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Two months ago, on a Tuesday morning, I was driving to the gym. On the way in I listened – again – to an audio version of the book What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. (I had listened to it, repeatedly, on CDs from the local library, but then finally broke down and bought the complete 4-CD set. That’s because I plan to keep listening to it, over and over again, “into the future.”)
That long-ago morning I heard a favorite section of Wills’ book. It was about a favorite topic: Close-minded people who call themselves Christian, but have little or no concept of what The Faith is all about. Like what that great philosopher Johnny Cash once said:
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.
(See Johnny Cash – Man in black with lyrics – YouTube.) But getting back to What Jesus (Really) Meant. The section of the book that I really like talks about how some modern-day Christians selectively interpret the Bible to suit their own conservative political agenda.
Like the hateful claim that God hates fags!
Garry Wills provided a perfect answer to such haters. (Who are certainly not Christian. And that answer came at pages 34 and 35 of the 2006 Penguin Books edition.) Unfortunately Wills wasn’t sure of the source of the clever riposte. Then too it was quite a long passage, so I wasn’t crazy about having to type it all out myself. But fortunately I finally found a transcript that I could cut-and-paste into this post. It’s from It’s the Law, Kid – Jane Tawel.
The anonymous author – who Tawel quoted – first gave a tongue-in-cheek “thank you” to a man who cited Leviticus 18:22 as proof that homosexuality was a sin. But he was curious about some other passages from Exodus and Leviticus. Mostly he was curious about how the people who violated those passages should be killed.
In one example he cited Exodus 35:2, which says “Whoever does any work” on Sunday, the Sabbath, “is to be put to death.” Which led to the question: “Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?” Then came a question about Leviticus 24:10-16. (Blasphemer put to death.) “My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19,” as does his wife. (For wearing clothes made out of two different kinds of thread.) “He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot.” Which led to the question: Was it necessary to get the whole town together to stone them both to death? “Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair?”
Then came questions about social protocol. For example, he cited Leviticus 15:19-24, which prohibits any contact – “period” – with a woman during her menstrual period. “The problem is: how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.” (Indeed.) And finally, Exodus 21:7 allows a man to sell his daughter into slavery. “I would like to sell my daughter into slavery… In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?”
You can see the full set of tongue-in-cheek questions in the notes, but here’s the point. Many so-called Christians are guilty of selective perception. That’s the process by which “individuals perceive what they want to in media messages while ignoring opposing viewpoints.”
In other words, some so-called Christians use selective interpretation to promote an “earthly” political agenda. But Jesus was above politics, much like Johnny Cash, and much like Billy Graham became in his later years.* (So much so that some “conservative Christians” called him Antichrist. See for example BILLY GRAHAM: SERVANT OF CHRIST OR OF ANTICHRIST.)
Which is just another way of saying that “Christianity has been twisted and warped to such an extent that not even Jesus would recognize it now.” And the main reason Jesus wouldn’t recognize Christianity today – according to Wills and others (including Yours Truly) – is the way it’s been warped and perverted. So much so that it’s been used to promote so much hate.
But for Johnny Cash, Billy Graham and Garry Wills, Jesus was all about love. And that’s not to mention the Apostle Paul, who gave us 1st Corinthians 13:4-7….
The main theme of Wills’ book is that Jesus was “radical” in his love for all people. (Even – gasp – for liberals! And for that matter, even for those people who should know better but are a real pain in the ass.)
Wills noted that Jesus spent little time with the well-to-do, and seemed to prefer the company of whores, lepers and outcasts of all types. As Wills put it, Jesus “walks through social barriers and taboos as if they were cobwebs.” Which is pretty much the Christian love of Johnny Cash.
See Johnny Cash’s Religion and Political Views | Hollowverse, whose author wrote, “I like to think that Johnny was above politics and more about people and peace and happiness and cooperation.” Or as Cash’s daughter Rosanne said, her father “didn’t care where you stood politically.” He could “love all stripes, and that’s why all stripes claim him.” Even people in prison.
Which is a pretty radical proposition indeed. (Can you say great minds think alike?)
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Something (better) to look forward to…
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The upper image is courtesy of Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison – Image Results. Note that my original caption asked whether “a Conservative Christian would follow Matthew 25:36″ as Johnny Cash did at Folsom Prison. But to be a bit less confrontational I changed the wording to “Close-minded Christian,” since it is possible that some Conservative Christians are open-minded, while it is also possible that some Liberal Christians are close-minded.
And before I get into extensive notes further explaining the main text, the lower image is courtesy of wiki/Penitent_Magdalene_(Titian,_1565).
And note the full “God hates fags” link, Is there any truth to the ‘God hates fags’ slogan? Which noted in part that “the Bible tells us that those who pervert the Gospel and teach it falsely are ‘anathema’ which means ‘eternally condemned’ (Galatians 1:8-9). Jesus was called a ‘friend of sinners’ but He saved His words of condemnation for the religious leaders of Israel whose teaching was making it impossible for people to know, trust, and follow God (Matthew 23:1-36). If there’s anybody that God hates, it’s false teachers.” See also Westboro Baptist Church – Wikipedia, and Fred Phelps – Wikipedia.
Re: Billy Graham in his later years. See A Soldier of Christ – “and BEYOND!” From October 2018, based on my listening to the book-on-CD version of The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House. (Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.) I noted that Graham eventually grew in grace so much – as he got older – that he came to say that God loves all people – even Liberals. Which led some Fundamentalists to criticize him for his ecumenism, “even calling him ‘Antichrist.’”
The quote “Christianity has been twisted and warped” is from Nonfiction Book Review: What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills.
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At any rate, the “image results” photo atop the page came with an article, The REAL Story Behind Johnny Cash & Folsom Prison Blues. The link in the caption – Johnny Cash … at Folsom Prison – added this little bit of history:
In the midst of depression and a steep decline in his musical career, legendary country singer Johnny Cash arrives to play for inmates at California’s Folsom Prison on January 13, 1968. The concert and the subsequent live album launched him back into the charts and re-defined his career.
So maybe that “Jesus Guy” knew what He was talking about. (In other words, “Maybe there’s an object lesson there?”) As to the caption itself, the full text of Matthew 25:36 reads, “I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Also Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those in prison as if you were bound with them, and those who are mistreated as if you were suffering with them,” and Matthew 25:39-40, “Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.’”
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And here’s more information on Will’s book and that “favorite section. See What Jesus Meant: Wills, Garry: 9780143038801: Amazon.com: Books. See also Garry Wills – Wikipedia, about the “American author, journalist, and historian [b. 1934], specializing in American history, politics, and religion, especially the history of the Catholic Church. He won a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1993.”
The following is the full section, courtesy of the “Tawel” blog, which began by saying not to read the Bible if you don’t want to contemplate mystery, confront hypocrisy or get a sense of “God’s humorous humbling of us.” Ms. Tawel then provided a complete transcript:
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s law. I have learned a great deal from you, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can. When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination – end of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some other elements of God’s laws and how to follow them.
- Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?
- I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
- I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness (Lev. 15:19-24). The problem is: how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
- When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor to the Lord (Lev. 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?
- I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?
- A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Lev. 11;10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there degrees of abomination?
- Leviticus 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?
- Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Leviticus 19:27. How should they die?
- I know from Leviticus 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?
- My uncle has a farm. He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton-polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them (Lev. 24:10-16)? Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws (Lev. 20:14)?
I know you have studied these things extensively and thus enjoy considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging (34-35 Garry Wills, What Jesus Meant. New York: Penguin, 2006).