Not so New

I remember it clearly.  The ubiquity of technology robs me of the memory of how I knew about it, but there was plenty of pre-internet buzz.  A new Bible translation was being published and people were very excited.  Including me.  By the time the New International Version (NIV) was set to appear, I had read every translation of the Good Book I knew, cover-to-cover.  Being a good evangelical, I started with the King James.  I’d read it a time or two, then moved on to the Revised Standard Version.  As you might guess, with my interests I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I do recall people complaining that it wasn’t literal enough.  I’d read the Living Bible, and the Good News Bible.  My favorite was probably the New American Standard Bible, though, because it was as close to languages I then didn’t know as I could get.

We didn’t have much money in my family, and since my summer jobs covered the cost of my school clothes, disposable income was fairly rare.  But then a miracle.  Christmas morning I opened my “big gift”—a brand new NIV.  In a way that is somehow difficult to recapture these days, I was absurdly happy getting a new Bible.  I started reading it right away.  Little did I know it would become the best-selling modern English translation of all time.  And that’s saying something—Bibles are big business.  The reason for the NIV’s appeal was that it was Evangelical-friendly.  No awkward issues like inclusive language, and, to be honest, a nicely rendered English.

Being in the Bibles business I decided to read about who was behind the NIV and found an unexpected connection with Rutgers University, where I used to teach.  The owner of the NIV translation is Biblica.  Biblica is the name of the International Bible Society, initially founded in 1809 as the New York Bible Society.  In a way that’s hard to imagine in today’s New York City, that’s where the group formed.  One of its founders?  Henry Rutgers.  Eventually the New York Bible Society became international, and like many good evangelicals, moved to Colorado Springs.  The money from continuing sales of the NIV must contribute to their somewhat posh-looking campus.  Meanwhile, Rutgers University has moved in quite a different direction.

Connections like this have always fascinated me.  Although much detritus has flowed under the bridge with all that water, I can still feel that brief, sharp release of endorphins when I pick up my well-used NIV.  I think of days of naive faith and all that has come after.  Yes, Bibles are big business, and yet somehow so very small.


Forgotten Bible Verses

Bible believers are basking in the headlines these days.  What with Mr. “Meet My Genitals” gunning for the Supreme Court and displacing them for a few days, they must be getting anxious for more sonburn in the limelight.  If only they didn’t have the Good Book standing in the way.  As I was reading my Bible the other day, I was reminded of this little gem, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Now, liberals like myself know that Paul of Tarsus didn’t write 1 Timothy, but Bible-believers know he did.  So much the worse for them.  They elected a president who stands for nothing so much as the love of money, and the swamp has become quite a root of evil.  Senate Republicans, after hearing a second credible sexual assault allegation against their boy for the black bench responded by trying to rush through a vote before the news got out.  And this reminded me of the forgotten prophets.

“What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”  Well, you see, Mr. Micah, we know we’re heading to defeat in the midterms, so we’ve got to railroad through as many of our personal agendas as we can.  Don’t you know, o Lord, that this is a lifetime appointment?  And really, what does justice have to do with it?  Sure, he gropes and demeans women, but you’re a dude, right?  I bet you did the same when you were in high school and college.  And the money thing?  We’re only trying to help the economy because, well, wealth trickles down.  Who said anything like it’s the root of all evil?  “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate.”  Now, don’t go quoting Mr. Amos to me.  Next thing I know you’ll be telling me to let justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Forgotten Bible verses, in the new Evangelicalism, seem to be cropping up on the black market.  You might think we should turn back to the start of the Good Book and read from the beginning.  There the GOP will find its solace until they come to the 27th verse, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”  That semicolon says a lot; they will claim.  Man is the image of God, and he had a son.  Just don’t listen too closely to what that son says, particularly when he makes remarks like “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”  Young men like to drink and grope.  When they grow old they then like to be Supreme Court justices.  What’s that?  One more short verse?  “Jesus wept.”


