Monthly Archives: June 2014

Kingdom Come

Bible in HistoryPopular media tells us the Bible is irrelevant. As someone who has struggled for years to find a non-sacerdotal job in that area of specialization, it’s not difficult to believe popular media is right. Despite all the rationales on all the religion department websites out there, there is little that you can do with your degree. It was refreshing, therefore, to read The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, by David W. Kling. While not exactly what I expected it to be, Kling’s book did explore several specific pericopes (pericopae sounds too pretentious) with an eye toward showing how a single verse from the Bible could change western history. The examples go from the early monastic movement up to debates about women’s ordination that are, unbelievably, still on-going. The social movements he traces demonstrate that the Bible has been, and continues to be, more than just a book.

At several points through this volume I stopped to consider the implications. From an outsider’s point of view many of these debates must seem almost infantile. They would have no teeth at all if not for the belief that the salvation of humanity rode on their correct interpretation. Often—too often—the results were the torture and oppression of others, for the sake of the Gospel. If we’ve got this right, then we need to prove it through might. A mighty fortress is our God. So the Psalms seem to say.

Few people stop to consider just how deeply engrained in our culture the Bible is. The idea, on the surface, is almost like a fairy tale: once upon a time, God said… And yet, some of the most intelligent people the world has known have staked their very reputations on this claim. As a postscript to Kling, we can still see the Bible’s influence on politics—and therefore society—over a decade later. We still debate whether homosexuals can legally love one another. The biblical basis of this debate is thin, but it is a bulwark even today. We argue about stem cells, and although from the biblical worldview such things are mythical; yet that same Bible gives people the material with which to argue, eh, Jeremiah? And where is that female president we should’ve elected long ago? Any ideas, Paul? No matter how we may discount it, the Bible is, and will continue to be, a most influential book. Too bad we as a society don’t care to learn about it from specialists. Not when it’s so irrelevant.

War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Born Identity

Richard Dawkins, most famously in The God Delusion, made the claim that children are born without religion. Faith is something we’re taught in the growing up process, and we generally learn it from our parents or guardians. A recent piece in The Guardian (the newspaper, not ersatz parent) by Andrew Brown, stakes a bold, and surely correct, counterclaim: children are not born atheists. This isn’t just wishful thinking. As Brown points out, study after study has shown that people, especially children, are prone to belief. Where Dawkins does have a claim to verisimilitude, however, is that religious branding is not a product of nature. We have to learn what flavor of religion tastes good. As Brown points out in his opinion piece, we also have to learn to be the nationality that everything from our passports to our job applications requires of us. I can’t decide to be Scottish or Canadian. I’ve tried both, and here I am, an American mutt, just as I was assigned at birth.

What should  I believe?

What should I believe?

Like nationality, religion is frequently a matter of where you are born. Take a look at a world map of religions and see. India is the most statistically likely country to be born Hindu. It can happen elsewhere, but it would be unlikely where no Indians live. Life sometimes offers the opportunity to change belief, generally through education or through proselytization, but it is fairly uncommon. Most people don’t think too deeply about their religion. You accept what your parents tell you about what’s poisonous and what’s not, and how to drive a car. Would they steer you wrong on religion? Not willfully, surely.

The tabula rasa myth has been one of the most difficult to eradicate. We’re born with all kinds of things going on inside already. Specific religious belief is not one of them, but the tendency to believe is. We believe because it is human nature to do so. We can learn not to believe, and we can even become wealthy by sharing that outlook vociferously. You can also get a good deal of money by being religious and selling alternatives to science. The Institute for Creation Research is well funded, from what I hear. The one place where there is no money, and where you’re not likely to be noticed, is in the middle. Some of us are born as middle children. We had no choice in the situation, and no matter what we decide to believe, we’re no less Episcopalian than we are atheist, or vice versa.

June Bugs

On my way to work yesterday, I came upon an overturned June bug clawing at the air, trying to regain its feet.  I’m always in a hurry getting to or from work, but I decided to stop, offering the insect a leaf to grip, and turning it back over.  I knew, as I spied birds flying overhead, that its chances weren’t good.  In the course of nature, insects are radically overproduced because so many get eaten.  In my apartment they can even be a source of sudden terror when they find their way inside.  I knew the June bug was probably nearing the end of its short time on the earth, but as I held out that leaf to it, I knew that in the act of struggling we were one.  That sounds terribly Buddhist of me, I know.  Insects and humans share, on the most basic level, the desire to survive.  Who likes to feel vulnerable—soft, unprotected underbelly exposed to the air?  Defenseless and helpless?  Certainly not this poor beetle.

