Category: Christianity

Excerpt from MOUTH: RANTS & ROUTINES

Christians and Taliban

My assertion that a fundamentalist Christian regime would be indistinguishable from the Taliban’s brutal reign in Afghanistan doesn’t sit well with some of the Jesus freaks I know, but I defend its essential accuracy and challenge anyone who believes otherwise to make their case.

C’mon, let’s hear it.

Because, to me, any theocracy, regardless of its creed or region of origin, will claim to be ruling on behalf of, or in accord with, its sacred deity. Which means all of its laws and edicts come stamped with the seal of approval of their chosen god—how can you possibly debate or amend a piece of legislation boasting the smoking signature of the Almighty?

Let’s take this one step further: if those in power believe themselves to be, literally, official spokespeople for some divine spirit, what is the point of opposition parties and free and open elections? Wouldn’t any expression of dissent, however mild, be the equivalent of willful defiance against god’s personal representatives? Wouldn’t that constitute heresy?

And you know what happens to heretics.

Theocracies aren’t big on laughs. Our great comedians and satirists wouldn’t fare well under sharia law; they would be among the first to be rounded up, for mocking the official state religion, daring use humor to make their point. Think of the former Soviet Union—some poor sonofabitch makes a joke about Stalin’s moustache and the next thing you know he’s on his way to a gulag, never to be seen again.

Know any great comedians working during the Third Reich? What are the stand-up acts like in Saudi Arabia or Iran—pretty toothless, I’m guessing.

Once a theocracy is installed, suddenly capital punishment comes back into vogue, have you noticed that? The more gruesome the method of dispatching wrongdoers, the better. Gouts of blood and torn bodies make a strong impression on the plebs.

Why stop there? Why not resurrect the lost art of stoning for dealing with adulterers and miscreants of every stripe? Chop off the hands of thieves, burn witches (and other troublesome females), bring back the Inquisition and, what the hell, crucifixion for the really intractable cases.

In some Moslem countries there are religious police who confront truant worshippers, shaming or arresting anyone who isn’t suitably attired or fails to conform to their puritanical standards.

I can see whack-job Christians nodding in agreement. “Great idea, let’s steal it…”

Yeah, like you did the virgin birth, the Great Flood, resurrection and a good deal more of the details and tenets of your faith.

Liberal education? Fuggetaboutit. Schools and universities will have their curriculums rewritten, bowdlerized, ensuring that nothing contrary to scripture makes it into young, impressionable minds.

Science? Are you kidding? The religiously inclined don’t believe in nonsense like dinosaurs or evolution or (guffaws of laughter) the moon landing.

Health professionals will be constrained by statutes outlawing abortion, birth control; we will no longer retain autonomy over our own bodies. Human rights and individual freedoms amount to nothing when they run afoul of dogma.

Sounds good to me, pipes up a grey-haired, fat, ugly, white man, speaking on behalf of the religious Right.

Fundamentalists believe we have strayed too far from our simple, god-fearing roots. We’ve forgotten our Sunday school lessons about what a jealous, vengeful deity demands of his flock and the genocidal horrors awaiting us should we wander from the appointed path into the surrounding wilderness.

The Taliban used to execute criminals and political enemies in soccer stadiums or other public venues. I’ve read reports of gay men and women thrown off high buildings, sometimes by their closest relatives. The Iranians, I recall, in the aftermath of their 1979 revolution, used to string up dissidents (“terrorists”) from cherry pickers.

But, of course, no innocent parties were ever punished by mistake.

Theocracies don’t make mistakes.

Theocracies are fair and impartial and unmarred by even the suggestion of corruption or scandal. God keeps his priests and officials on the straight and narrow. Each of them a paragon of virtue, no one abusing his/her station for personal gain.

And so any kind of oversight is an absurd concept. God watches over the ruling caste, not some outside agency (and they can quote chapter and verse why this is so).   An independent media is similarly irrelevant.

Religious fanatics making laws and rendering “just” verdicts. For some, this is the best possible scenario as far as governance goes; for the rest of us it is a prison without bars, a conversation where everyone is listening, a stagnant, oppressive society directed and administered by fiery-eyed preachers and homicidal zealots.

