No matter how early you go to bed on Sunday night, Monday morning comes too early. The only thing that makes my long, penitential commute survivable is the book that will take me away for an hour or more on the way to the city. At the Port Authority Bus Terminal it’s pretty obvious that people are in no hurry to get to work as they shuffle along at a speed that says, “I’m taking the subway, so why rush?” The subway doesn’t go near where I’m headed and it is a small hike in the concrete forest. Actually, parts of Midtown smell more like a zoo on a Monday morning. I try to get through as quickly as possible. So when I guy steps in front of me I try to dodge around to catch the light across 8th Avenue. He doesn’t move, but hands me a slip of paper and recites, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” First thing on a Monday morning. He got out of bed to tell frustrated commuters his personal credo. I stuff the yellow paper in my pocket and try to avoid kamikaze taxis all the way across town.
I’m always curious about those who brave the crowds of New Babylon with the news that they have the truth. I pull the paper from my pocket. I decided to check out the website on the cheap tract. It seems that the Church of Bible Understanding (it seemed to be all in small caps) has formed a splinter group and is wondering why, despite the grace of God, it isn’t growing like in New Testament times. I did notice that I was visitor 2429, according to their web counter. There seemed to be a lot of complicated history to wade through and this was a Monday morning, after all. The main point seems to be that you don’t need all this churchy stuff, but just belief in Jesus. Over this, it seems, churches split.
I have to wonder about the constantly splintering composition of the Christian tradition. Recent scholarship suggests that there was no unity at the very beginning. According to the Bible even Peter and Paul didn’t always agree. Although there may have been a very roughly unified church under Constantine, the outer-lying reaches started developing ideas that didn’t always sit well with Rome. And this was well before the Reformation. Since Luther’s theses, the number seems to have grown exponentially. Well, maybe not exponentially, but I am concerned for the spiritual well being of my fellow hive animals on this island made of schist. It might be easier, though, if we agreed to disagree. Nobody has the truth that will convince all others. And for evangelization purposes, getting in somebody’s way on a Monday morning may not be the best proselytizing technique.
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.
Dante Alighieri was curious as to Heaven and Hell. Like most mortals, he wasn’t sure of his way around and so he needed a guide. Descending to the nether regions, he enlisted the services of Virgil. Virgil is best know for his epic poem The Aeneid, the early Latin account of the Trojan War. I’ve often wondered why Dante chose this particular writer as the “good pagan” who might lead him through the inferno without becoming ensconced within it. Then I found out about Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. In addition to The Aeneid, Virgil wrote The Eclogues, or idylls of rustic life. In the fourth of these he included what some early Christians considered to be a pagan prophecy of the birth of a special child, although Virgil was never a Christian and indeed overlapped with Jesus by a decade or two. He is the author of the Roman national epic, as Aeneas was believed to have escaped Troy and gone on to found Rome. Virgil tells the tale. What would he be doing, predicting Rome’s spiritual conqueror?
Virgil; photo credit, A. Hunter Wright, Wikicommons
When Rome became Christian, under the knowing gaze of Constantine, the fourth Eclogue of Virgil was reinterpreted as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. You see, the special child born ushers in a golden age, and what could be more golden than imperial Rome? Virgil’s foresight suggested him to Dante as a reliable guide through the infernal regions where, despite his suspect religion, he never falters. This whole episode once again highlights just how influential Christianity was to become even in the secular world. Prophecy can be read back into any significant passage, biblical or not, and new religions are founded all the time on such a basis. Such is the power of the written word. It is not just Mormons who baptize those who don’t believe.
Rationally we know that Virgil did not predict the coming of Jesus some three decades in advance. Yet, even such a brilliant scholar as Dante Alighieri was swept along by the tide of belief that had convinced the eternal city of its heavenly pedigree. All roads lead to Rome, and all prophecies point to Bethlehem. Beatrice was, however, a real woman, who, Dante believed, was tasked with revealing Heaven to him. He fell in love with her when he was but nine, and when he married it was to another woman, pre-arranged by his family. Beatrice was married to different man and yet she would succeed where Virgil had failed. Ever after it would be known as the Divine Comedy indeed.
Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.
Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.
That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster
Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.
Some professors are more creative than mine ever were. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Even today “old school” means getting it done the arduous, nose-to-the-grindstone way. A friend of mine, however, is in Turkey where a class on social, political and religious relations has her involved in a role playing game (RPG in internet-speak) where the students take on the roles of the participants at the Council of Nicaea and argue the perspectives of those parties. What a great way to learn what minutiae set ablaze entire worlds! For those of you who don’t follow ecumenical councils, Nicaea was the big one. Depending on whom you trust, there were seven ecumenical councils that early Christians accepted, although others had gone their own direction before the first council (Nicaea) even began. Historians are now aware that Christianity was never a unified religion, just a varying number of winners and losers vying for who had the right to call themselves the true followers of Christ.
