The Root of All

The other day I was in one of those stores where everything is sold really cheaply.  I figure it helps balance out all those times when I’ve been overcharged for things at other stores because I was pressed for time and needed something quickly.  In any case, these dollar store establishments have a constantly rotating stock, it seems (things move at a buck!), and so you might or might not find exactly what you’re looking for.  While just looking around, acquainting myself with the content, I came upon a shelf of Bibles.  God’s word for a dollar a pop.  This isn’t a place I’d normally come looking for books.  Then it occurred to me: many of those who shop in such stores are committed to a faith that keeps them in their economic bracket.

That suspicion was confirmed by other items at the store.  Many of them were Christian-themed.  This seemed like the opposite of the prosperity gospel.  People trying to scrape by, to shave enough off the budget to make it to another paycheck.  Many Americans live like this.  Many of them support Trump.  Selling the Bible to them cheaply definitely involves a mixed message.  There’s indeed a message, as I’ve learned in the publishing, in the way books are priced.  Getting a thousand-pager printed where the unit cost is below a dollar requires a massive print run.  Someone knows that Bibles sell.  You won’t find such cheap divine revelation at Barnes and Noble.  The same content, maybe, but not at the same price point.

The economics of cheap Bibles contains a message.  Those who can’t afford much can be guided toward spending some of it on the Good Book.  While just reading the Bible may indeed bring comfort to those who know where to look, as a whole this book requires major interpretative work.  As I’ve been indicating over the last several days, Holy Writ is not nearly as straightforward a reading experience as many suppose it to be.  Trying to figure out what Nehemiah’s differences with Sanballat the Horonite have to do with the rest of us isn’t an easy task.  To find out, if the internet doesn’t give us quite all the knowledge we want or need, can require some intensive study, up to and including seminary.  Even then you might not get it.  Studying the Bible requires further commitment than simply picking one up for a Washington might imply.  But then, it costs less than a lottery ticket.  And you can get it while saving money on other things you need.

Do unto Yourself

Selfishness goes by many names. One of the strangest is “Christianity.” I wouldn’t presume to define a religion, but some time back my wife sent me a story about the prosperity gospel. Written by Michael Horton, himself an evangelical, the pre-greatest inauguration of all time piece is called “Evangelicals should be deeply troubled by Donald Trump’s attempt to mainstream heresy.” Horton goes on to describe the belief system of the prosperity gospel that includes people becoming gods and the idea of positive thoughts drawing good things to you. Quite apart from completely ignoring most of what Jesus is recorded to have taught, the prosperity folk tend to think the Almighty wants them to be, of all things that most shallow, wealthy. “More for me” also goes by many names. The most common is “selfish.”

I grew up evangelical as well. One of the messages drilled into my malleable head was that Jesus taught putting other people before yourself. “Do unto others” was the least you could get away with and still call yourself “Christian.” Part of the disconnect here is that nobody has the authority to define a religion. Not even the Pope can say unilaterally what Christianity is. Protestants aren’t obligated to agree. And with prosperity gospelers with their enormous cash flow telling us that it’s God’s will, well, heresy looks mighty attractive. We’ve come to see the error of heresy, however. Nobody can claim their brand alone has the answer. It’s a theological anything goes. I suggest we go old school and call a cad a cad. Selfishness by any other name would smell as bad.

It’s poor taste to claim your own self-gain as a benefit to society. I, of all people, would handle my wealth properly so that nobody suffers. Except those I don’t like. Doth not Scripture saith, “ I have said, Ye are gods”? Yet earlier in the same Psalm come those easily ignored words, “Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.” Missing are “build a wall across your southern border,” and “speak untruths when it is convenient to do so,” and “distrust those who speak a language not your own.” Oh what the Bible would say if only we could write it ourselves! But fear not, for we have many who believe the prosperity gospel. And they’ve already got the task well in hand. And their lexicon doesn’t even include the word “selfish,” so you need not worry about such uncomfortable thoughts. Get rich and all will be well.

Photo credit: Kriplozoik, Wikimedia Commons

Cheap Faith

“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Many of my conservative Christian friends may be surprised to learn that these are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Evangelical hero and firm believer in costly discipleship, Bonhoeffer lived, and died, during the Nazi takeover of Germany. A promising young theologian, he escaped Germany to come teach at Union Seminary in New York City. Increasingly disturbed by what was taking place back home, he forsook safety and returned to Germany to try to wrench the hands of Hitler from the steering wheel. Bonhoeffer didn’t write empty words.

