Newspaper readers describe religious doubt: 3-28-17
Turning church space into art galleries: 3-30-17

Making Pharisees the bad guys again: 3-29-17

People who take their religious tradition seriously soon discover that trying to live by the standards taught is a terribly difficult task. For instance, as a Christian I am supposed to remember that every person I meet -- from drug addict to queen, from bus driver to CEO -- is created in the image of God and carries the imago dei, or image of God, within.

Barna-chartAnd I am to treat each of those people as if he or she were Christ himself.

Just writing that out is difficult because it reminds me how often I fail at that. And yet I know that my eternal destiny -- what often gets called salvation -- has nothing to do with how well I succeed at treating everyone I meet as a child of God. I can be forgiven for my failures. What finally saves me, in other words, is not my faith in Christ but the faith of Christ.

Still, a useful question for Christians is how well we match the attitudes and actions of Jesus. That's what the Barna Group, a religious polling organization, decided to try to measure in a large survey. This story describes the results. They aren't encouraging. (And I'm pretty sure I would have presented Jesus' attitudes and actions somewhat differently.)

The survey found that most Christians are hypocritical, showing not much evidence that they think or act like Christ. You can dig through the results yourself.

What I want to call to your attention -- in addition to the findings -- is Barna's use of the terms Pharisees and Pharisaical to describe hypocrites. As used, the terms border on antisemitism or at least anti-Judaism. In Christian parlance, the Pharisees, a group of First Century Jews who took their religion seriously, have come to stand for showy but heartless rule followers who are arrogant about how they live and what they're accomplishing. And lots of contemporary Christians often dismiss Jews today as mere rule followers who are seeking to earn God's love.

As Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine notes in her book The Misunderstood Jew, Christians "usually presume Pharisaic evil." Her reference is to how Christians often read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18, but I think the presumption of which she speaks is far wider than in reaction just to that parable.

In fact, in the First Century the Pharisees were the widely admired religious superstars. As Levine notes, "Although a bit generous as an analogy, the Pharisee would be the equivalent of Mother Teresa or Billy Graham. . .Just as Luke has set up the tax collector to represent the 'good Christian,' so readers are neatly led to see the Pharisee as the 'bad Jew' (in both cases the adjectives are redundant). The poor Pharisee of the parable never had a chance."

Levine notes that Luke is the one who creates this misleading anti-Pharisee context, not Jesus: "By Luke's time, the Pharisees had come to represent for the church the Jews who refused to follow Jesus; their portrait is primarily composed of polemic, not objectivity." (Levine did a piece in March 2015 for Sojourners Magazine called "Quit Picking on the Pharisees." You can find the start of that piece here, though to read it all you must be a subscriber.)

Barna, as I see it, then simply presumes everyone will have that same negative understanding (misunderstanding) of the Pharisees and uses them as a foil to stand for hypocritical religious people and hollow religion.

There's no need to reach back to the First Century for an example of hypocrites. As the Barna study itself shows, they are quite plentiful in 21st Century Christianity.

(By the way, about the only First Century writing by a Pharisee that we have comes from the Apostle Paul, meaning it's difficult to get inside the heads of Pharisees without some kind of broad written record of thoughts and actions.)

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The mother of a girl in Virginia is suing to stop the public school system her daughter was attending from teaching a conservative form of Christianity in a class. The classes clearly are unconstitutional and should be abandoned. But how in the world could public school administrators not know that? It's one thing to teach about religion in public schools -- in fact, that should be done and done well -- but it's quite another to give children distinctly religious instruction favoring one faith tradition. That's what's happening in this Virginia school.


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