Sunday Morning Football

There is a Baptist Church in East Orange, New Jersey that celebrates Football Sunday to draw the menfolk in. Complete with a tailgate party after the service, this event may boost numbers, but the winner of this divine gridiron has not yet been determined. Not being a fan of football (or any other sport — oh, the heresy!) this particular tactic would not appeal to me, but knowing that when guys get together the topic of sports always seems to come up, well, it just makes sense.

According to the canonical Gospels, Jesus never played football. (The Gospel of Judas, however, does mention a quarterback-sneak, I believe.) The few times I’ve watched games on television (generally under duress) I see a bunch of men trying their physical best to beat some other guys up. Rampaging after a pig-skin (definitely not kosher), they attempt to score and prevent the other team from doing so. This is my amateur analysis of what I am told is a very complex game.

Rewind. Stop. Replay. The Baptist Church. Founded to protest against the vicissitudes of the Church of England, the Puritan-inclined Baptists wished to establish a church free from the constraints of the formalism inherent in the staid worship of either Roman or Anglo-Catholic England. Breaking from tradition was an honored principle here. Like our football heroes, they joined a team against the competition for that Super Bowl in the sky. Will the men stick around for the post-season slump? Maybe not, but as Notre Dame has always known, the divine man is a big fan of the Catholic team.

Notre Dame's famous Touchdown Jesus

What Would Dinos Eat?

A recent edition of Science Illustrated ran an article about a potentially revolutionary understanding of mammalian evolution. Reponomamus robustus, a large mammal from the Cretaceous Era has been found with dinosaur bones in its stomach. The implication, of course, is that this early mammal may have eaten dinosaurs instead of the conventional reverse of the scenario. Science is open to such radical ideas, but my thoughts turned to the culture war being waged on automobile bumpers across the United States.

Several years ago the Jesus Fish or ichthus symbol began appearing on the backend of cars in what seemed at first to be a “baby on board” tactic with a don’t-ram-me-I’m-a-Christian subtext. Some drivers, however, associated the Jesus Fish with an evangelical power play, a showing of numbers that indicted all other drivers as “non-Christian,” and therefore, by implication, accident-worthy. The Darwin Fish showed up soon thereafter, a counter-symbol for those who seemed to be declaring that Christians could be evolutionists as well. Sensing a challenge — which always appears as a threat in neo-con eyes — the Jesus Fish or Truth Ichthus swallowing the Darwin Fish swam onto car posteriors. Then the dinosaur eating a Jesus Fish came out, and I am certain that I once saw a Jesus Fish eating a T-rex on some oversized vehicle hind-end.

A friend once asked me why I spent my time arguing with those who are so obviously wrong (the anti-evolutionists). The unfortunate answer showed up in the White House at the turn of the millennium and the radical restructuring of society encouraged by the “religious right” gains credibility from the sheer number of people willing to adorn their cars with Jesus Fish. The real victim in this volley of statements in chrome is a guy who said nothing about evolution and who, I’m sure, would be amazed at how misrepresented he is. As the love-hate relationship between Jesus and dinosaurs continues to wax and wane, I’m staying out of it, but I’m more frightened by the fish than by the dinosaur.

Highway Homiletics

“Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go,” is an assertion to be taken literally in my case. Crossing the Delaware River and trekking through the forests of Pennsylvania are the only means to reach my childhood home from New Jersey. Each time I make the trip I am amazed at how strident the highway preaching along the way has become. Signs on both the interstates and the backroads announce the truths of a certain vociferous brand of Christianity that maintains that everyone must think that way or spend an eternity in hell. Having experienced this kind of fear-driven faith firsthand, I can’t protest too much without being labeled a hypocrite, but some of what I observed over the river and through the woods leapt out at me anew this Thanksgiving.

Firstly it seems that Jesus saves big rocks. Several large, obtrusive boulders worthy of the land time forgot bear the message that Jesus Saves. Locally this form of homiletics can be as persistent as the Trust Jesus notes spray-painted on just about every interstate overpass between here and Illinois. A religiously aware lumber company in rural Pennsylvania hosts a sign declaring, “Read, Heed, Live & Obey the Bible!” When I think of lumber, I think of 2-by-4s and of their standard use of knocking sense into others who look at things differently. This sign said more than its owner might have intended. A few miles down the road I read, “Why not try Jesus? If you don’t like Him the Devil will always take you back.” The assumption, naturally, is that anyone reading the sign is already devil’s food.

