Revisiting Mesopotamia

As a refresher on my own ancient history, I picked up Tammi J. Schneider’s An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion.  This was one of those books that spawned several internal conversations simultaneously as I realized just how much modern lenses color our perceptions of past societies.  Before commenting on that, however, a few necessary points must be made.  Our knowledge of Mesopotamia is in its infancy.  There are only a handful of universities around the world that have the resources to prepare young Assyriologists adequately.  Once prepared, those young folk will be introduced to the job market of those with far lesser education because there are practically no jobs in the field.  Seems a poor way to treat the civilization that invented wheels, arches, and beer.  Or so I’ve read.  In any case, many tablets in ancient languages have never been translated because there simply aren’t enough people to do it.  Any conclusions, therefore, must remain tentative.

Ancient religion in western Asia was extremely political.  From our perspective, this seems odd—although it’s happening again in real time.  Ancient societies relied on the cooperation of religious and political leaders and each institution helped the other.  They didn’t have the added complication of monotheism to deal with.  In trying to keep all the gods happy, they simply reasoned that if things fell apart, another god had grown to a superior position.  Certainly they believed the gods were there—we do too.  We call them cash, the stock exchange, and commodities, but we still worship and adore.  And they keep the government going.  (I kind of liked it better when they were old-fashioned gods; at least they had sympathy for the human condition.)

After getting to know the gods, Mesopotamians recognized that humans were to do the work for them.  Gods, after all, owned the land and priests and kings were powerful individuals.  You didn’t want to cross them.  Rituals were developed to ensure the smooth continuation of seasons and agriculture.  As Schneider points out, we don’t have enough information to understand all of this.  Our information comes from across millennia and from locations sometimes hundreds of miles apart.  If this is a puzzle well over half the pieces are missing.  We glimpse people like us, trying to survive.  Gods are unpredictable, but you can try to read a liver or two to find out what’s on their minds.  And some of the kings thought they were gods.  The more things change, the more, it seems, they stay the same.

Seeing Belief

Although most of us can recognize it on sight, we have a difficult time defining religion. In the early parts of Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals, John C. Lyden discusses this lack of definition and offers some broad categorizations since his thesis depends upon it. How can one assert that film may be understood as religion if religion isn’t identified? Lyden makes clear that this book won’t be about an ideological or theological interpretation of film. It’s more about popular culture and how elements of that culture, such as cinema, may be religion. This leads to the discussion of the topics of his subtitle: myths, rituals, and morals. These all share some conceptual territory with movies, therefore understanding them is important.

To me the most interesting part of the book is the consideration of genres (westerns, gangster movies, melodramas, romantic comedies, children’s movies, science fiction, thrillers and horror) as exemplars of various aspects of this religion. Each genre includes the discussion of a feature film, and some even have two. Of course, Lyden’s book is a few years old now and other studies have shed further light on both how religion and film interact and also on the interpretation of various genres of movie. The hope of the book—that it may be the start of a new kind of discussion about religion—has to some extent been realized, although the analysis has taken off in several directions at once. There can be no doubt that cinema taps deep spiritual needs in a way not unlike a religious ceremony.

It seems that society has come to distrust the usual purveyors of religion. Dishonesty almost as deep as that of the government has been found in it and the responses are remarkably similar—cover-ups and denials and many species of prevarication. Cinema seems downright credible in comparison. What you see is what you see. The big difference between movies and religion, however, is that we’re only too glad to acknowledge the human sources of celluloid. Many religions, especially in the monotheistic tradition, rely on direct divine revelation as their origin. Lyden isn’t suggesting that film substitutes for religion in that way, but on a more practical level it may. It meets our needs. We trust we’ll get what the poster and trailers promise us. We sit reverently in the dark awaiting illumination. And yes, there’s an exchange of money involved for any kind of worship involves an offering. No religion’s free of cost.

Who’s God?

There shall be wars, and rumors of wars. The Bible says nothing about being able to declare what future people might have to say about God. According to a story on the Washington Post website, Larycia Hawkins, a political science professor, was suspended from Wheaton College for claiming that the God of Islam is the same as the Christian God. Administrators felt this was one of those cases where the famous statement of faith required of Wheaton faculty was violated. Seems to me the administration might want to sit in on a class in history of religions. Everyone knows that Wheaton takes great pride in its Evangelical heritage, bordering on a kind of extreme conservatism. Even so, this seems extreme.

There is much we don’t know about the early history of most religions. Probably one of the resons for this is that, apart from the founder, we’re never sure if a new religion will take off. Many religions have started and then quietly (or not so quietly) died away. At the earliest stages nobody really knows which way it might go. We do know that by about the time of the Exile, the early Jewish faith was fast becoming monotheistic. Christianity, although disputed by some, also followed in that mold, accepting the God of Jesus of Nazareth (himself a Jew) as the one God. Here many Evangelical histories grow a little weak when focus is shifted to Arabia. The cultural context that led to Islam involved a world of pantheistic worship, but Mohammad was well aware of, and appreciative of, Judaism and Christianity. Recognizing that his faith shared the same books as the other two, his understanding of Allah was clearly the same God as the one worshipped by the Jews and that Jesus had called “Father.” The three monotheistic religions of that region, historically, have always shared the same God.


