Tweets from Heaven

What do the ultra-rich know about morals?  I read recently that now that Elon Musk has purchased Twitter for billions and billions of dollars, that he’s going to allow Trump back on because it’s “morally wrong” to prevent him.  Heaven help us when the plutocrats start dictating morals.  One of the odd things about my strange career is that I was an undecided major in college.  I settled eventually on religion, but my transcript shows a restless mind.  One subject that I came back to time and again was ethics.  I want to know what is right.  Shutting up a deranged narcissist who wants to run the country only to enhance his image of himself seems a moral no-brainer.  The case was different before he was elected the first time.  Now we know.  Now we have a responsibility.

Those who can afford to buy the moon shouldn’t make declarations on what is moral.  The church, however, has largely become irrelevant.  “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” a famous moralist, whose name is unfortunately forgotten, once said.  The moral compass of the uberwealthy is irrevocably squewed by a massive loadstone known as personal wealth.  Indeed, our very laws are made by the wealthy to protect the interests of the wealthy.  They do this by courting biblicists who seem to have forgotten—what is his name again?  You know, the one who seemed to have a problem with the rich?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Morality has somehow become confused with concerns about other people’s genitalia.  We don’t ask what the wealthy do with theirs—it’s pretty clear what one tweeting resident of Mar-a-Lago has done with his.  Ironically Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church largely because of the sale of indulgences.  The idea that the rich could buy their way out of sins rankled sixteenth-century moralists into saying sola scriptura.  But now they have lost even their solaScriptura, for its part, is unequivocal about one thing—the problem of the rich.  The poor aren’t the problem.  In this new gospel, however, victims are blamed while the powerful rightly rule all.  The divine right of riches.  The wealthy, so misunderstood; the poor are the way they are because they’re lazy.  There’s no systemic cause for anyone not to have as much money as he wants (and it seems they’re generally he’s).  And they have a right to say whatever they want because their word comes down from heaven, echoing out from their private space rockets to the stars.


For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.


Wicker Lessons

Beltane creeps up unnoticed.  Not an official holiday in these parts, it is, hopefully, a sign of slightly warmer weather than we’ve been having in April.  It’s also the day that I can’t help but think of The Wicker Man.  One of the early intelligent horror offerings, it came out 49 years ago.  My book on the movie, as far as I know, is still scheduled to come out next year, on its fiftieth anniversary.  Watch this space for further announcements.  In any case, today I have a piece on The Wicker Tree—the “spiritual sequel” to the movie, appearing on Horror Homeroom.  Societies in old Europe tended to celebrate this as the beginning of summer, which explains why Midsummer comes half-way through June.  The seasons aren’t always the same in all times and places.

In Germanic countries, Walpurgisnacht, which began last night, was a time of concern about witches.  Our modern calendar tries to concentrate our fears in late October, but they are appropriate any time of year.  These days Beltane’s more of a day when we expect warmer weather to start rolling in and perhaps, especially this year, hopes for peace.  May tends to be a hopeful time—it’s a transition.  The persistence of our fears suggests that learning to deal with them might well be a good idea.  Instead of hiding monsters away, why not face them?  The Wicker Tree isn’t a great horror movie, but something holds true for it—the monsters are us.  In that film capitalism is the real horror.

What makes The Wicker Man the classic that it is is religion.  More specifically, the clash between religions, neither of which is willing to yield.  This is largely behind religious violence throughout history, up to the present.  Religions convinced that they’re the only possible way to the truth can’t recognize that believers of other religions feel exactly the same way.  Yet May is about transitions—one season giving way to another.  It’s part of the inexorable change that marks life on this planet.  We may not fear witches in the mountains any more, but we still fear what’s out there.  Beltane is a hopeful holiday—a day of blessing animals and building fires to encourage the strengthening sun.  Instead of making it a day of clashing beliefs, perhaps we should look for our common humanity in it.  Perhaps we can learn a deeper lesson from The Wicker Man.


