Ghosts, of a Sort

What happens when we die?  That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do.  Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell.  That idea is powerful and insidious.  The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature.  Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be.  Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them.  Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery.  When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.  

All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death.  Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb.  All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything.  Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical.  Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again.  Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell.  Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar.  Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.

There are many more shades and nuances, of course.  We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year.  Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days.  Death, however, is generally a shunned topic.  We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after.  We have beliefs.  We have hopes.  We really just don’t know.  We often look to literature to help us explore these topics.  Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching.  Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night.  A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification.  The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.

O My Stars

I know many conservative religious believers. I also know a lot of nones and atheists. One thing they all have in common is that they want to believe the truth. They want to do what is right. Enter the media. A day of peace and prosperity for all is a slow news day. To keep the pot boiling, differences need to be emphasized and people’s fears and frustrations must be highlighted. Nowhere is this better on display than in party politics. Do people really not get along at all? Are we really so polarized? A friend recently sent me an internet story about the Republican elephant. Honestly, I’ve never paid much attention to the posturing of the GOP since so much of it is obviously show. The coalition, cynical at best, between the evangelical camp and the fiscal conservatives has created a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of the party which began out of an anti-slavery movement and was represented in the politics of Abraham Lincoln. I have trouble seeing him approve of Reaganomics or some of evils that have flowed from it. We are more deeply divided now than we ever were during the Civil War. And better armed too.

Republicanlogo

So, what about the Republican elephant? The stars on the blue top half are upside-down. I’m not sure if this represents a change or not. The problem, of course, is that the upside-down star is a “pentagram” associated with Satanism (which is not what most people think it is). The insinuation is that the symbol was subtly changed to reflect the true values of the party. I don’t know if the stars on the elephant were ever right-side up. As long as I’ve been politically aware, the Republican party has been the one that supports the wealthy while trying to cut the poor and working class from the budget in any way possible in order to build an ever stronger military to protect the plutocracy for which it stands. One nation, under Mammon, with surveillance and distrust for all. Principles, in my opinion, far worse than Satanism.

Ironically, in this media fueled division of the nation, conservatives know and hate Satanism. In fact, seeing a pentagram pattern in school bus taillights can send the internet into a tizzy. We’re afraid, but of what we don’t properly know. Must be those liberals with their radical ideas of liberty and justice for all. On the street things haven’t felt like they’re getting better for a very long time. Each year since the overspending Bush decade the economy has found inventive ways to get worse and worse. One thing remains constant—the ultra-wealthy flock to the political party that once stood for freeing of slaves and uniting a deeply divided nation. The best way to keep us together is to keep us afraid. That’s easily done when economists tell us you can’t hope to retire with the medical benefits and living standards of the middle class without at least a million dollars in the bank. Something’s upside-down alright, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what.

Myth-story

ChristMythTheoryEither there was, or there wasn’t. An historical Jesus, I mean. I just finished reading Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory and Its Problems, and I have to admit that it raises some interesting points. In short, Price positions himself among the Christ Myth school—scholars who doubt that there was an historical Jesus. This proposition may come as a shock to many who are raised never to question the orthodoxy of religion handed down from parent to child. Given the popularity of Christianity worldwide, it may seems like a difficult premise to accept. Price suggests that the figure of Jesus might’ve been a midrash (commentary) on Hebrew Bible texts. When you look closely at many of the Gospel episodes, they are couched in language from the Hebrew Bible, and for those familiar with ancient midrash, the elaborations he proposes aren’t that far-fetched. The real question, for me, is a bit more broadly based—how do we ever know what really happened? Religions, as I suggested yesterday, are echoes from the past. The past, despite the internet, is inaccessible to us beyond what ambitious writers and artisans have left behind for us. The bulk of making history is interpretation.

This should give us pause. Yes, there are undeniable events, witnessed and recorded by many. What really happened, however, is an atomistic enterprise. Take Lincoln’s assassination, for example. It happened, we’re pretty sure. What happened, we reconstruct from what we have left for us in witness accounts. But as National Treasure 2 shows, a little imagination can throw the whole picture askew. Or even closer to our own time—what really happened at John F. Kennedy’s assassination? Some of the facts we have, others we never will. Some posit high-level withholding of information. Try to put that together with a truly messianic figure that some claim is actually divine. The Gospels differ a bit on the details, particularly after Jesus’ execution. What really happened? A harmonization of the Gospels? Anything at all? Who was there to see it?

