Speaking of revisionist history, I see that I’m negligent on updating my Egyptology. In a year when you need an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the sheer number of GOP presidential wannabes, I had to ask my wife who Ben Carson was. She sent me a story explaining how the league of presidential dreamers believes that the pyramids were ancient Egyptian grain silos. His reason for believing this has nothing to do with archaeology or with history and everything to do with the Bible. Now, other presidents of too recent memory have had strange biblical beliefs as well. And that raises the intractable question of how you run a democracy with religious freedom. Some people like to claim religious belief is a matter of choice, but that is rarely true. At a young age we are programmed to accept what our parents or guardians tell us is true. Studies of the brain suggest that once wired for concepts of how God works, the circuitry is difficult to displace. In a country where most people can’t tell a Seventh-Day Adventist from an eight-hour clock, they may be surprised that a brain scientist might believe the pyramids were built to biblical specifications.
The Adventists are a literalist sect. And they are not the only ones who believe the pyramids have something to do with Joseph and the biblical famine that set the stage for the exodus. It is an idea I encountered as a child, and I didn’t even have a denomination to call my own. Religious belief can be, and often is, completely separate from rationality. Some very intelligent people are biblical literalists. The real problem is that the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids at all, but then most Americans know as much about the Bible as they know about Seventh-Day Adventists. If people actually knew how much incentive George W. Bush had to start Armageddon, the turn of the millennium would have been far more tense than it was. And that’s saying something.
In our democracy, we want freedom of religion, but we don’t want to be bothered with the details of what a religion teaches. Like many, I was shocked by the headlines of a potential president grossly misunderstanding history, but as soon as I learned Carson is an Adventist everything clicked into place. I would suggest that it is a moral responsibility in a democracy to learn something about religion. We like to think we can fudge on that part of the homework. If we want the freedom of having anyone capable of becoming president, we need to learn something about a human being’s deepest motivations. No matter how much reporters and skeptics want to laugh and scorn, religion makes many decisions for by far the largest majority of people on the planet. The thought that a democracy can thrive without learning what truly motivates its leaders, I would suggest, is the most naive position of all.
“Remember, remember the fifth of November.” Election day is upon us and my mind goes to V for Vendetta. The movie is about oppressive regimes and, more importantly, people finding a voice. It is a strongly emotional film for me not because of the violence, but because of the symbolism. Yes, V is out for vengeance, but we are all V, having been co-opted into a system that doesn’t seem to have our best interests at heart. At least we can vote. The scene at the very end, where V’s future, alternate universe gunpowder plot succeeds, always leaves me with damp eyes. By virtue of watching many movies, I am not prone to shed tears at what I know to be fiction. But some fiction possesses a verisimilitude that fact lacks. V for Vendetta is one such fictional vision.
I grew up a Fundamentalist Republican before such a combination was de rigueur. I also grew up believing in liberty, an idea that often resonates with those who don’t have much in the way of material goods. At least we have our freedom. By the time I attended a Christian college, I learned the error of my ways. I asked around to find out why America always seemed to get involved with conflicts under GOP administrations. I learned that, in some cases anyway, belief that Armageddon was around the corner motivated such wars. Even some presidents believed, as their religion taught, that the end of the world was nigh and it was their duty to hasten the process. Be careful what you vote for.
As I stood in long lines waiting for a bus out of New York City yesterday, I listened as other passengers wanted to talk. Hurricane Sandy left many people in poor circumstances, feeling the pain that is only alleviated by sharing. They told of devastated neighborhoods where people who hardly knew one another came together, naturally, to help each other. I listened to descriptions of those with power opening their houses and sharing their food with people they didn’t know. It wasn’t because the government forced them to—they did it because it was the right thing to do. When I watch V for Vendetta I don’t cry because I approve of violence; I have been a pacifist since childhood. I cry because the vision of justice prevailing is so beautiful that no other response seems appropriate. With that vision in mind, I am heading out to vote.
You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.
Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.
Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.
“It was like Armageddon,” a woman in Colorado Springs told a reporter, according to CNN, after seeing the wildfires raging down the mountains onto the city. The article opens with a reference to Godzilla. The story is a wrenching reminder of how helpless humans are in the face of disaster. When facing danger far bigger than ourselves, language of God is never far behind. The things we control—the future we engineer—is bright in prospect. We’ve impacted our own chances for the better in a steady surge since the Middle Ages. Of course, there have been notable blips along the way where we’ve fallen victim to our own paranoias, but generally, things are better. Controlling fire was among the first of human innovations that eventually led to civilization. Humans took a natural force and put it to work for us. It is easy to forget that fire serves no master. Until nature reminds us.