Look Both Ways

One of the things I miss the most about my teaching career is learning from the young.  While some professors in my experience believed the learning only went one way, I always found a kind of reciprocity in it.  I passed on what I learned from taking classes and having my face in a book all the time, and they taught me about popular culture.  Academics don’t get out much, you see.  It’s a basic issue of time—we all have a limited amount of it and research, if done right, takes an incredible chunk.  In fact, when hot on the trail of an idea, it’s difficult to think of anything else.  Pop culture, on the other hand, is what the majority of people share.  Now it’s largely mediated by the internet, a place that some academics get bored.

Speaking to a young person recently, I was initially surprised when he said that his generation was more interested in the Devil than in God.  Parents have always been concerned that their children not go astray, but this was, it seemed to me, more of an intellectual curiosity than any kind of devotion.  God, he averred, was thought of as aloof, pious, self-righteous; in a word, Evangelical.  The internet can be downright ecclesiastical in its affirmation that our inclinations can be what used to be called “sinful.”  Not that these things are always bad, but they are the kinds of things we’re taught to feel guilty about.  The divine response?  Anger.  Displeasure.  Shaming.  Young people, my interlocutor thought, found the Devil more understanding.

Perhaps this is the ultimate result of Evangelical thinking.  We’re watching in real time as the party of Jesus is becoming the party of intolerance for anyone different than ourselves.  Rather than turning the other cheek, it’s fire when ready.  Eager to retain the “brand” of “Christianity,” they slap the secular label on any outlook different than their own, although their own faith is without form and void.  It used to be that this was the realm of the Devil.  This sheds a different perspective on what my young colleague was saying.  Instead of bringing people to God, the Evangelical movement is driving them away.  Traditionally, the Devil was after the destruction of human souls.  That seems to be one of the new values of the right wing of the church.  There’s quite a bit to think about in this observation by this young one.  I’m glad to know that traffic still moves both directions on this street.


Redefinition

The striking thing about Evangelicalism is its protean nature. The earliest forms of this conversion-based “Christianity” began with the Reformation among Pietist Protestants. They sincerely believed in two things: the Bible and Jesus. Today Evangelicals deny both. They believe in Donald Trump. Racism and subordination of women are their two main foci. And yet, they wish to keep the brand. Daily we see the standards of traditional “Christianity” tumble: turn the other cheek, love your neighbor as thyself, if a man asks your cloak give him your coat also. All of this jettisoned like so much non-capitalist clap-trap. Thing is, it’s in the Bible. Thing is, it was said by Jesus. And also anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his heart is guilty of adultery, let alone those who pay them off so they can grab another on the way out the door. All of that’s now “Christianity.”

The funny thing is that those who object to such behavior are what Evangelicals scornfully call “liberals.” So much for the group that just three short years ago advocated the reinstitution of biblical law. Now that 45 would have committed a capital crime according to such laws, they have changed the Good Book rather than rebuke the pastor in chief. Ironically, some of the children of famous evangelists have drunk deeply from that Kool-Aid. It’s fine to sleep around as long as you lie the right way at the right time. Bear false witness? What does that even mean? You’d think liberals were suggesting that those God loves are chasteneth by him, for goodness sake!

Many of us feel as though we woke up to an alternate reality in November of 2016. We supposed the Republican Party would show some backbone, but when they didn’t we weren’t all that surprised. What shocked us most is that the leopard has changed its spots. Those of us brought up with the Bible were led to believe this impossible. After all, who can change a hair from black to white (although some of us would rather have it go the opposite direction)? We thought that Holy Writ would guide the Evangelical heart. We thought they would remember who Jesus was. All of this is negotiable now. The only solid rock on which they build their church—those to whom they give the keys to the kingdom—are those that fall into goose-step behind a “leader” for whom the truth changes daily. Opportunist be thy name. Were Jesus alive to see all this, surely he’d weep.


