Discourse in the Garden of Eden

“An Apple” by deviantART user Nazegoreng

When I was a teenager, I heard a preacher whose name I’ve forgotten say that Eve fell prey to the Serpent because she tried to reason with him. The preacher’s point was that Eve shouldn’t have relied on foolish things like logical discourse, and should’ve shut the Serpent down the second he dared to debate God’s command at all. Silly women, trying to be all rational and stuff.

While I am still a Christian, I hope it goes without saying that this “check your brains at the door” approach to religion or any other aspect of life goes against everything I now believe. I believe it’s vital to apply critical thinking to everything, even things that come from the people we trust most. Even things we understand to come from God. I believe “Hath God really said…?” is a question theists should ask themselves daily in a sincere search for truth.

But I’ve been thinking back to this long-forgotten sermon a lot lately, and realizing there was a good seed buried beneath the piles of fertilizer. Eve would’ve done well to shut down the Serpent’s discourse from the start, just not for the reasons that preacher stated.

See, the “discourse” between the Serpent and Eve wasn’t really a discourse at all. It’s the tale of humanity’s first bad faith argument. The Serpent didn’t really approach Eve in a desire to verify what God said. His whole purpose in engaging her was to get into her head, get her to question whether she could trust her own sense of reality, and get her to do what he wanted. And it worked. Not because Eve was weak or foolish or amoral, but because she accepted a bad faith argument in good faith. She engaged the Serpent rationally, philosophically, treating his questions like a sincere search for truth when they were really a premeditated attempt to get her to accept a lie.

It gets more interesting when you consider how often Jesus was faced with the same situation, and how he responded to it. There are many times in the Gospels when religious leaders came to Jesus the same way the Serpent came to Eve. They presented a seemingly philosophical question deliberately designed to trick him into revealing himself as a blasphemer, traitor, or fraud. Jesus would respond by exposing them with a counter question, telling a story that he admitted he didn’t expect them to understand, or blatantly calling them out. In any case, Jesus never treated a bad faith argument like a good faith discourse. 

The moral I’m seeing here isn’t one of faith vs. skepticism. I don’t even see this as an issue that specifically applies to people of faith. What I’m seeing is that, if you have every reason to believe someone is only asking you questions to get into your head, gaslight you, trick you into betraying your own principles, or even just troll you for their twisted idea of what constitutes lulz, you are under no obligation to give them a rational answer as though they were asking for a sincere exchange of ideas.

Adonis Is Risen

So, it’s Easter week, or Holy Week as it’s called in many Christian denominations. Some variation of “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” is a common greeting throughout the Christian world around this time of year. But did you know celebrating the death and resurrection of a young deity killed in his prime is a spring custom that predates Christianity? Centuries before Jesus was born, people were celebrating this time of year by proclaiming, “The lord is risen!”

Or, if you skip translating the deity’s name, “Adonis is risen.”

In his 1922 volume The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer writes:

When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis, which, as we have seen reason to believe, was celebrated in Syria at the same season. The type, created by Greek artists, of the sorrowful goddess with her dying lover in her arms, resembles and may have been the model of the Pietà of Christian art, the Virgin with the dead body of her divine Son in her lap, of which the most celebrated example is the one by Michael Angelo in St. Peters. That noble group, in which the living sorrow of the mother contrasts so wonderfully with the languor of death in the son, is one of the finest compositions in marble. Ancient Greek art has bequeathed to us few works so beautiful, and none so pathetic.

Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Image via Wikipedia.

Remember the scene in Snarled Threads where (SPOILERS!) Persephone is cradling Adonis on the barge? Michelangelo’s Pieta was the image in my head when I wrote it. Though hopefully it goes without saying that Thalia’s Musings isn’t a Gospel allegory, and that my Adonis is not Jesus. 😛

But it is fascinating to me how Christianity co-opted so much of the Adonis story and rites into the Easter story and rites when, other than being killed at a young age, Jesus and Adonis didn’t have that much in common. Well, that and geography. Frazer continues:

In this connexion a well-known statement of Jerome may not be without significance. He tells us that Bethlehem, the traditionary birthplace of the Lord, was shaded by a grove of that still older Syrian Lord, Adonis, and that where the infant Jesus had wept, the lover of Venus was bewailed. Though he does not expressly say so, Jerome seems to have thought that the grove of Adonis had been planted by the heathen after the birth of Christ for the purpose of defiling the sacred spot. In this he may have been mistaken. If Adonis was indeed, as I have argued, the spirit of the corn, a more suitable name for his dwelling-place could hardly be found than Bethlehem, “the House of Bread,” and he may well have been worshipped there at his House of Bread long ages before the birth of Him who said, “I am the bread of life.”

