Short Stories by Jesus

Short_Stories_Jesus_LevineAmy-Jill Levine’s new book will be welcomed by liberal religious thinkers who think the sun shines on everyone with minimal judgment. Through her lens, Jesus’ parables show us people torn apart and reconciled, benefiting from each other for all their differences; a divided world made whole through responsible human effort. If you embrace that kind of wisdom as I do, then Short Stories by Jesus will be the next-best thing to the bible itself. The question is whether or not this wisdom can really be derived from the historical Jesus.

The reversal of values theme which permeates the gospels receives no support in Levine’s readings. “The last coming first and the first last” is always seen as an editorial intrusion. Despite what scholars tell us about the fierce boundaries drawn by fictive kinship networks like the Jesus movement, there is no place in Levine’s interpretations for any “Us-vs.Them” mentality that reinforces judgments and divisions.

There’s a reason for this. She has an axe to grind, and not without some warrant. There are those who see everything Jesus said as being aimed against an oppressive Jewish context. If Jesus critiqued purity laws, then Judaism was legalistic; if Jesus was open to Gentiles, then Judaism was racist; if Jesus stood up for widows and women, then Judaism was misogynistic; if Jesus went to bat for the sick and poor, then Judaism was heartless. Judaism has become a punching bag for pastors and scholars alike, and Levine wants to rectify this problem by showing that Jesus’ hostilities are mirages. Unfortunately, this means Jesus isn’t left with much to criticize at all, because Levine sees anti-Jewish foils under every rock.

She says that if we like what hear in the parables, “we’re not listening well enough” (p 3). On that reasoning, I should be deeply suspicious of her readings. I like them very much. As I said, the messages she derives would be well received in my church. We UU’s eat this stuff up. As theological moves, I applaud her readings of the parables without reservation. In fact, I would call this the best book on the parables for modern application. But Levine is concerned with history as much as theology, and in most cases I would say these messages were doubtfully Jesus’.

She focuses on nine parables (or eleven, taking the “lost” trilogy in one chapter): The Lost (Sheep, Coin, Son), The Good Samaritan, The Leaven, The Mustard Seed, The Pearl, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Unjust Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. She’s most convincing in the first two (her reading of the Good Samaritan is unassailable) and gets progressively less so.

The Trilogy of the “Lost” (Sheep, Coin, and Son)

I can’t find much to dispute in her interpretations of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son (aside from some minor commentary in the Prodigal Son, which I’ll get to). She rightly dismisses Luke’s theme of repentance (sheep and coins don’t repent, and the prodigal returned home only because he was hungry and self-serving), as well as the connections Luke makes. He conflates the lost with outcasts and tax collectors (whom he favors), against Pharisees and scribes (whom he dislikes). Whatever the lost sheep, coin, and son stand for, they are not “outcasts”. Levine says, humorously:

“There are no ‘outcasts’ in any of the three parables of Luke 15. The shepherd did not expel the sheep for bleating a blasphemy or grazing on nonkosher grass. The sheep did not sin. Rather, the shepherd lost the sheep. Similarly, the coin was not cast out; the woman was looking for her money, not divesting from it. Nor was the prodigal cast out; he walked out on his own two feet, or perhaps on a horse he bought with his inheritance. Once the term ‘outcast’ is used in reference to Jesus’ Jewish context, dualistic models are in place, negative stereotypes of Judaism are implied, and Christian apologetic is well under way.” (p 33)

Note, however, the problem in the last sentence, where she tries barring discussion of “outcasts” in advance, for fear of anti-Jewish poison. That’s absurd: Jesus was known for defending outcasts. He wouldn’t have been anti-Jewish for doing so, and there’s no apriori reason he couldn’t be speaking to the issue in stories like these. That being said, Levine happens to be right in this case. There’s nothing in the three “lost” parables to suggest outcasts or sinners in view, nor even to indicate that the lost are especially at fault. If anything, it’s the shepherd, woman, and father who are at fault for losing them, as they are the ones ultimately responsible. The parables’ messages, she argues, have to do with people doing everything in their power to find and restore lost members.

She also notes that all three stories presuppose listeners with means: someone wealthy enough to own 100 sheep, a woman well off to have silver coins and a home and network of friends, and a father with a large enough estate and fatted calves, lots of clothing, and other accessories. So the message targets those who are reasonably well off; they should take stock of what they’re responsible for instead taking everything or everyone for granted. But it’s worth saying more about the Prodigal Son, since it’s more complex.

The best reading of the Prodigal Son is still Richard Rohrbaugh’s “A Dysfunctional Family and its Neighbors” (2000), which curiously Levine does not engage with. (She engages a bit with Kenneth Bailey, whom Rohrbaugh draws on.) For Rohrbaugh, the story isn’t really about a prodigal son, but a beleaguered father with two equally lousy sons. Levine similarly denies that the prodigal is the story’s focus, though she holds the sons in higher esteem. She too sees a dysfunctional family at work, though she grounds the dysfunction in the sibling rivalry of biblical convention: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, etc.

