Christianity is an absurd death cult. That was the expressed belief of the late Christopher Hitchens, one among the so-called “new atheists” who engaged in an aggressive sort of anti-evangelism. Hitchens once sketched his view of the incarnation thus:
In order to be Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years our species suffered and died… [enduring] famine, struggle, viciousness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years – heaven watches it with complete indifference – and then 2,000 years ago [God] thinks that’s enough of that, it’s time to intervene. The best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate part of the Middle East…
Hitchens’ presentation of Christianity highlights one of the greatest challenges to Christian apologetics. Increasingly, a dichotomy has been offered between reason and faith. Ayn Rand defined the two concepts as opposites, and the co-relation of religion and atrocity has been increasingly cited as evidence that faith literally kills.
This Christmas Day, I offer a preview of an ongoing project to begin here at PJ Lifestyle in the new year. Working through books on the topics of reason, individual rights, and the Christian worldview, we will explore how we might reconcile our human perception with divine revelation.
Baden-Baden has been a spa town since Roman times, drawing tourists for its therapeutic waters, and more recently for a festival hall that features prominent classical artists. It also has a Faberge museum, which seems appropriate at this time of year: Christmas in Germany is like a brightly decorated eggshell with no egg inside. The forms of the holiday are merrily observed, but not the faith. To declare one’s belief in a personal God counts for proof of mental defect here as well as in most parts of Europe, especially among educated people. Nonetheless there is more faith left in Germany’s Protestant establishment than among America’s mainline Protestant churches, and it’s something for a visiting Jew to rejoice about here at Christmas time.
The Presbyterian Church USA, the flagship church of America’s fading Protestant mainline, voted to boycott the State of Israel earlier this year, and nearly voted to prohibit the use of the word “Israel” in its prayers. The new Marcionism of the mainline churches justifies its aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies by rejecting a link between the living Jewish people and the God of Abraham. By contrast, Pope John Paul II of blessed memory and Benedict XVI both emphasized that God’s covenant with the Jewish people never was revoked.
I have no interest in seeing Ridley Scott’s epic IMAX 3-D meisterwerk Exodus: Gods and Kings. Why would I want to spend money on a “gloriously junky” movie that turns my history into a collection of high-tech special effects laced together by a biased, biblically-inaccurate script? Yet, for however lousy the movie itself might be, it has inspired some interesting commentary on Jewish peoplehood from Emma Green over at the Atlantic. For Green, the film inspired a polemic that highlights the seemingly eternal struggle Jews have with the idea of being called out, that is to say “chosen” by God.
I’ve always found this to be rather asinine as far as ideological burdens go. Most people struggle to find their purpose in life. Jews are born into it. We are here to bring God’s teachings into the world in order to make this earth a better place. This chosen status, this calling doesn’t make us any better than anyone else. It simply gives us a job to do, a role that manifests itself through every aspect of existence, every academic discipline, every profession we’ve ever encountered. Whether we’re religious or not, or politically Left or Right, we (for the most part) are bent on doing our part to make the world a better place. Which is probably why those who hate us the most love to rub our chosenness in our face, intimidating the Emma Greens among us into second guessing our God-given responsibility.
I loved doing this interview with Rabbi Ari Abramowitz at the Voice of Israel. Rabbi-like, he skipped past the shallow stuff and asked the big questions: about my feelings toward Israel, my conversion from Judaism to Christianity and about my conversion from leftism to liberalism, also known as conservatism. If you’re interested in real talk about real stuff, too rare in American media, it’s worth listening to. You can hear it here.
Since starting my master’s at Oxford this fall, I’ve been looking for a church. A new life in a new country meant I needed a Christian community to remind me who I am. I found one just in time for Christmas. Here’s what I learned on the way.
There are a lot of churches in Oxford. Honestly, you can’t walk down the block without tripping over a church. They tend to be Anglican. But after visiting various services, I started noticing two general kinds of atmosphere — two distinct styles of worship. Now, I’m a layman to my core. I have no business evaluating doctrines or denominations. This is just what I saw.
“Second, more than any other commandment, the Sabbath Day reminds people that they are meant to be free. As the second version of the Commandment — the one summarized by Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy — states, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” In other words, remember that slaves cannot have a Sabbath. In light of this, I might add that in the Biblical view, unless necessary for survival, people who choose to work seven days a week are essentially slaves — slaves to work or perhaps to money, but slaves nonetheless. The millionaire who works seven days a week is simply a rich slave.” — Dennis Prager, from his fantastic 10 Commandments video series.
So given the success of last week’s discussion about the myriad of ways to interpret the meaning of Genesis 9, the story of Noah cursing Ham’s son Canaan, I’ve decided to start a regular weekly series on Sunday presenting and discussing a variety of Bible-based mysteries.
