Medical Missionary

So it was this routine medical screening. The scary-looking machine had an open window that said “Laser aperture: do not stare at beam.” Someone had taped a Yankees emblem on the superstructure as well, and I wondered if that caused anybody additional anxiety. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but medical tests bother me a lot. I was glad to get outside, even if it was cold and icy. There’s quite a few medical facilities in our town, so I had walked to this one. On the way home, watching out for ice on the sidewalk, I passed a bus stop. A woman said “Excuse me, but could you spare a dollar or two?” I’d just come from a medical office, I was wearing sweatpants (which I never do unless I’m jogging) and I had no pockets. “Sorry,” I said, “I just came from the doctor, I don’t have anything on me.”

“I’m a missionary,” she said. Without giving me a chance to get away in the chilly air she began to preach a sermon just for me. It was after morning rush hour and nobody else was around. I wondered when her bus would come. I nodded politely and agreed, and took two steps away. Still she continued. After a few minutes I wondered how long this would go on. I’d already told her I agreed with her. She was insistent that Jesus would give me anything I wanted if I confessed my sins every day. “Money, cars, houses…” I had to wonder why she was taking the bus, then. Besides, all I wanted was to get home, and she was preventing that from happening.

Finally I had to turn and leave her mid-homily. I try never to be rude to religious folks. They’re only doing what they’ve been told to do by others. I did wonder what it was about my appearance that didn’t make her believe me. It had been a while since I’d had a haircut. Was it the beard? The sweatpants? The fact I was wearing a black jacket? Ice was everywhere on the sidewalk. This neighborhood is middle aged—sagging a little, with drainage issues. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but sometimes being accosted by religion when you just want to get indoors on a winter’s day, you think even a begging missionary might understand that. I thought back to the scary machine with its little warning sign. Some people are tempted to stare too long into the light. It can affect the way you see. Indeed, if you let your gaze linger, you might just possibly even go blind.

Image credit: Torsten Henning, Wikimedia Commons

Living Undead

Now that autumn is in the air, my thoughts turn to zombies. I’ve read a few monster books lately, and as I pondered the attraction of zombies to the post-modern psyche, I began to wonder if they weren’t becoming, in their own secular way, a religion. Think about it. Zombies, first and foremost, are about resurrection. In a world ruled by rationality and science, we know that resurrection is impossible. What isn’t possible in science may indeed emerge in the world of monsters. The zombie, often not speaking, proclaims a distorted kind of gospel that the end is not really the end. Resurrection is not all that it seems. Zombies are spattered with gore, reminding us that the visceral existence we know as quotidian experience is temporary. Resurrection comes at the loss of a soul. The zombie is the monster of science: the animating principle is no longer spiritual. It’s just physical.

NightoftheLivingDead

Not only do zombies proclaim resurrection, they are the ultimate proselytizers. Their zealous hunger leads them to bite and their biting infects and creates new zombies. Their brainless goal—as they are unthinking consumers—is to convert the entire human world to their point of view. Once the zombies take over completely, there will be nowhere left to go. The way of the undead flesh may be a dead end, but rationality doesn’t always play a role in zealotry. The zombie is all about making more zombies. They are unbelievable, and unbelieving, but they have the making of a mega-religion nonetheless.

As a student of religion, I wonder how belief systems get started. We hold irrational beliefs on any number of things, including our religions. The difference that zombies make is, in real life, nil. And yet we can’t help tuning into the Walking Dead, or watching World War Z. The zombie is the most recognized symbol of the proletariate among the workers of the world—the brainless, soulless drone in the machine. Mega-churches draw in thousands every week for a religion that doesn’t require much intellectual engagement. Keep doing what you’re doing. Think of others once in a while. God really does want you to be rich. And the minions go out and make disciples of all nations. It is a world full of zombies. We see them in our dreams and in our mirrors. And although we think they’re only entertainment, they are oh so much more.

