Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review - New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash - my initial thoughts

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price

New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash – my initial thoughts

This is, by far, the longest article in Robert Price’s anthology, The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems, and therefore it must be given the most attention in this review.  The article New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash takes up over 200 pages of the entire book, and there is no way I can cover it all in a single article.  I plan on breaking up my review of this section over several separate blog articles.

Based on the length of the article alone, it is obvious to me that Price places great emphasis on his claim that practically every Gospel episode of the life of Jesus can be shown to be a narrative extrapolation from some Old Testament passage.  That concise description is over-simplifying a bit.  Let me clarify.

The Gospel writers often tell us that Jesus did something so that ‘Scripture was fulfilled’ (e.g. Mark 15:28, Luke 4:21, John 13:18, etc., )  Now, when the typical Christian believer reads Biblical passages like these, they imagine that the Gospel authors are accurately reporting some event or tradition from the life of Jesus.  It may then be noticed only in hindsight the parallel to that event or tradition in the Old Testament, and finally conclude that the Old Testament parallel was actually a prophetic reference to the event they saw Jesus perform.  This pattern of all poetic allusion in the Old Testament find its fulfillment in Jesus is one of the features that makes the Bible so powerful.  It is what binds the Old and New Testaments together, gives the whole narrative a structural backbone, and gives the Christian a sense of supernatural wonder.   But what Dr. Price is proposing that the Christian believer is putting the cart before the horse.  The Gospel authors (the Evangelists)  are not basing their information of Jesus from living testimony or sacred tradition.  The Evangelists are reading the sacred Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, and extrapolated an invented history of Jesus from these sacred texts.  Dr. Price attempts to make the case that nearly every story and narrative of Jesus that is found in the Gospels can be shown to have a parallel in the Old Testament or other sacred writing.  What Christians think of as Messianic Prophecy in the Old Testament were actually the seeds from which the “history” of Jesus was extrapolated by the Evangelists.  This process of creating stories to explain or expand on established Scriptures was a common practice known as midrash.

Most Christian apologists are likely to acknowledge the existence of these parallels, but then claim that the Evangelists re-worked the Old Testament to fit around the actual life of Jesus.  To illustrate this point a little more, I will quote this lengthy passage from a recent book by apologist, Craig Blomberg:

“…the question has been raised whether the Old Testament passages might not have given birth to the narratives and teachings associated with them.  In other words, the Gospel writers would not be recording actual historical events but imaginatively involving Jesus in fictitious narratives and teachings inspired by Old Testament texts and/or subsequent Jewish traditions related to those texts…The fundamental flaw with this position emerges from a paradoxical observation.  When ancient Jewish authors invented unhistorical narratives inspired by Old Testament texts, they generally quoted and interpreted Scripture quite literally.  Since they were composing fiction they were free to tailor their creations to the texts that generated them.  Precisely the opposite is the case for most of the Gospel passages in question.  In many cases the Old Testament references are reworded or reapplied in ways that make it much more likely that the gospel writers were trying to show how the Old Testament fitted the events of Jesus’ life and not the other way around." (p78-79 – The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Craig Blomberg)

Clever, but Price is taking the theme of Midrash much further than Blomberg’s more obvious method.  Most readers will notice when the Evangelist describes an event from the life of Jesus and explicitly cite an Old testament reference.  So when Mark 15:27-28 says, “And with him they crucify two thieves; the one on his right hand, and the other on his left.  And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors,” we can easily see that it is explicitly referencing an Old Testament passage - in this case Isaiah 53:12.  The citation is explicit.  But Price is claiming that most parallels are unstated, uncited and only inferred.  They can only be noticed once they are pointed out!  Robert Price is reminding us that the reasoning of the ancient Evangelists was different from what modern readers would expect.  These authors from an ancient and alien culture did not think of history in the same way we modern westerners do.  History to the ancients was not necessarily a consolidation and interpretation of documented facts.  It could also be derived through what they believed to be the truth of their own sacred scriptures.  A common practice among this ancient culture was to explain curious or troublesome portions of their scriptures with invented narrative solutions.  That is, that derived stories to explain and expand on their own Sacred Scriptures.  The revered scriptures that we call the Old Testament contained psalms, prophets, poetry and epics that described history through allusion, metaphor and cipher.  The four Evangelists channeled the earthly history of their new Messiah from their own Sacred Scriptures.  Their rationale for doing so was their belief that their Scriptures not only foretold history, but described it in detail for those who “had an ear to hear”.

