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Er, no

While discussing the hilarious commotion over the Anglican priest who gave a dog a communion wafer, the otherwise sensible Edward Michael George conflates Roman Catholic doctrine with that of Christianity at large:

Telling reporting as always … You see, the thing about giving the body of Christ to a dog is not so much that it offends any particular ‘rule’ or ‘regulation’ of the Anglican Church, as that it rather conspicuously offends what Christians believe (have to believe, if they are Christians) is the person of God himself.

— George, Edward Michael.  “Take, eat; this is my Scooby Snack, which is given for you.” Semper Poo Poo, 22 July 2010.

The idea that the communion wafer becomes the actual, literal body of Christ is a doctrine known as transubstantiation.  The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches believe it to be true, whereas many Protestant denominations hold that the bread and the wine are merely symbolic of Christ’s body, and do not at any point become the actual article.

Transubstantiation is by no means a doctrine held in common across the whole spectrum of denominations which call themselves Christian.  In fact one of the founders of the Anglican church, Thomas Cranmer, specifically wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation in his landmark 39 Articles of Religion:

Article XXVIII

Of the Lord’s Supper

Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.

De Coena Domini

Panis et vini transubstantiatio in Eucharistia ex sacris literis probari non potest, sed apertis Scripturae verbis adversatur, sacramenti naturam evertit, et multarum superstitionum dedit occasionem.

— Cranmer, Thomas.  “The 39 Articles of Religion“, written circa 1553, approved by the Anglican Church circa 1562.

Whether or not one finds the notion of a dog receiving communion offensive depends largely on what one thinks about transubstantiation—mainly, whether it occurs or not.

The Diet of Spires, 19 April, 1529

George Cattermole, 1800 – 1868.

Cattermole, George. The Diet of Spires, 19 April, 1529. c1830s. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, United Kingdom.

Cattermole’s 19th century painting commemorates the Second Diet of Speyer, which occurred on this day in 1529.  The next day, the Diet’s Lutheran members lodged an official appeal against Archduke Ferdinand‘s suppression of evangelical theology, delivering the titular Letter of Protest that gave the nascent religious movement its present name—Protestant.

Herbet Minton Cundall’s A History of British Watercolour Painting (New York, 1908) notes that Cattermole was offered a knighthood after completing this work, but the painter  declined the honour.

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Studying religion with a degree of seriousness

Brian Bethune of Maclean’s magazine conducts a fascinating interview with Dr. Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and one of two Research Directors of the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.  Dr. Tiger has spent four decades trying to bridge the gap between the natural and social sciences.  Most recently he has done the religious and irreligious a favour by examining humanity’s adherence to religion in the light of cognitive science, and treating it with a respect and seriousness of purpose that is usually lacking.

Q: From the outside, then, it’s not religion’s strangeness you see, but its naturalness?

A: I’ve been on panels a couple of times with Richard Dawkins and invariably we come to the point where Richard will go on about how terrible religion is, and I’ll say, “Richard, are you a naturalist?” And he says, “Well, of course I am.” And then I say, “Would you agree, as you’ve in fact argued in your books, that over 90 per cent of people have some religion?” and he finally says, “Yes.” “How can you be a naturalist and assume that the great majority of the species is not natural? That doesn’t make any sense.” As a social scientist I wanted a deeper explanation for this otherwise remarkable activity. When you think of the cost of religion—the buildings, the tax exemptions, the weekly offering—it’s not trivial, it’s simply not trivial. If only out of respect, one has to pay attention to this.

— Bethune, Brian.  “Maclean’s interview: Lionel Tiger.” Maclean’s, 4 March 2010.

I appreciate the doctor’s candour and lack of condescension.  Too many opponents assume that those with religious beliefs were raised into it, or are mentally deficient, and thus have no other framework for understanding the universe (i.e. those poor, ignorant religious dears).  I find that reductionist assumption more than a little simplistic.  As a child I was not raised in any such faith tradition and did not attend church regularly.  I had a general familiarity with the superficial aspects of Christmas and Easter (i.e. presents and chocolates), but we did not attend church on those holidays.

