Russian Watchtower

From time to time I’ve good-naturedly poked fun at the Watch Tower Society members who used to visit with some frequency. I don’t belittle anyone’s belief system, however. Believers of any faith are generally sincere and certainly entitled to follow the dictates of their own consciences and reasoning. Still, as John Cale sings, “nothing frightens me more, than religion at my door.” Some of us prefer to keep our religious preferences private, while musing publicly about the wider world of religious diversity. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to mind again because of an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger my wife clipped out for me. According to Amanda Erickson, writing for the Washington Post, Russia has now classified the Witnesses as religious extremists. She points out the irony since the Watch Tower Society is officially a pacifist group, opposed to any violence. It’s difficult to radicalize a pacifist.

I’m not at home enough any more to be here when the Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by. I know they still come because I can see their tracts. There is a Witness who occasionally stands outside my gate at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. He stands, patiently smiling, next to the entrance holding up the Watchtower while anxious commuters and day trippers give him nary a glance. He seems like a nice guy to me. Always neatly dressed. One day I noticed him commenting to a New Jersey Transit employee that a particular denizen of the Post Authority was acting oddly. He was right, and, as a daily user of that facility, I know it takes quite a lot to earn that kind of notice. Ports, after all, bring in many with diverse outlooks on life.

What’s behind the Russian rage against the “extremist activities” of a peace-loving sect? I suspect the real problem has to do with the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses are so typically American. And, like the Mormons, a fairly successful New Religious Movement. Religions, it seems, do grow a bit stale with age. Once in a while, something new comes along and revitalizes old systems of belief. Russia, however, is not the Port Authority. There is a repression there that is the envy of New Jersey Transit and every other carrier, I’m sure. Right, United? If only people would conform. Wouldn’t we all be happier if everyone else just believed like us? I’m not sure that history concurs on that point. Perhaps the safest alternative is to remain private. You don’t, however, grow a religion that way. If Russia wishes to inherit these States, they’ll need to learn a bit about the joys of religious diversity. Pacifism is a risk you have to take.

Publish or Perish

Working in publishing, I’m well aware of the stresses of the information industry. Jobs frequently evaporate as new, less formal ways of spreading ideas develop. To the typical academic what a university press offers is the secret knowledge of where to send their monograph to get it printed and bound. As if a printer and spiral binder weren’t available at the local Kinko’s. Oh, wait. Kinko’s doesn’t exist any more. You can do most of this at your own university anyway. With 3-D printers you might even be able to print a reader. No, what academic presses have to offer is credibility. If we’re honest we’ll admit that some presses are known for publishing just about anything sent to them while others are selective. The selective presses are often considered the more reliable since they set up the highest hurdles and accept only materials that come as close to being true facts as information can. Self publishing, as might be expected, has muddied the waters.

The same is true in book publishing’s cousin, the newspaper industry. As analysts point out, you can get whatever “news” you want from social media. With varying levels of truth. Stop and think about the people you knew in high school. Those who tend to friend you on Facebook. Would you trust them for accurate news? This has become all the more important because our government is now in the business of fabricating facts. Fact checking is too much work and besides, who has time? It’s easier just to believe lies than it is to buy a copy of the New York Times. Newspapers, you see, used to offer the same thing as the academic press—credibility. The New York Times and the National Enquirer are two different things—you could tell at a glance. Now it’s hard to tell where the news originates.

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This point was made by Deborah Lev in a recent editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. The real problem is our nation’s founders presumed that democracy would work for informed voters. Yes, there were difficulties with the way the system was set up. It was based on privilege and convention. We’ve finally, in theory, gotten to the point that any citizen of a certain age can vote, but we have no requirements for ability to discern the issues. That would be elitist. And we have eroded the traditional sources of attaining quality information—publishers of all sorts are struggling. For some topics self-published books outstrip traditionally published tomes by a fair margin. You can’t believe everything you read. Don’t take my word for it. I’m open to fact-checking. Just be careful where you reap your facts, because not all facts are created equal.

