Is Now a Good Time to Invest in Oil?

I am going a little afield from the usual menu of faith-based entries with this post, but I am also an aspiring finance geek and wanted to put some thoughts together on the recent trend in oil prices. But don’t worry, one of my core Christian convictions remains that we cannot show respect to our creator while systematically disrespecting his creation (especially when it’s done in the name of short-sighted economic gains at the expense of just about everyone, especially the poor and defenseless). Yes, gasoline is “less-expensive,” these days, but if you were driving in the mid to late 90’s, then you know it still isn’t “cheap.” And when we figure in the externalized costs of oil (like health problems and environmental destruction), it is still way waaay too costly.

Anyway, I just read a friend’s blog this morning that discussed the ramifications of the drop in oil prices for personal finances. It was well done, and you can find it here: What Falling Oil Prices and a Rising Dollar Mean for You. But it got me thinking about investments in oil as a money maker or a portfolio holding. Unfortunately, if you own any mass-market exchange traded fund (ETF) or mutual fund that focuses on large-cap companies or the S&P 500, you absolutely have money invested in the oil industry, like it or not. It is what it is, and there’s nothing you can do about it if you prefer index funds (like me). That being said, there are ETFs and mutual funds that are specifically dedicated to the oil sector (as well as individual stocks if you like extra exposure). The question, therefore, is: “Is now a good time to buy in to oil-dedicated investments?”

As much as it pains me to say this (no really, I may have to punch myself in the face here), right now might be a decent time to invest in oil (in general) if you are a short-term or even medium-term investor. Oil securities, ETFs and mutual funds have generally taken a beating in the last 6 months, and I don’t think this is going to last. There’s just no way. Short term, I’d say less than 2 years. Mid-term? Maybe 3-7. And when prices spike again, it could be the perfect model of buying low and selling high, if you buy-in now. But investor beware, so-called “market timing” is notoriously difficult, and I am not recommending any such thing. In fact, the prevailing wisdom of benefiting from investing in stocks, bonds, ETFs and mutual funds is to buy and hold, holding forever if possible (thanks, Mr. Buffet). With that in mind, Now is definitely NOT the time to take a long-term approach to investing in gas and oil or any of their subsidiary businesses. Ah, maybe I can sleep tonight after all.

Whether it’s investing or budgeting for sub-$2 gallons of gas, I think it is a huge mistake to get too excited or make long-term financial plans that depend on lower oil prices year over year. What I mean is that the current trend is likely a fluke in the steady rise in demand for and shrinking supply of oil. At least easy-access oil, that is. At best, this will cause oil securities to stagnate concerning capital appreciation and dividends too, and maybe even continue to fall. And please, for the love of God, don’t go buy a Chevy Suburban or Ford Expedition thinking that gas prices won’t ruin your day in the future. They will.

Over the mid-term, the less expensive oil hiccup will simply not continue. Oil companies all over the world have a vested interest in higher oil prices. Combined with free-market mechanics, this necessitates that less-profitable drilling and refining will be shutdown, which will entail reduced supply. On the other side, demand will inevitably increase, especially with the growing middle classes in China and India (and all of them want cars). This will cause oil securities to rise in capital appreciation and perhaps dividends too.

Falling production with increasing demand = higher prices, and this is exactly what Saudi Arabia (the cornerstone of OPEC) wants AND why they have decided to increase short term oil production. It’s a brilliant market play on the part of the Arab Kingdom because (as I said) this will drive a lot of the smaller and more challenging oil fields to become unprofitable and shutdown (think dirty tar sands oil & every smalltime operation in West Texas and North Dakota). Once those players are out of business, and OPEC chops its supply (and they will, mark my words) that organization can do whatever it likes with prices and the rest of the world will just have to say “Thank you, may I have another?!”

That being said, over the longer-term, the entire oil business is in deep trouble (and it should be, given the environmental and geo-political consequences of long term oil addiction). Eventually we are going to wake up and realize that fossil fuels (and all the petrol dictatorships who hate the USA that depend on them) are not a good thing for our nation or for the world at large to keep financing. When we finally accept the poisonous nature of our addiction to fossil fuels, and when we finally build-out a renewable, clean energy economy that eschews dirty fuels, long-term investments in the fossil-fuel industry are going down in a major way. Hasten the day.

But it’s not just an environmental thing. As hinted at above, moving away from oil means that nations like Venezuela, Iran, and Russia get put in a serious financial pinch. These nations aren’t exactly a list of America’s biggest fans, and each of them are presently facing serious financial crises and domestic turmoil for no other reason that falling oil prices have gutted their economies (think military and social spending). I suggest that Putin’s recent land-grabs are motivated by the desire to distract as much as they are to commandeer much-needed, non-oil resources, but that is a separate topic, I suppose. Nevertheless, the fact is that moving away from oil means that we can put hostile nations (many of which use oil revenues to finance terrorism) out of business, and that is a wonderful thing. It also represents a serious set of motivators for clean, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, geothermal, etc. Even if we prefer to deny science / climate change, the fact is that moving away from oil can protect more than the planet.

When we take the longview, it seems that the heyday of oil is over, perhaps in its twilight or at the very lest, well past noon, and thus not a good option for the buy and hold investor. Divesting from fossil fuels now = investing in a healthy and peaceful future.

And I think that’s something Jesus could dig.

Thanks for reading me.

-Corbin

Posted in Environment, Other Topics, Politics | 5 Comments

Justice for Michael Brown?

