband by giving her a special potion concocted by a priest, possibly an abortifacient. If the woman was unfaithful, this will cause her “thigh” (a biblical euphemism for the woman’s reproductive organs, as well as any embryo contained within) to “swell and fall away” (some texts use the term “rupture” instead of “fall away”), which is a likely reference to miscarriage. Because of the Bible’s authors being so fond of euphemisms, it is a matter of debate whether this text is an endorsement for abortion when the woman is impregnated by someone who is not her husband (euphemistic interpretation) or simply a ritual that would presumably kill the wife for her adultery (literal interpretation).[13] The actual views of Christian society and the Church can definitively be gathered only via other extra-Biblical writings on theology and ethics.

“During the first and second century CE, abortion, intentional or forced miscarriages, and infanticide, were all commonplace, as families faced serious limitations on the number of people they could support. Though legal and ethical texts seem to suggest that this was somehow sinful, it did not take on any serious move to create or enforce a prohibition against abortion or infanticide. Scholars[14] have suggested that in the very early parts of the 1st and 2nd centuries, discussions about abortion and infanticide were effectively the same issue.

“By the mid-2nd century however, Christians separated themselves from the pagan Romans and proclaimed that the theological and legal issues with abortion had nothing to do with the father’s rights, but with God’s view of the sanctity of life itself. It was as bad a sin as any other sexual sin, including contraception and intentional sterilization, which suggested that a central issue was the giving of one’s body to God and being open for procreation as much as it was the inherent value of the unborn’s life. The issue of when the soul enters the body, and if that should affect the ethics of abortion, remained unresolved, though Augustine of Hippo offered his opinion that it did not enter until the third or sixth month, depending on the sex (the latter for girls). However, while he did not view abortion as murder until that point, it was still a sin in his view.”

http://addictinginfo.org/2013/03/21/abortion-church-conception-history/

“Then, in 1869, completely ignoring earlier teachings, Pope Pius IX wrote in Apostolicae Sedis that excommunication is the required penalty for abortion at any stage of pregnancy. He further stated that all abortion was homicide. This was an implicit endorsement – the church’s first – of ensoulment at conception.”

http://sanctuaryforallfaiths.yuku.com/topic/2170/Abortion-and-Catholic-Thought-The-LittleTold-History#.WE__-_krLIV

“Most people believe that the Roman Catholic church’s position on abortion has remained unchanged for two thousand years. Not true. Church teaching on abortion has varied continually over the course of its history. There has been no unanimous opinion on abortion at any time. While there has been constant general agreement that abortion is almost always evil and sinful, the church has had difficulty in defining the nature of that evil. Members of the Catholic hierarchy have opposed abortion consistently as evidence of sexual sin, but they have not always seen early abortion as homicide. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the “right-to-life” argument is a relatively recent development in church teaching. The debate continues today.

“Also contrary to popular belief, no pope has proclaimed the prohibition of abortion an “infallible” teaching. This fact leaves much more room for discussion on abortion than is usually thought, with opinions among theologians and the laity differing widely. In any case, Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their personal conscience in moral matters, even when their conscience is in conflict with hierarchical views.

“The campaign by Pope John Paul II to make his position on abortion the defining one at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 was just one leg of a long journey of shifting views within the Catholic church. In the fifth century a.d., St. Augustine expressed the mainstream view that early abortion required penance only for sexual sin. Eight centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas agreed, saying abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was “ensouled,” and ensoulment, he was sure, occurred well after conception. The position that abortion is a serious sin akin to murder and is grounds for excommunication only became established 150 years ago.”

‘An Intercultural Perspective on Human Embryonic Cell Research’ by Leroy Walters
Stem Cells, Human Embryos and Ethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives
edited by Lars Østnor
p. 106

“”In the early centuries of Christianity there was diversity of opinion on the question of abortion. In a Roman Empire where abortion was widely practiced, some Christian theologians argued that every abortion was a homicide (Noonan 1970: 7-14). On the other hand, the ‘formed-unformed’ distinction came to prevail in the mainstream, or most authoritative, Christian theological and penitential traditions. Augustine presaged the predominant view when he argued that an unformed fetus had no soul and no sentience (Noonan 1970: 15-16). His view was accepted by Thomas Aquinas and by most theologians through at least the 18th century (Noonan 1970: 34-36). There is a nuance here that I do not want to obscure. Both the abortion of an unformed (that is, unensouled) fetus and of a formed (ensouled) fetus were considered to be sins. However, terminating the life of an unformed fetus was morally equivalent to the sin of contraception. In contrast, the terminating the life of a formed fetus was considered to be (unjustified) homicide (Noonan 1970: 15-18).

