The Great Slumbering

Even in days of secular education—I am a product of public education throughout my childhood—Jonathan Edwards is a name that still retains recognition among many Americans. Perhaps best remembered for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Edwards thrived at a time when being a clergyman was a recognized path to success in this world as well as the next. Not that all ministers became famous, of course, but those with the inclination had access to books and time to study. They could write books and influence public policy. Indeed, Edwards was part of the “Great Awakening” that spread throughout the young United States, before its independence. George Whitefield had brought a showman’s sensibility to preaching, and people gathered to listen to roving reverends who brought their wisdom to new locations. In fact, revivals continue to this day—I had attended a few as a child—and they are largely responsible for the denominational map of American Protestantism even today. The “Second Great Awakening” brought Methodists and Baptists into the mainstream to stay.

The first major revivals, however, were fueled by a Calvinistic intensity. Having spent many of my educational years in schools established or supported by Presbyterians, I know their theology well. Judgment is important in the Reformed tradition. Indeed, without the element of threat, the heat is stolen from much of revivalism. Edwards’ sermon encapsulates so well the vital element of a theology that preached total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In other words, unless God has already selected you, you’re out of options. As Presbyterian teachers were eager to state, you should still try to live as if you were saved (“elect”), even if you were going to Hell because of, well, you know, an angry God. Campus rules at Grove City embodied that ethic in a real-time way.

Jonathan Edwards went on to become president of Princeton University (the College of New Jersey, at that time). He died at about my age, having been inoculated for small pox—he was a believer in science—to demonstrate the value of the practice to students. He contracted the disease and died merely weeks later. Ironically, Edwards felt he was past his prime and had to be persuaded to take an academic job—somewhat of an extreme rarity today—and largely because his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr., had recently died as the incumbent. Today, starting on the path to ministry is often a fast-track to job insecurity, popular derision, and poor earnings. For all that, it is difficult to be accepted in the ordination track without jumping through many hoops. So Jonathan Edwards came to rest in Princeton, New Jersey, as a famous, published, and highly respected man. A more different world then his in such a short time in the same location, is hard to imagine.

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Thoughts in a Cemetery

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Being distinguished, indeed, getting noticed, is increasingly difficult to accomplish. When you read a lot of history, you realize that anyone who managed to write coherently in the past few centuries seldom had difficulty getting a publisher, for instance. The key to getting noticed was publishing books, or being lucky enough to have landed a highly visible job. I was reminded of this, and was given a slight inferiority complex, by a recent visit to the Nassau Presbyterian Church’s cemetery in Princeton. I’ve gone by this cemetery dozens of times, but only recently took the time to get out and explore.

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History buffs will know that Aaron Burr is buried there. Burr was from a family of privilege; his father Aaron Burr, Senior, was one of the founders of the College of New Jersey, better known by its current name of Princeton University. The vice-presidential Burr was also the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, who also rests in this very graveyard where one hopes God is somewhat more forgiving of sinners than rhetoric might suggest. Although he was the third Vice-President of the United States, Aaron Burr is now remembered for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel not far from where my bus rumbles every workday. One kind of conflict exchanged for another. This odd and tragic duel ended Hamilton’s life and Burr’s career. As the bad boy “founding father” Burr has found a number of supporters posthumously. His grave is perhaps the most celebrated in Princeton. This despite the fact that President Grover Cleveland is only a few yards away.

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There are, however, more enlightened minds buried here as well. Being in the presence of Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann is a humbling experience. The presence of Albert Einstein, perhaps Princeton’s most famous resident, is, however, missed. Einstein was cremated and his ashes scattered at an undisclosed location. Standing in the cemetery in which so many of his compatriots rest on an overcast, damp December day, it felt like some slight compensation. Political power and ambition often lead to obscurity. I look to those who would be president and shudder. Here in this quiet cemetery, thinking of the common fate of us all, self-aggrandizement seems to be in such bad taste. Einstein, as so often, had it right. Those who are truly noteworthy seldom leave any traces in this world.

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Four Gods’ Sake

AmericasFourGodsStatistically speaking, most people don’t like statistics. I’m one of those. Numbers can do funny things to a person’s perception of things, nevertheless, I appreciate those who can work with them and make sense of them. When I saw the title America’s Four Gods, my disappointment engine kicked in. Is this book going to be about numbers? It was written by a couple of sociologists after all (and even a couple is a number). I’ve read enough of Christopher Bader’s work, however, to trust him. Paul Froese should be the same. Subtitled What We Say about God & What That Says about Us is an appropriate introduction to the book. Based on the Baylor Religion Survey, this study looks at what one of the most religions nations on earth believes about God. Since God is a key political player these days, that’s not a bad idea. Their conclusions are well worth noting.

