Category Archives: Sects

Posts that explore the various forms of religions

Bigger Bibles

The Book of Jubilees. 1 Enoch. It’s been years since I’ve read these “apocryphal” books. I’m thinking about them today because of the concept of canon. If you’re like me—and I sincerely hope you’re not—you never heard the word “canon” until you reached college. If I’m honest with myself I’ll admit that I thought the professor was saying “cannon.” A single-n canon is a “rule,” or in this case a collection of texts. There were lots of texts in antiquity. Not many people could read, but that didn’t mean that those who could stopped writing (those who have ears to hear, pay heed). The image of the Bible with which I was raised—and mine said “Holy Bible” right on the front, so I knew it had to be right—was a collection of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New. Before I reached college I heard that Catholics had some extra books in their Bible. (Surely they must be about image worship and praying to Mary!) Then I discovered “the Apocrypha.”

The number of apocryphal books is not fixed. When I became an Episcopalian I learned to call them Deutero-canonical books instead of Apocrypha. I still couldn’t figure out the number because two of them (Daniel and Esther) are already in Protestant Bibles, but are expanded somewhat in Catholic Bibles. Do they count or not? Then there were others like Judith, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Interesting books, but it was hard to see what they added to the already pretty long Scripture I grew up with. I became accustomed to considering these “extra” books part of the canon. The Bible was bigger than I thought. Then I heard someone say that Jubilees was in the Ethiopic Orthodox canon. Indeed, eastern Orthodox Church canons differ from Roman Catholic Bibles. The Ethiopic Church (called Tewahedo by the locals) has millions of members. It is an ancient faith. It has a really, really big canon. You can’t learn much about it, however, at least not easily.

Because it is almost completely confined to Ethiopia, not much western scholarly attention has been lavished on Tewahedo. Sure, you can pay university press prices for a monograph or two to find technical reports, but few have bothered to ponder what all this means for the Bible. That’s why I’m thinking about Jubilees and 1 Enoch. These books are part of a Christian Bible but not the Christian Bible. There are many sacred texts in the world. Those of Hinduism and Buddhism put our somewhat tiny Judeo-Christian Bible in a different light as a small contender in a huge arena. There are scriptures from all over the world. And the response in our “globalized” university system is to cut religion departments. There’s still a lot to learn. I taught Bible classes for nearly twenty years and fell behind a bit in the larger world. It’s been far too long since I’ve read Jubilees and 1 Enoch.

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Lunar New Years

Celebrating the New Year in the middle of winter is a strange idea, at first glance. As I have discussed before, January 1 is “Circumcision-style New Year,” based on the projected date of Jesus’ circumcision after the church had settled on December 25 as his birthday. In actuality, a winter New Year date is due to its proximity to the winter solstice, and the other popular contenders for the honor of the head of the year, historically, have been the spring and autumnal equinoxes. The matter gets more complicated when a culture has a lunar calendar since the sun and moon don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to their timing. That accounts, obviously, for a shortened February, but also for why a full moon doesn’t occur on the same day of each month. Now, I know little of Chinese culture, but I do know that Chinese New Year fell on January 28 this year, initiating the year of the rooster. Considering what had happened only eight days prior, this feels incredibly apt to me.

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Cultural diversity is a wonderful thing, and this nation is rich in it. You can, to pick a trite example, sample cuisines from around the world in a moderately sized town. Here in New Jersey getting onto a public transit bus will almost guarantee that you’ll hear at least one non-English conversation going on. Nevertheless I do have to confess that I don’t know what the year of the rooster represents in a Chinese context. As concepts cross borders they take on new associations and those who assign those new associations don’t represent those from the original land. So let it be here. Not knowing what the rooster symbolizes in China, I turn to its American expression—the cock. This is its year. The newspaper headlines read like a fortune cookie, in this distorted view of things.

To shift this metaphor to yet another cultural context—originally Jewish, but now appropriated by Christians around the world—think of Passover. For Jesus a night of betrayal. Peter, arguably Jesus’ best friend, denied three times in one night that he even knew his BFF. Cursing and swearing, according to the Gospels, he said, “I don’t know that man.” The cock crowed. It was around the spring equinox. A new year had begun. Within 24 hours, according to the story, Jesus was dead. We have much to learn from other cultures. The concepts change, however, when they’re stopped at the border.

