Come People and Consider

“Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible.  This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, his legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.”  So Daniel answered the megalomanic king Nebuchadnezzar, according to chapter 2.  This is some Scripture that CPAC has chosen to ignore, or at least not bothered to read to the end.  In truth I was always bothered when Daniel said “Thou art this head of gold”—which seems to be more brass-kissery, if you get my drift, than prophecy.  But dear CPAC, the statue of Nebuchadnezzar crumbles when the kingdom of God arrives, unable to stand on its feet of clay and iron.

Image in public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

I’m not one to tout Daniel as prophecy, but seldom have we seen such things come true so literally.  If we turn to the other testament, in a somewhat politically incorrect aphorism a personage of the gospel of Matthew quoth, “they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”  Funnily, those who claim to support a “Christian” America have failed to read even the surface of the Good Book.  Without the Bible what is fundamentalism?  That image in Daniel 2 is considered an idol.  After all, when the Trump of antiquity built a statue all were required to fall down before and worship it.  Those who didn’t were thrown into the fiery furnace.

The Conservative Political Action Conference has sent shivers down the collective spine of our nation.  Even as it was going on I was standing in the rain signing petitions for local Democratic candidates because going inside meant being potentially infected by the Republican disease known as Covid-19.  Apparently half-a-million dead is never enough for those who believe in a social darwinism although they claim to base their lives on the book that says all this took a mere seven days.  Although Daniel gained great fame and wealth by telling the king what he wanted to hear, during a party a few short chapters later he saw a hand writing on the wall.  “And this is the writing that was written, Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.”  And although given a third of Belshazzar’s kingdom that very night it was all lost to Darius.  “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”


Still Standing

Investment.  Time is an investment, and I recently invested in Stephen King’s The Stand.  You have to realize that I made this decision sight-unseen.  More than one person whose opinions I value told me I should read it.  I had no idea it would be 1,400 pages and would dominate my life for a solid month.  Still, I’m glad I read it.  In case you haven’t, and intend to, there may be some spoilers below.  This is one of the King books I read without knowing the plot or the ending, so if you’re in that boat, skip a paragraph or two.

I hadn’t intended The Stand to be plague reading.  It just turned out that way.  The book is about a variety of flu that kills nearly the entire population of the world.  It’s only at the very end that you learn it’s a parable.  The ending also explains some of the apparently unrelated filler that makes the book so terribly long.  In any case, after wiping out much of the world, the story narrows down to several of the survivors and how they end up dividing into two camps: those who want to cause misery (think Republicans), and those who want to reestablish civilization.  Of course there are several unpleasant instances along the way.  The camp of violent ne’er-do-wells settles in Las Vegas under the demonic leadership of Randall Flagg—his identity only becomes clear at the end—while the good guys, under Mother Abagail, choose Boulder.  A confrontation is inevitable and when the smoke clears we learn that Randall Flagg is, essentially, civilization itself.  Perhaps Christianity.

Of all of the Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one has the most overt Christian imagery.  In fact, in his introduction to the expanded edition he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”  There’s quite a lot of theological dialogue along with gruesome deaths.  The pacing often makes the story seem quite long.  Well, it actually is.  I suspect it was this Christian imagery that had friends recommending it to me.  The idea that evil is essentially our culture that comes around and kills us is both profound and paradoxical.  As well as “Christian.”  All along the good guys want to reestablish the cooperation and comforts of civilized life.  It was “civilization” that unleashed the killer virus, however, and herein hangs the tale.  I’m glad to have read it, and I have to confess that I miss the bleak world King created, after living with it for so long.  And it turns out to have been plague reading both literally and symbolically.


Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


The Land

It’s always a pleasure to find an author from whom you want to read more.  It was my wife who told me about Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  We were both so taken by the book that we turned to Hayes’ prior Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir.  Learning how badly the United States has treated the indigenous population of this continent is one thing.  Learning how badly we still treat them is quite another.  For all of that Hayes writes a memoir that is reflective and perhaps sad, but seldom angry.  The stories told in Tao of Raven start here—we meet the characters who will be further developed in the next installment and become even more curious about them.  The reader wants to reach out and help.  To tell the government, “enough!”

