Who would want to kill Karl Schuler?

Swift Horses Racing

By Victoria Kazarian

(Fog Hollow Books)

Here is a Silicon Valley murder mystery that packs a lot. The twisting plot offers all the forks in the road of a good whodunit, plus a lot of social commentary that doesn’t rudely intrude on the flow of the story, plus some romance, some previously unexplored history, and even some local color for visiting travelers who are not familiar with the San Jose area. I enjoyed this book a great deal.

Full disclosure: the author, Victoria Kazarian, is a friend and fellow founding member of a writers’ group I’ve met with monthly for a half dozen years. I know how she takes her coffee. So you will be forgiven for any skepticism about my objectivity. But seriously, it’s a good story anyway. 

Detective James Ruiz and his wife Reyna witness a murder while driving home from a San Jose party in the wee hours of New Year’s morning. Ruiz has worked for many years on the police force of a well-off suburb called Monte Verde, but he develops a camaraderie with the San Jose detective assigned to the case, Mario Flores. Although Flores maintains control of the investigation, Ruiz’s personal connection as a witness to the shooting draws him close and the two officers collaborate.

Karl Schuler had the reputation of a modern-day saint. He worked in aeronautics for decades, helping to design planes and rockets that moved mankind into a new age. But more importantly, he did everything he could to help those less fortunate. He delivered meals to seniors.  He tutored and mentored children in economically underprivileged neighborhoods. He helped kids escape the cycle of poverty that had trapped their families for generations.

Why would anyone want to kill Karl Schuler? Was the shooting random? Gang-related? Someone jealous of his achievements and influence in the community?

In the course of the investigation we gain insight into the real-life tension tearing Silicon Valley apart even today. Tech entrepreneurs and their highly paid employees have driven the cost of living far out of reach of the working-class families that had put down roots there long before the advent of personal computers. For instance, when Ruiz’s son Jacky asks for a computer game that his schoolmates have recently gotten, the father tells the boy he’ll have to work extra and save his allowance.

Jacky let out a long sigh of annoyance. “I need the game now. They’re already playing it.”

Their budget, which Reyna guarded fiercely, was tight. Living in the valley on their two salaries was getting harder every year. How many fellow cops had moved to the Central Valley in the past year? Every dollar was accounted for. They ate a lot of spaghetti. A lot of specials from the Asian market that Reyna knew how to make, that he hadn’t grown up with. Some of which scared him a little.

“We don’t have the money for it right now. You’re gonna have to wait.”

Flores, on the other hand, comes from a family with money. Attractive and single, he draws attention from women when he enters a room. Ruiz notes that his younger counterpart owns an iPhone and an Apple watch, and wonders why he needs both.

The investigation explores the underside of the valley’s glittering exterior, the history of the aeronautical industry, and the thinking behind police investigative methods. The truth behind Karl Schuler’s murder will send shock waves through the community he devoted his life to. Along the way, we also see how the real-life pressures of daily life in the 21st Century can shape our fates. 

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Concise is Nice

A brief word for writers who are new to traditional (i.e. print) publishing: Editors consider every unnecessary keyboard stroke you make in your story like an incursion into their valuable real estate, so use your words sparingly. Sure, you need to include physical descriptions, back story, transitions between scenes, etc., but you should strive to only include text that moves the story forward. Excessive wordiness can turn off an editor very quickly and increase the likelihood of rejection of your manuscript. 

If this already seems obvious, forgive me for preaching to the choir. But I’ve read a number of manuscripts by authors who have always previously published digitally and thus never had to worry about the cost of adding more space to accommodate their prolific prose. For instance, one writer I know who has self-published several novels has several sections like the following in each of the books. (I am paraphrasing, but this is very close.)

“Hi,” she said.

“Hello,” he answered. 

“Nice weather today.”

“You’re right,” he said, glancing at the sky, “it is.” 

“How’s your mom?”

“Oh, she’s okay. Can’t complain. How about your brother?”

“Pretty much the same.”

“Do you think he’s going to go back to work when the pandemic passes?”

“Probably, because he needs the money to buy food and pay the rent. But I don’t know. We haven’t talked about it.”

