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.

Domesticity

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.