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.