The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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No Jesus

March 28th, 2021 · Uncategorized

There was no historical Jesus, without any doubt. Ancient Judea was awash with teachers and Messiahs for whom we have names, yet his is only listed in the Gospels. We actually know quite a lot about the people and the politics in the Holy Land during the time setting of the Gospels, but we don’t know where Jesus really came from or whom (besides the Romans) he represented. We can attribute the words of Jesus to a teacher from a prior century and his itenerary from the campaign of Titus on Jerusalem a generation later.

We can be confident that there was no historical Jesus because the actions attributed to him were “transcendent” — which is another way to say “impossible”. He could heal the unhealable and drive out evil spirits. He returned the dead to life and dictated the weather. When these Gospel stories first appeared around 70 AD, none of the contemporary Roman readership would have imagined for a second that a man who can summon food from thin air and side-step death was a real person. The savvy Romans of the day would have understood it all as a caricature, as a fiction.

The way in which these stories are interpreted today is very different from what the Romans had originally understood these stories to mean. The Gospels were originally presented by the Roman Imperial family as the governing rationale of the Emperor Titus as the reincarnation of the son of God in the East, and thus atop the Eastern pantheons. The stories were meant to discredit and demoralize the Judean people, who had caused such a great expense in men and materials to the Roman Empire. Jesus the Messiah shows himself again and again to be an agent of Caesar, and a Roman apologist in the face of his violent and chaotic followers.

Inasmuch as today he takes so many shapes these days and is assigned with so many motivations, it’s safe to say that Jesus is a living myth, one persistently in flux. He was “the word made flesh” according to the Gospel of John. As recently as the early 1900’s, it was common to see references to the “Gospel myths”, and the notion that Jesus had been a real person was regularly laughed away.

Starting in the 1930’s, a series of books began coming out discussing the possibility of an historical Jesus, and spending a lot of ink speculating on the lacunae of the life of Jesus not covered in the Gospels. Eventually, there were movies seriously playing out the Gospel narratives as if they were historical documents. Now, an depressing percentage of Americans are convinced that there really was an historical Jesus, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The reason that this is important is because of the upsurge in power of the Evangelical brand of Christianity, and their desperate need for there to have been an historical Christ. For the Roman Catholics, centuries of tradition has set the power and boundaries of the Church. For them, it is okay for Christ to have been a literary creation because they’re still literally carrying forth the culture of the ancient Roman Empire — which was the whole point of the Church. But for the Protestants — and especially the American protestants — the existence of an historical Jesus becomes the hook upon which their authority rests.

Protestants claim that the Roman Catholics ruined the original message of Christ in their pagan ways and only the Protestants reflect the “true word of God” through their interpretation of the Bible. The science of Archeology exploded when Protestants began to dig shafts throughout the Levant in search for proof of Christ’s life to back up their Biblical pronouncements, and thus their authority. They came to the Holy Land, it is often said, with a shovel in one hand, and a Bible in the other. Without an historical Jesus, Protestants are just pretenders to an authority they don’t otherwise recognize.

Evangelicals have taken the notion of an historical Jesus and turned it into a sales pitch to convince folks that greed is good and nomal and helping each other is socialism. They claim to know the “real message” of Jesus; the real, historical Jesus. This is the stone upon which their foundation is laid. But without an historical Jesus, their lies are built on smoke and mirrors.

There’s absolutely no reason why anyone who believes in Jesus should care whether he was really an historical figure, because in our culture, he is very much alive. In a lot of ways, he’s much better as a non-historical figure — more perfect. He’s the best possible representative of Ancient Roman culture, and as such is a great role model for us ourselves in a nation that is built in the shadow and by the measure of the ancient Roman world.

But if anybody tells you they know Jesus better than you, hold on to your wallets and make sure you read anything before you sign it. And if anyone tells you Jesus knows how you should vote, back slowly away and find another way to spend your time. Your friends and family will appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.

