Jewish Annotated

A project with which I have some small acquaintance is the second edition of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (some of you may be noticing an annotated theme lately). The idea behind it is deceptively simple: most of the writers of the New Testament were Jews. What do modern day Jewish scholars see in the text? This annotated Bible gets adopted into both Christian and Jewish courses, and many seminaries have an interest in learning what the writers might have been thinking as they were composing “the other testament.” So far, so good. I was looking at the Amazon page for the book the other day, specifically for the Kindle edition. As usual, you can’t please everyone, and some of the negative comments had to do with functionality. Then one said simply, “There is no such thing as a Jewish New Testament.”

I’m not so naive that I don’t know what trolls are, but I got to thinking about this comment. It didn’t come from a “certified buyer,” so it could be an opinion piece. The mononymed reviewer might be Jewish, Christian, or neither. From a Jewish perspective s/he might mean: Jews don’t accept the New Testament as scripture, so what else is there to talk about? From a Christian perspective the point might be: this is a Christian document so it doesn’t matter what Jews think about it. Either way there’s a call for some exegesis here. Both perspectives can be argued against. Jews have a very real interest in what Christians say about them. And, like it or not, the first Christians, and even Jesus himself, fell squarely within Judaism.

Christianity has become a religion of privilege. That happens when you’re the biggest religious body in the world. Christians get a bit testy when Islam begins encroaching on its numbers. There’s still some hard feelings about the Muslim expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries, too. Being an imperial religion will do that to you. Thoughtful Christ-followers, however, have begun to look back and wonder how this whole thing got started in the first place. Without Jews there would’ve been no Christians. Nobody’s claiming the New Testament is Jewish scripture. Neither side wants that. It’s simply a recognition that we might have something to learn from each other. And that’s not a bad idea. In fact, if we were willing to listen a bit more than talk, who knows how much true understanding might come to pass? The Jewish Annotated New Testament is one possible place to start.

Dominus Flevit

I couldn’t believe I was actually there. Ever since I was a child I’d read about this place. The city conquered by David and visited by Jesus. The city around which most of the Bible rotated. Jerusalem the golden. One of the perks of working on an archaeological dig was the opportunity for weekend travel, and here I was, amid camels and cars and churches and synagogues and mosques, in Jerusalem. No amount of reading prepares you for such an experience. Suffused with the rich mythologies of three major religions, this city is like a dream. So much had happened here. The church I was attending at the time was only the latest in a long succession that informed me that God himself had actually been killed here and had risen again. The ultimate game-changer. The once in forever event of all time had taken place right here.

Gnu Jerusalem from WikiCommons

But this was not a city at peace, despite its name. There was a bombing the first weekend I was there. Young men and women in military garb carried scary looking weapons openly in public. Even civilian bus drivers wore pistols. Jerusalem had a long history of violence, but that didn’t justify it. If God had really been here—in either Jewish, Christian, or Muslim contexts didn’t matter—how could this city be so prone to terror? In the old city old men sat around hookahs, placidly smoking. Tourists, many bearing crosses, thronged. Jerusalem, however, was also a very political place. The fragile, Christmas bulb-thin peace of the region involved the city being divided up and not being claimed by Israel alone. Even that man driving his goats through these ancient streets knew that.

Trump, to the cheers of evangelicals who want nothing so fervently as the end of the world, has said he’ll recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This political move of weaponized ignorance will almost certainly lead to war in the Middle East. Another war. An illegitimate presidency leaving a frothing sea of corpses in its wake. Negotiating in this part of the world is like haggling with that street vendor for a pair of sandals. You go back and forth on the price. You act insulted and walk away. You come back and haggle some more. It’s a delicate dance. This is no place for egomaniacs who can’t understand such subtleties. Just ask the last Caligula who wanted his statue set up as a god in this city. Jerusalem is home to too many jealous gods, and those who are self-appointed divinities will only leave the city, the world, in tears.

The Big Chill

It’s cold. It may not be Alaska, or even Wisconsin, but I can’t feel my fingers and the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing all day. New Jersey doesn’t get the incredible chills we used to experience in Wisconsin, but I’ve been outside going on two hours and I really need some warmth. And it’s not just me. At least a couple hundred of us are out here and it’s not for the Super Bowl. It’s for justice. We’re rallying at the beautiful courthouse of Somerset County, in solidarity with our Muslim Americans, protesting the latest actions of our own government. Some of the people here are old enough to remember Hitler. Others are young enough that they have to be held. We are from countries all over the world. We are saying “No!” to the evil that is coming out of Washington.

