Dirty Words

I don’t have any bumper-stickers on my car. As clever as I may think any particular one to be, driving down the highway is not the place that I want other drivers to get ticked off at me. A more judicious use of turn-signals would be my preference over mass-produced witticisms. I suspect that most readers know of my liberal leanings. Some have even bothered to inform me that they no longer read my musings precisely because of this. On the information superhighway, unlike the real highway, you can just click off and not be annoyed anymore. My bumper, therefore, will stay clean. While in a parking lot recently I saw a bumper-sticker reading “Not A Liberal.” I had to ponder this a bit.

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I grew up conservative, although, as working-class folk, we didn’t label ourselves with that word at home. I wouldn’t have even known what it meant. Liberal, in its basic form, has to do with generosity and being respectful of others. The media has built it up into a kind of evil juggernaut that intends to take over the safe, unchanging world of religion and politics. I wonder how liberal became a dirty word. Who, among your friends, would want to remain so if you disrespect their views and refuse to show generosity? I get the sense that even conservatives are liberal with their friends. When I walk past the homeless sleeping on a subway vent to keep warm, I wonder if conservatives ever read the parable of the good Samaritan. What bumper-stickers would the homeless wear?

A polarized society had better prepare for the big chill. In my admittedly limited experience, people come in a continuum of positions, not just one extreme or the other. It makes better news, however, when we divide into camps, the more clearly to spar with one another. What separates us is more important than what brings us together. Yes, I grew up conservative. I continued, however, to grow up. I suspect in some things I am still conservative, while in many I am liberal. I’m not sure what I’d put on my bumper-sticker. What do I want people to know about me while I’m driving? I think it might be better to suggest “I Respect You,” than an implied “I don’t like your views.” Then again, since it happens so often, I now look for a Jesus fish automatically when I’m cut off in traffic. Be careful of what you put on your bumper, because dirty words are in the eyes of the reader.

Knockin’ Where?

KnockinOnHeavensDoorFor a while, when I was with Routledge, I tried to kick-start the old series Biblical Limits. I didn’t initiate the series, but it had been cutting edge at the time, and one thing biblical scholars seldom get to claim is that particular adjectival phrase. Alas, my enthusiasm wasn’t contagious and the series never moved ahead. Recently I decided to read Roland Boer’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door: The Bible and Popular Culture. Little did I realize that it would be a book that would make such a literal fit for the symbolic nature of my blog title. This is a book that my internet savvy would declare NSFW: not safe for work. Boer explores the sex and violence that are really rather pronounced in the biblical text, but which are often sublimated into object lessons for the faithful. We hear that such books as Song of Songs are allegories since they can’t possibly be about real people really attracted to each other. Would God sanction such things, well, after Genesis 1, I mean?

Post-modern readings of the Bible like to place the obvious before the reader. There is, no doubt, some over-reading going on here, but there is plentiful insight as well. A number of places I stopped and thought, I could use that, were I still teaching. Popular culture isn’t just movies and video games. There is a very human element to culture. Indeed, culture would not exist without such a thing as human interest. Boer explores everything from David’s carnal interests to Alfred Hitchcock’s morbid ones. McDonalds to Ezekiel in Guns-n-Roses. This is not the usual finding Christology in E.T. This is more like the bad boy’s Bible.

If the Bible cannot be made applicable to a constantly changing culture, then it becomes irrelevant. Many object to Boer’s bold treatment, but I believe that unless we can move beyond our concerns with J, E, D, P, R, Q, and double, or triple-redactions, we’re going to lose readers from page one. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door is a page-turner. You can sit on the bus and have people think you’re reading about the Bible when in reality, a chapter on pornography may have you blushing madly. It brings to mind Odysseus in Polyphemus’s cave. But then, blind giants may be the most dangerous of all.

