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.
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