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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Noah Matters

On March 28th, movie (and I suppose Bible) fans across the world will get their first glimpse at Darren Aronofsky's Noah, starring Russel Crow, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson.  According to the film's website, Noah is the "epic story of courage, sacrifice and hope" and this film "brings to light an untold story" (I'm assuming the cast has uncovered new ancient documents about the Noah flood because I was under the impression that this story was quite familiar to almost everyone) of the Noah that nobody has seen before (you gotta love that Russell Crowe guy. Noah was in desperate need of a makeover!).

To be honest, I am actually pretty excited to see this movie, even if it ends up being historically and/or theologically bogus.  The story of Noah has always been one of my favorites of the Old Testament.  Besides, the preview looks pretty good.  See for yourself:


The story of Noah, as found in the Book of Genesis, is arguably the most controversial tale of the entire Bible. The notion that a global flood, just a few thousand years ago, killed every living thing with the exception of the animals and people Noah brought with him on his magical Ark, has spawned debate for centuries. Scientists, historians, geologists, physicists, etc. have (at least in my book) closed the case when it comes to Noah being a literal and absolutely factual history.  It is not.

Despite this fact (and yes, it is a FACT), the story of Noah is not without merit, and that merit goes far beyond a simple bedtime tale or a cool Hollywood movie. The Noah story matters. It has deep theological and moral value that should be recognized, regardless of whether you esteem it as infallible history or a cool ancient myth.

To understand why the Noah story matters, we must first take a brief look (and I do emphasize brief) at how this story came to be.  Most people with even a relatively limited understanding of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) recognize that the Noah story has its origins in even older tales outside of the Hebrew tradition. Whether it be the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim or the Hindu tale of Manu and Matsya, deluge myths are common motifs of the ancient world.  The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but as Yale University Professor of Religion Christine Hayes points out:
The ancients placed creation within the primordial soup of water. In the Babylonian creation myth, it is the blood of the slain Tiamat that sprays forth from the firmament as rain and from the earth as lakes and oceans. Water is the breeding ground for the gods who use this soup to give life to the earth, the plants, the animals and finally to mankind himself. But water is also what takes life away, allowing the gods to start anew their creative process. 
Keeping this idea of water as the primordial soup of creation and destruction, we can better understand the significance of certain verses of scripture found in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis:
2.) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit (translated as "wind") of God moved upon the face of the waters.
6.) And God said, Let the there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let ut divide the waters from the waters (a verse obviously influenced from the Babylonian epic of Marduk and Tiamat).
7.) And God made the firmament, and divided the waters (much as Marduk spliced open Tiamat) which were under the firmament from the waters which wee above the firmament: and it was so.
8.) And God called the firmament Heaven.
9.) And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
10.) And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good (just as Marduk called one half of Tiamat the heavens and the other half the earth).
It is through the vehicle of water that the Hebrew God (not to mention the Babylonian and even earlier Sumerian God) is able to bring about creation.  Ironically enough, evolutionists would agree (in a roundabout way) with this claim, since they too maintain that much of life came from the primordial soup that is earth's oceans.

As for the Noah story, the flood becomes more than just a destructive force.  It is the life-giving "soup" that brings about a new beginning.  As a result, the Noah flood saga is less about a vindictive god bent on destroying man and more about a loving creator trying to breathe new life into a corrupt and dying world. The Noah story is a shared motif that early Hebrews borrowed from their neighbors and not a unique creation they came up with on their own. As historians Victor Matthews and James Moyer point out in their book, The Old Testament: Text and Context:
The Israelites shared much of the worldview of ancient Mesopitamia. As a result, a great deal of the material contained in the primeval epics in Genesis is borrowed and adapted from the ancient cultures of that region. This is what makes the study of nonbiblical epics so valuable. By making comparisons and by seeing the general religious and literary environment of the ancient Near East, it is possible to understand more fully how the Israelites perceived their world and their place in it.
Regardless of its origins, Noah presents to both the ancient and modern reader a lesson on how important and precious life really is. The primordial waters that give life can also take it away, but from terrible destruction and devastation comes new life. As Utnapishtim (Noah) teaches the great hero Gilgamesh (ancient Sumeria's version of George Washington):
"Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man."
From Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh learns the important lesson that life should be cherished because it is not going to last forever.  For the Biblical Noah, mankind's ultimate zoologist, sailor and colonizer, the importance of cherishing life...all forms of life...is a lesson he knew all too well.  Caring for plants, animals and humans became the central purpose of Noah's existence, and is the principal lesson he teaches us today. We are, whether we want to admit it or not, responsible for how we treat not only our fellow humans, but how we treat the earth and its abundant plant and animal life. Yes, we need to devour plant and animal life in order to sustain our own, but this is an intimate relationship that binds all life as opposed to dividing it.  Noah honors his sacrifice of a "clean beast" and a "clean fowl" upon his altar, and God accepts it with a "sweet savor" (Gen. 8:20-21). God honors the sacrifice of all His creations. After all, His covenant isn't just made with man.  As we learn from Genesis chapter 9, verses 5, 12 and 13:
5.) And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of EVERY BEAST WILL I REQUIRE IT, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man's brother will I require the life of man.
12.) And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you AND EVERY LIVING CREATURE that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13.) I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me AND THE EARTH. 
In short, God's love for His creations includes far more than just us. It is human arrogance that we think God cares only for the Homo Sapiens.  Just as God saved the male and female Adam and Eve from the mistakes made in the Garden of Eden, so did God save the male and female versions of all animal life from the corruption of a degraded world.  The ark was meant for the lion, tiger, bear and rabbit every bit as much as it was meant for man.  

