Post-1984

To truly understand a religion, you must be part of it.  This is the dilemma that underlies the entire discipline of religious studies.  And it all comes down to that slippery concept of “belief.”  One of the books that has been on my reading list for years now is Heather and Gary Botting’s The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What finally prompted me to read it was the (relatively) recent receipt of an invitation to spend what many call Good Friday (for it is today for the Orthodox) with the local Kingdom Hall crowd.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the last people to come to my door before the pandemic began were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I’ve read about them before, but scholarly literature on the sect is rare, despite their obvious influence.  One reason for this, I suspect, is that to understand you have to partake.

This is where the book by the Bottings comes in.  They were raised as Witnesses and eventually left.  They have been on the inside.  This book takes the interesting hook of comparing that inside world to the vision of the Party in George Orwell’s 1984.  Not only that, but the math regarding the end of the world, or Armageddon, more properly speaking, showed that 1984 was the terminus for the next phase of Witnesses’ history inaugurated by the spiritual return of Jesus in 1914.  It is no accident that this book itself was published in 1984.  The world of the Watchtower is explored creatively and somewhat thoroughly here.  The only problem with reading it nearly forty years later is that I’m left curious for updates.  The Witnesses are, after all, still out there.

The thing about beliefs is that we all have them and we can’t always explain them.  They are part of our rational faculties, but also part of our emotional thinking as well.  No one is totally objective and even Mr. Spock gives in to feelings once in a while.  No system of belief is entirely rational.  Since we don’t have all the data it necessarily can’t be.  We tend to believe what we feel is right.  Those raised in traditions of NRM (New Religious Movements) absorb the beliefs their parents and guardians teach them just as much as Catholic school kids do.  They are often warned about those outside the tradition and what they will inevitably say about it.  This makes them look prophetic.  Once a child has been raised in an exclusionary system, getting her or him out of it is not only difficult, but often damaging to them.  So it is with belief.  This book really made me think.


one of many

It’s been some time since I’ve read about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  There are so many religions that I need to refresh my study on them periodically.  So it was that I received a mailing from the local Kingdom Hall.  You see, the very last people at my front door before the pandemic was declared were bearing the Watchtower and telling me the end is nigh.  We knew about Covid-19 at that point and were being urged to keep social distance, although the authorities were still dithering about masks.  They knocked nevertheless and we stood several feet apart on the porch as they tried in vain to convince me of their truth.  So now, a year later, they’ve reached out by mail.

You’ve got to have a soft spot for a religion that has its origins in Pittsburgh.  Well, maybe that’s the case for those who grew up where it was the nearest big city.  And I do admire that pioneering spirit that says “established religions just aren’t doing it for me.”  The great swath of NRM—New Religious Movements—shows that you shouldn’t feel lonely if this applies to you.  Even today’s Christianities bear little resemblance to the teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth.  He who said even to look upon a woman lustfully was to commit adultery, but whose followers support a president who recommends grabbing them by the, well, where the originator said not to look….  Religions evolve.  The literalism many associate with Christian belief is really only about a century old.  We have no business castigating religions just because they’re recent.

My mailing from the Witnesses included a personalized (somewhat) letter inviting me to a virtual commemoration of Jesus’ death.  Due to the pandemic it’ll be held on Zoom, of course.  The expected flyer with its Anglo-Jesus contains the details.  I did attend a Witness service back when I was in college.  Those days of heady explorations never really ended for me.  You have to settle into a tradition to get to know people, of course, but there’s a world full of ways of looking at our spiritual side and there’s more being propagated just about every year—even Jehovah’s Witnesses have splinter groups.  I suppose missionaries are something we’ll always have to put up with as long as people are convinced that their way is The Only Way.  Trust that others have perhaps quietly, perhaps deliberately, perhaps with a great deal of thought and reflection, have found their own way seems never to be good enough.  Still, an invitation is an invitation and those have been rare during a pandemic.


