Friday’s Wednesday

The ultimate stag party?

Mythology never ends. Many people live by it today under its name “religion,” and many in the ancient world endlessly recycled their gods until they ended up looking rather unrecognizable from their earlier forms. I was, therefore, intrigued when a friend asked me about Herne the Hunter. Herne is a mythological character about whom I had not heard. The earliest reference to the stag-antlered deity comes from William Shakespeare, and he has been co-opted by the Wiccan community, nicely tying together many of this week’s posts. So, whence Herne?

Shakespeare seldom invented ex nihilo, but rather adapted. Herne, already an established character, was a wrongly accused poacher who was hanged from a great oak in King Richard II’s England. He had been magically revived after a near-death experience earlier in life and had been crowned with fantastic antlers at that time. The horned head has reminded some Celtic mythologists of Cernunnos, a horned chthonian god attested in mainland Europe but not found in the British Isles. Yet others, by virtue of his being hanged on a tree and the similarity of his name to the epithet Einherjar, suggest Herne may have evolved from Wotan, or Odin himself. Woden was involved in the “Wild Hunt” episode of northern and central European mythology, and since Herne is a hunter, well, isn’t the connection obvious?

Such tales as this are instructive of the way that religions evolve. We know very little of the true origins of the story, but later versions become canonical. The present-day version is perceived to be “historical” and all others are merely coincidence or happenstance. Today Herne is a typical ghost story of Windsor Forest, and those who report seeing him say he still wears his supernatural horns. Those who want to discover his origins are left with a handful of books by publishers of the occult and hundreds of unanswered questions.

Zoroastrian Odyssey

Clinton's Red Mill

Clinton’s Red Mill is a popular New Jersey attraction, but numerous reports of paranormal activity have thrown an additional lifeline to the museum in the form of much-needed revenue in the form of seasonal ghost tours. Last year about this time my family and I participated in one. Touring the old grounds at night can certainly lead to spooky experiences, even for those of us who sit on the fence about ghosts. We discovered that The Atlantic Paranormal Society, the “TAPS” of Ghost Hunters fame, had investigated the Mill the previous year. We watched several episodes of the popular show, and for a lark, my wife bought me a subscription to TAPS Paramagazine for my birthday. All in good fun. I always thumb through when it arrives, but it is hard to take much of it seriously.

The last issue (volume vi, issue 2), however, contained an article about Demonology. Now, I thought I had graduated from The Exorcist and the Exorcism of Emily Rose to a healthy skepticism, but I could not resist reading this article. The first statement declares, “A demon is a fallen Angel that rebelled against God along with Satan, refusing to be humble before, and serve, God” (Adam Blai). While I never make light of things I don’t understand, I did consider the fact that the concept of demons, which derives from a Judeo-Christian mythology, presupposes a mythic war between the powers of good and evil. At the same time, I have been reading up on the Zoroastrians, one of the oldest continuously practiced religions in the world. There can be no serious doubt that the Judeo-Christian tradition borrowed the concept of the demonic from their Iranian neighbors of the ancient Persian Empire.

A Zoroastrian fravashi

The implications of the Zoroastrian connection are profound. If the ancient sage and Afghani priest Zarathustra was correct about the dualistic conflict of good and evil, was he not also right about Mithra and the Amesha Spentas as well? Zoroastrianism gave the Judeo-Christian tradition its base concept of Heaven and Hell, but the divinity of fire they did not accept. By picking and choosing what fit best into its experience, Judaism developed into a religion that allowed for Christian demons and angels and all the invisible hosts of the ethereal realms. Today many Christians accept demons as literal beings (less so jinns, although Clash of the Titans (2010) allowed for them). What does this say about the remainder of Zoroastrianism? Perhaps Ghost Hunters should begin with the Gathas and move on to the Avesta? As for me, I’ll be over here, sitting on the fence.

Bible Myths

The Bible is the most quoted book never read. That is, many people love to quote it without actually reading it all – yes, even Chronicles and Leviticus! The result is that the Bible itself has become a thing of mystery, a magical source of divine power with which the strong may subdue the weak, or by which politicians might win the most powerful office in the free world. The Bible is more dangerous than any weapon its believers may construct, for it is the source of the mandate, the writing that is so much more than ink and paper.

