Preacher’s Best Friend

PreacherPrinterPerhaps it’s because I was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania, or perhaps it’s because everything I’ve ever read about him suggests he was delightfully unorthodox, but whatever the reason, Benjamin Franklin has always held my admiration.  Probably we all like to hear echoes of ourselves in the great.  It is difficult to believe that during his early rise to fame, Franklin was eclipsed by an unlikely superstar who was, of all things, an evangelist.  George Whitefield, an early English Methodist, wowed the colonies with his born again message, perhaps being responsible for its appeal even today.  Randy Petersen’s The Printer and the Preacher explores the unlikely friendship that sprang up between Franklin and the younger Whitefield.  While cataloguing early founders religious lives is always problematic, Franklin was a self-described Deist, and certainly not an Evangelical.  Whitefield was very into the personal relationship with Jesus idea that Franklin found, at best, simplistic.
 
Petersen’s book is a kind of wishful history.  He wants to see Franklin and Whitefield together, often suggesting that they might have met here or there, or that they might have discussed this or that.  The fact is, we have little to go on beyond the reality that the two knew and respected one another.  Whitefield stayed in Franklin’s house in Philadelphia.  Franklin printed and sold Whitefield’s best-seller sermons.  Certainly there was a good business opportunity here.  Even today the evangelical Bible market is a strong one.  Savvy businessmen and women know that a good living may be had from the Good Book.  You can’t read a book like The Printer and the Preacher without thinking that Whitefield and Franklin were a kind of odd couple.  Franklin is remembered as a man of wit and science.  Whitefield is barely remembered at all.  One of the first preachers to hire a publicity manager, Whitefield was the Joel Osteen of his day, raking in the accolades for being emotional in front of salt-of-the-earth colonials.  His oratory skills were legendary.  Even though he is honored as one of the founders of the University of Pennsylvania, he was no scholar and has largely been relegated to an historical footnote.
 
Petersen’s book is a quick read.  His writing is winsome in an evangelical way.  He assumes the truth, or so it appears, of the evangelical position.  Nevertheless, there is material to stop and ponder here.  Many of the questions can never be answered: why, particularly, did Franklin and Whitefield hit it off, for example.  On a more approachable level is the why of Whitefield’s faded flower verses Franklin’s perennial bloom.  The message of Whitefield simply doesn’t stand up to the experience of history.  Human beings—many of them born again—experience constant turmoil in their lives.  Franklin, on the other hand, was the consumate pragmatist.  His aphorisms are regularly mistaken for verses of the Bible.  Although others would have gotten there, we largely have him to think for our harnessing of electricity, and even the birth of a new nation.  Whitefield’s spiritual descendants now rally to prevent stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.  Franklin’s children, illegitimate or not, reap the benefits of the lightning rod.

God, As a Hobby

Just as I was awaking from a night of loud fireworks and multicultural bonhomie, my wife showed me a full-page ad in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. A red, white, and blue page entitled “In God We Trust,” the ad wants nothing more than to convert the nation to conservative Christianity. It is sponsored by Hobby Lobby after all. Dividing the quotes that spangle the page into “Founding Fathers,” “Presidents,” “Supreme Court Justices,” “Supreme Court Rulings,” “Congress,” “Education,” and “Foreign Opinion,” prooftexted quotes are given inadvertently showing by their grasping nature that America is a godly country. The Hobby Lobby is not known for its critical reading of either Scripture or history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, Deists all, are quoted at the height of their rhetoric, making it seem as if they were evangelicals out to build a Christian nation.

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When I was growing up, there were no Hobby Lobby stores in my area. Although I was a religious child, I would have found it a bit odd that hobbyists were not focusing all their attention on the weighty matter of eternity. Instead, making money seems to be the name of the game, and once you’re comfortably over-compensated the Lobby part of the name comes to play and God reenters the picture. We all know that the Hobbyists wish to have the Bible right next to the capital, if they can’t get it prominently placed in the Oval Office. Policy (the ad cites all three branches of government, as well as education) should be based on the Bible, although we think of ourselves as a land of opportunity. Opportunity for whom?