Noah's legacy is far more than just a tale of a great shipbuilder or divinely inspired zookeeper. It is a lesson on how to appreciate life on all levels. Tragedies of all kinds (floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, etc.) will always abound.  Such is the state of our existence in mortality. Whether you believe that God caused/causes these tragedies is irrelevant. Death and destruction is here to stay. Our job is simply to enjoy the ride on our own arks of life, regardless of whether the waves take us out or not. We, like the animals or Noah himself, enter our arks, side-by-side with those who are embarking with us on the journey of life.  As Morgan Freeman put it in the film Evan Almighty:

For me, the story of Noah is not one in which death and destruction come from an evil and sadistic god who could care less about giving humanity a second chance.  Instead, it is the story of how God helps man deal with the inevitable tragedies of mortality. From death and destruction comes new life and happiness. Our job is to recognize the rainbow in the tempest by changing our attitude. In so doing, perhaps we too will be able to sing with Gilgamesh the song of joy in the face of tragedy:
"The dream was marvelous but the terror was great; we must treasure the dream whatever the terror; for the dream has shown that misery comes at last to the healthy man, the end of his life is sorrow. But from death comes new life, but its days are numbered, whatever he might do, it is but a wind."

The Truth About the So-Called "Dark Ages"

Like so many eras of history, the period known by most as the "Dark Ages" is one of the most (if not THE most) misunderstood moments in the annals of humanity. The simple fact that we label these years (roughly 400-800 A.D.) with the idiotic label of "Dark Ages" shows just how little most of us know about a period of time that is shrouded with more legend and lore than actual fact.

For whatever reason(s), the "Dark Ages" have come to symbolize a terrible time in the history of mankind, in which savagery, brutality, ignorance and religious intolerance were the name of the game.  We clothe the "Dark Ages" with the robes of wicked men, hell-bent on world domination and the subjugation of all within their realm, having their hands and garments drenched in the blood of those who stand in their way.

And while it is true that the "Dark Ages" had their fair share of evil doers and tough life circumstances, the reality is the years between 400-800 were quite liberating, enlightening and peaceful when compared to other eras of human history.  Contrary to the generally accepted stereotypes, the "Dark Ages" were a time of human progress and improvement in which its citizens experienced more "light" than they did "dark."

It was the Italian scholar and philosopher Petrarch who first coined the term "The Dark Ages" in the early part of the 14th century.  He did so because of his erroneous belief that these years were marked by the illiteracy and ignorance of the masses who roamed the earth aimlessly in the wake of the "fall" of the Roman Empire.  Later, Protestant reformers, who were more than happy to label any and all things with a Catholic bend as being "heresy," embraced the term "Dark Ages" as the perfect moniker for a world that was almost entirely Catholic.  The derogatory term "Dark Ages" came to signify the epitome of Catholic ignorance, human depravity, intellectual idiocy and dictatorial brutality.  But as is often the case, those who levy unjust accusations are usually the ones who deserve to be accused, and those who jumped on the early "Dark Ages" bandwagon did so at the cost of their own ignorance.

In reality, the "Dark Ages" (hereafter referred to as the Early Middle Ages) were a period of remarkable progress and light.  As Historian Jamie Frater has pointed out, the Early Middle Ages are marked by some remarkable advances in human society.  For example, the Early Middle Ages witnessed the dawn of the university.  It was within these early universities that the foundations for science were laid. Contrary to popular belief, the Church did NOT censor science during this period.  As Historian Ronald Numbers states, the battle between religion and science was an invention of the later Middle Ages.  The "Dark Ages" were actually okay with the idea of science and religion existing together.  In addition, these universities became the incubators for the birth of fields like Algebra, architecture and art, which became the foundations of the later Renaissance and Enlightenment eras.

The Early Middle Ages also saw the dawn of new literary styles.  Contrary to what Petrarch believed, the "Dark Ages" witnessed at least two literary periods that could and should be called a "Renaissance" of their own.  The "Carolingian Renaissance" and "Byzantine Golden Age," both of which came to fruition during those dreadful "Dark Ages," were defined by their advancements in literature, writing, arts, the development of laws, and perhaps most important, dramatic developments in theology and scriptural study. Men like St. Augustine and Pelagius gave the world profound insights into Christian theology, most of which remain with us today.  In the East, men like Justinian were laying the foundations of jurisprudence and other legal protections that provided for many people a world that was relatively free and safe (at least more so than it had been or would be in the centuries to come).  The implementation of new laws eliminated (for the most part) slavery and gave even common citizens more rights than many even experienced during the heydays of the Roman Republic/Empire.

