Seneca Falls

Located in central New York, along the northern end of Cayuga Lake, is the village of Seneca Falls. Based on a vote by residents last year, the village is being dissolved today. With a population of almost 7,000 people Seneca Falls is the largest village in New York ever to be dissolved. The move brings me a personal sadness. Not because I have ever been to Seneca Falls (I haven’t), but because it is a historically significant location.

On July 19–20, 1848, The Seneca Falls Convention met. It was one of the earliest gatherings of women’s rights proponents held in the United States. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and local Quaker women, the Convention met to provide a platform for Lucretia Mott, a Quaker leader known for her public speaking on women’s issues. The Quakers, in a rare historical twist, generally acknowledged the validity of female religious participation equal to that of men. The Convention produced the Declaration of Sentiments and its resolutions, which argued for women’s right to vote. Even Frederick Douglass gave a favorable assessment of women’s suffrage at the conference.

One of the long-term results of these early steps became the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment was passed only in 1920. The state of affairs for women still has far to go before it can be called true equality. Certainly some aspects of society have improved, but women still fall under the pay scales of men and are often barred from leadership roles they have every right to hold. Finland, India, Liberia, and Sri Lanka have all had women presidents. In the United States, Seneca Falls is dissolving.

The reason that women have been relegated to secondary status is generally because of religion. The gods seem to favor one set of genitalia above another. Most pantheons operate under the control of a masculine god. Of course, the rationale given is often based on scriptures written by men but passed along to the divine male for proxy authorship. We need more Seneca Falls Conventions, only they should be held in a higher court, not one inch shy of heaven itself. One of our national resolutions, as this year ends, ought to be finally to take seriously the spirit of our founders and bring equality for all to life.

O little town

Exposed or Expelled

I live in a relatively small town. Having grown up in communities of 10,000 or less, I am used to the ways of those who live close to their neighbors. Even in small towns people live secret lives. Returning to my small town from Iowa, the headlines for New Jersey’s largest newspaper feature a coaching assistant at Immaculata High School, the Catholic school in my town. Patrick Lott, Assistant Principal at another local school, is an assistant football coach at the aptly named Immaculata. He is accused of videotaping boys in the shower. As if not disturbing enough, this is the third Immaculata individual to be arrested for sex crimes in the last twenty years. While each individual instance is bad enough, it is the long-term pattern that is even more disturbing.

The setting of a Catholic school has long been a trope for abuse of power. In this respect it mirrors ecclesiastical history. Such is the way of human institutions. When they are placed on a pedestal and proclaimed divine, trouble starts. The problem arguably began as long ago as Augustine, and before him with Paul, the architect of Christianity. Both men spewed many negative words about sexuality, with or without abuse need not matter. Their views—which one might be tempted to call perverted were they not from religious men—perceived sex as a bizarre form of divine punishment. Funnily, neither one has much to say about why a good God designed such a sinful system for animals to propagate as well.

Sexual predators, of course, are not limited to Catholic schools and parishes. It does seem, however, that those religious institutions that most vocally castigate sexuality are the ones most often caught with their metaphorical pants down. Why such things happen is better answered by psychologists and sociologists than it is by theologians. What is always interesting is observing the response by religious leaders. The shock and distress may be real enough, even when one school claims a hat-trick of the sexual kind. I have no answers to proffer, merely some lay observations. If religions dropped their pretensions instead of their pantaloons, the world might quickly become at least a more honest place. If individuals with problems sought medical help rather than theological forgiveness, we might actually begin to make some progress.

Is this the right message?

The Newt Roars

Today marks the final day of my Iowa odyssey. The state that is about as heart-of-the-nation as you can get is chaffing under the weight of political lard as the caucuses near. According to the Huffington Post, Newt Gingrich is roaring mad about the negative ads that are choking the airwaves. You’d think with a life in politics he’d be used to it by now. Religion, of course, is playing an undue role in this season’s GOP contest—everyone knows Mitt Romney is a Mormon and publishers are scrambling to get out books on that religion as fast as their authors can write. Rick Perry, to the chagrin of many, bears a Methodist affiliation and the religious sensibility of Genghis Khan. Of course, Newt appears relatively calm as a Catholic, at least for the time being. Jack Kennedy, however, he is not.

