Patriarchal Faith

One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself.  This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see.  Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof.  If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol.  Its teachings become secondary to its very existence.  Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed.  And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious.  The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure.  I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.

The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells.  Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants.  It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points.  Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.”  Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific.  We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs.  The hymn plays on.

Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism.  Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.”  (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.)  The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no.  Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken.  Martyrdom comes in many varieties.  As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.

Which Bible Again?

Which Bible? That’s a fair enough question. No matter how much you want to deny it, western culture always has been and always will have been biblically based. That being the case, it’s best to know which Bible we’re talking about. The Protestant Bible is America’s Good Book. Although there were Catholics before Protestants were a gleam in Luther’s eye, the latter laid early claim to the Bible. When a Bible appears in a social or civil religion context, it’s most likely Protestant. The Catholic Bible contains extra material—that which Protestants call The Apocrypha. Satisfied that Luther was right to leave the Deuterocanonical books out, their role as fake good news has never been questioned. If the King James was good enough for Jesus and Paul, they say, only half in jest.

Some Evangelicals belong to the King James only movement. They come up with alternative facts when faced with the reality that the King James translation includes the Apocrypha. Yes, it’s right there in black and white. The Authorized Version of the Bible included the “Catholic books.” I was reminded of this the other day when I was searching for a simple factoid—how many words are in the King James Bible? The vast majority of websites give the unquestioning answer of 783,137. They may then break it down into “Old Testament” and New. Almost always they leave out the Apocrypha. The word count there is 152,185, and if my math serves, that brings the total to 935,322—not quite a million words. The Good Book is a big book.

The King James Onlyists (yes, that’s a thing) have bigger problems than the Apocrypha. What King James is the onlyist? The KJV you buy in your Christian bookstore is one of the many 18th century revisions of the 1611 King James. You see, translations are hardly stable. They change over time. Even the Revised Standard Version isn’t completely standard. I noticed while reading it as a kid that words had been changed over time. If our beloved Onlyist friends want to be purists and go back to the 1611 then they’ll have the problem of the Apocrypha to deal with. So which Bible? It’s a fair question. Catholic Bibles are bigger. Some Orthodox traditions also include such exotic books as Jubilees and 1 Enoch. And, from this we should take a lesson. Where there’s 1 Enoch, there’s always another not far away.

Church Vampires

For people my age manga is a new form of reading that is easily ignored. Although I’ve read a graphic novel or two, “comic books,” no matter how adult the theme, seem juvenile. Note that word “seem.” I do know some younger folks, and one of them insisted that I read Kouta Hirano’s Hellsing. This particular friend is as interested in vampires as I am, and, knowing my history with religion, suggested this might down my alley. Dubious, I gave it a try. In this manga universe Hellsing is a Protestant organization for fighting vampires and ghouls (non-virgin vampire victims who come back as zombie-like creatures who are very hard to stop). Their activity is in England, but when they cross into Ireland they encounter a Catholic organization that kills all vampires, including the “secret weapon” of Hellsing, who is indeed a vampire.

What made reading this tale so interesting is that the reader’s sympathy is drawn to the Protestant sect. The Hellsing characters are engagingly drawn—handsome or beautiful, resilient, and naturally good fighters. The Catholic characters are ugly and maniacal. They kill all monsters, regardless of their “heart.” In this the direction from the movie Van Helsing is reversed. There Van Helsing is a hireling of the Catholic Church who won’t kill a monster unless it’s evil. The idea of the graphic novel is that religious rivalry runs deep between these two Christian organizations. Thinking about this, I wondered how Christianity might look to someone from Japan. In this context, it makes sense. Christian missionaries penetrated east Asia from both Protestant and Catholic evangelistic efforts. Although they worship the same deity, they are quite different religions. At least it must look so to anyone not raised in this strange milieu.

Colonialism, in all its forms, has forced peoples to make decisions about new religions in a somewhat violent way. Imagine someone confronting you with your way of life and warning you that you’re going to suffer never-ending torment unless you accept a faith of which you’ve likely never heard. Then you discover that there are two very different versions of that faith that mutually condemn each other. The natural result, if you acquiesce at all, would be to choose the one that either makes the most sense, or the one that got to you first. Hardly the way to gamble with eternal life. I’m not sure Hellsing is intended as commentary on the experience of the colonized. It seems reasonable to me. And if vampires are a problem, you’ll want to be sure to select the right belief system the first time around.