“The predominant Christian view was increasingly called into question in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, in 1869, the authoritative Roman Catholic view came to be that it was morally safer to assume that ensoulment occurs at the time of fertilization.”

Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood
by Kristin Luker
pp. 11-14

“SURPRISING As it may seem, the view that abortion is murder is a relatively recent belief in American history. To be sure, there has always been a school of thought, extending back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, that holds that abortion is wrong because the embryo is the moral equivalent of the child it will become. Equally ancient however is the belief articulated by the Stoics: that although embryos have some of the rights of already-born children (and these rights may increase over the course of the pregnancy) , embryos are of a different moral order, and thus to end their existence by an abortion is not tantamount to murder.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about these two perspectives (which have coexisted over the last two thousand years) is the fact more ancient and the more prevalent one. Their success in this effort is the product of an unusual set of events that occurred in the nineteenth century, events I call the first “right-to-life” movement. […]

“Similarly, although early Christians were actively pro-natalist and their rhetoric denounced abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and castration as all being morally equivalent to murder, the legal and moral treatment of these acts—and particularly the treatment of abortion—was never consistent with the rhetoric. 4 For instance, induced abortion is ignored in the most central Judeo-Christian writings: it is not mentioned in the Christian or the Jewish Bible, or in the Jewish Mishnah or Talmud.* Abortion, it is true, was denounced in early Christian writings such as the Didache and by early Christian authors such as Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and St. Basil. But church councils, such as those of Elvira and Ancyra, which were called to specify the legal groundwork for did not agree on the penalties for abortion or on whether early abortion is wrong.

(“* Opponents of abortion sometimes argue that the Bible does express disapproval of abortion in Exodus 21:22-23. In fact, what is mentioned there is accidental miscarriage. The text says that when two men are fighting and they strike a pregnant woman, “causing the fruit of her womb to depart,” they may be liable for a capital offense, depending on whether “mischief” has occurred. It is not clear what is meant by “mischief”; the Hebrew word it stands for (“ason”) occurs only one other time in the Bible. Nor is induced abortion covered in the Talmud; for information on abortion in Jewish law, see David Feldman, Birth Control in Jewish Law, p. 255. The only related text in the Mishnah says that during a difficult delivery, an embryo may be dismembered until “the greater part” of it is born; only when the “greater part” has been born does Jewish law hold that the embryo is a person, and “we do not set aside one life for another”; see Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Medical Ethics , p. 184.”)

“In the year 1100 A.d., this debate was clarified, but hardly in the direction of making abortion at all times unequivocally murder. Ivo of Chartres, a prominent church scholar, condemned abortion but held that abortion of the “unformed” embryo was not homicide, and his work was the beginning of a new consensus. Fifty years later Gratian, in a work which became the basis of canon law for the next seven hundred years, reiterated this stand. 6

“The “formation” of an embryo (sometimes known as “animation” or “vivification”) was held to happen at forty days for a male embryo and at eighty days for a female embryo; the canonist Roger Huser argues that in questions of ambiguity the embryo was considered female. In this connection it is important to remember law—which were, in effect, the moral and legal standard for the Western world until the coming of the Reformation and secular courts—did not treat what we would now call first trimester abortions as murder. 8 (And given the difficulty in ascertaining when pregnancy actually began, in practice this toleration must have included later abortions as well.)

“Nineteenth-century America, therefore, did not inherit an unqualified opposition to abortion, which John Noonan has called an “almost absolute value in history.” 9 On the contrary, American legal and moral practice at the beginning of the nineteenth century was quite consistent with the preceding Catholic canon law: early abortions were legally ignored and only late abortions could be prosecuted. (In fact, there is some disagreement as to whether or not even late abortions were ever prosecuted under the common law tradition.) 10

“Ironically, then, the much-maligned 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, Roe v. Wade, which divided the legal regulation of abortion by trimesters, was much more in line with the traditional treatment of abortion than most Americans appreciate. But that in itself is an interesting fact. The brief history moral equivalent of murder.”

