Books of 2015

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It’s the end of 2015 and looking at my records on Goodreads it looks like I read 100 books this year. That tends to be my goal mark, but after twelve months of reading I like to think back over which were the books that have made the biggest impact on me over the year. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus remains on the most important list. It is joined by Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain, Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Levy’s Dispelling Wetiko. Bageant, Dreger, and Levy especially address some of the root causes of social ills and even make suggestions about how to address them. Newberg offers advice on how to improve brain functioning and Wells taps into the ever-important issue of care for our planet. I read some good academic titles as well: Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait, Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastifari and the Arts, and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

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Being a religionist, books with supernatural themes are always of interest. Among these I found intriguing Michael Murphy’s The Future of the Body, David J. Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People, and Jeannie Banks Thomas’s Putting the Supernatural in Its Place. It seems important to have reasonable people address unconventional issues. These are related to books on monsters, noteworthy among which were: M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s Our Old Monsters, and Lisa Morton’s Ghosts. Long ago I realized that I no longer needed to justify including monsters or the supernatural categorically with religion. They share too many roots to be separated out artificially.

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Finally, it was also a year of novels. Pride of place here goes to Robert Repino’s debut, Mort(e). I am compelled to mention Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, John Green’s Paper Towns, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess has stayed with me since reading it. For any of these books you’ll find an individual blog post from this year. That’s not to say that other books I read weren’t good. Nearly every book I post on Goodreads has a write-up here. I tend to like most books I read, although I’m occasionally disappointed when a book does’t reach its full potential. 2015 was a rich year of reading and I’m looking forward to a very literate 2016.

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Simple Gifts

Thing Explainer, a whimsical gift for my daughter at Christmas, is perhaps the trendiest present found here this year. Randall Munroe, who makes a living as a web comic artist (who knew this was even possible?) wrote/illustrated the book to explain complicated things in simple words. Indeed, he limits himself, with some license, to the thousand most common words in English. Due to the almost viral success of the book, websites now exist so that even those of us with advanced degrees can explain things with common words. It reminds me of the Common English Bible in that it attempts to make something complicated easy to understand by using a level of writing accessible to the majority of readers. Thing Explainer is, naturally, for fun. There is, however, an underlying question.

Have we reached a point where reading itself has to be enhanced by making it simple? Some things are, by their very nature, complex. At a time when more and more kids are being encouraged to attend college, the traditional basis of higher education (the classics, classical languages, the humanities) has eroded so far that higher education is not what it once was. My daughter’s engineering program is highly technical and doesn’t naturally promote the things I recall as “college.” Maybe I need someone to explain it to me in simple words. What’s wrong with being literate? With finding challenging books worth the effort to get through? Some things are complex.

A young couple's anniversary in Wales.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

I wonder how a society survives when complexity disappears. Today my wife and I celebrate our twenty-seventh anniversary. Marriage can be a complex thing, but it is something that can be explained in simple words. When we decided to marry the idea was lifelong commitment, not knowing the twists and turns that life would take. If the Internet existed in those days I didn’t know about it. (Certainly, being a web comic artist wasn’t a job that yet existed.) Doctorates still led to teaching careers. 9/11 hadn’t happened so that living in a modified police state wasn’t yet part of daily reality. There weren’t really words to explain it. It was one of those most basic human things. Turning to Thing Explainer I find that love is one of the thousand most-used words. It does perhaps show, after all, that complex things can be stated in a word we all understand.

Top Predator

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The reboot of Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has been on my mind. Back in the early days of this century I hadn’t bothered to see either Jurassic Park II or III. The original, despite its faults, was like a childhood dream come true. I’ve always felt that dinosaurs (along with vampires and pirates) made for the best movies, although space has to be right up there in the top since 2001 (not the year, the movie). Since the summer I’ve made a point to carve out time to finish out the holy trilogy of dinosaur flicks. I liked the character Dr. Malcolm in the original, but he should’ve never been the main character of the sequel. The Lost World almost lost my resolve to see the series through. The story was unvarying: humans meet dinosaurs, dinosaurs chase humans. New and innovative means of trying to contain or exploit them try to demonstrate the evils of hubris and greed, but dinosaurs always prevail. Jurassic Park III was a bit better, going back to the original formula but adding something bigger than Tyrannosaurus Rex—the Spinosaurus. It was unbelievable, however, that a paleontology doctoral student couldn’t recognize it, thinking it a mere Suchomimus. At the turn of the century, new dinosaur finds had suggested that Spinosaurus was larger than T-Rex, and the movie reflected the new top predator of the time.

