Like many people, I suppose that my own views are right.All people think this, I suspect, otherwise they’d change their point of view.Unless they’ve been brainwashed, of course.Religion has a way of convincing people that they alone are right.(And perhaps also those who believe just like them.)I have plenty of experience with this.Seemingly normal, friendly people suddenly turn on you when you’re not there to defend yourself.All in the name of religion.The place, unfortunately, that it’s most found is in “conservative” religions.With preachers braying about righteousness and being washed in the blood of the lamb the human element is often sacrificed.Anyone who dares to think differently is going to Hell, and, in most of these traditions, you wish them godspeed.Then there are those who wish for true dialogue.
Dialogue means, however, that you have to admit you may be wrong.That’s one of the features the self-convinced fear most.Ironically, even those who think they’re right can admit that they could be wrong.Otherwise what’s the point of discussing anything at all?As Tom Nichols points out in The Death of Expertise, many are offended that someone has greater knowledge of any area than they.Like it or not, some of us have studied religion, the Bible, and spirituality for our entire lives.You might not agree with everything such a person says—we often disagree among ourselves—but at least one might admit that a mere Ph.D. counts for something.Even if on the stock market it simply won’t trade.
Ironically, as a young man I too was self-convinced.For some reason that I can’t fathom, I decided that if my beliefs were solid they would stand up to the challenge of higher education.As an undergrad I majored in religion at a conservative college and graduated summa cum laude.I chose a liberal seminary to challenge further what I believed and came away magna cum laude.Then the doctorate.(Edinburgh didn’t offer such trifles as honors; if you made it through the program you should be so thankful.)Tolerance became a massive part of my outlook, even as I ended up on the faculty of a very conservative seminary.I was willing to listen, but the same could not be said for those who saw things differently.Many of whom were far less educated, I say with all due self-abasement, than yours truly, in such things.As time goes on I can’t help but reflect on this.Even as I do I know others are completely convinced I’m wrong.
I can tell I’ve been too busy when I haven’t planned for Banned Book Week. A kind of unofficial holiday since, well, it’s about banned things, the point of this observation is that we should be free to read. A fairly large portion of the fiction I read anyway, at one point or another, ends up on the banned list. Not surprisingly, most banned books have diversity content—racial or sexual minorities portrayed in sympathetic ways. Trump has shown us clearly how dangerous such thinking can be. It’s well known that such perspectives are allied with some evangelical Christian interests, or, perhaps I should say, lack of tolerance. There are lots of ways of looking at the world out there, and many of them aren’t evil. I should’ve planned ahead.
Censorship implies a certain arrogance. One way of looking at things is right and all others are wrong. Although we all know that any logical system runs up against its limits (we call them paradoxes) we’re reluctant to let go of that which we suppose, with or without justification, to be right. Banning is an effort to control minds. It’s no coincidence that many of the titles on banned and challenged lists are intended for younger readers. Those who favor censorship want to close the eyes of the young and pretend the real world will just go away. Yes, many of the banned books are fiction, but fiction tells us truths. Those who ban books are uncomfortable with such truths. That’s not to say all literature is created equal, or that all banned books are great literature. As someone who writes fiction, though, I can attest how difficult it is to get it published. That in itself tells us something.
It’s banned book week and here I am without a banned book to read. I’ve got some ideas, of course. My wife and I both take on book reading challenges each year. One of this year’s books (at least) was a banned title, but one that I read too far in advance. Besides, although we have too many books in our apartment already, I used Banned Book Week as an allowance to go to the bookstore. What better way to fight literary fascism than to buy a book? The problem is deciding which one. The lists are long and grow longer each year. Intolerance, it seems, knows no limits. I’m about to do my civic duty for this time of year. I’m about to go to a bookstore and buy a banned book.
