Label Maker

Did you ever have one of those label makers?  The kind with a rotating wheel that embossed a plastic ribbon with letters that you could stick to things?  Labeling is so easy!  I often feel constrained, however, by the chosen labels of extremist groups.  Not all evangelicals are power-hungry or enemies of human welfare.  This is perhaps one of the keys to the success of extremists.  Camouflage has long been recognized by evolution as a most effective tactic.  I have many evangelical friends who do not protest cartoons, or ride around in Trump-laden vehicles, polluting the environment like there’s no tomorrow.  The problem is what to call them since the more radical wing has usurped their nomenclature.  I often think of this because I eschew labels in general, but people in a collective can do quite a bit more damage than a single disgruntled individual.  Perhaps “disgruntled” should be part of their name?

Religions generally begin as efforts to help make the world a better place.  The historian of religions sees, however, that over time many believers begin seeing the peripherals as the central tenets of the faith.  Since I’m familiar with evangelicalism, let me use that as an example.  As a form of Christianity, evangelicalism began with the Reformation.  Pietist groups, freed from Catholicism’s idea of communal salvation, began to worry about their individual souls and how  they might be saved.  Their belief structure eventually came to include the necessity of converting others because, if you read the Bible a certain way, that’s a requirement.  Over time this outlook  evolved into the idea that only one group (one’s own) has truly understood the Christian message.  Once numbers grow numerous, it becomes like the medieval Catholic Church—large enough to take political power.  Somewhere along the line the central message of helping make the world a better place morphs into making the world evangelical only.  Or whatever label we feel constrained to use.

labels are problematic

I’m not picking on the evangelicals here—this could apply to any extremists.  And it certainly doesn’t apply to all evangelicals.  Religion has been part of human culture from the very beginning.  A good case can be made that it is one of the basic components of consciousness itself.  A person has to learn how to become unreligious.  We are also political animals.  Who doesn’t want things their own way?  We can’t all win, however, and some religions have difficulty separating, say, a savior willing to die for others and the insistence on one’s own way no matter what others want.  Like most aspects of life this is a balancing act.  I grew up evangelical.  I have friends who are evangelical.  I don’t want to insult anybody, but what can you do when you feel disgruntled by the degradation of religion into an excuse for hate?  I lost my label maker long ago and I no longer know what to call things anyway.

What’s Wrong with Heroes?

There can be no doubt that under Trump conservative Christians have been flexing their muscles.  Few things corrupt so readily as political power, and evangelicalism—already an unrealistic way of looking at things—is itching to throw punches.  A story on For Reading Addicts that my wife sent to me bear the title “DC Comics cancel latest comic after backlash from conservative Christians.”  The piece by Rowan Jones notes that Second Coming was cancelled due to pressure from evangelicals with the cultural sensitivity of the Kouachi treatment of Charlie Hebdo.  Cartoons, it seems, are a real threat to true believers in a way that reason is not.  Jones notes that the comic was actually largely supportive of Christian values, but like an evangelical Brexit the reaction was taken without understanding the issue.

The anger of conservative religions—it hardly matters whether they are Christian, Muslim, or Aum Shinrikyo—often plays itself out in displays of violence.  I wonder if part of this insecurity comes from the fact that the expectations of their faith don’t work out they way they’ve been led to believe they will.  The myth of the blessed existence of the true believer is given the lie by life in a secular world.  While the evangelicals support Trump, 45’s tax plan takes money from their pockets and hand it to the ultra-wealthy.  This raises no objections, but a cartoon showing Jesus helping the poor?—now that’s offensive!  And still no second coming takes place.  It’s difficult to retain a fantasy view in the face of cold reality.

Who doesn’t like a hero?

Religious beliefs are a deeply personal matter.  It is a dicey business to try to get someone to change their outlook when they’ve been convinced that the consequences are eternal.  Although vaguely aware of other religions all along, Christianity in the “new world” was taken quite by storm at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago.  Suddenly it was clear that other moral, decent religions had developed similar ethics to what had largely been supposed to have been Christian innovations.  It’s difficult to feel superior when others in the same room seem just as intent on improving the lot of humankind as you do.  Even when a particular religion holds all the political power of a nation it’s overly sensitive to cartoons.  This is a curious situation indeed.  I’m not a comic book reader—I don’t even have time for internet articles unless someone sends them to me with the suggestion that they’re worth my time.  And I, for one, think a little more humor might just make the world a better place.  Either that or we need a hero.

Like a River

It still gives me the creeps, to be honest.  Although a myth, well, let’s not dignify it with that noble term—although an urban legend, the origin of the “peace sign” with “Nero’s cross” upset me as a child and still has its hooks in me.  I remember distinctly the Christian comic book that showed a “Christian hater” turning a cross upside-down and breaking it.  The physics of it puzzled me even as a youngster—to break something like that you needed to have some kind of tension.  Snapping two arms off a cross simultaneously must’ve required some kind of magic.  In any case, it was a scary thought.  Now I’ll be the first person to admit that I need more time to study the symbols here, but it seems that “Nero’s cross” was a myth—er, urban legend intended to demonize the peace sign.

