Redefinition

The striking thing about Evangelicalism is its protean nature. The earliest forms of this conversion-based “Christianity” began with the Reformation among Pietist Protestants. They sincerely believed in two things: the Bible and Jesus. Today Evangelicals deny both. They believe in Donald Trump. Racism and subordination of women are their two main foci. And yet, they wish to keep the brand. Daily we see the standards of traditional “Christianity” tumble: turn the other cheek, love your neighbor as thyself, if a man asks your cloak give him your coat also. All of this jettisoned like so much non-capitalist clap-trap. Thing is, it’s in the Bible. Thing is, it was said by Jesus. And also anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery, let alone those who pay them off so they can grab another on the way out the door. All of that’s now “Christianity.”

The funny thing is that those who object to such behavior are what Evangelicals scornfully call “liberals.” So much for the group that just three short years ago advocated the reinstitution of biblical law. Now that 45 would have committed a capital crime according to such laws, they have changed the Good Book rather than rebuke the pastor in chief. Ironically, some of the children of famous evangelists have drunk deeply from that Kool-Aid. It’s fine to sleep around as long as you lie the right way at the right time. Bear false witness? What does that even mean? You’d think liberals were suggesting that those God loves are chasteneth by him, for goodness sake!

Many of us feel as though we woke up to an alternate reality in November of 2016. We supposed the Republican Party would show some backbone, but when they didn’t we weren’t all that surprised. What shocked us most is that the leopard has changed its spots. Those of us brought up with the Bible were led to believe this impossible. After all, who can change a hair from black to white (although some of us would rather have it go the opposite direction)? We thought that Holy Writ would guide the Evangelical heart. We thought they would remember who Jesus was. All of this is negotiable now. The only solid rock on which they build their church—those to whom they give the keys to the kingdom—are those that fall into goose-step behind a “leader” for whom the truth changes daily. Opportunist be thy name. Were Jesus alive to see all this, surely he’d weep.

Literary Hunter-Gatherers

Perhaps the clearest place my hunter-gatherer roots show is in my tendency to collect. In principle, in Manhattan, I leave coins on the pavement for those less fortunate than myself. This past week on the way to work, I walked past a scattering of pennies on the sidewalk. It physically ached to leave the shiny coins there—one of my recurring dreams is to find a bunch of coins that will lead to the end of my constant fear of want. News of ancient hordes found excite me inordinately. As a child I collected odd things if they came in numbers: stamps and coins and baseball cards go without saying, but also fossils, bottle caps, little HO scale military figurines, even pockets full of punched metal slugs that had obviously fallen from a truck leaving the steel mill just across the river in blessed abundance. My mother asked, not unreasonably, “what do you plan to do with those?” My brothers and I had no answers, but we had found something in profusion. The hunter-gatherer urge was to collect.

IMG_1642In my teenage years my collecting focused on books. It has remained there ever since. Even in times of penury when I’ve visited the used book store with intent to sell, I’ve always skulked out with more guilt than cash. The Judas Iscariot of the publication world. While sorting through some old files at work, I found a magazine called Bible Editions and Versions. Now, Bibles are books, and I have a fair collection of them, and have even read most of them cover-to-cover. I never knew, however, that Bible collecting was a recognized avocation. And one with a society and magazine. Looking closer, I found the address: www.biblecollectors.org, online home of the International Society of Bible Collectors. Yes, they have a website and the magazine still exists. Porn for sacred writ aficionados. The society has been around since I was two, but it took me half a century to find it.

The Bible is a totem. One colleague describes it as an iconic book. The more secular elements of society simply dismiss it until the loss of the senate makes them scratch their heads and say, “there are people who still take this stuff seriously?” While the numbers may have fallen off a bit, Bibles remain big business. Large print editions may be selling better these days, but the species is hardly endangered. In a world where so much seems uncertain, there is a natural appeal to a book that hasn’t really changed too much for a couple thousand years. Oh, and which claims to have God as its author. As I walk by that pile of pennies on the sidewalk, an almost magnetic force slows me down. I really want to stop and pick them up. I walk on knowing that in a box in my attic I have some real collectors items, in certain segments of society. For the ISBC I might be considered already a wealthy man.