No privacy (that grants the possibility of critical thought).

Public displays of loyalty are mandatory.

The buses to the killing ground constantly filled to overflowing.

One stone each, wait until you get the signal.

God himself has sanctioned this punishment and, therefore, you’re not in a position where you can safely refuse to take part. Any hint of reluctance or expression of doubt is tantamount to treason.

A single tear could give you away.

And they’re always, always watching.

* * * * *

This essay appears in my collection of diatribes and broadsides Mouth: Rants & Routines, which will be published in e-book and Kindle formats later this month (Black Dog Press)

God, the concept

SophiaGolgotha

If there is a God, that
Supreme Being would
have to endure every
unkindness, every injury,
the abuse and mistreatment
of innocents, the unspeakable
acts we inflict on each
other, pain and torment from
time immemorial.

God would bleed and die
and scream and whimper
and plead for one more
breath of life, while expert
torturers worked their wiles,
wringing false confessions,
betrayals, a crown of thorns
carefully arranged just prior
to execution.

 

(All Rights Reserved)

New verse–check it out

The Forgiveness of God

you have so much to answer for
your immunity hereby revoked
escorted to the dock
subjected to a brutal cross-examination
            where were you?
            when were you aware?
            what did you do?
            complicit or negligent?
your answers unsatisfactory
disavowing responsibility
throwing yourself on the mercy of the court
contrition the last refuge
once all other appeals are exhausted

© 2016 by Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

Poem of the day: “Absent Father”

Absent Father

God the eternal scold
withdrawn judgmental
not the touchy-feely type

No wonder we’re so
lousy in relationships
denied parental approval

The times we needed
you offering stilted prayers
on sore bended knees

While you sulked in the
Aether using the ol’ guilt trip
to try and get your way

© 2016  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

sistine

The true spirit of Christmas

And, please, folks, during the holiday season let’s not forget the true origins of Christmas.

With all the consumerism and hedonistic behavior that accompany this time of year, I thought it important, nay, essential, to remind everyone there really was a St. Nicholas and the above link tells his inspiring life story, a moral lesson for us all.

Have a Merry one!

Recalling “The Gospel of St. Nicholas”

It’s been two years now, and a lot of posts in that interval, so maybe more recent readers haven’t seen my review of the legendary Gospel of St. Nicholas.

I love the notion of these “lost gospels” that keep cropping up.  One of these days, I’m hoping they’ll uncover some indisputable ur-text that begins with the words:  “Jesus and his buddies were pissing it up one night, tossing around ideas for a really cool religion…”

Enjoy the review and from the Burns family to all of you:

Merry Christmas and all the best in 2010.

More of my fiction on audio

imagesI warned you I had fallen in love with Garageband and that there would be more of my stuff recorded and set to music.

Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”.  Ethereal, odd, evocative.  Literary and auditory Rorschach tests.  Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.

Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:

Cliff Burns Reading Prose Poems (V.2)

“The Gospel of St. Nicholas”

 

THE GOSPEL OF ST. NICHOLAS Nag
Translated & edited by Randolph Carter
(Miskatonic University Press; 2007)

Another lost gospel? Oh, dear, here we go again.

Ever since a couple of farmers stumbled across a treasure trove (over 1000 pages) of ancient scrolls just across the river from Nag Hammadi (Egypt) in 1945, we have been captivated by the notion of “hidden” or heretical texts, suppressed by church leaders, lost to the ages. These texts would, some think, overthrow prevailing church dogma and reveal the “true” message of Christ. The Gospel of Thomas caused a bit of a stir some years back and then a few scraps purporting to give Judas’ side of the most infamous betrayal in human history were recently unearthed and published in the pages of a certain world-renowned magazine.

But the ancient texts always end up promising more than they deliver. Thomas turned out to be a series of sayings and aphorisms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a fortune cookie. Judas failed to lead to a mass reinterpretation of the basic tenets of Christianity and after an initial surge of public interest, dropped off the radar screen. Neither succeeded at rising above the level of what they were: apocrypha. Frankly, one can see why the early church fathers decided to pare them out.