Earth, wind, fire, and water. The ancient Greek philosophers had narrowed the basic environment down to four features. Each of them holds profound dangers for a small species like our own. No wonder the ancients ascribed each of these elements a guardian deity or two. On driving trips to the west, I have gone past fires whose intense heat could be felt hundreds of yards away in the air-conditioned comfort of our car. Still, I shuddered. In this day of advanced transportation, most people can drive themselves away from the danger of wildfires. The problem is that material goods take up space, and in a world that values material goods above all things, well, you still can’t take it with you. My heart goes out to those who tell their stories of impossible decisions of what to take. What in our lives can’t be replaced? What do we truly value?
Funny thing is, we’ve known since I was in high school at least, that our own actions were changing the climate. The wildfires may not be directly related—I don’t know—but I do know that we’ve been in deep denial. We’ve been caught in a sin so black that the only way out is to lie until we’re even deeper in it. We’ve been destroying our own environment for money. Money with which to buy material possessions. Earthquake, hurricane, wildfire, and flood. None of the four elements are safe. We can put our material goods in a secure house in a mountain stronghold and still lose everything. It is the fate of a culture that puts too much faith in material goods. Colorado is beautiful and peaceful, much of the time. But nature respects no human. Yet we put our faith in material things. Maybe she was right after all, it is like Armageddon.
So when the smoke clears from another leap day barely survived, and my Apocalypse calendar tells me about the looming end of all things, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by and leave a Watchtower with the headline “Armageddon” at my door, I start to get a little paranoid. Did I miss the memo on this? I tend to be suspicious of any religion that is less than 150 years old—call me a historical snob in that respect. By the time of the nineteenth century of the Common Era, we were getting industrialization, evolution, and the Whig party sorted out. It was hardly a propitious time to be starting new religions. Well, I was curious about Armageddon, so I read a bit of the Watchtower in any case. It goes best with salt.
“The original Hebrew word Har-Magedon literally means, ‘Mountain of Megiddo.’ Although no such literal mountain existed, a place known as Megiddo does exist.” So I learned. But there was a mountain at Megiddo. Literally. I’ve been there. It’s not an impressive mountain like the Front Range of the Rockies, but it is sufficient for the purposes of the Bible. Megiddo overlooks the broad plain of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times such valleys were highly valued for fighting because of a basic engineering difficulty with chariots: they don’t work well on hills. Chariots have open backs, so falling out would hamper effective up-hill battles (literal ones), and your chariot bumping into your horses or chasing them downhill would have resulted when the fighting was done. Or when you were fleeing. Valleys like Jezreel were perfect for fighting. And Megiddo has a front-row seat on its little mountain. The site of Megiddo has been excavated by archaeologists and is well worth the time it takes to get there.
By coincidence (or is it?) my apocalypse wall calendar begins March by saying, “Make Archaeology Your Friend.” Hmm, is there a message somewhere in here? When the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mayan interpreters agree, should we not at least admit a little doubt? I don’t think so. Both traditions, as certain of special revelation as they may be, are human attempts to make sense of our world. We know of nothing that doesn’t end. The great Eastern religions seem to have caught on more readily to the idea of impermanence than Western cultures have, but they all share this in common—it’s gotta end sometime. I would, however, point out to Mr. Santorum, as he begins to think about his concession speech, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to agree with the amateur Catholic on the part about Satan. My Watchtower says “Satan will marshal the nations for an assault on those who worship Jehovah God.” Perhaps politicians should stick to following the Mayans.
Not being a cable subscriber bears a burden all its own. Not only would paying the extra monthly fees for television prove a hardship, but the constant temptation to watch it would rate as a deadly sin. So on this “All Saints Day” I find myself wondering if the world is still out there after last night’s much-touted “The Walking Dead” premiere. The new AMC series has been written up in local papers and this week’s Time magazine. The latter calls it “a zombie apocalypse.” The fascination with zombie goes beyond holiday-fueled monsters. As James Poniewozik states in his Time article, zombies symbolize society’s insecurities: pandemics, terrorism, economic instability. The unrelenting undead remind us that death is perhaps not the worst thing to fear.
