“Over the course of centuries, myths are invented, told, and then start to travel as they make the rounds, they are borrowed, reshaped and retold – often to fit a very local agenda.”
For most people who believe in a god, a myth is what someone else believes while religion is what they believe. They further use the terms pagan and heathen to signify people who believe in myths. But there can be no doubt that the quote listed above is accurate. From its very origins, Christianity borrowed from the surrounding myths that it encountered. When Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in 381 CE, it started to spread outward more rapidly in the centuries that followed. Each of the cultures that Christianity encountered had their own gods, beliefs, symbols, celebrations on specific dates, and other rituals. The choice Christianity had to make was to ignore them, appropriate them in their entirety, or modify them to suit its needs. Christianity often chose the latter. This post examines examples in five areas where this took place: seminal tenets of the faith, rituals, characters, physical locations, and specific dates.
One of the central tenets of Christianity is the death and subsequent resurrection in three days of Jesus, the son of god. Yet the resurrection of a god is hardly unique to Christianity. Dying and rising gods trace a long history likely based on the earth’s cycle itself where winter sees plants die off and spring sees them sprout again. There is also a natural occurrence of a three-day period with the waning of the old moon before the new crescent appears. These themes are present in many of the mystery cults that were practiced before and during the growth of Christianity.
Attis, the son of Cybele, brought to Rome from Anatolia, was celebrated in great processionals until 268 AD according to Merlin Stone. She further states that Attis “was first tied to a tree and then buried. Three days later a light was said to appear in the burial tomb, whereupon Attis rose from the dead, bringing salvation with him in his rebirth.” In the first century, the Greek cult of Orpheus was another mystery cult gaining followers in Rome.
Leonard Shlain claims that in the catacombs of Rome, “the Christ figure [appears] in postures indistinguishable from Orphic iconography.” Featured below is an amulet of the “Orpheus-Christ-Bacchos crucifixion.” Of course there is disagreement about these examples. Christian apologists say the death and resurrection of Jesus was unique. Mythicists, those who believe Jesus was not even a real person, use these examples to prove their point.
Baptism is an important ritual in Christianity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission.” Rituals with water are also common in other faiths. In Greek mythology, Thetis dips her son Achilles into the water of the River Styx which was supposed to have magical powers. But she missed his heel, thus the expression “Achilles heel” for vulnerability. Hindus wash themselves in the Ganges River at certain ceremonial times of the year. Very similar to the purpose of Christian baptism, they believe that it washes away their sins. Instead of at birth, they perform the ceremony every year.
The three wise men or magi who came to portend the future birth of Christ were given the names of Melchio, Balthasar, and Gasper in medieval times as the Bible does not name them. Magi are part of the Persian belief in Zoroastrianism. Today’s word magic is related to the powers they possessed. Kenneth Davis in his book Don’t Know Much about Mythology states they “would keep watch until a great star would appear signaling the coming
of a savior.”
Many of the Catholic Saints, such as Radegund, Milburga, Macrine, Wilpurga were named after grain goddesses. In a previous post, I told the story of Radegund. In this legend, Radegund passes by a farmer and tells him to say to anyone that follows that he has seen no one since he sowed his field. As Radegund leaves the crop sprouts and grows to full size. When the men arrive at the field, the farmer tells no lie when he repeats what Radegund told him to say. This is similar to many other myths about the grain goddess.
Appropriations of space
St. Augustine of Canterbury in the 8th century CE, when spreading the Christian religion in England, stated that he had come to the conclusion that the temples where people worshiped gods other than the Christian god should not be destroyed. “The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, altars set up in them, and relics deposited there. For if these temples are well built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God… And because they have a custom of sacrificing many oxen to demons, let some other solemnity be substituted in its place such as a day of dedication or the festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there.”
I had the opportunity to visit the Cathedral of St. Clemente in Rome. The structure where worship occurs today was built just before 1100. But as you take the stairs you descend to a 4th century basilica that was the converted house of a Roman nobleman. What is really amazing is that when you keep descending, you see what archeologists have uncovered and preserved – the altars involved in the worship of Mithra(s).
Megalithic stones, known as dolmens or menhirs, have been found throughout the world and date from as early as 7000 BCE. One of the more well-known compilations is located at Stonehenge in England where it is thought to have been a burial ground as are other such constructions. The largest collection of dolmens and menhirs is in Carnac, France. Philippe Walter, author of Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins, states that the Christian promoters who encountered these stones, which were still worshipped by the druids, transformed them into stone altars. In addition, they created the baptismal font based upon the ancient sacred fountain. Trees in the forest, where worship often occurred, were “transformed into the pillars and columns of a stone nave, with their ornaments of leafy capitals.”
The Council of Nicea in 325 established the date of the celebration of Easter as the first Sunday following the full moon of the spring equinox which was a date celebrated in several pagan religions. Why are eggs associated with this holiday? Because it is based on Eastre – a goddess of spring. What better way to celebrate the rebirth of spring than with eggs and bunnies!
One theory of the date of Christmas, December 25 is that it is based on the Winter Solstice and the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. This date was not fixed as the birth of Jesus until the reign of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, in 336 CE.