Which brings us to the latest “find”, words composed by one of the early disciples of Jesus’ ministry, a man (if we are to believe him) who was intimately acquainted with the Master and privy to special knowledge not shared with the others (“I will tell you what no eye has ever seen and no ear ever heard” —Nicholas Ch. 1:2).

The Gospel of St. Nicholas has provenance, no question. It was specifically alluded to at the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), and early church leaders Irenaeus and Eusebius both rail against it, the latter referring to it as “a perverse text (that) slanders the character of our Lord and Master” and calling Nicholas “a bad egg”. There’s a single reference to Nicholas (“a magus, more properly a scoundrel”) in JosephusThe Jewish War as well as a disputed letter some attribute to Paul that speaks of Nicholas as “that drunken oaf, a laughing stock of a follower…”

And now along comes Professor Carter with this translation of a gospel long rumoured extant (held in a private collection, it was whispered, a prize treasure of the Sultan of Brunei or one of the Rothschilds, depending on the telling) but never publicly exhibited. Professor Carter is notably vague as to how he actually came into possession of such a rare artifact. There was a feature article in the Biblical Archaeological Review relating one version of the story, involving a shady character known only as “Joel Cairo” and a hasty transaction that took place in an airport bathroom in Istanbul (it is not disclosed what Professor Carter offered in exchange for his prize). When I contacted the professor at his home outside Arkham, he was cagy, neither confirming or denying the essentials of the BAR account.

Others have taken him to task for hoarding the Nicholas material, refusing to share his find with fellow scholars, a criticism that has also been leveled at other great “scroll scholars” (see: Roland de Vaux and John Strugnell). By not offering even scant portions of Nicholas to colleagues so they could aid in the authentication and translation process, Carter left himself open to charges of academic fraud and willful self-deception.

All that said, what I personally take exception to is Carter’s translation of the Gospel of St. Nicholas. Yes, I know he devotes nearly half of his lengthy (tendentious) introduction to the necessity of maintaining the tone of the original text. Apparently Nicholas composed his reminiscences in a rather obscure and crude form of Aramaic, employing a surprising amount of slang. Thus we have Jesus rebuking his disciples (Professor Carter’s translation):

“What a bunch of whiners. How many of you braying horses’ asses were born of a virgin mother? Peter? I didn’t think so. So shut your gobs and pay attention…” (Nicholas 3:7)

Does this sound like the Jesus you learned about in Sunday school?

Later:

“What do you all have against women? Why do you think so little of our mothers and sisters? Do you not see they are God’s creatures too? I say unto you, give me the presence of a dozen women (of questionable morals?)…(missing fragment)…rather than a bunch of repressed … with tiny, withered…” (fragment breaks off) (Nicholas 4:9)

Nicholas makes it clear that Jesus is not an elitist and wasn’t one to turn down a glass of wine even if it wasn’t strictly for sacramental purposes:

“Jesus roared, slapping his brother James on the back, causing him to spew water and food matter at Simon…..barely restraining himself, Jesus declared ‘laughter smites the staunchest foe; none may withstand its entreaties’…to which Judas belched, provoking more (merriment?)…” (Nicholas 3:5)

Well, we always knew from the four Gospel writers that Jesus wasn’t one to hold with tradition: He broke Sabbath and wasn’t averse to sitting down at the table with sinners, whores, even tax collectors.

But where are the world-shaking epiphanies, passages that refute Christ’s divinity or tell about how He survived His crucifixion and was spirited off to parts unknown?

And what about this “secret knowledge”?

Well, Jesus does confide to Nicholas that He has little respect for the spiritual toughness and intellectual depth of his fellow disciples. Peter comes in for particular abuse, Jesus clearly employing venomous sarcasm when He calls him “the Rock”.

“What wisdom hath the Rock for us today…” (Nicholas 3:8)

“The stones cry out but the Rock merely stares…” (Nicholas 3: 10)

“Brothers, cast down thy tools, we have the Rock to aid us!” (Nicholas 4:1)

We knew there were strong divisions between the early Christians but this is out and out character assassination. And it begs the question, are these Jesus’ words or, even more likely, the rejoinders of a disgruntled follower?

