Fool’s Paradise

What with all the Bible-trumping going on these days among the desiccated religions right, I thought it might be helpful to turn back to the Good Book itself. Since we have a self-proclaimed stable genius in house there should be nothing to be concerned about. What, me worry? Right, Alfred? One part of the Bible frequently cited by fundies and others who want to appear chic is the “Wisdom literature.” Although the category itself has come under scrutiny these days it’s still safe to say that Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes have quite a bit in common with each other. Proverbs is a repository of pithy aphorisms. Indeed, it can sound downright modern in many respects (but hopelessly patriarchal and chauvinistic in others, unfortunately). One of the things Proverbs does is condemn fools. The sages of antiquity had no time for stupidity. Remember, we’ve got a stable genius—don’t worry.

Like Laplanders and their many words for “snow,” the book of Proverbs uses several terms for fools. There is, for instance, the innocent fool. This is the person who simply doesn’t know any better. Often it’s because of inexperience. This kind of fool can learn from failures and may go on to better things. Far more insidious is the willful fool. This is the person proud of his or her ignorance. Proverbs goes beyond calling such a thing unfortunate—this kind of foolishness is actually a sin. Not only is the arrogant fool culpable, they will be judged by God for their love of stupidity. As a nuclear super-power it’s a good thing we have a stable genius with the access codes. Otherwise those who thump the Bible for Trump might have a bona fide sin on their hands.

Image credit: Pamela Coleman Smith, Wikimedia Commons

The only kind of fool that’s tolerable in the world of Proverbs is the one that’s able and willing to learn. This means, in the first instance, being humble. Refusing to admit mistakes, forever posturing and preening, this is a certain recipe for incurring divine wrath in the biblical taxonomy of fools. According to biblical wisdom literature, such people get what they deserve. The modern evangelical often has little time for such books. Aside from a misogynistic slur or two, there’s nothing worth quoting from Proverbs that you can’t find in Benjamin Franklin or even in ancient Egyptian records. When you stop to think, however, that the Bible’s said to be inerrant, you’ve must take Proverbs and what it says about fools into account. But then again, what Fundamentalist ever really reads the Bible?

Buying the Kingdom

Who doesn’t admire the presidential wannabe who can take a personal hit without flinching? We are, after all, a nation of tough-minded individualists who think they know quite a lot about God and the way the universe works. So Donald Trump has been, according to Steve Benen on MSNBC, been saying the Bible is his favorite book. As Benen notes, when asked to point to some specifics, the ultra-rich contender prevaricates, recently saying that of the Testaments, he liked both equally. I wonder which verses are really his favorites? I’m guessing Proverbs 11.28 must be among them: “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall; but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” Or 28.22, “He that hasteth to be rich hath an evil eye, and considereth not that poverty shall come upon him.” Or maybe Ecclesiastes 10.6, “Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place.” It could be that the New Testament has a slight edge over the Old. “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19.23) must be right up there. Or Luke 6.24, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation.” Maybe James 5.1, “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.”

Actually, a near constant vexation to those who try to take the Bible seriously is it’s refusal to take one position on wealth. Written by many people over hundreds of years, it is clear no single viewpoint emerges. Wealth is considered both a blessing and a curse. One thing, however, that the Bible refuses to countenance is the presence of great wealth while poverty still exists. Those who have riches are expected to make sure everyone has enough before enjoying their surplus. Who among the one percent, no matter how much they claim to give away, can ever honestly claim the Bible as their favorite book? There are places where the rich are let off easy, but they are few. Wealth corrupts, and those who have riches in great abundance don’t come off looking good. Still, you can’t be a presidential candidate without the Bible. And money.

I can think of no better use of the Bible as an iconic book than Trump’s claims to valuing it as his favorite, if private, book. This is a Bible containing no words. It is a hollow leather shell that can be used to buy votes—spiritual currency of the highest market value. When is the last time someone could be a non-religious candidate for the highest office in the land? If you can buy your way into the White House, you can surely buy it into Heaven as well. Every god has his price. If I were a rich man running for the presidency, I’d put my money in needles. If I were a literalist, I’d have one cast so large that I could easily walk through. This would be my best chance to inherit every possible kingdom through the use of money.

