Quoth Hardy

There are days when the quote from an author is the best thing to happen to me.  You probably know those kinds of days—days when there’s nothing really to stay up for so you go to bed early.  Lengthy days when your Muse wins easily any game of hide-and-seek.  You see, I save most of my fiction reading for bedtime.  If I turn in soon enough I can read quite a bit before falling asleep.  Not to sell you a false bill of goods, but that’s not the source of the quote.  It actually came to me from an unrelated email about the Bible.  The quote, while lengthy, comes from Thomas Hardy:

By the will of God some men are born poetical. Of these some make themselves practical poets, other are made poets by lapse of time who were hardly recognized as such. Particularly has this been the case with the translators of the Bible. They translated into the language of their age; then the years began to corrupt that language as spoken, and to add grey lichen to the translation; until the moderns who use the corrupted tongue marvel at the poetry of the old words. When new they were not more than half so poetical. So that Coverdale, Tyndale, and the rest of them are as ghosts what they never were in the flesh.

This comes from a letter to Professor D. A. Robertson of the University of Chicago, dated to February 1918.  Hardy was a known critic of religion, but like most writers of his day he knew the Bible.  Now, I’d never generally put myself on the same page with Hardy, but something similar to this thought had occurred to me long before I saw this quote.  We treasure ancient writing simply because it has survived.  This should be a sobering thought to any of us who try to forge our thoughts into words.  We have no way of knowing if, at the time, an author was considered great.  Merely the passage of time can make writing unfashionable in its age appear brilliant.  Like rocks tumbling over each other at the base of a cataract, they find polish over time.

My particular context for receiving this emailed quote was the King James Version of the Bible.  Often considered sacred in that translation, it was not uniformly well received when first published.  There had been English Bibles before, and since the Good Book is the foundation of western literature, a new translation commanded attention.  It had its critics, but over the centuries the translation itself became holy, whether it deserved it or not.  Similarly, Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible helped to codify the German language.  We shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Scripture, not for its theology, but for its immense influence on western thought.  As Hardy noted, it may be the passage of time that makes writing great.  Even so we might be wise to pay attention.

Reformation Blues

Welcome to Reformation Year! Well, not actually. It’s more like an anniversary. Five centuries ago this Halloween, Martin Luther grabbed his silver hammer and history forever changed. In 1517 nobody could guess that that obscure strip of land across the Atlantic (nobody knew how far west it went except maybe those who already had lived here for millennia) would one day identify itself so strongly as Protestant that other religions would be merely tolerated. Even when it established itself as a land of religious freedom, it mainly would have Protestants in mind. Indeed, Martin Luther unlikely ever met a Hindu or Buddhist. His concern was the Catholic Church which, in all fairness, had already split into two major branches a few centuries before he was born.

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Thinking about the Reformation makes me uncomfortable. As my regular readers know, I’m concerned about ultimates. In a universe where “you only live once,” and eternity is so very long, you need to make the right choices when selecting a means of salvation. Really, an eternity in constant torment makes a Trump administration look like a day in the kiddie zoo. This is a very important choice. Heaven and Hell are a non-zero-sum game. You pick the wrong one and you suffer for ever and ever and ever. And ever. With one united church at least you could know that everyone else believed the same. Now you have to shop around for salvation. Which brand really does whiten best? Which is the most flame retardant? Things got pretty complicated as soon as that nail entered that Wittenberg wood.

The truly sad thing is that all this splintering represents those of the same “religion.” It’s bad enough that Christian versus “infidel” was already a thing, but from 1517 onward it was Christ versus Christie, as it were. You may have been lucky enough to have been born into the right family, but if you descended from the wrong scion you were still going to end up in Hell. Catholicism may have been corrupt—selling indulgences is pretty shady business when you can get them for free—but once that break is made we can’t all be right. Somebody’s going to end up eternally in torment and it’s not even going to be the heathens. Reformation suggests something’s wrong in Rome. You can’t hide behind being born Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran. No, you’ve got to do your homework and learn which is actually correct. Where is Pascal when you need to make a bet?

Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

A Mighty Fortress

I have to admit to having not seen the Lego Movie. As a kid, I grew up without Legos. We were a family of modest means, so Lincoln Logs were more our style. When I first came to see Legos, they appeared restrictive to me with their pixel-like determination. Of course, Legos have come a long way since then. My wife sent me the story in Newsweek about the Martin Luther figure (not, I hear, featured in the movie) that surprised Playmobil, the parent company, by becoming their fastest selling figure ever. I suspect that the company put the figure out just a year before the five-century mark of the 95 theses that essentially created Protestantism, to catch a little of the interest that anniversaries always bring. Although I have no data to back me up, my guess is that the majority of sales have been to adults. Little Luther with his quill and German Bible, it seems, tickles adult minds more than pre-adolescent ones.

