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Progressive Christianity, Publications

Did Jesus Say Everything He Said? –an Introduction to “The Continuing Story of Ananias and Sapphira”

NOTE: This page consists of a passage transcribed directly from The Camerado ChroniclesIt was written in 2004, in the context of a long-running exploration of my reasons for leaving a Christian church where my wife and I had found a temporary sense of home.

601751a-question-mark-on-stained-glass-postersIt is of utmost importance to me, both as a writer and a person who loves God to great distraction, that it be understood that I did not set out to trash the Bible, neither with this book nor any other I publish in the future. To the contrary, I want to give the Christian Bible its proper respect for being just what it is on the worldwide stage: one of the most highly respected and cherished collections of verbal (aka symbolic) expressions of the true nature of God ever recorded in the history of humankind.

Those are awful high accolades, and I don’t believe they are an overstatement. Many people outside the Bible-believing fold have turned to it for centuries as a reliable guidepost for inspiration, direction and wisdom –Gandhi being one of the most famous examples. The Bible is a proverbial finger pointing directly at the moon of God. This is why I have a copy of the King James Bible in the “elite” milk crate of notebooks and source materials by my left side in Camerado’s passenger seat writing studio. [Camerado was the name of the 18-wheeler I was driving at the time.] This is why I quote from it so often in my other writings. Heck, even people who are completely irreligious use proverbs and expressions straight out of the Bible, so clearly does it ring the Bell of Truth in our hearts.

However, let us not make it an overstatement by giving the Bible deified status, or assigning it a divine origin that no other scriptures can have. The Bible was written by men (and by that here I mean “men,” no women), and it deals with spiritual matters; therefore, it was written by men with an agenda. Men who clearly intended to propagate and disseminate their views on gender relations and sexual propriety, for instance.

It was also written by men who were not above using fear as a persuasive tactic, in a way their Holy Mentor and Guidepost, I have to believe, given what we know about his character and teaching methods, would not have advised.

This brings us to a main issue of inquiry that progressive Christianity must tackle: did Jesus say everything He said? [1] Or is it possible that some of the ideas attributed to Him in the Gospels are someone else’s recollections or ideas of what he might have said– or even deliberate distortions of teachings that didn’t suit the later agenda of the church founders? I would welcome a debate with anyone who would say “Yes, He did say everything as it is recorded.” But the answer, “because it’s in the Bible and the Bible is the inerrant Word of God” won’t satisfy me. I want to see genuine spiritual discernment from the other side.

cuttingsThe teaching at every Bible-believing church I have encountered is that, if you believe the Bible is the Word of God, then you must accept the whole Bible as such. Several different times over the years, I was told the story of Thomas Jefferson and how he cut out the parts of the Bible that didn’t sit right with him. Clearly the message for me was that God doesn’t approve of having his Word sliced and diced by mortal men.

That’s fine for our brothers and sisters, if they feel called to be that kind of believer. But my thinking is, why the hell not? I mean, if you are not the type of Christian who buys into Churchianity’s claims of authority over the Spirit within you, why would you presume that God wants you to swallow the Bible whole? If most of the Bible lights you up like a Roman candle with the Word of God, and other parts resonate with little more than a dull thud, why should you have to pretend that it all speaks to you the same? Isn’t that just reassurance that you are not an idolator? What’s wrong with seeing the Bible like a diamond mine: precious gems scattered throughout, hidden among more mundane rocks?

I find the Bible to have an extremely high concentration of gems, and I seek to mine them each time I pick it up. This seems to me to be a good way of describing the process of discernment which is so vital to the spiritual life. Another popular biblical image for discernment is that of separating the fruit of the wheat plant from the chaff. Is there no value of even a negative value in applying this discernment process to our reading of the Bible? Is the Bible 100% fruit and every other “holy book” written by man 100% chaff? How did any of them ever grow?

I have no problem, in other words, with what Thomas Jefferson did, in fact I believe it demonstrates a spiritual discernment that is far too lacking in the modern church. My only issue, if we are to take the account literally, is with his method. The Bible is obviously printed on both sides of each page, and if ol’ TJ was cutting out chaff on one side, he might be discarding some good fruit on the other.

