Thursday, October 3, 2013

Three Common Misconceptions About Christianity

Yes, I'm deviating away from discussions on physical training for a moment to talk about my spiritual side. Before I get into this, I'm going to make a note here that this is hardly an exhaustive list. For what is supposedly the dominant religion in the western world, in my experience, Christianity is very poorly understood by the majority of westerners, and that includes a lot of Christians (with special thanks to bad teaching, lazy reading and lackluster discipleship). I make no claim to be an authority on the subject as many have studied the scriptures in far greater depth than I have and still disagree on a lot of issues in the bible, however the following are three common sentiments that, in their most conventional use, demonstrate what seems like a profound ignorance on the bible from my point of view.

1. "Turn the other cheek."

This is both easy and hard for me to talk about, because the statement itself is actually in the bible. The problem I have is not with the statement but with its misuse. The way most people I've interacted with use "turn the other cheek" means something along the lines of "when someone says or does something you don't like, just turn around and walk away." Let's see what the bible has to say...
Luke 6:27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
Now, is that saying to just ignore those who offend you? No. It's saying that if someone punches you in one cheek, you turn the other cheek for them, point at it and say: "You missed a spot." The heart of what's being said here is not to evade conflict. Rather, by non-discretely responding to evil by showing evil that it is evil without repaying evil with evil, you allow holiness to be set aside as holy, and wickedness to be set aside as wicked (that was a fun sentence). I think the heart of what Jesus is saying here can be found in Proverbs 25:
21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
    if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head,
    and the Lord will reward you.
2. "God does not give you more than you can handle."

I guess Christians say this either to comfort oneanother in times of suffering, or to alleviate the urge to blame God for suffering. It's not founded in the bible, though, nor is it consistent with the realities of the world. The world is place in which people struggle to survive, and along the way are emotionally and physically abused, scathed with illness, burdened with dysfunctional families, and then to top it off, they die (most often in a manner that is either slow and drawn out or utterly brutal). And the bible thoroughly recognises this. And this is incompatible with the belief that God does not give you more than you can handle: you might be able to handle persecution and illness and the loss of loved ones and having your family divided, but you certainly can't handle being dead. That's one burden you can't lift. To top it off, the bible actively gives us accounts of suffering beyond what the authors could handle.
2 Corinthians 1:8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
On the cross, Jesus himself cried out a chilling reference to Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest.
Now, the Psalm is not all doom and gloom, and ultimately points to God's deliverance. But that's just it: God is the one who delivers, not us. Look back at the passage from 2 Corinthians: they suffered to the point that death seemed more appealing than life, "but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead."

Does God give us more than we can handle? Yes. Absolutely. But whatever adversity He allows us to suffer, even death itself, is something He can conquer for us. I can't remember who said it, but I recently became familiar with this concept, which I find helpful: Superheros come in to save the day before evil wins. With God, it doesn't matter if evil wins, because God wins even more. Evil's greatest victory is death, and yet God is victorious over death.

3. "The bible is just a moral guidebook."

This is mostly an objection to the significance of the bible, in a way that dismisses the bible without giving a volatile resistance to it. It typically goes something like this: "All religions are just about being a good person, and that includes the bible. The bible is just a moral guidebook. But I know right from wrong, therefore I don't need to pay attention to the bible." Now, if those premises were true (1: that religion just tells you what to do to be good, and 2: that you know right from wrong [presumably without relying on the bible to have that knowledge]), then the outcome would logically follow. This is problematic on multiple levels.

The most fundamental level at which this is a problem is that we are not the main characters of the bible, God is. The primary goal of the bible is to display God's identity. This includes what He deems moral and good with regards to humans, but that's certainly not the full extent of God's identity. In the same vein, there are certain roles which are for God and God alone, and the bible keeps going back to that. For example, while mercy and grace are values espoused in the bible for Christians, only God can forgive the sin of sinners. And while humans can make babies and re/arrange elements of our world in creative ways (in the same way that I'm arranging these digital signals in creative ways to produce this text), only God can create something from nothing (tangentially, it's my understanding that there's a special word in the bible used to mean "create" which is only ever used when God is doing it).