I came to my beliefs partially because of the good and humble example of religious neighbours, and a spur-of-the-moment decision (previously detailed in this space) to find out whether God was really out there.

The frequently-debated aspects of religion (whether the universe was formed according to a literal reading of Genesis, or not) I find a little tiresome.  It is like debating whether all vehicle operating manuals are worth reading because the specific instructions for a 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom can not be applied with equal validity to a 2010 Aston Martin Vantage.  I do not read Genesis for its astronomy and biology any more than I would read the Guide Star Catalogue for its insights into human interpersonal relations.  It was not compiled for that purpose.

So it is with some relief that I find that a scholar takes the examination of religion (and not just one of them, either) with a high degree of seriousness.  My own perception is that every human is religious about something, whether or not they consciously understand it as a manifestation of that impulse.  There is always an instrument, activity or pursuit to which a person repeatedly devotes their focus, and draws from it a sense of enjoyment, fulfilment and renewed purpose.

Clearly, it is a phenomenon that the species finds useful, and we will continue to find it present wherever humans are.  Imagining this species without its religions is like imagining one without happiness or sadness or love.  Religiosity appears to have a significant physiological component, not merely a social one; we are not likely to evolve beyond it even in many millions of lifetimes.

UPDATE 220239Z MAR 10: I forgot to note that the interview was conducted as part of a book review; the book being God’s Brain, by Lionel Tiger and Michael McGuire.

Root of the problem

Nathan Bauman at Port Coquitlam Odysseus has linked to a fascinating interview with Mosab Hassan Yousef—son of a founding member of Hamas.  Mr. Yousef has written a book about his journey from terrorist to counterterrorist, concomitant with a parallel spiritual journey from Islam to Christianity.  He also has some potent words to say about his former religion:

Do you consider your father a fanatic? “He’s not a fanatic,” says Mr. Yousef. “He’s a very moderate, logical person. What matters is not whether my father is a fanatic or not, he’s doing the will of a fanatic God. It doesn’t matter if he’s a terrorist or a traditional Muslim. At the end of the day a traditional Muslim is doing the will of a fanatic, fundamentalist, terrorist God. I know this is harsh to say. Most governments avoid this subject. They don’t want to admit this is an ideological war.

“The problem is not in Muslims,” he continues. “The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to.”

— Kaminski, Matthew.  “‘They Need to Be Liberated From Their God’.” Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2010.

Mr. Yousef has certainly cut to the heart of the matter.  And he is correct that governments have shied away from addressing fanatical ideology, even though it is the causal factor that breeds homegrown and international Islamism.

A couple of months ago, a young Muslim woman wrote to me in response to a previous post on Islam and women.  She argued that Christianity and Western nations also had a fairly horrible track record with regard to equality of women, and that this really only began to be addressed quite recently, in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  And she would be correct insofar as that goes; I readily conceded that point.

But the focus of that post was not that Christianity (nor any other religion) had a perfect, spotless record when it came to women’s dignity and equality—it doesn’t.  My point was that unequal and second-class treatment were built into the example of Islam’s founder, Mohammed.  I confined myself to reviewing notable misdeeds in Mohammed’s history which have no parallels in Christ; in this I hoped to foster an understanding of why other religions may self-improve and refine their doctrines dealing with women, but Islam cannot.

At its best, religion reconnects us with the Divine and broadens our perspective beyond the parochial self.  It civilises us, sanding down our rough edges; a benefit for individual believers, certainly, also one for our families, friends, neighbours and colleagues.  But all religions are also—in varying degrees—at odds with certain aspects of human nature, so individually and collectively, humans are constantly falling short of the mark.

Islam is unique, however, in some critical areas.  Instead of exhorting us toward better behaviour, it can also be used to give licence—via the example of Mohammed himself—to some of humanity’s worst impulses.

Not too many religions have founders who sought and were granted such wide latitude to commit violent acts without repentance.  Violence is an integral part of Mohammed’s example, and this is what will make radical strains of Islam so very difficult to eradicate.  This aspect of the ideology will have to be acknowledged and combated; to place it off-limits is to prematurely concede defeat.

