Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?


Altared States

Religion Dispatches is a great website.  I used to write for them from time to time, and according to Google they were probably the most read of my internet publications.  I’m not sure what happened, but a few years back time simply evaporated.  These days literally the only time I have to get things done is on the weekend.  A simple thing like taking the car in for inspection takes advance planning and can throw off my entire schedule for the week.  I have difficulty finding time to write for Horror Homeroom these days.  That’s a long preamble to saying I saw an interesting article by Hollis Phelps on Religion Dispatches titled “Hulu’s ‘Hamilton’s  Pharmacopeia’ Shows that We Can No Longer Ignore Connections between Religion and Drugs.”  There have been a number of suggestions that drugs and religion are related over the years, but our “Christian” culture has declared the former taboo.  (Except wine, of course, and even that’s suspect.)

Photo by Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

This article has me thinking about chemistry.  Not that I ever did very well in it.  Still, I recall hearing one high school teacher or another saying life is organic chemistry.  I’ve come do doubt the standard definition of life as I’ve aged, but there’s no doubt chemical reactions are a large part of the somatic existence we all experience.  Eating leads to chemical reactions to break down the chemicals in food.  Some of them are good for us, others are not.  Some (but not all) of the really dangerous ones we outlaw.  Drugs are a good example.  I don’t use drugs, but I’m aware that many religions do.  I don’t doubt the altered states of consciousness that reportedly arise from the responsible use of such drugs.

I haven’t watched “Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia” (I have no time).  Still, I have to wonder why Christianity, in particular, came to declare its own war on drugs.  A large part of it, I expect, was the belief in the imminent return of Jesus.  You didn’t want to be caught unawares.  Then there was also the sad fact of abuse of controlled substances.  Alcoholism and the opioid crisis are reminders that these unfortunate aspects can still cause serious problems.  At the same time, research is demonstrating that religious experience and the use of some drugs are related.  American Indians, at least some of the tribes, found religious significance in peyote.  There are present-day religions devoted to cannabis.  Does it all just come down to chemistry?  I don’t know, but if there’s a drug to increase the number of hours in a day that might be a real revelation.


Celebrate Freedom

Perspective.  The most valuable thing I learned growing up was to try to see things from the perspective of others.  It’s the basis of sharing and empathy and kindness.  It’s what makes us human.  Juneteenth celebrates a Black holiday, but it applies to us all.  Today (actually tomorrow) commemorates the day when slavery was ended in Texas.  As much as southern states sometimes like to posture, all but the most frightfully unenlightened know that slavery is wrong.  The exploitation of others because we have the power to do so is the very embodiment of evil.  There’s no need for a devil if human beings can do this all by themselves.  Black lives do matter.  We need to stop countering this with “all lives matter” because until we acknowledge systemic racism such responses only serve to perpetuate the problem.

The history of the Christian (and yes, religion fueled and still fuels it) European domination of the world is a long, sad, and unethical one.  Blacks, because they’re often so easily visually identified, have borne the brunt of this domination.  In many ways this continues to be the case even today.  Red lining still exists.  Discrimination still exists.  Blacks are more likely to be imprisoned than others.  Poorly trained police are more likely to shoot and kill them.  This must change if society is to improve at all.  Congress has just passed a bill making Juneteenth a national holiday.  This gives the lie to the posturing of many of our elected officials.  This shows how deep Trump’s lies went.

More socially conscious employers made today a paid holiday in support of Juneteenth, even before the senate passed the bill.  We need to admit that we’ve been wrong.  We need to admit that special interests have kept us from seeing what should’ve been as obvious as the color of our own skin.  We’ve tried to keep slavery going.  We’ve made life hard for those easily identified as not “white.”  I have to wonder if this situation would’ve ever developed had we grown the more accurate habit of calling some people pink and others brown.  “White” was chosen for its theological implications.  Make no mistake, this was a carefully constructed divide.  Those who initiated the terminology—pink men, all of them—used their Christianity to demean, debase, and degrade other human beings.  Juneteenth celebrates one small step in what is necessarily a long journey.  We need to undo systemic racism.  We need to learn to say Black Lives Matter and we need to live it.

