Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman

The world is a topsy-turvy place. In times of turmoil people turn to the old, the familiar, the classic, for assurance of continuity and stability. Ah, those halcyon days! Perhaps the newspaper is not a place to seek solace, but as I was flipping through the Friday edition, usually a little lighter after the dread of another week, I noticed a story about Leonardo da Vinci (before the code made him famous).

Self portrait or mirror?

For many centuries people have pondered the understated smile on the Mona Lisa’s placid yet knowing face. Recent forensic-type investigations are now strengthening the old suggestion that the Mona Lisa was actually a self-portrait of the artist as a woman. Some will, no doubt, find such news distressing – a masculine artist portraying himself as feminine? (Surely such a thing has never been done before!) Most concerned of all would be the Religious Right, a group that seeks a god excelling in sharp distinctions. Either male or female, no intersexuals need apply!

Over the past several months I have been reading Stephen Asma’s On Monsters, a book that can’t really be called “enjoyable,” although it has been eye-opening and informative. One of the recurrent themes throughout the book has been the fear of the liminal being conjoined with our growing understanding that sharp distinctions are rare. Ever since Freud it has been known (at least subconsciously) that people participate in aspects of both genders with social constructs determining which role is to be filled, feminine or masculine. Those who look honestly at the aggregate of the human race realize that we are all points on a continuum rather than simply members of one or the other gender. As Asma points out, however, we prefer distinctions.

In painting himself as a woman perhaps Leonardo once again proved himself ahead of his time. Perhaps the Mona Lisa is a mirror we should long gaze into before judging others on the basis of artificial distinctions.

Paul Does the Classics

I first became aware of Greek mythology in fifth grade. My teacher in an industrial, rough and yet rural school, believed in the benefits of teaching aspiring drug addicts and laborers the stories of gods and heroes. I immediately adored the stories we heard and read. Raised in a religious household, however, I feared enjoying the tales of what were admittedly pagan gods after all, too much. In the educational topography of my youth, we were on the brink of this brave new electronic world we’ve entered, and mythology was not considered a terribly useful part of the curriculum after that. I left the gods behind. In a class on the Christian Scriptures in college, however, my instructor suggested we all go see Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) for its appreciative (if a little hokey) presentation of the Greek world. I enjoyed the movie and even took a class in the literature department on mythology.

Over the years I have touched and gone on Greco-Roman mythology while specializing in the mythology of Ugarit. Now that I’m teaching a course on mythology, I’m going back to my classical roots and rereading the stories of times not quite so ancient as the fertile crescent civilizations’, but older than what is considered practical nowadays. While rereading Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the concentration of images, concepts, and actions that recur in the Bible stood out in chiaroscuro. Especially noticeable were references to Paul in the book of Acts.

Like Paul, Dionysus comes to be imprisoned. Not recognized as a divine figure, King Pentheus of Thebes locked him in chains until he could demonstrate that Dionysus is just the wild imaginary figure of repressed women. An earthquake, however, soon rattles the city and Dionysus emerges, chains shed, to the astonishment of Pentheus. The scene reads like Paul and Silas’ escape from jail in Philippi (Acts 16). Admittedly this could be coincidence. A few lines later, however, Dionysus, free from prison, tells Pentheus, “Don’t kick against the goad – a man against a god,” (Act 3, Paul Roche’s translation). Even so, Paul on his way to Damascus sees a vision of a god and is asked, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Perhaps Luke had read his Euripides?

Now I’m no scholar of the Christian Scriptures (although I have taught courses on them a time or two), but when obvious parallels exist it is incumbent upon modern readers to pay attention. The parallels of Dionysus and Jesus were evident to early Christians, so what I noticed was nothing new. When the followers of Dionysus, however, strike a rock with their sticks and water flows out, I wondered if Euripides had read his Torah!

Paul's bedtime reading

The Truth is in Here?

Constantly trawling for the shattered detritus of truth that rests scattered around our lonely little planet, I have often supposed they were here. I have never seen them, but in the Drake Equation there is a high probability that they exist. And now the newspaper says they may have been here all along. And closer than we thought.