Her astute point is that the “lost” son is the elder, not the prodigal (p 63). It’s the elder whom the father must “find” and restore to his family (Lk 15:28b). After all, the problem-child comes home on his own, and is immediately welcomed back into the community. The elder doesn’t want to attend the party, and this is what prompts the father to do what the shepherd and woman do in the parables of the sheep and coins — to go after him and try making things whole. The father’s role has been thankless from the get; neither son has been helpful (far less repentant), but the father affirms his responsibility to both of them anyway. That’s the message Rohrbaugh derives too.

But when hints of implied dualisms emerge, Levine sees red. Her paranoias about anti-Judaism get especially out of hand on the issue of men who don’t run (save in emergencies) because it exposes the legs and is shameful. Critics like Bailey and Rohrbaugh point out that the father shames himself by running to greet his son, not so much out of compassion, but out of fear; he wants to protect his son from the ire of the local villagers. Levine considers this an unfair depiction of “bloodthirsty Jewish neighbors who cannot wait to stone the son who shamed the father” (p 55). The fact that they’re Jewish has nothing to do with it. These are the culture mores found in many honor-shame societies, irrespective of creed.

In any case, she gets the big picture right. As with the sheep and coins, and despite Luke’s insistence otherwise, restoration occurs without repentance. The story of the lost son

“provokes us with simple exhortations. Recognize that the one you lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that others will help prevent the recovered from ever becoming lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past.” (p 69)

What’s interesting, per Rohrbaugh, is that the father counters shamelessness (the disloyalty of both sons) with shamelessness (foolishness) of his own. He could have gone the route of beating the prodigal to set an example, and railroading the elder for his insults. But he makes a fool of himself on both accounts. “Whatever it takes”, indeed.

The Good Samaritan

Levine hits a home run here. Even her crusade against anti-Jewish foils turns out completely justified. Although purity seems to be the issue at first blush — priests were, in fact, rendered impure by touching corpses — it’s not on closer examination. She points out that Levites were exempt from the prohibition corpse impurity, and in any case both the Levite and the priest are going down to Jericho (i.e. away from Jerusalem). Only if the priest were going to up the temple in Jerusalem would he need to be in a ritually pure state and the issue have any bearing.

The priest and Levite obviously should have helped the man, and they didn’t. This was out of typical human selfishness, not an inflexible religious code. But if it’s just ordinary selfishness at work, then what’s even the point of the priest and Levite? They are used, says Levine, to set up the expectation of a third-party Israelite who never shows. “Mention a priest and a Levite, and anyone who knows anything about Judaism will know that the third person is an Israelite.” (cf. Ezra 10:5; Neh 11:3)

Jesus supplants the expected Israelite with a Samaritan. To get an idea of the cognitive dissonance this would have produced, Levine suggests we imagine a modern story about “Larry, Moe, and Osama Bin Laden” (p 95). Instead of a heroic Israelite appearing, a despised cultural enemy becomes the protagonist. Samaritans were hated by Jews, had their own Torah, their own sacred place at Mount Gerizim; the hatred between Jews and Samaritans was proverbial.

The message, needless to say, isn’t the Sunday-school example story urging its audience members to help those in need. Rather, to entertain the fact that your worst enemies are capable of helping you. Levine updates the parable for today’s world, calling it “The Parable of the Good Hamas Member”:

“I am an Israeli Jew on my way from Jerusalem to Jericho, and I am attacked by thieves, beaten, stripped, robbed, and left half-dead in a ditch. Two people who should have stopped to help me pass me by: the first, a Jewish medic from the Israel Defense Forces; the second, a member of the Israel/Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. But the person who takes compassion on me and shows me mercy is a Palestinian Muslim whose sympathies lie with Hamas, a political party whose charter not only anticipates Israel’s destruction, but also depicts Jews as subhuman demons responsible for all the world’s problems.” (pp 105-106)

What a brilliant remake.

The Leaven

With the Leaven and Mustard Seed, Levine becomes less persuasive. She finds a lot of “good intentioned” scholars producing “indigestible results”, and again, the specter of anti-Jewishness looms larger than necessary.

Some of her objections carry force:

“Jesus is comparing the kingdom to leaven that a woman used in preparing bread; he is not saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a piece of bacon or road kill.'” (p 116)

That’s fair enough. The Leaven doesn’t seem focused (primarily anyway) on issues of purity or kosher. But she also says:

“There’s nothing about ‘the last being first’ implied. ‘All leavened’ means exactly that: all is leavened. There’s no division in this story.” (p 114)

But if leaven suggests moral corruption (which I believe it does), then the implication could well be that the “last” will take over somehow. The parable does choose sides, and is a close cousin of the reversal of values theme, though it implies something a bit more insidious.

