Strange Reading

What more can you say about the Bible?  A lot’s been said already.  So much, in fact, that nobody can read all of it in a lifetime.  That realization started to come to me as I was trying to find everything that had been written about Asherah—who’s mentioned in the Bible—to write my dissertation.  I didn’t find everything, but I found a good deal of it.  Enough, in any case, to write my cautionary words about the subject.  Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book brings the insights of a fellow traveler to the fore.  In a serious yet lighthearted way, she points out, as the subtitle says, The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.  In other words, it’s not what most people—especially those who speak the loudest about it—think that it might be.

There are many angles from which to approach the Good Book.  One size most definitely doesn’t fit all.  A book like this would benefit from being read by those who take the Bible literally, but one of the problems is that literalists have no motivation to read such a book.  Indeed, their trusted leaders actively warn against it.  Such treatments are dangerous at best, and are possibly demonic.  One of my professors once put it well: fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem.  In any other area of life those exact same literalists will apply reason and logic.  When it comes to their beliefs, however, refusal to engage with the tools that make their lives otherwise successful becomes an eleventh commandment.

Swenson points out things that will likely be old news to biblical scholars.  Having been through all this in a way ourselves, we remember what it was like to become “woke.”   To those raised as literalists, this is no small ask.  It stabs at the heart of everything you’re raised to believe.  The fear is that there’ll be nothing on the other side, at best, Hell at worst.  These are very real fears.  They may never completely leave, no matter how long you’ve been awake or how much rational coffee you’ve drained.  Such fears deserve a sympathetic hearing.  Without it I’m not sure any progress can be made.  Strip below posturing and bravado and you’ll find fear.  I do hope A Most Peculiar Book will find its way to such folks.  Swenson shows there is life after biblical studies and her book has some fun facts for those unfamiliar with the book about which there’s somehow never enough to say.


Well Grounded

Earth Day feels like it’s actually Earth Day for the first time in four years.  Many of those with more common sense than gullibility know that we have only one planet.  Even as we have achieved flight on Mars, any hope of going elsewhere (and some of us would rather not) is many years away.  Earth is our home and we can live on our planet without destroying it.  Other animals also change the environment, of course.  The problem arises when one species becomes unchecked and begins changing things for their benefit only.  Or what they perceive as their benefit only.  Life evolved on this planet deeply integrated.  The more we study nature the more we see how interconnected it is.  Thinking ourselves special, we’ve placed a wall between humankind and everything else.  It’s an artificial wall.

If you read about nature you’ll be amazed.  Trees, perhaps the true heroes of this planet, make our life possible.  They couldn’t exist without the fungi that partner with their roots in a symbiotic relationship.  If there had been no trees our ancestors would’ve been easy prey to larger predators and would likely not have survived.  Large industrial corporations destroy trees as if they’re a nuisance.  They are our life.  Even as governments with “strong men” leaders destroy the forests in “their” countries, we are losing the very biodiversity that makes life possible on this planet.  There’s room for humans to get along here without destroying the environment that supports our very life.

One of the hidden motives in this scenario is a strange development within Christianity.  A literalism that would’ve shocked even old Augustine developed around the turn of the last century.  That literalism was used by corporations that saw the earth as a resource to be exploited and claimed that we, unlike animals, owned the planet.  If you own a home would you destroy it just because you could?  What good would it do?  No, this Earth Day let’s take the time to consider our religion and its implications sensibly.  The Bible does not advocate destroying what God created.  It may have been written too early to comprehend evolution, but that was never a problem for early theologians.  When fused with capitalism, however, this religion provided everything greedy businesses needed to exploit the planet for its own purposes—the god Mammon.  Just this week we flew our first flight on an inhospitable planet far away.  Today let’s think of how we might protect the only home we have under our feet. 


Meanness

There’s often a meanness to literalist religions.  A sense that if they can keep their particular interpretation of God’s will, then anybody can.  No compassion.  No forgiveness.  Considering the base messages of nearly all those religions that harbor fundamentalists, that attitude is quite surprising.  Indeed, it ceases to be religion at all and becomes merely a facade of one.  The recovery of the body of Khaled al-Asaad is what brought this to mind.  Back in 2015 al-Asaad, an 82-year old archaeologist, was beheaded by the extremist Islamic State group in Syria.  Al-Asaad had spent his life excavating and attempting to understand the site of Palmyra.  The Islamic State was determined to destroy what they considered “idols” or offensive images.  When the octogenarian refused to tell them where they could find further antiquities to destroy, they beheaded him.

