Islam as Worship of a Missing God

A friend of ours is a Muslim and grew up in an Islamic country. As he talked about his religion, we realized how different it is from Christianity. There is no shared practice among Christians similar to the praying five times a day. From early on, Christianity was filled with diverse groups and disagreements, and that has only increased over time (there are over 4,600 denominations of Christianity in the United States alone). My friend had a hard time appreciating that there is no agreed upon authority, interpretation, or beliefs among all Christians.

Unlike Muhammad, Jesus never wrote anything nor was anything written down about him until much later. Nor did he intend to start a new religion. He offered no rules, social norms, instructions, etc for how to organize a church, a religious society, or a government. He didn’t even preach family values, if anything the opposite — from a command to let the dead bury themselves to the proclamation of having come to turn family members against each other. The Gospels offer no practical advice about anything. Much of Jesus’ teachings, beyond a general message of love and compassion, are vague and enigmatic, often parables that have many possible meanings.

Now compare Jesus to the Islamic prophet. Muhammad is considered the last prophet, although he never claimed to have heard the voice of God and instead supposedly having received the message secondhand through an angel. Still, according to Muslims, the Koran is the only complete holy text in existence — the final Word of God. That is also something that differs from Christianity. Jesus never asserted that God would become silent to all of humanity for eternity and that his worshippers would be condemned to a world without the God they longed for, in the way Allah never enters His own Creation.

Many Protestants and Anabaptists and those in similar groups believe that God continues to be revealed to people today, that the divine is known through direct experience, that the Bible as a holy text must be read as a personal relationship to God, not merely taken on the authority of blind faith. Some churches go so far as to teach people how to speak to and hear God (T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Even within Catholicism, there have been further revelations of God since Jesus, from various mystics and saints that are acknowledged by the Vatican but also from ordinary Catholics claiming God spoke to them without any great fear of hereticism and excommunication.

It made me think about Julian Jaynes’ theory modern consciousness. With the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations, there was this sense of the gods having gone silent. Yet this was never an absolute experience, as some people continued to hear the gods. Even into the modern world, occasionally people still claim to hear various gods and sometimes even found new religions based on revelations. The Bahai, for example, consider Muhammad to be just one more prophet with others having followed him. Hindus also have a living tradition of divine revelation that is equivalent to that of prophets. Only Islam, as far as I know, claims all prophecy and revelation to be ended for all time.

I was thinking about the sense of loss and loneliness people felt when bicameral societies came to an end. They were thrown onto an increasingly isolated individualism. Religion as we know it was designed to accommodate this, in order to give a sense of order, meaning and authority that had gone missing. But Islam takes this to an extreme. After Muhammad, no human supposedly would ever again personally hear, see, or experience the divine in any way (excluding mystical traditions like Sufism). For all intents and purposes, Allah has entirely receded from the world. The only sign of his existence that he left behind was a book of instructions. We must submit and comply or be punished in the afterlife, a world separate from this one

That seems so utterly depressing and dreary to me. I was raised Christian and on the far other extreme of Protestantism. My family attended the Unity Church that emphasizes direct experience of God to such a degree that the Bible itself was mostly ignored and almost irrelevant — why turn to mere words on paper when you can go straight to the source? Rather than being denied and condemned, to claim to have heard God speak would have been taken seriously. I’m no longer religious, but the nearly deist idea of a god that is distant and silent seems so alien and unappealing to me. Yet maybe that makes Islam well designed for the modern world, as it offers a strong response to atheism.

If you don’t have any experience of God, this is considered normal and expected in Islam, not something to be worried about, not something to challenge one’s faith as is common in Christianity (NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity); and it avoids the riskiness and confusion of voice-hearing (Libby Anne, Voices in Your Head: Evangelicals and the Voice of God). One’s ignorance of the divine demonstrates one’s individual inadequacy and, as argued by religious authority, is all the more reason to submit to religious authority. Islamic relation between God and humanity is one-way, except to some extent by way of inspiration and dreams, but Allah himself never directly enters his Creation and so never directly interacts with humans, not even with prophets. Is that why constant prayer is necessary for Muslims, to offset God’s silence and vacancy? Worship of a missing God seems perfectly suited for the modern world.

