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.


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.


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.


Goats, Sheep, and Politics

Reasonable evangelicals need a new name.  As a voting bloc, evangelicals have, according to many of their leaders, fallen from grace.  Ironically it was the “draw”—whatever that could possibly be—of the cult of Donald Trump that caused it.  While encouraging their sheep to vote for him both in 2016 and 2020, some of these leaders had their eyes opened to what many of us saw from the beginning, but it took an insurrection to pry their lids apart.  A story by Rachel Martin on NPR, “’How Did We Get Here?’ A Call for an Evangelical Reckoning on Trump” explores this unfortunate, and avoidable catastrophe.  Such evangelicals don’t excel at fact-checking.  It’s far easier to believe what you’re told by a dynamic individual.  Along the way they’ve jettisoned the morality of that “old time religion” for the lust of power.  Now some of their leaders are wondering what they’ve done.

I’m not one to idolize the 1950s.  Heck, I wasn’t even born yet.  One truth from them, however, has always stayed with me: religion and politics don’t mix.  Try this experiment some time: ask Trump evangelicals what party their church (if it existed then) supported in the 1950s.  Many Christians were Democrats, particularly in the south.  Oh, if they confess this they’ll start using language about the Dems falling from grace (while still defending Trump, who can never fall from anything), shifting the onus back onto a theology not even half-baked.  Now their ministers are trying to remind them that morality actually is part of being an evangelical.  A very small part, but not completely evaporated.

History will teach us, if we’ll let it.  Richard Nixon saw evangelical voters as a bloc.  Himself a Quaker (currently among the most liberal of Protestant denominations, and devoted to peace), he was a political opportunist.  Evangelicals are taught that they are sheep.  Sheep are easily herded.  Imagine what might happen if their leaders tried to get them to think for themselves.  To fact check.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for things just because I could call myself “doctor.”  Check my sources.  See if I might’ve missed something.  This is the way knowledge progresses.  The NPR story gives me a modicum of hope.  Some leaders are realizing that their own mindless support of a known criminal—before he even got the nomination in 2016—was maybe a bad idea.  Of course, others still defend his actions after his attempted insurrection.  Sheep, if fed, will always follow.


Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


It Happened on Epiphany

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spell treason?  It does begin with the letters “T-R-.”  The events of yesterday made it difficult to sleep securely in “the land of the free” as thugs took over the capitol building in Washington, and even after that Republicans still contested the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, preferring a treasonous president to a democratically elected Joe Biden.  As all of this was playing out, Georgia gave control of the senate to the Democratic Party.  Like many Americans born in a democracy, I stared at the news aghast yesterday as Republicans, fully in the public eye, tried to dismantle the very system by which they themselves were elected and even went so far as to claim they were patriots for doing so.  They draw the evil courage to do this from their “Christian” faith.

Yesterday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday.  To see Republicans—claiming the name Christian—attempting to overturn democracy on that very day was sickening.  To my mind it will live on like 9/11 as one of the most dangerous days in US history.  When asked to get the crowds that he personally incited to disperse, Trump released a video on Twitter telling his followers that the election was stolen and fraudulent but they should go home.  Pouring gasoline on a fire he himself lit, sending both houses of congress into hiding, his snakes-in-the-grass continued to support the myth that Trump hadn’t been defeated.  When the smoke clears this American thinks it’s time to dust off laws about treason and start applying them again.

Congressional leaders, and the president, swear to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible.  In the most closely watched election in history, with no evidence of fraud, when the loser wouldn’t concede his party backed him.  The Republican party has been infected with evil, I fear.  Even after seeing the turmoil that their posturing caused, they tried to discount the votes from my state just to keep a very dangerous man in power.  Our democracy didn’t die yesterday.  It died four years ago.  Claiming the name “Christian” without ever reading the Bible or attending church or caring about their fellow human beings, the Republican party has gone down in infamy on the feast of Epiphany.  The electoral vote count by congress is a mere formality, and I, a native and resident of Pennsylvania, am outraged that anyone claiming the power of a democratically elected office—disputing the very process that gave them any influence at all—questions my right to vote.  Why hasn’t treason been invoked?  Four years under the influence of the Evil One has shown its effects, and it happened on Epiphany.


