The day is truly upon us now. I hope we all celebrate it well. Paul said – if Christ is not risen from the dead then we are, of all men, most to be pitied – after all, our faith would be vain without the resurrection. My single greatest concern for modern Christianity is that we have to think a bit to get on a wavelength with Paul here. We are so very comfortable in the world that we have lost the sense of urgency – almost desperation – that drove our first-generation brethren. They were intimately familiar with violence and injustice. Socio-economic inequality on a level we can barely imagine was an accepted reality. And taking up faith in Jesus Christ only made it worse. Being a Christian could get you divested of your property, thrown in jail, beaten and/or killed. These things did happen to plenty of people simply because they followed the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul himself, who once known comfort, status, and wealth, said that he had lost it all – traded it for beatings, privations, and ultimately death – and counted the loss as having given up only so much garbage in comparison to the excellency of knowing Christ. Well, as long as there is a resurrection from the dead! If there was no resurrection – if Christ had not been raised and neither would we – then why was it that we were giving up such little comfort as might be had and calling down the wrath of the sinful world on our heads? If this life was IT – why make it shorter and harder than it already is? That whole ‘take up your cross’ thing loses a lot of luster if there isn’t an empty tomb!
Our situation is different. I have been a Christ follower all my life. You could lose a couple of fingers and still count on one hand the Sundays I have not been in Church in my soon to be 64 years. And the very small amount of negative attention I have encountered as a result is not worthy to be called persecution. I am further blessed to have lived my life in a time when I enjoyed great freedom and legal protections. I have not always had everything I wanted but I have never gone hungry and never lacked a roof over my head. I am not complaining about my good fortune. And, although many now disagree, I continue to assert that it was the force of the gospel that shaped the best things about the world I live in. But I do understand why those who share my circumstances are not quite as focused on the world to come as Paul was. This world seems pretty good to us.
And yet, in 2018 (the most recent year for which I could find complete statistics) there were 620,000 abortions in the United States. In that same year 1.2 million Americans went to the ER as the result of assault. 20,000 of those died despite medical attention. This does not touch the larger murder rate. The number of children that went missing in 2018 was 421,394. There is scarcely a family that hasn’t been touched by divorce.
I could fill this blog post with grim statistics like the ones above. But you probably begin to take my point. The world – the poor fallen sinful broken desperate world – still stinks. Can we as Christ followers ever truly get comfortable with all this tragedy because we all got raises and social security (despite my fears to the contrary) looks like it may survive long enough for me to claim benefits?! And that’s the thing. Getting comfortable with the world means ignoring a lot of stuff. If our Christ-like hearts aren’t breaking, we don’t have Christ-like hearts.
And, of course, we have to reach out and help. Children need protecting. The hungry need fed. The desperate need support. And who should do it if not those who follow Christ? But here lies another danger. We will not save this world. In the end, we can only be saved out of it and work that as many others as possible will also be saved out of it. Our Savior, who fed multitudes, plainly told us that poverty would endure to the end of the age. War and all its devastation likewise.
What to do?
We are coming up fast on Easter! Well, that’s what we generally call it. When I stop to think about it for a minute before the word gets out of my mouth, I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. I have known folk who won’t set foot in a congregation that uses the word – Easter. I have known a few who insist that everyone who calls it Easter is bound for hell.
I understand the difficulty. In case you didn’t know – Easter is a remnant word from the old pagan religions – the cult of fertility goddesses. In the Old Testament the fertility goddess is called Ishtar and great efforts were undertaken to cut down all her sacred groves and get the Israelites to stop all the sexually immoral practices associated with her cult. Moving west in time and space, the name Ishtar underwent some phonetic reworking – Astart, Oester, etc. There is no doubt at all that ‘Easter’ is a syllabic recollection of ‘Ishtar’ et al. And, as soon as you think of it, bunnies and eggs as elements of the Easter celebration are carried over from pagan fertility cult celebrations. Those same folk I mentioned above are death on Easter Egg hunts as well.
How did we get here?! How did the name and cultic apparatus of the old fertility goddesses end up as fixtures of a Christian celebration – perhaps the most holy of all Christian celebrations? On purpose as it turns out. For many centuries, the church strategically co-opted the pagan holidays wherever the gospel was planted. There were different degrees of the practice. All over Central and South America, statues of the fertility goddesses were simply renamed ‘Mary’ by the Catholic Church. (They did put clothes on some of them.) This was thought of as ‘baptizing’ the pagan elements. It was also strategically easier to lead pagan populations to Christianity if they were allowed to keep as much as possible of what was familiar and comforting to them of their old religion. Similarly, some missionaries to Haiti were known to characterize the island nation as 99% catholic and 100% voodoo.
