Sex Drives Conservatives Wild

Sex drives conservatives wild. It drives conservative Christians really wild. But it doesn’t drive them wild in a good way. Many of the social issues conservatives are most concerned about involve sex in one way or another. Pornography, promiscuity, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage all clearly involve sex. Other hot button issues are more of a by-product of sex. Abortion for example. Conservative Christians may say it’s about ‘life,’ but the whole issue clearly starts with sex. If you pin them down they’ll often say something along the lines of ‘well, they shouldn’t have had sex’ or ‘those are the consequences of having sex.’ Most conservatives hate former President Bill Clinton for many reasons, but they’ll never forgive the fact that he had sex in (or near) the Oval Office. They find it much easier to forgive former President Bush his many transgressions, not simply because he shares their views, but because his trespasses didn’t involve sex.

Conservatives complain about the moral decline of America over the past fifty years, and most of their complaints touch on sex. They hate the vulgarity of modern music, the provocativeness of modern fashion, and the tawdriness of contemporary television. I agree with them about television, but find it telling that they’re so outraged by sexuality on the small screen, but largely unconcerned by the pervasive violence on many television shows.

What is it about sex that drives conservative wild?

They’re wild about sex because, well because when you’re having sex, you are wild. You are fulfilling a wild, natural, animalistic urge. Biologists know that the sex drive is one of the strongest and most primal force in nature. Sex is life. Sex creates life. The main function of all living organisms is to pass genes on to the next generation, and most living organisms do this through sex. Therefore, sex is life, and life is sex.

Conservative Christians fundamentally disagree with this. They disdain Darwin, and abhor the idea that humans are animals. But here’s the problem: when they’re humping, they are animals. They might call it copulation, they may confine it exclusively within marriage, and they might do it staidly in the missionary position. But when they’re going at it, their hips are rocking, their butts are bouncing, and they’re grunting and groaning. Even the most religious person must understand, or at least feel, that they’re acting like an animal when they’re having sex.

It’s not surprising that European missionaries taught African natives the “missionary position.” Other positions are clearly animalistic. Seeing people copulate ‘doggy style’ is like watching … well, like watching dogs go at it.

Sex is a deeply natural urge. No one is taught how to have sex, they just figure it out. Perhaps two virgins will fumble around the first couple of times, but with very little practice they’ll be happily humping like rabbits. No one has to explain it because the conscious mind doesn’t really control it. The body insists on friction, and the hips comply. Even if you are conscious of what you’re doing, there comes a point when the body takes over and it’s almost impossible to stop. The body moves virtually on its own, often with a certain amount of animalistic moaning.

During sex, even the most committed conservative Christian must feel in his or her loins that the body has taken over. They must realize on some level that they’re doing what nature intended them to do. They may take comfort in the belief that God is the author of nature, and therefore what they’re doing is Godly, but they also must know that they’re behaving like an animal. And if they’re no different from an animal, then they are not a uniquely Godly creature, separate and apart from the animals.

Let me be blunt: sex is Darwin’s friend. There’s an old saying many Christians like to quote to justify religion: “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” It’s a cliché of dubious accuracy, but the point is that in certain situations there is doubt. Under fire everyone may seek divine intercession, which purportedly proves God’s existence. Let me suggest a corollary: “There are no creationists in the sack.”

Religious people sense this, and it worries them. The Catholic Encyclopedia’s definition of “Lust” talks about the inherent nature of sexual desire: “The pleasure which this vice has as its object is at once so attractive and connatural to human nature as to whet keenly a man’s desire, and so lead him into the commission of many other disorders in the pursuit of it.” Sex is gateway sin. It’s so desirable that people will engage in other sins – adultery, dishonesty, etc.—to get it. But perhaps the real problem is that once you’ve committed this sin and realized how un-sinful it really is, you may question the other teachings on sin.

Conservatives’ sex troubles don’t end there, because sex doesn’t just tug at your loins, it can pull at your heart and soul as well. This challenges many deeply held conservative beliefs, starting with the way that they believe that people interact with the world around them.

There’s a moment during intercourse when it seems as if everything in the world disappears except your own body, and the body in your arms. At that moment your only connection to the world is through another human being. You’re not connected to humanity by a shared acceptance of religious doctrine, or a shared sense of being one of God’s creatures. You are connected to humanity by a person. We’re Darwinists during the throws of passion, but at the end we’re Humanists.

There are many aspects of religion. People are religious because it provides lessons in morality, it provides historic continuity, and it provides social companionship. Some people seek tradition, some a sense of the supernatural or a way to understand things that seem inexplicable. Others seek moral clarity. But one common element is that religion provides a sense of connection to humanity, and an explanation for that connection.

Every person feels, on some level, that they’re connected to other people. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that empathy is universal, and extends even to people we’re not related to or don’t even know, though it’s stronger the closer we are and diminishes the further a person is from us. This innate sense of empathy provides a connection with other people, and creates a sense of the external. It makes us feel that there is something beyond ourselves. Throughout history the most common way to explain this feeling was through the divine. We are connected to each other because God made us all. We feel connected because we are mutually connected to our common creator.

But what happens when we feel that connection in a different way? What happens when that connection occurs during sex? We’re connected at the groin, but in that perfect moment when the world slips away and all that remains is what you hold in your arms, at that moment we’re connected to humanity not through God, not through shared beliefs, but through the person in our arms.

It shouldn’t be surprising that many young adults lose interest in religion at about the same time they become interested in sex. It’s no wonder that the least religious group is the most sexually active. According to a study by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, young adults age 18 to 24 are the group least likely to attend church, and a majority of people 18 to 34 don’t attend church.

Young people often feel adrift, and clearly church and religion don’t provide a sufficient sense of connection, so some kids search for this connection elsewhere. Some find it through sports or drugs or gangs, or a variety of positive and negative associations. Any many kids find this sense of connection through sex, and the relationship that often comes with it.

But once these young adults begin to marry and have children, their attitudes change. According to the Evangelical Lutheran study, church attendance begins to rise when people have children, and becomes a majority when those children reach the age of six. These young parents are worried about how their kids will deal with society. No parent wants their child to venture out into a crazy world. Parenthood is the time when people start to wonder about the behavior and motivation of other people. It’s the time when parents want to start teaching their children more stable and traditional values, and religion certainly provides all of those things. It provides an easy and convenient framework for lessons about human behavior, as well as a safe social environment for children to interact.

But the cycle repeats. When these children reach adolescence, and have their first sexual experience, they turn away from religion. But the reason they turn away from religion is not simply that they gain a sense of human connection with another person, or feel the Darwinian tug in their loins. The reason they turn away from religion is that they are often pushed away. One of the reasons they abandon religion is because many religious people, particularly in deeply conservative denominations, have a convoluted, contradictory, and even hypocritical view of sex. Young adults abandon religion because it is through sex, more than anything else, that many religious leaders expose their base hypocrisy.

Young people turn away from organized religion at this point because of the illogical and inconsistent teachings they are hearing from religious leaders regarding sex. And this makes them question religion in general. The problem is that the Bible offers very contradictory lessons about sex. Conservative Christians promote abstinence, and justify it with scripture. “Don’t be immoral in matters of sex. That is a sin against your own body in a way that no other sin is.” (1 Corinthians 6:18 CEV) “Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people.” (Ephesians 5:3 NLT) “Give honor to marriage, and remain faithful to one another in marriage. God will surely judge people who are immoral and those who commit adultery.” (Hebrews 13:4.)

The problem is that while the Church and parents push this view, any mildly curious kid can read the Bible and find wildly diverging lessons about sex. Kids this age are curious about many things, and this curiosity certainly extends to the Bible. The Bible contains rigid rules regarding sexual morality, but there are also stories of wild promiscuity by some of the most famous men in the Bible, including Abraham (the father of the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), King David, and King Solomon.

There are some choice lessons about sex in the Bible. For example a man who rapes a woman is to pay her father 50 shekels and marry her. (Deuteronomy 22:28-29.) That might have made sense in ancient times, but it sounds horrific today.

The Old Testament condemns adultery, (Exodus 20:14, Lev. 18:7-17, Deut. 5:18) but seems to defined it exclusively as a married woman having sex with a man not her husband. (See, Leviticus 18:20, 20:10 and Deuteronomy, 22:22-23.) Nothing prohibits a married man from having sex with a woman not his wife. In fact there are many examples throughout the Old Testament of men having concubines, like Abraham, or multiple wives, like Solomon and David. This double standard sounds grotesque to modern ears.

King David, one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, had multiple wives. The Bible names at least three: Michal, Abigail, Bhinoam, (1 Samuel 25:42-44). But that wasn’t quite enough for David. A woman named Bathsheba caught his fancy, but she was married to one of David’s soldiers. So David sent the man to die in battle so that he could have Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2-27). Of course the Lord was displeased, and punishes David by killing the child he had with Bathsheba. (2 Samuel 12:15-16). Not only does this story make David sound like a total creep, it also makes God sound a bit misogynistic.

David’s son Solomon decided to outdo the old man, and had “seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines.” (1 Kings 11:3.) Solomon clearly had an erotic bent, which can be seen in his poems, collected as the Song of Solomon. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” Song of Solomon 1:2.

Giggling teenagers might like this stanza:

I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on?
I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door,
and my bowels were moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved;
and my hands dropped with myrrh,
and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh,
upon the handles of the lock.
[Song of Solomon 5:3-5 KJV]

Plenty of Biblical scholars believe that “my bowels were moved for him” implies an orgasm. Dirty minds throughout the ages have read that passage as a not so veiled metaphor for sex and its sticky byproducts.

Curious young minds are hearing parents and preachers promote abstinence with carefully selected scripture, while Solomon seems to encourage them to get their freak on. Teenagers are particularly aware of the hypocrisy of adults, and just at the time when they are skeptical of authority, authority figures give them ample reason to be skeptical.

It’s hard for anyone reading these stories not to conclude that the Bible is inconsistent, if not hypocritical about sex. And if it’s so inconsistent and wrong about sex, couldn’t it be wrong about other things? And if the Bible is wrong, could other aspects of religion be wrong as well? So the inconsistency about sex undoubtedly leads some kids to question not just the Bible, but also religion.

It seems strange that someone would give teenagers a reason to be skeptical, but a rigid adherence to inconsistent Biblical rules does exactly that. If, as the Fundamentalists say, the Bible is Truth, then how do the rules for sexual morality set out by Paul coexist with the rules applied to David and Solomon?

If David can pretty much get away with having a sexual rival killed, your average teenager might wonder, how much trouble can I get in to for a little tumble after school?

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that sex, or sins of the flesh leads to: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” (Gal. 5:19 – 21.) It also leads one to question authority, and in particular Biblical authority.

