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!


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.’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.