The Ezra Puzzle

America loves the Bible. Thing is, most Americans have no idea how complex the Bible actually is. Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Christian Orthodox Bibles all have different contents. I was reminded of this the other day while trying to look up 4 Esdras. If you’re scratching your head saying, “4 Esdras? Is that even in the Bible?” it only makes my point. The books we call “the Apocrypha” are also known as “the Deuterocanon” by Catholics. The reasons are complicated, but the Apocrypha consists of books that were never in the Jewish Bible. Jerome, the 4th-5th-century biblical scholar translated the Bible into Latin (it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek, mostly). When he came to the Apocrypha, he translated those books too, but with a special heading saying they weren’t in the Jewish Bible. During the Middle Ages the headings were often left out and the Apocrypha was included with the “Old Testament.” During the Reformation, Protestants rejected all kinds of excess, including excess scripture. The Apocrypha was out. The Counter-Reformation, living up to the title, led to the definitive inclusion of the Apocrypha in Catholic Bibles. Meanwhile, different Orthodox groups kept some, rejected others, and added still others. When Americans say “the Bible,” they generally mean the Protestant Bible.

There are some implications to be thought through here, given that we’re talking about holy writ. Not all Christians agree on the same Bible. What’s more, the disagreements about what to include started pretty early. Does it count if you swear on an incomplete Bible? Would a New Testament do in a pinch? What if you’re Jewish? Having a national holy book is somewhat problematic when we can’t all agree on the contents. Many people would have some trouble opening right to some of the less popular books, say Ezra. Unless you’ve got a New Testament only, you’ll have Ezra. Go ahead, take a look. (It’s somewhere in the middle.)

Everybody’s complete Bible has the book of Ezra. So far, so good. 1 Esdras (“Esdras” is Latinized “Ezra”) is not in the Deutorcanon of the Catholic Church. It is, however, included in an appendix. It is part of the Orthodox canon, and it also goes by the names of 2 Esdras and 3 Esdras. Just to make it interesting, the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible associated with Jerome, calls Ezra and Nehemiah 1 Esdras and 2 Esdras. Need a score card yet? It gets more confusing later! So 1 Esdras is either Ezra, 2 Esdras, 3 Esdras, or 1 Esdras, depending on whose Bible you’re borrowing. But where’s 4 Esdras? Well, there is a 2 Esdras (not the same as 1 Esdras or Nehemiah) in Slavonic, but not Greek, Orthodox Bibles. 2 Esdras is known as 3 Esdras and 4 Esdras, the latter when it is in the Vulgate appendix. The fun’s not over yet! 2 Esdras is broken into 3 parts and they are called 5 Ezra, 4 Ezra, and 6 Ezra. There is, however, no 1, 2, or 3 Ezra (unless the Latin name is Anglicized). If you’ve got a headache, take two Esdras and call me in the morning.

Size and Its Matters

Have you ever wondered where your Bible came from? No, I mean physically. There are many possible answers to such a query, so the other day I was searching for Bible printers on the web. A great many Bibles are printed by Royal Jongbloed, in the Netherlands. They specialize in the super-thin paper used in much Bible printing. The reason the paper is thin is purely pragmatic. The Bible is an economy-sized book and if printed with “regular” paper it would be large and unwieldy—something desirable only by those with nefarious purposes, I suspect. Bible paper, by the way, was developed originally by Oxford University Press. And in case you’re wondering, the convention of printing Bibles in two-column format is also a space-saving convention. So I was looking over the Jongbloed site, wondering if they’re nervous at all about the increase of Nones. Then I remembered that in many parts of the world Christianity is actually growing, so there should be security in the Bible printing market for some time.

The Netherlands had a large role to play in the development of Protestantism and its love of the Bible. Many English non-conformists found it a welcoming place. Bibles were welcome. But Bibles aren’t all that Jongbloed does. They print scientific manuals too. Now that caught my attention. There’s nothing mercenary going on here—some scientific manuals are really big and are printed on (of all ironies) Bible paper. Is there some kind of conflict on interest going on here? I mean, which is it—science or religion? Or maybe there’s a third way. Maybe it’s not an either/or proposition. Maybe Occam shaves a little too closely.

