Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.

A Nightmare or Two

Some books are complex enough to require a slow reading.  Alan E. Bernstein’s The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds is such a book.  For those of us raised in a faith primarily geared toward avoiding Hell, the concept becomes a lifelong nightmare.  It doesn’t help that, depending on your clergy you’re taught different, sure-fire ways of achieving that avoidance.  Often it hinges on “believing” the “right” thing.  Fundamentalists tend not to call it “doctrine” since that sounds rather Catholic, but the idea’s the same; it’s a tenet of faith.  As Bernstein shows, however, Hell is an idea that developed over a very long time with several different views of what happens after death.  There’s no single, linear progression, but rather a conglomeration of ideas from a variety of sources.

No single volume can cover all the background to Hell.  Bernstein focuses on Egypt for the early material, as well as Babylonia.  These early civilizations demonstrate that people have always wondered what comes next, and what happens to those who oppress others—the bullies of this life who don’t deserve the same eternal rest as the rest.  Usually some form of punishment awaits, but not always.  In the Hebrew Bible one of the great issues was the fact that everyone goes to Sheol, good and bad alike.  As in classical Greece and Rome (on which Bernstein spends a great number of pages) the concept of the netherworld is gloomy, but not torture.  Except in exceptional cases, of course.  The Greeks had Tartarus as a place for those who dissed the divine.

Even early Christianity didn’t have a uniform view of it.  The New Testament is decidedly divided on the topic.  Revelation seems to be the last word, but it’s not.  Later thinkers such as Origen and Augustine (who came to different conclusions) weighed in.  Catholic Christianity lavished great love on the latter and Augustinian views became disproportionately influential.  Reading his lack of compassion can cause nightmares, although he justifies it theologically.  The one thing I missed in Bernstein’s lengthy treatment was the Zoroastrians.  This religion of ancient Persia introduced a distinct dualism into the biblical world; it perhaps represents the first relatively developed concepts of Hell and Heaven.  Zoroastrianism suffers from lack of documentation, however, and it is difficult to parse it as meticulously as Bernstein does the other cultures covered.  This book requires much pondering as it’s read, and if you were raised believing this kind of thing it’s sure to bring back a nightmare or two.

Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Self-Convinced

Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.  All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.  Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.  Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.  (And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)  I have plenty of experience with this.  Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.  All in the name of religion.  The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.  With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.  Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.  Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.

Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.  That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.  Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.  Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?  As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.  Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.  You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.  Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.

Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.  For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.  As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.  I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.  Then the doctorate.  (Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)  Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.  I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.  Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.  As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.  Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.