Why I Am A Christian 2: The Person of Jesus

This follows on Why I Am A Christian Part 1.

As a child, the stories of Jesus’ life had already become monuments early on. These engraved stones stood arranged next to my life’s road, so that I would pass them by often. Sunday school, Church, School, home: the stories were relayed to us on a regular basis.

It is an odd quirk of humanity that the more we know something, the less we think about it. In time, the monuments because moss-covered and comforting. Each time I passed, I’d afford them less and less attention. After years of hearing the stories, there was nothing more to learn.

Years later, I found my conception of Jesus to be strangely bland, so, armed with some historical context, (aided by more learned men than I) I set out to rediscover Jesus.

This man from Galilee is the point around which all of Christianity turns. He is considered the full revelation of the Law of God, the one true man, the messiah who came to release all mankind from bondage. But who do we find in the gospels?

Jesus is an enigma. He confounded everyone in his time. The religious elite of his day was shocked by his wisdom and knowledge as much as by his lifestyle. He upended ingrained tradition and theology with a smile and a story. He challenged centuries-old Jewish legalism while exhorting his followers to “sin no more.” Faced with barbed theological questions, he would answer with seemingly nebulous stories which forced the questioner to re-evaluate everything about himself. He advocated a strict moral life, while discouraging judgement. And Jesus mixed with all types.

The apostles were an odd lot. Gleaned mostly from rough folk, his band included fishermen and a hated tax-collector. The very fact that a Rabbi would choose these unworthy people as his closest followers was controversial at best in the 1st century world. It defied centuries of status quo and and showed one of the greatest facets of Jesus’ life: The underside of power.

Jesus showed an intense passion for the marginalised and oppressed. He touched lepers, flouted society’s censure of prostitutes and ate with “unclean” non-jews. He advocated some of the most brilliant forms of non-violent resistance ever devised. When talking about him, the scandalised elite called Jesus a “Glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”.

Jesus urged the rich to care for the poor. He branded the haughty as hypocrites, and respected women in a time when misogyny wasn’t even considered as anything other than natural. At the time of the last supper, he even took on the lowliest task in a Jew’s eyes: washing the feet of his followers, entreating them to do the same.

Then there was the God-thing. Jesus lived with an unshakeable conviction that he was God incarnate. The statements he made were, to ancient Jewish ears, incontrovertible proof of this. Elders tore their clothes at the blasphemy, Theologians scoffed at the audacity, people bowed in worship, but all were sure what he implied.

Jesus is rough and dusty. He wields a whip like Indiana Jones and plays with children. He weeps often at the state of the world. He is passionate and eloquent and humble. Walter Wink said that if Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.

I agree. If Jesus is a fiction, he’s the greatest character ever written.

P.S. Notes on historicity of accounts of Jesus’ life. This is full of links to articles which are by scholars who meticulously reference their academic sources. The articles in question are popularisations of their work, though. I would seriously encourage reading them.

There exists a problematic distance between professional historians and us laypeople. This renders debates between opposing sides of a historical figure like Jesus quite opaque to me. I have often listened to both sides being passionately defended and devolving into arguments about presupposed worldviews.

History is an inexact field. This is necessarily so. The intervening years strip us of detail, corroborating data and the writer’s worldview and identity.

In my exploration of the myriad views around the historicity of New Testament accounts, I have found that the writers’ worldviews are always reflected in the conclusions they reach. So what am I as layperson to do when confronted with two legitimate opposing viewpoints?

I think we need to exercise skepticism for both sides and accept that both sides may be true (insofar as they are plausible. The refutations of the historical data about the resurrection are quite weak).

So here follow some popularisations of the historical data:

If you accept the veracity of what we know about Plato, Julius Caesar and, Homer, you are forced to accept the truth of the New Testament accounts. The alternative is rejecting all ancient historical knowledge we have. The only way to keep one and reject the other is by being academically inconsistent.