Nothing Better

While it may seem that the largest challenge on a blog like this is writing all these words every day, that’s often not the case. Early on in my blogging life, I learned that images draw readers in. That may no longer be the case, but I do try to ensure that my posts have apt illustrations. Due to the fact that I can’t keep up with technology, I no longer know where these images are even stored, so when I was seeking a picture—amid thousands—that I had saved on my backup drive, I came across a series of photos taken in central Pennsylvania. These showed some road-cuts with obvious and impressive folding of geological layers characteristic of orogenous zones. Geologists only discovered the earth was ancient in the nineteenth century, and evangelicals have been disputing it ever since.

Genesis, so the spotless thinking goes, says the world was created in six days. So, by God, in six days it was created! When Darwin simply put the pieces of the puzzle together, evangelicals objected loudly. They started electing US presidents in the next century—a blink of the eye in geologic terms. They don’t dispute non-biblical dinosaurs, however. Their kids would object. The impressive sedimentary layers (or for that matter, igneous or metamorphic) were, they claim, made by God to look old. To fool us. That’s the kind of deity he is. So I got to thinking of a “to do list” for a God with nothing better to do than to oversee intricate and complicated layers of rock that make sense in geological time, but which, apparently, are only planted here to test the faith of brand-spanking new Homo sapiens.

One thing such a deity might do is take care of social injustice. Since he is a father, I suspect we ought to listen to his son, my evangelical friends. Jesus of Nazareth seemed pretty set on helping other people and everyone loving one another. This was, of course, between stints of helping make the planet look older than it actually is so that sinful scientists could trick their compatriots into going to Hell by believing false evidence. There are so many things you could do if you had the time to make such intricate traps. Why not write another book, for example? The Bible could use a good sequel. But no, it is far better to spend divine time making a world look older than it is. And if I had been able to save the time looking for that image that took over half an hour to find, a post such as this would’ve never been created at all.


Freezes Over

A good metaphor gone bad can do a lot of damage. Like a loose cannon. Hell is a bad neighborhood for metaphors. Taken literally Hell can be hell. So it is that many evangelical Christians are abandoning the concept. Jumping ship on the Manichean outlook that has policed bad behavior for two millennia now. A recent article on National Geographic by Mark Strauss discusses why many leading conservatives are now casting Hell into the pit and looking for ways to make God look better. Like many metaphors, Hell best resides in a world of black and white. A dualistic world where there are no shades of gray (certainly less than fifty of them). A world where any behavior can be understood as good or bad, forward or retrograde, never neutral. You’re either for us or against us. There’s no Switzerland in this geography. That’s precisely why so many people want to keep Hell on a leash.

Dore_woodcut_Divine_Comedy_01

Hell probably never would’ve become such a motivator for good had Jesus not mentioned it. Prior to its encounter with Zoroastrian beliefs, Judaism held that the dead quietly resided in Sheol, a dreary place, true, but hardly fiery real estate. You worked out justice here on earth because that was the only chance you had. The dead were sleepier than early morning commuters and they received neither rewards or punishments. It was a much more egalitarian view of things. The dualistic Zoroastrians saw paradise and torment as a great image to explain evil in the world. The sorting takes place after this life is over. Jesus used such language as well, and the image became canonical.

Evangelicals are now starting to think through the implications of all this. A God with the kinds of anger issues that condemn people literally forever might be problematic. Sure, we may get angry at our enemies, but only the most truly heartless person has no pity on their suffering. What does it say about God if his anger lasts for eternity? Some, therefore, are trying to put the metaphor back into Hell without losing the strict divisions for which the good news crowd is famous. Instead of full-time Hell, perhaps there’s part-time Hell with time for repentance. Or simple annihilation. Metaphors lose their power when they come to be taken literally. Hell is such a loose canon. Doctrine among the doctrinaire is often non-negotiable. Although some may try, as a whole, the fires of Hell can never be extinguished. At least to those who understand figures of speech as statements of fact.


The One That Got Away

While looking for reviewers for a book proposal on Jonah, I had a strange realization. Few mainstream biblical scholars are interested in the book. Or at least in publishing on it. The same goes for the Bible’s other great watery adventure, Noah’s story. Ironically, these are the stories we, as children, are weaned on. Kids love animals, right? And both Noah’s ark and Jonah’s great fish mastication involve animals, as well as lots of water. Both stories have more than a whiff of the fantastic about them—the kind of thing children can relate to. And yet, biblical scholars, collectively, wonder why few people are interested in their work as they take on the more heady work of unraveling Isaiah or Romans.

