Foreign Christianity

I’ve been reading about missionaries in Southeast Asia.  One of the things that has become clear to me is that as Christians moved into different cultures they perhaps didn’t realize just how their religion was being blended with a completely foreign worldview.  Catholic missionaries were particularly savvy about accommodating local outlooks.  Add the mass on top of them and you’ve got your converts.  What they were, perhaps unknowingly, doing was changing Christianity.  Yet again.  Monotheism has a myth of the pure religion.  The fact is that as soon as Paul disagreed with Peter Christianity had begun to splinter with each faction believing it had the pure form.  When this protean religion moves into other cultures with other ways of thinking, interesting new forms emerge.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

Today there’s a lot of interest in Celtic Catholicism.  This is another example of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  Christianity, particularly in Ireland, took on a pronounced Celtic flavor.  It doesn’t always play by the rules, but as long as Rome’s okay with that, well, who’s to complain?  What is Catholicism?  What is Methodism?  What is Anglicanism?  It depends on where you join it.  Doesn’t that problematize those absolute truth claims?  Churches are savvy political players.  The rank and file believer has little idea what goes on behind closed doors.  They might be distressed to find out just how much bishops talk about budgets.  Theology is left to the public view.  No organization can survive without money and church leaders understand this.  Missionaries go to under-developed countries and make them capitalists.

People living in different parts of the world view life from varying perspectives.  Many see change as the nature of life where western religions see fixity.  Many religions know we’re reincarnated.  Western religions see one ride per ticket with souls ending up in a final holding place.  When it comes to eternity, people obviously want some security.  Even with reincarnation a badly lived human life can lead to a worse next life.  The question of what happens when such ideas come into contact with Christianity, or Islam, is a fascinating one.  Judaism, the root of monotheistic traditions, never really embraced missionary activity.  When missionaries encounter those whose very ways of thinking about life approach the question from a different direction, creative mixes are bound to occur.  It’s safe to say that when early Christians were sent out to “the whole world” they had no idea how big that world actually was, under the dome in which lived the sun, moon, and stars.  Nor had they any idea what interesting hybrid religions would emerge after their fertile preaching.


Old Churches

I doubled its authenticity, but it was revered in a way similar to the Shroud of Turin.  The old guide, a priest if I recall, showed us an actual lantern hung for Paul Revere’s ride.  This was the Old North Church in Boston, of course.  Its history is so storied that children across the country learned about it in school.  A similar feeling comes from reading The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.  Subtitled Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York, it is clearly a celebratory work, printed in full color and with pictures on every page.  This church’s claim to fame isn’t as much historical as it’s the result of the imagination of Washington Irving.  It features in his short story “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.”

Built in 1685, it was already an old building by the time Irving had settled in North Tarrytown.  Being early enough, Irving had immense influence on the culture of a young country.  Although born in New York City, and although he lived for many years overseas, he came to represent the voice of the emerging American literary tradition.  America has been home to many writers since then, some successful, many not.  But this book is about the church, not Irving.  Irving does play a big part in its story, although he was never a member.  I kept thinking as I read how influential a single story can become.  And even a small Dutch Reformed Church can benefit from it.  This book gives a high-level overview of the history of the area and some of its colorful characters.  It turns a few times to the Headless Horseman, but it also explains the trials and triumphs of a small church.

Although most towns can’t claim such a storied structure, American churches have had an outsized influence on who we are as a people.  I’ve sat through meetings lamenting the lack of funds for the operating budget as money grows tighter even as the worldview of ancient Palestine effaces.  As an historian of religion I tend to look back.  I don’t believe our future will be entirely electronic or virtual.  If it is, I think I’d rather find myself on a chill, uncomfortable pew in the Old Dutch Church lit by candles on a Christmas Eve, shivering but still alive.  No matter what a person believes—and with the varieties of churches we can’t all be right—we know that it’s part of what makes us human.


