Razzing Cain

Generations of literalists who’ve had their eyes opened by reading what the Bible actually says have stumbled over Cain. His murder of Abel is fine—predictable even. The problem is what happens after that. Since he has murdered his brother, the only other human born so far, Cain seems prematurely concerned about “every one that findeth” him killing him. Seems unlikely that Eve, or even Adam, would like to kill the only surviving child they have. Yet God puts a mark on Cain. Presumably his parents would recognize him, so why is Cain literally a marked man? Rather than Omega Man survival techniques, Cain focuses his attention on kick-starting his love life.

Cain’s wife immediately raises the issue of where the girl comes from. Those who like to call themselves literalists have to back-peddle a little and suggest that since, according to Genesis 5 Adam and Eve had other children, this must be where she derives. Of course, she would in such a scenario, be his sister. Extraordinary circumstances call for extreme measures, but even so, literally, there are no other people yet. Cain is old enough to kill his brother and the next child born, according to the narrative, is Seth. Seth is explicitly a replacement for Abel, and really he doesn’t do Cain any favors in finding a wife. The story here simply slips out of character and gives us a world already partially populated.

As I was tweeting Genesis 4, it occurred to me that immediately after marrying, Cain builds a city. Cities only sprang into existence to allow for mutual protection with the diversification of labor, following on from the agricultural revolution. One of the main characteristics of cities is population. Genesis 4 has only Adam, Eve, Cain, his wife, and Enoch. It may be the smallest city in history since the entire human race could have easily fit into one modest house.

The stories of Genesis are etiologies—tales of origins that have no ties to historical incidents. Cain represents the urbanites, the city dwellers who will always somehow find ways of irritating God. In our urban culture where most people are born in towns or cities, we have lost touch with the life of the nomadic pastoralist. We are, however, merely following the literal path that the Bible lays out for us. As we shall shortly see, the children of Cain and Seth are the same.

Cain just can't figure it out

Staking a Claim

Okay, I confess. When I learned my recent host in London lived in Highgate, my thoughts immediately went to the Highgate Vampire. I first learned about the Highgate Vampire from Matthew Beresford’s From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, a book that spoke to me at some inexplicable level. Claims had been made that an actual vampire roamed the north of London in the 1970‘s. My first thought was utter skepticism—one of the reasons that I was never afraid of vampires is that I knew they couldn’t possibly be real. The mythical world of a fundamentalist allows deity, devil, angels, and demons. No more, no less. The vampire, as a supernatural creature largely dreamed up by John William Polidori and Bram Stoker, was a literary monster only. As a doctoral student in Ancient Near Eastern religions, I learned that the prototype of the vampire went back to Sumer, the earliest civilization known. Still, I wasn’t worried. The Sumerians also believed in night hags and dragons and had no crucifixes to keep the beasts down. Then I learned about the Highgate Vampire.

I have just finished reading Sean Manchester’s most recent iteration of his account of slaying the Highgate Vampire. Manchester, a bishop in the Old Catholic Church and a descendant of Lord Byron—Polidori’s close associate—claims to have staked the vampire in the backyard of a haunted mansion in Hornsey. This transpired in 1973. There’s one born every minute, right? But then, there are the claims of physical evidence: exsanguinated foxes, photographs of rapidly decomposing corpses, the obvious ardor of Manchester’s personal account. The mental jarring was extreme—surely a priest would never fabricate such a tale? Surely the vampire is a fictional creature with no place in a rational world? Why did Manchester’s account resemble Jonathan Harker’s diary so much?

So, we were staying in Highgate, London. The first morning as the sun rose, I dragged my family to Highgate Cemetery. I hadn’t read Manchester’s account yet, and Beresford’s book was almost three years back in my memory. Looking through our pictures, there I found it—the tomb in which Manchester claims to have originally discovered the black coffin with the actual vampire inside. Whether fictional or not, I was in the presence of the vampire. The overcast sky, ivy coated tombstones, the jet-lag—all combined to provide the atmosphere for the impossible. I have no idea what really happened in London when I was a child in school, but I have learned that many adults will gladly drain off the very lifeblood of others in order to attain their own benefit. From the days of Sumer to the present, growing in number there have been vampires among us. Our lives are much more comfortable if we simply refuse to believe.

