Hanging on my refrigerator door is a quote attributed to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha): “Do not put your faith in traditions only because they have been honored my many generations.” Not being a Buddhist scholar, I am not sure if the words originated with Siddhartha Gautama or not. Whatever their origin, however, these words are worth serious consideration. Do we believe what we do simply because of its age? Are older ideas more difficult to dismiss than more recent ones?
During a recent conversation I was interested to hear a member of the clergy say, “We need to move away from thinking of new religions as cults.” That was like a slap from the Buddha — the proverbial sound of one hand slapping. Do members of an ancient religion feel a kind of entitlement to the status earned with the inexorable passing of time? The idea goes back at least to the Romans. Wanting to stop the endless splintering of religions into new sects and potentially divisive rivals, they tended only to allow outside religions within their empire if they could demonstrate a remote antiquity (Judaism was the textbook example). Age of religion constitutes a kind of seniority; who hasn’t had a run-in with a Roman Catholic who believes their form of Christianity trumps all others on the basis of a supposed apostolic antiquity? If it has survived that long, there must be something to it — right?
I wonder if such a criterion is sound for systems of belief. We readily accept change in perspective in most other aspects of our lives. Religion is where many people draw the line. One of the funny scenes in Religulous is where the imam, in traditional garb, receives a text message on his cell phone in the middle of his interview with Bill Maher. The problem with allowing change in most aspects of life and thinking, but not one fundamental area, should become immediately apparent. Unless religion can be severely circumscribed and kept apart from all other facets of life, it has to fit into an entire system of thought. If one region of thought stops at the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze, or Iron Age without being reinforced by the other areas of human thought and experience that have transpired since then, can the system survive? I’m not suggesting that religions should be rejected because of age, but that they should be allowed to grow up. If that were to happen I would happily remove the Buddhist quote from my refrigerator door.
A number of 40-year commemorations of the Manson Family murders have brought these gruesome events of my childhood years back to memory. I was really too young to understand what all the fuss was about then, and now that I am old enough, I’m not sure I want to. Nevertheless, I have committed myself to exploring sects and violence in a religious setting, and the Manson murders have prongs of both phenomena. While recently refreshing my memory on these horrific events on a gray and rainy day, I noticed something I had not seen before.
Looks like someone's been on the yellow submarine a little too long
Charles Manson was (probably still is) a believer in hidden codes. He allegedly cracked a code in the Beatles’ White Album that led him to the belief in an apocalyptic battle that he was determined to begin. I wondered why the Manson Family tends not to be listed among other apocalyptic groups such as the Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate. They all share several traits, and although Manson’s revelations came from the Fab Four rather than the Holy Trinity, a revelation from on high spurred him into actions that had a tragic outcome, just as David Koresh or Marshall Applewhite.
The whole Helter Skelter code also reminded me of another, equally bogus pawning of randomness as divine messages: Michael Drosnin’s The Bible Code. When I read this bestselling bit of intellectual dry rot a few years ago, I was amazed that anyone could possibly take it seriously. God writing hidden messages in a holy book like some hormone enraged high schooler? And figuring out that a singular genius would figure it out just before the apocalyptic end without realizing that it is possible to read messages back into any media after they occur? It seemed all too much for a rational mind to take. In one of my courses at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I gave students the option of reading it for a secondary project. To my chagrin, when I had the papers in one particularly tear-stained paper wailed (seriously) that the writer wished she had been warned sooner! This book changed her life! Everyone must know! Unfortunately I left Oshkosh without finding out what became of her.
God may not play dice, but apparently he likes crosswords!
I felt bad for introducing an undergrad to such “academic” sleight of hand; some college students just haven’t developed the critical facilities to see through the remarks of Balaam’s various sidekicks. Come to think of it, Manson’s followers accepted his revelations uncritically as well. Maybe the real lesson in all of this is that we must examine very closely those who claim special revelation, whether it be from Lenin, McCarthy, Starr, and Harrington, or just from God Almighty.
The story is told of Ernest Hemingway who once wrote a six-word novel “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” The beauty of this anecdote, whether factual or fictional, is that the mind fills in the rest, blooming full of ideas either tragic or hopeful, supposing what led to this circumstance or what might have happened after. The idea of extreme conciseness has caught on in many aspects of our society; in advertising and marketing it is called a hook, on television it is a sit-com, and in my classes it is a term paper. There is now an industry developing in six-word biographies — publishers print books full of them — and it seems there will be no end to conciseness. (My favorite is Larry Smith’s Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, now available in a revised and expanded edition! Exponential conciseness!) My problem is there are too many six-word biographies that suggest themselves. Life seems to be made up of them. A while back my wife challenged me to come up with one. Slightly missing the concept, I came up with six:
When my book on Asherah was first published in 1993, some reviewers criticized my humble effort to sort out the identity of this goddess without resorting to iconography. As I had anticipated this, in the text itself I provided what I thought was a reasonable rationale for my decision. It is a sad fact that ancient polytheists seldom captioned their imagery. Some images so clearly resemble the character of deities described in the myths that correlations are almost certain. Asherah, alas, lacks that privilege.
