Monthly Archives: December 2011

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?