For Paul, sex was a gateway sin which leads to other transgressions. For modern conservative Christians, sex leads to curiosity and doubt. And so sex must be stigmatized, demonized, and punished. But the problem, as the Catholic Encyclopedia pointed out, is that sex is so central to human nature that it can’t be completely suppressed. It turns out that the harsher the attack, the greater the hypocrisy, and the more people are repelled. And so the harder conservative Christians fight, the more people they turn away. It’s enough to drive you wild.

Christ and Homosexuality

I’ll admit homosexuality is an affront to Christianity if someone can show me where Christ condemns it. Some “Christians” claim that homosexuality is a sin and point to Leviticus in the Old Testament (Lev. 18:22, 20:13), and Romans (Rom 1:25-27) and Corinthians (1 Corr. 6:9-10) in the New Testament. But they never mention Christ or what he thought of homosexuality. The obvious reason is that Christ never mentioned or condemned it. There’s no doubt Jesus was familiar with homosexuality since it’s mentioned in the Old Testament and his contemporary Paul discussed it. But Jesus never mentioned it. Not once. Not even in passing.

Is there a way, based on the Gospels, to determine what Jesus might have thought about homosexuality? One way may be to look at how he dealt with issue of “sexual immorality,” which is often discussed along with homosexuality. In Paul’s condemnations, for example, homosexuality is mentioned with other types of sexual immorality, so the issues are closely related. So how did Jesus deal with these issues?

Christ addressed the issue twice in the Gospels. In Luke, Jesus is eating with a group of Pharisees and a woman comes and washes his feet. The woman is described as having lived a “sinful life” and one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knows what kind of woman she is. Jesus responded by saying that she has shown what kind of woman she is by the love she has shown by washing his feet. Because of this “her many sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:44-48).

The second story is one of the most famous in the Bible, from the Gospel of John. Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem and a group of Pharisees come to him with a women “caught in adultery.” They say that “the Law [of Moses] commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” Many Biblical scholars contend that this was a trick to get Jesus to explicitly contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses. But Jesus doesn’t, he makes an end run: “Let any one of you who is without sin,” he says, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-11) No one does, and he forgives the woman and tells her to leave her life of sin.

In both situations Jesus noted that these women have sinned, but then ignored Old Testament rules on sexual morality, he also implicitly ridiculed those being judgmental and applying a strict interpretation of Biblical teaching.

Does this mean that Jesus was specifically rejecting Old Testament teachings regarding sexual immorality? The Pharisees at the Temple seemed to think he was. Why would they think that? Was it because he’d done it before? Are there other examples where Christ’s teachings contradict the Old Testament?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said he wouldn’t change a “jot or a tittle” of the Law of Moses, “so long as heaven and earth endures.” (Matt. 5:18). That’s a pretty clear endorsement of Old Testament teaching. But then he seems to reject the Law in a number of situations. Later in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32) he rejects Old Testament teaching on divorce (Deut. 24:1), and harsh punishment. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ (Ex. 21:24.) But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 5:38). An “eye for an eye” is from the Law of Moses (Ex. 21:24), and here Jesus says to ignore it.

In other stories elsewhere in the Gospels, Christ rejected the rules on ritual cleaning before eating (the rule is in Lev. 15:11, and the rejection in Matt. 15:11), and on working on the Sabbath. Jesus said “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). The prohibition on working on the Sabbath isn’t just one of a laundry list of rules set out in Leviticus, it’s one of the Ten Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep in holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” (Ex. 20:8-11).

So on at least six occasions Jesus ignored, contradicted, or rejected lessons from the Old Testament. In each case he rejected what could be considered a harsh, rigid, and often cruel rule, in favor of forgiveness and tolerance.

It’s notable that Jesus even takes issue with one of the Ten Commandments. Not only did he reject that commandment, he created a New Commandment. At the Last Supper Jesus said: “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35.)

This “New Commandment” seems to offer some explanation of Christ’s approach to the Old Testament. In most of the cases noted above, Jesus has reinterpreted Old Testament teachings through the lens of his New Commandment. It is clear that He applied this lesson to the two women accused of adultery, so it hardly seems illogical that he would have applied it to questions regarding homosexuality.

Let’s be clear: Jesus never condemned homosexuality. In fact he never even mentions it. Let’s also be clear: when confronted with questions of sexual morality, Jesus ridiculed the accusers and forgave the accused.

Given that clear record, I find it impossible to believe that Jesus would agree with most modern Christians. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he ridiculed them, as he did the Pharisees. He might even question their claims to be disciple, particularly when they so clearly are unable to “love one another.”

Cherry Picking The Bible

Opponents of gay marriage, and gay rights in general, always refer to the Bible to support their views. But surprisingly they never mention Jesus and what he thought of homosexuality. Could it be because he never condemned homosexuality?

The opponents of gay rights, primarily conservative Christians, are correct that the Bible condemns homosexuality, specifically in Leviticus and a few references in the New Testament. But there are many other things that are condemned in the Old Testament, like getting a tattoo or eating shellfish, and these same Christians don’t get worked up about those. In fact, much of Leviticus consists of lists of prohibitions, condemnations and abominations, but conservative Christians aren’t trying to influence public policy based on those teachings. In fact they virtually never mention the vast majority of prohibitions from the Bible. They focus almost exclusively on issues of sexual morality in general but are particularly worked up by homosexuality.

It bears repeating that Christ never once condemns homosexuality. He actually never even mentions it. Not a single reference: and absolutely no condemnation. And when given the chance, Jesus didn’t condemn sexual immorality, but rather condemned the hypocrisy of those leveling the charges of sexual impropriety.

Why then do some “Christians” look past Christ’s lack of teaching on the issue, and his clear example of forgiveness, to pull out a few select statements from the Old Testament to condemn certain sexual behavior? By the same token, why do they ignore all of the other things that the Bible and the Old Testament condemn? Why do they ignore rules on food, grooming, human relations, and religious observation? Why do they ignore things that are condemned, like tattooing, as well as things called an “abomination,” like eating shellfish? Why do they sort through all of the prohibitions in the Old Testament, and pull out the one condemning homosexuality?

Is there something in the Bible that justifies this selective application of the Old Testament? In other words, is there a rule in the New Testament that explains what provisions of the Old Testament are important and must be observed by Christians? Well, yes, actually there is. In fact there are a couple of rules in the New Testament that specifically describe the application of provisions of the Old Testament. Unfortunately, like much of the Bible, these rules are ambiguous and contradictory. And here is the best thing, even though there are rules, modern conservative Christians ignore them.

The rules in question developed in the early years of the Christianity as different groups of evangelists sought converts in different parts of the Roman Empire. The evangelist Paul spent most of his time in the Eastern Roman Empire (modern Greece and Turkey) preaching to pagans and non-Jews. The remaining disciples, chief among them Simon Peter, Jesus’s one time right hand man, and James, the brother of Jesus, stayed in Jerusalem and sought converts among the Jews. A debate arose between the two groups over whether or not a convert to Christianity had to follow Jewish law. After all, Jesus was a Jew. So did this mean that his followers must be as well? Those preaching to non-Jews were encountering two issues that were making people reluctant to convert to Christianity through Judaism. The first involved “kosher” dietary restrictions, which were difficult for many non-Jews to follow. The second was circumcision, which was scaring off potential male converts.

One time, when Paul was in Jerusalem, the two groups gathered to discussion the issue. The discussion plays out in two sections of the Bible – Chapter 15 of Acts, and Paul’s letter to the Galatians – and they have two slightly different versions of events. In Acts the two groups each present their views, and then James, the brother of Jesus, speaks.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:19-21)

A group of “elders” then wrote a letter explaining these provisions for evangelists and for the new churches in the east. Acts doesn’t specify Paul’s role in the discussion or letter, but implies that he was one of the “elders.” The letter paraphrased James’ statement, and essentially said that the rules on sexual immorality and a number of rules dealing with food were the important rules to follow. So that’s one version. How closely to modern conservative Christians adhere to this rule? Well, they obsess over the rules on sexual morality but completely ignore the rules on food.

The story set out in Galatians indicates a great deal more conflict between the two groups. During the debate Simon Peter began to distance himself from the group opposing the requirement for circumcision. Paul got angry and accused Simon of hypocrisy because he was known to eat un-kosher food with Gentiles.

“You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? … We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2: 15-16, emphasis added)

A bit later Paul summarized his views: “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. … I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:19-21) Paul is saying that if salvation can be found through adherence to the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, then there is no reason to follow Christ. This creates another possible rule for applying the Old Testament: belief in Jesus is the key to salvation, and not adherence to Laws set out in the Old Testament. This sounds like a nearly complete rejection of Old Testament teaching. Modern conservative Christians like to preach the part about belief in Jesus as the key to salvation, but conveniently and completely ignore the part where Paul repudiates “the law.”

Of course they can do this because Paul doesn’t completely repudiate the law. He refers to rules set forth in the law, but he just selectively incorporates them. For example, in Romans, Paul condemns homosexuality, but also condemns in equally harsh terms, slander, insolence, disobedience to parents, and a host of other transgressions. (Romans 1: 24-32) In Corinthians he not only condemns homosexuality but also fornication, idolatry, adultery, drunkenness and extortion. (1 Corr. 6:9-10.) And modern conservative Christians downplay most or what Paul condemns, except homosexuality and sexual morality.

So the New Testament has ambiguous rules regarding the incorporation of the teachings of the Old Testament. Can Jesus give us any guidance? After all, Christianity is supposedly based on his teachings. Unfortunately Jesus also seems to have an inconsistent view of the Old Testament and its teachings.

Jesus only specifically mentions the “Law” of Moses only once, in the Sermon on the Mount. During this extensive Sermon he said that he would not change a “jot or tittle” of the Law so long as heaven and earth endures. (Matthew 5:18) That seems pretty clear, but unfortunately in the same sermon he specifically rejected certain provisions of the Old Testament. He rejects the law on divorce (Matthew 5:31-32) and harsh punishment like an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38). Elsewhere in the Gospels he rejects dietary laws (Matthew 15:11), and strict observance of the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It’s notable that in most cases he rejects harsh provisions from the Old Testament in favor of a broader, more forgiving interpretation. Rather than an “eye for an eye” he says to “turn the other cheek.”

The rules from both Acts and Galatians set out above don’t specifically mention divorce or punishment, so it’s not clear if Christ was following either of those rules. But both Acts and Galatians do specifically condemn sexual immorality. How did Christ deal with this issue?

There are two stories in the Gospels where Jesus is presented with women accused of sexual immorality, and in both cases (Luke 7:44-48 and John 8:3-11) he forgives the accused, and seems to condemn her accusers. In one of the most famous stories in the Bible, when a group of Pharisees bring him a woman accused of adultery, Jesus says “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Jesus then looked down and drew letters in the dirt. After a few moments he looked up and the crowd was gone. He asked the woman if anyone had condemned her and she said no. He said, “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11) Jesus clearly doesn’t condone her behavior, but he hardly seems worked up about it.