Over the years so many myths have grown about the Bible that it has become a mythical creature. Students often approach those of us who teach the Bible with amazing stories that defy explanation, or sometimes, that are just fun. This past week a student paper waxed eloquent on how the Bible physically describes Satan. It does not. The Bible tells us very little about what anyone looked like! One Bible myth that I have tried unsuccessfully to substantiate or debunk over the years, however, continues to elude me. It is the story of Psalm 46 in the incomprehensibly influential King James Version.

The KJV was completed in 1611, and William Shakespeare died in 1616. There is no evidence that Shakespeare was among those with any responsibility for translating the Bible, but his influence in England in his own lifetime was enormous. Many years ago a student informed me that Shakespeare made his way into Psalm 46. The forty-sixth word of the KJV translation is “shake.” Counting from the end of the psalm to the forty-sixth word from the end, one finds the word “spear.” So the gematria of the psalm give us the name of the putative translator. This story has all the signs of an apocryphal account of a Bible reader with too much time on his or her hands. If the story is true, I would love to see documentation. Otherwise it is one more monument of the power of book that few dare to read.

More than the sum of its parts

Co-opting Hecate

Students in my mythology class had to research and write about a deity from the ancient world. I was pleased that one of them chose Hecate, a misunderstood goddess of obscure origins. Hecate overlaps with other deities in her spheres of influence and her many roles, a sign that she was an early goddess adopted into the Greek pantheon at a stage before Artemis, Selene, and Persephone took over her connections with the moon and underworld. She was a guardian of crossroads, a task later attributed to Hermes – a god who also became a psychopomp. Hecate was left to languish in Hades where she became associated with gloom and magic and baleful spells.

What the Hecate?

It is likely the latter developments that have brought Hecate into the status of patron goddess of many Wiccans. She is chthonian – a right jolly old Goth – and she takes on a bad-girl image that would not have been recognized by the ancient Greeks. Even Shakespeare contributed to her witchy-woman image when he associated her with the weird sisters in Macbeth. Revitalized as a symbol of feminine power, Hecate enjoys such popularity today that it is difficult to find reliable information on the goddess.

I find it instructive that ancient goddesses are so embellished to make them tasteful to modern explorers. Perhaps because of the persistent patriarchality of ancient society, we have been deprived of deep knowledge of the goddesses. For those who originally worshiped them, however, the goddesses needed no blandishments. They were the personification of divine power manifested through the feminine. Ancients believed that all people were touched by supernatural forces, no matter what their gender. In a brash demonization of the powerful feminine, Hecate has become the goddess of witches and seekers after a female image that simply never existed. Why not accept goddesses for who they were – constant reminders that life is not possible without the divine feminine?

Weather Religion

Byline: Yazoo City, Mississippi. Event: major tornado. Suspects: God. In the face of any tragedy, whether it be killer tornadoes or Christie’s budget, God is always implicated. It is the white god’s burden of monotheism. I am the last person to make light of tornadoes. Many a nightmare and sleepless night in Wisconsin were haunted by the loud, roaring gusts and twisted detritus mangled by apparently willful winds. Erratic fluid dynamics of violently spinning vortices of air are often chalked up to the divine. No less so in Saturday’s tornado outbreak.

An Associate Press article begins, “One prayed to God under a communion table as his church was blown to pieces around him.” The article goes on to note that a ravaged hymnal lay open to the page with “Till the Storm Passes By,” as if there were a divine message inscribed on a chance event of nature. One of the hardest lessons to accept is that nature cares nothing special for our species and that we are offered no guarantees in life. This is one of the reason religion is so powerful: here the faithful find divine-bound guarantees of at least a peaceful afterlife if the present life is torn apart by storms both physical and metaphorical. It is hard to struggle without an assurance of final victory.

I have contended for years that the association of the divine with the weather is intimate and tenacious. The weather has eluded human control well into the space age, nuclear age, and technological revolution. We still can’t stop the rain on Sunday’s picnic or festival. And so we pass the weather on to the CEO in the spiritual chain of command. God controls the weather, while we crouch under rickety communion tables. There is a deeper lesson here, for those willing to sift through the rubble.

