Foreign Christianity

I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia.  One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview.  Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks.  Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts.  What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity.  Yet again.  Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion.  The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form.  When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism.  This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor.  It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain?  What is Catholicism?  What is Methodism?  What is Anglicanism?  It depends on where you join it.  Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims?  Churches are savvy political players.  The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors.  They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets.  Theology is left to the public view.  No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this.  Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.

People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives.  Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity.  Many religions know we’re reincarnated.  Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place.  When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security.  Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life.  The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one.  Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity.  When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur.  It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars.  Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.

Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 

Ecclesiastical Splinters

Religion is a massive, sprawling thing without a fixed definition.  Historians of religion have specializations.  Mine has been ancient religions of the Levant, but we’ve all seen how far that got me.  After taking a few years to recover, my research has shifted toward religions of the modern period.  There are plenty of them and many of them are under-studied.  That latter point makes things a bit easier.  Believe it or not, ancient religions is a pretty crowded field.  After I’d begun to write on Asherah, for example, I learned at least two other scholars were doing the same.  Not that there aren’t challenges with modern religions, particularly if they’re still practiced.  Take Roman Catholicism, for example.  I’ve never been a member of the Catholic Church.  There are Anglicans who would claim part of that title, but it has its own distinctions.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination by a long stretch.  It makes claims at being the oldest as well, but that’s a little more difficult to verify from an historian’s point of view.  In any case, Catholicism also likes to show a unified front to the world.  This is a little tricky because any time you get more than a billion people together you’re going to have differences.  Being a hierarchical organization, there is someone at the top to make official pronouncements, but in fact, those below will believe what they believe.  Many Catholics, for instance, use birth control.  I’ve been researching a sect within Catholicism and am finding it difficult to find resources.  It seems the Catholic Church (a billion is power) prefers not to have books out there on how divided it is.

Most Christian denominations are quite divided.  That’s why there are so many sects in the world.  If one is powerful enough to prevent those who dissent from making a big deal of it, good luck in finding useful resources about it!  The sect I’ve been exploring has, as far as I can determine, one footnote hidden away in a university press book devoted to it.  Other sources are, apparently, carefully kept quiet.  Yes, there are power struggles within the Vatican.  There’s a lot at stake here.  On Easter everyone in Christianity (except the Orthodox) will appear united for a day.  Well, not those sects that don’t celebrate holidays.  I don’t know how anyone can not find all of this fascinating.  There’s power involved in religion.  It may not vie with mammon, but it deals in it as well.  And we’ve all got so much to learn.

Photo by Callum Parker on Unsplash

1 April

Image credit: Trocche100, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The funny thing is nobody knows how it got started.  In living memory, and indeed back a century or two—even more—people have considered April 1 a day for jokes and fooling.  Perhaps it was a kind of relief after winter was finally beginning to show its tail, or perhaps it was some distortion of Hilaria, the Roman festival of the goddess Cybele.  Some have speculated that it had to do with switching from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar when many were confused as to what the actual date was.  No matter what its origins are, April Fools has stuck.  It has such resonance that even legislation passed on this date is sometimes questioned as to whether it is serious.  Some locations have grand pranks planned and budgeted.

Nobody, as noted, knows how this got started.  One of my personal favorites posits a biblical origin.  Things tend to go back to the Bible in western culture, don’t they?  This idea takes it all the way back to the tenth generation of the human race: Noah’s flood.  Back in the eighteenth century it was suggested that Noah sent out his first dove before the waters abated on April 1 (this, of course, is based on knowing the exact days of creation—something that was of considerable interest in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).  Since the dove was sent on a “fool’s errand”—there was no dry land visible—well, April fools!

With rare exceptions this isn’t a day off work.  It’s not a holiday with any religious implications, despite speculations about Noah and his dove.  It’s really a day highlighting uncertainty.  Practical jokes can, of course, be harmful.  There can be those, such as yours truly, who might be slow to catch on.  Indeed, almost always the victim of a “practical joke” doesn’t find him or herself in an appreciative mood.  I’ve always personally thought the reference was to the weather.  Snow isn’t unusual into mid-April in parts of the northern tier.  In fact received wisdom suggests not planting annuals until May arrives.  April’s weather, in other words, fools.  Around here we’ve whiplashed through March with days in the seventies and others the coldest of the winter (or so it seemed).  Now we’re into the first full month of spring.  The early flowers are out (some of which succumbed to the cold of this week’s weather) making fools of us all.  My hope is that none of us take this day’s unknown-origin holiday too seriously.

