Bible Misunderstood

Okay, so I wrote a post a couple days ago about evangelicals challenging Trump’s China tariffs because it will raise the price of Bibles.  Little did I know that Miriam Adelson wants a “Book of Trump” added to that very Bible.  Now, heroes are a personal business; to each their own.  Adding someone to the Bible, however, especially when that person has no idea of what Jesus said, is problematic.  Biblical and ecclesiastical scholars know that even if most Christians agreed books simply can’t be added to Scripture.  Many think the Gospel of Thomas should qualify—it may actually be closer to the words of Jesus than some of the canonical gospels and was putatively written by a disciple.  Thomas, however, will never make the cut.  Early bishops and elders in the church set pretty firm limits to the New Testament.  

Some religious traditions, such as Mormonism, have gotten around this impasse by writing entirely new sacred texts.  Loyal Trump followers might indeed fit the description of what used to be called a cult.  Thing is, George W., and George H. W., and even Ronald Reagan were more religious than the incumbent and nobody suggested adding them to the Good Book.  Our world has somehow flipped upside down in the last three years.  All I know is that in the photos of Trump with the most Jesus-like Pope in modern memory the Holy Father wasn’t smiling.  Then again, the Pontiff would likely not autograph Bibles if asked to do so.  Has anyone suggested a book of George Washington?  There’s such a thing as getting carried away.  

The Bible, apart from being the sole recognized authoritative text of the world’s largest organized religion, is an iconic text.  This means that the Bible is recognized as an important book—perhaps even a stand-in for God—without considering what it actually says.  This was a major point behind Holy Horror and it’s essential to understanding American political behavior.  Manipulating Scripture for political ends is generally the most cynical of approaches to the Good Book.  In America you can drive down highways and see the Bible advertised on billboards.  Large segments of an increasingly secular society are still motivated by it.  There was a time when it was believed that such cavalier suggestions as that of Ms. Adelson would constitute blasphemy, or would at least profane the founding book of Christianity.  In the minds of some Trump has clearly become a god.  So it was in Rome before the fall.

 

Basic Catholic

One thing upon which we all might agree is that we don’t have enough time. Publishers, eager to find an angle that will help them survive an age when we believe knowledge should be free, have shown a preference for short books. (An exception to this seems to be novels—consumers appear to like getting lost in a long story.) One result of this is the brief introduction format of book. That’s what Michael Walsh’s contribution to The Basics series is. Roman Catholicism is somewhat of a challenge to explain in less than 200 pages. You have to stick to, well, the basics. Having sojourned among the Episcopalians many a year, I felt that I had a fairly good grasp on Catholicism, but as I was reading it struck me that to really understand it, you have to be it.

One thing the Roman church has going for it is direct continuity. Making claims of having been there since the beginning, as an organization they have a leg up over other groups that boast more recent origins. We respect, or at least we tend to, organizations with such longevity. Tracing itself back to Saint Peter, the Catholics have continuity with spades. Or crosses. Of course, one of the things Walsh addresses is how change happens in such a long-lived group. Councils and synods, new scientific information and new Popes. Catholicism today isn’t the same as it was in Pete’s day. Walsh does a good job of guiding us through all that up to the time of Pope John Paul II, who, it turns out, raised global awareness of the papacy in the world as it existed then.

One thing we might agree upon is that Pope Francis has changed perceptions of what it means to be Catholic. The church remains mired in medieval thinking about matters such as gender and sexuality, but since this little book was published there have been steps forward. Even this popular pontiff, however, can’t change the decrees that went against the majority opinion regarding birth control, as Walsh somewhat guardedly notes. Or the ordination of women. He observes at the very beginning of his little book that Catholics know all about and deeply respect authority. This brief introduction helps to get a sense of how things ended up the way they are. We know that Pope Francis has started to speak out on such things, but men like to keep authority, as we all know. And even Popes have just so much time.