The Republican Party began a flirtation with religious conservatives as early as the Nixon years. Pundits realized that, like the Alaskan oil reserves, religious fundamentalists were an untapped resource to grease the rails to election day. Overjoyed to have a voice in high profile public office, the conservative Christian crowd began to wilt from the perceived failure of Jimmy Carter and began to glom onto the media image projected by Ronald Reagan. We all suffered through the Bush years, hearing more about God from the president than we heard about the soaring national debt or the coming crash that would implode upon the working class that elected him to office (so they say). Now, facing the choice of candidates wealthy enough to run for office, many are finding the choices on the shelves of the spiritual marketplace a little understocked.

Back in the days when America was young, the founders laid down rules declaring that no religious tests would be imposed on those running for public office. Their fears proved prescient and uncannily accurate. Today perhaps the biggest test any candidate has to pass is his or her religious affiliation. Can we imagine a Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann without their Bibles tucked under arm? Religion has no corner on the market for sanity. Many, in fact, would argue that the indications sometimes point in the other direction. The corner America has painted itself into is not so much shaded with red, white, and blue, as it is with the muddy brown of religious slurry that has become the new politics. Newt, newly minted from his Southern Baptist heritage, is mad about mudslinging. I think Americans should be enraged about religion slinging instead.

Apples and Evil

I’m not really a mall person. Since I’m not really a techie either, however, I find myself in malls where Apple Stores are located when I can’t get by without a little help from my friends. So it was that I spent several hours at a mall earlier this week. While there I browsed an oriental imports store—the kind of place with a no-frills, I-might-be-gone-tomorrow kind of feel to it. In the front window they showcased a display of swords. Since dragons are a major motif in Chinese folklore, the transition to medieval images of dragon-slayers seemed to be at play here. I am not certain of the last time an actual dragon was reported in central Iowa. One of the swords had a Latin inscription along its blade. My Latin is very rusty, but I did recognize the word “God” amid the fantasy spell. The connection between religion and violence was facing me in that unused (I hope) weapon.

Religion often serves as an outworking of human violent tendencies. Our violence is, no doubt, a product of our godless evolution. As we ascended the tree of life that gave us birth, some other creatures on that tree thought we were tasty. In an unintentional effort to defend ourselves, we grew larger and larger brains that gave us the edge as predators. As a collective, humans tend to be overachievers. We’ve whittled away most of our large predators to the endangered list so that we might shop with relative comfort. If there is guilt about it, we can always blame God.

Evolution did not endow us well with body armor or sharp teeth and claws. People seem to have evolved mostly for running away—that’s what our physiognomy suggests. Among the earliest of weapons was the blade. To be effective a blade must have reach. The sword, the favored weapon of the Bible, grew until weight and balance became optimal. To harm another person you had to be close enough to look that person in the eye. If we look we find another person like us, and we need an excuse for our violence. Religion is readily farmed as the ground for justifying such violence, for religions combat evolution and any differences of opinion. What I was seeing through this mall window was a cross-section of the human story. The sword was ornamental and had clearly never been used. Unfortunately, such weapons are rare. Rarer than my trips to the mall, Apple Stores notwithstanding.

Bible Review

The Christmas edition of the New York Times Book Review begins with the Bible. Appropriate enough for a book that gave us “in the beginning” and the Christmas story in the first place. Reviewed by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, the Bible is presented as the unacknowledged source of much of our literary culture. It is a message that bears repeating every now and again, since the Bible itself is often equated with those who thump it instead of trying to comprehend it. The Bible is often guilty by association. Like any book, it has parts that we wish weren’t in it, but that is only problematic for those who think of the Bible in authoritarian terms, a book that must be rebuilt into modern culture, jot and tittle. Taken alongside other ancient writings, however, the Bible is a fine example of human evolution. It represents a segment of our developing culture. And, every now and again, atheist and evangelical should acknowledge, the Bible gives us profound insights.

Robinson’s article mostly focuses on reiterations. The Bible’s influence is deep, and in the English literary world, nearly universal. What authors have written in the past—and what they are still writing today—bears the stamp of the Bible. It was the first formative book in western culture, and to dismiss it completely is to throw away a valuable part of our selves. At the same time, even so able a writer as Robinson can’t escape the subtle supersessionism that coheres to the mythic reading preferred by a large cross-section of society. The Bible is a self-referential text, but the Bible does not know that “the Bible” exists. Books that eventually made it into the collection were written without an awareness that they would become authoritarian tomes millennia down the road. Modern believers still invest the books with the mystique of divine authority, often in subtle ways.

