Prayer before Meals

It was in Wisconsin. Oshkosh. I was teaching for a year in a replacement position, and my roster of classes at the university covered several aspects of religious studies. During the course of prepping a course, I first saw it. The Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was only a virtual Flying Spaghetti Monster sighting, but since Creationism was much in the news in those days, I boiled with curiosity. By now it would probably be a strain to explain the whole thing, since everyone knows about his noodly appendages and predilection for pirates. The short story is that the Flying Spaghetti Monster was an invented deity to demonstrate the ridiculousness of trying to get Creationism taught as science in public schools. For those who believed in other gods, such as the FSM, there should be equal time in the classroom, the argument went. Since that time Pastafarianism has taken on the semblance of a real religion with “believers” earning the right to have driver’s license photos taken with colanders on their heads, and even a book of scriptures being written.

An Associated Press story from Sunday’s paper tells of the world’s first known Pastafarian wedding. Bylined Akaroa, New Zealand, the blurb indicates that the Oceanic nation down under has decided that Pastafarians can officiate at weddings, and a couple was married with al dente accoutrements. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it seems, is going the way of the somewhat more serious Jediism and Avatar religions in that people are deliberately electing fiction as their faith. Interestingly, this may not be a new phenomenon. We are told, for example, that Zarathustra deliberately outlined a new religion—one that may end up having had the greatest impact on humanity of all time, if roots are considered. In those days the strict division between fiction and fact may not have been a mental filter yet discovered. The “it really happened” test of religious veracity was still some distance in the future. Metaphor meant something then.

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The internet, it seems likely, has facilitated and accelerated the appearance of new religions. As with most things, the real issue comes down to money and power; if a government recognizes a New Religious Movement as legitimate, it may be granted tax exempt status. And how can it be proven that someone really does or does not believe what s/he says s/he does? If you’ve got a box of Barilla on your pantry shelf, who’s to say? It’s a short distance from that colander in the cupboard to the top of one’s head. And who doesn’t like pirates? And who’s to say that under that rotelle moon in a stelline-studded sky someone hasn’t indeed kissed their hand and swore the ultimate starchy allegiance? Keep watching the skies!

Dead See Scrolls

Despite her ability to overlook my obvious deficiencies, my wife has good eyesight. Last week she spotted an article carried by the Associated Press entitled “Dispute over ancient scrolls changes modern law.” Although many ancient documents (notably those from Ugarit) outweigh the importance of the Dead Sea Scrolls for understanding the religion of ancient Israel, the Scrolls have continued to be headliners. There never seems to be some sort of scandal very far from the Scrolls, and this article by Jennifer Pletz reaffirms that assessment. The name of Norman Golb is familiar to just about any Hebrew Bible scholar. His work on the Scrolls is highly regarded. The story, however, brings the scandal down a generation to Golb’s son Raphael, a lawyer and literature scholar. In a case whose details rival the minutiae of the Scrolls themselves, the younger Golb is accused of sending emails putatively said to have been sent from his father’s rivals confessing plagiarism. To what point, beyond alleged family honor, one hesitates to speculate.

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“Sculduggery,” J. C. L. Gibson once said, “is always just around the corner in archaeological circles.” The same might be said to apply to the Scrolls. Episode after episode of scholars behaving badly have attended the controversial documents since their accidental discovery on the eve of Israel becoming a state. Ironically, the Scrolls in some symbolic ways represent the struggles of the Israelis. No one doubts their importance, but access has always been an issue. Careers were made and secured by the Scrolls, reaching to the highest academic offices in the land. And yet, we can learn more by turning back the pages of history just a little further.

The Scrolls date from that troubled time period when Christianity was just beginning to emerge from Judaism. Tempers flare at implications masked or insinuated. As if the Scrolls were really the much sought philosopher’s stone. The original generation of Scroll readers is going the way of all nature. Those associated with the more solid tablets of Ugarit have long passed that way already. And yet we still have Bible museums being built and implications left dangling. Law suits are filed and ownership of the Scrolls is disputed. In the twenty-first century scholars are still willing to risk it all on some parchment fragments that have the appeal of the esoteric. Hidden truths, almost apocalyptic, squirreled away in desert caves. Knowledge is indeed money, unless, of course, you actually know how to read the Scrolls for yourself.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Two news stories last week—one from the Associated Press and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education—hit upon a common theme: scientific illiteracy. Both articles presented scientists who felt that if they could just reach the (mostly) American public with easily digested facts, then belief in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming would suddenly make sense to everyone. It may not be my place to say, as I’m not a scientist, but I believe they’re wrong. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming. In fact, I spent part of last week flagellating myself (metaphorically) for not posting something appropriate on Earth Day. I worry a lot about global warming and what we do to our only planet. What I mean is, these scientists don’t understand religion. People don’t willfully reject the facts. That takes religion.

