Mittens and Circuses

Bernie Sanders, since we’re now making up our own facts, clearly won this election.  Or at least the inauguration.  An inescapable meme of Sanders, bundled up with his notable mittens, has made major media as well as pedantic punters on the web.  Thanks in part to an app created to allow users to place Bernie anywhere, I’ve seen him at all kinds of places from Oxford University Press to Dirty Dancing to the exhibit halls at the AAR/SBL annual meeting.  As someone who suffers from the cold I was initially concerned that he must feel laughed at by it all, but Bernie seems to be taking it in good humor.  The only reason I bring it up here is a meme (I think) that my wife pointed out to me of Bernie among the Fond du Lac Circus.  I can’t find any credit for the creator, but it appeared on the Episcopalians on Facebook group.  (I don’t know how Facebook works, checking above the fold once a day only.)

I’ve actually posted on the Fond du Lac Circus before.  The photo was extremely popular at Nashotah House when I taught there.  The diocese of Fond du Lac (in which I once preached) is just north a bit in Wisconsin.  The photo was a celebration of the installation of a bishop with ecclesiastical haberdashery at its finest on display.  In my mind, Nashotah House stands for all that’s conservative.  I’m certain a great deal of the population supported Trump.  A former dean had a shrine to George W. Bush in the deanery.  I kid you not.  So seeing the most progressive senator amid that crowd of backward-looking clergy, apart from being unspeakably funny, made me reflective.

Many years of my life were spent among the Episcopalians.  Too many of those years consisted of feeling oppressed by the interpretation of “orthodoxy” held at Nashotah House.  The hubris of “the only right teaching” has haunted me ever since.  Faith can be a good thing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  The greatest danger is when it ceases to be reflective.  Faith must involve constant thought and assessment to be honest.  Unthinking compliance was something Jesus, for one, simply didn’t accept.  Challenging the way it’s always been done is a venerable part of the agenda for those who start new religions, Jesus included.  When that religion becomes ossified (or too obsessed with appearances) isn’t it time to start looking toward the future?  Bernie Sanders is popular with the young.  They have little patience for the selfishness that’s been on display in American culture for far too many decades.  Would that he really attended the Fond du Lac Circus!  Perhaps a grassroots movement to improve conditions for all might’ve actually emerged long ago.

Virtual Church

All the way back in seminary my friends and I used to joke about virtual church.  What made it so funny was that the idea seemed ridiculous.  The very raison d’être for church (which essentially means “gathering”) was, well, gathering.  We joshed about putting a communion card into an ATM and getting bread and wine.  Little did we know we’d live to see virtual church become a reality.  While I prefer not to tip my hand as to my affiliation (I began doing this when teaching at secular schools, for if a professor of religion is being academic about their specialization their affiliation should have no bearing on the class) I confess I am the member of a religious community.  That community has become virtual, as of today.

This isn’t a permanent thing.  Unless coronavirus is a permanent thing.  As I spoke with my clergy person about it, I wondered how many people would attend virtual services.  Sermons would need to be stellar.  Who would hear if I tried to sing hymns (this is not a pretty thing, take my word for it)?  My laptop doesn’t even have a disc slot into which I could insert my offering.  Churches, synagogues, mosques—they’re about community.  What does community feel like when you’re sitting there in your pajamas, at least on the part that the webcam doesn’t pick up?  Does the minister see you in virtual church?  Have I, like number 6, been reduced to a numeral?  I suspect the current crisis is going to be a real test for faith communities.  Meeting together would make us all feel like snake-handlers now.

The funny thing was, back in seminary it was a joke.  At Boston University School of Theology in the late 1980s we knew that churches weren’t really growing.  Some megas had started and we now see them following the mushroom cloud to its dissipation stage.  As little as we meant it, we could see devices creeping into the mix.  I did not use a computer until after seminary.  Funnily enough, thinking back to the pre-1990s, we survived without cell phones.  If you were going to church you were going. To. Church.  These days of pandemic in the pews will be a real test of the preacher’s power.  For Episcopalians the mediating of grace had to be done in person.  I remember watching worriedly as the priest, clearly with a sniffle, was the first one to take a sip from the community chalice before holding it out for others to drink.  We wondered about efficacy of ATMs dispensing consecrated hosts.  It was only a joke, then; really it was.

