Inside, outside, upside-down.  The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries.  Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes.  Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all.  Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world.  Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between.  And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.

Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life.  While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me.  Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing.  The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism.  Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside.  I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here.  “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them.  Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them.  Methodists and Presbyterians too.  They tend to conform a bit to expectations and  tend not to be extremist about things.  Being mainstream will do that to you.

It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions.  Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers.  Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside.  Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it.  I grew up Fundamentalist.  After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside.  When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point.  Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had.  Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside.  You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.

Winter Blossoms

Audur Ava Olafsdottir is a remarkable novelist. Iceland, of course, is held to be the most literate country in the world. I began reading Icelandic fiction of a considerably earlier period while living in Scotland. There was still a trace of Scandinavian heritage from Viking days discernible there, particularly in the Orkney Islands. I started taking on reading challenges three years ago. Given that I spend many hours a week sitting on a bus, it seemed natural enough to put my time toward a specific goal. The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge encourages me to move beyond the bounds of my usual fare. One of the categories for this year’s challenge is a translated book. I enjoyed Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November so much last year that I selected The Greenhouse for this year’s translated offering.

The story of two young people who accidentally have a child together, the tale makes effective use of religious imagery in reflective ways. The young man takes a job in a monastery rose garden in a remote country. When his one-night stand visits him to have him watch his daughter while she finishes her thesis, everyone notices how miraculous the child is. She even bears a striking resemblance to baby Jesus in the painting in the chapel. The narrative is gentle and reflective. The monks are drawn out of their scriptorium by the beauty of the roses and the child that is so intimately tied up with them. There’s nothing preachy, or even overtly religious here. It’s a simple reflection that religion pervades life, even in secular Europe.

One of the saddest realities of the present is that religion has made itself so odious to so many. Human beings are naturally inclined toward religious thoughts and behaviors. When any form of orthodoxy enters the picture, though, it begins to fall apart. The young couple, unmarried—not even girlfriend and boyfriend really—transform the town they’re in, making it a more habitable and humane place. They’re not condemned for “living in sin.” Even a priest admits things can get pretty complicated where relationships are concerned. A coming of age novel, The Greenhouse has Icelandic magic that comes through even in translation. Olafsdottir is a novelist who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for describing what is plainly obvious to those who pay attention: religion is all around us, and it need not be something to condemn. In fact, if cultivated without the acidic soil of orthodoxy it might even make the world a better place.

Shipping Good News

Some say the infrastructure of this country is crumbling. It’s something I try not to think much about when I’m on the Helix or in the Lincoln Tunnel, but the concrete of those aging piers doesn’t look too healthy to me. So when I see a truck with a religious message, I guess I’m supposed to take comfort. On a recent drive along interstate 80, the great New York to San Francisco highway, we passed a Sam Kholi truck. You can tell a Sam Kholi truck because they declare “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word” in bold letters on the side. The back has just the first part of the aphorism followed by “Almighty God the First and the Last.” A little research revealed that Sam Kholi is from Syria and now lives in San Diego. Many Americans, in these days of Trump, don’t realize that many “middle easterners” are indeed Christian. I got my start in publishing from a Syrian Christian. Prejudging is seldom a good idea.

Sam Kholi is combining his faith with his practice—something that harkens back to more ancient forms of religion. Lived religion used to be the only kind of religion. Once it was systematized, it became an academic pursuit. Knowing precisely what you believed became more important than what you did with it. Today’s religion, at least in these hallowed states, seems to be purely a matter of what you believe. Whether you live morally, treat others justly, or even pay attention to what the Bible says about caring for those in need, none of this matters as long as you believe the right thing. The result is people suffer. No matter, orthodoxy is secure.