Now, all human morality in the bible stems from the following core beliefs:
1. God is the uncreated creator of everything that has been created (as an aside, this point demonstrates why it's nonsensical for people to object to Christianity by saying: "If God created everything, then who created God?" This is basic theology).
Colossians 1:16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 
2. As God is the uncreated creator of everything that has been created, everything that is not God depends on God, therefore God is literally the most important thing in all existence. Therefore we are called to love God above all else.
Deuteronomy 6:5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 
3. God created humans in His likeness, therefore, where a role is not set aside for God alone, we are most human when our hearts and our actions are in line with God's character.
Genesis 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them. 
4.  As God's creations who have been made in His likeness, we have inherent value to God. Therefore, a chief act of love towards God is love oneanother, as doing so means that we place value in the same things God places value in.
Leviticus 19:18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.
Because of this, where morality is focused on in the bible, it is secondary to a deeper theology -- biblical morality is the natural consequence of God's character and of knowing God; practical moral instruction simply clarifies that. If you're not a Christian, I can almost guarantee that the bible makes moral assertions that don't sit comfortably with you. I can be confident int his because as a Christian I seriously struggle with some of the moral issues of the bible. For those that don't accept the bible as having God's authority behind it, I would be genuinely surprised if the bible didn't take some of the things you call moral and call them immoral, or take some of the things you call immoral and call them moral.

So, between the Christian and the non-Christian is a fundamentally different approach to morality. The basis for morality is different and the spiritual implications of morality are different, therefore the practical outcome of morality is going to be different. That's not at all to say that non-Christians cannot have morals, or that Christians and non-Christians cannot share certain morals. However, there won't be a perfect overlap between my morality and your morality, nor will there be succinct overlap on the assumptions upon which we base our varying moral positions. Because of this, treating the bible as irrelevant on account of you already having firm moral positions is missing the point.


  1. Theology and its impact on social history is without doubt one of my favourite topics. Christianity is the faith I know best, but I have surface knowledge at best. My knowledge is more history and impact than scripture.

    My main issues with the scriptures.
    Bias. A number of people wrote the scriptures with different outlooks leading to the ability to express bias in whichever way you choose.
    Censorship. We’ve never been given access to the original papers before the church selected what we should read and believe.

    My main issues with history.
    History is written by the winners. Documents written condemning the work of victorious groups were discarded and we will never see these potential truths.
    Myth and legend. Much of history becomes myth which becomes more accepted than the truth.

    Both can be poor resources at times and need to be viewed with scepticism to get any answers.

    Point 1
    Christianity has been used as a way to sweep away enemies many times in the past, and still is today. The church play a numbers game by converting others to their faith, more via financial 'kindness' now than violent conquest, both make them necessary to generate influence.
    My opinion is those following these scripture sections aren't thinking in a healthy manner. My mother demonstrates why beautifully, being happy for others to harm her because they go to hell while she goes to heaven, a very malicious attitude. I can't think of anything worse than to wish eternal damnation for another, and I feel that only showing false compassion in the hope of eternal redemption after death is less than worthless.
    This is opinion of course. The Christian faith itself has encouraged this so those following to the letter would be welcomed into the fold with open arms. I think further than many and see the faults in what appear to be nice concepts. I know you think things through a lot hence this thread.

    Point 2
    Can honestly say not heard that one but as you say history and scripture agree that god is supposed to make life tough for many of his followers and often gives them more than they can handle only to assist them at the point of greatest desperation.
    The problem I have with this is that it is based on reward after death. I don't like the way this is used by those in control to make people’s lives harder or send them to die to preserve their positions, something universal across most faiths.
    I am of no faith and there will be no death bed conversion, I feel that would be the ultimate disrespect to any religion and much as I don't believe I still respect.

  2. Point 3
    The bible has some moral guidance I see as blatantly evil and glorifies many bloody conquests that furthered the Jewish faith and has inspired rulers to encourage and piggy back such conquest ever since.
    God's people were persecuted but he made it all OK by helping them persecute in return, so wonderful. Christianity is not alone here but having company doesn't make it right.
    I remember my son in tears on occasions terrified that he was going to end up in hell for doing things wrong. I refused to go against the words of the faith he was following but it took every ounce of self-control not to when I saw it tearing him apart like that.
    This does work very well with your statement that the bible is not a book of moral guidelines but there is an additional thing I have always thought of people using them as such. If you need a faith to teach you how to behave in a perceived moral fashion you had no decency at all to start with. This is a very harsh opinion but I have seen too many holier than thou from all sides, varied faiths, agnostics and atheist alike. Personal opinion is if wanting to start critiquing moral standards start with the mirror first, I do so often and it helps my sense of perspective when I see my own failings in detail.