Hmmmmm. On the one hand, the Apostle John wrote to a more ‘barbarian crowd’ in his gospel and epistles. And he managed to stress terms like ‘the light’, ‘the word’ and ‘the truth’ all of which these particular pagans were already intimately familiar with only John infused the old terms with the truth of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, John also manages, especially in the epistles, to draw some lines about elements of the paganism of these new converts that could not be imported into the church. One can follow the same logic through the Gospel according to Matthew – written to a more strictly Jewish crowd.
The line can be hard to define, much less hold.
Christmas, like Easter, absorbed the pagan Saturnalia – including some of the familiar elements of the pagan celebration – like decorated trees. But at least the name ‘Saturn’ was tossed and the celebration called ‘Christ-Day’. Easter, beginning with the name, is a more flagrant importation of intact pagan elements into the Christian celebration. Halloween even more so – but that’s another blog.
Is it a problem? As noted – all things considered – I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday. But I have never refused to let my children or grandchildren join in egg hunts. I say to myself, ‘Self, God invented the egg – and the whole sexual reproduction thing – before the sinful world got hold of it and tried to turn into something that did not glorify the creator.’ Romans 1 speaks to worshipping the created rather than the creator. Not good. But God made eggs and rabbits and both were included when God pronounced all that He had made – good. If I yield eggs, rabbits, rainbows, the color pink, the whole notion of angels, the motions of the stars, and a thousand other facets of the created world to those who have perverted what God has made by worshipping the created rather than the creator, I will soon run short of symbols or even words with which to show or speak the glory of God.
Are our pagan roots showing? Well, not because we colored and hid eggs. In fact, that whole activity can be invested with deeply profound Christian meaning. Give it a try! I prefer Resurrection Sunday to the use of even a derivative form of Ishtar but I’m not going to draw a line with you on the other side if you continue to call it Easter. Some of Paul’s helpers were named after the pagan gods before their conversion and Paul continued to call them by those names in his epistles. In the end I think our pagan roots only really show when our practices are pagan.
Time for something more light-hearted again. When I was twelve years old my family moved from town (sort of – Eminence, Indiana is a very small town) to a little farm in the adjoining township. It was a great move for us. I had 20 acres of forest for my personal playground. We were able to raise a large garden. The small-time farming life appealed to me in lots of ways. In the second month of our time on the farm dad bought four piglets. We kids had never been around pigs much. My mom’s dad had kept a few monstrous Poland/China swine sometime back around my seventh and eighth years but we had been encouraged (and it hadn’t taken much encouragement) to stay away from them. The piglets were much less scary and furthermore, they needed fed and tended so we (especially my brother and I) were encouraged to be involved with them. My sisters were less involved in caring for the pigs and in a short time the cuteness factor diminished and the novelty wore off and the female component of the family pretty much drifted away from the pigs. But, during the brief period all five of us kids were interested in the pigs, we named them. We were, in those days, all fans of the Three Stooges. There were four pigs. For Stooge followers, we could have brought Shemp into the project but we settled instead for splitting one name between two pigs. The pigs, accordingly, became Larry, Moe, Curly and Joe.
The following November we learned something of the folly of becoming personally invested in farm animals when Curly and Joe were transformed into pork chops, hams, sausage, and bacon. When you belong to a family that does its own butchering it takes a moment to overcome the knowledge that you are rummaging around the insides of good old Joe (We boys that is. The girls deepened their sense of separation from the livestock at butchering time). Larry and Moe (whose names were not particularly gender appropriate) remained with us and became brood sows. So, about a year into our residency on the farm, we still had some home-butchered pork in the freezer and somewhere around 17 (I no longer recall the exact number) pigs on the place. By high summer that year all but four of the second generation were shipped off to market. Two remained behind to refill the freezer come November and the brood sow count went up to four.
Hundreds of pigs passed through one way and the other before I took off for college and my own life off the farm. Some were long termers. Most spent only six to nine months with us. I got my driver’s license and inherited the job of hauling corn to the mill to be ground into a higher protein feed mix. I developed some muscle hoisting hundred-pound bags of that feed into the gravity feeder! We fought the freezing weather keeping piglets warm and waterers flowing. We kept pure-bred breeding boars some of which were like very large pets and some of which were totally unsafe to be around. We had one ill-tempered Berkshire boar that had to be penned and noosed occasionally in order to trim his tusks with bolt cutters lest one of us end up gutted. Some of our pigs had zero respect for fences. One brood sow had sufficient throw back to the wild in her to routinely escape and run off into a semi-wooded swamp when it was time to deliver her litters. I put in some time chasing pigs. On a single occasion I put in some time being chased by a pig. (Moe turned crotchety in general but was especially bad tempered when she was nursing piglets!) I held pigs down for doctoring. I shoveled endless loads of their manure into the spreader. I put them in farrowing pins. I moved the piglets from there to the feeding lot once they were weaned. I loaded them onto trucks for their final departure.