Saints were often associated with dates, characters, and symbols of pagan practices. Some surmise that the pig is associated with Saint Anthony because of the sacrifice of the pig in the pagan celebration of Carnival. Carnival was a religion that preceded Christianity whose calendar was based on periods of 40 days. It is interesting that Lent is forty days before Easter and Ascension is forty days after Easter. Lent prohibits the consumption of meat eating and may have been established to “exorcise this pagan figure as well as the table customs she encouraged.” The goddess he refers to is Carna.
Halloween is still celebrated today, but has come under some prohibition in certain Christian faiths and rightly so as it was based on the Celtic festival of Samhain when “people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.” Pope Gregory III made November 1 All Saints Day to honor the saints, thus October 31 became “All Hallows Eve” which of course we now know as Halloween.
This is just a small sampling of the similarities between Christianity and the other religions and practices it supplanted.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Karen Garst holds a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. She has worked as a field representative for the Oregon Federation of Teachers and has served as executive director of the Oregon State Bar. She blogs at faithlessfeminist.com. –Church and State
 Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much about Mythology (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 182.  Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1976), 146.  Leonard Shlain, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: Male Words and Female Images (London, England: Penguin Press, 1998), 229.  vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm.  Kenneth C. Davis, Don’t Know Much about Mythology (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 169.  Ibid, p. 3.  Philippe Walter, Christian Mythology: Revelations of Pagan Origins (Toronto, CA: Inner Traditions, 2006), 4.  Ibid.  Ibid, p. 3.  Ibid, p. 28.
Heard anything interesting about the "sanctity of marriage" lately? Here's why terms like "traditional marriage" don't mean what you think they mean.
A long time ago—2013, in fact—in a political galaxy far, far away—the Obama years, that is—the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 bill that took pains to define marriage as "a legal union between one man and one woman."
Thanks to that decision, the federal government can no longer deny benefits—in areas ranging from taxes to pensions to health coverage—to same-sex married couples.
Nice, right? Not if you're Representative Bill Johnson (R-OH).
"The President refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, despite his legal, constitutional responsibility to do so," Johnson lamented in a 2013 statement to Politifact Ohio. "Then, liberals on the Supreme Court refused to defend traditional marriage itself, even though that's what most Americans want. I will defend traditional marriage, because it's not a government's job to define it—it was already defined by God." (Our italics, his beliefs.)
For now, let's set aside the inaccuracy of the claim that "most Americans want" traditional marriage (62 percent of Americans now support same-sex marriage).
The fact is that there's no such thing as traditional marriage. There are countless marriage customs in countless traditions, and pointing to a single one of them as a monolithic baseline misrepresents the history of the institution as it's morphed through cultures and centuries.
“There were many traditional marriages in the past.”
But don't take our word for it. Stephanie Coontz, director of research at the non-partisan, non-profit organization The Council on Contemporary Families, literally wrote the book on the history of marriage. Ask her what "traditional marriage" means and you won't find any easy answers.
"There were many traditional marriages in the past," Coontz tells FashionBeans. "In some cultures, the tradition was for a man to marry more than one wife. In others, it was for a woman to marry more than one husband."
And that's just the tip of the cultural iceberg. So which tradition is Rep. Johnson referring to when he champions "traditional marriage?" We think we know: The legal and sacred romantic union between a man and a women, as developed by contemporary Western Christianity. (This discussion of marriage in the Christian academic journal First Things paints a pretty indicative picture of this perspective on the issue, even if the authors were too smart to use the hot-button term "traditional marriage.")
Well, our ancestors stretching back past the birth of Jesus sure wouldn't recognize Rep. Johnson's view of marriage. Here are a few of the things about today's rosy view of "traditional marriage" that the folks who predate those traditions would think are absolutely batty:
1. Marrying didn't have anything to do with romantic love until relatively recently.
The wedding-industrial complex is built on the notion of love, blissful love, and a celebration of that love that you've been dreaming about since you were a little girl. But though human beings have fallen in love since time immemorial, romance is a pretty late arrival to the institution of marriage.
“The one thing that all these varieties of marriage had in common was that they were not primarily about the union of two people who fell in love.”
"In some societies, descent and inheritance went through the husband; in others, it went through the wife," says Coontz, still ticking off the varieties of matrimonial experience.
"And several societies allowed marriages between people of the same sex, especially if they played distinct gender roles," she continues. "But the one thing that all these varieties of marriage had in common was that they were not primarily about the union of two people who fell in love and married whom they pleased."
The reality of marriage in centuries past was was much more practical than throwing the garter, doing the duck dance, and merging your bank accounts.
"For most of history, marriages were about getting in-laws," Coontz explains. "Marriage was the main way you established cooperative relationships with other families."
2. Marriage in many societies was anything but voluntary.
If you want to get traditional, you can't go much further back than that "cradle of civilization," early Mesopotamia. There was plenty of romantic love going on among the ancient Mesopotamians, as evidenced by their poetry.
In the myth of Nergal and Ereshkigal, for instance—a story that originated somewhere in the first millennium BCE—Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, misses her lover Nergal so badly that she sends the messenger god Namtar to fetch him back.
