Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Binaries

Inside, outside, upside-down.  The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries.  Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes.  Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all.  Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world.  Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between.  And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.

Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life.  While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me.  Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing.  The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism.  Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside.  I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here.  “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them.  Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them.  Methodists and Presbyterians too.  They tend to conform a bit to expectations and  tend not to be extremist about things.  Being mainstream will do that to you.

It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions.  Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers.  Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside.  Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it.  I grew up Fundamentalist.  After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside.  When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point.  Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had.  Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside.  You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.

Contemporary Scripture

Being born into a religion makes all the difference. I say this as someone who was born into a family that would now be labeled Fundamentalist. That orientation stays firm unless a reason arises to question it. And that reason must be compelling. Many today wonder how, for example, Mormons can believe the narrative of golden plates told by Joseph Smith and that led to the Book of Mormon. Like many non-LDS members, I am curious. While this isn’t the main question in Terryl L. Givens’ The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction, he does address it. The answer comes in the form of a community of belief. The idea is perhaps surprising in an age of individualism, but communal belief has been, historically, the mainstay of religion. A few individuals in any tradition dig deeply and ask questions. They rise into leadership roles, and steps along the way confirm their convictions. Most, however, are everyday believers.

The Book of Mormon is an interesting scripture. The idea of tribes from Israel colonizing the New World has its challenges. The Bible itself tends to go silent about what happened to the northern tribes (“Israel” proper) after the exile. This opens the door to all kinds of possibilities. Various cultures have claimed to be the remnant. Native Americans, of course, tend not to apply the idea to themselves. As Givens points out, the Book of Mormon states that the Israelites of the New World died out long ago. Probably when the Latter-Day Saints are few centuries older, it may happen that metaphorical views toward the Book of Mormon might become prevalent. It took over a millennium before “mainstream” Christians began to ask some pointed questions about their own Scriptures.

Scriptures are products of their own periods. No matter how sacred or inspired they are thought to be, they were written down in human time and human space. Hints are often left along the way regarding authorship, origin, bias, and perspective. The Book of Mormon is rare in having a known publication date, and that in the nineteenth century. Autographs—original texts—are available, even if the golden tablets are not. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a scripture come into being. We know who wrote the Book of Mormon, and when. Its printing history is known, as is its context in the Second Great Awakening. All that’s needed are a few more centuries for scholars to see how things develop. Those who study scriptures are inclined towards the long view anyway.

Pagan Values

“Pagan” used to be a pejorative term. If we’re honest we’ll have to admit that it is still used that way by many people. All the term really denotes, however, is a believer in “non-Christian” traditions. The classical pagan was someone who’d “never heard of Jesus,” and therefore hadn’t bowed to the obvious truth. In the current religious landscape a pagan is someone who makes a conscious choice to follow different gods. Looking over history, there are plenty to choose from. If you don’t limit yourself to monotheism, there’s no compunction to stop at just one. Paganism is a flourishing religious choice today. Getting over the stigma will require effort for a long time to come, as a video a friend sent me from Heat Street shows.

This video show pagans in the US Army at Fort Jackson. It’s worth the three minutes of your life that it’ll take you to watch it. Pay special attention to what the chaplain says. We’ve been acculturated, through monotheistic lenses, to ridicule those who believe in many gods. We’ve also evolved beyond the stage where E. B. Tylor could inform us that the most natural form of religion is animism and we have to be taught to unlearn it. We’ve also had the natural human tendency to believe in magic laughed out of us. We can’t accept that anything could exist that doesn’t conform to the laws of physics as we currently understand them. One size fits all. And many think even one god is one too many. As the chaplain says, religion takes on a whole new meaning when your job is asking you perhaps to sacrifice your life for others. You need to allow belief to thrive. The military is coming to grips with paganism.

Belief systems aren’t necessarily rational. I’m reminded of this whenever someone comments that, Mormons, say, believe strange things. I think of what Christianity asks of us and realize it’s only a matter of distancing. All religions ask their adherents to accept the unbelievable. To the great frustration of materialistic reductionists, it is human nature to accept a spiritual world. We are conscious beings and we see intention in the world. Apart from the Whitehouse, the universe seems to be filled with intelligence. We may call it different things. The labels may come in foreign languages. Deep down, however, we all know the feeling. We can teach ourselves to ignore or deny it, but believing is as natural as breathing. If the Army allows pagans—and there’s more than just a few—we should open up both our eyes and our minds. Entire worlds await those willing to do so.