Servants and Such

At Nashotah House I met my first real-life servant.  This was a student—a candidate for the priesthood—who’d formally been a “domestic.”  Now, being Episcopalian one doesn’t bat an eyelash at that sort of thing but I was secretly in shock that servants still existed.  I’m woefully uninformed about aristocracy.  Having grown up poor I resent the idea of a person being placed in the role of fulfilling the whims of someone just because they have money.  My wife has more of a fascination about this than I do, and she was recently reading a book about servants.  This post isn’t about domestics, however.  It’s about foreign gods.  In the book she was reading my wife noticed one of the servants writing that old-fashioned stoves were like Moloch.  Were it not for Sleepy Hollow, I suspect, many modern people wouldn’t know the name at all.  Who was Moloch?

Moloch, according to the Bible, was a “Canaanite” deity.  Specifically, he was a god that demanded child sacrifice.  The phrase the Good Book uses is that his worshippers made their children “pass through the fire” for Moloch.  Very little is known about this deity, and the question of human sacrifice is endlessly debated.  Theologically it makes sense, but practically it doesn’t.  Deities want servants and living bodies do that better than dead ones.  Although it’s been suggested that “passing through” could be a symbolic offering, by far the majority of scholars have taken this act as an actual sacrifice.  The ultimate servant is a dead servant.  Moloch, you see, comes from the same root as the word “king.”  And kings are fond of having many servants.

Image credit: Johann Lund, Wikimedia Commons

So how is a stove like Moloch?  The classic image of the god, which looks like a scene from The Wicker Man, holds the answer.  Well circulated since the early eighteenth century, this engraving has captured the imagination of modern people.  A massive, multi-chambered statue intended to consume by the raging fire in its belly.  This is the way in which a stove might resemble a Canaanite deity.  The servant who described cookware thus knew whereof she spoke.  Archaeological evidence for the “cult of Moloch” is slim.  It is almost certain that nothing like this fanciful image ever existed.  Moloch, in other words, lives in the imagination.  One aspect, however, rings true.  Like most tyrannical rulers the deity wants unquestioning obedience on the part of servants.  And this is a viewpoint not limited to deities.

Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.


One of the truly disturbing aspects of religion is its tendency to become domesticated. What I mean is that it becomes so much a part of the everyday scenery that you forget it’s there. I recently read a story about priests in the Church of England who don’t want parishes in poor neighborhoods. The reason given? They don’t want their children educated among the poor. That took me back a step. As someone with more than a passing familiarity with the Episcopalians, I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t want poor parishes. Of establishment Christianity, Anglicans are on the economical high end of the scale. I knew a few future priests like that at Nashotah House. Stylish worship and excess cash go together. But not to want your children educated with the poor? Is there fear of contagion?

I grew up poor. When I visit my hometown I’m reminded that although it featured in an X-Files episode, it will never be an affluent place. The people there, as a whole, struggle financially. I didn’t know any rich people growing up (I had to become an Episcopalian for that to happen) and I don’t think anyone rich lived in our town. Education, however, was a different thing. We went to school together and we learned. Some of us, despite not attending the finer establishments, managed to move through the educational system and on to college, seminary, and graduate school. Ironically, some of us even came to teach Episcopalians in seminary. A poor boy instructing the rich. But quite apart from that, it’s impossible to read the Gospels and not notice the concern for the poor in the founder of Christianity.

Image source: Julius Ejdestam: De fattigas Sverige, Wikimedia Commons

Early Christians weren’t Episcopalians. They were actually Jewish. Although a few of them had means, this new religion appealed primarily to the poor. As one of the earlier believers in the movement is said to have said, the rich receive their reward here. More and more Christians are coming to believe that this world is the locus of receiving rewards. Heaven isn’t so much on the radar anymore. We’ve been to outer space and it’s not there. Rather than put ourselves at risk among the poor, it’s better to blend in with the establishment. We can still rail aloud that the church is important and shouldn’t be ignored. But paying customers only, please. The poor? They’re a dime a dozen. And when we come to think of people that way, religion has become domesticated.

