Playing Civil

In a piece written for the Los Angeles Times, Joseph Margulies warns of the potential dangers of civil religion. I first learned about civil religion in college in the early 1980s, when the concept was still relatively young. The idea is as deceptively simple as it is accurate: when nationalism reaches its natural limits, the divine is invoked. Civic ceremonies become religious ceremonies—presidents lay hands on Bibles, whether or not they believe. Civil religion dictates that all presidents be portrayed as believers, but that is something we have to take on faith. Civil religion leads to sculptures of the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns and the flying of United States flags in churches. The danger with this innocent-looking triumphalism is that some people take it too seriously. It is not limited to Christianity, either. Civil religion is a disguised, albeit thinly, form of nationalism.

The vast majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs without deep reflection. That is not to suggest that they don’t believe deeply, but simply that they don’t lift the edges to peer under the surface much. We are taught what to believe by religious specialists. To question them is to question the deity they represent. Since fear is easily ingrained in the human psyche, the angry god is among the most effective of weapons ever devised. We fear for our eternal peril, and it is easier to believe the clergy have the answers than to divine the truth for ourselves. Those who think profoundly about religion, outside the confines of the professional clergy, are always a suspect lot. What business do we have, poking around the beliefs of others?

Civil religion shocked me when I first learned of it. Like the majority of my peers, I had assumed that public displays of piety were to be taken literally. As I began to hang out with clergy and to see how they often transformed outside the church with a fellow “insider” beside them, I started to understand. The cynical asides whispered outside the hearing of the faithful, the double lifestyles, the on-stage personae. This may not have been civil religion, but it was not always what it seemed. Teaching in an Anglo-Catholic seminary, I saw high mass as carefully choreographed as an off-Broadway production of A Chorus Line. Civil religion relies on its partnership with the unquestioned belief of the Saturday-night and Sunday-morning crowd. It all fits easily together and runs as smoothly as a pink Cadillac. Just don’t look under the hood.


Ivory Doghouse

inthebasementoftheivorytowerSome months ago I wrote a post about a book I had not yet read. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The Truth about College, by Professor X both entertains and informs. And depresses. Written by an anonymous adjunct English instructor, the book presents much of adjunct life in gritty realism. No one sane can possibly dispute that there are problems with higher education, however, X’s experience and mine of the same phenomenon, while eerily similar, are strikingly different. X became a Professor because of the need for extra income to help pay a mortgage. Good for him—I am glad for him. Having been an adjunct myself, however, in much more trying circumstances (fear of being turned out of a rented apartment for insolvency) makes me wonder if X delved deeply enough. X was not a Ph.D. turned away from full-time teaching after having proven himself to have “the right stuff” in the collegiate classroom. He could afford, albeit barely, house payments. He had a full-time day job.

It could be the differences in our specializations that paints the contrast so starkly. I studied religion from my undergraduate days and demonstrated competence at each step of the way. Even now colleagues encourage me that a full-time teaching job might come up. Some even lament the loss of my contribution to scholarship (not many, mind you! Far more have forgotten they ever knew me). Unlike Professor X I was fired for religiously motivated reasons. Once thrown off that lifeboat, there’s no getting back on. The religious are persnickety in that way. Being fired from a seminary is a sure sign of faulty merchandise. I spent six years, in some fashion, as an adjunct instructor with the constant specter of very real loss of everything a daily threat. Everything, of course, in my case meant mostly books. That made the threatened loss even worse.

Although my experience differed considerably, Professor X is absolutely right in his portrayal of how tenured, regular faculty often treat adjuncts dismissively. At times with disdain. As if we somehow didn’t graduate from world class universities. As if we didn’t have nearly two decades of stellar teaching evaluations. As if we’d stepped in something on the way to class. If I ran the world (and heave a sigh of relief that I never will) full-time faculty would be required to recite a prayer of thanksgiving every day that they were favored with a genuine taste of the promise that crumbles into sawdust in the mouths of the adjuncts. I was a full-time associate professor with a future. Since then I’ve become, no matter how full-time my workaday job, an adjunct with an uncertain future. And if you are lucky enough to have a full-time professorship, close your eyes, bow your head, and thank whatever it is you believe in. Ivory towers, it seems, come in many colors.

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.


Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.

Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Back to the Future

When I leave work, I’m in a rush. It would seem that Third Avenue and Eighth Avenue shouldn’t be that far apart, but you can’t see from one to the other. I’m a pretty fast walker, and I’ve negotiated city crowds since my graduate student days. If you get caught at a light on one of Midtown’s avenues, you get into a cascading series of minute-long delays and you could miss your bus. Since I do this nearly every day, I know the lights are on timers, and getting through one light may make all the difference in having to wait another half-hour in the Port Authority Terminal for a missed bus. So when the woman held out her hand in front of me, I was ready to pull a dodge, but then I saw the tarot card printed on the slip of paper she held toward me. I took it at nearly a run with an acknowledging nod of thanks. New York has any number of psychic readers, and I’ve noticed that different ones advertise in different street corners in town. Unlike the competition, this psychic doesn’t announce who s/he is (I always assume “she” but the chit doesn’t say). “Clairvoyant Consultant” is the only identity, along with a street address. “Gifted European Spiritual Psychic” also occurs. I will get a five dollar discount if I go in. Tempting.


On the bus I noticed something about the colorful print of the tarot card. I’ve never in my life touched a real tarot card. I’m not really superstitious, but why take chances? The Bible can be pretty harsh about such things. This card says, “Wheel of Fortune.” The wheel, with its runic (and Hebraic) symbols, is surrounded by clouds. On each of the clouds in the four corners is—and this caught me off guard—an iconic symbol of each of the evangelists. Matthew’s winged man is in the upper left, and Luke’s winged ox in the lower left. Mark’s winged lion is in the lower right and John’s eagle claims the upper right. On the wheel itself rest a sphinx, a la Oedipus, a serpent (a la Eden?), and what appears to be a recumbent devil. Clearly clairvoyants see some value in traditional religious symbols.

New York is quite a religious city, for all its secular trappings. Not all of the religions are traditional—many, in fact, would start a literalist’s blood on its way to a low simmer. It is a city of seekers. The wheel of fortune may be a more apt symbol than I realized. The earlier bus gets caught in traffic today, and at one of the common stops I see the later bus whizzing by, and I know that it will arrive at my home stop long before I will. Of course, I had no way of foreseeing that. Each day as a commuter is another spin of that wheel of fortune. It is not a surprise New York is such a religious city. Your fate is never really in your own hands. But this flyer is, and it entitles me to five dollars off a peek into the great unknown. I think maybe I got this card about two decades too late.

Gold Digging

To relieve the mangled up snarl of sadness, fear, and loneliness where my internal organs used to be after dropping my daughter off at college, I’ve been watching television. When I can see the screen. Despite this feeling that the world is ending, I just don’t have the tolerance for much of the drivel that passes for entertainment these days. After a night of Amish Mafia on Discovery, I tuned in again for an escapist viewing of Gold Rush: South America. Those who don’t know me personally (and some of those who do) may be surprised to learn that I have panned for gold myself—not religiously or regularly, but with occasional serious hopes of solving my financial woes. Watching Todd and his group of guys setting up sluice boxes in the remote Andes and equatorial jungles has almost a pornographic attraction. The earth gives us what we need. Of course, gold’s main function in antiquity was being used in religious settings—whether making gods or decorating their priests—and that gives capitalism its drive for precious metal even today.

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Mining is not so simple as it seems. You do have to research claims and find out who has the “rights” to property before you begin prospecting. There is a kind of wild-west feel to it, and claim jumping is still a crime. While watching the Gold Rush guys run into disappointment after disappointment, it still bothered me a bit how quickly the solution seemed to involve destroying the ecosystem to find the shiny rocks. Excavators had to be driven through the jungle, trees knocked over, and when the camera longingly lingers over a huge gash in the ground for an industrial gold operation, all the crew can say is what an impressive sight such a deep hole is. When they mention gaping holes, however, I feel there is something missing deep inside my own soul, and I wish they’d just stick to panning.

After many trials and tribulations, they find gold worth $50 a yard. They locate the claim holder and negotiate a deal. Todd’ll move his operation from the frozen Klondike to the sunnier climes of Guyana. As the camera pulls back, the guys gather into a little knot for a word of prayer. Yes, this crew of tough outdoorsmen bow their heads and ask the Almighty to help them find gold. If only it were so simple. The prosperity gospelers would have us believe that the divine wants us to be wealthy. If it was that easy, though, reality television shows would never last more than one season. And besides, some of us would trade every material thing we have to turn the clock back just a few hours or days to live them all over again just to fill in the great void that follows the inevitability of growing up.

Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.