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Sigh. Christians.

Andrew Sullivan has been thinking about Christianity lately – what’s happening to it on a large scale.  I don’t think he’s doing a great job expressing himself on this topic, and I think he is aware of this.  I think he’s fighting the good fight, but something about it is daunting and indeed depressing.

For confirmation of this all you need to do is read through the comments on his piece.  This is true for all internet comments of course, which generally are depressing.

One general observation is that religious people – myself included – very quickly get bogged down in details.  The phenomenon is so large, and so complex, and so personal, that the number of details to get bogged down in is nearly infinite.

A second problem is language.  People take language so seriously, and they use it so confidently.  I know I need to write about this in some kind of focused way, but I am convinced, from real intimacy with ancient languages and ancient ways of thinking, that the following words are alien to the Gospels and would be very difficult to express in the koine Greek of the early Christians: sin, repentance, church, confession, miracle, authority, Bible, “Person” (as in “One God three persons”), morality, and soul.  I could probably find or think of more, but these alone are a significant list.  People speak so confidently about these terms as Christian terms.  It may be true that there is no way to say “sin” in koine in any way that doesn’t simply mean “mistake,” but nowadays I’m tempted, like lots of others, to just give up and let the ignorants win.  They may not even bother learning to read the actual Scripture – for the obvious reason, that it’s not actually important to them – but still it’s tempting to cede the floor, as always, to the people who make the most noise and have the greatest numbers.

But the first thing I’d recommend for a “whither Christianity” action plan would be: learn Greek.  Laugh any preacher off the stage who literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Another general point: when explaining the Gospel, try translating what you have to say into koine, and then translating it back into English.  If the message gets utterly scrambled by passing through the language of the early Gospel, it may not be the same message as the Gospel.  I’m not saying that we can’t innovate.  I’m just saying that a process like this may introduce a little more awareness of where the seams (and gaps) are between what is personal, cultural, and Gospel.


  1. mattw

    For those with a passion for semantics, your suggestion is useful. For the rest of the world the suggestion is ridiculous on its face.

    First, it’s should be pretty clear by now that religion’s strength and purpose is not as a systematic philosophy. It’s the image. The ritual. The sound. When I pass a black church in Brooklyn and hear the sound coming out, or when I smell the incense or see the intricate designs the Catholics make with palms here in Ridgewood, I get a shiver, and a moment of communion. The last thing on my mind is “Too bad these idiots don’t know Greek”, or whether “sin” really ought to be “mistake”.

    The attempt to distill hard meanings from scripture is an attempt to equate religion to philosophy, and is thereby a fool’s errand. As science, religion will forever be less accurate actual science. As philosophy, it will always be less precise than actual philosophy. Because precision and accuracy are utterly beside the point. The point is the image, the metaphor, the myth.

    It’s worth mentioning that besides being ridiculous, your suggestion is kind of offensive. Think about it: you’re saying that virtually every preacher in the world– including those who minister to the sick, those who sacrifice their lives for others– ought to be laughed off the stage. It’s also worth mentioning that the preacher by the name of Jesus of Nazareth did not speak Greek, and wasn’t even acquainted with the Gospels, but I’d say he was one of the most successful and respected Christian evangelists of all time.

    Posted on 05-Apr-12 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  2. Matt, you’re correct, and I agree with you. These are the words of frustration. Like, for instance, frustration with Rod Dreher:

    “He offers forgiveness, if we repent. The key, though, is repentance. If we love Him, we will keep his commandments. He forgives, but we must repent. Why repent if you don’t believe you’ve sinned in the first place?”

    This is his experience, fair enough, but he’s claiming the mantle of Christianity here and saying that Andrew Sullivan has no right to this mantle. And yet the stuff he says is every bit as modern and un-Gospel as Sullivan.

    Image and myth is the strength of religion, you are correct. They are the strength because they are beyond words and semantics. But images can be more or less compatible with a set of ideas as well. The images will always be broader and more inclusive, but the ideas and reasoning are pretty important as well. And yet the foundation of the reasoning is generally ignorance of what the reasoning is supposedly based on. This, in a line of reasoning, is not admirable.

    Posted on 05-Apr-12 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  3. Oh, and on Jesus and Greek – again, dumb religious people like myself nitpicking details – traveling around Nazareth and Galilee, seeing the near-immersion of Nazareth in the Greek-speaking Decapolis that was just a few miles away, knowing that the Greeks took over Israel a good 300 years before Jesus and their language was the main language of science and education as well as law and commerce in the entire region makes the percentages pretty good that Jesus knew Greek. But of course reasoning from percentages is not applicable to individual instances. The short answer of course is that we don’t know.

    But this is nitpicking – Matt you are correct in saying it’s not crucial, especially not for Jesus. For later people who supposedly take him seriously, though, I do recommend actually making an attempt to get some kind of factual knowledge about Jesus.

    Posted on 05-Apr-12 at 5:13 pm | Permalink
  4. mattw

    John, I hear ya. But here’s the thing: we don’t know much about Jesus, in actuality, which is *why* he remains a strong image. We can project our own ideas and emotions onto his mythology. What Jesus meant is a-contextual no matter how you look at it: if he’s God, then surely he wouldn’t allow himself to be misunderstood through matters of linguistics. If he isn’t God, then he’s essentially a literary character.

    And here we come to the fundamental disagreement: you are by choice placing more emphasis on understanding the old than re-imagining and creating the new. It’s pointless. You will not out-Dante Dante. You will not out-Augustine Augustine. I think we should embrace the syncretism. After a while, all that will be left is the essential. In fact, the scriptures themselves are syncretic. They are by no means first-hand accounts, and don’t give any sort of coherent message when taken as a whole.

    If I can rephrase that: we need imagination, not nitpickery. Nitpickery is consigning the Christian tradition to death. Imagination may give it life again. Just like in the Neverending Story:

    The idea is that the experiences of others in reflected in our own thoughts and experiences, and we serve as carriers of these ideas.

    In the end, the meanings of the words will fade away anyway. No matter what.

    Posted on 06-Apr-12 at 3:48 pm | Permalink