Is This Contact?

And speaking of the X-Files—but ah, I shouldn’t jest!  In fact, I strongly advocate avoiding the ridicule response when a claim seems outlandish.  A few weeks ago I posted on a review of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Existence, a book just out.  The review I’d seen made reference to the aspects of religion and paranormal in the book, and given the mainstream media’s treatment of the topic of UFOs lately, I thought I should see what was being said.  As you might expect for a collection of essays, the tome is a mixed bag.  While ridicule is excluded, a healthy skepticism is necessary.  Amid the contributors with known credentials are those who make claims that are difficult to verify.  Much like the rest of life, you’re left making choices.

Amid all of this, where does religion come in?  Books like this often reveal the deep biblical literalism of our society.  Amid the authors who haven’t held government (although that’s hardly a situation where critical thinking is necessary) or university posts, there is clearly the assumption that the Bible is literally true.  Cherry-picked verses are “explained” by the presence of UFOs or aliens, with the supposition that if it’s in the Good Book it must be true.  This kind of simple credulity is quite common, but it does make you wonder if all the homework’s been done.  I know, I know, biblical scholars spoil all the fun!  If one piece of the puzzle doesn’t fit, however, perhaps the picture hasn’t been put together correctly.

That’s not the extent of the religious—or better, spiritual side of the topic.  Many of the essays are written from a somewhat “New Age” perspective with vibrations, and energy, and universal guidance of spiritual beings.  Other essays deal with government whistle-blowers who seem to tell a coherent story of secrecy and deception on the part of those in power.  No matter how you slice it, reading this book without ridicule is a perception-bending experience.  It may not be the one book everyone needs to read to get up-to-date information on where things stand in public perception, but it will make you think.  Given how much the topic has been in the media lately, and how it has at last been treated without snide asides, may be cause for hope.  “No go” topics may be vanishing, if only because our military admits to taking this one seriously.  And there seem to be, as always, religious implications.


Mere Christianities

While reading about the experience of an American Catholic who’d gone to Rome (check out this post), something in particular struck me.  Although the setting was in the 1960s, the author noted a truth that is still with us: Americans take religion much more seriously than do their parent bodies overseas.  This may be true elsewhere in the world as well, but those of us in this former frontier know that American isolation means religion developed here in a way different from much of the rest of the world.  To get a grip on that we need to realize that Christianities in America are largely of European origin.  That’s important because the roots of these traditions lie elsewhere and the question of how they measure up against the religion started by a Galilean peasant bears close scrutiny.

First of all, if we take what we can gather from the Gospels the things that Jesus might’ve actually said, we find contradictions.  This isn’t unusual.  Nobody was writing things down as he said them and Jesus probably taught off the cuff (not the maniple).  These traditions were recalled a couple decades after the crucifixion.  Try remembering exactly what you said just a year ago and you’ll get a sense of the difficulties.  Paul of Tarsus took this teaching in a new direction, both in doctrinal and physical senses.  Christianity became a European religion.  Fast forward by a few centuries and we find its much-changed Protestant forms inspiring people to go look for a place to practice it their own way.  Politics never follows far behind religion and so the American Indians became victims of those seeking religious freedom by fleeing from home.

Meanwhile, back in Europe, much of the fire that had led to sparks flying over here had been banked.  The Enlightenment and its application to these various traditions had shown that literal interpretations were historically unlikely.  Indeed, Americans trained on the frontiers by clergy with little education had taken Christianities in entirely new directions.  Literalism was often assumed, although its expressions varied wisely.  When you look closely at how religions develop you learn that the rank and file believer is out of touch with “official doctrine” and those who specialize in it find they can’t course correct without looking hypocritical.  The book I was reading had Vatican officials complaining Americans too Catholicism too literally.  It seems this is the fate of any faith that allows itself to become a mere religion.

Photo credit: Mapham J (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, via Wikimedia Commons


Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.