When Bible Met Horror

My colleague (if I may be so bold) Brandon Grafius has recently published a piece titled “What Can Horror Teach Us about the Bible?” in Sojourners.  Brandon and I have never met in person, but we’ve worked together a number of times.  We share an interest in horror and we both teach/taught Hebrew Bible.  We’re not the only ones who’ve got this fascination.  When I was able to attend the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings in person, I would often meet up with others who, apart from their respectable jobs, have a real interest in horror.  There are quite a few of us.  Some journals, like Sojourners, are starting to ask the obvious question: what do these things have in common?

I can’t claim to have watched all the horror movies ever made.  It’s actually pretty difficult to access some of those I’d like to see and, believe it or not, I’m actually a selective viewer.  Often my choices are dictated by research.  Back when I was young, in college and seminary, I’d go to see horror movies with friends.  Since I was living alone in seminary that sometimes led to sleepless nights.  I recall vividly being unable to sleep after watching David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.  (To this day I still haven’t seen the original with Vincent Price.  I see that it’s available to stream on Amazon Prime, and since we’ve got the internet back perhaps it’s time I do that.)  What I can claim is that I’ve always watched movies for religious elements and that I often find horror isn’t lacking in that department.

The point of Brandon’s article is that there are horror stories in the Bible.  Indeed, the more I ponder the Good Book the more I see that makes it a frightening text indeed.  Once you get past the sugar coating, there’s fear of substance inside.  Funnily enough, it seems Jesus didn’t often play the fear card, although even he did so from time to time, according to the Gospels.  Religion, which gives us such hope, also makes us so very afraid.  I’m really glad to know that I’m not the only one who’s started to come to that conclusion.  So maybe it’s natural for those raised religious to be fond of monsters.  Getting others to admit it can be tricky, and I’m sure some genuinely don’t like them.  Still, when you’re in a scary place, it’s best not to be alone.

Thinking about Thinking

I’ve been thinking about thinking quite a bit.  My lifelong fascination with religion is part of this, of course.  So when someone pointed out Bridget Alex’s article “The Human Brain Evolved to Believe in Gods” in Discover, I had to ponder it.  The idea, here supported by science, is that people evolved survival traits that lent themselves to religious belief.  That religious thinking was a byproduct that eventually took on a life of its own.  Evolution works by giving a reproductive advantage to one trait over another—which is how we get so many types of dogs (and maybe gods)—and those that disposed people to be religious did just that.  Elaborate religions evolved from these basic traits.  Alex suggest there are three: seeing patterns, inferring intention, and learning by imitation.

While there’s a lot of sense here, the reductionism doesn’t ring true.  The need to explain away religion also seems uniquely human.  Ironically, the idea that we are somehow special compared to other animals derives from a biblical worldview from which science has difficulty divorcing itself.  One of the greatest ironies of the science versus religion debate is that scientific thinking (in the west) developed within a worldview formed by Christianity.  Many of the implications of that development linger, such as the supposition that animals can’t have consciousness, or “souls.”  We watch a chimpanzee in an experiment and deduct points when they don’t do things the way a human would.  We thus confirm the biblical view in the name of science and go home happy.

Photo credit: Afrika Expeditionary Force, via Wikimedia Commons

I have no doubt that people evolved to be religious.  There are certainly survival benefits to it, not least group building and shared purpose.  I do wonder that science doesn’t address the elephant in the room—that we have limited receptors for perceiving specific stimuli, such as light and sound, but that there are other phenomena we don’t perceive.  We build instruments to measure things like x-rays and neutrinos and magnetism, but we don’t sense them directly.  How can we possibly know what we might be missing?  I suspect the real problem is we don’t want to admit willfulness into any other part of the universe.  Humans alone possess it.  Some scientists even argue that our own sense of will is an illusion.  It’s not difficult to believe that we evolved to be religious.  It’s also not difficult to believe that we pick up hints of forces that have yet to be named.  An open mind, it seems, might lead to great rewards.

Reconstructing Celts

There are myriads of them.  They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.  They are believed seriously by the faithful.  Of course I’m talking about religions.  Scholars have been inclined to focus on the “big five” or “six” or “seven,” depending on how you count them, but each of those has sects—some with unbelievable numbers of them.  Christianity alone has somewhere in the region of 40,000 denominations.  I tend to think of them as different religions.  A snake handler has very little in common with the Pope, for instance.  Celtic Reconstuctionism is a smaller religion, but it has a very clear idea of what it is.  The group-written CR FAQ, originally a web document, is a question-and-answer format explanation of this particular set of believers.  It’s fascinating to read.

