Old Churches

I doubled its authenticity, but it was revered in a way similar to the Shroud of Turin.  The old guide, a priest if I recall, showed us an actual lantern hung for Paul Revere’s ride.  This was the Old North Church in Boston, of course.  Its history is so storied that children across the country learned about it in school.  A similar feeling comes from reading The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.  Subtitled Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York, it is clearly a celebratory work, printed in full color and with pictures on every page.  This church’s claim to fame isn’t as much historical as it’s the result of the imagination of Washington Irving.  It features in his short story “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.”

Built in 1685, it was already an old building by the time Irving had settled in North Tarrytown.  Being early enough, Irving had immense influence on the culture of a young country.  Although born in New York City, and although he lived for many years overseas, he came to represent the voice of the emerging American literary tradition.  America has been home to many writers since then, some successful, many not.  But this book is about the church, not Irving.  Irving does play a big part in its story, although he was never a member.  I kept thinking as I read how influential a single story can become.  And even a small Dutch Reformed Church can benefit from it.  This book gives a high-level overview of the history of the area and some of its colorful characters.  It turns a few times to the Headless Horseman, but it also explains the trials and triumphs of a small church.

Although most towns can’t claim such a storied structure, American churches have had an outsized influence on who we are as a people.  I’ve sat through meetings lamenting the lack of funds for the operating budget as money grows tighter even as the worldview of ancient Palestine effaces.  As an historian of religion I tend to look back.  I don’t believe our future will be entirely electronic or virtual.  If it is, I think I’d rather find myself on a chill, uncomfortable pew in the Old Dutch Church lit by candles on a Christmas Eve, shivering but still alive.  No matter what a person believes—and with the varieties of churches we can’t all be right—we know that it’s part of what makes us human.


Tweets from Heaven

What do the ultra-rich know about morals?  I read recently that now that Elon Musk has purchased Twitter for billions and billions of dollars, that he’s going to allow Trump back on because it’s “morally wrong” to prevent him.  Heaven help us when the plutocrats start dictating morals.  One of the odd things about my strange career is that I was an undecided major in college.  I settled eventually on religion, but my transcript shows a restless mind.  One subject that I came back to time and again was ethics.  I want to know what is right.  Shutting up a deranged narcissist who wants to run the country only to enhance his image of himself seems a moral no-brainer.  The case was different before he was elected the first time.  Now we know.  Now we have a responsibility.

Those who can afford to buy the moon shouldn’t make declarations on what is moral.  The church, however, has largely become irrelevant.  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” a famous moralist, whose name is unfortunately forgotten, once said.  The moral compass of the uberwealthy is irrevocably squewed by a massive loadstone known as personal wealth.  Indeed, our very laws are made by the wealthy to protect the interests of the wealthy.  They do this by courting biblicists who seem to have forgotten—what is his name again?  You know, the one who seemed to have a problem with the rich?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Morality has somehow become confused with concerns about other people’s genitalia.  We don’t ask what the wealthy do with theirs—it’s pretty clear what one tweeting resident of Mar-a-Lago has done with his.  Ironically Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church largely because of the sale of indulgences.  The idea that the rich could buy their way out of sins rankled sixteenth-century moralists into saying sola scriptura.  But now they have lost even their solaScriptura, for its part, is unequivocal about one thing—the problem of the rich.  The poor aren’t the problem.  In this new gospel, however, victims are blamed while the powerful rightly rule all.  The divine right of riches.  The wealthy, so misunderstood; the poor are the way they are because they’re lazy.  There’s no systemic cause for anyone not to have as much money as he wants (and it seems they’re generally he’s).  And they have a right to say whatever they want because their word comes down from heaven, echoing out from their private space rockets to the stars.


Empty Chair

I’m not a Roman Catholic.  Nevertheless, I admire much about the tradition.  Its perceived unchanged continuity with the past is a big draw.  Still, one of the largest issues most religions face as they evolve is that things change.  No religion can stop it.  Edward Jarvis’ brilliant Sede Vacante: The Life and Legacy of Archbishop Thục explores the life and possible theological motivations for one of the most fascinating people in recent church history.  Ngô-dinh-Thục became a Roman Catholic Archbishop in his native Vietnam.  He was the brother of Ngô-dình-Diệm, the first president of South Vietnam, and likely one of the reasons behind the Vietnam War.  In fact, Thục had two other extremely prominent brothers and the four of them formed a junta that ruled the country with authoritarian vigor and utilized all the corruption for which authoritarianism is famed.  They became enormously wealthy, they used torture and extortion to get what they wanted, and Thục supported all of this.

