Overlooked Scripture

In this great Trump Tower of capitalism in which we all live, I often wonder about the overlooked Bible. Fundamentalist Trump supporters certainly know how to thump it, but do they know how to read it? This thought occurred to me as I was rereading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 recently. The narrative isn’t hidden or obscure. Here’s how it goes: the earliest Christians were communists. Literally. Peter himself was involved. After Jesus’ ascension, his followers pooled their resources and divided them up by how much each person needed. Ananias and Sapphira, a husband and wife duo, sold their property and presented the money to Peter and the collective. They held a little back, though, just in case. The result? Peter saw through the lie and they died instantly. The point was pretty clear—Christians don’t hold anything back for themselves. They live communally.

Obviously, this didn’t last very long. Let the one without a savings account cast the first stone. In fact, by half-way through Acts the holy experiment is already forgotten. Nevertheless, it was the ideal. Christians were people who took care of one another, especially the poor. By the time communist governments (which didn’t work because people are people) took hold, Christians were dead-set against them. Okay, well, they were godless—but the idea behind them was biblical. Today any form of socialism is soundly condemned by most evangelicals. Apparently they don’t read the book of Acts any more. There was no moment when this commune was castigated in Holy Writ. It simply vanishes without a whimper to be condemned as utterly evil in these latter days.

The wedding between capitalism and Christianity has proven an enduring one. Capitalism allows, indeed pretty much mandates, selfishness. It’s difficult to live in such a system and not feel entitled to more than you already have. Who ever says, “No thanks, I don’t need a raise. I have enough”? Those who attempt communal living are generally called “cults” and the suspicion is omnipresent that the leader isn’t holding (usually) himself to the same standards as the pedestrian members. The story in Acts 5, however, is even more extreme. After Ananias lies to Peter and dies on the spot, his wife Sapphira comes in just as those who buried her husband are returning. Peter baits her with a question about how much money they received for their property and when she concurs with her late husband, the undertakers have a second job for the day. This is a faith taken seriously. It was bound not to last.

Sorry about That, Chief

What’s worth $20,000? An apology. That figure may require some adjustment for inflation, but back in the days when I was taking conflict management training it was right. Our teachers informed us that court decision costs were lowered by $20,000 when a client apologized. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that money should be necessary for an apology. Nevertheless, in a world motivated by money, this is a factor to keep in mind. With some of the very late apologies that have come out in recent years (the church apologizing to Galileo, and to the “witches” executed in the Middle Ages) comes the realization that too late is, perhaps, better than never. Often in cases such as these, a religious bravado just can’t back down. Doctrine is doctrine and you can’t change it without losing face. This doesn’t just impact large bodies like the Vatican, either. Lots of religious groups have apologies that they could, and should, make.

Grove City College is a small school. It has, from reports I see, become more conservative than it was when I was a student there. One suspects there may have been some apologies due over the years. I was surprised, however, to find GCC mentioned in the Christian Century. A former professor at my alma mater was fired for refusing to register for the draft in World War II, according to the story. Howard Pew, chair of Sun Oil (and the board at Grove City) accused him of being a communist. Now, over half a century later, the former president of the college delivered an apology to his door. That’s a nice gesture. Former faculty are generally, in my experience, shoved far from mind. We don’t like to treat those who educate too well, some times.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

For the unapologetic professor, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes not from humbled administrators, but from grateful students. On very great occasions I still hear from some of mine. It makes up for some of the pitfalls along the way of an academic life. Teaching religion, naturally, puts you in some company that you might not expect. Of all anathema topics, teaching about being decent to other people earns you the most rancor. So it is, unfortunately frequently the case among our educational institutions. Pew, whose shadow still loomed large over campus in my undergraduate days, never personally apologized. Those with plenty of money to spare seldom do. $20,000 is not too much to pay to feel completely justified in taking another person’s livelihood away. We can only hope for a better educated future.

