Christian Nationalism

Apparently we’ve forgotten the Second World War. In our touch-screen, never-have-to-get-off-the-couch culture of convenience, we’ve completely disregarded the millions that, yes, died in vain. You see, Christian Nationalism is on the rise, according to a story my wife sent me from the Huffington Post. About as much an aberration from literal “Christianity” as you can get, this movement believes America’s success is tied to its role as a Christian nation. Such believers, if they can even see that such rhetoric leads to war, don’t care. For the fact is that the economy of China is poised to pass, if it hasn’t already done so, the economy of what used to be United States. Call it Confucian Nationalism, but I have the feeling that when two giants try to get into the same compartment things tend to get unpleasant.

Serious thinking is a natural resource of which America has clearly run out. Easy answers, empty of content—junk food of the mind—are easily tweeted out from a personality that declares his own opinions truth. Everything else is fake news. Evangelicals, it’s sorely obvious, need to read The Analects. Don’t claim that its obscure; I’ve read the Bible. If you think you can figure Paul out, well, that’s what I’d call “fake news.” Oh, and by the way, Paul was anything but a nationalist. For all his faults, he knew that Christianity is nothing if it’s tied to nationhood.

Instead we puff out our chests and, ignoring the Bible on this very proverb, become the blind following the blind. If God has a plan he’d better reveal it to his 45th prophet soon because there are some enormous gulfs in the road and he insists on walking without a cane. American exceptionalism is built on the backs of the poor and helpless. They are also the ones most easily swayed by its perverse rhetoric. Nations must separate themselves from their religious beliefs. We’ve seen what happens when incompatible religions become the identifying factors of countries. As long ago as the 1970s I’d learned that nationalism was a powerful force for evil. I hadn’t been alive during the Second World War, but the world into which I’d been born was entangled in Vietnam. We were halfway around the world playing the bully, but it was because of capitalism, not Christianity. The end result, however, was the same. Unimaginable human suffering. Death, pain, and sorrow. And we’ve decided that the Prince of Peace wants us to head down that road again. “Vanity,” I hear Qohelet whisper.

My Fellow Americans

It’s important to keep the old gods happy. By now everyone probably knows that Stephen King composed a tweet suggesting that Donald Trump was Cthulhu. In response an angry tweet came from Cthulhu himself, since, as we know, he declared his intention to take over the world long before Trump. Cthulhu is no stranger to this blog, being the brainchild of H. P. Lovecraft. As I’ve suggested before, however, it is really the internet that gave life to the ancient one. His name is instantly recognizable to thousands, perhaps millions, who’ve never read Lovecraft or his disciples. In parody or in seriousness, the worship of Cthulhu is here to stay.

I’ve often wondered if the internet might participate in the birth of New Religious Movements. In an era when a completely unqualified plutocrat can run for president just because he has other people’s cash to burn, anything must be possible. Cthulhu, as we all know, lies dead but dreaming beneath the sea. His coming means doom for humankind, or, at the very least insanity. It seems that Stephen King might be right on this one. I’m getting old enough to recognize the signs; after all John F. Kennedy was president when I was born. I’ve seen the most powerful office in the world devolve into a dog-and-pony show where lack of any guiding principle besides accrual of personal wealth can lead a guy to the White House. At Cthulhu’s tweet indicates, reported on the Huffington Post, at least he’s honest. Unlike some political candidates, many people believe in Cthulhu.

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Perhaps the interest in Cthulhu is just a sophisticated joke. Long ago I suggested to a friend of mine in Edinburgh that perhaps the Ugaritians were writing funny stories (i.e., jokes) on their clay tablets, imagining what future generations would say when the myths were uncovered. Like Cthulhu, they were the old gods too. Like Cthulhu, there are people today who’ve reinstituted the cult of Baal and the other deities that would’ve led to a good, old-fashioned stoning back in biblical days. New Religious Movements are a sign that we’re still grasping for something. Our less tame, or perhaps too tame, deity who watches passively while charlatans and mountebanks dole out lucre for power must be dreaming as well. Of course, Lovecraft, the creator of Cthulhu, was famously an atheist. Belief is, after all, what one makes it out to be. At least Stephen King’s father reinvented his surname with some transparency. And those who make up gods may have the last laugh when the votes are all in.