Planet of the Monkeys

“If salvation is available only to Christians, then the Gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.” That may not be Rachel Held Evans’s choice for the final word on the subject, but it is the privilege of all writers to be misinterpreted. I read Evolving in Monkey Town because of an odd confluence. Evolution always tastes like forbidden fruit to me, although there can be no real doubt concerning its factuality. Also, the spiritual journeys of women continue to fascinate me. Even if the women are young enough to be my daughter. I first learned about the Scopes Monkey Trial in Mr. Pierce’s tenth grade history class. In eleventh grade I argued the Fundamentalist side of an epic, three-day debate on evolution in current issues class. I set a reputation that I’m still attempting to live down. (Studying religion for the next ten years probably did me no favors here.) The end result is that I feel a personal connection to what happened in Dayton, Tennessee, although I’ve never been there.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a memoir of a struggling, skeptical fundamentalist. Reading it at times made me squirm a bit, seeing childhood worries and frustrations coming back to me through someone else’s experience. Some of Evans’s remarks could have come from me, had I the courage to write up my past so that others might view it. At the end of the book it was obvious that I could not agree with many of the author’s personal convictions, but she earned my respect. Under the constant pressures of pleasing a deity that can’t be seen, or empirically verified, Evans sees clearly the disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and Fundamentalist Christianity. She has a wonderful knack for clear sight and forthright comment. Like me, she has become aware that a Fundamentalist upbringing is something no one ever truly escapes.

The crisis that seems to have sparked Evans’s angst was the recognition that no matter how you arrange it, an exclusive religion cannot coexist with a just deity. The world is just too big for that. Any scenario in which God sets the rules and makes it impossible for the vast majority of humanity to attain those rules does reflect rather poorly on this pater familias. We are all reduced to a diabolical game of charades as we march merrily toward perdition. Theodicy is an insurmountable problem in this live-a-day world we inhabit. Reading about the altruistic traits of the primates most closely related to us reveals something about being a monkey’s uncle. When we look at the shenanigans religions enforce on people to make them more worthy of heaven, I think we would all have to admit to living in Monkey Town.

Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)

Rite and Wrong

Anyone who’s never had anything very weird happen to her or him, raise your hand. Hmm, I thought so. Strangeness, whether prevalent or simply a unique event, is part of life. It is when we turn to explanations that the religious side of the equation suggests itself. Now I have a confession to make. When Borders was going out of business last year, I was in mourning. Those last poignant hours in my favorite bookstore I wandered the aisles picking up the books left behind by others, many of which I would not have otherwise purchased or read. One of those books was The Rite by Matt Baglio. I had seen the hype for the movie, and although the idea of possession terrifies me I’m not sure there’s anything here that can’t be explained by the likes of Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Still, riding through the flickering lights of the Lincoln Tunnel on a bus on a gray and rainy morning, literal shadows of doubts creep in.

There is no doubt that events happen to us that seem to defy explanation. There is also no doubt that the enormous wealth of Christian mythology taken literally by Baglio defies all but the most gullible of readers. The problem is the black box. Nobody sees what goes on inside the locked chamber where the exorcist practices his art. Yes, it is a manly enterprise since the Catholic Church won’t admit of women priests. This was one books that left me tottering between what I know to be true and that shadowy place where doubts dwell. It is utterly certain that our perspective helps to determine what we see. A priest in a stuffy or chilly closed-off room believing a demon lurks therein will see the signs in the behavior of the victim. Throughout the book I kept pondering how so many possessed people lived in heavily Catholic Rome while in locales with more mixed religious traditions the phenomenon is rare.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the story is the fact that Baglio readily admits: most of the possessed are women. In a religion where women have been marginalized as a matter of course from the early days, can this really be a surprise? And when the exorcist, a celibate priest, experiences sexual arousal how else can he interpret it but as demonic? The human mind is a fascinating system, capable of launching a body into stunning, adrenaline-induced feats of strength and endurance. It conjures gods and demons. And it can make a grown man cower on a dark and windy night with stories of possession racing through his head. I had a difficult time believing much of what I read in The Rite, but I do think perhaps it is now time to make a date with Carl Sagan. Lighting a candle in the dark is a very human thing to do.

