Bad Eggs

Over the past few months I’ve discovered Jasper Fforde. While my leisure reading tends toward heavier material, Fforde has an amazing sense of wit that makes his writing nearly irresistible. I recently read The Big Over Easy, a gritty detective novel about the case of Humpty Dumpty. Throughout the story nursery rhymes are presented in literal and improbable ways, juxtaposed with the daily life of a down-on-his-luck cop. The reason that I mention the book on this blog, however, has to do with the character of Prometheus (some mythological characters also make their way into the story). Having taught Classical Mythology over the past two years, I’ve had occasion to read quite a bit about Prometheus. He is one of the more intriguing mythological characters posited by the Greeks. The creator of humans, Prometheus has a soft spot for our development that angers the other gods, jealous as they are of their privileged places.

In The Big Over Easy, Prometheus is explaining to the protagonist and his family why he thought it was worth having his liver pecked out daily in order to give humanity fire. He then tells them that he also gave people the fear of death. When asked why, he declares that the fear of death makes mortals appreciate life. There are the negative side effects such as war, hate, and intolerance, but Prometheus maintains, “I’ve seen the alternative. Eternal slavery under the gods.” Greek creation myths leave no doubt on this point; people were created to serve the gods. If we challenge that decree that we simply inherited, we are guilty of hubris, stepping over that line that separates them from us. Gods appreciate no such challenges.

It is ironic that nations based on the ideal of freedom so readily bind themselves to the strictures of the divine. The latest aggressions in which our nation has involved itself purported to be in the cause of “liberty,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” These sentiments were uttered by politicians who believe such principles ought to be bound by archaic instructions handed down through a mythological lawgiver. Our freedom ought to be circumscribed by mythology. The irony is so thick here that it is difficult to believe anyone can take such rhetoric seriously. Perhaps Prometheus brought us fire in vain. Not to worry, however. Jasper Fforde is an author of fiction only, and the arbitrary storms of Zeus no longer strike us when the gods are angry. Unless, of course, you have forgotten Hurricane Irene. Old myths never die, and, like bad eggs, once encountered they are not easily forgotten.

Tea Party Science

I sometimes jog in the morning before the sun begins his course across the sky. Funny thing is, sometimes I beat him. I know the sun is a guy because the Bible says so. When I startle a bunny from its hiding place along my path, I am amazed that those little creatures chew the cud just like bovines. It is the word of God. Occasionally a suicidal insect tries to fly into my mouth, and unless they go about on all fours, with legs above their feet, I spit them back out. If they do meet Leviticus 11’s strict standards and I accidentally swallow, I try not to think of Deuteronomy 14.19. I am surprised that the Tea Partiers haven’t tried to correct science on this point: the Bible is clear that insects (technically “flying creeping things”) have four legs, not six. Open your eyes people! Six legs? All those sixes seem to be from the antichrist. That’s why I feel comfortable with the potential of handing our nation over to the Tea Party. Certainty is better than scientific orthodoxy, hands down.

“I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’” The words are those of Michele Bachmann. Those of us who were taught that hurricanes result from the heating of Atlantic waters, swirled by the rotation of the earth (it does not move, according to the only proven source of science, the Bible) have egg on our faces. Do I ever feel silly! Empirical evidence suggests that the earth’s crust consists of tectonic plates that sometimes bump and rub and pull apart. Earthquakes result. Last week’s earthquake creates a problem for me, however, since North America is not mentioned in the Bible. I now live in a country that can’t possibly exist. We had better elect leaders who know how all this really works.

According to a Religion News Service poll this year, 40 percent (that’s more than half, in Tea Party mathematics) of Americans believe natural disasters are signs from God. I am relieved that this clearly shows science to be wrong—surely that many individuals must be correct. That’s the way math works. I sometimes imagine the United States as the Titanic (movies are another good source of science). Ismay, the Tea Party, declares, “But this ship can’t sink!” Thomas Andrews, the engineer (representing science) replies, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can… and she will. It is a mathematical certainty.” Ismay, believing the rich are too wealthy to die tragically, refutes the findings of science. When the colossal ship slips into the icy Atlantic, however, he’s nowhere on board. Like the rest of his party, he’s already secured himself one of the rare seats on the lifeboats inadequate to save those of us in steerage. Since the ship can’t sink anyway, why are we even worried about this?