Die Besuch

It was both sweet and perhaps misguided.  I’ve not written much about the coronavirus because I’ve really had nothing to say on the pandemic.  Also I’m squeamish.  Being a remote worker I spend most of my time alone anyway.  So when the knock came to my door, I wasn’t sure I should answer.  Afraid that some vital bit of information was to be conveyed, I gave in.  Two young ladies stood there and at first I thought they were selling Girl Scout cookies, but one of them had some copies of The Watchtower in a folder and I knew that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had come calling.  I didn’t invite them in.  I don’t mean to be inhospitable, but those who go around knocking on doors might have been exposed to who knows what.  They were here, the older one said, to give good news.

Although she didn’t mention the coronavirus directly, she said people were feeling anxious.  But God—our creator—had promised everything would work out.  She read me Revelation 21.4, about God wiping every tear from our eyes, from an iPad.  I’ve read that verse many times on my own, and, tainted with decades of specialist knowledge, knew a good deal about the context in which it was written.  The Witnesses didn’t stay long.  As they walked away I couldn’t help but think how this current scare has been affecting us all.  We are afraid.  I don’t need any advice when it comes to social distancing (I am an introvert, after all), but there’s a kind of hopelessness afoot.  I don’t read the papers but every headline is about the virus.  The world seems awfully quiet.

This will go down in history, I suspect, as a strange episode.  I feel guilty for conducting normal business, as if there is anything I could do to prevent the disease beyond isolating myself even further.  It’s perhaps the waiting.  Those of us in circumstances where joy is more fleeting than a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses often invest huge amounts of time waiting for things to get better.  The news, for example, that a piece has been accepted for publication.  Or that a long wished for promotion has come.  Or that somebody has actually read your book.  Such news is rare indeed and outside a disease rages out of control.  What else beyond missionary zeal would send you to strangers’ doors at such a time as this?  They didn’t even leave any tracts.


Mission Impossible

You can always tell Jehovah’s Witnesses by their tracts.  When I heard a tap, tap, tap on my front door the other day I was handed a flier and a cheery invitation to an important celebration (Easter).  The circumlocution used for the holiday made we wonder so I flipped over the tract and saw the familiar JW on the bottom.  I always treat religion at my door with respect because, well, you never know.  It’s this latter bit—the uncertainty—that has always given me pause when it comes to missionaries, domestic or imported.  Missionaries by definition believe their particular spin on religion is the only correct one, otherwise there’s no reason to convert others.  This is often the highest hurdle over which globalism must leap—the willingness to admit one might be wrong.

I could be wrong about this, but I have always considered the willingness to admit you might be incorrect as a sign of spiritual maturity.  I also know from my youth that that kind of uncertainty can drive you crazy.  We want to know we’re right!  But then, who doesn’t?  Those of us who think globalization is a good thing have failed to take into account just how difficult it is for many people to admit possible error.  For the vast, vast majority of human history we were separated from one another by natural boundaries.  Travel for leisure did not exist.  Within a local group beliefs would likely be fairly uniform.  Then you encounter others who might say, well, you’re wrong.  That’s seldom a welcome prospect.

More than air travel, the internet has shown us, as we connect, just how diverse a species we really are.  What about that missionary at my door?  For religions indoctrinated into one doctrine this can’t be easy.  I’ve had conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses before.  There’s no convincing them they might be wrong.  Missionaries come with the assurance they’re saving you.  Rare is the proselytizer who’s there possibly to learn the truth.  As I think about it, after decades of attending church how many times has anyone wanted to have an in-depth conversation about belief?  Outside confirmation class, that is.  And even there, when most are either teenagers or older specialists in some secular business, discussing deep issues seems to make others uncomfortable.  When the missionaries come, I want the conversation to go both ways.  I’ve spent half a century thinking about these things, after all.  When there’s a tap, tap, tapping at my door, I wonder what tracks will be left behind.


Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.


