Category Archives: Sects

Posts that explore the various forms of religions

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Ezekiel’s Nightmare

I’m still thinking about Ruby Ridge. It’s not unusual for me to be a bit late catching up on yesteryear’s news, but being alive during Trumpocalypse has made me think of the 1990s as the good old days. Jess Walter’s book on the topic, on which I posted a few days ago (just scroll down), ends with a kind of optimism that seemed possible even when George W. Bush was president—the number of white supremacist groups was shrinking radically. Americans didn’t put up with that kind of backward thinking any more. The future was ahead. Now, just about a decade-and-a-half after the book was reissued, we’ve got not only a racist commandant-in-chief, but a Republican congress who goes along with everything he says. Strangely enough, I just read a newspaper article with a Jewish Republican saying “diversity is crap” (his words). No question we’re going backwards.

It’s easy enough to dismiss extremists unless you know some. I attended a conservative Christian college in the early 1980s. There were survivalists on the faculty. These are evangelical Christians who hoard guns and supplies, generally because they believe the end of the world is coming. Ironically, their belief in the rapture doesn’t seem to assure them that they’ll be “taken up” before the trouble starts. Or maybe they just want to hang around for a piece of the action—shooting infidels must earn points with the big white guy upstairs. Most of my classmates were as appalled as I was. We agreed that if these were the kind of people who were going to be around after the smoke cleared, we didn’t want to be.

The most disturbing development since November 2016 is the move of the GOP to follow a blind leader. History will bear me out on this. It doesn’t take a prophet to see it. 45 had no plan for winning the race. Once he did, however, he knew that sheep will follow any shepherd, no matter how incompetent. All you need to do is spout racist rhetoric and the fringe will become the center. But the GOP? They are among the most sheepish of all ungulates. A “leader of the free world” who has nothing but praise for dictators and autocrats around the world? The Republican has proven to be the perfect unquestioning follower. The wool is in their heads rather than on their backs. Less than two decades ago Timothy McVeigh was executed. Today there’s no doubt he’d be under consideration for a cabinet post. I think my watch just stopped.

The Pack

Maturity, in my experience, means knowing little and assuming even less. When I was young I grew up on a diet of books that were linear—plots were easily followed and there was clear resolution at the end. Who, as a kid, thinks that such a standard is impossible? One of this year’s reading challenges was a book nominated for an award in 2018. That assures a pretty current book, and I chose Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. Like life, it’s not linear. The narrator is unreliable. There are a lot of threads left hanging. It’s also a completely mesmerizing story. I selected it not because the content deals to a large extent with religion—I had no idea that it did when I selected the book, but, given what I do on this blog it was definitely a bonus.

I don’t want to give too many spoilers here since this is a novel well worth reading. I’ve always been impressed with writers who can convey accurately what it was like to be a teenager. A time of awkward discovery when we learn that things weren’t what we thought. Linda, the narrator, has been raised in a religious commune in the northern Minnesota woods. When a Christian Scientist couple moves into a cabin not too far away, she becomes a trusted “governess” for their young, sickly son. Unable, for religious reasons, to admit their son’s illness, they entrust him to Linda’s care. She comes to know each person in a unique way and learns that even adults don’t have the answers.

An interesting conceit for a story—one minority religion learning about another—the book ranges wide and far from that. Life as a teenager is when one typically both needs and rebels against religion. The awakening of adolescence, something our psyches aren’t equipped to comprehend much before this time, throws everything into confusion. History of Wolves won’t lead to any answers, but it is a useful discussion partner to have along the way. The Christian Scientists I’ve known have to face some of the same issues raised in this tale. Ironically, the advance of science has hit this group particularly hard. Novels such as this demonstrate that we, as a species, still turn to religion to explain our world. We’re frequently told that it’s safe to ignore—it’s from the childhood of our evolution. I wonder, however, whether Homo sapiens have just begun to reach adolescence and we are just starting to learn what it means to be adults in a world we don’t understand.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Mountain Tops

