Silent Sundays

Since walks in the outdoors are a good thing, according to government guidelines, my family has been taking them.  Actually, we tend to take walks anyway since sitting before a screen all day is anything but natural.  One fact we’ve noticed on our perambulations through town is that many churches, as a standard of caution, aren’t holding their usual meetings.  The governor here in Pennsylvania hasn’t ordered churches closed—the fine line between church and state is easily violated—but many of the civic-minded religious are able to draw their own conclusions.  The church I attend has gone to virtual services.  In any case, I’m seeing news stories of clergy, particularly on the far-right end of the spectrum, insisting that the show must go on.  Ignoring government guidelines, they try to cram in as many people as they can until the police come along to limit the size of gatherings.

Throughout history religion has generally been in league with local governments.  We don’t know all the religions that have ever existed, but it is clear that some of the first counter-cultural believers were early Christians.  They defied government orders and sometimes died for it.  Today it’s more likely to end up in a stern rebuke or simply being sent home where the rest of us are sheltering in place.  I read this week about a church that’s encouraging cardboard cutouts of congregants so they can see themselves sitting in the pews during virtual Sunday morning services.  At times like this I think back over the history of religions and reflect on how the COVID-19 situation is one entirely new; we’ve never had a pandemic with the internet before.  And pastors can announce online that defying the government is on the docket for Sunday morning.

We weren’t the only ones with the idea of visiting Columcille yesterday.  An outdoor megalith park, Columcille is a place for spiritual reflection.  Since the vernal equinox passed virtually unnoticed this year, it was rejuvenating to take a springtime walk in the park.  Yes, others were there, widely spaced, but we walked the trails and visited the standing stones as a family group, keeping away from other gatherings.  We spent some time watching the new life emerging from the forest floor.  It’s only March but spring has sent its signals to the plant world and green shoots are reaching for the sun before trees leaf out and block the light.  It’s a wonder and a source of awe.  And in its own way, it’s a kind of gathering we might call church.

United, We Divide

I was a teenage Methodist.  Or, I should say, a teenage United Methodist.  My family had moved to a town where there were no Fundamentalist churches.  Indeed, the only Protestant church was the UMC.  Although very aware of religion, I hadn’t studied it deeply at that point—I’ve come to understand a bit better the marketplace of Christianties and how it works in a capitalist society.  The thing is, the more I learned about John Wesley and the Methodist movement, the more I saw how well it aligned with my own thinking and experience.  I became an Episcopalian largely because John Wesley never left that tradition and urged his followers in the same direction.  Of course, the “United” in United Methodism was due to mergers during the ecumenical period when Christians were learning to overlook differences and a strong base remained from which to draw.

The news has come out that the United Methodist Church has decided to split over the issue of homosexuality.  Most major Protestant denominations have made their peace, albeit uneasily, with the issue.  They recognized that while a source of guidance in spiritual matters the Bible’s a little outdated on its scientific understanding.  If God had revealed evolution to good old Moses things might’ve been a bit different.  We now know that homosexuality isn’t a “choice”—it is found in nature, and not rarely.  Homo sapiens (if I’m allowed to use that phrase) have developed in such a way that sexuality is a main preoccupation of religions.  Some animal species are monogamous and in our case many cultures adopted this as conducive to an ordered society.  Then it became codified in some sacred writings.

While homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible, every book of that Bible has a context.  Like it or not, close, serious study of Scripture raises questions you just don’t get if you read only authors who think the same way you do.  It is far easier to do that—who doesn’t like being right?—but thinking seldom gains credibility by never being challenged.  Iron sharpens iron, someone once said.  The emotion behind the issue, I suspect, is driven by a couple of things: fear of that which is different, and the inability to see the Bible as anything but “da rules.”  In those cases where the rules contradict one another you just have to choose.  At least in Christianity.  In Judaism they ended up with the Talmud.  In any case, we’re now seeing the fracturing of society based on party lines.  We could always use a few more choices, I guess, for competition is what spiritual capitalism is all about.

