Sustain Chapel

It seems that holidays come thick and fast in the spring, especially when Earth Day follows directly on the heels of Easter.  Given the hard time mother earth has been having with too many Republicans waging war on her, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider finity.  Our planet is not infinite.  The resources with which it came loaded out of the showroom are all of limited supply.  Somehow we’ve managed to convince ourselves, at least in this hemisphere, that there’s always more where that came from.  Unless, of course, you’re referring to the degrees that contribute to global warming.  Of those, the GOP narrative goes, there really aren’t any.  No credible scientist doubts climate change, although those who are already old and who are benefitting from it will claim otherwise.  Any story depends, of course, on the teller.

Over the holiday weekend I was out of town.  Driving home a few hours I was distraught at just how much litter lines our otherwise scenic highway system.  Stuff falls off of trucks and, despite advertising against it, out of car windows.  The few trash bags piled for pickup by the earth-conscious can’t keep up with the cast-offs of a throwaway culture.  We desperately need to take the narrative back from those with the loudest, and most incoherent mouths.  We all rely on this same planet and the power we cede to the wealthy is due to our complicity in their claims of ownership.  They’ve proven themselves, should I dare to be biblical, unfaithful stewards.

The earth, it is true, is a place of immense beauty.   It’s not aesthetics alone, however, that motivate us.  We simply cannot survive without this biosphere in which animals, plants, microorganisms, and minerals coexist.  We evolved in it.  The mythical narrative of special creation unwittingly played into the hands of those who will claim it all for themselves if the rest of us don’t deny that they had indeed “earned” the right to be considered the most prestigious.  Our societal sin of rewarding bad behavior has led us to this crisis.   We pollute far beyond our needs.  We “speculate,” hoping that “development” will lead to “growth.”  The wealthiest build rockets to escape our planet, but there’s nowhere to go.  Might it not be better to invest in this gift that we already have?  To learn the lessons of nature?  To become students in the classroom of Mrs. Earth?  There have been many holidays lately, but this may indeed may be the most important of them all.

Discriminating Tests

That explains it.  That glow coming through the window as I got out of bed this morning is the full moon.  Since this is the first full moon after the vernal equinox, that means Sunday’s Easter.  If Sunday’s Easter this is Good Friday.  That brought to mind an article my wife sent me from The Atlantic, “Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination.”  In this piece Emma Green explains that Christians of a certain stripe believe they’re under threat.  Most people express surprise at this outlook, but having grown up in a Fundamentalist tradition I can say that this is hardly new.  The narrative of persecution among conservative Christians has been around for a long time.  They have a mandate, you see.  A mandate to make the entire world like themselves.

Hearing the many cries of legitimate oppression doesn’t help, of course.  In this linked world of instant communication and news 24/7, we’ve become perhaps too aware of just how widespread oppression is.  Christians have felt persecuted from the very beginning, and they don’t like now being cast in the role of oppressor.  Forcing other people to conform is no longer considered right or desirable, but Christians have a mandate.  What strikes me as odd here is that we have a means of learning about this—of arming ourselves with knowledge—but we’d rather be surprised at the polls and pay for it with years of actual oppression.  What is this mysterious means of knowing?  The Bible.  If read, this viewpoint can be understood.  And if handled carefully, disarmed.

The Roman Empire, after which, tellingly, American politics is modeled, oppressed Christians.  At least for a while.  Then the faith became establishment.  And it began oppressing.  An ocean away, Christians fled here because they wanted freedom of religion.  They didn’t always want to share that freedom with other groups experiencing discrimination.  Especially, of course, if they could be compelled to do heavy labor without pay.  Now these groups feel they’re being judged for saying “Merry Christmas,” or for declaring loudly that Sunday’s Easter.  They can’t point to behaviors that in their understanding of the Bible are bad and tell people not to do them.  They don’t understand that Allah is the same deity they worship, only in monotheistic form.  And they get all this news while the moon is still in the sky.  I look at the puddle of light on my bedroom floor and head for my writing nook.  It may be Good Friday, but I’ve got to work today, getting Bibles ready to sell.

If Onlyists

A special brand of Fundamentalism called King James Onlyism is a particularly odd variety of faith simply because of its required backing and filling.  In brief, this particular evangelical position claims that the only inspired translation of the Bible is the King James Version.  It’s best not to look too closely at the KJV, however, or the problems start.  Primary among them is that the version most Onlyists cite is not the original King James.  Published in 1611, this translation is immediately evident by its use of “I” for “J” and for the long s (the one that looks like an f).  Perhaps more troubling for Onlyists, it also includes the Apocrypha.  There was still some debate at the time concerning the status of these deuterocanonical books, and they were part of the actual KJV.

The typical King James used by Onlyists is a revised KJV.  In England, where the translation was done, revisions were made from time to time, leading to an Oxford version (Blayney text of 1769) and a Cambridge version (Scrivener text of 1873).  On these shores further adjustments were made leading to the rather strange situation where there is no single King James Version of the Bible.  There are many King James Versions.  Attempts to control Scripture often end up like that.  The underlying problem is the belief that there is a single version of Holy Writ.  Inerrantists are pledging their faith to something that doesn’t exist.  Defending this approach many would claim that the revisions are minor, but small changes can make huge differences.