Aliens. These latter-day angels and explorers of the cosmos are often pictured like E-T or the little gray aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The latest findings suggest they could even be quite a bit smaller than that. Paul Davies, a physicist from Arizona State, believes that life may have developed multiple times on earth, and perhaps some of the googol of microbes on our planet may have their origins in space. These potentially extraterrestrial microbes, he stated could be “right under our noses – or even in our noses.” Yikes! Time to put up the intergalactic “No Trespassing” sign!

Stop the alien menace!

In all seriousness, however, this concept of multiple origins of life, I fear, will be latched onto and misread by our Creationist fellow-life forms. I can see the fingers stiff from grasping at straws claiming that now there is scientific proof that different species do have different origins, thank you Mr. Darwin. The price to pay, if they apply logic, however, is not one evolutionary track, but many.

The movie Creation, focusing on Darwin, opened this past weekend in the United States. Delayed because of concerns that Americans can’t handle the truth, this film about Darwin’s sad voyage to the inevitable truth of natural selection will surely raise evangelical ire. Nevertheless, we did not design this world we evolved into, we simply inherited it. And the closer we peer at it, the more complex it becomes. These multiple evolutionary tracks may also explain the origin of Creationists – could they come from different stock than scientifically minded folk? In any case, the news today provides yet another reason to keep our noses clean and our eyes on the skies.

Missing Links

Dinosaurs hold a fascination like few other creatures. Perhaps it is because of their exotic and tragic rise to dominance and their meteoric plummet to obscurity. Maybe it is because of their impossibly creative adaptations to their environment leading to frills, fans, and pointy bits in unexpected places. It might even be that they reveal our own future to us. Whatever the reason, dinosaurs still rule.

In the news yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing a dinosaur. Not a Jurassic Park living model, but a fossil excavated from private land in Montana. A few years back I took my family on a dinosaur-based trip to the west. Trundling across the endlessly flat eastern half of Wyoming, I insisted that we turn down a rutted and washed out dirt road to an obscure site where dinosaur footprints had recently been discovered. Rolling into Red Gulch (seriously!), we were, surprisingly, not the only people there. Staring down at my feet next to the fossilized prints of some ancient carnivore was like feeling the very pulse of evolution. There was no fear of divine retribution here, just a sense of tangible continuity with a long and very distant relative on the tree of life. Creationists insist that dinosaurs and other creatures were each separately created, fearing, I suppose, an interspecies miscegenation, in keeping with their overall fear of sexuality. I was envisioning myself shaking claws with cousin dilophosaurus.

There be monsters here

Over the years we’ve made many dinosaur trips, stopping at dinosaur museums in North and South Dakota, Montana, and Colorado. Once, at Makoshika State Park in Montana, where you can walk along and see dinosaur fossils in situ, we heard a couple exclaim to the flustered park ranger, “but how can that be when the world is only 6000 years old?” Dinosaurs are symbols. They represent the ultimate in stature and environmental dominance, while at the same time hosting brains that struggled to rival a humble grapefruit. As I read the other, more serious, headlines I realize how much we are like our very distant cousins.

Noah in the Underworld

I recently was subjected to the 1940 sci-fi/western film Radio Ranch (a compilation of the series Phantom Empire). This happy-go-lucky story with Gene Autry in his first starring role is a romp through the unbelievable in just about any sense of the word. Based on the premise that there is an underground world called Murania, the film pits Autry against evil scientists who want to get a “bushel load” of radium from Murania, the “Thunder Riders,” or national guard of Murania, and indeed, against his corporate sponsors who will cancel his contract if he ever fails to get to Radio Ranch by 2 p.m. for his singing broadcast! This creative approach to early science fiction will be reincarnated more successfully in The Mole People, a movie that I wrote about a few weeks back.

