Mythology is everywhere. Although I am prevented by personal experience from declaring with the professionals that it is highly valued by our culture, I nevertheless find it lurking all around. Just yesterday my daughter asked me if anyone still believed in the Greek gods any more. I am sure that with the revival of ancient cults that is all the rage today one wouldn’t have to travel too far to find an ardent devotee of Zeus or Hera. Even on a more pragmatic level, however, mythology maintains its allure. While reading a bit of Apollonius or Euripides recently I was struck at how biblical it sounded. Mythology pervaded ancient life and became woven into the fabric from which our own culture is cut. There is no escaping it.
I just finished reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. While I’m not a real fan of ergodic literature, the story has a way of luring the reader into the labyrinth of the Minotaur, an association that the book itself disavows. As a student of mythology, however, I approached the book as a decidedly non-demigodic Theseus, wondering where the twists and turns might lead. My conclusion at the end was that no one truly escapes mythology. Classed in the horror genre, the book has few frights and more than a few rest stops to ponder. If we would admit it we would see that mythology still has a tremendous gravity.
The use of mythology as the basis for literary work is nothing new. Clever authors for centuries have recast the classics into newer forms, sometimes transforming them beyond recognition. As the world grows more pluralistic, keeping in touch with our mythology will only grow in importance. It is our shared heritage, and even if far distant cultures have their own cadre of myths, it doesn’t take too long to realize that their stories, like ours, spring from a very deep pool indeed.
Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”
As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.
Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.
As one of the more flamboyant of national holidays in the United States nears, there is a whiff of discontent in the air. The North Carolina Secular Association has been sponsoring billboards that provocatively read, “One Nation Indivisible.” Those who, since 1954, have grown accustomed to reciting the “pledge of allegiance” with the words “under God” inserted after the “one nation” bit, grumble that one more icon of civil religion has come under fire. I first became aware of civil religion as a student in a self-identified Evangelical Christian college. I was astonished that the religion faculty, all believers, suggested that civil religion was not true religion at all. True religion was an inner commitment, not social bravado – often in the service of political aims. I was pointed to the writings of Richard Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and told to think for myself.
Since that time, I have kept a wary eye on civil religion. It is a dangerous force in society since few people think deeply or seriously about their religion. It fosters knee-jerk mob mentality. Civil religion is a slurry of a variety of religious outlooks, mostly Christian, predominantly Protestant, but now gaining a dose of conservative Catholicism. No one denomination would accept all its tenets as true faith, but weighed against the “godless alternatives” most conservative believers would much prefer the shallow public display of religiosity to “one nation indivisible.”
The Pledge of Allegiance was first composed in 1892. It read, “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” (That flag didn’t have 50 stars.) The North Carolina Secular Association has, arguably, simply reverted to the original formulation. In 1954, with Cold War concerns heating up and decent Americans associating themselves with Evangelical Protestant values, the phrase “under God” was added – take that you godless Communists! That other great icon of civil religion, the United States motto, “In God we trust,” was placed on currency during the battle-torn era of the Civil War. Once again, the Cold War brought it into prominence. In 1956 the Congressional Record noted that “In God we trust” should be designated as the United States motto. With the collapse of many of the Cold War threats, the fully charged civil religion front had to find a new outlet for its excessive energy. One needs only a casual glance at the American political scene to see where this insipid, lukewarm version of civil religion has resurfaced. One nation indivisible?
It has no shape. It has no brain. It oozes in where it is not wanted and wreaks havoc on the innocent people of the local community. It is in the hands of an apocalyptic clergyman. No, it isn’t the Republican Party, it is The Blob (1988). Having just watched the remake of the 1958 sci-fi film of the same name, a number of elements relevant to this blog (blob?) stood out in sharp relief. The most notable change from the original movie comes in the form of the role played by Reverend Meeker, the (apparently) Catholic priest turned tent-preaching revivalist. Of course, the whole government conspiracy plot is also new to the film, but that is best left to other blogs.
As noted in previous posts, religion and horror genres share much common ground. While it is hard to take a blob seriously – the role of Bob the blob in Monsters vs. Aliens is precisely comic relief – the idea of a crazed minister unleashing chaos is perhaps a little too believable. The real source of terror in the 1988 version of The Blob is not the monster but those who control it: the government and the church. When the government demonstrates that it cannot control the monster it has generated, it moves into the hands of Reverend Meeker. Here it rests until, after a sermon about the end of times, the reverend pulls out his jar of blob and indicates that as soon as he receives a sign from God, it will be released.
