Caveat and such: I have been sitting on this article for over six weeks because I wanted it to preface the new book I’m beginning next week that uses the fictional account of a pastor to examine the pivotal role of religion in the 1970s. So, to some degree, this is an enticement to excite you to read the next 20 weeks after this. Also, you need to know that the emotional hurt resulting from how the Christian Church has treated me colors both my attitude and perspective in writing. Normally, I at least attempt to mask the worst of my bias but I am unable to do so in this matter. For that, I would almost apologize except that victims don’t need to be the ones apologizing, do they?  Nonetheless, I accept that I have no objectivity as I write this and that it may be offensive to some. I do apologize for any undeserved offense.

“You are no longer welcome to worship with this congregation.”

The first time I heard those words or something to the same effect, they stung to my very soul. I grew up in church. My father was the pastor. For the greater majority of my youth, it was generally assumed that I would, in some form or fashion, follow in his footsteps. I was prepped. I was groomed. I was even allowed to take a seminary homiletics course when I was 15 (I made a B, which was better than what Poppa made in the same course). 

Then, there was a left turn. And another left turn. Without any direct intention, I was suddenly at odds with the very body that had raised me. I wasn’t welcome.

For a while, changing denominations helped. No one said anything when my pictures, of which I was quite proud, appeared in a publication with an article that made liberal use of the word “fuck.” I thought, for a moment, I had found a place where God and I could be cool together. That didn’t last, though, and eventually, I received that letter stating, “We feel it would be to everyone’s benefit if you worshipped elsewhere.”

While it was easy enough for the Church to walk away from me, it wasn’t so simple for me to walk away from them. Church was what I knew. Church was the core of my foundation. I kept trying, but the problem kept repeating itself. Either there was no substance to the congregation’s beliefs, which drives me nuts, or they felt the need to exclude people like me, people whose occupations are sometimes difficult to explain, work that many seem to think results in a lifestyle that is largely immoral. So, the letters kept coming.

“Your continued presence makes some members of our congregation uncomfortable ….”

“Public knowledge of your published works makes it difficult for some to worship alongside you ….”

“As a part of the body of Christ, we cannot associate with someone who is unapologetic for such blatant sin ….”

That last one didn’t just hurt, it made me angry. I challenged them to tell me, book, chapter, and verse any scripture defining my work as sinful. I never received an answer.

Eventually, I took the hint and walked away completely. On my own, I still kept some practices, privately. The music, to this day, still speaks to me. A running joke has been that I am most likely to be listening to religious music, specifically, the hymns and gospel songs of my youth, when I’m editing nude photos. Don’t ask me to explain why I have such a strange habit; it just feels right and reduces stress. 

Once, about ten years or so ago, my love for the music sent me to an Episcopal church across the street from where I was living. It was Easter and I had hope that the music might bring a sense of peace. The sign outside said service started at 11: 00 AM, so I wandered over about 10:45 only to discover that, because of the special day, the service had started early, at 10:00. I got there just in time for the final prayer. I took the hint. God didn’t want me.

Fast forward to this past November. Several churches in town have pipe organs of considerable rank. One, in particular, is especially notable and I harbored the fantasy that perhaps I could slip into a service, sit in the back of the sanctuary, enjoy the music and then leave without bothering anyone. The congregation has a reputation for being inclusive of my LGBTQ+ friends, so certainly it wouldn’t hurt for me to just sit and listen.

Once burned, twice shy, though, I found the church’s service streamed online and watched for a couple of weeks. I wanted to be sure that their reputation was one put into practice and that the message and style of the homily were not going to be counter to my reason for attending. I watched for a couple of weeks and in the homily of the second week, the pastor made a reference that reminded me of an experience Poppa once had. Feeling dramatically overconfident, I wrote the pastor, via email, relating Poppa’s experience. He returned the email with a kind and appreciative message. So far, so good. 

I went to acknowledge having received his message, though, and it all fell apart. When I hit “send” on the email, it immediately bounced back. Being rather surprised, and giving the pastor the benefit of the doubt, my first response was to check the email address to which I had replied. I had contacted the pastor via a link on the church’s website so perhaps he had replied using an email program that masked his address, making direct replies impossible. I checked and found the email address was correct.

The thing about returned email is that there is almost always a reason given somewhere in the body of the bounced message. Sometimes that reason can be difficult to find, but it’s almost always there and this was no exception. Scrolling down, toward the bottom, I found the reason my email had been rejected. “This email address is blocked due to offensive content.”

