Well, the Internet is shaking because Anne Rice has left Christianity. Not exactly, however. In her own words, according to her Facebook page, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” For years I have observed decent people “quitting” Christianity because the name has been co-opted by intolerant, bigoted Neo-Cons who more often than not have political agendas in mind. I think the battle has been lost, the trademark name of Christianity must be surrendered to those who claim it most loudly. The meek have disinherited the earth. How many Catholic students have introduced their comments to me with “Christians say…” as if Catholics aren’t part of the club?
There was a perfectly good word for what Neo-Cons are calling themselves. It used to be “Christendom.” Harkening back to the imperial days when Orthodox Christianity ruled the East and Roman Christianity ruled the West, Christendom implied the power and the glory in its very name. Beyond a religion, it was a system of rule. The world was fine as long as everyone stepped in line to a magisterial faith that held the only set of keys to Heaven. Then Islam. Then Reformation. Then Enlightenment. The keys began to jangle amid many others on that divine keyring. Christendom seemed pretentious when there was no military might to back the strappado or red-hot iron. Christianity was but one belief system, deeply fragmented, among others.
Under the vision of James Dobson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and their minions, Christianity in its Neo-Con armor has once again become a forum for abuse and intolerance. Bearing little resemblance to the ethics and outlook of the carpenter of Nazareth, this religion would find an easy home in imperial Rome or medieval Aragon. As Ms. Rice notes, she is committed to Christ, but not a Christian. Although my impotent voice bears little weight in this overly loud and hyper-productive world-wide web, I would humbly suggest that Christendom be reinstated, instead of Christianity, to describe the Neo-Con religion. Christendom, after all, retains the imperial bearing and absolute authority the movement craves. Those, like Ms. Rice, who prefer to follow the teachings of Jesus might then have use of the traditional term of “Christian” once again.
Jesus apparently has his calendar out. Again. This time it looks like May 21 is a red-letter day (he has a predilection for red-letters too). Well, at least it’s penciled in, like many other broken dates. An unemployed woman in Colorado Springs has decided to spend her dwindling reserves on bus bench advertisements reading “Save the Date / Return of Christ / May 21, 2011,” according to CNN. She states in the interview that she believes her job until judgment day is to get the world ready. She will find herself standing in the unemployment line on May 23 (the 22nd is a Sunday), more likely than not. Even more disturbing than the mostly harmless neurotic behavior of the unemployed (who am I to cast the first stone?) is the choice of Jerry Jenkins as an expert witness in the story.
Who questions a bus bench?
Jenkins and perennial Paleo-Con Timothy LaHaye wrote the “Left Behind” series that made more than a cottage industry out of repackaging Christian apocalyptic mythology into slick, science-fictionesque novels. They have more than a vested interest in promoting “and they lived horrifically ever after” scenarios. There is good money to be made by trolling the fears of the gullible. Very good money.
Our Colorado Springs prophet took her date from a billboard in Texas, a leading purveyor of rapture-mania. The thing that’s been left out of this – and many other apocalyptic episodes – is a serious consideration of the Bible. As most biblical scholars know, doomsday predictions generally derive from misinterpretations of ancient metaphors. Jesus, at least according to the canonical Gospels, was much more concerned about fair treatment of the poor and disadvantaged than he was about raining down brimstone on Babylon. Instead of spending money to warn the folks of Colorado Springs about yet another end of the world, why not donate the money to a local food bank and try to make the world a little bit better place?
Over the past year several colleagues have urged me to join Facebook. To put this in context, I am one of those dinosaurs who made it through a Master’s program without having touched a computer – all theses and term papers were typed on a typewriter. It was only with the sheer volume of written material for my doctorate that I finally gave in to the technological revolution. Since then I’ve been sucked further and further into it, always a little bit reluctantly. When I read I like to have a book or magazine or newspaper in hand. When I communicate, I prefer a conversation to an electronic chat. Well, there are advantages to the technological world, but Facebook seemed a little too much. Caving to pressure, however, I eventually gave in and became a Facebooker.
