Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…

Lily White

The funny thing about being “white” (I’m more of an anemic pink myself) is that my race seems to think all the gods share our ethnic traits. I’ve seen Thor, so I know. The Daily Kos ran an article recently about Crystal Valentine, a black poet, and how she responded to Megyn Kelly’s 2013 statement that Jesus is a white man. I won’t say what Valentine’s apt response is, but I will say I feel a lot better knowing that I’m not the only one who’s a couple years behind the news. I remember 2013 well. It was a year of transition, some would say enforced exile. If you could pull that trick off 2500 years ago, you’d have no end of books written about you. Just check out the offerings on The Exile and you’ll see what I mean. But I digress. Is Jesus white?

Historically all we can say is that Jesus was Jewish. We don’t have any Jewish men from two millennia ago to ask about their skin tone. One of the problems of having an only child, especially for a deity, is that you have to decide on the race (and gender; perhaps twins would be better?). Other religions sometimes make similar claims, but the problem persists. Especially when one race claiming God’s ethnicity develops an industrialized military economy. Who’s going to argue with that? So if Jesus is white, it stands to reason that his dad is too, right? If you listen to the sidewalks of Manhattan you’ll have your answer. Or the question.


All of this makes me wonder about the image of God. Theologians like to make it sound academic by calling it imago dei. If you can read Latin then you obviously know the truth. With monotheism and imago dei, you’re gonna run into problems. Nobody likes to be told they’re adopted. Since this theological construct has caused no end of pain and misery, I have to wonder if we’re better off thinking that we’ve not had a case of mistaken identity after all. We all evolved out of Africa. We should, it seems to me, treat our parents with more respect. And that, dear reader, is straight from the Bible.

Spirituality Sampler

ManSeeksGodSometimes you read a book and wonder if somehow the author got into your head and fished around for material. Although I’m not Jewish, at least not that I know of, I found Eric Weiner’s Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine to be uncannily familiar at points. Not that I’ve ever been a journalist, nor have I had more than a few hundred people read anything I’ve written, but somehow I just couldn’t shake the underlying connectivity. For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read it, Man Seeks God is Weiner’s spiritual journey through various religions, seeking his God. Born culturally Jewish, Weiner never really resonated with the religious aspect until the last chapter of the book. In between, however, he shows a true pioneer spirit and tries diverse faiths, some of which are not for the fainthearted. As fits the postmodern period, he’s an authentic, intentional spiritual shopper. And he provides many laughs along the way.

Such a book must be difficult to write. There’s a lot of baring of the soul, and even a little baring of the body, at times. Weiner begins with Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Yes, it’s based on love. He then travels to Nepal to pursue Buddhist meditation, followed by a stint with the Franciscans in the Bronx. The only one of the “big five” he doesn’t sample is Hinduism. That might have thrown a speed-bump into his ending, though, to be fair. He makes no claims of comprehensiveness. At this point the story takes a turn toward decidedly exotic selections in the cafe of spirituality. I couldn’t read his account of the Raëlians without snorting aloud once or twice on the bus. Taoism takes Weiner to China and into a distinctly more philosophical frame of mind. He explores Wicca and Shamanism, which may be more closely related than he supposes, before coming home to Kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism.

Spiritual seeking is as mandatory as breathing for some people. Eric Weiner is one of those teetering on the edge of active exploration and the ability to shut out the questions, if only temporarily. Reading his confessions, it’s clear that he’s a rational, intelligent man. He made it through decades without really feeling the need for religion. When the ineffable pressed itself onto him, however, he turned to the mystical traditions. I was warned, in conservative Grove City College’s religion department, to be very careful of mysticism. The professor was dry-eyed serious as he said that seeking direct experience of God would generally lead to heresy. So there it was, in plain sight. Doctrine has precedence over the truth. Long ago someone smarter than us figured it all out. Our job? Just follow their path. I have a feeling that Weiner, having had some unexplained experiences of his own, might disagree. Sometimes you have to take out a personal ad in the spiritual scandal-sheets to get an idea what the divine really is.

Battle Bibles

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” so the old saying goes. No doubt, war is among the most stressful circumstances in which humans insinuate others (who goes to war happily and without reservation?). As a corollary, to keep soldiers comforted in hellish surroundings, it has at times been common to supply them with Bibles. In an exhibit I’ve not yet seen, the Museum of Biblical Arts in New York currently has a display of soldier’s Bibles. A poignant dissonance accompanies such a concept. In the newspaper story announcing it, the phrase that leapt out at me was “Bibles clothed in camouflage.” To be sure, the Bible contains many narratives of war, even demanding genocide in certain circumstances, but as a whole the most valued commodity appears to be peace. Too often, however, it is peace on our terms.

According to the article, Bible distribution began in the United States in the Civil War. Bibles were offered to belligerents on both sides. Naturally, taken into the viewpoint of the chosen ones, God is on the side of the reader. God is the ultimate conflicted deity. This is cold comfort to a soldier dying on the battlefield of all-too-human contention. In keeping with religious differences, over time Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish versions have been offered. Notes in these government-issued religious documents urge the soldier to find succor here. One need not read too deeply between the lines to find the message is the willingness to lay down one’s life.

In a world acutely aware of religious differences, the idea of supplying fighting forces with religious backing may seem questionable. Can there be sincerity in the message that Scripture of any description ought to comfort a person who has been placed in this unenviable position by human greed, powerlust, or self-aggrandizement? What reason have we for war any longer? If religion be true, why have we not matured by even a millisecond since Joshua invaded Canaan? Giving a soldier a camouflaged Bible is to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound requiring many stitches. Far better to take the message of peace to heart and look for reasonable ways to solve our differences. Idealistic? Without doubt. But it might help to save the cost of distributing Bibles to those whose lives are seemingly less valued than those who begin armed conflicts in the first place.

There is no “holy” in war.

The Passover-Easter Complex

Some years back I completed an unpublished book for young readers on the holidays. This project was undertaken because most holidays have a religious origin and because I could find no comparable source for kids to learn this information from a reliable source. Unfortunately publishers have showed little interest. Rather than waste the effort it took to write the book, I have been installing segments here, on the Full Essays page of my blog. Since it is Easter for many Christians today, I have added the next installment: the Passover-Easter Complex. It begins like this:

No doubt the most complicated set of holidays are those that surround the changing of the seasons – the solstices and equinoxes. Among even those holidays, the Passover (Jewish) and Easter (Christian) complexes are especially complex. Like most major holidays these celebrations have very interesting roots. Problem is, it is hard to know where to begin! We’ve already started with Mardi Gras, but that is kind of a festival on its own. To really get started, we have to turn back to the calendar (again?).

Easter, like Passover, is a “moveable feast.” That doesn’t mean playing musical chairs while you eat! It means that the dates change depending on the moon, so to figure out the date you have to (you guessed it) look at the sky. (Actually, these days you can look on the web or in many books used by churches to figure it out. But work with me here, let’s pretend it is, gasp, before these things were invented!) Two days of the year have an equal amount of day and night all around the world, when the earth stands up straight on its axis. Marking the beginning of spring and fall they are called the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. (“Equinox” means “equal-night,” “vernal” means “green” or spring, and “autumnal,” duh, “in autumn.”) Back when people had no TV, this was a big thing! Not only was it cool to have equal day and night, in the spring it meant days were finally getting longer and warmer. For ancient people it meant that light was winning the struggle with darkness.

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