One of the reasons that I continue my daily efforts on this blog is that our educated elite constantly refuse to acknowledge the blue whale in the room. People are naturally religious. Some grow out of it, some are educated out of it. For most, however, the price to do so is far too high. Science offers little to take the place of faith. For all of its innuendo, the Big Bang tends to leave most of us cold. I don’t support religions spreading ignorance, but even the Bible recognized that it is useless to say to a poor person, “stay warm and well fed” if you don’t offer a blanket and some food as well. It’s chilly in an infinite, yet expanding universe. Why don’t scientist understand that if you give a jacket, maybe people might actually warm up and listen?

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Religion, however we define it, is a coping mechanism. Even many atheist biologists admit that it has an evolutionary utility, embarrassing as that may be. Evolutionary scientists also tell us that we don’t evolve according to plan. Nature (de-personified, of course) opportunistically uses what’s at hand to help creatures survive. Instead of trying to understand religion, many in the hard sciences think that speaking loudly in single-syllable words will convince those who’ve found meaning in evolution’s solution of religion that somehow evolution was wrong. The worst thing we can do is to waste more money trying to understand religion! I hear it’s very cold in outer space. Still, things seem to be warming up down here. For those who can’t evolve gills, it’s time to learn to swim.

Rocket Cats

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A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Sunday Best

When my rural, northwestern Pennsylvania shows up in the news, I pay attention. An Associated Press story recently appeared concerning Rev. Chris Terbush of Bradford, Pennsylvania. Inspired by the success of Duck Dynasty (which seems poised to overtake even Apple as the most popular purveyor of popular culture), Rev. Terbush has encouraged his congregation to show up on Sunday mornings in camouflage, ready to go forth and claim dominion over nature once the service is over. I’ve been ambushed by enough clergy that the idea makes me a little nervous, I’ll have to admit. But then again, I know where he’s coming from. I grew up in a town that celebrated the first day of deer season as a public holiday, with schools closed and the hills alive with the sound of muskets. Not being a hunter, I just enjoyed the day off school. This upbringing, however, gave me a profound appreciation for the Jeff Daniels’ movie, Escanaba in da Moonlight. But I digress.

Religious services evolve, just like any other social phenomenon. When I was young, just as the sixties were wresting the color of life from the black-and-white fifties, going to church was a formal event that demanded your “Sunday best.” Only the worst of heathens would show up before the Almighty in anything less than a white shirt and tie, a jacket and uncomfortable shoes. You had to show the divine that you were willing to go that extra mile and implicate that you didn’t intend to have any fun when it was over because the sabbath is a solemn occasion. I remember the weird feeling of walking into church during the weekday wearing jeans for the first time. It felt as if I were dissing the rules of the club. It was an exclusive affair.

The “theology of dress” has become an area of scholarly investigation with the growth of embodiment issues. What we wear says something about our beliefs, and the fact that we wear clothes at all is sometimes even traced back to Genesis 3. The origin of “good clothes,” clearly, was a status issue. Those who could afford to keep some surplus clothes unsullied by labor wished to strut their stuff on occasion. And who better to impress than God? All of this has eroded over the years with many churches as casual as any man cave. Now you can camouflage yourself in church. There may be more going on here than meets the eye, both literally and metaphorically.

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

What happens in the woods stays in the woods

Beliefism

A question never adequately resolved revolves around the status of atheism. What exactly is it? Well, I suppose it is many things, actually. One thing that seems indisputable is that religion has been part of human culture from the beginning. It would seem likely that not all believers carried the same level of conviction, and there may have been “atheists” shortly after theism evolved. The difficulty is that both belief in god/s, and/or the lack thereof, are matters of personal conviction. That somewhat blurred line has been crossed, according to some, by the recent growth of “atheist churches.” In several web stories my friends have pointed out to me, a growing movement of atheist “mega-churches” has been noticed. These are groups of atheists who meet for many of the same reasons religious folk do, sans salvation. It is a social occasion, and a chance to fellowship with like-minded non-believers, and to support their lack of faith. Some atheists bristle at this (as do some religious), claiming that it cheapens the atheistic enterprise (or that religions somehow hold a copyright on belief-based gatherings).