I sign a lot of petitions for many different issues. Most of these are for environmental causes and cases of human injustice, especially those concerning women and children. As a Christian, I take injustice very seriously and strive (although not very well at times) to treat others how I would want to be treated. Similarly, as part of my desire to remake the world in a better and more equitable place, I sign up to get emails from various organizations who support such causes. One of these is the petition hosting site, MoveOn.org, and more often than not, I’m not particularly discerning in which petitions I sign. I rarely see one that doesn’t deserve my signature. That was not the case last Tuesday, however, when I received a request to sign a petition urging the President and Attorney General, Eric Holder, to indict the police officer, Darren Wilson, who shot and killed Michael Brown, and to do so regardless of the findings of a grand jury assembled to weigh the matter.

Here is what the leading portion of the petition saidYesterday, a St. Louis grand jury refused to indict Mike Brown’s killer—police officer Darren Wilson. On Aug. 9, the nation was horrified to learn that Mike Brown was targeted and killed by police as he walked down the street with a friend.”

As the carefully worded petition reads, people are lead to believe that officer Darren Wilson specifically picked Michael Brown as a target for his unbridled prejudices, and for his part, Brown was merely sauntering down the lane with a friend and minding his own business. Moreover, everyone in “the nation” was “horrified” at the fact that a grand jury “refused” to bring charges against the police officer who shot Brown.

What a load of misleading and manipulative nonsense. As per the known facts, here’s what the petition should have stated: St. Louis grand jury determined that police officer, Darren Wilson, did not violate the law when he defended himself with lethal force against the violent assailant, Michael Brown. However, we think we know better, so please sign this petition advocating circumvention of due process and forcing a decision that accords with our personal feelings rather than law. 

The Real Question

I want it known that I am troubled by the incident between officer Wilson and Mr. Brown. It should not have happened at all. Had Mr. Brown not robbed a convenience store and not been holding up traffic as he walked in the middle of the street and not attacked officer Wilson when given a reasonable directive by the officer, he would still be alive. In fact, he would be alive even if he had robbed the store and held up traffic IF he had complied with the officer’s reasonable request for information and appropriate pedestrian behavior. And IF officer Wilson had killed Brown for Brown’s peaceful compliance, THEN a grand jury WOULD absolutely have reason to indict and convict the officer.

As it stands, officer Wilson did not pick this fight. He approached Brown only after he witnessed some odd behavior from Brown. In fact, Wilson was only in the vicinity because a police dispatcher had sent him to the area for a different call. Wilson did not “target” Brown in the sense that he was looking for a reason to kill an unarmed black man. Yes, he technically aimed at Brown (with his gun) when Brown was attacking him, but not before. The petition conveniently left these details out, and it used the verb “targeted” in a sense that does not immediately indicate using a site on a gun, but rather an intentional and unmerited desire to persecute Brown because of some prejudicial condition.

While the petition sent to me thankfully did not mention this “prejudicial condition,” it has nevertheless been identified as race. Time and again I have heard that, “white police officer, Darren Wilson, gunned down unarmed, college-bound, black student, Michael Brown.” All of these descriptors are technically accurate, but just like the petition’s wording, they are designed to evoke certain themes in the mind of the viewers/ listeners. I think they are also designed to elicit thoughts of police brutality.

Let’s face it, some people want this to be about race, and therein lies a huge problem. The shooting death of Michael Brown is not necessarily a case of violent, white-on-black racism. That may (or may not) be an issue worthy of investigation here, but it seems to me the real question concerns what happened between officer Wilson and Mr. Brown? To make this incident only about race can completely obfuscate that obvious question.

Unarmed”?

It should be noted that an assailant doesn’t have to possess his or her own gun in order to have a “weapon.” A fist, a car door, and even an officer’s own pistol are all options that a criminal can opt for in the midst of an altercation. Officers have the right to defend themselves by force when attacked with any manner of weapon. We see this all the time when a criminal tries to ram a cop with a vehicle. By the evidence made known to the grand jury and the public, Mr. Brown did not comply with the officer’s requests and ultimately responded violently (although not with a gun) to officer Wilson. This ended with Wilson firing his weapon and Brown’s death. The real question is not, “Is Wilson a racist?” but rather, “Did Wilson use his weapon lawfully?” The grand jury found that Wilson did, in fact, lawfully use his weapon.

Before I go on, we should consider a few important questions. For example, should a police officer not address wayward pedestrians who are intentionally holding up traffic and putting themselves at risk? Should a police officer not defend him or herself when attacked by an assailant? If a cop cannot even ask citizens to comply with the most basic of traffic laws, much less defend him or herself from a violent perpetrator, then what would we suggest cops do with their time? Have we not opted for some sort of anarchy when we prevent cops from doing their jobs? What would we have had officer Wilson do?

Or, what if Brown had succeeded in his attack against the officer? What if Brown had killed Wilson with a weapon and then a grand jury determined that Brown was merely acting in self defense? Would the residents of Ferguson Missouri and other municipalities automatically declare that a grave injustice occurred and march in the streets, sometimes violently to show their displeasure? Would a petition rise up on the internet to ask our President and the Attorney General to step in and ignore due process and make an armchair decision without the weight of measuring all the evidence or even considering a jury of citizen peers? No. There would be no marches and no mass outcries of injustice. In fact, I doubt most of us would have ever even heard the story.

And that raises an equally important question, namely: “Why do some folks immediately assume (without having access to the facts and testimony that the grad jury did) that this incident is an example of injustice, racism and police brutality?” Have these protesters even considered that perhaps the grand jury reached a logical and accurate decision? Could it be that, as the grand jury determined, officer Wilson was defending himself from a violent attack? And if this could NOT be the case, then we must ask, “Why not?” Could it possibly be that the various protesters (and petition creators) are leaping to the wrong conclusion because of some gut-level feeling they have (rather than facts)? Could there be a level of anti-white racism afoot in those feelings that merely presumes that anti-black racism is to blame, and that Michael Brown was just walking down the street with a friend as an innocent and hopeful college student? These are questions that must be considered.