Now, this might be how actual people make small talk before they get to the meat of their conversation. But in a book, the author has just wasted half a page of space. The characters could have just as easily muttered, “The sun came up in the east this morning.” “Yup, it’s been doing that a lot lately.” (In fact, such a comment might actually tell the reader more about the character’s personality than the small talk above.)

It’s bad enough that the author risks losing readers with such babble. But the traditional publisher is also looking at the business aspect of this book. Including useless text means adding more physical pages, which means higher production costs and lower profits. Also, if pages of babble are lowering the overall quality of the writing, the book is less likely to generate the “buzz” that will lead to higher sales. And no matter how nice of a person you might be, if the publisher isn’t going to make a profit from your manuscript, you will get a rejection letter.

So when you return to your first draft to make revisions, keep an eye out for non-productive prattle. It may have helped prepare you mentally for the next meaty section of your story, but it might cause the reader’s (or editor’s) eyes to glaze over. Concise is nice. 

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Did the Christ become a man, or did a man become the Christ?

Did the Christ become a man, or did a man become the Christ? As I understand it (admittedly with scant study compared to the many scholarly theologians in the field), this was one of the primary questions that prompted the First Council of Nicaea in 325. To people on the edges of or outside of Christianity, the question sounds like splitting hairs over minutiae. Truth be told, many of the faithful even today would probably agree, but the issue had major implications for those who wanted to exert control over the lives of millions.

Emperor Constantine, who rose to his position of power on the strength of military discipline and political strategy, discovered that his recently adopted religion, Christianity, comprised a wide variety of opinions and practices. Wanting the church to gain strength in the same way his military had, he summoned bishops from throughout the empire to settle on a singular, somewhat uniform set of beliefs. 

Christianity had only become officially acceptable to the empire in the past dozen or so years, though in fact it already had millions of followers before the empire gave its blessing. Constantine, at that time the commander of only the western half of the empire, came to be convinced that his armies won battles against their pagan enemies when his soldiers carried a Christian banner at the head of the troops. Licinius, his counterpart in the eastern empire, also tolerated Christianity but still continued some of the pagan practices that had previously been the norm. When Constantine defeated Licinius in battle in 324 and unified the two halves of the empire under his own rule, he gave at least partial credit for his victory to the “labarum” banner that his soldiers bore, which combined the Greek symbols for the first two letters of Christ. The defeat of Licinius and consolidation of the empire capped a number of years of discord.

There had also been years of dissent within the church during the same period. A priest in Alexandria named Arius preached that Jesus was a normal man who achieved unity with God the Father, perhaps at the moment of his baptism, and then taught his followers how they could do the same. This went against the orthodox view that Christ was an eternal part of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—from before the dawn of time who took human form in order to make humans acceptable in the eyes of the Father and introduce them to the Spirit. 

Complicating matters, Arius did not confine his opinions within the circles of higher theological erudition but composed songs that became popular among the working class. The most famous of his works was the Thalia, lyrics of which openly averred that Jesus was a man who became the Christ. Stories tell of sailors singing Arius’s songs as they went from port to port, whereas the church’s leaders would prefer that their congregants sing proper hymns. I do not know if sailors would have sung hymns in those days, but such an image somehow does not fit into the stereotype of seagoing men that has formed in our minds in the ensuing centuries. 

Thus the so-called “Aryan controversy” grew from a minor point of contention in Alexandria to a question dividing believers in several regions of the empire as sailors and other travelers spread the songs. Arius himself was excommunicated for heresy several times.

Though the opponents of Arius might not have said so openly, his views created concern over governance. The orthodox views allowed for “top-down” management. All power rested with God the Father. Christ and the Spirit acted as intermediaries to the saints, bishops and priests. The clergy, in turn, acted as intermediaries for the people in the pews. 

But if Arius’s views were correct, individuals would bear greater responsibility for the decisions governing their lives. As I mentioned in an earlier post, if Jesus was a normal human teaching the rest of us how to commune with the Father as he himself had learned, then that would show that each of us needed no intermediary. In the terms of modern-day human resources management, the organizational chart would no longer slope upward like a pyramid but would instead take a much flatter shape. Instead of waiting for decisions to flow downward from the peak of the pyramid, ideas would spread more freely on a more level plane.

The church hierarchy could not have missed the implications. They would lose some of their power to govern their followers’ lives. And if the church leaders lost control, what might that trend mean for the empire?