Cuneiform Lover

I’m busy. Too busy most of the time. You see, I used to be able to keep my mental files neatly in order. Recall was swift and efficient. I suppose that was back when I was doing the job for which I’d been preparing my entire life. Then a midlife, unexpected career change shifted things a bit. That mental file that you always kept here has now been shunted over to there. I suppose I always knew this was coming, and that’s why I started writing things down. Of course, this led to stacks of papers and a whole series of notebooks that follow varying forms of logic. “Commonplace books” as they used to be called. Then computers. I never used a computer until after my master’s degree. My wife showed me how. And then writing ideas down became pretty easy—who could ever afford more than one personal computer? And since they were as heavy as a small television (cathode-ray tube variety, of course), you always knew where you’d find it. Then laptops. iPads. iPhones. Something called “the Cloud.” A computer on my person at all times and I still can’t find that ruddy file, and has anybody seen my phone?

I wrote an important (for me) paper back in 2012. Just two years ago. I remembered vividly typing it on my laptop, working on it for weeks. Recently I wondered where I put it. I searched my laptop. Not there. I must have backed it up. Checked my backup files, on CD. Not there. Where did I put the thing? Although a Luddite at heart, I don’t delete old files. Please, tell me I didn’t do something like back it up on a floppy disk! I can barely remember when we used those. No, no, it was much more recent than that. Was it on this laptop or the one before? Maybe I stored it on the hard disk of the antiquated one. When you get a new computer (or at least when I do) it is such a rare occasion that you don’t bother backing up every single little loose file on your old machine—there’s too much shiny new stuff to admire. But the file wasn’t there. Finally I attached a terabyte backup, admittedly overkill for someone of my limited mental ability, and searched. Although the icon said it was on the terabyte drive, the file was actually on the Cloud, and since I hadn’t updated my software in a while, I was denied access.

I learned to write with fallible pencil on cheap, lined tablet paper. Back when tablets were paper. Our ancient ancestors started the process by writing on clay. For some five thousand years this pressing stylus unto substrate method worked fine. All of scared writ was scrivener-mediated that way. When computers were new you stored your files on floppies. At least you knew where they were. Now dialogue boxes ask me questions in a language more obscure than Sumerian and quickly shuttle my files off to I-don’t-know-where, assuring me that I’ll be able to get them back. Honestly. As long as I remember to upgrade my system, which will, of course, require periodic outlays of substantial sums of money. You can choose not to pay, but your documents are with us. I’ve still got some clay here, and a sharpened flint taken to a twig will make a stylus, old school. And clay tablets have been known to last for millennia.

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Ironic Icons

The Annals of Improbable Research every year offer up the Ignobel Prize for research that is bound to raise a condescending smile from the perspicacious. Ever practical Americans are given a bemused nod by the European for taking on the stranger side of science. This year’s Ignobel went to a group studying why banana peels are slippery, but a BBC Science and Environment report also mentioned a study of the phenomenon of pareidolia. For many years I have found the tendency to see faces where they don’t exist—signal amid the noise—to be closely tied with religious evolution. (The book that started me down this path was Stewart Guthrie’s Faces in the Clouds.) Indeed, the BBC reports the group was investigating the brains of those who see Jesus and other specific figures on toast and other venues of visual “white noise.” Not surprisingly, they found that the figure seen often relates to the religion of the viewer. Buddha gets around as much as Jesus does.

Ironically, many religions, particularly in the monotheistic mold, tend to find images problematic. According to the Bible, the true believer would not make or seek images at all. The great iconoclasm clash in late antique Christianity was, at least in part, a dispute over the role of images. Anyone who keeps an eye on the religious news knows that images of Mohammad are a particularly touchy subject. The Ignobel awards may not be the best place to look for explanations, but the University of Toronto team found that the function of finding faces is pre-human and is hardwired into our brains. Seeing Jesus or Buddha before Jesus or Buddha were born? Creatures with faces evolved the knack to identify faces.

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But why religious faces? The report on the BBC doesn’t go into that level of detail, but it is the salient point. Finding faces makes sense. Why we find religious faces is far more interesting. Guthrie suggests this might be the origin of religion itself—first we see the faces and then we give them names. We see what we expect to see. And maybe the religious tend to expect an epiphany more readily than the non-religious. The non-religious less seldom report seeing such faces. Indeed, the word pareidolia is still generally eschewed since it admits of one of those things we find somewhat embarrassing about being human. And yet it happens to us all. The face staring back at you from your morning toast may not be Jesus, but chances are that face will be religious.