"[That god whom] you sent to me has lain with me, let him sleep with me!" Ereshkigal hollers, as reprinted by Uri Gabbay in the journal Near Eastern Archaeology. "Send me [that g]od, that he may be my husband, that he may spend the night with me!"
Outside of the Underworld, things were different for mortals. Greek historian Herodotus famously described a fifth-century BCE Mesopotamian tradition in which young unmarried women were made to stand on the auction block while men bid on their hands in marriage. A "herald" ran the wife auction.
"He began with the most beautiful. When she sold for a high price, he offered for sale the one who ranked next in beauty. All of them were then sold to be wives," Herodotus wrote, as reprinted by the Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Of course, Herodotus often got his facts about the "Babylonians" wrong, because, as Martha Roth points out in an essay in a book about courtesans in the ancient world, "Herodotus was not talking about a historical Babylon at all, but about the non-Greek 'other,' about the 'anti-type of the Greek polis' by which the Greek population could define itself." In other words, the ancient historian exaggerated or even fabricated stories about other nations in order to strengthen the in-group identification of his native Greeks—Roth writes that this criticism is "generally accepted among scholars."
Even if Herodotus got the marriage auction wrong, though, there's evidence that Mesopotamian women didn't have much say in their choice of husband. Roth points to the Sumerian Laws Exercise Tablet, a record of the ancient Sumerian legal system, which includes the provision that if a man "deflowers in the street the daughter of a man, her father and her mother do not identify(?) him (but) he declares, 'I will marry you"—her father and her mother shall give her to him in marriage."
3. Other societies were a lot more relaxed.
Not every early culture was as paternalistic as the Mesopotamians and some of those that followed in their footsteps. "Traditional marriage" among the Inuit or the San people of the Kalahari region might look a little more attractive to today's marriage-minded woman. (For a more current representation, look to the last matriarchal society known today, the Mosuo tribe of China.)
"Simple band-level societies, without much difference in wealth or social status, tended to have the fewest restrictions on individual choice [in marriage,] though most forbade marriage between members of the same clan or had preferential marriage partnerships with other lineages or groups," Coontz says. "But as societies developed differences in class and rank that could be passed on through marriage and childbearing, the controls over youth increased, and they fell with particular force upon women."
For most of history, marriages were about getting in-laws.
Women in complex, wealth-based societies couldn't be allowed to choose their own husbands, Coontz explains, because the family had to "ensure she only bore children to a man who would further the family's social and economic status."
This led to marriage as a system of control over women, suppressing their individual desires for the good of the family unit.
"A lot of the rituals we sentimentalize today, like the father 'giving away' the bride, derive from that time," Coontz says.
Traditions carry old ways into new contexts. That can be a double-edged sword.
Marriage as a Living Tradition
We like to think that traditions are immutable, the unshifting cultural bedrock we stand upon, when in fact they shift and change and crack and tumble through the course of many generations. Marriage is no different. Just look at the changes we've seen throughout the 20th century.
"Almost every decade since the 1960s has seen an increase in our expectations of equality [between spouses,]" Coontz says. (For more on the changes in marriage and family life in the second half of the 20th century, see this article from The New York Times, to which Coontz also contributed.)
The move toward parity between husbands and wives—and, since the same-sex marriage revolution of the 2010s, couples of all description—seemed to reach some sort of tipping point in the 1990s, Coontz explains.
Look at the issue of education, once a sore subject for many men who had less schooling than their wives. Married couples in which the woman had more education, were more likely to get divorced all the way up through the 1980s, Coontz says. That's no longer the case.
Gone from many romantic unions, too, is the understanding that the husband's role is to provide, while the wife has no choice but to be the homemaker.
"Today, couples that share housework and childcare more or less equally report the highest marital and sexual satisfaction," Coontz says. "The erosion of old stereotypes about gender roles paved the way for acceptance of same-sex marriage and also has offered heterosexual couples new models for organizing their own division of labor."
Those are some traditions we can get behind.
Rep. Johnson will doubtless continue the crusade for his preferred tradition of marriage. Meanwhile, new traditions continue to emerge. Here's the cool thing about a pluralistic society, though: We don't have to agree on just one tradition. –Fashion Beans
With childish supernaturalism, many churches think we’re living in the “final days”–”end times” before Jesus returns for doomsday.
Well, the truth may be different. These could be the end times for religion in western civilization. I think we’re entering a new Secular Age when magical supernatural beliefs cannot be swallowed by educated modern people. It’s the final days of faith.
By now, it’s obvious that religion is fading in America, as it has done in most advanced Western democracies.
Dozens of surveys find identical evidence: Fewer American adults, especially those under 30, attend church—or even belong to a church. They tell interviewers their religion is “none.” They ignore faith.
Since 1990, the “nones” have exploded rapidly as a sociological phenomenon—from 10 percent of U.S. adults, to 15 percent, to 20 percent. Now they’ve climbed to 25 percent, according to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. That makes them the nation’s largest faith category, outstripping Catholics (21 percent) and white evangelicals (16 percent). They seem on a trajectory to become an outright majority. America is following the secular path of Europe, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and other modern places. The Secular Age is snowballing. Among young adult Americans, the “none” rate is nearly 40 percent, which means the coming generation will be still more secular.