Udolpho’s Mysteries

The carousels on Google can provide a great deal of information.  Looking at them, along with trusted lists of gothic novels, it became clear that one of the few classics I’d not read was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  It’s been on my shelf for many years, it’s shear bulk staring me down each time I turned in its direction.  Long books are, of course, fine if they keep you going.  Knowing this was published in 1794 (in four volumes) cast some doubt on the narrative earning the sobriquet of “page turner,” and thus it proved not to be.  I’m afraid my disposition meant that the gothicness of the novel (and it’s certainly there) didn’t speak to me as I hoped it might.  There are creepy castles and rumors of hauntings.  Lots of stormy nights and damsels in distress.  Still, it comes across as the problems of the wealthy and that has to be handled well in order to not turn off this poor reader.

Still, a novel of such fame being written by a woman in the eighteenth century is worthy of note.  More than that, Radcliffe was the most successful (in financial terms) professional writer in the decade that produced The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Her literary influence is undisputed.  The novel is, however, excessively long.  Descriptive prose style was common at the time and may seem excessive to modern readers.  This is, however, impressive for an author who never traveled to the regions about which she wrote.

About 600 pages in, in the edition I read, something caught my eye.  Much of the novel consists of descriptions of mountain ranges in France and Italy.  As one party is on its way up one of the inclines, one of the gentlemen mansplains some of the geological features.  Noting that sea shells are found at such elevations, and so far from any body of water, it is noted that this is evidence of the deluge.  What’s so astonishing about this is that even in the twenty-first century that explanation still has currency among biblical literalists.  The novel appeared before Charles Lyell, who would explain the ancient ages of rocks, was even born.  We have centuries of knowledge at our disposal that we still have a tendency to dismiss.  Interestingly, Radcliffe was famous for reviving gothic literature partially by explaining away any supernatural elements.  Of course, accepting standard religious teaching of the day would pretty much have been expected.  And yet the mysteries continue even over two centuries later.


Chick Tracks

Goodreads isn’t the only booklover’s website, but it is one that publishers pay attention to.  Having a following on Goodreads helps for making marketing manageable.  Or so the thinking goes.  In any case, I recently had a message on Goodreads about Holy Horror.  It seems someone has, against all odds, found the book and is reading it.  This particular reader asked me in a comment about Chick tracts.  I’ve written about Jack Chick before.  He was a veritable one-man evangelical force of super-nature.  He is responsible for many of my personal nightmares with the Bible.  His cartoon tracts were designed to scare the Hell out of kids, literally.  I read them religiously.  My Goodreads reader pointed out that I could’ve made use of them in Holy Horror.

This made me ponder the reticence of academics to address religion as a cultural force.  Chick tracts are extremely common, even today.  As I posted last year, we were handed one while walking between venues at the first annual Easton Book Festival (an event forced virtual this year by, well, you know).  Not that Chick’s intellectual ability deserves study, but his influence is undeniable.  How many of us fundamentalist kids were set on our life trajectories by tracts that looked like mini-comic books but which had an unwavering, uninformed viewpoint held as gospel?  Chick tracts broached no dissent.  The Bible alone, and the Bible as interpreted by fundamentalists alone, was the only possible way of avoiding everlasting hellfire.  Nightmares indeed.

Chick died in 2016 after half-a-century of terror (his first tract was published in 1960).  Apparently Chick was a shy evangelical and his prolific cartooning was a way of assuaging his own fears of not evangelizing.  Ironically, in his tracts he offloaded that burden onto others—kids were made to feel inferior if they didn’t talk about Jesus to their friends, no matter how shy they might have been.  There’s not much information easily available on this influential man.  A motivated scholar, I’m sure, could dig up information—nearly any life can be illuminated to some degree—but I’m not sure the will is there.  If it ever happens, I suspect the study will be done by someone like me, raised on Chick and fed steady doses of childhood Bible reading.  My Goodreads interlocutor was perhaps onto something by suggesting my watching horror has something to do with Chick tracts.  Stranger things have, I’m sure, happened.