Empty Chair

I’m not a Roman Catholic.  Nevertheless, I admire much about the tradition.  Its perceived unchanged continuity with the past is a big draw.  Still, one of the largest issues most religions face as they evolve is that things change.  No religion can stop it.  Edward Jarvis’ brilliant Sede Vacante: The Life and Legacy of Archbishop Thục explores the life and possible theological motivations for one of the most fascinating people in recent church history.  Ngô-dinh-Thục became a Roman Catholic Archbishop in his native Vietnam.  He was the brother of Ngô-dình-Diệm, the first president of South Vietnam, and likely one of the reasons behind the Vietnam War.  In fact, Thục had two other extremely prominent brothers and the four of them formed a junta that ruled the country with authoritarian vigor and utilized all the corruption for which authoritarianism is famed.  They became enormously wealthy, they used torture and extortion to get what they wanted, and Thục supported all of this.

Eventually excommunicated (twice), Thục had to leave Vietnam.  Two of his brothers were arrested and assassinated.  After his self-imposed exile Thục attended Vatican II, the papers of which he signed, but his prominence faded.  Without his holdings in Vietnam he was poor, and in fact lived in poverty.  Then he started consecrating bishops for breakaway Catholic groups, including the strange sect of the Palmarians.  This led to his first excommunication.  Later in life, after restored to the graces of the church, he again started consecrating bishops for the Sedevanctantists.  These were Catholics who believed the Pope was invalid and his chair (sede) was vacant (vacante).  He was excommunicated again and, after moving to the United States, died in poverty.

I keep these posts brief enough that I don’t have space to spell out all the amazing angles from which this life could be viewed (read the book for that).  In our authoritarian-loving times, however, the nature of those who reject “modernization” stood out.  Many Sedevanctantists insist on the restoration of the Latin mass.  They somehow believe the Popes since about Pius X have been liberals(!).  Like Trumpists, they believe it is possible to halt the movement of culture and go back to the way things were in the 1950s when outward conformity was all the rage.  Even Fonzie, after all, was really a nice guy instead of a dangerous biker.  Although there is some theological minutiae here, I recommend this book for anyone who has even the slightest interest in the history of Vietnam, the Roman Catholic Church, or the mindset of those who reject the modern world.


For Sale for Free

It’s one of the signs of spring.  Although it may be more appropriate for winter when we’re holed up inside for much of the time, the library book sale often takes place when it’s a bit more conducive to being outdoors.  When we travel, which isn’t frequently these days, we often spontaneously stop into an advertised library book sale.  Most of the fare is fairly pedestrian, but sometimes you find something you simply didn’t expect.  On one such recent outing, that’s just exactly what happened.  Back when we lived in New Jersey the Friends of the Hunterdon County Library book sale was a much-anticipated event.  It remains, in my experience, one of the largest of such sales.  (Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to pointing inveterate readers to book sales and that’s how I found this one.)  That’s not the surprising part, however.

One year when I went, one of the library friends was working the pre-entry crowd, proclaiming some of the treasures inside.  One of them, he announced, was a Bible from the nineteenth century.  They were asking more than the usual one or two dollars for that one.  If I recall, it was $100.  No, I didn’t buy it.  I have dozens of Bibles right behind me at this moment and if I had a Franklin to spend I’d load up on books I don’t already own.  Many of the books mentioned on this blog came from just such sales as these.  That big Bible’s not the surprising thing either.  Here it is: on a recent library book sale day, I saw a shelf with Bibles.  They were free.  Library book sales are intended to raise money, but Bibles for free?  Unexpected, no?

America is the land of free Bibles.  They are printed in vast quantities and sold cheaply, without a thought to what this says in a capitalist world.  Some Christian rock groups were famous for throwing free Bibles from the stage—you’ve got to think those in attendance already had one—and any county fair will usually have at least free New Testaments for the taking.  Ironically, most of those who distribute free Good Books are also the staunchest supporters of capitalism, one of the most exploitative economies ever invented.  Attending library book sales entails more than just finding books that you perhaps didn’t know about.  It’s more than being tempted by something for which you’d rather not pay full-price.  It is, perhaps surprisingly, a learning experience in and of itself.


Highest Education

The average church-goer is often impressed with the idea of seminary.  The thought that someone could devote three years of their lives to theological minutiae in order to take a job with long hours and substandard pay, is mind-boggling.  Having been a seminary creature for so many years, however, makes me wonder if many church folk realize that seminaries are businesses.  Non-profits, yes, but businesses nonetheless.  This is a trait that they share with other institutions of higher learning.  Customers pay money for a good or a service (I’m not sure which) in the form of a degree.  If a student can’t cope academically, they’re often “grandfathered”through because, well, it costs a lot of money and you deserve to get what you paid for, right?