Casing the Promised Land

In one of the great ironies of the English language “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing. Sometimes an extra syllable can make all the difference. “Ideas are incombustible,” wrote Ellen Hopkins in the final stanza of “Manifesto.” Unlike inflammable, that which is incombustible can’t be burned away. Most literally expressed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, ideas are, however, endangered in a culture that claims to support them while secretly allowing them to be banned. Orwell called it doublespeak, and we all owe it to our heirs to fight it wherever we can. Sometimes the promised land may not be all that it seems. Can the brave truly be this afraid? Some politicians think “Born in the USA” is a complimentary song. Never has there been a better case for emphasizing literacy.

We fear the ideas our children might encounter, making them into the people they are meant to be. I’d like to return to an idea I broached at the beginning of this year’s Banned Book Week—the Bible has been a banned book. According to the antics of various preachers and vigilantes, so have been the Quran and the Book of Mormon. Destroying books or their authors, however, only creates martyrs. Until the world begins to understand that memes are more durable than genes we will fight our futile wars to drive the thoughts away. Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran tells of how some regimes want to control even our dreams. As if cutting the wings from angels were even possible. How do you physically cut an incorporeal being? Some may need to look “incorporeal” up in a dictionary.

I can’t remember when I started to read for fun, but I do know I haven’t been able to stop since. I have no idea how many books I’ve read, but it certainly comes out to more than the money I’ve ever been able to save. I write this with not an iota of regret. In my humble opinion people are products of the books they read, the songs they hear, the movies they watch. Ideas. Ideas permeate us and we, like sponges, absorb our nutrients from them. Inevitably we come to resemble the concepts we ingest. Ingesting concepts is perhaps the best way to think of Banned Book Week. Inflammable and flammable mean the same thing. Incombustible, however, is something completely different.

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Afraid for God

ReadingLolitaInTehranReading Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, is not easy. It is, however, rewarding. Appropriate for Banned Book Week, we might want to remind ourselves what a society that bans books actually looks like. Nafisi, an Iranian teacher of English literature, had broadened her mind and had traveled abroad. When she returned to her home country to take up a teaching post, she discovered that the world you always knew can be very unstable. It can change without you realizing it. (Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, left even the sages scratching their heads.) The Revolution, as it was known in Iran, brought in the radical conservatism of religious outlooks that saw women as little more than temptations for men. The wearing of the veil was enforced by law. Nafisi was told it was a small price to pay for the greater good. The rhetoric is the same every time I’ve been frisked at the airport, although I’m a lifelong pacifist. In Iran, things were much worse.

Nafisi recounts gathering a group of her women students together after she was forced out of the university. They would meet at her apartment to discuss literature, including Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How must it feel to be a woman reading about a man’s obsession with a girl so young? As Nafisi points out, girls of Lolita’s age are considered marriageable in some Islamic states. It isn’t Islam that’s the problem, it is extremism. When I read about how she became “irrelevant,” I literally shuddered. In my own way too, I had been made irrelevant to higher education by those who felt any means would justify religious ends. And the bookstores in Tehran were closed, for they sold dangerous ideas. The irrelevance of one woman, or even half the population, is a small price to pay for self-righteousness.

“You say you’re afraid for God,” Ellen Hopkins wrote in “Manifesto.” Afraid for the Almighty. Such a strange concept. Fundamentalists of all monotheistic stripes believe in an all-powerful God whom they arrogantly presume to protect. How can a human even conceive such hubris? We feel secure in our Bible-emboldened superiority, challenged when reminded that the Quran, the Book of Mormon, or even Science and Health came later, and by definition supersessionism inevitably takes hold. “Paranoia is in bloom,” Muse reminds us. Missiles fall on Tehran, killing women and children. We elect, however, officials who agree that healthcare for women is politically negotiable. The reason has nothing at all to do with justice. It has everything to do with using a black-bound book for power over those who are just twelve-year olds wondering how any of this is even possible.

