Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Spring Forward

I have to admit that spring snuck up on me this year. Weather is, of course, no reliable predictor of the Vernal Equinox, and since I depend on the lightness of the sky while waiting for the bus as an indicator of seasons, turning our clocks ahead last weekend blindsided me to the nearness of the light. Holy Week in Christianity is just one of a cluster of holy days long associated with the point of equilibrium: the day when light and darkness balance perfectly, only to tip from then on in the favor of light. The crocuses have been up for weeks and the robins are ubiquitous, so I really have no excuse. Spending too much of one’s days indoors, I suspect, will inure any soul to the wonder of changing seasons. Climate control, no windows, and constant business separate a person from what nature has evolved us to be.

Easter, understandably, can’t be a national holiday in a land of religious freedom. Not everyone recognizes Easter and even those who do don’t agree on the date. Having a moveable feast is a great inconvenience to employers who want to know everyone’s going to be at their desks. Besides, even though the date changes, it’s always on a Sunday. Many people already have that sop and so, we glide past the vernal equinox with nary a thought. Business as usual. Looking at the great monuments of the past, when ancients put great effort into marking the seasonal change days, I can’t help but think that we’ve lost touch with a basic element of our humanity when we let the equinoxes pass without notice. I hadn’t even realized it was spring until it had begun.

Stopping to recognize the significant days in the passing of the year may be inherently religious. We can be as secular as we like about the equality of light and darkness, but somewhere deep inside we’ll still be thankful that the days will be growing longer until there is more light than dark. We just don’t have to say so at the office. Holidays, it seems to me, offer us hope. We don’t have to buy stuff or give presents. Just having a day to stop and reflect makes us more human. The vernal equinox came silently on a Sunday this year. I awoke early to try to catch sunrise on a cloudy morning. I look to the east, and I dare to hope.

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Palms and Psalms

At Nashotah House, where I spent many years of my career, it was often felt that the weather during Holy Week was, in the best of circumstances, appropriate. With spring just around the corner, however—the date of Easter is based on the Vernal Equinox, after all—a number of surprises came. Particularly in Wisconsin. The ideal scenario would look something like this: sunny then partly cloudy on Palm Sunday; it was a a joyful day for a parade, but clouds make for nice foreshadowing. Nobody really commented on the weather for Monday through Wednesday, and Thursday—Maundy Thursday—was largely spent inside the chapel. Good Friday, however, should be rainy. Saturday gloomy. And, of course, Easter Sunday should be a perfect, sunny spring day. It seldom, if ever, worked out that way. The weather is not beholden to liturgical celebrations. The same holds true for New Jersey. At least the snow has been removed from the forecast today, only to come in the night.

It was at Nashotah House that I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Being a lexically driven book, it was never intended to be a commentary on global warming. It should have been, in retrospect. Already by then we were nearing the point at which, even if greenhouse gas emissions were stopped, runaway melting of the polar ice would continue apace and the weather would grow more and more unpredictable because of human action. Human action of everyone except the industrialists, of course, since they don’t believe in global warming. We cling to our palms and shout “Hallelujah” while the sea level’s rising and our weather grows increasingly erratic. We have a theology with which the weather disagrees.

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The liturgical year is, like its Jewish predecessor, cyclical. Some have suggested that holidays were invented to remind the laity of when it was safe to plant again. Of course, the climate in the “Middle East” is quite different than that of northern Europe and the United States where the Bible seems to have its proper setting. As I was walking yesterday, I enjoyed the daffodils that I always associate with Easter. When I returned home I saw snow in the forecast. Leap year, Daylight Saving Time, and my general level of sleepiness conspired to cause me to overlook that today is the Vernal Equinox. I look for the snow, grasp my palm, and think of spring.

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.

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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.

Kings and Lions

Most parents come to know the Disney Empire intimately. Apart from cheap knock-offs, it is the main entertainment industry for children in a world of leisure. When weighed in the scales of intellectual achievement, Disney productions often end up in the lighter pan. Even some of the more serious stories, such as The Lion King, strive for a gravitas that eludes them. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun to watch, however. Yesterday, in a celebration of two closely spaced birthdays, we went to see The Lion King on Broadway. Being in Times Square reminded me that New York City is where many adults go to play, the Disneyland for grown-ups. Even with the rain for which this April has been an overachiever, hundreds of tourists were about, flocking to the famous chapels of the temple to American consumerism.

Having sat through many decent productions of high school, college, and touring company musicals and plays, I never really appreciated how a long-term professional show could raise the standards to a nearly unattainable level. The Lion King story-line has many mythological – Christian, even – themes, but the immediate sense of awe in being in a Broadway theater was underscored mostly by the professionalism of the actors and singers. The play does try to raise the level of awareness of African culture, a heritage nearly wiped out in many locations by overzealous missionaries, albeit in Disney-approved fashion. It is very easy to comprehend why those who frequent Broadway find other productions lacking. In short, the show was spectacular.

As today is the official start of Holy Week, and as Easter is about self-sacrifice and rebirth, The Lion King was an appropriate choice to experience (it was selected by my daughter). The death of Mufasa in the salvation of Simba is played out in a resurrection of sorts when Simba realizes that his father still lives in him. The character of Rafiki also makes for an excellent example of a shaman. Glancing through the playbill, it was evident that many Broadway shows are keyed to religious culture: Jerusalem, Sister Act, Rock of Ages, The Book of Mormon, and even Mary Poppins has a magical being descending from the skies to set a minor injustice to right. Now as millions lift their palms on this Sunday the drama will carry on and art will continue to draw its inspiration from religion.

Broadway 1986

Bell’s Hell

Hell makes the cover of Time. Or at least its absence does. For those of us who’ve delved deeply into the Bible for many years, it is no surprise. In fact, the uproar, as Time confesses, is among Evangelicals. So why Hell? Why now? The Evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Rob Bell, has just published a book questioning the existence of Hell and his fellow Evangelicals are in a conflagration about the loss of the sacred icon of God’s omnipotent stick that threatens them all into Heaven. It is a sad day when love cannot encourage enough that hatred becomes religion’s motivating factor.

The loss of Hell, however, represents so much more than just the loss of the scariest place under the earth. It represents the loss of control. Without Hell to wield and Hell to pay, many of the faithful may wonder what they might get away with. Neo-cons have been eager to court the Hell-mongers because the issue is making others lock-step in their own pattern. Diversity is not encouraged or appreciated. Lawns must be cut to the same height, trees carefully trimmed, shirts must be conservative and cookie-cutter, and one must wear that blessed smile that proclaims “Hell-dodger.” Cast any doubt into this fabled world and the results might be, well, realistic.

The Hebrew Bible knows no Hell but the one we make for ourselves. We hardly need a Devil to tutor us in the ways of evil. Human history reveals that we’ve had it in us all along. Instead of celebrating the death of Hell, several Evangelical pastors are simply adding Bell to its numbers. Time’s news is not news for many of us, but for those who haven’t considered seriously the implications of their faith as Holy Week rolls around, this may be a good time to take stock of options for eternity. What do we gain by fabricating an eternal torment devised by the most loving deity ever conceived? Hell can now claim its rightful place as a metaphor for the wickedness Homo sapiens devise for each other and for their planet.