The indigenous peoples of North America (and likely South too, for that is a realm requiring further learning) feel, and have always felt, a close connection to the land.  Europeans see land as a resource for exploitation, not for living in harmony with.  We came, we took, we destroyed.  As if that weren’t bad enough, we left the original inhabitant trapped in grinding poverty, shoving them into places we wouldn’t see.  Until we discovered something we wanted on that land, and then we shoved them again.  The impetus to do this was, unfortunately, Christianity.  I doubt it’s the religion Jesus had in mind, but then he lost control of it millennia ago.  Believing in one’s divine mandate is a sure way of making unwarranted claims on what belongs to someone else.  Remember “thou shalt not steal”?

Hayes’ reflective style is an honor to read.  Feeling a part of a place is a rare privilege.  Born into a mobile society enamored of technology, the modern American has difficulty feeling too attached to any one place.  Of course, many people stay close to where they were born, but to become a “professional” you have to leave.  Blonde Indian is about returning home.  The land knows us.  Many of us don’t know it back.  It’s just a place to set our feet temporarily until a better opportunity comes along elsewhere.  Being tied to no land we lose something of our souls.  Our connection with nature.  With the planet itself.  Hayes is a gifted writer with a story that must be heard.  Wisdom comes through on every page.  We would do well to pay attention.


One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 


Love or Saints?

One of the many oddities of life at Nashotah House was that we never celebrated St. Valentine.  I wouldn’t expect a mostly male and neurotically homophobic community to mark Valentine’s Day as for lovers (most of the faculty and many students were married, however), but the saint’s name wasn’t uttered in my years there.  Of course, commercialization of holidays does taint them somewhat.  It’s difficult to take a day seriously when you’re being told that how much you spend will be the sign of how special it will be.  With St. Valentine’s Day, however, I believe the topic was much too close to something the church had long feared—sexuality.  I’ve often pondered how this strange obsession evolved.  Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, isn’t the origin of this antipathy to being fully human.

The trouble likely starts in the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular.  No mention is made of Jesus having been married.  Paul, in his usual way, made it an issue but fell short of outright condemning it.  His words would help convince the Roman Catholic Church that mandated celibacy was a good idea.  Clearly, however, Augustine of Hippo, who lived after Valentine (depending on which one you elect to follow) saw the whole enterprise as flawed.  Making up the concept of original sin and tying it in with sexuality was a certain means of creating a problem.  Not that Christianity is the only religion that promotes celibacy, of course.  But when it came to Nashotah House there was really no concern about what other religions taught.  Even on February 14 no collects were recited mentioning the saint who must not be named.

The history of saints’ days is a fascinating one.  A few of them made it into pop culture—after Presidents’ Day there’s no national holiday until Memorial Day in May, so who can blame people for looking for reasons to celebrate while still waiting for spring?  Saint Patrick wasn’t similarly given the cold shoulder at Nashotah in my years there.  And although it moved around quite a bit, you could usually count on April for delivering Easter.  We didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day.  Nor Martin Luther King Day—not being Catholic his canonization process was a non-starter.  The long, cold stretch between Epiphany (now Insurrection Day) and Lent was one devoid of popular holidays.  I suspect that despite the number of saints (and there are lots of them) the singling out of Valentine was considered to be asking for trouble.  That was many years ago.  Oddities, however, have a way of remaining in long-term memory.


Meanness

There’s often a meanness to literalist religions.  A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can.  No compassion.  No forgiveness.  Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising.  Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one.  The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind.  Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria.  Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra.  The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images.  When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.

This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam.  Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace.  What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists.  Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious.  The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life.  As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever.  There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts.  Religion has no feud with the past.  In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts.  Continuity is important to them.

Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics.  As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized.  Kept separate.  When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized.  This happened elsewhere around the world.  “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image.  We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.  Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth.  In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself.  That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying.  No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets.  It takes literalism to make it one.


Religions and Horrors

My latest piece on The Golem has just appeared on Horror Homeroom.  It’s free—check it out.  In it I briefly discuss Jewish horror.  I mainly write about Christian horror because that’s my immediate context.  That’s not to say other religions don’t participate in the genre too.  While I worked for Routledge I acquired the book Buddhism Goes to the Movies, by Ronald Green.  Like the title suggests, it’s about movies focused on, or made by, Buddhists.  What sold me on the project was the chapter on horror films.  Much of what’s being called “J-Horror,” or Japanese Horror these days, occurs in a Buddhist or Shinto contexts.  I’m not expert enough in these traditions, however, to spot them with the detail that I do in my own native religion. 