One of the things I’ve learned from the daily updates of people – many of whom I’ve not seen since high school – is just how religiously conservative many of my friends are. I get daily, sometimes hourly, news updates about what the Lord is doing. He’s a pretty busy guy. Sometimes these friends look at my blog and wonder what has happened to me. When they ask, I have to wonder how deeply down the rabbit hole do they really want to go. I’ve been a professional religionist for nearly 20 years now – unfortunately several of those years have not included regular employment, but the work it took to get here can’t be undone – and prior to that I spent nearly 10 years in school studying religion. Anyone who makes it through an advanced degree in this field and comes out with the same viewpoint as when they entered it has had their mind firmly closed all along.
Religion is a phenomenon that can be studied, just like pottery or fashion history. Once a genuinely open mind is brought to it, perspectives begin to shift. Some of my friends who are less gracious about this respond by quoting the Bible at me, as if I’ve somehow learned how to forget the Bible while earning a Ph.D. in it. What they don’t realize is that if you want to learn about your religiousness in any serious way, there will be several Rubicons to cross and some pithy snippet from Paul is not going to change that. I don’t use Facebook to announce my religious thoughts to the diverse body of “friends” on my account. I use this blog for that. Those who are truly curious about religion might learn something from someone who’s been in the biz for nearly three decades. Others are content to announce to the world what the Lord is doing through Facebook.
Ever since the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, has been under pressure not unlike the oil well itself. He has had to announce his resignation, having become the public face of the oil spill. Not an image anyone wants. Musing on the fact that he is being forced out as the head of one of the world’s largest corporations (which earns billions of dollars of profits each quarter) Hayward has stated that life is not fair. Welcome to Kindergarten, Mr. Hayward. Ask any of those millions of poor who’ve never been given a chance at a decent life and they will tell you. The lamentations of the rich are more annoying than jock itch. These guys have had it so good for so long that they’ve forgotten what it is to participate in the struggle for existence.
Not content to lament the fact that he still has an exorbitant salary within the company – being sent to Siberia is a great hardship, even if you have a mansion there – Hayward also stated that BP’s response to the tragedy is “a model of what corporate social responsibility is all about,” according to the New York Daily News. His words ring truer than he realizes. This is indeed a model of unbridled greed and utter disregard for either the planet or those who get in the way of corporate acquisitions. Yes, the response reveals what truly drives the corporate world. If the rich are left alone, they will allow life to remain just tolerable for those on the bottom.
Having learned very early that life is not fair, I have watched the response of the uncivilized wealthy to their various slings and arrows with a slurry of bemusement and rage. What separates those on top from others is their ruthlessness, not their intelligence, or, please!, their worthiness. Experience is the best teacher. I worked my way through three degree programs and earned exceptional teacher ratings for over a decade before being thrown in the unemployed slush pile. I routinely watch colleagues earn far more for doing far less while future prospects grow blacker and blacker. Oh, my heart goes out to Mr. Hayward. It is obvious he missed Kindergarten. Maybe the second-floor maid will be able to fill him in some day.
Preparing to enter the Egyptian segment of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, I always have to shift gears to their unique portrayal of the gods. Unlike the Sumerians, who preferred an anthropomorphic divine world, the Egyptians reveled in theriomorphic and Mischwesen deities. Almost earning the title of ancient hippies, the Egyptians felt a deep connection between the world and their gods – as well as living by the mantra “life, health, peace.” Their connection to the earth resulted in gods in animal form or human bodies with animal heads. Having read several attempted explanations, it still comes down to the fact that we don’t know why Egyptians mixed the divine and the animalistic.
Egypt was a culture that bloomed in harsh surroundings. Whether they fully realized it or not, their civilization was survival on the very brink of inhabitable space. Surrounded by desert, much of ancient Egypt was just that thin stretch of land within the fertilizing reach of the Nile’s flood zone. Beyond that, in the “red land,” few survived. Yet the desert is not completely barren. Animals better adapted to heat and aridity survive there. The Egyptians had an appreciation for the divine attributes of animals that are in some way more clever than humans. It is the nature of divinity to be more than human.