Genizah Bible

Overproduction is a survival strategy among many animal and plant populations. Just consider the number of acorns under one oak tree, or “propellers” under a maple in the spring. Swarms of ants or the legendary multiplication of rabbits. It’s as if nature knows most won’t survive, so you’d better prepare plenty. The same applies in the publishing industry. Every book is a gamble, and you can’t know which one will sell out and which one will collect the dust of ages on a warehouse shelf—a shelf you have to pay dearly to lease. This applies to best-sellers as well, such as the Bible. By almost any standard the Bible is among the best selling books of all time. Literally more than a billion have been printed. It exists in multiple translations and in many languages. And many copies end up sitting on the shelf. So many, in fact, that eventually a kind of limit is reached and you either need to rent another warehouse or thin the stock a bit. In my position, knowing what other publishers are doing is vital, so buying their Bibles is important. Then someone else needs your shelf-space.

A genizah is a repository for “retired” sacred scripture featured in some synagogues. Texts that are too sacred to toss into the garbage when they’re worn out may be buried among others of their kind in a genizah. Well, a storage room at work isn’t exactly a genizah, but it is a room where hundreds of out of print Bibles lie forgotten. Salvation in dry storage. As the new kid in the department, I get to clean the closet. Our own Bibles we are able to sell, but the hundreds amassed from other publishers over the years, well, we aren’t running a genizah here.

My instructions are: “see that dumpster over there?” For a kid who grew up believing that it was an order of sin even to place another book on top of a Bible, the idea of filling a dumpster with the good book presents a crisis of a greater magnitude. The simply is no room in the inn. Besides, I’ve lost a job or two already. And I’ve seen the damage that Bibles can wreak in the wrong hands. Still, I followed the Bible through three degrees, and in some form or another my entire life has revolved around that book. But I’m talking like an idolator. Bibles are big business. Few Bible publishers can’t turn a profit. And profits, we all know, lead us to produce even more.

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And the Band Played

One of the more curvilinear sequences of numerals has taken on demonic attributes over the centuries. Even the most secular of people, at least in the United States, can identify 666 as some kind of bad juju. The more literate among them will be able to pin the origins more precisely to the book of Revelation, often likely as not misnamed “Revelations”—something sure to drive your New Testament professor as mad as a beast. Fans of true precision will surely want to add that it is Revelation 13.17-18 that makes the number infamous. The latter verse starts out with “Here is wisdom,” which already spells disaster, for who doesn’t want to think him or herself wise? 666 is said to be the number of a man, and is conflated with the “mark of the beast”—one of the quickest ways to bring evolution and economics into the discussion. In popular culture 666 is said to be effective in invoking the devil. This idea is not found in the Bible, but it sure makes for an easy way to identify the Prince of Darkness in movies and popular culture.

The other day I received a mysterious email at work from a “Dr. Strangelove” with the email username of “camus666ster.” Indeed, the topic was appropriately apocalyptic and it managed to make it through a pretty strenuous spam-filter. Here was something apparently supernatural during the work-day. I’m also conscious that a building visible from the window behind my desk is 666 Third Avenue, but I’m pretty certain that these two sexagesimal cousins have nothing to do with one another. It is only a certain religious sensibility that brings them together. Where else in the world do authorities have trouble with people stealing roadsigns for route 666? And why do I get the feeling that someone is watching me?

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Revelation may have had more impact on our culture than any other single book. Whether it’s checking your iPhone for the weather, or wondering what is going to happen next in the Middle East, we all want a view into the future. It is a view that some suppose old John saw while exiled on Patmos. Others recognize that Revelation was a thinly veiled contemporary account to give hope to persecuted Christians in an era of imperial violence. Either way, the book, despite some effort to keep it out, ended up having the final say in the Christian canon. In a nation where every person possesses several unique identifiers, we still look over our collective shoulders for an anonymous beast who is about to bring down society. Don’t worry, folks, I’ve got his number.