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This startling statistic ought to give pause to those who claim religion is irrelevant. Remember, Star Wars and Batman figures have also been available and collectable in Lego format. Even so, a German monk has outsold them all. This, it seems to me, indicates both an appreciation of irony and a very deep-seated need for finding meaning in life. After all, Star Wars is more than escapism. Lutherans are, by no measure, the largest Christian denomination. There is something, however, about Luther. Sure, those in the early modern period who had problems with the church were legion. Martin Luther did something about it. He took his life in his hands to address the wrongs he saw. Like most religious founders, he wasn’t advocating for a new religion, but a reformed one. The rest, as they say, is history.

The media tells us again and again that we are a secular people and that the church no longer moves us. Stagnating attendance figures and more vocal unbelief have become so common that many people feel a little embarrassed to admit that they believe something, anything. But do actions not speak more loudly than words? 34,000 Martin Luthers sold in 72 hours. Perhaps not Rock Star numbers, but very respectable for a bit of plastic. I wonder if this might not be a sign. Perhaps, with Luther, we ought to take the time to sit down and write out what we believe. Maybe our Wittenberg door should be that of Congress rather than a castle church. Or maybe it can be the door of our own minds. Luther, dead nearly half a millennium now, has shown us what a leader with vision can accomplish despite the centuries. And with a bit of plastic.

What’s a Bible?

LegaspiWhat is the Bible? This might seem a strange question coming from someone who holds a doctorate in what has sometimes been characterized as biblical studies. Still, it is a valid question. The fact is, very different things are referenced by the word “Bible.” This is made abundantly clear in Michael C. Legaspi’s The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies. Legaspi points out that the Bible hasn’t always been the central force of Christian identification that it seems to have become. Martin Luther was largely (but not solely) responsible for the view that the Bible alone is sufficient for eternal well-being. Historically it had been much more complicated than that. The church had traditions and sacraments, Judaism had Talmud and rabbinic interpretation. The idea that the Bible alone was necessary was more radical than it might seem in today’s secular world. The problem was, the Bible isn’t an easy book to understand.

It has long been recognized that the Enlightenment and the Reformation went more or less together. The mysticism and mystery of “superstition” were bound to fade in the brilliance of pure reason. The Bible, however, still held a revered place, and it had to be studied. The sea change of the scriptural Bible to the academic Bible took place largely in Germany. No surprises there. What Legaspi demonstrates is that this study was closely bound with the university as an organ of the state. Germany didn’t boast the oldest universities in the eighteenth century, but it could claim the most intellectually rigorous. Among its biblical scholars, indeed, perhaps the one who led to the creation of the academic Bible, was Johann David Michaelis. The book is mostly about Michaelis and his influence and background in biblical studies. Clearly, applying university treatment to an ancient text was not going to be Sunday School.

By the time people like me began advanced study of the Bible, the “academic Bible” was about all there was. Many of us with serious training in the field watch in wonder as some (many) theologians take the Bible literally. They use ideas and concepts that biblical scholars have long recognized as artifacts of antique understanding. The problem is once you’ve gone down this path, there’s no going back. You can’t unlearn the academic Bible. So, what is the Bible? Obviously, it’s going to depend on who you ask, but it is clear that no one answer will satisfy all takers, even if they all claim to share a single faith. And should you venture to those hallowed halls of higher education, you’ll find the Bible is studied here, as are dinosaurs and an earth that is a few billion years old.

Sola Scriptura

IMG_1641Would you buy a Bible from this man? “The trade is not a complicated one,” quoth Big Dan Teague. People are looking for answers. To making a living selling Bibles, however, requires some finesse in a world where scripture may be had for free. The trick is added value. Now, for those who approach this from a religious angle the obvious question is how you add value to what is claimed to be the word of God. It is, however, a matter of understanding it. Martin Luther, apart from starting the Protestant movement, also translated the Bible into German. The concept was simple: if the Bible contained the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, then if the laity read it, we wouldn’t need priests. Greek and Hebrew (and a smattering of Aramaic) are no longer the main elements of a well-rounded education so we need a version that anyone might read. Even the King James is a little rusty, what with words that don’t mean what they seem to—who wants to suffer? Especially in the biblical sense.