Since our actions are more vocal than our words, I’m amazed and perplexed by what many evangelicals say. They are the ones who claim for themselves the literal truth of Jesus’ words. How they can deny the rights and needs of others based on race, gender, or sexual orientation is a mystery given the many passages in the Bible concerning forgiveness and love. When it comes to religion as how you live, apparently it is one size fits all. Driving, it seems to me, is one of the places where lived religion is put to its harshest test. Religion is how we live with others, and driving is how we show what we really believe. It takes a tremendous amount of faith to paint your belief on the side of a truck.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Appreciate Your Job

At a gathering of friends recently, a game of trivia broke out. Well, it was actually planned because we were not using the cards and pie wedges that we grew up with, but were making up our own questions. The submitter of the question was the final arbiter on whether an answer was correct or not. As usual, I probably overthought the process, trying not to make my questions too hard or too easy. Maybe my ideal contestant was a student in one of my intro classes since much of what I submitted was what I covered in my courses. Other questions were drawn from choice bits of this blog (something to which I never subjected my students). In any case, one of my submissions asked for the name of Job’s fourth friend. I was honestly surprised when nobody in the grew knew, or could even name one of poor Job’s friends. My slip of paper went into the unanswered pile in the middle, a stack alarmingly dominated by my own questions. Afterward, the friend who knew me the longest, and who grew up in a church-going family, asked “Did you really think anyone had read the book of Job?” Coming so shortly, as it did, after another friend in a different context had indicated that my interests are arcane, I began to feel my age.

Biblical literacy is a topic for which some scholars actively lobby the reading public. I’m not sure if the entire Bible need be known fully, although my job increasingly relies upon its popularity. Students used to ask if I still found the Bible meaningful, even though I spent my career parsing it apart. The answer is always the same: yes, the Bible is worthy of the attention lavished upon it. It has sections of unsurpassed beauty and even some lessons the world could still stand to learn. It is uneven, however. There are bits that probably should’ve never been canonized. There are moral lows as well as highs. And the book of Job is among the greatest pieces included in it.

On that point I would receive some argumentation, I’m sure. Many people detest the book of Job. The eponymous hero of the book seems almost blasphemous to some, and a complaining ingrate to others. In the course of his suffering four friends stop by. The last one, surely a later addition to the text, toes the party line of orthodoxy that the book severely shreds. Job also contains some of the finest poetry from the ancient world and has given modern English several catchphrases still currently in use. I’ve always felt a kinship with Job. While my lot has not been as pathetic as his, I have had enough set-backs to lend the book a kind of nostalgic patina. Even in their wrongheadedness Job’s friends can spill out poetry. And there is wisdom to be had in that dusty book. In the end I was probably the one who was wrong. There is nothing trivial about the book of Job.


Girls Rising

While I was home watching Bruce Almighty, my wife was attending a local screening of the documentary Girl Rising. (There was a good reason for this discrepancy; you’ll need to trust me on this one.) Chances are that many readers haven’t heard of Girl Rising; I know that if I weren’t the husband and father of Girl Scouts, I’d likely have missed it myself. Isn’t that part of the problem? Why does our society make females invisible, unless sex objects? Tabby Biddle has a thoughtful observation about this in the Huffington Post. She notes the importance of the film, but laments that the only way to make it through to the masculine mind is to pose the argument that educating girls will increase the GDP of less fortunate nations. Girls should be educated for their very humanness, Biddle suggests, but our view of a masculine God often prevents this from happening. While Biddle may have fallen a little under the spell of Marija Gimbutas, she makes a very valid point: there is no human reason that girls should not receive equal opportunities with boys. The fact that I even have to write that in the twenty-first century saddens me. It is not just “Third World” girls that have to struggle to gain what is rightfully theirs.

In my career I have been passed over more than once so that a woman might take the advertised position. (I have even been informed of this fact by friends on search committees.) Somehow I can’t find any injustice in this situation, as much as it has personally disappointed my hopes and dreams. Men have been frustrating female hopes and dreams for millennia. Maybe the matriarchy that Gimbutas envisioned never really existed, but the concept is sound: women and men both contribute to this thing we call civilization. Our religions, as they developed in our societies, have held the mirror up to the might-makes-right paradigm from the very beginning. Wouldn’t a male god with a more muscular upper body shove a fair, and giving goddess out of the way every time? Just ask Zeus. Or Odin. Or El. Divine civilization is only human projection, and we just can’t relate to a genderless God. So he becomes the excuse for female repression.