Made of Clay

golemInvestigating a new field, at least on an academic level, involves a little disorientation. Part of this derives from the fact that academics didn’t use to write about monsters. Another part of it, however, is that those who do such writing have been doing so while my attention was elsewhere. It’s not easy to learn dead languages reasonably well. I didn’t pay much mind to the golem, being as it is, a “modern” monster. Probably responding to early modern pogroms, the golem was considered a defender of persecuted Jews. He was, however, a mindless defender. Made of animated clay, the golem was brought to life by magic and could only be killed in the same kind. Maya Barzilai has written a masterful account of how this monster relates to war. Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters explores how modern golem stories (and there are many) tend to relate to situations of conflict.

I had read about the golem before, and had trouble locating many academic resources on the creature. Barzilai demonstrates how much there is to ponder. It seemed, prior to reading her book, that the golem was mostly obscure, but it turns out that many writers, artists, and filmmakers have appropriated the clay giant over the years. Those who trace the history of comic books suggest that Superman was originally a kind of golem figure. I hadn’t realized that the golem had his own short-lived comic book series. When a people are persecuted repeatedly, having a secret weapon may not seem a bad thing. But the golem is difficult to control. It rampages. It can kill the innocent. Barzilai raises the question of whether a people with an unstoppable weapon are ever justified in using violence.

That question hangs pregnantly over the present day. The rich white men that run this country feel that they’ve been oppressed. Not willing to admit that it’s morally reprehensible to treat women as objects (they’re “hosts,” we’re told), blacks as inferiors, or hispanics as illegal, they bluster away about family values that aren’t consistent with anything other than threatening those who are “different” into submission. And yes, the Jews are among those these white men scorn. I wonder where the golems have gone. It could be that, like those of us self-identified as pacifists, that those who know how to make golems simply can’t justify violence. Barzilai didn’t intend for this in her book, I’m sure. Still, each new era brings new perspectives to these monsters made of clay.

Come Forth

the_lazarus_effect_2015_film_posterHorror movies provide a strange consolation at times such as this. When evil has overtaken democracy, it’s almost like strategy, watching how fictional characters deal with things that are wrong, things that are too close to real life. The Lazarus Effect has been on my watch list since the last sane presidential administration, but need finally dictated that I watch it. The premise is clear from the title—Lazarus is universally known as the dead man who came back to life. A group of medical researchers at a university in California find a way, through direct stimulation of the brain, to bring dead animals back to life. The idea is that they will give surgeons more time to resuscitate critical patients if they can get the formula right so that it works on people. An evil corporation steals their discovery and they have just a few hours to replicate the experiment to prove they are the ones who perfected it. Predictably one of them (Zoe) dies and her fiancé brings her back to life. Mayhem ensues.

Those who’ve seen Pet Sematary will find many similar ideas covered here. Those who come back from the dead are somehow distorted versions of their former selves. Those who do the resurrecting end up dead at the hands of the modern-day Lazaruses. There’s not much unexpected here except that Zoe, a Catholic, ends up in Hell. There’s quite a bit of talk about religion versus science—what really happens when you die. Zoe, despite being a practicing Catholic, has never been forgiven for her childhood sin of setting a fire that killed some neighbors in the apartment building. Religion and horror sharing the screen is something fairly common, but it is seldom as forthright as it is here.

Resurrection—necessarily a religious concept—is a frightening prospect. Horror films have shown many times that this is a miracle that just shouldn’t happen. At least not on this plane. (Those who’ve watched Re-animator know how bad the consequences could be.) Scientists, generally unbelievers in the cinematic world, just can’t accept either an afterlife or death. Using technology to challenge a godless fate, they inevitably end up losing. So it is in The Lazarus Effect. Some biblical scholars have suggested John’s rendition of the story is a kind of biblical horror tale. I mean, Lazarus had been dead four days in the warm climes of the Holy Land. His resurrection seems to have ended up well, however. Then again, there is an inherent difference between science and religion. Neither one, however, is now really in charge.

A Glimpse at the Future

Last month one of the three remaining Shakers died. In this era of religion unawareness, not many Americans, I expect, could identify this dying religion. The Shakers aren’t the Quakers—we like to give religions we don’t understand pejorative monikers—they are a group that grew out of the Friends but that had important differences. Shakers believe, especially, in celibacy. It had to grow through conversion since Shakers could not reproduce biologically. At their height there were about 6000 of them—the number of Twitter followers of a fairly successful humanities professor, I suspect. They were hard-working and their brand of furniture endures beyond the life of the sect. The official count of Shakers worldwide now stands at two.

This little bit of news saddened me. Not that I’ve ever been tempted to join the Shakers—it would be a bit of a stretch for a family man—but I’ve always admired countercultural groups. Like many religious sects of the late eighteenth century, the Shakers were millenarians. That is, they believed in the imminent second coming of Christ. Given this belief, biological reproduction wasn’t really necessary. In fact, it was counter-productive. Like so many of the slumberers of the Great Awakening, the Shakers eventually settled in upstate New York. Since their lifestyle was different, they had to form their own communities. The last community is in Maine. When the last two Shakers go to their reward, barring a miracle, the denomination will be extinct.

