Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.

Ash Monday

I was traveling abroad with a friend. We’d just arrived back in the United States and were making our way through customs. Since he was from another country we were separated. The border agent told me I couldn’t come back into the country unless I demonstrated that I was a racist. Only racists were permitted. He began to pressure me, even offering to help. Should I comply? I awoke in a panic. As someone who suffered frequent childhood nightmares, this was something new. In the past it was merely a monster chasing me, or my alcoholic father. Now I’m having nightmares about the government of my own country. And here it is, Presidents’ Day. Like U2’s early “New Year’s Day” or Bruce Springsteen’s “Independence Day,” there’s a decidedly poignant tone to this holiday. Looking towards DC I see nothing to celebrate. I see a government putting the mock in democracy.

This Presidents’ Day, I have a modest suggestion. It could fix democracy. When an election (I’m thinking Brexit as well as 11/9) squeaks out a victory because people don’t vote or don’t understand the issues, a true democracy would then hold a follow-up, “what I really want” vote. If we insist on keeping such arcane tools as the Electoral College in place, this is the only way for democracy to actually work. It wouldn’t be necessary in the case of a candidate winning both the electoral and popular vote. When that happens it’s pretty clear someone won. When the two are divided, however, that’s also a clear signal. Only unthinking automatons would declare that a landslide defeat is actually a win, based purely on political casuistry. Is there an ethicist in the house?

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This Presidents’ Day feels more like Ash Wednesday to me. Ash Wednesday is for public mourning. It is a realization and confession that we have sinned. We wear ashes to make it conspicuous. This year no ashes are required. Perhaps we should wear black bands on our arms. I would, only arm bands seem to have a way of becoming bright red and appropriating ancient religious symbols. We have sinned, and we have sinned boldly. The miasma of Foggy Bottom is as clear a condemnation as is devoutly to be wished. When I start waking up in a panic, in a body-sock of sweat, my childhood monsters have become real. It’s Presidents’ Day 2017.

Alma Mater Matter

I was a teen-age religion major. Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but I did start college at 19 and, being a first generation matriculant, had no idea about majors. No idea about colleges either. The school you choose stays with you for your life—especially if you decide to go into academia. A couple of recent events brought this home to me again. Grove City College is stridently conservative. Since I was raised Republican, it felt like a good fit at the time. It was cheap and close to home, and since my parental contribution was a total sum of zero, both of these factors counted heavily. Overlooked by many a hiring committee, it was also academically rigorous at the time. For better or worse, it’s now on my permanent record. Enough ancient history.

Recently a colleague asked me about an author, noting his undergraduate degree was from a school not unlike Grove City. I saw myself from the outside (yet again). Conservatism can be a lifestyle choice. My fellow religion-major grovers mostly went on to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary or other bastions of further conservative thought. Their minds were already made up. In their early twenties, no less. I headed to Boston University, at the time the most liberal of the United Methodist seminaries, by reputation. But still my record says “Grove City.” My academic writings should leave no doubt as to my scholarly outlook (most of these papers are available on Academia.edu), but there is always a shadow of suspicion over a former grover. You can’t change your alma mater, no matter what the next decision you make says about you.

Then I came across a recent writing sample from one of my Grove City professors who’s still on the faculty. This piece showed that as this faculty member was in the early eighties, so he is still today. Biblical literalism all the way down. With over three-and-a-half decades to read, that’s incredible to me. I guess I just don’t share the kind of arrogance that declares you got it right the first time and that everything you read confirms a literal Adam and Eve. And a snake and a tree. What am I to think when I see a conservative undergraduate school on someone’s academic record? I would hope that I would know to look at the next step to see what that reveals. I am a grover, but a bad grover, I guess. You have to know how to read a permanent record.

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Photo credit: The enlightenment at English Wikipedia

Ode to Zibaldone

Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.

This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.

Some of my notebooks.

Some of my notebooks.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.