Muslims are left with looking for traces of God in the Koran like ants crawling around in a footprint while trying to comprehend what made it and what it wants them to do. So, some of the ants claim to be part of a direct lineage of ants that goes back to an original ant that, according to tradition, was stepped upon by what passed by. These well-respected ants then explain to all the other ants what is meant by all the bumps and grooves in the dried mud. In worship, the ants pray toward the footprint and regularly gather to circle around it. This gives their life some sense of meaning and purpose and, besides, it maintains the social order.

That is what is needed in a world where the bicameral voices of archaic authorization no longer speak, no longer are heard. Something has to fill the silence as the loneliness it creates is unbearable. Islam has a nifty trick, embracing the emptiness and further irritating the overwhelming anxiety as it offers the salve for the soul. Muslims take the silence of God as proof of God, as a promise of something more. This otherworldly being, Allah, tells humans who don’t feel at home in this world that their real home is elsewhere, to which they will return if they do what they are told. Other religions do something similar, but Islam takes this to another level — arguably, the highest or most extreme form of monotheism, so far. The loss of the bicameral mind could not be pushed much further, one suspects, without being pushed into an abyss.

Islam is a truly modern religion. Right up there with capitalism and scientism.

* * *

Further discussion about this can be found on the Facebook page “Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

 

“What would Mister Rogers do?”

“He had faith in us, and even if his faith turns out to have been misplaced, even if we have abandoned him, he somehow endures, standing between us and our electrified antipathies and recriminations like the Tank Man of Tiananmen Square in a red sweater.”
~Tom Junod, My Friend Mister Rogers

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is an inspiring and, in the end, a challenging portrayal of Fred Rogers, AKA ‘Mister Rogers’. It took some suspension of disbelief, though. Tom Hanks does as good of a job as is possible, but no one can replace the real thing. Mr. Rogers was distinctive in appearance and behavior. The production team could have used expensive CGI to make Hanks look more like the real man, but that was not necessary. It wasn’t a face that made the children’s tv show host so well respected and widely influential. A few minutes in, I was able to forget I was watching an actor playing a role and became immersed in the personality and the moral character that was cast upon the screen of imagination, the movie presented as if a new episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood had just been released.

The way the movie was done was highly effective. It was based on an Esquire article, Can You Say … Hero? by Tom Junod. It was jarring at first in taking a roundabout approach, but it might have been the only way to go about it for the intended purpose. Fred Rogers appears to have been a person who was genuinely and fully focused on other people, not on himself. So a biopic that captures his essence requires demonstrating this concern for others, which makes him a secondary character in the very movie that is supposedly about him. We explore his world by experiencing the profound impact he had on specific people, in this case not only Junod but also his family, while there are other scenes showing the personable moments of Mr. Rogers meeting with children. The story arc is about Junod’s change of heart, whereas Mr. Rogers remains who he was from the start.

This leaves Mr. Rogers himself as an unknown to viewers not already familiar with the biographical details. We are shown little about his personal life and nothing about his past, but the narrow focus helps to get at something essential. We already were given a good documentary about him from last year. This movie was serving a different purpose. It offers a window to peer through, to see how he related and what it meant for those who experienced it. Part of the hidden background was his Christianity, as he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. Yet even as Christianity inspired him, he never put his faith out in the public view. As Jesus taught to pray in secret, Fred Rogers took it one step further by keeping his faith almost entirely hidden. He didn’t want to force his beliefs onto others. The purpose of religion is not dogma or outward forms. If religion matters at all, it’s about how it transforms people. That is what Mr. Rogers, as a man and a media personality, was all about.

Some people don’t understand this and so don’t grasp what made him so special. Armond White at National Review wrote that, “Heller and screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster don’t show enough faith in Rogers’ remedies—and not enough interest in their religious origins. In short, the movie seems wary of faith (it briefly mentions that Rogers was an ordained minister) and settles for secular sentimentality to account for his sensibility and behavior. This not only weakens the film, but it also hobbles Hanks’s characterization” (Christian Faith Is the Missing Ingredient in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). That misses the entire message being conveyed, not only the message of the movie but, more importantly, the message of Mr. Rogers himself. As Greg Forster subtly puts it, “that is of course the whole goddamned point here” (Pass the Popcorn: Anything Mentionable Is Managable).