To see a symbolic application of this idea to go with the literal, and to explore what I feel to be a more effective discernment process than eliminating what we don’t like, let’s take a second look at the creative reaction of another Christian who apparently did not like the way every verse of the Gospels sounded in his spiritual ear: Nikos Kazantzakis.

324381134_640In another Heretic Asylum post, I introduced the passage from The Last Temptation of Christ that inspired “Ananias and Sapphira.” (Hint: it has nothing to with Jesus getting busy with Mary Magdalene.) If you are familiar enough with the Christian Bible, you will know that the second part of Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man did not come from the scriptures. The author claims no “secret knowledge” of what actually transpired. There are many cases where Kazantzakis takes scriptural events and places them in a different context for the sake of story-telling –another example being the scene where Jesus saves a prostitute from being stoned to death. He explains to the reader in his preface that he did not set out to “rewrite” the Gospels in the sense of replacing them, but clearly he did mean to add to them, enhance them in a way.

Why? If the Christian Bible was given to us directly from God via its authors and editorial staff (remember, the Bible is a compilation of historical records, letters and testimonies assembled and “canonized” in the 4th century CE, not a concerted effort on the part of its authors to present a uniform gospel), then surely it contains everything we need to know in order to be good, devout Christians. Yes, I agree, it does, but that doesn’t mean that it is free of chaff, places where the limited human perspectives of its authors show through. Since the Bible idolaters’ approach is to worship the Bible uniformly as the Word of God, a lot of this limited human perspective gets the same unquestioned sanction of Christians as do the fruits, the “diamonds in the rough” that point directly toward God’s non-dual, infinite and eternal nature.

Let me stop beating around the bush and say exactly what I mean: some parts of the New Testament seem to have been written, compiled and canonized as a deliberate effort to instill fear of the consequences of non-compliance (with the church, mind you) in the masses. The carrot-and-stick approach. “You’re either for us or you’re against us, and if you’re against us, then you’re against God.” Again, I ask: is there anything more sadly and unregenerately human than this mentality? I have certainly chronicled my efforts at coming to accept or even appreciate some of my human weaknesses, but I also call them what they are –products of my ego– and don’t try to claim that they represent Godly principles or ideals in any way. I find it ridiculous that we should have to make this claim about the entire Bible in order to properly utilize it as a finger pointing us to the reality of God. The Spirit within us deserves better than that.

serpent tempterCan it be that “one man’s chaff is another man’s fruit?” Absolutely. I’d be a huge fool to suggest otherwise and then go about describing which is which. My only addendum to this simple answer is that the kind of discernment I’m talking about requires a brutal honesty and awareness of which or whose agenda we are seeking to promote. If you go to the Bible with an anti-homosexual agenda, for instance, you will be inclined to see these aspects of the Jewish law and their application in the early Christian church as pure fruit, and Jesus’ teaching on removing the plank from your own eye before trying to help your neighbor with the speck in his as largely chaff; the opposite could be the case if you have an “anything goes” mentality and want to find Biblical validation for telling the world to mind its own business. Surely there is a “middle road” between the polar opposites, and God probably wants us to use our powers of discernment to find it and travel it toward the heart of Christ, which is non-dual and not concerned with anything divisive, rather than find Biblical validation for our prideful agendas.

So what should we do with our personal chaff? Should we thresh it out of the codex itself a la Thomas Jefferson? Simply pay it no mind, as I’ve learned to do?

Or can we use it, creatively, as Kazantzakis clearly does, to draw even closer to the heart of God where the Bible goes farther away?

Can we use a combination of discernment and creativity to draw out the contrast between the evidence of pride in the scriptures and the overwhelming power and presence of God’s love?

In The Last Temptation of Christ, at the end of the first part of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the only part found in the Bible, Judas Iscariot –who is brilliantly employed as the perfect character foil for Jesus throughout the early part of the book– is very satisfied by the story’s outcome because it quenches his thirst for vengeance against the rich.

But the author is not satisfied, and he uses “the beloved disciple,” John, to put forth his objection: God’s infinite mercy is missing from this account –I mean, is it not, readers?– and there must be more to the story. In confirming that there is, and in giving Lazarus the personal choice to become the agent of God’s mercy by rescuing the rich man from the flames of hell, Kazantzakis’ Jesus confirms the scriptural teachings that compel us to seek the heart of Christ by opening ourselves up to become ministers of abundant mercy and grace. The parable as recorded in the gospel of Luke actually teaches the worldly way, Kazantzakis says indirectly, and the living Christ has taught me this other way –let me share it with you.