Biblerama

Perhaps you’ve heard—the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Stop the presses!  I’m sure that everyone has been anticipating this as much as biblical scholars have!  If you’ve not been able to feel the buzz maybe it’s because you’re not in the Bible publishing business.  As the discussions have been going on (rights holders are of course consulting with publishers, because that’s where the money is) a great deal of energy goes into deciding what exactly to call it.  And since Christianity is so fragmented there have to be different versions of the versions.  Some include the apocrypha and others do not.  Some prefer British spelling and others American.  Imperial interests are important, even when it comes to Scriptures.  What may be overlooked in these developments is the connection to the most influential English translation, the King James.

The King James Version was not the first English translation of the Bible, but it was the version that captured the imagination of some as directly inspired by God.  Strangely enough, King James onlyists can seldom name the translators who apparently had the divine mouth to their ears, but never mind that.  The KJV held immense sway especially among literalists because it is so quotable.  In the 1950s it was revised.  (There are, by the way, several differing versions of the King James Version, and the original included the apocrypha.)  That first major revision came to be known as the Revised Standard Version.  Translators seldom begin their task with what original language manuscripts they can find; new translations are based on existing translations in families.  It’s okay, we’re all related.

Bible closet

When I was a kid the RSV (Revised Standard Version) was considered pretty good by many.  Hardly an overwhelming affirmation, but still, it’s something.  The real concern began when the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came out in the eighties.  The reason?  It used inclusive language!  See what happens when you allow women to read?  Ironically, the book that has been used for centuries to liberate white men is something you want to keep out of the hands of women and non-whites unless you make it clear that everyone from Adam to Jesus and Paul was a white man and this is his story.  Now the New Revised Standard Version is being updated.  Nobody’s quite yet sure how it will be denominated.  And this is only one family in a vast genealogy of Bible translations.  If you’re not in the Bible business, you’re missing all the excitement.


Mere Christianities

While reading about the experience of an American Catholic who’d gone to Rome (check out this post), something in particular struck me.  Although the setting was in the 1960s, the author noted a truth that is still with us: Americans take religion much more seriously than do their parent bodies overseas.  This may be true elsewhere in the world as well, but those of us in this former frontier know that American isolation means religion developed here in a way different from much of the rest of the world.  To get a grip on that we need to realize that Christianities in America are largely of European origin.  That’s important because the roots of these traditions lie elsewhere and the question of how they measure up against the religion started by a Galilean peasant bears close scrutiny.

First of all, if we take what we can gather from the Gospels the things that Jesus might’ve actually said, we find contradictions.  This isn’t unusual.  Nobody was writing things down as he said them and Jesus probably taught off the cuff (not the maniple).  These traditions were recalled a couple decades after the crucifixion.  Try remembering exactly what you said just a year ago and you’ll get a sense of the difficulties.  Paul of Tarsus took this teaching in a new direction, both in doctrinal and physical senses.  Christianity became a European religion.  Fast forward by a few centuries and we find its much-changed Protestant forms inspiring people to go look for a place to practice it their own way.  Politics never follows far behind religion and so the American Indians became victims of those seeking religious freedom by fleeing from home.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, much of the fire that had led to sparks flying over here had been banked.  The Enlightenment and its application to these various traditions had shown that literal interpretations were historically unlikely.  Indeed, Americans trained on the frontiers by clergy with little education had taken Christianities in entirely new directions.  Literalism was often assumed, although its expressions varied wisely.  When you look closely at how religions develop you learn that the rank and file believer is out of touch with “official doctrine” and those who specialize in it find they can’t course correct without looking hypocritical.  The book I was reading had Vatican officials complaining Americans too Catholicism too literally.  It seems this is the fate of any faith that allows itself to become a mere religion.