To have put Mr. Roger’s Christianity front and center would be to do what Mr. Rogers himself intentionally avoided. He met people where they were at, rather than trying to force or coerce others into his belief system, not that he would have thought of his moral concern as a belief system. He was not an evangelical missionary seeking to preach and proselytize, much less attempting to save the lost souls of heathenish children or make Christian America great again. In his way of being present to others, he was being more Christ-like than most Christians, as Jesus never went around trying to convert people. Jesus wasn’t a ‘good Christian’ and, by being vulnerable in his humanity, neither was Fred Rogers. Rather, his sole purpose was just to be kind to others. Religion, in its highest form, is about how one relates to others and to the world. Thomas Paine voiced his own radical faith with the words, “The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” I suspect Mr. Rogers would have agreed. It really is that simple or it should be.

That childlike directness of his message, the simplicity of being fully present and relating well, that was the magical quality of the show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I didn’t appreciate it when I was a kid. It was a fixture of my childhood, a show I watched and that was all. But looking back on it, I can sense what made it unique. Like the man himself, the show was extremely simple, one might call it basic, demonstrated by the same ragged puppets he used his entire career. This was no fancy Jim Henson muppet production. What made it real and compelling to a child was what the people involved put into it, not only Fred Rogers but so many others who were dedicated to the show. Along with the simplicity, there was a heartfelt sincerity to it all. The scenes with the puppets, Daniel Striped Tiger most of all, were often more emotionally raw and real than what is typically done by professional actors in Hollywood movies.

That is what stands out about Tom Hank’s performance in bringing this to life. He is one of the few actors who could come close to pulling it off and even his attempt was imperfect. But I have to give Hanks credit for getting the essence right. The emotional truth came through. Sincerity is no small thing, in this age of superficiality and cynicism. To call it a breath of fresh air is a criminal understatement. Mr. Rogers was entirely committed to being human and acknowledging the humanity in others. That is such a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people understood that about him, what exactly made him so fascinating to children and what created a cult-like following among the generations who grew up watching his show. As a character says about the drug D in A Scanner Darkly, “You’re either on it or you’ve never tried it.”

Some people claim that “sincerity is bullshit” (Harry Frankfurt), a sentiment I understand in feeling jaded about the world. But I must admit that Fred Rogers’ sincerity most definitely and deeply resonates for me, based on my own experience in the New Thought worldview I was raised in, a touchy-feel form of Christianity where emotional authenticity trumps outward form, basically Protestantism pushed to its most extreme endpoint. Seeing the emotional rawness in Mr. Rogers’ life, although coming from a different religious background than my own, reminded me of the sincerity that I’ve struggled with in myself. I’ve always been an overly sincere person and often overly serious, that is how I think of myself… but can anyone really ever be too sincere? The message of Mr. Rogers is that we all once were emotionally honest when children and only later forgot this birthright. It remains in all of us and that core of our humanity is what he sought to touch upon, and indeed many people responded to this and felt genuinely touched. The many testimonies of ordinary people to Mr. Rogers’ legacy are inspiring.

This worldview of authenticity was made clear in one particular scene in the movie. “Vogel says he believes his dining companion likes “people like me … broken people.” Rogers is having none of it. “I don’t think you are broken,” Rogers begins, speaking slowly and deliberately. “I know you are a man of conviction, a person who knows the difference between what is wrong and what is right. Try to remember that your relationship with your father also helped to shape those parts. He helped you become what you are”” (Cathleen Falsani, Meditating On Love and Connection with Mr. Rogers and C.S. Lewis). That dialogue was not pulled from real life, according to Tom Junod in his latest piece My Friend Mister Rogers, but even Junod found himself emotionally moved when watching the scene. The point is that what mattered to Fred Rogers was conviction and he lived his life through his own conviction, maybe a moral obligation even. The man was exacting in his discipline and extremely intentional in everything he did, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, as seen in how he maintained his weight at exactly 143 lbs throughout his adult life and in how he kept FBI-style files on all of his friends and correspondents. He had so little interest in himself that even his wife of 50 years knew little about his personal experience and memories that he rarely talked about. His entire life, his entire being apparently was focused laser-like on other people.