Long Distance Commute

AwkwardSilencesWhat should my next book be? This is the perpetual question of the long-distance commuter for whom electronic devices are mere distractions. If that commuter is socially awkward and believes that only books truly understand them, that is. I’m as eclectic a reader as I am a voracious one. Each book suggests, in some measure, the next one. I always have to keep an eye ahead. Then I read (present tense) a book without peer. I feel lost because what will replace that experience I’ve had for the past few days of looking up and finding myself at my destination? Of actually looking forward to getting on the bus so I can read? I’ve been doing this commute for over 400 books now, and I’m at a loss for what to read next. I blame it on Amazon.

In the publishing world we use Amazon to purchase competitor’s books. Then Jeff Bezos decides to buy the Washington Post, you know, the way people do. Since my email address is on their list I get sent a daily invitation to read the most read stories on said Post. I read a story by Alexandra Petri and I was hooked. Where could I get more? A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is the rare kind of book that makes you laugh out loud on the bus, which, at six in the morning, generates its own kind of awkward silence.  Petri makes you feel like it was actually okay to be that dorky kid who read all the time.  Like there’s a world out there that responds to your longings, somehow.  A world of possibilities.

Now here I am about to climb on the bus without Petri. I’m like a kid staring disconsolately at an empty candy wrapper. “That was so good!” you think. “I wish there was more.” Petri writes as if she’s achieved Bob Dylan’s blessing and has stayed forever young. The time of life when the future seems so full of possibilities. Hers is writing that reminds you of a time when you didn’t spend hours a day nursing hemorrhoids, sitting on a hard bus seat. That reminds you it was possible, unlike your own experience of it, to be cool as an Episcopalian in Wisconsin. That reminds you of the time when you had A Field Guide to Awkward Silences to look forward to reading. No, this book didn’t make that choice of next book any easier at all.

Dark Sight

TimeDarkBarbara Brown Taylor is a name about which I wish to learn more. Although Time magazine predictably runs a religious-themed issue around Easter, the year’s cover story, “Finding God in the Dark,” hit some resonant chords immediately. A friend of mine writes a blog called Bleak Theology, and my own posts often linger in those nether regions where, if we’re honest, we don’t know what we might find. Barbara Brown Taylor has been exploring these themes for years on a spiritual journey that has her deciding, as many of us know, that the dark is not evil. Fear is a kind of spiritual elixir. I watch horror movies. I read gothic novels. I awake daily before the sun, and do my best thinking in the dark. The key, as I would humbly suggest, is to be honest about life. When I preached, the students who understood that would say they appreciated my honesty. After all, before the beginning, all was darkness.

The article on Taylor, by Elizabeth Dias, is moody but appreciative. Taylor has the experience of being an Episcopal priest, a professor, a preacher, and a recognized author as her journey has led her to appreciate the dark. Some of us understand that the biblical books that are the darkest—Ecclesiastes, Job, and Psalms—are also the most honest. These are books to read in the dark.

Nature has evolved us to trust our eyes for survival. Fear of the dark is not something instilled in humans by protective parents—it is a consequence of having to survive in a jungle where you too are prey. We can’t see well at night, so that is the time we close our eyes and make ourselves vulnerable to the nocturnal beasts. Those beasts are, of course, spiritual. Somewhere on our journey to shallow religions of the modern era, we’ve come to believe that religion is all about sunshine and light. Evangelicals often believe that feeling good is a sign of blessing and depression is from the devil. Religion, however, from the beginning, has not shied away from the heavier side of human existence. If all were clear and bright, what need would we have of religion? In our experience, however, life has a substantial amount of trials and difficulties. There’s a lot of fumbling in the dark. If we can learn, with Barbara Brown Taylor, that not seeing is true insight, we might indeed learn a lesson about life in a world that is dark, literally, half of the time.

Lead Serve

For never having been a Catholic, my life has been strangely tied to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many in my diminishing profession, I was raised in a religious household—in my case non-denominational Protestantism with a strong Fundamentalist streak—and have wandered a bit from my starting point. When my family moved to a small town with just two churches—United Methodist and Roman Catholic—we had no choice which to join. I learned the Methodists were just disgruntled Anglicans, and logic dictated that I would eventually join the Episcopal Church and gain a deep appreciation of Catholicism. My first professional job was teaching at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal Seminary. While there I was interviewed for positions at Roman Catholic schools, and not infrequently brought to campus: the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart School of Theology just down the road in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Most of the time I was in the list of finalists when the position would go to a Roman Catholic, “no hard feelings, right?” Long ago the Episcopal Church, ironically, got out of the higher education market.