This isn’t finger-pointing at Islam.  Islam is a highly moral religion that values peace.  What it has in common with Christianity, apart from some shared history and theology, is that it fosters extremists.  Extremism may be fueled by religion but it’s not religious.  The adherents are often mean, hard-line individuals who have trouble distinguishing the shades of gray that make up so much of life.  As a result of the Islamic State movement, many antiquities that had survived for thousands of years were destroyed forever.  There were heroes like Khaled al-Asaad (we might even call them saints) who tried to protect these irreplaceable artifacts.  Religion has no feud with the past.  In fact, religions consciously build on their pasts.  Continuity is important to them.

Extremism of this kind is a fairly new blending of religion and politics.  As recently as the sixties it was felt that religion and politics should be compartmentalized.  Kept separate.  When the Republican Party realized in the seventies that evangelicals could be made into a voting bloc, religion became politicized.  This happened elsewhere around the world.  “True believers”—the very term suggests the rest of us believers aren’t true—tasting political power, realized they could use their meanness to make the rest of the world in their own unforgiving image.  We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.  Even now Republican lawmakers fear reprisals of Trump supporters if they dare accept the truth.  In other words, extremist religion has pitched its battle against the truth itself.  That would be ironic if it weren’t so terrifying.  No religion that I know has meanness among its central tenets.  It takes literalism to make it one.


How Clean Is Your Brain?

First it was in.  Then it was out.  Now nobody seems to be sure.  “Brainwashing” isn’t really a scientific term, but human suggestibility is very well in evidence.  Advertisers count on it.  Did I really need that phone case when I never go out?  And so on.  The real question is can people be compelled to do what they normally wouldn’t want to.  Think Jonestown.  Heaven’s Gate.  Waco.  Do people really want to die en masse?  Are we but higher lemmings?  I’ve seen hypnotists do their shows.  The human mind is manipulable.  We can be shut off from reason.  A recent article from The Middletown Press my wife shared with me raises the question whether conspiracy theories, such as those sported by QAnon, are something like brainwashing.  Clearly they are.  As are many Fundamentalist forms of religion.

You can recognize this when a conversation becomes such that the true believer simply won’t listen to evidence.  They’ll say they want to discuss an issue when all they really want to do is have someone state their side so they can tell them they’re wrong.  Reason has nothing to do with it.  When that part of their gray matter that handles things rationally feels backed against a wall they resort to ad hominem attacks.  I’ve been observing this since I was a child raised in such a paranoid religious tradition.  It works for politics, too.  For many QAnon sorts, Trump’s word was God’s word.  Once uttered it could not be refuted, not with all the evidence in the world.  It’s very much like Fundamentalist views of the Bible which can’t take context, translation, and reason into account.  When contradictions are blatantly pointed out they respond with “there are no contradictions.”  Is there brainwashing?

Conspiracy theories can seem real because there are actually some conspiracies.  There are government secrets.  Only the naive deny that.  Still, once you start throwing in the ridiculous—that a devil-worshipping cabal of pedophiles is running a secret government—you’re in water over your head.  Not only that, this sounds incredibly like the satanic panic that spread through much of the world in the late 1980s into the 1990s.  When the evidence was examined, it was found lacking.  Some of the key bestselling accounts were admitted to have been forgeries.  The believing mind, however, has trouble letting go.  We used to call fringe groups cults.  We used to suggest that people could be held against their will.  People leaving QAnon are reporting similar experiences, according to the article.  Brainwashing by any other name would be so real.


Chick Tracks

Goodreads isn’t the only booklover’s website, but it is one that publishers pay attention to.  Having a following on Goodreads helps for making marketing manageable.  Or so the thinking goes.  In any case, I recently had a message on Goodreads about Holy Horror.  It seems someone has, against all odds, found the book and is reading it.  This particular reader asked me in a comment about Chick tracts.  I’ve written about Jack Chick before.  He was a veritable one-man evangelical force of super-nature.  He is responsible for many of my personal nightmares with the Bible.  His cartoon tracts were designed to scare the Hell out of kids, literally.  I read them religiously.  My Goodreads reader pointed out that I could’ve made use of them in Holy Horror.