This is a curious incident to consider when discussing Christ’s approach to the Old Testament. The Pharisees seem to believe that Jesus’ teachings contradicted the Law. When they brought the woman to him they said, “Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do you say?” (John 8:5.) Why would they ask that question if they thought that Jesus assiduously taught the law? The Gospel of John even says that they asked this question to test him. (John 8:6.) The incident strongly suggests that Jesus had a reputation for diverging from the Law of Moses.

Jesus doesn’t provide a uniform rule for applying Old Testament teachings, but he does provide a clear example of behavior throughout the Gospels. Instead of “do as I say, not as I do,” Christ’s lesson was “do as I do, not as I say.” What he said may occasionally be unclear, but what he did was not. The clear lesson of his example is tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness.

But perhaps he did provide a rule. At the Last Supper, after Judas left to inform the authorities, Jesus tells the remaining disciples that he will be with them only a little longer, so he provides them with a parting lesson. He then tells them, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

This New Commandment was Christ’s last admonition to his followers: Love each other. This commandment certainly explains Christ’s behavior, and defines his attitudes towards the lessons of the Law of Moses. Can we develop a logically consistent rule for incorporating the teachings of the Old Testament into the New based on this Christ’s new Commandment? I think so.

Paul said that “a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” While one aspect of faith is belief in Jesus as the Son of God who died for our sins, another aspect of faith in Jesus Christ must be faith in his lessons and examples. I would go further and suggest that “faith” must mean faithful adherence to these lessons. Christ said that “everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” That was the example he lived, and the lesson he gave to his followers. Christ’s overarching example was love, and He selectively applied a few teachings of the Old Testament based on this lesson. Let me suggest that the application of this rule would mean that the provisions of the Old Testament that comply with Christ’s New Commandment should be followed, and those that contradict it should be ignored.

Many conservative Christians ignore Christ’s New Commandment and the clear example of Christ’s behavior, and arbitrarily cherry pick provisions from the Old Testament to justify their beliefs. Those who use the Bible to justify intolerance can certainly find words to support their beliefs. But they won’t find those words in Christ’s mouth. They don’t find support for their actions in Christ’s behavior. And they certainly can’t justify their beliefs with Christ’s new commandment.

Jesus for the Non-Religious

In an increasingly secular and non-religious society, why should anyone care about religion, why should they learn about Christianity and Jesus?

The reason is that modern society is the product of its history and what came before. A person can’t truly understand the modern world without understanding the ancient world, and religion shaped ancient societies and was a major force in the ancient world. A person can’t truly understand the modern Western world, the world we live in today, without understanding the development of “Western Civilization,” and a person can’t understand “Western Civilization” without understanding Christianity. Christianity is one of the major foundations of the Western world. Christianity planted the seeds which flowered into the Enlightenment, which is the foundation for the modern liberal democracies that we live in today, and the scientific revolution, which created all of the technological marvels that define our world. So to understand the modern world a person needs to understand the influence of Christianity on the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. A person will only understand those eras if they have some understanding of Christianity itself. So even atheists should learn about Christianity. But they should understand the reality of Christianity, and not the Christian myth of Christianity.

To truly understand Christianity a person needs to understand Jesus his life and his teachings, Paul and his teachings, and the history of the early church.

My point here is not to explain Christianity for the non-religious but to explain why Christianity is important. Christianity is important in the creation of political liberalism and the scientific revolution.

Here is an interesting historical fact that explains why it is important to understand Christianity: the “scientific revolution” only happened in Europe, in Christendom. It did not happen in the Arab world, despite their illustrious scientific history, and it did not happen in China despite its technological achievements.

There were many amazing Arab scientists, and the foundation of modern mathematics and chemistry were laid by Arab thinks and scientists. (And the Arabs learned a great deal about math from the Indians.) Yet for some reason Arab scientists never produced anything akin to the European Scientific Revolution. For some reason, around the 12th Century, scientists in Arabia seemed to stop in their quest for new discoveries. But European scientists and thinkers took those Arabian discoveries and developed modern science.

It is also important to understand that many important technological advances were first developed in China. The Chinese developed the printing press hundreds of years before Gutenberg. But they didn’t use it to print books to disseminate scientific, theological, and philosophical knowledge. They used it to create beautiful posters. The Chinese also developed gun powder hundreds of years before the west. But they didn’t use it to create weapons that allowed nations to expand, or explorers to venture into hostile lands. They used it for fireworks. Europeans took those technologies and created the modern world.

There was something about the West that made it particularly open and amenable to scientific advances. One component is the legacy of the ancient Greeks. But another is Christianity.

Christianity opened the door for the scientific revolution. It began with Martin Luther who began the Reformation by challenging the control of the church over the religious beliefs of individuals. Luther’s idea, that Christians had the inherent freedom to develop their own understanding of God eventually morphed into the idea that thinkers could explore ideas outside of the confines of religious teaching. And this led to a flowering of both scientific and political thought. One branch led to the scientific revolution and the other led to the development of political liberalism and the era known as the Enlightenment. Just as the scientific revolution only developed in Christendom, the Enlightenment and political liberalism only developed in Christendom. There is no parallel in any other religious tradition. Political liberalism is the end product of the Reformation. Luther liberated believers from the Church, and subsequent thinkers liberated individuals from the state.

It is also important to understand that many of the early European scientists were deeply religious and thought that their discoveries were glorifying God’s creation. Galileo and Francis Bacon were deeply devout. Isaac Newton wrote more about religion than about his scientific discoveries, and he was absolutely convinced that his discoveries were merely revealing God’s genius. Charles Darwin first studied theology and intended to become a priest until he became interested in biology. He too thought he was revealing the miracle of God’s creation, up until he put together his basic idea of how living organisms change over time. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk.

The hatred that many Christians have for science and liberalism is curious because both are the product of Christianity. And the antipathy that many scientists and liberals have for religion is also strange because their beliefs only exist because of Christianity.

I talk about this a bit more in The Paradox of Christianity [link]

So to understand the modern world, the world of science and the world of political liberalism you have to understand the influence of Christianity on the development of those ideas during the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. And to understand the Enlightenment you should understand the Reformation, and how Christianity split into Catholics and Protestants. And that requires an understanding of the central teachings of those branches of Christianity.

But in order to understand any of this it is clearly necessary to understand Christianity. And to understand Christianity is it necessary to understand Christ, and to understand Christ we need to understand Jesus, and how he became Christ. And that is what I have tried to do in my novel

Jesus and the Old Testament

I find it interesting that Conservative Christians seem to prefer the harsh and judgmental teachings of the Old Testament to Jesus’ more ecumenical teachings from the New Testament. This has long made me wonder (and was part of the reason I wrote Heaven and Earth): what did Jesus have to say about the Old Testament? I also wonder how Christ’s teachings about the Old Testament influenced the way modern Christians view Jesus, and view the Old Testament.

Jesus makes only a handful of specific mentions of Old Testament teachings, which I discuss below. But it is clear that he didn’t strictly teach or observe Old Testament teachings. Why then do those who claim to be Christ’s followers want to strictly apply a few provisions from the Old Testament? I deal with that issue in a separate essay, but for now, let’s go through the Gospels and look at how Jesus approached the Old Testament.

First, however, let me note that at the time of Jesus there wasn’t an “Old Testament.” The Jews had the Torah, which was a collection of religious writings and teachings. At the time there was no definitive or canonical “Torah” made up of specific teachings beyond the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Many of the books that are now considered part of the Old Testament were also part of the Torah, but the specific list varied from place to place, and more importantly not all Synagogues had a complete set of these “books.” That raises a second point. The “books” were actually scrolls, as the modern bound books that we are familiar with today did not exist at the time. And so there was no set order to books, beyond the Pentateuch. So when I speak of the “Old Testament,” keep in mind that Jesus and his followers didn’t have a copy of the King James Version of the Bible for easy reference.

If you read the Gospels in order, the first time you hear Jesus specifically discuss the teachings of the Old Testament is in the Sermon on the Mount. And he seems to suggest strong adherence to its teachings. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19)

This seems like a pretty definitive endorsement of the Old Testament. Jesus says that he will not change a letter, or even the stroke of a letter of the law. The King James Version uses the wonderful term “jot or a tittle.” A jot is the jot, or stroke of a pen, and a tittle is the accent mark used on some letters.

I should note that to many evangelical Christians, Jesus is saying that he has “fulfilled” the law. Since He has “fulfilled” the law, he is somehow beyond it, and can therefor alter it. So many of the following examples, where Jesus alters or contradicts the Law of Moses, or other Old Testament teachings, are OK, because He has “fulfilled” the law. This, of course, creates a separate problem. If Jesus has “fulfilled” the law, why then do some conservative Christians want to rigidly apply certain provisions of the Old Testament? And in particular why do they want to enforce provisions that Jesus never even mentioned? (I address that question in a separate essay called Cherry Picking the Bible.) (I should also briefly note that a number of Paul’s letters are addressed to church congregations where the followers of Christ thought that because he had “fulfilled” the law, they didn’t have to obey it. That issue is beyond the scope of this essay.)

There is a section of Luke, often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain, where Jesus addresses some of the same issues as the Sermon on the Mount. In the version in Luke, Jesus says that the “law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.” (Luke 16:16) But then Jesus says “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” (Luke 16:17) So in Luke it is John the Baptist who has fulfilled the Law, but in Matthew it is Jesus.

Not long after saying the law will remain unchanged in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-22). Jesus says “it was said to the people long ago” as if it was some obscure legend, little more than an old wife’s tale. But it was more important than that. It is actually one of the Ten Commandments. (You shall not kill. Exodus 20:13.) Of course Jesus isn’t specifically contradicting the Commandment, but enhancing it, and creating an even harsher rule. That’s fine, but it does change the Law, which means that he is not applying the rule literally.

A bit later in the Sermon on the Mount he takes exception to the teachings on adultery, and again creates a harsher rule. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matt. 5:27-28) He has similar rules regarding divorce: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Matt 31-31) Jesus also tweaks the rules on oaths “Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all…” (Matt. 5:33-34. See also Matt 19:2-12) In each of these cases his rule is harsher than the rule from the Old Testament. But if, as he said, he was not going to change a word of the teachings of the Old Testament and the Law of Moses, shouldn’t his rule be precisely the same as the rules from the Old Testament? Even making the rule harsher is technically a change.

Jesus goes on, and this time he does contradict the Old Testament more directly. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” (Matt. 5:38-39) The punishment of an eye for an eye is directly from the Law of Moses as set forth in Exodus 21:24; Lev. 24:20; and Deut. 19:21. Leviticus 24:20 says that “if a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him – fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Here Jesus is directly and explicitly contradicting the teaching of the Old Testament. So much for not changing a “jot” or “tittle.”

