Unlearning Prejudice

With the terrorist attacks in Belgium on our minds, people are asking once again, “What’s up with Fundamentalists?” My jeremiad that the only solution to religious violence is to study religion reaches few eyes, I realize, but the internet has the capability of spreading memes far and fast. It is merely the hope of a closet optimist. One thing that Fundamentalists believe—I know from personal experience—is that the stakes are based in eternity. In Christian fundamentalism, for example, Hell or Heaven will be forever and any parent would be depraved indeed not to teach their children this belief from their earliest days. That parent-child bond is strong to the point of being unbreakable. That’s why what children learn about religion tends to stay with them all of their life.

IMG_0922A story on the Freedom from Religion Foundation website describes how it is fighting the distribution of Gideon Bibles in public schools in Delta County, Colorado. I was under the impression that Gideons contented themselves with hotel rooms and county fairs. I had no idea that they were active in public schools. In response, the Freedom from Religion Foundation has provided counterbalances to be available to students, including materials calling the Bible into question, and, somewhat more surprising, atheist and Satanist literature. It is clearly a political move to prevent the district from allowing Gideons to distribute Bibles, but it feels an awful lot like a battleground to me. We want the best for our children, but is it best to put our adult biases out where they can be so plainly seen? In a pluralistic society, religion will always raise extreme responses where children are concerned.

The question here is not whether children should receive religious teaching or not, but where such teaching should occur. We are a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom, and although the concepts have changed since the founding days, the ideal is still valid. No matter how one wants to argue the point, people will be religious beings. They may express it in enormously different ways, but express it they will. Children trust us to act like adults. We want what’s best for them but the risk is very high. What should be done? Educate adults. But then, that’s a screed you’ve heard from me before.

God Discount

God is great, despite what Christopher Hitchens wrote, at least, that is, if you want to save 15% without having to talk to a gecko. According to Mulder’s World—I want to believe that what I find on this site is true, but often I find myself feeling more like Scully—Mary’ Gourmet diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina gives a grace discount. Well, perhaps this is believable. Praying in public has a long pedigree. This past Corpus Christi as I was driving back into town after a day out, I saw a procession walking down the street a few blocks from the local Catholic Church. Vested and carrying a monstrance with a humeral veil, the priest led the faithful out in public for a little recognized festival many suppose to be named after a city in Texas. Actually, I was an acolyte for Corpus Christi one year at the Church of the Advent in Boston. The well-heeled of Beacon Hill, however, knew to expect us out on the genteel streets. Private prayer in public, however, is something quite different.

As a very religious teen, I often went to United Methodist Youth events with the other faithful young. We would stop into restaurants on our long drives and make a show of praying amid the heathen. Some of us (not me, I assure you) even left Chick tracts instead of tips. If we’d ever ventured into Dixie, we might have had a discount. The problem with offering a praying in public discount is that it is impossible to tell if such shows are sincere. I have sat through many such episodes, wondering about Jesus’ statement “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Well, that was only the Sermon on the Mount. Here we’re talking fifteen percent! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This gecko winks.

IMG_1502Public displays of piety are not uncommon. I spent yesterday at the local County 4-H Fair on a rare day off of work. The Gideons, as always, were there handing out New Testaments. Let your light so shine—they are bright orange. Religious freedom ensures that prayer in public is kosher, as is agnosticism in public. Who is harmed by a public prayer? In that diner, who is made uncomfortable? Sometimes the innocuous act of kindness is a sign of mature morality. How many times—isn’t it nearly always?—does that car cutting you off in traffic have a Jesus fish plastered to the back? “I drive my car,” Daniel Amos sings, “it is a witness.” What you truly believe shows up when you’re behind the wheel more than when you’re behind the napkin. The truth may be out there after all. In the meanwhile, my tip’s on the table.

