Knowing Everything

Of all the jobs I’ve held, being an editor is the only one where strangers send random emails trying to convince me of God’s reality.  Granted, part of that may be because email is now so common as to be passé among the younger crowd.  When I myself was younger it was still just catching on.  Still, part of these strange emails is likely based on the evangelical compulsion to make others see things their way.  Someone who edits biblical studies books might seem like a good target.  I got another such email just last week, and as always, I wondered over it.  What kinds of assumptions must random strangers make about biblical studies specialists?  One of these assumptions, it’s clear, is that they suppose we are atheists.  They know this without even asking.

Technology has made such blindsiding communication easier.  It didn’t invent it, though.  It took a lot more effort to write up a letter, address it, buy a stamp, and mail it than it does to sit down at a keyboard, click, and they start proselytizing away.  In my earlier days, in other incarnations of a career, I received unexpected missives from time-to-time.  And certainly as a seminary professor you had students who had already figured everything out by the time they’d gotten to matriculation.  Many of them were coming to seminary to teach rather than to learn.  Such can be the arrogance of faith.  I fear that many of them graduated with their biases intact.  Education, perhaps, doesn’t work for everyone.

Photo credit: NASA

Having it all figured out is something many of us strive for.  We want things to make sense.  We want our spirituality to fit into this increasingly materialistic world.  Some of us go to seminary and/or graduate school to help us make sense of things.  We encounter minds further along the journey than our own, and, if we’re open, we learn from them.  For me, it’s difficult to understand how education isn’t always a humbling experience.  Oh, I get emails from academics who think they’ve figured it all out as well.  Such communications always make me sad.  The human enterprise, such as it is, has spanned millennia and true progress has only been made when people were humble enough to admit that they didn’t know everything.  They would eventually invent the internet and email.  Then those who already knew all the answers could send them to strangers to convince them of their own great learning.


One Day or Another

Although normally a time for celebration, Mardi Gras, I’m told, was subdued this year.  Today is Ash Wednesday but many of us feel like we’ve been living a year of Lent already.  I once told a fellow office worker on Ash Wednesday, “I think about death every day, I don’t need a yearly reminder.”  Looking out at the old snow, melting, freezing, refreshed with occasional flurries, I’m reminded of the cycles of nature.  I’ve been watching the turn of the year’s wheel.  Over the solstice I looked into Yule, and just a few days ago considered Imbolc.  The wheel of the year is a symbol for modern earth-based religions seeking to be kept in sync with nature.  It is a cycle, slowly turning.  Death, in this way of thinking, is part of a larger system.  It seems appropriate to consider it this Ash Wednesday.

I say it’s Ash Wednesday but it would be more correct to say “for many Christians it’s Ash Wednesday.”  Cultural imperialism is difficult to shake.  With the pandemic still embracing us tight we haven’t had much reprieve from thoughts of death these many months.  Thinking of the wheel of the year, however, may bring hope.  A wheel in motion spins around to a new beginning that, in the nature of circles, is equally at every point.  New beginnings are offered every day.  While we’ve never been in a year of isolation before, there is nothing that hasn’t been before.  Self-aggrandizing dictators, world-wide pandemics, calls for social justice and fairness, have all come around before this.  They may come around again.  The main thing is to keep it moving.

It moves, in fact, without us.  One of our human foibles is being species-centric.  When we discuss, in a pique of teenage angst, of “destroying life on earth” we really mean destroying humankind and perhaps many other species as well.  Not all.  With a kind of collective insanity we go about warring against our own kind, exploiting all other species we deem valuable, and talk as if that’s all that matters.  Today, for some, it is Ash Wednesday.  For others it is World Human Spirit Day.  For many of us it’s just another workday among many very similar, cut from the fabric of a year that has no even spokes to keep it rolling.  Beneath our feet this orb spins on, regardless.  The cycles continue, with or without us.  How wonderful it would be if we could actively contribute to their progress.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