The connections between the two films do not stop at an underground world with humanoids wearing Egyptian costumes (there is an unmistakable uraeus on the helmet of Argo in Radio Ranch), but go as far as the associations with the Flood Myth. I pointed out the flood connections in my post on The Mole People, and it was startling to note that Radio Ranch begins (and ends) with Gene Autry singing “Uncle Noah’s Ark.” That coincidence is, in itself, barely worth noticing. When the evil scientists invade Radio Ranch, however, they are shown an artifact from the Thunder Riders (whose thunder-producing horses are, admittedly, pretty cool) and they immediately identify it as an “antediluvian” idol. At this point it became clear how deeply embedded the biblical flood story has been in our culture, and how freely it was used in early science fiction films.

At a guest lecture in the Middle East Studies Program at Rutgers on Friday, I mentioned that the flood story goes all the way back to Sumer, making it among the earliest religious stories in the world. Several students had difficulty with this and began asking, “but when was Noah actually alive?” These college students, well educated in science, engineering, or political science, can’t get beyond the biblical literalism they were raised with. It is no wonder that America is falling behind much of the world in science education: we haven’t moved beyond Gene Autry’s overly cheerful belief in a deluge that never occurred.

Book of Eli

Feeling that it is incumbent on a teacher of Bible to stay current with media presentations of my subject, I went to see Book of Eli yesterday. Not really a fan of violent movies, I was a bit concerned about being subjected to gratuitous carnage, but beyond the expected post-apocalyptic context and its attendant, constant menace, there was not too much to worry about on this score. For several years I have been researching the presentation of the Bible in movies. It is my hope to write this research up into a book one day if I ever land a job that allows such a luxury. Book of Eli will deserve a chapter of its own.

Apart from fundie self-praise fests, few movies present the Bible in such a heroic role as it plays in Book of Eli. Eli, like Jake and Elwood, is on a mission from God: to deliver a Bible to the last repository of education in the United States, namely a famous correctional institution. Along the way Road Warrior-style bandits harass him and Carnegie (a kind of deranged librarian with lofty political aspirations) covets Eli’s Bible, the last in existence. Carnegie wants the Bible because, “it is a weapon” of social control. (All quotes are approximate since I couldn’t take effective notes in the dark.) Eli must keep it because of his mission. Along the way Eli explains why the Bible is important to Solara, a young woman who is drawn to his sense of mission and devotion to the book. Explaining that since the last war, all Bibles have been routinely destroyed and that, “some say it [the Bible] is what caused the war,” Eli lovingly wraps the book in a cloth before secreting it in his ubiquitous backpack next to his machete. At this point I could feel the social commentary pressing hard upon me. The Religious Right would love nothing more than to force Armageddon on the planet so that they might go to their wonderful fantasy-land in the sky. Their misreading of the Bible has caused wars in the past and will likely cause them in the future.

As Eli loses the Bible to Carnegie and continues his mission empty-handed he explains to Solara, “I’ve been protecting it [the Bible] so long that I forgot to do what it says.” Again the social commentary was evident as news headlines continue to push hot-button conservative political issues where the heart has been cancerously eaten from the Religious Right and the Bible as idol becomes more important than what it actually says. When Eli brings his mission to its conclusion, however, the viewer is presented with an entirely positive view of the Bible. It is the symbol of civilization in a world of anarchy and Solara marches off as its acolyte into a hostile world as the sun sets in the west.

What is truly remarkable about this film is that it presents the Bible in a way that would make its study cool again (if it ever was). For those of us who’ve spent a lifetime shying away from telling others that we have spent our lives learning about the Bible, we might now walk into the glaring sunshine and have others step back in reverence for our selfless efforts to benefit the human race. Well, at least once the apocalypse is over.

Theophagy, Or How do you Like your God?

Ancient folk did not always want to be close to their gods. It really depended on the kind of god you worshipped. In a gross characterization we might suggest that ancient Assyrians and Babylonians preferred to keep their gods at a cautious distance unless needed. Mesopotamian deities (like their environment) were (was) unpredictable and capricious. And with moody gods, distance is on your side. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, with their steady and regular flooding of the Nile, felt that gods were friendly and helpful. It was good to have them near ⎯ indeed, as close as possible.