Disowning a deity, I suspect, comes with some anxiety. As Islam expanded and Christianity itself became an imperial religion, clashes were bound to happen. Invective included calling the enemies “pagan” or “infidel” (technically two separate things), and as so often happens, rhetoric became mistaken for fact. Since Islam and Christianity were different religions, so the thinking went, they must recognize different gods. Triumphalism is seldom subtle. Fact checking wasn’t so easy back in those days. Suspending a professor for stating the truth is, I fear, nothing new. Some schools require statements of faith so that they may ensure academic freedom is a myth. Ironically, they seldom have trouble with accreditation. The ideology of a war between religions offers a doleful prognosis for a world where religions really need to try to understand each other and where obvious historical facts should count for something.

Who the Devil?

OriginSatanThose who’ve studied the history of ancient West Asian religions know that the concept of a devil, as a character, derives from Zoroastrian origins. In Zarathustra’s dualistic worldview, the forces of evil were concentrated in an “anti-God,” who, upon contact with the emerging monotheism of ancient Israel, became the satan. While scholars still argue about exactly what the role of the satan was, it is clear that it was a role, and not a name. The job of the satan was in some way to bring to accounting wicked deeds. By the time of the New Testament, “the Devil” had developed into an embodiment of evil more along classic Zoroastrian lines. What Elaine Pagels explores in The Origin of Satan is encapsulated in her subtitle: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics.

This is not a book about the historical development of the figure of Satan, but rather a study of how early Christians (and to an extent, Jews) viewed “the other.” Naturally she does discuss Satan, who developed along the lines suggested above, but more specifically she addresses how the accusation of being “of Satan” was used. Interestingly, it was generally utilized by those of ancient times to describe those of their own religion, but who held different viewpoints. Sects of Christianity and Judaism generally accused other sects in their own religious tradition of being “satanic.” Foreigners and pagans, well, what would you expect of them anyway? Those closest, ironically, are those most despised. Even early converts to Christianity from Roman polytheism tended to view their former religion as satanic. Satan, in other words, is “the other.” But not the far other. The near other.

While the book is full of Pagels’ usual erudition, it is also disappointing. Not as a book, but as a fact. Religions that claim God only wants us to love one another and treat each other well rely too readily on the figure of personified evil to castigate their enemies. As Pagels demonstrates, even as early as Augustine of Hippo there were those who realized Satan was not a “physical” being, but a symbol for evil. Yet on through the Middle Ages Satan would continue to be evoked to murder women and men thought to be witches or heretics. Satan, it seems, is simply a word for our darkest urges to harm those different from ourselves. We know that religions often have noble intentions. Perhaps the most noble could be to rid the world of Satan, and I don’t mean the mythological figure we all recognize without a hint.


It was an object of wonder. Handed to me as a child, the Bible inspired a kind of awe reserved for the big events of a young life. Here were the very words of God, in King James English, for me to read, mark, and inwardly digest. Well, at least read. And read I did, as only the fear of Hell is able to motivate an impressionable psyche. When a parish minister saw the trajectory of my life, he suggested exploring the ministry. More Bible reading ensued. With only Halley’s Bible Handbook as a guide, interpretation was largely a matter of what the minister said, and the kind of primitive reason that resides in a teenager’s head. I made it through college as a religion major without ever hearing about Mesopotamia’s influence on the Bible. Once I did hear, in seminary, it was clear to me that to get to the truth, you had to go back beyond the first page. Mesopotamia was only part of the story. The Bible was a book compiled in a region where other religions shared concepts, deities, and stories with the Israelites. While unique in some respects, it turns out the Bible wasn’t as unique as I’d been led to believe.

Mesopotamia, vying with Egypt, was the true cradle of the civilization that gave rise to who we are in the western world. Perhaps in the eastern hemisphere as well. The great cities of Sumer, and later Babylonia and Assyria, yielded cuneiform tablets and other artifacts that insisted we widen our view of antiquity. The heirs of this tradition developed Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three monotheistic religions have bred sects that despise this ancient past with its uncomfortable truths, and thus we hear of IS destroying the evidence with abandon. The years of my life spent studying these cultures disappears so quickly under the bulldozer’s blade. For all this, it is IS that is the passing fancy. You can’t destroy the truth. You can damage it, however, to the detriment of everyone.


