Holiday Complex

Now that we’re in the midst of a complex of Judeo-Christian holidays (Passover, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, as well as other spring rites), I’ve been thinking of obligations.  I’ve had people introduce themselves to me as “Chri-easters.”  This isn’t a new form of religion, but rather a way of indicating that they attend services on Christmas and Easter only.  For others of us it’s never been so easy.  I was raised with the stern belief that Sundays in church were a matter of absolute obligation.  Serious illness was the only reason to miss.  If you were traveling (which was rare for us, being not terribly affluent), you found a local church to attend.  Never mind that you’ll look like strangers and won’t know how it’s done (unless you’re in one of the “liturgical” denominations, where variations are minimal).  Every Sunday was an obligation.

The minister at our church has been offering virtual holy week services.  The idea haunts me.  You see, back in Nashotah House days the sternness of days of obligation was palpable.  Yes, you had to attend chapel twice daily, but there were still days of obligation.  At this time of year we’d have had long rehearsals already for “the Great Three Days.”  Forsaking family and fellowship, we’d be forced to be together for long hours while the dreary events of two millennia ago were replayed.  Of course they were reinterpreted as well.  Made more Episcopalian—even a crucifixion should be done properly and in good order.  Knowing they had to get to their own churches on Sunday, students were kept up until about two a.m. for the Great Vigil and First Mass of Easter.  Obligation, not love, drove all this.

Coronavirus has us separated, of course.  Some of us are daily seeking coping techniques to help us get through a crisis that throws off schedules and sets new priorities.  To have someone suggest in the midst of all this that we could “come to church” (virtually) transports me to those fearful days of obligation.  As a teen I sought them out.  I’d ask to be driven to a different town on Good Friday so that I could spend it in church, hoping to be in connection with the tragic events.  I’d curse the sunshine when I stepped back out after three p.m., if it was shining.  This was supposed to be a dark and dreary day.  Nature, however, had its own ideas.  Spring was in full swing.  It was time to be thinking about life, not death.

Discriminating Tests

That explains it.  That glow coming through the window as I got out of bed this morning is the full moon.  Since this is the first full moon after the vernal equinox, that means Sunday’s Easter.  If Sunday’s Easter this is Good Friday.  That brought to mind an article my wife sent me from The Atlantic, “Most American Christians Believe They’re Victims of Discrimination.”  In this piece Emma Green explains that Christians of a certain stripe believe they’re under threat.  Most people express surprise at this outlook, but having grown up in a Fundamentalist tradition I can say that this is hardly new.  The narrative of persecution among conservative Christians has been around for a long time.  They have a mandate, you see.  A mandate to make the entire world like themselves.

Hearing the many cries of legitimate oppression doesn’t help, of course.  In this linked world of instant communication and news 24/7, we’ve become perhaps too aware of just how widespread oppression is.  Christians have felt persecuted from the very beginning, and they don’t like now being cast in the role of oppressor.  Forcing other people to conform is no longer considered right or desirable, but Christians have a mandate.  What strikes me as odd here is that we have a means of learning about this—of arming ourselves with knowledge—but we’d rather be surprised at the polls and pay for it with years of actual oppression.  What is this mysterious means of knowing?  The Bible.  If read, this viewpoint can be understood.  And if handled carefully, disarmed.

The Roman Empire, after which, tellingly, American politics is modeled, oppressed Christians.  At least for a while.  Then the faith became establishment.  And it began oppressing.  An ocean away, Christians fled here because they wanted freedom of religion.  They didn’t always want to share that freedom with other groups experiencing discrimination.  Especially, of course, if they could be compelled to do heavy labor without pay.  Now these groups feel they’re being judged for saying “Merry Christmas,” or for declaring loudly that Sunday’s Easter.  They can’t point to behaviors that in their understanding of the Bible are bad and tell people not to do them.  They don’t understand that Allah is the same deity they worship, only in monotheistic form.  And they get all this news while the moon is still in the sky.  I look at the puddle of light on my bedroom floor and head for my writing nook.  It may be Good Friday, but I’ve got to work today, getting Bibles ready to sell.

