Alien Religion

Alien3

Despite my interest in aliens, my viewing of the Alien movies has been tenuous at best. The image of what looked like an egg hatching a green sun over a particularly badly formed waffle always brought the tagline “In space no one can hear you scream,” to my juvenile mind. When the original movie came out in 1979, it seemed too scary for a kid in high school. I first saw Aliens (part 2) when living with a friend after seminary. He explained to me the missing gaps left from never having seen the original, and I was impressed by how Sigourney Weaver pretty much took on the alien queen single-handedly. I was still too young, however, to realize that there’s always room for an alien or its egg to attach itself inside any spaceship or escape pod. You can never really get rid of the things. I finally saw the first installment some ten years later, and it was clear that, as in nearly all series, the first was the best. Ridley Scott’s films take considerable energy to watch. No one seems capable of matching his dark moods and sense of a hopeless future. I left it at this state for another decade, until recently reading that Alien 3 marked the culmination of the “theology” of the series. Over the holiday break I decided to find out if this was true.

Ripley, who can never get a break, finds herself the sole survivor (again) on a prison-colony at what used to be a lead ore refinery deep in space. While the company had abandoned the facility, a group of inmates who had formed a religious order decided to remain. Having grown up in a refinery town, so far I’m on board with the story. Separated from society, from women, and from temptation, the prisoners are a fundamentalist sect that would seem to fit well into the woods of Wisconsin. Ripley threatens their delicate balance of celibacy, and although not a virgin she ends up conceiving an alien in a Madonna-esque way, not even knowing how she became pregnant. When she decides to incinerate herself rather than allow the alien to be born, she falls into the fire in a cruciform dive just to drive the point home. Before her dive into hell, however, Ripley tries to motivate this band of incarcerated monks to fight the alien. When they say the company will save them, she responds, “What makes you think they’re gonna care about a bunch of lifers who found God at the ass-end of space?” Again, echoes of Wisconsin.

Doubtless, my experience of the movies has been skewed by my own experience. Still, Alien 3 holds to a pattern that emerges fairly often in movies with a strong horror theme—religion is the progenitor of terror. The prisoners’ religion is described as “apocalyptic,” and it frequently appears that in movies where a civilization is on the brink of collapse, religion awaits to greet the survivors with open arms on the other side. In the horror genre, this is often a cold, clammy comfort. Although religious elements were largely lacking in the Ridley Scott and James Cameron episodes, I do hear distant echoes of Moby Dick here from the very beginning. The dark alien, like the white whale, is elusive and destructive and does not relinquish its hunt until Captain Ahab, or Lieutenant Ripley, is dead in its grip. And since Alien Resurrection awaits in yet another sequel, like the white whale, the alien never truly goes away.

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

About 55,000 tourists visit Liechtenstein every year. This blog was viewed about 210,000 times in 2012. If it were Liechtenstein, it would take about 4 years for that many people to see it. Your blog had more visits than a small country in Europe!

Click here to see the complete report.

On Dasher, On Dancer

CaputoOnReligion It’s a little embarrassing to admit that after having pondered religion for all of my life, I still have no clear idea what it is. In my case pondering includes three degrees in the study of religion and almost two decades in teaching it. I still read books that introduce religion, hoping to catch some distilled essence that I might label the core of the phenomena that go by the name. Some least common denominator. But that’s not how life works. Even the most basic of things can be complex, so I recently turned to John D. Caputo’s On Religion to find out what a philosopher thinks it might be. From the start this little book is jarring. Caputo, while staunchly refusing to tip his hand, defines the religious as those who love God. Or god. Or not really god, but something that might be as impersonal as the Force. Of course, love is as slippery a term as “God,” so Caputo suggests that it is caring for more than one’s own self. If many of our religious politicians and televangelists could get even that far perhaps we’d be closer to the religious idea of heaven itself. Then when Caputo turned philosophical, he started to lose me a little.

