Persecution Myth

The myth of persecution is a great cover. Christians, we are accustomed to think, are timid and loving individuals eager to turn the other cheek. In this sophisticated world of science and technology, they might appear a little naive, but they’re not really out to hurt anyone. Or at least some of them aren’t. I grew up among what would now be called Fundamentalists. Harsh to their own sins, they’d not imagine harming others. The story went that in the Roman Empire days it was open season on Christians and the oppressors liked nothing better than killing off a dozen before breakfast. That myth has largely been debunked by historians. Yes, there were some brief periods of intensive persecution, but for the most part the early Christians were left alone.

Many of the more zealous among the literalist sects today feel the loss of that mythology keenly. What can you do when you learn that your primitive ancestry wasn’t as heroic as you thought it was? For some, that myth must be kept alive today. When it is acknowledged that our world has become a smaller place because of technology, we get exposed to those who give the lie to our prejudices. Moral Muslims (despite the media portrayals), Hindus, Buddhists, and even secular humanists, abound. News, however, thrives on negativity. After all, it too is a capitalistic enterprise. We see the violence, the hatred, the bigotry. The myth lives on. Christian Dominionists have simply given up on the rest of the race. The Bible, after all, says few will be saved. And they have thrived for decades based on the simple fact that nobody takes them seriously.

I have seen the lack of compassion in evangelical eyes firsthand. A coldness that declares education to be evil since the only truth was revealed long ago in unchanging form. The word of God stands forever. It says so itself. And among the most despised of all human beings are those who study that word instead of “just reading” it. Those outside this camp know there is no such thing as “just reading.” They also know that we have no original biblical manuscripts at all and that translations are merely approximations. It’s difficult to build absolute laws on approximations. Among themselves these groups claim that legislation to treat others equally is a direct affront and insult to them. In fact, they claim they are persecuted because of the fair treatment of others. The thing about democracy is that any system can be gamed. Even Putin can be your friend, for this is the world of myth.

Chronic Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a surprisingly large number of articles that touch on religion. I write “surprisingly” somewhat ironically here, since religion and higher education have been inextricably tangled from the very beginning of post-secondary education (and even before). A recent article by Donald L. Drakeman caught my attention because of the tag-line: “A venture capitalist with a doctorate in religion sees the value of a bear market in the disciplines.” In all honesty I have no idea what a venture capitalist is, but I do understand “doctorate in religion.” Dr. Drakeman’s article is entitled “The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities.” Drakeman points out that during times of economic hardship the number of students studying the humanities declines. During times of economic prosperity they rise. And he also points out that this can be interpreted in more than one way. Since I’m afraid of venture capitalists, I feared that religion, along with the rest of the humanities, was about to take another trip to the woodshed where it would come back again but might chose to stand rather than sit for a few days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dr. Drakeman suggest that this disparity actually demonstrates the inherent value in the humanities. Tough times lead us to pare down those things that we value so that we might survive. Once a kind of stasis is reached, we try to climb once again. Humanities, in other words (speaking for myself and not Drakeman), represent the pinnacle towards which we strive. When money gets in the way, as it often does, we lose our focus and down comes baby, cradle and all. The humanities are what we live for; money represents pure survival. It is no surprise that those who lose their sense of human fellowship sometimes become survivalists—the individuals who can thrive with no other people around. But what about when the post-apocalyptic stock market recovers? Where will they be without the humanities?

Education, apart from simple survival skills, began as a means of ensuring that the religion that sustained our ancestors through hard times was passed on to the next generation. At times the more literal-minded suppose that means that the religion itself should never change—as if the religion were the point of it all. Although they may not have articulated it so, the ancestors, I believe, had a different goal in mind. Those who are parents already know what it is. We want our children to have it better than we do. If religion helped us, it should help them. It only becomes a problem when the religion itself is mistaken as the goal of the process. Everything evolves. A religion that changes with the needs of society is among the most vital aspects of the humanities, whether or not our forebears would even recognize it as religion at all.


Calm Before the Storm

All the build-up for Hurricane Irene masks a deep-seated fear of the uncontrolled. If the storm devastates anyone, there will be Biblicists who say, like Job’s friends, that they must have sinned. Such pronouncements accompany nearly every natural disaster, as if God is huddled over the globe attempting to concoct more horrid and sinister ways to punish sinners. Natural disasters, however, have a way of effecting good and bad alike, just as the benevolent sunrise and the soft kiss of the rain (both according to someone mentioned in the Bible as being the son of someone important). But when danger looks down its barrel at human communities, they don’t neatly divide into sheep and goats. All people are a mix of virtuous and vice-ridden in varying ratios, and only the God of the Marquis de Sade would slam the iron maiden shut on all alike. The East Coast saw this earlier in the week when a benign earthquake shook our world. Barely had the ground stopped trembling before we were informed it was divine punishment. For what, no one could really say.

Interpreting nature according to the Bible is so misguided that it is difficult to know where to begin the critique. Yes, some biblical writers with a flare for the dramatic will claim that Yahweh was behind some disaster. Of course, they had no concept of science, in this case, meteorology, upon which to draw. Nature acts in unexpected ways because God has his fingers in the bowl. Even the early church gave up on that way of interpreting things as soon as natural processes could substitute for God. When religion because politicized, however, we started to see a backlash of backward thinking. It is a simple enough deception to utilize. People fear natural disasters, and the politically savvy know that few have any theological training. You can very easily encourage panicked masses to follow you if you claim to have read the Bible. From years of teaching it, I can certainly affirm that many clergy have not read the whole thing. Yet we use it as the barometer of divine wrath.

I, for one, am not worried about Hurricane Irene. As New Jersey has zigzagged in and out of the predicted track of the storm, it seems as though God may be wavering. If it misses the politically astute will say it is Chris Christies’ righteous policies of helping the wealthy at the expense of the poor. If it hits they will claim it is the sinfulness of the liberal camp that led the winds this way. It is all wind. Having written a book-length manuscript on weather in the Psalms, I know a fair bit about biblical perceptions of weather in the world of ancient Israel. Although over-zealous translators ill-informed about meteorology used to translate a word or two as “hurricane” the fact is that biblical Hebrew has no such word. Due to the rotational direction of the planet (about which they also did not know) hurricanes never hit Israel. Herein lies the basis of my confidence in the face of Irene. If the Bible doesn’t mention hurricanes, they can’t possibly exist. Literalists up and down the coast should heave a sigh of relief. But just in case, I have stockpiled several gallons of water, right next to my Bible.

Good morning, Irene -- if that is your real name.