Religious Education

The elephant in the room is exposed in a New York Times op-ed piece last week. “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors,” by Charles M. Blow, puts a finger squarely on the pulse of the ailing science stance of American religious believers. Noting that the Republican party has made no secret of its attempt to capture conservative votes by touting the religious intolerance of the theological right, Blow points out that more Republicans now believe that humans were created separately from animals than accept the scientific fact of evolution. And not just human origins suffer—our future will as well. The same mentality attends denial of global warming and advocating against fair treatment of committed, loving couples (depending solely on the visible sexual equipment). It is all of a piece. Blow points out that white, evangelical Protestants make up only 18 percent of the US population, but 43 percent of the Republicans who are classified as staunchly conservative. This imbalance leads to one of the world’s wealthiest nations being sidetracked from serious global issues while we continue to debate whether the Bible in inerrant or not.

I would add a further note of concern to what Blow says: higher education refuses to take religion seriously. As a life-long sideliner who has never been permitted fully into the halls of academe, I have watched as business schools have grown from the rubble of religion departments that have at best stagnated—when they have not been actively dismantled. In the worst case scenarios, universities have closed such departments down. With the exception of evangelical institutions. Very large departments of confessionally indoctrinated religionists thrive across the country. I am not the only religion scholar to have been kicked out of the academy for an intellectually honest approach. The wider society, with eyes wide shut, has decided that religion is a passing fancy while statistics indicate the exact opposite. We as a society will continue to be manipulated by religions as long as we continue to pretend they don’t pose a real concern.

Religion serves a purpose.

Religion serves a purpose.

Nor does castigating all religion, as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens do/did, solve any problems. Science itself appears to indicate that religion is part of the human condition, as surely a product of evolution as our opposable thumbs. Basic psychology would dictate that such direct challenges to religion will only result in retaliation. In fact, this is something that I recall learning from kindergarten. Until our society learns to go back to school and study the four R’s—yes, religion has to be there among the basics—we will continue to suffer from those who have vested interest in using religion for their own ends while those who could educate us on the subject continue to suffer the cut jobs of those who might be part of the solution. Charles Blow wonders if he is being too cynical. I suggest that he’s not nearly cynical enough.

Shut Down? Shut Up?

So, what does it mean really?  Can you tell the difference?  Although it is undoubtedly a pain for many government workers, and a huge, colossal waste of tax-payers’ money, I guess the Tea Party showed us!  Over something as simple and humane as healthcare, the neo-cons have shut down the US government.  To be honest, I can barely recall the last time this happened.  Why do I suddenly feel the need to sit on a rocking chair on the front porch and kvetch? Perhaps we don’t pay them enough to care?  Maybe the poor just aren’t worth saving?  What can possibly be going through the minds of elected officials who are willing to punish the entire nation just because they can’t pack up their marbles and go home?  Of course, I am presuming that they have marbles to pack up.  As a tax-payer of over thirty years (pushing on forty), I think I have earned the right to say, “Children behave!”  The Tea Party shenanigans have been childish from the start, trying to co-opt the spirit of rebellion against tyranny in a country that plainly has too much.  Too much time on its hands, among other things.

I often ponder how a nation with the resources of the United States can proudly tote one of the most inhumane healthcare systems in the developed world (and I’m not talking about Obamacare!).  We live in a country, if best-selling author John Green is to be believed (and I’m a believer), we pay more for healthcare than countries with socialized medicine and get less out of it.  Why do we put up with it?  Tea, anyone?  Who has the actual gumption to climb aboard a ship and throw the cargo overboard?  Today we call it piracy—hey! Stop that download!  And we throw people into jail for it.  But shut down the government?  That’s okay.  The bus still runs and I’m still expected at work.  Oh, and I work for a UK company.  The irony of it all. When I lived in the United Kingdom, people complained about the healthcare, but I will say there was no child left behind, if you get my meaning.