The big problem, and one of which Caputo is well aware, is that loving God is a western religious ideal. There are those who claim that some “Eastern religions,” such as Buddhism, Taoism, and that of Confucius’ followers, are actually philosophies and not religions. But if we’re trying to define religion, excluding a very large portion of the world’s belief structures seems to tilt the balance a bit dangerously westward. Come to think about it, the idea that all people have to have some kind of religion is a western conceit as well. Who are we to define the terms of another’s existence? That, it seems to me, is one of the problems of reductionism. Assuming that all people accept the premise that an empirical system can explain everything will not rid the world of religious martyrs. So what is to be done?

Caputo has thought about this as well. He concludes his short manifesto with a chapter entitled “On Religion—Without Religion.” Here the true root of the problem is exposed—religions that claim they alone can be true. For Caputo’s purposes western religions work best here because the three major monotheistic faiths share so much in common. Put crassly, the real question is where does the line of final revelation end. Is it Moses? Jesus? Mohammad? We could go on—Joseph Smith? Raël? Philosophically, at least, Caputo suggests that all religions could co-exist if they were willing to admit that they are all right. It boggles the reductionist mind. How can they all be right? How can they not be? After all, despite the millennia spent on the topic, we still don’t know what religion is.

Biblical New Brunswick

One of the true sadnesses of my life is that New Brunswick’s biggest institution, Rutgers University, couldn’t find a full-time place for a dreamer like me. Ever hopeful, I taught there for four years, counting on a miracle. Although I’ve got many good memories of my time at Rutgers, one of the side-benefits was getting to know New Brunswick a little bit. Probably not topping too many vacation must-see lists, New Brunswick, New Jersey nestles in the shadow of New York City and its train station is a place I’ve spent a bit of time. Last night I had occasion to stop in to get my bus pass so that I can start off the new year by going to work. As I climbed the stairs to the ticket window, I heard a street preacher holding forth. There he was, a young man, open Bible in hand, explaining to a mostly disinterested commuter crowd why they needed salvation. (If their experience on New Jersey Transit has been anything like mine, believe me, they already know.) Many of those in the waiting room are the homeless trying to get out of the cold for a while. New Brunswick has never struck me as a particularly religious town, although many of my students in my Rutgers days brought their religion to university with them. I didn’t have time for another conversion last night, however, as my family had another purpose for being in town.

A friend had kindly given my family tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the State Theater. Although put on by Plays-in-the-Park of Middlesex County, being in the shadow of New York City sets a very high bar for public performances. The show was excellent and energetic and I couldn’t help connecting the dots on how the Bible had played into the evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber long ago realized that even a very secular Britain had a hunger for biblical stories. Although I am biased, given my failed choice of profession, the story of Joseph is one of the great tales of all time. Although likely half the audience couldn’t say that the story occurs in Genesis, the rags-to-riches plot of betrayal and forgiveness is so deeply embedded in human dreams that even assigning it to the wrong testament would make no difference. As Lloyd Webber knows, we all want our dreams to come true. Joseph, certainly a flawed hero, does finally see himself as the second most powerful man in the fictional world of Moses’ Egypt. It’s difficult not to root for the guy.

Outside the temperature hasn’t managed to reach 40 degrees today. A few blocks away at the train station, some of those being force-fed the Gospel were almost certainly refugees from the cold. I’ve seen this every time I have to catch a train in Newark as well. The homeless know that at least they won’t freeze in the depot, even if they are chased off the seats by security. Moving from Joseph to James a moment, we hear “And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” In other words, if you are offering the homeless words only, you’re not getting the point of the gospel at all. The homeless would benefit more from having a dream come true, I’m certain, than from having a message of salvation before being turned out to the cold for the night. The real salvation in New Brunswick is being offered at the State Theater tonight, but you do need a ticket to get inside.