Two Cities

Augustine of Hippo wrote that there were two cities. If you’re reading this blog you probably know what they are. Today, according to some, is Easter. For others it’s not quite there yet. Call that one city. It’s also very near that other national holiday—tax day. That’d definitely be the other city. Now, I’m not going to go into any detail here, but I’ve always done my own taxes. If you’re old enough to remember going to the public library to pick up two or three copies of the paper forms, sitting at home with a pencil, eraser, pen, and TI-30, and spending an entire Saturday reading through the instructions and scribbling, you know what I’m talking about. These days everything’s online.

I can’t recall how many years I’ve used TurboTax. It was free, easy, and generally led to a refund. I miss those days. This year when I sat down with Intuit’s child, it started asking questions I didn’t understand. Perhaps you’ve run into some industries that do this—they make up their own vocabulary and if they use the words in a way the dictionary doesn’t, well, it’s the dictionary’s fault for not keeping up. TurboTax started doing that. And unless you want to pay even more than they’ve already sold you up for, there’s no way to ask questions. The answers online use the same obscure lexicon. So this year I had to do probably the most adult thing I’ve ever done. I got an accountant.

Setting up the appointment for after work, it was a matter of looking at dates both my wife and I, and more importantly, the accountant, had free. It was only as judgment day dawned that I realized it was Good Friday (for some). Arranging to work from home that day so I could get to the office before the buses rumble out of New York, I ran into a traffic jam. No doubt people out to do their last minute Good Friday shopping. We were meeting the accountant for the first time, and I wanted to make a good impression. Be punctual. I had neglected to coordinate the two cities on my calendar. The accountant was understanding. He commented on how easy our taxes were, compared to many. Turns out TurboTax had been closing off many perfectly legal options and charging us for the privilege. So now it’s Easter. Taxes are due in a couple of weeks. There are two cities, and if either is neglected there’ll be Hell to pay in the end.

GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

Elihu_Vedder_-_Soul_in_Bondage_-_Google_Art_Project

Seeing Red

Not being commercially minded, it took many years for me to understand why it is called Black Friday. To many people “black” indicates negativity, sort of the opposite of Good Friday which, when you think about it, doesn’t seem so good. After I was forced into jobs in the money-making business, I came to realize that budgets were written in black and deficits were written in red. Since my lifetime, with a few exceptions, has been a series of economic disasters following one another (the implications should be obvious) and businesses operate in the red while projecting budgets ever higher the next year. This model is, in a world of limited resources, the very definition of unsustainable, and yet we keep raising our sights and getting disappointed. Nobody knows for sure where the term Black Friday originated, but it is a modern term. A holiday for those who measure celebration in terms of dollars and cents. (Mostly dollars.)

As I was pondering this phenomenon, my thoughts turned to red letter days. Red here is a positive thing—special days on the calendar that let us step outside the usual routine of pushing ourselves to make this year’s budget and allow us to relax with family and friends. The black and the red have switched places here. In fact, red letters, apart from the dismal science, have historically been considered good. Think of the red letter editions of the Bible. These Bibles had the putative words of Jesus printed in red so that they would stand out. The concept dates back to the change of the twentieth century. Red letter Bibles caught on among Evangelical readers. Red letters, however, go back even further in history.

Who said what now?

The book that Catholic priests used to set on the altar was a missal. Missals contained the instructions for saying mass, and during certain parts of the ceremony priests were supposed to make specific gestures. The places at which these actions were to be made were printed in red to draw the priests’ attention. They were called “rubrics” since they were written in red. Missals date back to the Medieval Period and they give us perhaps the first positive use of red writing that we know. Even further back in history when inks were organic, red writing was found. Epigraphers of antiquity know of red inscriptions but the meaning at that time remains speculative. We call this Black Friday because the one percent hope to get a bit richer. Those of us further down are supposed to enjoy the trickle. For me, in principle I don’t go shopping on Black Friday. I see it as a red letter day.

Good, Friday

Riding public transit sometimes turns into a religious experience. Various bus drivers will wish passengers a “blessed day” as they pull into the Port Authority Bus Terminal—not that I can blame them, after the traffic they face daily, for taking a spiritual breather. Lately, though, I have been wished a happy Easter by the driver. Ironically, I must note, because people of many faith traditions ride the bus. Not all are Easter riders. Just yesterday a Rastafari stood before me in line. I’m regularly joined by Hindus, Jews, and maybe even a Mormon or two (who can tell?). Holy Week in New York is a surreal experience. I chatted with some co-workers where the topic changed effortlessly from their experiences of Passover to others’ experiences of Easter. Religion is alive and well in the Big Apple, but it is mostly an afterthought to the real business of making money. That’s what we’re all here for, after all.