* * *

rsabharw wrote: “Where does it say in the bible that sodomy and child-killing are good things?”

Your question indicates why it is so important to have knowledge.

The Old Testament is one of the most violent holy texts in the world. God commands and sometimes commits all kinds of atrocities. Priests and prophets also made decrees that were, by today’s standards, quite horrific. And, yes, this did include child-killing (along with much worse, such as genocide and what is akin to eugenics).

Let me give an example from the prophet Zechariah. I find it fascinating because of the worldview it represents. This seems to imply that any Christian child who speaks in tongues or some similar act should be put to death.

“And it shall come to pass, that when any shall yet prophesy, then his father and his mother that begat him shall say unto him, Thou shalt not live; for thou speakest lies in the name of the LORD: and his father and his mother that begat him shall thrust him through when he prophesieth.”

That kind of thing is from uncommon in the Old Testament. I could make an extremely long comment just by quoting the Bible. Yet that kind of thing only involves children after they are born. The Bible is clear that a fetus isn’t treated as a full human and that death of a fetus isn’t considered murder.

For most of history, this was a non-issue for Christians. It was even a non-issue for most Americans until the culture wars. Earlier in the 20th century and before, the average doctor regularly did abortions, as it was considered part of their job. I have an ancestor who was a country doctor in Indiana, from the late 1800s to early 1900s, and he was also the local abortion provider.

As for homosexuality, the Bible has no clear and consistent position. Besides, no Christian follows all the rules and regulations, decrees and commandments described in the Old Testament. Even Jesus didn’t seem to have believed that his new message of love superseded the old Jewish legalisms.

If Christians are to literally interpret and follow the Old Testament, that means Christians can’t eat pork, shellfish, and black pudding; can’t get tatoos, cut the hair on the side of their heads, wearing of blended fabrics, charging interest on loans; et cetera. Plus, Christians would have to marry their brother’s widow, adulterers instead of being forgiven if they repent must be killed. and those with disabilities are to be treated as unclean like pigs. But slavery, genocide, and child murder are fine.

Yet if we are to simply go by Jesus’ words, we are limited to having no opinion on homosexuality and abortion. The best a fundy literalist could do is to cite Paul, but he never met Jesus and the evidence points to him having been a Gnostic (the heretical Valentinus and Marcion were among the earliest followers of the Pauline tradition, prior to Paul being incorporated as part of the Catholic canon).

So, if Christians don’t prioritize the teachings of Jesus over all else, what is the point of their even calling themselves Christians?

rsabharw wrote: “Abortion was illegal in Indiana in the 1800s. Therefore, your ancestor was not a doctor, but, rather, a criminal. The Hippocratic Oath specifically bans abortion. Any doctor who performs one is breaking that most sacred oath, and thus cannot call him or herself a doctor any longer.”

Studies show that banning abortions either doesn’t decrease or actually increases the abortion rate. It’s common sense that laws don’t always have much to do with actual human behavior. Even Christianity has been outlawed at different times and places, but it didn’t stop Christians from practicing.

Anyway, when did rural people ever worry about what political elite in far away big cities decided to tell the lower classes what to do? My ancestors in rural Indiana, besides including a country doctor who was an abortion provider, were also bootleggers. Screw you paternalistic, authoritarian a**holes! That is what my Kentuckiana ancestors would have told you. And I agree with them, on this issue.