In the next paragraph Jesus actually misquotes the Old Testament. He says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:43-44) The Old Testament, in Leviticus says “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev. 19:18) but it doesn’t specifically and directly say to “hate your enemy.” Of course other parts of the Old Testament certainly allude to hating one’s enemies.

There is a story, told in slightly different versions in Matthew (12:1-11), Mark (2:27) and Luke (6:1-4), where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath. Someone observes the disciples plucking the head of the grain to eat them, and they confront Jesus, saying “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” (Matt. 12:2) This violates the Fourth Commandment, which is to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. “On it you shall not do any work.” (Ex. 20:8). So the accuser in this situation is referring to a clear rule from the Ten Commandments. And how does Jesus, who promised not to change a jot or tittle of the Law, respond? In Matthew and Luke he notes that Priests work on the Sabbath, but in Mark he says “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark2:27. This certainly sounds like an almost direct repudiation of one of the Ten Commandments. (In the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John, Jesus also heals a man on the Sabbath, and is admonished. (Matt. 12:9-10, Luke 6:6-11, Luke 13:10-17, Luke 14:1-6, John 5:8-17.)) In each case Jesus has an excuse, but also in each case he has violated the Fourth Commandment.

In Matthew there is a story where Jesus is questioned by a group of Pharisees about the habits of his disciples. They note that his disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat. (Matt. 15:1-2) Jesus responds by accusing the Pharisees of creating rules that contradict the commandment to honor your father and mother (that’s the Fifth Commandment, Ex. 20:12). Jesus then says, “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” Matt. 15:11. (There is a parallel story in Mark 7:15.) This is one of my favorite statements by Jesus. It is a variation of the old saying, “by your words you shall be known.” But this statement clearly contradicts a whole range of dietary laws from the Old Testament. See in particular Leviticus 11:1- 46.

Let me digress briefly here to discuss Christians and dietary laws of the Old Testament. In Acts there is a lengthy discussion of dietary laws and whether the newly converted Gentile Christians had to follow them. This was at the “Council at Jerusalem,” where the apostles discuss the important teachings of the Old Testament, and how the Old Testament should apply to the new followers of Christ. The elders, which included Paul, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, agreed on a letter to be sent to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia. The letter said, in part, that ”You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29) So it sounds as if they endorsed at least some of the Kosher rules. This is interesting since modern Christians ignore this admonition, but it is also interesting since it seems to puts them at odds with Jesus.

And then, in the Gospel of John, at the last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood. (John 6:53) Catholics hear this passage at every mass, and it can certainly be read in conjunction with the idea that Christ has “fulfilled” the Law. But it clearly violates the prohibitions against blood, which is from Genesis Gen. 9:4) as well as the letter cited above (Acts 15:29). But obviously if you see Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament then he can violate the Old Testament laws at will. But doesn’t that also mean that Christ’s teachings on the Old Testament should supersede Old Testament rules, as well as Paul’s interpretation of those rules? (So why follow Paul’s condemnations of sexual immorality while ignoring Christ’s much more tolerant approach?)

Towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked a couple of direct questions about the Old Testament teachings, and his answer are quite revealing. In the first story a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What good thing must I do to get eternal life?” Jesus says “keep the commandments.” The man replies “Which ones?” (Matt. 19:16-18. Similar story in Mark 10:18.) Now if you believe that the Bible is literally true, and you believe, as many Christian’s profess, that you should “keep the commandments,” and you believe that Jesus has not changed a jot or tittle of the Law, then Jesus’ answer should obviously be, ‘why all of them, of course.’ But that, in fact, is not what Jesus says. He says “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” This is actually only five of the ten, and “love your neighbor” may be a wonderful rule, but it’s not in the Ten Commandments. (See, Exodus 20:1-17.)

In Exodus, God gives Moses the following 10 commandments: “(1) You shall have no other gods before me. (2) You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. … (3) You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (4) Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. … (5) Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (6) You shall not murder. (7) You shall not commit adultery. (8) You shall not steal. (9) You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house … wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:1-17. Reference numbers added.)

When Jesus instructs the man he misses the first four, and sort of twists the tenth commandment. But his version of the Ten Commandments actually comes from a different book of the Pentateuch, from Leviticus. Leviticus 19 includes the provision that you should not “seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) That is a truly wonderful idea, but it is not in the Ten Commandments that God gives Moses on Mount Sinai as set forth in Exodus.

A bit later Jesus is confronted by a group of Pharisees and Sadducees (these were Jewish sects of the time), who question him. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:35-40. There is a similar story in Mark 12:29-31.) Again it is noteworthy that the Ten Commandments that God givers Moses on Mount Sinai does not mention a commandment to Love God, or love your neighbor. That’s in a different version of the Commandments, set out in Deuteronomy Chapter 6. This is a section known as the Shema, which is a Jewish blessing, that begins “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.” (Deut. 6:4-6) It is interesting that Jesus quotes from this most Jewish of the versions of the commandments. It is also interesting to note that this provision to “Love God” is not contained in the version of the Ten Commandments from Exodus. And neither is the admonition to “love your neighbor.” Certainly the Ten Commandments tell you not to covet or steal from your neighbor, but that is very different from loving your neighbor. So Jesus is quoting the Shema and not the Ten Commandments of Moses.

There are similar stories, told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, where Jesus’ mother and brothers comes to see him, but he ignores them. He says, motioning to the crowd gathered around him that “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:19-21) That’s great, but doesn’t the Fifth Commandment specifically say “Honor your father and mother”? And so hasn’t Jesus directly violated the Fifth Commandment?

In Luke, Jesus is eating with a group of Pharisees and a woman comes and washes his feet. The woman is described as having lived a “sinful life” and one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knows what kind of woman she is. Jesus responded by saying that she has shown what kind of woman she is by the love she has shown him by washing his feet, and because of this “her many sins have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:44-48). A second similar story from the Gospel of John is one of the most famous in the Bible. Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem and a group of Pharisees come to him with a women “caught in adultery.” They say that “the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (Adultery violates one of the Ten commandments, Exodus 20:14, and the punishment for adultery is death, Lev. 20:10.) Many Biblical scholars contend that it was a trick to get Jesus to explicitly contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses. But Jesus doesn’t explicitly contradict the Law, he makes an end run: “Let any one of you who is without sin,” he says, “be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:3-11) No one does, and he forgives the woman and tells her to leave her life of sin.

This second story raises an obvious question: why would the Pharisees think that they could get Jesus to contradict the teachings of the Law of Moses if he had a reputation for scrupulously following the Law? It seems clear that he must have been known for contradicting the teachings of the Law, or perhaps for altering or expanding on those teachings. And so they confronted him.

In both situations Jesus noted that these women have sinned, but then he ignored Old Testament rules on sexual morality and implicitly ridiculed those being judgmental and applying a strict interpretation of Biblical teaching. Is he changing a jot, a tittle, or quite a bit more?

Finally near the end of the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples that he will not be with them much longer. (John 13:33) And so he leaves them with a parting message. He says “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) He reiterates this commandment twice more. In the next chapter he says “If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15) Note that he does not say keep the commandments, but “my” commands. And then, as he sends his disciples out to preach he says again: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” (Matt. 15:9-12) Now, this is the version of Jesus that I believe in, and this is the commandment that I believe is the sum and substance of Christ’s message. But there is absolutely no denying that this particular “commandment” is not found in the original Ten Commandments, or even in the Old Testament. Certainly the Christ who has fulfilled the Law can proclaim a new Commandment. But just as certainly this New Commandment changes far more than a jot or tittle of the Law of Moses.

Reading the Gospels and looking at Jesus’ relationship with, and teaching of, the “Old Testament” or the Law of Moses, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t scrupulously adhere to those teachings. This raises a couple of issues. First, if Jesus didn’t strictly adhere to the “Old Testament” what does that say about Biblical literalism? How can it all be literally true if the main character in the second episode disagrees with things in the first episode? Second, if Jesus takes issue with Old Testament teachings why should contemporary society be forced to abide by those rules. Specifically, if Christ never mentioned homosexuality, and in many other situations disagreed with harsh and judgmental teachings from the Law of Moses, why do modern “Christians” want to foist that one law onto society?

Writing Heaven and Earth

I wrote the first version of this book in 1999 and 2000. The book developed over a few years, but the impetus for the book was an event that occurred in the fall of 1998. In October of 1998 a couple of dim-witted cowboy wannabe’s in Laramie, Wyoming brutally beat and killed a young college student named Matthew Sheppard. (An achingly biblical name.) They killed him because he was gay. They were tried and punished, but the situation, like many in America, created a strange media response and a weird public discussion of homosexuality and gay rights. One comment that I found particularly troubling came from a major television evangelist. It was either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. I don’t really care which it was because both are equally noxious. The televangelist said that he certainly didn’t condone murder, but we should remember that homosexuality was anti-Christian. At the time I wasn’t remotely literate about the Bible, but I had read the Gospels and I didn’t recall Jesus ever condemning homosexuality. In fact the only time I could recall Jesus discussing sexual morality was in the famous story where he said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I did know that the Old Testament condemned homosexuality, and I seemed to think that the issue was discussed and condemned in at least one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. But I was far from a Biblical scholar, so there was a good likelihood that I was wrong. So I re-read the Gospels. In order to make it easier, I got a Bible where all of the things Jesus said were printed in red. The good think about the Gospels (among many good things) is that they are relatively short. In my Bible, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are just over 200 pages, and Acts is only another 50. And this is a study Bible with many notes and references, so the actual text is less than 150 pages. So it took me barely a week to re-read the Gospels and Acts. This confirmed by initial belief.

Jesus doesn’t mention homosexuality once in the Gospels, and in the only two situations where he discusses sexual morality he ridicules those who are condemning someone for their behavior. The most famous story, from John (8:2-11), is where a woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus, and he says that those who are without sin should cast the first stone. Of course no one does. There’s a second incident where Jesus is dining with a group of prominent Pharisees when a woman, described as a harlot, comes in and washes his feet. The Pharisees condemn her, but Jesus says she is better than they are because she has shown him her love by washing his feet. So not only does Jesus Christ, for whom Christianity is named, not condemn homosexuality, he doesn’t even seem particularly troubled by other forms of sexual immorality.

