Building on Water

I try to keep up.  Really, I do.  Although my specialization is in ancient religions, at heart I’m an historian of ideas and I try to keep up with the origins of the many Christian denominations.  You see, with so many competing versions of the one correct way to please God it pays to hedge your bets.  Thing is, there’s so many options and some seem to spring out of nowhere, like toadstools after the rain.  The other day I attended a local community event.  One of those kinds of affairs where local organizations set up tents and sometimes sell food.  Many of the tents were for churches.  As supporters of community values (mostly) this isn’t unusual, even with the declining numbers in the mainstream.  Then I heard a voice.

“Do you read?” the man asked.  I confess to having a bookish look, so I admitted I do.  “We want you to have a free book,” he said, handing me a plastic bag (warning sign one) containing a small paperback and several fliers.  Now, I was here to look around and maybe get a bite to eat, so I thanked him, tucked the bag under my arm and walked on.  Only on the way home did my wife look at the contents.  The church—for it had to be a church giving such things away—was one of which I’d never heard.  This would’ve been disorienting if it weren’t for the fact that ever since college—where I learned quite a lot about denominations—I’ve been noticing new varieties of Christianities, cropping up somewhat frequently.  Each seems to believe it has found the answers, despite the threadbare denominations that have been around for centuries.

I make fun on nobody’s search for meaning, or the truth.  It is, after all, a lifelong quest.  I am suspicious of those who claim to have already gotten there, however.  For those traditions that declare they’ve found the answer centuries ago, the passing years with their constant changes have worn on them.  Especially if they’re awaiting a divine cataclysmic ending to it all that’s been delayed for a couple of millennia now.  Others are, apparently, wanting to pump some fresh air into these tired lungs.  This group featured a website “the famous one [all one word].com.”  I was surprised and a touch saddened to see Jesus relegated to the role of a media celebrity.  But then again, I can’t keep up like I used to.

Born Once More

Every once in a while a reader, either here or on other social media, asks me what my religious beliefs are.  The expected answer to such a question is the standard label of a denomination of some sort.  My response, however, is that knowing the group I belong to (and I do) should not effect the way my thoughts are viewed.  With the exception of some groups suspected of mind control, standard religions are generally trusted as being motivated by pure intentions.  Having both attended and taught in seminary settings, and knowing a great number of clergy, however, it becomes clear that denomination is less important than one might think.  In short, I answer this question in the public forum of neither classroom nor blog as I truly believe there’s nothing to be gained by readers/students knowing where I personally seek meaning, denominationally.

It’s no secret that it was once the Episcopal Church.  (I could not have taught at Nashotah House otherwise.)  It was made pretty clear after being at said seminary for many years that the Episcopalians had no official place for me.  Even when I worked a few blocks from the church’s headquarters in New York City I could find no one willing to listen or consider my credentials.  Its Church Publishing branch wouldn’t consider me in their book wing.  Were it not for some former students who still minister to me, it was clear they did not miss me.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in Nativity Cathedral in Bethlehem on Saturday for their Celtic Mass.  The Cathedral itself is lovely with a négligée of wrought iron tracery for a reredos, appropriate for a city built by steel.  Eight angels with outspread wings stood atop it.  Like most sanctuaries, it was a place of refuge from the busy, noisy street outside.

The reading from Amos 7 stood out to me.  Lectionaries, by definition, take pericopes (selections) out of context.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line is actually part of a series of visions, but here stands alone with the episode of Amaziah trying to send Amos back to Judah.  The prophet responds by saying he’s not a prophet, but just a guy who’s received a message from God.  In ancient times there were prophets paid for their services.  They supported the government positions and governments made sure they were cared for.  The situation hasn’t much changed, at least among conservative religious groups under a Republican administration.  There were other parallels here, but saying too much on them might end up giving too much away.

Refuge in Diversity

The Easton Saturday morning farmer’s market is a happening place.  Daring to spend a non-raining Saturday away from mowing, my wife and I decided to check it out.  If you’re not familiar with Easton, Pennsylvania, it has more than the Crayola factory that smells like childhood itself.  The downtown is marked by a traffic circle with an island in the middle large enough to fit, well, a thriving farmer’s market.  As usual, large gatherings attract those selling spiritual rather than material goods.  A very well dressed gentleman handed me a flier and when I got home I had to look up Refuge Church of Christ to find out what it it’s all about.  A New York City-based denomination of predominantly African-American membership, the church has over 500,000 members.  That I hadn’t heard of it before is no surprise.  There are well over 40,000 denominations of Christianity alone and it’s difficult to keep track of them all.

There comes a time in the life of anyone who takes religion seriously enough to study it professionally when s/he’s inclined to ask which is the original.  Think about it: you’re bartering with your eternal soul on the barrelhead here and don’t want to make the wrong choice.  When someone invites me to convert (I don’t know the secret handshake to show I’m already a member) I’m curious about them.  The unfortunate thing about all of this is that each tradition believes it has the truth and most, if not all, others have got it wrong.  Few are the faiths that declare, “Believe whatever, just believe.”