Built To Last

Those pyramids sure are sturdy.  The other day I was reading something from a biblical literalist that was discussing the pyramids.  The great pyramid of Khufu and its companions in Giza were built between about 2590 and 2505 BCE.  They’ve been around a long time.  Somewhat later this author casually mentioned Noah’s flood.  It had never occurred to me before, but since Archbishop Ussher dated the creation of the world at 4004 (and so it appears in the Scofield Reference Bible), the flood took place in 2348 BCE.  Now this flood was so catastrophic that it carved out the Grand Canyon and buried all those dinosaur bones that would eventually become fossils.  It was more than a little inconvenient, and terribly disruptive.  Except the pyramids had been around for well over a hundred years by that point.  It’s a wonder they weren’t harmed.

Such inconsistencies populate much of literalist literature.  When the Bible is the full measure of science and history and all human knowledge, there’s bound to be some issues, given that it was written at a specific time and place.  You see, the pyramids aren’t even held together with mortar.  These are loose stones we’re talking about, under great pressure.  The “Bent Pyramid,” at Dahshur, changed its angle at half-way up.  A physicist calculated that if they’d continued at the original angle, the weight of all that stone would’ve caused it to act like liquid, flowing like water.  Best repent and rethink your plan.  But these monuments were built to withstand world-wide floods!  And the mummies weren’t even mildewed.  If only Jericho’s walls had been so well built.

From WikiCommons

Maybe that’s why so many modern myths about the pyramids developed.  This sacred shape somewhere between a square and a triangle is said to have unusual properties.  I’ve read that if you put a dull razor (whatever that is) underneath a pyramid shape when you go to bed at night you’ll awaken to find it sharpened.  Made of wire, that shape on your head will not only prevent aliens from reading your thoughts, but will boost the power of your psyche as well.  The funny thing about the Bible is that it never mentions the pyramids at all.  Joseph spent a bit of time there and his descendants stayed for centuries.  Nobody bothered to note those wonders of the ancient world.  Since we’re literalists, though, that gives us a way out.  If the Bible doesn’t mention the pyramids they might not exist at all.  Problem solved.


Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.


Devonian Dreams

Toothbrush and dental pick in hand, I go at it. Not that I’m a professional, mind you, but curiosity drives me to this. You see, this crinoid before me is at least 358 million years old and anything that can make me feel young deserves all the attention I can give it. Crinoids are also know as “sea lilies,” but they aren’t plants. They’re actually echinoderms, and the fossils I’ve found in the past have only been cross-sections of their “stems,” a stone circle, as it were. This one has tendrils visible, and I can’t believe that it was a chance find on one of my recent walks through Ithaca’s gorges. I’m dreaming Devonian dreams, and I want to brush away the plaque of the eons and see what I’ve actually found.

Fossils are a kind of eternal life. The creature that died to leave this impression lives on as a monument in stone. It reminds me of my unfortunately brief stint as an archaeological volunteer. Scraping away dirt to reveal a piece of pottery that hadn’t been touched by human hands for 3,000 years. Of course, that’s merely a second ago when you’re talking about something pre-Carboniferous. The dinosaurs won’t even show up for another 100-million years. And I think I have to wait too long for the bus. Time, as they say, is relative. Did this medusaized creature before me realize just how terribly long it would take for enlightenment to arrive? And how so very swiftly it could fall one foolish November night? Careful, this fossil’s fragile.

I grew up among the Devonian substrate in western Pennsylvania. The Bible on my shelf told me to disregard the evidence before my eyes. Some clever true believer had declared Noah’s flood the culprit, never bothering to explain how freshwater fish showed up after the deluge. Those we tried to keep in our aquarium never seemed to handle the slightest disturbance of their salinity. The ages of the literalist are by definition short-sighted. 6,000 years seems hardly enough time to account for any sedimentary stone, let alone that riddled with fossils. I’m hunched over my bit of slate, dental pick hovering nervously over what will never come again. The Bible behind me says it’s an illusion. You may be right, Mr. Scofield. You may never have evolved. But as my fingers glance a creature dead before even the crocodile’s grin I have to declare that I have.


