Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Young Messiah: A Film Rendering Religious Meaning as Distinct

The 2016 film, The Young Messiah, admits to being an imagined year in Jesus’s childhood. To be sure, history and even Biblical passages are drawn on, but the genre of the film is fiction. This label seems too harsh, for Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, mentions Jesus, “the so-called Christ, and his brother James." Josephus was not a believer; he did not believe that Jesus Christ was (or is) the Son of God. So, given Josephus's intent to record history rather than write scriptures or, more specifically, faith narratives, scholars can conclude that at least one historical mention is made of Jesus and his brother as having lived. To be sure, the historian could have been wrong; he may have heard secondhand that Jesus and James did exist, and the teller might have had an agenda unknown to the historian. Even so, Jesus and James are mentioned in one historical account, just as the Hebrews having been in Egypt is mentioned on a historical tablet. We must be careful to distinguish these records from that which is in faith narratives concerning Jesus and Moses. We simply do not know whether that material has any bearing on the historical, as no historical accounts are (as of yet) extant. 
Very little from Jesus's childhood is in the Gospels, so the screenwriter had to use imagination to fill out the gaping holes. Crucially, they were filled with content consistent with, though not in, the Gospels. In other words, the film contains religious meanfulness that is admittedly from imagination in large part, and yet that meaningfulness is strong even so, and can be readily associated with Jesus's ministry. In other words, the film enables the viewer to see that religious meaningfulness need not be from faith narratives directly, and, furthermore, that they need not be conflated with historical accounts--something even the writers of faith and of history would not have done. How, then, can we override their intents, which are clear from their writings. Even today, theologians, for instance, do not regard themselves as historians, and vice versa.
In short, a distinctive religious meaningfulness can be separated from the domain of history without any loss, and history need not be used as a crutch. Human imagine, so informed as it will by both, can produce valid religious meaning. 

The full essay is at "The Young Messiah." 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Rosemary's Baby: The Supernatural in Religion

The film narrative centers on Satan impregnating Rosemary, a married woman in New York City. According to Roman Polanski, the film’s director, the decisive point is actually that neither Rosemary in the film nor the film’s viewers can know whether it was the devil who impregnated her. Beyond the more matter of being able to distinguish a psychosis from a more “objective” or external religious event, the importance of the supernatural to religion is also, albeit subtly, in play, according to Polanski.

The full essay is at "Rosemary's Baby."

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Gospel According to Dr. Goebbels

“What does Christianity mean today? National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius capable of uprooting outmoded religious practices and putting new ones in their place. We lack traditions and ritual. One day soon, National Socialism will be the religion of all Germans. My party is my church, and I believe I serve the Lord best if I do his will and liberate my oppressed people from the fetters of slavery. That is my gospel.”  From his diary on Oct 16, 1928.[1]

Goebbels first asks about Christianity in his day. The main problem is its outmoded rituals, so a religious reformer is needed to put new ones in their place. National Socialism, Goebbels’ “church,” has the potential to become the latest incarnation or reform of Christianity in his day if traditions and rituals could only be added by a “religious genius,” or reformer.
In referring to “the Lord,” Goebbels reveals himself as a theist and willing to do God’s will. Although Goebbels does not mention Jesus explicitly, liberation theology is clearly evinced in Goebbels’ interpretation of God’s will as liberating the oppressed (German) people from slavery. The sort he had in mind is most likely economic, for the World War I reparations being paid at the time by Germany were causing unemployment there. Like liberation theology, the economic structure itself wherein Germany was being made to pay reparations, is not only unfair, but also against God’s will. If only God’s will could be known so concretely as to be evinced in certain socio-economic structures that are presumably “sacred.” Goebbels was assuming he knew about God than he could as a finite being. This criticism applies to believers in liberation theology more generally too.
In Goebbels’ case, the assumption of God’s will being to liberate Germans from their economic poverty strangely co-existed with the assumption—presumably also part of God’s will—that Slavs, Jews, and homosexuals should be exterminated as if from natural laws that God had established. Some Christians in the last quarter of the twentieth century had no problem believing infallibly in sacred economic (e.g., the rich and poor being less unequal) and social (e.g., anti-prejudicial) structures, just as Goebbels’ had had his beliefs in God’s will being just as concrete. In both cases, the Kingdom of God was confined to earthly terms, whereas Jesus of the canonical gospels preaches of a kingdom within and giving to Caesar what is his. In other words, liberation theology errs in neglecting Jesus’s point that the Kingdom of God is not of this earth. Ignoring this point allows ideological agendas to gain more authority and force than is deserved and merited. The notion that some ideologies are better than others morally speaking is doubtlessly true, but even the best can easily become encased in self-idolatry. When such idolatry hits the sordid ideologies, the result can literally be quite dangerous.
In short, applying religious belief to economics, politics, and social structures give certain of the latter too much certainty and force at the expense of self-critique. The want of a check on the ego and its designs amplified to divine plans renders partisan platforms as sacred, and thus others as evil. The resulting imbalance is itself unstable, and yet it is entombed in ideology-made-sacred (and evil). Dr. Goebel could have been a lot less certain of the religious sanctioning of his economic and social ideologies—which would have required humility. Similarly, resisting the temptation to put God’s stamp on liberation theology by rendering certain political, social, and economic structures as inherently sacred requires a good dose of humility as well as a recognition of the sheer distance between God’s kingdom and even human finite creatures. We should not presume too much about ourselves in relation to God, including revelation.  

For quite another version of Christian leadership than that of Dr. Goebbels, see "Christianized Leadership in Business," available at Amazon. On the distinction between religion and ethics applied to leadership, see "Spiritual Leadership in Business."

1. “The Goebbels Experiment” (2005). Film.