Political regimes, and not just in the Middle East, operate with an unbecoming arrogance when they believe in their own self-righteousness. Were it not for those who wondered what these wedges on clay meant, we might still have to reckon (more seriously than we already have to do) with those who insist that it’s the Bible way or the highway. Unfortunately, it often takes disasters such as this wanton destruction of the past to wake the media from its lethargy concerning the cultures that gave our religions birth. There’s so much more to distract. The world can’t make up its mind about the color of a dress, and meanwhile those backed with a justification of true belief destroy that which can never be replaced. Given the rhetoric of political leaders even here, I suspect that our past is no longer safe, no matter where we house the artifacts bearing witness to the truth.

Alas, Babylon!

Religions tend to be backward looking. That’s not intended to be a universal, nor a condemnation. Few would want to admit that their religion is new, especially in this scientific era. We tend to believe the truth is old. But not too old. In the monotheistic traditions, real religion started with Abraham, or more properly, Abram. Beyond that we were all pagans. One of the sad stories brought to my attention this past week involves the IS (you know it’s bad when we have to use acronyms) decided to destroy Nimrud, one of the ancient Mesopotamian cities that has helped us understand whence we’ve come. In an era of political and social correctness, we’ve decided that the right to keep artifacts rests with those who’s heritage it reflects. The future, however, is just as unstable as the past. As someone who has spent many years trying to understand the material remains of our pre-Judeo-Christian heritage, it is a tragedy of the first degree to have unthinking guardians destroy what can’t be replaced because they represent “idols.”

In my Ancient Near Eastern Religions class, I used to begin by asking students what the difference was between an idol and a god. At first it seems that idols are images, and, by definition, offensive to the religion that names them “idols.” Then, as we probed deeper, it would become clear that all religions use images of some description, and that likenesses of deities were considered to be gods in sophisticated ways. Those who built the pyramids and the great walls of Babylon were not simpletons. Their images, many of them powerful still today, were psychological expressions, often backed with theological finesse. Even Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, and they worship the same deity.

It would be a mistake, however, to blame religion for such wanton destruction. All religions breed extremists. Extremists, like those who believe science can explain everything, are simply drawing their reasoning out to its ultimate conclusion. That’s not to condone their actions, but to try to comprehend them. All religious groups have those who slip past the bounds of conventionality into the realm where an all-consuming zeal requires excessive action to be noticed. Human beings are complex that way. A pagan philosophy of ancient Greece held that all things in moderation was the ideal. Religions with a concept of Hell, however, breed excessive ideologies. As a child I would have done anything to avoid Hell. In fact, with the little power that children are accorded, I conscientiously did what I could. When I wasn’t distracted by the other attractions life seemed to offer. If, perhaps, we considered that socio-economic justice would go a long way toward engendering a kind of contentment, we might find less extremists in the world. No matter what we do, however, we will not find ourselves in a world without religion.



LopezNorthAmericaAs winter begins to settle in, I recall reading Barry Lopez’s masterful Arctic Dreams many years ago. That book left such an impression that when I saw his The Rediscovery of North America—a very small book—I thought it was worth the asking price. Lopez is one of those nature writers who can transport the reader into the world he observes. This brief volume, however, takes the reader to a very different kind of world—the world of European interaction with North America. As children we (and I speak for myself, or perhaps my generation) were still taught that Columbus was a kind of hero. He ventured into the unknown and discovered an entire new world. That world became the everyday place we inhabit with our comforts and our toys. Things only got better from there. Of course, I learned to distrust this view by the time I was an undergraduate, and my perspective has turned a bit more serious since then. These events, viewed from the perspective of the Native Americans, have a completely opposed outlook. Lopez tries to capture a sense of how to rectify these wrongs in his Thomas D. Clark lectures that make the basis for this book.

Greed, no doubt, drove the early explorers of the new world. And a sense of entitlement that has not diminished with the passing centuries. While it is not as simple as tracing this sense of ownership back to Genesis, clearly the Bible plays some role in it. Religions that teach their adherents that they have the sole truth will inevitably lead to entitlement. Monotheism, as I’ve noted before, possesses the tendency to make absolute claims. One God, one Church, one Truth. And non-believers become expendable. To the Catholic Spaniards setting out for the new world (or actually, old world, but tripping up on the new along the way), as Lopez points out, were driven by lust for gold. And spices. And fornication. Things that, if one took it seriously, would be decried by the church as vices. Still, taking advantage of the gullible and helpless is a time-honored practice among many religious bodies, and we know that genocide ensues.

Somehow history has taught us that some genocides are worse than others. Those inflicted on native populations, perhaps because they weren’t always intentional (in the case of diseases) are sometimes still given a silent assent. Yet, as Lopez makes clear, the intention to murder was there already. The conquistadors had already decided that the natives did not deserve the same rights as the God-blessed new arrivals. What saddens me—and I think Lopez too—is that this same sense of entitlement, instead of tempering with time, has continued to increase. Tea Parties and American Values often include removing those who disagree. Inconvenient indigenous populations that aren’t mentioned in the Bible except as Canaanite stand-ins. And should we care to make right what was perpetrated, perhaps we ought to consider rediscovering North America.