Category Archives: Sects

Posts that explore the various forms of religions

Direct Address

For a man as amazingly influential as he was, Cyrus I. Scofield hasn’t been the object of much curiosity. In the venerable academic tradition of ignoring those you disagree with, serious scholars dismiss Scofield as some kind of evangelical aberration, a theological leper, if you will. It’s difficult to locate book-length treatments of the man, although he may claim considerable credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and the current incumbent. Somewhat skeptical of the obviously polemical The Incredible Scofield and His Book by Joseph M. Canfield, curiosity drove me to read it as an accessible and thoroughly researched account. Now, one evangelical going after another isn’t a pretty sight, but if you can get past the “this is what the Bible really means” oneupmanship, there is clear evidence of a sharp mind with legitimate historical accuracy as its priority in Canfield. This is especially clear where he demonstrates that scholars shown the evidence will choose to ignore it to preserve the sanctity of a man hardly a saint.

The strange religion that has developed from the Scofield Reference Bible has had an astoundingly long reach. If you know what “the Rapture” is, it’s probably because those who took their cues from Scofield’s Bible ensured that it became a standard American trope. It generally doesn’t have to be explained, even though the idea doesn’t occur in the Bible. It’s based on a set of “dispensations” developed among the Plymouth Brethren, a fairly small British and Irish sect that influenced the world through its prophet Scofield. (Scofield himself was not a member of the Brethren, but he learned his system of “history” from them.) Although the Scofield Reference Bible wasn’t technically the first study Bible, it was the first widely influential one. It is, in a sense, America’s Bible.

Scofield himself was hardly clergy material. Canfield documents this clearly and doggedly. Among the evangelicals, however, an admission of guilt—no matter how insincere—has to be taken at face value. If you’re caught “backsliding” after that, all you have to do is admit that too. They’re obligated to forgive you 490 times, if they’re truly literalists. We can see this at work in the bizarre evangelical backing of Trump, a Christian only by the loosest possible definition. If you say you’ve accepted Jesus they have to believe you. It’s the ultimate scam. Scofield himself seems to have been aware of this. Particularly wrenching was the account of how, after he was making a respectable income from his Bible, he refused to give money to one of his daughters from his first marriage when she wanted to buy a house. His will left no money to any charitable organization at all. You can take it with you, apparently. And so, we’re left with a world devised by such a man with no theological training. Since he’s so obviously low brow, however, we lack scholarly biographies that take the care of Canfield in exposing information readily available to those with open eyes.

Who Knew?

Reading about Jesus is an occupational expectation for an editor of biblical studies. Not that this is anything new for someone who grew up thinking of him constantly. One of the issues often raised about the son of Mary and Joseph is what he did during his childhood. There are apocryphal gospels that address that question since the canonical ones don’t, other than a Lukan visit to the temple in Jerusalem where the professors were stumped by the student. A query that’s pondered from time to time is why nobody thought to write down the early years. A related question is less often asked: who knew in the early days that Jesus would amount to what he did? It’s pretty much accepted that the tales of a miraculous birth were borrowed from the common stock of quotidian cultural heroes of the day. Anybody famous had to have had a spectacular start. If they knew from the beginning, however, that he was going to be great, why didn’t they write his story?

Unless, of course, they didn’t know. Jesus was born, according to the best that we can reconstruct, in a working class family. He had brothers and sisters, according to the gospels, and since Joseph disappears from the story rather early, he was likely raised in by a single mother. Who pays attention to such mill-fodder as this? One of the common people who will, more likely than not, come to nothing? A statistic to make great the egos of Herods and Caesars. Who bothers to write such things down? It’s only after fame that we become interested. What made him so? How did his meteoric rise get started? Before then, who really cared?

Stuck here in the middle of Lent, it’s easy to forget that even Jesus started life as a nobody. Many who start life privileged end up obscure. There’s perhaps a cosmic balancing act taking place here. The fulcrum—and who thinks of the fulcrum while riding on the teeter-totter?—the fulcrum is the common person. Fame may ease the path to halls of power. Cronies will fall over themselves to kiss the hem of any robe headed toward the Oval Office. Those who claim such rights will do so on the back of a guy so occluded we don’t really even know where he was born. Or what he did before he was thirty. And had he lived out his life like the rest of his neighbors we wouldn’t be asking the question even now.

