Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Is it just me, or is the theology of the day just a bit topsy-turvy?

The partisans who are fighting defense in what they call the "war on Christmas" have an interesting view of the fight. Take Bill O'Reilly, who proclaims the glory of the season:

Rev. Tim Bumgardner: I think they should put a Nativity scene --- be American! Hey, celebrate Christmas --- people spend more money! Jesus makes people want to spend money!

O'Reilly: I agree. I'm with you.

while promising to visit horror on anyone who doesn't share his view. Buying gifts isn't enough; you have to recite his chosen shibboleths. Though you may not have to go to church; several of the large evangelical churches which are riding fat on the culture war won't be holding Sunday services. A morning with their new tchotchkes is apparently too much to ask these folks to sacrifice for their Lord. All of which represents, perhaps, a curious inversion of what an earlier age might have regarded as the spirit of the season.

But there are other curious inversions in this neck of the woods. These folks claim to support a literal reading of the Christian Bible. Which is a bit odd, because the figure they worship is recorded in that book as repeatedly speaking in parables, whose whole point is that they shouldn't be interpreted literally. But where it gets really odd is when they then go on to make assertions that are contradicted by the plain letter of the book. Like making flat assertions that this is the "last generation" before the return of Jesus, which involves (to put it charitably) fudging the famous injunction in the book that "No man knows the day and the hour". (They're only claiming to know the year, you see, so that's OK).

Then, there's their remarkably selective interpretation of Old Testament prohibitions: they take the penalties against gay sex very seriously, but take a somewhat more relaxed view of the stern prohibition against clothes made of more than one fiber type. Which is an attitude which (as has often been noted) seems to color some of their interpretation of the New Testament as well. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle," said Jesus, "than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God". And it's well recorded, as these things go, in three of the four synoptic gospels. This, in combination with numerous admonitions to help the poor and the weak, would seem to yield a somewhat different attitude toward social justice than reading the gospels themselves would seem to suggest.

Well, hey, they're literalists. They don't go in for interpretation. So maybe they think that the parable of the sheep and the goats was meant to refer to actual sheep and actual goats. (Although it literally does talk about "my brethren", which you could "literally" interpret to mean... oh, never mind). Besides, such concerns might not be foremost to their Jesus --- the avenger Jesus who appears, literally Deus ex Machina, at the end of the Left Behind books, not to redeem the sinners, but to spill their guts onto the ground and cast them into fire.

But the curious inversions just abound. Let's just look at our most highly placed evangelical, for a brief minute or two. This country, the greatest empire of its age, self-consciously modeled by its founders on Rome, is now being run by a figure who claims profound religious inspiration yet rarely goes to church, who defines strength by brute power, whose domestic programs feature abject neglect of the poor (most visibly after Katrina) and an emphasis on succor to the rich (in tax cut after tax cut), who has allowed a few low-level soldiers to take the fall for what seems to be systematic torture in his army (which has occured on numerous occasions and which may have ordered personally), who takes bizarre actions like pulling down trees in Iraqi farmers' groves for the apparent thrill of violating not only the Geneva Conventions ban on collective punishment, but a direct biblical injunction against doing exactly that.

It's almost as if we've fallen under the dominion of an anti-...

You fill in the blank.

The curious inversions extend as well to his style of following his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution: his response, when called on an obvious, pointless violation of black-letter law is to make obviously specious claims to have the authority to break the law, while demanding that the people who called him out be punished. But I'm perplexed at the sudden furor here. Habeas Corpus is in the constitution too, Dubya's violation of that has been every bit as blatant, the legal excuses only slightly less obviously specious, and the violation of civil and basic human rights far, far more severe. So why all the outrage over wiretaps? Alberto Gonzales is perplexed --- and for once, I must agree with the son of a bitch.