Burden of Democracy

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.

From WikiCommons

From WikiCommons

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.


Two Outlooks

SexInTheBibleThe word polymath used to be applied more easily. In these days of highly specialized training, it is difficult to have expert knowledge in more than a couple of areas. The two areas, sexuality and scripture, dealt with in J. Harold Ellens’s Sex in the Bible: A New Consideration, are such zones of specialization. Students of the Bible have recently begun an intensive exploration of how sex fit into the ancient worldview. Ellens’s book surveys all of the biblical legislation about sexual matters and a fair number of the stories involving the same, with the sensitivity of a professional counselor. Indeed, his practical knowledge of human sexual development and psychological needs based on it should inform society’s understanding of scripture. The Bible is no pristine book. Neither is it a romance novel. Still, ancient people were not as shy about sex as post-Victorians tend to be. The Bible is often frank on the subject.

The main danger of a project like this is trying to decide where to take the Bible literally and where not. Ellens, while he has some training as a biblical scholar, falls into a familiar trap. He assumes, as parts of the Bible do, that Israel’s neighbors were sexually depraved. Not only did they condone things like bestiality, according to Ellens, but they incorporated sexual deviancy into their worship. Ancient records, readily available for decades, give the lie to that outlook. Ellens makes the case that biblical writers had no way of knowing, however, that homosexuality, for example, is a biological predisposition that can’t be changed at will. Other sexual practices that are now considered normal and healthy were perversions in the biblical period. Medical science should inform our understanding of Holy Writ.

This is an argument Ellens can’t win. Passionate though he may be about how all of this just makes sense from a scientifically informed point of view, the fact can’t be changed that the Bible does condemn some sex acts outright. Even more damaging, in my opinion, is that the Bible clearly views women as the sexual property of men, and men regulate the sexuality of their females. Anyone arguing that the Bible is a moral guidebook in regard to sexual mores must face this issue head on. There’s no tip-toeing around it, even with verified psychological pedigree. The Bible is the product of a patriarchal structure that did not tolerate sexual practice outside prescribed limits. We now understand the same behaviors from a scientific point of view, but the written text doesn’t change. It is just that dilemma that makes it very difficult to be an expert on two fields so diverse as sexuality and biblical studies.


Bible Stories

JosephSay what you will about it, but the Bible has some great stories. Based on classical measures of what makes a good tale, the Bible ranks up there with Greek mythology and other ancient fiction that is meant to teach us about being human. Stories do teach, and literature is among the greatest of pedagogues. For the past two decades, Plays in the Park here in the New Brunswick area of New Jersey, has been putting on a post-Christmas, pre-New Year production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (indoors, due to the time of year). With the kinds of production values you expect of many off-Broadway venues, the show is exceptionally well done, and due to the local color, never too serious. And they play before a packed house. The reasonable prices, I’m sure, have something to do with it, but the fact is the story of Joseph is classic. Full of radical reversals, dreams that come true, and reconciliation, the Joseph novella is one of the great stories of humankind. Unlike many tales of Genesis, God is rather in the background here, perhaps overseeing the event, but not interfering in the human drama.

Although the musical, like most adaptations, takes liberties with the story, it remains fairly true to the Bible. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also had success with Jesus Christ Superstar, showing that, despite its detractors, the Bible still has some appeal. Negative sentiment directed toward the Bible largely derives from the wooden insistence of literalists that everything must be taken at face value. The Bible isn’t allowed its symbolic resonance. Perhaps we can get beyond a worldview where the sun literally goes around the earth, and pay attention to the very human dimensions of the stories it tells. Truth may be of scientific nature, but it may also be—indeed, it must be—human. The very concept of verity is human. We are the ones making up the story.