Neologism

I like a good neologism as much as the next guy. Oxford English Dictionaries recently released a covey of new words added to the famed lexicon. Most of them, it seemed to me, had to do with dangers of technology, like “drunk text” and such fare. Still, increasing vocabulary is one of those rare joys in life that is continues to be free, so I indulge. A friend sent me a BBC story about another new word: champing. Well, my spell-check recognizes that one so maybe it’s not new. In any case, this champing is derived from two words “church” and “camping.” Some locations with medieval churches—which kind of rules out anything on these shores—are now opening them up as camping spots, thus church-camping. The article asks what it’s like to stay overnight in such a place.

Growing up in western Pennsylvania, medieval churches were hard to find, but I spent more than one night sleeping in sacred spaces. It’s an uncanny experience. In what may have been more innocent days, our United Methodist Church allowed youth group sleepovers, as long as there were counselors present. (Ever naive, I only learned later that there were ways around such obvious strictures.) On a Friday night, then, we could occasionally gather with our sleeping bags and slumber under the sanctuary. For theological reasons we couldn’t sleep in the sanctuary itself (although that couldn’t be prevented on the occasional very long sermon) but we could go in. Churches are scary at night with the lights out. We may give lip service to holy ground, but large, cavernous spaces suggest so much by absence and implication that it would take a stout soul indeed to sleep there.

Looks okay from the outside.

Sleeping in sanctuaries in ancient times was an acceptable practice. In fact, there’s a name for doing so: incubation rituals. A person who slept in a sacred place believed any dreams had that night were a message from God. Knowing the dreams I tend to have, I do wonder. Once, at the United Methodist camp called Jumonville—famous for its large white, 60-foot, metal cross visible in three states—we counselors (still naive) had our charges sleep outdoors at the foot of the sigil on the bare top of the mountain. In the morning my champers gleefully informed me that I’d been praying in my sleep. “You kept saying ‘Amen. Amen,’” they told me. Alas, I don’t remember the dreams of that night. Perhaps when I find a medieval church on my journeys I’ll be brave enough to try an incubation ritual once again. This time I’ll take a tape recorder.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Excarnation

To those raised in the Christian tradition incarnation is a familiar concept. The idea, more complex than it sounds, is that God becomes human. In a world of DNA and general disbelief in anything non-physical, it boggles the mind how disincarnate “matter” (for lack of a better word) might bond with the double-helix in order to create something new. Since science can’t explain such things spiritual, believers have long hung the cloak of mystery here and passed on to more practical matters. But what about excarnation? It’s actually not the opposite of theological incarnation, but it does involve spiritual practice. A friend sent me an article on Vintage News (much better than fake news, in my humble opinion) titled “The Towers of Silence: Ancient reminders of an eerie Zoroastrian burial ritual.” This was a nice find because I’ve been reading about the Zoroastrians again recently, and if ever there’s been a case of an important religion going underground, their’s is it.

I don’t mean to sound patronizing about it, but Zoroastrianism has been one influential religion. Having roots in the world between Vedic and Semitic religions, it had an impact on both. In my teaching days when I covered Zoroastrianism my Hindu students remarked on how similar the concepts were to their tradition. More reluctant were those of the Judeo-Christo-Islamic side to see that key concepts such as Heaven, Hell, the Devil, and Armageddon have their ultimate roots in the dualism that Zoroastrianism put on offer. Thus spake Zarathustra. We know very little about this founder of the religion. We do know that he set out to create a “systematic theology” that explained the world he saw. The result has changed the world many times over.

Those of you drawn in by catchy titles may be wondering what excarnation has to do with it. Believing dead bodies to be inherently corrupt, burial wasn’t the best Zoroastrian option since it only polluted the ground. The response was the ultimate in up-cycling—expose dead bodies until the vultures eat all the polluting flesh and then handle the dry bones afterward. This practice is arguably the most natural way of disposing of human remains, but it’s distasteful to many people. Who wants to be eaten? Unless, of course, you’re a believer in incarnation. For in that tradition God incarnate told his followers to eat his body and drink his blood. The more squeamish have done what religions have always excelled at—they turned earthy reality into a metaphor. Even vultures have to eat.

