Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Most Christians think Jesus wouldn't approve of today's Christianity - and then move on with their lives

 By Sean Ewart

"It's cool, you can always recommit on your death bed." - Jesus
If most Christians think that Jesus would disapprove of modern-day Christianity, why aren’t more Christians working – on a personal level – to change that?

I’ve had probably hundreds of conversations with Christians (and believers of other faiths) over the years and I’ve learned a very obvious lesson: most people aren’t looking for [T]ruth, they’re looking for ways to justify whatever it is they’re currently doing. 

Many of these conversations took place over drinks or while nursing a serious hangover (but…?). In other instances I’ve asked my believing friends who I know engage in pre-marital sex how they justify that given their stated religious beliefs (Jesus said…?). In every case the exchange is awkward – I know from personal experience that it’s not fun to be confronted with your own blatant hypocrisy. 

Beyond drinking to the point of intoxication (which is a blast) and pre-marital sex (also, a blast), you can everywhere find cases of Christians living in ways that are so divergent from the teachings of the Bible that it’ll give you whiplash. 

Compare what Joel Osteen said – “It's God's will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty. It's God's will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt.” – with what Jesus said – “Blessed are you who are poor,  for yours is the kingdom of God… But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.” 

It’s hard to imagine that Osteen has the same Bible I’ve read. 

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that hypocrisy is somehow shocking. In nearly every conversation I’ve had with Christians wherein I’ve pointed out the daylight between what they say they believe and how they behave I’m reminded that not everyone is perfect. 


But it seems like instead of taking personal failings as a call to strive towards greater heights too many Christians (and probably everyone else too) see this reality as an excuse to keep on keeping on. “Hey man, not everyone is perfect, so why should I bother?”  

In the end, if my observations bear any connection to reality, I think the real issue is that, no matter how many people claim to believe in the tenets of Christianity (77% of Americans in 2012), not very many of them really, genuinely believe. If you really thought that the only way to come into a right relationship with God, who created everything including you, was to accept Jesus as your Lord and personal savior and then follow in his footsteps, wouldn’t you take it a bit more seriously? 

I’m not advocating that anyone believe in Christianity. I think most religious faith is ridiculous at best (where’s the evidence for any of the claims religious people make?). But if Christians are looking around at their fellow believers and reaching the same, overwhelming conclusion that today’s religion is probably not what Jesus would have wanted, and then not doing anything about it, what does that say about the state of religious faith? How futile. 

I’ll end my rant with a brief anecdote:

I recently attended a fish fry Friday event hosted by a group of Catholics who were observing Lent. I asked them why they eat fish on Friday’s in the run up to Easter (I thought it was an obvious question). Not one of them could answer me. “We’ve just always done it,” they said. 

I think that’s a fairly representative statement about religion more broadly. Why do people say they believe in Christianity when the only way they made it to Sunday morning service is thanks to a handful of ibuprofen and a Gatorade? Why does anyone bother thanking God for their food when they spent the night before knocking boots with someone they have no intention of marrying? 

They just do it! That’s the answer. It’s just what they do and what they’ve always done and it feels good because it’s familiar or inviting or not all that tough – certainly not tougher than starting over in a brand new intellectual environment. They know that Jesus probably wouldn’t like it, but damn it, Jesus doesn’t seem all that real to most people, anyway, so why bother? After-all, a deathbed conversion is a lot easier than trying to actually do all that stuff Jesus talked about.

Apathy is a strong anesthesia.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Evolution is a bigger problem for Christianity than you’re willing to admit

 By Sean Ewart

You can't have your cake and eat it too.
There’s no doubt that Christians can believe in evolution without compromising their faith. Look no further than Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian who accepts scientific knowledge (as the head of the National Institutes of Health he should) and remains deeply committed to God. Christians can also solicit prostitutes without compromising their faith, rape children without compromising their faith, and despite the clear admonition of Jesus against even looking at someone with lustful intentions get divorces without compromising their faith. In other words: yes, Christians are certainly capable of believing in evolution and the saving power of Jesus at the same time, but so what? 

Among white evangelicals in the United States of America in 2013 a full 64% believed that humans were created by God in their current form. That puts Collins firmly in the minority of his cohort. If you compare the data of those groups that attend church most often (white and black Protestants) to belief in evolution you’ll find that the more you go to church the more likely you are to take the Biblical account of creation literally. More church = less scientific literacy. 

What, exactly, is the Biblical account of creation? Here is Answers in Genesis with a summary:

“…the triune God of the Bible created the earth, the universe, and all life around 6,000 years ago (some allow for a range of 6,000–10,000 years old); 2) humanity rebelled against God, and God removed some of His sustaining power, which led to death and suffering (the Curse); 3) a year-long global catastrophe (the worldwide Flood) 4,000–5,000 years ago destroyed all land life not aboard Noah’s Ark and much of the sea life (evidenced by the fossil record)…”

That’s what you get if you read the Bible literally, taking at face value what it says. Read it yourself, add up the genealogies, and you’ll get the same thing (I know this because I did it). This is, of course, incompatible with evolution – and not just because of the timeline. 

