Virgin-Haunted World

One of the most frequent accusations of “idolatry” I heard as a child was leveled at Roman Catholic devotion to the virgin Mary.  Lessons learned during childhood are difficult to displace, especially when they concern your eternal destination.  I overcame this particular objection, a bit, during my sojourn among the Episcopalians, but I have to confess I never felt right praying to Mary.  In my Protestant-steeped mind, there were two classes of entities involved: gods (of which, properly, there was only one) and human beings.  Only the former received prayers.  The rest of us simply had to contend with non-supernatural powers and do the best we could.  Still, I met many believers devoted to Mary, and honestly, some accounts of Marian apparitions are pretty impressive.

A local source for inexpensive advertising in our area is essentially a weekly set of want ads.  For a small fee you can advertise just about anything you want to buy or have to sell.  Spiritual or physical.  A few weeks ago, someone ran a magnanimous piece on a prayer to the virgin never known to fail.  The words of the prayer were printed, along with the instructions, for nothing is quite as simple as “ask and you shall receive.”  The prayer must be recited thrice, and thanksgiving publicly proclaimed.  A number of questions occurred to me, regarding not only this, but all prayers for divine action.  One is the rather simple query of how you can know if a prayer has never failed.  I suspect this is known by faith alone.

There are any number of things most of us would like to change about our lives, and the larger issue of prayer is the daisy-chaining of causality.  One change causes another, causes another, and often that for which we pray will impact another person in a negative way.  This is the classic “contradictory prayer” conundrum—one person prays for sunny skies while another prays for rain.  Neither is evil, both have their reasons, perhaps equally important.  (The weekday is a workday for many, and that’s non-negotiable in a capitalist society, so I suspect prayers for sunny skies tend to be weekend prayers, but still…)  The prayer never known to fail is either a rock or a hard place.  It’s that certitude that does it.  I don’t begrudge anyone a prayer that works.  Faith alone can test the results.  And although we could use a little less rain around here, we could all benefit from a little more faith, I suspect.  And for that there’s no fee.

What’s the Story?

Belief is truly an amazing phenomenon. Even as we see it play out daily in the news, rational people ask themselves how people can accept something that all the evidence decries; just take a look at Fox news. In any case, those who study demons come up against the name of Fr. Gabriele Amorth with some frequency. Amorth was a true believer. Earlier this year I read one of his books and I wondered if he might reveal more in An Exorcist Tells His Story. Forgive me for being curious, but I really am interested in his story—how did this man become the passionate spokesperson for exorcism being reestablished in every Catholic diocese? What were the personal experiences that led him to this? Who was he?

Some people can’t write about themselves. Some, and I suspect clergy often fall into this trap, can’t write without the material becoming a sermon. This book is such an extended homily. Along the way Amorth does discuss a few cases of demonic possession and how it is to be confronted, but mostly he discusses the theology of his view of Catholicism and how that is essential to understanding demons. What is most odd about this is the inconsistency of a true believer in Catholicism admitting that Protestants too can drive out demons right after declaring the Roman Ritual is the only way for Catholics to do so. And only bishops, or those priests appointed by them, are permitted as exorcists. Is this a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Protestants, according to the theology he espouses, shouldn’t be able to do this. If they can, why doesn’t it make him question his faith?

Known for his thousands of exorcisms, Amorth continues to have a healthy following. Anyone reading this book for a consistent outlook will be left wondering. How can Catholic exorcism work only if it follows the rules, and Protestant exorcism work when it is done by those who believe falsely? The same applies to his assertions that those who are possessed are not morally at fault, for it is the demon that makes them do evil things. At the same time those who lead “immoral” lives—according to Catholic standards—are more likely to become possessed. A few pages earlier we’d been told about saints who’d been possessed. I don’t mean to suggest anything about Amorth’s faith commitments—it’s celestially clear that he was a true believer. His commitment to help those who were possessed was legendary. Perhaps it’s just that demons are agents of chaos, and in such circumstances even theology can become a victim. I’m still wondering about his story, though.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