One thing that immediately stands out is that these are very intelligent and deliberate folks.  They are scholarly, sincere, and clear about what they’re trying to do.  Believing that ancient Celtic religions (for again, there are many) can be reconstructed and refitted for modern use, they learn the languages, read the books, look at the archaeological evidence, and critically engage with other modern religions that borrow from Celtic culture.  Indeed, the inauthenticity of some recent religions’ use of Celtic elements led to Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism.  The CR community is well aware that there are other Celtic revival religions.  This particular sect strikes me as among the better informed regarding the origins of their religion.  Most modern Christians have some vague idea how their empire got started, but they tend to be weak on the details.

Religions have sometimes been deliberately crafted, going back to antiquity.  Zoroastrianism, as far as we can tell, was an attempt by Zarathustra to avoid the pitfalls of indigenous Persian religions.  He wanted an ordered, systematic belief system.  As measured in years it was certainly successful.  It is the world’s oldest continually practiced formal religion.  Both eastern and western religious traditions were influenced by it.  CR is an attempt to live a Celtic religion as if its development hadn’t been interrupted.  Obviously, Christianization of the Celts was a major disruption, but it wasn’t an obliteration.  Most religions manage to survive in the colonizing faith.    Groups worshipping ancient Greek, Norse, Canaanite, and Celtic gods are thriving.  Aware that things have changed, they find value in the pre-Christian religions of their heritage.  If CR is anything to go by, they do so inclusively and thoughtfully.  And for those who wish to learn more, they leave written records.

Ritual Time

Timeless, it is.  The internet I mean.  The ultimate 24/7.  No matter the time, day or night, it’s always here.  And that’s good because time’s about to change again.  Daylight Saving Time ends, for most of us, tonight.  Then a few short months later, it begins again, disrupting sleep, productivity, and good moods.  As this story on NPR shows, it really no longer serves any purpose and there’s a great will to change it.  But then politicians get involved.  So nothing really happens about it and we yawn and stretch and wish we were asleep as we dutifully move the hands forward or back, hoping we remember the correct direction.  So it goes with tradition.  Religions are filled with actions whose meanings were lost long ago.  We do them because we’re told to.

This particular futility always makes me ponder critical thinking.  Autocrats and others who enjoy authority don’t really encourage it.  Who wants the masses thinking “why am I doing this pointless thing?  Why can’t I do something that makes sense?”  I suspect that’s behind a lot of the decline in mainstream Christianity.  People are busy, frantic, and worried about getting everything done.  Why take an entire Sunday morning (and it takes all morning) of the precious two free days afforded on the weekend, and spend it doing something the same old way?  Religions, we as students learn, are inherently conservative.  Problem is the world outside is changing, and more and more rapidly.  Two day weekends seem hardly long enough and something’s gotta give.

Time is something we are powerless to control.  Change, as long observed in east Asian religions, is the way of things.  Changing clocks then, only to change them back later, is an effort to control that which controls us.  Many of us, I suspect, approach this pointless ritual with a literal sense of weariness.  There are other things we’d rather be doing.  And many more that we’re compelled to do.  Is this some kind of spiritual lesson or simply an exercise in futility?  How do you tell the difference?  Ritual, in the best of circumstances, is comforting.  It reassures us that things are progressing according to some kind of universal plan.  Changing clocks creates a glitch in those plans.  Darkness is about to get more aggressive for the next few months.  Politicians bungle around in the darkness too, powerless to alter that which we do, for once, have the ability to change for the better.

Jewish and Christian Frankenstein

Among my many potential book projects already started (I tend to work on several at any given time) is one on Frankenstein.  I’ve read several studies of Mary Shelley’s novel and its afterlives, and I have at least three awaiting my attention on my “to read” shelf.  One of the ideas regarding Frankenstein’s monster, about which I’ve written for Horror Homeroom, is whether it might’ve been influenced by legends of the golem.  The golem was a Jewish monster that was animated clay or mud, brought to life to protect Jews from persecution.  The golem, however, is soulless.  As such, he (and he’s generally male) eventually goes berserk, killing indiscriminately.  The tale has been around for centuries and one of the questions asked by Seth Rogovoy in “The Secret Jewish History of Frankenstein,” is whether Shelley could’ve known of the legend.