Various explanations for the social transformation are postulated: That the Internet exposes young people to a wide array of ideas and practices that undercut old-time beliefs. Family breakdown severs traditional participation in congregations. The young have grown cynical about authority of all types. That fundamentalist hostility to gays and abortion has soured tolerant-minded Americans. Clergy child-molesting scandals have scuttled church claims to moral superiority. Faith-based suicide bombings and other religious murders horrify normal folks.
All those factors undoubtedly play a role. But I want to offer a simpler explanation: In the scientific 21st century, it’s less plausible to believe in invisible gods, devils, heavens, hells, angels, demons—plus virgin births, resurrections, miracles, messiahs, prophecies, faith-healings, visions, incarnations, divine visitations and other supernatural claims. Magical thinking is suspect, ludicrous. It’s not for intelligent, educated people.
Significantly, the PRRI study found that the foremost reason young people gave for leaving religion is this clincher: They stopped believing miraculous church dogmas.
For decades, tall-steeple mainline Protestant denominations with university-educated ministers tried to downplay supernaturalism—to preach just the compassion of Jesus and the social gospel. It was a noble effort, but disastrous.
The mainline collapsed so badly it is dubbed “flatline Protestantism.” It has faded to small fringe of American life.
Now Catholicism and evangelicalism are in the same death spiral. One-tenth of U.S. adults today are ex-Catholics. The Southern Baptist Convention lost 200,000 members in 2014 and 200,000 more in 2015.
I’m a longtime newspaperman in Appalachia’s Bible Belt. I’ve watched the retreat of religion for six decades. Back in the 1950s, church-based laws were powerful:
It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. All public school classes began with mandatory prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail, or look at nude photos in magazines, or buy a lottery ticket. It was a crime for an unwed couple to share a bedroom. If a single girl became pregnant, both she and her family were disgraced. Birth control was unmentionable. Evolution was unmentionable.
It was a felony to terminate a pregnancy. It was a felony to be gay. One homosexual in our town killed himself after police filed charges. Even writing about sex was illegal. In 1956, our Republican mayor sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.
Gradually, all those faith-based taboos vanished from society. Religion lost its power—even before the upsurge of “nones.”
Perhaps honesty is a factor in the disappearance of religion. Maybe young people discern that it’s dishonest to claim to know supernatural things that are unknowable.
When I was a cub reporter, my city editor was an H.L. Mencken clone who laughed at Bible-thumping hillbilly preachers. One day, as a young truth-seeker, I asked him: You’re correct that their explanations are fairy tales—but what answer can an honest person give about the deep questions: Why are we here? Why is the universe here?
Why do we die? Is there any purpose to life?
He eyed me and replied: “You can say: I don’t know.” That rang a bell in my head that still echoes. It’s honest to admit that you cannot explain the unexplainable.
The church explanation—that Planet Earth is a testing place to screen humans for a future heaven or hell—is a silly conjecture with no evidence of any sort, except ancient scriptures. No wonder that today’s Americans, raised in a scientific-minded era, cannot swallow it. Occam’s Razor says the simplest explanation is most accurate. Why is religion dying? Because thinking people finally see that it’s untrue, false, dishonest.
White evangelicals tipped the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump, giving an astounding 81 percent of their votes to the crass vulgarian who contradicts church values. But white evangelicals, like most religious groups, face a shrinking future. Their power will dwindle.
In 2016, for the first time in history, Congress passed a law protecting people with no religion. The Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act—named for a former congressman who championed freedom of conscience—shields all types of minority believers who suffer attacks and prejudice. It specifically says authorities must “protect theistic and non-theistic beliefs as well as the right not to profess or practice any religion.” President Obama signed it into law.
Europe—which spent centuries killing people over religion—decided after World War II that religion is inconsequential. Churchgoing collapsed. Pope Benedict XVI complained: “Europe has developed a culture that, in a manner unknown now to humanity, excludes God from the public conscience.” He protested the new European attitude of “disdaining God completely.” Newspaper columnist George Will called the Vatican “109 acres of faith in a European sea of unbelief.”
More than half of British children attended Sunday school at the start of the 20th century. By 2000, the rate had dropped to four percent. A 2000 poll asked Britons to name “inspirational” figures. Two-thirds picked Nelson Mandela, six percent picked pop singer Britney Spears, and one percent picked Jesus.
The secular trend is especially advanced in Scandinavia. Pitzer College sociologist Phil Zuckerman spent months interviewing Danes and Swedes and wrote a book titled Society Without God: What the Least-Religious Nations can Tell Us About Contentment. He said Scandinavians generally regard religion and prayer as only for children, like Santa Claus and fairy tales—something to be outgrown as maturity brings wisdom. He said godless Scandinavians have happy lives in healthy societies with much less crime and other social evils, compared to religious cultures.
America’s National Freshman Survey, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, records data and beliefs from hundreds of thousands of incoming freshmen at hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities. It reported that the share professing no religion soared from 7 percent in 1966 to 30 percent in 2015. In the 2016 survey, it climbed to 31 percent.