A point made by Robinson should be read by those aspiring presidential candidates super-bussing their ways across Iowa. “Moments of the highest import pass among people who are so marginal that conventional history would not have noticed them,” she writes of the biblical narrative. The vast majority of us are marginal in this sense. Those in seats of power frequently forget that it is the unassuming compliance of those further down the food chain that lends them their power. The Bible is nearly always on the side of the oppressed. The Bible, however, can also empower those deprived by the crass world of politics. It must be rescued first. Once they are done kissing babies and shaking hands, once they settle in their opulent offices built with the money that would have otherwise gone to those babies, politicians forget the basic truths of the Bible. As long as it can be thumped once in a while, however, they will keep it in the bottom drawer until it is needed again. Only by dealing with the Bible sensibly can its abuse be stopped.

There is, I hear, balm there.

Church of Siliconism

Some of us have been dragged into the electronic age kicking and screaming. Our apartment at home is full of books, and they are made of paper, not plastic. In college, some of my friends and I vowed we would never use computers—harbingers of a cold, new age. It was a vow I kept until working on my doctorate (pretty much). Despite keeping this blog, I really have very little native intelligence about the world of circuit-board, integrated circuit, and chip. I would probably be the last person to have thought to ask for an iPhone—I frequently forget to take my cell phone with me, and when I do, I sometimes neglect to turn it on. So I was stunned to find an iPhone with my name on it yesterday. I looked at it like an alien baby, wondering what it might eat. As the day wore on, however, I started to see some of what it might offer.

Siri, the software personal assistant for iOS, responds in a friendly voice to questions asked. “She” (and you can’t help personifying her) is like a personal portal to the mind of the Internet. You want a pizza? Siri knows the location of all the places in your neighborhood that deliver. You wonder what the most recent nation in the world is? Siri will look that up for you. (South Sudan, as of yesterday, according to her sources.) My brother-in-law, intrepid with electronics, and knowing my background, asked Siri about God. She replied, “Humans believe in spiritualism. I believe in siliconism.” Someone at Apple clearly has a sense of humor, but the more I began to parse this statement, the more I realized Siri could use a personal assistant in the religion field.

Spiritualism is not the same as spirituality; the former is the belief in ghosts and the religions that accompany that belief, such as Theosophy. Clearly in an American market, any product that denied belief in God, even by implication, would become the product of a witchhunt. The sad image of heaps of iPhones being melted as leering evangelicals look on is disturbing but unfortunately easy to conjure. Best to program Siri to deflect any potential ire with humor. The second component of her pithy reply is siliconism. As a religion, it is clearly underway all ready. Who reading this blog can imagine life without electronic media? Be honest! What does a computer believe? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Does Siri say her prayers as she’s being shut down for the night? What does it mean to believe? So now I have an iPhone. The day before yesterday I couldn’t find my app with both hands. Now I have a personal religion consultant. I suspect I’ll be starting a new religion by the end of the day—the First Church of Christ, Programmer. Its headquarters will be wherever a true believer is located at the moment, as long as s/he has an iPhone. Blackberry users will, of course, be considered heretics.

Silent Might

Iowa is a state for reflection. For many years Christmas in Iowa was a family tradition, but living on the east coast makes such pilgrimages rare. On Christmas Eve in Ames, we drove past a Nazarene Church decked out for the holiday with a sign reading, “Jesus Came for You.” Perhaps I watch too many movies, but the images that came to mind were of Rambo and The Terminator—menacing figures who’ve sought out their victims for revenge. Coming for you was a threat rather than a promise. Who can forget Arnold’s “I’ll be back”? Was the child who came sent with a mission of punishment or of peace? To hear presidential candidates and other evangelicals tell the Christmas story, it is clearly the former—the Rambo of God who blows away the sins of the world—that we should expect. The Prince of Pieces.

That version of Christianity that likes to present itself as the default, the natural form of what the church has taught all these years, has a strong current of threat running through it. God never shows up unless there is a problem—an absentee father only too swift to remove his ample belt to begin a sound thrashing. Religion often thrives in the context of menace. Teaching that people are evil by nature and only good when under promise of Hell, such believers understand the coming of Jesus to be cause for fear and alarm. According to Luke, the angels began their message with “Fear not.”

