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.

Absalom v. Occam

Getting a haircut is like going to confession.  You don’t go as often as you probably should, and you feel embarrassed and awkward when they ask how much you want taken off.  The penance of looking funny several days afterward ought to be punishment enough, without your head feeling cold once shorn of its natural covering.  At least in my experience.  The truth is I like long hair.  Biblical-length hair.  The truth is also that many people think it inappropriate for a guy my age.  I always eventually bow to peer pressure, but it can take a while.  Beautician forgive me, it has been six months since my last haircut.  Absalom, after all died because of his long hair. O Absalom!

This isn’t just idle musing on my part.  I grew up in the Evangelical tradition that is now ripping our nation apart.  One of the greatest markers of that faith is conformity.  In college I learned to call it the “Evangelical haircut.”  Any guy who had hair over his collar or ears was suspect of not being “Christian.”  I began to notice that this same mindset preferred well manicured lawns, cutting down trees and keeping outward appearances neat and tidy.  There’s no better way to mask what goes on internally than to present an outward look of a well-ordered world.  Getting a haircut always brings this back to me—it is a statement being made.  I’m not sure how to explain this to the poor girl standing there with scissors in her hand.  I don’t want to look Evangelical!

Of course, the beard helps.  Until recently Evangelicals didn’t permit beards.  The girls in college said they made men look unclean.  As if they were never washed.  And these days some Evangelicals have come to support the stubble beard—electric razors, those allies of Occam, can be purchased to keep the half-way bearded look fresh.  I prefer to get my money’s worth out of a haircut.  I also prefer to signal that I am not one of them.  Absalom may have been an overly ambitious young man, but despite Michelangelo’s famous statue, David the man was himself in all likelihood bearded and might’ve sported a mullet.  Samson wore dreds.  Uncomfortable with history, Evangelical illustrators in the ‘80s began portraying Jesus with a Roman haircut and neatly trimmed beard.  Perhaps I’m overthinking this, but now that I’ve got Samson’s fate in mind I find it difficult to open the door, knowing I’ll walk out after confession not feeling so much redeemed as just plain chilly.  Even Absalom, I remind myself, had his hair cut once a year.

Sinful Thoughts

Nothing is quite so scary as that which is undefined.  I learned that as an Evangelical child.  There’s a verse in the gospel of Mark—I’ll use Mark because it’s the earliest, by consensus—that reads, “Verily I say unto you, All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme:  But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation.”  Now, that was heavy stuff for a kid.  There was an unforgivable sin.  Naturally, the mind goes to what exactly blasphemy against the Holy Ghost might be.  I hadn’t learned much about context by the point, but Mark places this statement right after the good people of Capernaum accuse Jesus of casting out a demon by the power of Satan.  In context the unforgivable sin in stating that what comes from God is of the Devil.  By extension, vice versa.  Keep that in mind.

A few chapters later Jesus is describing sin again.  This time he lists: “evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.”  If you read the news these characteristics sound very much like the repeated and continued behavior of 45.  Jesus himself cites this as evil—and here’s where it’s important to remember the unforgivable sin—to claim that such things come from God is blasphemy against the Holy Ghost.  Yet Evangelicals are doing precisely that.  Every time they exonerate Trump and his ground in behavior that for any other human being would be condemned as “sinful,” they are committing the unforgivable sin.  And they’re not even scared.

When I was a child, Evangelicals took the Bible seriously.  It was more important than anything—even railroading anti-abortion judges through to the Supreme Court.  Little known fact: Evangelicals of the 1950s supported abortion.  Since that time they’ve lost their faith.  And their mind.  Sucked into a political activism controlled by forces they don’t understand—if any man have ears to hear, let him hear—they committed the unforgivable sin that kept me awake countless nights with the fires of Hell roaring in my head.  I set aside the gospel of Mark and scratched my head.  How’d we come to this?  A nation, one might say a house, divided against itself.  The kind that Jesus, again speaking of Satan, declared could not stand.  No wonder Evangelicals avoid the Bible these days.  It is a very scary book.

Rich Rule

The perils of plutocracy should be obvious, but clearly they’re not.  This is somewhat ironic among its biblical fan base, which seems to be where the GOP draws its energy.  As the truth about Brett Kavanaugh becomes public knowledge, his religious supporters dig in their heels and blame the victims.  As one of the many who grew up far from privilege I found Shamus Khan’s analysis in the Washington Post eye-opening.  Khan makes the case that those who grow up in rich families and attend the “best schools” are endowed with the constantly reinforced message that the rules do not apply to them.  They can get away with things that others cannot and, in general, they are let off the hook for things that lead to imprisonment for other citizens.  What’s surprising is the Bible-thumpers applaud this.

It also explains more than Kavanaugh.  Trump is also a child of privilege and his entire term in office so far has been one of personal exceptionalism.  Many actual presidents were impeached or censured for acts far less offensive than those 45 commits.  The wealthy, however, are not held accountable.  Where is the Bible when we need it?  The Good Book is no friend to those who enjoy great riches.  In fact, one of the most constant refrains of Scripture is that against the privileged.  With great wealth comes great responsibility—the obligation to help those less fortunate.  The idea of getting away with what you can is hardly evangelical.

If the literalists can overlook the misuse of wealth, it is still more surprising that they can pardon lying.  Since the rules do not apply to the privileged, their own narrative bears the conviction of righteousness.  They can’t have made a mistake since their money proves them right.  Morality can be counted in dollars and cents.  It is for those of the underclasses to come up with high-minded ideals and hold themselves to them.  Wealth is its own justification.  Back in the days when America was young, the French lost patience with governance by the elites.  But then, the Fundamentalist class didn’t have much of a voice then.  It was the Age of Reason.  An Age out of which we’ve apparently grown.  Fake news, alternative facts, heavy-drinking frat boy justices, and women-groping presidents.  Can we not see the parallels with the other great plutocracy of the Roman Empire?  Ironically, it survives today only in the form of the church it sanctioned.