Sects on the Highway

Here in the east, it’s not unusual to see Amish buggy road caution signs. Well, not so much in New Jersey, but in my somewhat frequent trips into Pennsylvania and upstate New York. On a recent trip to western Pennsylvania I mentioned to my mother that I’d never seen any Amish along the infamous route 322, where such a sign resides. Driving down 322 on my way home from that trip my wife and I passed three Amish carriages and one baby stroller. Religion has a way of surprising you along the highway. Roadside sects are not uncommon. Apart from the many biblical billboards I’ve been seeing lately, there are any number of indications that once you get out the urban areas of the nation, religion is alive and well. While driving to Ithaca, New York recently my wife and I simultaneously spotted a sign we’d never seen before. We have made this trip to upstate many times, mostly along Interstate 81. The sign was for a tourist attraction called “Historic Priesthood Restoration Site.”

Being hopelessly mainstream, we assumed this meant Catholic priesthood. The problem was, what was either historic about this area north of Scranton, or what might be this restoration? Once we found wifi access again, I learned that the priesthood referenced was that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have to keep reminding myself that Mormonism had its start in parts of upstate New York—an area so prone to religious flare ups that it was called the Burnt Over District back in the day. So Joseph Smith and Emma Hale had lived just over the border in the area of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania while Smith was working on the Book of Mormon.

A great deal of America’s religious history may be found on roadside markers. We are an inventive people when it comes to ways of exploring what we consider the divine world. Mormonism has been one of the more successful brands of American religion and although we tend to associate it with Utah now, it was a faith that grew up here in the green hills of the mid-Atlantic states. Being inveterate seekers, Homo sapiens go after new revelations with surprising aplomb. And we’re willing to change the constitution of old religions to fit new prejudices. Religion is anything but static. To test this theory simply get behind the wheel and drive out into rural America. You’ll be surprised how much you can see even at highway speeds, if you have eyes to see.


Can I Get a

Public restrooms have always made me uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with North Carolina. It’s more an issue of being raised to be ashamed of bodily functions and then trying to shift, as it were, in mid-stream. Coming back from the Women’s March on Washington (we have to keep talking about this to give us momentum to move forward) we had an hour layover in Philadelphia. I can’t walk into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station without thinking of Witness. Indeed, they were announcing the train to Lancaster on our layover. Then I realized coffee before a somewhat long train ride isn’t a great idea. As I headed to the men’s room I remembered what happened there in 1985. After all, with Trump in charge all kinds of carnage can be expected.

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Witness has a redemptive message. And maybe it’s a parable too. Anabaptists, such as the Amish, take their Bible seriously. Not being conformed to the world, but separating out from it is a kind of Protestant monasticism. Even those who can’t understand their lifestyle choices (so Republican in so many ways) admire their industry and care (so unlike Republicans in so many ways). The problem is, we can’t separate ourselves from the world any longer. We’re all Samuel staring out of that toilet stall. We have seen the truth and we feel vulnerable and violated and unsure of where to turn. When someone’s hurt they reach out to others for help. The others are the world. A community may be self-sufficient, but it shares the planet with aggressive others. You can never truly be alone.

The lifestyle of the mean and corrupt erupts into the calm, peaceful, and contemplative life of those who want to live simply and unmolested. Some mentalities—particularly capitalist ones—see the non-aggressive as chattels. Women, children, men who don’t fight, any minority—these can be exploited for one’s own grandiosity. We’ve seen that already in the regressive and repressive policies an illegally elected president has already started to enact. John Book is not going to come save us this time. We need to take the initiative to protect the way of life we simply wish to lead, without interfering with those who sadly believe money really means something. You and I, my readers, are witnesses. And like witnesses we have the responsibility to make certain that the world knows the truth of what we’ve seen.


The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?


Apostolic Succession

I try, normally, to limit blog posts to one per movie (per viewing), but I’m still thinking about The Apostle, so I thought I’d share a bit more. I can’t get that scene of “tag team” preaching out of my head. The extras on the DVD reveal that the preachers, other than Robert Duvall, were actual ministers. When Duvall comes on the stage, acting, these other men “catch on fire,” preaching to the small congregation gathered under the tent. They’re not acting. This juxtaposition of someone acting as a preacher sharing an actual revival with those who are actually preaching makes me wonder if there was any dissonance felt. Did anyone feel any compunction about really preaching after getting riled up by someone who was only pretending? Where is the line between fiction and fact here? Film and reality blend.

Apostleposter

The same kind of question occurred to me after watching The Witness. I’m not a Hollywood expert, but the rumors that circulated then (and I was in college at the time) were that some of the actors were actually Amish. They too, lived their actual faith while in the presence of actors, cameras, and a director. These films that use non-actors certainly score points for verisimilitude. Rev. Charles Johnson, for example, is really “in the spirit.” The scene of him, “coming down from the spirit,” Duvall reveals in the Making of segment, is real. This man, at least, had a spiritual experience in a fictional piece. The same, Duvall suggests, may apply to Sam in the final altar call. This was, he avers, real emotion, not acting. Does being saved in fiction count in real life?