The “peace sign” has a documented history going back to the 1950s.  Gerald Holtom designed it based on the superimposed semaphore letters N and D which stood for “nuclear” and “disarmament.”  This was part of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, a cause that even then evangelical Christians did not support.  Being hawkish, this aggressive, masculine belief system wanted no long-hairs wearing a sign that to them looked like an inverted, broken cross.  Back in Nero’s day crucifixions were disturbingly common.  I suspect many people would’ve been only too happy to see crosses broken and government behaving a bit kinder.  Did they actually circulate a “Nero’s cross” as a hate sign for Christians?  You have to wade hip-deep through Evangelical websites claiming so before you can get anywhere near a site that has actual history on it.  Even then you’ll be left scratching your head.

Some liturgical vestments (sorry to talk shop) such as a chasuble, occasionally have a cross with “broken arms” on them.  Back in the 1950s Evangelical cats hated Catholic dogs and even as a kid I heard rumors about how such symbols were “anti-Christian.”  Were they inverted “Nero crosses?”  Religious symbols have long, rich histories.  We know that the “peace sign” first appeared in the 1950s to protest nuclear buildup.  We know that Evangelicals prefer to sacrifice doves on the altar of “national security.”  Might as well use some olive branches for kindling while you’re at it.  Although I know the origins of the “peace sign,”  I still always hesitate a moment before using it.  Such is the power of early indoctrination.  Even if it defies the laws of physics. 

Weaponized Scripture

One of the many questions that haunt evangelical Christians is whether it is okay to watch horror films or not.  The same applies to whether it’s okay to listen to rock-n-roll (even as it’s reaching its senior years).  Cultural accommodation is often seen as evil and evangelicalism, as a movement, is frequently offered as a culture all its own.  I recently rewatched Brian Dannelly’s Saved!, a coming-of-age comedy about a group of teenagers at American Eagle Christian High School.  Gently satirical, it portrays well how evangelicals try to redefine “cool” in a Christian mode.  Taking tropes from pop culture and “baptizing” them, Pastor Skip—the principal—assures the young people that they’re every bit as cool as secular culture icons, only the Christians are going to heaven.

The film came out when I was teaching at Nashotah House.  That seminary also had problems with secular culture, but in a completely different way.  Its method was basically to ignore that culture.  Isolated, Anglo-Catholic, one might even say “Medieval” but for the sanitation, it was likely not a safe place for a professor to be watching such films.  Evangelicalism and right-wing Catholicism were beginning to find each other.  Once the cats and dogs of the theological world, they were becoming more like goldfish in their bowl, watching a strange and unnerving world just outside the glass.  A world in which they couldn’t survive.  Now, Saved! is only a cinematic version of this, but it has a few profound moments.  Mary, the protagonist, comes to see the hypocrisy of both the school and her former friends when she supports a boyfriend who is gay.

At one point her friends attempt an intervention.  They try to exorcize Mary, and when that fails one of them throws a Bible at her.  Picking it up, Mary says “This is not a weapon.”  Since this movie isn’t by any stretch of the imagination horror, I didn’t address it in Holy Horror.  As I rewatched it in the light of that book, however, I recognized a motif I did discuss in it.  The use of the Bible in movies is extremely common.  That applies to films that don’t have an overt Christian setting such as this one does.  The iconic Bible is a protean book.  Despite what Mary says it can indeed be a weapon.  It often is.  Many of us have been harmed by it.  Christian separatist culture has its own dark side, even if it’s carefully hidden, its adherents think, from the secular world outside the fishbowl.

Mastication Meditation

Musing while munching a bowl of Wheaties, a thought came to me.  Not only do we owe the practice of eating breakfast cereal to an evangelical strain of Christianity, but we also encounter the early morning ideas that stay with us through the day.  Cereal boxes start our day.  Advertisers and marketers know that images are important.  If successfully done they stay with us and may influence future purchasing choices.  In the case of Wheaties (which I’ve always liked) the box shows some athlete or other, implying that we’ll be champions too if we partake.  We are what we wheat.  Now, I don’t follow sports.  I can tell a football from a basketball, but watching grown men (usually) chasing one about really has no appeal to me.  I don’t eat Wheaties to become big and strong.  (At my age you don’t want to get bigger.)