We will make our own decisions and live as free patriots. Despite the laws, it’s obvious that the other rural people living around my country doctor ancestor were fine with what he did, for he was never prosecuted. These were his people, the place where he was born and raised. It was a typical community for the time. Few abortion cases were ever brought to court, despite it being extremely common at the time.

http://socialistworker.org/2005-2/562/562_06_Abortion.shtml

“History shows that women have always tried to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When safe medical procedures are banned by law, they have resorted to dangerous–sometimes deadly–“back-alley” abortions.”

http://www.indystar.com/story/news/crime/2016/07/22/feticide-conviction/87440440/

“The court also said that because many of the state abortion laws dating tothe 1800s explicitly protect pregnant women from prosecution, it was a stretch to believe that lawmakers intended for the feticide law to be used against pregnant women who attempt to terminate a pregnancy.”

http://www.connerprairie.org/education-research/indiana-history-1800-1860/women-and-the-law-in-early-19th-century

“In the early nineteenth century abortion simply did not elicit as much comment or controversy as today. Though not openly encouraged – and condemned in some circles – it was not necessarily dismissed out of hand if done early enough into the pregnancy. Abortion before “quickening,” the first signs of fetal movement, usually during the second trimester, was generally considered acceptable. “Most forms of abortion were not illegal and those women who wished to practice it did so.” As there were no laws specifically addressing abortion in the America of 1800, the only source for guidance was, again, English common law, which recognized quickening. […]

“These earliest abortion laws must be viewed contextually to be properly understood. In the main, they were not promulgated out of any fervor over the “morality” of abortion. As mentioned, quickening was generally accepted by both the courts and the public as the pivotal issue in abortion. Abortion was not generally considered immoral or illegal if performed prior to fetal movement. Because this was so widely accepted most American women did not have to “face seriously the moral agonies so characteristic of the twentieth century.” That Indiana’s law did not specifically mention quickening should not be seen as a step away from the doctrine. Instead, it is likely further evidence that quickening was so ingrained that it need not be especially written into the statute. […]

“Whatever the reasons, Indiana had an “anti-abortion” measure on the books after 1835. It seems to have been a law little regarded and little enforced. It also seems unlikely that it prevented many women who wished an abortion from obtaining one. Chemical or natural agents for producing abortions were readily available if a woman knew where to look – and most knew exactly where to fix their gaze. Mid-wives knew all the secrets; druggists advertised appropriate potions; medical texts provided answers.

“To judge the relative importance lawmakers attached to abortion, one need only compare the penalties involved. Assisting in an abortion, or performing a self-abortion, was punishable by a maximum fine of $500.00 and a year in the county jail. Burglary’s penalty was fourteen years in the state prison; murder (analogous in some modern minds with abortion) was a capital offense. Clearly, the state of Indiana did not equate abortion with murder, or even stealing your neighbor’s silver service.”

http://civilwarrx.blogspot.com/2014/11/her-daily-concern-womens-health-issues.html

“As the above indicates, abortion, like birth control information, became more available between 1830 and 1850. That period saw a mail order and retail abortifacient drug trade flourish. A woman could send away for certain pills or discreetly purchase them at a store. Surgical methods were “available, but dangerous.” This openness and commercial availability was mainly a feature of northern urban areas. Like much other technological and cultural change, it was later in its arrival in the midwest, and the average midwestern woman likely had a more difficult time in obtaining an abortion than her eastern, urban counterpart if she desired one.

“It was not, however, impossible. Such information and abortifacients were within reach of a woman if she grasped hard enough. Herbal abortifacients were the most widely utilized in rural, nineteenth century America. Again, networking and word-of-mouth broadcast specious methods. Women who relied on such information sometimes resorted to rubbing gunpowder on their breasts or drinking a “tea” brewed with rusty nail water. Other suggestions included “bleeding from the foot, hot baths, and cathartics.” Midwives were thought reliable informants and were wont to prescribe seneca, snakeroot, or cohosh, the favored method of Native American women. Thomsonians claimed the preferred “remedy” was a mixture of tansy syrup and rum.

“More reliable sources of information were the ever popular home medical books. If a woman knew where to look the information was easily gleaned. One book, Samuel Jennings’ The Married Ladies Companion, was meant especially to be used by rural women. It offered frank advice for women who “took a common cold,” the period colloquialism for missing a period. It urged using cathartics like aloe and calomel, and bleeding to restore menstruation. Abortion information was usually available in two sections of home medical books: how to “release obstructed menses” and “dangers” to avoid during pregnancy.