Our military, I see, remains open for business.  We won’t cut off the life-support of the Tea Party’s favorite department.  We have our priorities.  Somebody has to defend the millions that can’t afford health insurance.  There was a time when Christianity was all about healing and taking care of people.  Of course, in those days it wasn’t yet called Christianity, or even the Tea Party. It was just a guy and his healing touch.  Today, some of the most abstract tenets of a fully corporate religious infrastructure determine who it is that deserves health care and who does not.  Call it morals or call it marbles, we have a right to decide who can be afforded and who cannot.  And anybody who tries to start legislating fair treatment better not try to stand in the way of our comfortable worldview where those who can afford to withhold compassion can do so under the rule of law, and the unborn smile until they become born when they will soon have to fend for themselves with a government that demands monetary exchange for bodily health.  Gee, my blood-pressure seems to be up.  Good thing the doctor’s office is open.  At least I hope it is.

Outside the United Nations

Outside the United Nations

Just Plain Bible

BibleWithoutTheologyBack when I was teaching Hebrew Bible in a seminary for a living, I purchased a book entitled The Bible Without Theology by Robert A. Oden Jr. I had intended to read it as a sanity break from the over-compensatory theological glosses that even the slightest reading of the Bible had in that setting. As the years passed and the book remained unread, I came to think of it as a systematic deconstructing of theological readings of the Bible, which it is not. Instead, Oden has gathered in this useful little book several essays centered on the topic of how the theological reading of the Bible has all but drowned out any other interpretations and has secured the privileged position of the Bible not only in society, but also in academia. Naturally, many people see such privilege as a witness of undisputed truth, even though how that truth is interpreted remains an open question.

Scholars, however, have the obligation not to favor their worldview over the evidence. Oden begins by discussing how history itself is perceived differently among those of various mindsets. History is an important part of the Bible’s theological reading since many Judeo-Christian interpretations revolve around a sense of historical veracity. After illustrating how history and mythology both lay claim to the text, Oden points out that even obviously mythological episodes have been blockaded by a theological reading of the scriptures. With examples from socio-anthropological studies, he demonstrates that parts of Genesis are best understood by investigating how kinship structures work, as well as how clothing serves as a status marker rather than a hidden justification for sacrifice, or chilly nights outside Eden.

Although The Bible Without Theology wasn’t exactly what I’d come to suppose it was, it remains a proper prologue to the issue. When Oden’s book appeared in the 1980s, the Religious Right was just finding its feet, fueled by a hyper-theological reading of the Bible. Since that time, the Bible has been used as theological justification to repress everyone from women to those biologically inclined toward their own gender. Bible scholars have, in general, known this is wrong. However, theologically inclined institutions won’t pay instructors for honestly engaging the text. Bible scholars are expected to throw their expertise behind the theological outlook of their institution in a way that Oden rightly points out, no other academic discipline would accept. In reaction to the biblical abuses of the Neo-Con crowd, many Americans are wondering why this one holy book is so privileged. While it may not have all the answers, Oden’s riposte will help to explain why the Bible deserves better.

Free Think Ing

It is not exactly pride that I feel when I see my undergraduate college featured in a Chronicle article entitled “Group Aims to Help Conservative Parents Counter ‘PC Indoctrination’ at Colleges.” I almost feared to scroll down the page. Yes, good old Grove City College has to thrust its manly credentials into the face of reason once again. The problem is that what such conservative groups decry as “indoctrination” is, in reality, critical thinking. It took me a long time to learn this distinction. I grew up in a conservative family, but I didn’t choose Grove City because of its flaming commitment to sixteenth-century values. I chose Grove City because it was a selective, intellectually honest school close to home. Being a first generation college student, I had no family tradition on which to draw. Guidance counselors didn’t know what to do with a religious kid who seemed to have some smarts. Other colleges seemed so far away. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study. You see, being raised in humble circumstances you learn to react to the many unpleasantries that life throws at you and there really isn’t time to plan out a future. It never works out that way in any case. I felt driven, but I didn’t know where I was going. Some day I hope to find out.