Frankenstein’s monster and the golem have quite a bit in common, so the question makes a lot of sense.  Shelley and family friend Lord Byron were certainly well read.  The article points out something I hadn’t realized—one of the Grimm brothers (Jacob, according to the piece on Forward) published a version of the golem story a decade before Frankenstein. Whether Shelley knew of it or not is the question.  The two tales might well have been a case of convergent evolution.  Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t intended as a protector.  He was made of body parts, not mud.  The main thing the two stories have in common is the god-like power to animate inanimate matter and the lack of ability to control what one has created.

Over time Frankenstein’s creature has become a classic monster.  The golem, until about a century after Shelley’s novel and its endless adaptations, remained fairly obscure. A silent film series on the golem appeared in the 1920a.  The golem has, however, more recently come into the light.  Several novels feature a golem and two of my favorite monster-of-the-week shows (The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow) had episodes featuring one.  Frankenstein, it seems to me, has a Christian worldview behind it.  The horror, as noted by Shelley—herself leaning heavily atheistic—was in animating something that nature had declared dead.  Victor Frankenstein, as the subtitle indicated, was a modern Prometheus—a human standing in for a Greek god.  The poetic justice here is that this atheistic, yet Christian context, monster ends up doing the same thing as the Jewish golem.  Both throw society into chaos.  Both warn that creating can be a real problem for those who don’t think through the implications of what they’re doing.  This is a message all people could still stand to learn.

Monomyth Myth

Since I’ve been exploring movies as the locus of truth, and meaning, for contemporary religious culture, I can’t avoid Joseph Campbell.  His interpretation of mythology—long discounted by mythographers of specific cultures—influenced film makers like Stanley Kubrick, the various Batman directors, and, most famously, George Lucas.  Campbell’s interviews and his eventual series The Power of Myth highlighted his work, even as specialist scholars noted the problems with it.  This is the subject of an essay in the LA Review of Books.  This story, written by a couple of professors (Sarah E. Bond and Joel Christensen), exposes the problem with Campbell’s “monomyth,” perhaps best typified by his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  This is stuff I realized as a postgrad student—Campbell didn’t footnote much and as Bond and Christensen note,  he “cherry picked” examples rather than looking at myths in context.

Image credit: Joan Halifax, via Wikimedia Commons (via Flickr)

One of my observations, when it comes to movies, is that people take their truths from movies, like they’re modern myths.  In other words, although Campbell’s method may’ve been faulty, he gave us Star Wars and the rest is history.  I rest on the horns of this dilemma.  My dissertation (and consequent first book) on Asherah was based on the idea of contextualizing myths.  In other words, I was arguing against a monomyth.  At the same time I’ve come to see that scholars don’t determine what people believe—culture does.  Consider how distorted the “Christianity” of Trump supporters is and you’ll see what I mean.  People don’t read scholars to find these things out.  Besides, wasn’t Campbell an academic?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Without reaching out to the masses, academia turns in smaller and smaller circles.  Many of us who desperately want to be in its ranks are turned away because there just aren’t enough jobs.  At the same time, people will go to movies and they will be exposed to the monomyth, and they may even build their lives around it.  Isn’t that a way of becoming true?  Mythology, despite popular perception, is a complex subject.  There’s a lot going on in what may appear to be simple, or even naive, stories.  They have similar themes, but as I was warned—stay away from that other great popularizer of folklore, James Frazer.  His “parallelomania” was also out of control.  But Frazer and Campbell both understood something that those long in the academy often forget—people are hungry for stories that give meaning to their lives.  And these stories, even if academically questionable, become truth.

Defining God

What, exactly, is a god?  Our viewpoint, which is largely based on the culture that grew out of the Bible, may not encompass all the possibilities.  I remember reading, as a child, that God—the only true god, of course—was omniscience, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  These three omnis sure impressed me as a kid.  Since I read this in the back matter of a Bible I knew it had to be true.  And since there was only one, all false gods weren’t gods at all.  Divinity had to be defined in the same way as the biblical God.  More advanced study over the years led to the realization that gods weren’t necessarily immortal, and that the Good Book itself didn’t present God as omniscient (he has to ask people things), omnipotent (he can’t make Israel be faithful), or omnipresent (just ask any Psalmist).  So the question of definition arises.

There are cultures, it turns out, where people are gods.  At least some form of divinity.  Clearly we don’t create physical universes, but like the biblical God we’re larger and more powerful than some other creatures, and we often impose our will upon them.  Some people believe themselves to be deities.  Others suggest we have a spark of divinity in ourselves and that each person participates in the divine.  The fact is we have no way to measure this is a laboratory.  Defining deity is a matter that must be left to “theologians,” but that won’t prevent the average lay person from deciding for her or himself.  Nobody really reserves the right to decide definitively when it comes to gods.