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St. Nicholas’ Day


St. Nicholas is one of those interesting early church figures for whom history can verify only the barest details, but nonetheless has numerous stories and legends surrounding him.  We know that Nicholas was born in Patara, Lycia (Turkey) around A.D. 300, became bishop of Myra (Demre, in modern Turkey), and died around A.d. 350.  An analysis of his bones in Bari, Italy, has revealed that he was barely five feet tall and had a broken nose.  This is all that history can tell us for certain, although there are many legends and stories involving gift-giving which are attributed to this saint.

St. Nicholas is said to have been born of wealthy parents and to have traveled to the Holy Land in his youth. He was tortured and imprisoned during the persecutions of Diocletian, and released when Constantine ordered official toleration of Christians. Nicholas is said to have attended the famous Council of Nicea in 325 (although his name does not appear in the official lists), where he became so infuriated by the heretic Arius that he slapped him hard in the face!

Many of the legends of St. Nicholas involve him helping young people and the poor. In one tale, a butcher lured three boys to his house during a time of famine. While they slept, he killed them, cut them up and placed the pieces in a barrel of salt, intending to sell them for food. Nicholas, who was told of this horrendous act by an angel, hurried to the butcher’s house and restored the boys to life.

Another popular legend has it that three daughters of a poor merchant were about to be forced into prostitution since they had no marriage dowries, but St. Nicholas saved them from a life of sin by dropping three bags of gold into the merchant’s garden or chimney (versions vary), enabling them to get married.

The saint was buried in Myra upon his death, and a church may have been built over his tomb soon after. If so, it would have been badly damaged in the earthquake of 529 and repaired along with Myra’s other buildings later in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian. Damaged in the Arab raids of the 7th century, the Church of St. Nicholas of Myra was rebuilt in the 8th century; it is this structure that largely survives today.

After his death, Nicholas became the patron saint of sailors and seafarers, and many pilgrims came to visit his tomb. Over the centuries, the legends and great popularity of St. Nicholas of Myra led to the Christmastime figure of the bearded man who secretly brings toys to children. He is still known as St. Nick in most of Europe (and he brings his gifts on December 6, not Christmas), but in America he came to be known as Santa Claus.

— “Church of St. Nicholas, Myra (Kale/Demre).” Sacred Destinations. [Emphasis in original]

A selection of Flickr images of the church of St. Nicholas in Myra (Kale/Demre), as well as the spectacular rock crypts there.

St. Nicholas Church, originally uploaded by swissgrappa.

st.nicholas church (demre/ antalya), originally uploaded by mxpeyne.

Walking into the 9th Century, originally uploaded by ~S3R@Y~.

Myra, rock tombs 1, originally uploaded by time fly.

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Nicene Creed

A reminder of our common roots, jointly recited in Greek by the patriarchs of the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) churches: Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, and Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome.

And the version that remains a sentimental favourite from younger years, by Christian rock band Petra.

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On Hermeneutics

Manuscript in koine Greek on papyrus, Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, ca. 200, 8 f f. (originally ca. 74 ff.), 20x10 cm, single column, (16x8 cm), 22-23 lines in Greek semi-cursive book script.

Leviticus. Manuscript in Greek on papyrus, from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, circa A.D. 200 (The Schøyen Collection)

When I first personally encountered God at the age of sixteen, I didn’t have much in the way of formal religious or theological training. The church I was a part of at that time had “New Christian” classes, focusing on the importance of reading your Bible, praying, attending church, dealing with sin in your life, and how to relate your new spiritual condition to others. These are good things to know—certainly elemental to any Christian life—and I embraced them, but there is one key element that I missed: hermeneutics, or how to study your Bible. When I discovered it a decade and a half down the road, its effect was equally life-altering.