Religions are deeply tied to past events. Even the modern religions that are constantly emerging—new ones are formed on a nearly daily basis—soon distinguish themselves because of their histories. To get at those histories that we didn’t witness, we need to rely on the records of those who did. Some of those religions just won’t take off—the Shakers, for example, are slowing going extinct. The Oneida Community is already gone. Others, like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, scrape the stratosphere with their success. And these are just examples of religions from the Second Great Awakening. Did Joseph Smith really meet all those figures he claimed? How can we know? When it comes to Jesus, we might think we’re on solid ground (as Smith would agree, if he existed). Price asks us to consider that assumption anew. Direct evidence may not be plentiful, but on the strength of ancillary evidence, most of us see Jesus as historical. Of his life we have very little. What you make of him, however, is a question of faith. And interpretation.

Fateful Dreams

Popular historians love a good coincidence. I suppose it is a way of reading order into a chaotic world where many events, in the final analysis, just don’t make sense. Perhaps academic historians shy away from coincidental events—after all, they contain a whiff of the improbable about them, and academics can admit no greater force driving our efforts toward a civil existence. The rest of us, however, like to note them. This week contains the anniversaries of a couple of significant landmarks of United States history, and they may somehow be related. November 19 marked the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address while November 22 is the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The events, a century and three days apart, stand for transitions in American society, and the implications of both still linger on as unfairness and fear continue to haunt our hopes for a future where all might indeed be considered created equal—and not just all men, but all people—and where optimism might edge out cynicism in the political world.

486px-Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Of course, both Lincoln and Kennedy died at the hands of assassins. America has never been terribly comfortable with dreamers. The century that separated the Gettysburg Address from Kennedy’s tragic death was not enough time to swing the ship of state around to bring about a world of dreams. Unfortunately, war also defined both presidencies. The dream of a world at peace has been more difficult to attain than a human desire for such a world would seem to merit. If we all (or most) want a world at peace, why can’t we bring it about? Unfortunately, it seems that a basic sense of justice is lacking.

500px-John_F._Kennedy,_White_House_color_photo_portraitPerhaps it is a coincidence that many of the world’s religions stress the concept of a just society. By far the majority of the world population associates itself with one form of religious belief or another. Not all religions get along, however. Many of the conflicts that have erupted into wars have had a basis in differing religions. Power is easily seized from dreamers, religious or not. Watching modern elections is a terribly sobering event. We don’t advertise what we might accomplish, but rather what is so wrong with the other guy so that we win by a paltry default. Victory for whom? And why consider it a victory? A friend once suggested that Christians should start out as bishops and eventually be promoted to the level of laity. I thought it was a brilliant idea that could be applied to politics as well. Think of it: elected officials as servants of the people. Of course, by coincidence, I am a hopeless dreamer.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

Inauguration

Religion is an all-consuming beast. I suppose that goes with the territory of making universal claims. In the light of the already ponderous influence religion has had on the selection of presidential candidates this year, I recently re-read Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered not long before his assassination. The Civil War was not yet quite over, and Lincoln knew the horror of the situation. He famously said:

Both [sides in the conflict] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!”

Lincoln, never a regular church member, knew his Bible but also knew the soul of his country. A century later Bob Dylan would compose “With God on Our Side,” in protest to another war where divine backing was assumed. When a major undertaking is launched, the Lord is always on the guest list. The problem is, God can’t sit on both sides of the table.

The religicizing of politics is a dirty business. Religion plays so heavily on the emotions that it is, as history has shown, a truly unstoppable force. Even so great a conservative as Barry Goldwater felt this mixing of religion and politics an unholy cocktail. “I am frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in A, B, C, and D. Just who do they think they are?” (The Congressional Record, 16 September 1981). So here we go again.

Religion and politics are a dangerous mixture. In a culture as religious as that of the United States, the potential for (and realization of) disaster is great. Think of the lives lost based on the religious outlook of our last president! Over the past few decades we’ve witnessed a parade of preachers, Fundamentalists, believers in New Religious Movements, and quasi-certifiable candidates march across our political stage, and yet our doors are closed to those who refuse to make public statements about their intimate relationship with an ancient savior. For the Bible tells us so. If we believe the preachers. Those of us who don’t will be putting on our Bob Dylan records and reading the wise words of Abraham Lincoln.

