Saturday, March 1, 2008

Which Cherries?

Here is one of the Skepchicks, writerdd, commenting on the Turkish government's new effort to drag Islam into one of the two or three most recent centuries by injecting it with fancy post-700 CE ideas:

Ignoring parts of the Bible or Koran should not be ridiculed. It is a good thing that leads away from fanatical violence. We should be encouraging this type of behavior. Those who begin to ignore parts of their holy books may ultimately come to ignore the entire volume (that happened to me), but if not they are still hugely better off ignoring large parts than following it all literally and blindly.

First, feats of cherry-picking only lead away from fanatical violence if the verses cherry-picked happen to be the ones that don't promote fanatical violence. Whereas cherry-picking fanatically violent verses can and does lead toward, not away from, fanatical violence.

I am willing to say that it would be pointless to ridicule a person who cherry-picks Islam or Christianity in a way that makes her peaceful, loving and altruistic. But let me try to show how this goes off the rails with a little dialogue snatched from a typical conversation between C, a Christian who cherry-picks only the kindest of verses, and A, an oafish atheist who seems determined to pull religious skepticism from its soaring heights of popularity.

C: God is love.
A: "Do unto others ..."
C: Exactly.
A: "Love thy enemies as thyself"
C: Now you're getting it!
A: Hold on. You love your enemies?
C: Um ... yea. You know, forgiveness. Jesus asks us to be big-hearted.
A: You love the 9/11 highjackers? You love Hitler and Stalin and Osama Bin Laden? You love Karl Rove?
C: I didn't say that.
A: Didn't you?
C: !!!

At this point, ridicule seems completely appropriate. And why? Because what has been exposed here has nothing to do with cherry-picking and everything to do with sloppy, lazy thinking. C wants, for whatever reason, to associate himself with "Christianity," and wants to reserve the right to distance himself from some of the darker corners of its history and theology, but he hasn't really thought through the implications. People like C arrive at embarrassing junctures like this because they've been bullied all their lives into accepting the premise that Christianity equates to goodness, Jesus Christ is a superstar, and anyone who doubts this is either plotting suicide bombings or injecting a prostitute with a heroin-rat poison cocktail so she can't testify in his child molestation case. The "Christianity" to which he attaches himself is just shorthand for "have a nice day" and "can't we all just get along" and "good things happen to good people," and whatever we think about these platitudes, they may fall slightly short of a thoroughly worked-out system of ethics. And there's no obvious reason to apply the "Christianity" label to such a creed.

So here's another version with a sharper Christian.

C: God is the expression of the human ideal of goodness.
A: "Do unto others ..."
C: Exactly.
A: "Love thy enemies as thyself ..."
C: Has there ever been a more profound moral sentiment?
A: Hold on. You love your enemies?
C: Jesus was a revolutionary! Revolutions make radical demands.
A: You love the 9/11 highjackers? You love Hitler and Stalin and Osama Bin Laden? You love Karl Rove?
C: Of course not. They are evil.
A: So by "love thy enemies as thyself" Jesus meant "love good people like yourself?"
C: Cute. No, he meant we must love and forgive the repentant. Jesus makes clear that those who reject him will not be saved.
A: What about those who denounce him?
C: Fine. If you think "reject" is a stronger word that "denounce," I'll happily concede the point: Jesus denounces those who denounce him, and rejects those who reject him.

Again, ridicule is a valid response here. Not only did the Christian allow himself to get sidetracked into this weird allusion to the most recent Clinton-Obama debate, but the cherry-picking has mushroomed into what amounts to an unverifiable account of what Jesus really meant by the passages the Christian has cherry-picked, so what began as mere bullshit has been raised to bullshit on stilts. We can argue about what Jesus meant until the cows come home and continue until after they've been converted to jerky and fed to a warehouse of chimps doomed to type until they've finally hammered out the complete text of Titus Andronicus, but we'll still have nothing more definite than the sparse, delphic words of Jesus as given in the Gospels, which don't come with explanatory footnotes. Opinions of the form "What Jesus really meant by ..." are like assholes.

I can hear it now: I've set up straw men. I don't think so, but fair enough. I've done my best. I leave the non-ridiculous case for cherry-picking to more capable hands. I don't see it.

Meanwhile, I welcome interpretations of the leading brands of holy texts that seek to extract the good, loving, tolerant messages and abandon the nasty, hateful, intolerant remainder. I do ever-so-gently ask the interpreters to consider whether doing so actually differs from performing the exact same exercise with the collected works of Montaigne, Kant, or the Beatles, and what, in turn, this suggests about the genuine relationship between cherries and holy texts.


Zennalathas said...

Jesus IS a Superstar! He's got his own comic book, complete with tights, caps, and magicks!

Lirone said...

According to this article on the bbc website Turkey is currently carrying out a revision of the Hadiths - sounds extremely welcome (and long overdue).