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Updating Four Absurdities of Christianity

Change is an ever-present reality for Americans. My smartphone is the “office in my pocket” that allows me to keep up communications and productivity while on the move or out of town. It’s irritating when updates or upgrades happen almost weekly, sometimes causing me to learn new ways to do things that had previously been accomplished with little thought. But constant change is a fact of living with the latest technology.

Some changes are more difficult than others, especially when they involve habits or thought patterns we usually do without being aware of them. In the 80s when feminists began forcing changes in workplace language, men were uncomfortable. When religious language of hymns and even biblical translations had to be changed to eliminate patriarchal terms, men felt under attack. Disrupting habits of thought and speech that had been done without conscious deliberation generates resistance.

Our country is experiencing a cultural outbreak of resistance to basic decency, normal moral standards, and general respect for human rights. “Conservative” forces are celebrating new liberty to disregard “political correctness” as speech typical of talk radio and too many social media platforms moved unapologetically into governmental communications. Recognizing the dignity of every person in our society is being denounced as onerous and a violation of religious freedom. This is a rebellion against updating language and upgrading treatment of previously downgraded human beings.

Efforts to update religious language can generate even more resistance than politically correct terminology. Nevertheless, the quality of our inner life can be seen in language used in worship, personal devotion, or religious teaching. For too many Christians this language is outmoded.

This article calls attention to four sets of absurdities in our religious language by asking questions. My hope is to generate awareness of the inevitable cognitive dissonance arising from living in a modern industrial society while our religious thoughts and habits are stuck in patterns from ancient Middle Eastern autocratic societies.

  1. What is Christianity?

Sheila E. McGinn calls attention to outdated concepts in The Jesus Movement and the World of the Early Church. The title of her book reflects terminology that avoids mentioning Christianity. Readers should infer that Christianity did not exist in the period of time she covers. Is there such a thing as Christianity today? Has there ever been a unified religion justifying the term “Christianity?”

Jesus and his disciples did not spread a new religion because they were Jews concerned about the Kingdom of God. After the resurrection, there was a group in Jerusalem (according to Acts) leading what scholars now call the Jesus Movement within Judaism. Differences emerged right away between Aramaic-speaking and Greek-speaking followers as the groups in Jerusalem were more diverse than those in Galilee. Then a community in Antioch (where followers were first called Christians) acted independently, sending out missionaries. Paul emerged from the Antioch group and battled with leadership in Jerusalem, as seen in Galatians and Acts. Early followers preached oral gospels of Jesus and Paul was displeased with some of the gospels as well as those preaching them.

Bart Ehrman provided an answer to our question in his earlier book Lost Christianities. Rival gospels and challengers for leadership were called heretical as the early church became organized and disciplined. It is a mistake to believe that heresies disappeared. They were rival versions of the Jesus Movement, some of which persisted in various parts of Eurasia to emerge during the Protestant Reformation.

Luther initiated a movement for church reform in Europe, causing the emergence of rival sets of doctrine and church organizations that became known as denominations within Protestant Christianity. Internal splitting of doctrinal groups has continued, leading to variants in the United States that challenge any comprehensive term. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Scientists seem tame when compared to Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate or followers of David Koresh, Jim Jones, or Sun Myung Moon. In American Grace, Robert Putnam and David Campbell, proposed a taxonomic system treating each of the wide variety of religious traditions within Christianity as a genus which then includes multiple denominations as species (pp. 12-23).

Traditionally Christians have referred to the Catholic Church when speaking about all of Christianity. Marcus Borg avoided talking about reforming Christianity by expressing hope for “the emerging church” he saw taking shape. Many of Borg’s writings, especially Speaking Christian, were efforts to translate old Christian concepts into more up to date language that appreciates metaphors and imagery in scripture.

To be sure, there are Christians. But many Evangelical Christians would not accept Mormons or Progressive Christians as true members of the family. Reforming the conglomerate of entities using the term Christian, as if there were a single Christianity, is a hopeless task. Christians are those who participate in one of many Christianities. Putnam and Campbell would say Christians belong to one of the many traditions in Christianity. My preference is to use the term Judeo-Christian tradition to embrace developments of common religious themes over the centuries.