Money, according to the good book, is inimical to the lifestyle of faith. I must have a little too much faith, I guess, since I have so precious little money. Nothing throws that into such sharp relief as looming tuition bills. You see, I tried “to fight the good fight” only to learn that there’s no way to win it without playing by the entrepreneur’s rules. Filling out the FAFSA over the smoldering ruins of my “earning years” was a distinctly sobering experience. I went into higher education because I believed in it—there’s that pesky faith again. The things you believe in, however, have a way of turning on you. I suppose that’s an appropriate reflection for Good Friday.

It’s hard to be an idealist in a world where people say, “you just need someone to give you a chance,” and then turn their backs on you. So as I’m walking across town, thinking about my blessed day, I notice that we’re all in this together. Except some of us. In the idealist world, those who want it the most sometimes win it. Those who play by the rules. I had no Harvard aspirations, just a reasonable job in a little college would suit me fine. A place to think that doesn’t have wheels and aluminum sides and seat forty-nine other lost souls. But for those who have less, even the little they have will be taken from them. That’s biblical too. Higher education is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, but it easily joins hands with Judas Iscariot. It is Good Friday, according to some. Others just call it a blessed day.

Mathis_Gothart_Grünewald_007

Good Morning, London

First of all, Virgin-Atlantic Airlines gets a gold star in my book. Having flown quite a bit over the past six months, I’ve been reminded on just how stingy airlines can be, making even a brief flight a test of endurance. They are very generous with full body scanners and less so with basic human services, such as food, entertainment choices on long flights, and a sense that you’re doing anything other than propping up a flailing, deregulated industry. Virgin-Atlantic demonstrated that air time need not be torturous. So, with many choices of movie to watch, on Good Friday, I decided on one of my favorite genres of religious movie—the vampire flick.

I have been anticipating Dark Shadows for well over a year now, but I had heard nothing about Fright Night. Really, in many ways Fright Night was an unremarkable vampire movie, but then again, watching on a plane is maybe not the place where one would expect the gothic mood required for full enjoyment. Nevertheless, the full range of religious cures of vampires was present with one notable exception: crucifixes. Crosses abounded, but here on Good Friday I saw no corpi. There was holy water, so clearly it wasn’t purely Protestant sympathies that led to the abandonment of crucifixes in the movie. In any case, crosses were only a minor deterrent in this scenario. What finally dispatched the chief vampire in this case was a traditional wooden stake. Which, somehow reminds me of typical airplane food on most airlines.

Driving around a secular London dressed in religious garb, St. Paul’s Cathedral lit splendidly in the night, was a reminder of the hold Christianity still has on even non-religious culture. It was kind of like the corpus-less crucifix in the movie. The inspiration behind the great gothic stylings of Big Ben and Parliament arise from their long association with Christian culture. On the streets people were milling about London late in the evening, not apparently fresh from church, standing in the shadow of Westminster Abbey and happily snapping photos. This may be a montage of disparate images colliding in my jet-lagged mind, but somehow virgins, vampires, crucifixes, and churches seem to fit naturally together.

One of Us

I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.

My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?

It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.

Triskaidekaphobia

Friday the thirteenth. The very concept awakens images of horror movies and inauspicious happenings. An interview with a Psychology professor at Rutgers recently discussed this unusual phobia. Mike Petronko of the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology had this to say: “Exactly how this got started is difficult to say, but the belief appears to date back to ancient times. Often, superstitions are rooted in religion. Some folklorists believe the fear may stem from the Last Supper, when, according to Christian belief, Jesus and his 12 disciples gathered for the final meal, which set the stage for his crucifixion, on Good Friday.” There is no doubt that the origin of the superstition is religious and that Fridays earned their notorious reputation because of Good Friday. Even today, as any Roman Catholic can tell you, Friday dietary requirements differ from those of other days.

But wasn't this a Thursday?