God’s Rain

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Micahmedia, Wikimedia Commons

Music has been in the news this week with the death of the artist formerly and forever known as Prince. Also, in a lesser covered story, Bono’s friendship with Bible translator Eugene Peterson. This post will focus on the former former artist. I’ll have to circle back later to pick up Bono and Peterson. I have to admit that I haven’t listened to Prince much lately. I saw “Purple Rain” when it came out, and some of his songs have resonated with me throughout the years. What makes him such an intriguing figure is his view of sexuality. My source here is the Washington Post, specifically, an article by Michelle Boorstein stating that Prince was, beneath the sexy exterior, a conservative Christian. Specifically a Jehovah’s Witness. He would not be alone in this role since Alice Cooper is famously also a conservative Christian. Life upon the stage is that of the actor. With Prince, as Boorstein points out, the question goes deeper: he wrote about religion, but he also wrote about sex.

Those of us who indulge in creative writing know that poetry is perhaps the only place where dishonesty is impossible. Song lyrics are true. Prince often cites Christian tropes (see Boorstein’s article for samples), but his material is deeply sexual as well. This leads to the suggestion that he saw sex as a means of worshipping God. Once again, Prince doesn’t find himself alone in this place. Scholars brave enough to examine both religion and sexuality often find a connection there, and not just a tangential one. Both are about communing with something greater than the individual. Thinking back to my first viewing of “Purple Rain” I can say it wasn’t the religion part that stood out to me.

Histories of Rock-n-Roll are rife with stories of performers’ untamed sexuality, so that’s hardly news. What really strikes me is that with recent deaths—David Bowie, and now Prince—the media seems intensely interested in their views of religion. We don’t often look to artists for advice on how to live our lives, but as the polar opposites of scientists and rationalists, they are in touch with and willing to share their feelings. And we the people want to know what they thought of God. Often because it is so surprising. It’s easier to put someone in a box. Religion, however, is way more complex than most non-specialists think. It has room for creativity, for sexuality, and for exploring the meaning of life. I many not listen to Prince much, and when I do it’s not for religious advice. I am, however, inclined now to think in new ways about colorful rain.


Losing My Religion (Excuse)

I’ve always appreciated New Jersey inventiveness. This is a state where lottery winners register with the social security numbers of dead people to avoid taxes. Politicians and honest folk both seem to resort to inventive means of getting around the system. A recent article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger brought this home. An uproar has developed, it seems, over a more stringent regulation concerning religious exemptions for vaccines. If the bill passes, parents and guardians opting out of vaccines for their children will have to state their religion and the cause for the objection. Many have been suggesting this is government of the worst kind, because, well, it wasn’t really a religious reason that they used the religion waiver. Have you met my dead relative? He recently won the lottery.

A timeless problem that arises from a situation such as this is the issue of defining religion. We’re not really sure what it is, other than a reason for not preventing disease. Experts disagree about the essential components of religion. Since the concept of God is up for grabs, doing what pleases said deity (or not, depending on whether a religion has a deity) would seem to be part of it. Most religions, whatever they are, suggest honesty is a virtue. And honestly, most religions have no trouble with vaccines. The paper even had a helpful chart of religions, even indicating that Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no issues, really, with vaccines. Clearly some churches do. One suspects other may have had such regulations, but they eventually died off.

Since we can’t bother to define religion, it becomes a most convenient excuse for just about any kind of deviant behavior. Many religions exist; more than most people even suspect. Sects of Christianity alone number around 40,000, and that’s leaving aside all other religious traditions and their many splinter groups. Truly held religion, as the media often underscores, can lead to extreme behaviors. The only way to come to grips with this is to try to understand what religion actually is. The most logical locus for such study would be universities. Many of them are run by states. States that are afraid of breeching that wall of separation. Even in the cause of public health. In my opinion, funding the study of religion could be a real shot in the arm. But then, so could winning the lottery.

800px-Typhoid_inoculation2


Future Shock

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing if not persistent. Unemployed and huddling fearfully at home during the day a few years back, I answered the door and had a talk with the local missionaries. I explained that I was a biblical scholar and not open to be swayed to new religious sensibilities, but that didn’t stop them from trying to convince me otherwise. They were oh so polite, however, and sending them away seemed like the height of rudeness. The Witnesses have roots in my home territory, and I have a soft spot for religions originating in Pittsburgh. Despite the fact that I’ve had a day job now for about three years, they still routinely stop by and leave tracts behind. One of the most recent ran a headline “Can Anyone See the Future?”