In the meanwhile, Grove City College has grown even more reactionary than when I was there in the 1980s. The Chronicle article states that “Conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias in higher education,” and that Jim Van Eerden, an “entrepreneur in residence,” (shudder!) at Grove City has started the ironically named “FreeThinkU” to counter the liberalities students receive in school. Talk about your mixed messages! I wonder if Van Eerden has ever considered that Free Thinking has a long association with the very progress he abhors. Free thinkers gave us the gifts of evolution, rational thought, and for a while anyway, free love. Free thought gave us Kate Chopin, J. D. Salinger, and Margaret Atwood. They literally gave us the moon and have landed our probes on Mars. Somewhere lost in space a metal plaque is spinning in infinity with a naked couple and directions to planet Earth. I think the mis-named FreeThinkU might be better rechristened as Don’tUThink.

Higher education has a long, long history with religious thinking. Early universities were often outgrowths of theological colleges. Over the centuries, as our thinking matured, the ways of the past were recognized for what they were—outdated, short-sighted, unchanging for the sake of being unchanging. The reality that meets our eyes through the lenses of logic sometimes claims beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed glasses and greased back business haircuts as its victims. The earth is warming up. We did share a common ancestor with the apes. Our universe is even larger than we ever thought. And yet “FreeThinkU” suggests that we need to set the clock back a little. Maybe just a couple of centuries, but enough to hold our kids in the twilight of misperception. Progress has to be more than raping the earth and getting rich. Free thinking has to be a willingness to use the minds we have. I wonder what the aliens will say when they land here, our Pioneer 10 plaque in hand. If they land in Grove City, I suspect, they might feel they were sold a false bill of goods.

From the alumni mag; think about it...

From the alumni mag; think about it…

Call it the Blues

BluesBrothers

Coming back to The Blues Brothers after a couple of decades proved to be a kind of personal enlightenment. Of course I remembered “We’re on a mission from God,” as a catch-phrase, but in the intervening years I’d forgotten what that mission was. The movie is, as it were, backstory for the Saturday Night Live sketch in that show’s halcyon days. Watching the movie as an adult I was astonished at how positively religion is portrayed. Jake and Elwood’s mission is to save their childhood Catholic orphanage. Although there are a few laughs at the expense of religion, the movie as a whole is a redemption story with a surprising lack of irony. Released from prison where he was doing time for trying to do the right thing, Jake has an authentic religious experience and from that point on, the mission is unquestioned. In a self-sacrificial move that lands the whole band in prison, the Blues Brothers pay the taxes owed and save the orphanage. They are doing time for saving poor children.

I reflected on how, since 1980, it has become difficult to find mainstream movies that are so positive toward religious values. Not coincidentally, the 1980s saw the tragic Reagan years when religion and politics blended to the permanent detriment of religion being taken seriously. Since that time the cynicism has grown considerably. We are constantly reminded of it as conservative pundits force “Christianity” into a more and more reactionary mode, condemning all that reason has finally released from the dark ages. This is religion which thrives in the darkness of ignorance and fear. And it has coopted the very definition of religion itself. It is hard to imagine a “mission from God” being taken half as seriously today as it was when Jake and Elwood, although personally irreverent, nevertheless take the ethical call so seriously.

Today the “mission from God” is to protect one’s personal investments. Shut out those who require special consideration or those whose lifestyle differs from that which is putatively biblical. Anyone who dares step out of line is, in this enlightened era, condemned to the outer darkness. The Blues Brothers always wore dark glasses. While initially a branding gimmick, even this has symbolic value in the public view of religion. After all, Roman Catholic Sister Mary Stigmata gives them a sound thrashing for their profane language. But they find the truth in a black, evangelical service. There is a tolerance here—the neo-Nazis end up buried in their own grave—that has since vanished. The dark glasses hide something vital. The only time they are removed in the movie is to deceive. I wonder, I just wonder if with the glasses removed Jake saw a future for which the only prudent response was to hide once again.