Bleak Visions

The day was leaden and rainy. Hopes for seeing the sun over the next several days dim. I had been warned about this, but once my mind has settled on vampires, they’re hard to resist. The reviews said Priest, as a movie, was full of cliched dialogue and predictable outcomes. This is true. But still, it is perhaps the most religious vampire movie ever made. While some have doubted my analyses of Underworld and other vampire films, Priest is set in a Pullmanesque world dominated by a church that has lost its belief in vampires. In fact, the civilized world, in scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, owes ultimate allegiance to the church. Based on the graphic novels by Hyung Min-woo, the post-apocalyptic world of Priest presents an over-industrialized society where humans live in walled cities (ironically, Jericho has no walls). Vampires, more fierce than any Count, even by fifteenth-century standards, rip humans to shreds, but have been forced into reservations by the warrior priests. Their weapons are cross-shaped, but there is otherwise no reference to Jesus in the movie—only an amorphous “God.”

Despite the endless tropes, “a vampire killed my brother,” “the Priest is her father,” and endless chatter about the nobility of sacrifice, the movie is strangely compelling. Visually it maintains the appeal of a place somewhere between Planet of the Apes and the Book of Eli. And something appeals about priests who are willing to fight evil rather than sit around arguing about whether women should be allowed to join the movement or not. Keeping with modern proportions, we see only one female priest and none among the Monseigneurs, but she is the one who actually stops the vampires. And these are vampires that have evolved into the blind, naked denizens of the night who kill, apparently, for the sheer joy of it. The only article of faith the church can muster is, “if you go against the church, you go against God.”

I wonder if anyone in the world of religions is tracking how society perceives them. Religions once stood for our noblest aspirations, and our humblest weaknesses. Like bad caricatures from the movies, religious organizations don’t shy away from the desire for ultimate power. In His Dark Materials and in Priest, the church is content with nothing less than total domination. This is not missionary zeal, but good, honest power-lust. Not all religions are like that, of course. Still, there are those who perceive them that way. Maybe it is my own insecurity, or maybe it is the fact that I’m seldom convinced I have the answers, but I can’t help but feel the thrill of justification at the rebel who maintains conviction to the ideals s/he holds deeply. It takes no backbone to enforce obedience when might is on your side. But only those who have faced the vampires personally know who the real enemy is.

Degradation

Having felt like an automaton in the realm of higher education, I was occasionally overwhelmed by the number of students and lack of resources. One of my fervent beliefs is that multiple-choice tests do not really demonstrate what a student knows, but playing the numbers, I sometimes had to resort to them. Being an adjunct, I didn’t have access to Scantron, so I devised a method of stacking the sheets precisely and grading them with a power drill. It was my one bit of notoriety at Rutgers—I was the guy who graded with a drill. All the while, however, I knew that a truer method would be to allow students to write for themselves. Even that, however, is going the way of automation. A recent story in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that student papers are sometimes being graded by robots. Real robots. The truly scary part of the story is that the robots provide grading almost indistinguishable from the professor, a species quickly becoming obsolete. I tell myself not to panic.

“Don’t panic,” of course, was the catch-phrase popularized by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In a world overwhelmed by forces we can’t hope to understand, panic is a natural enough reaction. Adams gave us Marvin the Paranoid Android. Higher education has given us the paranoid professor. Parents who pay extraordinary—mythologically high—tuition rates often ask me where all that money goes. It certainly doesn’t line the pockets of humanities professors; indeed, many of the classes are taught by adjuncts who are the penny dreadfuls of academia. I don’t know where the money goes. I do know that university presidents and football coaches are not wanting for material goods, but even their greed can’t account for the entire greenback drain.

