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.

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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.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

Imagine Images

“Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Thus spake the Lord one day long ago. So the Bible says. The problem is that humans are visually oriented. We teach our young to read by enticing them with books with pretty pictures—images that captivate. We make things that are pleasant to see, some of them are even graven. I used to ask my students what the difference was between a god and an idol. The answer is, of course, perception. “Idol” is a word that implies falsehood. The item represented is somehow divine, but is not actually divine. There are ways around the rules, of course.

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I spent many years in the United Methodist Church. Many people I knew claimed that the local Catholics were idol worshippers, and when I entered a Catholic church for the first time I was struck by the graven images that seemed to stand in blatant contradiction to the second commandment. How could this not be a direct violation of divine orders? After all, this wasn’t some minor infraction—it was one of the very commandments! Back in my Methodist context, I began to wonder, however. We had crosses, some of them in the round, right up there on the altar. True, there was no corpus on our crucifix, but that seemed to be a handy bit of casuistry. Human beings naturally convert images to idols. We all knew, Protestants though we were, that you should never take a sacred object out to the streets and treat it profanely. An image in a sacred venue could be an idol.

Over the years it seems that the strictures of the ten commandments might have been relaxed just a little. Collectively as a culture, the real has become more and more virtual. We buy our movies, music and books in electronic format. We play our games on computers. In such a context a physical image may seem somehow less real. Our idols have been digitized. It doesn’t seem like the Bible was looking that far ahead when attempting to create an exhaustive list of what might anger the divine. After all, electricity wouldn’t be discovered for millennia. Reality was dry, dusty, and deadly. The prohibition was against physical images. It is no longer an issue for many in the Judeo-Christian tradition that a statue or an icon might be a sign of piety rather than profanity. Things seem to have come full circle when I find a statue of John Wesley, nearly of bobble-head proportions, looking at me with eyes seeking prevenient grace. I guess the powers that be might just be willing to overlook even Methodists gone native.

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Thanksgivukkah

A moveable feast is hard to hit. Or something like that. Religious festivals are frequently tied to celestial events—the ancient Jewish holidays are based on a lunar calendar which, we all know, is out of synch with the solar one. This is the reason that for Christians Easter migrates around the spring calendar, even if different branches of Christianity peg the resurrection on various dates. Curiously, no one has suggested going back to c. 33 C.E., fixing the date of Passover that year, and giving a calendrical date for Easter. It sure would make planning a lot easier. In any case, a week or so ago there was a flurry of lighthearted commentary on “Thanksgivukkah,” the fact that Hanukkah and Thanksgiving occur at the same time this year. Both are moving feasts, and they just happened to bump into each other this year.

Thanksgiving is a modern holiday, emerging with the Protestant penchant for giving thanks for surviving in a harsh, new world. The United States government (which was not shut down at the time) finally regularized the date of the holiday to the fourth Thursday in November, giving the commercial world it’s only regular 4-day weekend. Christmas, not a moveable feast, cycles around the days of the week, giving employers a great sense of glee when it falls on a weekend so that employees may be given only a token Friday or Monday off. The day after Thanksgiving, however, is thankspending, as American a holiday as one can conceive. Hanukkah is also a roving feast. Celebrating the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem after being defiled by the Seleucids, it has taken on many of the trappings of Christmas over the years, but it can come as early as late November, as Thanksgivukkah demonstrates.

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Holidays, in this secular world, have come to represent something for which the Sabbath originally stood. The idea was that people needed a break from work. Despite all the studies that show more breaks make people more productive, our culture glorifies the over-worker. The reason, clearly, is not productivity, but control. I recall a lawyer once drawing a large circle on a newsprint pad and telling me, “this represents what your employer can do to you.” He drew a tiny circle in the middle of the large one and said, “and this is what your employer can do to you that is considered illegal.” Yes, we are a society that has never really gotten over the idea of indentured servitude. Little things like holidays overlapping keep us amused, while still at our desks. Hanukkah lasts for eight days. Christmas for twelve. But don’t try to take all that off—you might like coming back to work refreshed a little too much. Instead, why don’t you try making those bricks by finding your own straw? Everyone will benefit from this pyramid scheme.

Battle Bibles

“There are no atheists in foxholes,” so the old saying goes. No doubt, war is among the most stressful circumstances in which humans insinuate others (who goes to war happily and without reservation?). As a corollary, to keep soldiers comforted in hellish surroundings, it has at times been common to supply them with Bibles. In an exhibit I’ve not yet seen, the Museum of Biblical Arts in New York currently has a display of soldier’s Bibles. A poignant dissonance accompanies such a concept. In the newspaper story announcing it, the phrase that leapt out at me was “Bibles clothed in camouflage.” To be sure, the Bible contains many narratives of war, even demanding genocide in certain circumstances, but as a whole the most valued commodity appears to be peace. Too often, however, it is peace on our terms.

