The Power of Literature

Among the uber-wealthy families that America has produced were the Dukes. Most famous for the university that bears the family name, they made their money in tobacco and then electricity. And what a lot of money it was! Although many people can point to North Carolina as the home of Duke University, many don’t realize that they liked to vacation in New Jersey. A large property, regally landscaped, rests just outside the unlikely town of Hillsborough. When the last Duke heir died, the foundation opened the property to the public, taking Green initiatives to heart. It’s good to see money with a conscience once in a while. Since we’re not far from Hillsborough, when cabin fever sets in and there’s actually sunshine on a late winter weekend, Duke Farms is a convenient getaway for a few hours.

Surrounded by a rock wall, the main property once housed luxury that most people will never experience. Ancient sycamores line one avenue that leads to a coach barn far nicer than the houses hoi polloi live in. Although we’ve visited the grounds many times, we haven’t seen all of it by a long stretch. Over the weekend we came across a gravel trail we’d never taken. The main avenues are wide, blacktop, pedestrianized boulevards that lead past aging structures, fountains, ponds, statues, and quaint bridges. The gravel trail meanders back and forth through small hills and glens, and it’s easy to believe you’re in the middle of the woods from time to time. At the top of one of these hills we came to the pet cemetery, amid the leafless trees.

We can all understand the emotional attachment to pets. Even the wealthy feel it. The cemetery was large for non-humans, with stones going back to 1953. Even a pair of camels were buried there. I can’t visit a pet cemetery, however, without thinking of Stephen King. It was a blustery, chilly day. We were alone on this remote trail we’d just discovered, and thoughts of resurrection didn’t seem that far fetched. The rich, after all, can do anything they please. Nevertheless, there was a pathos here. We were being given a glimpse into private lives. The names of other people’s pets, and sometimes their species. The things that had touched the monied class deeply. I’ve buried a few pets in my time, and it is always a solemn activity. One from which not even wealth can protect anyone. And here was another testament to the power of literature. Groping for a way to understand this place, a favorite horror novel seemed just about right.

Can I Get a

Public restrooms have always made me uncomfortable. This has nothing to do with North Carolina. It’s more an issue of being raised to be ashamed of bodily functions and then trying to shift, as it were, in mid-stream. Coming back from the Women’s March on Washington (we have to keep talking about this to give us momentum to move forward) we had an hour layover in Philadelphia. I can’t walk into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station without thinking of Witness. Indeed, they were announcing the train to Lancaster on our layover. Then I realized coffee before a somewhat long train ride isn’t a great idea. As I headed to the men’s room I remembered what happened there in 1985. After all, with Trump in charge all kinds of carnage can be expected.

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Witness has a redemptive message. And maybe it’s a parable too. Anabaptists, such as the Amish, take their Bible seriously. Not being conformed to the world, but separating out from it is a kind of Protestant monasticism. Even those who can’t understand their lifestyle choices (so Republican in so many ways) admire their industry and care (so unlike Republicans in so many ways). The problem is, we can’t separate ourselves from the world any longer. We’re all Samuel staring out of that toilet stall. We have seen the truth and we feel vulnerable and violated and unsure of where to turn. When someone’s hurt they reach out to others for help. The others are the world. A community may be self-sufficient, but it shares the planet with aggressive others. You can never truly be alone.

The lifestyle of the mean and corrupt erupts into the calm, peaceful, and contemplative life of those who want to live simply and unmolested. Some mentalities—particularly capitalist ones—see the non-aggressive as chattels. Women, children, men who don’t fight, any minority—these can be exploited for one’s own grandiosity. We’ve seen that already in the regressive and repressive policies an illegally elected president has already started to enact. John Book is not going to come save us this time. We need to take the initiative to protect the way of life we simply wish to lead, without interfering with those who sadly believe money really means something. You and I, my readers, are witnesses. And like witnesses we have the responsibility to make certain that the world knows the truth of what we’ve seen.

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.

For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

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God Discount

God is great, despite what Christopher Hitchens wrote, at least, that is, if you want to save 15% without having to talk to a gecko. According to Mulder’s World—I want to believe that what I find on this site is true, but often I find myself feeling more like Scully—Mary’ Gourmet diner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina gives a grace discount. Well, perhaps this is believable. Praying in public has a long pedigree. This past Corpus Christi as I was driving back into town after a day out, I saw a procession walking down the street a few blocks from the local Catholic Church. Vested and carrying a monstrance with a humeral veil, the priest led the faithful out in public for a little recognized festival many suppose to be named after a city in Texas. Actually, I was an acolyte for Corpus Christi one year at the Church of the Advent in Boston. The well-heeled of Beacon Hill, however, knew to expect us out on the genteel streets. Private prayer in public, however, is something quite different.

As a very religious teen, I often went to United Methodist Youth events with the other faithful young. We would stop into restaurants on our long drives and make a show of praying amid the heathen. Some of us (not me, I assure you) even left Chick tracts instead of tips. If we’d ever ventured into Dixie, we might have had a discount. The problem with offering a praying in public discount is that it is impossible to tell if such shows are sincere. I have sat through many such episodes, wondering about Jesus’ statement “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Well, that was only the Sermon on the Mount. Here we’re talking fifteen percent! “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This gecko winks.