So in a culture where midrash is common, perhaps the Gospel authors employed reasoning that is completely at odds from what the modern rational critic would expect.  Through the process of midrash, Price hypothesizes that ancient Scriptures were not used to “predict” events in the life of Jesus, rather they were used to “describe”, in advance, the life of Jesus through the mystical eye of faith.  For instance, when the author of the Gospel of Matthew read Hosea 11:1, “… Out of Egypt I have called my Son …”, he knew, through the process and tradition of cipher code, midrash and mysticism, that somehow, Jesus the Son of God, was called out of Egypt in His worldly sojourn.  Somehow he sees a place in his existing narrative of Hosea where there was a gap, a place which describes that the Messiah must have come up from Egypt at some point in his life.  This was just one point among many that the Gospel author used as a skeleton to his historical narrative of Jesus.

I am convinced that a thought process at least similar to this was at play during this, and many of instances of supposed ‘Messianic Prophecy’.  After all, if the evangelist was not working by this method, then we have to wonder why he made Jesus the fulfillment of so many unrelated, non-sequitur Old Testament citations.  If not midrash, then what other option is there?

This takes on a whole new meaning when the Evangelist Mark tells us that Jesus did something to fulfill scripture.  Maybe ‘to fulfill scripture’ meant ‘to know via midrash’ from scripture.  At this point I confess that I find the overall concept and process extremely plausible, even if I am not convinced by every proposed midrashic parallel.  After all, when Jesus scolds the Roman soldiers who come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane with: ‘Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me.  But let the Scriptures be fulfilled”, Jesus must be referring to something!  Price spends over 200 pages attempting to demonstrate that almost every Gospel narrative is extrapolated midrash from their ancient Scriptures or sacred traditions.

As intriguing and even plausible as I find this hypothesis, I have to say that on the whole I am not fully convinced.  To tell the truth, I am not sure that Dr. Price is fully convinced either.  I suspect that what he is doing is to test a model to see how it works as an overarching model over the entirety of the Gospels.  Even if every Gospel narrative can be conclusively shown to be the product of midrash, I don’t see how this advances an overall Christ Myth Theory.  Oh no, there it is again.  The same complaint I have had since the beginning of this review.  I will repeat – demonstrating that the Gospels are fiction does not necessarily make a Christ Myth Theory.  It certainly deconstructs what we think we know of a historical Jesus, and makes the historical reliability of the Gospels extremely implausible, but it does not advance a particular theory of Christ’s mythical existence.  I am sorry that I continue to make this complaint, and it is still my main criticism of this book.

I also have a problem imagining the transmission of texts that were assumed to be historical, that were in fact completely derived from the process of midrash.  The transmission of these Gospel texts as history seems very implausible.  It assumes that our four Evangelists knew and understood the process of creating history from midrash, wrote their respective Gospels with the same methodology and without personal collaboration; then every subsequent reader of the Gospels from that point on forgot about midrash and accepted the Gospels as history.  This seems highly unlikely to me.  It gives the original four Evangelists, authors who borrowed each others’ work but were not likely collaborators, identical methodologies of writing history - extrapolating and creating history via the process of midrash from ancient scriptures.  But it also gives subsequent readers and scribes a very different methodology of understanding - this was actual history of based on events that were witnessed, not based on history derived from mystical extraction from ancient scriptures.  The consistent methodologies of the four Evangelists contrasted with the very different but still consistent methodologies of all subsequent readers makes this process seem highly unlikely to me.  This question of transmission will remain a lingering doubt throughout this review.  Some midrash here and there?  I can buy that.  Midrash to create the whole thing?  No - that seems too much for me to swallow.