Just Plain Bible

BibleWithoutTheologyBack when I was teaching Hebrew Bible in a seminary for a living, I purchased a book entitled The Bible Without Theology by Robert A. Oden Jr. I had intended to read it as a sanity break from the over-compensatory theological glosses that even the slightest reading of the Bible had in that setting. As the years passed and the book remained unread, I came to think of it as a systematic deconstructing of theological readings of the Bible, which it is not. Instead, Oden has gathered in this useful little book several essays centered on the topic of how the theological reading of the Bible has all but drowned out any other interpretations and has secured the privileged position of the Bible not only in society, but also in academia. Naturally, many people see such privilege as a witness of undisputed truth, even though how that truth is interpreted remains an open question.

Scholars, however, have the obligation not to favor their worldview over the evidence. Oden begins by discussing how history itself is perceived differently among those of various mindsets. History is an important part of the Bible’s theological reading since many Judeo-Christian interpretations revolve around a sense of historical veracity. After illustrating how history and mythology both lay claim to the text, Oden points out that even obviously mythological episodes have been blockaded by a theological reading of the scriptures. With examples from socio-anthropological studies, he demonstrates that parts of Genesis are best understood by investigating how kinship structures work, as well as how clothing serves as a status marker rather than a hidden justification for sacrifice, or chilly nights outside Eden.

Although The Bible Without Theology wasn’t exactly what I’d come to suppose it was, it remains a proper prologue to the issue. When Oden’s book appeared in the 1980s, the Religious Right was just finding its feet, fueled by a hyper-theological reading of the Bible. Since that time, the Bible has been used as theological justification to repress everyone from women to those biologically inclined toward their own gender. Bible scholars have, in general, known this is wrong. However, theologically inclined institutions won’t pay instructors for honestly engaging the text. Bible scholars are expected to throw their expertise behind the theological outlook of their institution in a way that Oden rightly points out, no other academic discipline would accept. In reaction to the biblical abuses of the Neo-Con crowd, many Americans are wondering why this one holy book is so privileged. While it may not have all the answers, Oden’s riposte will help to explain why the Bible deserves better.

God Particle

Over the last couple of days the Higgs boson has been in the news. Although I seldom ventured too far from New College and the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, it makes me glow with a special pride knowing I inhabited a small corner of the university of Peter Higgs. (And many other luminaries, including Charles Darwin.) My hopes of understanding the Higgs boson are more remote than even finding a university post (very long odds indeed), but I know that it is so important to physics that it has earned the moniker of “the God particle.” I first learned of the Higgs boson through Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series. At that stage it hadn’t yet acquired its divine status. Godhood must be earned, after all, at least in the eyes of humans. It is the proposed particle that stands to make sense of quantum physics, the world of the very small and the very weird.

There is an object lesson hidden in here. When even scientists get pushed to the limits of human knowledge, superlatives grow diminished. What can we call such a radical, powerful force in human thought? The particle itself, the boson, is not inherently stronger than a proton or electron, but its divine designation comes from its ability to, dare I say, replace god. In other words, it is the particle that explains so much that it is like the new god. News stories do not tell us where the nickname arose, but the best guess seems to be that some journalist with a flair for the dramatic brought God into the equation. God sells copy. But has the name also got enough room for a snake around the tree—or rather, around the nucleus?

In America, where science is under siege, any claims for God will be taken literally by some. We have witnessed again and again sheer silliness being paraded as “science” by Bible “experts” who take nearly half the population with them. The mental gyrations of the intelligent design crowd as they try to force God back into the equation should be warning enough. The God particle is baiting them and most Americans are ill-equipped to decide for themselves what is actually science. No sooner do we get a grip on nanotechnology than we begin building nanocathedrals. In that cathedral if scientists find the Higgs boson, it will not be god. It will, like god, open the door to many more unexplained phenomena, for god is not an explanatory principle. If we need a name to convey the great, rational explanatory power of such an elusive sub-atomic bit it seems to me—and I may be biased—that we call it the Edinburgh particle instead.

