Writing the Cosmos

EvermoreOn occasion those with great wealth try to give something back to society. One such gift takes the form of libraries. The J. P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York is a touch pricey for those who live in humbler domiciles, but the Edgar Allan Poe display proved too immense a draw to ignore. Standing inches away from manuscripts written in Poe’s fine hand was a kind of communion. It wasn’t too difficult to believe he might have somehow been there. In Baltimore last month I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit his grave, but I picked up a book by one of his modern cousins, Harry Lee Poe. This Poe has theological training and an interest in seeing that his famous cousin isn’t theologically shortchanged. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a rare look at Poe and religion. Treatments of the theology of writers are hardly rare, but since Poe wasn’t openly religious, he was typecast a little too readily into the putatively godless camp of those of us with a taste for the macabre.

Evermore may not convince everyone that Poe was a profound religious thinker, but Harry Lee Poe marshals substantial evidence from both Poe’s published writings and letters that he was often caught in that crux between science and religion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Poe was an atheist. He wrote on what were considered lowbrow topics because those were the kinds of pieces that would sell. Since Poe was perhaps the first American to attempt to make a living solely by his pen, he had to pay attention to what people wanted to read. Evermore, while not a biography in the usual sense, does point out that Poe wrote across genres and that his life, while often tragic, had many spells of happiness and some contentment. Poe was a victim of character assassination after his death by a second-tier clergyman, Rufus Griswold. Much of the book is spent dispelling myths.

Perhaps above all, Edgar Allan Poe had a clear mind that could keep imagination alive in the religion and science debate that was to explode shortly after his death with Darwin’s Origin of Species. For Poe, the universe was a story being crafted by God. Creativity was essential to beauty, a concept that haunted Poe. A writer must be introspective, and this will often leave him or her open to criticism by those who prefer simpler answers. Great beauty can be found in complexity, however, and the practice of ratiocination requires a healthy dose of imagination to help make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense any other way. And standing here, my face inches from a handwritten copy of “The Bells,” I can almost hear them ringing.

Silver and Gold

“He has also set eternity in the human heart,” old Ecclesiastes lamented at the end of the most famous passage in his book, noting that it is nevertheless impossible to conceive. We mark the passing of time in centuries. I suppose we like a good round number, but it is also a convenient frame since few of us make it much beyond the century post, so we can keep it in our eye as a reminder of how long we might have left. Life has held more fear for me than death, so I approached and passed my fiftieth birthday without much anxiety. When it comes to others, however, the caviler perspective soon fades. Centuries are important. And so are halves. And so are quarters. At twenty-five the world stretches endlessly before you. But to what have we really committed to twenty-five years? How much have we changed in that time? Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. The “silver” anniversary they call it. Although I’m not much of a Hallmark kind of guy, the fact that one woman has put up with me for a quarter century continues to amaze me, and we had made plans for a grand celebration. Then Routledge slashed my job. Fortunately, Oxford University Press came to the rescue.

Ah, but with provisional requisites. You see, I had saved a week’s worth of vacation so that I might spend my anniversary at home (or on a little trip) with my wife. Publishers do not get the week between Christmas and New Years’ off. While our academic counterparts are sleeping late and spending time with their families, we’re rising early, commuting into the City, and sending emails that won’t been seen for a few weeks at least. Business rules. Routledge took away my accumulated vacation days, carefully squirreled away during the long year, and since I’m a new hire at Oxford, I haven’t earned any vacation yet. Twenty-five years, and I can’t even give my wife a day. Silver in a world defined by gold. It’s not easy being married to me.

I began work at age 14. With a single exception I have never quit a job. I am a very hard worker and I have never had a performance review that did not say as much. Since Nashotah House set about ending my academic career, I have suffered through three dismissals, all following very positive reviews. You may be forty, forty-five, or fifty, but you are starting over again. Bottom of the pay scale, bottom of vacation days earned. Child in college and eternity in your heart, you have to watch those pennies and be to the office on time. Nobody’s stopping you from going to a nice restaurant (as long as it’s not too expensive), but the bus will drop you off about 7 p.m. and you’d better be asleep two hours after that so that you’re not groggy at work the next day. My old friend, Ecclesiastes, you are wiser than your years. And Kay, thanks for an amazing quarter century. I know of nobody else who would’ve put up with it.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Vive la différence