Conversations

Arnold Lakhovsky, The Conversation, via Wikimedia Commons

While I tend not to discuss books on this blog until I’ve finished them, I realize this practice comes with a price tag.  Reading is a conversation.  Your mind interacts and engages with that of another person (or persons, for books aren’t usually individual efforts).  I find myself as I’m going along asking questions of the author—whether living or dead doesn’t matter—and finding answers.  Materialists would claim said answers are only electro-chemical illusions spawned by this mass of gray cells in my skull, only this and nothing more.  The realia of lived experience, however, tells us something quite different.  These interior conversations are shaping the way I think.  There’s a reason all those teachers in grade school encouraged us to read.  Reading leads to an equation the sum of which is greater than the total of the addends.

I’ve been reading through Walter Wink’s oeuvre.  Specifically his trilogy on the powers.  Although this was written going on four decades ago, I’m struck by how pertinent and necessary it is for today.  As he posited in his first volume, the embrace of materialism has blinded us to spiritual realities.  Wink was bright enough to know that biblical texts were products of their times and that simple acceptance of these texts as “facts” distorts what they really are.  He also convinces the reader that institutions have “powers.”  Call them what you will, they do exist.  Throughout much of western history the “power” cast off by the church has been somewhat positive.  Christianities has established institutions to care for the poor and for victims of abuse and natural disaster.  Orphans and widows, yes, but also those beaten down by capitalism.  They have established institutions of higher education to improve our minds.  Until, that is, we start objecting that our improved outlook demonstrates that the biblical base isn’t literal history.

Churches then often fight against those educated within its own institutions.  Ossified in ancient outlooks that value form over essence, many churches take rearguard actions that we would call “evil” if they were undertaken by a political leader such as Stalin or Hitler.  Those evil actions are justified by claiming they are ordained by an amorphous “Scripture” that doesn’t really support those behaviors at all.  I’ve been pondering this quite a lot lately.  Although I taught Bible for many years my training has been primarily as an historian of religions.  I specialized in the ancient world of the northern levant, for that culture provided the background of what would eventually become the Bible.  Reading Wink, I think I begin to see how some of this fits together.  I won’t have the answer—we many never attain it—but I will know that along the way I’ve been engaged in fruitful conversation.

Masked Reality

Before I make my confession you need to consider that I spent much of my professional life as a seminary professor.   Never ordained, I nevertheless donned the cassock and taught future priests what they’d be assumed to know (the Bible) while trying to earn an academic reputation through my publications.  It was a double life in which one half involved the church.  Shortly after that job ended I saw trailers for Nacho Libre, a movie in which Jack Black plays a monk who moonlights as a luchador, a Mexican professional wrestler.  I never saw the film, but I had been raised on a white trash diet of World Wrestling Federation fandom, back in the day when that involved gathering around the television to watch grown men posturing and preening while knowing that none of it was really real.  I secretly wanted to see Nacho Libre.

Recently I visited friends who had the movie.  They warned me that it was corny, but I had already supposed that.  What I didn’t realize until after it was over (for movie viewing is now followed by internet viewing) is that it is based on a true story.  “Based on a true story” doesn’t mean, of course, that a movie accurately portrays events, but I had no idea that a Mexican priest had actually supported an orphanage for over two decades as a masked wrestler under the name of Fray Tormenta.  I followed up the movie with a little web research because the film was remarkably respectful of the church.  The character of Ignacio never criticizes Catholicism, and he clearly cares for the orphans for whom he serves as the cook.  His wrestling winnings go toward purchasing better food for them.

Earlier in the day we watched the movie I’d talked to one of my friends about how religious life, no matter how seriously it’s taken, involves acting.  People generally put on masks before going to church (or any other function in which they interact with others).  Religion requires a level of piety impossible to sustain in the real world.  Early in the history of Christianities it became clear that the church would hire some religious specialists to try to take on the lifestyle toward which all faithful should aspire.  I’ve trained many priests.  I’ve seen them when they’re in mufti.  I know that in the vestibule, at the altar, or in the pulpit they’re wearing masks.  Many of them have the heart of Nacho Libre, but outside the church doors they still have bills to pay and family and friends who know them as they really are.  As we slipped the DVD in I didn’t know what the movie might be like, but it was based on a true story in more ways than one.

