May 30, 2012

Acts 10: the Chri​stian god changes his mind

Posted in Conservatives, Religion at 2:10 pm by The Lizard Queen

Recently I went off on a rant about the number of Christians who don’t even really know what their own religious text actually says, citing the lack of awareness/understanding of Peter’s vision in Acts as my prime example. I thought of that when reading Fred Clark, who has way more cred than I do on the subject, and so I wanted to point to him and say, “Look!  See!  This is what I was talking about!”

Here’s Peter’s vision from Acts (chapter 10, verses 9-16):

About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

A little bit later, Peter draws this conclusion about the vision: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Fred Clark expounds on the different interpretations of that passage (i.e. the one that sees the story as just a rationale for why Christians don’t have to keep kosher, versus the one that reflects what the story actually says) here. A sampling:

Consider, for example, the purpose of Peter’s vision. It wasn’t sent because Red Lobster was about to bring back “endless shrimp,” but because of the people who were about to knock on Peter’s door. The author of Acts makes sure we don’t miss that point, writing: “While Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the [impure, uncircumcised, bacon-loving Gentile] men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon’s house and were standing by the gate.”

I suppose it could be argued that stating that there’s only One True Way that Acts 10 can be interpreted, I’m no better than those against whom I would argue: I’m still using a particular religious text as a mere tool to argue for my particular point of view.  At the same time, though… I dunno, it seems to me that if you’re going to go around calling yourself a biblical literalist and that kind of thing, it might be worth looking at what the bible actually says.  And furthermore, the stories we tell one another mean things, things that have resonance beyond the literal words on the page or images on the screen.  Dracula was about more than just a dude who consumed blood to survive.  Dystopian novels aren’t just purely imaginatory exercises; they offer commentary on our world as it currently exists.

What we have here is not just a failure to communicate; it’s a failure of imagination.  And as always, while I respect the rights of people with whom I disagree to believe whatever it is they believe, in the privacy of their own homes, in their places of worship, etc.—when they start bringing it into the public sphere and trying to create public policy based on who they believe is clean and who is unclean, well, I’m going to have something to say about that.


1 Comment »

  1. David Derrington said,

    For many things, one can ask whether its meaning is more literal or metaphor, whether that’s compared to what the author meant or how this description tracks with reality. “Both” is indeed one way to answer that, though I suppose in order to be logical, more words would be necessary to say it could go either way or both, and maybe the author’s intended meaning is different than what is the greater truth in reality.

    I have heard conservatives praise Jewish dietary laws as being necessarily a gift from God because they can justify some of the laws as a practical benefit. So they argue that eating shellfish in biblical times was dangerous, that the prohibition against eating meat and milk together made keeping sheep and goats a more stable enterprise. I forget what other points were argued this way, but there are other ones.

    So these arguments point to Old Testament laws as being best understood literally, so sexual laws should be taken that way, too.

    I haven’t heard it argued the other way specifically regarding dietary laws, but what if the meaning of these laws, be they from God or entirely from men, is mostly metaphorical? After all, the story of Abel’s meat offerings being favored over Cain’s cereal offerings and subsequent laws about sacrifices that treat these differently may mostly relate to Israelites depending on domesticated animals while those dirty Canaanites relied more on grains. “Everything about us is better than they are.”

    If Acts 10 described Peter’s vision without any further context, I can’t tell anyone they’re mistaken in being more literal or more metaphorical about that. It would depend on other evidence about what the author’s intent was or what is the greater truth in reality. Yet as Fred Clark points out in quoting the preacher who said this should be believed literally and narrowly, that Peter’s vision is only about dietary laws, this ignores the rest of that chapter.

    Not only that, it ignores what was going on in the time Acts was describing. Paul was passionately arguing to those in Jerusalem why Gentiles need not be literally circumcised to follow the real God. Symbolic circumcision in the form of baptism and a confession of faith in Jesus Christ should be sufficient, both in terms of Paul’s theology and the practical limitation of converting Gentiles if they have to go through circumcision and all the other laws. So there was a compromise as described in Acts 15: 22-24, where men checked with the Holy Spirit and were directed to have Gentiles merely “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and sexual immorality (fornication)”, however any of those words actually were understood in Greek.

    Was that really the will of the one true God? I would argue that this compromise is very likely the will of men, not God, that God was headed in the direction of inclusiveness, and it may be that He couldn’t manage to drag most of His followers far enough in this particular compromise with the Old Testament. One can argue legitimately either way. Then do you try to get clarification from the Holy Spirit now?

    Still, Fred Clark is certainly right in his criticism. This preacher is doing what people do all the time, even those who claim to be interested only in the truth, whatever that is. They argue like a lawyer, cherry-picking data that helps what they already believe, while ignoring anything else. I trust the sort of empiricism that looks at all the evidence instead of the point/counterpoint method by people with a vested interest in the answer.

    I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to recognize the shortcomings of arguments that have been crafted by partisans, but so many people are satisfied by the sort of argument Fred Clark criticizes here. I’m sure part of it is that people believe whatever argument best supports their prejudices, no matter how useless that argument actually may be.

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