Full speed ahead and damn the icebergs...

Religious Democracy, Media Style

A delightfully witty book review appeared in yesterday’s newspaper introducing Penn Jillette’s book God, No! Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. Having just learned of the book I’ve not yet read it, but I am intrigued. Penn Jillette is best known as the talking portion of the magic-debunking duo Penn and Teller. Having forged a career of exposing false claims to the supernatural mystique of stage magic, Penn and Teller delight in bucking the orthodoxy of the guild and showing that anyone clever enough can fool many people into believing what they know can’t be true. They are exploiting, of course, a phenomenon that neuroscientists have been exploring for a number of years: human brains retain belief even in the face of disproving evidence. Many religious believers call it “faith.” According to Hank Gallo, author of the review, Jillette uses his book to endorse atheism as the only real option for a thinking person. The book is generally categorized as humor.

Although Bill Maher’s Religulous makes many good points from a similar perspective, one of the haunting realities poised for religious specialists is almost a chiaroscuro with excessive contrast. It takes no special training to be a religious specialist. That is hard news to hear for those of us who’ve spent over a decade of our lives and thousands of dollars learning the trade. Comedians and others who are famous will impact far more people than this little blog ever will. Rick Perry can call together thousands to pray to pave his way to the White House. Maher and Jillette can poke fun at religious yokels and scholars will sit at their desks ignoring the crude efforts of those who have no training. There is no doubt, however, as to which will reach a wider audience.

Harry Houdini famously debunked spiritualists in his day. Like Penn and Teller, he was a stage magician who recognized that people could be easily fooled. He was able to expose mediums that scientists and academics of his day failed to uncover. It seems that those with access to the most basic of human desires—the will to believe—gain credibility more readily than an erudite yet obtuse specialist with several odd initials after his or her name and several obscure books to his or her credit. Those in the media have direct access to the mind of the public. If the tent is big enough the whole town will show up for the circus. The truth may be out there, but the minds of the public are won over by those who entertain, not those who bury themselves in dusty tomes and seldom see the light of day. The fact is people want to believe. Until a better alternative is offered, we might prepare ourselves for a long round of Texas Hold’em and a Tea Party or two.

Tomorrow Ever After

Last night as we said goodnight to Irene, my family decided to watch The Day After Tomorrow. Beyond The Perfect Storm and Twister we didn’t have any other weather-related disaster movies on hand. I became convinced long ago that weather was somehow key in the conception of divinity. Working at a seminary that required attendance at chapel twice daily where we would lugubriously and laboriously recite every verse of every Psalm according to the unforgiving schedule of the Book of Common Prayer, I began to notice the weather. Among the more common images used in the “hymnal of the second temple,” weather was seen as an essential aspect of divinity. Religions with celestial orientations frequently view the sky with a sacred aura. I began to compile all the Psalm references to the weather and eventually brought them together into a book, still unpublished. What became clear at the end of this exercise was that ancient people had no way to interpret the weather other than as a divine phenomenon. Listening to all the hype about Irene, it still seems to be the case.

In The Day After Tomorrow, our ill-fated teenagers are trapped in the New York Public Library as a super-chilled tropospheric wind freezes New York City. They build a fire and when you’re in a library, naturally, you burn books. I kept looking at all the furniture they spared as they consigned the books to the flame. A minor character called Jeremy is shown clutching a Bible. A girl named Elsa asks if he thinks God will save him. Replying that he is an atheist, Jeremy says that this is a Gutenberg Bible, “This Bible is the first book ever printed. It represents the dawn of the Age of Reason. As far as I’m concerned, the written word is mankind’s greatest achievement. You can laugh, but if Western Civilization is finished I’m gonna save at least one little piece of it.” This little dialogue represents the full circle of the celestial god. Jeremy doesn’t believe in this god, and the Bible requires human protection. Instead of being the instrument of war and political badgering and tea parties, it is seen as a symbol of enlightenment. It represents the first steps toward reason.

