Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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Bridge over Troubled Waters

“Let not many of you,” wrote the wise James, in a widely ignored admonition, “become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” The same could be said for politicians. Lord Acton, seconding James, noted “power corrupts,” and yet who is not drawn to its flame? The news has been awash in a flood over the George Washington Bridge scandal, something I could not appreciate until I joined the ranks of the myriads of commuters to Manhattan. The evidence is pretty clear that Chris Christie’s top staff (ahem) purposefully closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge to retaliate against Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich’s refusing to dance when the pipers piped for Christie’s reelection. I didn’t vote for Christie, and now I wonder if that is why my New Jersey Transit bus often comes so late that I’ve taken to calling it the Jesus Bus, since I never know when it might come again. Ah, the rush of power that encourages the grinding of the boot heel into the face of the smaller opponent. Could anything be more human?

Perhaps, in this world of infinite possibilities, Christie knew nothing of what his top aides were doing. The culture in New Jersey, however, as those of us who live here know, has been cast in the very large shadow of bullying. We spend taxpayer’s money to teach our children not to bully while our politicians give the lie to the teaching we purchase. “How the mighty are fallen,” lamented King David. But even he had his Bathsheba scandal. And many on the right claim their politics derive through their commitment to his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson, if I count correctly. Let not many of you become politicians.

Manhattan is an island with limited access. The Lincoln Tunnel and the Holland Tunnel are for the troglodyte crowd, while the George Washington Bridge is the busiest bridge in the world. “He could have called,” the old evangelical hymn goes, “ten-thousand angels.” That’s roughly a forty-to-one ratio for New Jersey commuters to New York to angels. Somewhere along the line, the populace became the unwitting plaything of politicians. Stop a hundred-thousand people from getting to work? It’s just an arbitrary number. Never mind that trust used to be part of the social contract. As a citizen who spends approximately three hours a day on a bus, or waiting for one, I have to wonder whose best interest is in the mind of our elected officials. Yes, James, had I listened to you this might have all turned out very differently indeed.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Photo credit: Fly Navy from Wiki Commons.

Grace, Virtually

Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?

There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?

eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.

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Biblical New Brunswick

One of the true sadnesses of my life is that New Brunswick’s biggest institution, Rutgers University, couldn’t find a full-time place for a dreamer like me. Ever hopeful, I taught there for four years, counting on a miracle. Although I’ve got many good memories of my time at Rutgers, one of the side-benefits was getting to know New Brunswick a little bit. Probably not topping too many vacation must-see lists, New Brunswick, New Jersey nestles in the shadow of New York City and its train station is a place I’ve spent a bit of time. Last night I had occasion to stop in to get my bus pass so that I can start off the new year by going to work. As I climbed the stairs to the ticket window, I heard a street preacher holding forth. There he was, a young man, open Bible in hand, explaining to a mostly disinterested commuter crowd why they needed salvation. (If their experience on New Jersey Transit has been anything like mine, believe me, they already know.) Many of those in the waiting room are the homeless trying to get out of the cold for a while. New Brunswick has never struck me as a particularly religious town, although many of my students in my Rutgers days brought their religion to university with them. I didn’t have time for another conversion last night, however, as my family had another purpose for being in town.

A friend had kindly given my family tickets to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the State Theater. Although put on by Plays-in-the-Park of Middlesex County, being in the shadow of New York City sets a very high bar for public performances. The show was excellent and energetic and I couldn’t help connecting the dots on how the Bible had played into the evening. Andrew Lloyd Webber long ago realized that even a very secular Britain had a hunger for biblical stories. Although I am biased, given my failed choice of profession, the story of Joseph is one of the great tales of all time. Although likely half the audience couldn’t say that the story occurs in Genesis, the rags-to-riches plot of betrayal and forgiveness is so deeply embedded in human dreams that even assigning it to the wrong testament would make no difference. As Lloyd Webber knows, we all want our dreams to come true. Joseph, certainly a flawed hero, does finally see himself as the second most powerful man in the fictional world of Moses’ Egypt. It’s difficult not to root for the guy.

Outside the temperature hasn’t managed to reach 40 degrees today. A few blocks away at the train station, some of those being force-fed the Gospel were almost certainly refugees from the cold. I’ve seen this every time I have to catch a train in Newark as well. The homeless know that at least they won’t freeze in the depot, even if they are chased off the seats by security. Moving from Joseph to James a moment, we hear “And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?” In other words, if you are offering the homeless words only, you’re not getting the point of the gospel at all. The homeless would benefit more from having a dream come true, I’m certain, than from having a message of salvation before being turned out to the cold for the night. The real salvation in New Brunswick is being offered at the State Theater tonight, but you do need a ticket to get inside.

Any dream will do

Any dream will do

Blazing Forest

Back in 1996 an angel was on the big screen. In a manner of speaking. Michael, starring John Travolta as the archangel Michael, may not have been an instant classic but it did have a memorable line or two. The image of a smoking angel had been contrived by Van Halen over a decade earlier, but the idea of the prince of the army of Yahweh being a guy just like the rest of us was strangely refreshing. No Park Avenue deity this. When the reporters first meet Michael and wonder if he’s the real thing, one suggests tugging on his wings to see if they’re real. Michael responds by asking if he should pull the reporter’s privates to see if they’re really attached. His companion comments, “An angel that says ‘pecker.’” While the very idea of “bad words” is an unusual one, it is well-nigh a universal. In just about every culture there are words or phrases that just aren’t uttered in polite company. Those who can’t control their mouths, suggests the book of James, can’t control their lives. So it is with a kind of perverse wonder that I read about the bullying bravado that issues from the lips of New Jersey’s governor.

Don’t get me wrong. I never fault anyone for speaking like they were taught. I was raised in a blue collar family and at times the talk could get pretty blue as well. I would, however, point out that you’ll not find a student I taught over my two decades in the classroom that every heard me cuss in class. It is a matter of standards. Emotions, those great clawing monsters inside us, rage to escape. The building blocks of society—restraint and control, and dare we even wish? subtlety and refinement—are signs of civilization. Some of us were taught to leave name-calling on the playground. I am profoundly saddened when politicians believe they are the best America has to offer when in reality they reveal themselves coarse, vulgar bullies. Enter Chris Christie.

In a public venue on Wednesday New Jersey’s governor called the chief budget officer for the Office of Legislative Services, “idiot,” “jerk,” and “numbnuts.” Here’s where we see Tea Party values incarnate. Belittling others, especially in a public forum, reveals a nature that should make all civilized civilians hang their heads in a surfeit of collective shame. America has come to this? Admiring bullies and slashing and burning services for those who need a little communal support? And he has been posturing for a vice presidential nomination. And angels will be smoking cigarettes in the wings. A President/Vice-President who says “numbnuts?” America deserves far better than this. Where is Michael when we need him?

Take that, you #!@&$!