Sun Ra - Column for 7/30

The Devil in the Details

I just got back from Maryland today; my fiance and I were out there house-hunting. We think we were successful, inasmuch as we found a place we liked, filled out the requisite forms, and were assured that we were at the top of the list. So as long as my credit report doesn't have any non-payments to Dutch child pornographers or pending punitive damages awarded to prior landlords for emotional cruelty, we should get the place. No, it shouldn't include any of those things, but I understand that there are malevolent hackers out there. Anyways, I hope we get it. We move at the end of August regardless, and I hear the area under the Woodrow Wilson bridge is already pretty heavily tenanted. And I don't think I have sheets that match cardboard. What would Julia say?

Anywhoo, although I brought plenty of reading material on the trip, I found myself yet again flipping through the Gideon Bible in the hotel room. The Old Testament, of course - all the cool stuff is in the Old Testament. It's the part with the sex, the violence, the car chases. It makes for great reading out loud, at least as far as I am concerned. Frankly, I'd pay a lot to have the Old Testament as a book on tape read by James Earl Jones. My knowledge of contemporary music would disappear like a three-hawker off of the back of a moving pickup truck. (1)

Pulp Fiction briefly revealed the power of Old Testament expostulation to the general public, choosing the raw ranting power of the Book of Ezekiel to underline the gun-wielding authority of the thuggish Jules Winnfield. Ezekiel was a great choice - you can't pick a verse in Ezekiel that, read properly, doesn't lead to more spittle emitting than a Hitler Impersonator convention. Ezekial, however, is by no means alone in its power quotability.

On the hunt for power quotes before I fell asleep, I found the following gem:
Deuteronomy 32:
See now that I, even I, am He; and there is no god besides Me;
I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of My hand.
40 For I lift up My hand to heaven, and say, I live for ever.
41 If I whet My glittering sword, and My hand takes hold on judgement, I will render vengeance unto Mine enemies, and will requite them that hate Me.
42 I will make My arrows drunk with blood, and My sword shall devour flesh, with the blood of the slain and of the captives, from the long-haired heads of the enemy.

Powerful, eh? That's God, saying that. Well, okay, it's not - it's Moses predicting what God will say to the Israelites once their enemies are vanquished. But Moses would know what God would say. I mean, if anyone would.

It's quite a statement. It has the wonderfully powerful language that the Bible is so good at ("and My hand takes hold on judgement"). It also indicates rather blatantly that God is quite happy to be violent and vengeful. Making His arrows "drunk with blood" is picturesque but not exactly kind and loving.

I'm going to keep arcing off on a tangent, here, and observe that, frankly, I'm confused why the Old Testament is in the Bible at all. At best it should be a backup text, for historical reference. Jesus' message contradicts something like seventy-five percent of the Old Testament. Is it "an eye for an eye", or is it "turn the other cheek"?

What I tend to see as the fundamental tenets of Christianity (and I am speaking as a lifelong agnostic from a long line of agnostics), rooted in the New Testament, are very much at odds with the Old Testament. Frankly, Christianity, if taken at face value, is a creed which espouses denial of the most basic human impulses for power, for property, and especially for wrath and vengeance. It's admirable in an idealistic sort of way.

Whereas the Old Testament is all about anger and revenge. And particularly with regard to God Himself. Just look at that single excerpt above. The most petty things can stir Him to wrath and really ridiculous demands for placation. He evinces the sort of behavior you might expect Rush Limbaugh to evince if he were a deity.

And, sadly, the history of Christianity has largely gone with the low road. There are a number of exceptions, such as the Quakers, but for a religion whose creator embraced pacifism and the denial of the urge to hurt and to destroy, the societies which have enshrined that religion over the last two millenia have by and large been anything but tolerant. We just got back from Spain, and let me tell you, the Christians under Muslim rule fared quantum levels better than the Muslims under Christian rule. For instance, they were allowed to live. Who put the exception in "love thy neighbor"?

Which is not a condemnation of Christianity, merely of a great many of its so-called practitioners. In fact, I tend to believe that it is the (historically) very odd values which Christ espoused that have lead to the liberal values we hold in modern Western society. The printing press let people of all classes see what previously only the clergy had been priviledged to read. The wealth from the rape of the new world allowed for the leisure which birthed the Age of Reason, when the best minds of several generations took the (really at odds with the natural world) premises in the New Testament and refined them through the lens of logical thought into the rather loose Christian Deism of the American founding fathers and their contemporaries the world over.

I mean, why is slavery wrong? Why do unto others as you would have them do unto you - they aren't you. What on Earth is wrong with the death penalty or the idea of women as property? Where did we get the incredibly counter-intuitive idea that all men are created equal?

Okay, that opened up the bore too much. I can hear you replying in your minds even now. But I've got the soapbox here, so just pipe back down.

The values that our society holds today, even the fractious ones, are a result of millions of people thinking and writing and interacting over centuries. I don't think, however, that it is too strong to observe that the Bible was a fundamental influence on all of these people, one way or another. And that the fundamental principles we still adhere to today draw as much if not more on the tenets espoused therein as on anything else, be it ancient Greek philosophers or nineteenth-century European academics.

You are free to disagree. My actual point was, somewhere back there, that the Old and the New Testaments are fundamentally at odds with each other. The Old Testament espouses human behavior at its obvious. Other people just don't count. (Read the book of Joshua, and count how many cities the Israelites butcher man, woman, and child in the process of taking the land that the Lord "gave" them. If you want a quick fix, start at verse 28.) Behavior in the Old Testament obeys the law of the jungle.

But that carpenter from Nazareth came up with something else. The way to run the world, he said, was to resist those urges. To do things the hard way. To not hurt people even if you wanted to - especially if you wanted to. It totally contradicts the behavior of all the books before. Frankly, it looks a lot like "Damn, dad, what the hell have you been teaching these people?"

Okay, enough pontification. I'm sure I'll come up with something witty and flippant for next week. But I would ask you to remember, if you are a knee-jerk Christian basher, that the core of what Jesus espoused is the tolerance that is the only foundation for a society such as ours. And, if you are one of those Christians who feel that gays, or blacks, or communists or left-handed people (well, okay, lefties *are* evil) need to be run out on a rail, preferably a flaming one, I'd advise you to set yourself aside some reading time.

But from the New Testament this time, okay?

1) Loogie Reference

Columns by Sun Ra