In a strange way this strange film proved prescient. The move of religion into politics was underway already in the Reagan years, but it was a threat few took seriously. It was not until W’s reign that the implications began to become clear. A religiously motivated electorate resembles a blob in significant ways. Once released it is difficult to contain, even by its creators. In aspect it is laughable, but in consequence it is deadly. It stops at nothing short of total domination. This film, which never made the impact that many horror films achieve, may turn out to be the scariest movie of its era after all.
There seems to be a can of worms lying open on my desk, released by the comments yesterday’s post engendered. I thank all my readers and commentators. The issue most pointedly thrust among the worms appears to be that of prophecy. Teaching about prophecy constitutes a large part of my meager income. And since prophecy plays a large role in many Evangelical associations not only with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and just about any other major catastrophe, it is worth exposing. In the Bible prophecy is not about predicting the future.
Prophecy was a widespread phenomenon long before Israel appeared on the scene. One of the roles prophets shared in ancient times was the declaration of outcomes to momentous events. Unfortunately that aspect of their duty easily became equated with predicting the future. Its actual milieu, however, was that ancient people believed prophets to be “effective speakers.” When a prediction came true it was not because a prophet could “see the future,” but because the spoken word of the prophet participated in the reality of the world. The belief was that the effective word came from God/a god, and therefore would be true by definition.
Apocalyptic, the familiar literary form of Daniel and Revelation, is not prophecy. Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, had influenced many ancient religions, including Judaism. Apocalyptic, like prophecy, has a predictive element. Like prophecy, however, apocalyptic has a different purpose. The books most heavily farmed for future predictions by Evangelicals, Daniel and Revelation, are both thinly veiled accounts of contemporary events of the authors’ own days. Daniel consoles Jews persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation consoles Christians persecuted by one of the early Roman emperors (the jury is still out on precisely which one). Neither book predicts the end of the world. Both, however, declare the comeuppance of the arrogant oppressor. It is here, perhaps, that the true relevance of the Bible speaks to the scars human beings inflict on their own planet and on each other.
Greed has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I like to think it isn’t petty personal greed, but the insatiable corporate variety of greed. Friends send me links to sad commentaries on the Gulf Oil Spill, an event that severely amplifies the cruelty already inherent in nature, but an event that would have been preventable were it not for greed. My friend James from Idle Musings sent me a compelling story from the UK Guardian that poignantly demonstrates how a shift of worldviews has bestowed divine approval on the rape of our planet. The very religion that began as animism, the belief in the ubiquitous divine in nature, has evolved into a Neo-con Christianity that supports free markets as surely as it believes in resurrection. If a few million animals have to die, well, their invisible, loving God sees far more than our limited sight.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the video link my wife pointed out to me last night. Here an advocate for biblical “prophecy” points out that it can not be coincidence that the day after the United States withdrew unilateral support for Israel in the United Nations Security Council was the very day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. No, the pundit declares, do not be fooled. God is punishing the United States for withdrawing support from Israel. This idea, unfortunately, draws on a morass of sloppy theology that can be historically traced to an evangelical death-wish for the planet. Barbara Tuchman, one of the most respected historians of the last century, objectively traces the story in her classic Bible and Sword. Political support for Israel was perceived as a means of forcing God’s hand into releasing the second coming. So much for human sympathy.
Coincidences continually occur. April 19 is the day that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope just five years ago. It is the day Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It is the Feast of Saint Aelfheah of Canterbury. It is Patriot’s Day in New England. It is the day The Simpsons premiered. Whether to see God’s hand in any or all of this is a matter of perspective. As is the motivation behind supporting Israel, big oil, or the second coming. If there is any name other than greed for offering political support for a nation of sacrificial lambs and spilling oil in order to hasten the apocalypse, I simply do not know what it might be.
It all started with Genesis. I’ve been reading Genesis since before I was even a teenager. When I began teaching it in a seminary setting, the age-old question of how science and religion fit together had become an insistent preoccupation. I began reading books by scientists who hypothesized that belief itself has a biological basis. Of course, there will never be any convincing those who believe since it is a chicken-and-egg style argument whether the body has “faith structures” because God put them there, or if we believe in God because our bodies grew them. One thing seems fairly certain, humans are “programmed to receive” what has been labeled “divine input” through the very bodies we’ve evolved.