This week’s subject for debate and inter-faith dialogue: what is the best way to observe the fourth commandment, to set aside one day a week that is holy? Does one particular group or theological denomination have better ideas and interpretations on this subject than others?
While for many of these Bible mystery questions I’ll just pose the question or lean in one direction or another, on this subject I do have a position that I’ve come to embrace more over the past few years that I’ll offer forward today: the seemingly radical approach that Orthodox Jews take to the Sabbath — a whole day of the week, sundown to sundown, of not even driving a car or using electricity and devoted solely to family and one’s spiritual development as a community — is the ideal that everyone should pursue for a whole host of reasons.
I don’t think the American Protestant Christian standard of just going for an hour long church service each week and then treating Sunday like any other day really cuts it.
Next: considering some insights from a book that I’ve been reading, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath, and posing some inter-faith questions based on it.
It’s fairly obvious that we Jews just don’t get Christmas. Don’t believe me? Check out BuzzFeed’s attempt to get Jews to decorate Christmas trees. (“Who’s Noel?” “Is that like, ‘grassy knoll’?”) Yet, every year we Jewish Americans wrestle as a people over whether or not to incorporate Christmas traditions into our own Hanukkah celebrations. It’s tacky. It’s trite. And it’s really, really lame. Here are five Hanukkah/Christmas hybrids that all Jews need to avoid this holiday season.
Yesterday a friend and I were talking about some of the weird, perplexing things in the Bible, swapping quotes and links to try to make sense of a strange passage. I decided I’d throw it out there today and see what others thought.
Genesis 9:18-27 describes how after Noah lands the ark and makes a covenant with God he plants an orchard, invents wine, and gets drunk. Then his son Ham “saw the nakedness of his father” and told his brothers, who then covered their eyes so they didn’t see him, but went in and covered him. Afterwards Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan. What actually happened here? Why is this so important? Why does Canaan get cursed for something his father did? And why is it so bad to just see your Dad naked and laugh about it?
What is actually going on here?
There seem to be four popular interpretations:
1. The first is just a straight literalist interpretation — the crime really was just seeing his father in an uncompromising position and then laughing about it to his brothers.
The next three interpretations are a little more plausible and have been considered over the centuries:
2. Ham castrated his father.
3. Ham sexually molested or raped his father, shaming and dishonoring them both.
4. It was actually Ham’s son Canaan that did the crime.
These ideas see the curse being inflicted on Canaan for a few different reasons. First, if Noah was castrated then he couldn’t have more sons. Second, whatever the sexually dominating act was, it’s seen as a symbolic attempt to usurp Noah’s authority in the tribe.
The fifth idea, which we’ll explore on the next page, is much more of a leap from the literal but the one that ultimately makes the most sense when read against other usages of the language in the Torah and in the bigger context of the differing marital practices of Pagan tribes…
Well, it’s that time of the year: days getting shorter, nights getting colder, choirs singing and priests commemorating the virgin birth. I know what you’re thinking: it must be time for the rural Dionysia! Mmmm, chanting in ritualistic praise of the wine-god just gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling — like eggnog by the fire.
Okay for real though, obviously Christmas is the best holiday in the history of ever. But Christmas as it’s celebrated these days is a mash-up, a “greatest hits” of December festival practices from the ancient and modern world. A lot of our traditions go all the way back to ancient Greece. So to get in the spirit, here are five of my favorite yuletide rituals, along with their ancient Greek roots. They’ve been mathematically ranked and arranged in ascending order depending on how merry and/or bright they are. Happy ancient Greek Christmas, everyone! (And more importantly, happy real Christmas, too.)
I decided to move to Israel (make aliyah) when I was 28, and came to live here with my family when I was 30. At the age of 28, I knew zero Hebrew; by the time we made aliyah I had learned just a little from a cassette-tape course. (Yes, there were things called cassette tapes back then.)
Our first residence in Israel was an absorption center in the town of Hadera on the coastal plain. There we had to take an intensive Hebrew course—meaning I immediately started learning this difficult language more seriously. And right away, even with only a few words and phrases at my disposal, I started to feel connected to my new environment in ways I couldn’t have if English had still been the only language residing in my brain.
How much easier can I make this for you people???
See the complete collection of 10 Commandment videos here.
See the tenth commandment explained here.
Editor’s Note: See the first four parts in Susan L.M. Goldberg’s series exploring ABC’s Scandal through the lens of Biblical feminism: “What’s Evil Got to Do with It?,” “Women and the Scandal of Doing It All Alone,” “The Key to a Woman’s Sexual Power,” and “Should You Trust Your Gut or God?“ Also check out an introduction to her work and collection of 194 articles and blog posts here. Warning: some spoilers about season 3 discussed in this installment.
Woe to the city of oppressors, rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one, she accepts no correction. She does not trust in the Lord, she does not draw near to her God. Her officials within her are roaring lions; her rulers are evening wolves, who leave nothing for the morning. Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.
