Archive for the ‘literalism’ Category

Most Christians are familiar with the account of Moses in the book of Exodus, at least up until the part where Charlton Heston Moses breaks the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments in righteous wrath. However, few Christians seem to be aware of the atrocities Moses commits while leading the people in the desert later on. In particular, Numbers 31 gives an account of the genocide that the Israelites perform:

1 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Avenge the children of Israel of the Midianites: afterward shalt thou be gathered unto thy people. 3And Moses spake unto the people, saying, Arm some of yourselves unto the war, and let them go against the Midianites, and avenge the Lord of Midian.

7And they warred against the Midianites, as the Lord commanded Moses; and they slew all the males. 8And they slew the kings of Midian, beside the rest of them that were slain; namely, Evi, and Rekem, and Zur, and Hur, and Reba, five kings of Midian: Balaam also the son of Beor they slew with the sword. 9And the children of Israel took all the women of Midian captives, and their little ones, and took the spoil of all their cattle, and all their flocks, and all their goods. 10And they burnt all their cities wherein they dwelt, and all their goodly castles, with fire. 11And they took all the spoil, and all the prey, both of men and of beasts. 12And they brought the captives, and the prey, and the spoil, unto Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and unto the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the camp at the plains of Moab, which are by Jordan near Jericho. 13And Moses, and Eleazar the priest, and all the princes of the congregation, went forth to meet them without the camp. 14And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle. 15And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? 16Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord. 17Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 18But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

To summarize this event, Moses ordered the Israeli soldiers to kill all the adult Midianite men. After the soldiers brought the women and children back as prisoners, Moses ordered them to kill all the male Midianite children, then to kill all the Midianite women who were not virgins, and then to divide up all the virgin women and children among the Israeli soldiers.

I think it’s safe to assume they didn’t keep the virgin Midianite women for their scintillating conversation.

Horrible, right? But in keepin’ it real, mainstream Christian apologists justify Moses by saying that the children of sinners can be spared suffering by being murdered before the age of accountability. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

In The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel writes:

…you need to understand the situation among the Amalekites. In that thoroughly evil and violent and depraved culture, there was no hope for those children. This nation was so polluted that it was like gangrene that was taking over a person’s leg, and God had to amputate the leg or the gangrene would spread and there wouldn’t be anything left. In a sense, God’s [orders to kill the Amalekite children] was an act of mercy…. According to the Bible, every child who dies before the age of accountability goes to heaven to spend eternity in the presence of God…. Now, if they had continued to live in that horrible society, past the age of accountability, they undoubtedly would have become corrupted and thereby lost forever.

In an article, Apologetics Press states:

However, to allege that the God of the Bible is some sort of “monster” for ordering Israel to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan exhibits an ignorance of biblical teaching. Those inhabitants were destroyed because of their wickedness (Deuteronomy 9:4; 18:9-14). They were so evil that their Creator no longer could abide their corruption. That they had numerous opportunities to repent is evident from the prophetic books (Nineveh did repent, for example, and for a time stayed the day of destruction). Complaining about Jehovah’s order to destroy innocent children is a vain gesture when one realizes that the children were spared an even worse fate of being reared as slaves under the domination of sin. Instead of having to endure the scourge of a life of immorality and wickedness, these innocents were ushered early into the bliss of Paradise. If the male children had been allowed to mature, they most likely would have followed the pagan ways of their forefathers, and eventually would have taken vengeance on the Israelites. Killing the males not only prevented them from falling into the same abominable sins as their parents, but also kept Israel from having to battle them later

And in an essay, Evidence for God states:

In some instances, God ordered the killing of entire populations, presumably including the killing of babies and children. Isn’t God unrighteous in killing these innocent little ones? First of all, the Bible indicates that all people are sinners, including babies, and worthy of judgment. However, the Bible also indicates that children are incapable of making moral choices, so that they are automatically rewarded with heaven.

You have to know you are taking literalism too far when your answer to the question, “How can the murder of defenseless children be justified by a merciful God and his prophet?” is, “Killing the children of sinners is more merciful than allowing them to grow up and become sinners themselves.”