Offensive content? All I had said was, “Thank you for your kind response.” How was that offensive? The message made no sense.

I then thought that, perhaps, I had dropped an F-bomb in my original message without realizing it. That happens often enough in my speech that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. I checked. Nope, no F-bombs. I was baffled.

I read over my original message again, finding nothing offensive. Then, again, a third time, because surely I was missing something. I had to be. Finally, on the fourth read, all the way to the bottom of my email, I found the culprit. My automated signature, which Gmail adds on without me even thinking about it, includes a link to my websites. Not just this one, which I consider to only be humorously offensive, but that other one, the photography site, which was, on that particular week, sporting a set of nudes from my Experimental Series, right smack at the top of the home page. 

The reason for the block seemed clear. Whether the pastor had clicked the link personally, or if their systems are advanced enough to send a spider or bot to check the content, one way or the other the decision had been made to block me from contacting the pastor any further. There would be no attending a worship service, no listening to that magnificent organ on the first Sunday of Advent, no association of any kind. Perhaps I’m petty, but if they were going to reject my email, I wasn’t going to give them the opportunity to reject me, too.

I closed the email, expressed some frustration to Kat, and then, after she left for the salon, sat in my office chair and cried. All I had wanted was to sit in the back and listen to that magnificent instrument. I wasn’t going to socialize. I wasn’t going to sing. I wasn’t going to take communion. I just wanted to listen.

Separating Sheep From Goats

I really shouldn’t be surprised by my frustrating outcome, should I? After all, exclusivity and division are core tenets not only of Christianity but every major religion. No matter where one looks, there are “chosen people,” or those “favored by [insert deity name here].” Religious belief banks heavily on how following a specific belief system that, a) makes one different from everyone else, and b) results in preferential treatment no one else gets. While specific details may differ, the primary draw is that those who believe are rewarded while those who don’t are severely punished. 

For millennia, that concept of reward vs. punishment, believe or die, has fueled infinite wars, crusades, inquisitions, political coups, and murder without the sponsoring institutions ever being held responsible for their endless litany of crimes. How could they? No religion recognizes any authority as being more powerful than they and governments have learned that it is best to not challenge them. With no one holding them responsible, save for the theoretical deity who never seems to be directly involved, religions have been given free rein to do whatever they please without consequence. 

Within the Christian belief system, which is my primary reference point, the alleged need for a division between “sinners” and “saints” is codified in scripture such as 25:32-46, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. For those not immediately familiar with the passage, here it is in a popular translation:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 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.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

The division is rather blatant and many authoritative leaders stop reading with verse 33. They make the argument that by creating a division between sheep and goats now they are merely following the example Jesus sets. There are multiple problems with that interpretation, however, and I feel rather bound to unpack a few of them. 

First up, let’s look at the phrase which the NIV translates as “All the nations.” The Gospel according to Matthew was written in Greek, so the original phrase is panta (πάντᾰ) ta ethne (ἔθνος). At least, that’s where most translators start. “Panta” is generally translated as whole, and “ethne,” in case you hadn’t already guessed, is the plural root from which we get the word ethnic. Think “whole ethnicities.” “Ethne” is the focus and where we first run into trouble. 

Ethne, in various declensions (this happens to be the third and most difficult to translate), appears 53 times in the approved protestant canon, almost always translated as “nations” or, in older translations, “gentiles” [source]. However, that translation is unique to Christian teaching. 

Secular use of the word more frequently translates the word to mean “company, band, host; of men [source].” This is an important differentiation because how one translates this word defines the scope of the audience. If one translates the word as “nations” then the message is global. If one uses what seems to be the more common translation of “company” then the following judgment is strictly internal and using the scripture for justification of any external division is wrong.

How does one decide which translation is more likely correct? Let’s look at some details surrounding both Matthew’s version of the Gospel and how it has changed interpretations over the centuries.

First, consider that there is no original copy of Matthew’s treatise. Get used to that because it’s true for the entire canon. The oldest reliable manuscripts, and the ones utilized for the most accurate translations, are compiled in the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, both of which date from the 4th-century ADE. There are some external fragments as well, with a fragment known as Papyrus 4 possibly being as old as the second century [source]. The problem we find within those fragments is they show a high number of variations with regional differences that, in some cases, dramatically alter the meaning and direction of the text, including all of Matthew 25. Such textual differences make is logically impossible to consider any of them authoritative because there is no way of knowing which is authentic. 