Scientists, those to whom society has passed the responsibility for knowing, have an increasingly difficult time defining humans as opposed to other animals. Still, we know a person when we see one. That’s when the crucial ethical issues arise: how should we treat others? Two unrelated articles about human rights recently came across my virtual desk: one about Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and another about how religious rights sometimes/often hamper human rights. There’s so much to sort out here, and I’m not even one of those that society deems fit to do such sorting. Well, I am human, so perhaps I can give it a shot anyway. In an article in Friday’s The Guardian, Deborah Orr points out that for progress in human rights to move forward, rights for the freedom of religion have to take second place. Clearly she’s onto something because, historically, one of the greatest enemies of human rights has been religion. Labeling suffering as virtue, it’s relatively simple for religions to suggest that the lot of the oppressed is to bear suffering so that the faith can continue untainted. After all, those religions with an afterlife, in any case, declare that it all gets sorted in the hereafter.

Orr makes a very good point: we are all human, but we may not all share religion. Isn’t the need of the whole greater than even the need of the many? Utilitarianism would declare it so. So would common sense. (Science warns us not to trust common sense, however.) Some of the harshest violators of human rights continue to be religious traditions. Others are heathens, pagans, infidels, heretics, beasts—take your choice—and therefore displeasing to some divine being, generally male and either hetero- or asexual. Oh, and he’s from the Middle East, ethnically. Over on PhotoBlip.com, a piece about Beauty and the Beast makes the point that Gaston, the strapping, über-masculine antagonist of Belle’s provincial town, is frightening because the people so easily follow him. He whips the crowd into a frenzy because, as a thoughtless but handsome (and ripped) figure, people naturally do what he tells them to. He is a dangerous, selfish bully, and many politicians have learned their tactics from him. Belle, a bookish girl, is considered odd and in need of domesticating. The beast is deformed and in need of killing.

We could learn a lot.  (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

We could learn a lot. (Photo credit: Brian Forbes, WikiCommons)

These two stories, from very different sources, point in the same direction: tolerance is the only humane response to a complex world where lots of different types of people live. Still, the problem isn’t wholly a religious one. Human rights insist that all people have access to the basic necessities of life, and, ideally, the possibility of flourishing into what they desire to be. Some, however, desire to dominate. With or without religious backing, this Gaston-esque drive to bully is all too real since might does seem to make right, and even some political darlings get their way by being bullies. One of the most poignant points that religion has ever made is that you can identify the divine by its willingness to lay down power and identify with the weak. We are seldom presented with that side of the gospel truth, for there is a paradox at the heart of it, and people want clear answers, not puzzles. Even science, however, when pushed far enough must answer with a paradox. Is light a wave or a particle? Some religions would say that light is a gift of the divine.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…


While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

Shaky Ground

HigherGroundFor the past few years I have been drawn to the spiritual memoirs of women. I suspect a deep disconnect prompts this interest. Religions—in this case primarily the monotheistic traditions—put a premium on fairness and justice, yet treat women as somehow outside these mandates. Women nevertheless respond to the human religious impulse somewhat more seriously than most men. This leads to a dissonance that surfaces in women’s memoirs. Carolyn S. Briggs’ Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost proved somewhat of an epiphany for me. In this story of an Iowa girl’s encounter and seduction into a Fundamentalist faith that never quite managed to smother her rationality, I recognized many aspects of her adopted religion from my own tenure in literalism. The real strength of Briggs’ account is her vivid recollections of how her own Fundamentalist mind worked. For many of us who’ve gone through that spiritual wasteland, dredging up those memories can be a harrowing experience. What shone through in Higher Ground, however, is how the fantasy-prone literalist imagination loses its tenuous hold on reality while promising deliverables that are always pushed off into the future. It is not a faith for the here and now.

The non-denominational, yet Calvinistic, Briggs’ church home convinced the author, for some years, that she was inferior to her husband. There can be no doubt that this is “Bible-based” teaching, for the Bible is the product of a patriarchal age. Literalism grows more oppressive with the passage of time, for despite neo-con posturing, society is better for many than it was in the “good old days.” Fundamentalist traditions seek to reestablish the mores of the first century two millennia later, as if a simple transfer were possible. Society has offered progress for women while literalism is rife with regress. This double standard led to the loss of one of their own because over two thousand years much water flows under the bridge and brig.

