Sunday, 26 April 2015

I Was A Teenage Pharisee

I was going to call my book Wrestling With God. But it was just as I feared.  There have been countless books written, which already have that name.  So, I went with a parody of the 50s horror movie on the left.  There were movies called I Was A Teenage Vampire, I Was A Teenage Werewolf, I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, and no doubt many others as well.
     What I did was comb through this blog and pull out posts that were along themes of culture, upbringing, legalism, Phariseeism and that kind of thing, and assemble them into the skeleton of a book.  Then I "wrote around" that a bit. Then I got people to submit quotes, giving a number of voices on the subject who weren't all just me.  It's pretty cool. It's pretty long.  It's about finished. It's not too late for you to email me (wikkidperson AT hotmail DOT com) your responses to some of the questions I asked on this blog, for possible inclusion in my book, under a pseudonym, unless you ask me to use your real name.
     Here is one example of me taking what had been a blog post, and expanding upon it:

Pharisees and Christianese

Having read the bible, I increasingly found in my late teens, that I had been raised to be the modern Christian equivalent of the Pharisees.  Those people who Jesus sparred with so much in the New Testament.  The ones who wanted Jesus Christ dead. 
     I was a teenaged Pharisee. It was a vile thing to know.  I could see that I was one of those superficially pious people.  Kids at school sometimes judged me a Pharisee, though they didn’t call it that, and I knew deep down that they were right. They saw me not going out to movies, not attending high school dances or celebrating Christmas and Halloween.  They knew there was no alcohol in our house. 
     And rather than being impressed by how virtuous we seemed, how adherent to an elevated standard of decency, they saw through it all, saw our true motives, and judged us to be religious showoffs.  People who were doing things to try to seem better than everyone.  People who were kind of cold and weird and mean inside, but outwardly rather polite.  Certainly never swearing.  But not being warm and comfortable and inviting to be around, either.  Because of that weird religious thing we had going on.
     They were no fools.  That’s exactly what was going on.  A weird religious thing.  And God made it manifest in time.  By letting everything we’d built fall down.  By confusing our languages so we couldn’t even agree what anything was even called anymore, in our tower to Heaven. 
     I knew that Jesus, not church Christians, was supposed to be my example for how I ought to have been living.  I was supposed to be and do good.  Like Jesus.  But church Christians were frequently counting on me to not act like Jesus.  Were overtly telling me to quit it.  I’d read the gospels.  I had a pretty clear idea of who he was.  And he wasn’t just one thing.  And he was difficult a lot of the time.
I was talking with Ruth the other day, and she said how dumb she always found it when school passion (Easter) plays, or movies or whatever, depicted Jesus as what she calls "Valium Jesus."  With the blank face.  Even when being tortured and killed.  Impassive.  Maybe even smiling, a bit sadly.  I always tend to call him "Stoner Jesus."  You know?  People are afraid to imagine him with emotions, so he is just kind of...blank.
     But that’s not right.  The scriptures say he cried, they have him giving a number of challenging, wild, crazy-sounding speeches, they have him being scary enough to clear an entire marketplace worth of people and animals out of the temple at Jerusalem, they have him being sorrowful and feeling betrayed, and they have him expressing a lot of frustration generally. 
Often, in the gospels, Jesus is talking to Pharisees.  One thing that was pretty clear to me, is that he treated Pharisees differently from how he treated anyone else.  Focused on them repeatedly.  Was harsher both to and about them. In public.  No attempt to be quiet, gentle, kind or forgiving to those guys.  Now what was all that about?