Is Michael Brown’s Death an Instance of Racism and Police Brutality?

I understand that many, many people are dismayed at what happened between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. I am one of them. The incident could have easily been avoided. I understand that police brutality is a very real thing. I accept that racism, primarily against both black and Latino people, has played a very real, very violent and very unjust part of American life, both past and present. Be that as it may, when it comes to the shooting death of Michael Brown, the question to ask is not, “Is there racism, brutality and injustice in parts of our nation’s police forces?” but rather, “Is the death of Michael Brown an example of these police problems?”

IS Mr. Brown’s death an example of injustice perpetrated by our system? Am I big jerk for criticizing the notion that it was? Am I even capable of considering the question given my white privilege and power? I have no absolute certainty about what really happened between Brown and Wilson, so I must consider the allegation as a possibility. Nevertheless, it will take more than what I’ve seen thus far from the get-officer-Wilson contingent to convince me that I am wrong here. While I acknowledge that it IS possible that racial hatred motivated officer Wilson to gun down Mr. Brown in cold blood, the grand jury says otherwise. That jury was in the best place to make a decision, far better than my personal feelings, and they did. When someone outside of that jury claims to know what really happened, they are making a claim without credibility. Whether they realize it or not, they are presuming to know better than those who had direct access to the evidentiary details, and that is beyond reason.

So. Back to the petition I was asked to sign. I get it that people are upset and want justice. The problem is that a large portion of them do not accept what has been determined to BE justice by a jury of Brown’s and Wilson’s peers. And once the petition creators jumped to their own ill-conceived conclusions about the event, they decided to compose a petition that purposefully misrepresents the situation so that they might stir up sentiment (and signatures) for their misguided cause. I’m sure the tactic has worked among folks who haven’t bothered to consider the problem it typifies or those who operate on feeling at the expense of reason.

I also wonder if the petition’s creators have considered that the manipulative way they have written it undermines their own cause. What I mean is that some people who accept the grand jury’s decision have come to believe that the folks who reject it are merely troublemakers who do not care about facts, due process, or even the law itself. This petition plays to those very suspicions. The most reasonable thing skeptical people can say about this sad story is that they do not know if the grand jury’s decision was right, but they feel like it wasn’t. Even so, our legal system is (supposed to be) held accountable to facts and legal arguments, not feelings. When we overturn law and misrepresent facts to fit our feelings and manipulate others we have become the instruments of injustice.

Going forward, reasonable people should continue to push for appropriate police accountability, civil rights AND obedience to the law. We should protest when these things are trampled on, regardless of who does the trampling (cops or robbers). Nevertheless, if both parties in the Brown-Wilson incident had respected police accountability, civil rights, and acted in obedience to the law, then Brown would still be alive. Indeed, there would have been no reason for officer Wilson to pay him any attention at all.

Thanks for reading me,

-C. Lambeth

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments

Atheist Sam Harris’ Wheelbarrow

Recently I came across a comment from the atheist popularizer, Sam Harris, deriding Christians for believing accounts of Christ that come from a millennia-years old book penned by people for whom the wheelbarrow was emergent technology. I understand that for some people (apparently Sam Harris), this might appear to be an appropriate criticism, but the logic is more than a little muddled. Harris’ argument hinges on the idea that people whom WE consider to be technologically primitive are incapable of perceiving events as they actually occurred and equally unable to report them to anyone else with fidelity. Like other atheists, Mr. Harris is welcome to place his faith in such dubious conclusions, but there are a few things the rest of us should consider before converting to his beliefs.

First off, neither historical events nor truth statements are contingent upon the relative technological advances of the people that witness or record them. By Harris’ logic, anything and everything that ancient people did, said, wrote down or thought is contemptible for mere fact that ancient people were ancient people. Put another way, his argument suggests that technologically “primitive” people are incapable of discerning truth, much less accurately conveying it to those who come after them.
This isn’t just questionable; this is dumb.

Secondly, statements like Harris’ demonstrate an embarrassing lack of self-awareness when it comes to our own location in history. What I mean is that this sort of logic presumes that we are presently at the pinnacle of knowledge and technological innovation, and this is laughable. While it might initially be tempting to buy into this because of where we are SO FAR in human history on planet earth, a tiny bit of reflection will reveal that the sentiment is ludicrous even if we ruled out the possible technological advances of truly alien races (think ET). To clarify, while we can look back and congratulate ourselves for having come this far (iPods and space shuttles etc.), we are not at the end of time. We are part of a continuum and should consider that perhaps Harris’ wheelbarrow is to the 1st century what the microchip is to the late 20th century. Looking forward, what might we hypothesize that humans in the 41st century would say about the technology and understanding of people in the 21st century? Speculate with me:

Can you imagine, those poor schleps thought that electric cars were amazing ‘technological innovations’!?!? Since we obviously know better now, we should dismiss anything that those ignorant, 21st century fools did, said or transmitted to us here in the 5th millennium.

The (poor) logic here is astounding.

Of course I suspect that Harris’ verbal hand-grenade was not intended to criticize everything about 1st century peoples everywhere, but rather just those who had profound experiences with Christ and his church. I doubt that Harris approaches non-Christian and non-supernatural accounts and events of a similar vintage with the same amount of vitriol and skepticism. That is his prerogative, but it accomplishes little besides pulling back the curtain on his biases and materialistic faith-commitments (at least for those willing to look).

To make a final point, what if we turn the tables on Harris and consider the earliest Christians to be well ahead of their time. The argument might sound like this:

Because extremely educated and technologically sophisticated people believe in Jesus in the 21st century, this demonstrates that people who believed in Christ with the comparative technological limitations of the first century were truly thousands of years more enlightened than their non-believing associates.

