Prophets and Exiles

One of the scariest passages in the Bible is Ezekiel 33.7-9.  I first read this before I was a teenager and it scared me deeply.  In case you don’t feel like clicking over to BibleGateway and searching, the pericope is a section where Yahweh is warning Ezekiel about the dangers of giving up hope (in the larger context).  Ezekiel, you see, had lived through the fall of Jerusalem.  Many people of Judah felt that the destruction of the temple was the end of the relationship between Yahweh and the chosen people.  Ezekiel here is being warned to deliver good news.  If Ezekiel doesn’t call out the lie (the sins of Israel weigh it down) he will be punished as if he were the sinner himself.  I knew evangelical friends in college who lifted that verse out of context and said God would punish them if they didn’t warn the people.  They weren’t so worried about the fall of Jerusalem—that was old news by the 1980s—but about some other issue they deemed important at the moment.

Taking verses out of context has a name.  It’s called “prooftexting.”  It can be done to just about any piece of writing, including this blog post.  All it requires is finding a passage that says what you want it to and claim that it means what you say it does.  The Bible’s a big, big book.  Trying to understand its contents in context takes years of dedicated work.  Even then biblical scholars don’t have all the answers because if they did we could all stay home and surf the net for the rest of our lives.  No, engaging with sacred texts is a never-ending task, by definition.  That warning to Ezekiel was for Ezekiel.  What was that message?  Stop saying the exile is the end!  There’s more to the story.  Read the book to the end and see.

The problem with prooftexting, if I might engage in a bit of it myself, is that it takes away from the totality of the Good Book itself.  Not adding too or taking away from the Bible is a biblical command (taken out of context), which means that with the Bible it’s all or nothing at all.  And if it’s the former, it means Ezekiel’s condemnation is contingent upon what follows.  Back in biblical times there wasn’t as much reading material as there is today.  It turns out, however, that there’s a lot more written down than we used to assume.  If we’re going to read it we should do so within its context.  But just in case, please be assured that the exile isn’t the end of the story.

Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.

Finding Fakes

The Museum of the Bible has been a source of controversy since well before it even opened.  Many people don’t understand what biblical scholars actually do, and this leads to misunderstandings and not infrequent accusations.  Turning no basic critical thinking skills toward a museum intended to champion certain social causes (claimed to be “biblical”), those who support it can’t understand why a “biblical” scholar would object.  What do biblical scholars do all day, anyway?  We’ll come back to that in a moment.  The reason I’m writing about the Museum of the Bible in the middle of a pandemic is an article on National Geographic’s website, “‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ at the Museum of the Bible are all forgeries,” by Michael Greshko.  The Dead Sea Scrolls have captured the public imagination for decades now.  Having seen the collection at the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, I know it can be an awe-inducing experience.  One thing biblical scholars do is ask questions.

Artifacts are becoming increasingly easy to fake.  Some biblical scholars were fooled by these fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments.  Now, my own specialization was Ugaritic.  Ugaritic is a cuneiform language with clay tablets as the substrate.  One of the things that you learn from looking at a specialized body of material closely and for a long time is how they were written.  Some of the Ugaritic tablets have writing along the edges, like marginal scrawls.  Some are written with large characters in a clumsy hand, while others are clearly done by a professional.  With some practice you can learn to recognize handwriting even in cuneiform.  The Dead Sea Scrolls, mostly written on vellum or leather, are similar: specialists know just how they were written and close examination can reveal if they were made in antiquity or simply made to look antique.

Biblical scholars often get accused of taking the life out of things.  Would it be better to believe in something that is exposed as a fake?  Not exactly debunkers, scholars are those who ask pointed questions of unstated assumptions.  If some antiquities dealer claims to have access to material kept out of official hands, and is willing to charge you a lot for it, it’s best to call in the skeptics.  It works the same in most fields that keep our society going.  We need to trust those who’ve studied a subject in depth for many years.  Devoted their lives to it, in fact.  Many museum items around the world are forgeries and fakes.  It’s not too often, though, that someone specializing in really old stuff gets called in to make an evaluation.  There’s a risk involved—the risk of learning the truth.

Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

CBD

They found me.  I used to call them CBD, but because of the popularity of a certain hemp-based product, Christian Book Distributors changed its name.  Now I knew about them long before they had me on their mailing list when I taught at Nashotah House.  When I was a seminary student in Boston I made occasional trips to CBD’s Peabody warehouse for sales—this was quite a boon to students who never have enough money (little did I know!).  Books you’d heard about in class were there, for a fraction of the price.  At Nashotah I always looked over their bargain page, because, well, professors like books.  I recognized their catalogue in my mailbox instantly.  The name is now Christianbooks.com.  Grab some munchies and sit down.

Not only the name has changed.  Back in my student days I could find academic resources here.  As religion in America has become more and more polarized, what used to be CBD (if I use their current incarnation my computer insists on putting links in) has become radically conservative.  Page after page of study Bibles reveal no hint of the mainstream bestsellers in the genre.  It’s as if they don’t exist.  More than that, if you leave them out maybe people will come to believe they don’t exist.  Even the bargain books are nothing an erstwhile professor would buy.  Instead of academic titles there are all kinds of Barnes & Noble-type gimmicks to get shoppers to spend their money.  Like junk food for the soul.  I look at the books on my shelf.  Some of them were purchased, cash in hand on the ground in Peabody.  Not any more.