The Harvard Crimson campus newspaper surveyed incoming Harvard freshmen and found that the largest segment was churchless. Some 38 percent called themselves atheist or agnostic, while only 34 percent said Christian. (Jews were 10 percent, Hindus 3 percent, Muslims 2.5 percent—and 12 percent said “other.”)
Former President Obama was the first to publicly embrace nonbelievers and invite skeptic groups to the White House. Ex-President George W. Bush commented on NBC News in February: “One of our great strengths is for people to worship the way they want to, or not worship at all.”
The End of White Christian America is a book by Robert Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute. In a Washington Post interview, he said the retreat of faith has been “swift and dramatic,” first hitting “tall-steeple” mainline Protestants, then Catholics, and finally evangelicals.
The Great Evangelical Recession is a previous book by megachurch pastor John Dickerson, who warned that “evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.” He said “a majority of young people raised as evangelicals are quitting church” and “in coming years, we will see the old evangelicalism whimper and wane.” In 2017, America’s largest religious bookstore chain, the 85-year-old Family Christian, closed its 240 stores and laid off its 3,000 workers, saying that “declining sales” eroded its business.
In 2015, Pew Research Center projected that Christianity will suffer a loss of 66 million followers globally by 2050, while Islam will grow to become the planet’s largest faith.
Evidently, supernatural religion will remain strong in Muslim lands and low-income, less-educated tropical places.
But it’s dying in the modern West.
It took humanity several millennia to reach the Secular Age. Now it’s blossoming spectacularly.
In his classic Dover Beach, poet Matthew Arnold wrote:
THE SEA OF FAITH
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating…
This is the world in which the New Testament was written.
The preserved ruins of the city of Pompeii are a treasure trove for those interested in learning more about the ancient Roman empire. And one British Christian leader is convinced that Pompeii provides important lessons for Christians ― particularly those who want to use the Bible to persecute queer people.
The Rev. Canon Steve Chalke is a prominent evangelical Christian from the United Kingdom. In a video created for the Oasis Open Church Network, an organization Chalke heads that advocates for LGBTQ inclusion, Chalke preaches about the importance of understanding the context in which the Bible was written.
“500 years ago, Martin Luther and Calvin didn’t have the tools that we now have to assist us in our contextual understanding of the writings of scriptures. We’ve come miles because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, miles because of archaeological discoveries around Pompeii, and we’ve had all sorts of other cultural and linguistic leaps forward,” Chalke told HuffPost. “It’s our job to use them and I think in using them, we find these old understandings really don’t work anymore.”
There are six passages in the Bible that refer to same-sex behavior in some way. These verses are often referred by progressive Christians as “clobber passages” because they are repeatedly used to reject, demean, and attack queer Christians.
Three of these passages are located in the New Testament, in the books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy. Another passage that conservative Christians sometimes refer to is Matthew 19, where Jesus speaks about divorce. It’s these verses that Chalke turns to in his defense of queer Christianity.
Chalke explains that the Apostle Paul was writing during a time when it was perfectly acceptable for people on the lower rungs of society ― slaves, prostitutes, gladiators, refugees ― to be sexually exploited and abused by rich and powerful Roman citizens.
The minister claims it was normal and even expected for Roman men to have sexual playthings apart from their wives. This meant having sex with concubines and young boys. Some Roman women also used people of lower status for their own sexual pleasure, Chalke said. But one thing Romans couldn’t do was abuse another Roman citizen.
“Roman boys were protected in a way that slave boys weren’t. For a Roman man, sex was a legitimate part of life, but you had to have sex with an inferior and you had to penetrate them, you weren’t allowed to be penetrated,” Chalke said in his talk.
In order to illustrate the time period in which these words were written, Chalke turns to August 24, 79 A.D., the day historians believe the eruption of Mount Vesuvius began, burying and preserving nearby towns in around 20 feet of volcanic ash and debris. It was roughly around the same time period that evangelicals believe the Apostle Paul wrote the letters that would one day form a significant part of the New Testament.
Much of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and other nearby towns affected by the eruption is sexually explicit. There are scenes of threesomes and people in a variety of sexual positions. After excavation of the site began in the 19th century, King Francis I of the Two Sicilies was so appalled by the sexual nature of the artwork that he ordered all explicit imagery from Pompeii at the National Archeological Museum of Naples to be locked away and out of sight from general display.
Chalke said it’s important to keep this context in mind when looking at the clobber passages in the New Testament. For him, the erotic artwork of Pompeii is a sign that Roman society was “drenched” in sex. The upper classes of that time used sex in a way that ignored the basic humanity of the people who served them.
It was this kind of exploitation of fellow human beings that Chalke believes Paul and other New Testament writers were speaking out against when they wrote these ancient scriptures. When 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians make references to men who have sex with other men, it’s part of a much longer list of people who are exploitative ― murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, thieves, the greedy, slanderers, swindlers. Chalke believes Paul is warning the early Christian church against engaging in human relationships that are based on exploitation, abuse, and corruption.
On the other hand, he claims, the New Testament has nothing to say about genuine, compassionate love between people of the same gender, as it is understood in today’s world.
“The people Paul is talking about, he said they’ve abandoned God, they’re full of deceit, lying,” Chalke told HuffPost. “Whoever Paul is talking about, it cannot be the wonderful same-sex couples that are in our church, or the gay man or the transgender woman I know. It just can’t be them.”