Aftermath of Easter

Holidays, it seems, are increasingly overloading themselves with baggage. Not only are many of them thinly veiled celebrations of materialism, but many are now being tied to “issues.” As I survey the aftermath of Easter as I saw it this year, it becomes plain that even the message of self-sacrifice and hope springing eternal can be co-opted. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students at Montclair State University hosted a screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last week. An outcry of biblical proportions flooded university discussion groups over what was deemed cultural insensitivity. Gibson’s version of the gospel failed to impress me when I saw it, stressing as it did Gibson’s sadomasochistic torture scenes in an effort to raise a few welts over “Christ-killers.” Back at Nashotah House I was regularly on the preaching rota. (I’m not now nor have I ever been ordained in any denomination. I have, however had preaching experience going back to my high school years.) My final sermon asked whether we should accept theological truths from a loose cannon of an actor. These physical accidents may have had more than a little in common.

Conversely, my first sermon at the seminary – the very year I was hired, and several years since my last pulpit performance – featured Abraham Lincoln. Nashotah House was a bastion for disgruntled southerners at the time; they were often the only ones conservative enough to fit the seminary’s profile. My admiration of Lincoln was expressed in an innocent expostulation on the merits of freedom. Afterwards I was drawn aside and admonished, being informed, “not everyone here believes Lincoln was a hero.” Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, a point that has not escaped those who note that the Civil War began 150 years ago this month. Those at Nashotah who disliked my words felt that I was disparaging the south. With roots in South Carolina, I indeed was not. Slavery is wrong in any ethical system that will stand up to scrutiny. Those who believe in equality, however, often pay the ultimate price.

Holidays do not always bring out the best in us. We need the respite, and we have the Jewish community to thank for coming up with the Sabbath that has led to our weekend lifestyle. Each weekend rival churches fill up with those who believe others to be wrong. Religion seems to have failed in its quest to unite. A colleague at Montclair cited the quotation of uncertain attribution: “having a war about religion is like having a fight over who’s got the best imaginary friend” – this was in the context of the screening of Mel’s Passion. The fact is, when it comes to religion nobody knows the correct answer. The humble response one would like to imagine is the mutual encouragement to continue to strive for the truth. More likely than not, the response is someone will select their weapon of choice and try to prove their point of view the old fashioned way.

Politicians and Blood-Suckers

The old icons and heroes are gone. It is best just to deal with it. No one is above reproach since we are all in this human morass together. Nevertheless, I’ve always held a soft spot in my cynical heart for Abraham Lincoln. I know he wasn’t perfect, but he stood for an issue that has been a driving force for my life: fairness. Now I see that he was a vampire hunter. After having read Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies last year, I’ve decided to give a try to his Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. My fascination with monsters and religion has not been disappointed in this fanciful story.

Our quasi-fictional honest Abe begins his vampire-slaying ways when he learns that, yes, a vampire killed his mother. As a boy of only twelve, he finds the knowledge stressful to the point of burning the family Bible that he used to read to his departed mother. Why? In Abraham’s own (fictitious) words: “How could I worship a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? A God that had allowed my mother to fall prey to their evil?” I admit that I was secretly pleased to see the classic issue of theodicy being raised in a story concerned with the undead. It is the dilemma of all who want to see a good God behind all the suffering in the world. It is a dilemma that stems from the same deep wells as our inhuman monsters. We can imagine a better world, but we can’t have it.

Politicians with axes

As I see New Jersey’s governor Christie (for whom I decidedly did not vote!) slashing away again and again like Freddie Kruger at the state’s educational system, I see the twin peaks of vampirism and theodicy peering distantly over the horizon. I am deeply disturbed by the facile disregard this “visionary” Republican has for the future of his own state, for the future of our children. And I am forcefully reminded once again that vampires are symbolic of all those who prey upon the unwary. When staring into the fireplace on a cold night, I imagine myself standing beside Grahame-Smith’s fictional Abraham Lincoln, wondering what god it is that vampires worship.