Second, there’s the fact that the global “nations” or “gentiles” translation doesn’t even appear in religious texts until the 18th century [source]. Prior to the 1700s, theologians looked at the Church as an extension of the specific assembly of believers that were following Jesus in the days prior to his crucifixion. Mind you, they still used the passage to justify violence, making the leap that an even more severe separation would occur at the final judgment. What is important to our conversation here is that there is ample evidence to suggest this was strictly an internal conversation, hence the surprise on the part of those labeled as “goats.” Those who are not already believers are not likely to be surprised by the exclusion because they have made the conscious decision to be excluded. 

What happens with this text, the glaring gap of logic between what was intended and how the Church chooses to interpret the text, is not unique to Christianity. Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu texts hold many of the same issues. Buddhism has an even greater problem as many of its oldest texts have been destroyed completely, making academic comparisons and verification all but impossible. 

I find it interesting that we have no problem arguing the authenticity of Homeric text, which are similarly written transcriptions of oral history [source] but people of faith get all upset and butt hurt when religious tomes are given the same academic treatment. For faith in something unseen to be authentic requires accuracy in the translation of its supporting documentation. Without that accuracy, faith is nothing more than a fool’s adherence to mythologies and fables. 

This leads me to question why I’m so upset at being excluded from what may well be an exercise in multigenerational misguidance? If there is no authenticity in the texts used to claim authority, then there can be no real exclusion. Yet, here I sit, not listening to an organ and feeling very excluded.

Changing the Rules

Religious institutions have a way of changing the rules as it suits them. Mind you, the text they claim supports the original stance never changes, but how they are interpreted does. This creates an interesting dichotomy. In many cases, the changes are necessary for the Church to keep up with modern times. Yet, if the deity of their scriptures is unchanging, and if the authenticity of the supporting scriptures is to be believed, the message needs to stay consistent regardless of changes to society.

Needs some examples? Okay, Let’s take church music up through the 14th century. At first, harmonies had to consist of open fourth and fifth intervals, creating the open sound one typically associates Gregorian chant. That rule was dropped by the 12th century but they kept a ban on the augmented 4th interval, or tritone, because of its dissonance. Even now, while there is no outright ban on the interval, it’s heavily discouraged. Why? Uhm … well … No, there’s no justification for that one. Just a papal edict.

Then, there was the matter of charging interest. There is substantial biblical support for not charging interest on loans, especially personal loans. This is a standard originally found in all the religions based on Abrahamic traditions. During the Middle Ages especially, this tradition was critical to building the economy.

However, capitalism started creeping in around the 16th century, and greed being something the Church has never fought well, it caved. Completely. Only the Islamic faith has remained consistent in not allowing interest to be charged within the regions it controls. 

Oh, and don’t forget the slavery issue. Abrahamic literature, again, is heavy with references to slavery. The Church embraced slavery heavily and some encouraged introducing the gospel to slaves because they came from “heathen” lands. The Roman Church, in an edict by Pope Leo XIII, banned slavery in 1888 after it had been banned by most Western countries.  [source] Protestant churches, especially those in the deep South, waited as late as the early 21st century to finally acknowledge their role in perpetuating the practice and declaring it a sin. To this day, some minor Christian denominations still think the use of slaves should be permitted.

The use of Latin in mass and who could/couldn’t interpret scripture was a HUGE issue for the church. So significant, in fact, that it is one of the primary factors in Martin Luther’s 95 theses that he nailed to the door in Wittenburg, ultimately leading to the start of the protestant movement (not his original intent)[source]. Arguments over this one continue to this day, but the Roman church officially changed its mind as part of the Vatican II Council (1962-65). Mind you, the Church was stretching to find scriptural support for this policy in the first place, but there are still a number of Catholic theologians who feel the vernacular is too tainted and sinful to be used in pronouncing the “word of God.”

I could go on practically forever on this topic. I mean, we haven’t even touched the whole Inquisition thing, the use of mortification (self-harm)[source], the concept of limbo, paying indulgences (still a thing for some stupid reason)[source], and pretty much every other social issue that has seemed to put the Church in conflict with ever-changing societal norms. 

