Unasked questions: Sunlight

Creates Light, and Day and Night, in Day 1... doesn't create Sun and Moon until Day 4.

How can I have been in and around the Bible for decades, and never noticed the totally bizarre concepts in the first chapter of Genesis?

I don’t mean the impossible ideas of later chapters – not the talking snake, not the angels having sex with “the daughters of men”, not the assumption that every animal species on earth lived within walking distance of Noah’s ark… those ideas may be unscientific, preliterate, and so on, but they’re not as mind-bogglingly irrational as this:

“And God said, Let there be light… and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.” Genesis 1: 3-5.

“And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night… And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also… And the evening and the morning were the fourth day.” Genesis 1: 14-19.

I’m still pondering this! Day 1: he makes Light, and Day and Night, and morning and evening. (Day 2, he makes heaven and sea and earth. Day 3, he makes grasses and fruit trees.) Then, on Day 4, he makes the sun, moon and stars…?!?

How could even an unscientific, preliterate, myth-creating narrator come up with something as nonsensical as that? (If Day and daylight are independent of the Sun, does the author of Genesis think that it is purely coincidental that daylight and the appearance of the Sun occur together?) Or how could even the worst story-reteller garble a narrative that badly in writing it down? And how the hell can ultra-Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians believe that every word of the Bible as we have it today is literal fact?

(And how could I have created a skeptical protagonist like Matthew in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’, and omitted to have him question Jesus on the believability of Genesis? No wonder there are no surviving dialogues of Jesus with Greek philosophers, they would have destroyed him! I may have to add a couple of sentences to the novel.)

Best resources – Debunking myths

Humans have been very successful as a species through love of pattern-recognition activities and a broad search for cause-and-effect. This leads to a love of stories and constant search for ‘Meaning’. The easiest way to introduce a new concept to people is to connect it to a story, as Jesus did repeatedly through parables. The inherent danger is that, because people are programmed to seek a narrative, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

We all grow up at some point... if we live long enough...

So in the process of trying to debunk an incorrect idea, you have to be sure to provide a complete alternative explanation. You also have to be careful not to inadvertently reinforce the flawed idea – this ‘backfiring’ can be caused by various things: bad framing of the idea, or too many arguments and details, or threatening the listener’s worldview.

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, deals with these issues. It is now freely available to download, and offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the concepts down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas who encounter misinformation. It originated with climate researchers, but it has universal application.

I believe debunking myths of all kinds is important, because what we believe impacts how we make decisions. Bush foreign policy was informed with a lot of Messianic Christian mumbo-jumbo which contributed to the Iraq war as well as to anti-science policies on health care and stem-cell research. Science and government must be kept free of religion, or we end up with shorter and less fulfilling lives. But we can’t simply say ‘The Christian narrative is flawed; Jesus isn’t God, don’t be ridiculous.’ We have to provide a complete alternative story of who he was, and how we can understand his words and actions in a completely secular way.

That is what I have attempted in “The Gospel According to the Romans” – that Jesus was a Jew, and a fundamentalist Jew at that, who wanted to cleanse Israel by kicking the beardless, pig-eating, polytheist, idolatrous Romans out of Palestine and restoring the Torah as the source of law. He was connected to the Zealot uprisings which had been going on for 100 years before him and continued for another 100 years afterwards – his attempt to take over the Temple at Passover was a clear failure, and he was caught and crucified.

But this book is probably only half of what I need to say on the matter. Because Paul came along after Jesus and used him as the vehicle for creating the greatest syncretist religion the world has ever seen, blending Judaism and Mithraism with Egyptian and Greco-Roman practices to end up with the Christianity that we have today. In order to say that happened, and to be understood and believed, we need to tell it as a coherent and non-magical story – plausible even if we can’t know exactly what happened.

In short, we need a parable to debunk Jesus, Paul and Christianity.

Unashamed commercialism…

Pantera, a Roman legionary, remains a plausible biological father for Jesus

You have only minutes left to get an interesting gift – a stocking-stuffer for an intelligent, literate, argumentative teen, say.

