Season’s Beatings!

Happy Boxing Day . . . the day in which we either box up our returns and hurl them back at Macy’s or take a poke at our aged relatives who really, really should not have said that thing that can never be unsaid. By popular demand, we are reprinting last year’s Boxing Day post — the one in which we examine what our sources really tell us about the Little Baby Jesus. You’re welcome.

Read along in your Bibles:

The oldest Gospel, Mark, says — well, nothing. It starts with Jesus baptized as an adult, age unknown. John starts much earlier — way, way back “in the beginning” (of time), when God/Jesus created the universe. Unfortunately, down here on Earth, John skips the LBJ part. Acts and the Letters say nothing.

That leaves us with 3,800 words in Matthew and Luke as our ONLY sources. So-called “Infancy Gospels,” like Thomas and James, popped up in the second century, but they were written more than 100 years after Jesus’ death and are obviously fictional.

Matthew traces a family tree from Abraham through David to Joseph, who is Jesus’ father — but wait a second. He’s not, is he? We find out in a moment thatGod is Jesus’ father. Joseph is not related to him at all. Why do we care if some random guy is descended from King David?

Luke also has a genealogy, which goes back in time from Joseph through David and Abraham to Adam, aka “the son of God.” (3:23-37) Most of the names in these two genealogies are different; in fact, almost all of them are.

But whatever. Matthew has the Holy Spirit get busy with Mary … Joseph marries her … she gives birth … she bonks Joseph. Look it up: Matthew says Joseph “did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son.” (1:25) See that screaming “UNTIL”? The world’s oldest recorded case of blue-balls.

The dreamy duo live in Bethlehem, hometown of David. King Herod has a dream and sends “the Maji” (unknown number) to follow a star and they come to “the house.” No manger. No swaddling clothes. Maji exit, running.

Joseph moves to Egypt, imitating Moses. He waits (duration unknown). Herod dies, family moves to what Rock Star Theologian Bart Ehrman calls “an insignificant little one-horse town” called Nazareth. The end.

Okay. A little skimpy, Matt, but at least we have these running Maji and some (implied) Joe-on-Mary action. But where’s the Little Baby Jesus? Doesn’t make a peep.

We turn to Luke. He’s the screenwriting disciple, the Mel Gibson of gospelers, the USC grad who crafts the Jesus we all think we know today. If you cut out Mark, Matthew and John, most of us wouldn’t miss a begat. But take Luke out, you got some serious ‘splaining to do.

After some stuff about a cousin of Mary’s, Luke finally gets to her and old blue-balls in verse 27. The angel Gabriel visits the couple in … Nazareth? But in Matthew, they’re living in Bethlehem.

Okay. Joe goes to Bethlehem because — well, we’re told the Roman Emperor decreed a “census.” Matthew has no census; no ancient source mentions a census. But Luke does give us a manger, some “cloths.” But no running Maji. And weirdly, no marriage: Mary was “pledged to be married” to Joseph, but that’s it. Jesus was a human bastard. (2:5-7)

Then Luke has a whole scene in Jerusalem for Jesus’ bris and some prophets and so on, not a whisper of which is in Matthew. No Egypt. No Herod. No star over Bethlehem. Hmmm.

Where are we? Jesus parents were Mary and Joseph. They were Jewish. They may have come from Nazareth. That’s it. Merry (day after) Christmas!

Stark Truth Continues

Rodney "Chuckles" Stark

Continuing our discussion of Rodney Stark’s super-mondo book from the 1990’s, “The Rise of Christianity” — the discussion in which I get to do all the discussing, as is my preferred interpersonal method, — I’ll remind both of you that it’s in some ways an “outsider” work: a sociologist bringing the perspective of modern sociology to the study of the first few centuries of the Jesus movement.

Stark observes that people convert to new cults when they have relatively fewer meaningful social ties outside the cult than within. And converts tend to be “overwhelmingly from irreligious backgrounds.” When Stark studied the Moonies in 1960’s San Francisco, he noticed they had little success converting people away from other religions. Skeptics join cults.

And where do we find the most skeptics, ripe to sign up to some new movement whose members now include some old college bros? Among the affluent. Stark’s method is to write his unfolding argument as a set of propositions, such as: “Religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged.” It’s not skepticism, per se, that makes people ripe for conversion but rather another corollary of affluence and education: interest in new cultures and ideas. In a word, curiosity.

Sociology reminds us just how sheeplike we are. At the moment when I feel I’m making my most bold and original statements, some sociologist shows up to prove I’m doing just what’s expected. Here I am — curator of The God Project Dot Net — a religious skeptic from an affluent background endowed with a natural curiosity, with social ties to the Roman Catholic church, and what do I do? Become a Roman Catholic. Baa baa.

