Saturday, March 3, 2012

An old poem

I wrote this one a few years ago and rediscovered it tonight.

Birth of a Star
By Emily O'Malley

When a wish takes form
It breaks free and ascends
To the boundless cosmic expanse.
The hopeful seed nestles
Into a cloud
Until it rises from the haze and
Nourished by moon's milk
In a celestial garden.
The stars hang from their stems,
Waiting to be picked
By those who plant them.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Anti-Sex Attitudes That Harm Religion

             This is an essay about the sexually oppressive attitudes found in fundamentalist Christianity (as well as in the more conservative sects of other religions). I will explain why I don’t think the Bible actually promotes such restriction. In writing this, I have no intention to bash Christianity or any other faith. I also won’t preach to anyone or claim that something is true simply because the Bible “says” so. I’m just going to explain, to the best of my knowledge, what it really reads. You can use this information however you wish. Ideally, this perspective will be refreshing. If you and a fundamentalist are discussing a sexual topic, this essay may be a useful resource. If you are religious and feel burdened by sexual constraints, I hope this piece will ease your worries.
            I welcome your thoughts on this matter.

*     *     * 

Part One: Language

Last month I read an article that addressed the decline of organized religion in the Western world. It said that in recent years, less young people have been identifying with Judeo-Christianity. They are not all atheists; they simply wish to distance themselves from any theological label. It’s no coincidence that at the same time, many who do identify with religion are becoming more extreme.
            When a group notices their membership is dwindling, they often respond by tightening the reins. It’s a classic attempt at self preservation, but tends to yield the opposite result. I think that Jesus taught the ideal tenets to live by, but the modern surge of fundamentalism has alienated me from Christian gatherings. Many others have told me that they share this sense of estrangement.
            Not all fundamentalists are stern, humorless, or self-righteous. However, there is a good reason why these traits are frequently ascribed to them. I’ve heard a great deal of fundamentalists express the following beliefs: “You can’t truly love anyone unless you’re a Christian.” “If you’re not a Christian, you’re an atheist by default. You may believe in another god, but ours is the only one that’s real.” I have also heard fundamentalists accuse non-Christians of “trying to rob God of his glory by refusing to worship him.” This falsely assumes that everyone believes in God, and that anyone who is not a practicing Christian is simply refusing to comply out of willfulness. They fail to see that anyone of any ideology could easily make the same claim. It doesn’t help that they tend to construe any form of dissent as persecution.
            These issues are frustrating and polarizing, but I think the biggest source of contention is sex. By this, I don’t just mean intercourse. I mean any sex-related topic at all. It’s very difficult to establish a comfortable friendship with someone if you have to walk on eggshells when you speak to them. I know fundamentalists who cringe when they hear the word “underwear.” There are plenty who want to censor media that contains sexual language. This is odd, since it’s such a prevalent theme in the Bible. In fact, the scriptures cover all of the following topics:
-Incest (Genesis 19:30-38)
-Bestiality (Exodus 22:19; Leviticus 18:23, 20:15-16)
-Prostitution (Revelation 17:1-6; Joshua 6:25)
-Concubines (Genesis 25:5-6; 2 Samuel 3:7, 5:13, 16:20-23)
-Rape (Genesis 19:1-8, 34:1-31; Deuteronomy 21:10-14, 22:23-29, 2 Samuel 13)
-The rhythm method (Genesis 38:8-10)
-Breast fondling (Ezekiel 23:3, 8)
-Nocturnal emissions (Leviticus 15:16-18; Deuteronomy 23:10-11)
-Circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14; Acts 16:3; Galatians 5:1-4; 1 Corinthians 7:18-19)
-A battle in which King David killed 200 men and kept all their foreskins as trophies (1 Samuel 18:23-27)
-Castration (Deuteronomy 23:1; Matthew 19:12)
-A scene in which God grabs Jacob’s testicles (Genesis 32:25)
-The practice of placing a hand on a man’s testicles as he swears a sacred oath; hence “testify” (Genesis 24:9)
-Menstrual blood (Leviticus 15:19-33)

