Monthly Archives: January 2018

A Concept

Pardon me for being perplexed in public. You see, things aren’t as clear cut as they used to be. In the world in which I grew up Evangelicalism was good and Satanism was bad. Very bad. It still has the ability to scare people straight. A recent NBC story my wife sent me titled “Satanic Temple challenges Missouri’s abortion law on religious grounds,” by Corky Siemaszko, shows how the GOP has turned the tables on this equation. The Christian Right has utterly aligned itself with the pro-life camp. Most people would agree, I suspect, that abortion shouldn’t be the first choice of birth control options, but life comes with many unpredictable circumstances. There are times abortion is the most humane option and the burden falls almost entirely upon women. It’s not an issue on which men are competent to decide.

The evangelical posturing on the issue—which has, by the way, changed in recent years—has placed the weight fully on women. A rutting male, like a bull elephant in musth, can hardly be responsible, so the thinking goes. Or, to put it more politely, boys will be boys. Women suffer on the tusks of this tautology; it’s no wonder Satan has horns. Only women conceive, so men can make the laws and feel empowered by a male god who, you know, understands where they’re coming from. Missouri Satanists are striking back. The problem is the state requires women to be presented with indoctrination that says life begins at conception before electing for an abortion. Does life begin at conception? The Bible says “no.”

Biblical science was primitive. Ancients understood there was a connection between sex and pregnancy, but infant mortality rates ran very high. Life, in the biblical view, started at first breath. Spirit, breath—the very word for “soul” in the Bible—was the marker of life’s origin. The Bible may not advocate abortion, but in a world where few children made it past five, there was a shortage of surviving progeny. So it turns out that in Missouri Satanists are actually advocating the biblical view while the Evangelicals are violating the constitution by misreading it. Life begins at conception isn’t a scientific premise, it’s a theological one. A theological one on which Christians disagree. And Satanists. In their efforts to keep men on top of women, the Christian Right has no support from the Good Book on the matter of conception. Of course, why read the Bible when you can get what you want by quoting only your favorite verses? After all, God, they say, is a “he.”

Emulating Icarus

According to a story by Sarah Kaplan in the Washington Post, NASA is preparing to send a probe closer to the sun than any human-made object has been before. If you’re like me, this might conjure those childhood fascinations of being blasted by impossible heat—maybe in a science fiction story of a colony on Venus, or a crew hurtling out of control in a capsule being pulled inexorably toward the inferno of the heavens—on a hot summer’s day. The Post story makes an inevitable reference to Icarus, the character from Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The tale has long been a parable for human overreach, but this time it seems that scientists are taking it literally. The technology used to shield the craft from Old Sol is incredibly impenetrable, and it may have applications as we try to figure out how to escape this planet we seem bent on ruining completely.

Earth flies around its personal star in what’s become known as the Goldilocks Zone—that place where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for life. But don’t wander outside in the northern hemisphere in February without a coat. The weather down here can be fatal. We live on that teeter-totter of the extremes in which our frail bodies can survive. Temperatures range from -88 degrees at Oymyakon, Siberia (at this point whether Celsius or Fahrenheit hardly matters, but for the record, it’s -126 F) to 136 in the Libyan Desert. In this incredible range of 262 degrees people can be found at all shades between. Stepping out my front door one January in Nashotah, Wisconsin the thermometer read -42. That was without wind chill. It was the kind of cold you could feel immediately through all the layers. Humans can’t survive it without artificial means of heat. And yet we have a star overhead where temperatures reach 27 million degrees in its core. Out beyond Pluto our universe reaches near absolute zero, at -459 and change, on the Fahrenheit scale.

It’s a universe of extremes. That friendly sun in the sky was recognized as a deity from earliest times. Even the Bible retains hints of clandestine solar worship. Icarus, however, lost his fear of extremism. There was nothing too outrageous to try. As long as wings of wax can hold you aloft, why not attempt to reach all those zeroes? Millions sound great until they’re exceeded by billions. At that point even the sun isn’t hot enough for some.