Building on Water

I try to keep up.  Really, I do.  Although my specialization is in ancient religions, at heart I’m an historian of ideas and I try to keep up with the origins of the many Christian denominations.  You see, with so many competing versions of the one correct way to please God it pays to hedge your bets.  Thing is, there’s so many options and some seem to spring out of nowhere, like toadstools after the rain.  The other day I attended a local community event.  One of those kinds of affairs where local organizations set up tents and sometimes sell food.  Many of the tents were for churches.  As supporters of community values (mostly) this isn’t unusual, even with the declining numbers in the mainstream.  Then I heard a voice.

“Do you read?” the man asked.  I confess to having a bookish look, so I admitted I do.  “We want you to have a free book,” he said, handing me a plastic bag (warning sign one) containing a small paperback and several fliers.  Now, I was here to look around and maybe get a bite to eat, so I thanked him, tucked the bag under my arm and walked on.  Only on the way home did my wife look at the contents.  The church—for it had to be a church giving such things away—was one of which I’d never heard.  This would’ve been disorienting if it weren’t for the fact that ever since college—where I learned quite a lot about denominations—I’ve been noticing new varieties of Christianities, cropping up somewhat frequently.  Each seems to believe it has found the answers, despite the threadbare denominations that have been around for centuries.

I make fun on nobody’s search for meaning, or the truth.  It is, after all, a lifelong quest.  I am suspicious of those who claim to have already gotten there, however.  For those traditions that declare they’ve found the answer centuries ago, the passing years with their constant changes have worn on them.  Especially if they’re awaiting a divine cataclysmic ending to it all that’s been delayed for a couple of millennia now.  Others are, apparently, wanting to pump some fresh air into these tired lungs.  This group featured a website “the famous one [all one word].com.”  I was surprised and a touch saddened to see Jesus relegated to the role of a media celebrity.  But then again, I can’t keep up like I used to.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Not So Gnostic

A certain, amorphous indignation comes over those of us trained in history when we encounter abuses of the same. In my case, some thought me conservative when I argued in my first book that Asherah as Yahweh’s wife wasn’t nearly the slam dunk some scholars were making it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity, but it was a matter of the evidence being weak and not thoughtfully examined. That is to say, I sympathize—maybe even empathize—with Philip Jenkins. His book, Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way, is an historical dressing down of many in the New Testament scholarly community who’ve perhaps let a bit of historical rigor slip in order to understand the world of early Christianity.

You see, once upon a time, scholars took the Gospels as, well, the gospel truth. Contradictions were simply harmonized or glossed over. When newer ancient material began to be discovered, however, adjustments had to be made. Perhaps the “orthodox” story of Christian origins wasn’t the only option available. In the twentieth century some spectacular manuscript finds were made, including the “library” of Nag Hammadi—largely Gnostic—and the Dead Sea Scrolls. New understandings of early Christianity were possible when these texts were considered. Some scholars engineered sweeping theories about revolutionary ideas concerning Jesus and his buds. Jenkins laments the lack of historical precision that many of these reconstructions demonstrate, and he comes across as somewhat annoyed.

Sensationalism, as we all know, sells publications and gets presidents elected. We all like a good story. In the case of Jesus, this means that the reconstructions of scholars often challenge traditional views, and popular publications love it. Jenkins finds it distasteful. Although this book is well written, as all of Jenkins’ material tends to be, it probably doesn’t do his arguments any favor to have retained the tired trope of heresy. Heresy means nothing without a supernatural bias, something that historians must avoid. Heresy, after all, assumes that one and only one version is correct (orthodox) and the four Gospels demonstrate that such a simple dichotomy is more difficult to sustain than it might appear to be. Yes, the Gnostic texts may not be as early as the traditional Gospels, but the ideas may have been circulating from near the beginning. We know surprisingly little about Jesus, so it’s not unexpected that rumors would’ve flown, even in antiquity. A solid source of information on some of the early “other gospels,” Jenkins’ book serves as a useful reminder that history is almost never as simple as it seems it should be.