How Christmas is understood reflects on the view of Christianity that believers choose. For the advent and arrival of an emissary can be cause for celebration or of fear. In some mangers the infant conceals a cudgel and woe to those who suggest equal treatment of all or a non-literal reading of favorite prooftexts. This time of year stands as an excellent test of what this child will grow up to be in the minds of his latter-day cohort. What arrival should we anticipate? If it is the Jesus of the politicians and evangelicals, we only have to look at the headlines to discover the answer.

What child is this?

England’s Christian Gift

As much a part of the holiday season as Santa Claus and baby Jesus, the Salvation Army bell-ringers are out in full force. As I drop a quarter in the bucket, I ponder the strange lineage of this denomination. When the cheerful holiday shopper convivially donates spare change, few, I suspect, know that they are supporting a church. The Salvation Army is one of the bewildering number of denominations to spring from English Christianity. The Church of England, small in the United States, but imperial in much of the world, grew amid a religious unrest that spun off countless dissenters. We all know the story of Henry VIII and his not-so-merry wives. His political move to focus the official religion of England on the crown led to the Puritan resistance. Puritans left England for the Netherlands, and then on to America where they flocked to New England to develop into Calvinistic Congregationalists.

Meanwhile back in Amsterdam, some of the English Separatists evolved into Baptists. Baptists were also congregational in polity and also found the religious freedom of America to be appealing. (Now they select our elected officials.) The Puritans had helped develop the Presbyterian movement as well, with dissenters in Switzerland. Still at home in Britain, the Church of England waffled between Catholicism and Protestantism for some time. The evangelical fervor that emerged with the Wesley family led to the Methodist Church, which remained attached to the Church of England until its founder’s death. In America the Methodist Church grew rapidly. During the era of religious revivals the Adventist movement grew out of Methodism, as did the Church of the Nazarene, the Holiness movement, and Pentecostalism. All of them today are major denominations. Even the Anabaptists tip their wide-brimmed hats in the direction of the English dissenters. The Plymouth Brethren, inventors of the Rapture, were another English-derived denomination, as were the Wesleyan Churches.

What does all of this have to do with the Salvation Army? The Salvation Army was founded in London by a Methodist minister, William Booth, and his wife Catherine. The movement adopted quasi-military mythology and ranks, and soon grew into a church of its own that supported what would later become the Social Gospel cause. Known primarily for their charitable works, they are yet one more splinter from the tree of English Christianity. Perhaps the Christmas tree is an appropriate analogy for the Christianities to spring from Henry VIII’s loins. Like the pine’s many branches, each with its ornaments, Christianity in England sent its twigs in all directions. Counted together, the descendants of English Christianity far outnumber any other Protestant grouping. Just a thought to share while waiting for the quarter to drop.

Tebow or Not Tebow?

It is time to bow to the inevitable. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a sports fan. Every web page I open, however, seems to feature Tim Tebow, as if the media had never seen an evangelical before. Where have people been? What is even more amazing is that this athletic kid has invented an entirely new human gesture, “the Tebow.” Incredible what young folks can accomplish these days. And as Saturday Night Live has showed us, Jesus really isn’t that much of a football fan after all.

Ashamed at my naiveté, I decided to research the history of tebowing. What I found shocked and amazed me. Like so many modern day marvels, Tebowing seems to have been invented by those prescient Sumerians. Even before humans perfected the Tebow, semi-divine characters showed them how. This cylinder-seal depicts the monster Humbaba illustrating the correct posture to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. They do not, apparently, take kindly to his correction.

In the example below we see a rare double-kneed Tebow performed by an Asian football god while a hopelessly underchurched Joe Paterno looks on, hopelessly standing.

Fast forward a few centuries to a seasonal scene and we find shepherds tebowing to some baby. It is a fair guess that they suppose the baby to be a football incarnate.

Lest we think the Tebow has been coopted by the Christian crowd, we must remember that no religion has a copyright on humility. In this scene from Norse mythology, a clearly pagan Hermod tebows before the goddess Hela. She does not look amused.

Americans, who after all claim to have invented the Tebow, can trace the gesture back to our founding father himself. In this famous painting of George Washington at Valley Forge, just after the crucial touchdown, the great man can be seen tebowing in the snow.