Last night I finished reading Dean Hamer’s The God Gene, the latest in a long series of such books I’ve picked up over the years. While much of the technical and statistical information was beyond the comprehension of a simple humanities scholar such as myself, it became clear that a genetic basis likely does exist for a sense of spirituality among people. Quantifying spirituality, obviously, is a task open to long and serious debate, but the general traits of spirituality are nevertheless instantly recognizable. If those recognized as spiritual share characteristics uncommon among the non-spiritual, that itch should be telling us something. Hamer tracks the culprit to the gene VMAT2, responsible in some way for the monoamines that trigger spiritual experiences. He displays the evidence for how he drew this conclusion in a scientific way, being careful to note that genetic predisposition to spirituality neither proves nor disproves God.
Since the traditional Judeo-Christian name for God consists of four letters known as the “tetragrammaton” and since the “God gene” also has four letters, VMAT, I wonder if we’re onto something here. God can’t be measured in the lab (yet), but the “receptors” for God can. Others scientists have analyzed “God nodules” in human brains that seem to react to spiritual influences. As long as religion does not object to the laboratory probing of its sacred cows, we may eventually find God in a test-tube or petri dish. Chances are he won’t be a bearded white man sitting on a golden throne, and the smart money says most people won’t worship him once he is found.
The internet is alive with the sounds of musings about the appropriateness of various types of scholars doing biblical research. The discussion revolves around a recent article by Ronald Hendel in Biblical Archaeological Review, a useful, if sometimes overeager, magazine. In it Hendel laments the policy of the Society of Biblical Literature, a professional group to which I have belonged for nearly two decades, of accepting overtures from evangelical groups in return for money they are able to bring in. The Society’s web page has a rebuttal and has invited discussion. I prefer to give my views on my blog – a place that I consider neutral territory.
I am not privy to the inner workings of the SBL. I have served as a chair of one of the program units in the annual meeting for several years, but I do not pretend to know the politics behind the scenes. I joined the society, like most young scholars, to find a job. Since that has never happened I have not become more deeply involved since I have no institutional base. It is clear, however, that over the past years conservatively motivated groups have felt an assonance with the Society, given that it is the gateway to academic respectability. The problem is that conservative/evangelical groups approach the Bible with doctrinal shackles firmly locked in place. Fearful of angering their image of God, there are questions they simply can’t ask. Secular or unaffiliated scholars are free to go wherever they believe the evidence leads. In the job market, the evangelicals are better placed to find work. In the wider academic world, however, their work is suspect.
Little did I realize as I laboriously worked away on my dissertation that many evangelical scholars flock to the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, providing, as it does, a way to avoid critical interaction with the Bible. They may thus become “Bible scholars” while leaving the confessional virgin Holy Writ intact. I entered ancient Near Eastern studies to get to the bottom of it all – to explore the origins of the Bible itself. All of us end up interviewing for the same jobs.
At the end of the day what it comes down to is an issue I’ve addressed before: who has the right to interpret the Bible? The answer often distresses scholars. It does not require a Ph.D. to read and interpret the Bible. Most times an advanced degree is a decided liability. A friend has recently pointed out that scholars write for scholars, intent on demonstrating their erudition while losing all public credibility. I’m not sure where the debate will end, but when it’s over not a ripple will be felt among the general public. The Bible will continue its reign in American society unchallenged.
Nancy Gibbs’ essay “Creation Myths” appears in this week’s Time. Leaping off from Craig Venter’s “creation of life” in the laboratory, Gibbs asks who the final arbiter might be in this world we’re creating in our own image. The more I ponder the question, the more I realize that no person really decides how far we will go and the implications will only grow more and more unanswerable. We all attempt to construct the world according to our idea of how it should look; it is not a question of if we create the world in our image as much as it is whose image will prevail. As I noted in a recent post, no one person has all the answers. What each of us does impacts all the others just as a wave influences everyone in the sea. We fear science taking the prerogative of creating life because we are fully capable of imagining where it might go, but we just don’t know.
As an individual who has often been on the receiving end of other people’s visions of how this or that institution or company should look, it is my humble assessment that we have already lost control. We never really had control in the first place. At the end of the day, who will really be able to prevent another Gulf oil spill from occurring? Make what laws we will, other creators will find ways around them. And as in Gibbs’ article, the rest of us will simply have to react. No one is really in control.
Perhaps this is the real reason that religion is so appealing. It is terribly, terribly convenient to have an omnipotent divine entity on whose anthropomorphic shoulders we might cast our worries and burdens. Whether we believe in predestination or not, it is comforting to suppose that when it is all over God will somehow sponge up all that oil (preferably squeezing that sponge back out into BP’s great, sturdy tankards of crude), or stop that evil clone we’ve engineered, or stomp out that hyper-aggressive virus we’ve unleashed. We may make laws against creating life or human clones in the laboratory, but it will happen nevertheless. Gibbs wonders if scientists are about to cross some moral Rubicon. My answer is simple: we crossed that Rubicon long before the river itself flowed, when we first put our webbed feet out onto dry ground and began our still uncertain journey to the future.