It is with this background that I keep an eye on the Roman Catholic Church. Many friends and colleagues are Catholic and we have far more in common than I have with my Fundamentalist forebears. I frequently find myself in wonder at Pope Francis. Many church leaders have made the news over the past several decades, but few of them for such good. In an article on NBC over the weekend, the Pope called for seminary reform, noting that always toeing the line will turn priests into “little monsters.” I taught at Nashotah House for fourteen years, and I know exactly what he means. I encountered students who could quote Paul about being freed from the law and in the next breath lay down ecclesiastical law with enough force to behead a heathen. The Episcopal Church, which is small but disproportionately powerful, should take the words of the pontiff to heart.

A cold day in...

A cold day in…

Pope Francis noted that seminaries need to keep up with the times. Indeed, the laity of most religious traditions have little trouble accommodating to culture while their faith remains mired in the Middle Ages. In a world robbed of essences and meanings, it is difficult to teach future clergy that the spirit of a faith can be honored in outwardly different ways. The idea that we can just hold on ’til Jesus gets back should’ve been questioned once Islam came to be a major force a few centuries after Christianity settled in. Since that time Christianity has fractured into thousands of sects united by little more than essences. Instead of settling in for the long haul as an empire, the Pope is suggesting that the church settle in as servants. That’s a radical idea. And it is one, if I read my Bible aright, that its founder would be pleased to find in force should he ever decide to return.

Bonnie the Brave

As a preemptive warning to my regular readers (am I’m sure you both know who you are), I am off today for a stint in my old haunt of Scotland. Before you get out your congratulations, be advised that this trip is for work. The Society of Biblical Literature, in addition to the big meeting about which I sometimes post, holds an international meeting every year. Since my employers frequently want me out of the office, I am being sent to the fair city of St Andrews in the kingdom of Fife for a week. Although I studied across the Firth of Forth in the wondrous town of Edinburgh, I ventured to St Andrews a time or two during my postgraduate days. By that time anyone in tune with popular culture had seen Chariots of Fire, and it was almost a requirement of credibility to visit the famous beach on the North Sea where the actors iconically ran as the movie began. And as in Chariots of Fire, I’m not sure that wifi access will be readily available. Should I find access, I shall gladly update my blog with my customary observations. If I fall silent, you’ll know why.

Scotland had a tremendous draw for me as I was contemplating where to complete my studies of religion (as if one ever can). Not that I was Presbyterian, and not that I have Scottish ancestry (although Celtic is represented in the Irish stowaway on my father’s side a few generations back)—it was the antiquity that drew me. One of the mysteries, to me, of new religious movements, is how people can believe in a religion that recently began. Should there be a supernatural, I’ve always supposed, and should that supernatural be concerned that humans have the truth, why wait so late in the story to start? It was such thinking that drew me from Methodism to its estranged parent, the Episcopal Church. Among the Episcopalians are many who argue for a continuity with the Catholic tradition, separated, literally, only by a matter of divorce. And Catholics go back to Jesus himself, a member of a religion so old that even the Romans grudgingly respected it (Judaism). I guess I’m guilty of old-school bias.

Kim Traynor's Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

Kim Traynor’s Edinburgh, from Wikicommons

So it was that I came to spend some years among the Presbyterians at Edinburgh University. The Ph.D. that I earned there translated to an unfortunately brief career doing what I’m best at—teaching. My tenure at Nashotah House never offered the opportunity to travel back to Scotland, or even England with its Anglicans. And as I prepare to board a plane across the Atlantic, although strictly for work, I can’t help but to reflect on those years of intensive learning, hoping to do my Scottish alma mater proud. And returning to the States to have my career shipwrecked on the rocks of unforgiving religious dogma. It may be that once I’m back among the heather and thistles, I may cast my laptop aside and try to claim religious asylum in a past that I can only see through rose-coloured glasses.

Buy Their Fruits

A lot of things get thrust at you in Midtown Manhattan. Many of them are religious. As I was out on my lunch break, a Buddhist monk walked up to me on Second Avenue. He thrust out a pretty token that looked like those skinny cards that used to come in with Sugar Daddies. I get a lot of things held out at me, and since I can imagine how dispiriting it must be to have people ignore you all day long, I have taught myself to take their chit as a matter of reflex. The monk looked pleased. We were outside 815, the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in the United States. I reached out my hand and he said “Buddha peace.” That was nicer than most of what I’d heard from the people who worked inside the church to which I’d dedicated years of my life. Without a beat my Buddhist friend continued, “temple donation.” I had to wave him off with a smile. Religions, no matter how placid, are out to earn a buck.