Sistine_jonah

Jonah used to be a test case for the Fundamentalist crowd. You were a “Bible believer” if you could, with steely gaze, claim that Jonah was swallowed by a fish—the Bible doesn’t say “whale”—and survived three days only to be vomited up on the Levantine shore to make his soggy way back to Assyria. Three days swimming in the gastric juices of just about any animal doesn’t do a great deal for a prophet’s credibility. Or physique. And since the story is fantastic, and populist, scholars avoid it like a giant fish. Meanwhile, John and Susie Q. Public want to know about this story—what does it mean? Did it really happen? Why is it in the Bible at all?

My generalization above is somewhat faulty. (What generalization isn’t?) Evangelical scholars still take an active interest in Jonah. Jonah is the stomach-acid test of faith. Since I never really outgrew my love of monster movies and outlandish plot lines (my brothers recently convinced me that I should see Sharknado) I’m fascinated by the tale of Jonah. It is one of the most carefully constructed stories in the Bible, and it clearly has a very counterintuitive message about who is acceptable in God’s eyes—here’s a hint: they live in Nineveh and even dress their animals in sackcloth when they realize they’ve been naughty. The book of Jonah, however, has been condemned for being a puerile tale of a guy who can hold his breath three days, amid chemicals that can dissolve most organic substances, and utter Psalm-like prayers all the while. Fish stories, after all, are something that many folks intuitively know how to interpret.


Real World Ethics

Do yourself a favor. Spend five minutes watching this video:

(note: the video has been removed and a “family friendly” version is here: Kai)

Although it has a whiff of the apocryphal about it, I choose to believe that Kai is really who he claims to be. I don’t know what actually happened here, but this is ethics divorced from armchair pundits and congressional committees. Sometimes you see something and know it’s just wrong. Most of us wring our hands and await some authority figure to sort it out. When Kai met someone claiming to be Jesus, he was willing to be “the Antichrist” to save innocent people with no regard for himself. I am very impressed.

No, vigilantism is wrong. In fact, I wouldn’t trust a who coven of Republicans to ever arrive at so parsimonious a solution as Kai. He saw evil, he confronted it. I don’t know the backstory here, but I know that I feel a lot less threatened by the street people I see nearly every day than I do by those hiding away in limousines. Ethics is all about figuring out what is right. Kai has his head on straight here. If he could go back in time to stop “Jesus” reincarnated from harming an innocent bystander, he would. No regrets, no questions.

I have watched, and personally experienced, religious leaders intricately plotting how to ruin the life of their neighbors to maximum effect. I have read about politicians who shamelessly increase their earnings while knowing that some of their constituency live in poverty and persistent hunger. I have seen a president declare a war to fulfill a personal vendetta. And I have seen Kai lifting a hatchet to save a person he didn’t know.

There will certainly be those who would condemn such quick thinking and right action as immoral. For those who object from a Christian outlook I would remind them of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the darlings of the Evangelical world. Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis because he did what he knew to be right. Even though his bomb plot failed to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer knew what Kai knows—those who sit around and watch evil happen as just as guilty as those who perpetrate it. And that’s like trying to surf when the ocean’s at a dead calm.


Ad Lib

Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve had a notion to research and write a book on the history of “bad words.” Being raised Evangelical, I had a preternatural fear of saying something that might damn me to Hell, and even today working in Manhattan, I still flinch when I hear f-bombs falling all around me. Still, the concept of “bad words,” although almost universal, is very odd. We all know the tired jokes of a particularly offensive word in one language being common in another, with an entirely different denotation leading to embarrassing situations. No set of sounds, inherently, means anything bad. Surely it is the intention behind such outbursts that lead to accusations of profanity or blasphemy. I wonder how it got started. The Bible says nothing about bad words—in fact it contains a few—but it does warn against thoughtless curses. That’s because ancient people believed curses really worked.