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The Shakers were distinctive for yet another reason as well. They were open to, and often defined by, female leadership. This might be expected in a world where men have difficulty controlling themselves in mixed company. Catholic monasteries locked men in without women. To agree to live in a mixed gendered community but without mixed gendered relations took a dose of will power that borders on the saintly. The Shakers won’t be the only religion to have gone extinct, when that happens. Religions, like organisms, grow, thrive, and die. This little group had a disproportionate impact on society. Those who watched Michael Flatley throwing his body across the stage to the haunting joyfulness of the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” likely had no idea that the world owed one of its most beautiful melodies to a group of people living celibate lives in the woods of Maine. The Shakers’ unique contributions to the weird and wonderful world of religion will be missed by at least one.

Cheap Faith

“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Many of my conservative Christian friends may be surprised to learn that these are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Evangelical hero and firm believer in costly discipleship, Bonhoeffer lived, and died, during the Nazi takeover of Germany. A promising young theologian, he escaped Germany to come teach at Union Seminary in New York City. Increasingly disturbed by what was taking place back home, he forsook safety and returned to Germany to try to wrench the hands of Hitler from the steering wheel. Bonhoeffer didn’t write empty words.

The above quote comes from a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law Emmi. Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, well deserves its status as a classic. In it Bonhoeffer declares that a cheap faith is not a faith worth believing in. The Prosperity Gospel would have made him ill. You see, Bonhoeffer believed that the religion preached by Jesus didn’t allow for shirkers. Those who get rich and claim God helped them to it. There’s a reason some people say Mammon is a demon. This was in the days when Christianity still had a conscience. When leaders of religious movements weren’t afraid to speak out against accommodating with evil when that was the more comfortable course to take. And his wasn’t empty rhetoric.

Bonhoeffer was arrested back in his native land. Sent to Buchenwald and then to Flossenbürg, he was hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. Two weeks later the Allies liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer knew evil when he saw it. Now, some seventy years later our vision has become blurred. We live in a country that declares itself “Christian” but, unlike any religion Jesus taught, declares itself to be first. “America first,” we’re told. Flipping through the pages of the Gospels my eyes fall on a forgotten verse. “The first shall be last,” it reads, “and the last shall be first.” Scholars argue over the authentic words of Jesus, to be sure. What we do know is that he too was executed by his government before he reached 40. And they killed him for the radical message that what God requires is loving your neighbor as yourself.

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Celestial Politics

Two things about my childhood: I grew up religious, and I grew up learning you didn’t talk about religion or politics. Now I see that that combination leads to tremendous potential for abuse. Many conservative Christians believe that their faith only ever endorses a Republican candidate, no matter how bad. This is a strange idea and it goes back to some strange people. If I can talk about it.

We live in a cult of celebrity. This is nothing new. People have always admired the individual who could get him or herself noticed. As early as the epic of Gilgamesh, the guy willing to show his bad self managed to capture the public imagination. We’re still reading his story some five millennia later. Of all places this tendency to treat a human being as authoritative should be considered strange is evangelical Christianity. This religion grew out of a largely Calvinistic backdrop where no individual could be assumed to be good. Indeed, total depravity was part of the theological environment. Mix in this stern outlook with the revivalism of the two “great awakenings” and an uncanny alchemy takes place. People, who used to be bad, now found enthusiasm in religion. The first real superstar in the United States was George Whitefield, a preacher. He had a massive following and was, in every sense of the word, a celebrity. This culture became the social substrata of the new nation. Open to all religions, yes, but mostly belonging to this one.

Once American religion became based on popularity, singular figures emerged as defenders of this faith. “Trusted” leaders and authors. Not all of them home-grown either. Names like C. S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Francis Schaeffer—not to mention Billy Graham—grew to a status they never had in their lifetimes. Well, Schaeffer and Graham came to be evangelical gurus in their own rights and Graham remains among the living, but Lewis and Bonhoeffer were really adopted by conservatives only after their deaths. The interesting point here is that Lewis and Bonhoeffer often wrote things that directly challenge the easy evangelicalism that accepts them as celebrities. The problem is, we don’t talk about religion any more. We use it for voting, and for feeling good about ourselves. Superior, even. It seems strange to think that Calvinism had some safeguards built in that have been knocked down for the sake of the polls. I can’t imagine John Calvin casting a vote for Donald Trump. But then again, Calvin became a celebrity in his own lifetime, so I might be wrong about that.

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