Love Your Mother

It’s not exactly a birthday, for we don’t know when exactly she was born.  We choose April 22 to think of our mother—the mother of us all.  For many of us concerned about the environment, not only is today Earth Day, but April has become Earth Month.  To me one of the saddest aspects of our environmental crisis is that certain sects of Christianity are largely responsible for it.  Religion working against the betterment of humankind.  So it was in the beginning, is now, and hopefully we won’t have to finish the triad.  Granted, religions help us to keep our mind on spiritual matters.  The problem is when such things become dogma and the real needs of real people are ignored so that a fervently desired fantasy can be lived out by destroying our planet.

In response there are what have been called “deep green” religions.  It’s difficult to gain a critical mass, however, when many of those who think deeply about the environment have left religion out of the equation.  It seems to me that we’ve got to make peace with our evolved tendencies toward religion in order to have any meaningful discussion about this.  Meanwhile global warming continues.  It does so with the blessing of a kind of Christianity that sees this world as expendable and exploitable based on an idiosyncratic reading of Genesis.  Even though all the evidence points in the opposite direction, we have networks (here’s looking at you, Fox), owned by billionaires who know you can sway Christianity simply by kissing your hand to the moon.

It’s my hope that this Earth Day we might start to think about how to integrate some deep green theology into the kind that sees no room for green in the red, white, and blue.  The self-convinced have no desire for conversation about this and those already certain that religion is nothing but superstition tend to agree.  Since antiquity, however, the wise have realized that progress comes from the middle ground.  Politicians, in their own self-interest, have stoked the fires of division and hatred, knowing that they get reelected that way.  Mother Earth, I suspect, is rolling her eyes.  She will survive even if we succumb to our own mythologies.  We need to learn to talk to one another.  We need to accept that we evolved to be religious.  We need to look for middle ground while there’s still dry ground on which to stand.  It’s not exactly a birthday, but it is a holiday that should be taken seriously. It’s only right to love your mother.

From NASA’s photo library

Leathers

It’s an occupational hazard for the vegan Bible editor.  Leather.  Leather Bibles, although expensive, are popular.  If you want free fetishistic deliveries of colored leather to arrive at your door, well, it’s part of a Bible editor’s life.  Morally I’m opposed to leather and I eagerly await the day when cactus leather is considered a suitable alternative.  Leather began being used in bookbinding early on, when books were treasured possessions.  It was readily available because animal slaughter was a part of everyday life.  It’s also extremely durable.  These days it’s just a status symbol.  When Bibles are produced there’s generally a market for whatever translation in leather.  In my time I’ve seen some well enough used to perhaps justify such extravagance, but not very often.  Usually it’s merely for show.

There’s an entire vocabulary associated with leather bookbinding.  Tooling, or engraving the smooth leather to look like something else, embossing, or pressing a design in the leather, gilding, or the use of gold paint on leather, and dentelle, or having a border run around the outside edge.  All of these were (and still are) signs of the artistry of the binder.  The practice dates back to before the nineteenth century when books were bound by booksellers, not publishers.  Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In any case, apart from tradition there’s no need to kill animals to bind books any more.  Law books and Bibles are the major purveyors of leather binding.  It continues simply because it continues.

One term used for traditions unwilling to change is “hidebound.”  While this seems originally to have referred to emaciated cattle, it has come to be associated with codified, as in leather books.  Pigskin, or other cheaper hides, are often used.  Or “bonded leather,” which is as much plastic (if not more) than actual leather.  The Bible isn’t a terribly animal-friendly book.  Dogs are unclean and cats aren’t mentioned at all (except the large, wild kinds).  Yes, there are shepherds—both good and bad—but sheep were kept to be exploited.  And perhaps turned into leather.  There’s something strangely symbolic about this.  And not in a propitious way.  Where does obeying the rules get you?  Sheep are praised for their docility, their willingness to be thoughtlessly exploited, slaughtered, skinned, and eaten.  To do the job, a Bible editor must learn about leather.  Perhaps its a profession best left to carnivores.


Higher Learning?