Narrative Ark

Complete with an artificial giraffe perched on its prow—or aft, I can never tell the difference—a modern-day Noah’s ark is about to set sail. Or set float. The Bible doesn’t describe any kind of steering or propulsion for the ark since its main job was not to sink. According to a story on Huffington Post by Nina Golgowski, the life-size “replica” of Noah’s ark from the Netherlands (that I’ve posted about before) is about to go to sea. Spreading the good news as it goes, it is headed for South America, according to the story. Then the itinerary heads north, where the most rapid true believers can be found. Perhaps intentionally the ark is headed toward the godless left coast rather than hitting the Bible Belt. The fact that an imaginative reconstruction of a mythical ship can float may save many from Hell. A few questions, however, remain.

I’m a visual guy. I study pictures rather than just look at them. As a kid I was amazed at the sheer variety of arks that claimed to follow Noah’s blueprint. Reading the account in Genesis, it is clear that all that’s given are measurements—in cubits, no less—and instructions to make three decks and a window. The Dutch ark follows the design made popular by the 1977 Sun Pictures’ In Search of Noah’s Ark movie. The design, I recall thinking as a teen, looked slick and scientific. Engineered to withstand a fake storm in a bathtub, this has to prove something. When rock outcroppings on Mount Ararat were photographed from satellites and military jets, they suggested this was, in fact, correct, some of the time. Close-up photos were inevitably lost as sherpa after sherpa fell into hidden crevasses with the camera still in hand. Now they won’t let you climb the mountain, just in case.

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

The drawing that launched a thousand, or at least one, ark(s).

Apart from the ark design is the more important question—the question about leg room. With all our technology, and a world that has been pretty thoroughly, if disappointingly, explored, we still haven’t catalogued all the species on the planet. The ark had to hold all the species since evolution is a diabolical lie. Pugs had to be there as well as their non-ancestral wolves. Both African and Indian elephants. Black and white rhinos. Hippopotami, pygmy and economy-sized. It had to have been pretty crowded, and Answers in Genesis claims there had to be room for dinosaurs too. For me the question has always been those left off the ark—the fish. If the oceans are salt water and the whole world was flooded, whence the fresh-water fish? They couldn’t have evolved, since nobody does. That’s a head-scratcher. Good thing too, because there had to have been more than just two fleas on that ark.

Fossilized Views

Not all Fundamentalists are the same. I grew up believing the Bible was literally true, but in my family we recognized that fossils indicated the earth was older than just a few thousand years. Keep in mind that I never tested this with any preachers—we didn’t need to. We knew that evolution was wrong, but that didn’t mean there had never been dinosaurs. Kids are as sure of dinosaurs as they are of angels. Besides, we lived beside a tributary to the Allegheny River that was rich in fossils. We’d spend summer days wading in the water looking for rocks with impressions of various bivalve shells in them. They weren’t hard to find. And being collectors of just about anything inexpensive (or free, as in the case of fossils) we brought them home. We really didn’t see any great disconnect between the black book on the table and the rocks in our hands. There was room for both.

It must’ve been a slow news day at Huffington Post recently when a story titled “This Guy Is Pretty Sure He Found Fossils From Noah’s Flood” ran. The guy in question is from Texas, and, finding fossils probably not unlike those we used to, supposed that they were laid down during Noah’s flood. This was an idea that I only encountered after I’d left home. We couldn’t afford many books when I was growing up, but we did have conventional dinosaur material. Nothing strange enough to suggest that the flood created all the landforms and fossils on the planet. That would’ve sounded just a bit strange. Today, however, it is common to suppose all Fundamentalists are naive and enemies of science. Not all are. Some, I hope, are like I was, trying to find a way to fit their faith into a world that science has come to help define a bit more clearly. Positions have, however, polarized a bit since my tender years. We now fight over things we used to wonder about.