Back to Stark. Using an econo-sociological language that seems odd — and oddly beautiful — applied to spiritual themes, he talks about “religious compensators,” which are analogous to money, i.e., something people want they are willing to pay for. His principles are (paraphrasing): poor people accept religious compensators for things that are scarce (like, say, status and wealth), but anybody may accept them for things nobody gets (like eternal life or justice).

“Regardless of power, persons and groups will tend to accept religious compensators for rewards that do not exist in this world.”

Religions like Christianity reframe death as its opposite: eternal life. To the extent people fear their own non-existence, they may buy into religion regardless of personal wealth. Which fits nicely with my own pet idea that Darwin didn’t cause secularism — antibiotics did. People who don’t fear death aren’t buying what religion offers.

Stark paints a picture of the first-century Roman world as religiously anemic, secular and accommodating. Roman religion was something like mainline Christianity in America today: very undemanding. From whom little is demanded, little is surrendered. People get what they give and religious groups full of twice-yearly non-participants aren’t giving much.

Which leads, of course, to another proposition:

“New religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities.”

Jews in the diaspora, Hellenized by Alexander’s empire, living in a secular culture untaxed by the pagan gods, were ripe for a new movement that demanded active, full-bodied participation. We might say the same of secular people in the U.S. today being rich targets for conversion to evangelical churches which (believe me) are a lot more demanding/giving than those empty-pewed mainstream parishes.

The sociological proposition is that groups rely on the freely donated efforts of their members to thrive. They also are hurt by “free riders” — that is, people who like the benefits but won’t contribute. Stark’s insight is that it’s actually the most demanding groups that do best by raising the bar for membership so high free riders go away. Think about modern evangelical churches: they demand Sundays, of course, but also want you to do Bible study, prayer groups, personal ministries, job fairs, basketball coaching, member outreach, phone answering, brownie baking, party going with your kids and their friends, set-up and clean-up, donations … it never ends. People who stay in such groups tend to give a lot, which means they also get a lot from the others. So it was, Stark believes, among the early Christians.

And then, of course, we get to the women … next time. Happy holidays.

The Stark Truth

Finally got around to reading celebrated academic Rodney Stark‘s “The Rise of Christianity,” and I’m sorry I waited so long. Give yourself the gift of Stark this Christmas: published in 1996, “Rise” is one of the most influential and exciting studies of early Christianity ever written. It doesn’t address the question of God’s existence, per se, but it does make belief seem entirely rational.

Stark’s goal was to use the tools of modern social science to explain how a movement that at Jesus’ death had a few hundred members could become, within three centuries, the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Good question, right?

First, using available sources and common sense, he quantifies the problem. At the cross, Jesus is deserted. The Book of Acts is unclear on the point, but a generous assumption is there were 1,000 Christians in the years immediately after the crucifixion. By 350, after Constantine’s conversion, there may have been 34 million Christians. Simple math (which had apparently never been done before) shows a required growth rate of 40% per decade from 40 to 350 C.E. Impossible? Stark points out this is the same growth rate enjoyed by the Mormons in the 20th century.

Second, he slips in a surprising quiver of iconoclastic arrows under the guise of showing how the movement grew so fast. To sum up his dazzling counterpunches, each the subject of an essay in the book, Stark’s early Christianity:

  • Appealed mainly to the relatively affluent, rather than the poor
  • Had a strong appeal to women and proto-feminists
  • Drew converts more successfully from Hellenized Jews, rather than gentiles
  • Thrived among the urban, transient populations of big cities, rather than in rural areas
  • Benefitted from the chaos of the time
  • Helped cult members live through epidemics
  • Got great PR from the hideous deaths of the early martyrs
  • Finally, was turbocharged by the weak, undemanding, pluralistic and optional nature of the reigning pagan cults

Stark’s project is to build a bridge between social science and Christian history, which had been at odds, mainly because religious historians had a triumphalist view of their faith, while social scientists were put off by the apparent “irrationality” of religious types (cf. Freud).

But no more: Stark made his name in the 1980’s showing that religious and cult affiliations can be explained as the reasonable choices of rational economic actors making the best selection they can from available options. As the champion of so-called “Rational Choice Theory,” described in books such as “A Theory of Religion,” written with William Sims Bainbridge, Stark has done much to dispel the myth of the crazy convert.

Setting the stage, Stark describes a field experiment he and a colleague, John Lofland, conducted in the 1960’s among the Moonies of northern California. They observed that converts were almost never total outsiders: most had some social or blood tie to a cult member. And new converts embraced the doctrines of the church only after they joined.