     Jesus of Nazareth has become nowadays, for many people, little more than the patron saint of serenity, and meek, mild tolerance and kindness.  "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild" is how a lot of people need to see him.  Someone who said not to judge, who criticized no one, and wanted us to nice to everyone.  The god of Nice. A person who’d never make anyone reconsider anything.
     I think this weird view of the man Jesus all comes back to that "control" thing.  If Jesus of Nazareth was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” today, conventional modern Christian culture would tell him to cheer up, to rejoice, to get Prozac, to think on whatsoever things are good etc.  Sing an uplifting song.  If he was angry or frustrated or impatient, he'd be once again told that he'd lost control of his holiness and to go fix it.  A stiff regimen of church activities, helpful books, songs and propaganda would no doubt have been prescribed.  Because that darker emotional stuff’s gotta be controlled, right? You can’t just feel those feelings!
     If Jesus of Nazareth really was the Christ, God become human to show how it ought to be done, and he cried, and shouted, got angry, was harsh or rude, frustrated, impatient and outraged and stuff like that, then wouldn't that mean either:
     a) Jesus wasn't perfect
     b) all that emotional stuff didn't make him imperfect, though it doesn't sound terribly like controlling one's emotions?
As I've written before, this “gospels conundrum” has folks scrambling to argue that Jesus didn't really get angry or frustrated, or certainly didn't ever lose his temper with anyone. Or that because he was God, that this made wrath one of many things that only he could do, but that we, of course, can't. So we shouldn’t try to be like him, because we can’t. 
     Note that the latter view tidily removes the Christ from serving as any kind of role model for Christians. That it replaces a messiah with a minister. A crucified pariah with a certified pastor.[1]
     The fact is, by all accounts Jesus was continually challenging to most people.  And there was one group he seemed to keep coming back to, over and over again.  It wasn't the half-Jewish Samaritans (He even made one the "star" of a story).  He didn't rant and rave against the Romans who occupied Israel at that point.  (He even praised the faith of a Roman soldier.  Contrasted the soldier with how faithless he felt the Jews were.)  He didn’t rant about drunkenness and adultery.  Speak out and take a clear stance against gay people.  Denounce people who were shady with money. He didn’t rail against the government.  It wasn’t even the Sadducees, as much, who were the targets of his ire. 
     It was the Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite, at whom he took aim most often.  They got both barrels, over and over again.  There is no parable of the Good Pharisee.  And Saul of Tarsus had to stop being one and become a new person entirely, with a new name, before God got any use out of him.
     Jesus goes into Jerusalem, and in public places and in synagogues, quite unprovoked, warns the regular folk not to be like the Pharisees.  That they'd have to do better than the Pharisees.  That their faith, their relationship with God had to run deeper.  And he uses a word for them that he just might have been the first person to ever use in quite that way.  It's the word that in English is translated "hypocrite," though we use it differently than Jesus did.
     In Greek it’s hupokrit├ęs.  Jesus is recorded using this word no less than seventeen times.  No one in the bible uses this word but Jesus.   The word means "actor."  Literally "someone performing under a mask."  Someone fake.  Lacking sincerity and substance.  Acting.  Plastic.  Putting on a show for the world. Inauthentic.  Not revealing his or her true nature and identity.
     It looks very like no one in human history is recorded using this word for any purpose other than to speak about literal theatrical performers. Jesus had a new use for the word. And in Matthew chapter 23, Jesus is recorded saying about the Pharisees:

Everything they do is done for people to see

He is depicted earlier in Matthew 6 warning his disciples,

Take care not to do your good deeds publicly or before men, in order to be seen by them