Alt Bible

A friend recently sent me a story from Anonymous titled “Why Did The Vatican Remove 14 Books From The Bible in 1684?” This piece reminded me of just how rampant biblical illiteracy is in this Bible-worshiping culture. To begin with the obvious, Roman Catholics are the ones who kept the Apocrypha in their Bibles—it was Protestants who removed the books. No doubt, retaining the Deuterocanonicals was a rear-guard action of the Counter-Reformation, but still, if you’re going to complain about the Papists it’s best to get your biblical facts straight. The story is headed with a picture of The Key to Solomon’s Key. Ironically, Solomon’s Key is actually an early modern grimoire that the author seems to think is the same as the Wisdom of Solomon, one of the books of the Apocrypha. Reading through the post it was clear that we have an Alt Bible on our hands.

(For those of you who are interested in the Key of Solomon, my recent article in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on Sleepy Hollow discusses the Lesser Key of Solomon, a famous magic book. It features in one of the episodes of the first season of the Fox series and, I argue, acts as a stand-in for the iconic Bible. One of my main theses (don’t worry, there aren’t 95 of them) is that most people have a hard time discerning what’s in the Bible and what’s not. But I obviously digress.)

The post on Anonymous states that the Bible was translated from Latin to English in 1611. The year is partially right, but the facts are wrong. The translators of the King James Bible worked from some Greek and Hebrew sources, but their base translation was the Coverdale Bible which had been translated into English and published some eight decades before the King James. Myles Coverdale relied quite a bit on German translations, but the King James crowd went back to the original languages where they could. The KJV was published in 1611, but the translation from Latin was actually something the Catholics preferred, not Protestants. The Vulgate, attributed to and partially translated by Jerome, has always been the favored Roman base text. Ironically, and unbeknownst to most Protestants, the King James translation did include the Apocrypha. I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but they certainly make a lot more sense when the known facts align without the Alt Bible unduly influencing the discussion.

Reformation Blues

Welcome to Reformation Year! Well, not actually. It’s more like an anniversary. Five centuries ago this Halloween, Martin Luther grabbed his silver hammer and history forever changed. In 1517 nobody could guess that that obscure strip of land across the Atlantic (nobody knew how far west it went except maybe those who already had lived here for millennia) would one day identify itself so strongly as Protestant that other religions would be merely tolerated. Even when it established itself as a land of religious freedom, it mainly would have Protestants in mind. Indeed, Martin Luther unlikely ever met a Hindu or Buddhist. His concern was the Catholic Church which, in all fairness, had already split into two major branches a few centuries before he was born.

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Thinking about the Reformation makes me uncomfortable. As my regular readers know, I’m concerned about ultimates. In a universe where “you only live once,” and eternity is so very long, you need to make the right choices when selecting a means of salvation. Really, an eternity in constant torment makes a Trump administration look like a day in the kiddie zoo. This is a very important choice. Heaven and Hell are a non-zero-sum game. You pick the wrong one and you suffer for ever and ever and ever. And ever. With one united church at least you could know that everyone else believed the same. Now you have to shop around for salvation. Which brand really does whiten best? Which is the most flame retardant? Things got pretty complicated as soon as that nail entered that Wittenberg wood.

The truly sad thing is that all this splintering represents those of the same “religion.” It’s bad enough that Christian versus “infidel” was already a thing, but from 1517 onward it was Christ versus Christie, as it were. You may have been lucky enough to have been born into the right family, but if you descended from the wrong scion you were still going to end up in Hell. Catholicism may have been corrupt—selling indulgences is pretty shady business when you can get them for free—but once that break is made we can’t all be right. Somebody’s going to end up eternally in torment and it’s not even going to be the heathens. Reformation suggests something’s wrong in Rome. You can’t hide behind being born Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran. No, you’ve got to do your homework and learn which is actually correct. Where is Pascal when you need to make a bet?