This made me ponder the reticence of academics to address religion as a cultural force.  Chick tracts are extremely common, even today.  As I posted last year, we were handed one while walking between venues at the first annual Easton Book Festival (an event forced virtual this year by, well, you know).  Not that Chick’s intellectual ability deserves study, but his influence is undeniable.  How many of us fundamentalist kids were set on our life trajectories by tracts that looked like mini-comic books but which had an unwavering, uninformed viewpoint held as gospel?  Chick tracts broached no dissent.  The Bible alone, and the Bible as interpreted by fundamentalists alone, was the only possible way of avoiding everlasting hellfire.  Nightmares indeed.

Chick died in 2016 after half-a-century of terror (his first tract was published in 1960).  Apparently Chick was a shy evangelical and his prolific cartooning was a way of assuaging his own fears of not evangelizing.  Ironically, in his tracts he offloaded that burden onto others—kids were made to feel inferior if they didn’t talk about Jesus to their friends, no matter how shy they might have been.  There’s not much information easily available on this influential man.  A motivated scholar, I’m sure, could dig up information—nearly any life can be illuminated to some degree—but I’m not sure the will is there.  If it ever happens, I suspect the study will be done by someone like me, raised on Chick and fed steady doses of childhood Bible reading.  My Goodreads interlocutor was perhaps onto something by suggesting my watching horror has something to do with Chick tracts.  Stranger things have, I’m sure, happened.


Childhood’s End

Childhood.  It’s a time of many lessons that we soon learn to apply to all of life.  One of those earliest lessons is “Don’t be a sore loser.”  When someone else wins you congratulate them with a smile, even if you’re inwardly aching.  Fair play, it’s called.  Or morality.  All of these characteristics are sadly lacking in the Grand Old Party, it seems.  There has been no evidence of voter fraud, Biden currently leads by over 5 million votes, and yet Trump refuses to concede.  Not only that, the dissembler in chief, Mitch McConnell encourages such behavior.  In my fundamentalist church you’d have failed Sunday School for less than that.  And where are the biblical literalists?  Right there with them, thumping their Bibles but not reading them.  What happened to turn the other cheek?  Or even, for God’s sake, an eye for an eye?

Instead the world is watching as a putatively grown man throws a temper tantrum about losing.  Hilary Clinton conceded on the night of the election.  I’m sure it didn’t feel good to do so.  Nor did it feel pleasant for the 44 other losing candidates (in fact, more) who had to go home with their hats in their hands.  Not content to act like a king, Trump is behaving like a monarch for life.  His followers, perhaps aware that Americans will never again put up with such a travesty of a presidency, insist that someone must’ve miscounted by about five million.  They won’t be content until they can count themselves, throwing away any ballots they disagree with.  And they’ll continue to call themselves Christians.  Because, like the Donald, they can.

I’ve reached the stage in life where childhood has become a lingering preoccupation.  I sure got some things wrong.  Not being a sore loser isn’t one of them, however.  Like all people I’ve lost my fair share of contests.  Sometimes the stakes have been very high.  If you want to retain any dignity or moral standing at all, you know you simply have to admit, “I lost.”  We knew as soon as Trump was nominated in 2016 that he wouldn’t admit he lost then, even if he had.  We knew four years ago he’d never admit he lost when he would.  The Republican enablers stoked those fires in which to burn the Constitution.  Some of us, at least 77 million at latest count, are tired of all this political theater.  Big boy pants, it seems, are difficult to locate this season.


Dangers of Experience

I’m so used to being behind everyone else that when I turn out to be ahead of the curve it occasions genuine surprise.  That’s the way it appears when I think about the dominance of the far right in American politics.  As an editor I get to read proposals for other editors on the board.  Political scientists are trying to analyze how we’ve come to be a nation of religious far-righters when we seemed so progressive that we put a smart phone in everyone’s pocket and Alexa in everyone’s voice range.  I grew up as a far-righter when it certainly felt alienating.  Apart from people we met at church I didn’t know any others outside my family.  People we knew were, well, just different.  Back in those days we didn’t judge them.  We accepted them for who they were.

