Tag Archives: Christianity

The Way, the Truth

It’s striking how similar world religions can be. Granted, the concept of “religion” as a separate sphere of life is a western one, but throughout the world thinkers have drawn similar conclusions. Until the World’s Congress of Religions of 1893 in Chicago, however, most Americans knew only of the monotheistic traditions. Jews and Muslims had been in this country almost as long as Christians. Nobody paid much mind to the indigenous religions of the original occupants. In any case, in 1893 other religions—those of eastern Asia—entered American consciousness. Buddhism and Hinduism were exotic, if pagan, belief systems. There wasn’t much of a conceptual foundation upon which to build, however, so early on people tended to focus on the differences between them rather than the commonalities.

For me, I first really learned about such traditions in a World Religions course in college. I’d never heard of Daoism (or Taoism) before. The Dao, or “way,” pervades ancient Chinese religious thought. There’s a sense of flow to it—one of the main ideas is not to resist the way, but to bring yourself in line with it. Doing so helps you to realize that you need not be rich to be happy. Sufficiency is, well, sufficient. Meanwhile in the west, Christianity mostly bought into greedy consumerism. Our happiness is measured by what we have. And having, we want more. I’ve been reading about Daoism recently, and it occurs to me perhaps there are some accidental Daoists here in the west. This reading made me think of my father.

I can’t speak much for who he was, since I barely knew him. I only saw him once as an adult, before he died. For a brief moment he took me into his apartment. He owned practically nothing. A television, a few things to sit on. A magazine or two. That was about it. Did he want to acquire more? I didn’t know him well enough to ask. He was raised as a Christian, and I do not know what his religious beliefs were, if any. Thinking back to that experience, however, was the result of reading about Daoism. Being content with little. Not all of us are cut out for monastic life, but my visits to such communities have always left me with the sense that having less is more than enough. I know I’m over-simplifying here. I’m not an expert on Daoism. I’m certainly not an expert on my father. I do believe, however, that things can weigh us down. And even Christianity, read in a certain light, agrees.

Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.

Fishers of Cars

The car was drunkenly weaving across lanes in substantial traffic along Interstate 80. Erratic driving that, although not breathalyzer confirmed, suggested impaired operating. It’s something you never like to see. We stayed behind the vehicle, knowing that it was safer to keep such a car in view rather than attempting to overtake it when the driver veered into the left lane. Since the same muted colors recur on vehicles these days, we needed a quick way to identify this driver at a glance. The Jesus fish on the rear served the purpose well. This situation struck me as a kind of parable, although it really did happen. One of my brothers is a driver by profession. He often tells me that if someone cuts him off in heavy New Jersey traffic, more often than not the car bears a Jesus fish. WWFD?

The ostensible purpose of the Jesus fish is to witness to the world “here is what a true Christian does.” While the New Testament, if I recall, indicates that the true believer puts others before him or herself, the rule of the road is somewhat less spiritual than that. None of us are saints when we get behind the wheel. We’ve got places to go and the drive isn’t really much fun with thousands of other cars bunging things up constantly. Still, if you take the extra effort to put that Jesus fish on your car, aren’t you signaling that this driver holds her or himself to a higher standard? Or maybe the fish is a talisman, like “Baby on Board,” that will somehow protect from the careless, aggressive driver thinking only of self.

The irony here is not that the driver is making poor, or aggressive decisions behind the wheel—let the one without sin cast the first stone—but rather that s/he implicates Jesus in the act. There’s a ready, steady market in evangelical paraphernalia. The WWJD bracelet keeps the question within sight much of the time—but keep your eyes on the road! One of the main problems with the Ichthys symbol is that it is generally on the rump of your car. Out of sight, out of mind. As you finish that last drink before climbing in behind the wheel, the fact that your personal Lord and Savior is being announced to the world may just slip your sodden mind momentarily. The real question is whether a car is the best place to announce your religious commitments. It was the the man in front of the fish, after all, who said “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Except in heavy traffic, of course.