Why should we trust the gospel accounts? While it is a game of “How far back can we postulate the Gospels’ origin” for many liberal and secular scholars, there are good historical and textual reasons for at least entertaining the possibility of them being written by people who were there.

Based on the veracity of Luke’s facts, Sir William Ramsay actually went so far as to say:  “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”[15]

This is from a skeptical scholar.

Professor of classics at Auckland University, E.M. Blaiklock, wrote: “For accuracy of detail, and for evocation of atmosphere, Luke stands, in fact, with Thucydides. The Acts of the Apostles is not shoddy product of pious imagining, but a trustworthy record… it was the spadework of archaeology which first revealed the truth.”

I doubt whether there will be a definitive answer from history, but rejecting the accounts of the New Testament out of hand only shows bias.

Film Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a mop. No, that’s not a typo, it’s a metaphor.

You see, mops just have loose ends everywhere- so too does the movie. And that is how a metaphor works. Clever, right?

While it has improved on some of the more rage-inducing elements of its predecessor, The Hobbit 2 (as I will furthermore call it) falls short on a couple of levels.

Yes, I’m referring to those loose ends again. The film is rife with subplots which are all illuminated to varying degrees. It feels like the writing team wanted to squash a whole season of HBO into one movie. There are rivalries and political shenanigans, boiler-plate angst, interracial love triangles and dramatic digressions. It’s like Game of Thrones without the sex. Many would wonder, therefore, what the point is? The point, dear frisky reader, is to get you to buy a ticket next year.

It’s one giant open-ended thread-fest to try and beat your apathy so you’ll watch the  next one to see how it ends. Instead of actually focusing on specific subplots, teasing out the complexity that could very well be there, the filmmakers seemed to think that merely telling us very blatantly that they exist is good enough. Not good enough, guys.

This leaves the characters seemingly without motivation for their actions, or at worst motivated by the broadest possible reasons, which is basically the same thing when it comes to making me care about the person on screen. But that’s not all. The ending itself might actually have rivalled that of The Matrix 2 if we didn’t all already know how it’s going to end.

The ending follows on another game of set piece one-up, much like in The Hobbit 1. Because the film is structured like a roller-coaster and not a real story, the filmmakers must keep ramping up the crazy until you have insane dwarven cat-and-mouse with a dragon (Ooh, spoiler, there’s a dragon) that escalates quicker than an internet debate about homosexuality. It keeps building up to insane heights and then ends suddenlt with zero catharsis at the end. I felt cheated.

All of this after us coming along for what felt like an eternity of running and killings stuff; getting caught; getting sprung; lathering; rinsing; repeating.

At least it was properly silly and super serial when it wanted to be. None of those completely innapropriate jokes of the first film. It’s a better film for kids and adults when it’s not trying to be both at the same time. And I mean, what’s better than taking your kid to a movie where there’s no blood at all? Oh no, actually, the one character bleeds a bit as a plot point. Another gets a light nosebleed after a throwdown with a huge orc. But it’s all kid-friendly. Now the fact that several orcs get gleefully, violently decapitated doesn’t change anything, because there’s basically no blood.

I saw the movie in 4k (thankfully no 3d or high frame rate though). Holy Crap. Wait, that was actually a typo. Should have said hokey crap. So much of the film is ridiculously pretty. The CG is wonderful (Smaug is so awesome that it’s almost worth watching just for that), the scenery, sets, and costumes are amazing. Except when they aren’t. Then every flaw stands up and does the macarena while I gibber in my seat. There are shots that look like cheap computer game cut scenes, Character animation that doesn’t even look like the people they cut back to. It’s everywhere. Just when you relax a bit something new and horrible jumps out at you.

On the whole, it’s a lot like a 20 minute guitar solo. Technically proficient (Mostly), good in some places, but essentially self-indulgent and boring. It’s a novel in need of a good editor. It’s a tree in need of pruning. It’s a writer that doesn’t know when to stop abusing metaphors.

