All the Tea

I’ve been reading a lot about China lately.  Political scientists have been interested in its economic growth for some time and it has rivaled the GDP of the United States in such a way that it’s an open question as to which is the larger.  With so many things to keep track of in daily life, I’m loathe to add poli sci to the list, but I’ve always found history fascinating.  China has long been the target of Christian missionaries.  Finding a culture that had developed quite differently, in some sense socially distant, they were anxious to make them in their own image.  China had its own religious heritage of folk traditions, Confucian beliefs, and Taoism (as well as Buddhism and Islam), and Christianity’s claim of being the only true religion caused considerable social turmoil.  One such event was the Taiping Rebellion in the nineteenth century.

Image credit: Wu Youru, via Wikimedia Commons

A complaint of evangelical pastors, even in the United States, after Billy Graham had come through town was that local people, all riled up on revivalism, had unrealistic expectations for what their local churches could do.  Viewing this from a different angle, the issue was that one outlook on Scripture could lead to consequences that others didn’t understand.  The same thing applies to Taiping.  Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping Rebellion, had read his Bible (the activity encouraged by missionaries) and became convinced he was the brother of Jesus Christ.  He set about trying to establish what is called the Heavenly Kingdom.  This clashed with the government of China during the Qing Dynasty.  Eventually foreign powers even got involved.  The end result was between ten and thirty million deaths.  That’s right, ten to thirty million.

Religious ideas are powerful.  This is one reason that repressive governments often try to outlaw religions.  Other governments (including some not too far from here) use religions for political ends.  True believers are great followers.  I first learned about the Taiping Rebellion only relatively recently.  I’ve been reading snippets about China for several years now.  Its economic power may well be greater than that of the country in which I grew up.  Perspectives are shifting.  Vast numbers of people die because of religious conflicts.  If you’re one of them the real tragedy is that, in Stalinistic terms, you become simply a statistic.  There’s a reason authoritarian governments try to keep the opium from the hands of the people.  I’m no political scientist, but history reveals much about religion and its discontents.

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.

Medical Missionary

So it was this routine medical screening. The scary-looking machine had an open window that said “Laser aperture: do not stare at beam.” Someone had taped a Yankees emblem on the superstructure as well, and I wondered if that caused anybody additional anxiety. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but medical tests bother me a lot. I was glad to get outside, even if it was cold and icy. There’s quite a few medical facilities in our town, so I had walked to this one. On the way home, watching out for ice on the sidewalk, I passed a bus stop. A woman said “Excuse me, but could you spare a dollar or two?” I’d just come from a medical office, I was wearing sweatpants (which I never do unless I’m jogging) and I had no pockets. “Sorry,” I said, “I just came from the doctor, I don’t have anything on me.”

“I’m a missionary,” she said. Without giving me a chance to get away in the chilly air she began to preach a sermon just for me. It was after morning rush hour and nobody else was around. I wondered when her bus would come. I nodded politely and agreed, and took two steps away. Still she continued. After a few minutes I wondered how long this would go on. I’d already told her I agreed with her. She was insistent that Jesus would give me anything I wanted if I confessed my sins every day. “Money, cars, houses…” I had to wonder why she was taking the bus, then. Besides, all I wanted was to get home, and she was preventing that from happening.

Finally I had to turn and leave her mid-homily. I try never to be rude to religious folks. They’re only doing what they’ve been told to do by others. I did wonder what it was about my appearance that didn’t make her believe me. It had been a while since I’d had a haircut. Was it the beard? The sweatpants? The fact I was wearing a black jacket? Ice was everywhere on the sidewalk. This neighborhood is middle aged—sagging a little, with drainage issues. Mortality doesn’t scare me, but sometimes being accosted by religion when you just want to get indoors on a winter’s day, you think even a begging missionary might understand that. I thought back to the scary machine with its little warning sign. Some people are tempted to stare too long into the light. It can affect the way you see. Indeed, if you let your gaze linger, you might just possibly even go blind.