Latter-Day Battlestars

Science fiction, when I was a child, constituted my fantasy life. I read such science fiction books as were available to a kid in a small town with no actual bookstore, and I watched what I could on a television with three or four channels. Star Trek and Twilight Zone were staples. As I got to high school there were more offerings, and one that I remember particularly liking was Battlestar Galactica. I was disappointed when the show ran only a few months. Something about looking for a home, being a scrappy, rag-tag fleet fighting against the odds appealed to me. Although I grew away from sci-fi as I went to college and studied more “serious” subjects, I never completely abandoned it. So the other day when I had reason to use the word “cylon” in something I was writing, I decided to do a little reading about the original series. I never did watch the reboot, as I was far too busy for television by then.

Battlestar_Galactica_1978_-_intro

I was surprised to learn that the original 1978 series was an exploration of Mormon theology. The show’s creator, Glen A. Larson, was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and, not surprisingly, used his fiction to promote his religious ideals. After all, Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, is also a Mormon and elements of its theology come through in his work. As a child I didn’t watch television for religion, but rather as form of escape. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that I was escaping to Mormon theology. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is a bit more shy about telling outsiders its theology than many Christian bodies are. Mainstream Christianity, after all, is one of the main ingredients in our cultural soup. Any Methodist will be happy to tell you Wesley’s theology, if they happen to know it.

I haven’t watched television for over two decades. Very select shows we’ll watch on DVD, being the old-fashioned sort, but I missed the reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. I’ve always had a soft spot for the originals when it comes to sci fi. The original Star Trek, the original Star Wars, and even that sleepy and terribly dated Space 1999. I suppose as a working-class child looking for an escape these shows had a kind of religious message. Although my religion taught a conventional Heaven and Hell, I wondered what was out there beyond even that, since the tri-partite universe was basically earth-bound. And science fiction offered to lead me to other worlds where things might be better. On the Enterprise we might whizz past the Galactica and wave, even if it was piloted by Mormons in space. And L. Ron Hubbard was known to me only as a writer of science fiction rather than the creator of a new religion.

Lions Among Men

Facial follicle emasculation, i.e. shaving, has some interesting religious implications. A recent Associated Press story highlighted this when students at Brigham Young University began a protest against the ban on beards at the school. Shaving has a very long pedigree but, as one who doesn’t shave I feel obligated to point out, not as long a pedigree as not shaving. Nobody knows for certain where or when shaving began, but it has been suggested Egyptian priests began the tradition. Others suggest it was an attempt among some early societies to control lice. Homophobic religions, it used to be, promoted beards as signs of masculinity. Alexander the Great, however, noted that beards are easy to pull during battle, although, for those who don’t fight it isn’t such an issue. Of the major monotheistic religions, Christianity is the only one that generally promotes shaving as the norm, and here it is only the practice in the western branch of the religion. Eastern Orthodox churches still retain bearded clergy. It has been suggested that the Roman preoccupation with shaving led to early Christian preferences for this practice, and there may be something to that.

Having an old-growth beard (I last shaved over a quarter of a century ago) I have often found myself in the minority. While beards—mostly highly styled or glorified stubble—are making a bit of a comeback in New York City, they are still not as common as the alternative. In one of my many preprofessional jobs (that of a bag-boy at a Pittsburgh grocery store) I was told I had to shave. “Customers don’t trust a man with facial hair,” my manager told me. Delving into this a bit, I was told that beards mask the facial nuances that an honest man wants to show. What’s a beard trying to hide? Watching what clean-shaven presidents and Wall Street moguls get away with as “honesty,” I think I’ll stick with my beard, thank you.

I'd trust this man.

I’d trust this man.