Levine, however, denies that the leaven is used here to suggest moral corruption, or anything remotely bad. She’s correct that leaven can have both negative and positive connotations, determined by context,¬† but by far the most pervasive uses (both in the Tanakh and New Testament) lean on the negative. Leaven is associated with the unholy; unleaven represents the holy, the sacred, and the feast (see Exod 12:15-16,19). Purity or kosher regulations don’t need to be the focus (Levine’s burning worry), though naturally any part of the Torah constitutes what is understood to be holy.

There is good reason to see Jesus describing his movement by way of ironic reversal, as seen through the eyes of his rivals or enemies. How will people know when the kingdom has come? His answer is when everything is “corrupted”. As he and his followers succeed in quiet ways, the contagion spreads. Disguised as leaven (and mustard shrubs), God’s power reoccupies the land and leavens the entire lump. What exactly this corruption entails is unclear, and I agree with Levine that we shouldn’t over-exaggerate issues relating to purity and/or the temple cult. The Jesus movement could have been seen as corrupt for any number of reasons: fictive families, questionable views on taxation, some Torah disputes, etc. More likely it was the cumulative effect of many reasons. Different Jewish groups and sects had their own ideas about what it meant to be properly Jewish and how the Torah should be followed. Some were deemed more offensive than others.

Jesus doesn’t appear to have been popular, and for him to seize on an ambiguous-but-mostly-negative image as a badge of his movement is a more natural (and indeed provocative) reading than Levine’s rather lame suggestions that, “Perhaps like dough that has been carefully prepared with sourdough starter or a child growing in the womb, the kingdom will come if we nurture it” (p 124). Or that “given the enormous yield that would result from forty to sixty pounds of flour, perhaps the parable speaks to the importance of extravagance and generosity” (p 125). Or perhaps that “despite our images of golden slippers and harps and halos, the kingdom is present at the communal oven of a Galilean village where everyone has enough to eat” (p 125). None of this is terribly provocative (which is what Levine urges we look for in the parables), and none speak to the nature of the kingdom — which seems to be the whole point of questionable metaphors like leaven and mustard seeds.

The Mustard Seed

Levine disputes the transgressive and impure nature of mustard seed on the basis of ambiguity in the rabbinical sources. But given the whole point of the rabbis taking pains to regulate the conditions for planting mustard, and when taken in conjunction with Pliny’s comments (which Levine simply dismisses), and when we realize that this parable is structurally and thematically aligned with the morally-corrupt leaven (though she doesn’t accept this), then a subversive reading becomes increasingly likely.

I admit the subversive readings get out of hand. Some critics are over-imaginative, especially with the birds, which have been taken as warning predators to the upper classes who live of the toil of poor cultivators. Such birds, as Levine observes, “could have been cast by Alfred Hitchcock” (p 154). The idea of mustard taking over, birds moving in, and those upper-class people no longer having a place to lay their heads is nailing things down with unwarranted precision, and most likely seeing things that aren’t there.

But Levine is too dismissive of the general metaphor that is being invoked even as it’s subverted: the apocalyptic cedar of Lebanon. The similarities between Jesus’ mustard shrub and Ezek 17:22-24, 31:5-6; Dan 4:10-12; Ps 104:10-17, are too glaring for me to ignore. The message seems to be that Jesus looks for the apocalypse, the day when the kingdoms of men will be demolished by God. The kingdom will meet the grandiose expectations of the cedar of Lebanon, but it will do so in surprising ways against that holy image. One can sense a “reversal of fortunes” theme (which often characterizes apocalyptic movements, and so it’s not surprising, and certainly not anti-Jewish) in the background, though as with the Leaven it isn’t necessarily the central message. The focal point is on a new age that won’t conform to expectations. How so is left unspecified.

Levine sees the mustard plant as being “less about the fall of empire than it is the ability of God’s creatures to survive, to make do with whatever is available; the message may be less one of imperial critique than of ecological adaptation and survival”; and that “instead of looking at the plant as a noxious weed, we might be better off seeing it as part of the gifts of nature; something so small, allowed to do what it naturally does, produces prodigious effects” (p 166). I prefer all of that as a message for today’s world, but I doubt it was Jesus’.

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Even barring the editorial intrusion of “those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Lk 18:14), I find it impossible to read this story and not take away a contrast which elevates the tax collector at the expense of the Pharisee. Levine urges otherwise. Her argument is that the tax collector is vindicated alongside the Pharisee — or on account of the Pharisee, or even with the assistance of the Pharisee.

“The Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, than he could need. First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the Temple system. Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it.” (p 193)

I really like that interpretation, and wish more pastors preached such homilies. It’s ecumenical and promotes mutual respect, especially towards those we might feel inclined to disdain. It suggests that religious figures can be role models in the truest sense, and raise others to their own level instead of raising themselves up by taking others down. Unfortunately, I doubt Jesus was this enlightened when it came to those he was in conflict with. For all the gospel exaggeration of Pharisee rivalry, the disputes probably have a kernel of truth.

