Why Jesus Cast out Demons

The worst, most painful aspect to the gospels is not that Jesus claims to be Christ, but that Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, and all the rest of the supernatural miracles we are challenged to consider.  These are next to impossible to take seriously as actual historical events, which I think often drives them into a special cupboard in our minds reserved for irrational stuff that we want to hold on to for emotional reasons.  As someone who marvels at the depth and complexity of great literature, however, the value of the gospel narrative is far more than an unconvincing argument that Jesus was Christ because he performed miracles.  The Bible is a text, after all, and the multiple authors that contributed to it are free to use every literary tool available to form a medium of communication between God and man, if that was their genuine intention.

I am focusing on the New Testament for the time being.  The accounts from the Old Testament are also of great symbolic value, but the likelihood that Moses himself never even existed presents a much higher wall for my interpretational powers to climb.  Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast, is widely believed to have existed and to have truly, with the help of John the Baptist, founded Christianity.

I recently wrote about a few of the gospel miracles and how to access their symbolic value.  Getting the symbolism correct is important, but the first step is naturally recognizing that there is indeed symbolism there rather than just a descriptive, historical record.  The impossibility of the miracles should force us to look for symbolic value.  They should force us to ask ourselves, why the hell is this in here?

The gospel authors took on many risks in writing with literary, rather than simply journalistic, tools.  If you, the audience, believe that any of the miracles didn’t actually happen, then it seems fair to assume that probably none of the miracles did.  For many people, this possibility (and extreme likelihood) is going to be a deal-breaker and discussion ender.  The text lies, and cannot be trusted — why read it?

I can’t answer that question for anyone, at least not adequately at the moment.  I have read it, though, and I have some thoughts on how to interpret the more off-putting miracles that have to do with casting out demons.

Often, the people supposedly possessed by demons are out of their minds.  They are tortured, they convulse, they scream, they ache.  Jesus is able to cast out the person’s demons when that person has faith.

The first move we need to take here is to abstract away from the details, and ask what is the structure of what’s going on here?  Someone has pain, and the person’s faith in Jesus takes the pain away.  The pain is a result of something inside that has a mind of its own (the demon), something that is self-destructive.  The demon talks, it recognizes who Jesus is, it begs for mercy.

The second move we need to take is to ask what does this structural pattern correspond to in our own personal experiences?  Have I ever had a “demon?”  Has my faith ever expelled this “demon?”  Well, if one is to recall ever acting possessed, the first place to look is at close personal relationships that have soured.  The pain brought about by love that has been mismanaged, misunderstood, mistreated is terrible.  Some call it emotional pain, I think it is emotional, but goes quite a bit deeper than that.  The pain is spiritual.  Does it have a mind of its own?  It does.  It drives us to think, to feel, and to behave in ways that are against our better judgment.  It compels us to inflict pain on those that hurt us, and to punish ourselves in cases where we view ourselves as responsible for the ruining of the relationship.  Voices inside constantly suggest this or that.  They disagree with each other, they fear, they worry, they hope, they desire.

Is this what the gospel writers have in mind?  Why not?  The ambition of the gospels is clearly aiming at laying out a moral teaching that will improve the lives of those who accept it.  They are clearly worried about the harm that people cause to themselves and to each other.  And they clearly believe that the only way to fix all of this is to flip the whole table over and persuade people to believe in a better way of life.

This probably was the message of Jesus that the gospel writers are packaging and presenting more or less on his behalf (he apparently didn’t write anything down himself).  The change has to be ambitious, it has to be radical, or the demons inside of us are going to stay active in us, and we’re going to continue to suffer.  The argument is that faith in Jesus and his teaching will cast the demons out, it will heal the sick, it will raise the dead.  It will inspire us to love each other, to support each other in such a way that is so different than our current practices that our entire world can change permanently for the better.  People will have less sickness, less poverty, less premature death.

Does it work?  That’s another key question that I can’t adequately answer right now.  What I think is worth noting is that, if you want to truly change the world for the better, and purify the motives and hearts of human beings, getting them to love each other better, then the miracles told of in the gospel might be necessary, and the language of demons might be highly appropriate.  Maybe we need to think about what our own “demons” might be to better understand the nature of human imperfection.  Maybe it helps to view others’ imperfections as alien to their true nature underneath it all, and that any hatred we have should be directed away from the person and towards those specific imperfections that we might consider inhuman.  Is there a better way?

Miracles in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew

I have been reading the gospels lately, and have gotten through Mark, John, and yesterday finished reading Matthew.

Although I’ve read them before, this time has been especially exciting.  In particular, I have a few thoughts on how Mark stands out.