One of my high school teachers—I don’t have to say who; if you attended my high school you’ll already know and if you didn’t you won’t know him anyway—wrote in my yearbook, “I hope you get what you deserve.” I wasn’t very good in this teacher’s class, but he explained to me, “I sign everyone’s yearbook the same way. If you do well, I hope you get rewarded. If you don’t do well, I still hope you’ll get what you deserve.” This teacher had a reputation for being somewhat of a philosopher, and his words have struck me as particularly appropriate for this moment. We, in the cosmic scheme of things, get what we deserve. As a nation I guess we deserve a First Lady, in an example to young women everywhere, has appeared naked on the internet. Her husband married her after two previous women and has made his views on gender perfectly clear. My conservative friends went to the polls knowing that. I hope they get what they deserve.
The problem is the rest of us are stuck with him too. I’ve lived through bitter, spiteful campaigns before. The genteel art of campaigning is thoroughly deceased. 2016, however, is the first year that I saw pure hatred as a political platform. And it wasn’t on both sides. Trump made of virtue of hating one’s neighbor and claimed the election was rigged until he won—then it was, of course, impossible that it would’ve been rigged. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton, who kept her dignity throughout, never stooped to inciting hatred of fellow Americans. It likely cost her the election. To the people now saying this is just politics and stop complaining I say we have all been victimized and we all ought to feel very ashamed. This election wasn’t about money. Or financial positions. Or foreign policy. It was about hate.
Hate can only be counteracted by love. I have seen many women responding to a man who considers them mere sexual object by reaching out in kindness to strangers. Women organizing to try to make this country a more positive place. Meanwhile, I hear men I know saying at last we have a strong leader who will bring them prosperity. If money is what you care for, you have my pity. This country is about freedom, equality, and fairness. All of that was jettisoned last Tuesday. Even those saying “get over it” are doing so with a smugness that is a thin veil over intolerance. I’ve never carried on with frustration so long after an election before. That’s because never before has an election—no matter which party triumphed—been won by a platform of evil intent. My grandmother, a Teutonic matron of occasional Valkyrie disposition, used to sum it up well when we boys were getting out of hand. “Schäme dich!” she used to scold. I know a country that could use her words right now.
Perhaps the most obvious deviancy in my otherwise conservative childhood was MAD Magazine. I honestly suspect my parents didn’t know that it wasn’t just another comic book. I read it—like I read everything—religiously, and I was fluent enough in the lingo to discuss it intelligently with my sixth-grade teacher, a fellow fan. Having made that admission, my reading of comic books was muted since we lived in a town with no literary aspirations or conveniences. There was no book store, or even magazine shop, let alone a public library. We were one of the towns Carnegie left behind. Still, I was draw to MAD contributor Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books. Over the past few years I’ve been reading academic treatments of comics as, with my beloved monsters, the high-brow academy has come to view low-brow as “culture.” (I learned the term “high-brow” from MAD, by the way.) As I grew into an Episcopalian, I tended to leave these markers of my shameful past behind, but now I’ve come once again to embrace them.
One of the odd things I’ve noticed about Jewish (and other “outsider”) analyses is just how deeply felt the anti-semitism of our culture is. This always strikes me as odd as, although it is hard to believe, I was raised to be non-prejudicial toward anyone else. (Poor folk are often that way; we know our place, beneath others.) I never felt superior to Jews, African Americans, or women. I was in awe of them. Maybe MAD helped. As Kaplan points out in his treatment, much of the comic industry was Jewish in origin because so many Jews were kept out of other businesses in New York. (Well, there is Diamond District, but let’s stick to publishing.) With few options, poor immigrant kids turned to cartoons. As a child in a humble household I often took out my frustrations by making my own comic books. I can understand the catharsis.
With the current glut of superhero movies, it may be hard to imagine a time when comic books and their denizens were considered utter foolishness. Now they’re big money. It’s not so much that the mighty have fallen than it is the humble have been exalted. I haven’t really read comic books since I was maybe fourteen. Up to that point, however, they got me through many a difficult time with the belief that there was someone out there watching over me. No superheroes ever delivered me from my troubles, but belief was sometimes all I needed. I can understand why those who are discriminated against would turn to this medium for release. Faith and fantasy share more than an opening syllable, for those with eyes to see.
