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?

Dangers of Experience

I’m so used to being behind everyone else that when I turn out to be ahead of the curve it occasions genuine surprise.  That’s the way it appears when I think about the dominance of the far right in American politics.  As an editor I get to read proposals for other editors on the board.  Political scientists are trying to analyze how we’ve come to be a nation of religious far-righters when we seemed so progressive that we put a smart phone in everyone’s pocket and Alexa in everyone’s voice range.  I grew up as a far-righter when it certainly felt alienating.  Apart from people we met at church I didn’t know any others outside my family.  People we knew were, well, just different.  Back in those days we didn’t judge them.  We accepted them for who they were.

One of the aspects of my life to which I’ve grown accustomed is being ignored.  I’m not a big person, nor am I a loud one.  It isn’t unusual for me to be overlooked at work and even at religious gatherings (a field in which I’m a bona fide expert).  Nevertheless, I have a wealth of experience among the far-righters and I think it might help to understand our political climate.  I think I have a pretty good grip on what motivates this crowd.  Since I grew up (serious study will do that to you) and am no longer arrested at that stage, I’ve blended into the crowd as someone just as perplexed as everyone else.  I do, however, have an idea of what they’re after.  Our particular sect didn’t push this—we seemed more worried about our own souls staying out of Hell—but many fundamentalists wanted to take over the nation.  In fact, they have.

The fact that 45 isn’t one of them is immaterial.  Power is the thing.  Power to make others conform or suffer.  This particular faith is built on fear, not love.  It’s as if their New Testament lacks the gospel of John.  You see, I was ahead of the curve.  I was part of it before it took over congress, the White House and the supreme court.  Things move so far these days that thinkers just don’t have time to think about everything.  Work days are long and covid still complicates everything.  Who has the time to seek out those who grew out of the very source that now endangers our democracy?  I think I prefer running a little behind, don’t you, Cassie?

BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.

Up in the Sky

Superman stands for truth, justice, and the American way.  Or least he did when I was a kid.  One out of three ain’t bad.  Considering the many exposés that have come out about Trump in the last few weeks, many of them by intimate family or very close friends he’s recently betrayed, are a pretty amazing example of a liberal hoax, I guess.  Witness after witness after witness comes out saying that truth, justice, and the American way simply aren’t important to 45, and yet the evangelical bloc insists differently.  They can’t seem to see that those who like Superman don’t object to your garden variety Republican (although we prefer the other alternative), we object to Duperman saying he’s Superman.  When in history have we had several party members advocating that people not vote for their own party’s candidate?  And yet the true follower can’t accept the witness of closest friends and fixers that they’ve been lied to for four years.

Like many people I would rather not be political.  When it becomes an issue of destroying democracy, however, it suddenly seems like I have to add yet another thing to my already full plate.  For four years now I haven’t been able to trust the government to do its job.  Trump admits that he ignored how serious he knew the Covid-19 crisis to be back in the spring.  Six months later and we’re all still confined to our houses and businesses are suffering, and his supporters say he read this one just right.  Over 200,000 of our fellow Americans have died from a virus that our “president” won’t admit is a problem, even as the White House has taken over writing guidelines for the CDC.  Boy, are we ever great hoaxers over here on the left!

I recall Superman flying around Metropolis actually fighting crime.  Ensuring that the truth was upheld.  Justice was essential.  People adored him.  What happened on the way from Super to Duper?  We’ve come to praise a man who is a sworn enemy to justice unless there’s something in it for him.  Whose number of documented lies by any measure staggers the imagination, and yet whom “true Christians” support.  The Superman of the New Testament had quite a bit to say about truth and justice (the American way was a bit beyond his experience).  Those who lived in lies were considered friends of the Devil.  But times have changed since then.  Heck, they’ve changed since I was a kid.  We used to look up to Superman in those days.  Now we apparently prefer lies, injustice and what is apparently becoming the American way.

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Marching down the Middle

It is true that I have a fondness for nineteenth-century British novels.  Even though they often lack a strong speculative element they tend to be gothic, at least if written by one of the Brontë sisters.  I’d only ever read one of George Eliot’s novels before, and that was in ninth grade.  Middlemarch has been on my list for many years, but due to its intimidating size I’ve kept putting it off.  Now that I’ve read it I feel like I’ve accomplished something.  I had no idea what the story was about in advance, and no idea how it ended.  Unlike many pieces of literature of its time it hasn’t made a huge impact in pop culture, so this was the opportunity to lose myself for a few months in a world completely unknown.

I’m not foolhardy enough to try to summarize an 800-page novel here, but one aspect that the reader can’t help but notice is the prominence of clergy.  And not only prominence, but prestige.  In a world built around the solid belief in different classes of individuals, where pride takes a place in marriages that are supposed to be within class, the clergy are minor nobility.  Since this is the Church of England the vicars can marry and indeed, one such marriage sets off the tension that lasts throughout the hundreds of pages to come.  The clergy of the time were often gentleman scholars—the role that was envisioned for Charles Darwin as a young man.  Eliot plays on that idea with some of her preachers being amateur scientists.

