Stephen Chan: Religion and World Politics part 8, Christian reli­gion as fun­da­men­tal­ism and as spectacle. 

One of the key dif­fer­ences between Islamic scrip­ture and Christian scrip­ture is that Islamic scrip­ture (the Koran) was meant to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammad dur­ing his adult life­time. It was not meant to have been revealed to a num­ber of peo­ple over many thou­sands of years. The Christian Bible, both the Old and the New Testament, has a his­to­ry of nar­ra­tion, of re-narration, of revi­sion­ism, that spans a very great deal of time, pur­port­ed­ly from the time of the exo­dus from Egypt around about about the 1200s BC, right through to the years after Christ.

So, com­ing up to a com­plet­ed book over a peri­od of about one and a half thou­sand years and writ­ten by many dif­fer­ent authors, even though the exact author­ship of many of the books of the Bible is con­test­ed, what you have is suf­fi­cient vari­a­tion with­in this cor­pus of holy text to allow con­tes­ta­tion, to encour­age inter­pre­ta­tion, to allow for all kinds of dif­fer­ent either spir­i­tu­al or mate­r­i­al emphases to be giv­en to dif­fer­ent parts of the Bible. And parts are com­pared with oth­ers to try to find some kind of con­sis­ten­cy, even if they were writ­ten in very very dif­fer­ent coun­tries, in very very dif­fer­ent time zones, and for very dif­fer­ent pur­pos­es. A very great deal of the Old Testament, in fact, is prob­a­bly not as old as Moses but comes from the days of Ezra, and was part of the nation-building of Israel after the release from Babylon, because of the Persian con­quest of the Babylonian world empire. 

There’s a great deal of con­tes­ta­tion over whether or not the four gospels we have, not all of which tell exact­ly the same sto­ry, are the only gospels. The so-called Gnostic Gospels, the hid­den gospels, the ones pro­scribed by church coun­cils, those are now once again in cir­cu­la­tion and they tell very very dif­fer­ent accounts of the sto­ry of Jesus. In fact, there’s no his­tor­i­cal record of Jesus ever hav­ing exist­ed until the tes­ti­mo­ny very briefly of Josephus Flavius in the year 70 AD.

So the whole idea of being able to ascribe authen­tic­i­ty has all kinds of prob­lems of con­tra­dic­tion in the holy books that have been received by the church. And in terms of how these holy book stack up not only against each oth­er but against his­to­ry as we under­stand it as a sec­u­lar record and nar­ra­tion of what hap­pened in the old days of Israel. 

Now, hav­ing said all of that, what you have in the Bible is some­thing which is open to inter­pre­ta­tion. It’s open to inter­pre­ta­tion in curi­ous ways. There’s a cer­tain received wis­dom about scrip­ture, not all of which actu­al­ly is scriptur­al. So that all kinds of sto­ries about Ham, one of the sons of Noah, hav­ing been shamed by laugh­ing at the drunk­en father who was lord­ing about with­out his clothes on. Afrikaner church­es in South Africa used that sto­ry to say that the descen­dants of Ham, who was cursed because of laugh­ing at his father’s naked­ness, and his descen­dants became the black peo­ple of Africa. In fact there’s absolute­ly no scrip­tur­al ref­er­ence what­so­ev­er to the col­or of Ham or the col­or of Ham’s descendants. 

But all through his­to­ry there has been the tak­ing of var­i­ous impuls­es from the Bible to try to serve the pur­pos­es of polit­i­cal and social orga­ni­za­tion and social and polit­i­cal impuls­es. But in the Old Testament, for instance, there are all kinds of things that are lack­ing that we see today in the Christian faith. There was no Devil crea­ture in the sense of a scaly medieval beast who was thrown out of Heaven. In fact in the book of Job when Satan con­fronts God in Heaven, he is depict­ed as a resplen­dent angel able to talk on equal terms with God, able to come and go, and able to launch wagers against God with human­i­ty (in this case Job) as the bar­gain­ing chip.

The whole pic­ture that is paint­ed from Hebrew sto­ries, Hebrew leg­ends, Hebrew mytholo­gies, of the spir­i­tu­al world is in con­tradis­tinc­tion to what came at a lat­er point in the Christian era. No Heaven for human­i­ty after death. No Hell, in the received sense of a pun­ish­ment zone. And all kinds of things that were lat­er added on as civ­i­liza­tions devel­oped, as they inter­act­ed, as they intermixed.

