I have to admit to having not seen the Lego Movie. As a kid, I grew up without Legos. We were a family of modest means, so Lincoln Logs were more our style. When I first came to see Legos, they appeared restrictive to me with their pixel-like determination. Of course, Legos have come a long way since then. My wife sent me the story in Newsweek about the Martin Luther figure (not, I hear, featured in the movie) that surprised Playmobil, the parent company, by becoming their fastest selling figure ever. I suspect that the company put the figure out just a year before the five-century mark of the 95 theses that essentially created Protestantism, to catch a little of the interest that anniversaries always bring. Although I have no data to back me up, my guess is that the majority of sales have been to adults. Little Luther with his quill and German Bible, it seems, tickles adult minds more than pre-adolescent ones.
This startling statistic ought to give pause to those who claim religion is irrelevant. Remember, Star Wars and Batman figures have also been available and collectable in Lego format. Even so, a German monk has outsold them all. This, it seems to me, indicates both an appreciation of irony and a very deep-seated need for finding meaning in life. After all, Star Wars is more than escapism. Lutherans are, by no measure, the largest Christian denomination. There is something, however, about Luther. Sure, those in the early modern period who had problems with the church were legion. Martin Luther did something about it. He took his life in his hands to address the wrongs he saw. Like most religious founders, he wasn’t advocating for a new religion, but a reformed one. The rest, as they say, is history.
The media tells us again and again that we are a secular people and that the church no longer moves us. Stagnating attendance figures and more vocal unbelief have become so common that many people feel a little embarrassed to admit that they believe something, anything. But do actions not speak more loudly than words? 34,000 Martin Luthers sold in 72 hours. Perhaps not Rock Star numbers, but very respectable for a bit of plastic. I wonder if this might not be a sign. Perhaps, with Luther, we ought to take the time to sit down and write out what we believe. Maybe our Wittenberg door should be that of Congress rather than a castle church. Or maybe it can be the door of our own minds. Luther, dead nearly half a millennium now, has shown us what a leader with vision can accomplish despite the centuries. And with a bit of plastic.
Posted in Current Events, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects
Tagged Lego Movie, Legos, Lutheranism, Martin Luther, Newsweek, Playmobil, Star Wars
I’m confused. (Well, no surprises there.) I just read the cover story in last week’s Newsweek, “The Bible: So Misunderstood it’s a Sin,” by Kurt Eichenwald. No, the story didn’t confuse me. Nor did the fact that the Bible appeared on the cover of a major news weekly. What confused me is that the article says nothing new. Well, no doubt it will be new to many readers. The fact is, however, that anyone with a serious degree in biblical studies (and believe it or not, there are so many of them that jobs can’t be found for them all) knows all of this stuff already. What’s more, they have known it for decades. Scholars tend to write for other scholars. Some see the best-selling trade titles by publishers like Harper Collins making the New York Times bestseller list and imagine that their monograph on the obscure meaning of an obscure word in an obscure verse of a book that most people don’t even know is in the Bible will do the same. It won’t. Most academic monographs sell in the hundreds (not thousands or millions) and at the low end of the centuries mark at that. They are bought by libraries and read by peers only. In them we argue (for yes, I have written such books) important points that can only be understood by those with specialist training, and think we’ve changed the world. Newsweek gives the lie to that.
Long ago it became clear that scholars were failing to connect with the average person. That is the person who turns on the television and hears and sees the people Eichenwald shows to be impostors, and believes them. They are, after all, on television. The biblical scholars who know that these obvious fallacies are simple-minded are too busy trying to get tenure in a market—yes, a market—that finds education an annoying necessity. We won’t hire anyone without a college degree any more, and so we need universities. Universities, however, won’t hire without signs of erudition, including books that most people on the search committee can’t understand because they specialize in something different. Oh, and those studies must be published. Whether they are read or not is merely, well, academic.
Meanwhile the public doesn’t know that biblical scholars have long ceased debating the age of the world, the flood, the resurrection, or the end of the world. Scholars have bigger concerns on their minds: how am I going to teach more courses and still produce those learned disquisitions that a dozen of my closest colleagues will read and rebut? And serve on all those committees? And participate in the branding of the university, because, we all know that people will buy a trusted brand? Meanwhile on center stage are politicians who know nothing about the Bible beyond the fact that it brings down votes, big time, and they are telling us what they think it should say. Chances are most scholars of the Bible won’t read Newsweek to find the answers. I didn’t even know about it until a friend mentioned it on Facebook. Like most people I’m just too busy to notice. And a little confused.