Last but not least, it makes references to donkey penises and horse semen (Ezekiel 23:20. Look this up on if you don’t believe me!)
As you can see, sex and genitalia are broadly covered in scripture. However, some Christians are still uneasy discussing it. Some argue that the Bible may address certain practices without endorsing them. This is true. Notwithstanding, the scriptures don’t condemn all of the acts listed above, either. Some are mentioned without any judgment passed upon them. To me, this means that the Bible does not forbid dialogue about sexual matters. And if we can talk about it, why not also joke about it?
Some cite Ephesians 5:4 as a prohibition of sexual humor: “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.” But in this context, “obscenity” and “coarse” have different meanings than they do today. “Obscenity” is translated from the Greek word aischrotes, which means “filthiness.” Something can be “filthy” without any sexual connotation at all. “Coarse joking” translates from eutrapelia, which has a variety of definitions. These include “abusive,” “evil,” and “sexually aggressive.” Thus, coarse talk is not merely sex-related talk. It refers to speech that is sexually abusive; with the intent to make others feel degraded. According to the etymology, yelling unwanted explicit comments at a woman would be considered “coarse,” but making a non-malicious innuendo would not. Telling a “that’s what she said” joke would not be classified as sinful. Whether or not a statement is vulgar depends on the speaker’s intent. The same is true for cursing. When James 3:8-10 instructs Christians not to curse, it does not pertain to modern-day expletives. It refers to the actual act of “cursing” or wishing harm upon someone. Saying “I hope you die” is a curse. Saying “bullshit” is not.
The terms and gestures we consider obscene are socially relative. Centuries ago, the words “pants” and “pregnant” were deemed inappropriate. (Maternity clothing would have been a very taboo topic!) In the Middle East, offering your left hand for a handshake is a grave insult. In the Middle Ages, Germanic words were seen as vulgar because the English thought the Germans were unrefined. As we can see, our standards of “proper” language are trivial and subject to cultural change.