Froese and Bader find that belief in God is highly idiosyncratic. It is likely the case that, similar to sacerdotal snowflakes, no two ideas about God are precisely the same. Categories, however, help to analyze things, and America’s Four Gods does just that, suggesting four main images of God that have very different characteristics. The Authoritative God we all know well. This is Jonathan Edwards’s deity that dangles spiders above the fire—active and angry in the world. The Benevolent God is also active, but more avuncular and kind. The Critical God is not very active, but is still annoyed with us. The Distant God tends to be kindly, but is rather remote. Using these four kinds of God, Froese and Bader examine what people believe about all kinds of issues, from war to social reform to adultery. When Americans say “God bless America” they mean very different things.

When it comes time to troop to the poles, we listen to what our candidates say about the Almighty. It is a virtual certainty that an atheist is unelectable in these religious states, so we want to hear what the candidates have to say about God. What they say and what their listeners hear, however, are clearly different things. Still, religious conviction is one of the most important variables when it comes to selection a President, Governor (at least in some states), or congress-person. Some candidates, with God off the plate, have nothing left to commend them at all. So it is in one of the wealthiest, most powerful nations in the world. A basic truth that we choose to ignore decides our fate for us. Mired in a Gulf War? Who you gonna call? Chances are we all know the answer to that. Chances are equally as high that we all mean something different by it.

Map and Territory

MapsHeavenMapsHellAt first glance the Puritan divines of early New England should seem to be as far from horror films, on the cultural divide, as phenomena can be. After all, academics long ago declared “genre fiction,” and particularly Gothic and horror fiction, to be lowbrow at best, and generally of no cultural worth. The amazing success of scary movies only underscores this point. Edward J. Ingebretsen (S.J.), however, begs to differ. His wonderfully insightful book, Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell: Religious Terror as Memory from the Puritans to Stephen King, is a surprising study of how religion and terror share much that is essentially human. On this blog I have, from time to time, claimed that religion and horror are close cousins. In fact, they may be siblings. Since studies of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards are often produced by Reformed, or at least Protestant, theologians, it may be that a Catholic thinker will catch aspects often overlooked. The Puritans, with their Calvinistic underpinning, had a worldview that holds much in common with standard horror fare. Ingebretsen suggests that to map Heaven, you must also map Hell.

The map conceit works well as the reader navigates through unconventional ways of thinking. The fears of the Puritans included the fear of God, and those who read or watch horror have noticed that nothing scares like the divine. It may not be on the surface, however. Even those not accustomed to deep digging can, upon a few moments’ reflection, see that the Gothic writers of the American canon have drawn repeated from this well. Many literary experts (well, some) celebrate H. P. Lovecraft’s atheistic rationalism, but enjoy his tales of the old gods nevertheless. His modern heir, Stephen King, is quite open about the potential fear of religion. He even blurbed the back cover of the book.

As society grows continually more secular, the religious impulse will not disappear. Sublimation, the process of changing states, may hide what is happening from the casual eye. A close look shows, however, that the same fears Mather and Edwards unleashed on witch-addled, spider-fearing New Englanders, have come back to us in pulp and celluloid. Religion has its earliest roots in a kind of holy fear, it seems. The innovative human mind, however, with its drive to rationalize, devised mythologies that make fears seem plausible. Those mythologies are relatively easy to believe. Everybody likes a good story. Stories, with all their twists and turns, can leave you lost in the woods. It’s good to have a map. I would suggest Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell. You may still be scared, but you may feel more sophisticated for it.

Com-Passion

I suppose it is always premature to hope that ancient institutions are likely to improve. Like many other followers of developments in religion, I was pleasantly amazed to read reports of Pope Francis declaring that, in my vernacular, that the church should not be so stuck in the rut of doctrinal abstemiousness that it forget mercy and charity. How sad to see that hours later he was forced, Galileo-like, to recant somewhat. The forces at work are far more powerful than the vicar of Christ. In some minds religion is doctrine. I know whereof I speak. For several years of my professional life I worked for a doctrinaire institution where any hint of mercy was considered a kind of Protestant mewling before a God who would’ve made even Jonathan Edwards tremble. Although officially released “without cause,” I can’t help but think that my own pastoral sensitivities were at fault. I don’t believe that religions thriving on condemnation deserve the title.

Ironically, I was at Notre Dame University when headlines about the Pope’s declaration that the church should not obsess about homosexuality and abortion appeared in the papers. It was with a kind of wonder that I heard an academic say, “the Pope is sounding more Lutheran all the time.” I’m not naive enough to suppose that the pontiff is suggesting a change in doctrine—there are rocks so heavy that the Almighty himself can’t lift them—but that the leader of the world’s largest church was suggesting mercy and compassion outweigh legality felt as if Amos or Micah had just walked into the Vatican. The next day the Pope had to come out and strongly condemn abortion. Politics, it seems, will always trump human understanding.