Majority Report

In your mind’s eye, picture American 500 years ago. What do you see? Even those of us who’ve studied history have trouble envisioning the past with so different a set of parameters. At least if we’re honest with ourselves. 1516. The Salem Witch trials are almost two centuries in the future. The landscape is occupied by Native Americans. There are some European settlements. Protestantism is something new. In fact we’ll need to wait another year for Martin Luther to drag out his hammer and nails, theses in hand. The America we see then, not called “America,” let alone “United States,” is a diverse—some might say “wild”—world of decidedly non-European sensibilities. Global warming wasn’t an issue, and King James hadn’t even been born yet, let alone been commissioning the most famous Bible in English ever. So why am I asking you to look back?

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This presidential campaign has largely been a waspish one. During the turmoil, books have been published proclaiming the end of “white, Christian America.” In an interview on PBS one of the authors of such a book, Robert Jones, talks about how America has changed. He notes that what he really means is that white Protestants are, statistically speaking, no longer the majority. Just a few centuries ago that was also the case. Think about Protestants a minute. They’re the ones who invented the Bible as we know it. Oh, the book had been around, in some form or other, for a couple of millennia (well, a millennium and a half, back then). Other than scholars in need of more fresh air, few spent much time with it. The church told Europeans what God demanded and the majority of people just got on with their daily lives not worrying about what some book they couldn’t even read might say. How things have changed!

We worry about the end of our majority. I like to look back and see that this world we’ve built is one based largely on a book that was mainly the invention of those who had some discussion points with the church. Not quite a hundred of them, even. They were largely Anglo-Saxons. If they knew about “the New World” their knowledge was hazy and imprecise. From that perspective it doesn’t seem like much is being lost in the changing religious demographics of this country. Back in the old world, if one wished to feel nostalgic for such things, they would’ve taken their complaints and found the nearest church door. Now we nominate candidates who think this country was ours in the first place, without ever even reading the Bible used to support that myth. What a difference a few centuries can make.

Not Quite Dead

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Extinction is a cause of fear. Having evolved a certain level of self-aware consciousness, we fear becoming the next tyrannosaurus-rex or spinosaurus, or whatever the next top predator turns out to have been. We’re here to stay. So we like to think. Data have been known to interfere with comfort zones, however. Take religion, for example. America has always been a religiously diverse “country,” but many people suppose it has a Christian beginning. Moreover, the historically uninformed suppose that generic Christianity to have been Protestantism (which is not really a single religion) and white (which isn’t really a race). Now, it seems, that white Protestantism is slowly going extinct. An article in the Washington Post by John Sides contains an interview with Robert P. Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones has written a book about the end of this particular hegemony.

Demographics tell the story. The powerful cultural force of the mainstream Protestant churches hasn’t disappeared, and really isn’t likely to become extinct. It has, however, diminished. As soon as we began to embrace technology this was a more or less inevitable trajectory for the human race. We made oceans smaller and came to see that we’d evolved different religions in different regions. And that Christianity wasn’t quite unique as we’d thought. “Orthodoxy” was actually a form of prejudice for a past that may never have been. We saw the writing on the wall and went on scribbling. Making claims the data don’t support.

One of the drivers—and this is a complex phenomenon—behind this shift has been the ossified positions of religions in the light of increased understanding. For example, most people see no problem with homosexuality. They believe shooting someone because of their race is wrong. Women, they radically suggest, should have the same rights as men. The hold-out positions on these issues have historically been religiously based. Just listen to the rhetoric of televangelists and see if it has changed. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Many religions are holding still. Or racing to see if their diminishing number of feet might make the world spin backwards after all.