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.

Persecution Myth

The myth of persecution is a great cover. Christians, we are accustomed to think, are timid and loving individuals eager to turn the other cheek. In this sophisticated world of science and technology, they might appear a little naive, but they’re not really out to hurt anyone. Or at least some of them aren’t. I grew up among what would now be called Fundamentalists. Harsh to their own sins, they’d not imagine harming others. The story went that in the Roman Empire days it was open season on Christians and the oppressors liked nothing better than killing off a dozen before breakfast. That myth has largely been debunked by historians. Yes, there were some brief periods of intensive persecution, but for the most part the early Christians were left alone.

Many of the more zealous among the literalist sects today feel the loss of that mythology keenly. What can you do when you learn that your primitive ancestry wasn’t as heroic as you thought it was? For some, that myth must be kept alive today. When it is acknowledged that our world has become a smaller place because of technology, we get exposed to those who give the lie to our prejudices. Moral Muslims (despite the media portrayals), Hindus, Buddhists, and even secular humanists, abound. News, however, thrives on negativity. After all, it too is a capitalistic enterprise. We see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry. The myth lives on. Christian Dominionists have simply given up on the rest of the race. The Bible, after all, says few will be saved. And they have thrived for decades based on the simple fact that nobody takes them seriously.

I have seen the lack of compassion in evangelical eyes firsthand. A coldness that declares education to be evil since the only truth was revealed long ago in unchanging form. The word of God stands forever. It says so itself. And among the most despised of all human beings are those who study that word instead of “just reading” it. Those outside this camp know there is no such thing as “just reading.” They also know that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all and that translations are merely approximations. It’s difficult to build absolute laws on approximations. Among themselves these groups claim that legislation to treat others equally is a direct affront and insult to them. In fact, they claim they are persecuted because of the fair treatment of others. The thing about democracy is that any system can be gamed. Even Putin can be your friend, for this is the world of myth.

Come Together

Although today is Easter for some, for many it generally isn’t. And I don’t mean just those who follow faiths outside Christianity. One of the hallmarks of religions is their tendency to fragment like a sugar egg under Thor’s hammer. Christians have long disagreed on the date of Easter depending on which time reckoning scheme they follow. That which makes it onto most work calendars is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox after the Gregorian calendar. After all those afters it’s easy to get confused, but the fact is this kind of precision makes it possible to date Easter until the Earth slows on its axis or Mitch McConnell learns to look at things from someone else’s point-of-view, although we all know which is more likely. This year, in a rare coincidence of the Gregorian and Julian calendars, however, Orthodox Easter is the same as Catholic Easter. Could it be sign of hope?

You see, calendars aren’t just markers of time. They’ve always been religious devices. In fact, our current calendar, the Gregorian, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII. The world still marches to the beat of Rome’s drum. Nature, it seems, is indifferent to our calendrical needs. The point of all this time keeping was to help those who lived by the soil to know when to plant and when to harvest. That might seem simplistic, but if you follow how it feels outside there would’ve been some sowing going on in February around here. Global warming, for those who’ve advanced to the Gregorian calendar (that’s okay Mr. McConnell, you may leave the room) will throw that off, and maybe we’ll be needing a new calendar. Will we retain the one with it’s pagan month names or shall we adopt one with months of evangelical heroes? But wait, not all evangelical groups celebrate Easter!

I had a college roommate who believed all holidays were of the Devil. His sect of Christianity didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. So even as Orthodox and Heterodox join together in recognizing today as Easter, not everyone’s together on that point. Some mythologize bunnies and eggs while others dismiss them as hopelessly pagan. So it is that we have to agree to disagree. Teach the controversy, right Mitch? While some celebrate resurrection today others put their Peeps in the microwave just for the fun of having that kind of power over the weak.

