Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

The Vision/Revelation/Apocalypse of Gabriel

July 9, 2008

dss-in-stone The “Vision of Gabriel”1 apparently surfaced a while ago, but has just made a splash this last week; I only heard of it here (where April DeConick wisely counsels caution). PaleoJudaica has lots of links. Here‘s the scholarly article that seems to have caused the stir.

Brief and probably inaccurate recap: the VoG is a piece of stone with 87 lines of difficult-to-decipher Hebrew written on it in ink (not engraved). The text, when creatively interpreted, seems to speak of a Messiah who is to die and be resurrected “on the third day.” As the text seems to date from the first century BCE—I see conflicting reports about whether the evidence is physical or purely linguistic—there is some implication that Jesus (or the early Christians, or the evangelists) were following an established paradigm in the Resurrection story, that the Christian Resurrection story was not novel, and the foundations of Christianity will be shaken to their very core. Or something. Israel Knohl, author of the afore-cited paper, in Time:

The idea of a “dying and rising messiah appears in some Jewish texts, but until now, everyone thought that was the impact of Christianity on Judaism,” he says. “But for the first time, we have proof that it was the other way around. The concept was there before Jesus.” If so, he goes on, “this should shake our basic view of Christianity. … What happens in the New Testament [could have been] adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

My own thoughts, which will certainly change once I do more than skim some of what I cited above:

  • The foundations of Christianity will not be shaken to their very core. The vast majority of Christians’ faith isn’t based on anything that can be affected by evidence of any sort (I mean that in both a good way and a bad way).
  • And in fact if the VoG is real and this interpretation is correct—big ifs—it seems to me to confirm the “standard view” of Jesus as “fulfilling the Scriptures.” It’s in the Nicene Creed, for goodness’ sake. See this for more along these lines.
  • If it’s legit it is of course very interesting, possibly as a direct or indirect precursor of the Gospels, certainly as a evidence of what sort of milieu Jesus and the early Christians lived in.
  • It could of course be a fraud. There doesn’t seem to be much reason to suspect this artifact in particular, but there’s lots of reason to suspect anything that allegedly pertains to early Christianity. Making convincing frauds is (relatively) easy and the stakes are high. I don’t know whether the unusual (unique?) ink-on-stone form ought to make us more or less suspicious.
  • The text is full of holes, and as with lots of these things would very likely be obscure even if it were complete. (See a transcription here, from the Biblical Archeology Review). Professor Knohl’s reconstruction and interpretation are of necessity awfully speculative.

1. I think I’d use the word “apocalypse” rather than “vision” or “revelation,” entirely for coolness value—I know no Hebrew, so that’s the only reason I could have—except that “apocalypse” has too much cultural baggage.

This Week in God: Pew, Obama, and Dobson

June 29, 2008

I’m not really sure what the much-publicized Pew “Religious Landscape Survey” really shows—quite possibly that surveys don’t capture religious views all that well, religion being the sort of thing that doesn’t really lend itself to multiple-choice questions (or is that just my religion?). But it’s fun to try to take it at face value, and note that, for example, 15% of self-described atheists are at least “fairly certain” that there is a “God or Universal Spirit”—what must Richard Dawkins make of that? Possibly more relevant, and certainly more ballyhooed, is that 57% of Evangelical Christians say that “many religions can lead to eternal life.” This is considerably more tolerant than most observers seem to expect. I like to think that it’s confirmation of what I’ve thought for a long time—that the most prominent and noisy evangelical leaders (all we godless northerners, including much of the pundit class, usually see) are lousy representatives of their respective faiths. In my experience most evangelical Christians are altogether more tolerant, sensible, thoughtful, and just plain better than the ones that get all the press.

As if on cue to make my point, James Dobson chose this same week to dig up and hurl invective at a two-year-old speech of Barack Obama’s. It’s hardly surprising for the Dobsons of the world to spit venom at the Obamas, so there’s little point in saying to much about the kerfuffle itself—although someone really ought to point out that Dobson’s whine

What the senator is saying there, in essence, is that I can’t seek to pass legislation, for example, that bans partial-birth abortion, because there are people in the culture who don’t see that as a moral issue…And if I can’t get everyone to agree with me, than it is undemocratic to try to pass legislation that I find offensive to the Scripture. Now, that is a fruitcake interpretation of the Constitution.

completely misses the entire point of Obama’s speech. Obama indeed says almost the exact opposite, that people should be guided by their faith. What annoys Dobson is that Obama doesn’t think he shouldn’t expect to get his way without making a better argument than “because I said so”:

Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God’s will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what’s possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It’s the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God’s edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one’s life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing.