The religious side of this trend is fascinating. Revenants have no place in traditional Christian, Jewish, or Muslim theologies. Perhaps the closest semi-sanctioned version is the golem, a soulless protector of persecuted medieval Jewish communities. Traditional zombies are inextricably connected with magic, a means of manipulating the physical world through supernatural means. Like modern vampires, modern zombies have shifted from supernatural to biological, or at least scientific-sounding, explanations. Even Night of the Living Dead had an errant satellite to blame. The zombie has been reborn in a secular context, making it safe for religious believers to add it to their repertoire of fictional ghouls. And yet, the religious aspect has not completely vanished. The “apocalypse” that accompanies “The Walking Dead,” whether it is Armageddon, 2012, or Ragnarok, is a religious concept. Humans simply can’t face the end of the world without religious implications.
Audiences feeling a little let down after October’s terminal scare-fest, however, might find some cheer that Halloween is an end, but also a beginning. It is the start of the darkest time of year. Very soon not only do we drive home in the dark, but light will not have dawned by the time we start the car for work. In northern reaches of the globe, people can’t help but feel a little stress at finding our accustomed visual assessment of our world a little bit impaired for months at a time. And when we see that shoddy-clothed stranger straggling along in the half-dark, it may be time to remind ourselves that despite the naturalized zombie, there are still those who prey on their fellow humans. They may not be the undead. They may dress well and drive expensive cars and live off what they can legally draw from that stranger on the street. They may be the true harbingers of the apocalypse. They are the ones we should really fear.
With all of the hype and anxiety of the current Nor’easter dumping snow on the East Coast, a guy from northwestern Pennsylvania can’t help but shrug his shoulders. What’s all the fuss about? Growing up in the snow belt of Lake Erie, I was accustomed to forgetting the color of the ground between December and April. School seldom closed with under a foot of snow. And I had to walk a literal mile to catch the bus, but it was uphill only one way.
The truly fascinating aspect of this storm is the creation of biblically charged words to describe it, as if the American vocabulary has run out of appropriate adjectives. “Snowpocalypse” and “snowmageddon” both appeared in this morning’s paper. The late biblical concepts of apocalypse and Armageddon indicate a devastating turn of the era when a new world is ushered in. All I saw out my front door was a bunch of snow. Peaceful, white, and pretty.
I lament the farming of the otherwise underused Bible for images that cheapen the visceral fear and dread that accompanied ancient outlooks. Once while at Nashotah House in Wisconsin, when the temperature plunged to 38 degrees below zero (air temperature, not wind-chill) and the tired snow was being blown about by unforgiving winds, we were required to make the trek to Milwaukee for a day long spiritual retreat. Just about all human institution had shut down, with the sole remaining exception of a church eager to revitalize its aging congregation. As the ice on the window of the bus refroze immediately after being scraped off, I came close to thinking apocalyptic thoughts I admit. The weather, I guess, has always had a divine connection in our primitive minds after all.
Feeling that it is incumbent on a teacher of Bible to stay current with media presentations of my subject, I went to see Book of Eli yesterday. Not really a fan of violent movies, I was a bit concerned about being subjected to gratuitous carnage, but beyond the expected post-apocalyptic context and its attendant, constant menace, there was not too much to worry about on this score. For several years I have been researching the presentation of the Bible in movies. It is my hope to write this research up into a book one day if I ever land a job that allows such a luxury. Book of Eli will deserve a chapter of its own.
Apart from fundie self-praise fests, few movies present the Bible in such a heroic role as it plays in Book of Eli. Eli, like Jake and Elwood, is on a mission from God: to deliver a Bible to the last repository of education in the United States, namely a famous correctional institution. Along the way Road Warrior-style bandits harass him and Carnegie (a kind of deranged librarian with lofty political aspirations) covets Eli’s Bible, the last in existence. Carnegie wants the Bible because, “it is a weapon” of social control. (All quotes are approximate since I couldn’t take effective notes in the dark.) Eli must keep it because of his mission. Along the way Eli explains why the Bible is important to Solara, a young woman who is drawn to his sense of mission and devotion to the book. Explaining that since the last war, all Bibles have been routinely destroyed and that, “some say it [the Bible] is what caused the war,” Eli lovingly wraps the book in a cloth before secreting it in his ubiquitous backpack next to his machete. At this point I could feel the social commentary pressing hard upon me. The Religious Right would love nothing more than to force Armageddon on the planet so that they might go to their wonderful fantasy-land in the sky. Their misreading of the Bible has caused wars in the past and will likely cause them in the future.