Scholars point out that even the colored coat of Joseph is based on a translation decision in the Septuagint (the Greek Hebrew Bible). For many people, however, who’ve never read biblical scholars, the truths of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat as just as legitimate. The rivalry between siblings is something many of us have experienced firsthand. While not many of us get promoted from prison to vice-president, we still dream that our lives could get better. Our dreams could come true. The upbeat score, of course, helps to reinforce the message—one might say it makes the message believable. That doesn’t mean that the tale is not true. There was no historical Joseph. The colored coat may be a translation error. The story is nevertheless true. Doubters should watch the show. Next year in the State Theater in New Brunswick just after Christmas would be an excellent opportunity to do so.


Scientific Seminary

Old Testament. New Testament. Church History. Pastoral Theology. Systematic Theology. Homiletics/Liturgics. This was a typical kind of seminary curriculum about a quarter-century ago. Obviously there were variations, but the basic topics were Bible and its application. When I attended seminary science was already in the ascendent (seriously, it wasn’t that long ago!). Nobody much worried about how it might impact religion. People in the United States still attended church in large numbers but no one I knew really considered science a threat to belief. They were essentially different realms of inquiry and although some on each side asserted the superiority of their enterprise, the debate seemed to be good-spirited and without excessive rancor.

IMG_1656The situation has, of course, shifted radically since then. We’ve become a society guided by business principles and technology, and religion has all the appearances of being quaint at best, likely just useless, and, at worst, dangerous and deadly. Civilization, however, was built on the premises of a religion that permeated every aspect of life. That influence has been slowly replaced by that of a materialistic reductionism that suggests all things, this blog included, are but the random results of dry atoms bumping about a cold universe. Naturally there has been a reaction. The most vocal of believers, the Fundamentalists of all stripes, have directly challenged science in the arena of veracity. As we all know, however, Fundamentalists aren’t really equipped to convince the masses. The Bible, the underlying strength of the literalist, has come under scrutiny and has been demonstrated to be more inclined to myth than history. What more does a scientific worldview need to weld shut its superior outlook? And yet, reasoning, non-reactive religion still exists. Still has a place in this mechanistic universe where miracles are disallowed.

I recently read about a Templeton Foundation initiative that is funding programs on religion and science at seminaries. Some scientists excoriate the Templeton Foundation for trying to keep religion in the picture, but my humble opinion is that Templeton and its money have nothing to do with it. Religion is a very human response to a universe it can’t fully understand. Empirical method seems to work, and the results are so complex that few can even hope to comprehend. All but the most hopeless, on the other hand, can understand “love thy neighbor.” Religion continues to guide countless lives—most of them for the good, and not for the incendiary responses of a challenged literalism. The time has come for seminary curricula to adjust to the world as we know it. That world is run by inhuman forces that may help or harm humanity in equal measure. Religion, however, need not battle with science. It must, however, add it to the curriculum.


True Literalism

Biblical literalists make strong claims for selectively obeying the Bible. It isn’t so hard to do in the short term, as numerous books on people “living biblically” have shown. You can get by for a year without trimming your beard or going out on a Saturday. You can even survive without eating pigs. Still, the moral codes that political literalists cite tend to have their own empowerment in mind: prevent women, gays, or those of other races from getting ahead. Stone adulterers and sassy kids. The Bible will set us straight! The finer points of the law, however, have likely never been observed. Even biblical scholars will confess that Leviticus can be a tough go. It sometimes helps to make diagrams as you read along to try to follow the intricate rules. Still, since Leviticus is the only place to find anti-homosexual rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible, we’d better go on reading it, right? It is worth it to feel better about ourselves. Superiority rules!

I was thinking about Leviticus 25 recently, the chapter about the sabbaths of the land. The concept may have sound environmental principles encoded in it: after working the land for six years, you leave it fallow on the seventh and live off of what you’ve stored up during the presumably bumper-crop years. The same principle lies behind rotating crops—the land needs a rest. There’s no evidence, however, that this was ever really put into practice. It is notoriously difficult to feed everyone in a subsistence economy, and deliberately not growing food for a year will almost certainly lead to disaster. Read a little further though. Every fiftieth year, Leviticus 25 mandates, that which you have bought from your neighbor should be returned. “Ye shall not therefore oppress one another” is one of the more easily overlooked rules in the Good Book. Any land sold is only on loan for, at most, forty-nine years. I’m still waiting for the book entitled My Fifty Years of Living Biblically.

