Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.

Cloaking Device

America’s book is seldom read. Those of us who spend an unusual amount of time with the Bible know this from personal experience, but others are starting to notice too. Kenneth A. Briggs’ The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America is a rambling account of the way a variety of everyday people from prisoners to academics and clergy use, read or not read, and perhaps inwardly digest the Good Book. There are moments of stark insight in this book, but with no narrative arc it is somewhat easy to feel like you’re reading about what random people say about the Bible. I don’t need a book to tell me that I’m odd, but much of what I read here was old hat to a guy who grew up Evangelical, went to seminary but never got ordained, completed a doctorate and taught the Bible nearly two decades before being booted out of its company. I’m not sure what I expected to find. Perhaps redemption?

Briggs does provide some useful statistics, and not as maniacally as sociologists do. We learn that few people read the Bible and the numbers are declining. Still, people buy the Bible and tend to have multiple copies in their domiciles. It is cheaper than insurance, after all. Holy Writ, however, is an alien among us. Few people have any idea what it was like to live before smart phones, let alone before the smelting of iron. The concerns and dialogues of the Bible seem so terribly provincial and, to be honest, unenlightened (if one can say such a thing about divine revelation). Still, we won’t accept a president who doesn’t lay his (and it’s always his) hand on the Good Book and swear to uphold America.

The Invisible Bestseller gave me plenty of information to ponder. Some of the tales Briggs tells are interesting. Others are so mundane as to be stultifying. The overarching fact is that the Bible is an established object in our culture. Some take it seriously enough to read it and stick with it—this isn’t easy to do, and I speak from experience here. Such people are rare. After all, apart from getting you a hall pass out of Hell, the Bible doesn’t seem to do much for people these days. Still, when I take a moment to read the Sermon on the Mount, I can’t help but feel we might be missing some wonderful rhetoric by ignoring the Good Book so much. But then again, I’m fully aware that I’m the one that’s odd. Briggs’ book stands as a testament to a couple of testaments that continue to wield enormous power without ever being read.

Religious Melancholy

DamnedNationI’d never come across the term “religious melancholics” before, but somehow it seemed to suit me. Perhaps that goes without saying as I’m reading Damned Nation, by Kathryn Gin Lum. While sitting on a bus. We’re sitting in traffic and the guy sitting next to me has obviously just finished a cigarette before climbing aboard. Having grown up as the victim of second-hand smoke for my first two decades in life, I’m thinking about Hell as well as reading about it. You see, Gin Lum’s descriptive subtitle is Hell in America from the Revolution to Reconstruction. The fact that Hell’s alive and well, despite some evangelicals’ attempts at annihilating it, suggests that it’s best to keep informed on the topic. This book’s mostly historical, however, reporting how Americans interpreted Hell in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As with most histories, I find the earliest material the most interesting. Gin Lum tends to focus, naturally, on preachers at this period since they are the ones most likely to talk about eternity. The thing that struck me the most was the number of people she describes who, after contemplating (a primarily Calvinist vision of) Hell, attempted suicide. I tend to think of suicide as a contemporary problem, but obviously it has been a steady human practice since our species first learned that you don’t have to wait for someone else to help you slough off this mortal coil. It is troubling, however, that it was a “doctrine” barely found in the Bible that led people—most of whom later became preachers—to try to kill themselves. It also seemed a touch odd that evangelicals in those earlier days of our nation didn’t find it troubling that those leading the flock had almost sent themselves to perdition. These early days of literal Hell believing were most interesting indeed.

The phrase “religious melancholics” comes from the resistance. There were those—generally skeptics, doctors, psychologists, and the like—who felt that the preaching of hellfire and brimstone took a toll on the healthy psyche, particularly of the young. As one of those who grew up attending revivals where Hell was a featured guest, I know that my life has been a prolonged attempt to avoid said eternal lake of fire. Even when I rationally learned that there is no three-tiered universe in which it still fit, and that the idea was cobbled together from a variety of religions into the ultimate scary place, Hell still manages to haunt me. Does it keep me moral? I don’t suppose that to be the case, since I have tended to believe people are basically good. Don’t bother trying to convince me logically that Hell doesn’t physically exist. I know that already. It’s the mental one that I’m trying to avoid. And that can be a full-time job for a religious melancholic brought up on a diet of overcooked theology.