There are two huge problems here for apologists. The more obvious one is that there has never and will never be another circumstance where the wholesale slaughter of people based on their nationality or religion has been considered a kindness. The second problem is that it’s hard to argue a pro life stance while you’re simultaneously claiming that it’s moral under any circumstances to murder defenseless children. Ironically, both Evidence for God and Apologetics Press hold a pro life stance.

Apologists, I find it genuinely disturbing that you could seriously claim under any circumstances that genocide is moral. Genocide is heinous, whether or not a deity tells you to do it. Your stance reflects poorly on other Christians. Please stop swinging the Hammer of Literalism before somebody gets hurt. Don’t you think there’s a better answer here?

Bill O’Reilly made the following statement in a segment in response to a viewer.

“Bill, in your Tebow segment you stated that Christianity is a philosophy, not a religion. You are incorrect. Christianity is a religion just like the Catholic Church and Judaism.”

Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel. Alright, listen up. Everybody, not just Daniel. Catholics are Christians. Protestants are Christians. But Christianity is not an organized religion. It’s a theology and a philosophy. You can be atheist and follow the teachings of Jesus, alright. The religions – Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics – those are the ones that you don’t impose on people. But the Christian philosophy was used by the Founding Fathers of the United States to develop our Constitution. The Judeo-Christian philosophy. That’s why the Ten Commandments hang in the Supreme Court.

I believe that Richard Dawkins coined the idea of an “Atheists for Jesus” t-shirt:

Atheists for Jesus t-shirt

While the discussion of what makes a person a Christian or a “true Christian” is an interesting topic, it’s also an abstract one for the most part, since a person’s faithfulness (or lack thereof) is between that person and their god (or lack thereof). However, Bill O’Reilly pulls this discussion out of the strictly theoretical in using it to justify a display of the Ten Commandments in the Supreme Court.

First, it’s important to fact check O’Reilly and note that the Ten Commandments do not hang in the Supreme Court. The designer of the friezes in the Supreme Court, Adolph Weinman, stated in a letter (preserved in the Supreme Court archives) that the Roman numerals I through X in the Supreme Court represent the ten amendments which comprise the Bill of Rights. While Moses is one of the many figures depicted in the Supreme Court friezes, his depiction has no special emphasis, and the Commandments with which he is depicted are 6 through 10 – the secular ones against murder, theft, adultery, perjury, and covetousness.

However, for the sake of discussion, we should broaden the scope of the topic to any displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. Is it a harmless gesture? Is it a patriotic demonstration of our freedom of religion? Is it a proud expression of faith that the Bible expects (or demands, or requires)?

Power of a Symbol

To answer these questions, we need to establish the power of a symbol. No, there is not a symbol out there that has any sort of supernatural power (so sorry Van Helsing, the wooden cross you keep handy will do you no good against Dracula). But symbols have power over the minds and hearts of those for whom and against whom they stand. The American flag is a rallying banner for all Americans. Think of the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima:

Iwo Jima

or the Apollo 11 moon landing:

Apollo 11

The American flag is such a poignant symbol to Americans that in many states, it is a misdemeanor to publicly or knowingly defile it.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon symbolized economic and military might to America’s enemies, which is why the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were chosen for the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.

So yes, visual symbols have power. However, what about a written document, such as the Ten Commandments? Can such a document be considered anything more than just a statement of belief or ideals? The answer is yes. An example of such a written document that is much more than the words which comprise it is the American Constitution. The phrase “We the People” has taken on a patriotic life of its own, even for those Americans who may not know the rest of the text of the Preamble. The oath of office of the President requires the President to swear to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This clearly does not mean that the President would have to stand armed with a shotgun in front of the National Archives if the US were invaded by enemies. It means the President swears to protect the values and principles upon which this nation was founded. So even a written document can take on symbolic power above and beyond the simple text it contains.

The Ten Commandments are a powerful symbol for the Christian faith. They are perhaps the only laws from the Old Testament not considered by Christians to be “fulfilled” by Jesus (in other words, the only laws from the Old Testament still considered to be valid and binding). And despite the fact that Americans know Big Macs better than Ten Commandments, many religious groups fight to display the Ten Commandments on government property. This shows the power of a symbol.