The biblical term for this collective lack of selfishness is called Jubilee Year. Ancient Israel was, at least on vellum, an egalitarian society. Each person had promised land allotted to them. Economic hardship (such as sending a child to college) might necessitate selling all you have. Fear not—hopefully before you die—what you sold will be retuned to you and the system will even itself out again. It is a profoundly beautiful idea. It has, of course, never been taken seriously. So as we see the literalists massing as candidates begin gearing up for another cycle of elections, I think it is only fair to ask to see their mortgage papers. A visit to the county records bureau might be in order. I think maybe somebody has been holding out on land I’m biblically owed in upstate New York. Just don’t tell any Native Americans about this, for it seems maybe they have the most of all to benefit from taking the Bible literally.

580px-Warm_Springs


Flying Sorcery

In a post on the Huffington Post recently Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, wrote about the strange antipathy of Ken Ham to the search for extraterrestrial life. Ham, founder of a creationist museum and self-appointed spokesman against evolution, has gone on the record saying that aliens cause problems for a creationist worldview. Therefore they can’t exist. Indeed, creationists should reject aliens because of the flat earth the Bible presents. Zimmerman, with his usual unfailing reason and wry humor, demonstrates the multiple difficulties both with Ham’s understanding of science and of the whole alien agenda. The Bible doesn’t address the modern world on many fronts, which is why literalists so often find themselves out of step with the issues of the day. When the final period (an anachronism, I know) was placed at the end of Revelation, it was expected that the world wouldn’t be around much longer, tottering as it was on the underground pillars that held it up. Somehow the Roman Empire came and went without any kind of cataclysm ending it all, and literalists have been backing and filling ever since.

Ham’s angst about extraterrestrials, however, is not shared by all Fundamentalists. I recall going to a session way out at a country church as a child where the guest speaker, a firm believer in aliens, talked about the “sheep in other folds” referred to by Jesus as aliens. I recall the eerie feeling as we drove home under a dark sky with fliers depicting flying saucers and assurances that we were not alone. In college, when I discovered Larry Norman’s music, I was struck by his lyric “If there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.” Literalists, like Catholics, take multiple views on the question. It seems a terrible waste of space if, in this infinite universe we’re the only sparks of consciousness around. I’ll leave “intelligence” for time to decide.

What would Genesis do?

What would Genesis do?

Ironically, Ken Ham doesn’t seem to have considered the up side of aliens, at least for his point of view. If the extraterrestrials end up looking like us, that does raise some serious questions about evolution. How did it work identically on two different planets to produce such similar results? You’d think maybe Fundamentalists might welcome aliens with open appendages. Of course, some have gone far off the other end and declared that angels and aliens are the same thing. The problem of the literalist world view is that it is severely limited. The Bible never foresaw the internet or the airplane or even the true nature of our own solar system, let alone the infinite sea of space beyond. In charting a course for belief, accurate maps are necessary. As Zimmerman points out, those maps, of necessity must contain the stars. And as we continue to evolve infinite worlds of possibilities await.


Stratego

lossy-page1-428px-CLiff_being_undermined_by_the_Virgin_River._West_wall_of_Canyon_above_Temple_of_Sinawava._-_NARA_-_520458The idea is a simple one. When someone undermines, the very foundation of an idea is left with no foundation. We are taught not to undermine ourselves; for enemies it’s okay. Encouraged even. The Bible contains the seeds to its own undermining. The claim that it is a sacred book encourages—even demands—serious attention be paid to it. When it is examined closely, however, it becomes plain that the status accorded it as a book undermines its own claims. Believers can respond in several ways. One is to declare the Bible inerrant and to claim that contradictions are not contradictions and that what history has proven false is actually true. The keenest breed of such inerrantists hardly exists any more, since it does require a stable, geocentric view of the universe, if a universe there be at all. On the other extreme there are believers who make sacred writ so highly symbolic that we need not worry about the obvious factual errors—they were never meant literally anyway. And, of course, every position in between.