According to the article, Bible distribution began in the United States in the Civil War. Bibles were offered to belligerents on both sides. Naturally, taken into the viewpoint of the chosen ones, God is on the side of the reader. God is the ultimate conflicted deity. This is cold comfort to a soldier dying on the battlefield of all-too-human contention. In keeping with religious differences, over time Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish versions have been offered. Notes in these government-issued religious documents urge the soldier to find succor here. One need not read too deeply between the lines to find the message is the willingness to lay down one’s life.

In a world acutely aware of religious differences, the idea of supplying fighting forces with religious backing may seem questionable. Can there be sincerity in the message that Scripture of any description ought to comfort a person who has been placed in this unenviable position by human greed, powerlust, or self-aggrandizement? What reason have we for war any longer? If religion be true, why have we not matured by even a millisecond since Joshua invaded Canaan? Giving a soldier a camouflaged Bible is to place a Band-Aid on a gaping wound requiring many stitches. Far better to take the message of peace to heart and look for reasonable ways to solve our differences. Idealistic? Without doubt. But it might help to save the cost of distributing Bibles to those whose lives are seemingly less valued than those who begin armed conflicts in the first place.

There is no “holy” in war.

Beyond Measure

Thinking back to my first course in World Religions, I recollect learning about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Confucianism for the first time. It is likely that Taoism was also mentioned, but I had to do a ton of research before I taught the course for the first time at Oshkosh. I remembered learning nothing about Sikhism or Shinto, not to mention Jainism or any host of religions boasting smaller numbers, by gosh. Now that I’m in the business of commissioning books on world religions, I have come into a quandary. As I know from experience, those who teach world religions are faced with a classic case of TMI: too much information. These religions I’ve mentioned only begin to scratch the vast surface of human religious expression, while your typical semester is only 14 weeks in duration. How do we cover all the smaller religions, some of which may have even a million or more adherents, and may be, at times, geared toward violent behavior? There’s simply no way.

This is where the quagmire grows thickest—are “major religions” quantified by numbers alone? From comments of readers of this blog it is quite clear that Christianity is no uniform religion. The differences go deeper than Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. Most of us follow rather idiosyncratic blends of various religions we’ve experienced. It is not unusual for a Christian to practice yoga or to engage in meditation. And there are thousands of smaller religions as well, and the beliefs are deeply embedded in the lives of those who hold them. A good example would be Native American religions. There isn’t just one. Various tribes held their own beliefs and yet try to find a textbook that covers the differences between them. (Ah, but publishers are bound by the need to sell many copies to make such books profitable, and what professor is going to have the time to parse out different belief systems of these small, sometimes powerless groups?)

It is the curse of categorization. In our free market economy bigger is always better. Religions, on the other hand, do not always concern themselves with winning the most tricks. The Zoroastrians, who gave us the concepts of Heaven and Hell and much else that became standard theology in the monotheistic religions, continue to exist. In small numbers. So small that, as a religion major, I didn’t really learn about them until I began teaching classes exploring the origins of our modern religious concepts. When the modern eye assesses the importance of something, it does so by crunching the numbers. Religions have been our human means of seeking the truth since civilization began, perhaps even before. Often numbers and truth just don’t align.

Saints and Snakes

I am not now, nor have I ever been, Catholic. So why am I wearing green today? It could be that a drop or two of Irish blood courses through my veins from a stow-away great-great-grandmother, or the assurance that, as an American mutt some Irish must have gotten in somehow. Or maybe it is more than that. From my youngest days, even before I knew of my family history (and nobody had bothered to inquire), I still wore green on Saint Patrick’s Day. Getting off the bus at school and seeing so many people with otherwise so little in common coming together to wear shades of green on the same day was somehow inspiring and made me feel like part of something larger than myself. It was a day of fun, and decidely not one of doctrine or repressive decrees about women or homosexuals or even Protestants. It was a day of unity.

Can a day based on church mythology ever long remain a day of peaceful inclusion of others? In college I met militant Protestants who insisted that orange be worn on Saint Patrick’s Day to stand in solidarity with the Protestant minority. I heard news reports of gays being excluded from otherwise festive Saint Patrick’s Day parades in major cities. Maybe the snakes driven out of Ireland have lodged themselves in the souls of those who plant divisiveness—but it occurs to me that I’m being unfair to the snakes.