Academic Freedom

Azusa Pacific University, 2013. Emmanuel Christian Seminary, 2012. Interdenominational Theological Center, 2012. University of Illinois, 2010. Carroll College, 2005. Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, 2005. Unfortunately the list could go on and on. Academic institutions in the land of the free and the home of the brave dismissing faculty for saying or writing something that offended their doctrines. This is the land of my birth, and yet I’m still rocked by its permissiveness. That’s not permissiveness in that sense. I was latterly working on a paper called “the myth of academic freedom.” I know too many people for whom that myth has become a reality and all the while the governments, state and national, try to decide on more important issues such as whether or not to give children equal opportunity, our institutions crumble for petty points of pretentious pugilistic piety. Not only books may be banned, but those who potentially write them as well.

“You say you’re afraid for America,” Ellen Hopkins’s “Manifesto” suggests. Academics, of all people, should be afraid. Our society asks us to borrow thousands and thousands of dollars to become experts in some obscure topic only to release us from any possibility of finding employment that allows us to pay off said debt. “I don’t need no arms around me,” but I sure could use a podium in front of me. I am afraid for America. I am afraid for a nation that doesn’t defend its thinkers, instead following the wealthy to the peak of an unscalable Everest.

Academic freedom was once the guarantee that no question was disallowed, no thought anathema. We live in a time of pronounced conservative pushback, where those who feel threatened by knowledge persecute those who dare to think. Ironically in this situation many academics have become complacent. Having a place of your own, and the compunction not to make waves in this bathtub will allow your toy boat to float for many a year. Long enough to reach safe harbor. Beneath the surface shipwrecks lurk and books will never be written. Banned books are easiest to engineer at the aborted career stage. Even a pro-lifer knows that.

They don't write 'em like that anymore...

They don’t write ’em like that anymore…

Lola Lolita

LolitaAs a father, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is difficult to read. With Banned Book Week upon us, however, and with my wife suggesting I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I figured I’d better read Lolita in New Jersey first. It’s not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on the bus. As is well known, the novel is written from the sympathetic point of view of a pedophile. It is distinctly creepy and yet also strangely sincere. Effacing the distinctions between love and lust and healthy and ill psyches, the story draws you into the life of a single-minded Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old obsession. I had been prepared for the end of the story, having seen Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version some years ago, still, this tale distresses. Banned books take us to places we’d rather not be, and cause us to linger there. This is part of their secret appeal. These authors are honest enough to make us question assumptions. You have floated out of sight of land.

Lolita, through euphony, if not something more, reminds me of “Lola.” The Kink’s hit. I first heard “Lola” while I was in seminary, although it had been released a decade and a half earlier (I tend to run a little behind the times). When I listen to songs I pay attention to the lyrics, and I was disturbed to find that “Lola” was a catchy tune with a (to me, at the time) disturbing message. I confessed to a friend that I liked the song, but wasn’t sure that I should. We ban songs just as we ban books, because they bring us to a place where we question what we thought we knew. In my case, it often doesn’t take much. My friend Dave gave sage advice not to overthink the whole thing. If you like a song, you like a song. Let the music play on.

“You say you’re afraid for children,” Ellen Hopkins’s second stanza of “Manifesto” begins. (I confess to following a different scansion of the poem, call it poetic license.) I believe, however, our fear is for ourselves. We know that we could have a monster lurking inside. Lolita does not encourage pedophilia. Like many social crimes, pedophilia is the manifestation of an illness that some people, like sociopaths, unfortunately suffer. The lack of empathy for others is a frightening thing indeed. It makes for some of the scariest movies, and headlines, that I have ever seen. We do ourselves no favors, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I know little of the life of Nabokov, but I know that he died in Montreux. I know that he could afford to live there at least in part because of the royalties from Lolita, a novel whose manuscript he had once attempted to burn. And I know that in Montreux “some stupid with a flare gun,” well, you know the rest.

Acts of Apostles

“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false
patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.

If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.

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Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.