As I stepped out in the dark to pick up the paper this morning I was curious, then, when a front page story announced, “At school, cursing’s out—for girls only.” The school in question turns out to be Queen of Peach High School in North Arlington, New Jersey. According to Leslie Brody the girls at the school were asked to take a no cursing pledge yesterday, while the boys weren’t. The real story here, however, is not my curiosity about “bad words,” but an insidious sexism. One of the teachers is quoted as saying “We want ladies to act like ladies.” And, of course, what lady would ever have anything to cuss about? Being paid lower wages than a man for the same work? Being blocked out of clergy positions in some churches? Being regularly maligned as “the weaker sex” who, like Eve, bear the guilt of bringing sin into the world? If anything, it seems to me, women have more cause to swear than men.

Just when I’ve been lulled into thinking we’re making strides toward equality, such stories dash the ice water of reality into my face. Who decided that it is appropriate for gentlemen to cuss? Can they just not help it? Are the same words any more offensive for slipping past feminine lips than masculine ones? I’m still not convinced about the entire bad word concept. As someone who smiths words every day, indeed, whose living depends on words, I find all words have their uses. It’s really a matter of context. And if I were a girl being told not to say what boys can say, I think I might have some choice words to add to that conversation.

Good, bad, and ugly.

Good, bad, and ugly.


Occluded Religion

In my youngest days the word “occult” conjured the most perilous kind of fear in my inexperienced, Christian heart. It sounded malevolent and sinister, suggesting Hell, Satan, and the coercion of the divine. Therefore it took considerable time to pump up the courage to read Occult America by Mitch Horowitz. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic—I learned in the course of my many years studying religion that “occult” is very difficult to tease out from “religion.” What I really feared is what others would think of me as I sat on the bus reading Occult America while heading to the Lincoln Tunnel. The word “occult” refers to the “hidden” or “secret” nature of certain religious practices. In ancient times it might refer to the Gnostics or Mandaeans, while in more recent days it might be used to describe Rosicrucians or Theosophists. Unconventional, yes. Evil, hardly.

Horowitz takes his readers through a whirlwind tour of some very colorful characters and, perhaps more importantly, shows just how deeply rooted occult practices are in the most Christian nation on earth. Few people realize just how influenced high office holders in this country have occasionally been by the occult. It seems a hard-and-fast rule that to be elected president you must be a professing Christian, strongly preferable if of the evangelical, Protestant flavor. Ronald Reagan made a great show of that while being personally convicted of the efficacy of astrology and some popular mediums. And Reagan has not been the only one. Still, politicians have to keep their more unconventional religious beliefs secret. The populace likes a straight shooter, devotionally speaking. The fact is that even what many people think of as regular Christianity has been seasoned somewhat with occult.

I can recommend this little book for getting a sense of just how deeply the occult has tunneled into the American psyche. The chapter on the ouija board took me straight back to a very straight-laced Grove City College, bastion of conservative evangelicalism. When I matriculated (which sounds vaguely occultish in its own right) the yearbook was called The Ouija. It was explained away as the combination of the French and German words for “yes,” but everyone knew, given what yearbooks are, that it had that spooky, occult vibe. By my senior year a more fluffy, evangelical-safe title of The Bridge replaced it. And many heaved a great sigh of relief. Christians thanked their lucky stars that they’d been delivered from the evils of the occult just as they were lining up to elect Ronald Reagan to a second term in office.


Haunted Purgatory

Halloween season is a time for both pagans and evangelicals alike to tremble. Our usual local “haunted house” for charity being closed this year, my family went to the local haunted farm last night. In a nation where few of us grow up on farms, the agricultural world is already a foreign environment. And corn is a scary plant when it dries out, especially at night. The Creepy Hollow part of the farm tour was a long, rambling stumble through a corn field where costumed actors jump out at you or just as ominously shake the cornstalks as you walk by in the dark. Senses that we have long ignored leap to full attention, scanning for any possible fright. At nearly a mile long, this haunted trail was pretty intense, and I’ll admit to being glad to have seen the open field at the end. One of the props along the way was a haunted church. As I’ve noted before, religion and fear often stride hand-in-hand.