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Community

January 26th, 2021 · Uncategorized

My fundamental attraction to intentional community was the idea that everyone — young and old, healthy and infirm — would all be taken care of because people take care of each other in a community. A large enough community can provide enough food and shelter, companionship and teaching, for all of its members and have a surplus.

But communities are difficult to start and challenging to maintain, especially when they fail to maintain three particular features within their community: (1) shared ideology, (2) universal education, and (3) economic viability. If any of these things are missing, a community tends to fail. While these are present, communities tend to persist.

Ideology should be the singular filter potential residents are judged upon, as only those who are willing to embrace and support the community ideology will carry it through difficult times. While I might personally prefer that all communities adopt an egalitarian, socialist ideology, it turns out that the nature of the ideology is irrelevant in the context of the persistence of community. A community must have one, however, or it tends to flounder, directionless in internal strife.

Egalitarian ideologies are better in the long run for the health and economic status of the membership. Open-source, democratically representative systems encourage and support growth. Ideologies that welcome outsiders will grow faster than those that don’t. Ideologies that provide for adaptation persist longer than those that don’t.

A community must continually educate its members, young and old, in order to remain viable. Learning and passing along skills is the way in which the life of the community tapestry is woven. But most importantly, it is the way ideology is maintained and controlled. Each member must be reminded frequently the promises the community makes to them and the promises they make to the community.

Also, a literate, numerate population can do more and do better than an uneducated population. Folks coming into the community also need a way to safely and quickly learn the rules and ideology of the community.

The thing that attracts most people to intentional communities is the promise of economic security, especially into old age. This isn’t really feasible unless the community itself has economic viability. This means that the community, on the whole, must product something in quantities that can bring funds to the community, with which the community can purchase all the resources and goods it cannot provide for itself.

One way to provide a framework for such viability is to have coordination between communities to provide a particular resource in exchange for access to other community resources. This could allow for a much broader range of production, even coordinated production that took parts made from different communities and combined them into other products in other communities. Each community could eventually be rebuilt with community lumber and hardware, community pipes and wires, community electronics and semiconductors; and fed by community agriculture and ranching. Once a critical mass has been achieved, the community of communities may be self-supporting and present a real threat to the capitalist establishment.

Historically, the capitalist establishment has responded quickly and violently to any threats that have come its way. Anyone who is serious about establishing successful intentional communities should be paranoid about capitalists and the wide range of violence, both official and not, that could any day rain down. Remember Waco. Remember Black Wall Street. Remove all organizational activities from public view and encrypt all transmissions. But also, preserve good relationships with local elected officials and other local communities. Run community members for school board and county constable offices. Buy from local farmers and producers.

If there’s just one successful community, the feds will come down and burn it down. If there’s two successful communities working together, the feds will burn one and the state will burn the other. But if there’s a network of communities, all producing things the government buys, there’s a better chance that everyone will go along to get along. The goal is to reach this position before aggravating too many local officials or setting off capitalist paranoia.

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Yuruba Faith Encounter

December 11th, 2019 · Uncategorized

As a pagan, I have throughout my life chosen my own gods. A significant part of this is an anti-authoritarian impulse driven from trauma associated with modern Christianity. I’ve never taken on a deity because I belonged to a group or because some guru directed me to, although I have participated in deistic rituals without any connection to those deities. Mostly what this has meant was turning to the Greek gods I first learned about as a young child.

While I was born in Texas, I haven’t adopted any Native American theology (at least not consciously), but I’m also not Greek, either, but Irish/English. The Greek gods were just the first ones that I knew stories about, so they represented the oldest archetypes for me. All I know is that when I call to them, I hear them answer, so that’s really good enough for me.

I have heard other gods speak.

When trying to replicate something of what ancient pagans may have done to construct their faiths, I adopted some techniques to recognize deity “in the wild”. There are a multitude of gods in nature, and gods in the arrangement of nature, and gods in the process of nature. Many of these gods you can watch if you have eyes to see. Quite a few of them have things to say, and they’d really like us to listen. Yet it’s still hard to learn about these gods, to understand what they like, and how they influence our world.

