Outdated Commandments

Recently, according to an ABC story a friend sent me, some self-righteous Catholics stole indigenous statues from the Amazon from a location in Rome.  The statues had been a gift to the Pope and placed outside the church of Santa Maria in Traspontina.  Like mass shooters these days, the Christians responsible filmed themselves doing this and shared it on social media.  I’ve experienced a lot of religious intolerance in my life.  I lost my job and my childhood to it, among other things.  Stories like this are beyond sad because religion really does have the capacity to bring people together rather than to tear them into warring factions.  Unfortunately it tends to draw in the hateful looking for excuses for their violence.

Not unrelatedly, I attended a church program on gun violence.  Before this gets immediately blown up into “anti-gun,” please note—the program was about violence, not guns.  During the Q&A after the presentation someone asked who the panelists were trying to reach, “preaching to the choir.”  After that he admitted to being a gun owner and felt that his position was unfairly represented.  Tension mounted.  One of the panelists, the one who’d witnessed his first murder at age 11, and who’d spent time in jail himself, broke in and said “This is about violence, let’s not make it about guns.”  I was struck by his focus and control.  He’d told us earlier that if a gang member could be convinced to wait 24 hours before getting his gun after an insult or injury a shooting almost never took place.  Violence is often a spur of the moment thing.

What’s so troubling about those who smirk as they film themselves doing violence, like stealing statues outside a church, is that this is not an impulse act.  This is planned, hateful violence.  It wears the mask of religion, often titled “orthodoxy” or “conservatism” but it is in reality simply a way of excusing your hatred.  Ironically, the Jesus they claim to be following said, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.”  I guess we’ve got quite a few sinless conservatives out there, although I have to wonder if filming yourself might not count as pride.  It used to be called a deadly sin, but who’s counting?  Self-righteousness isn’t quite the same thing as vanity, although they sleep in the same bed.  But let’s not get lust involved, once that happens there’ll be no telling one sin from another.

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.

Clean Thoughts

Brainwashing, it seems, does not exist.  Many of us who remember at least bits and snatches of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fear of cults, grew up hearing the term.  Someone’s personality had changed after some kind of trauma—slow or fast didn’t matter, but it had to be slightly prolonged—so that they were no longer recognizable as their former selves.  Scholars began to work on this idea and found it lacking.  Since the 1990s, at least, we’ve known there’s no such thing as “brainwashing.”  When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a mind to brainwash since it’s merely an actual brain making up a story to keep itself from being lonely in this cosmic wasteland.  Anyway, there’s no such thing as forcing someone to think something weird.

Then enter Trump.  I know many intelligent, educated people who cannot see the stark, naked contradictions.  Nothing, it seems, can convince them that simply saying “no I didn’t” doesn’t make it all right (alt right?).  The fact that well over a thousand pending lawsuits stood against him before he laid his hand on that Bible and swore—let’s call it swearing—to uphold the constitution, seems not to have registered.  I’m reminded of being a kid and crossing my fingers behind my back and believing that made a temporary lie okay.  Thing is, most of us outgrew that.  As the evidence of criminal activity while in office stacks up until it teeters, the supporters shout that the truth is just a lie and Jesus love me, this I know.  Too bad brainwashing doesn’t exist anymore.  It might help to explain a thing or two.

Following the news is something for which I simply don’t have time.  Or the fortitude.  Faced with blatant criminal activity, the Republican Party launches countersuits saying that investigating a crime is itself criminal.  There’s no such thing as brainwashing, though, so you can sigh in relief.  Still, as I go through the day and headlines pop up, as they will, I pause and wonder.  Not that things were better when we believed in brainwashing—for what good does it do you to believe something that’s not true?—but I’ve become strangely nostalgic for Watergate.  I see the lawsuits piling up behind the intrepid base, unfazed by any baptism in reality, and think about the explanatory value of brainwashing.  Maybe it doesn’t exist, but it sure could explain a lot.

Influential Brethren

Outsized ideas from under-recognized sources always captivate me.  I have to admit that my own childhood fascination concerning, and fear of, “the rapture” still haunts me.  While our house isn’t large, the other day I couldn’t see or hear my wife anywhere when I knew she was home and my first thought was that she’d been raptured and I’d been left behind.  Please don’t try to console me with logic; I know very well the problems with this initial assessment and knowing the history of the idea of the rapture can’t stop the primal fear when it strikes.  So it is with religious ideas inculcated in the young.  That’s why I knew I had to read Massimo Introvigne’s The Plymouth Brethren as soon as I heard of it.  The Plymouth Brethren, and specifically one of their formative leaders, John Nelson Darby, were the inventors of the rapture.

Introvigne’s book doesn’t trace rapture history (other books do that), but he does narrate, in an admirably succinct treatment, whence the Brethren arose.  In the nineteenth century in the British Isles, some were very concerned that Christianity had gone off the rails.  Accommodating with secular society, it had become heavily doctrinal and, worse, political.  Breakaway groups were common, including those who went back to the “Bible alone” as the basis for assessing what being Christian truly was.  The Plymouth Brethren developed in this atmosphere and they still remain a relatively small Christian sect (I use that term completely neutrally).  Even though they themselves splintered over time, they were never a very large group.  They, however, invented the rapture.

