Focus on Religion

Publishers Weekly, or PW to those in the biz, is a great place to get information about, well, publishing.  I often spend AAR/SBL telling authors and prospective authors something that I wish I’d been told when teaching: time spent learning about publishing is never wasted.  PW every year has a “Religion and Spirituality Update” released in time for this meeting.  Despite the relatively small number of sales, religion is a discipline that loves its books.  I’ve only been quoted in PW’s special edition once, and it’s not been for a few years, nevertheless I always learn a thing or two from this free—yes, if you’re here in San Diego it’s free!—update.  It may seem odd to suggest that religion titles can be hot, but it is indeed possible.  Sexuality is hot.  I suppose that goes without saying.

A number of titles dealing with religion and sexuality appear every year.  What caught my attention, however was an observation from Jennifer Banks, from Yale University Press.  Noting the rancor that sexuality often introduces to discussions of religion, she observes that (and this is a quote from PW, not directly from Banks) “some Christians apparently need others to go to hell.”  (I can send the full citation, if you want to know.)  In an era when academics have been stressing inclusion, the retrenched religious world has been spinning in the opposite direction.  Instead of inviting everyone to Heaven, as might, say a Universalist, many conservative Christians consign fellow believes to Hell, and gleefully so.  It’s almost as if Christianity and capitalism have merged into a zero-sum game.  If some win, all the others have to lose.  They haven’t however, studied the history of Hell very well.

It’s kind of an insidious idea.  Given that we all want to justify ourselves, some go to the extremes of demonizing those who see things differently.  This form of religious thinking was original neither with Christianity nor the Judaism from which it grew.  There was no Hell in the Hebrew Bible.  The idea, when it did develop, wasn’t a place to torture your enemies, but rather a place demanded by justice.  Those who were utterly and unrepentantly wicked couldn’t hobnob in God’s country club with those who tried to be righteous.  In the modern evangelical narrative those who make certain medical decisions for basic human situations are among the utterly wicked.  Not surprisingly their sins are usually sexual.  If you want to see this in a wider context, pick up a PW when you pass by the stand.  “Anything free,” to quote another sage, “is worth saving up for.”  And who knows, it might keep you from Hell?

The Happy Science

Many seem to be wondering, if the media are to be believed, why America, like REM, is losing its religion.  (And yes, I know that the expression for the latter means to lose one’s temper, not literally to lose one’s faith.)  Derek Thompson at the Atlantic recently wrote about how the more literal loss took place around 1990.  He posits that the rise of the Christian Right, the Cold War coming to an end, and 9/11 are behind the loss.  As an historian of religion, even with a more ancient focus, I have to wonder if his gaze goes back far enough.  Being born early in the sixties was an opportunity to have a front-row seat.  My family was very religious.  To us, the rest of the world may have been going to Hell, but locally we were trying to please God, as most everyone we knew was.

Theologians and sociologists thought God had died.  Nietzsche, always ahead of his time, had declared as much nearly a century before the sixties got underway.  The public face of religion, however, is never the same as what’s going on below.  The religious right was built on a deep-seated hypocrisy from the beginning.  Now hypocrisy is so very human it’d be easily forgiven were it not for the constant insistence on self-righteousness followed by the revelation of some base human vice.  Time and time again televangelists didn’t cover the tracks of their peccadillos well enough, and Catholic priest couldn’t fight that feeling.  They were doing what humans have probably always done, but while wearing the vestments of public respectability.  Like Cthulhu, it seemed like God was dead but dreaming under the sea.

Religion, as all scholars of the phenomenon know, changes only very slowly.  Church attendance began dropping in the seventies, but back then there was such a thing as the rule of law and a real concern that your neighbors didn’t think you a Commie.  Fast forward to the era of Trump when the rule of law broke down completely and religions rank right up there with Republicans as being the most dishonest elements of humankind.  We look back at when the slow trickle seemed to breech the dyke in the 1990s.  The real game changer (since 9/11 was still in the future) was the birth of the internet.  People began to talk freely about the two subjects—religion and politics—that those of us from the sixties were taught assiduously to avoid in polite company.  Nietzsche published Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in 1882.  It would take about a century to sink in, and human religious leaders would be the ones to prove his point.  At least in this world of choosing our confessions.