As Hurricane Irene still gusts outside my window, dropping rain as if New Jersey were a desert receiving its first drink in a century, the Tea Party is busy crafting ways of getting the Bible back in the White House. Their Bible is the antithesis to the Age of Reason. It is the symbol of superstition and prejudice and authoritarianism. It is the means of political power. The god of the Tea Party is a white-bearded man living in the sky, sending his fury against the liberal cities of the East Coast in a mighty wind. He is the punishing god of the Psalms. As the helicopter lifts off over a frozen Manhattan, the teenagers saved by a flawed father who walked from Philadelphia to New York to find his son, the camera pans across Jeremy as he hugs the Bible to his chest. I was in Boston for Hurricane Gloria back in 1985. Watching the waves crash on the beach at Winthrop I felt the power of fierce nature at the beginning of my own journey to, I hope, enlightenment. When it was over, however, there was not yet a Tea Party threatening an even worse, unnatural disaster to follow.

Irene, the early days

Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.

Girl Meets God…

Once in a very great while I find a book that I simply can’t put down. It is a rare windfall when that book feels like it was written especially for me. I was instantly engrossed in Sarah Sentilles’ Breaking Up With God. Like Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus, this book reinforced the fact that women experience a side of God’s character generally closed to men—the idea that God might be a lover. In our distorted, still patriarchal culture we have yet to grow beyond the idea that God is male. This simple, persistent teaching ensures that a gender-divide will always remain in effect when it comes to monotheistic religions. What truly spoke to me from Sentilles’ book, however, was not the theology, but the heart. Although the gender view from which I approach concepts of divinity must necessarily be different, here I found someone with a journey in many ways similar to mine. The honesty with which the author lays open her experience is beautiful and terrifying.

One of the recurring questions on this blog is whence the concept of God arose. Anthropologists, psychologists, and theologians come up with varying answers but the fact is the real impact is felt in very human minds. We have, perhaps unwittingly, devised a punishing image of the creator of the universe. A God who causes, allows, or at least condones arbitrary human suffering. A God who permits atrocities daily to be committed in his name (for this is a masculine god). A God who has left a burning ruin in his wake. Those of us who’ve attended seminary, as Sentilles makes vividly clear, are taught perceptions of the divine that can never be translated into the pulpit. Those of us who go on to graduate school are permitted a rare glimpse behind the veil to see something that it frightens us to contemplate, let alone write or speak about. It is a burden best worn like a hairshirt—beneath other clothes so that people don’t know it’s there. Many of us are then cast into the career outer darkness with nothing but our highly educated, disturbing thoughts for comfort.

Sarah Sentilles has given the world a gift with her revealing, sensible, and very human story. Having grown up with the image of God as a father, it was a shock when a seminary professor once revealed to me that God could never really fill that role. Nor, he added, could the church. While it cannot be the same as breaking up with God, the realization that what you were taught as a child was merely a metaphor forces a grand reevaluation of perceptions. My professor was, of course, correct. Carrying around a faulty image of God will lead only to intractable complications further down the road. Although Sentilles started down the path some years later than I did, it seems we have wound up in the same neighborhood. Her book deserves to be read widely, thought over carefully, and pondered for a time. We need to consider: what hath man wrought?