The face of divinity?

The face of divinity?

We’ve firmly entered a new millennium, and, looking at our treatment of half of our species, we still have an incredibly long way to go. In much of the western world, traditional religion has lost its grip, but I’m a little frightened by what I see taking its place. There are a few pockets of female-friendly religions awaking, but there are many more backlashes from the traditional male preserves of conservatism, patriarchy, and free enterprise. It is time for all men to consider that none of us would be here without our real-life goddesses. Some may rail against unorthodoxy, but unfair structures must be imploded for a new, and true, orthodoxy to be established. Women and men—not women for men, not women for profit—that is the only right teaching. So we should promote Girl Rising, and we should seek to move beyond the mere financial benefits for a free market to find the divine spark that masculine interest seems to have lost.

Watch, and Pray

Religion is a lucrative business. There is likely a deep, evolutionary urge for fair play nestled somewhere in primate DNA. Monkeys and apes seem concerned about it, and certainly nothing gets people more upset than a cheater who does prosper (unless he, less often she, is the protagonist of some gangster movie). Most of us work pretty hard to make a living, often doing tasks that push us beyond our comfort range in order to ensure some kind of success. The same is true of clergy. Yes, stories of lazy or lackadaisical ministers abound, but many work long hours under often stressful conditions. Most are not paid very well. Their eyes, according to unwritten writ, are turned toward a larger prize. In an economy that has become a nearly universal capitalism, everything has a price. People want to feel that they are pleasing God but there are oh so many rules and regulations! The Hebrew Bible alone has 613, and then add the Christian Scriptures and two millennia of ecclesiological dogmatism and you’ve got one hefty bill. We don’t mind paying a bit of that for a religious specialist to take care of the details while we get on with the real business of life.

Now add a little math. How many people does it take to add up to a small fortune? Already by the Middle Ages the Catholic Church, really the only show in town across Europe, had amassed a real treasury. Although individually the clergy could claim to own nothing, collectively they were flush. Even today the wealth (and therefore power) of the Vatican is nearly beyond comprehension. A colleague recently pointed me to a story I had missed back in April. This involved the computer age and lucre in an unexpected place. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill I was photographed sitting at a high-gloss table, wearing a Breguet watch valued at $30,000. There was an outcry. The Russian Church, long under the pressure of a communist state, could hardly be described as opulent. Well, liturgical vestments and accouterments are expected to be costly, but personal items such as watches, are expected to be modest. Thirty-thousand dollars is a lot of money to be reminded of when to show up for mass.

In response, some church leaders turned to technology for a solution. The watch was Photoshopped out of the picture and, as if a miracle, the scandal disappeared! Except they forgot the glossy tabletop—the reflection of the watch, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, remained as evidence. (The story may be found here, along with the damning photos, if you can stand the snarky writing.) Owning such a watch may be considered bad form among the humble clergy, hiding it, however, is even worse. I don’t mean to single out Patriarch Kirill—the Russians have had a pretty rough go of it, what with Stalin and Reagan and all—but religions seldom like to have their coffers examined. The laity will pay handsomely to avoid the extra work salvation demands. Herein lies the rub: salvation has become less tangible as material wealth has expanded. Many people have mistaken one for the other. It’s just that they don’t want to get caught enjoying a little too much of the one at the expense of the other.

Now watch this, for time is fleeting

Fighting Jesus

Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, accomplished something no other book has ever done for me—it actually made the doctrinal debates of Late Antiquity interesting. An historian of religion with wide interests, Jenkins produces fascinating books on what might appear to be esoteric aspects of religious life. I remember yawning through theology classes where we learned of crusty, if utterly convicted, monks and bishops arguing over single prepositions in their efforts to define exactly who Jesus might have been. When Jenkins turns his attention to this dusty, unwashed phase of Christianity’s gamy early years, new avenues on regulated belief structures open the way to understanding just how little most believers know of their own traditions. On its way to feel-good evangelicalism, Christianity frequently paused along the way to brutally murder some of its own for disagreeing about whether Jesus shared the same essence as his dad.

