An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 2 (Radical Love)

This piece is part of an ongoing series that I have been writing called An Atheist Reads the Bible. The title explains the concept. I, an atheist, attempt to read the Bible and then I write about it. Everything that I write as part of this series will be collected here.

1. Reform

Common throughout the Gospels is a sense that something new and radical is happening as Jesus begins to preach. Running through the most famous speeches of these texts is the notion that Jesus is overthrowing an old order and bringing new wisdom that is to henceforth be taken as truth. The man himself asserts the “newness” of his philosophy most forcefully in the Sermon on the Mount, the constant refrain of which is, “Ye have heard that it hath been said…”

The rest is quite familiar even to those who have never read the text. Though we have heard to take an eye for an eye, we are now to turn the other cheek. Just as we have heard that we are to hate our enemies, now we must love them. The rules and commandments of the ages before the Gospels, at least according to their authors, are for the most part no longer in play. Jesus’ commandments now reign supreme and according to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (Mark, 14:6).”

It’s certainly not new for a religious text to claim that it holds a monopoly on truth and the way to salvation. This is and forever has been the domain of supposed prophets. Indeed, these sections of the text, those in which angels descend to foretell of a coming messiah and in which authors go to painstaking lengths to trace Jesus’ genealogy to Old Testament prophets – I am looking at you, Matthew – feel tedious and empty, perhaps because I lack any inclination to a belief in the supernatural.

I wrote previously of how seemingly irrational the tenets of Jesus’ teaching can seem, namely his abandon in embracing the sick and those deemed dangerous outcasts. This theme strikes me again and again as I work my way through the Gospels. The demands that Jesus makes of individuals, the things he asks them to sacrifice, are shocking. This is the real fruit of the Gospels.

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Practice Makes Perfect (On Surviving Christmas)

This piece is inspired by The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas , a superb collection of essays on the Holiday season written by atheist scientists, writers, comedians, and thinkers. The book offers funny, thoughtful, and practical advice for surviving Christmas and appreciating its finer aspects, regardless of one’s belief system. I’ve also dropped in some of my favourite Christmas tunes throughout.

Christmas comes but once a year, and an often hellish time it is. It’s easy to understand why. Gathering together a massive collection of your insane relatives, your insane drunk relatives, your insane racist relatives, your insane homophobic relatives, your insane judgemental relatives, all of whom you have little contact with throughout the year and thus really mean very little to you, all for the sake of engaging in an orgy of smalltalk and gluttony that often leaves one feeling unwell and guilty by the time it’s all done really isn’t a brilliant idea.

Almost everything about Christmas is irrational and would make no sense at any other time of year and even in mid to late December can only really be justified with the qualification of “Come on, it’s Christmas!” This is how we justify spending an ungodly amount on gifts that are usually impractical both in terms of cost and usefulness, horrid food and beverages like Christmas pudding and eggnog, extremely wasteful Christmas lights and displays on our front lawns, and the absolutely insufferable musical stylings of Michael Bublé.

Exactly how can the existence of eggnog, something that goes bad faster than you can drink it, is loaded with fat, can only be made tolerable with alcohol, and makes you (or at least me) sick almost immediately upon consumption, be rationally justified? Any other time of the year, we would see it for what it is, an inexplicably expensive health hazard that cannot be relied as a source of nutrition or enjoyment. But, of course, come the day after Halloween – we’re lucky if Christmas starts that late – we fall in line with the Holiday spirit and make our customary visits to “friends” and “love ones,” who offer us a festive drink that we do not dare turn down for fear of being rude. As the Christmas Industrial Complex has expanded beyond limits, the Nog is also now available in latte form, coffee form, tea form, etc.

But I digress. My objective here is not to write another curmudgeonly rant against the Christmas season laced with snark, the type of which is now as clichéd and liable to make you roll your eyes as the most saccharine and overdone of Christmas customs. I do believe, however, that Christmas asks us to do so much that we’re not used to doing, and such is the source of our greatest anxieties at this time of year.

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