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An Open Letter to Mark Coppenger

I sent this letter to Mark Coppenger on September 15, 2003

Dear Mark,

I recently received a copy of your letter to me. Thanks for writing. I appreciate your thoughtful response to my exhibit, "It Is Written... (so it must be true)". I also appreciate that you represented my position fairly and honestly. I enjoy point-counterpoint, so in that spirit, I thought I'd continue the conversation.

Each religion seeks to explain some meaning in life, and to create an approach to living. Why do we exist? How should we behave? How does each of us fit into a larger picture? Is there a divine being, or a divine truth? What might be the nature of that? The very fact that there are so many religions shows: 1. How creative people can be; and 2. How unlikely it is that any one faith has a monopoly on truth. Given all the ideas of what God means, or is, or isn't, that exist in the world (how many Christian denominations alone are there?), the idea that anybody can claim they have the one and only true answer is ridiculous. Religions all provide guidelines, which people follow to varying degrees. As religions pass through the ages and humanity becomes more-- dare I say it?-- enlightened, religions evolve and begin to pick and choose among some of their original beliefs. For example, even though it is the law of Moses to stone people to death for various offenses, explicitly spelled out in the Bible, people today are rarely stoned to death. Unless you're Matthew Shepherd, the teenage Colorado boy stoned to death for the "crime" of being gay, or the Nigerian woman (Muslim, but same principle) recently sentenced to death by stoning for the "crime" of having premarital sex. Which leads me to the point of my show: that people do, and must, pick and choose from original religious texts, using common sense and context as a guide. People do horrible things, in complete compliance with various religious texts. That's why I say dogma is dangerous. And that's why I did the paintings for this show.

Did somebody say context? I love context! You said I ignored context. On the contrary, context is precisely my point. I deliberately chose a contemporary format for my paintings (modern magazine covers) to highlight by contrast the antiquated nature of many Biblical texts. My point is that many fundamentalists have lost sight of context. You actually support my point very well: you have to take context into consideration. But once you do that, you can no longer take the Bible literally. I realize that much of the Bible was written in a brutal and barbaric period of human development. "Might makes right" was the prevailing law of the land, and it was more or less expected that invading armies were merciless in their conquests, often either slaughtering their opponents or taking them as slaves. Human rights, much less women's rights, and tolerance were unheard of. Coming from this background, Jesus' teachings of love, tolerance and forgiveness are even more radical than many people may realize. But you know all this. You say that the teachings in Genesis were only a preparation for what was to come in the Gospels and the Epistles, but I see that as your opinion, your judgment. I don't remember seeing anywhere in Exodus, Leviticus or Deuteronomy (or the Gospels) where God said, "Okay, this is just for now. Once you've got the monotheism thing down, we'll get into the peace and love thing." Nothing was said about blowing off the Law. In fact, in Matthew 5:18-19 Jesus says, "I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, not one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved. Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven." Old Testament text is absolute. No "ifs, ands, or buts". The very recognition of context injects judgment, and therefore, subjective opinion. The idea of "progressive revelation" makes it no less subjective. It's simply a method for picking and choosing.

So which parts of the Old Testament still hold true, and which don't? I'm curious as to how your judgment can lead you to believe that context seems to have changed concerning stoning, but not for homosexuality; for slavery, but not for women's roles and rights. Seems rather arbitrary. We're both picking and choosing, which is my point. Once you're picking and choosing, you're putting the burden on your own judgment. You can no longer say, "Well, I believe gays are sinners because the Bible says so" if you're also saying, "Well, we don't really have to stone people to death, even though the Bible says so, we 're past that". I see the arbitrary citations of Bible text by Christian fundamentalists as tools of people searching for support for discriminatory views, as false justification for mean attitudes, if not behavior. Especially when the basis of their argument is, "God said so. See, it's written down in a book." Wow, you got me there. It is written... so it must be true.

Let's move on to narrative vs. prescription. I understand that just because the Bible recounts an episode, it isn't necessarily endorsing the behavior of the character in that episode. That's why I specifically used subjects who were rewarded by God, treated as Bible heroes, and held up as good examples. For example, you say that Lot was one of the "truly despicable characters in the Bible". I agree, but I don't think the Bible does. Why was he chosen as the one man, the one household, worth saving from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? God had no qualms about wiping out the whole place for their sins. Lot must have been a really good guy if God decided he was the one worth saving. Lot didn't offer up his daughters for gang rape for any personal gain-- rather, it was a generous offer of hospitality to protect his (male) guests, who only after the fact revealed themselves to be angels. Lot's actions were not portrayed as "warts". Given the context (I love that word) of a world in which women were reduced to a monetary value in shekels (depending on their child-bearing ability), worth way less than men, and given that the Bible did not condemn Lot's action, but rewarded him as virtuous among sinners, and given that in the subsequent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah Lot's wife was killed by God for the huge transgression of disobeying God by looking over her shoulder as her home was blown to smithereens, I think I'm more than justified to use this story as an example of how poorly women were regarded in the Bible.