If I were still a professor I’d be tempted to ignore the sage advice of Douglas Adams about now. Courses can be covered by an overwhelming army of competent adjuncts, and grading can be contracted out to robots. Students really don’t even need to come to class any more as distance education has taught us. College becomes little more than an excuse to drink while away from home with a hefty tab being picked up by the folks back home. Higher education may have had the seeds of its own destruction always planted within itself. We’ve confused technology with the desire for increasing comfort and ease of lifestyle. It was only a matter of time before universities caught up. Standing by the grave of Douglas Adams in Highgate Cemetery I’m thinking that his bizarre vision of the future was more sensible than what has actually evolved in our culture. That, and I’m glad I learned to use a power drill.

Call for Papers

The following is a call for papers from my colleague Dr. Joseph Laycock. Anyone interested and qualified, please contact him directly:

Dear Colleagues

I have recently been given the privilege of guest editing a special
issue of Nova Religio on the paranormal. In the last few years,
several good books have appeared that consider so-called “paranormal”
beliefs, discourses, and experiences as an object of inquiry for
religion scholars. Like the category “religion,” the category
“paranormal” is poorly circumscribed and may potentially include a
wide milieu of supernatural and pseudo-scientific beliefs and ideas.
We seek papers that address the place of paranormal discourses within
the larger context of religious and cultural studies. We also invite
papers on religious aspects of specific paranormal discourses such as
UFOs, psychics, hauntings, etc.

Submission Guidelines
Potential authors should first review Nova Religio’s website to get a
sense of the aim and scope of the journal. Authors should follow the
guidelines for authors on the website for the format of the paper and
its citations.

Submission queries, including abstracts, should be sent to Joseph
Laycock: jlay@bu.edu. Completed articles are due August 1, 2012, and
should be approximately 8,000-10,000 words including all documentation
and critical apparatus. As the guest editor, I will make the initial
determination about which papers are suitable for publication, and
work with authors to improve their draft papers before forwarding them
to Nova Religio’s co-general editors. The co-general editors, Eugene
Gallagher, Joel Tishken, and Catherine Wessinger, will make the final
decision about whether or not a paper can be accepted for publication
in Nova Religio.

The Price of Religion

Gender is a religious construct as much as a biological one. The study of religion has brought me face-to-face with the reality that religion appeals to many women and to those who would manipulate them. Lately I’ve taken to reading the memoirs of women who’ve discovered the abuse their faith has doled out to them and who’ve taken moves to reclaim their lives. This past week I read Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots. As someone who has spent much of his life reading and re-reading the Hebrew Bible that gave fuel to the Mishnah that gave fuel to the Talmud that gave fuel to the Hasidic movement, I found Feldman’s narrative gripping. Some branches of Judaism, like some branches of Christianity, try hard to separate themselves from society. Their cloistered lives become secretive, and often by the standards of secular culture, incomprehensible. While reading this wrenching account of sexual domination, I kept wondering why Feldman didn’t try to escape. At the same time I already knew the answer.

I was raised by a religious mother who found her faith both a source of rules and a source of comfort. Unaware that religion can be a trap, women are frequently its victims. In a society that still refuses to give females equal opportunity for earning a living, is it any wonder that religions offer alternative routes that equally entrap? How do you appeal to a higher power when that higher power is, by biblical definition, male? Who will help you out when the largest religious structures in the world are male constructs? Yes, lately some religions have opened themselves to female leadership, but almost always at the cost of splitting off of factions that claim seniority and sanction from the beginning, when, they claim, only men ran this show. Deborah Feldman was trapped in a religion where her life, down to her hair and clothes and reading, was programmed by male expectations. In this continuum between religions we find the same progression in a series of degrees where men make the rules.