Working with deities that others have already codified and contiuously celebrate is much easier. For example, my encounters with variations of Yuruba faith have been fascinating and fruitful.

The Yuruba culture spans several modern countries in Western Africa, encompassing many different tribes and sub-cultures with an extensive history of having been captured and sold as slaves somewhere in the Americas. They brought their gods and ancestors with them, and today in many places, their descendants are holding reverence for them as well. It’s called Candomble in Brazil, Voodou in Haiti, and Lucumi or Santeria in Cuba. Spellings differ, but the underlying continuity of faith in each case is clear.

Some of the secrets of the faith are preserved in Spanish (or Portuguese), or rendered within a Catholic framework of saints and miricles. The root of the faith is still spoken in the Yuruba tongue, and its deepest secrets are still hidden there. They worship their ancestors, their heroes, their gods, and the spirit of their people, just as ancient pagans did before the Christians came. They work with the spirit of their people, the spirit within themselves, and the spirit of ideas and emotions. Watching these people work is as close to watching my own ancestors as I’ll ever get. Even though I’m very white and very square, every practictioner I’ve ever met has been nothing but friendly and kind, and delighted to share their faith (or at least, the public parts) with me.

Beyond this, I have only a skeletal understanding of their theology, but I have nonetheless had several encounters with Orisha, which seem a lot like my Greek gods in many ways. I have heard them speak. They’ve been friendly. Each time was in the company of a believer, so I’ve not really worked with them in my own private rituals. I’m given the impression of being an honored guest, with an option to be at the table.

To be honest, the Orisha frighten me. They are very present and very near, they don’t ask for permission, and if they have something to tell you, it’s a good idea to listen. They don’t have much to do with folks who don’t work with them, but for those who do, they are always right there. If you’re on their good side, then great! But if you’re not, you should take out a good insurance policy or two.

I knew a Santero from New Orleans: he had been crowned in the faith, meaning he was a priest, but has since joined the ancestors. I got a reading from him once and could hear the voice of Elegua in my head. Since the deity I’ve followed for the longest has many aspects in common with Elegua, I didn’t find this all that unusual, but I did notice the differences — and not just the gender and race, but also their ranges, attitudes and types of tools they liked to use. Mostly, they’re different because the history of their respective cultures was different.

The cool thing about the reading for me was watching the form of divination he used. I’ve long studied various forms of divination, and I’m fascinated by looking where-ever humans have found eternal patterns. In this case, he had a collection of cowrie shell beads that he threw to a mat, and read the oracle from how the shells had fallen.

Very recently, a close friend recommended I see a priest of the oracle called Ifa. This time, the dinivation was done with a chain of beads and shells that were compulsively hoisted and dropped along with a rhythmic utterance of prayers in Spanish and Yuruba. The rite obliged me to work with four different Orisha. While the requests seemed unusual to me, they were relatively pedantic by local standards, so I gladly did as I was bid and my hosts guided me along.

As a result, I now feel a closeness of those four Orisha, and I’ve got an interest in learning more about them. Perhaps when they speak to me, I’ll be aware enough to understand them. I don’t yet feel the same bond with them as what I’ve made with my usual pantheon, and I’m discouraged from really interacting with them further without assistance. And frankly, my inability to speak Spanish fluently (to say nothing of Yuruba) makes integrating with that culture challenging before my own race is even considered.

But I can stand across the water and admire the beauty and life inherent in these African cultures still vibrant at my front door. I can see the truth in their practice and be totally jealous of the vast community that supports it. It’s beauty and love and understanding and solice: it’s a library of human experience and a map of man’s relationship to the gods. With I work with modern Yurubans, I am touched by their ancestors in a profound way.

