Richard Ostling

A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

A biblical oldie, but goodie: So who was Cain's wife?

LIBBY ASKS:

If human origins began with one couple, Adam and Eve, how did Cain find a wife?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

The famous biblical story of Cain, history’s first murderer, includes this old Bible head-scratcher about who his wife could have been. Genesis 4 tells of Cain’s birth, agricultural vocation, rivalry and killing of his younger brother Abel. God curses Cain to wanderings and hard toil in the fields, yet mercifully grants a mysterious “mark” for protection against those who might want to kill him. Cain enters exile “in the land of Nod, east of Eden.” Only then do we learn that Cain is married (verse 17). John Calvin’s classic commentary from 1554 thought the context indicates Cain married in Eden, though others say a wife from Nod is possible.

In the strictly literal reading, after Abel died there would have been only three true human beings, Adam, Eve, and Cain. So, skeptics demand, who was the wife? 

At the 1925 “Scopes Trial,” pro-evolution lawyer Clarence Darrow used the wife to ridicule his opponent William Jennings Bryan as he quizzed him about Bible details on the witness stand. (Darrow: “Did you ever discover where Cain got his wife?” Bryan: “No, sir. I leave the agnostics to hunt for her.”) Similarly, scientist Carl Sagan’s novel and movie “Contact” employed Cain’s wife to undermine conservative belief in the Bible.

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Is Mormonism 'Christian'? (Cue the theme from 'Jaws')

Is Mormonism 'Christian'? (Cue the theme from 'Jaws')

KEVIN ASKS:

Is the Mormon religion considered Christian? There are radical doctrinal differences.

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Depends on who’s talking. 

The steadily expanding Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (nicknamed “LDS” or “Mormon”) vigorously defends the Christian identity proclaimed in its very name and resents assertions to the contrary. However, the Catholic Church, virtually all evangelical Protestants, and major U.S. “mainline” Protestant denominations all find the label problematic because, as Kevin indicates, the LDS church disputes central beliefs the Christian religion has taught through history.

It’s not The Guy’s journalistic role to settle this, but to note some salient aspects of the debate.

One formula comes from a leading non-Mormon expert, historian Jan Shipps. She says Mormonism is to Christianity as Christianity is to Judaism, obviously related to the older religion that helped give it birth and yet a distinct new religious community.

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Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?

Why, and how, should public schools offer classes about the Bible?

PAT ASKS:

Why, and how, should Bible be taught in a public, non-religious, school setting? What is its value as part of a secular curriculum?

 THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Surveys show there’s appalling ignorance about the basics of the Bible, especially among younger Americans. Even religious skeptics would have to admit that’s a serious cultural and educational problem, wholly apart from Scripture’s religious role. Bible knowledge is essential to comprehending the art of Giotto and Chagall, Bach cantatas and African-American spirituals, Shakespeare’s plays, countless allusions in novels and poems, historical events like the Protestant Reformation and the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements, the rhetoric of U.S. presidents, populism and pacifism, and on and on.

This fiasco is not what the U.S. Supreme Court intended when it outlawed mandatory Bible readings in public schools for creating an “establishment of religion” that violated the Constitution’s First Amendment (in Abington v. Schempp, 1963). Though the justices barred ceremonial and devotional use of the Bible, they included this key clarification:

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Does the Old Testament actually speak about Jesus?

Does the Old Testament actually speak about Jesus?

ROBERT ASKS:

Can we read Christ into the Old Testament?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

According to Jewish tradition, no, and understandably so. According to Christian tradition, yes, since the New Testament interprets various passages in the Hebrew Bible (= Old Testament)  as prophecies that foreshadow the future life and message of Jesus. Christians commonly view other Old Testament texts this same way, following Jesus’ own example: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

A classic expression of such linkage is Handel’s beloved oratorio “Messiah,” whose songs hailing Jesus Christ use not only the New Testament but a couple dozen Old Testament texts taken from Isaiah, Job, Lamentations, Malachi, Psalms, and Zechariah.

Many modern-day liberal scholars from Christian backgrounds side with Judaism and doubt that Old Testament writers could have been referring to Jesus. Now, surprisingly, an esoteric dispute on this theme at Pennsylvania’s Westminster Theological Seminary is dividing certain conservative Protestants.

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So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

So who speaks for Islam in a time of terrorism?

THE RELIGION GUY interrupts this blog’s usual answers to posted questions and feels impelled to highlight a development that ought to receive far more attention than it has.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly Sep. 24, President Obama said “it is time for the world -- especially Muslim communities -- to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of organizations like al-Qaeda and ISIL” (the group also called ISIS or “Islamic State”).

As if in response, that same day 126 Muslim leaders issued a dramatic 15-page “Open Letter” to ISIL’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his followers that denounced them on religious grounds.