Nightmare on Church street

Militant Evangelists

It is not often that the military gets to rebuke an evangelical, no matter how much the evangelist may deserve it. In the world of Christian crusaders few come close to the stature of Billy Graham, a man who has had more than half a century of undue influence on American culture. At a library book sale a couple weekends ago a middle aged-couple hovering over the religion books (where I have professional obligations to hover) were discussing how they’d read all of Billy Graham’s books. When the family business passed to Franklin Graham, however, the scepter failed to be firmly grasped by the blushing co-regent. At the center of controversy since his comments about Islam beginning in 2001, Graham the younger was recently stricken from the (apparently) prestigious Pentagon prayer service roster.

I have to admit that I was surprised to learn that the Pentagon has a regular prayer service. My image of the military is one of beefy guys (and some gals) with ultimate confidence in their weapons and more than enough brashness to go around. They don’t project the down-on-your-knees-before-the-almighty image. “Guided by the beauty of our weapons,” as Leonard Cohen once sagaciously quipped, the military gets first crack at technological advances and heavy metals. The basic components of carnage and devastation. Yet they pray.

The old adage that there are no atheists in fox-holes glosses military service with a divine prerogative, so when these tough guys rebuff a famous evangelist there must be a story behind it. The military’s refusal to dis Islam displays a sensitivity uncharacteristic of most evangelical rhetoric and theology. The Religious Right’s revisionist claims that America was founded as a Christian nation are impotent without their WMD. Even so, the program should continue. “I don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up,” do you?

When Enola Gay comes to play

Mother’s Day and Earthquakes

It is Earth Day, a holiday that all the world should join hands to celebrate since it is secular and concerns all people. Except the religious. Theologies are inured to common celebration; any admission that others might be right is a chink in the implacable armor of conviction. So it was not such a great surprise when an Iranian cleric this week blamed Iran’s earthquakes on women. Fuming like Eyjafjallajokull, the imam cited immodesty on the part of women as leading men to temptation and the very earth whose day we celebrate shakes in rage. Why it is that the burden to prevent sexual temptation should fall on women alone is unfathomable. If men have such trouble controlling their urges perhaps they ought to explore real estate on Mars, although it is doubtful they would be happy there.

The earth, our common home, was conceived to be female by many ancient societies. The Greeks of the Classical era called her Gaia and gave her the honor of being the earliest deity to emerge from Chaos. In the Bible, desexed and depersonalized, the earth was constructed on the first three days before any living inhabitants cluttered its pristine surface. With the drive of Christian conviction that this unruly mother should be subdued under human dominion the industrial revolution began a process of disrobing and dismembering Gaia, an impersonal “it” to be exploited. The Bible could be cited as demanding such action; we were commanded to take control. And our religions provided the ethics to underscore our mandate.

If not for the second great awakening in the 1960s, Earth Day would never have found its fundamental expression. We would continue subduing and dominating, as per Genesis 1, until the great white man above would be forced to send his son on a great white horse to end it all. But the earth is our mother. The missing woman from the all-too masculine Trinity. Instead of blaming her daughters for the unstoppable lusts of her sons, and instead of repeatedly defiling her to keep up with the Republicans, we should take a moment today to honor her. She is the only such mother we have.

Son, behold thy mother.

Trite Lite

Fresh out of that improbable world called Nashotah House, I was introduced to a jarring concept while in Oshkosh: a Hasidic rapper called Matisyahu. The strange image brewed in my head did not match the reality of this persona, but the very concept of a religious conservative engaging in protest music just didn’t seem to fit. I make no claims to musical expertise, but I did grow up in the 60’s and 70’s, and I know authentic protest when I hear it. Rap began as a countercultural rebellion, and I knew age had its gray fingers wrapped around me when a friend in grad school claimed that rap was “the end of civilization as we know it.” Civilization didn’t end, it simply evolved.