Religion or Philosophy?

The display of the Ten Commandments on government property would probably be a non-issue if the approach used in the Supreme Court Building were taken – the exclusion of the five religious Commandments. This neatly dodges the problem. But if we’re going to messily insist on an all-or-nothing response, we need to determine whether the Ten Commandments are a religious symbol or a philosophical symbol.

Returning to O’Reilly’s statement, that the Ten Commandments would be permitted to hang in the Supreme Court due to the fact that Christianity is a philosophy and a theology, not a religion. This statement implies that if we demonstrate that the Ten Commandments are a religious symbol rather than a philosophical or theological symbol, then they should not be displayed on government property.

There is spiritual value in many passages of the Bible when you sheathe the Hammer of Literalism. So even without a belief in God, a spiritual philosophy could be devised based on the Bible. This philosophy would have to omit those passages expressing or describing the worship of God, however. Religion describes the way in which God, the gods, or the supernatural are worshiped. So once I include commandments indicating which days of the week must be kept holy or how God can be addressed, I’ve left behind philosophy and entered the domain of religion. If I exclude the first five of the Ten Commandments, I’m arguably still within the domain of philosophy. But if it’s all-or-nothing, then we have to choose nothing.

When all other attempts at discrimination fail, the difference between a religion and a philosophy is that a religion is based upon a knowledge of the sacred, whereas a philosophy is based upon a knowledge of logic. While the moral conclusions of religions and philosophies will often overlap, their origins are mutually exclusive.

Secularism

You may be asking, “But why shouldn’t we display religious symbols on government property? Let’s take a vote. Let the majority determine what religious symbols, or lack thereof, to put up.” It’s true that we live in a Christian country in the sense that the majority of Americans are Christian. If the majority wants something, shouldn’t they be able to vote it in? The answer to this is, resoundingly, that majority vote is not and should not be sufficient to override a principle. The principles involved here are secularism and freedom of religion.

What guarantees our freedom of religion? Why do we even have such a right? The phrase “freedom of religion” is a derivative of the text of the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]

The First Amendment guarantees us the free exercise of religion (thus, freedom of religion). From this, it seems pretty straight-forward that the restriction of religious symbols, even on government buildings, violates the rights that the First Amendment guarantees. However, there are two parts to this clause of the First Amendment, and the first part is often overlooked. So let’s expand the ellipsis to see the full text:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

It’s not enough to guarantee Us the People the free exercise of religion. The Founding Fathers knew that it was just as important to ensure that the government never moved in the direction of establishing a state religion, which is what the first part of that clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) means. So the very first part of the first amendment in the Bill of Rights was written to ensure that the government would never attempt to establish a state religion. And thus, secularism was born.

Secularism is not a tool of the left wing, nor is it the nemesis of the freedom of religion. In fact, secularism is the reason we enjoy freedom of religion in this nation. Imagine if with each new US President, the spoils system also allowed the new President to mandate the state religion. Sounds crazy? If so, then you’re taking for granted the rights we have today – the principles that distinguished us from the monarchies of Europe. British history is full of examples of monarchs who brought their religion with them to the throne, or used religion as a weapon against their enemies (Henry VIII and “Bloody” Mary I, for example). And even if this spoils system were limited to nothing more than the choice of the religious symbols that would be displayed, we have already established the power of symbols.

Uncle Sam

Secularism protects us from extremist groups like the Taliban and from witch hunts like the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. And while we may scoff at these things from the comfortable point of view of the 21st century, the means by which we have reached such a comfortable point of view is secularism. People of all faiths (or lack thereof) should strive to ensure we defend this principle.

This is the reason that the ACLU is so uptight about harmless gestures such as nativity scenes or the Ten Commandments on government property. These gestures, however small, are symbols representing the violation of the First Amendment. And everybody, not just the ACLU, should be uptight about a violation of the First Amendment.