Earlier in the day, my wife had pointed out an article in the Huffington Post about the dilemma many evangelicals face when their kids want to celebrate Halloween. A holiday of Catholic and pagan origins (both feared equally by the truly staunch evangelical), Halloween is a season of dangerous influences. In response, some groups have started their own “Hell Houses” designed to show kids the horrors of Hell as they walk through a putatively non-fiction version of fear. The intention seems clear enough, although a little odd for a religion that claims to be based on love. The Hell Houses are part of an alternative holiday called “Jesus Ween” and people are encouraged to give out Bibles rather than candy. At least they got the scary book part right.

In an unrelated yet relevant story, Time projects that the seven billionth person will be born on October 31. I remember when there were just four billion of us, and my teachers began pointing out the stresses we place on our environment. Of course, those who co-opt the identity of being “pro-life” advocate for as many of our species as possible—less for God to pour out love, but better to populate Hell, apparently. The Roman Catholics share this petard with the evangelical camp, as Monty Python made famously clear in The Meaning of Life. We have overcome (largely) nature’s control on our expansion, and as Halloween, or Jesus Ween, races nearer, we have less to fear from chainsaw-wielding maniacs than we do from Bible-bearing clones who claim it is divine mandate to stress our own planet to death.


Golden Eagles

I used to be a Boy Scout. Not a very good one, but I did try. Eventually, before even reaching the rank of “Tenderfoot” I dropped out. I often wonder what life would be like if I’d gone on to be an Eagle Scout, like Gerald Ford. Would I have made president? Or at least Assistant Professor? Last night I attended a workshop for Girl Scouts. My daughter is about to embark on the program that leads to the Gold Award, the highest honor a girl can attain in the organization. I want her to succeed where Dad failed. Maybe earn herself a better life.

Girl Scouts are as organized as Methodists and as legalistic as Jesuits. As we sat listening to the requirements, I was stunned by the degree of technicality. You can do this, but not that, that, or that. I remember now that I didn’t make Eagle Scout. What struck me as most intriguing, however, is the fact that certain projects are disallowed for theological reasons. In order to earn a Gold Award, the Scout must conceive, lead, and implement a social service project. It is a noble goal. In society many people are hurting and in need, and governors, representatives, and senators do not seem to notice. Yet, the leader of the meeting noted – if the project involves “controversial” issues, it will be declined. Controversial issues are things like abortion (i.e., women’s rights), or gay rights.

While I agree, it is not safe to put girls in the line of fire, I thought about these issues. The reasons that they are controversial is that Evangelical Christianity has made them so. Evangelicalism is a strain of Christianity that has a trajectory that went on the offensive in the 1960s. Charging the emotions of regular Americans with the terrors of gay love and dead fetuses, it raised these issues to national consciousness and made them a part of every political campaign in the latter part of the last millennium and into this one. These are points of great human suffering. The answers are not easy, but the fact remains – neither is a biblical issue. Yet girls are prevented from taking on issues that may have the most solid and tangible impact on their future. I was saddened.

I have no complaints with the Girl Scouts. It is a shining example of an organization that gives girls the confidence and tools they need in a hostile environment. I am disappointed, however, that a small but vocal cross-section of Christianity has made certain topics – topics that need to be addressed – off-limits for concerned young women.


Lost Apocalypse

The Bible has many eminently quotable passages. I suspect that is one of the reasons it has the staying power that it does. Many critics of the theologies spun off by the Good Book have turned their vitriol toward the Bible itself, but I believe such hostility to be misplaced. Not everyone enjoys reading the Bible – that much is true for any book. The Bible, however, is foundational for not only our society, but the entire western literary tradition. Its influence on Shakespeare alone, who has, in turn, influenced just about every writer since the seventeenth century, underscores its literary importance. That’s why I’m always surprised with film-makers use concocted verses from the Bible when actual passages would produce the same effect. Granted, few Bible scholars comprise movie audiences and producers and directors seldom worry about writing the story for them. Last night I watched the “horror” film, Lost Souls, released in 2000. I’d read about the movie in Douglas Cowen’s Sacred Terror, so I wanted to see how it rated.