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The fossils I found as a kid found their way back into nature before I grew up. If I ever have the time when visiting home these days, I still try to get an hour or two to spend down by the river to look for the rocks that filled me with such awe as a child. That was a world where belief was fairly easy. I loved science. I loved my religion. I loved the fossils that told me the story was a complicated one. Only I wouldn’t have believed that decades later I’d still be trying to suggest to others that the world is big enough for both facts and faith. I haven’t been a Fundamentalist for decades, and given a few million years, who knows how even the nature of the debate might evolve.

Bus Fare

The two things most likely to kill you on the streets of Midtown Manhattan are taxi cabs and city buses. Crossing the Fifth Avenue can be a dangerous game of chicken, even if the light’s in your favor. Over the past few weeks I’ve been noticing a lot of religious-themed advertising on the buses of this secular haven. A while back it was Killing Jesus—I suspect this must’ve been around Easter time. The movie based on the bestseller appeared with images of the savior tattooed over aluminum and glass. This week I noticed buses advertising A.D. “The Bible continues,” they claim. Don’t take that as career advice, however. With these thoughts in my head, it seems quite a coincidence that my wife would forward me a Huffington Post story entitled, “Anti-Muslim ‘Killing Jews Is Worship’ Ads Set To Go Up On NYC Buses, Subways.” New York City is a Judeo-Christian sort of town, I guess.

Of course, the text is deeper than that. I’d never heard of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI) before. According to Huff, it’s classified as a hate group directed at Muslims, and, in an ironic twist, designated public forums are not permitted to block adds. I’m just a layman, but I hope an educated one. Still, when I see public space as a battlefield for religious triumphalism, I wonder why the paid add space (what is the side of a bus, if not wasted advertising space?) is not restricted by any rules. I do not condone any kind of hate crime, and that should, I believe, include copy that intends to replicate hate. If human history has taught us nothing else, we’d be fools not to see that hate begets hate, and never love. The way out of a hateful situation is never to instill further hatred.

I spend a good deal of every week inside a bus. Sometimes as I try to read by the light of day, which has finally reappeared during my commute, the illumination is blocked by advertisements plastered over the windows of my expensive, public chariot. I sometimes peer out through the dots, unable to read what I’m advertising, and wonder what those on the other side see. Who am I shilling for? Perhaps this is a question the AFDI should put to itself—what if they were the ones on this bus. How will the person on the street look at them? With overflowing love or with reciprocal hate? The bus I ride is not really a choice I make. I like to think, however, that the destination for which we all hope would be for a more loving world.

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Theological Cemetery

Implosion is a word frequently associated with demolition. Implosions are episodes where buildings collapse in upon themselves, in theory, harming no one on the outside. In 1992, as a starry-eyed, fresh Ph.D., I was hired by one of the then eleven Episcopal seminaries in the United States. Each had been around so long as to acquire a feel of almost biblical antiquity—something their governance models appear to reflect. Just over two decades later, the mythically wealthy Episcopal Church is watching its seminary structure implode. It’s not for want of funds, but from lack of will. With shrinking demand for clergy, some had to merge to maintain even their historic names. Others are effacing by degrees. The Nashotah House I was asked to leave was not the Nashotah House where I began my academic career.

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Within hours of hearing rumors of a mass firing of the faculty of the General Seminary—The General Seminary!—I received confirmations both personal and from the Huffington Post. Eight faculty who had concerns over the Dean committed the (in the Anglican world) unpardonable sin of requesting a meeting with the board of trustees. At Nashotah, I served two stints as a faculty representative to the board of trustees and my nightmares have taken on a different quality since. In the Episcopal system the Dean is also President. Not a whiff of democracy taints these hallowed halls. They claim the title Very Reverend, no matter how appropriate, and some, if they’ve ever read Acton, did it for instruction. There must be incredible power knowing that higher education is in crisis and that faculty with legitimate complaints are only setting themselves up for protracted purgatories of joblessness, should they question you. Trustees don’t want to be bothered with the “formation” that is happening within. O Captain! My Captain!