You could order them a copy of The Gospel According to the Romans for $14.95 here, or from Amazon.com

or you can send it to them as an e-book for 86p in the UK, or 99 cents in the US, or EUR 0,99 at one of Amazon’s main European websites (for example Germany, but you can substitute other country letters for the ‘de’), where you/they can also get a free Kindle app for reading it (look on the right-hand side)

or you can simply point them at this blog, http://robinhl.com, where they can enjoy random religious rants and sniping year-round!

(Discussion of Pantera is at https://robinhl.com/2011/11/06/jesus-son-of-pantera/, fyi. And Merry Christmas!)

The Miracles, 1 – Water into Wine

Generally considered Jesus’ first miracle, “turning the water into wine” has captured popular imagination as a casual display of miraculous power – something of a party trick. Which perhaps it was.

Jesus turning water into wine

Here’s the story: Jesus attends a wedding. His mother says they’ve run out of wine, can he help? She tells the servants to do whatever he says. He says to fill some pitchers with water; the liquid is then taken to the Steward of the feast, who congratulates Jesus on saving the best wine for last, i.e. this wine is better than the stuff they had earlier – normally the good stuff would be served first, before everyone is too sozzled to notice the difference.

But remember that Palestine was part of the Roman Empire by this time. Consider how Romans served wine at feasts: wine was shipped around the Empire as a concentrate, which reduced shipping costs. The wine steward at a feast had the task of adding the appropriate amount of concentrate to the jars of water, producing something that was the appropriate strength for the company and for the state of the party.

If the concentrate was already in an otherwise empty jar, which you then filled with water… Well, it would be a good party trick, especially if it came out at a good strength, and if your guests were village simpletons who weren’t used to attending Roman-style events.

Or perhaps everyone knew that it was nothing special, just a bit of fun – and that the only miracle was in having better-tasting (stronger) wine at the end of the party than at the beginning!

In The Gospel According to the Romans there is an assumption that Jesus uses street magic to provide an illusion of the miraculous, to reinforce the spiritual lessons he teaches – just as Indian holy men do today.

Was Jesus gay?

This is one of those ideas that some people find shocking and incomprehensible, and others think self-evident.

You can see what you want in Jesus

There is an excellent and detailed discussion of the issue, for and against, at the Religious Tolerance (.org) website, here. It raises all sorts of interesting questions, such as “Gay meaning orientation? Or gay meaning activities?” But to me the key issues are these:

1) Given that Jesus was a strict religious Jew, firm that marriage was sacred and indissoluble, for example – why is there no indication that he was married? It was a religious duty, a requirement, the first of God’s 613 commandments, to “Be fruitful and multiply”. Surely the Gospels would have promoted the fact.

Naked young man runs away... let's assume he was really naked...

2) Given that Jesus had individual relationships with him various followers, and loved everyone (or at least all Jews… or at least all practicing Jews… or at least all practicing Jews who he agreed with…), why is John “the disciple whom Jesus loved”? John would have been a teenager when Jesus was in his late 30s. And who is the young man with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane according to Mark 14: 50-52, “And they all left him and fled. And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.” Wtf?

People say Jesus couldn’t have been gay, because God said it was a sin. But the same God made David King of Israel, despite his relationship with Jonathan. Maybe God doesn’t really care all that much.

So, lots of questions. And probably much of what you get out of Jesus is what you choose to put in. I put in questions. In The Gospel According to the Romans I suggest Jesus might well have been gay, but it’s not an important element of the novel.

Unrelated flash fiction – The Toilet

Posted to a remote corner of Pakistan where he knew he could only expect squat toilets, he went to the bother of bringing a Western porcelain toilet with him on the plane. On arrival at his new home he showed the workmen where he wanted the toilet installed, then left to explore the town. He returned that evening to find that they had dug a pit in the floor of his bathroom, inserted the toilet, and cemented it in. The seat was perfectly level with the floor, and its lid covered it discreetly.