30 December 2014

A Modern Christian Looks at Blasphemy

This post is because of Uncle Buck. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=xEt5dEOcW0I)
In an effort to find the "have a rat gnaw that thing off your face" line I was reminded of the teacher raising his ruler at Mazzie and yelling "Blasphemer!"

Watching that I thought, "I have no real idea what that word even means."

I mean I know what it means...kinda. But it's so old, so archaic, I can't say that I have any clue about why it might be a sin except in the broadest, most legalistic, sense. And yet, if I'm looking at scripture honestly, blasphemy is a big, big deal. In Leviticus, it's a capital crime. Mark says blaspheming the Holy Spirit is the only eternal sin. Aquinas says that if we compare blasphemy to murder, blasphemy is the worse sin because it is a sin directly against God. So it doesn't get much more serious than this and I, quite literally, think it's a joke.

For the sake of this post let's say that I can understand the personal aspect of this sin and why it's at least a kinda big deal. After all, most of the time what comes out of my mouth is a reflection of what is in my heart. If I'm talking trash about God it's likely my heart is somewhere west of devoted. But if my heart is true - it's likely that my words will reflect that too. So in that space I can understand blasphemy in a kind of diagnostic fashion and not unlike the way Jesus talks about murder or adultery. Yes, the outward action is sinful, but more importantly it's indicative of an inward condition and that's the real problem.

But I'm not at all clear on the corporate aspects. And they trouble me...a lot. I think the first time I ever gave a second thought to blasphemy was just after I left high school. Salman Rushdie was accused of blasphemy by the leader of Iran and there was some significant fear that a zealot from overseas would assassinate the author. In fact, the only places I've seen the charge of blasphemy taken seriously in my life time is by Muslims and if I'm honest those riots and executions and trips to jail all strike me as desperately backward. 

But what if I'm wrong.

Wikipedia tells me that the last western execution for blasphemy was a Scot in the 1600's, so it would seem that roughly coincident with the Enlightenment, the west dropped blasphemy from a felony to a misdemeanor and these days, it's just good ol’ fashioned fun like in Uncle Buck. Even the concept of blasphemy is something to be mocked and jeered at, or perhaps scorned when some other (more pious?) culture takes it seriously.

This isn't the first time I've been struck by the relative punishments for crimes in the Bible compared to today. The OT law often reverses the severity of crimes from what we see today. For example theft is a fairly minor crime compared to adultery, dishonoring your folks, or - again - blasphemy. My best understanding for this inversion is in the relative value for, and protection of, the community over the individual. If community is everything then a thief is a rouge individual who can be dealt with. But adultery strikes at the very fabric of the society, it undermines and threatens the family unit not just of that one couple, but of all who come in contact with the couple. Theft may change what I have, but blasphemy may change the way I think, the way I understand the world. It's been said that the most powerful thing in the world is an idea - and that's exactly what blasphemy is: a conception of God and of the eternal that is seditious.

Now of course the bible is equally vivid in its depiction of how we can become heresy hunting morons and Jesus is the central proof. If blasphemy is to speak disrespectfully or dishonesty of God, we watch the Pharisees hopelessly bungle the job and repeatedly accuse God of blaspheming Himself - because they lack the ability to tell the difference.

As an American, and I assume most westerners are the same, to see things like blasphemy and heresy treated as actual crimes only makes me think of the worst chapters of church history where conformity was required and you could literally be hanged or burned at the stake for daring to disagree with dogma. I certainly don't want to open the door to that kind of abuse again.

But - then there's the scripture.
I still can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something...that we've lost sight of something important.

To be clear, I'm 100% comfortable with the notion that some Levitical laws were culturally and generationally conditional. The Law says my house needs to have a flat roof with a parapet so  when we entertain guests I won't be guilty if someone falls off and dies. A flat roof in CO equals a collapsed house where everybody dies...so I'm pretty sure that law doesn't apply. But I'm not comfortable saying blasphemy is like that. I'm not willing to say the concept is outdated or doesn't apply to post-enlightenment westerners because we're so good at free-thinking now.

Let me be equally clear about something else - none of us live in a theocracy. That's a good thing and I'm not advocating we change that. So a federal crime against blasphemy is a very bad idea. So don't accuse me of going all sharia on anybody.

But...here I am again with this contraction...
But what am I missing?

If we only consider what blasphemy does and how it might be treated solely in the consensual context of those who claim to follow Christ, what then? Because if I'm honest I'd have to say that it's not something I even think about, it's nothing that I'd even notice much less be upset by. A short time ago a video was going around the Internet where Joel Osteen's wife said some things on stage that several people say just might rise to the level of actual blasphemy or heresy. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=00-6OyXVA0M) but my response isn't to be offended or angry, it's to laugh or dismiss, partly at her but also partly at those tens of thousands in the audience who listen to that silliness. Full-disclosure: I suspect Mrs. Osteen is guilty of a poor choice of words rather than genuine heresy but given their reach, idle words can have a big and genuinely damaging impact.

So I've written now for a while and I don't think I've really concluded anything, except to articulate the fact that I'm aware of this sense of an incomplete thought. I don't have a place to fit the ideas of blasphemy, particularly the way scripture treats it with what seems to be disproportionate severity. So I'll sign off now with just that - an open question. And I pray that God gives me wisdom and revelation on the mater, and for anybody else who might want to understand this once grievous, now ignored, bit of scripture. 

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