Evangelical traditions, such as Mormonism, I long ago noticed, wish to control nature. Lawns must be manicured and trees, with their sloppy abundance of leaves, must be few and carefully spaced. Faces should be rid of the hair that Jesus and the disciples were said to wear, and clothes must be neat and tidy at all times. It’s an image thing. Among the evangelical crowd, those with beards keep them neatly trimmed, tamed, and penitent. For me, scraping my face with a cold bit of metal first thing in the morning is about the least civilized thing I can imagine. Spending too much time shaping and toying with DNA’s dictates seems to go against nature. Much of my beard may have gone white, but I have nothing to hide. Neither orthodox nor evangelical, my beard simply represents what it means to be human. Trust me.

Exceptionalism

UnderTheBannerOfHeavenSome years ago I was invited to a famous person’s house along with some intellectuals—we’re all mature here, so names aren’t necessary. It’s no surprise that I ended up at the children’s table, being soft-spoken as I tend to be. The discussion had turned to international affairs, and since I can barely manage my own affairs I didn’t have much to say. Eventually it was suggested that if rule of law could take hold in the Middle East, strife would end. I finally spoke up, loudly injecting a “no” into the conversation. The problem with religious-based conflict is that the rule of law has been subordinated to the divine will. That is very well illustrated in Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith. As Krakauer explains in his conclusions, he had set out to write a book that explored the history and background of his polite, abstemious, and law-abiding Mormon neighbors and friends. The story, however, takes a darker turn.

What Krakauer delivers is not a slam on Mormonism, but rather something far more difficult—an attempted even-handed history. As even Mormons at the various trials depose in the book, the faith has some strange beliefs. All religions do. For a religion less than 200 years old, the Latter-Day Saints also have an impressive violence in their history; parts of this book are like a fantasy novel, they seem so unlikely. Again, nothing unusual here. All religions have violent episodes. In general, religions aren’t violent—people are. The problems arise when the true believer (and there always will be) insists that religion trumps the rule of law every time. As Krakauer shows, those who violate society’s laws are not insane. They are, however, not judging the world by the same standards of the wider society. It’s just that, occurring as it does in the light of an historical period, the strangeness of how a religion starts is clearly illuminated in Mormonism. No number of apocalyptic horsemen will be able to stop the religious imagination once it is fired up. The problem with lines in the sand is that they easily move.

Perhaps the most disturbing tenet of Joseph Smith’s latter-day revelations is that of polygamy. Like a young Augustine, Smith had an eye for the ladies. Personal indulgence at the hand of a religious founder is not at all unusual. The problem is, the women in this book have been abused and traumatized in a religion, not unlike Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, that asserts (or has asserted) male superiority. Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen being married off to men three times their age to join what is essentially a harem doesn’t offer these young ladies a chance to become their own person. The majority of Krakauer’s study focuses on Fundamentalist Mormon sects, and not the mainstream Mormons who have great political power and occasionally run for president. Still, this is a very important book. It is not primarily about the Mormons. It is about those who can’t see beyond a blind faith in what would otherwise be a perfectly good piece of fantasy literature.

Two Roads Divergent

DivergentOne of the most hopeful signs for culture is the quality of young adult fiction on the market. Since I’m now in the book industry, Publisher’s Weekly is required reading. I always take a look over the fiction lists as well as the non, and over the past several months a couple of “teen fiction” books have been near the top for regular bestseller lists as well as for demographic-specific ones. (That is, adults seem to be reading them too.) One of those books is Divergent by Veronica Roth. While movie tie-ins certainly don’t hurt, as many of us opine, it is difficult to do justice to a complex story on screen. Divergent is one of those books that stays with you after you’ve closed the cover, and that suggests to me that something deeply meaningful is going on. What about dystopias is so compelling?

I’m not indulging in any spoilers to say that Divergent is a dystopia. Set at an indeterminate time in the future, civilization still exists—at least in Chicago—as society has fallen into five factions: Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, Amity, and Abnegation. Each group has its own beliefs as to why civilization collapsed, based on philosophical dispositions. Abnegation, the self-deniers, are the leaders of government. And clearly, the idea of Abnegation is a form of quasi-monastic Christianity. In fact, among the factions, Abnegation is the only one that seems to mention God. The other groups, stressing bravery, intellect, honesty, and peacefulness, don’t really have much need for the divine. To deny oneself, however, requires a powerful motivation. Even the protagonist’s name, Beatrice, is taken from its favored status among early Christians. I know little of Veronica Roth, but I have to wonder whether Dante is in the background here.