 


Leadership

After four years it finally feels safe again.  We can celebrate Presidents’ Day, although now and forever with some trepidation.  Even as Republicans still protect the insurrectionist Trump, democracy has survived his tenure of horror.  Many Americans don’t realize just how close to Nazi Germany we came.  There are many who hold party above the good of the nation, something our founders, one of whom we celebrate today, feared.  The outdated safeguards of democracy, such as the electoral college, have been used more than once to “elect” presidents the American people did not want.  One guess as to which party this has only favored.  Democracy, we’re now being told, is fragile.  It shouldn’t be.  Only the designs of a party scheming for personal enrichment makes it so.

Today we can at least take a breather and be glad that we no longer have a bigoted, sexist, classist, racist incumbent.  We have a female Vice President of color.  We are on the long, slow road to recovery.  The senate, clearly recognizing Trump’s danger to the nation, voted to acquit him because Republicans fear not being reelected if they stand up to him.  Our democracy’s not out of the woods, even this Presidents’ Day.  Until the GOP learns to grow a backbone we’ll be in constant danger of collapsing.  Anyone with back trouble knows how it can stop you in your tracks.  Of course, once you’ve made a deal with the Devil, there’s no getting out of it.  Most Republicans could benefit from just a touch of folk wisdom.

When one party sides with armed thugs who’d have happily killed them if they’d been found just a little over a month ago, our grounds for celebrating today remain on thin ice.  The GOP, which has no moral compass left, has decided that bullies and armed bandits are the way of the future they’d like to see.  Although Trump lost both popular elections they’d still vote for him a third time and support him again if he incited another insurrection.  It’s Presidents’ Day but we’re still on the edge of a precipice.  When a political party refuses to learn from its mistakes, and indeed, tries to build upon them, our celebration of democracy must, by definition, be subdued.  We do have grounds for hope.  Efforts to get the coronavirus under control are starting to take effect.  We have a sane human being in the Oval Office.  Until the GOP disavows evil, however, we’ll continue to live in fear.

 


Love or Saints?

One of the many oddities of life at Nashotah House was that we never celebrated St. Valentine.  I wouldn’t expect a mostly male and neurotically homophobic community to mark Valentine’s Day as for lovers (most of the faculty and many students were married, however), but the saint’s name wasn’t uttered in my years there.  Of course, commercialization of holidays does taint them somewhat.  It’s difficult to take a day seriously when you’re being told that how much you spend will be the sign of how special it will be.  With St. Valentine’s Day, however, I believe the topic was much too close to something the church had long feared—sexuality.  I’ve often pondered how this strange obsession evolved.  Judaism, from which Christianity sprung, isn’t the origin of this antipathy to being fully human.

The trouble likely starts in the Bible.  The New Testament, in particular.  No mention is made of Jesus having been married.  Paul, in his usual way, made it an issue but fell short of outright condemning it.  His words would help convince the Roman Catholic Church that mandated celibacy was a good idea.  Clearly, however, Augustine of Hippo, who lived after Valentine (depending on which one you elect to follow) saw the whole enterprise as flawed.  Making up the concept of original sin and tying it in with sexuality was a certain means of creating a problem.  Not that Christianity is the only religion that promotes celibacy, of course.  But when it came to Nashotah House there was really no concern about what other religions taught.  Even on February 14 no collects were recited mentioning the saint who must not be named.

The history of saints’ days is a fascinating one.  A few of them made it into pop culture—after Presidents’ Day there’s no national holiday until Memorial Day in May, so who can blame people for looking for reasons to celebrate while still waiting for spring?  Saint Patrick wasn’t similarly given the cold shoulder at Nashotah in my years there.  And although it moved around quite a bit, you could usually count on April for delivering Easter.  We didn’t celebrate Presidents’ Day.  Nor Martin Luther King Day—not being Catholic his canonization process was a non-starter.  The long, cold stretch between Epiphany (now Insurrection Day) and Lent was one devoid of popular holidays.  I suspect that despite the number of saints (and there are lots of them) the singling out of Valentine was considered to be asking for trouble.  That was many years ago.  Oddities, however, have a way of remaining in long-term memory.