He was trying to teach a different, better way, a way that wasn’t religious, and had to do with the kingdom of heaven, rather than human systems.  And the first thing that’s got to go, if you’re serving heaven rather than human beings?  Giving thought to how to gain their notice and approval.  Limiting your choices in case “people” might not understand, and “they” fail to think well of you.[2]
     I think it's safe to say that, along with "whitewashed sepulchres," bowls washed only on the outside but dirty inside, and "offspring of vipers," that this word hupokrit├ęs shows what Jesus' problem with Pharisees was, and how to be one today.  Backstabbing but pious-seeming fakers, showing off their religious activities to an audience.  For status.  To hold onto an image of heightened decency.  What Dallas Willard calls “The Lure of Religious Honors.”
     The Pharisees had people literally blow trumpets in front of them when they were going to the synagogue to pray.  We say grace audibly, as a group, in Macdonalds, rather than each thanking God for his Big Mac discreetly.  (To “be a good testimony.”)  The Pharisees marked up their faces to indicate that they were fasting from food.  We fasted from television and music all year long, every year, and everyone knew it.  We were terrified to walk past the front of a movie theatre, for fear someone might think we’d been inside it.  The Pharisees made a show of donating money to charity. We’ve got magnets on our fridges, and eye-catching t-shirts and bumper stickers which leave no one in any doubt about the fact that we support a cause, financially.
     It’s a hard habit to break.  Step one is becoming the sort of person who is no longer impressed with it.  Who is no longer accustomed to viewing it as normal and proper and good.  You can never control it with rules, of course.  You have to do something else instead, is all.  Follow a different path. Take your heart out of what is mainly a performance.  The lack of applause won’t be able to hurt you any more than the presence of it will be able to make you feel smug.  Do stuff for God only and see how you like that.  Pursue discretion about spiritual intimacy, and practice private good. 
    Think about how you use the Internet and social media. See how deep the satisfaction you might get out out of anything that is self-promotion as to “Christian things” really goes.  See if maybe you want something deeper.  Notice when you’re getting “likes” and supportive comments for religious activity you’ve “shared.” Notice what’s going on in your heart regarding it until you don’t feel so “into” it anymore. Until you don’t like yourself when you’re liking likes for liking “Christian stuff.”  And then do something different. See what that’s like.
     Quietly collect pledges to do a marathon run to raise money for cystic fibrosis research.  Then do the run.  And don’t tell anyone.  Don’t breathe a word of it to Facebook, Twitter or any of that.  Don’t spend the year afterward wearing a shirt that says “I Ran for Cystic Fibrosis!” Do it, but don’t announce or perform it.  Don’t raise awareness of what you’re doing and what kind of an awesome person you are to be humbled to take part in it.  Just do it, to get the money off to the people.
     Jesus did not “raise awareness” of the plight of sick people.  Everyone knows it sucks to be sick.  He either walked by them, or he helped them.  And when he healed them, he told them, quite often, not to tell anyone what he’d done. Who knows how many people were healed or helped, that never made it to the bible?
     So try making a difference without “raising awareness” of you, and see if there’s not something special going on.  Try it, not in order to follow a rule that says that advertising your charitable efforts is bad or wrong.  Try it, though, and see what you then know about yourself.  See if there’s something special in it. I can’t tell you.  It’s a “you” thing.

     I can only tell you what worked for me.  For me, every “Christian” thing I did, I was doing primarily because it had been made a rule.  A rule I was afraid of losing the trust and respect of my church culture if I broke.   So, the first thing I really seemed to have to do, was “break” that rule until it wasn’t a rule anymore in my heart.  I didn’t make a new rule, to break that rule.  I just faced my fear.  It wasn’t easy.
     In fact, my culture was a far bigger thing than I was, in my life.  Certainly a far bigger thing than God was.  So God simply took the trust and respect of my church culture away from me.  And that did the trick. 
     This finally freed me to do the thing itself because I wanted to do it, for God, and not because I was afraid of not doing it, and worried about the scorn of Brethren people.  I don’t know if He’ll do that with you.  I don’t know if you need to worry about all that or not.
     Performance isn’t bad.  It’s an art.  It’s a creative, expressive endeavour.  If you’re singing a song or acting in a play or doing a dance routine or scoring goals for an audience’s approval, do that.  Because it’s why you’re doing it, and there’s purity in that.  It’s people you’re trying to touch.  There might even be a benefit in competition.
     When it comes to spirituality and a walk with God and being transformed into the image of Christ, though?  Very different.  Because then it’s God Who you’re trying to touch.  And competition really doesn’t belong.  So maybe try both “audiences” to see the difference. God and men.
     Because it’s important.  Jesus never seemed to leave Pharisees alone.  Actually walked into Jerusalem on a few occasions and went into the temple or the synagogue and provoked an argument with the Pharisees.  Waited until they showed up before commencing, in one particular case.  Ignored his brothers’ advice to avoid them. 
     Why treat them differently than he was treating anyone else?  Why condemn rather than forgive them?