While it’s easy enough to pick on some of the larger issues to affect the Church, I remember some of the problems Poppa had to address during his tenure as pastor. Segregation was a massive issue that may have cost him one pulpit in particular after he did a pulpit-swap with the pastor of a nearby black congregation. Women wearing miniskirts to church. Whether or not an acoustic guitar should be allowed in the sanctuary. Rock music (don’t even get me started on this one). Women wearing pants in church. And to this day, if you want to really raise the dander of fundamentalist Christians, raise the topic of women as pastors, then duck because they’re going to start throwing things immediately. The same goes for LGBTQ+ issues. 

My point is that the Church, and religious institutions in general, place themselves in judgment over social activities with dubious authority. On most contemporary issues, their antiquated and time-sensitive documentation doesn’t remotely come close to addressing challenges such as whether marriage is an absolute requisite, the definition of baptism and whether it’s actually important, the intermingling of differing religious traditions, or even the liturgy of the worship service. 

Religions have sought to establish themselves as social and political authorities, in contemporary terms, since the 4th century. One might argue that religious belief systems were significant even in more ancient governments of Persia, Syria, and Egypt as far back as 6,000 BCE. They claim the authority and then order their postulants and followers to acknowledge their authority or be deemed heretics, a rather dangerous label in certain circles. 

What we fail to realize is that no religion has any true authority outside the spiritual belief system it creates. The United States Constitution, and those of several other Western countries, goes as far as creating distinct barriers between religion and government, barriers that cause religious leaders to chafe because it limits their abuse of power.

Religions want to control every possible aspect of our lives. The ardent and faithful follower is instructed to follow the guidance of their particular deity from the moment they wake up until they once again close their eyes to sleep, and some religious dogmas even attempt to dictate that schedule. Yet, there is no true authority behind their presumption of power, even within their own sanctuaries.

I find it interesting that only Matthew records Jesus allegedly saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Actually, that’s not one hundred percent correct. The Gospel of Thomas also records that statement within the same conversation, but since the book of Thomas isn’t considered canon (more like a blog account versus a published news story), we’re not supposed to quote it. Still, it’s a verse that’s pushed down within the hierarchy of scriptural commands. 

The problem for the contemporary Christian Church is that Jesus, repeatedly, attempts to remove any and all barriers between himself and people seeking some form of spiritual benefit. He doesn’t care how, or if, you’re dressed. He doesn’t care what one’s occupation might be. He was friends with Matthew before he finally told him to quit the tax-collecting day job and become one of the 12. The change in occupation was not a requirement for the relationship. 

There are few checks and balances here and for many denominations, Southern Baptists high among them, there is no authoritative hierarchy at all—individual Churches and pastors are free to make up whatever rules they wish, interpret scripture however they wish, and there’s absolutely no one with the authority to tell them they’re wrong.

Guilt By Association

I have recounted to several an experience I had while preparing to hang artwork at a coffee shop some 12 years ago. I was there taking measurements when a group of three men sat down at a table in close enough proximity that it was impossible to not overhear their conversation and they didn’t seem to care (perhaps they should have). It quickly became apparent that this was a meeting of the senior ministerial staff from a nearby church. The topic at hand was what to do regarding a junior staff member assigned to work with teenagers. The problem was that the young minister had a MySpace account. Remember MySpace? It was really big 12 years ago. 

Anyway, this youth minister had friended someone on MySpace. In turn, upon investigation, completely obliterating any hint of privacy, the senior pastor had checked and this friend had another friend, someone with whom the youth minister had absolutely no acquaintance, who was disreputable because it appeared that he “used drugs.”

Whether the youth minister knew that his MySpace friend was also friends with the disreputable person was unknown. Whether the youth minister had completely vetted every last one of the second-tier friends of all his MySpace friends, an act that would have likely taken dozens if not hundreds of hours was also unknown. How the hell the senior pastor had time to go through his staff’s MySpace friends wasn’t a question anyone at the table dared ask. Yet, because of this one possible but completely unconfirmed relationship, the senior pastor was recommending that the youth pastor be terminated because, obviously, he was not making good choices among his friendships.

And the rest of the staff agreed.

How anyone, anywhere, is supposed to live under such tyrannical rule, or why they would want to, is beyond me. Further, the fact that anyone would give to someone else the authority to act in such a loathsome manner in the name of a universal deity astounds me. Yet, you do. Millions of you. The willingness to condemn one person for the actions of others is astounding. 