Religion is a human invention. Many protect themselves by claiming direct revelation by a God who used to live in a glass ceiling above our heads. Trips to the moon, probes to Mars, and out of our solar system have proven that view false. If the view of something as basic as the universe was wrong, what else might’ve been a mistake? Jones’ new book will no doubt cause some panic. Extinction, at least not imminently, doesn’t seem to be in the cards. Protestantism seems to have reached a stasis. Religion still has an important function in society. When it takes the lead on issues of equality, we may begin to see a miracle.

All Things Newton

Andover Newton Theological School is the oldest stand-alone graduate school of theology in the United States. Was, I should say. Declining enrollment—supply and demand dictates fewer clergy are required—and the rising costs of a job description that has no obvious retirement age have led many seminaries to merge or close. It seems that Andover Newton is about to merge with Yale Divinity School, much like Berkeley Divinity School, bringing together a mix of Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Nones to huddle together across the quad until people want to believe again. Those of us who grew up being taught that belief was normal, and widely accepted, have experienced a sense of bad investment lately. We poured resources into keeping our product current only to find the use by date predated the use of use by dates.

Think of it as evolution. From the earliest days of civilization, priests were integral to, well, civil society. Evidence more and more points to religious belief being the actual glue that held larger communities together in permanent settlements. In other words, that’s how we’ve lived for five thousand years. How were we to know that the rules were about to change? You could always count on a need for clergy. The world’s first service industry. Ah, but it’s the latter word of that noun phrase that’s the problem. When religion becomes a commodity it’s subject to supply and demand. Supply has exceeded demand for some years now and the factories are shutting down. Anyone want a used Bible, cheap?

The Episcopal Church, with its outsize influence for such a small body, used to have eleven seminaries in this country. The United Methodist Church, larger by nearly an order of magnitude, had thirteen. Once and future clergy such as yours truly were produced in classes of dozens. We didn’t diversify our portfolios enough. So now, Andover Newton—the very school where I learned Hebrew—is downsizing faculty by a rather drastic percentage. I’m not so worried about deans and administrators since they easily buy into the business model of education. I do wonder about the effect on society of having so many unemployed theologians around. One thing we don’t have to worry about is organized groups of them roving the streets; theologians are fiercely individualistic. As they transition into the corporate world—the only world that now exists—they’ll find themselves wondering how to live among the soulless multitudes. There’s only one orthodoxy here—lucre be thy name. And, oh, you might consider asking about entry-level positions.

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Foundational Books

Over the weekend I visited one of my favorite used book stores, The Old Book Shop in Morristown. It’s neither huge nor fancy, but it has the feel that is so important to the restless mind. The feel of not knowing what you may find. The mystery of discovery. As I browsed, it occurred to me that although books of all varieties lodge here, the predominance of the old books tends toward the religious. The books associated with the church have survived for their centuries, closely followed by the classics—what was once considered the purview of the educated. I suppose one might argue that the breviaries, hymnals, and Bibles indicate overprinting on the part of overzealous presses, but I know that’s not the whole story. In fact, until quite recently the educated were expected to be religious as well. There was a kind of humility at work here. Even scientists respected the God who’d put all of this into place. This was not so much overprinting as it was meeting a prevalent need.

In early America, for example, if a household owned a book, it was more than likely a Bible. Bibles existed in profusion due to—putting it most crassly—demand and supply. People wanted to have a Bible. Particularly Protestants who’d been taught that it alone held the key to their salvation. There are some things you just don’t leave to chance. As that era continues to fade and people unload the books they no longer need or want, the Bibles and hymnals and prayer books make their way to antiquaries and I spend my weekends browsing among them and pondering how we came to be in this place.

Education—books—is/are foundational to our society. Books may be messy and lend to clutter, I’m told. In our apartment they climb in stacks alongside overfull bookshelves like ivy up the side of a tower, and yet I find them difficult to release. There’s knowledge here for the taking. The visit to the used bookstore inevitably leads to finds I hadn’t expected. There were no Bibles in my hand as I checked out, but no matter. I’ve got many Bibles at home. I’m aware that building requires foundations. Architecture may change over the centuries, but old foundations remain for millennia. To be educated is to be aware of them and appreciate them for what they are.

