One to Tree

Asherah’s in the news again. My book on the old girl safely moldering on obscure library shelves, I figure it is my academic duty to be a staid voice of reason on the subject. The jury’s still out on her status as Yahweh’s wife – no wedding pictures have yet surfaced – and her associations with lions and snakes have always been suspect. It is clear, from the Bible’s perspective anyway, that the physical object called by the goddess’s name was made of wood. Although such a slight association does not a tree-goddess make, it nevertheless runs counter to scholarly orthodoxy to suggest otherwise.

In the Rabbinic period it had become clear that just about any tree in the right location could serve as an asherah. So it was with a double-take that I looked at the cover of my Green Bible. I began using the Green Bible a couple of years ago because of the environmental impact of the millions of Bibles printed annually. Best estimates are that about six billion Bibles have been printed (about half of which have been sent to me by various vendors as textbook options) and I was hoping to at least use a recycled book to ease the burden. Then yesterday it clicked for the first time: the Green Bible has a tree on its recycled cover.

Asherah seems to have had the last laugh. If she was a tree-goddess. The fact remains that Asherah is a difficult goddess to qualify. She may have been associated with trees, or lions, or snakes, or wisdom, but none of these things has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. She was, however, the spouse of the high god El among the people of ancient Ugarit. And the Israelites accepted without qualm that El was essentially the same as Yahweh. Did he bring his former spouse along? We don’t know. Asherah, as her own person nevertheless, is a wonderful example of the feminine divine. Too bad she doesn’t have her own book.

God's wife on the cover of his book?

Sister Christian

“They heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his woman hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden.” That’s what the verse says. Perhaps it is just one of the dangers of a literalist upbringing, but when I saw the above ad in today’s newspaper I automatically took it as a scriptural reference. There were, however, no books of Accent, Elantra, or Santa Fe (the last nevertheless being named after a saint). Genesis has become a secular word. In fact, all words are secular, but many have been co-opted by their biblical context.

Every year I ask my students what Genesis is about. Every year the first answer is “creation.” This is, naturally, incorrect. Genesis is the story of Israel’s ancestors. 39 of the 50 chapters in the book are concerned with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. The creation takes up only three chapters at the beginning. It is the Bible’s “once upon a time,” not the whole story. In an over-stimulated society, however, glib responses are mandatory. Genesis means creation and let’s just tell our kids about intelligent design and evolution and let them make up their own minds – I’ve got an important text to respond to! How far the Bible has fallen!

“Genesis” is a Greek translation of the very roughly “in the beginning” (translation issues abound here, but I’m just trying to make a point) in Hebrew that opens the book of Genesis. It was the convention in olden days to entitle books after their incipits; all fairy tales would have been titled “A Long Time Ago” under this rubric. And yet we are perfectly content, in the context of a “Christian nation” to go about misunderstanding the Bible from the very beginning. The Bible need not be understood as long as it can be thumped. And if you’re looking for a good deal on a Hyundai, why not make it biblical? Naked man and woman hiding behind the tree, however, will cost you extra.

Angry Gods

Podcast 23 concerns the concept of atonement. Related to but distinct from sacrifice, the concept of atonement is widely utilized in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This podcast considers why the idea of God as an angry God is so prevalent, and suggests how the concept of atonement might fit in this matrix.

Tuesday Mourning

A mourning dove sat on my front steps today. I weep for Shaunakaye Williams, although I never met her. The death of the young is tragedy defined. I did not know Shaunakaye, but I know that she was a young woman of great potential. She had discovered FIRST Robotics in Newark and died while in California at a FIRST competition. If it weren’t for the FIRST connection, her death might of remained unknown to me, but it would have been a grave loss nevertheless. Becoming a parent has been the most wonderful and terrifying event in my insignificant life. Since it has happened, I have mourned every death of a child of which I’ve heard. The words of comfort fail. FIRST is the most optimistic group with which I’ve ever been affiliated, recognizing and rewarding the potential of bright young minds. Shaunakaye was part of that family, and her loss is deeply felt.

In the field of religious studies, those who would justify the actions of God in a world full of suffering are faced with a daunting task. Theodicy is the most unenviable and unsatisfying aspect of the theological endeavor. Even the stalwart author of the book of Job dared not ask the great unanswerable “why?” – there is no justification for the death of the young. Often the answer is there is no answer. Job’s friends cannot accept this truth and fabricate excuses to show that God is just. God himself affirms, however, that life is just not fair.