This made me wonder why Christians seem to focus on certain provisions of the Old Testament, but completely ignore others. Why, for example, are they so wrapped up about issues of sexual morality but ignore teachings on food, clothing, hygiene and many other issues. So I started to study the Bible and Biblical history, and read some theology. I also continued to think about what Jesus said and did in the limited recording we have of his life, which is the Gospels. There are a number of places where he specifically rejected teaching from the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous is in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that it is written that punishment shall be an eye for an eye, but he says to turn the other cheek. Now the “eye for eye” rule of punishment isn’t just some throw-away line from the Old Testament. It is God telling Moses about punishment under the Commandments. (Lev. 24:20). Jesus is specifically rejecting Old Testament teachings. So Jesus Christ, for whom Christianity was named, rejects teachings of the Old Testament. So again, why do Christians, who proclaim themselves the followers of Jesus Christ, randomly incorporate teachings from the Old Testament?

This idea was in the back of my mind as I studied the Bible. I also read a number of books about Jesus and the Bible. One of the first was Rescuing the bible From Fundamentalists, by Bishop John Shelby Sponge. Sponge laid out the history of the development of the New Testament, and said that to understand the New Testament and Christianity a person should read the books in the order they were written. Paul’s letters were written first, and Sponge said that if you understand why Paul was writing and who he was writing to, and then read the Gospels in the order written, and understand who the authors and audience was, you’ll gain a better understanding of what we really know about Jesus and what his ministry meant. I did this, and it was very enlightening. It started me thinking about the entire Bible, why it was written and by whom. But this is a story for another time.

As I read through the Bible in a more organized manner I started to wonder not only about the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament, but also about the relationship between Jesus and John. Clearly John came before Jesus and prepared the way for him. The Bible says this in so many words. That, I said to myself, sounds like an interesting story. What was the relationship between Jesus and John? How did John’s teaching influence Jesus and his ministry? I did a little research but found very little. Someone should write about that, I thought. I am not a theologian or a scholar of the classics, but I am interested in writing, and so I thought that would make a good story, and might be something I could write about.

I should note here that I have always been interested in writing. For most of my life I expressed that interest through reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid. I come from a family of avid readers, so reading was natural. As a reader I have always admired writers, and probably somewhere in the back of my mind I thought about writing. But I never really tried it. I have notebooks from college and beyond, where I scribbled down thoughts and ideas, but never worked out those random thoughts into anything more structured. I studied engineering in college, a subject that doesn’t entail much writing, and worked as an engineer for a couple of years in the military, and the only writing I did was the occasional letter or technical detail for a construction plan. I worked as an engineer for about two years and then applied for flight training, and spent the last four years of my military career as a B-52 navigator. That entailed absolutely no writing, beyond a word or two on a chart, like “turn to heading 165.”

But in my last few years in the military I started working on a Master’s Degree in History, and that involved a great deal of writing. I found, much to my surprise, that not only did I enjoy writing, but I was passably good at it. I was shocked when a professor told me I was a good writer. Who’ld a thunk it? The best I could figure, all of the reading I did showed me what good writing was, what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it was structured. I knew the difference between good writing and bad writing, and so I tried to make my writing like the good stuff and not like the crap. It seems simple enough, but really it’s not. I’ve always been irritated by a story or a book or a newspaper article that’s poorly written, and I often thought about how it could be fixed. I also found that I liked doing research and synthesizing information and presenting them in writing. Most of my history classes involved writing papers, so I had lots of practice.

I got out of the military and finished the history degree. At that point I had to make a career choice. There were no jobs in the civilian world for aircraft navigators. (Even in the early 1990’s GPS was replacing human navigation.) I thought about getting a PhD in History, and teaching, but those jobs are few and far between and they don’t pay very well. I also thought about law school. The law is a mix of history, politics and philosophy and I’m interested in all of those. There are also a lot more legal jobs than teaching positions, and many legal jobs pay quite well. So I opted for law school. To a very large extent law school is all about writing. Every class ends with a final exam which is three hours of non-stop writing. The only way to succeed, if found out, was to create a structured outline of the subject matter that could easily be regurgitated in the form of an answer. Quite a few classes also involved papers like legal memoranda or draft pleadings. And unlike history, the law is also constantly changing. Everything in history is old, but much of the law is new. Not only does every case involve an application of new facts to existing law, but new laws are being created all the time.

After I graduated from law school I started to write more. Most of it was related to politics, law or history. I was amazed, as I read about political events, how often politicians say things that are not supported by actual history, actual fact, or actual law. So I wrote some op/ed articles discussing these glaring omissions, and sent them to magazines and newspapers. I actually got a few things published, which was quite a thrill.

Of course I was also working as a lawyer, writing patents and legal memoranda and briefs. Trying to present ideas in a concise and logical manner was outstanding training as a writer.

I also started working on longer law review articles. A law review article addresses a single legal issue and typically analyzes the background of the issue, the relevant history, and the applicable statutes and case law.

But in the back of my mind I started to think about writing a novel. I’ve always read as much fiction as nonfiction, and so I thought I should try my hand at a novel. I drafted up a couple of rough outlines for novels, and tried to write some sample chapters. It was much harder than I thought. Keeping everything straight while keeping the story flowing was no small task. This was particularly true where you were making it all up as you went along. It would be nice, I thought, if there was an external framework to the story. Historical fiction sounded interesting, since history created the basic outline of the story, and the author just had to fill in his own details.

It was at about this time that the Matthew Sheppard story unfolded. I don’t want to suggest that the stars aligned, they certainly didn’t. It wasn’t fate, nothing fit together perfectly. It just happened at roughly the same time.

So I was researching the life of Jesus and the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. This gave me the framework for a story. Jesus meets John, Jesus learns from John, Jesus leaves John, Jesus begins preaching, and John is killed. Was it possible that the relationship with John had some direct impact on Jesus’ teaching? I thought it was particularly interesting that Jesus leaves John, goes into the desert, and it tempted by the Devil. Clearly something must’ve happened that either sent Jesus into the desert, or at least caused the Temptation. Perhaps Jesus and John had a falling out, perhaps Jesus disagreed with, or even rejected, John’s teachings.

This story framework was in my mind as I continued to do Biblical research. I found many good books about Jesus. I skimmed all of them, and read many, looking specifically for information about the relationship between Jesus and John, and the impact that had on Jesus’ ministry or theology. I was surprised that there was next to nothing. Even the longest and most detailed books about Jesus, for example John Dominic Crosson’s “The Historical Jesus,” had only a page or two, little more than the information from the Gospels. When I was studying history this lack of information would have immediately turned me off, but now, looking for a story, I saw an opportunity.

From my research I developed a rough time line of this period of Jesus’ life, and also developed a rough outline of John’s theology and Jesus’ theology. And I started writing. As the story unfolded I realized that I could use this story to explore the question that brought be to the subject in the first place, which is the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that he will not change a “jot or a tittle” of the law, until Heaven and Earth pass away. (This gave me my title.) But then he rejected specific teaching from the Old Testament (divorce, punishment).

So do I have Jesus – called Yeshua in the book – set out what provisions of the Old Testament to follow and what to ignore? Not in so many words. But I do address this conflict in some detail. Spoiler alert: my version is as ambiguous as the Gospels. I leave it inconclusive because the Bible leaves it inconclusive. But I do suggest that the Jesus who rejects the Old Testament teach on adultery is probably closer to the real Jesus than the Jesus that many fundamentalists conjure up to support their ugly views.

As I was working on the book I read and reread the Gospels. I used a study bible with a detailed concordance, so I was able to read a section in the Gospels and then read sections from the Old Testament that provide background, or context, or in some cases actual quotes. It was interesting to learn that Isaiah was frequently used or referenced by the Gospel writers, so I read Isaiah. This was proving a detailed, though scattershot, education in the Bible.

I should probably explain, at this point, my religious education and experience. As noted, I’m not very religious. This is most likely because my parents weren’t religious. With one exception, we didn’t go to church when I was a kid. My mother was raised Catholic, but wasn’t observant. Most of her family is very religious: my aunts and some cousins went to mass a couple of times a week. But my Mom wasn’t observant. She told me once that she just never thought it was very relevant. Occasionally though, when visiting her family, we’d go to church. So I was familiar with Catholic mass, if not Catholic theology. I have one particularly vivid memory of going to an old church in Chicago when I was four or five. The priest was dressed in red and was in a small pulpit mounted on a huge column at the side of the main section near the front of the church. He spoke a foreign language (I now know it was Latin) and faced the cross at the altar. It was strange and foreign to me, and I found it fascinating, but not enough for me to want to start going to church.

My Dad is also not religious, and I can’t even say not very religious. He is simply not religious. He has no interest in religion. His mother, my grandmother – Gramma Wilder – was a devout Christian Scientist. Christian Science is a strange religion that believes in faith healing. It was founded in the late 1800’s by a woman named Mary Baker Eddy. Most of its early followers were women. My grandmother was very involved in the church, and she tried to drag her kids to church with her, but by the time my dad and his brother were ten or eleven they revolted and stopped going. And, for the most part, have not gone since.

My main lesson in religion was brought to me by my Gramma Wilder. My father was a career military officer and we moved frequently. We moved to the Florida Panhandle the summer before I started third grade, and we lived there for three years. At some point my Gramma and Grampa Wilder visited and decided to stay. Gramma Wilder joined the local Christian Science church and we started going with her. At some point she became the “first reader.” Christian Scientists have a lay ministry, and members of the church are readers. The “first reader” reads “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, and the “second reader” reads the Bible. In a typical service, to the best of my recollection forty years on, the second reader reads a selection from the Bible, and then the first reader reads Mary Baker Eddy’s explanation of that particular passage.

I remember only a few things from that early religious experience. The first was that most of the Bible passages were interesting (not all of them, there is Leviticus), but the Mary Baker Eddy explanation was boring. (And that was the part my Gramma read. Sorry Gramma.)

The other thing I remember most vividly were three signs in the church, one behind the altar and one each over the doors on either side of the altar. The church was small, not much bigger than a small house, with rows of pews facing a small raised platform with two podiums for the First and Second Readers. There were two doors, one on either side of the platform, which led to a small office in the back of the church. When my Gramma was the First Reader my sister and I would often go back to the office with her to count the collection money.

In any event, the sign over the door on the left said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That’s John 8:32. I liked that quote, and I’ve often thought that my life has been a search for the truth. I didn’t know then, but know very well now, that many Christians take that phrase to mean something vastly different from what I thought it meant. My father is a meteorologist, and a firm believer in science, so growing up, truth for me meant science and fact, or truth as found in science and history. But for many Christians (though not all) “truth” is God’s revealed truth as set forth in the Bible.

The other sign was a quote from Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.” (From Science and Health.) This is the foundational belief of Christian Scientists. If divine love can meet every human need, then appealing to the divine can be the solution to very real and very human problems. This supports their belief in faith healing. Let me interject briefly and say that in my opinion faith healing is a bunch of crap. No doubt a positive attitude can help in dealing with or recovering from an illnesses, but prayer isn’t going to set a broken leg or cure an infectious diseases.