The Egyptian ideal of life in harmony with a fragile environment is one that the world could stand to relearn. Instead of proclaiming superiority over mere animals, they recognized that animals know some things that people have not yet learned. How better to display the mysterious power of the gods than to utilize the mystique of the animal world? Sure, a human with a beetle for a head may seem more like a horror-film gone awry than religion, but when the superiority of the scarab is realized, religion will naturally follow.
Over the weekend when my wife wanted to escape the East Coast heat wave and eat out in an inexpensive, but air-conditioned location, we ended up at the local Panera. While we were there, she mentioned that Time had just run an article about the chain because of its new, non-profit wing, the Bread Company. This store opened in Clayton, Missouri, and the store offers the option of paying what you can. Intended to help out the hungry but disadvantaged in an affluent St. Louis suburb, the customers are encouraged to pay more, if they able, to support those who can’t afford to pay. To the surprise of those on Wall Street, it seems to be working.
The article states that some wealthy take advantage of the system. No surprise there, we will always have the rich who feel the world owes them still more. Nevertheless, a successful company that offers to feed the hungry who can’t afford it – could this be a Gospel dream come true? It is easy to be cynical when the daily news feeds us a non-stop conveyor belt of corrupt politicians, CEOs greedy beyond the pale of human ambition, and the overall lack of concern among the privileged. Fat guys wearing cufflinks, jowls redolent with satisfaction, stare at the camera and inform us that they know what they are doing. Obviously.
In a nation as religiously inclined but as socially inert as the United States, it does me good to see a wealthy company offering something back to the community. The modest profits from the Bread Company are not channeled back into some executive’s already overstuffed wallet, but into community programs. I’m sure the cynical will say it’s a publicity stunt to win more customers. Perhaps so. Those who need help are nevertheless still able to access it. In a world where something as basic as bread is daily denied from many because those at the top can never have enough, it does my weary eyes a great deal of good to see any company with a modicum of social consciousness succeed.
At the suggestion of a friend, I watched The Mothman Prophecies last night. Very loosely an updated version of the collapse of the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the movie both satisfied my monster movie habit and my interest in things biblical. As a monster flick, it was satisfying in maintaining tension, never clearly showing the creature. As a representation of prophecy, it falls into the camp of Nostradamus.
Reports of the “mothman” began in 1966 and continued over the next year. It was reputedly seen near the Silver Bridge, the artery that connects Point Pleasant with Gallipolis, Ohio. After the tragic collapse of the bridge, resulting in nearly 50 deaths, the paranormal prophet was never seen in the area again. While in West Virginia last year, a friend introduced me to a couple from Point Pleasant who stopped into her store. They looked a little embarrassed when the mothman came up in conversation.
Point Pleasant's mothman statue from WikiCommons
Prophecy, in the vernacular, refers to predicting the future. Although some biblical prophets correctly intimate future happenings, mostly the image of prophets in the Bible is that of effective speakers. Prophets are individuals who participate in the reality of the world by adding their powerful words to the mix. If their words regard a future event – fairly rare in the Bible – they affect the outcome because their words have influence in the world. It is a supernatural view of the spoken (or written) word, to be sure, but it is a long cry from predictive ability. It is a matter of perspective.
Interestingly in the movie, Alexander Leek, the specialist on mothmen (apparently there are many), suggests that they see farther because they are higher in the sky than humans. In other words, it is indeed a matter of perspective. Certainly the mothman must go down as one of the oddest cryptids sighted. I give them no credence as prophets, but I will think twice before driving over bridges from now on.
Today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger reports an inter-species religious scandal that highlights the vast difference between god and dog. Last month a Canadian Anglican priest fed a dog a communion wafer. The gesture, a spur-of-the-moment reaction to a visitor who brought his dog to church (somewhat of a rarity in itself) was likely just a reflex to seeing that inevitable lolling tongue at the communion rail. Priests see lots of lolling tongues, mostly human.