In the course of all this activity I made an astounding discovery. The odor of pig is clingy. A person’s work boots can end up smelling permanently of pig. Scrubbing does not get the smell out. For some of my growing up years my wolverine work shoes or my clodhoppers were also the shoes I wore around in public. My mom recommended scrubbing the boots with vinegar. No good! Worse, though one bathed regularly – with soap and everything – there were moments: say playing basketball at lunch break or in the midst of a required physical education class or track or cross country practice – when one began to perspire heavily and it turned out that the essence of pig you had scrubbed off the surface of your skin had actually penetrated deeper. It would come seeping out with the sweat. I have not mentioned the few cattle we kept on our little spread – nor the chickens nor the rabbits. I worked with all those animals too. But none of them gifted me with the perpetual presence of unwanted aroma like the pigs.
I had not been at college too long before I sweated out the last of it. I haven’t had enough to do with pigs since to regain it. But I have never forgotten it. I have spoken with other pig farmers all of whom are familiar with the phenomenon. Another pig farmer in the congregation of the Eminence Christian Church told me not to worry – it was the smell of money! I can only say that was not the view taken by my high school peers – especially the girls.
But it does teach a lesson. Our regular contacts leave traces. Often enough, it is difficult to hide those traces from our fellows. It is impossible to hide them from God. Do a Bible study sometime on the alternate expressions concerning those things which God regards as pleasing aromas and those things which He regards as a stench in His nostrils. It’s probably a good idea if our regular contacts place us in the former category rather than the latter.
Some conversations I’ve had recently caused me to review what I knew about an historical incident I hadn’t thought of in a long time: The Hypatia episode. Probably, most of you have neglected thinking of it for longer than I have – like maybe never. To the extent that people recall the Hypatia episode at all, they connect it to the burning of the famous Library of Alexandria – which is a falsehood made up out of whole cloth by Edward Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) in the midst of his fevered anti-Christian sentiment. Perhaps I will consider the competing narratives concerning the destruction of the library for another post.
Anyway – Hypatia. Alexandria around AD 400 was a center of great learning – and great violence. The city was torn between three factions.
The dynamics of the situation were complex. Orestes may well have been Christian – or may once have been Christian. It is not now possible to say for sure. It is known that Orestes had been involved in the church and maintained a peaceful alliance with Cyril in the days when Hypatia’s father (Theon) lived and headed the university. It may have been that Orestes was a convert or that he maintained ties as part of his civic/political leadership and was simply religiously tolerant. Whatever the case may be, after the death of Theon there was a growing rift between Cyril and Hypatia and Orestes shifted his loyalties to Hypatia. Some theorize a romantic interest – though Hypatia stubbornly refused to be courted by anyone -much less consider marriage. Some cite more political reasons, i.e. Orestes thought the church was getting too big and powerful and needed balanced. Blame who you will, there were violent Jewish mobs who attacked Christians. There were Christians who decided to retaliate in kind. Justice, administered by Orestes, came in the form of the execution of Christians and – Christians.
What?! Orestes was always our friend! He was (perhaps) one of us! What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. Hypatia happened!
Cyril tried to make peace with Orestes but the prefect did not respond to Cyril’s overtures. Right or wrong, the Christian community blamed Hypatia. The violence continued. Shameful enough. More shameful yet, a Christian mob captured Hypatia, dragged her to the church and brutally beat her to death. There is no justification for this. Regardless, shortly afterwards, Orestes made peace with Cyril – perhaps out of fear or perhaps out of options – and then resigned his position and left Alexandria. The church was triumphant and became THE power in Alexandria. However one sorts out the nuances, historians identify this as the moment when Christianity replaced Greek Philosophy as the motive power for the western world. (Alexandria was actually in Egypt but had been established by Alexander the Great and was definitely an outpost of western thought.)
The Hypatia episode is a cautionary tale for all times – perhaps ours especially. A shifting in the balance of powers, a failure of old assumed social alliances, an undercurrent of anger and resentment leading to increasing outbreaks of violence. And just whose side are the civic authorities on?!
The capital riots of January 6 and the events of the few years preceding them, may well carry a whiff of Alexandria. I can only say that the response of the church SHOULD ALWAYS reek of grace.