I am heartsick. This is how Christians treat their most highly educated and dedicated—no one takes a job at a seminary without knowing the risk it poses to a career. A more protracted dismissal of faculty, including yours truly, took place in Wisconsin almost a decade ago. I knew those who lost their jobs—fine scholars and decent human beings—as apocopated visions of a fictional future flashed before the credulous eyes of true believers. Where do discarded seminary faculty go? Back into the arms of Judas? I could not. I admire those wounded healers who returned to the cure of souls. We started, did we not?, with the best of intentions. The church, it seems, forgets that even faculty are human beings. “Enlighten,” the collect for education reads, “those who teach and those who learn, that, rejoicing in the knowledge of your truth, they may worship you and serve you from generation to generation.” Or, barring that, speak the truth, and lose their vocations.

Flying Sorcery

In a post on the Huffington Post recently Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, wrote about the strange antipathy of Ken Ham to the search for extraterrestrial life. Ham, founder of a creationist museum and self-appointed spokesman against evolution, has gone on the record saying that aliens cause problems for a creationist worldview. Therefore they can’t exist. Indeed, creationists should reject aliens because of the flat earth the Bible presents. Zimmerman, with his usual unfailing reason and wry humor, demonstrates the multiple difficulties both with Ham’s understanding of science and of the whole alien agenda. The Bible doesn’t address the modern world on many fronts, which is why literalists so often find themselves out of step with the issues of the day. When the final period (an anachronism, I know) was placed at the end of Revelation, it was expected that the world wouldn’t be around much longer, tottering as it was on the underground pillars that held it up. Somehow the Roman Empire came and went without any kind of cataclysm ending it all, and literalists have been backing and filling ever since.

Ham’s angst about extraterrestrials, however, is not shared by all Fundamentalists. I recall going to a session way out at a country church as a child where the guest speaker, a firm believer in aliens, talked about the “sheep in other folds” referred to by Jesus as aliens. I recall the eerie feeling as we drove home under a dark sky with fliers depicting flying saucers and assurances that we were not alone. In college, when I discovered Larry Norman’s music, I was struck by his lyric “If there’s life on other planets, then I’m sure He must know, and He’s been there once already, and has died to save their souls.” Literalists, like Catholics, take multiple views on the question. It seems a terrible waste of space if, in this infinite universe we’re the only sparks of consciousness around. I’ll leave “intelligence” for time to decide.

What would Genesis do?

What would Genesis do?

Ironically, Ken Ham doesn’t seem to have considered the up side of aliens, at least for his point of view. If the extraterrestrials end up looking like us, that does raise some serious questions about evolution. How did it work identically on two different planets to produce such similar results? You’d think maybe Fundamentalists might welcome aliens with open appendages. Of course, some have gone far off the other end and declared that angels and aliens are the same thing. The problem of the literalist world view is that it is severely limited. The Bible never foresaw the internet or the airplane or even the true nature of our own solar system, let alone the infinite sea of space beyond. In charting a course for belief, accurate maps are necessary. As Zimmerman points out, those maps, of necessity must contain the stars. And as we continue to evolve infinite worlds of possibilities await.

Tweeting Treason

Partisan politics can be very depressing. Religion seldom helps. Good ol’ boys hepped up on Jesus and lynchings creep me out a bit, especially when they’ve got political ambitions. Florida’s continual struggle with reality reawakened this fear when I read, in a Huffington Post story about Joshua Black’s recent tweet. A Republican candidate for the state house, Black is a former street evangelist who allegedly tweeted that a hanging is the way to solve, in his not-so-humble opinion, ills in the White House. To be fair, Black suggests that a trial for war crimes should precede the stout rope, but I’m afraid I’ve lost faith in due process. Anyone who’s tangled with the evangelical version of justice knows that there’s just no way to win. And yet, despite the many compromises on the political front, the religious right takes any excuse to make ever more outlandish claims.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, I wonder where hatred entered the mix. Jesus, according to the Gospels, had a temper but he never suggested the death penalty for his political enemies. Even standing before Pilate and Herod, he didn’t trump their human political ambitions with the divine trump card to win earthly power, hands down. As I recall, the early evangelists spent quite a bit of time huddled in dark corners for fear of the rule of government. They didn’t suggest hanging Tiberius, although one has to wonder what even the Romans made of Caligula. There were, no doubt, multiple Christianities as play in those early centuries, but the biblical picture, the one that evangelicals claim as their own, shows the true believers frightened and utterly subservient to the dictates of empire.