Disarmament

Maybe it’s just where I cast my attention, but debates over belief or unbelief seem to be everywhere these days. The word “militant” is used to describe belief (or lack of belief) systems with a worrying stridency. We want to prove what we believe, with violence, if necessary. So in anticipation of 9/11 Nick Cohen wrote a piece in the Guardian entitled “The phantom menace of militant atheism“. He points out, rightly enough, that you seldom hear of militant atheists being suspected of acts of terrorism. When a bomb goes off, we look for the religion behind it. For each pyromanic a religion can boast, it has a larger number of pacifists, in most cases. As Cohen points out, atheists aren’t blameless—Stalin and Mao remind us of that—but in today’s world of free agent religious ordinance missionaries we seldom, if ever, hear that the atheists have been plotting and planting explosives. In that Cohen is surely right. Humanists (to generalize) tend to hold humanity up, not blow it up.

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Creator:Tadeusz Cyprian (cyfrowe.mnw.art.pl) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There is, however, a strange disconnect that Cohen, and countless others, point(s) out—atheists (and I would broaden this to humanists) are considered immoral. As if the concept of deity were somehow a mark of moral maturity. Of as if a specific belief system were the default for humanity and the rejection of it somehow a willful attempt at evil. Humanists, however, have been around for a long time. We tend to overlook that fact because they weren’t busy plotting to destroy others. Being raised in a religious environment, I didn’t even realize that long before I was born quiet, ethical, good people had come to think that religion was a delusion. Sure, some humanists have weird peccadilloes, but as the headlines remind us, so do the religious. The problem comes in when militants are the measuring rod. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again,” a pacifist once said.

At the root of all this blustering is the unrelenting urge to convert. Those who are truly convinced they’ve found the right way—believing or un—want others to see it their way. Problem is, others want the same thing, the other way around. Apart from Cohen’s observations, I would note that we never hear of tolerant believers or unbelievers attacking anyone. Physically or verbally. The mantra of live and let live applies up to the point that a belief system mandates harm and then the old contradictions begin to resurrect themselves. Some belief systems are, by dint of their very premises, immoral. The majority, however, are just fine. If the zeal for conversion can be kept under control. I can envision a world where evangelical atheists could exist side-by-side with those who believe and don’t believe at the same time. And they might even meet together peacefully if only we would leave the militancy at home.

Eleventh Hour

Religion, as many a charlatan knows, makes a very good investment. History has demonstrated time and again that the confident huckster can easily siphon the money from the gullible in the name of God. What follows does not make any assertions about the character of the people involved. It is, however, a fascinating story.

Cyrus Ingerson Scofield did not have an exactly stellar career. He was raised Episcopalian (which may explain some of it), but upon being drafted into the Confederacy during the Civil War, deserted to become a lawyer in St. Louis. Scofield was forced to resign from his law post because of “questionable financial transactions” which may have included forgery. He was a heavy drinker and abandoned his wife and two daughters. The year of his divorce he remarried. Then he had a conversion experience. Conversion is the ultimate clean wiping of the slate. Any life of dissipation may be excused following a religious experience, eh, Augustine? And furthermore, in the sanctified state the motives of the former reprobate are never questioned.

Scofield went on to join the Congregational Church and to grow wealthy from his Scofield Reference Bible, still a perennial seller, despite his lack of formal theological training. This notoriety was largely because Scofield had adopted another unlikely scheme, dispensational premillennialism. This end-time scheme grew out of the work of John Nelson Darby and later evolved into what would be called Fundamentalism. The idea was that the Bible contained an esoteric roadmap to the future, culminating in the book of Revelation, whereby the blessed could figure out exactly how the end of the world would unfold. As a child I bought a literal roadmap to the end of the world, but having survived several such putative apocalypses, I have grown a tad skeptical about the efficacy of my chart.