This business concept of higher education is dangerous and is primarily prevalent where governments do not support education.  Schools have to raise money and if alumni don’t give, well you have to raise tuition.  And the more somebody pays the better case they have for getting their degree.  Seminaries, however, also suffer from generally low-income alumni and sponsoring churches needing clergy.  (It’s not difficult to get accepted into most seminary programs.)  Only when a candidate is a serious problem will they tend to be weeded out.  And congregations get the results of such a system.  My level of cynicism probably results from having gone through seminary and then having taught at one for many years.  At no point have I been ordained.  In fact, even churches facing clergy shortages have shown no interest.  Call it sour grapes.

To me, however, the crisis in higher education is the result of business practices being applied to education.  The two don’t mix.  In a world where job options are limited for those too weak to dig and too proud to beg, ministry has some appeal.  You can be considered a community leader and an expert in the relatively innocuous arcane area of “theology.” And most of the people you serve will have no idea what seminary delivers, or doesn’t.  I attended events for seminary administrators offered by the Association of Theological Schools—the seminary accrediting body.  I learned that they too are under pressure to approve unless there’s a serious problem.  Even heads of accrediting bodies have to eat.  So we let the system churn on as it has since the earliest universities turned out educated clergy.  And we don’t stop to think what all of this means.

Tradition

Teaching Tradition

There’s a dilemma.  Many thinking religious conservatives end up arguing against “secular” education and yet wish to make themselves out as rational, and reasonable.  The truth is that underlying their position is the belief that the truth was revealed long ago and nothing has changed since then.  They want educated individuals to agree with this so quite often they establish their own institutions to turn out “experts” who haven’t been challenged in their positions.  This became clear to me yet again when reading Faith of Our Fathers by Stuart Chessman.  Subtitled A Brief History of Catholic Traditionalism in the United States from Triumph to Traditionis Custodes, I was expecting a history.  Instead it is more of a screed, or jeremiad, arguing that the Catholic Church is trying to destroy traditionalism.  What I was looking for, I guess, was a “secular” history.

I’m interested in traditionalism.  I taught, after all, for well over a decade at Nashotah House.  What I learned there I also sensed in this book.  There’s a certain naiveté associated with such theological thinking.  (Political conservatism is much more insidious.)  Small groups tend to think the larger organization has it in for them.  In reality, the larger church (in both these cases) has much more pragmatic things on its collective mind.  The narrow focus of traditionalists, however, interprets everything in the light of—in this case—rejecting the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.  Having the mass in Latin is more important (as is clear here) than coming up with an effective way of dealing with Covid-19.  Traditionalists are proud that they met more frequently during the height of the epidemic.

This kind of thinking is important to understand.  For Roman Catholicism, as a hierarchical organization, the projection of unity is very important.  Anyone involved in the upper levels of any administration knows that money—even for churches, especially for churches—is a major concern.  Reputation influences cash flow, so reputation has to be guarded at all costs.  No organization can appear to be caught up in medievalism in a capitalistic twenty-first century.  I had hoped this little book would contain an actual history of the movement, looking at socio-economic, political, and religious causes and their ramifications.  In other words, why people do things.  Believe me, I understand the draw of traditionalism.  Although it was in English my first Episcopal high mass threw me into a multi-year odyssey to a place (Nashotah House) where I learned what was really going on.  It’s not all about smells and bells.  Not by a long shot. 


Words and Belief

Why do we care so little for the poor?   Part of the answer is surely the misguided idea of meritocracy—if you merit good you will be successful.  This kind of thinking emerges from the wrong end of a bull.  There may be poor people who are lazy but the vast majority of the poor are those for whom our systems make it impossible to thrive.  It’s very easy to put them out of mind as long as we can keep them out of sight and just let our prejudices do the thinking for us.  The poor are the victims of capitalism.  Loud voices proclaim them to be a drain on the system, despite the fact that many of them work—some multiple jobs—and remain unable to keep up.  Capitalism is kind only to the wealthy.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber is one of the organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign.  The full name is the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.  The initial part is taken from an initiative that Martin Luther King, Jr. started before his assassination.  He was shifting towards a movement meant to address the entrenched unfairness deep in American society.  These nearly six decades on, we are just as deeply entrenched.  Barber is doing amazing work, organizing, speaking, and advocating.  He’s trying to give a voice to the people.  I do wonder, however, if using the word “Revival” doesn’t work against the goals of the movement.