The craziness flooding out of the District of Columbia has us all worried. Science is being attacked. If you’re being attacked you look around for your enemies. Religion! But wait, is religion really science’s enemy? How easy it is to forget that science developed from alchemy and astrology, both religious practices. Even today many scientists see no inherent disagreement between the two. If we want to be effective in warding off the pressing insanity we need to realize who the real enemy is. Science and religion can both be honest searches for the truth of this universe we inhabit. No, the natural enemy of science is personal greed. It’s also, if we take any kind of religion at it’s word, the enemy of religion as well. What we see bursting the floodgates of Foggy Bottom is the desire for personal gain cloaked as governance for the masses. We should never forget that the Netherlands facilitated a movement that changed everything. Besides, it’s just too expensive to print Bibles in a land badly in need of a Reformation.

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.


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?


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.

Geneva Conventions

As an alumnus of Grove City College, I generally don’t have the chance to consider other colleges as unreasonably conservative. College taught me, after all, that education involves thinking things through, and that, of all things, doctrine is one of the many human constructs that wilts under close examination. Both religious and political doctrine fall under this rubric. So when an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education fingered Grove City’s near neighbor, Geneva College, I was both relieved and not really surprised. Grove City was strict, but Geneva, located down the road in Beaver Falls, was even more Reformed. Tales at the Grove said that even off-campus dancing was an infringement of the student code there, and that even a legal sip of beer with dinner, off campus, could get you expelled. You know how students talk. In any case, both cut from Presbyterian fabric, Grove City and Geneva Colleges hold out against the world and its multiple evils. So why did humble Geneva merit notice in the exalted Chronicle?

Geneva College recently sued for exemption of the contraception-coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. You see, in many conservative religious traditions pre-marital sex is not only from the Devil, it practically never happens among true Christians. If it doesn’t happen, why should you be forced to pay for its treatment? Denial runs profoundly through these conservative colleges. While at Grove City, in a first-floor dorm room, my roomie and I were awakened one night by a group of pretty obviously drunken frat boys from the third floor. Cursing loudly, one of them rammed his fist through our window, showering the floor with glass before stomping loudly up the stairs. When I went to the housing office the next morning, they wondered about my story. Students at Grove City, drunk? It simply did not happen. In all likelihood, I’d broken the window and made up the story so I wouldn’t have to pay. I pointed out that campus security had noted the glass was inside the room and my roommate and I were both there at the time. Reluctantly, while still withholding judgment about the drunken part, I was believed.

Conservative Christian colleges often face the specter of reality. College kids were killed driving drunk. Girls, gasp!, did get pregnant and did not always decide to keep the baby. Real world issues declared anathema by a magisterium with its hands firmly over its eyes. No matter one’s view of morality, singling women out for punishment of sexual sins is just plain unfair. The issue here is health care, not the consequences of a decision made in the heat of passion. How often the anonymous male gets to scamper off, his health fully covered. The co-ed, however, is treated like Eve holding a newly bitten apple. Students attend Christian colleges for a wide variety of reasons, and the education, apart from the theology, can actually be excellent. It is the ethical obligation of the schools to cover all the human needs of emerging adults, not just those based on a morality still mired in the Middle Ages.

Time for a Reformation?  Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

Time for a Reformation? Photo credit: Roland Zumbühl, Wikimedia Commons

Viking Trail

History is a powerful elixir, capable of transforming sinners to saints with the mere passage of time. Well, calling Vikings saints may be a bit of a stretch, but still, they have become some of the sexy bad boys of the Middle Ages, and with the finding of a Viking horde in Scotland last month, they are in the news once again. Vikings and monks were kind of like medieval dogs and cats. Monasteries, located in lonely regions, often amassed wealth and Vikings, looking for loot and less scrupulous about bloodshed, were eager to take it. The give and take (literally) of this violent lifestyle involving seafaring, battles, and churches, makes for good ancient drama and much of it took place along the coasts of Scotland. Our Scandinavian scourge, however, didn’t stop there. It is well established that the Vikings made it to North America well before Columbus. Those who don’t dismiss the Kensington Rune Stone also claim that the Vikings reached Minnesota long before football ever did. Whatever the reason, we are fascinated with Vikings.


Perhaps they are the ultimate autonomous self-promoters. We all would secretly, at least, enjoy being able to set our own standards so that they favored us and our loved ones. The Vikings represent the flaunting of the rule of law, traveling far to take what they want by force. And, perchance, leaving a bit of treasure behind as well. The Vikings became Christianized and the slave trade (long before the New World caught hold of the idea) was effaced to the point of becoming uneconomical to them. Nobody is certain why, but the Vikings, probably for a variety of causes, ceased to be the terror of the seas. Now the Scandinavians are considered among some of the most literate peoples of the world.