I was reading, as one does, about a mental institution.  In the last century they were often called, rather insensitively, “lunatic asylums.”  The neurodiverse were often shunted away so that the rest of society could get on with business as usual (as if that’s sane).  There were any number of reasons sought for such individuals thinking differently.  The source I was reading had a short list and I was surprised to see on it, “over study of religion.”  It really said nothing more about it but it left me wondering.   First of all, it brought Acts 26.24 to mind: “Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad!”  Religion, from the very start, it seems, had the reputation of driving people insane.

Image credit: Published by W. H. Parrish Publishing Company (Chicago), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As someone who’s spent well over half a century thinking about religion, reading about religion, and analyzing religion, I can see Festus might’ve had a point.  This way much madness lies.  I don’t think religion evolved to be thought about.  It was largely a fear reaction to being, in reality, rather helpless in a world full of predators and other natural dangers.  Although we’ve managed to wipe out most of our large predators, we’re still under the weather, as it were.  We can’t control it, and what messing around we’ve done through global warming has made it less hospitable to our species and several others.  And also the small predators, those that evolve quickly, such as Covid-19, are now the real challenge.  Facing fear was the real evolutionary advantage of religion.

Being story-telling creatures, we made narratives about our belief systems.  Then we started taking those stories literally.  Believing too seriously, we used those stories as a basis for hating and killing those with different stories.  We still do.  Can anyone deny Festus’ accusation?  I’m sure religious mania has, historically, led to some institutionalizations.  It was kind of a trope in the seventies, for example, that too much Bible-reading could lead to criminal behavior.  It’s not difficult to see why those trying to classify what might make an individual off balance might look to religion as an explanation.  Nationally, and very publicly, we can see strident examples of this promotion of irrational ideas on a daily basis.  Many of the large mental institutions have been closed down and many of the neurodiverse have been turned out to the streets.  Ironically, it is often the religious who try to care for them.  Understanding religion, it seems to me, might be a great public good.


Day of the Lord

The kindly folks at Horror Homeroom recently asked me if I’d review the new movie, The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord.  Since I’ve been occasionally writing on religion and horror for them for a couple of years now, they knew I’d be interested.  The review just dropped and you can read it here.  Since this blog is a less formal place I’ll say a bit more about the film here, while encouraging you also to read the review.  They won’t be the same.  The movie, which is independent of any of the big studios, is hands-down the most theological horror I’ve ever seen.  That’s because it’s fully based on a religious idea.  It consists almost entirely of dialogue, so some will doubt it’s horror at all.  What is being said, however, can be quite scary.

Using only two characters, the movie would work well as a stage play.  The story revolves around a couple on a romantic weekend getaway.  Far from any other people, they’re enjoying a fancy cabin in the woods when suddenly he (Michael) reveals to Gabby (her), that he’s God.  Not all the time.  In fact, he’s come to her at this moment without Michael even knowing it because she’s going to die that weekend.  He wants to ensure she can get to Heaven.  Throughout the weekend Michael switches back and forth between being himself and being God.  Gabby fears she’s trapped with a psychopath, but as God Michael knows things about her that she’s never told him.  They discuss the problems with God’s existence and the issue of theodicy as Gabby slowly comes to accept she will die there.

My Horror Homeroom piece has spoilers, but I won’t put them here.  Horror fans might claim this isn’t horror at all.  There’s no bloodshed, very little violence, and no monsters play a role (unless you count the Devil).  Still, it is psychologically tense and it raises some scary questions.  I was raised as a Fundamentalist.  The fear implanted early that you might die not right with God has stayed with me all through my years of working in religious studies.  From my perspective this was a pretty scary film.  The script is very well written.  So much so that I wonder if Jared Jay Mason, the writer, hasn’t taken a course or two in theology.  My formal review gives quite a bit more detail, but you might want to watch the movie also.  I found it surprisingly effective.


The Nature of Epiphany

Last year on January 6 we had an epiphany.  Many of us thought, I suspect, that since the angry mob wanted to kill Republicans and Democrats both that their actions would be condemned unilaterally.  Instead we learned that the Republican Party said, “Boys will be boys.”  And of course boys like to kill things.  A year later the GOP has stalwartly refused to condemn the attempt of a violent takeover of the government by a legitimately defeated candidate.  If the other party tried this they’d be calling “treason.”  We had an epiphany of a double-standard masquerading as evangelical Christianity.  Now, instead of thinking of today as the Christian epiphany, well, wait a minute.  Maybe that’s the epiphany we had—understanding what Christianity can become.