The above quote comes from a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law Emmi. Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, well deserves its status as a classic. In it Bonhoeffer declares that a cheap faith is not a faith worth believing in. The Prosperity Gospel would have made him ill. You see, Bonhoeffer believed that the religion preached by Jesus didn’t allow for shirkers. Those who get rich and claim God helped them to it. There’s a reason some people say Mammon is a demon. This was in the days when Christianity still had a conscience. When leaders of religious movements weren’t afraid to speak out against accommodating with evil when that was the more comfortable course to take. And his wasn’t empty rhetoric.

Bonhoeffer was arrested back in his native land. Sent to Buchenwald and then to Flossenbürg, he was hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. Two weeks later the Allies liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer knew evil when he saw it. Now, some seventy years later our vision has become blurred. We live in a country that declares itself “Christian” but, unlike any religion Jesus taught, declares itself to be first. “America first,” we’re told. Flipping through the pages of the Gospels my eyes fall on a forgotten verse. “The first shall be last,” it reads, “and the last shall be first.” Scholars argue over the authentic words of Jesus, to be sure. What we do know is that he too was executed by his government before he reached 40. And they killed him for the radical message that what God requires is loving your neighbor as yourself.

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.

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The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

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.

The Subtle Elephant

“Beer,” the list reads, then “Sex, Tacos, Weed.” At the top of the list, “Jesus.” “Which one of these is best?” the magazine page virtually shouts. Not Playboy, but Wired. At times I have difficulty figuring out what is an advertisement and what is an article in Wired. It is the future, I suppose. Anything’s for sale as long as there’s lucre to be generated. The page is topped with “Wired Insider,” so I suppose it’s a whimsical pop culture section, but I’m not really sure. The page seems to be promoting an app called Proust. I’m still pondering this list: “Jesus, Beer, Sex, Tacos, Weed.” One of these things is not like the others…

Vices

While there may be nothing inherently wrong with beer, sex and tacos (the jury’s still out on weed), such indulgences are often labeled “vices.” Jesus, until recently, never really populated such lists. Even those who do not claim divinity for Jesus of Nazareth do tend to see his teachings as embodying virtue rather than vice. In the media, however, we often see Jesus turned into a kind of addiction, a vice, if you will. What I mean is that Jesus has become a kind of iconic symbol, emptied of tolerant teachings and benevolence toward all. He has become a “white man,” who does not put up with anyone who deviates from the McCarthy-era lifestyle. He is Ozzie (Nelson, not Osborne). We know so little of the historical Jesus that it is difficult to say anything definitively, but I might suggest that he may have felt more at home at a Black Sabbath concert than watching Leave it to Beaver. There is, after all, value in shock value.

Some scholars now confer about the Iconic Book (i.e., the Bible). The Iconic Book is where the Bible is used not for what it says, but what it represents. Swearing on a Bible means nothing to an atheist, and yet we persist. These hollow symbols become powerful indicators of social norms, while losing their radical content. Many might think the Bible utterly conventional, but there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth on Wall Street if people actually read it and took it seriously. Jesus, it seems, has also become iconic. I don’t mean that icons are painted (although they are), but that he has become a hollow symbol for some. In a world where gaining as much money as possible is called “Prosperity Gospel,” despite what the iconic man in the iconic book supposedly said, I guess it isn’t unusual to find the erstwhile savior among the vices of the world.

“Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless”

Yes, Mr. Eliot, this is the way the world ends.

White Christmas Revisited

In the light of yesterday’s post, I’d like to tip my metaphorical hat to Brian Regal of Kean University for a piece he wrote in the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Entitled “The Real Meaning of Christmas,” Regal’s piece shows the striking disconnect that comes between the image of a “Christian” Christmas and the oft-ignored words of Jesus that make him such a great example to follow. We want the image and the affidavit without having to do the hard work of loving those we don’t like. This really seems to be the heart of what was once know as gospel—it’s okay to be who you are (for those of that bent, “who God made you.”) Too often “Christian” has come to mean someone who wears their hair far shorter than Jesus, who shuns those welcomed by Jesus, and who smile far more than Jesus. My Bible says “Jesus wept.” I don’t recall any verses reading, “Jesus put on his ‘I love you’ smile.” Ours is a society that wants it both ways—all for me, but isn’t that what Jesus really wanted? You know, he must’ve smiled a lot.