Along with the decline of the Vikings, however, also came the fading of the monastic cultural hegemony. To be sure, there are monks and nuns still today, but the force with which they gripped the medieval imagination began to decline with the Protestant Reformation and the recognition that vast wealth, even if cloaked in poverty, is still vast wealth. Now the finds from both monasteries and Viking sites constitute historical treasure. Information about a world long gone. The underlying idea, however, is never very far from the surface. We may lay claim to post-colonialism, but powerful economies have a way of getting what they want in the way of trade treaties and tariffs in any case. When a Scot finds a Viking these days, it is a cause for celebration as we let bygones be bygones and cut the humanities curricula nevertheless. The Vikings never really disappeared.

Witch Way

WitchCraze2Women generally bear the brunt of religious intolerance. This is an evil that has proven tenacious and insidious, and which has played out in history far too many times. Lyndal Roper’s Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany brought this home to me once again. Books on witch hunts are deeply disturbing, but we need to engage with the brutality of the past if we want to prevent its reappearance. Roper points out that although many nations persecuted “witches” in the Middle Ages, even into the early modern period, Germany by far had the highest numbers. There were probably many reasons—no simplistic answer meets all the clues. One is clearly related to politics. Germany lacked the central cohesion of other European nations in this period. Feuding princedoms from a fragmented Holy Roman Empire had no strong central authority. When it is everyone for themselves, scapegoats are never far off. Roper doesn’t leave it at that. She points out that the central characteristic of the witch is the intent to harm Christians. Indeed, the witch is a monster born of religion, and which murdered thousands of women in the name of Christianity.

Compounding this unrealistic fear that Christians have always seem to have had, was the emerging Reformation. Distrust erupted in Germany. Was one’s neighbor a Lutheran or a Catholic? In either case, the other was heretical, from someone’s point of view. Distrust ran at premium prices. And women picked up the bill. Yes, there were male witches, most of them associated with women who’d been accused, as Roper points out. Even as the Enlightenment was burgeoning, renewed hunts for witches broke out, leaving innocent women dead in a land that valued fertility perhaps above all else. Women’s bodies, as Roper notes, were to focus of suspicion and fear on the part of a male power structure that dealt with its phobias by the use of violence. Even the Enlightenment couldn’t wipe this slate clean.

Today in the western world, secular thought has replaced superstition for many people. Women are not longer accused of witchcraft. Besides, witchcraft is a chic new religion in many places. But the longed-for equality is still not here. In many parts of the world religious violence is still directed at females by male power structures that should’ve died out with the fading of medieval Teutonic anxieties. Those who perpetrate such violence hide behind scriptures—even the Hebrew Bible acknowledges the reality of witches. Religion creates its own cadre of monsters, and those with stout conviction look for women to blame. The flames of the pyres did not lead to a universal enlightenment and the Tea Party tells us Christianity is still endangered in a world where it may spread largely unhindered. One truth, however, remains. The truly endangered are women, and men who don’t fight against the real monsters do not deserve to be called defenders of the faith.

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.

Human, All Too

Back in the days of The Scarlet Letter, and before, an even more egregious double standard afflicted the sexual practices of women and men. Our primate nature promotes two conflicting principles: disgust at cheating and the desire to get away with what we can. Unfortunately, biology has often showcased female infidelity with the “illegitimate” child, and religions have stood in line to condemn the behavior that led to such circumstances. I was reminded of this while looking at a “gown of repentance” at the National Museum of Scotland. The Scottish Reformation led to an unusually severe kind of Schadenfreude when it came to pointing out the faults of others. Janet Gothskirk, spiritual kin to Hester Prynne, was convicted of adultery and had to wear a “gown of repentance,” literal sackcloth, to humiliate herpublicly. Her partner in crime, William Murdoch, is not recorded as having received any punishment for the affair, according to the placard.


Thus it has always been: boys will be boys, but girls will be good. And when it comes time to dole out the blame, well, boys sometimes just can’t help themselves. This double standard is still in widespread practice throughout the religious world today. It shares roots with the same thinking that leads to many major religions denying sacerdotal leadership to women, and to the unfair punishment doled upon women in cultures where their behavior “dishonors” that of the men-folk. And we have all seen where male leadership has steered this ship.