Eventually excommunicated (twice), Thục had to leave Vietnam.  Two of his brothers were arrested and assassinated.  After his self-imposed exile Thục attended Vatican II, the papers of which he signed, but his prominence faded.  Without his holdings in Vietnam he was poor, and in fact lived in poverty.  Then he started consecrating bishops for breakaway Catholic groups, including the strange sect of the Palmarians.  This led to his first excommunication.  Later in life, after restored to the graces of the church, he again started consecrating bishops for the Sedevanctantists.  These were Catholics who believed the Pope was invalid and his chair (sede) was vacant (vacante).  He was excommunicated again and, after moving to the United States, died in poverty.

I keep these posts brief enough that I don’t have space to spell out all the amazing angles from which this life could be viewed (read the book for that).  In our authoritarian-loving times, however, the nature of those who reject “modernization” stood out.  Many Sedevanctantists insist on the restoration of the Latin mass.  They somehow believe the Popes since about Pius X have been liberals(!).  Like Trumpists, they believe it is possible to halt the movement of culture and go back to the way things were in the 1950s when outward conformity was all the rage.  Even Fonzie, after all, was really a nice guy instead of a dangerous biker.  Although there is some theological minutiae here, I recommend this book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of Vietnam, the Roman Catholic Church, or the mindset of those who reject the modern world.


For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.


Highest Education

The average church-goer is often impressed with the idea of seminary.  The thought that someone could devote three years of their lives to theological minutiae in order to take a job with long hours and substandard pay, is mind-boggling.  Having been a seminary creature for so many years, however, makes me wonder if many church folk realize that seminaries are businesses.  Non-profits, yes, but businesses nonetheless.  This is a trait that they share with other institutions of higher learning.  Customers pay money for a good or a service (I’m not sure which) in the form of a degree.  If a student can’t cope academically, they’re often “grandfathered”through because, well, it costs a lot of money and you deserve to get what you paid for, right?

This business concept of higher education is dangerous and is primarily prevalent where governments do not support education.  Schools have to raise money and if alumni don’t give, well you have to raise tuition.  And the more somebody pays the better case they have for getting their degree.  Seminaries, however, also suffer from generally low-income alumni and sponsoring churches needing clergy.  (It’s not difficult to get accepted into most seminary programs.)  Only when a candidate is a serious problem will they tend to be weeded out.  And congregations get the results of such a system.  My level of cynicism probably results from having gone through seminary and then having taught at one for many years.  At no point have I been ordained.  In fact, even churches facing clergy shortages have shown no interest.  Call it sour grapes.

To me, however, the crisis in higher education is the result of business practices being applied to education.  The two don’t mix.  In a world where job options are limited for those too weak to dig and too proud to beg, ministry has some appeal.  You can be considered a community leader and an expert in the relatively innocuous arcane area of “theology.” And most of the people you serve will have no idea what seminary delivers, or doesn’t.  I attended events for seminary administrators offered by the Association of Theological Schools—the seminary accrediting body.  I learned that they too are under pressure to approve unless there’s a serious problem.  Even heads of accrediting bodies have to eat.  So we let the system churn on as it has since the earliest universities turned out educated clergy.  And we don’t stop to think what all of this means.

Tradition

Shopping Screed

Capitalism is insidious.  Those of us with modest incomes—and I’m quite aware that many, many people are poor—are constantly being bombarded with new schemes to get us to pay a little each time for something that used to be free.  Look, I realize the economy was hit by the pandemic.  We’re all paying for it.  Still, even basic stores you’ve used your whole life now want you to sign up for schemes that will only cost you a dollar each time and which never really pay anything back.  The one that’s got me thinking about this is a drug store.  Like it’s a surprise that you’ve decided to buy something at a drug store.  They get you to sign something you vaguely understand as you’re trying to rush out the door with your prescription and then they send you daily emails telling you how great it’s going to be.