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Christianity, version 2

April 20th, 2018 · christianity, history

Most Roman Emperors were fakers, usurpers, and grifters. If you want a summary answer for why the Roman Empire fell, that’s really the best you’ll get. Really smart, motivated, and effective emperors were rare like hens’ teeth. The third century was a particularly harsh time when reigns were short and most ended at the tip of a dagger. Septimus Severus was the last emperor for a century to die of natural causes.

At the end of this crisis, the Empire developed into a new form under a particularly clever and thoughtful hand: Diocletian backed into the job, but took it more seriously than had the two dozen power-hungry egotists before him, reforming every aspect of the government and economics. He reshaped every province, created a new layer of governance, and defined a structure for four co-emperors to simultaneously and evenly rule the whole empire. (That new layer of government? Those were the “dioceses”, each ruled by an “episcopos” or “bishop” who held power equivalent to an emperor within the three provinces of their respective diocese.)

Diocletian eliminated the long-failed silver coin-based tax system in favor of direct bartering. He reorganized his administration into a top-down autocracy, with ministers in charge of finance and governmental tasks. He codified his judicial rulings in books that enabled lower courts to use precedent to resolve most issues. He also restricted the mobility of citizens: if they were farming serfs, their children would also be farming serfs. The children of blacksmiths became blacksmiths, and the children of soldiers were recruited once they were of age.

Among many other changes, Diocletian made major reform of the Imperial Cult. Setting aside the prior century of practice, he replaced the Sun-centered Christianity (version 1) with a fundamentalist recreation of ancient Roman religion, honoring Zeus and Hercules. Opposition to his changes was predictable, but the change to the Imperial Cult upset folks in the eastern (Greek) half so much, that Constantine used the adoption of Christianity as leverage to gain the aid of the people and armies of the parts of Empire he didn’t already have control over.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s be clear about Constantine’s position vis-a-vis Diocletian. Constantine had been trained in the court of Diocletian, and he learned his lessons well. Constantine’s dad had been one of the four co-emperors, and when he was passed over to become co-emperor after his father died, Constantine took control of his father’s legions and became a usurper against the established government of Diocletian’s Tetrarchy.

So when Constantine took up arms against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge, the myth of receiving the specific blessing of the Christian God — referencing the prior chain of Caesars before Diocletian’s changes — positioned Constantine as the Savior and restorer of the Glory of Rome. He sent teams of spies into areas of the Empire held by the co-emperors to spread the Gospel of the second coming of Christ in Constantine. They carried with them a new book, the Revelations of St. John, that equated Diocletian’s changes to an apocalypse, and “predicted” Constantine’s arrival as the return of Christ to usher in a new Kingdom of Heaven.

Groups of people who gladly returned to the faith of their grandfathers became the Christians who were actually persecuted by the Zeus-worshiping Tetrarchy. The one time Christians really were persecuted by the Roman government, and it was because they were revolutionaries and spies. These Christians infuriated their captors by refusing to pay homage to their images of Zeus — they would only bow to images of Constantine, their returned Christ and Savior, their living god.

After Constantine had vanquished the last of the Tetrarchy, he needed to make sure that all of the officials of the eastern empire would go along with his leadership. So he summoned all of the Bishops of the eastern empire to congregate in the port town of Nicea for the first ecumenical conference of Christianity. There had been some trouble between the various of the wealthier cities regarding whom would rank highest in the new hierarchy, and part of the agenda was in resolving what was ostensibly a theological issue. In the end, the emperor forced an unworkable compromise on the topic, thinking himself very clever in how he resolved it. However, by bringing together the various bishops, he inadvertently created a political body more powerful than any senate before them: the College of Cardinals, which continues to rule over the Catholic Church.

This Christianity, version 2, was much the same as its predecessor. Instead of just the Gospels, the holy book for the new version of Christianity included the sacred scripture of the Jews, Epistles of the Apostles, and the Book of Revelation. A program of church building  was begun, the new Bible became part of the regular ritual, and Constantine became the new object of worship. Burial rites had become common at some point during the prior form of Christianity, so they continued here. There is also a specific nomenclature to distinguish this version of Christianity from the prior one: this one is “Trinitarian” Christianity. The prior one was “Arian” Christianity.