Part 2: Sex and Marriage

            Certain Christians may still conclude that the Bible forbids them to joke about sex because of Matthew 15:18-20, which denounces “sexual immorality.” But what is sexual immorality according to scripture? Throughout the Bible, various sex acts are described as immoral. These consist of incest, rape (unless one rapes a woman from a rival tribe), bestiality, adultery, and fornication. The word “fornication” has caused great confusion over the course of history. Today, it is most commonly associated with “premarital” sex (which is a phrase completely absent from the Bible). More conservative Christians have extended the definition to include any intimate contact outside of marriage, and even sexual thoughts. This interpretation is not biblically supported, either. According to Matthew 5:32, “But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This clearly indicates that fornication can mean an activity other than premarital sex, since it would be impossible for someone to have premarital sex while they are married.
            The two Greek words translated to “fornication” are porneia and fornicatio. “Porneia” has the following meanings: incest, bestiality, adultery, and fornication. “Fornication” is derived from fornicatio, which meant prostitution. It came from the Latin word fornix, which meant “under the arch.” That refers to the fact that in ancient Rome and Greece, prostitutes stood under the public archway to solicit customers. Some people may respond that this pertains to premarital activity because women who had sex before marriage were considered “whores.” This argument does not hold up, because Ezekiel 16:33 states that “all prostitutes receive payment” (some translations say “receive gifts.”) Ergo, the Bible defines prostitution as the exchange of sex for money or rewards. It is distinguished from promiscuity in this sense. Promiscuity is also different from premarital sex. One can choose to only be intimate within a committed relationship, whereas a promiscuous person chooses their partners non-discriminately.
            While I’m on the subject of marriage, I’d like to point out that it may have a more subjective meaning than we’ve been taught. What qualifies a couple as married? It’s not a wedding, since you can be legally wed without going through the ceremony. To be married in a legal sense, you only have to sign some paperwork. But legal documentation doesn’t make a marriage, either. People were marrying each other long before paperwork was ever part of the process. Do the vows bond you to your spouse? Not if you don’t keep them. If a couple is legally married but are not committed or loving to one another, are they still married in a spiritual sense? I don’t believe they are. In that way, the vows don’t determine the marriage. Some would say that you’re only genuinely married if you say your oaths to each other and to God. If you follow this logic, it would infer that atheists cannot be married. Obviously, that’s ridiculous. Because of these quandaries, I believe that marriage cannot be narrowly defined. As long as two people love each other romantically and are completely devoted to their union, I think that can be considered a form of marriage. Sex within this type of relationship is healthy.
            In ancient Israel, there did not appear to be much of a distinction between a fiancĂ© and a spouse. When Mary was engaged to Joseph and became pregnant, he was sure she had been unfaithful and planned to “divorce her quietly” instead of inciting a public scandal. How would he have been able to divorce her unless they were, in some way, already considered married? Deuteronomy 22:23-24 mandates that a man who rapes an engaged woman must be executed for violating another man’s wife. Notice that they are not officially married yet, but she is still called his wife. In various periods of history, engaged couples have been considered married. For the first five centuries of Christianity, the Catholic Church allowed betrothed couples to be sexually intimate. This was also broadly accepted in Colonial America.
            Back in the days of ancient Israel, however, it was unusual for women to carry on sexual relationships before they were married. This is because most people were married off as soon as they reached puberty. On average, they married at age thirteen. Mary was said to be fourteen when she gave birth to Jesus, which means she most likely became pregnant when she was only thirteen years old. It has always been unusual for people to be sexually active before adolescence (unless it’s non-consensual). Also, most marriages were arranged by the parents for financial gain. A wedding was basically a business transaction in which the wife was purchased. They did not date beforehand, and certainly didn’t wait to get to know each other first.
            In 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, Paul wrote, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” When he mentioned passion, he was talking about promiscuity and sexual obsession. He was not declaring that it’s evil to have a libido before you’re married. In addition, he specified that he was sharing his own opinion, and that God was not using him as a mouthpiece (1 Corinthians 7:25). 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that all scripture is inspired by God, but that in itself was not classified as scripture when it was written. Paul’s letters were not seen as scripture at the time, either.
1 Corinthians 7 is frequently cited as evidence that the Bible forbids premarital sex. It is important to examine this letter in context. Socially, women (or, rather, 13-year-old girls) were expected to remain virgins until marriage. However, the expectation was socially sanctioned rather than biblically mandated. In their culture, slavery was an accepted norm, too. When Paul wrote this epistle, he knew that a bride would be shunned and victimized if she was “discovered” to be non-virginal. (However, their method of “proving” virginity was shoddy at best. A lack of blood on the bed sheet does not disprove virginity. Not all women bleed the first time.) For this reason, Paul believed a man should be punished for lying about his wife’s sexual history. He also believed that a girl should be held accountable if she pretended to be a virgin, but that was because he objected to any kind of dishonesty.
I suspect that the historical fixation on women’s virginity is mainly rooted in competitiveness. It’s a race to see who “gets there first.” The focus is also engendered by the concept that women are property, not people. According to this rhetoric, marrying a non-virgin is like buying used merchandise. The seal is broken; the original packaging unwrapped. We’ve all heard the misogynistic adage, “Why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?” This dehumanizes women by comparing us to livestock and commodities. I have never heard this expression used in reference to a man. On a related note, men in ancient Israel were not expected to be virgins until marriage. Even after being wed, they were not required to limit their sexual partners. A married man could keep concubines and sleep with his slaves, and these actions were not considered adultery. Plenty of “righteous” biblical figures kept sex slaves, and the scriptures did not criticize them for it.
Even today, the classic bridal ensemble contains symbols of virginity. The white fabric invokes images of bed sheets. The veil clearly represents a hymen, since it’s a thin layer the groom must penetrate to gain full access to his bride. People say the white denotes “purity,” but this is clear code for virginity. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t customary for grooms to don white. To me, the quality of “purity” is irrelevant to virginity and should be recognized as such. I see purity as a state of optimism, idealism, honesty, and good intentions. In this way, you do not need to be a virgin to be pure. 

