Born Once More

Every once in a while a reader, either here or on other social media, asks me what my religious beliefs are.  The expected answer to such a question is the standard label of a denomination of some sort.  My response, however, is that knowing the group I belong to (and I do) should not effect the way my thoughts are viewed.  With the exception of some groups suspected of mind control, standard religions are generally trusted as being motivated by pure intentions.  Having both attended and taught in seminary settings, and knowing a great number of clergy, however, it becomes clear that denomination is less important than one might think.  In short, I answer this question in the public forum of neither classroom nor blog as I truly believe there’s nothing to be gained by readers/students knowing where I personally seek meaning, denominationally.

It’s no secret that it was once the Episcopal Church.  (I could not have taught at Nashotah House otherwise.)  It was made pretty clear after being at said seminary for many years that the Episcopalians had no official place for me.  Even when I worked a few blocks from the church’s headquarters in New York City I could find no one willing to listen or consider my credentials.  Its Church Publishing branch wouldn’t consider me in their book wing.  Were it not for some former students who still minister to me, it was clear they did not miss me.  So it was with some surprise that I found myself in Nativity Cathedral in Bethlehem on Saturday for their Celtic Mass.  The Cathedral itself is lovely with a négligée of wrought iron tracery for a reredos, appropriate for a city built by steel.  Eight angels with outspread wings stood atop it.  Like most sanctuaries, it was a place of refuge from the busy, noisy street outside.

The reading from Amos 7 stood out to me.  Lectionaries, by definition, take pericopes (selections) out of context.  Amos’ vision of the plumb line is actually part of a series of visions, but here stands alone with the episode of Amaziah trying to send Amos back to Judah.  The prophet responds by saying he’s not a prophet, but just a guy who’s received a message from God.  In ancient times there were prophets paid for their services.  They supported the government positions and governments made sure they were cared for.  The situation hasn’t much changed, at least among conservative religious groups under a Republican administration.  There were other parallels here, but saying too much on them might end up giving too much away.

Lying Literalists

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I do not delight in your solemn assemblies!” The words of some godless communist? A disaffected liberal? An angry atheist? No. These stark words come from Amos, the prophet. Each year when I teach my course on the Hebrew Prophets I am struck by how strident their words are. For Fundamentalists and others who take the Bible literally the words belong to none other than the Big Guy. The Primal Y. G-d. God hates the worship conducted in a land where injustice reigns.

Although the basic principles sound correct, it is clear that America cannot really be considered a just society. There are a few too many families without enough to eat, a few too many homeless on the street-corners of our cities, a few too many unemployed. And a few too few filthy rich. There is plenty to go around, and one might naively think prosperity might trickle down. It doesn’t. I’ve always been amazed to see the girth of many prosperity gospelers who inveigh against the unrighteous. A sturdy measuring tape might tell us all we really need to know about righteousness.

Bible believers do not believe in the Bible. They accept the message they wish to hear, that God loves those who are rewarded with wealth, but the message of Amos they have little time for. They miss the part where the prophet calls them cows of Bashan that are fat for sacrifice. Yet when they flip out their iconic Bibles the theologically illiterate follow them to the polls. The more they pound their Bibles the more they are beating innocent victims. Be careful before becoming a Bible believer – it is not always a comfortable place to be!

Currying Divine Favor

The name Kerala leapt out at me from a stunning newspaper article that reeked of indulgences and simony just this week. Kerala, a southern region of India, is home to a large number of Syriac Orthodox Christians. In my time at Gorgias Press I often heard their industry praised and was informed how cheaply fellow “Christians” would work. I even saw the position of a great fellow worker at Gorgias evaporate as his duties were “outsourced” to India. Ah, Outsourcing, thy name is Greed.

I recall the days when Greed was considered one of the seven deadly sins. Apparently now it is an acceptable means of replenishing ecclesiastical coffers. An article on Thursday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger front page bore the headline “Recession hits Indian churches offering outsourced prayer”(!). The article explains that Catholic churches in the United States, hard-pressed for priests, have been outsourcing Mass intentions (dedicatory prayers) to their colleagues in India. The mind spins — American families, wanting a Mass intention dedicated to dear departed Aunt Bertha, sells the option to India where prayer is cheaper. As the headline declares, the Recession has cut into the profit margin of the Indian Catholic Church. I’m no mathematician, but it seems that a degree in accounting might help to sort all this out: Americans sell prayer intentions to priests in Kerala, who (when they aren’t working for Gorgias Press in their spare time) send them along to a God who is supposed to be omniscient anyway? And money changes hands for this? In Kali we trust!

Organized religion requires financial upkeep; only a blind naked mole rat can’t see that. Nevertheless, when religions gain enough financial leverage to become power brokers, it seems that they have slipped their moorings. I have watched hypocritical “prosperity gospel” believers benefit from the hard work of the poor, and I have seen the coffee-table books touting the immeasurable wealth of the Vatican, and I have witnessed the homeless curled up on urban church doorsteps on a cold Sunday winter morning. And I remember what Amos wrote, “For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate…” (5.12). And I wonder who might be the safer bet, Yahweh or Kali?