Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

She was a Christian.
Then she wasn’t.
Then she was.
Now, she isn’t again?

OK, that was the (very) short version.

Popular novelist Anne Rice grew up in a thoroughly Roman Catholic home and community. She struggled with some doubts as she got older but stayed faithful. Once in college, though, a combination of factors led her to reject her faith. She remained an avowed atheist until her late 50’s. Feeling “Christ haunted,” and following a serious health scare in Dec. 1998, she found herself drawn back to the faith tradition of her youth.

Anne Rice smiling

Anne Rice, famous novelist & controversial figure

But, apparently, she’s never really felt completely comfortable there, feeling “an outsider”. This was largely because of a lot of hypocrisy that she saw both in the R.C. Church (e.g., sexually-abusive priests) and in the larger Christian community. She also disagreed with several teachings and of how certain matters are handled (e.g., birth control and homosexuality). She tried for years to ignore the disagreements, the debates, the scandals. But, she finally decided she could no longer be a part of it.

So, this past week Rice announced via Facebook that she is renouncing her Christianity.

In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian.”

I suppose the cynic/skeptic might claim that Rice never really converted to Christianity in the first place, that it was all a “stunt”, a marketing ploy to help her sell books. Perhaps this de-conversion is, as well. Some of my fellow-Christians will say that, while she may have thought she was “Christian”, such a renunciation puts into question whether she was really “saved” or not. But, as far as I can tell and for purposes of this post, I am going to assume that her return to Christianity — specifically, to the R.C. Church — 10+ years ago was at least sincere. (Judgement of her heart, of course, must be left to God.)

But, let’s look more closely at what she said (on FB) before and after the above announcement. (Re-nouncement?)

On Tuesday, Rice posted a link to a news article with a very disturbing, anti-gay statement by the leader of a punk-rock youth ministry, noting:

No wonder people despise us, Christians, and think we are an ignorant and violent lot. I don’t blame them. This kind of thing makes me weep. Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian.”

She then linked to a news item about the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and commented:

This is chilling. I wish I could say this is inexplicable. But it’s not. That’s the horror. Given the history of Christianity, this is not inexplicable at all.”

Later, she sympathized with Gandhi’s quote about liking Christ but not Christians (because they don’t follow Christ’s example), wondering:

When does a word (Christian) become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?”

Rice followed up on Wednesday with the controversial announcement, saying:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”

And, a few minutes later:

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

(I’m most curious about the “anti-secular humanism”, “anti-science”, and “anti-life” references. The last may be war-related, I suppose. The second may be a reference to creationism. But, I really am curious what a theist can find to be “pro” about secular humanism, since it is by definition an atheist worldview.)

On Thursday, amidst her usual Bible quotes and posts about TV shows and news items on various topics, she added:

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn’t understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

From all of this, all I can conclude is that Anne Rice has NOT renounced her faith in the God of the Bible, nor has she stopped following Jesus Christ. What she HAS given up is her identification with those who call themselves “Christian” and certain practices & beliefs of (modern) “Christianity”, all of which she sees as being mostly contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ Himself.

I have to admit, I both agree and disagree with her.

I can see where she’s coming from. I cringe every time I read or hear about some “Christian” leader in the news, ‘cuz it’s usually not good news. (Pun intended.) There are many out there who are just not good examples, and many who are called “Christian” are not true followers of Christ, when it comes to what they actually believe and teach. (I’m talking doctrinal orthodoxy.) Some (e.g., Benny Hinn) are well-known and have huge followings. Others are fringe groups & churches (e.g., Westboro Baptist) that are just plain weird, or hate-filled, or both. Again, they have been fed false teachings, bad interpretations about what the Bible really teaches. And, I sympathize with Rice’s repulsion toward all the revelations of sex-abuse among Catholic priests.

Then, there are just your average Christians behaving badly or stupidly. Even those of us trying to live righteously have our weak areas.

Sacred Heart R.C. Church

Sacred Heart R.C. Church, Cucomonga, CA

On the other hand, Rice cannot blame it all on the “organized” part of the church, or any particular denomination. And, she needs to realize that, like it or not, a follower of Christ is a part of a larger community, both historical and contemporary. One can dislike one’s brothers & sisters, even avoid them whenever possible, but they are still part of one’s family. They cannot be disowned. The best that Rice or any of us can do is remember that we human beings are all weak, selfish, etc., and try to be better “ambassadors for Christ” ourselves.