Seeking Sava Savanovic

According to the Associated Press, Sava Savanovic seems to have risen from the grave again. In the world of professional vampirologists, I am a mere hack, but when local Serbian officials start instructing villagers to stuff their pockets with garlic, I know enough to sit up and listen. The Balkans and eastern Europe claim the lion’s share of vampires, but the idea is an ancient one that some scholars trace back even to the Sumerians. While the AP report seems very tongue-in-cheek (as opposed to teeth-in-neck), there is no doubt that ancient fears are as hard to kill as actual vampires. It is no surprise that vampires found their resurrection in the western world as the Enlightenment was catching on. The emphasis on reason and science alone leaves many people very cold. We all may be lemmings headed for the cliff, but we don’t want to be told so. And when the scientists pack up all their equipment and head home, there are still unexplained noises in the night.

Sava Savanovic may have been a historical person, but not one approaching the stature of Vlad Tepes off to the north and a few centuries earlier. A little closer to home, Peter Plogojowitz, an actual Serbian peasant, was staked for being a vampire in the eighteenth century. Fortunately, he was already dead at the time. The story is recounted in Gregory Reece’s Creatures of the Night and the account remains one of the earliest documented Balkan vampire records. The Enlightenment was under full steam and yet, and yet…

Nosferatu

Interestingly, the report on Newsy shows a Fox News reporter declaring with certainty that no vampires exist. Given the track record of Fox News of catering to causes near and dear to Neo-Con hearts, it is hard to accept that people believing in fairy tales only inhabit the darker regions of the Balkans. No, vampires do not just crave blood. The ancients often believed that they were after reproductive fluids in order to generate more of their kind. A more recent version is the fiend who drains others of their money so that they may live in their remote castles far from the reach of the unwashed populace that has to work for a living. Perhaps we should be envious of those fearing Sava Savanovic—he can be frightened away by garlic and crucifixes, after all. The modern American vampire fears nothing but death and taxes, and the latter they’ve already defeated.

Brain Death

The computer revolution has spoiled some of the wonder associated with old films that had been formerly staged with cheap props and poorly written dialogue. (Well, computer literacy has not always improved the dialogue, in all fairness.) Nowhere is this more apparent in the science-fiction/horror genre where CGI has made the impossible pedestrian. There’s little we’re not capable of believing. Back in the fifties and early sixties when even color film often went over budget, some real groaners emerged. Over the weekend I watched one of the movies at the front of the class for poorly executed. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, is experiencing something of a renaissance with a stage musical coming out next month in New York based on this campy classic. Most horror movies don’t really scare me much, probably due to overexposure. The Brain that Wouldn’t Die, however, creeped me out in an unexpected way. Daring toward exploitation status (the movie was shot in 1959 but not released for three years), the “protagonist” is Dr. Bill Cortner who specializes in transplants. When his girlfriend Jan is decapitated in an automobile accident, Cortner keeps her head alive while seeking a body onto which to transplant it. Ogling over girls in a strip club, or even stalking them from his car while they’re walking down the street, the doctor imagines what features he’d like grafted onto his girlfriend’s still living head.

Campy to a nearly fatal degree, the film is nevertheless disturbing on many levels simultaneously. Although I was born the year the film was released, I was raised to consider both genders as equal. The unadulterated sexism of a man grocery shopping for the body he wants stuck onto his girlfriend’s head was so repellant that I reached for the remote more than once. A bit of overwritten dialogue, however, stayed my hand. Kurt, the obligatorily deformed lab assistant, while arguing with Cortner declares that the human soul is part in the head, yet partially in the heart. By placing a head on another body, the soul is fractured. Now here was a piece of theological finesse unexpected in such a poverty of prose. The question of the location of the soul has long troubled theologians, an inquiry complicated by the growth of biological science. Heart transplants are common today, but the resulting people are in no way monstrous. The amorphous soul, theologians aver, is non-material yet resides within a specific biological entity. Some have even suggested that you can capture its departure by weighing a dying body at the moment of death. Others suggest no soul exists—it is a mere projection of consciousness. Cortner, however, once his eyes have opened the possibilities, can’t look back.

