Secret Religion

Recently I read an article about a religion called Sabbateanism. I’d never heard of it before, so I turned to the collective wisdom of the human race—the Internet—and came away only more confused. There are so many religions in the world today that no one person can rightfully claim to be an expert on them all. The Sabbateans, it seems, are a secret sect, so not being able to learn about them should not be surprising after all. A Google search soon suggested reading about Illuminati and I realized I was once again in the realm of the conspiracy theory. A few months ago my wife and I began reading a book on the Freemasons (we both have grandparents who were Masons, so it has always been an area of interest). The book, however, was so convoluted that we had to give up. As Poe long ago realized, the best place to hide something is in plain sight. As I pulled up to a stoplight recently, I noticed the car in front of me had the masonic emblem hidden as a decal on its brake lights. Was I on the road to enlightenment?

Sabbateans, it seems, can be traced back to a seventeenth-century rabbi called Sabbatai Zevi, who lived under Muslim rule. Apparently he converted to Islam, but was also recognized as a messiah (there have been more than a few) and his followers went underground. We are told, at least by Wikipedia (where the article suffers from lack of verification) that several groups resemble, or may have derived from, the Sabbateans. It should come as no surprise that a secretive religion would be difficult to verify. That’s the whole point. Most religions claim that a certain small cross-section of believers has some esoteric knowledge that the rest of us lack. It would be difficult to claim any kind of authority if they didn’t.

Conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the Bilderberg Group or the Rosicrucians, we’re just sure somebody’s holding out on secret knowledge and power that keeps the rest of us in the dark. Mainstream religions, which tend to train their clergy in mysterious seminaries with arcane knowledge, have always been critical of secret societies. Catholics claimed Masons to be heretical, while Protestants claimed them to be too Catholic. Every religion, however, has its secrets. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown (it hurts just to use those names together in the same sentence) both recognized the appeal of the conspiracy theory in popular literature. The Illuminati, I’m told, are largely taken as a joke on the Internet. In my quieter moments I tent my fingers and consider: that’s just the way they’d want it to be, isn’t it?

Who is this man?

Who is this man?


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?


Rosslyn, New Texaco

Back before Dan Brown had becoming the Most Important Human Ever, even before he published Angels and Demons, my wife and I visited Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin Glen, Scotland. While not actually seeking the Holy Grail, I had been doing some research on Celtic lore, ostensibly where the Grail legend originates, and so we made our way to the remote and (then) desolate site of this unusual church. Officially the Collegiate Chapel of St. Matthew, it is, without doubt, the busiest piece of architectural stonework I have ever witnessed. We went for the grail. We stayed for the art.

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

WikiCommons image, ours isn't this good

The research I had been conducting (finally published just last year as a contribution to a Festschrift for Nicolas Wyatt) involved the Mabinogian, a repository of Celtic mythology, and the legend of Bran. For sharing the name of a healthful breakfast cereal, Bran is renowned for also having had a life-restoring cauldron. He even made a journey to the netherworld and his head kept singing even after having been dissociated from his body. An uncommon hero indeed. All historical indicators, however, point to the cauldron as the original of the Holy Grail. Certainly the Bible does not mention it, nor does it appear very early in Christian mythology.

People, as Dan Brown’s financial independence loudly indicates, like a good conspiracy theory. There is a comfort in believing that a magical object of great power is out there somewhere and that a rather ordinary Harvard professor (!) might be able to find it, yet resist taking it. Far truer to life is Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade; people feel the need to touch, to control the power beyond themselves. Even at the cost of their lives. Despite the fact that the Grail is a fiction, it simply will not disappear — although no one can find it and it has never been seen. Faith tends not to be based on tangibles. This is attested every time Dan Brown makes his way to the bank and the population reads with wonder about meanings that simply don’t exist.


Turning Brown to Green

Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol comes out tomorrow, and I, for one, will not be standing in line to purchase a copy. I actually read his previous two Langdon stories in the correct sequence — Angels and Demons then The DaVinci Code — and what immediately struck me was their similarity of plot and lack of historical veracity. Perhaps as a sometime writer who has had difficulty finding publishers I am just jealous, but the stories to me seem to draw on tired theories of some great conspiracy in antiquity that involved Jesus and Mary Magdalene eloping to France after the crucifixion where they happily raised a family only to be forgotten by history while he was off becoming a deity some thousands of miles away.

I read an interview with Dan Brown about his new book in which he confesses that he’s not a believer in conspiracy theories. To me some of the Area 51 stories sound more convincing than the trite material from Holy Blood, Holy Grail that has been recycled into a fictitious field of academics — symbology — and given a fake pedigree by placing Langdon at Harvard. I was in college when Holy Blood, Holy Grail came out and my literature prof told our class that the work was revolutionary and would restructure modern society. The only restructuring I’ve seen is the planet tipping a little towards Brown’s bank account trying to readjust to all the cash rushing in.

Perhaps my real frustration is with the fact that the ancient world is already fascinating without requiring fictionalization, yet those who actually do know something about it experience difficult times finding non-fictional university posts. Meanwhile average citizens will swirl around bookstores like the insects in an Indiana Jones movie waiting to purchase a copy of a book that fictitiously recreates that ancient world. If Harris tweeds are as miraculous as they seem to be in Brown’s books, maybe I should click my elbows together and say three times, “There’s no place like Rutgers” and I’ll end up in a fulltime professor of Symbology instead of teaching Ancient Near Eastern Religions as a mere adjunct tonight.

An authentic Harris tweed in its native Scottish environment

An authentic Harris tweed in its native Scottish environment