I suspect that atheists will not be impressed by such thinking, and this is precisely why I am amazed that they think Harris’ quote on the matter merits allegiance or why they champion him as a spokesperson for their cause. Is he the best they have to offer?
Happily, I think so. Dig deep. Christians have nothing to fear.

Thanks for reading me.
-Corbin

Posted in Atheism / Secular Humanism | 1 Comment

Denying Climate Change is Stupid and UnChristian

How can people can still deny climate change and humanity’s culpability for it? Why are Christians so heavily represented in that group of denialists? There is no legitimate debate over what is happening. The greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, a has increased exponentially in our atmosphere over the last 200 years to almost 400 parts per million, a level not recorded since at least 10,000 years ago. There is only one viable explanation for these elevated levels: human activities. Simultaneously, our planet’s carbon-sinks, or those features like healthy oceans and rain forests that absorb carbon dioxide, have been polluted, deforested and generally damaged at an unprecedented rate and scale (also by human activities). The only things we don’t know about climate change are: 1) how quick and disruptive the effects will be, and 2) what, if anything, humans are going to do about the problem they created.Image

In a particularly troubling move, I have noticed that those who have long rejected science (at least when it suits their political allegiances) have jumped from denying climate change altogether to claiming that there’s nothing we can do about it now, so don’t bother trying. It is pretty clear that these folks’ pretext has ALWAYS been: We’re never going to do anything about climate change, and we’ll find whatever excuse is most convenient to avoid taking any responsible action on it. 

Even more troubling is that some of my fellow Christians deny science and refuse to support action on climate change because they’ve allowed it to be dictated in political terms. Since Democrats (in general) accept what our atmosphere and science is telling us about climate change, and Republicans (in general) deny it, respective supporters of these political parties often fall in-line with those partisan positions. This isn’t particularly unique. It happens all the time, but the atmosphere (and science) don’t give a damn about our political or religious beliefs. We desperately need a reality check. We cannot continue to plod along blindly because of our political dogma.

What About God?

Speaking of dogma, can we talk about some of the wacky religious ideology on this issue? Perhaps it would be more accurate for me to say, “the wacky dogma of some religious people.” It’s a subtle but important difference. What I mean is that we don’t have to look too far to find some Christians professing faith that God won’t let humans wreak havoc on the climate. In a not-too-distant disagreement with one of my old friends from elementary school, he vehemently denied climate change (because he couldn’t see it with his own eyes), and subtly accused me of some type of apostasy when he asked me, “Are you going to believe man, or God on this issue?!?!

I didn’t realize God had spoken on climate change. Oh. Wait. He didn’t. I don’t precisely know where this “logic” comes from, but it’s not the Bible. I suspect it’s linked to the belief that only God will destroy the Earth/ Universe, but this fails to be applicable to climate change.1  Let’s not blow things out of proportion. Climate change won’t destroy the celestial mass we call Earth, nor the universe. However, it will accelerate the already-happening mass extinction rate on Earth, as well as general destruction of natural habitat, biodiversity, and stable sea-levels. Climate change will also aid in the spread of disease, pestilence, forest fires, floods, droughts, and extreme weather in general. It will also disproportionately and negatively affect impoverished individuals and nations who have not the means to relocate or adequately cope with the effects of climate change. Continued belief that God won’t let these sorts of things happen is disconnected from both human history AND Scripture. God seems quite comfortable letting humanity deal with the deadly consequences of its own stupidity. There is no reason to believe this time will be any different.

It All Comes Down to the Dollar (doesn’t it always?)

In one of its oddest forms, anti-climate folks proclaim that climate change is a money making scheme perpetrated by the likes of Al Gore to make money off of gullible types (as if the fossil-fuel industry doesn’t see us as cash-cows and has no interest whatsoever in maintaining our addiction to dirty energy). Right. One of my own associates claims that in the 1970’s, “all the scientists were saying the planet was in a horrible cooling period and that we were well on our way into another ice age.” Then she declares it was just a money-maker for “those people” and a way to manipulate the political landscape.2  The end result is that this is used as a pretext to dismiss what scientists say about the reality of climate change. Fail.

In its slightly more plausible form, the money argument against taking on climate change is that acting ethically will be expensive and damaging to our oh-so-fragile economy. I understand the sentiment. Transitioning away from dirty fuels and towards alternative, clean renewables certainly comes with a price tag. Nevertheless, this fails to consider that if we screw the climate, our global economy gets screwed too (not to mention your beach house).

The Economics Protest fails to consider the following:

1) The true cost of NOT doing anything to mitigate and reduce climate change is likely to FAR exceed the costs of transitioning away from fossil fuels. We are simply messing with forces we do not understand on an unprecedented scale, the consequences of which are not fully known. The exacerbation of super storm Sandy by climate change/ risen sea levels is but a foretaste of the kind and cost of costal damages that our nation (and world) are in for. Considering that dirty fuels are going to be depleted at some point anyway, transitioning to clean, sustainable alternatives sooner rather than later makes the most sense. It’s not a matter of IF we must transition away from dirty fuels, but when. Citing economics as a reason for refusing to act on climate change is both short-sighted and stupid.

2) Transitioning to alternative, renewable, clean means of power creation/ consumption will mean the exponential and sustainable growth of new jobs and industries. The first nation(s) to make this transition and sell it to others will be a global game-changer. Transitioning away from fossil fuels like oil will also put many nations and groups who hate the United States out of business. Believing that transitioning to clean, renewable power will cost us jobs and security is plainly wrong.

And please, for the love of God, stop throwing Solyndra into this argument. Using that failed solar company to try and make a point is like saying that we should have given up flight after the first few attempts to build airplanes came to nothing. Or that we should have given up fighting polio when the first efforts at inoculation foundered. Or the moon. Or the computer. Or…  I think you get the idea.

