How a Strip Club King Accelerated My Progressive Christianity

Essay by Eric Alexander on 10 August 2017 3 Comments

In 2011 I was President of the Wesley Foundation at the University of South Florida. For those who aren’t familiar with the Wesley Foundation, it’s the United Methodist sponsored campus ministry with a presence at most major universities. During my tenure there we had a wild idea to organize a big, heavily promoted, and guaranteed controversial ‘porn debate.’ And that event changed the trajectory of my Christianity, although probably not in the way that you would think.

Please login with your account to read this essay.


How do we know we have a soul? I see only three mentions in the Bible and they aren't definitive.


Dear Harvey,

Harvey, believe it or not, you have picked a question that requires some explanation.

First, you are right but you will probably need an excellent Concordance or some savvy computer skills to demonstrate it. Yes, most translations of the Bible seem to only use the term soul three times. When writing about the soul, the original writers used the Hebrew word neʹphesh or in the New Testament, the Greek word psy·kheʹ. These two words actually occur well over 800 times in the Scriptures. These words were not only written in Hebrew and Greek but it was ancient Hebrew and Greek. So clearly, there was a lot of wiggle room for the many translators and scribes over the centuries. That being said, if you actually read the text and then read the footnote in some Bibles (or look it up in a Concordance), in most cases, you will discover that the word they are translating is either ne’phesh or psy’khe depending on which Testament they are translating. These words usually mean: 1) a person, 2) an animal.

Now most of us think of the soul as the thing that is left when the physical body is gone. It is something immortal, something that lasts or goes on. However, when we read the text closely, we discover that is not necessarily the way the Bible translators meant it to be. And this is where a good quality Concordance is necessary.

In 1 Peter 3:20 we find reference to ne’phesh as people; “In Noah’s day. . . a few people, that is, eight souls, were carried safely through the water.” Here the word “souls” clearly stands for people—Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. Exodus 16:16 mentions instructions given to the Israelites regarding the gathering of manna. They were told to gather it according to the number of the people “souls,” each of them had in his tent. So the amount of manna that was gathered was based on the number of people in each family. You can check out some other Biblical examples of the application of “soul” or “souls” to a person or to people in the footnotes found at Genesis 46:18; Joshua 11:11; Acts 27:37; and Romans 13:1. Be certain to read the footnotes or your Concordance.

The writers and story tellers of the Bible also referred to animals as souls: “Then God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with living creatures, or “souls,” and let flying creatures fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.’ Then God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures or “souls,” according to their kinds, domestic animals and creeping animals and wild animals of the earth according to their kinds.’ And it was so.” (Genesis 1:20, 24) You can also see that birds and other animals are called souls in the footnotes or Concordance found in Genesis 9:10; Leviticus 11:46; and Numbers 31:28.

The truth of the matter is that nowhere in the entire Bible are the terms “immortal” or “everlasting” linked with the word “soul.” Although it can be confusing because of our common usage of the word soul today, scriptures state very clearly that a soul is mortal, meaning that it dies. (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) Therefore, the Bible calls someone who has died, simply a “dead soul.”—Leviticus 21:11.

However, we can find something about the beliefs of something that goes on once our soul dies. And that is Spirit. Today in its common usage, soul and spirit are typically the same thing. However, according to scriptures, that is not the case. The Bible is quite clear that these two words have a very different meaning in the original context.

Bible writers used the Hebrew word ruʹach, in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Greek word pneuʹma the New Testament, when writing about the “spirit.” Ru’ach is one of my favorite Jewish words. It has several meanings depending how it is used and what words surround it. “The Spirit of God [Ru’ach Elohim] was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2). In Genesis 6:17 ru’ach is translated as “breath of life.” Genesis 8:1 uses ru’ach to describe the “wind” God sent over the earth to recede the Flood waters. Altogether, the word ru’ach is found almost 400 times in the Old Testament and the Greek term pneu’ma almost as often in the New Testament.

Regarding our discussion, these are some of the instances that are closer to our common understanding today of “soul”. For instance, Psalm 104:29 states: “If you take away their spirit [ruʹach], they die and return to the dust.” And James 2:26 notes that “the body without spirit [pneuʹma] is dead.” In these verses, “spirit” refers to that which gives life to a body. Without spirit, the body is dead. Therefore, in the Bible the word ruʹach is translated not only as “spirit” but also as “force,” wind, or life-force. For example, concerning the Flood in Noah’s day, God said: “I am going to bring floodwaters upon the earth to destroy from under the heavens all flesh that has the breath, or ruʹach of life.” “Spirit” thus refers to an invisible force (the spark of life) that animates all living creatures. (Genesis 6:17; 7:15)

Spirit is like electricity is to a light bulb in our houses. Without it, the light does not shine. With it, the room is illumined. Without it, it is dark. The body needs the light, the spirit to be alive. But without that spirit, or life-force, our bodies “die and return to the dust,” as the psalmist stated.

