Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.


Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Camping Out

Garsh-darn-it, I’ve missed the end of the world again! I’ve been so busy lately that I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to that which really matters. So here I find myself in the post-apocalyptic world and still waiting for a bus. Was that all there really was to life? I mean, I just found out that the world was ending on the day of. Couldn’t I get at least 24 hours’ notice? (I wish we’d all been ready?) A group called eBible Fellowship, followers of the late Harold Camping, figured out that his prediction of the end for May 21, 2011 was only the shutting of Heaven’s doors. I’d been wondering where that draft was coming from. According to the Radnor Patch, the actual end of the world, according to eBible’s calculations based on Camping’s spiritual algebra, was yesterday. That could explain a lot.

Apocalyptic groups have often had a problem getting the exact day right. No surprise there, however, since the Bible says even Jesus doesn’t know. Historically, there have been a number of options available to the budding apocalyptist. You can simply go very quiet and hope nobody notices. You can commit mass suicide (not recommended). And others would seem to suggest that you can claim it did happen, but that we just haven’t noticed yet. That was the response of some of Charles Taze Russell’s followers when 1914 saw the continuation of the world, despite a war that has scarred it ever since. Maybe the world has ended many times before. Still, the rest of us still find ourselves too busy to notice.

Here it comes.

Hyakutake, 1996. My first comet.

Apocalypticism is most prominent among those groups that hold to a biblical dating of the world. If it has only been here about 6000 years, then its imminent end seems entirely plausible. Those who take a longer view, more on the order of billions of years, seem a little less worried. That’s not to say that the world couldn’t end. A reasonably sized asteroid could finish it for our species. We wouldn’t need a supernova to do us in. Still, we can learn something from the chiliasts. We can learn that introspection is not a bad thing. We don’t need to hoard weapons, canned goods, and water, but we can stop once in a while and ask if all this insane running around we all do is really worth the effort. Since the world has ended, I’m thinking I might slow down a bit. I’ve got a lot that I still want to accomplish, but given that it’s all over, what’s the rush? I just wonder if they’ll buy this kind of reasoning at work.

What’s a Bible?

LegaspiWhat is the Bible? This might seem a strange question coming from someone who holds a doctorate in what has sometimes been characterized as biblical studies. Still, it is a valid question. The fact is, very different things are referenced by the word “Bible.” This is made abundantly clear in Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi points out that the Bible hasn’t always been the central force of Christian identification that it seems to have become. Martin Luther was largely (but not solely) responsible for the view that the Bible alone is sufficient for eternal well-being. Historically it had been much more complicated than that. The church had traditions and sacraments, Judaism had Talmud and rabbinic interpretation. The idea that the Bible alone was necessary was more radical than it might seem in today’s secular world. The problem was, the Bible isn’t an easy book to understand.

It has long been recognized that the Enlightenment and the Reformation went more or less together. The mysticism and mystery of “superstition” were bound to fade in the brilliance of pure reason. The Bible, however, still held a revered place, and it had to be studied. The sea change of the scriptural Bible to the academic Bible took place largely in Germany. No surprises there. What Legaspi demonstrates is that this study was closely bound with the university as an organ of the state. Germany didn’t boast the oldest universities in the eighteenth century, but it could claim the most intellectually rigorous. Among its biblical scholars, indeed, perhaps the one who led to the creation of the academic Bible, was Johann David Michaelis. The book is mostly about Michaelis and his influence and background in biblical studies. Clearly, applying university treatment to an ancient text was not going to be Sunday School.

By the time people like me began advanced study of the Bible, the “academic Bible” was about all there was. Many of us with serious training in the field watch in wonder as some (many) theologians take the Bible literally. They use ideas and concepts that biblical scholars have long recognized as artifacts of antique understanding. The problem is once you’ve gone down this path, there’s no going back. You can’t unlearn the academic Bible. So, what is the Bible? Obviously, it’s going to depend on who you ask, but it is clear that no one answer will satisfy all takers, even if they all claim to share a single faith. And should you venture to those hallowed halls of higher education, you’ll find the Bible is studied here, as are dinosaurs and an earth that is a few billion years old.

Eleventh Commandment

Those who know me are sometimes surprised to learn that one of my favorite quick meals is grits and black-eyed peas. For a northerner that’s a bit strange, perhaps, but my father was from South Carolina and my mother often cooked “soul food” at home. Over the years I’ve experimented with ways of preparing this simple lunch, and I’ve found that with a little cheese and a bit of hot sauce, this makes a filling and tasty dish. A few weeks back I posted on Burning Bush hot sauce. I saw it on a tourist trip to Whole Foods. I was very pleased and quite surprised when the president and chief sauceror of Burning Bush emailed me, thanking me for my post. He even kindly sent me a bottle of Burning Bush hot sauce to try. Well, this was a chilly weekend up here in Jersey, so I splashed some Burning Bush on my grits and had my own kind of down-home religious experience. It sure beats the usual tabasco that, like my father, I usually shake over my grits.