One of the great things about freedom of religion and freedom of expression is that such messages declare their writers’ fervent beliefs, but they hold no force beyond the rhetorical. Having met many sincere believers in other faiths over the years, I do wonder what kind of good news such non-negotiable advertisements really send. Some of the writers, I believe, are railing against the godless world they see around them (although the number of churches along these backroads would seem to testify to religion a-plenty) while others can’t accept any form of any religion that differs from their own, even if it be a different flavor of Christianity. Perhaps it is time I put up a sign advocating a vegetarian version of Thanksgiving — no turkey need die for anyone’s sins. In some religions such a message is considered trustworthy indeed.

On Faithful Monsters

From the moment I saw Stephen Asma’s On Monsters summarized in the Chronicle of Higher Education, I knew I had to read it. Having been fascinated by monsters as a child, and then having grown out of that fascination, this book is a respectable way to indulge my juvenile interests while learning something. The book’s subtitle, An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, reveals perhaps why I was so compelled by this particular volume. Those of you who follow this blog know that I contend that religion and fear are very closely related, well nigh inseparable even. As Asma delves into the origins of our monsters, he pauses for a while on the Bible.

The Bible hosts its share of monsters. From lengthy descriptions of Leviathan and Behemoth to tantalizingly creepy references to Azazel and the night hag, the writers of holy writ were as aware of monsters as we are. Asma focuses on the fantastic beasts described in the apocalyptic material, Daniel and Revelation. Obviously not intended to be taken literally, the descriptions of these fantastical beasts represent various ancient empires that threatened the early Jews and Christians respectively. Their monstrosity rests in their intent to destroy, not their hideous physical form. To quote from our host, “monsters are not creatures of natural history but symbolic warnings of a horrifying life without the Abrahamic God (or, in the case of Christians, without his son).”

The ancient fascination with monsters very likely has religious roots. These beings appear to stand outside the rationally created order and lurk in places where the divine is not. The fear they engender leads to the very religion that shuns them. Vampires fear a crucifix, demons are banished at the name of Jesus, and even the headless horseman shuns a church. People run to their faith to protect them from monsters, and monsters, in their turn, provided early believers with a rationale for their faith.

Sects Sells

Once again the headlines tell the story of a child molested by a “celibate” priest now suing the church as an adult. That money dropped in the collection plate goes to cover the cost of sin. The disclosures continue to find the light of day not only in the Catholic Church, but across the religious organizational spectrum. It is an extremely unfortunate situation, but I can’t help wonder if religions are naturally susceptible to sexual expression.

Sexuality and religion go back a very long way. I have suggested elsewhere on this blog that some of the earliest evidence for religion, all the way back to the Paleolithic era, is sexual in nature. One of the blatant aspects of our own cultural conditioning is that we can no longer see the connection. We inhabit a post-Victorian world, a world that strenuously repressed sexuality and removed it from the sphere of human discourse. One of my favorite examples of this is when the standard classical Hebrew-English dictionary (Brown-Driver-Briggs, for those of you who need to know!) makes reference to sexual activity in the Bible (and it is abundant), the editors delicately slip from English to Latin, so as not to offend the sensibilities of clerics and other gentleman-scholars reading the entry. This antipathy to the human condition can be traced even further back to the Greeks who felt that the physical body was much more base than the spiritual, or intellectual aspect. Sexuality was a source of embarrassment and perhaps even shame.

I’m not a psychologist, but it is pretty clear what occurs when strong feelings and drives are repressed for a long time. The early Christians who believed Jesus’ second coming to be imminent did not wish to be caught in flagrante delicto. Sexuality was to be avoided since time was short. When this became formalized and priests, probably very decent people overall, were forced to relinquish their sexuality, it was assumed that it would simply evaporate into the ether and harm no one. We have known for decades that this is naively wishful thinking. As the margarine commercial used to say, “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”

What's Mother Nature hiding?

Ancient sects were not sexually depraved. Stephanie Budin (The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, Cambridge, 2008) has done a good job showing that the case for sacred prostitution in the ancient world has been grossly overblown. Nevertheless, sexuality had a natural place in ancient religions. Any number of nervously giggling teenagers who’ve just discovered the Song of Songs in the Bible know that! The problem arises when our religious culture refuses to acknowledge the obvious. We bottle it up and try to keep it hidden, but when it finally appears the price tag is very steep indeed.