The Early Middle Ages also enjoyed the fruits of a better climate and advancements in agriculture. Contrary to what most probably think, the "Dark Ages" were not dark, cold and empty of food. Quite the opposite is the case. The Early Middle Ages actually enjoyed a climate that was extremely friendly to agriculture.  The warming of the North Atlantic region is what allowed "barbarian" nations to thrive.  The ability of the Vikings to prosper in Greenland and sail into the Atlantic with such ease is a perfect illustration of this warming trend. Increased food production meant that humanity was able to flourish and spread into the frontiers of Europe, and this is precisely what took place during the "Dark Ages."

As you can plainly see, the "Dark Ages" were anything but "dark."  The Early Middle Ages were a period of tremendous prosperity, growth and innovation that set the stage for many of the advances of later movements like the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and even the Scientific Revolution.  Can we now PLEASE do away with the archaic nonsense that continues to perpetuate the myth surrounding the "Dark Ages?"  It's time to get rid of this History Channel-type crap once and for all.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

President Monson Accused of Fraud

This week, news that Mormon President Thomas S. Monson has been accused by an English court of fraud went public.  News outlets of all kinds have been reporting the story since it broke a couple of days ago, each providing its own spin on how these charges will (or won't) play out, along with the impact they will have on the Mormon church.

The criminal complaint that levies these charges against President Monson (and Mormonism in general) are the workings of one Tom Phillips, a former member of the Mormon faith who had served the church in a number of positions, including Stake President and Area Executive Secretary.  Long story short, Mr. Phillips withdrew from the church, due to what he calls "the lack of historical evidence, of any kind" to support the church's claims.

Since his departure from the Church, Mr. Phillips has made no qualms about his disdain for Mormonism.  As the managing editor of the Mormonthink website, Mr. Phillips has attempted to bring to light many of the issues that have troubled him (and many other Mormons) and eventually led to his departure from the faith. Mr. Phillips is also a regular commentator on the ExMormon website, where he posts under the name "anointedone."  The clever moniker is the result of his having gone public about receiving the "Second Anointing" within the walls of the London Temple some years ago (you can listen to his very detailed interview with John Dehlin about this experience by clicking here).

The complaint that Mr. Phillips has levied essentially states that since serving as church president, Thomas S. Monson has acted "dishonestly" and has intended to "make gain for himself" by defrauding one Christopher Denis Ralph, who was "misled" and "induced" to pay tithing to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Below is a copy of the actual court document:

The allegations of fraud center on the claims that President Monson knowingly teaches that which he believes to be false (i.e. that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are fraudulent documents).

Of course, how one chooses to view these accusations depends greatly on how one chooses to view Mormonism.  For the critic, the accusations probably make sense.  After all, the Book of Abraham, which has been hailed by Egyptologists as an outright fraud since the 19th century, is a difficult hurdle to jump for even the most devout Mormons. For faithful Mormons, however, these allegations only serve as further evidence that adversity will always come knocking at the doors of the righteous.

Whatever your personal views may be, the fact of the matter is that this case will be judged based on the rules of law.  Does Tom Phillips have a case?  Has Thomas S. Monson actually committed fraud against Mr. Ralph, thereby enriching himself and the church?

In my opinion, the answer to these questions is a resounding HELL NO!!!

First off the accusations of fraud brought by Mr. Phillips are dependent upon the British Fraud Act of 2006, which "prohibits false representations made to secure a profit or to cause someone to lose money."  Based on this law, Mr. Phillips must convince the British court of two things:
1.) President Monson KNOWINGLY made false representations of Mormon beliefs (i.e. he stated that the Book of Abraham, Book of Mormon, etc. are "true" while knowing they were not).
2.) President Monson made these representations in order to profit from others.  
The first point is virtually impossible to prove.  To ascertain whether or not somebody believes in his/her religious convictions or is simply giving them lip service is completely speculative and hardly a matter for any legitimate court to determine.  And even if President Monson were to say that he didn't believe in the tenants of his faith, it is still virtually impossible to prove fraud. Simply put, Mr. Phillips' accusations are more bark than bite.  In the words of another English citizen, they are "Much Ado About Nothing."

And I am far from being along in that sentiment. Neil Addison, a former crown prosecutor and author on British religious freedom, responded to this criminal complaint against President Monson by saying:
I'm sitting here with an open mouth.  I think the British courts will recoil in horror. This is just using the law to make a show, an anti-Mormon point. And I'm frankly shocked that a magistrate has issued it. 
Harvey Kass, a British solicitor, is also stunned by the summons, calling it "bizzare," and adding: "I can't imagine how it got through the court process.  It would be set aside within 10 seconds in my opinion." I couldn't agree more.  Regardless of how one feels about Mormonism, the right to religious freedom is a fundamental principle that should not be toyed with.

In reality, Tom Phillips' quest to "expose" the "myth" behind Mormonism will probably do more to bolster the faith of Mormons than anything else.  It's hard to see how this accusation could be motivated by anything other than resentment for the faith he has left behind...but can't seem to leave well enough alone.  In my opinion, this accusation will be dead on arrival.