Monthly Archives: May 2013

Sacred Herstory

NunsBehavingBadlyHave you ever read a book thinking the author was a woman, but later learned that it was written by a man? Or vice-versa? This creates a disturbing kind of cognitive dissonance, and I suspect that it is hardwired to our communal instincts. We want to know whether it is a man or a woman who is talking to us. Expectations of gender are deeply embedded in all societies, and they become problematic when they ossify into rules. Gender roles, in earliest societies, were a matter of biological necessities. In a modern, urban context such roles are obsolete, and certainly damaging—especially to women. Craig A. Monson’s Nuns Behaving Badly: Tales of Music, Magic, Art and Arson in the Convents of Italy raised this issue to a conscious level once again. Christianity, always very sensitive to issues of sexuality, had developed in a social context of women as property. In the Middle Ages, where dowries were expected, families couldn’t afford to marry off all their daughters, and convents provided an easy, if not always spiritual, solution. Monson’s book, although not filled with salacious tales, illustrates the point well. In a society where wage-earning was limited to males, females had few options.

Monson narrates the stories of five different convents where a nun (or sometimes groups of nuns) refused to play by the rules established by the male hierarchy. The infractions, viewed from the twenty-first century, seem minor: playing with magic, singing, producing art work, wanting to go outside the cloister walls, visiting (gasp!) an opera! (There are a few more complex issues too, such as arson and the love that dare not Ave Maria its name.) In each case, the masculine authorities were called in to investigate, punish, and restore order. The end result is, although fascinating, somewhat melancholy. These willful women were often acting against boredom. Their lives had no impact beyond the convent wall, and, ironically, I learned, even their enclosures had prisons. A nun could be moved from her cell to the cell. And sometimes the only crime was wanting to hear a professional singer perform.

Nuns Behaving Badly is a clever title for a book. As I read the histories, however, I became increasingly convinced that those behaving poorly were not the nuns. A society fabricated on the premise that men are the divinely ordained masters of their universe is no stellar example of men behaving well. Even the occasional bishop, archbishop, or cardinal who sided with the accused had to bow to the will of the Holy Inquisition. The victims, although not physically tortured, were women who had thrown their entire futures into the service of the church, in one of the few roles allowed females in an era already pressing into the early modern age. The nuns were not behaving badly. They were simply being human. The truly bad behavior came in the form of a male hierarchy that brooked no dissent.

Scholar Universe

One of the resources that editors use to find scholars of obscure fields of study is a website called Scholar Universe. Now, before you all rush to the site and crash the system, I should warn you that you’ll need to purchase an account and get a password to use it. Frankly, for our society it really isn’t worth the effort or expense for most people. The information on Scholar Universe is often outdated, and not always accurate. Once, when searching for who’s who in classical mythology, I was surprised to find my own name. I did teach classical mythology at Montclair State University for three semesters, but my longer and more complete career of teaching biblical studies was nowhere to be found. How quickly our contributions, meager though they be, disappear. In any case, when a contact breaks down, the website lists the position of a scholar as “Last Known.” More than once I’ve searched for a more updated record to find “Last Known” as a circumlocution for “deceased.” There are a few things I think I’d like to ask some dead religion professors.

I recently came across a couple of academics who had, in separate instances, been murdered. One, rather gruesomely, attacked with a hammer as he walked home from the train. We tend to think that education will somehow protect us from the vicissitudes of a world caught up in its own madness. Some of us came to this profession grasping for some sort of immortality. Higher education, while based on great ideals, is nevertheless just as susceptible to taint as any human enterprise. I have been watching as higher education has followed after the role model of business for the past few decades. There was a time when learning was thought to be worth the investment, no matter what the cost. Now a pleasant deception will do, thank you, as long as there’s cash in it.

The history of higher education has been, from the beginning, tied up with religion. The earliest universities coalesced around theological faculties, while others studied law. The two are never far apart. Even in the “New World” our early universities were formed, initially, in the service of the church. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, William and Mary, and many other colleges and universities were founded with the ideal of theological education firmly in mind. Concerns for the affairs of the world, however, inevitably came to preoccupy higher education. Secular schools have little time to study real world phenomena such as religion and spirituality. Unfortunately, those are the areas, our news sources often inform us, that would benefit the most from a bit of sensible learning. But not as long as there is money to be made elsewhere.

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The Science of G-d

ScienceGodWhere, exactly, do science and religion come together? Since both are human mental enterprises, they must at some point at least glance off one another. Both religion and science attempt to make sense of human experience in the world, and, given the limitations of human time, being a true expert in both may be impossible. The John Templeton Foundation, as any religion scholar knows, supports research and awards handsomely those perceived to have succeeded, at least somewhat, in bringing the two together. A single lifetime, however, is not long enough for either, let alone both. Gerald L. Schroeder’s The Science of God illustrates this point. Subtitled The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom, and produced by a major publishing house, the pitfalls of applying the Bible to a scientific worldview become apparent almost from page one.

Somewhat unusual in the field, Schroeder is an Orthodox Jew addressing the questions that the Bible raises for science. He is also a credentialed physicist. Most attempts to force religion and science into bed together come from Christian researchers—secular scientists usually have a headache—and a hidden agenda is often not too difficult to discern. I read The Science of God knowing nothing of Schroeder’s religious sensibilities. By narrowing the focus from science and religion to science and Bible, however, I knew the enterprise was doomed without even opening the cover. The Bible is one of the least scientific of all human writings. That’s not to say it has no value, but it is an honest observation by a lifelong reader of the Bible who believes science has a proven track record for making some sense of the world. Schroeder begins with that most specious of arguments, the anthropic principle. Few ideas raise such ire in my limited scientific understanding. The suggestion that the universe is fine-tuned for life is a moot point in principio. Who are we to say that life wouldn’t have emerged if the Big Bang were one degree cooler or hotter? It might have been life with different parameters, but the anthropic principle seems to point to nothing more than the tenacity of life.