So Arius and a handful of sympathizers lost in a landslide at the First Council of Nicaea. The more orthodox majority adopted the Nicene Creed, a later form of which is still recited weekly at countless churches. While composing the creed, church leaders struggled over what words would describe the “substance” of Christ as compared with that of the Father, finally adopting the term “consubstantial.” And they inserted the phrase, “begotten, not made,” to indicate that he existed before the dawn of Creation. 

The council’s decisions stifled some of the potential theological dissension in the church. By extension, then, they may have helped stifle political dissension in the empire. And that would allow the emperor to sleep more peacefully at night.

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Human, or a Holy Harry Potter?

Christianity might be hurting its own cause by turning Jesus into some sort of a holy Harry Potter. In the very early church, in reaching out to Gentiles, some evangelists portrayed the man Jesus as a supernatural being in order to compete with the “god-man” Caesar and the many household gods of the dominant Greek and Roman culture. Obviously, this tactic succeeded; they planted seeds among the Gentiles and the church blossomed. But the tactic also had a lasting negative effect that even today hampers the faith’s position in the world.

To illustrate the impact of that tactic today, at the risk of losing a secular friend, suppose you ask an agnostic or atheist of your acquaintance what are the first five things they think of when someone mentions Jesus. That is, what they think of him, not of his followers or the church (or of the obnoxious person who just asked them this uncomfortable question, i.e. yourself). More than likely, their list will run something like this:

–Instantly heals anyone of sickness or deformity

–Walks on water

–Turns water to wine

–Feeds 5,000 with a few fish and loaves

–Dies and comes back to life

All magic, right? Most people have to do a bit of mental digging before they remember the Golden Rule, the Beatitudes, his insightful parables or especially his fierce demand for social justice for the poor. In fact, most people completely forget his parables describing how to live a better life here on earth (as opposed to after death in some far-off heaven where angels sit on clouds and play harps).

With the man himself forgotten, we are left with the supernatural hero who can stop a storm, halt all pain and cast out evil with just a flip of his wrist.

In other words, a non-human. 

On the other hand, the very human man Jesus did real physical work and he ate real food and drank real wine. He did all the things that you and I do each day, including the various bodily functions. No matter how extraordinary his mind and relationship with God the Father might have been, his humanity would have been quite ordinary.

Why is this important? Very important, in fact?

If an ordinary man can commune directly with God the Father, it means that no intermediary is necessary. If a human Jesus can achieve unity with God, then so can you.  

Now, many Christian leaders build their careers and livelihood by convincing followers that they are not worthy of God’s love, that only through their particular brand of faith can the followers pass through the Pearly Gates after they die. There is nothing you can do to merit God’s love, they preach. Only Jesus can atone for your mortal sins before the throne of heaven. 

C.S. Lewis illustrated this notion of atonement in the first volume of The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe one of the children has committed a serious offense. The lion Aslan, who clearly represents Jesus, sacrifices himself to pay the penance and win forgiveness for the children. And then Aslan is resurrected, defeats the Witch (i.e. Satan), and all is well. The entire scenario is built upon the idea that the universe is ruled by a God who must exact brutal revenge to the point of death for anything less than perfection. And by divine design, perfection is in fact impossible for anyone other than God himself, so all of us are condemned. It’s a rigged system but it’s all you’ve got.

If Jesus lived his entire life as a supernatural being who did not have to conform to the laws of nature, then he doesn’t really have much in common with the rest of us. If Jesus was already an eternal being who knew the future, then it was no act of faith for him to continue his bold ministry to the point that the Romans would execute him for it. If Jesus was a holy version of a Harry Potter-like magician, it might be true that we mere humans are unworthy of God’s love and can do nothing without Jesus’s intervention on our behalf.

 But if Jesus was fully human, then he is the most outstanding example of Christian faith, action and bravery we could ever ask for. The Greek-based word Christ in its original context merely means Messiah, the Hebrew term for The Anointed One. In ancient Israel kings and high priests were anointed with oil to signify that they had been chosen to fulfill their sacred role. The man Jesus was clearly chosen for a very special role, and the Gospels tell a story of a woman anointing him with an expensive and fragrant oil. 

It is not denying Christ to consider him a man who learned to achieve communion with God the Father. Jesus became the Son and showed the rest of us that we can become sons and daughters too.