He was not a normal human. How does someone become like that? One gets the sense that Mr. Rogers in the flesh would have, with humility, downplayed such an inquiry. He let on that he too was merely human, that he worried and struggled like anyone else. The point, as he saw it, was that he was not a saint or a hero. He was just a man who felt deeply and passionately moved to take action. But where did that powerful current of empathy and compassion come from? He probably would have given all credit to God, as his softspoken and often unspoken faith appears to have been unwavering. Like the Blues Brothers, he was a man on a mission from God. He was not lacking in earnestness. And for those of us not so fully earnest, it can seem incomprehensible that such a mortal human could exist: “He was a genius,” Junod wrote, “he had superpowers; he might as well have been a friendly alien, thrown upon the rocks of our planet to help us find our way to the impossible possibility that we are loved” (My Friend Mister Rogers). Yet for all the easy ways it would be to idolize him or dismiss him, he continues to speak to the child in all of us. Maybe ‘Mister Rogers’ was not a mystery, but instead maybe we are making it too complicated. We need to step back and, as he so often advised, remember what it was like to be a child.

Fred Rogers was a simple man who spoke simply and that is what made him so radically challenging. “Indeed, what makes measuring Fred’s legacy so difficult is that Fred’s legacy is so clear.” Junod goes on to say, “It isn’t that he is revered but not followed; so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves. We know what Mister Rogers would do, but even now we don’t know what to do with the lessons of Mister Rogers.” He might as well have been talking about Jesus Christ, the divine made flesh. But if there was spiritual truth in Fred Rogers, he taught that it was a spiritual truth in all of us, that we are children of God. Rather than what would Mister Rogers do, what will we do in remembering him?

Enchantment of Capitalist Religion

We Have Never Been Disenchanted
by Eugene McCarraher, excerpt

“The world does not need to be re-enchanted, because it was never disenchanted in the first place.  Attending primarily to the history of the United States, I hope to demonstrate that capitalism has been, as Benjamin perceived, a religion of modernity, one that addresses the same hopes and anxieties formerly entrusted to traditional religion.  But this does not mean only that capitalism has been and continues to be “beguiling” or “fetishized,” and that rigorous analysis will expose the phantoms as the projections they really are.  These enchantments draw their power, not simply from our capacity for delusion., but from our deepest and truest desires — desires that are consonant and tragically out of touch with the dearest freshness of the universe.  The world can never be disenchanted, not because our emotional or political or cultural needs compel us to find enchantments — though they do — but because the world itself, as Hopkins realized, is charged with the grandeur of God…

“However significant theology is for this book, I have relied on a sizable body of historical literature on the symbolic universe of capitalism.  Much of this work suggests that capitalist cultural authority cannot be fully understood without regard to the psychic, moral, and spiritual longings inscribed in the imagery of business culture.”

Has Capitalism Become Our Religion?

“As a Christian, I reject the two assumptions found in conventional economics: scarcity (to the contrary, God has created a world of abundance) and rational, self-seeking, utility-maximizing humanism (a competitive conception of human nature that I believe traduces our creation in the image and likeness of God). I think that one of the most important intellectual missions of our time is the construction of an economics with very different assumptions about the nature of humanity and the world.”

 

 

American Spirituality

The United States is a religious society. But I don’t know to what degree it is a spiritual society. I’m not even quite sure what spirituality can mean here. There is an Anglo-American history of spirituality: Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Theosophy, etc. The Shakers are an interesting example, specifically of community. They originated from the Quakers, as they were the Shaking Quakers. They were really into communal dancing with the noise they made being heard miles away. They were also really into Spiritualism with their members going into trance states, channeling spirits, doing spirit paintings, etc. The Shakers, by the way, advocated abstinence. That might explain some of their behavior. They needed some kind of outlet. Avoiding sex meant they had to adopt children to maintain their society, which they did over a century. That is what happened to my great grandfather. He was one of the last generation of Shaker children. I would have loved to known about his experience, but apparently he never talked about it.