I recently commented briefly (for me) on an apologetics web site on the posted query – Do Science and the Bible Agree? Basically, I said the question was oversimplified. Archeology constantly validates the historicity of the Biblical record. Consider recent work at Tell El Hamman which looks like a lock for Sodom and confirms key details of the city’s destruction – which is going pretty far back into the Biblical narrative. Now, I admit you can identify Sodom and conclude that it really was destroyed by sudden fire from above and still think of it as a natural event given a religious interpretation. And yet – those who, for years ridiculed the Bible on the grounds that no evidence could be found for the bare existence of such a place as Sodom (or the Assyrian Empire or the Egypt of Genesis/Exodus or…) surely have to give at least an inch as discoveries validate details of the Bible record. If it mattered when they thought these things were complete fabrications then it must matter to find out they were not. Even in this example you can see that the ‘agree/disagree’ model is an oversimplification. Never mind the relationship between the Bible and 19th-20th century biology There are movements in 21st century biology that offer more encouragement to people of faith – which demonstrates another way in which the question is oversimplified. With which branch of science and in what time frame do we wish to compare the Bible?
But even that doesn’t get at the heart of the question – at least as I see it. Many studies have been done concluding that the supposed war between science and faith is a myth – one largely created by Draper & White in 1874. You can still read their History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion if you wish but be warned, it has been pretty firmly established as propaganda. Draper and White are mostly responsible for most of us thinking that people in the time of Columbus thought the earth was flat. They did not. Likewise, the terribly distorted story most people think they know about Galileo and the church was crafted by Draper and White. More examples abound. Telling the truth would have drastically reduced Draper and White’s opportunity to ‘make hay’. So, they didn’t tell the truth. This begins to approach the heart of the issue.
There are several older studies and works that debunk the ‘Conflict Hypothesis’ set up by Draper and White and you can find those too but perhaps you would profit from briefer and more modern presentations by Elaine Howard Ecklund – whose books include Secularity and Science, Science Vs. Religion and Why Science and Faith Need Each Other, or, you can check out Ecklund on the web site Biologos - or Joshua M. Moritz – especially his article length Exploding the Myth of the Historical Conflict between Christianity and Science.
One of the most important theses set forth in these works is that such conflict as there is between science and religion is largely neither scientific nor religious – but political. That is to say the real heart of the disagreements concern money, power and influence. A second and related point is that there is more religion in the scientific community than the public might believe. One interesting data-set to ponder: About 50% OF American scientists have at least some religious/spiritual leanings. Some are very conservative Christians (or adherents to other faiths) and some simply suspect there must be a higher organizing power behind reality. This alone might be taken as encouragement by the faithful as the number is so much larger than we might have believed. But there’s another point to be considered. If you sequester the UNIVERSITY SCIENCE COMMUNITY and look to scientists in research, development, engineering, meteorology, medicine, - the list is too long to try to hit it all - outside the ivy-covered walls of university life, the tendency toward religion is exactly the same among scientists as in the general population. It takes the near-nil numbers of the University Science Culture to drag the figures down to 50% overall. It might pay us to ponder why this should be so. Ecklund makes (I think) a compelling case that the reasons are political.
Which brings me to my real thought on why the question ‘Do Science and the Bible Agree’ is vastly oversimplified. Science is not a person to agree or disagree or have feelings or intent. Science is not even a thing. The material universe is thing. The properties of the material universe are things. Matter, energy, and velocity are things. Science is an activity carried out by humans – who are self-interested, biased, short sighted, arbitrary, capricious and possessed of every other human foible you can think of. This is not to say that scientists are not possessed of human virtues as well, Of course they are. But we are all mixed bags. And I am quick to admit that the same has to be said of religion. Oh how the field of religion is poisoned by those who chase money, power and influence! And even among we of the faithful who are not out and out frauds, our human foibles far too often degrade our practice of religion. The criticism I am making is not unique to science.
But many will argue that science itself is uniquely immune to the human foibles that plague other human activities – that science is ‘uniquely self-correcting’ that the methodology of science produces an ‘arc toward truth’ completely independent of any foibles in its practitioners.
Hmmmm. The concrete nature of numbers and a vast body of regulation do not prevent bank fraud. The specificity of the law and an elaborate system of checks, balances and safeties do not prevent prosecutorial malfeasance. But SCIENTISTS – obviously, white lab coats turn away considerations of money, power, influence, or self interest in general as effectively as Kevlar turns away BBs.
I cry foul!
Does science agree with the Bible? That’s not even a real question! Do scientists agree with the Bible? That’s a real question but the answer is complex, and, even if we think we have successfully boiled it down to a reliable set of statistics, does not speak directly to the reliability of either the present practice of science or the Bible.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church