As a race, as a species, our children are our greatest assets. Bully governors and pedophiles notwithstanding, any society that does not promote or encourage its children has already cut off its entire future. I mourn for Shaunakaye Williams, and for all those who have not been given the chance to reach their full potential. I mourn for all parents who have had to face this most terrible of afflictions. And I will never be counted among the friends of Job.

Freedom or Religion

Reform seems to be in the air. Its effectiveness varies from location to location, but what remains constant is the impact on religion. Or religions’ impacts on those dissatisfied with its application. As Syria begins to follow Egypt and Libya, a sense that the authoritarianism imposed by religious ideals is somehow flawed is sublimated in the news, yet clearly present. Regimes, be they Islamic, Christian, Hindu, or any other belief system, count on unquestioned authority to maintain control. Even the Catholic Church has been toying with reform – quietly, slowly – for any admission of change calls into question the authoritarian roots of power. Once that basis begins to crack, freedom has a chance to emerge.

In American society where freedom has perhaps blossomed most fully, there should be no surprise that a religious backlash is underway. In many ways liberty and religion stand at odds with each other. Religions make universal claims, drawing authority from none other than the One who started it all. Freedom begins at the ground and works its way up. Humans are natural followers, flock animals. Remember, Jesus said he was like a shepherd. When the shepherds apply the crook a little too liberally, even the sheep begin to plot. In many nations of the Middle East, the faithful have been kept in poverty and subservience. The Berlin Wall, however, was in the minds of the intimidated.

The United States has even backed the cause of the oppressed overseas, attempting to break up dictatorships that began before I was old enough to remember. And yet in our own backyard the Religious Right continues to make America like a western version of Syria or Libya. A nation of people under the rule of legislated morality that certain distorted versions of the Christian gospel advocate. Prevent equal rights to women and minorities by keeping the seat of power within the WASP community, although you may have to bring in some Catholics and Mormons to assist with the cause. The eyes of the world are on the Middle East, for any whiff of freedom, however faint, is cause for hope.

Corny Children

Once upon a time, if you wanted to see a movie you had to go to a theater or wait until it ran on television. This is stretching my memory back a long way, so indulge me if I only remember that four channels existed in those days, and you had to wait years for movies to appear at a time when you could actually be home to see them. Fast forward a few years and the VCR was invented. I remember being impressed that you could actually rent movies you’d always wanted to see, within reason. If you watched them too often they wore out. Then the electronic revolution came. This is all by way of excuse for why I’ve only just started to watch movies that came out in my younger years. Children of the Corn, although critically panned, was a financial success in my college days when I started watching horror movies. When I finally watched it yesterday, I realized it was a natural candidate for this blog’s running commentary on horror and religion.

What I had not fully appreciated is that the movie is a cautionary tale centering around a sacrificial cult. While the movie does have its problems, the concept of children taking the religion they hear from adults seriously runs throughout the film. Understanding gods as bloodthirsty demanders of sacrifice is a gruesome staple of all monotheistic religions. Someone’s got to die for the rest to be saved. While Fundamentalists take comfort in the substitutionary atonement of the “once for all” nature of sacrifice, in the film, the children erect crosses and sacrifice adults to “he who walks behind the rows” – a typical Stephen King kind of monster. Monster or not, the children believe he is a god.

Belief is the guy-wire for religion. The reality behind that belief is open to question, otherwise multiple religions would not exist. Children of the Corn confuses the issue by presenting “he who walks behind the rows” as a legitimate supernatural entity, one who is vanquished by a passage from Revelation. The truly disturbing aspect, however, is the complete, unquestioning devotion of the children. When children are raised in intolerant religions today, we are also planting corn that will lead to some unholy reaping in the future. Perhaps the message of the film was more trenchant than most critics were willing to admit back then. Today it is certainly more believable, given many religions’ demonstrations of their destructive powers.