Certain words have been poisoned by their abuse among various religious groups.  Especially among the young.  The word “revival” may fall into that category, calling to mind, as it may, repressed people working up to an emotional fever under the banner of Hellfire and brimstone.  Believing a bit too literally a message that was contained in a book viewed magically.  Names can be important.  Many of the younger generation are put off even by the word “church” since so much hypocrisy (something the Republican party has openly embraced) has come to light over recent decades.  I fully agree that we need a moral revival, we need people to wake up and demand that our government promote the justice it claims to seek.  I do wonder if religion, as previously packaged, has the credibility to do it.  No matter how we take on the task, it’s clear that the poor have been abandoned by the system, through no fault of their own.  And some in the church have begun to find their voice in the Poor People’s Campaign.

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

Love Your Mother

It’s not exactly a birthday, for we don’t know when exactly she was born.  We choose April 22 to think of our mother—the mother of us all.  For many of us concerned about the environment, not only is today Earth Day, but April has become Earth Month.  To me one of the saddest aspects of our environmental crisis is that certain sects of Christianity are largely responsible for it.  Religion working against the betterment of humankind.  So it was in the beginning, is now, and hopefully we won’t have to finish the triad.  Granted, religions help us to keep our mind on spiritual matters.  The problem is when such things become dogma and the real needs of real people are ignored so that a fervently desired fantasy can be lived out by destroying our planet.

In response there are what have been called “deep green” religions.  It’s difficult to gain a critical mass, however, when many of those who think deeply about the environment have left religion out of the equation.  It seems to me that we’ve got to make peace with our evolved tendencies toward religion in order to have any meaningful discussion about this.  Meanwhile global warming continues.  It does so with the blessing of a kind of Christianity that sees this world as expendable and exploitable based on an idiosyncratic reading of Genesis.  Even though all the evidence points in the opposite direction, we have networks (here’s looking at you, Fox), owned by billionaires who know you can sway Christianity simply by kissing your hand to the moon.

It’s my hope that this Earth Day we might start to think about how to integrate some deep green theology into the kind that sees no room for green in the red, white, and blue.  The self-convinced have no desire for conversation about this and those already certain that religion is nothing but superstition tend to agree.  Since antiquity, however, the wise have realized that progress comes from the middle ground.  Politicians, in their own self-interest, have stoked the fires of division and hatred, knowing that they get reelected that way.  Mother Earth, I suspect, is rolling her eyes.  She will survive even if we succumb to our own mythologies.  We need to learn to talk to one another.  We need to accept that we evolved to be religious.  We need to look for middle ground while there’s still dry ground on which to stand.  It’s not exactly a birthday, but it is a holiday that should be taken seriously. It’s only right to love your mother.

From NASA’s photo library

Easter Weather

The weather doesn’t always cooperate for holidays.  Easter is, at heart, a celebration of spring—life after death.  Around here this holiday has been accompanied by fits and starts in warmer weather and instead of warmer it’s actually colder again.  Just a week ago there was snow in the air.  Life’s that way; you don’t always know what to expect.  I guess I’m still in hibernation mode.  No matter the season, there never seems to be enough time to sleep.  As a youth I always attended sunrise services on Easter.  These days I regularly rise before the sun, so as long as I’m capable it’s like every day is Easter.  But with work.  Even on what many recognize as Easter—which overlaps with Passover this year—the Orthodox feel we have it too early, what with the Julian calendar still being in effect.  It’s all a matter of how we look at time.

As much as I hate mowing, I admire the exuberance of grass.  It’s ready to welcome the longer days by stretching toward the sun.  Drinking in the plenteous rain.  The dandelions have already begun to spread, opening their yellow eyes to all and sundry passing insects.  Easter is a time to reflect on life returning after winter.  And I can’t help but think of those in the southern hemisphere for which Easter falls in the autumn.  The theology fails to match the seasons as life springs up just as winter is about to set in.  The Christian viewpoint is a northern one, keyed to our seasons.  The weather doesn’t always observe the prevailing theology.