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

That haircut will never pass Evangelical muster

Constantine may be the most important figure in western history. The religions we recognize as Christianity today may have largely been crafted by Paul of Tarsus, but they would never have become the foundation of empire without Constantine’s conversion. The Christianization of the Roman Empire grew into the immense power of the Vatican in the Middle Ages, and fueled the political ambitions of colonists to this land that they claimed theirs by manifest destiny. And our presidents, no matter their personal predilections, have become more and more Christian ever since. Thomas Jefferson could not be elected in today’s political climate. Even Jefferson repented of having held slaves. There was a time when accusing a law-abiding president of war crimes would itself have been considered treason. A lot of water has passed under the Watergate since then, and partisan politics now holds hands with an uncompromising Christianity that suggests the death penalty is more to be desired than health care for all.

Guiding Girls

Girl Guides are the British equivalent to the Girl Scouts. I first learned about them during the three years that I lived in the UK, although, as far as I know, they don’t sell cookies. An article in the Huffington Post last week announced that the Girl Guides have decided to drop God from their pledge, as a move toward inclusiveness. I’ve often pondered the place god holds in various social societies. At my daughter’s Girl Scout bridging ceremony a couple weeks back, I noticed God in the pledge. In New Jersey, where diversity is synonymous with breathing, I wondered how this antiquated oath felt to those who maybe grew up without the concept. Stretching my mind back a few years, when my daughter was in Middle School, she was awarded a good student prize by the Elks. As I sat in the tastefully decorated meeting room, with only a very faint tinge of beer in the air, I wondered if I might ever join a fraternal order. One of the officers stood to welcome us, inviting applications for membership. Democratically, she was a woman in a “fraternal” organization. She reeled off the requirements. As an afterthought she said, “and you have to believe in god.”

How does one measure belief in divinity? It has been my experience that many beliefs fluctuate with time. I can decide to believe, but in many ways, belief decides me. As a mantra to modern society, on the old X-Files series Fox Mulder’s famous poster read, “I Want to Believe.” To join the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, or the Elks, you have to say you believe. Nobody’s going to hook you up to a polygraph machine, but you need to make your public declaration. At least in the last case, beer come later.

Religious diversity is a reality of our lives. From the invention of the steam engine, it became inevitable. Our world was going to grow smaller as we met people who had previously been isolated from us by distance. In 1893 the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. As part of it, the Parliament of the World’s Religions introduced many Americans to the religions of the world for the first time. Hinduism, once an exotic strain quaintly captured in the archaic spelling “Hindoo,” became a sudden fascination. Buddhism was a curiosity. How had it been that the United States seemed only to know about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in that order) when other belief systems existed? How could we have missed them? More importantly, what were we going to do now that we knew about them? We couldn’t unknow them, like you can unfriend someone on Facebook. We were going to have to learn to live together. After all, we all have just one planet to share. Social organizations are great places for introducing tolerance. You can be moral without being Judeo-Christian. And if our social organizations want to promote equality of membership, maybe the Girl Guides are truly living up to their name.

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Curing Fundamentally

Despite the many problems with Richard Dawkins’ religious reasoning, he correctly notes that children are religious because they are taught to be. (That’s actually further than Dawkins is willing to go, since in The God Delusion he states that children are not religious at all, but are only claimed to be so by parents.) Belief is something that we are only beginning to understand, but it is clear that children are taught their religion, generally, by those who raise them. By the time most of us finish high school or college, however, we have learned that religion is limited to a relatively brief segment of our otherwise busy, secular lives. Over the years I have met many people whose religion I have studied in more depth than they, mainly because it was of little interest to them. God made no sudden appearances in their lives, the miraculous never occurred, and so life is business as usual. Religion was for Sunday morning (or whenever).