Scotland the Evolved

Imports and exports are the stuff of international commerce. Nations import what they require or desire from nations that have a surplus. One surplus that the United States has is Creationism. The origins of the movement share some culture with England, but there is no doubt that the idea of Creationism is a distinctly American one. Histories of the movement have been written, and it has proven itself remarkably resilient and tenacious. The leaders of the various forms of Creationism (yes, of course there are factions) tend to be very good at fund raising and political maneuvering. Once Creationism has been safely laid to rest in one form, another arises in its place like the heads of a hydra. The United States has been exporting Creationism for years now. I recall talking with colleagues from the UK many years ago and they were asking what this thing was that was showing up in their classrooms. The Brits tend to be sensible people and they were unacquainted with this blatantly faith-based approach to “science.”

A recent piece on IFL Science! declares that Scotland, at least, has banned Creationism from science classes. As a form of religious or cultural belief, of course, it may be studied. I have a feeling that in the future our generation will be regarded with wonder as that which experienced a massive delusion that science is whatever you want it to be. Don’t get me wrong; I understand Creationist concerns. Indeed, up through my sophomore year in college I shared them and could not see how evolution would fit into a biblically informed worldview. This was not discouraged at Grove City College. The serious study of religion, however, does bring many truths to light. Religion can be studied empirically. When it is, ideas such as Creationism can be objectively assessed. When they are, mene mene tekel upharsin.

We will not see Creationism going away. With the conviction of righteousness that is fueled not only by monkey business, but also fears of social changes, it gives a verisimilitude of respectability. Science has eroded systematically such ideas as homosexuality as an aberration, gender being fixed and defined at birth, women being inferior to men, races as being different species. It used to feel like a safe world to those who felt the Bible supported their right to run the place. Creationism feels like science and tries to cast doubt on a worldview that has relegated the Bible to a quaint place on a dusty bookshelf of Weltanschauungen. It would be naive to suppose that it is about to go away just because it is banned. If we would take the time to understand it, and to try to address the insecurities it effectively assuages, we might see different results. Making fun, however, seldom leads to conversion. We’re simply too evolved for that to work.

Faithful Places

PlacesOfFaith Is there any more American a diversion than the road trip? Those of us who live on large land masses with relative ease of travel sometimes like to go for, well, the fun of going. If you’re a sociologist, however, you might find funding for a road trip if you can put a thesis behind it. Christopher P. Scheitle and Roger Finke made such a trip and entitled the results Places of Faith: A Road Trip Across America’s Religious Landscape. This isn’t really an academic book, but it does contain some interesting information about faith communities that might otherwise remain off the radar (with the exception of mega-churches, one of which they visit in Houston). Religion, it becomes clear, is still a large part of life for many Americans, and not just small-town rubes like yours truly. Thriving faith communities are found in New York, San Francisco, Houston, Detroit, and Salt Lake City. Scheitle and Finke don’t neglect the smaller venues either, stopping at rural sites in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. Perhaps the biggest take-away from their book is that religion is diverse and deeply embedded in the United States.

While many claim that atheism is humanity’s next big step forward, it has to be admitted that freedom of religion (without which atheism might be problematic) has gone far. Although Places of Faith sticks pretty close to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism, there can be no question that many, many other religions constitute a nation where “mainstream” is not as normative as it may seem. As also became clear from the descriptions and photos the authors provide, religions are fond of splintering. Faith can be made of brittle stuff. As I’ve argued before, we are really each our own entity of personal religion. We share some traits with the larger group, but unless we’re an identical twin, likely nobody thinks quite the same way we do. Religious leaders know this well—uniformity is often a thinly veiled illusion.

Having studied religion for most of my life, I can’t say that there was too much new to me in this little book. It provides a tolerant, and colorful tour through some religions that will be less familiar to those who don’t consider just how broad the landscape is. You won’t become an expert in Mormonism or the Amish, but you might learn a thing or two about both. The authors encourage something that many religion majors know by rote: you learn a lot by exploring your local religious landscape. As a college student I tried not only Presbyterianism and Pentecostalism, but also the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the occasional foray into that mysterious realm of Episcopalianism. There was more diversity, even in that small town of Grove City, than I had the ability to explore on my own. This much was certain, however, people find meaning and comfort in their beliefs. To deny them that is to deny them what makes religious freedom the wonder that it is.