All Things Being Equal

Today the light and darkness are equal. The equinox is the great equalizer of the year, the day that reminds us summer’s ebullience is always, and ever will only be, temporary. From this day forth, for six months, night will dominate day. Religions the world over have offered responses to the increasing darkness. Autumnal festivals are among the most poignant as we can see the light diminishing, but we know nothing we can do will prevent it. Time alone cures this growing tenebrous atmosphere, until, as the solstice arrives, we dance, and sing, and drink, and burn candles to encourage the light to return. Return it does, on our universe’s ever rotating axis, bringing us around once again to when days lengthen and we turn our thoughts toward shallower things.

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The ember months, September, October (by association), November, December, each with an increasing sense of solemnity, invite us to read. Today begins Banned Book Week. I’ll be posting about banned books since, although my books deemed fit to print are so mundane as to offend no one, I stand in solidarity with any writer who has ever been told that her or his book is too violent, sexy, or depraved to be read. What thoughts are too dangerous to think? Religions will tell you, and so will pseudo-religions. Thoughts, however, are not so easily stopped. As an editor, I am a gatekeeper of sorts. Still, I know as an author that those I turn aside will persist. They will find their publishers. Their words will not be banned.

As an erstwhile writer I know that some of myself resides in each work clacked out on this keyboard. Those lucky enough to court editors with their efforts find the larger readerships. Some authors don’t even write their own books any more. Anyone can be imitated. The truly original, however, will always end up on someone’s banned book list. Our minds resist being challenged. We don’t want assumptions to be wrong. It’s too much work to have to think through all of this. It is easier to ban books than to have to try to comprehend them. As the darkness increases over the coming months, I will stockpile candles and light bulbs and huddle down next to a stack of books, secure in knowing that most of them have offended somebody along the way. And reading those books will only cause the light to grow.

Bargain Basement

Signs, in my experience at least, lend themselves to being over-read. How often a heedless moment suggests something more than was intended—signs try to say too much in too few words. Indeed, poets rather than marketers ought to be sought. I found myself in Barnes and Noble recently, since Borders is gone. In all fairness, I attended two independent bookstores as penance afterward. Nevertheless, in the corporate atmosphere of the last major brick-and-mortar chain, I saw a sign. Several, actually. One of the most obvious is how many tchotchkes the store had, as opposed to wall-to-wall books. Barnes and Nobel has never been particularly imaginative in its selection of floor stock, but now it is a great place to buy toys, electronics, and coffee. Maybe pick up a book as an afterthought on your way out.

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The front space just inside the door of a bookstore is prime real estate. Publishers have to pay extra to have their books displayed immediately inside the doors—something they reserve for sure-fire rapid sellers. The average customer will walk in, down the center aisle and there they will find promoted (and demoted) items, laid out on their own tables. So it was that I saw a sign reading “Religion & Spirituality Bargain Priced.” In fact, they’re free. Not the books, but religion and spirituality. Even in this secular world, people are not shy about buying books in these categories. Step into the religion aisle sometime. You may be surprised how much you find there. In fact, those who track the industry often include Christian books as a third major category besides fiction and non. We trust those who know enough to write books about such matters. The Bible, despite its detractors, is a bestseller by any measure.

Do we, however, value religion and spirituality? So often religion is portrayed as the root of all extremism while spirituality is relegated to the weak-minded. The science section generally takes up only half the shelf space of religion. People want to know what it’s all about. The rates are anything but bargain priced. Some religion may indeed be simple, but most religions are unexpectedly complex. Those who engage them seriously know there is more to life than just fact and fiction. There are middle grounds and outer limits. There are places that have yet to be discovered, let alone explored. We are in the infancy of intellectual awakening. Of course that shows in how quickly we’ve abandoned our bookstores and gone off after less weighty things. If you have a moment, though, on your way to the coffee bar, you might pick up some religion cheap, and who knows where it might lead?

Banned Magic

Grimoires“If you believe in the power of magic,” Eric Woolfson plaintively sang, “then I can change your mind.” A song that bewitched my younger years, when the atmosphere is just right, it can still bring a silent tear to my eye. Magic is a powerful elixir.