Any dream will do

Any dream will do

The Best Gift

Standing outside the footprint of a circular chapel next to the ancient ruins of a drinking hall in Ophir, the Orkney Islands, with friends. We’re quoting from the memorable scene in the Orkneyinga Saga where Svein Asleifarson leapt out and killed Svein “Breast-Rope” as drunken vikings staggered back and forth from the Earl’s Bu to the chapel one Christmas season some nine centuries ago. The Orkneys used to belong to Norway and had a close connection with Iceland, which, all things considered, is not that far off. While working on my doctorate in ancient Syrian mythology, I experienced a fascination with Icelandic viking sagas and read several of them (in translation, of course). Traveling to the Orkney Islands was about as close to Iceland as we’d hope to get on a student’s budget, and the atmosphere of these historic islands does not disappoint. We were standing on the actual site of this historical incident one violent Christmas long ago.

VikingsImagining, however, is not the same as condoning. Nearing a millennium later, Iceland celebrates Christmas with “Jolabokaflod,” the Christmas book flood. Armed with books rather than broadswords, the folks of Iceland have built a considerable literary reputation. According to an NPR story my wife and traveling partner sent me, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country, and giving books at Christmas is a national tradition. Reykjavík is a UNESCO-designated City of Literature. Unlike the United States, a large proportion of the population of Iceland buys books, according to the story, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t related to two other Icelandic phenomena as well. Iceland has very little gun violence and it is one of the most ecofriendly countries on the planet. While it is only a feeling, I believe that widespread reading makes a better society.

I remember the experience of growing up and hearing other kids complaining bitterly about assigned reading. Here in this wild west corner of the world, we’re too full of dreams of action to spend quiet hours improving our minds. Guns are easy to acquire and too easy to use against the innocent. We could sure use a Jolabokaflod, it sounds like to me. Towards the end of each year I like to tally up an approximation of how many books I read in the previous twelve months. Although some are definitely better than others, each one is its own gift, a glimpse into someone else’s worldview. And such glimpsing aids in understanding. I may not agree with you, but I know where you’re coming from. And as we enter that long, cold stretch of January and February I feel ill-prepared if I don’t have a stockpile of books to get me through the darkness of this time of year. And one of my fantasies will be a world that can see from the blood-stained ground of Ophir all the way to Reykjavik.

No Song for Old Men

Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.

The Santa Myth

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, devotes its resources on Christmas Eve to track the path of Santa Claus across not only across the northern skies, but also around the world. The idea of what must be a devoted group of very serious defense professionals programming the flight track of a fictional character is strangely bemusing. I have an app on my iPhone called Star Walk—it is an astronomy program that I wish i had as a kid standing under the winter skies trying to identify constellations. On Christmas Eve my clumsy fingers slipped, accidentally turning on the program. Although I was indoors, and it was cloudy outside, I glanced around the virtual universe to see what was happening, when what to my wondering eyes should appear? Indeed, the self-same Santa Claus was flying through the night sky on my phone. Do doubt such lighthearted antics put smiles on faces of children and adults alike. They also show how deeply embedded the myth of Santa has become.

Santa Claus is a relatively new deity in the pantheon of cultural gods. Many children earnestly believe in him and some parents use him as a source of moral guidance: you’d better be good for goodness sake. Santa’s watching. Even in a pluralistic world, Santa visits Mecca and Jerusalem and Djibouti, no matter the religion of the people—and my source on this is no less than NORAD, guys who scan the skies for nuclear missiles. If they can’t be believed, who can?

Now as we wade through the discarded wrapping paper and face the inevitability of returning to work, it seems as though something really did come on Christmas. It may not have been a man in a fuzzy red suit, tracked through the atmosphere by fictional computer programs, but we can hope that it was at least a fleeting moment of peace. After all, NORAD’s Santa crossed international borders with impunity, neglecting trade sanctions and sometimes open hostility. Unlike other major figures of the Christian pantheon, Santa does not spawn wars and hatred. He encompasses no strict, dogmatic belief. Maybe it’s because we admit he’s a work of fiction, and nobody really ever lives up to the standard of always being nice. Yet, at least according to NORAD, Santa visited every person on the globe with a sense of peace, a gift that fits no matter what your size.