Stealing God Blind

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Raul 654, Wiki Commons

A friend who also works in the book trade recently revealed that the section in one of the few remaining brick-and-mortar book stores most liable to theft is Bibles. I’m not really surprised, I guess. Faith can do strange things to people, giving them justifications for thievery in the name of a higher authority. What it really doesn’t reflect, however, is just what a financial liability a Bible can be. My friend speculated that people believe that the Bible should be free, and, in a sense they have a point. If it is the word of God, as they likely believe, then it should be in the public domain. The problem is, the Bible’s not as simple as all that. The problem begins with the fact that “the Bible” does not exist in any definitive form. Every single one of the original manuscripts has long been lost and we have copies of copies of copies, etc., of those putative manuscripts. And they are in foreign languages—technically dead languages, at that. (Although Greek and Hebrew are still spoken, the biblical forms of those languages died out long ago.) So, are the Hebrew and Greek texts in the public domain?

Maybe, but. The texts from which translators make English (or other modern language) Bibles are based on compilations of various documents that have come to represent the accepted, textually correct ancient language versions of the Bible. These are protected by copyright since they are relatively modern editions. Some of the older ones are available in the public domain, but they are outdated. Even skipping all that, when we get to English Bibles, such as the King James Version (but not the New King James Version, where the “new” modifies “version,” presumably, and not “King James”), the text is in the public domain but the printed book still costs money to manufacture. One of the problems with Bible mythology is that some think this implies that Bibles just drop down from God. In actuality, they have to be edited, typeset, printed, shipped, and stocked, and the people who do this work have to be paid. In short, free text is not free.

I work for a major (but by no means the biggest) producer of Bibles. Even in my short time at the press, I have come to realize that Bible publishing is complex and expensive. Sure, you can print cheap editions and give them away like the Gideons do, but they have financial backing to buy and distribute cheap words of the Lord. There’s a sense of entitlement here: if God spoke, wasn’t it to all people? What about the Quran? The Book of Mormon? Science and Health? Some may castigate the Bible, but it is a genre-defining true original. And although one of the ten commandments declares stealing is wrong, some wonder how this can possibly apply to Bibles. It’s the middle-men and women. Stealing a Bible is cheating someone from a bit of their livelihood. Even if the Almighty turns a blind eye.

Fair Country?

One of the lesser known Bruce Springsteen songs is “County Fair.” I hadn’t heard the song until I purchased The Essential Bruce Springsteen some years back when you actually had to buy a disc to get the music. Not a rock-n-roll anthem, it is a quiet, poignant song about the existential pleasures of a county fair. My daughter has been a 4-H member for six years and we’ve annually attended our county fair-the largest free fair east of the Mississippi, it is said-each of those years. In a good year 10,000 people will wander through, looking at farm animals that seem so foreign in our urban lives and which most people only recognize covered in gravy or some glaze. They see the exotic animals and pets so cute that they should be illegal. Like a fledgling college campus there are Arts and Sciences tents. Model planes, model trains, and model automobiles. To a sophisticated adult this might seem like pretty mind-numbing stuff, but I never fail to leave feeling inspired. I play “County Fair” religiously before heading out the door. Yesterday saw the close of the sixty-fifth Somerset County 4-H Fair, and despite the periodic showers, people seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Under the commercial tent stands the Gideons’ table. Each year the fair is literally littered with free Bibles. I noticed with interest that the sign, which had originally read “Free Testaments” had been redacted to “Free New Testaments.” I tried to imagine the conversations, or confrontations that led to such a change. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect Hebrew Bible professors are not among the higher demographics of fair attendees. Most of the colleagues I know would never confront a poor Gideonite about ambiguously handing out New Testaments. I did, however, experience a kind of existential downgrade here. Christians used to declare, doctrinally at least, that the “testaments” were equal. Sure, when you’re standing on the George Washington Bridge trying to decide whether or not to jump, there’s some parts of the older testament that you’d probably be better off not reading. Nevertheless, doesn’t the rule book say the two are part of a whole?

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Nationally, as I well know, there are fewer “Old Testament” jobs than “New Testament.” But that slick little book the Gideons hand out feels a lot more streamlined than the bulky full edition. And I also realize that walking around a relaxing event like a county fair, seeking the most innocent kinds of fun imaginable, that a Bible in your hip pocket is probably overkill. There seems to be no devil lurking here among the sheep and the goats. Feet damp from the rain, under a cloudy, August nighttime sky, sitting in the car my daughter reflects on how this is her last fair as a 4-H member. I wish there were some twinkling stars overhead to make this a storybook ending. But all I’ve got is a truncated Bible in my pocket, and it is missing my favorite part.