Part Three: Homosexuality

            The underlying misogyny of idealizing virgins can be seen in homophobia as well. Sexism and homophobia are tightly interwoven. Anti-female attitudes are a strong driving force behind the denigration of gay men.
            Almost everyone who is anti-gay disdains homosexual males because they “act like women.” Socially acceptable women are soft-spoken, gentle, and nurturing. If a man fits this description or partakes in interests traditionally deemed “feminine” (fashion, dance, etc), he is assumed to be gay and often ostracized. At the core of this lies contempt for “female” characteristics.
            Anti-gay Christians justify their rejection of the LGBT community by quoting Genesis 1:27; Leviticus 20:13; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 1 Timothy 1:10; and Romans 1:26-27. They’re also fond of mentioning Sodom and Gomorrah. However, none of these verses provide a valid reason to shun homosexuals.
Genesis 1:27 says that “…God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.” This is taken by many to mean that the only permissible relationship is between a man and a woman. Granted, this is the most common union and regarded as the general standard. That does not mean it’s the only acceptable pairing, though.
Leviticus 20:13 is another favorite passage for anti-gay believers to quote: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” We have to remember that this is but one part of the Leviticus holiness code, which no longer applies. The holiness code was introduced mainly to differentiate the Israelites from other Middle Eastern tribes. It was meant to be observed by Jews, not by gentiles. This code included bans on shaving, cutting one’s hair, wearing two different types of fabric, and eating shrimp. Whenever it called something an “abomination,” it meant it was ritually unclean. This did not indicate that it was fundamentally immoral.
Jesus overwrote these laws and taught that instead of clinging to a rigid and complicated code, we are simply to love God and love one another. He said he came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it. “Fulfill” is translated from the word pleroo, which means “to come true.” It does not infer that he came to continue or add to the code. According to the text, he chose to obey all the laws so the other Israelites wouldn’t have to. Once he had “fulfilled” the ordinances in this way, the Jews could be freed from them. See Hebrews 7:12, 8:6-13, 10:1,9; Romans 7:4-6, 10:4; Ephesians 2:14-16; Colossians 2:14-17; and Galatians 3:23-25, 4:21-31. These passages all explain that the Old Testament laws are no longer required, which includes the ban on same-sex relations.
While some will concede that Christians are not bound by the Leviticus code, they argue that the prohibition of homosexual activity is featured in the New Testament and thus still applies. This claim doesn’t hold its weight under scrutiny.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 it is stated: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” The phrase “men who have sex with men” is translated in some modern versions as “homosexuals.” The word “homosexual” never appeared in the Bible until the 1940s, though, and had previously been translated as “effeminate.” All of these interpretations stem from the two original Greek words, malokois and arsenokoitai. (Arsenokoitai was also mistranslated to "those practicing homosexuality" in 1 Timothy 1:10, New International Version.) “Malokois” refers to young male prostitutes, and “arsenokoitai” refers to the older men they serviced. This denounces a form of child prostitution that was common at the time. It does not relate to consensual sex between two men of appropriate age.
Paul wrote in Romans 1:26-27, “Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Now, that passage brings several interesting points to mind. The first is that Paul was not labeling same-sex relations as sins in themselves. Instead, he speculated that homosexual attraction is the punishment for another sin. Specifically, he believed it to be the consequence of worshipping pagan gods. He likely saw a correlation between paganism and homoerotic activity because the latter was commonly incorporated into pagan rituals. We must be aware that the sexual acts performed in those rituals were far removed from the intimate type of sex that occurs within loving gay relationships. During the rituals, men engaged in public orgies with one another. They were also known to include bestiality, prostitution, and castration in their ceremonies. These were certainly “shameful acts.”
Paul was not making a judgment about the homosexual orientation. In the ancient world, no one was even familiar with the concept. Same-gendered lovers did not live together, date, or start families. Paul could not have been referencing something he had never heard of.
He didn’t use any word that meant “homosexual,” as no such word existed. He never said that being gay was unhealthy or immoral. The word he used was physikos, which was translated into English as “unnatural.” In modern parlance, “unnatural” denotes that something is perverse. This is not the meaning of physikos. It actually means “that which is not produced by nature.” Today, any reputable scientist will tell you that same-sex attraction is produced by nature. It has been observed in over 1,400 species. It’s an involuntary instinct. Biologists call homosexuality a genetic trait. Pagans who partook in same-gender relations for religious rituals were not acting in accordance with their inborn drives. They were presumably heterosexual, and only performing such acts for the sake of the ceremony. Therefore, they were not behaving in a way that came naturally to them. This was a form of social coercion as well as self betrayal.
Genesis 19:1-29 is the final, and perhaps most famous, passage used to promote gay bashing. This is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. As one can deduce, the word “sodomy” is derived from this tale.
Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of great vice. The residents lived in decadence but refused to be charitable to the poor. They bullied outsiders and cared only for themselves. When two traveling angels came to the cities to see if they were as egregious as rumored, a virtuous man named Lot offered to let the angels stay at his home overnight. A group of townspeople gathered outside Lot’s door and threatened to rape the angels. In response, God destroyed both cities but spared Lot and his daughters.
This is not a cautionary tale about homosexuality. It’s an allegory of rape. The Sodomites intended to violate the angels, which were the purest creatures imaginable. Lot offered up his daughters in their place (despite being “righteous”), but the townspeople would accept no substitute. Raping someone of the same gender is no more sinful than raping a person of the opposite sex, and raping an angel represents the lowest form of depravity. The Sodomites would settle for nothing less. In Ezekiel 16:49-50, the sin of Sodom is explicitly explained. Once again, it is completely unrelated to gay sex: “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’” There you have it. A Sodomite is a rapist, or a grossly inhospitable person.