One of the aspects of my life to which I’ve grown accustomed is being ignored.  I’m not a big person, nor am I a loud one.  It isn’t unusual for me to be overlooked at work and even at religious gatherings (a field in which I’m a bona fide expert).  Nevertheless, I have a wealth of experience among the far-righters and I think it might help to understand our political climate.  I think I have a pretty good grip on what motivates this crowd.  Since I grew up (serious study will do that to you) and am no longer arrested at that stage, I’ve blended into the crowd as someone just as perplexed as everyone else.  I do, however, have an idea of what they’re after.  Our particular sect didn’t push this—we seemed more worried about our own souls staying out of Hell—but many fundamentalists wanted to take over the nation.  In fact, they have.

The fact that 45 isn’t one of them is immaterial.  Power is the thing.  Power to make others conform or suffer.  This particular faith is built on fear, not love.  It’s as if their New Testament lacks the gospel of John.  You see, I was ahead of the curve.  I was part of it before it took over congress, the White House and the supreme court.  Things move so far these days that thinkers just don’t have time to think about everything.  Work days are long and covid still complicates everything.  Who has the time to seek out those who grew out of the very source that now endangers our democracy?  I think I prefer running a little behind, don’t you, Cassie?


Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.


Still Evolving

Evolution, the 2001 movie, I mean, is good escapism.  Thinking back on 2001, instead of a space oddessy, another piece of news—another national crisis, in fact, dominated.  The film kind of slumbered in the background until we could sort out what it meant to live in, ironically, an unsafe world.  That’s precisely what the movie was about.  I wasn’t thinking that when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I was simply wanting some fantasy to relieve the daily pressure of living in stress mode.  Besides, it has some of the best alien monsters you could hope for in a comedic setting.  Soon, however, the parallels began to appear.  A source of contamination from outside.  A growing threat.  A government that doesn’t know what to do and that can’t admit its mistakes.  It all seemed eerily familiar.  Dr. Allison Reed is even from the CDC.

Life isn’t constant crisis.  Funnily enough, when Democrats are in office there seem to be far fewer of these large-scale troubles.  “There will be signs,” I guess, “in the sun, moon, and stars.”  The thing about signs is that we’ve left the reading of them up to Fundamentalists.  And Fundamentalists don’t believe in evolution.  Or science.  Or modernity.  Idealizing medieval thinking does come with a price tag.  So I reach for the remote.  While the government has lots of money that it spends on its own volition, the crisis grows.  The alien menace is set to spread across the country.  Although beginning in a different geographical location, all that red on the map sure looked familiar to me.  How little has changed in the last two decades.  Evolution came out before smartphones even evolved.

Meanwhile, practically unnoticed, the U.S. Navy has been saying UFOs are real.  The story, muted and subdued—we’ve got more immediate concerns, such as getting reelected—has been on major reputable media.  When they land on the White House lawn we’ll ask the aliens if they have respirators and masks aboard.  Preferably the kind with face-shields.  In the movie the monsters are aliens.  They’re like an infection, and even hazmat suits can’t keep you safe.  The solution, of course, isn’t fire-power, but a good shampooing.  Now I know you still can’t go to the salon in lots of places, but washing up at home seems to be pretty good advice.  We put the movie on for simple escapism, but there’s no escaping the fact that we now live in an alien environment.


Old Inspiration

Moving is a process that really has no end.  I suppose if working folks took a few weeks of staycation and really concentrated, getting everything unpacked might be a possibility.  Although our move was nearly two years ago it didn’t happen that way, and the self-isolation of the pandemic has led to only more time drains, not fewer.  We still have boxes waiting to be unpacked, and, of course, like many people we store memories in boxes.  Life is an accumulation of things that aren’t valuable but somehow aren’t disposable either.  While putting some things away in my study after work recently I spied something that has been in storage probably since I graduated from college.  I stopped and stared at it because even glimpsing it took me back instantly to my childhood.  What was it?  A devotional card.

The memory it prompted was sad, in a way.  We didn’t have much money when I was growing up (some things never change), so what we could afford was inexpensive stuff.  My faith, rather than being the optimistic, happy kind of fundamentalism, was rather the fearful, wrath of God kind.  I was a scared little boy.  Phobias ran deep and wide.  I bought cards like this to assure me that things weren’t so bad.  This particular card has three reassuring verses from the Bible, all taken out of context, on the back.  Seeing the card reminded me of the several others I once had.  Our homelife wasn’t peaceful, and I often had to retreat to where I could look at my devotional cards for reassurance.  At college I started to grow optimistic only to have my career prove that I was right at the beginning—life is scary and insecure.