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I was raised as a Fundamentalist. Although my readers may clearly see that I am no longer one, I do know that this bundle of neurons in my head has been made what it is, at least in part, because of that early training. Now a neuroscientist is suggesting that such thinking might be a curable mental illness. In an article in the Huffington Post, Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, suggests fundamentalism may be a treatable disease. Looking over the secular headlines, there is no doubt that much of the misery in the world is caused by religious literalists acting out their fantasies in deadly ways. The suggestion that they might be treated for mental illness, however, raises profound—exceptionally profound—questions. Since I work in a city of millionaires and billionaires, I ponder how it is that extreme selfishness is not counted a mental illness. The desire of an individual to acquire far more wealth than one person can ever use seems to be an illness. Aesop might call it being a dog in the manger. No one is suggesting their brains be reprogrammed.

The even larger issue is who has the right to decide “the new normal.” Richard Dawkins may be correct that children reflect the religion of their parents, but as soon as adults declare what religion is acceptable we find other adults colonizing new continents, with the attendant misery that such migration entails. Where do we draw the line? If Fundamentalism programmed out, will Baptist neurons be allowed to remain? Methodist? Presbyterian? Mormon? The issue raised by Dawkins must be placed in context; if parents decide on a child’s beliefs do other adults have the right to decide on what is the correct belief? (Orthodoxy means precisely that.) Is a strict rationalist mentality what we want? A life without Hayden, Picasso, or Charlotte Brontë? What would Mr. Spock do? Will the real Randle Patrick McMurphy please stand up? Our rich fantasy lives are what make us human. If we are going to program out religious freedom perhaps the brave, new world is already here.

Girls Rising

While I was home watching Bruce Almighty, my wife was attending a local screening of the documentary Girl Rising. (There was a good reason for this discrepancy; you’ll need to trust me on this one.) Chances are that many readers haven’t heard of Girl Rising; I know that if I weren’t the husband and father of Girl Scouts, I’d likely have missed it myself. Isn’t that part of the problem? Why does our society make females invisible, unless sex objects? Tabby Biddle has a thoughtful observation about this in the Huffington Post. She notes the importance of the film, but laments that the only way to make it through to the masculine mind is to pose the argument that educating girls will increase the GDP of less fortunate nations. Girls should be educated for their very humanness, Biddle suggests, but our view of a masculine God often prevents this from happening. While Biddle may have fallen a little under the spell of Marija Gimbutas, she makes a very valid point: there is no human reason that girls should not receive equal opportunities with boys. The fact that I even have to write that in the twenty-first century saddens me. It is not just “Third World” girls that have to struggle to gain what is rightfully theirs.

In my career I have been passed over more than once so that a woman might take the advertised position. (I have even been informed of this fact by friends on search committees.) Somehow I can’t find any injustice in this situation, as much as it has personally disappointed my hopes and dreams. Men have been frustrating female hopes and dreams for millennia. Maybe the matriarchy that Gimbutas envisioned never really existed, but the concept is sound: women and men both contribute to this thing we call civilization. Our religions, as they developed in our societies, have held the mirror up to the might-makes-right paradigm from the very beginning. Wouldn’t a male god with a more muscular upper body shove a fair, and giving goddess out of the way every time? Just ask Zeus. Or Odin. Or El. Divine civilization is only human projection, and we just can’t relate to a genderless God. So he becomes the excuse for female repression.

The face of divinity?

The face of divinity?

We’ve firmly entered a new millennium, and, looking at our treatment of half of our species, we still have an incredibly long way to go. In much of the western world, traditional religion has lost its grip, but I’m a little frightened by what I see taking its place. There are a few pockets of female-friendly religions awaking, but there are many more backlashes from the traditional male preserves of conservatism, patriarchy, and free enterprise. It is time for all men to consider that none of us would be here without our real-life goddesses. Some may rail against unorthodoxy, but unfair structures must be imploded for a new, and true, orthodoxy to be established. Women and men—not women for men, not women for profit—that is the only right teaching. So we should promote Girl Rising, and we should seek to move beyond the mere financial benefits for a free market to find the divine spark that masculine interest seems to have lost.

