A Peculiar Resurrection

Although it is not my regular practice to splash melodrama across my blog, my recent experience with losing the Internet for four days prompts me to consider resurrection. After consulting with three technical agents and giving my laptop a kind of electronic enema, I am now once more able to access that mysterious nirvana called the world-wide web (and even the www2, whatever that is). This experience has taught me something about the human craving for resurrection. I began this blog in July of 2009. Since then I’ve added new entries almost daily. Even in places as remote as the northwoods of Idaho, if my laptop receives a signal, I can post my unorthodox thoughts for the world to read (at least the very small cross-section of the world that stumbles upon my pages). Being forced to go without Internet connectivity in New York City, of all places!, was itself a surreal experience. I literally wept in frustration. No one could help. This morning the Verizon tech assistant had me connect via an Ethernet cable and with his omnipotent hand remotely guiding my cursor, brought these dry bones back to life. Praise the landline!

The writers of the Hebrew Bible did not believe in resurrection. The book of Daniel, written just before the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (“the manifestation” as he humbly called himself) in 164 BCE, is the earliest hint that Jewish thinkers were beginning to consider the resurrection concept. The Egyptians had, many centuries earlier, played with the idea. They eventually developed it into a national pastime—building pyramids to ensure the king got to live again—but other ancient people were more pragmatic. Death was the end, so live this life to the fullest. As far as we can tell, Jesus taught his followers about the possibility of life beyond life. Some take that to mean a literal reconstituting of life after death while others understand it metaphorically. Both ideas can be, broadly speaking, labeled “Christian.” Some Jewish thinkers accept resurrection, others do not. Other religions, as mentioned earlier this week, go for the cyclical approach of reincarnation.

Ezekiel, according to chapter 37 of his surreal book, saw a valley of dry bones. These people were, as the Munchkin coroner croons, “really most sincerely dead.” Ezekiel did not believe in resurrection. If he had the miracle would have been lost on him. Reviving the dead was considered the most extreme, impossible feat in his entire (if limited) universe. The people of Judah, defeated by Babylonia, carried into exile, their temple—God in their midst—destroyed, believed it was all over. There was nothing to bring home into such a desolate landscape. Some suggest Ezekiel was schizophrenic or perhaps addicted to psychedelic mushrooms. In reality, I believe, he owned a MacBook that could not connect to the Internet. Once that divine signal from on high penetrated the arid air of exilic lassitude, he rebooted and without the aid of any drugs, saw God in all his/her glory. (Ezekiel refuses to give God a gender, but that is a topic for another post.)

Dog Gone Rapture

With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.

At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.

Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.

Cafe Press's take on the issue

Misappropriated Prophets

There seems to be a can of worms lying open on my desk, released by the comments yesterday’s post engendered. I thank all my readers and commentators. The issue most pointedly thrust among the worms appears to be that of prophecy. Teaching about prophecy constitutes a large part of my meager income. And since prophecy plays a large role in many Evangelical associations not only with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but also Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and just about any other major catastrophe, it is worth exposing. In the Bible prophecy is not about predicting the future.

Prophecy was a widespread phenomenon long before Israel appeared on the scene. One of the roles prophets shared in ancient times was the declaration of outcomes to momentous events. Unfortunately that aspect of their duty easily became equated with predicting the future. Its actual milieu, however, was that ancient people believed prophets to be “effective speakers.” When a prediction came true it was not because a prophet could “see the future,” but because the spoken word of the prophet participated in the reality of the world. The belief was that the effective word came from God/a god, and therefore would be true by definition.

Apocalyptic, the familiar literary form of Daniel and Revelation, is not prophecy. Zoroastrianism, the religion of ancient Persia, had influenced many ancient religions, including Judaism. Apocalyptic, like prophecy, has a predictive element. Like prophecy, however, apocalyptic has a different purpose. The books most heavily farmed for future predictions by Evangelicals, Daniel and Revelation, are both thinly veiled accounts of contemporary events of the authors’ own days. Daniel consoles Jews persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Revelation consoles Christians persecuted by one of the early Roman emperors (the jury is still out on precisely which one). Neither book predicts the end of the world. Both, however, declare the comeuppance of the arrogant oppressor. It is here, perhaps, that the true relevance of the Bible speaks to the scars human beings inflict on their own planet and on each other.

sic semper tyrannis

Nebuchadrezzar’s Dream

One of history’s great ironies is that, despite being visually oriented creatures, we often do not know what famous people looked like. The further back in time we go the more difficult the reconstruction is. Ancient people practiced portraiture, although their efforts may have been hampered by stylistic conventions. Egyptian artwork is recognizable at a glance, and Mesopotamian art, with its weightier, angst-laden form is easily distinguished. Their stylized images generally do not allow for direct correlations to Renaissance portraits. When searching for specific individuals, even famous ones, however, the likeness may be completely absent.

Among the most notorious (from a biblical viewpoint) ancient emperors was Nebuchadrezzar. Demonized for his role in the destruction of the sacred temple in Jerusalem, Nebuchadrezzar becomes the hypostasis of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in Daniel and even worse in Christian apocalypticism. For all that, Nebuchadrezzar seems to have been a jolly good fellow. An able emperor, he was noted for his building an empire and the loveliest gardens in Iraq. Yet no images of him survive. They may be out there, buried, waiting to be found, but we do not know what this emperor looked like.

A recent web search nevertheless turned up the clearly Greek version of that famous, if forgotten, face on an onyx cameo. It even appears on Wikipedia’s page for Nebuchadnezzar II as an actual image of the man, the legend; this despite the fact that William Hayes Ward, in the American Journal of Archaeology in 1887, explained how the cameo was an early forgery. Originally an “eye of Nabu,” the proto-cameo was the eye of a statue, the pupil of which was carved by a reconstructionist Greek artisan into what he supposed Nebuchadrezzar looked like – a Greek warrior – centuries after the fact.