John Nelson Darby, one of the founders of the movement, believed history was divided into dispensations, or periods, predetermined by God.  The dispensation in which we now live (and in which they lived two centuries ago) would include a dramatic rapture that would allow Darby’s understanding of eschatology to fall within the system he developed.  This idea was picked up by Cyrus Scofield and included in his enormously influential Scofield Reference Bible.  That Bible, although many evangelicals considered the Plymouth Brethren as a kind of “cult,” was used as the unquestioned roadmap for the end times.  It was picked up by such promoters as Hal Lindsey and Timothy LaHaye and made into a meme that just about any educated person recognizes.  We all know what “the rapture” is, although the Bible itself doesn’t spell it out at all.  Introvigne’s book is very informative on the Brethren but his chapter on their ten main divisions is, necessarily, a touch confusing.  Well balanced and fair, this is a great source for those who wonder who these people were that gave us such worries when our wives have “disappeared” into some other part of the house.

Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.

Conservation?

I am not a conservative.  There, I’ve said it.  You have very little control over who your parents are or how they raise you.  As I confessed here many times, I was raised in a conservative Christian home of the fundamentalist stripe.  Like most kids scared of Hell I took it all very seriously.  It is the reason I followed the career path—or perhaps career swamp trek—that I have.  In any case, the other day I was looking through a Baker Academic catalogue.  Baker, in case you don’t follow the high drama of the publishing industry, is one of the many Christian publishing houses with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Like most publishers in that collective, it tends toward the conservative end of the theological spectrum.  As I flipped through I noticed bio after bio of authors with Ph.D.s from Edinburgh, Cambridge, and other prestigious universities in the United Kingdom.

I hadn’t been warned, you see.  Many conservatives who want a doctorate study in the UK because they can do so without taking all those classes that will make them examine the Bible critically.  That’s not why I went to Edinburgh, but I can see how it might look like that from the outside.  I went to Grove City College—a bastion of conservatism.  (I was raised that way, remember?)  My next educational move should give the lie to my attempt to remain conservative; Boston University School of Theology was considered the most liberal United Methodist seminary in the pre-Internet days.  I attended for that very reason.  Edinburgh, my true alma mater, was selected because they offered a scholarship that made it possible for a poor kid to finish a doctorate.  I wasn’t conservative when I went, and I wasn’t conservative when I came out.

I didn’t get the memo, I guess.  The sneaking suspicion that I might be conservative has dogged my career.  My dissertation can be read that way, but it’s not a conservative argument.  I merely suggested the decision to marry Yahweh off to Asherah was a bit hasty, based on the actual evidence.  I’m all for married deities—they tend to be less frustrated toward humanity.  Maybe the Almighty could speak to Mrs. God about correcting these worries about what I “really believe.”  I went to a conservative college to learn—there were a fair number of attempts to indoctrinate there, but if you thought about things you could see through them, even with a fundie upbringing.  But as I thumb through the catalogue I can see how perceptions can work against you, especially when your first job is at a conservative seminary, eh, Mrs. God?  

Autocracy and Its Victims

Human rights ought to be fairly simple.  The recognition that all people are human is complicated by that infamous human construct of money, even when autocracy’s involved.  I recently became aware of the plight of the Uyghurs.  If it were not for the efforts of some local faith communities, I would never have heard of them.  The Uyghurs are a Turkic population in what is now northwest China—a disputed area that has fallen under one of the superpowers of the Asian world.  Muslim by heritage, the Uyghurs fall into the category of peoples adhering to an organized religion, which the government of China has consistently resisted—indeed, feared.  The current plight of the Uyghurs is that they are facing “ethnic cleansing” by the Chinese government, which uses claims of terrorism to lock at least hundreds of thousands (perhaps significantly more) Uyghurs into “reeducation camps.”

Like most governments with secrets to hide, China does not permit foreign journalists or academics into these camps.  Children are being separated from parents—those of us in the United States would be well served to pay attention to this—so that the young may be culturally assimilated into the China that Beijing envisions.  The Uyghurs, like the Tibetans, are seeking international political protections and recognition.  Minority groups like this easily fall under threat.  In many communities men are taken to the reeducation camps (from which they never come out) and their families are supplied with a male Chinese boarder who watches to make sure they no longer adhere to their Islamic faith.  Reports from those who visit the region demonstrate how much at threat all of us are from autocratic governments, especially when other governments are easily bought.

We in the western world are prone to accept the propaganda that Islam is a terrorist religion.  It is not.  Most people are surprised to learn that the nation with the highest Muslim population is Indonesia.  Iran is not even in the top five.  Iraq is not in the top ten.  Our western bias blinds us to the religious realities, and diversities, of east and south Asia.  China, however, has long repressed organized religions, making it irresistible to many Christian missionaries.  It has, despite being the home of Daoism and Confucianism, become hostile to movements that allow people to organize.  Religions, of course, have long been such organizing movements.  If we do not support the rights of other religions, especially under the whims of autocracies—which are growing even in “the free world”—then we are gazing at our own future.