Is Thomas Jefferson a friend or foe of Christians? Or neither?

If you are looking for proof that Thomas Jefferson was a militant secularist, you can find it, the evidence is there. Ironically, if you are looking for proof and evidence that he was a committed Christian, you can find that too. Either way, some “cherry picking” will be required. The truly interesting thing about Jefferson is that he does not fit neatly into any of our modern-day-culture-war categories. Many textbooks label him as a deist, but many scholars argue that he wasn’t a true deist because he clearly believed in a god that intervened in history (see below). He clearly rejected Christian theology and the divinity of Christ, and wrote scathing criticism of New Testament writers (see below). But at the same time he considered himself a “real Christian.” He obviously celebrated Jesus, but not as the “Son of God,” but rather as a Jewish sage. Dammit! Does this make him a rogue Christian, or a kind of dazed-and-confused Jew? It’s hard to imagine any group in 2013 that can honestly claim Jefferson as one of their own. Perhaps he is truly, as he himself put it, “a sect of one.” Your thoughts? Any Jefferson wannabes out there?

Autosuggestion + Church = Spiritual Experience?

I’m sorry… I know I’m supposed to be objective and tolerant of religious diversity and be open to varying view points, but can I still occasionally laugh? Honestly – and I really am being honest right now – I literally don’t know what to do aside from chuckle in utter dismay when I look at the video of the Christian minister, Benny Hinn, conducting his “Slain in the Spirit” alter call. Hinn has gathered millions of followers and people by the hundreds are knocked to the floor unconscious (aka “resting in the spirit”) during his “Miracle Services.” What is more impressive – if you watch the last two seconds of the video you will see this – is that he can render unconscious a large number of people with one swing of his jacket. Seriously, it’s like he just bowled a strike! What is even more unbelievable is that the people can be unconscious for up to thirty minutes. Damn! At times religion is literally incredible. Truth be told, the Benny Hill theme song pops into my head every time I watch this video.

Skeptics (and I’m one of them) argue that the event of people collapsing under these circumstances is a kind of self-hypnosis or autosuggestion. In other words, the participants are people who truly want this event to happen and truly believe it will happen, and it does – similar to hypnosis. And it is worth noting that it is a fact that people who do not want to be hypnotized cannot fall under the influence of a hypnotist; I’m certain the same is true for being “slain in the spirit.” If it wasn’t true, I’m pretty sure every police officer and soldier would be trained in the “Hinnian method.” (Say goodbye to tasers?)

So what is really going on here? Honestly, I don’t think I’m conscious enough to truly know. The cynical and judgmental side of me is telling me that Hinn is a clever millionaire charlatan preying (not praying) on the hopes, dreams, and wallets of people seeking spiritual experiences, and people (especially children) need to be warned. The noncynical and disconnected-rational-observing-social-scientist side of me is telling me that Hinn is simply supplying a service (literally) that is meeting the emotional demands of people seeking an experience for what they hope and believe to be spiritual. However – and this is a huge “however” – in between these two sides is my gut. And my gut feeling is telling me that this is something I would never let my children get involved in. And again, being totally honest, I always go with my gut. Always! How about you? Any thoughts? Are some white jackets a clear sign of “danger”?

Schools must teach the biblical origins of sexism.

My students are shocked to learn that women in many states, as late as 1970, could not file rape charges against their attacker if their attacker was their husband. They can’t believe it. They can’t wrap their minds around how and why our tradition allowed the rights of women to be so horribly disregarded for so long, and they want to know why. They seek answers and truly want to understand this important issue. More importantly, they have a right to know. And I adamantly believe it is the job of every public school to help children understand the true origins of sexism in America, even if it means dragging the Bible into the classroom. Honestly, I see no other way! You cannot have an honest discussion about the origins of Western sexism without examining the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Oh, and by the way, in 1993 North Carolina was the last state to remove “spousal exemption” from their sexual crime codes.)

In addition to teaching World Religions I also teach AP United States History. In both courses the Judeo-Christian tradition is discussed and debated. Many of my conservative Christian students are quick to point out that America is (and should be) patriotically grounded in a Judeo-Christian tradition. But when I asked these students how this tradition may be negatively effecting our culture, they look at me as if I had just vomited up a goat. The idea of a bible-based tradition producing something negative in our society is incomprehensible to them. Why? Because nowhere in their public education (or conservative Christian upbringing) have they been taught to think otherwise. Public schools, fearing controversy and possible violations of the Establishment Clause, typically stop short of biblical analysis when teaching kids about sexism. Schools want to avoid controversy – I get it! Schools are supposed to serve communities, not divide them. However, to leave out the Bible when discussing the origins of sexism makes about as much sense as trying to teach about the American Civil War without mentioning slavery – it can’t be done! And it is not fair to our children.