When it comes a step further than being close to a god, the options seem to be inhaling or ingesting a deity. Inspiration (breathing in) is a familiar enough religious concept today, as is theophagy, or eating deity. Theophagy is a regular practice in many branches of Christianity that believe in transubstantiation or consubstantiation. During these Eucharistic events, the communion elements are believed to either transform into or go along with the body of Christ. Christianity traces this concept to that of animal sacrifice where God was thought to consume the animal (or in very early culture, perhaps the human victim). Somewhere along the line the concept was reversed so that God could be consumed.

In preparing for my mythology class, I was reminded of Hesiod’s Theogany and the story of Cronus eating his children. This episode, dating from the eighth century B.C.E., has a jealous Cronos trying to prevent a takeover on the part of his kids by the extreme parenting measure of swallowing them. Not to worry, however! Zeus manages to be born on Crete and is able to free his siblings from the gut of his dysfunctional father. Cronus’ intention was to stop the gods by eating them while today theophagy is an attempt to absorb the deity. Ancient religions give us insights into modern religions, but only with a generous dose of evolution. It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish by interacting with the gods.

Cronus has a little snack

Proselytizing Phylacteries

Two related stories appeared in today’s newspaper, both of which concern the Bible in public life. A commercial airliner was forced to undertake an emergency landing in Philadelphia while en route from New York to Louisville, Kentucky yesterday because of terrorist concerns. The cause for alarm? A Jewish teenager’s use of his tefillin in public. Often translated as “phylacteries,” tefillin are prayer boxes worn on the arm or forehead during prayer in some sects of Judaism. This idea is not really obscure if someone has basic religious training. People on the US Air flight, afraid that the scripture-bearing artifact might be a bomb, had their lives disrupted while the boy calmly explained what he was doing. After landing, TSA officials came aboard, just to make sure. That’s a comfort! TSA officials seem unable to spot a real bomb but take a more than academic interest in a boy saying his prayers. Perhaps reading a Chaim Potok novel should be required training for TSA service? As my wife observed: what if someone took out a rosary or a crucifix? Would the flight be diverted to van Helsing’s residence? The level of this religious ignorance belies the grumbling in my post yesterday. Religious study is vitally important in an increasingly global society.

Is this phylactery da bomb or what?

The second story, again courtesy of my wife, was first run on MSNBC earlier this week and reprised in the paper today. Trijicon, a major defense contractor for the U.S. military, has for years been stamping Bible verse references on its rifle scopes. Concerned citizens, perhaps after watching sniper Private Jackson quoting the Bible in Saving Private Ryan, have raised concerns that Bible verses on rifle scopes constitute proselytizing. In Muslim countries, after all, those who have been shredded by a bullet before they ever saw their assaultant might be tempted to convert if they ever glimpsed the rifle scope and saw the Bible emblazoned on it.

Today’s story indicates that Trijicon has agreed to provide “Bible verse removal kits” to the military so that the verse references might be easily erased. What is so sad about this situation is that no one seems concerned that the maker of lethal weapons adds Bible citations to their products. The purpose of these devices is the killing of other people. The Bible seems an odd choice of supporting literature for this cause. Well, maybe not. The Bible knows how to call down the wrath of the Almighty on enemies as well. And the Bible gives instructions on how to pray with a phylactery. These stories demonstrate as clearly as possible how selective reading of the Bible leads to hypocritically varying results in an overly religious, but religiously uninformed, society.

Black Job Market

An article in the paper has launched me into a curmudgeonly mood. The bright-eyed journalist, eyes full of statistics, was writing about how college graduates make one-and-a-half times higher salaries than their high school diploma holding classmates. I laughed then cried when I saw the standard salary of a diploma holder was higher than my salary with a Ph.D. My thoughts migrated to Mark Twain’s quip about “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Something is very wrong with our system.

Granted, those of us with higher degrees (especially in the humanities) do not enter the profession driven by aspirations of wealth. We do hope, however, to be able to afford to pay the rent. Instead the university world, with a casuistry that would do even a Jesuit proud, has found ways of wringing years of cheap labor out of those who are educating the next generation for those good paying jobs. It is a position that Sisyphus himself would despair to face.