It is the little boy in me that keeps me coming back for dinosaurs. Some of my favorite toys were cheap, molded plastic dinos, and when my daughter was young we bought her all the more realistic (and pricey) Safari versions. When I get to the store, I still stop and look at the species we never acquired and make a wish. I think it’s because dinosaurs represent something we can never have. Species that grew to enormous size and had armor-like skin, and even, if some paleontologists are to be believed, considerable intelligence. Of course, that may just be the movie talking. In a world where all things are equal, we’d never stand a chance against dinosaurs. They are like reptilian deities.

When Amanda Kirby (ironically, the only adult to be addressed by first name in the movie by new acquaintances; the males are called by their titles even after they’ve been through several dinosaur attacks together) sees the incubators at the compound, she says, “So this is how you make dinosaurs.” Dr. Grant (let’s give him his title) responds, “No, this is how you play God.” Playing God is a trope as old as science itself. Planting crops to grow where you want them to grow is playing God in its own way. Creating uncontrollable forces that can destroy you seems to be a uniquely human trait. And so my imagination is drawn back to dinosaur days. Those who make the movies tug on wishes that any mere creature would have: to create its own gods and somehow manage to survive them. Hubris, it seems, is just as human as dreaming of dinosaurs.

Mother Divine

GoddessReligions, by nature, exercise a distribution of power. That power is perceived to be on several axes at once, the “vertical” is intended to represent the power of deities over humanity, and the “horizontal” is that of humans over humans. Historically all we can know is the latter dimension, and during the time of written records, that has been a male-dominated plane. Several years ago a theory developed which would be wonderful, were it true. The goddess hypothesis suggested that before male dominated civilizations took over, culture was run in a more egalitarian way and the goddess was the main deity. Since this theory sets itself before recorded history, artifacts had to be interpreted as evidence, and certainly such bits and pieces of past times have emerged. The goddess interpretation has, however, has faced severe criticism, and not just from male scholars. There are still those who find it tenable, and one such pair is David Leeming and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine was a book intended to demonstrate the commonality of goddesses, but it didn’t always rise to the challenge.

No doubt, the motivation behind the book was noble. It is important to show that goddesses have been just as important as gods in the history of mythology. The problem emerges when the evidence is forced into a mold it doesn’t fit. “Goddess” is not a singular figure, any more than “woman” implies that all women are the same. Each chapter retells stories of various goddesses, and again this is problematic. Specialists in any one tradition are sure to spot errors and oversimplifications that suggest descriptions of other goddesses may not be completely trusted. There’s an overcompensation here. Men, at least some men, wish to show their support of women by suggesting that women once held esteemed places in the cult as well as in the throne room. What we know of history, however, gainsays this concept since, in one form or another, might has always made right.

Goddess is one of those little reference books whose main value lies in bringing previously disparate characters together to show some commonality. There is utility in placing goddesses side by side to form a phalanx of resistance to a hierarchy that has established itself as normative, backed by a more powerful male deity (or deities) in the sky. Goddesses have been part of religious thinking from the beginning. The early abstractions of natural powers, reason would seem to dictate, would have involved both masculine and feminine powers. We don’t know how such societies were organized, but the divine female was clearly present. By consciously acknowledging what we know, and creatively applying such knowledge, there may be a hope for the future of religions that is far more certain than a reconstructed past.

Social Security

Security. If there’s one thing we can never get enough of, this is it. We look at the future with a mix of perspectives: it’s going to get better, or it’s going to get worse. We want to be prepared for any eventuality. The most recent issue of Wired landed at my door and the cover, apart from Leonardo DiCaprio, features the survival guide. Tongue-in-cheek, along with actual statistics, this feature article gives tips on surviving all kinds of potential disasters. From domestic terrorism to zombies. The zombie advice caught my eye. You can make a pretty effective club, it seems, from rolling up newspaper the right way, with a judicious application of duct tape. It may not help much in instance of domestic terrorism, but who can expect to survive everything?