From Ball's Light from the East

This might be a simple historical curiosity were it not for the fact that evangelical websites and wikis are quick to claim that this clean-shaven, Olympian-profiled vision of masculinity is an actual image of Nebuchadnezzar. Why? He occurs in the Bible and therefore must be “proved” to have been historical. Not only for the real Chaldean Empire, but also for the fictional one concocted by Daniel. Seeing is believing. While history did not see fit to leave a lasting image of Nebuchadrezzar, evangelical websites will use the tried and true god-of-the-gaps methodology to show us what he actually looked like (not).

Alaska’s Temblors

There are rumblings under Alaska. Some people are just a bit nervous after last week’s earthquakes in Mexico – could it be our turn next? Mount Redoubt, remote from human population zones, has been sputtering and steaming and making itself look large. It is preparing for something big.

In apocalyptic literature we see a similar image: the small horn that boasts and makes itself out to be the greatest of the ten that speckle the head of the great beast from the sea. The little horn called Antiochus, so enamored of his own abilities that he surnamed himself Epiphanes, “the manifestation.” And uncritical people, taken in by his bravado, followed him until he started torturing and killing those who didn’t agree with his religion. Those who would not bow to his own personal Zeus would be martyred in nasty ways.

Now an active volcano is sputtering in Alaska. Could it be the sign of the end times? I doubt it. The end does not come ushered in by mere movements in the earth’s crust. According to Revelation there has to be a harlot on the back of a hideous beast. And that’s only if you believe Revelation is predicting something that hasn’t already happened. No, I believe Mount Redoubt is just doing what volcanoes always do – threatening, making noise, and occasionally erupting. They may blanket their surroundings with ash and magma, but these are often only temporary postures on the part of nature. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

More than just a redoubtable mountain?

The Call of the Apocalypse

In discussing various polemics against religion, such as those by Christopher Hitchens and Bill Maher, I have frequently stated that they have a point, but they have ignored the good that religion hath wrought. It is like an Anti-Julius Caesar – the good is oft interred with the bones. Then the news goes and validates their polemic. The arrests yesterday of the leadership of the Christian militia calling themselves the Hutaree (I’m sorry, but it sounds like a happy Boy Scout gathering) highlights once more the danger that religion poses to an already unstable society. I’d not heard of the Hutaree before, and chances are I would never have heard of them had they not plotted an apocalyptic war against the United States’ government that landed them on the front page.

Few people are willing to admit just how dangerous apocalyptic thought is, or how deeply rooted it is in American politics. Tracing the roots of this form of belief is not difficult – apocalyptic first appears in the Bible when revelation through prophecy met and mated with Zoroastrianism’s dualism. The offspring of this union was the belief that a new, and better (!), age was about to dawn. God would usher in an era of peace, but it had to be precipitated by an era of war. Presidents drawn from the Religious Right have held this belief. Some have even eagerly begun wars in hopes that this ancient Afghanistanian religion would lead to the Christian apocalypse. At least the Hutaree were up-front about it: they believed that armed conflict with the government would flush out the Antichrist and usher in the end.

Last night in my Prophets class student questions indicated just how much interest there is in apocalyptic. We live in an era when information is all-too-easy to find, and yet many otherwise intelligent people believe that a hidden knowledge about the future is available in the Bible. It is not. For those who have ears to hear, Daniel was written about Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Revelation was written about a Roman emperor (perhaps Nero or Domitian) who threatened nascent Christianity. The apocalyptic battle was already underway. The future they longed for was peace. Modern apocalypticists see all of this as future prediction and believe that they must start the war. All of this makes me feel strangely vindicated. The FBI and other government officials are starting to demonstrate an awareness that to prevent religious extremism you must understand it. Now if only universities would catch on and realize that the study of religion is vital to national security I might end up with a full-time teaching post after all.

The original Antichrist

2012

As the economy rolls along like a marble on a pebble beach and the stock market continues its own bumpy road to recovery, apocalyptic thought is again on the rise. It is when times are bad that apocalyptic comes in most useful. Individuals who feel that this world has run out of possibilities generally look to a new future world where things will be radically different. That’s why people flock to movies like 2012 and dream of a new day, a new era.

That’s the way it has always been. Jews being tortured to death under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid tyrant, looked for that day when Michael would take on the “Prince of Persia” and the new world would gush in and overtake this one. Almost two centuries later the early Christian movement, suffering at the hands of Roman emperors such as Nero and Diocletian, reveled in the visions of Revelation — the new world coming. Rental property is free in the New Jerusalem! The earliest exemplars of apocalyptic thinking appear to go back to the ancient Zoroastrians. This early Iranian religion (which may have originated in Afghanistan) took comfort in a dualistic world where good and evil constantly struggled until a cosmic conflict would result in the ultimate destruction of evil. It helped to explain why things could be so bad for good people in the here-and-now.

2012, however, derives from concerns that the Mayan calendar seems to have run out of space at that time slot just over three years from now. Otherwise intelligent people panic; this is an apocalypse of the secular kind! Experts on the Maya (among which I am not) explain that the Mayans use(d) many calendars (there are still Mayans around). Their large-scale, 5000 year calendar may run out on December 21, 2012, but that doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, that calendar only began on August 11, 3114 BCE, about 4.5 billion years after the creation of the earth. It was not meant as a road-map to the cosmos. The real apocalypse is in the minds of those suffering from their own private ills in this world. Ever since Zarathustra spoke, people have had an alternative, better future to anticipate.