Contrary to Big Dan’s assertions, the Bible trade is a complicated one. The text of the Bible (if not specific translations) is in the public domain. The Bible is, however, more than words. It is ink, and paper, and binding. It is an object. By swearing with your hand on it, you can convince the court you’ll tell the truth. Or become president. Or raise a lot of money. Despite the Bible’s decline in academic prestige, it remains a source of popular trust. Not too many items that can be had for free can make such claims of power. It is the book that founded western civilization.

As I board a plane for San Diego, I know that I’m about to see lots of Bibles. Lots and lots of Bibles. Thousands of scholars who spend their lives studying it will gather to discuss its continuing significance and debate its finer meanings. Some will venture to purchase new Bibles. New versions of old words. See what others have to say about them. Somewhere distant I hear Big Dan breaking a branch from a shade tree. This, like most patterns, repeats itself endlessly. Some with tenure will argue that the whole thing ought to be abandoned. Others, forever denied tenure, will vociferously disagree. “One, find a wholesaler, the word of God in bulk, as it were.” And so the debate will continue long into the night. And over the weekend. In fact, ’til Tuesday.

Men Without Hats

Do you want to start an argument? Mention hijab in a Christian environment. Some tempers will likely flair. The idea that a patriarchal religion would tell women to cover themselves suggests something sinister, doesn’t it? The other day I came across headcoveringmovement.com. There are, as I have come to know, many Christian groups that consider Paul’s directive for women’s headwear as, well, gospel. Commentators still spar about why Paul insisted that women cover their heads in worship. Adding “for the sake of angels” only evokes more convoluted imaginations. As any stroll through Manhattan will reveal, many Jewish men also observe head covering. What is it with bare heads, gods, and angels?

No doubt, in cultures where men are expected to restrain themselves less than women, hair can sometimes be seen as sexually provocative. (I’m not excusing, just observing.) Most men will eventually experience nature’s tonsure in some form or another, and perhaps this knowledge makes feminine hair more alluring. None of this, however, answers the question. What is so hubristic about uncovered heads? I’m not authorized to speak about fashion, but I feel confident in asserting that in many periods of human history, hats were the norm. Look at old portraits. What did Martin Luther or John Calvin look like without their ubiquitous hats? Did they serve to cover bad theological hair days? Or was it just the climate? Distinctive hats have been used to identify social classes and professions. We still use the expression “putting on my [chose a noun] hat.” So what’s all this with head covering for women?

“The wearing of fabric head coverings in worship was universally the practice of Christian women until the twentieth century. What happened? Did we suddenly find some biblical truth to which the saints for thousands of years were blind? Or were our biblical views of women gradually eroded by the modern feminist movement that has infiltrated the Church…? – R.C. Sproul.” So states Headcovering Movement’s homepage at the date of this writing. There can be little doubt about what’s behind this scheme. I recall a phase when my mother wore headscarves to church. Many years later, even in high church Episcopalian settings I’ve seen women walk in with what looked like lace doilies on their heads. Is there an agenda here? I can’t speak for Muslims, but it seems that Sproul believes the rightful place for a woman is beneath a man. Theology in the service of chauvinism. Just try to read 1 Corinthians 11 and come out without a headache. The saint’s logic here is so confused that I want to pull my hat over my eyes. Or I would, if I wore a hat.

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Themightyquill, Wikimedia Commons

New Salzburg

For some reason Austria is on my mind. It been more than two decades now since I have been there, but I recently decided to read a little of the history of Salzburg. My interest revolved around a case of religious intolerance that took place well before the days of political correctness, but after the idea of religious freedom was being promoted in New World colonies. Two centuries after Martin Luther’s theses stirred the world (perhaps the last time in history a religious thesis has received such attention), the Roman Catholic Archbishop—and Count! (rank has its privileges)—Leopold Anton von Firmian decided to expel the Protestants from Salzburg. Religious diversity was frequently seen as a threat to civil authority. Either Protestants would recant or be forced from their homes in the winter, often losing everything they had in the process. A substantial number of citizens were exiled and found little in the way of refuge. Prussia finally offered some quarter and others made their way to England or to a then religiously tolerant Georgia.

Religious imperialism is a funny phenomenon. Religions, as sets of teachings, often emphasize the just and fair treatment of other people. When powerful people (or power-hungry people) become religious they find a great mind-control technique available in it. Popes, for instance, very quickly ceased being pastors and instead styled themselves as princes. This was a safe move since Jesus was king, and since he’s in heaven any attempts at usurpation are bound to be suspect. As a co-regent, however, various privileges apply! This is something Protestant reformers very swiftly learned as well. John Calvin was practically in charge of Geneva, and who can think of Lynchburg, Virginia without accounting for Jerry Falwell or Virginia Beach without Pat Robertson? Religion, by its genetic nature, seeks to take over and control.