Robert Price’s long essay New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash originally appeared in something called Encyclopedia of Midrash: Biblical Interpretation in Formative Judaism, which I suppose can be found in the reference section of your nearest seminary.  But an abbreviated form of this article also exists on Price’s own website (LINK).  Since Price has placed New testament citations with their supposed Old Testament parallels online, I will not feel like I am giving anything away by going over a few of the examples that are offered by Dr. Price for our consideration.  So since I am not aware of anybody who has gone through these examples of midrash, then I guess I will.  I will give my gut reaction and grade each example based on my thoroughly subjective measure of plausibility.  Am I thoroughly convince, for instance, that Mark 6:1-6 was written as a ‘historical’ narrative extrapolated from 1 Samuel 10:1-27?  After I compare the two passages, some kind of narrative borrowing seems very likely to me.  That alleged parallel gets a grade of A in my personal grading scheme.  How about Luke 9:59-62?  Is it possibly derived from 1Kings 19:19-21?  I seriously doubt it!  It gets a grade of F from me.  Grades B, C and D fall somewhere in between.  Remember, I am doing no outside research besides reading the texts in question, doing a little comparing, and giving my initial determination of its plausibility and a quick rationale.  I am just shooting from the hip.  There are about 200 pages or so of alleged parallels to critique.  I am not sure how far I will go before I get tired of it - but I think at least a sampling of a few will at least give an idea of what Dr. Price is driving at.  Ready?  

NEXT: More New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review - Jesus at the Vanishing Point - part 2

Review - The Christ Myth Theory and its Problems by Robert M. Price
Jesus at the Vanishing Point – part 2
Well, I admit that I was pretty rough on Robert Price in the first part of this review.  I do hope things get a little better as I continue through his article, Jesus at the Vanishing Point.  I learned that I need to be extra scrupulous with Robert Price’s sources to make sure they are not being misrepresented.  But, blast it all, that takes time!  This time around, I will do my best to work my way through this article but not get too bogged down in the details.

The Traditional Christ-Myth Theory

As I continue through Jesus at the Vanishing Point, I find that Dr. Price is already back to repeating the biggest oversight that I have found in this book so far.  Just as I think Dr. Price will finally define the Christ Myth Theory, and explain what exactly it is that he is defending, he instead elaborates on what he considers the three main pillars in support of the Christ Myth Theory (whatever that is!).  It is too bad, because Robert Price has not yet defined his particular conception of Christ Myth Theory, and will not for another 300 or so pages.  So when Robert Price makes arguments, it is very difficult for me to understand what he is arguing for.  It is not enough to say, for instance, that most if not all of the words and deeds attributed to Jesus cannot be defended as an actual historical event.  Dr. Price is, I assume, arguing in this article that Jesus was worshipped as a pre-Christian, heavenly deity before he was ever worshipped as a human – something Dr. Price does not mention until page 388 of his book!  Until I read that page of the book in detail, I can only assume or even guess what exactly he means by Christ Myth Theory, and this makes it tough for me to evaluate Dr. Price’s personal conception of this Christ Myth Theory.  But I will give it the best shot I can with the information that I have.
Let’s look at the ‘three pillars’, as Dr. Price calls them, of the traditional Christ Myth Theory.

1) There is no mention of a miracle working Jesus in secular sources. (p31)
2) The epistles, which were written before the gospels, do not evidence a recent historical Jesus. (p32)
3) The Jesus story shows strong parallels to other Mediterranean religions that were also based on gods that died and rose again. (p44)

I can’t believe there are not more pillars than this.  Isn’t there something about a pre-Christian deity that later became the flesh and blood Jesus that really defines this conception of a Christ Myth?  I know I keep pressing this point, but it is a deadly flaw in the whole presentation so far.

No mention of Jesus?