Our social consciousness has grown considerably since the late 1950s. Politicians and Tea Partiers who hold that era up as a paradigm of sanity do so at the price of half the human race. On the outside with the oiled hair, polished shoes, spotless automobiles, society seemed clean cut and orderly. Women, however, were relegated to inferior roles while men made the rules. Life was less complicated then. We knew who was in charge. Or did we? As a species that has evolved via sexual reproduction, it has taken us surprisingly long to realize that both genders are essential to humanity. We still tolerate gender disparity in pay scales, often shored up with the tired excuse that pregnancy and childbirth disrupt “productivity” and therefore female efforts are worth less than male—never changing due to biology. Such trumped-up excuses ring as hollow as a head without a body. Many Neo-Cons will even use the Bible to support it. John Q. Public (always male, please note), they insist, yearns for the “good old days.” The days they desire, however, were days of cheap horror and unrealistic dialogue. If they can watch The Brain that Wouldn’t Die without flinching, our future is bleak indeed.

Livin’ On a Prayer

Am I the only one who finds it disturbing that Neo-Con politicians are naïve enough to believe that prayer will solve all our problems? Where was God during the Bush years, for crying out loud? And yet headline after headline speculates about Texas Governor Rick Perry’s prayer-fest scheduled for Saturday. What is more disturbing than the lack of imagination on the part of would-be candidates is the sheep-like following on the part of a large segment of the electorate. If God is going to step in and take charge, he had a great chance back on May 21 and refused to pick up the option. If God was behind politics, why did George W. Bush fail to find Osama Bin Laden? If God is running things, why are so many unemployed? Ah, but the religious pundits have a pat answer: America is a sinful nation. What it takes is religion, Texas-style.

In the many years I spent at Nashotah House, the majority of our students hailed from Texas. They represented the conservative hard-line and doctrinal strappadoes that caused much suffering but still somehow didn’t placate an angry God. That, of course, says more about Nashotah House than it does about Texas. Perhaps it is the logical evolution of a country that began with prominent ministers gleefully describing sinners in the hands of an angry God. Nearly three centuries later and we are being told God is still angry. Thou shalt not hold a grudge, eh? The problem seems less about sinful folks just trying to get by (a la Bon Jovi) than about politicians using their religion to get elected. Centuries down the road it will be the topic of some new series of History’s Mysteries that an affluent, educated, and generally forward-looking nation cluttered its governing bodies with politicians who believed the answer to complex problems is to bow their heads and tell God how to fix it. Are we really half-way there, or have we spread our arms to embrace Jonathan Edwards once again?

In MSNBC’s article on Rick Perry’s prayer day, it is noted that the book of Joel is cited as an inspiration for the event. For such a brief book, Joel has been at the forefront of a ton of damage wrought by prooftexters. Joel wrote three brief chapters about a locust infestation for which the suggested response was prayer. One wonders if Rick Perry simply prays when the termites begin to gnaw on his expensive home, or does he call Ortho instead? Joel was truly old school. The locusts in his day meant literal mass-starvation. No chemical romance to solve the problem there. Unfortunately we don’t know how that one turned out—Joel doesn’t say. I’m just glad that Governor Perry hadn’t been reading Psalm 137 when inspiration struck, and can I get an amen from the pro-lifers on that?

Ricky used to work on the docks?

P.S. Matthew 6.5.

Friend of Jonah

Last year a gray whale was spotted off the coast of Herzliya in Israel. As in the days of Jonah. Actually, we need to turn the clock back a little further. According to Arthur Max of the Associated Press, the gray whale was hunted to extinction in the Atlantic already in the eighteenth century. This whale, therefore, had to travel north of Canada from the Pacific Ocean through channels that are normally frozen. Global warming has opened these passageways and plankton last seen in the north Atlantic 800,000 years ago have begun to reappear. If Jonah was smart, he’d have stayed in that whale and would’ve just kept going.