The conflict—that now feels inherent—between science and religion has less to do with older forms of Christianity than it has to do with evangelicalism.  A relatively new expression of Christianity, evangelicalism set itself against modernity and its science.  Quite often today when commentators rail against “religion” it is really evangelicalism that they have in mind.  In the world Eliot sketches, she sees no difficulties between a rational view of things and an ecclesiastical one.  Clergy are often seen at the whist tables and taking long walks down country lanes.  The distinction between them and the average citizen is that they have been to university to study.  Today, in mainstream Christianity anyway, clergy are educated at least to the master’s level.  They’re no longer among the minor nobility, however.  Middlemarch has more than a hint of nostalgia to it, and the clergy roles show that clearly.

Biblical Museum

The Museum of the Bible has never successfully steered itself away from controversy.  Just a couple weeks back a story on NPR reported that federal authorities have determined that one of the MOB’s tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a stolen artifact and it must go back to Iraq.  While I don’t question the decision, I was a bit surprised that the Feds knew or cared anything about cuneiform documents.  My academic specialization was Ugaritic, which is a language that was written in cuneiform.  I quickly learned after my doctorate that no jobs exist for Ugaritologists, so you have to style yourself as a biblical scholar.  The Museum of the Bible seems quite aware of the connection, but don’t go there looking for tablets.  They belong elsewhere.

There is a public fascination with cuneiform, it seems.  That doesn’t translate into jobs for those who know how to read wedge-writing since universities have become places of business.  Their product—what they sell—is called “education” but in reality it is accreditation.  Anyone who’s really driven can get a fairly decent bit of knowledge from the internet, if it’s used wisely.  The most reputable sources are behind pay walls of course.  What kind of civilization would give away knowledge for free?  Anything can be commodified, even the knack for reading dead languages.  One of the perks you pick up by studying this stuff officially is that artifacts really belong where they were found.  Unprovenanced pieces are now routinely ignored by specialists because they’re so easily faked.  That doesn’t stop those who can afford to from buying them.  Right, Mr. Green?  You’ve got to beware of the seller, though.

A few years back many of us watched with horror as extremists destroyed ancient artifacts kept in Syria’s museums.  These were objects we’d spent years of our lives studying, and which cannot be replaced.  They were “at home” where they belonged, but where some, at least, clearly didn’t appreciate them.  Those of us who’ve studied ancient history recognized such behavior, I’m afraid.  We’d read about it in documents as ancient as the artifacts being sledgehammered right there on the internet.  Or you can buy such documents illegally sold and put them in a museum dedicated to a book that says somewhere that “thou shalt not bear false witness.”  Such are the ironies of history.  But then, as its provenance shows, that sentiment is apparently a museum piece as well.

Photo credit: Chaos, via Wikimedia Commons

George Floyd

Perhaps for the first time in four years, 45 is beginning to see people are unhappy.  Very unhappy.  The pontiff—excuse me—president wanted a photo-op with the Good Book at a nearby Episcopal Church and had crowds of protesters tear-gassed so the he could make himself look righteous.  My wife pointed out that this was an example of the Bible as a Ding, and she was right.  (If you don’t get the reference, it’s explained in Holy Horror.)  Moreover, it is a clear abuse of power.  Not only have thousands of Americans been needlessly dying from COVID-19, the violence against African Americans is caught time and again on police body-cams.  People are rightfully protesting and the racist-in-chief doesn’t like it.

It doesn’t work unless you open it.

With echoes of Tiananmen Square he’s now threatening to send the military against protestors.  It’s far easier to strike out at people while holding a Bible in your hand than it is to learn empathy.  We’ve been isolating and masking ourselves for over two months now and not one word of sympathy has come from the White House incumbent.  Instead of trying to calm racial unrest, he tweets to conquer, not realizing that divide and conquer is meant to be used against enemies of your nation, not your own people.  Never had we had a president who has so openly played favorites and made not even a pretense of being a leader for the entire country.  He is a figurehead of his base only, which is, it seems to me, a violation of the oath he swore on that selfsame Bible not even four years ago.

Pandering to such a Ding is an abuse of Holy Writ.  After unrest over George Floyd’s murder had entered its third night the response from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was silence.  How far is it from here to Tiananmen Square?  Is it not possible to admit error and realize that the economy is going like the Titanic’s maiden voyage and just about everyone knows someone who’s died because of the virus or who’s been racially profiled by one of the “good people on both sides”?  No, grab the Bible and clear the rabble who won’t shout “Hosannah” when he rides his ass outside a church whose door he’s seldom darkened to show his base he really is a Bible-reading man.  Was this some bizarre parody of Jesus clearing the temple or just a mockery of the man who said “By their fruits you will know them”?  There’s only one answer to that.  How different the world would be if Bible-believers actually read the book they love to thump.  

WHO Believes?