Thirteen is a little harder to pin down. It is a prime number after ten, but then, so are eleven and seventeen. It may have its unlucky associations back in the old Mesopotamian base-six numerical system. Once you reach past the first doubling of six you meet thirteen. Even today hotels are designed with no thirteenth floor, although pasting a fourteen over the actual thirteen is merely for psychological relief. Mathematics insists thirteen follows twelve. As Petronko notes, the fear is real. Airliners do not have row 13 and hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue are lost because so many people refuse to engage in regular practices (such as flying) on Friday the thirteenth.

Religion and fear are not strange bedfellows. In fact, religion, in its earliest origins, seems to have been a coping mechanism for fear. People are afraid of many things – that is the curse of consciousness. We can anticipate eventualities that will never materialize. We imagine them happening to us. Religion seeks to placate those forces that are beyond our control. We may lay claim to a highly advanced and technologically sophisticated society, but millions of people are anxiously awaiting the end of this day. Rutgers, like most universities, hardly sees the need to fund the study of religions. Nevertheless, our very culture belies that indifference. Many people are afraid today and we still don’t even know why.

Aftermath of Easter

Holidays, it seems, are increasingly overloading themselves with baggage. Not only are many of them thinly veiled celebrations of materialism, but many are now being tied to “issues.” As I survey the aftermath of Easter as I saw it this year, it becomes plain that even the message of self-sacrifice and hope springing eternal can be co-opted. The Fellowship of Catholic University Students at Montclair State University hosted a screening of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ last week. An outcry of biblical proportions flooded university discussion groups over what was deemed cultural insensitivity. Gibson’s version of the gospel failed to impress me when I saw it, stressing as it did Gibson’s sadomasochistic torture scenes in an effort to raise a few welts over “Christ-killers.” Back at Nashotah House I was regularly on the preaching rota. (I’m not now nor have I ever been ordained in any denomination. I have, however had preaching experience going back to my high school years.) My final sermon asked whether we should accept theological truths from a loose cannon of an actor. These physical accidents may have had more than a little in common.

Conversely, my first sermon at the seminary – the very year I was hired, and several years since my last pulpit performance – featured Abraham Lincoln. Nashotah House was a bastion for disgruntled southerners at the time; they were often the only ones conservative enough to fit the seminary’s profile. My admiration of Lincoln was expressed in an innocent expostulation on the merits of freedom. Afterwards I was drawn aside and admonished, being informed, “not everyone here believes Lincoln was a hero.” Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday, a point that has not escaped those who note that the Civil War began 150 years ago this month. Those at Nashotah who disliked my words felt that I was disparaging the south. With roots in South Carolina, I indeed was not. Slavery is wrong in any ethical system that will stand up to scrutiny. Those who believe in equality, however, often pay the ultimate price.

Holidays do not always bring out the best in us. We need the respite, and we have the Jewish community to thank for coming up with the Sabbath that has led to our weekend lifestyle. Each weekend rival churches fill up with those who believe others to be wrong. Religion seems to have failed in its quest to unite. A colleague at Montclair cited the quotation of uncertain attribution: “having a war about religion is like having a fight over who’s got the best imaginary friend” – this was in the context of the screening of Mel’s Passion. The fact is, when it comes to religion nobody knows the correct answer. The humble response one would like to imagine is the mutual encouragement to continue to strive for the truth. More likely than not, the response is someone will select their weapon of choice and try to prove their point of view the old fashioned way.

Good Earth Friday

In a rare superimposition of holidays, today marks both Earth Day and Good Friday. These two special days are a study in contrasts, yet both are holidays that look forward and hope for salvation. Good Friday, the culminating drama of Holy Week, is often paradoxically treated as a day of mourning. If Christian theology be correct, humanity would be Hell-bound without it. Yet many of the faithful weep as if for Tammuz, knowing that resurrection is just two days away. Earth Day, much more recent in origin, is much more ancient in importance. Biology as we know it, whether human or divine, would have no place to call home without Earth. Earth Day began in 1970, but every day is an Earth day for most of us.