Ice Father in Heaven

The Internet can be a window into the collective consciousness of a nation. In a world where even the Weather Channel invites comments on its forecast page, the outlook of many Americans is laid bare. This latest shot of winter weather on the northeastern quarter of the country is an excellent example. It is still March, the tempestuous month of the war god, so a little snow in the northern latitudes should come as no surprise. An unnamed dean at a state school here in New Jersey had just sent out an email blast the week before stating, with decanal authority, that there would be no more weather delays this year. Yesterday there was still snow on the ground after the storm. Frustrated citizens cursed – actually cursed – the winter on weather.com.

For years I have maintained that the weather is key to understanding the human perception of the divine. From ancient Sumer’s An and Enlil through classical Greece’s Uranus and Zeus, the gods unquestionably in charge are the sky gods. The guys who control the weather. In Israel Yahweh took that job description from a reluctant Hadad – aka Baal – and many people considered this a serious mistake. Don’t mess with the weather god! As the snow begins to melt once more, even those of us in the enlightened twenty-first century should be reminded that our sense of what the world should be is an illusion. Nature evolved our brains, and now our brains think they have the right to take over.

Once, back in Wisconsin, I stepped outside on a chilly June morning and saw flecks of snow in the air. It wasn’t “snowing” – it doesn’t snow in June – but there was definitely a frozen sort of precipitation hanging tentatively in the air. I was teaching at the most self-righteous of seminaries at the time, and it became clear to me, once again, that we are not in control. Among the scariest books I read in Wisconsin was Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age. I was at work on my book on weather language in the Psalms (still unpublished) and the unsettling truth drifted around me like this winter’s snows: if a new ice age settles in, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Geologists still can’t state what triggers these periodic events, or even what their timetable might be. If earth’s ice caps again begin to grow, however, I am certain that we will also see a dramatic increase in religiosity. For the gods, we all know deep down, are in the skies.

Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?

Time Isn’t Holding Us

Ancient is much more recent than it used to be. Perhaps it has something to do with the two massive earthquakes over the last couple of years that have together sped the earth’s rotation by almost three microseconds. Perhaps. A more likely explanation is that excessive technology makes us soft. We expect new toys, new tech solutions on nearly a daily basis, and with the communications revolution, we are rarely disappointed. I wonder if we’ve forgotten how to help ourselves. This is especially evident in the lack of initiative I sense among many students. Of course, I am ancient.

When exam time rolls around, the present-day student requires a study guide. When I was a student, after dodging all the dinosaurs running around the campus, I never received a study guide for a test. If a test is coming, read, re-read, i.e., study, your notes. Maybe read a textbook? Nowadays a study guide is required for that message to be sent home. And then there’s the emails. Once the study guide is distributed (electronically, of course) the emails gush in asking what exactly I mean by this or that. Since I reiterated the point endlessly in class, accompanied by a PowerPoint slide with the answer writ large, verily, I roll my eyes and drop to my three-legged stool in dismay. Can it really be that college students require detailed answers in advance for a multiple-choice test of only 40 questions? Back in my day, a multiple-choice test was a gift that felt like sixth grade had rolled around again.

Sixth grade: what's he got in his hands?

Time, since Einstein, has been relative. And since I am an antiquity, I can perhaps be forgiven for citing Supertramp’s “The Logical Song.” As a studious young man, religious from epidermis to viscera, I was sent off to get an education. Years later, kicked out of the academy for good behavior, I see the wisdom of the lackluster 70’s band: “But at night, when all the world’s asleep, the questions run so deep for such a simple man.” The lyrics are easily found on the Internet. It is simpler than walking over to the CD rack to check manually. Back in my day, I would never have even imagined skipping an exam and then asking the professor what he was going to do about it in the next class period. Email, in this instance, is easily forgotten. I’ll get back to you once I engage the electronic lock to keep out this velociraptor (if anyone can remember back to 1993).

Garden of Nede

Dystopias fit the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century a little too well. The level of disillusionment has soared since the administration of Bush the Less when an unprecedented degree of ridiculousness tempered every political decision filtering out of a Washington that has become a little too religious. So it is that the genre of the dystopia is strangely therapeutic. I first became aware of Margaret Atwood because of an introduction to the Bible that pointed out the misuse of Holy Writ in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. An allegory that demonstrates the power of religion to reduce women to mere reproductive objects is frightening enough in itself, let alone the post-optimistic view of a future of endless possibilities gone bad. Now that I’ve finished her more recent Oryx and Crake, I see that her outlook has grown more bleak, if more believable.