It literally made me cry, sitting there in the truck reading this part of The Last Temptation, and seeing how this fellow Christian was willing to go “out of bounds” Biblically to uncover a precious gem that maybe even Luke did not consider.

One other example is a story that has always been to me one of the most bizarre parts that made the final cut for the New Testament: the tale of Ananias and Sapphira.

It is certainly no coincidence that Kazantzakis chose “Ananias” as the name for the rich man who entertained Jesus and the disciples, and requested the parable to ease his troubled mind. It seems like he was letting his Jesus address both stories at once, both places where he may have felt the scriptures left the Savior’s mercy wanting. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is found at the the beginning of Acts, Chapter 5; the setting is among the first worshippers of the recently crucified Jesus of Nazareth in Jerusalem. Chapter 4 has just explained how people of the first church had sold off property and possessions and brought the proceeds to the community; how they shared all things in common and had meals together and prayed together, the whole nine yards. All for one and one for all.

Oh, but there’s always one bad apple in the bushel….

1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,

2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, to keep back part of the price of the land?

4 While it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and a great fear came on all them that heard these things.

6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

7 And it was about the space of three hours after when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in.

8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

9 Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.

10 Then she fell down straightaway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

11 And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.

ananiasandsapphirabiblestory1-copyYeah, great fear. You mean like, awe and reverence, right?

No, he meant FEAR. The-cold-face-of-death-peering-over-your-shoulder-type Fear.

Ananias and Sapphira tried to pull a fast one on God, but God showed them who’s Boss by pulling their spirits right out of their bodies.

Yeah. That’ll teach ‘em.

And as many as youze people out there who heard these things: Nobody, I mean NOBODY, fucks with Yahweh in this part of Jerusalem. Are we understanding each other here?

Please pardon my blasphemy, but this all sounds more like a scene from The Godfather than the Word of God. Can’t you just picture Marlon Brando as Peter, people coming in and laying all their money at his feet? He even has his little posse of henchmen to come out and hide the bodies –did you also get the sense this wasn’t the first time they’d done this?

Now tell me this story wasn’t canonized in the Bible to leave a HUGE impression in the simple minds of the church’s flock, people to whom the Bible was presented as literal Truth, and whose small, dispensable lives were well-conditioned to respond to Fear as their primary motivating factor.

God, merciful and forgiving? Are you kiddin’ me? Fuhgeddaboutit! No second chances in this universe, pal.

OK, so I think we’ve pretty much established how I feel about Acts 5:1-11 in terms of it being fruit or chaff. Now, in the spirit of Nikos Kazantzakis, I offer you my version of the second half of the tale of Ananias and Sapphira. (I won’t try writing in King James English, in fact the whole context has been pretty well modernized to bring it closer to the contemporary reader.)

FOOTNOTE

[1] Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous baseball player, Yogi Berra, who was a great catcher for many years with the Yankees, but is probably more famous for his peculiar statements of fact (“it ain’t over til it’s over”) and other anecdotes which display his own quirky personal brand of logic. (One that comes to mind: Yogi was asked if he would like his pizza cut into four or eight slices, and he said, “Better make it four, I don’t think I could eat eight.”) However, one of his better quotes also sheds some light on the fact that his legend, so to speak, probably proceeded him, and that some of the more famous Yogiisms are probably other people’s ideas of this he would have said. The quote: “I didn’t say everything I said.”

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Did Jesus Say Everything He Said? –an Introduction to “The Continuing Story of Ananias and Sapphira”

  1. Garbage

    Posted by Ann | January 21, 2016, 3:36 pm
    • Articulate yet, in your brevity and subtlety, perhaps some of the deeper layers of meaning are a bit blurry. For instance, by “garbage,” to you mean the standard “GAR-bidj” as one might say about any random landfill product? Or is that “gar-BAZH?” Perhaps it still sucks, but it does so with a little more panache, calling for a faux-Euro pronunciation. Would you care to comment further?

      Posted by J. Pierre Reville | January 21, 2016, 3:50 pm

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