3) Finally, and with particular regard to Christians, it ought to be considered that, as per the Bible, God cares infinitely more about his creatures (all of creation) than he does about fickle human wealth and political allegiances. If we were to ask Christ, “What should we focus on, economic development that permanently damages creation OR a sustainable economy that seeks balance between human activities and the rest of his creation?” I think we can predict what he would say and all the more so when we consider that our present economic system (here’s looking at you, capitalism) favors the wealthy at the expense, subjugation, and desolation of impoverished nations and people. Favoring destructive environmental practices for micro-term wealth creation is not just stupid, it’s unChristian.

I could go on, but it’s unnecessary. Chances are that if you understand the reality and threat of climate change, you don’t need me to tell you about it. Similarly, if you deny the reality of climate change, you probably wouldn’t read this blog-post in the first place. I hope I am wrong on both counts, but even if I’m not, I hope whoever reads this found some part of it helpful or at least mildly interesting.

Thanks for reading me,

-Corbin Lambeth

1: The popular Christian conception that the entire cosmos will ultimately be destroyed by fire is grounded in a particular interpretation of 2Peter 3:10-12. All too often, the resulting attitude is that we shouldn’t be so concerned with conservation or limiting our destructive activities because it’s all going to burn anyway. This is stupid. Even if this interpretation of the verse were accurate (and there is reason to believe that it is not), we simply have no idea when Christ will return. To use an analogy, sound financial planning posits that retirement be constructed to reduce the possibility of running deficits before a person’s body becomes worm food. From a self-preservation and care-for-our-progeny perspective, I think we should at least consider treating our planet in the same way until the truly unpredictable moment of THE END. Put another way, when we consider that we have no idea when history will end, we had better take care of what we have for as long as we can.

2: A Brief Review of the peripheral 70’s cooling fear can be found here: http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2014/01/the_myth_of_the_global_cooling_consensus.html

And just for a little extra reading: Climate Change Skeptic Sees the Light, Changes Mind

-CL

This post was last edited on 12/3/14.

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Rounding Up a Wife for Jesus

I would like to offer some gentle push-back on the recent talk concerning “Jesus’ wife” that I have come across. In many of the circles I frequent, there are a lot of friends and other voices who have been quick to accept the idea of a wife for Jesus. Given the arguments I have heard in favor of this (so far), I think jumping on this bandwagon is premature. Please let me begin with a full disclosure: I cannot pretend to know if Jesus did or did not ever partake of marriage. Nevertheless, I find assertions that he did to be highly dubious, so I’ve put together just a few counter perspectives on arguments that seem to be trending in favor of the notion. Whether you find this helpful or think I have made some mistakes, I invite constructive feedback. Thanks in advance.  -CL

Making Jesus in Our Image? Our cultures, religious and otherwise, seem to have an obsession with insider information about Jesus. Whatever our motivations may be, we all want more, and when we run out of the sparse, early, credible evidence, it seems to be in our nature to fabricate more or latch on to any new tidbit or hearsay we come across (at least when we like it). If any here have read Bart Ehrman’s recent work “Forgery and Counterforgery: The Use of Literary Deceit in Early Christian Polemics,” then you know what I am talking about and can see that fabricating new narratives about biblical characters (or alleged biblical characters) is not new. At all.

Even in the past few centuries, conspiracy theories have exploded about the Roman Catholic Church and its (alleged) rewriting of early Christian history. This has given rise to everything from Joseph Smith and his Mormons to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and all points in between (ossuaries with mysterious inscriptions, fabricated “gospels,” hallucinated Jesus-ghosts along with clandestine children and wives, etc). It all makes for great entertainment (and marketing), and inspires the “Ah-ha, I knew it!” moment that feeds so many inner conspiracy theorists, but the truth is often far less juicy than our imaginations. We may want more (I do), but that doesn’t give us license to unhinge our understandings of Jesus from history and legitimate evidence.

But, on with the show:

Argument 1: Rabbis (and other Jews like Jesus) were commonly married, therefore, Jesus was probably married.

Criticism: This is a classic inductive argument, and with all such arguments, it hinges on probability. Clearly the largest sample-set will indicate that the majority of people (rabbis or otherwise) have been married in their lives. Nevertheless, it does not follow that all people are married/ have been married. I don’t think I need to beleaguer the point to make it. The question, therefore, is not about whether most people or rabbis were married in general, but rather, “Was Jesus married in particular?” To answer that question, we have to look beyond large-scale probability and sociological trends. And to do that, we have to consider evidence that directly relates to Jesus.

So, is there evidence for Jesus having been married?

Argument 2: The archaeological evidence recently promoted by media outlets claims “authentic” evidence that Jesus was married.

Jesus Wife FragmentCriticism: The Jesus-Wife hypothesis is a sensationalized and unsubstantiated claim at best. At least so far. What we actually have is a fragment of a text that dates (at the very earliest) to the mid 7th century, at least 600 years after the ministry of Jesus. The scrap of papyrus features a Jesus character who refers to his “wife.” The author of the text is unknown. It is written in Coptic (not Jesus’ lingua franca) and is commonly held to have originated somewhere in Egypt. That’s all we’ve got, and scholars who are familiar with the extra-biblical writings, hagiography and tertiary “gospels” about Jesus that proliferated in the centuries after his life (especially in the deserts of Egypt) know better than just to presume they contain early, authentic details about Jesus of Nazareth.

As far as textual evidence for Jesus of Nazareth goes, this papyrus shred is late to the party, in the wrong language and from a location far removed from Jesus’ provenance. In fact, it is as distant in time and proximity from the Jesus of history as is the Qur’an’s account of the crucifixion (Sura 4:157, circa 632 AD/CE).*

Is it reasonable to presume that the Qu’ran (600 years and hundreds of miles removed and with its own agenda) offers a more accurate portrayal of Jesus’ crucifixion than does the Bible? If the answer is “no,” then why are we so quick to presume that a fragment of papyrus, suffering from even greater authoritative deficiencies, offers some new and authentic details about the life of Jesus?