It has to be understood first something about the authorship of Mark and its relation to the other gospels.  Likely, Mark was written first, though it used to be thought that Matthew was first (and Matthew appears first in the ordering of the Bible).  Mark is shorter, and the theory is that Matthew and Luke were both based on Mark, as much of Mark appears in both of them (but not each other).  These three are called the synoptic gospels, because they all tell similar, frequently overlapping, accounts.

Mark also may have been an eyewitness as a boy.  There is mention of a boy toward the end of his gospel, with no other apparent significance or purpose other than perhaps some sort of self-identification on the part of the author.

But the substance of Mark is where things get especially interesting.  It is an open question as to whether Jesus truly was divine, or if he actually performed miracles.  Mark is the most hazy as to whether miracles were actually performed.  This even seems to include the Resurrection.  The New International Version of the Bible that I am reading notes that after the scene when Jesus’s body is discovered to be missing from its tomb, the earliest manuscripts of Mark end with Mark 16:8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (The End.)

So, no witnessing of a resurrected Jesus in the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel.

As for the other miracles, the most explicitly symbolic seems to me to be the Feeding of the 5,000, followed by the Feeding of the 4,000.  In each of these events, Jesus has thousands of people gathering near him.  These people need food, and there is a question for Jesus and the disciples as to whether these people should be sent away so that they might find food for themselves.  In each case, Jesus insists to the disciples that the crowd not be sent away, and that the few loaves of bread and couple of fish they have with them should be split up and shared.  After the crowds are invited to sit down, Jesus gives thanks to heaven, and their food is passed around.  There are so many leftovers of crumbs and broken pieces that several baskets are filled (they end up with much, much more than they started with).  An apparent miracle!

But what else could explain this passage?  Well, Jesus of course is a teacher and knowledge is the type of thing that, when shared, can easily accumulate without diminishing whatsoever.  If these events are to interpreted symbolically, then that would seem to be an obvious, straight-forward explanation.  But should this be interpreted symbolically?

One clue is that this odd event occurs twice, the first time with 5,000 people and the second time with 4,000.  The numbers seems to be different, not out of empirical accuracy, but only so that the reader might see that this is not the same event being told twice, but rather is two distinct occurrences.  The reader should not disregard or skip over either of these events, but rather focus on them all the more for their emphasis by way of recurrence.

Let’s keep reading for more context.  Following the first Feeding, Jesus walks on water.  The water-walking event is explicitly connected to the Feeding, with Mark stating that “Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down.  They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).

Mark says that the disciples were amazed because “they had not understood about the loaves.”  But what was there to understand?  In particular, what could be understood such that seeing Jesus walking on water would not inspire their amazement?

Thankfully, we get more insight into the meaning of the Feeding events later, following the Feeding of the 4,000.  The text reads as follows:

“The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus.  To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.  He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign?  I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it'” (Mark 8:11-12).

What?!  No sign?!  If the Feeding of the 4,000 (or the Feeding of the 5,000 that comes earlier) is meant to be read as a literal miracle, then it would be pretty odd to immediately follow the event with Jesus insisting that “the truth” is that no “miraculous sign . . . will be given.”

We have to therefore consider that the Feedings are not necessarily included as literal miracles in order to demonstrate Jesus’s divinity (which could not fail to always inspire amazement), but rather are representing the potential value of what Jesus has to offer (a kind of knowledge or teaching).

So is Jesus walking on water also a symbolic event?  Well, Jesus in that event is not explicitly trying to demonstrate his divinity, but is instead explicitly helping and providing the disciples with strength.  Just as the 5,000 needed food, and Jesus gave them something of symbolic meaning, a similar thing is happening here.  “He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them . . . Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down.  They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves” (Mark 6: 48, 51-52).  A clear connection: the loaves are symbolic, and if you understand the loaves, you understand the point of Jesus walking on water as also being symbolic.

Their faith gets the disciples through the rough waters, and Jesus appearing on water is just a laughably accommodating mechanism for inspiring their too-easily-shaken faith.  If they had understood about the loaves, they would not have needed to see Jesus on the water.  Their faith alone could have strengthened them, if they believed.  The reader is implicitly encouraged to be better than the disciples.

That’s how the events go in the Gospel of Mark.  Now, compare Matthew, which is actually far more explicit about the Feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000 as being symbolic: “Don’t you remember the five loaves and the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand? How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking about bread?” (Matthew 16:8-11).