Levine is right that the tax collector isn’t suspect for ritual impurity (the fact that he’s in the temple means he’s probably fine on this score), nor is there is any sign that he’s ostracized by other worshipers (p 189). The tax collector’s fault is simply that “he is the agent of Rome, not the agent of God” (p 174). His problem is not that he’s powerless, poor, sinned against, oppressed, or marginalized (despite Luke’s associating tax collectors with outcasts). “His problem is that he is a sinner, probably rich, an agent of Rome, and as a tax collector, has likely shown no mercy to others… He was a traitor to his people.” (p 174) All fine and well.

But then her conclusion:

“The type of generosity shown by a God who makes the sun shine on the just and unjust alike, that allows the tax collector to tap into the collective repentance of the temple system and the good deeds of the Pharisee, is what we want for ourselves, but what we don’t want others to have. And we know, deep down, that our sense of ‘justice’ is limited.” (p 193)

I think we also know deep down that our sense of justice is not only limited for some, but over-esteemed for others, especially when it comes to religious figures. I rarely cite John Dominic Crossan with approval, but his analogy of “a pope and a pimp going into St. Peter’s to pray”, with the pope coming up short, is a good one. It’s as good as Levine’s Hamas member who rescues a half-dead guy while, yes, religious figures selfishly pass on by. Neither reading depends on stereotyping religious figures unfairly. It just means that religious figures make easy targets for charges of hypocrisy and complacency (as Levine readily accepts in the Good Samaritan). We hold them to higher standards and fault them all the more. Jesus evidently enjoyed shooting them down to raise others up, especially despised figures like Samaritans and tax collectors.

The Laborers in the Vineyard

This is a risky parable for Levine. Her book promotes an optimistic view of authority figures and people in power, who should act responsibly and support those beneath them. (As opposed to an intrinsically negative view of such figures.) The three parables of the lost fit that message to a tee. Parables involving callous landowners do not. I’m not surprised that Levine avoided the Talents and other parables carrying savage “Us-vs.-Them” overtones. But she does address the Laborers in the Vineyard. Let’s see how she handles it.

She applauds the shift in academic focus to real-life economic concerns, as opposed to allegorizing the story the way Matthew did, and she’s right that it isn’t about “the last being first”. Matthew applies the reversal of values theme where it doesn’t belong. She entertains humorous titles for the parable: “The Conscientious Boss”, “How to Prevent the Peasants from Unionizing”, “Debating a Fair Wage”, or “Lessons for both Management and Employees” (p 199). What distinguishes her from other critics who agree that economics is key is her positive view of the landlord. Those who demonize the landlord, she claims, “reinscribe the same negative views of Judaism and the same positive view that Jesus was the only Jew who cared about justice” (p 202). But that’s so preposterous it almost doesn’t deserve a reply. No one is claiming that Jesus was a lone justice figure, and certainly no critic I’ve read suggests that the indifference of aristocratic landlords can be tied to Judaism as a religion. They behave like landlords in most agrarian empires. By grinding this axe of (supposed) anti-Jewish foils, Levine poisons the well and rules out reasonable arguments in advance.

Her interpretation runs thus:

“What if we saw the parable not as exploitive landowners and workers facing extreme poverty, but as dealing with labor relations in a relatively prosperous period?.. If we look at the pressing problem that people need jobs and that others have excess funds, we find what should be a compelling challenge to any hearer. And in that story, we learn what it means to act as God acts, with generosity to all.” (pp 204-219)

That’s a wonderful message for my 21st-century liberalism, urging the wealthy to share more without condemning them. But I doubt Jesus’ lived in a day of prosperity, and I suspect on this subject he was acrimonious like Amos and Hosea. I’m also sure he prayed for the apocalypse: things were dire in the promised land, and it needed an enema.

In order to make her interpretation work, Levine needs to build a favorable case for the landowner, which she does by (1) essentially taking his side and (2) spinning how generous the pay of a denarius is.

“The householder has a point. The first hired were not treated unfairly. They ‘agreed’ for the going rate. It is the workers, not he, who has broken their own sense of community. He treated them equally; the first hired resented that treatment. The householder is no evil tyrant or elitist exploiter. It is the laborers — who do not want the last hired to have a living wage — who are in the wrong… The householder gives what had been generously contracted to every worker, regardless of time the employment began. The laborers should have been happy about the good fortune of their coworkers who, because of the generosity of the landowner, would now have enough provision for their families… If he pays everyone a living wage, and if the workers can be content with what is right rather than what they perceive to be fair, then a soteriological message can be adduced. The soteriological view of equal pay for unequal work is also known in Jewish contexts [like Semachot de Rabbi Chiyah and Midrash Psalms].” (pp 215-217)

The landowner (or householder) becomes analogous to God as well as a model for the more wealthy followers of Jesus. And it warns workers to be happy, not only for themselves but for their coworkers who benefit as much as they do regardless how less time they put in. Somehow that message seems less provocative-and-challenging, and far more patronizing: “suck it up and be grateful for what you’ve been given”.