Today many Christians are taught by their clergy that their faith differs little from that of the earliest Christians. All who are taught this should be compelled to read Jesus Wars in order to get a grip on what really happened. From the very beginning Christianity was deeply divided about who was truly a follower of Christ and who was not. Even within a generation of the death of Jesus his various groups of followers could find little that they all agreed upon. As Jenkins demonstrates, over the next few centuries that sad history was worked out with extreme cruelty and cudgels and swords. The side with strongest force of arms got to decide on doctrine. Nor did matters improve with the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformers lapsed into what would have found them tied to a stake for heresy, had they been fortunate enough to have been born in the early centuries of “the Christian Era.”

The one figure that seems to have been lost during the Jesus Wars was Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, human constructions of who Jesus might have been became the source of great suffering. Bishops beating bishops to death, saints having women murdered, monks forming an unwashed militia—it’s all here along with the debate over how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Jenkins does an excellent job of demonstrating that what is now known as “orthodox” Christianity was often a matter of political accident. In the case of Theodosius II, the future of Christianity literally rode on the horse that stumbled, tossing the emperor to his death. No doubt, there will be those of one or another brand of Christianity who will see the divine will behind the ultimate outcome. That outcome, however, will always insist that all others are wrong. For those seeking a bit of balance, Jenkins will make enlightening reading. For others it may give the lie to doctrines made what they are by mere mortals. In any case, the words attributed to Jesus about loving your neighbors and enemies will nowhere be found amid the debates of who he might have really been.

Joseph Smith in the Spotlight

Mormons on Broadway? Well, not actual LDSers, but their famous founding document, The Book of Mormon, is now a Broadway show. While I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for The Quran to be produced, holy books have often been utilized by the media as rich venues for timeless tales. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar come to mind as Lloyd Webber adaptations. Godspell, while not as directly scriptural, drew its inspiration from the Gospels (particularly Matthew). Those who lose are those who resist the free press of popular culture.

At the risk of sounding Niebuhrian, the religion that refuses the blessing of society is the one that will fade away. Religions are human institutions, and as such, require human adherents. Critics often claim that popular adaptations of their sacred writ are making fun of the texts, but is not cultural adaptation all about celebrating a story that has won its way into the media and outside the confines of rigid orthodoxy? Which version can be said to be truly alive? This is not theology, it’s theater.

Working with students who have very little background in the Bible, I clearly see the wisdom of taking what are admittedly dry texts and bringing them to life. Religions often founder in the process of mistaking form for substance. Literalism has done more to damage religions that it has to keep them pure. Reviews from the Book of Mormon attest to its appeal, and in a country where the Latter Day Saints are generally considered the second-fastest growing church, the musical is a boon. Trey Parker and Matt Stone can hardly be accused of attempting to convert the heathen, but their show cannot but help to bring this particular denomination into the public eye nearly as much as Mitt Romney’s attempted candidacy will. That’s what I call rose-colored glasses!

You've seen the show, now why not read the book?

Gnot What It Seems

Mythology has a funny way of dying. It just keeps resurrecting itself. It is the eternal return. One of the shocking truths about religions is that their cohesiveness is exaggerated for effect. The usual desired effect is power or influence over others, as in most human enterprises. Nowhere is this clearer than at the birth of religions. Since each human brain processes information in a unique way, the two people in a room with the religious founder will hear his/her teachings in their own way and neither will be identical with each other or the founder. This phenomenon has been long recognized by religionists. It is customary to speak of “Christianities” or “Judaisms” rather than suggest a fictional singularity.

Manuscript finds and serious study of early Christian texts make a strong case for two major brands of Christianity as early as the first century of the common era: “Orthodox” and “Gnostic.” The former likely arose in opposition to the latter. Gnosticism congealed out of a heady brew of Zoroastrian dualism, Judeo-Christian nascent apocalypticism, and good old “Canaanite” mythology. The teachings of Jesus could readily fit into a worldview that rejected materialism for a pure spiritual plane untainted by physical limitations and pollution. It is only a small step from here to the belief that the physical world is an illusion. Problem is, that would mean the physical resurrection was apparent only, and what does that mean for all future prospects of bliss? Better to bring down the hammer of Orthodoxy than to live with doubt.