All religious traditions have certain commonalities.  As I’ve frequently discussed on this blog, sex and death are two of them.  Given the powerful ideas that religion trades in, it seems natural that it would appear frequently in the horror genre.  It’s just that modern viewers tend to be somewhat divorced from religion and can’t see it.  Religion is that way—it fills the cracks.  How often do we pay attention to the caulking or grout?  We tend to focus on the tile or woodwork instead.  Religion holds thought systems together, including those of the horror genre.  I just discussed no-go subjects yesterday, but even science shows religion in some of the cracks.  Learning to see it involves learning to shift your focus.

I blogged about The Golem just after I watched it, back in December.  The golem is an original Jewish monster, and Judaism is both a culture and a religion.  It’s difficult to tease them apart sometimes.  The same can be said of many traditions outside Christianity.  In fact, many cultures had no word for religion—the idea of a separate realm of life where you try to please the gods because what you do otherwise is inherently sinful.  (There’s probably a reason that capitalism grew in a Christian context.)  That means that horror particularly welcomes Christianity.  Many of the bases of fear are premised on a religion that, as culturally bound as it is, has always claimed that joining it is a choice.  If you can choose you can choose wrongly.  This is fertile ground for horror, especially when the consequences are eternal.   My Horror Homeroom piece takes a different approach than this, but religion and horror nevertheless find themselves together, often in the same room.


No Go Subjects

The problem with being eclectic is that you never catch up with everything.  Although I was once a professor of Hebrew Bible—not technically the field in which I’d studied—I read (both past and present tenses) widely.  Anyone who’s brave enough to follow this blog for any length of time must know that.  I tend to think the element that ties them all together is religion, or a curiosity about religion.  I have read material on science, art, psychology, history, geology, astronomy, literary theory, mythology, the paranormal, religious traditions, monster theory, to name just a few.  Because of my interests across standard disciplinary lines, I often wonder about “no go” subjects.  No go subjects are interests that will likely ruin your prospects of getting either a job or basic human respect.  Although the government is taking serious interest in the topic, one of those subjects is UFOs.

For historians of religion such as myself, the study of UFO religions is sometimes acceptable.  Indeed, there is a correlation between some evangelical sects and the UFO phenomenon.  I experienced that firsthand as a child when my mother drove us to a church meeting where a guest preacher was discussing UFOs and God.  I have only the vaguest recollections of that event in my then young mind, but it did leave me with the question of why respectable people aren’t allowed to look at certain subjects.  Why does taboo even exist in an academic setting?  I recently ran across David Halperin’s website.  I’d known of him because his recent book, Intimate Alien, had gotten a lot of press.  What I didn’t know was that he was formerly a professor of religious studies.

It seems to me that many of the interesting, outré topics fall into the baskets of religion scholars.  We touch the taboo objects that nobody else will.  Why?  Because there should be no “no go” categories.  Sex?  Religion scholars study it.  Politics?  We’ve got it covered.  Paranormal?  We go there too.  Perhaps it’s because religion scholars have so little to lose.  We’re not high on the prestige list.  I tend to think, however, it is because people who go into religious studies are innately curious.  (Not all, of course, but many.)  We’re drawn to that which doesn’t fit into the everyday, the ordinary.  Transcendence, seeking that outside of which we daily operate, haunts us.  Why do people scoff at what they don’t understand?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at it and try to increase our comprehension?  To me it seems to be basic human nature, even if the interest is literally out of this world.


How Clean Is Your Brain?

First it was in.  Then it was out.  Now nobody seems to be sure.  “Brainwashing” isn’t really a scientific term, but human suggestibility is very well in evidence.  Advertisers count on it.  Did I really need that phone case when I never go out?  And so on.  The real question is can people be compelled to do what they normally wouldn’t want to.  Think Jonestown.  Heaven’s Gate.  Waco.  Do people really want to die en masse?  Are we but higher lemmings?  I’ve seen hypnotists do their shows.  The human mind is manipulable.  We can be shut off from reason.  A recent article from The Middletown Press my wife shared with me raises the question whether conspiracy theories, such as those sported by QAnon, are something like brainwashing.  Clearly they are.  As are many Fundamentalist forms of religion.

You can recognize this when a conversation becomes such that the true believer simply won’t listen to evidence.  They’ll say they want to discuss an issue when all they really want to do is have someone state their side so they can tell them they’re wrong.  Reason has nothing to do with it.  When that part of their gray matter that handles things rationally feels backed against a wall they resort to ad hominem attacks.  I’ve been observing this since I was a child raised in such a paranoid religious tradition.  It works for politics, too.  For many QAnon sorts, Trump’s word was God’s word.  Once uttered it could not be refuted, not with all the evidence in the world.  It’s very much like Fundamentalist views of the Bible which can’t take context, translation, and reason into account.  When contradictions are blatantly pointed out they respond with “there are no contradictions.”  Is there brainwashing?