DecWiredSecurity is fine and good, until it becomes an obsession. Here in the United States, we’ve lived with the belief that two oceans separate us from our most hostile enemies. For sure, we have our fair share of natural disasters: tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, even a volcano or two, but these are “acts of God” and we like to think that we can handle those. Our greatest fear, it seems, is our fellow human beings. Isolationism is convenient when we want to direct our own destiny, but when other nations get in the way, we like to extend the borders of democracy a bit. And globalization has opened the doors to all kinds of scenarios where security is at risk. Just try flying as a man with a beard traveling alone. I’m not so sure that facial hair is the greatest threat to the future that it seems to be. (Unless, of course, it is trendy stubble, as the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio shows.)

Security isn’t attainable. The future is always uncertain. There’s a rabbinic saying that a person can’t be satisfied today without knowing that tomorrow’s been taken care of. We don’t know what tomorrow might bring. Or even later today. We fear those who take their faith seriously, and yet the world grows more densely interconnected all the time. Some turn to their holy books to ensure that they are ready for tomorrow. Some even claim that those books tell them in detail what will be coming down the road. Others, I suspect, are gathering newspapers and rolls of duct tape. The future is, after all, what we make it.

Feasting

In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.

Christmas

A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.

Christmas Music

While reading about holidays recently, I came across the idea of Christmas as a cultural holiday as well as a religious holiday. Now that it’s here, it feels like a little of both. My wife grew up in a musical family and Christmas music was a large part of her experience of the holiday. Although I grew up in a family where the religious aspect of the holiday was as preeminent as it could be with young boys, I don’t recall music being much a part of it. Perhaps we had enough of Christmas carols in church and on every shopping excursion. I don’t recall having a record player beyond maybe a close-and-play for our few 45’s. Now a large part of our holiday experience is the music. We listen to contemporary secular and classical religious and, to borrow an expression from popular parlance, it’s all good. Music spans the sacred and secular and suggests that we might all get along if only we were willing to try.

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Scanning our shelves we have a wide variety of Christmas music. It begins with Medieval carols and spans to a Very Metal Christmas and the most recent Pentatonix album. Even Amy Grant has a place in there from my college days. Like a kid I awake early on Christmas, from the long habit of getting up around 3:30. The house is quiet and, rare for New Jersey even the street outside is silent. In the hush I can still hear a kind of music. The music of peace, of a dream, of an ardent hope, of Christmas.

Christmas is all about sharing. We know Jesus of Nazareth was unlikely born this time of year, but we take it as a symbol. The peace of a silent night is best enjoyed in mixed company. With the political rancor of exclusion burning in our ears other days of the year, maybe we could think about sharing today. Sharing our land. Sharing our sense of hope. Sharing our music. The world could be such a wonderful place if we would only listen for Christmas.

Credit Is Due

In an article on Nomad by Brandan Robertson, the issue of Larycia Hawkins at Wheaton College is discussed. Hawkins was suspended for stating that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Robertson’s analysis, in my experience, is right on target. He suggests that when he was a student at Moody Bible Institute he was told that the school was a “discipleship institution” rather than an academic one. This leads Robertson to conclude that the school practices indoctrination rather than education. Although I’ve been saying similar things for years, there is a particular point that stands out here. Institutions like Wheaton and Moody, and others I could easily name, receive the benefits of academic accreditation for non-academic programs. These schools do educate; however, the education is not an academic one. Any faith group that has already declared that it has the final answers has no motivation to promote free inquiry. New information is dangerous, and indeed, is often treated as heretical. Accrediting bodies shrug their shoulders and say, “whatever.”

The purpose of academic accreditation is to ensure that a degree is worth the paper it is (computer) printed on. I could establish myself as an institution of higher education but the reason no one would take me seriously is that I’m not accredited as one. At the same time, schools like Bob Jones and Oral Roberts universities are given the seal of approval while teaching that the standards of higher education as recognized by any non-biased board are wrong. Revelation, not research, has already revealed the truth. And these schools grant degrees that have accreditor’s approval. Some of it is doubtlessly political. Other aspects are more difficult to fathom.