In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roth first gives thanks to God. As a high school convert to Bible-based Christianity, I suppose that’s only natural for a writer who is, at the moment, only twenty-five. Writers for young adults often have their religion close to the skin. Stephanie Meyer’s Mormonism translates into moral vampires. Orson Scott Card provides Ender Wiggin with values from the same faith tradition. People are, despite the logical implications, inherently religious. That doesn’t prevent Divergent from being a page-turner. Full of action and personal development, the first book of Roth’s trilogy bristles with self-sacrifice and belief in something better to come. Even if it’s a world we have to make ourselves. And like most human enterprises, it comes out as a well-meaning dystopia that underscores the value of reading for us all.

Alien Bears

“And if there’s life on other planets, I’m sure that he must know, and has been there once already, and died to save their souls.” Larry Norman, one of the original Jesus Freaks, may not have been the deepest theologian, but his words come to mind as I see scientists reluctantly admitting that maybe life on earth is not so unique after all. It’s been in the news that Kepler Space Telescope’s data have been indicating that other planets like earth may be quite common. It has always amazed me that people have been so reluctant to let go of the notion that we are the only spark of intelligence in this vast, vast, cold, and dark universe. We seem to need to think we’re special. Religions generally indicate that the gods made us for some purpose or another, some love us, some are indifferent, others may be hostile. But generally, we’re unique. The Mormons have for years taught that there is life out there, but mainstream Christianity has generally been agin it, mainly owing to the crucifixion. Larry Norman, the original Christian rock artist, speculated that cosmic history repeated itself: if Jesus died for us, well then, he must’ve done the favor for them too.

Once Edwin Hubble stepped away from the telescope, stuck his famous pipe in his mouth, and said “huh,” I would’ve thought other scientists might’ve considered, like H. G. Wells, that “they” were out there looking back at us. Why this reluctance to suppose that we’re not alone? The story in the Washington Post cites the typical reason: the Goldilocks effect. Scientists, perhaps unwittingly influenced by the anthropic principle, have supposed other planets, if they existed, were either too hot or too cold to support life. We, like Goldilocks, happened to inhabit the only planet among the billions of galaxies of billions of stars, that got it just right. More like God-ilocks. The idea derives from Genesis where, it is strongly implied, we are the only ones. Religion influences culture, whether materialists want to admit it or not. The earth-only bias is inherently religious.

Who's looking back at Hubble?

Who’s looking back at Hubble?

Astronomers will gradually come around to the idea that there are other planets like ours. It will likely take decades, perhaps centuries, before they will commonly admit that life forms like ours are out there walking around. Eventually they may decide that there’s something to UFOs after all. Meanwhile, various New Religious Movements have already hitched rides on those flying saucers and they will be laughing once the rest of us catch up. We tend, under the influence of those who claim religion is always Bronze Age drivel, to forget that religion often leads the way to new territory. When the little green men and women land, we’ll find that many religions have beat science to the punchline. I’m not so sure, however, that the aliens will know who Jesus is. After all, this chair’s too hard, and this one’s too soft.

Misplaced Zealotry

zealotReza Aslan’s book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has brought public interest back to the only begotten, and it’s not even Easter time. A confession: I’ve not read Aslan’s book, so my thoughts here are purely academic. (In a time-honored tradition, I will comment without benefit, or liability, of having actually read.) My interest is, to be frank, less on what Aslan has to say than with how people are reacting to him. Within days of publication, the internet began to swell with news stories about public reaction to Aslan’s treatment. My interest was raised by the Chronicle of Higher Education, where an article by Peter Monaghan quotes Lauren Green of Fox challenging Aslan, “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” I know this is Fox, and that it is poor form to abuse the idiot, but I couldn’t help but to wonder at such a misguided question.