“The latter section was a sort of how-to in reverse that could be effectively put to use by the reader. The most widely consulted work, Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, advised emetics and a mixture of prepared steel, powdered myrrh, and aloe to “restore menstrual flow.” Under causes of abortion to be avoided, it listed violent exercise, jumping too high, blows to the belly, and lifting great weights. Clearly, any woman wishing badly enough to abort could find a solution to her dilemma, without relying on outside aid. If she wished to rely on herbal remedies, they could be easily obtained. Aloes, one of the most widely urged and effective abortifacient, were regularly advertised in newspapers as being available in local stores.

“Of course, the number of women who availed themselves of the abortion option cannot be properly approximated. It is enough to say that abortion was feasible, available, and used option; it was a likely contributor to the birth rate falling by mid-century.”

Depths of Darkness, Glimmers of Hope

If you keep track of the religious right, you’ve heard of Christian Reconstructionism. It’s a subset of Dominion theology and advocates a particular kind of theocracy, what is known as theonomy.

Dominion theology is far from uncommon, although most support a milder form of it, not going as far as theocracy. Instead, the most popular variety is Christian nationalism. Dominionism is based on the belief that the American founders were Christian and so intended Christianity to dominate or at least define all aspects of society, maybe even the government itself (presumedly until the End Times; and, once the good Christians ascend bodily into Heaven, the Pagans would likely be allowed to takeover what is left of the world). Some Dominionists see the Constitution as a Christian document with the Bill of Rights as akin to an extension of the Biblical Ten Commandments.

They take this seriously. And they don’t see the claim of the Constitution being a slave document as being a criticism, per se. Nor that this contradicts it also being a Christian document. They do see racialized slavery as unbiblical, but not slavery itself. In fact, some of them argue for Biblical slavery.

According to the Old Testament, slavery is allowed under certain conditions. The intended audience, of course, were ancient Israelis; but that is a minor detail to the Fundamentalist mind. Anything and everything from the Bible must be applied to modern Christianity, except the parts that are inconvenient and problematic. The religious right believes they inherited the Jewish tradition and so the Israeli label. Also, in this framework, Pagan translates as non-Christian.

It is stated that Israelis aren’t as a general rule allowed to enslave other Israelis, but there are exceptions. As such, according to Christian Reconstructionism, it logically follows that Christians can enslave other Christians under precise circumstances, as long as it is voluntary servitude, except for criminals or enemies captured in battle who can be forced into servitude.

This is vague about whether a Christian captured in battle can be treated this way. In the ancient world, an Israeli was simply one who lived in Israel, as a Jew originally was one who lived in Judea (although over time such terms came to have other meanings), which leaves uncertain the labeling and treatment of various populations (such as Jews who weren’t Israelis or Judeans along with Israelis and Judeans who weren’t Jews); as another example, ancient Samaritans also used the same Holy Bible but weren’t considered Jews as they lived in Samaria, what was once the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not that the fundamentalist mind cares about such complications. Anyway, none of this applies to Pagans (i.e., non-Christians) who can be enslaved involuntarily and permanently by their Christian overlords.

A number of things are disturbing about this. First of all, it is shocking to see slavery being discussed in this manner. Even among those who advocate Biblical slavery, there is disagreement about details, about who is allowed to be enslaved and in what way. But it’s messed up that this is discussed at all, as if moral laws and social norms in a modern pluralistic democracy is to be determined through legalistic minutiae decreed by priests of an ancient religion.

Even worst, this isn’t being discussed just by right-wing loons. Or rather right-wing loons have made major inroads into the mainstream. Many politicians and political candidates have been aligned with this Dominionism and related worldviews, including several recent candidates such as Ted Cruz.

Even Donald Trump, despite lacking any evidence of being a Christian or caring about Christianity, has won majority support of white Evangelicals and their leadership (prone, as they are, to Dominionist rhetoric that resonates with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”). But to be fair he wasn’t their first choice. The Tea Party was taken over by this hardcore religious right, by way of the influence of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, and that is the movement that Trump rode to the Republican nomination. It was Beck, in particular, who brought the Tea Party into alignment with the old religious right, the paranoid reactionaries and Christian nationalists (e.g, the Mormon W. Cleon Skousen). It matters little that Beck now fears this monster he has helped to create.