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I’ve known accrediting bodies to visit a campus where faculty and students give intentional and obvious warning signs that the school is not offering what it claims because of some point of doctrine. I have yet to see even a notation to come on a record because of this. And they call it education. Open minds, willing to accept what the evidence indicates, are classified together with those closed to new ideas. Just learn by rote what our favorite spokespersons have said and you’ll get your degree. The nation’s accrediting bodies won’t interfere. If I could only get them to visit my house, I’d start handing out degrees as well. Only to those who pay four year’s tuition, of course.

Imagine the World

Biblical CosmosRobin A. Parry’s, The Biblical Cosmos: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Weird and Wonderful World of the Bible is a fun trip through territory already familiar. Familiar, that is, to anyone who has studied the biblical world on its own terms. Fundamentalists, I think, would benefit from taking this guided tour seriously. The fact is, most people have no real sense of how mythology might inform a scientifically inclined world. Not that Parry will convince everyone, but the dangers of literalism are best disarmed by a believer. This little book endeavors to demonstrate just how odd a world produced the Bible we still use today.

Although the point of the book may not be what I took away from it, I would suggest that the most important aspect is that times change.  A biblical worldview, unless one is mentally able to hold two realities simultaneously in mind, is simply not possible today.  I told generations of students that the world described by the Bible does not exist.  It is a flat world, held up by pillars and with a solid bowl inverted over it for a sky.  At the same time, those who lived in the biblical world were not simpletons.  The basics of science were well understood and their engineering capacity easily bypassed that of the current writer.  It was a world based on different assumptions than ours.  The problem occurs when people who know better (i.e., anyone born since about the time of Copernicus) try to pretend that the Bible can be taken literally.  It is disingenuous to say so.  The Bible, regardless of divine status, is a document of its time.  No dinosaurs had been discovered.  The processes of geology were understood only in the most rudimentary of ways.  Stars were not millions of light years away.
 
So what are we supposed to do with this information?  Parry concludes his book by describing ways in which the biblical view of the cosmos might fit, conceptually, into a modern theology.  For many of those starting out in the academic study of the Bible such a demonstration can be quite valuable.  Those who’ve been at it a while will surely have come up with their own systems.  When books become sacred, in the minds of the believing community, the “truth” attributed to the book is the truth of that era.  As any scientist or historian will attest, truth is contingent.  We haven’t learned everything yet.  Given the limitations of the human mind, we likely never will.  We should accept our universe with a little mystery.  Humility can be a good thing, and it is more effective not having to make excuses for what will surely become outdated information sooner than we think.

Solstices

Most cultures outside of the tropics, where the difference in lengths of days is noticeable and portentous, there is a celebration of the winter solstice. This day, of all in the year, is the shortest and tomorrow there will be more light than there was today. That light will continue to grow until the summer solstice when the slow decline back to darkness begins. Religions have their rituals for a reason, and the slow turn of the seasons is perhaps behind all major holidays, in some way. So as the seasons shift, we look for signs of light. And what a portentous year it has been. When we open the Monday morning paper to find out that the wrong Miss Universe (as if earth corners the market on beauty) was crowned, it rings of unspeakable darkness. Is it not equally dark that we still parade women before the camera to judge them by their appearance? Is it not a lack of light that says women have to flash thigh and cleavage in order to be as important as the tuxedo-covered males who ogle them? The days are short, my friends.

And if we can rip our eyes from one stageshow to another, the Republican candidates continue to engage in a battle of silliness that would make Caligula smile. Have we lost our ability to face serious issues? Just the other day I was commenting to my wife that publishing has a difficult time because reading is something few people seriously engage any more. I hope I’m not coming across as judgmental, since I like a good diversion as much as the next guy. Still, thinking through something that is not simple, where the answers are always more gray than either black or white, is becoming more essential in surviving a culture that finds what razor you shave with more important that how many people an assault rifle can take out at one go. For a nation with access to the resources we have, shouldn’t we think of ways of getting people to engage with sustained thought once they leave college? To bring back the light?