Just Druid Again

It would be difficult to suggest an ancient class of people with greater New Age credibility than the druids. Although I spent three years among the Celts, I claim to have no special knowledge of the druids, and when I saw Peter Berresford Ellis’ book on the subject, I decided to learn more. Not really a straightforward history—not enough of the druidic culture survived in any material form for the writing of such a history—Ellis instead summarizes a complex gallimaufry of evidence and speculations into a reasonable facsimile of who the druids might have been. Ellis suggests that the druids were more a caste of society, rather like the Brahmin caste among Vedic culture. Should that seem far-fetched, it would be difficult to read A Brief History of the Druids without noticing the obvious connections between the cultures. The Celts, of which the druids are a subset, have their origins in eastern Europe rather than the usual supposition of a homeland over the sea in Ireland, Scotland, or Wales. Connected to India via a common ancestral language, Indians and Celts both derive from the same Indo-European linguistic family tree.

Ellis’ book is so full of information that it is unwieldy at times, especially for those of us who find the formidable Gaelic names intimidating. Nevertheless, it is an excellent source for learning about the religion of the druids, insofar as it may be reconstructed. One of the most striking aspects of Celtic culture that emerges from the book is how it differed from the Roman culture that would come to dominate the western world. An obvious example is that Celtic society offered a much more enlightened place for female rights and leadership than would emerge along the Tiber. Another important difference was the Celtic antipathy to abuses of private property ownership. Gaelic bishops earned the ire of Rome by declaring that egalitarianism is the will of God. In the words of a fifth century Celtic bishop:

“Do you think yourself Christian if you oppress the poor?… if you enrich yourself by making others poor? If you wring your food from others’ tears? A Christian is [one] who… never allows a poor man to be oppressed when he is by… whose doors are open to all, whose table every poor man knows, whose food is offered to all.” Words a Perry or Bachmann might do well to read.

So noble were the druids in the eyes of eighteenth-century antiquarians that many suggested Abraham was the original druid and that the great figures of the Bible were part of the druidic heritage. The world, alas, has gone after Rome instead. Rather than druids we have CEOs and politicians worth a mint before they ever “swear” an oath of office. If the current Celtic revival brings back some powerful druids, perhaps the world might just become a more tolerable place.

Elephants and Earthquakes

Two things happened yesterday that underscore the danger zone in which we currently live. The more dramatic event, an earthquake in central Virginia felt by many of us along the East Coast, had the social media tweeting for some time. The second event took the form of an editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger concerning GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman. Huntsman is quoted as saying, “The minute the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem.” An even larger problem is that the clock has moved well beyond the future tense. The editorial cites GOP candidates who routinely dismiss the science of global warming, evolution and other certainties as mere “data-fixing.” Perry and Bachmann have both decided they “don’t believe” in global warming. The elephant in the room, however, goes without mention.

The elephant in the room is religion, and it is a killer elephant, one that has a history of stomping those who attempt to control it. Politicians attack religion—whether or not it is bad juju makes no difference—at their eternal peril. In this “nation under God” (really under God) even a finger pointed towards conservative Christianity becomes a dagger plunged into a candidate’s chest. The Religious Right has been doing its homework for decades: no voice of reason can speak loudly enough to be heard over the songs of praise of the self-righteous. Reason, as scientists have discerned, cannot impact religious fervor. Belief can withstand a full-frontal attack from logic, reason—all that is sacred to rationality—and emerge without a scratch or dent. It is time that those in the middle and left took religious studies seriously.

Then I felt the earth move under my feet. As our house swayed and I checked on my daughter, I couldn’t believe I was feeling my third earthquake. I checked the web to see what in the world was going on. Interestingly, no witch doctors or Fundamentalist soothsayers were being consulted, but the scientists were. The news stories emerging minutes after the ground shook from Pittsburgh to Concord to Chapel Hill rang with the refrain, “scientists say.” Where was Rick Perry and his dowsing rods? Where was Michele Bachmann and her chicken bones? No, the religious war on science was switched off for a moment and those who felt afraid listened to those who actually knew what they were talking about. It was the elephant moving around the room, I say. It will only be a matter of time, however, before it is claimed that the people of Mineral, Virginia did something evil to prod an angry god into action.

Nobody felt anything, right?