Photo credit: Mapham J (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, via Wikimedia Commons


Raven Wisdom

Just twenty pages in and I was reflecting on how Christianities and the cultures they cultivated have caused so much suffering in the world.  Assuming there is only one way to be, and that way is pink, European, and monotheistic, has led to so many displaced people thrown aside as collateral damage.  Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven is a remarkable book.  A native Alaskan, Hayes participated in the colonialist venture of higher education to try to also participate in the “American dream.” If this book doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, I don’t know that you’re human.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a deep interest and lasting guilt to learn about indigenous peoples of the country where I was born.  About the culture that is so Bible-driven it can’t see the human beneath.  The capitalism that takes no prisoners.

The Tao of Raven is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.  Hayes refuses to sugar-coat the alcoholism, the broken promises, the poverty offered to native Alaskans.  Even as Trump’s final rages go on, he has opened the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge for drilling, to the highest bidder.  Apart from those whose wealth will increase as a result, we will all suffer.  Those who lived in Alaska before the colonists arrived the most.  The idea of colonizing, without which capitalism just can’t work, reveals its evil here.  When a voice like that of Hayes is able to make itself heard we cannot but feel the condemnation.  When over seventy-million people vote for a hater, we all tremble.

The book ends much as it begins.  A sincere regret for those who’d been fed the contradictory messages of missionaries.  Those told to accept suffering on earth so that they could go to the white person’s Heaven, while those inflicting the suffering lead comfortable lives with modern conveniences.  The double-standards that allow people to die on the street like dogs.  The double-standards that can’t see that you need not be Christian to upend the tables of money-changers.  Indeed, the last time someone dared to such a thing was two millennia ago.  When Christianity slipped its fingers between those of capitalism a monster would surely be born.  The cost would come in human lives, even as a quarter-million lay dead in this country from a virus a rich man can’t be bothered to address.  Do yourself, do the world a favor.  Read this book.  Read it with your eyes open and learn from Raven.


Constipated Democracy

Vows apparently mean nothing anymore.  I suppose that’s what happens when you begin your administration with “alternative facts” and keep it up for four years.  When you vow to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible—that means you’ll play by the rules.  Instead we find ourselves with a bad case of constitutional constipation and we all know that we need a national enema.  It has been a week now since it’s been mathematically impossible for Trump to win the electoral college.  Yet even his evangelical followers can’t seem to recall that hand on the Bible, that promise to obey.  Apparently it’s okay to lie before God, if you think like we do.  If you don’t want to have conversation but want to talk at others and say you’re right.  It saddens me that so many Americans simply don’t care what the majority clearly wants.

This is especially the case because Trump is being treated as some messianic figure.  An overweight, womanizing, pathologically lying Jesus.  And people are saying, “Yes, that’s what the Bible tells us is good, and right, and just.”  Those who are settled in good paying jobs—people of my generation—have been beneficiaries of the systems of education and government programs that the Trump administration has spent four years dismantling.  And they have the audacity to call themselves Christian while their lives are saying “I got mine, I don’t care about anybody else.”  And they’re the ones who wore WWJD paraphernalia just a couple decades ago.  WHCB?  What Has Christianity Become?

Many of us (the excluded majority, in fact—Trump won the 2016 election while losing the popular vote) knew the greatest danger would be that he would be “normalized.”  This would all come to be seen as the normal course of politics.  People from Trump’s own family have gone on record that his run for office was a publicity stunt meant to drum up business for his failing empire.  And those who acted/wrote/supposed that he had any “plan” or “strategy” at all were simply failing to see a career grifter fleecing the country while playing golf and having his “fixers” do the work.  Until he one-by-one threw them under the bus.  This was all done in the public eye and yet his followers think he really has the best interests of this country at heart.  He has torn countless families apart, and not just at the border.  And now that he’s been defeated he keeps the charade going while his followers bow down and worship.  Excuse me, but I think I need to use the restroom.