Meanness

There’s often a meanness to literalist religions.  A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can.  No compassion.  No forgiveness.  Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising.  Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one.  The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind.  Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria.  Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra.  The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images.  When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.

This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam.  Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace.  What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists.  Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious.  The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life.  As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever.  There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts.  Religion has no feud with the past.  In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts.  Continuity is important to them.

Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics.  As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized.  Kept separate.  When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized.  This happened elsewhere around the world.  “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image.  We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.  Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth.  In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself.  That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying.  No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets.  It takes literalism to make it one.


Religions and Horrors

My latest piece on The Golem has just appeared on Horror Homeroom.  It’s free—check it out.  In it I briefly discuss Jewish horror.  I mainly write about Christian horror because that’s my immediate context.  That’s not to say other religions don’t participate in the genre too.  While I worked for Routledge I acquired the book Buddhism Goes to the Movies, by Ronald Green.  Like the title suggests, it’s about movies focused on, or made by, Buddhists.  What sold me on the project was the chapter on horror films.  Much of what’s being called “J-Horror,” or Japanese Horror these days, occurs in a Buddhist or Shinto contexts.  I’m not expert enough in these traditions, however, to spot them with the detail that I do in my own native religion. 

All religious traditions have certain commonalities.  As I’ve frequently discussed on this blog, sex and death are two of them.  Given the powerful ideas that religion trades in, it seems natural that it would appear frequently in the horror genre.  It’s just that modern viewers tend to be somewhat divorced from religion and can’t see it.  Religion is that way—it fills the cracks.  How often do we pay attention to the caulking or grout?  We tend to focus on the tile or woodwork instead.  Religion holds thought systems together, including those of the horror genre.  I just discussed no-go subjects yesterday, but even science shows religion in some of the cracks.  Learning to see it involves learning to shift your focus.

I blogged about The Golem just after I watched it, back in December.  The golem is an original Jewish monster, and Judaism is both a culture and a religion.  It’s difficult to tease them apart sometimes.  The same can be said of many traditions outside Christianity.  In fact, many cultures had no word for religion—the idea of a separate realm of life where you try to please the gods because what you do otherwise is inherently sinful.  (There’s probably a reason that capitalism grew in a Christian context.)  That means that horror particularly welcomes Christianity.  Many of the bases of fear are premised on a religion that, as culturally bound as it is, has always claimed that joining it is a choice.  If you can choose you can choose wrongly.  This is fertile ground for horror, especially when the consequences are eternal.   My Horror Homeroom piece takes a different approach than this, but religion and horror nevertheless find themselves together, often in the same room.


How Clean Is Your Brain?

First it was in.  Then it was out.  Now nobody seems to be sure.  “Brainwashing” isn’t really a scientific term, but human suggestibility is very well in evidence.  Advertisers count on it.  Did I really need that phone case when I never go out?  And so on.  The real question is can people be compelled to do what they normally wouldn’t want to.  Think Jonestown.  Heaven’s Gate.  Waco.  Do people really want to die en masse?  Are we but higher lemmings?  I’ve seen hypnotists do their shows.  The human mind is manipulable.  We can be shut off from reason.  A recent article from The Middletown Press my wife shared with me raises the question whether conspiracy theories, such as those sported by QAnon, are something like brainwashing.  Clearly they are.  As are many Fundamentalist forms of religion.