Idaho can be a peaceful place. I’ve spent parts of many summers there. I grew aware, over time, that the northern panhandle had an association with white supremacists, but if you stick to the touristed areas you don’t run into them. During the Ruby Ridge standoff I was busy trying to establish my teaching career in Wisconsin while living in Illinois—I guess my commuting life began all the way back then. I didn’t have much time for the news, and I don’t recall hearing much about the tragedy. It was shortly eclipsed by Waco. Jess Walter’s Ruby Ridge: The Truth and Tragedy of the Randy Weaver Family presents perhaps more than you need to know about this story with no winners and much strange theology. In case you missed it too, here are the basics:

Randy and Vicki Weaver were an Iowa couple who were drawn into the Christian Identity movement. This was a white separatist, apocalyptic survivalist faith. Convinced the world was going to end, they moved to a remote part of northern Idaho and built a cabin on a rocky ridge and stockpiled guns. Being a white supremacist was actually considered bad in the 1990s (now it’s mainstream Republican ideology) and federal marshals and the FBI got involved. The Weavers had four children and that complicated things. Predictably, the government attempt to shoot an extremist family out of their religion ended tragically. The Weavers’ only son Samuel was the first killed, and then Vicki. The locals, including many skinheads, gathered at the base of the mountain in support of the Weavers as the feds led a military operation into a nearly two-week standoff.

Apart from being too long, Walter’s book is an important reminder of many things at this time. Even though America had a Republican president in 1992, white supremacy was considered dangerous and was characterized as domestic terrorism. The standoff at Ruby Ridge quickly became a cause célèbre for religious freedom, no matter how strange beliefs might be. Ironically, even as the trial was going on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco was being stormed. Now we have a “president” who makes it plausible that a “k” has somehow dropped out of Waco, or at least has been tripled. The national narrative is America is for whites only. It’s as if Martin Luther King Jr., Woody Guthrie, and Abraham Lincoln never existed. I would say “How the mighty are fallen,” but that might sound a little too religious for some. Even the Religious Right has, since that time, left the Bible out of the equation.

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Doubting Normal

The problem with being mainstream is that you have a hard time impressing anybody. “Mainstream church does something normal” is hardly an eye-catching headline. So when mainstream Christianity’s in the media it must be abnormal. According to a recent Washington Post story, mainstream leaders are protesting Christianity leaving Jesus behind. To be fair, that’s an Evangelical speciality, but still. Without naming the elephant named Trump in the room, these mainstream leaders are doing what every Christian in the nation should be doing, which is objecting to the abuse of their brand. The Religious Right has been driving this car and from all indications RR is drunk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once the darling of Evangelicals, once wrote that it is a Christian’s duty to wrench the wheel from the hands of fascists. Now they call shotgun and select the tunes.

I could be getting this wrong. As the child of an alcoholic, I don’t know what’s normal. My wife must tire of hearing the question from me, “Is this normal?” I just don’t know. One thing I do know is that being unable to know what to expect has prepared me well for Trump’s destruction of America. I can’t tell if it’s normal or not, so good thing we have the two-faced Evangelicals to tell us it is. Those who watch religion might say it’s odd to have mainstream Christians on the moral high ground over their more self-righteous kin, but these seem to be strange times. Religion, like anything that can be used, can also be abused.

Even our Orthodox siblings know the score. The Orthodox Church basically went underground in Russia, which is, after all, a Christian nation. Stalin, at least, was honest. He couldn’t stand that mamby-pamby opiate of the masses. He had the fortitude to call himself an atheist. 45, on the other hand, calls himself whatever it takes to make himself look good. What? Christians are fashionable this season? Okay, I’m one of those. Even people who should know better (just because your daddy was an Evangelist doesn’t make you holy—too many Evangelists were caught with prostitutes to make that claim) have delighted to invite a lion into the sheepfold. I don’t know about you, but I’d be edging toward the fence just about now. Something doesn’t smell right in here. But then again, don’t take my word for it. The situation looks normal to me.