Rap started to become mainstream, as happens to all radical movements when they become “cool” and the aging performers join their aged fans. Then along comes Hi-Caliber, the pathetic Republican attempt to appeal to the hip, the young, the impressionable. The Tea Party rapper (Zac the Rapper?) inveighs his tired message that progress is bad, privileging the wealthy is good, for the Bible tells me so. And the public sips it in. As a person who can’t help but overthink things, it alarms me how trite answers are easily accepted by so many people. If a person stops to think about the implications of issues, the simple solutions proffered by Tea Partiers simply don’t solve anything, no matter how many rappers, twitterers, or ravers they get on their side. Rather than exercise mental rigor, most voters see the shiny glitz and pull the voting booth curtain. Perhaps my friend was right after all.

I have to face the fact that I’m aging into a guy who casts a nostalgic, longing glance back to the sixties of my youth with a sentimental eye. The cardboard-cutout world of the 1950s seems that it was insubstantial, staged even, compared to the psychedelic colors I first saw through childhood’s wondering gaze. I heard protesters on the radio and saw them on television while being raised in a conservative environment. And even though I never personally rebelled, being the Bible-reading type, I secretly admired those who had the courage to challenge the social evils of the day and damn the consequences. Now I switch on the radio and hear conservative fat-cats clipping out pithy rhymes upholding the man. Where is the authenticity? It all makes me want to turn on, tune in, and drop out.

Authentic Republican wrapper

Holy Amos, Holy Micah, Pray for Us

The semesters when I teach the prophets invariably find me filled with a holy rage toward injustice of all stripes. Unfortunately there is plenty of cause for basic human indignation caused by greed, cupidity, and elitism. I see New Jersey, my current home, as a microcosm. In this little version of the universe, a highly diverse population with over-crowded highways and endless financial woes, I see reflected some of the great challenges facing the human race. When such a delicate balance is guided by a self-serving government the human cost will always be high.

Our current governor, Chris “Slash” Christie, has made himself a national reputation by cutting the basic services required to buoy up a state where the underprivileged seek an opportunity to get ahead. The governor’s favorite target, naturally, is public education. Public school and university funds have been chopped with a zeal to impress Vlad the Impaler (the governor’s children attend private school, thank you). The Associated Press today, however, reports that the number of the governor’s staff who “earn” more than six figures has nearly doubled since our last governor’s term ended. We the taxpayers are being asked to fork over an extra two million dollars to the state budget to support those who live in comfort while our children are being systematically targeted as luxuries the state simply can’t afford. When will people say “enough is enough”?

The Republican Party, since it has shamelessly crawled into bed with religious conservatism, has flouted the message of the Bible in the name of the Bible. Only by ignoring the biblical characters known as prophets, and one guy from Nazareth who went by the name of Joshua, is it possible to see any right in feathering the nest of public “servants” while stealing from the children of their constituencies. I am glad Amos and Micah are dead. If they were alive and in New Jersey they would be suffering torment beyond words.

Thoughts Off de Waal

Although Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape was published half a decade ago, the monograph remains terribly relevant. I gave some primary impressions of the book last week, but one section has remained firmly in my head and has mingled with all the harsh rhetoric in the news about health care reform in the United States. Asking the question of whether Homo sapiens are still evolving biologically, de Waal withholds his final opinion on the matter, but he points out that statistics indicate Americans are falling behind much of the rest of the developed world in terms of general health. This he ascribes to the competition inherent in a free market economy that favors the best health care only to the wealthy while the average citizen is offered substandard options. The numbers bear him out on this – he notes that on the standards utilized to measure general health, the United States is not even in the top 25 industrial nations.

With the conviction of a true prophet, de Waal notes that privatization of health care has led to a precarious imbalance in medical care in the United States, where the top 1 percent of citizens has more income to spend than the bottom 40 percent combined. This, he believes, is because we have lost sight of the altruism inherent in apedom. Although the great apes are endangered (ironically, by their overly greedy genetic cousins) their societies show no such disparity. An ape family will assist a weakened or feeble member and give it extra care to ensure that it is offered a life as comfortable as possible. They do not discard the fragile and “expendable” members. Republicans, however, wave placards trying to shout down basic health coverage for the poor.