Photo by Leslie Cross on Unsplash

Time To Think

Although I’m not Roman Catholic, I often thought about joining a monastery as a teen and twenty-something.  The idea of spending all my time devoted to contemplating the ultimate reality still has a strong appeal.  I know quite a few rationalists who have no time for spirituality, but it seems to me that we all need it for facing death.  Most people, I know, avoid the topic if at all possible.  Contemplatives, on the other hand, spend quite a bit of time preparing for it.  Since it’s inevitable that makes sense.  I often wonder why people consider the most common thing in human experience with such trepidation.  If it’s a source of anxiety, shouldn’t it be confronted?  That’s not to say we need to look forward to it, but it does mean we shouldn’t run from it either.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

The combination of Christianity and rationalism, it seems to me, lead to this terror.  Christianity because it views death as an enemy, and rationalism because it has no comfort to offer.  I’ve been reading about how pre-Christian cultures thought of death.  They didn’t display the fear that Paul seems to have introduced into the equation.  Since American culture is so heavily influenced by the Bible (as was European culture before it), we have adopted the scriptural view that death is a problem.  The Hebrew Bible, in which there was no real afterlife, was less concerned with making sure you avoided Hell—they had no Hell to avoid.  The anxiety seems to have been introduced by, ironically, the concept of resurrection.

I’ve noted on pieces I’ve written for other websites that resurrection is among the favorite themes for horror films.  One of the reasons is precisely this discomfort in taking death at face value.  Our religions keep us aware of the spiritual side of our nature.  They have developed around the world in different forms and all of them address death in some way.  Most without a profound sense of anxiety.  There is some irony in cultures that adopt resurrection as a theological tenet are among those that try to avoid death most assiduously.  It plays into those cultures’ views on abortion and capital punishment.  As well as their performance of social justice.  While Paul asked death where its sting was, and seems legitimately not to have feared it, in the centuries following his position seems to have eroded.  There seems to be plenty to contemplate here, if only secular society had monasteries.


Still Standing

Investment.  Time is an investment, and I recently invested in Stephen King’s The Stand.  You have to realize that I made this decision sight-unseen.  More than one person whose opinions I value told me I should read it.  I had no idea it would be 1,400 pages and would dominate my life for a solid month.  Still, I’m glad I read it.  In case you haven’t, and intend to, there may be some spoilers below.  This is one of the King books I read without knowing the plot or the ending, so if you’re in that boat, skip a paragraph or two.

I hadn’t intended The Stand to be plague reading.  It just turned out that way.  The book is about a variety of flu that kills nearly the entire population of the world.  It’s only at the very end that you learn it’s a parable.  The ending also explains some of the apparently unrelated filler that makes the book so terribly long.  In any case, after wiping out much of the world, the story narrows down to several of the survivors and how they end up dividing into two camps: those who want to cause misery (think Republicans), and those who want to reestablish civilization.  Of course there are several unpleasant instances along the way.  The camp of violent ne’er-do-wells settles in Las Vegas under the demonic leadership of Randall Flagg—his identity only becomes clear at the end—while the good guys, under Mother Abagail, choose Boulder.  A confrontation is inevitable and when the smoke clears we learn that Randall Flagg is, essentially, civilization itself.  Perhaps Christianity.

Of all of the Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one has the most overt Christian imagery.  In fact, in his introduction to the expanded edition he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”  There’s quite a lot of theological dialogue along with gruesome deaths.  The pacing often makes the story seem quite long.  Well, it actually is.  I suspect it was this Christian imagery that had friends recommending it to me.  The idea that evil is essentially our culture that comes around and kills us is both profound and paradoxical.  As well as “Christian.”  All along the good guys want to reestablish the cooperation and comforts of civilized life.  It was “civilization” that unleashed the killer virus, however, and herein hangs the tale.  I’m glad to have read it, and I have to confess that I miss the bleak world King created, after living with it for so long.  And it turns out to have been plague reading both literally and symbolically.


The Land

It’s always a pleasure to find an author from whom you want to read more.  It was my wife who told me about Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  We were both so taken by the book that we turned to Hayes’ prior Blonde Indian: An Alaska Native Memoir.  Learning how badly the United States has treated the indigenous population of this continent is one thing.  Learning how badly we still treat them is quite another.  For all of that Hayes writes a memoir that is reflective and perhaps sad, but seldom angry.  The stories told in Tao of Raven start here—we meet the characters who will be further developed in the next installment and become even more curious about them.  The reader wants to reach out and help.  To tell the government, “enough!”