You can recognize this when a conversation becomes such that the true believer simply won’t listen to evidence.  They’ll say they want to discuss an issue when all they really want to do is have someone state their side so they can tell them they’re wrong.  Reason has nothing to do with it.  When that part of their gray matter that handles things rationally feels backed against a wall they resort to ad hominem attacks.  I’ve been observing this since I was a child raised in such a paranoid religious tradition.  It works for politics, too.  For many QAnon sorts, Trump’s word was God’s word.  Once uttered it could not be refuted, not with all the evidence in the world.  It’s very much like Fundamentalist views of the Bible which can’t take context, translation, and reason into account.  When contradictions are blatantly pointed out they respond with “there are no contradictions.”  Is there brainwashing?

Conspiracy theories can seem real because there are actually some conspiracies.  There are government secrets.  Only the naive deny that.  Still, once you start throwing in the ridiculous—that a devil-worshipping cabal of pedophiles is running a secret government—you’re in water over your head.  Not only that, this sounds incredibly like the satanic panic that spread through much of the world in the late 1980s into the 1990s.  When the evidence was examined, it was found lacking.  Some of the key bestselling accounts were admitted to have been forgeries.  The believing mind, however, has trouble letting go.  We used to call fringe groups cults.  We used to suggest that people could be held against their will.  People leaving QAnon are reporting similar experiences, according to the article.  Brainwashing by any other name would be so real.


Christian Nationalisms

Ongoing analysis of the Capitol Riots continues as footage of the event is scrutinized.  Although the press is puzzled, those who study religion—underfunded and ignored in the academy—aren’t really surprised.  A recent story from the Associated Press explores how Christian Nationalism, one of the most dangerous forces in the United States, played a large role in the event.  Christian Nationalism is one example of what I call weaponized religion.  As someone who’s spent over four decades studying religion minutely, it’s pretty clear when religion begins to slip its moorings and is becoming radicalized.  Generally it begins when adherents refuse to hear any views but their own.  They believe their version of their religion is the only “one, true faith” and this gives them the mandate to attack any who believe differently.  In the case of Christianity it’s very difficult to see what any of this has to do with a carpenter from Nazareth.

Indeed, evangelical Christians themselves are exploring what is now being called “Republican Jesus.”  This Jesus isn’t the one from the Good Book.  Far from it.  No humble shepherd saying “turn the other cheek” fits this image.  Long ago I read Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus.  In it he analyzed how the American appropriation of the Jewish rabbi became a muscular, masculine fighter.  Not the kind of guy who’d let Roman authorities nail him to a cross.  And certainly not a softie who would favor outcasts, women, and children over the rich and powerful.  This image of Jesus, who draws a hard line on certain trigger issues, is as patently false as any reconstruction can be.  And yet it drives unruly mobs into the halls of power.  Universities, meanwhile, cut religion departments.

Photo credit: David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t pretend to be a prophet, but this issue isn’t going away.  Our culture has long harbored the myth of America as the “new Israel.”  The leaders of Christian Nationalism are organized and they have a clear agenda to take over the country.  Like other serious issues that don’t have to do with making money, it’s simply overlooked as irrelevant.  When the mainstream media gets a glimpse at what’s been going on in such groups, it always seems surprised.  The kind of elitism that divorces itself from the everyday simply can’t be informed of what’s actually happening.  Religion is a very powerful driving force.  It motivates many far more than money does.  We see it plainly when it becomes weaponized.  By then, however, it could be too late.


February Festivities

One of the more commonly overlooked holiday complexes comes around Groundhog Day.  It may seem strange to be thinking about spring right now, but it’s on everyone’s mind.  (In this hemisphere anyway.)  When seasons actually begin is a matter of perspective, and that’s not just a north-south hemisphere divide.  With our scientific outlook, we take the path of equinoxes and solstices.  If you look closely, however, there is a set of seasonal holidays that falls midway between them, dividing the year into eight spokes.  These cross-quarter days were recognized in some cultures as the early inklings of a new season beginning.  If Halloween (Samhain) marks the start of winter, this holiday, Imbolc, is the beginning of spring.  The day had many associations, one of which was watching a groundhog (or other animal) to see if the weather would begin changing sooner or later.  Spring itself is inevitable.