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Those who voted for Trump out of a sense of fiscal conservatism were sorely misguided. This was a hostile takeover of what used to be a democracy by people who rely daily on alternative facts. Who make up massacres that never happened. Who claim that their personal billions have made them victims. Who believe that men have a God-given right to determine what women can do with their bodies. Who state that men who aren’t attracted to women or women to men are somehow deviant. Who openly mock the disabled. Who resist Black Lives Matter. Who can’t tell you one of the five pillars of Islam but can tell you that they’re all wrong. A government that’s over the people, despite the people, and against the people. Self-serving, self-enriching, and self-satisfied. A government where party has become more important than the welfare of the nation. A government that lost the popular vote by nearly three million, and those were only the ones who bothered to get out to vote. A government that lays its hand on the Bible and lies. That prays for itself, not for the good of its people.

That’s why I’m out here in the cold. I’m standing in a crowd that, like those who gather at airports, courthouses, and city streets, is saying “Enough!” The abuse of power is taking advantage of what you can “legally” claim without regard for the will of those you represent. Representative government fails when it fails to represent the people. We don’t want to be out here freezing our fingers, noses, and toes. We’d rather be comfortable and warm at home. As chilly as it may be in New Jersey tonight, it’s colder in the heart of this country and unless we the people do something, Hell itself is in real danger of freezing over.

Not for Prophet

Delicate isn’t a word we’ve been taught to associate with Islam. I remember a priest speaking to me oh-so-earnestly about how Islam by nature wanted to take over the world. I wondered about his education in the history of Christianity. If you turn the clock back far enough, even the early Israelites, according to Judges, attempted genocide. We do religions a grave injustice by reifying them in this way. A recent story on NPR tells about the restoration efforts of a library in Fez, Morocco. As Leila Fadel points out in this story, we tend to suppose Islam is ISIS destroying history, but this library, full of Arabic manuscripts, is one of the oldest in the world. We sometimes forget the great contributions Arabic—yes, Islam—has made to world culture. Including literary culture. Some of the scientific works of Aristotle were preserved only in Arabic. Even the word “algebra” bears the distinct signature of its Arabic roots. What we should be attempting to halt is extremism.

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One of my readers commented the other day about absolutism. This was in the context of Christianity, but it applies here equally as well. Absolutism tends to see only sharp divisions in a world where everything, in reality, blends into everything else. Islam emerged from a prophet who was influenced by Christianity and Judaism in the context of Arabian polytheism. Many of the tenets of Islam would settle comfortably in the pew, if we would let them. “Revealed” religions, however, take no prisoners. The concept of “revelation” means that your scriptures come straight from God’s anthropomorphic mouth to your all-too-human ear. When your religion is revealed, you can’t mix it with the best of your competitors. That’s one of revelation’s greatest dangers.

It does my soul good to see the begloved curator of the Qarawiyyin Library touching an Arabic manuscript so gently. It is the very picture of a pair of lovers. Those who love books—truly love books—can wish no harm on their fellow human beings. Reading is, after all, exploring the minds of others. All texts, in this way, are sacred. All are revealed. Too often we listen to those who tell us this is all an apocalyptic struggle to the death. In reality, revelation never ceases. Of its source I’m uncertain. Of its literary progeny I am certain that human minds are only richer for having received the words of the many prophets of the literary endeavor.

And a Blessed New Year

A new year is always a time for predictions and prognostications. Although the religious basis for New Year’s Day is often deeply sublimated, the changing of the year is one of the oldest and most widespread holidays worldwide. Since every beginning is also an ending, experts look forward to see what might be coming. A story by Nadia Whitehead on NPR presents the opinion of Pew Research Center that over the coming years the growth rate of Islam will surpass that of atheists, based partly on procreation trends. At the same time Christianity will continue to grow, but at a slower rate than Islam. This sacred number crunching suggests that by mid-century Muslims will represent the largest world religion, surpassing Christianity for the first time. As the article states, this is merely a projection based on current trends, and new developments could completely change the dynamics. I’m sure this trend will distress some people, but popular understanding of Islam is biased through media tactics to glean more readers.

Equally troubling to some will be the suggestion that atheism, considered by many to be enlightened, simply won’t keep up. Even though the trend is growing, particularly in Europe, and to some extent in the United States, those who side with no-faith tend to have fewer children than those who do. Religions have often seen procreation as a divine mandate, leading to the kind of growth figures businesses envy. Large families with children taught the family faith from the cradle ensures rising numbers, all things being equal. Again, it comes down to the numbers. Since history of religions is not a growing field of study, many may not realize that major religions have peacefully coexisted for millennia. Globalization, however, brings differing value systems into swift and intimate contact.