SantaClaus

The Religion of X

X2While I never considered myself comically deprived as a child, as an adult I have come to understand that I missed quite a bit. Much of this comes through the Marvel Universe that I discovered through various superhero films that have captured the interest of the movie industry. Initially I felt a little silly looking for profundity among all those bulging biceps and impossible pecs, but I’m beginning to understand that just because a book is illustrated doesn’t mean it’s facile. All of this is a way of saying that I watched X2: X-Men United over the weekend. With my understanding of evolution and genetics, minimal though they be, I always find the “mutant” explanation a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless, these heroes have such a multiplicity of gifts, and the movies are dark enough to suggest something deeper than guys running around in tights. All I know of the X-Men I learned through the first movie, and I’ve never watched the extras. X2 introduced a new character (to me) that seemed to have been designed for a blog like this.

Nightcrawler is portrayed as demonic in shape and coloration, resembling Iblis more than anything else, is the most religious X-Man I’ve so far encountered. His hideout in the movie is an abandoned church in Boston, and when he is discovered he is in the midst of praying. During the course of the movie he prays the rosary and recites Psalms, making him a truly conflicted character—demonic in form and devout in soul. Comic book writers have long drawn on religious themes, but the shaping of “profane” characters as “religious” would appear a venial kind of blasphemy to many. If cartoon characters, however, are to resemble the real world at all religion must play into the Marvel Universe. After all, it plays into the fantasy world of the Tea Party on a regular basis. The concept of a religious demon is biblical, as James notes in his epistle, “the devils also believe, and tremble.”

There is something deeper going on here, however. Nightcrawler not only believes, but worships. The issues of prejudice and racism are clearly present throughout the movie(s). And as the story comes to its climax, Phoenix—whose name already suggests resurrection—rescues her X-compatriots in an act of self-sacrifice. Religion, as it plays out in X2 is messy and ragged around the edges. But it is clearly present. In the Marvel Universe gods and humans mix with unnerving ease, and the gods aren’t always the most powerful of the heroes we meet. After seeing the movies I’ve come to realize that a developed backstory exists for this universe and some scholars of religion have begun to notice. And once that happens, a theology is never far behind. I suspect it will remain a matter of debate whether the book is better than the movie or vice-versa. In the meanwhile, I’m thinking I’ll need to find the third member of this trinity and see how the story ends.

Evolving Instinct

ArtInstinct Evolution has appeared as a threat to the Christian establishment ever since Charles Darwin worked out a mechanism by which it could work without God. In the western world, particularly in the United States, evolution has always been a religious issue; it seems that if we remove God from the development of humankind we remove him from the universe. The thing is, natural selection works on such an elegant scale that the scientific endeavor itself almost hinges on it. And still people believe. I flatter myself with thinking I’m a creative sort, and so Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution provided an intriguing consideration of how we might become creators in a world lacking a creator. Well, I shouldn’t be so crass; Dutton has no atheistic agenda—he is interested in exploring what natural function the human love of art might have. We do know that art appears well before civilization itself, and Dutton has a suspicion that natural selection’s lesser known sibling sexual selection might have an explanatory role. He isn’t willing to go all the way and say art is just a mating strategy, but art and love are no doubt bound closely together.

I read The Art Instinct wondering if there might be some collateral insight into the origin of religion. I wasn’t disappointed. Within the first ten pages religion entered the discussion and it never really left. Not that sexual selection evolved religion, but the traits of the religious often parallel those of the artist. As Dutton points out, some theorists almost equate religion and art. For me one of the main features of this thought experiment was the innate questioning of reductionism. While there is no doubt a stark beauty to the idea that an atomistic theory might explain every weird little thing that we do in the name of art and religion, real life just doesn’t feel that way. The reductionist will counter that emotions have evolved as well, and surely there is a measure of truth in that. Nevertheless there is too much that goes unexplained in this mechanistic worldview. Even Dutton occasionally uses the language of the soul.