Many who read Unorthodox, I suspect, will see it as a condemnation of Hasidic Judaism. It is not. As Feldman makes clear, she has retained her Jewish identity, but she has let it evolve into a place where she is finally free to express herself. Gazing over the religious landscape, I see this as a place that many women find themselves. The very religions that had formerly held them down, however, continue to be male preserves. Even if women may join the club of bishops, clergy, or rabbinate, they do so with the constant reminder that they are only invited guests in what was once a masculine world. The world of men never voluntarily relinquishes its grip. As long as people are considered in the image of God they will always be by default male and female only as an afterthought. To conceive it any other way would be very unorthodox indeed.

Honor Thy Mother

Earth Day should be an international holiday. Perhaps the most disturbing attribute of some varieties of Evangelicalism is their tendency to read the “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” of Genesis 1 to be a mandate not tempered by a literal reading of Genesis 4. As I noticed when tweeting the text yesterday, Genesis 4.11 has God say to Cain, literally, “And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.” Her mouth? What is this if not a biblical affirmation of Gaia? The earth, according to Genesis 2, is literally the mother of Adam. Yahweh is the male element, the fingers molding the dirt (those who have ears, let them hear), while the womb of this bizarre conception is the earth itself. She has a mouth to receive the blood of Abel. The planet beneath our feet, according to the Bible, has not only a mouth, but also hands (Psalm 89, for those who doubt). It is our duty to grasp these hands and save our mother from ourselves.

In the spirit of the day, I decided to fix that pesky leak in the bathroom sink yesterday. We rent, of course, and our landlord—the nicest I’ve ever known—can be a bit slow when it comes to non-emergencies. I fixed the kitchen sink a year or two back, so I stuck my head under the cast-iron monster, baptized by the drips that continued to appear above my head from pipes far older than Methuselah, to see what I could do. After trips to every hardware store in the area, watching bemused DIY experts scratch their heads at photos on my phone of the Byzantine arrangement under my sink, I finally had to admit defeat and reassemble the old faucets again. The drips that fall are Gaia’s tears.

When I was in college I learned of Pascal’s wager. A philosopher who liked to hedge his bets, Pascal deduced that if God exists then our eternal fate relies on our obeying him (always him). If God does not exist, we have lost nothing by behaving ourselves, Pascal concluded. While many Evangelicals find that reasoning attractive, they do not apply it to their mother planet. If God is not coming back any day now, we’d better take care of the planet that sustains us. If God does show up, against all odds, what have we lost? Watching the plants burst back into life after a gray and dank winter, who can help but wonder at it all? Literal or not, the earth is so maternal that we should all pay her the reverence she is owed. Even if it means being a literalist for a day.

NASA's picture of our mother.

Nun Such Luck

It hardly seems to be news anymore when the headlines read “Vatican orders crackdown on US nun association.” Religions are largely characterized as men telling women (and milquetoast men) what to do. Perhaps because of our evolutionary, simian respect for the alpha male, most followers will resist pointing out inequities in the system just to have a smoother ride. The all-male Vatican is reportedly worried about how nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious might be distorting the masculine teachings of holy mother church. No matter how much science the Vatican supports, it just can’t get over the idea that when God is found out there he will have not only a human face, but a human penis as well. The Associated Press article states that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—that is the organization of the Inquisition, my dear readers—found grave errors of doctrine among the ladies. Sounds like time for an auto-da-fé, n’est-ce pas?

Somewhere on its long and weary trek, the control of fellow humans for the sake of God has slipped into the rut of control of fellow humans for the rush of power. The Catholic bishops are worried about abortion (and other healthcare options for women). The Bible says nothing about abortion, considering life to coincide with the first breath. The chosen people did not have a conception of how conception worked (you can’t see the sperm or ova without a microscope, no matter how divine they may be) and so life began and ended with breath. The only reason to push the origin of life to conception is so that men may control women’s sex lives. These decisions are made by sexless men who wear dresses behind inscrutable walls of power. When nuns start seeking fair treatment for women it quickly becomes heresy.

