Just As I Was

It was kind of a game. A game to teach us about important people, living or dead. The fact that we were playing it in high school history class, taught by one of my favorite teachers, made it even better. Everyone wrote a name on an index card—a person in the news or somebody from American history in the past. A student sat facing the class while the teacher selected a card and held it over the student’s head, so we could all read who it was, all except the chosen one. Then s/he would ask questions to guess whose name was written. I remember very well when the teacher picked up my card and read it. He said “that’s really a good choice!” The name led to a bit of joshing. “Is he alive or dead?” the student asked. “How can you tell?” joked our teacher. It was the one name the selected student couldn’t pin down, no matter how many questions she asked.

It’s fair to say that Billy Graham had a profound influence in my life. As a curious—and very frightened—child, whenever his crusades were on television I would watch, transfixed. I responded to his altar calls at home. Multiple times. My emotions were overwrought and I’d awake the next day feeling redeemed, for a while. I had no real mentors in my Fundamentalism. Ministers preached, but they didn’t explain things. Not to children (what was Sunday School for, after all?). All I knew was that when the rhetoric reached Hell, and the possibility I would die that very night, repentance seemed like the only logical option. The reality of the choice—a black and white one, no less—could not be denied. Either you were or you weren’t.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

As my point of view eventually shifted around to that of my high school teacher—I was in college at the time—I began to realize that Graham’s version of Christianity wasn’t as monolithic as it claimed to be. Once you experience other people’s experience of religion, if you’re willing to listen to them, it’s pretty hard to hold up the blackness and whiteness of any one perspective. Over the years Graham tainted his pristine image in my eyes by his political choices. His son now stands as one of Trump’s biggest supporters. Now that Billy Graham has gone to his reward, I do hope that the Almighty doesn’t hold his mistakes against him. He had no way of knowing that his sermons were terrorizing a little boy in western Pennsylvania into a career track that would never pan out. Largely because other followers of Graham’s so decided. It’s kind of like a game.

Why Crusade?

CrusadeAn invitation to join a crusade is a dicey proposition these days.  Perhaps Pastor Ock Soo Park is not aware of the burdensome theological freight the word carries these days.  The Bible Crusade is, nevertheless, coming up on April Fool’s Day, and, I’m glad to see, admission is free.  The tract I clutch in my gloved hand is more like a pamphlet and it is number 3 in a series, “Woman Caught in Adultery,” causing me to wonder what numbers 1 and 2 might have been.  Still, it’s Good News Publishing, so I suppose it can’t be bad, whatever the topic.  The young lady on Seventh Avenue seem surprised when I accepted the booklet she held out with a simple “Bible Crusade?” invocation.  I often accept what the shills hand out; a more thankless job is difficult to imagine.
 
The concept of biblical crusades has a strong resonance with my youth.  Although I attended the occasional revival at our local church, I never actually went to a crusade.  I did watch Billy Graham, however, on television.  I would sit glued to the screen, hanging on every word of the sermon, feeling once again the flush of my sin and the urgent necessity of repentance, then and there.  I was terrified of never giving enough of my life to the Gospel, of backsliding, of hypocrisy, of Hell itself.  As a youth I had no idea of Graham’s political agenda or of the close friendship he had with Richard Nixon.  For me, it was purely a matter of what I had witnessed on the screen as Beverly Shea lead the repetitive chorus of “Just As I Am” that reduced me to tears every time.  When we were asked to list an important person for history class in high school, I felt compelled to write Billy Graham on my slip of paper, and I wondered why people laughed when no one in the room could manage to guess who it was after 20 hints.  As guileless as a dove, but not as wise as a serpent. 

Crusades are all about conquering territory.  Sometimes, historically, that territory is physical and the violence is palpable.  It is charging fully ahead with the conviction that there is no way you could possibly be wrong, even in the face of others from foreign faith traditions willing to fight to the death over the issue.  It is invasion.  Conquest.  In the name of the prince of peace.  Evangelistic crusades are not much different.  The battlefield may be metaphorical, but it is not less real for all that.  The human psyche is not infrequently victimized in the worldview of utter conviction.  Often the driving force is the same as the Templar on his steed—control of the infidel.  With control, as the Templars soon learned, there is great wealth to be had.  As a poor boy in a run-down house, I never questioned that Billy Graham or any other evangelist deserved the money that accompanied such solemn longing of heartsick souls.  It was self-evident.  Now, standing among the crowds on Seventh Avenue, beneath a huge sculpture of a needle sewing on a gigantic button, I have to wonder about the economics of scale.  Reality is seldom what it seems.