Having your cake, and having it too.

The Religion Code

People have strange ideas about what religion can and cannot do. Yes, many religions face the past—founders of various sorts gave dictates and statutes that were appropriate for all time. At their time. Few religious visionaries can see very far into the future, so their rules have to be massaged over time. When we see an Amish buggy clopping along next to a highway we suppose that this is a religion mired in the past, but we could be wrong. The BBC ran a story the other day expressing some surprise at “ultra-Orthodox Jews” and their getting into tech fields. What hath the Talmud to do with coding? Stop and think about that.

One of the aspects of this dynamic unaddressed by this story is how unescapable the internet has made learning tech. Your religion may have you following outdated principles at home, but unless your community can get on without the outside world, like the Amish, you’ll need to learn to negotiate technology. As the article points out, learning Torah and Talmud are transferrable skills. People genuinely seem surprised when what we might broadly call “the humanities” come in handy. Religion, when it requires serious reflection, builds critical thinking skills. It is only the blind adherence to principles that haven’t been thought through that leads to trouble. Even a Fundamentalist knows that this all has to make some kind of sense or something’s wrong. In fact, the article doesn’t suggest that a Fundie as a tech expert would be any cause for wonder. A humanities education might have helped with that.

Photo credit: Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, Wikimedia Commons

One can’t speak of Judaism as a monolithic religion. In fact, religion scholars regularly speak of “Judaisms” just as they speak of “Christianities.” The various branches of Judaism hold study of scriptures in common, and the BBC article makes the point that this kind of thinking helps with problem solving. The great irony here is that when the problem solving comes in the form of getting computer glitches worked out it is considered valuable. When the problem solving merely helps people figure out how to get along in the world it is backward and parochial. Such is the strangeness of a world impressed by its own creation. The internet has brought a great many religions together. It has, I would suggest, created new religions as well. It is a myth to suppose that the rational rules of any hypertext markup language are that different than sages and rabbis arguing over the best way to make progress in a confusing world. No matter what our religion, we all need to make money, don’t we? And isn’t that the most truly ecumenical enterprise of them all?

Bucking Star

Entitlement comes in many forms. Culturally we’ve been sensitized to substituting “holidays” for “Christmas,” although the reason we spend money at this time of year is well known. Although technically not a Christian nation, the United States has a large number of Christian believers and always has. Charles Dickens certainly participated in the invention of Christmas, but the commercial aspect is very much an American thing. So much so that we can’t wait to get Thanksgiving out of the way to dip our fingers into Black Friday, a holiday in its own right. Starbucks has, for many years, shifted to a banal, neutral winter-themed cup design, to get customers into the spirit of spending. Who really needs to pay five dollars for a cup of joe? Wrap it like a present and the cash flows more freely. So the tempest in a coffee pot over the “war on Christmas” by choosing a simple red (and by default green) cup design became front-page headline news recently. Had we dissed the Almighty or the babe in a manger by going red?

Religious groups feel increasingly threatened. Not everyone thinks globalism is a good thing. We try to educate our children, but many religious groups insist on home schooling to avoid the contamination of an open mind. Any act, no matter how trite or banal, may be perceived as an attack. Nobody seems to think that stopping in to pay so much for a cup of coffee may be a sin in its own right. The economy has tanked and bumped along the bottom ever since I’ve entered the professional sector. And yet, Starbucks has flourished. No matter how down you are, a little arabica stimulus can’t hurt. It has, apparently, become the bellwether of how Christmas-friendly we really are.