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Something to Believe

Xfilesiwanttobelieve After a rough week at work, nothing helps so much as simple escapism. Thinking back to my glory days in the classroom, I remembered the movies I used to get students thinking about how the Bible is represented in popular culture. One of those movies was The X-Files, I Want to Believe. Not that the movie was my favorite, but escapism isn’t picky—there’s one reality I want to escape, and just about any other will do. As I watched the film again last night I was struck how very much the whole movie is premised on religion. I suppose the title should’ve given that away, but since it is the slogan of Mulder’s famous poster, I’d not really given it serious thought. Scully is now a practicing doctor in a Catholic hospital, and the number of lingering scenes with stained-glass icons in the background simply can’t be ignored. She has given up chasing monsters in the dark, and come to live in a very Gnostic kind of light. Through a pedophile priest (Father Joe), the darkness finds her again. How could I have missed the centrality of a priest to the plot?

The scene I always pointed out to my students was where Father Joe goes into a seizure while quoting Proverbs 25.2, again citing Gnostic hidden ways. The Bible slips from his trembling hands and falls, closed, to the floor. Later, as Mulder is literally about to be axed to death, Scully finds him by noticing the mailbox number 25-2. A proverb was a prophecy and the Bible retains its ability to guide the believer toward salvation. Through paranormal means, of course. After all, this is the X-Files.

Faith versus science, religion versus reason; these are the underlying motifs of the entire film. Scully the skeptic is the one who believes. Mulder, the high priest of the preternatural is just waiting for her to come home. It isn’t the greatest of movies, but it is based on some classic themes. Wanting to believe, but not being able to believe—isn’t this one of the most religious tensions possible? For years now the internet has been buzzing with rumors of a third, and probably final, X-Files movie. And yes, many people are wanting to believe. And if work continues with weeks like this past one, I’ll be needing a lot more escapism as well. Yes, I want to believe.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so the books of Psalms and Proverbs agree. It must be true. Religion and fear walk happily along hand-in-hand. Some have suggested that religion began as a human response to fear. So this week I felt a little conflicted as I read Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. The book had been recommended to me by one of my brothers. As a child fear defined me—it seemed that in a world where God was meant to be feared (for I was a literalist) that fear was the basic operating system for life itself. Gardner’s book is a fascinating exposé of the culture of fear. Gardner doesn’t really suggest that fear should be eliminated, but he does show how many of those in power manipulate fear into a faulty perception of risk management, for their own advantage. Beginning with 9/11 he demonstrates how the irrational responses of people to the tragedy led to even more deaths that quickly became buried in the white noise of everyday society. Comparing Bush’s response to FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” Gardner demonstrates that the United States emerged from the depression and Second World War weary but confident and strong. After Bush’s two terms, the country is cowering and weaker. Why? The Bush administration heavily mongered fear.

Funnily enough, the release from fear comes from two main sources: statistics and psychology. Statistics reveal the true odds of common fears—these can be inflated so as to create an atmosphere of threat. People, as herd animals, will gladly give more power to the alpha male when serious treat is perceived (don’t kid yourself, politicians have long known this). Psychology enters the scenario because people think with both reason and emotion. Our immediate, visceral response (the “gut reaction”) is instantaneous and powerful, developed from millennia of evolution. It is, however, irrational. Reasoned responses, often better for us, take longer and people do not like to force themselves to think hard. We have a whole educational system to prove that. Faced with hard thinking or quick solving, which do you prefer? Be honest now!

Ultimately The Science of Fear is an optimistic book. Being made aware of the problem is half the struggle. Garden-variety fear is fine. Systemic fear paralyzes. Religion is often defined as one of the building blocks of culture. Instead of offering release from fear, religions frequently add their own ingredients for recipes of even greater fear. The concept of Hell is a great example: think of the worse thing you possibly can. Multiply it by several orders of magnitude. Repeat. And repeat. You’re still not even close to how bad Hell is. There’s your motivation right there. Place that religion in the midst of a society rich with natural resources and led by schemers who know that xenophobia increases power, and voila! Paradise on earth for some, a life of fear for the rest. Manipulation characterizes both the evolution of religions and societies. Gardner doesn’t directly address the religious side, but that’s the beauty of reason: he doesn’t have to. The cycle can be broken; think of Mark Twain’s words I’ve selected as a title. Think hard.