The popularity of Groundhog Day owes quite a bit to the movie of that name.  The film is more complex than its classification as a comedy might suggest.  Although the day itself does deal with the cyclical nature of, well, nature, repetition isn’t an inherent theme in the holiday.  Neither is it part of the related Christian celebration of Candlemas.  Indeed, I tend to think Groundhog Day has the makings of a horror story.  Being stuck in time could represent a terrible fate for many.  Interestingly, Phil Conners (Bill Murray), after having been stuck in this same day for a considerable amount of time, suggests to Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell) that he might be a god.  He is immortal and he knows everything that is to be known in Punxsutawney.  He can predict things before they happen (of course, he has become Punxsutawney Phil, in a manner of speaking).

A philosophically rich movie, the story has appealed to adherents of several religions.  That, in itself, is amazing.  The endless repetition could represent samsara to those of south and east Asian religious inclination.  The learning to be kind, and even forgiveness aspects, appeal to those who want to find a Christian message in it.  Not bad for a holiday nobody gets off of work, and which frequently falls in the middle of the week.  The holiday complex of Imbolc, Candlemas, and Groundhog Day represents what had once been a more prominent season than we currently recognize.  Revivals of the more ancient celebrations have begun to appear, but the endless repetition so valued by capitalistic systems has nearly captured us all.


Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.


Goats, Sheep, and Politics

Reasonable evangelicals need a new name.  As a voting bloc, evangelicals have, according to many of their leaders, fallen from grace.  Ironically it was the “draw”—whatever that could possibly be—of the cult of Donald Trump that caused it.  While encouraging their sheep to vote for him both in 2016 and 2020, some of these leaders had their eyes opened to what many of us saw from the beginning, but it took an insurrection to pry their lids apart.  A story by Rachel Martin on NPR, “’How Did We Get Here?’ A Call for an Evangelical Reckoning on Trump” explores this unfortunate, and avoidable catastrophe.  Such evangelicals don’t excel at fact-checking.  It’s far easier to believe what you’re told by a dynamic individual.  Along the way they’ve jettisoned the morality of that “old time religion” for the lust of power.  Now some of their leaders are wondering what they’ve done.

I’m not one to idolize the 1950s.  Heck, I wasn’t even born yet.  One truth from them, however, has always stayed with me: religion and politics don’t mix.  Try this experiment some time: ask Trump evangelicals what party their church (if it existed then) supported in the 1950s.  Many Christians were Democrats, particularly in the south.  Oh, if they confess this they’ll start using language about the Dems falling from grace (while still defending Trump, who can never fall from anything), shifting the onus back onto a theology not even half-baked.  Now their ministers are trying to remind them that morality actually is part of being an evangelical.  A very small part, but not completely evaporated.

History will teach us, if we’ll let it.  Richard Nixon saw evangelical voters as a bloc.  Himself a Quaker (currently among the most liberal of Protestant denominations, and devoted to peace), he was a political opportunist.  Evangelicals are taught that they are sheep.  Sheep are easily herded.  Imagine what might happen if their leaders tried to get them to think for themselves.  To fact check.  I used to tell my students not to take my word for things just because I could call myself “doctor.”  Check my sources.  See if I might’ve missed something.  This is the way knowledge progresses.  The NPR story gives me a modicum of hope.  Some leaders are realizing that their own mindless support of a known criminal—before he even got the nomination in 2016—was maybe a bad idea.  Of course, others still defend his actions after his attempted insurrection.  Sheep, if fed, will always follow.