What the New Testament does say, time and time again, is clear to Chalke in the video: “Don’t exploit. Don’t abuse. Live together in harmony. Include. Work at relationships.”
Chalke declared his support for committed, monogamous same-sex relationships in 2013. Since then, he has preached often about the “spiritual, mental and physical harm” that queer people face because of some Christians’ discriminatory attitudes. And he’s advocated for the wider welcome of queer Christians in the church ― despite being rejected from conservative evangelical circles for doing so.
He is currently the senior minister of Oasis Church Waterloo, which he says is a spiritual home for a number of LGBTQ Christians. The idea for the video was actually taken from a sermon that he gave this year at his church.
Chalke told HuffPost while tradition is important, the “traditional understanding of something isn’t always the right understanding of something.” Just as the church had to adjust its teachings to the realities of scientific discoveries of Galileo and Copernicus, he said it is crucial for Christians to use modern-day resources to re-examine these clobber passages.
“Our poor understanding of the New Testament has brought misery, persecution, oppression and rejection to countless hundreds of thousands and millions of LGBT people,” Chalke said. “It’s time to apologize for the mistakes we’ve made and move on.” -Huffington Post
Social etiquette dictates that when in mixed company, one should avoid discussing politics and religion. As someone who is quite active on various social portals, I can attest to the visceral emotions that are triggered when these topics are broached! Clearly then, most people choose to play it safe and adhere to this social norm. More formally, various legal codes (e.g., the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978; see here) afford legal protection to individuals as a function of their political and religious affiliations among other variables that define one’s personhood (e.g., national identity, race, sexual orientation, and biological sex). Furthermore, several Western liberal democracies have instituted Hate Speech laws that make it illegal to forcefully criticize religious beliefs as this is construed as a form of fomenting hatred. Which of the latter social norms and legal edicts are congruent with or antithetical to the ethos of Western liberal democracies?
Let me take each in turn.
As an academic, I value the free exchange of ideas. As such, while I understand the social pressures to avoid contentious discussions on politics and religion, I find this a form of intellectual cowardice. One’s political views and/or religious beliefs should not exist in an impenetrable and inviolable bubble wherein they are protected from criticism or scrutiny. Needless to say, I fully support the legal codes that are meant to protect individuals from discrimination. As someone whose family escaped execution in Lebanon (see here), I am only too aware of the evils of religious intolerance and hatred. That said I am unsure that in secular liberal democracies, one’s religion should fall in the same all-encompassing protective category as one’s sexual orientation, biological sex, or race. We don’t choose our race, sexual orientation, or biological sex but we do choose whether or not we wish to adhere to and believe in particular religious narratives. If the religious beliefs are antithetical to Western liberal values (e.g., religiously-sanctioned hatred of members of otherwise protected classes such as religious minorities, women, or homosexuals!) then to “discriminate” against such beliefs is perfectly natural. As a side note, I should mention that religious folks typically disagree with the premise that one’s sexual orientation is innate, and will often offer religious “remedies” to the “problem” at hand (see here)! I should also add that religiously founded institutions are afforded legal protection to discriminate against those of other faiths or those possessing no faith (see my earlier post on the topic here)! Such is the beauty of religion. It seeks maximal protection for its narrative whilst openly discriminating against others in endless ways.
What about Hate Speech laws? These are fine when they are meant to protect against calls for violence against groups of individuals (e.g., “Let’s kill Jews. They are the enemies of God.”). On the other hand, to mock, offend, or criticize religious beliefs should never be construed as illegal hate speech lest we give up our most fundamental human rights: freedom of conscience (which includes freedom from religion) and freedom of speech. Modern-day blasphemy laws (often disguised as Hate Speech laws) are antithetical to the definitional ethos of Western liberal democracies (see here and here for two of my earlier posts on the topic). People have every right to practice their religious convictions in private (not as an intrusion on others in the public sphere) and the rest of us have every right to reject, mock, and criticize these beliefs. There is no such thing as freedom from religious offense. If you live in the West, you should accept that your religious views are not sacrosanct to those who do not share your faith. –Church and State
A study published in the journal Neuropsychologia has shown that religious fundamentalism is, in part, the result of a functional impairment in a brain region known as the prefrontal cortex. The findings suggest that damage to particular areas of the prefrontal cortex indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by diminishing cognitive flexibility and openness—a psychology term that describes a personality trait which involves dimensions like curiosity, creativity, and open-mindedness.
Religious beliefs can be thought of as socially transmitted mental representations that consist of supernatural events and entities assumed to be real. Religious beliefs differ from empirical beliefs, which are based on how the world appears to be and are updated as new evidence accumulates or when new theories with better predictive power emerge. On the other hand, religious beliefs are not usually updated in response to new evidence or scientific explanations, and are therefore strongly associated with conservatism. They are fixed and rigid, which helps promote predictability and coherence to the rules of society among individuals within the group.