Sideliners

Sidelines can be interesting places to sit. You’re close to the action, and you’re privileged with a close view that few others have. You can’t, however, play the game. Sidelines are familiar to biblical scholars. I can’t count the number of times and/or ways the input of those who spend their lives trying to comprehend the Good Book are, well, sidelined. In the publishing world those who work with Bibles are simply ignored by most others, despite the enormous revenue Bible sales generate. In the academy religion departments overall are fair game for any potential budget cuts. And since what religion study survives tends to be intercultural, the Bible faculty are deemed somewhat less necessary than other sub-disciplines. It’s easy to forget that Christianity is the largest organized religion in the world and that some 2.2 billion persons claim that name. The Bible’s their foundational book. It tells us what motivates them. And yet, it’s easier simply to ignore the whole thing. Then something insane like an Evangelical-fueled Trump election, and everyone continues to say, “we can safely ignore this.”

I recently saw an article by scientists which explored why people engage in dangerous behaviors. The main idea was that although we know certain things are bad for us individually or as a planet, we still do them. We do them with the full knowledge that they’re deadly and will likely hasten our demise. Ignoring religion (and in the case at hand, the Bible) is very much like that. A well-armed true believer can ruin your day pretty quickly. Religion, in recent years, has generated over $82 billion in revenue per year. At least those in the dismal science ought to sit up and take notice of that! Hey, for once, the numbers are with us! Statistically, religion is very important. Sounds like a good thing to pretend doesn’t exist.

Having grown up a Fundamentalist, I often ponder this state of affairs. The Bible, we all knew, was the most important thing. Studying it formally does tend to force new ways of considering it, but few Bible scholars would want to dismiss the Good Book out of hand. It still means too much to too many people simply to ignore. Far safer is the proper handling of Holy Writ. This is much easier to instill when institutions support it. It really is a necessary kind of education. Still, it gets sidelined for industries with lesser profits and lesser baggage. I grew into a career defined by the Bible, but even if I hadn’t I’d hope that I’d be able to recognize that some things just shouldn’t be ignored. Yet I’m on the sidelines cheering on those who consider such a career a tragic mistake.

To Whom?

The other day I heard someone use the phrase, “preaching to the converted.” I’ve read enough anthropology to know that regional variations on folk sayings exist, but I’ve always heard this as “preaching to the choir.” What’s the difference, you ask? Actually, these two statements imply very divergent things. It all comes down to preaching. Preaching is what clergy do. (I know I’m over-simplifying, but bear with me.) And where do ministers preach? That’s right, in the church. Aha, you might say, those in the church are both converted and some, anyway, are in the choir! What’s the difference? The difference is the choir has to be there. It’s an issue of volition.

Since this isn’t eighteenth-century New England (at least not yet, although the current administration is trying to make it so) there are no real consequences for not attending church. Many of the converted exercise their God-given right not to worship. The choir, however, has committed itself to being there. They’re more than converted. They’re the faithful. The minister, in other words, doesn’t really need to preach to them at all. Turn this around. Preaching isn’t necessarily to convert someone so much as to improve their lifestyle. Preaching to the unconverted is actually evangelizing. “Evangelizing the converted,” though, just doesn’t have the same ring to it now, does it? Preaching to the choir is applicable to the rest of the church goers who show up regularly. They’re not, however, in the same league with the choir.

I decided to research the history of the saying. It turns out that the original is “preaching to the converted.” The saying originated in England in the 1800s. “Preaching to the choir” appears in America in the 1970s. Perhaps the choir emerged as a new ecclesiastical force in twentieth-century America. Some of the clergy I know would certainly agree with this assessment. They’re really a smaller subset of the converted, after all. The committed converted. Of course, it’s a distinct possibility that I’m spouting nonsense here. If that’s the case, I’m probably preaching to the choir.

Crossing Beowulf

Beowulf, from Wikimedia Commons.