In the neighborhood of my office lurks a psychic named Sharon. I wouldn’t know Sharon if I ran into her, but I suppose the reverse wouldn’t be true. Actually, I have no way of knowing if she’s really psychic or not. She has guys. These guys hang out on the four corners of my block and hand out fliers for Sharon’s psychic readings. The guys with the leaflets aren’t psychic, I take it, because a walk around the block, on which I recognize each and every one of them, always lands me back in the office with a pocket full of psi. I see that Sharon is a third generation psychic and that she is adept at foreseeing negative energy. I would advise her not to walk past 815. If I bring in my slips of paper I get five dollars off a reading. I don’t know how much Sharon charges, but I do know that I don’t need anyone to foresee negativity in my life. I’ve got a hard enough time dealing with it when I don’t see it. And I save five bucks each time.

I sometimes wonder, as I walk past 815 Second Avenue, if anyone in there knows how badly one of their faithful was hurt by priests and bishops who had the blessing of the church. No one from the central office ever consoled or tried to comfort a person whose career had just been lifted off the rails and flung off the cliff by the machinations of some of their own. Even now those who go in and out the doors as I stand there have no idea what was done to a lonely guy on the street. In the name of the church. I think of the hollow sound of coin ringing in the coffers. I think of Judas trying to return his thirty pieces of silver. I think of money lenders’ tables being overturned. I think of Buddha peace. One hand holds out a medallion for me. The other is palm up, waiting for a return on the sacred investment.

you shall know them

you shall know them

HRH vs C of E

An article from the Sunday Daily Mail, the UK newspaper, opens with the headline “Queen fights for gay rights.” I was pleased, as most even-minded individuals would be, that discrimination is being addressed by Her Royal Highness. Then the implications began to kick in. Having domiciled many years among the Episcopalians, I couldn’t help but smile knowing that the monarch is the head of the Church of England. Figurehead maybe, but on the books, the buck stops in Buckingham, not Lambeth. For decades I’ve seen the Anglican communion fracturing over what is a non-starter, theologically speaking. The only reason to protest homosexuality is the loss of potential life. For anyone who believes that sex is for procreation only, I would advise trying to counsel all the spermatozoa who just didn’t make it to the egg in time. Procreation is filled with an extravagant exuberance of over-production. Walk under any oak tree or stand among the wondrous helicopters of a maple tree in early summer and ponder what’s falling at your feet.

It seems to me that what’s lacking in the religious world is love. Loving, committed couples are ostracized for being just what God made them, while self-righteous critics wag their parsimonious fingers. And this is done in the name of God. I have friends of all gender orientations, and never have they given me cause for moral concern. In fact, I have trouble categorizing them together as a group; they are individuals to me, not pigeonholes. Some churches have trouble because prejudice has become dogma. Even the Roman Catholic Church allows for sex between couples when conception is virtually impossible, as when a woman is pregnant yet doesn’t yet know it. Just try not to enjoy it too much. The life potential ends the same way. Millions must lose for every winner. Consider the ethical implications of a deity who didn’t design a one-shot, sure-fire sperm for each act. Surely it would’ve been possible to engineer for an omnipotent divinity.

Instead many mainstream churches are assiduously drawing lines in the sand, claiming that one gender, one orientation, one race, only is welcome on the side of the 144,000. The rest can, quite literally, go to Hell. Is this what religion has become? Imagine what good might be done if all that energy were poured into addressing poverty, starvation, or inadequate water supplies. Imagine those who represent the winners in the reproductive race receiving care and attention rather than those who will, by a massive margin, stand no chance of survival whatsoever. We could make this a better world instead of prolonging the suffering of those who’ve done no wrong. Those holding the balls are trying to make up the rules of the game. The Queen of the Realm seems to be saying it’s time to start playing fair. Long live the Queen!