In my long years at Nashotah House, where daily communion was a requirement of all faculty and students, I’m sure I consumed several pounds of communion wafer. I also received many stern warnings that this particular food item – if communion wafers can really be considered food – was unlike any other and must be treated with the utmost sanctity. Ironically, more than once I was handed a wafer by a priest with an out-of-control head-cold who’d clearly just contaminated an entire paten full of the sacrament with an eager virus. Within a week most of the student body would be hacking up an holy phlegm, not dissuaded from sharing the common cup. Despite the obvious fact that the ritual had become a disease vector, the mythology of its sanctity lived on.
The history of Christian ritual is a specialized field with experts who know the minutiae of each subtle gesture and the history of each preposition in the Anaphora. The ritual itself has become an object of worship. For some the fate of the wafer has become the fate of the world. This is mythology in action. Nevertheless, I have often received unbelievable hostility from those crowned with righteousness. As long as the right words are pronounced in the right order with the appropriate gestures, it is perfectly acceptable to stab another human being in the back.
I grew up with dogs. With the rare exception of the occasional biter, canines have treated me very well. Some on the verge of worship. If it comes down to choices, I’ll take my chances with the dog with a lolling tongue rather than with the priest with the magical bread.
In an article full of rare academic tropes and staid paronomasia, MSNBC announced yesterday, through LiveScience, that what appears to be an ancient “sex toy” has been found in Sweden. The object, of uncertain utility, is made of antler and dates to the Mesolithic era in that region. What has surprised the archaeologists is that the artifact apparently represents a male, rather than the more usual female, image. Two common ambiguities of antiquity come together in such a find: the sacredness with which the ancients seems to have held reproduction, and the fact that the way you look at an artifact is certain to express interpretations in line with the assessor’s.
Scholars of religion have long had to roll their eyes as archaeologists, particularly in Israel and “biblical” regions, unearth artifacts of uncertain function. Not knowing what this item might be, it is common for a find to be labeled as “religious.” This is perhaps a larger issue in “biblical” regions since so many archaeologist, particularly the influential ones of late last century, began their careers as biblical scholars or potential clergy. In the days when academic career mobility still actually existed, they could easily make the jump to archaeology, caring all their biblical baggage with them. Efforts to bolster the historicity of the Bible provide a special impetus to see objects as religious. Their actual function remains lost to history.
Even scholars see what they wish to see. It is a form of pareidolia, the finding of significance in what might otherwise be random noise. Is the Stone Age Swedish antler really a phallus or not? It is unlikely that the answer will ever be known. The context is ambiguous and the object itself is open to interpretation. Modern humans, with our own issues about sexuality, are inclined to snap suggestive objects right into that pattern. Even the specialists admit that maybe it is an object to knap flint, a common use of bone and antler material in ancient times. Or maybe it was intended as a thank you to the gods. Its interpretation may depend on which way you look at it.
Over the past week the Presbyterian Church (USA) has been in the news because of its overtures toward accepting gay clergy in committed relationships into ministry. While this is undoubtedly an honest approach to the issue, a disturbing subtext lies beneath the surface. That subtext, which may be practically impossible to escape completely, is that heterosexual clergy claim to have the right to “allow” homosexual clergy into “their” sanctioned leadership roles. The implied superiority is troubling. People have always found it easy to believe what suits them, the facts be damned.
Homosexual clergy is a picture-perfect example. Until society had evolved far enough to recognize that homosexuality is not a matter of choice, those who were homosexual existed in a kind of limbo. There was no lifestyle that could be displayed, just a secret predilection that could cost a person’s life if discovered. There were homosexual clergy, however, even in those days. They have very likely been part of Christianity from the first century on. In a society without the conceptual fortitude to realize that some people are born homosexual and others heterosexual – let alone the possibilities of evolution or stem-cell research – the lot of the homosexual clergy was one of pretense. There can be no doubt that homosexuality existed among the clergy, but the idea simply had no way to be delivered.
Many clergy, many of the best clergy, in my personal experience of the church, have been homosexual. Sexual orientation should make no difference in their ability to function as regular members of the clerical ranks. Only those with their eyes solidly closed can fail to recognize that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality, according to the Bible. What the early church taught was that all members should be equal. Somewhere along the past couple of millennia, however, the illusion slipped past actuality and the heterosexual (mostly male) clergy began to make all the rules. Perhaps we all have something to learn from the Presbyterians after all.