I picked up the card.  I put it on my desk.  My mother had returned it to me, I recalled, when she moved into the trailer park.  A box of my stuff had been left at home (unfortunately not the box with all the 1970s baseball cards I had as a kid).  And two or three of the devotional cards had been tucked into it.  When she gave me the box I didn’t have time to sort through it.  The vacation time was all used up by driving all the way there and back, and so it got loaded on the truck with everything else, the flotsam and jetsam of a childhood spent being afraid.  This card was only one of several, and if I’m honest I’ll admit that it has reopened a box that may have been left by Pandora.


Fearful Faithful

It’s sitting on the table next to my chair and I’m afraid of it.  It all started during the Easton Book Festival.  I feel sorry for those people who have to stand on the street corner and pass things out for a job.  In Manhattan I used to see them being completely ignored by swarms of people passing by.  They’re only doing their job.  I made a habit of accepting their chits, and even if they didn’t mean anything to me, I felt that the person handing them out might have experienced a small measure of satisfaction that someone accepted what they were offering, and had said “thank you.”  In Easton back in October, my wife and I were heading to one of the venues to hear an author talk and a guy was passing out paper, and I accepted one as a matter of habit.

It was a Chick tract.  If you’ve been reading this blog a while you’ll have run across the concept before.  Jack T. Chick was a cartooning evangelist.  He drew hundreds of tracts and comic books that formed a steady diet for me, growing up.  Although they looked like cartoons, these intolerant, Fundamentalist tracts were quite often very scary.  Especially to the young.  More than once I’d spiral into a childhood depression after reading one.  Although it seemed simple—say the prayer at the end and you’d be saved—how could you be so sure?  The disturbing contents stayed with me long after the sixteen pages were done.  Now, as an adult, I was being offered a road back to a childhood I fervently wished to avoid.

I stuck the tract in my pocket and forgot about it.  When I got home I emptied my pockets and found it again.  Curious, I was tempted to read it.  I know, however, that doing so will only drag me back to a memory of younger days when a kind of terror permeated my days.  And nights.  My theology, which was formed of a mosaic of these tracts (what child really listens to sermons?), was a scary one indeed.  It was populated by demons, Catholics, and servants of the Antichrist.  Anyone who wasn’t straight and pretty waspish was a threat to my eternal salvation.  Is that somewhere I want to go again?  The tract sits, unread, on my table.  It reminds me of the abuses to which religion might be put.  And I’m thinking I might start refusing free handouts on the street once again.


Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.


Glossophobia

For a guy so full of phobias that there’s no elbow room at Hotel Fear in my head, people are sometimes curious as to why I don’t suffer one of the most common sources of terror: speaking in front of crowds.  Glossophobia is extremely normal.  I suspect it’s one of evolutions tricks for keeping metaphorical cooks out of the allegorical kitchen.  If we’re all talking at once, who can be heard?  The internet will prove to be some kind of experiment in that regard, I expect.  Thing is, I’m not what most public speakers appear to be: confident.  I’m not.  Beneath the surface all kinds of phobias are vying for the next private room to become available.  Over the weekend I had a public speaking engagement, and that made me consider this again—why doesn’t it bother me?

Although the answer to “why” questions will always remain provisional, I have an idea.  It’s kind of creepy, but true.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that my life was being taped.  You see, it goes like this: since the book of Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” some Fundies like Jack Chick illustrated this as an outdoor cinema in Heaven.  Or rather, in the clouds just outside Heaven.  Here you’d be summoned, buck naked, as soon as you died.  Other nude souls would gather round the big screen and your entire life would be projected for all to see.  Since everyone’s dead there are apparently no time constraints.  As a kid I realized that I was being watched.  All the time.  Now, I’m not conscious of this constantly, but I did translate it to public appearances.  We’re all, it seems, actors.

With a lifetime of performing experience, by the time I was a teen I wasn’t afraid of public speaking.  Introspection was a big part of my psyche, and when I had a speaking engagement, I knew that I had to be conscious of what I did and said, because people would be watching me.  I learned to play the part.  I did take a college course in public speaking, and even a preaching course offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, but both of these were long after I’d begun taking public speaking roles.  I make mistakes, of course, and early on I learned to laugh at them before the audience did.  We were all being taped, after all, and there’s no outtake reel before the pearly gates.  Strange, but true.  If you’re afraid to speak in public just remember—you’re being watched, all the time.