As I ponder my fodder, I wonder what it would be like if we put pictures of people reading on our cereal boxes.  Would we experience a massive renaissance of literacy if cool people were shown with a book instead of a ball?  Don’t get me wrong—I’m all for exercise.  I’m a fidgety sort of guy who doesn’t sit still well.  I like to get out and jog or walk.  I don’t mind doing household repairs.  I like to move about.  But reading is one of the great rewards I allow myself.  When work becomes dull, I look forward to an evening of reading (I tend to do my writing in the morning, before the mental exhaustion of the day kicks in.  Wheaties are, after all, a morning food).  It’s kind of like living in pre-television times, I suspect.

Among the publishing industry the fate of book reading is a constant topic of discussion.  Or, not to put too fine a point on it, book buying.  Reading itself is doing fine.  If, for example, you are reading this you are probably doing so on a screen but you’re still reading.  You don’t have to pay for reading, and it passes the time.  No, the crises is getting people to buy books.  People like yours truly buy books even when many are available free online.  I spend at least eight hours a workday in front of a computer screen, and by the end of it, nervous and twitchy, I need a break.  I need a physical book.  And maybe a physical constitutional walk.  If only my breakfast cereal encouraged others to explore the joys of the literary life—but then, I’ve got to get going; my Wheaties are getting soggy.

Fossilized Ideas

In our current political climate, perspective helps quite a bit.  Indeed, one of the shortcomings of our conscious species is our inability to think much beyond the present.  In either direction.  Because of the biblical basis of western civilization, a significant portion of otherwise intelligent people believe that the world was created 6000 years ago.  I grew up believing that myself, before I learned more about the Bible and its context.  I also grew up collecting fossils.  Somehow I had no problem knowing that the fossils were from times far before human beings walked the earth, but also that the earth wasn’t nearly as old as it had to be for that to have happened.  Faith often involves contradictions and remains self-convinced nevertheless.

While out walking yesterday I came across a fossil leaf.  Unbeknownst to our movers last summer, I have boxes of fossils that I’ve picked up in various places that I’ve lived.  I find it hard to leave them in situ because of the fascinating sense of contradictions that still grabs me when I see one.  There was an impression of a leaf from millions of years ago right at my feet.  It was in a rock deeply embedded in the ground and that had to be left in place.  Never having found a floral fossil before this was somewhat of a disappointment.  Still it left an impression on me.  Perhaps when dinosaurs roamed Pennsylvania—or perhaps before—this leaf had fallen and been buried to last for eons.  How the world has changed since then!

After that encounter, I considered the brown leaves scattered from the recently departed fall.  Some lay on the muddy path, but few or none of them would meet the precise conditions required to form a fossil.  If one did, however, it would be here after humanity has either grown up and evolved into something nobler or has destroyed itself in a fit of pique or hatred.  We know we’re better than the political games played by those who use the system for their own gain.  The impressions we leave are far less benign than this ossified leaf at my feet.  The Fundamentalist of the dispensationalist species sees world history divided into very brief ages.  God, they opine, created the entire earth to last less than 10,000 years.  All this effort, suffering, and hope exists to be wiped out before an actual fossil has time to form.  It’s a perspective as fascinating as it is dangerous.

Evangelical Angels

Angels are everywhere at this time of year.  The Christmas stories of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have made them an indelible part of the tradition.  It’s not unusual for entirely secular individuals to be decorating with them and they are generally without controversy in public displays of holiday spirit.   A colleague once asked me why Americans were so credulous when it comes to a belief in angels—the numbers of believers are quite high, statistically.  I wonder if it’s because we need them.  Considering that the Republican Party is the Evangelical’s party, it’s no small wonder that even atheists embrace angels.  We all could use a little help from on high.  This time of year, such hope can be disguised behind tinsel and bows.

America must seem a strange country to those who immigrate (or had immigrated, when that was possible).  We wear our religiosity—and this is not the same thing as true religion—not only on our Christmas trees, but even on billboards by decidedly secular highways.  It’s as if even all the things America stands for, such as love of money, guns, and automobiles, only hold together with the saccharine glue of a sickly sweet religion.  A Bible-believing nation that has no idea what the Bible actually says and lauds a president who breaks at least a commandment a day and gains no reprimands.  We have shown our red neck to the rest of the world and yee-haw we are proud of it.  And we got the Good Book to prove it.

After all this shakes out we’ll be needing some angels, I suspect.  My colleague felt that sophisticates, big city skeptics, ought to be more willing to dismiss unenlightened beliefs such as those in spiritual beings.  The thing is, spiritual beings serve a very useful purpose.  They keep us honest—and I don’t mean in an Evangelical way; I’ve seen Evangelical honesty and it’s as corrupt as the Devil.  No, I mean that angels are important to show that we have hope.  Maybe they are secular angels—even the Bible doesn’t give any description of them at all, so how can you tell a secular from a religious angel?  That lack of pedigree doesn’t mean we don’t want them watching over us.  Belief is an important part of being human, secular or not.  The billboard space tends to go to those who want your money, and that applies to the ones that appear to be religious as well.  If this is the way the religious behave, we’d better hope there are angels everywhere.