Coexist

In addition to organic growth rates, religions also grow through proselytization. Some groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have been phenomenally successful in their missionary efforts. Atheists often try to convert through reason or rhetoric. Religion tends to appeal more to the emotional needs that all people share, regardless of how deeply they are repressed. Reason, in the face of personal tragedy, is cold comfort. Not many people are willing to be steely about it, to “toughening up” when fate deals a cruel blow. Better to counterstrike with a caring deity or two. Religion is so basic to humanity that it is difficult to understand how major universities and centers of learning are trying to cut back on its study. And if it might be suggested that mine is a typical humanities-lover’s response, this time I can point to the numbers. Check with Pew; you don’t have to take my word for it.

Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.

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Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.

More Blessed to Give

Religions, we are told, are in violent opposition. There’s no denying that sometimes it’s true. It is a sad commentary on belief structures when one way of looking at the world only finds validation in the destruction of other perspectives. Despite all that, religions can, and do, reach beyond their parochial interest to assist others. Recently I mentioned a story in The Christian Century of an Islamic effort to raise funds to rebuild vandalized black churches in the US south. The idea of Muslims helping Christians reestablish their, by nature, heterodox teaching is, I believe, newsworthy. The most recent issue of The Christian Century has a story of a Jewish group in Israel raising funds to help repair a damaged church in the Holy Land. These two stories have made me wonder why we so seldom hear of Christian groups raising funds to help rebuild mosques or synagogues. Surely it must happen, but we, who rely on the mainstream media, so rarely read of Christians helping others that it becomes a surprise when they do. Is this reality or just what we’re taught to see?

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that Christians don’t help others. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Christian movement was the care of others, be they pagan or orthodox. Still, in my own life I’ve experienced the heartless, cold treatment doled out by “conservative” groups who believe that maintaining their idiosyncratic view is the highest possible mark of faith. Well beyond reaching out a hand to those in need. Far and above the care of fellow human beings. This distortion of any kind of historical Christianity has become what the mainstream media presents as normal. Meanwhile, millions still attend church every week, trying, in some measure, to make the world a better place.

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This isn’t the same, all politics aside, as supporting Israel as a nation. Many Fundamentalist groups do. In fact, they insist that our national budget include aid for Israel. Not because they particularly care about the Jews. In some viewpoints, the end of the world cannot come without Israel regaining a status that some read into obscure Gospel passages and the book of Revelation. This is not the same as donating to rebuild a torched synagogue. It is worlds away from restoring a vandalized mosque. It is naive to suppose that there is one normative Christianity. Historians inform us that such a monolithic entity never has existed. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques—these are all expressions of the deepest of human longings to find and be in communion with that which is beyond the everyday. Any religion can become radicalized. All, however, also have the potential to look beyond themselves. When they do it is newsworthy indeed.

Charity

On occasion someone will comment, either here or on my other popular writings, that I lack the objectivity of a journalist. This should be no surprise, really, since I’m in fact not a journalist and what I’m writing here is opinion—an extended op ed—if you will—from someone that society has decided should have no official voice. Who listens to an editor? They don’t make content, they improve others’ work. News, however, often leads to good commentary. A recent blurb in The Christian Century caught my eye. A group of Muslims, led by a student in Chicago, raised almost $50,000 to help rebuild black churches that had been destroyed in the south. A journalist, I’m guessing, might not find much of a story here. To me this show of goodwill speaks volumes.

In the news were hear about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. How often do we hear that charitable giving is one of the five pillars of Islam? Many Muslims are charitable to those outside their faith community. In this case, they donated money to rebuilt houses of worship for a rival religion. There’s little to hate or despise here, so it really isn’t news. People are disposed, in general, to help one another. Indeed, biologists have long noted that we are a cooperative species. A friend recently pointed out that we are dissuaded from helping others more out of a fear of being sued. Money, as most religions realize, is antithetical to true belief. Most religions begin as an effort to make life better for people. When they become corporate, as with all things corporate, they turn inwardly and focus on how to improve things for themselves. There are still many, however, who understand the point behind religious traditions. It’s not really all about God. The ones who need our help are our fellow humans.

