Category Archives: American Religion

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Blogday

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World is nine years old today.  Not that I’m keeping count.  Really, I’m not.  WordPress sent me a notice, and they ought to know, being the virtual womb whence my thoughts gestate.  The original plan for this blog was to take my abiding interest in the religions of antiquity and give them a more public face.  My brother-in-law, Neal Stephenson, thought I should do podcasts, because, at the time I spoke incessantly about ancient deities.  I can still hold forth about Asherah at great length, but ancient Near Eastern studies is, believe it or not, an evolving field.  You need access to a university library, or at least JSTOR, and a whole sabbatical’s worth of time to keep up with it.  Even though telecommuting, I’m a nine-to-five guy now, and my research involves mostly reading books.

So Sects and Violence began to evolve.  I realized after teaching biblical studies for over a decade-and-a-half that my real interest was in how the Bible was understood in culture.  Having a doctorate from a world-class university in the origins of the Good Book certainly should add credibility.  My own journey down that pathway began because of interpretations of Scripture that were strongly cultural in origin.  I first began reading with Dick and Jane but quickly moved on to Holy Writ.  It has shaped my life since before I was ten.  It’s only natural I should be curious.

Like most tweens, I discovered sects.  Why did so many people believe so many different things?  And many of them call themselves Christians.  And the Christians I knew said the others weren’t Christian at all.  And so the conversations went, excluding others left, right, and center.  As someone who wanted answers, this fascinated me.  The Bible was the basis for many belief systems of sects everywhere.  From Haiti to Ruby Ridge.  From New York City to Easter Island.  From Tierra del Fuego to Seoul.  And not just one Bible, but many scriptures.  And these beliefs led to behavior that could be called “strange” were it not so thoroughly pervasive.  Scientists and economists say we’ve outlived the need for religion.  By far the vast majority of people in the world disagree.  I couldn’t have articulated it that way nine years ago, but since losing my teaching platform, I’ve been giving away for free what over four decades of dedicated study—with bona fides, no less!—has revealed.  Happy blogday to Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.

Rewriting Dictionaries

When this is all over we’re going to need a whole lot of new definitions.  As news became public of the US government literally ripping crying children from their mothers’ arms and keeping them in cages, with the full blessing of the Republican Party, blame began to fly.  The liar-in-chief said it was the Democrats’ fault (of course), although they were the ones advocating for immigrants.  So he signed an executive order to stop what he started and proclaim himself a hero for doing so.  The images were so outrageous that even Evangelicals seem to have been shaken from their lotus-induced adoration of Trump to limply and lately raise a hand in protest.  Almost forgotten is the fact that in November of 2016, and even before, many were saying this was an Orwellian candidate.  We were warned that this would happen.  We walked into this with our eyes wide open.

Fox News, however, prefers to broadcast with its eyes shut.  A charming young man named Adolf can look appealing if you pardon the saliva dripping from his lips and the hatred in his eyes.  All you have to do is say “America” loud enough and long enough and the mindless will agree to just about anything.  This nation was founded on the abuse of children, after all.  That’s how you show you’re a big, strong, man, right?  That and carry your gun out in public where everyone can see it.  I can’t help but think overweening masculinity is the heart of the problem.

Another part is unclear definitions.  “Pertaining to or in keeping with the gospel and its teachings” is how Dictionary.com defines “evangelical.”  Problem is, there’s no part of the gospel that justifies the Grand Old Party.  I seem to recall Jesus saying something about “Let the children come to me, forbid them not.”  Or something like that.  And, oh yeah, “for such are the kingdom of Heaven.”  The Republican Heaven is starting to look a lot more like Purgatory to me.  The only difference is that Purgatory is intended to prepare the soul for Heaven.  Besides, what has any of that to do with Evangelicals—whoever they are?  They’re certainly not Catholic.  Unless Catholics support Trump and then they can be Evangelicals too.  Anyone’s allowed to join as long as their skin isn’t too dark.  This is a world where a police officer can become a prophet and a heart a spade.  As long as we can keep the brand everything will be just fine.

Moving Plans

I’m moving. I’m seriously considering Enceladus. Oh, you haven’t been? One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus was discovered to have the basic elements of life as Cassini plunged to its death in Saturn’s shroud. But why Enceladus? I want to make space great again. You see, in my native country all sense of fair play has fled one of the political parties, of which there are unfortunately only two. There haven’t within my lifetime and many decades before, been any contested wins by Democratic candidates. There have been two by Republicans, among the last two elected, and yet they keep changing the rules about who can appoint Supreme Court justices. When I was a kid stacking the deck got you kicked out of the game. What’s fair’s fair.

I hear that on Enceladus they are open to actual intelligent life. You see, they’re evolving and they know it. Unlike my native planet, they believe representative government should be, well, representative. There should be some account taken of the majority. There are no Fundamentalists on Enceladus. See, there they realize that an outgoing president has the legal authority to appoint a judge, bypassing the senate. They believe, I hear, that the senate is controlled by a being called “the adversary.” One of their recruiters told me that the phrase translates, in Hebrew, to “the Satan.” They believe the adversary should not be able to change the rules every time. They’re not Fundamentalists, but they believe in Hell. They say it’s three planets from the sun, make a left at Lisbon.