This little tempest in a teapot is, I think, bound to help Obama—no one who would take Dobson seriously is likely to vote for a Democrat anyway (and Dobson doesn’t like McCain either). Meanwhile, behold the backlash.

I wonder if Dobson’s real motivation here is that he’s afraid—not of fire and brimstone or the Rapture or the triumph of Satan, but simply of losing his own power. A liberal who is embraces his religion, and who doesn’t looks ridiculous doing it, threatens to destroy the tissue of lies by which Dobson and his ilk keep their positions. Quoting an article in the current New Yorker (only the abstract is available online, apparently):

…the cultural attitudes descended from the fundamentalist resistance to modernist thought, such as a distrust of science, a rejection of institutional solutions to poverty, and the notion that evangelicals are the saving remnant of Christianity and the American tradition. Religious-right leaders have perpetuated these attitudes and done their best to see that evangelicals continue to regard themselves as an embattled subculture.

The last thing the leaders of the religious right want is for their followers to realize just how religious America is.

South Carolina Believes

June 5, 2008

South Carolina’s legislature has approved “I Believe” license plates;image the anodyne art on the plates makes explicit the object of said belief (hint: note that the picture is not of a Star of David. Or a crescent. Or a Darwin Fish, or a Flying Spaghetti Monster). For reasons spelled out in this NPR story (which cites Americans United for Separation of Church and State, among others), that’s pretty obviously bad and wrong. I’ve no objection to public displays of faith, even tacky ones (especially tacky ones, actually), but c’mon, people, that’s why the good Lord gave us bumper stickers!

Meanwhile, I see that Tennessee wants Bible classes in schools. That would be fine if the classes taught the Bible as literature, carefully avoiding all endorsement of Christianity (or Judaism, as if that would happen). But I’m from Tennessee. Trust me. That’s not what they’d do.

Classy Atheist Graphic Design

June 1, 2008

Speaking of atheism, the “Come out as an atheist” website imageand attendant graphic design are, I think, very nicely done. The web page isn’t too busy—probably the most common problem with web design, as seen for example in the homepage of the campaign’s most prominent member—the Caslon typeface in the headings is classy, and the swashy Scarlet Letter A has a nice level of  groovy coolness. And I think the “Come Out” message is pretty savvy in today’s climate, at least for the campaign’s target audience. God knows (can I say that in this context?) this is far better conceived than that ridiculous “Brights” thing.

Obama throws his whole church Under the Bus

June 1, 2008

Not wanting to take the heat, Barack Obama is getting out of the kitchen, and leaving Trinity Church. As an avowed fan of Jeremiah Wright (even though he’s not the pastor there any more, I know), I’m disappointed. Wussy!

No word yet on whether Obama will throw the entire United Church of Christ (my own denomination, I should remind you) Under the Bus as well. An unruly lot we are indeed! Maybe he’ll give in to the rumors and convert to Islam. Or perhaps he’ll decide the whole religion thing is more trouble than it’s worth—not an unreasonable position, I have to admit—and come out as an atheist.

Oral Cultures and Us

May 17, 2008

On their respective blogs, April DeConick, Mark Goodacre, and Loren Rosson are having a discussion of orality, “secondary orality,” oral and literate cultures, and how our era of chaotic electronic communication might compare to the world that produced the New Testament (the area of study of the aforementioned scholar/bloggers). It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I won’t let my complete ignorance of the subject keep me from making a few random semi-related comments. Please do bear in mind that my only claim to expertise here is that I, you know, read and talk, so I’m pretty sure I’m way out in left field here. Oh, and I think my most interesting point as the last one, so you might just skip to that.

It’s not entirely clear to me that Professors DeConick and Goodacre and Rosson don’t actually more or less agree—Goodacre says so, respecting DeConick’s first post—and that the apparent disagreement is really over terminology and nuance and emphasis. Is that typical of oral or literate cultures? ūüôā . Insofar as I understand the issues here, I’m entirely with April DeConick (always a safe bet, as far as I can tell).