I once tried to make a denominational genealogy chart.  Part of the problem is that tracing things back to Catholicism isn’t quite right.  The Roman Catholic Church as it exists today is quite different than anything Paul, or Peter, or James would’ve recognized.  To say nothing of Jesus.  And that’s inevitable.  Religions don’t stay the same.  They evolve as soon as they pass from person to person.  Those who belong to denominations often do not know what the official teachings of the body are, and getting back to the original they’d find that their denomination started out believing things quite different than its own current theology.  If you’ve got only one soul with which to make that eternal decision and literally thousands of choices, well, let’s just say that you don’t want to think about it too much.  Besides, we’re here for fresh fruits and vegetables.  And it’s a rare gift of a Saturday without rain, no matter who’s responsible.

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

More than Baptism

Few things distinguish American Christianity as much as its divisions. These aren’t precise, however, and often the borders are fuzzy and held more by cultural history than by theological outlook. One of the denominations—indeed, the umbrella for the single largest Protestant denomination in America—often faces the question of its identity. Who are the Baptists? Many Protestant groups can trace their histories to defining moments; consider Martin Luther and his hammer, according to the Lutheran origin myth. Baptists are a little tricker to pin down. Dissenters, yes, convinced that adult baptism should accompany conversation, yes, but beyond that widely divergent. Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins have provided a service by writing Baptists in America: A History. Going back before America, they trace the origins of the sect and quickly bring it into the context in which it would thrive.

Persecuted early in American life, Baptists grew in numbers and recognition during the period commonly known as the Great Awakenings. Suited to frontier individualism, non-doctrinal, and advocating for freedom of conscience, the Baptists gained large sums of converts in this era. With their congregational polity, Baptist cultural influence really only took off when mass media gave its more aggressive preachers a venue not limited by church walls. As Kidd and Hankins point out, however, the denomination proved friable. Splitting apart over various issues, the number of Baptist denominations grew. Their political influence would also grow so that they would become a force with which to be reckoned even today. Few, however, really understand who the Baptists are.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest single Protestant denomination in the United States. It defines itself by a radical conservatism that masquerades as “orthodoxy.” Heavily biblical, many in the tradition have a strong preference for inerrancy. Social causes that appear outdated to most modern people are do-or-die issues for this sect within a sect. Baptists in America does a good job showing how contradictory Baptists can be. They were, after all, dissenters from the beginning. Their championing of religious freedom often doesn’t apply outside their own borders. The more political of the denomination know very well how to game a democratic system. Perhaps the lesson they’ve learned most acutely is that being unseen carries with it great advantages. They play the sport of legislative chess very well. In a culture that loudly and repeatedly claims that religion no longer matters, those with conviction have a natural hiding place. From there pieces are easily moved to positions of power.

Ever on a Monday

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.

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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.

Buyer Beware

Pain, it is said, has a wonderful way of focusing the mind. So when I woke up in what can best be described as a body position used for extras in the movie, Twister, I took a few aspirin and got on with my life. I had purchased non-refundable tickets for a campus visit, and capitalism is nothing if not unsympathetic. The lower back pain was fine when sitting, or standing. Try anything in between, however, and you’ll learn the real meaning of reading the riot act. Once off the train—slowly, slowly—I was fine again, until I had to sit down. The next morning, facing a day of meetings (why is everyone’s office on the fourth floor? Why do Brownstones still lack elevators?), I decided I’d better pop into CVS for some meds. It was with considerable irony and not a few groans that I noted all the products for back pain were on the bottom shelves. The condoms, in the same aisle, were right at eye-level. Sitting on the floor, pondering the relative merits of chemicals of which I’d never heard, I thought about what we take for granted.

Parents and guardians are our first teachers. Among those early lessons are often the religious ones. Recently speaking with both seminary professors and pastors, I have heard the common refrain that church membership is declining and the number of younger people listing themselves as religiously unaffiliated is growing. I noticed this in my teaching outside the seminary setting; quite apart from students of other religious traditions, many undergrads took my class knowing nothing at all of the cultural matrix of Christianity in which they’d been raised. It is also true in a consumer mentality that one shops for religious experiences just like one shops for backache medicine. You go with the one that works for you. Few bother to ask if they agree with the theology, after all, Methodist = Baptist = Presbyterian = Lutheran in many people’s minds. Doan’s or Bayer? Take your pick.

Now that Dark Shadows has been released for home viewing, another component may be added to the equation. We pass on what we value to those we love. While the writing for Dark Shadows leaves quite a lot to be desired, there are a few memorable lines. Angelique, you may recall, cursed Barnabas Collins for unrequited love, turning him into a vampire. When he laments to Elizabeth Stoddard that Angelique hates him, she replies, “No, if she had hated you she would have merely killed you. A curse takes devotion.” Passing on our beliefs, perhaps, somehow ties into all this. As believing creatures, perhaps we each need to find our own solutions. My only fear is that when I find the right remedy, it may very well be on the bottom shelf.

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