Tumblin’ Down

RadioLab (not to be confused with Radiohead) is an NPR program to which my wife likes to listen.  She’s introduced me to a few episodes since, as a person who does a lot of writing, I don’t normally gravitate toward programs with a lot of talk.  It’s part of the writer’s curse.  In any case, she recently played a segment on acoustic warfare.  I’ve known for some time that acoustic warfare is a thing, and that militaries use sound to disrupt enemies’ machinery and human operators.  I didn’t really know how it worked.  The interesting thing about this RadioLab spot was that they took the story of the walls of Jericho as a starting-off point.  Also of interest is that one of the hosts had never heard the story—something that would have been somewhat impossible for many growing up in my generation.  In case that’s you, however, the story goes like this—

God commanded Joshua to take on Jericho, a major, walled city, with a ritual procession and the blowing of trumpets.  After marching around the city several times, the priests blew their trumpets and the walls collapsed.  The story’s told in the book of Joshua.  The question discussed on RadioLab was whether it was possible to knock down walls with noise.  It is, they concluded, but at a noise level beyond the abilities of shofars.  This very discussion, however, raised any number of issues.  One is that the collapse of Jericho’s walls isn’t attributed to the rams’ horn sound, but rather a miracle.  Another is that biblical scholars and archaeologists have long known that Jericho wasn’t even occupied at the time of Joshua, and so the story isn’t historical.

Those who produce educational materials on various media generally don’t consider scholars of religion as interesting or noteworthy speakers.  TED talks don’t feature a category for religion, and, as this RadioLab episode demonstrated, those who understand acoustics have more interesting things to say than biblical scholars.  It’s not so much a rude awakening as it is a confirmation that what has long seemed obvious is indeed true—biblical scholarship isn’t really of general interest.  The Bible, however, retains a certain mystique.  I struggle with this disconnect constantly.  While the Good Book remains an iconic symbol—divine, even—those who know it well have less to say than others who have scientific methods to apply.  Not once was it mentioned on RadioLab that pretty much no biblical scholar would argue that the story is historical, but then, what fun would that be to pick apart?

McChristianity

Christianity isn’t known for its sense of humor.  The same can be said of other religions as well, of course.  What else should we expect concerning belief systems that claim eternal consequences?  A story by Colin Dwyer on NPR explains that the Haifa Museum of Art had to remove a sculpture titled “McJesus” due to public violence.  The sculpture depicts a crucified Ronald McDonald, and a number of althoughs follow: although Haifa is in Israel a large number of Christians protested.  Although the practice of crucifixion was uncomfortably common in ancient days it has come to be associated with one particular case.  Although the message might be interpreted as a condemnation of commercialism, protestors took it to be aimed at their faith.  Perhaps it was.  Artists can be notoriously ambiguous in that way.

Ronald McDonald is a liminal, if ubiquitous figure.  Instantly recognizable, he has been challenged before as a threat to christendom.  I once heard a priest lament that children recognized the golden arches more than the cross.  Well, that’s not surprising—we don’t go around telling our kids about crucifixion daily.  (Or shouldn’t.)  A massive Ronnie, on the other hand, floats down Manhattan every Thanksgiving Day.  He’s on posters, commercials, and 42nd Street.  He’s the patron saint of branding.  With his garish clashing color palette, his red and yellow never mix to orange and they linger in our minds to ensure us that no matter where we might be there’s always cheap, if unhealthy, food nearby.  Mr. McDonald has become a religious symbol of capitalism.

Even as a child I noticed the great deal of excitement that accompanied the opening of the local McDonald’s.  In a small, corroded corner of the rust belt, families piled into cars to drive to Oil City to see this wonder.  It was like an epiphany.  Eating out that the poor could afford.  Just about everything in downtown Oil City is now closed, but the last time I was there that McDonald’s still stood.  Back in Haifa an ironic depiction led to real violence.  Angry Christians carrying stones couldn’t see the statue as a condemnation of consumer culture.  Their beleaguered religion was at risk.  Blood flowed and the art piece was removed and packed off to Finland.  Although the point of the display was to question religious appropriation in the support of consumerism, and although that message could ultimately support the teachings of the religion it evokes, the branding came across all wrong.  Church is your kind of place…

Trending Horror

It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve.  A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia.  It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows.  As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness.  I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate.  Now it started to feel therapeutic.

My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.”  The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive.  It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil.  In other words, horror can be heuristic.  Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination.  One of the most common responses is the question of “why?”  Why would anyone want to watch such stuff?  My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried.  Horror is not often what it seems.  Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.

The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability.  Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel.  These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before.  Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine.  Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman.  If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here.  As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.”  In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already.  We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly.  I’m seldom ahead of the curve.  I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front.  Call it a survival technique.

Signs of the Times

America’s phallic affair with guns should give us pause to wonder what the true motivation is. My wife sent me an NPR story on the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania. Congregants gathered carrying AR-15s, saying that the Bible’s rod of iron was really a semi-automatic. Did I say it was a phallic affair? According to the story by Scott Neuman, some of the faithful had substituted the crown of thorns for a crown of bullets. Literally. That man dying on the cross because of government overreach, I suspect, wishes he had his hands free so he could rub his eyes. He’s hanging here dying with the title prince of peace only to have grenade grannies praising his name with high explosives. This is what passes for Christianity these days.