It’s a vaguely enjoyable way to spend 160 minutes, as long as you don’t concentrate too hard. I’m just waiting for the supercut where they take all 3 movies and make a single 3-hour film. That would be worth it.

My Grandmother’s Shadow: Praising The Departed, Loving Those We Have.

I found a little book in one of the drawers of my old desk. Inside, the pages are filled with scribbled thoughts and poems I wrote so long ago that I have forgotten most of them completely. Which is apt, since what I write now is about forgetting.

My grandmother had Parkinson’s disease. She fought for years, but when she finally died, in my early teens, it left within me a feeling of relief. Relief that her suffering was over, but a darker, selfish kind also. I was thankful that I wouldn’t have to confront her again.

For me it had become intolerable to be around her. Parkinson’s is a cruel disease. It robs the sufferer of dignity long before it takes their mind. I couldn’t bear to look upon her shaking hands as she lay in bed, to lean in close and decipher the whispers she tried to communicate with. In my mind the frustration behind her eyes had become annoyance at me. This was when she could still do things. Her disease stripped her of all humanity and made her a thing of revulsion to me.

Years later, my mother (her daughter) would mention things about her and I would stand amazed. When she spoke of Ouma Ria, there was no hint of the creature I remembered. My mother spoke of a woman I didn’t know. Strong, intelligent, playful, loving. I quested back and could find no such memories of her.

My mother spoke of the time we went on a trip and my dad videotaped Ouma Ria giving us sweets against my mother’s instructions. She was looking around conspiratorially for my mother, a smirk on her face, while handing out the contraband to the eager grandchildren.

My mother told me about time spent on Ouma Ria’s lawn, when she’d play with us and we’d laugh. When she took us on trips to the shops, to the seaside. Always, there’d be a light in my mother’s eyes. Love for a woman of stature. For a person who’d fought for what was right, who loved and lived deeply. A woman who instilled a deep respect in everyone she met, because that was simply who she was. And I had been there. I had known her for years.

When my grandmother was buried, I didn’t cry like the others. I had always been a child who fixated on negative things. The last years of her life had given me so much bad to cling to that it had become my complete reality.

We are all like that to some extent. Every day we have the choice before us to focus on aspects of our lives, building our reality from the bricks of our subconscious. I have shrugged off my annoyance at the ceaseless praise heaped upon Mandela after his death, because I have felt the loss of a person’s life again.

It is not a life cut short, but a life that never existed. I didn’t cry at the funeral, but I cry today. I cry for the loss of my grandmother. For the woman she was. For the shell she became. I cry, because I will never know her as I should have, because I was a child too caught up in my own revulsion to treasure what I had had. There is nothing I can do to get her back. I will never revel in the beauty of her life remembered. It is a loss so enormous that it is unfathomable to me.

And now? I will try to live my life in remeberance of all that is good. I will try to revel in the beauty and the love of the people I treasure while they are still here.

Ouma Ria, I wasn’t loyal to the person I knew before the disease. I took for granted all you did, all I hear about. So in tribute to you I say to those who mourn: Sing! Sing of the life of the dead. Celebrate the light of a laudable existence. There will be time to reflect on mistakes later. Now is the time for songs from tear-streaked faces. To mourn the life that is no longer among us, but also to speak of the life lived while it had been.

Lest we forget.

Curses

The man slurped his soup. Sometimes his shaking hands thwarted his hunger and let the broth dribble into his beard. Not that he seemed to notice. The trembling spoon rose and fell regularly, as if directed by some silent metronome.

I sat opposite him, burning with the glances and stares of bystanders. His silent eating allowed me to stew in my discomfort. Why had I, after years of trained apathy, been shaken by this miserable human into giving alms? I am not used to it.

The slurping had stopped during my musings. The man sat wiping his mouth with a napkin, leaving streaks darker than spilled soup on its white surface. I asked if he wanted more, he nodded and I obliged. Then he began to talk.