Ancient Wisdom

The Huffington Post recently ran a story on Stonehenge. Part of the endless fascination with the ancient monument is that no one really knows why it was constructed. Given the tremendous amount of effort the building represents, it is clear that this was important to the cultures constructing it. The article in Huffington cites archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson as suggesting that Stonehenge was a monument to the unification of Britain. While not as sexy as explanations that draw on human sacrifice, precision astronomy, or alien visitation, something rings true about it. In the long course of human development, we’ve had to overcome many, many hardships. At one time humans were relatively easy prey animals for large predators. Our evolution didn’t endow us much in the way of body armor or built-in weaponry. Our eyesight and other senses pale next to various other animals. Even with all these deficiencies, our biggest challenge hasn’t been nature, but other people.

Archaeologists have also been discovering that a peaceful prehistory to humanity does not match the facts. Warfare and strife have been as much a staple of human behavior as the perennial hunt for food and safe shelter. Civilization involved cooperation at unprecedented levels. People had to trust one another and work to maintain the infrastructure that allowed diversification of talents and abilities. Fighting and wars still occurred, of course, but less frequently and with less brutality. With economies of surplus, however, capitalism also eventually evolved. It is an aggressive organism. It is visible in the greed embodied in the thought process that the only good in life is financial and the only worth of humans can be calculated in dollars and cents. It is this thinking that has erected the monuments more familiar to us today in our cities and centers of civilization.

Stonehenge could never have been a money-making venture (not until the development of capitalism at least). It is in the middle of nowhere, in a sense. The Salisbury Plain is fairly empty—no large cities nearby, no grand scenery as one might find in Cornwall or the Grampians. According to the theory, its location has to do with it being in a very rough middle between various regional cultures. Building impressive monuments is very difficult to do if one has to watch constantly over one’s shoulder. I suppose in my Romantic notions Stonehenge will always represent a mysterious past suffused with unanswered questions. For the present, however, Pearson’s explanation seems more than likely—it sounds absolutely vital in a world so dangerously divided as ours. Perhaps it is time to start a truly monumental building enterprise involving every nation. It will give future generations something to wonder about.

Time to build another henge.

Artifacts or Theodicy?

Last week the Huffington Post ran a story that ties archaeology, religion, and monsters together in a package too neat for some researchers. Digging in a sixteenth-century grave for plague victims (something that strikes me as being so foolhardy as to be religious) archaeologists found a corpse with a brick in its mouth. The preliminary conclusion? Sixteenth-century Italian plague-weary society was attempting to stop a vampire. The find has, of course, been disputed. Other archaeologists, the story notes, claim that a loose brick could have fallen into the cadaver’s agape mouth just making it resemble the little-known technique of stopping a vampire by bricking its mouth open. This story, written with Huffington Post’s usual pluck, raised an issue I quite often encountered as a doctoral student in ancient Near Eastern religions: anomalies are generally categorized as religious.

When my wife first pointed this story out to me I thought I might learn something of vampire lore—itself inherently religious—from the sixteenth century. The fact is, however, that artifacts (including people) under the ground accumulate a lot more than dirt. Mystery attends the lives of yesteryear, and the further back we go in time the less we understand. It was a standing joke among those of us in the textually-based field of religious studies that any artifact for which no function could be discerned would most certainly be labeled “religious” by archaeologists. When no logic attends an action, call it religious. This might be a motto for academics and their approach to the study of religion. There are some who claim religious studies is not a proper field of inquiry at all. Excuse me, but where are you intending to fly that plane?

Vampire scares (whether or not that’s what was found in Italy) do, however, follow their own logic. Although early scientists may have made connections implicating rodents (and their fleas) as carriers of plague, the average citizen would have only seen the supernatural dimension. Morbidity on the scale of the Black Death is almost inconceivable and as Europe suffered through periodic outbreaks of plague it seemed that a good God couldn’t be behind it all. Evil creatures, such as vampires, get God off the hook. They are a device of theodicy. “Theodicy” is the jargon for the theological justification of God in a world full of suffering. When God’s goodness effaces to such a point that people grow frightened, well, isn’t it just easier to say a vampire is behind it all? The conclusion that logic draws is quite different. Nevertheless, I think I’ll be replacing the garlic on my nightstand with a brick. What will the archaeologists of the future say?