Sacraments and Sea Cucumbers

Directly across the fold from each other on pages 4–5 of today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger are two articles that my brain comprehends as related by more than mere proximity. On page 4 the headline reads, “In sunless depths, marine life thrives.” In an Associated Press article bi-lined New Orleans (where many of my colleagues are currently enjoying the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting), scientists reported that over 17,000 deep-seas species have been found below the point where sunlight ends. What was thought to be a barren zone just decades ago, it turns out, is teeming with organisms adapted to living without light.

One page 5 the headline reads “Bishop admits barring Kennedy from sacrament.” In a ploy that has become distressingly frequent of late, the Roman Catholic bishop claims that Representative Kennedy’s political views on abortion effectively excommunicate him. I find it unconscionable that clergy feel that they have the right to direct public policy when they are not publicly elected officials. Any clergy attempting to coerce officials democratically elected are guilty of abusing their putatively divinely appointed trust. The millions of Catholic laity who privately support freedom of choice they may rhetorically chastise from the pulpit or by some papal bull but they do not deny them the sacrament. Let’s be honest here, this is about politics, not theology.

I have been reading Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah, perhaps the scariest book I’ve ever read. In it Blumenthal demonstrates how the Catholic Church got onto the pro-life bandwagon in the intricate political maneuverings of the “Religious Right.” They quickly learned techniques up to and including lying to get their agenda across. It should distress all members of a democracy that their leaders are being led by dishonest clerics of all stripes. Those who mix their religious views with politics seek to end the religious freedom that allowed them to be born in the first place. They practice late-term religious freedom abortion.

What does this have to do with the wondrous world of the great deeps? They represent, to my mind, two forms of life that thrive far from the enlightening rays of the sun.

2012

As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.

That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.

2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.

The Call of Balu

After writing a post on Natib Qadish, a modern revival of Canaanite religion in the United States, I received some comments from Lilinah of Qadash Kinahnu, another modern Canaanite religion revival. These movements are a fascinating development in an overly technological era — both movements have online resources that include serious scholarly treatment of ancient religions of the Levant. Both appear to be sincere attempts to get in touch with what modern religions seem to have lost. Both have heard the call of Balu.

In a society where universities seldom offer programs to study the Ancient Near East, people are starved to know about it. I realize that the field of study will never bring in the money that the sciences or finance do, but obviously there is something deeply satisfying about it. And students are hungry for it. Not only appreciated by those who start revivals of ancient religions, many of those who read more recent popular treatments are intrigued. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was a New York Times bestseller. Although much belatedly, H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos has become a paradigm for many undergraduates I’ve met. I was reminded of this as I watched Stuart Gordon’s 2001 movie entitled Dagon. A relentlessly tense and macabre film, the Lovecraftian base assures a constant draw for those who hear the call of the ancient deities.

We love technology. I’m posting this entry on an internet where ideas are simply electrons forced into recognizable patterns. We can’t imagine what life was like before being able to communicate with people just about anywhere in the world instantaneously, and where we can live our entire lives without ever actually touching physical money. Over all the noise of technological progress, however, can be heard the distinct call of Balu — a call to a simpler era, pre-Christian, pre-Judaism, pre-Iron Age. It was an era when human destiny fell into the hands of ancient gods.

It Was a Small World After All

Podcast 17 addresses one of the prevailing orthodoxies of the ancient world: the relative lack of communication between regions. It is clear from evidence that continues to emerge that ancient cultures knew about and borrowed from each other. The most obvious of these exchanges across distinct cultures concerns Hellenistic and Semitic contact. The Greeks clearly borrowed from their Semitic neighbors, as Cyrus Gordon worked so hard to convey. Although still not universally acknowledged, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain that ancient societies were singular, isolated, and self-sufficient.

False Profits

December’s edition of the Atlantic Monthly features a disturbing article by Hanna Rosin entitled “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” What is disturbing about this article is not the insinuation that many conservative Christian groups have caused far more problems than they’ve solved (“guilty as charged”), but the utter duplicity of the movement. The deception begins with the claim of the Prosperity Gospel pundits that they are holding true to biblical principles. In reality they rewrite the Bible to make it fit their vision of personal gain at the expense of the weak and needy. You can hear the sounds of Amos and Micah being ground beneath their wingtip heels.

The Prosperity Gospel is a particularly virulent disease in the United States, a nation of incomprehensible contrasts. The clergy of the Prosperity Gospel (churches of this stripe are among the largest and fastest growing in America) demand tithes on the part of their sometimes poor but always hopeful congregants. Most of them are being set up for failure. But it will be failure with a smile. As I read Rosin’s article, I was saddened that a growing number of those buying into this “Gospel” are those among the exploited Hispanic community. The message they are being given is the worst kind of blasphemy. One such believer, according to Rosin, claimed “the rich are closer to God.” A message farther from the actual Gospels would be difficult to concoct.

