Category Archives: Religious Origins

Posts that consider the origins of religious phenomena

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

Strange Worlds

The Bible can lead you astray sometimes. Don’t worry, it’s unintentional, I’m sure. It has less to do with the Bible itself than with the way it was compiled. Any book written over centuries by different people is bound to show some inconsistencies. Unfortunately some of those inconsistencies are about things people really want to know. What happens when you die, for instance. Pretty important to get that one straight. The Bible has shifting views about that, and those views led to ideas such as Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and reincarnation. Wait, what? Reincarnation? Isn’t that an eastern religion thing? That’s what I always thought. Then I read the provocative Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists, and Early Modern Judaism by J. H. Chajes. This started for me, as things often do, with a scary movie.

Some time back I watched The Possession. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it regards a Jewish exorcism—based on a true story, it says, but aren’t they all? Now demons exist in the Hebrew Bible, but the monster in this movie wasn’t exactly a demon. It was a dybbuk. Sharing the Gentile liability, I wasn’t aware of what a dybbuk was. A religion professor in the movie tried to explain it, but I had to read a book. Between Worlds seemed the best place to start. What a fascinating book this is! Anyone who’s interested in the history of exorcism, whether Christian or Jewish (and perhaps even Muslim) will find abundant information here. Jewish exorcism? Much of it depends on how one understands the concept of “soul.” It also depends on who’s doing the possessing. A dybbuk is a displaced human soul from someone deceased. If it can’t get into Gehinnom (which Jesus mentions a time or two) it reincarnates into an available body, often sharing it with the resident soul.

From there things only get more unusual. For those of us who know about exorcism from the movie (you know the one I mean) or even from Chick tracts, the idea that a human soul (which can be good or bad, depending) can possess someone is unexpected. The fact that reincarnation developed from the same Bible that gave us Heaven and Hell is equally surprising. I suspect it’s because the Good Book doesn’t give a clear picture of what comes hereafter. The Hebrew Bible has Sheol, and the New Testament adds Heaven, Gehenna, Hell, and the underpinnings of Purgatory—a buyer’s market for the afterlife. With that being the case I suppose it’s to be expected that some spirits prefer to move from house to house. To learn what’s available Chajes is an excellent choice.

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Rising of the Sun

“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,” the old hymn goes, “and time shall be no more…” Before Trump’s election I always supposed this might have something to do with the useless ritual of setting our clocks ahead. Apart from the fact that we’re all a bit cranky because, well, we lost an hour of sleep last night, this day is a fine illustration of how rituals form. Daylight Saving Time was a wartime initiative to help keep things going during the darker months of the year. Since things seem pretty dark all the time now I’m not sure that changing the clocks will do any good, but it does call to mind many religious rituals that started out for practical purposes and accreted symbolic meaning over time. One of my favorites is the use of candles.

Photo credit: 4028mdk09, Wikimedia Commons

In the days before electricity, sanctuaries (which were sometimes devoid of windows) required a source of light. The menorah in Jerusalem is perhaps the most famous example, but by no means the only one, of a necessary piece of furniture that grew religious significance. Oil lamps were widely used before candles were invented and they work on the same principle. It didn’t require any special illumination to realize that light is symbolic for creatures that rely heavily upon sight. If you see something, say something. And before you know it candles themselves acquire religious meaning. Just last month some Christians celebrated Candlemas where the title of the day appears to suggest the candles themselves are somehow sacred. Ritual begets ritual. We are meaning-making beings.

Now that we’ve somewhat ironically set the clocks ahead under Trump it might be a good time to reassess. “Rage,” Dylan Thomas wrote in a more modern hymn, “rage against the dying of the light.” Even though Thomas’ light itself extinguished prematurely his message lives on. We’ve lost a month’s worth of morning light. When I step outside this morning it will be darker than it was this time yesterday. But humans habitually look ahead. If I allow myself that luxury as the roll’s being called up yonder, I can perhaps make my way home in the light now that time’s changed. Nature took the light and is now giving it back. Maybe this isn’t the final trump after all. In my more optimistic moments I do believe that candles can be magical in their own right. That’s the power of ritual.

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Where Arthur?

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad," Wikimedia Commons

Arthur Rackham – “How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad,” Wikimedia Commons

We’re all grail hunters. It doesn’t matter what religion, if any, you claim. We want to find that grail. If I was as rich as Donald Trump I wouldn’t bother with the presidency. I’d spend all day on Atlas Obscura. A friend recently sent me one of their stories, “6 Stops on the Hunt for the Holy Grail” by Meg Neal. As the story points out, the grail may not be real, but many places claim it. We want it not because it’s real, but because it’s magical. Midas’ touch without the consequences. Blessings in this life and bliss hereafter. You can have it all.

Nobody knows where the legend of the holy grail begins. One thing’s for certain: it’s not the Bible. The Gospels merely state that at the “last supper” (not a biblical phrase) Jesus took the cup. That definite article implies a certain cup, not just any cup. While speculation has it that this meal was a Passover seder we can’t be sure even of that. If it were that wouldn’t tell us much about this cup in any case. Since the tale is especially prevalent in Celtic lore (many grail sites are in regions loaded with Gaelic influence) some have suggested that the story comes not from ancient Palestine, but from Hibernian traditions of the caldron. This would send seekers back to the mythology of Bran and his life-giving cauldron. In other words, it would share some roots with a modern kind of grail—that of Harry Potter fame. Bran, I once argued in an academic paper, has echoes of some ancient eastern tales. Scholars, of course, are not convinced.

The grail doesn’t come into prominence until the Arthurian legend. Arthur seems to have been an historical person, but facts about him are as rare as they are about Jesus. How he came to be associated with the grail is anybody’s guess. Both Arthur and the grail share a place in Celtic legend and it is perhaps here that the two were brought together. A more crass form of the cauldron is the pot of gold associated with leprechauns—those Gaelic sprites. The grail represents our wishes fulfilled. It’s seldom the spiritual journey that’s sometimes portrayed. The grail represents power. If Indiana Jones has taught us anything it’s that where there’s power, there’s also abuse of power. Then again, we don’t need fiction to know the truth of that.