Constant Constantine keeps the halo.
Nevertheless, the Council of Nicaea was one of the pivot-points on which all of history in the western world turns. Seem like a sweeping generalization? It is. But an honest one. Nicaea was the opportunity for the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to set in motion the swirling whirlpool of politics and religion that has never truly left the world ever since. Already before 325 C.E. there had been endless bickering about who Jesus really was, when Easter should be celebrated, which books belonged in the Bible (that most political of books), and who had authority over whom. The big question was really the relationship of Jesus to the Father, or, the first instance of “who’s your daddy?” Over questions like these, given history’s long view, thousands of people have died.
It’s not unusual to hear that the Council of Nicaea was the last time all Christians agreed on the major points. Many churches still recite the Nicaean Creed on a regular basis as a symbol of that unity. It is clear, however, already from the period of Paul’s letters (the earliest Christian literature) that differences of opinions had arisen among the first generation of disciples. Those we quaintly call Gnostics were among the earliest believers and they managed to survive, transmogrified, past all of the authoritative councils of the church. The very idea of ecclesiastical authority is one of power. Who has the might to make right? And it was a chance to be seen among the ecclesiastical elite. Nicaea left out, most famously, the Arians. And if the media is anything by which to judge contemporary Christianity, the majority of the Religious Right would fall into that camp as well. Recite with me now, “I believe in…”
Despite the extreme antipathy shown toward religion by the educational establishment, the Chronicle of Higher Education doesn’t shy away from the topic. In the March 1 edition of The Chronicle Review, a piece by Candida Moss presents one of the uncomfortable facts of religious history to the academic world. Many of us who are “specialists” have known for quite some time that the record for mass persecution among early Christians is sketchy at best. In “The Myths Behind the Age of Martyrs,” Moss reveals that historical documents don’t present the first few centuries of Christendom as quite the blood-bath that early hagiographies do. It is true that perceptions vary depending on one’s point of view. If your auntie were thrown to the lions, it might look like everyone you knew was being persecuted. If you were a Roman historian, the numbers might seem small in comparison with, say, those pesky Carthaginians, heathens the lot of them. Still, it was this persecuted self-image that left a lasting imprint on Christianity. Until Constantine, anyway. When Christianity became imperial, it didn’t hesitate to get medieval on a few posteriors.
As Moss points out, early Christians (as well as Jews and those of other bookish traditions) rewrote their stories over time. Even altering the Bible—not yet the Holy Bible—was fair game. The whole discipline of textual criticism grew up to answer the question of what the original Bible likely said. As soon as believers take their writings as factual, however, the story will change. Were early Christians persecuted? Almost certainly. By the tens of thousands that tradition asserts? Less likely. The Romans were practical. Like most domineering classes, lording it over someone isn’t nearly as satisfying when your subjects are dead. You want that superior feeling? Keep the masses in servitude. But alive. That’s not to say that it didn’t feel like everyone you knew was being murdered for trying to do the right thing.
When I was little, I was taught that it is more important to put others’ needs and wants in front of your own. It is a basic Christian teaching. Somewhat naively, I approached the academic empire with that simple basis deeply embedded in my mind. I didn’t realize just how often others would use this trait to their own advantage. Other Christians as well as the non-religious are happy to take from the willing giver. This didn’t prepare me well for life in the business world where, I am learning, the delight in taking from the giver has only grown stronger over the centuries. So I end each day spent and weary and feeling like I’ve been thrown to the lions. Not literally. Still, I believe in the plain idea that if we all treated others’ needs before our own the world would be a much better place. I’ve never outgrown my idealism. Until others join in, however, I’m sitting in the stands trying hard not to watch what the lions are doing down below.
Christian dominionists emulate the Roman Empire, it seems. The Viewpoint in last week’s Time magazine, entitled “In God We Trust,” points out several of the objectives of the dominionist camp. Taking their cue from a decidedly modern and western understanding of Genesis 1, this sect believes the human control over nature to be a divine mandate in which our species dominates the world, with divine approval. As Jon Meacham points out, that dominion does not end at other animal species, but includes control of the “non-Christian” as defined by their own standard. This non-negotiable “Christianity” is a religion guided by utter selfishness and self-absorption. So thorough is this directive that those indoctrinated in it cannot recognize Christians that do not share its perspective as part of the same dogmatic species. It is a frightening religious perspective for a nation founded on the principle of religious freedom.
