The Roll of Churches

I really don’t have time to follow any social media religiously, generally glancing at a page and perhaps scrolling down an inch or two when I have a moment.  I tend to glance at headlines, often pre-selected for me by a non-human intelligence, I expect.  Nextdoor dot com occasionally has a story that looks important to read, because it’s local.  Recently a poster from Bethlehem noted meeting a homeless person and was asking virtual neighbors where to turn for help (for the homeless person).  The answers weren’t surprising but reminded me of something I recently heard elsewhere—this is where churches still have a chance to shine.  While I’m tired of all the doctrinal and theological nonsense that arises from those who didn’t pay close enough attention in seminary, I do lament the plight of our churches.

Society has been too Republican for too long to care for those who can’t make it in an uber-capitalist environment.  Those with mental illnesses turned out when Reagan-era “reforms” “improved” our system for handling them.  Those who, through no fault of their own, can’t hold down a job.  Those who just happened to end up on the wrong side of a wave and find that a new wave breaks over them before they can properly take a fresh breath.  As the most affluent nation in the world, each homeless person is a reminder of the terrible price we pay for living within a system that rewards greed far above anything else.  Churches do have their problems—I’ve experienced many of them firsthand—but they often feel an obligation to take care of the sick, the homeless, the elderly.  Those not of value to a capitalist system because they don’t “contribute.”

When I commuted to Manhattan my bus arrived early.  I often saw the many homeless sleeping on the street as I made my way across Midtown.  Many days I wished I had an extra peanut butter sandwich with me so that I could give them something.  Anything.  Churches that aren’t caught up bickering about whose genitals belong where, or whether females are equal to males, often turn their sights to those who need help.  These churches are supported by the donations of members (for which said members can claim a tax break).  These are members who care for those they’ve never met, simply because they are human and in need.  Churches themselves are now facing difficult times and, unless they support Republican causes, can be assured they won’t receive a government bail out.  Compassion may be a dying species.


Woman in the Wilderness

The “Burnt Over District” is religious historian shorthand for upstate New York.  That particular region, during the “Second Great Awakening,” spawned so many religions and hosted so many revivals that it was difficult to believe anything more could sprout there (thus, “burnt over”).  One of my great fascinations is the origins of religions.  Not only that, but where those religions began.  On a continent-size level, Asia is clearly the champion, with all of the “big five” beginning there.  But religions evolve, sometimes rapidly.  Christianity in Britain gave rise to such groups as Quakers and Anglicans, and, in a post-Christian phase Britain gave the world Wicca.  The Germans were also great religious innovators with Luther and the Pietist and Anabaptist traditions.  Perhaps it’s in the Anglo-Saxon blood to make religions new.

After visiting Ephrata Cloister recently, my mind naturally turned to the “Hermits of the Wissahickon.”  If you’ve not heard of them, you’re not alone.  They, despite being men to a man, preferred the title “Society of the Woman in the Wilderness.”  They were followers of Johannes Kelpius.  Kelpius, like Conrad Beissel after him, was a German mystic, Pietist, and musician, and he also believed the end of the world was imminent.  This was in 1694, just a few years before Beissel laid the foundations for Ephrata Cloister.  Like Beissel, Kelpius decided Pennsylvania was the best place to set up camp.  Although founded by Quakers, Pennsylvania offered something some other colonies didn’t—real religious freedom.  Given that you could be killed for being a Quaker in some of the other colonies, this didn’t seem like a bad idea.  Convinced Jesus would return in 1694, Kelpius and his followers settled into a cave just outside Philadelphia, by the Wissahickon Creek.  They set up a quasi-monastic community to wait out the clock near the city of brotherly love.

It’s difficult to know if Conrad Beissel was consciously imitating the work of Kelpius.  Religious leaders tend to have pretty strong views of their own outlooks.  The draw to Pennsylvania, in those days, was strong.  Interestingly, both Kelpius and Beissel are remembered for their music.  The death of Johannes Kelpius isn’t as well documented as that of Beissel—you can see the latter’s burial place in Ephrata.  Like millions of others, Kelpius lived through the “great disappointment” of not having the Second Coming occur when he supposed it would.  Some suggest Kelpius believed he would be translated after death.  He died in 1708, as his younger colleague was exploring the wilderness several miles to the west.  Keplius’ final resting place is listed, perhaps fittingly, as “unknown in Pennsylvania.”