Many cultures have included people, often in leadership roles, who were declared gods either during or after their earthly lives.  Who’s to say they’re wrong?  Science is no help here as the supernatural is outside its current remit.  It can only measure empirically.  The intangible is a whole other universe.  Deciding what a deity actually is may be an impossibility.  Those of us reared in monotheistic traditions suppose that a single, personal, divinity stands behind all of this.  Notwithstanding Xenophanes’ horses, our gods tend to be human at least in form.  In collegiate discussions, one conservative roommate would clap his hands over his ears if we began talking about God in non-anthropomorphic terms.  One of my friends likened God to a “cosmic aerosol” (this really sent my roommate over the edge).  What do we really know about gods?  Without a scientific method to help, it remains an open question.

Religion and Its Objects

UFO religions—or should they now be called UAP religions?—have long been of interest to scholars of religion.  A recent piece on Religion Dispatches titled “With Release of Pentagon Report, UFO Narrative Belief System Is Suddenly Supported by Military Witness Testimonies,” by Diana Pasulka, explores this.  Anyone following mainstream media is perhaps experiencing a bit of whiplash on the topic since, prior to admission of interest by the government, the official stance was to ridicule the entire topic.  That’s the reason what were long known as Unidentified Flying Objects now have to be called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.  Since a government can never admit it made mistakes, it simply changes the terminology.  My interest here, however, is in the connection with religion.

I’ve explored the connection between horror and religion from time to time—ahem—and so it is natural enough to wonder about the relationship between religion and UAPs.  (Or should I stick with UFOs?)  The two have some commonalities.  Initially, both deal with the unknown.  Indeed, the word monster comes from a root denoting an omen, or a revelation.  Something isn’t a revelation unless it’s been keep hidden.  So with UFOs.  The government’s long interest, which had been somewhat successfully hidden, allowed for a reveal.  Religions, however, tend to thrive on hidden things.  The monotheistic religions, for example, claim to inform us about what God has chosen to reveal about (generally) himself.  Even today when pushed into a theological corner, believers will appeal to mystery.  Both monsters and UFOs live in mystery.

Science prefers things out in the light.  Is it any wonder that scientists are reluctant to apply themselves and their hard-earned credentials to the UAP problem?  Those of us in religious studies generally have little to lose.  It’s not like we’ve got prestige on our side, or some billion-dollar grant riding on our reputation.  We can afford to take a look and monsters and other unknowns and see how they trigger the religious impulse.  Pasulka’s article has more to do with credibility.  UFO religions have long struggled with being considered outsider belief systems.  UFOs were publicly ridiculed, so any religion that focused on them was, by extension, laughable.  I’ve long believed that ridicule serves little purpose when it comes to belief systems.  Making fun of a mystery is less common than shaming those who believe in what we’ve been told definitely isn’t real.  Until suddenly it becomes real.  Is there any question why religions develop when mysteries remain?

Time To Think

Although I’m not Roman Catholic, I often thought about joining a monastery as a teen and twenty-something.  The idea of spending all my time devoted to contemplating the ultimate reality still has a strong appeal.  I know quite a few rationalists who have no time for spirituality, but it seems to me that we all need it for facing death.  Most people, I know, avoid the topic if at all possible.  Contemplatives, on the other hand, spend quite a bit of time preparing for it.  Since it’s inevitable that makes sense.  I often wonder why people consider the most common thing in human experience with such trepidation.  If it’s a source of anxiety, shouldn’t it be confronted?  That’s not to say we need to look forward to it, but it does mean we shouldn’t run from it either.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

The combination of Christianity and rationalism, it seems to me, lead to this terror.  Christianity because it views death as an enemy, and rationalism because it has no comfort to offer.  I’ve been reading about how pre-Christian cultures thought of death.  They didn’t display the fear that Paul seems to have introduced into the equation.  Since American culture is so heavily influenced by the Bible (as was European culture before it), we have adopted the scriptural view that death is a problem.  The Hebrew Bible, in which there was no real afterlife, was less concerned with making sure you avoided Hell—they had no Hell to avoid.  The anxiety seems to have been introduced by, ironically, the concept of resurrection.