Rossen, citing this, argues “that our hypertext/internet subculture shares remarkable similarities with oral biblical culture.” I don’t buy it. The analogy is certainly interesting, but I don’t think it’s more than, well, an interesting analogy. It would be at the very least misleading to draw conclusions about the culture that produced the New Testament. Maybe when I have more time and energy I’ll respond to all the points there in detail, but for now I’ll just mention two very obvious things:

  1. Our pseudo-oral electronic communication shares one crucial feature with good old books, and not with truly oral culture—you can always look up sources. You can click on those links above and see what I garbled in this post. You should, actually, if you have the slightest interest. Then you can go to a library and read the references they cite. I should do that myself.
  2. As April DeConick comes close to pointing out, people in oral cultures had skills we don’t—our memories suck. We have no need to remember very much; we can look up anything we need, and just haven’t needed to practice memorizing things. The internet has made looking stuff up even easier, come to think of it, moving us still further away from truly oral cultures.

This does have me thinking about “oral transmission” and what it means for various ancient texts. How do the gospels compare in that respect to the Pentateuch, or to the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Homer seems a very different case from the Bible here—the Greek epics were (apparently) pretty direct transcriptions of oral versions of the story. Hence all the mnemonic devices and stock phrases: “strong-greaved Achaeans,” “bright Achilles,” “gray-eyed Athene,” “wine-dark sea.”

The gospels and the Old Testament, at least the part of the OT I find most interesting—the J sections of the Pentateuch and the story of David—also strike me as fundamentally different in origin. The gospels were apparently written down in part to preserve circulating oral tradition, and although (unlike the Homeric epics) they were certainly not mere transcriptions, their authors presumably thought of themselves much more as reporters than as poets or novelists. On the other hand, I tend to think that the Yahwist and the “Court Historian of David,”—who may have been the same personwere essentially novelists. They used oral (and maybe written, for all we know) tradition as source material, but just as modern fabulists and historical novelists do they turned them into new, creative works. I think the Court History of David (including one of its prequels in I Samuel) is in fact best characterized as the first historical novel. Or at least the first one that survives.

Back to the modern world. I think the only example of an actual oral culture that we modern Americans are exposed to is that of elementary-school children. All of you out there sang “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells,” “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, I bit my teacher’s toe,” and “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school,” didn’t you? In the days before Bart Simpson those spread (mostly) orally, all over the country, with all the attendant versions and variations that you’d expect. “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes“—maybe New Testament scholars should consider visiting some elementary schools…

Again with the Reverend

April 30, 2008

I’m a bit disappointed that Barack Obama finally saw fit to denounce and repudiate (denounced! repudiated! We declare him excommunicated and anathemized and we judge him condemned to eternal fire with Satan and all his angels and all the reprobate!) the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Although I’m the whitest of white guys, I have some sort of weird soft spot for Wright. I must just like having fiery black preachers around.

I had foolishly hoped Obama really would be be able to transcend the awful conventions of political campaigns, especially the smug and phony patriotism that so poisons our political discourse (a subject for another day’s rant). He seemed to be doing so well, both in small things—eschewing those tacky flag pins—and in large—turning the last flap over Wright into an opportunity for a genuinely important discussion about race.

But I suppose after Wright seemed to imply Obama might secretly agree with him even Obama didn’t feel he had any choice; he was in a sort of “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” situation. Although really I’m not sure that’s exactly what Wright meant. He said

We both know that, if Senator Obama did not say what he said, he would never get elected.

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever’s doing the polls. Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors. They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.

As I said, whether he gets elected or not, I’m still going to have to be answerable to God November 5th and January 21st. That’s what I mean. I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.

Heavens above, does anyone think politicians don’t say what they say and do what they do based on electability?? Whatever else Obama may be, he’s still a wily politician. If he weren’t, he would never have gotten where he is. And if he weren’t, he would frankly make a terrible president. I remember a good line from Joe Klein’s political roman √† clef Primary Colors:

You don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit-eating, backcountry grin. He did it all just so he’d get the opportunity, one day, to stand in front of the nation and appeal to ‘the better angels of our nature.’