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons

Stepping off the bus in New York City, I began my daily power walk to work.  The bus had arrived a few minutes late, and my anxiety level about clocking in works as if it’s on steroids.  I have to buzz past the interesting things happening in the city, the people who merit a second look, the architecture that has an unexpected amount of detail, only to be lost in the overwhelming number of buildings.  Big buildings as numerous as bugs on a summer morning.  Then I saw a box pulled up on a low sill outside some swank bank.  I often need boxes at work, and I can’t help stopping to appreciate how this unbroken expanse of paperboard would be useful.  Then I noticed the feet sticking out the end.  There was life in this box, not so different from the beetle I’d stopped to help an hour and a half ago, in its exoskeleton, grasping for some kind of salvation.

I arrived at work agitated. I had been able to help the beetle, but what could I do for the sleeping human being in his box? I had no money in my pocket, and even a twenty would stay the exposed, raw human on the city street for no more than a few hours. To care for a person takes commitment, long-term willingness to make sure that those who fall on their backs are set again on their feet, given the resources, the opportunities they need to get along in a world where those circling above are far more dangerous than the birds in my neighborhood. I looked at my calendar. June is nearly over. The June bugs will soon disappear. And yet I couldn’t erase the image from my mind. How much relief seemed to show on that inexpressive June bug face when it could finally crawl away from the center of the sidewalk. Something was terribly wrong here. And a man was sleeping in a box just two blocks away. In the act of struggling we are one.

Trans-Human

“Rapture of the Nerds,” an article in this week’s Time magazine by Jessica Roy, has me scratching my head. Or it would if I had a head. That is, if I were an uploaded consciousness in a machine. A transhuman. The idea that consciousness is transferable to hardware has been gaining momentum over the last several years during which humans have evolved into illogical machines. Roy’s article about Terasem, which is being called a new religion, explores what the leaders of the movement teach about human consciousness. You write down your thoughts in most intimate detail, download, and viola, send them out to the cosmos. Your soul has been saved. If only we knew what a soul was. Transhumanism has been promising an attenuated kind of immortality for its adherents, but as I sit down to write out my thoughts, I’m aware that there’s always a lot more going on in my brain than the simple ideas I can scrawl down before they evaporate. There’s quick wisps of thoughts about my loved ones, my schedule (what do I have to do today?), what I ate for supper last night, how I feel—all of this while I’m putatively thinking about writing a blog post. Schizophrenia of the soul?

Faith

So much of thought is having a biological body. From early days I have been aware that this body will die. I was taught that the soul would live on, but this thing I call consciousness seems pretty closely tied with this thing I call life. And once the biological input ends, that part will be over. I think. In other words, my thoughts are tied to my biological existence. How can I even begin to write a minute fraction of them down accurately? I used to toy with an idea called meta-thinking. It was something I came up with as a plot element in a science fiction story. The idea was that those who can think two thoughts at once would eventually take over from those of us with lesser mentalities. Those who have two minds in one brain are, it seems, a step closer to the divine.

I use technology on a daily basis, but I am a disingenuous advocate. Some of the most transcendent moments I’ve experienced have been outdoors with technology left behind, under a sunny sky with an ocean breeze blowing in my face and those I love walking beside me. I think I’ve already broadcast that out into the universe by simply being a part of it. I don’t need circuits and motherboards to make me more of what I am. Technology is the follower. It is consciousness that will always remain in the lead. And we still really don’t even have an idea of what consciousness actually is. It’s certainly not this computer that’s sitting on my lap. And I do have to wonder, once my consciousness becomes a robot, what it will do with this strange, primate urge I have, when I’m puzzled, to scratch my head.

Mores the Merrier

The Presbyterian Church (USA) and I go back a long way now. Not that I’ve ever been a member, but one of their institutions gladly accepted four years of my tuition money and tolerated my presence on campus during that same time. I arrived at college a fundamentalist, but, as a religion major who thought through what was presented in class, I soon discovered that literalism was as wrong as sin. This past week the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriages. Talking to someone I still know in my native, conservative western Pennsylvania, I learned that disgruntled heterosexuals I’ve known since I was a child are now denomination shopping because of the change. Ironically, this includes divorced individuals and others who can’t seem to get the hang of this heterosexual relationship thing. Marriage may not work for straights, but we sure don’t want the gays to have a chance at it.