JWatchtower

Of course the story inside quickly turns to prophecy and the age-old, if false, idea that biblical prophets were fortune tellers. Still, the popular conception among the public is just that: prophets see the future. In the Bible prophets are primarily social critics. They cry out against injustice, exploitation, and false religion (!). One thing they don’t do is see the future clearly. Isaiah had to be revised at least three times in the writing. Nevertheless, prophets are engaging figures. They are non-conformists who rail against a system that takes advantage of those who are helpless—not weak, but helpless. Many people are rendered helpless by society. One size can’t possibly fit all. And yet we keep the cover closed on those nattering prophets and pump our money into a capitalist engine that is fueled by human effort and spews the helpless out as exhaust. We could use a good prophet now and again.

The question about seeing the future, however, keeps coming back to me. It might have been a good talent to have some thirty years ago as I was pondering a college major and a career that would take me deep into the Bible. If I could see the future—renting an apartment for an extortionate amount of money for the privilege of living near a city where all my efforts would be poured out to help others make money off religion while asking people with the same degrees I have to write the books that I should be authoring—would I have taken this route? Or would I, as a local boy, have taken the warning of Charles Taze Russell and made my living through haberdashery. Is it any different than balderdashery? Would I have even opened the door? Only a prophet can tell.


God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

Watchtower

Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.


No Year’s Eve

So the world’s supposed to end tomorrow. Again. These apocalypses have been coming thick and fast lately; it’s getting so that each end of the world is within sight of the previous end. Of all the strange ideas that religions have given us, the end of the world is the most insidious. While some may choose not to believe it, many politicians of record have actively attempted to provoke the end of time to force the divine hand at bringing a little bit of heaven to earth. Scary thing is, some of them had the power to annihilate us all in the process. Unlike past eschatons, however, this one derives from the interpretation of Mayan artifacts, strangely making it more believable to some people. Those exotic peoples of the past! They just knew so much more about worlds ending than we do. And I know otherwise intelligent people who believe that this is the last day of the earth.

Of course, if we take the earth’s temperature there does seem to be some cause for alarm. That’s not the Mayans’ fault, though. Some of these self-same fracking politicians have insisted that since the Second Coming is near it is alright to destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet. Those are pretty high stakes if they turn out to be wrong. Oh, but they can make a healthy profit margin on the side, so at least they can go out in style. But what would a Mayan apocalypse mean to the firmly committed Christian? It would be very hard to recover from that, should Q’uq’umatz be behind it all.

The events of the past week have been more than a little rough. And the self-same politicians line up on the side of the NRA as they campaign for Jesus’ early return plan. The overall prognosis seems iffy at best. It is like the feeling the dinosaurs must’ve had on the evening of the asteroid. Some of them had brains the size of walnuts, an allegory too plain to require spelling out. What these eschatological episodes teach us is that human life is fragile. Madmen with guns remind us of the same point. I’m expecting, however, that things will be pretty much the same as ever tomorrow morning. I’ll be expected at work, the wheels of the sluggish economy will turn ever so slowly, and politicians will keep doing what they do best. Those counting on Mayan counting will find themselves in the company of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Harold Camping. All of us will find ourselves in a world where religion is perhaps the only power actually capable of total destruction. But if we wake up with aliens swarming the planet tomorrow we’ll honestly be able to say that we’d been warned.

The face of things to come?

The face of things to come?


Good-bye Lia

While The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, is not about religion, it is all about religion. The tragic story of Lia Lee is one where Hmong lives, completely immersed in what we would term “religion,” came into conflict with American perceptions of what religion should be. One of the events in Lia’s life involved the government removing her from her parents for their failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fadiman notes that this has been an issue is court cases with Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that refuse certain kinds of medical treatment for religious reasons. Adults may refuse—it is their constitutional right—but children cannot be subjected to an adult’s religion if it endangers their lives. Here is the rub; American religion only stretches so far. Sure, many of the faithful pray for loved ones, but they also trust the doctor’s knowledge. Not too put too fine a point on it, God doesn’t seem to do the healing unless the physician is involved. For many from traditional religions, like the Lee family, that is hardly trust at all.

