Perceiving Religion

ViperHearth“Sticks and stones,” they used to tell me, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We teach our children lies like that. I have been hit by sticks and stones—fortunately wielded by other children—but the things that hurt worst were the words. Some of those scars are still with me. I recently read Terryl L. Givens’ The Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy. It is my policy on this blog not to poke fun at religions of which I’m not a member. (Those that have been willing to take me on, well, they should’ve known what they were getting into.) I can’t say that I know many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but the few that I do know have been just like anybody else. Well, to be honest, they’re scholars so they are probably just as strange as the rest of us who spend too much time hitting the books. I don’t hold to their religious beliefs and they don’t hold to mine, so what’s the problem? Givens’ book shows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of those “harmless” words. Mormons, almost uniquely among religious groups, have been verbally castigated with impunity. This book is an attempt to answer the reasonable question “why?”.

As I read this account I found myself trying to put on Mormon shoes and walk in them for a while. Things sure looked different from that perspective. Things have changed in the nearly two decades since the book was published: Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight series brought Mormon fiction into the mainstream (Orson Scott Card, although he continues to charm the sci-fi crowd, hasn’t quite caught the crucial young lady demographic, it seems). We’ve had an LDS candidate for President of the United States. Even though Book of Mormon, the show, pokes fun, it is fair to say that you only get this level of attention when you’ve been mainstreamed. Protestant, Catholic, and Jew have all taken their knocks on the comedic front. Still, there is a poignancy to The Viper on the Hearth. Mormons, like other religious believers, are simply wanting to make the world a better place. This is perhaps the surest way to draw fire.

Givens provides some likely answers as to why the Mormons have been shunned by their fellow Americans. One reason that I didn’t notice (sometimes things escape me) but which might have put them in good company is a statement from the New Testament; prophets don’t seem very good at gleaning honor among their compatriots. It may be hard to trust a religion that comes from your own neighborhood. We know too well the corruption, the pettiness, the foibles of those who live next door. If we’re honest, we know that we have them too. No need to go outside. The glimmer of hope here in this nation of religious freedom is that things seem to have improved over the last few years. As Mormonism grows, ages, and becomes passé in the looming age of Nones, perhaps we’ll apologize for not only the sticks and stones, but for those weapons that hurt most sharply with no physical existence at all.

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.

A Night at Culture

AmericanMuseumOne of the undisputed benefits of living in the greater New York City metropolitan area is the potential for culture. I know that culture exists everywhere, and that is precisely one of the points behind Douglas J. Preston’s Dinosaurs in the Attic. I picked this up at a used book sale because of my love of dinosaurs, but the subtitle provides more of a description: An Excursion into the American Museum of Natural History. Just when the first Night at the Museum movie came out, the American Museum of Natural History offered a program of nights to sleep in the museum, geared toward children. A generous family member bought us tickets and we got to sleep in the oceanarium under the giant whale dangling from the ceiling. We were allowed to explore galleries by flashlight, including the most famous collection of dinosaurs in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read about the backstory of such a museum after such an event?

As might be expected, with roots in the late nineteenth century, it was a different world in which this museum was conceived and built. Rare animals were shot to be part of exhibits, artifacts were acquired and shipped across national borders, and even world-class bird collections were bought to help an indiscrete baron avoid the humiliation of having an affair revealed by a blackmailer. Still, the religious element was clear. One of the founders for the museum, Albert Bickmore, went off in search of artifacts with his Bible tucked under his arm. Exotic places and peoples were still allowed to be called exotic, and the museum eventually became famous enough to star in a movie.

What struck me the most about this fascinating story, however, is when Preston points out that the most fragile, and valuable possession of the museum are the myths. Early ethnographers visited peoples that, even then it was already too clear would become extinct (culturally), and recorded their religious stories. This, and not the thundering Tyrannosaurus Rex, was the true purpose of the museum. Museums are about people. What we discover, what we make, and how we impact our planet. Myths, religious stories, are some of the most unique and delicate pieces of information that we can leave behind. Even materialists have beliefs. We all believe in something. Although nobody goes to a Night at the Museum to read dusty old stories, it is a source of comfort that they are there. Many of the cultures have indeed died out. Were it not for the foresight of those who could see where globalization would eventually lead, they would have been forever lost. And a world without myth is not a world worth living in.