Movies sometimes leave me wondering what is real. I suppose that’s part of the draw. Religious experience, like sex, is generally faked on film. Things that are sacred are felt to be off limits to the eyes of strangers with only voyeuristic interests. I’ve lived long enough to see photographs go from proof positive to Photoshop fantasy. We can’t believe what we see any more. How are we to comprehend films that portray religious experience? Did Robert Duvall actually save any sinners from Hell? Does it make a difference if an ersatz minister is the one who leads you there? What of a real minister who fails to convert the viewing audience? Films are not simple escapism, I know. And as I continue to wonder about saints and apostles, I’m going to have to try to understand what can be caught on celluloid and what can’t.


Finding a Vein

Travel broadens the mind. I always find that it’s a form of education. Sometimes what I learn is disturbing. While driving across Pennsylvania on I-80 recently, I had a chance to study some contrasts. I’ve made this trip many times, but this particular journey revealed two Amish farmers out plowing their fields behind teams of horses. It’s easy to romanticize this view—there is a majesty about it. Once, while driving back to Wisconsin from an interview at Luther College, I saw an Amish farmer and his team in the rain, the horses’ breath could be seen billowing out, but the farmer, implacable in his conviction of what had to be done, stood rigidly behind them, keeping the animals at their task. When you don’t eat if the crops don’t grow, a new kind of urgency is added to this picture. All around us on the highway hi-tech vehicles whizzed, and, gathering from the behavior of the drivers, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them were very happy.

Then we sped past a billboard. It was facing the opposite direction from our travel, but the words went something like this: “The wind dies, the sun sets, but coal lasts forever.” In much of Pennsylvania, with its spine of Appalachian Mountains, coal is abundant. Growing up some of the highways we drove had exposed coal seams in the road cuts. It’s pretty much everywhere. Coal, however, is a dirty, non-renewable, polluting source of energy that exacts a severe cost on the planet through mining. No doubt it is abundant, but the amount is certainly finite and it makes the world less inhabitable when we use it. The wind blows where it wills. The sun rises on the righteous and wicked alike. Coal is decay left from the life forms that helped ensure that we’d show up here. One of those circle of death kinds of things.

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Then a car went by with a communique in paint on its back window. “Pray to end hatred” it read. This is a sentiment with which I could surely live. I recalled driving this same interstate many years ago when I was old enough to read but not enough to comprehend. The pylons of the overpasses on 80 frequently have spray-painted messages reading “Trust Jesus.” Some of them are still visible at highway speeds, faded though they are. The elements seem to have left a negative of the original work of what is technically vandalism. I think back to the Amish farmer. He’s watching, I’m sure, the never-ending flow of sinful vehicles on a highway as he plows. He’s been raised to trust Jesus and to believe in the old way of doing things. I’m behind the wheel praying that the hatred I see played out in these metal coffins will stay far from me until I can exit to some quieter backroads where the pace of life is more to my liking. And I wonder if that sunset I see is influenced by the coal that we’re burning and hoping the wind will simply blow it away.


Irrational Revelation System

In an article on Obamacare in last week’s paper, Kathleen O’Brien pointed out an interesting dilemma. Some religions, such as the Anabaptist traditions (Amish, Mennonites) must comply with modern regulations on healthcare or face a fine. Under pressure, the Internal Revenue Service grants exemptions to some such religions, but those religions have to have been established before 1950. Maybe I’m paranoid, but just having read about Scientology, I have to wonder about two things: what is the IRS doing defining religions, and why 1950?

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Ad Meskens, Wikimedia Commons

1950. Like the Roman Empire, frustrated with new religions (like Christianity) popping up all over the place, governments sometimes default to a religion’s age as a sign of its validity. Rome required conformity, but Judaism, demonstrably already an ancient religion, was granted an exemption from some of the regulations. We have a tendency to think that if a religion is valid, it must have been discovered/revealed long ago. All religions, however, were new at one time. Even the first shaman offering the first propitiatory gesture to the first recognized nature spirit, was experimenting a little. Did that stop in 1950? That line in the sand must stand for the cutoff date for new religions. Why? Well, you see, it has to do with money.