I’m sharing this personal religious experience with you to encourage you to have a religious experience. Try some Burning Bush for yourself. If you look back at my post Mind Your Manna, you’ll find a comment from said president and chief sauceror giving readers of this blog an exclusive discount on web orders. Check out that post for the discount code. Also take a little time to browse around Burning Bush is kosher and it doesn’t just spice up grits. My favorite part about it is that it isn’t the product of a large corporation. Being one of the little guys, I prefer to help out others like myself. The one percent already have far more than enough.

Burning Bush

As I’ve confessed before, I’m not really a foodie. Still, sometimes something simple like a new flavor can improve your life. As a matter of fact, when the Burning Bush came to my door on Friday, I planned the coming week’s meals around the fact that I now had something new to try in the kitchen. I suspect I shall be very holy by the end of the week. Just like the Bible, the story of Burning Bush starts in a garden. The best things in life generally do. I’d rather support David than Goliath. Why skimping on the flavor end of things? Why not have a religious experience while you eat? Let Nestle, Unilever, General Mills, and Kellogg hobnob with each other. Remember, when it comes to hot sauce, every drop counts. Why not give Burning Bush a try? And just for reading this blog you get an exclusive discount.

Ghost Rider

GhostsOf all frightening creatures, ghosts are by far the most ubiquitous. Believed in by every civilization ever recorded and throughout the world, not even science has been able to displace them. Lisa Morton’s Ghosts: A Haunted History offers a brief tour through the realm of the dead. With a sense of how ancient the phenomenon is, she also notes time and again how religions have an uneasy but steady relationship with disembodied spirits. After all, religions give us souls that science strives to take away. What makes Morton’s study so interesting is its restlessness. Not focusing on one culture or time period, the reader learns about Asian ghosts as well as the familiar translucent variety favored in the western world. Ghosts are everywhere.

Now that October has invited thoughts of long nights and falling leaves, I often ponder a world without ghosts. If rationalism of the materialistic variety had its way, this would be simply a natural season like any other. No need to be frightened as the sun takes on that quality that suggests some things should not be seen, and the air feels as if anything might happen. Spooky houses are merely wanting maintenance and every creak and rustle can be explained. There are no ghosts in the night and Halloween is only for children. It seems to me, rather, to be the season of belief. It’s more tangible now, the world where unanswered questions dwell. Ghosts, whether in our mind or in this physical world, are part of the ambiance without which autumn isn’t worth having.

Are ghosts real? I can’t say that I have any evidence one way or the other. We all die, and we all wish we didn’t have to. In this world some are lucky enough to make their wishes come true. Might it be that some have found a way to stay when the physical party is over? Religions are uncomfortable with ghosts since they refuse to be contained in any Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. They simply are. People of every education level and social standing see them and some believe while others explain them away. Without going over to the other side we likely will never be able to prove whether they are really real or not. As Morton amply demonstrates in her thoughtful little book, they will never go away as long as consciousness and death coexist.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.


Hurricane Joaquin

The name Herostratus is deservedly obscure. In fact, I shouldn’t even be mentioning him here. His use as an object lesson, however, seems apt in a country fascinated by firearms and fame. Herostratus was an arsonist of the fourth century B.C.E. who destroyed the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He perpetrated this crime so that he would become famous, and he is representative of those who want fame at any cost. So it was that on Thursday a gunman, who shall remain nameless here, shot and killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon before being killed by police. This individual, upon investigation, had been fascinated by how obscure people gain immediate fame by killing innocents. After a summer of what seemed like endless, pointless shootings, we now have nine more graves of students to mourn, and as a nation we still lovingly stroke our guns.

Society is a dangerous combination of a cult of celebrity and violence. Most of us live our lives in utter obscurity, not being noticed. For many that is the way they want it, but for some it is a pathology. Guns are so easy to find. Police discovered seven firearms in this man’s apartment, in addition to the six he took to campus. Doing the math confirms the madness of a nation that makes guns so very accessible. Even the insane may buy. All it takes is money. The Temple of Artemis was one of the most magnificent structures of all time. It even gets mentioned, in an indirect way, in the Bible. Although it had been rebuilt, the idea had already fermented, without firearms, that fame could be had for infamy. In antiquity the perpetrator’s name was outlawed. Now anyone can find out who he is.

No shooting is without tragedy. Those that take place on college campuses and high schools are especially tragic because education is the only way to move forward from barbarism. Those who went to class on Thursday were improving their minds. Education makes the world a better place. They were, however, eliminated by a nameless man with easy access to weapons and a wish for fame. Perhaps American Idol and American Gladiator should offer a venue for those who wish to slaughter each other in public. It could be sponsored by the NRA. It was the ancient world, after all, that also gave us bread and circuses. Although the hurricane may be veering away, we have already been hit by tragedy, only this one was of our own making.