Beissel’s Grave, Ephrata Cloister


Ephrata Cloister

Conrad Beissel isn’t exactly a household name.  I never heard of him until a visit to Ephrata Cloister during a Lancaster staycation.  My wife knew about the Ephrata Cloister due to a music course she took at the University of Michigan; he was influential in developing a distinctive musical style.  Since we were in the area we stopped in for the tour.  Beissel was banished from what would become Germany in the early eighteenth century.  He made his way to America where he established a kind of monastery in south central Pennsylvania in the early 1700s.  Not Catholic, he was inspired by German Pietists, the Anabaptists, and Christian Mysticism.  Not ordained, he established what became a Seventh-Day Baptist association because whenever he tried to settle as a hermit others came to him.

Celibacy has always been a hard sell for religions.  Once his Camp for the Solitary was established, it grew to about 300 members, with only some 80 celibates, or solitaries.  This 80 was half men and half women.  They built around 40 buildings in what was then the frontier and they couldn’t have survived without the 120 or so married people who joined the church but continued to live at home with their families.  Like many separatist groups, the Seventh-Day Baptists were expecting Jesus’ return at any day and lived their lives accordingly.  Not strict about others joining him in this, Beissel was an early vegetarian, eventually becoming primarily a vegan (although that name wouldn’t develop for a couple centuries).  They had midnight worship services since they believed Jesus would return in the middle of the night.  They were, with the supportive families, self-sufficient.  The group established a printing press, and at one time it was possibly the largest printing operation in the colonies.

After Beissel died, the community continued.  They realized that, like all celibate communities, it would be difficult to survive and the celibacy rule was dropped.  The last celibate member died in 1813.  The community by then had taken on the form of an independent church and it survived until the 1930s.  The remaining land—some of it had been sold off over the years as the community shrank—was bought in the early forties to be preserved by the state.  Theirs was never a very large group, but it was significant enough that their memory was felt to be important enough to preserve.  Beissel wasn’t alone in establishing such sects here in Pennsylvania.  The tradition is, interestingly, part of the American heritage and demonstrates how the religious, ordained or not, live in their own worlds.


July Forth

Independence Day.  What does it mean in a nation on the verge of a fascist takeover?  Supreme Court justices, themselves appointed by crooked but technically legal politics, have just struck down the independence of half the people in this country.  Independence Day for whom?  Originally a celebration of freedom from monarchy, one of our political parties has opted for authoritarianism—the objection to which was the very reason the Revolutionary War was fought.  The colonists wanted religious freedom, but now we find religiously motivated politics driving the bus off the cliff.  If you’re not a white evangelical these rulings are not for you.  Your religious freedom has been compromised by politics.  So we gather in grassy places to watch fireworks.    We celebrate the independence of the wealthy.  Those who can break the law and buy the results they want with lawyers without scruples.

I think of Independence Day from the perspective of our Black siblings.  Freedom to be shot for a traffic stop or to be publicly strangled to death for petty crime.  To be redlined and kept in poverty.  Independence from literal chains only to be shackled in bureaucratic ones.  Being sentenced to prison for things a white can easily afford to pay off.  Independence Day in a nation with over 40 million people in poverty and where just three white men own more than the bottom fifty percent of Americans.  Give them fireworks and firearms and let the bottom half work it out for themselves.  When is the last time a Supreme Court justice had to worry about having enough for both rent and food?  Freedom, those on the top tell us, is not free.  Watch the pretty lights.  Hear the loud booms.

What of American Indians, still awaiting freedom?  What is Independence Day to them?  Kept out of sight and in poverty, we don’t want to be reminded.  No, we only want freedom to get more for the white man.  As a child in the sixties I had some hope that we might be making progress.  Freedom and protest were in the air.  There was at least hope for some justice.  The privileged white leaders now give us a day off work.  The wealth can still flow upward, even if we take a brief hiatus from labor.  Women, Blacks, the poor, American Indians, and many others who make America what it is are nevertheless denied basic freedoms.  This loss of independence at least comes with a light show.  Just watch it and be grateful.