Now, back to an earlier comment from a moment ago: Why is this not only important, but very important? Because it gives each of us modern humans greater responsibility to mold and shape our world. Instead of waiting for Jesus to bring peace to the world, we must reach out to our neighbors in other communities and countries and come to agreements with them on how to live in peaceful coexistence. Instead of waiting for Jesus to feed the poor who live around us, we must take the steps necessary to make sure everyone is fed. If we see homeless people living on the streets, we must take the steps necessary to help them. “Thoughts and prayers,” the expression heard so frequently in recent years, are nice but should be supplemented with constructive action.

This dilemma over whether to depend on faith alone or to use our faith to accomplish good works is not a new, radical concept. The New Testament’s Epistle of James was written in the name of Jesus’s brother, James the Just, who was the leader of the early church in Jerusalem in the decades after the Crucifixion. When Paul went to the Apostles after his conversion to convince them that he had been called to preach to Gentiles, he went to James. So this letter written in his name carried important words. For instance, in James 2:15:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We should not wait for Jesus to fly in on a broom and wave his magic wand to solve our problems. He showed us that, with Jesus as our guide and with God in our hearts, we can get off our butts and figure out some solutions ourselves.

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Hands at 10 to 2

During the last presidential debate of the 2020 election, the topic arose of black and brown-skinned parents who have to caution their children every time they go out of the house, to remain docile and respectful to police or else they might get killed. If the children will be driving, the parents tell them to keep their “hands at 10 to 2” if the police pull them over, referring to the position on a clock that would keep their hands completely visible to the approaching officers near the top of the steering wheel. Do not reach into your pocket or glove compartment without warning because the police will shoot you and say you were reaching for a gun.

Now, I am a white male, so I know that I will never fully grasp the impact that this issue has on minorities. But I had a close glimpse of it when I was much younger, so I think I can understand.

The vast majority of police do their job honorably and take seriously their charge to “serve and protect.” But it only takes one or two to foul things up for everyone else.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles County, where I grew up, a relatively small percentage of police officers maintained a warlike stance toward young people whom they deemed suspicious. Even as a high schooler, I grew quite accustomed to the ritual of getting “rousted” by such cops for doing nothing more than walking down the street. (Historical footnote: Many teenagers actually walked to their destinations back in those ancient times.) In a typical roust, of which I experienced many, the police stop you, take your i.d. and call in a check for outstanding warrants, pat you down very thoroughly from head to toe and every crevice in between for drugs or weapons, and while waiting for the warrant check they will make you stand in embarrassment on the pavement while cars drive by on the street, their occupants looking at you from their windows and memorizing your face so they can warn their friends later of the criminals in their midst. I was once even ticketed for jaywalking on a green light; the traffic signal was green but the Walk signal changed to Wait before I got across, and it gave police driving by an excuse to stop and perform a complete roust. You learn to remain docile and respectful during these experiences with law enforcement because at even a hint of backtalk, the officers might grip their billy clubs menacingly to remind you that they can beat you if provoked.

It got worse when I graduated high school and bought my first car, a broken down 1958 Chevrolet. Now that I was free from the disciplinarians at my public high school and was venturing out to college, I could grow my hair longer. This absolutely made me an even greater target for police. And my old Chevy clunker was prone to burnt-out tail lights and other minor infractions that would justify cops pulling me over. A faulty license plate light was serious enough for the police to stop me, run the warrant check, search the entire car and move my belongings out onto the sidewalk, and keep me standing beside my car for almost 30 minutes. In most circumstances I was eventually let go, but not always. Resulting from several of these rousts, I was arrested, booked, fingerprinted, photographed, and put in cells in four different jails for faulty brake lights in my early 20s. Yes, for faulty brake lights. 

The point is that over the years I developed a solid sense of paranoia about police. If standing on the corner at a traffic signal, I might visibly flinch if I saw a police car driving toward me. When driving, I always kept one eye on my rear-view mirror watching intently for a “black-and-white with a cherry on top.” And that defensiveness on my part probably invited more scrutiny, with police wondering what I might have to hide. (For the record, I was not involved in criminal activity and I have never owned a weapon.)