    The creation debate. Don't believe in god or the god particle, there is far more money being spent proving the latter. They are both supposed to define the ability to have given everything existence and presence and are both wanted by many as a way to simplify things we don't truly understand. I like not knowing things and feel that the reason our sciences and religions appear so incomplete, and complex is due to our lack of knowledge. This should drive people to look for answers as we always have but remember that many answers have been wrong before and those we find and believe now could be likewise.
    The most recent theory I have read on this topic and like states that 'the big bang' is less isolated incident, more one of many big bangs that recycles collections of galaxies in the same way as we have seen galaxies recycle matter. A surface theologian will declare this nonsense and declare there is only one world because they haven't read the only book they believe in properly. One thinking more deeply will consider this means god's power extends further than they thought before, and have their faith strengthened. Personally I just love not knowing.

  3. Wow just reread this and realised the aggressive nature of the responses. I am by nature aggressive but it's normally a bit better controlled than that.
    Note to self, don't post on a theological topic whilst listening to Epica, generates bias that these topics should be viewed without. Their stuff has a lot of political bias regarding the misuse of of religion to gain power, generate war, suffering and of course death. Great music, shamefully accurate regarding the way people have abused the power faith can grant them but still not good for keeping head balancedin this arena.

    Misused and misquoted religion is one of the greatest sins I could imagine. I use the term sin because those doing so try to talk with religious authority and generally don't have a clue what the principals behind it were.
    Jesus himself wasn't looking for a new religion, he wanted the Jewish sects to preach the doctrine more effectively and the people to follow. I do often wonder what he would think of the things done in his name since his death. His primary interests were healing and helping those in need not control of the masses.
    There have been documents that were suspected as gospel by Jesus himself, authentic dating language etc. Declared not to be authentic by the church and considering the time taken to write such documents I feel they could be correct, but I would like to have seen a genuine case. Stigmata works off one theory of what it may have said and if you peel away the dramatics I think the part they say as the potential start would likely have been there and it would stop the church releasing it intact.

    I am very typical of a lot of pacifists in my mixed feelings regarding Christianity. The man himself appeared to have a lot of pacifist styled beliefs, was willing to surrender to his inevitable death rather than allow his followers to fight for him etc. but blood has been shed either in his name or with his indirect blessing through the church ever since.

    Good thread, very thought provoking. Not all good thoughts but that is the whole point.

    1. You've left a lot to reply to, which, in short, means that I'm bound to disappoint in the volume of my replies. I'm actually used to far greater aggression over religion, so your first two posts didn't feel *that* harsh to me, although I do still appreciate the softer tone in your third post.

      On censorship, it's my understanding (which is obviously subject to being dead wrong) that most of the texts that made it into the NT canon were fairly universally agreed upon by early Christians before the council of Nicea happened, which made a more official claim on what's scripture and what isn't. There were a few items that had more debate over them (and are still debated), but in general the epistles and the gospels were regarded as the real deal and other texts as not the real deal before the council of Nicea took place. It's my understanding that the goal of that council was to make sure that what was already understood to be holy scripture and that which was not did not get mixed up over time.

      If a text that could be verified as being written by Jesus himself were uncovered, I'd be keen to know about it and to know what he had to say first-hand, although if nothing was verified to be by him in the first century and preserved with that status up until now, I doubt we ever could verify something as having been written by him. As an aside, I always find it fascinating when those who are challenging Christianity do so by pointing out that nothing in the bible was written by Jesus himself, as if this makes it less credible. If Jesus did write the same things about himself as the apostles wrote about him, would that make the claims of his divinity any more valid?