Yet Gnosticism lives on. One of the few direct lines of descent can be found among the Mandaeans, an endangered monotheistic sect that has maintained a Gnostic dualism for centuries. Indeed, they trace their origins all the way to Adam. Gnosticism, whether recognized or not, has left its influence on concepts from The Matrix to Philip K. Dick’s novels to Rich Terrile’s theories of God. Certainly there is a draw to believing this world is an illusion and that reality lies elsewhere. Maybe in that real world there is no need for religion since everyone already knows the truth.

sursum codex

Nag Hammadi

Want to create some excitement in the middle of a gaggle of scholars of ancient history? Just throw some newly discovered ancient text in their midst and sit back to watch the fun. This scenario has been (metaphorically) repeated many times in the last century and a half. New texts come to light and revolutionize what we know of ancient religions. The Nag Hammadi library represents one such flair up of excitement and intrigue. Discovered in 1945, this cache of mostly Gnostic texts has forced a new paradigm upon early Christianity. It has become clear that several flavors of early Christianity existed side-by-side until one group, claiming divine support, became the “true Christianity” (orthodox) while the others were just plain wrong. The Gnostic field of study received a shot in the arm with the publicity fair surrounding the Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic text not found at Nag Hammadi, early in the new millennium.

Good News, Gnostic Style

Discovery can be a dangerous luxury. When new evidence surfaces it can’t be ignored. When the religions of the ancient world reached their imperial stages it had already become too late to admit that mistakes may have had been made way back in ancient times. You can’t conquer a country and then just take it back. We now know that it is far more appropriate to refer to Early Christianities and Early Judaisms than to utilize their singular (if more prevalent) forms.

Nag Hammadi, a mid-size town in Egypt, has been back in the news since Coptic Christmas (just a couple of days ago) saw the death of six Copts when a Muslim extremist gunned them down on their way out of church. In turn, the Coptic community has been running riot in the town, destroying ambulances and shattering shop windows and driving Muslims off the streets. Those who hold their religions to be unchanging have the most to lose when new discoveries surface. It seems unlikely that exploration will cease; more ancient interpretations will emerge. When they do it also seems unlikely that they will find parent religions mature enough to accept their long-lost children. We could still use a little bit of secret knowledge, it seems, even today.

Dog-Headed Saints

Eastern Saint Christopher

In Stephen Asma’s recent book, On Monsters, he discusses the role of early Christianity in perpetuating or perhaps even inventing various monstrous creatures. As is clear from sources going all the way back to Sumerian times, ancient religions are the spawning beds for monsters. One of the monsters Asma mentioned that caught my attention was the familiar St. Christopher. According to sources as orthodox as St. Augustine, there lived races of dog-headed people in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. These Anubis-like cynocephali were barbarians in the extreme, eating human beings like the more familiar werewolf.

In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, St. Christopher was said to be among the cynocephali. Converted to Christianity, the dog-headed saint was martyred and entered the great kennel in the sky. The message proclaimed by this strange story is the tolerance of the early Christian movement. While battles raged over Orthodox vs. heterodox vs. Gnostic vs. pagan, there was still room to allow dog-headed humans into the fold. (They could be quite useful in rounding up straying sheep as well, one supposes.)

One of the hallmarks of modern Christianity is its exclusiveness. Naturally, not all Christians fit this profile, but many of the current movements define themselves by those not permitted to enter. In the sordid history of the Religious Right there are many chapters demonstrating a stark mistrust of non-Anglo believers. Roman Catholicism maintains that it is the only historically correct version of the faith. Other religions also erect barriers to keep others out. If religions truly promoted tolerance we might see a few more dog-headed saints in the news today instead of those who earn headlines for their exclusive claims on the truth.

And We All Fall Down

Welcome to the latest podcast on the Sects and Violence blog — please pardon the technical difficulties (old dog, new trick!). The topic of this podcast is the phenomenon of sects-uality, or how religions split into sects. The focus is particularly on Christianity, and especially Orthodoxy.