The first queen of the Church (of England)

The first queen of the Church (of England)

Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple

Americans seldom seem to fuss much about religion unless they perceive that it is under threat. We’re real believers in religious liberty that way. The threat angle is a vector worth measuring every once in a while. What gets our collective goat? A story on CNN last week about the National Cathedral caught some attention. Those who think about freedom of religion, liberty of conscience, and all that, might find the implications of a national cathedral itself a tad troubling. Of course, it really isn’t a cathedral for all of the United States, but it is used for many displays of civil religion including several presidential funerals and inaugural prayer services. The cathedral, historically and ironically, is of the Episcopalian brand. Episcopalians boast perhaps the smallest number of mainline protestants in the country, and since they are the remains of the “established church” of England in the States, it is not just a little odd that such an edifice should be associated, however informally, with government in its former colony. The reason that CNN ran the story related to a perceived threat to American religion: same-sex marriages.

Now that same-sex marriages have been approved in three states, some couples desire the symbolism of a wedding in the National Cathedral. It is a victory of social justice that highlights one of the deepest and most persistent of religious concerns—human sexuality. Although many religious denominations have made their peace with evolution by natural selection, few have really considered the implications of reproduction and its discontents. Formally ever since the Enlightenment (and certainly informally for all of human history) sexuality has been a subject of scientific scrutiny. And not just for humans either. As naturalists observe the world of our fellow creatures, we find all kinds of sexual behaviors labelled “unnatural” in humans are quite normal in nature. The reason is the religion that is invested in reproduction. People, many religions teach, are somehow different. Besides, in the days before scientific interest in animal reproduction, few bothered to consider what other animals did, far from human eyes.

For those willing to admit that nature can teach us something about ourselves, same-sex couplings are not limited to humans. They are a part of nature. As Martha McCaughey suggested in The Caveman Mystique, reproduction is only one of a variety of reasons that humans and other animals mate. For us, however, it is a strangely sacral act. All religions have something to say about sexuality, and many express strong feelings about what marriage means. So the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (two men, one might note) is in the news because of what marriages symbolize for many. Marriage is about commitment, not just sex. In a nation where commitment is only fair-to-middling, shouldn’t we applaud the use of the National Cathedral to reinforce such family values? Unfortunately, for many gender differentiation trumps love in what is understood as a legitimate religious outlook.

Carol M. Highsmith's National Cathedral

Carol M. Highsmith’s National Cathedral

Digging Deeper

A propos of apes, I’m not sure whence derives the draw of Planet of the Apes on me. I watched the movie with fascination as a child—since the obviously satanic delusion of evolution was impossible this had to be pure fantasy (and perhaps just a little dangerous). The movies just kept on coming, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, each with their new twist on the theme that we are the beasts. Recently I watched the second installment, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It had been years since I’d seen it, although I remembered the terrible mutants and their possession of an atomic bomb. Although the geography is badly distorted, it is made amply clear that the church where the bomb is stored is St. Patrick’s Cathedral on (beneath?) Fifth Avenue. As Brent makes his way into the partially intact cathedral he finds a priest praying to a missile with the letters alpha and omega inscribed on one of its fins.

Since last seeing the movie I spent a lengthy stint among the Episcopalians. Naturally I became thoroughly acquainted with the liturgy and therefore could appreciate subtleties in the movie I had missed before (nothing is ultimately wasted, it seems). As the mutants prepare to set off the doomsday bomb that will obliterate the entire planet—both apes and humans—they recite many prayers from the mass, substituting the word “bomb” for “God” and “Holy Fallout” for “Holy Spirit.” Okay, so maybe “subtleties” was the wrong word. Of course, back in the early 1970’s this was a very real concern, the arms race was well underway. Despite the overacting and forced script, the movie did offer considerable social commentary. Ironic and iconic Charlton Heston condemns the unadulterated praise of such a lethal weapon (or was it just missile envy?), even as he falls, shot, onto the controls, accidentally destroying the earth.

The fascinating aspect of this social critique is that the players may have changed, but the drama remains the same. Those who protest evolution praise the build-up of native strength so that the true Christians might obliterate their enemies first and better than they will obliterate us. One gets the feeling that destruction is not so bad a fate as being proven wrong. Somewhere along the millennia religion slipped its mooring from being an ethical way of life to become an extreme way of believing. And yet people are still the same. And the Planet of the Apes movies continue to appear, ever evolving. When it comes down to the final scene, however, it is not the evolved apes who destroy us. No, it is the utterly self-righteous humans who decide that if they can’t have it all, nobody will have any of it. In the name of the bomb, and the holy fallout, amen.

