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.

All Been Ready

As the pandemic stretches on and getting things in stores—or even from Amazon—isn’t assured, my thoughts go back to Larry Norman.  Specifically to his song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”  Made famous for many by its use in the 1972 rapture film A Thief in the Night, the song recounts the state of those “left behind” when a piece of bread could be exchanged for a bag of gold.  The lyrics are haunting in their sincerity.  Here in Pennsylvania, as in neighboring New York, non-essential businesses have closed, per order of the governors.  Periodic forays to the grocery store show the empty shelves of panic buying.  Norman’s song rings in my ears.  Only this isn’t a biblical plague.  We’re just acting like it.

No doubt technology has been of great use in keeping us aware.  I do wonder, however, at how panics seem to come more quickly now.  Slowing down manufacturing will have a knock-on effect for things down the road, of course.  Right now we’re all wondering how we’re going to get through yet another day just sitting in the house.  Meanwhile the lawn is beginning to grow and I’m going to have to get out there with the push mower soon.  I’d been planning on shopping for a better one this year, but plans seem to have suddenly pooled at my feet.  What is essential travel anyway?  Does it count a trip to the big box hardware store to buy a reel mower?  Should I even bother about the lawn when there’s no toilet paper within a fifty-mile radius?  I wish we’d all been ready.

The funny thing about all this is how it makes us focus on the here and now.  While we’re waiting for things to “get back to normal” we’re being told nobody knows how long this might last and we should plan to hunker down for some time.  The International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (being held in Australia this year) was cancelled.  Many of us in the discipline have had our lives revolving around the Annual Meeting in November for all of our adulthood.  If that meeting’s cancelled how will we even know when Thanksgiving comes?  Can it even come without the crowds at the Macy’s parade?  Best not to look too far ahead, I guess.  The rapture is a fictional construct, but the effects of a pandemic are eerily similar.  I do wish all of us had been ready.

Finding Fakes

The Museum of the Bible has been a source of controversy since well before it even opened.  Many people don’t understand what biblical scholars actually do, and this leads to misunderstandings and not infrequent accusations.  Turning no basic critical thinking skills toward a museum intended to champion certain social causes (claimed to be “biblical”), those who support it can’t understand why a “biblical” scholar would object.  What do biblical scholars do all day, anyway?  We’ll come back to that in a moment.  The reason I’m writing about the Museum of the Bible in the middle of a pandemic is an article on National Geographic’s website, “‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the public imagination for decades now.  Having seen the collection at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I know it can be an awe-inducing experience.  One thing biblical scholars do is ask questions.

Artifacts are becoming increasingly easy to fake.  Some biblical scholars were fooled by these fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  Now, my own specialization was Ugaritic.  Ugaritic is a cuneiform language with clay tablets as the substrate.  One of the things that you learn from looking at a specialized body of material closely and for a long time is how they were written.  Some of the Ugaritic tablets have writing along the edges, like marginal scrawls.  Some are written with large characters in a clumsy hand, while others are clearly done by a professional.  With some practice you can learn to recognize handwriting even in cuneiform.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on vellum or leather, are similar: specialists know just how they were written and close examination can reveal if they were made in antiquity or simply made to look antique.

Biblical scholars often get accused of taking the life out of things.  Would it be better to believe in something that is exposed as a fake?  Not exactly debunkers, scholars are those who ask pointed questions of unstated assumptions.  If some antiquities dealer claims to have access to material kept out of official hands, and is willing to charge you a lot for it, it’s best to call in the skeptics.  It works the same in most fields that keep our society going.  We need to trust those who’ve studied a subject in depth for many years.  Devoted their lives to it, in fact.  Many museum items around the world are forgeries and fakes.  It’s not too often, though, that someone specializing in really old stuff gets called in to make an evaluation.  There’s a risk involved—the risk of learning the truth.