Prosperity Gospelers, decidedly not mainstream Christianity in theological outlook, judge a book by its glitzy cover. Its leaders, often fabulously wealthy, hold out unrealistic hope to their gullible and disappointed followers. It is so easy when a congregant looses everything simply to blame it on a lack of faith. This bogus idea of material payoff for spiritual righteousness is not only dangerous, but it is redefining the religious scene in North America. The article follows the story of Fernando Garay, the leader of Casa del Padre, a Prosperity Gospel church. When asked by Rosin about buying a house (a sign of God’s blessing) he tellingly replied, “Ten Christians will say that God told them to buy a house. In nine of the cases, it will go bad. The 10th one is the real Christian.” Americans have a fondness for snake-oil and entrepreneurs. Now the hucksters are the ones claiming the right to define what Christianity really is. It is a religion that even Jesus would fail to recognize.

Asherah Overcomes

In the constant struggle of humankind against nature, we often find things out of place to our refined sensibilities. With the advent of autumn we frantically rake the fallen leaves into Brobdingnagian piles and anxiously await the colossal vacuum truck to come by and suck them all away. Leaf litter just doesn’t fit the suburban image. Or perhaps there is a dead tree that threatens to fall on our artificial habitat. We call the tree removal experts to have it taken out. All animals reshape their environment. We humans recreate it.

Long ago I argued that divinized trees in the ancient world do not necessarily represent Asherah. I stand by that assessment — asherahs were apparently constructed of wood, but it does not follow that all wooden cultic objects are asherahs — this does not meet the logical requirement of sufficient condition. Nevertheless, the book of Deuteronomy suggests that in times of necessity any tree might serve as an asherah (16.21), although this is soundly condemned. Perhaps the power of the tree represents the feminine vitality of the goddess. Like a tree, Asherah often outlives humans.

Photo credit to Christopher Chung

This picture appeared in today’s paper. A crew trying to remove an out-of-place tree near an expensive home had a little trouble as the tree pulled over the crane, and not vice-versa. Seeing the all too masculine crane truck dangling helplessly in the air while the tree holds its ground, I thought again of Asherah. I do sympathize the homeowners, but my sense of wonder is temporarily restored. Perhaps nature still has the means to prevent humans setting things in their own preferred order. Perhaps Asherah still lurks at the edge of the forest. Let’s hear it for the trees!

Demoted Angels

One of the questions frequently surrounding monotheism is that of angels. Surveys indicate that even non-religious North Americans, by far, believe in angels. So, where do they come from? In a monotheistic context where God is considered omnipotent what role could angels possibly fill?

Angels appear in ancient religions in medias res. Going back to the earliest attested religion, that of the Sumerians, we find winged divine assistants called apkallu. In a polytheistic world, gods could always use a little help. These divine beings, portrayed with wings, are sometimes called “angels” by modern commentators, and they do serve some of the basic functions of an angel, such as doing errands.

Other ancient polytheistic religions knew of differing classes of deities; not all gods were created equal! There were primordial deities, often old and retiring, and there were active ruling deities who received their authority from the primordials but who in fact ruled by might. Below the ruling gods were skilled-labor gods and messengers. It is from this class of messenger gods that angels eventually evolved. We don’t know that messenger deities were portrayed with wings, but in ancient times wings indicated speed — uninterrupted movement — so you could do worse than have wings if you were a messenger. The English word “angel” derives from the Greek term indicating a messenger. Indeed, by the time we reach the Hebrew Bible angels are often indistinguishable from humans.

The problem is that when monotheism developed during the Exilic Period, the Israelites had already become quite accustomed to having angels around. Before prophets showed up angels were often the means of learning the divine will. If there is only one god, what do you do with this tier of messenger deities? Demote them to angels! They are still supernatural, but not as powerful as God.

Probably under the influence of Greek Hermes, angels regained their wings to become the winged humans we know so well today. It is a mistake, however, to call all winged humans from the ancient world “angels.” Angels are the result of the religious evolution from polytheism to monotheism, and their ancient predecessors were truly gods.

Remember when we used to be gods?