To extend the analogy to early Christianity: People didn’t sign up because they were impressed by the Trinity or the Incarnation, but because their sister-in-law was. Ties to the cult outweighed ties elsewhere. Conversion was social, then theological.

Stark says:

“Conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and family members.”

More on this next time …

Forecast: Word Cloudy

In honor of the Advent season, we have decided by popular request to rerun our beloved holiday word cloud. You’re welcome.

This word cloud represents the 3,800 words of the infancy narratives of Jesus’ birth in chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (with the words “Father,” “Lord” and “God” removed):

Googling God

The blue line on the top left represents Google search volume for the word “God” over the past eight years. The top red line represents searches for “Devil.” As you can see, God held pretty steady in this virtual battle of the spirit world into early 2010, when it suddenly took an energy shot and pummeled a surprisingly timid Devil into submission. What happened? Is the Devil being wily and biding his time, as is his evil way?

According to the Google News call-outs, God received a search jolt in January 2010 at the time of Haitian earthquake, when many wondered what he was thinking. A few months later, the U.S. right wing began ratcheting up its pre-election holy invocations as a Federal appeals court took up the issue of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. And in October last year, another sad news event led the heavenly charge as one of the trapped Chilean miners said, “I was with God and the Devil and God took me!”

Nothing like a natural disaster to get people thinking about You-Know-Who. It was always such. As I noted in a brilliant earlier post, there was an earthquake in Lisbon on All Saint’s Day, 1755, that horrified proto-agnostics the world over and partly inspired Enlightenment religious skepticism.

Viewing Google as a reasonable proxy for the national psyche, we looked at other telling trends. Every month in this country, about 17 million people conduct a search containing the word “God.” Only 1.2 million search for “Satan.” And a mere 1 million search for “cheeseburger.”

On the theme of this blog, about 165,000 Americans — almost no one, statistically speaking — types the phrase “is there a god” into Google each month. However, all is not lost. Millions and millions — over 16 million, in fact — type some version of the phrases “how can I find god” or “how do I find god” or “who is god” or (in a troubling act of cyber-desperation) “help me god.”

Whew! The Googleverse appears to be a sphere of hopers and believers, not of skeptics. “Jesus” doesn’t make the rankings until you get down to 6 million searches a month (the history-minded “who was jesus” coming in ahead of the more this-worldly, and unanswerable, “who is jesus”). And 5 million souls each month ask the questions “where is heaven” and “what is heaven.”

The scholars out there don’t really appear until we drop down to 1.8 million searches a month, where we find the vague “bible verses” and the practical “bible study.” And warm, glowing testaments don’t appear until the longer tail “love of god” (400,000 searches) and “good news” (250,000).

Interestingly, for all the conservative jib-jab about how we are a godless nation, Google tells a different tale. The first remotely skeptical (and pretty profound) query chimes in at a mere 100,000 searches a month: “who created god.” (If you have an answer, call me.) The troubling “satan worship” doesn’t even get 70,000 searches a month.

Yes, friends, the Devil is on the Google ropes. But a challenger is rising. Witness this:

What is that red storm rising, coming from nowhere in 2006 to threaten the supremacy of God itself in the eternal world order? What does that menacing red line represent? You guessed it: searches for the word “KARDASHIAN”.

You have been warned.

Probably No Dawkins?

The most dramatic plenary at the recent 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics hosted by the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, was delivered by William Lane Craig, a noted — some might say, notorious — apologist who had just returned from a 10-day tour debating prominent atheists in the U.K. Craig is an avuncular philosopher in his sixties somewhat like the Eugene Levy character in “A Mighty Wind.” Well-prepped and seemingly impervious to insult, Craig was described once by Sam Harris as “the one Christian apologist who seems to have put the fear of God into many of my fellow atheists.”

Craig’s hope on his tour was to debate — see this coming? — Richard Dawkins. After Dawkins declined, Craig found a benefactor to underwrite thirty buses that drove around Oxford proclaiming: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO DAWKINS” (a parody of the British Humanist Association’s own bus campaign: “THERE’S PROBABLY NO GOD. NOW STOP WORRYING AND ENJOY YOUR LIFE”).

Craig’s bus stunt so enflamed Dawkins that he shot an editorial to the Guardian accusing Craig of being “an apologist for genocide.” Granted, the “genocide” he refers to was in ancient Canaan and may never have happened, but Craig spent over an hour at the conference teasing out Dawkins’ implicit question, one summarized by UNC-Chapel Hill professor Bart Ehrman in the subtitle to his book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer.

“When I ponder the depth and extent of all the evil and suffering in the world,” said Craig, “I find it pretty hard to believe in God.”

But that doesn’t stop him. Craig’s main line of defense (the one Dawkins decried) is that life is a “blip drowned out by eternity,” what Paul called a “momentary affliction,” and “those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.”