Conspiracy theories can seem real because there are actually some conspiracies.  There are government secrets.  Only the naive deny that.  Still, once you start throwing in the ridiculous—that a devil-worshipping cabal of pedophiles is running a secret government—you’re in water over your head.  Not only that, this sounds incredibly like the satanic panic that spread through much of the world in the late 1980s into the 1990s.  When the evidence was examined, it was found lacking.  Some of the key bestselling accounts were admitted to have been forgeries.  The believing mind, however, has trouble letting go.  We used to call fringe groups cults.  We used to suggest that people could be held against their will.  People leaving QAnon are reporting similar experiences, according to the article.  Brainwashing by any other name would be so real.


Christian Nationalisms

Ongoing analysis of the Capitol Riots continues as footage of the event is scrutinized.  Although the press is puzzled, those who study religion—underfunded and ignored in the academy—aren’t really surprised.  A recent story from the Associated Press explores how Christian Nationalism, one of the most dangerous forces in the United States, played a large role in the event.  Christian Nationalism is one example of what I call weaponized religion.  As someone who’s spent over four decades studying religion minutely, it’s pretty clear when religion begins to slip its moorings and is becoming radicalized.  Generally it begins when adherents refuse to hear any views but their own.  They believe their version of their religion is the only “one, true faith” and this gives them the mandate to attack any who believe differently.  In the case of Christianity it’s very difficult to see what any of this has to do with a carpenter from Nazareth.

Indeed, evangelical Christians themselves are exploring what is now being called “Republican Jesus.”  This Jesus isn’t the one from the Good Book.  Far from it.  No humble shepherd saying “turn the other cheek” fits this image.  Long ago I read Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus.  In it he analyzed how the American appropriation of the Jewish rabbi became a muscular, masculine fighter.  Not the kind of guy who’d let Roman authorities nail him to a cross.  And certainly not a softie who would favor outcasts, women, and children over the rich and powerful.  This image of Jesus, who draws a hard line on certain trigger issues, is as patently false as any reconstruction can be.  And yet it drives unruly mobs into the halls of power.  Universities, meanwhile, cut religion departments.

Photo credit: David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t pretend to be a prophet, but this issue isn’t going away.  Our culture has long harbored the myth of America as the “new Israel.”  The leaders of Christian Nationalism are organized and they have a clear agenda to take over the country.  Like other serious issues that don’t have to do with making money, it’s simply overlooked as irrelevant.  When the mainstream media gets a glimpse at what’s been going on in such groups, it always seems surprised.  The kind of elitism that divorces itself from the everyday simply can’t be informed of what’s actually happening.  Religion is a very powerful driving force.  It motivates many far more than money does.  We see it plainly when it becomes weaponized.  By then, however, it could be too late.


February Festivities

One of the more commonly overlooked holiday complexes comes around Groundhog Day.  It may seem strange to be thinking about spring right now, but it’s on everyone’s mind.  (In this hemisphere anyway.)  When seasons actually begin is a matter of perspective, and that’s not just a north-south hemisphere divide.  With our scientific outlook, we take the path of equinoxes and solstices.  If you look closely, however, there is a set of seasonal holidays that falls midway between them, dividing the year into eight spokes.  These cross-quarter days were recognized in some cultures as the early inklings of a new season beginning.  If Halloween (Samhain) marks the start of winter, this holiday, Imbolc, is the beginning of spring.  The day had many associations, one of which was watching a groundhog (or other animal) to see if the weather would begin changing sooner or later.  Spring itself is inevitable.

The popularity of Groundhog Day owes quite a bit to the movie of that name.  The film is more complex than its classification as a comedy might suggest.  Although the day itself does deal with the cyclical nature of, well, nature, repetition isn’t an inherent theme in the holiday.  Neither is it part of the related Christian celebration of Candlemas.  Indeed, I tend to think Groundhog Day has the makings of a horror story.  Being stuck in time could represent a terrible fate for many.  Interestingly, Phil Conners (Bill Murray), after having been stuck in this same day for a considerable amount of time, suggests to Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) that he might be a god.  He is immortal and he knows everything that is to be known in Punxsutawney.  He can predict things before they happen (of course, he has become Punxsutawney Phil, in a manner of speaking).

