A major, and perhaps fully unrealized, consequence of the Internet is that information is proliferating faster than at any previous time in human history. The supporting narrative heralds this proliferation as a good thing that will further the ‘progress’ of humanity and make life better, but there is a dark underside to this proliferation that seems to often go unnoticed, or is at least not discussed.
It is certainly true that the Internet has improved life in many ways. For example, it has enabled businesses to communicate essential information to other businesses very quickly and easily, such as your insurance company setting up a car rental for you when yours is in the shop. Or as another example, it has enabled instant communication with people who might be across the world through instant messaging technologies such as Skype, Facebook Messenger, etc.
As a consequence of these technologies information now spreads faster than ever before, but without any checks as to the quality or accuracy of that information. Some sites in fact just want written content because it’s how they make money, whether or not it’s accurate information or not seems to be irrelevant [example: content mills]. This business model seems to have infiltrated some previously trusted industries, such as journalism, which results in more news sites publishing articles that will drive traffic to their site, regardless of accuracy or neutrality.
For me I notice this tendency for sensationalism in the area of theology [probably inevitable]. A fairly recent example of this is the Newsweek article published several months ago about how the Church hates gay people. My response to that article is here. The basic goal of such articles it seems is heap condemnation on the Church in response to the Church [allegedly, though perhaps accurate in some individual situations] heaping condemnation on some other group. In short they’re propaganda pieces, and in propaganda the only thing that matters is rallying people behind your cause, truth is irrelevant.
So all that to say that today I came across a piece that satirizes such articles and provides a good example of how they work and go about their argument: Miguel Ruiz: New light on the oldest profession. Usually these article involve sexual ethics, which is what this article uses in its satire. Let me break it down for you:
First, they usually start with saying that Christians, or the Church, has unjustly oppressed a certain group of people unjustly: “The history of Christianity is a twisted tale of conflict over sexuality and the suppression of those who dissent the party line on bedroom ethics.”
Then they will state that the view of the opposition is based upon a single interpretation of Scripture; “These days, it is commonly argued that there is only one correct approach, from sound exegesis of Scripture, to human sexuality and appropriate boundaries.” And then assert that whatever this teaching is it is on shaky ground and has changed throughout history: “However, we still must concede that what is commonly accepted as “right” today is not exactly how we have always taught.”
Then they will attempt, but usually fail, to substantiate their claim that the Church has changed its teaching in this area [usually sexual ethics], perhaps claiming that the interpretation of Scripture has changed as the culture changed and ultimately concluding that the teaching of Scripture is not clear: “Throughout the centuries, various sexual practices have gone in and out of favor with the church catholic at various times and in various cultures, as external influences have doubtlessly impacted how the relevant Scripture passages were read and understood. We’ve run the gamut from repressing to libertine, and everything in between. It is nothing short of confounding how difficult it is to get the Bible to speak directly and consistently on these matters.”
Then they will make their appeal to your emotions: “If we truly value and respect the Word of God, we would be wise to continue listening and respectfully consider alternate interpretations, especially those coming from fellow believers as a matter of conscience. We’ve all made mistakes in Biblical interpretation before, probably not for the last time. So I challenge you to listen with an open mind as I explain how we’ve been largely wrong about a particular issue for a number of years: Prostitution.” This statement here is the giveaway as to what is coming next in the article. They believe to have already demonstrated that the Church has changed its view regarding the issue [though they probably haven’t] and on this basis then appeal to your emotions by basically saying, “If you want to be a true Christian you need to recognize that in your own history teachings and interpretations have changed, and so you then have an obligation to listen to my own alternative interpretation which differs from the current accepted interpretation, and even more so because I am also a ‘Christian.'” Essentially, they’re guilt tripping you into listening to them.
This guilt trip will probably then continue by saying that Christians are unjustly persecuting this certain group, prostitutes in this case: “Prostitution gets a bad rap in our culture today, and as a result, women in this profession are grossly mistreated. When we think of sex workers, the stereotype that comes to mind is a scantily clad woman, working a corner, wearing too much makeup. She renders her plunder to a psychologically manipulative and physically abusive pimp who doesn’t take very good care of her. It has truly become a dangerous profession in our day, largely because a judgmental spirit against it fosters a suppression of its legitimacy, resulting in occupational trauma. Unfortunately, this is often done in the name of Christianity. It doesn’t have to be so.”