Around here Good Friday was a fine, sunny day.  Like most of the fine, sunny days it was a work day.  Now it’s a chillier Easter, the Saturday between being a mix with some rain.  When I was young—eagerly awaking for sunrise services, which I often had a hand in designing—I marveled at how the weather often seemed to cooperate.  Now as I think back, I remember coming out of Good Friday services into the incongruous sunshine and finding many an Easter still bearing an unseasonal chill.  Weather is, of course, a local and global phenomenon.  One person’s chilly Easter is too hot for someone further away.  And for yet others the onset of autumn.  Globalism has taught us to look further, to think in terms of how others might be experiencing this world.  Easter seems an appropriate time to do just that.


Ecclesiastical Splinters

Religion is a massive, sprawling thing without a fixed definition.  Historians of religion have specializations.  Mine has been ancient religions of the Levant, but we’ve all seen how far that got me.  After taking a few years to recover, my research has shifted toward religions of the modern period.  There are plenty of them and many of them are under-studied.  That latter point makes things a bit easier.  Believe it or not, ancient religions is a pretty crowded field.  After I’d begun to write on Asherah, for example, I learned at least two other scholars were doing the same.  Not that there aren’t challenges with modern religions, particularly if they’re still practiced.  Take Roman Catholicism, for example.  I’ve never been a member of the Catholic Church.  There are Anglicans who would claim part of that title, but it has its own distinctions.

Catholicism is the largest Christian denomination by a long stretch.  It makes claims at being the oldest as well, but that’s a little more difficult to verify from an historian’s point of view.  In any case, Catholicism also likes to show a unified front to the world.  This is a little tricky because any time you get more than a billion people together you’re going to have differences.  Being a hierarchical organization, there is someone at the top to make official pronouncements, but in fact, those below will believe what they believe.  Many Catholics, for instance, use birth control.  I’ve been researching a sect within Catholicism and am finding it difficult to find resources.  It seems the Catholic Church (a billion is power) prefers not to have books out there on how divided it is.

Most Christian denominations are quite divided.  That’s why there are so many sects in the world.  If one is powerful enough to prevent those who dissent from making a big deal of it, good luck in finding useful resources about it!  The sect I’ve been exploring has, as far as I can determine, one footnote hidden away in a university press book devoted to it.  Other sources are, apparently, carefully kept quiet.  Yes, there are power struggles within the Vatican.  There’s a lot at stake here.  On Easter everyone in Christianity (except the Orthodox) will appear united for a day.  Well, not those sects that don’t celebrate holidays.  I don’t know how anyone can not find all of this fascinating.  There’s power involved in religion.  It may not vie with mammon, but it deals in it as well.  And we’ve all got so much to learn.

Photo by Callum Parker on Unsplash

Masking the Devil

There are many books on the Devil.  In fact, entire horror movies such as The Ninth Gate are based on that fact.  Since writing a book on demons (Nightmares with the Bible), I read a few of the many.  I’ve continued to read some further since, and one of them is Luther Link’s The Devil: A Mask without a Face.  The first thing to note about this book is that it is the same as The Devil: The Archfiend in Art from the Sixth to the Sixteenth Century, as it was published simultaneously in the United States.  (The former was published in the United Kingdom.)  Many authors don’t realize that when you sign a publishing contract you’re selling the rights (the copyright) for your book.  Some publishers or agents will sell the rights in different territories to different publishers.  They don’t have to use the same title largely because, prior to Amazon it was difficult to buy UK published books in the US and vice-versa.  Now a lot of “buying around” happens so books published anywhere can be purchased anywhere.  (Except in authoritarian states.)

In any case, this book is a study of the Devil in art.  The UK subtitle, A Mask without a Face, focuses on the conclusions drawn, whereas the US subtitle is more descriptive of the contents.  There are a number of interesting points made by Link.  One of the most important is that of his conclusion—the Devil, in the biblical and theological worlds of the long Middle Ages, really isn’t so much a character or “person”as a representation of “the enemy.” His looks and actions depend on the circumstances.  As Link points out, to the Pope Luther was inspired by the Devil, to Luther the Pope was inspired by the Devil.  Both, Link concludes, were dealing with a mask without, well, a face. Further, since the Devil does God’s bidding, whether he can be considered evil or not must be questioned.