Lost Civilizations

At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all.  That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling.  Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled.  The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization.  But what an adventure it was!  The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination.  As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously.  And it’s controversial.

The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries.  It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth.  It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt.  The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017).  Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north.  The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment.  The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer.  His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.

The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown.  It was not Mayan.  The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans.  Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true.  Societies from the beginning have used that playbook.  Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line.  We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again.  This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller.  A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic.  I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.


Redacted

A friend recently introduced me to Redactle.  Yet another of those daily internet games that have become trendy in these pandemic years, Redactle gives you a page that looks like a Freedom of Information Act piece from the government.  Most of the words are blanked out and all you really know it that it is taken from one of the significant pages on Wikipedia.  You get some clues from the format, the way the prepositions and articles they give you are arranged, and occasionally, the punctuation.  You just start guessing words and it fills in the blanks as you get hits.  Like most things of this sort, there’s one puzzle per day, otherwise none of us would ever get anything done.  I’m a sucker for learning games, so we’ve been playing it as a family for a few days now.

A redacted file from the CIA, via Wikimedia Commons

The thing that has surprised me the most in our early on is that the trickiest ones to get right were on religions.  In our first week of play, two of the puzzles were religions: Lutheranism and Shaktism.  We’d been able to guess famous people in two dozen guesses, and countries in about the same.  Religions are trickier.  Despite having studied religion my entire life, my thought process doesn’t include guessing words like “theology” and “worship” for important articles on Wikipedia.  (In the case of Shaktism it took well over 100 guesses.  I taught world religion maybe fifteen years ago, but I haven’t kept up with my Hinduism.)  In the case of both of these religions what eventually gave them away was the place names: Germany and India.

India, of course, has been the birthplace of many religions.  The majority of Indians today are Hindu, but Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism were also children of India.  Even in this increasingly secular world, religions remain the driving forces behind lives.  So much so that some religionists consider Secularism a religion.  The fact is we all believe something.  It may not be supernatural, but then not all religions are.  They often brush up against philosophy at their most sophisticated end, and literalism is the least developed form of any belief system.  With some exceptions it doesn’t pay well to be a religionist.  Perhaps that’s because thinking hard about religion reveals uncomfortable truths.  Not only that, studying religion is no guarantee that when you have to fill in the blanks you’ll be able to guess one when it’s right in front of you.  That’s why I appreciate learning games.  


Souls, All

What is a soul?  Can you lose your job for believing in one?  Well, maybe not lose your job, but be placed on paid leave.  Yesterday’s New York Times ran a story about Google engineer Blake Lemoine being put on leave after claiming a soul for the company’s artificial intelligence language model.  Isn’t that what artificial intelligence is all about?  We’ve become so materialistic that we no longer believe in souls, and when we create life we don’t expect it to have one, right Dr. Frankenstein?  One of the sure signs that we are alive is our sensing of the many qualia of biological existence.  We understand that we’re born, we’re biological, and that we will die.  We also sense that there’s something beyond all this, our self, or mind, or psyche, call it what you will.

In our minds the soul has become entrenched with the Christianity that provides the backdrop to our somewhat embarrassing history of repression of those who are different.  How do we redeem one without having to be shackled to the other?  And once we do, can we declare why AI doesn’t have a soul while biological beings do?  Or will we insist that it is solely human?  In this odd world that’s evolved, we view animals as innocent because they can’t know what they’re doing.  Historically there have been animals put to trial.  That’s an aberration, however, from our usual ways of thinking.  We don’t know what a soul is.  We’re not even sure there is such a thing.  To suggest a machine might have one, however, is taboo.  Would we trust a soul made by humans?