But let’s start with the timeline before we get to the more serious problem. The theory of evolution, that life has changed gradually through a series of adaptations and mutations, necessitates a long period of time to work. 6,000 years (or even, if you’re being generous, 10,000) just isn’t enough time for a single-celled organism to turn into a human. The timeline problem is actually more severe than that: even Spanish cave paintings pre-date the Biblical creation account. How did people paint bulls in a cave in Spain prior to the creation of man? 

So Answers in Genesis – and the 64% of white evangelicals who agree with them – are just wrong. They believe the Bible’s account of creation is literal but it cannot be. Young earth creationism is a crack-pot theory that cannot be taken seriously because adherents are not making serious claims. It’s not science; it’s faith masquerading as science. 

That’s usually where arguments about the split between Christianity and evolution end. People like Collins come into the argument and say, “that’s fine, we're okay with a creation account that isn’t literal. We still believe that Jesus died for our sins and we are content to believe that God merely guided the process of evolution. Faith and the scientific data pointing to evolution can coexist.” Problem solved. That’s certainly the approach taken by American Catholics and mainline Protestants where large majorities believe that humans evolved over time. The Catholic Church is also officially on the side of God-guided evolution. 

However, even the liberal view that God used evolution as part of his creative process is incompatible with evolution. You can have your faith in the Bible or you can have your scientifically informed belief in evolution – but you cannot logically have both. Here's why:

If the Biblical story is to be believed God created the universe and everything in it and “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” As Chris Sinkinson wrote, “Evil is a corruption or distortion of the good that God has made.” N.T. Wright said of the entrance of evil into the perfect creation of God that “God's project for creation must now proceed by a long and tortuous route, through thorns and thistles and dust and death.”

Make no mistake that death, in Christian theology, is a corruption of the ideal order that God originally created in the Garden of Eden. N.T. Write says, “Death – the corruption and decay of the good creation and of humans who bear God's image – is the ultimate blasphemy, the great intruder, the final satanic weapon, and it will itself be defeated.” Throughout the Old and New Testaments death is used as punishment time and time again; death is at best a necessary evil and at worse an enemy of the faithful. 

In fact, it is death that Jesus defeated when he died and rose from the grave. It's the defeat over death – a defeat that began on a cross 2,000 years ago and that will be complete when Jesus returns – that Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday. As the Apostle Paul says, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but you can safely summarize the entire Christian religion as a cosmic battle between good and evil where death is the antithesis of God. Paul says, “... if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” The Bible gives no other reason for Jesus' death than that it, somehow, was the only way for God to begin the process of defeating death. Without the entry of death into creation through the sins of Adam, as Paul said, the sacrifice of Jesus is meaningless. 

Which brings us, finally, to the real conflict and the reason why Christianity and evolution are incompatible ideas that can only be believed by the same person at the same time through a tightrope walk of cognitive dissonance. Evolution, a process that functions by the laws of “natural selection,” is not a moral agent. Creatures that survive do so upon a mountain of death, and only continue to pass along their genes by keeping up with the tread-mill of genetic competition for as long as possible. Those organisms most suited to their environment will pass along their genes, those least suited will die, and it's through the constant purge of life that new, more resilient life evolves. 

In “On The Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin wrote: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.” 

Death is, for evolution, a core element of how it works. Death is the engine that drives natural selection. If we admit that God used evolution in his creative process we allow that God not only has at times given death free-reign over this world, but that God created death, saw its usefulness, and brought it to bear upon the universe prior to the sins of Adam. Paul said, “... just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross makes no sense – none – if we allow that death is a crucial component of God's creativity. 

If Paul is correct, if Chris Sinkinson and N.T. Wright are correct, if God created the world to be a perfect place and if death is a corruption, an intruder, an enemy in that creation, then evolution cannot be the means by which God brought his creation to fruition. But if the accumulation of scientific data – the geologic record, radioactive dating, genetic research, and cosmology – is to be believed then Christianity is wrong. You cannot have at once a God that uses death to create his perfect world and a God that gives his life to defeat it. You cannot have a world populated by life that is the result of millions of years of natural selection and a savior who died to gain victory over death which only entered the world after the sins of Adam who, regardless of whether you believe in a literal six-day creation or not, was human and thus who existed not more than 200,000 years ago and long after the processes of natural selection began. 

Yes you can believe in evolution and Christianity at the same time, as well-meaning liberal believers insist, but you cannot do so while also remaining logically coherent or theologically sound. It's one or the other.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dueling Gospels: Matthew and Luke disagree about Jesus' birth

By Sean Ewart

If your church is anything like the one I attended for this year's Christmas Eve ritual there was at least one scripture reading. From the pulpit at the small church in Northern New York I visited a rotating cast of nervous college and high school students and their slightly less awkward adult counterparts read from the Gospel of Luke. As a framing device between the hymns these scripture readings adeptly maintained the focus of the ritual on the birth of Jesus: the "reason for the season."