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Light comes in many forms. The sun is a symbol as well as an astronomical body. Artificial light, however, predominates in a world where nature tells us to slow down once in a while and sleep a little more. Only at the equator are all things equal. In days when it is suggested that reflecting photons in a mirror might conceivably produce real photons, and thus more light for the universe, I find it hard to sleep. Too much is happening for any one person to keep track of it all, and to have my few hours of sunlight occluded by the shenanigans of the media and its factotums feels like the longest night is indeed upon us. It is, for those with hope, also the beginning of light.

Seeing Things

SchwebelWe have to learn to see the world. Traditionally religion and science both had roles to play, but as science grew better at explaining physical causes, many consigned religion to mere superstition. In such a paradigmatic world, Lisa J. Schwebel’s Apparitions, Healings, and Weeping Madonnas is something of an anomaly. Schwebel begins by noting that the Catholic Church has long accepted the reality of psi. As the branch of Christianity with the strongest commitment to furthering science, this itself might seem unusual. We are taught to see the world in a binary way: either this or that, not both. Books such as this challenge that convention, asking us to look at a world that doesn’t always conform to expectations. Parapsychology has made inroads from superstition to science because of testable hypotheses and statistically significant results. What it might mean is up for grabs.

Some claim that Catholicism is credulous. Actually, as Schwebel adequately demonstrates, criteria for declaring even spectacular events as miracles are amazingly high. Merely paranormal events seem common in comparison. In many ways, this is a disorienting book: the supernatural is assumed to exist, but miracles are treated as less common than the everyday supernatural. Those of us raised in a rationalist scholarly world might find the acceptance of that which we’ve learned is impossible just a bit unexpected. No doubt, visions of Mary are reported. Crowds often visit trees or highway underpasses where pareidolia impresses an image on the faithful. Schwebel, however, is discussing visions of another sort, and finds that they may involve the power of suggestion rather than the miraculous.

Faith healing, on the other hand, is something for which empirical evidence exists. Doctors still disagree about whether prayer speeds healing, but there have been many instances of unexpected healings that have occurred, apparently in relation to a person noted for bringing wellness about. Causality, of course, can’t be proven, but many people find themselves believing in a spiritual world after such an encounter. Perhaps that is what is so intriguing about books like this; they make readers uncomfortable in a world that is purely material. Finding a credentialed author who actually believes and has evidence to back her up is a rarity. Challenging conventions is part of the territory in most religions. Schwebel is simply straightforward about it.

All Go Down Together

Noah2014PosterWhile the rest of the world was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was rewatching Noah, trying to find some profundity there. Like many curious people, I went to see the movie in the theater last spring expecting great things. While the story has some interesting elements, it just doesn’t live up to expectations. Noah is a hard character to like. In the biblical versions of the story, based as they are on older Mesopotamian prototypes, Noah (and his analogues) is a sympathetic character, at least in the reader’s mind. When we read we tend to identify with the main character, and since the builder of the ark is trying to preserve humanity from what seems to be an overly wrathful deity, we can sympathize at some level. What believer hasn’t felt put upon by the divine at some point or other? In the movie, Noah’s decision to end humanity after the flood is based on the silence of God. Indeed, that is one of the more profound aspects of the film—God never speaks to anyone so any action seems entirely human led. We’d expect someone who builds a floating zoo to be sympathetic to the human zookeepers at least.

Evolution, or something deriving from it, encourages species to protect their offspring. Some animals, of course, do this through over-compensation—producing more young than the world could bear if all survived to maturity. Mammals, however, care for and nurture their young. Noah’s ad hoc decision to end the human race, apart from being heavy-handed, is unreasonable and cruel. Who could look at their sons and say, “I’m going to let you age and die alone,” and yet feel that they are doing the will of the Almighty? Indeed, if humanity is made is God’s image, which Noah admits, isn’t this a form of deicide? Is Noah striking back at a silent God?

The movie does give the viewer much to ponder, but writing missteps plague the film throughout. Although wicked, Tubal-Cain is a more sympathetic character than the protagonist. He, at least, wants humanity to thrive. Noah, seeing how women are mistreated in Tubal-Cain’s kingdom, declares he will kill Ila’s children only if they are girls. There is a profound misogyny in the movie, it seems. Not that Darren Aronofsky intends for the story to be misogynic, but the implications speak loud and clear. To clear the world of violence, Noah proposes the most violent action of all. Like Noah, while everyone else was crowding into theaters with their fellow human beings to watch the force awaken, I was sequestered in my private ark waiting for a special message that refused to come. I wonder which is the more spiritual movie?