There will be those who claim (fake news is the only news now) that what has changed is me, not them.  The fact is places like CBD used to be more open minded.  They admitted the possibility of doubt.  Now your choices are Scofield or Ryrie.  That should be enough for any appetite.  Not only that, but many of the titles now sound militaristic.  Battlefields and all.  Thumbing through, I wonder where Jesus has gone.  The evangelicalism of my youth was clearly Prince of Peace centered.  Now it’s politicized to the point that I’m not sure what it represents beyond GOP values of greed, opportunism, and power.  Anyone who thinks differently need not apply.  How CBD found me after all these years, I do not know.  I wish they’d consider saving the environment rather than printing catalogues to send me.  The climate, despite what they would claim, has changed.

In the Cult

The word “cult” has fallen out of favor with religionists.  The reason for this is the problematic claim that any one religion makes to being the “only true” religion.  If that religion then sets about to study other religions there is a built-in bias that the study is being done from the perspective of those who know the truth looking somewhat bemusedly toward other religions.  A cult was defined as a relatively new religion with a fairly small number of adherents.  The more correct term is a “New Religious Movement.”  The idea of brainwashing is controversial, but it is clear that people can be made to follow the leader against their better judgment.  We’ve seen this time and time again and not just in places like Jonestown or Waco.  The word “cult” seems to fit.

Branch Davidian compound in Waco; photo credit: FBI, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

A friend recently pointed me to the work of the psychologist Jeremy E. Sherman.  Sherman has been studying the behavior of Trump followers and has illustrated quite well how it is a cult.  This is one place where the use of the term becomes essential.  I’ll lay aside my objections to the word to point out that a cult denotes a group that follows a leader without critical assessment of that leader.  You’ll have noticed that Democrats are quite critical of one another.  They think about and assess what each other say and do.  When someone like Trump, who is well known as a Pez-dispenser of lies, becomes a saintly paragon of his party, capable of no wrong, we’re in the land of cults.  What Sherman does that I can’t, is suggest how to deal with such thinking.

Most of us try to reason with our interlocutors.  If reason is turned off, as in blind following, it simply falls on deaf ears.  The public record of Trump’s doings speaks for itself.  Those who refuse to see it or engage it will never be reasoned out of it.  The parallels with Hitler’s Germany are extremely frightening.  Not even a decade after his death Hitler was understood to have been clearly unstable and driven by evil impulses.  Many of those alive today overlapped with the lifetime of this dictator.  There’s no doubt that Nazism behaved like a classic cult.  Presented with credible evidence of breaking the law while within office, Trump’s followers blithely acquitted him.  Those who study cults would expect no less.  We need to arm ourselves with knowledge of how religious thinking works.  To do otherwise is dangerous, despite what our economically driven bastions of higher education may say.  (See?  I’m critical of those on my side!)  Or we can lay down reason and simply follow.

Symmetry Synergy

Symmetry.  It’s pleasing to the eye.  And significant dates are often the basis for holidays.  Today is one of those extremely rare palindrome days.  As my wife pointed out to me 02-02-2020 is a configuration that hasn’t occurred since 01-01-1010, or over a millennium ago.  The next one will be after we’re all long gone, on 03-03-3030.  Not only that, but today is part of a holiday cluster.  It’s Groundhog Day.  Yesterday was Imbolc, the Celtic cross-quarter day initiating spring.  Imbolc is also known as St. Brigid’s Day.  Today is called Candlemas, by liturgical Christian tradition.  We are living through a truly unique day.  Every day, I suppose, is unique, but the spirits are afoot today.

I’ve written about Groundhog Day before.  With its prognosticating rodent, it tells us if spring is on the way or if it’s going to be delayed.  Imbolc falls about halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  In Celtic cultures this was a cross-quarter day, a time of uncanniness.  Spirits cross between worlds on days such as this.  In days of yore, it was also the feast of the goddess Brigid.  Christianity has always been an opportunistic religion.  When missionaries to places like Scotland and Ireland couldn’t convince the locals to give up their deities, they made saints of them.  St. Brigid is a fabrication of a Celtic goddess, not an actual saint.  For similar reasons in the quarter-year counterpart to Imbolic, Samhain, the church moved All Saints Day to November 1 and All Souls to November 2.  The Celts continued using the trappings of their cross-quarter day and eventually gave us Halloween.  Imbolc never caught on in quite the same way.

The early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born.  Christmas was established on December 25 because of all of the solstice celebrations at that time of year.  All that pagan jubilation had to be subsumed under a more solemn occasion.  Building on that mythical date, New Year’s Day was January 1 because that’s when Jesus would have been circumcised, eight days later.  Thirty-three days after a male child’s circumcision, a woman was to make an offering for purification in the temple.  According to Luke, Mary did this, and 33 days after January 1, in keeping with our fictional date-keeping, is February 2.  A tradition grew that Christians would bring their candles to church to be blessed that day (Jesus being the light of the world).  This blessing of candles was named Candlemas.  I first encountered it at Nashotah House, where it was still celebrated even as a sleepy woodchuck in Punxsutawney was rubbing his eyes.  Not exactly a palindrome, but there’s a remarkable symmetry to it, no?