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We live in an era of iron-willed religions. The human element often vanishes beneath a frowning providence that wishes for clocks to be turned back decades, if not centuries. These religions have no place for improving the human lot in this sinful world—it is much easier to condemn than to contemplate compassion. Religion is hard, for people find forgiveness a difficult doctrine to accept. Jonathan Edwards dangled his spider over the eternal fires of hell, but ecclesiastics today suggest that swift shears taken to that silken web would solve all the problems. Time for change? Not in this century. Religions, too, evolve. But evolution doesn’t equal improvement. Many an agnostic has become so because of the reality of “nature red in tooth and claw.”

Ultimate God

In a recent op-ed piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ben Krull published a satirical piece entitled “Strategizing God’s election campaign.” While some, no doubt, took offense at the piece, it is less an indictment of God (Krull is a lawyer) than it is a broadside against those who use God to get elected. As portrayed in the Bible, God is not always a likeable character. As Krull points out in so many words, God is a guy with “issues.” Would he ever be elected on a family values platform? What is happening here is that God is being recast as those who most vociferously claim him an ally want him (always him) to be. Using Yahweh as a springboard, they vault over the compassionate Jesus and land firmly at the disapproving God of Jonathan Edwards, who, along with the God of John Rockefeller, wants them to be rich. It’s not as much an election as it is a catalogue where you can order just the deity you want. The God they claim America follows is a god of their own making.

Paul Tillich, a theologian, once famously declared that God is a person’s ultimate concern. While other theologians instantly and continuously disputed this, the idea still has some currency. The distorted versions of Christianity that we constantly see in the political and sports scenes today is a god that adores the free market and loves football, especially when the Broncos are playing. Somehow, incredibly, he couldn’t get tickets for the Super Bowl. If you listen closely you’ll see this god resembles nobody so much as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—wait a minute… has god packed up and gone home? Since undisputed God sightings are as rare as undisputed UFO sightings (maybe even rarer) we are free to fill in the enormous lacunae with our ultimate concerns. Ourselves.

At least in the world of polytheism you had a choice of gods and a ready source on which to blame unpleasantness. If Baal’s not answering your prayer, maybe Anat is standing in the way. Ancient folk were not conscious of the fact that they were making gods in their own image, after their own ultimate concerns. But modern Christians, trapped with the God of the Bible, feel that they can at least give the big guy a makeover. This is God on-demand. The beauty of this deity is that he is a poseable action figure who is a picture-perfect image of one’s personal ultimate concerns. A God so malleable, so fluid, and so idiosyncratic should have no trouble getting elected. To find the God of popular politics, just look in the mirror.

Who does your God look like?

Let the Left One In

When you’ve got a good thing going, why stop? Reading Timothy Beal’s Religion and its Monsters put me in the mood for a vampire flick over the holiday weekend. I had watched with longing as Matt Reeves’ Let Me In flew into and out of theatres back in 2010. Advertised as a thoughtful vampire story based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, Let the Right One In, and having a real moral struggle unlike the Twilight saga’s dulled fangs, it had been on my “to see” list for quite some time. This movie doesn’t disappoint. The specific aspect to which I refer, of course, is the religious. Vampires may be the most religious monsters ever invented, and like all good, subversive movies Let Me In casts the religious aspect in an unexpected role. Religion and the vampire interact through the character of Owen’s mother. Her face never seen on the screen, she shuffles outside the range of view and tells her son of the need for prayer and belief. Her life is a shambles and 12-year-old Owen knows it.

Abby, the vampire next door, is a monster capable and desirous of love. Her vampiric self is not exposed to crucifixes or blessed communion wafers, but to the torment of outliving those she loves. Eternal life is her curse, and religion can do nothing to solve it. When Owen slips twenty dollars from his Mom’s purse to buy Abby some candy, Jesus is watching from the mirror. When the bullies torment Owen, Jesus is nowhere to be found. The symbolism, whether intentional or not, is apt social commentary. Our religion is there to punish us, not to help us. If in doubt, listen to the politicians and televangelists; God is intensely angry—Jonathan Edwards wasn’t even halfway there. Their surfeit of rectitude puts the rest of us to shame. Until they’re elected.

Vampires have their origin in creatures that steal the life-essence of the living. Whether blood, semen, or psychic energy, the vampire feasts while the victim withers. Let Me In, by telling the story of a pre-pubescent vampire, shifts the focus of culpability. A 12-year-old is beneath the age of responsibility according to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Unable to determine right from wrong, the child simply seeks what all living creatures do—the possibility of existence. When Owen discovers that his new friend, his only friend, is a vampire, he tries to find answers from his religious mother. She is asleep. He calls his absent father who blames the religion of his mother. The moral guidance here comes from the monster. The bullies would win if it weren’t for what the authorities call evil. Sometimes I think Jonathan Edwards got it all backwards, for when power determines who is righteous it is the bullies who dangle spiders over the fire.