Unlike many teachers, I do not shy away from using the Bible in class. And to spark a discussion about the origins of gender inequality and “male dominance” I share with my students many passages from the Bible. I start with the biblical punishments put upon Eve in the Garden of Eden story. Most of my students are aware that Eve was punished with “pain in childbearing,” but they are surprised to learn that her second punishment was “your husband will rule over you.” Another reading I use in class comes from the Ten Commandments, specifically the tenth: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” Another comes from the New Testament: “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.” ( I Corinthians 7:4)

As a father of three daughters I can honestly say with great relief that we are culturally moving forward and leaving some of our Bronze Age Judeo-Christian heritage behind. Thank God! And seriously, isn’t it time public schools teach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when it comes to our Christian traditions? Just a thought.

This one time at atheist camp…

It appears that an increasing number of parents are willing to send their children to summer camps that elevate reason over religion and promote atheism as a “positive family-friendly worldview.” To a conservative Christian this is ludicrous at the least, and dangerously satanic at the most. Despite strong Christian opposition, these camps are available to “free-thinking” parents and their children. And, more notably, they are popping up all across America – even Texas has a camp, TEXAS! Welcome to Camp Quest!

Camp Quest began in 1996. Since then other states have followed suit. The camps are much like other summer camps; they include all the fun activities that are characteristic of summer camps (canoeing, swimming, rock climbing, T-shirts, camp fires, etc.). However, Camp Quest, unlike church and bible camps, focus on learning activities that celebrate reason, science, critical thinking, and the scientific method of inquiry. And rather than preaching the idea that morality is inherently linked to God and the Bible, Camp Quest teaches how reason and compassion are the foundations of morality and will lead to a fulfilling and productive life. I could tell you more, but their mission statement says it all (see below). Summer camp anyone? If interested, I have provided a link to their website at the bottom of this page.

Jesus and Darth Vader – Metaphors be with you.

The holiday season is upon us, and Christians around the world will be celebrating their virgin birth story. Most Christians read the story literally. And it is obvious from worldwide literature that miracle conceptions and virgin births are common and popular, even today (as evident in Star Wars Episode I). However, what if these stories were never intended to be taken literally? What if these stories were originally intended to be read metaphorically? Is this possible? Maybe Joseph Campbell has an answer.

Joseph Campbell was a “giant” in his field, a leading scholar in mythology. He did not view God as an actual being, but rather as a metaphor for the ultimate mystery of life. In May of 1987 (at the age of 83) he was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times. Below is an excerpt from the interview.

“The virgin birth has nothing to do with a biological accident,” Campbell explained. It symbolizes instead, he said, “the awakening of spiritual life in the human animal. It’s a mythic symbol. It should not be read, finally, as historical fact. All mythology is misread when it is read as referring to historical events or geographical places. The Promised Land is not a piece of land to be conquered by military might; it is a condition of the heart.”

If Campbell is right, then the Christmas story is not just for Christians, but rather for everyone, “believers” and “nonbelievers” alike. While the “free-thinking” secular humanist may scoff at the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth, Campbell is inviting us to read the story differently, and to take it to heart.

Happy Holidays everyone! And, in the words a true Jedi Knight, “Metaphors be with you!”

Biblically awkward demon possessions.

When my son was three he had a seizure while sleeping. His convulsions were so violent that the sound of his bed shaking woke my wife and I. It was a terrifying event. But rather than calling an exorcist we called the hospital. My son was fine, and we left the hospital with a handful of literature and “First Aid” information. Needless to say, the literature and information was “comforting,” and I’m thankful to live in our modern age; I can’t imagine how people 2,000 years ago dealt with this kind of terrifying event. Oh, wait, maybe I can – demon possessions!

In my World Religions class I make it very clear to my students that people during Jesus’ time had a limited understanding of the world. And, more importantly, I want them to understand that people of the Bronze Age, like today, sought answers.

Answers bring comfort. And in the absence of medical science it is easy to understand how people once diagnosed epileptic seizures and convulsions as demon possessions. It was the best answer they could formulate, and it is understandable. But for many of my students the dichotomy between “alleged” demon possessions (as described in the New Testament) and our present-day understanding of epilepsy can raise some serious questions: Were epileptic seizures misdiagnosed as “possessions”? And if so, does this cast doubt on the credibility of the Bible as actual “truth”? And if the Bible has it wrong regarding demons, where else might the Bible have it wrong? These are questions I let my students answer for themselves.