Category Archives: Sects

Posts that explore the various forms of religions

Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Come Together

Although today is Easter for some, for many it generally isn’t. And I don’t mean just those who follow faiths outside Christianity. One of the hallmarks of religions is their tendency to fragment like a sugar egg under Thor’s hammer. Christians have long disagreed on the date of Easter depending on which time reckoning scheme they follow. That which makes it onto most work calendars is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox after the Gregorian calendar. After all those afters it’s easy to get confused, but the fact is this kind of precision makes it possible to date Easter until the Earth slows on its axis or Mitch McConnell learns to look at things from someone else’s point-of-view, although we all know which is more likely. This year, in a rare coincidence of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, however, Orthodox Easter is the same as Catholic Easter. Could it be sign of hope?

You see, calendars aren’t just markers of time. They’ve always been religious devices. In fact, our current calendar, the Gregorian, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. The world still marches to the beat of Rome’s drum. Nature, it seems, is indifferent to our calendrical needs. The point of all this time keeping was to help those who lived by the soil to know when to plant and when to harvest. That might seem simplistic, but if you follow how it feels outside there would’ve been some sowing going on in February around here. Global warming, for those who’ve advanced to the Gregorian calendar (that’s okay Mr. McConnell, you may leave the room) will throw that off, and maybe we’ll be needing a new calendar. Will we retain the one with it’s pagan month names or shall we adopt one with months of evangelical heroes? But wait, not all evangelical groups celebrate Easter!

I had a college roommate who believed all holidays were of the Devil. His sect of Christianity didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. So even as Orthodox and Heterodox join together in recognizing today as Easter, not everyone’s together on that point. Some mythologize bunnies and eggs while others dismiss them as hopelessly pagan. So it is that we have to agree to disagree. Teach the controversy, right Mitch? While some celebrate resurrection today others put their Peeps in the microwave just for the fun of having that kind of power over the weak.

Having your cake, and having it too.

To Whom?

The other day I heard someone use the phrase, “preaching to the converted.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that regional variations on folk sayings exist, but I’ve always heard this as “preaching to the choir.” What’s the difference, you ask? Actually, these two statements imply very divergent things. It all comes down to preaching. Preaching is what clergy do. (I know I’m over-simplifying, but bear with me.) And where do ministers preach? That’s right, in the church. Aha, you might say, those in the church are both converted and some, anyway, are in the choir! What’s the difference? The difference is the choir has to be there. It’s an issue of volition.

Since this isn’t eighteenth-century New England (at least not yet, although the current administration is trying to make it so) there are no real consequences for not attending church. Many of the converted exercise their God-given right not to worship. The choir, however, has committed itself to being there. They’re more than converted. They’re the faithful. The minister, in other words, doesn’t really need to preach to them at all. Turn this around. Preaching isn’t necessarily to convert someone so much as to improve their lifestyle. Preaching to the unconverted is actually evangelizing. “Evangelizing the converted,” though, just doesn’t have the same ring to it now, does it? Preaching to the choir is applicable to the rest of the church goers who show up regularly. They’re not, however, in the same league with the choir.

I decided to research the history of the saying. It turns out that the original is “preaching to the converted.” The saying originated in England in the 1800s. “Preaching to the choir” appears in America in the 1970s. Perhaps the choir emerged as a new ecclesiastical force in twentieth-century America. Some of the clergy I know would certainly agree with this assessment. They’re really a smaller subset of the converted, after all. The committed converted. Of course, it’s a distinct possibility that I’m spouting nonsense here. If that’s the case, I’m probably preaching to the choir.

Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

The Scofield Connection

While reading about Cyrus Scofield recently—and that book has stayed on and played with my mind for some reason—I ran across the conferences that he held in preparing his famous reference Bible. Although he claimed the sobriquet “Doctor,” placing D.D. after his name, like many a self-puffer Scofield has no university that will support the claim. (It’s amazing how many high-level CEOs and “important” businessmen pad their résumés with false degrees. Even some government wannabes do it, and then they want to defund education after they get into office.) Perhaps because he had no seminary training, and likely didn’t even graduate from college, Scofield might’ve felt a sense of insecurity when it came to a very large book originally written in languages he couldn’t read. There’s a reason “King James Only” Christians exist. In any case, he set up meetings in a couple of conspicuous places to go over his work. One of those places was Grove City College.

Now, like many small, Christian colleges, Grove City isn’t widely known. Most of the student population—at least when I was there—was fairly local. Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, for the most part. Still on the (admittedly rare) occasion when someone asks me where I went for my undergraduate work, they generally haven’t heard of Grove City at all. Even though I spent four years of my life there, I had no idea about the Scofield connection until I read Joseph Canfield’s book. That’s because not all Fundamentalists grow up with Scofield. I’m sure I heard about the Scofield Reference Bible but I didn’t own one and I wondered what the big fuss was all about. After all, the annotations were the work of a man, and I was interested in the words of God. Far more popular was the revision of Scofield known as the Ryrie Study Bible, but I never read that either.

The end result is that many people think that Scofield’s words are “the Bible.” As I used to tell my students, binding pages together within a book makes a statement. If you’re saying “this is the word of God” and part of “this” is Scofield’s annotations, most people can’t distinguish between text and commentary. I eventually acquired a Scofield Bible, not for valid information, but simply for information. I was amazed at how poorly executed it was. Nevertheless, a true believer reading through the first chapters of 1 Chronicles is ready to accept even minimal narrative as divine. So it is that many Americans have come to believe in a Bible that’s not biblical. Religion is full of paradoxes and in this case I’d shared sleeping quarters with one in my more formative years although the connection was unknown at the time.