The snow is a great segue to the Cold War. Here, in a government photo, we see Soviet naval infantry tebowing as they contemplate the big game. They are not now, nor have they ever been, Broncos.

Now, none of this resembles the education I received during my three degrees in religious studies. No matter. ‘Tis the child becomes the man, as they say. And since a little child shall lead them, we can all learn to tebow as if there were no tomorrow. If the actual Tebow is as bright as the sports-scholarship students I taught at Oshkosh, Rutgers, and Montclair, the education of the future will include a lot lower academic expectations and, I suspect, lots and lots of Levis with holes in the knees.

Darkest Night

One of the more endearing of human weaknesses is our fear of the dark. For those who live north of the equator, we have just experienced our longest night. It is no coincidence that the religious holidays that occur in winter feature light. In our helplessness against the encroaching darkness, we light our Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles, adding just a bit more light to the world. Among the oldest of all holidays is the day that marks the birth of light’s resurrection. One need not be a pagan to appreciate the solstice and the inherent hope it bears for the return of the sun.

In this season we often see signs and hear laments about the absence of Christ from Christmas. Jesus was not born in winter, according to our best reckoning. One of the carols that drives me mad with distraction is “In the Bleak Midwinter” with its maudlin description of “snow on snow on snow”—clearly written by someone with limited experience of winters in Israel. Christmas falls near the solstice because people have from earliest memory recognized the sacredness of this season. When Jesus was born nobody knew he was to become so famous as to have one of the most popular Facebook pages ever, and so nobody thought to write it down. Even the Gospels the disciples never give a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” while on the dusty highway. What we’re celebrating is that night will not reign forever.

Having evolved to favor our eyesight, but lacking the standard mammalian nocturnal nature, we feel vulnerable in the dark. Even if Jesus hadn’t been born we’d be celebrating at this time of year. It might have been the re-living of the mythic Golden Age of humanity under Saturn that the Romans called Saturnalia, or it might have been the rejoicing over the resurrection of the beloved god Balder among the Norse. We might have had to wait until the days were noticeably longer to fete the goddess Brigid with the Celts at Imbolc, but we would have marked the occasion. Instead of cursing the pagan darkness, as the saying goes, we would light our feeble candles as a sign of hope. The reason for the season is the fact that the longest night is over and once more our days will slowly return light to our lives.

Here comes the sun

Legislating Reality

The follies that plague humankind come in an almost cyclical form. As old Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just finished D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteen-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Other than the fact that the subtitle accounts for a good portion of the book, this account shows just how little we’ve progressed. At the heart of the book is Maurice v. Judd, a New York case of 1818 in which a whale merchant contested an assessor’s fee on “fish oil” by claiming a whale was not a fish. In “trial of the century” style, star witnesses were called in, bringing science to the docket. It was known, even in these pre-Origin of Species days, that a whale was a mammal, but what soon became clear as Burnett laid out the facts of the case was that the Bible held sway. Genesis divides the classes of nature into beasts, birds, and fish. This simplistic taxonomy was held by many in the nineteenth century to be a sacred statement of fact. If whales lived in the water, they were fish. The fact that they nurse their young, who are born live, and that they share the skeletal template of land creatures and have warm blood, and breathe through lungs, simply did not matter. If Genesis says fish, fish it is.

My mind immediately jumped ahead just over a century to the Scopes Trial. Once again, science was bent over the knee of Genesis and poised for a paddlin’. And the challenges still have not stopped. Call it Intelligent Design, or Answers in Genesis—anything but mythology—and it will keep coming back for more. Already, in 1818, lawyers were arguing that science could be decided in the courtroom. Facts only muddy the issue. If Genesis weren’t enough, Jonah’s “great fish” was called a “whale” in the Gospels, so, QED. There is no debating Bible science. Just to prove the case, we’ll bring it to trial so that twelve people with no science training can decide the issue based on rhetoric. Disciples of dogma. No surprise that the jury found the whale to be a fish. There’s no stopping a true believer.

