Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

The Truth Lies

I recently saw a Trump supporter claiming, unsurprisingly, that everyone’s lying except Trump.  Of course, I could be lying.  According to the Washington Post, Trump has made over 13,000 lying or deceitful statements since being in office.  For those who did their homework before he became the great protector of the unborn (ah, there’s one born every minute!) he was known as a crooked businessman to begin with.  With well over a thousand lawsuits against him even before being elected, we have no choice but to believe the entire legal system is lying, as well as anyone who’s had business dealings with him.  I’m just so glad that we have such a moral, upstanding paragon of Christ-like behavior in the Oval Office.  Never mind that all those witnesses in the impeachment case were speaking under oath—they all lie, but Trump.  Hey Donald, is that your real hair?

Ironically, some of the people making such claims hold the belief that divorce is not excused in the gospels (see Matthew 5:32, but Jesus could’ve been lying here—he’s not Donald Trump, after all).  It’s a matter of public record that Trump is twice divorced.  It’s a matter of sworn legal testimony that he paid hush-money to cover up affairs while married.  Well, that is if we believe this lying world rather than the one, solid, shining bastion of truth in the White House.  Someone once said (but he may have been lying) that it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle that for a rich man to get into heaven.  Just sayin’.

I have said before that all politicians lie.  It comes with the territory and only the most naive among us don’t accept that fact.  There is a difference, however, between the occasional mistruth and a lifetime, documented record of indiscriminate lying.  If it weren’t for the fact that all facts are lies (except those Trump makes up) we would see that the phenomenon of pathological lying is well known.  The presidency of the United States has never before tolerated a pathological liar.  But then again, they never had an incumbent more Christian than Jesus himself.  Now I think I remember who made that crack about rich guys.  He also said something about having no place to lay his head.  If he’d been born rich, though, you can bet the gospel message would’ve been very different.  Too bad the Bible lies.  If it didn’t such musings as this would hardly be necessary.  I could be lying, of course.  It is, after all, the new truth.

Shortest Day

This is it.  It’s here.  Today marks the winter solstice, the longest night.  Those who campaign to keep Christ in Christmas prefer not to acknowledge that the date of said holiday was an attempt to displace Sol Invictus, the Roman (therefore pagan) celebration of the invincible sun.  The Romans, like other ancient peoples, celebrated the return of light, albeit slowly, from darkness.  While teaching at Nashotah House a colleague mentioned being “almost pagan” in the eagerness for the return of light.  You can strike the “almost.”  Deep down we all look for signs of hope in dark times, whether Christian, Muslim, or Hindu.  “The people who walked in darkness,” Isaiah rejoiced, have seen light.  Sometimes light comes from an unexpected quarter.

There are two high circulation Christian magazines: Christianity Today and The Christian Century.  The latter is more progressive and was launched as an answer to the former.  One of the founders of Christianity Today was Billy Graham and its readership is largely evangelical.  Just yesterday Christianity Today ran an editorial stating the opinion that Trump should be removed from office.  If I were a card-carrying member of the Republican Church, I’d be trembling.  Long touted as “Trump’s base” evangelical Christians have found themselves besieged by the flagrant and constant contradictions their party has thrown them.  Fear of divorce was enough to keep at least one woman I know in an abusive relationship for years.  Now a thrice-married, philandering man who pays hush money to keep his affairs secret is upheld as the new Messiah.  Many of us who grew up evangelical were certain that their old tribe simply wouldn’t cotton onto a straw man.  But  cotton they did.  They’ve become the very lint in his miserly pockets.

Those encrusted with hardcore hatred, of course, will not be swayed.  They’ve found a poster boy who says it’s okay to claim white male supremacy.  They can pick their political issues (usually having to do with protecting the unborn or the right to shoot those already born) and they can be certain that this protean protestant will have their posteriors.  Their leadership, however, has begun to show itself clearsighted.  Christianity Today is no friend of liberal Christianity.  The editorial makes it clear that Democrats had it in for Trump from the beginning.  There is, however, absolutely clear evidence of his crimes.  Even as southern senators state outright that they have no interest in seeing a fair trial, their base is speaking up.  Tonight is the longest night of the year.  Tomorrow it will be a little bit lighter than today.  At this time of year we fervently hope that the light will continue to grow.