Could be anybody's mommy
No item from ancient West Asia has yet been recovered that bears an inscription identifying the portrait as Asherah. We simply do not know what the ancients believed she looked like. This hasn’t prevented modern scholars from assigning an Aserah value to certain favored artifacts with a great deal of certainty. So much certainty, in fact, that we don’t know which certainties to trust. If iconic emblems for Asherah existed, that might provide a way of connecting images to the goddess. Unfortunately, snakes, lions, and “twigs” — the usual suspects — could fit just about any goddess with a little twisting. So we are forever left with iconic ambivalence.
May be Asherah, but what's with the goats?
Of all the artifacts recovered from the Levant, where Asherah was actively worshipped, only one, it seems to me, is a potentially clear match. Not as alluring as the Asherahs of popular imagination, she is actually described as a matronly figure, the consort of patrician El. The El images that seem beyond question illustrated him comfortably seated on his throne of state, hand raised in a sign of blessing (or waving good-bye). One image found at Ugarit presents a feminine counterpart in posture and pose. This is likely the image of Asherah. Younger, sexier goddesses need not apply. This one instance reminds us of just how little we know of the immense divine world of Ugarit. If we are careful in our explorations, however, there is much to be learned.
After undergoing a bout of oral surgery earlier this week, even before the nitrous oxide wore completely off, I pulled George Orwell’s Animal Farm off the shelf for a re-read. I hadn’t read it since at least 1984. It was even more disturbing reading it this time just off the Bush-Cheney years, and I realized that the Napoleons and Squealers are still with us. As a prophet Orwell may not have always got the dates right, but he was clever at spotting trends.
In this reading of Animal Farm a minor character leaped out at me. Among the tame, but non-domesticated animals was the raven Moses. Moses is the special favorite of farmer Jones and tells the animals of Sugarcandy Mountain vaguely up in the sky, where conformist animals go when they die. When the rebellion takes place, Moses flies off and remains absent until near the end of the story when the situation has deteriorated. Once again he is back to tell the others about Sugarcandy Mountain. The connection between Moses and Mount Sinai is transparent, although the heavenly connection is slightly misplaced.
The Hebrew Bible (certainly in the period of Moses) does not recognize what will become the Christian concept of Heaven. Like many ancient West Asians, they supposed that Yahweh lived “up there” at times (at other times he lived in the temple, or on the world at large, or atop some mountain). The “heaven” they knew of had no place for dead humans; the afterlife was a concept that developed very slowly. Moses’ motivation for the ancient Israelites, however, also resonates in Animal Farm, even as it does in the startlingly similar film Chicken Run — freedom. Freedom is the pipe-dream of many religions, but even as early as Moses those dreams run into regulations. Religions have laws long before they have heavens. Perhaps Orwell was onto something after all.
It seems that a new season of The Simpsons is upon us. With the release of season twelve on DVD last week, recession-ridden families everywhere are piling up on their couches to be entertained. Initially I had a hard time accepting The Simpsons; I had seen too many failed adult cartoons to give me much encouragement that this would be something worth wasting my time on. Surprisingly, it became clear after just a couple of seasons that The Simpsons was witty, smart, and surprisingly ethical. This final point was so pronounced that Mark Pinsky wrote a book focusing on it entitled The Gospel According to The Simpsons (Westminster John Knox, 2001). As to be expected in a book with a foreword by Tony Campolo, it was a little devious, but still retained a kind of sugar coating. Nevertheless, I found the book worth reading.
Bart after the birds?
The Simpsons frequently pokes fun at all of us who take ourselves too seriously. Most of the time it is evident that the writers have done their homework as well, pulling in sometimes obscure references to classical or biblical literature. Recently while watching the episode entitled “Bart the Mother” I was struck by an ancient theme which was surely accidental. In the episode, Bart, trying to prove himself to the neighborhood bully, shoots a mother bird with a b-b gun. Guilt immediately sets in and Bart is haunted by his cold-blooded act. In a dream he sees a bird tribunal doling out the punishment for his crime — having his face pecked off. I’m sure this owes more to Hitchcock than to Ugarit, but I can’t help shaking the idea that the scene is somehow informed by the Epic of Aqhat. In one of Ugarit’s classic stories, Aqhat is given a divine bow that is coveted by the goddess Anat. When he won’t relinquish it, Anat has Aqhat pecked to death by raptors, “twice upon the noggin, thrice upon the ear!” Ugarit remains shrouded in cultural obscurity, so no easy cultural reference can point to it. Everyone has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds.
The story of Aqhat, although sadly broken, is a classic of ancient literature. So much more to pity is that it remains nearly as unknown today as it was while buried under the ground for three and a half thousand years. A colleague of mine approached Penguin a few years back trying to pitch the idea that they sell a translation of the Ugaritic texts in their classics series. They flatly turned him down on the basis of “no public interest.” If the publishers won’t put these world heritage classics out there, how will there ever be interest generated? Perhaps those of us bitten by the Ugaritic bug simply circulate in circles too small to have any impact on what the world thinks. Beyond a few souvenir-hawking vendors in Syria and a few crusty scholars sheltered away in dusty academic libraries, nobody knows the story. It seems that Aqhat’s fate is equally grim — pecked to death by birds and completely forgotten because the story just doesn’t possess sales potential.