This is an uncomfortable argument, to say the least. But it is the logical equivalent to Pascal’s Wager, which holds that it’s safer to have faith than not because the pay-off if you’re right is infinite and if you’re wrong is finite. Infinity is a very, very big number. Craig is merely being explicit about the Christian belief that salvation is eternal while life clearly is not. In mathematical terms, our lives don’t even count.

As I said, it’s an uncomfortable argument. Why seek to remedy any injustice in such a context of eternity? Why get out of bed? A lot of the seeming social inertia we find in Paul — who told married people to stay married, slaves to stay slaves, people to keep the status quo — comes from such a mindset: the end is coming soon, so why bother?

This attitude may well be a prescription for contentment, but it’s disappointing as a life philosophy.

Apologize This!

In a country where 37% of people describe themselves as “born again” and presidential candidates kick off campaigns with prayer rallies, one might assume Evangelical Christians would feel secure. But they don’t – they are arming for a siege.

There was a bunker-like atmosphere during a crisp and overcast weekend in late October as over 2,000 Evangelical academics and students gathered for the 18th Annual National Conference on Christian Apologetics sponsored by the Southern Evangelical Seminary. Their redoubt was the Northside Christian Academy (motto: “Preparing Students for Eternity”) in a leafy northern suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina.

“I used to believe Christians had two brains — one was lost and the other was out looking for it,” thundered Josh McDowell, one of a parade of electrifying, Baptist preacher-style thought leaders who relied more on rhetorical razzle than PowerPoint slides. “The problem with many Christians,” he complained, “is you can’t give me an intelligent reason why you believe what you believe.”

Like many of the conference keynotes, McDowell is absurdly media-savvy, a prolific presenter, author or co-author of 120 books including the 15 million-selling More Than a Carpenter, about you-know-who. Other far-right erudites on the agenda included Gary Habermas (36 books, half of which attempt to prove the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection), William Dembski (20 books, including the first on Intelligent Design published by a university press), and Michael Brown (20 books, popular radio host).

Apologetics is the opposite of an apology. The mission of the conference was to equip academic Evangelicals with talking points to defend their position on topics such as “The Nature of God,” “The Best Objection to Evolution,” “Refuting the New Atheism,” and “Philosophical Foibles of Modern Physics.” A discipline as old as religion itself, apologetics basically means “explaining our beliefs to outsiders.”

Outsiders were not much in evidence among the well-behaved crowd of believers, but they hovered in the skies like a metaphorical Death Star. Indeed, among the 120 sessions wedged into two endless 12-hour days, one by S.E.S. professor Richard Howe was called “The Religion of the Force: A Look at Star Wars.” After betraying a mastery of minutiae as impressive as that of any Star Warrior in a wookie suit, Howe concluded: “The Force in Star Wars is very much like what you find in witchcraft and the occult.”

More seriously, the assembled apologists feared what they ominously call “The Culture,” which they see as an almost overwhelming Force of God-denying moral wafflers, evolutionists and sexual predators. The most chilling presentation was Josh McDowell’s “One Click Away” about the horrors of — believe it or not — internet pornography. McDowell spewed a torrent of statistics that I can only pray are not true: 67% of 12-25 year olds go to porn sites; 56% of divorces are caused by porn; one-third of eight year-olds “regularly” view sex acts online.

Yikes. Of course, the 70-ish McDowell is a professional yarn-spinner who claims to have delivered 24,000 talks over 51 years, which at an average of 1.3 per day makes one wonder. But his point is clear: Our kids are being podnapped by a liberal culture that is the moral equivalent of a pack of wild boars. This might seem beside the apologetic point until you realize the #1 Evangelical “proof” for the existence of God is the so-called “moral argument,” i.e., that there is an obvious universal standard of right and wrong that would not exist were there not a universal creator. Anyone who denies this standard – or that it comes from God – is guilty of “relativism,” about as close to a curse word as you’ll get from this crowd.

McDowell’s talk was an outlier in that he didn’t mention the Darth Vader of the conference, a man potentially more famous in Evangelical circles than in his own family: evolutionary biologist and author of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins. Moreso than the other members of the so-called New Atheist anti-God squad of Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, Dawkins is seen as a deadly adversary because of his mastery of the evidence for evolution.

Why are Evangelicals so obsessed by evolution? In the words of William Dembski, a floppy-haired academic and Intelligent Design apologist with impressive credentials (Ph.D.’s in math and philosophy), “They [i.e., evolutionists] really think this makes a case for atheism.” He’s troubled by the so-called “theistic evolution” movement championed by scientist-Christians such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins of the Human Genome Project, who believe in God without rejecting evolution.

Next time: The most dramatic plenary!