It's a simple enough set up. Each person read several verses from the Gospel of Luke until we finished the birth narrative. But it's not really as simple as that (it almost never is when you're dealing with the Bible) and the fact that my grimaces at the reading were not matched on the faces of others in the pews betrayed an obvious reality: most people are unaware of the problems of Luke, or indeed the problems with the birth narrative in general.

The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only two that describe, at all, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels of Mark and John both start with Jesus as a fully grown man about to begin his ministry. There is no word of a virgin birth (kind of a big deal, wouldn't you say?) or wise men or terrified shepherds in either of those accounts of the life of Jesus. In fact the wise men are only found in Matthew and the shepherds only in Luke. Our modern nativity scenes that show both the wise men and the shepherds crowded around the baby Jesus have been modeled on a harmonized version of the narrative that smashes the accounts of Matthew and Luke together, assuming that their deficiencies are made whole through combination. 

But the two gospels differ in several other ways as well which, as you will see, begs the question: if you can’t take seriously the most basic claims in the Bible, why take any of it seriously? 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Will There be a Catholic Church in 100 years?

By Sean Ewart

Will there be a Catholic Church in 100 years? Yes, probably. But what the church will look like is a more complicated question - will the church reverse its stance on contraception? on homosexuality? on abortion? on sex outside of marriage? on the marriage of priests?

In an article published by the University of Southern California Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at Lancaster University and director of the Westminster Faith Debates, said her study of Catholics in the United Kingdom shows a church that is massively out of touch with its membership. Granted the study is limited to the United Kingdom - it's not representative of the church globally - but as modernity and changing social mores the world-round shift out from under the church its evolution or lack-thereof will be one of the biggest stories of the 21st century.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Molding the Religion of Peace: Islam by the light of Catholicism

By Sean Ewart

Turkish President Abdullah Gul - molding Islam from within.
“Gird yourselves, I say, and act like mighty sons, because it is better for you to die in battle than to tolerate the abuse of your race and your Holy Places. Do not let the seductive lures of your women and possessions persuade you not to go.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

George Bush's Jewish Mission and the Outrage Machine - Futility wages war on Pointlessness

By Sean Ewart

You're seriously going to insist on being offended by this guy?
There are few things that bring as much joy to my heart as criticizing former President George Bush. His time in office was comedic fodder for good reason and his time spent since has likewise been hilarious (or by another light, pathetic). Although my painting abilities don't even approach George's, I take comfort in the fact that I, at least, have the wisdom to refrain from embarrassing myself. 

George in the bath.
George has again seized the spotlight this week for his participation in an evangelical Christian conference hosted by the Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. The MJBI is all about reinterpreting the Old Testament in such a way that it appears to predict Jesus and the goal of Thursday's event was to raise money for the on-going effort to convert Jews to Christianity.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

In Defense of Psychics; they have a right to bullshit

 By Sean Ewart

Psychics are obviously amazing bullshit artists. But they have a right to be.

Sylvia Mitchell is facing more than 15 years in prison after being found guilty in a Manhattan court for ten counts of grand larceny and one count of scheming to defraud clients. Between 2007 and 2009, the court said, Mitchell stole $138,000 from clients who came to her hoping to better their lives. Sylvia Mitchell is a psychic.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

God's Cold Reader: Andrew Eastmond and the need to believe

 By Sean Ewart

A screenshot of Andrew and John Eastmond.
For someone who's never heard of cold reading, itinerant preacher Andrew Eastmond is pretty good. When I saw him recently at a prayer ministry event at a local church,* Eastmond was onstage with his son, John, singing original worship songs, preaching a heartfelt sermon, and praying and prophesying for those who felt compelled to come forward. One at a time more than two dozen people approached Eastmond who, microphone in hand, began to call upon god to strengthen and heal them. Several went away weeping, clearly impacted by the power of Eastmond's blessing.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Let the rebels lose in Syria

By Sean Ewart

Free Syria Army rebels cleaning their AK47s in Aleppo, Syria during the civil war (19 October 2012).
As we walk back from the brink of war it’s time to face up to a sobering reality: the Syrian rebels should not win their civil war.

Monday, September 16, 2013

I Am The Immensity: Driving the James Bay Highway, swimming in the Arctic Ocean

By Sean Ewart

Sunset over the Arctic Ocean.
[From August 24 to September 1, 2013, myself and two friends spent time driving on remote roads in Quebec with the goal of visiting the Arctic Ocean. This is not a typical Gadfly Press article but as I planned the trip similar blow-by-blow accounts were invaluable as they gave me ideas for places to visit and things to do. I hope this is helpful to others looking for adventure. Another great resource is this virtual tour.

We decided to visit the James Bay because of it's remoteness. The southernmost extremity of the Arctic Ocean, the bay offered us a chance to slip into North America's third coast without absolutely breaking the bank. A 20-hour drive north of Potsdam, NY, and we'd be at Longue Pointe, mingling with members of the Cree nation of Chisasibi and observing the vastness of northern Quebec and the boreal forest. The planning process was simple enough thanks to the Google machine and by late spring 2013 the outline of our nine-day tour was fairly well established.