There were a lot of similar things going on during the revival movements of the Great Awakenings. All kinds of odd behaviors were common, from shaking to talking in tongues. The people believed God or the Holy Spirit came down and essentially possessed them. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in this country. There are still some churches that have such practices, including such things snake handling, though it doesn’t seem to be at the same level as seen in these once massive revivals. Interestingly, the Piraha also do snake handling when possessed, not that they think of it as possession. A possessed Piraha becomes entirely identified with the spirit, such that not even other Piraha would recognize him as anything else. The Piraha, by the way, have no shamanic tradition as such and so no shamans. Possession isn’t part of any formal tradition or rituals and just happens. Because of that, the Piraha might be a good framework for understanding some of the spiritual eruptions in American society.

Then there is the whole phenomenon of UFO sightings and abductee experiences, Mothman and Men in Black. That has developed into numerous UFO and alien cults (some good books have been written on that). Carl Jung considered UFOs to be an expression of a religious impulse, something new seeking to emerge within our society (see a letter he wrote to Gilbert A. Harrison and his book Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies). Like Jung, others have seen a spiritual/mythological component to this. The biggest name being the astrologer and computer scientist Jacques Vallee who noted the similarity between alien abduction accounts, fairy abduction stories, and shamanic initiations. John Keel wrote about similar things. In a scientific age, it is in a scientific guise that spirituality often gets expressed. This is the unexpected form that the next major religion is likely to take. In the way that the Axial Age religions took ahistorical myths and rewrote them as history, our society will take non-scientific myths and retell them as science. On a personal level, that will be how spirituality will be experienced by many — if not necessarily the rise of UFO cults, then something like it.

I wonder what it would look like in the U.S. if we had a fourth (fifth?) Great Awakening with the large revivals or else along these lines, although not necessarily in Christian dressing. Admittedly, it’s harder to imagine it. But secularism doesn’t alter the underlying yearning for spirituality, for something transcendant or other, something ecstatic and transformative. The hunger is there, obviously. It just gets subverted in our capitalist society. The closest we come is presidential elections when people become a bit mentally unbalanced… still, not the same thing, at least not these days. But according to early American records, elections were more like ecstatic Carnival with truly wild behavior going on. Elections with their group-minded partisanship — combined with cult of personality — can make people lose their individual sense of self into something greater (see Winter Season and Holiday Spirit). That maybe the main purpose of elections in our society, not so much for democracy (as U.S. politics fails on that account) but as a state religion. I sometimes wonder if our entire society isn’t possessed in some sense. That might be a better explanation than anything else. That maybe the difficulty the respectable classes have in coming to terms with President Donald Trump, as he is less of a politician than a religious figure. Heck, maybe he is a lizard person too, as part of an advanced guard of an alien invasion.

* * *

Inventing the People:
The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
by Edmund S. Morgan
pp. 202-203

There were other parallels in contemporary English country life, in the fairs, “wakes,” and local festivals that punctuated the seasons, where sexual restraints were loosened and class barriers briefly broken in a “rough and ready social equality.” 82 But these were simply milder versions of what may be the most instructive parallel to an eighteenth-century election, namely the carnival— not the travelling amusement park familiar in America, but the festivities that preceded Lent in Catholic countries. The pre-Lenten carnival still survives in many places and still occupies an important place in community life, but it has assumed quite different functions from the earlier festivals. 83 It is the older carnivals, before the nineteenth century, that will bear comparison with eighteenth-century elections.

The carnival of the medieval or early modern period elicited from a community far more outrageous behavior and detailed ritual than did the elections that concern us. 84 But the carnival’s embellishments emphasize rather than obscure the fact that make-believe was the carnival’s basic characteristic and that carnival make-believe, like election make-believe, involved role reversal by the participants.

pp. 205-207

Where social tensions ran too high the carnival might become the occasion for putting a real scare into the cats and wolves of the community. There was always a cutting edge to the reversal of roles and to the seemingly frivolous competition. And when a society was ripe for revolt, the carnival activated it, as Le Roy Ladurie has shown in his account of the carnival at Romans in 1580. But normally a community went its way with the structure of power reinforced by its survival of the carnival’s make-believe challenge.