Paying off College

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“Want College to Pay off?” the headline asks. It depresses me. I’m an unapologetic idealist. Cost-benefit analysis has its place, but that’s not all there is to education. Or better yet, cost-benefit analysis isn’t just about money. The article has suggestions for finding good paying jobs, which is what higher education is all about these days. Getting an education to increase knowledge and to benefit society in that way has become the mark of true naivety. We tell our kids not to study the arts, humanities, or literature since there are no jobs in these fields. We want them to be able to survive in a culture that has cool devices but which has lost its soul. Pretty strange for an institution (or “industry”) that began primarily to study theology.

The earliest universities focused on the then-related fields of law and theology. Since people took religion seriously, this was not the mere diversion that it is today. There are those counter-cultural warriors who study theology to take parishes to combat their increasing irrelevance, but really, the study of law and theology parted ways long ago. Neither one guarantees the return on investment that they used to. Society’s interests are in racing ahead with technology—discovering even faster ways to text while driving, or better ways to ignore those walking down the street with you. Or making money so you can build large towers in major cities and name them after yourself. We call that success. Thinking deeply about an issue, looking at it from multiple angles, and critically assessing it, these are “luxuries” that aren’t “worth” studying. College must, as the headlines say, pay off.

The rapidity with which this has transpired is truly amazing. We allow electronics to drive our culture. Who has time to keep up with all the posts, tweets, and grams that populate every second of every hour? We crowd-sourced knowledge into some great wikipedia of human experience that substitutes for taking time to look closely and think through the implications. It’s not that I despise technology—I use it quite happily daily—it’s just that I think there’s something more. I studied ancient religions and I see many of those archaic patterns beginning to repeat themselves in electronic format. It’s as if by replacing theology with technology we’ve lost sight of just a piece of what kept progress moving forward. Maybe I need to go back to college. I’m just not sure of the cost-benefit analysis.

Eye of Survivor

I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.

A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.

Holy Oak

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It was already ancient when first discovered by the early European colonists of New Jersey. The Basking Ridge oak is a well-known and time-honored New Jersey denizen. Over six centuries old, the white oak, it seems, is dying. Like it’s cousin, the Swamp Oak that I mentioned back in January, this tree is dear to many in the state. It is also historical. An article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger begins with some religious associations: George Whitefield, one of the evangelists responsible for “the Great Awakening” from which we’re still trying to awaken, preached under this very tree. George Washington also knew it. It has been tended and cared for by the town for so long that there is a reluctance to let it go. In the words of another New Jerseyan, “well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Job, in a more optimistic moment, declared, “there is hope for a tree.” Like the Good Book, the good folk of Jersey wax religious about this sexcentarian, and for good reason. The human outlook is far too short.

Think, for example, of what was happening when the Basking Ridge oak was a mere acorn. In the early 1400s there were no Protestants yet. That didn’t stop Jan Hus and Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake, however. Although the Vikings, and perhaps others, had ventured here from across the ocean, North America was blissfully unaware of those waiting to claim for their own any land they could set foot on. Good thing too. The Inquisition was still underway and witch trials lingered on, flying in the face of enlightenment. Cambridge and Oxford University Presses were, in some sense, neophyte businesses. This Eurocentric view overlooks the great achievement of Machu Picchu down south. As the Dark Ages were beginning to lighten, this oak began its life’s journey. We who are a mere blink of its slow eye are still spouting hate for those who are different and are determined that nobody should outlive us.

The Holy Oak, as it is known, stands beside a Presbyterian Church. One of the trustees of the church is in charge of the tree. In the article he stated that this is about eternal life. From our perspective, trees seem to live forever. That’s because we are so dreadfully short-sighted. It’s surprisingly easy to become nostalgic for a tree so old. In terms of accomplishment, we think humans are exceptional for surviving a century of all the misfortune we dish out for one another. The tree, however, seems innocent by comparison. We’re changing the climate even now, making it more difficult for trees to thrive. We continue to shoot people for the color of their skin and although we don’t call it witch-hunting any more we still find ways of oppressing anyone who is different. At this rate we may need six more centuries to come to our senses. If only we had the perspective of a tree.

