Here’s the question I can’t get out of my head: why are Christians so bad at practicing Christianity? Why do they seem so utterly incapable of “doing unto others” — a teaching so exquisitely simple, graceful and flat out do-able that even a humble atheist can pull it off with ease? Why can’t they? Here’s a clue — you know the game “Telephone”? A group of people — the more, the better — try to transmit a message from one person to the next. The fun is how mangled the message gets from first person to last. “Pineapple on pizza is an abomination” turns into “Aunt Minnie says you’re mutant”. People mis-hear stuff. They’re drunk and having fun. And, of course, some people are just assholes. They’ll deliberately screw with the message because, down deep, it was always about them anyway.
I spend a lot of time here on this blog critiquing not so much Christianity as Christians and what Christians did to Christianity. I want to understand how Christianity arose out of Judaism and broke free as a thing unto itself. That’s the most painful irony of all where Christianity and Jews are concerned: Christianity’s core message is entirely Jewish: “make the world a better place for having been in it” aka “do unto others”. And yet, the messengers of this magnificent teaching have turned it on its head. Worse — the messengers have made the message about themselves.
Jesus was pretty clear where his thinking about religious institutions and corruption were concerned. He saw no need for an earthly priest overseeing an earthly Temple. A believer’s relationship with Yahweh could be — and should be — entirely personal: no need for intermediaries. Jesus wouldn’t then go and invent a church to spread that message (“you don’t need a church”). That’s where the Apostle Paul comes in. Take Paul out of the equation and Christianity never gets invented.
I don’t know why we even call Christianity “Christianity” when, really, it’s about Paul. We should call it “Paulism” except the Catholic order of Paulists (their patron saint is Paul of Thebes the First Hermit) have already expropriated that brand. Paul never met Jesus. Never heard him speak. Everything Paul knew about Jesus was entirely second hand. Thus the game of “Telephone” was already up and running. We don’t know how the messaging changed from Jesus to “Listener One” and if “Listener One” spoke what he/she heard Jesus say accurately when they transmitted Jesus’s message. If there were more listeners between “Listener One” and Paul? See the problem?
I’m not calling Paul an asshole. He’s a genius. But he’s like the asshole in a game of “Telephone” — deliberately altering the original message to suit his own purposes. Paul had an idea in his head — that sprang not from Jesus but from his idea of Jesus. Jesus wasn’t traveling with Paul on the Road To Damascus except as a passenger in Paul’s mind. The converted are especially committed to their new faith — witness Paul. And Paul was determined to bear witness to what he now believed about Jesus.
Like Jesus, Paul was a Jew by birth. They both knew all the same background mythology because they both knew the same texts. They both knew what a messiah was and what had been prophesied about a messiah hundreds and hundreds of years before. Quick reminder: a prophecy is just a guess based on the information at hand and the desires of the heart. It’s no more real or reliable than a racetrack bet. Sure, sure — there’s a good shot of reality in there: there are horses! Jockeys! The race track itself! But favorites lose races every day. An informed guess is still just a guess.
Another reminder — the men who wrote the texts of the Pentateuch (betcha most every last one was a man) were operating from a very limited knowledge base. They had no idea other continents even existed on the planet. They had no idea that our planet was part of a much larger solar system and galaxy and universe. They had no idea that germs and viruses and pathogens existed — and were killing them every day. They knew bupkis (that is the technical term — look it up)! They honestly didn’t know where the world came from or how it all operated. Their deity Yahweh (that’s “God’s” name — “god” is actually is job title) emerged from a world filled with gods. From a polytheistic point of view (from the Roman’s point of view in fact), Hebrews and Christians were atheists who denied the existence of THE gods. Their gods.
Amazing how relative atheism can be if you think about it…
Paul embraced an idea of Jesus and tried to preach it to the Jews (including Jesus’s own family) who roundly rejected it. Paul’s version of Jesus was not the Jesus they personally knew: you know — JESUS. What Paul said Jesus said, they rejected. Had Paul respected Jesus’s original message, he might have stopped there. But Paul wasn’t preaching Jesus’s message, he was preaching his own — and his was, in a way, “better”. Well, it was “new and improved”, let’s say. “Doing unto others” is nice. Beating death is way, way better.
Paul’s genius was turning “Do unto others” into “Believe my version of Jesus and you, too, can live ‘forever’.” Eternal life is Christianity’s main sales hook. What does every human fear most? Dying! Hey, what if someone invented a religion where — if you followed along the way they told you to — you could, in a way, live forever in a place called “Heaven” where you and your loved ones can be together forever in a state of bliss. While gods had existed before, none of them had offered humans anything nearly as valuable — and godlike — as this.
And all you had to do was “believe”.
That the world remains in Paul’s thrall — that a whole Catholic church (then a bunch of Protestant ones) could arise from Paul’s repurposing of Jesus — is a testament to the universality of the human dread of death — of not being here.
“Do unto others” and “Defeat death” have zero to do with each other. Paul’s church, for all it preached “do unto others”, never actually practiced it — as an institution. Oh, yeah — newly minted Christians could be quite good at “doing unto each other”. But the institution they created around them all — it was dedicated to selling that other idea. And that other idea relied explicitly on faith and the faithful. It sure didn’t help matters — or deepen the nascent church’s dedication to Jesus’s message — when Paul imagined the idea of Miles Christianus, the Christian Soldier, “doing unto others” on horseback, the “armor of Christ” protecting them as they delivered “the good news” with the tip of a spear.
“Do unto others” morphed into “Do what we say — or else”. THAT became the Catholic church’s mantra. It justified Crusades and Inquisitions and Pogroms and all sorts of mayhem that did the opposite of Jesus’s teaching. Imagine what Jesus — born, lived and died a Jew — would say when he learned how HE was used to justify murdering so many fellow Jews. Think he’ll sit back, nodding in satisfaction at how well Christians were “doing unto others” like he taught them to?
The problem isn’t Jesus. Never was. The problem is Paul — the messenger — and how he changed the message. And then Paul’s church asserted itself as the only “official” followers of Jesus and the only body authorized to speak on Jesus’s behalf — and therefore on God’s behalf. Quick reminder — the people who run the Mormon Church think the people who run the Catholic Church are frauds. And vice versa. From a neutral point of view, who’s to say who the fraud is.
Jesus is but a mascot in both worldviews. He’s “Jesus McDo-Unto-others”. People walk in the door because of him. But the “Happy meal” the church is selling is a completely different product entirely.
The church’s real message — the one Jesus saw through and hated — is corrupt. Like the corrupt Temple authorities Jesus railed against, modern Christians (as opposed to followers of Jesus) are being seduced by corrupt churches interested much more in their own success as institutions over anything touch feely — you know, “Christian” — they might impart. Churches — the physical buildings — cost money to build and maintain. The financial obligation alone can and has put churches literally out of business. That they have a BUSINESS to be put out of — that’s where the corruption begins.
The messenger has fully co-opted the message.
“Do unto others” now services “We gotta pay the rent”. Whatever brings believers in the door, puts them in pews and gets them tithing — that’s any church institution’s bottom line: survival. As churches have proved for almost two thousand years now, their survival always comes at everyone else’s expense.