Category Archives: Sects

Posts that explore the various forms of religions

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.

You’re History

A story from Inside Higher Ed discusses a study of history majors and their rapid decline.  This occurs during a sudden onset of “job related” majors and the graph accompanying the article shows how STEM has taken over higher education.  These are the fields with actual occupations awaiting them at the end of the degree, while disciplines such as history and religion (also very near the bottom) have less clear career paths.  Indeed, when I’ve been in the job market I find that a religion degree is less than useless, no matter what the department recruiters tell you.  If you’re not bound for the clergy you undertake the study at your own peril.  History, I expect, suffers from a similar dynamic, but the peril in this case is to all of civilization.

We’ve seen over the past two years how a stunning lack of knowledge of history sets a nation on the path to chaos.  Businessmen with no classical education don’t make good national leaders.  Knowing where we’ve been, as Santayana so eloquently stated, is the only thing that keeps us from repeating past failures.  History is our only safeguard in this respect.  Over the Thanksgiving break I spent a little time delving into family history.  Since I don’t come from illustrious lineage, I felt the frustration of finding out what happened to obscure people from the last couple of centuries.  Lack of history on a personal level.  On a professional level, my doctorate is really in the history of religions (ancient religions) and I’ve become keenly aware of just how little history there is to the very popular modern Fundamentalist movement.

Maybe I said that wrong.  They do have a history, but the belief system that is touted as ancient is really quite modern.  Anti-modern, in fact.  When historical knowledge is lacking, however, people can make all kinds of claims based on nothing more than wishful thinking.  History keeps us honest.  Or it used to.  When we’ve outlived the need for history we’ve started down a path unlit by any embers of past human foibles.  We’ve been living in a culture in love with technology but not so much with critical reflection of where such innovations might take us.  Doctors are beginning to complain that they spend more time on their computers than with their patients.  The time freed up by the internet has been taken up by the internet.  And when all of this comes to its natural culmination, we would be well served by historians to make a record of what went wrong.  If we could find any.

 

Knowing How To Know

Some questions are deceptively simple.  For example: how do you know?  The fancy philosophical word for this is “epistemology,” although that often takes it a step further to ask how do you know you know.  Given that many powerful individuals are motivated by a Fundamentalist faith the question of how we know is more important than it might seem.  Back in the days when faith commitments meant thinking such things through, theologians in the western world came up with three bases of knowledge: scripture, tradition, and reason.  Anglicans, especially, favored this “three-legged stool.”  If you removed any one of the three, the stool became unstable, topsy-turvy.  The analogy worked well.  It assumed that all three factors would be weighed against each other.

Image credit: Blackash at en.wikipedia

As time went on two developments occurred—the wider belief in science, and the work of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England and founder of the Methodists.  Science argued that reason alone led to knowledge, whereas Wesley’s thought suggested a fourth leg for the stool—experience.  This latter configuration eventually became known as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, sometimes one leg was bigger (usually Scripture), but the other three could not be dismissed.  Science, however, rested on a one-legged stool, reason alone.  Fundamentalism, which is a fairly new form of religion, chooses Scripture as its one leg for a wobbly stool.  It may sometimes claim “tradition,” but since it only dates to the nineteenth century its tradition can’t hold a candle to that of, say, Roman Catholicism.

Amid all the drama we see developing in the halls of government where, increasingly, the power to declare truth resides, it’s important to understand how we know.  For a large and growing segment of society Scripture has been removed as a leg of the stool.  For others it is the only leg.  Having attended a United Methodist seminary, I admit the Wesleyan quadrilateral made great sense as soon as I heard of it.  At the time I didn’t think of this, but if you remove Scripture, the stool still has three legs, and could stand for even a secular person.  Scientists, if they examine their own precepts closely, could see that their stool has those three legs: tradition, reason, and experience.  The largest, of course, is reason.  Still, science builds on the work of earlier thinkers (tradition) and the observation of results (experience).   Knowing how we know the truth has become a question that theologians would’ve never anticipated.  The self-assured assertions of a self-convinced egoist don’t have a single leg to sit on.