Perhaps for abject fear of paganism, western civilization has avoided holidays associated with the summer solstice. Being the lightest day of the year in a frequently dark northern hemisphere, it was naturally a time to celebrate the victory of light over darkness. While the winter solstice insinuated itself into the complex of Christmas holidays and Easter became intricately intertwined with the vernal equinox, the summer and autumn holidays were rejected.
This neglect of the powers of light coincides to some extent with the orthodox Christian rejection of Gnosticism. The Gnostics, able dualists like their Zoroastrian predecessors, celebrated the victory of light over darkness. Remnants of their theological outlook survived in the canonical Gospel of John and the always questionable Revelation. Ancient societies throughout the world recognized the summer solstice because, regardless of its name, the sun was acknowledged as a powerful deity. On this day the sun is at its height of strength, banishing darkness for longer than any other day of the year. It is a day not to waste.
Christianity has preserved some minor holidays for the summer season, but with the advent of a leisure-based society where summer is a time to take it easy, if not cease work altogether, the solstice lost its grip. Perhaps because light is so abundant already in the longer days as winter wends its way into spring and summer and lingers pleasantly until the vernal equinox, summer itself is simply holiday enough. Those adhering to the ancient religions nevertheless gather at sites like Stonehenge and Maeshowe, or even Egypt’s famous pyramids to consider the unending influence that our special star holds for its most imaginative planet.
Father’s Day is a “holiday” I treat with great ambivalence. Having barely known my own father, I applaud those dads who devote enough time and energy to their kids to earn a day of recognition. On the other hand, in a society that continues to foster privileges for men in the market and labor worlds, I wonder if men need their own holiday. I suppose one must separate “father” from “men,” since the day is the celebration of an ideal rather than a gender.
“A good man is hard to find,” so the old saying goes. Maybe that’s why there was never a father’s day in the ancient world. Anyone reading the ancient myths, the way that many fathers behaved, well, it’s no wonder they weren’t celebrated! Cronos, in some traditions Cybele’s husband, actually ate his own children. Not much of a motivation for celebration there. Were the gods made in the image of the metaphorical fathers?
In the United States the first Father’s Day was observed in Fairmont, West Virginia in July 1908. It has been suggested that a mine disaster that had killed over 350 men nearby was the inspiration for the day. About two years later in Creston, Washington, Sonora Smatt Dodd celebrated her father who’d raised six kids mostly by himself. President Woodrow Wilson was famously celebrated by his own family, and President Calvin Coolidge proposed the holiday in 1924. An early supporter of Father’s Day was the politician William Jennings Bryan, famous for his stand on what he understood as family values. President Lyndon Johnson set the day as the third Sunday in June. Father’s Day only became official in 1972, under President Richard Nixon. Still, it seems to be a day established by men for men, smacking a little too much of the self-congratulatory.
Back before cell phones were invented, Father’s Day was the biggest day of the year for collect phone calls. Perhaps that phenomenon is the essence of the holiday. From those to whom more is given, more should be expected.
I don’t own an iPad or an iPhone. I even have to confess to being bored with the internet on occasion. Perhaps my interests are too antiquated for the electronic age. So when I saw that an Italian priest had developed an application to allow priests to celebrate Mass I knew that the brave, new world had attained a heretofore unfathomable high. Instead of laying a missal on the altar, priests can now “double click” to the appropriate rubric with an iPad next to the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the temptation to surf the net during Mass must be overwhelming at times. When I look out over my university classes and see a sea of laptops, knowing that university wi-fi is everywhere, I am sure they are somewhere far, far away from Numbers or 2 Chronicles. Perhaps they are checking out what is going on in Mass? A couple years back iBreviary came out for those who need the daily offices on the fly. Convenience and worship, however, were never intended to go together.
I spent this morning in a used bookstore. Some of my favorite places are among old books. The knowledge they hold doesn’t freeze up on you or crash. And often it is easier to find since you don’t have to search for exact terms in an ocean of information so vast that even intellectual whales couldn’t navigate it. Upgrades on iMass are expected to be available soon. The content, however, will remain the same as that rolling off the press in hardcopy after Vatican II. How long will it be before virtual communion is available so that commuters can partake without ever taking their hands off the wheel?