While Schroeder does raise some valid points, it is clear from his challenging of the fossil record that the Bible will only ever sleep uneasily with science. For a physicist, Schroeder spends an awfully long time using God-of-the-gaps reasoning to fill in biology. In a disguised day-age “hypothesis” he gives us the creation order of Genesis 1, while skirting around Genesis 2 where humans are created before animals. And, I’m sorry, but the Bible does not mention dinosaurs anywhere. It’s a pity really. Schroeder’s book addresses some important issues, but using the Bible as a measure of scientific credibility fails every time. The science of God, it seems, is more a concluding unscientific postscript, but without the philosophical sublimity.

To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.

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We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.

Girls Rising

While I was home watching Bruce Almighty, my wife was attending a local screening of the documentary Girl Rising. (There was a good reason for this discrepancy; you’ll need to trust me on this one.) Chances are that many readers haven’t heard of Girl Rising; I know that if I weren’t the husband and father of Girl Scouts, I’d likely have missed it myself. Isn’t that part of the problem? Why does our society make females invisible, unless sex objects? Tabby Biddle has a thoughtful observation about this in the Huffington Post. She notes the importance of the film, but laments that the only way to make it through to the masculine mind is to pose the argument that educating girls will increase the GDP of less fortunate nations. Girls should be educated for their very humanness, Biddle suggests, but our view of a masculine God often prevents this from happening. While Biddle may have fallen a little under the spell of Marija Gimbutas, she makes a very valid point: there is no human reason that girls should not receive equal opportunities with boys. The fact that I even have to write that in the twenty-first century saddens me. It is not just “Third World” girls that have to struggle to gain what is rightfully theirs.

In my career I have been passed over more than once so that a woman might take the advertised position. (I have even been informed of this fact by friends on search committees.) Somehow I can’t find any injustice in this situation, as much as it has personally disappointed my hopes and dreams. Men have been frustrating female hopes and dreams for millennia. Maybe the matriarchy that Gimbutas envisioned never really existed, but the concept is sound: women and men both contribute to this thing we call civilization. Our religions, as they developed in our societies, have held the mirror up to the might-makes-right paradigm from the very beginning. Wouldn’t a male god with a more muscular upper body shove a fair, and giving goddess out of the way every time? Just ask Zeus. Or Odin. Or El. Divine civilization is only human projection, and we just can’t relate to a genderless God. So he becomes the excuse for female repression.

The face of divinity?

The face of divinity?

We’ve firmly entered a new millennium, and, looking at our treatment of half of our species, we still have an incredibly long way to go. In much of the western world, traditional religion has lost its grip, but I’m a little frightened by what I see taking its place. There are a few pockets of female-friendly religions awaking, but there are many more backlashes from the traditional male preserves of conservatism, patriarchy, and free enterprise. It is time for all men to consider that none of us would be here without our real-life goddesses. Some may rail against unorthodoxy, but unfair structures must be imploded for a new, and true, orthodoxy to be established. Women and men—not women for men, not women for profit—that is the only right teaching. So we should promote Girl Rising, and we should seek to move beyond the mere financial benefits for a free market to find the divine spark that masculine interest seems to have lost.

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

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One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

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Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Witching Fiction

WitchesRoadLiterary fiction is a rich trove of religious thinking. Consuming fiction sustains the soul as well as the mind. Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight was an impulse buy. The title, the cover, the intricate implications, the price were all right. It turned out to be a rewarding story that involved, possibly, witches and certainly religion. Not that it is a story about religion—definitely not. Yet, the protagonist is a weatherman who dresses as a vampire to present old monster movies on late night television. His relationships define him and, as his daughter learns, he may be the son of a witch. Deeply textured with the earthy reality of the rural poverty-stricken, at several points in the novel a thoroughly naturalized biblical vocabulary effortlessly flows. At crucial moments the story is poised on the crux of heathenism and religiosity. It is a book difficult to forget.

The fascination with witches has deep explanatory roots. When hopes are not realized as they are carefully planned, people naturally seek a scapegoat, someone to blame. Too often in history the blame has fallen on the powerless, the marginalized. Too often on women. In the somewhat enlightened twenty-first century it has become passably safe to declare oneself a witch. Our scientific worldview allows it as a harmless delusion, but the issue is more than it might seem. For some, witchcraft is the only channel available for a power that should belong to all. For others it retains a taint of evil, primarily because of a biblical point-of-view.

Israel in antiquity was a patriarchal culture. It was a man’s world that kept most women from any seat of power. “Witches” in this world are simply those who continue the trajectory of a kind of animistic faith in the vibrant life of nature. Prior to “revelation” it was self-evident that nature itself was full of vitality—spirits—if you will. When God was added to the equation, the life-force of nature fell on the “less than” side of the comparison. Even today children recognize the shaman under the name “witch-doctor,” euphemistically applied to those closer to nature than to the Bible. Reading Witches on the Road Tonight brought all of this back to me. Although largely set in New York City, it spoke to me as a rural urbanite who left something valuable in the woods of my childhood.