Lunchtime in Midtown

It was a brilliantly sunny day and there seemed to be rain nowhere in sight. It wasn’t even hot. Days like this have been rare this spring, so I went out for a lunchtime walk in my neighborhood. I’d been by the United Nations with some visiting family the day before, so I went down again and pondered the words attributed to Isaiah carved in the wall across from one of the largest intentional organs of peace in the world. I was reminded that a copy of the Edict of Cyrus resides in the UN; as a historical text it is often considered to be the first document promoting religious tolerance among lesser powers allowed by a greater power. The world could use a few more like old Cyrus the Great these days. I think Deutero-Isaiah would agree. So with biblical thoughts in my head, I strolled back toward Grand Central.

Along the way I saw a phrase from the Eucharistic Prayer on a building and it was like meeting someone from college that moved halfway around the world to disappear from your life. I saw that I was standing outside 815 Second Avenue. To the majority of the world—even the majority of Christians—this will mean nothing. At Nashotah House, however, “815” was regarded as the source of all evil. It is the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in America. It is hard, as a disowned son, to describe the feelings that assailed me there. Those good Christians who intended me such harm did not seem to realize all I had sacrificed to join them. Some of the clergy whose daggers remain in my back are well-paid priests right here in New York. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, I thought.

With that cloud in my sky, I turned the corner back to work. Parked in the street was a truck labeled “Divine Moving & Storage.” That sounded an awful lot like a trope for my life. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s God reaching to Adam contrasting with a phone number ending in 666, this bundle of contradictions might just have been a small sample of the human experience. Caught constantly between Heaven and Hell with doleful prophets and profit-loving dolers of sacramental grace living one next to the other. New York is a religious city in every sense of the word. Somewhere off in the shadows I think I hear Isaiah whispering, “I make weal and I create woe…” I love a sunny day in Manhattan.

Pilgrims’ Regress

In March alone I had to build expanders for three of our bookshelves. I claim the problem began when, as a faculty member at Nashotah House, I had use of a house with a built-in, floor-to-ceiling library. My wife claims the problem began long before that. We own a lot of books. The only silver lining to Borders’ recent bankruptcy was that we hovered like buzzards at one of the closing stores and walked out with books we might not have otherwise bought, but whose prices demanded their owners find a new home. Orphaned books are a sad sight. So I purchased my first Christian satire book in many a year. I just finished reading Becky Garrison’s Jesus Died for This? A Satirist’s Search for the Risen Christ. Having spent many years among the Episcopalians, Garrison’s point of view set me at ease: had this been an evangelical attempt at humor I would have orphaned the book myself. Nevertheless, as I read through this travelogue/memoir, I rarely found myself laughing.

Nothing robs one’s sense of humor quite like being in higher education for a couple of decades. I still find plenty to laugh about, but I realize the reprieve is only temporary before more serious issues once again cloud the skies. Garrison’s attempt to find genuine “Christ-like” behavior among Christians was, predictably, peppered with the failures to find it. As she repeatedly notes, the odd marriage of religion and politics in the United States has tainted both institutions (and both had already tainted themselves without the other’s help many times previously). It doesn’t take a satirist to see that many religious figures have made a joke of their belief systems by touting them as the only way to heaven.

What became increasingly clear to me as I read this personal and revealing book was that Christianity has splintered into countless subcultures that attempt to reclaim the original Christian experience. The problem is that time doesn’t stand still. Religions are, by definition, conservative. Progress, by definition, is not. Ever since the first hominid hefted a wedge-shaped rock and used it as the first Paleolithic weapon, our course was set. We would continue to try to improve our lot. Institutionalized religions began appearing a mere six-to-seven thousand years ago, very late in the game, and they’ve been driving with feet firmly on the brakes ever since. Once we figure out what the gods want we need to – wait, don’t change that! We’ve just figured it out! So we find ourselves in a highly technological twenty-first century with pre-medieval religions trying to tell us how to survive the Black Death. Each time religions change, some get left behind. When we finally implode, some future archaeologist may find an apartment crammed full of books and she’ll declare that my wife was right: the problem began long ago.