The question, of course, hinges on whether or not a denarius was truly a decent wage. Levine assumes it is. Other critics do not. A typical day’s wage for a peasant doesn’t translate into a typical day’s wage for middle-class westerns. A denarius wasn’t necessarily generous, especially for day laborers. Even for peasants, a denarius took care of a day’s food requirements only, not clothing, taxes, and other religious dues. In the case of day laborers, most could barely maintain themselves to begin with; often they worked infrequently.

Levine’s reading would be more plausible if the agreed rate was higher. In that case, a soteriological view of “equal pay for unequal work” could be seen as benign. If all laborers received, say, ten denarii for unequal work, or even five, then it becomes easier to dismiss the complaints of the early-risers with “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”. It would also be the kind of provocative and challenging message Levine is looking for — the wealthy taking responsibility for those below them by paying out more than a stingy subsistence-level, with a warning to the workers not to fall prey to envy when they’re receiving more than they could have expected.

One denarius doesn’t cut it. The objections of the early-risers are understandable, and the landowner is indeed exploiting workers, feigning courtesy with condescending use of terms like “friend”.¬†Once again, I like Levine’s reading, but I think William Herzog’s is right.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Levine hits and misses here. I like this bit:

“Lazarus is not a leprous poster child for the evils of Jewish purity laws. We might see him as a first-century Job — covered in sores and mistreated by those who should have befriended him.” (p 260)

Job is a good analogy, especially since the afterlife is in play, and the question of ultimate justice is answered in a way that the book of Job could only hint at with evasive counter-questions implying some “bigger picture”. Levine is right that the afterlife is a plausible motif coming from Jesus. The idea that in the afterlife, the saved and the damned could see each other appears in places like IV Ezra 7:36-37, Jubilees 23:30-31, I Enoch 95:3, 96:1, II Baruch 51:5-6, where the righteous witness the suffering of sinners (see pp 264-265). And she’s certainly right that there is no implicit critique of the temple or purity laws in this story.

But once again, she overreacts against the “reversal of roles” theme. (By this point in the book, the degree to which this theme leaves a foul taste in her mouth is astonishing.) “The point is not a reversal of roles,” she says. “Lazarus is not living a life of conspicuous consumption; the rich man is suffering from pain and deprivation, but his suffering is worse because it is endless” (p 267-268). This is disingenuous. Lazarus may not be living a life of conspicuous consumption, but he has everything he needs, and then some, in the kingdom of God. His reward is as endless as the rich man’s pain. The story actually aligns perfectly with the reversal of values theme spelled out elsewhere in the gospels.

She is also weak in claiming that the parable speaks to the dangers of wealth instead of its intrinsic evil. She says that when Jesus asks elsewhere if rich man can enter the kingdom of heaven, “the question remains open” (p 272). Actually, Jesus closed that question pretty emphatically with the quip of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. (How conveniently that part gets ignored.) Levine is trying to bring Jesus into the orbit of a pluralism that isn’t there. Or at least, not for the rich.

She insists: “Once we judge the rich man as deserving of his fate, eternal torment, we condemn ourselves as barbaric” (p 272). That may be true, but tell that to Jesus. He seems to have judged the filthy rich in exactly this way. The rich man is burning in Hades for his wealth in the same way Lazarus is in the Lord’s bosom for his destitution. That’s essentially what Abraham tells the rich man — that Lazarus was justified solely by his grinding poverty. The chasm that separates the two figures makes it impossible for the rich man to cross over, much as he wants to.

That’s not a humane message, but it’s the plain reading of the text. If Jesus wanted to encourage the rich to change their ways and care about others’ misery, he would have at least held out hope for the five brothers. The rich man asks Abraham to send Moses and the prophets to warn his brothers so they can avoid his fate. Abraham’s response carries no ambiguity: if they don’t hear Moses and the prophets now in synagogue, neither will they hear them if those prophets return to them from the dead.

Other Parables

Levine also devotes chapters to The Pearl and the Unjust Judge. She sees the Pearl about a merchant who stops being one when he finally obtains his ultimate goal, and thus the story asks people to reconsider what they think will truly fulfill them; they might become less acquisitive. In the Unjust Judge, neither the widow nor the judge are moral exemplars: a widow who seeks to be avenged against her opponent isn’t “loving her enemy”, and a judge who colludes with demands for vengeance because it’s easier to give in to relentless pestering isn’t doing his job. Judges and widows alike are sucked into the wake of systematic evil, though everyone tries denying it. The story invites us to cross-examine ourselves and to reassess our natural desires for vengeance.