Photo credit: Isabelle Grosjean ZA, Wikipedia

Sensible evangelicals have been in full retreat since November 2016. Stripped of their label by extremists who somehow mistake the lamb of God for Rambo, they no longer have a name of their own. Like worms on the sidewalk in the rain, there’s nowhere left to go. The same is true of rank and file Republicans. They wonder what has become of the (God help us!) party of Nixon. Watergate seems like a mere indiscretion compared to this. I’m sorry, were you waiting for Armageddon? Don’t worry, those who move the hands of the doomsday clock have shifted it closer to midnight than it’s ever been before. You’ll have your end times soon enough.

Among the ironies witnessed by the crucified one from his vantage point high on the cross is that it was his zealous followers who started all this. Religious experts tell us that all world religions depart significantly from the teachings of their founders within one generation. If you’ve read Paul’s letters you know this to be true. I grew up as a Fundamentalist. Even though for my career I specialized in the Hebrew Bible, my upbringing was focused on the red letter words of the other testament. Over and over and over again I read them. Think of others before yourself. Turn the other cheek. Walk the extra mile. Give away everything you own. The ones I don’t recall internalizing were: arm yourself with deadly force. Give your grannie an assault rifle. If someone slaps you on the cheek, blow him away. It is more blessed to destroy than to forgive. We sit beneath a giant clock with a commander in chief with an itchy nuclear button finger. Even a clock can be a crucifix, if you look at it in a certain way.

Sticky Labels

Who gets to decide on their own label? We all generally know how we’d like people to think of us, but labels are limiting and divisive. An article by Tom Gjelten on NPR describes why “2017 Has Been A Rough Year For Evangelicals.” The label “Evangelical” is so protean that most people outside the specialist camp really have no idea what it means. A colleague of mine at Nashotah House used to defensively declare himself an Evangelical while holding somewhat progressive social views. I know Evangelicals who find the whole Trump charade distasteful and, quite frankly, wrong. They are, however, pasted with a label that has passed its expiration date. This label doesn’t come off easily.

The real issue is not Evangelicalism, but politics. In the version of Evangelicalism in which I was raised was non-weaponized. Yes, we believed that others should convert to “true Christianity” but whether they did so or not was their decision. In college, fellow Evangelicals in a very conservative setting declared that legislative morality was no morality at all. This was in the Reagan Era, when the GOP “discovered” the huge “bloc” of untapped voters—the Evangelicals. They discovered that this particular bloc could be rather easily swayed from voting in its own best interests, socially and financially, but emphasizing certain hot button issues. It was a political game that many Evangelicals simply didn’t recognize. You love Jesus, you vote Republican. Now these Jesus lovers must love Trump.

This discord is what Gjelten is addressing. Some Evangelicals are discussing changing their label. This can happen, of course, over time. The Moral Majority became the Religious Right became the Christian Right. Powered by televangelists when television was king, they now have to try to control the internet so the mediating influence of secular thought can be dammed. Among the casualties along the way is Jesus. The modern Evangelical movement no longer adheres to the teachings of the carpenter from Nazareth. The issues on which he spoke plainly and repeatedly have been relabeled as “liberal” and therefore evil. If you can keep the Jesus brand, eviscerated of its core beliefs, you can gather a bloc of dupes who’ll flush their own healthcare and financial wellbeing simply because sheep will follow any shepherd. Ironically, the Bible itself warns of the dangers of following false shepherds. None of that matters anymore. And those who joined the group because of that Bible wonder now who they really are.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Serpent Number One

I haven’t read The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. Yet. My reading list is frighteningly enormous and constantly growing. I just can’t seem to get on top of it. In any case, my wife sent me an NPR interview with Perry that set me to thinking about monsters. (It really doesn’t take much.) One of Perry’s answers in the piece by Ari Shapiro stopped me in my tracks. Perry admits that recent political events have made her question her belief in benevolent humanism. I’d never thought of our current crisis in that way before. This is one example of what happens when it’s—pardon the expression—every man for himself. We’ve stepped away from religion as any kind of public conscience. The religious right doesn’t fit any classification of religion that I know of, so I’m discounting it as a legitimate form of belief. When we look out for number one, a self-appointed number one takes over.

With an insidiousness that can only be called evil, our elected “representatives” tried to sequester away the facts of their healthcare bill that they wanted to ram through in order to give the wealthy serpents tax breaks. The thing about looking out for number one is that you’re only number one to yourself. There can only be one one. Lining one’s pockets with the tax money of others is a trick as old as civilization itself. In ancient times, however, they at least called themselves kings and emperors and made no excuses for what they were doing. We said we were advanced enough to do without the religion that supported these outdated views. We’re back to the days of kings and emperors. Anyone who believes differently is fooling him or herself. There have been snakes in the garden from the beginning. Getting rid of religion won’t clear them from the grounds.

There are many benevolent humanists. There are many more who are suffering under the weight of current political systems. Unhappy people elect dictators. It has happened before—in the current lifetime of many, no less. The warning signs are all there to be ignored. The fruit sure looks nice, hisses our constant companion. Looking out for number two is the first step. Then number three, and twenty, and eight-billion. That’s benevolent humanism. Anything less is, well, a walk down the garden path. We’ve been down that path before. Those who trust serpents must learn to count. To do anything less is less than human.