What struck me hardest, staring at the dirty, ratty garment of shame, was that forgiveness seems so far removed from the religion of the Reformation. Christianity has always claimed a basis in the concepts of love and forgiveness, but when it comes to the very real circumstances of human failings, the animal tendency to attack the weak is often the driving force. We deflect because deep down we know that we all have failings. Clergy and braggarts may sometimes claim otherwise, but we share this very common liability of humanness. We should try to help each other through it. We should remember the golden rule. We should remember that sackcloth was meant to be self-inflicted and that the role of the church was to absolve the guilt, not to showcase it. Janet Gothskirk is forgotten to history, save for the garment she once wore to display her weakness for all to see.

Cultural Religion


The National Museum of Scotland, like many museums in the British Isles, is free to visitors. Such museums are repositories of national pride and provide a sense of the scope of a nation’s history. While penurious grad students (as opposed to plain penurious, as best describes those long unemployed), my wife and I would wander over to Chalmers Street and pop in for an hour or two of inexpensive culture. During the last minutes of my recent trip to Scotland, I ducked into the newly—well, it has been nearly two decades, I have to admit—expanded museum for a gander. I was naturally drawn to the history of Scotland section—you can see dinosaurs and robots in the US, after all—and was struck at how very religious it was.


It’s not that the Scots are any more pious than other peoples, but it is the nature of religious artifacts to receive special treatment, and therefore, to survive time’s greedy decay. No one dares to anger the gods. Beginning with the Stone Age Picts, and flowing through contact with the Romans and eventually to the Celtic culture now associated with Scotland, religion is obviously preserved. Prehistoric Picts, by definition, didn’t leave written accounts of their religion, but the treatment of special artifacts in a gritty, harsh world shows where social values were to be found. Christianization, with its apocalyptic earnestness, only accelerated the process. Celtic crosses, case after case of precious metal sacramental artifacts, and a large display of the Reformation denominated the more secular displays, or so it seemed. (The working steam engines and large looms, however, gainsay a bit of my enthusiasm. And swords seemed to be everywhere.)


While there is a genetic base for some sense of nationhood, it is not unusual to hear a person of African or Indian heritage speaking with the familiar Scottish brogue. Surely they are Scottish too. Culture clearly ties disparate peoples together into a “nationality.” In this museum that reaches back to the dinosaurs and beyond, a great deal of the history involves people of similar ancestry who come into contact repeatedly with those of other heritages. What gets left behind after those encounters, when it’s not swords, is religious. The religions themselves then clash, fracturing into a new stage of cultural development. Even in today’s secular Europe, some of the most notable buildings are the cathedrals. And in its own way, the National Museum of Scotland is a cathedral to all who wish to understand what makes us human.


Monument to Madness

Reflections on the implications of my recent trip to the United Kingdom will likely continue to filter into conscious expression over the next few days. Jet lag will inevitably fade, and some concepts will shake down and settle into place as the reality known as work once again demands its pound of flesh per day. One of the realities that struck me during my time in St Andrews was how violent the Reformation was when it came to Scotland. Truth holds the world hostage, since everyone wants to believe they own it. And it’s my word against yours unless one of us can pull in a larger authority—and who is larger than God? There was a lot of credibility riding on the Reformers’ certitudes. And resistance was strong. Fatal even.

Reform is nearly never gentle, especially religious reform. After the Society of Biblical Literature’s meeting disbanded last week, I wandered around the old, medieval section of St Andrews, trying to get a sense of what such conviction must have been. One of the participants narrated to me more of the stories of those who’d died in the course of conversion. Patrick Hamilton, it turns out, may have been the first victim of the Reformation, but he was not the last. Walking along on a sunny afternoon in a country where several religions consciously coexist (I was, as an American, surprised to see so many large mosques in the UK), it seemed difficult to believe that humane individuals would torture someone to a horrendous death by burning just because of religious differences. The killing times seemed so long ago. Or perhaps our killing has just become more subtle.


