Wednesday, November 1, 2017

If You Have Faith, You Shall Turn a Mountain Into a Molehill

While browsing a site I use to track lower prices on ebooks, I found two books that, although I'm not going to buy them, added something to my claim that mainstream Christianity is built on, and still is comfortable with conspiracy theories.

The first is Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality by Richard Rohr, published by what appears to be a Catholic press (and it turns out from a glance at his other titles that Rohr is a Father, a Franciscan Friar in fact).  According to the online blurb, Rohr "uncovers what the Bible says about morality, power, wisdom and the generosity of God in a manner that demands a life-changing response from believers. Rohr offers his readers a Christian vision of abundance, grace and joy to counteract a world filled with scarcity, judgment and fear a vision that can revolutionize how we relate to ourselves, others and the world."

There's a lot of bullshit there, but I invite you to take notice of the verb "uncovers."  There's nothing all that suspicious there: much of Christian doctrine appeals to revelation, which means the same thing: the Biblical Greek verb for revelation, apokalypsis, has the sense of "uncovering."  The theme of things formerly hidden but now revealed to believers runs throughout the New Testament; one of the most significant to me is Matthew 11:25, where "Jesus answered and said, 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."  

The idea that important spiritual knowledge had been hidden, by God and by Jesus himself, to be revealed to the Elect for their salvation, a major theme in Christian doctrine, has obvious usefulness.  Originally it justified the newness of Jesus and his cult.  Why weren't these things known before?  Because God hid them until the time was fulfilled, specifically so they could be revealed by Jesus and his followers; not to "the wise and prudent," but to ignorant, unlettered "babes."  Donald Trump's vaunted appeal to uneducated voters has much the same function: you've been ignored and mocked for too long so I'm going to give you the keys to the kingdom; you're so much better than the pointy-headed liberal intellectuals; their so-called knowledge won't save them -- as long as you follow me.

So aside from the frisson that comes from the feeling that you're getting access to hidden knowledge, being invited into to the ultimate in-crowd, there's the obvious marketing function of the scam.  It made The Da Vinci Code a best-seller: The Church has hidden these things from you to keep you in the dark and maintain its power, but now these truths will set you free.  As the historian and biblical scholar Morton Smith wrote, secrecy is a feature of all societies; part of its appeal for children is the glee that comes from having a secret, that grownups don't know about even though they think they're so smart.  But there are secrets at all levels of society.  Rohr's use of hiddenness seems a lot simpler and more harmless than this, though; for him it appears to be a marketing cliche, one as familiar to Christian believers as Christmas Mass.  Most likely his book will consist largely of stuff his readers have heard many times before, dressed up a bit with the pleasure that something hidden is being revealed by a genial friar.  Look at Jesus' purported revelation, in Mark 4, of the secret meaning of the Parable of the Sower; it's a sermon illustration, a tissue of platitudes that hardly lives up to the fanfare.

The other book I noticed today was Slave: The Hidden Truth About Your Identity in Christ by John MacArthur, published by the staid Christian Bible publisher Thomas Nelson.  Here's the description:

Centuries ago, English translators perpetrated a fraud in the New Testament, and it's been purposely hidden and covered up ever since. Your own Bible is probably included in the cover-up!

In this book, which includes a study guide for personal or group use, John MacArthur unveils the essential and clarifying revelation that may be keeping you from a fulfilling -- and correct -- relationship with God. It's powerful. It's controversial. And with new eyes you'll see the riches of your salvation in a radically new way.

What does it mean to be a Christian the way Jesus defined it? MacArthur says it all boils down to one word:


"We have been bought with a price. We belong to Christ. We are His own possession."

This -- "fraud," "cover-up," "hidden" -- is exactly the kind of rhetoric that The Da Vinci Code used, for which conservative Christians denounced it.  MacArthur, however, is a conservative evangelical, and his book garnered blurbs from the Southern Baptist divine Albert Mohler (remember him?), the prolific conservative evangelical preacher R. C. Sproul, and an African-American, apparently Episcopalian vicar named the Rev. Dr. Dallas H. Wilson, all gushing about MacArthur's courage in throwing down the word "slave" as the paradigm for Christian believers.  As far as that goes, he's right: the New Testament frequently refers to the believer as the slave of Christ.  I presume that the "fraud" he's referring to is the translation of the Greek doulos as "servant," rather than "slave."  Free-agent servants seem not to have been a feature of the Greco-Roman societies around the Mediterranean; to be a servant was to be a slave, owned by your master until you were either freed by him or managed to save up money enough to buy your freedom.  Even in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century England that gave us the Authorized (aka "King James") Version of the Bible, servants didn't have the kind of freedom that the word now connotes -- no one did -- and slavery was still legal anyway.  

It's debatable, then, whether the first English translators had fraudulent intent in using "servant" as they did; they probably would not have been misunderstood.  As time went on, "slave" and "servant" became more distinct in their meanings, and slavery was abolished first in England and then in America, "servant" in English Bibles acquired an apologetic function.  (Another factor was probably the social and intellectual changes that turned Christianity from a matrix you were born into and couldn't leave into a voluntary association like a lodge.  But that's another subject.)  Christians didn't want to give the impression that God approved of slavery, though it took a good deal of straining at gnats and swallowing of camels to argue that the Bible doesn't take slavery for granted.   In that sense MacArthur isn't wrong to speak of deception, but it's the same kind of apologetic deception involved in explaining away other "hard passages" and doctrines.  Again, his rhetoric is just a marketing ploy.  It lets conservative evangelicals feel the same naughty thrill that fans of The Da Vinci Code got to feel, that they are being initiated into the Truth that murky others tried to keep from them, leaving them safe in the arms of orthodoxy.

It's okay to use conspiracy-theory rhetoric, then, as long as the revelations you're about to make are this toothless.  Christians who imbibe MacArthur's revelations won't probably change their lives as Christians much, if at all: there's already a strong authoritarian streak in their religion.  For the reader, when you see a book by a Christian publisher touting the frauds it will dispel, it's a good idea to keep your hand on your wallet.