Religious fundamentalism refers to an ideology that emphasizes traditional religious texts and rituals and discourages progressive thinking about religion and social issues. Fundamentalist groups generally oppose anything that questions or challenges their beliefs or way of life. For this reason, they are often aggressive towards anyone who does not share their specific set of supernatural beliefs, and towards science, as these things are seen as existential threats to their entire worldview.
Since religious beliefs play a massive role in driving and influencing human behavior throughout the world, it is important to understand the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism from a psychological and neurological perspective.
To investigate the cognitive and neural systems involved in religious fundamentalism, a team of researchers—led by Jordan Grafman of Northwestern University—conducted a study that utilized data from Vietnam War Veterans that had been gathered previously. The vets were specifically chosen because a large number of them had damage to brain areas suspected of playing a critical role in functions related to religious fundamentalism. CT scans were analyzed comparing 119 vets with brain trauma to 30 healthy vets with no damage, and a survey that assessed religious fundamentalism was administered. While the majority of participants were Christians of some kind, 32.5% did not specify a particular religion.
Based on previous research, the experimenters predicted that the prefrontal cortex would play a role in religious fundamentalism, since this region is known to be associated with something called ‘cognitive flexibility’. This term refers to the brain’s ability to easily switch from thinking about one concept to another, and to think about multiple things simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility allows organisms to update beliefs in light of new evidence, and this trait likely emerged because of the obvious survival advantage such a skill provides. It is a crucial mental characteristic for adapting to new environments because it allows individuals to make more accurate predictions about the world under new and changing conditions.
Brain imaging research has shown that a major neural region associated with cognitive flexibility is the prefrontal cortex—specifically two areas known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Additionally, the vmPFC was of interest to the researchers because past studies have revealed its connection to fundamentalist-type beliefs. For example, one study showed individuals with vmPFC lesions rated radical political statements as more moderate than people with normal brains, while another showed a direct connection between vmPFC damage and religious fundamentalism. For these reasons, in the present study, researchers looked at patients with lesions in both the vmPFC and the dlPFC, and searched for correlations between damage in these areas and responses to religious fundamentalism questionnaires.
According to Dr. Grafman and his team, since religious fundamentalism involves a strict adherence to a rigid set of beliefs, cognitive flexibility and open mindedness present a challenge for fundamentalists. As such, they predicted that participants with lesions to either the vmPFC or the dlPFC would score low on measures of cognitive flexibility and trait openness and high on measures of religious fundamentalism.
The results showed that, as expected, damage to the vmPFC and dlPFC was associated with religious fundamentalism. Further tests revealed that this increase in religious fundamentalism was caused by a reduction in cognitive flexibility and openness resulting from the prefrontal cortex impairment. Cognitive flexibility was assessed using a standard psychological card sorting test that involved categorizing cards with words and images according to rules. Openness was measured using a widely-used personality survey known as the NEO Personality Inventory. The data suggests that damage to the vmPFC indirectly promotes religious fundamentalism by suppressing both cognitive flexibility and openness.
The authors emphasize that cognitive flexibility and openness aren’t the only things that make brains vulnerable to religious fundamentalism. In fact, their analyses showed that these factors only accounted for a fifth of the variation in fundamentalism scores. Uncovering those additional causes, which could be anything from genetic predispositions to social influences, is a future research project that the researchers believe will occupy investigators for many decades to come, given how complex and widespread religious fundamentalism is and will likely continue to be for some time.
By investigating the cognitive and neural underpinnings of religious fundamentalism, we can better understand how the phenomenon is represented in the connectivity of the brain, which could allow us to someday inoculate against rigid or radical belief systems through various kinds of mental and cognitive exercises. –Raw Story
I have a theory. I think Donald Trump is simultaneously the biggest mistake evangelicals have ever made, and our greatest opportunity to make a real change for the better. Here’s what I mean.
I Was a Christian Ditto-head
I’ve spent my whole life as an evangelical Christian. By the time I was 18 I had fully bought into the message of Jesus, and the politics of the Christian Right. I spent a decade reading the bible and listening to Rush Limbaugh every single day (not kidding), and I never really experienced the tension between the two.
Then I started paying much closer attention to Jesus. I memorized big chunks of the Sermon on the Mount. I made a serious study of the four gospels. I went to seminary. I studied Christian history, theology, philosophy of religion. I grew up. I dug deep. I prayed and prayed. I deconstructed my narrow evangelicalism and tried to rebuild my life on the strong foundation of the gospel.
Suddenly I had tension coming out my ears.
It took about a decade for me to untangle myself from the politics of the Christian Right. My first move, of course, was to embrace the Christian left, but it really didn’t take long for me to realize those are just two sides of the same coin. What I mean is that American liberalism and American conservatism both fall prey to the same demon. Both of them uncritically bow to the false gods of American culture: consumerism, individualism, and nationalism. Jesus means to call those false gods into question.
Writing My Way Out
This led me to write my first book: An Evangelical Social Gospel?, in which I tried to offer theological rationale for a real change in evangelicalism–both our practice and our politics. In AESG, I argued that evangelicals have ceded their allegiance to these false gods, this unholy trinity of consumerism, individualism, and nationalism. I describe how our future depends upon our willingness to relinquish this failed idolatry, and to embrace a Christian identity robust enough to help us become good news people… people who offer the world hope and peace as opposed to cynicism and sentimentality.
