Friday, April 10, 2009

John Dickson, Richard Dawkins, Michel Onfray, some light secular reading and the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens


(Above: Andres Serrano's controversial 1987 work. Is it just me, and am I wrong in thinking that Christ, who was after all a genuine Christian, would have enjoyed what is - forgetting the controversy - an extremely beautiful image, which lifts the conventional hideous taste plaster cast "sell it to the tourists" Vatican imagery to a new aesthetic plane?)

Surprisingly, this Easter Friday is very light on for our very own favorite brand of loonery, which is to say Christians extolling the virtues of Christianity in columns written for the local fish and chip wrapping industry.

We have to turn to the SMH and The Age, and John Dickson for his column A symbol of the noblest of traditions for a bit of traditional jousting between a fervent believer and absent atheists (the column in the SMH cops the header of From instrument of brutality to symbol of love, which evokes once again the difference between the blood and guts emerald city and its discreet southern cousin - just love that word brutality, only bettered when it's bestial brutality).

Dickson sets up Richard Dawkins for a fall for his daring to call Christ's death for our sins as vicious, sado-masochistic and repellent. Dawkins has even had the cheek to wonder why, if God wanted to forgive our sins, he didn't just forgive them, instead of arranging the crucifixion of his only son in a particularly painful and cruel form of death.

Then Dickson wheels in Michel Onfray to say that at the time Jews were not crucified but stoned to death, an easy remark at which to take a pot shot, or even to nail to a cross or two. Next he tackles Dawkins for suggesting Paul invented the idea about death for sins, claiming there's evidence that Jesus himself thought of his impending death as a sacrifice for sins.

And lest we think of this as some kind of cosmic child abuse - a father punishing a son for someone else's wrongs - we should remember that from the beginning Christians insisted that Jesus was not a third party at all; he was in fact God.

Oh that's all right then, a schizophrenic god slices himself (let's just go with the him) up into three bits, and sadistically puts one bit to a cruel death, while the other bit masochistically accepts his fate to prove that all three bits exist, and that if you believe in this cruel, schizophrenic god, he (let's just go with the he) will let you off the  hook for your sins, and if you're a really nice you get to spend an eternity in heaven, which somehow sounds like earth with all the bad bits left out. And might, depending on your hopes and point of view, include the odd celestial virgin.

Strangely after that, Dickson decides to go humanist. You see there's nothing sado-masochistic about god, or the idea of Christ bearing the punishment wrong-doers deserve. The idea belongs to the noble tradition of self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Cue a news story about a Melbourne woman skydiving, who was saved when her plane crashed by her skydiving instructor swiveling his body into position to cushion the impact, so the woman lived, but the instructor died.

I have never been a fan of attempts to illustrate the meaning of Jesus' death with modern stories. There is a danger of trivialising one or the other.

Damn right. For a start, please explain the intricate link between a man who physically saves a woman, and a man who dies a painful death in the metaphysical hope he will relieve our sins? Somewhere I get lost in the mysticism.

I know that heroic sacrifice story is a meme that has done a lot of work in Christian churches, but of course it actually means nothing when applied to the Christ story. That kind of sacrifice, generous and giving as it was, might have been enacted by a pre-Christian Roman (well barring the plane bit) and in modern times might have been performed by a secular humanist, an Islamic, an atheist, an agnostic, or any believer in any one of the 57 leading brands of bickering religions.

By seeking to use a modern story of sacrifice as an exemplar for Christ, Dickson performs the same kind of illogical, ahistorical, ex post facto, reductionist argument as he accuses his two resident atheists of.

By a simply and easy elision (no, not the Greek Roman after life elysium), he skips away from all the difficult bits in the Christ story, and lands with an easy parable about the noble tradition of self-sacrifice and Jesus' last words at the Last Supper. Natch, that makes it QED time:

Understood this way, it is no wonder that the "cross", once an instrument of brutality, became a symbol of love for millions.

Well Dickson can keep with that story, but I'm still thinking the cross was an instrument of brutality - else why would the Romans have used it - and god was in some kind of goth emo mind set in those days, to imagine that nailing himself to a cross - apart from being a good, kinky story - would somehow send a coherent, logical, rational and loving message to humanity about sinning. Of course, if we brought back crucifixions - the best we seem to do these days is Islamic loons stoning women to death - we could soon put chit chat about it being a symbol of love, especially if we started with newspaper columnists (or bloggers).

Whatever. The cross certainly missed its mark about the sinning bit, since you might recollect that the major players in the two world wars we've seen to date generally had no problem rationalizing their love of the cross with the slaughter of millions (and talk of Mao and Stalin and the evil ancestor worshipping Japanese only gets one arm detached from the cross).

A noble tradition of self-sacrifice? Well that's not how I remember it going down amongst the natives of South America when the Spanish and the Portuguese came to town. Give me the vision of the black robes in The Black Robe, and then you can begin to understand why Christians are now so defensive in these secular times. They've got a lot of history to live down.

Meantime, if you want a decent secular read, have a look at Richard Ackland's Libelled with love: the fight continues, wherein he poo-poos assorted religionists for trying to use defamation of religion as a way of shutting down their critics, a firm believer in this being the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, though Ackland also revives memories of Pell v Piss Christ in 1997.

And of course it wouldn't be Easter without offending someone in the Jewish community, thereby providing equal opportunity time with Christians and Muslims, so why not take in Jeff Halper's column Diaspora Jewry needs to let go of idealised Israel.

Halper's tour of Australia ruffled a lot of feathers in the Jewish community, but when you actually read what he says, it seems unexceptional, even obvious.

But then there's nothing like religion to inflame people, get them generally tired and emotional, and upset and hostile and angry. God as the symbol of love? God as the symbol of unity and hope? God as a path to the end of warring, squabbling, bickering, schismatic factions?

When the assorted religions who purport to believe in the one and only and the same god manage to get their theological disputes sorted, there'll be heaven on earth.

That's why I can safely say I'll be a secularist for the rest of my time on the planet. Now watch the irrepressible Christopher Hitchens confirming the slow decline and fall of Christianity in the United States of America:

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