Now, you could say that my situation was voluntary, that I might have avoided police trouble if only I would cut my hair. That is possibly the case, but I’m not completely convinced because when I returned to my hometown for my 30th birthday with my hair now at a respectable length, the cops again ticketed me for jaywalking. It’s obvious that I did not face the same degree of harassment that a black or Hispanic man might have. But the police ground it into my head that they were out to get me and could ruin my life in an instant if I didn’t toe the line. Whenever I ventured out my front door, I knew I was walking into a war zone. 

It is easy to imagine how much worse must it be for a man whose skin is not white.  When even wearing a “hoodie” can lead a white rent-a-cop to assume a black boy is a gang member and then shoot the unarmed boy ostensibly in self-defense, it’s no stretch of the imagination to describe the national situation as a powder keg ready to explode at the first spark.

What to do? As former Vice President Joe Biden has said in his campaign, accountability would go a long way toward healing the wounds. Many thousands of truly wonderful police officers suffer because of the actions of a few bad cops. Current practices in many law enforcement organizations shield the bad cops from being held accountable. To counter this problem, local jurisdictions can ban or restrict the use of choke holds. They can follow through on disciplinary proceedings and punish wrongdoing. They can create a database of officers who have been fired for misconduct so that those officers can’t get another job doing the same thing in the next town. 

When members of the public think of the police, let’s give them a reason to think of the good cops. Show the bad ones to the door. 

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Is the New Testament about Jesus or Paul?

Is the New Testament about Jesus or Paul? That may seem a dumb question, but many great minds have asked it. Consider:

A casual inspection of the page count of the 27 New Testament (NT) books is instructive: In sheer volume of text, one-third of the NT is written either by Paul (17 percent), about Paul (7 percent), or in the name of Paul (10 percent, if Hebrews is included).  In page count the four canonical gospels account for almost half of the NT, with the remaining 20 percent of the NT taken up by stories about the young church, and materials from the Johannine community and other groups writing in the names of Jesus’s or Paul’s associates. 

If one takes into account the influence that Paul’s writings had on the Synoptic Gospels and, by extension, the later writings based on those gospels, his dominance of the NT becomes even greater than the one-third cited above.

And Paul’s teaching is decidedly different than that of Jesus.

Many would object to this notion, saying the NT focuses on Jesus’s teaching rather than Paul. However, it should be noted that most of Jesus’s teaching comes down to us through parables that he told, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, primarily in Luke and Matthew. 

The Jesus Seminar, a group of more than six dozen leading biblical scholars, studied the four canonical gospels as well as the Gospel of Thomas to discern which quotes attributed to Jesus are authentic and which were the creation of later authors or copyists. The parables—and the particular versions of those parables—to which the scholars ascribe full or partial authenticity are listed below.

Leaven

—Matt 13:33b

—Luke 13:20b-21

—Thom 96:1

Good Samaritan

—Luke 10:30b-35

Dishonest Steward

—Luke 16:1-8a

Vineyard Laborers

—Matt 20:1-15

Mustard Seed

—Matt 13:31b-32

—Mark 4:31-32

—Luke 13:19

—Thom 20:2

Lost Coin

—Luke 15:8-9

Treasure

—Matt 13:44

—Thom 109

Lost Sheep

—Matt 18:12-13

—Luke 15:4-6

Prodigal Son

—Luke 15:11b-32

Unjust Judge

—Luke 18:2-5

Feast

—Luke 14:16b-23

—Thom 64:1

Pearl

—Matt 13:45-46

—Thom 76:1

Seed and Harvest

—Mark 4:26b-29

Unmerciful Servant

—Matt 18:23-24

Tenants

—Thom 65

Rich Farmer

—Luke 12:16b-20

—Thom 63:1

Entrusted Money

—Matt 25:14-21b

—Luke 19:13, 15-24

Pharisee and Publican 

—Luke 18:10-14b

Sower

—Matt 13:3b-8

—Mark 4:3b-8

—Thom 9

Barren Tree

—Luke 13:6b-9

Empty Jar 

—Thom 97

These parables give lessons about faith in the Father, social justice, charity, safeguarding the community of believers, enlarging that community, and the expansive and expanding nature of the Kingdom of God. 