One of the tenets of democracy includes the freedom of religion.  Studying ancient religion can be quite revealing.  For one thing, we get a better idea of what religion was.  Few ancient authorities were concerned about what individuals actually believed.  Religion was largely what the powerful and influential did to placate gods who were easily bribed by sacrifice and praise.  The role of the average person was to be taxed to support this, and the monarchy.  I’ve been watching how, since the 1970s, the United States has been going that route.  We’ve always been a religious nation (“Christian” is much more debatable), but Richard Nixon’s ploy to swing evangelicals to the Republican Party worked.  Those not blinded by ideology will know that evangelicals tended to be staunchly Democrat.  Through the ensuing decades we watched Republican presidents giving our tax money to religious organizations they supported.  Why not throw another lamb on the altar while you’re at it?

The sacrificial system, you see, supported the temple staff.  Somebody had to eat all that meat!  Even in the Bible it was recognized that God didn’t exactly consume it the way a human being would.  Then last year on Epiphany, the party that’s supported just this kind of thing tried to throw all but Trump—yes, even Pence—onto their sacrificial pyre.  A year later we see those very senators saying, “well, it might be useful to have such people in reserve, just in case.”  Early Christians believed that you could tell another believer by their actions.  In that they weren’t wrong.  And those who are able and eager to kill in order to get their way have revealed, by their actions, their true beliefs.  It was, and still is, an epiphany indeed.


Love Letter

One of the more insidious things about religions is their claim to exclusivity.  The belief than any religion is the “only true religion” is bound to run up against the fact that there are many religions in the world, most of them sincerely believed.  We have much to learn from religions outside the one (if any) we were raised in.  I’ve known about Thich Nhat Hahn for quite a few years now.  One of his books was published (perhaps republished) by Routledge.  As their religion editor I was familiar with it, but as he was not “my author” (that’s the way publishing works), I didn’t contact him.  One of the most famous Buddhist religious teachers, Thich Nhat Hahn strives to transcend religion, which seems like a noble goal.  His Zen approach is simple and important.

This book’s title, Love Letter to the Earth, indicates what it is.  A reflection on environmental sensibility, it includes literal love letters to the planet.  Arguably it is probably a book best read in small batches with time to contemplate between each reading.  Although some aspects are clearly Buddhist, there are also noticeably Christian elements as well.  Christian spiritual leaders, such as Thomas Merton, knew there was no inherent conflict between Christianity and Buddhism.  Thich Nhat Hahn is also remarkably prolific, having written over 150 books.  World religious leaders need to take a lesson here concerning speaking out about environmental justice.  Certainly there are those who will disagree with aspects of his theology, as reasonable and important as it is.  The message is larger than that.

This book is based on the truth that we are all made of this universe and we contain within ourselves that universe.  The earth is our mother, understood by Nhat Hahn in an almost, if not literally, literal way.  While this isn’t news it is nevertheless profound.  When religions are used as excuses to attack the earth they cease to be true in any sense.  Those who don’t buy that perverted outlook are being condemned by those who do.  The earth is our home and it is our responsibility to preserve it not only for our own sake, but that of all creatures.  This Nhat Hahn does without being judgmental.  He instead calls for a religion that takes other religions as part of a non-conflictual belief system.  Religion starts wars.  Wars, of course, come at great cost to the planet, quite apart from the human suffering.  There is much wisdom in this slim book which would benefit many to read.


Sects and Violence

Important books often suffer because of poor distribution.  There are really only five publishers in English (“the big five”) that can reliably get their books into commercial bookstores.  I was reminded of this when reading the very important book Sex and Religion: Teachings and Taboos in the History of World Faiths, by Dag Øistein Endsjø.  The book is virtually unknown here in the States for a number of reasons.  It was originally written in Norwegian.  The author isn’t a household name.  The publisher who bought English rights is British.  It’s not comfortably priced.  None of this, however, gainsays its importance.  This book has much to teach us about hypocrisy and how religions codify prejudices, and, despite rhetoric, still value women less than they value men.  Religion is intimately connected to sex.  As I’ve written before, no religion ignores it completely.