Regal rightly points out that the majority of Christmas traditions are admittedly pagan, and we are glad to baptize them as long as we don’t have to let the homeless into our churches or admit equal rights to those of all genders, races, and orientations. What seems to be the real desideratum is a “white” Christmas. A white, affluent Christmas. The very idea of the ownership of a holiday characterized by giving is a phenomenon worth serious study. Religion can certainly be used to justify such self-centeredness, but it is condemned by that very same faith. What are people worried about? Christmas has been a commercial holiday essentially from its origins in the modern period. It is one of the few holidays to which nearly everyone looks forward, at least for a break from work or school, if not for a windfall of new stuff.

Privilege as blessing is a perverse theology, as is shown repeatedly in the Bible. Israel’s long line of descent is chosen from the least, the youngest, the meek. Now we are constantly told that God rewards those who are blessed, and that the poor and underprivileged have only themselves to blame. At Christmas time it may be worse than many other seasons of the year. We want not only to keep good cheer, we want to keep a holiday only partially of our own making for ourselves, and then congratulate ourselves on just how good we are. It would seem that the spirit of Christmas might lie, as the pagans said, in giving. I am not a fan of commercialism, as my regular readers know. I can’t help but think that believing one deserves special rewards for righteousness in their own eyes will only have the opposite effect. Remember: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake…

Adolph_Tidemand_Norsk_juleskik

Gold Digging

To relieve the mangled up snarl of sadness, fear, and loneliness where my internal organs used to be after dropping my daughter off at college, I’ve been watching television. When I can see the screen. Despite this feeling that the world is ending, I just don’t have the tolerance for much of the drivel that passes for entertainment these days. After a night of Amish Mafia on Discovery, I tuned in again for an escapist viewing of Gold Rush: South America. Those who don’t know me personally (and some of those who do) may be surprised to learn that I have panned for gold myself—not religiously or regularly, but with occasional serious hopes of solving my financial woes. Watching Todd and his group of guys setting up sluice boxes in the remote Andes and equatorial jungles has almost a pornographic attraction. The earth gives us what we need. Of course, gold’s main function in antiquity was being used in religious settings—whether making gods or decorating their priests—and that gives capitalism its drive for precious metal even today.

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Photo credit: Agnico-Eagle Mines Limited

Mining is not so simple as it seems. You do have to research claims and find out who has the “rights” to property before you begin prospecting. There is a kind of wild-west feel to it, and claim jumping is still a crime. While watching the Gold Rush guys run into disappointment after disappointment, it still bothered me a bit how quickly the solution seemed to involve destroying the ecosystem to find the shiny rocks. Excavators had to be driven through the jungle, trees knocked over, and when the camera longingly lingers over a huge gash in the ground for an industrial gold operation, all the crew can say is what an impressive sight such a deep hole is. When they mention gaping holes, however, I feel there is something missing deep inside my own soul, and I wish they’d just stick to panning.

After many trials and tribulations, they find gold worth $50 a yard. They locate the claim holder and negotiate a deal. Todd’ll move his operation from the frozen Klondike to the sunnier climes of Guyana. As the camera pulls back, the guys gather into a little knot for a word of prayer. Yes, this crew of tough outdoorsmen bow their heads and ask the Almighty to help them find gold. If only it were so simple. The prosperity gospelers would have us believe that the divine wants us to be wealthy. If it was that easy, though, reality television shows would never last more than one season. And besides, some of us would trade every material thing we have to turn the clock back just a few hours or days to live them all over again just to fill in the great void that follows the inevitability of growing up.

Supergod

ManofSteelThis weekend the most-seen UFO in the skies was the Man of Steel. I didn’t see the new Superman movie, partly because, I suppose, of my own inadequacy issues. Also partly because I’ve always had trouble warming up to Superman. He’s just got too much going for him. Don’t get me wrong—I love heroes. But heroes are vulnerable. In fact, their vulnerability is the key to their strength. Superman, truly threatened only by kryptonite, is maybe just a little too perfect. A little too… messianic? So it would seem, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. According to a post by Eric Marrapodi, Warner Brothers is pushing hard on the Christian imagery of Man of Steel, encouraging church discussion groups, and even providing a study packet of Jesusesque tropes to discuss with the faithful. All this for a hero dreamed up by a couple of Jewish kids in the 1930s.

A telling observation appears somewhere in the middle of the article, where Ted Baehr is quoted as saying “I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace.” Did you catch it? Christian marketplace? No surprises here, really. Christianity has “been good” to many who advocate the prosperity gospel—god wants the good to be rich. And since I haven’t been able to walk through Times Square for two weeks without seeing the Man of Steel, larger than life, flying off of massive billboards into the crowds of tourists and locals, I have no doubt the movie did very well over the weekend. Some may have even had their faith restored. Others will have had their pockets lined.

