Category Archives: American Religion

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Voting Belief

No one knows the origins of religion. Before the advent of writing we can only guess, based on artifacts. Even in the era of scriveners, nobody jotted down the origin of belief until modern times, long, long after it began. Once writings about religious practice become reasonably clear, we find temples in the service of palaces, and vice-versa. Monarchs needed the validation of deities and priests required the support of the crown. Together they brought the two swords together and managed to keep the unruly masses in check. This isn’t cynical, not necessarily, since it reflects, the best we can reconstruct, how western organized religions began. Power was always part of the picture.

A recent Washington Post story, “The stark racial and religious divide between Democrats and Republicans, in one chart,” by Christopher Ingraham, shows the diametrically opposed pie-charts of self-identified white Christians (Republicans) versus non-white or non-Christian (Democrats) Americans. Such survey results tell us much about ourselves. We vote with our faith (or lack thereof) and not with our rationality. This has long been the piece of the political puzzle that Democrats have failed to comprehend. Not to take away from Barack Obama’s charisma, but people were afraid of Mormon Mitt Romney in 2012. Although conservative, white, and evangelical, Mormons have long been questioned as to their Christian identity by other evangelicals. It would seem, in the light of present circumstances, that understanding the “white Christian” mindset might be the only way out of the morass.

Typically self-defeating, academic institutions have shown little interest in understanding religion among hoi polloi. Long ago they bought into what Peter Berger admitted was his biggest blunder, the idea that religion was dying out. By the time he made that admission, academics had ceased to pay much attention to religion. It has, of course, come back as the ghost that haunts us. Or is it a zombie, once dead and now back to life? The fact is religion was never dying. It is as much of being a human as is driving a car or owning a cell phone. When times are uncertain, we turn to what is perceived as unchanging—religion. In truth, religion is constantly evolving to fit outlooks influenced by science, technology, and social progress. Worldviews change. Our culture is becoming more diverse. Republicans have a natural voting bloc that identifies itself by race and religion. Information about the former is readily available. You’ll need to look a bit harder to find quality information about the latter, no matter how important it may be.

The Name of the Game

I have a confession to make. I’m not a gamer. Just like everyone old enough to be aware in the 1970s, I was amazed at Pong. Television, which had always only been a passive producer of entertainment, could now be interactive. Slower than real table tennis, the game nevertheless easily consumed hours of life otherwise productively spent. I went off to college and left the burgeoning video game market behind. Then in the late 1990s Myst appeared. The new Macs of those days came loaded with action games about dinosaurs stealing eggs. My daughter was fascinated and so I played. Then I lost interest again. That had been family bonding time, so it wasn’t completely wasted. Now we live in a world where, writers tell me, the real money lies not in movie rights to your novel, but game rights.

Kids, developmental psychologists assure us, need to play. It’s how they explore their world. As the human world becomes more and more electronic, games become more a part of virtual life. Some even have plots and genuine character development. A friend sent me a link to a story on Mashable, “Jesus battles the Buddha in fighting game hellbent on offending.” Victoria Ho describes Fight of Gods where deities of all denominations duke it out for dominion. After posting about god novels recently, it seems to me that we’ve begun to enter a time when the divine world hasn’t disappeared, but has transmuted. In this new world while all gods are not exactly created equal, they all have a shot at supremacy. It’s a matter of who can hit hardest.

No matter whether one finds this offensive or not, there is an element of profundity here. Historically religions have made gods of the things we fear. Storms, diseases, wars, and death—all of these have been, and continue to be, represented as deities. Human insecurity is deeply rooted in our psychology. We’re afraid of things we can’t control. In periods of governmental chaos, phobias naturally rise to the level of personal panic. What can we do in the face of such forces? Especially when prominent figures tell us all religious belief is for the weak-minded and feeble? Don’t we have to strap on our virtual armor and hope some powerful divinities are on our side? In such times as this we need our gods, no matter their tradition of origin. For me, I fear I won’t be able to spin this dial fast enough and that strangely square ping-pong ball is going to get past my virtual paddle.

Reason to Believe

Gods, the experts say, are on the way out. Have been for some time. The loudest voices in this arena are the New Atheists who suggest science alone explains everything. Problem is, the gods won’t let go. My wife recently sent me an article from BookRiot. (That’s a dangerous thing to do, in my case.) Nikki Vanry wrote a piece titled “Dallying with the Gods: 16 Books about Gods and Mythology.” Most of what she points out here is fiction, and that makes sense because gods and fiction go together like chocolate and peanut butter. The first book she lists is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods—a book I read years ago and which has subsequently become an American phenomenon. There’s even a television series based on it now. Like Angels in America, only more pagan.

