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A Professor's Life Outside the Ivory Tower

Tony Kelso

Tony Kelso
February 19
In a previous life, I was an advertising copywriter. Now I'm a professor of media studies. I've written a number of works on media, politics, and popular culture for an academic audience. But writing for a popular audience is more fun.

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JUNE 8, 2011 6:49AM

An Atheist Who Honors Jesus More than the Christian Right

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            For most of my life, I believed in God. During my college years, though, I finally recognized the concept of the all-knowing papa in the firmament—with his self-manufactured evil counterpart fanning the flames of hell below—could be nothing but a fairy tale. Nonetheless, exposed to Christianity since my youth, I wasn’t ready to give up on God altogether. If the Father seemed too anthropomorphic, too patriarchal, then the idea of the disembodied Holy Spirit, with its pervasive, mystical presence, still resonated with me.

            Then, years later as a doctoral student, while reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, it suddenly occurred to me that perhaps the universal propensity to place faith in at least one unseen deity was simply a byproduct of evolution, a “spandrel,” as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin coined it. Based on my layperson’s understanding, these offshoots are characteristics that originally had no functional design and weren’t selected because of their adaptive properties. Instead, they just happened to be coupled with features that did in fact serve an adaptive role. A belly button, for example, has no useful purpose (other than to collect lint, maybe?) but is something formed when the very vital umbilical cord is severed. Not long after my personal revelation, the hypothesis of religion as a side-effect of some evolutionary phenomenon began to receive considerable attention in the realm of popular culture, through books and debates on radio and television.

            So there I was, following my encounter with Jaynes, an atheist. In the minds of millions of Americans, then, I had become a loathsome creature, a person to be scorned, one of Satan’s vile envoys. Actually, I couldn’t decide if I were an atheist or a pantheist. No matter, I eventually thought—if everything is God then there is no God. Either way, according to multitudes of Sunday worshipers, I was part of the scum of the earth and destined for eternal damnation beneath it.

            But I confess that, to this day, I still believe in Jesus, the second of the three beings that comprise Christianity’s sacred trinity. No, I don’t accept that he was born of a virgin. (Surely, conceived out of wedlock, he was a bastard—small wonder he seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder toward his mother, even slighting her on occasion. One of the gospels, for instance, reports that in response to a woman who shouted, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that gave you suck,” he dismissively replied, “No, blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Take that ma!) Nor do I subscribe to the far-fetched notion that he magically rose from the dead on the third day after his public execution. And it goes without saying that I don’t equate him with God.

            Yet I believe in many of Jesus’ purported teachings, that is, I am convinced they offer a path to a more meaningful and—dare I say it?—spiritually enriching life. Though I realize the great prophets, gurus, and masters of the other major religions also have similar lessons to share, because of my lifetime of cultural contact with Christianity, I can’t help but place Jesus at the top of the pedestal. I especially admire how he snubbed those in authority while rubbing shoulders with everyday fishermen, prostitutes, and lowly tax collectors (well, maybe he should have left out the tax collectors). Were we to try harder to embody his messages on love (a utopian prospect, I admit, but isn’t it better to set the bar high?) there is no question we would experience less conflict both interpersonally and among nations, as well as exercise more care toward our warming planet.

            It is my profound respect for Jesus that explains why I am so offended by the countless number of Americans who identify as Christians yet support such utterly cruel political policies. When I read the gospel they have internalized, I discover a Jesus who declares:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, reject the poor. They are lazy, filthy, and dimwitted. With nobody to blame but themselves, they deserve their wretched status in life. Do not gather your resources together and collectively help them for that is socialism and worthy of the lake of fire. You may each individually cast a few dimes in their direction but be careful lest you become an enabler. Rather, give bountifully unto those corporations that bless you with iPads and smart phones. Then you shall see God.

            Clearly, their Jesus is a proud card-carrying member of the NRA who, when about to be seized by Judas and the surrounding hoard of accusers, screams out to his disciples: “Quick, grab your guns! Peter, you got the chief priests and scribes! Matthew, take out the elders! Leave that traitor Judas to me. It’s payback time, muthafucka!”


            Naturally, their dear Lord is a real American and hardcore capitalist. In their scriptures, when asked about the coin bearing the visage of Caesar, Jesus replies, “Give unto God that which is God’s but always trust in the free-market, whose invisible hand is guided by your Father in heaven. . . . And replace that wreath-wearing emperor with George Washington, for Christ’s sake!”

            Accordingly, when an affluent young man inquires about what he must do to be saved, their savior answers, “Again I tell you, the entrance to the kingdom of God is like the eye of a needle and very few may go through it. But when it comes to the mega-rich, my Father will replace the needle with an opening the size of a four-car garage.”

            Of course, the perspective of these Christian distorters is nothing new—our nation has a long heritage of mixing godliness with goodies. Backed by the Puritan ethic, many a nineteenth-century, Bible-toting captain of industry could justify his mansion and stockpile of all the best that money could buy by assuming his fortune was not a sign of greed but of God’s holy favor for a job well done. After all, wasn’t he helping to fully realize God’s New Eden? What were all the factories, the packaged foods, the ready-made clothes, the labor-saving devices, and the plethora of other mass-produced products but evidence that America really was fulfilling its Manifest Destiny, its hallowed calling as a City on a Hill, its mission to not only civilize its own citizens but to spread its Christian gospel of abundance to people all over the world, starting with the Native Americans and Mexicans, continuing with the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, and its “little brown brothers” in the Philippines, and proceeding on from there?