He told me of his daughter, the child he’d conceived while still working as a security guard. Obvious pride showed in the way he spoke of this past employment.

I asked how old she is but he shook his head. He couldn’t remember. It had been years since he’d last seen her. She’d been a girl when their lives had parted for good. He wouldn’t say what happened.

This reticence was notably absent in other aspects of his life. He spoke with loving sadness of the bottle. Did I have some money for him for a drink? I said no, sadly not. Just for food. He accepted this gracefully and tucked into his second bowl of soup.

I grew to wish for silence while he spoke of his life through soup-soaked whiskers. He didn’t seem to notice how he sprayed and spilled his food when he excitedly told me more about himself. He’d gotten the jacket a few days ago from a church group. Every year they came around as the weather grew chill and handed out warm clothes and blankets. He seemed genuinely proud of the garment, as if its novelty somehow made him new too.

I didn’t have some other warm clothes for him? Sadly, no. Not here. He accepted this with the stoicism I’d come to notice in all his actions. I asked if he was looking for work. He shook his head: he was too busy for work.

He was studying to become a mechanic. Not the kind that fixes engines, though. He would loiter and beg outside an auto shop where they welded exhausts. He told me that he was watching closely and would one day open up an exhaust shop of his own.

He told me of other dreams too. He wanted to visit India. He’d heard a lot about it. When he spoke of that country, he became serious and the sadness of years on the street blazed from his eyes.

“In India, they give you a chance. If you working to be a mechanic, they don’t look away if they see you. They know.  Understand. I hear that there, you can ask for money without being ashamed. It’s because, when people give you money in India, they want to bless you. Here people give money, but they hate you for it. They curse with their rands and spit on you with cents.”

Machine Head: Cyborg Redundancy

So we are all cyborgs now. Our lives interface with technology at almost every level. We use technology to augment everything from memory to motor skills. 

The rise of technological innovation has enlarged human capacity to a previously unimagined degree. We are able to outsource the more mundane calculations and processes to our devices, while we get on with the important stuff, like wondering what’s for dinner. This has been amazing so far. The rise of the computer allowed scientists to move forward at speeds they could only have dreamed of. Automation is a wonderful, labour-saving thing.

But it has its downsides. Where we used to rely on our own brains in many instances, we now rely on our gadgets. Take the GPS, for instance. Previously, you consulted a map, storing route information in your brain. This caused many to clutch their sweaty steering wheels, while frantically scanning the sidewalk for signs (a futile endeavour in Johannesburg). The arrival of the GPS changed that. Now your palms could be as dry as British humour while you make your way to that meeting in the city center.

That is, until your GPS fails you. Then, it seems, you’re screwed. We’ve gotten so used to extend our faculties with this technology that we shut them down completely whenever it is involved. So now, when our GPS fails (which it inevitably will) we are left on roads we’ve traveled dozens of times, with no idea where we are. Any change at all to your route throws you off completely. We have lost our ability to adapt.

Our brains are remarkable tools. They’ve been through millions of years of high-stress testing, probably the most rigorous R&D we’ve encountered. Not only are they insanely powerful, but they’re quite dependable and adaptable.

When we switch them off in favour of technology, though, we are curtailing their growth. We are relying on tools with a much higher failure rate and simultaneously blunting the sharpest knife at our disposal. It is through stimulation that our brains are able to process what we need. The more we switch off our brains, the less they’ll be able to do.

When you’ve got better uses for your mental capacity, by all means switch off the unnecessary bits. Use the tech. But don’t become so dependent on it that, should it fail, you’d be stuck. Use your GPS, but check the map beforehand anyway. Focus on where you are. Remember important places. You don’t need to know the entire route by heart, just enough to get you there with a bit of driving around.

As our technological interfaces become more and more intimate, this is an important facet of progress to keep in mind. As our technology increasingly becomes part of us, we should know it doesn’t only go one way. We must always keep in mind how much we, in turn, become our technology.