Part Four: Lust and Adultery

            One of the most harmful assumptions about same-gender relationships is that they are only based on lust. Plenty of gay couples share profoundly close bonds and a deep love for one another, just as many straight couples do. There are also heterosexual couples whose relationships are strictly lust-based, yet no one uses this fact to denounce heterosexuality.
            The word “lust,” in itself, is frequently misused. It’s often taken as a synonym for “libido,” as if it’s a sin to have a sex drive at all. This cannot be true, because an immoral act would not be necessary for reproduction. In its true definition, lust is a greedy, selfish desire that trumps all consideration for other people. This can definitely entail sexual acts that cause harm, like adultery or the compulsion to commit adultery. Lust, however, is not always sexual. One can be consumed with a greedy desire for money, power, or violence. Wishing for money or influence is not evil, nor is wanting or enjoying sex. If one’s yearning causes them to lose sight of compassion or reason, however, it has gone too far. This is regarded as sin.
            In Matthew 5:28, Jesus spoke of lust in relation to sex. The verse reads, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is another verse that has been vastly misconstrued over the centuries. Some have taken it to mean that it’s wrong to ever feel desire for anyone. Others even think it implies that if a man is single, he cheats on his future wife by thinking about other women! The former interpretation is wrong, because desire is not immoral, and Jesus was not even discussing basic sexual impulses. By “lust,” he referred to an obsessive and demanding yen that causes people to behave selfishly. In regards to the latter interpretation, it is only possible to commit adultery if you’re in an exclusive relationship or if you get amorously involved with someone who is. The idea of “cheating on your future spouse” is preposterous because you’re not even with that person yet. Furthermore, the Hebrew word for “woman” was interchangeable with the term used for “wife.” Since Jesus cautioned his disciples against adultery, I believe he was warning them not to covet one another’s wives.