      There's no denying that Christians -- individually and collectively -- have done some abhorred things for pretty much all of Christian history. Today we have the Westboro Baptist Church preaching hate, and the issue of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. Not too long ago we had the crusades. There has been brutal war between Catholics and Protestants. Conglomerately we're a pretty rotten bunch, and individually we're not much better (don't let the nice proper middle class exteriors fool you). I don't believe that any of this is compatible with Jesus' teachings, but it has happened and continues to happen regardless. There are several factors at play here, such as preachers appealing to the masses by preaching cheap grace (Things Jesus never said: "Your sins have been forgiven. Now go ahead and continue living exactly as you did before."), churches actually keeping congregations from reading the bible themselves, unintentional or deliberate misuse of the scriptures, and the simple/highly complex reality of humans being humans.

    2. "If you need a faith to teach you how to behave in a perceived moral fashion you had no decency at all to start with."

      I'm not sure whether I agree with this or not, however my predisposition is that people are not inherently decent, so maybe I agree? If you behave in a "good" way in order to get heaven or avoid hell (or, in some other respect, because it's ultimately good for you, even if not immediately so), I don't think there's much genuine altruism there. I know there are plenty of Christians who approach biblical adherence in an ultimately selfish fashion, and while I don't think my own morality is entirely selfish, I'm certain there are selfish elements there that, from the very worldview that I claim to espouse, shouldn't be there. Something that might be helpful to think about is the different views out there about sin.

      I would say the most popular view is that sin is a bunch of arbitrary things that God gets his undies in a knot over. Within Christian communities, a more common view is that sin is both the bad things you do and the good things you don't do. This is getting closer, but I still don't think it properly represents the bible's view of sin, which is first and foremost a dethroning of God, and at a practical level is not only the bad you do and the good you don't do, but also the ungodly *reasons* for each. In the parable of the prodigal son (which, after reading Timothy Keller's "The Prodigal God," I think should be conventionally renamed "the lost sons"), we see the blatant sin in the younger son's disobedience, but we also see that there's just as much sin in the older son's perfect obedience. Basically, my understanding is that sin is immorality against God, which plays out both in social morality and social immorality.

    3. The historian in me hates censorship of any kind, hence my diliking of the decisions on what made the gospels and what didn't. A lot of historic documents are nothing short of propoganda and lies but even these have value by making me understand what the general populace would have thought and therefore enabling me to understand their actions. The ability to read documents and decide which parts are more likely true is a massive part of history. You do similar reading some of your theology books and it is a great credit to you.
      Faith is a difficult concept for people like me who are focussed on science and history. There is the stupid idea that science is automatically right from many which is in itself a faith, and they do love hearing that. Personally I refuse to accept this and dispute virtually everything that doesnt' have some seriously well grounded evidence. We have been wrong in the study of science, history and so much more times than we have been right, yet people still cling to it as ultimate truth. The alternative of course is to declare the poor conclusions as proffof science is rubbish and always wrong, some of them I have know to do so online and I have pointed out how much science had to have been right for them to do so. Critical study makes faith a distant luxury which is easy to confuse with lazy ignorance, but doing so would make anyone assuming so lazily ignorant, the irony is great. I have said numerous times before and probably at least once to you that we can never disprove God or even try, as much as anything else there are enough believers out there to make him real enough to be an influence on our lives, so in effect there is automatically a God even if only in the minds of followers. Try getting an ignorant athiest to follow that one, they really don't like the truth behind it.
      I don't not believe in God, I do not believe there is a God to believe in. The difference is quite profound and you are smart enough to see the difference.

      The religious wars debate has gained a new twist in recent times. There are still atrocities going on in the name of different faiths, including Christianity as you will know and have the decency to abhor as I do. However with the most recent wars the UK has been involved in it has been oild not religion driving it and God wasn't enough to convince the public it was worth going to war so new excuses and lies were employed. Basically if the powers that be want war they will get it religiion or not, faith made it easier not possible.

      Morals do generally have to be taught and personal morals vary widely. I think this is why many feel religion is a good way to establish a common set, it doesn't work of course because most don't have a clue what the morals a set religion really has as you have explained well.
      The idea behind religion is to act on behalf of God and have his will in your thoughts at all times. I have seen this done well and badly as with most things, but of course this is based on my opinion and I am not a God in any way shape or form.
      None of us are totally selfish or selfless, and being either would be impossible though I think some try the former too hard.

      Good read there, I like stuff like this.


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