A few years back I was asked to present a program for adult education for a church in Princeton. They wanted someone to talk about religion and movies, and this is something I’d often addressed in my classes. I selected movies to discuss that were not “religious”—no films premised on religious characters or situations—and had no difficulty filling an hour with example after example. Movie makers have long known the benefits of movies based on Christian concepts. Self-sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection permeate the movie industry. This is a Christian culture. The parallels between Superman and Jesus have long been noted by critics of religious imagery in both films and comic books. And those who make films have also realized that Christianity is more than just a belief system. Indeed, it is a marketplace. And with enough money, even a regular mortal can bend steel.

Christmas Incorporated

ChristmasinAmericaA number of years ago I wrote a short book on holidays for children. Like most of my books, it was never published. I wrote it when I learned that good books explaining in simple language whence various American holidays came appeared not to exist. The literary agents I contacted quickly showed me why. In any case, I remain curious about holidays and so I read Penne L. Restad’s Christmas in America: A History. There’s a wealth of gifts in this brief book. I’d researched the subject a little bit myself, so I already knew some of the origin stories, but if you’d like to know why we have Yule logs, egg nog, or why Santa prefers red, this is the book for you. As I’ve noted in previous posts, Christmas is a fairly recent star in the constellation of American holidays. In fact, those of us who work for secular companies know just how few holidays Americans officially celebrate. Having lived three years in the Scotland, I know how seriously holidays are taken in at least one corner of Europe.

Christmas didn’t really catch on in America until the nineteenth century. Industrialization was beginning and more and more was expected of the worker who made the robber barons wealthy. It is no accident that the American Christmas had many of its origins in New York City where much of the industry ran non-stop. Restad, however, makes a very good point that Christmas has always been both pro- and anti-commercial. Owners of large retail chains saw the opportunities to sell goods to time-stressed individuals while the giving of presents often promoted a selflessness uncharacteristic of those who stand to profit from consumers. Restad notes the increase in goodwill that Christmas generates in society as a whole. Indeed, I have seen more people giving to the homeless during the past two weeks than I had seen so far this year.

One aspect of Christmas that I hadn’t expected to find in Restad’s treatment was the early emergence of the “prosperity gospel.” Of course, it wasn’t called that in the early twentieth century, but in the millennia since the Christmas story actually originated, some in the church began to take their own righteousness far too seriously. Seeing that clergy who knew how to tug the soul-strings just right could easily gain wealth, they started to suggest that God wants you to be rich. They seem to have overlooked who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Search the Gospels and your search will be in vain if you attempt to find words to console the rich. The “prosperity gospel” is as much a lie today as it was when it began, back in the days when dubious clergy looked for a way to excuse their comfortable lifestyles while many of their flock suffered want. Christmas in America shows itself to have a little bit of the social gospel built in, for it is clear that even the Devil can site Scripture for his own purposes.

For the Love of Gold

Do you ever get that feeling that you’ve been led along by a false premise that has gotten out of hand, like a practical joke that has gone too far? If I had to rate the books discussed on this blog in terms of urgency, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion would top that list. I’ve felt for a long time that something’s been wrong, but I didn’t possess the training or resources to discern what it might be. I think Carrette and King may have named it. Just a few pages in and I knew there was profound insight here. Religion has been taken over by capitalism and the result is that alternatives to the godless, sanctified free market are rapidly disappearing. In a truly Orwellian sense, we have been taught the language of capitalism and have lost the ability to frame our ideas in any other way. Free markets take no prisoners—one must assimilate or die. Religions, which had traditionally served as correctives to selfishness and greed, have been co-opted into the forces of unbridled gain for the few. Amorphously marketed as “spirituality,” what sounds like religious conviction now lives in the service of consumerism.

By slowly shifting all our language and metaphors into those of Reaganomics (the very fact that you know what that means shows how far gone we already are) the capitalist machine, supported by the flaccid terms of spirituality, has established a new god—capital—and has pilloried any who dare question it. Think of the trashy phrase “prosperity gospel” for just one minute and you’ll see what I mean. Those of us who disagree with the orthodoxy that meaning can be found in money have become the resistance in a war we did not start. The twin hellions of privatization and corporatization have sunk their fangs deeply into the jugular of society and its old-fashioned value of caring for others. People are, like strangers in a strange land, just marks for the powerful. We’ll buy anything if it looks attractive enough.