So I guess the traditional Christ Myth Theory, whatever that is, rests on only three foundational pillars. I agree with Dr. Price when he says that the first pillar is the weakest one of the three he gives.  He views it as so weak, in fact, that he spends next to no time discussing it – neither here or in the remainder of the book.  The argument is: there are no secular sources, contemporary with the time and place in which Jesus was alleged to live, that mention or even hint at knowledge of Jesus.  Certainly, a charismatic wonder worker, as Jesus was said to have been, should merit a mention from local bystander.  But, despite the wishful thinking of Christian apologists, there is nothing like this.  As I said, I also think that this is the weakest of the three arguments.  But it is not invalid.  It is definitely worth discussing.  When pressed, apologists reflexively counter with, ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence!’  But is it?  There were thousands if not millions of people from the ancient Mediterranean who lived and died without any preserved record of their existence.  Sure, I concede that.  But Jesus was allegedly no mere human.  Would it be unreasonable to expect some contemporary record of a man who performed the marvelous wonders, and uttered the profound sayings that Jesus was said to have?  I do not see why not.  Extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence.  Since this particular article was addressed to Dr. Price’s scholarly colleagues, I assume they would also view this argument as weak, so while I do not blame Dr. Price for not fleshing out this argument a bit here, it would have been helpful for Dr. Price to throw us amateurs a bone.  After all, even though most Christian apologists concede that there are no contemporary sources, they will still claim that there are dozens of other sources in the years immediately after the life of Jesus.  What does Dr. Price do about that?

Considering that this is one of three pillars that supports Price’s entire argument, I would anticipate that he would include more than a single paragraph out of his entire book dedicated to this topic.  As often as Apologists try to turn this argument in their favor, it is worth more than this brief mention.

Who did Paul think Jesus was?

Who the heck knows?  Dr. Price reminds us that as the Apostle Paul has next to nothing to say about a historical Jesus.  Paul writes, at least on face value, thirteen epistles to various people and churches, and for all his talk of Jesus he says almost nothing about who Jesus was as a historical person.  Is there any reason, beyond a Faith commitment, to think that Paul understood the historical Jesus as He is presented in the Gospels?  Would Paul have known or understood anything about Jesus’ infancy, baptism, sermons or miraculous wonders?  Given what little Paul actually says about the life of Jesus, there is no reason to think so.  Dr. Price argues that if the Gospels that detail the life of Jesus and Epistles which say next to nothing about the life of Jesus were written by different authors, there is no reason to think those authors held the same theologies about Jesus.  There is no reason to think that the Apostle Paul knew any of the Gospel authors.  In fact it is unclear if he even knew the Gospel of Jesus even existed!  We have to let Paul speak for himself without projecting the beliefs of the Gospel authors onto him.


According to Dr. Price, the second pillar of the traditional Christ Myth Theory is that Paul does not speak of Jesus in any historical sense.  It is a rather shocking thing to review the epistles of Paul and realize that the only time Paul describes Jesus, He is not described necessarily a historical character.  Jesus, as described by Paul, can be easily and consistently interpreted as a celestial Savior who never touched down on the profane Earth.  According to Paul, Jesus as a Divine Being conducted His great act of salvation in the nether regions of the spiritual and heavenly realms.  When we remember that the ancient conception of the Physical World was that of a mere shadow that was cast by the activities of the Spiritual World, it is not so hard to understand that all the mystical language of Paul in his epistles were meant to describe Spiritual salvation.  If it is not this, then something has to explain why Paul described Jesus in ways that are never expressed in the Gospels!


Of course, an objection could be made to this argument that Paul actually did include some historical details of Jesus.  Dr. Price goes through what little that can be offered as historical data of Jesus in the Epistles and attempts to re-interpret historicity into mysticism.  It could be argued that Dr. Price is conveniently arguing away any evidence of a historical Jesus that he finds uncomfortable.  But I that it could also be fairly said that there are anomalies to any historical Jesus theory that must be dealt with sooner or later.  There are brief hints in Paul’s Epistles that indicate he believed Jesus was a physical human being.  After all, Jesus had a brother named James “the brother of the Lord” (Gal 1:19).  There you go!  Jesus had a brother named James!  This must speak of flesh and blood relations between two human beings!  Not so fast, says Dr. Price. ‘Brother of the Lord’ could mean about anything when spiritual leader’s and their disciples are concerned.  Jesus testified before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13).  It is well known that Paul did not write 1 Timothy.  Jesus was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). Oh, that tells us a lot!  Thanks for the useful historical information, Paul. 