College is a rare time in life. Unlike any time after you find yourself with a diversity of intelligent and talented people open to possibilities that life tends to close shortly thereafter. At Parents Weekend at Binghamton University we took advantage of this wondrous juxtaposition to enjoy student talent. One of those offerings was the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. It isn’t literally about God, but rather about two couples whose children had a playground fight. Parents try to solve the crisis, only to end up showing that they are really the ones who need to grow up. One of the vexed parents claims he believes in a God of carnage—that all people will seek their own good first and will eliminate those who get in the way. Perhaps might is right.
The play is quite funny as the negativity grows and hidden assumptions come to the surface. There are no heroes here. In fact, any factor that might divide people does: gender, socio-economic status, race, sense of importance in the work one does. Each is turned into a weapon to make oneself appear more acceptable than others. Ironically, acceptance is just what’s missing here. Each of the four characters is alone and only finds company in teaming up with another to point out someone else’s foibles. As in most plays, the circumstances are exaggerated, and as in real life, peace is harder to attain than it should be. The god of carnage here is the individual desire to exceed at the expense of others.
The play reminded me, in a rather literal way of the verse stating that a child shall lead us. Not that children are entirely innocent, for they are people too. They can’t be held accountable in the same way adults are. We do our best, but our intentions seldom rise to our ideals. Our own needs and desires get in the way. In my experience of over half a century, most of us never really grow up. Selfish behaviors are magnified in a setting like New York City where so many agenda are crowded in together. If we believe in a god of carnage—that our own desires are more important than those of others—our differences will only emphasize that. Apart from high school and college performances, I have been to few plays in my life. Each time I attend one, however, I learn a bit more about how art reflects reality. And if we could only learn to consider others to be just as important as ourselves, the god of carnage would be the one who ends up unemployed.
From the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, to the British Empire upon which the sun once never set, human endeavors are inevitably temporary. We like to think we’re making lasting contributions. Not so long ago Phil Robertson could make claims on vast amounts of media attention for his homiletical, gun-toting brand of family values. Despite not being a television watcher, even I was drawn into the drama as Happy! Happy! Happy! became a bestseller. Perhaps because my pursuit of religion has never earned me three such exclamation points, I read the book to find the secret of success. It is a combination of unquestioning belief and a willingness to blow the heads off of ducks in flight. Not that I would know about such things. The Dynasty made its way into Time magazine and other media outlets as the most interesting thing reality television, which is anything but, could throw at us.
Then Phil made a statement that set many viewers off. Mistaking intolerance for true religion—rather a constant in the algebra of faith—Robertson expressed his views on homosexuality and the ratings began to slip. Last year as I walked into a department store, I found Duck Dynasty bobble-head dolls and even fake Dynasty beards for those with no gumption to grow their own. Golf balls and beer glasses and all sorts of merchandise. Yes, you could partake of the good life without even cocking or pumping your shotgun. Other members of the family wrote books. (I have friends who produce quality literature who can’t find publishers.) We love the self-made genius of a simple guy and his make-believe world. Happy. Happy. Happy.
It has been some time since I’ve seen Duck Dynasty mentioned in the media. I wandered into the same department store this year to find stacks of Dynasty merchandise drastically reduced. You could buy Phil Robertson’s memoirs for even less than Amazon prices. In bulk, if you desired. My historically inclined mind turned to the great empires of antiquity. Did Alexander, I wonder, really know what he wanted? What about when you finally reach the ocean? What is off on the other side? Once you’re out of sight of land, you’ve lost your control back home. Next thing you know, Diadochi have fractured everything. The gods of empire, it seems, don’t have it all together after all. Happy? Happy? Happy?