Much of the problem in Lia’s case came down to taking the soul seriously. It is clear that the Hmong believe, really believe in the soul. It is the essence of a person. Reductionism declares that when all the matter is burned off, no soul remains to be found. Lia’s parents, however, could tell whether her soul was present or not just by looking in her eyes. Although she never recovered from her major seizure, the physicians had tried to prepare her parents for Lia’s immanent death. Removing her from the feeding tubes and sterile conditions of the hospital, the Lees took her home where she survived for years, although in a persistent vegetive state. Even as the book ends with Lia at seven, they are hoping for her soul to return. Lia died just two months ago, at the age of thirty. She was diagnosed as terminal at the age of four.

Diversity adds color (from Wikipedia Commons)

The story of Lia Lee is sad and one with no real villains (after the Secret War in Laos, and its aftermath). One of the most interesting aspects revolves around how the Hmong observe American religion. Well-meaning missionaries tried to convert them, but psychological studies have demonstrated that those who are the worst off are those who converted to western religions. At one point a Hmong girl, at a sacrificial ceremony to placate the spirits, tells Fadiman that she’s a Mormon. In another instance a Christian family tried to give their Hmong neighbors advice before a long drive, telling them they should pray to the Lord, not their ancestors. The Hmong honestly replied that the Lord had given him too many problems in America. It seems to me that the real issue here is just how seriously religion is taken. To the Hmong, it is their life. In capitalist America, it is very difficult to make religion your life. Even clergy have to have bank accounts, bills, and oil changes—all very secular aspects of life. If religion were taken as seriously here as among the Hmong, we would be facing a very different race this November.


Guide Me, O Thou Great

You are an apostate, or worse. Unless, that is, you belong to the relatively select religion known as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Having grown up in a town bereft of Witnesses, my first exposure came as the result of an American Religions course. Grove City, Pennsylvania was not an ideal locale to experience religious diversity, outside the Protestant Neapolitan flavor. When we had to visit a religious service outside that milieu, I joined some classmates for a trip to the local Kingdom Hall. There are few situations as uncomfortable as watching other people being religious. It is so intimate. When Watchtower study began, my classmates and I, good Christians all, were shocked to hear even a young child answer one of the questions put by the leader with “the Christian apostates!” She was quite enthusiastic. If you were not a Witness you were an apostate.

Since that time, Witnesses have been no strangers to my door, so I read Andrew Holden’s Jehovah’s Witnesses: Portrait of a Contemporary Religious Movement (Routledge, 2002) with interest. Holden is a sociologist who undertakes an analysis of the ascetic, millenarian group in a conflicted situation. Modern society proves quite difficult to reconcile with Witnesses’ authoritarian biblical literalism. The assertion, now quietly overlooked, that the world did not end on cue has proved an embarrassment more than once. Most recently Armageddon was scheduled for a 1975 time slot, but this stubborn, old world just keeps limping along. In many ways, it is a sad tale. Witnesses advocate clean living and fair dealing, but if you’re not part of the club you are a danger to those who are. Non-monastic, they nevertheless shut themselves off from much that the world has to offer.

Holden’s study is a model of fair-minded analysis. He is not out to humiliate or insult the Witnesses or their lifestyle. He remains true to the evidence (but not the doctrine) and offers a rare, objective look at a New Religious Movement. Distinguished as one of the few religions to have started in Pittsburgh (the city that also gave us the cinematic zombie), Witnesses are now a six-million strong, worldwide religion. While Holden gives only a cursory glimpse of their doctrine, he does offer a rare view into an exclusive faith struggling for the end of a pluralistic world. It is a study well worth reading. Especially for an apostate.


Risky Business

Scientology has been back in the news with the divorce of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Media pundits like to point out the highly unorthodox nature of Scientology, but such critiques overlook the vital nature of New Religious Movements. Many of us are raised believing that religions, to be “true,” must possess at least a modicum of antiquity. We routinely reject the science of the first century of the common era (well, maybe the Creationists don’t), but we accept without question that the religious views of the time were on-spot and unchanging. It comes as a surprise, therefore, when a new religion like Mormonism or Scientology prospers. Accusations of being money-driven are rife, but then, who has recently audited the Vatican or CBN? Religions are “non-profit” by definition, but they certainly do raise money. As players in the capitalist game, I say more power to them. Who else can make tremendous profits and claim tax-free status (apart from major corporations, I mean)? Most believers are happy to throw a few dollars in the direction of some guru who will deliver him or her from hell, at least.