The Bible is not a unified composition. This was evident to the person, whoever it was, who first joined the Prophets to the Torah. Or even Genesis to Exodus. We have no way of knowing if s/he (mostly likely the latter) really believed that Moses wrote all the stories from the creation of the world through his own death, but the books of the Pentateuch roughly hang together in an extended narrative with plenty of instruction along the way. The “Bible” that Jesus knew had considerably fewer books than our “Old Testament.” And one gets the sense that Paul’s letters were tacked on in a catch-as-catch-can fashion, with everyone knowing (as the letters themselves say) that material is missing. And what Paul authoritatively wrote to the people of Galatia may not have been the same advice he sent to the Corinthians. Tides and times. Bibles and believers.

When scholars began, out of deep devotion, to look closely at the Bible the cracks in this historical facade began to fracture. Once the breach is in the dike, one dare ignore it only at great peril. The first shaft had been dug. By the time of Julius Wellhausen, the undermining was already engineered and well underway. And it couldn’t be stopped. Biblical scholars had choices to make: ignore the evidence and continue to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, or climb out of that tunnel before it caves in. And the church, unsuspecting of what it means, insisted on an educated clergy. Serious study of the Bible shows what many believers wish it didn’t. And yet we continue to make claims based on evidence that is faulty. Just as long as these supporting pillars hold up we have nothing to worry about. And the undermining continues daily, lest we all find ourselves in the breadline.


Shaky Ground

HigherGroundFor the past few years I have been drawn to the spiritual memoirs of women. I suspect a deep disconnect prompts this interest. Religions—in this case primarily the monotheistic traditions—put a premium on fairness and justice, yet treat women as somehow outside these mandates. Women nevertheless respond to the human religious impulse somewhat more seriously than most men. This leads to a dissonance that surfaces in women’s memoirs. Carolyn S. Briggs’ Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost proved somewhat of an epiphany for me. In this story of an Iowa girl’s encounter and seduction into a Fundamentalist faith that never quite managed to smother her rationality, I recognized many aspects of her adopted religion from my own tenure in literalism. The real strength of Briggs’ account is her vivid recollections of how her own Fundamentalist mind worked. For many of us who’ve gone through that spiritual wasteland, dredging up those memories can be a harrowing experience. What shone through in Higher Ground, however, is how the fantasy-prone literalist imagination loses its tenuous hold on reality while promising deliverables that are always pushed off into the future. It is not a faith for the here and now.

The non-denominational, yet Calvinistic, Briggs’ church home convinced the author, for some years, that she was inferior to her husband. There can be no doubt that this is “Bible-based” teaching, for the Bible is the product of a patriarchal age. Literalism grows more oppressive with the passage of time, for despite neo-con posturing, society is better for many than it was in the “good old days.” Fundamentalist traditions seek to reestablish the mores of the first century two millennia later, as if a simple transfer were possible. Society has offered progress for women while literalism is rife with regress. This double standard led to the loss of one of their own because over two thousand years much water flows under the bridge and brig.

Higher Ground is not an easy memoir to read—the accounts of those who experience repression seldom are. Religion is generally a conservative force in society, even if based on radical principles. The sayings of Jesus, for example, remain revolutionary even today, but they are often hidden behind the (male constructed) facades of organized religious movements. In school we teach our children that the sexes are equal, in Sunday school the opposite. Fundamentalism is not, however, in any danger of dying out. As Briggs demonstrates eloquently, the very thought process of a rational person is altered by it. Briggs leaves us guessing at what happened after the story ends but she has nevertheless contributed yet more evidence that demands a verdict. Until the judgment of fair and just can be rendered, religions will repeatedly be called to the witness stand.


God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

Watchtower

Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.