Once again, Levine’s readings offer enlightening wisdom, and for all I know she may be in touch with the stories’ original meanings. My problem with parables like the Pearl (and the Hidden Treasure) and the Unjust Judge (and the Friend at Midnight) is that each seems just as likely to be products of Matthew and Luke respectively. The first is about discipleship, the second about prayer, and in these cases (and unlike most of the parables), I don’t see the story itself at odds with the evangelist’s agenda. Levine claims that the notion of “banging on the doors of heaven if we are to catch God’s attention is hardly an appropriate theology of prayer” (p 236), but I don’t see why. People who pray can experience the frustration of their prayers going unanswered.

Read It

Short Stories of Jesus is a page-turner, and Amy-Jill Levine a gifted writer. She asks the right questions and takes seriously the gospel writers’ (re)uses of the parables that make their original intents elusive. If I disagree with most of her inferred punch-lines as historical judgments, I applaud them as reinterpretations which improve on Jesus’ meanings.

Islam and Other Religions

star-and-crescent“Islam is not like other religions,” said Bill Maher to Charlie Rose exactly a month ago. And since then, it’s been one firestorm after another. Frankly, I think Maher and Sam Harris have been talking plain enough sense that they shouldn’t be controversial. But they are. Meanwhile, Reza Aslan and Ben Affleck make fools of themselves to astonishing praise.

This post is an attempt to clear the table of nonsense to make room for more productive dialogue about Islam. I’m grateful to the following people for lively discussions through Facebook and elsewhere: Zeba Crook, Jeff Hinman, Mike Grondin, Robert Spencer, Matt Bertrand, Antonio Jerez, Chris Zeichman, and James Crossley. Some of them will be less than pleased by what I present below, but all inspired the issues in some way. Some speak for the bolded objector; others will agree more with my replies.

Conflating jihadism with Islam is like conflating abortion-clinic bombings with Christianity. Most Muslims are peaceful.

That peaceful Muslims are the majority doesn’t make jihadists the fringe. There are many Islamic extremists, and they have huge influence. Jihad and sharia remain official doctrine; they are mandated in all four schools of Islamic law. They are to Islam what the resurrection is to Christianity.

Abortion-clinic bombers, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and lone rogues like Timothy McVeigh are undeniably fringe. None receives endorsement from any group of mainstream Christianity. For every one of them are thousands of jihadists who are routinely active. There’s no comparison here at all.

Okay, fine. But surely the problem isn’t with Islam itself. The Qur’an has peaceful and violent passages, like the Judeo-Christian Bible. Scriptures can be cherry-picked and emphasized however you want. They can be re-interpreted or distorted, for good or ill.

It’s disingenuous to pretend that Islam’s scriptures are as malleable as those of other religions. In the Qur’an, the ratio of violence to peace, and of intolerance to benevolence, is distressingly high. You can’t cherry-pick the Qur’an like Karen Armstrong does in order to understand Islam. You have to read it cover to back, and take it comprehensively.

Even worse: the Qur’an’s peaceful passages are cancelled in advance by the Qur’an itself. Only when Muslims are weak and in a minority position should they behave according to the very few peaceful passages (which reflect the early time when Muhammad was vulnerable and building his power base). When strong, Muslims are obligated to wage war according to the huge number of violent passages (which reflect Muhammad’s later rise to power). When passages are in conflict, the later ones supersede the earlier ones. This is called the Doctrine of Abrogation in Islam.

Say what you want: there are loads of bad ideas in other holy writings.

Yes, plenty of bad ideas can be found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Vedas, the Sutras, the Tao Te Ching, and other canons. But Islam, as Sam Harris says, is the motherlode of bad ideas. Most of the bad ideas in other scriptures carry within themselves the seeds of their own transformation, thanks to enough positive supplements.

For example?

Consider the apostle Paul’s homophobia. It’s strong. But the New Testament (including Romans, where the most offending text resides) is tempered by pervasive requirements for universal charity, which has allowed much of Christian thought to evolve on this point. Pope Francis has extended benign principles to homosexuals found abundantly in the New Testament. In all four schools of Islamic law, homosexuality still carries the death penalty — and neither the Qur’an or hadiths are fertile soil for a new transformation. Liberal Muslims try, and we should applaud them. But they aren’t making an impact where it matters most. It’s doubtful they ever will.

But scripture requires interpretation, and interpretation involves importing one’s cultural and social prejudices. There’s more hope for Islam than you allow, because people shape their scriptures. Scriptures don’t shape them.

It cuts both ways. Texts have impact on human behavior, and it’s absurd to suggest that they have no essential content or character in themselves. Scriptures don’t just depend on what believers bring to them. Believers are shaped by what they teach. But yes, holy writings can also become tools used to justify unexpected beliefs and behaviors against their own grain. That doesn’t undermine the opposite flow: people are galvanized by textual ideologies and abstract ideas. Interpretation can be wildly creative, but it more often aligns with what’s already there.