There is a curious passage in Christian scripture where one is given a look at the criticism leveled at Jesus by the “establishment,” The passage occurs, almost identically, in Luke’s gospel as well as Matthew’s, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them was manipulated after the fact. Let’s stick with Matthew since we started there. Back up to chapter 11 and we find that John the Baptist has sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The question itself is interesting and please excuse me for not completely dissecting the Greek again; it would take far too much time for this conversation. If we were to put it in the vernacular, though, it could be accurately translated as something along the lines of, “Dude, are you ‘the One’ [secret code for the Messiah] or are you just jackin’ around, man?”

The question infers a couple of things. 1. John’s followers, who are more “underground” and hidden now that their leader is in prison, need some verification. No one is publicly using “the M-word” because it’s not safe. Claiming to be Messiah in that theo-political environment was a good way to grab the cell next to John’s. 2. Folks who are emotionally committed to this rebellious movement are getting a bit impatient to know whether to back this dude or not. This isn’t a gentle request. There’s an implied demand here that Jesus needs to either step up or shut up.

Jesus tells them to report back to John what they’ve seen and heard, implying they’ve been trailing him for a while and he’s noticed. His dismissive, “I don’t want to get in the way,” was sufficient in getting them to leave, though there’s no way of knowing whether they were satisfied with that answer. 

What Jesus says after that, though, is somewhat confusing and one of the curious places where it appears words have been changed from the original text because anyway one reads the Greek it comes out confusing, leaving it open to the possibility that someone most likely decided to leave something out because the narrative takes a couple of odd leaps where it appears Jesus is babbling a bit, going from how great John is to referencing violence that was taking place. It is in the midst of this that there appears to be a massive gap in the text as Jesus goes from referencing John as “the Elijah that prophecies predicted,” to this odd and seemingly unrelated statement, starting in verse 16:

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Part of what’s going on here is that John the Baptist and Jesus were two distinctly different personalities. John was austere, the guy who wore animal skin and ate all-natural non-GMO food. Jesus, by comparison, had the appearance of being a bit of a party boy, eating at the most popular bodegas, throwing or attending parties every night, hanging out with known con men (tax collectors) and party girls (prostitutes). His statement that “wisdom is proved right by her deeds” appears, based on a variation in the Greek at that juncture, to be a quote of some other well-known literature of the time, though there are no direct Torah references to back that up. What he is essentially saying is “Judge me by what I do, not how you think I live.”

Religious leaders of the day, though, were highly invested in the exact same game of guilt by association that we see church leaders engaged in today. They thought they had a good reason. Jesus wasn’t the only person running around threatening to undermine what we now refer to as Judaism. There was a whole underground resistance movement at the time. When Jesus mentions violence in Matthew 11, he is likely referring to the Sicarii (סיקריים), a group of zealots who carried knives in their cloaks and would attack Romans or Roman sympathizers in public then blend in with the crowd to escape. While it’s easy to dismiss the Sicarii as a splinter group, they scared the shit out of the religious establishment who feared Rome was going to shut them all down violently.  At least one of Jesus’ inner-circle of 12, Simon “the Zealot,” was likely recruited from the Sicarii. It is within the realm of reason, given his actions based on his ultimate disappointment, that Judas had similar anti-Roman sympathies. 

Bartholemew (Nathaniel ben Talmai) was Hebrew nobility and, like Jesus himself, of the house of David, though through Absalom. Modern translation: rich kid with a Nationalistic interest. He likely wasn’t associated with the Sicarii as he had been in Armenia prior to joining up with Jesus, but he still had a vested interest and was likely of the dominant view that the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow the Romans. This was a strong belief within the Hebrew community and gave religious leaders more reason to worry. Should someone step up looking to be a military leader, the vast majority of Hebrews would fall in line behind them, putting the religious leaders at risk.

Jude and his brother James ben Alpheus (aka James the Younger) were probably the two most quiet of the 12, but they, also, were known as zealots. This gave the group of disciples a strong connection with the many underground movements actively resisting the Roman government.

Too little, in my opinion, is made of the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. That they made themselves wealthy by overcharging people is well-known. What is understated is the various ways in which this happened. Publicans, as they were called, were legal con artists if we look at their activities in contemporary terms. Generally speaking, they were not to be trusted, but crossing one of them could cost one everything they had, including their life. There are even apocryphal accounts of them trading “favors” for “protection” from the Romans. If there was ever a Hebrew form of the Mafia, it started among the Publicans. 