Now, look and see the differences in Matthew’s telling of the walking on water event compared to Mark.  (In both gospels, the events proceed in roughly the same order, with the water walking event happening somewhere between the two Feedings.)  Matthew adds the details that while Jesus is out on the water, Peter actually gets out of the boat, walks on the water himself, and approaches Jesus.  Peter loses faith, however, and begins to sink: “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.  ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’  And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.  Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.'”

So, catch some of the differences?  Matthew does not follow Mark in explicitly relating the water walking event to the earlier Feeding event and the miraculous loaves of bread.  Instead, for Matthew, the water walking event has as its primary purpose something different.  By having Peter fail to walk on water as well as Jesus does, the emphasis is more on showing us the type of person Peter was–his desire to be like Jesus and his relative inferiority, which he never really overcomes (remember the cock crowing).  The emphasis is not, as in Mark, simply on Jesus’s ability to strengthen all those who would have faith in what he offers.

I’m not saying the Matthew version lacks value, but it does seem to care less than the Mark version about providing the reader a means of interpreting the gospel miracles symbolically.

The Kingdom of Heaven

A man and woman were talking to each other while strolling down a peaceful road.  The man asked the woman, “What must heaven must be like?”  The woman answered:

“Well the idea of the kingdom of heaven is that of an ideal kingdom.  The laws flow from the will of the King, who is good.  The angels who reside in heaven are all pious and well-practiced in repentance and forgiveness.  The physical and biological laws there are almost exactly as they are on earth, and indeed the expectation there is that the heavenly kingdom will one day be welcomed on earth.

The ruler of the kingdom of heaven does use fear to maintain order, though many do fear him out of humility and reverence.  Order obtains naturally from the loving interactions the angels engage in with each other.  The more the angels love, the more orderly and harmonious heaven becomes.  All of the angels are aware of this, and live lives full of purpose, hope, and happiness.

The longer any angel resides in heaven, the stronger and more sophisticated that angel gets at loving.  The result is that heavenly society has been growing stronger and more sophisticated since the beginning of the world’s creation.  The angels that love the most are nearest to the King, and angels that love the least are furthest away.  The King enjoys the most intense love from his nearest angels, and in return loves them more than any others.  Heaven is consequently strongest in the areas nearest the King, weakest in the areas furthest away.

Admission into heaven is selective.  Only those that the King chooses are welcomed through the gates, and his choices are perfectly impartial, right, and just.  New arrivals, just as older residents, come to reside with those most like themselves, those that love in the most compatible style and manner.  Some make their way to the King’s throne very quickly, others become very loyal and attached to particular angels and proceed more slowly, not wanting to leave their loved ones behind.  Nevertheless, all angels in the kingdom of heaven are united in and through their love of the King, by whose will and by whose laws this society, so completely saturated with love, has been made possible.

Outside of the kingdom of heaven, proud spirits are largely paralyzed by their own self-love.  Repentance serves no benefit to them, and only promises to harm their pride and to forfeit a fragile and jealously guarded self-image of superiority.  Forgiveness is consistently withheld to justify their strategic contempt for others and to gratify themselves.

These proud spirits form kingdoms of their own making outside the gates of heaven.  Rulers and ruled are dependent on the flattery of each other, which is unstable since it can readily be traded for contempt.  The fluctuations between this thin admiration at one time and coercive contempt at another ultimately sows resentment across all of these dark kingdoms of the proud.  The resentment divides and destroys all such existing kingdoms, as new rulers rise and others fall.  The proud spirits in this state restlessly scrape after the image of greatness, which constantly escapes them.”


When a soldier dies.

When a soldier is killed, what has occurred?

Does it matter who you are, where you are, or what you are doing?

Was it better to be a dead soldier lying face down in the dirt at Breed’s Hill or Gettysburg, than leaning against a wall or a post in Khost or Baghdad?

Does it matter if the soldier understands and believes in the mission, or is just doing as trained?

Does it matter if the soldier is 18 or 47?  Had a lot to lose, or everything to gain?  Married, single or divorced?  A loving father or an absent one?  A good son, or bitter?

Does it matter if the soldier wore his uniform properly and with pride every day?  What if he was messy sometimes, or had a few unpleasant habits?

Does it matter whether the soldier had killed any of the enemy?

Does it matter if you make the news?  If presidential candidates applaud your sacrifice, and use you for political leverage?

Does it matter if you had been captured, and died as a resisting prisoner?

Does it matter if your brothers and sisters in arms weep at your memorial service?

When a solider is killed, what has occurred?