The indigenous peoples of North America (and likely South too, for that is a realm requiring further learning) feel, and have always felt, a close connection to the land.  Europeans see land as a resource for exploitation, not for living in harmony with.  We came, we took, we destroyed.  As if that weren’t bad enough, we left the original inhabitant trapped in grinding poverty, shoving them into places we wouldn’t see.  Until we discovered something we wanted on that land, and then we shoved them again.  The impetus to do this was, unfortunately, Christianity.  I doubt it’s the religion Jesus had in mind, but then he lost control of it millennia ago.  Believing in one’s divine mandate is a sure way of making unwarranted claims on what belongs to someone else.  Remember “thou shalt not steal”?

Hayes’ reflective style is an honor to read.  Feeling a part of a place is a rare privilege.  Born into a mobile society enamored of technology, the modern American has difficulty feeling too attached to any one place.  Of course, many people stay close to where they were born, but to become a “professional” you have to leave.  Blonde Indian is about returning home.  The land knows us.  Many of us don’t know it back.  It’s just a place to set our feet temporarily until a better opportunity comes along elsewhere.  Being tied to no land we lose something of our souls.  Our connection with nature.  With the planet itself.  Hayes is a gifted writer with a story that must be heard.  Wisdom comes through on every page.  We would do well to pay attention.


Raven Wisdom

Just twenty pages in and I was reflecting on how Christianities and the cultures they cultivated have caused so much suffering in the world.  Assuming there is only one way to be, and that way is pink, European, and monotheistic, has led to so many displaced people thrown aside as collateral damage.  Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven is a remarkable book.  A native Alaskan, Hayes participated in the colonialist venture of higher education to try to also participate in the “American dream.” If this book doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, I don’t know that you’re human.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a deep interest and lasting guilt to learn about indigenous peoples of the country where I was born.  About the culture that is so Bible-driven it can’t see the human beneath.  The capitalism that takes no prisoners.

The Tao of Raven is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.  Hayes refuses to sugar-coat the alcoholism, the broken promises, the poverty offered to native Alaskans.  Even as Trump’s final rages go on, he has opened the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge for drilling, to the highest bidder.  Apart from those whose wealth will increase as a result, we will all suffer.  Those who lived in Alaska before the colonists arrived the most.  The idea of colonizing, without which capitalism just can’t work, reveals its evil here.  When a voice like that of Hayes is able to make itself heard we cannot but feel the condemnation.  When over seventy-million people vote for a hater, we all tremble.

The book ends much as it begins.  A sincere regret for those who’d been fed the contradictory messages of missionaries.  Those told to accept suffering on earth so that they could go to the white person’s Heaven, while those inflicting the suffering lead comfortable lives with modern conveniences.  The double-standards that allow people to die on the street like dogs.  The double-standards that can’t see that you need not be Christian to upend the tables of money-changers.  Indeed, the last time someone dared to such a thing was two millennia ago.  When Christianity slipped its fingers between those of capitalism a monster would surely be born.  The cost would come in human lives, even as a quarter-million lay dead in this country from a virus a rich man can’t be bothered to address.  Do yourself, do the world a favor.  Read this book.  Read it with your eyes open and learn from Raven.


Seeking Reality

I spend a lot of time struggling to figure out the fundamental basis of reality.  I’m hampered in this by a brain that was evolved—optimized—to help me survive in my environment, not to penetrate the depths of what’s really real.  That’s why I began studying religion in the first place.  The connection was organic.  Raised as a fundamentalist daily reminded that an eternal hell of torment awaited, it made sense to study the antidote (the Bible) as much as possible.  When I prepared for college, which wasn’t the plan at the beginning, I could think of no other major beyond religion.  In Paul Tillich’s nomenclature, it’s all about ultimate concerns.  I didn’t accept the very evolution that had made me this way.  That required thinking through.  

Attending a liberal arts college wasn’t really a conscious decision.  Nobody in my family had been to college and I didn’t know the difference between a research university and a stand-alone liberal arts institution.  Somebody has to teach you these things.  Religion, I found out, is a pretty good way to work toward perceptions of reality.  These days the award for that goes to philosophy, but the two fields are closely related, as much as philosophers socially distance themselves from theologians.  They’re both seeking the same thing, really.  Public perceptions of theology, however, trail after televangelists and their ilk, leading a wrong impression in the minds of the masses.  Even professors are prone to accept this facile supposition.  Seeking reality doesn’t mean you won’t get laughed at along the way.