The remainder of Jesus’ “disciples” were fishermen, a trade handed down from generation to generation. These would have, for the most part, been big, burly men with massive muscles and gruff exterior. Think of them as bouncers or “enforcers.” Now, imagine them being the ones taking up the offering when Jesus finished speaking. A wee bit intimidating.

If we remove the Euro-racist filters imposed during the Renaissance, we come away with a much tougher and, for religious leaders, a more frightening and intimidating picture of Jesus and his disciples than one tends to get in Sunday School. Imagine how they must have felt when this group came to town. It hadn’t taken long for them to become popular. Where they gathered more often than not tended to have a party atmosphere, especially in the evenings after the crowds had gone away. Jesus was likely attractive, his body well-toned from working as a carpenter alongside Joseph, a dynamic personality who naturally drew people to him. In modern terms, he might have been like a night club promoter or DJ. 

Accompanying them was a group of women that the Church paints as “supporters of the ministry.” That assessment would be pure white-wash. Sure, they “took care of” the boys in the band, but in terms that were common to wealthy men of the period, they were fun. They kept the party lively after dark and it is completely unreasonable to think they didn’t provide snuggling services to those who desired such. Yes, there were among them some who had been prostitutes, but the “sin” of being a prostitute wasn’t having sex but making oneself available to whoever knocked on the door. By being part of a consistent and limited group, their sexual services were legitimized and no one at the time would have given that an extra thought. It was only their former occupations that raised eyebrows. 

When Jesus and his group came to town, it was a disruption in the status quo. People who tended to stay in the shadows were welcome. People who had their own conspiracy theories were welcome. People who were marginalized were welcome. 

If we look at this group in contemporary terms and I impose myself into the culture that surrounded them, I would be welcome, because who doesn’t like party pics? There would be pictures of Peter lying unconscious on a pile of pillows, his brother, Andrew, using makeup borrowed from one of the women to draw crude pictures on his face. There would be pictures of people dancing, laughing, and telling stories. Not everyone in those pictures would be completely dressed, either. Mary Magdelene, who by all accounts was quite attractive, would likely have posed for me. Peter’s wife, who accompanied the group often, would have wanted pictures of the two of them, constantly, possibly to the point of annoyance. Someone like me, whose occupation is making other people look good, would have been welcome in the tents and hotels and homes where Jesus and the group stayed!

I would not have been welcome in the synagogue among the religious leaders, though, and any association with this group of disruptors would have been enough for them to shun me for life. Jesus, those who followed him, and those who dared to act like him, were a threat to everything the religious leaders knew. My, how little has changed over 2,000 years!  [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]

Moral Sin Versus Social Sins

Within every society, there is a moral code that governs basic behavior. By and large, that code is universal though it is expressed in different ways. In Jewish and Christian traditions, there are the Laws of Moses or the Ten Commandments. Islam lists 12 sins that prevent one from going to “heaven,” but unlike Christianity, they have no concept of original sin, so as long as one manages to not violate the major sins, they’re good. [source] Hindu’s, similarly, divide their sins between the five mortal sins and the ten venial sins, as defined by the Dharma Shastras. They don’t use the term “sin,” though, and appropriation of that nomenclature doesn’t adequately address the relationship between wrong-doing and the religious context. [source] Regardless of how they are enumerated, their tenents are basically the same: Don’t kill, Don’t steal, Don’t lie, and Don’t claim something/someone is a deity who/what isn’t.

That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Apparently, though, it is too vague because every single religion has added a massive number of additional rules and laws on top of their base. The Jewish Mitzvot contains 613 additional laws and countless rabbinical rules and laws on top of that [source]. At least they bothered writing most of theirs down. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are subject to a regional or sectarian guessing game where maybe it’s okay here but it’s not okay there and some very bad names have been called on those who accept LGBTQ people or put women in positions of leadership. It’s all dizzying to try and nonsensical to try and keep up with all the variations and divinations.