Higher Ground is not an easy memoir to read—the accounts of those who experience repression seldom are. Religion is generally a conservative force in society, even if based on radical principles. The sayings of Jesus, for example, remain revolutionary even today, but they are often hidden behind the (male constructed) facades of organized religious movements. In school we teach our children that the sexes are equal, in Sunday school the opposite. Fundamentalism is not, however, in any danger of dying out. As Briggs demonstrates eloquently, the very thought process of a rational person is altered by it. Briggs leaves us guessing at what happened after the story ends but she has nevertheless contributed yet more evidence that demands a verdict. Until the judgment of fair and just can be rendered, religions will repeatedly be called to the witness stand.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Make Light

Despite the war on Christmas, it came. To be honest, I haven’t yet gone to the window this morning to see if smoky remains litter the street of my small town, but there is something decidedly positive inside me that tells me that it’s Christmas. Religious holiday or not, any celebration that can make people feel at peace for even just a day is worth it. Christmas has always been a time of sharing. Not to exclude our southern hemispheric and equatorial companions, but the darkest time of year requires something to lift the human spirits. I wonder if even the Romans back in their salubrious Mediterranean climate felt a bit of a pinch at this time of year as they planned the festivity that marked the shortest day of the year. Without precise timekeeping, it is difficult to know exactly when the solstice is—to me for about a fortnight is looks dark pretty much all the time. I catch the bus to work in the dark, arrive at work before sunrise, leave work in the dusk and by the time I’m on the bus home it is dark. These few days around the solstice I know that I could use a little break.


How like human nature to take such a wonderful concept and turn it into something to fight over. I don’t know the religious preferences of everyone at work. I suspect a large number might be Jewish, and some are likely Muslims. Many, I suspect, have no religious leanings at all. Yet today they all have a gift, tree or not. They are paid for not working. The gift might be extra sleep, or it might be the light that neighbors shed in the darkness with gaudy displays of Christmas lights, or holiday lights, or just colorful lights—what is the difference, really?

The whole concept of a war on Christmas has to do with feelings of superiority. Those who take up the war cry feel proprietary rights to a holiday their religion did not invent. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The best guess scholars have is that it was in April, around about the time we celebrate Easter, I suppose. Christmas was despised and scorned by many Christians until the nineteenth century, the very ancestors of the conservative factions that claim Christmas as their own banned the holiday for its papist trappings and pagan undertones. Now they wish to claim Christmas as uniquely theirs. Like the Grinch up on Mount Crumpit, I put a hand to my ear and learn something new. Christmas is for everyone. Any holiday that can bring peace to this troubled mind for a few hours is a day to be shared.

Believe Eve

While NORAD has already begun to track Santa with DSP (Defense Support Program) satellites, and last-minute shoppers are being bombarded with Christmas carols to cinch out that extra dollar or two, it may be odd to consider the music Sine Nomine by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Better known as the music of the stirring hymn “For All the Saints,” Sine Nomine (“without name”) is some of the most inspiring music of the liturgical year. I remember a friend once leaning over after the hymn and whispering, “hard to believe it was written by an agnostic.” Vaughn Williams was an Anglican agnostic. At this time of year his piece “Hodie: A Christmas Cantana” may be heard in the households of anglophiles around the world. “Hodie” (“this day”) is an anthology of poems set to Vaughn Williams’ music. One of the poems, “The Oxen,” was written by Thomas Hardy. I really never paid much attention to it, until my wife pointed out the words and the liner notes by Alain Frogley on our CD of “Hodie.” Hardy’s poet recalls believing in his youth that oxen kneeling (as oxen do) was a reverential act on Christmas Eve. Now as an adult, the poet writes that if someone should invite him to see the kneeling beasts, “I should go with him in the gloom, hoping it might be so.” Frogley’s notes point out that Thomas Hardy, like Vaughn Williams, held a “complex agnosticism.” It is not the solid rejection of the divine that is all the rage these days, but a difficulty in believing something that is hard to let go. And Santa flies over Russia.