Like most dystopias, Oryx and Crake is filled with religious and biblical allusions. A society that does not know its Bible is easily manipulated by it. The book has been out long enough that I won’t worry about spoilers – does any dystopia end well? The basic idea is that the eponymous Crake of the title has tried to replicate Eden with genetically improved human beings. To prevent them from entering a world filled with human-inflicted suffering, he devises a way to wipe out the world’s population, leaving these innocents to carry on a genetically modified human gene pool. One survivor of the old days, Snowman (Jimmy), has to explain to these innocents what their world is about. He concocts a myth where Crake becomes a new god. Although Crake tried to modify the brains so that the “bundle of neurons” that make up God are gone, the new generation stubbornly develops a rudimentary religion.

Is it possible for humans to build a better future? I have never been swayed by the perverted notion of total depravity; people are quite capable of doing good. Our great ape cousins demonstrate that it is within our genes to produce a harmonious society. Although religions have motivated some extremely noble behavior in the past, they have also introduced heinous distortions of anything of which it might be said “behold, it was very good.” Atwood has offered us a world to ponder seriously. It is a world where humans play God and end up rotting under an unforgiving sun. Perhaps if politicians were more literate and less religious we might be able to counteract our partial, self-inflicted depravity.

Holy Matrimony

BBC Two is currently airing a series entitled The Bible’s Buried Secrets, unfortunately not yet viewable in the United States. The episode “Did God Have a Wife?” is presented by my colleague Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who did, no doubt, an admirable job. So once again Asherah finds herself in the news. The issue of monotheism is intricately tied up with how gods related to one another in the ancient conceptual world of Israel and its neighbors. Since the gods were modeled on humans, their behaviors could be embarrassingly human as well. Myths of actual divine marriages are rare, and extra-consortial affairs seem to have been pretty common. This aspect survives in the classical Greek world where Zeus’ many trysts are among his most notable deeds.

In a society like ancient Israel where marriage was a regular expectation of all young people who survived to marriageable age, an obvious mystery attends a single god. If Yahweh is male – and the Hebrew Bible seems not to dispute this point – would he not require a spouse as well? The well known Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions appear to suggest that Yahweh had a wife, and if he had the Religious Right should only rejoice since that would seal their definition of marriage forever in this literalist nation. And yet, the Bible remains decidedly mute on this point. In the end, it is interpreted that male is superior to female, again, pleasing certain religio-political factions.

Marriage in a human institution. It is a practice concerning which the Bible is strangely taciturn. In ancient times marriages (unless among the gods) were secular, not sacred ceremonies. Among a human population in danger of dying out through attrition, marriage ensured prolific reproduction. According to Christianity, even God had a kid. In a world that has changed in ways that biblical writers could never have imagined, marriage as a source for an increasing population is more problematic than it is essential. It seems that the jealously guarded definition of marriage is really just another green-eyed monster lurking in the Neo-Con closet. Maybe once Yahweh’s marriage certificate surfaces the issue of what marriage is really about will be discussed rationally.

Crossing Italy

“Poor men wanna be rich, rich men wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything” – sage words of a young Bruce Springsteen. Of course, “man” may well apply to institutions as well as individuals. According to a recent story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the European high court has ruled that it is appropriate for public schools in Italy to decorate their classrooms with crucifixes. While this may not seem unusual for the heavily Roman Catholic nation, indeed, the homeland of the church itself; nevertheless it reveals much of the nature of religion. Religions, like Springsteen’s human characters, want to take charge of everything. Partial rule just isn’t good enough in a business that deals with absolutes.

Not every citizen in Italy is Roman Catholic. Some are not even Christian. State sponsored schools bearing the insignia of the church’s glory days send a message that can be heard from the highways to the backstreets: Christianity rules! If we wheel the world around a few degrees further we will find similar rhetoric in nations like Iran, only the specific brand of religion has changed. The message is distressingly familiar: Islam rules! There was a time when the church could likely be called the only true superpower in Europe. We remember that time now as the Dark Ages.