Identified or Not

Okay, so this will require some explanation.  It came about like this: I was in a used bookstore.  (This in itself requires no explanation, of course.)  I noticed a slim book, cover out, called A Pocket Guide to UFO’s and ETs: A biblical and cultural exploration of aliens.  Biblical?  I picked it up only to discover it was from Answers in Genesis.  Please note: I do not buy books or paraphernalia of Fundamentalist groups unless I can get it used.  I don’t want to support this particular weirdness in any way.  Well, the money for this used book was going to support a used bookstore and not a religious aberration, so I figured it would be good to see what the Fundies have to say about a topic that seems to have started to engage public interest again.

The book begins by helpfully pointing out that if there’s life on other planets the Bible doesn’t mention it.  And since the only way it could’ve got there is by evolution—for surely the Almighty would’ve said something about it in his book, if he’d invented it—the whole idea is a non-starter.  Evolution, as everyone knows, is a satanic idea meant primarily to challenge the Bible and secondarily explain the diversity of life forms on earth.  And since earth is the only planet the Bible recognizes, it is the only one with life.  So, UFOs, it stands to reason don’t exist.  Well, that’s not quite fair.  They do exist but most can be explained away and those that can’t may well be demonic.  Since there can be no aliens, and since some sightings can’t be otherwise explained, then demons—which the Bible does mention—must be responsible.  They (demons) can also explain why other world religions exist.

There’s plenty in here to offend just about everyone apart from the Answers in Genesis crowd.  The screed spends quite a bit of time knocking down ancient astronaut ideas, and taking Erich von Däniken to task.  Science is useful in explaining how pyramids were built, but not in how the rock used to build them was formed (it takes far too long to make limestone the old fashioned way; God simply used a variety of different rock types to make the one inhabited planet more interesting geologically).  And those UFO religions?  Inspired by demons, no doubt.  In fact, even reading a little book like this could lead you to become interested in the subject, so be careful!  In fact, the safest thing of all (and I’ve only got your well-being in mind) is to leave it on the shelf.


Fear of Religions

There’s a narrative of fear in Christianity that seems to have been absent at the beginning.  This is evident when driving the highways of America where you’ll see billboards (which are meant for selling things) advertising the truth of a kind of biblical Fundamentalism.  On my recent trip across Pennsylvania this fear stood out in some rather obvious ways.  And it doesn’t reflect the Christianity reflected in the Good Book.  Stop and think about it: although the persecution of early believers was probably never as widespread as the usual narrative says it was, the writings we have describe facing persecution with joy.  Believing that they would be delivered, the oppressed welcomed the opportunity to prove their faith.  The Chick tracts I read as a child, however, focused intently on how scary the future persecution would be.  Fear, not joy, was the motivation for belief.

As we stopped in a turnpike rest area, we noticed a kiosk of Christian books amid snacks both salty and sweet.  The only other reading material available had to do with tourist attractions and finding directions.  It was, upon retrospect, odd.  Pondering this I recalled the narrative I heard repeatedly in my youth—a time was coming when it would be illegal to be Christian.  There would be persecution and the only proper response was a faith borne of fear.  This was not a religion of love thy neighbor.  No, this was a religion of armed survival based not on turning the other cheek, but on asserting itself with a show of firepower.  This kind of weaponized evangelicalism has taken over the narrative of Christianity.  Paul of Tarsus, knowing he would likely be executed, wrote of his joy from prison.  In the land of plenty we tremble.

The more cynical side of my experience suggests that politicians—who have learned that fear gets them elected—found in this form of Christianity a convenient set of sheep without a shepherd.  There’s fear in these billboards.  Fear that another religion may take over.  Or that secularism may make cherished beliefs illegal.  This isn’t cause for celebration, as the sermon on the mount proclaims it should be, but rather a call to arms.  In this country we have more than enough.  Among those left out, however, this fear grows just as rapidly as among those who fear they may lose the abundance they have.  They try to convert the weary traveler whose eye is drawn to the billboard.  And even those who stop for a drink of cold water which, the Bible suggests, should be freely given.