Perhaps the real reason Obama had to do something was—as I heard some commentator (no idea who!) say on NPR—that Wright undermines Obama’s basic premise, that America is ready to put its racial problems behind it, and ready to elect a President who transcends racial (and other) divides. Wright’s racial anger belies that. Now, whether that’s really Obama’s premise I tend to doubt—slavery and other race-based horrors are America’s Original Sin (as I’ve said before), and we won’t be done with them for a long time—but yes, righteous anger doesn’t really suit Obama’s message. Some of Wright’s nuttier and more controversial views—his support for the odious Louis Farrakahn, his the-government-created-AIDS conspiracy-theory-mongering—are I think less interesting and worrying in themselves than because they same to be taken seriously by significant numbers of African-Americans. What does that say about the state of race relations in the country now? Nothing Obama’s campaign would like to bring up, I think.

Also on NPR I heard two Congressmen, one a supporter of Clinton and one of Obama, discussing Wright. The Clinton supporter (Emmanuel Cleaver, himself an African-American and a minister) was considerably more pro-Wright than the Obama supporter. My default assumption is that (despite being politicians!) they were both being honest—but it does make a perverse sort of sense for a Clinton supporter to want to emphasize Obama’s connection to Wright in the guise of “praise,” and for an Obama supporter to put all the distance possible between Obama and Wright.

Sometimes religion IS evil

April 28, 2008

Like Kerry Howley (who seems to have pulled her post; maybe it will come back), I’m appalled at the libertarian defenders of the FLDS. Even David Bernstein (and many, many commentators) at the usually sensible Volokh Conspiracy are characterizing the government raids as “child abuse in the name of protecting children.”

Now I understand that this sort of thing is a tough case for libertarians. Government raids on religious compounds are troubling even for me (no Libertarian I, but sort of a libertarian fellow traveler). Creepiness alone is no excuse for government raids; and worse, governments have a spectacular history of botching these things dreadfully.

And I should mention that I have no particular problem in the abstract with polygamy, or rather with polyamory. I couldn’t handle it myself, and there are excellent reasons for The State not to recognize it (actually, I think the state should be out of the marriage business altogether, but that’s a topic for another time), but I have no objection at all to other people living whatever lifestyle they choose.

It’s that “choose” part that’s important here. I admit to having no personal experience whatever with the FLDS—for which I am thankful, and in which I am just like virtually everyone else commenting on this case. But a society like theirs can exist without massive oppression of women, children, and probably all the men except the few in charge. Shouldn’t libertarians dislike oppression, whether or not it’s the government doing the oppressing? This is not to mention that it can’t exist without finding pretexts to exile most of its teenage boys, or the comparatively minor (morally minor, perhaps legally significant) fact that the FLDS supports itself through large-scale welfare fraud—“bleeding the beast,” it’s apparently called.

I don’t know how to draw the line between “acceptably weird religion” and “evil and twisted cult.” But wherever it is, the FLDS is on the wrong side of it. It makes me want to side with those annoying atheists—in fact, the first fifteen pages of Under the Banner of Heaven, John Krakauer’s account of Mormon fundamentalist murderers, are a far more effective argument against religion than everything Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris have ever written.

A little more about Hitchens, and a lot about Hell

April 10, 2008

Previously in this space, I mentioned that there were interesting points embedded in Christopher Hitchens’ explanation of Martin Luther King’s patent atheism. Specifically, in this passage:

…it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead.

HellThat is surprisingly close to being correct. The New Testament, and Christianity, are indeed much more focused on the afterlife, as both reward and punishment, than are Judaism and its scriptures. Search for the word “Hell” in the NIV, and you’ll only find results in the New Testament.1

The early Israelites do not seem to have had much concept of individuals’ survival after death. Having their progeny succeed and multiply was a far more meaningful “life after death.” But there are obvious exceptions, most strikingly the summoning of Samuel’s spirit for Saul by the witch of Endor.2

And there is an abode of the dead in the Hebrew scriptures. Sheol is very much the equivalent of the Greek Hades (which is how the Septuagint translates it), a sort of gloomy half-world, where all the dead go, whatever they were in life. It is not a place of punishment, and indeed can provide a welcome (if metaphorical) rest from the woes of earthly life. From Job 3:13-19:

For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest, with kings and counselors of the earth, which build desolate places for themselves; or with princes that had gold, who filled their houses with silver: or as an hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants which never saw light. There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there; and the servant is free from his master.