Maybe Rice doesn’t like the term “Christian” because of certain negative “baggage”, but she can’t totally reject it, because the label still applies. (The original Greek term meant “little Christ”, a pejorative used for followers of “The Way”.) “Christianity” is not simply the name of some religious club one can just opt out of when certain (supposed?) members act rudely or loudly disagree with you. Rather, it is the name of the religious belief system centered around the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ (or “Messiah”). She still seems to identify with that. Still, I suppose she could simply refer to herself as a “follower of Christ” and a member of the historical “Body of Christ”, as long as she is clear about what it is in the contemporary Church that she is disassociating herself from.

Which brings me to my last point…

It is a known fact that those who are more theologically liberal typically lean more liberal/progressive in their socio-political views, as well. All indications are that Rice has some rather liberal/progressive ideas, when it comes to politics and social policy (which I, of course, would disagree with). So, it makes me wonder if she leans liberal theologically, as well. I don’t know for sure, since I haven’t read/heard her positions on the basic tenets of the Christian faith. (Oops, there’s that word!) Whether she is theologically liberal or not, I truly hope that her Biblical and theological studies lead her to see that conservatism in both realms is the way to go. It makes better sense of Who Jesus was (and is), the way the world works, and the way things really are.

Usually at this time of year, the “attacks” center on Easter Sunday, or, more appropriately, Resurrection Day. This time, however, Good Friday got some extra attention.

Isaiah 53 passage

Isaiah 53 -- "by His wounds we are healed"

The memo went out to municipal employees last week from Craig Malin, City Administrator for the town of Davenport, Iowa. From now on, Good Friday was “history”. In its place was the more ecumenical and politically correct “Spring Holiday”, or “Celebration of Spring”.

Acting on the advice (from last summer!) of the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, Malin unilaterally made the decision. Not surprisingly, the reasoning had to do with “separation of church and state” claims and sensitivity within an ethnically and religiously diverse community. (Apparently, the commission had also considered and dismissed the idea of renaming Easter Sunday, because it fell on a weekend, when government offices were already closed. Christmas, too, was a no-go.) The first problem, though, was that such policy changes must be voted on by the City Council, and they didn’t even know about it until they read it in the Quad City Times.

News of the memo spread through town like wildfire and was the topic on everyone’s minds and lips by Palm Sunday. Resistance to the name change came from two fronts. First, of course, was the religious objection from those who thought it was an attack on Christianity — typical in the culture wars these days — and that the “separation” talk was bogus. The second objection came from city employees (including police), who thought it might violate their union contract, which stipulates Good Friday (not “Spring Holiday”) as an official municipal holiday. Mayor Bill Gluba said, “I understand why people were so upset. My position is we have a lot more important issues. We’ll fix this and move on.”

And “move on”, they did. On Monday, the city issued a press release stating that:

City Administrator Malin, in error, forwarded the recommendation to staff for further review and action, leading to release of a holiday notice with the holiday named ‘Spring Holiday,’ rather than ‘Good Friday’.”

So, either someone in City Hall zealously jumped the gun on this one, or they’re trying to help Malin save face for some reason, or both. Maybe just trying to keep the peace?

Ah, well. Bottom line is that the council voted and this stupid, PC name-change of a 2000 year-old holiday has been reversed. Things in Davenport, Iowa, are as they should be. (As far as I know.) For now….

So, what do we make of the concerns and accusations referred to at the beginning of this article?

First of all, there is no intentional deceit going on with respect to celebrating the Nativity on December 25. We have seen that there are and historically have been some Christian writers & leaders who genuinely believe(d) it was the actual date. Whether it is or not, that’s OK. It doesn’t affect the historicity of Christianity or any other apologetic concern. There is no big secret; all it takes is a bit of investigation. (This was true even before the Internet.)

Furthermore, other birthdays/holidays are also celebrated on dates that are used more for convenience or other concerns rather than calendar accuracy, but they don’t garner the same sort of accusations and/or dismissals that Christmas Day does. For example, the eight days of the Hanukkah celebration shift each year, due to its beginning on the 25th day of the month Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, which ranges between late November and late December. In the U.S., George Washington’s birthday used to be celebrated on his actual birthday of Feb. 22, then was switched to the 3rd Monday in February. Some states initiated a holiday called “President’s Day”, which eventually merged with Washington’s Birthday, keeping the “Presidents Day” name (in most states) and the observance on the latter’s schedule. The day now honors both Washington and Abraham Lincoln (b. Feb. 12), and some states include other U.S. Presidents, as well. Are those who don’t know the details of this being intentionally deceived? To what end?

