True Possession

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Demons are among the earliest of supernatural creatures. Although sources can be spotty, they appear in the first advanced civilization known, that of the Sumerians. Even with their technology and scientific sense, early people still knew that demons had great explanatory value. Why did things sometimes utterly fall part? Why did some people act so weird? Why did the good will of the gods not always shine through? Demons, while not exactly tricksters, are the demoted gods who cause problems. They also harbor possibilities too, if an article sent by a helpful relative is anything to go by. According to the BBC, a trio of styled and battle-trained young exorcists are about to take to the airwaves to ply their trade in a show called Teen Exorcists. Savannah and Tess Scherkenback join preacher’s daughter Brynne Larson as a trio of demon-dropping debutants ready to take on the powers of Hell. All three, according to the article, are home-schooled.

I’m not quite sure what to make of demons. Aware of more rational explanations of human psychoses and inevitable misfortune, there doesn’t seem to be much room for second-rate deities in the world any more. Still, writers like Matt Baglio and Malachi Martin narrate enough strangeness to make you wonder if we might’ve been a little too hasty in dismissing the supernatural. Especially after staying up late to watch The Exorcist. And it’s not just that it’s three young girls casting demons into the pit—according to Acts Philip’s daughters were prophets and Mark says people who didn’t even know Jesus were pretty handy with the rite. It’s the whole issue of demons. According to the BBC, the girls believe England is especially afflicted because of the Harry Potter novels. (The spells, they say, are real.)

The team of three and Rev. Larson do, unlike Ghost Hunters, charge for their services. And even a duck hunter on television can strike it rich. Simon, later known as Simon Magus, offered the apostles money to gain the power of the Holy Spirit, according to Acts 8. Rebuffed, Simon turned against the fledgling Christians. If there were reality shows back then, I suspect he’d have had one. The three girls are black belts in karate, adding to the television appeal, but demons, we’re told, are incorporeal. That’s right—they have to be fought without physical violence. Armed with Bibles and crosses (no crucifixes, since this is a Protestant exorcise) three young girls take on the dark side of the spiritual world. The chief of the demons, however, is named Mammon. Against that one there seems to be no defense.

Fearful Christianity

So some North Carolina Republicans want to declare themselves a state religion. I wonder which one it will be? Hmmm, let me think… Whatever that religion will be it will be one that is afraid. Only religions that are uncomfortable with challenges have to back themselves with militaristic force. Seems to me some North Carolina politicians have never read a book on Medieval history. Ironically, the religion they wish to select was probably itself the result of the Reformation, the original challenge to state religion in the history of Christianity. It is also clear that these misguided lawmakers have not fully acquainted themselves with the vast diversity of forms of Christianity. The Christianity they want is televangelist, conservative, Protestant Christianity. Even that, however, is no longer a uniform religion. Why would there be more than one channel?

Those who spend long hours gazing at religion, both from inside and outside, realize that religious belief is not, cannot be, a static entity. Should a genuine apostle walk into an evangelistic Christian service today, chances are great that said apostle would leave wondering what religion this was. According to the Bible itself (ironically, taken only partially seriously by those who promote it) the first Christians were communists. Those who refused to sell everything and give it to the common good were struck dead, or so the book of Acts tells us. My guess is that free market economics has trumped the Holy Spirit here. What legislators really, really want is a religion to back up their secular plans.

Which Christianity would they choose? Who would be welcome in New North Carolina? Mormons? Mennonites? Methodists? Catholics? Well, at least Catholics vote the right way on key issues. Or some of them do. What we are talking about is actual state support of religious ideology. In a country where some of the finest state universities do not even have departments of religious studies, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has one of the finest in the country. And not all the faculty fill North Carolina’s preferred demographic.

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Religions do not take such rear-guard actions unless they are afraid. What does Christianity fear? It depends on which Christianity you mean. Studies have shown that over 41,000 Christian denominations exist. Think about that a minute. If one flavor-of-the-month Christianity becomes official state religion, what becomes of the other 40,999? I’m no math whiz, but it just doesn’t add up. Seems to me that before states start declaring their religions publicly funded, legislators should go back to school. They should be required to take Religion 101. Might I suggest they enroll at UNC Chapel Hill?