So a very very great deal of Zoroastrian thought entered into the Christian church dur­ing the Roman peri­od. And the sep­a­ra­tion of fig­ures that were arche­types of light and of dark­ness began to take root at this point in time, and Satan was giv­en his tru­ly demon­ic char­ac­ter because of such influ­ences. These influ­ences allowed the depic­tion of Satan and his followers—his demons—in dif­fer­ent ways over the years. So in medieval times Satan and his demon­ic” fol­low­ers were like lizards. In 1800s, Satan and his fol­low­ers were Chinese. They rep­re­sent­ed the Yellow Peril. If you go to Jean-Paul Sartre’s old café Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, you will still see there carved stat­ues of the two archde­mon lieu­tenants of Satan, Gog and Magog, depict­ed as Chinese.

So that the idea of using scrip­ture to label, describe, depict, and demean one’s ene­my makes of scrip­ture some­thing that was polit­i­cal. And the more spec­tac­u­lar the depic­tion, the more it seems to emanate from an inter­pre­ta­tion of scrip­ture which relies on spec­ta­cle. The idea of new scrip­tures that derive from a Christian foun­da­tion but which take it into rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent are­nas, such as the Book of Mormon for instance, depends on the spec­ta­cle of enact­ment of God’s will among cho­sen peo­ples of God in the Americas. It’s almost a repli­ca of the spec­ta­cle of the chil­dren of Israel try­ing to build a nation­al des­ti­na­tion for them­selves in what is now the Middle East. So all of these things become uses, and habits, and then con­vic­tions, and then arti­cles of faith.

What we have at this moment in time as we speak is the appoint­ment, by Donald Trump the new pres­i­dent of the United States, of a cre­ation­ist as Secretary of Education. And what you have here is the addi­tion of a very prim­i­tive tech­nol­o­gy to the idea of spec­ta­cle so that it’s not just a case of say­ing that there is intel­li­gent design but that this intel­li­gent design was lit­er­al­ly con­densed into a very short peri­od of time. It didn’t take place over mil­lions of years. It wasn’t a direct­ed evolution—not even a divinely-directed evo­lu­tion, for instance.

But the time giv­en to the cre­ation not only of the plan­et but of the uni­verse is sev­en days, with each day cal­cu­lat­ed as 7,000 years. Nowhere in the Bible is there a ref­er­ence to a God’s day last­ing 7,000 years. This was entire­ly an inven­tion of a Bishop Ussher in the 1700s, who tak­ing into account what was known of his­tor­i­cal peri­ods at that point in time decid­ed that if this was the day of God’s rest and mankind had been in a civ­i­lized state for some­thing like over 6,000 years, there was there­fore a count­down pos­si­ble to the end of days before the com­ing of Christ at the end of 7,000 years—it was a prospect which was immi­nent but not yet on the hori­zon of Bishop Ussher’s day. Working back­wards, each day was there­fore 7,000 years.

So the total time of cre­ation of the sun, moon, stars, and Earth, ani­mals, human­i­ty, the whole lot then God’s day of rest in which mankind sinned and had to be redeemed, was con­densed into this cre­ative cre­ationist peri­od which defies all kinds of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge and sci­en­tif­ic cal­cu­la­tion. A sim­ple arith­metic, a sim­ple reverse engi­neer­ing, is then applied to a lit­er­al­ism which depends on spec­ta­cle and a spec­ta­cle which depends on the forces of dark­ness, the forces of light, oppo­si­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tics in which the forces of dark­ness can be clothed in all kinds of polit­i­cal col­ors and all kinds of polit­i­cal purposes.

The use of scrip­ture as a nation­al­ism, the use of scrip­ture as an expan­sion­ism, the use of scrip­ture to jus­ti­fy a colo­nial­ism, all of these things are part and par­cel of the mod­ern Christian faith, the mod­ern Christian church. And what is miss­ing from it is per­haps one of the great­est aspects of the gospel accounts of Christ. And this is com­mon to both the accept­ed gospels and the so-called hid­den Gnostic Gospels. And that is the idea of Christ as a mes­sen­ger of compassion. 

Great the­olo­gians such as Thomas Merton pon­dered about the spir­i­tu­al qual­i­ties of mer­cy. In this way there’s a very strong res­o­nance between the Christological image and the Buddhist image of com­pas­sion and care for one’s fel­low human beings. But in today’s usage of Christianity, the uses of Christianity may from time to time be for com­pas­sion. They may be for lib­er­a­tion. But they can also be used in a spec­tac­u­lar way to jus­ti­fy oppression.

Further Reference

Religion and World Politics course information


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