Secondly, it is kind of presumptuous to assume that one group has some sort of superior claim on any particular date or use of an item in their particular practices & observances. After all, there are only so many days in the year and untold numbers of birthdays, events, and customs going back thousands of years, plus the objects associated with them. There MUST be some overlap, even when limited to just religions. And, no one seems to complain that, for example, the recent practice of Kwanzaa — originally created to be an anti-Christian alternative to Christmas — is observed from Dec. 26 – Jan.  1 and involves candle-lighting, gift-giving, and feasts. Why is that? Maybe because it isn’t that big of a deal.

Some Christians over the centuries have reasoned that the commonalities among certain Christmas traditions and pagan traditions were/are reason enough to reject Christmas. For example, 18th-century German Protestant Paul Ernst Jablonski expressed concern that the “paganization” of having Christmas on December 25 (coinciding with the Roman Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, meaning “the birthday of the unconquered Sun”) dishonored the church. But, are such denunciations really necessary?

Now, the main concern by some Christian groups, of course, is the danger of syncretism. The ancient Jews were guilty of this when they allowed pagan practices to be absorbed into their culture & religion, resulting in their being estranged from Yahweh. And in Christian history, some churches (and many individuals) have allowed worldly, non-Biblical thinking and activities to influence their doctrine & practice. Therefore, in order to obey Scriptural commands to reject pagan influence and to avoid compromising their Christian beliefs, some groups call for the denunciation and condemnation of modern Christmas traditions. And, the concern is certainly understandable.

But, this line of thinking is actually guilty of a mistake in logic called the “genetic fallacy”. This is where a conclusion or judgement of a thing is made based entirely on its origins rather than its current meaning or context. Consider that, even outside of the religious context, the meaning of a particular custom (or, just a word or phrase) can differ from one culture or sub-culture to the next. It can also change over time. We don’t dismiss the value of modern astronomy just because it originated in the pagan practice of astrology, do we? Nor do (most) Christian denominations forbid the (modest) use of jewelry and cosmetics just because they have long been associated with prostitution. The fact that many of the traditions carried forth in today’s Christmas celebrations may have been borrowed in their earliest forms from the pagans does not make Christians guilty by association.

More importantly, the point here is that the Church realized it needed to adopt & adapt, but without gutting the Gospel message. It took the date of December 25, along with several specific items and activities that were popular among the pagans, and re-invested them with new religious content and meaning appropriate for the Christian Church. This is entirely consistant with Biblical teachings about renewal & redemption. Missionaries have been doing this sort of thing for years. They will identify something of significance to the local culture (e.g., a holiday, ritual, or object) and replace any occultic or otherwise negative symbolism it has with new value & purpose, representing something positive and of a Christian nature. (Pagans and other non-Christians nowadays may object to this as Christianity’s efforts to eradicate other cultures and indoctrinate their peoples. But, that’s a subject for another day.) God even gave an example of this type of thing in the Old Testament, when he “took” the ritual of circumcision from the Egyptians and “gave” it to Abraham and his descendants (the Jews) with new meaning.

Some will point out that Jesus never instructed His disciples to commemorate His birth, nor do the New Testament writers mention such a celebration or imply that one should be instituted. But, uh, so what? They never commanded that Christian believers build church buildings or hospitals either, but we still think of those as good things. More to the point, silence cannot be taken as proof against. There are many things that were not directly addressed in Scripture that are still OK to do, even encouraged, based on what was addressed. Without clear, Biblical instruction against such things, and as long as it is in accordance with Biblical principle and the focus is in glorifying God, there should be freedom to worship God in this manner. It could also be pointed out that, while Jesus did instruct His followers to commemorate His death & resurrection, He never hinted at anything as elaborate as some of the Easter / Resurrection Day celebrations that many churches have. Should we stop them, too?

So, in my opinion, at least, the complaints or derision made by non-Christians are specious and not a big deal at all. And Christians today should not worry about whatever similarities some ancient pagan festivals had with current Christian celebrations. When I set up a Christmas tree in my house (does it count if it’s plastic?), decorate it, and put gifts under it to be exchanged later, it has nothing to do with saturnalia. When I go caroling (well, I did it twice), eat a big Christmas meal with family or friends, then maybe play games, I never think of Roman gods, the Sun, or probably even the winter solstice. Nor do my non-Christian friends, I would bet. These Christmas traditions mean something totally different to 99.99% of those celebrating the season. Those of us who are Christian believers or, at least, enjoy the Christmas Story, are free to focus on the true meaning of Christmas — the ultimate gift of God’s Son to the world and the possibility of redemption before the Father (i.e., the gift of Salvation) that He would provide.