Slaying dragons is costly. In much of the western hemisphere the ultimate metaphor for the perils that await humanity in a world imperfectly understood, dragons were the bane of the medieval imagination. And earlier. Dragons are mentioned in the Bible and were stock creatures in the bestiaries of the Mesopotamian imagination. And, of course, it is a dragon that causes Beowulf’s fall. Almost a type of a latter-day Gilgamesh, Beowulf likewise holds an early, if non-negotiable place in the western canon. In this month’s Atlantic, James Parker discusses the dynamic of this pre-Christian poem in our post-Christian context. Specifically he addresses how modern renditions, perhaps inadvertently, Christianize the story. A popular subject for movies and graphic novels, Beowulf is a monster-hunting story that begs for baptism.

The story itself is familiar to most alumni of American high schools. Perhaps before we’re ready to be exposed to Old English, we find ourselves assigned a story of drinking, rage, and violence. Make no mistake—Beowulf is a hero. A deliverer like the judges of old. Grendel, after all, is the spawn of Cain, the evil seed that continues into a moody world of stygian nights and dismal swamps. Parker’s brief article demonstrates the reception history of the poem nicely. It also raises the question of what’s going on when heroes fight monsters. When the Christian imagery that’s deeply embedded in our culture comes to play Beowulf can’t help but become a Christian monster slayer just as Grendel becomes the enemy of God. All of this may be quite unintentional. What we see, however, isn’t imaginary. That’s the way reception history works.

Parker suggests that, although Beowulf is a pre-Christian poem, the cosmic order laid out in the tale is a Christian one. Even today in a post-Christian America it’s vital to understand how important religion remains. It’s not so much that churches are overflowing (unless they’re mega-churches stating that you can get rich by attending) as it is a recognition that centuries of Christian identity can’t help but leave their mark on culture. We see crosses in the handles of swords. Or even in the grid patterns laid out in city streets. Telephone poles. What’s so remarkable is that we see such things naturally and think nothing of it as we go on our secular way. There may be monsters out there. What may not be so obvious is that in slaying them we’re engaging in a religious activity as old as Gilgamesh, if not as obvious as a crucifix held up to a vampire in the present day.

Need to Know

It’s particularly encouraging when the first book I finish in a year is an important one. I try my best to read books that won’t disappoint, but the thing about books is that you sometimes can’t tell until the end. In any case, I can highly recommend Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know—And Doesn’t. It’s easy to acquire blinders, especially when you stick with a subject through childhood, three degrees, and a career of teaching and editing in that same field. You kind of think other people can see how important it is. Having grown up religious, I was well aware that other people didn’t share my family’s convictions, but it was pretty clear about the continuing uproar of prayer being deemed unconstitutional in public schools that many Americans were concerned about religion. Or so it seemed in my small town.

Prothero, a specialist in American religion, demonstrates in this book just how little we really know about religion—any religion. He traces this lack of knowledge to the Second Great Awakening and the conviction that belief required Christians not to study religion, but to feel it. This “ethic” of knowing little about what you believe, he suggests, became dominant and has reigned ever since. Clearly, watching the results of the presidential election, many people have no idea what Christianity has historically taught, or in official channels, continues to teach. They know that they feel it is right, but they can’t quite say what “it” is. Most Americans fare even worse when it comes to other religions. As a culture we remain very religious. It’s just that we don’t know what we say we believe. Belief has become politicized and it bears little resemblance to what its historic roots have been.

Critics will say that of course people like Prothero—he’s a religion professor after all—will say that we should know about his subject. The truth, however, goes much deeper than that. The world is a very religious place and we have effectively blocked our children’s way to learn about it. Religion motivates billions of lives, but most Americans know very little about it. Those of us who’ve spent our lives studying it are often condemned to stints of unemployment because what we know is deemed unimportant to Wall Street. Religious Literacy, although the statistics are a bit outdated after nearly a decade, remains more relevant than ever. The potential to learn about religion is widely available. The spirit may be willing, but the mind, it seems, is weak.