 

 

Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

And Found

For a kid who grew up on a steady diet of television, I have to admit being out of practice.  A combination of Gilligan’s Island and Dark Shadows informed much of my young outlook.  Starting all the way back to our days in Edinburgh, my wife and I had stopped watching TV.  We were in our twenties then, and it was a matter of not being able to afford the luxury.  Back in the States, cathode-ray tubes were ubiquitous, but cable was expensive and my employers not generous.  We had a television but only watched very occasionally, and then only what fuzzy programs we could pick up on the aerial.  So it continued.  We’re now at the point of not having had television service for over half of our lives, and we understand from the younger generation that a good internet provider makes cable superfluous anyway.

This prologue is simply a way to introduce the fact that we have finally, after two or three years of watching (we still have little time for it), finished Lost.  Now, I don’t get out much, but I had heard people talking about it when it originally broadcast.  More importantly, I’d read about it in books published by university presses.   I knew going into it—spoiler alert for those even more behind the times than me!—that the castaways were in Purgatory.  That seems to have been the point all along, but when money keeps rolling in because the story is compelling, you don’t want to reveal your hand too quickly.  Last night we watched the final episode where what was suggested back at the beginning was made clear: the passengers of Oceanic flight 815 had died in the crash and were making up for past sins.

The role of Jack’s father (Christian Shephard) as leading the passengers to the light may have been a bit heavy-handed, but the church where they finally meet has the symbols of many world religions, conveying the message that there is more than a single path.  The truly surprising aspect of all this is how popular the series was.  There were religious overtones from the beginning, but since the series wasn’t preachy, viewers apparently didn’t mind.  Yes, as the star character’s surname indicates, people don’t mind being led.  In fact, the names of many of the characters are indicative of some of the paths up that mountain.  I have to wonder if those who vociferate loudly and longly about their religion being the only way might not learn a lesson from television.  Even if the suggestion only comes from someone who grew up watching Gilligan’s Island.

Residual Thoughts

I feel compelled to say that this book was not among the overwritten tomes I mentioned in yesterday’s post.  Indeed, although the title reflects the outlook of the author, you need to get to the subtitle to find out what the book’s about.  Although I work at an academic press, I disagree with academic book pricing models.  Graham Twelftree’s previous book, Jesus the Exorcist, had to be picked up in a paperback reprint edition before it could be affordable to the likes of mere mortals.  After reading it I learned that Twelftree had written a more popular book on the topic—Christ Triumphant: Exorcism Then and Now.  Putting much of the material from the previous book in less technical terms, this version goes on to ask questions that can’t be put into a standard dissertation, such as “should exorcisms still be done?”

The academic is necessarily a skeptic.  One of the biggest problems our society faces is the open credulity of those who haven’t been taught to think critically.  Twelftree is a rare academic who keeps an open mind while approaching the material with a healthy skepticism.  Often it’s too easy to suggest that disregarding that which doesn’t fit a theory is the only way forward for an academic.  Sweeping off the table that which we don’t like.  The word Twelftree uses is “residue”—that which remains after the majority of possession cases have been explained medically.  The usual response is to disregard this small fraction of anomalous material and claim “case closed.”  In this book Twelftree dares to go further.

The supernatural has become an embarrassment for many, even in believing communities.  An interventionist god, or demons, would set off chain reactions that would distort the known laws of physics, so such things simply can’t exist.  Things which we can’t explain only exist because we haven’t got all the variables yet.  I recall how cold that made me feel when I first encountered the idea in physics class.  “Scientific determinism” it is sometimes called.  This little book rehearses the New Testament material covered in Twelftree’s dissertation, but goes on to raise the implications from that study and apply them to modern times.  It’s a brave thing to do in an academic world where brushes and brooms are very common.  Where residue is wiped up and tossed away without a second thought.  Those who stop to think through the implications are rare, which makes them so much the more interesting reading.  And not being from an academic press, such books are often  affordable.