So as you can see over the centuries we have changed the meaning of soul and spirit. But to state that the Bible only mentions soul or spirit four times is just not accurate. The question is, what are you going to do with that information? If you are going to argue from a biblical perspective, you will need to really study these verses, all 800 hundred of them, unless you are going to drag a Concordance around to your social gatherings.

It might be enough just to say that according to scripture, when we no longer have “spirit” our soul dies. But it may be helpful to recall in the book of Ecclesiastic, the least theological and the most humanistic book in the bible, that “the dust (of his body) returns to the earth, just as it was, and the spirit returns to the true God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)

~ Fred C. Plumer, President


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

What Mel Gibson Does Not Understand About Biblical History


In the year 66 C.E. guerilla activities that had been festering in Galilee for more than 40 years broke out in a full-scale war. While that war was engaged in the mountains of Galilee, the Jewish ‘freedom fighters,’ familiar with those hills, acquitted themselves quite well. In response Rome decided to abandon the fight on that terrain and to attack the heart of their enemy. Massing its troops against Jerusalem, the Roman Army laid siege and finally breeched the walls of that city in the year 70. The carnage was total. Jerusalem with its magnificent Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish nation disappeared from the maps of human history, not to appear again until 1948 when the State of Israel was re-established.

The trauma embracing those Jews was intense. They had lost everything including their national pride. Bitterness and recriminations were rampant. A survival mentality that required conformity in all things developed. If one dared to step outside the parameters of what these survivors called the ‘true faith,’ they were quite sure their nation would fall into a bottomless pit.

In that fateful year, there was a movement within the synagogues called the ‘Followers of the Way.’ These people identified themselves as the disciples of a Jewish itinerant teacher called Yeshua, but written in Greek as Jesus, who had been crucified by the Romans on or about the year 30 C.E. They had opposed the war against the Romans as the work of religious fanatics, blaming it on the Orthodox party, who ruled the Temple. These ‘revisionists,’ as the Orthodox party called them, believed that the folly of the conservative Jews had made all Jews suffer. At the same time, the Orthodox party was becoming less and less tolerant of these revisionist Jews, whose very existence, they believed, weakened the unified front the Temple Rulers deemed necessary for Jewish survival. In the minds of these rulers, a pluralistic religious system had little hope of enduring this time of persecution. Survival, the believed, required a devotion on the part of the Jews that was single-minded, certain and incapable of compromise. The religious lines among these newly conquered Jews were thus deeply hardened by this mutual hostility.

The ‘Followers of the Way’ had, since the death of Jesus, engaged themselves in the task of incorporating the life and teachings of Yeshua into the worship life of the synagogue. They had interpreted Jesus in terms of familiar Jewish symbols. He was the sacrificial lamb of the Day of Atonement, slaughtered for the sins of the people. He was the scapegoat of Yom Kippur, who carried away the sins of the people. It was, however, the association of the crucified Jesus with the Passover lamb that enabled them to place the passion of Jesus into the setting of the Passover. During the Passover celebration, which began at sundown on Nisan 14 (late March-early April) the Jews rehearsed the history of their nation’s birth at the time of the Exodus. The followers of Jesus simply stretched that celebration, which normally lasted about three hours, into a 24-hour vigil. This enabled them to relive the last events in Jesus’ life in a liturgy that began at sundown on Thursday and lasted until sundown on Friday. While the Orthodox party was observing the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt and their ‘baptism’ in the Red Sea, the ‘Followers of the Way’ were observing the story of their ‘exodus’ from the slavery of sin, culminating in a Red Sea-like experience of Baptism into the new Christian community. In both observances the ‘death of the lamb of God’ was crucial to the liturgy.

With the fall of the their nation the tension between these two Jewish groups, one intent on preserving the past intact and the other intent on incorporating Jesus into that ancient faith tradition, grew bitter. Meanwhile, the Roman authorities hated all Jews and were bent on making them pay in every possible way for their insurrection. The Orthodox party endured this Roman persecution and in turn persecuted the ‘Followers of the Way’ as a group of heretical, revisionist Jews. The ‘Revisionist Jews’ in response, sought to separate themselves, in the minds of the Roman rulers, from the Orthodox party and its unwise war, and thus to escape both the wrath and the virulent anti-Semitism the Romans had loosed upon the land.