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Ironically, the Christmas decorations begin appearing in stores before the spectre of Halloween. Stop in to pick up some last-minute scares and you’ll find them on the bargain rack as the red and green tide take over the valuable shelf-space. We gleefully move from one spending holiday to another. And in the midst of it all, we stop to complain about the design of our coffee cup? I try to avoid disposable items whenever I can. I don’t collect holiday cups from coffee vendors. I wonder what all the fuss is about when the world is full of so many serious problems. If I sound cranky to you, there’s a good reason. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

Colorful Gods

On my last day in Oxford I had enough free time to visit the Ashmolean Museum. The Ashmolean is the earliest public museum in the country, and, although it isn’t nearly the size of the British Museum, it has its share of very important artifacts. While there I came upon the exhibit called “Gods in Colour.” The display was inspired by the fact that ancient Roman statues—and likely those of other ancient cultures as well—were often painted. The elements have worn away much of the decoration, but traces of various chemicals have indicated what hues were likely used to paint these public icons of divinity. We tend to think of classical society as all white marble and stoic formality, but the reality was likely much more colorful. Many god and goddess statues from ancient West Asia also have traces of paint, although in general they were smaller in the various kingdoms of the Levant than the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia (the latter of which is sadly falling victim to modern day iconoclasts). The Romans weren’t the only ones to see in color.

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Seeing these representations of gods in color reminded me of my first exposure to liturgical Christianity. Having been raised in a Fundamentalist tradition, we certainly didn’t have images about (although one of our churches had a pastoral fresco on one wall). The United Methodist Church, in which I spent my teens and early twenties, had adapted the liturgy of its Anglican parent church, but not the iconographic tradition. When I first saw churches with painted crucifixes and states of Mary, I was taken aback at how powerful they could be. Like most ancients, I realized that these weren’t the gods themselves, but they still conveyed much of what the liturgy was communicating through words and music. One priest explained them as crutches for those who needed help to imagine the divine.

Having seen what images can do, I object to the use of the word “idol.” People are visual animals. We rely heavily on our sense of sight, and our religious sensibilities tell us to look for the gods our minds tell us must be invisible. It is difficult to focus on that which we cannot see. Today we have images both in the natural color of their medium and resplendent with color. We spend hours before the computer screen with its endless array of pixels of all colors. We still think of our gods in full array of saturated hues. In ancient times they tended to be made of stone, but we tend to use another form of silicon, apparently, to get the same effect.

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You have probably noticed it. As expected as the warmer days of spring are also the Girl Scout cookies. A symbol of wholesome fundraising, Girl Scout cookies have some dedicated buyers, and many imitators. Like any human organization, the Girl Scouts have their troubles, but I can’t help but compare them with the Boy Scouts in which I grew up. Well, at least for a few years. We’ve watched as the media have declared on the excluding of various demographics from the Boy Scouts. To rise to the top you must not deviate from the mythic model of the perfect man. Meanwhile, as an article in Tablet notes, Girl Scouts have been tolerant of difference from the beginning. In a day when being Jewish was still suspect in the wider community, Girl Scouts were founded with early troop leaders who were Jewish, and this was in the days before the First World War and the ensuing tragedy of the Holocaust during the Second. From those early days, Girl Scouts have continued to have a policy of acceptance of those who differ in religious outlook. It erects no barrier.

The success of social progress depends on how we train our young. Prejudice has to be learned. Children are accepting of those with differences until they learn not to be. Radical groups have to recruit constantly. Fear of strangers is natural, but when it becomes a paradigm it is a pathology. One of my professors once claimed that early Christianity thrived because it was exclusive. Only true members could join, like a country club, making it desirable among hoi polloi. Further research has demonstrated the falsity of this view. There were many varieties of Christianities in antiquity. Only by declaring itself uniquely correct, and convincing Constantine of the same, did one sect become dominant. And dominance was what it was about.

Society is all about getting along. We have come together around money to build the tallest structures on the planet. The tallest buildings used to be in the United States. Then China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates. A tower serves no purpose without a collective to take pride in it. Religions, unfortunately, often measure themselves by those who stand outside. Taking the view that it only feels good to be right if others are wrong, it is easy for such thinking to slip into a prejudice that promotes and rewards exclusivity. One percent, anyone? Many aspire to such menial goals as getting more money. For me, a life that has a box of Girl Scout cookies available is enough. And I’ll take a tall glass of tolerance with that, and hope that others will feel free to share.

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