Sky God Redux

This week’s Time magazine includes the periodic feature of the 50 best inventions of the year. Flipping through the pages looking at techno-gadgets that leave me vacantly spinning in my office chair, I was surprised to see that invention number 49 is the work of our hypothetical sky gods. The undulates asperatus cloud has been receiving high profile attention of late, and now it is seeded on Time’s greatest inventions list! When I last posted on undulates asperatus, it had been written up in Wired. Prior to that I had seen a feature on the cloud in the New Jersey Star-Ledger some months back. Having written a(n unpublished) book on weather terminology in the Bible, I have had my head in the clouds for several years now. To find the humble collections of condensed humidity making the news is a strange but welcome validation of my work.

Undulatus_asperatus

Undulatus asperatus from Wikipedia, by Agathaman

Time resists bringing the divine into the description of the cloud, preferring the more neutral term “ominous” to describe undulates asperatus. After having spent several days under the blanket of a nor’easter here in New Jersey with its impenetrable gray clouds, I can appreciate how ominous thick clouds can be. The more I study ancient religions the more I am convinced that major gods primarily reflect the content of the sky. After all, gods were seldom seen in the fields and cities of antiquity, but the sky holds endless possibilities.

Perhaps some editor somewhere will stumble across my conviction that weather matters in the biblical world and will want to take a look at my book. If not, no worries. I’ll just be looking at the sky.

Yarihk Finally Gets a Drink

594px-Full_Moon_Luc_Viatour

Gnu moon

Yarihk once again makes the news as NASA announced yesterday that they have discovered a substantial amount of water on the moon. I’m still reeling as if I’d joined Yarikh at the Marzeah. Although the local paper only deemed it page 2-worthy, this is a paradigm-shifting discovery! The arid, airless, lifeless, dead rock daily racing around our world has suddenly blossomed with new potential. Water on the moon? It seems as unlikely as satisfactory jobs for all graduate students.

Students are generally surprised to learn that in the Ancient Near East the moon was often considered superior to the sun. Given our knowledge of astronomy and physics it is difficult to look behind the curtain to see that it is not self-evident that the moon reflects sunshine without the subsequent development of a scientific outlook. For ancients the moon provided the gentler light that illuminated night — when you really need some light anyway — and was responsible for generating dew, a necessary source of water in regions where summer rains are unheard of. The benevolent moon waxes and wanes, forming a perfect circle and, by degrees, the crescent shape of the horns of divinity, and finally disappearing completely to start the cycle all over.

At Ugarit Yarikh is a thirsty character in text 114. He marries a foxy Hurrian goddess in the myth of Nikkal, a princess much above his station, then he easily fades into the background from the dearth of textual sources. Some have suggested a lunar connection for El as well, the very head of the gods. If El was lunar, perhaps Yahweh also drove the moon. Whoever is in charge, however, thought to pack water for the journey and as we further explore our nearest astronomical companion we will discover that Yarikh is just as interesting as the denizens of Ugarit had suggested.

Death of the Gods

Americangods

Ancient gods surround me these days. Surely part of it is due to having recently finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (I know I’m a few years late on this, but novel-reading time is at a premium even when teaching only part-time). Gaiman’s not the first to have taken on the theme of “what if ancient deities still survived?”. As a child I read Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants with its science-fictionalized version of Ragnarok, and even earlier H. P. Lovecraft had resurrected Dagon and Cthulhu. Gaiman’s treatment, however, is contemporary and is a barometer of how the old gods are faring these days.

Dark and witty, Gaiman’s treatment is a fun-house ride through the fanciful concept that old-time gods and folk-heroes emigrated to American with their believers. The resulting adventure brings a multi-cultural mix of supernatural powers that end up mostly focusing on the Norse mythological cast. Same was true of del Rey — the Norse mythology reflects a stark world of raw power, betrayal, death and resurrection, that resonates with northern European experience. Anansi and Chernobog also take starring roles in American Gods, although the only ancient Near Eastern deities with any prominence in the story are the Egyptian Thoth and Anubis in supporting roles.

Casting an eye over the American landscape, this assessment is perhaps true to life. Ancient Near Eastern deities seem so distant and unfamiliar. Gods long dead. Despite recent movements to revive the worship of Mesopotamian or Canaanite deities, their powers seem to have dissipated at the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. as Yahweh gained a prominence he has never relinquished, and the Greeks and Romans paved over the graves of Ninhursag and Yarikh with European versions of the more prominent West Asian gods. Universities reflect this lack of knowledge with slowly dying departments of Ancient Near Eastern studies. Like Gaiman suggests, America seems to have gone after the more modern gods suited to our present-day lifestyle.