Although there have been some among religious leaders who claim to have found the answer, the rest of us continue to struggle.  The more I read both of science and of religion the more complex it all seems to grow.  And of course human agendas require the keeping of secrets.  Knowledge that is for employees only because they kind of have to know.  The price on the sticker represents a mark-up that could be cut down.  What is this item really worth?  So it goes with the search for reality.  There’s no end to the searching.  Even after Siddhārtha Gautama was enlightened, he continued to have to work at it.  Christianity used to teach that love was the point of it all.  That message seems to have changed with the arrival of the messiah known as Trump.  Those of us who can’t stop searching even if we find can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something more worthy on which to spend our time.


Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.


Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.


When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.


Love, Not Fear

How do we celebrate Valentine’s Day when our governments advocate hate?  You have to wonder when the autocrats last fell in love.  Building entire polities on hatred harshes the elevated feelings of letting love, well, love.  The only time Republicans seem to smile is when they’re taking advantage of someone else.  But it’s Valentine’s Day, so I’ll try to think charitable thoughts about even them.  

My reading recently has been taking me into the realm of sin.  Let me rephrase that—I’ve been reading a lot about sin recently.  One of the more striking aspects about badness is that it seems closely related to love, or at least lust.  I’ve often pondered why Christianity especially has tended to treat sex as bad.  While all religions take an interest in sexuality, not all of them declare it a negative aspect of life.  In fact, many see as it quite the opposite.  Since I like to trace things to their origins, I wonder why this might be.  Why did Christianity, whose putative founder declared the greatness of love, decide that although love is well and good that making it is problematic?

Paul of Tarsus, whom some credit with being the actual founder of Christianity, considered his celibate lifestyle to be superior.  While he didn’t mandate it of his followers, he highly recommended keeping their commitments to divine causes rather than to prurient human ones.  He believed a second coming was going to occur any day now, and that was nearly two millennia ago.  He was also, through no fault of his own, an inheritor of an incorrect understanding of gender and sexuality.  Even today there’s much about these that we don’t understand, but we do have more evidence-based ideas about what’s going on.  And not surprisingly, we tend to find that love is good and expressing it (appropriately) is also good.  Valentine, after all, was a saint.

Looking out my window, it’s still clearly winter.  There’s snow on the ground from the most recent storm and I’m aching from the upper-body workout that it required to get it off the walk.  But still, in the pre-dawn hours I start to hear—rarely but clearly—the birds begin to sing.  The amaryllis on the sill has sprung into full bloom.  The thing about love is that there’s enough to go around.  It’s a renewable resource.  If only our leaders showed a fraction of interest in it as they show in hate and fear. 


Epistle Writer

I’ve been reading about Paul.  You know, that Paul.  What has struck me from this reading is that if he weren’t in the Bible rational people would likely think Paul was writing nonsense.  Getting into the Good Book is a big score, for sure, but a close look at what this particular apostle wrote does raise eyebrows, as well as questions.  Over my editing years I’ve discovered quite a few methods of dealing with the saint from Tarsus, but what they really point to is the elephant in the room—we don’t really know what Paul was on about.  A few basic facts stand out: the Paul of Acts doesn’t match the Paul of the authentic letters, and although Paul never met Jesus he became the architect of much of Christianity.

There’s a reason that I focused my doctoral work on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.  Still, it remains fascinating to look closely at Paul’s claims.  At some points he sounds downright modern.  Like a Republican he declares that he can be tried by no human power.  Specially selected by God himself, he can’t be judged by the standards of normal people.  This is dangerous territory even for those who eventually end up in the Good Book, especially since it wasn’t written as an abstraction, but to a specific readership in a specific place dealing with specific issues.  Galatia wasn’t the same as Corinth.  The issues at Philippi weren’t the same as those in Rome.  Yet, being in Scripture makes all his musings equally inspired.

The more we learn about Scripture the more difficult it becomes.  Perceptions evolve over time, and we know nothing about how various books were selected.  There are no committee minutes.  We don’t even know the committee’s name or if it was ad hoc or standing.  With repeated and long-term use these books became Bible.  Take Paul’s letters—it’s virtually certain that we don’t have them all.  He makes reference to letters that we don’t have.  What might he have written therein?  Is part of divine revelation missing?  The discovery of other gospels and many contemporary religious texts to those that made the Bible cut raises questions that can only be resolved with the category “inspiration.”  Christianity isn’t unified enough to add any more books, although some sects do nevertheless.  Paul is very much like that—an example of not being subject to human trial.  For a founder of a major religion we know surprisingly little about him.


Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.


Russian Passions

Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.

I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.

Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.