Christianity sans Christ

Pieter Breughel the elder

“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.”  (Please pardon the sexist translation, but the King James is in the public domain.)  That verse, and many others, have been going through my head since my former United Methodist Church decided to close its doors to those who are different.  The reason this verse sticks out is pretty obvious—according to the Good Book we’re all sinners.  The “Christianity” that the UMC has embraced is that of Paul, not that of Jesus.  In fact, Jesus seems to have exited, stage left.  You see, only with a great deal of casuistry of exegetical caliber can anyone claim that Jesus (aka God) said anything about homosexuality.  Not a single word.  His response in the famous story of an adulteress (what of the adulterer who partnered in her crime?) caught in flagrante delicto, he gave our opening quote.

At one point Peter, exasperated with his master’s kindness, sputtered how many times did he have to forgive—seven times?  More like seven times seventy.  The one without sin has itchy fingers where stones are abundant.  Once at Nashotah House we had a student from Kenya.  He was already a priest, and he had a family back home.  At one point I asked him about his wife.  He informed me that his brother now had her as wife while he was gone.  It was the way of their culture.  This same student—for we are all students all the time—had harsh words for American sexual practices.  He later tried to find a way to stay in the United States, leaving family behind.  The Bible may turn a blind eye to polygamy, but polyandry is definitely stone-worthy.  Who is without sin?

Ironically the UMC has lined up against the Gospels.  Christianity’s sexual hangups began with the apostle from Tarsus, not the carpenter from Nazareth.  We have been forced to see, time and again, what comes of making priests remain celibate.  It’s against nature, and none of us has a free hand to grope for a stone.  Instead, we queue up ready to judge.  Love, the church says, is wrong.  God, says the Gospel, is love.  There’s a mansion with many rooms above our heads.  We’re not told if the doors come with locks or not.  Unless this seem unnaturally profane, anyone who has truly loved another knows it is more than just a physical act.  Such spiritual intimacy is difficult to spread too thinly without cheapening it to the point of a tawdry sit-com.  Even then, however, we shouldn’t judge.  There aren’t stones enough in the world for that.

Like a River

It still gives me the creeps, to be honest.  Although a myth, well, let’s not dignify it with that noble term—although an urban legend, the origin of the “peace sign” with “Nero’s cross” upset me as a child and still has its hooks in me.  I remember distinctly the Christian comic book that showed a “Christian hater” turning a cross upside-down and breaking it.  The physics of it puzzled me even as a youngster—to break something like that you needed to have some kind of tension.  Snapping two arms off a cross simultaneously must’ve required some kind of magic.  In any case, it was a scary thought.  Now I’ll be the first person to admit that I need more time to study the symbols here, but it seems that “Nero’s cross” was a myth—er, urban legend intended to demonize the peace sign.

The “peace sign” has a documented history going back to the 1950s.  Gerald Holtom designed it based on the superimposed semaphore letters N and D which stood for “nuclear” and “disarmament.”  This was part of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a cause that even then evangelical Christians did not support.  Being hawkish, this aggressive, masculine belief system wanted no long-hairs wearing a sign that to them looked like an inverted, broken cross.  Back in Nero’s day crucifixions were disturbingly common.  I suspect many people would’ve been only too happy to see crosses broken and government behaving a bit kinder.  Did they actually circulate a “Nero’s cross” as a hate sign for Christians?  You have to wade hip-deep through Evangelical websites claiming so before you can get anywhere near a site that has actual history on it.  Even then you’ll be left scratching your head.

Some liturgical vestments (sorry to talk shop) such as a chasuble, occasionally have a cross with “broken arms” on them.  Back in the 1950s Evangelical cats hated Catholic dogs and even as a kid I heard rumors about how such symbols were “anti-Christian.”  Were they inverted “Nero crosses?”  Religious symbols have long, rich histories.  We know that the “peace sign” first appeared in the 1950s to protest nuclear buildup.  We know that Evangelicals prefer to sacrifice doves on the altar of “national security.”  Might as well use some olive branches for kindling while you’re at it.  Although I know the origins of the “peace sign,”  I still always hesitate a moment before using it.  Such is the power of early indoctrination.  Even if it defies the laws of physics. 

Tempestuous Wind

There was quite a windstorm that blew through here yesterday.  It reminded me rather forcefully of Weathering the Psalms.  Firstly, it blew loudly enough to wake me up a few times in the night.  When I finally climbed out of bed, listening to the blustery concussions beating the house, I remembered that the first chapter of Weathering was about the willful wind.  That’s not just a poetic phrase—according to the Psalter, the wind does the will of God.  Like much of the weather, it’s weaponized by the Bible.  Seeing what the wind can do, the reasons for this should be obvious.  Hurricanes are tremendous windstorms (although unknown in the land of the Bible), but they are also known for their tremendous rain.  Tornadoes, however, are pure wind and are among the most destructive forces on the planet.  (Before people came along, anyway.)  Wind commands respect.  We’re a very long way from taming it.