Popeless

414px-Benedykt_XVI_(2010-10-17)_4 Pope Benedict XVI managed to catch many of us off-guard with his early retirement option. Not within living memory, or even very dusty, antiquated memory has a pope resigned. Such is the draw of power. Of course the founder and putative CEO of the organization stepped down at 33, or so the story goes, but after that the urge to stay on only grew. The papacy, some traditions claim, is as old as Christianity. Others suggest that the stresses and strains that eventually led to the primacy of Rome in the western church were much more intricate than that. Modern research has also indicated that one-size-fits-all Christianity really didn’t even exist from the beginning. Different groups claimed to be Christian but were labeled heretical by other groups. The Roman Catholic Church is still the single largest Christian denomination in the world, however, and that translates to quite a lot of weight.

According to the book of Acts, the first Christians were a communal lot, holding everything in common. Although we can’t call them communists, in a sense they were. It didn’t take long for that structure to break down, however. Before long it was obvious that leaders would emerge in the movement. At first they wouldn’t have been priests, but eventually that age-old designation came to describe what the clergy did. Worship became ceremony, and ritual requires expert leadership. Various religions have tried to break down the hierarchical structure of having one person over the others, but in this masculine world of CEOs and prestige, well, there’s only so much you can share.

What’s really striking is that no pope in 600 years has stepped down. There could’ve been many occasions. Presiding over about a sixth of the world’s population must be a heady experience, especially for a religious person. Already the speculation is thick on who the next pontiff might be. The fact that the faithful are already chomping at the bit shows something of the nature of the creature (one can’t very well say “beast” in such a context). The papacy has become a symbol in its own right, and even megachurches can’t hope to top their numbers. The Pentecostals, however, are racing to catch up. The two types of Christianity are about as far apart as possible while remaining under the same Lord. I suspect by the time the next pope vacates the office the religious landscape will be very different. Perhaps Benedict XVI is wise to call the game on his own terms.

Paul Does the Classics

I first became aware of Greek mythology in fifth grade. My teacher in an industrial, rough and yet rural school, believed in the benefits of teaching aspiring drug addicts and laborers the stories of gods and heroes. I immediately adored the stories we heard and read. Raised in a religious household, however, I feared enjoying the tales of what were admittedly pagan gods after all, too much. In the educational topography of my youth, we were on the brink of this brave new electronic world we’ve entered, and mythology was not considered a terribly useful part of the curriculum after that. I left the gods behind. In a class on the Christian Scriptures in college, however, my instructor suggested we all go see Clash of the Titans (the 1981 version) for its appreciative (if a little hokey) presentation of the Greek world. I enjoyed the movie and even took a class in the literature department on mythology.

Over the years I have touched and gone on Greco-Roman mythology while specializing in the mythology of Ugarit. Now that I’m teaching a course on mythology, I’m going back to my classical roots and rereading the stories of times not quite so ancient as the fertile crescent civilizations’, but older than what is considered practical nowadays. While rereading Euripides’ play The Bacchae, the concentration of images, concepts, and actions that recur in the Bible stood out in chiaroscuro. Especially noticeable were references to Paul in the book of Acts.

Like Paul, Dionysus comes to be imprisoned. Not recognized as a divine figure, King Pentheus of Thebes locked him in chains until he could demonstrate that Dionysus is just the wild imaginary figure of repressed women. An earthquake, however, soon rattles the city and Dionysus emerges, chains shed, to the astonishment of Pentheus. The scene reads like Paul and Silas’ escape from jail in Philippi (Acts 16). Admittedly this could be coincidence. A few lines later, however, Dionysus, free from prison, tells Pentheus, “Don’t kick against the goad – a man against a god,” (Act 3, Paul Roche’s translation). Even so, Paul on his way to Damascus sees a vision of a god and is asked, “Why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Perhaps Luke had read his Euripides?

Now I’m no scholar of the Christian Scriptures (although I have taught courses on them a time or two), but when obvious parallels exist it is incumbent upon modern readers to pay attention. The parallels of Dionysus and Jesus were evident to early Christians, so what I noticed was nothing new. When the followers of Dionysus, however, strike a rock with their sticks and water flows out, I wondered if Euripides had read his Torah!

Paul's bedtime reading