The Return of Christendom

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’ Broken Dates

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?

True Colors

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.

Corporate Kindergarten

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.

Soaring ever higher

My Animal, It’s a God!

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.

Our Daily Bread

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.

A little bread shall lead them

Paranormal Prophets

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.