I’m not overly nostalgic for a guy interested in ancient history. I tend to look at the more recent past as a via negativa for the young who might make a difference today. Very occasionally, however, aspects of society were handled better back in the 1960s and early 70s. One of the most obvious instances of a more sane society was the segregation of politics and religion. Prior to the rise of the “Religious Right” as a political machine the religious convictions, or lack thereof, of politicians played little role in their campaigns and American culture itself was much more open. A story from today’s MCT News Service illustrates this all too well.
In an article entitled “In S.C., religion colors gubernatorial race,” Gina Smith reports on the various religious slurs that now pass for political campaigning in that state. “Raghead” (for a former Sikh), Buddhist, Catholic, and “anti-Christian Jewish Democrats” are among the aspersions freely cast by those without the sin of a non-evangelical upbringing. As if only Fundamentalists are capable of making the right political decisions. As if Fundamentalists ever make the right political decisions. Fundamentalism is a blinding force on the human psyche, and those who are misled by religious leaders who claim unique access to the truth are to be seriously pitied. Conviction that those most like you are to be trusted most may be natural, but dogged belief that pristine morals accompany any religion is glaringly naïve.
The American capacity for belief in fantasy worlds is in the ascendant. No matter how many times Fundamentalists or Evangelical politicians are arrested or forced from office for the very sins they rant against, their overly forgiving constituencies come flocking back to them. Commit the sin of being born Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, or Catholic and no quarter will ever be offered. No, I have no desire to go back to the 1960s, but I sure wish politics would.
Yesterday’s news carried the story of Gary Brooks Faulkner, self-appointed Osama bin Laden hunter. Faulkner, on his third trip to Afghanistan, is described as “extremely religious” and “highly intelligent” by his sister. Equipped with night-vision goggles, a pistol, sword, and “Christian texts,” according to the New York Daily News, he plans to behead bin Laden by the power of his (Faulkner’s) faith. Faulkner is fighting kidney failure, a disability he apparently shares with bin Laden, and although he appears to be dying Faulkner said, “God is with me, and I am confident I will be successful in killing him.”
It is hard not to admire a person so driven by conviction. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine Jesus instructing his followers to lop off somebody’s head. The incongruity between the insistence of forgiving and loving one’s enemies and the more direct approach of beheading is a wide gulf indeed. At what point does religion become revenge? Is doing unto others as they have done unto you the corollary of its better known anastrophic sibling? Beheading is one of the most degrading forms of execution – although all forms of capital punishment raise serious questions in classical Christianity. What happened to turning the other cheek (neck)?
The image of a lone-ranger mercenary wearing night-vision goggles while toting a 40-inch sword is painfully ironic if not downright reminiscent of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Flying planes into buildings out of hatred for theological differences is even more ridiculous. If people could keep their religious hands to themselves the world might become a much more humane place and the daily news might become just a tad less colorful.
Jesus has been having a hard time lately. Just last month he was hit by a car, and on Monday night lightning struck a second time. Literal lightning. A touchdown-style Jesus in Monroe, Ohio, formerly six stories tall, received the paragon of divine punishments in a Midwest thunderstorm. Struck by lightning, the fiberglass and plastic foam savior melted leaving only an eerie, Lovecraftian idol of a steel frame behind. The statue had adorned the Solid Rock Church in Monroe since 2004. According to MSNBC many motorists said that America needs more symbols like this; God apparently disagrees.
Former Touchdown/Quicksand Jesus
Obtrusive religious symbols dot many high hills and adorn many quotidian highways as signs of the donors’ faith. Lawrence Bishop, horse-trader-cum-pastor, and his wife Darlene made a substantial investment in this eviscerated Touchdown Jesus sculpture. As a camp counselor in my youth, I slept in the shadow of the great steel cross of Jumonville in southwestern Pennsylvania. The 60-foot tall cross is lit at night and is visible in three states. The monolithic cross always seemed incongruous with the blackened roasted weenies and gooey banana-boats we managed to choke down. Staring at its gleaming whiteness by night was an epiphany to many.
With the rainbow seal of approval
When my wife and I lived in Scotland some years ago, a terrific wind-storm blew through. In itself that was nothing uncommon, as any Scot will tell you. Wind gusts in this storm reached about 140 knots (160 mph), causing widespread damage. In an interview on the BBC, the sexton at one of Scotland’s cathedrals (time has robbed me of the details) recorded seeing the wind topple a statue of Jesus atop the building. He quipped, “I looked up, saw Jesus coming down, and ran for my life!” Although the exact location escapes me, the words have taken on an unexpected significance as icons crash down all around me. The demise of “Quicksand Jesus” is simply one further reason to avoid trusting in anything less than solid rock.