My wife gave me this book because of my enormous fondness for Moby Dick. In both books the discussion of killing and butchering whales bothers me immensely, but I know that Melville is running after a beast of a metaphor and that whale-boat skimming across the surface of the ocean has lanced a far greater prey than a white whale. The creationists, however, fail to see the beauty of mythic images. Anyone who’s even watched a court drama on television knows that the truth is not what courts seek. Courts seek to convince a jury, whether a person is guilty or not. No matter if it’s a while whale or a white bronco involved. Truth is much more subtle and fragile. Truth can be discerned by facts. But the Bible is a heavy book, and when dropped from a great enough height, can fracture even the laws of nature. Like Ahab, the creationists are never truly gone forever.

And Lowe

Hate is harder to muster for people just like us. I mean, if they live like us and look like us, what grounds do we have to distrust and fear them? This appears to be one of the premises behind the TLC show “All-American Muslim.” Many people know Muslims without knowing it and fear them without being aware of whom they fear. With this insidious kind of fear and hatred, religion must be involved.

Over the weekend, CNN online ran an article noting how Lowe’s is pulling advertising from the program. It seems that conservative Christian outcry is rising like the children of Israel in Egypt; the Muslims aren’t shown as bad guys—they’re like your next-door neighbor! Fear of takeovers has long been on the Neo-conservative agenda. If Romney is elected we will by overrun by Mormons. If we sleep, we’ll awake to Muslim neighbors. And we certainly can’t expect to all get along. If it weren’t for the media, we would probably never even know they held a different religion.

I’ve lived lots of places. With the exception of Grove City College and Nashotah House, I never once was aware of the religion (if any) of my neighbors. If they are civil and respect my right to believe what I will, they are entitled to the same. Religious supersessionism and maybe a pinch of jealousy play into this attitude of keeping others a minority. Is it because Muslims and Mormons are more effective at winning converts? The modern evangelicals have been relying on political bullying to get their way. Why not learn to appreciate your neighbor’s religion instead?

Religious freedom is a two-edged sword. Many of those who are worried now were quite happy when they were in the clear majority. When the lines get blurry the trigger finger gets itchy. Come on, Lowe’s! Educating ourselves about other religions is the best home-building project out there.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t A-l-l

Every great once in a while a politician makes a statement consonant with the principles of the nation. Over the weekend Robert Menendez, one of New Jersey’s U.S. senators, make a public announcement of his support for the Respect for Marriage Act. Admitting that 15 years ago he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, which would not recognize homosexual unions, Menendez has searched his conscience (a rare commodity among elected officials) and has come to realize this “Defense” Act for what it is: legislated immorality. It is immoral for a government to deny rights to committed couples based on the gender of either party. Gender is a social construct that may or may not align with sex—even the concept of two completely distinct sexes is now seriously questioned by biologists. The old measuring rod of ability to procreate together just does not match reality: infertile couples are granted the same rights as other married couples, so why not same “gender” couples? As Americans we often like to vote without thinking too deeply about the topic.

The value of procreation is obvious. Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. (Cole Porter knew what he was writing about.) When did we become so fixated on this one aspect of sexuality that we let it become the sole purpose of sexual behavior? Many religions recognize sexuality for what it is, a form of human interaction. The end result may be a new child, but it is not so as the result of the vast majority of couplings. Christianity (in some quarters) early on took a dim view of sex, and soon began to relegate it to procreational necessity only. Even then you were supposed to try hard not to enjoy it. The Catholic Church even relegates the biblical siblings of Jesus to the role of step-siblings; children of Joseph from a prior marriage, despite what the Bible says. Such distortion of nature could only come at the interference of religion. And as long as we’re busy regulating sex, let’s add a few statements about the only appropriate outlets for that committed relationship. Never mind who gets hurt. It’s all gonna burn.

I, for one, salute Senator Menendez for his willingness to open his mind. Too often the “government for the people” is excised from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. When did we the people pass to the government the right to decide whom we might love? The agenda set by the Religious Right is religious wrong, and too many tax-paying citizens are the heirs of its paranoia. It is time the government began serving the entire electorate rather than just the Southern Baptists and their friends. Nobody is attempting to regulate their sex lives, as Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, and Newt Gingrich will gladly attest. Keeping the zipper firmly up is not the strong suit of televangelists or politicians. If we’re going to have double standards here, let’s at least open the game to same-sex marriages. Those who feel threatened by the fair treatment of others need to gaze long in the mirror and ask why.