What surprised me most about this list is the books I hadn’t read. Or even heard of. After American Gods, I got down to number 10—Christopher Moore’s Lamb—before reaching another I’d read. Then down to 16, Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis. There are, as Vanry notes, many more. Our experience of the world, as human beings, suggests there’s more to it than what we see. Not everyone would call these things gods, nevertheless there certainly does seem to be intentionality to many coincidences. Things pile up. Then they topple down on you all at once. Seeing such things as the works of the gods makes for a good story. At least it helps explain the world.

Many materialists do not like to admit that humans believe. Call it the curse of consciousness, but the fact is we all believe in things. Even if that belief is as strange as thinking fiction only comes from electro-chemical reactions in a single organ in our heads. Gods often appear in fiction. Frequently they’re in the background. Sometimes they’re called heroes instead of deities. At other times they’re right there on the surface. Such books carry profound messages about believing. It doesn’t matter what the authors believe. Believe they do. And such books sell. As a culture, we may be in denial. What we sublimate comes out in our fiction. There are gods everywhere. Singular or plural. Female, male, or genderless. Almighty or just potent. Reading about them can be informative as well as entertaining. We’ve got to believe in something, so why not gods?

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

The Way, the Truth

It’s striking how similar world religions can be. Granted, the concept of “religion” as a separate sphere of life is a western one, but throughout the world thinkers have drawn similar conclusions. Until the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago, however, most Americans knew only of the monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims had been in this country almost as long as Christians. Nobody paid much mind to the indigenous religions of the original occupants. In any case, in 1893 other religions—those of eastern Asia—entered American consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic, if pagan, belief systems. There wasn’t much of a conceptual foundation upon which to build, however, so early on people tended to focus on the differences between them rather than the commonalities.

For me, I first really learned about such traditions in a World Religions course in college. I’d never heard of Daoism (or Taoism) before. The Dao, or “way,” pervades ancient Chinese religious thought. There’s a sense of flow to it—one of the main ideas is not to resist the way, but to bring yourself in line with it. Doing so helps you to realize that you need not be rich to be happy. Sufficiency is, well, sufficient. Meanwhile in the west, Christianity mostly bought into greedy consumerism. Our happiness is measured by what we have. And having, we want more. I’ve been reading about Daoism recently, and it occurs to me perhaps there are some accidental Daoists here in the west. This reading made me think of my father.

I can’t speak much for who he was, since I barely knew him. I only saw him once as an adult, before he died. For a brief moment he took me into his apartment. He owned practically nothing. A television, a few things to sit on. A magazine or two. That was about it. Did he want to acquire more? I didn’t know him well enough to ask. He was raised as a Christian, and I do not know what his religious beliefs were, if any. Thinking back to that experience, however, was the result of reading about Daoism. Being content with little. Not all of us are cut out for monastic life, but my visits to such communities have always left me with the sense that having less is more than enough. I know I’m over-simplifying here. I’m not an expert on Daoism. I’m certainly not an expert on my father. I do believe, however, that things can weigh us down. And even Christianity, read in a certain light, agrees.

Church of Advent

It’s a common name. You might know one yourself: William Miller. Indeed, for many years of my own life I borrowed that surname from my stepfather before returning to my birthright after seminary. But the ordinariness of the name alone doesn’t explain it. Joseph Smith, a fellow creator of a new religion, also bore an innocuous name, and he was a Junior. While many people might have trouble placing William Miller among religious founders, they would likely know of Seventh-Day Adventism, a religion that sprang from the root of his teaching. During his lifetime the preferred title was Millerite, but Adventist also worked. David L. Rowe presents a sympathetic, but not hagiographic account of this somewhat remarkable life in God’s Strange Work: William Miller and the End of the World. For Miller, you see, predicted the year Jesus would return.

A self-taught farmer, Miller became convinced that the Bible indicated 1843 would be the end. This idea was based on calculations derived from cryptic books such as Daniel and considering their days to be years. A touch of math and before you know it, it’s all gonna burn. During the intense period known as the Second Great Awakening upstate New York was perhaps the most religiously creative place on the planet. New ideas bumped into each other and, as if the bounds of Christianity were too constraining, flew out into new forms of belief. People grew convinced that the world might indeed end in 1843. When it didn’t, they called it the Great Disappointment and carried on. Adventism is still with us today.

Rowe also makes the point that for being such an obscure individual, Miller influenced the great religious movements that would give us modern day Fundamentalism as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. These groups trace their spiritual ancestry to the convictions of a not-so-simple farmer who could fill an auditorium with his plain speaking and clear exposition of the scriptures. He devised his end times scenario with the use of only a Bible and concordance. No seminary or advanced theological reading was necessary. Millerites did not reach the numbers of Latter-Day Saints. They were disowned by the Baptist Church that gave them birth. They got the date of the end of the world wrong. Yet they persisted. It is a curious story with a long afterlife that still helps elect extremist presidents to this day. William Miller, ever unassuming, managed to change the very world that he was certain would end even before the midpoint of the nineteenth century.