CBD

They found me.  I used to call them CBD, but because of the popularity of a certain hemp-based product, Christian Book Distributors changed its name.  Now I knew about them long before they had me on their mailing list when I taught at Nashotah House.  When I was a seminary student in Boston I made occasional trips to CBD’s Peabody warehouse for sales—this was quite a boon to students who never have enough money (little did I know!).  Books you’d heard about in class were there, for a fraction of the price.  At Nashotah I always looked over their bargain page, because, well, professors like books.  I recognized their catalogue in my mailbox instantly.  The name is now Christianbooks.com.  Grab some munchies and sit down.

Not only the name has changed.  Back in my student days I could find academic resources here.  As religion in America has become more and more polarized, what used to be CBD (if I use their current incarnation my computer insists on putting links in) has become radically conservative.  Page after page of study Bibles reveal no hint of the mainstream bestsellers in the genre.  It’s as if they don’t exist.  More than that, if you leave them out maybe people will come to believe they don’t exist.  Even the bargain books are nothing an erstwhile professor would buy.  Instead of academic titles there are all kinds of Barnes & Noble-type gimmicks to get shoppers to spend their money.  Like junk food for the soul.  I look at the books on my shelf.  Some of them were purchased, cash in hand on the ground in Peabody.  Not any more.

There will be those who claim (fake news is the only news now) that what has changed is me, not them.  The fact is places like CBD used to be more open minded.  They admitted the possibility of doubt.  Now your choices are Scofield or Ryrie.  That should be enough for any appetite.  Not only that, but many of the titles now sound militaristic.  Battlefields and all.  Thumbing through, I wonder where Jesus has gone.  The evangelicalism of my youth was clearly Prince of Peace centered.  Now it’s politicized to the point that I’m not sure what it represents beyond GOP values of greed, opportunism, and power.  Anyone who thinks differently need not apply.  How CBD found me after all these years, I do not know.  I wish they’d consider saving the environment rather than printing catalogues to send me.  The climate, despite what they would claim, has changed.

Space Farce

Okay, so “Space Force” sounds like a gimmick that you’d see in a 1950’s ad geared to dungaree-wearing boys.  These boys, who’d be named “Dick” would show the girls, named “Jane,” just how it was done.  So as I read about the furor of dedicating a King James Bible from the Bible Museum as the official Bible for military branches aimed at the stars, I had to think how very small we actually are.  So 45 thinks, like Reagan thought, that we need outer-space defenses.  These guys need to read more science fiction.  Actually, some plain old science would help.  If there are most advanced civilizations out there—and such seems increasingly likely, given that our understanding of science is subject to change—we are nothing more than cosmic mosquitoes buzzing close to our own planet where we can wail on each other in the name of lucre.  And we call it “Space Force.”

An article on NPR points out the hypocrisy of swearing in the military on a Bible.  One guy in there, I’ve heard tell, was called “the prince of peace.”  He’s somewhere near the back.  The public loves a good warmonger, though.  We can send our tentative rockets into orbit where bug-eyed aliens laugh with bemusement, and say “Just you try something.”  Or we can make business deals with Russia with one hand while pointing our missiles in their direction with the other.  Is that a missile or am I misreading something, Dick?  I can’t ask Jane, because she just follows along.  Maybe we’re inheriting the consequences of those who grew up reading Dick and Jane.  Boys with their rockets, girls with their dolls.

Bringing religion into the military is nothing new.  German soldiers marched out into a couple of World Wars with “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their waists.  Millions died.  No lessons were learned.  So now we want to take conflict so far over our heads that we can’t even see.  Ancient people knew the gods were fighting far above.  That’s how they made sense of the world.  Some, like Erich von Däniken took those stories literally and thought our alien observers were the reason.  Now that we’ve got drones we have no need of UFOs anymore.  All that sci-fi I watched as a kid wasn’t wasted after all.  Only I grew up reading that Bible instead of swearing on it.  I was pretty sure that war wasn’t a good thing, as he rode on a red horse with his sword pointing upward.  Time to dust off William S. Gray and get back to watching Space Force. 

From NASA’s photo library