Rainbow Nation

By now I suppose it’s old news that North Carolina has joined the wall of ignominy as the latest state to try to discriminate against gays. It seems our aging leadership just doesn’t get it that a large majority of people in the younger generation just don’t have a problem with accepting homosexuals for who they are. Laws are generally still made by old white men, though. One might be tempted to say “good ole boys.” They may make the claim that this is political, but as one astute editorial in the New Jersey Star-Ledger pointed out, this is about religion. The editorial, which ran on Saturday, notes that studies have shown that when people learn a law sequestered under “religious freedom” is actually discriminatory, the law loses support. The government by the people thing seems to be working backwards. What will it take for elected officials to realize that we are a rainbow nation? And rainbows, according to the Bible, are good.

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I’m always amazed at these attempts to turn the clock back. It is the season of “spring forward” is it not? Religions that have a problem with homosexuality also have an unscientific understanding of human sexuality as well. Not one person in the Bible had a clear idea of how conception worked. If they didn’t understand the facts of life, how can we expect to learn the life of facts from them? What amazes me most is that such views don’t take the whole picture into account. Intersex individuals—of whom there are many—demonstrate that easy definitions of gender are sure to be wrong. Even tying the concept of gender to sex seems to be misguided. And yet we pass laws the favor a first-century understanding of what it means to be human.

In the end what will change the minds of the corporations will not be their heads or their hearts. The decision will be made by their backsides where their wallets will be growing a bit lighter as corporations decide to take their facilities elsewhere. It’s a sad commentary on our society when justice isn’t enough to strike down a prejudicial law. It takes money to do that. It is a strange world indeed where it take lucre to lead to light.

Measuring Religion

How do you measure the religiosity of a people? While the boundaries of the United States are somewhat porous, internally, we nevertheless still consist of somewhat self-governing states. One measure of religious belief is to take your metrics by state. Of course, some people—perhaps many—owe their state of residence to their work and not their natural choice. You’re judged by the company you keep, regardless. So when the New Jersey Star-Ledger ran a front page piece about religion in the Garden State last week, I was intrigued. I do spend quite a few of my waking hours in the neighboring New York, but for statistical purposes (and taxes and tuition) I’m considered a New Jerseyan. So what’s the damage?

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The story is actually about a Pew survey undertaken last year. New Jersey, it seems, ranks 19th from the top when it comes to religious states. Ranging from Alabama as the most religious to New Hampshire as the least, the measures of devotion are four: do you attend worship, do you pray frequently, do you believe in God, and do you profess yourself religious? Each of these questions provides its own set of problems when it comes to being an actual measure of someone’s commitment to religion. I maintain, as I often declare on this blog, that religion is one of those non-quantifiable aspects of life. It cannot be measured accurately because the tangibles are immeasurable. Deep commitment may be found among those who don’t frequently attend worship. What if your religion is a very private affair? And besides, doesn’t all of this measuring sound like a locker room contest?

As a nation, we spend a lot of time worrying about how religious we are or aren’t. Since such events as presidential elections have hinged on candidates’ piety since I’ve been old enough to vote, that’s understandable, I suppose. Nevertheless, such surveys are about surface belief. I recall in college being told that if your living space didn’t have enough evidence to convict you, you weren’t really religious at all. I know I’ve got quite a few Bibles laying around, and although we rent, we do have some religious artwork on our walls and mantle. I blog about religion daily. Still, I wonder where I might fall on some survey designed to tell me how religious I am. Such things can’t be measured with surveys, but in situations where the stakes are so high, we will do what we can to understand the imponderable.