One Sunday morning I was unable to make it to church, and tuned in to a local broadcast instead (from the non-denominational People’s Church, in the north of the city).  Charles Price (originally from Hereford, UK) is the pastor there, and he is both a gifted speaker and a man of considerable intellectual prowess.  His sermon that morning dealt with biblical hermeneutics, or how to understand Scripture by examining its context.  Those of you who live and work in academia will undoubtedly be familiar with such methods of textual criticism, but for the layman, here is a grossly simplified formula:  a word must be understood in the context of its surrounding verse; the content of the verse verse must be examined relative to the paragraph or section it is part of; the section is but one component of a larger chapter; the chapter should be understood as the subject of a whole epistle or book; the book should be understood relative to its author and placement within the biblical canon (Old Testament or New Testament); and finally all should be examined in accordance with what we understand to be the Scripture-revealed immutable character of God.

Now of course modern biblical hermeneutics is a vast and complex field of study, and one can scale up the complexity by comparing other translations (King James, New International Version, Revised Standard Edition, original koine Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic) and using other techniques beyond simple contextual method.  But for a layman’s purposes that will suffice in most cases; you can’t go far wrong by endeavouring to understand a verse as it relates to the rest of its chapter and epistle; looking at the broader picture will help you figure out when an author is employing allegory, metaphor, and simile versus instructive, narrative or historical writing.  Such an understanding will not just broaden your comprehension of Scripture, but it will help you avoid travelling down the wrong logical track and reaching a conclusion that is not supported by the text.


Let’s apply this method to a particular text, one that atheists and agnostics will no doubt know as well as Christians—the venerable 1 Corinthians 13, old standby of marriage ceremonies everywhere.  We’ll start off with verse 4.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Seems fairly straightforward, a description of love.  Without any other context, however, one could argue that when couples go out to dinner, and a spouse steals a tasty morsel from her husband’s plate, her “envy” of another’s meal indicates that she does not truly love them.  I don’t think this would be Scripturally sound, but when one takes such a narrow focus there is lots of room for misinterpretation and wild flights of fancy.


Now let’s look at a bigger portion of the text, verses 4-7.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Now we see that there are other characteristics of love as well.  With this new data we could argue that spouses that fart or belch (i.e. are “rude”) in each other’s presence are not truly loving.  Or that when your spouse reminds you (however sweetly and gently) of something you were supposed to do and didn’t (“keeping a record of wrongs”), that this is not loving either.  But this is not the point of these Scriptures—however beneficial and kind it may be to not belch, fart, or bring up someone’s failures.


Taking a broader view and examining the whole chapter, we can see that this discussion of love encompasses other factors.  The first three verses in particular note that multilingual fluency, towering faith and prophecy are worthless if unaccompanied by love; or in the reverse, love is a pre-requisite of great spiritual deeds.  So this chapter, then, might be about something other than the romantic love (the Greek word is eros) of a husband and wife; even if a wedding ceremony is the context in which we most often hear it.  And in fact, these passages are about something else entirely.


Paul wrote this first letter to a church he founded some years before in the city of Corinth.  If you read the whole thing it will become apparent it was intended as a corrective; to put an end to what he saw as the erroneous doctrines of the Corinthian church that were fostering division amongst some of the congregation.  Chapter 12, immediately preceding the “love” chapter, focuses on spiritual gifts—that is, specific talents and skills that individual congregation members put to use for the benefit of the church.  Some of those skills are (surprise, surprise), multi-lingual fluency (“speaking in tongues”), strong faith, and prophecy.  Hmmmmm.

So what Paul was really talking about had nothing to do with husbands and wives, but a selfless kind of love that would be used in concert with these spiritual skills/gifts.  The actual Greek word used is agape, which we understand to be a thoughtful, unconditional love; oriented toward seeing a need and meeting it, and not expecting anything in return.  The King James Version renders the 1 Corinthians 13 chapter with the English word charity instead of love, which in some ways is more precise.  With charity thrown in there, I imagine its popularity at weddings would recede a little bit, as that would not tend to fit the theme of the day.