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Biblically Business

Bibles are business. I recently read that the first book of which Oxford University Press sold a million copies was the Scofield Bible. The Scofield is incredibly resilient to the advancement of scientific thought, and, although large print editions seem to be gaining, it is nevertheless an icon. Conservative Bibles still make good business sense. Still, the Bible originated in a rather more Catholic context. As Christianity was being born, and growing up, there were many sources of information on what it mean to be a member. Initially, being Jewish was a prerequisite. When that was dropped, you would have needed to be able to find an enclave. This wasn’t always the easiest thing to do since Roman emperors sometimes made a quasi-Olympic sport out of killing Christians. Once a church was found and joined, you just participated in the fellowship and listened to the leader. Reading from “Scripture” was likely part of worship services, but the Bible we recognize didn’t exist.

Well, parts of it did. Torah and Prophets were around. The Writings were written. Paul’s letters—several of which are still missing—were still circulating. The Gospels and Revelation would come somewhat later. About the fourth century there was general agreement about which books we meant when the word “Bible” was used. There was some fuzziness around the edges, though. Books like Tobit and Maccabees were accepted by the church, but had never been part of the Jewish canon. Judaism never officially closed its canon, so putting a limit around what would become the “Old Testament” was not as easy as saying it was just the “Jewish Bible.” No books have been added, of course, but nobody bothered to set the list in stone. Now Catholic Bibles, largely because of the counter-Reformation, included the Deutero-Canonical, or Apocryphal books. Protestants soundly rejected them. And Protestants were the champions of personal Bible reading.

About the midpoint of last century, both Roman Catholicism and Judaism began to show a renewed interest in what had largely been a Protestant (and somewhat Teutonic) endeavor: critical study of the Bible. Bibles specifically directed toward these new readerships began to be produced. With metaphorical bells and whistles. The zipper Bible has always intrigued me. I never owned a zipper Bible. Once I had a zipper case, but never a zipper Bible. What was the message here: the word of the Almighty had to be protected? The other day I came across two zipper Bibles with saints’ medals as fobs. One was St. Christopher (who protects travelers) the other was for St. Mary (generally overall saint). These symbols of tradition interact with the more textual tradition that has come to be known as Bible. Religion is seldom monolithic, and even saints can watch over what is hidden by a zipper and regarded as the ultimate truth among those for whom Bibles are business.

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Plainly Ghosts

GhostsSometimes I’ll buy a book and secret it aside to read later as a kind of reward for making it through some heavier material. Research monographs don’t always do the job for which they are required in the commuter’s life—keeping me awake on a long and tiresome bus ride. I look forward to the book that has more appeal, and I don’t want to rush through it right away. I picked up Roger Clarke’s Ghosts, A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for the Truth in Princeton’s wonderful Labyrinth just after Christmas (the traditional time, I learned, for telling ghost stories). Now that spring is more or less firmly in place, and I’ve gotten through some erudite studies that I might use for an academic paper or two, I picked it up to pass the time on my weary ride. As regular readers will know, ghosts have long been a preoccupation of mine, but one on which I’ve always been ambivalent. Clarke doesn’t set out to prove anything here. His book is more experiential than agenda-driven. He begins with the simple observation that people do see ghosts.

Lamenting that he himself has never seen one, Clarke sets out upon a partially autobiographical explanation of where this fascination began. Being from the United Kingdom—often cited as the most haunted country in the world—he goes through some of the more famous accounts with a sharp eye. Crying shenanigans when they’re obviously there, he questions how one can claim that any one country is more haunted than another. More importantly, he notes how seeing ghosts is a marker of class. Historically, the rise of the middle class led to the death of the ghosts. The rich and the poor see ghosts more often. Those in the middle associate such sightings with poor education, while those who are most educated and refined take ghosts for granted. It is only with the rise of reality television, the true opiate of the middle class, that ghost belief has become acceptable in the broad center.