To put this idea in another way, one might say that the carnival provided society with a means of renewing consent to government, of annually legitimizing (in a loose sense of the word) the existing structure of power. Those who enacted the reversal of roles, by terminating the act accepted the validity of the order that they had ritually defied. By not carrying the make-believe forward into rebellion, they demonstrated their consent. By defying the social order only ritually they endorsed it. […]

The underlying similitude of an eighteenth-century election to a carnival is by now apparent. The two resembled each other not only in obvious outward manifestations— in the reversal of roles, in the make-believe quality of the contests, in the extravagance of the partisanship of artificial causes, in the outrageous behavior and language, in the drunkenness, the mob violence, even in the loosening of sexual restraints— not only in all these external attributes but also in an identity of social function. An election too was a safety valve, an interlude when the humble could feel a power otherwise denied them, a power that was only half illusory. And it was also a legitimizing ritual, a rite by which the populace renewed their consent to an oligarchical power structure.

Hence the insistence that the candidate himself or someone of the same rank solicit the votes of the humble. The election would not fully serve its purpose unless the truly great became for a time humble. Nor would it serve its purpose if the humble did not for a time put on a show of greatness, not giving their votes automatically to those who would ordinarily command their deference. Hence too the involvement of the whole populace in one way or another, if not in the voting or soliciting of votes, then in the tumults and riots, in the drinking and feasting, in the music and morris dancing.

It would be too much to say that the election was a substitute for a carnival. It will not do to push the analogy too far. The carnival was embedded deeply in folk culture, and its functions were probably more magical and religious than, overtly at least, political. An election, on had no the other hand, was almost exclusively a political affair, magical overtones; it was not connected with any religious calendar. 90 Nor did it always exhibit the wild excesses of a carnival; and when it did, it was surely not because the local oligarchy felt that this would renew their authority. They would generally have preferred to preserve “the peace of the country” by avoiding the contests that engaged them so hotly and cost them so much when they occurred. Moreover, the reversal of roles did not go anywhere near as far as in a carnival. In an election, along with the fraternization and condescension, there could be a great deal of direct pressure brought by the mighty on those who stood below them, with no pretense of reversing roles.

The resemblance to a carnival nevertheless remains striking. Is it wholly coincidence that there were no carnivals in Protestant England and her colonies where these carnival-like elections took place, and that in countries where carnivals did prevail elections were moribund or nonexistent? Is it too much to say that the important part of an eighteenth-century election contest in England and in the southern colonies and states was the contest itself, not the outcome of it? Is it too much to say that the temporary engagement of the population in a ritual, half-serious, half-comic battle was a mode of consent to government that filled a deeper popular need than the selection of one candidate over another by a process that in many ways denied voters the free choice ostensibly offered to them? Is it too much to say that the choice the voters made was not so much a choice of candidates as it was a choice to participate in the charade and act out the fiction of their own power, renewing their submission by accepting the ritual homage of those who sought their votes?

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.

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

“We forgot.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”
~ Kurt Andersen

The 18th century captures the American imagination, for reasons that are obvious and less so. It was a pivotal point and many were aware of it at the time. Over the preceding centuries, Feudalism slowly declined for numerous reasons. The most obvious force of change was the enclosure movement that evicted peasants from their land, their homes, and their communities.

This created a teeming population of landless peasants who were homeless, unemployed, and often starving. This sent waves of refugees heading for the cities and later the colonies. It was a direct attack on the rights of commoners (what the American colonists referred to as the rights of Englishmen). With the loss of Feudalism, there was the loss the Church’s traditional role and intimate participation in the daily lives of communities (see Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich). There also was the compounding impact of the Renaissance, Peasants’ Revolt, Reformation, English Civil War, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and expanding colonial imperialism.