Endsjø offers here a reasoned, logical, and religiously expert analysis of several aspects of human (and to a degree, animal) sexuality.  Contrary to much monotheistic teaching, sex is often treated as a good thing—within limits—in world religions.  Of course, that allows monotheists to step in and claim all others are pagans and debased, a tactic as old as the Good Book itself.  Religions’ real enemy, it seems, is education.  We should be open to compare what others believe—the wisdom their elders have passed down, just like the disciples.  And we should be honest about the fact that we change the rules to suit our situation.  One of the starkest examples of this Endsjø points out is that the Bible is much more stridently against divorce (which evangelicals now freely use) than homosexuality.  But guess which is the political issue?

Religions change, no matter what any true believer says.  We adapt to all kinds of new situations and new information, except when it comes to sexual behaviors we don’t like.  Even though most religions prohibit murder, the punishment for sexual offenses is frequently more stringent.  In other words, as Endsjø points out, religions care less for human life than for their own sexual prejudices.  The fact is just about all monotheistic religions have a male god and favor males over  the other half of the human race.  It even seems likely that Muslim over-reactions to homosexuality arose from copying evangelical Christians in the west.  This is an important book and if religious leaders of all stripes read and comprehend it, we would find ourselves in a much more human, and humane, world.


Mining for History

An article by Matti Friedman in this month’s Smithsonian got me to thinking about the Bible’s iconic status again.  Titled “An Archaeological Dig Reignites the Debate Over the Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy,” the story’s about a decidedly non-biblical trope—King Solomon’s mines.  That phrase, as the article makes clear, comes from the title of H. Rider Haggard’s nineteenth-century novel, not the Bible.  As the piece demonstrates, however, many people suppose it to be biblical.  Our society isn’t as biblically literate as it is biblically motivated, so the question of proof keeps coming up.  It’s almost as if historical veracity is far more important than any spiritual truths the Good Book may be attempting to establish.  Those who need the assurance of history (those we tend to think of as literalists) often miss the message in the quest for certainty.

Reading the article makes it clear that archaeologists have discovered good evidence for copper mining in the Arabah.  This is in no way surprising.  Ancient people of biblical times smelted copper and used it to make bronze.  At issue here is the historicity of Solomon’s opulent kingdom, evidence for which we lack.  Archaeologists have been digging for well over a century now, and the magnificence of David and Solomon doesn’t really show up in the archaeological record.  Of course the issue is politicized because land claims are involved.  American literalists tend to support Israel because of its role in “end times prophecy.”  Eager to be done with this wicked old world, they require the assurance of history.  Interestingly enough, that doesn’t seem to have bothered Jesus of Nazareth very much.

Long ago biblical scholars realized that the biblical view of history isn’t the same as what we might term scientific history.  Any history, as those who specialize in it know, isn’t “what really happened.”  Objectivity is impossible.  Histories are versions of what likely might’ve happened, based on the sources consulted.  At the very least there will be the perspective of the other side.  There are facts, of course.  The Holocaust, for example, did happen.  The fascist government of Germany orchestrated and implemented it.  When trying to reconstruct that history, however, differences of opinion often arise.  That’s the nature of history.  Unfortunately we’ve seen the rise of these self-same biblicists denying the known facts of more recent history in order to make themselves appear more righteous.  They want to shield themselves from the genocide of American Indians and the evils of slavery.  Yet they are inspired by such headlines that hint that the Bible might have a tint of historical accuracy after all.  It’s all there in the passage about King Solomon’s mines.


Justice Hungry

Social justice is very important to me.  At the same time I realize I’m just a single individual, and a small one at that.  I have a little group of internet friends (rather strangely called “followers”) but what I do and write has barely an impact with so much wrong in the world.  I suspect most people fall into this same dilemma.  A recent thread on the local Nextdoor app, for instance, reminded me how much people care for strangers in difficult times.  I side with Batman here—people are generally good.  Most of us are easily led, however.  And as we were taught in kindergarten, just one bad person spoils it for everyone.  So we find ourselves in a world disastrously off kilter and with nobody able to fix the problem.  Problems.  There are so many that it’s overwhelming.