Skepticism is good and healthy.  So is having an open mind.  We’ve been a polarized people for a long time.  If it’s not politics it’s elites versus uneducated, materialists versus those who think there might be something more, self-assured versus those who question everything.  The path of learning should keep us humble.  We should be open to the possibilities.  There’s no way to measure the immaterial since all our tools are material.  Even psychology, which utilizes categories to help us understand neurodiversity, often finds chemical solutions to the most cerebral of problems.  Perhaps overthinking is an issue—it can certainly get you into trouble.  Believing in souls can put you in a place of ridicule or suspicion.  Does AI have a soul?  Does a soul emerge from biological existence, whenever a sufficient number of neurons gathers in one place?  Is it the fabric of the universe from which we borrow a little?  We have some soul-searching to do.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

State and Church

An interesting article by Grace Davie notes how Patriarch Kirill,  the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus´, has been backing Vladimir Putin in his war of human atrocities against Ukraine.  Why? Both men fear “godless” influence from the west.  Think of it as a “Russia first” policy.  Both believe Russian Orthodoxy preserves the “one true faith,” and so an ecclesiastical leader yet again believes he (aren’t they always he’s?) understands politics even as women and children are killed in the bringing of God’s kingdom on earth.  The distorted theology of imperialistic Christianity has caused untold suffering in the world.  God backed by nukes is an apocalyptic situation, but then the Orthodox don’t really take too much stock in the book of Revelation.

Photo credit: Michael Goltz, via Wikimedia Commons

In the midst of all of this, as well as our own versions of it in America, I wonder where the teachings of a prophet who advocated care for the stranger went.  Too bad he never stated directly, “Love thine enemies.”  That sounds radically leftist, doesn’t it?  No, those who think like this ignore the constant refrain of love in the New Testament to focus on a verse or two that say a man shouldn’t lie with a man.  Where’s Socrates when we need him?  Or even Tchaikovsky?  Religion becomes doubly dangerous when it has political backing.  “Love thy neighbor” becomes “kill thy enemy.”  And you must say your country is the greatest in the world and all others are inferior.  Sounds like something a carpenter from Nazareth would’ve agreed on.

Too much gold in the eye, it seems, can lead to spiritual blindness.  Established churches grow quite comfortable when governments hold them close.  The problem is an ancient one.  Even in the biblical world temple and palace mutually supported one another.  The idea of a country where no church ruled the state was a new one a few centuries back.  If different churches ruled neighboring nations the result was, of course, war.  Davie makes the point in her article that the Ukrainian Orthodox wanted some autonomy, which is the Orthodox way generally.  But the coffers in Russia swell more when you get cuts from all the others.  Churches and other businesses worldwide seem to know that by instinct.  But to back a ruler who has civilians, women, and children murdered to keep the godless out?  If that’s godly behavior then we’d better all get down on our knees.  


Pure Fear

At work we have the opportunity to say a little about ourselves on a shared document for our teams.  This is a fairly new thing, so people I’ve worked with for years have no reason to look at it.  A couple of new hires, however, have noted that I watch horror movies and this has led to some budding friendships.  Since we’re all remote workers it’s mostly a matter of a line or two in an email about whether I’ve seen this or that film.  One of those recommended was the Hulu original Pure.  It’s actually pretty good.  The idea is a bunch of teenage girls are brought to a retreat center for a purity ball with their fathers.  This kind of thing can get very creepy very fast, given the incestuous overtones for such a thing.  Not only is it a religious event, it’s based on the story of Lilith.

Collier’s Lilith

The pastor preaches his first sermon about Lilith, but the girls from cabin 4 sneak out at night to meet some guys.  (Their presence is explained at the end of the movie.)  That night the girls summon Lilith, whom the minister’s daughter says is a demon.  The summoning works.  Lilith begins to interfere with services as the girls are tempted by the guys who are hanging around.  At the end, Lilith “possesses” Shay (the lead girl) and frees them from being controlled by the men in their lives.  The message is a refreshing one, and Lilith ends of being, well, somewhat as Shay puts it, “One man’s demon is another’s angel.”  

Religion and horror make a good couple.  I’ve never seen a movie that features the story of Lilith before.  The thing is, she’s not the scary part of the movie.  The religious believers, the fathers who try to control their daughters rather than giving them support after listening to them, are.  Parenting is tough, no doubt about that.  None of us are born into life with all the answers.  We quite often find ourselves not knowing for sure what we should do.  I couldn’t imagine being a parent claiming to have the solutions for all problems.  I’m a guy who watches horror for a form of therapy!  What I do think, however, is that we can try to be reasonable, loyal, and supportive.  I learn as much from being a parent as I teach.  The same was true of being a professor.  Humility, along with a willingness to continue learning your entire life is the only way that makes sense to me.  Although not a major studio production, this was one of the scariest movies I’d seen in a long time.


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.