Our culture has a seemingly natural distrust of people in power, but that wasn’t always the case. Before November 1963 we put great faith in our political and spiritual leaders. Those pre-’63 figureheads like JFK, Ike and FDR, Fulton Sheen and Billy Graham are still heralded as role models of moral society. Today’s faith is different. We look for hypocrisy and mock it intensely. All spiritual leaders are televangelists skilled in chicanery. Our politicians are now supposed to be our messiahs, and when they fail we as a nation fall into despair and chaos. When did we forget God, and why does it matter that we’ve left Him out of the equation?
See the seventh commandment here.
Click here for Prager’s explanation of the sixth commandment.
Click here to see the explanation of the fifth commandment
Click here for the next in the series, the fourth commandment.
Earlier this year on HBO’s Real Time, host Bill Maher declared that Islam is “the only religion that acts like the mafia, that will f***ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”
Maher was likely referring to Islam’s “blasphemy” laws, which ban on pain of death any “insult” — as found in a statement, a picture, a book — to Islam and especially to its prophet Muhammad.
While Maher has been criticized for his “Islamophobic” assertion, he and others may be surprised to learn that the similarities between Islam and an organized crime syndicate such as the mafia far exceed punishing those who say, draw, or write “the wrong thing.” In what follows, we will examine a number of these similarities.
We will begin by looking at the relationship between Allah, his messenger Muhammad, and the Muslims, and note several parallels with the relationship between the godfather, his underboss, and the mafia.
Next, we will examine the clannish nature of the mafia and compare it to Islam’s tribalism, especially in the context of the Islamic doctrine of “Loyalty and Enmity.” For example, in both Islam and the mafia, members who wish to break away, to “apostatize,” are killed.
We will consider how the mafia and Islam have both historically profited from the “protection” racket: Islam has demanded jizya from non-Muslims under its authority/territory, and the mafia has demanded pizzo from people that fall under its jurisdiction.
Finally, we will consider what accounts for these many similarities between Islam and the mafia, including from a historical perspective.
The “Christmas single” phenomenon is unknown in the U.S., unless you’ve ever watched Love, Actually.
It’s sort of the “Black Friday” of the British music industry. Since so much music is sold (or, at least, used to be) during the holiday season, having the #1 song on the charts during that time gives one lucky record company a financial boost.
After Slade took the top spot in 1973 with their “Merry Xmas Everybody” — beating out “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard — “an emotional attachment to the Christmas countdown has developed, and for many [in the United Kingdom], it is part of the fabric of their childhood.”
So I doubt many American readers care that there’s a campaign to get Iron Maiden’s old chestnut “The Number of the Beast” to the top of the charts in time for Christmas, “for a laugh.”
What’s really funny (sort of) is that, during the early 1970s, such a campaign would have been denounced on the front page of every British tabloid, and remarked upon within American newspapers’ “entertainment” sections, at the very least.
Because culture-watchers would see it as yet another sign of the satanic takeover of the culture, and the world — the one I wrote about last week.
Editor’s Note: See the first three parts in Susan L.M. Goldberg’s series exploring ABC’s Scandal through the lens of Biblical feminism: “What’s Evil Got to Do with It?,” ”Women and the Scandal of Doing It All Alone,” and “The Key to a Woman’s Sexual Power.” Also check out an introduction to her work and collection of 194 articles and blog posts here.
The idea of Olivia Pope is one of a woman who trusts her gut instinct so implicitly that she bases her every decision on it. As a result she unwittingly justifies a range of crimes, puts her life and the lives of her employees and friends at risk, and helps terrorists escape the country. Sometimes listening to your gut just isn’t good enough. Which is probably why God provides a wise alternative in Torah: the prophet.
Biblical culture believes that God speaks to human beings. Sometimes this is done in a group setting, like when the Israelites entered into a covenant with God on Mount Sinai. Other times this is done on an individual level, as when God called out Abraham, spoke to Moses through the burning bush, and when God speaks to His prophets. Given that God spoke to His priests through the long-ago destroyed Temple, Rabbinic Judaism tends to view prophets as the stuff of biblical history, despite the prophecy of Joel:
And afterward [after the restoration of Israel], I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
The Spirit of God in prophecy, known in Rabbinic Judaism as the “bat kol,” is highly regulated by Rabbinic law and culture:
In any event, the consensus in Jewish thought is that no appeal to a heavenly voice can be made to decide matters of halakhah where human reasoning on the meaning of the Torah rules is alone determinative. In non-legal matters, however, a Bat Kol is to be heeded. …In modern Jewish thought, even among the Orthodox, claims to have heard a Bat Kol would be treated with extreme suspicion and dismissed as chicanery or hallucination.
But is it really wise to always trust your gut?
The introduction to an extraordinary new series:
Next, see the first commandment explained here.