Headliners

I sometimes wish I was a journalist. Just this past week a couple of people questioned my journalistic skills for an opinion piece I wrote for Religion Dispatches. I’m fully capable of professional research, but who has the time? Still, being a journalist might be fun. Thinking up clever headlines would be challenging day after day, but nevertheless, it might be enjoyable. Editors who lay the articles next to each other on the page must have a sense of irony. This past week in the New Jersey Star Ledger the central headline read “Killer tightens its grip on N.J.” The column to the right began “Christie to mingle with the uber-rich.” Having lived in New Jersey under Christie’s entire reign, I’m no fan. I’ve despised bullies since I was a kid, and rich bullies are worse than the working class variety. New Jersey certainly seems no better off to me. Now he wants to be President.

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The real headline, however, about the killer in New Jersey is not yet another prison-break story. It deals with heroin overdose deaths. According to the article, per 100,000 people in the U.S. 2.6 deaths are from heroin overdose. In New Jersey the figure is 8.3. New Jersey, as the most densely populated state (1200 people per square mile, I once read) has its share of problems. Most of us like to pretend that drugs are somebody else’s issue, but I’ve known addicts and they are not evil. When life offers you unrelenting recession after recession and all attempts to better yourself run up against the 1 percent, frustration is inevitable. Even earning a doctorate will only lead to jobless misery. What more can you do than get an education? Heroin is dangerously addictive and it makes the user feel great, I’m told. Society doesn’t offer many other options. At least in Rome they had bread and circuses.

He who would be President, however, can’t be concerned about that. The uber-rich must be fed. And fed. And fed. Those whose ambition to high public office is naked power would be foolish to ignore their fellow plutocrats. Down here on the streets, things look a little dicier. Although I think I understand why many turn to chemical relief, I’ve never been tempted by drugs myself. One of the reasons I turned to religion was the prevalence of drug use in the town where I grew up. There seemed to be no future in substance abuse. I may not have chosen the most promising of ways to move ahead either, in retrospect. Now I find myself living with a governor who represents all that’s wrong with government. And if you’re going to die of drug-related despair, it seems like his particular state is the place it’s most likely to happen. Long live the king!

God, As a Hobby

Just as I was awaking from a night of loud fireworks and multicultural bonhomie, my wife showed me a full-page ad in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. A red, white, and blue page entitled “In God We Trust,” the ad wants nothing more than to convert the nation to conservative Christianity. It is sponsored by Hobby Lobby after all. Dividing the quotes that spangle the page into “Founding Fathers,” “Presidents,” “Supreme Court Justices,” “Supreme Court Rulings,” “Congress,” “Education,” and “Foreign Opinion,” prooftexted quotes are given inadvertently showing by their grasping nature that America is a godly country. The Hobby Lobby is not known for its critical reading of either Scripture or history. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, Deists all, are quoted at the height of their rhetoric, making it seem as if they were evangelicals out to build a Christian nation.

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When I was growing up, there were no Hobby Lobby stores in my area. Although I was a religious child, I would have found it a bit odd that hobbyists were not focusing all their attention on the weighty matter of eternity. Instead, making money seems to be the name of the game, and once you’re comfortably over-compensated the Lobby part of the name comes to play and God reenters the picture. We all know that the Hobbyists wish to have the Bible right next to the capital, if they can’t get it prominently placed in the Oval Office. Policy (the ad cites all three branches of government, as well as education) should be based on the Bible, although we think of ourselves as a land of opportunity. Opportunity for whom?

Starting with a quote ripped from the context of Psalm 33 (“blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”), the ad doesn’t exegete this at all. Nationalism as we know it did not exist when this Psalm was penned. The author had what would become Judaism in mind, not evangelical Christianity. But then, appropriation of other peoples’ pasts is kind of a hobby. Pick and choose. Take what you find attractive and leave the rest behind. It works for history as well as for the Bible. After all, it doesn’t take historical probity to lobby the government. All that’s required is a surfeit of money. And the best way to achieve that, it seems, is to take up a hobby rather than trying to think through the issues with a mind honed by a solid education in Bible and history.