Clarke also frames his work against the religious background that Catholics, with their belief in purgatory, had room for ghosts in their theology. Protestants tended to see anything reported as a ghost as a demon, since the soul either went to heaven or hell after death, meaning that there’s no ghost left to wander around. While doubtlessly skeptics exist, I have always been intrigued that even hard-nosed scientific views of the paranormal world tend to go a bit softer on ghosts than they do on cryptids and aliens. I suspect that’s because ghost reports have been around as long as written records and, presumably, long before. People have always seen ghosts, and in such large numbers that it is difficult to simply call them names and say they’re foolish. Yes, we may be a credulous lot, but we can still find books like Ghosts at a reputable bookstore. And we can tuck them away as guilty pleasures to take the chill off an otherwise very dull ride.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

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It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.

Order of Melchizedek

WhyPriests?A considered reflection from a long-time believer is a force never to be taken lightly. Garry Wills is a lifelong Catholic and an intellectual. His book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was recommended to me by a friend and it is indeed a book that raises most profound questions. To someone born Protestant, such as the current writer, many of the arguments Wills marshals are strangely familiar. Many were lobbed in Fundamentalist harangues where clergy that believe in a literal six-day creation proved surprisingly adroit at finding the chinks in Catholic armor. The New Testament says nothing about the Christian movement having its own priests. And even the explicit command that seems to have come from Jesus—call no man father—is immediately reversed once priests become a fixture in a priestless faith. Wills explores the origins of these practices not to tear apart the religion of which he remains a loyal part, but to suggest that religious tolerance is the only proper solution. It is amazing how much of Catholic thought goes back to the disputed book of Hebrews with its mysterious Melchizedek.

While I have never been a Catholic, I have always been haunted by the idea that my religion was some kind of innovation. After all, the stakes were beyond stratospheric. If you pick the wrong one, at least according to what I was taught, Hell awaits at the end of the day. Then I discovered that my own Fundamentalism also had a history. We were called Protestants because we protested Catholicism. As I moved into the Methodist tradition, at least there seemed to be a continuity—John Wesley was an Anglican and Anglicans were really kind of English Catholics. Or so it seemed. Naturally, I became an Episcopalian since going Roman seemed like it came with exceptional amounts of accretions that were clearly not biblical. Such accretions are much of what Wills explores. Traditions that become doctrine. And exclusive. Those on the outside can hope for Purgatory at best, and the very Hell I was trying to avoid remained a distinct possibility. Who was right?

Religions suffer with time. The faith that Jesus seems to have proclaimed had already altered by the time Paul put pen to parchment. Ask any Gnostic. Already, within just three decades, the question became “now what did he say again?” And what exactly did he mean? The core of that message seemed to be love above all else, but that doesn’t make for sexy doctrine. Exclusivity achieves what love could never accomplish. Wills explores how sacraments evolved, and how Scripture became a sword dividing believer from believer. His most sensible solution? Its time to get beyond priests. He doesn’t actually suggest doing away with them, but asks Catholics why they don’t consider closely the implications of their roots. Melchizedek takes on a stature greater than anyone seems to have imagined for an imaginary figure. And a lifelong believer here asks the most basic of questions: what is Christianity truly about?

Monsters are Due on Main Street

MedievalMonstrosityNow that the slow descent into darkness has begun, my mind naturally turns to monsters. In the early days of this blog I felt as though I had to justify writing about monsters when I was limiting myself (mostly) to religion, but it is now clear that many scholars have recognized the connection. Monsters cross over boundaries, and, given religions’ focus on proper borders, declaring monstrosity is often a sacred task. That comes through clearly in Sarah Alison Miller’s Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body. Utilizing mainly three medieval texts, Miller draws out how they present various aspects of the female body as monstrous. Predictably, the source of their conviction is frequently the viewpoint of the church, the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. Biology was a touch more advanced than it had been in the biblical period, but despite the figures, many writers assumed the male to be the default model of humanity and the female somewhat suspect. Given the multiple pluralities of the natural world around them, this idea is passing strange.