Faith can be a many faceted stone. We keep the myth of Santa Claus alive for our children, thinking it merely harmless fun. Then comes the moment of truth. Some prescient children at that point begin to extrapolate: what else have you been telling me that isn’t real? That the creator of an infinite, but expanding universe took time out of a busy schedule to be born in a cattle stall in Bethlehem two millennia ago? That a government might turn on its children and kill them rather than face a challenge to literal, kingly authority? That emissaries from the Middle East might come with rare and precious gifts? That Santa visits that homeless man I saw curled up on a corner of Seventh Avenue last night under a black umbrella as chilly rain pelted New York City? So much to believe!

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 6.59.21 AM

I once held a secure job in an anglophile seminary. The music of Vaughn Williams was often heard to echo through St Mary’s chapel, and many myths were propagated. Standing out under a frigid, clear Wisconsin night, it was almost possible to believe that Santa was up there somewhere, being tracked by North American Aerospace Defense Command. Yes, the oxen would be kneeling on such a night. This morning before dawn, I glanced at NORAD’s page. I saw the words “Secret Santa Files” and my mind flew to NSA. A government that keeps track of our personal emails and private phone calls even holds secret files on fictional characters whose motive nobody ever questions. Truth in advertising indeed. So, on this Christmas Eve, I imagine myself out among the free range cattle and sheep of first century Judea and there I happen upon two shivering artists in the dark, huddled around a campfire while others claim they hear angels singing. Vaughn Williams and Hardy exchange knowing glances, and Herod prepares to roar his decree from his one-percenter throne.


BeringWhyIsThePenisSex. Religion. Death. One of these things is not like the others, if Sesame Street taught me anything. But in this case, the three actually are of a piece. In my teaching days I pointed out that every religion, without exception, tries to deal with sex and death—the two great, towering markers of human experience. Nevertheless, I cowered close to the window on the bus, choosing the left-hand side so the cover wouldn’t be visible, to read Jesse Bering’s Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? From the first sentence you’ve got to like this guy. Although irreverent, Bering is never obnoxious as he asks questions about the basics of human existence that few would be willing to take on in the name of science. It’s a fascinating book, and, as I knew it would, it addressed religion and death as well as, well, you know.

Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he tends to lean toward a materialistic universe. His book raises a very important point, however; the belief in determinism statistically correlates with anti-social behavior. That is to say, those who believe they have no free will tend, to some extent, not to care about society. As Bering also points out, perspective is very important. I wonder if truth is subject to perspective. Actually, I’m rather certain that it is. I have fought determinism from my youngest days, although I generally feel out of control of my own life. I first encountered determinism in that insidious theological position known as predestination. The deity of a universe that predestines most people to Hell is a monster, no matter how saintly his/her portrait. One professor conceded after a vigorous debate in class: “on philosophical grounds free will wins, but on scriptural grounds, predestination does.” I disagreed. Still, he could go home happy—my challenge had, after all, been predestined.

Worse yet were the “double predestinarians.” They were those who believed that every little detail of life was predestined. I actually had a professor say, “if you fail an examine, it was predestined.” Already the illogic of it all struck the same timbre of distaste that materialistic determinism does. By its fruits you shall know it. As much as I enjoyed Bering’s book, I wondered how anyone obviously so intelligent could believe that this magnificent mental world we inhabit is nothing more than sparks tickling chemicals in our brains. Or even the biological wonders he explores. As I huddled up in a ball on the bus, my book close to my face, I knew that this behavior wasn’t natural at all. Not even science could have predicted it.

Duck, Dynasty

The Fundamentalist mouth has no filter. I’m a bit surprised by the furor raised by Phil Robertson’s comments about race and sexuality. Did A&E not realize that it was dealing with a Fundamentalist family on Duck Dynasty? I’m frequently amazed at how Fundamentalism is exoticised by the media as some quaint, back-woodsy phenomenon. Do they not realize that similar views are held by several members of congress and the pre-Obama presidential incumbent? By the numbers, Fundamentalism is a powerful force, but, like our universities, the media can’t be bothered to try to understand religion until a large demographic is suddenly threatened. A&E supports equality across sexual orientations, and, as it should go without saying in the twenty-first century, races. Prejudices, however, run very deep. Perhaps it’s just not so surprising to me, having been raised in a Fundamentalist environment. There was nothing exotic about it. It was, as we understood it, simple survival.

Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own show for comments made off-air. Wealth does not necessarily make one a better person. In fact, the figures trend in the other direction all too often. If instead of just promoting books written by the stars of the anatine series, the studio executives read those books they might have foreseen something like this coming. The Fundamentalist mind, I know from experience, tends to see things as black or white. Despite the camo, gray is a loathed color. Rainbow is even worse. The Fundamentalist psyche is not encouraged to try to see things from the other’s point of view. There is only one perspective: the right one. And when asked a straightforward question, a straightforward, if misguided answer will be given. It’s the price of fame.

The Robertson family, according to CNN, has closed ranks with their founder, claiming he is a godly man. There’s no irony here, folks. Fundamentalism isn’t into irony or subtle possibilities. Religious rights and freedoms are being press-ganged to the aid of those who long to speak free. Not about ducks, or guns, or calls. But about the naturalness of white skin and heterosexual love. And the Bible as the only possible source of the truth. The media often treats Fundamentalism as if it were a game, turned on or off at a whim. In reality it is a comprehensive worldview in which the inmates are commanded to speak the truth. The filters are not on their mouths, but are in their minds. Until we can learn to take them seriously, no duck anywhere will be safe.

Even the Roman Empire didn't last forever...

Even the Roman Empire didn’t last forever…

Exegeting for Peanuts

Peanuts, the cartoon, is about as pure as the Bible itself. Like the Bible it is included in ritual, as in the annual viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas in our home. I grew up in the generation that eagerly awaited the special to be aired on television (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your parents). When we were finally feeling affluent we purchased the DVD to continue the tradition with our daughter. Last night as we watched, however, it struck me that, like the Bible, many variant traditions are present in A Charlie Brown Christmas. I began to suspect a kind of documentary hypothesis. The program begins with Charlie Brown, in his house, wearing his famous yellow zigzag shirt and black shorts, getting ready to go outside. This must be the oldest tradition since wearing shorts in the winter is the lectio difficilior, or the more difficult reading—any good Bible scholar knows the more difficult text is most likely to be the original because later scribes try to make the story make sense. I’ll call this Urtext C. The crisis is evident because as Charlie Brown pulls on his coat to go outdoors, he is wearing shorts. He steps outside in the next scene wearing long pants. This represents a harmonization by a scribe uncomfortable with a child on a snowy day outdoors in shorts—a simple scribal correction. This source, designated H for long pants (lange Hosen in German), subsequently appropriates the script since Charlie Brown is not shown wearing shorts again.

When Charlie Brown consults with his psychiatrist, Lucy van Pelt, however, the real evidence emerges. Lucy’s sign on the front of her stand originally reads “The doctor is out,” each of the first three words occupying its own line. When Lucy spies Charlie Brown she runs over and switches the “out” sign to one that reads “real in,” representing the story line of H. When the tight shot to emphasize “real in” closes on the desk, however, “The doctor is” has now come to occupy two lines instead of three, “The doctor” sharing the top register, and ‘Is” on the line with the new status of the analyst. This is the work of S, the Schilderhersteller, or Sign Maker. A further variant tradition appears in the shot of the two characters talking since “The doctor is real in” once again occupies three lines. Either H is reasserting itself or D, the Deutero-Schilderhersteller has tampered with the text. When the desk is then shown with epigraph “The doctor is in” on three lines, we are clearly dealing with a redactor with literalist tendencies, L, or perhaps this is C, our Urtext, having been further elaborated as “real in” by S, for obviously theological reasons.

The composite nature of the script is even more evident with the Christmas tree. When purchased by Charlie Brown and Linus, the tree has three branches, obviously a reference to the Trinity, so a later addition. It is easier to explain branches taken off a tree than a dead plant growing new ones. In the auditorium, however, the tree has five branches. In the next scene, six. When Linus gives his hortatory address, the tree is shown with four branches. Then in the following scene, seven. When Charlie Brown attaches an ornament, the tree again has five branches (an obvious nod to the Pentateuch), but when the children decorate it, it has transformed into a full tree on which it is impossible to count the number of branches. This will take a more adept scholar than me to unravel. I’ve lost track of the Urtext. Could a university-employed academic help me out here?

If any of this sounds far-fetched to you, remember that Charles M. Schulz bore a German name. Like Moses, he gave us the original text, and like Graf and Wellhausen, he forever changed the way we viewed the faith tradition. It is my hope that you enjoy the holiday season. I’m going to be too busy trying to piece together the corrupt tradition of that miraculous tree.