Even though Christianity was the official state religion, it was not yet the exclusive faith of the empire. Instead, it existed as one of dozens, if not hundreds, of simultaneously functioning cults available in every city in every province of the empire. It was the patriotic faith that everyone easily subscribed to, because everyone was a good Roman. But you still praised your ancestors and city heroes and local gods and trade gods and weather gods like you always had before. Christianity wasn’t expected to be all things to all people, just accepted by all people. And in general, it was — especially in the urban areas where the early churches were first built.

When Christianity became the exclusive faith of the empire, though, it transitioned once again into a new form.

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Christianity, version 1

April 19th, 2018 · christianity, history

Before Constantine became the sole emperor of Rome, Christianity was not the official state religion, but after Constantine, Christianity was the official state religion. I think this is a reasonably uncontroversial statement.

We have very little written information about the history of Christianity prior to Constantine, mostly because he had all of it burned. In its place, we have been given the Early Church myth, in which the apostles of Jesus spread the Gospel to the corners of the world. The primary problem with the Early Church myth is that it depicts people doing things in places that, due to cultural limitations at the time, and the heavy presence of Roman legions, really couldn’t have been done.

The Early Church myth also posits a great deal of state persecution was inflicted upon true believers. History indicates otherwise. State persecution against any religious groups was very rare, and until the time of Constantine, never held against Christians.

But what really happened is lost to history, as far as I have been able to determine. Based on what I do know, I can make some educated guesses and draw some lines based on cultural habit. When I do this, some other things come into focus. Here’s the web of assumptions I have woven:

The text of the Gospels was created by Josephus as a witness artifact to his history of the Jewish Wars, which itself was a tribute to his captor and ruler, the Flavian Emperor Titus. In this context, the Gospels predict the appearance of Titus as the prophesied messiah, who brought order and peace to the land of Judea. The character(s) of Jesus  forecasts the actions of Titus, only forty years later.

It was Titus’ little brother, and successor, Domitian, who established the emperor cult in honor of Titus. The formation of this cult would have been through existing buildings and priesthood already established honoring the Caesarean emperors before them. Presumably, this was Christianity, version one. Although we don’t know what it was really like, there is a lot we do know. As an extension of the Imperial Cult, this early version of Christianity probably praised Rome as the “light of the world” and the “city on a hill”. It likely celebrated the holy Spirit of Rome, its Senate and it’s People. At the center of worship stood the Father — the prior Emperor — and the Son — the current Emperor — who were worshiped and glorified as Saviors of the world.

We know there wasn’t any worship or adulation of crucifixes, no Mary myths yet, and no marriage or death rites. It’s not clear if a communion rite would have part of this early form of Christianity, although eating together was a favorite Roman social pasttime. Baptism by water likely had a role, if was celebrated this early, in distinguishing these initiates from those of Mithraism and their baptism by blood. None of the hymns sung today were present in these first years, no saints, and no holidays — save one for the birthday of the Emperor.

What Christianity, version one, likely included was: incense, chanting, call-and-response prayers, incense, processions, bell-ringing, sermons, incense, fraternal greetings, and feasting. These are easy guesses because these were elements of most of the other religions practiced in the Empire at the time (in the mid-first century). More than anything this cult would have been a celebration of Roman culture and history. And incense.

Due to the direct mention of the seven churches of Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the book of Revelations, we could assume that these seven churches were probably of greater importance than any other churches. Perhaps these were the last ones that remained true to this original faith until the time of Constantine. Or perhaps these were the first established by the Flavians, or their proximity to Judea gave them a leadership position by glint of geography. It just occurs to me that they may have been the major cities mentioned in the Epistles, so they were mentioned so as to help bring the book of Revelations into the whole of the New Testament.