Dr._Strangelove_poster

In honor of the fifty-year anniversary of the release of Dr. Strangelove this past week, my wife and I sat down to rewatch the movie this weekend. Psychologically, as Kubrick found out, dark humor was the only way to deal with the sense of doom that pervaded the world into which those of my generation were born. Nuclear weapons had been developed and the Cold War was in full swing. Somehow, even in small-town America, I didn’t find Communism to seem so awful. After all, I grew up reading the Bible and it sounded quite a bit—at least in theory—like the arrangement the apostles had made in the book of Acts. The idea of private property, the very spine and muscular system of capitalism, was considered a sure way to lead to God’s kingdom not being established on earth. Nevertheless, that is the way, as the phrase goes, that the money went. And Communism threatened the right of one percent to horde all the money, so we were ready to annihilate all human life for it. Talk about taking your marbles and going home! No child should grow up knowing the meaning of the phrase “mutually assured destruction.”

Dr. Strangelove has held up well for the half-century since its release. Despite the thawing of the Cold War, the big chill isn’t over yet. And humor still seems the only way to keep sanity and deal with the state of the world. There are still many General Turgidsons out there (some of whom have held very high government offices, and this is no joke). There are at least, as far as we know, fewer General Rippers. So we hope. As the bomber crew nears its target, Major Kong goes over the contents of the government issued survival kit, among which is a comically small Russian Phrase Book and Bible combined. Kubrick, a master of satire, has the godlessness of Communism thrown time and again across the lips of the hawks. It is better to kill everyone than to allow the godless to rule. Even the Bible, however, shares space with the Russian phrasebook, making us wonder whether it is a tool of conversion or an admission of inevitability. Still the bomber, piloted by a Texan, flies on.

Perhaps the biggest moral dilemma we face is our ability to destroy hope. Capitalism promises opportunity to all. Like many who grew up poor, however, I have found lies hidden in plain sight. It is not easy to move ahead if you choose to mire yourself in debt to get an education. In fact, if you lose a job in higher education you can easily find yourself adrift for a decade or more, not earning any retirement money and being frequenly sought out by your local universities as an adjunct instructor. In fact, at many points your career might look like the end of the world. So it is that I take great comfort in settling down to watch Dr. Strangelove again. At least it is an honest movie, and that hasn’t changed in the past half-century. And I think I may have been wrong about how few General Rippers there really are.

Books on Wheels

Some unexpected serendipities transport you to childhood. Somewhere on Interstate 80 I passed a bookmobile. The notion felt strangely old-fashioned in this days of Nooks and Kindles. Indeed, a Kindlemobile would have been no less surprising. The idea, I recall, that someone cared enough about my little school to drive a bus full of books right up to it, made me feel special. I mean, these were books—for me! I don’t recollect ever checking any out since it was the ’60’s and everything communal had a strangely communist cast to it. We couldn’t afford many books. Indeed, growing up, we didn’t have a proper bookshelf anywhere in the house. When I began to buy books, I kept them in a cheap suitcase. The only trips I made, really, were in my mind.

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In Manhattan I occasionally see the Mitzvah Tank. New York is often thought of as one of the most literate cities around. Even here, books can come to your door. With chutzpah. Religions, at least many of them, coalesced around books. Sacred writings are among the omnipresent symbols that you’ve come into religious territory. The act of writing itself is somehow holy, even to the most secular, beyond the most cynical. We share our minds through our fingers and others are invited to see, or at least to glimpse, what might be going on inside this three-pound universe locked in our craniums.

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What would I put in a bookmobile? The other day my family began putting together a list of the influential authors in our lives. We all read quite a bit, and the list grew lengthy rather quickly. What would be in the canon of a Bible for the twenty-first century? What books would we want others to share? Ironically, many would find religious books objectionable on some level or another. The armored personnel carrier of Christian soldiers might well set us on the run. Nevertheless, with enough reading even the extremes can be viewed in perspective. On this highway I’ve found a kindred spirit, and when books are coming your way, it is a mitzvah indeed.