The Shawshank Reversal

You go away for a few days and look what happens to the neighborhood. With the Bible scholars safely out of town, a South Carolina woman used two hollowed out Bibles to smuggle weapons and drugs to a friend in prison. According to a story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the eviscerated Bibles contained knives, a cell phone, ecstasy and cocaine. Bibles often act as metaphors, and in this case the image of trouble coming in the form of a sacred book is poignant. No one thinks to suspect a Bible (well, Stephen King did), so conservative and clean-cut. What lies inside, however, is seldom closely examined. What is found there often defies biblical scholars and prison guards.

The Bible, as an icon, is spotless in the public eye. You can place a hand atop its venerable cover and, magically, you won’t be able to lie. You can heft it aloft and demons will flee in fright. You can even use it to measure chastity. (Back in my college there was a four-feet-six-inches rule. Men in women’s dorm rooms during brief, allotted visiting hours could sit next to their sweeties, but they had to keep all four feet on the ground and remain six inches apart—a distance, we were told—that could be filled by placing a Bible between the lovers. And the door had to be kept open, just in case.) The book has become the deity. Placing God between the desires of lovers is a metaphor ripe for the picking.

Few can forget the scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Warden Norton opens Andy Dufresne’s Bible to find the rock-hammer-shaped hole cut out of the pages. The Bible had set Dufresne free. And it did so unwittingly. The Bible’s message, in the film, was intended to keep prisoners in a state of submission, but human interest brought the Bible much closer to its noble purpose of setting the prisoner free. The Bible has been a privileged book throughout American history, and even before. In England it used to be chained to the lecterns of churches to prevent it from being privately studied. Its great power, however, lays not within the manipulation it excuses, but in the human spirit that finds liberation through, and sometimes despite, the famous black book.

Dusty Flowers

V. C. Andrews was a name familiar to me from skulking around used bookstores where tons of over-printed, read-only-once books line the shelves. I had seen Flowers in the Attic on many shelves since the 1980s, but supposing it to be a romance title, I showed no interest. As Borders was closing, however, I noticed a copy of the novel on the horror shelf and couldn’t fight the curiosity any longer. I guess it might have been building, subtly, for three decades. My wife was surprised to see it in my stack, but I professed my lack of knowledge and began reading it.

Horror is a strange genre of writing. It is defined in various ways, but I have found that authors deal with their own fears with a variety of strategies. After thirty years I need not worry about spoilers, so I can say that the concept of a parent destroying her own children is about the scariest scenario imaginable. What makes the story of interest here, however, is the treatment of the Bible in the story. After the premature death of their father the Dollanganger children are secreted away in an unused upstairs wing and attic of their wealthy grandparents’ mansion. While the hidden foe is really their mother, Andrews introduces the grandmother as the Bible-quoting, intolerant, prejudiced symbol of oppression. Quick with the rod and completely unforgiving, she goes to bed each night reading her Bible and she insists the children do the same. When she finds an excuse, however, the children are lashed for being wicked.

Interestingly, it is the mother who is never shown quoting the Bible. Towards the end of the story the children recognize that while she is evil, the grandmother would not directly commit murder. The mother who has tasted the intoxicating liquor of wealth, however, knows that even her own children cannot stand in the way of her inheritance. The adults in the story are twisted—some by religion, some by greed. The questions raised by children, like all of us innocent of our own existence, merely ask where the love has gone. Religion without love is Hell, as the pictures selected for the children’s prison by the grandmother clearly show. Worse than Hell, however, is the blinding love of money.

We are all flowers in the attic of an uncaring world. Some find comfort in the power of wealth while others resort to religion. Many try to combine the two. At the end, those who are truly noble are those who survive without either.