Sublimity remains a noble state. The feeling that we have standing before a painting that yanks our very consciousness into itself, or when a symphony sweeps us to places we can’t begin to articulate, or a poet distills in a handful of words what an entire lifetime has taught us—these experiences certainly don’t feel like electrons racing through a gray matter racetrack. Even stepping out the door on some autumn mornings can bring the essence of life into a single, compact moment when nature’s art transcends the human capacity for understanding. Science, at such times, is the farthest thing from our minds. Or at least mine. Perhaps it’s a personal defect. As Dutton notes in his Afterword, his thesis has raised the ire of reductionists and the religious alike. To me that sounds like he’s probably headed in the right direction. Religion may not be art, but art is life. Reducing life to a series of earning opportunities in a godless marketplace may make me believe in Hell yet.

Umbrella Apocalypse

Broken ribs and twisted, tortured limbs hanging useless under a leaden sky. It was a scene of carnage. I knew the world was supposed to end yesterday, but I didn’t believe I would experience it, but the evidence was indisputable. It was the apocalypse. For umbrellas. Winter storm Draco had melted by the time he reached the East Coast. I awoke to the apartment shuddering in the wind, and I could hear the rain pelting the windows. I had one more day to go to work before two things: the end of the year and the end of the world. And I would be relying on New Jersey Transit. The very thought makes me want to cower in the closet. My bus stop has no shelter—it’s just an exposed street corner, not far enough away to justify a drive. I stood in the rain, faithful umbrella held like a shield in the blast of Draco’s breath. The bus, of course, was nearly half an hour late. I stumbled up the stairs, glasses dripping, and decided that today, only today, I would take the subway across Manhattan. After all, the world was ending.

The lines from the Port Authority to the bowels of the subway are like those old documentaries of massive lemming migrations off a cliff. My turn. The card reader said “Card Already Expired.” Metrocards don’t expire; you charge them up and recharge them when they’re empty. I still had money on my account, but with other lemmings close behind, and rush-hour grade lines at the recharging machines, I decided to fight the dragon on the streets. It was with a certain Cervantesque tilting at the wind that I made my way across West 41st Street, umbrella forced into a tiny cone by Manhattan’s famous wind tunnels. Twice I was blown off the curb. Then at 5th Avenue the wind defied both the laws of physics and the agreed conventions of meteorology and slammed me from north and south simultaneously, my umbrella bucking in my hands like a terrified stallion. It sustained two broken ribs, metal twisted in opposite directions, flesh flapping uselessly. By the time I reached Grand Central, it couldn’t close, so I dumped my companion into a garbage can with other umbrellas and went on alone.

When I got to the office I discovered my hat was missing. While it would be more dramatic to say that a stocking cap blew right off my head, the truth is that it must’ve fallen out of my coat pocket. I was wet, buffeted, and without two items with which I began the day. The sky was still black as I looked out on the scene of the final battle from The Avengers movie. It had been an apocalypse all right, for the umbrellas. Chicago may be the Windy City, but New York is the Umbrella Killer. When I made it home as early as 6 p.m., I knew the world had ended for certain. I read the Cajun Night Before Christmas and went to bed, thinking of all those poor, dismembered umbrellas. Today is the day after the end of the world, and I am huddled here waiting for the dawn.

Don Quixote rides out of Manhattan yesterday with Sancho Panza wondering at his denuded umbrella.

Don Quixote rides out of Manhattan yesterday with Sancho Panza wondering at his denuded umbrella.

Southern Comfort

CajunNightOnce upon a time, long before Hurricane Katrina, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature held their annual meeting in New Orleans. It must’ve been an incongruous sight: the Big Easy filled with right proper professional religionists discoursing eruditely. While there, my family purchased the Cajun Night Before Christmas, by Trosclair. A cute knock-off of Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Santa Claus” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas), the story unfolds of a fur-bedecked Santa visiting a destitute, but grateful family on the bayou. Each year I try to reach deep in my southern roots to find an accent that accommodates the poem, and read the story the week before the holiday comes. A number of factors have suggested that perhaps this year Christmas might catch many people on a more subdued level. Crushing poverty is a reality, guns are too readily available, and the one percent don’t get close enough to humanity to contract the common cold. Even the effects of Katrina have refused to dissipate completely. Her sister Sandy visited the Big Apple, and things still aren’t quite right.