‘Tis the Season

A news story last week related how a traditional park area in Santa Monica, California had been “taken over” by atheists who wanted equal time with traditional Christmas displays. The park, which houses 21 display areas generally populated by nativity scenes of one sort or another, had so many requests for space this year that a lottery was instituted—a lottery that the atheist groups won. Claiming 18 of the spaces, the atheists groups have vastly reduced the visibility of traditional Bethlehem mythology. Does anybody else feel a culture war coming on?

The whole “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign that has been fermenting over the past decade or so has made many Christians paranoid. Society has forgotten, they claim, whose birthday we’re celebrating. A plain view of the facts, however, calls this assertion into question. No one bothered to record the date of Jesus’ birth. The stories about it, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, were written after a lifetime of reflection by people who were not eyewitnesses to any of the events. Historians of the era mention no celestial anomalies and there are no records of crazy old Herod killing babies among his own people. (His domestic affairs, however, may be quite another story.) What is absolutely clear is that the stories have grown with the telling. Many a child can tell you the names of the three wise men. Luke doesn’t even place them at the first Christmas, does not name them, and does not say there were three. No records of Zoroastrian migrations to Israel verify this story either.

The true loss is the loss of story. We live in a society that abuses the words “just” and “only.” That’s just a myth. That’s only a story. Ancient people—from the time of Jesus—appreciated the truths a story conveys. Consider the parables of Jesus. They cite not sources neither do they seek verification. They are only stories. They are also cited as the basis of many church teachings. Even atheists can be taught to appreciate the value of stories. Who could object to a myth advocating peace, harmony, and goodwill? Even if it’s just a myth.

Santa Claus might come to Santa Monica’s rescue. Yes, diehard fans of historical veracity will say there was a saint called Nicholas. We all agree that he didn’t wear red velvet trimmed in white and that he didn’t possess magical, northern latitude cervid stock. Even before the days of forced air heat he didn’t slither down every chimney in the world in one night. Few would dispute, however, the value of giving gifts of good will. Just ask any member of the Salvation Army who appear at this season every year. Instead of arguing about whom to exclude, why don’t we invite everyone to our celebration? Jesus, angels, Santa, Jack Frost, Heat Miser, and Christopher Hitchens—what a party this could turn out to be!

Is there no room in the manger?

King Hong

When the same religio-historic event is described in three consecutive books I’ve read on diverse topics, I start to consider what strange form of coincidence is operating here. Coincidences are some of the potent spices that give life flavor—the tragic death of Suzanne Hart on Wednesday when an elevator crushed her to death occurred the very day my bus was late and I took the route directly past her building to avoid the crowds on 42nd Street. What was the series of uncanny events that led me to where someone was about to die? It hardly seems within the divine character. So coincidences have been on my mind of late.

The last three books I read have all discussed the Taiping Rebellion that took place in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite having studied religion all of my life, I had never come across this religiously motivated violence until reading Daniele Bolelli’s 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion. Unrest in imperial China had existed before, but Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the rebellion, was motivated by religion. Xiuquan was a Christian (no doubt the fruit of missionary activity) who came to believe that he was Jesus’ younger brother. His motivation for the rebellion was based on his aberrant version of Christianity that quickly grew into a full-fledged movement calling itself the Heavenly Kingdom. Basing itself in Taiping, the movement adopted the early Christian practice of communal property and came to rule over about 30 million people. The numbers are what is truly stunning about this tragedy. When the conflict with the Qing Dynasty ended, about 20 million people were dead. The number is so high as to shut down comprehension. So many dead because of religion. It has a corporate feel to it.

Religion evolves. When it is spread into new cultures, syncretism takes over. Many religious believers, through faith, insist that their religion is the same as the founder propounded. Such simplistic understanding is not true. Culture, just like biology, lives and grows through evolution. The American Christian dressed in expensive clothes in a phenomenonally costly mega-church with a shining preacher bearing a million-dollar smile is about as far from a property-less, vagabond carpenter from Nazareth as you can get. Yet we still pretend. If that pastor says he is Jesus’ younger brother, chances are good that many will believe him. Stranger things have passed the lips of televangelists. Emotional involvement in religion easily leads the zealous to extreme action. History has demonstrated this time and again. The Taiping Rebellion of the Heavenly Kingdom proves the point, even if we’ve never heard of it. Maybe it is no coincidence after all.