In my more optimistic moods, I like to think of myself as a literary sort. Not constrained by the narrow confines of academia’s hallowed — and often hollow — halls, I have spent much of my life reading literature. I can’t say what started me on this track; my parents were not readers and the small-town school I attended encouraged little beyond subscribing to MAD Magazine. When I stumbled onto the literary giants, I was hooked. There are still great writers I have yet to explore, but one that I only really discovered at the prompting of my wife is Mark Twain. I’d of course known who he was. In my youth I never read any of his books. Then on a fateful, if carefully planned out, trip to Hannibal, Missouri to dig geodes during my geologist phase, we were rained out. The geode farm was closed. Sullen beyond shattered rock-hound dreams, I was at my wit’s end (not a long trip) when my wife suggested we not waste the miles we’d traveled, since Hannibal was also the boyhood home of Mark Twain. While there we bought souvenir quality volumes of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Upon returning home, I read them non-stop.
While on vacation last week my wife was discussing her literary pursuits with her family and it emerged that the full, uncensored, autobiography of Mark Twain will begin its public appearance in November of this year. One of the topics to receive his attention is religion. Twain was a Christian, insofar as any Presbyterian can make that claim, but he was critical of formal religion. A quote purporting to be from his autobiography runs: “There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.” A bit caustic, but honest. When the books come out, I’ll be able to check it for veracity.
One of the things I value most about Mark Twain was his ability to hit his readers without giving away that they’d been hit. He accomplished this through a brutal honesty, often cloaked in fiction. When I explain myth to my students I tell them that it is an attempt to clarify the truth through story. Modern people tend to be fixated on historicity and sometimes miss the importance of a story because “it never happened.” If Huckleberry Finn never navigated a raft down the Mississippi, it would not affect the truth of the story or the insight of the author. It seems to me that with a writer so honest we would do well to consider what he had to say about his own religion before unsheathing our swords and rattling our sabers.
Now that my family is back from vacation, daily life is starting to regain a focus. One of the goodies my wife brought me from out west was an article from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington, newspaper. The article is actually a letter to the editor, so it should not be taken as representative of the views of the paper, or of reality, for that matter. Obviously written in response to an article I missed, the letter is concerned that “Conservative Christian” viewpoints towards illegal aliens are being ignored. With a bravado that might be termed Christian jihad, the letter writer claims that “our nation’s laws are based on the laws God has laid down.” The authorities she cites? “Beck and Palin.”
Beck and Palin would make a great comedy team were it not for their crazed intolerance. Although devoted to this dynamic duo, our writer goes one better and cites the highest possible authority, “the Lord God.” Specifically, Numbers 15:15-16: “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” Problem is, this passage doesn’t refer to the state assembly of Arizona, but of an ancient Israel that is largely the creation of the writers. The Torah, explicitly, applies to Israel, not to other nations.
Quite often in my classes I have students claiming that our laws are based on the Bible. To extent there may be a modicum of truth in the claim, but in fact, American law is based on English Common Law, influenced by, yet not taken from, the Bible. I’m no legal expert (I wouldn’t be jobless if I were), but I do take the Bible at its face value. The laws apply to Israel alone. It is a mark of how little our religious leaders have been able to educate the public that we see this ingrained prejudice masquerading as divine truth. Fair treatment is a secular as well as a religious value. In addition to doling out abuse, the Bible itself continues to be a constant victim of abuse at the hands of Neo-Con nonsense.
Reading a newspaper film analysis by critic Stephen Witty on film noir, I was intrigued by how he represents the role of the femme fatale. Most produced and directed by men, the classic noir features a dangerous woman. Noting that there are “nice girls” in such movies, Witty states, “they’re not the ones who matter, the ones as essential to the plot as that serpent is to Genesis.” Naturally, this statement evokes the image of Eve, the seductress.