Blame it on the Rain

I’ve been on the losing side of my share of elections (although it feels like far more than my share), but I’m amazed at the character of the GOP that has come through these last few days. The quote that keeps running through my mind comes from The Dark Knight when the Joker says to the Chechen that if they cut him up and fed him to his hounds, “then we’ll see how loyal a hungry dog really is.” Blame has been flying thick and fast, but one thing I don’t hear any Tea Partiers suggesting is that Hurricane Sandy was sent by God to seal the election for Obama. Hurricane Katrina may have been sent by God to wipe out the sinners in New Orleans, but when Sandy gave a chance for Obama to show his true colors, it was just a freak storm. I’ve never been a fan of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s bully governor. During Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, however, I was very impressed how he handled the situation. He showed a rare side full of compassion for those who were suffering. He vowed to help President Obama make things right again. When the storm of the election was over, however, Christie’s own party verbally crucified him for doing the right thing. Does this not show us just what white privilege spawns?

Turning back the clock is an exercise best left for post-apocalyptic scenarios of rebuilding society and the occasional spring or fall weekend. As our world makes progress—and yes, it is slowly making it—we must constantly reassess the situation. The ethics of the 1950s favored white men, the mores were blithely uninformed that an entire world exists outside this strange isolationism that could only be broken when Communists threatened our way of life. We are over half-a-century beyond that: the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Cuban missiles are gone, and those seeking to move to America are by and large the tired, the poor, and those yearning to breathe free. Not all of them are “white.” Not all of them are male. They are, like the rest of us, human beings.

I have never wished want or deprivation on anyone. I know what moderate want feel like (I lost an entire day of my college education searching for three dollars that fell out of my pocket, wondering how I would make it through the week without it). I have spent several years of my life tip-toeing around unemployment, and sometimes falling into that crevasse for a year or two at a time. Each time I claw my way out I earnestly wish that no one would ever have to face that. A political party that puts such a strong emphasis on giving up all the good we’ve managed to obtain, and cries about health care that doesn’t even approach the humane, universal care available in just about every other “first world” nation, is a party in need of serious, prolonged soul-searching. On this day when we honor veterans who, despite personal differences, stood side-by-side for the good of their country, perhaps those attacking their own might in days of privilege spend a few moments in serious thought.

Blame it on the rain…

Religion Underground

Imagine a world where the affluent live in lofty houses and the poor, working class citizens trudge to long, dreary, factory shifts in order to keep the system working from their underground world. Although it’s not exactly post-recession America, it is not too hard to imagine. On my final day of vacation from relative unemployment, I watched Metropolis for the first time. A 1927 silent film, this movie of a dystopian world run by an unsympathetic ruling class is experiencing somewhat of a revival. Panned by early critics, the film is now often categorized as a classic of the silent era. It was also the most expensive silent movie ever filmed. Shot in Germany between the two world wars, the story follows a surface dweller who has fallen in love with a troglodyte. It even has robots.

This Fritz Lang film fits in this blog because of its many biblical references and themes. Freder, the protagonist, falls in love with Maria, a working-class preacher among the underground laborers. Following Maria to the underworld, Freder sees the gargantuan machinery that runs the lives of the poor, and when workers die in an accident he calls out “Molech!” Molech, the putative god of child sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, is shown as a fiery factory door consuming the forlorn men who dutifully march inside. Maria, however, teaches love and patience in suffering. In an underground cathedral she is the sole cleric long before most denominations recognized women as ministers. She compares the skyscrapers of the rich to the tower of Babel and insists that a mediator will come. With its strange blend of Christian and communist themes, this film made a significant impact in its time.

In our own day of entrepreneurship with faux-Christian backing it goes unnoticed that the Christianity of the first century was what might be called communistic. According to the book of Acts, early Christians keep their goods in common to ensure that everyone had what they needed. Among the disciples, Judas kept the common purse. What marked these early Christians as exceptional in the eyes of their earthly overlords was the concern that they had for one another—selfishness had no part in their religion. When Christianity became the religion of empire the lure of worldly goods distorted it almost beyond recognition. Christian industrialists built the tower of Babel with its leering Molech beneath the surface of the ground. Judas, it seems, has become the ideal role model for such a religion.

Maria's underground cathedral