I have a blurry answer that guides me through Memorial Day, and every occasion for thinking of a fallen member of the Armed Forces.  I don’t think the questions above matter very much, at least at the fundamental level.  But I’m often worried that if we abstract away from all of the details, then whatever is left at this fundamental level isn’t worth very much.  So it matters how you understand the fundamental level, whether you respect the fallen out of respect for the dead or our vague duty of respecting fallen soldiers, or something else, you might have a very rich appreciation for killed military members or a very flimsy one.

My take is if the nation is good, then it is good to be in the military and to die in service to the nation.  Serving in the military is profoundly instrumental.  You have no control over the mission — the overarching mission.  Being in Iraq or not being in Iraq is not your choice if you are doing your duty.  So how can these two things be brought together — that it is good to die in service to the nation, but that your death occurs waging a war that may be good or bad?

I think the answer is in your faith in the inherent goodness of the nation, or at least the potential goodness that is still worth working at.  In this sense, you might be the instrument of your nation’s mistake, but your nation is going to make that mistake with or without you.  That fact that you are willing to be the one, putting your one life up, in order to carry out that will, if only so the nation can learn from its mistaken judgment in the witnessing of the results of your (its) efforts, then to me you have done something that brings chills, is easily wept over with tears of joy and love to anyone that realizes it.  You have sacrificed your all so that your nation might have body, unity, and purpose, that it might learn, and that it might one way or another in the end, God willing, persevere.  And when you can do that with the American flag on your uniform, fighting for American values, making America possible by giving her her will and capacity to be secure, you have brought your life to rest on the very strongest of foundations in this persistently dark and inscrutable world.  And if you were right, and your nation is good, then your nation will remember you, and will benefit from your sacrifice, one way or another.

God bless America, God bless our military dead, and God have mercy on all of our souls.

Protecting your Heart from Itself: A Response to “Let’s Talk?”

There is a real tension between talking and doing.  In the present election cycle, establishment politicians are the talkers, and who are the doers?  Well, Trump and his supporters, who are going to “make America great again.”  But notice that just as politicians have their reputation for not getting anything done, Trump and his supporters have their reputation for being unthoughtful and inarticulate.  You have to be one or the other, you can’t be a talker and a doer.

The Bible says that there is a time to gather stones and a time to scatter them.  There is obviously a time for talking and a time for doing.  Talking implies delayed action.  When action is needed, somebody needs to declare that the conversation is over.  On 9/11, Todd Beamer said to his fellow passengers “Let’s roll” before taking on the highjackers of Flight 93.

When people are in danger or pain, it is hard to argue that the conversation should continue.  Pain demands a response.  Pain demands action.  If my arms are full of groceries, and I suddenly feel an ant biting my ankle, then I’m dropping those groceries, milk and eggs be damned.  If I’m addicted to drugs, and my addiction generates extreme pain when I’m off the drug, then I’m taking the drug.

Conversation is an activity of the mind, while doing is an expression of the heart.  It is the heart that needs to be convinced by the mind, not vice-versa.  The default mode is to do, and to do immediately.  If the mind can make a compelling case that action should be put off, that more thought needs to be had, then patience can be achieved — for a while.  But if the heart has to wait too long it loses faith in the ability of the mind to deliver on its promises, and the heart will go it alone.  It can be tragic when this happens.

The saying is true that love is blind.  The heart might know what it wants, but it has no idea how to get it or to keep it.  The heart wants love and affection, but without the mind the pursuit of love and affection from another can become creepy.  It’s a turn off for the beloved.  The mind says wait, the heart says go.  The mind says settle down, the heart says reach out, demand, force.  The heart reveals its own desperation, its weakness, its vulnerability, its willingness to give up everything.  The heart is a self-destructive beggar.  The mind of the beloved asks: why give this beggar my heart?  What here is worth wanting?  The world is indifferent, it says, “that’s not how this works.”

All lasting love is led and informed by the mind.  This is why communication is so important in marriage as it is in politics.  In marriage, our hearts want love, but our mind says first be worthy of love, be virtuous.  This is frustrating, and tests the trust between the heart and the mind.  In politics, our hearts want happiness, but our mind says first have a successful marriage, have a great job, have dignity, have respect.  This is frustrating, and generates resentment after resentment as marriages fail, jobs are lost, and with them, dignity and self-respect.  It gives charge to the self-destructive beggars within us, with frustration giving way to recklessness, failure, and a nod towards death.

We need to protect our hearts and ourselves by being patient and open-minded.  There are ways–some clever, others straightforward–to satisfy our hearts and sooth our frustrations, but we can never make the best use of them if we close ourselves off from the wisdom of the world.  This is why talking matters, in marriage and in politics.  It takes us from quick and easy assumptions to a winning strategy that can go the distance.  Isn’t that what we all want?