For never having been a Catholic, my life has been strangely tied to the Roman Catholic Church. Like many in my diminishing profession, I was raised in a religious household—in my case non-denominational Protestantism with a strong Fundamentalist streak—and have wandered a bit from my starting point. When my family moved to a small town with just two churches—United Methodist and Roman Catholic—we had no choice which to join. I learned the Methodists were just disgruntled Anglicans, and logic dictated that I would eventually join the Episcopal Church and gain a deep appreciation of Catholicism. My first professional job was teaching at an “Anglo-Catholic” Episcopal Seminary. While there I was interviewed for positions at Roman Catholic schools, and not infrequently brought to campus: the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities, Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart School of Theology just down the road in Hales Corners, Wisconsin. Most of the time I was in the list of finalists when the position would go to a Roman Catholic, “no hard feelings, right?” Long ago the Episcopal Church, ironically, got out of the higher education market.
It is with this background that I keep an eye on the Roman Catholic Church. Many friends and colleagues are Catholic and we have far more in common than I have with my Fundamentalist forebears. I frequently find myself in wonder at Pope Francis. Many church leaders have made the news over the past several decades, but few of them for such good. In an article on NBC over the weekend, the Pope called for seminary reform, noting that always toeing the line will turn priests into “little monsters.” I taught at Nashotah House for fourteen years, and I know exactly what he means. I encountered students who could quote Paul about being freed from the law and in the next breath lay down ecclesiastical law with enough force to behead a heathen. The Episcopal Church, which is small but disproportionately powerful, should take the words of the pontiff to heart.
A cold day in…
Pope Francis noted that seminaries need to keep up with the times. Indeed, the laity of most religious traditions have little trouble accommodating to culture while their faith remains mired in the Middle Ages. In a world robbed of essences and meanings, it is difficult to teach future clergy that the spirit of a faith can be honored in outwardly different ways. The idea that we can just hold on ’til Jesus gets back should’ve been questioned once Islam came to be a major force a few centuries after Christianity settled in. Since that time Christianity has fractured into thousands of sects united by little more than essences. Instead of settling in for the long haul as an empire, the Pope is suggesting that the church settle in as servants. That’s a radical idea. And it is one, if I read my Bible aright, that its founder would be pleased to find in force should he ever decide to return.
In a completely innocent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Geoffrey Pullum wrote about the use of singular “they.” I won’t try to summarize his work here—it is quite fine the way he writes it. What I would like to note, however, is what was likely an unintentional grammatical association that is quite profound. In two consecutive paragraphs, Pullum requires a synonym for someone who is unwilling to listen because they’ve already made up their mind. His choices are those who believe in “unquestioned dogma” and those who hold a “resolutely and hermetically theological view.” Both phrases indicate those who unswervingly accept religious belief. The article is lightheartedly written, and quite witty, but there is something serious here. Religion has built itself into the great bastion of intolerance.
The more I contemplated this correlation, the more it became clear—when we need to express someone’s complete devotion to unquestioned propositions, even when reason dictates conclusively that they are wrong, we are in the realm of religion. Religions may accept one another, but as long as truth is at stake, and as long as truth is one, there will always abide that smug satisfaction of knowing that my religion is at least a smidgeon closer to that truth than yours. Such thoughts, when matured and fully-grown, are bound to cast the seeds of intolerance abroad. Religions don’t take prisoners. Having spent a lifetime studying religions I’m not so crass as to put them all in the same cage together (that would be cruel), but history has demonstrated that when properly provoked any religion will turn intolerant. The provocation is mostly just daily life.
Literary folks have thousands of tomes full of words and ideas from which to draw. One of the joys of reading is finding so many ways of expressing that which we experience in fresh and insightful ways. With all these words and concepts from which to choose, the most immediately recognized to express unwillingness to listen belong to religion. Listening to Pat Robertson or Pope Benedict XVI, it is not hard to see why. Religions give the world much more than reasons to fear, distrust, and hate others. But they do include these components as well. The only way to change this image is replacing the arrogance of dogma with the willingness to listen with humility. If religions would do this, there would be room for everyone in this conversation; they’d like that, wouldn’t they?