Since then I’ve written extensively at The Huffington Post about the unholy marriage of evangelicalism and the political right. I have held out hope that evangelicals can embrace a politics rooted in the kingdom of God; that we could rise up and dethrone the power of party politics over our lives; that we would someday wake up, quit listening to FoxNews, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh, reject the politics of fear and blaming, and let Jesus speak again–be Lord again.
Christianity is a Politic
Christianity is a politic; it’s an organizing principle. It’s most basic tenet is that under the Lordship of Jesus all humans should organize their common life together in such a way that everyone can flourish and experience shalom, peace. Not that all have to be Christians, but that where Christians hold sway, the rich can’t hoard the resources, and all the poor and powerless are cared for because love rules the lives of God’s people.
I don’t see this anymore. I don’t see love ruling the hearts of God’s people–at least not among my evangelical brothers and sisters. I see hearts that have pledged allegiance to the Republican Party over Jesus.
I try to resist this. Over and over I keep making the same argument:
Once you have rendered unto God what is God’s there is really nothing left for Caesar (Dorothy Day). Christianity demands full allegiance, and cannot be co-opted by or conflated with any political ideology. Christians seek first the kingdom, not the party. Evangelical Christians have made a huge mistake buying into Republicanism. Our first concern cannot be for corporate America. Our first concern cannot be for our own safety or affluence or even freedom. Our first concern is for the poor and marginalized and those who struggle under the crushing weight of injustice because they were Jesus’s first concern. Christians must have as many (or more) disagreements with conservatism as they do with liberalism. In our leaders we are supposed to look for character and virtue, not party and ideology. We are supposed to follow the Jesus who transcends political party and looks for good men and women of diverse political beliefs who want to compromise and work together patiently to make sure everyone has what they need in order to live and flourish.
I have always believed my fellow evangelicals would some day wake up, escape the unholy marriage to the Republican Party, dethrone the false gods of consumerism, individualism, and nationalism, and begin to seek first the kingdom of God.
Then Trump happened. Then Roy Moore.
You may be thinking: All politicians are corrupt. Trump was better than Hillary. R’s are better than D’s. But, these two men in particular are in a completely different category than, say, a Mitt Romney or John McCain (both of whom refused to support Trump on moral grounds), or even a Jeff Sessions, whose racist record is legitimately troubling–even a Hillary Clinton who has obvious character flaws. Trump is in a different category, both in the ways he is not suited for the office he holds, and in his corrupt character. Same goes for Roy Moore. Evangelical embrace of these men has reflected poorly on Christianity and on Christ.
I Once Was Blind, but Now…
Evangelicals have been blinded by a pursuit of power, by corrupt ideologies, and by political tribalism. We can’t see who we’ve really been supporting. From the NYTimes:
“Trump is clearly not a religious man, unless you believe being compulsively devilish is a form of religiosity. He is mean and surly. He is a bully. He is a pathological liar. He cheats. He is an adulterer. He is twice-divorced with children by three different women. He bragged, on tape, about assaulting women. He says he doesn’t think he has ever asked God for forgiveness. Trump was a walking, talking rebuke of everything the Christian right had ever told me that it stood for.” – Charles Blow
How can the writer of this paragraph see it & we can’t? Trump is a walking, talking rebuke of everything we’ve said we stand for.
Recently, as we listened to evangelical Christians equivocate their way to continued support of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, I heard my wife say, “If I weren’t already a Christian, there is no way I would want to join up with us. We look so awful right now.”
How did it come to this?
Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” What if it isn’t God who does the trampling. What if it’s the culture? What if the culture is currently stamping out the influence of a feckless religion that has effectively ceded its allegiance to the republican party, and lost its saltiness in the process?
This brings me back to my thesis: Donald Trump is both the biggest mistake evangelicals have ever made, and our best opportunity to change and grow. He’s our biggest mistake because supporting him is tanking our witness.
He’s our greatest opportunity because as he continues to slide into the abyss of a-morality he’s actually making it really easy for Christians to bail on Trump, and even on the GOP.
It’s Time for All Christians to Bail on Trump
Wherever you have been on Trump before, it’s time to jump ship. It doesn’t make you a traitor. It makes you a Christian. Most other Christians have already bailed. It’s time for Evangelicals to follow suit. Evangelicals cannot continue supporting this president.
Not only that, Trump is fueling a growing movement in Washington toward a war with North Korea. Are we really thinking of going to war with an unstable president? Are we going to allow a President whose campaign leadership is systematically being indicted for federal crimes, who is a mean and surly bully, who lacks basic integrity and decency… are we going to let him lead us into a war in which hundreds of thousands will die?
This is not a Republican v. Democrat issue. This is about the basic safety of our society. It’s about standing up for what is right. We’re through the looking glass here. Unless Christians can divorce themselves from the Republican Party for a moment, our witness in the world will be lost for a generation or more.
However, if we can reject Trump-ism, then maybe we can reject the other “isms” that hold us captive… conservatism, liberalism, republicanism, democrat-ism, and so on. And, if we can reject “isms” that rival Jesus, then maybe Jesus can be truly Lord for us again. –Patheos