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Faatima Knight, according to the story, spearheaded the effort to raise money. She is a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A Muslim studying in a Christian school, helping oppressed Christian people. The media, it seems to me, could do with a few courses in ethics. Is it ethically responsible to caricature religions as ignorant and spiteful? For all we know Christians fall into only one of two types: those who follow Pope Francis and those who want to teach your children that we didn’t evolve from monkeys. The good deeds done by those motivated by the teachings of their founders are quietly passed by. Yet they are among the loudest deeds people do. I have to wonder if most Christians would rally around an effort to rebuild a mosque destroyed by hate. I think I know the answer, but then, I’m only a guy whose opinion doesn’t really matter.

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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Middle Eastern Idol

As the Passover-Easter complex of holidays approaches, our stern, scientific face turns toward the more human sensibilities of religion and its impact on our lives. PBS recently aired the Nova special The Bible’s Buried Secrets (originally aired in 2008) and when a colleague began asking me about it I figured I’d better watch it. As an erstwhile biblical scholar there wasn’t much here that was new to me, but one aspect of the program bothered me. Well, to be honest several things bothered me, but I’ll focus on one. When referring to the gods of the Canaanites, among whom the program readily admitted the Israelites should be counted, they were invariably referred to as “idols.” The problem with this terminology goes back to an issue I frequently addressed with my students—the term “idol” is a way of demeaning the gods of a different religion. Implicit in the word is the assumption of the monotheistic worldview and its attendant problems.

The Bible’s Buried Secrets seemed to adopt an overly optimistic view of the monotheistic religions sharing the same god while everyone else worshipped idols. The view is as fraught as it is simplistic. Historically Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are certainly connected. Each recognizes in the others a glimmer of its own theology and outlook, but the concept of deity has shifted somewhat at each development. Judaism and Islam are rather aniconic, especially compared to many varieties of Christianity where images are allowed, or even encouraged. It is difficult to grab the attention of the magazine-reading public with an image of invisibility on the cover. It should come as no surprise that some Jews and Muslims believe Christian images to be, well, idols.

An idol moment?

An idol moment?

The word “idol” is by nature pejorative. Ancient people were sophisticated polytheists. That statue that represented a deity was not thought to be that deity in any absolute sense. Rituals assured the ancients that they were instilling some aspect of divinity into the statues they used, making them sacred in the same way a Christian consecrates a church building. What’s more, it is natural for people to seek a visual focus for its devotion. It is difficult to conceptualize the Almighty as a person without giving it (often him) a body. Islam, especially, has been adamant that this can’t be done, and looking back at Christian practice it is sure to see idols abounding. As the holy days begin for our vernal celebrations, we should perhaps use the opportunity to rethink such religious vocabulary since every orthodoxy is someone else’s paganism.

Secret Religion

Recently I read an article about a religion called Sabbateanism. I’d never heard of it before, so I turned to the collective wisdom of the human race—the Internet—and came away only more confused. There are so many religions in the world today that no one person can rightfully claim to be an expert on them all. The Sabbateans, it seems, are a secret sect, so not being able to learn about them should not be surprising after all. A Google search soon suggested reading about Illuminati and I realized I was once again in the realm of the conspiracy theory. A few months ago my wife and I began reading a book on the Freemasons (we both have grandparents who were Masons, so it has always been an area of interest). The book, however, was so convoluted that we had to give up. As Poe long ago realized, the best place to hide something is in plain sight. As I pulled up to a stoplight recently, I noticed the car in front of me had the masonic emblem hidden as a decal on its brake lights. Was I on the road to enlightenment?

Sabbateans, it seems, can be traced back to a seventeenth-century rabbi called Sabbatai Zevi, who lived under Muslim rule. Apparently he converted to Islam, but was also recognized as a messiah (there have been more than a few) and his followers went underground. We are told, at least by Wikipedia (where the article suffers from lack of verification) that several groups resemble, or may have derived from, the Sabbateans. It should come as no surprise that a secretive religion would be difficult to verify. That’s the whole point. Most religions claim that a certain small cross-section of believers has some esoteric knowledge that the rest of us lack. It would be difficult to claim any kind of authority if they didn’t.

Conspiracy theories are endlessly fascinating. Whether it is the Bilderberg Group or the Rosicrucians, we’re just sure somebody’s holding out on secret knowledge and power that keeps the rest of us in the dark. Mainstream religions, which tend to train their clergy in mysterious seminaries with arcane knowledge, have always been critical of secret societies. Catholics claimed Masons to be heretical, while Protestants claimed them to be too Catholic. Every religion, however, has its secrets. Umberto Eco and Dan Brown (it hurts just to use those names together in the same sentence) both recognized the appeal of the conspiracy theory in popular literature. The Illuminati, I’m told, are largely taken as a joke on the Internet. In my quieter moments I tent my fingers and consider: that’s just the way they’d want it to be, isn’t it?

