Sunday, 23 December 2012

Tend Your Lamp Well (part 1)

Today, I came across a pamphlet from a Presbyterian church my family attends every Sunday. The extent to which each of the five others with whom I live actually believe and follow the doctrine set forth by this particular religious institution varies and is actually kind of a mystery to me. I know that my father is very religious and my mother is very skeptical, that he is not an extremist and she is not an atheist, but that's about it.

In any case, this pamphlet (entitled "Daily Family Devotions") caught my eye and as I read it, began to worry me, then offend me, and finally made me think a lot harder than I originally intended.

It appears to be some kind of scripture study aid to promote family discussion. Now, I know my family would likely never do that, as practically nothing religious happens in my home besides them all going to church on Sunday morning. We have a Nativity scene and an Advent calendar (Playmobil-themed) and that is about it. My father is by far the most devout, and he would never sit down and talk with us about Bible verses, or scold our wrongdoings by asking "What would Jesus do?" Imagining him saying that doesn't quite work in my head!

This pamphlet references Matthew 25: 1-13 and Proverbs 26: 13-16, which I will quote as they appear in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), used by the Presbyterian Church USA.

Matthew 25 is the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, and reads:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Proverbs 26: 13-16 reads:
13 The lazy person says, “There is a lion in the road!
    There is a lion in the streets!”
14 As a door turns on its hinges,
    so does a lazy person in bed.
15 The lazy person buries a hand in the dish,
    and is too tired to bring it back to the mouth.
16 The lazy person is wiser in self-esteem
    than seven who can answer discreetly.
It would initially appear, of course, that the Parable in Matthew is about preparedness and self-reliance, thinking ahead and looking out for oneself. I'll get to this.

Proverbs is a bit harder to interpret, which I expected, but my interpretations follow:
  • 13 - I was reminded of a well-documented case in which a woman was being robbed or raped in an alley (I don't recall, but they're equally bad scenarios) and people in the nearby apartment buildings simply watched in horror, each thinking someone else would call 911. The moral here: If you see a problem, do something about it, or you are no better than the cause of the problem itself. 
  • 14 - I think this is just saying you need to get out of bed and do something with your life. Can't say I disagree.
  • 15 - This is probably deeper than it looks. Don't get in too deep, perhaps, or maybe it means you shouldn't start things you are unwilling or unable to finish. Also a pretty good life lesson, but not exactly the focus of this post.
  • 16 - I don't much like this one. The Bible has been translated, transliterated, interpreted, re-translated, and otherwise changed so much in its history that one can only imagine that very little remains of what was actually meant by its many writers. The phrasing of this verse makes it seem as though self-esteem is bad, does it not? I don't think that's what it means, but that's how it's phrased. I don't think that, when the Bible was being written, people necessarily had a concept of "self-esteem" as we do in the present time. This probably should be interpreted as "hubris." Someone with little motivation (i.e the lazy person) knows much about his self-worth, whilst the seven others whom we should believe are not lazy feel no need to focus on their self-image. To whom they are "answering" I can only assume, and this verse still gives me trouble even after thinking about it for some time.
But the pamphlet interprets the verses for the reader, one of the major pitfalls of any church (and indeed any organized religion). Organized religions exist to provide their interpretations of religious texts to those too "lazy" (apparently a Biblical word) to form their own. This leads to a large group of people under the impression that things are a certain way according to a single interpretation of what is, at its core, a book of history, life lessons, and moral guidelines, and that all other interpretations are wrong.

That's why we have so many different sects of Christianity. That's why there are different branches of Judaism and Islam. There are different branches of Buddhism and Hinduism and (insert another religion here). All of them are ultimately correct about many of the same things according to objective morality and utilitarian good:
  • Don't kill people.
  • Don't steal.
  • Don't hate people who have more than you, or are better than you in any way.
  • Don't hate people who have less than you, or are worse than you in any way.
  • Do not judge your quality of life by material things.
  • Forgive the wrongdoings of others as you would want to be forgiven for yours.
  • Treat others are you wish others to treat you.
I challenge you to find any religion that does not adhere to these, shall we say, commandments. Cults and fundamentalist or extremist groups obviously do not count. Find me a religious text that either does not include any one of these, or says the opposite anywhere in any way.

You probably won't be able to. In fact, I know you won't be able to. All religions believe the same thing. They all provide a solid moral compass for those too lost to find their own.

It's their interpretations of everything else that differ and ultimately cause issues or even conflict. That's the problem. People want to understand their world and everything in it. Ultimately, they do not want to be explicitly told how to speak, how to act, and how to think. Case in point - communist and socialist governments of the world are in the dustbin of history. You cannot control how people will think and subsequently how they will interpret any kind of doctrine or dogma, whether placed before them or shoved down their throats.

This is what led me to write (at great length, apparently) about this pamphlet from the church. A lot of what it says bothers me. Partially, it's the message itself. A lot of the problems, though, are with phrasing, choice of words, and context. This will all have to wait until a later post.

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