Rehearsing the rhetoric from Rick Perry’s “the Response” rally, Meacham rightly points out that when dominionists quote the Bible it is most important to note what the Bible does not say. Herein lies the very soul of the movement—filling in the void where God does not talk with human desires and ambitions. As any good marketer knows, however, packaging can sell the product. Introduce a rhetoric that claims to be biblical to a nation where most people have never read the Bible and smell the recipe for success. People want to believe, even if what they think they believe is not what it claims to be. Christianity is claimed by so many vastly differing factions as to have been drained of its meaning. This is the danger in the game of injecting religion into politics. Surely the Perrys and Palins and Bachmanns know what they believe, but they do not say it aloud, for their Christianity does not coincide with the various forms of the religion advocated by the churches historically bearing the torch of Christ’s teachings, insofar as they might be determined.
Dominionism is nothing new. Even the most pristine believer must see that Constantine had more than a warm fuzzy feeling in his heart when he adopted a foreign religion and fed it to his empire. No, Christianity was an effective, non-violent means of control as well as a way of achieving life after death. Rome was nothing without dominion. The parallels with the United States have been noted by analysts time and again. As we watch the posturing of political candidates wearing some form of their faith on their sleeves, the unsuspecting never question what might be up those sleeves. It is fairly certain that when the parties sit down at the table and the cards are dealt, it won’t be Bibles that we find scattered there. This is not a kingdom of God’s making. When dominionists take over all others must scan the horizon for the advent of the Visigoths who will not be dominated.
Celebrating the four hundredth birthday of the King James Bible, last month’s Harper’s magazine featured seven popular writers giving their take on various passages from the Bible. Noting the Bible more or less gave the English language its shape, this little exercise in eisegesis represents, in small measure, the power of the Bible even today. While many lament that America is no longer Bible-centered, with its misuse and abuse in the political arena the Bible still seems to be the heavyweight champion of the country, albeit altered through the eyes of certain key players. I was happy to note Harper’s chose novelists and poets to respond rather than theologians, biblical scholars, or—God help us—televangelists or politicians (frequently the same thing). What emerges is a tapestry that alike puts biblical scholars’ teeth on edge and makes fundamentalists wince.
Novelist Howard Jacobson looks at the creation story and takes the angle that God is a lonely artist. Writes Jacobson on the creation of light: “It’s good because it reveals an idea. The artist isn’t obligated to explain what that idea is.” Here, in the words of a non-specialist (can one say “amateur” of an accomplished novelist?) lies the heart of the matter. Art is creation and creation must be interpreted. Anyone who has undertaken a creative enterprise knows the feeling—the casual, disinterested glance at your work hurts. Any artist wants to be appreciated. Once the metaphor of God’s authorship of the Bible is recognized, there is a group of human artists hiding somewhere outside the annals of history. One of the great mysteries of the Bible is that we know very little about who wrote it (with the exception of Paul in the Christian Scriptures.)
The Bible is a work of art on a broad canvas. Today it is frequently criticized for the abuses it endures, but if we allow it its original purpose the view should become more sympathetic. The Bible was composed by individuals struggling with ideas. For millennia it served as a useful guide to the human experience until the church became politically powerful during the reign of the emperor Constantine. From that point on, deep knowledge of the Bible became power. For centuries the church guarded that power, keeping it in the hands of the clergy. Now that the Bible has become democratized, it threatens to take over democracy itself. Out there, somewhere unseen, the original artists are snickering as they chink their glasses and toast their accomplishment—they are writers who changed the world. But I suspect Paul is there too, warning them against partying too much.
In a stunning display of alacrity, over the weekend I viewed the movie Mirrors only three years after it was released. Since I watch horror films with a view to how they portray religion, I was preparing myself for disappointment when well over halfway through no overt, or even subtle references seemed to have been made to any holy topic. As Ben Carson, security guard, discovers that the mirrors of his night-watch building are haunted, the story seemed to be evolving into the standard ghost movie. When the missing character of Anna Esseker was finally found, I breathed a sigh of relief—she was living in a convent (because there were no mirrors there). What I supposed was a ghost movie was really a demon movie, and I found yet another example of how fear and religion interact.