What’s interesting, though, is how Jesus took all these fussings and musings and laws and reduced them down to two. A common rabbinical argument of the time was which commandment was the greatest. The question was asked as a trap to accuse Jesus of belonging to a sect of outliers. His response caught everyone off guard. Oddly enough, only Mark, in chapter 12, records Jesus saying:

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The simplicity is astounding. While I could easily write 30,000 words dissecting those two statements, the more simple version is more impactful. Love God. Love others. Love yourself. That’s it. No qualifiers. No caveats. He doesn’t limit it to Hebrews, he doesn’t exclude people of any given profession, he addresses no social distractions of any kind. Instead, Jesus lays it out there bare with no need or requirement for interpretation. Love God. Love others. Love yourself.

I have yet, in my nearly 60 years on this planet, encountered a religious body of any kind that embraced the complete openness of Jesus’ statement. None of them.

The reason is that we’re always wanting clarification, hence we devise social laws to “fill in the gaps,” assuming that we somehow know what the deity intended. Again, this happens in all religions, even the most pacifistic among them. As these social laws build up over time, they create an effective wall between the religious body and the deity they claim to worship. “You can’t be part of our group because …”

As a result, the alleged representative of the deity on earth,  the churches, temples, and synagogues that build high shrines, those bodies responsible for bringing people into fellowship, inviting people to the party, end up creating more barriers than access points, more doors locked than open, too many VIP lists and not enough general admission.

Casting First Stones

I’m running over 6,500 words already and I know your attention span is not that long so let me try to concatenate a few points into one. One of the most well-known and mistranslated passages in the Bible is John 8, 1-7. I’m not going to use the most familiar translation because it’s flat-out wrong. Here’s one that comes closer:

2 At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 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.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 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. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

While there’s a lot that one could unpack from that passage, including all the particulars of Mosaic Law and speculation over what Jesus wrote on the ground, what matters are two things. 1. He did not condone the woman’s behavior but defended her against the religious leadership anyway. 2. He made it clear that there is no ranking among sin—any violation creates separation from God that requires atonement. 

It is that last point that deserves considerable attention because, like the Pharisees standing in the temple court, there’s plenty of sin to go around. Look at the contemporary church. 

  • It’s been over 30 years since the abuse of children by priests was uncovered and yet it still continues and those responsible turn a blind eye. Protestant and Evangelical churches are just as bad but their lack of hierarchy makes it easier to hide.
  • Megachurches build multi-million dollar facilities in the midst of marginalized neighborhoods (because property values are lower) and then ignore the needs of the people who live there.
  • Church fraud exceeds what they spend on charitable causes [source].
  • Evangelicals are committing sin #1 by referring to the president as “the chosen one.”

Once again, I could continue for pages, but just one of those points brings home the emphasis that one sinner does not get to judge another. In defending the woman, he offered her acceptance, not rejection. Numerous apocryphal accounts and Roman church tradition hold that this woman was Mary Magdelene who, from that moment never left Jesus’ side (one wants to be extremely careful in accepting that tradition as truth). What if, after everyone had left, Jesus had said, “Look, your reputation proceeds you and we just can’t have you hanging around our group. You would be a distraction.” 

Which leads to my ultimate question: What am I doing that is so horribly wrong?

The answer lies in the first myth of Judeo-Christian tradition: Adam and Eve. The reference is Genesis 3:7 in the Christian Bible, but it occurs elsewhere in other religious traditions as well. The story goes that, upon eating the forbidden fruit, the first couple realizes they are naked and start looking for things with which to clothe themselves. God comes along and, much to the couple’s surprise notices that they’re not naked. Imagine trying to slip that one past a deity! He gets upset, but not because they’re naked. He’s upset because they were disobedient. Being naked has absolutely nothing to do with what God does next in kicking them out of the garden. Yes, the deity then kills an animal and uses its skin to cover them, but that was arguably to protect them from the elements, not hide their nudity. The late Southern Baptist pastor R. G. Lee identified this as the beginning of the bloodline through the Bible emphasizing that it was disobedience and nothing else that necessitated the shedding of blood right up to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Nudity? Not a big deal. Ever. Why? Because it’s not a big deal. Ever. Culturally, from the beginning of humanity, it has been a natural condition of life. The prophet Isaiah spent THREE YEARS walking around naked, in public. Why? “…as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush” (Isaiah 20:3). 

Like it or not, laws and rules against nudity have ZERO textual basis and non-sexualized social nudity was common until the 1870s, which is relatively recent given the expanse of human history. Only several years after the invention of the swimsuit did it become mandatory to actually wear them [source]. Christian missionaries then led the movement from that point forward, classifying nudity as a sin despite there being no biblical context for doing so [source].