The Newt Roars

Today marks the final day of my Iowa odyssey. The state that is about as heart-of-the-nation as you can get is chaffing under the weight of political lard as the caucuses near. According to the Huffington Post, Newt Gingrich is roaring mad about the negative ads that are choking the airwaves. You’d think with a life in politics he’d be used to it by now. Religion, of course, is playing an undue role in this season’s GOP contest—everyone knows Mitt Romney is a Mormon and publishers are scrambling to get out books on that religion as fast as their authors can write. Rick Perry, to the chagrin of many, bears a Methodist affiliation and the religious sensibility of Genghis Khan. Of course, Newt appears relatively calm as a Catholic, at least for the time being. Jack Kennedy, however, he is not.

The Republican Party began a flirtation with religious conservatives as early as the Nixon years. Pundits realized that, like the Alaskan oil reserves, religious fundamentalists were an untapped resource to grease the rails to election day. Overjoyed to have a voice in high profile public office, the conservative Christian crowd began to wilt from the perceived failure of Jimmy Carter and began to glom onto the media image projected by Ronald Reagan. We all suffered through the Bush years, hearing more about God from the president than we heard about the soaring national debt or the coming crash that would implode upon the working class that elected him to office (so they say). Now, facing the choice of candidates wealthy enough to run for office, many are finding the choices on the shelves of the spiritual marketplace a little understocked.

Back in the days when America was young, the founders laid down rules declaring that no religious tests would be imposed on those running for public office. Their fears proved prescient and uncannily accurate. Today perhaps the biggest test any candidate has to pass is his or her religious affiliation. Can we imagine a Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, or Michele Bachmann without their Bibles tucked under arm? Religion has no corner on the market for sanity. Many, in fact, would argue that the indications sometimes point in the other direction. The corner America has painted itself into is not so much shaded with red, white, and blue, as it is with the muddy brown of religious slurry that has become the new politics. Newt, newly minted from his Southern Baptist heritage, is mad about mudslinging. I think Americans should be enraged about religion slinging instead.

Haunted Purgatory

Halloween season is a time for both pagans and evangelicals alike to tremble. Our usual local “haunted house” for charity being closed this year, my family went to the local haunted farm last night. In a nation where few of us grow up on farms, the agricultural world is already a foreign environment. And corn is a scary plant when it dries out, especially at night. The Creepy Hollow part of the farm tour was a long, rambling stumble through a corn field where costumed actors jump out at you or just as ominously shake the cornstalks as you walk by in the dark. Senses that we have long ignored leap to full attention, scanning for any possible fright. At nearly a mile long, this haunted trail was pretty intense, and I’ll admit to being glad to have seen the open field at the end. One of the props along the way was a haunted church. As I’ve noted before, religion and fear often stride hand-in-hand.

Earlier in the day, my wife had pointed out an article in the Huffington Post about the dilemma many evangelicals face when their kids want to celebrate Halloween. A holiday of Catholic and pagan origins (both feared equally by the truly staunch evangelical), Halloween is a season of dangerous influences. In response, some groups have started their own “Hell Houses” designed to show kids the horrors of Hell as they walk through a putatively non-fiction version of fear. The intention seems clear enough, although a little odd for a religion that claims to be based on love. The Hell Houses are part of an alternative holiday called “Jesus Ween” and people are encouraged to give out Bibles rather than candy. At least they got the scary book part right.

In an unrelated yet relevant story, Time projects that the seven billionth person will be born on October 31. I remember when there were just four billion of us, and my teachers began pointing out the stresses we place on our environment. Of course, those who co-opt the identity of being “pro-life” advocate for as many of our species as possible—less for God to pour out love, but better to populate Hell, apparently. The Roman Catholics share this petard with the evangelical camp, as Monty Python made famously clear in The Meaning of Life. We have overcome (largely) nature’s control on our expansion, and as Halloween, or Jesus Ween, races nearer, we have less to fear from chainsaw-wielding maniacs than we do from Bible-bearing clones who claim it is divine mandate to stress our own planet to death.