The belief in one single version relies on the belief that God inspired not only the original writers, but the translators as well.  It denies that the better manuscripts that have come to light since the early seventeenth century (including the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain any authentic information of what the Good Book says.  Textual criticism, in the absence of any original manuscripts, is the best way we have of discovering what the original likely said.  Onlyists argue that the manuscripts from which King James’ translators worked were the divinely selected ones and their work was inspired—a position against which no empirical proof can be offered.  This faith trades in certainties that only bringing in direct heavenly control can achieve.  And it means that Catholics are wrong, despite King James’ inspired error to include the Apocrypha.  That’s the thing about a trump card like inspiration—once it’s played there’s no way to overcome it.

What’s Wrong with Heroes?

There can be no doubt that under Trump conservative Christians have been flexing their muscles.  Few things corrupt so readily as political power, and evangelicalism—already an unrealistic way of looking at things—is itching to throw punches.  A story on For Reading Addicts that my wife sent to me bear the title “DC Comics cancel latest comic after backlash from conservative Christians.”  The piece by Rowan Jones notes that Second Coming was cancelled due to pressure from evangelicals with the cultural sensitivity of the Kouachi treatment of Charlie Hebdo.  Cartoons, it seems, are a real threat to true believers in a way that reason is not.  Jones notes that the comic was actually largely supportive of Christian values, but like an evangelical Brexit the reaction was taken without understanding the issue.

The anger of conservative religions—it hardly matters whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Aum Shinrikyo—often plays itself out in displays of violence.  I wonder if part of this insecurity comes from the fact that the expectations of their faith don’t work out they way they’ve been led to believe they will.  The myth of the blessed existence of the true believer is given the lie by life in a secular world.  While the evangelicals support Trump, 45’s tax plan takes money from their pockets and hand it to the ultra-wealthy.  This raises no objections, but a cartoon showing Jesus helping the poor?—now that’s offensive!  And still no second coming takes place.  It’s difficult to retain a fantasy view in the face of cold reality.

Who doesn’t like a hero?

Religious beliefs are a deeply personal matter.  It is a dicey business to try to get someone to change their outlook when they’ve been convinced that the consequences are eternal.  Although vaguely aware of other religions all along, Christianity in the “new world” was taken quite by storm at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  Suddenly it was clear that other moral, decent religions had developed similar ethics to what had largely been supposed to have been Christian innovations.  It’s difficult to feel superior when others in the same room seem just as intent on improving the lot of humankind as you do.  Even when a particular religion holds all the political power of a nation it’s overly sensitive to cartoons.  This is a curious situation indeed.  I’m not a comic book reader—I don’t even have time for internet articles unless someone sends them to me with the suggestion that they’re worth my time.  And I, for one, think a little more humor might just make the world a better place.  Either that or we need a hero.

You Call That Working?

A recent post of mine on the United Methodist Church got a lot of response (for me, anyway) on other social media.  As I pondered this—I’ve written about the topic many times before—it occurred to me that most people probably have no idea what biblical scholars do all day.  (That is, besides write books that only other biblical scholars read, and teach their classes, or, very occasionally, edit books.)  Biblical studies is arguably one of the oldest academic pursuits in the world and what it boils down to in a word is “contexts.”  We try to understand the multiple contexts of the biblical texts.  Think about this a second: when you pick up a book, newspaper, magazine, or their electronic equivalents, what is the first, if often unconscious, thought you have?  Isn’t it something like “what kind of book, newspaper, etc., is this?”  Is it fiction or non?  Is it reputable or not?  Who wrote it and when?  These are all contexts.

The Bible was written about two millennia ago.  Very little of that original context still remains.  In fact, none of the original manuscripts even still exist.  It was a book written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.  The vast majority of people in the western world do not read these languages, and so the Bible comes to us in mediated form—translation.  Translation, as any writer knows, is a form of interpretation.  It is not, and can never be, the original.  To figure out what the Bible “means” it has to be interpreted—even just reading it is a form of interpretation.  Biblical scholars want to be able to interpret it in informed ways.  We learn about its various contexts and use them to help us understand.

What did people think like thousands of years ago?  Can you even remember what it was like to look up a distant location without the internet?  Writing letters or dialing a rotary phone to get information on it?  Going to triple A to get maps?  And all of that was only two decades ago.  Life in biblical times was very different than life today.  The people then didn’t understand science the way that we do.  The writers of the Good Book didn’t have any idea that what they were scribbling would one day be considered holy scripture.  They had completely different contexts.  Whether the contexts are historical, literary, or social scientific (we still haven’t figured out an elegant way of saying the latter) biblical scholars use a variety of methods to get to those contexts.  We can’t go in with the answers already in our heads—if we did we’d only find what we were looking for.  At the end we have an answer, not “the” answer.  And so biblical studies continues.

Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.