Bible Lesson

I was recently reading the revised preface and “To the Reader” (in draft form) for the NRSVue.  In case alphabet soup’s not your thing, that’s the New Revised Standard Version updated edition.  Of the Bible.  As I read through these seldom referenced pages it occurred to me, not for the first time, the care and concern with which scholars approach the original text of the Bible.  No matter what Fundamentalists may say, we do not have the original text.  In some places the translations you read are the best guesses of those who’ve spent their lives trying to understand what an obviously corrupted copy was intended to reflect.  Such care reflects the widespread (but shrinking) sense that this text somehow magically informs daily lives and should lead to political action.  I’m sure Jesus would’ve arched an eyebrow over that.

Biblical scholarship is hampered by the fact that the manuscripts that have survived are copies of copies of copies (etc. etc.).  Translators—yes, including those of the King James Version and the New International Version—are making some informed guesses on an Urtext we simply don’t have.  Lives, however, are often sacrificed on the basis of the belief that we have here some object to be worshipped instead of read and understood.  I like to tell my skeptical friends that the Bible is actually full of really good things.  There’s some nasty stuff in there too, but we can learn from the parts that convey deep spiritual wisdom.  Listening to your elders is a good idea, but it’s not the same as worshipping them.

Humans have a deep desire to make things sacred.  Maybe it’s because after watching us muddle around down here we want to believe there’s something better out there.  It’s problematic, however, when we make an earthly object, put together by humans, into a deity.  There are those who get around this by claiming the Bible is from God in the original.  The point is we don’t have the original.  There are some words (especially in Hebrew) of which the connotation and denotation are unsure (for words have no inherent meaning).  Reading, we know, is a complex enterprise.  That’s why it takes years to master it and constant practice to maintain it.  Those who leave off reading after school may, I fear, fall back into literalism when they encounter a text.  Bible scholars take great care at trying to reconstruct the original, and all of that can be undone by a failure to just keep reading.


Please Vote

If you haven’t done so already, please vote.  This day has never felt so portentous before.  I’ve been voting since the 1980s and we’ve had some real unsavory choices in some past years.  Never had we had a monstrous incumbent set on destroying the very nation that made him what he is.  Those who don’t, or won’t read the facts haven’t learned what’s obvious even to lifelong Republicans I know—Trump cares only for himself.  His family confirms it.  His policies, such as they are, show it.  He provides lip service to anti-abortion while using stem cells from fetuses to cure his own case of Covid-19 that he caught only by ignoring the science that tells us masks and distancing are necessary.  Even as our infection rates pass what they’ve ever been before, he fiddles while America burns.

Some of us have noticed a profound quiet for the past week or so.  It’s like the country’s running a low-grade fever.  Republicans have been attempting to prevent people from voting, wanting a country more like them, mean and unforgiving, that they can call “Christian.”  To me this feels like 9-11 did, only we have known the plot all along and have been too stunned to do anything about it.  Democracies are founded on the principle of the choice of the electorate.  The only way that we can make that choice known is to vote.  It’s the only way left to be a patriot.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with a similar situation in his native Germany.  An evangelical Christian, he didn’t acquiesce to Hitler, glorying in the rush of power.  He wrote that when a madman is driving the wheel must be wrenched from his hands.  Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis he tried to displace, but his spiritual eyesight was clear.  Faith can blind believers to the truth.  We’ve seen this happen time and time and time again.  Instead of condemning we need to help them since they cannot help themselves.  This is the truest form of what Jesus stood for.  Read the gospels if you doubt.  This year the decision isn’t for Democrat or Republican, it’s for clear-eyed assessment or self-adoring narcissism.  If a mirror’s held too close, we can’t see what’s truly reflected.  We must vote today to show what we want America to be.  The eyes of both the past and the future are upon us.  How will we want them to be remembered?