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

What do Jimmy Buffett, Larry Csonka, Karl Rove, Cab Calloway, Anwar Sadat, Rod Serling, Humphrey Bogart, and Conrad Hilton (Paris’ great-granddaddy) have in common?

Based on the title above, you may have guessed that they were all born on December 25th. Yet, as long as we’re listing famous people with that particular birthday, someone else seems to be conspicuously missing from the list. Someone who lived in Ancient Palestine about 2000 years ago, caused quite a stir with his radical teachings and truth claims, died a horrible death, etc. Yeah,… Jesus of Nazareth, aka Jesus Christ.

Wrong! (Well, maybe.) If we look at the clues in the Gospel narrative(s) about when Jesus was born (e.g., the census; shepherds watching their flocks by night), it probably was not during the winter. Some have postulated that the Nativity event occurred in the fall, but many others think it more likely to have been in the springtime. (More on this in a moment.) So, where did this December 25th date come from? Why do Catholic and Protestant Christians celebrate Jesus’ birth then?

Questions about the Christian adoption of December 25th come up a lot these days. Some Christians who know a little of the history worry about the supposed pagan influence on the Christmas celebration. What is the pagan connection? Is this really a valid concern for modern Christians? Some non-Christians use that as part of a larger attempt to dismiss or discredit Christianity as unhistorical, less unique than it claims, unfairly stealing pagan customs, etc. (NOTE: I will not be addressing here the broader accusations that the Gospel story of Jesus Christ was, in essence, “stolen” piecemeal from various pagan myths.) And parties from both sides have said that celebrating December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth is “a lie!” But are these claims true and fair? Let’s take a look at the historical facts and intent of the Christian Church at the time.

Apart from a scattered group here or there, the earliest Christians didn’t really commemorate Jesus’ birth. This would have been in line with the contemporary Jewish customs and law, as well. In fact, some Christian writers of the 3rd & early 4th centuries AD are on record as thinking birthday celebrations were either ridiculous or inappropriate (largely because the pagans did it). On the other hand, some were willing to speculate on what the correct date of Christ’s birth might have been. For different reasons both historical and symbolic, scholars from ancient times to modern have variously suggested dates in late March, April, or May, and a few believed it was probably in September. Still others, whether because they reached different conclusions based on the scriptural/historical evidence about the time of the Nativity, or they saw other clues leading them to believe Jesus was conceived in March, determined that a December date on or close to the 25th was the best estimate.

By the late 4th & 5th centuries AD, December 25 was pretty firmly established in most of the major bishoprics — e.g., Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome. The exceptions were mostly in the Eastern churches, such as on the island of Cyprus and in Armenia. They adhered to a different school of thought on how best to calculate the birth of Christ, which gave a date of January 7th (or 6th, in some cases). The Eastern Orthodox churches have remained faithful to the January 6/7 observance even today. Oddly, it seems that the church in Jerusalem held a dual commemoration that encompassed celebrations in both December & January. And the church in Antioch was split on the matter until Chrysostom, due to concern over some Jewish celebrations, united the community (c. AD 386) on observing the Dec. 25th date.

By the Middle Ages, Christmas was much more popular — particularly in Europe — and there were many Christmas-related holidays. Some either started (e.g., Twelve Days of Christmas) or ended (e.g., Advent) on or about December 25. Part of the reason for establishing Christmas at this time was to, in effect, compete with the Saturnalia — a popular pagan festival originating in Ancient Rome in honor of the god Saturn. It was also the time of the Winter Solstice (in the Northern Hemisphere), another event in which some pagans celebrated with drunken debauchery. In both cases, some Christian leaders thought it would be good for there to be a Christian alternative to these festivals, thereby lessening the chances that new/weaker believers would be tempted to join in with the pagan revelers. Many customs associated with the pagan festivals — whether actually originating with them or independently — were incorporated into the medieval Christmas celebrations. For example, feasts, gift-giving, caroling, games, use of evergreens, lights, etc. Thus, we have what some have called the “pagan origins of Christmas.” (More on this later….)

The 17th-century Puritans, on the other hand, condemned Christmas because they considered it a Catholic invention (“Christ” + “Mass” = “Christmas”). The majority of Colonial America (except for Puritan New England) enjoyed celebrating Christmas, until the years following the American Revolution, when this “English custom” became unpopular. Ironically, the British enthusiasm for Christmas celebrations had also been dwindling. The early- to mid-1800s saw efforts to revive the tradition and got its biggest boost from the publishing of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), which popularized the phrase “Merry Christmas!”.