And surveys—the endless surveys!  They sound more neurotic than I actually am.  Did we do this right, and could we have done it better?  It’ll only take a quarter hour of your time.  Each time you stop in.  And please do that daily.  The last time I did one of these surveys for the promise of a prize worth $90, I ordered their version of a fit-bit as my prize.  I’m curious how many steps I take in a day and no, I don’t carry my phone with me everywhere.  The “prize” arrived late and when I charged it up and turned it on (it came with no instructions readable in my native language) it worked for a total of literally 3 seconds before the screen died a pixelated death.  Now that same company wants me to answer surveys weekly and pay an extra dollar each time I come in.  It’s enough to make me want to use the other drug store, but they’ll probably do the same.

The thing is it’s not just pharmacies.  All the stores are doing it.  You shopped here once?  Look what else we’ve got!  Some of us shop for what we need.  We live on a budget.  If you’re going to start charging me for the privilege of shopping at your establishment I’ll have to start going somewhere else.  The items on offer for promotional plans are things I just don’t buy. If you want me to spend more, then reframe your economics and pay me more.   And I don’t have money to just give away.  Have you even taken a look at your last heating bill (thanks Mr. Putin)?  I’ll come to the store again as long as it’s free to shop there and it has something that I actually need.

Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 


Words and Belief

Why do we care so little for the poor?   Part of the answer is surely the misguided idea of meritocracy—if you merit good you will be successful.  This kind of thinking emerges from the wrong end of a bull.  There may be poor people who are lazy but the vast majority of the poor are those for whom our systems make it impossible to thrive.  It’s very easy to put them out of mind as long as we can keep them out of sight and just let our prejudices do the thinking for us.  The poor are the victims of capitalism.  Loud voices proclaim them to be a drain on the system, despite the fact that many of them work—some multiple jobs—and remain unable to keep up.  Capitalism is kind only to the wealthy.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber is one of the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign.  The full name is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.  The initial part is taken from an initiative that Martin Luther King, Jr. started before his assassination.  He was shifting towards a movement meant to address the entrenched unfairness deep in American society.  These nearly six decades on, we are just as deeply entrenched.  Barber is doing amazing work, organizing, speaking, and advocating.  He’s trying to give a voice to the people.  I do wonder, however, if using the word “Revival” doesn’t work against the goals of the movement.

Certain words have been poisoned by their abuse among various religious groups.  Especially among the young.  The word “revival” may fall into that category, calling to mind, as it may, repressed people working up to an emotional fever under the banner of Hellfire and brimstone.  Believing a bit too literally a message that was contained in a book viewed magically.  Names can be important.  Many of the younger generation are put off even by the word “church” since so much hypocrisy (something the Republican party has openly embraced) has come to light over recent decades.  I fully agree that we need a moral revival, we need people to wake up and demand that our government promote the justice it claims to seek.  I do wonder if religion, as previously packaged, has the credibility to do it.  No matter how we take on the task, it’s clear that the poor have been abandoned by the system, through no fault of their own.  And some in the church have begun to find their voice in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

Love Your Mother

It’s not exactly a birthday, for we don’t know when exactly she was born.  We choose April 22 to think of our mother—the mother of us all.  For many of us concerned about the environment, not only is today Earth Day, but April has become Earth Month.  To me one of the saddest aspects of our environmental crisis is that certain sects of Christianity are largely responsible for it.  Religion working against the betterment of humankind.  So it was in the beginning, is now, and hopefully we won’t have to finish the triad.  Granted, religions help us to keep our mind on spiritual matters.  The problem is when such things become dogma and the real needs of real people are ignored so that a fervently desired fantasy can be lived out by destroying our planet.

In response there are what have been called “deep green” religions.  It’s difficult to gain a critical mass, however, when many of those who think deeply about the environment have left religion out of the equation.  It seems to me that we’ve got to make peace with our evolved tendencies toward religion in order to have any meaningful discussion about this.  Meanwhile global warming continues.  It does so with the blessing of a kind of Christianity that sees this world as expendable and exploitable based on an idiosyncratic reading of Genesis.  Even though all the evidence points in the opposite direction, we have networks (here’s looking at you, Fox), owned by billionaires who know you can sway Christianity simply by kissing your hand to the moon.