Final, canonical form.

Final, canonical form.

Manuscript Madness

A friend recently pointed me to a story of a “new” manuscript, recently discovered, that portrays Jesus predicting the advent of Mohammad. The article on sott.net, suggests that the manuscript, wanting to be seen by the Pope, may be the Gospel of Barnabas. Of course, the Gospel of Barnabas is already known from a medieval Italian manuscript and a new, authentic discovery would be of great excitement to epigraphists and text critics, but few others. Barnabas is not a canonical gospel and is considered by the majority of scholars to have come from centuries after the fact. Quite apart from the sensational headline “1,500 year-old Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in Shock!” (posted in September of last year, before Francis came along), the manuscript raises a number of questions concerning what one colleague calls “the iconic book.” To be sure, there are documents yet to be discovered. The Bible, however, will not be reconstituted and the door has long been sealed shut on written revelation. What remains is the perception of sacred books.

How many movies and novels are based on the premise that an ancient document has been discovered and suddenly everything about the world changes? It is a common enough theme. This idea is based on the magical concept of scripture—the hidden wisdom of the ancients somehow overrides all that we know of the world. It lies in some cave or monastery or synagogue, waiting to be discovered, unleashing divine power. No doubt the dramatic (and dramatized) discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls plays into this mythos. Nobody knew they were there, but suddenly, new information! How many people on the street today, however, can say anything of what was contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls? They’ve been mulled over by furrowed-browed scholars for over half a century, but haven’t triggered any apocalypses, at least not yet.

There are hidden documents. Working for Gorgias Press put me in the place where I could learn about some texts kept under lock and key in remote monasteries in Syria. They are generally kept for their monetary value rather than their spiritual revelations. The manuscript on sott.net made me think of those manuscripts for the first time in years. In all likelihood, if a manuscript is being hidden it is lucre, not illumination, that is at stake. The Vatican library, researchers who’ve been there tell, requires immense patience and a willingness to be repeatedly turned away. There’s just something about those old texts. No surprise that the Bible and Qur’an lead to such fiercely protective sentiments in some believers. In the meanwhile, I wouldn’t advise selling all your possessions and anticipating the apocalypse. Unless, of course, you take some ancient documents literally.

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

An ancient manuscript (not the hidden one).

Piece on Earth

The New York Times recently ran a story about the academic boycott of Israel by the American Studies Association. For those unfamiliar with the ways of academics, many who teach in higher education participate in professional organizations. In my line of work it is usually either the American Academy of Religion or the Society of Biblical Literature. These organizations take on personalities of their own, often representing the character of the strongest voices within them. For example, a few years ago the American Academy of Religion decided it didn’t like the Society of Biblical Literature any more, and decided on a trial separation from their joint annual meeting. Like in most divorce cases, the children suffered. Eventually the two got back together and the study of religion could move ahead apace. The American Studies Association is an organization that has run out of patience with the Palestinian issue in Israel. The academic society is boycotting scholarship from Israel, as if professors agree with and support the policies of the government. A rare scenario indeed.

Growing up as a middle child, I often find myself in the role of peacemaker. Like AAR and SBL children, I know the lifelong insecurities caused in kids by divorce, and I know that it is important for people to talk to each other. The situation between Israel and Palestine is fraught. It is so much easier to make a decision about who is right when you don’t have as both sides populations that have been historically victimized. Like most people I have my personal opinions about who is in the wrong here, but I also realize the situation is far more complex than this small-minded biblical student’s ability to declare anything ex cathedra. It seems surprising that any academic organization would be willing to take such a stand. In most instances I’ve read of, it is politicians, not professors, who are the problem.

Of course, at the very root of the situation lies, like a snake curled, ready to strike, religion. It seems that mixed messages have been received from on high. Bethlehem, much in people’s minds this time of year, represents the issues coldly. Two groups claim the same land, broadly speaking, claimed by three major religions. Despite their common ancestry, the three major monotheistic faiths differ vastly from one another. The problem is, there is only so much habitable land. Historic ties going back hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years, are not easily severed. Divorce hardly seems an option when both parties continue to live in the same house. Academic societies have minimal influence on public policy. They, however, can show public faces. Perhaps the best way forward does not involve silencing the voices of any who wish to speak. After all, we are told, even angels sang over the lowly town of Bethlehem in a time of deep political turmoil.