When thinking of meteorology, it’s easy to forget wind.  Rain and snow are pretty obvious.  Even desert heat is impossible to ignore.  The wind, invisible and powerful, is perhaps the most godlike of weather’s many features.  To the ancient way of thought, it was also inexplicable.  We understand the earth’s rotation and temperature differentials between water and land and the uneven heating between the surface of the ground and air aloft.  The ancients understood it more to be a pure act of God.  The wind certainly can seem spiteful.  It’s not difficult to attribute agency to it.  Such things go through my mind when the howling is loud enough to wake me.

Invisibility suggests power.  It wasn’t so much the “monotheism” of Israel that made it distinctive as it was the inability to see its deity.  That lack of visual confirmation not only necessitates a kind of faith, but it also veils a threat.  We humans tend to be visually focused.  We fear the dark.  Foggy, misty settings can give a story an atmosphere of foreboding.  Placing the divine out of site only enhances supernatural powers.  So it is with the wind.  As is to be expected, the windstorm has mostly blown itself out by now—moving on to another location until the temperature differentials even out and its howl becomes more of a whimper.  It will have done its work, however, for even as it passed through it brought to mind the proper respect for that which cannot be seen.  

Sixes and Sevens

Few eras conjure mental images as readily as the sixties.  As the first decade of my life, I idealize them a bit, I suppose.  I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the truly wonderful and troubling things going on around me, and being raised in a Fundamentalist family I probably couldn’t have enjoyed many of them in any case.  Morris Dickstein’s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties was written in the seventies.  Since he’s a literary scholar much of the culture he analyzes is print culture, emphasizing the works of Jewish novelists and African-American writers.  That fits the sixties image pretty well.  He also looks at the music, but not as much as I had anticipated he might.  For me the music of the decade conveys what it really was about.

At one point Dickstein describes the political situation in the fifties that led to this incredible decade.  I had to remind myself that this was written forty years ago, for he seemed to be describing, with eerie prescience, the world of Trump and his followers.  Repressive conformity and the superiority complex of that era led to a breaking point where individual expression tumbled long-held rules and regulations that had tried to repress women and those that didn’t fit the WASP mold.  Most of us thought those controlling, catatonic days were over for good.  It seems we underestimated the will of those who lack imagination of where things might go if freedom were allowed to be free.  Some people, it seems, believed the sixties were a disease to be cured.

Historians who have a wider grasp than I do say that time has to pass before accurate pictures can emerge.  Instant potted histories tend to miss much of what becomes clear only with the slow passing of further decades.  To me the music defines them.  I only started to become culturally aware in the seventies, and that was in a small town.  When I learned to look back, largely in the eighties, I could see, and hear, that I’d lived through an extraordinary time.  The nineties, largely spent at Nashotah House, were again isolated from culture.  Who knows how this new millennium will be assessed?  Has a new music emerged that will help define us?  Or will it be, as Dickstein unwittingly projects, a new era of acceptance, love, and peace?  Or did the world really end at the millennium?   It could be, we might dare to dream, that a new decade as remarkable as the sixties is waiting to usher in Eden again.

Edifices

In a process that’s been going on for decades, church buildings have been sold and repurposed.  Part of the reason is the fact that spirituality has come to resemble a free market and there’s increasing competition from the Nones.  Thinking back over a lifetime of attending various services, many of which seemed to do nothing more than demand I pull out my wallet, I can understand this lack of public engagement with established religions.  At the same time the rather shallow, but emotionally based evangelical tradition continues to grow, largely based on the emotional payoff it gives.  Ironically, it makes the claim that it’s the doctrine responsible for this appeal, but it seems more likely that it’s the way the doctrine allows you to feel about yourself that’s the key.  And still the wallet comes out as the mega-churches grow.

There’s a profound beauty in dereliction.  Some of the more solidly built structures—for even the way a church was constructed was a theological statement—have lent themselves to creative reuses.  I’ve visited churches converted to used bookstores, and this seems fitting.  The trade-off of doctrine for knowledge is appropriate.  In Pittsburgh, years ago, I was intrigued by the Church Brew Works.  Occupying a closed Roman Catholic Church, the brew pub is a trendy gathering place and the titillation of drinking in a once hallowed location is part of the draw.  People find such irony irresistible, it seems.  Better than letting an abandoned building simply fall to ruin.  When it first opened some were scandalized—a lingering belief in sacred places may account for this.  People were married here.  Baptized.  Funerals were held.

While walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood recently I found a church building that has been converted to a spa.  The idea struck me as so counterintuitive that I had to think through the implications.  Churches, for all their faults, are places advocating spiritual growth.  Whether or not it takes place is quite a different question, of course, but this is all about interior life.  Spas are about the surface, physical beautification.  Indeed, often personal pampering.  This is building space come half circle.   An edifice built of heavy stone, implying the gravity of the business inside might have eternal consequences is now a place to beautify the body.  Perhaps the building itself has gone through a similar process.  What used to advertise to the world that depth could be found  here has now become merely an exterior.  Market forces dictate what it will become on the inside.

Green Eyes

All of us fall prey to the green-eyed monster once in a while.  For an editor like me, it starts lurking when I see others make content production look so easy by taking copyrighted material from elsewhere.  I’ve read books—often self published—that take great swaths of material under copyright and reuse it with no permissions acknowledged.  You can build big books that way.  Quickly.  And there are websites that use  crisp, clean images that look more immaculate that any kitchen counter.  Often those images, however, come from sources “protected” by copyright.  With a web this large, who’s going to find them?  They’re not making money off them (usually) so what’s the harm?  My jealousy, I suppose, comes from working in publishing where copyright is a daily concern.  It’s the currency in which we peddle.

Copyright isn’t intended to make websites like this one look lackluster.  No, it’s intended to protect the intellectual property, or visual or auditory inspiration, or the creator.  It’s a remarkable idea, really.  If I have an idea, it’s mine.  Once I express it in written, aural, or visual form, it is covered by copyright.  (We haven’t figured out a way to regulate original smells and tastes yet, beyond protecting their recipes.)  Putatively copyright is to protect the creator’s rights.  In fact, it tends to impact the publisher more.  This week at work I had to spend some time, once again, reviewing copyright law.  One thing most authors don’t comprehend is that a book contract is a negotiation for trading rights for royalties—turning ideas into money.  Even intangibles can be purchased.  Intellectual property can have a fence around it.  And a dog or two in the yard.

I try not to violate copyright.  When I want to borrow my old published ideas in new venues, I rewrite them.  When I want to use somebody else’s pictures on this blog I take them from public domain or fair use sources (thank you Wikimedia Commons!).  A great number of them are my own that  I cast upon the web, hoping they will come back to me in time of need.  With the exception of one guest post many years back, all the words on this blog (approaching a million-and-a-half, at this point) have made their way from my addled brain through my trembling fingers and onto the internet.  Maybe I just want to protect my babies.  Maybe some would call it jealousy.  I like to think of it as a mother bear and her cubs.  Or perhaps the spawn of a green-eyed monster.

Friends with the Devil

The Pine Barrens of New Jersey strike the first-time visitor as eerily odd, even today.  Stunted trees grow from sandy soil, crowded close together and growing hard up to the edge of the road.  You can see the sky above, but dwarf trees of uniform height block your lateral views over any distance.  It feels claustrophobic.  Add to this tales of inhospitable residents and an actual profusion of tree-climbing lizards, and you’ve got the grounds for wondering what else might lurk in the deciduous woods.  Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito aren’t so easily frightened.  Their fascinating book, The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster is a bit of a chimera on its own.  The subtitle gives a pretty good idea of what you’ll find in the book.  For someone who had lived in Jersey for a dozen years, and who loves monsters, it was a must-read.

Not to provide too many spoilers, Regal and Esposito spend some time in colonial New Jersey sketching the little that can be known of the rather prominent Daniel Leeds.  Anyone from Jersey knows that its eponymous state demon is also known as the Leeds Devil.  This particular family had good connections despite being Quakers—a capital crime in some parts of the British Empire.  Daniel, however, had a falling out from the Friends and made his name by publishing an almanac.  This almanac and the proximity of Philadelphia to the Barrens brings Benjamin Franklin into the story.  Franklin competed with the Leeds almanac, and Poor Richard eventually won out in this war of the words.  Demonized by their former Friends and gently satirized by Franklin, the Leeds family was eventually all but forgotten.  Then stories began to emerge of a dragon-like monster in southern Jersey.

To get the details you’ll need to read the book.  Particularly interesting for this blog is the way religion and monsters interplay.  There’s a good bit of history of monsters in the story, including Quakers and early attempts among scientists to understand birth defects.  The very word “monster” is, in its “word cloud,” related to ideas such as revelation and portents.  Early scientists resorted to divine anger when they couldn’t explain what nature had wrought.  And of course folklore is a very potent lubricant.  There are some gaps in the story here, but this is an enchanting exploration of whence monsters might come.  The Jersey Devil has international fame now, and its birth may have begun with insults flashed back and forth among religious believers that eventually were taken literally.  The devil’s in these details.  Or at least in the spooky topography of the Barrens.