Fearful Faithful

It’s sitting on the table next to my chair and I’m afraid of it.  It all started during the Easton Book Festival.  I feel sorry for those people who have to stand on the street corner and pass things out for a job.  In Manhattan I used to see them being completely ignored by swarms of people passing by.  They’re only doing their job.  I made a habit of accepting their chits, and even if they didn’t mean anything to me, I felt that the person handing them out might have experienced a small measure of satisfaction that someone accepted what they were offering, and had said “thank you.”  In Easton back in October, my wife and I were heading to one of the venues to hear an author talk and a guy was passing out paper, and I accepted one as a matter of habit.

It was a Chick tract.  If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll have run across the concept before.  Jack T. Chick was a cartooning evangelist.  He drew hundreds of tracts and comic books that formed a steady diet for me, growing up.  Although they looked like cartoons, these intolerant, Fundamentalist tracts were quite often very scary.  Especially to the young.  More than once I’d spiral into a childhood depression after reading one.  Although it seemed simple—say the prayer at the end and you’d be saved—how could you be so sure?  The disturbing contents stayed with me long after the sixteen pages were done.  Now, as an adult, I was being offered a road back to a childhood I fervently wished to avoid.

I stuck the tract in my pocket and forgot about it.  When I got home I emptied my pockets and found it again.  Curious, I was tempted to read it.  I know, however, that doing so will only drag me back to a memory of younger days when a kind of terror permeated my days.  And nights.  My theology, which was formed of a mosaic of these tracts (what child really listens to sermons?), was a scary one indeed.  It was populated by demons, Catholics, and servants of the Antichrist.  Anyone who wasn’t straight and pretty waspish was a threat to my eternal salvation.  Is that somewhere I want to go again?  The tract sits, unread, on my table.  It reminds me of the abuses to which religion might be put.  And I’m thinking I might start refusing free handouts on the street once again.

I Swear

The ongoing political fiasco of our nation (and within several states as well), raises a very basic issue.  We trust our legislators to do what we pay them to do (they’re our employees) because they take an oath to uphold the Constitution.  Problem is, liars don’t keep their word.  When an elected official opts to lie pathologically rather than to tell the truth, how can we expect him (or her) to uphold an oath they took?  Doesn’t lying behavior suggest that they were lying when they took that oath?  A hand on the Bible means nothing if you don’t suppose God is waiting with a lightning bolt in the metaphorical Heaven described, none too clearly, in the Good Book.  This is the greatest crisis a democracy can possibly face—lying leaders.

This isn’t just alarmist talk.  Societies—even capitalistic ones—rely on a great deal of trust.  Those who don’t mean what they say end up on the business end of the Better Business Bureau, or fail to stay solvent.  There are laws that ensure you are protected if someone sells you a false bill of goods.  What then, if the highest office in the land is occupied by someone who can’t be trusted?  Instead of appealing to the rule of law to set such a person on the right path, the Republican (Church) Party has decided that lying is now a commandment.  I may be lying, but how can you tell?  If no one has the backbone to stand up and declare that the whole system has toppled, what can a nation do?  An even more worrisome fact is that there’s no going back once this has happened.  The Republican Church has instilled this behavior for three years and is showing no sign of repentance.

Oaths were taken very seriously in the world of the Bible.  Violating one (lying intentionally) was considered the surest way to arouse God’s anger.  Ironically the Republican Church, which claims to be biblically based, is, according to its own Scripture, angering God.  I often consider myself a cynic, but my cynicism falls far short of this.  Psychological studies have demonstrated that the average person is reluctant to outright lie when the idea of God is introduced into conversation.  God’s Own Party, however, has inured itself to that minor phobia.  The Good Book, after all, says God’s the father of lies, right?  If they’d bother to open that book they’re thumping, I think they’d discover that that is truthfully the worst kind of blasphemy a human can utter.