Any number of religious leaders have a background of self-promotion and more than a whiff of Phineas Taylor Barnum about them. A converted soul, however, is never to be questioned. Cyrus Scofield adopted Archbishop James Ussher’s dating scheme for the creation of the world in 4004 “BC” and placed it in his reference Bible, forever putting the cast of scriptural authority to a date that would come up in court cases even through the twenty-first century in Dayton, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dover, Pennsylvania, and Washington, DC, wasting tax-payers’ money on a myth of biblical proportions. Often creationists use “stealth candidates” who don’t exactly tell the truth before school board elections. I don’t doubt the depth of the convert’s belief, but I smell money here. And once upon a time literalists believed that it was the root of all evil.

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield...

The reason most Creationists cite 4004 is Scofield…

Metamorphoses

“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” I borrow the opening words from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis since upon rereading it yesterday I found it consonant with much of mythology. Even the title chosen by Kafka resonates with Publius Ovidius Naso’s (Ovid’s) Metamorphoses. Transformation at the hands of the gods. The idea lives on in the concept of conversion, the religious experience of profound change at the behest of God; some claim a willful hand in their conversion while others simply give God the whole credit. Kafka, one of the great existentialist writers of the twentieth century, considers the transformation without the gods and the terrifying results.

Having discovered the existentialists in high school, I was immediately taken by their writings. Characters find themselves cast into a world devoid of meaning, a world that they can’t understand and in which they often suffer unusual consequences. Little did I know that I was in training for my own experience in the academic world. Academia involves a major metamorphosis, one from which the victim cannot return, and after which she or he will find him or herself ineligible for employment. Reading The Metamorphosis as an often displaced instructor who’s only ever received positive evaluations, I saw much in the novel this time that I could not appreciate last time I read it. In short, I had metamorphosized.

Gregor Samsa, discovering he is now a bug, immediately worries about how to get to work. The painful description of his financial worries and ultimate rejection resonated a little too clearly. Is conversion a positive phenomenon? It is difficult to evaluate. In my experience, those who’ve converted tended to have been pretty decent people in the first place. As Ovid notes over and over again in his lengthy epic poem, when the gods make you into something else a sadness will pervade this new existence. If you survive. As Gregor slowly starves to death (in a fate hauntingly similar to Kafka himself) he finds no divine consolation. The situation is absurd—best just come to terms with that. Kafka could have been a struggling academic in the century after his death and he would have found the same situation applies.

Smile, You’re Condemned

Yesterday at Montclair State University, I was sitting in the hallway (my office) prior to class. (Office hours are required, but space is limited for adjuncts such as myself.) While I was reading my book a student walked up and handed me a business card. “For you, sir,” she said politely. The card had a smiley face on it, and was designed to bring cheer.

Then I flipped the card over and found out I was going to Hell. A bit of a downer when you’re about to start class!

It isn’t the first time people have attempted to convert me without bothering to find out what I believe. It seems that if you already hold the zealot’s view you’ll appreciate the gesture of being condemned just to make sure your soul is saved. It is the thought that counts, after all.

The book I was reading was Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a book I’ve known since college but from which I have only taken a tipple until this year. Many scholars of mythology fault Campbell on being too much of a generalist and looking too much for connections where they are not obvious. His language can be florid and mystical, verging on “believer,” for those uncomfortable with any kind of faith. I find Campbell to be a welcome guide, although, as for any guide, I do not believe all he says! One nugget in particular stuck out at me: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” As we find ourselves on Good Friday, only those with eyes firmly shut will disregard Campbell’s wisdom.

I still remember my shock when I first learned that gods, centuries before Jesus, had been dying and rising. What had always been presented to me as a unique historical event actually had a long and venerable prehistory. It suddenly seemed as if the ministers I’d known hadn’t done their homework. Or perhaps they lacked the cognitive finesse to understand Orpheus, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, and even Ishtar, as types of either blatant or obscure resurrection. It is the Campbellian, or nearly universal hope: life prevails over death. As the young lady walked away, I sincerely wished her happiness in the quest she’s only beginning.