            Obviously, I speak here not of those myriad Christians who genuinely strive to love their neighbors as themselves but of those Christian extremists whose disproportionate influence poisons our politics. Steeped in their rigidity, they brutally affront my sense of morality, with their homophobia, their misogynistic views and practices, their severe discomfort with healthy sexuality, their emphasis on individual duty rather than communal responsibility, their yearning for the bombs to drop on the evildoers residing in all those rogue nations abroad. As an atheist, motivated not by fear but by the earnest desire to make the most of this gift called life, I can freely choose to honor Jesus’ words and, during those rare moments when I am able to rise above my inner-Homer, actually implement them with my wife, my son, my neighbors, and yes, my enemies. As for his hard-right representatives, if Jesus could see what they do in his name, he would be turning in his grave.

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Perhaps ted Nugent is the second coming.
This is wonderful. Found myself nodding in agreement throughout.

If I were Editor, this would be my pick for the day!
Love it Tony!!!! Nice work.
I like who Jesus was and is. How he hung with the "least of these". The ones who the pharisees discarded or considered unclean. Much like the modern day Christians and how they arrogantly and condescendingly "love the sinner but hate the sin". Jesus simply considered this sinner to be like him, made in God's image. He treated them as such--children of God.
He longed for people (us) to give to the poor, care for the needy and take care of the widows and orphans.
I can't think of a cooler guy I would want to hang out with or get to know. I think this is it. This IS the gospel--Getting to know this really intriguing, accepting and loving person named Jesus.
Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's. This is Jesus telling the Jews to abide by the law. Jesus is in no way "acknowledging the need for both government and tax-paid government services" in this verse. The Bible is crystal clear that it our individual responsibility to take care of those in need. Examples are the church providing for those in need, family taking care of family and friends taking care of friends and strangers taking care of strangers. This is personal and very individual. The Bible never says that it is the governments responsibility. Paying taxes is not remotely close to what we are required to do according to Gods Word.

As for a rich man entering into the kingdom of God, you must first understand the meaning of a rich man in this verse. This rather implies one who loves his riches and makes an idol of them, or one who supremely desires to be rich.
Wonderfully written and thought provoking piece, Mr. Kelso, I think there is a clue to the puzzle in your third paragraph where you say if everything is God then there is no God. Buddhists believe that God IS in everything. That is why bowing is so important, you acknowledge the God in others and they in you. Conversely, any assault is an assault on God. It takes "do unto others" to a higher plane, making it a more literal and practical way of life.

And to Mr. Holmescc: thank you for clarifying Jesus' words for us. I always assumed when Jesus said "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” that he meant just that, because to die with excess riches means you hoarded your money and did not give to the needy, which He preached over and over. Sir/Madam, Jesus does not need spin doctors such as yourself.
Not spinning padre. As I stated, "you must first understand". Apparently you don't. Those are the facts as written. You like many others want to take a verse and make your own belief system of that one verse. There happens to be quite a bit before and after that verse my friend. Sorry it does not fit into your bubble of confusion.
These people are more interested in recreating Jesus in their own image. Their motives have less to do with self-transformation than with self-legitimization.
Loved the bit about confusing godliness with goodies. The belief that god is Santa Claus seems to be an old one in our culture.

Loved your post over-all, in part because I'm in the same situation -- an atheist who still has an appreciation for many of the teachings of Jesus. I make a few exceptions (that blasting of the fig tree was just plain weird) but the philosoper who could take the teaching of loving your neighbor (a purely pragmatic bit of advice) and elevate it to loving your enemy as well (a truly revolutionary concept, then and now) is a philosopher I can get behind.
Julian Jaynes' book is one of those puzzlers: I can't decide whether I think it's brilliant or nuts. On the whole, I suspect he may be on to something, but also that he expands his case until it's heavier than his evidence can carry. It's a very interesting read, though. And I can imagine some really fascinating neurological research coming out of his hypothesis. Indeed, people like Michael Persinger seem to be on the case.

As for Jesus, the more I've thought about him, the less impressed I am. I'm reminded of the old Churchill quote: "The speech was both good and new. Where it was good, it was not new. Where it was new, it was not good." I think most of the ideas we like today have been expressed better elsewhere, and that many of the ideas we tend to ignore are terrible. And the problem with using the Bible as a moral guide is that it contains so many vague and internally contradicting ideas that you can pretty much justify any interpretation.

Not that I think Jesus would have liked his modern followers on the American right, though. I have a higher opinion of him than that...
I'm an agnostic...but have always noted that many of the teachings of Jesus make lots and lots of sense.

I've also been aware that many of my atheistic and agnostic friends seem to exemplify the teachings of Jesus in ways I often find missing in the most vocal of so-called Christians.

Good to see someone who gets that same feeling.
The way I think of Jesus is the way he's often portrayed in El Greco's paintings: he looks like a comic book character/super hero. To me he is a character, in a comic that has been co-opted and rewritten countless times. For an interesting read, and maybe check out "The Alphabet Vs The Goddess". It really makes human Moses and the founders of the church, and just what they really may have been up to.

And holmescc, I've been around churches enough to know that line "you must first understand". Get over yourself. What you have is an interpretation; there are barely any "facts as written" in the book as originally conceived nor in its infinite bastardizations floating around today. Strangely, you serve to pretty much exemplify what the humble poster was talking about: "What God meant..." or better yet, "What God meant to say...".