I believe that is a fair question, but if that doesn’t grab our attention, I would think that a quote from the much earlier (mid-2nd century) Gospel of Thomas just might:

“Simon Peter said to them, ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus replied, ‘I myself shall lead her in order to make her a male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Thomas saying 114).

How many of us, especially those of us who consider ourselves Christian feminists, are apt to believe that this purported “saying of Jesus” truly connects with the Jesus of history as revealed in the pages of Christian canon? I am personally very skeptical that this saying, indeed the entire Gospel of Thomas, is anything more than an intentional re-casting or fabrication of a Jesus figure to meet certain Gnostic presuppositions and needs. Given the plethora of late, conflicting, and often obviously forged documents purporting to reveal “truth” about Jesus, I think it best to focus on what we know from the earliest and best sources about Jesus of Nazareth (the Bible), while treating lesser quality texts and fragments with a heavy dose of suspicion and incredulity.

Even Karen King, Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and one of the researchers of the Jesus-wife textual fragment, says the script does not mean that Jesus had a wife, but rather affirms, “that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus — a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued.

In summation, we have no biblical evidence for Jesus’ wife at all and next to nothing from extra-biblical sources. Even the latter is subject to understandings and interpretations that do not require a literal wife for Jesus. This should not be understated.

Argument 3: The editors, compilers, and redactors of the biblical material are likely to have either purposefully excluded or eliminated the evidence and references pertaining to Jesus’ wife as part of their patriarchal biases or cultural limitations and sensitivities. As such, the Bible is not an authoritative source regarding Jesus’ marital status.

Criticism: This argument has several significant problems, chief among them is that it seems to make the evidence fit the conclusion rather than the other way around. Stated another way, it starts with a presupposition (that Jesus had a wife) and then rejects the earliest and best evidence (the Bible) because that evidence does not reinforce the presupposition. This is not how historians go about their work.

The edited-Bible argument also fails to consider the numerous, potentially problematic details that were left within biblical narratives and letters, especially those that give primacy to women and their unmistakeable importance in the early church. For example, it is women who first tell / teach the 11 remaining apostles that Jesus is risen. Women in the NT are also called “Apostles” (Junia), “Disciples” (Dorcas/ Tabitha), “Deacons” (Phoebe), Pastor of a church community (Prisca or Priscilla), and “Prophets” (Anna). If we are asked to believe that Jesus’ “wife” was edited out due to patriarchal or anti-women sentiments, then it begs the question regarding why these other women were allowed to remain with their positions of honor and authority intact. It should also be pointed out that at least some of the disciples were married. That the Bible apparently made no effort whatsoever to erase mention of these relationships or make them of special significance is also worthy of note. If Jesus had a wife, it is reasonable to assume that the Bible would have mentioned this, at least somewhere. It doesn’t.

So it seems to me that we should not presume that Jesus had a wife just because the Bible never said that he did not. To do so is to construct an argument from silence, and if that is the door we open, it can make room for some wonky ideas (like The Life of Brian or that Jesus had a shaggy dog named “Biff” that he confided in). That is a hyperbolic argument, and of course contemplating a wife for Jesus is not as far-fetched as The Life of Brian, but I hope you take my meaning.

Argument 4: We need a Jesus who is more human, not less, and marriage does that.

Criticism: Asserting that Jesus took a wife might seem to make the man more human, at least initially. I understand the impetus for the sentiment since marriage is so prevalent among us bipeds and thus more of us can relate to a married character rather than one who chooses to be single and celibate. Nevertheless, the inverse and not-so-subtle implication of this is that folks who choose to be single and celibate are less human or that Jesus would be less human if he remained single his whole life. I have a problem with that, and I think the rest of us should as well. Jesus does not need to be married to be fully alive or fully human any more than any of the rest of us do. Marriage is not the end-all be-all of life, and I am confident that this was not lost on Jesus. We don’t need to round up a wife for Jesus to make Jesus Jesus.

Furthermore, it is inherently problematic to let our comfort levels, desires or projections dictate the “facts” about Jesus (or any other historical figure). Of course I wish we had a biography of Christ, replete with lengthy splurges of detail and a clear timeline from cradle to ascension with multiple attestations, but the absence of such material does not give us permission to create our own. That is the territory of fiction writers like Dan Brown but not scholars, historians, or serious students of the Bible.

What if the tables were turned? Finally, I ask that we consider a scenario wherein a historical heroine had inspired millions of people to believe in her and consider themselves to be her students. Imagine with me that among those followers, a cadre of folks got together, and based on questionable, very late evidence, decided that to have been complete and fully representative of her cultural position and role, their matron saint must have had a man in her life in a sexual, married relationship. After all, there is nothing in the historical record that rules this out, it would have been normal for such a woman to have been married, and it helps these people relate to their heroine better anyway. So from that point on, they just assumed that she had a husband and wrote him into the story.

As a Christian feminist, I suspect my co-feminists would not be impressed with such efforts to force a husband on the hypothetical matron saint. Among the reasons outlined above, this is why I think it is a mistake for us merely to  assume that Jesus had a wife. Until we discover some early, authentic, and substantive evidence that Jesus was married, I see no reason to think that he was. And please believe me, this isn’t because I want to see women or other underrepresented groups excluded from the Christian play.

Thanks for reading me,

-Corbin

 

*Qur’anSura 4:157 And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

Posted in Feminism, Sexuality, Theology | 7 Comments

Is God Male?