Gay marriage, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg upon which modern Christianity is bearing down. And not just Christianity. Any ancient religion that finds itself surviving in a world that has completely changed since its founding has trouble remaining relevant. This issues of peasants in Palestine under imperial Roman rule are very different from a high-tech, service-industry, desk-job society. One could argue that people never change, but I suspect that society gives the lie to that. Some issues are perennial—we still haven’t figured out how to make sure the poor have enough. We will walk out of church, however, when we see affluent people of the same gender walking down the aisle together. With priorities arranged this way, is it any wonder that the mainline churches have difficulties retaining members? For some, the church has become a place to feel comfortable with their prejudices rather than to try to figure out what a first-century religion means in a twenty-first-century world.

I applaud the Presbyterian Church (USA) for its decision. It will certainly cost the denomination numbers. It is, however, a move to try to introduce justice back onto the agenda. One does wonder whether it was predestined. Far be it from me to speak for a first-century carpenter, but I suspect that a church founder who stressed repeatedly that love, not judgment, was the way to become one of his followers might be a bit sad at the political turn this has all taken. We know, from all that biology tells us, that sex has far more importance to humans than reproduction. It has a pair-bonding social function without which many couples would split up. This seems true regardless of the gender combination involved. Why not acknowledge this fact as truth and get on with the important business of negotiating the twenty-first century? Of course, we will have to find some other way to justify our prejudices.

IMG_1087

Elmer Gantry

ElmerGantryIn recent years a renewed interest has arisen concerning how powerful entities are perceived by others. Academics are asking how the United States is seen by other nations. Corporations are trying to improve their public images because, well, let’s face it, it effects the bottom line. The same thing applies, but with a difficult kind of finessing, to churches. Part of the difficulty is that churches declare that they have the truth. Backing down from this in the face of public opinion more or less scuttles any claims being made. Thus I’d been curious about Elmer Gantry for some time. Sinclair Lewis’s novel of the self-absorbed, arrogant clergyman who believes in no god other than his own desires, is considered a modern classic. Written during the height of the follies of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Prohibition, as the Fundamentalist movement was just getting started, Lewis used dark satire to try to put the self-righteous in their place. I’d known the name Elmer Gantry from many other media references, so I figured it was time to see who he was.

Going into the novel I had few preconceived notions. Gantry, I knew, would be a hypocrite from the start, but beyond that, cultural references don’t give many hints. Although Lewis’s well-known wit shines through from time to time, on a whole the novel is a distressing read. I suppose it’s the mark of a great writer that you can despise a character so, but really, Elmer is led on his path, indeed, encouraged, by those who know him and whose only zeal is conversion for conversion’s sake. A womanizing, athletic, hard-drinking student, Gantry is where many young men want to be. The campus ministries, however, keep after him until he realizes what all clergy know at some level—there is power in being able to manipulate people by religion. As portrayed by Lewis, Gantry does try, once or twice, really to believe. His cynical and selfish nature, however, are too difficult for him to overcome and he therefore employs them in all his relationships as he climbs the corporate, ecclesiastical ladder.

There is really no triumphalism here, with the society discovering and ousting the charlatan. Indeed, as the book ends, the Reverend Doctor Elmer Gantry dodges a serious threat to his career only to be appointed to one of the most influential churches in New York, poised to go on to even greater things. Trying to find the blame in the novel, however, is not a simple task. Gantry is all too easily led. He follows his base desires deftly and confidently. He knows a mark when he sees one. Throughout his ministerial life, however, he is encouraged and prodded onward to success. Most ministers, in my experience, are burdened with conscience. I’m sure a few slip through with their own agendas, but the working clergy are nothing like the protagonist to this tale. Lewis focuses on the worst offenders. Those who are in it for the power, should they read Elmer Gantry, would find a model who is, like many in the era of early psychology and sociology, too easily excused because of circumstance. More than that, however, they might learn how they look to a larger society for which the church has become a mere historical curiosity. Elmer Gantry is by no means the worst type of figure we can imagine in a secular society.