But in my mind, no immediately available historical information about Jesus does not by itself equate to a Christ Myth Theory.  It seems to me that the only way to form a theory is by explaining the presence of pieces of evidence, not by imagining scenarios based on holes where evidence does not exist.  Disproving the existence of the Jesus of our beloved religious traditions is one thing, but creating a Jesus to fill the leftover vacuum is quite another.  Positive evidence is what is needed to form a proper theory, even if there only scraps leftover.  For instance, when considering the Christ Myth Theory, I think it is fair for me to ask: is there any evidence that Jesus was worshipped before Christian Orthodoxy was created?  A perfect opportunity for this is missed by Price when he only only briefly hints at a pre-Christian conception of Jesus presented by Paul.  “…Philippians 2:9-11, read without theological embarrassment, seems to intend that it was that name, exalted above all other names, that the savior received, not the title κυριος.” (p. 33)  This data needs to be fleshed out, tied with other related scraps that can be found, and developed into an actual theory of a pre-Christian Jesus.  I would love to read more material like this that presents positive evidence for an actual Christ Myth Theory, rather than building the theory on a lack of historical evidence.  It is too bad that Price just leaves hints of this kind before moving on.


Well, this is a long book and I am still only in the introductory chapter.  There is a lot of reading left to go.

Dying and Rising Gods?

The Jesus story as attested in the epistles shows strong parallels to Middle Eastern religions based on the myths of dying and rising gods…Strong evidence from ancient stelae and tablets make clear that Baal and Osiris were believed to be dying and rising gods long before the Christian era.  There is also pre-Christian evidence for the resurrection of Attis, Adonis, and Dumuzi/Tammuz.”(p. 44)

I began to critically investigate my Christian beliefs with the help of online articles back in 2007.  This claim of dying and rising gods was one of the first things I ran into on whatever videos and blogs were available at the time.  Of course, believing Christians such as myself typically had never heard these things in their Sunday sermons, so at the time these claims about the Deity of Christianity were astounding to me.  I immediately saw through a bit of video hokum I saw online somewhere called Zeitgeist.  I figured that the life, ministry, death and resurrection claimed of various forgotten pagan deities were just too close to that of Jesus to be true.  But two small things did strike me about the Dying and Rising God motif.  I had first heard of a mythical bird-creature called a Phoenix when I was a little boy.  From what I remembered, this unique creature died annually by fire but was able to miraculously rise from out of its own ashes.  Maybe this creature was not exactly a god, but it definitely counted as a myth that fit the motif.  And a well worn motif it is.  I do not know about which myths influenced which, but I do know that the struggle, the death and the ultimate return of the hero is an age old story arc through all literature.  Humans just can’t seem to get enough of this story, and it is just as popular now in our modern movies as it was in ancient myth.  And speaking of the Phoenix, isn’t the common expression ‘rising out of the ashes’ just a reminder of how ubiquitous this literary and mythic motif really is? 

I do not currently listen to debates between Christian apologists and skeptics like I once did, but I do know that one of the recurring themes in these debates is the claim among apologists that there were no dying and rising gods before Jesus.  Jesus was the first deity who was resurrected, and I guess that this is supposed to imply that the resurrection event is therefore true.  Behind this argument is the assumption that the very first resurrection story claimed of Jesus was actually historical because it had been previously inconceivable, and every subsequent resurrection myth must then be just a cheap copy of the historical event.  Well, despite this preposterous claim that this linear sequence of events must be the only way to explain the spread of legend and myth, I do think that it is a moot point to argue which resurrection myth borrowed from which, as these debates often do.  We do know that resurrection was just one small part of the superstition, myth and magic that the ancient Mediterranean cultures were saturated in.  We do not need a linear progression of which myth was derived from what legend.  Any of these beliefs was just an organic outgrowth from the surrounding environment.  Yes, Jesus is just one more Mediterranean deity who performed miraculous deeds, underwent a passion, suffered and died, only to rise stronger and more glorified than ever.  It is true that the Jewish Scriptures, or Old Testament, do not mention a physical resurrection as described of Jesus, so I can imagine the idea of resurrection would seem pretty strange to the Jewish culture.  But impossible, as some Christian apologists claim?  I would never go so far as that.  To say that this motif is an ancient mythological archetype that is hard wired into our collective psyche is just a very intellectual way of saying that it just makes for a great story.