One of the ways the ‘Revisionists’ did this was to make certain that the Romans knew that the Orthodox party was their enemy as much as it was Rome’s. It was a case of “since your enemy is my enemy we ought to be friends.” However, one fact that lay at the heart of the faith story of the Revisionist Jews was that Jesus of Nazareth, their doorway into the holy, had been executed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, a man well known for his villainy. So a shift in the way they told the story of Jesus’ death became essential. That was the catalyst that enabled a revisionist history to appear in the worship pattern of those emerging Christians. Increasingly the Roman government, symbolized by Pilate, was portrayed by these Christians as an ally in their struggle against the rigid, defiant Orthodox Jews, made up primarily of the Chief Priests, the Scribes and the Sadducees. The Orthodox Party was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, they said.

Pilate actually tried to save him, they asserted. The central way, in which the story of the suffering of Jesus was told, began to reflect this shift. A traitor was introduced into the Christian tradition, whose name was Judas. Conveniently, that name was simply the Greek spelling of Judah, the name of the Jewish nation. He became the quintessential anti-hero of all things Christian. He was the Jew who had delivered Jesus to the Ruling Jews of Jerusalem, who ran the nation before the rebellion. The very people who had led the revolt against Rome were the same people who had crucified Jesus, they said. The Jews, who were among the ‘Followers of the Way,’ were, it was asserted, the natural allies of the Roman government against a common enemy. It was a unique shift that would echo throughout history as Jews, time after time, would be blamed for the death of Jesus. It was said by these ‘Revisionists’ that while Jesus suffered ‘during’ the reign of Pontius Pilate, that suffering was actually ‘at the hands of the Orthodox party.’ They accomplished this transition by portraying Pilate as a benign Roman leader, who, in the death of Jesus, was forced against his will to acquiesce to the anger of the Jewish mob. He washed his hands in public and proclaimed himself innocent of “the blood of this just man,” while the Jewish crowd was made to shout, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”

With these innovations the Passion of Jesus, now crafted into the Christian liturgy of Passover, moved inexorably through a 24-hour vigil. The outlines of this vigil can still be found in the earliest passion story in the Gospel of Mark. It remains the form through which the death of Jesus is observed even today. Stripping the altar on Maundy Thursday to begin the watch and culminating in the three-hour observance of Good Friday are the vestigal remains of this ancient tradition. Mark began this passion account at 14:17, by citing a time reference, “And when it was evening,” which means it was approximately 6:00 p.m. That was when Jesus and his disciples gathered for the Passover meal. That meal, with its ceremonies recalling of the moment of the nation’s birth, ended with a closing hymn and the guests departed. We see that format reflected in verse 26. Jesus and his disciples left the upper room to go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus took Peter, James and John to ‘watch with him’ while he prayed. These disciples went to sleep. Jesus returned asking, “Could you not watch with me one hour (vs.37)?” This action was repeated two more times. These disciples could not watch one, two or three hours. The time was now midnight. The second segment of the 24-hour vigil was complete. The act of betrayal came at midnight in this liturgy. The darkest deed was set at the darkest moment of the night. That is dramatic, but it is not history. The vigil then moved to chronicle the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, which condemned him to die. This brings us to three o’clock in the morning.

The segment of the night from 3:00 to 6:00 a.m. was known as “cock crow,” during which the story of Peter’s three-fold denial was told (one denial for each hour?), after which the cock crowed. The text acknowledged the end of that watch with these words, “As soon as it was morning (15:1),” and the story moved to the trial before Pilate, which pitted his struggle to free Jesus against the objections of the Jewish leaders. Mark’s narrative again noted the time by saying, “It was the third hour, (9 a.m.) when they crucified him (15:25).”

The Passion drama then moved on in its vigil format to verse 33, which announced that at the sixth hour, darkness covered the whole land. It was “darkness at noon,” which lasted until the ninth hour (3:00 p.m.). That was the moment when Jesus cried, “My God, Why?” and died. He was buried before sundown to complete the 24-hour vigil.

The Passion story of Jesus was created to meet liturgical needs, not to be remembered history. It enabled worshipers in later generations to relive the death of Jesus as if they were eyewitnesses. Its real background was not 30 C.E. when his death actually occurred. It reflects rather a post 70 period of history when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Christians were shifting the blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews for the sake of their own survival.

Mel Gibson has told the story of Jesus’ Passion as if it were an eyewitness account of what happened at the time of the crucifixion. All Christians should know better, but a literalized story, reenacted annually, becomes reality in the minds of the worshipers. In this film, as well as in the response of its defenders, ignorance and prejudice have scored again, and the Jews have become the victims. That is a dreadful way to observe the death of the one of whom believers say, he came because God so loved the world and that all might have life and have it abundantly.

~ John Shelby Spong
Originally published March 24 2004




3 thoughts on “How a Strip Club King Accelerated My Progressive Christianity

Leave a Reply