Another interesting point is the strange continuity and lack thereof that characterize the representations of the Devil.  Some of the continuities go back to an antiquity (such as ancient Mesopotamia) that had by lost by the Middle Ages.  There was no real avenue of transmission since who remembered Humbaba after the tablets of Gilgamesh had been buried for centuries?  This seems to point to what Jung would’ve considered archetypes.  Or it could be that the same things scare people across the ages.  The point of the book isn’t to be comprehensive, but it does make a good point.  Anyone accusing someone of being the Devil opens themselves to the exact same charge.


Leathers

It’s an occupational hazard for the vegan Bible editor.  Leather.  Leather Bibles, although expensive, are popular.  If you want free fetishistic deliveries of colored leather to arrive at your door, well, it’s part of a Bible editor’s life.  Morally I’m opposed to leather and I eagerly await the day when cactus leather is considered a suitable alternative.  Leather began being used in bookbinding early on, when books were treasured possessions.  It was readily available because animal slaughter was a part of everyday life.  It’s also extremely durable.  These days it’s just a status symbol.  When Bibles are produced there’s generally a market for whatever translation in leather.  In my time I’ve seen some well enough used to perhaps justify such extravagance, but not very often.  Usually it’s merely for show.

There’s an entire vocabulary associated with leather bookbinding.  Tooling, or engraving the smooth leather to look like something else, embossing, or pressing a design in the leather, gilding, or the use of gold paint on leather, and dentelle, or having a border run around the outside edge.  All of these were (and still are) signs of the artistry of the binder.  The practice dates back to before the nineteenth century when books were bound by booksellers, not publishers.  Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  In any case, apart from tradition there’s no need to kill animals to bind books any more.  Law books and Bibles are the major purveyors of leather binding.  It continues simply because it continues.

One term used for traditions unwilling to change is “hidebound.”  While this seems originally to have referred to emaciated cattle, it has come to be associated with codified, as in leather books.  Pigskin, or other cheaper hides, are often used.  Or “bonded leather,” which is as much plastic (if not more) than actual leather.  The Bible isn’t a terribly animal-friendly book.  Dogs are unclean and cats aren’t mentioned at all (except the large, wild kinds).  Yes, there are shepherds—both good and bad—but sheep were kept to be exploited.  And perhaps turned into leather.  There’s something strangely symbolic about this.  And not in a propitious way.  Where does obeying the rules get you?  Sheep are praised for their docility, their willingness to be thoughtlessly exploited, slaughtered, skinned, and eaten.  To do the job, a Bible editor must learn about leather.  Perhaps its a profession best left to carnivores.


Future Ministry

I’ve been on the Green Committee at work almost since I started the job.  Occasionally for Earth Day we’ll have a book discussion.  Usually it revolves around nonfiction books that my press publishes.  This year they selected Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.  It’s an environmentalism tale of what global warming may well be like and the political machinations it might take (and the millions of deaths along the way) before we stop burning carbon.  It’s a long and detailed and political story.  Robinson is known as an intellectual science fiction writer and there are sci-fi elements to the book, but its style is realist and its outlook, while ultimately hopeful, is staid.  Even when humans start to move in the right direction.  It’s also a very long book.

Reading it got me to thinking again of a somewhat bewildering truth: environmentalism books tend not to sell overly well and sustained reading, even by supporters, is difficult.  Many of us know that we’re beyond the tipping point for environmental disaster.  The Trump years assured us that it is coming.  One of the elements Robinson makes clear is just how politically entrenched it is.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the despair.  The vast majority of people in the world want a more environmentally conscious government, but plutocracy tends to bring narcissists to the top and the needs of all others are less important.  In Robinson’s version of the story, targeted violence is the only thing that works.  Near the end of the story an interesting idea is raised: the Ministry of the Future (which is a government ministry, not the church kind) concludes a new religion is needed.