Does biological evolution continue among the human species? Have we stopped natural selection’s eternally ticking clock? Only time will tell. It does seem, however, that the very Bible pounded by the Religious Right (health care reform’s greatest opponent) would argue that the apes got it right. We should care for the poor, disadvantaged, and underrepresented. While the Tea Party belles are busy trying to rewrite history with America founded as a Christian nation they daintily wipe their mouths on the pages of the very book they treasure so deeply and claim as their authentic heritage.

Bibles and Dolls

To celebrate my wife’s birthday, yesterday we drove to the historic Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania to see a show. The Playhouse has an illustrious history, having hosted performances including such players as Kitty Carlisle, Lillian Gish, Bert Lahr, and Robert Redford. We went to see a production of Guys and Dolls, the musical based on characters and situations penned by Damon Runyon. (My first introduction to Runyon, I must admit, was in the Alice Cooper anthem, Department of Youth.) Although we attended a performance of the musical back in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a couple of decades ago, I’d forgotten how much the Bible moves the plot along.

Naturally, any love story that involves a Salvation Army cadet will have its religious conflicts, but it is Sky Masterson’s knowledge of the Bible that drives Sarah Brown to first give him serious attention. Without the arresting power of the Holy Bible, the love interest would never have sparked. As I frequently tell my students, without some knowledge of the Bible, American society just can’t be understood. Even Sky Masterson’s real name is Obadiah (“servant of Yahweh”).

Damon Runyon was anything but a saint. His lifestyle was diametrically apposed to that envisioned by his fictionally pure Sarah Brown – a heavy drinker, smoker, and perhaps womanizer, he was a friend of crime bosses and a noted gambler. But Runyon, like most Jazz Age Americans, knew his Bible. One of his famous phrases derives from the book of Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.” From the quiet streets of an artsy hamlet in Pennsylvania to the glitzy lights of Broadway, the Bible still makes itself known. The smart money is on the one who learns to spot it.

An unorthodox sort of prophet

The Cross in my Pocket

A local woman, whom I can only assume carries a prosperity cross, has won a 211 million dollar New Jersey lottery jackpot. As I had written some months back, when I received my prosperity cross, I tried my hand at the lottery with no rewards. Having had a dream of riches a few weeks back, I again attempted the lotto, with the added ethical motivation of assisting our state’s beleaguered educational system. Still no prosperity. It seems that the divine attention was focused a few miles north and a few days late. The happy winner has gone on record (in the New Jersey Star-Ledger) as saying, “I give God all the glory for this blessing that he has given me… He has seen and knows the highs and lows of my life, and knows the good I have done, and the good I can accomplish in his name.”

This innocent statement, no doubt whipped to a froth by prosperity gospelers, reveals all the difficulty of the weekend warrior prayers for good weather. Tweaking the world in one corner, as chaos theory demonstrates, leads to disaster in another. Not that our thankful lottery winner will unleash untold evil on the world, but it is time that people of all religions stop to consider the implications of the divine bursting in upon the mundane. In my experience, when such people are asked why God chose them and not someone else, they wax mysterious and intimate that only God knows. It is part of a great cosmic secret, only cryptically hinted at in the Holy Bible.

Call it sour grapes, or the grapes of wrath, or any other viticultural metaphor, but God does not direct the lottery. Too many truly good people suffer far too much for such easy answers. Those who promote the prosperity gospel are not among the paragons of human achievement or selfless nobility. Rather they are the idols of the self-important and acquisitive entrepreneurs. I wish our New Jersey lotto winner well – I hope she will steer clear of the prosperity gospel and actually put her money to good use.

Great Balls of Fire

Gnu from WikiCommons

“I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth…” (Revelation 6.12-13a). With all the apocalyptic events of the past few days, some religious pundits are eagerly awaiting a rider on an extraterrestrial white horse with a light-saber jutting from his mouth. As the smoke from Eyjafjallajokull rises like a funeral pyre, a great green bolide streaks across Midwestern skies (landing, no doubt, near Nashotah House, among Wisconsin’s most paranormal locations), and this all follows an earthquake in China. More impressive than the snowpocalypse of this past winter, but less worrisome than the abrupt ending of the Mayan calendar.