Outdated Commandments

Recently, according to an ABC story a friend sent me, some self-righteous Catholics stole indigenous statues from the Amazon from a location in Rome.  The statues had been a gift to the Pope and placed outside the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.  Like mass shooters these days, the Christians responsible filmed themselves doing this and shared it on social media.  I’ve experienced a lot of religious intolerance in my life.  I lost my job and my childhood to it, among other things.  Stories like this are beyond sad because religion really does have the capacity to bring people together rather than to tear them into warring factions.  Unfortunately it tends to draw in the hateful looking for excuses for their violence.

Not unrelatedly, I attended a church program on gun violence.  Before this gets immediately blown up into “anti-gun,” please note—the program was about violence, not guns.  During the Q&A after the presentation someone asked who the panelists were trying to reach, “preaching to the choir.”  After that he admitted to being a gun owner and felt that his position was unfairly represented.  Tension mounted.  One of the panelists, the one who’d witnessed his first murder at age 11, and who’d spent time in jail himself, broke in and said “This is about violence, let’s not make it about guns.”  I was struck by his focus and control.  He’d told us earlier that if a gang member could be convinced to wait 24 hours before getting his gun after an insult or injury a shooting almost never took place.  Violence is often a spur of the moment thing.

What’s so troubling about those who smirk as they film themselves doing violence, like stealing statues outside a church, is that this is not an impulse act.  This is planned, hateful violence.  It wears the mask of religion, often titled “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” but it is in reality simply a way of excusing your hatred.  Ironically, the Jesus they claim to be following said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  I guess we’ve got quite a few sinless conservatives out there, although I have to wonder if filming yourself might not count as pride.  It used to be called a deadly sin, but who’s counting?  Self-righteousness isn’t quite the same thing as vanity, although they sleep in the same bed.  But let’s not get lust involved, once that happens there’ll be no telling one sin from another.

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.

Influential Brethren

Outsized ideas from under-recognized sources always captivate me.  I have to admit that my own childhood fascination concerning, and fear of, “the rapture” still haunts me.  While our house isn’t large, the other day I couldn’t see or hear my wife anywhere when I knew she was home and my first thought was that she’d been raptured and I’d been left behind.  Please don’t try to console me with logic; I know very well the problems with this initial assessment and knowing the history of the idea of the rapture can’t stop the primal fear when it strikes.  So it is with religious ideas inculcated in the young.  That’s why I knew I had to read Massimo Introvigne’s The Plymouth Brethren as soon as I heard of it.  The Plymouth Brethren, and specifically one of their formative leaders, John Nelson Darby, were the inventors of the rapture.

Introvigne’s book doesn’t trace rapture history (other books do that), but he does narrate, in an admirably succinct treatment, whence the Brethren arose.  In the nineteenth century in the British Isles, some were very concerned that Christianity had gone off the rails.  Accommodating with secular society, it had become heavily doctrinal and, worse, political.  Breakaway groups were common, including those who went back to the “Bible alone” as the basis for assessing what being Christian truly was.  The Plymouth Brethren developed in this atmosphere and they still remain a relatively small Christian sect (I use that term completely neutrally).  Even though they themselves splintered over time, they were never a very large group.  They, however, invented the rapture.

John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the movement, believed history was divided into dispensations, or periods, predetermined by God.  The dispensation in which we now live (and in which they lived two centuries ago) would include a dramatic rapture that would allow Darby’s understanding of eschatology to fall within the system he developed.  This idea was picked up by Cyrus Scofield and included in his enormously influential Scofield Reference Bible.  That Bible, although many evangelicals considered the Plymouth Brethren as a kind of “cult,” was used as the unquestioned roadmap for the end times.  It was picked up by such promoters as Hal Lindsey and Timothy LaHaye and made into a meme that just about any educated person recognizes.  We all know what “the rapture” is, although the Bible itself doesn’t spell it out at all.  Introvigne’s book is very informative on the Brethren but his chapter on their ten main divisions is, necessarily, a touch confusing.  Well balanced and fair, this is a great source for those who wonder who these people were that gave us such worries when our wives have “disappeared” into some other part of the house.

Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?