I would ask, honestly, how many Christians have read a book on Moses or David, or any Hebrew Bible figure, that was written by a Christian. Far fewer hands would be in the air if the same question were framed with the caveat, “written by a Jew.” Every supersessionist religion reserves the right to analyze what has gone before in the light of its own theology. We all know the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille, but how many know the Jeremiah of Abraham Heschel? Do we bother to read what the believer writes about his or her own hero? Would we need to? We already know what the conclusion is going to be. I, for one, am very curious how some Muslims perceive Jesus. That’s always a fascinating question, since Islam, in many parts of the world, superseded Christianity, and has, until recent times, often peacefully coexisted.

Is it not because the author is Muslim that the challenge was issued? How quickly we forget that western civilization (which began in the “Middle East”) owes much to Islam. While Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Islamic scholars were rediscovering Aristotle and making genuine progress in science. And yet, we are suspicious of what is discovered by those of “alternative” cultural heritages. I would be more surprised should Muslims show no interest in Jesus. During the past presidential election, many non-Mormons flocked to bookstores (okay, that’s an exaggeration; nobody flocks to bookstores any more, now that Harry Potter is done), eager for books about Latter-Day Saints. Most of them written by non-Mormons. I don’t know what Aslan has to say about Jesus. I suspect some are disconcerted because he bears C. S. Lewis’ code-name for Jesus in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan may well have something to teach us about ourselves. I, for one, welcome it. How can we ever learn tolerance if we’re unwilling to hear how we appear to others?

To Obey the Scout Law

Society’s prurient interests have been on display again with the intense media blitz concerning Boy Scouts of America and the fraught issue of sexual orientation. As is to be expected, certain religious bodies have sounded the final trump once again as they frenetically posture against equality. The story is so old it is difficult to see how it counts as news. When I saw that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the oldest sponsor of Boy Scouts and the denomination with the highest numbers) had made a statement about the issue, I almost didn’t even click on the link. We already know the official stance of such conservative groups, right? So I was genuinely surprised when I saw the note. This Mormon Church has no problem with the admission of homosexual boys since, and rightly so for a youth organization, the members are expected to behave according to the code of conduct. That code forbids sexual relationships, no matter a boy’s orientation, no matter with whom.

800px-CAB_with_Scouts

We all know that ideals are seldom observed. We should lead by example. I spent my high school years deeply involved in the feeder program for future clergy in a major Christian denomination (the one with the second highest number of Scouts). The youth programs frequently involved having hundreds of youths together for multi-day events. Chaperoned, of course. But kids with active hormones are about the most clever creatures on the planet. I frequently heard that opportunities to find some time alone with your favorite “spiritual advisor” were not difficult to arrange. And when I enrolled in a program to study for the ministry officially, I learned that the name seminary was somehow overly appropriate. Codes of conduct exist for a reason, and those who hold to them reward the trust of adults who institute them. Society can’t operate without such rules. What happens in reality, however, is a different matter. Anyone who reads the headlines can see that.

I applaud the Mormon Church’s stance on this issue. The Boy Scouts is a social organization with nary a merit badge for sexual knowledge or experience (at least not in the Handbooks I’ve seen). Those matters, as with adults, are private. Religious groups often act as if admitting admitted homosexuals somehow changes the Jamboree into a Woodstock. The problem is with the imagination of puritan adults. The solution to the anxiety is rather simple. For those concerned, volunteer to lead a troop. Attend a meeting. See what actually goes on. The fact is, kids will be kids, and making rules to satisfy uptight adults will not change that. Many groups could learn from the Mormons here: Scouting is not about sex. It takes the imagination of adults to make it so. Boys, as the saying goes, will be boys.

Substance of Faith

Every once in a very great while, faith is rewarded. I’m not talking about the faith that is bound up in black leather, inaccessible to realists who struggle daily to keep going. No, this particular faith is human based, based on my fellow citizens who saw it necessary to do the right thing. Although I have to rise before 4 a.m. to get to work, I tossed all night wondering what was happening at the polls. Obama’s reelection meant more to me than I guess I even realized. You see, I look at elections symbolically. Not as overtly black and white as Dark Vader and Luke Skywalker (neither candidate is pure good or evil), but I see that candidates stand for something. I don’t care what religion a president claims, but I do watch closely for what they value. Money, to my way of thinking, is not the way to build a society. Once in a while the rich need to be reminded that no, money can’t buy you everything.