Good News Shipping

“And all the ships at sea,” was the closing of Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast introduction. The phrase has a certain poignancy about it—a cross between Melville and Edmund Fitzgerald. The idea of being isolated at sea is foreign to most people, but it is truly as far from others as you can get on this planet. In ancient times the sea was considered evil. It was well-nigh unsurvivable and chaos monsters dwelt in its depths. In the book of Revelation, in God’s kingdom “the sea shall be no more.” But the economic fact is, it’s still cheaper to ship by sea than to fly things from here to there. Amazon seems to have made us forget just how complex delivery is. I was forcefully reminded of this the other day when I received an email saying that the Bibles were at sea. Literally. They’re on a boat in the middle of the Pacific, along with who knows what else.

This is only a parable

The vastness of the ocean makes humans painfully aware of our smallness. As does the Bible. I remember thinking, as a child, that those offering printed salvation did so from the goodness of their hearts. That may be part of the story, for sure, but Bibles are big business. Not as big as they used to be, but still not inconsequential. This was captured well by the character of Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou? “It all about the money, boys!” he shouts as he robs Everett and Delmar. Yes, that evangelist giving away Bibles may have your soul in mind, but your pocketbook too. Like those Bibles snuggled against crates of condoms and smart phones, it’s just business. You’ve got to keep the bottom line in mind.

Bibles can be a lucrative business. The Bible is, however, a large book—expensive to print and bind because it requires special paper thin enough to hold all that text. Such specialized work done domestically would drive the price of the Good Book out of comfortable profit margins. So the word of God is printed overseas and sent across the ocean by boat. There’s a parable deep within this hidden life of Scripture. The romance of the high seas—being completely isolated from land and its comforts. “Here be dragons,” the Hunt-Lenox Globe famously proclaimed, and that’s a parable too. That Bible in your hands comes with considerable cost. Even in a world where drones for personal delivery are not far off, the sea still surrounds us.

Heal and Farewell

What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.

Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.

Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.

Breakfast of Champions

In my efforts to become vegan, I’m finding dairy to be the hardest element to replace. I’m reminded of this every morning since the day begins with cereal. Most people don’t realize that cereal for breakfast is largely of religious motivation. The original Kelloggs were Seventh-Day Adventists, and therefore vegetarian. To promote both health and animal-free diets, they gave a big push to the idea the day should start with cereal. It’s a touch dry, however, and water on your flakes leads directly to paste. So I’ve been experimenting with alternate milks. Often I use soy milk, but it has to be the right brand. Some of the offerings on the market have that oily aftertaste characteristic of soy beans. Not sure of the legality of hemp milk these days, I recently tried oat. Oat milk should taste like oats, i.e., it shouldn’t have much taste at all.

The moral crisis came as I poured it into my oatmeal. You see, there’s a biblical injunction to cooking a calf in its mother’s milk. This is the reason meat and dairy can’t be mixed in kosher settings. Scholars debate the basic concept behind this regulation. Like eating a bird and its eggs, some suggest, this depletes nature and should be avoided. At least one generation should have a chance to avoid exploitation. At least until it grows up. But what of the oats and their oat milk? Have I gone too far? What hidden principle am I violating, however unintentional, here? This is the problem with any religious thinking—taken to extremes it begins to break down. Some of the earliest gods, after all, were agricultural deities.

Agribusiness is huge. People gotta eat, right? And it is one of the most massive environmental hazards humans have ever concocted. Industrial farming is the largest producer of methane and the largest user of potable water, by far. Keeping animals for our food is literally destroying our planet. Religions, interestingly, quite often concern themselves with eating habits. It’s strange how most of them in this country are silent regarding what is obviously an ethical issue. After all, we adapted to the cereal for breakfast lifestyle because of religious conviction. It’s difficult to change eating habits. That’s my current struggle. I could pour the oat milk over corn flakes, I suppose. But then again, the Bible forbids mixing fabrics from different plants. What’s an aspiring vegan to do?