IMG_1502Public displays of piety are not uncommon. I spent yesterday at the local County 4-H Fair on a rare day off of work. The Gideons, as always, were there handing out New Testaments. Let your light so shine—they are bright orange. Religious freedom ensures that prayer in public is kosher, as is agnosticism in public. Who is harmed by a public prayer? In that diner, who is made uncomfortable? Sometimes the innocuous act of kindness is a sign of mature morality. How many times—isn’t it nearly always?—does that car cutting you off in traffic have a Jesus fish plastered to the back? “I drive my car,” Daniel Amos sings, “it is a witness.” What you truly believe shows up when you’re behind the wheel more than when you’re behind the napkin. The truth may be out there after all. In the meanwhile, my tip’s on the table.

Fearful Christianity

So some North Carolina Republicans want to declare themselves a state religion. I wonder which one it will be? Hmmm, let me think… Whatever that religion will be it will be one that is afraid. Only religions that are uncomfortable with challenges have to back themselves with militaristic force. Seems to me some North Carolina politicians have never read a book on Medieval history. Ironically, the religion they wish to select was probably itself the result of the Reformation, the original challenge to state religion in the history of Christianity. It is also clear that these misguided lawmakers have not fully acquainted themselves with the vast diversity of forms of Christianity. The Christianity they want is televangelist, conservative, Protestant Christianity. Even that, however, is no longer a uniform religion. Why would there be more than one channel?

Those who spend long hours gazing at religion, both from inside and outside, realize that religious belief is not, cannot be, a static entity. Should a genuine apostle walk into an evangelistic Christian service today, chances are great that said apostle would leave wondering what religion this was. According to the Bible itself (ironically, taken only partially seriously by those who promote it) the first Christians were communists. Those who refused to sell everything and give it to the common good were struck dead, or so the book of Acts tells us. My guess is that free market economics has trumped the Holy Spirit here. What legislators really, really want is a religion to back up their secular plans.

Which Christianity would they choose? Who would be welcome in New North Carolina? Mormons? Mennonites? Methodists? Catholics? Well, at least Catholics vote the right way on key issues. Or some of them do. What we are talking about is actual state support of religious ideology. In a country where some of the finest state universities do not even have departments of religious studies, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has one of the finest in the country. And not all the faculty fill North Carolina’s preferred demographic.

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Religions do not take such rear-guard actions unless they are afraid. What does Christianity fear? It depends on which Christianity you mean. Studies have shown that over 41,000 Christian denominations exist. Think about that a minute. If one flavor-of-the-month Christianity becomes official state religion, what becomes of the other 40,999? I’m no math whiz, but it just doesn’t add up. Seems to me that before states start declaring their religions publicly funded, legislators should go back to school. They should be required to take Religion 101. Might I suggest they enroll at UNC Chapel Hill?

Same Sex Sanity

When the people speak, sometimes it’s just nonsense. So the people of North Carolina believe in the exclusive rights of dysfunctional heterosexuals over committed homosexuals. And President Obama makes a powerful statement. As Americans we are reared to respect personal freedom. And what freedom could be more personal than the open expression of love? The reasons given for exclusivity of heterosexual marriage are spurious—certainly the Bible considers marriage in purely pragmatic, not sacred, terms. As citizens of their own time they were as much programmed by their environment as are people today. Marriages were arranged and the concept of sexual orientation simply did not exist. It is not that I castigate marriage—having been married nearly a quarter of a century myself I would be a fool to do so—but I in no way feel threatened by anybody falling in love with anybody else. Nor is it the right of any loving Christian to stand in anyone else’s way.

A God who created gender-changing fish to fry in Hell (particularly on Fridays) seems unnecessarily cruel. (Yes, such fish do exist.) A God who created other animals that exhibit homosexual behavior (bonobos, penguins, elephants, lizards—at least 450 animal species have been caught in the act) and then condemns it is surely working at cross-purposes with the nature he (always he) created. It has become quite clear from nature that sexuality is far more than procreational activity. If your kit is for kid making only, why do so many good, Christian couples have trouble conceiving? And don’t say “God only knows” because Fundies have no monopoly on questions that demand a verdict. What is God playing at here?

Intelligence and sexual behavior seldom go together. Religions, however, have a hard time keeping themselves out of the bedroom. Loving, committed relationships hurt no one. For a religion claiming to be based on love, declaring various expressions of love wrong is diminishing the good in the world. The Bible has very little to say about homosexuality. Good, Bible-believing Christians often turn blind eyes to the many more stringent passages about divorce and remarriage, but single out the very few that mention specific same-sex acts. Do they not see how such cherry-picking makes a mockery of calling anything holy? With all the excised bits, it might be more appropriately called the Holey Bible. For me, it seems they might find it more instructive to observe the moray eels rather than trying to cover their wrasses.