Politics went off the rails when conservative religious issues were mingled with unfettered entrepreneurial aspirations during my formative years. God, I hope those days are over! People often vote with their emotions and studies have repeatedly shown that even conservative religionists like George W. Bush did not deliver a more productive, biblically literate nation after eight years of fumbling in the dark. The legacy was a national debt that should have been an embarrassment and a deeply polarized society. I was glad for the GOP nomination of Mitt Romney—it was a chance to test if the privilege of wealth had a chance of winning without the evangelical interests who see Mormonism as a “cult.” My faith in the American people paid off.

No, Obama’s first term was not a picnic, but every time I peeked, it sure looked like hard work was being done. Prolonged vacations to the ranch seemed to be a thing of the past. Difficult thinking was given a place in the nation’s capital again. If we want the one percenters to get the message, we must shout loudly. They live far, far above the rest of us in sound-insulated penthouses and never have to wait in line four hours just to buy gasoline. There is work to be done, and it has to start at the street level, if not below. This is faith. Quoting the Bible while bombing your enemies and protecting the wealthy elite is disingenuous in anybody’s ethical playbook. Thank you America for showing that giving in is not the only option. Tonight I will be able to sleep.

Good-bye Lia

While The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman, is not about religion, it is all about religion. The tragic story of Lia Lee is one where Hmong lives, completely immersed in what we would term “religion,” came into conflict with American perceptions of what religion should be. One of the events in Lia’s life involved the government removing her from her parents for their failure to follow doctor’s orders. Fadiman notes that this has been an issue is court cases with Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups that refuse certain kinds of medical treatment for religious reasons. Adults may refuse—it is their constitutional right—but children cannot be subjected to an adult’s religion if it endangers their lives. Here is the rub; American religion only stretches so far. Sure, many of the faithful pray for loved ones, but they also trust the doctor’s knowledge. Not too put too fine a point on it, God doesn’t seem to do the healing unless the physician is involved. For many from traditional religions, like the Lee family, that is hardly trust at all.

Much of the problem in Lia’s case came down to taking the soul seriously. It is clear that the Hmong believe, really believe in the soul. It is the essence of a person. Reductionism declares that when all the matter is burned off, no soul remains to be found. Lia’s parents, however, could tell whether her soul was present or not just by looking in her eyes. Although she never recovered from her major seizure, the physicians had tried to prepare her parents for Lia’s immanent death. Removing her from the feeding tubes and sterile conditions of the hospital, the Lees took her home where she survived for years, although in a persistent vegetive state. Even as the book ends with Lia at seven, they are hoping for her soul to return. Lia died just two months ago, at the age of thirty. She was diagnosed as terminal at the age of four.

Diversity adds color (from Wikipedia Commons)

The story of Lia Lee is sad and one with no real villains (after the Secret War in Laos, and its aftermath). One of the most interesting aspects revolves around how the Hmong observe American religion. Well-meaning missionaries tried to convert them, but psychological studies have demonstrated that those who are the worst off are those who converted to western religions. At one point a Hmong girl, at a sacrificial ceremony to placate the spirits, tells Fadiman that she’s a Mormon. In another instance a Christian family tried to give their Hmong neighbors advice before a long drive, telling them they should pray to the Lord, not their ancestors. The Hmong honestly replied that the Lord had given him too many problems in America. It seems to me that the real issue here is just how seriously religion is taken. To the Hmong, it is their life. In capitalist America, it is very difficult to make religion your life. Even clergy have to have bank accounts, bills, and oil changes—all very secular aspects of life. If religion were taken as seriously here as among the Hmong, we would be facing a very different race this November.

Who’s Got the Keys?