New Faiths

Scientology is never far from controversy. In the light of the new HBO documentary on Scientology by Alex Gibney (with New Jersey roots) the Star-Ledger ran a Sunday piece about the Jersey origins of the religion. L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics while living in the state. The article, by Vicki Hyman, points out that the current head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, grew up in the Garden State. John Travolta and Tom Cruise are also New Jersey sons. Living in a religiously diverse state has tempered my perspective on New Religious Movements somewhat. That applies to Scientology as well.

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Many critics claim that Scientology began as a scam. There are those who claim that it still is. It seems clear, however, that there are many people who believe in it with all sincerity. No religion is free from episodes of abuse or poor judgment. Thus it is with human institutions. No universally accepted definition of religion exists, making categorizations difficult. What members of Scientology do, in as far as this is known, sounds very much like what other religions ask of their members. Oddness of belief is hardly unique to any religion. All ask for contributions from their members. Religions offer a community for those who belong, and many are strongly hierarchical. Even should a founder have had less than pure motives, that doesn’t translate to any less verisimilitude on the part of the faithful. Some viable religions have been based on known fictions.

Ironically, a common response to religions is anger on the part of unbelievers. (If we are believers of one religion we are, by default, unbelievers of others.) A friend of mine recently mentioned Heaven’s Gate on his blog. Although the outcome was tragic, can we say that those who followed Marshall Applewhite appear to have been true believers. Fear of Scientology may largely be based on the horrific outcomes of Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the People’s Temple in Jonestown. Religions can lead to people doing strange things. And those of us who live in New Jersey know that is indeed saying something.

Losing My Religion (Excuse)

I’ve always appreciated New Jersey inventiveness. This is a state where lottery winners register with the social security numbers of dead people to avoid taxes. Politicians and honest folk both seem to resort to inventive means of getting around the system. A recent article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger brought this home. An uproar has developed, it seems, over a more stringent regulation concerning religious exemptions for vaccines. If the bill passes, parents and guardians opting out of vaccines for their children will have to state their religion and the cause for the objection. Many have been suggesting this is government of the worst kind, because, well, it wasn’t really a religious reason that they used the religion waiver. Have you met my dead relative? He recently won the lottery.

A timeless problem that arises from a situation such as this is the issue of defining religion. We’re not really sure what it is, other than a reason for not preventing disease. Experts disagree about the essential components of religion. Since the concept of God is up for grabs, doing what pleases said deity (or not, depending on whether a religion has a deity) would seem to be part of it. Most religions, whatever they are, suggest honesty is a virtue. And honestly, most religions have no trouble with vaccines. The paper even had a helpful chart of religions, even indicating that Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses have no issues, really, with vaccines. Clearly some churches do. One suspects other may have had such regulations, but they eventually died off.

Since we can’t bother to define religion, it becomes a most convenient excuse for just about any kind of deviant behavior. Many religions exist; more than most people even suspect. Sects of Christianity alone number around 40,000, and that’s leaving aside all other religious traditions and their many splinter groups. Truly held religion, as the media often underscores, can lead to extreme behaviors. The only way to come to grips with this is to try to understand what religion actually is. The most logical locus for such study would be universities. Many of them are run by states. States that are afraid of breeching that wall of separation. Even in the cause of public health. In my opinion, funding the study of religion could be a real shot in the arm. But then, so could winning the lottery.

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Hot Pants

Over a decade ago now, the populace was buzzing about Stella Liebeck’s suit against McDonald’s. You may remember the case. Liebeck was handed very hot coffee through a drive-up window in one of those flimsy cups, and suffered second-degree burns when it spilled in her lap. The incident spawned a documentary movie and even a New York Times retro report a couple of years ago. No doubt the injury was serious enough to cause medical treatment including skin grafts, and McDonald’s does, as we all know, process its customers just like it processes everything; you can’t serve over 100 billion burgers and be the world’s second largest private employer without process. Food injuries in a world of business feeding can be serious. “Eating out” is a way of life for many and when people eat out they take their religion with them. That’s why Hiram Jimenez’s case is so interesting.