Possessed by Work

Now that I’m safely ensconced back in the daily work routine, I spend some time thinking of the scary movies I had time to watch during my “free time.” Well, I actually thought about them then, too, but I had so many other thoughts to write about that I kept putting it off. That, and the fact that some of the movies were about demonic possession and the juxtaposition of holidays and demons just didn’t seem to fit, kept me from expounding. Why watch such movies at all? It’s a fair question. I tend to think of it as part of a larger thought experiment—wondering what such movies might tell us about being human.

stanthony

A few weeks back I wrote about The Exorcism of Emily Rose, based on the true tragic story of a young woman who died after a prolonged exorcism. After that I watched The Last Exorcism, The Rite, and The Possession. (I’m such a cheerful guy, as you can see, and this may be why I inhabit an isolated cubicle at work.) This array of movies, held together by the common chord of the reality of demonic possession, also brought together the standard sociological division of Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. The Last Exorcism is a Protestant-based treatment of what is generally considered to be a Catholic subject. That connection is affirmed in The Rite. The Possession, however, gives us a Jewish demon and a rare representation of a Jewish exorcism (acted by Matisyahu, no less!). What emerges from watching all of these films together is that demons are an inter-denominational problem, even in a scientific world. Carl Sagan wrote about the demon-haunted world, and it continues to exist, it seems.

But these are movies we’re talking about. Not reality. Nevertheless, The Rite and The Possession are also said to be based on true stories. We do live in a mysterious world. Evolution has developed reasoning as a practical way of dealing with life in a complex ecosystem. It is a survival mechanism. So is emotion. We sometimes forget that both thought and feeling are necessary for survival in our corner of the universe. Neither one is an end in itself. We can’t quite figure out how these two features of the human brain work together. There are, in other words, some dark corners left in our psyches. I suspect that’s why I find such movies so interesting. They’re not my favorites, but they do serve to remind us of just how little we know. And that’s a scary thought, given how we’ve learned to possess this planet.

Feasting

In addition to music, Christmas has also been associated with seasonal foods. Unlike today, when we think of foods primarily in terms of either fast food or culinary sophistication, Christmas dishes of yesteryear often had religious symbolism. While singing an English carol, for instance, you might hear of figgy pudding. I tried my first when living in the United Kingdom and it was nothing like the images its name conjures. It is more like a dense cake made of raisins and dried fruit, set aflame to burn off the brandy. Sometimes it is topped with holly. According to an interview on NPR, the Christmas dessert, in addition to taking weeks to make, contains thirteen ingredients, to symbolize Christ and the apostles. The holly is to represent the crown of thorns, and the flames the passion. That’s a lot of theology to stomach. (In seminary I had friends who used food analogies for theological purposes, but I suspect they didn’t know it was such an ancient tradition.)

Christmas cheer, I would’ve been shocked to learn as a child, generally involved spirits. For example in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens reverses his entrepreneurial relationship with Bob Crachit over a bowl of smoking bishop. I had always supposed this was a kind of soup or stew, but, again NPR comes to the rescue with a piece about Christmas drinks. Smoking bishop was made of port, and, according to the NPR story by Anne Bramley, is of the class of Protestant drinks called “ecclesiastics.” These were various alcoholic drinks named after Catholic church offices that Protestants used to poke fun at the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Catholic tradition.

Christmas

A Christmas Tree primer

It is difficult to conceive of anything more basic than food and drink. All living things require nourishment. It stands to reason that when religious sensibilities began to appear that they would certainly be associated with the necessities of life. Holidays, as necessary breaks from the mundane, offer opportunities for bringing theology to the table. The most basic of ingredients, as any observer of biblical holidays knows, can contain more than just nutrients and roughage. There is a symbolism in what we eat. In these days when it is fashionable to declare religion nothing but stuff and nonsense, it can’t hurt to stop and look at what might be on our plate or in our cup before declaring it to be mere animal nourishment.