Of course, they don’t see the sun much on Enceladus. They orbit Saturn, which doesn’t emit any light of its own, although it has the coolest set of rings in the solar system. It’s icy there for a reason. But the employment situation favors the workers. They believe in rationality there. They don’t put children in cages. Their scientists have studied the primates on our planet and have found that all species of them, except one, will reject leadership by individuals who bully the group. They have documented studies—for they believe in science there—that show chimpanzees will drive out an abuser of power because even they have a sense of fair play. Of course, chimpanzees don’t have a senate, but on Enceladus, some joke that it’s hard to tell the difference some times. They have a sense of humor there which, I think, goes a long way toward balancing out the chill. I’m moving, and Enceladus is firmly in the running.

Homo Labelmaker

It’s okay to hate the white man. Mitch McConnell has become the icon of what “the white man” really is. Hatred can be just. Even the Good Book says, “I have hated them with a perfect hatred.” I am not a white man. A few months ago I took a community course on racism. The only male participant in the class, as it turned out. The teacher at one point, asked me my race. I answered that I don’t see myself as having a race, nor do I see other people as having races. We are people. I am not white. He is not black. Being “white” seems a choice to me, a mindset. To me, it is a marker of privilege. If you grew up in poverty, you’re only white if you choose to be. We must get beyond our simple labels.

Believe me, I know the counter-arguments. Our shameful history allows no one to forget. As someone “not of color”—who wants to be colorless?—I am automatically privileged. I’m treated differently by others simply because of the way I look. I don’t like that, because I believe in fairness. It’s part of evolution. The point is that since race is a human construct, we should be able to deconstruct it. Privilege thrives on feeling special, better than others. The white man is the GOP, even the female members of the party. The white man is one who gloats that checks and balances can be destroyed so that he always and forevermore will win. The white man is a slaveholder. I choose not to be a white man. I choose to join the entirety of humanity. Personhood over race.

Christianity, ironically, has been dragged into this distorted outlook. It is seen as the white man’s religion. Women, in this view, are explicitly subordinate. While the New Testament says little about race—one of the earliest converts was an Ethiopian eunuch—it was written and lived out in a Jewish milieu. White men like to select verses from the Good Book to take out of context to support their own wishes. It’s very convenient to have God on your side. If we decide to deconstruct this view we have to insist on refusing to be labeled. That’s not to condone the sins of racism past. The white man doesn’t believe in evolution because that makes race random rather than a deliberate act of God at the appropriately named tower of Babel. Besides, the thinking goes, any creature not human is here for exploitation. God, according to the Bible, is so colorless as to be spirit only. To be god-like is to reject labels, for spirit cannot be seen.

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

Ezekiel’s Nightmare

I’m still thinking about Ruby Ridge. It’s not unusual for me to be a bit late catching up on yesteryear’s news, but being alive during Trumpocalypse has made me think of the 1990s as the good old days. Jess Walter’s book on the topic, on which I posted a few days ago (just scroll down), ends with a kind of optimism that seemed possible even when George W. Bush was president—the number of white supremacist groups was shrinking radically. Americans didn’t put up with that kind of backward thinking any more. The future was ahead. Now, just about a decade-and-a-half after the book was reissued, we’ve got not only a racist commandant-in-chief, but a Republican congress who goes along with everything he says. Strangely enough, I just read a newspaper article with a Jewish Republican saying “diversity is crap” (his words). No question we’re going backwards.

It’s easy enough to dismiss extremists unless you know some. I attended a conservative Christian college in the early 1980s. There were survivalists on the faculty. These are evangelical Christians who hoard guns and supplies, generally because they believe the end of the world is coming. Ironically, their belief in the rapture doesn’t seem to assure them that they’ll be “taken up” before the trouble starts. Or maybe they just want to hang around for a piece of the action—shooting infidels must earn points with the big white guy upstairs. Most of my classmates were as appalled as I was. We agreed that if these were the kind of people who were going to be around after the smoke cleared, we didn’t want to be.

The most disturbing development since November 2016 is the move of the GOP to follow a blind leader. History will bear me out on this. It doesn’t take a prophet to see it. 45 had no plan for winning the race. Once he did, however, he knew that sheep will follow any shepherd, no matter how incompetent. All you need to do is spout racist rhetoric and the fringe will become the center. But the GOP? They are among the most sheepish of all ungulates. A “leader of the free world” who has nothing but praise for dictators and autocrats around the world? The Republican has proven to be the perfect unquestioning follower. The wool is in their heads rather than on their backs. Less than two decades ago Timothy McVeigh was executed. Today there’s no doubt he’d be under consideration for a cabinet post. I think my watch just stopped.