It’s my hope that this Earth Day we might start to think about how to integrate some deep green theology into the kind that sees no room for green in the red, white, and blue.  The self-convinced have no desire for conversation about this and those already certain that religion is nothing but superstition tend to agree.  Since antiquity, however, the wise have realized that progress comes from the middle ground.  Politicians, in their own self-interest, have stoked the fires of division and hatred, knowing that they get reelected that way.  Mother Earth, I suspect, is rolling her eyes.  She will survive even if we succumb to our own mythologies.  We need to learn to talk to one another.  We need to accept that we evolved to be religious.  We need to look for middle ground while there’s still dry ground on which to stand.  It’s not exactly a birthday, but it is a holiday that should be taken seriously. It’s only right to love your mother.

From NASA’s photo library

April Says

I can honestly say that it wasn’t on my bucket list to mow the lawn while it was snowing.  Friday would’ve been better—sunny and sixty—but I have a 925 and I had a meeting after work I couldn’t get out of.  Saturday it rained all day, which, I know, grass loves.  Sunday was the only opportunity left in the weekend, and with stocking cap and gloves on, I went to mow.  Snow started to fall.  It must be April.  I’ve always believed that “April fools” has an origin in the weather.  I can’t prove it, but it seems just when you think it’s safe to go without a coat, suddenly winter.  Back when we lived in Wisconsin we took a family fun trip to Wisconsin Dells for my wife’s birthday in April.  It snowed.  We rode the famous ducks and then played mini-golf amid squalls.  April fools.

The weather influences many aspects of life.  Why it’s considered a neutral topic I don’t know.  It’s kind of like talking about God.  The only thing we all agree on is that we can’t control it.  Well, we can certainly influence it.  Global warming sets strange weather patterns into motion.  It was in the seventies less than a month ago.  (Which is why grass was unruly just as April began its double-digits.)  Then there’s all the rain.  See what I mean about God?  Divinity and weather were in mind as I worked on Weathering the Psalms.  I still wrestle with how these things relate to each other in the human psyche.  We do tend to think the weather is somehow a judgment or blessing.

My family knows I complain about it religiously.  And mowing isn’t my favorite activity in any weather.  It was late November and I was still mowing.  April (which fools) seems to be a little too soon to be starting that all over again.  Committing at least one day of every weekend until nearly next Christmas to cutting grass.  It’s a long-term commitment.  I suspect those who benefit (monetarily, for we all lose, existentially) from global warming probably don’t mow their own lawns.  They probably have their private jets that don’t need to be jump started because that worrying idiot-light on the dash is on again and they’re afraid to use it.  It’s life in a different key.  Still, we all share the weather.  When it affects crops, or swamps New York City, we’ll all be bound to notice.  Enough grumbling.  It’s time to get the weed-whacker fired up while the icicles start to form.  April fools.


Spring Holidays

March and April, despite having their holidays, tend to be months of pretty solid capitalistic work.  Congress may take its April recess and universities have their spring break, but the working stiffs just keep going.  I’ve worked for a couple of British companies and they have a dilemma in the Human Resources department.  Britain has a lot more days off per year than American business practice does.  The dilemma?  How to tell your colonials that the head offices will be closed around Easter when those of the New World will remain open.  You see, very few American companies recognize what some Christians call Holy Week as a time for anything other than work.  Back in the days when I was still trying to work myself into the Episcopal priesthood, I had to ask my manager for Good Friday off and permission was only reluctantly given.

The two major Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter are vastly different in their public expression.  Despite the outlook of Scrooge, most companies consider Christmas a holiday, even to the point of giving you a Friday or Monday off if it falls on a weekend.  A present, as it were.  Easter, on the other hand, reliably falls on a Sunday.  Viewed in isolation there’s no need to give people any days off.  Since I was a teen, however, I took Maundy Thursday and Good Friday seriously.  You were, even in the Methodist church, encouraged to spend the latter in church, especially around the middle of the day.  If at all possible, it should be raining.  It wasn’t a day off for rest and relaxation, but for contemplating sin and its costs (hardly conducive to capitalism).