Sorry about That, Chief

What’s worth $20,000? An apology. That figure may require some adjustment for inflation, but back in the days when I was taking conflict management training it was right. Our teachers informed us that court decision costs were lowered by $20,000 when a client apologized. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that money should be necessary for an apology. Nevertheless, in a world motivated by money, this is a factor to keep in mind. With some of the very late apologies that have come out in recent years (the church apologizing to Galileo, and to the “witches” executed in the Middle Ages) comes the realization that too late is, perhaps, better than never. Often in cases such as these, a religious bravado just can’t back down. Doctrine is doctrine and you can’t change it without losing face. This doesn’t just impact large bodies like the Vatican, either. Lots of religious groups have apologies that they could, and should, make.

Grove City College is a small school. It has, from reports I see, become more conservative than it was when I was a student there. One suspects there may have been some apologies due over the years. I was surprised, however, to find GCC mentioned in the Christian Century. A former professor at my alma mater was fired for refusing to register for the draft in World War II, according to the story. Howard Pew, chair of Sun Oil (and the board at Grove City) accused him of being a communist. Now, over half a century later, the former president of the college delivered an apology to his door. That’s a nice gesture. Former faculty are generally, in my experience, shoved far from mind. We don’t like to treat those who educate too well, some times.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

For the unapologetic professor, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes not from humbled administrators, but from grateful students. On very great occasions I still hear from some of mine. It makes up for some of the pitfalls along the way of an academic life. Teaching religion, naturally, puts you in some company that you might not expect. Of all anathema topics, teaching about being decent to other people earns you the most rancor. So it is, unfortunately frequently the case among our educational institutions. Pew, whose shadow still loomed large over campus in my undergraduate days, never personally apologized. Those with plenty of money to spare seldom do. $20,000 is not too much to pay to feel completely justified in taking another person’s livelihood away. We can only hope for a better educated future.

Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.

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Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.

Who the Devil?

OriginSatanThose who’ve studied the history of ancient West Asian religions know that the concept of a devil, as a character, derives from Zoroastrian origins. In Zarathustra’s dualistic worldview, the forces of evil were concentrated in an “anti-God,” who, upon contact with the emerging monotheism of ancient Israel, became the satan. While scholars still argue about exactly what the role of the satan was, it is clear that it was a role, and not a name. The job of the satan was in some way to bring to accounting wicked deeds. By the time of the New Testament, “the Devil” had developed into an embodiment of evil more along classic Zoroastrian lines. What Elaine Pagels explores in The Origin of Satan is encapsulated in her subtitle: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

This is not a book about the historical development of the figure of Satan, but rather a study of how early Christians (and to an extent, Jews) viewed “the other.” Naturally she does discuss Satan, who developed along the lines suggested above, but more specifically she addresses how the accusation of being “of Satan” was used. Interestingly, it was generally utilized by those of ancient times to describe those of their own religion, but who held different viewpoints. Sects of Christianity and Judaism generally accused other sects in their own religious tradition of being “satanic.” Foreigners and pagans, well, what would you expect of them anyway? Those closest, ironically, are those most despised. Even early converts to Christianity from Roman polytheism tended to view their former religion as satanic. Satan, in other words, is “the other.” But not the far other. The near other.

While the book is full of Pagels’ usual erudition, it is also disappointing. Not as a book, but as a fact. Religions that claim God only wants us to love one another and treat each other well rely too readily on the figure of personified evil to castigate their enemies. As Pagels demonstrates, even as early as Augustine of Hippo there were those who realized Satan was not a “physical” being, but a symbol for evil. Yet on through the Middle Ages Satan would continue to be evoked to murder women and men thought to be witches or heretics. Satan, it seems, is simply a word for our darkest urges to harm those different from ourselves. We know that religions often have noble intentions. Perhaps the most noble could be to rid the world of Satan, and I don’t mean the mythological figure we all recognize without a hint.