Day of Memorials

I admit that I’m as guilty as the next guy of thinking of holidays primarily as a day off work. A boon from the gods of capitalism so that we can come back to the job rejuvenated and more productive than ever. It doesn’t matter the occasion—I don’t have time for things like haircuts and dentist appointments with the usual round of early to rise, early to work. Holidays become islands of blessed respite in an endless ocean of labor for the man. So I wanted to take a moment to reflect on Memorial Day. Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have died—grandfather, grandmother, America. We take a moment to consider what we have lost. Then it’s back to business as usual.

My father was a veteran. He died many years ago now and I don’t write much about him because I really didn’t know him at all. That doesn’t mean I didn’t want to please him. Any boy wants to make dad proud. I tried the hard work route, and even gave Boy Scouts a try. The things of my youth have been slowly dying. Democracy is merely the latest victim. I shouldn’t be surprised—when it no longer becomes profitable, even the least offensive system of government can be bought and revamped to fit the needs of the greedy. Never mind the will of the masses. They’re the ones who lie under the gravestones for which today stands. No one can be rich without great numbers of poor against which to measure himself. Remember that; it’s Memorial Day.

Since Memorial Day doesn’t lend itself to commodification—let’s face it, outside Halloween death’s a downer—we can make it a day of sales. While you’re earning money without working, why not spend some of it? We seem to have lost the gist of holidays. Those who’ve died in vain believed in a democracy that their heirs have thrown away in scorn. If that for which we say we believe has become moribund, it appropriately becomes the focus of Memorial Day. My grandparents lie buried far from here. They were Evangelicals who wouldn’t recognize their faith reflected in those who still cling to the brand. I remember grandma sending money to Oral Roberts. She didn’t live to see him claim God would take him unless he had even more money. Now we hear the same thing from Pennsylvania Avenue. And tomorrow we all go back to work.


Sacred Education

A recent story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger describes the dynastic culture of some of the newer evangelical colleges. Presidents of such “universities” as Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, and Liberty, were drawn from the sons (not daughters) of the founders. Mostly they seem to prefer to name their schools after themselves, it seems. What strikes me as odd is not the dynastic succession—after all that is common in both business and Bible—but that society seems so content to see the explosion of evangelical colleges while holding traditional higher education in a strangle-hold. According to the article by Mark Oppenheimer, combined enrollment (online and in-person) at Liberty is over 100,000. For comparison, the full-time equivalent at Arizona State University (recently the numerically largest university in the country) is shy of 77,000. We bemoan the conservative evangelical impact in government and stop the flow of money to mainstream scholars of religion (among other disciplines) and wonder what’s wrong.

Education is costly. There can be no doubt about it. Still, most academics (apart from a few who’ve learned to sponge cynically off the system) are willing to work for modest wages. We don’t get into this field for the money. No matter how tall they build their towers in New York, or Dubai, some of us will believe it’s all vanity and that the life of the mind is more than a myth. But we will be the ones shouted down by the majority welcomed with open arms at Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, or Liberty. And it’s not with justice for all. Exclusion has always been the name of the game.

Higher education was established (largely by churches) with the premise that an educated society would be a prosperous, forward-looking one. And while some of those church-monied ventures took off (who can catch up with Harvard or Princeton?) they’ve left their Protestant roots far behind. In a society where bigger is, by definition, better, what hopes do universities founded with education in mind really have? You can put Ph.D. after your names whether you studied at Harvard or Bob Jones. Ours is a society of great equalization. Unless you happen to have one of those degrees from a suspect, secular university. You can see pretty far from atop the Mound in Edinburgh. Far off into the Kingdom of Fife and your mind is free to wander far beyond that. You can’t see as far as America’s shores, however, and if you want to get ahead here the safer money is invested in the dynastic colleges of the recently departed.

Evangelist at Arizona State

Evangelist at Arizona State


Blessed Art Thou?

blessed“Con man” derives from the disparaging use of the term “confidence man,” as applied to those whose promised deliverables never appear, if they ever existed at all. History is filled with roguish con men who populate movies and popular biographies. Among their ranks have been hawkers of spiritual wares, but the institutionalization of religious profiteering is fairly new. Even growing up in a Fundamentalist setting, I don’t recall ever hearing of the “prosperity gospel.” Although I can’t in good conscience accept the distorted theology of the literalists, at least I can say that they are mostly an honest bunch with a high threshold for supernatural interference in daily life, if sometimes rationally challenged. The prosperity gospel is far more insidious.

Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel was my first attempt to deal with the phenomenon academically. Bowler traces the movement to strains that appeared earlier than I might have guessed. Nevertheless, its fruit is rotted on the tree of greed, and it has nothing to do with historical spiritual seeking. One of the few things over which the Bible doesn’t equivocate is the corrupting influence of wealth. The needle has been jammed into the eye of the gospel in this confidence scheme. “Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.” How did this become transformed into “bring your family jewels if you don’t have cash; our accountants can liquidate your heritage for the extreme comfort and obscenely expensive lifestyle of your ‘pastor’”? In a church of 10,000 how much does your pastor care for you? I would never join a church where the shepherd did not know my name.

Bowler does an admirable job maintaining academic neutrality in Blessed. She explores the central concepts, copied from the very entrepreneurial ledger of the root of all evil. Nevertheless the prosperity gospel remains terribly hollow, shallow, and callow. The mere suggestion that wealth equates blessing in a world where millions suffer for lack of basic needs is unconscionable. One could even be justified in saying “wicked.” What kind of god takes food from the mouth of a hungry child to give it to those who have more than enough? I grew up knowing some want. I also grew up knowing that my grandmother had religiously supported a millionaire who said, “expect a miracle” week after week and then claimed the Lord would take him if he didn’t raise 8 million dollars in the first three months of 1987. Meanwhile the Evangelist still enjoyed great wealth for two more decades when he heeded the call home. All the while those far more worthy perished for lack of bread and clean water. This is neither prosperity nor gospel. Of this I’m utterly confident.


Oral Octopus

Veined Octopus

Juxtapositions fascinate me. As a former editor I notice the layout of stories on a page knowing that word counts, subject matter, photo sizes, and general interest all play into the placement of material. I recently posted an entry on Sacraments and Sea Cucumbers that had been suggested by such an editorial flourish. Yesterday’s paper wafted another such epiphany.

By now everyone knows that televangelist Oral Roberts died on Tuesday. Although he pioneered much of what is now recognized as televangelism, his true motives were clear when the money began piling up. I’m not the judge of his religious sincerity, but his ministry was a multi-million dollar enterprise, and he even founded a “university” named after himself. Meanwhile, housebound octogenarians on limited incomes gladly sent him their money to continue his good work. There is a very substantial profit to be made in preaching to the choir. All televangelists know that.

Immediately beneath the Oral Roberts story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger was a much more fascinating story about the veined octopus. Biologists have long known that octopi use large shells and other natural detritus for shelter. Octopi had been known to use coconut halves for that purpose as well. What is new in this story is that veined octopi have been observed collecting coconut halves (often discarded by human gatherers), emptying them out, and moving them to a place where two halves can be made into a neat shelter, thereby demonstrating a more advanced brain structure than most televangelists. In short, these invertebrates are utilizing tools. It is only a short step on the way to octopus televangelists, but if they know how to gather their valuables, this development can’t be far behind.