According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Jimenez decided to bow in prayer over a plate of sizzling steak fajitas at Appleby’s. For those who’ve never witnessed fajitas being served, they are an attention-demanding dish, served loudly steaming and popping with smoke rising up forever and heads being turned. I suspect that’s part of the appeal. According to the paper, Jimenez bowed over his food and the grease popped, burning his face, causing him to knock the plate of food onto his lap. None of the burns left scars, and a Superior Court here in New Jersey found the restaurant not negligent as the danger was “open and obvious.” What makes this story so interesting is not the injury but the cause behind it. Food being hot is somewhat universal. Praying in restaurants, however, is an evangelical cultural practice.

Growing up with evangelical friends, I learned to pray in restaurants. (My family was of rather humble circumstances and we didn’t eat at restaurants.) Partly it was in actual thankfulness, but clearly it was partly also in show. We were witnessing by invoking our gustatory gratitude. For being literalists, we didn’t take Jesus’ injunction to go into the closet and shut the door before praying too seriously. The culture around public prayer involves bowing. The bow is a mammalian display of submission. Thy will be done. In the biblical world being thrown into a blazing furnace for public displays of faith didn’t lead to lawsuits. Everyone knows infernos are hot. I can’t help but wonder whether a martyr complex is at play here. A praying customer is doing what his religion demands and gets burned for it. Yeah, I know what that feels like. And, I suspect, so do countless others who find no hearing in courts at all.

Photo credit: Bryan Hong (Brybry26), Wikipedia Commons

Photo credit: Bryan Hong (Brybry26), Wikipedia Commons

Biblical Weather

On President’s Day, my wife pointed out an article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger headlined, “‘Biblical’ snowstorms battering New England.” She asked, reasonably enough, “What makes a snowstorm biblical?” Since I have written a book on the weather in the book of Psalms, I might be able to speak to that. First off, yes, there is snow in the Bible. It’s not mentioned often and it is a rarity, but the Israelites knew what snow was. In fact, one of the most difficult Psalm weather references is to snow, in Psalm 68. The man interviewed in the newspaper, however, was not being literal. “Biblical” has come to mean disastrous. I can exegete that a bit more: disastrous because of quantity. Too much of a good thing. Or bad thing. In Boston this year the weather just won’t quit. The topic that really has people talking, however, is the temperature. It has been very chilly. My daughter complained when her university didn’t cancel classes with the air temperature at about 9 below. Her note prompted my thoughts of a day to remember.

When I taught at Nashotah House, the weather did not stop us. Ever. It was a residential facility with both faculty and students living on campus. Everything was within walking distance. My close exposure to the weather was one of the reasons I wrote the book. One Lent, and this must have been in February, we had a quiet day. Quiet days were taken very seriously. On this particular occasion the day was to be used for a meditation in the Milwaukee Cathedral, some 35 miles away. The problem was the air temperature was -42 Fahrenheit. That isn’t wind chill, that’s how cold the air actually was. (For those of you reading in Europe, Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same at -40, then they begin to diverge again.) It did not stop us. We piled into the van and prayed earnestly that we’d get there safely. On the way home we manically recited Evensong from memory. When the wind blew the chill dropped to -70 (my Minnesota friends will believe me here). If ever weather was biblical, that day was.

I do wonder if overusing “biblical,” however, will wear it out. Where do we go after biblical? What is conceptually bigger than God? Anselm would panic. What if next year it’s even worse—how will we describe it? We’ve already used up the apocalypse. We’ve entered into a crisis of superlatives. Nothing is big enough any more. As I look at the early fading light of this President’s Day, the snow is beginning to fall again. When I was a child we had, I seem to recall, a simple word to describe it. We didn’t invoke the Almighty. We didn’t hear the galloping of distant hooves. We didn’t act as if a day out of the office were the end of the world. Our simple word for it was this: winter.