As Eli loses the Bible to Carnegie and continues his mission empty-handed he explains to Solara, “I’ve been protecting it [the Bible] so long that I forgot to do what it says.” Again the social commentary was evident as news headlines continue to push hot-button conservative political issues where the heart has been cancerously eaten from the Religious Right and the Bible as idol becomes more important than what it actually says. When Eli brings his mission to its conclusion, however, the viewer is presented with an entirely positive view of the Bible. It is the symbol of civilization in a world of anarchy and Solara marches off as its acolyte into a hostile world as the sun sets in the west.
What is truly remarkable about this film is that it presents the Bible in a way that would make its study cool again (if it ever was). For those of us who’ve spent a lifetime shying away from telling others that we have spent our lives learning about the Bible, we might now walk into the glaring sunshine and have others step back in reverence for our selfless efforts to benefit the human race. Well, at least once the apocalypse is over.
In a recent newspaper report on the state of the nation, local journalist Tom Moran cites a Pew survey in which most Americans surveyed rated the current and swiftly ending decade as the worst one of their lives. As a professional academic who was ousted from a highly rated, long-term teaching post this decade after a Fundamentalist takeover of the school where I taught, I am inclined to agree. Five years later I am still searching for any kind of meaningful full-time work, while yesterday I spied an ad for a “Ghost Twitterer” (as if someone is so important that they can’t write their own 140 daily words) and bowed my head in sorrow. Maybe we really have sunk to a new low.
What really caught my eye, however, was the statement of a fellow professor at Rutgers (where I have been an adjunct for nearly three years). Ross Baker noted that “It has always taken calamities of almost Biblical proportions to shake this country out of its smugness and complacency.” While I agree with his assessment, the use of the phrase “biblical proportions” demonstrated once again that my chosen field of specialization has a solid place in the popular imagination. Generally “biblical proportions” is a phrase used to refer to disasters, something along the magnitude of a world-wide flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, or the plagues of Egypt. These mythological episodes have left a deep impression on our culture that the message of the Bible is a fitting one for the first decade of the twenty-first century.
Perhaps we are really in trouble if this facile view of the Bible is wedded to a facile misuse of the same book for constructing prejudicial public policies and ill-conceived conservative “reforms.” If the past decade has been a wash in this country, I would attribute it to a conservative evangelical political machine that churned out a president who literally would have been pleased to bring on the mythical Armageddon. During this bushesque reign of biblical proportions, I lost a secure job teaching Bible and haven’t been able to find any other full-time work. I would continue my rant but I have to polish up my résumé, and hone my succinctness skills, and try for a Ghost Twitterer position.
The latest issue of Wired arrived in my mailbox yesterday. Generally the people who write for the magazine frighten me — they are so smart and hip and ahead of the curve, something that a scholar of very ancient stuff hardly even aspires to. When I can understand what they are writing about, however, I am often fascinated. A story that caught my attention is entitled “Sky Wave” by Mike Olson. Around the world people have been noticing a new type of cloud that is being called undulatus asperatus. Here is a Gnu-license photo of one of these clouds; there are more dramatic images, but they are mostly covered by copyright. What immediately caught my attention in the Wired article was the subtitle: “Weather Geeks Are Championing a New Armageddon-Worthy Cloud.” The Bible appears in the sky yet again.
Back when I was doing the research on my (still unpublished) book on weather terminology in the Bible, one of the pitches I used to potential publishers was the upward inclination of religion. Ask any kindergarten-dropout where God is and the fingers inevitably reach skyward. From earliest times people have associated the divine with the sky. Among the Sumerians, keepers of the earliest recorded religion, the deity An, the sky-master, was the most ancient of deities. While the origins of religion will forever remain obscure, it is certain that they have a celestial component.
I have to confess to being in love with the sky. If I didn’t have to earn a living I would spend hours each day staring upward. It is the repository of endless potential and ineffable beauty. Clear skies remind me that no matter how far we might go upward, there will always be more of it ahead of us. Cloudy days provide a palette and a canvas for the imagination. Even the brilliant writers at Wired can be forgiven for a foray into the mythology of the sky. Its power over us is as endless as its very expanse.