Jihadists, in fact, interpret their scriptures quite well. Whatever spin they put on it, whatever cultural and political baggage they bring to it, whatever political grievances accentuate it, and whatever distance they have from Muhammad’s original situation in the 6th century, the fact is that they are naturally extending the prophet’s message. Their interpretation of the Qur’an is as objectively “correct” as pacifist interpretations (esp. Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish) of the Christian scriptures. Both draw inspiration from an overall texture.

Medieval Christians ignored that texture when they started their own holy wars. They even justified them by claiming that Jesus came “not to bring peace but a sword”.

Yes. The crusades are exhibit-A for the malleability of scripture. They prove that you can indeed justify something that cuts entirely against the grain of your tradition. (Especially since that “sword” is metaphorical, as the medievalists well knew.)

So you admit the jihad is analogous to the crusades? That if a man who taught loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, and letting whoever is without sin throw the first stone can mutate into a religion of holy wars, then the opposite can be achieved by a religion founded by a war-monger?

Not really, no. The crusades were similar to the jihad only for their premise of sacred violence, and the zealous mindset they fostered for security of one’s salvation. In just about every other aspect — how essential they were to Christian doctrine (not), how mandatory they were on Christian believers (not), how difficult they were to justify theologically (very) — they were opposite phenomena.

The crusades were a creative solution to the problem of medieval knights. Popes had been trying for decades to curb knightly violence (telling knights they couldn’t fight certain days of the week, etc.) but to no avail. A knight’s profession depended on warfare, and warriors lived in a constant state of guilt, told by the church they were sinful for violating the peaceful example of Christ. In response to Islamic offensives, the pope suddenly went the opposite route, and gave Christian warriors full rein to their violent impulses, by making bloodshed sacred if they channeled their aggressions against Muslims and reclaimed the holy lands. Only with the intersection of these issues — jihad offensives, Islam’s control of the holy lands, and uncontrollable Christian knights — were holy wars made possible in Christian thinking. Even then, justifying them was acknowledged to be a problem.

Islam has never had problems justifying the jihad, because it has been essential to the faith (a sixth pillar of Islam) since it was formulated in the earliest years of the 7th-9th centuries. It shows no sign of going away. There has never been anything close to a reform movement to spiritualize it away, reinterpret it, or make it obsolete. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence affirm the necessity of jihad warfare to this day. In sum, the jihad is an ingrained impediment to progressive evolution. The crusades undermined Christianity’s tenets, and were foreordained to pass.

What about Islam’s golden age (8th-13th centuries)? Islam was light years ahead of Christianity, especially its treatment of women.

Islam was not “light-years” ahead of Christianity during this time. At its best, in the so-called golden-age, the Muslim regions around Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo were relatively pluralistic. But there was plenty of intolerance too. Anti-semitic pogroms flared up; Jews and Christians were second-class citizens who had to pay a head tax (the jizyah) from which Muslims were exempt. As for women, they were certainly not held in higher esteem than elsewhere. Those who write about women being treated well during this period are the same kind of romanticists who claim that Anglo-Saxon women of the 11th-century enjoyed more democratic freedoms prior to the Norman conquest. Neither is true.

Muslims had things going for them in this period: medicine, math, science, poetry, and architecture. But most of this was inherited, not generated, in their conquests across the Byzantine empire, the Near East, and the Christian regions of North Africa. The “golden age” of Islam also happens to be the period when jihad warfare was formulated, and prosecuted in various degrees, long before the crusades took wing.

In sum, weighing the frequent claims about Islam’s best period — non-jihadist peace (false), cultural pluralism (half true), better treatment of women (false), cultural and scientific achievements (only superficially true) — make its relative advantages virtually meaningless in assessing the potential for Islam today.

So the crusades were a burp, and Islam’s golden age is overrated, but there are religious militants today across the globe who are not Islamic.

Of course. You can point to Jewish militants on the West Bank, Buddhist scourges in Burma, and Christian who murder in Nigeria. But they are exceptional, and none comes close to approaching the pervasive menace and violence of Islam. Exceptions like these — precisely because they are so exceptional — do not show that Judaism, Christianity, or Buddhism lend themselves to violence. Just the opposite: on whole, these religions tend to constrain humanity’s impulses to violence. Islam encourages it.

I still have a hard time accepting that Islam is so incomparable to other religions. It sounds like you’re stacking the deck against it.

We can certainly compare Islam to other religions, but we need to use proper analogies. Holy wars, terrorism, and militant supremacism aren’t the place to look. A better example would be contraception in the Catholic church. Unlike the crusades, but like the jihad, contraception has been a consistent Catholic obsession and its prohibition is mandatory on all believers. Most Catholics ignore the mandate and use contraceptives anyway, because they choose to live responsible lives. But there are also Catholics who do as the church teaches and shun birth control.