Big Apples and Big Easies may seem to have little in common, apart from how much money is available to assist in hurricane recovery. They both also participate in Christmas, being havens of Catholicity. Yet after the hurricanes some in New York and New Jersey were without power several days, but parts of Louisiana were simply abandoned. The will to help the disadvantaged seems to have improved since 2005. Considering changes at the top, this isn’t necessarily a surprise. Nevertheless, tragedy throws into sharp relief what we consider human decency. Too bad it takes a disaster to make us more human.

What sticks with me about the Cajun Night Before Christmas, apart from the flying alligators, is the profound hopefulness that the poem conveys. Those with so little take so little to improve their lot. Yet those with too much insist it is their right not to be taxed at all. Those who live in a shack don’t expect much from Santa. They have learned through the disappointment of experience that double standards are endemic in life and while some are unbelievably rich, the poor are happy with just the smiles of children. Ironically, Santa is the great equalizer here. While the children of the wealthy may expect and receive more, the children of the humble are also allowed a portion of hope. As I remember New Orleans, in the palmy days before Katrina, it was a city that knew Mardi Gras was far more humane than Lent, and that even a city marked my radical inequities (let those with eyes to see read) could come to a joyous accord when sins are about to be atoned. And even if he has to commandeer alligators, Santa will visit the poorest children the night before the holy days.

No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?

Merry X-Man

XMenComic books were hard to keep up with for a kid of limited means. Consequently, I never heard of the X-Men until the movies started coming out. Since I suppose I fit the profile of the guy whose life has devolved into day after long day in the office, superheroes are burdened with living life for me. I’ve watched the X-Men movie a few times, but after reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics my latest viewing took on a different angle. Of course, Mageto is presented as being separated from his parents at a concentration camp in Poland as the film opens. A child on trial for his ethno-religious heritage. That, and the fact that he’s a mutant, lends him a perspective on evolution not shared by many. His scheme to transform world leaders into mutants is premised on his understanding of evolution. He tells Senator Kelly, however, that God is too slow. That apparently minor line may bear more weight than it seems at first.

I can’t see the title “X-Men” without thinking of Xmas. Probably the fact that it is now mid-December has something to do with it, along with the bumper crop of Keep Christ in Christmas media this year. Yard signs, church marquees, bumper stickers. People who don’t know the history of their own holiday fear that they’re losing its meaning. Already by the twelfth century the abbreviation Xmas was in use—this is a centuries old tradition that predates American white Christmases by several hundred years. The X is not a substitute, but rather a symbol. A religion that has lost its appreciation of symbols has become just another set of onerous laws.

Maybe we can learn a lesson from our X-Men and their too slow deity. Not having read the X-Men when I was young, and even now noting that there are just as many X-Women as Men, I had to puzzle out the name on my own. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to see the connection of Charles Xavier with his clan of adopted mutants, and therefore the origin of their X. It is a symbol and no one disparages Cyclops his sight or Storm her lightning (miracles all) for having an apocopated title. I think, too, of how the Grinch stole, and returned, Christmas. Dr. Seuss created a tale that captured the essence of Christmas without so much as a religious vocable in the the book. And his eponymous character has come to represent all those who refuse to celebrate when occasion calls for it. So when God is too slow, X-Men, or even a Grinch in a pinch, can keep the X in Xmas.