Image credit: Torsten Henning, Wikimedia Commons

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

The Bottom Line

AltarWallStUnderstanding, or even caring about, economics has been one of my abiding weaknesses. I suppose growing up poor, excess money was a foreign concept—at least on a quotidian basis—the possibility of acquiring much of it remote. The poor know their place. Still, I was intrigued by Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street: The Rituals, Myths, Theologies, Sacraments, and Mission of the Religion Known as the Modern Global Economy. It has turned out to be one of those very important books that could be world-changing, if enough people read it. The basic idea is simple enough: Economics is a religion. Immediately many people will put the book down. Economics may be the dismal science, but at least it’s a science, right? Not so. Not completely. While economics uses scientific principles (as does theology), it is a belief system based on an underlying myth that has pushed us to the place where the rich are far too rich and we’re convinced that the plight of the poor is simply a reality with which we must live. It’s all based on a myth of barter.

There are places I quibble with Gustafson, but he makes a very compelling case that the Global Economy, through a series of historically discernible steps, has come to be money making money for money’s sake. As he clearly demonstrates, developments in stock trading have made this an enterprise where people are completely left out of the equation and understanding what has happened impossible. As long as money has been made, the Economy is happy. This way of thinking, which is de rigueur for business schools and presidential wannabes, believes with the conviction of an evangelical that as long as money circulates everything will be fine. Those who believe this walk down Fifth Avenue with blinders on.

Step by step Gustafson demonstrates that Economics has all the trappings of any religion: a priesthood, mythology, rites and rituals, and an overarching theology. And this belief structure, like that of many religions, persecutes heretics. Indeed, human sacrifice is an innate part of this religion called Economy. It has sent missionaries out to the far reaches of the world to convert other ways of living to that of the Global Economy. And in this religion, it is safe to say, those who make it to Heaven are remarkably few. This book does offer potential solutions. They are solutions the wealthy and powerful will not like, so they are probably not going to be enacted any time soon, if at all. So while the rest of us are standing in line at the soup kitchen, I would suggest some reading that will make far more sense than you think it might. At the Altar of Wall Street could change the world for the better, if the Economy allows it.

Different Bites

SharkGodThe South Pacific brings to mind light-hearted musicals, uncomplicated lifestyles, and Gilligan’s Island. For those of us born in the eastern parts of North America it can seem pretty exotic. Especially since we can seldom afford to go there. Since my income has wavered around the subsistence level of a reluctant urbanite, I instead travel there in my mind. I came across Charles Montgomery’s The Shark God at a recent book sale. I generally scour the anthropology tables since I find the belief systems of others so fascinating. Montgomery, a journalist, traveled to Melanesia to trace the route his great-grandfather took as a missionary. A non-believer himself, Montgomery wanted to see the magic that a former generation believed in firsthand. Noting that missionaries often despoil the cultures they are trying to “convert,” his tale is full of insights and observations and disappointments. My kind of book.

Montgomery is remarkably open minded. Like many of our generation, he outgrew the religious fervor that seemed so strong just a few decades ago. Still, he is open to the possibilities in the lesser understood cultures of the South Pacific. He notes that E. E. Evans-Pritchard, the famous anthropologist, opined that non-believers made poor anthropologists. Even missionaries might make better, he suggested, since at least they know what it is to believe. And here is the driving tension of Montgomery’s narrative. Sometimes you simply have to be open in order to see. Not all evidence is empirical. He recounts little “miracles” that he later reflects may have been mere diversions. Nevertheless, the world opens up when it is seen through native eyes.

Missionaries, although they may be better equipped to understand foreign (or native) believers, nevertheless try to change them. What I found most fascinating is how even those who fully identify as Christians in the south seas have combined that belief with their indigenous religions. Christianity, even among the clergy, is an overlay for culture. In ways that shock and frustrate missionaries, those converted maintain elements of their culture that fit uncomfortably with doctrine. How do you convert the converted? Or maybe the word is more properly “pervert.” Belief systems grow in cultures and tend to introduce high moral standards, no matter the deities (or non-deities) known. The Shark God is a wonderful window open on the South Pacific, a place to which some of us will only ever be able to travel in our limited minds. We are, after all, products of our culture.