In Nicholas’ version of events, Jesus does not go to Jerusalem to be sacrificed and fulfill ancient prophecy but because He has heard there are some “people of merit inhabiting that place…generous lodgings thereabouts…Judas says we should qualify (?) for a group…rate(?)”.

We know that significant efforts were expended at various points in time to erase the embarrassing memory of some of Nicholas’s antics (in a “letter” Jesus supposedly wrote to King Agbar of Edessa, the Son of Man playfully alludes to Nicholas’ talent at the ancient Judaic equivalent of the “hotfoot”). Immediately following their Master’s death, the other disciples convened a meeting and according to their aggrieved brother (Nicholas 8:12) “cast out and excommunicated the one known as Nicholas…blameless except for that he was best-loved by the Lord and the other…bastards (according to Carter’s footnote the literal translation is ‘goat-humpers’) resented it”.

In the end, the man who will one day be St. Peter is merciful to his old colleague and merely exiles poor Nicholas, sending him on a one-way mission to preach the word of Christ to the residents of Ultima Thule “a blasted and forsaken place…a godless heathen wasteland so complete the pagans knew nothing of Rome…and ridiculed… (fragment missing)…my attire provoking the northern equivalent of ‘girlie man’…”

Clearly it’s hard-going for Brother Nicholas as he plunges through the forests and rough, merciless terrain, cursing his misfortune all the way. We’re led to believe he reached the Baltic Sea. There the narrative abruptly ends.

“Christ, it’s cold. Any maniac who lives in such … (fragment missing) …rubbing seal fat all over themselves, grinning like ghouls… God, I despise these filthy people…tomorrow I shall … and rebuke them for their worship of vile demon gods…”

That’s the last we hear from Nicholas and legend has it he was martyred out of his misery on or about Christmas Day, A.D. 43.

After his prospective parishioners had killed and eaten him, they divvied up his worldly goods. The practice of giving gifts around that time of the year gradually caught on and all this leads, in a very roundabout way, to a fat man in a red suit trailing after a team of reindeer and distributing booty to one and all.

All part of the celebration of a man that Professor Carter assures us was the most “human” of all the disciples. His translation presents Nicholas “warts and all” and makes no excuses for the misanthropic ramblings of this early pariah.

Jolly old St. Nick? Hardly: “Jesus agreed with me that most men are oafs. He favors forgiving them their trespasses (but) I say they should have their nuts nailed to their foreheads” (Nicholas 2:4). Or how about: “Gentiles? Jews? I could give a fig for either. As long as I have a warm cloak and a belly full (food? wine?), Caesar can do as he pleases…” (Nicholas 10:3)

The original Santa Claus turns out to be a rebel, an apostate, a sinner. He was judged unworthy by his colleagues, his rather spotty, uneven gospel consigned to the rubbish heap of history long before the bishops, at the behest of Constantine, sequestered themselves at Nicea. And there the matter would have rested, except for rumours and vague allusions.

Enter, the mysterious Mr. Cairo…

There’s more to this strange and remarkable tale than meets the eye and more than enough gossip, innuendo and intrigue to keep Biblical scholars happy…well, until the next lost gospel surfaces. Perhaps it will be fragments of the original Book of Enoch, to supplant the only copy we have, a corrupted text from the Medieval era.

Will any lost text seriously affect the faith lives of over a billion Christians around the world? Doubtful. More to the point, these texts offer us a fuller, more complete picture of the debates and conflicts that shaped the early church. Each new fragment is important, historically moreso than theologically. It has become manifestly clear, thanks to discoveries like Hag Hammadi and Qumran, that strong personalities were influential in forging the premises and tenets of Christianity and eradicating other, less doctrinally sound, voices and witnesses. We see stark evidence of just how fraught and heated those times were. and how ruthlessly the losers were treated.

Gospels like Thomas, Mary and Nicholas weren’t “lost” so much as discarded, expunged from church records. Keep in mind that venerable axiom that it is the winners who write history—in this case, they also forged a faith that has defied the centuries, endured schism, committed atrocities in the name of its God and today shapes the sensibilities of nearly a fifth of the world’s population.

I wonder what Nicholas would make of that.