The Bible

This is, after all, Bible Study with Bill, so what does the Bible have to say about all this? Matthew 6:5-6 reads:

5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

The Hammer of Literalism can be applied here to beat the spirituality out of this passage. If we bludgeon this passage with literalism, we get an odd message out of it that says, “When you pray, you should pray in your closet with the door closed.” While this is a pretty clear argument against prayer in public schools, it’s doubtful that the author of Matthew really envisioned all these closet case prayers.

The spirituality of this passage is actually a powerful message. Your Christian beliefs should be your source of humility, not your source of pride. This message is a reminder of Psalms 37:11, that the meek shall inherit the earth. An aggressive battle to violate the principle of secularism and boldly display a symbol of your religious convictions on government property is not what the psalmist nor the author of Matthew would have wanted. Be humble in your faith, proud of your nation’s principles, and find the path of Christian spirituality.

Lot, the nephew of the patriarch of the Abrahamic religions, is famous for being one of three survivors of the fiery holocaust of Sodom. We know that Lot was spared because he was a righteous man (2 Peter 2:6-8), but why exactly did Peter consider him so?

Looking at the text, we can read about Lot’s travels through Canaan, Egypt, and Jordan in Genesis 11 through 14. Other than agreeing to part ways with Abraham in Genesis 13 to avoid a possible tragedy of the commons, we see nothing of Lot’s character outside of Genesis 19. So Genesis 19 must be the chapter upon which Peter bases his character judgment.

Before looking into Genesis 19, we need to look at the context. In Genesis 18, three men who appear as nothing more than travelers arrive at Abraham’s tent. Without being asked, Abraham rushes to show them all hospitality, bringing them food and allowing them to rest and refresh. As it later turns out, one of the three travelers is the Lord and the other two are angels. Abraham has unwittingly passed the test of the Good Samaritan. The divine reward for his hospitality is that Abraham’s elderly wife, Sarah, will miraculously bear Abraham a son.

As he shows the travelers on their way, the Lord informs Abraham that He will destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their unrighteousness. Abraham haggles with God and strikes a bargain in which God will not destroy the cities if 10 righteous men can be found living within those cities.

In Genesis 19, the test of the Good Samaritan passes to Lot. The two angels arrive at Sodom, and Lot immediately rushes to show them all hospitality. While hosting them that evening, however, a mob surrounds the house with the intent of “knowing” Lot’s visitors (in a Biblical sense). Lot offers the mob his virgin daughters if they will spare his guests, but fortunately for his daughters, the angels blind the mob and help Lot and his family escape.

In offering his guests all hospitality and in demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice his family for the safety of his guests, Lot passes the test of the Good Samaritan. Because of his actions, the angels allow Lot and Lot’s two daughters to escape the fire and brimstone they rain down on Sodom. Of course, Lot’s wife is not so lucky, since she commits the unpardonable sin of glancing behind at the destruction (in disobedience to God), being instantly transformed into a pillar of salt as punishment.

The lesson endeth not, however. Lot’s daughters take pity on the fact that Lot is now bereft of his wife and has no sons to carry on his name. So on the first night, one of Lot’s daughters gets Lot drunk and then has sex with him, conceiving a son. On the second night, Lot’s other daughter gets Lot drunk and then has sex with him, also conceiving a son.

We can see the parallels here. Abraham and Lot are both faced with the test of the Good Samaritan. They both pass. In Abraham’s case, his reward is that he is given foreknowledge of the destruction of Sodom, and he is given the blessing of a son. In Lot’s case, his reward is that he is spared the destruction of Sodom, and he is given the blessing of two sons.

Lot’s actions in Genesis 19 are why Peter deems him a righteous man. But taken literally by a 21st century that actually believes women are just as valuable as men, Lot’s actions are completely despicable. Imagine reading in the newspaper about a man who kept two of his dinner guests safe from attackers by allowing the attackers to rape his daughters instead. Or imagine a man who, when confronted with the fact that both of his daughters were giving birth to children he had fathered, gave the following response: “Well my daughter got me drunk, and I had no control over my actions. And then the very next night, my other daughter got me drunk, and I had no control over my actions again.”

Literalism kills the spirituality of the Bible. The point of the story is that those in need should be helped (the Good Samaritan test repeated throughout the Bible), and that those who are dependent upon you should be protected at all costs, whether or not they are blood.