Flatland

ThePowerOfPlaceThe world is flat—not.  Harm de Blij’s The Power of Place: Geography, Destiny, and Globalization’s Rough Landscape is, despite the author’s hope of improvement, a sobering read.  Geography is one of those subjects that studies show Americans consistently failing.  But de Blij begins and ends with one of my favorite themes: that place defines a person.  One of the realities with which all humans must reckon is that we have no control over where we’re born.  As de Blij demonstrates, not fatalistically, that place will determine to a great extent what life has to offer us.  Chances are that most of you reading this were born in what social geographers call “the core.”  The core is that affluent part of the globe that encompasses successful states with relatively good prospects for their citizens.  It is, numerically, the smaller part of the world’s population and it is the base of claims for the world’s flatness—that is, its apparent sameness across borders.  De Blij, who has crossed one or two of those borders, knows that there is a roughness inherent in this world, and those outside the core pay the highest price.

Among the many factors de Blij examines one—religion as an accident of birth—comes up repeatedly.  Religions quickly complicate efforts at fairness and equal distribution with various theologies of why the poor are poor and that we can justify leaving them that way.  Or worse, a religion may decide, since it alone is right, that those believing otherwise ought to be destroyed.  Internecine as well as international rancor is a commonplace of the news as religions compete for the alpha male spot on the human (actually man-made, gender distinction intended) hierarchy.  The religion you’re born into, for most of the world’s population, is the correct one.  Missionaries, by definition, disagree.  Theirs is the true correct religion and even if it doesn’t improve the lot in life of the poverty-stricken, it will at least make for a better afterlife, cold comfort though it may be.

One issue that de Blij touches upon only minimally is the sacredness of place.  Of course, that is often the ground for conflict, but in smaller ways we often feel an attachment to the place we enter the world.  Beyond visiting the relatives still near my hometown, sometimes I just want to go there and linger, pondering what this world intended for such as me.  The distress I feel when I see that the hospital where I was born has been closed down, the houses in which I grew up razed, and even my first school remodeled, touches something deep and undefinable.  It is a small part of who I am that has been erased, the silencing of the clock’s ticking.  Those rough hills were my home for the two most formative decades of my time on earth and I belong to them.  I owe them who I am.  This is the mystery of sacred geography.  The refinery fires, the childhood friendships, the Christian bookstore that propelled me in a direction I may alter but not eradicate.  It’s not rational, I know.  But like many animals, I feel the draw, and de Blij points out the many benefits and frightening realities that attend it.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

Lessing Down Your Kierkegaard

The Jehovah’s Witnesses stopped by again yesterday. They were very friendly and polite, and even remembered my name from the last visit. One of the missionaries was new to me, and she assured me that God’s name is Jehovah. She said the Bible proved this. The missionary who’d spoken to me before knew I was a former professor of religion. Nevertheless, they both worked at trying to get me to see the light. I extended to them the courtesy I extend to my students and blog readers, namely, of not revealing my own personal religious convictions. It must be really frustrating to try to convert someone when you don’t know what they already believe!

The point I never have the heart to bring up is God’s name. In fact, no one is certain as to what the divine name is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. “Yahweh” is the closest approximation, based on present conventions of transliterating Hebrew and reconstructing vowels that were never recorded. The word “Jehovah” is historically well understood. It begins with the Jewish reticence to speak God’s name aloud during the second temple period. In order to assure that a reader didn’t accidentally blurt out the divine name when reading Scripture, the Masoretes took the convention of writing the consonants of Yahweh (yhwh – Hebrew has no capital letters) with the vowels for the epithet “lord,” adonai in transliterated Hebrew. The initial J comes from the fact that to get a “y” sound in German a “j” is used. So we get the “J” from yhwh, the “a” from adonai, and alternate from there “h-o-v” (again, because of the Germanic origin of the word, a “v” was used instead of “w”) and finally, “a-h.” All together, this word, which was never used in biblical times, becomes Jehovah, a new name for God.

I admire the conviction of those who stop by a stranger’s house and present their views. When pressed to accept, however, I threw them Lessing’s rings. Gotthold Lessing once suggested that God gave humanity three golden rings: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What God did not give was the answer to which religion was the true one. I placed this conundrum before my earnest guests, but they already had the answer that had flummoxed Lessing. I suggested that if one’s conviction is strong, now borrowing from Kierkegaard, then one must follow that conviction. No, I was told, for the Bible reveals the whole truth. I mentioned that not all religions utilized the Bible in that way. I was told the Bible reveals the whole truth. About that time I had to run off to administer a final exam in a Bible class. The exam covered Ezekiel. And I knew, with a shudder, that Ezekiel had been told to look out from the watchtower!

Ezekiel or Charles Taze Russell's watchtower?