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: John Gould, HC Richter, Wikimedia Commons

An Apple a Day

Have you ever bitten into a piece of rotten fruit? I suspect most of us have had the unpleasant experience. From the outside the apple looks fine but that first bite sinks into a brown and corrupt interior that turns your stomach. There’s no rehabilitating it—once fruit’s gone bad it’s bad. Jesus is once said to have said “by their fruits you will know them,” them being the righteous. Over the last several days we’ve watched, not exactly surprised, as the news revealed Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied under oath—what used to be a very serious crime—about consorting with the Russians. The difference between that and the apple I described is that this one didn’t look so good from the outside either. Eve, I think, would’ve chosen a different piece.

The strange thing about this is that evangelical Christians of the sort that voted for Trump should know about the fruits passage. Not the Eve one, the other one. Growing up in a Fundamentalist context I frequently heard about knowing others by their fruits. People are capable of deception, even under oath. That’s why we have a name for it. Thing is, we expect better from those who hold the highest offices in the land. And we’d expect honesty on the part of the evangelical crowd. Once you’ve bitten into that apple there’s no turning back. Ideology trumps theology, it seems. Even the Bible. That’s one of the great mysteries of our time—those who loudly proclaim they live their lives by the Bible count on others not having read it. Kind of embarrassing to be caught with your bias showing. Those whose sins you’re willing to overlook in the name of principle.

As the rogue’s gallery that we now recognize as the presidential cabinet was being nominated, many in this nation suffered shock wave after shock wave of incredulity. Steve Bannon later admitted that their role was to dismantle the agencies they’d inherited—so much for the meek inheriting the earth bit—while power-blinded Republican leaders followed like, well, sheep. The evangelical crowd, ignoring that troublesome leather-bound book they love, refuse to criticize. Who hasn’t forgotten meeting with the Russian Ambassador from time to time? I’m old fashioned enough to believe there’s a difference between biting into an apple that to all appearances is fine and one that’s obviously rotten from the start. In one case you end up disappointed. In the other you get what you deserve.

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The Cargo of Cults

Among religious studies scholars “cult,” in the popular sense, is a swear word. Professionals in the field don’t use it because it implies that a belief system—usually modern—is somehow less important than an established religious tradition. Instead, we’ve been taught to call these “New Religious Movements,” or NRM for short. Looking around it seems that political correctness is now gone and open advocacy of white power is the new norm. After all, the minority of the American electorate voted for it so we can change the rules on that basis. Even before the election, however, Rebecca Nelson wrote an important article on GQ about the cult of Trump. As a person, what’s there not to dislike? A long history of shady business deals, lawsuits, and sexual harassment (we just couldn’t get beyond Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky just a couple of decades ago, but all that’s water over the dam) such a man couldn’t have been elected even in the W era. Well, cult thinking explains that.

Nelson cites the work of Rick Alan Ross, an expert (back from in the days when we still had those) on cults. The rise of Trump followed exactly the pattern of how cults work. A single man (nobody voted for Pence) who is able to fix this great broken machine called America. He can do it by referring to a black box that nobody may open to examine, but yes, believe me, the solution’s in there. Stir the muck and tell people things are awful when life expectancy is better than it’s ever been, everybody has health care, and the economy’s finally starting to stabilize, and you’ve got yourself a cult leader. As Nelson insinuates, the Kool-Aid is in the future.

We learned a sum of zero from Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Marshall Applewhite. We wrote them off as weirdos getting off on a power trip. Swept away by the mere fact of being followed. Mentally unstable with delusions of grandeur. Narcissistic to a fault. Wait, what? We ignored them so well that we’ve elected a candidate who took not just a page from their playbook, but an entire chapter. Back in the days of political correctness, when there was still such a thing as experts, I sensed that things were pretty good. As horror movies should’ve taught me, too good. Caligula insisted that his statue be set up in the Jerusalem temple next to where Yahweh resided. The temple may be gone, but the desire to be worshiped will always be with us.

Wait, that's not the Washington Monument is it?

Wait, that’s not the Washington Monument is it?