Bibles and Broomsticks

Continuing my musings on Kent Nerburn’s The Wolf at Twilight, I must pause for a moment on chapter eight, “Bibles and Broomsticks.” I must confess to having learned quite a bit in this account, and among the more disturbing facts is that government agents routinely removed Lakota children from their homes so that they would be sent to boarding schools to learn “white ways.” Many of these schools were run by Christian groups; in “Dan’s” case, the school was Roman Catholic. Confused and frightened, away from home, these children were compelled to give up their traditional ways so that they would be more accommodating to the people who had taken over their land. In the midst of the difficulties faced, Dan makes some pointed observations about the difference between what he had been taught as a child and what the establishment schools proclaimed. In punishment for speaking his own language, Dan was once sentenced to kneel on several marbles while holding a heavy Bible out at the end of each outstretched arm. Later he reveals that many of the children were sexually abused by the priests out on the prairie, far from the help of any non-religious adult.

Despite the grimness of this scenario, a parable may lurk for those of us who live in supposedly more enlightened times. The Bible being used as a physical weapon may be rare today, but it certainly has lost no force as a metaphorical one. We see this constantly when overly eager televangelists and politicians unilaterally declare that natural disasters are of divine origin, the god of the black book punishing the country he founded. Their logic twists like the rubber band on the balsam toy airplane of their mental depth. Complexity is the work of the devil when God can be blamed for every misfortune against those of whom they disapprove. The truly sad part is that they are continuing the oppression that was behind the mistreatment of the Native Americans. Books only enlighten minds when they are opened. Making a Bible into a cross is about as pagan an idea as can be conceived (my apologies to any pagans reading this—pagans are not nearly so barbarous).

At one point Dan explains to Nerburn that the Creator’s lessons could be found by observing nature, such as listening to the song of a bird. He said, “We could have taught your people, too. But they never listened…They just looked in their Black Book. They said it had everything they needed to learn the Creator’s lessons.” We are starting to learn this lesson, but very, very slowly. It was not by accident that the Navi in Avatar were portrayed as symbolic of Native Americans while the greedy industrialists mining their planet considered it manifest destiny to take charge. The Bible does not have all the answers. Those which it does contain in no way justify the abuse of others for one’s personal gain. It is one of history’s legitimate mysteries how an intelligent people can shut out reason when personal gain is at stake. It is easier to do, apparently, when there is a divine book to blame. When the Bible is used to punish others, however, it is always a safe bet that it has never been opened.

Differing worldviews

Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.

Not My Cup of Tea

The cutesy and puckish title of “Tea Party” is intended to sound whimsical among a group of political activists who lack imagination and creativity. They wear biblical-sized blinders that block out all enlightenment, trying to appear trendy and radical when what they really want is a return to the Dark Ages. Trying to make turning the clock back on progress chic and sexy, they stand for old-fashioned selfishness and the preservation of privilege for those who deserve preferential treatment – others just like them.

They grab headlines and limelight. So diametrically opposed to the progress that the real Tea Party (in Boston, 1773) strove for – progress against the privileged and mighty holding down those at disadvantage, the Tea Party movement seems to have convinced the media that it is worthy of their absconded moniker. Once again the Bible finds itself slave to an outlook. Ironically, Christians who look to the Bible as an unchanging anchor in modern society have no desire to return to the dietary restrictions and apparel requirements of yesteryear. They do not comprehend the vast gulf in morality outlooks that separate flat-earthers from space-age technocrats. A disconnect that would short-circuit the most robust processor drives their fantasy-world desire for a yesterday than never really existed.

What can a concerned biblical scholar do? Is it possible to force a conscientiously willful party that disregards facts and history to face reality? Perhaps the response should be that of the eighteenth-century Bostonians: board their ships of privilege and jettison their valued cargo utilized to create and uphold a system of abuse. Should that happen, we would soon see front-page pictures of Boston Harbor bobbing with saturated Bibles.

Mutiny on the Bountiful?