On my own personal almanac of holidays, Banned Book Week is one that takes the most preparation. In anticipation, for it is next week already, I read Owen Davies’ Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Since this blog doesn’t get nearly the readership of a banned book, I might explain that witches are among my favorite topics. Despite that, and despite growing up with constant curiosity about religion, I only learned about grimoires recently. Davies makes it clear in his book that apart from some standard texts that have been around for a few centuries, the idea of a magic book is really relatively recent. Yes, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had books of magic, but the concept of a grimoire only really fits the Zeitgeist of medieval Europe particularly well. Such books may draw on or cite oriental wisdom, frequently stepping into the forbidden territory of Arabic learning and alchemy, but they reflect the worldview of the Middle Ages when magic still seemed possible. In earlier centuries conjuring seems to have been subsumed under the miracles associated with Jesus, and we don’t hear much about magi beyond people like Simon Magus.

Davies packs a lot of information into his book, but my reason for focusing on it here, now, is the banned nature of grimoires. Many of them are considered rare and valuable books today, but in their day they were dangerous and forbidden. The concept that an idea can be suppressed is an odd one. In fact, many ideas have a very difficult time finding receptive minds. Once it is written down, however, an idea can circulate. The surest way to guarantee that it will is to ban it. People want to know what is so dangerous about this idea that it must be kept hidden. It makes an idea powerful, esoteric. Forbidden fruit, we all know if we’ll only be honest, is the sweetest.

Grimoires were considered most efficacious when written by hand. Although it took the printing press to proliferate such books, magic was believed to be most potent in the hand-written form. By writing text, one engages intimately with it. This is a reality we are in danger of losing in the computerized age. I grew up with only a second-hand typewriter acquired by my family when I was in high school. Most of what I wrote—for inspiration seldom comes when you’re sitting at your desk—was done by hand. My own little grimoires. Now we’ve added the interface of a keyboard. It is faster, and more efficient. Clinical even. But often the magic seems to be gone. And that is testified in many banned books. They especially, I would aver, believe in the power of magic.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

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It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.

ET vs UAC

When I first heard of “unaccompanied alien children,” I hope I might be forgiven for thinking about ET. Or EBEs as they’re sometimes called, “Extraterrestrial Biological Entities.” Instead UACs are serious enough to be assigned their own acronym, and serious politicians are making themselves frantic over the proper response. Should we allow children refugees from Latin America into the “land of opportunity?” This is a matter that calls for immediate debate! But should it? I am an American, but I am also a human being. And a parent. To me few things are more depressing than politics getting in the way of care for children. We fear their Spanish-speaking ways and incipient indigence. At the same time we as taxpayers fund Fundamentalist Mormons in their polygamy, reproducing beyond their ability to pay for themselves. The IRS turns a blind eye to those who claim food stamps and eschew birth control. There are children with nothing in this world standing at the door, and we debate whether to let them in.

I saw a recent opinion survey of major Christian bodies in the United States and their opinions on whether the children should be allowed to enter. White evangelicals came in dead last for the compassionate response of sanctuary. Meanwhile, reading the humanist literature, there is a strong sense that the ethics of this situation demand a, well, humanistic response. These are children, not political chattels. We will not purposefully endanger our own children. In fact, it is a criminal offense to do so. When it comes to somebody else’s children, we fuss and fume and I don’t hear many Fundamentalists saying “What would Jesus do?” in this case. Probably because the answer is clear: let the children come unto me.

Some decisions should be easy to make. Children are not political liabilities. They are often victims of adult complications of a world where a hug would solve many more problem than a gun or a bomb. I’m not sure when compassion became so calculating. I’m old enough to know that there are no easy answers, but I do believe some difficult decisions can be made much easier. Excepting Native Americans, all of our ancestors once entered this continent, largely without permission, as outsiders. Granted, they felt compelled to come—some voluntarily, some not. When their hosts suggested the party was over, they refused to leave. Now their descendants can’t decide whether children are a threat or not. We insist on their right to be born, but we don’t necessarily want to give them a home. When ET went home we all cried. Our tears for our own kind, apparently, are a scarce resource on this planet.

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Are we all really just another brick in the wall? (Photo credit: Noir, WikiCommons)

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.