I don’t mean to single out the Roman Catholic Church here, since many religions proclaim male superiority—loudly or softly. Back in ancient times when goddess worship was taken as seriously as the cult of male gods, a few religions did exist that gave women a position equal to, or sometimes even above, men. The priests of Cybele, for instance, had to undergo ritual emasculation. Strangely, religions with celibate priesthoods today leave their men intact, perhaps as a loophole for sin. I wonder how much more women-friendly official theologies would be if only eunuchs were allowed to serve as pastors. It is, as Genesis famously states, sin that “is crouching at the door,” and therefore it is better to remain gendered and pray not to be led into temptation. Perhaps we have something to learn from history yet.

Dark Shadows Indeed

Part of my childhood died today. Like millions of others, I have been eagerly anticipating Tim Burton’s new Dark Shadows movie to wash the treacle of Twilight from the vampire’s mouth. Barnabas Collins was the epitome of the conflicted gentleman vampire, fully aware of and repulsed by his curse. After school I would religiously sit in front of the black-and-white television and watch the waves crashing into the cliffs of Maine as the moody story began to unfold in daily episodes. So when I read this morning that Jonathan Frid had died, I knew the vampire had found peace at last. And I was sad.

Although I’ve read scholarly analyses of monster fascination, nothing sets me back to childhood so directly as my beloved monsters. I don’t know why I feel a thrill in my chest and my pulse quickens when monsters appear before me. Perhaps it is a child’s way of coming to grips with a world beyond his or her control, or perhaps it was my way of dealing with a broken family. Lacking a father figure in life, I was fascinated by the gentle care and predatory nature of Barnabas Collins. He really did care, but he still had to bite you in the neck to survive. To my pre-adolescent mind, Jonathan Frid was Barnabas Collins. When I grew old enough for gothic novellettes, I consumed the serialized Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross, no matter how predictable or trite. I was reading about my heritage.

I have no doubts that Johnny Depp will portray a believable Barnabas Collins next month. Jonathan Frid, it is said, was consulted and was often present on the set of the new movie as it was being filmed. His turn to portray the tortured ancestor of the Collins family had lapsed, but he was the original. What is the draw of the vampire if not life after death? And although Jonathan Frid is gone, next month I will stand in line to see the resurrection of the vampire on the large screen.

Final Flight

Back in the day before CD players, let alone MP3 files, my mom had a squat, boxy rectangle of a cassette-tape player. (Remember, I am a student of ancient history.) The cassettes we had were home recorded, scratching and hissing like a disgruntled cat, but they were the latest in technology. And, of course, they were religious in nature. One particular tape I still remember with terror. Narrated by a optimistically doleful bass male voice, it recorded the events surrounding those climbing aboard a plane bound for heaven, along with authentic jet noises. It was, of course, a thinly disguised metaphor for death, something I realized even as a child. As the passengers climbed aboard, anticipating that meeting with Jesus, I trembled in fear. They were all about to die.

I have never been particularly afraid of death. Not that I’m in a hurry to go there, but I have always sensed it as inevitable and therefore not worth worrying over excessively. I was one of those who grew up thinking quite a lot about it, viewing it from different angles, trying to make sense of it. I still do. While I was in England, Time magazine ran a cover story on Heaven. Now that my feet are back on the ground, I have been reading the story with interest since I’ve just been spending several hours on a jet in the sky. One of the most surprising elements in the story is the fact that some evangelical preachers are beginning to inform their flocks that heaven is what we make it here on earth.

This may not sound shocking to you, but having grown up evangelical I knew that the only reason we behaved so well all the time was so that we could get into Heaven when we died. This was the economic basis of salvation—you paid for Heaven in good deeds and correct belief. Not that you exactly earned it, but you did invest in it. This was the defining characteristic of Christianity. The suffering that is so obvious in the world (I saw three homeless men curled up together inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal just this morning) can harsh anyone’s paradise. The traditional “Christian” response has been to look past that to a shimmering, if imaginary, kingdom in the clouds. I am very surprised that some evangelical pastors are willing to risk their entire campaigning platform in order to help those in need. It’s getting so that it is hard to tell which way is up any more. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend too long on a plane bound for a mythical destination.