So where to we stand so far?

The rest of Robert Price’s article Jesus at the Vanishing Point is spent touching on various topics that are explored in greater detail in other parts of this anthology, so I will not review them here.  Most of these topics seek to demonstrate that Jesus is a product of literary rather than historical pedigree.  His life as described in the Gospels seems to rely on stories and themes common in the ancient world and archetypes common in the human psyche.  Has Robert Price made his case so far?  I do not think so.  So far, his case seeks to undermine what the traditional Gospel stories say about Jesus, and demonstrate that the Gospels are more likely some sort of fiction rather than reliable history.  The Christ Myth theory, as presented in this book so far, is a theory built mainly on the destruction of the traditional historical understanding of Jesus.  When it comes to demonstrating the fictitious nature of the Gospel, I am completely on board, but the Christ Myth Theory does not automatically rise from the ashes of what has been burned away.  A theory must be built on some foundation, and so far I just do not see a positive case being presented.  The three foundation stones of the ‘traditional Christy Myth Theory’ that Price does present, only show evidence of a lack of a historical Jesus, but this is different from Jesus as a Myth, which I must repeat, Price has not yet defined thus far in the book.  But there is plenty of book left to go, so we shall see how it goes from here.

NEXT:  New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash
                The Quest of the Mythical Jesus

Saturday, January 10, 2015

El Nazareno Negro and Religious Tolerance

The Black Nazarene has just completed its 19 hour procession in the Quiapo District of Manila.  After an entire day where upwards of 12 million Filipinos whipped themselves into a state of religious hysteria, the venerated black effigy of Jesus is back in the Basilica of the Black Nazarene in Manila.  Every year on the 9th of January, the venerated statue, which depicts a cross bearing, coal black Jesus is removed from the Basilica for a public procession through the streets of Quiapo.  The statue is placed on large carriage and pulled through the streets with large ropes by dozens of men.  Throughout the procession, the carriage that bears the effigy is mobbed by millions of faithful Catholics hoping to touch the Black Nazarene.  The Black Nazarene is believed to transfer miraculous powers through the touch of the faithful catholic devotee.  Not everyone in the mob can possibly get close enough to touch the Black Nazarene, so men stand on top of the carriage wiping the effigy with white towels and throwing them back into the crowd.  If the faithful Catholic cannot touch the magical effigy, he might have to settle for touching a rag that touched the effigy.  The Filipino government has estimated that 12 million devotees participated in this year’s Feast of the Black Nazarene.  Emergency crews were on site to treat the hundreds of injuries, mostly from barefoot penitents slicing their feet open on street garbage.  Two people have been killed in this year’s celebration; one from a heart attack, the other apparently was trampled.  Their names and ages have not been confirmed since carrying anything including identification into dense mobs of millions of fanatics is just asking to be robbed.  Now that the procession is complete, the city is hoping to clean up the massive piles of leftover trash before the Pope’s visit to Manila next week.

There has been wall to wall coverage of these religious events on our two Filipino satellite channels, ABS-CBN and GMA.  The city has been preparing for months for the Pope’s arrival, and the news stories have focused most of their stories on the Pope’s security, the Pope’s itinerary through Tacloban City, and the devotional entertainment that will be performed for the Pope by the faithful Catholics of the Philippines.  Then during the weekend, local programming was interrupted with live updates of the Black Nazarene Procession.  Businesses and schools were closed, traffic was halted and the Quiapo district came to a grinding halt as millions of Catholic Filipinos went stark raving mad over a wooden statue!