And then there’s the heralded by a star in the East thing:

But the star which the people of Antioch saluted at the festival was seen in the East; therefore, if it was indeed Venus, it can only have been the Morning Star. At Aphaca in Syria, where there was a famous temple of Astarte, the signal for the celebration of the rites was apparently given by the flashing of a meteor, which on a certain day fell like a star from the top of Mount Lebanon into the river Adonis. The meteor was thought to be Astarte herself, and its flight through the air might naturally be interpreted as the descent of the amorous goddess to the arms of her lover. At Antioch and elsewhere the appearance of the Morning Star on the day of the festival may in like manner have been hailed as the coming of the goddess of love to wake her dead leman from his earthy bed. If that were so, we may surmise that it was the Morning Star which guided the wise men of the East to Bethlehem, the hallowed spot which heard, in the language of Jerome, the weeping of the infant Christ and the lament for Adonis. 

Astarte is an early Mesopotamian fertility goddess. Aphrodite is thought to be her Greek counterpart, with Venus, of course, as the Roman reboot. Other variations on Astarte’s archetype include Ishtar and Eostre. Can you guess which major Christian holiday derives its name from theirs?

Halloween. Duh. (Image by deviantART user Steph-Laberis)

My intent here isn’t to ruin Easter for anyone. And I’m certainly not trying to make the point that the Gospel is BS because it’s one more retelling of stories humans have been telling as long as we’ve existed. On the contrary, I think the fact that every civilization has basically told their own variation of the same stories makes those stories that much more significant and that much more real. Whether or not they’re derived from events that literally, historically happened, they’re about True things. Solstices, equinoxes, plantings, harvests, the phases of the moon, the path of the stars; there’s an innate beauty and power to these cycles. That’s what Myth is, not a mere synonym for “fallacy”. Myth is taking the beauty and power of these cycles and turning it into Story.

Whatever stories you’re celebrating this week, may your celebration be a good one!


Imagine There’s No Labels?

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

– “Imagine,” John Lennon

This part of Lennon’s classic song has always bothered me. Not that I’m offended by the concept of a world without religion or national borders. (I’m pretty sure we’d still find reasons to hate each other without those things, but that’s another topic for another day.) What bothers me is the idea that, in order to live in peace with one another, humans must abandon the things that distinguish us from one another. This is why, contrary to pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to on the subject, I don’t hate labels.

Now, to clarify, I hate the misuse of labels. I hate it when labels are used as an excuse for stereotyping and prejudice. I hate it when a label is assigned to someone against their will. I hate it when people take a label and make that single label the entire sum of another person’s identity. I hate it when a person is pressured to choose a label in any given category before they’ve figured out which one best describes them. I hate it when a label is used as an excuse to dismiss everything that a person says.

But labels themselves? They don’t have to be any of these things. They’re just words. Descriptors. They needn’t and shouldn’t have any meaning beyond their most basic definitions.

Let’s look at a few of my own labels. Author. It means I’m a person who has written a thing that was published. Geek. It means many things to many people. To me, it means I’m a socially awkward intellectual who loves science fiction and fantasy. INTJ. It means introversion, intuition, thinking, and judging as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are my dominant personality traits. Disabled. It means I have a medical condition that affects one or more major life activities. Latina. It means my ancestors were indigenous to Latin America. Female. It means my gender identity is located on the female side of the gender spectrum. Cisgender. It means that, when I was born, the doctors and my parents made an accurate guess about my gender identity. Bisexual. It means I’m attracted to people of more than one sex. Christian. It means my faith is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

These labels are all facts. I could reject any of them, but if I didn’t or couldn’t change the reality that the label describes, getting rid of the label wouldn’t really change anything. I could choose to stop using the word “disabled,” but that wouldn’t change a thing about the state of my health. I could choose to stop using the word “Christian,” but merely changing the word wouldn’t change my beliefs. (If I did change my beliefs, I would change the word – to a new, more accurate label, like “atheist” or “pagan” or “Reform Jew” or whatever described my new belief system.) I could choose to stop using the word “bisexual,” but that wouldn’t make any of my past or present attractions to people of either sex un-happen. I could choose to stop using the word “Latina,” but that wouldn’t change history and make my ancestors indigenous to some other part of the world.

And, honestly, the only thing on this list that I would change if I could is “disabled.” And in that case, it’s not the label that I hate. It’s the fact that I’m fucking disabled. That I have a medical condition that affects several major life activities. (No, you don’t get details. Sorry.) But as long as I do have it, why do I need to pretend I don’t in order to feel good about myself? Why does another person need to pretend a part of my reality doesn’t exist in order to see me as an equal?