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Creating Diversity

Informed opinion is a chimera. I write that as someone who has time to read only the news stories my wife or my friends pass on to me. Once in a while one of those stories makes me feel less bad about being uninformed. A recent piece by Slate author William Saletan looks at polls regarding Creationism. The piece, picked up in the New Jersey Star-Ledger on a recent Sunday, demonstrates that although the United States is a nation of Creationists, we don’t agree about what that means. What becomes clear to me when I read such stories is that people who believe in the Bible seldom read it. Or at least understand it. Creationism “is not a thing” in the Bible. Many accounts about how the world began are represented, and the main point seems to be that it’s important that it was the God of Israel who did it rather than the competition. The first couple of creation accounts are compelling with their insistence that people are special, and that we are in charge while the owner is away. In fact, however, creation is a minor point in the story. It just has to start somewhere.

Those who set out to read the Bible, I suspect, begin to stumble in parts of Exodus and generally give up once they reach Leviticus. Although the main point of the books of Moses is the rules, the modern Christian finds the story more engaging. And the creation accounts of early Genesis are among the stories people actually read. They do make for a great, if contradictory, tale. They have, however, little impact on what people are supposed to do. Ironically, those accounts have become failsafe political devices. We vote according to how old we think the earth might be. We are special, after all.

Saletan’s point in the article is that the finer we parse the questions, the more divergent opinion becomes. The Bible doesn’t say how old the earth is—it’s really not a point of any significance to the story—but if you’re going to take it literally, you can do the math. Few literalists truly take the Bible literally. Logic very quickly breaks down as Genesis 2 follows Genesis 1. Americans are told that the Bible is literally true, but such a view literally makes no sense. We are committed to it, however, as we somehow equate believing in stories to be more important than understanding what those tales are trying to say. The polls, according to the article, make the point abundantly clear. When it comes to understanding the Bible Americans are very committed, if very confused.

Just one Creationist museum.  Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Just one Creationist museum. Photo credit: Creashin, Wikimedia Commons

Overcoming Justice

In college a friend I’ve lost track of (and I have, of most of them) turned me on to Irish protest music. I do have some fairly direct Irish heritage, although I didn’t know it at the time, still the righteous anger tied to memorable tunes made a strong impression. Music can move you in that way. In a recent New Jersey Star-Ledger article on protest songs, Lisa Leff raises the poignant question of where the protest songs have gone. In the aftermath of the travesty of justice in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases, we find ourselves musically mute. As I sat in the theater awaiting Exodus, the preview of Selma brought tears to my eyes. Martin Luther King Junior knew the power of peaceful protest. “We Shall Overcome” featured in the trailer. Would there be an exodus after all of this at all? We used to voice our discontent. Now we click on to the next page, oblivious.

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Justice has become a myth for many. Please understand, I’m professionally bound not to use “myth” in a pejorative way. No, justice has become a myth. Fear is powerful, and power is fearful. Juries are supposed to be impartial. Who is really not afraid? Why don’t we sing in the dark instead of drawing our weapons and firing? Why don’t we believe “I can’t breathe” is a statement made in earnest? Why don’t we insist on the “for all” part of the pledge? After all, even some recent presidents not known for their sense of social justice have pointed out that these court decisions are puzzling. I wonder where I put those old Irish protest-song records?

Anything you say can and will be used against you. I don’t know what to say. We have lost the ability to experience justifiable outrage. We see powerful lobbies continue to arm the mentally unstable while one percent hordes the wealth that could be used to help fund the solutions. If you walk past Trump Tower you’ll see that visitors are not welcome in one of the highest buildings in the city. We have forgotten how to sing. These most recent cases of Brown and Garner are only the most recent cases. Violence in the name of law has gone on for too long. I’m afraid when I rush past the fatigues in the Port Authority on my way to work. But I am a white man. Do they know that I used to listen to Irish protest music? I wonder where I put those records. Wait a minute, there’s something new in the iTunes store.