The “gospel according to Paul,” however, as outlined in all of his writings, focuses on just three primary tenets:

1. The divine Atonement accomplished through Jesus’s death.

2. The reward of eternal life demonstrated by Jesus’s resurrection.

3. Paul’s assertion that faith in #1 and #2 above exclusively is all that is required to be right with God.

Was Paul the inventor of Christianity? After his conversion, Paul refused to speak to the other Apostles because he considered himself and his intimate relationship with the post-Easter Christ as superior to the Apostles’ familiarity with the flesh-and-blood pre-Easter Jesus.  And how did that relationship come about? Contrary to the story in Acts of the Apostles about Paul’s sudden conversion on the road to Damascus and subsequent immediate return to Jerusalem to confer with Jesus’ followers, Paul swears in 1 Galatians that he went to Arabia and spent three years experiencing and contemplating his ecstatic visions before finally visiting James in Jerusalem. James D. Tabor suggests that during this three-year period, Paul traveled to Mt. Horeb, where Moses and Elijah had received their revelations directly from God. Paul considered himself Moses’s and Elijah’s equal, if not their superior, so he might reasonably have gone to the land where God had spoken to his prophets in the past. In fact, in 2 Corinthians 12 Paul describes being “caught up… right into the third heaven” where he heard things directly from God that he was not allowed to share with mere humans. Coupled with his belief that God singled him out before birth to be the deity’s messenger to the world, this makes it clear that Paul considered himself the Chosen One. In 1 Corinthians 4:15 Paul says to his followers, “It was I who begot you in Christ Jesus by preaching the Good News.” (Jerusalem Bible, Reader’s Edition, emphasis mine) In Paul’s view, Jesus may have been the sacrificial lamb, but Paul was the shepherd. Jesus was sent to the Jews, but Paul was sent to bring redemption to the rest of the world. Paul preached what he openly called “my gospel” and cursed those who taught anything else. Paul instructed his followers that anyone who did not recognize his own writings as direct commands from The Lord should be banished from the community, according to scholar R.E. Brown. 

Paul’s insistence that he understood Christ better than anyone who had actually lived and worked with Jesus carried over into the Gospels. Paul famously opposed the “pillars” of the Jerusalem church—James, John and Peter—and went so far as to tell his followers (in Galatians 2:6-7) that he considered the pillars’ views to be of little or no worth. After the widespread publication of Paul’s letters accusing the Apostles of not understanding Christ, the next written mention of the disciples by name came 20 years later in Mark, who portrayed the disciples as “too dense to get the picture of the kingdom Jesus painted,” to borrow the phrase of Burton L. Mack. It takes no stretch of the imagination to gather that Mark took his view of the disciples directly from Paul.

Paul even placed his stamp on the two most basic sacraments of Christendom, baptism and the Eucharist: 

  • Acts 18:24-26 tells of the arrival of Apollos in Ephesus and his enthusiastic reception there. But “he had only experienced the baptism of John.” When Paul goes to Ephesus in Chapter 19, he establishes the baptism “in Christ” as superior to that of John.
  • In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul says he received a description of the Last Supper directly from Christ in a vision.  Mark’s description of the event, written almost 20 years later, is nearly identical to Paul’s, and Luke and Matthew lift the story from Mark with only slight changes. Thus the tradition of the Eucharist, notes Tabor, “including the words of Jesus over the bread and the wine, comes to us from Paul and Paul alone!” 

In the 19th century some biblical scholars argued against the concept of the “Q” source for Jesus’s teachings because it seemed to ignore the death and resurrection and instead only espouse Jesus’s teachings. Bart D. Ehrman points out that this argument lost some of its potency after the discovery of Thomas, which also showed that many early Christian communities studied Jesus’s sayings. 

Instead of focusing on the resurrection and worship of the risen Christ, the communities that used Q and Thomas as their sources of information instead endeavored to learn how to realize the Kingdom of God in the present, here on Earth, notes Elaine Pagels. In a similar vein, Thomas teaches “that God’s light shines not only in Jesus but, potentially at least, in everyone.” Jesus did not preach about belief in himself but rather about how all humans could attain God’s kingdom, according to Marcus J. Borg. 

But that is not usually the message that readers remember from the New Testament. They nostalgically recall stories of virgin birth in a manger, supernatural miracles, an ultimate sacrifice for universal atonement, and a rigid belief that faith in Christ is the only path to God. In other words, readers come away with the message of Paul, not Jesus.  