Christian Sister

Difficult to believe as it may be, some of the biggest superstars in America’s history have been clergy. The case has been firmly made that George Whitefield, the evangelist, was the first to hold “rock star” status in these United States. He drew stadium-sized crowds before there were stadiums and was, perhaps, the most famous man in the country. Fast forward a number of years and we find a name that may not ring so many bells today. Aimee Semple McPherson, however, was more famous than Hollywood actors and most political figures of her day. The founder of the Foursquare Gospel church was, in the roaring ‘20s, one of the most recognizable names in America. It may not count for much, but even in rural Pennsylvania we learned about her in American History class in high school four decades after her time.

I read quite a lot about American religion, and Aimee Semple McPherson frequently comes up. I knew little about her, however, until reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. While it has its faults as a biography, it does convey a fair image of who this fascinating woman was. An evangelist when few women preachers existed, she was creative, crowd pleasing, and remarkably broad-minded for a Fundamentalist. Her personal life was full of drama—three marriages and at least one kidnapping episode—wealth, and want. She trusted Jesus implicitly and often suffered alone in silence. Secretly she befriended Charlie Chaplin, a man drawn to her stage presence but not her religion. It’s difficult not to like this woman who insisted on doing things her own way, and who ended up alienating her family (apart from her son) by doing so.

There can be no doubt that Aimee Semple McPherson believed what she said she did. Although she didn’t approve of theater she brought theatrics into church via her famous “illustrated sermons.” She pioneered radio evangelism, which subsequently grew into a hackneyed soapbox for lesser thinkers. She was a faith healer, a world traveler, and a woman who genuinely cared for the poor. Epstein’s book tells the story with heart and a touch of hagiography, but it is an entryway into one of the lives that shaped Jazz Age America, even if it is now largely forgotten behind flappers and Fitzgerald. It’s hard to believe that some of the most famous people in American history were religious leaders of their time, especially when we see what’s on offer in that arena today.

Fool’s Paradise

What with all the Bible-trumping going on these days among the desiccated religions right, I thought it might be helpful to turn back to the Good Book itself. Since we have a self-proclaimed stable genius in house there should be nothing to be concerned about. What, me worry? Right, Alfred? One part of the Bible frequently cited by fundies and others who want to appear chic is the “Wisdom literature.” Although the category itself has come under scrutiny these days it’s still safe to say that Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes have quite a bit in common with each other. Proverbs is a repository of pithy aphorisms. Indeed, it can sound downright modern in many respects (but hopelessly patriarchal and chauvinistic in others, unfortunately). One of the things Proverbs does is condemn fools. The sages of antiquity had no time for stupidity. Remember, we’ve got a stable genius—don’t worry.

Like Laplanders and their many words for “snow,” the book of Proverbs uses several terms for fools. There is, for instance, the innocent fool. This is the person who simply doesn’t know any better. Often it’s because of inexperience. This kind of fool can learn from failures and may go on to better things. Far more insidious is the willful fool. This is the person proud of his or her ignorance. Proverbs goes beyond calling such a thing unfortunate—this kind of foolishness is actually a sin. Not only is the arrogant fool culpable, they will be judged by God for their love of stupidity. As a nuclear super-power it’s a good thing we have a stable genius with the access codes. Otherwise those who thump the Bible for Trump might have a bona fide sin on their hands.

Image credit: Pamela Coleman Smith, Wikimedia Commons

The only kind of fool that’s tolerable in the world of Proverbs is the one that’s able and willing to learn. This means, in the first instance, being humble. Refusing to admit mistakes, forever posturing and preening, this is a certain recipe for incurring divine wrath in the biblical taxonomy of fools. According to biblical wisdom literature, such people get what they deserve. The modern evangelical often has little time for such books. Aside from a misogynistic slur or two, there’s nothing worth quoting from Proverbs that you can’t find in Benjamin Franklin or even in ancient Egyptian records. When you stop to think, however, that the Bible’s said to be inerrant, you’ve must take Proverbs and what it says about fools into account. But then again, what Fundamentalist ever really reads the Bible?