Lizard Lords

In the aftermath of last week’s attempted coup by the alt-right crowd, NBC ran a story about conspiracy theories.  Specifically the lizard people (actually aliens) who secretly run the world.  If you hang out in weird places, like I do, you already know the story behind this: fueled by David Icke, some conspiracy theorists believe a race of shape-shifting alien lizard people control the government.  They’re deadly serious.  (You can fairly easily find videos purporting to show lizard people caught transforming at government events.)  The NBC story, by Lynn Stuart Parramore, traces the belief to an old anti-Semitic trope.  I haven’t studied this enough to have any opinions on the idea, but what caught my attention is that this particular conspiracy grew out of objections to Darwin.

While teaching I’d planned to write a book on Darwin and Genesis—I researched it for years.  I would add to Parramore’s story the fact that most of our political troubles today can be traced back to that same unwillingness to accept evolution.  Over the centuries in western culture, the Bible (while not necessarily read) had grown into such an object of veneration that anything which challenged it had to be rejected.  Charles Darwin was well aware that anyone following the dictates of science would be pilloried by a “Bible believing” culture, and this was in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Elitist intellectuals assumed this literalism would just go away but it never has.  When it appears (which it frequently does) they laugh at it and insist that if we ignore it it’ll just go away.  Then an armed mob takes over the U. S. Capitol.

The concern shouldn’t be that people believe in lizard people, but that they can’t let go of a threadbare literalism toward a book.  Biblical scholars are routinely ignored by those who believe their way of reading the Good Book is the only possible way to do so.  All other ways are “interpretations,” and these interpretations don’t reflect what God has told them personally, so they’re clearly wrong.  This view, simply dismissed by most of the educated, is extremely widespread.  It must be addressed in some way, rather than being treated as some passing fad.  There may be no lizard-people taking over, but this view of the Bible has been politically active for going on two centuries.  Instead of studying it and trying to understand it, we cut departments and positions that might help to solve the problem.  Maybe the lizards are controlling us after all.


Slow Jinn

You can sort of tell when an author has a background in religion.  Early on in my blog writing, I made note when novels had religious elements.  It’s so common that I seldom do that anymore.  Matt Ruff’s father was a minister.  His understanding of the religious landscape comes through in The Mirage.  It wasn’t on my reading list, but someone gave me a copy and the story drew me in.  In case, like me, you only know Ruff from Lovecraft Country, this tale’s quite different.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’re thinking of reading it fresh, you’ve been warned!

Set in an alternate reality in which the superpower in the world is the United Arab States, the story follows three police agents of Homeland Security as they uncover a perhaps unwelcome truth: the world they know is a mirage.  It is, in fact, the work of a jinn.  Before commenting on that, I would say that you don’t learn about the jinn until a good way into the story.  Up to that point I’d call this simply literary fiction.  The jinn adds a speculative element to it, and also explains, mostly, how things ended up the way they did.  Jinns, by the way, are often considered demons in Arabic culture.  They are quite different from Christian demons, and that point makes itself clear as the story unfolds.  Our three protagonists begin to uncover hints that the twin towers didn’t actually stand in Baghdad, and that Christian terrorists didn’t fly planes into them on November 9 (11/9).  They have run-ins with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as warring factions vie for power in the UAS.

This is a great story for trying to understand the world from the point of view of a different religion (unless you’re Muslim).  This is a world where Christians are terrorists (you get to meet David Koresh as well) and the United States is a backward country divided over religion.  Reading this as events unfolded in Washington, DC last week was a little bit disconcerting.  Alternative realities are often just a heartbeat away.  The plot is a bit complex at points, but it’s a fairly quick, if profound read.  Religion is the heart and soul of this book.  That religion could be either Islam or Christianity.  Perhaps even something different.  The way it plays out is very much like real life, dividing people against each other until reality becomes difficult to bear.  For anyone interested in what a Muslim-run world might have looked like, this is a good starting place.