This book is not for the squeamish. Miller plumbs the depths of bodily fluids and the beliefs surrounding them in a pre-scientific era. Male writers wondering at the changes the female body undergoes, however, may have been a necessary stage in the growth of knowledge. It is easy for us today to suppose that equality should have been always on their minds, but Scripture, a large source of authority for medieval mentality, had cast the sexes into an uneasy opposition. The only figure in the Bible who seems sensitive to the unfairness of it all is Jesus. And even his viewpoint couldn’t change the conservative conviction that somehow God was truly the über-male and that all the females of nature were somehow subordinate. Dare we say it? Monstrous.

Miller closes her brief consideration by delving into the writings of Julian of Norwich. Julian was a most remarkable mystic who wrote of God in strikingly feminine terms. Turning those boundary-violating bodies into the sacred, here was one medieval writer who saw the female as normative, salvific, even. Julian never commanded the kind of authority that a male cleric could, but as Miller shows, even men in this period were considering the feminine aspects of a wounded deity. Reformation, however, snapped a masculine, Protestant lid on any such speculation. Today, ironically, many Protestant traditions have, at first reluctantly, admitted female clergy. The religious body of the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church, still keeps women in a separate, somehow subordinate role. Monsters come in many forms and they break down boundaries. Some borders, however, may be meant to be breached.

Who’s Got the Keys?

Having grown up Protestant, I assumed that was normal. Adults, who have the benefit of years of negotiating with other adults in ways that may seem unsavory to children, have the definite advantage here. Children believe what their parents tell them, and should the matter come down to eternal life or everlasting damnation, you sure want them to have your back. Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger has a perspective piece by Tom Moran, whose parents raised him Catholic. Catholics and Protestants are Christians divided by a common religion. As I have studied the teachings of each over the years, it has sometimes felt impossible to fit the two together in any meaningful way. They both think Jesus is cool, but beyond that, the disagreements almost immediately begin. Moran notes that in the US fewer than one in four adults identifies as Catholic although one in three was raised in that tradition. His article goes on to outline how Catholicism has frequently aligned itself with law at the sacrifice of compassion. Sounds like religion to me.

Religionists place great, perhaps even eternal, stock in being right. The Catholic Church has traditionally considered itself expert in issues of reproduction, a conceit that is only more bold when it is regulated by celibate men. And the source can’t really be the Bible since there are plenty of places where the good book is a little naughty. The biblical understanding of reproduction was a conclusively unscientific postulate. When microscopes, not telescopes, revealed what was going on at the microscopic level, theology should’ve blushed and excused itself from the room. Instead, the church proclaimed that it knew better than any bespectacled intellectual; after all, unwavering tradition must count for something. This bears the imprint of a system with little left but theological bluster. And it’s losing its thinking members.

Moran interviewed Newark Archbishop John Myers, a man concerned with the sanctity of marriage and who has a questionable record of reporting abuses, for his story. As Moran pointed out, Myers has not been the outspoken advocate of the poor, but he does back the candidate with sacred underwear. I’m not sure when the last time was that the good Archbishop took a drive around Newark. It is hardly a little piece of heaven on earth. Even waiting for a train in the station can fill a customer with a sense of despair. God’s will, apparently, is somewhat more narrowly focused on what consenting adults do behind closed doors. The level of disjunction is enough to throw the Popemobile out of alignment. Of course, I write all this from the sidelines. I was raised Protestant, and no matter what the Mormons or the Catholics say, I was taught from my youngest years that they’re just plain wrong.

Those are some big keys…