Democracy seems like a good idea.  The problem is that the system is easily gamed by autocrats.  World news shows us the Hitler’s playbook is alive and well, even, if not especially, among “Christian” nations.  Jesus had no political power.  As soon as his followers gained it, the message of their master faded.  Today it’s unrecognizable.  “Bible believing” Christians who violate every principle in the Good Book to retain power is hardly something the carpenter from Nazareth would’ve advocated, or even, I venture, comprehended.  Bullies with only their own interests in mind take up the reins of state and convoluted laws allow them to do so.  The selfish win.

Photo by Sarah Ardin on Unsplash

I have great admiration for the people I know who work for social justice incessantly.  The kind of people you tremble to see coming because you know you can never measure up to their level of commitment.  Needed change, however, comes in small steps.  People are fearful and don’t welcome overnight paradigm shifts.  I admire social justice warriors even as I admire hose who throw themselves in front of buses or trains to save others.  I find myself watching their heroic action while calculating the best way to help, overthinking the problem.  I’ve marched in a number of protests, and it felt good.  I’ve not been able to free myself from capitalism long enough to really make a difference, I fear.  An idealist, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unawoken one.  So I struggle for justice and contribute what I can to right causes.  At the same time I’m compelled to acknowledge and thank those who do it so much better than I ever will.


Psychology of Religion

It’s so human.  Mistaking form for substance, I mean.  A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno.  As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways.  Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time.  While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there.  The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works.  Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.

Wired?

I’ve experienced this myself.  Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life.  People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working.  The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools.  The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work.  Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework.  As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another.  For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed.  Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine.  Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.

Religion is an effective survival technique.  It evolved, even while denying it did so.  Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance.  Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer.  DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works.  I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should.  There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests.  From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do.  I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again.  I found, however, form after form.  What I need is substance.


Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Freedom of Religion

One of the highly touted liberties in the United States is freedom of religion.  It’s easy to believe this is true when you can walk down any “Church Street” in many mid-size towns and go shopping for a theology that fits your outlook.  What remains hidden here, however, is that the freedom is largely restricted to the “Judeo-Christian” tradition.  (Yes, I know “Judeo-Christian is a disputed category, but it classifies several belief systems that share a basis in the Bible.)  For religions that don’t necessarily agree with the premises of the biblical religions the story is quite different.  That’s because, at least in part, our culture is based on the Bible and its limited worldview.  Colonists, convinced by centuries of Christian hegemony, had assumed the rightness of the Christian outlook.  The indigenous religions they encountered were, from their point of view, heathen.

The word “heathen” covers basically the same territory as “pagan.”  Both mean a religion outside Christianity (and, grudgingly, Judaism).  I’ve recently read that the etymology of heathen goes back to those who live in the heath, or country dwellers.  Although this etymology is uncertain, it does make a great deal of sense.  Christianity became an urban religion fairly early on.  Not only that, it shook hands with empire and became the basis for capitalism.  So much so that the two are now teased apart only with great difficulty.  This also means that indigenous religions have never really had a place at the table.  Especially when they challenged the dictates of the capitalistic outlook.

American Indian religion is closely tied to the land.  As Vine Deloria made abundantly clear in God Is Red, any religion committed to ideas outside those of Christianity will lose when the two come into contact.  One of the reasons is that secular science is based on a Christian worldview.  Indians believe in sacred land.  Since “objective” science is based on the Christian doctrines of creation, there can be no holy land apart from “the holy land.”  At its very root the basic ideas of other religions are dismissed and therefore treated as if they aren’t religions at all.  The Supreme Court continues to make decisions that violate the free practice of Indian religion.  The recent fiasco with the Trump administration should show just how dangerous such thinking is.  Like it or not, religious liberty means you have (for the time being) the right to be the brand of Christian you wish.  Beyond that freedom has a very different meaning.