The IRS, as an organization, doesn’t really care what you believe. As long as it includes paying your taxes. One of the burdens of citizenship, too quickly forgotten, is that life together in a complex society is not possible without incurring considerable costs. Religions have long claimed tax-exempt status under the rubric of disestablishment. If they pay the government, then it is like the government is receiving kickbacks from the Almighty. The biggest donor should get the biggest favors. Soon you have a state church. So it is just easier to let religions be tax exempt. But since nobody has ever adequately defined what a religion is, the doors have been wide open for entrepreneurs in the faith industry. Instead of letting religious experts decide how to define a religion, that has become a government job. I picture a simple, bearded Amish man pulling his buggy up outside the IRS headquarters in a frenetic Washington, DC to go argue his case. Don’t worry, Bruder. Divine revelation, whatever that is, apparently stopped in 1950 and you’re clearly pre-McCarthy era. Suddenly a whole lot of things seem to start making sense.


Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.


Witnesses All

Witness“Only the bad man. I see. And you know these bad men by sight? You are able to look into their hearts and see this badness?” The words of Eli Lapp in one of the most memorable scenes in Witness often come back to me. While the lifestyle of the Amish strikes me as somewhat extreme, I have always admired their conviction that a simple life is a better life. The finer points of Anabaptist theology don’t always agree with my Weltanschauung, but their pacifism is the closest thing to Jesus’ Christianity that I can imagine. So as the NRA pulls out its big guns, arguing that the solution to children being massacred is to provide even more guns, I say they should watch Witness.

The year is 1985. In the movie Samuel Lapp witnesses a murder and when detective John Book finds out, he is chased to the Lapp’s Amish community where he hides out. One day young Samuel finds his gun and the camera angle is so oblique as the weapon in the foreground fades out to his grandfather Eli’s face, that you sense some violence has already been done even in the smelting of the metal to cast the revolver. “This gun of the hand is for the taking of human life. We believe it is wrong to take a life. That is only for God. Many times wars have come and people have said to us: you must fight, you must kill, it is the only way to preserve the good. But Samuel, there’s never only one way. Remember that. Would you kill another man?”

At this point all the fuss is only about limiting assault rifles. There is no sane reason that private citizens (my convictions go even further, but let’s not be too idealistic here) should have assault rifles. Not even a grizzly bear attack would justify it. The only effective weapon against violence is education. But look at one of the first budget items to get slashed when times get tough. Imagine a world where people were taught to solve their differences with discussions rather than violence. Even most crime, I suspect, would vanish if people didn’t feel themselves unfairly disadvantaged. Our violent legacy may go back to our common ancestor with the chimpanzees, but we like to imagine we’re better than they are. Are we?

“I would only kill the bad man.” So Samuel says with the conviction of a child. Badness is a fraught concept. It is often one of those qualities that we are not fit to judge in others, because we all know the directions our own thoughts take from time to time. Eli’s grandfather is a voice of wisdom here. But Samuel has the last word in this poignant scene, “I can see what they do. I have seen it.” If we exegete this just a little, however, I think we may be surprised at just who the bad really are. Think about it.


Hair Today

In what may be the most bizarre recent example of religiously motivated violence, the Associated Press reports that a breakaway Amish group is accused of the crime of haircutting. Amish beliefs about personal appearance are well known, and taking various biblical injunctions seriously, they believe cutting a man’s beard or a woman’s hair to be a sin. (Any Amish reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.) The aptly named Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group (the article doesn’t specify the contention) has been charged with forceful barbering with intent to shave. Not himself, but other Amish men in Ohio. The Amish trace their roots back to the Anabaptist movement that only accepted adult baptism and would rebaptize those who were sprinkled as infants. They acquired other beliefs along the way such as hard work and industriousness, distinctive dress styles, and the shunning of electricity. They are devoted to pacifism.

The story, which Rod Serling would have been proud to air, has Mullet forcefully cutting the beards of men and the hair of women in another Amish community. The article doesn’t explain how Mullet took on his Delilah-esque treason, but after giving his enemies the Seville treatment, he took photos of his victims. The Amish don’t like pictures either. Apparently the Amish community is terrified of this mad shearing heretic. The mind reels attempting to conjure an image of the struggle or even what might have led to it. Where did the camera come from?

Religion, no matter the denomination, prescribes unusual behavior. What one society supposes to be normative is simply a matter of socialization. When you are brought up with, say, a man wearing a colorful brocade dress while breaking a translucent wafer over a goblet of wine and claiming it to be God, that seems perfectly normal. Anyone who tries to challenge or desecrate this rite would be designated an infidel, heathen, pagan, or worse. Many think the Anabaptists, whether Mennonite, Hutterite, or Amish, to be quaint and curious like forgotten lore. In fact, their religious beliefs go back to a venerable past. Images of The Witness flood to mind when reading how the FBI has become entangled in the barbarous act. Perhaps it is time for Mulder and Scully to make a reappearance. But just in case, perhaps they should sport some sturdy helmets and Kevlar, since reports are out that some Amish are sitting on the porches with shotguns, while one lurks in the shadow with his snipping scissors.