The Christ's Complaint
I don’t think it’s hard to tell what Jesus’ problem was with them.  It's clear that Jesus took exception to their venomous scheming and backbiting and treachery, in calling them "offspring of vipers." He asked them "why do you seek to kill me?" when they weren't admitting to it, even though they really were looking to have him executed.  This is very in keeping with the Old Testament, which speaks out against people who are underhanded, whose mouths are open pits, who oppress the vulnerable, who delight in the downfall of others, who lay nets for other people’s feet and whose own feet are "quick to shed blood."
     Next, Jesus uses the imagery of a tomb which is full of rotting bodies inside, but is painted gleaming white outside (along with the image of a bowl which is polished up bright and clear around the outside, but left filthy inside, where you’d pour your Cheerios).  This shows that he's looking on their hearts, rather than their lifestyles.  He's seeing people who are extremely pious-looking in their lifestyles and habits, but inside, they are twisted, decaying and dark.  If they were standing behind you, and you were doing anything good at all, they were apt to stick a knife in, to remove a competitor and better their status. 
     His only comment on their clothes is to disdain their attempts to look religious.  And he also disdains their need to sit in a special seat of honour in the synagogues.
     I think, just like today, in Jesus' time there were a whole lot of regular folks, who weren't terribly religious or terribly depraved, but who looked to the Pharisees and said, 

We average folks all do stuff we're not really supposed to.  We're not living quite how we should.  If we lived how we were supposed to, we'd be living like the Pharisees. They're hardcore.  Those guys are doing it right!

And Jesus wanted to warn everyone who would listen, that those guys were not doing it right, though they were clearly hardcore. People were supposed to get well inside, and get in touch with God and get the dented up, twisted, rusting parts of their psyches dealt with.  And they weren't ever going to succeed at that by letting Pharisees be "the religious ones" for them, nor by imitating those guys, and their focus on how upstanding they looked, and what others thought, rather than upon what was really good and would actually work.
     Jesus was there, walking the walk, telling the truth, helping people out, forgiving everyone, believing in people’s ability to turn their lives around to follow him, changing the world, and filling it up with virtue and worth.
     The Pharisees, by contrast, were going around looking religious and leaping at the chance to be the punishers of people caught looking less religious than they. Judging others makes it clear that you are the dominant, empowered, superior person.  They were worrying about being publicly seen to be giving money to charity, yearning to be famous for going to synagogue and praying a lot and looking pious and stoning people and so on. I think the response of Jesus to this can only be characterized as “disgusted,” if his choice of imagery is any indication. Poisonous snakes.  Tombs filled with putrefaction.  Bowls smeared with filth inside.
     So the Pharisees, publicly shown up by Jesus, plotted to get him killed, those sons of vipers.  Those vindictive, censoring, repressing, image-conscious hearts didn't get light shone into them and truth spoken into them either.  They worked to get rid of Jesus, to silence his ideas.  For good, they thought.  (Didn't quite work out that way).

[1] I associate this dismissal of Jesus Christ as a model for Christian social behaviour with the dismissal of all manner of things he said, as “for the Jews” or “for after the Rapture” and so on.  Dealing with them mainly by dismissing them.
[2] I think it’s safe to say that we need to rethink posed “I’m praying!” and “I’m reading the bible!” and “I’m feeding hungry children!” and “I’m teaching Christians!” action photographs and videos.  And announcing on the Internet that we’re doing these things, and claiming it is our right to express/show off our piety/Christianity in so doing.  That we’re just humbly seeking to inspire others by “being a good testimony” (to our own piety).  You could never stop others from doing this by making rules. But you could be doing something entirely different than this, yourself.