The masses of people, you see, are followers.  Religious leaders reinforce the idea that God told their founders—and by extension their followers—the only truth.  Their jobs (and ministries are jobs) include reinforcing those ideas to people who’ve been raised or converted to that particular brand of religion.  A number of New Religious Movements, and even a couple of prescient ancient religions, have been purposely constructed.  The trick is to get followers to accept that the religion is legitimate.  Most western religions around today have been based on the idea that humans can do whatever they want with the planet—even destroy it to force God to return.  I kind of like Robinson’s idea better.  Perhaps that’s why religions form around movies like Avatar.  Not a bad thought, when your job has you reading a sci-fi novel.  A religion saving the earth feels like a novel idea.


Monasticism

The other day I was reading about monasticism (as one does), and something curious occurred.  The article, which was describing a famous monastery, mentioned that monks lived in the convent.  Now, lest you think anything about religion is simple, I must clarify that in English it is common usage to refer to “monasteries”as places where monks (male) live.  Again, in English usage “convents”are for nuns (female).  The words, however, have a more interesting history than that.  Not exactly interchangeable (can you imagine the confusion?), they do originally refer to different kinds of institution.  

Often monasticism is traced back to Anthony of Egypt.  Anthony famously kept himself away from other people to devote his life to God.  This, of course, led other people to seek him out, wanting what he’d found.  Eventually, the narrative goes, the idea occurred that lots of guys could live together in common, but shut away from the rest of the world.  Thus monasteries were born.  The story’s actually more complicated and I can’t give you the full picture here.  We do know that even in Judaism, before Christianity came along, there were separatist sects.  One of them, known for convenience as “the Essenes,” set up a commune not far from where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  They lived lives of purity and prayer and women were strictly forbidden.  They seem even to have had a monastic rule.  They lived on the edge of the desert and perhaps were responsible for the famous scrolls.  Monasticism thus had early roots.

The European Middle Ages were the high-water mark for monasticism.  Like our own day, people were dealing with plagues and strong-arm kings and lack of adequate infrastructure.  Many powerful monasteries had been founded, and they could be for monks or nuns, generally not in mixed company.  There were also solitary monks (it was more difficult for women to wander about alone), called mendicants.  Such people needed places to stay now and again, and that was what was called a convent.  A monastery could be for either sex, and the word “nunnery”eventually helped to make this clear.  The English use of the words, while convenient, can lead to confusion because established monasteries could have convents as part of their design.  I suppose not many people are really interested in monasticism these days.  Looking at what’s happening in the world, however, I wonder if we might not be on the cusp of a modern replacement for them.  It would be something curious indeed.


D Evil

The Devil, they say, is in the details.  T. J. Wray and Gregory Mobley look into those details in The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots.  It’s often a surprise to Christian readers that the Devil clearly evolves in the Bible.  From being virtually absent in the Hebrew section, he appears, almost full blown, in the New Testament.  This, of course, flies in the face of the idea that the truth was pretty much revealed from the beginning and that it’s consistent throughout.  The Devil in the details proves that it’s not.  The Bible has multiple suggestions of whence evil arises, God among them.  The Devil came to be one explanation of the origin of evil, but he’s not the only biblical one.

One of the things I found fascinating here, however, was that the authors often refer to popular culture to illustrate their point.  They particularly favor movies.  The authors are biblical scholars and it’s not at all unusual to find movie fans among them.  I suspect that since biblical scholars (apart from the linguists) specialize in stories it’s only natural that movies appeal.  They aren’t given extended discussion here, and indeed, a book about the Devil in the movies would be very thick if it attempted to be comprehensive.  Satan is a movie star.  Since he evolves into the embodiment of evil this is probably not surprising.  A good plot needs some evil in it, and one character in the western canon is the granddaddy of all evil.

Those looking for a fuller biography of the Prince of Evil may be disappointed that this book keeps to its remit—the biblical Satan.  There are, however, many more books about the Devil.  Maybe even more than movies in which he appears.  Scholars and laity both seem interested in this character.  He appears late on the scene, only within the last century or so of the biblical writing period.  His fullest portrait there is the highly symbolic book of Revelation.  And no matter what else you say about it, we can all admit Revelation is tricky to understand.  Since we take the Bible so seriously, one aspect of Satan that isn’t addressed here is his role as trickster.  Folkloric characters who cause chaos (which the Devil does) are often tricksters doing it for no particular reason.  We don’t know why the Devil is bad.  The Bible has no clear origin story for him, since he’s built up from several other cultures’ ideas of bad deities.  To sort it all out requires, well, the details.