Recently during our church’s “Enrichment Hour” (codename for adult Sunday school), I had the privilege of offering a perspective on how Christians need not be troubled by some of our more conservative believers’ insistence that the Earth is only a few thousand years old or that science and Scripture are arch enemies. I am passionate about the sciences as part of a dual-thread of revelation from God, but unfortunately, that is beyond the scope of the present entry. Nevertheless, I mention my presenation because as I got into it, a woman (with whom I am friends) raised her hand and informed me that she was uncomfortable with my use of masculine personal pronouns (he/his/him) for God.

I knew this issue could derail the entire presentation, and that personal pronouns for God were well beyond the scope of the morning, so I apologized and said that I was merely using the terms out of convenience because using the pronoun “it” didn’t quite seem appropriate. I also acknowledged that I did not intend to reinforce the idea that God was technically male, so my female friend agreed to tolerate my choice in words, at least for the moment.

So… IS God Male?

Many people have problems with using masculine words in reference to the God of the Jews and Christians. They think the practice is sexist and reflects humanity’s prejudices and male domination far more than it reflects a divine personality. They might well be right, but if they are, I suggest it is likely because we men have screwed over our calling to be image-bearers of our Creator and failed to be good representatives of what it means to be masculine. However, it must also be pointed out that, as per Genesis 1.27,  women are every bit as much created in God’s image as men, and therefore male-ness has never been the full expression of God’s character or personality, and that is true even if human maleness could live up to its full potential or be perfectly expressed. Given that fact, maybe we should all be a little uncomfortable with using masculine personal pronouns for God.

Even so, throughout Christian Scripture, the core, divine character is consistently depicted with masculine terms (Father, Son, Son of Man, etc., as well as masculine personal pronouns “he, his, him”). Even the term, “god,” is itself masculine (consider its feminine counterpart: goddess). I believe that the Bible’s various authors were responding to the pronouns, names and titles that God used for himself and thus perpetuated the use of those referents because they were useful to human understandings, cultures and limitations. I believe that God used masculine terms to communicate something about himself in a way that his gender-saturated humans could relate to and understand. This also played upon structures of power and strength that were reflected (even if to a pathetic degree) amongst those humans. It is precisely because the various authors of the Bible used these terms that I have no personal problem using them myself. This very paragraph is a testimony to my own use of male pronouns and nouns concerning the core, divine personality within Christianity.

HOWEVER, it must surely be said that, as with any analogical language, there are limits to the usefulness and accuracy of the analogy. As such, it is a mistake to presume that God is defined by human understandings of gender and physicality.  God is NOT a man. He  is NOT the “Man in the Sky,” or “The Man Upstairs.” He does not have the physical, sexual equipment that human males are created with, and our human languages’ inclusion of gender-specific referents to talk about God fail to fully encompass who our Creator is and what “he” is like  in “his” essence. Christians must acknowledge this if we ever hope to move past the failings of ourselves and our language.

Since our own language can only speak or write of characters and things in terms of he/she/it, perhaps “he” is the best personal pronoun we have for God. Well, at least perhaps it was the best we could do for God in some previous contexts. As I said before, it certainly wouldn’t do to use the pronoun “it” to describe our creator, especially since that particular moniker indicates an inanimate object or lower life-form (like a mosquito).

Alternatively, he/him/his/Father is likely not always the best Christians can do in all contexts at all times everywhere when it comes to describing the central divine character in the biblical text. Consider a woman who has been abused by various men, be they a father, brother, uncle, son, teacher, law-enforcement official or yes, a male clergy member, etc. Is the church’s insistence on using male terms for God really going to be the best analogical language for such a woman to be forced into hearing and using? I suggest that the answer is “no,” and that our choice of pronouns for God ought to be aware of (and sensitive to) the needs of individual humans and their individual stories, especially when those stories involve broken, misguided and frankly embarrassing manifestations of perverted, violent and destructive masculinity. I would rather an infinite number of women hear of and refer to YHWH as “she/her” or “Goddess” if it meant removing a roadblock in understanding who YHWH is and/or if this freed them from the burden of associating YHWH with the abusive, bigoted and generally loathsome men that they have come to fear or hate. If that’s what people hear when we say “he” in reference to God, then maybe I/we should think twice before we make a presentation to a diverse constituency merely using masculine terms for God “out of convenience.”

Thanks for reading me.

-Corbin Lambeth

Posted in Feminism, Questions for Christians, Sexuality, Theology | 6 Comments

Aslan’s Jesus: Dressing Up Fiction as Fact

I apologize for the apparent deceit. This post has nothing to do with the amazing allegories found in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Those stories, which feature a Jesus-character who has taken on the shape of a mighty, good-but-not-safe lion named “Aslan” are awesome and I highly recommend them, not because they contain factual information about Jesus, but rather because they function as a set of parables intended to excite the imagination of how Jesus might interact with us in the midst of our own life’s struggles and dreams. This post is not about THAT Aslan, but rather a formerly Christian author turned Muslim, Reza Aslan, who wrote a book about the reaImagel Jesus called, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Aslan’s book is a classic example of letting a pre-formulated conclusion guide the selection and interpretation of evidence and assembling it in a just-so fashion that purports to have discovered “the real Jesus.” Such efforts are not new. Ever since the Jesus Seminar first began publishing its opinions on what Jesus actually did and said (with the mere presumption that he was not God) there has been a growing list of piggyback authors who ran with their theses and even started branching out in novel directions. This has ranged from Dan Brown’s, “The Davinci Code,” to this latest entry from Reza Aslan. In the latter case, Aslan has decided that Jesus was little more than a religious fanatic, not unlike his contemporary Jewish zealots and Roman-haters, intent on attacking the Roman establishment and any sell-out Jews (like the Pharisees) that happened to cross his path. Aslan’s key thesis is that Jesus was not crucified because he claimed to be God (which Aslan denies), but rather because of Jesus’ actions at the temple, when he overturned the money changers’ tables in Mark 11.15-18. Aslan claims this would have been perceived by the Romans as a direct attack on Rome itself. Yes, you heard that right. Aslan attempts to instruct readers that Jesus was just another rebel leader whose only moment of anger and action in the Jewish Temple was understood as an attack on the Roman Empire and this culminated with his trial, conviction and execution.