Yet, even as the early revolutionary era came to a close, much of the ancient world or the immediate sense of its loss was still fresh in living memory, at least for the older generations. Post-Reformation religious war went hand in hand with political and economic radicalism with early signs of class war, populism, and communism showing up as Feudalism waned, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the English Civil War. Immediately preceding the American Revolution, there was the First Great Awakening which kept alive the earlier radicalism while pushing it to further extremes, this being the initial motivation for the separation of church and state since the religious dissenters were being excluded and oppressed by Anglican state power.

Yet most Americans at the time weren’t formally religious. There were few ministers in the colonies, especially in rural areas. Americans had low rates of church attendance, with rates not increasing until the 19th century (see The Churching of America by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark). It was precisely this lack of formal religion that fed into a new rabid free-for-all where anyone’s religiosity was as good as another’s, where anyone could become a preacher and start their own sect or turn to whatever ideology they preferred, religious or anti-religious. This is how the influences of Reformation and Enlightenment melded together, creating a force greater than either alone.

Even so, the First Great Awakening didn’t directly impact many Americans. Those who heard the fiery preachers of the time were a small part of the population, although in certain cities it led to great tumult. The effect was uneven, some places unaware a change was happening. It was a slow build up of unrest as the American colonies moved toward revolution. It wasn’t so much religion itself but broader cultural shifts. The radical religious were getting louder but so were the radical irreligious. Both hereticism and secularism became virulent, sometimes flowing together as a single force, but not always.

Also, none of it fit into clear class lines. The upper class were filled with unitarians, universalists, deists, and secularists — this was seen in the founding generation but began to take hold earlier such as with Thomas Morton and Roger Williams. But some of the most heretical anti-Christians emerged from the working class, the most famous being Thomas Paine but included several other influential figures. The growing rift was not even so much between Christianity and atheism, rather more between establishment power and the challenges of dissent. On either side of the divide, many voices found themselves formed into a new alignment, voices that otherwise would have been antagonistic.

As with our present moment, the era preceding revolution was a struggle between the contented and the restless, with the former becoming more authoritarian and the latter more radicalized. That schism is a wound that has never healed. The American soul remains fractured. The caricature of culture war spectacle won’t save us. It’s not about religion. The American Founders didn’t forget about God. It wasn’t the issue that mattered then nor that matters now. Religiosity and heresy, even when they take center stage, are always expressions of or proxies for something else.

* * *

Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire:
A 500-Year History

by Kurt Andersen
pp. 56-59

Chapter 8
Meanwhile, in the Eighteenth-Century Reality-Based Community

THE TWENTY-FOUR-YEAR-OLD PHENOM GEORGE WHITEFIELD arrived in America for the first time just before All Saints’ Day, Halloween 1739. The first major stop on his all-colonies tour was Philadelphia. Crowds equal to half the inhabitants of the city gathered to see each performance. Among them was the not-so-religious young printer and publisher Benjamin Franklin.

Franklin was astonished by how Whitefield could “bring men to tears by pronouncing Mesopotamia, ” and “how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common Abuse of them, by assuring them they were naturally half Beasts and half Devils.” The publisher introduced himself on the spot and signed up to print a four-volume set of Whitefield’s journals and sermons, which became an enormous bestseller. But Franklin’s only awakening during the Great Awakening was to the profits available by pandering to American religionists. Over the next three years, he published an evangelical book almost monthly. With Whitefield himself, Franklin wrote, he formed “no religious Connection.”

Franklin and his fellow Founders’ conceptions of God tended toward the vague and impersonal, a Creator who created and then got out of the way. The “enthusiasts” of the era—channelers of the Holy Spirit, elaborate decoders of the divine plan, proselytizers—were not their people. John Adams fretted in a letter to Jefferson that his son John Quincy might “retire…to study prophecies to the end of his life.” Adams wrote to a Dutch friend that the Bible consists of “millions of fables, tales, legends,” and that Christianity had “prostituted” all the arts “to the sordid and detestable purposes of superstition and fraud.” George Washington “is an unbeliever,” Jefferson once reckoned, and only “has divines constantly about him because he thinks it right to keep up appearances.” Jefferson himself kept up appearances by attending church but instructed his seventeen-year-old nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” He considered religions “all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies,” including “our particular superstition,” Christianity. One winter in the White House, President Jefferson performed an extraordinary act of revisionism: he cut up two copies of the New Testament, removing all references to miracles, including Christ’s resurrection, and called the reassembled result The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth . “As to Jesus of Nazareth,” Franklin wrote just before he died, “I have…some doubts as to his Divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon…and I think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble.”