Thanks to Queen Victoria and a painting of the British Royal family with a decorated evergreen — followed by a popular, Americanized version of it — the Christmas tree tradition was revitalized. Clement Moore’s Twas the Night Before Christmas (1822) was instrumental in bringing back the exchanging of gifts. (An unfortunate side-effect would be the growing commercialism of the season, which is something I won’t get into now.) Caroling had been coming back in vogue by then. Even the old Puritan sentiments in some areas were starting to be replaced with holiday cheer. Several of the states in America made Christmas a legal holiday, and President Grant made it a Federal holiday in 1870. So, Christmas was making a comeback; however, the holiday had lost some of its religious themes and emphases, focusing instead on a more secular, family-centered message of compassion, generosity, & general goodwill.

I will continue tomorrow with more on the pagan issue and my conclusions….

Lighted Christmas Tree

Lighted Christmas Tree

You may have heard or read something a few days ago about some coins being dug up in Egypt that had the name & portrait of Joseph (the Old Testament one, grandson of Abraham), as well as the year it was minted, which supposedly corresponds with the era in which many believe Joseph lived. The primary historical significance was that it proved wrong those historians who insist that coins were not used by the ancient Egyptians. Of secondary importance (perhaps primary for Christians & Jews) is that it is evidence for the historical veracity of the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Muslims are also excited, because the Koran explicitly tells of coins being used in Egypt in Joseph’s time. (Note: Islam considers Joseph one of their early Prophets, as well.)

"Joseph coins" from ancient Egypt

Scarab "coins" (note dime for size comparison)

While it would be cool for this to be a valid find and the conclusions drawn by the researchers involved shown to be accurate (or at least reasonable), I would urge people to not get too excited or go about claiming this is “proof” of anything quite yet. There are a number of issues being “worked out” among various experts and questions that still need answering. For example:

1) Can the engraved scarabs legitimately be called “coins”?

2) Were hieroglyphs (like those inscribed on the “coins”) even in use during Joseph’s time?

3) Would the Pharaoh have allowed his Treasurer’s name & likeness to be put on the coin rather than his own?

Much like the “Jesus Bone Box” (actually, the supposed ossuary of Jesus’ brother James) of a few years ago, this is an interesting find — one which, if true, would lend validity to certain religious historical claims. It would be a nice-to-have piece of evidence, especially since there is currently extremely little extra-Biblical evidence for the Hebrew Patriarchs. But, if the claims of the researchers in question prove false, then it’s no big deal.

Did you ever hear someone say “All religions are the same.”, or something along those lines? Or, maybe you’ve said it yourself. Did you ever really think about that statement? Does it make sense?

I say, “Not even close.” Hear me out….

Sure, religions have some things in common. That’s why they are all called ‘religions’. For example, each religion has some sort of belief system about physical and metaphysical issues, often expressed in rituals and ceremonies. This belief system in turn influences a broader worldview, a picture of reality.

Then there are “organized” religions, which have a few more things in common, like hierarchies of authority, “official” creeds, scriptures, perhaps special buildings where adherents gather to worship (something/someone) and/or receive teaching. Some religions also share certain basic beliefs and values. For example, many espouse love, justice, the Golden Rule (i.e., “Do unto others…”), strong family ties, etc.

But, are they all the same? No. In some cases, there may be a few similarities, but it is really the differences that matter. Even in regards to those “common” things I mentioned, each religion has a somewhat different idea of what each thing entails. Different religions make different truth claims. Some religions believe in many gods (polytheism), some believe in one God (monotheism), while others say there is no God (atheism). Among monotheists, there are differing concepts of the nature and abilities of that God. For example, some say He/She is personal (i.e., an intelligent, self-identifying “person” or entity), and others say God is an impersonal “it”. Of the former (e.g., Jews, Muslims, Christians, etc.), one teaches that Jesus Christ is/was God incarnate (among other details), while the rest do not.

Some religions believe in an afterlife; some do not. Some say the world of matter/energy/space we live in is infinite and eternal; some say it is finite in both space & time. Or, even that it is all illusion. And there are often different branches, sects, denominations within a religion. They branched off because one group held a strong opinion or conviction on one or more issues that differed from the rest of the adherents. One may teach that it is OK to murder people in God’s name, while others hold such an act to be terrible and immoral. Most of these are either/or issues. In each case, either one is true or the other, but they can’t both be true. Many of them are very important details — crucial differences, in fact, that can have significant consequences in both life and death. And there are MANY other examples….

So, you see, all religions are NOT the same.

“OK,” you say, “but all religions are still the same, in that they are equally good (or bad), moral (or immoral, or amoral). No religion is really better than any other.” But, that’s a topic for another day….