Since I’m currently preparing a program for a local church on the way that Christianity is represented in the movies, I’ve been rewatching a couple of standard films to gauge the scope of this interaction. So this weekend I also watched Constantine. This has never been one of my favorite movies, but as imbued as it is with Christian mythology it cannot really be ignored. When Gabriel is explaining to Constantine why he is bringing the devil’s son into the world, I realized that the reason coincided with some of my observations. Gabriel notes that humans need fear to appreciate God. By bringing fear into the world, Gabriel will force humans to become more pious. Intertextuality in the movies.
If I might indulge in some theological (that word makes me shudder) speculation that may not have been intended by the writers/producers, both of these movies utilize the concept that demons are trapped by mirrors. This may be a reflection truer than ever intended—we are our own demons. Mirrors reflect the vanity of visual appeal; our looks fade and our true self remains. Is that self an angel or a demon? Christian tradition states they are one and the same. Demons are only fallen angels. I’ve seen enough horror films to know that religion is not a universal element, but it often does appear in the role of producer of both good and evil. In this sense, at least, the movies are very honest.
With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.
At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.
Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.
In ancient times people were sometimes possessed by gods. They were called “prophets” and they gained a breed of knowledge hidden from most other people. Demons were believed to exist, but they did not possess people. Instead, demons were used as explanations for misfortune, whether malevolently premeditated or not. Demons reflect, in today’s society, the concept of pure evil. Fr. Vincent Lampert, one of America’s 24 official exorcists, visited Montclair State last night to discuss evil, and according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, he believes evil is a reflex of how people treat one another more often than a “figure with the hooves and horns.” No doubt there is a public fascination with demons, but few people understand their religious pedigree or what other explanations may be used to categorize them. According to the paper, Italy claims 300 exorcists – demonstrating that demons show culturally determined characteristics.
The 2005 movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, lays out how science and religion differ on the issue of the demonic. Anneliese Michel, a young German woman, died in 1976 after being subjected to a prolonged treatment of exorcism. Her story was the “inspiration” for the film, and it raises the question of the reality of the demonic in the physical world. Fr. Lampert is more circumspect, noting that real life exorcisms are not as dramatic as those shown in the movies. He does, however, recall having seen a person levitate, but not during an exorcism. The human behavior he’s seen while on duty may all be readily explained by mundane physical and mental phenomena.
What does seem certain in all of this is that demons are not the behooved and behorned antagonists of films like Constantine or countless other graphic-novelesque portrayals of evil. Their Pan-based characteristics hearken back to the days when Christianity had to make plain its dismissal of foreign gods. In the ancient world hooves and horns were symbols of strength generally associated with powerful, if sometimes capricious, deities. In other words, what were one culture’s gods have become another culture’s demons. Movie makers understand the simultaneous revulsion and draw of the demonic character, but it seems that Fr. Lampert strives for a more balanced perspective. Evil has many faces, and most of them do not conform to Hollywood standards. Perhaps if all religions were respected demons would lose their power to torment and people would learn to get along with each other.
The Associated Press today released a story about an Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered in England this summer. The trove, which likely contains at least 1500 items, many of silver and gold, is calculated to cause substantial reassessment of Dark Age England. Leslie Webster, a former curator at the British Museum, suggested that given the nature of the artifacts, new light could be cast on the relationship between warfare and Christianity.
Apart from the obvious deliria of daydreams of wealth that such finds always drag in their cloaks, this treasure once again underscores the connections between religion and violence. The Anglo-Saxons, Germanic invaders of England following the decline of the Roman Empire, had been early converts to Christianity. Even Alaric the Goth was a good Christian, although he had little patience with the oversight of Rome. The recently uncovered hoard contains mostly military trophies, but among the finds was a gold strip reading “Rise up, O Lord, and may thy enemies be dispersed and those who hate thee be driven from thy face” (Numbers 10.35). Already bloggers are drawing comparison with Jules’ quote from the fabricated Ezekiel 25.17 in Pulp Fiction, but the connection of Christianity and conquest is much more intimate than that. Once Christianity became the official Roman religion under Constantine, the imperial imperative took over. It became a religion of conquest. A similar phenomenon occurred after the advent of Islam. The zeal of the converted should never be underestimated.
I'm trying really hard to be the shepherd
So, what are we to make of this scriptural quote among sword knobs and doom sticks? Is it simply more evidence that religions, like the Roman Empire (according to Octavius) “must grow or die”? Those who believe carry a deep-seated fear that their religion might be proven false. On it ride serious (and often eternal) consequences. One way to ensure the quelling of that fear is to silence the heretics who decry the one true faith: take up your swords and nukes and threaten the infidel. The road less traveled, however, is to rise above our insecurities and simply enjoy the ride.