Thursday, November 29, 2018


In Risen (2016), A Roman Tribune, Clavius, is tasked with overseeing Jesus’s crucifixion; more importantly, Pilote tasks his Tribune with making sure that no one steals the body out of the tomb so no one could claim that Jesus is arisen. This would put the Jesus movement within Judaism as much more of a threat to Pilote as well as the Jewish leaders. More than Christians can glean interesting lessons from the film. That is to say, it is by no means a remake of The Greatest Story Ever Told and Son of God.
The full essay is at "Risen."

Monday, November 26, 2018

The Evolution of Just War in Roman Catholic Social Ethics: The Case of Libya

According to The Catholic Herald, there were originally only three conditions laid down by Thomas Aquinas for a just war. According to The Catholic Herald, “The Church later added two more rules, though St Thomas usually gets the credit for them (and why not?). The first is that the conflict must be a last resort. The Catholic Herald describes the last criterion of Catholic just war theory as follows: “Lastly, the war must be fought proportionally. 

The full essay is at "The Evolution of Just War in Roman Catholic Social Ethics." 

On changing theological takes on greed in relation to money and business, see God's Gold, available at Amazon.

Christianity by State: The Religious Dimension of Federalism

According to the  2010 U.S. Religious Census of Religious Congregations & Memberships Study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, less than 50 percent of the people living in the United States identified themselves as Christian adherents in 2010. There were more than 150.6 million out of 310 million. Even so, candidates for the U.S. presidency still felt the need to vocalize the fact that they are Christian (while the opponent doesn't quite measure up in that respect). President Obama made a point during his first two years in office to stress his Christianity as if it were the membership card to the Oval Office. It would seem that the litmus test was already antiquated and thus needlessly constrictive on potential candidates.

The full essay is at "Christianity by State."

Sunday, November 25, 2018

God's Gold through the Centuries

In the wake of the financial crisis that came to a head in September of 2008, people might have been wondering if sufficient moral constraints on the greed on Wall Street are available, even possible. The ability of traders to create complex derivative securities that are difficult for regulators to regulate, much less understand, may have people looking for ethical or even religious constraints. It would be only natural to ask if such “soft” restraint mechanisms really do have the puissance to do the trick.
Here’s the rub: the tricksters are typically the last to avail themselves of ethical or religious systems, and they the wrongdoers are the ones in need of the restraint. Blankfein said of his bank, Goldman Sachs, that it had been doing God’s work. About a week after saying that, he had to walk his statement back and admit that the bankers had does some things that were morally wrong. Although divine omnipotence is by definition not limited by human ethical systems, it is hard to imagine a divine decree telling bankers to tell their clients one thing (buy subprime mortgage derivatives) while taking the opposite position on the bank’s proprietary position (shorting the derivatives, beyond being a counterparty to clients). Divine duplicity seems to represent an oxymoron on a megascale rather than a justification for greed.
As the crisis erupted and was subsequently managed by public officials in government and new managers brought in to salvage AIG, I was researching the history of Christian thought on profit-seeking and wealth. I have since published an academic text and a nonfiction book, which develops further on the treatise on the topic. As the book is too recondite for sane people (i.e., outside of academia), I am writing a non-fiction book on the topic for a broader readership.
To whet the appetites of those of you who are waiting for something more readable that a recondite thesis, I present a brief account of my original research on the topic here. Most significantly, I found evidence of a gradual shift in the thought between Aquinas and the fifteenth-century Christian Humanists (mainly in what is now Italy). Whereas early Christian thought had tended to stress the negative attitude toward riches—the camel being in extreme pain in getting through the eye of the needle—in the Renaissance Christian theologians tended to argue that being wealth is necessary for a Christian to exercise the godly practical virtues of liberality and magnificence (particularly the latter, which alone permits gifts reflective of God’s majesty).
Something had happened in the dominant Christian attitude on wealth that made the religion less of a buttress against greed because it had become possible for a Christian to be both rich and to go to heaven. Cosimo de Medici is a perfect example of a banker who was assured by the pope that a career based on usury would not necessarily bar a banker from entering heaven (assuming he gave financially to the Church).
The various Reformers can be read as efforts to pull Christianity back from being so close to incorporating love of gain, or greed. I looked at the (Standard Oil) monopolist and devout Baptist, John D. Rockefeller, to get a sense of how efficacious the Reformation was in attempting to arrest and reverse the momentum of the pro-wealth Christian paradigm.
Having sketched the shift and subsequent reactions of the Reformers, I turned my attention to trying to explain both the shift itself and the efficacy of the Reformation. I believe the increasingly commercialized environment since the Commercial Revolution does not provide enough of an explanation; I contend that one must look at the religion itself to find the roots of the shift and the results of the Reformation as concerns the religion's theological attitudes toward wealth. In other words, Christianity itself must be examined. As you read through the book, you could do worse than ask yourself: is there something deeper in Christianity at work in the historical shift in thought on wealth and profit-seeking?  You will find my theory in the conclusion. Undoubtedly, you will develop your own as you reflect as you read.
The main question I pose through the treatise is whether religion itself, as a phenomenon touching the human domain of existence, can hold us back from ourselves even when we least want it to do so. If so, then a religion operating in the human domain can operate as a wholly-other mechanism by which sins such as greed can be reduced in force or perhaps even finally extirpated. To expunge the sordid stuff from our banks and corporations, human nature itself would have to be radically changed. Perhaps the question is whether it is possible even if not probable for religion operating through human beings to accomplish this task, given that religion cannot but interact with the world.

See related essay: "Religious Sources of Business Ethics"

The academic treatise: Godliness and Greed: Shifting Christian Thought on Profit and Wealth