Part Five: Birth Control

            The majority of overly restrictive attitudes result from misunderstandings. When analyzing the Bible, people often make this mistake: they read verses which only applied to specific people, but assume they apply to everyone. They find passages which were only relevant in the time they were written, but assume they’re always relevant. Those who assert that the Bible bans contraception are making this error.
            The belief is born of a flawed understanding of Genesis 38:8-10. In this passage, God killed Onan for using the rhythm method in lieu of impregnating his brother’s widow. However, the practice of withdrawal was not called a sin. Onan’s sin was his refusal to comply with God’s order. God had directly instructed him to impregnate the wife of his late brother, so that their lineage may continue. Instead, Onan used the woman solely for his own pleasure. This parable does not teach that sex is only for procreation. It conveys that in this particular instance, Onan was commanded to continue his bloodline, but shirked his duty. His transgression was disobeying God and exploiting the woman. Contraception was never condemned.
            Anti-contraceptive attitudes are also drawn from Genesis 9:7, in which God ordained that Adam and Eve be fruitful and multiply. (Incidentally, this quote seems to refute the popular but misinformed doctrine that sex was the “original sin.” In the story, God encouraged Adam and Eve to reproduce when they were still living in the Garden of Eden.) Some take this to mean that God was speaking to the whole human race through Adam and Eve, and therefore we are all supposed to reproduce. This is an extrapolation. In the context of this story, God was telling the two of them to have children. He was not addressing every person who would ever live. Even if he had been addressing others, it wouldn’t entail that every person must become a parent or that couples should only have sex with the intent to procreate. It would be a general guideline, not an all-encompassing rule.
            Grievous outcomes have resulted from the misapplication of these verses. The condemnation of birth control has contributed to overpopulation (and, in turn, poverty), unwanted children, the subjugation of women, and the spread of disease. Contraception, on the other hand, has curbed those problems immensely. The use of birth control is a much more responsible choice.