I Left my Bible in San Francisco

Gideon prays for a Bible

I’m staying at the Hilton, Union Square in San Francisco. Surrounding me are over 10,000 (is that a proper myriad?) religion and Bible scholars gathered for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. I travel light. Having left my Bible behind I went to look up something in the Gideon general issue. It is not here. The world’s largest academic conference focusing on the Bible, four hundred years after the King James Version hit the shelves, and I am Bible-less in my hotel room. Of course, once I get to work I will be surrounded by Bibles, some of them walking, talking resources who have the whole book memorized. Yes, the Society is that kind of place. The Gideon hotel Bible is an American institution. It feels like a constitutional right. When my daughter was very young and we stayed in a hotel, she found the Gideon Bible and asked what it was. We explained that the Gideons leave a Bible in hotel rooms all across the country. “That’s just weird,” she said with all the conviction of a pre-teen.

There are current movements to remove Gideon Bibles from hotels. They do, after all, represent a privileged position to Christianity in a nation founded on religious freedom. No one is forcing you to read that Bible, but it is there, like a tell-tale heart, in your bedside table drawer. Thumping incessantly. To read or not to read? What’s on the TV?

My favorite discussions at conferences like this are with scholars who find the privileging of one religion distressing. Our culture is so grown up in so many ways; we are more enlightened about sexuality and gender and race, and yet, and yet… We still like to have that Gideon Bible nearby. We like our political candidates Christian. Preferably Protestant, although a Catholic will do if he (inevitably he) is on the right side of the right issues. We are vaguely and implicitly afraid of those who don’t share our convictions.

In a moment of levity near closing time yesterday, a customer stopped by to say Routledge should have more gimmicks. Many publishers have giveaways, and some have little games that bearded, bespectacled professors sometimes even play. The customer suggest darts, or even a little shooting range. I said, “Guns and theology are sure to lead to trouble.” Although he laughed, I was serious. Few things in this world can be justified as easily as religiously motivated slayings, at least in the minds of the perpetrators. And to borrow a phrase from a budding genius, “That’s just weird.”

Trashing the Bible

For the past month any free time I’ve had apart from class preparation has gone toward helping my daughter get ready for a presentation at the 4-H County Fair. Now, the morning after the close of the fair, when prize dairy cattle and model rockets and treasured family pets have all been transported back home, I am left with that sense of purposelessness that follows a period of intense preparation. Four minutes of public exposure translated into hours, days of often emotional planning, trouble-shooting, and dreaming. Although I grew up in a small town, farm life is as foreign to me as Cambodian politics. When I’m at the fair, however, spending long hours wandering amid animals, and go-carts, and community college recruiters, somehow being outdoors feels like being truly human. Perhaps it helps that the local 4-H is part of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension. My regnant, reluctant employer channels enormous resources into helping the youth of the state transform into the future.

One of the vendors at the fair was the Gideons. Each year they have a table piled high with cheap New Testaments bound in flimsy plastic made to resemble jaunty orange leather, and the unwary soon find themselves with the Gospels and Paul tucked away in their bulging samples bags. It is curious that the Hebrew Bible, apart from the Psalms, is so dispensable in the cause of conversion or enlightenment. The motivation of the Gideon movement, ironically, draws on the book of Judges for its very label. An occupational hazard, I already have more Bibles than any decent human should, nevertheless, the Gideons always wish me to take on one more, if only a truncated version.

While wandering back to my daughter’s club tent after a trip to the bustling food tent, I passed one of the numerous trash receptacles mandated by any such large gathering of people in a disposable culture. Glancing in for a place to toss my greasy napkin, I spied a Gideon Bible, its optimistic orange cover partially smudged by cotton candy and other ambiguous substances. The tableau gave me a moment of reflection amid the noise, energy, and enticing aromas of church and firehouse cuisine. To someone, the Bible was that extra bit of unwanted, cheap, fair promotional junk. Although not a Bible-worshiper, the image left me just a little sad. Those weeks of intense preparation for my daughter’s presentation are brief compared to the decades I’ve spent trying unsuccessfully to cobble a teaching career out of the Bible. Sometimes symbolism can be cruel and ironic all at the same time.