Eve has been much maligned by patriarchal religions. She is a convenient scapegoat for men’s uncontrollable urges, and by making her the gateway to sin itself the male spiritual psyche is unburdened; it is all her fault. It often comes as a surprise that Genesis does not use the word “sin” in the episode in Eden. Interpretations of the tree of knowledge are not universally negative, nor is Eve alone to blame. Scapegoats, however, are much more comfortable than admitting culpability. Religions have stropped this to a high art; the masculine religious establishment can repress the feminine threat with scriptural justification.
Eve is a misunderstood heroine. She is the mother of knowledge. Genesis does not forbid the tree of life; ignorant humanity was free to live forever. Without knowledge. Eve, while perhaps under the duress of temptation, nevertheless took the initiative to find wisdom. And she has been paying the price ever since. Film noir is a reflection of life, as is most art. In a world where men like to think they have the right to rule, the woman who sees a little farther is considered dangerous. All feeble theological attempts to forbid religious leadership to women have Eve to thank for their revisionist hermeneutics.
In Ancient Near Eastern religions class, we’ve been discussing where the gods live. At least beginning with the Sumerians (perhaps earlier, but since writing hadn’t been invented, we can’t know) the gods typically dwelt on a high mountain. Older writings on Sumerian religion call this the mountain of “Heaven-Earth,” a name that conveys the point, but also misleads. The concept of “Heaven” is much later than the Sumerians, and in western religions, later than the Hebrew Bible. “Heaven” in this sense is nothing more than sanctified sky. The gods live up there, beyond all the trouble we encounter down here. The idea proved remarkably resilient, stretching through the concepts of Mount Sinai, and Mount Zion in the Bible, and Mount Zaphon among the Ugaritians. Even the Greeks found their gods on Mount Olympus.
The logic of the day was simple: no one has been up the mountain to prove otherwise, so the assertion has never been falsified. Mountain climbing is a leisure activity – in ancient times leisure was not a general expectation. Mountains were obstacles, not opportunities. In their remote and rugged heights, where humans could not reach, the gods dwelled. And, perchance someone did climb a mountain and find the wrong gods? There were plenty of extra deities to go around, so no worries there.
An element of the divine on the mountains still exists. Various tourist companies offer Noah’s Ark climbs of Mount Ararat in Turkey. Even without such support, misguided but determined groups still head to this mountain to prove the veracity of the Bible. In their own way they too are seeking god on the mountain. The problem is that we’ve climbed every mountain and not found the gods. In our cosmology the divine has been shoved out further into space. When space becomes infinite, God moves beyond infinity, always one step ahead of our ability to find him. The ancients bequeathed an undying, if evolving concept upon us when they fabricated the mountain of Heaven-Earth.
Andrew Behesnilian's photo of Ararat from Wikipedia Commons
There are sharks in the water. For the third day in a week, some New Jersey beaches have restricted access to the ocean because of sharks. As a particularly hot July trundles along, this is not really welcome news. Also yesterday, the Vatican codified revisions to its clergy sexual abuse crisis. According to an Associated Press article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, women’s ordination groups are angry because sexual abuse and the ordination of women are classed together as crimes against the church.
Venus of Willendorf
Even before civilization began, it seems, religion and sexual dimorphism were tied together. Beginning back 35,000 years ago Paleolithic humans carved female figurines. In a hunter-gatherer society where struggle for survival was the best paying job available, the execution of such objets d’art in a brutish, hostile environment reveals religious sensitivities. Stone Age humans knew something that organized Christianity forgot within its first century: sexuality is never far from religion. The Bible itself, particularly the Christian Scriptures, emphasize that celibacy is a putative gift, not something that can be learned or forced on someone. In typical Roman fashion, however, the church quickly mandated celibacy as the norm and ruled that women were the source of evil.
Nothing could be further from the indications of both Paleolithic remains and scientific thinking. Women, long the source of spirituality, were now cast aside in an arrogant aberration of earlier practice. Largely based on the angry writings of one man, the church decided that men alone should determine the eternal fates of others. Masculine men who knew self-control and who could turn off millennia of evolutionary pressures by a sheer act of will. Centuries later, and the Vatican with its own Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the church still can’t get beyond basic reproduction and sexuality issues. I would go to the beach to try to think this one out, but there are sharks in the water.