God’s Country Club

Last week CNN’s religion Belief Blog reported on the five most and least religious colleges in the United States, according to Princeton Review (not affiliated with Princeton University). Having attended one of the five most religious colleges on the list (Grove City College, but whether it is number one or five is difficult to determine), I took an interest in the overarching question: how do you determine if a college is religious? The author of the survey indicated that it was through student interviews concerning whether they perceived other students as religious or not. And that’s where the bone of contention pokes through—who determines what is religious behavior? Are students able to determine who is religious or who acts religious? Does religious mean Christian in this context, or religious in any tradition?

Grove City College, God's Country Club

My years at Grove City left little doubt that the school itself was proudly religious. An evangelical bastion against many forms of critical thought, plenty of indoctrination took place in those hallowed halls. A few religion professors (I was even then over-zealous to learn as much as I could about this field), while personally faithful, asked serious questions that many self-righteous classmates blithely ignored. From glancing through alumni magazines, they seem to be the successful ones. Those who asked the hard questions seriously were ostracized; now they are lost in obscurity. Is this true religion? The Princeton Review is concerned with providing potential students with accurate data about their collegiate choices, but I wonder if the religiosity proffered is anything more than denominational branding.

Three of the four other most religious schools might bear this out: Brigham Young, Thomas Aquinas College, and Wheaton College. Hillsdale College, the final member of the most religious fraternity, is the exception. A liberal arts school, formerly Baptist but currently independent, it fits somewhat uneasily next to the Mormon, Catholic, and Reformed natures of the other four schools. While I can’t speak for the other colleges, at Grove City there was definitely a coercive peer pressure to behave like everybody else—to be religious, i.e., evangelical Christian. With required attendance at chapel and required courses in religion, the ethos was heavily impressed. Were other students truly religious? That depends on the measure that is used. Many have gone on to be entrepreneurs declaring free market economics in the name of the kingdom of heaven. If that is a measure of true religiosity, all hope is lost indeed.

No Sanctuary, No Renewal

My penchant for dystopias won out over what many would suggest is good sense and I rewatched Logan’s Run for the first time since the 1970s this weekend. Dystopias, of course, are the antonyms to the religio-political utopias that seemed possible to dreamers of the Enlightenment. Since those optimistic times power structures in society have grown ossified and privilege has been entrapped in enclaves of excess wealth, both religious and secular. Seeing the film as a teenager I am certain I missed the savage social commentary in Logan’s Run. Despite its weaknesses, the movie still carries an unexpected punch, given subsequent developments. The premise, for those unfamiliar, is that in the twenty-third century life is ease and hedonism until you reach thirty. To control overpopulation those losing the bloom of youth are euthanized in a religious ceremony to be “renewed.” Logan discovers there is no renewal and, the mythology fractured beyond repair, begins his eponymous run.

In a society just beginning to come to the realization that population trends were leading toward the elderly outnumbering the young, film-makers and novelists were trying to predict where human nature might lead. Movies like Soylent Green, Rollerball, and even The Stepford Wives dealt with issues of potential population pressures. One thing they share in common: the prognosis isn’t positive. 1984 came and went, and savvy politicians learned that control may easily be blended with religious sensibilities. Hot-button issues that have little to do with government (defining marriage, deciding which gender has the right of self-determination, declaring biologists in default of creationist fantasies) easily deflect attention from the serious issues of ensuring a healthy economy and providing reasonable care for those who are actually now alive. Spending too much time gazing into the future can be counterproductive.

Logan heard rumors of a place called “sanctuary” where the aging are free from the draconian enforcements of society. He takes his lady (dystopias are nothing without a love interest) and flees to discover this idealistic place. There is no sanctuary. Outside the safe, hermetically sealed domes of society is a ruined civilization. It is a world full of possibilities, but practically devoid of people. Finding only one survivor, the only option is to convince the police state he fled that all of this is a lie. Religions too, often rely on offers of sanctuary. Some who believe may find it while others will not. Logan’s Run (now being remade) may not have been the most convincing dystopia, but in bringing ethic and myth together in a world of unheard suffering, it may have read the pulse of society better than several of its more fondly received exemplars.