Ark Apocalypse

I get lost in the web. Although my work requires that I remain plugged in to the internet all day long, I confess to feeling lost on the weekend. I don’t know what to browse or where to look for titillating new information. A friend then asked me what I thought of Gabriel’s Ark being sent to Antarctica. I had no idea what Gabriel’s Ark might be and I had to hunt through the corridors of rumor and conspiracy that make up much of the worldwide web to find it. Once I did the story grew incredible and also impossible to verify. Maybe this is why I avoid the web on weekends.

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So the story goes like this: Gabriel, the archangel, gave Mohammed a secret weapon called an ark that would herald the last days. This ark was buried in Mecca. So the story goes, it was unearthed in September and it was the power of that ark that led to the tragic crane collapse that killed over a hundred pilgrims in Mecca last year. Days later the weapon went off again, leading to the death that the media blamed on a human stampede. Wanting to rid themselves of the ultimate weapon, the Saudi officials handed it to Russia. A research ship headed for Antarctica took on the mysterious cargo in Arabia before chugging south. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church met with Pope Francis, so the story goes, to receive an ancient document to control the ark. The Patriarch then showed up in Antartica to enact a strange liturgy before the trail goes cold on the story.

No major, respected news media carried the story. That only confirms that it is a cover-up in the eyes of many. What is so fascinating about all of this is that those who continue to keep the story alive clearly believe that the end of days is being unleashed not via the Christian apocalypse, but a supposed Muslim one. It’s as if Revelation didn’t deliver, so now we need to turn to some other ancient, obscure document to document the apocalypse. Meanwhile, those who’ve spent their lives learning to read ancient texts by accredited universities scrounge for whatever work they can find. Odd people aspire to very powerful political positions. Money is the only thing that matters. Maybe it is the end of days after all.

Rutgers Presbyterian

It is indeed an honor to be invited to address a church group on topics that matter. While I didn’t directly address global warming in my book, it was in my mind as I wrote it. Early in my teaching career, I wasn’t sure how to cinch up the gap between the lexicography I was attempting and the real world issue that it should address. The seminar portion of yesterday’s program focused on topics associated with the weather, and I was gratified to hear that many of those present felt that a profound weather event had made an emotional impact upon them. Weather has a way of reminding us that we’re small and that forces beyond our control still exist. I’d forgotten how nice it is to while away a few hours with intelligent people who think about the world we all inhabit. I only wish I could have recorded all the wisdom I heard. We tend to think if someone’s not speaking to us from a major media outlet they’re not worth listening to. I am glad to be reminded that this is not so.

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During our discussion of global warming, the question arose as to what we could call “climate change” to make it appropriately terrifying. Various suggestions were made such as poisoning the sky, suffocating the earth, and old-fashioned, and to-the-point air pollution. We are a species that seems bent on its own destruction. The atmosphere is so incredibly large, but, as our host reminded us, so very thin. Life is supported only in what might be considered, in his words, a thousand-story tower. Beyond that, life runs out. We need to take the limited nature of this small envelope of gas surrounding us seriously.

I’ve come to realize that my fascination with the weather largely derives from looking at the sky. Such an activity is so basically human and so profound, that we simply overlook it most of the time. The sky is superior to us. It was, for most of human history, far out of reach. We have stretched our hands up to the realm of the gods and smeared it with our industrial filth. Many of those present, although not Catholic, applauded the Pope’s insistence that the world must be view holistically and that we must stop polluting our home. Pollution used to be an ugly word, but we have been taught to change our language to add ambiguity. “Climate change” is so neutral, with no one to blame. But it’s not at all accurate when it comes to the real costs. We’ve already impacted the weather for a millennium into the future at least. And I, for one, left our session optimistic that intelligent people cared enough to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon discussing it.

Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Pope-ulation

My brother, who art near Philadelphia, recently told me that the City of Brotherly Love began towing cars from the no park zone a week before the Pope’s anticipated arrival. There are those apocalyptic concerns for the commute into New York City this week as well. Papal visits are always big news, but Pope Francis has captured the hearts of many, Catholic, Protestant, and non-Christian alike, because of his obvious and sincere care for people. Mercy, kindness, sympathy, and empathy have long been overlooked in many organized religions, and to have the head of the largest Christian body in the world emphasizing just those things has been a breath of well, spirit. As our world has turned increasingly towards materialism fueled by a rationalism that says this physical world is all there is, a hunger has been growing. People need to be assured that there is some meaning in being people.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Theological purity is all fine and good, but it is only, literally academic. We send our clergy to seminaries to teach them to understand the rational part of faith. Many laity may not realize that a Master of Divinity is a three-year degree because it has to allow time for spiritual development. I was unlike most seminarians, having majored in religious studies. Coming into ministry from all areas of life—science, medicine, politics, business—many seminarians aren’t accustomed to taking school time to get in touch with their souls. It is a foreign concept in a world where we’re daily told we have no souls. Pope Francis is a pontiff with a soul. And the world has noticed.

We need those to whom we can look up. We need heroes not only of the action movie variety, but those of more human dimensions as well. Two of the most populous cities in the country are preparing for a kind of epiphany. America has long been a country of laissez faire ethics. Leave it alone and it will all take care of itself. We can all see through that. The northeast coast is bracing for a different kind of hurricane this season. It will mean traffic headaches, for sure, and no doubt many will be chagrined at all the fuss. Still, I have a difficult time seeing this as anything other than a hopeful sign. Perhaps we have a need for religious heroes still, after all.

Pope of Deliverance

As I was out jogging just now, a large gasoline truck pulled across the road, stalling my attempt at healthy living. As I waited for the driver to move, I thought of Laudato Si’. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’s encyclical letter, the future seems, for the first time in a long time, an optimistic place. I’m not Roman Catholic, but knowing that the head of the largest Christian body in the world has made an ecclesiastical pronouncement about our responsibilities as citizens of the planet is nevertheless authoritative. A world run by blind greed cannot see the signs in plain sight. We have taken what does not belong to us and have left a wasteland behind. I look back over a lifetime of advocating, in the small way my small voice can reach, for responsible tenancy on the Earth, and feel comforted by such a powerful ally. Perhaps it’s because I’ve never been a property “owner,” buying into the myth that the planet may be purchased, but it has never made sense to me that one species has the right to claim it all for itself, leaving it in a state our mothers would’ve never allowed our bedrooms to have been left, and supposing it is somebody else’s problem. If not ours, whose? We’re the ones paying the rent.

Those responsible for industrial level pollution baulk at the idea of economic fairness. Capitalism rewards the greedy and the only thing to trickle down is tears. Those with money can always count on lackeys to follow, thus when the man in white says this is important, those in red, and purple, and black have no choice but to follow. There’s no escaping the planet. We shouldn’t have to feel we need to escape. We need to take—dare I say it—corporate action. Those of us on an individual level sometimes think we can’t make a difference. Habits can be powerful things. A visit to a landfill can be a mystical experience. The visions you have there won’t be beatific, however. You might begin to understand the Inferno, in any case. We consume, and pollute, as if it is our right to do so. As if our brains have misfired into suicidal sociopaths.

Son, behold thy mother.

Son, behold thy mother.

Where, I have often wondered, is the voice of the church in all this? By far the vast majority of the world’s inhabitants are religious. Religious leaders, embroiled in politics that lead to solvency and power, have frequently neglected to turn out the lights when they’ve left the board room. While it may seem to be an abuse that the Catholic Church is extremely wealthy and highly influential, it may be that the humble leader of such an organization is the only person truly capable of getting attention. The Pope’s voice carries farther than that of any other single individual in the Christian tradition. And the media are already buzzing about the long anticipated Laudato Si’. The Pope begins on a positive note, and if those who make any claim to be faithful pay attention to the truly important message—far more important than fighting condoms or ensuring that half the human race is kept out of the club house—there may be a slight glimmer of hope yet. Maybe religion really can deal with ultimate concerns after all.