Still buzzing with 1960’s activism, on the first Earth Day 20 million demonstrators got involved and helped lead the way to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency. People cared. This was before fashionable complacency set in. Whatever. Today citizens of the United States get stirred up about very little. Good Friday may represent a school holiday for some, others may even go to church although it is not Sunday. But get worked up? Hardly. Legislators in our country drag their feet like spoiled children when it comes to reducing emissions (many politicians positively treasure their emissions) or paying for cleanup of what we’ve done to our planet. Let our children inherit the dearth.

While bully governors seek to slash and burn, it is the responsibility of more reasonable individuals to try to repair the damage their leaders do. This is the spirit of Earth Day. Our leaders make the mess, those of us who care try to do something about it. Good Friday shows what happens when an idealist challenges the imperial status quo. Long-haired liberals get nailed, and guys in expensive suits cut themselves bigger and bigger checks while orphaning those who get in their way. Gaia was never crucified, but that doesn’t stop Neo-Cons from trying to rape her. Just a year on from Deepwater Horizon and oil companies argue they are legally within their bounds not to permanently seal off caps that “meet regulations.” Their friends the politicians politely look the other way. If things are going to get better I suggest that we leave official policy hanging on a cross and do our own best effort to save our mother’s life.

Careful, it's the only one we've got.

True Metaphors

I have a bad habit of taking road signs metaphorically. Not that I ignore the instructions, it is just that I consider their wider implications. While I was a tormented layman at Nashotah House I was pleased to see a road sign go up along the county lane that led directly to the main campus entrance. “Detour Ahead” it read in its reflective orange glory. I knew immediately that it was a metaphor for my life.

Yesterday as I drove to New Brunswick (New Jersey) for a student’s thesis defense, a large traffic sign that allows its message to be programmed and changed easily sat beside the road. “Expect Delays” one screen read. The next tersely stated, “Church Services.” Yesterday was, naturally, Good Friday, but I couldn’t help reading a bit more into this curt nugget of truth. My mind wandered to Galileo, Bruno, and Darwin. And to thinkers who nudge conventions outside the sciences. In fact, to societal progress itself. I thought of how often human good has been blocked by the agency of religious believers. When something new and beneficial is discovered it has to go through an approval process longer than that of the FDA – by the Church. Is this new information dangerous to doctrine, to preconceived notion? Will it damage our power structure? Can it be permitted?

Back to Joseph Campbell. Raised in the context of a Christian culture, Campbell did not believe any one mythology – he believed all mythologies. He keenly felt the loss that society incurred when it forfeited its mythic heritage and jettisoned its gods. Are we better off without them or not? The answer is still unknown. Perhaps the most appropriate traffic sign of all is “New Traffic Pattern Ahead,” and the most damning is “One Way.”

The ultimate heresy

Smile, You’re Condemned

Yesterday at Montclair State University, I was sitting in the hallway (my office) prior to class. (Office hours are required, but space is limited for adjuncts such as myself.) While I was reading my book a student walked up and handed me a business card. “For you, sir,” she said politely. The card had a smiley face on it, and was designed to bring cheer.

Then I flipped the card over and found out I was going to Hell. A bit of a downer when you’re about to start class!

It isn’t the first time people have attempted to convert me without bothering to find out what I believe. It seems that if you already hold the zealot’s view you’ll appreciate the gesture of being condemned just to make sure your soul is saved. It is the thought that counts, after all.

The book I was reading was Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces – a book I’ve known since college but from which I have only taken a tipple until this year. Many scholars of mythology fault Campbell on being too much of a generalist and looking too much for connections where they are not obvious. His language can be florid and mystical, verging on “believer,” for those uncomfortable with any kind of faith. I find Campbell to be a welcome guide, although, as for any guide, I do not believe all he says! One nugget in particular stuck out at me: “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” As we find ourselves on Good Friday, only those with eyes firmly shut will disregard Campbell’s wisdom.

I still remember my shock when I first learned that gods, centuries before Jesus, had been dying and rising. What had always been presented to me as a unique historical event actually had a long and venerable prehistory. It suddenly seemed as if the ministers I’d known hadn’t done their homework. Or perhaps they lacked the cognitive finesse to understand Orpheus, Adonis, Baal, Osiris, and even Ishtar, as types of either blatant or obscure resurrection. It is the Campbellian, or nearly universal hope: life prevails over death. As the young lady walked away, I sincerely wished her happiness in the quest she’s only beginning.