A Summer Fright

Although primarily known for his science fiction, Dan Simmons has also strayed down the dark path of horror fiction as well. During the depths of winter I found Simmons’s A Winter Haunting a moody and appropriate concomitant to the season. Not realizing that it was a sequel, when I saw his Night of Summer while at a Borders going out of business sale, I wondered if the same effect might work in warmer times. Both books rely on Egyptian funerary cult to move the story along, although in Night of Summer it is difficult to determine if the real menace is Osiris or the Judeo-Christian devil. Simmons has characters refer to Osiris as the power behind a haunted bell, but the climax of the story bears little resemblance to Egypt and quite a bit to standard monster flick tropes. “The master” of the reanimated dead is not explicitly identified. The use of Anubis in A Winter Haunting is quite effective, but the infernal characters were intermixed a little too much for my liking in Night of Summer. Better the devil that you know…

Perhaps it is simply that summer represents a time of relative ease and recovery from the frenetic pace of the remaining three quarters of the year. Although the heat and high humidity often make the season feel unbearable, the blush of abundance is all around. It is not easy to be afraid. When the air begins to chill and nature seems prepared to shut down production in the autumn, we naturally turn towards the desolate and constant struggle that will see us through the winter. Ancient people needed reassurance that warmth and relative ease would return. New Year’s rituals frequently marked autumn or spring, sometimes both. The death or life of the crops symbolized things to come.

Osiris, the god of the dead, also served as a god overseeing the renewal of crops for the ancient Egyptians. Death and life were knotted so tightly together that to unravel them was to fray the essence of the divine world itself. Among the cultures of the ancient world the Egyptians boasted the most developed concept of an afterlife. Even Paleolithic human burials contain grave-goods, demonstrating a belief in some kind of continuity beyond death. Simmons plays on that primal fear by resurrecting the dead in his novel. Beliefs about death and what might come thereafter have been one of the constant identifiers of religion from antiquity to the present. When evil pollutes the process the genre shifts to horror: witness the current fascination with vampires, zombies, and other undead entities. Religion and death are inextricably bound. Although Night of Summer may not live up to its sequel, the correlation between religion and fear meets the expectations of the genre, even during the long days of relative ease.

Demonic Beginnings

A friend recently asked me what seemed like an innocuous question: what is the origin of demons. I typed out an answer on the basis of my outdated reading on the subject only to realize that this is a very complex question indeed. While teaching my Ancient Near Eastern religions class over the past three years I regularly told students that there is no regular word for “demon” in Akkadian, the language of ancient Mesopotamia. Mesopotamian religion was the dominant system of belief in sheer size of area and antiquity in the Ancient Near East. There are characters recognized as demons: Pazuzu of The Exorcist fame among them. Their origin, however, is murky. In Mesopotamia demons are generally a mix of human and animal components supposed in some way to be responsible for misfortune. They are not evil, but they carry out the punishments decreed by the gods. In the first millennium BCE demons were understood to inhabit the Underworld, paving the way for Hell, once Zoroastrianism contributed the necessary duality for the region.

The Hebrew Bible contains no uncontested word for “demon” either. The words generally translated that way do not indicate evil spirits in the sense that the Christian Scriptures seem to depict them. In the Hebrew Bible they appear to be associated with the worship of “false gods” and the inhabitants of deserts and wastelands. In neither the Mesopotamian nor Israelite concepts do demons appear to “possess” people. By the time of Christianity, with its Zoroastrian-fueled dualism, we have an anti-God (the devil) and his anti-angelic minions (demons). One purpose here seems to have been to clear the monotheistic God of charges of originating evil. If there is only one God where does evil come from? Better to posit a devil than take that one where logic leads.