Following the directions I’d been given, I came upon the Monument to the Martyrs. Not wishing to belittle the atrocity of undeserved deaths, I could not help thinking of the pillar as a Monument to Madness. Is the need to feel right so great that others must be made to die for it? After all, among those generally considered to be sane, we all believe that we are right. Who consciously accepts untruth as reality? In such circumstances the best, the only reasonable response is to agree to disagree. I can let you accept your truth, if you’ll let me accept mine. And perhaps such tolerance would serve our planet well. Even the number of trees spared had autos-da-fé been forbidden provides a silence to the wisdom of allowing difference to thrive.

Fearful Christianity

So some North Carolina Republicans want to declare themselves a state religion. I wonder which one it will be? Hmmm, let me think… Whatever that religion will be it will be one that is afraid. Only religions that are uncomfortable with challenges have to back themselves with militaristic force. Seems to me some North Carolina politicians have never read a book on Medieval history. Ironically, the religion they wish to select was probably itself the result of the Reformation, the original challenge to state religion in the history of Christianity. It is also clear that these misguided lawmakers have not fully acquainted themselves with the vast diversity of forms of Christianity. The Christianity they want is televangelist, conservative, Protestant Christianity. Even that, however, is no longer a uniform religion. Why would there be more than one channel?

Those who spend long hours gazing at religion, both from inside and outside, realize that religious belief is not, cannot be, a static entity. Should a genuine apostle walk into an evangelistic Christian service today, chances are great that said apostle would leave wondering what religion this was. According to the Bible itself (ironically, taken only partially seriously by those who promote it) the first Christians were communists. Those who refused to sell everything and give it to the common good were struck dead, or so the book of Acts tells us. My guess is that free market economics has trumped the Holy Spirit here. What legislators really, really want is a religion to back up their secular plans.

Which Christianity would they choose? Who would be welcome in New North Carolina? Mormons? Mennonites? Methodists? Catholics? Well, at least Catholics vote the right way on key issues. Or some of them do. What we are talking about is actual state support of religious ideology. In a country where some of the finest state universities do not even have departments of religious studies, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has one of the finest in the country. And not all the faculty fill North Carolina’s preferred demographic.


Religions do not take such rear-guard actions unless they are afraid. What does Christianity fear? It depends on which Christianity you mean. Studies have shown that over 41,000 Christian denominations exist. Think about that a minute. If one flavor-of-the-month Christianity becomes official state religion, what becomes of the other 40,999? I’m no math whiz, but it just doesn’t add up. Seems to me that before states start declaring their religions publicly funded, legislators should go back to school. They should be required to take Religion 101. Might I suggest they enroll at UNC Chapel Hill?

Fighting Jesus

Jesus Wars, by Philip Jenkins, accomplished something no other book has ever done for me—it actually made the doctrinal debates of Late Antiquity interesting. An historian of religion with wide interests, Jenkins produces fascinating books on what might appear to be esoteric aspects of religious life. I remember yawning through theology classes where we learned of crusty, if utterly convicted, monks and bishops arguing over single prepositions in their efforts to define exactly who Jesus might have been. When Jenkins turns his attention to this dusty, unwashed phase of Christianity’s gamy early years, new avenues on regulated belief structures open the way to understanding just how little most believers know of their own traditions. On its way to feel-good evangelicalism, Christianity frequently paused along the way to brutally murder some of its own for disagreeing about whether Jesus shared the same essence as his dad.

Today many Christians are taught by their clergy that their faith differs little from that of the earliest Christians. All who are taught this should be compelled to read Jesus Wars in order to get a grip on what really happened. From the very beginning Christianity was deeply divided about who was truly a follower of Christ and who was not. Even within a generation of the death of Jesus his various groups of followers could find little that they all agreed upon. As Jenkins demonstrates, over the next few centuries that sad history was worked out with extreme cruelty and cudgels and swords. The side with strongest force of arms got to decide on doctrine. Nor did matters improve with the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformers lapsed into what would have found them tied to a stake for heresy, had they been fortunate enough to have been born in the early centuries of “the Christian Era.”

The one figure that seems to have been lost during the Jesus Wars was Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, human constructions of who Jesus might have been became the source of great suffering. Bishops beating bishops to death, saints having women murdered, monks forming an unwashed militia—it’s all here along with the debate over how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Jenkins does an excellent job of demonstrating that what is now known as “orthodox” Christianity was often a matter of political accident. In the case of Theodosius II, the future of Christianity literally rode on the horse that stumbled, tossing the emperor to his death. No doubt, there will be those of one or another brand of Christianity who will see the divine will behind the ultimate outcome. That outcome, however, will always insist that all others are wrong. For those seeking a bit of balance, Jenkins will make enlightening reading. For others it may give the lie to doctrines made what they are by mere mortals. In any case, the words attributed to Jesus about loving your neighbors and enemies will nowhere be found amid the debates of who he might have really been.