Fighting Jesus

Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, accomplished something no other book has ever done for me—it actually made the doctrinal debates of Late Antiquity interesting. An historian of religion with wide interests, Jenkins produces fascinating books on what might appear to be esoteric aspects of religious life. I remember yawning through theology classes where we learned of crusty, if utterly convicted, monks and bishops arguing over single prepositions in their efforts to define exactly who Jesus might have been. When Jenkins turns his attention to this dusty, unwashed phase of Christianity’s gamy early years, new avenues on regulated belief structures open the way to understanding just how little most believers know of their own traditions. On its way to feel-good evangelicalism, Christianity frequently paused along the way to brutally murder some of its own for disagreeing about whether Jesus shared the same essence as his dad.

Today many Christians are taught by their clergy that their faith differs little from that of the earliest Christians. All who are taught this should be compelled to read Jesus Wars in order to get a grip on what really happened. From the very beginning Christianity was deeply divided about who was truly a follower of Christ and who was not. Even within a generation of the death of Jesus his various groups of followers could find little that they all agreed upon. As Jenkins demonstrates, over the next few centuries that sad history was worked out with extreme cruelty and cudgels and swords. The side with strongest force of arms got to decide on doctrine. Nor did matters improve with the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformers lapsed into what would have found them tied to a stake for heresy, had they been fortunate enough to have been born in the early centuries of “the Christian Era.”

The one figure that seems to have been lost during the Jesus Wars was Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, human constructions of who Jesus might have been became the source of great suffering. Bishops beating bishops to death, saints having women murdered, monks forming an unwashed militia—it’s all here along with the debate over how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Jenkins does an excellent job of demonstrating that what is now known as “orthodox” Christianity was often a matter of political accident. In the case of Theodosius II, the future of Christianity literally rode on the horse that stumbled, tossing the emperor to his death. No doubt, there will be those of one or another brand of Christianity who will see the divine will behind the ultimate outcome. That outcome, however, will always insist that all others are wrong. For those seeking a bit of balance, Jenkins will make enlightening reading. For others it may give the lie to doctrines made what they are by mere mortals. In any case, the words attributed to Jesus about loving your neighbors and enemies will nowhere be found amid the debates of who he might have really been.

Darwin’s Descendents

The plague that goes by the name of Creationism has been attempting to spread its reach to the shores of Britain. Proponents of a biblical literalism, whether overt or covert, have championed the idea that the world is terribly young—a mere cosmic toddler, in fact—compared to the vast geological ages of actual fact. When I unfolded my first ten-pound note and found Charles Darwin on the back, I smiled. England may claim a lion’s share of the heritage of one of the great unifying theories of science. In my brief jaunts between bouts of work I came across the tombstone of Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.” On a visit to Kew Gardens I strolled through the Evolution House. When I paid for my lunch, Darwin passed hands as the common currency of the realm.

Ten pound note

A school of thinking exists among many religious believers that insists that if science makes its claims justly then God cannot condemn them. Evolution runs as close to fact as does atomic theory. Those who doubt the latter should visit Hiroshima. Or Three Mile Island. Our literalist companions certainly don’t doubt nukes, but then, the Bible is mum on the subject of what things are really made of. Well, almost. According to Genesis 1, everything is made of chaos and divine words. The Bible doesn’t describe the origin of chaos—it is the natural state of things. God’s word, when it generates uranium, can be very deadly indeed.

Evolution House

Creationists selectively choose which science to believe and which to reject. Fundamentalism can trace its origins to Britain, but the culture rather quickly outgrew these childish fantasies. In America literalism sank deep roots, roots deep enough to withstand the hurricanes of reason that would otherwise clear the air. Can an American imagine Darwin sharing the money which reads “in God we trust”? And yet, Darwin lies scarcely two meters from Isaac Newton in England’s holiest shrine of Westminster Abbey. Science and religion have here embraced one another. Perhaps when we put all the monkey business aside, we will come to realize that we may still have a thing or two to learn from the nation of our founders. Literally.

Darwin at rest