From here then they proceed to make their point from Scripture: “The exegetical scholarship on this issue is no longer as conclusive as we once thought. Let’s take a look at what the Bible really has to say about prostitution, from the beginning.” This is where things get really bad. Making claims and not even attempting to substantiate them, as they’ve done previously, is already bad enough. But revealing that you don’t have basic reading comprehension skills, nor that you have very little skill in the actual Biblical languages is really bad, especially when you’re making that claim.
This part of the article generally involves taking verses out of context, leaving important key elements out of the story, and just generally misunderstanding Scripture in order to support the author’s point. In this satire one of the stories used is the story of Judah and Tamar. It summarizes the story as follows: “The first recorded prostitute is Tamar. She slept with Judah after his three sons died without knocking her up. Oddly enough, Judah did not realize it was his three-time daughter in law. When it was discovered that she was pregnant and she gave proof that it was at his doing, his response was (and I quote the ESV), “She is more righteous than I.”” There are several features of this summary that are useful to point out. First, the reference to where the story can be found in Scripture is missing [hint: it’s Genesis 38, or you could just Google ‘Judah and Tamar’], a reference that would be helpful if, you know, you actually wanted to read the story yourself and check the accuracy of the author’s summary. Second, Tamar was not even a prostitute. She was the wife of Judah’s eldest son Er [Gen. 38.6] and after Er died was given to Onan [Gen 38.8]. Judah merely thought she was a prostitute because she had a veil over her face, which is also why Judah didn’t recognize her [Gen 38.14-15, 21-22].
Third, only two of Judah’s sons died without ‘knocking her up,’ Er and Onan. The third, Shelah, is never recorded as having slept with her. In fact that she was not given to Shelah, as Judah promised to do [Gen. 38.11], is a crucial element in the story that is left out because it is Judah’s refusal to give Tamar to him that motivates Tamar’s actions. Furthermore the summary of ‘died without knocking her up’ overlooks the reason as to why they died: they were both wicked. We are not told the specifics of Er’s wickedness, just that he was wicked [Gen 38.7]. Onan was wicked because he refused to impregnate Tamar and thus give his brother descendants [Gen 38.8-10].
Even the concluding statement of the summary is misleading. Tamar was accused of being pregnant by immorality and in response to this Judah was going execute her [Gen. 38.24]. In order to defend herself she says that she is pregnant by the man to whom the signet, cord, and staff she has belongs to [Gen 38.25]. Then after Judah identifies them as belonging to him he says that Tamar is more righteous than he is because her actions were a result of his refusal to give her to Shelah [Gen 38.26]. It is a statement on the unrighteousness and wickedness of Judah, which was great considering that in the previous chapter he was jealous of his brother Joseph and sold him into slavery, and the fact that both Er and Onan were wicked as well also testifies to his own wickedness in my opinion. But all this is missed because usually the author apparently didn’t even bother to read the story and understand it.
However the madness will continue since it is apparently not sufficient to demonstrate lack of understanding regarding the Old Testament, it must also be shown with the New as well. In the satire the author proceeds to then interpret a saying of Jesus in light of an obviously faulty and wrong understanding of the story of Judah and Tamar: “Consider the significance of this. Judah is not just one of the patriarchs of Israel. Neither is he the firstborn, from whom the Messiah was expected to come. Rather, the first three sons were passed up in favor of Judah! The very father of the tribe of Jesus, an essential link in the genealogy of salvation, has declared a prostitute to be more righteous than him! What does that say about how he viewed them? It reminds me of something Jesus used to say; “The tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” From the popular Christian sexual ethic of today, you would expect a much more sever evisceration of this demographic, but these words seem rather flattering.” Here, again, Scripture is taken out of context and interpreted to mean something that would seem absurd if read within its context. No reference is given for the saying of Jesus either, so I’ll assume it’s Matthew 21.31.
Here’s the context of the saying: the chief priests and elders of the people challenge Jesus and ask him by what authority he is doing and teaching the things he is [Matt 21.23]. In response Jesus asks them whether the baptism of John came from heaven or man [Matt 21.24]. They discussed it and realized that either way they answered came with consequences they did not want to accept, so they simply said they didn’t know [Matt. 21.25-26], to which response Jesus refuses to answer their question [Matt 21.27]. He does however tell them a parable:
28 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29 And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30 And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.