In the Beginning FIRST

Robots can be strangely emotional. Partly it’s that Colosseum atmosphere of a FIRST Robotics event, partly it’s being reminded of the vitality of youth, partly it’s hope for the future, and partly it is being part of something larger than yourself. Sounds religious. All that and lack of sleep. Yesterday was the culmination of the New Jersey Regional competition of this year’s FIRST Robotics season. As a non-scientist/engineer wannabe parent, I attend the competitions I am able to and I always leave deeply conflicted. There is a strange disconnect between science and religion that maintains an uneasy peace in many educated minds. My malaise began when I saw the following plaque, quoting the Bible, outside the Trenton Sun National Bank Center. In a state where labor is constantly under attack by its aristocratic government, it was a poignant reminder that such events as this celebration of science would not be possible without the efforts of laborers.

Bible lesson before the games

Emulating sports events, FIRST Robotics begins its events with a ritual. This in itself goes back to classical religions where competitions were dedicated to the gods. As a local speaker stood before the crowd of several hundred youth, mentors, and advisors, he reiterated the commitment the FIRST program has to service. To make his point, he began speaking about what he’d learned in church. It was here that the conflict settled home. For many years I taught (still do, in a less direct way) those who were training for careers in the church. I am committed to teaching them that religious reactions against a scientific worldview are misguided and bound to collapse. And yet here was a highly educated scientist simply accepting the teaching of a minister. There is a deeper issue here.

I know many clergy, perhaps too many for the good of one layman. And I know that many of them are far too busy to sort out the detailed intricacies of how science and religion interact. In fact this may be the only truly honest way to engage our world. As I listened to excited kids making announcements about the millions of dollars available for budding science students in college, I reflected on our treasure lying where our hearts are. Looking around at the mess the world is in, I see religion often taking a leading role in violence and distrust, reaping the benefits of science for evil purposes. I see scientists attempting to instill a rational worldview on societies deeply mired in unreflective religion. And I find them mixing at the fringes. I salute FIRST Robotics, but I wonder if we can ever truly escape the wrath of the gods.

Works and Fridays

In rereading Hesiod’s classic Works and Days in preparation for my mythology class, I found the similarities with the Bible to be intriguing. One of the most noteworthy features of biblical wisdom literature is its universality. In a way that many believers find difficult to swallow even today, the wisdom authors accept – perhaps extol – the wisdom of sagacious “heathens.” We live in a world where religions are frequently engaged in building walls the envy of Jericho itself, while parts of the Hebrew Bible invite outsiders to join the party without even converting. Hesiod might have been a grumpy guest, but many of his words would have struck a familiar note with old Ecclesiastes.

Be not deceived – life is hard – so Hesiod tells us. The Greek gods made humanity to fend for itself. Men first and then Pandora to cause endless trouble, like the figure of Lady Foolishness in Proverbs. The misogynistic authors wave their flag in surrender to their passions; life is hard indeed. Instead of complaining (excessively anyway), the writers of wisdom interpret this difficulty as the crowning achievement of the human spirit. The gods made us to struggle, and when we’re up against it, we’re at our best.

Both Hesiod and the Hebrew Bible remind us that gods make the rules and we must obey. The human lot in life acquires an attenuated glory through living by divine standards. We will never shine like them, but we may sometimes outshine them. In the meantime, we must live by their apparently arbitrary rules. Reading the Torah, some of the Bible’s rules seem less-than-necessary to live a decent, honest, and moral life. We are not, however, to question the will of the divine. So it is that Hesiod warns, “don’t piss standing up while facing the sun” (Stanley Lombardo’s translation). Common sense might have added “while facing into a head-wind.” Such is the difference between gods and men.