Having grown up Protestant, I assumed that was normal. Adults, who have the benefit of years of negotiating with other adults in ways that may seem unsavory to children, have the definite advantage here. Children believe what their parents tell them, and should the matter come down to eternal life or everlasting damnation, you sure want them to have your back. Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger has a perspective piece by Tom Moran, whose parents raised him Catholic. Catholics and Protestants are Christians divided by a common religion. As I have studied the teachings of each over the years, it has sometimes felt impossible to fit the two together in any meaningful way. They both think Jesus is cool, but beyond that, the disagreements almost immediately begin. Moran notes that in the US fewer than one in four adults identifies as Catholic although one in three was raised in that tradition. His article goes on to outline how Catholicism has frequently aligned itself with law at the sacrifice of compassion. Sounds like religion to me.

Religionists place great, perhaps even eternal, stock in being right. The Catholic Church has traditionally considered itself expert in issues of reproduction, a conceit that is only more bold when it is regulated by celibate men. And the source can’t really be the Bible since there are plenty of places where the good book is a little naughty. The biblical understanding of reproduction was a conclusively unscientific postulate. When microscopes, not telescopes, revealed what was going on at the microscopic level, theology should’ve blushed and excused itself from the room. Instead, the church proclaimed that it knew better than any bespectacled intellectual; after all, unwavering tradition must count for something. This bears the imprint of a system with little left but theological bluster. And it’s losing its thinking members.

Moran interviewed Newark Archbishop John Myers, a man concerned with the sanctity of marriage and who has a questionable record of reporting abuses, for his story. As Moran pointed out, Myers has not been the outspoken advocate of the poor, but he does back the candidate with sacred underwear. I’m not sure when the last time was that the good Archbishop took a drive around Newark. It is hardly a little piece of heaven on earth. Even waiting for a train in the station can fill a customer with a sense of despair. God’s will, apparently, is somewhat more narrowly focused on what consenting adults do behind closed doors. The level of disjunction is enough to throw the Popemobile out of alignment. Of course, I write all this from the sidelines. I was raised Protestant, and no matter what the Mormons or the Catholics say, I was taught from my youngest years that they’re just plain wrong.

Those are some big keys…

Five Century Hypothesis

More than likely it is simply an oddity of history, but roughly every five hundred years a new major religion appears.  The newcomers sometimes grow into a serious concern for conservatives in the older traditions, but at other times they are simply ignored until the two (or more) come into inevitable contact.  Peering far back into history, the roots of the earliest religions of lasting durability are sometimes lost.  For a very rough starting point, we can consider Hinduism.  With roots going back to about 1500 BCE in the “Pre-Classical” era of the religion, Hinduism developed independently of the monotheistic traditions that would appear in the western half of Asia.  Although some would credit Judaism with equal (or even greater) antiquity, we get an idea that some of the basic thought that would coalesce into Judaism seems to have, very roughly, begun around 1000 BCE.  About five centuries later, Buddhism appeared.  At the turn of the era, Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  About five centuries later, Islam appeared.  Countless other religions, of course, existed concurrently with these early exemplars, but each of these has grown into a major world religion. 

Around about 1000 of the Common Era, Christianity began to fragment.  The first major, official split was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christianity’s penchant for fragmentation would eventually lead to Protestantism—a religious form quite distinct in many ways from traditional Christianity—and that happened roughly five centuries later.  The most obvious split took place around 1500 with the Reformation, but it was also around that time that Sikhism appeared.  The new religions of the common era often involve irreconcilable differences within an established religion. In the western world we tend to overlook Sikhism, but in sheer numbers it is one of the largest religious traditions. And of course, there are many, many others.

As with any over-simplified scheme that tries to make sense of history, I am certain that no historian will be convinced. To me it seems obvious. Once every five centuries or so, some new religion will be born and will flourish. Perhaps it is already among us. We are about due. Like the evolution of new species, some new religions are poorly adapted to survival: one thinks of Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown. Others, however, quietly thrive until someone looks around and says, “Where did Mormonism come from anyway?” Some will argue that it is just another sect of Christianity. Those who study its theology will realize that its conceptual world is vastly different. But anyone with a long enough calendar can see that it began about five centuries after Sikhism and the Protestant Reformation occurred. And anyone with two cents can sense its enormous bankroll—no surer sign of a religion’s viability can be offered.