Whose Canon Is This?

Being a Bibles editor, I suppose, is a rare kind of job these days.  The book that defined our culture now rests in the back seat under discarded fast food bags and covenants of a more modern kind.  Often it surprises me how little we really know about the Good Book.  When I was a teenager I discovered that Catholic Bibles had more books than the Protestant versions with which I’d grown up.  Had I been more attuned to historical issues at that point this surely would’ve raised a crisis.  Had we left out some sacred books?  That would seem to be a grave mistake.  As I was making my way through all the translations of the Bible you could find in a rural area in pre-internet days, I began to read the Apocrypha.

The title “Apocrypha” translates to “hidden” or “obscure.”  Martin Luther’s argument was that these books were never in the Bible recognized by the Jews (therefore, by extension, Jesus), and therefore should be left out.  My question upon reading them, as it was regarding just about any book, was “did this really happen?”  That was the acid test for a Fundamentalist youth.  If something really happened it was, by definition, true.  The implications of this for the books of the Protestant Bible only became clear later.  Scripture is more subtle than that.  So it is that I’ve been thinking about how we in Bible-land privilege the western canon.  Not only are the Deuterocanonical books called “Apocrypha,” we leave out the books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, despite its 45 million members.

The books of 1 Enoch and Jubilees are included in the Ethiopian canon, but they can be tricky to find even now in the wide world webbed together.  Western biblical scholars have begun to take strong interest in these books, but the days are long passed when scholars could determine the content of the Bible.  The Good Book has taken on a life of its own that no amount of scholarship can challenge.  Minds have already been made up and tightly closed, even as we continue to gain information on ancient contexts and the massive collection of writings that never made it into anyone’s Bible.  Fundamentalism, so very certain of itself, has defined a circumscribed Bible to which nothing may be added or taken away.  Even as John of Patmos wrote that admonition, however, the Bible recognized by early Christians was growing.  And, ironically, some even left out his book.  Such matter remain hidden indeed.

November Novina

One of my New Testament professors was fond of saying early Christianity was exclusive so that people would want to join.  “If everybody could be a Christian,” he suggested, “why would anyone want to be?”  There is a snob appeal to such a country-club approach to religiosity (although I believe it to be false) that has somehow come to be attached to All Saints Day.  As the holiday that spawned Halloween (or so some say), All Saints seems to hold us the exclusive members of a sect that began with radical equality.  The slight was addressed in All Souls Day (tomorrow), when the rest of us might have a chance of being remembered.

There was a death in my extended family yesterday, of someone not much older than me.  I won’t reveal the personal details here, but I do ponder the coincidence of his passing so close to All Saints.  When we’re gone, we hope, people will remember our good, opposite to what Shakespeare suggested might be the case with Julius Caesar.  There are those who touch our lives for good, be it loudly or softly, and we tend to think of that good as who they were.  But sainthood?  Isn’t that a bar too high for anyone to achieve?  And if we think we’ve made it, even that very thought is enough to disqualify us.  Some sects of Christianity treat any member as a saint, but that leaves little to which to aspire.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

For the rest of the world this marks the beginning of November—that month when cold settles in along with longer nights, but no reduced working hours.  We are approaching the holiday season, for we need some help to make it through times when loss can feel so close at hand.  The veil separating worlds—something science has tried hard to dismiss—was believed to be more permeable at this time of year.  All Saints was a bright day of upbeat music and glory, while All Souls followed in black and more somber tones.  That’s kind of like November.  I grew up, as did my departed kin, without the awareness of these holidays of transition.  Protestants sometimes miss the complexity traditional Catholicism had carefully grown.  At Nashotah House this was a day of obligation (although they all were, really), and we’d be invited to add names to be recited in mass.  I have a name or two to add this year, and I like to think anyone should be free to join.