Probably the most important element of this exploration is the recognition that the theology of Christian writers prior to Constantine would have been working in a different context than those who came after. Since Constantine burned everything associated with the original Christian cult, and wasn’t beyond adding his own ideas into the writings of prior works, we can’t actually be certain of any texts. We can presume that any changes made would have been to bring the older texts into regular order with the new theology, but also that any such changes would have been minimal.

In other words, the differences between Christianity before and after the transition of Constantine were minimal, and largely confined to areas of doctrine. Whether the nature of God is trinitarian or singular is irrelevant to the lay participant. What was important was the incense and the bells and the chanting. Sharing the hearing of the sermon with his fellow Romans was important — that fellowship was important. Being Roman was important. Not to put too fine a point on it, but being the right kind of Roman was important: a Christian Roman was best. And that is what Christianity, version one, celebrated.

 

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Heretics

April 17th, 2018 · christianity, history

I grew up in the Church, attending regular Sunday services, and assisting with ritual in my teens. I was a believer of all that I had been told, but yet there was a nagging suspicion that things weren’t exactly as I imagined them. My first clue, at sixteen, that the whole thing was a house of cards was my discovery of the Heresy Wars.

In Christian parlance, “heresy” is an act or a belief that runs counter to the teachings of the Church. A heretic is someone who spreads heresy to others, like a deadly virus. From the re-establishment of Christianity by Constantine, until about 800, Church authorities fought amongst themselves and frequently sent armies to eliminate groups of heretics where-ever they were found. Since the rationale given in most cases was a conflict of theological points, these actions are all considered part of the Heresy Wars.

My understanding of the Early Church narrative said nothing about heretical bishops or ethnic cleansing. I was told that the early Christians were frequently assaulted and harassed by Roman authorities for the crime of being Christian. These persecutions were writ large in Early Church legend, and included a handful of specific personalities with biographies and heart tugging scenes of torment while they held fast in their faith.

But the Early Church myth is fiction, and the Heresy Wars really happened.

There were three distinct causes for the Heresy Wars. The first was that the bishops of the richest cities in the empire were all competing to become the apex bishop. They used theological pronouncements as a means to identify each group, and fought a pretty standard Roman civil-war style battle, both with soldiers and with spies, until Rome came out on top. In the meantime, each bishop would claim that their competing bishops were heretics and anyone following them were heretics. This lead to a lot of hurt feelings, I imagine, but it mostly sorted itself out after a century or so.

The second cause of the Heresy Wars was the little matter of the prior form of Christianity that wasn’t really being followed so closely anymore. A presbyter named Arius, in a kind of foreshadowing of Luther, declared that this new theology being dictated by these competing bishops was heresy. According to the original form of Christianity created by the Flavians, all the Trinitarian gyrations in Nicea were irrelevant since God the Father was always superior to the Son. Instead of calling it “original” Christianity or “Flavian” Christianity, the Bishops called it “Arianism” so as to dismiss the older church as the work of an old crank and not an emperor. Naturally, this lead to a sort of prolonged inquisition of each Christian community in the empire where nonconvertible Arians were slaughtered.

The third cause of the Heresy Wars was a later period of regularization. Occasionally, a Christian community would be found who, while not Arian, still possessed unusual theology or ritual. When they could not be convinced of the error of their ways, the Church tended to kill them all. Most often, these were groups who had practiced as pagan organizations prior to the imposition of Christianity. While they may have changed their deity names and added some elements of Roman rite, they still mostly did whatever they had done before. Interestingly, the Church lost interest in this task after several centuries, meaning there still remain a number of Christian communities in Europe and North Africa that still practice their earlier pagan rites alongside Christian ones.

The primary fruit of the first cause of the Heresy Wars was the doctrine of the Trinity. The very nature of God, and Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, was the subject of intense and sometimes violent debates. There was no formulation which satisfied one and all. The Trinitarian formula was a compromise which pleased no one, but brought an end to the virtual civil war the subject had brought about. It was also so convoluted as to be patent nonsense. God, the one in three, is one, not three. Yet the three are distinct and not God, while they are also God. So debate that, Aristotle!