At the end of the parable Jesus asks them:
31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”
To which they respond:
They said, “The first.”
Then Jesus responds:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
The article takes the saying of Jesus out of its context and interprets it to mean that Jesus said prostitution was an acceptable profession. However in its context it means that the prostitutes believed the repentance that John was preaching [Matt 3.1-12] and were baptized. Even though at first they refused to follow what John was preaching they later changed their minds and obeyed, and their obedience is why they are in the kingdom of God. The chief priests and elders however said they would do what John was preaching, but they never actually did it. Thus they were disobedient and their disobedience is what keeps them out of the kingdom of God. Much as what the case with Judah’s statement that Tamar was more righteous than he was, the saying “tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom before you” is not a statement concerning the acceptability of the profession of prostitution, but rather points to the unrighteousness someone, in this case the unrighteousness of the chief priests and elders.
The article continues through several more equally bad and absurd uses of Scripture to make its point, but I won’t go into those.
Satire is wonderful art form and when executed well can bring absurdity to light. This article does a great job in highlighting how many articles written and published on various online news sites concerning Christianity are written. They start with the presumption that Christians are wrong because they do not affirm that a certain lifestyle is acceptable and in their effort to convince us that we are wrong to do so they try to use our own Scriptures. In the process they end up demonstrating that they in fact have absolutely no clue as to what our faith is about.
This satirical article does just that in what it says, but also in what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t finish the story of Judah! Remember when I mentioned that he sold his brother Joseph into slavery? Well guess what, neither Judah’s nor Joseph’s story ends there [the whole story is Genesis 37-50]. Joseph encountered several adverse and hostile situations in his life, but through them all he remained faithful and obedient to God and God preserved him through all of them and eventually made him a person of great authority in Egypt. Eventually the land where Judah and his brothers were living had a severe famine, but there was plenty of food in Egypt because God had warned Pharaoh through a dream, which Joseph interpreted and revealed the meaning of, that a famine was coming. So when they came down to Egypt to get food Joseph recognized them and decided to test them [remember his last interaction with them was their selling of him into slavery] by keeping Simeon in Egypt until they brought their youngest brother Benjamin down to Egypt with them. Well Jacob [Judah’s father] doesn’t want to lose another one of his sons [Simeon is now in Egypt and he assumes Joseph is dead] and is reluctant to let them go back.
However they eventually do have to go back and it is Judah who ultimately convinces his father to let them go and buy food by offering to take the all the blame should they fail to return with Benjamin. When they are preparing to leave Egypt Joseph orders his servants to put his cup in Benjamin’s sack and then to catch to his brothers before they leave and confront them about the “theft.” When they are then brought before Joseph and are being questioned about the incident it is Judah who speaks up and defends himself and his brothers [Gen. 44.13-44]! You should really go read that. I won’t quote it because it’s obnoxiously long. But seriously read it!
This is the full realization of the repentance that Judah began when he recognized his own wickedness after the incident with Tamar, and, I think, it is why the Messiah, Jesus, came from the lineage of Judah. It is the repentance that John preached in the wilderness and the repentance that the tax collectors and prostitutes practiced, but that the chief priests and elders refused to do. And it is this repentance that is the basis of the Christian life. We recognize and admit we are wicked people and confess our failings daily, and daily ask God to help us overcome them so that we may be like Christ. As Athanasius said, “God became man so that men might become gods.”
And I would further venture to say this failure to understand the Christian life also leads to a failure to understand the Christian God. It was God who chose Jacob’s descendants to be His people, but they were wicked and needed to recognize this and it took a famine in their land and nearly losing some of their brothers for them to realize how wicked they were. This was why God brought the famine on the land and Joseph to Egypt, so that his chosen people would repent and be preserved and be a blessing for all the world by giving birth to the Messiah, Jesus.
There are two things that are true about every single person on this planet: we are all loved by God because we are His creation, and we are all sinful, wicked, and evil. God calls us to recognize our own wickedness because it draws us away from Him and how we are made to live. We are made to live in harmony with God and our sin and wickedness gets in the way of this harmony, and so we must daily repent and daily ask God to help us overcome it.
May God grant us all the grace to live a life of repentance.