Part Six: Morality

            Numerous quotes from Jesus have been warped and used to justify harsh, prejudiced, and sexually oppressive outlooks. This is often influenced by the perception that Jesus was a fundamentalist.
            Jesus was passionately dedicated to Judaism and strove to share that passion with others. That being said, he was far from the current definition of “fundamentalist.”
            Today, fundamentalism is defined by strict adherence to doctrine, a literal understanding of scripture, and the notion that you cannot be a “true” believer unless you agree with an immutable set of tenets. Any dissent is disloyalty, and to question the tenets is sacrilege. By this definition, Jesus was not a fundamentalist at all.
            Jesus repeatedly encouraged his followers to question the traditional “orthodox” teachings. He told them to judge for themselves what is right (Luke 12:57). The Pharisees were like the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the time, and Jesus criticized them for constraining people with too many demands. He also repeatedly exposed the fallacy of literal interpretation, which is driven by overly concrete thinking. Jesus’ disciples were accustomed to interpreting scripture literally, but he advised them to open their minds to a new and broader understanding. At one point, he encountered a woman at a drinking well and said he could offer her “living water” which would forever quench her thirst. She mistakenly thought he was talking about physical thirst and water, when he was symbolically alluding to her spiritual craving and the wisdom that would satiate it. When Jesus spoke of being “born again,” people were confused because they thought he was speaking concretely. In fact, when you read the New Testament, you can see that just about everyone who took abstract concepts literally was proven wrong. They served as examples of spiritual naivetĂ©.
            Throughout Christian history, the scriptures have not always been read literally. Moreover, the tenet of Biblical infallibility did not come about until recently. It wasn’t deemed “inerrant” by mainstream sects until the early twentieth century. Martin Luther believed that the book of Revelations should be removed from the Bible. Now, people are accused of blasphemy if they express such an opinion.
            Those who insist on an entirely literal reading of the Bible and consider it inerrant also tend to lean toward a more fire-and-brimstone Christianity. They often confuse pessimism with realism, believing that theology can only be genuine if it’s unpleasant. Any approach that’s more hopeful is called “watered down” or “sugarcoated.” Such fundamentalists spend a lot of time defining who is or isn’t “Christian,” and exclude most people from the club. From my perspective, no one has the right to tell someone who regards himself as a Christian that he is not. It’s presumptuous to make that judgment call. I strongly disagree with the fundamentalist approach, but would never say they’re not “real” Christians. I think it’s better to emulate Jesus than to mimic people who think they’re like him. If anyone regards him or herself as Christlike, it automatically means they’re not. That type of self image is arrogant, which is un-Christlike by default.
            I think that biblical literalism (and the sexual oppression that grows from it) is the biggest threat to Christianity. This approach is woven from many assumptions, one being that a story cannot be mythological and true at the same time. These threads knit a shroud for Jesus and bury him under conjecture, rather than resurrect him.
            The Christian philosophy is corrupted when it’s reduced to a set of black-and-white statements that its followers must agree with. “Faith” and “belief,” the words most central to modern evangelism, have been distanced from their original usage. “Believe” derives from the word “belove.” To belove someone or something is to value it. Saying “I believe you” is not the same as saying “I believe in you.” The last sentence expresses the word’s primary intent. When the books of the Bible were written, to believe in Jesus was to love him. It didn’t oblige you to be certain he was the only son of God, that he had supernatural powers, or that his mother had been a virgin when she conceived him. If you believed in Jesus, it meant you respected him and sought to practice his teachings.
            The same is true for faith. Hebrews 11:1 is commonly translated as, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Many fundamentalists are inclined to think this means they should take things at face value without any supporting evidence, and even despite evidence that indicates otherwise. I highly doubt this is the message the author intended. First, hope differs from confidence. One anticipates an event they are sure will happen. They don’t hope for it. Hope implies a measure of uncertainty, which is not a negative thing. Secondly, this appears to be a mistranslation. The King James Version is much closer to the authentic biblical language, and it has an alternate translation of Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (emphasis by me). Substance is distinct from confidence. With this phrasing, the verse does not advise Christians to display fidelity to God by believing things against their better judgment. It defines faith as the foundation of what we hope for, and says that our hope is evidence of what we believe in. In John 20:29, Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Again, he was not asking Thomas to take things for granted without any proof. He was reminding Thomas to trust (belove) him, and had already demonstrated that he was worthy of Thomas’ trust.
            Trust is the opposite of fear, and religious fundamentalism is deeply steeped in fear. It generates neuroticism about God, sex, and secular culture. It exalts the spiritual while vilifying the physical, as if the two were irreconcilable. The body and spirit do not need to be at odds with one another. This isn’t even a biblical concept. Paul wrote about the conflict between flesh and spirit, but he never said that everything physical is evil. He used flesh as a metaphor for humans’ carnal nature. Carnality doesn’t always relate to sex. It’s the impulse to fulfill one’s desires at the expense of others. It is callous disregard for one’s fellow man. This can certainly involve sex, in cases like rape or adultery. At the same time, it can encompass plenty of nonsexual behaviors. Cruelty, theft, and all types of violence are carnal.
            Plato popularized the notion that the spirit and body are opposites. His writings have heavily influenced Catholic thought. Plato’s theories continue to resonate in our society. They can be found in dualistic thinking, such as the idea that a smart woman shouldn’t care about being attractive. It’s conveyed in the belief that one must choose between the body and the mind.
            Bodies and sexuality are not to be feared, nor is the secular world. Many fundamentalists are wary of nonreligious media and secular activities. But God is tantamount to good, so we honor Him as long as we do what is right. We honor God when we console a friend, feed an animal, or open a door for someone. God is also honored by self respect. One doesn’t need to be completely selfless in order to have compassion. On the contrary, empathy develops from ego. When we know how we want to be treated, we learn how to treat others. Whenever compassion is shown, Jesus is resurrected and returns to this world. As long as kindness lives on, Jesus will be born and born again.