Finally, the largest sign, in the middle at the front of the Church said “God is Love.” (1 John 4:8.) This sign is common in many Protestant churches, and to the extent that I believe in any of that, I can certainly say that I agree with this. This idea—God is love—to a great degree is the main idea behind this book. That is Yeshua’s main observation as he learns from John, and as he deals with people and events in his life during and after the time he spent with John. When he sees love between people he sees an affirmation of God’s love. He sees love in acts of kindness and respect and tolerance and forgiveness. He sees it in a mother’s comfort to a hurt child, and in the father’s comment to the same child that he better dust himself off, dry his tears, and get back to work.

Jesus is often called the Prince of Peace, (that comes from Isaiah 9:6) and his teachings are rightfully described as lessons in love. If you read the Gospels, his focus on love and compassion is unmistakable. The few times he gets angry or churlish it is because the people he is dealing with don’t seem to get this concept.

I learned a great deal about religion, the Bible, and Jesus as I did research for this book. But I had only one real revelation. At the end of his life, as he is eating with his friends at his last supper, Jesus tells his friends that “I give you a new commandment, love each other. As I have loved you, so to should you love each other. People will know that you are my disciple by how well you love each other.” (This is my paraphrasing of John 13:34.)

I was blown away when I read that passage. Many Christians talk about the Ten Commandments. Many want to post the Ten Commandments in public places, like courts and other government buildings. Some say people should “live the Ten Commandments.” Many of the people who talk about the Ten Commandments (like the previously mentioned either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson) and want to foist them on others, are mean, judgmental people. Perhaps the Ten Commandments are a good set of rules to live by. Who can disagree with not murdering or stealing? But what about Christ’s New Commandment? Why don’t these Christians mention Christ’s New Commandment? Why isn’t it emblazoned, in a large neon sign, across the front of every Christian Church? Big bold letters that say: LOVE EACH OTHER.

Christ never said to strictly obey every single one of the Ten Commandments, and in fact he even questioned the commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy. (For more on this see my essay Jesus and the Old Testament.) So why are many Christians so worked up about the Ten Commandments, but ignore the one Commandment specifically given by Christ?

As I said at the beginning, I’m not very religious. I don’t know if there is a God, and I really don’t believe that if there is, he’s a human-like being that lives in the heavens. I don’t believe that he created the earth in seven days. The physical universe, and everything in it, is fully explainable by science. I don’t believe that God guides our lives or answers our prayers. I don’t see any evidence of that. But I do know that people have an enormous capacity to love each other. I see this every day. (People also have a capacity for cruelty and stupidity and carelessness and in some extreme cases a capacity for evil. But even the most depraved and evil person has at some point and to some degree been loved even if they have never given love.) I see this love expressed in hundreds of ways, through simple kindness and generosity, but also in extreme acts of compassion and bravery. People jump onto subway tracks to save complete strangers. That’s an extreme case, but the reality is that most people, most of the time, treat others with kindness and respect, which is a mild form of love.

There’s an inexplicable connection that all people feel toward all other people. It can be suppressed or ignored but it can’t be denied. We flinch when an actor in a movie is in danger, we feel a twinge of nausea or grief when we read a horrific story of human suffering in the newspaper. Just recently I read about the sinking of a ferry in South Korean, and a recovery divers described finding the drown bodies of dozens of high school girls in one room, wearing life preservers. Just reading that made me want to weep. We feel these things because we have a connection to other people. Some explain this connection as the presence of God in each of us. We love each other because God loves us and we love God, and we show our love for God by loving each other. I may not believe in the standard Christian God, but I believe that we show our love of God through our love for each other. So, to the extent that I believe in God, I believe that God is love.

That is what I have tried to show in this book. It’s a cliché (but probably true) that every author who writes about Jesus creates Jesus in his own image. I have tried not to do that, except to the extent that my Jesus also believes that God is love. I think that was his main lesson during his ministry, and that is what I have tried to show in this book.

To the extent that I have succeeded, I have my main character to thank for that. Any failings are purely my own.

The Central Question of Christianity

In my mind, the central question of Christianity is this: why do Christians selectively incorporate some provisions of the Old Testament, and reject others? There are plenty of examples, but the most obvious today is the condemnation in Leviticus against homosexuality: “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22) But barely a page later, Leviticus also says, “you shall … not tattoo any marks on you.” (Leviticus 19:27) Many hip young preachers actually sport prominent tattoos, in contravention of Leviticus. So why do some Christians honor the teachings of one portion of the Old Testament, and ignore others? Is there a reason, or a consistent theory of application or incorporation, to explains this? Or is it merely random, accepted and rejected at will?

One possible answer is that the Bible calls one an abomination, while the other is merely prohibited. But there are other provisions of Leviticus, particularly the dietary laws that use the term “abomination.” Eating swine, or fish without scales, is called an abomination. Yet most Christians eat pork and shellfish. So it can’t be that the Old Testament defines the transgression as an abomination.

Some Christians will point to the support in the New Testament, particularly Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, where he says that “men who have sex with men … will [not] inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Again, there’s no doubt that Paul condemns homosexual behavior. But it should be noted that in the same sentence he also says that neither “the greedy nor drunkards … will inherit the kingdom of God.” So why do modern Christians, particularly conservative Christians, get so worked up about sexual immorality, but don’t seem to worry much about greed? After all, Paul condemns both equally.

This isn’t just a theological issue. It has very real practical implications because many people want to establish public policy based on religious teachings. Many conservatives, in particular, refer to biblical teachings to justify their opposition to abortion and same sex marriage.

The problem is that there are contradictions and ambiguities between various provisions of the Bible, as well as differences in teaching between the Old and the New Testament. How should we deal with these inconsistencies? How do Christians deal with these inconsistencies?

In the law there is something called a statute (or rule) of reception, which explains how old laws are received into the provisions of new laws. As an example, after the United States declared independence most of the states enacted statutes that said the Common Law of England was received into the law of the state, and would apply where appropriate.

Is there a rule of reception in religion? Is there a rule that explains which provisions of the Old Testament apply to the New Testament?

There are, and I’ll discuss them later, but unfortunately they are no more consistent than other provisions of the Bible and require interpretation. Because of this they are often honored more in the breach than the in the observance. But let me suggest that the teachings of Jesus offer a good guide to applying the teachings of the Old Testament.

I’ll describe some of the inconsistencies in the Bible first, specifically regarding abortion and homosexuality. Then I’ll look at possible rules of reception to guide how we apply these teachings to the modern world.


Most religious denominations oppose abortion, and cite the Bible to support their position. Unfortunately, in most cases the cited scripture is less than clear, and there are also some biblical provisions that seem to accept abortion.

The main support for opposition to abortion is found in statements that note that God formed people in the womb:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jeremiah 1:5)

Did not He who made me in the womb make him, And the same one fashion us in the womb? (Job 31:15)

Yet Thou art He who didst bring me forth from the womb; Thou didst make me trust when upon my mother’s breasts. Upon Thee I was cast from birth; Thou hast been my God from my mother’s womb. (Psalm 22:9-10)

For Thou didst form my inward parts; Thou didst weave me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to Thee, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Thy works, And my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from Thee, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth. Thine eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Thy book they were all written, The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them. (Psalm 139:13-16)

Thus says the LORD who made you And formed you from the womb, who will help you, `Do not fear, O Jacob My servant; And you Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2)

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by Myself, And spreading out the earth all alone. (Isaiah 44:24)

These provisions suggest that God created people very early in the gestation process, well before the egg attaches to the wall of the uterus. And this implies that even at the earliest point of the pregnancy the fetus is fully human.

There is one provision, from Exodus, that seems fairly clear, but curiously it is quoted by both the opponents and supporters of abortion rights:

If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22-25).

There are two problems with this verse. The first is that it does not clearly define what it means by harm. Does it mean harm to the mother, or harm to the prematurely born child? It seems to indicate that the harm is to the woman since the “husband” and not the “father” defines the punishment. It also seems to indicate that it means the woman since it implies that no harm beyond the miscarriage. And if it only means harm to the mother, then it means that the “child” has no value, or at least no value worth mentioning in this provision.

But even if it does mean harm to the child there are still some problems. If the woman is hurt, and goes into premature labor and delivers the baby, this section seems to suggest that if the baby is dead the man who caused the harm should be punished, a life for a life. This clearly seems to imply that a viable fetus that can be delivered alive is a person, and so if not delivered alive the punishment is the same as if a living person had died. But what of a situation early in the pregnancy, where there is no way to tell if the woman was actually pregnant, because the fetus is too small? One could easily read this section to mean that if, and only if, the fetus was viable and born dead rather than alive, then the punishment would be the same as for a living person. If that is the case then harm to a fetus before viability is not punishable, meaning the fetus has no value. In fact, it is because of this ambiguity that this section is cited by both the opponents and the supporters of abortion rights.

This ambiguity regarding the fetus is reflected in a general ambiguity in the Bible regarding the value of infants. In Leviticus, for example, God gives Moses instructions for redeeming people, or valuing them for certain purposes:

When a man consecrates by a vow certain persons to the Lord, according to your valuation, if your valuation is of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary. If it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels; and if from five years old up to twenty years old, then your valuation for a male shall be twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels; and if from a month old up to five years old, then your valuation for a male shall be five shekels of silver, and for a female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver; and if from sixty years old and above, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels. (Leviticus 27:2-7).

There is no provision for valuing an infant younger than one month, which strongly indicates that infants under one month old are essentially worthless. This is not the only provision that does not provide a measure for the value of newborns. In the first census of the Israelites, as they neared the Promised Land, infants of less than one month were not considered people.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, saying: ‘Number the children of Levi by their fathers’ houses, by their families; you shall number every male from a month old and above.’ (Numbers 3:15-16)

This view of infants was common in ancient times, when life was harsh, and newborns frail, and their survival tenuous at best. In fact many ancient societies frequently disposed of newborns if they were sickly, deformed, or illegitimate, or even if they were simply unwanted. The most common method of infanticide was “exposure” or leaving the infant outside. In ancient Greece and Rome exposure was not considered murder, since the child would die of natural causes, generally starvation or freezing, though occasionally they were eaten by animals. And there was always the chance that the child would be found and adopted. Mythology is full of stories of such survival of abandoned infants: Oedipus was found and raised by shepherds, and Remus and Romulus were raised by wolves. There is little evidence of the attitudes of ancient Judaism towards infanticide, but according to the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus, it was forbidden in the first century. (See, Josephus, “Against Apion.”)

So one can select, and then interpret, Biblical passages that imply opposition to abortion. But one can also select passages that indicate that ancient Jews placed no value on an unborn or newborn child. So which one do we select? Which one has primacy?


