Tag Archives: Jehovah’s Witnesses

Losing My Religion (Excuse)

I’ve always appreciated New Jersey inventiveness. This is a state where lottery winners register with the social security numbers of dead people to avoid taxes. Politicians and honest folk both seem to resort to inventive means of getting around the system. A recent article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger brought this home. An uproar has developed, it seems, over a more stringent regulation concerning religious exemptions for vaccines. If the bill passes, parents and guardians opting out of vaccines for their children will have to state their religion and the cause for the objection. Many have been suggesting this is government of the worst kind, because, well, it wasn’t really a religious reason that they used the religion waiver. Have you met my dead relative? He recently won the lottery.

A timeless problem that arises from a situation such as this is the issue of defining religion. We’re not really sure what it is, other than a reason for not preventing disease. Experts disagree about the essential components of religion. Since the concept of God is up for grabs, doing what pleases said deity (or not, depending on whether a religion has a deity) would seem to be part of it. Most religions, whatever they are, suggest honesty is a virtue. And honestly, most religions have no trouble with vaccines. The paper even had a helpful chart of religions, even indicating that Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no issues, really, with vaccines. Clearly some churches do. One suspects other may have had such regulations, but they eventually died off.

Since we can’t bother to define religion, it becomes a most convenient excuse for just about any kind of deviant behavior. Many religions exist; more than most people even suspect. Sects of Christianity alone number around 40,000, and that’s leaving aside all other religious traditions and their many splinter groups. Truly held religion, as the media often underscores, can lead to extreme behaviors. The only way to come to grips with this is to try to understand what religion actually is. The most logical locus for such study would be universities. Many of them are run by states. States that are afraid of breeching that wall of separation. Even in the cause of public health. In my opinion, funding the study of religion could be a real shot in the arm. But then, so could winning the lottery.


Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”


Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?

Good-bye Lia

While The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, is not about religion, it is all about religion. The tragic story of Lia Lee is one where Hmong lives, completely immersed in what we would term “religion,” came into conflict with American perceptions of what religion should be. One of the events in Lia’s life involved the government removing her from her parents for their failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fadiman notes that this has been an issue is court cases with Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that refuse certain kinds of medical treatment for religious reasons. Adults may refuse—it is their constitutional right—but children cannot be subjected to an adult’s religion if it endangers their lives. Here is the rub; American religion only stretches so far. Sure, many of the faithful pray for loved ones, but they also trust the doctor’s knowledge. Not too put too fine a point on it, God doesn’t seem to do the healing unless the physician is involved. For many from traditional religions, like the Lee family, that is hardly trust at all.

Much of the problem in Lia’s case came down to taking the soul seriously. It is clear that the Hmong believe, really believe in the soul. It is the essence of a person. Reductionism declares that when all the matter is burned off, no soul remains to be found. Lia’s parents, however, could tell whether her soul was present or not just by looking in her eyes. Although she never recovered from her major seizure, the physicians had tried to prepare her parents for Lia’s immanent death. Removing her from the feeding tubes and sterile conditions of the hospital, the Lees took her home where she survived for years, although in a persistent vegetive state. Even as the book ends with Lia at seven, they are hoping for her soul to return. Lia died just two months ago, at the age of thirty. She was diagnosed as terminal at the age of four.

Diversity adds color (from Wikipedia Commons)

The story of Lia Lee is sad and one with no real villains (after the Secret War in Laos, and its aftermath). One of the most interesting aspects revolves around how the Hmong observe American religion. Well-meaning missionaries tried to convert them, but psychological studies have demonstrated that those who are the worst off are those who converted to western religions. At one point a Hmong girl, at a sacrificial ceremony to placate the spirits, tells Fadiman that she’s a Mormon. In another instance a Christian family tried to give their Hmong neighbors advice before a long drive, telling them they should pray to the Lord, not their ancestors. The Hmong honestly replied that the Lord had given him too many problems in America. It seems to me that the real issue here is just how seriously religion is taken. To the Hmong, it is their life. In capitalist America, it is very difficult to make religion your life. Even clergy have to have bank accounts, bills, and oil changes—all very secular aspects of life. If religion were taken as seriously here as among the Hmong, we would be facing a very different race this November.

Guide Me, O Thou Great

You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.

Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.

Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.

Risky Business

Scientology has been back in the news with the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Media pundits like to point out the highly unorthodox nature of Scientology, but such critiques overlook the vital nature of New Religious Movements. Many of us are raised believing that religions, to be “true,” must possess at least a modicum of antiquity. We routinely reject the science of the first century of the common era (well, maybe the Creationists don’t), but we accept without question that the religious views of the time were on-spot and unchanging. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when a new religion like Mormonism or Scientology prospers. Accusations of being money-driven are rife, but then, who has recently audited the Vatican or CBN? Religions are “non-profit” by definition, but they certainly do raise money. As players in the capitalist game, I say more power to them. Who else can make tremendous profits and claim tax-free status (apart from major corporations, I mean)? Most believers are happy to throw a few dollars in the direction of some guru who will deliver him or her from hell, at least.

The fact that true believers in revelation don’t like to face is that every religion started some place. It would be a different story were there only one religion that ever developed, but as soon as someone started to declare their belief orthodox it was only a matter of time before heterodoxy joined the conversation. In the light of this wide-open world of religious beliefs, I think that creativity has been undervalued all along. Say what they might, critics have to admit that Mormonism, Scientology, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses have to score high on the originality scale. Since Yahweh has a lot of competition in the deity market these days it will be difficult to find an adequate final arbiter.

I would like to suggest a panel of experts, like on the appropriately titled “American Idol.” Gods are often hard to pin down, even with email and Twitter and Facebook. To fill in our distinguished panel of judges, then, who might we choose? The clergy of any tradition, I’m afraid, will be biased and so we might look elsewhere. Politicians too should be excluded since their remit is exploitation. Besides, they don’t often recognize creativity as something worth funding. Where does that leave us? We can’t use the average person, because who is going to watch their peers on television. Famous people. An athlete would be a good choice since overthinking religions can lead to trouble. We might need to avoid Tebow, however. Hollywood is said to be godless, so an actor would have great appeal—besides, good looks must equate to good theology, mustn’t they? Who will our third panelist be? Probably a writer; they are creative and their names are well-known. They would add intellectual heft without having the same star status as their more visible colleagues. Funny, L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer whose religion thrives in Hollywood and who enjoyed the sport of yachting. We may have our winner here!

Religion or science fiction?