Implicitly, the letter targets as well the tactics of al-Qaeda, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and similar terrorist movements claiming Islamic inspiration. The technical argument relies on dozens of citations from the Quran, Hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s words and deeds), and Sharia (religious law).

The signers of this blunt challenge, all from the faith’s dominant Sunni branch, come from 37 nations including the U.S. 

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What kind of religious stuff provoked interest the past 22 months?

What kind of religious stuff provoked interest the past 22 months?

This is the 100th “Religion Q and A” posting. So instead of answering the usual weekly question The Guy pauses to scan what sort of religious stuff provoked interest since December, 2012. That’s when this blog began posting non-sectarian answers to anonymously posted questions on “any old thing about any and all faith options,” after a strategic boost from Terry Mattingly of the estimable www.getreligion.org.

The Guy, as a journalist, naturally wants current topics in the mix, and thus recently dealt with: new movies, the career of Chick-fil-A’s pious founder Truett Cathy, the Supreme Court ruling on birth control under “Obamacare,” suicide and the Robin Williams tragedy, religious conflict in Ukraine, and the disputes about tax exemption, civic prayers, legalized marijuana, and same-sex marriage.

Yet check the handy archives on the blog’s home page and you’ll see less timely topics predominate. A prime principle in education is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, and The Guy welcomes queries about basic information. Many others will have asked themselves the same thing. So The Guy examined Catholic intermarriage policy, whether military service is sinful, a deceptively simple query on “what is faith?” and this golden oldie: “When does life begin?” (the blog’s very first question).

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Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

Fried-chicken wars: How much should Christianity mix with commerce?

MICHAEL-ANN ASKS:

Businesses like Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A overtly follow Christian principles and thus promote Christianity. Is it profitable for them to have this ‘brand,’ or do you think the CEOs have some deeper evangelical goal?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

These two remarkable corporations are the largest in the U.S. that operate on an explicitly “Christian” basis, and both have been in the news lately.

The Hobby Lobby craft store chain won U.S. Supreme Court approval June 30 of the religious right to avoid the new federal mandate to fund certain birth control methods the owners consider tantamount to abortion.

Sept. 8 brought the death of S. Truett Cathy, billionaire founder of the Chick-fil-A fast-food empire. His New York Times obituary said that to some he was “a symbol of intolerance” and “hate.” Such journalistic labeling stemmed from Cathy’s son and successor Dan criticizing same-sex marriage on biblical grounds in 2012. Afterward, the firm cut donations to groups that back traditional marriage. No-one claimed Chick-fil-A discriminates against gays in hiring or customer service.

With both companies, Christian commitment is accompanied by prosperity, and the question suggests their religious image may be calculated for “profitable” advantage. 

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Do people who take their own lives automatically go to hell?

Do people who take their own lives automatically go to hell?

TOMMY ASKS:

Does someone go to Hell if they take their own life?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This question was posted shortly before the shocking suicide of superstar comedian and actor Robin Williams during an apparent bout with depression. Following that tragedy, conservative Christian blogger and Williams fan Austin Thompson posted an item of  questionable taste, declaring “with great sadness” that “maybe Robin Williams is in Hell.”

The Guy usually sidesteps his personal opinions, but here would advise Christians never to speculate publicly about the eternal destiny of individuals by name. It seems improper, offensive, judgmental, and lacking in love. Also it’s a total waste of time since, as even Thompson correctly concluded, “only God knows.”

This sort of clergy malpractice occurred during the worst sermon The Guy has heard during decades as a religion reporter attending worship services. The preacher in question told of a troubled youth who had been disrespectful toward him and died soon afterward in a motorcycle accident. The sermon suggested that this lad’s defiance sent him to Hell for eternity, and seemed as upset about insulting the preacher himself as rejection of Almighty God. Moreover, this was a baptismal service, so think of the negative reaction of non-religious family members who were present!

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Define 'New Age' religion: Give three examples

Define 'New Age' religion: Give three examples

LISA ASKS:

What exactly is the definition of “new age” thinking?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

This loosely diffuse movement, largely located in America,  is so indeterminate that it’s tempting to simply say “new age” covers any recently formed “spiritual” or “psychic” or “mindful” or “self-discovery” groups that don’t fit snugly into other religious categories. As part of this, new agers don’t fall within the formal organizational life of Buddhism or Hinduism but often appropriate various ideas and practices from Eastern religions, alongside other influences.

A good place to start is “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions” (Gale), issued in eight updated editions, most recently in 2009. This standard reference work should be in any well-stocked library. Author J. Gordon Melton is a Baylor University professor whose decades of research make him the acknowledged expert on the taxonomy of U.S. faiths, especially thousands of young, small, marginal and obscure groups most people have never heard of. Note that the new age phenomenon extends well beyond formal organizations listed in such an encyclopedia to include free-floating ideas, fashions, books,  gurus and other influences.

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