Thanks to the strong influence of Victorian England, the concept spread quickly around the world and soon public nudity was banned everywhere the crown had any influence. This is why much of Europe still has few laws against nudity, mostly for health reasons, while the UK still holds tightly to a non-nude policy in public. Prudes. 

American evangelicals, however, always on the lookout for something else to make them more exclusive, embraced the laws against nudity in the name of modesty, pitting one social construct against another. Aided and abetted by some horrible misinterpretation of scripture, the lack of modesty came to have explicitly sexual overtones, completely ignoring that an abundance of unshared wealth is also immodest, as is wearing extravagant clothing and flying on private jets, things that evangelicals seem to have no problem doing. 

So, in the face of all this overwhelming hypocrisy, I find myself asking, “Tell me again why you blocked my email address? Why am I not welcome in your churches?”

Ultimately, the answer lies in the fact that I don’t need churches, synagogues, temples, or any other artificial construct to explore my own relationship with deity. The fact that I feel the need to chase after acceptance from such an entity is the greater shortcoming. 

Randy Newman, you know, the guy who wrote ToyStory’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” wrote a song called “That’s Why I Love Mankind.” It goes like this:

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases ‘round this desert
Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind

I recoil in horror for the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Randy Newman God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

I don’t need a sanctuary or a congregation or a great edifice to achieve whatever spiritual fulfillment is appropriate for any given moment. Neither do you. If we can’t find our Jesus or Muhammed or Krishna or Buddha or whatever on our own, chances are it doesn’t actually exist. We don’t need artificially constructed walls, we don’t need the confines of social construct telling us what is right or wrong. We know. That inherent morality shared across every religion is inherent within us; we have it when we are born. 

HOWEVER. It is difficult for me to explain, especially to those who have never heard, the power that a well-played pipe organ holds. Since the churches Poppa pastored were all small, we never had anything more than an electronic organ. While those can, under certain conditions, sound sufficient for small sanctuaries, they can’t match the way 60+ ranks of pipe consume the listener’s body, lifts them out of their seat, and fills them with music. The experience can be transcendental.

Unfortunately, organs of that nature are massively expensive and the bulk of them reside in churches who had the funding to match the instruments to great cathedrals. There are a limited number of 36- or 42-rank instruments still functioning in old theaters, leftover from the early 20th century, but for the most part if one wants to hear great organ music, one has to go to a church somewhere. I can listen to Spotify or watch YouTube videos all day but that is never going to replace the experience of actually being there in a grand sanctuary with a well-tuned organ.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled, after all this blathering-on I’ve done for the past 8,000 words, to give you some taste of what I miss. Charles-Marie Widor’s Fifth Symphony for Organ ends with a Toccata that has become rather famous. It is constructed of variations on a set of arpeggios traveling from F Major in fifths to C, then G, then D while the bass works its way down chromatically in a beautifully melodic manner. Arguably, only Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor is more well known and we could debate for weeks as to which is more powerful. 

Widor edited the piece several times so it can change slightly depending on who is playing and which version of the music they learned. While I’ve always enjoyed listening to Dr. Andre Lash performing the piece, the beauty of the Internet gives us the ability to hear it on the instrument for which it was written, the Cavaille-Coll Pipe Organ at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Here it is, played by that instrument’s titular organist, Philip Roth.

It pains me to no end that music like this is largely confined to institutions that might invite one in for a special performance with a paid ticket but would block that same person from regularly enjoying the litany of great music written for great instruments. This strikes me as an error equal to paid-admission-only museums that confiscate great works of art for viewing only by those whose pockets are sufficiently deep. Both acts are an immoral affront to humanity.

As I begin the new book next week, know that it experiences like these that color my perspective and opinions of memories of things that happened within the Church during the 1970s. The book, tentatively titled Pastors’ Conference, 1972, condenses into the story of a single year many of the things I saw and experienced as I accompanied my father to various events. The space of time allows me to view all that happened with a bit more objectivity, which in some instances means being disgusted by things that were passed over at the moment and sympathetic over moments when concerned actors lacked the power to stop certain disaster. Of course, we’re fictionalizing everything, changing all the names and places, altering descriptions, so that we’re not desecrating the memories of those beloved. Nonetheless, I hope you will find the story compelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pictures to edit. I’ll be putting in my earbuds and turning up Walton’s Crown Imperial March. Peace be with you.

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