Universities, however, have tended to shift spring break to St. Patrick’s Day so as to get the damage of drunken students off campus.  Indeed, Purim, the Jewish spring holiday, also advocates drinking until Haman and Mordecai become indistinguishable when spoken.  Sort of like Hamilton, it was the holiday that saved the book of Esther, just like the Broadway show preserved the ten-dollar bill.  When it comes to business, however, Americans are all business.  (Did someone  mention a ten-dollar bill?!)  Money, as MC reminds us, makes the vorld go round.  And holidays are viewed as constant interruptions.  The typical work calendar will have no holidays from President’s Day in February until Memorial Day at the end of May.  It’s typically the longest stretch without a paid holiday.  Just when the weather’s starting to get nicer.  But let’s not forget, money is fully in charge here, for where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.


Leathers

It’s an occupational hazard for the vegan Bible editor.  Leather.  Leather Bibles, although expensive, are popular.  If you want free fetishistic deliveries of colored leather to arrive at your door, well, it’s part of a Bible editor’s life.  Morally I’m opposed to leather and I eagerly await the day when cactus leather is considered a suitable alternative.  Leather began being used in bookbinding early on, when books were treasured possessions.  It was readily available because animal slaughter was a part of everyday life.  It’s also extremely durable.  These days it’s just a status symbol.  When Bibles are produced there’s generally a market for whatever translation in leather.  In my time I’ve seen some well enough used to perhaps justify such extravagance, but not very often.  Usually it’s merely for show.

There’s an entire vocabulary associated with leather bookbinding.  Tooling, or engraving the smooth leather to look like something else, embossing, or pressing a design in the leather, gilding, or the use of gold paint on leather, and dentelle, or having a border run around the outside edge.  All of these were (and still are) signs of the artistry of the binder.  The practice dates back to before the nineteenth century when books were bound by booksellers, not publishers.  Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In any case, apart from tradition there’s no need to kill animals to bind books any more.  Law books and Bibles are the major purveyors of leather binding.  It continues simply because it continues.

One term used for traditions unwilling to change is “hidebound.”  While this seems originally to have referred to emaciated cattle, it has come to be associated with codified, as in leather books.  Pigskin, or other cheaper hides, are often used.  Or “bonded leather,” which is as much plastic (if not more) than actual leather.  The Bible isn’t a terribly animal-friendly book.  Dogs are unclean and cats aren’t mentioned at all (except the large, wild kinds).  Yes, there are shepherds—both good and bad—but sheep were kept to be exploited.  And perhaps turned into leather.  There’s something strangely symbolic about this.  And not in a propitious way.  Where does obeying the rules get you?  Sheep are praised for their docility, their willingness to be thoughtlessly exploited, slaughtered, skinned, and eaten.  To do the job, a Bible editor must learn about leather.  Perhaps its a profession best left to carnivores.


Future Ministry

I’ve been on the Green Committee at work almost since I started the job.  Occasionally for Earth Day we’ll have a book discussion.  Usually it revolves around nonfiction books that my press publishes.  This year they selected Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.  It’s an environmentalism tale of what global warming may well be like and the political machinations it might take (and the millions of deaths along the way) before we stop burning carbon.  It’s a long and detailed and political story.  Robinson is known as an intellectual science fiction writer and there are sci-fi elements to the book, but its style is realist and its outlook, while ultimately hopeful, is staid.  Even when humans start to move in the right direction.  It’s also a very long book.

Reading it got me to thinking again of a somewhat bewildering truth: environmentalism books tend not to sell overly well and sustained reading, even by supporters, is difficult.  Many of us know that we’re beyond the tipping point for environmental disaster.  The Trump years assured us that it is coming.  One of the elements Robinson makes clear is just how politically entrenched it is.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the despair.  The vast majority of people in the world want a more environmentally conscious government, but plutocracy tends to bring narcissists to the top and the needs of all others are less important.  In Robinson’s version of the story, targeted violence is the only thing that works.  Near the end of the story an interesting idea is raised: the Ministry of the Future (which is a government ministry, not the church kind) concludes a new religion is needed.