It’s not just the fringe Evangelicals. I know some local Christians who read Stephen McDowell’s Monumental in their Bible study group (by the way, they used to regularly watch Glenn Beck). Living in the same respectable liberal college town as I do, they go to a mainline church with a liberal minister who recently began promoting gay acceptance. Their Bible study group is a mix of people, mostly moderate and mainstream as is found in a middle class Midwestern town — unlikely any Reconstructionist theocrats among them. Yet they were reading this text that comes out of the right-wing Dominionist movement, a text written by a guy who has advocated for Biblical slavery.

If someone like McDowell gets discussed in a Bible study group from fairly liberal church in a very liberal town, imagine where else in the country this gets a foothold. It’s not that these local Christians are going to seek to enslave me and my Pagan friends. But the Dominionist theology has many aspects that are as disturbing or simply problematic. The very premise of Dominionism is the opposite of a free democratic society. Still, you don’t need to go as far as Biblical slavery to see the dangers of reactionary politics, right-wing authoritarianism, and historical revisionism.

It makes one wonder how close we could easily come to the world portrayed by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. This doesn’t require the majority of the population to be right-wing Evangelicals, much less ranting apocalyptic theocrats. Most authoritarian governments don’t come to power through majority support. The conditions just have to be right and the population has to be in a great enough state of fear, distress, and uncertainty. Some divide and conquer could help, along with perceived enemies to scapegoat, foreign and internal. Even the slow creep of authoritarianism is bad enough, as we’ve seen in recent decades. The stage has been set for a full authoritarian takeover.

It’s happened many times before in many countries. The United States isn’t immune to authoritarianism. And as it has been said, “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Or as religious right leader, Russell Moore, recently put it, “The religious right turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.”

I didn’t want to end on that note, though. I don’t feel like countering fear with fear. My motivation was more simple curiosity. It can be surprising to see what ideas make their way into the mainstream. If you look closely, you can see many possible futures we are facing. Ideas are seeds. They may or may not grow. But once planted it is unsurprising to see them sprout, as has happened with the growing power of the religious right over the past half century.

Still, there are other seeds that have been planted. If tended, those other seeds could grow. There is nothing inevitable about the path we’ve been on. The world could shift in any number of directions. Trump may be doing us a favor by giving voice to one specter of authoritarianism, his fascist-and-fundamentalist-tinged proclamations of making America great again. But that leaves other varieties that might be even more threatening.

Sometimes it’s the fears we don’t see coming that get us. While we worry about the religious right’s support of Israel, as part of their Apocalyptic aspirations of bringing on the End Times, we can forget that the mainstream political left has its own designs for Israel that may lead us to an apocalyptic World War III (or simply an ever more destabilized, violent world). Pick your apocalypse. Or maybe it’s the same apocalypse, with different rhetoric.

We create the future we imagine. Peering into the American psyche at the moment, one can see dark visions. The few glimmers on the surface of the dark depths only offer the smallest of hope. Still, there may be real reason for hope, however tentative, so it seems when looking at demographic shifts.

Among white evangelicals, the young have never been fond of bigotry and intolerance. The same goes for young Catholics. There is a generational divide that cuts across all religions. Also, because of revelations, white women Evangelicals are abandoning Trump. All that the Trump has left are older white male Evangelicals, but old white male Christians in general have always been stalwart Republicans, no matter how far right crazy the party gets.

I doubt the religious right was ever the “moral majority” in this country, at least not in living memory. But United States has a long history of political and economic power being held by various minority groups. Even WASPs have never been a majority. Looking back to early America, it wasn’t just a minority of rich white male landowners that controlled government; also, the federal government was initially dominated by the Southern states, some of which were majority black. How did this plutocracy that was a minority even in their own communities manage to take over political power of a vast country? Never doubt the power a minority can wield.

For this reason, it’s good to see these fractures forming among the religious right. And it is good to see younger Christians turn toward a kinder vision. Still, we are far from being safe from the threat of authoritarianism. Entire societies can turn authoritarian quite quickly when fear comes to rule people’s minds. And there are many fears looming on the horizon.

In the end, my own motivation is more that of curiosity. I don’t have it in me to sit around worrying about theocracy or whatever. But I am always fascinated by society and what is to be found, when one goes looking. It’s simply strange to see these kinds of ideas floating around in the main currents of thought, like any other idea.