Before the Trinity, “God the Father” was the prior Caesar, and his “Son” was the current, living Caesar. The Holy Spirit was the Spirit of the Senate and People of Rome. Because that’s how the Flavians built it. Constantine had all of the prior order’s written materials confiscated and burned, and the Arian heresy died out with the older generations.

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Apocalypse 2018

April 13th, 2018 · christianity, culture, history

Internet rumors are swirling that April 23, 2018 will bring about the end of the world. Quick! Look busy! Jesus is coming!

Predictions of the planet’s imminent demise have been the mainstay of crank prophecy circles for centuries. Most often, these predictions presage a “second coming” of Christ as predicted in the book of Revelations. Few people can read the book of Revelations and agree with anyone else about what it means. Consequently, it’s often taken to mean whatever was convenient to believe at the time.

Rather than making an accounting of all the times this has been predicted and hasn’t happened, I wanted to discuss the two times it’s already happened.

The first return of Christ occurred about 40 years after the stories in the Gospels. He returned in the form of the Roman Emperor Titus. Christ’s journey mirrored that of Titus’s as he (Titus) rolled through Judea with a handful of Roman legions, laying siege on one town after another, starting with Galilee and ending in Jerusalem. As Christ predicted, Titus-as-Christ tore down the Temple of Jerusalem and left not one stone atop another, as it was pushed down the hill into a great pile of rubble.

Since the first appearance of the Gospels was with Josephus’s book on the History of the Jewish War, it’s pretty easy to link Josephus with the creation of the Gospels. Titus’s family, the Flavians, are thus linked to the creation of Christianity as an emperor cult for Titus.

The second return of Christ happened centuries later, with the appearance of Constantine, who restored and popularized a new strain of Christianity that included the book of Revelation. Much of the imagery of that book is primarily a caricature of Diocletian, whose structure of imperial governance Constantine destroyed. The four horsemen of the apocalypse, for example, was a direct reference to Diocletian’s “Tetrarchy” in which four co-emperors ruled the empire, and were symbolized by four horsemen.

Some time after the bishops of Western Rome decided that they no longer needed an emperor and simply stopped electing new ones, the theology of their faith was subtly changed. Without an emperor to worship, there was only left the mythology that originally justified each emperor’s position. And after a while, the emperor was no longer part of the story told and they were forgotten (in the faith, at least).

Fast forward a thousand years, and we have the Protestants, whose position is that Rome subverted the original, pure Christianity and who deliberately strip everything “pagan” from their flavor of faith, leaving it largely bereft of tradition and symbolism. Consequently, the “Second Coming” of Christ has special meaning to them — since they refuse to believe that it referenced events in the past. Catholics tend to reject tales of future apocalypse as fear mongering, but it’s the bread and butter of most Protestant strains. It’s no wonder there’s such a huge audience so ready to anticipate an event that already happened.

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The New Touchstone

April 10th, 2018 · culture, Illuminations

Let’s start with some definitions.

“Religion” is a set of tools and practices that bring about specific reactions in people — primarily useful in enhancing memory, reducing anxiety, and providing a context for existence.

“Christian” can reference a cultural fundament, or a type of religion or organization, or a niche of media expression, or an element of self-image. Once useful to distinguish the disparate peoples of Rome from the barbarians around it, the title of “Christian” now provides authority to define normals of behavior and interaction among the nearly as disparate modern religious organizations that claim such a title.

“Christianity” is a word that means everything and nothing. In the modern world, and especially in the US, the definition of what makes an organization Christian is extremely elastic, to the point that there are very few elements common to them all.

This is also a good time to point out that I’m not opposed to Christianity in modern practice. Folks today who can get benefit from modern Christian practice — where ever they can find it! — are heroes in my book. However, I’m a big fan of religion, and I know that the world of religion is so much larger (and so much more helpful) than mere Christianity that it’s a good and helpful thing for me to show people where it’s at.