When will we, as a society, fess up to what we know is true? Every industry is driven by money. Hospitals encourage surgery even when it is not necessary to bring in the extra income. Churches hit the guilt or eternal damnation buttons and cash flows in. University presidents ride around in limousines while those who are dangled along by their Ph.D.s beg for the bare minimum of fair treatment. No, I have to disagree with our affable journalist. I believe in education – it is the only way out of this money-hungry mess we’ve evolved ourselves into – but I don’t believe in education for good pay. It just doesn’t ring true.

Father Freeze

Photo credit: Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press

This picture appeared in the newspaper this morning. At a monastery in Valdai, some 250 miles to the northeast of Moscow, Russian Orthodox believers were celebrating Epiphany by leaping into a cross-shaped hole in the ice on a nearby lake. The temperature, as noted in the caption, was 18 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). What the caption did not explain is that Epiphany, at least in this context, translates as Russian for “severely clenched scrotum.” Hypothermia, the Lord is frozen! Blessed is he who comes to freeze. The ice-man cometh in the name of the Lord.

Many years ago, well into the decades mark, I was talking to a friend about the liturgical churches, as opposed to the strictly Protestant ones. She had grown up staunchly Protestant and was put off by the ceremony of the sacramentally-identified churches. In our discussion she paused and mentioned a televangelist (I can’t recall which one; they all look alike after a while) who had agreed to ride down a water-slide at an amusement park, in a full three-piece suit, if his audience would raise a certain payload of cash. Although the details escape me, it seems entirely plausible ⎯ there is little a televangelist won’t do for money! Then she said, “I can’t see the Pope doing that. I guess there is some dignity to that.” I was pleased; I had made the point that some Christian groups do not need to be in the spotlight of artificial flamboyance in order to proclaim the seriousness of their message. Shortly after that I began to work at Nashotah House.

To speculate from the photo above, there was not a large gathering of the faithful on the Siberian ice. Just a few believers in an extreme masculine Christianity dressed in liturgical underwear. Nevertheless, such displays of faith have been part of religions from the very beginning. Ancient believers used to carry their statues of gods around Babylon for a day out to remind the secular that the eyes in the sky are still watching you. When a sartorially perfect prefect steps out in all his finery, what other option is there but to drop one’s hands and stare? A favored photograph at Nashotah House when I was there featured the “Fond du Lac circus,” a gathering of such high rollers in the Anglo-Catholic corner of the Episcopal Church that even a future Russian saint deigned to show up. The event was the consecration of Bishop Weller, coadjutor of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, in 1900. As I look at the Orthodox man poised over his cross-shaped hole, I wonder if my friend had it right after all. The Fond du Lac circus haunts me to this day. What is religion without the show?

The Fond du Lac Circus

Portrait of Poe as a Young Man

An obscure portrait of Edgar Allan Poe has come to light and is scheduled to be auctioned off. Reports indicate that the watercolor painting reveals a young man without the world-weariness of the more familiar images of Poe. He may even be smiling.

Poe has long been one of my personal muses. His writing captivated my imagination as a young man, and his sense of tragedy encased a golden nobility. Although many consider his works to be juvenile, like the slightly later stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe grew to a mature sensibility concerning life that rivals that of Job. Intrigued, years ago I wrote a high school term paper about the writer and discovered a spiritual compatriot who couldn’t outstrip the “unmerciful Disaster [that] Followed fast and followed faster.” Now on the side of years beyond the lifespan of my muse, I begin to understand how a happy young man becomes a Qohelet in his time. In his personal difficulties, Poe was able to speak for many of us.

To me this young portrait is cast in the tint of Dorian Gray. The real image of Poe is that of a man given few breaks in life. A man of keen sight and keener insight. There have been thinkers like Poe from ancient times, but they are generally resigned to the depths rather than to be found basking in sublime sunlight. When Ludlul bel Nemeqi or Khun-Anup pour out their souls to an unhearing sky, they create a fellowship for latter day Poes and Melvilles and Lovecrafts. I hope the portrait of a young Poe finds a good home and the message of its subject rings as loudly as the bells.