  1. Does God Sit on a Throne?

In a vision in the temple, Isaiah saw God on a throne surrounded by a court (6:1). Daniel 7:9 described another vision of God, “the Ancient of Days,” sitting on a throne and surrounded by thousands of attendants. This was imagery of God as a Middle Eastern king, implying acceptance of behaviors typical of autocrats whose actions could not be questioned.

Today worship leaders tell us to “come before the throne” in prayer, bowing heads or kneeling to honor God. Doesn’t this seem odd in a society whose leadership centers around an office where counselors gather to advise an elected leader? Biblical ideas of God are most often closer to Vladimir Putin than Barak Obama or any constitutional leader. Imagery of God’s leadership is needed that is consistent with constitutional leaders who act within legal constraints and hold press conferences to interact truthfully with questioners. We don’t need cabinet meetings that repeat Middle Eastern deification of rulers as officials humble themselves to praise the great leader before television cameras.

Our language of worship affirms a world dominated by autocrats who are arbitrary, expecting obedience and submission. A world of constitutional and democratic leadership relies on citizens who speak their minds to those in power and hold them accountable. Old Testament prophets and many of the Psalms talked back to monarchs and to God but that has not been reflected in our language of worship. There is a biblical foundation for citizenship behaviors, even in worship, for guiding improvements to match today’s constitutional political norms.

  1. Does God Like Bar-b-que?

Why did Jesus have to die? The answer I heard as a young Baptist was from John 3:16. God loved us so much that he sacrificed his only Son to save us from sin. This became the foundation for a doctrine of atonement. The explanation makes sense if your religion uses animal sacrifice – but that hasn’t been done in the Judeo-Christian tradition since the Jerusalem temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Why do we still rely on language based on animal sacrifice?

Today we forget how sacrificial religion worked. The priest didn’t just conduct ceremonies. He was a butcher and grill master. Ordinary people could rarely afford to eat meat, so it was expensive to offer an animal for slaughter. The priest would kill the animal in prescribed ways, drain out blood, remove internal organs, then roast or boil it on the alter – God’s personal grill.

Just like us, God enjoyed the aroma of cooking meat. According to Genesis 8:21, the smell of Noah’s sacrifice pleased God so much that he promised never to flood the world again. When the meat was cooked, priests took a share and gave the rest to those making the offering. This became a holiday meal for those offering the sacrifice. Much of the income of priests was cooked meat, which they ate far more often than other Hebrews. Sometimes there were problems when priests claimed too much or took most of the better cuts of meat, as was done by Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2: 12-18.

When this experience is applied to Abraham sacrificing Isaac (Genesis 22: 1-19), we see that cannibalism is implied. The same is true of the idea of God sacrificing a son. Applying sacrificial imagery to the Lord’s Supper also suggests the underside of animal sacrifice. It’s time we began replacing the many ways that imagery drawn from animal and human sacrifice is used in our religious language.

  1. When Did the New Testament Period Begin and End?

Christians often assume the Old Testament and New Testament were written in distinct time periods, separated by an intertestamental time when the Apocrypha was written. Even Sheila E. McGinn’s excellent book falls into this trap.

McGinn corrected many traditional errors in her introduction. She listed 18 mistaken “preconceptions in the popular imagination” about early Christianity. She began by naming those who were not Christians: Jesus, Peter, any of the disciples, Paul, or any of the first generation of leaders. “The people commonly called ‘Christians’ today did not identify themselves that way until at least the end of the first century CE.” (1)

Her purpose in the introduction was to make people aware of mistaken assumptions that come with traditional language and to explain the use of new terminology. She intended to write “a history of the period in which Jesus and the early disciples lived and in which the New Testament books were being written.” (2)

McGinn did not intend to cover the life and teachings of Jesus in detail, leaving that to specialists. Thereby she failed to develop an emphasis found in her introduction – the importance of understanding the Jewishness of Jesus and his early followers. Unfortunately, she also blurred that message by referring to a New Testament period which she said ended about 120 CE.