In this it is not so different from other aggressive ideologies such as capitalism or communism. The problem is that religions claim sanction from the highest authority, and once a believer is convinced of that no amount of reason is sufficient to dissuade him or her. So it was that an Austrian Count, also an Archbishop, decided to turn out members of his own putative religion (Christianity) into a harsh winter where many would die and others would live the remainder of their lives in exile. Were this the hallmark of one religion alone we might have united together as a species and cast it out. Unfortunately history has repeatedly shown us that even the most placid religions can quickly form the dark face of a demonic storm front if certain of their privileges are threatened. No one likes to be wrong. In the game of religions, however, there must be losers if anyone is right. Where is the New Salzburg? It may be going by a different name these days.

iConfess; Indulge Me

I confess to being a Luddite at times. I was a late-onset cell-phone user and my last laptop (Macintosh, of course) survived ten years of hard, academic use before an accidental drop forced me into a newer model. Now I walk through student centers and see banners advertising “new apps” and wonder what an app is and whether it is something I should have already had old versions of. I’ve figured out that “app” is an apocopated form of application, and that it generally has something to do with handheld electronic devices. Now it seems that I’ve been out-teched by the Catholic Church. That great bastion of faith that agonized over Galileo for four centuries has now whizzed by guys like myself who cut our high-tech teeth on telephones that had rotary dials.

What is this new app? According to the New York Daily News, the app is called Confession. The program apparently lets you choose a commandment that you’ve violated and offers a list of sins to tick off. (I envy the priest who got that job!) A press of the button and your sins are forgiven. Sure is a lot easier than getting down on your knees and telling it all to a guy you barely know. This handy app even automatically tracks the time since your last confession, so you can give it to the holy father in nanoseconds. It only costs $1.99.

Technology has wreaked havoc on ecclesiastical tradition. Only the most severely shortsighted of churches denies the draw and retention of the electronic revolution. Problem is, the worldview that generated these religions simply doesn’t fit into a palm-sized box. The world of century one was full of demons and dragons, and all on a very flat earth. Confession, when it became a requirement, was a visceral outpouring of deep secrets and fears before a black-garbed authority figure who had the power to dole out Hail Marys like a theophanic thunderstorm. Now it can be done at the stoplight on the way to Starbucks. The last time the church had asked for payment for forgiveness Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. Today, I’m sure, it would be an electronic error report posted to a Wiki-board Domain, whatever that might be.

Forgive me, Father -- oh! I've got email!

O Tannenbaum

Today we put up our Christmas tree. As we drove home with it strapped to the roof our car yesterday we felt like pariahs since everyone else in New Jersey seems to have collected their tree a week or two before Thanksgiving. I have spent too long among Episcopalians to appreciate such eager chomping at the bit. At Nashotah House Christmas trees were discouraged until about Christmas Eve, since a hearty Advent celebration was considered a sign of true piety. Well, with a small child in those days, we didn’t care to deprive our daughter of the childhood anticipation of Christmas, so we received the ugly stares due to those so uncouth as to set up a tree a week in advance. Now people think we procrastinate to wait until the weekend before Christmas to set up our interior conifer.

A few years back I wrote a book on holidays for teenagers. I haven’t found a publisher yet, but I did quite a bit of research that I’d rather not waste. Sometime soon I will post the Christmas section under Full Essays. It is chock-full of traditions and facts and impressions about Christmas and what it has come to mean to us today in the United States, but since today is tree day for us, I thought I’d start out with a little of the story of the humble Christmas tree:

The modern use of Christmas trees can be traced directly back to Germany in the 1500s. The earliest written reference comes from 1570 when a fir tree was set up in guild houses and decorated with apples, nuts, pretzels, and small things for kids. On Christmas Day the kids of the guild members could come and take the hanging gifts. The apples may go back to plays in the Middle Ages with Adam and Eve; sometimes plays of the Garden of Eden had apples hung on a fir tree. A tradition says that Martin Luther, the monk who started the Protestant movement (the Reformation) was walking home one winter night when he saw the stars twinkling through the branches of the pines. He set a tree up in his house, the story goes, lit with candles, to try to recreate the effect.

We do know that the Christmas tree (originally Tannenbaum) was a German invention. Until the 1800s it was almost completely limited to Germany. Candles were used to light the trees – talk about your obvious fire hazard! Royalty from other European countries were presented with Christmas trees as a novelty in the 1800s. Soon other well-to-do families started to set them up. An engraving of Queen Victoria in England with a tree from her German husband Prince Albert captured the public imagination and Christmas trees became the rage in England. Charles Dickens took over and the rest is history.

A Christmas Tree primer