School Bible

BibleSchoolConstittnAs a very young scholarlet, I recall the horror expressed when some form of prayer was expelled from public schools. It had to have been in the late ’60’s. Maybe early ’70’s. The nation, it seemed, was headed for Hades in a hurry. Little did I know that this was part of a long, drawn-out—tired, even—battle. Steven K. Green’s The Bible, the School, and the Constitution: The Clash that Shaped Modern Church-State Doctrine gives pretty close to the full story. Bible reading in public schools was foundational, in the beginning. In the early days of public education, the Bible was ubiquitous. It was considered non-sectarian since practically everyone was a Protestant. When the religious mix of the country began to diversify in the mid-1800’s, a new dynamic emerged. People got upset. There were riots. People were killed. Legislation was proposed that would explicitly add God—Jesus even—to the Constitution. Who knew?

Green’s study takes a close look at the various cases that arose around the time of the Civil War regarding the Bible in school. Protestants, it seems, didn’t appreciate that Bible reading, in the King James Version, without comment, violated Roman Catholic policy. The first to challenge Bible reading in public schools were Christians. Secularists only joined the fray later. I’m oversimplifying, of course. Some Catholics wanted equal time, the reading of the Douay Bible instead of King James. Others wanted Catholic schools to receive state funding. Nobody was really aware of other religions such as Hinduism or Buddhism. It was a country of limited religious imagination. Various groups tried in various ways to get God—their God only—into schools as the default deity. And so the fun continued.

For me, it was eye-opening to realize that all of this isn’t new. The legislation, since long before my grandparents were born, has been heading in the direction that led to the aggrieved tears in my youth. Green points out, however, that the conflict has never been completely resolved. School vouchers and a long spate of evangelical presidents have had their impact on our children. The Hades that we feared has only come with the weaponizing of our culture, largely by those who want Bible reading back in the schools. The thing we fear finds us through the thing we love. Ironically the issue never seems to be education. God or guns—it’s the power that we want. The early debates revolved around morality. How could kids be moral without Bible reading? How the definition of morality has changed. We, as a nation, still can’t figure out religious freedom or how to let kids be kids.

Truth Anonymous

SparkMany a student has been spared the reading of primary sources by study guides. This is not a new phenomenon. While still regularly teaching Hebrew Bible, I picked up a copy of Cliff Notes, The Bible, to show students how not to get the picture. To be fair, I was teaching future priests, and, despite my progressive outlook, I believe all Christian clergy ought to have read the Bible at least once. I know enough of Christian history to realize that the emphasis on sacred writ is not as ancient as many Protestants think—before the advent of modern literacy rates, scripture reading (and interpreting) was the business of the church. The laity were to receive it in the form of sermons, and so reading the Bible wasn’t really necessary. With the Reformation, however, the Bible became central and preaching became a matter of intelligent interpretation of the same. Today any Christian minister should have a pretty good grasp of holy writ, believe it or not.

With a touch of puckish optimism, my family gave me a copy of the Spark Notes Old and New Testaments at Christmas. Spark, according to the copyright page, is a division of Barnes and Noble, and, should the cover be believed, today’s most popular study guides. As an erstwhile author of biblical studies material, I was curious about who wrote the notes. Enough of the scholar remains for me to be critical, and one of the first questions always to arise is, who wrote this? The question ought to be even more poignant for Bible readers. One of the most looming of questions is that of authority to interpret. Different branches of Christianity still maintain the proprietary right to be the true guardians of the sole truth. Although perhaps softened somewhat from soaking in the broth of religious-political activism, the Fundamentalist would, in any natural world, distrust the interpretation of a Catholic. And vice-versa. Looking at my Spark Notes, I wonder who it is that is telling me the truth.

Abridgment is a kind of crime for literary connoisseurs. As a child I purchased my books from Goodwill or Salvation Army—the kinds of places to which poverty-level readers have access. Although occasionally drawn to Reader’s Digest editions on purely economical grounds, I studiously avoided abridged works. Who decides what single syllable of Melville should be left out of Moby Dick? All the degrees in the world don’t justify that! The interpreter is just as human as the reader, and this kind of power is too heady for mere mortals to handle. The abridger of the Bible must take heed of Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. There’s a lurking suspicion, nevertheless, that something might be learned from the stripped-down scriptures. It is with some anticipation that I look forward to receiving some anonymous instruction as I seek a Spark of truth.