Big business stands to lose the most from cleaning up the environment. It cuts into the bottom line. Happily, if brainlessly, joining the laissez-faire coven are many of the “Religious Right” who see destruction of the environment as part of God’s plan. So much for “and behold, it was very good.” When free market economists first met the conservative evangelicals it seemed that they had little in common beyond similar haircuts and a desire to turn time back to the 1950s. Since then they’ve joined to become a very powerful force in American politics, preventing any headway to improving the globe for others, even if it isn’t a personal concern of theirs. So much for “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Each year in my Prophets class I have students that are far more concerned that a literal Jonah was swallowed by a literal whale rather than hearing the message Jonah proclaimed: repent or face destruction. If we turn the thermostat up a few degrees more each year maybe Jesus will finally jump on that white stallion and split the Mount of Olives. You can’t quite see the Mediterranean from there, but if you could you might spot a lonely gray whale. You don’t need to look for the little man inside. That whale is the sign of Jonah.

Wave to Jonah for me!

Decomposition

The following video report addresses a number of issues recently raised on this blog: apocalypses, zombies, fear, and humor. Zombies, of course, have been clawing their way to the top of the monster pile for a few years now. Media analysts have suggested that they represent the triumph of the working class—no sartorially suave vampires these—instead they are spattered with blood and gore, multitudinous, and clumsy. Having watched the most recent apocalypse come and go, and having been a victim of an unstable economy for several years of my professional life, I think zombies represent something else. Instead of being the triumphal usurpers of vampiristic free markets, zombies represent the breakdown in culture we are experiencing in the present.

If history gives us anything to go by, we know that powerful world empires ebb and flow. The Persians succumbed to the Greeks, and the Romans could not stop the Goths. The Holy Roman Empire was dissected into the nations of the modern European Union (roughly), and the sun now sets regularly on the British Empire. The United States, the capital of the zombie craze, has perhaps passed its zenith and the zombies know it. Since the 1970s we’ve watched as religious extremists have made a mockery of a political system that had already grown problematic. Like decaying corpses that won’t go away, the factors that propelled the United States to a place of prominence have been undermined so that the non-undead can continue to feather nests already stuffed with down as high as Babel. In the constant see-sawing of political parties the imperialist trends of the obscenely wealthy have rocked their way into the dominant. Is it any wonder that zombies are brainless, yet insatiably driven?

What does it feel like to watch the azimuth decline on a great empire? It is difficult to say. History, as the aphorism states, is written by the winners. Revisionist history has become quite fashionable to those who find that the facts refuse to bow to their worldview. Zombies are those who, historically, do the will of their masters without question. Instead, the zombie of the twenty-first century bows to no master. Pure selfish survival is its sole aim. Perhaps the CDC is too late, the zombies have already overrun us.

Newsy.com’s Report

Budget Bombs

Budgets are measures of what we value. For a nation that likes to tag itself repeatedly as “Christian,” our priorities belie that claim as surely as the lives of our leaders. Over the past few months, those of us involved in education have watched in horror as governor after governor has attacked education as a pork-belly society simply can’t afford. Considering the salary differences between politicians, CEOs, and teachers, there is no comparison. Many teachers I know must work second jobs to make ends meet: they too have kids to send to college. The problem, however, is not endemically a Republican one. My political leanings are well known to those who read this blog, but a colleague at Montclair State University recently sent me this quote from a 1953 address of Dwight Eisenhower that makes the point clearly:

An unlikely prophet

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.” (President Eisenhower’s address “The Chance for Peace,” Delivered Before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 4/16/53)

The largest slice of our national budget goes toward military spending. Christianity teaches that we need not fear death – that’s what Easter’s all about, is it not? – and yet we pay astronomical amounts to keep ourselves safe. Do we really practice what we preach?