Your invitation to see Christ coming into the world is a good one. I think the teachings of Jesus are wonderful, for the most part, and I'm happy to see them incarnated in any number of ways. I don't feel the same way about the teachings of Paul, or of most of the Old Testament. My problem is not with Christianity per se, it's with fundamentalists (of any religion) who abuse texts to endorse hurtful, and hateful, and intrusive behavior toward people who are different from them. The point of my show was to demonstrate that the Bible must be taken with a huge grain of salt, and that people who use it as justification for treating people badly should be regarded with deep suspicion.

So then, let's go into your remarks on my paintings.

Your text:
1. Mary: The Mother of God (standing with hands in prayerful posture) "What to tell your husband when God knocks you up" (Mt. 1:19-25): This is crude language, designed to denote sensual, illicit sex. There is nothing sensual or illicit about the Holy Spirit's conception of the Savior's life in a womb God created. PS: 1. They weren't married; 2. An angel told Joseph.

My response:
Yes, this is crude and disrespectful. However, it does not change the "facts" of the story. Was Mary married? She was engaged, and Joseph offered "to divorce her informally" (Matthew 1:20). It's splitting hairs to say she was single. Did she get "knocked up"? Yes, absolutely. By a divine entity? So the story goes. If this magazine cover makes the story look ridiculous, without changing the facts, then perhaps the story is ridiculous. And yes, I know an angel told Joseph. I guess you missed the idea that these magazine covers are hypothetical, hence the story "What to tell your husband..." if you were in that position.

Your text:
2. Good Family Living (three smiling youth) "How to steal your brother's inheritance" (Gen. 27:1-35). The Bible reports Rebekah's and Jacob's trickery; it doesn't glorify it. It does, however, condemn Esau for his callous indifference to his birthright.

My response:
Neither does the Bible condemn the trickery.

Your text:
3. Slavery (man with a woman bearing a price tag) "Be obedient slaves!" (Titus 2:9-10). In the first years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the Apostles could either attempt to overhaul the political and economic structure of the Roman Empire or found a faith that looked beyond temporal empires to a heavenly kingdom. They couldn't do both. Under God's guidance they chose the latter. So they counseled slaves to cooperate, not rebel. Masters would see their integrity and admire their God. Still, in Philemon, Paul pressed a Christian to rethink his own slaveholding.

My response:
You left out the part selling your daughter into slavery, which is just plain wrong. Period. Did people used to do that thousands of years ago? Apparently-- the Bible describes the conditions for doing so (Exodus 21: 7-11). Do we choose to ignore that part of the Bible today? Yes. Picking and choosing. As for other types of slaves, here's that pesky context again. Yes, in the days immediately after Jesus' death, slavery was a fact of life. Looking back in history, we can surmise that the apostles sought to keep slaves from getting hurt in a rebellion, but the Bible doesn't go into that. We can come to that hypothesis by means of speculation and judgment, but then we're getting subjective again. Paul doesn't condemn slavery in the Bible (in Philemon he appeals to his friends to promote Onesimus, as a special case). He doesn't say slavery's wrong. He doesn't say, "If it weren't for those Romans...". He says "Be obedient slaves." Do we ignore that part of the Bible? Of course. Picking and choosing.

Your text:
4. Prostitution (hooker under a street light) "Pimping your wife: tips from Abraham" (Genesis 12:10-20) Manifestly bad behavior by an important man. (Even Pharaoh was disgusted.) You don't throw out the Declaration of Independence if the Sally Hemmings story proves to be true.

My response:
You're right, the Bible really doesn't make Abraham look very good here, and so even though Abraham is a major Bible hero, I can't say it prescribes this behavior. As for Laban and Leah tricking Jacob into sleeping with the wrong bride, in order to get seven more years of labor from Jacob, I think that it's another case of trickery being rewarded.

Your text:
5. Stoning: For those who know God meant what He said (cute kids wrestle to pick up rocks as their elders stone someone in the background) "Workaholics...they asked for it!" (Exodus 31:16, 35:3 I'm afraid you have a typo here; the stoning comes in Ex. 31:15, not 16. God really does mean that the Sabbath (now the Lord's Day) should be holy. As for the punishment, see discussion of "context" and "progressive revelation" in the intro.

My response:
Whew, Exodus 31:15, not Exodus 31:16. Boy, I feel pretty silly missing that one... Again, the fact that you're willing to apply context here demonstrates that you're picking and choosing. "That's what God used to mean, in the old days, He doesn't mean that now. The parts about women and gays, he still means those, but the stoning thing, nah. Oh, and slavery, even the New Testament endorses that, but they didn't mean it." I think "progressive revelation" needs a little more progress.