To be clear, there was no New Testament period of history. Jesus lived in the decades following Herod the Great in the Second Temple Period. This was a very long time, technically running from the dedication of the temple in 516 BCE until its destruction by Romans in 70 CE. According to tradition, the period began when a group of exiles returned to Jerusalem before the death of Cyrus the Great in 530 BCE. The mandate of Cyrus and his successor Darius the Great was to rebuild the temple. More exiles returned by 521 BCE to push the rebuilding, which was completed in 516. After Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Roman armies, Jewish rule from Jerusalem was briefly restored during the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE. The defeat of Bar Kokhba marked the end of ancient Judaism and a convenient point for recognizing the survival of that tradition in the now separate Jesus Movement and Rabbinic Judaism.

The Hebrew scriptures were compiled and edited during these five hundred years, evolving from the Torah to a collection of “Law and Prophets.” These scriptures were also translated into Greek (the Septuagint) and supplemented by books composed in Greek.  Centuries later, the Hebrew scriptures recognized only the books first written in Hebrew so that Greek books became the Apocrypha. Judaism also became formalized into a religion to which outsiders could convert, as opposed to earlier times when birth was the only criteria for membership.

The ministry of Jesus took place when Caiaphas was High Priest (18-36 CE) and Pilate was the top Roman official (26-36 CE). Books of the Apocrypha were being composed during the lifetime of Jesus as were the writings of the Jewish philosopher and Torah commentator Philo of Alexandria. The first books of the New Testament were letters of Paul, a contemporary of Jesus, written in the 40s and 50s. The Gospel of Mark is believed to have been the next writing and was completed around 70 when Jerusalem was burned. Gospels of Matthew and Luke appear to have been written in the 80s and John was composed by 100. The remaining books of the New Testament were completed before the defeat of Bar Kokhba in 135.

The New Testament and early Rabbinic literature were both products of Second Temple Judaism. The ministry and execution of Jesus, the spread of oral gospels, and writings now found in the New Testament must be understood in the context of the final years of the Second Temple.

Why Does It Matter?

Language matters, especially when it conveys assumptions, images, or roles which feel comfortable because they require no thought. We live in an industrial and Internet age marked by surging change. Conservative groups are turning to counter-realities and propaganda supporting authoritarian hold-overs from the pre-modern age. Human rights, norms for acceptable public behavior, and fundamental moral standards are being discarded to support political officials who defend their actions in the name of religious liberty and righteous indignation against misguided “political correctness.” Conservative religious language is being used to promote authoritarian destruction of constitutional and democratic values.

Updating and upgrading Christian language in line with modern values is badly needed. Americans eagerly upgrade technological devices and download frequent updates to keep up with innovation. Comparable renewal processes are needed to keep Christian values relevant and appropriate in a world of increasingly chaotic hyper change.

Although there is no single, clearly identifiable “Christianity,” we belong to a Judeo-Christian tradition with values and themes that have been renewed for many centuries and can be adapted for our time and ages to come. From this living tradition can emerge the new church Marcus Borg hoped for, or new reform efforts such as Progressive Christianity.  Promoting better historical understanding and spiritual movements that support human rights and democratic values should be central to these renewal efforts.


  • Sheila E. McGinn, The Jesus Movement and the World of the Early Church (Minnesota: Anselm Academic, 2014), 21.
  • McGinn, 23.

About the Author

Dr. Edward G. Simmons was born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1943. A graduate of Mercer University, he earned both an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. Dr. Simmons taught history at Appalachian State University until he was drafted to serve during the Vietnam era. Stationed in California, South Dakota, and then Georgia, he served in the Air Force. Dr. Simmons then became an expert in the field of organizational management as a result of thirty-four years of service for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. In retirement, he teaches history part-time at Georgia Gwinnett College and Brenau University. He is the author of Talking Back to the Bible: A Historian’s Approach to Bible Study.


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