No Cult

MakingAmericanReligiousFringeThe image of hundreds of lifeless bodies in the jungles of Guyana foregrounded by a metal tub of poisoned Flavor Aid is a difficult one to forget. If it were not for the media, however, most of us never would have heard of Jonestown. The term “cult” was applied to Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, just as the word was increasingly becoming a pejorative term for those with “other” beliefs. Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, and Journalists, 1955—1993, is a probing study into what makes a religion “mainstream,” versus a “cult.” (I know, too many “scare quotes.”) McCloud considers the role that journalists, as reporting in major news magazines, have had on determining American views of what is normative religion. If, that is, normative religion can be posited at all. It is quite clear, upon reflection, that any religion has some odd beliefs: you can’t wear this or eat that, you have to be at this place on this day, you must shave your head, etc., etc. The question McCloud explores is why some end up being called cults and others do not.

Scholars of religion have abandoned the term cult, for the most part, because of its arbitrariness. The defining markers of “cults” are unclear, and one religion influences another so that a continuum forms from Moses to Moonies. That’s not to say religions are all the same, but it is to say they are not so different either. The declaration of a religion as a cult, if based on belief systems, is tenuous. All religions make claims impossible to verify. Some, very traditional, are also very small in membership. Religions have been fabricated from antiquity to present, and even as I write this new religions are likely being conceived somewhere. McCloud points out that the popular media gave us the distinction between “mainstream” and “cult.” That distinction itself may be more telling than the differences between various groups of believers. It is the language of exclusion—true religions versus false religions. And any more than one religion, if considered seriously, is problematic.

Religions, old and new, large and small, make truth claims. These claims cannot be tested this side of eternity, so they must be taken by faith. The minds of many will be turned toward extreme actions motivated by idiosyncratic understandings of religion today. McCloud shows us that fringe is an integral part of the fabric—religion is woven from the experience of people through the millennia of our existence. And yet we still have no consensus. We have enough experience, however, to know that when one religion unravels another will be woven from the dangling threads. Some will be misguided, although all will claim to have the truth. Until that ultimate truth is definitively known, the best policy seems to be avoiding the temptation to call those of a different faith a “cult,” when “religion” does just as nicely.

Running to Stand Still

“You have faith, Professor Barnhardt?” Klaatu asks the scientist in the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. Barnhardt demurs, stating that curiosity is what makes good science, not faith. But sometimes I wonder if the professor or if the alien is correct. Science fiction was young in 1951, and Robert Wise would go on to give us such diverse fare as West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and the first Star Trek movie. Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still has always been my favorite movie that he directed. In 1951 quite a bit could be assumed about America’s religious sensibilities. Yes, diversity had been part of the mix from the very beginning, but the view of America as a “Christian nation,” although not in any way official, was not seriously challenged in those days. This shows through clearly in the movie. Although the opening sequence is intended to be a Klaatu eye-view of descending to earth in his space ship, it is reminiscent of the stock “creation” imagery that would become so familiar to those of us who watched Bible movies. It is a God’s eye-view as well.

Christ-like, Klaatu descends to earth to bring a message of peace, but also an apocalyptic threat, from the powers beyond. He is capable of miracles, such as the eponymous day the earth stood still—the ultimate in non-violent protest because hospitals and airplanes still have power and nobody is harmed. In his human incarnation Klaatu not so subtly takes the name Carpenter, making the corollary clear. In case you missed that, however, he is killed, resurrected and in the end ascends to heaven. Klaatu becomes the prototype of the messianic alien, a figure we would see in guises from ET to Starman. Believers in ancient astronauts or not, the makers of our space movies know that God is an alien.

daytheearthstoodstill

The Day the Earth Stood Still came early on in the Cold War. The obviousness of distrust in the Soviet Union is placed in the mouths and knowing glances of various characters. Some even suspect that Klaatu is a Russian rather than a spaceman. Sputnik was still six years in the future, but the atomic bomb was already in the past. We had learned to destroy ourselves before we had learned how to escape the only planet we have. Klaatu delivers his final homily not to politicians, but to scientists of all races (and, unspoken, creeds). Seated on folding chairs in the outdoors, as if at a revival meeting, they listen as Klaatu tells them the decision of how to live is up to us, but Gort, a kind of avenging angel, is always overhead. The invocation that can save humanity, however, is given to the female lead Helen Benson. She alone knows the sacred words “Klaatu barada nikto.” Amen.