Ich habe einen Traum.

Ich habe einen Traum.

Fears of a Clown

A few weeks back, over on EsoterX, I was reading about circus oddities. Perceptive as always, EsoterX notes that the carnival or circus used to be disturbing. Before being commercialized and sanitized, otherwise civilized folk crept out of town to gaze at the bizarre and troubling aspects so effectively hidden from 9 to 5. Among the most disconcerting of the carnies was the clown. Horror writers and film makers have long focused on the ambiguity of the clown—faces are our clues to the intentions of another person. A face painted is opaque and we feel as vulnerable as in the presence of the false evangelical smile that hides a spiritual deadness in hardened eyes. You are about to be victimized. It is no wonder that small children—and not a few adults—are freaked out by clowns. At times they make us laugh, but mostly they make us tremble.

ClownThose who know or read me may have a difficult time believing that I once was a clown. Not a professional one, of course—it is even more difficult to believe I’ve ever been a profession anything—but part of a campus clown ministry. Beyond simple titillation, I state this fact because, like most things in my life, I researched clowning before I became a part of it. Those books are, of course, packed away with other forgotten bits of personal marginalia but I remember bits and pieces. The origins of the clown are religious. In fact, in the most ancient of societies clowns were most often played by priests. Their early bungling, which may go back to the third millennium BCE, was perhaps a way to indicate that even the somber role of the cleric could be taken too seriously. Like modern concepts such as Mardi Gras or Carnival, that which is sacred builds such pressure that normal people become a little unhinged. We erupt into frivolity while the divine turns a blind eye. Or secretly smiles.

Clowns for Christ was a Grove City College organization that I revived in my Junior year, serving as president and acquiring a campus charter. Based on 1 Corinthians 4.10, we declared ourselves “fools for Christ,” reprising, unknowingly, an ancient pagan custom. We visited nursing homes and mental hospitals and other campus events, bringing the good news in the form of silent skits. The clown traditionally does not talk. Even today when I hear a clown in makeup speak I give him or her a glare—clowning is physical, not audible. As I left college I left behind my childish ways (at least some of them). And the years since have taught me to be afraid of clowns, as any reasonable person should be.

Pope of Deliverance

TimePopeIt’s the Time of year. The time of year Time chooses a person of the year. Not for the first time in recent memory, a religious figure has been chosen. Granted, Time declares the person of the year is the most newsworthy, not necessarily the best to emulate morally. Notorious scoundrels have made their way onto one of the nation’s top news magazine’s covers, while many more worthy will never be selected because they just don’t garner the notice. Despite this, Pope Francis is certainly the most deserving pontiff in living memory. Over this year he has demonstrated that the Catholic Church does have some historical memory of its original call and mission to the Christian faith.

Ossification is a natural tendency with institutions. We tend to think the earliest universities are still the best (in some cases that may be true), while in fact better educations are often found elsewhere. We want to believe that as it was in the beginning, is now, and do I really have to finish it? Times change, institutions evolve. Within half a millennium the Christian movement went from a bunch of persecuted, fearful peasants hiding in corners to the power brokers of a powerful empire. Problem is, once you’ve tasted empire, there’s no going back. Until now. How odd it is to see a person who could live a life of opulent self-service giving it up to be kind to his fellow humans. It is almost as if the Vicar of Christ has somehow become incarnate. A pope who is one of us. And the world stares in wonder.

I don’t mean to pick on the Catholics here. We see it in many religions. Someone humble and spiritual joins a religious movement for obvious reasons. They then grow through the ranks, acquiring a craving for power. What a temptation it must be to stand before an audience of thousands, knowing that by television hundreds of thousands more are watching you—hanging on your every word. Our underlings tell us we are great and it isn’t so hard to believe them. The man who steps down from his kingly throne to mingle with the laity, who doesn’t ride bulletproof cars to represent a man who willingly, so the story goes, gave himself up to die. What saddens me is that this is newsworthy. Not to detract from the spirit Francis has injected into a stony Vatican, but that we find it incredible is a comment on what has come to pass for religion in this time. Thanks, Time, for holding up this important mirror to our society.