I’ve noted on pieces I’ve written for other websites that resurrection is among the favorite themes for horror films.  One of the reasons is precisely this discomfort in taking death at face value.  Our religions keep us aware of the spiritual side of our nature.  They have developed around the world in different forms and all of them address death in some way.  Most without a profound sense of anxiety.  There is some irony in cultures that adopt resurrection as a theological tenet are among those that try to avoid death most assiduously.  It plays into those cultures’ views on abortion and capital punishment.  As well as their performance of social justice.  While Paul asked death where its sting was, and seems legitimately not to have feared it, in the centuries following his position seems to have eroded.  There seems to be plenty to contemplate here, if only secular society had monasteries.

Whose Holiday?

I write a lot about holidays.  One of the reasons is that even long before capitalism, societies took breaks right in the middle of things.  One of the major seasons of celebration was the vernal equinox.  Easter is tied to Passover, of course, but since nobody knows the year of Jesus’ crucifixion the actual date can’t be determined.  Passover is a moveable feast and since the lunar calendar is essential in setting Passover’s date, Easter is calculated as being the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox.  There has been talk of the three major branches of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—agreeing on a set date for Easter but even if that happened there would be splinter groups who liked it the old way and the confusion would only grow.

Since astronomical observation has grown so mathematical, the date of Easter can be calculated far into the future.  We know just when the vernal equinox will occur, and we know when the full moon will come around.  All that’s needed is some calendars and a whole lot of patience (and maybe a calculator).  Despite society’s obvious preference for Christmas, Easter has its own array of attendant holidays for some Christians.  (Not all Christians celebrate Easter.)  For instance, for some today is Maundy Thursday.  Tomorrow most will recognize as Good Friday.  Nobody’s quite sure what to call Saturday, and many Christians will begin to celebrate Easter at midnight even before Sunday wakes up.  Easter does last more than a single day, in some traditions, but it’s not quite as developed as the twelve days of Christmas.

Lately I’ve been considering that how these holy days are sacred for some and secular for others.  One of the realizations that globalization has wrought is that not everybody shares the same concepts of how universal events—such as the vernal equinox—should be commemorated.  Although on the equator every day’s not quite an equinox due to the earth’s tilt, it isn’t as dramatic as the changes that occur in temperate zones.  Christianity was custom-built for European holidays, which is what it tends to keep.  The history of the holidays is more complex than it might seem at first.  Add to that widespread disagreement around the world as to both religion and to when certain events should be calculated and you’ll need more than a slide-rule to figure it out.  So as we begin the Catholic and Protestant Easter season (Orthodox Easter is about a month away yet), it may be helpful to remind ourselves that what day it is might just be a matter of perspective.

Stiftung Gertrud Schnürle 1975, Fritz von Uhde, The Last Supper, via Wikimedia Commons

one of many

It’s been some time since I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are so many religions that I need to refresh my study on them periodically.  So it was that I received a mailing from the local Kingdom Hall.  You see, the very last people at my front door before the pandemic was declared were bearing the Watchtower and telling me the end is nigh.  We knew about Covid-19 at that point and were being urged to keep social distance, although the authorities were still dithering about masks.  They knocked nevertheless and we stood several feet apart on the porch as they tried in vain to convince me of their truth.  So now, a year later, they’ve reached out by mail.

You’ve got to have a soft spot for a religion that has its origins in Pittsburgh.  Well, maybe that’s the case for those who grew up where it was the nearest big city.  And I do admire that pioneering spirit that says “established religions just aren’t doing it for me.”  The great swath of NRM—New Religious Movements—shows that you shouldn’t feel lonely if this applies to you.  Even today’s Christianities bear little resemblance to the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth.  He who said even to look upon a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, but whose followers support a president who recommends grabbing them by the, well, where the originator said not to look….  Religions evolve.  The literalism many associate with Christian belief is really only about a century old.  We have no business castigating religions just because they’re recent.

My mailing from the Witnesses included a personalized (somewhat) letter inviting me to a virtual commemoration of Jesus’ death.  Due to the pandemic it’ll be held on Zoom, of course.  The expected flyer with its Anglo-Jesus contains the details.  I did attend a Witness service back when I was in college.  Those days of heady explorations never really ended for me.  You have to settle into a tradition to get to know people, of course, but there’s a world full of ways of looking at our spiritual side and there’s more being propagated just about every year—even Jehovah’s Witnesses have splinter groups.  I suppose missionaries are something we’ll always have to put up with as long as people are convinced that their way is The Only Way.  Trust that others have perhaps quietly, perhaps deliberately, perhaps with a great deal of thought and reflection, have found their own way seems never to be good enough.  Still, an invitation is an invitation and those have been rare during a pandemic.