The fact that true believers in revelation don’t like to face is that every religion started some place. It would be a different story were there only one religion that ever developed, but as soon as someone started to declare their belief orthodox it was only a matter of time before heterodoxy joined the conversation. In the light of this wide-open world of religious beliefs, I think that creativity has been undervalued all along. Say what they might, critics have to admit that Mormonism, Scientology, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses have to score high on the originality scale. Since Yahweh has a lot of competition in the deity market these days it will be difficult to find an adequate final arbiter.

I would like to suggest a panel of experts, like on the appropriately titled “American Idol.” Gods are often hard to pin down, even with email and Twitter and Facebook. To fill in our distinguished panel of judges, then, who might we choose? The clergy of any tradition, I’m afraid, will be biased and so we might look elsewhere. Politicians too should be excluded since their remit is exploitation. Besides, they don’t often recognize creativity as something worth funding. Where does that leave us? We can’t use the average person, because who is going to watch their peers on television. Famous people. An athlete would be a good choice since overthinking religions can lead to trouble. We might need to avoid Tebow, however. Hollywood is said to be godless, so an actor would have great appeal—besides, good looks must equate to good theology, mustn’t they? Who will our third panelist be? Probably a writer; they are creative and their names are well-known. They would add intellectual heft without having the same star status as their more visible colleagues. Funny, L. Ron Hubbard was a science fiction writer whose religion thrives in Hollywood and who enjoyed the sport of yachting. We may have our winner here!

Religion or science fiction?


One of Us

I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.

My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?

It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.


Watch Your Tower

So when the smoke clears from another leap day barely survived, and my Apocalypse calendar tells me about the looming end of all things, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by and leave a Watchtower with the headline “Armageddon” at my door, I start to get a little paranoid. Did I miss the memo on this? I tend to be suspicious of any religion that is less than 150 years old—call me a historical snob in that respect. By the time of the nineteenth century of the Common Era, we were getting industrialization, evolution, and the Whig party sorted out. It was hardly a propitious time to be starting new religions. Well, I was curious about Armageddon, so I read a bit of the Watchtower in any case. It goes best with salt.

“The original Hebrew word Har-Magedon literally means, ‘Mountain of Megiddo.’ Although no such literal mountain existed, a place known as Megiddo does exist.” So I learned. But there was a mountain at Megiddo. Literally. I’ve been there. It’s not an impressive mountain like the Front Range of the Rockies, but it is sufficient for the purposes of the Bible. Megiddo overlooks the broad plain of the Jezreel Valley. In ancient times such valleys were highly valued for fighting because of a basic engineering difficulty with chariots: they don’t work well on hills. Chariots have open backs, so falling out would hamper effective up-hill battles (literal ones), and your chariot bumping into your horses or chasing them downhill would have resulted when the fighting was done. Or when you were fleeing. Valleys like Jezreel were perfect for fighting. And Megiddo has a front-row seat on its little mountain. The site of Megiddo has been excavated by archaeologists and is well worth the time it takes to get there.

By coincidence (or is it?) my apocalypse wall calendar begins March by saying, “Make Archaeology Your Friend.” Hmm, is there a message somewhere in here? When the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mayan interpreters agree, should we not at least admit a little doubt? I don’t think so. Both traditions, as certain of special revelation as they may be, are human attempts to make sense of our world. We know of nothing that doesn’t end. The great Eastern religions seem to have caught on more readily to the idea of impermanence than Western cultures have, but they all share this in common—it’s gotta end sometime. I would, however, point out to Mr. Santorum, as he begins to think about his concession speech, that the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to agree with the amateur Catholic on the part about Satan. My Watchtower says “Satan will marshal the nations for an assault on those who worship Jehovah God.” Perhaps politicians should stick to following the Mayans.