In older translations of the Bible “Sheol” is often rendered as “Hell”; in newer ones, as “the grave,” or “the pit.” (Hence the specification the NIV, a translation I don’t particularly like, in the search above.) It appears most frequently in the more poetic books—Job, and the Psalms—or in the allegorical prophetic books, and hence may have been more a literary device than a statement of belief.

The Inferno, by BarolomeoThe Gospels do (apparently) introduce another version of Hell. In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus refers to “Gehenna,” the exact nature of which is not clear, but which seems very bad indeed. It’s a place of fire and torment, where not only bodies but souls are destroyed. It is the negation of the Kingdom of Heaven. The word is derived from the valley of Hinnom, just outside Jerusalem. According to the historical books of the OT, and the prophet Jeremiah, human sacrifices were performed there, an practice that was ended by King Josiah. By Jesus’ time it had taken on a more abstract and otherworldly meaning, no longer an earthly abomination but a place of endless torment.

That is one manifestation of a more general phenomenon: in general the New Testament is abstract where the old is concrete. Compare, for example, the Magnficat with its original, the Song of Hannah. We should perhaps be cautious in extrapolating from the texts themselves to their authors’ and adherents’ beliefs, as concrete language can be interpreted abstractly and abstract language interpreted concretely. This is especially true of Jesus, who (very much in the early rabbinical tradition) spoke figuratively and taught in parables. He certainly went into no detail about the nature of Gehenna3, and may well not have meant to imply a literal eternal punishment.

What Christopher Hitchens—he got us here originally, remember—gets wrong is that this use of Hell, even assuming it means what later Christians think it means, was new with Jesus. It certainly was not. Jesus was after all a first-century Jew, who lived and worked entirely among other first-century Jews, and used language and ideas that were familiar to them. These could vary considerably from the language in the Old Testament, most of which (the apocrypha and the book of Daniel being the exceptions) was written hundreds of years previously, before the arrival and infusion of Hellenistic culture and ideas, in a language that few common people of Jesus’ time knew.

When Jesus4 used the term Gehenna he was quoting early versions of the Targums, translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic (see this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green and this by Craig Evans; in the second you should probably ignore the top part of the page completely and scroll to the quoted article). And the concept of an afterlife, including eternal punishment for the wicked, was certainly not foreign. Josephus ascribes such beliefs to the Pharisees (Jewish War II.8.14): “They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.” In this he was probably wrong—the Pharisees more likely believed in the resurrection of the body, a belief long metaphorically associated with the rebirth of the nation of Israel5—but his citation is at least evidence that the belief was not unheard-of.

SatanHow Satan—previously a senior member of God’s court—came to be the ruler of Hell is story for another time.


1 See this handy chart for all the “Hell words” in the Bible, excluding the apocrypha.
2 Here is an article by James Tabor about the afterlife in the Bible.
3 unlike some of his later followers, who so delight in the details of how the God of Love will burn, dismember, impale, and otherwise torture the apostate and the heretical.
4 Or rather, the evangelists, who wrote decades after Jesus’ death. And we can’t even be sure of what the evangelists themselves wrote, as the earliest extant copies of the Gospels are from later still, and may represent considerable editing. See this blog post by April DeConick.
5 See Daniel 12:2, and that most vivid of prophetic visions, Ezekiel 37.

Christopher Hitchens explains Martin Luther King

April 5, 2008

When you find someone citing an opponent saying something outrageous, it generally behooves you to check the source. It’s easy to take statements out of context, to twist their meaning, to make things up altogether. So when I read in Chris Hedges’ I Don’t Believe In Atheists that Christopher Hitchens said of Martin Luther King that “In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he [King] a Christian,” I thought I should check the source. And in fact it was misleading to strip the sentence of its context. The whole passage is far less believable:

Christian reformism arose originally from the ability of its advocates to contrast the Old Testament with the New. The cobbled-together ancient Jewish books had an ill-tempered and implacable and bloody and provincial god, who was probably more frightening when he was in a good mood (the classic attribute of the dictator). Whereas the cobbled-together books of the last two thousand years contained handholds for the hopeful, and references to meekness, forgiveness, lambs and sheep, and so forth. This distinction is more apparent than real, since it is only in the reported observations of Jesus that we find any mention of hell and eternal punishment. The god of Moses would brusquely call for other tribes, including his favorite one, to suffer massacre and plague and even extirpation, but when the grave closed over his victims he was essentially finished with them unless he remembered to curse their succeeding progeny. Not until the advent of the Prince of Peace do we hear of the ghastly idea of further punishing and torturing the dead. First presaged by the rantings of John the Baptist, the son of god is revealed as one who, if his milder words are not accepted straightaway, will condemn the inattentive to everlasting fire. This had provided texts for clerical sadists ever since, and features very lip-smackingly in the tirades of Islam. At no point did Dr. King—who was once photagraphed in a bookstore waiting calmly for a physician while the knife of a maniac was sticking straight out of his chest—even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. And he even phrased that appeal more courteously than, in my humble opinion, its targets deserved. In no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, was he a Christian.

[God Is Not Great, pp. 175-176]

So MLK could not possibly have been a Christian because he wasn’t vindictive enough.

I already knew that Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and other “New Atheists,” demonstrate no real understanding of religion, judging it entirely¬†by its most viciously stupid (and unfortunately, loudest) examples. And I knew that they are fond of the rhetorical trick of defining terms such as “religion” and “Christian” and “atheist” so that anyone they (and their intended audience) admires is classed among the irreligious. But this is even more than I had expected. When the result of a line of argument is that patently absurd, you have to wonder about the arguer.

Where to start? There are some genuinely interesting and subtle specifics in there about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism, and the milieu in which Jesus and the evangelists lived, and about the links between the old and new testaments. But I’ll ignore those for the moment, and hope to come back to them in a later post. For now I’ll just mention that even among the most literal of literalists the relationship of what sacred tests actually say and what people believe and how they act is subtle. Yes, Christianity does have a long and deplorable tradition of condemning heretics to Hell. It has an equally long and altogether admirable tradition of forgiveness. Yes, Jesus said “Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell,” but he also said “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” and “Turn the other cheek.”¬† Mainline Christians (whom Hitchens¬†et al seem to regard as irrelevant and¬†somewhere between pathetic and contemptible)¬†tend to ignore the hellfire bits altogether now, and in my experience evangelicals and fundamentalists (real ones, not televangelists) value forgiveness and love, not vindictiveness and schadenfreude.¬† They are genuinely concerned with the welfare of your soul, annoying as that can be.¬† The possibility of your spending eternity in a lake of fire is something that bothers them, not something they exult in.¬† They genuinely mean it when they say, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.”

Hitchens goes on to say that

This does not in the least diminish his standing as a great preacher, any more than does the fact that he was a mammal like the rest of us, and probably plagiarized his doctoral dissertation, and had a notorious fondness for booze and for women a good deal younger than his wife.¬† He spent the remainder of his last evening in orgiastic dissipation, for which I don’t blame him.¬† (These things, which of course disturb the faithful, are rather encouraging in that they show that a high more character is not a precondition for great moral accomplishments.)

It should be noted¬†here that Hitchens is generally fond of vice, and so this paragraph is not necessarily the insult it sounds like.¬† And he actually¬†has a point about goodness and greatness, and saints with feet of clay—whatever the truth of the allegations about King (which I feel a bit bad quoting).¬† Perfect saints are boring and not terribly interesting, and are not useful as role models.

Now I should mention here that Hitchens himself doesn’t really believe what he says, or at least he has himself said the opposite.¬† (I’m not sure he can be said to believe in anything, and he is admirably unbound by any foolish consistency.)¬† In his review of Ann Coulter’s screed¬†Godless, he says in response to her equation of liberalism and Godlessness and to her “crass choice”¬†of the word “lynching”:

The umbrella group in this campaign was even called the ‚ÄėSouthern Christian Leadership Conference‚Äô, not that this prevented many secularists and atheists from participating in it. Finally, I think we can safely say that Dr Martin Luther King ‚Äúappeared‚ÄĚ to believe in god.

Hitchens is an enormously¬†entertaining writer,¬†even when—especially when, come to think of it—he is at his most vitriolic and infuriating.¬† In that he is not unlike a saner and more literate (if less leggy) Ann Coulter (do read that review, which is funny).¬† But don’t take anything he says seriously without a heavy dose of critical thinking and fact-checking.¬† Perhaps he would tell you the same thing.