(Anyone interested in exploring this issue further might find the following books instructive:

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, Bart D. Ehrman

The Parables of Jesus: Red Letter Edition, A Report of the Jesus Seminar, Robert W. Funk, Bernard Brandon Scott and James R. Butts

Introduction to the New Testament, R.E. Brown

Jesus and Paul: How the Apostle Transformed Christianity, by James D. Tabor

Who Wrote the New Testament? Burton L. Mack

Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels)

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Was Jesus a Peasant?

Anyone familiar with my novel, Second Born, knows that I deliberately changed a number of the paradigms that we’ve accepted for millennia regarding the Jesus story. Looking at a story from a different angle can often force a reader to reexamine long-held assumptions or consider details of a story that one never gave a thought to before. Author Anita Diamant did this in The Red Tent, a book examining an episode of the Hebrew Bible from the viewpoints of the women in the story. The book’s plot centers on a single chapter of Genesis that is usually passed over rather quickly or completely ignored but might actually have had a major impact on the three major Abrahamic religions of the world.

Second Born recently came under attack by several Christian critics because it dared to change several of the basic assumptions of the Jesus story as it has been told in the four canonical gospels. The first of these—supposing that Jesus could have come from a wealthy family in a major city instead of from a pair of village peasants—caused one of the critics to cry out (in writing, of course), “No, he had to be poor!”

Really? Did he have to be poor in order to show that God favors the humble over the haughty?

Let go of your assumptions for just a few moments and play “What If.”

What if Jesus’s father Joseph was actually a wealthy man who lived in Sepphoris, the former capital of Galilee just four miles away from the obscure village Nazareth? If so, he could afford to pay to have his son well educated. This would explain, for instance:

• How Jesus was able, in the Gospels, to read. Peasants in that time period were almost all illiterate.

• How Jesus was able, in the Gospels, to converse with Romans and other non-Jews, which would require the ability to speak Greek. Numerous biblical scholars agree that most villagers spoke only Aramaic, that it was the merchants in the city who needed to be bilingual in Greek so that they could conduct business.

• How Jesus felt comfortable, in the Gospels, sitting at table to eat and speak with the rich and powerful. There was no middle class in those days—there were the wealthy, and there were the poor. And the rich did not sit at table with the poor.

• How Jesus’s brother, James the Just, was able to rise to the level of high priest at the temple. Bribes to Roman officials had to be paid for such an appointment during this period.

Critics accuse me of attacking Christ by asking such questions. No, I hope to strengthen believers’ faith, not weaken it. The sample questions above are still “What if” ideas to stimulate further exploration and gain a stronger understanding of one’s faith.

If these topics interest you, here are a few books that might provide you greater insight:

Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus, by Mark A. Chancey

The Jews in the Time of Jesus: An Introduction, by Stephen M. Wylen

Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, by David Flusser

Just James: The Brother of Jesus in History and Tradition, by John Painter

James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls, by Robert Eisenman

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Holy Conspiracy, by Kristi Saare Duarte

Review

Kristi Saare Duarte has crafted an insightful and beautifully written story delving into a seldom discussed topic that has shaped Western civilization for 2,000 years. Holy Conspiracy asks the question, Who was Jesus, and what does he have to do with Christianity?

This book follows in the footsteps of Duarte’s earlier novel, The Transmigrant, which traced the steps of a young Jesus (Yeshua in the ancient tongue) as he traveled from Galilee to India and the Himalayas before returning to begin his ministry. In Holy Conspiracy he has already been crucified and his followers, including his widow Mary Magdalen (Mariamne) and his brother James the Just (Yakov, for Jacob), are trying to define their purpose as they regroup.

Yakov lacks Yeshua’s charisma and clear realization of his own bond with the divine, so he struggles to fulfill the leadership role thrust upon him by the community. Mariamne has the qualities of a leader that her brother-in-law lacks but suffers an obstacle she cannot overcome: She is a woman. But the two support each other in trying to help their community of the faithful move forward with its mission. As Duarte puts it, “Their love for Yeshua, his brother and her husband, would always unite them. And the faith Yeshua had placed in each of them.”

The community moves to the hills outside Jerusalem and establishes itself in a self-sustaining compound. Eventually, however, drought strikes the region and the faithful face the very real prospect of starvation. 