Christmas Incorporated

ChristmasinAmericaA number of years ago I wrote a short book on holidays for children. Like most of my books, it was never published. I wrote it when I learned that good books explaining in simple language whence various American holidays came appeared not to exist. The literary agents I contacted quickly showed me why. In any case, I remain curious about holidays and so I read Penne L. Restad’s Christmas in America: A History. There’s a wealth of gifts in this brief book. I’d researched the subject a little bit myself, so I already knew some of the origin stories, but if you’d like to know why we have Yule logs, egg nog, or why Santa prefers red, this is the book for you. As I’ve noted in previous posts, Christmas is a fairly recent star in the constellation of American holidays. In fact, those of us who work for secular companies know just how few holidays Americans officially celebrate. Having lived three years in the Scotland, I know how seriously holidays are taken in at least one corner of Europe.

Christmas didn’t really catch on in America until the nineteenth century. Industrialization was beginning and more and more was expected of the worker who made the robber barons wealthy. It is no accident that the American Christmas had many of its origins in New York City where much of the industry ran non-stop. Restad, however, makes a very good point that Christmas has always been both pro- and anti-commercial. Owners of large retail chains saw the opportunities to sell goods to time-stressed individuals while the giving of presents often promoted a selflessness uncharacteristic of those who stand to profit from consumers. Restad notes the increase in goodwill that Christmas generates in society as a whole. Indeed, I have seen more people giving to the homeless during the past two weeks than I had seen so far this year.

One aspect of Christmas that I hadn’t expected to find in Restad’s treatment was the early emergence of the “prosperity gospel.” Of course, it wasn’t called that in the early twentieth century, but in the millennia since the Christmas story actually originated, some in the church began to take their own righteousness far too seriously. Seeing that clergy who knew how to tug the soul-strings just right could easily gain wealth, they started to suggest that God wants you to be rich. They seem to have overlooked who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Search the Gospels and your search will be in vain if you attempt to find words to console the rich. The “prosperity gospel” is as much a lie today as it was when it began, back in the days when dubious clergy looked for a way to excuse their comfortable lifestyles while many of their flock suffered want. Christmas in America shows itself to have a little bit of the social gospel built in, for it is clear that even the Devil can site Scripture for his own purposes.

Faith and Freedom

Schadenfreude is not my usual response to the downfall of a religious leader—with perhaps the exception of televangelists. After all, religious leaders are only human. Occasionally one crosses a very serious line, as the news about Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic counselor who was found guilty of molesting a girl under his profession care, reveals. The sad part of this situation, apart from the tragic consequences for his victim, which are very serious in their own right, is that the Satmar Hasidic community insisted that it should have had the right to do its trial in secret. Sects that take their cue from the Bible are seldom fair to women. The Bible, after all, is not a very female-friendly tome, no matter how much feminists may try to rescue it from its androcentric world. Religions based heavily on the Bible feel they have the right to judge by their own standards—something a secular court can’t understand. It is back to the paradigm of the two swords here.

What are we to make of the civil crime that violates no religious laws for any one sect? What is wrong in one book is all right, or at least forgivable in the other. For a secular crime committed in a closed religious community in a country of religious freedom, who is to decide? These questions are decidedly more than rhetorical. Any religion that says women are here to serve men—and there are a disturbingly large number of such religions—can claim that God trumps gent d’armes every time. What’s more, they believe the decree is eternal and they are violating the divine will if they don’t keep to it. This situation is nothing new; at least as early as Tiglath-Pileser III, and probably earlier, ancient religions sometimes had to compromise under the hegemony of a higher power. But they were only biding their time until the political situation would grant their autonomy once more.

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It is simplistic to suggest that the two swords represent the two hemispheres of the brain, but we do have a rational versus emotive issue here. Rationally, would an unseen force endowed with a human personality demand the unfair treatment of some people simply because of an unexplained favoritism? It does not seem likely. But religions are seldom logical. “Credo quia absurdum,” Tertullian is remembered as sighing—“I believe because it is absurd.” Theologically profound? Certainly. Helpful in society? Not so much. Freedom of religion is a classic ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Religions are free to declare their own beliefs, but their own beliefs may challenge the very authorities who grant them that privilege. Secular authority may have the ability to put to death, but resurrection is the prerogative of religion.