Back in the days when I was still in school, demons were regularly cast as the explanation for various mental illnesses and epilepsy. In a society that had trouble understanding the sudden onset of an epileptic fit or a sane individual growing insane, such misfortunes could appear supernatural. In a supernatural realm where evil is mediated by the devil, demons naturally volunteer for their old role as purveyors of divine punishment. Eventually the mythology of a revolt in the world of the gods emerged, probably based on the dualistic outlook of Zoroastrianism, and we soon have verses referring to the king of “Babylon” being reinterpreted as literal episodes on a spiritual plane. Once Jesus utilized this language to describe the suffering souls of his day, it became heresy to think of demons in any other way than as physically, or at least spiritually, real. In the modern day they are still with us as “spiritual entities that have never been human” according to Ghost Hunters. They do, however, resemble people in significant ways more than they resemble their mythic forebears. Where do they come from? The dark recesses of the human psyche. Their mythic origins, however, remain obscure.

Six Red Flags

Answers in Genesis’ biblical theme park with its life-sized ark was back in the news yesterday. Journalists just seem to be fascinated that people really do believe in their religious convictions. Having grown up in a religious family, I understand where they’re coming from. The version of the Bible they offer to the public, however, is much too tame. I spent the day dreaming about a literalist Bible theme park that would put Evangelical Christianity back on the map. I’m thinking it should be in Rick Perry’s Texas and we could call it the Literalist Six Red Flags.

The first attraction would be the Garden of Eden—sans clothes. If we’re going for the full Bible experience we should go all the way. The full Methuselah. For those who are worried that this might lead to morality concerns, I would assure them that experience belies that. From the few nude beaches I’ve stumbled upon—who would’ve thought there’d be one in New Jersey? New Jersey!—it is my guess that this might be the most effective way to scare kids into religion. Why pass up an evangelical opportunity like that?

Station number two would be the Egyptian Late-Term Abortion Clinic. By this I mean Exodus chapter 1, with a nice tie-in to Leviticus 20 and Psalm 137. The pro-lifers could leave a little green but very self-righteous after seeing what the Bible prescribes for uppity children.

Our third flag could be the battle of Jericho. Especially interesting for the kids would be the visit of Joshua’s spies to the prostitute who betrayed her city. Children could blow on ram’s horns, carry a plastic ark with authentic death-rays emanating from it, and shout while the Styrofoam walls come tumbling down. If they wanted to be really literal, however, they’d have to explain that archaeology demonstrates that Jericho had been abandoned for a century before Joshua showed up, but who wants to dampen all that youthful, Christian bloodlust?

Flag four could be the story of Samson. After leaving his first wife to visit a prostitute, kids could watch in fascination as Samson heaves the city gates of Gaza from their place, showing that the Lord approves. Since he’s a muscleman who likes to have affairs, maybe we could check to see if Arnold Schwarzenegger is too busy to take on the role of God’s version of Hercules. I’m sure that Delilahs would not be too difficult to recruit. Perhaps this could be an audience participation event.

Attraction five has to be the Story of David. This would be a good opportunity for parents distraught after the previous stations to take out some aggression with the sling. I’m sure my friend Deane could come up with some giants for them to practice on. Otherwise, maybe something could be worked out with the NBA. After killing a few giants, the station could lead to the palace roof with a view to Bathsheba’s bathroom. Since David didn’t want to send her to the clinic (see station number two), he decided to have her husband killed instead. Maybe we could have a side exhibit: Uriah’s Last Ice Cream Stand. (He was only a Hittite, after all.)

Our sixth red flag would be the Lion’s Den. Here we could offer Tea Partiers and NeoCons the opportunity to prove their faith by spending a night in a den of hungry lions. They like to claim loudly that their faith is being castigated, just like Daniel’s was—here would be the opportunity to prove it! Somehow I believe that the lion’s den would remain empty and crickets could be heard chirping throughout our Literalist Six Red Flags even before it opened its festively decorated gates.

"Oh please let Rick Perry be nominated!"