Enter Saul of Tarsus. The wealthy Roman citizen brings food and supplies to help the community through its time of need. But it soon becomes apparent that Saul is demanding that Yakov and the others acknowledge his own superiority and anointing by God to proclaim the gospel to the world. Though he never met Jesus and cares little for anything the man may have said during his ministry, Saul claims that the eternal spirit of Yeshua Christos has chosen him alone out of all humanity to tell the world of God’s grace. 

Mariamne has her doubts:

“Maybe it was true what he said about Yeshua. Perhaps her husband had truly spoken to Saul. But how could it be true? Yeshua had always spoken of unity, inclusion, and equality. Saul’s message was quite the opposite: his Yeshua would save only those who believed in him as the Messiah. Saul’s Yeshua would let everyone else burn.”

Readers may feel frustration at Yakov’s lack of confidence in his own authority to correct Saul’s errors and lead the community to its full potential. They will certainly feel wrath at Saul’s arrogance and self-aggrandizement and his corruption of Jesus’s message. Historically, both of these figures suffered martyrdom for their faith. But Holy Conspiracy makes no secret which character deserves a reader’s sympathy for his sacrifice.

Holy Conspiracy, by Kristi Saare Duarte, is due for release on September 16, 2020.

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The Christ of India: The Story of Saint Thomas Christianity, By George Burke

Review

This book is a good introduction to Thomas Christianity, leaving a researcher hungry for more. While many of the names and concepts contained within are unknown to a Westerner, even a first-time reader is able to grasp basic ideas shared between Christianity and the religions of India. And it was quite illuminating to learn of the differences between Thomas Christianity of India and the types of Christianity that developed in Europe.

For instance, much becomes apparent in a brief allusion to the Trinity:

“God is said to be Sit-Chit-Ananda: Existence, Consciousness, and Bliss… When we think of God as outside all things, we say ‘Father,’ and when we think of God as within all things, we say ‘the Son.’ But it is the one and only God we are speaking of in this way.”

Most Western readers are unaware of the tradition that Thomas brought Christianity to India in 52 CE, 18 years before the first canonical gospel Mark was written after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Thomas actually knew and lived with Jesus. Paul, who during the 40s and 50s was planting churches in Asia Minor, did not know the man Jesus and famously made a point of refusing to take advice from those who did. So we in the West can probably learn a lot from Thomas Christianity, and this book is a good start.

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Redemption Song, by Henry A. Burns


Review

What would you, personally, do if you met an alien from outer space? Not just an idle question—your response could mark a pivot in the course of human history. The gut response from many people is to assume the alien is a predator, so one should shoot first and ask questions later. A more thoughtful person might reason that any alien race so advanced that it can travel to and visit Earth certainly would have weapons vastly superior to ours, so a cautiously friendly welcome would be more appropriate.

But suppose the alien was in distress? Would your strongest and most “human” emotion—compassion—kick in and decide your response? When a mutiny robs Small Snow Flower of control of her space ship and the usurper exiles her on Earth, the man who witnesses the diminutive captain’s plight takes pity and nurses her back to health. Though Jeremy Blunt knows his advanced years and failing body signal that his own death will come soon, he refuses to let his weakness stand in the way of helping a fellow sentient being. And that makes all the difference.

Author Henry A. Burns subtitled his novel, “The Beginning of the Rynn-Human Alliance.” Indeed, the Alliance has major implications not only for human life on Earth but also the interstellar balance of power. But no matter how large the picture grows, it always comes back to the example and teachings of that elderly man who showed compassion, Jeremy Blunt.

But don’t worry—the book is not all deep philosophy. While the Alliance is important, the alliances between individual humans and aliens comprise the bulk of the story. As members of the two races meet, become friends and lovers, and form what we would think of as almost marital relationships (usually involving three of four partners), the reader comes to recognize the characters’ personalities and become invested in their growth and development. The politics and leaders described in the story often bear strong resemblance to events and figures we know in our own world. At one point we meet a president who is so dense that his own chief of staff calls him an idiot. An African American television personality wields so much wealth and influence that she becomes known as The Oligarch during a period of unrest between various American regions. Certain TV reporters and other public figures seem familiar to us in the world of non-fiction.

Burns has created a possible future that holds out optimism for the human race. Despite so many indications of a more dismal future, I’d like to believe the path to Redemption Song is one we can still travel.

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