As campaigns for next year’s elections in the United States are pumping up, we are hearing quite a bit about candidates’ religious convictions. That which used to be a private affair has become an emblem emblazoned on a flamboyant flag declaring “Gott und Ich” to the world. Worse, the religions are being used to score votes. Once in office, that religion will return to its flaccid state and politics will be business as usual. The populace, however, has trouble seeing through this. Religion is injected with such emotional freight that leaving it out of elections – or classrooms – is like abandoning a helpless infant. As they nail their crucifixes to the walls of public schools in Italy, I’ll be over here with Bruce surveying these badlands.

Origins of Sacrifice

Podcast 22 is a discussion on possible origins of the practice of animal sacrifice.

Frippery or Faith?

A lesson quickly learned in New Jersey is that the state has housed its fair share of geniuses and that inspiration takes many different forms. From Albert Einstein to Thomas Edison, these thinkers have changed the complexion of not only the state and country, but also of the entire world. While on a visit to Edison’s final factory and laboratory in West Orange yesterday, his devotion to thinking could not be overlooked. With little formal education, Thomas Edison taught himself what was necessary to become one of the most prolific inventors in the history of the world. The key to what he believed to be purpose of human existence is, sadly, under fire from politicians who’d rather keep the populace in the dark while they (the politicians) make the important decisions. “The man who doesn’t make up his mind to cultivate the habit of thinking misses the greatest pleasure in life.” So Edison said. Bully governors would rather turn out the lights.

As politics and conservative Christianity become even more intimate – if that is even possible – those who do not share their views are considered dangerous outsiders. As a religion specialist, it is difficult to gauge how sincerely such politicians take their religion. As their lifestyles clearly indicate, what they practice is as far from what they preach as the east is far from the west. Manipulating sincere, if misguided, believers into marks that will propel them into seats of power, they talk the talk. “Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction – faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.” So said Edison.

If we measure the religion of the Religious Right in terms of action, it clear that their principles have far less to do with what Jesus said and did than with securing personal gain. Women are placed in subordinate positions; the poor, minorities, those who work to keep the economy afloat while the wealthy suck in more than they could possibly use, these people become targets rather than neighbors. Roman emperors knew the society was dissatisfied and provided bread and circuses. The Religious Right is perfectly capable of learning the more insidious lessons of history. If they had been around in Edison’s lifetime, no doubt they would have tried to turn off the lights so that we’d all remain in the dark. In such a situation it might be wise to leave the final words to Edison: “Religion is all bunk.”

Let there be light!

Inspired Lunacy

The moon is too easily ignored. Perhaps we fill our nights with too many other diversions that we easily overlook the millions of tons of rock high over our heads. When I introduce students to the importance of the moon in ancient religions they often seem surprised by the fact. The moon? It gives no heat, it is constantly changing, and sometimes it disappears altogether. Rather wimpy god to worship, don’t you think? Tonight the moon is back in the public eye because it is in perigee, its closest approach to earth in 18 years. In the facile language of the media, it is an “extreme super moon” (sounds like something you could buy at Wal-Mart). As with most ancient Near Eastern religions, modern perceptions, often vaguely scientific, do not encompass the enormity of phenomena before we became masters of the night.

The moon races Venus to perigee

In some ancient Near Eastern religions the moon was superior to the sun. We know that the moon’s light is reflected from the sun – something that did not fit their cosmology. Instead, in those regions often brutalized by a hot sun, the moon appeared kinder, gentler. It’s light helps to make many nights less intense and it never burns you. Since it is easier to stare directly at the moon, it makes an effective timepiece as well. Its changes are periodic and predictable. For a world without electricity, where nights were only infrequently shortened with oil lamps, and where daylight savings time would have made no sense, the moon ruled.

Actually, the moon played a role in developing the concept of the Trinity. Three great luminaries regularly appear in our skies: the sun, moon, and Venus. These days when most people have difficulty locating Venus, and generally no interest to do so, it goes without recognition that it is the third brightest natural object in the sky. In fact, Venus is bright enough regularly to stimulate UFO reports. A celestial triad thus ruled the skies of antiquity, and in many of those cultures the moon was the greatest of the three. So give the moon a few minutes of your time tonight as it gets closer to the earth than it will be again for many, many years. Perhaps it may give us a bit of understanding on the origins of some of our religious ideas that persist to this day.