Prophet Margins

One of the most misunderstood of biblical phenomena is prophecy.  One of the reasons it’s so misunderstood is that other ancient peoples came to associate it with predicting the future.  Now, what prophets said often had implications for the future, but they were more forth-tellers, as they say in the biz, than fore-tellers.  Amos, for instance, was a prophet concerned with social justice.  We know little about his life, but we can discern that ancient prophets could be paid to become “yes men” (“yes persons” just doesn’t sound right, and most were male) for the establishment.  Kings then, as now, surrounded themselves with sycophants who would tell them their policies were approved, or even ordained by God.  Amos was not one of those.

Amos points out in the book attributed to him that he was no paid prophet.  He was an honest worker with a great concern for social justice.  He lived in a prosperous time, but the wealth disparity between the rich and the poor troubled him.  (Amos has never been a favorite among prosperity gospelers, since his message has always been recognized as authentic among both Jews and Christians and he condemns the inequality rampant in society.)  Many in the eighth century BCE believed ceremonial actions—like, say, holding up a Bible in front of a church—pleased God.  Amos boldly declared such things sickened God as long as society favored the rich at the expense of the poor.  There’s a reason Evangelicals and Republicans tend to avoid Amos.  “But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream,” is not an easy thing to hear when you’re busy giving tax breaks to those who earn more than enough while refusing basic health care to the poor.

Prophets tend to speak of the future in conditional terms.  If your ways don’t change, then this will happen.  Some Christians, anxious to prove that Jesus was the messiah, came to see prophets as great predictors of the future.  Amos would likely have taken exception to them.  Even in his own day Amos made people uncomfortable.  His favorite image for God was that of a lion ready to attack.  His contemporaries told him to shut up.  Amos then made the famous statement that he was no professional prophet.  He would not adjust his message so that the comfortable could feel good about themselves.  If Amos were in America the last four years would’ve had his throat raw with pointing out to “Christians” how they’d come to misrepresent everything the prophets stood for.  We need more like him today.


Christian Fragility

Having read White Fragility, I was intrigued when a friend asked me if there might be such a thing as Christian fragility.  I think he was onto something.  To see how this might work, it needs to be understood that white fragility is the intense fear of having whiteness problematized.  We have been raised, conditioned, to think of it as the default form of humanity.  All others are “minorities”—aberrations, as it were.  Because of that “Caucasians” are reluctant to discuss race.  What my friend was suggesting, I think, is that there might be such a thing as Christian fragility as well.  Long considering itself the default true religion, Christianity has falsely convinced millions of Americans that this country was founded as an explicitly Christian one.  Many are surprised to learn Islam was here very early, largely because of African slaves.  And what of the indigenous religion of American Indians?

The idea of America as the ideal Christian nation is so deeply rooted that it’s something we bristle at talking about.  Think about it: educational institutions of the secular stripe don’t like to admit that many of them were founded as seminaries.  When I was growing up the two forbidden topics of conversation were politics and religion.  It seems that fragility may be a useful explanation.  Many academics refer to our culture as “post-Christian.”  They haven’t gotten out much.  Our culture is thoroughly suffused in Christianity.  It’s the air we breathe.  It’s the basis for many of our laws.  Much of science training (as I’ve argued before) is based on Christian assumptions.  Because Christianity shares so much background with Judaism clearly the picture is more complex than this, but the point I’m trying to make stands: we feel very uncomfortable when that implicit Christian identity is challenged, no matter how secular we are in reality.

Prior to Trump fear of “godless Russians” or “godless Communists” ran deep.  Ironically, evangelical Trump supporters now look to Putin’s Russia as a kind of model for political leadership.  We’re flailing about in Christian waters, baptizing the worst of human behaviors because we can’t bear to discuss whether something beyond Christianity might be worth considering.  I can’t claim to have absorbed the concept of white fragility fully, but I think the basic idea is sound.  American culture is extremely reticent to open discussions that suggest white, and Christian, aren’t defaults.  That people come in all kinds of shades of pink, tan, brown, red, yellow, and black are just as American.  That Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and any number of other religions belong in a melting pot.  Christian fragility might well explain why this is so.