A philosophically rich movie, the story has appealed to adherents of several religions.  That, in itself, is amazing.  The endless repetition could represent samsara to those of south and east Asian religious inclination.  The learning to be kind, and even forgiveness aspects, appeal to those who want to find a Christian message in it.  Not bad for a holiday nobody gets off of work, and which frequently falls in the middle of the week.  The holiday complex of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day represents what had once been a more prominent season than we currently recognize.  Revivals of the more ancient celebrations have begun to appear, but the endless repetition so valued by capitalistic systems has nearly captured us all.


Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.


Welcome Home

It feels like we’ve got our country back.  I’m not talking about just Democrats, but all Americans.  The last wicked four years felt like a nightmare to millions.  May such evil never happen again.  Many thoughts are vying for attention in my head with the end of the Trump era.  We now have only our second Catholic president, following a heathen one (I fear this may insult heathens, my apologies if it does).  We have finally, after far too many years, have a female vice-president, having been robbed of our first female president by the electoral college four years ago.  Like many Americans, I came away from the inauguration yesterday with the feeling of relief that a person with human sympathies, who doesn’t pathologically rely on lies, is in the White House again.  Listening to the oath of office I wonder how 45’s hand didn’t burn off on the Bible four years ago.

The inauguration is, of course, a ceremony of civil religion.  The family Bible upon which President Biden (how right that feels!) placed his hand is an American institution.  Quite often families have had a particular Bible in which to keep family records and important data (in the days before the internet collected all that).  Not only that, but Biden was actually able to quote the Bible, and not from one of those verses everyone knows from overuse.  What a difference from the cynical, lackadaisical holding up of an unread Bible after teargassing non-violent protestors for a photo-op.  No matter what his detractors may say, Joe Biden actually is a Christian, something that cannot be said of the former incumbent by any meaningful use of the word.

On the night of January 19, Biden began the new administration with a moving candlelight vigil for the 400,000+ Americans who’ve died from Covid-19.  Until that moment, the White House did not care about them at all.  The program included a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s iconic “Hallelujah.”  Interestingly Cohen’s ambiguous line was altered to “I know there’s a God above,” for Americans of a certain stripe need that kind of reassurance.  Compassion.  This is one of the central messages the Bible offers.  We should care for and love one another.  It has been four years since Americans have heard that message.  The evil times through which we’ve suffered are not gone for good, but never has an inauguration been so sorely needed by a country that likes to think itself chosen.  At least we have our country back, no matter party or creed, and that is worth celebrating.


BLM, MLK, and Justice

Martin Luther King Jr. was a martyr.  The word martyr means “witness.”  Given what we’ve all seen done by the Republican Party over the past two weeks, let’s hope they at least know the meaning of the word repentance.  King died trying to set people free.  Half a century later we’ve had to witness a sitting US president praising an armed mob, some of whom were carrying confederate flags, storm the Capitol.  Then, that very night, we watched Republicans still attempt to repress legitimate votes in order to keep white supremacy in power.  The set-backs of the Trump administration will take years to overcome.  King stood for equality.  He called for fair treatment.  He knew his Bible.  Now those who cynically hold the Good Book up for the camera can’t quote it but can tear down everything it stands for.

We need Martin Luther King Day.  This year especially.  We need to be reminded that all people deserve fair treatment.  Justice isn’t a meaningless word.  The color of one’s skin is no indicator of inherent worth—that belongs to everybody.  Throughout the country there are heartfelt memorials to King.  The various Trump towers—often segregated and reserved for the wealthy—are monuments of a different sort.  There is power in symbols.  Those who praise and crave money above human need will ultimately be remembered for how evil seeped into their bones.  How hatred of others and narcissism defined their rotten moral core.  Today we try to focus on a good example, but present reality keeps getting in the way.

Four years ago I joined about 1.3 million marchers in Washington, DC.  The Women’s March, as estimated by government officials on the ground, was more than twice as large as the media estimates still tout.  I’ve puzzled over this for four years—why when an oppressed group makes a stand officials and pundits feel the need to downplay it.  King made a stand and he had a dream that one day we wouldn’t have to make marches on Washington just so that everyone could have the equal treatment they deserve.  Human rights are the only rights we have.  Even as some haters are planning further acts of violence to object to a humanitarian president, we are given a necessary reminder that all people deserve fair treatment.  Black lives do matter.  Why has half a century not been enough to assimilate that simple message?  We need to sober up from the drunkenness of irresponsible power.  We need to learn the simple fact that nobody should be killed for being black.  That whiteness is toxic.  That we need to call out those who would use privilege to claim otherwise.