Let It Lie

At the grave risk of over-simplifying, the list is brief: destructive scapegoating behavior, intolerance of criticism, concern with public image, and deviousness.  These characteristics, back in 1983 (note well the next year), were widely considered the description of evil.  Now look at the White House.  What do you see?  I know that I’m reading into the current situation, but how can one not?  I have never read anything by M. Scott Peck before.  Growing up I saw The Road Less Traveled on many, many bookshelves of friends and clergy.  I recently picked up Peck’s People of the Lie because, along with Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, it convinced many in my generation that demons actually exist.  At the time, still pretty much a Fundamentalist, I didn’t require any convincing.  Reading Peck’s People, however, in the era of Trump is a frightening thing.  And not just for the politics.

I always find books by psychologists and psychiatrists difficult to read.  I admit to having had a less-than-ideal childhood, and although self-healing is possible such books make me think I should spend my free time in therapy rather than writing.  In any case, People of the Lie is difficult in another respect as well—the labeling of evil.  Peck advocated for the scientific study of evil.  Good and evil, however, have generally been considered values rather than facts.  Science studies the latter while religion and philosophy deal with the former.  Not that lines in the sand are intended to be permanent.  Still, what one person calls evil may not be what others call evil.  Peck focuses primarily on narcissism and laziness as sources of evil.  He may very well be right, especially with the narcissism aspect, but some of the patients he described certainly didn’t seem evil to me.

Many aspects of this book could be discussed on a blog like this.  No doubt many of them will be, in sublimated form, in future posts.  Books, however, are part of the context in which they’re read.  In Peck’s day, the great political evil still fresh in many minds was the Vietnam War.  Today’s world, however, is one where Vietnam, Watergate, and even to a great extent the tragi-comedy of the W administration have all been eclipsed.  The cult of personality headed by one of the most obviously narcissistic individuals this nation has produced makes what Peck labeled “evil” seem perfectly normal.  And those who have the authority to do something about it either sit idly by, or worse, use it for their own means.  Roads less traveled indeed.

Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Adversaries

Satan isn’t who we think he is.  Inheriting a tradition from across centuries, it can be easily supposed that modern ideas help to explain the reality of that tradition.  Sorry, let me try this with more specificity.  The character of “Satan” does not occur in the Hebrew Bible.  By the time of the Gospels, however, he’s there.  We tend to use modern ideas of Satan to understand the enigmatic person of “the satan” in the Hebrew Bible.  Peggy L. Day explored this idea decades ago in her revised Harvard dissertation, An Adversary in Heaven: śāṭān in the Hebrew Bible.  Reading this took me back to those heady days when I consumed Harvard Semitic Monographs like breakfast cereal.  To those of us not from Harvard we pretty much knew what to expect, but we read anyway.  Scholars are like that.

In any case, Day here explores what is sometimes surprising to those who read the Devil back into the Hebrew Bible: the satan is mentioned in only four passages and in none of them is he “Satan.”  In Numbers the satan is identified as a good angel sent to knock Balaam off his ass.  In the book of Job the satan is a member of the divine council and he does his job by accusing Job.  Day shows, by the way, that his accusation is really against God and not the mere human sufferer.  Her outlook on Job is still amazing after all these years.  After Job, the satan appears in the short book of Zechariah to accuse Joshua the high priest of the restoration era.  He’s no Devil here either.  The final reference comes in Chronicles where instead of God tempting David to take a census a satan does.  By this time the reader already knows a satan is an accuser and need not be superhuman.

This monograph raises the perennial issue of how to understand ancient texts without chaffing under the weight of tradition.  The character of the Devil developed over many centuries and, when he appeared, he was only one of many iterations.  The New Testament made Satan “biblical” and later readers tried to explain the Devil (who came from Zoroastrian mythology) as part of the Christian divine economy.  In Judaism he went on to play a much lesser role.  Once Christian writers established this character, he was read back into the Bible, even where the original writers didn’t see him.  Day isn’t the first to have noticed this, but she handles it very well and her book is still thought-provoking after all these years.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Different Kind of Salvation

It’s encouraging and disheartening all at the same time.  And seldom has the evil of money been so obvious.  Last night I attended an environmental panel discussion at a local church.  It was encouraging to see so many people out on a rainy, chilly night in Bethlehem, a city famous for its might steel mill.  Everyone there knew the problem and agreed that something had to be done.  As the speakers gave their presentations it became clear just how corrupt politicians are.  Corruption is bipartisan, of course.  In the name of “economic growth” we allow the fracking rape of our state despite the known and proven environmental hazards.  Despite the fact that Pennsylvania has a green amendment in its state constitution.  Money, as Cyndi reminds us, changes everything.

Shortly after even Mitch McConnell admitted climate change is real, at the state level climate deniers are running things.  It brought to mind the frightening and omnipresent teachings of my Fundamentalist youth: the sooner we can destroy this planet the sooner we’ll make Jesus come again.  Convinced of the absolute certainty of that second coming, there is almost a mandate to ruin, pillage, and plunder natural resources because the Good Book ensures us that, upon a white horse the savior will come in the nick of time.  Politicians, elected officials believe this.  They also believe in mammon.  If you’re gonna go down, you might as well do it in style.  Like John Jacob Astor on the Titanic.  It’s the way of the aristocrat.  Rising seas drown rich and poor alike.

It was a miserable night to be out.  The weather has been freakishly off for some time now, and all the science—real science, that is—predicts it’s only going to get worse.  How the government became the enemy of the planet that gave it birth would be a fascinating story if only it were fiction.  The truth is we’ve elected people that can be bought.  And bought easily.  Laws are passed that violate the constitution of this commonwealth and meetings are held behind closed doors.  Local activists are very active while most of us struggle to keep ourselves employed, heads, as it were, above water.  We need to pause now and again to consider what a wonder this planet is.  We must learn that the only power money has is that which we freely give it.  Rain was pouring down.  Brontide was actual thunder as the state legislature drew up chairs for the last supper.

When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.