Which brings me to the ultimate reason I don’t want to imagine there’s no labels: the idea that distinction is necessarily a source of strife and oppression. We don’t need a world with no countries. We need a world where national identity isn’t seen as a valid reason to kill someone. We don’t need a world with no religion. We need a world where people can respect each other’s religious choices, even if we disagree with them. Even if we think they are absolutely, unquestionably incorrect. We don’t need a world where the social constructs of race, gender, and sexual orientation don’t exist. We need a world where neither race, gender, sexual orientation, nor any other label is seen as a legitimate reason to deny anyone any right or privilege in our society.

Imagine that one’s country
One’s religion, too
Is nothing to kill or die for
It’s not that hard to do
Imagine all the people, different, yet in peace

People label me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

Hey, Dan Savage – I’m Not Like That, And Neither Are Our Conservative Allies

Update: On 9/4/13, I wrote this follow-up post in response to Savage and John Shore launching the NALT Christians Project. I do support the NALT Christians Project, which addressed a lot of my concerns regarding Savage’s original challenge at its launch. 

I have such mixed feelings about Dan Savage. I love the It Gets Better project, and I think it’s pretty cool that Savage has endorsed Christian author John Shore‘s books on LGBTQ issues in the Church. On the other hand, Savage’s hotheaded, reactionary approach can be a real turn-off. And what is up with the biphobia? Did a bi guy leave him for a chick once or something, which I’m sure is so much worse than when a gay guy leaves you for a dude?

Anyway, in the last week both Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism and Fred Clark of Slacktivist have covered a challenge Dan Savage issued to liberal Christians: Stop telling the LGBTQ community that all Christians aren’t homophobic and start telling each other.

Sometimes I forget to qualify “Christian” with “fundamentalist evangelical right-wing bats–t Christian.” And I’ll write something taking “Christians” to task for their abuse of queer people. And I’ll get emails and I’ll get calls from liberal Christians, whispering in my ear, “We’re not all like that. Psst, we’re not all like that.” I call them NALTs now, for Not All Like That Christians. NALT Christians.

But the reason so many of us have the impression that you are all indeed like that, and why Christian has become synonymous with anti-gay, is because of these loud voices on the Christian right. And they’ve hijacked Christianity, with your complicit silence enabling their hijacking of it.

And you know what? Liberal Christians, you need to do something about it. You need to tell them you’re not all like that. We know — liberals, lefties, progressives, queers — we know that not all Christians are like that. The religious right: They don’t know. Tell them.

So stop writing me and telling me that you’re Not All Like That, and start doing something about it. Start telling them you’re Not All Like That.

– Dan Savage

I think Savage’s challenge, though well-intended, misses the mark on many levels. Mainly in that, while he doesn’t outright state that there are no queer Christians, his wording does play into the idea that LGBTQ and Christian are mutually exclusive identities. They’re not. I, for one, am a bisexual Christian. Of course, Savage doesn’t think bi people are sufficiently queer anyway, so who knows what that’s worth to him. Regardless, there are plenty of Christians out there who are higher on the Kinsey scale than I am.

And here’s the thing: not all of them are liberal. Heard of the Gay Christian Network? It’s an international ministry with thousands of members that reaches out to LGBTQ Christians and their communities. Its executive director, Justin Lee, is an openly-gay conservative Southern Baptist. Conservative preacher boy Matthew Vines went viral this summer with his sermon on how he reconciles his gayness with his faith in an inerrant Bible.

Not all straight allies are liberal, either. I know many evangelical right-wing Christians who personally believe homosexual sex acts are sinful, but who still support civil rights for LGBTQ people. Perhaps more importantly, they treat LGBTQ individuals the same way they treat everyone else, i.e. the way they want to be treated.

Does Dan Savage honestly think the first American president to publicly endorse same-sex marriage was re-elected without the votes of evangelical Christians? Does he think no votes for marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, Washington, and Minnesota were cast by evangelical Christians? Okay, maybe these Christians aren’t shouting from their church steeples that, “I’m a Christian and I’m not a tool!” But maybe it’s not because they’re complacently allowing the likes of James Dobson and Bryan Fischer to hijack the issue. Maybe it’s because they’re too busy not being tools. They’re out there just living, being kind to people, treating the people in their lives with justice, mercy, and equality, and quietly voting for our rights in elections they can’t wait to be over.

Once more for the record, I am a bisexual feminist liberal Christian. And personally, I’ll take the conservative friend who says “You know I believe differently than you on this, but I just want you to be happy” over the liberal activist who says I’m not gay enough or loud enough any day.