Myth and Magic

Magic and religion are difficult to tell apart.  Scholars have known this for some time, but don’t often say anything about it for fear of offending.  A few days ago Religion News Service ran a story headlined “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.”  While many reacted with shock, to me the fact that a foundational text can be identified at all is a relief.  You see, reading is good for you.  Really, really good for you.  One of the most hopeful things I observed as a parent was the increased quality and volume of young adult literature available.  Of course it’s produced to make a profit, but the fact is it showed that reading is alive and thriving.  If the young make a habit of it, well, let’s hope that habit’s hard to kick.

My own reading doesn’t always keep pace with my desire to do more of it.  I go for a couple of weeks sometimes without finishing a book.  I begin to feel depleted.  There’s something spiritual about reading, and fiction can reach parts of your soul that are on guard when non-fiction’s your subject.  And that’s like magic.  It took a couple years for me to catch on to the Harry Potter craze.  Eventually my wife and I broke down and bought book one and read it together.  As millions of readers can attest, that first book was a fishhook.  We all really hope the world does contain some magic.  Many people find that solace met with religion.  Either way, fiction can enhance the experience.  We read the original series, hanging tensely until the final volume came out.

Many of those who believe in a magical religion protested the sale of magical fiction.  We were still in Wisconsin at the time, but we saw the protestors outside a local bookstore the release day for one of the later volumes.  Like Death-Eaters the protestors opposed Harry Potter.  The root of the problem seems to have been unique truth claims.  Whenever a religion declares itself the sole harbinger of “the” truth, every other way of looking at things becomes evil.  Even if it expressly declares itself to be fantasy fiction for young adults.  Years have passed, and Harry Potter, like other forms of pop culture, has grown to the status of a religion.  Even Nones want to believe in something.  Magic and religion are, after all, very difficult to tell apart.

When Like Rome

Among the constant topics of discussion, both in the academy and in its publishing ancillaries, is the loss of interest in religion.  After a period of growth early in the new millennium, as measured by college majors, interest has dropped off and Nones are set to replace evangelical Christians as the largest religious group in America.  The corresponding lack of interest in religion is extremely dangerous.  I’ve often posted on the necessity of looking back to see where we might be going, and the further back we go the more we understand how essential religion is to the human psyche.  My own academic goals were to get back to the origins of religion itself—something I continue to try to do—and I discovered that they rest in the bosom of fear.  I’m not the first to notice that, nor have others been shy about using it to their advantage.

Lack of classical education, by which I mean reading the classics, has led us to an extremely tenuous place.  More interested in the Bible, I followed the track to another ancient system of thought, but as I find out more about the religion of classical Greece and Rome, the more I tremble.  You see, ancient Roman writers (especially) were extremely conscious of the fact that fear motivated people.  In order to construct a steady state, they infused it with a religion based on fear and supported by said state.  An overly simplified view would suggest that the Jews and Christians took their religion too seriously and refused to play the Roman game.  When they wouldn’t worship the emperor (who surely knew he wasn’t a god) they threatened the empire.  The response?  A good, old-fashioned dose of fear.  Crucifixion oughta cure ‘em.

See what I mean?

The thing is, our American form of government, buoyed up by an intentional courting of evangelical Christians as a voting bloc, manipulates that fear even more stealthily than the Romans did.  People ask me why I “like” horror.  I don’t so much like it as I see its role as a key.  It is a key to understanding religion and it has long turned the tumblers of the state.  Ancient societies kept religion under state control—something the Republican Party has been advocating as of late.  Why?  Religion, based on fear, ensures the continuance of power.  Those of us who watch horror are doing more than indulging in a lowbrow pastime.  We are probing the very origins of religion.  And we are bringing to light the machinations with deus.  Let those who read understand.

Edifices

In a process that’s been going on for decades, church buildings have been sold and repurposed.  Part of the reason is the fact that spirituality has come to resemble a free market and there’s increasing competition from the Nones.  Thinking back over a lifetime of attending various services, many of which seemed to do nothing more than demand I pull out my wallet, I can understand this lack of public engagement with established religions.  At the same time the rather shallow, but emotionally based evangelical tradition continues to grow, largely based on the emotional payoff it gives.  Ironically, it makes the claim that it’s the doctrine responsible for this appeal, but it seems more likely that it’s the way the doctrine allows you to feel about yourself that’s the key.  And still the wallet comes out as the mega-churches grow.

There’s a profound beauty in dereliction.  Some of the more solidly built structures—for even the way a church was constructed was a theological statement—have lent themselves to creative reuses.  I’ve visited churches converted to used bookstores, and this seems fitting.  The trade-off of doctrine for knowledge is appropriate.  In Pittsburgh, years ago, I was intrigued by the Church Brew Works.  Occupying a closed Roman Catholic Church, the brew pub is a trendy gathering place and the titillation of drinking in a once hallowed location is part of the draw.  People find such irony irresistible, it seems.  Better than letting an abandoned building simply fall to ruin.  When it first opened some were scandalized—a lingering belief in sacred places may account for this.  People were married here.  Baptized.  Funerals were held.

While walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood recently I found a church building that has been converted to a spa.  The idea struck me as so counterintuitive that I had to think through the implications.  Churches, for all their faults, are places advocating spiritual growth.  Whether or not it takes place is quite a different question, of course, but this is all about interior life.  Spas are about the surface, physical beautification.  Indeed, often personal pampering.  This is building space come half circle.   An edifice built of heavy stone, implying the gravity of the business inside might have eternal consequences is now a place to beautify the body.  Perhaps the building itself has gone through a similar process.  What used to advertise to the world that depth could be found  here has now become merely an exterior.  Market forces dictate what it will become on the inside.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.

Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.

Secular Family Values

Fear of social disruption runs deep. Things may not be perfect, but people would rather keep things the way they’re used to them being rather than to face radical change. This is natural enough. During the dark days of the Cold War, when nuclear annihilation constantly hung over our heads, atheism was a mark of the Soviet threat. “Godless communism.” Intellectually, however, a kind of atheism was already part of American society as well, although few people talked of it. With our national history of encouraging Bible reading and prayer in public schools, our self-presentation was of the faithful. Those who hold to “old time religion.” In fact, many had moved on, but those of us growing up in small towns or rural settings had no way of knowing that. Life before the internet was primitive in that way.

A recent Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times asks “How secular family values stack up.” In this age of Nones many are worried that the social fabric has already begun to unweave and that our ethical clothes have become threadbare and see-through. The statistics, however, don’t really bear that up. Written by Phil Zuckerman, it is no surprise that the piece takes a positive view of a faith-free value system. The fact is, the social disruption that has been widely hyped, especially by Neo-Con pundits, has simply not occurred because of secularism. As Zuckerman points out, the largely secular European society has handled ethical situations admirably well. Even in the United States, non-believers in jail populations are an astonishingly small demographic, and divorce rates run lower than those who report being more religious. Those who don’t believe tend to be more empathetic and to have closer family ties than many religious families do.

Tolerance of those with different outlooks is important. In a nation that was at one time considered a melting pot, such difference of opinion is only to be expected. In practical terms, people in the United States knew nothing of Buddhism or Hinduism until late in the nineteenth century. Other religions were simply outside of the experience of most. And those who lived in different religious traditions were also moral. Biologists who study the development of moral sentiments find that apes, certainly not religious by any standard, are often inclined toward positive social values (although clearly not always so—there are dangers in extremism). It is time that we overcame our distrust of those who, for whatever reason, cannot believe. Being human is sufficiently religious to make us concerned about our fellow person. It is only the drive and insatiable hunger, ironically, of godly capitalism that leads to unfeeling disregard of human need.

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Time and Again

One score and ten years ago, I graduated from college. I also enrolled in seminary and worked in a United Methodist summer camp. I bought my own car and worked as a bag boy in a grocery store. I also met my future wife. Last night we watched Back to the Future, the sleeper hit and highest grossing film of 1985. There’s been a bit of buzz about it because, discounting the sequels, Doc Brown wants to travel thirty years into the future, yes, 2015, which seemed impossibly far off back then. I have to think his envisioned 2015 was more advanced than what we’ve actually managed. Technology, instead of sending us to Jupiter like Arthur C. Clarke imagined, has instead focused on the incredibly tiny. We now do finally have Dick Tracy wrist-phones with real-time images, but we’re still pretty much earth-bound and our rockets are aimed at other people rather than outer space. Instead of fighting aliens with lasers, we’re shooting fellow humans while at church, synagogue, or mosque. Instead of presidential candidates who want to see how far we can go, we’ve got a stagnant pool of people who want to turn the clock back to, well, 1955.

Back_to_the_Future

Don’t get me wrong—this is a fascinating time to be alive. Just yesterday I sat down to recollect the number of computers we’ve purchased as a family and what each could and couldn’t do. Our first couldn’t connect to the internet since no such thing existed. Our first laptop—which we still have—weights as much as a current desktop and has a black-and-white screen. Now we walk around with the internet in our pockets, never really disconnected from a web in which, I’m sure, lurks a huge spider. But back in 1985 you could make quite a few, as it turns out, false assumptions. Church attendance was healthy and would always continue so. We had space shuttles and were looking to walk on other planets. Rock had matured into a provocative mix of selfishness and social protest. Despite the president of those years, things seemed to be improving.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly returns to the same Hill Valley he left. A fictional town, I noticed last night, that had a seedy downtown square with adult themed stores and movies. The 1955 square had bullies and manure trucks, but a cleanness that was only on the surface. When Marty’s DeLorean reappears in the square in 1985, he crashes it into a Church of Christ. Although this detail had escaped me before, now it strikes me as somewhat prophetic. Thirty years into the future and, like Marty, we are backing out of the church into an age of nones. Our nones not only refer to our religiously unaffiliated, however. We have nones who’ve lost faith in our government, our economy, and our worldview. Instead of going to Jupiter, we stare at our palms. And like Doc Brown, we look back thirty years with nostalgia and wonder at how wrong we are when we believe in the status quo.