Who is this man?

Who is this man?

Men Without Hats

Do you want to start an argument? Mention hijab in a Christian environment. Some tempers will likely flair. The idea that a patriarchal religion would tell women to cover themselves suggests something sinister, doesn’t it? The other day I came across headcoveringmovement.com. There are, as I have come to know, many Christian groups that consider Paul’s directive for women’s headwear as, well, gospel. Commentators still spar about why Paul insisted that women cover their heads in worship. Adding “for the sake of angels” only evokes more convoluted imaginations. As any stroll through Manhattan will reveal, many Jewish men also observe head covering. What is it with bare heads, gods, and angels?

No doubt, in cultures where men are expected to restrain themselves less than women, hair can sometimes be seen as sexually provocative. (I’m not excusing, just observing.) Most men will eventually experience nature’s tonsure in some form or another, and perhaps this knowledge makes feminine hair more alluring. None of this, however, answers the question. What is so hubristic about uncovered heads? I’m not authorized to speak about fashion, but I feel confident in asserting that in many periods of human history, hats were the norm. Look at old portraits. What did Martin Luther or John Calvin look like without their ubiquitous hats? Did they serve to cover bad theological hair days? Or was it just the climate? Distinctive hats have been used to identify social classes and professions. We still use the expression “putting on my [chose a noun] hat.” So what’s all this with head covering for women?

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…? – R.C. Sproul.” So states Headcovering Movement’s homepage at the date of this writing. There can be little doubt about what’s behind this scheme. I recall a phase when my mother wore headscarves to church. Many years later, even in high church Episcopalian settings I’ve seen women walk in with what looked like lace doilies on their heads. Is there an agenda here? I can’t speak for Muslims, but it seems that Sproul believes the rightful place for a woman is beneath a man. Theology in the service of chauvinism. Just try to read 1 Corinthians 11 and come out without a headache. The saint’s logic here is so confused that I want to pull my hat over my eyes. Or I would, if I wore a hat.

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Apocalypse Then

Krakatoa Sometimes everything blows up in your face. Literally. Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa has been on my reading list for years. Boys seem to have a fascination with volcanoes that they never outgrow, and given the world-wide implications of Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption, it is a tragedy that keeps me ever curious. We live on an angry planet. I know that’s projecting agency on nature, but like thunderstorms, to a human sensibility, volcanoes are raging phenomena. As Winchester points out, many indigenous cultures in the “ring of fire” consider volcanoes either gods or messages from the divine world. Honestly, I didn’t read Krakatoa to find out about religion, but it was there nevertheless. For human beings, it has an unparalleled explanatory power.

Krakatoa caused a stint of global cooling after its nineteenth-century eruption, leading to failed crops throughout much of the world, and perhaps played into larger political issues that would stress a world already attempting to cope with fast changes in technology. The story of the volcano is fascinating enough, but the religious dimension, it seems, played itself out more than just in a Gilligan’s Island sort of way. Despite what analysts say, people take their religious beliefs very seriously. So when I reached the end of the eruption, I wondered how Winchester was going to spin this book out for another fifty pages. It turns out that among the effects of the volcano was a religious rebellion. The East Indies, as they were called, were under Dutch colonial rule. This led to a bit of tension with the native Muslims (Islam has long been a major religion in Indonesia). As Winchester points out, the Islam in the region before the eruption was a syncretistic, almost laissez faire, faith. It blended with Hinduism and local beliefs, and even tolerated the Christian Dutch.

Symbolically, or literally, after the explosion that killed thousands, a religious movement that had been waiting for a sign came to life. A more strict Muslim sect saw the events as a predicted display of divine anger. A short-lived rebellion broke out, cut off by Christian repeating rifles, that led to a more strict version of Islam in the region. Although Winchester doesn’t linger on this too long—he is writing about a natural disaster after all—it does raise many very human responses. In the event of a cataclysm, science is cold comfort. We may rationalize, but human beings also feel. And it is religion that will attempt to answer for that pit in your stomach or that worry in your head. That’s what it does best. Science tells us that we can’t really stop volcanoes—we are too small and the planet too overwhelming. Religion, on the other hand, offers a grip on the very forces behind cataclysm—imagined or not. Although seeing natural disasters as divine punishment is never reasonable it is, in the words of a famous philosopher, human, all too human.