The problem with consumerism is that it is easy. We all love to play along because—who knows?—we might end up getting rich in the process. We have gained the world and lost our souls. Carrette and King show clearly how entrepreneurs have learned to market the language of religion while divesting it of its venom. Go along, it urges, everything is fine. Even the economic collapse brought on scarcely two decades after Reaganomics has failed to convince the average citizen that they are but a petroleum bi-product to grease the unrelenting gears of commerce. Anything, even salvation, can be sold. Back in April I stood beside the graves of Eric Arthur Blair (George Orwell) and Karl Marx. And maybe in an unguarded moment I shed a tear or two that critical thinking seems to have been buried along with those who were brave enough to state the obvious.

Bull Shot

Sitting on an idling bus in the Lincoln Tunnel, I supposed I was too far underground for an epiphany to hit me. Then, on the way to Third Avenue it descended on me. I was passing one of the countless gift shops of Midtown when I saw it—a miniature replica of the Wall Street Charging Bull statue. Golden calves come in all sizes and shapes and when they grow up they may be very aggressive. Deadly even. Movie makers have long recognized the deep symbolism of the golden calf. And not just Cecil B. DeMille. Dogma, perhaps the most notorious of the anti-religion, religious films, centers around Mooby, a cartoon network golden calf, for one of its subplots. Even Bruce Almighty has the eponymous Bruce leaning back against the statue of a golden calf as he enjoys his new success in his new house, empty of all personal satisfaction. The list could go on. And of course, Wall Street.

What is it that makes us believe that gold leads to happiness? We all want it, if we are willing to look into the mirror with any semblance of honesty. Maybe we don’t want to be filthy rich, but who doesn’t really want to just kick up their heels and let their lucre do the work for them? Enter the “Prosperity Gospelers”—God wants it for you. Even if you demure and lower your eyes coyly, wealth will find you. And like that idol on Wall Street, calves grow up to be bulls. The horns of the dilemma are almost too literal. For a fulfilling life, give it all away. Like a misdeed long past, still unatoned, that bull follows you. You can’t escape a charging bull.

The episode of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is one of the more disturbing scenarios in Holy Writ. Moses, alone wreathed in the glory of the Almighty keeps forty days of silence and, tellingly, the clergy construct a golden calf. Probably an image of Yahweh. The next morning, “the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” Until distant Moses returns home. The calf is burned and ground down to dust, the people drink it, and the Levites kill three thousand of their compatriots. Prequel to Jonestown? “For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” The killing of their neighbors is their ordination. A blessing bestowed upon those who would worship the golden calf. That 7000-pound charging bull will follow you, even into the tunnels and tabernacles. When the golden calf is loose, no one is safe.

Bull comes in all sizes

Slash and Burn

Extinction is an evitable part of life in the universe we’ve inherited. Throughout the eons of our planet mass extinctions have occurred several times, and the new world that emerges is strange and unexpected. We as primates owe our existence to such a natural occurrence at the end of the Cretaceous Period. We evolved religion, which, in some species, bestows the right upon us to alter, or even destroy, our environment. The lame reasoning that generally accompanies such amateur theologies is that a deity is about to sweep down and reclaim those “he” (inevitably) likes. All the rest are just part of a hellish charade to make the righteous feel their entitlement more acutely. So we now find ourselves facing, as scientists warn, another great extinction. This one is of our own making.

The causes are not too difficult to discern. For centuries the dominant religions in the western world have preached messages easily mistaken for selfishness. The perverse aberration called the “prosperity gospel” is one such bastard theology. (I use that term in its literal sense here: the prosperity gospel claims false parentage in declaring that Jesus rewards the affluent with material wealth.) An article in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger points out that the unprecedented human involvement in extinctions. Using Haiti as a test-case, Faye Flam of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that 99 percent of that nation’s forests have been wiped out as the poorest people in the western hemisphere seek wood for the basic necessities of life. Just over six hundred miles to the north begins one of the most affluent nations in the world where as long as we get our own, the rest of the world can go extinct. We are so blessed. While the loss of forest barely keeps the people of Haiti alive, it drives unnumbered species to extinction.