The masses of people, you see, are followers.  Religious leaders reinforce the idea that God told their founders—and by extension their followers—the only truth.  Their jobs (and ministries are jobs) include reinforcing those ideas to people who’ve been raised or converted to that particular brand of religion.  A number of New Religious Movements, and even a couple of prescient ancient religions, have been purposely constructed.  The trick is to get followers to accept that the religion is legitimate.  Most western religions around today have been based on the idea that humans can do whatever they want with the planet—even destroy it to force God to return.  I kind of like Robinson’s idea better.  Perhaps that’s why religions form around movies like Avatar.  Not a bad thought, when your job has you reading a sci-fi novel.  A religion saving the earth feels like a novel idea.


D Evil

The Devil, they say, is in the details.  T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley look into those details in The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots.  It’s often a surprise to Christian readers that the Devil clearly evolves in the Bible.  From being virtually absent in the Hebrew section, he appears, almost full blown, in the New Testament.  This, of course, flies in the face of the idea that the truth was pretty much revealed from the beginning and that it’s consistent throughout.  The Devil in the details proves that it’s not.  The Bible has multiple suggestions of whence evil arises, God among them.  The Devil came to be one explanation of the origin of evil, but he’s not the only biblical one.

One of the things I found fascinating here, however, was that the authors often refer to popular culture to illustrate their point.  They particularly favor movies.  The authors are biblical scholars and it’s not at all unusual to find movie fans among them.  I suspect that since biblical scholars (apart from the linguists) specialize in stories it’s only natural that movies appeal.  They aren’t given extended discussion here, and indeed, a book about the Devil in the movies would be very thick if it attempted to be comprehensive.  Satan is a movie star.  Since he evolves into the embodiment of evil this is probably not surprising.  A good plot needs some evil in it, and one character in the western canon is the granddaddy of all evil.

Those looking for a fuller biography of the Prince of Evil may be disappointed that this book keeps to its remit—the biblical Satan.  There are, however, many more books about the Devil.  Maybe even more than movies in which he appears.  Scholars and laity both seem interested in this character.  He appears late on the scene, only within the last century or so of the biblical writing period.  His fullest portrait there is the highly symbolic book of Revelation.  And no matter what else you say about it, we can all admit Revelation is tricky to understand.  Since we take the Bible so seriously, one aspect of Satan that isn’t addressed here is his role as trickster.  Folkloric characters who cause chaos (which the Devil does) are often tricksters doing it for no particular reason.  We don’t know why the Devil is bad.  The Bible has no clear origin story for him, since he’s built up from several other cultures’ ideas of bad deities.  To sort it all out requires, well, the details.


When Bible Met Horror

My colleague (if I may be so bold) Brandon Grafius has recently published a piece titled “What Can Horror Teach Us about the Bible?” in Sojourners.  Brandon and I have never met in person, but we’ve worked together a number of times.  We share an interest in horror and we both teach/taught Hebrew Bible.  We’re not the only ones who’ve got this fascination.  When I was able to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings in person, I would often meet up with others who, apart from their respectable jobs, have a real interest in horror.  There are quite a few of us.  Some journals, like Sojourners, are starting to ask the obvious question: what do these things have in common?

I can’t claim to have watched all the horror movies ever made.  It’s actually pretty difficult to access some of those I’d like to see and, believe it or not, I’m actually a selective viewer.  Often my choices are dictated by research.  Back when I was young, in college and seminary, I’d go to see horror movies with friends.  Since I was living alone in seminary that sometimes led to sleepless nights.  I recall vividly being unable to sleep after watching David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.  (To this day I still haven’t seen the original with Vincent Price.  I see that it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime, and since we’ve got the internet back perhaps it’s time I do that.)  What I can claim is that I’ve always watched movies for religious elements and that I often find horror isn’t lacking in that department.

The point of Brandon’s article is that there are horror stories in the Bible.  Indeed, the more I ponder the Good Book the more I see that makes it a frightening text indeed.  Once you get past the sugar coating, there’s fear of substance inside.  Funnily enough, it seems Jesus didn’t often play the fear card, although even he did so from time to time, according to the Gospels.  Religion, which gives us such hope, also makes us so very afraid.  I’m really glad to know that I’m not the only one who’s started to come to that conclusion.  So maybe it’s natural for those raised religious to be fond of monsters.  Getting others to admit it can be tricky, and I’m sure some genuinely don’t like them.  Still, when you’re in a scary place, it’s best not to be alone.