Starting with a quote ripped from the context of Psalm 33 (“blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”), the ad doesn’t exegete this at all. Nationalism as we know it did not exist when this Psalm was penned. The author had what would become Judaism in mind, not evangelical Christianity. But then, appropriation of other peoples’ pasts is kind of a hobby. Pick and choose. Take what you find attractive and leave the rest behind. It works for history as well as for the Bible. After all, it doesn’t take historical probity to lobby the government. All that’s required is a surfeit of money. And the best way to achieve that, it seems, is to take up a hobby rather than trying to think through the issues with a mind honed by a solid education in Bible and history.

Receive History

Sacred texts, without readers, are mere artifacts. While so evident as to be trite, this truth lies behind the area of biblical studies called reception history. Perhaps from the earliest days that some books were considered holy, those who studied them wondered primarily what the original author meant. That was, after all, why the texts were preserved as special—they possessed a quality that other writings lacked. Over the centuries this perspective gained nuance and sophistication. (Despite what some secularists say, the study of the Bible can be quite scientific. Some of it is so technical that even specialists have a difficult time following it.) Until last century, however, one aspect remained unchallenged. The goal was to reach what the original author meant. The enterprise of exegesis is geared toward that end. Strip away the reader to get to the writer.

thumb_IMG_2069_1024Meanwhile sacred texts, such as the Bible, continue to develop their own lives in culture. While today’s facile use of the Bible in politics may seem to be something new, the use of Scripture in government is as old as this nation. It easily goes back to European explorations of text, and perhaps even to Asian exegesis before then. Even though the founders of the United States were unquestionably Deists, for the most part, they also were biblically literate. Even the Enlightenment recognized that the Bible held a privileged place in western civilization. Perhaps it was not the only sacred text, but it was a sacred text to many thousands, or millions, or people. Such a pedigree is wasted only with great loss to all. Enter reception history.

In the days of ecclesiastical hegemony, the church, however defined, had the right to interpret Scripture. With the growth of literacy and education the possibility of understanding the Bible spread to any who could read, or had ears to hear. We have only to glance around to see the ramifications of that today. While students may not know who Moses was in the Bible, they can tell you Christian Bale played him in a recent blockbuster. They may not know that Noah was 600 years old when the flood came, but they can tell you he was a troubled, if not somewhat psychotic, devotee of God. At least in popular culture. And that is merely the thinnest veneer of the surface. The idea of sacred texts remains embedded in our worldview. It would seem that if we want to understand ourselves, reception history will unearth vital clues.

The Film’s the Thing

BibleFilmIn the context of teaching, I often described how movies portrayed the Bible. There is an aspect of this that may go overlooked since the Bible is, in the nicest possible way, inert. That is, the Bible frequently functions as a character in movies. In a minor, or supporting role perhaps, but clearly it has an impact on what the other characters do or say. The story wouldn’t be the same without it. So it was that I finally got around to reading The Bible in Film—The Bible and Film, edited by J. Cheryl Exum. This is a collection of 11 academic essays about the Bible in various cinematic guises. A number of the essays focused on Jesus, being the most obvious biblical character to star in movies; he had another one this past summer. The collection, however, is wide-ranging in its biblical characters.

More interesting to me, and this is just a personal preference, is the way that the Bible shows up in movies. Those who decry the study of sacred writ seem to be in denial concerning just how deeply embedded in our national psyche the Good Book is. As the various contributors to this volume show, the Bible appears in ways both subtle and overt in many films. Like it or not, the stories represented in the Bible are classics, and many film-makers find a rich source of material here (when they’re not busy making sequels). The Bible is, to a large extent, who we are.

That’s not to deny a religious pluralism to the United States. We are diverse and that is one of our strongest assets. Still, even though our founders were primarily deists, and not evangelical Christians, their culture was pervaded by the Bible. A large difference between then and now is that, although they weren’t “Bible believers” our founders knew their Bible. In a sense that is almost incomprehensible today, they realized that you don’t have to believe it to see its value. The Bible does have some good things to say. Even now when I get overwhelmed, I can still find some balancing sanity in parts of Sacred Writ. It’s not all about killing your enemies or keeping women silent in the churches. It is a very human document. That’s why, in my humble opinion, we keep coming back, as a society, to the Bible. Anything that is so momentous is bound to find its way into our movies and our other art forms. How we take that is, of course, a matter of personal taste.