Many of the opponents of expanding gay rights, including gay marriage, justify their position by asserting that it is prohibited in the Bible. They most frequently quote Leviticus:

“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” (Leviticus 18:22)

The punishment for this behavior is death:

If a man lies with a male as he lies with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them. (Leviticus 20:13)

These provisions are abundantly clear in their condemnation of homosexuality. One problem, however, is that this description of behavior as an “abomination” and this condemnation of death, is also applied to many fairly run-of-the-mill behaviors, like cursing your parents. Bad as that may be, it does not warrant death. But the other problem is that there are at least two famous stories from the Old Testament that indicate a more tolerant view toward homosexuality. The first involves Ruth and her mother-in-law, Naomi. After her son dies, Naomi urges Ruth to return to her home country. Ruth is mortified: “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17). Where you die, I will die? Seems pretty close. “May the Lord deal with me?” What exactly does that mean? Why would the Lord have to deal with a woman who simply loved her mother-in-law like her own mother? He wouldn’t. He would only have to “deal” with the issue if there was something else going on.

The other story involves King David as a young man, and his relationship with the son of his predecessor, King Saul. After David kills Goliath, King Saul has David brought to him. Saul is concerned that David might be a threat, and so wanted to keep him close (shades of Machiavelli). Saul introduces David to his family, including his son Jonathan.

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:1-4)

“Became one in spirit” … “loved him as himself” … “made a covenant”? Those all seem pretty intimate, and they are far more intimate than other friendships described in the Bible.

Later, when Saul decides he has to remove David, Jonathan warns him of the plot, and then intercedes with his father on David’s behalf. (1 Samuel 19:1-7.) It doesn’t work, and Saul attempts to kill David. David flees, and Jonathan goes with him. As they were fleeing, David and Jonathan affirmed their love for each other.

And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself. (1 Samuel 20:17).

They party and Jonathan returns to his father’s home. He again pleads David’s case, and Saul isn’t happy.

Saul’s anger flared up at Jonathan and he said to him, ‘You son of a perverse and rebellious woman! Don’t I know that you have sided with the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of the mother who bore you? As long as the son of Jesse lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Now send someone to bring him to me, for he must die!’” (1 Samuel 20:30-31)

“Perverse”? What is Saul implying? “Shame”? Is it just the shame of siding with the father’s opponent, or is it something more? Many Biblical scholars believe it is more.

In the second book of Samuel, when David learns of Jonathan’s death he is overcome, and orders that the people of Judah be taught a special lamentation, which includes this line:

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women. (2 Samuel 1:26.)

More wonderful than a woman?

The homoerotic nature of the relationships between Ruth and Naomi, and David and Jonathan, are frequently mentioned as examples of people in the Bible who were very likely gay. But as with many other stories in the Bible, it isn’t clear.

The New Testament also contains ambiguities regarding homosexuality and sexual immorality. Paul clearly condemns homosexuality and sexual immorality, but Jesus never mentions homosexuality, and is consistently forgiving and non-judgmental toward people accused of sexual immorality. Paul first.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul describes God’s wrath against the various sins of humanity. He says that those who succumbed to lust “exchanged the truth about God for a lie.” (Romans 1:25). Among those who did this,

even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27).

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes some things that will keep a person out of heaven:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

There are similar statements in the letters of Timothy, 1 Tim. 1:10, and 2 Tim. 3:3.

The problem I have with Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality (and other types of sexual immorality) is that it seems to contradict Jesus’s own teaching on the matter. It’s not that Jesus said it was OK, he didn’t. It’s just that he said, in effect, who cares?

In one of the most famous scenes in the Bible, Jesus is teaching at the Temple when a group of people bring him a woman caught in the act of adultery. The punishment for adultery was death, often by is stoning. (Death in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22, and death by stoning in Deut. 22:24).

The Pharisees “brought a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing Jesus of blasphemy.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11).

Jesus is clearly not condoning her behavior, and he admonishes her to leave her life of sin. But he is rejecting the Old Testament teaching and ridiculing (if not condemning) those who are overly fervent in administering it.

There is a somewhat similar story in Luke. Jesus in dinning with a group of Pharisees in Capernaum, and a woman who had lived a sinful life came and washed his feet with her tears and poured perfume on his feet. When one of the Pharisees asks Jesus if he knew what kind of woman she was. Jesus said:

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:44 & 47-48.)

Again, he doesn’t reward her behavior, but he doesn’t condemn it either. So, while the Old Testament, and Paul, seems pretty clear on sexual immorality, Jesus is pretty forgiving. Paul says that a sinner cannot enter heaven (1 Corinthians 6:9-10) but Jesus says to forgive the sinner. (John 8:2). Does this mean that Paul is rejecting Jesus’ teachings? A literal reading of the text seems to imply that, but the reality is that Paul never knew the living Jesus, and the Gospels were written after Paul wrote his letters, so there is no way to know if Paul knew of this particular teaching or not.

But Jesus is expressly forgiving of the sinful. Why, then, I have often wondered, aren’t modern Christians. And why do modern Christians seem to ignore Jesus’ teaching on tolerance while embracing Old Testament rules of intolerance? That brings us back to the original question regarding the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments.

There are a number of examples in the Gospels where Jesus in essence rejects Old Testament teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount there are at least two examples where Jesus contradicts, if not rejects outright, the teachings of the Old Testament.

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32, also Matthew 19:8 and Mark 10:3-10)

It’s interesting how Jesus uses the “some say” form of argument to diminish the validity of the rule on divorce. But it wasn’t just some guy who said that about divorce, it was Moses. (See, Deuteronomy 24:1).

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:38).

But again this was not just some old aphorism meant to provide a modicum of instruction in daily life, this line is from the Law of Moses. (See, Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21.) So twice, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus contradicts the Law of Moses.

Later in Matthew, Jesus is questioned about the behavior of his disciples. Apparently someone noticed that they didn’t wash their hands before eating. (Is Pharisee Hebrew for schoolmarm?) Jesus says:

“what goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11).

That is one of my favorite Bible quotes. But the point is this contradicts a number of teachings in Leviticus on cleansing (Lev. 15:11), as well as the entire range of Jewish dietary laws found in Leviticus, (Lev. 11:3-8, also Deut. 14:3-21) which governs what goes into the mouth.

Another day Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on the Sabbath, and someone notices that they plucked grain and ate it. (Mark 2:23). Jesus is questioned about that by a Pharisee, who says “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24.) (Side note: those disciples seemed to get into trouble for eating a lot, didn’t they?) The actual violation is not for eating, but for working on the Sabbath, which is prohibited in Exodus 34:21. Jesus responds:

“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27.)

That might sound nice, but it directly contradicts the Fourth Commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work …. (Exodus 20: 8-10; Deuteronomy 5:12-14.)

Jesus is not only contradicting the teachings of the Old Testament, he appears to be contradicting the teaching of one of the Commandments.

The problem, however, is that despite these statements, Jesus also seems to endorse the teachings of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount he said:

For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:18).

So now Jesus says that not one part of the Law shall be changed? What about the parts, noted above, that he seems to change? Is Jesus contradicting himself?

The fact that Jesus seems to readily contradict, if not reject, teachings from the Old Testament only draws my question into clearer focus. What is the rule for incorporating Old Testament teaching into New Testament teaching?

Unfortunately Jesus doesn’t give us a clear rule (though I’ll suggest in a moment that he has given us a good guideline.)

But what about other statements in the New Testament? Paul condemned homosexuality, as noted above, but does he provide any explanation for incorporating other provisions of the Old Testament? Actually he does, but even here there is ambiguity. Paul sets out a rule in his letter to the Galatians, but is seems to contradict a rule set out in Acts. In order to explain this, I need to provide some background.

Paul was the main evangelist of Christianity to the non-Jews. In that mission Paul was very willing to proselytize to and convert Gentiles. This caused a schism in the early Church. Paul was willing to accept non-Jews as converts in his mission to Asia Minor (primarily in present day Turkey, Greece and Syria), but the followers of Christ who remained in Judea were preached to and sought coverts exclusively from among their fellow Jews. So the question arose, only a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus, of whether a person needs to be a Jew to become a follower of Christ? After all, Jesus was a Jew, and he said that the Law must be obeyed.

After a few years of his ministry, Paul returned to Jerusalem to hash out this dispute with the other Apostles. Chief among the Jerusalem cohort was Peter, or Simon Peter (occasionally called Cephas, which is Aramaic for Peter), who had been Jesus’s right hand man, and James, the brother of Jesus. The dispute plays out in Acts Chapter 15, and in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, though they tell the story differently. Galatians was written first, and much more clearly describes the nature of the dispute, so I’ll present it first.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul said that:

I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. (Galatians 2:7-8.)

But apparently Peter was suggesting that only the circumcised could be saved, and so when they met in Jerusalem, Paul confronted him directly:

I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” (Galatians 2:14)

(A brief side note: Peter had a vision, described earlier in Acts, in which the heavens opened and a wide variety of animals were presented to him, and a voice said “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.” Peter refuses to eat the animals since some are unclean (un-Kosher). The voice then says that “What God has cleansed, you must not call common.” (Acts 10:12-15). This appears to be part of the justification for abandoning the Jewish dietary laws among early Christians, and is part of why Paul claims that Peter lives like – i.e. eats like – a Gentile.)

Paul continues with his argument against Peter:

“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! (Galatians 2:14-21, emphasis added.)

Paul says that if “righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” This hardly sounds like an endorsement of rigid adherence to the Law of Moses from the Old Testament. Yet Paul, as noted, does demand adherence to at least some provisions of the law.

Acts has a slightly different version of the story, which indicates less direct tension between Peter and Paul, the two main apostles, and more agreement.

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2.)

The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Simon Peter got up and addressed them:

“Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:6-11)

James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles.

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” (Acts 15:13-15, 19-21.)

Basically he’s saying that they should obey some of the laws, particularly dietary laws and laws regarding sexual immorality, but disregard “the yoke” of circumcision. After this discussion, “the elders,” (which may or may not include Paul) the drafted a letter to be carried to Asia Minor that said:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28-29).

This is a much more specific set of rules regarding the provisions of the Old Testament that Christians should follow. But virtually no Christian today bothers with the listed dietary restrictions. So why do they demand adherence to the rules on sexual immorality? And how to reconcile the ambiguity between Acts – where the “elders” say you must obey a couple of the dietary laws (which Christians now ignore) and laws regarding “sexual immorality” – and Galatians – where Paul says that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing.” So which is it?

But not only does the New Testament contradict itself regarding the application of the Old Testament, it contradicts Jesus. Both the rule in Acts and Paul’s specific writings about sexual immorality contradict Jesus’ examples of forgiveness. The apostles’ intolerance is measured against Jesus’ tolerance. And this, in my mind, diminishes the rule of reception in Acts.