These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government.  I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page.  I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology.  Contagion I get, because religion operates that way.  So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith.  A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings.  To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion?  People want to believe.

Religious gatherings also provide crucial support.  The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March.  It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know.  I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.”  More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is.  Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time.  We relate virtually rather than physically.  I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges.  The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it.  The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.”  Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.

WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit.  Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone.  If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus.  Alas, but politics interferes.  Many religions also want to determine how people live.  There’s power in that.  We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists.  WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality.  WHO apparently has faith as well.  Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually.  Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?

Denying Reality

The science-deniers in the White House have had to accommodate themselves to evidence-based facts and they look none too happy about it.  Science denial has a long and venerable history in a certain type of evangelicalism.  Science teaches us that most things are more complex than they seem and this is also true of religions.  There are evangelicals all over the board, but those claiming the name most loudly have been outspoken Trump supporters.  The administration has had a three-year spree of decrying science and now that a very real virus is killing us they have no choice but to listen, albeit reluctantly.  So why do certain strains of evangelicalism deny science?  Is it all for profit?  Is there some kind of biblical mandate?

As someone who spent many years making a living as a biblical scholar (and it still plays into my work), I often think about this.  There is the underlying reliance on miracle as opposed to naturalism, for sure.  If God can do anything then science is ever only contingent.  Any moment a miracle (a word that doesn’t occur in the Bible, by the way) could happen and there’d be no way to measure it.  The main reason, however, goes back to Genesis and its creation stories.  When you read a book first impressions are important.  The Good Book begins with a theological account that eventually came to be taken literally.  It’s as if someone decided to live by a poem, taken as fact.  Some things can’t be expressed except with metaphorical language.  But since this creation takes place up front, any challenge to it is an affront to the Almighty.

The antagonism set up by Darwin’s discovery of evolution set the whole confrontation in motion.  Evangelicals in the late 1800s were feeling pushed into the corner by the overwhelming evidence that the creation accounts in Genesis were not factual.  This insult to miracle has simmered for well over a century—the Scopes trial, well into this period, took place 95 years ago.  Fear that the Bible’s loss of science authority might somehow lessen its spiritual message became a ditch in which to die.  Big business learned, back in the seventies, that evangelicals made great followers and could constitute a voting bloc if only a cause could be raised around which they’d rally.  We all know what that was.  That issue has led to the denial of science and the acceptance of anyone ill-informed enough to accept such denial.  Only after learning that you must fight pandemics with science has the White House had to start changing its story.  When it’s all over, however, it will go right back to denying everything.

Disease Divine?

I suspect many religious people are wondering where God is amid the current pandemic.   Theodicy (explaining the suffering of the innocent while defending the goodness of the Divine) has always been the bête noire of monotheistic belief systems.  (Polytheism has the advantage of always being able to blame another god.)   People have been pointing articles out to me that show the religious implications of a crisis.  I’m not at all surprised by the irrationality of the subjects.  The first article was an opinion piece in the New York Times.  It makes a good case that the religious right paved the way for the COVID-19 contagion in the United States.  The religious right is anti-science because they (wrongly) believe the Bible is a science book.  Even a small dose of seminary could cure that ill.  Katherine Stewart nevertheless makes a strong argument that the survivors of all of this will know whom to blame.  Science denial is not the same as authentic religion.

From NASA’s photo library

The other news stories that arise are of evangelical leaders defying government bans or guidance, even when delivered by messiah Trump, to large gatherings.  One of the main reasons for this is that said messiah kept saying the coronavirus was nothing to worry about.  Only when re-election seemed unlikely with all the uneducated dead did he finally start issuing warnings to avoid such idiotic congregating.  In the midst of it all, Jerry Falwell Junior (why did all these evangelists have to propagate?) decided to reopen Liberty University.  No doubt confident that God will keep them from any harm, the university officials decided it would be good to gather students from all over the country and put them together in dorms again.  If you’ve ever lived in a dorm I’m sure you can see why the decision is anything but wise.

It’s sad that evangelicalism has decided to pander to the uneducated.  You can believe in Jesus (many mainstream Christians do) without parking your rationality in the farthest parking spot from the door.  Many of us, huddled in our houses, not having seen other living people for days, are trying to isolate this thing and drive it to extinction.  Meanwhile, those who trust their own version of the supernatural are doing whatever they can to ensure the virus continues to spread.  Why?  They have long been taught that science isn’t real.  Never mind that their cell phones work and they get the news of open dorms through the internet, the science behind it all is bunk.  An entire executive branch administration that doesn’t believe in science is as sure a road to apocalypse as any.

Prophets and Exiles

One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.  I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.  In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).  Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.  Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.  Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.  If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.  I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.  They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.

Taking verses out of context has a name.  It’s called “prooftexting.”  It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.  All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.  The Bible’s a big, big book.  Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.  Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.  No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.  That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.  What was that message?  Stop saying the exile is the end!  There’s more to the story.  Read the book to the end and see.

The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.  Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.  And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.  Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.  It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.  If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.  But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.