Washed Out or Burnt Over?

AwashInASeaOfFaithIs America a Christian nation? The answer to that question will no doubt raise ire in some part of the room. People, speaking mostly without data, will assert yes or no, generally based on opinion and sensibility. It is refreshing, then, to read what an historian uncovers by asking the right questions. Jon Butler’s Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People is a book that asks the right questions. On the surface, yes, colonial America was settled by disgruntled Christians from various religious conflicts in Europe. Actions, however, are notoriously louder than words. Butler examines church attendance patterns and affiliations among these early (and later) settlers and finds that they weren’t nearly so Christian as one might think, listening to the rhetoric. Indeed, for people struggling to survive in a new land, religion might well have been the last thing on their minds most of the time. Throughout the book surprising changes of perspective appear. When clear thinking is railroaded by political agendas the issues often become clouded.

A good example of this is Butler’s exploration of the survival of magic and occult traditions. It is not unusual to hear, anecdotally, that the Enlightenment did away with superstitious thinking. In fact, the data point elsewhere. Not only did Americans bring magic and occult practices with them from overseas, they actually continued to develop them in the New World. At times these beliefs substituted for congregational religion. At others, they subsisted alongside it. There was a “sea of faith” here, but it wasn’t always very orthodox. It wasn’t until fairly late in the history of the country that church attendance could be considered the norm. At the same time, many read back into history that “we’ve always been like this.” Not so.

The “myth of the American Christian past” was born out of wishful, and one suspects, political thinking. The country’s founding by Deists led to a fear of Deism—a fairly new phenomenon that descended from that self-same Enlightenment. Still, America could give birth to Spiritualism and a host of new religions. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the United States as fertile soil for religions rather than a Christian country. Certainly, by the numbers, Christians have been in the majority since statistics were kept, but, if the anachronism may be pardoned, the “nones” are not a new phenomenon. They were previously just those to be converted. Through much of history, we’ve been a people who didn’t think too much or too deeply about religion. Only when the issue really became politicized did the past become distorted. We have Dr. Butler to thank for providing a clear view into what history actually reveals.

Civil Rites

Sundays’ op-eds often have sensitive fingers on the pulse of the American religious scene. A piece by Tom Deignan in Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger raised a very interesting point about civil religion. Civil religion is, loosely defined, the acting out of religion in a civil-political forum as a cheap form of nationalism. We do it because it works. Noting that a presidential candidate denying the divinity of Christ in the twenty-first century would be engaging in political suicide, Deignan rightly points out that many earlier “Protestant” presidents would—and did—do just that. He notes that Taft, a Unitarian, came outright and said it. No matter the protestations of the Neo-Cons, the founding fathers were Deists, not believers in Christ’s divinity. Thomas Jefferson went as far as to excise all the miracles from his version of the New Testament. The idea that religio-politicking is business as it’s always been done is a myth.

And what a persistent myth it is! Many Protestant denominations trace their ancestry back to founders who believed that they were closer to the apostolic faith than the next guy. They legitimately believed their faith was the original, intended by God, Christianity. Thus it was in the beginning, is now, and forever shall be. Only it’s not true. Religion was purposely written out of the Constitution of the United States with the Bill of Rights declaring its freedom the ideal. What presidents believed hardly played into the concept of their fitness for national leadership in the early days. Now little else seems to matter. Deignan rightly wonders why Mitt Romney is so tight-lipped about his Mormonism. Could it be he fears what critics might say about devising a national budget through rose-colored glasses? Surely his vast personal wealth belies that concern.

So what was the original Christianity? On this point the Bible is amazingly unobscured; early Christianity was Judaism. Jesus was called “Rabbi,” and his teachings weren’t too far distant from Hillel and others near his generation. Paul of Tarsus, who pointed the nascent religion towards its evolution into Catholicism, was also Jewish. Following his faith in resurrection, some early Christians moved into the direction of eventual ritualism. The fancy hats of the papacy, it is fair to say, were never in the minds of Jesus or Paul. Not even Peter. Modern religions, even the primitivist movements, cannot reclaim the Christianity of the first century. That religion does not fit into a world of Internet, cell phones, and automobiles, let alone presidential candidates with wealth befitting King Herod. Let’s just grow up and admit where we are.