So is there a consistent rule of reception? I would suggest that there is. Throughout his ministry Jesus preached love, respect, and tolerance. His statements of condemnation were directed at those who were judgmental and intolerant. Perhaps this should be our guide.

Paul said that a person is not justified by adherence to the law of the Old Testament, but by faith in Jesus. Surely this must mean, in whole or in part, faith in, as much as adherence to, his message.

Jesus said:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35.)

Jesus gave a new commandment: “love one another.” What are the components of love? Leaving aside romantic love, how does one express love for another? Through compassion, tolerance, acceptance, respect? Certainly these, and many others.

This “new commandment” is my key to receiving the teachings of the Old Testament into the New. People will know you as a disciple of Christ by how well you honor the commandment to love one another. That is pretty clear. Not much ambiguity or need for interpretation. Therefore, those provisions in the Old Testament that support this New Commandment should be honored and adopted. Those which contradict this New Commandment can probably be ignored.

Unfortunately this doesn’t clarify the ambiguity over abortion, but it does, at least in my opinion, clarify the question of homosexuality. Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, and preached tolerance and forgiveness of other types of sexual immorality. If tolerance is a component of love, as surely it is, and if Jesus expressed His love through tolerance, as surely He did, then how can we follow Jesus’ New Commandment through intolerance?

The Paradox of Christianity

This past summer the ACLU of Kentucky sent a letter to Kentucky school districts reminding them that if they allow Christian groups, like the Gideon’s, to distribute Bibles in school they also have to allow other religious organizations, including from other religions, to distribute their religious texts. When this made the news the response was pretty predictable. The newspaper was full of letters to the editor saying that the ACLU in particular, and liberals in general, hated Christians. There are similar letters whenever the paper reports on scientific discoveries that challenge or threaten Christian belief or doctrine, but those letters say that scientists hate Christians.

I always wonder if the letter writers know that both liberalism and science arose out of Christianity. That’s right. The grand paradox of the modern world is that Christianity laid the foundation for both liberalism and modern science, and then both turned on their creator. Let me explain.

The first people to call themselves “liberals” was a group advocating for individual liberty during the French Revolution. They said that a liberal is someone who seeks liberty, and coined it as a political term. But they were not the first people to seek liberty. That distinction belongs to Martin Luther, who, after breaking with the Church over doctrinal matters, called for Christian Liberty, or the liberty of each individual Christian to define his relationship with God. Luther said that each individual was created by God, and therefore had the God-given ability, and right, to define his relationship with God, and should not be subject to acquired dogma, or other arbitrary external restrictions. The only guide should be the word of God, from the Bible, and individual consciousness. The Church in Rome (later to redefine itself as the Catholic Church) pushed back, but Luther eventually prevailed.

I should note that there were many other thinkers and theologians pushing similar ideas. Men like Erasmus,Thomas More, John Wycliffe, and Pico della Mirandola, also were discussing changes to the church, and ideas about the dignity and liberty of individual Christians. But Luther was the most forceful, and most successful, and became the father of the Reformation.

After Luther other religious leaders sought liberation from excess control from the one Apostolic Church (as the Catholic Church defined itself). Many religious leaders in different countries sought to allow the teaching and preaching of religion in the native language. This push meshed nicely with efforts by secular leaders to free their nation from fealty to Rome. King Henry VIII’s push to create a Church of England was as much of a power grab as an attempt to gain favorably ecclesiastic support for his personal affairs. Similar fights were taking place in many of the other nations of Christendom.

Soon other thinkers started taking Luther’s idea of individual consciousness and extending it to other areas of life and human affairs. First political philosophers suggested that people had a right to choose their religion, then that was extended to the idea of the right of freedom of conscious, or freedom of belief and thought in areas outside of religion. Eventually some thinkers came up with the idea that individuals had a right to think about their government, and then had a right to participate in their government. (Some counter-revolutionaries suggested that Kings ruled by divine right, so people had no right to any input.)

Liberalism’s early spread was based largely on variations of Luther’s ideas, and in fact many early liberal writers and philosophers – like Locke, Hume, Mill, Montesquieu – based their theories, in part, on teachings from scripture.

One area where the idea of liberating thought from scriptural dogma quickly spread across Europe was in science. Luther’s ideas spread quickly because of the recently developed printing press. Gutenberg perfected movable type in the early 1400’s. Luther presented his Ninety-Five Theses to church leaders on October 31, 1517. It was quickly reprinted and spread throughout Europe within a matter of months. Printing allowed all sorts of ideas to spread. It allowed scientists to share their discoveries, and this allowed other scientists to learn about, apply, and refine those ideas. Many of these early scientists thought that their discoveries were glorifying the wonders of God’s creation. In fact, for a long time many early scientists were deeply religious and many were priests and members of the Church. Copernicus was a lay church official, Mendel (the father of genetics) was an Augustinian monk, Mendeleev (the creator of the Periodic Table) was trained at a seminary. While Isaac Newton is most famous for his theories about gravity, optics, astronomy and mathematics, he actually wrote as much about religion, theology and the Bible.

But it wasn’t long before scientific discoveries began to contradict Biblical teaching. Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the solar system was one of the first, but many others soon followed. One of the first was the development of the geological theories of a British scientist named James Hutton in the 1780’s. Hutton observed that layers of rock in the mountains had fossils, and wondered if some of the rocks had once been on the sea floor. As he observed exposed strata in the mountains around Europe he developed the idea that the earth had moved dramatically, and that this must have occurred over great lengths of time. The earth, he surmised, was very very old. This meant that it could not be the age suggested by the Bible. Some thinkers at the time dubbed this concept “deep time.”

At about the same time as Hutton’s discoveries, a British astronomer named William Hershel began building increasingly powerful telescopes, and peering further and further into space. He discovered, among other things, the planet Uranus, and star nebulae, or visually undistinguishable astronomical objects. Scientists at the time had a rough understanding of the speed of light, and Hershel knew that he was looking thousands, if not millions, of years into the past. Once, when asked about what he was seeing in deep space Hershel replied “I have searched through the heavens, and nowhere have I found a trace of God.” [Holmes, Age at 198].

Scientific discoveries were challenging and disproving religious theories, and many scientists were increasingly skeptical of religion. One of the more famous stories (which may be apocryphal) involves the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace. Laplace published a book on astronomy in 1799, and Napoleon Bonaparte read it with great interest. He invited Laplace to his palace to discuss the book. Napoleon noted that the book never mentioned God, and supposedly said that even Newton described God in his works of astronomy. Supposedly Laplace replied, “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

Science did not become directly hostile to religion, but increasingly saw religion, or more particularly religious teaching, as largely irrelevant to their activities. But a strong relationship between science and religion remained, particularly since most of the universities of the time were run by religious orders.

But increasingly scientific discoveries contradicted religious teaching. Far and away the most prominent was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which was published in 1858. (I’ll note briefly that Darwin was deeply religious early in life, and had considered the ministry. He, like Copernicus delayed the publication of his theories out of concern for its impact on religion.) Evolution described the development of life in a way that directly contradicts Biblical teachings. This was a scientific discovery too far, and religious leaders struck back, vigorously challenging Darwin’s discovery. They knew that if this theory was right, or if people began to believe it was right, it would invalidate much of their teachings regarding all living creatures on earth, including man.

But this wasn’t the only scientific challenge to religion. During this era of broad scientific exploration some scientists began to evaluate the Bible based on new scientific teachings about history, archeology, and linguistics. What they found directly challenged long held views about the Bible, particularly regarding when it was written and by whom. (The famous scientist and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer was a prominent scholar in this area.) By the end of the 1800’s an increasing numbers of scientists were openly skeptical of, if not hostile to, religion. And in response many Christian denominations became hostile to science. A new strain to theology, Fundamentalism, argued that the Bible was literally true, every word of it written by God. The battle between science and this new fundamentalist view hit the headlines in the 1920’s with the Scopes “Monkey Trial” where a school teacher was tried for teaching evolution. By the early Twentieth Century the split between science and religion was largely complete.

But science was not purposefully hostile religion. Science simply pursued science, and in many cases made discovered that directly contradicted religious teachings. Scientists were not doing these things out of some animus towards religion, they were simply engaged in scientific inquiry. But many religious people didn’t see it that way and felt that it was the product of hostility. And so, since the 1920’s, many Conservative and Fundamentalist Christians became deeply hostile to science. I should note that the Catholic Church does not share this hostility, and has accepted the teachings of evolution.

The relation between political liberalism and religion did not devolve in quite the same way as the relation between science and religion. Well into the 1800’s, most political liberals were deeply faithful. But things began to change, as so much did, with the French Revolution. Religion was seen as justifying and supporting the old regime, and so political revolutionaries began to attack the Church as well as the state. As revolution spread across Europe in the 1840’s many took on an anti-religious tone because of the Church’s support for the existing order, and hostility to the demands of the reformers. Things soured considerably when Karl Marx called religion “the opiate of the masses,” there to keep the people in a stupor so that they don’t complain about their lot in life and challenge the existing order.

The hostility between religion and reform did not take the same tone, or follow the same path in the United States. In fact, most of the reform movements were driven by people of deep religious faith. Perhaps the most important example involves the fight to abolish slavery. The fight over abolition, however, marked the beginning of a turning point between religion and political liberalism. Most of the abolitionists were deeply religious and used scripture to oppose slavery, but many southern churches also used scripture to justify slavery. And so denominations were set against each other. Increasingly the opponents of change, those who wanted to stop or slow the growing movement for more liberty and autonomy, relied upon religious teaching to oppose these movements. Religion began to change from a source of liberation of the individual to an opponent of liberation. The opponents of abolition used scripture, as did opponents of women’s suffrage. This split became more pronounced over the years. In the 1950’s the Civil Rights movement was largely dominated by Black and Progressive Churches and church leaders. But there were many other prominent religious figures, particularly but not entirely in the South, who opposed civil rights. Martin Luther King’s seminal “Letter for a Birmingham Jail” was directly addressed to the leaders of many southern churches that opposed civil rights for African Americans.

But as liberation movements moved into personal liberty issues, like women’s rights, sexual freedom, and gay rights, the church increasingly became the opponent of expanding liberty. As more churches moved away from the expansion of liberty, liberals moved away from the church. And as conservatives Christians increasingly justified their policy positions on scripture, liberals became increasingly hostile to religion.

And here we are today. Science, and political liberals, are largely contemptuous of religion. And some of these liberals now even suggest that religion, in and of itself, is a bad thing. What they don’t seem to understand is that without religion, and more specifically without Christianity, they would not be here today.

This paradox cuts both ways. Many conservative Christians disdain science and liberalism without understanding that Christianity laid the foundation for both. And many liberals disparage Christianity without understanding the debt they owe it.