In a tiny time capsule of twenty-four hours, Saint Patrick’s Day is a miniature paradigm of the ambivalence that we call religion. At its best it draws people of all backgrounds together for a celebration as large as life itself. At the same time, it is the ultimate in exclusion—the statement that we are special in a way you are not. Green, the color of Ireland, is an apt symbol for the day. In the planet world, the large swaths of earth seen from high above, green is the color of life. Each spring the shooting forth of green is eagerly awaited as the plant kingdom reveals to us that a refreshing change is in the air. Among many animal species, however, green stands for illness, and perhaps impending death. So here I am wearing green—not Catholic, not plant, not wishing to make unequal divisions. It is just like a religious holiday to celebrate ambiguity.

What's love got to do with it?

Fecit potentiam

Yesterday at Princeton’s annual seasonal choral concert, the program consisted of Bach. The first piece was a Magnificat, a piece that, in prose form, I quickly memorized at Nashotah House. With our daily double dose of chapel services, liturgical standbys such as the Magnificat quickly became reflex recitations, made with little thought beyond getting on to the next piece. It occurred to me as I listened to it at leisure, the hopes of poor Mary haven’t really materialized after these 2000 plus years. After a couple of millennia, perhaps it is time for a state of the theology assessment.

Despite the veneration of Mary in the liturgical branches of Christianity, the collective handmaids of the Lord have made slow progress in being integrated fully into church leadership. Only with the last century, and fairly late therein, did many Protestant denominations finally recognize that Mary’s gender might have something to teach the men. Paul, for one, would have had none of it. Even today the Roman Catholic Church stalwartly refuses to consider female priesthood. Perhaps Mary’s prayer should be uttered yet again within its walls?

At the section labeled “fecit potentiam,” however, I noticed further lack of fulfillment. “God has shown strength with God’s arm,” the program translates, “God has scattered the proud.” The hopes expressed in the next several verses have been silenced beneath the greed of an economic system with no responsibility. “God has deposed the mighty from their seats.” When did that happen? Those of the Occupy movement who’ve received a face of pepper spray might beg to differ. “God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty.” Sent away to their summerhouses, their mansions, and their penthouse apartments? Away from the working class who oil the gears of their massive machines. No, it seems that the Magnificat has not fared so well at predicting the new era to be brought in by a special child.

Of course, Luke’s song of Mary is based on Hannah’s song at becoming the mother of Samuel from the Hebrew Bible. Samuel was the great judge and prophet who saw to the law and order in the land. Strangely, however, the Bible manages to confuse Samuel with his erstwhile enemy Saul, conflating their birth accounts. Isn’t it just like the Bible to confuse the oppressed with the oppressor? The strength shown with the divine arm, the wealthy inform us, is the strength they wield. After all, god and gold differ by only one letter.

Happy Birthday King James

Four centuries ago a literary landmark was published. Today marks the birthday of the King James Version of the Bible, arguably the most influential book ever published in the English language. Those active in scholarly circles at bibliocentric institutions are popping the cork on their sparkling grape juice today, since for many the King James Bible represents the real liberation of God’s message. In some sense, the KJV also represents the origins of Protestant movement. Liberating the Bible from the clutches of scholarly Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, the King James Bible made the book accessible to the English-speaking world. As direct access to the Bible grew, the pontifical power of Rome (with apologies to besainted John Paul II) came increasingly under question. Inquiring minds wanted to know what God himself said. Of course, the Bible soon enough would evolve into a lash in the able hands of power-hungry theocrats.

Today the New International Version outsells the venerated King James. Some very conservative groups still hold to the King James Version as an “inspired translation” that no others can touch. The New International Version was hailed by evangelicals as a more up-to-date, safe translation of the Bible when it first appeared. The fact remains, however, that translations can never fully replicate the original. This is a major problem of bibliolatry. Languages are systems of thought and direct translation never fully captures the “meaning” of the original. Few who adore the Bible have the time to truly learn Hebrew and Greek, so guardianship of the truth must be passed to a reliable translation. The King James, in turn, also became the basis for some shaky theological ideas that are challenged by more accurate translations.

As the Internet rings with stories of the death of Osama bin Laden, the dangers of absolute religious adherence to any book of faith should become clear. Bibles, Qurans, Talmuds – these may be guideposts along the way, but they are often mistaken for the end of the journey. Written texts are subject to interpretation and even the KJV is read different ways by different believers. Instead of worshipping books, we would be better advised to read them. And if from that reading we learn to think then the time of the original composers of sacred writ will not have been wasted. That would be cause for celebration indeed.