I should have said: celebrated their devotion to a holy relic.  But I just can’t.

Since marrying a Filipino Catholic and especially since leaving Christianity myself, I have striven to be tolerant of Religion, and respectful of Faith.  I truly have.  After all, these people are Catholic Christians.  They are not like lunatic Muslim fanatics who routinely believe themselves justified in killing anybody they perceive as insolent towards their particular brand of Faith.  But there is something about watching a professional news reporter admiring the bloody feet of young men who chose to fight through a mob and touch the black effigy in their bare feet as a sign of their devotion and humility.  As I watched the satellite news channels with Rosemary, my level of religious tolerance just saturated.  It was exactly like watching fawning national news coverage of a state-sponsored Benny Hinn miracle rally.

I asked Rosemary if anybody in her family has ever participated (I refuse to say ‘celebrate’ as the Filipino press regularly does) in the Black Nazarene procession.  No, she told me, her family would watch the event on television, but would never attend in person.  They felt it was too dangerous.  But they did admire the Faith of the people who did mob the area, as apparently all Faith is to be admired.  Rosemary reminded me that not every one of the estimated 12 million people in the streets were devout Catholics.  Many of them were pick-pockets.  There were many vendors along the roadsides taking advantage of the opportunity by selling food and souvenirs.  There were also quite a few daredevils who just wanted to fight through the mob as a thrill to tell their friends – sort of the Filipino equivalent of running with the bulls.

It is religious hysteria, I told her.  It is well organized, mass scaled, delusional superstition.  It is millions of desperate people believing in a miracle if they just so much as touch a magical statue.  I asked her why people believe they will be cured if they touch a statue.

Rosemary:  “It is just their belief.  They are born with it.  You cannot understand.  You were not born there.”

Me:  “I think I sort of understand.  I remember my mom getting whipped into a frenzy by traveling revival preachers.  Not as many people.  Different method.  But I think it is the same mindset.  If I had my way, every one of those sons of bitches should have been thrown in jail.  That is why this stuff bothers me so much.  It is false hope.  It is harmful superstition.”

Rosemary had heard lots of stories about the charismatic religious beliefs of my mother, and she could not understand our tent revival culture the same way I could not understand her Black Nazarene culture.  But Faith is Faith no matter what the culture.  The desperate hope for a miracle cure transcends boundaries.

Me:  “The Pope is visiting Manila next week.  He is an educated man.  He seems to care about the poor.  Why doesn’t he tell these people not to place their hope in magical statues?  Can’t he tell them to stop getting hysterical about looking for miracles in a statue??”

Rosemary:  “Oh no, he would never do that.”

Me:  “Why not?  I mean, these Catholics believe in God don’t they?  They should believe in prayer, shouldn’t they?  If they need a miracle, why not go to Church during mass and pray for their miracle there.  I mean even when I was a Christian myself I figured that out.  I stopped believing in these traveling miracle salesmen and just prayed in Church.  Why can’t somebody in authority, somebody that they will believe, tell them the truth??”

Rosemary, of course, had no answer or just did not want to discuss it, and I did not want to try her patience.  I let it go. 

On this occasion, like so many others, I feel like I have to walk a tightrope or balance a scale.  On one plate of the scale is my society’s insistence on tolerance for different religions and cultures.  I get that.  I understand that.  I cannot be so arrogant as to insist that my views and opinions about the nature of reality are superior to everybody who holds different views and opinions.  But on the other plate of the scale is my tolerance level of what I see as obvious delusion, hysteria and superstition.  I can live and let live, but at some point my tolerance level reaches its peak.  When I see millions of people, as a unity, act with such irrationality, and a society that views this irrational behavior as virtuous, I feel like I am living in a Twilight Zone.  I do not feel I am in a position to correct Faithful people who believe in the efficacy of this superstitious behavior.  But I am sure glad that certain people had the courage to correct my own superstitious behavior. 

Religious Tolerance vs. Calling Bullshit.  It is a tightrope that I am still learning to walk.

video courtesy of :