Entitlement is an odd phenomenon. Without those further down the food chain, the advantages of privilege disappear. When there are no poor to support the wealthy, the comparison fails. The same is true on a species level. As privileged Homo sapiens, we have climbed to the top of the mountain and made ourselves gods. Other species are counted as chattels to be divided up among the wealthy. The rarer they are, the more valuable. Problem is, once rarity reaches extinction there’s no turning back. Our environment placed us in this position and gave us the grey-matter to figure it out. Instead we liken ourselves to gods who do not need this world that gave us birth. Biology disagrees, as time will tell.

Icon of the prosperity gospel.

Dog Gone Rapture

With the world about to end tomorrow, a friend pointed me to a story of a savvy entrepreneur. The idea is so obvious that I’m completely jealous I didn’t think of it myself. Among the Fundamentalist camp it is widely acknowledged that animals don’t have souls. They do, however, make wonderful companions nevertheless. When their good Christian owners are raptured to the skies, Rover is consigned to a cruel death by starvation if his soulless biological form is left inside. Poor soulless, sinless Rover! Reason (such as any theological thought can be called “reason”) and emotion clash. Bart Centre comes to the rescue. His company will break into the now abandoned private property that God had blessed you with, and rescue your pet. For a reasonable fee. As an atheist, Centre is pretty sure he won’t be going anywhere.

At notable—and even some rather forgettable—points in human history, people have guessed that it is all about to end. This is a strange belief when parsed apart from its original context. Ancient mythical thought tended to be holistic. We humans, with our own cycle of births and deaths, have trouble imagining anything that doesn’t follow the same pattern. All things must have beginnings and ends. Zoroastrianism began as a persecuted sect among the Old Persian religious realm. Persecuted sects tend to want an end to the suffering, and so it is no surprise that Zoroastrians gave us the end of the world. When Judaism was under the severe predation of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, it too looked for a radical change. Christianity under Nero and Domitian looked for a triumphant culmination of a universal purpose. And no end came. Instead, under Constantine Christianity gained a privileged position. With only periodic outbreaks, concern for the end of all things was pacified.

Today with the ease of lifestyle among most American Christians, it is surprising to see such antipathy toward the world. In the words of the Metatron, “Was Wisconsin really that bad?” Or maybe I have read it wrong. Perhaps this is the final culmination of the Prosperity Gospel: Christians have got it so good that the only way to better their lot is to end it all? Religions have always demonstrated their acquisitiveness either in terms of souls or currency. When you’re on top of that world, what direction is there to go but out? But you can’t take it with you, including your soulless friends. Perhaps that’s the real lesson in all of this: humans struggle to mix reason and emotion into one psyche, despite their diverse evolutionary paths to consciousness. We may readily accept the mythical but still wonder who will take Rover for his walk.

Cafe Press's take on the issue

Sinking Ships

In anticipation of the Academy Awards, last night I revisited Titanic. Since I tend to view art from the perspective of metaphor, I was once again struck by how our society resembles that great ship. In particular, with the current turmoil between plutocratic governors and the average citizens who’ve elected them, the brazen upper-class passengers on the Titanic embody the interests of the self-interested. When Captain Smith leads the privileged first class travelers in “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” in their own private chapel unsullied by the second and third class detritus, the line “for those in peril on the sea” resonates with the Prosperity Gospel. The well-to-do are that way through no fault of their own; God loves them more and made them better off than the rest. And when icebergs float, those unloved by their creator sink.

Over the past few weeks, in the shadow of events unfolding in Egypt and even Libya, we have seen the assertions of the aristocratic governor class assailing the workers. Attempting to make unions illegal, reducing the services offered to the poor, attempting to shorten the lives of the elderly by withdrawing medical programs (let us not ask how much profit pharmaceutical companies make for they are dearly loved by their father who art in Fort Knox), they know the rush of divine power. Indeed, populations are so complacent that as long as we have our MTV (substitute here your favorite media narcotic), that we shrug our collective shoulders and say “whatever.”

Perhaps it is not the metaphor James Cameron intended, but it is the working class Jack who sinks to an icy grave while the privileged but bankrupt Rose remains afloat. Our sympathies are with the young lady abused by privileged society, but the lifeboats should best remain half empty to preserve the upper crust rather than risk all going down together. After all, the Bible informs us that bread cast upon the waters comes back. And those who take up more than their fair share of the lifeboats wager that when that bread comes back it will be docile and subdued after its ordeals in the North Atlantic, and the Carpathia will come and restore society to its proper order. And so perhaps it is only a metaphor that more than a decade later the shoo-in for the Academy Awards is a film about the royal family. I think I see an iceberg ahead.

This is only a metaphor