Misplaced Zealotry

zealotReza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has brought public interest back to the only begotten, and it’s not even Easter time. A confession: I’ve not read Aslan’s book, so my thoughts here are purely academic. (In a time-honored tradition, I will comment without benefit, or liability, of having actually read.) My interest is, to be frank, less on what Aslan has to say than with how people are reacting to him. Within days of publication, the internet began to swell with news stories about public reaction to Aslan’s treatment. My interest was raised by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where an article by Peter Monaghan quotes Lauren Green of Fox challenging Aslan, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” I know this is Fox, and that it is poor form to abuse the idiot, but I couldn’t help but to wonder at such a misguided question.

I would ask, honestly, how many Christians have read a book on Moses or David, or any Hebrew Bible figure, that was written by a Christian. Far fewer hands would be in the air if the same question were framed with the caveat, “written by a Jew.” Every supersessionist religion reserves the right to analyze what has gone before in the light of its own theology. We all know the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille, but how many know the Jeremiah of Abraham Heschel? Do we bother to read what the believer writes about his or her own hero? Would we need to? We already know what the conclusion is going to be. I, for one, am very curious how some Muslims perceive Jesus. That’s always a fascinating question, since Islam, in many parts of the world, superseded Christianity, and has, until recent times, often peacefully coexisted.

Is it not because the author is Muslim that the challenge was issued? How quickly we forget that western civilization (which began in the “Middle East”) owes much to Islam. While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science. And yet, we are suspicious of what is discovered by those of “alternative” cultural heritages. I would be more surprised should Muslims show no interest in Jesus. During the past presidential election, many non-Mormons flocked to bookstores (okay, that’s an exaggeration; nobody flocks to bookstores any more, now that Harry Potter is done), eager for books about Latter-Day Saints. Most of them written by non-Mormons. I don’t know what Aslan has to say about Jesus. I suspect some are disconcerted because he bears C. S. Lewis’ code-name for Jesus in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan may well have something to teach us about ourselves. I, for one, welcome it. How can we ever learn tolerance if we’re unwilling to hear how we appear to others?

Dirty Laundry

Wirathu may not be a household name, although Time magazine devoted an article to his teachings last week. The media has become fascinated with religiously motivated violence of late, although such violence is nothing new. Capitalizing on the fact that many of us in the western hemisphere see Buddhism as a religion of peace, Hannah Beech’s article, “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” reveals the growing conflict between some Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar. The article took me back to my seminary days where, in a class in systematic theology, our professor was extolling the virtues of Buddhism as a religion of peace as opposed to Christianity with its history of warfare. Not denying that history, I raised my hand and asked how Christians then had come to know Jesus as the Prince of Peace. And Muslims, as any student of religion learns, also value peace. The ideals of most religions promote peace. The problem is that the practitioners of religions are humans.

Gandhara_Buddha_(tnm)

Like our chimpanzee cousins, we humans distrust those of other tribes. In one of the more disturbing aspects of chimpanzee research, encounters between especially a male isolated from his troop and another family group often end badly. Biology has programmed us to keep valued resources for ourselves. It’s as if nature knows there are limits to her bounty, and in order to survive and thrive, some will need to starve. Or be killed. Critics of religion—and there are many who are quite vocal—often overlook the aspect of religions that call for the reversal of our natural tendencies. Yes, I’m selfish. As a biological creature, I’m concerned that I get enough to eat, and have sufficient space. I want to stockpile money so that I may retire (unlikely to happen in reality), and spend my final years in peace and relative comfort. Yet, my religious upbringing has left the door open for others. What about those with even less than me? My empathy reaches out for them. Don’t they deserve what I deserve?

The problem is always at the friction point where belief systems rub passed each other like immense tectonic plates. The Buddhists of Myanmar say they just want to be left alone. The Muslims of Myanmar say they just want to survive. Their religions are pressure points building along fault lines. Still, I suspect that there are other sources of tension and violence in Myanmar, besides religion. I know there are in American society. In fact, most everyday violence, I suspect, has nothing to do with religion. Violence is part of human nature. Religion, at its best, urges us to fight this compelling biological message of self-preservation at any cost. Religious violence is a very real cause for concern, but to get to the root of the problem we must look past religion to biology. And sometimes—just sometimes—religion turns off the flame beneath the simmering pot.