The movie begins with a false Bible quote: “… A man born of incest will become Satan and the world as we know it, will be no more. Deuteronomy Book 17.” Now granted, the movie failed to rock the critics, but the sheer weight of errors from pre-scene one should be the first warning to start from a better script. Beginning with an ellipsis for dramatic effect may be acceptable, but it serves no purpose – and what’s with the misplaced comma? A man born of incest in Deuteronomy is a non-starter because his potential parents could only be found dead, crushed together under a pile of hurled stones before the unfortunate could even be born. Satan as a devil is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, let alone Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is almost never quoted by apocalypticists since it does not predict the end of the world, and Bible books are divided into chapters, not “books.” Well, the biblical illiteracy of Hollywood may be overlooked for a good story, but this is no such thing.

Lost Souls fails on the premise that a biblical “literalism” (and that is only if certain Evangelical interpretations are given unwarranted credence) about the coming of an Antichrist should be shored up by a fabricated quote from the Bible. I’m not trying to be a movie critic here, but a cultural one. The whole “end of the world” scenario held by many Evangelicals is a hodge-podge of biblical verses brought together by clever nineteenth-century clergy with little exegetical training. It is like trying to connect the dots while having to change pages constantly. The idea caught on amid the discarded lives left behind by advancing industrialism and the perceived threat of evolution. Apocalypticism has become its own industry as some otherwise unknown writers can attest. Movies like Lost Souls, or even The Omen, however, pale when compared to the antics of religiously motivated apocalypticists in the real world. Some of the rules in Deuteronomy itself are more frightening, if better written.


Probation in Hades

Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”

As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.

Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.

Hades, slightly influenced by ideas of Hell


Wasting our Breath

The internet is alive with the sounds of musings about the appropriateness of various types of scholars doing biblical research. The discussion revolves around a recent article by Ronald Hendel in Biblical Archaeological Review, a useful, if sometimes overeager, magazine. In it Hendel laments the policy of the Society of Biblical Literature, a professional group to which I have belonged for nearly two decades, of accepting overtures from evangelical groups in return for money they are able to bring in. The Society’s web page has a rebuttal and has invited discussion. I prefer to give my views on my blog – a place that I consider neutral territory.

I am not privy to the inner workings of the SBL. I have served as a chair of one of the program units in the annual meeting for several years, but I do not pretend to know the politics behind the scenes. I joined the society, like most young scholars, to find a job. Since that has never happened I have not become more deeply involved since I have no institutional base. It is clear, however, that over the past years conservatively motivated groups have felt an assonance with the Society, given that it is the gateway to academic respectability. The problem is that conservative/evangelical groups approach the Bible with doctrinal shackles firmly locked in place. Fearful of angering their image of God, there are questions they simply can’t ask. Secular or unaffiliated scholars are free to go wherever they believe the evidence leads. In the job market, the evangelicals are better placed to find work. In the wider academic world, however, their work is suspect.

Little did I realize as I laboriously worked away on my dissertation that many evangelical scholars flock to the field of ancient Near Eastern studies, providing, as it does, a way to avoid critical interaction with the Bible. They may thus become “Bible scholars” while leaving the confessional virgin Holy Writ intact. I entered ancient Near Eastern studies to get to the bottom of it all – to explore the origins of the Bible itself. All of us end up interviewing for the same jobs.

At the end of the day what it comes down to is an issue I’ve addressed before: who has the right to interpret the Bible? The answer often distresses scholars. It does not require a Ph.D. to read and interpret the Bible. Most times an advanced degree is a decided liability. A friend has recently pointed out that scholars write for scholars, intent on demonstrating their erudition while losing all public credibility. I’m not sure where the debate will end, but when it’s over not a ripple will be felt among the general public. The Bible will continue its reign in American society unchallenged.