All of this fuss reminded me of the way 1987 began. Having grown up in humble circumstances, one of my favorite pastimes was jigsaw puzzles. As my brother and I sat piecing one together on New Year’s Day while home on break, suddenly a loud boom shook our ramshackle house. Now I grew up in a small town built around a large refinery, and stories of the cataclysmic explosion that was sure to come raced through my head as my brother and I went outside to see the great pall of greasy black smoke that was certain to accompany such a disaster. We were met by clear skies and neighbors standing in a confused huddle in the streets. The news that evening reported that a fireball had been seen racing across the daytime skies of Ohio and Pennsylvania before it exploded some distance north of us. I’d just experienced my first bolide. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was an event I’ve never forgotten.

The message I take from these many natural occurrences is that humanity is small. We imagine ourselves to be gods of our domain, controlling our environment and making it more to our liking. But we are not in control. Revelation was not predicting the end of the world, but was attempting to reassert a sense of control for people suffering from a perceived godless enemy. Today we still think of such events as a sign of God’s anger. I’m not sure what God is supposed to be angry about, unless he has happened to drop in on a Tea Party and heard how his name is being taken in vain.

Hate, in the Name of Love

I knew I was in trouble when I looked up the concept “codependency” on Wikipedia this morning and read, “This article has multiple issues.”

I was reminded of an article my wife pointed out to me on MSNBC earlier this week concerning Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. My thoughts about religious freedom clash with my outrage over what may be legally classified as a religion. I’ve mentioned Phelps before, but the deeper issue here is whether freedom of religion can truly be free. Westboro is being sued (rightfully, imho) in a case that is going to the Supreme Court. His codependent hatred is causing excessive grief to the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Phelps claims it is God’s will that he spread his Gospel of Hate.

Reading Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, it quickly becomes apparent that empathy is what makes human society possible. Without our ability to feel for another, nature would lead us on a selfish rampage that would not be satiated until everyone but the alpha male was ruthlessly butchered. This seems to be Phelps’ idea of Heaven. It should be a stark warning sign when apes have better bred manners than a pastor.

Hatred and religion may form a codependent bond. Each feeds off the fear and distrust of the other, striking blindly at anything that is different, challenging, or unclear. Religion does have its noble children – those who in the name of their faith try to make life better for others. If the world were run according to Phelps’ religion, however, I would opt for life on the planet of the apes.

Ape Versus Primate

I have just finished reading one of the most important books I’ve found in quite some time: Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape. My attention was first drawn to the author when Rutgers University sponsored a talk he gave in the fall that I was unfortunately unable to attend. Simultaneously I saw his book footnoted in a text I was reading and decided to follow up on it. In addition to containing fascinating, documented anecdotes concerning ape behavior (he tells of a bonobo that attempted to help an injured bird fly!) de Waal holds a mirror up to the great apes and sees humanity reflected back. His discussion of the origins of morality makes far more sense to me than any theory I’ve seen a professional ethicist concoct. Our sense of empathy, de Waal notes with considerable evidence, derives from our common ancestor with the apes.

After discussing the understudied trait of kindness in the apes, de Waal writes: “With morality firmly rooted in sentiment it’s easy to agree with Darwin and Westermarck on its evolution and to disagree with those who think culture and religion contain the answer. Modern religions are only a few thousand years old. It’s hard to imagine that human psychology was radically different before religions arose. It’s not that religion and culture don’t have a role to play, but the building blocks of morality clearly predate humanity. We recognize them in our primate relatives, with empathy being most conspicuous in the bonobo and reciprocity in the chimpanzee. Moral rules tell us when and how to apply these tendencies, but the tendencies themselves have been in the works since time immemorial” (225).

These might just be platitudes if ample evidence did not demonstrate their veracity. Apes plan ahead, recognize fairness, and can even see issues from the point of view of others (something Gorgias Press might benefit from learning). They are clearly inheritors of the moral sense that evolution has crafted among all cooperative animals over the eons. Religions like to lay claim to the origins of morality: we behave this way because our god told us to. In a sense that may be true, but only if the “god” is nature itself and the instruction it gives is the way for a species to thrive. Caring for one another, all religions aside, is the formula that evolution presents as the most successful choice of natural selection.