“Atheism” in the modern sense has a lot more to do with an opposition to the cultural and judicial dominance of Christian fundamentalism and Calvinistic tendencies toward deprivation and cruelty, than any sort of sustained disagreement about the nature of God. In Christian Early Church mythos, the early persecuted Christians were called “atheists” for denying the gods commonly worshiped by their neighbors, so classically, it’s less of an anti-religious term than a denial of an authority claimed by a faith organization.

I once upset a fellow by summarizing Christianity as an authority cult. While I’m disappointed to have upset the fellow, I stand by my summary. Pretty much any element of practice or theology that you encounter in one Christian church can be found to be absent, if not taboo, from another Christian church. Expectation of submission to their authority is consistent across all forms of Christian religious organizations. Further, since Christianity started as an emperor cult, submission to the emperor and Empire and the spirit of the Roman people was baked into the foundation of the faith. And so very often, this tendency to cling to tyranny becomes its fatal flaw.

The Gospel stories are beautiful and full of wonderful ideals and the highs and lows of human experience. I certainly do not think less of anyone who reads those words and finds beauty therein, because it’s there to be found by anyone. However, I recognize the Gospel stories as being fiction — sacred and beloved, but fiction. Consequently, the myth of the Early Church, with Christ’s apostles spreading the word throughout the Earth, is equally fiction.

The reason for making this decision is based on simple logic. In the Gospel tales, a man dies, and then returns to life several days later — and his name is Lazarus. Further along in the tales, the character Jesus is shown as dying on a cross and appearing as living some days later. In real life, people who die, and remain fully dead for several days, never return fully back to life. Death is never defeated, that’s a fact of life. So a story in which two men return to life after death is a story that begs me to understand it to be fiction.

But it’s not just fiction — it’s the mythic standard by which a culture from two thousand years ago drew the lines into the future we still run our legal systems on today. I am not relieved of my desire to know the truth of it all by knowing the Gospels to be fiction. If anything, it cranks my desire further.

So the question becomes: where did these stories come from? Who would write such tales, and to what end?

 

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Ruminations 2015

December 26th, 2015 · Uncategorized

This is my first, and likely last, post for 2015. It was a good year for life and home, and I mostly relaxed and did things other than writing or thinking about Christianity. Although, the topic never seems far away. The Atwill book caused a major rethink on my part: it made sense, and it addresses many of the outstanding questions I had in my own theories. At the same time, it opened up a variety of other avenues of research, and presents some of its own questions.

Authorship of the New Testament hasn’t been something I’ve wanted to really dig too deeply into, but it’s a key part of the whole story. Atwill’s book game me something to pin the Gospels to, and I had a good candidate for someone who had the will and means to create the Epistles from repurposed pagan evangelicals. Now, I assume that Josephus wrote (or directed to have written) the four Gospels and Acts, and that Eusebius of Caesarea created the Epistles a few centuries later. I’ve seen enough arguments about the timing and placement of the final book — Revelations — that I don’t know if it was part of Eusebius’ efforts or something appended later. My current best guess is that it was appended about a century later as part of the heresy wars.

I’ve seen a few recent connections worth noting. Part of my understanding of Constantine the Great was that he was a keen student of history. When he became Emperor, he took the name “Flavius”, perhaps to indicate his intention to rule as did the Flavians. This could imply that his adaptation of Christianity was a part of this adoption of a Flavian lineage. If so, his father took the name “Flavius” as well. Had Constantius been the one to revive the old Flavian cult?

Another connection is from the study of imperial cults. The highest honor an imperial cult would give is something called a “Triumph”. It’s basically a parade to honor the Emperor’s victory in war. The period leading up to a “Triumph” is a period of time called “Advent”. In the modern Christian calendar there is a period called “Advent” that occurs prior to the Christmas season. Is there a connection between these two “Advents”?

 

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