Religion and Its Discontents

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Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”

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Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?

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On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.

Maltese Faction

The Crusades remain one of the most celebrated episodes of religious violence in the history of the church. I am certain that many would put forward other instances of official violence to rival the piecemeal warfare of the Middle Ages, however, the Crusades still jolt many Muslims for their unflappable conviction that God gave the Holy Land to them. Ironically a bit of good emerged from the carnage in the form of sometimes secret orders of knights whose charge was originally to care for injured and sick Christians. Thanks to Dan Brown everyone knows of the Knights Templar. There were, however, several of these orders spanning the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries, and some of them survive today. In Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger a story appeared of the 900th birthday of the Knights of Malta. I don’t recall having heard of them before, but then, it has been many years since my last class in Medieval Christianity. And no wonder—they don’t even appear in Wikipedia under that name.

What is so interesting about the Knights of Malta is that, like the Vatican, they have the authority to act like a country. According to the Associated Press, the knights can issue their own passports, stamps, and money, and have diplomatic relations with real countries and even have observer status in the United Nations. The blurring of the lines between religion and politics, as any student of history knows, has deep roots indeed. The Knights of Malta, however, own no territory (no, their eponymous island isn’t theirs). A nation with no territory. At least the Vatican has its own city. The Knights still exist for their charitable works and, it is to be hoped, not for the conquest of lands legitimately owned by others.

The Sovereign Military Order of Malta (“sovereign” and “military” were omitted in the press), is a sub-branch of the Knights Hospitaller, the oldest surviving chivalric order in the world. It is nice to think that the church might still have a few knights up its sleeves. The concept of chivalry has largely been absorbed into chauvinism, however, and even now the Knights of Malta are men. Along with the Vatican, that makes two entities run completely by males that assert their own sovereignty. In the twenty-first century it would be nice to think that we wouldn’t need monied men in robes in order to help out those in need. But then I’ve always been prone to believe in myths. And knights tend to follow after daze. Crusades, however, have far outlived their putative usefulness.

Good knight?

Good knight?

Not So White

Over the past two decades, an interest in presenting fairy tales more akin to the spirit of the brothers Grimm has blossomed into its own industry. For those of us who were reared on Fractured Fairy Tales, this is a welcome development. Among the more creative approaches to this genre is the 1997 movie, Snow White: A Tale of Terror. Hampered by lack of theatrical release in the United States, this gothic attempt at telling the story in its original, dark form has gone largely unnoticed. I recently viewed the movie for the first time myself, and although the basic storyline is somewhat trite the Grimmesque features redeem it at many points. (Who doesn’t secretly want to see the pretty-boy prince charming thrown out of a castle tower window?) Perhaps the most unexpected addition to the Disneyfied tale we all know is the religious component to the movie.

“Snow White”—never named so in the movie—has been raised by a pious father who wears a cross and insists that she say her prayers and read her Scriptures. Being a local lord, he suppresses ruffians who populate the woods, including a band of not-so-merry men who incorporate some that were tortured for refusing to go on crusade. When the not entirely wicked step-mother needs Lord Hoffman’s blood to raise their stillborn son to life, she lashes him to a crucifix, saying to the corpus that occupies the other side, “now you shall have company.” (Did I mention this is a horror film?) Along with the unexpected twists that those conditioned to happy endings find so disturbing, the film actually contains a subtlety on matters of religion that is frequently missed. It also resists corny dialogue that so often plagues films where the storyline cannot bear any substantial weight.

While it will never be my favorite movie, this particular film was an effective adult retelling of a familiar tale with more depth than the common story might suggest. The Germanic folklore collected by the Grimm brothers often reveals a depth of insight into humanity that is bleached out by Disney’s bright colors and cheerful smiles. It is more true to the human experience. The scene that remains seared in my mind is where one of the seven miners (only one is a dwarf—another is actually a friar) is revealed to have been disfigured by crusaders off to liberate the Holy Land. Refusing to participate, he had to watch his family burned at the stake and had a red-hot iron cross pressed to one side of his face. (Did I mention this is a horror film?) As in the days of Grimm and continuing into our own, the church continues to scar many even as it attempts to heal others.