How does Aslan come to this conclusion? By only fixating on extra-biblical sources and the Gospel of Mark at the expense of other New Testament documents and by selectively interpreting the Temple cleansing moment in Mark with little corroborating evidence. In the meantime, Aslan produces all kinds of faulty assumptions and indeed, bogus counter narratives that give his theory an air of plausibility.

There are several things that must be considered about Aslan’s thesis, not the least of which is that the Romans most assuredly did NOT view the Israelite cult as being synonymous with the Roman Empire. Granted, the Jewish religion was recognized as an established, ancient tradition, and was permitted to continue with its beliefs and practices so long as they did not interfere with Roman business and governance. This is also why, later on, it was such a dangerous and contentious thing for the new Christians to distinguish themselves from Judaism, for it meant that they were NOT an ancient, well-established religion and were thus NOT afforded any recognition under Roman law. Keep in mind however, that the tolerance of Judaism was only tolerance and not celebration, and certainly it was never considered to be representative of Rome itself. The Roman Empire and its official pantheon, with Caesar as God incarnate at the middle, viewed the parochial deities of its conquered peoles as backwards and almost totally irrelevant. Not only is this why we hear the names Mars, Jupiter and Venus, but not Yahweh when we consider Roman gods, it is also why the Romans occasionally took it upon themselves to go to their outlying provinces and beat up on the local rabble-rousers whenever they deemed it necessary.

Indeed, as the intertestamental era proved (from both Jewish and Roman sources), the only times Rome bothered to deal with the Jews was when Israelites revolted against the empire, best highlighted under the leadership of the Maccabees and their wilderness raids on empire holdings before the birth of Jesus. The second, and perhaps better known event involving a Roman campaign against the Jews happened in A.D. 70 when, in the aftermath of another Jewish revolt, a Roman force captured Jerusalem and leveled all but one wall of the Jewish Temple. Again, no one disputes this, but according to Aslan’s theory, Rome held that the Jewish Temple was integral to Rome itself and simply could not tolerate any attack on it. Does anyone else see the problem with Aslan’s claim? Are we simultaneously to believe that Rome destroyed the very temple that it held so dear and was integral to its own identity, but could not tolerate a relatively unknown Jesus turning over some tables and releasing some domesticated animals in the outermost court on the Temple grounds? Something is wrong with this thesis.

Finally, we ought to consider the Roman prefect in charge of Jerusalem and his reaction to the charge the Jewish leaders brought against Jesus. Under Roman governance, the Jewish Sanhedrin was stripped of its formal ability to execute its own criminals. The Jewish court HAD to have Roman involvement to bring about capital cases, and this is precisely why they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate. But what does Pilate say when the Jews bring Jesus before him? According to John 18:35 (which Aslan ignores), when Jesus asks why he is being brought to trial, Pilate responds with the following: Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”  It’s pretty clear that Pilate has no idea what is going on with this odd Jewish, non-Roman religion. He can’t pretend to understand the complexities of this ancient sect or its regulations. The best sources we have for the affair, indeed, the only sources we have of Jesus’ trial indicate that it was not an offense  that started in the Jewish Temple with moneychangers and pigeons (ok, “doves”), but rather because Jesus had claimed that he was a king, and not just any king, but THE King, like God. Because the Jews rightly perceived Jesus’ claims, they could not tolerate it, so they told Mom and Dad Rome who, given a history of Jewish revolts, essentially had to prosecute any additional backwoods subjects who threatened (real or imagined) the sovereign authority of the Roman Empire. So they executed Jesus in the Roman fashion reserved for rebels and Roman dissidents. Of course I would argue that when it comes to Jesus, you can’t keep a good man down, but I suppose that is another topic.

The bottom line is that people familiar with the New Testament can see where Reza Aslan gets his ideas. When push comes to shove, Jesus was executed as a rebel leader by the Roman Empire, and his disruption in the Jewish Temple could be perceived as acting against a religion that Rome officially recognized and tolerated. While these are necessary components for Aslan’s thesis, they are not sufficient to establish it as fact. To fabricate a counter-narrative about Jesus like Aslan did requires a lot of creative license, not to mention cherry-picking parts of the Bible that lend credence to his musings while ignoring evidence that calls them into question. His book is a classic example of stacking the deck to fabricate a picture of Jesus that casts aspersions on Christianity and does so with a whiff of plausibility. Just like the so-called “Gnostic texts” that tried their best to reinterpret Jesus and issue their own rendition of him (and were accepted by folks ignorant or uncomfortable with the Jesus offered by the oldest and best sources), the revisionist tradition continues today and has found new authors and credulous readers to carry forth the banner.

That being said, perhaps the most damning assessment of Alsan’s book can be found on its own back cover:

Aslan rips Jesus out of all the contexts we thought he belonged in and holds him forth as someone entirely new. This is Jesus as a passionate Jew, a violent revolutionary, a fanatical ideologue, an odd and scary and extraordinarily interesting man.—Judith Shulevitz

Well, what are we to say about a 21st century author who invents an “entirely new” Jesus almost completely unhinged from what the oldest and best sources say about him?
I’ve got a suggestion:

Bullshit.

Thanks for reading me,

-CL

Posted in Atheism / Secular Humanism, Questions for Christians, Theology | 30 Comments