(Copyright © 2009)


Given that I ended my last post on the note we may not wake up tomorrow, I will continue in that vein to see if I can’t discover some more satisfactory resolution.


Speaking of mortality, the day I wrote this post, I read the scariest article I have ever read, Jeff Sharlet’s “Jesus Killed Mohammed: The crusade for a Christian military,” in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. Sharlet addresses a different kind of integrity than I have presented in my last two reflections, a single-minded adherence to dogma derived from self-serving interpretation of religious scripture among members of the military.


Even as the U.S. conducts its so-called war on terror, many of its fighters and their leaders are finding strength in deviant religious doctrine by which Christian warriors will triumph against not only Islamic infidels but non-extremist Americans as well. We are breeding the very enemy within our ranks while doing battle in the arid lands of the Middle East. First we armed the mujahideen as our proxy warriors against the Russian invaders of Afghanistan; now we are training an army of religious extremists within our own forces. At present, their guns are aimed at Islamic fundamentalists, but their ideology is aimed straight at the heart of America’s Christian fundamentalists and a mythic government worthy of their ideals. I see a civil war brewing in our midst, pitting armed extremists—largely whites from the South serving as an army of God—against their more liberal brethren in the North and Far West.


Sharlet backs up his thesis by giving name and rank of many of his informants. One, “who asked that he not be named so as not to compromise his close connection to today’s top officers,” provided this view:


Although the military was integrated before much of the United States, he points out, it almost split along racial lines, particularly in the last days of Vietnam. If the military was to rebuild itself, the Southern white men at the heart of its warrior culture had to come to an understanding of themselves based on something other than skin color. Many, says the senator, turned toward religion, particularly fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. . . . “They replaced race with religion,” says the senator. “The principle remains the same—an identity built on being separate from a society viewed as weak and corrupt.”


Lieutenant Colonel Bob Young speaks for many in the military. Sharlet quotes him as saying “Really, arguably, the military is the last American institution that tries to uphold Christian values. It’s the easiest place in America to be a Christian.” Christian, that is, with savage twists of hatred, superiority, and self-righteousness mixed in. This new military is more interested in defending its ideological interpretations of scripture than in defending the American people, many of whom it covertly despises.


Here is the heart of the problem humanity faces in trying to come to grips with its errant ways. Our left-brain interpreters are so good at synthesizing the many messages they receive from all quarters of the brain, it’s hard not to be swayed by them. But when interpreters are employed defensively in the interest of received dogma, relying largely on ideology approved by external agencies and institutions more than firsthand conscious experience, then the interpreter’s first duty is to cast a critical eye on the beliefs it is passing off as its own.


Anything written must be regarded with particular scrutiny because words can lie so convincingly. Scripture in particular—whether written 2,710, 1,955, or 1,377 years ago by Jewish, Christian, or Islamic hands in Hebrew, Greek, or Arabic—must be regarded as suspect because of the gulf between what was understood then to be true in the idiom of that time and what we understand in the light of today. It is particularly dangerous to apply ancient words to modern situations as if ancient and modern people were the same. We take Plato and Aristotle with a grain of salt; we must treat religious accounts the same way. Even if we enjoy reading them, we must keep in mind that was then, this is now. The situations in which those words arose no longer exist. When translated into modern languages, even though we want to believe them, our judgment must point out that ancient truths have a shelf life of a single generation, and that even 100 years after they were written, the context that provided their meaning had been largely forgotten.


For example, in winter 1986-1987, I sat down and read through the Oxford Study Edition of The New English Bible (Oxford University Press, 1976). I read it as literature—the word of lower-case men—not the word of upper-case God. In 1 Corinthians, I marked these passages as being of interest:


If the dead are never raised to life, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’ (15.32).


But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? In what kind of body? How foolish! The seed you sow does not come to life unless it has first died; and what you sow is not the body that shall be, but a naked grain, perhaps of wheat, or of some other kind; and God clothes it with the body of his choice, each seed with its own particular body (15.35-38). . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body (15.42-44). . . . What I mean, my brothers, is this: flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God, and the perishable cannot possess immortality. Listen! I will unfold a mystery: we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise immortal, and we shall be changed. This perishable being must be clothed with the imperishable, and what is mortal must be clothed with immortality. And when our mortality has been clothed with immortality, then the saying of Scripture will come true: ‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’ (15.50-55).


Very powerful writing, as much of Paul is. He presents his argument in orderly fashion, develops it by analogy, then draws his conclusion. He is a practiced rhetorician. That is, he skillfully uses words to make his points. But this is ancient persuasion, not truth. 


His topic is resurrection as a solution to the problem of death. He reasons by analogy from the plant world to the human, but within the understanding of his time (Corinthians is dated to the mid-50s BCE) which understood little about genetics or the germination of seeds. Paul presents planting seeds in the ground as analogous to burying the dead, or to death itself. Since the resulting sprout seemed to bear no resemblance to the seed, some agency must have been responsible for giving the seed a new garment or new body. By leap of faith, the only agent capable of making such a switch would be God, the ultimate agency for making good things happen beyond the limits of human understanding. (It would have been Satan, the anti-God concept, that made bad things happen.)


Getting to his point—the resurrection of the dead—Paul leaps from seeds to animal bodies, which can only achieve a spiritual existence after death through intervention by the same agency. In his day when distinctions were less closely drawn, that might have followed as a logical conclusion, but it now comes across very much like hand-waving by his left-brain interpreter. It is God’s will; Satan made me do it. Which are not explanations at all but fabulous accounts of everyday wonders.


Then Paul hits his emotional stride and is on-message with his interpreter. We are not going to die after all. “In a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call”—this is the language of fairy-tale, not truth. No matter how much we want to believe, we must look around for the man at the levers behind the curtain. If judgment does not serve us now, we are lost. “‘Death is swallowed up; victory is won!’ ‘O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?’” On whose authority might that be? Paul’s very own. That is, the authority of his left-brain interpreter. This is the man who took a hand in the stoning of St. Stephen, who had an episode on the road to Damascus, who converted from Judaism to become a follower of Christ. When traditional Jewish law failed him, he turned to love. There was incredible stress in his life during a time of great upheaval at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Bishop John Shelby Spong makes a case for Paul being gay long before it would have been acceptable: “It was, I believe, a repressed gay man named Paul of Tarsus who had been taught by his religion and his society to hate what he knew he was, who ultimately gave to the Christian faith its concept of grace, as the undeserved, unmerited love of God found in Christ Jesus” (Preface, The Letters of Paul, page xxxix).


And almost two thousand years later, we are to accept the word of this man so desperate for acceptance on the sensitive subject of life after death? I say we take it at face value, warts and all, and let it go at that. We are fortunate to have dictation from this able man’s left-brain interpreter extant for our examination. It is now up to us to conduct a suitably rigorous examination. If our left-brain interpreters leap to the conclusion that Paul was right because the book his words are written in would not lie to us, so grant them safe conduct across the intervening span of years to this very day, well, I say we are not only extremely needy but gullible to boot.


To put massive firepower in the hands of men who take the Bible as literal truth is the height of foolishness and misplaced trust. Men who kill for a living harden their interpreters against any and all criticism. They do it to protect themselves, but in the process may well be putting the rest of us at risk. This is exactly the kind of movement we must guard against. On the lookout for swarthy terrorists, who among us would suspect our own troops, the guys we support with all those yellow ribbons and bumper stickers?


I have a whole page of jottings about what I intended to cover in this post, and haven’t gotten to any of them. For today, I will leave it at that.