Now, it is certainly true that a husband and wifes acting in agape (selfless) love makes a marriage a much happier place to be, and in the ideal sense, this is how we should all endeavour to act toward our loved ones.  But it is equally true that this is not at all the point of Paul’s letter.  He wanted the members of the Corinthian church to act selflessly when exercising their God-given talents and skills within that city.  And in the broader sense, so too any of us engaged in missionary work, outreach and service for our churches, whether abroad or in our local communities.  He wanted churches to solve their doctrinal differences in sensible ways, with respect for each other; and for married and unmarried persons alike to bring their lives into alignment with what they perceived to be God’s will.

This book also contains some challenging passages related to head coverings and the role of women in the assembled church which would be too lengthy a sidebar to address here, but my view is best summed up by Professor Graham A. Cole (lengthy article/exegesis here):  “On my view women may indeed teach men the Bible. Godliness and giftedness are the keys not one’s sex.”


I hope you will forgive me for skipping the last two steps as I thought the progression of the context would be clear enough after these examples.

A lot of churches don’t give you anything like a basic framework for studying the Bible.  Their instructions basically boil down to “read it every day, pray and ask for guidance about what you are reading”.  Which isn’t bad idea, but it is not all that methodical.  It can help you identify preachers who are reading in rather more than the text says, too.  When I was a lot younger, only a few months old in the faith,  I attended a week-long seminar by a certain well-known evangelical association.  It offered what we might call basic principles for living the Christian life.  Since this was the tail end of the ’80s/beginning of the ’90s, the speaker did address some pop culture trends.  One of which was Cabbage Patch dolls.  The speaker seemed to think that the seemingly innocuous dolls were a vector for demonic activity.  That they were given the names of African and South Pacific kastom deities, and that the unsuspecting parent who let their kids play with these dolls was allowing demons to enter their home.

Needless to say I thought at the time that none of the scriptural basis this seminar provided for these “insights” would have held up to serious scrutiny.  To say nothing of the magical thinking that believes the process of modern manufacturing can somehow integrate the assimilation and indwelling of spirits.  I don’t think we have a good scientific process for even identifying the presence of spirits, let alone getting them to agree to line up and be a product in an assembly line.

The Cabbage Patch Kids were a fad, soon forgotten as children of the 80s grew up and moved on to more mature pursuits.  If I had known a little more about contextual analysis I would have made a point of refuting such nonsense then and there.  But alas it would be many more years before I would discover it.  I use this illustration only to say that contextual analysis might have saved this preacher and his association from making such outlandish and ridiculous claims; certainly it would prevent a large part of the audience from buying it, too.

I have a couple of Bibles of varying translations at home for study purposes. A slimline NIV is generally the one that gets carted around for quick reference, although I also like to check the NASB, and of course the King James is everyone’s favourite for more poetic language.  These days it is often easier and faster to refer to an online site like BibleGateway, which can offer up most English translations (and if you can read Greek, it has three popular koine translations, too).  Although there are various subtle differences between the sources and translations, the one thing that is truly remarkable is how well each agrees with the bulk of the others—and with the fragmentary oldest documents we have found so far, long before the canon we know today was agreed upon—despite being handled by thousands of translators over a couple of millennia.

When we aim to interpret the Bible, we should do so with every effort made to understand the context, rather than cherry-pick a verse and assign it our preferred meaning.  This is far more difficult than it would initially appear, especially when there are a couple of passages that appear to run into the wall of our present-day egalitarian cultural sensibilities.  Because we cannot reach the authors, determining their actual intent and the reasons for their remarks can not always be definitively solved by textual criticism; some of that will have to wait for the day when we can speak to them in person.  But in 95% of the cases, simple contextual hermeneutics mixed with a little understanding of history will go a long way toward helping us average laymen put Scriptural passages into something like a proper context.  In my case it has certainly fuelled a desire to know more about many eras of human history, so that I can better understand the cultural contexts of the author.

But while a more thorough knowledge of history may be an aid to better textual analysis, it is important to remember that the greatest challenge Christians face on a day-to-day basis is not sussing out the meaning of the Bible verses we don’t understand; it is trying to act in accordance with the letter and spirit of the passages we do understand.

RELATED: This simple but concise Bible interpretation website will go a long way toward helping the curious but inexperienced Scripture-reader move toward a more sophisticated method of study and analysis.