Last Rites

Last night at 9:40 p.m., my last class at Rutgers University ended. I began a teaching career in higher education back in 1992 when I was still younger than most of my students (that was in a seminary). Despite the difficulties of that setting, I had lowly dreams of a reasonable teaching post in a small college where good teaching was emphasized and serious research was allowed. It was never to be. Now, facing an exciting career move, it feels like a giddy run suddenly played out. The finish line crossed halfway through the race. Higher education simply never made room for the likes of me. Students have frequently commented on how they like my courses and find me a congenial instructor and wonder why no full-time positions ever emerged. My answer has always been that Religious Studies is the one field where religious discrimination is legal and regularly practiced. Denominational schools are permitted to hire on the basis of faith—I have been declined more than one position because I was not the right brand of religion. State schools are afraid of the field.

State universities, where I ultimately ended up, are very cagey about Religious Studies. I’ve known otherwise highly educated individuals who suppose that such departments are glorified Sunday Schools or Catechisms. They always seem surprised, when a religiously motivated person decides to become a mass murderer on the basis of conviction, that universities don’t know more about religions. It is, however, a dying field. Religion in America has been hijacked by the NeoCon camp. Over the years I’ve had mainstream Christian students explain to me why they are not really “Christian” since they assume that the title goes with conservative political and social values. To my humble eyes, it appears the battle may have been already lost. State schools fear interference with the establishment clause while NeoCons plow ahead to mandate a state church. It is the religious makeover of America.

I will miss teaching, but it has been a punishing career. My years at Nashotah House were filled with abusive situations and unrealistic expectations. Since then I have never had a full-time teaching post. In some cases I have spent more time driving to campus than I spent in the classroom. It is time to launch on a new career direction—even my previous editing experience was under the shadow of a conservative religious outlook. I have told many students over the years that teaching careers are not what they used to be. I have many horror stories to back me up. That doesn’t mean that a tear or two didn’t fall as I left my last classroom after nearly twenty years in the biz. It has been an education to me, and I hope a few students among the hundreds I’ve taught out there feel that it has been the same for them.


Sports Religion

I’ve never been a fan of organized sports. Call it sour grapes, but having been born with an inner ear affliction that makes sudden turns debilitating, I’ve never been effective at much beyond running. Maybe also the occasional flirtation with free weights. So when my wife showed me a story about Tim Tebow, I had no idea who he was. It turns out that he is the quarterback for the Denver Broncos. He was in the news not because of his apparently lackluster performance, but because of his religion. The Miami Herald story by Dan Le Batard insightfully points out that football fans participate in what amounts to a religion in their devotion to the game. Add an evangelical Christianity to that “sports religion” (Le Batard’s term) and a “holy war” (again, Le Batard) breaks out. Religious fans praise Tebow because of his character, sports fans castigate his allegedly mediocre ability. The controversy over Tebow, however, goes deeper.

Hallowed be thy game (but not thy Photoshop)

Home schooled in Florida, his family took advantages of laws that allowed home schoolers to play on actual schools’ sports teams. Even going as far as to rent an apartment and move out of their home with her son, his mother placed her son in advantageous school districts while teaching him at home. The problems with home schooling are legion, but clearly among the most troubling are the frequent use of religious indoctrination and the lack of critical thinking skills. Those who are truly educated are aware of just how little they know. Those who presume they can teach their children everything they’ll need often seem impressed by their own knowledge. But I digress. While in college Tebow’s penchant for painting Bible verses in his eye black led to the “Tebow Rule” that forbade messages in the paint. Interestingly, the Bible verses he scrawled on his game face received high numbers of Google hits during the games.

No doubt for many sports are a form of religious release. Le Batard suggests that football religion and traditional religion rest uneasily together. In a world where I might mention a particularly important Bible passage for students to read and most won’t bother, the flash of Proverbs 3:5-6 on a starry-eyed quarterback’s face will send fans page-thumbing the good book. Perhaps religions have been focusing their energies in the wrong places. If the various religions of the world formed football franchises and joined the ranks of the NFL, the benches, or pews, would be filled every Sunday. And it might also solve another perplexing problem: which religion is the correct one? They could be determined once and for all on Super Sunday.