Where’s Waldo?

I first learned about Waldensians in a class on the Middle Ages. In the centuries before the Reformation took place, some Christians in Europe resented the wealth and ostentation of the Catholic Church—the only show in town. In response the Waldensians preached a radical simplicity, including poverty. The established church, enamored of plutocracy and power, didn’t appreciate this challenge. To the average peasant, I suspect, the sincerity of the Waldensians was a bit more obvious than those who represented an institution enamored of its stature. When Catholicism learned about Waldensians and their imitation of Jesus’ lifestyle they did what came naturally. They killed them. Accusing those who insisted on helping the poor and needy of heresy gave the justification to the church’s decision to eliminate them.

What occasioned the most surprise, as I was recently reading about them again, was the discovery that the Waldensians still exist. The church has often been thorough in its elimination of those who cross it (note the antics of Rick Santorum), but somehow some Waldensians managed to live on through the persecutions of the trials of heresy. Yet the church still likes to bluster and condemn many to Hell, even if just metaphorically. I must admit that such posturing worries me. It is not in vain that the church has frequently insinuated itself into politics. Anyone who has been awake in America since the 1980’s can’t have helped but to have noticed.

Ironically, the three major monotheistic traditions began as counter-cultural movements. Once the religions gained political power the oppression of others began, thus starting the cycle all over again. The Waldensians are an excellent paradigm of what occurs when a religious body attains too much power. Heresy is so dangerous because it highlights hypocrisy. Claiming divine sanction for human weakness is a charade easily understood by those who take the time to watch closely. The revisionist history of America that we hear presidential hopefuls espousing are warning signs. The church may not have reached all the Waldensians in the Dark Ages, but it still keeps on trying. Fortunately the followers of Peter Waldo are sometimes hard to find.

Witch Crazy

The self-destructive tendencies of human societies should be of major interest to those who study the mind. Why a highly evolved species would forego reason—or create an entire false logic—to give itself an excuse to mass-murder its own is among the greatest trials of theodicy. Can God be justified in such circumstances? With or without divine approval, God is nevertheless implicated. One of those homicidal events, the European witch craze of early modern history is a prime example. Anne Llewellyn Barstow’s Witchcraze: A New History of the European Witch Hunts is a disturbing book on many levels. For a human being with any level of empathy, reading about the torturous destruction of at least 100,000 people—generally women—is hard going. We don’t want to be reminded that we were ever so naïve as to believe that women slept with the devil, flew through the air to meet with other witches, and were trying to bring down society. The “upright,” as Barstow makes very clear, feared for the church. Concern for the ways of God excused—demanded even—the death of the innocent. Many of the victims confessed, under torture, that the godly men had got it right.

Barstow contends that economic stresses and fear for the sanctity of the church, along with a generous dose of native misogyny, fueled this holocaust. She notes that it happened in the same society that would initiate another holocaust a mere three centuries later. But why women? Coming out of the medieval period, societies were strengthening centralized governments. Roles of power that belonged to women were highly individualized, and therefore considered threats. The healer, in absence of a medical profession, was often female, frequently a midwife. In days of high infant mortality, they were sometimes blamed for performing abortions, something men in power simply couldn’t accept. Barstow points out that population increases were stressing the economic production of the period. The newly minted Reformation advocated a very active devil in the world. Since the devil, like God, was a guy, well, women satisfied his lust.

The most disturbing aspect of reading this book for me, however, is the fact that our society has come to resemble that one once again. Strong centralized governments control what citizens do through fear—what else would compel us to allow Patriot Acts to pass? They target women as scapegoats—otherwise the issue of abortion would not command such male attention. Fear for the sanctity of God is repeatedly invoked. Sometimes these modern witches are persecuted on the basis of ethnic background as well as gender. And in both the witch hunter society and that of today an elite class has collected the wealth and sits back to let the remainder incinerate itself in the name of God. Witches don’t fly through the night to meet a fictional devil. The real threat to society is right here among us, but its not who the powerful want us to think it is. And it is very human.