Poe-ever Young

Important Days

A few years back, during that nightmare called the Bush Administration, a petition was going around to try to prevent the United States from going to war in Iraq. A phone petition was put in place to encourage those against the war to telephone the White House and peacefully make their convictions known. I decided to call in. Since I worked at Nashotah House, I had forgotten that Martin Luther King Day was a national holiday (the seminary did not commemorate it). I telephoned the White House from my office only to receive a recorded message stating that the offices were closed because it was “President’s Day”! I hung up astonished. Our own government did not know what day it was (in retrospect, not such a surprise —).

A couple of years later while I was working on my book of holidays for children, I recalled the incident. It still strikes me as very odd, given the importance of today’s commemoration. I am including below my brief write-up for Martin Luther King Day from my still unpublished book:

One of the few national holidays in the United States to honor an individual is Martin Luther King Day. There are only three individual based holidays – Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day are the other two. Martin Luther King Day is observed on the third Monday of January, and it had a hard time making it through the government process of becoming an official holiday. It seems like old prejudices die hard, since the bill proposing this holiday was introduced in 1968 but was not signed into law until 1983!

Martin Luther King Day is the only national holiday commemorating an African American individual. While school kids are probably just grateful for a day off so soon after the Christmas holidays, this holiday stands out as important for many reasons. Perhaps the main reason is that the United States were united around the idea of freedom, a basic right for all in this country.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929. His story of a courageous, non-violent challenge to unfair practices in the United States is an inspiration to all who care about justice. King was a Baptist minister and a main leader of the Civil Rights movement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his example of peaceful protest; King was the youngest person to have ever been awarded this honor. He was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Even so, this holiday was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.

The federal government (pay attention!), that is, the government over the whole country, has the right to set holidays. Anyone who works for the federal (national) government gets the day off. Individual states, however, can decide if they will observe the date as a holiday or not. That is why some state workers get a holiday off while those in another state do not.

The United States stands for equal rights for all citizens. King stands as a symbol for that belief and his life shows that sometimes it takes everything you’ve got to make sure that the right thing is done.

Another factoid about this holiday is that it shows just how different holidays can be from one another. Some are fun while others make us think.

Who Owns History?

Jordan has been asking for the Dead Sea Scrolls to be given back by Israel. During the Six-Day War of 1967 some of the ancient documents were absconded by Israel, according to the Jordanian point-of-view. (Nothing in the Middle East is every truly neutral or non-biased.) According to the newspaper, now Jordan wants them back.

This controversy is part of a larger trend for nations to demand “their” antiquities from foreign powers who have claimed and displayed them (in many cases) for large numbers of people to see. They are part of the world’s heritage and the modern day countries from which they emerged want them back. Why? To bolster national pride? Because of their inherent cultural value? To draw in tourist crowds who are interested in antiquities? The ownership of history is a touchy question. History itself belongs to the entire human race while individual artifacts may be stolen, purchased, or destroyed. Some are in the hands of major museums, minor museums, or in the houses of private collectors. Nations struggling for international respectability often want their heirlooms back, and this is only natural. At the same time, these nations may not have the infrastructure to preserve the artifacts securely. Think of the Baghdad Museum. When any government becomes unstable national treasures are at risk.

The Dead Sea Scrolls owe much of their public appeal to scandal. The story of their discovery and sale, rich with intrigue and skullduggery, is widely known. They capture headlines like 2000-year-old sex symbols; their chic name and aura of mystery assure public interest. As a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, however, I have always found the Ugaritic texts to be of far greater importance. Nevertheless, while living in Wisconsin some years back, and teaching at Nashotah House, I arranged a field trip to the Field Museum in Chicago where a roving Dead Sea Scroll exhibit was settled for a limited time engagement. The seminarians were excited, and we decided to make a family trip of it. My daughter was a pre-schooler at the time, and we towed her along to be acculturated. In a dimly lit room, the feeling of an authentic Middle East chaos attended the display, people wandering blindly around, not quite sure of what they were looking at (this based on overheard conversations). People wanted to be near history, even if they didn’t know why. I had seen the famous scrolls in the Shrine of the Book some years before, but it was easy to feed off the excitement. When we got home we asked our daughter what she enjoyed the most from the bus ride and day out. “Seeing the Dead Sea Squirrels,” she replied.