Your text:
6. A Woman's Lot (hands reaching out to drag a young woman through the door) "When Dad Offers You Up for Gang Rape" (Genesis 19:6-9). Lot is one of the truly despicable characters in the Bible. It's as though you're mocking "Star Wars" because of Darth Vader's behavior.

My response:
Concerning Lot, see earlier remarks. As for the stories referring to women submitting to their husbands, and not speaking (in a temple) without hubby's permission, and covering themselves properly, and not wearing jewelry, and not being allowed to teach-- I think that's moved beyond "complementary roles", as you put it, and into treating women like ignorant servants. No kidding-- those teachings are ridiculous. I've actually had women teachers, and women bosses, who wore jewelry, and spoke for themselves, and (gasp!) didn't wear hats. Who were great teachers and employers. I put more stock in what I've seen in real life than I do in some passage from a piece of ancient literature cited as divine truth because it was written down (even if you choose not to heed the parts you decide no longer apply.)

Your text:
7. Moolah (a parishioner with hands upraised, a hypodermic needle held to his neck) "God's Threat: Your Money or Your Life" (Exodus 30:11-15). Early lesson in atonement in a theocratic state; foreshadowed The Atonement of Christ in a non-theocratic state.

My response:
Atonement? Try "extortion". God said, "Give me this money or I'll infect you with the plague." That's what the Bible says. Or is this another one of those parts that context has made irrelevant? As for Leviticus 27: 3-7, how many shekels are your family members worth? Mine are worth 36 shekels, for a wife and two daughters. My wife was less than thrilled to hear that, considering that I'm worth 50 shekels alone.

Your text:
8. Weaponry Weekly (knife to screaming man's neck) "When your neighbor's religion is wrong!" (1 Kings 18:40) These prophets of Baal weren't innocuous members of the local ministerial alliance; they worked for the murderous Ahab and Jezebel. And the paganism they enforced would have smothered God's nascent revelation, infant Christianity, in the crib, something God would not permit.

My response:
"the paganism they enforced would have smothered God's nascent revelation, infant Christianity, in the crib, something God would not permit". Do you realize what you're saying? Substitute the word "Islam" for "Christianity" and you have pretty much the verbatim rationale of the Taliban. God's word must not be allowed to be smothered by pagans-- who can argue with that? Guess that means it's okay to kill people. At least you seem to think so. That's why I say dogma is dangerous. That's what I have against fundamentalism, of any kind.

Your text:
9. Divine Realty (bearded man before a weird Realtor's sign) "Canaan-- only the foreshortened need apply" (Genesis 17:8-12). God made all the land and he can promise it to whom he pleases. As for circumcision, read Romans 2:25-29 for the rest of the story; it's ultimately a symbol of spiritual reality.


My response:
Sure, circumcision was a sign of membership in the club, of their faith, but it was also a requirement of receiving the land. Which is just weird. Honestly, if someone walked up to you, even a deity, and said, "Hey, if you cut the tip off your penis I'll give you some land" would you say, "Why sure, as a symbol of spiritual reality, I'd be glad to!" or would you say, "You want me to do what? What possible good will that do anyone?" An act of charity as a sign of faith I could understand, adopt an orphan, start a school, okay fine, but cut the tip off your penis? Who benefits from that? And given serious prohibitions against nudity, it wasn't even like it could be seen as an outward identifying sign. You do seem to acknowledge the idea of God as realtor-- or at least owner-- his land to do with as he chooses. Of course, the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Palestinians and lots of others may not agree with the notion of a Judeo-Christian god as title-bearer of the planet, but we know what to do with pagans, don't we? As for Romans 2:25-29, who is Paul to tell us we can blow off the Law? As I pointed out earlier, Jesus said, "the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven." I say Jesus trumps Paul.

Your text:
10. Holy Cuisine (two men literally dining on Christ's body) "Jesus: The Other White Meat" (John 6:53-57). We Protestants really do recognize metaphors when we see them.

My response:
Most Catholics recognize metaphors too, however, the Pope doesn't, and he's holding fast to this one. Given the ludicrous implications of what John is saying, one can use their judgment to reason that John couldn't possibly have meant what he said literally. Now when it comes to Jesus walking on water, and raising the dead, and turning a few fish and loaves into meals for thousands, and turning water into wine, and being the product of divine insemination-- those things actually happened. But eating Christ's flesh? That's just silly.

Well, this has turned into a long letter, but I thought your letter deserved a thoughtful response. I can't say I expect to change your mind, but nonetheless, I enjoy the exercise. I wish you the best of luck for a peaceful life.

Sincerely,
Dick Detzner

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