Herein lies the rub. Atheists are no more cut from the same cloth (or lack of cloth) as religious believers are. There are varieties of unbelief. Some obviously see that the weekly gathering has benefits. There’s no question that atheists can be every bit as humanitarian as religious believers are. Besides, who doesn’t like to meet with people who think like them? “Minister” might not be the leader’s title of choice, although it has a long pedigree in politics as a secular title (as, for example, in the Ministry of Defense). The slow decline in mainstream Christian services, however, might suggest that atheist services would be inclined to grow. Weekends were originally created for religious reasons and still generally remain the religious meeting days of choice. Some religious groups do not insist on doctrine to be members—Unitarians are a prime example of this—but the value of meeting together is human, all too human.

Clearly the purpose of an atheist gathering is not primarily worship. I should imagine, however, that wonder is still part of the non-religious vocabulary. God is not necessary for feelings of awe and joy. And sometimes it is fun to get together for some structured activity that isn’t work (for those who have jobs). An Associated Press story, however, points out the irony of the gathering of “people bound by their belief in non-belief.” There is, however, believing going on here. There can be no escaping it. Despite all the problems associated with omnipotence, the idea of a deity where the buck indeed stopped was an ebenezer for grounding belief. Even the most outspoken of atheists share this with the literalist and the moderate—they all believe. And as long as people believe, they will seek groups of those who share similar views. Why not? Even the truth requires belief.

What does it  mean?

What does it mean?

Personal Dogma

Dogma is a movie that many seminarians discover at some point in their theological education. Smart, funny, and irreverently reverent, the film follows the exploits of a couple of misled angels trying to get back into Heaven and thereby negating all of existence. It is no surprise, given Kevin Smith’s origin myth, that the film opens and closes in New Jersey, but I often ponder the strange coincidence of places in the movie to places I’ve lived since my own seminary career began (and ended, rather like the massacre scene in Red Bank before God cleaned it all up). Nashotah House, where I discovered Dogma, is in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the state to which Bartleby and Loki, the two angels, have been banished. The means of their escape from this upper-Midwest purgatory is a church in New Jersey. Along their way the angels pass through Illinois and Pittsburgh, before crossing into the very state where God is located throughout the movie (the Garden State, of course!). After having been summarily dismissed from my seminary post in Wisconsin (not for watching Dogma, I’m assured), I too headed for New Jersey. Before that I had lived for a while in Illinois (home of Bethany) and Pittsburgh (home of Moobie). Watching Dogma is in many ways a reflection of a journey that I’ve accidentally undertaken.

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Another kind of dogma seems to be at work in the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The Associated Press announced that 21 cases of childhood measles had broken out in the church, particularly among the homeschooled and unvaccinated. Fears of inoculating against a pre-medieval faith have led many of those who trust their own knowledge above that of the collective specializations of educators, to put their children at risk for the sake of belief. The belief, perhaps unsurprisingly, is poorly informed. One of the pastors of EMIC (!) has been encouraging vaccination as biblically sanctioned. If not for the sake of your children, for the sake of the scriptures…

Vaccination, in various forms, was developed in both Christian and pagan contexts. The earliest examples come from Asia where the plagues sent by the devil were resisted with human ingenuity. It takes a paranoid twenty-first century, first-world faith to suppose saving our children is some kind of conspiracy. “Let the one without germs,” we can almost hear them say, “throw their tissues away first.” In my Pittsburgh days, I was very much a literalist. How surprised I was to see Lady Aberlin from Mister Roger’s Neighborhood playing an angst-ridden nun, derailed by an exegesis of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” in Dogma. Although the Neighborhood is “anytown” those of us locals knew that Fred Rogers was from Pittsburgh. Lady Betty Aberlin was the niece of King Friday XIII, and only those with no conspiratorial imagination would suggest it is merely coincidence that her cousin is named Kevin. With or without dogma.