Since Eisenhower’s day we’ve seen an increasing inflation of self-centered motivation and self-importance taking precedence in politics. Republican politics allied itself with extreme right-wing evangelicalism and soon we were being told that Jesus was a free-market economist. The values of one sect hijacked a political party, and indeed, a nation. The force of this movement is so strong that, with some obvious differences, the policies of President Obama are not so far from those of Bush. No forward progress is to be made: backward, Christian soldiers! Our nation is in full retreat from facing square-on the very real problems of social injustice, unemployment, and lack of adequate schooling for many of our children. Those who know no better sit by and say, “well, the Christians are in charge, everything will be fine.” I don’t believe in a divine apocalypse, but then again, I don’t believe we will need one. Unless people wise up, we will be perfectly capable of creating a home-grown apocalypse all on our own.

Bell’s Hell

Hell makes the cover of Time. Or at least its absence does. For those of us who’ve delved deeply into the Bible for many years, it is no surprise. In fact, the uproar, as Time confesses, is among Evangelicals. So why Hell? Why now? The Evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, Rob Bell, has just published a book questioning the existence of Hell and his fellow Evangelicals are in a conflagration about the loss of the sacred icon of God’s omnipotent stick that threatens them all into Heaven. It is a sad day when love cannot encourage enough that hatred becomes religion’s motivating factor.

The loss of Hell, however, represents so much more than just the loss of the scariest place under the earth. It represents the loss of control. Without Hell to wield and Hell to pay, many of the faithful may wonder what they might get away with. Neo-cons have been eager to court the Hell-mongers because the issue is making others lock-step in their own pattern. Diversity is not encouraged or appreciated. Lawns must be cut to the same height, trees carefully trimmed, shirts must be conservative and cookie-cutter, and one must wear that blessed smile that proclaims “Hell-dodger.” Cast any doubt into this fabled world and the results might be, well, realistic.

The Hebrew Bible knows no Hell but the one we make for ourselves. We hardly need a Devil to tutor us in the ways of evil. Human history reveals that we’ve had it in us all along. Instead of celebrating the death of Hell, several Evangelical pastors are simply adding Bell to its numbers. Time’s news is not news for many of us, but for those who haven’t considered seriously the implications of their faith as Holy Week rolls around, this may be a good time to take stock of options for eternity. What do we gain by fabricating an eternal torment devised by the most loving deity ever conceived? Hell can now claim its rightful place as a metaphor for the wickedness Homo sapiens devise for each other and for their planet.

Born to Shun

Being of rather slight build, I have always held a natural antipathy toward bullies. I’ve always liked to believe that, were I in any position of power, I would care for those under my authority. Emulating this ideal as much as possible in the classroom seems to have made me a popular teacher. The message we send our young, however, shouts at decibels I cannot hope to achieve that throwing your weight around is the only proper way to govern. And some governors carry considerable excess weight. New Jersey used to pride itself on its educational system, a system that is currently being gouged in nearly every possible way by an insatiable governor. And now he is taking shots at Bruce.

I seldom write about my admiration for Bruce Springsteen because it is a very personal matter with me. Having grown up in a working-class family, I discovered Bruce at a fairly young age and I suspected his concern was authentic. That suspicion has grown over the years as he has campaigned for the common worker, never forgetting where he began. Now Chris Christie is attempting to besmirch the Boss. Using the newest entry in the Neo-Con lexicon of swears, Christie has leveled the “L-word” at New Jersey’s native son. Seems liberal is always a bad thing. Good thing Jesus – the original liberal – isn’t here or the Neo-Cons would nail him as well.

I'll see you after school

The Neo-Con movement delights in out-shouting the competition. Shut down National Public Radio because if reason is broadcast on the airwaves some people might end up looking ridiculous. Let us have no dissension here! If you leave the wealthy alone, they will leave you alone. Seems that “conservative” social responsibility was crucified some two millennia ago. Instead of Christ we now have Christie. The devil himself, however, would make a more compassionate governor, if we could ever get him away from the endless tea parties of perdition that occupy all his time.