When somebody asked Alexander Hamilton why the Framers hadn’t mentioned God in the Constitution, his answer was deadpan hilarious: “We forgot.”

Yet ordinary American people were apparently still much more religious than the English. In 1775 Edmund Burke warned his fellow members of Parliament that the X factor driving the incipient colonial rebellion was exactly that, the uppity Americans’ peculiar ultra-Protestant zeal. For them, Burke said, religion “is in no way worn out or impaired.”

Thus none of the Founders called himself an atheist. Yet by the standards of devout American Christians, then and certainly now, most were blasphemers. In other words, they were men of the Enlightenment, good-humored seculars who mainly chose reason and science to try to understand the nature of existence, the purposes of life, the shape of truth. Jefferson said Bacon, Locke, and Newton were “the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception.” Franklin, close friends with the Enlightenment philosophe Voltaire, * was called “the modern Prometheus” by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and Adams was friends with the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, whose 1748 essay “Of Miracles” was meant to be “an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion.” America’s political founders had far more in common with their European peers than with the superstar theologians barnstorming America to encourage superstitious delusion. “The motto of enlightenment,” Kant wrote the year after America won its war of independence, “is… Sapere aude! ” or Dare to know. “Have courage to use your own understanding!”

For three centuries, the Protestant Reformation and the emerging Enlightenment were strange bedfellows, symbiotically driving the radical idea of freedom of thought, each paving the way for the success of the other. Protestants decided they could reject the Vatican and start their own religion, and they continued rejecting the authority and doctrines of each new set of Protestant bosses and started their own new religions again and again. Enlightenment thinkers took freedom of thought a step further, deciding that people were also free to put supernatural belief and religious doctrine on the back burner or reject them altogether.

But the Enlightenment part of this shift in thinking was a double-edged sword. The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever about every aspect of existence—true, false, good, bad, sane, insane, plausible, implausible, brilliant, stupid, impossible. Its optimistic creators and enthusiasts ever since have assumed that in the long run, thanks to an efficient marketplace of ideas, reason would win. The Age of Reason had led to the Enlightenment, smart rationalists and empiricists were behind both, so…right?

No. “The familiar and often unquestioned claim that the Enlightenment was a movement concerned exclusively with enthralling reason over the passions and all other forms of human feeling or attachment, is…simply false,” writes the UCLA historian Anthony Pagden in The Enlightenment: And Why It Still Matters . “The Enlightenment was as much about rejecting the claims of reason and of rational choice as it was about upholding them.” The Enlightenment gave license to the freedom of all thought, in and outside religion, the absurd and untrue as well as the sensible and true. Especially in America. At the end of the 1700s, with the Enlightenment triumphant, science ascendant, and tolerance required, craziness was newly free to show itself. “Alchemy, astrology…occult Freemasonry, magnetic healing, prophetic visions, the conjuring of spirits, usually thought sidelined by natural scientists a hundred years earlier,” all revived, the Oxford historian Keith Thomas explains, their promoters and followers “implicitly following Kant’s injunction to think for themselves. It was only in an atmosphere of enlightened tolerance that such unorthodox cults could have been openly practiced.”

Kant himself saw the conundrum the Enlightenment faced. “Human reason,” he wrote in The Critique of Pure Reason, “has this peculiar fate, that in one species of its knowledge”—the spiritual, the existential, the meaning of life—“it is burdened by questions which…it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also not able to answer.” Americans had the peculiar fate of believing they could and must answer those religious questions the same way mathematicians and historians and natural philosophers answered theirs.

* “As long as there are fools and rascals,” Voltaire wrote in 1767, “there will be religions. [And Christianity] is assuredly the most ridiculous, the most absurd…religion

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).