What most interests me is the fantasies that play out around these ideas. The human imagination is a powerful thing. And those seeking power realize this. But imagination has a way of taking on a life of its own. It’s not easily controlled or predicted. We can try to force imagination to serve our ideology or we can allow our ideology to be guided by imagination, the former is rhetoric and the latter makes possible the visionary.

The best antidote is to imagine other visions, to explore other possibilities. And to do so with humility. The future will become what it will, no matter what we may wish. But in coming to term with our own imaginings, we can find meaning. The one thing that can overcome fear is a sense of meaning. Christianity, at its best, also offers that vision.

* * *

What is Dominionism? Palin, The Christian Right And Theocracy
by Chip Berlet

DOMINIONISM RISING: A THEOCRATIC MOVEMENT HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
by Frederick Clarkson

KIRK CAMERON’S MONUMENTAL REVEALS SUBTLE INFLUENCE OF CHRISTIAN RECONSTRUCTIONISM
by Julie Ingersoll

BECK’S “DREAM”—OUR NIGHTMARE
by Julie Ingersoll

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

Mike Pence on the “American Heartland” and the Holy Land
by Shalom Goldman

Cruz Super PAC Head Promotes ‘Biblical’ Slavery for Non-Christians
by Bruce Wilson

“Biblical Slavery” For Non-Christians? Yes, Suggests Website of Mike Huckabee’s Favorite Historian David Barton
by Bruce Wilson

David Barton’s Plan for Biblical Slavery for America
by Hrafnkell Haraldsson

* * *

Books about Culture by Christians

Avatar: Imagination & Culture

Psychology of Politics, Development of Society

Different Republican Responses to Changing Times

I know a number of Republicans who hate Trump. They are refusing to vote Republican because of this. Some are considering the Libertarian candidate or else not voting at all. I suspect some might even vote for Hillary Clinton, God forbid!

One Republican I know well is really struggling with what to do. He has voted Republican for nearly every election in his in adult life and, as far as I know, he always votes. He is an old school mainstream conservative.

I overheard a conversation he had with his brother. Like him, his brother is a lifelong Republican. But his brother has a different bent, such as his having defended social liberal positions. I guess he might be a Rockefeller Republican or something like that, although probably not as far left as a Theodore Roosevelt Bull Moose Republican. Both of them are more conservative on economic issues. They can agree on much, despite key differences.

The brother is even more put off by Trump. It sounds like he is going to register as a Democrat. I know the brother fairly well. He is on the city council in the small town he lives in, and he ran as a Republican. If he does switch to Democrat, that could upset many people who voted for him and that likely would be a big deal in a small town.

Trump isn’t just temporarily turning some away from voting Republican. He may be permanently driving away quite a few. The GOP will likely never be the same again. Goldwater eliminated most of the moderate and liberal Republicans. Now the few remaining will be gone. It will leave nothing but the authoritarian extremists, the hardcore partisans, and I suppose the establishment politicians who have nowhere else to go. I’m not sure what kind of Republican party that will be (or what kind of Democratic party as well, once all those former Republicans join).

I heard the first guy I mentioned above talk to another Republican, a Trump supporter. It was interesting. I could feel the tension of worldviews. The two of them have been acquaintances for decades, but they never were the same kind of Republican. Still, I couldn’t tell if even this supposed Trump supporter actually took Trump’s campaign seriously, as he seemed amused by the whole thing. I guess he is for Trump simply because he is entertaining and because he isn’t a Democrat.

All three of these Republicans are Christians (and all older white males). Yet they are of entirely different varieties. The Republican-turning-Democrat is a socially liberal Christian. The Trump supporter is more of a fundamentalist, unsurprisingly. The Republican who knows both of these other two is more centrist in his Christianity, a moderate conservative, although moreso in the family values camp.

In talking to the Trump supporter, this moderate conservative ended up defending the morally relativistic position that scripture can be interpreted differently in terms of views about such things as homosexuality. It was interesting to hear a conservative Christian make such an argument in opposition to a fundamentalist. Maybe the socially liberal brother has influenced his views.

Strange times. Even old white males and conservative Republicans aren’t immune to change.

A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

* * * *

Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.