Holy Matrimony

BBC Two is currently airing a series entitled The Bible’s Buried Secrets, unfortunately not yet viewable in the United States. The episode “Did God Have a Wife?” is presented by my colleague Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who did, no doubt, an admirable job. So once again Asherah finds herself in the news. The issue of monotheism is intricately tied up with how gods related to one another in the ancient conceptual world of Israel and its neighbors. Since the gods were modeled on humans, their behaviors could be embarrassingly human as well. Myths of actual divine marriages are rare, and extra-consortial affairs seem to have been pretty common. This aspect survives in the classical Greek world where Zeus’ many trysts are among his most notable deeds.

In a society like ancient Israel where marriage was a regular expectation of all young people who survived to marriageable age, an obvious mystery attends a single god. If Yahweh is male – and the Hebrew Bible seems not to dispute this point – would he not require a spouse as well? The well known Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions appear to suggest that Yahweh had a wife, and if he had the Religious Right should only rejoice since that would seal their definition of marriage forever in this literalist nation. And yet, the Bible remains decidedly mute on this point. In the end, it is interpreted that male is superior to female, again, pleasing certain religio-political factions.

Marriage in a human institution. It is a practice concerning which the Bible is strangely taciturn. In ancient times marriages (unless among the gods) were secular, not sacred ceremonies. Among a human population in danger of dying out through attrition, marriage ensured prolific reproduction. According to Christianity, even God had a kid. In a world that has changed in ways that biblical writers could never have imagined, marriage as a source for an increasing population is more problematic than it is essential. It seems that the jealously guarded definition of marriage is really just another green-eyed monster lurking in the Neo-Con closet. Maybe once Yahweh’s marriage certificate surfaces the issue of what marriage is really about will be discussed rationally.

I Can’t Ear You

I bought a box of Q-tips in the store the other day. I noticed that the package shows humans using the cotton swabs in a variety of ways: around the eyes, nose, eyebrows, even on a computer keyboard. Everywhere but an ear. The suggestive shape of the Q-tip, as well as the received wisdom of everything from the South African name “ear buds” to Mad magazine, indicates that they were invented for ears. We all share that somewhat unsavory habit of forming earwax, and doctors warn that using cotton swabs may impact the matter and lead to complications of hearing. Q-tips (originally “Baby Gays” – check out the Q-tips website) are no longer for ears. In the back of my mind I supposed that it was because of lawyers. All it takes is one litigious sophomore and companies run to their attorneys to show that the faulty application wasn’t their suggestion.

Laws run our lives. One of the most famous, but by no means the first, law-givers was Moses. I’m pretty sure Moses didn’t say anything about what to stick in your ears, but he did lay down the laws that Neo-Cons still argue should govern our lives just like the Quran governs the laws of Iran. The laws of the Torah, however, were only meant for the Israelites. Nevertheless, laws have become means of growing wealthy. If we can prove on a technicality that my dumb mistake was somebody else’s fault, why not have that person (or better yet, company) sued to within a millimeter of their lives claiming “damages”? The law has become a means to protect the special interests of those in power. As someone who has tried scrupulously to keep the law my entire life, I sometimes find that old Moses seems to have turned against me.

Laws are meant to protect the rights of people. When did laws shift to becoming instruments of entrapment and means of income? Just before leaving Wisconsin I was driving my family home from a movie. We were talking and laughing when I came to a speed-trap area of my local town where the speed limit drops from 45 to 25 m.p.h. within a matter of inches. Religiously I always complied. Today, in the spirit of the moment, I neglected my usual caution and was pulled over. A policeman young enough to be my son lectured me on unsafe driving (I began driving when he was still wearing diapers, and I had never been given a ticket before because I am not a speeder) before issuing me a citation. My wife couldn’t believe it – she knows that I never speed. One of my last memories of Wisconsin is being unfairly targeted by a law devised to bring money to the local police force. It has nothing to do with safety, since there were no houses or buildings for several hundred yards yet after the slow-down zone. Has the law come to free us or oppress us? Lawyers watch our backs, and law-makers watch their wallets. I want to ask Moses, but I’m afraid I won’t hear him. I seem to have a cotton swab stuck in my ear.

Lead us not into temptation...