The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.
The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.
As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?
Posted in Books, Consciousness, Current Events, Popular Culture, Posts, Science
Tagged Eben Alexander, Heaven, Inception, Near Death Experiences, Newsweek, Proof of Heaven, rationalism, shaman
I suspect quite a few people are thinking about Jesus today. He does seem to be in the public consciousness with appearances on both Newsweek and the Watchtower. Newsweek, I have to admit, was an impulse buy. I’m flying to London today and I wanted something light to bring on the plane, so why not take Jesus along? I’ll have to report on the contents later. What caught my attention was the contemporary, very Caucasian Jesus standing in what appears to be Times Square. Since I walk through here a couple times a day, the immediately striking aspect is how unremarkable this would be. Perhaps that’s what the cover artist was going for, but people who think they’re Jesus—or at least a close approximation—are hardly rare. It seems that many of them are interested in running for president. Many others run Megachurches. Very few live on the streets.
My Jehovah’s Witnesses friends stopped by recently. I used to chat with them when I was unemployed, but I’m no longer home during missionary hours. This edition of Watchtower also features a very Caucasian Jesus, but one who wears his hair in a style no first-century Jewish man would have. He has been stripped of his own faith heritage just as surely as the blue-eyed Jesus on Newsweek. The funny thing about Christianity is the chimera they make of the human half of Jesus. This is one part of the Bible nobody wants to take literally. Does Jesus need to look like us to effect salvific results?
It is often said that beauty is skin deep. One has to wonder just how profound faith is as well. People seem to be better at believing what they see. When it is time to consider what God might look like, we inevitably consult a mirror. Where is the comfort in an all-powerful being that looks like he’s not one of us? Well, maybe we could ask women what it’s like. For all the variables in Jesus’ appearance, he’s always male. Funny, so are the people who profit most from promoting his brand. Maybe my ideas are just taking a flight of fancy. The rest of me is on a flight as well. And I have no idea what the captain looks like.
Posted in Deities, Feminism, Holidays, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts, Sects, Travel
Tagged Good Friday, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus, London, Newsweek, Times Square, Watchtower
Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper
Carpentry is hard work, as Jesus must have known. The occasions when I head to the basement and chew through wood with an electric saw and nail boards together through pre-drilled pilot holes always leave me feeling like I’ve burned a few calories. Not to mention walking everywhere. No Hondas, Volkswagens, or Smart Cars in those days. A guy could sure build up an appetite. My wife pointed me to Newsweek’s blog
this week, where a story about the portion sizes portrayed in paintings of the last supper over the past millennium is posted. The conclusion drawn: the food servings have continued to escalate in size as food production and acquisition have become easier.
This is not so surprising, given that what people value is what they portray in art. As I’ve mentioned before, Stephen Prothero, in his book American Jesus, demonstrates that portraits of Jesus reflect the self-perception of the society in which they are produced. Few attempt to make a life-like representation, largely because no one knows what Jesus might have looked like.
Jesus as an ordinary guy
A few years back, Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from the University of Manchester reconstructed, based on forensic research, what he believes Jesus likely looked like. The portrait is not handsome, and to be fair, not based on the actual skull of Jesus which has been missing for a couple of millennia. I used to ask my students in Intro to Christianity what difference it would make if Jesus was not good-looking. They tended to react strongly – particularly those of Christian disposition – there was an inherent blasphemy in suggesting that Jesus might not have been drop-dead handsome.
Now, if we gently push his chair back into that fateful table one more time, we might wonder how an overweight Jesus might appeal to those who struggle with weight issues. More of him to go around, as the saying goes. I’ve viewed much religious art in my time, but I’ve never seen a love-handled Jesus, let alone a chunky savior. And perhaps that is the biggest miracle of all, given that he eats more each passing year.
Posted in Bible, Books, Just for Fun, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged American Jesus, carpentry, forensic reconstruction, Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Newsweek, Richard Neave, Stephen Prothero