Ditto in Islam. Most Muslims are peaceful and just want to coexist in the world as normal people. But that’s not reform. Too many other Muslims take the obligation for jihad and sharia seriously. If Catholicism is going to start teaching responsible birth-control behavior, and if Islam is going to embrace humane civilized thinking, they have uphill reformist battles ahead of them. Though even here, of course, Islam’s is far steeper.

So where do we go from here?

This post, as I said, is a table-clearing. Dialogue about Islam needs to move beyond bargain-basement talking points. The question of essentialism is worth pursuing. We’ve become very sophisticated in our use of social and economic models to understand the evolution of religions, and this is obviously a good thing. Readers know that I rely on such models myself. But these should be supplements, not replacements, to whatever essentialism can offer. When people parrot the idea that religion is entirely “what you make of it” — that it’s shaped purely by human agency, social and political forces, and the accidents of history — we’re clearly in an over-reactive mode. Even the theater of the absurd.

Reza Aslan’s Rebuttal of Bill Maher

Maher and AslanBill Maher has been a refreshing voice of reason on the subject of Islam. He began by skewering Charlie Rose back in early September, and more recently blasted his fellow liberals with a more general wake-up call. Watch the two clips if you haven’t.

A few days ago Reza Aslan rebutted Maher on CNN, to astonishing nationwide approval. Most people seem to believe that Aslan scored embarrassing zingers against Maher when it’s the opposite: almost every thing Aslan said is laughably wrong. The following is a modification of what I posted under various Facebook threads when the video-clip went viral on October 1.

[Aslan] “Female genital mutilation is not an Islamic problem. It is an African problem.”

This is a lie mixed with half-truth. Some African countries do this, but most female circumcision occurs either in Islamic countries or close to them. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that officially mandates it: “Circumcision is obligatory, for every male and female, by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr clitoris.” (Umdat al-Salik e4.3)

But Aslan digs in deeper:

[Aslan] “[Female genital mutilation] is a Central African problem. Eritrea has almost 90 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Ethiopia has 75 percent female genital mutilation. It’s a Christian country. Nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue.”

To which Robert Spencer blasted every element of this statement: “Eritrea and Ethiopia aren’t in Central Africa; they’re in East Africa. And Aslan’s claim that ‘nowhere else in the Muslim, Muslim-majority states is female genital mutilation an issue’ is completely false. Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization declared female genital mutilation a ‘human right.’ A Muslim cleric in Australia has defended it. It is a huge problem in Britain, and a huge percentage of the Muslims in Britain are not from East Africa or Africa at all. It is common in Iraq. It is well established in the Maldives. 41 percent of Kurdish women have been victims of it.”

[Aslan] “Nobody seems to care that Saudi Arabia is doing the same thing [beheadings] that ISIS is doing.”

Aslan is making a non-rebuttal here. Not only would Maher agree with this statement, he explicitly did so in his interview with Charlie Rose (though not in the video to which Aslan is responding). Maher criticized Rose with Aslan’s very words — that “Saudi Arabia does what ISIS does, but they’re our friends [said in disgust], because they have oil”. So when Aslan says something right for a change (the only thing he gets right in this entire talk) he’s not even engaging his opposition.

In any case, Aslan is wrong about Islam having nothing to do with how women are treated in places like Saudi Arabia. And he’s ridiculous to say that women are treated equally in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and Turkey where women hold political office. That’s no indication of gender equality; in these countries women face strong forces of gender discrimination, unequal power relations, child marriage, and lack of education.

But finally, worst of all:

[Aslan] “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion and like any religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it.”

This is nonsense. Religion has verifiable impact on human behavior. There’s a half-truth here, of course; religion can be used to justify unexpected beliefs and behaviors against the grain of its own traditions, and it often does. But it’s just as true that human beings are galvanized by creeds and abstract thought, independently of what they might “bring to it”. And there is plenty of violence and supremacism in the creeds of Islam that moves people in such a way.

In today’s politically-correct climate, the need to play fair-ball to all religions trumps common sense. But there is also the specter of essentialism. We’ve become very sophisticated in our use of social and economic models to understand how religions evolve; and in our appreciation of the malleability of scriptures — how they can be bent and twisted to justify unlikely doctrines (for good or ill). But these should be supplements, not replacements. The idea that poverty and injustices breed terrorism is an overrated myth refuted by endless counterexamples (the ranks of terrorists and Islamic fundamentalists have middle-class and well-educated people). Social history and locale have to be taken in conjunction with abstract creeds and beliefs; homo sapiens are shaped by both, indeed often more by one than the other, depending.

In sum, for all the praise he’s getting, Aslan’s rebuttal of Maher is so weak as to constitute “the emperor has no clothes” variety. It’s a classic case of people being hesitant to call out absurdities because they simply want them to be true.

See also:

Robert Spencer
Friendly Atheist