History involves seeing what we want to see. Nobody owns it. Everybody owns it. Who should keep the artifacts? I don’t know. It seems that history is larger than petty desires for cultural fame. But then, that is what history records — our desires to stand out from the crowd.

Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread

As my daughter’s public school undertakes its humble efforts to raise funds for the devastated nation of Haiti, contributing the little that unemployed children can raise, Rush Limbaugh unapologetically proclaims that Americans shouldn’t contribute to the earthquake relief. The New Jersey Star-Ledger notes that on Wednesday Limbaugh declared that Americans already support Haiti through their tax dollars and shouldn’t feel the need to contribute anything beyond that to the poorest nation in our hemisphere. This is true Christianity, according to the Neo-Con gospel.

Rush Limbaugh basks in the limelight as the outspoken representative of the “Gott und Ich” school of religious politics. With an estimated annual salary around the $400 million mark, Limbaugh comfortably sits back and watches the world burn around him. Together with James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who support the new, compassionless version of Christianity (Christianity 2.0), they inveigh directly into the ears of high-ranking politicians with coarse voices declaring that God wills for them to be the sole arbiters of what is right. I only hope that Americans are really listening. Really listening.

Religion has always been a form of social control. From earliest times, those who claim to know the will of the gods tell others what they need to do to placate the angry deities that hover all around. Earthquakes are the work of such angry gods. What do they demand? Listen to your local priest. America has been beset with a plague of Religious Right voices that are well-funded and so parsimonious that seldom can the gentle voice of reason be heard. While Limbaugh enjoys his enormous wealth kids who have never known anything like basic comfort are dying in the thousands in a nation right next door. And the people say, “Amen.”

Theodicy Versus Idiocy

Among the leading reasons generally given for atheism in developed countries is the problem of theodicy. Theodicy is the act of justifying God, as implied by the roots of the word itself. In a world where many innocent suffer, as well as many guilty, the question of how a loving God and divine fairness fit into such a warped and corrupted system presents questions often left unanswerable. My class tonight will be reviewing Job, a book steeped in the issue of misfortune. The best that the narrator can offer is that Yahweh made a bet with the Satan and Job came out on the losing end. Not much hope for justice there.

This week’s horrific earthquake in Haiti has elicited high levels of sympathy and support as this poorest of western hemisphere nations struggles to find some kind of balance in a reeling world. The question of where God is amid all this tragedy, perhaps 100,000 dead, pensively teeters in minds sensitive to the human condition. Other minds, however, blare idiotic platitudes that only drive mourning theists closer to the other side. Pat Robertson, a major political player who has been a card-holding member of the Religious Right from its unholy inception, has declared that Haitians are paying the price for an ancient deal they made with the devil. In a theology that makes a mockery of even the Charlie Daniels band, Robertson stated, according to MCT News, that Haiti had made “a pact with the devil.” He said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it… They were under the heel of the French… and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story.”

This drivel, based on hearsay history and implicit racism, does not justify a loving, or even neutral, God. Instead, the Conservative deity is shown in his true colors: racist, supersessionist, arrogant, and uncaring. This is the deity behind the Religious Right. Some people castigate Pat Robertson for being outspoken and perhaps senile. I applaud him. He shows clearly what intellectual rubbish the Religious Right promotes. He simply has fewer inhibitions to admitting it.

In Job, there was a deal made with the Satan. The perpetrator of that deal was Yahweh. No answer is given as to why the innocent suffer. Job is a most profound book, wrapped in a childlike story of two supernatural beings trying to show each other up. If we look hard enough we can find the Religious Right in the book as well. Their voices are those of the “friends” that Yahweh ultimately condemns when he finally speaks from the whirlwind.